A Briefer History of Time

A Briefer History of Time, Stephen Hawking

This book starts, as all good physics books do, on a train. Many of the fundamental aspects of Einstein’s Theory of Relatively can be illustrated by imaging you are standing on a platform watching a train move past you, while a second person on the train bounces a ping pong ball up and down. Aspects of relativity can reveal themselves if you simply imagine your platform is moving and it is actually the train that is standing “still”. Things get even more interesting if you swap the ping pong ball for a photon that is moving back and forth between an upper and lower mirror at the speed of light, and imagine how this photon looks to both the person on the train, and to yourself on the platform.

I have just a couple of criticisms. One is that in trying to make this more accessible, Hawking has actually left behind some significant leaps of logic that in some cases may actually make things more confusing. The secondcriticism is that the illustrations, while quite lovely, are not very illuminating, which is unfortunate because simplified illustrations could actually have helped fill the holes left by the scaled-down text.

In truth, I preferred the original A Brief History of Time, which I eagerly read when it took the popular-science world by storm in 1988.  If I were to fill in some blanks on a past that I only dimly remember, I would attribute that original book to my current nerd-status love of quantum physics. I read it more than once, and every time I had to work extra-hard to make it through the light-cone part. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about.

A Briefer History of Time leaves out the light cone difficulties, but unfortunately it also leaves out many of the (more difficult) bits that helped fuel my current physics interests. It makes me sad to think that some brewing science-interested kid may miss out on a passion because this version has dialled it down. But then, to be fair, maybe it’s increased accessibility will inspire others? (And it’s just got to be said … I hope nobody comes out with A Briefest History of Time.)

Rating: Buy it. For your science shelf. You do have one, don’t you?

P.S. I wrote this about Stephen Hawking when he died, and for me, it warrants repeating:

Cheers to you, Stephen Hawking. Thank you for your book, A Brief History of Time, which launched me down the path to full-on quantum physics geek-dom, and for your continued contributions to the accessibility of physics to the rest of us regular folks. Please say hi to Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman.

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in a dark, dark wood

in a dark, dark wood, by Ruth Ware

It’s past time to call this a genre – psychological thrillers with unimaginative titles involving potentially crazy women. I’m going with psycho girl thrillers.

In a dark, dark wood is classic psycho girl thriller, and it’s actually a pretty good one. My first favourite thing is that it resists the temptation to name the key suspect in the title. Other more formulaic versions were more succumbing: The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, The Good Girl.  (Good Girl Gone Bad looks like it fits the pattern, but don’t be fooled.)

The girls (and one boy) in this variant head off to the middle of nowhere (technically in the middle of the titular dark, dark wood) for a “hen” party.  There’s some pretty extreme crazy but it hangs together surprisingly well, and I came away satisfied enough to order her next book “The Girl in Cabin 10”. It follows the more traditional naming convention so my expectations are correspondingly lowered, but I’m hopeful it will make for a good holiday read.

If you prefer the psycho girl thriller movie version, I strongly recommend “A Simple Favour“. This is a really nicely done PGT movie with wonderful acting and some actual surprises along the way.

Rating: Borrow it. Or, pick up a copy and lend it around to your friends.

 

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That’s a Wrap, 2018

Well 2018 is finally over. Not soon enough, frankly. I didn’t feel great about my reading this year. I let work steal much of my personal time and let a couple of binge-able TV series take the rest.

I did manage to read 28 books, which is certainly better than I thought. There were definitely some reading struggles this year – supporting friends through tragedy, separating from book club, tackling a very difficult and high-profile project at work – which has highlighted a need to make a more conscientious effort to read (AND to write about it).

Nevertheless, 2018 wasn’t a complete reading wasteland, and so here are a few highlights.

The good:

Favourite book of the year: Middlemarch. I’m actually embarrassed it took me this long to read it.

Best nerd book: The Elegant Universe. A bit brain-melting,  however. You’ve been warned.

