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The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life
The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life
by Alex Bellos
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.79
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4.0 out of 5 stars A survey of interesting math topics, July 26, 2015
Ten chapters, ten essays, ten topics explored in appropriate depth for a non technical analysis. This is what The Grapes of Math has to offer.

The essays cover very different areas of mathematics: statistics, geometry, algebra, calculus, the square root of minus one, and self-referential logic. My favourite chapter explains why the 1 appears more often as the lead digit in statistical results. There's also a great chapter on John Conway's famous Game of Life, that explains how people came up with the really interesting patterns in that game.

But I must admit I feel ambivalent about the title. I suppose shameless puns are necessary when giving a title to a pop math book given that "pop" and "math" don't obviously go together.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
by Jordan Ellenberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.42
64 used & new from $8.17

5.0 out of 5 stars We do use algebra every day, believe or not, July 26, 2015
"When am I ever going to use this?"

Except for the very few who really love math, every students asks this. And teachers don't know but they have to give an answer so they come up with lines like "You need it if you want to become an engineer".

To which students reply "But I don't want to become an engineer! And even if I did, I'll have the answers I need from the computer!".

And the teacher finally snaps and gives the real answer: "You need it to get your diploma!"

The answer is real enough except that it is wrong and with "How Not To Be Wrong" Jordan Ellenberg gives us the correct answer: math is to thinking what training is to sports. It may be true that once you've graduated high school you'll never have to solve a quadratic equation, just as you'll never see a football player curl barbells in the middle of a game. But just as having curled barbells countless times in the gym will help football players throw further and tackle harder, having done the algebra will train your mind to concentrate and to think outside the box.

But this is not a book about doing algebra or calculus. This is a book the results that come from knowing algebra and calculus. The theme running through HN2BW is that lots of things are counterintuitive. Here are a few.

In World War II, the air force wanted to know where to put armor on planes. Armor is heavy and putting it everywhere would make the plane too heavy to fly. They looked at the damage on their planes and realized the area with the most bullet holes was the fuselage, while the area with the fewest bullet holes was the engine. The answer is obvious: put the armor on the fuselage rather. But the military men knew enough to ask professional mathematicians and they had a statistical analysis department.

"Where did you get the data from?" asked the statisticians.
"From our planes, after they came back from a mission."
Obviously not before, or there would have been no bullet holes at all.
"Very good, that is important data to have. But what about the holes in the planes that didn't come back?"

And that is the correct question to ask. It's reasonable to assume that bullets fall on the plane more or less evenly but if planes come back with bullet holes in the fuselage, it means that bullets don't damage the plane much when they hit the fuselage. If few planes come back with holes in the engine area, that means that a hit to the engine will down the plane, so that it where the armor should go.

Apart from such counterintuitive insights, Ellenberg also teaches us a few things we really ought to know. Every thinking person understands that correlation doesn't imply causation. And everybody knows that if two things are equal to a third then they are equal to each other (ie if Jack and Jill are as old as James, then Jack and Jill are the same age).

But that doesn't apply to correlations: a stock portfolio made up of automobile manufacturers and software developers will correlate with a portfolio made up exclusively of automobile manufacturers and with a portfolio made up of exclusively of software developers but fluctuations in the automobile portfolio won't have anything to do with fluctuations in the software portfolio. Equality is a transitive relation but correlation is not transitive.

This isn't a book about beautiful mathematical results: you won't find Euler's jaw dropping identity here. Ellenberg explains statistics, those lies even more damnable than just plain damn lies but he shows us how mathematical thinking leads to us better understand data.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules: Separating Fact from Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life
Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules: Separating Fact from Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life
by Dr. Joe Schwarcz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.69
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A large disjointed collection of short essays, July 25, 2015
The best thing about McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz's Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules is that the title uses the Oxford Comma. (Hear, hear!)

