We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe

I’m trying to figure out how I should handle books by people I know, given that it means I’m not a reliable source. I think from now on, I need to just have a blanket caveat. So, here goes:

I know the author (one of them, anyway) so I am not a reliable source.

Bam. OK, so this is a sort of quick primer on all sorts of areas of particle physics and cosmology where we don’t have a good sense of what’s going on, such as with Dark Energy or the nature of time. It is peppered with jokes and comics to lighten things up a bit. So, if you’re a fan of Jorge Cham and want to learn some physics of the universe, I recommend it!

We Have No Idea (Cham, Whiteson)

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

This book is a telling of the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, as they created prospect theory, and all that came with it. On the one hand, this ground has already been covered in other books (including one by Kahmeman himself!), but on the other hand… it’s Michael Lewis. I dunno. It’s weird. Like finding out there’s yet another book about Einstein, but it was written by Mary Roach.

In any case, it’s definitely a fine book, and it contains a lot of information I was not aware of, including in depth discussion of the intellectual love affair and later falling out between Kahneman and Tversky.

I’d have to say I recommend it if you’re not familiar with the topic. Lewis always writes well, and the subject matter is interesting. But, if you’re in any way up to date on this stuff, a lot of the stories will be familiar to you.

The Undoing Project (Lewis)

A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

What a fun and strange little autobiography. Paulos is a mathematician and writer whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. They’re word books, and they’re not for everyone. For instance, this book has a (quite clever!) section on transhumanist pickup lines.

You may ask what that’s doing in an autobiography. Well, this isn’t *really* an autobiography. It contains a few stories from Paulos’ life, but the bulk of the book is either digressions into topics that interest Paulos or discussions of why memoirs are probably mostly false, in that they rely on flawed memories and attempt to create cogent narratives of haphazard lives. In some ways it reads like a long chat with a beloved grandfather who’s quite quirky. All in all, the terrible puns notwithstanding, that’s a pretty good thing.

A Numerate Life (Paulos)

An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy

This is yet another book about the idea that we are in a period of stagnation in terms of economic improvement for the average western person. Although it was enjoyable, as a book it didn’t make a strong argument. Most of the book is (admittedly fascinating) historical tidbits about technological development, mostly in the 20th century leading up to the 1970s. Levinson’s perspective ultimately agrees with that of Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen, at least to the extent that they all blame the nature of post-1970s technology for the failure to improve the average person’s life. And, like, the others, Levinson has hope that a few technologies on deck (e.g. self-driving cars) will reverse that trend.

An Extraordinary Time (Levinson)

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

I’m still on this McWhorter kick. This one was good, but not as good as some of the others. It’s about English and its interactions with other languages. The bulk of the book is about the idea that repeated conquests of English speakers resulted in English being particularly simplified in terms of its grammar, especially compared to related languages. There is also a large section on a proposed link between Celtic and English grammar, and even a section positing links between German and Hebrew. The latter idea is based on the work of Theo Vennemann, whose ideas are (as far as I could tell from google and wikipedia) found to be interesting but probably wrong.

Because it’s McWhorter, there’s also a long lament about the popular usage of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You get the feeling that his later book “The Language Hoax” was a great unburdening of linguistic angst.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (McWhorter)

All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor

A great memoir and oral history about a man who was on the USS Arizona when the attack at Pearl Harbor happened. As these things go, it’s not necessarily a standout, but I always appreciate memoirs that give you a real sense of the person. Stratton talks about particular people and how he felt about them, as well as how he felt about certain political and social occurrences that followed the war. For instance, he talks about how he generally doesn’t like these attempts to get American and Japanese WWII vets together to make nice. To him, the memories are too horrific. Given what he saw on that day, and the year it took his body to recover, it’s hard to blame him.

All the Gallant Men (Stratton, Gire)

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

This book. It’s a treasure, really. Sometimes, pop science books are written by people like me – interested non-experts who can turn a phrase. That’s fine, and I like those books. But, now and then you get a book where someone pours a lifetime of expertise and stories beteween the covers. That’s what Mahaffey has done.

This book is mostly a sequence of discussions of exactly what happened at particular nuclear accidents (ranging from nuclear power to nuclear bombs). The depth of his research is sometimes staggering. He also has funny stories, and he provides insights into the psychology of disasters in general.

That said, it’s thick. It’s thick and although it CAN be consumed by people who aren’t well-versed in nuclear power, it’s gonna send you to wikipedia a lot. And, especially in the middle of explanations about nuclear plants, it can get really tough to follow. Here’s a sample sentence from page 344, which I wrote down to illustrate the point: “In the 177FA design, B&W had replaced the troublesome Crosby PORV with a Dresser 31533VX30.”

One gets the idea that there exists some nuclear engineer who reads “Crosby PORV” and bursts out laughing at the very idea of such a thing. Personally, I found I just had to accept that, as someone without a graduate degree in nuke stuff, there were parts that flew over my head. That said, Mahaffey is such a charming writer, so obviously in love with his subject, it can be enjoyable even when it’s hard to follow.

Atomic Accidents (Mahaffey)

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

I’m getting to where I can’t take any more Philip K Dick non-scifi works. They’re not bad, they’re just all the same. Narcissistic men and flighty women have difficulty getting along in a post-war consumerist society. It’s not bad, and the characters and scenes are good, but there’s just no core here. In fairness, most of these books weren’t released in Dick’s lifetime, so there wouldn’t have been a public to get tired of him repeating the same plot elements. But, as I try to read his entire corpous, it gets a bit tiresome.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (Dick)

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter

This is a collection of short essays by the great utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer. I found it enjoyable and stimulating, but I find I am just not prepared to get onboard this form of hardcore utilitarianism, which says “Action X would increases total human happiness. Thus, not doing it is unethical.” Partially, this is because this sort of statement at least seems non-obvious to me. But, more importantly, I think it’s often hard to know the consequences of actions, especially in the longterm. I’m willing to buy the idea that a dollar I spend on cake would bring more pleasure if given to a starving poor person overseas. But, it’s not clear to me that this sort of thing is true in the big picture. For instance, if it’s true that buying Chinese consumer electronics will ultimately raise the Chinese living standard, is it unethical for me not to buy them? Another for instance – is it obvious that $50,000 buying meals for poor people overseas is more ethical (in a consequentialist sense) than spending that money on a scholarship for someone who will improve renewable energy.

Now, in fairness, these are short essays meant for public consumption. Singer can’t address every possible objection, and for all I know he handles these sorts of complaints elsewhere. On the whole, a worthy read.

Ethics in the Real World (Singer)

Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence

I guess you’d categorize this as an early work (late 80s) in the modern futurology movement. The book is somewhat about the particular idea of creating superior robot descendants of humanity, but a more appropriate title would be something like “A brief history of computing up to 1988, followed by a bunch of stuff Hans Moravec thinks about.” On the whole, it’s pretty good! A lot of the speculations are obviously a bit out of date, and in some ways this is very interesting when we think about modern futurologists.

For example, Moravec thought that by the year 2000 we’d have a general purpose robot assistant. This wasn’t just a blind guess, either. He made estimates comparing neuronal and computer processing power, and thus guessed we’d have a robot assistant computer brain within 10 years of when the book was written. This not only hasn’t happened, but the closest thing we’ve got is the Roomba (or, perhaps the Baxter industrial bot). Makes you wonder about these people predicting full brain emulation by the 2030s or so.

Mind Children (Moravec)