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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2016.
Also see the full index of books I've read.

  [Book cover]

Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication

edited by Douglas A. Vakoch (pub. 2014)

In the beginning, the fields of Communications with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) were primarily the domain of radio astronomers and engineers. However, the researchers soon recognized that scholars from other fields had much to contribute. This free eBook from NASA focuses on what archaeology and anthropology have to offer and each chapter is written by an expert in one of these fields. Although I found the substantive quality of the different chapters to be somewhat uneven, the book as a whole provided a lot of food for thought. Obviously, I don't know if SETI will ever detect intelligent broadcasts, but the idea of it and the technology are interesting.

Archaeologists and anthropologists, by definition, study and attempt to understand alien cultures from the present and the distant past. Of particular interest to me was what CETI/SETI researchers can learn from archaeologists about deciphering alien messages that are received and constructing messages to send that would, by design, be easy for aliens to decipher. With regard to the former, the lessons to be learned from archaeologists mostly consist of what mistakes to avoid. For example, the deciphering of seemingly ideographic languages such as Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics was hampered by the understandable presumption that the glyphs represented the objects pictured. Furthermore, in the case of the Mayan hieroglyphics, the numerical and calendrical hieroglyphs were deciphered first and there was a tendency to treat the yet-to-be-deciphered hieroglyphs as more of the same, when they weren't. (This should be kept in mind by CETI/SETI researchers who think that alien/human messages would/should be composed of mathematical and physical quantities and properties that, they think, would be commonly known by any intelligent species.) To make matters worse for SETI researchers, the successful deciphering of ancient human languages has depended on there being sources or resources in other languages that can be correlated with the unknown language; e.g., the Rosetta Stone for Egyptian hieroglyphics and, in the case of Linear B, the recognition that it was an early form of Greek.

Perhaps the most down-to-earth (pun intended!) point made in the book concerns the efforts of the SETI community to establish international protocols for verifying the reception of actual ETI messages, making the knowledge of the reception public, and responding to the ETI. The increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of powerful radio transmitters virtually eliminates the possibility of a concerted response. Any governmental, political, religious, or commercial group with some money to spare can begin broadcasting whatever they want. (Not to mention that any two-way communications, assuming successful deciphering of messages, could span decades because of the distances involved.)

Word of the book: Hawai‘i - yes, that is an "open single quote". According to Wikipedia, this is the Hawaiian spelling. This book uses the Hawaiian spelling in all but two instances in which the English spelling is used, presumably oversights. It's a little odd to see throughout a book.

Also see:

NASA History Series (Free eBook in MOBI, EPUB, and PDF formats): Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication

  [Book cover]

Elmer Gantry

by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1927)

Elmer Gantry is a grifter in the line of religion. The novel begins with Gantry as a carousing student at a Baptist college, who rooms with an atheist, Jim Lefferts. Gantry is a star football player, but he is not well liked because of his arrogance. He does, however, have a natural gift of oratory, which brings him to the attention of the college administrators who urge him to become a preacher. While drunk, he experiences his "call" to the ministry and goes on to seminary after college. Jim Lefferts was a likeable character, but he plays no further significant role in the book.

In seminary, Gantry makes the acquaintance of Frank Shallard, a serious-minded student and would-be pastor; the acquaintancy is not one of friendship. The students are ordained before finishing seminary, fortunately for Gantry, because he ends up prematurely leaving seminary because of some shenanigans with a young woman. He bounces around a bit, finally latching on to a travelling revival show starring the charismatic Sharon Falconer. Gantry becomes Falconer's assistant and co-star of the show, his oratorical skills bringing in larger audiences and more money. The show's run is tragically cut short and Gantry is at loose ends again.

Gantry winds up as a Methodist minister, the Methodist denomination seeming to offer a more promising path for advancement. Gantry's subsequent career makes you realize that the purpose of his being a con man is not so much the accumulation of wealth—most of which is reinvested in his growing empire—as the accumulation of power. He works hard at his grifting; he's not a natural scholar, but he studies endlessly and with difficulty religious and non-religious literature in search of ideas for sermons and speeches. To maintain his image, he swears off smoking and drinking—and stays true to his word! Despite Gantry being a fraud, the reader's feelings towards him are likely to be ambivalent; at times, he's almost likeable.

In addition to a couple of references to George Eliot, Elmer Gantry also features a self-reference to its author. Here's Dr. Philip McGarry talking to Reverend Frank Shallard:

"I know that if you could lose your intellectual pride, if you could forget that you have to make a new world, better'n the Creator's, right away tonight—you and Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis', 'Main Street,' did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn't go to literary teas quite as often as he does!—that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)!"

In the quote above, the author happened to echo my complaint about Elmer Gantry: it was a slow read and it "rambled on forever". The most substantive chapter of the entire book is Chapter 28, the highlight of the book for me. Frank Shallard has a night-long, heart-to-heart talk with Philip McGarry about religion in general to some extent, but mostly about Christianity. In the end, Frank is, of course, upset about wicked, hypocritical preachers, the entanglement of the church with Big Business and millionaire congregants, etc. But, he says, "My chief objection is that ninety-nine percent of sermons and Sunday School teachings are so agonizingly DULL!"

I don't think I have a bright future in the hereafter:

And when he had them in this humor, the Reverend Mr. Gantry was able to slam home, good and hard, some pretty straight truths about the horrors of starting children straight for hell by letting them read the colored comics on Sunday morning.
Adding to the strikes against me, in twelfth grade I switched straight from the comics to the editorial page of The Washington Post! (Prior to that, I did read Jack Anderson's "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column which was, per Anderson's or Drew Pearson's desire, placed on the daily comics page.)

Word of the book: of - the pronunciation of "have" in dialog! Elmer's college friend Jim Lefferts says "have", but it seems like most of the other characters, including Elmer, say "of". I did notice one instance of "of" instead of "have" in a non-dialog sentence, but it was Elmer thinking to himself, so I guess it still counts as dialog.

Just for your information, because it makes an appearance in the book, Chautauqua was an adult education movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, begun by a Methodist minister. Gantry finds the movement useful for furthering his own aims.

Sinclair Lewis eBooks are available at Project Gutenberg Australia (public domain in Australia).

  [Book cover]

Far from the Madding Crowd

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1874)

First of all, let me repeat what I said about Hardy's Return of the Native: "I felt like I had been plunged into a rich broth of the English language when I began reading Return of the Native. Very vivid writing, with no word left unturned." The same goes for Far from the Madding Crowd. (The title appears to refer to the rural setting of the story, far from the hustle and bustle of the city.)


