The Even More Annual Book Post

For the third straight year, here are the 10 best books that I read last year. The list is in alphabetical order.

  1. The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
    I've been trying to catch up on some older sci-fi that I missed when I was younger and read more. Haldeman is the author of the classic "Forever War", which is quite often cited as the best war novel, period, sci-fi or not. This one is a lot less serious, but still interesting and fun. A grad student accidentally invents a time-machine that only goes forward and the amount of time that it jumps forward increases each time he uses it.
  2. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
    An examination of why it seems that college age students in the West are incapable of handling dissent and seem to take offense at everything. Haidt, the author of the great "The Righteous Mind" (which if you haven't read, stop reading this and go get that done now), is a college professor, and so has seen this first hand, while Lukianoff was the founder of FIRE, a group that fights for free speech rights on campus. An excellent and balanced look into how we got into this situation and several great proposed solutions.
  3. Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by by Neil Gaiman, et al
    Just what it says on the tin. If you loved The Hitchhiker's Guide, you will probably love this too. 
  4. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
    A novel about a lonely and damaged young woman who doesn't really know how damaged she is or how to deal with the situation, but who, against her will, develops a couple of friendships that help her begin to right her ship. There were a lot of things about this to like. I especially liked that the novel avoided the usual sort of cheap romantic solutions and that the resolution isn't a cheap or easy thing.
  5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
    A non-fiction look at the plight of poor rural whites in America as they face addiction, joblessness and family breakdown. Vance grew up in this environment before he left to go to college, and he uses his family to demonstrate the troubles that this group is facing. Though the book is apolitical and was written and published prior to the 2016 election, it does give hints of why this group might have been willing to take a chance on a non-politician who seemed to be the only one who cared about them.
  6. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
    I first read this more than 10 years ago. It is a fictional retelling of the Danish invasion of what would become England and how Alfred the Great was able to begin to push the invaders back. Cornwell has now written several other books in this series (all of which I've read as well), and it has been made into a TV series, but this book still the best of the lot. It's told through the point of view of a young Saxon warrior who was raised by and is sympathetic to the Danes, but who is fated to fight for the Saxons.
  7. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
    This book tells the story of the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 that destroyed and damaged over a million books, as well as discussion the history of libraries and the LA Public Library system, the effort to repair many of the damaged books, and the importance of libraries in our lives.
  8. Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card
    The hero of this story has a unique power which has caused him to become an outcast in school, as fellow students and authorities misunderstand him. He becomes the at-first unwilling friend of another high school outcast, who encourages him to learn more about his power and others like himself. And then he is compelled to use it to try to help rescue his friend from danger. 
  9. Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
    The fifth book in the tales of the upper class dim-bulb Bertie Wooster and his brilliant valet Jeeves. The Jeeves and Wooster novels are delightfully funny and I'm working my way through all of them at the rate of a couple a year. 
  10. World without End by Ken Follett
    A sequel to the brilliant "Pillars of the Earth", set two centuries after the building of the cathedral in Kingsbury. The story once again focuses on a builder who struggles to make the town better against the forces of ignorance and stupidity. 
I didn't read any terrible books this year. I one I most disliked was Wuthering Heights. I've been trying to read several classics that I either didn't read or didn't take seriously or understand when I was in school, and most of the ones I've read this year have been good to very good (namely Frankenstein, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Hunger, The Plague, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). But this one is not. It's long, depressing, not much happens, and everyone in the novel is terrible. I don't understand how this one is a classic. However, your mileage may vary.