The second best thing about MMM is that while billing itself as a book about science in general, it covers lots of chemical topics, from how aspirin is composed to adding copper on a nail using the blue crystals found in chemistry sets from the 1960s. (Today's chemistry sets don't have chemicals. These aren't considered safe in this age of politically correct nannies.) Most science essays and clips we see in the media are about space, physics, computers, or biology. It`s really great to see chemistry in the forefront for once.

The third best thing in MMM is Schwarcz's incessant debunking of misconceptions and outright charlatanisms: lots of poisons are natural, just about everything that is beneficial in food is a chemical, and homeopathy is a sham.

But in the end, as a book, it's disappointing: it's a large disjointed collection of two or three page essays tenuously gathered under different topics. It's a good book to dip into from time to time, but it doesn't build up a theme, it doesn't present a big picture, and it doesn't exhaustively study a good topic.

Fun but not engrossing.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

The Eiffel Tower (25th Anniversary Special Edtn)
The Eiffel Tower (25th Anniversary Special Edtn)
by Bertrand Lemoine
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $31.09
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5.0 out of 5 stars A vertical bridge to nowhere, June 29, 2015
The Eiffel Tower is the most famous tourist attraction in the world; the most recognizable work of architecture of modern history if not of all time. Well, maybe the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids beat it. Maybe.

Given the countless cheap reproductions, the innumerable film cameos, and the near infinite number of selfies taken around it, we might be forgiven asking ourselves if a book about the Eiffel Tower is really necessary? Yes! Absolutely! It's easy to forget, or to never even think, that the Tower is first and foremost a work of high art.

Construction began in 1887 and finished less than 26 months later in 1889. French writers and artists, a snobbish lot, called it a monstrosity and tried to stop it from going up. When it went up, they tried to have it taken down after the world fair.

The lease expired in 1910 at which time the Tower would have to dismantled, but Eiffel hoped to renew the lease and that his Tower could stand permanently. He lobbied, he argued for its usefulness as a weather station, and in 1900 he published the major plans and drawings for the tower in two beautiful volumes.

This gorgeous oversized book is a faithful reproduction of these volumes. It's all there: the geological strata from the bedrock to the soil, and the banks of the Seine, the foundations and masonry on which the tower would rest, the girders and arches reaching upwards, the one meter wide staircases and the Otis elevators from America.

The Tower serves no real purpose except to prove that it could be built and that it could be built to last. The drawings and explanations show us that Gustave Eiffel's 300 meter tower is an engineering feat but the exquisite elegance of these plans should convince any reader that it is also a work of art. The Tower is more than a vertical bridge to nowhere; it's a bridge to the ideal and it embodies perfection.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
by Sarah Rose
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.84
129 used & new from $0.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Tea and Empire, June 27, 2015
Imagine an alternative history where Columbia declares war on the US at the behest of Pablo Escobar, and where Columbia wins. Imagine how that would feel to an American and you'll get a spot on idea of how Chinese people felt about the British in the 19th century, and to a certain extent how they feel now.

The story begins and ends with tea. Light, easy to pack and to transport, popular with the public. Tea is a money maker.

A commodity in China for thousands of years, it came late to Europe but proved an instant hit in the UK and Russia. It was so popular in the UK that buying tea from China upset the balance of trade. The UK had to find something as light and popular to sell to China or the British would find themselves running out of money. So they sold opium to the Chinese.

When it comes to history, the Chinese are famously philosophical. Chinese people love history, especially their own, and their most important novel opens with the phrase "Empires wax and empires wane". They also understand that the most gripping chapters in history books describe the most unpleasant periods in which to live, hence their curse "May you live in interesting times".

As the British Empire waxed, the Ch'ing dinasty was none too stable. The opium sold to the masses was ruining them and society suffered. China tried to manage the trade somehow, but the British would have none of it. The UK went to war to protect their trade rights, beat the Chinese, and extracted humiliating concessions from them.