Feedbooks eBook: Far from the Madding Crowd

Project Gutenberg's eBook: Far from the Madding Crowd (A font-size problem with this eBook was reported and has been fixed; in the meantime, I read the Feedbooks version.)

  [Dirigo sailing ship]

The Mutiny of the Elsinore

by Jack London (1876-1916) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1914)

In the 1910s, a steel windjammer (like the one pictured to the right) sails from Baltimore, Maryland, over towards Africa, south around Cape Horn, and up to Seattle, Washington. After rounding Cape Horn, a mutiny takes place. That's the story in short and, except for the mutiny, the story is based on a similar trip by Jack London and his wife in 1912 (see below).

The novel is an exciting adventure. The descriptions of sailing down the coast of South America and then attempting Cape Horn in the winter are riveting. A wonderful book if you love sailing, whether in real life or as an armchair sailor (like myself)! The end of the story is marred by the fact that you don't explicitly learn the fate of the first and second mates, Mr. Pike and Mr. Mellaire respectively; you'll just have to assume what you guessed earlier on.

The narrator, a writer, is taking this cruise as a respite from the busy, tense life he leads, to get away from the "madding crowd", one might say. A well-educated man, he likes to drop names of famous authors, composers, artists, etc. He is also a bigoted man, frequently talking of "perishing blonds" and their God-given role of governing and mastering the inferior races. Here he is thinking about the woman he loves:

...—[Margaret], too, of the perishing and lordly race of blonds, her place the high place, her heritage government and command and mastery over the stupid lowly of her kind and over the ruck and spawn of the dark-pigmented breeds.
The dark-pigmented breeds include not just blacks, but southern Europeans and Asians too.

The young, "atrociously healthy and profoundly feminine" Margaret West speaking about, among other things, the Elsinore's piano:

"I never saw the longest voyage that was too long, and I always arrive at the end with too many things not done for the passage ever to have been tedious, and ... I don't play Chopsticks."
"I don't play Chopsticks" ought to be a famous quote, but it isn't!

A bit of gallows humor. The Elsinore's cargo is 5,000 tons of coal. After burying yet another sailor at sea, with a sack of coal tied to his feet, the first mate remarks:

"Hope the coal holds out," Mr. Pike grumbled morosely at me five minutes later.

There was some weather terminology I was not familiar with. Pamperos are storms in the South Atlantic caused by winds blowing from the pampas in South America. The River Plate, or Río de la Plata in Spanish, is a river between Argentina and Uruguay that has strange weather in its basin. The strange weather apparently extends far out to sea, as the Elsinore takes a beating from it. The book talks of a "Plate" (a type of storm), being "off the Plate" (a location), and the "River Plate", so I was a little confused. Incidentally, "River Plate" is a correct English translation of the Spanish name—plata means silver in Spanish and plate is a now little-used English term for precious metals (but one you'll encounter in English literature).

Also see Mike Robbins's "Around the Horn before the mast". The Dirigo, pictured above right, was "the first steel sailing ship to be built in the USA." In 1912, Jack London and his second wife sailed, as third mate and stewardess respectively, aboard the Dirigo from Baltimore, around the Horn, to Seattle. This voyage was the inspiration for The Mutiny of the Elsinore. In 1921, the second wife, Charmian London, published a biography/memoir of Jack London; Chapter 35, "Cape Horn Voyage", describes the 1912 voyage (and explains why they signed on as crew).

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Mutiny of the Elsinore

  [Michael Allsup]

The Upside of Rock n' Roll

by Michael Allsup (Wikipedia)

Three Dog Night (Wikipedia) was the band back when I was in junior high school. (Them mostly, but Creedence Clearwater Revival too.) Later, in senior high school and college, I bought a few of their vinyl LPs; however, I basically only remember their big hits after all these years rather than their complete ouevre. I've long admired Michael Allsup, their guitarist. Although their styles were different, I often thought (and think) of him as another George Harrison: no pyrotechnics, just really tasteful guitar. So I was glad to find this online autobiography by Allsup.

The book is a rough draft and needs an editor; still, it would be eminently readable in print form as is. (More on that later.) I haven't finished reading the book yet. I read the first part of the book up until he went out on the road and, from there, I skimmed my way along until he was recruited to join Three Dog Night.

Allsup has an incredible memory; he remembers everything, from his earliest years on up. Surprisingly to me, I found myself very interested in his genealogy and the stories he tells about his family and relatives as he was growing up. I was pleased to see that his father, like my mother, didn't allow foul language in their house. I've tried to follow my mother's example, but my brothers and, I'm sure, Allsup too have been a little more loose in that regard. Allsup was somewhat of a troublemaker as a kid, not something that's he's proud of in retrospect. He did have his good points too.

The overarching theme of the book is that Allsup loves music and he plays for the sheer fun of it. He gives ample and generous credit to everyone, beginning early in his life, who has ever touched him musically: family members, relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, other musicians, etc. Allsup's enthusiasm permeates the book and his attempt to pay back all the people who influenced him over the years reflects well on him.

The book is readable online only: The Upside of Rock n' Roll. Allsup thanks one of his friends, an apparent web guru, for designing and developing the website and "typesetting" the book. Unfortunately, the website looks terrible and the book is no exception. First of all, the means of starting to read a new chapter is too cutesy, moves around the screen, and is just plain annoying. Secondly, the layout of chapters is not consistent. Cutting the guy a break, you might say that this was due to the inclusion of a lot of pictures, but it's not that hard of a problem. With a little effort, the website designer could have looked around at other sites and come up with a consistent layout for text and images. My impression is that Allsup's friend was learning as he went, making indiscriminate use of every new trick he happened upon. Just my opinion and I am nonetheless grateful that his friend made Allsup's information and book available to the rest of us.

  [Book cover]

A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagarities of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

by John Allen Paulos (Wikipedia)

In this book, Paulos applies mathematics to biographies and autobiographies, throwing in some autobiographical information of his own, mathematical and non-mathematical anecdotes and examples, and some philosophical musings on life. As always, Paulos is funny and informative, showing how a knowledge of mathematics can help you cast a jaded eye on questionable claims. For example, in regard to autobiography, the more detail given in a long-past remembrance makes the correctness of the memory more unlikely; i.e., the probabilities of each detail multiplied together lowers the probability of the memory as a whole.

Browsing through a couple of other books by Paulos that I haven't yet read, I noticed some of the same anecdotes and mathematical advice. I was just browsing, so I don't know how much repetition there actually is. Even if there is some, that shouldn't keep you from reading his excellent books. The books are aimed at the layman and I don't think any prior knowledge of the mathematics covered is required. Some acquaintance with basic arithmetic and statistics is helpful in picking up a deeper understanding of the advice Paulos gives.

