Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies- Jared Diamond

This is an older book by Jared Diamond, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.  This book as exemplifies part of why I force myself to read different genres.  Normally I would not have picked up this book, but from the start I found myself hooked and I couldn't put it down.  I was listening to the audiobook version [and an abridged version at that], but I was over halfway done in one weekend, and then my MP3 player died and it took me months to get back to it.  When I did though, I excitedly saw the book through to the end.
I remember in college, I was talking Intro to the Social Sciences and I had to read a lot of professional articles and journals.  One of them that I we were asked to read was titled something like "Are the Soft Sciences Really Soft?" and it argued that they were not.  At the time I do not think I cared enough about the subject, nor was I reading the papers in a focused way that would allow me to understand them completely [that's what happens when you procrastinate and save a week or twos worth of reading a hundred or more pages to a Sunday afternoon].  But now I would argue, that no the soft sciences are soft, and barely scientific at all.  They do not and cannot be as exacting as using physics to predict the motion of a spacecraft, or chemistry to discern chemical reactions.  In regards to the soft sciences and this book, I was surprised how much this book touched on science to explain history.  It didn't convince me that history and sociology are hard sciences, but it did help me see how the hard sciences and advance our understanding of history.  I wonder now, in light of the additional things we learned via genetics, if the thesis of this book could be elaborated upon more.
The main thesis of the book was a question posed to the author by an indigenous tribesman, something like, "Why is it that white folk have lots of cargo, and we do not?"  In other words, how is it that you came to be so technologically advanced and we did not?  In times past, this question has been answered with racist bias that had no proof and didn't help anyone explain anything, it just justified wrongs.  Then it became taboo to even discuss such an issue, probably because we still assumed that the answer was buried in race and ability and we wanted to avoid racism.  Jared Diamond tackled this topic head on and with little bias and looked to see what history, archeology, and science could tell us about why civilizations ended up at such differing levels of technology before the modern time when transportation and globalization began to level the playing field.  It was a great and enlightening read and I eagerly look forward to reading The World Until Yesterday soon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: Your Inner Fish: A journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body- Neil Shubin

First, something that has nothing to do with this book.  I hate listening to audiobooks on iPods, especially the iPod touch.  You should not have to specifically tag an MP3 file as an audiobook file to get it to play fast at "x2", you should not call it "x2" when it is "x1.5", and it should not take a special set of headphones, or 3 to 4 touches of the device to pause the audio.  I learned a little better how to do playlists on the iPod later, but even do the touch was sensitive enough that sometimes I accidentally jumped around in the book making it difficult to find my place and follow the narrative.

Anyway, on to the book.  Neil Shubin's The Universe Within was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog.  I loved getting a biologist's perspective on cosmology.  Therefore, I was very eager to go back and listen to this book.  Furthermore, I was hoping to listen to it before the 3 week PBS series based off of this book aired.  However, time and my frustrations with the iPod did not allow me to listen to it before the series completed.  It was good, but to be honest the TV series was as good and offered great visuals.  Furthermore, this focused so much on research that Neil Shubin did that although it was great to get his personal perspective on it, it also focused a lot on his own personal accomplishments and anecdotal stories.  I don't think he was bragging, or praising himself, but it did not make the book as enjoyable to me as his other one.  Also, the chronological narrative was split to focus on other discoveries that led to his or grew out of his, that again, made the book difficult for me to follow.

[UPDATE: I meant to include this originally and forgot to address it, so here I'm fixing that.] Lastly, for my Christian friends I wanted to comment on evolution again. I don't recall what I've posted here before or what I've waited to say, but here's where i stand now.  I was raised to believe in the Creation.  I came to believe in a literal 6-day young Earth creation in high school and that, along with very poor/weak teaching about evolution in high school [because everyone was afraid to offend by speaking about the science] drove me to c consider this when selecting a college.  I do not regret choosing Cedarville, but I do think they over-simplified the issue and are guilty of the Straw Man Logical Fallacy.  I've come to believe that the Bible does not forbid it, and there is no way the Universe can be young, it must be old.  However, every time I think of buying into the scientific explanation 100%, evolution becomes a hang-up for me.  To some extend, it is the idea of "irreducible complexity", to a lesser extent it is genetic diversity issues [numbers of chromosomes differing so widely, the evolution of sexual reproduction, the first cell and its violation of the cellular hypothesis/theory, and  few other issues.  Reading a book like this always answers some questions and lays some misconceptions to rest, but often, it leaves me doubting the scientific consensus.  If nothing else though, this helps me to keep an open mind and to realize that I need to read, learn, and study more to more fully understand.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: Geekspeak- Dr. Graham Tattersall

It has been almost a year since I have posted anything here, or written a book review and a lot of that has to do with a lack of time and a lot of bad luck with MP3 players.  I had one die right before Christmas and held off purchasing a new one until after the holidays.  And when I didn't get one, I ended up waiting until the summer to replace it.  I did have my wife's for a while of the summer, so I did listen to some books, but this one hear is one I actually read the old fashioned way, literally read the words on the page.  This is something that usually only happens during the summer and unfortunately with a large backlog of magazines, especially Popular Science, I didn't get many other physical books read.  However, I picked this one up a the library book sale in the spring and read through it pretty quickly during the summer.
I really liked this book.  It reminds me of xkcd's What If, light.  The biggest difference is that you knew what question was being asked and could pause in your reading to do a quick estimated guess. This book focused on different ways of measuring, estimating, guesstimating, and Fermi problem solving.  The calculations were real, and somewhat practical.  I don't know how often the author went back and checked his estimates against real values, but the estimates all sounded reasonable and so the ballpark answers were good enough.  And even though the answers were frequently not specific, that was kind of the point of the book.  It focused on ways of estimating and doing simple mental-math calculations to get to a satisfactory answer.  One of the most memorable calculations was a conversion of power consumption of different items to horsepower, but since horsepower really is foreign to a lot of us now that we don't use horses as a primary means of transportation or labor, and furthermore, because we don't comprehend large numbers well and most cars have horsepowers in the tens to hundreds, he did a further conversion to human power, which he called slavepower.  He further argued that maybe we'd be better at conserving energy if we understood in units of slavepower instead.  Anyway, the book was a good short read with frequent chapter and section breaks which made it easy to put down and pick up again.