My Five Star-Rated Books Read in 2016

So, out of the many books I read this prior year, here are the ones I gave five stars.

  1. To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Weinberg, Steven
  2. Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction in Life and Markets by Brockman, John
  3. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Isaacson, Walter
  4. Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Ridley, Matt
  5. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Wise, Tim
  6. Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Haley, Alex
  7. Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World by Grant, Adam M.
  8. Eaters of the Dead by Crichton, Michael

I hope to make this a regular feature of the blog.

Last year was a banner year with 14. It looks like 2013 was about equal with 8.

Review: The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was lovingly written by an obvious space nerd. Weir explains large amounts of science and engineering in a very accessible format. As only a true space nerd would do, there are lots of jokes and puns. Not everyone will like them, but they enhanced the story for me.

The story works as a framework to describe the technical challenges to life on Mars. The Apollo missions were visits of a few short days and Whatney, our hero, was planned to have a few short weeks on Mars. Only it goes all wrong.

What I enjoyed most was
FEELING
the isolation. So many authors try but fall flat.

Given the fiction part of science-fiction, the problems arrive one after another to give Whatney something to solve without too much of a break to recover. A normal mortal would have broken under the stress. But, then, NASA would not send a normal mortal to Mars. 🙂

View all my reviews

TED Talk: Equal Parts Science and Magic

The unity of science and religion is an important concept in the Baha’i Faith. They are two sides of the same coin. One side looks ahead with faith. One side looks backwards without faith. One is impatient while the other is deliberately slow. Where the two agree is the sweet spot of true knowledge. There is a stage in the scientific method full of looking forward with faith: Ask a question.

Asking a question is the. most. important step. Everything depends upon it. Not asking the right question ensures nothing will be tried. And humanity suffers. Unless someone else gathers up the faith to do so.

Also, I am apparently a fan of spoken word artists. There is something about the cadence and flow that I like.

If the above video does not work, then try Equal Parts Science and Magic.

TED Talk: Finding planets around other stars

How do we find planets — even habitable planets — around other stars? By looking for tiny dimming as a planet passes in front of its sun, TED Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz and the Kepler mission have found some 1,200 potential new planetary systems. With new techniques, they may even find ones with the right conditions for life.

A prior method of detecting planets around other stars was looking for the wobble. As planets orbit their star, they affect the position of the star. The more mass the planet has, the more the wobble and easier to detect. Of course, a shorter orbit also makes it easier to detect. So it was really good at locating gas giants like Jupiter or larger as close as Mercury or Venus. It would not find an Earth.

Kepler has done a fantastic job so far locating planets, especially those near the size of Earth. Apparently we can even participate by looking for the light dips through the Planet Hunters web site. (Kind of surprised this is not automated. But then, getting credit for having helped find a star is pretty cool.)

If you cannot see the video below, visit Finding planets around other stars.

TED Talk: Battling Bad Science

From TED’s About This Talk:

Every day there are news reports of new health advice, but how can you know if they’re right? Doctor and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre shows us, at high speed, the ways evidence can be distorted, from the blindingly obvious nutrition claims to the very subtle tricks of the pharmaceutical industry.

If you do not see the video below, then go to Battling Bad Science. (Eric Mead’s the magic of the placebo is good too.)

Quotes That Make You Think: Collected for First Half 2011

More quotes for Quotes to Make You Think collected over the past year. Additional ones can be found under the Quotes tag.


The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. — William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)

Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. — Charles Mingus

The greatest obstacle to love is fear. It has been the source of all defects in human behavior throughout the ages. — Mahmoud Mohammed Taha

The Seven Blunders of the World…

  1. Wealth without work
  2. Pleasure without conscience
  3. Knowledge without character
  4. Commerce without morality
  5. Science without humanity
  6. Worship without sacrifice
  7. Politics without principle

— Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. — Faber. From Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. — Marcel Proust

Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away. — Marcus Aurelius

They say: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.”
I say: “Laugh and they wonder what you are up to.”
— Unknown

The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem. — Theodore Rubin

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. — Unknown

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
— Lao-Tze

The truth is, we make a mistake when we think that generations can be separated. The truth is you need me so that I have shoulders you can stand on, and we need you because you have shoulders somebody else can stand on. We are one. —Maya Angelou

The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars. — Robert Heinlein

Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors and let each new year find you a better man. — Benjamin Franklin

If you are in the grip of the ego, you believe that by doing more and more you will eventually accumulate enough ‘doings’ to make yourself feel complete at some point in the future. It won’t. — Eckhart Tolle

It is unlucky to be superstitious. — Unknown

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. — Unknown

Those who know the least will always know it the loudest. — Unknown

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around — Leo F Buscaglia

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. — Lao Tzu

Happiness is like a kiss… you must share it to enjoy it. — Unknown

Stopping at what we think is the limit of embarrassing behavior, we let others claim the credit, the opportunity, the job, the person we love from afar… What you perceive as prudent social caution is  probably limiting your life to about half its natural capacity. — Martha Beck

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly. — Buddha

Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit / There’s footprints on the moon — Brandt Paul

Thanks to Brian, Dusty, Ekstrom, Janice, Juls, Kyle, Mojan, Sherry, Tonya, and other friends who posted their favorite quotes.