Words of the book: quincunx - is an arrangement of four objects at the corners of a square or rectangle with a fifth object in the center; e.g., the five dots representing the number 5 on a die (⁙). Another word: retrodiction - "predicting" a past event. Oh, and etcetera is never abbreviated.

Also see this very funny Twitter exchange between Neil deGrasse Tyson and John Allan Paulos, "Neil deGrasse Tyson interrogates John Allen Paulos about math, pizza, & teaching chimps algebra" (PDF; it used to be on Storify.com until Storify went belly-up in 2018). Tyson asks some really hilarious math-related questions and Paulos gives some great answers! Example Tyson tweet: "Hey @JohnAllenPaulos, Of the 5 regular solids Cube/Tetrahedron/Octahedron/Icosahedron/Dodecahedron four sound like dinosaurs".

  [Book cover]

Esther Waters

by George Moore (1852-1933) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1894)


Project Gutenberg's eBook: Esther Waters

  [Nikolai Ge drawing]

What Men Live By, and Other Tales

by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1885)

The book includes:


Project Gutenberg's eBook: What Men Live By, and Other Tales

  [Book cover]

The Hunt for Vulcan: ...And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

by Thomas Levenson (Wikipedia) (pub. 2015)

Wow! The day after I started reading The Hunt for Vulcan, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first direct observation of gravitational waves. The actual observation in September 2015 "confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos."

The Hunt for Vulcan is the story of two giants of astrophysics and the need to move beyond Isaac Newton's laws of physics. In the early 1800s, astronomers had documented anomalies in Uranus's orbit. Using this information, Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier (1811-1877, Wikipedia) performed his calculations and predicted both that an eighth planet beyond Uranus was causing the perturbations and also the planet's approximate location in the sky. His prediction, announced in August 1846, was quickly proven correct when the new planet, Neptune, was found in September 1846. Le Verrier became an instant celebrity.

Astronomers had also noted the precession of Mercury's orbit around the sun; i.e., the axis of Mercury's elliptical orbit was itself slowly rotating around the sun. Working under Newtonian assumptions and taking the same approach that worked so well for Uranus, Le Verrier, in 1859, posited another planet (or debris field) inside Mercury's orbit. The hypothetical planet was named Vulcan; being so close to the Sun, it could only be observed during a complete solar eclipse. In subsequent decades, astronomers travelled around the world to sites of total eclipses and searched in vain for Vulcan. There were occasional claims of sightings, but these observations could not be confirmed.


Also see:

  [Book cover]

Monsieur Lecoq

by Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1868, original French)

In 1860s Paris, a smart young man, Lecoq, decides that being a great detective is the path to renown and riches. So he joins the police force at the bottom and plans to work his way up. A convenient tip sends Lecoq's chief, Inspector Gevrol, and his crew to an out-of-the-way, disreputable tavern run by old Mother Chupin. Forcing their way into the tavern, they find two men dead, a third dying, and a fourth standing there with a gun in his hand saying, "The Prussians are coming! The Prussians are coming!" My phrasing, for comedic intent (IMDB). What the man actually said was, "Lost! It is the Prussians who are coming!" After reading the whole book, I seem to have somehow missed the significance of this statement. The police arrest the man with the gun and Inspector Gevrol believes the case has been wrapped up satisfactorily. However, Lecoq thinks there is more to the case than meets the eye and he, without authorization, begins his own investigation.

The story is interesting, but Monsieur Lecoq is a novice detective. Some initial, successful insights into the case are followed by many instances in which he is outwitted, the villains always managing to be one step ahead of him, just out of reach. I grew up with Sherlock Holmes, who was always at the peak of his abilities, so Lecoq's repeated bungling of the case tends to drag out the story in a tiresome manner.

I finally finished reading the 200+-page Volume 1 on February 23—it only took me a little over 3 weeks! No, it was not because the book was bad. I developed a toothache, had a root canal, and a follow-up appointment to place the crown and fill two cavities. My jaw felt like a baseball bat had been taken to it, so I wasn't able to focus enough to read and, consequently, I spent my free time playing a mind-numbing (if not jaw-numbing) Nintendo DS video game, Mystery Stories: Mountains of Madness. (Actually, I enjoy the game and I've played it over and over for a number of years. It's a loose, superficial telling of H.P. Lovecraft's novella with hidden object, jewel, and jigsaw puzzles interspersed in the narrative. The game is repetitive and relatively fast-paced, so it distracted me from my jaw.)

The transition between Volumes 1 and 2 is abrupt, as, without warning, Volume 2 jumps back in time. Based on the mention of Duke de Richelieu, I think Volume 2 is largely set in late 1810s France, during the Second Restoration (of the monarchy after Napoleon's escape from Elba and brief return to power in 1815). Looking back, I see that Volume 1 took place in the 1860s, so Volume 2 must have started 40-50 years earlier, a much larger gap than I would have expected given the presumed (by me) ages of the characters in Volume 1.

Near the end of Volume 1, one person looks up some of the characters (and their fathers) in the "General Biography of the Men of the Present Age". Beyond that, there is no initial indication that the names in Volume 2 refer to the fathers of the characters in Volume 1! For example, in Volume 1, "M. d'Escorval" refers to the magistrate. In Volume 2, "M. d'Escorval" refers to the father of the future magistrate (who is known simply as Maurice). Likewise for other characters. Lastly, Father Chupin in Volume 2 was the father-in-law of Mother/Widow Chupin in Volume 1. It's been my pleasure to make everything perfectly clear to you!

The story told in Volume 2 begins in the 1810s or 1820s and then, towards the end, moves forward into the 1860s and brings the case to a close with all the loose ends tied up. Personally, I found Volume 2's tale more compelling than Volume 1's, but that might have had more to do with my jaw getting better than Gaboriau's story-telling abilities!

The Wikipedia entry for the novel details the public-relations campaign leading up to the publication of the novel, the reason why the book was published in two volumes, and possible real-life and fictional inspirations behind Gaboriau's creation of the character, Monsieur Lecoq.

Lecoq states his axiom of investigation in various ways at various times in Volume 1, but Joseph B. Kadane (Wikipedia) gathers them together in one place in his paper, "Bayesian Thought in Early Modern Detective Stories: Monsieur Lecoq, C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes" (PDF):

(I used Project Gutenberg's translation; Dr. Kadane appears to have been working from a slightly different translation. Dr. Kadane's paper is very interesting and is readable by the layman since the mathematics of Bayes' Theorem only makes a brief, not-necessary-to-understand appearance on the next-to-last page.) Or, as M. Tabaret expresses it in one breath, "What axiom did you start with? You said: 'Always distrust appearances; believe precisely the contrary of what appears true, or even probable.'"