A Bleak Future

I know some people. Some time back, they formed an organization. While this group isn't perfect, it does some important things that no other group does as well.
Anyway, this organization has gotten itself into a bit of debt problem.
Right now, there are about 33 people in the group, and the organization has debts of about $2.2 million. The group keeps pretty good records and are remarkably open, so they happen to know that, collectively, they earn about $1.96 million per year.
Their budget for the current year is to spend about $400,000 on various projects. Unfortunately, they are only going to collect about $318,000 in dues from their members. Pretty clearly something is going to have to be done to resolve this.
Last week, it is suggested that perhaps some of the spending could be cut back some. As I understand it, it went something like this:
"Take a look at this $1.76 that we spend on this charity. I'm not saying that it isn't a good charity; it is. It does great work. But we are $2.2 million in debt and will add another $70,000+ this year, so this seems like something we should look at. This cut is only 0.0004% of the current budget."
Unfortunately, the membership of the group did not react... how can I put this... rationally to this suggestion.
I worry about the long-term future for this group.


The Increasingly Annual Book Post

Continuing the tradition that began 11 years ago and then took a decade off before continuing last year, here are the 10 best books that I read for the first time last year. They are in alphabetical order, not ranked 1 to 10.

  1. Infinite by Jeremy Robinson
    A science fiction story that begins with an intriguing premise and then takes a direction that I didn't see coming. One of the more original books I've read in a while.
  2. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
    I've long loved Hornby's books, so I was quite glad to come across one I hadn't read yet. A great story of a mismatched collection of characters who meet up when they plan to commit suicide. Full of great character moments and realizations.
  3. The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
    This seems like a simple survival story, and it is a very well executed one. But even more, it is a love story, not in the stupid Hollywood/romance novel sort of way, but in a much deeper and meaningful way. Also about honor and choices that one has to live with. I haven't seen the movie that was made from the book because I'm frankly afraid of what Hollywood might have done with this story.
  4. Norwood by Charles Portis
    Portis wrote True Grit (which is great as well), and this book, set in the 1950s, has his same ear for dialog that made that book so humorous.
  5. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
    Murphy is an American linguist who has been living and working in the UK for several years now, and is an expert in the similarities and differences in the various types of English. This book is a great in-depth look at the relationship between US and UK English. She examines the history and the way that the people of the two countries feel about their English and the other.
  6. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
    I actually read two great books by Winchester this year, this one and Krakatoa. It was hard to limit him to one spot on this list, as both were great.
  7. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
    I'd heard a bit about this one in college, but never got around to reading it until now. I really missed out. Orwell is of course a great writer, but here he turns his pen to reporting on the living conditions of miners and other working poor in the North of England between the wars. Tons of fascinating details about exactly how they lived, how much things cost and how they struggled. Orwell was deeply sympathetic to them, but at the same time was clear-eyed about their faults as well as their virtues.
  8. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
    Another book I had heard much about but never read. A funny satire of the news business that seems just as fresh today as when it was written.
  9. A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
    What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman? That is the premise of this book, and Thomas pulls it off brilliantly. One could quibble that the view of Victorian England borders on a caricature, and that the mystery part of the novel is not as strong as it could be, and you'd be right. But Thomas's Charlotte Holmes is just so completely what a female Holmes would have been, while remaining faithful to the Holmes of the canon that you have to forgive the weak points.
  10. Very Good Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
    This is the third Jeeves and Wooster book I've read, and they are all great. 
As a bonus, here are the worst books I read:

  1. Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer by Chuck Culpepper.
    I should like this. Like Culpepper, I'm an American who has fallen in love with English football. But Culpepper is determined to make himself unlikable, insulting anyone who still likes American sports or disagrees with him about anything. There is a definite element of "Converts make the most obnoxious members" going on here. It would be interesting to see if perhaps Culpepper has moderated his passion now, especially since his chosen team, Portsmouth, has been relegated twice since the book was written.
  2. Upright Beasts by Michel Lincoln
    A collection of short stories that range from the passable to the bizarre to the dreadful, mostly the latter.
  3. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
    This book starts off so promising, as it details the lives of a couple who tend a lonely lighthouse off the coast of Australia shortly after World War I. I love books that tell about people who don't get noticed but who make our lives possible. And then, the couple in the book steal a baby. Yet the book expects us to continue to feel sympathetic to them.


