It is one life's weird little ironies that Macondo, the well blowout that led to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, shares a name withIt is one life's weird little ironies that Macondo, the well blowout that led to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, shares a name with the fictional town in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Cavnar's account of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster starts with a quote from Marquez and gets more surreal from there. The author is an old oil industry hand and he clearly knows his stuff, although the book was seemingly rushed to press only weeks after the well was killed, so some of his narrative is speculative and lacking information that only came to light later. What results is an exciting and infuriating read, although not the most elegantly written or organized.
The pervasive oil industry jargon will be a stumbling block for a lot of people. There is a glossary, but some explanatory text and figures would go a long way toward illuminating the issues involved in drilling deepwater oil wells. As it is, you just have to roll with it and pick up some important clues from context. He does a great job presenting the facts of the incident, including the narrative of the blowout, the explosion that killed 11 workers, the sinking of the rig and the months long struggle to contain the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. He also provides valuable context into the oil industry and the weakness of government regulators from his years working in the industry. He ends up taking a "pox on all their houses" tone, slamming the industry and the regulators equally, but he comes up short on concrete solutions to either reform the industry or end our reliance on oil....more
The first third of this book is a lean and lucid summary of global finance. If you're like me, you might find the world of high finance intimidating aThe first third of this book is a lean and lucid summary of global finance. If you're like me, you might find the world of high finance intimidating and full of weird jargon. This section went a long way towards demystifying the financial world for me. (To give one example: I now know what the word "equity" means!)
The remaining 2/3rds of the book is devoted to a frequently engaging, but often under-cooked, treatise on how the financial sector might be "hacked" and put to work building a more just and sustainable world. The author uses hacking as a metaphor for a more constructive engagement with finance, as opposed to vaguer notions of "revolution" or "overthrow" that sometimes get tossed around.
In order to be a successful hacker you have to understand and engage with the system, something that environmentalists and social justice activists aren't very good at. This section has a number of fascinating ideas for how activists can hack into the financial system -- everything from going undercover at a bank to starting up a hedge fund and diverting the proceeds to affected communities. Groups like Platform London and Greenpeace have started to incorporate shareholder outreach into their climate activism, and concepts like "stranded assets" and "carbon bubbles" are commonly discussed in the business press. But this is uncharted territory for many. Many of the ideas could benefit from more detail and a tad more skepticism, but overall the book is a stimulating read....more
A totally charming graphic novel about a girl who jumps through a portal to save her friend who has been abducted by a tentacled space-thing. There arA totally charming graphic novel about a girl who jumps through a portal to save her friend who has been abducted by a tentacled space-thing. There are strong Miyazaki-echoes here, but even more so, it reminded me of those extended fantasy sequences from Calvin and Hobbes -- both for the line and watercolor drawings and the light-hearted adventure. Not surprisingly the 7-year-old loves it....more
Not as densely packed with jokes as your average 30 Rock episode, but then few things are. Still, there was a least one bit each chapter that had me lNot as densely packed with jokes as your average 30 Rock episode, but then few things are. Still, there was a least one bit each chapter that had me laughing in a socially inappropriate manner....more
It's been interesting to watch V for Vendetta's second act as the visual aesthetic of choice for the anarchist hacker movement Anonymous. In the storyIt's been interesting to watch V for Vendetta's second act as the visual aesthetic of choice for the anarchist hacker movement Anonymous. In the story, it's weird that no explanation is ever really given for V's speed and fighting prowess, and his near-omnipotence at manipulating and then bringing down the fascist government. There's a contradiction there that's not really resolved: the revolution requires superpowers to succeed and yet super-heroes are inherently disempowering. One would almost go so far as to say that the idea of an all-powerful caped crusader protecting us is a pretty authoritarian idea at heart. (OK it's complicated.) But to see V reborn in the internet age, when hackers and whistleblowers *actually* *can* wield institution shaking powers (i.e. NSA, Sony, etc) is a fairly interesting (and possibly disturbing) vindication of the premise.