Project Gutenberg's eBook: Monsieur Lecoq (Volume 1: The Inquiry and Volume 2: The Honour of the Name) (Project Gutenberg's English translations of the two volumes were added at widely disparate times and are likely from equally disparate sources.)

  [Book cover]

A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization

by John Perlin (Updated 2005 edition)



Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen (1775-1817) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1811)


Elinor drily remarking to her sister, Marianne:

"It is not every one," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves."
and Elinor's impression of Robert Ferrars:
... a kind of notice which served to imprint on Elinor the remembrance of a person and face, of strong, natural, sterling insignificance ...
"Strong, natural, sterling"—wait for it!—"insignificance"! Love it!

Project Gutenberg eBook: Sense and Sensbility (or with illustrations)

  [Book cover]

The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street

by Justin Fox (pub. 2009)

This is an excellent book about attempts to quantify financial markets since about 1900 and about how these attempts were largely doomed to fail with, at times, unforgiveable and widespread results. I want to talk about a number of things, so let me get my two complaints about the book over with right away:

As can be seen, these complaints arise from my own shortcomings, difficulty in keeping track of the different players with respect to the first complaint and a lack of knowledge with respect to the second complaint. Also, no mathematical knowledge is assumed by Fox and the theories are not presented in detail or mathematically. I think a little—very little—basic knowledge of probability (e.g., flipping coins) and statistics (mainly just means and variance) would be helpful, but is not at all necessary.

Let me emphasize that not understanding the financial industry and not understanding the proposed theories won't keep you (and didn't keep me) from enjoying the book immensely. Fox is a compelling writer telling a compelling story that is very much a part of modern life.


Also see Fox's "Myth of the Rational Market" page, where he gives a history of the inspiration for and the writing of the book.

  [C. E. Brock Illustration]

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen (1775-1817) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1813)


Project Gutenberg eBook: Pride and Prejudice (or with illustrations)

  [Book cover]

A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright


About "trickle-down economics":

The conceit of laissez-faire economics—that if you let the horses guzzle enough oats, something will go through for the sparrows—has been tried many times and has failed many times, leaving ruin and social wreckage.
The horses-oats-sparrows saying was heard by the author in a 1994 talk by John Kenneth Galbraith. This must have been a common description of trickle-down economics in days gone by, as my father used to use this same analogy (albeit in a bit more detail!), which he attributed to one of his economics professors, probably from a pre-World War II undergraduate class. (The detail was that the sparrows get to pick the seeds out of the horse manure!)

The 2004 CBC Massey Lectures, "A Short History of Progress", has the audio recordings of the five lectures.

  [Book cover]

Old Filth

by Jane Gardam (Wikipedia) (pub. 2004)

... "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong" ...

  [Book cover]

Long March of the Koalas: And Other Creationist Adventures

by Fred Clark


Also see:

  [Book cover]

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

by Carl Zimmer (pub. 2000)


I didn't see any mention (in this, the first edition of the book) of former President Jimmy Carter's Carter Center Health Programs, which are combating a number of human diseases caused by parasites. One particularly effective program has been the Guinea Worm Eradication Program. Begun in 1986, the program has reduced the incidence of human guinea worm cases from 3.5 million in 1986 to 22 in 2015. (Note that this isn't the elimination of the guinea worm itself, but a reduction in the number of humans who have the parasite. The worm still can be found in contaminated water and can infect dogs, possibly among other animals.)

Also see Zimmer's science blog, Matter.

  [Book cover]

The Daffodil Mystery

by Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1920)

Jack Oliver Tarling, a famous detective known to the Chinese as "Lieh Jen", or "The Hunter of Men", is newly arrived in London with his assistant, Ling Chu, known to the English as "a Chink". Tarling is called upon to solve the murder of a rich businessman, Thornton Lyne, who was found on his back with his arms folded across his chest, topped by a bunch of daffodils.

The story is mildly interesting. The identity of the killer, revealed at the end, is a surprise to everyone (including the reader), except for Tarling, who belatedly claims that he suspected the murderer all along. Perhaps the reason the killer's identity comes as such a surprise is because Tarling is about as sharp as a well-used plastic knife when it comes to detecting.

No especially interesting words in the book, but "pipe cleaner" appears to refer to a knife instead of the modern length of wire covered with bristles:

[Whiteside] took out his knife, opened the pipe cleaner, and pressed the narrow blade into the aperture.
(I say "appears to refer" because Wallace says that Whiteside inserts the "narrow blade" into an eyelet hole in a mattress, although a piece of wire would seem more appropriate. However, modern-day pipe companies do sell pipe-cleaning knife kits.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Daffodil Mystery

  [Book cover]

What the Numbers Say: A Field Guide to Mastering Our Numerical World

by Derrick Niederman (Wikipedia) and David Boyum (pub. 2003)

(I'm writing this in November 2016, perhaps 6 months after I read this book.) The premise of What the Numbers Say is that we now live in a society flooded with numbers and it is important that individuals acquire at least some mathematical literacy so they can make at least intuitive sense out of the numbers they will encounter on a daily basis. Chapter 2, "The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Quantitative Thinkers", presents the reader with ten useful "habits" and examples of each in practice. The subsequent 6 chapters are organized in some fashion, but struck me as simply a collection of random stories. The last chapter contains philosophical musings on, among other things, math education, calculators, and the government's role in all this. (Based on the examples in the book, I got the impression that the authors lean toward the conservative side of the political spectrum.)

Niederman is a mathematician known especially for his crossword puzzles and Boyum is a public policy analyst known especially for having been a championship squash player in college. Both men are avid sports fans (and participants), so a lot of the examples in the book are sports-related. Both men also worked in the financial sector earlier in their careers and the book, as I recall, didn't offer any lessons learned from their experiences as "quants". Both men are capable mathematicians and the book has some interesting stories, but I don't recommend it as a source of mathematical literacy. In the course of reading the book, some glaring problems stuck out, several of which I discuss below. I think of the book as presenting an uncritical, "conventional" form of mathematical literacy and I would suggest the following books, all of which I read this year, as counters to that approach (bearing in mind that these books cover much more than just mathematical literacy):

Again, these three books have different scopes than Niederman's and Boyum's book, but I think I absorbed more useful mathematical literacy from them than from What the Numbers Say. Also see Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking and pretty much any book by John Allen Paulos.

