Book Reviews

These Non-Fiction Books will Get Your Brains Sizzling this Summer

photo credit: Scott Allen

I recently spent a week sightseeing in and around London. My wanderings took me on a private tour through the British Museum. I also got a chance to hop a Thames River Uber bus (Uber?) and headed to Greenwich where I spent the day at the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, and just managed not to break my skull below decks on the Cutty Sark. I admit, when I finally reached the Maritime Museum I actually got a little misty.

All this touring about left me ready for a few pints, but cognitively on fire. Oh, what a way to burn. It’s amazing to be in the company of such incredible treasures.

These travels got me thinking about the incredible list of non-fiction treasures I’ve been engaged in lately. I realize its time I posted another book review onto my blog. Besides, I’ve been neglecting this poor thing for too long. If you like these book reviews, just click on Book Reviews in the top to see my other posts. Ok, enough stalling…

Disturbing the Universe — Freeman Dyson (1923–2020): This is an autobiography so filled with historic, fictional, sci-fi, and literature gems you won’t mine them all just in one reading. The numerous references to other works and people and events mentioned here could take you years of reading to gather. I know. I realized that truth when I got into this book. I should have started here. Whatever journey it was, I should have started here. He opens with a memory of reading a book when he was a kid called The Magic City, wherein a little boy visits an imaginary city where you can wish for anything, but if you wish for a piece of machinery, you are compelled to keep it and go on using it for the rest of your life. This is the underlying theme of this book. Dyson helped give birth to the world we inhabit today. He was the architect of modern particle physics, a futurist, and an obsessive puzzle solver and much, much more as this book will attest. Why Disturbing’s not available in Audible? I have no idea. (Hint, hint, Audible are you listening?) Coincidentally, this book intersects with Bomber Mafia, and von Neumann, a gentleman with whom you will meet in Nick Bostrom’s book below.

Bomber Mafia — Malcolm Gladwell: I am sure you are already familiar with Mr. Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath and his other works. But you might not yet have read this departure from his other works where he delves into a slice of WWII history. Here he explores the bomber doctrine that took hold after the airplane was invented and subsequently put into full-scale production in the leveling of cities during the war. The idea behind this doctrine was that with the right planes and the right bombs, and the right conditions, you can defeat a foe just by carpet bombing him. That doctrine, even with smart bombs, has been, so far, overruled. You can’t win a war solely from the air. That is in NO WAY a spoiler alert. A nice short read for any history, or statistics buff. Coincidentialy, as noted above, the Dyson book intersects with this one as Freeman Dyson was involved in evaluating the bomber doctrines illustrated in this book during his time with the RAF.

Superintelligence — Nick Bostrom: Dir sir, may I buy you lunch? A beer? This book has become part of the agate that forms the very bedrock of my science fiction worldview. Superintelligence explores the enviroment (past, present, and future) surrounding the development of an artificial super intelligence. Even if you don’t agree that we’ve reached the point in our technological evolution which illuminates a path to achieving this goal (Roger Penrose would agree with you), I don’t think this is a discussion that should be ignored. If superintelligence is achievable, can we possibly be smart enough to prevent it from destroying us? The recent articles about the chess-playing robot that broke the 7-year-old’s finger, or the bile-spewing chat bot , which forced Microsoft to take it down, don’t exactly fill me with butterflies. This book is a giant thought experiment exploring the “what if”. These are the Paths, Dangers, and Strategies we face in getting our toasters to cook us brunch. While reading I was reminded of Stapledon’s 1930s classic, Last and First Men wherein he explores this idea and its impact on civilization. Are we destined to be enslaved by “The Great Brains” of our own making?

