Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The 4% Universe" - Richard Panek

I liked the 4% universe, not that I have any great understanding of dark matter and energy, but for the history of a "pseudo-science" to "science" transition.  The field of Cosmology was, and could have stayed, about as scientific as astrology.

This book can form a necessary understanding of the scientific method, and how it can be used to understand difficult and distant problems (similar to social science and educational issues).  The core measures are interrelated (distance, time, brightness) so the "core" measures are subject to some debate, and constant reinforcement and checking of initial assumptions and hypotheses is crucial.

As concurrent evidence is the key ingredient, there is basically a 3-D ongoing interpretation of Science from first principals.  Could very easily have stayed in religious or "guess what" levels.

The politics and funding of science is also a continuing eye-opener - it's surprising anything gets done sometimes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "Perfectly Resonable Deviations from the Beaten Track" - Richard P. Feynman

"Perfectly Resonable Deviations from the Beaten Track" - Richard P. Feynman is the third Feynman book I've listened to ("Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think" are the others).  This is a nice tie-in - it shows the source material for stories told in the other books, and reveals a nice side of Dr. Feynman - some letters are to significant figures in science, but many are to old students, members of the public, critics, etc.  

All correspondence was handled with a grace, humour and respect, even letters to those writers not displaying the same virtues.  The letters speak highly of Dr. Feynman as a thinker, scholar, and a man - no one was disparaged.

His rejection of societies that offer nothing more than exclusivity is refreshing, and his misgivings about the Nobel prize is nice to hear, and nice to see mentioned many times consistently over a long period.  It's nice to see someone who's invited to the exclusive events to have a little humility - to see the shallowness of some of the institutions, even while they are currying favour.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Finished (E-Reader & Paper Book) - "Water for Elephants" - Sara Gruen

"Water for Elephants" is a novel based partially in the present, where the narrator is an elderly man living in a nursing home.  He is thinking back on his younger days, mid-20's in age, early 1930's in time, where he left veterinary school and joined up with the circus during the depression.  Being a circus, the characters are interesting, and of course there are circus animals and freaks.

I found it interesting how the whole circus circuit worked - trains from town to town, setup and takedown in hours; how the animals were fed en route; the stratification of the circus folks (performers, managers, workers); the disposability of workers during the depression (e.g. being "red-lighted" - tossed off the train during the night).

The afterword talks of some historical resources from which some of the stories were derived - not a history lesson, but a story based in the reality of the times.  A very compelling read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" - Richard P. Feynman

I listened to the second of my Richard Feynman trilogy - "What Do You Care What Other People Think".  It has fewer stories than "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" but it discusses the presidential committee to investigate the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in quite a bit of depth, which is definitely worth the read.  At the time of the writing, the commission was fairly recent, and Dr. Feynman refers to the "Iran Contra" investigations briefly as a point of comparison.

The only point of departure I have from Dr. Feynman is that he discusses education and social science as something other than "science".  I think that is a true interpretation of the present situation, as both are complex systems and both have great difficulty doing the baseline experiments (e.g. you can't surgery kids into control and experimental groups and see what parts of the brain learn math by rote - you need to infer from tests; attention and motivation are key factors, which don't typically exist in physics or chemistry).

However, that being said, Dr. Feynman shows exactly the tenacity and usage of science on the Presidential committee, which is a model for social science and educational research - do the basic science wherever possible, maintain both positive and negative experimental results, learn and loop back to examine predicates and assumptions, replicate, strive to understand in the full sense, not narrow sense. The Shuttle disaster did allow for the application of basic engineering and scientific processes (e.g. materials for the O-rings, application of best practices in engineering for the testing of equipment, use of research methodology practices to support and define knowledge and decision making).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "Surely You Must Be Joking Mr. Feynman" - Richard P. Feynman

I was given this book my my Master's Advisor when I started graduate school as an example of keeping up the curiosity needed to do high level research.

The book is a series of auto-biographical stories from the life of Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist, known as a youngster on the Manhattan project, and most recently known as one of the key investigators of the Challenger Space Shuttle investigation in the late '80's a short while before his death.

I enjoyed the stories, and the smattering of science and problem solving that defined Dr. Feynman's life.  I must say that I was quite disappointed in the real experience of graduate school, as it seems to be missing the drama, and the broad based research of earlier eras of graduate studies.

I'd recommend this book highly for folks in, or planning, graduate studies - let's work to make the process more like Feynman's experience - it should help define a lifetime, not pad a prof's resume.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Finished (E-Reader): "United States V. Nixon: The Question of Executive Privilege" - Larry A. Van Meter

The "US v. Nixon" document was a very nice summary and discussion of the key issues of the Watergate scandal.  I was only 8 when the break-in occurred, and was 10 when Nixon resigned and remember pieces of the story.  The review is relatively short and points out the key constitutional issues under attack - the basic roles of the three branches of US government - judicial, congressional and executive.  At 10, I certainly hadn't realized the scope of the issues under investigation - e.g. who gets to set the limits of Executive power as outlined in the Constitution?  Can the president re-write the rules and use Executive privilege to cover any excesses?

The whole issue around assigning an independent investigative council raises questions - who gets to "police" the actions of the independent prosecutor?  Obviously in this particular instance, the President has a conflict.

What was actually refreshing about reading this article was how serious all branches were - in the legislature, both parties were taking the actions seriously, with the appropriate gravity.  Would that occur today, in the more divisive environment?  Does it even seem possible that the parties are further apart now than during Watergate?  I can't imagine any independent investigation of Bush Jr. being met with anything buy party-line, partisan responses (with a good dose of Fox "News" thrown in for good measure).  In this review, it seems that party affiliation took a back seat to actual governance - might be a less for politicians in both the U.S. and Canada - the role of governance seems to be distantly placed behind party politics.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nearing the end of "The Informationist" - Taylor Stevens (E-reader)

I was interested in a quick diversion read - "The Informationist" fit the bill.  It is definitely a take-off on the Steig Larsson books - the key character is a woman who is very capable physically, and is an excellent researcher - sound familiar?

However, the Taylor Stevens version of Lisabeth, is a little to "super-hero"ish.  She sniper-kills army folks who've wronged her, she partially dodged a bullet and escaped from a "swim with the fishes" execution.  The rough upbringing that Lisabeth endured is nothing compared to the "knife fight, terrorist training rape-fest" that Vanessa lived through.

I'm finding the book a little predictable (I will update if my "theory" doesn't hold - did so far).  To be fair, if I read this without reading Steig Larsson's books, I might not have the Lisabeth-shadow over the reading.

Finished (Audiobook) -"Isaac Asimov's All-Time Favorite Science Fiction Stories"

These books (4 in all) form a nice commute series - each story is about 30-45 minutes or less, with a range of different individual stories.

"Captive Market" by Philip K. Dick is an interesting post-apocalypse story about a merchant selling to a colony trying to re-furbish a space ship and escape to Venus.  Nice parallel-universe feel to the story.

"Last of the Deliverers" by Poul Anderson investigates a possible future for the Capitalist-Communist ideologies if left to evolve over time with cheap, available power.

"World of a Thousand Colors" by Robert Silverberg is a future-based contest, where a world-wide selection of contestants every 5 years or so go off to another world, where they may win a fantastic prize - the catch?  Nobody knows where the planet is, or what the prize is, and anybody returning (probably non-winners) have their memories erased. "Ismael in Love" also by Robert Silverberg tells a tale of love from the perspective of a worker-dolphin hired to clean undersea water intakes.