Anyway, if Alan Moore's political analysis is not 100% aligned with my own, there's no denying the power of the graphic novel he created. In particular, the first act is basically perfect. Try not to get chills when he whispers the rhyme: Remember, remember the fifth of November... Things get a little more questionable in the second act (view spoiler)[where V "tortures" Evey into freedom. We've all had way too much visceral experience with torture recently to see this as anything other than glib posturing. I guess you could getaway with that in the 1980s when torture was a little more abstract. It rings false today (hide spoiler)]. Still, as with Watchmen, it's pretty remarkable how influential it all is. I'm pretty sure Tarantino swiped that whole bible-verse thing from here.["br"]>["br"]>...more
This wasn't really my cup of tea. It feels a little churlish to say because Rothfuss is absolutely writing his heart out here and it's to his credit tThis wasn't really my cup of tea. It feels a little churlish to say because Rothfuss is absolutely writing his heart out here and it's to his credit that this is as readable as it is. But ultimately this was an interesting 20-30 page chapter blown up into a fairly repetitive novella. The character of Auri is an interesting creation and he's worked hard to give her a unique voice and a rich inner world, but this would be so much more awesome if he connected his lovely character study to a plot. Any plot at all. It doesn't have to by Kvothe's plot, just something to give shape to the imagery and twee wordplay. Anyway, yet more evidence that Rothfuss is a talented writer. Looking forward to Doors of Stone....more
I have to admit I probably never would have picked this up on my own, but someone left it at our house and I was really looking for something light anI have to admit I probably never would have picked this up on my own, but someone left it at our house and I was really looking for something light and fun to read. And it was great! Just the sort of wacky, character-driven shaggy-dog story that Christopher Moore churns out annually. Lots of fun bits about architecture, Microsoft, Antarctica and snobby helicopter parents. The early sections are laugh-out-loud funny, especially the petty back-and-forth sniping between the parents. It gets less obviously comic as it goes on, but never dull, and even a little bit poignant as it draws to a close....more
John Darnielle is a brilliant song-writer, and his debut novel proves he's pretty good at longer forms too. But Wolf in White Van is both a fascinatinJohn Darnielle is a brilliant song-writer, and his debut novel proves he's pretty good at longer forms too. But Wolf in White Van is both a fascinating and a frustrating book. Sean is a young man who suffered a terrible, disfiguring accident as a teenager, and now lives largely isolated from his family and the world. He makes a living by running a complex role-playing game called "Trace Italian", where players send their moves through the mail and he responds, guiding them through a post-apocalyptic landscape toward a safe haven that will never be reached. When two of Sean's players are harmed by taking the game too seriously, it forces Sean to reflect on his own accident years before. The narrative takes place entirely in Sean's thoughts as they swirl backwards in time to that moment.
Darnielle does a great job creating the character of Sean, and he handles the twin storylines and jumbled timeframes expertly. The two stories interact with one another and reveal a certain, unmeltable darkness inside of Sean. It's a fascinating, uncomfortable and unconventional psychological portrait, but unfortunately, Darnielle doesn't seem to know what to do with the character he's created. (view spoiler)[Because the book ends with a flashback to Sean's attempted suicide, we never learn what ultimately happens to him going forward. Sean remains stuck, static, unchanging. It seems that this is in some sense the point of the book. Both the book's title and the structure of Trace Italian seem to indicate that this is a puzzle with no solution, a mystery with a blank space in the center. But this ultimately feels like a huge cop-out. After all that has come before it would be a literary miracle to have written a way forward for Sean that didn't feel like an after-school special, but it's a little disappointing that he didn't even try. (hide spoiler)] Still he's obviously a talented writer and the critical love that the book is getting makes me hopeful that he'll get to keep writing.["br"]>["br"]>...more
A really outdated book about visualization of strange attractors. The vast majority of the text is taken over by pretty pictures and the step-by-stepA really outdated book about visualization of strange attractors. The vast majority of the text is taken over by pretty pictures and the step-by-step creation of a fairly eccentric program to create the visualizations (written in BASIC, of all things). Someone gave me the book as a gift years ago and I only picked it up recently since I was teaching myself python and this seemed like a fun way to learn the plotting libraries. The first few chapters provide a decent introduction to chaos found in simple iterated equations, and a few lines of code can give you some nifty visuals. That said, the book continues for pages and pages of absolutely bone-crushing detail that most people will just want to skip....more
My daughter has been tearing through these books at a pace of one a day (library e-books are awesome), so I thought I would read along with her. I enjMy daughter has been tearing through these books at a pace of one a day (library e-books are awesome), so I thought I would read along with her. I enjoyed the cleverness, the wordplay and gloomy aesthetic of the first 3 books, but the formula really wears thin in this one. You can really tell that even Handler is getting a bit bored with the repetition, although there are some nice moments here and there. However, the online consensus seems to be that the series really picks up somewhere around book 6 and develops into a much more interesting story arc from there on out. At least this one was short....more
This book relates the long and twisty path from the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in the late 1960s to their conclusive linkage with the deathsThis book relates the long and twisty path from the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in the late 1960s to their conclusive linkage with the deaths of massive stars in the late 1990s. Along the way the author seems to have tracked down and interviewed every major researcher in the field (including my Ph.D. advisor) and hits all the important highlights (and most of the backalleyways and dead ends as well). Because gamma-ray astronomy must be done above the earth's atmosphere, this is also the story of 5 or 6 expensive satellite missions and the large collaborations that ran them, and as such, it's also an interesting look at the perils and politics of launching scientific instruments into space.