Yet the war should not have happened and the British were uncomfortable at the idea of depending on China for such a large share of their trade. They had to find a new source for tea, ideally grow it themselves, and if not at home in England then within their own Empire. India was the logical place and they began experimenting. They managed to get a few shrubs out and to hire a few tea workers. Their early attempts failed: the tea varieties grew badly, the workers were third rate, the product was heavy, musty and unpleasant.

Enter Robert Fortune: a highly competent self taught botanist with an inventive entrepreneurial streak, and a man ambitious to rise above his station. The ideal agent. He was asked to go to China, to bring back the good stuff and to find the right men to help the British start their tea plantations in India.

Success depended on secrecy and discretion. If the higher authorities got wind of Fortune`s activities, if they caught him, the mission would fail and Fortune could be killed. It was dangerous work: even if the Chinese authorities never found him, diseases and criminal gangs could kill him.

This then is the story Sarah Rose offers us: an exciting tale of industrial espionnage where this time the Chinese are the victims.

A wonderful read.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.99
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2.0 out of 5 stars Cheating the reader, June 24, 2015
This review is from: Ursula (Paperback)
With Balzac's "The Magic Skin" (La Peau de chagrin) with Dickens's "A Christmas Carol", and with Shakespeare's "Macbeth" readers are willing to suspend disbelief because the supernatural premises are given early in the story and they are part of what sells the story to us. Even when the supernatural appears unannounced and unlooked for, as when Caesar's assassins and Richard III are haunted, the device adds to the mood rather than resolve the plot.

Not so here. We have a good story about relatives conspiring to take for themselves a young girl's inheritance. The novel deals with the very real world of the French Civil Code, of family disputes, of kindness to strangers, and of falling in love. So why ruin this with a ridiculous twist?

I'm willing to accept magic when the author lived in a world where everyone believed such things (The Tale of Genji has the most wonderful ghosts, for instance) but when Balzac, who despite his Catholicism was a humanist, decides to have a plot like this depend on ghosts, séances, and Mesmerism, well I almost felt like giving up on the novel. And I would have if I hadn't resolved to read all of the Comédie Humaine.

What makes it unforgiveable is that Mesmerism was already shown to be quackery. An 18th century French royal commission, which had invited American ambassador Benjamin Franklin to join, had even refuted Mesmer's claims by testing them, even following Mesmers instructions, with their feet soaking in basins, holding each other by the thumbs so that the "magnetic fluids" could flow through them. That must have made quite a scene! Deepak Chopra and Uri Geller invented nothing.

So one star above the lowest score for the writing and the characters, but that’s all.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

(Despite my last two Balzac reviews of only two stars, I really am enjoying La Comédie Humaine. I haven't gotten around to reviewing Old Man Goriot, or The Mariage Contract yet, or the wonderful short story The Atheist's Mass, but I will soon. All of these are five stars, and among the best of the best.)

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas
Price: $2.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What yarns will people spin around tomorrow's campfires?, May 18, 2015
This review is from: Cloud Atlas (Amazon Instant Video)
Science fiction films are getting better. As enjoyable as it is, even Star Trek makes for pretty lame SF: every alien species speaks perfect American English and yet Chekov never overcame is Russian (RAAASHun) accent.

There are only a half dozen or so films that really qualify as serious science fiction and I rank Cloud Atlas at number three, after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.

(In some ways the very best hard SF film ever made is Terminator because it is, like all good science fiction, completely self-consistent. So much so that a very proud and smug James Cameron had one of the characters make the point in the film. But I digress.)

Like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas leaps from era to era. We follow slave colonies in the nineteenth century, a young composer in the early twentieth century, an investigative journalist in 1972, a publisher hounded by a murderer author in 2012, the executed leader of a slave revolt in 2144, and the world her sacrifice made possible centuries later.

The stories feature the same actors (among others Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, and an unrecognizable Hugh Grant who finally shows the world he can play other characters besides romantic leads) reappearing in different roles across different times. The frame story, which is also the core story, starts with a sage old man who yarns a tale in a language we cannot recognize but cannot fail to understand, a kind of future English where people verb familiar nouns and they noun their doings. By the fire the old man tells the tale, and we jump in and out of his tale and of other tales he isn’t yarning but that happened just the same.

