Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – short book, but if you don’t remember anything from high school physics, it could take a bit a work to read through

A summary is somewhat difficult, I guess the title says it all. It is 12 short chapters, all related to what he thinks are the important summaries of what you need to know to understand astrophysics. The first chapter being an intro, and the final chapter, no so much a conclusion as concluding reflections, which might have been one of the more interesting parts of the book. Other topics/chapters include ‘Big Bang’, dark matter, dark energy (which I had never heard of), the enormity of space, the minutia of atomic size, and oddly, the periodic table. Each chapter is broken down randomly into subsections of varying size and focus.

My Thoughts
In some ways this is a strange book, it is part summary of astrophysics, but also part journal, and based on the subsections, part lecture notes or maybe parts or popular journal/magazine articles. This made the book a little disjointed, not so much by chapter topic, but the consistency inside each chapter. There would be a fascinating section in chapter that drills down to serious science, then the next section would be a personal story/reflection, some times entirely autobiographical.

The book is written for a popular audience and most sections read quickly. Other than unironically condescending people who believe in things with only theoretical proof (existence of God), only to then explain his knowledge of things with only theoretical proof (the multiverse), the writing is light-hearted and funny. It would definitely make you think, especially with some of the more abstract concepts like dark energy. Contemplating subjects like the size of the ever-expanding universe or just how long it has been around is fascinating.

I guess if you’ve ever wondered, ‘what is astrophysics or how should I start learning about it?’, this is a great place to start. I wish the chapters were a little tighter, but they are certainly interesting, and you will learn (or re-remember) many things. However, the book is so short, it is definitely worth picking up if you are looking for something.

Book Review: Why Nations Fail

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Moderate, you’ll need some basic familiarity with economics, politics, and history; Long (462 pages before acknowledgements, notes, etc.) overly repetitious and a bit tedious.

As I start to write the review, it dawns on me that perhaps the title is a bit misleading. It isn’t so much about why they fail, as to why the never even get off the ground. Some nations seem doomed from the start, however, other become wildly successful. Ultimately, I think, the point of the book is who are the ones that are successful and how does that happen? Acemoglu and Robinson pin it two factors, which taken with their opposites form something like a matrix or quadrant, and you need to overlap with the positive of both. These are whether or not you nation is politically inclusive and, and perhaps more importantly, the whether or not you have extractive institutions.

The politic aspect is fairly straight forward, are you in a dictatorship (or other controlling, top down government) or in a democracy (or other form of responsive government)? If you have no say in politics, and government is controlled by a few or just one person, it is fairly easy to see why that wouldn’t work. The more complicated and impactful side is the extractive institutions. These can take many forms, such as contract law or heavy taxation, but a good example is property rights. If you know you have solid and secure property rights, you are more likely to invest and build up your business. If you fear that an institution may step in at any moment and take your land or business from you, why bother?

The book itself is broken into 15 chapters, with an interesting preface about Mubarak and Egypt. The first chapter compares Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora; the two cities have similar culture and geography, so why is one rich and the other poor? The chapter serves as the intro to the book and leads into the second chapter where the debunk the reasons for poverty being related to genetics or weather, among others. Chapters 3 through 12 are basically case studies where the authors look a different political situation throughout history through the lenses of responsiveness and extractiveness. In 13 and 14, the authors discuss nations that fail today those that have become successful. The final chapter looks at our attempts to help impoverished nations and how understanding the causes, as the have proposed, will help us to better understand why those attempts have failed and how we can do better going forward.

My Thoughts
First, about the book itself – the authors are both academics, and the book certainly reads that way to an extent. The book could have been much more concise, dropping at least 100 pages without missing any case studies are points. I think part of the issue may come from the publisher/editor, in that instead of setting up most of the chapters as case studies that then looked at their points each time, it might have been better to make their points, and then touch on case studies as proof. Instead, each chapter could almost be read independently, meaning there is too much repetition of their point.

To the content of the book – it was fascinating, anyone with interest in economics, history, or politics, this book is a must read. One of the the more interesting points of history to me, was the impact of the Plague on serfdom in Europe. Eastern Europe reacted one way, England another, which would then impact America (as it was founded with this change as part of history), which ultimately effects me today. Had the reaction in England been the same as the Austria-Hungary reaction, who knows how different the Western World would look, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this review right now.