The first example that jumped out at me I would characterize as "underanalyzing the problem"; i.e., not looking closely enough at the numbers. Habit 3 in Chapter 2 is "Play Jeopardy": given an answer, determine (i) what exact question is being answered, and (ii) if that really is the question you wanted to ask. Good advice given the efforts made in advertising to channel your thinking away from what's really important. In a seemingly blatant product placement for a company named in the book, the authors compare the estimated "5-year Ownership Cost"s (found in the company's annual car cost guide) of a $10,000 Kia and a $14,000 Honda. The smart consumer will not be fooled by the purchase prices of the cars and will instead look at the 5-year cost (financing [i.e., loan interest], insurance, gas, maintenance, etc.) of each car. The company usefully informs you that the lower-price Kia will actually cost you $2,374 more than the Honda. Case closed.

Wait a second! Most of that difference is accounted for by the depreciations in value of the cars over 5 years—the Kia loses $1,889 more than the Honda. However, depreciation is not something you write out a check for and less depreciation is not money in the bank. It's a nebulous value and in this case, I'm guessing, assumes you're selling a 5-year-old car with normal wear and tear in an ideal market. My three cars were kept for 13 years, 10 years, and 12 years and counting, respectively. Their depreciation over those timespans was and is pretty much meaningless to me and, I think, to other people who don't sell their car immediately after they've paid off the loan (or in 5 years, as the case may be).

Can a bad example get worse? Depreciation is not the only and not the most important sleight-of-hand the authors wave (or waive) in this example. More devastating to their argument is that the 5-year ownership cost of each car completely leaves out the purchase price! Add in the purchase prices, which differ by $4,153 and which the owner has to pay (as a combination of a down payment and the principal on the auto loan), and you come up with the lower-price Kia costing $1,779 less, over 5 years, than the Honda (keeping the depreciation figures in). Take out the nonsensical depreciation figures and you find that the Kia costs $3,668 less than the Honda, a sizeable chunk of change. And the purchase price likely is a big deal to the person buying a car: it affects the monthly payments on the auto loan. There's a good chance that the customer is looking at the $4,000-cheaper Kia because he/she can manage the lower monthly payments on its auto loan, but cannot manage the higher monthly payments for the Honda. (If you're interested in doing your own calculations, the estimated purchase prices in the book are $9,824 for the Kia Sepha and $13,977 for the Honda Accord. The 5-year ownership costs are $26,296, including $7,619 depreciation, for the Kia and $23,922, including $5,730 depreciation, for the Honda.) The authors end the example with a snide comment:

The next time you find yourself alongside a Kia Sephia, roll down your window and tell the other driver, "Hey, I was thinking of buying this exact car, but I couldn't afford it."
Truly in the spirit of Greg Mankiw ("Do Economists Actually Know What Money Is?" by Nathan J. Robinson).

The second example that begged to be addressed I wanted to characterize as "overanalyzing the problem", but it might be more accurately described as "overanalyzing the wrong problem". Habit 6 in Chapter 2 is "Build Models" and the examples chosen by the authors relate to scoring in figure skating (e.g., in the Olympics). I was going to go into more detail on the book's examples, like I did above, but I found the ISU Judging System (Wikipedia) in current use difficult to understand. However, the hypothetical and actual scoring problems the authors describe are a result of determining a skater's final score based on the rankings (e.g., first, second, third)—and not the performances—of the skater in the individual programs. Despite several pages of prose and tables of numbers, the authors obliquely refer to the central problem in only a single sentence with the solitary phrase, "weaknesses of an ordinal system". I recommend reading these articles I found at the Center for Range Voting:

Someone at the Center added an informative "Editor's note" to the second article (emphasis in the original):
[A]fter the skates were all done the voting system would (foolishly!) discard those [numerical scores] by converting them into rank orderings ... The fact it was all based on rankings and not on the numerical scores (which really were only an optical illusion) was the reason Arrow's theorem was applicable to predict this problem would happen.
(Keep in mind that there is also the problem of subjectivity in the judges' numerical scores, which the ISU believes its complex Judging System has addressed in some way. One is tempted to call it "eliminating subjectivity through obscurity"!)


  [Book cover]

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English

by John McWhorter (Wikipedia) (pub. 2008)

Consider these two sentences:

"I'm the only one here, aren't I?"
"I'm not the only one here, am I?"
In the first sentence with the positive phrase, "I'm the only one here", the case of the following is verb is first-person plural although the subject is first-person singular. In the second sentence with the negative phrase, "I'm not the only one here", the case of the following is verb matches the case of the singular subject.

McWhorter argues that, contrary to what traditional English language scholars believe, the language of the pre-existing Celts had a significant influence on the English language, particularly on its grammar. For the most part, McWhorter presents a compelling case in my untutored opinion. English is the only Indo-European language whose grammar has gone through major changes in the past and has been simplified in some respects (e.g., the dropping of gender and the loss of suffixes). According to McWhorter, traditional scholars attribute these changes to chance, but other languages in the same family have not undergone similar changes due simply to chance. So it makes sense to attribute the changes to the influence of the Celts. Written Old English doesn't show Celtic influence, but McWhorter rightly points out that written language often doesn't reflect spoken language, which has been found true in ancient, old, and modern-day languages.

The unconvincing part of the argument for me concerns the apparent lack of Celtic words introduced into English. McWhorter gives a couple of examples of other groups of languages in close proximity that haven't absorbed words from each other, but the argument still seemed kind of weak on this one point.

I only made it through 80 pages of the 120-page book. McWhorter is making an argument and he begins and remains in an argumentative mood throughout the book. Consequently, there is a certain tenseness to the prose that started to wear on me. Also, the many examples of sentences and phrases in different languages, while probably necessary to the author's argument and probably interesting to linguists, gradually blurred together in the eyes of this layman.

  [Book cover]

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy

by John Shelby Spong (Wikipedia) (pub. 2016)


  [Book cover]

The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro (Wikipedia) (pub. 1989)

I was going around the channels on TV and caught a few minutes of 1993's The Remains of the Day (IMDB), starring Anthony Hopkins as James Stevens, the butler, and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. It looked interesting and I didn't watch anymore so as not to spoil the book before I read it.


Word of the book: valet, if I may. In the movie, Anthony Hopkins pronounces the word as "val-et" to rhyme, more or less, with "pallet", "mallet", etc., two among the various similar-sounding words I've seen suggested on the web. In the Jeeves and Wooster series (IMDB) with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, they pronounce it as "val-ay". Somewhere on the internet, I read that the British pronunciation varies back and forth over time; or it is a class-based distinction. In both the original French and in British English, valet means a male servant—a "gentleman's gentleman"! In American English, since the 1950s, valet (pronounced "val-ay") has come to mean someone who parks your car.