Since this was my field of research I've had a lot of experience explaining just what they heck GRBs are and why they are interesting. To the average layperson I think GRBs a reasonably interesting topic to talk about (explosions! black holes!) but it does have a lot of moving parts that need explaining before certain basic facts make sense (like: what's a gamma-ray?). The author does a pretty good job of explaining the physics, but I think the core story found here is about the sociology of science and the scientific process. Maybe more so than many other discoveries, the history of GRBs is a great example of how paradigm shifts work in science.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Possibly more later......more
The second book in the series that does what good second books do: continues the theme while deepening it. At times the parallelism with the first booThe second book in the series that does what good second books do: continues the theme while deepening it. At times the parallelism with the first book seems a little limiting, but Snicket also starts to reveal a little of the (more interesting) underlying mysteries, which promises the concluding volumes might be pretty cool. We'll see....more
A lovely tale about a Jewish Golem and a Syrian Jinni who find themselves in New York City, circa 1900. Both the characters and the story itself functA lovely tale about a Jewish Golem and a Syrian Jinni who find themselves in New York City, circa 1900. Both the characters and the story itself function on multiple levels. On the one hand we get a quiet and detailed look at two turn of the century immigrant communities, on the other hand, the fantastical elements open up narrative space to talk more directly about big themes like identity and free will and "human" nature. (This is the trick Neil Gaiman has been finely honing for years, sometimes involving jinnis in NYC also.) Both Chava and Ahmad are fully fleshed characters -- never more so than during their constant bickering -- but also elements of traditional folklore come alive in a modern context.
Not everything works, of course. The ending is too pat, but unlike a lot of debut novelists, she resists the temptation to throw in every good idea that's ever occurred to her. The vignettes and supporting characters are well-paced and well-placed. In the end, it's not quite the tour-de-force that Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell was, but if you liked that one, you'll find this assuredly in the right ballpark....more
Deborah Harkness's follow-up to A Discovery of Witches offers more of the same romance-fantasy hybrid, plus a big injection of historical fiction. DiaDeborah Harkness's follow-up to A Discovery of Witches offers more of the same romance-fantasy hybrid, plus a big injection of historical fiction. Diana and Matthew have time-traveled back to Elizabethan-era Europe to search for the missing manuscript and to buy time for Diana to learn her witch powers.
This is naturally an opportunity for meeting lots of famous people, from Christopher Marlowe to Sir Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth herself. The name dropping underscores one of Matthew's annoying character quirks, namely that he's perfect at everything and has a Zelig-like ability to pop up behind all the major events in world history. But overall jumping back in time was a smart move for the series in that it lets Harkness play with the world she's created in a way that doesn't seem arbitrary or repetitive. Plus you can tell she's a historian by training and you can sense her excitement at getting to write historical fiction and slip in lots of nerdy details here and there.
Diana and Matthew's relationship continues to be both the heart of the story and slightly ridiculous. I had sort of hoped that they had gotten through the DTR phase of their marriage in the first book. But no. They actually get married *again* in this book, and big emotional blow-ups and revealed secrets keep popping up like clockwork every 50 pages or so. Gotta keep the pot boiling I guess....more
The plot of this book revolves around one fact that is, frankly, not very realistic. The author does what she can to make it as plausible as possible,The plot of this book revolves around one fact that is, frankly, not very realistic. The author does what she can to make it as plausible as possible, but you really have to just hold your nose and accept it. What's remarkable about The Likeness is what the author does with the story, taking that one premise as a given. I suppose there's a logical reason mysteries don't typically have the detective impersonate the victim to solve the crime, but you have to admit it does ratchet up the suspense.