By the end, every story is resolved to a satisfactory dramatic conclusion. Sometimes the ending is happy, sometimes sad, sometimes unfair and tragic. We are left perplexed and wondering "What does this all mean?" and there is no simple easy answer.

In so many ways, this film beats 2001 and Blade Runner hands down. It avoids the heavy, grand, almost religious overtones of humanity's destiny that fill Kubrick's work and instead offers introspective insights into what destiny awaits the film's characters, and by extension what destiny awaits you and me. And while Cloud Atlas doesn't make me feel as much empathy for any of its characters as I did for the dying Roy Batty in Blade Runner, it does make me look at more aspects of what it means to be human than does Blade Runner.

But I cannot claim to understand Cloud Atlas completely. I don't mean that it is confusing and I am not condemning the Wachowski Siblings of being unclear. Quite the opposite: Cloud Atlas offers so much that it requires repeated reflection to gain insights. You've got to think about it a lot, you've got to forget about it, and you need to come back to it to get everything that it says. You need to live with it to understand the yarn that an old man will spin around a campfire a few centuries from now.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.89
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where did our liberal democratic institutions come from? And where could they go?, May 9, 2015
The title is no accident, I'm sure.

In the early 19th century naturalists developped the classification of living things to such an extent that their work is one of the great achievements of human history. The unit was the "specie" and the resulting immense catalogue of living things recorded begged the question: "Where did all these species come from?". The answer came in a flash to Charles Darwin in the 1830s as a result of his travels across the world and his systematic first hand study of plants and animals. He worked on writing out his answer, Natural Selection, for thirty years and finally published "The Origin of Species".

For some reason, many intelligent well-read people make the mistake of thinking Darwin's work proves that somehow the Ascent of Man was inevitable and the process of evolution has a direction. It does not, and biologists agree that evolution is largely contingent, a sort of continuous random walk. Evolution might be evolution-from-something but it isn't evolution-towards-anything. Where you are does depend on where you've been and it imposes a constraint on where you can go, but it doesn't decide if at the crossroad you'll go left, right, straight on or turn back. That part is contingent.

And so with Fukuyama's 2011 book "The Origins of Political Order". We've studied history, we've seen the rise and fall of nations and empires. We've had a go at now discredited economic theories of what caused these. But still we too often think that the rise of Liberal Democracy is somehow inevitable, or that all political development tends towards Liberal Democracy, just as we too often wrongly think the evolution of man is the end-all and be-all of evolution.

Francis Fukuyama himself is guilty of promoting this thesis in his otherwise brilliant and insightful 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man" where he passionately argues that once a society has achieved a stable form of Liberal Democratic government, there is nothing left to improve, that the process of developing social and political institutions has reached its satisfying conclusion.

Fukuyama is now older and wiser; he's outgrown his youthful exhuberance and he has reconsidered the conclusions towards which his earlier insights had led him.

From the start, a humbler Fukuyama recognizes that because of the relatively small number of cases available for study, it isn't possible to create a complete predictive theory of political development. But working with what is in fact available, we can tease out insights and clues as to how successful societies develop the instiutions that characterize them and in which their people live and thrive.

Institutions form the foundation of Fukuyama's ideas of political development, more precisely he studies the relationships among three instututions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. Says Fukuyama "A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance."

He surveys history to look for examples of these institutions and others coming into existence then thriving or failing. He looks at India, China, and Russia. Fukuyama looks at Hungary and examines why despite the king having had his own Magna Carta imposed on him, the kingdom never developed accountable government. He looks at Denmark and studies how that kingdom did develop accountable government and that this came from the king without a Magna Carta and at the expense of the aristocracy (the force was peasant literacy brought from Lutherism and having the Bible translated in Danish).

