Sunday, October 26, 2014

26: The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe, Stephen Hawking

Sometimes I wonder whether Hawking is a tremendous ass and whether his dry humour is a result of the difficulty he has in communicating.

In any case, this book could have done with some more editing. It's a popular scientific (very popular, no equation of any kind, no diagrams, no graphs) series of lectures (published before as The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works), and as a written work it's unfortunately repetitive. Not Hawking's best book.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Catching up: 19-25

19: The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival among America's Great White Sharks, Susan Casey
First of all, what's with "America's" in the subtitle? Does it really matter where these sharks live *part* of their lives? Anyway. This is a journalist's tale of hanging out on the Farallon Islands with the shark and bird biologists there. It's bloody interesting, and it's a damn' shame she went about it so unscientifically and, more or less, ended up destroying the shark study program.

It made me want to go out and do biology in unpleasant conditions.

20: Zatopek: Les Années Mimoun, Marcel Couchaux
French autobiographical comic about the author's father and Zatopek. Enjoyable.
21: How to Take a Chance, Darrell Huff and Irving Geis
More How to Lie with Statistics, but not as good, I think. I didn't really learn anything, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the "original".
22: Paper Tangos, Julie Taylor
There was an awful lot of fuzzy nonsense (the tango reflecting the Argentine revolution, blablablah, social anthropology, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense), but every now and then a good bit, like the on the cabeceo (page 38).
23: Conversations with Capote, Lawrence Grobel
Fun. Truman truly was a jerk at times. I found it interesting to learn that a) he hated the casting for the Breakfast at Tiffany's film (including Hepburn), and b) there were talks of a remake with Jodie Foster as Holly Golightly.

Anyway, a very interesting book that I enjoyed tremendously.

24: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe
About half (?) was on the blog before. I don't know what to say. It's just more of the blog. Of course I enjoyed it.
25: The Man with the $100,000 Breasts and Other Gambling Stories, Michael Konik
Oh, dear. I can't resist stupid gambling stories, no matter how poorly written. This is another hack who proudly proclaims on the inner flap that he writes for Cigar Aficionado and is the editor of Delta Air Lines's Sky magazine. God help us. Anyway, the writing is more or less the bland vomit you'd expect. I still managed to enjoy the stories.

Monday, June 16, 2014

18: Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running, Raymond Krisse and Bill Squires

Riddled with typos and inaccuracies and horrendously poorly written, it still made me want to run.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

17: Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

From the blog of the same name. Cute, funny, poignant, and insightful.

16: The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures about the Ultimate Fate of the Universe, Paul Davies

Excellent popular account with actual (gasp) science! The discussion of false vacuum is particularly interesting, and made me dig up "Gravitational effects on and of vacuum decay" by Coleman and Deluccia (PhysRevD, 1981, 3314). The conclusion, partially quoted in The Last Three Minutes, is amusing:
The time required for the collapse of the interior universe is on the order of the time A discussed in Sec. I, microseconds or less. This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate.Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe, ' in a new va- cuum there are new constants of nature, ' after va- cuum decay, not only is life as we know it impos- sible, so is chemistry as we know it. However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some structures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.
"This is disheartening"! "This possibility has now been eliminated"! This makes me happy.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

15: Richard Feynman: A Life in Science, John and Mary Gribbin

Surprisingly I'd never read this before. It explains, in a popsci way, a lot more of the science Feynman worked on than the other biographies, including, I believe, Genius (though the last time I read that was a long time ago). It also made me order Most of the Good Stuff.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

14: Just My Type: a Book about Fonts, Simon Garfield

Very good read. Last few chapters were a bit of a drag (I don't care about what people think is a bad typeface). First book I've read that references both YouTube videos and an xkcd comic. Welcome to the 21st century.

13: Official Secret, Clayton Hutton

Clayton Hutton's autobiographical account of his time making escape aids (and other gadgets) for the English military in WWII. He is sometimes described as the real-life Q. The book is an interesting read, despite some glaring mistakes and exaggerations (I doubt Hutton would have carried around an unused arrest warrant for years only to be able to show it to the man it was intended for when he accidentally met him in a pub).