Another point the spend some time on that is worth considering is looking beyond just economics. The point to growth of the economy under Stalin, but that the nation still failed. It is also helpful to see and understand how the impacts of colonialism, which was not inclusive but very extractive, still effects those countries and peoples today. The point was driven home a little more for me because I live in the South, which they actually spend some time on. The impacts of slavery on the economics of white people is still being felt today, though less so than a few decades ago. The discussion centers on the fact that obviously slavery is extractive and was horrible for black people, but it also never would have worked politically because it included so few people in the institutions. Most white people were shut out of the economy and wages and this impact lasted a long time. They point out the that median income in the South was about 40% of the median income through the rest of the nation as recently as 1950.

All of this works back to a reminder that part of why life is good for me today is pure luck. From serfdom in England, to the Civil War, on through today. If Lincoln had let the South succeed and be it’s own country, it clearly would have failed, based on the theories of the authors. Meaning, I could be living in a failed state right now, instead of America. They call it ‘small differences and critical juncture’ in history, but it is basically an accident of history; it is somewhat sobering to consider.

Overall, and interesting and challenging book. It could certainly be a bit shorter and cleaner, which is why I didn’t rate it higher, but a book that is well worth the read and one to put on your list.

Book Review: Misbehaving

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

My Rating: Put it on your list

Level: Moderate to difficult, depending on your base knowledge of Economics and Psychology. Moderate in length, but reads quickly

Part Thaler autobiography, part time line of the development of the field, with plenty of humorous anecdotes and academic ‘anomalies’, this book does not read like a history of an academic discipline. The book is broken into eight broad chapter based around years in which Thaler worked through differing parts of the development of the field. The chronology starts with him as a graduate student, where he is just starting to look into ideas that would become the discipline, and proceeds up to the present, where he seems poised to hand over the reins to the next generation. Along the way are his stories of getting the discipline recognized by academic journals, struggles with the establishment, and gaining allies (across other disciplines, as well) and students that will become the next generation.

My Thoughts
This book, like the somewhat related book (Thinking, Fast & Slow) by his fellow collaborator, Daniel Kahneman, kind of annoyed me in how well it is written. Thaler has had a nearly five decade career as researcher and writer, so he should write well, but that is not what I mean. His book is funny and reads quickly like a narrative. As I said above, it it part autobiography, and lends itself tremendously to humorous narrative that leaves you interested in reading more. As a pretend internet researcher and writer, I am envious that someone with actual credentials writes so well.

All that being said, I think I missed the subtitle of this book when I first heard about it a few years ago. I heard Thaler on a interview, and knew he was related to behavioral economics, but didn’t quite realize this was book he was promoting. I must have searched his name on amazon and bought the first book I saw, without noticing the reference to ‘Nudge’ on the cover. Nudge was really the book I was looking for, which is more about the research out of Behavioral Economics as it relates to topics like money and health. ‘The Making of Behavioral Economics’ should have clued me in to this book being more of a history. Luckily, I enjoy history and biographies, and as I said above, he is a very talented writer.

One of the first things that stuck out to me was how long he as been in the field. His book starts in 1970, with him as a grad student. I wouldn’t be born for another decade and a half, and I don’t consider myself very young. I’ve heard that Millennials will have between seven and 17 careers over their lifetimes, so it amazes me to read of someone’s history in a field that is longer than my lifetime.

Reading history is always fascinating, because you, with the addition of hindsight, can read and say, ‘how did these people miss this?’ I couldn’t believe some of the resistance he and others would face as the argued against the efficient market hypothesis. I was in high school during (look it up kids) and the tech bubble and finished grad school a few months before the housing bubble popped, so I struggle to believe in any way the the market is efficient and that people are well informed. Thinking back to my undergrad economics courses, I believe I was taught the distinction between theory of economics (people who Thaler calls Econs) and actual behavior (called Humans). In grad school, the distinction was called that of theory and practice. So, it is interesting to see that a few decades before, saying things like this, which to me are clearly true, would get you laughed out of conferences and barred from academic journals.

This history was interesting, and the debates with other academics were amusing and insightful, but the book really shines with the anecdotes. I won’t go through all of them here, but the include an economist who refuses to sell his wine (for a gain) at the market price while also stating he would never buy it at the price and companies whose stock prices are lower than their subsidiaries (even when purchasing the larger company stock means getting the smaller companies stock included; this means the larger company is valued in negative dollars relative to market cap).

These types of stories are what I enjoy reading. They are amusing on their own, but also challenge your assumptions about certain areas, but even more, make you really question whether you actually know what you are doing. You may think you do everything rationally, but you probably don’t, and that is illustrated time and again in this book. If you are looking for just stories and research results, you are probably better off with Nudge or Thinking, Fast and Slow. However, if you are interesting in Behavioral Economics in general, this is definitely a book to put on your list.