  [Magazine cover]

The Sargasso of Space

by Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1931)

The mythical Sargasso Sea, as opposed to the real Sargasso Sea, is an area in the Atlantic Ocean that draws in seaweed and countless shipwrecks. Edmond Hamilton's Sargasso Sea in space is a region between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune where the forces of gravity from all directions are balanced. Damaged, powerless spaceships that approach the region are pulled in, never to leave, by the gravitational force of the clump of spaceships already there. An outer-planet freighter, Pallas, loses all its fuel because of a leak and ends up in the Sargasso of space. Will the ship and its crew escape the fatal attraction?

This 1931 science fiction short story is not to be confused with Andre Norton's 1955 book of the same name, although the stories appear to share the common element of the Sargasso region in space.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Sargasso of Space

  [Book cover]

Heart of the World

by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1895)

As I've said elsewhere, give me a book about Victorian adventurers exploring Aztec, Mayan, or Incan ruins (or a lost, dying city in this case) and I'll be happy. If you've read much H. Rider Haggard, you'll find the story predictable, but still lots of fun.

Also see Visual Haggard: The Illustration Archive.

Goodreads eBook: Heart of the World (eBook)

  [Book cover]

Anna of the Five Towns

by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1902)


Sarah Vodrey's witty saying:

"It's a sign of a hard winter, Miss Terrick, when the hay runs after the horse, that's what I say."

Piqued my interest:

"A very nice room," Mynors agreed blandly, and measured it, as he had done all the others, with a two-foot, entering the figures in his pocket-book.
A "two-foot" is simply a two-foot folding ruler, each segment being one-foot long.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Anna of the Five Towns

  [Book cover]

Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1862)

Somewhere on the web I saw a mention of "The Lawyer's Secret", so I got a hold of Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales, a collection of short stories by Mary E. Braddon:

The stories are pretty good overall, some better than others, of course. Some of the stories are of a supernatural nature, but all but one of those, "The Cold Embrace" if I remember correctly, turn out to have rational explanations for the strange events.

"My Daughters" is not really a short story, but a father's lament about his 3 grown daughters. He wants to marry them off, but he's kept on his toes trying to find suitors for them because they're fickle in their ideas of true love, ideas which change from week to week depending on what novel or poetry they happen to be reading that week. Given when this story was written, it's natural to find a George Eliot reference:

O, what I suffer! There was Adam Bede. Talk of the cholera, or the measles, or any of the prevailing epidemics a family man is subject to; what are they to a new novel breaking out in his household, and every member of that household taking it successively!
and a Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik reference:
But this wasnt the sort of thing for me, so I left them to get over Sidney Carton [from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities] as best they might, and the following week nothing would do for them but John Halifax, Gentleman.

Word of the book: ormolu - a metal alloy once used to imitate gold. Ormolu was often used for gilding something:

The hands of the ormolu clock, in the little drawing-room in Hertford-street occupied by Ellinor Arden and her companion, chaperone, and dependent, Mrs. Morrison, pointed to a quarter-past eight, as Mr. Margrave's quiet brougham rolled up to her door.

If you don't mind reading the book from scanned images, you can try the copy at the Internet Archive (see the next paragraph); however, the text version of the book (OCR from the images) is hopelessly mixed up. Project Gutenberg doesn't have the book (yet). So, I found a complete set of Mary E. Braddon's works (in both EPUB and Kindle formats) at Delphi Classics. Her works are available in a whole-file edition or a "Parts Edition". The whole-file edition is a single, 10,000-page eBook containing all her novels and short stories; this edition would probably kill my eReader! The "Parts Edition" breaks the novels up into separate eBooks and the short stories into their published volumes, 28 eBooks in all. For an extra dollar, I got the "Elite Parts Edition", which includes the whole-file edition and the 28 eBooks, for only $5.99. (I opened up the whole-file edition exactly once to see how many pages it has.) Delphi's Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales is also an OCR version converted from images of the text, as you can tell from the number and type of typos. However, the typos are not numerous and, most importantly, you don't have the text from adjacent stories jumbled together as you'll find in the Internet Archive's text version of the book.

Speaking of which, Internet Archive: Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales

  [Book cover]

How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

by Beth Shapiro (Wikipedia) (pub. 2015)


This provides an opportunity to redefine de-extinction, shifting away from a species-centric view ...

Most people who are seriously considering either de-extinction or back-breeding are doing so because they believe that bringing these species back would provide an upper hand in present-day struggles to preserve biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems ...

In my mind, it is this ecological resurrection, and not species resurrection, that is the real value of de-extinction. We should think of de-extinction not in terms of which life form we will bring back, but what ecological interactions we would like to see restored. We should ask what is missing from the existing ecosystem that could be recovered.

Also see Shapiro's and Richard Green's UCSC Paleiogenomics Lab.

  [Book cover]

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

by Michael J. Sandel (Wikipedia) (pub. 2012)

Apparently I read this book two years ago (2014), but I don't remember it!

Also see Harvard University's Justice with Michael Sandel.


The Way We Live Now

by Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1875)

(The illustration at the right is by Pierre Le-Tan and was featured in an article about The Way We Live Now by George Packer, "When the Money Gets Too Big". There don't appear to be any spoilers in the article, but I would suggest reading the novel before the article anyway. The March 20, 2013 article is found at The New Yorker website; I don't see the article listed in the tables of contents for the March 2013 issues of the magazine, so perhaps it was only published online.)

As I write this, it's the first of July and I feel like I've been reading this book for months. I'm nearly halfway through the 750-page book (according to my eBook reader) and the story is finally, just maybe, possibly starting to get somewhere. An unwise glance through the article above promised some action later in the book, but the first 300 pages has been a wearisome trudge through the standard Victorian fare of parents trying to arrange advantageous marriages for their children, young women trying to arrange unions either for advantage or for love, young men doing the same, and dissipated young men whiling away their days in gambling and other activities of ill repute. At least in my experience, other Victorian novelists usually manage to cover the same ground much more quickly. There is the overarching theme of vulgar new wealth (i.e., people who made their money through industry and commerce rather than pedigree) intruding on the British social structure, displacing the impoverished, though often land-rich, old wealth. However, even that adds little to sustain one's interest when spread over 300+ pages, with the thought of another 400 pages to go in the back of your mind.

Three weeks later and I've finally finished the book. Whew! The last 100 pages or so simply tie up loose ends, kind of like the brief blurbs after the end of a fact-based movie telling you what happened to the real characters. The novel is supposed to be satirical look at what I described in the previous paragraph. The only humor in the book that struck me as humor were the names; e.g., the law firm of Slow and Bideawhile. As you can guess, I have not been thrilled with The Way We Live Now. An alternate ending suggested itself to me before I completed the story: suppose Roger and Winifrid, who had only met each other once or twice and were sworn enemies, had miraculously fallen in love and gotten married in the end. That might have been a satisfying conclusion to the story that wouldn't have left me feeling as if I had just wasted over a month of my life. Unfortunately for me, that isn't how the story ends.