Feral Cat Lounging Poolside

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 GlassesA History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting and fun look at world history through six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-cola, and how each drink impacted and reflect the era in which it was the dominant beverage. Lots of great tidbits about each drink, like:

*how the earliest civilizations used beer as basically liquid bread
*how many of the traditions we have for sharing drinks together go back thousands of years to the beginnings of the earliest civilizations
*how the Chinese tried valiantly to protect the secret of growing tea and how it came to spread around the world

A great read for anyone who loves history but who is interested in a new perspective instead of the usually examination of individuals, events or ideologies.

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Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American CuisineEight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part cookbook, part history, and part travelogue, this is an interesting look at how different flavors have influence American food from before the founding of the country to the present. As the title states, Lohman examines how eight different items (black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha) came to be used and influence the foods that Americans love. She uses historical and modern recipes, from Martha Washington's Black Pepper Cookies to Thai omelets with sriracha, to demonstrate how the flavors have been used and so the reader can try them out themselves, if so inclined. She describes her visits to places where the spices are grown, describes the ebbs and flows of the public's taste for these items and delves into the science behind questions like "does MSG cause headaches?"

The book works better as a print book than an audio book, if you are trying to decide on a format. If you want to try the recipes, you'd rather have them printed out, I'm sure, and if you don't, then it isn't terribly interesting listening to someone read a recipe (and there are a good many recipes in the book).

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"How can we negotiate with a state that wants to kill us?"

While the US is having its current drama about events that may or may not have happened at a high school party 30+ years ago, an actual important drama is brewing and being ignored.

“We’re accumulating risk in the Middle East by not getting at Iran’s proliferation,” [Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran] said. “There is something brazen about this missile behaviour, they’re not even hiding it. This sort of escalation is deeply concerning..."

"The Iranians have to decide are they a nation state or a revolution,” [The Saudi foreign minister] said, underlining that Iran had diverted virtually all its additional revenues from the removal of sanctions into its regional agenda, including support for the Houthi rebellion.

“If a missile is launched at Saudi Arabia and UAE what will be reaction be and how will we be defended?” said UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba.

Maybe we could ask if the government can spend a few minutes considering this when they get done with their he-said, she-said partisan argument?

UAE ambassador asks how allies will defend country from Iran's missiles

Fake Brakes

The National has a report about a conference about counterfeit goods being sold, including dangerous auto parts: Brake pads 'made of grass' among the counterfeit car parts putting UAE drivers at risk.

The story is suitably informing and scary, but I wanted to see a picture of these brake pads, which unfortunately isn't provided in the story. In trying to find a photo elsewhere, I discovered what might be an even more interesting fact: There is a website dedicated to the automotive brake industry, The Brake Report. And, what might be the best part, according to their about page, they are the "leading digital platform dedicated to the global automotive and commercial vehicle brake segments", which seems to imply that there are multiple digital platforms dedicated to the global automotive and commercial vehicle brake segments.

Truly, we live in an age of wonders.


UAE Media vs. US Media

I thought that it is interesting how The National and Gulf News are covering President Trump's speech to the UN as compared to what I saw my friends in the US had posted about it. So I looked at some of the major US new sources pages. The American media is downplaying the importance of the speech as compared to the media here, and the Americans are playing up the laughter of some of the delegates.

Draw what conclusions you want from these:

The Elements of Style

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is evil. You don't have to believe me. Read a professional linguist's opinion: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf

I hate this book more than any other book I've ever read.

I had a history professor who was an ardent fan of this book. When I turned in my first paper in the class, he complained that I used the passive voice too often. Since I actually like to read about linguistics as a hobby and know what the passive voice is, I analyzed my paper and found only five passive verbs in the six page paper, which didn't seem like an excessive amount.

But I figured it is his class and I should do what is asked of me. So for my next paper I only used the passive voice once (for a sentence like "He was born in 1843 in Midland, Texas." or some such thing). The paper came back marked "You use the passive voice too much."

