crane reaction

the more instances we examine…the more assurance shall we acquire – David Hume

Books Read 2017

I think it would be helpful to keep a running list of the books I’ve read in 2017. I have a vague goal of reading something like 30 books in a year so perhaps keeping a page like this might keep me on track. The books will be listing in reverse chronological order (most recent read on top; month completed indicated at end of each synopsis).

Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick
Einstein taught us that time, as a physical phenomenon, is relative. Turns out that time is relative in just about every other context as well. Meatier and more detailed than the average “pop science” book, Why Time Flies considers the physical measurement, the biological construction and the psychological experience thereof. Author Alan Burdick sprinkles in his own experiences of time as the owner of a broken watch, a mildly procrastinating author, a son of an elderly parent, a free-falling and magnetized test subject and, most poignantly, a father of young twin boys among his discussions of protein “clocks” , attosecond spectroscopy and synchronizing synapses. Why Time Flies is at its best when considering the concept of “now” and serves as a more scientific and more personal companion to James Gleick’s more literary and historical Time Travel. If you enjoy (or can tolerate) some detail regarding experimental methodology, then set a bit of it aside and learn why time flies. Highly recommended for the philosophically and psychologically inclined. (Feb 2017)

The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller
Entering freshmen year of college, my plan A major was chemistry. If that didn’t pan out, history was involved in plan B. Long story short, plan A stuck it out for four years of college, five years of graduate school and a teaching career wrapping up its second decade. The Book That Changed America is a reminder that the space between plans A and B could have been taken more seriously. The college freshmen version of me didn’t know it then, but the one sub-genre of science nonfiction I consistently enjoy the most is the history (and philosophy) of science. Author Randall Fuller tells the story of how the single greatest scientific idea anyone ever had, evolution, made its way to and across America starting in late 1859. For America, the story of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is inextricably linked to the years and movements surrounding the Civil War. Because of the link between abolition and the literary world of mid to late-19th century Massachusetts, the impact of Darwin’s dangerous idea on the transcendentalists is similarly undeniable. Some readers will come to Fuller’s work already knowing the likes of Thoreau and May Alcott. Others will be well versed in the details of Darwin’s theory and its early American champion Asa Gray. The Book That Changed America brings these two camps together. Overall, The Book That Changed America is a wonderful telling of the early days of the American history of Darwin’s borderless and timeless idea. (Feb 2017)

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone.
The Upstarts tells the origin stories of Uber and Airbnb. Outside of the obvious players like Google, Amazon and Facebook, I can’t think of two companies that have changed large sectors of the economy more than Airbnb and Uber. What’s more, these companies have enacted global changes by way of a series of local changes, one market at a time. Nobody knows what these companies will eventually become, but the stories of their origins and adolescent years is worth learning. (Feb 2017)

Against Democracy by Jason Brennan
I’ll admit that the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events really soured me on politics and the American experiment. It’s one thing for people to act in ways that are not in their best interest. It’s another when large groups of people simultaneously act in ways that are not in my best interest either. Maybe there’s something better than democracy out there. Maybe this was a book I needed to read to blow of some steam. Either way, Brennan’s arguments for an epistocracy are fun and thought provoking. Hopefully the handful of distracting typos in the hardcover edition will be addressed prior to the paperback release. (Feb 2017)

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
Much of the early, systemic classification of the visible universe was done by a group of dedicated women at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Glass Universe is their story. Sobel’s work here serves as a historical compendium/prequel to Shetterly’s Hidden Figures. While the latter focused on the achievements of black women calculators during WW II and the space race, it is not a stretch to suggest that the contributions of the women working at the Harvard observatory from 1860 to 1950 were an essential antecedent. The Glass Universe is occasionally bogged down by the day-to-day details of an evolving list of characters, but the willing reader will find plenty to enjoy in this recounting of an overlooked portion of science history. (Jan 2017)