Best Bio: What Happened? This is also the question I ask myself when I realize I’ve read enough biographies in 2018 to warrant a best-of award.

The bad:

Stupidest book: Fire and Fury.

Most bitter book: Life Sentence.

Least relevant book written by someone who’s written tons of books and as a result thinks they’re more relevant than they really are: David and Goliath.

And for those of you who are interested, here’s the complete list:

  1. Conversations with Friends (blog post pending)
  2. Nine Perfect Strangers – skip
  3. Savage Love – buy
  4. Moon Over Soho – borrow
  5. Weapons of Math Destruction – borrow
  6. Canada 150 Women – buy
  7. Midnight Riot – borrow
  8. Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 – buy
  9. The Pope of Physics – buy
  10. The Coaching Habit – borrow
  11. The Devil in the White City – borrow
  12. Where’d you go, Bernadette? – borrow
  13. Religion for Atheists – buy
  14. Life Sentence – skip
  15. I Feel Bad About My Neck – borrow
  16. Good to a Fault – buy
  17. The Princess Diarist – buy
  18. Arrows of the Queen – borrow
  19. My Life as a White Trash Zombie – borrow
  20. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – skip
  21. Annihilation – borrow
  22. Homo Deus – skip
  23. Middlemarch – buy
  24. What Happened? – buy
  25. David and Goliath – skip
  26. The Culture Map – buy
  27. The Curve of Time – borrow
  28. The Elegant Universe – buy
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Nine (im)Perfect Strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers, Liane Moriarty

Warning … LOTS and LOTS of MAJOR SPOILERS within!

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Pop quiz: what two things do all of these words have in common? Funny. Intelligent. Exquisite. Powerful. Brilliant. Superb. 

Answer: 1) they all appear on the back cover as reviews for the book and 2) they are the opposite of what the book is. I think this must be one of those situations where these are excerpts of reviews where they are actually prefaced by words like “not” or “look elsewhere if you want a book that is”. Stephen King is even quoted as saying “funny and scary”. STEPHEN KING! Maybe the context of his review was “it’s scary how not funny this book is”.

There were so many things wrong with this book that it’s hard to know what bit was the worst.

Was it when the director of the health spa secretly micro-dosed everyone’s smoothies with LSD so that they could all experience spiritual awakening, and all nine of the guests just became righteously indignant but didn’t think they should immediately run away and perhaps alert the authorities? Or when she then locked them unknowingly in a windowless, unlit studio without any food for three days (same reason)?

Maybe it was the constant repetition from the female characters about how they wanted to lose weight, or else how they couldn’t understand why “women always want to lose weight” even when they are a normal weight? Either way, there was an awful lot of repetitive crap about “women” and “weight loss” from an author who seemed to be suggesting women shouldn’t be talking about this as much as they are. I dare you to read this book and not come away thinking you need to go on a diet.

Speaking of superficial female body-image issues, a strong contender for worst part of the book is the transformation of the spa director from frumpy, middle-aged, smoking-addicted heart attack victim into tall, svelte, muscular, super-hottie who glides around the resort wearing billowy white outfits. Gack!

And no list of badness would be complete without the scene where the immensely overweight former football player saves the day by jumping off the backs of two other resort attendees and leaping 12 feet into the air in order to (successfully) recover a package from the rafters that might contain a key to the locked door.

[correction here – I seem to have mis-remembered. It seems the hefty football player actually fell short of his leap, spraining his shoulder in the process, and a different character knocked the package free with a water bottle toss. This would be slightly more believable if the football player didn’t go on a short time later to do a bunch of push-ups with his bad shoulder]

However, the clear winner for me was the family of three – father, mother and their daughter – who were spending the week at the resort as a means of coping with the third anniversary of the death of their son. This hit a little too close to home to read about in a bad novel that used the tragedy as a plot device. It made me sad, and offered little hope or enlightenment in return (heads up for my neighbourhood friends – maybe steer clear of this one.)