As with her debut In The Woods, Tana French writes wonderful characters. It's nice to see Cassie Maddox return, but the creation of the insular group of four co-dependent grad students is really her most impressive achievement and shows her considerable range as a writer. French also gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of undercover detective work, heaping a minor identity crisis on top of Cassie's precarious work situation. All told, I liked this one a bit better than In The Woods -- probably the best mystery novel I've read in a long time....more
This is book 1 of a new series from Lemony Snicket. I only ever read the first 3/13ths of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think I like this set-This is book 1 of a new series from Lemony Snicket. I only ever read the first 3/13ths of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think I like this set-up a bit better (although I understand that ASoUE gets better as it goes on). This time we get an origin story for teenage Lemony Snicket himself, as he travels to an amusingly gothic sea-less town to solve a mystery with his incompetent adult mentor. Much wordplay, punnage and witty banter ensues. The Snicket style is a good fit for mysteries, and it is clear that the author has honed his skills to a sharp point. Each character, each plot point, each line of dialogue feels eerily well-calibrated, like the whirring of some elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. It's a pretty entertaining start to the series, although it seems indulgent to divide one story into 4 short novellas. ...more
I read this when I was a kid (of course I did, because it perfectly combined two of my geeky obsessions) but I suspect a fair fraction flew over my heI read this when I was a kid (of course I did, because it perfectly combined two of my geeky obsessions) but I suspect a fair fraction flew over my head. Now, having studied quite a lot more physics, I can see that it's not really meant to be a popular treatment of the subject, so much as it is a first draft to a thorough technical analysis. As a result, it can be an intimidating read for layfolk, but also a fairly accurate window into how professional physicists attack new research problems.
The book opens with a blast of fluid dynamics, describing the flight of the baseball. By its nature, fluid dynamics is one of the more opaque sub-branches of physics -- the realm of turbulence, chaos and ad hoc empirical approximations. (Turbulence is one of the great unsolved problems in physics, and a solution to it could win you a cool million dollars.) It is a hard topic to present at the best of times but Adair actually does a pretty good job getting to the heart of why a curveball curves. The explanation could probably benefit from just a bit more exposition and explanation of basic concepts, and there are a few sentences here and there that leave you scratching your head, but a solid effort.
The later chapters on pitching and batting have more to do with materials and kinematics than fluid flow, and are less complicated but a bit duller and more repetitive. Much of the content of the book comes from simple models of throwing and hitting baseballs, based on likely approximations and squeezing information out of what little experimental data exists. When things get too dry, the author does his best to spice things up with baseball lore. In fact, one of the really cool things about the book is how he tries to address and assess the opinions and wisdom of pro baseball players, and provide explanations for many of the common features of the game....more
A fun and somewhat charming book of puzzles, presented as the story of the "omniheurist," Jacob Ecco, who solves puzzles and mysteries for wealthy cliA fun and somewhat charming book of puzzles, presented as the story of the "omniheurist," Jacob Ecco, who solves puzzles and mysteries for wealthy clients. The storyline is not super-compelling and when the puzzle is easy you kind of have to laugh at the idea of a rich businessman frantically hiring a reclusive genius to solve an undergrad-level combinatorics problem. Still some (not all) of the puzzles are pretty fun, touching on a wide range of computer science and applied math topics: networks, graphs, decision trees, encryption, etc. ...more
There are moments where the process of scientific discovery looks a lot like a fumble recovery play in football. The solution is right there in frontThere are moments where the process of scientific discovery looks a lot like a fumble recovery play in football. The solution is right there in front of you, bouncing in crazy directions, if you could only get your hands on it. In that light, the most revealing anecdote in Alan Guth's intellectual history of cosmic inflation is Steven Weinberg's reaction after learning of Guth's discovery: he allegedly cursed out loud and said he wished he had though of it himself.
Inflation is one of those ideas that is so elegant and useful that most working astronomers assume it (or something like it) must be true even without any direct observational evidence. (The recent BICEP2 discovery of a gravity wave signature in the CMB, if they survive the simmering controversy, would be the first direct evidence for inflation.) As Guth shows, inflation is a logical (or at least likely) consequence of the particle physics revolution of the late 1960s/early 1970s. As an added bonus, it elegantly solves several major conceptual problems with the standard Big Bang theory (the flatness, horizon and monopole problems). All of these ideas were floating around in the mid-70s, but it was Guth who put them all together in a seminal 1980 paper. (In the Soviet Union, the same ideas were advanced independently by Andre Linde and Alexei Starobinsky -- the 3 of whom shared the recent Kavli Prize for the discovery.)