The Revenge of Analog:  Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax
First, a bit of irony. I was unable to find a hardcopy at the time this book caught my attention so I cashed in an Audible credit and listened to it during my commute. So much for the revenge of analog. Anyway, as someone who fancies himself a bit of a pen collector and who is rarely without a paper notebook in a back pocket, much of Sax’s take on the importance of the tangible resonated with me. His defense of analog makes it best case when discussing vinyl and paper. It doesn’t take a lot of market research to see that independent record and book stores are still around. While I think Sax is onto something when he argues that many listeners, including younger music fans, are attracted to the visceral vinyl experience, his reasons for why hardcopy books continue to dominate is less convincing. It makes sense that most book buyers are willing to pay a $2-$3 premium for a hardcopy over an ebook. Would they be willing to pay a $5-$6 premium? We may never find out because publishers refuse to price ebooks at rates that make sense. Still, there is much to enjoy in Sax’s analysis. Along with the opening chapter on vinyl, The Revenge of Analog is at its most interesting during the second part when analog ideas about retail, work and schooling are discussed in detail. (Jan 2017)

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Part scree against multitasking, part self-help book and part productivity advice, Deep Work is the kind of book that might get you to rethink some of your daily practices. For quite some time now, I have despised almost everything about email. I hate getting it. I hate sending it. I hate checking it. I hate thinking about checking it. If I needed any more convincing, Newport’s anti-email perspective put me over the top. Email is easily one of the biggest sources of distraction in my professional life. Since finishing Deep Work, I have removed email access (both personal and professional) from my iPhone and I’ve updated my classroom management plans at school with language that basically tells students to never email me. Once you understand that you are almost always addressing someone else’s concerns when emailing you more clearly understand the toll it takes on your own time and space to work. Not surprisingly, Newport has similar things to say about social media. If for no other reason, Deep Work is worth reading so you better understand the variety of ways (almost none of them credible) technology and other demands on your attention are preventing you from doing your best thinking. If you don’t read the book, then at least stop checking your email first, second or third thing in the morning.  (Jan 2017)

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu
Ever hear the term “net neutrality”? If so, Tim Wu’s the guy who coined it. In The Attention Merchants, Wu offers a history on the many forces vying for our attention. From newspapers, to Amos and Andy, to TV gameshows, to AOL chatrooms and social media, The Attention Merchants takes a historical approach detailing the fight for our attention across generations via various forms of media. It is easy to think that the internet and social media have changed everything. In some ways, that’s undeniable true. But in other, more fundamental ways, the attention-harvesting DNA of various platforms show little evolution. In short, The Attention Merchants helped me realize the historical nature of media’s fight for our collective attention and Deep Work offered some prescriptions. (Jan 2017)

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
In the wake of the presidential election it seems that the conservative, white, working-class voter has become a thing worthy of study. Conventional wisdom has it that progressives forgot about these voters leaving an avenue for candidate Trump to become president Trump. While progressive have certainly been distracted by identity politics in the last decade, I’d argue that Trump’s victory has more to do with his incessant lying, a gullible public and James Comey’s questionable ethics. Putting all that aside, Strangers in Their Own Land offers plenty of insight into rural, working-class white America. I suppose credit it due to Hochschild for, as she puts it several times, climbing over the empathy wall in an effort to understand fellow Americans living a noticeably different existence. While some of these folks worked in the petroleum/energy industry in Louisiana, all of them were affected by it on various levels. They understand better than most the balance between appropriate safety and conservation regulations and excessive regulations that cost jobs. Energy extraction/production is a dirty business. The people profiled here lived that reality their entire lives and deserve our consideration. Perhaps it’s a failing on my part, but that’s as far as I can climb the empathy wall. The resentment these working-class folks had for poorer people is palpable and while none of them come across as overtly racist, that animus simmers not so far from the surface. Thoroughly documented with ample supporting materials, Strangers in Their Own Land is the work of a serious academic taking the time to study those she does not understand. While reading, I kept wondering if theses white, working-class people would be as willing to climb Hochschild’s empathy wall and head north to NYC or west to San Francisco. By the end of the book I was pretty convinced the answer would be no. An genuinely interesting and frequently frustrating read. (Jan 2017)

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