OK, I thought, that is crazy, but still, it is his class, I'll humor him. The next paper had zero instances of the passive voice. I wrote awkward and non-standard sentences like "The voters of Alabama elected him governor." and "His mother gave birth to him in 1878."

The paper came back marked "You use the passive voice too much." This was completely baffling. So I ask him to please point out any instance of the passive voice. Instead, he gave me an assignment to read this book before my next paper was due.

It turned out, that like Strunk and White, he didn't actually know what the passive voice was or why it was bad. This book does tell writers to not use the passive voice, but some of the examples they give aren't in the passive voice. And, like most of the rest of the rules in the book, they frequently violate their own rules throughout the book.

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Death by Black Hole

Death by Black HoleDeath by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book. I love reading popular science books. Up to the point where I read this book, Neil DeGrasse Tyson had seemed interesting and amusing when I saw him being interviewed. I should note that this isn't really an original book, but instead a collection of previously published essays, but that didn't bother me either, as I have enjoyed several of those.

But then, as I read the book, I kept coming across errors or, if I'm being more generous in some cases, over-simplifications or badly written or confusing passages. You can say that a lot of them don't matter (like saying that that the names of the days of the week come from the seven "planetes" (wonderers) that the Greek knew about. Except that in English, it is more complicated than that. Sunday is obviously from the Sun. Monday is from the Moon. Tuesday is from Tyr, a Norse god. Wednesday is from Woden, a Norse God. Thursday is from Thor, as Norse god. Friday is from Frieda, a Norse godess. Saturday is from Saturn. So, three out of seven.

Or when his "proof" that you should avoid gamma rays is The Hulk: ("Gamma rays are the sort of radiation you should avoid. Want proof? Just remember how the comic strip character 'The Hulk' became big, green, and ugly.") That is proof?

Another frustrating thing to me is his frequent correction of misunderstandings, where he is taking something literally that is not meant to be taken as literal, and then basking in his intelligence as he corrects those who are misunderstanding the world.

Like saying "those who say 'What goes up must come down!' are misinformed" because the escape velocity of the Earth is 11 km/sec.

Or "A compass points north" (because it points south too, dummies!).

Or "days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter" (because summer doesn't officially start until the longest day of year, and really, I think that this is a cheat, since most people say "days are longer is summer", not get longer).

Or "the sun rises in the east and sets in the west" (because it is only exactly east and west twice a year).

It is as if someone so smart doesn't understand that people speak in conversational shorthand. These statements are all true in the sense in which people use them in everyday conversation.

An example of the writing problems are sentences like "Isaac Newton passed white light through a prism to produce the now-familiar spectrum of seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, which he personally named. (Feel free to call them Roy G. Biv.)" I don't know how else to read that but that he is saying that Newton either named these seven colors or that he named violet, which is ridiculous. It turns out that he means that Newton decided that the spectrum was made up of these seven colors (because of 7 musical notes and 7 days of the week) and the first to apply the Latin word spectrum to that range of colors.

Or when he repeats the easily disproven notion that most dust is made up of human skin.

Or that he thinks Al Magest is Arabic for "The Greatest" (Akbar is "greatest" in Arabic).

Or the sentence "At this time in the life of a cloud, astrophysicists can only gesticulate what happens next." I don't think that word means what you think it means.

The biggest problems come when he writes about history or religion, which he plainly knows very little about. It becomes clear late in the book what the problem is. He has apparently been taught that the "Conflict Thesis" (i.e. that religion and science are in conflict, always have been, and always will be) is the correct interpretation the world. More about why that is wrong in a minute, but first, lets look at his misunderstandings of history.

First, somewhat ironically if you actually know the history, his recounting that Board of Longitude's sought for a chronometer to determine longitude. Actually the scientists on the board hated Harrison's chronometer and avoided giving him the prize money that he had earned, because they wanted a scientific method of determining the measurement, not a device from a simple mechanic. So here we have a scientist praising scientists for seeking for something that they didn't look for and didn't want, because he believes that scientist are seekers after truth, so they must be motivated out of goodness, when the opposite was what really happened.