It makes me wonder if Liane Moriarty peaked at Big Little Lies? Not sure I’m going to read anymore of her books to find out.

Rating: Skip it. Go have a piece of chocolate and feel good about yourself instead.

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Savage Love

Savage Love, Douglas Glover

This book was not, in fact, written by Danny Glover, Hollywood actor and star of the Lethal Weapon film franchise. I say this because my husband doesn’t find it amusing when I refer to him as “Danny”, despite (or because of) my insistence in doing so.

Douglas-not-Danny actually grew up in Southwestern Ontario, not far from the north shore of Lake Erie, which may explain why many of the stories are also set in Lake Erie’s north shore. Savage Love is a collection of short stories divided into 4 sections; the Prelude, Fugues, Intermezzo Microstories, and The Comedies. The microstories are particularly fantastic. In some cases, he tells a better story in two sentences than most authors do in a full novel. Here is a quote from my personal favourite:

The second night, when it was clear that something was starting between them, Xo began to lie to Annabel, tiny lies at first, minuscule evasions, shy reticences.  It was not only that he wanted to impress Annabel but that he yearned to be in love with the sort of woman who would fall for the kind of man he pretended to be.

(Interesting side note and full disclosure: this quote comprises the entire microstory entitled “Xo & Annabel, A Psychological Romance”. Interesting side note part II: the title of this story is 15% the length of the story itself.

It’s actually embarrassing to even write a blog about a book that contains writing of this calibre. The only conceivable strategy for me at this point is to simply write down some words and hope they form coherent sentences. Or maybe random words would be a better (and easier) approach. Luck chair was walk tree up fork. Definitely easier. My husband has been trying to tell me for years now what a brilliant writer Douglas Glover is, and it turns out he was right (and now I’ll have to tell him so, which is just annoying). Actually, I’ll probably just raid the basement bookshelves for any other Glover books and let him figure it out for himself.

Rating: Buy it! The stories are disturbing, to varying degrees, as you might expect from a book titled “Savage Love” but the writing is worth it, and you’ll probably want to revisit this one.

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Moon over Soho (… bring my love to me tonight …)

Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch

I have been noticing that book clubs are ironically counterproductive to my reading and so I’m electing to give them up – I’m currently in two, and I’ll be formally dropping out of at least one of them as part of an upcoming new year’s resolution, but honestly I’ve been sort of ghosting the soon-to-be-dropped club for a few months now. As a happy side effect, for the first time in a long time, I made time to actually read the second book in an on-going series.

In Moon Over Soho, the second in the Rivers Of London series, our intrepid Harry-Potteresque metropolitan Police Officer Peter Grant chases down another supernatural serial killer. In one lovely scene, continuing with his theme of blending rational scientific thinking with magical events, Aaronovitch has Officer Grant ruminating about the advances made by science for measuring different effects such as magnetic fields, radiation and distant stars in the context of complaining that nobody has come up with an objective way to measure vestigia, the residue left behind after magic has been performed. You know, because vestigia is the poor stepsister of the other forces of nature.

I also find Aaronovitch’s style of humour extremely entertaining. In describing what he calls London’s poor response to planning project, he writes:

That they eliminated the notorious Newport Market slums in the process, and thus reduced the number of unsightly poor people one might espy while perambulating about town, was I’m sure purely serendipitous.

Hahaha! Love it!

Reading book 2 did not disappoint. As it happens, I read several book 1’s from my “year of reading excessively” and in each case I decided to “save” the rest of the series for some unknown future date. I think that’s going to be my book challenge for 2019 – to finish the series that I’ve started.

Rating: Borrow it, unless you are a series collector, in which case this one would make a nice addition to your shelf.

 

 

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WMDs: HBDIIATD

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil

You know that feeling when you know something, but then you realize you didn’t really “know” it? Like you know Donald Trump is an idiot, but then he says you just need to rake the forest in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires? That feeling.