12: Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron's Memoir 1934-1969, Timme Rosenkrantz

An English re-working of Timme Rosenkrantz's "Dus med Jazzen". Fantastic reading. This is an anecdotal autobiography filled with inaccuracies and mistakes, no doubt, but also with the flavour of the times. It's filled with passages worth re-reading, but this I found particularly interesting. It's the most insistent and (seemingly) precise of the etymologies of "jitterbug" I've yet seen.
And to Harry White goes the honor of coining a word that jives the world: jitterbug. Ed Swayzee held the trumpet seat next to Harry in Cab's band for years. Ed was known as "King Swayzee," a terrific soloist, as you can hear in quick bites on records with Chick Webb, Jelly Roll Morton ("Deep Creek"), and Cab Calloway. ("Weakness," Ed's own tune and arrangement, is a little gem.) The men were, as Harry put it, "boon coons," and naturally they shared their bottles, which they referred to as "jugs." Harry called all his intimate friends his jug-buddies. There was a pretty strong brew called King Kong—many called it Panther Piss—and it was strong enough to make strawberries grow. [...] Harry called it his "jitter juice" because he needed it every morning to cure his "shakes." [...] When very thirsty Harlem musicians form a friendship, they call each other "bug." That's what Harry called his closest friends. One morning, Harry had a solo spot in the Paramount Theater show with Cab. He had hidden his bottle behind a curtain in the wings, so he could take a steadying swig to front the band and play his first solo of the day. [...] When he got there, much to this consternation, the bottle had been taken away. In sheer panic, he shouted to Cab, on stage, "Keep playin', man! I can't find my jitter, bug! Where's my sauce? Get me my jitter, bug, or I can't play." Cab Calloway grabbed the words right out of Harry's mouth, insisting that Harry write a song titled "Jitterbug." He did, with Ed Swayzee. It scored a big hit at the Cotton Club. Already popular in Harlem, a new dance, the Lindy Hop (named in honor of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic hop), was rechristened the Jitterbug.
I'm sure Norma would not be happy to read that.

11: Why Is That Bridge Orange? San Francisco for the Curious, Art Peterson

In semi-preparation for a friend's visit I picked this up at City Lights in SF. Pretty good one-page descriptions of things SF visitors are likely to wonder about. (And, no, it has nothing to do with rust. The designer just liked the colour of the undercoat.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

10: Isadora Duncan: a graphic biography, Sabrina Jones

A biography of Isadora Duncan in comic book form. It's O.K.

9: "Don't Take Me the Long Way", M.C. Mars

Taxi driver's stories, mostly from his time in SF. It was better than Callgirl. I don't know whether that teaches me anything about life.

8: Sumo Watching, S.W.A.

A beginner's guide to watching sumo wrestling. The text is often endearingly condescending. I suspect I'd find it annoyingly condescending if this weren't translated from the Japanese.

7: Callgirl, Jeannette Angell

At best an interesting anecdotal account of being a call girl in Boston in the late 1990's.

Jeannette thinks she's more clever than she is. She gets herself into hideous money trouble by misjudging others and by keeping on spending exorbitant amounts when she's broke (e.g., buying her boyfriend a Philippe Patek watch while still in debt on her credit cards), decides prostitution is the way to go. She is snooty about being a "call girl" rather than a "hooker", which is fine, except she is awfully judgmental of "lesser" prostitutes. She also brags about "being able to get any man she wants", which makes me dislike her immediately. Then she starts doing drugs.

Perhaps it's an interesting "oh, that's how you get into cocaine" story, but I'm not convinced it's a particularly objective account, so is it really useful or interesting? Unclear.

I find it interesting how detached she can be from sex, and how easy she finds it to have sex with men she finds unappealing. I also find it interesting to hear what douchebags there are surrounding the business. (Not surprising—but still interesting.)

For someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities she doesn't write terribly well. Maybe she wrote this thing in a hurry? I don't know. It could have been so much better.

Best sentence in the book:

I was usually a little high, a little buzzed from whatever we had done with the client; the last thing that you want at a time like that is to be sitting alone in a room with a giraffe staring you down.