Cull and Surrender

This clip from an NPR article, The Sad Beautiful Fact That We’re Going To Miss Almost Everything, resonated strongly with me. I feel like there are too many books to read in order to read them all.

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. It’s saying, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” It’s saying, “I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I’m not going to read this one.”

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

I use the resolutions to indicate what I deem worth my time. One year it was science, history, and policy kinds of books. I wanted to enrich my thinking. This year I figured my background in books most people have read was still lacking, so I picked a list. I get lots of comments from others saying they either have or want to read these books, so it was a decent list.

At times, I choose to cull my life by removing activities which I find unnecessary distractions. Too much social activity weighs down on me to the point I get edgy and snap at the people around me. It disappoints people for me to pull away, but this is what is good for me. I’ve seen people similarly cull their Facebook friends list to limit it to positive people. We should do what is necessary to protect our sanity and allow us to achieve our goals.

Also, I have surrendered on some books. I just get bogged down in not having enough interest. There are plenty of other, better books I could be reading. I try not to beat myself up about surrendering on a book.

Georgia Performance Standards has a million words a year goal. “Chapter books average 250 words per page.” 1,000,000 words / 250 words/page = 4,000 pages. Also, at 100 words per minute, that is about a 167 hour investment in either learning or developing empathy. That is the equivalent of a couple university lectures.

Research in Higher Ed

SC lawmakers want to professors at universities to teach more instead of doing research. An Associated Press article “SC budget would make professors teach more classes”:

College professors should be in the classroom teaching at least nine credit hours each semester because the state is having a tough time paying for college budgets, said state Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican from Sumter.

“I think we need to have professors in the classroom and not on sabbatical and out researching and doing things to that effect,” Smith said.

The committee adopts temporary law changes that would be part of the state’s $5.2 billion budget. The full Ways and Means Committee will vote on those next week.

This is exactly the kind of thing I try to explain to my mom. Lawmakers are responding to the desires of parents. Parents hear the stories from their kids about being taught by teaching assistants. The parents feel like to get their money’s worth their kids should be taught by the professors instead. After all, the professors are the true content experts. (No one tells stories about the good teaching assistants unless they are better than the professor at teaching the class.) I agree interacting with professors is likely the best way for students to get access to most current and useful knowledge.

The thing which seems to be neglected is doing the research makes professors the experts students should know. Take away the research and over time one really ought to go back to the teaching assistants.

Good research will also bring in money to the university. Especially in sciences and technology, this money would go into updating research labs which exposes the students to stuff which makes them marketable to employers.

STEM Celebs

This interesting article on the need of more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates in the United States to compete with other countries strikes me as the kind of thing said to Romans right before the fall. Maybe also to the English just before World War I. Of course, predictions of the future are fraught with misreading the most crucial factors.

In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.

Why does this matter? Because if American students have a negative impression – or no impression at all – of science and engineering, then they’re hardly likely to choose them as professions. Already, 70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Increasingly, these talented individuals are not staying in the U.S – instead, they’re returning home, where they find greater opportunities.

Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness.  Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening. But we still have time. If we place the emphasis we should on education, research and innovation we can lead the world in the decades to come. But the only way to ensure we remain great tomorrow is to increase our investment in science and engineering today.

How would someone determine whether someone is a celebrity? This article did not define it other than as a leader or innovator. If one used by number of Twitter followers, then Lady Gaga is the current leader with the current president trailing at number four and with only 81% the number of followers. Well, even the President of the United States was a lawyer and not a STEM educated person.

I thought maybe the Secretary of Energy would be a good place to look for a leader with scientific credentials. It appears Chu (physcist) and Bodman (chemical engineer) were. The three prior to them were lawyers at best. The rest of the cabinet were mostly lawyers or political administrators. Chu is the only scientist on the list. The president’s science advisor is a physicist, so that is good.

Conservatives do after all say government is the worst of society not the best. They look to corporations to take the societal lead. So maybe top CEOs from the Forbes top 500 list would be a better metric? Three of the top five is pretty good.

  1. Walmart – Michael Duke – Industrial Engineering
  2. Royal Dutch Shell – Peter Voser – Business Administration
  3. Exxon Mobil – Rex Tillerson – Civil Engineering
  4. BP – Bob Dudley – Chemical Engineering
  5. Toyota – Akio Toyoda – Business Administration

Personally my favorite scientific celebrities are Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Jamie Hynaman, and Adam Savage. We Americans like to see people fail. Each of these have: Neil and Pluto, Stephen lost the black hole bet, Jamie and Adam often misjudge what happens in a test. The spectacular blunders of science are reported as a discovery. Reports on the discoveries in the news usually sound as though it was the intent all along. We get the impression scientists and engineers spend every hour successfully making cool new things.

What scares me of having scientists are leaders is the over expectation of them to be better than anyone else. A smart person is only as good as the decisions they make. Even a good engineer can make mistakes. The ability to acknowledge and work towards correcting errors is not an exclusively scientific ability.