Well, I knew I didn’t like it when I scouted a pair of shoes on the Hudson’s Bay website, and the next day, while I was Googling to find a nearby coffee shop I saw, not just an ad for the same shoes, but the exact same picture I’d been looking at. It occurred to me then that being stalked by a gigantic, morally-questionable search engine was a new kind of creepy. (Even creepier … Google knows where you live, which means some data weirdo at Google knows it, too.)

But this is only the beginning of the bad stuff. Just as I was thinking that extrapolations of semi-anonymized data was less horrible than the way Facebook tracks my every move, Cathy O’Neil paints a compelling picture of how this data can reinforce societal biases and prejudices if it is used by people who don’t understand the basic principles of mathematical modelling and corrective feedback loops. And  it turns  out these mathematically ignorant entities are actually extremely influential organizations that decide things like who gets lighter prison sentences, who is accepted into college, who lands a good job, who is awarded credit to purchase a home, and who can get insurance.  What happens, in poorly designed models, is that proxies are selected to act as stand-ins for actual information. For example, a popular proxy for predicting good behaviour is a good credit rating. Even in situations where a credit rating makes no proxy sense at all, such as influencing the rate you might have to pay for auto insurance, it is used because it’s easy to obtain as a data point, which makes it perfect for a lazy data modeler. What this means, for one, is that people who are more likely to be poor are targeted with higher insurance rates, impacting their financial viability even more.

Poorly constructed models that detrimentally affect the most vulnerable members of society are bad, but what’s ultimately disturbing is how much data is collected and where it’s collected from. Cell phones, website searches, online ordering, social media, and on and on and on. Here’s a thing. I was taking a quiz on Facebook the other day (yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking … but it wasn’t one of the sites that forces you to “log on” through Facebook, which I 100% refuse to do!). This particular quiz offered to guess the name of my cat, which sounded fun. So I answered a bunch of questions about my cat’s behaviour. And suddenly it was asking me where I like to go on vacation and what kinds of books I like to read. Whaaat? So they don’t even feel the need to be subtle about it anymore! (Jeff is looking forward to when the vacation ads start showing up.) And don’t even get me started on those “use your birthday month and the first letter of your last name to figure out your stripper name” games. Good god, it might just as well say “give me all your personal data  now and save us both a lot of time”.

So what’s to be done? I’m certainly not going to become a Luddite – I love my technology (when it works). I’m happy to let Google direct me “home” when I’ve been out driving somewhere new, and I’ll still answer FB questions about my pet (but maybe not about my personal habits). I seriously doubt we can ever fix the corporate collection of insane amounts of personal data, but we can start lobbying for to laws that set limits on how that data can be used. For example, there are already laws on the book that companies cannot discriminate against potential job candidates, and perhaps those laws need to be extended to the data models that pre-select the resumes for your short list. There are several more useful ideas in the book, and it’s worth reading just for that.

Rating: Borrow it. Although data nerds might like to buy their own copy.

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Canada 150 Women

Conversations with Leaders, Champions, and Luminaries; Canada 150 Women, Pauline Cameron

No matter what, when you curate a book of some kind of list, you will inevitably disappoint someone, and in this respect, this particular list book does not … er … disappoint. It seems, from the cover, that it’ll be a sure winner; a book of 150 prominent Canadian women, to remind or enlighten us that there are successful and engaging women across Canada that we can all celebrate and that young women can look up to a guides and mentors. And the team of curators do a decent job of trying to achieve diversity (although my very rough count still lands somewhere in the neighbourhood of 110-120 white women).

What’s lacking, however, is diversity in their definition of success. A great deal of the women in the book seem to have been chosen because they have achieved business success of some kind. There are LOTS of CEOs, business founders and motivational speakers. The few athletes (such as Silken Lauman and Hayley Wickenheiser) are self-employed life coaches or CEOs of their own business and seem to have been chosen for this reason rather than their (rather amazing) athletic achievements. What stands out is who’s missing. For example, Clara Hughes is notable for her absence from the book, despite being the only athlete to ever win multiple medals in both the winter and summer Olympics, and an activist for mental health awareness.