If you're interested in Lady Carbury's efforts to not only get her books reviewed, but to receive good reviews, you might be interested in J.H. Pearl's "Literary Beatdowns: or, Excerpts from Smollett's Critical Review":

This was a hard-nosed, hard-knuckled era—in life, in literature, and especially in literary criticism.
And that was the 1700s! Lady Carbury had the good fortune of writing in the more refined, late 1800s—her only good fortune for the most part!

Word of the book: redintegration - "restoration to a former state". This is its old usage; current usage apparently is confined to the field of psychology. From the novel:

Nidderdale himself had never dissented, had entertained no fanciful theory opposed to this view, had never alarmed his father by any liaison tending towards matrimony with any undowered beauty;—but had claimed his right to "have his fling" before he devoted himself to the redintegration of the family property.

Honorable Mention: ain't. Indirectly from Wikipedia, the following quote from Manfred Görlach's English in Nineteenth-Century England, An Introduction:

For Thackery and Trollope, the educated and upper classes could use ain't and (third-person singular) don't readily, but in familiar speech only. (David Denison, "Syntax", in The Cambridge History of the English Language, 1776-1997, Vol. 4.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Way We Live Now

  [Book cover]

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

by Jonathan Balcombe (pub. 2016)


  [Book cover]

"The Library of Babel"

by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1941, original Spanish)


The short story is available in PDF format at a number of websites. I borrowed the HTML text from Joe Formoso's HyperDiscordia website and converted it into an EPUB book: "Borges, Jorge Luis - The Library of Babel.epub" (30KB). The story is only a few pages long, so downloading it to an eReader might be more trouble than it's worth!

  [Book cover]

Monsignor Quixote

by Graham Greene (1904-1991) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1982)


  [Book cover]

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution

by Sean B. Carroll (pub. 2006)


  [Book cover]

Father Goriot

by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1835, original French)


You will frequently see the quote, "Behind every great fortune is a great crime", attributed to Balzac. Garson O'Toole, Quote Investigator, does an excellent job of providing a history of this simplified form of the quote, finding an instance of it reported in 1912, about 45 years prior to the earliest instance (1956) cited by other websites. While the simple quote has a certain profoundness attached to it, the actual passage in Father Goriot is more mundane. The poor, young law student, Eugene de Rastignac, is anxious to rapidly make his fortune. Monsieur Vautrin offers him a means of doing so that involves (someone else) killing a young heir. Rastignac recoils at the idea and, in trying to convince Rastignac that he must throw his scruples to the wind, Vautrin says:

"The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed."
or, in the original French:
—Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Father Goriot

One of Delphi Classics' free downloads is The French Masters, which includes both the English and French versions of Father Goriot. I had already bought Mary Braddon's complete works from them for a few dollars and the free downloads were there for the taking. The French Masters is a 10,000-page eBook containing various French novels in both French and English. I used an EPUB editor (Sigil) to reduce the book, for the present time, down to the English translations of Balzac's Father Goriot and Émile Zola's Germinal. I'll eventually get to some of the other novels that I haven't already read.

  [Book Cover]


by Émile Zola (1840-1902) (Wikipedia) (Translation by Havelock Ellis) (pub. 1885, original French)


ManyBooks eBook: Germinal

As with Balzac's Father Goriot, I obtained this from Delphi Classics' free downloads as part of The French Masters, which includes the English and French versions of Germinal. Both the Delphi Classics' and ManyBooks' texts are the Havelock Ellis translation. For some reason, Project Gutenberg only has the French version of the book available.

  [Book cover]

Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

by William Carlsen (pub. 2016)

In the 1970s, at my brother Walter's recommendation, I purchased both volumes of The World of the Past, a compilation assembled by Jacquetta Hawkes of original accounts of archaeological explorations. I browsed through the two volumes, reading whatever captured my interest; I did so again in 2004. Whichever time, I did read the excerpt(s?) from John Lloyd Stephens' account of exploring various Mayan ruins with Frederick Catherwood circa 1840.


As I was reading Carlsen's book, I noticed that some of the events and geographical features in Stephens' and Catherwood's story sounded familiar, both in regard to the ruins they were exploring and to the contemporary political events in Central America. Then it hit me—H. Rider Haggard must have borrowed from Stephens' account when writing Heart of the World!

Project Gutenberg eBooks by John Lloyd Stephens (originally published in 1843):

  [Book cover]

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

by Cathy O'Neil (Wikipedia) (pub. 2016)


Also see:

  [Book cover]


by Nisi Shawl (Wikipedia) (pub. 2016)

... A Victorian steampunk novel ...

The book site, Everfair, has reviews, background articles (all are PDF files including the "Everfair Links" article), and a small collection of relevant photographs (e.g., a steam bicycle).

  [Book cover]

Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry

by Helaine Olen (Wikipedia) (pub. 2012)

This is or isn't the best choice of book to read shortly after Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction. O'Neil's book is infuriating and scary, especially scary with regards to the future into which math "weapons" and big data are leading us—and the present is not too hot either. Helaine Olen's book is scary and infuriating, especially infuriating with regards to the present state of economic affairs to which shysters, financial institutions, and the government have brought us—and the future is not looking too hot either.


Also see "Do Economists Actually Know What Money Is?" by Nathan J. Robinson.

  [Book cover]

Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

by David Dobbs (pub. 2005)

I'm more than halfway through Reef Madness and there has been precious little talk of coral reefs. What I've been treated to so far is alternating biographies of Louis Agassiz and his son, Alexander Agassiz. Oh, and, shortly before the halfway mark, the book takes a look back at Charles Darwin's early life. There is a connection regarding coral reefs between Darwin, Louis, and Alexander, but Dobbs has so far only provided little teasers on the subject. On the plus side, having read more than half the book, I'm at least closer to finishing it!

30 pages before the end of the book, I looked up "Alexander Agassiz" on the internet. The brief online biographies (e.g., at Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias) had virtually nothing to say about him and coral reefs. I looked up "coral reefs" and, except in reviews of this book, there was no mention of Agassiz at various scientific sites I visited. Darwin yes, Agassiz no. I went ahead and finished the book.