The author saves the study of England for last for the reason I mentioned above: English Speaking Peoples tend to see the rise of their liberal democracy as inevitable. Fukuyama shows that it was contingent on many factors coming together and that parliament (government) the king (the executive or the state) and the rule of law balanced the other two. Each institution was strong but none was ever able to fully dominate the other two. The crucial idea of balance comes through.

I find only a few things wrong with the book, and even then they are merely cosmetic. I don't know why Fukuyama bothered with diagrams: they add nothing to the author's wonderfully clear prose and they risk oversimplifying his ideas.

The other defect is only a minor sin: Fukuyama has a knack for occasionally coming up with truly ugly words: "repatrimonialization" (p 81) and "subinfeudate" (p 107). I'll leave you the pleasure of finding out what these words mean.

(At least when Winston Churchill used the word "depotabilize" while quoting one of his memos in his World War II memoirs, he had the decency to apologize. Perhaps Fukuyama constructs these ungainly technical monstrosities because of an unwarranted envy social scientists feel towards the more mathematical hard sciences. Pish posh! History is history and physics is physics. If no word exists and a writer can't come up with a good one, he should simply use a phrase.)

On the other hand, Fukuyama shows tremendous courage in bluntly articulating hard truths. One in particular deserves to be singled out: a major problem liberal democracy faces today is that of the weak state. It is tremendously difficult for stable liberal democracies to make major corrections to social problems. Witness the United States inability to deal with healthcare. Conversely, strong states with little or no rule of law and where government is not accountable can simply run roughshod over anyone opposing their will. Witness China building the Three Gorges hydroelectric complex and simply forcing people out of their ancestral villages.

This doesn't mean the Chinese model works. Fukuyama reminds us that while it does deliver prosperity today when the leadership is smart and displays economic wisdom, the Chinese model doesn't allow for "bad emperors" ie dictatorial leaders that don't know what they are doing or who work exclusively for themselves.

The author calls these and other problems "political decay" and he examines them in the second part of of his work, his 2014 book "Political Order and Political Decay", which I look forward to reading very soon.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2015 6:07 AM PDT

Design of Books
Design of Books
by Adrian Wilson
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Dao of Design, May 1, 2015
This review is from: Design of Books (Paperback)
THE Way of design.

The definite article is appropriate because Adrian Wilson keeps his rules flexible and general. Wilson shows us _the_ way to design books, not merely _a_ way. He never says that one must use this font in that context, instead he explains that one must choose a font appropriate to the context and he illustrates this with an example of a book he designed. Who can argue with that? Failing to choose a font is leaving your design to chance, it is letting others do the designing for you.

Even more generally, he urges book designers to begin with rough pencil scketches of what they want the final book to look like. His point is that a designer needs to get to the big idea of his design. We find this idea in everything people make: writers outline their novel, generals put strategies ahead of tactics, inventors build protypes.

Written in 1967, this book predates computers, word processors, and the internet, but it should not be scorned. Readers will find timeless principles, not of fads, and the principles apply to anything published, be they blogs or books.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Soon I Will be Invincible
Soon I Will be Invincible
by Austin Grossman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.38
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3.0 out of 5 stars The joke runs for too long, April 23, 2015
First off, this is straight-up point-of-view novel about relationships, about self-realization, about the futility of it all, and about the drive to go on despite all the setbacks life throws one's way.

It's just that the characters are all superheroes and supervillains.

"Why did I never learn to keep quiet about my plans?" moans Doctor Impossible. "It doesn't matter! All my efforts have led to this moment and this time I WILL rule the world."

It's well written and you empathize with the characters. Sort of. Until you realize it's quite silly. Treating supervillains as regular people is an old joke that's been done countless times. Just search the internet for the "Evil Overlord List" or look at the 1969 Monty Python "Bicycle Repairman" sketch where in a world of Supermen, no one knows how to fix a bicycle. Or Jane Curtin interviewing Bond villains on the original Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. Or the father and son moments in Mike Myers' Austin Powers series from the 1990s.

Here it's done deadpan and seriously but it's still a joke; one that runs too long.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

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