Even more surprising is the lack of artists. Oh, there are a couple of authors and at least one dancer, but again it’s their business acumen that seem to have won them a place in the 150 list. Missing are potential role models such as Eden Robinson (award-winning First Nations author), Margaret Atwood (kind of a very famous author!), and Anita Sarkeesian (feminist activist, media critic and target of Gamergate misogynists, who probably has a thing or two to say about courage and fortitude). And there are zero(!) actors, singers or musicians. I think if someone is trying to curate a book to identify successful Canadian women who could potential inspire young women to aspire to greatness, they could try a little harder to broaden their reach.

Random last thought. A weirdly large number of the women in the book listed their favourite drink as “water”. Call me judge-y but I find that answer uber-boring, although it may just be a reflection of my alcohol addiction hahaha.

Rating: I don’t want to dismiss the very legitimate achievements of the women included in the 150, so I have to rate this a buy. But there’s an opportunity here to do a better job, and the book club members are seriously considering taking it on.

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Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch

Well, it’s just been *forever* since I read this book. However, since finishing it, I’ve been practicing my procrastination skills to great effect and so here I am, months later, trying to turn back time (… if I could find a waayyy … that’s right, you might as well be singing it along with me).

Midnight Riot is, I imagine, what you get when you mix Harry Potter with Twilight (not the sappy love story crap, but the werewolves and vampires. Ok, maybe not Twilight, per se. Actually, more like The Night Stalker! Okay, let’s start over.) Midnight Riot is a what you get when you mix The Night Stalker with Harry Potter. Constable Peter Grant, of all the boring names, gets pulled into a police murder investigation, where he discovers  that ghosts, werewolves, and transmogrification are real and that magic is a teachable skill.

While the story is fantastical (and fantastic), the author is delightfully grounded in scientific method which, not surprisingly, makes me extremely happy. It’s also fun, funny, dark, and satisfying, as murder mysteries often are. This was one of several books lent to my by an employee, and it’s by far my favourite. Even better, it’s a series, so there’s even more to enjoy.

Rating: If you like mysteries and fantasy, then borrow a copy! (I recommend it to my friend Erin!)

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Come From Away, the book

Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 by Kevin Tuerff

Not enough people know the story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland and their generosity of spirit in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when 38 international airplanes were diverted to land at Gander Airport. For 5 days, the 6,000 people of Gander housed and cared for the 6,000 stranded passengers, rallying to find food, shelter and medicine. I find it so moving that just talking about it can make me tear up.

If you want to experience the story through warmth, humour and music, then go and see the musical Come From Away. If you are American, go see it. If you are Canadian, go see it RIGHT NOW. And take some Kleenex. Just saying.

On the other hand, if you want to read a surprisingly less interesting first-hand account of events, then go ahead and read Channel of Peace. I’m not sure if Kevin Tuerff is a bad writer, or just a bad auto-biographical writer, but either way you lose. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the philanthropic founder of the Pay It Forward Foundation that encourages people to perform small, random acts of kindness on the anniversary of 9/11, inspired by the generosity of Newfoundlanders. A nice guy for sure. Although, while his character in the play shares his duty-free bottle of Grey Goose with fellow plane passengers while they wait for permission to deplane, in real life he and his partner squirrel away two bottles of grey goose which they share just between the two of them once they are safely ensconced in their shelter room.

Kevin spends a fair amount of this very short book talking about the musical (and how he’s in it), the 10-year reunion of the “plane people” in Gander, and his foundation. He also spends a fair amount of time pointing out places where the musical took some artistic license with the facts and how he “doesn’t mind” (all of the key characters, who are based on real people, were relocated onto a single American Airlines place when in fact they were all on different flights). In actual fact, I would have enjoyed it better if more detail and care had gone into the Gander story itself, a story that makes me so proud to be Canadian.

Rating: Buy it, because proceeds are donated to non-profit organizations helping refugees. And then go see the musical instead.

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