Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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Book review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites (Discworld, #3; Witches, #1)Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witches ride on brooms and wizards hold a staff in their hands. Nothing phallic about that.

Eskarina “Esk” Smith was born the eighth son of the eighth son and was bequeathed Drum Billet’s wizarding abilities and staff. Minor mixup. Esk is a girl. But too late for any take-backs, Esk’s magical talents have her training with Granny Weatherwax in witching. This isn’t enough for Esk as she is meant to be a wizard, she has the staff and everything, so she journeys to the Unseen University for training.

I’ve come at the Witches instalments of Discworld backward. The first one I read was The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last novel before his death, in which Granny Weatherwax dies.* So to come to the first was overdue. I was somewhat disappointed with The Shepherd’s Crown – probably because it was unfinished in terms of Pratchett’s usual revision process – but not so with Equal Rites. This was highly enjoyable and tackled some interesting tropes of fantasy, as well as plotting the rise of grrl power on the Disc.

*That isn’t a spoiler, it’s pretty much the first chapter.**
**Not that Sir Terry was a big fan of using chapters, but you take my meaning.

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Book Review: Capital, Vol 1 by Karl Marx

Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist ProductionCapital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production by Karl Marx

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you get to the point does that make you bourgeoisie?

Karl Marx’s classic text is a historical, economic, sociological, and philosophical work. Marx tries to show the ways in which workers are exploited by the capitalist mode of production and argues that the capitalist system is ultimately unstable because it cannot endlessly sustain profits. And this takes 1,100 pages to say.

Since it has become popular to call anyone left of a third-generation venture capitalist with their cash in the Caymans and their Nazi gold in a Swiss vault, I thought it was time to read some Marx. That way when people call someone a Post-Modern Marxist Communist I’ll have some idea of how little they know what any of those words mean.

I was actually surprised by this book since it was completely different from what I had expected. The sort of book I had been expecting was a philosophical or ethics text, instead, this is much more a history and economics book. The historical notes documented in Das Kapital are worth reading alone. They act as a reminder of what working/slavery conditions were deemed acceptable, and how similar the arguments from then are to the defences of sweatshops in poorer nations today.

But this book takes the long way round to make its points. If it had instead made its arguments and then offered up one example, then some appendixes, I’d have “enjoyed” this more. Too often it gets bogged down in labouring* the point rather than documenting history or encouraging you to join a union. Worth reading, but be prepared for a lot of waffle.

*Ahhhh, puns.

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An ode to the romance novel

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Romance is one of the biggest selling and most popular genres, that apparently nobody reads…

The closest I come to reading romance is the Mercy Thompson series, so I’m not qualified to discuss it. Fortunately, PBS’s series It’s Lit has Lindsay Ellis to discuss it.

What actually makes a romance novel?

The romance novel has been the subject of intrigue, derision, and shame in literary discourse long before the modern genre as we know it today existed. Romance novels are relegated to your Aunt Muriel’s bathroom, thrift store book sections, and that one aisle in Barnes and Noble that you pretend to walk through because you got “lost” looking for cookbooks. But it deserves a closer look than that – it is after all the highest grossing of all literary genres, out-selling its next nearest competitor twice over.

Vote on your favorite book here: https://to.pbs.org/2Jes2X5 It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favorite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE

Book Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

MeditationsMeditations by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“To read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book.”

[Insert superficial overview of Meditations here]

Meditations were something Marcus (we’re on a first name basis here) wrote for his own moral improvement, to remind himself of and cement the Stoic doctrines he wanted to live by. Things like the world is governed by Providence (which certainly lets him off the hook for all those people fed to the lions during his reign); that happiness lies in virtue and your will to follow it; and that you should not be angry at others. Journalling of this sort was something Epictetus advised, which has resulted in a collection of notes, reminders, aphorisms, and slogans for every occasion.

There is a lot to like about Meditations. It felt like a self-help book but written with a more philosophical bent and less of the “you too can achieve greatness (and give me lots of money) if you follow my twelve rules for life”. It isn’t without problems, such as those outlined in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I also found Marcus’ musings on the Deliberative Content Problem to swing between ideas and thus come off as confused.