Or that Galileo's observations in support of the heliocentric model "shook Christendom" (in case you don't know, it wasn't the extremely religious clergy who disliked heliocentrism, it was the Aristotelians scholars - it wasn't the fact that the theory contradicted the Bible, it was that it contradicted Aristotle). The church didn't really care about what he was doing, because Christianity isn't based on astronomical facts. Galileo was allowed to teach heliocentrism to his students and the first book he wrote on the subject was widely praised. It was only later when he got involved in religion and insulting the pope, and when he insulted those who pointed out the scientific problems* with the theory that he got into trouble.

Or when he says "The Bible says the stars don't change" despite the most famous star (the Bethlehem star) in the Bible is famous because a) it was a new star and b) it "went on before them" (i.e. it moved and the wise men followed it). I'd be interested to see what he is talking about. I looked up every verse in the Bible that mentions stars and couldn't find one verse about them not moving.

He says that we have "no record of anybody in all of Europe recording" the 1054 supernova, because the Church denied that such things could happen (i.e. new stars). First, the claim that no European recorded the event is disputed. But even if it is so, other supernovae in the Middle Ages where recorded in Europe, so what this one being missed says about the Christianity and the Church isn't clear. He wants it to prove that Christianity was holding back science. That seems more than a bit of a stretch. Plus, he says that "Middle Eastern astronomers" wrote about, but the only citation that I can find is to one Nestorian Christian doctor who blamed a plague on the event.

Tyson clearly believes that the Conflict Thesis is correct. He quotes approvingly from Andrew D. White's book "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom" (1896). The problem is that no serious historian of science thinks that White's book is good history or that the Conflict Thesis is correct. For example, White's book is the primary source of the belief that people believed in a flat Earth before Columbus. He included as many stories, dubious or not, in the book as he could find it helped promote his ideology.

Needless to say, if you only look for evidence that proves you are right and don't care if the evidence is true, you will find plenty of evidence to support you. Stephen Jay Gould perhaps best explained when he noted "White's and Draper's [the other great instigator of the thesis] accounts of the actual interaction between science and religion in Western history do not differ greatly. Both tell a tale of bright progress continually sparked by science. And both develop and use the same myths to support their narrative". It is frankly bizarre that a person of his intellect is still relying on a book more than 100 years old for his information.

I have to say reading this book, with its many errors and biases has soured me on Tyson. And when I see him opening his series Cosmos with the Giorano Bruno story as if he was burned at the stake for his scientific inquiries, it is clear that nothing since this book was written has changed.

*The biggest problem with the theory, at that time, was that there was no measurable parallax with the stars. This meant that the stars would have had to be unbelievably far away (for the understanding of the universe at that time). It wasn't until the 19th Century that measurements were precise enough to overcome this problem.

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The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between OceansThe Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is a lot of good about this book. For large sections, it is beautifully written. At times it is genuinely moving. The main characters are interesting and the author does a good job of explaining their motivations.

The part I love the most about this book is the way that the author captures the lives of men and women who endure hardships and risk their lives to make everyone else's lives possible (in this case, lighthouse keepers, but the same could be said of many neglected professions).

And then, everything is ruined when...

Spoilers below


The couple steal a baby, and from the point of view of the book, you are clearly supposed to feel sympathetic to these people despite this horrible act. It would be one thing if the book told how these two were driven to commit this crime and explained their motivation (which it does). But that isn't all. Everything in the book is trying to drive you to feel like they are the heroes of the situation. From that point on, the book is morally repulsive.

The much more minor problem, it seems to me, is the piling up of coincidences that make the plot possible. After a while they became too much for me, but in another novel that didn't have the other problem I'd probably been willing to overlook them.

Two stars for the writing and the focus on the forgotten.

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