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

My Rating – If you are look for something to read

Level – easy, fairly short

Bill Bryson decides he wants to hike the whole of the Appalachian Trail. He realizes that it will be long and he will be on his own, so he puts it out there that he’d like to have someone come with him. An old friend calls up and agrees to go. The first part of the book deals with their antics as they start off on their hike. Then the book somewhat drifts in the middle as he returns home (the plan is not to do the tail all at once, but instead break it up into different parts). He gives a bit of the history of the National Park service in general and the AT in particular.

All the while doing minor hikes in the area of the trail that runs near his house, as well as taking trip down in Virginia and Pennsylvania to do other parts for a few days at a time. The final part of the book, he meets back up with his buddy Katz, to hike thru Main’s 100 Mile Wilderness. He wraps up the book with some final thoughts and reflections on his experience.

My Thoughts
By far the best part of the book is his early exploits with Katz. Anyone with jackass friends or people who have gone on long multi-day hikes with, let’s say, less equipped people, will appreciate the humor of the situation. The middle part really seems a bit listless and even like a later edition. Maybe it was just less interesting to me as I am pretty familiar with the AT and hike the Smokies at least once a year.

This is also a movie now. I have no idea if it is any good, but if it’s on Amazon Prime or something, it’s probably worth watching.

Book Review: The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones – Dan Buettner

*Please ignore the Dr. Oz endorsement on the cover. The book is a really interesting look at lifestyle and does not offer magic pills or tonics to purchase.

My Rating – Must Read

Level – Easy read, medium length, but reads quickly

Blue zones, so named because while researching the first one, a blue circle was drawn around they area under discussion, are areas in the world where people live the longest. Not only do they live longer, but live better as centenarians (100 year olds) then many people much younger do in other parts of the world.

The book takes us through the four blue zones, and shares interviews, history, diets and other fact about the life of the people who live there. The four blue zones are – Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda (California) and Costa Rica. They have since discovered another one in Greece.

The final chapter gives the tips they found in common in all the blue zones so that you can create your own ‘blue zone.’

  • Move Naturally – Everyone studied for the book was extremely active. They walked miles a day, gardened, etc. His point is no one has to run marathons or become powerlifter, you just need to move often.
  • Hara Hachi Bu – A phrase said by the Okinawans before every meal reminding them to eat until they feel 80% full. Calorie restriction has been shown to be very important in longevity.
  • Plant Slant – With the exception of the Adventist in Loma Linda, no one was a vegetarian. However, they all ate meet rarely, anything from once a week to only a few times a year.
  • Grapes of Life – Wine. It plays a big role for the Sardinians and the Okinawans drink Sake, but the others consumed no alcohol. Either way, studies have shown a drink or two a day, especially of wine is beneficial to your health.
  • Purpose Now – Having a sense of purpose, or a reason to get up in the morning, something that drives you.
  • Down Shift – taking time to relax, meditate or slow down and enjoy life.
  • Belong –To a community, but a part of something bigger than yourself. Religious communities, regardless of which one, have been shown to help people live longer.
  • Loved Ones First – Relatedly, take time to cultivate relationships and spend time with friends and family. Prioritizing social life is something we really fail at in America.
  • Right Tribe – People who share common goals and healthy lifestyle. Many studies have shown that who you hang out with has a huge impact on your lifestyle. Have an obese friend increases your chances of becoming overweight. Seek people who have the same above traits in mind.

My Thoughts
Things like this are utterly fascinating to me. Both of my granddads are currently 91 years old and show only a few signs of stopping. Much of their life has included most of the traits. Modern America has us moving further and further away from these things. We eat lots of cheap, processed food. We don’t spend much time with friends or family. We do not rest often. We don’t move.

I’m currently writing this at my desk, I spend far too many hours a day sitting at a desk and wondering how I can move. Adopting as much of the Blue Zone lifestyle will not only help you to live longer, but the time you do spend will be better and healthier.

Book Review: Billion Dollar Spy

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal – David E. Hoffman

My Rating – Must Read

Level – Easy, fast read; medium length

The story, broadly, is about the CIA field office in Moscow and its operations. Under different CIA directors and even field office directors, their focuses change or ramp up with the escalation of the Cold War. More specifically, the book is about Adolf Tolkachev, a scientist at a research facility specializing in radar technology. He is disillusioned with the Soviet Union and has a cool backstory twist from his wife. This drives him to ‘inflict as much damage as possible.”