This is my second major reading of Stoic philosophy. I’m coming to the conclusion that Stoicism does seem to have a lot to offer.

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Replacing libraries with Amazon?

Most people who like their books and reading will probably have heard about an article in Forbes attacking libraries. I thought I’d present the article and a few rebuttals here, because I like libraries and books and how badly the author of the piece fared.

Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money

Panos Mourdoukoutas

Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.

There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.

They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians. Libraries served as a place where residents could hold their community events, but this was a function they shared with school auditoriums. There’s no shortage of places to hold community events.

Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.

One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as Starbucks. They provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.

On top of this, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced video rentals. They provide TV and movie content to the masses at an affordable rate. Actual video rental services like Blockbuster have gone completely out of business.

Then there’s the rise of digital technology. Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.

Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books. Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.

At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.

Source.

As you can see, this article was terrible. The arguments are the sort you hear from the “let’s privatise everything” and the “what do you mean you won’t pay for the privilege of working in my asbestos mine?” crowd. They don’t believe in public goods, public benefits, nor that poor people are people.

Needless to say, the author of the piece proceeded to be mocked and ridiculed.

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I hope he didn’t go to a public hospital for treatment of that burn.

To spell it out, Panos’ argument forgets that Amazon is a company whose goal isn’t to provide books to people, instead their goal is to make money. A library, however, is there to provide a community benefit of knowledge, education, and entertainment. Libraries are a key tool in creating a literate populous who are better able to contribute to our society. Plus, they have books. Books are awesome. Anywhere with books is awesome.

Panos, of course, couldn’t admit he might have made a mistake.

libaries
Seriously, EveryLibrary keeps going in showing how bad his research is.

I have no idea how he became a professor.

The desperate and nonsense defence he used for the cost of libraries was immediately debunked by the librarians at EveryLibrary:

There are, of course, many problems with this idea. First of all, libraries cost the average American taxpayer over 18 years old just $4.50 per month. An Amazon Prime subscription alone is nearly double that price and you get very little for free with that subscription because you still have to buy books or pay more to gain access to premium goods or services. Source.

Amazingly enough, Panos was correct in claiming that our taxes pay for libraries… This is the sort of insight I think only a Professor of Economics could give us. But he has rather overstated the cost of libraries (unless he has 10x the average property portfolio) and failed to understand how much buying books costs.

The USA does things a little differently to what we do here in Australia. The USA ties library funding to levies and property taxes, so richer areas get nicer better-resourced libraries, whilst poorer areas get about what they always do. In Australia, our libraries are funded out of the state government budget.

Do us Aussies get good value for money just throwing our regular tax dollars at libraries? Let’s look at the Western Australian State Library, which has a 2016-17 budget of $9.8 million, or $3.38 per person. Now, even if we account for only the third of people (2009-2010 ABS data) who go to libraries as paying for them, then it is $9.95 per person. In Australia that wouldn’t even buy one discounted paperback. And this doesn’t even account for all of the other things libraries do with that budget, like the reading programs, book launches, archiving, history preservation, and maintaining that fleet of Ferraris they drive to work. Seems like a good investment to me.

Fortunately, Forbes pulled the article, despite its popularity, because of the backlash. They realised, far too late, that Panos didn’t have a clue and his arguments were rubbish. Interestingly, that hasn’t stopped them from publishing climate change denial articles. At least we love libraries, if not the planet we live on.

Related links:

https://qz.com/1334123/forbes-deleted-an-op-ed-arguing-that-amazon-should-replace-libraries/

https://tysonadams.com/2017/10/11/who-reads/

https://tysonadams.com/2018/01/24/writing-in-western-australia/

https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/7/24/17603692/public-libraries-essential-forbes-amazon

EveryLibrary Links:

https://t.co/XUDc7QgYM3

https://t.co/3XliWEj0iu

https://t.co/dmcW4n0Luf

https://t.co/HxO0Vy2MTK

https://t.co/Of02hkBtqQ

https://t.co/LPLDA3PkrV

https://t.co/vMNEriGdB2