To coherently explain inflation to a lay audience there is a large amount of introductory material that has to be addressed first -- general relativity and the standard Big Bang theory, along with quantum mechanics and the Standard Model of particle physics. Plus some advanced topics like the Higgs mechanism and topological defects. Thankfully Guth is a lucid writer and handles the material efficiently and cleanly. If the experimental discovery holds up, Guth and Co. will probably be heading to Stockholm in a few years and this will be the book every journalist is skimming to get up to speed....more
Could be subtitled: "How to Get Busy Parents to Read Your Parenting Book by Making it Mostly Cartoons." I jest, but the book does have a good philosopCould be subtitled: "How to Get Busy Parents to Read Your Parenting Book by Making it Mostly Cartoons." I jest, but the book does have a good philosophy, with a lot of importance on hearing and respecting your kids' feelings and promoting their autonomy, not just getting them to do what you want. Good stuff and usefully organized. Of course the hard part is putting it into practice......more
The Cuckoo's Calling is highly enjoyable, by-the-book murder mystery written by J.K. Rowling under a pseudonym. Apparently a stray comment followed byThe Cuckoo's Calling is highly enjoyable, by-the-book murder mystery written by J.K. Rowling under a pseudonym. Apparently a stray comment followed by some textual analysis outed her as the author, although it wasn't glaringly obvious to me from reading it that it was hers. In retrospect, her attention to emotional detail and the well-crafted characters certainly recall the Harry Potter books. Rowling also does an admirable job with the physics of murder mystery plotting, aiming for and hitting the sweet spot between Too Easy and Hopelessly Inscrutable. There are a couple of bread crumbs that she drops early on in the book that seem really cool once you reach the end. Hopefully she'll write more Cormoran Strike. I would definitely be psyched to read more in this vein....more
Blindsight is an unimpeachably impressive book. Even more so than most "hard" sci fi, this book is structured around ambitious intellectual speculatioBlindsight is an unimpeachably impressive book. Even more so than most "hard" sci fi, this book is structured around ambitious intellectual speculation and is driven by the desire to tell a scientifically plausible story. The basic storyline is one of first contact between 21st century humans and an alien craft discovered orbiting a brown dwarf in the outskirts of the Solar System. A ship is dispatched to make contact, led by a vampire (a human variant rescued from extinction) and staffed by a crew of bio-enhanced humans, including Siri Keeton, a "synthesist" who is unable to feel empathy but who has learned to "fake it" reasonably well.
The Big Idea here is that human consciousness (or sentience) may *not* actually represent an evolutionary advancement after all. Consciousness is metabolically and otherwise inefficient and it is possible that the universe is populated with highly intelligent, but non-conscious, beings (i.e. zombies) who will eventually out-compete us for resources. This is fertile ground for philosophical speculation and a good fit for an alien encounter story. The ideas come fast and furious, so if you're into that sort of thing, this is the book for you.
When it comes to characterization and plot, Watts assigns himself a high degree of difficulty by making his protagonist unable to feel empathy. And while Siri Keeton probably won't go down as the most memorable sci fi hero in literary history, it's not quite as bleak as some reviewers make out. Watts does do a fair amount of work establishing Siri's emotional backstory, and he provides a handy narrative echo to the aforementioned ideas about consciousness and intelligence. But fair warning: the story is deliberately slanted towards ideas instead of emotions.
My main complaint with the book is that, despite all the research and scientific grounding, despite the more than 150 footnotes and the technical appendix, there are a few plot points that just feel ... sloppy. Part of the problem is that there are just so many ideas zinging around that there's really no room left for uncertainty or alternative explanations that might be less sexy, but more reflective of how actual science works. This is the kind of book where a scientist will confront for the first time some outlandish new phenomenon and will instantly and confidently propose some outre explanation. And that's that.
The one that really got me was that the non-sentient-yet-intelligent aliens would detect our frivolous radio transmissions (TV sitcoms, etc) and would immediately interpret them as a threat and a declaration of war. To which I say: err, maybe, I guess that's possible, but seems unlikely. (This is brought up to buttress the idea that non-sentient aliens will outcompete us, or maybe just blast us into smithereens). But however likely the concept is or isn't, it's totally mooted by the plot. The mayhem that inevitably erupts doesn't arise from a lack of understanding so much as from the fact that the humans basically go out of their way to provoke a conflict with the aliens. It's also a little puzzling that Siri seems to be pretty bad at his job. It wasn't clear to me if this was entirely intentional, or if Watts was just enamored of surprising plot twists.
Quibbles aside, it's an good book and recommended for science nerds. Overall not quite as successful as Neal Stephenson's Anathem but ambitious and satisfying in its own way. If you're curious the author has released it under a Creative Commons license through his website here....more