My Thoughts
I’ve been on a bit of a Russian kick recently, especially the spy stuff (Bridge of Spies, The Americans, and just finished Crime and Punishment), so this seemed to fit in nicely. This story is so wild when, as you are reading, you stop and remember that it is true. Aside from that, you will read this book as if it were written by Tom Clancy; it is that riveting and compelling. Of course, it is also funny to read about their special spy technology. I have a crappy five year old cellphone, and it has more capabilities in it than most of the stuff they use combined.

I’d highly recommend this book as a must read for anyone who is interested in either spy stories or the cold war. I’m not sure if they play to print it in paperback, but if they do, I’d probably hold off and get it next year and make it a beach read.

Book Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

I had Tom Standage’s book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, of books to get to this year. A finally bought it about a month ago and it did not disappoint.

First of all, it isn’t a history of each individual beverage, though there is plenty of that, but a history of the world (as the title indicates) viewed through the lens of what (and why) people were drinking at the time. The drinks and the times they represent are:

Beer – probably the oldest known drink, popular in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Likely made/discovered by accident, at some unknown time far in the distant past. One of the main benefits it had on society was that you must boil water to make it. This had the affect of water purification and a decrease in waterborne illness. Interesting notes about how it was used as currency and given as rations to soldiers and slaves.

Wine – Our next step in history (Western, at least) is to move north to Greece and then Rome. Wine was viewed as the sophisticated drink and being a wine civilized, educated and wealthy (the more things change…). The sections about the drinking parties are fascinating, with all the ritual and impact on democracy they had. Tangentially related, I grew up in a church that served grape juice for the Lord’s Supper. People would argue that we should have wine, as Jesus turned water into wine, etc. but the common retort was well, wine was weaker then. Turns out, this is actually kind of true. It was made the same as today, but watered down. It was considered crass to drink wine straight. Who knew? I assumed they were just pulling something out of their asses, on the other hand, they could have just watered it down, but I digress.

Spirits- specifically whisky and rum, my personal favorites, though there is also gin and brandy that play a major role. This is the era of exploration and colonization. Beer & wine were expensive to ship and didn’t always keep on the voyage across the Atlantic. Distilled spirits would, and quickly replaced beer as the rations for soldiers. Incidentally, to flavor the harsh drinks, they’d add lime juice, which would help prevent scurvy. He also goes into detail about the triangle of slave trade where slaves would be taken to the islands where they’d be traded for sugar, sugar was then taken to Boston to produce rum, the rum was then traded to Africans for more slaves. And of course, the Whisky Rebellion – the first major attempt to raises taxes in America and one of the first violent threat from within, all due to homemade whisky.

Coffee – The age of reason and the enlightenment. This was definitely my favorite chapter. If you are not familiar with the impact that coffee had on the move to the industrial revolution, the book is worth the cost for this chapter alone. Basically, we’d all walk around half drunk all day. People often had beer (weak, but still) for breakfast because it was safer than water. Your precision in operating machinery or your output at a factory is greatly diminished when you’ve been drinking. Once you are caffeinated, however, then you are alert, focused, and ready to go. Also, the interesting impact on enlightenment and revolutions, as discussion moved from pubs and taverns to coffee houses.

Tea – Mostly focused on the British empire, there is still a cool history behind tea in the East that he dives in to. Some of the more interesting things to come out of this history is the impact of people working out of Tea Shops. People would often use the place for meetings and have mail sent there. Because the shops were located near places of work, there would often be a certain industry focus. Proprietors would put shipping information or stock prices on boards. Manuscripts were circulated and critiqued. Lloyd’s of London and the London Stock Exchange both started as or at tea shops. Twining’s, The Wife’s favorite, started almost 400 years ago and may be the oldest official logo still in use. Speaking of women, unlike coffee shops, they were allowed in tea shops which had some interesting impacts, such as the little boxes, sometimes with locks, that teas are still kept in today.

Coco-Cola – or Coke here in the South. This chapter follows the rise of America and The American Century; also ‘Murica, to a lesser extent. The history is kind of crazy, to think about the number of people running around selling random drinks that are dangerous for you, even though they make wild health benefit claims. Then again, this is still happening, and is completely unregulated,(so, again, the more things change…). Overall fairly interesting, but probably more known by most people (at least Americans) but some great and funny anecdotes. Such as the Russian general who couldn’t been seen drinking Coke, even though he loved it, because it was associated with capitalism. So, Coke hooks him up and make clear Coke, puts it in a different bottle to look like vodka and sends it to him. Interesting stuff about Coke embodying capitalist ideals to many communist countries.

Overall, definitely worth picking up somewhere. Very well written and interesting book, especially if you are a big history nerd.