Dobbs appears to have done a lot research into the subjects of the book, including in-depth reading of contemporary books, papers and correspondence. However, he seems—to me—to have attempted to make a mountain-sized book out of a molehill-sized story. Hence, there is a tremendous amount of filler consisting of irrelevant biographical details and psychological speculations on Agassiz's state of mind, motivations, etc.

I wanted to briefly summarize the book, but it turned out a bit longer than I expected:

I found Dobbs' presentation of the different coral reef theories and the evidence for and against them confusing. I gather Agassiz and others mainly disagreed with Darwin on the question of subsidence (Darwin) versus elevation (others and Alexander). (I say "others and Alexander" because the others actually published their theories.) In the end, Darwin's theory proved to be largely correct and the whole exercise of writing (and reading) this book seems to have been pointless. Studying scientific failures can be as important as studying successes, and Dobbs spends some time discussing philosophies of how scientific theories should be developed, but I didn't really walk away from the book with any lessons learned in that regard.

Also see the author's website, Neuron Culture.

  [Book cover]

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

by Ed Yong (Wikipedia) (pub. 2016)


Word of the book: terroir - "the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma". (Dictionary.com) Usage is sometimes generalized to foods or crops other than grapes; Yong further generalizes the term to apply to "crops" of microbes:

To begin with, every body part on every species has its own zoological terroir—its unique combination of temperature, acidity, oxygen levels, and other factors that dictate what kinds of microbe can grow there.

Another word: symbiont - "an organism living in a state of symbiosis." Obviously. What makes the word of interest to me is that, when I was getting my computer science degree circa 1980, the documentation for our university's UNIVAC 1100 mainframe computers often spoke of "printer symbionts". I was never clear on exactly what a symbiont was in this context. I located an early 1960s EXEC II manual online that explained:

A symbiont is an independent routine which transfers data between a peripheral unit and an intermediate storage medium such as drum.
So, the printer symbionts were used to "transfer" data from the drum to the printer; i.e., to print a file. (Magnetic drums had been replaced by hard disks by then, although the operating system still had a FASTRAND-compatible I/O library so older programs written for drums would seamlessly work with the new hard disks.) In a 1993 article, "EXEC II", George Gray wrote, "The term symbiont referred to the symbiotic relationship between the computer's central complex and the peripheral devices." The current operating system, OS 2200, still uses symbionts.

Also see the author's National Geographic blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science - "Ed Yong on the wonders of biology".

  [Book cover]

Somehow Good

by William De Morgan (1839-1917) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1908)

A somewhat odd gentleman, newly arrived in London and waiting for the bank to receive the funds he'd wired from Liverpool, decides to take a ride in the Twopenny Tube (subway). (In the story, the far terminus of the subway is Shepherd's Bush, so the story must take place between the original opening of the subway in 1900 and the opening of the extension from Shepherd's Bush to Wood Lane in 1908, also the publication date of the book!) In the subway car, the man reaches for a coin that rolled under his seat, touches a poorly insulated electrical wire (for lighting?), and is electrocuted. He recovers, but he's lost his memory and has no items on him that could provide a clue to his identity. The girl he was conversing with at the time, Sally, and her family doctor take the man to her mother Rosalind's house, where he's kept while recuperating. Alas, his memory does not return with his physical health.

The author, William De Morgan, was a famous, 19th-century potter and designer of tiles and stained glass. (An interesting fact to me is that William De Morgan was the son of Augustus De Morgan, the mathematician famous for De Morgan's Laws, which I learned in our gate-level, computer architecture class.) In his sixties, he began writing novels, which were well-received. The writing style in Somehow Good is unusual, initially refreshing, and eventually tedious. The story is told in a lackadaisical fashion by a narrator, with frequent and lengthy forays into humorous observations. The book seems to consist of long stretches of what I call "philosophizing", punctuated for brief intervals by the actual story of the gentleman mentioned above. (I'm reminded of when I finished Moby-Dick and thought to myself, "For all the hoopla about this novel, there really isn't much of a story there.") The gentleman's story is interesting (and would make an excellent short story!), but a good bit of the book is given over to the tale of the stereotypical Sally, a vivacious, young woman who speaks her mind, who always comes straight to the point, who is no respecter of authority or social norms, who doesn't seem to realize the good doctor is in love with her, and, even worse, doesn't realize she is in love with him. In other words, boring; it's become a struggle to read the book because the telling of the story doesn't draw me to it.

I read a summary of Somehow Good beforehand, so I already knew the identity of the gentleman who lost his memory. If the same thing should happen to you, don't worry. De Morgan reveals his identity and part of his history early on, about 80 pages into the 550-page book (Project Gutenberg eBook). More and more of the gentleman's history are recalled in the story and in the man's mind as the book progresses. There is some excitement in the last pages of the book, but there are also some loose ends in the plot left dangling.

The Words of the book come fast and furious! De Morgan uses the words casually, not pompously, and the intended effect seems to me to be more one of adding some subtle humor to the story. One of the earliest Words: transpontine - "on the far side of the bridge". Maybe. De Morgan uses it here when the main character is crossing the Tower Bridge in London:

He would have time to get back before half-past one to a restaurant he had made a mental note of near the Bank, and still to allow the cabby to drive on a bit through the transpontine and interesting regions of Rotherhithe and Cherry Garden Pier.
The meaning of "across the bridge" makes sense, but Dictionary.com also lists an archaic definition, "on ... the south side of the Thames in London"—and Rotherhithe is on the south bank of the Thames!

Project Gutenberg eBook: Somehow Good

  [Book cover]

Delphi Christmas Collection, Volume I

Delphi Christmas Collection, Volume II

Delphi Christmas Collection, Volume III

(pub. 2011, 2012, and 2014, respectively)

The three volumes were compiled and made available for free to registered users by Delphi Classics:

Registration is free. In addition to a number of low-priced volumes of works (in EPUB or Kindle format), you also have access to Delphi Classics' free downloads, among which are the Christmas Collections. The stories and poems are all in the public domain and can be found with some research at Project Gutenberg and other sites.

I didn't read the complete volumes; here are the stories I read from Volume I:

From Volume II: From Volume III:

I enjoyed the stories, which ranged from poignant to funny. Dostoevsky's "The Heavenly Christmas Tree" was similar to Andersen's "The Little Match Girl", Guy de Maupassant was Guy de Maupassant, and G.A. Henty's "On the Track" was the longest story, an interesting adventure/mystery having little to do with Christmas.

  [Book cover]

The Living Link

by James De Mille (1833-1880) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1874)


Project Gutenberg eBook: The Living Link

  [Book cover]

Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe

by Neil F. Comins (University of Maine) (pub. 2001)


Also see the Heavenly Errors catalog of misconceptions.

Alex Measday  /  E-mail