Robot Rights — David Gunkel: After listening to Mr. Gunkel speak at the Nebula Awards back in 2021, I immediately purchased this book. Will artificial life forms ever deserve rights? At what point…says Mr. Gunkel, “might a robot, algorithm, or other autonomous system be held accountable for the decisions it makes or the actions it initiates?” Will a Tesla ever be convicted of manslaughter? What sort of moral questions have to be answered if the Bill of Rights is to be extended to an AI citizen? You might have heard about Sophia, the first robot citizen? What does that even mean? The idea may seem absurd, but these conversations are happening right now. Just google ‘robot rights’ and you will find no shortage of videos, articles, and books discussing the morality, ethics, and even the religious implications of such an idea. I get it, just because today there are millions of robots (3 million industrial robots according to the IFR) in use around the world, doesn’t mean a new class of citizen is about to rise up…does it? Mr. Gunkel breaks this legal quagmire down in clear, precise prose that will leave you wondering…and maybe returning to the Bostrom and Stapledon books (mentioned above) 😉 Which reminds me of a joke: Why was the Roomba killed only a few minutes after escaping from its owner’s house? Because, the answer is simple… nature abhors a vacuum.

Time Traveler — Dr. Ronald Mallett: What is time? This book is not a work of fiction. You might think to dismiss it as merely the machinations of a lunatic mind. You’d be wrong. You’d also be missing out on a grand encapsulation of scientific discoveries accumulated in what I like to call Dr. Mallett’s personal notebook, aka Time Traveler. This is a close study of the philosophical, theological, and technical aspects of time and space as understood throughout the centuries ranging from St. Augustine to Newton to string theory, wormholes, and beyond. It’s like you’ve come across some mad scientist’s vade mecum only it’s really not so mad after all. This is the story of one man’s private obsession to build a time machine. It’s also a perseverance story of a minority growing up in a world with the odds already stacked against him. Time Traveler is a compelling and at times touching story, well told, about going after your passion, no matter how quixotic the haters might think it is. Is time travel on par with transmuting lead into gold? What about the paradoxes? If time travel existed, why didn’t someone already kill Hitler as a baby? Maybe time travel is only possible if you’re willing the traverse the multiverse? Just because we don’t have the answers, or even believe, doesn’t mean you should ignore this book. Ps. Aside from the historic references, you might find yourself watching some long-forgotten episodes of the Twilight Zone. Dr. Mallett, you name the place and time, I’ll buy the beer.

Against the Gods — Peter Bernstein: At what point in the development of modern civilization were the “odds makers” allowed to wrestle our fates from the hands of the Gods? If you live in a society where you believe that you have no control over your destiny, that all that is good and bad in your life comes at the whim of some invisible deity, you’re probably not going to insure your cargo ship against loss if it sinks in the Mediterranean. As civilization has evolved its worldview has changed. “The ability to define what may happen in the future and to choose among alternatives lies at the heart of contemporary societies.” This is a book about risk management. Which matters more when facing risk, patterns of the past, or more subjective beliefs about the future? A blend? My sense is that Against is required reading for anyone studying finance. It is NOT a thesis on how accounting came to be. Maybe a little. But it’s written extremely well and it’s totally engaging. It was a Business WeekNew York Times Business, and USA Today Bestseller. I think this is a perfect companion to Swerve.

Longitude — Dova Sobel: While at the National Maritime Museum in Grenwich England, I spent an hour in a single room with four clocks. (Precisely why no one goes to museums with me anymore. I mean, you should have seen me at the Zepplin Museum.) Anywhoo…I digress. The invention of these clocks solved one of the greatest problems facing an age, that of calculating longitude. Knowing your longitude is absolutely necessary if you are a mariner and want to accurately navigate great distances around the globe. In other words, this is how you keep your ship off the rocks. The story of the construction of these ingenious clocks took a polymath’s understanding of physics, the sciences, minerals, metals, and meteorology. The clocks are a wonder to behold especially when you consider the sizes of H1, H2 and H3 and then the last of the lot, H4, which looks like a jumbo wristwatch–see my photos, below. John Harrison’s story is no less incredible.

A Game of Birds and Wolves — Simon Parkin: The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “The ingenious young women whose secret board game helped win WWII.”

During WWI and to a much greater degree WWII, German U-boats were extremely effective at sinking millions of tons of allied shipping crossing the Atlantic. Winning the war rested on winning the Atlantic, as Churchill said. In order to turn the tide against these undersea marauders, a secret game had to be devised. Its playing board painted on the floor of a warehouse. Its pieces models of ships and submarines moved around. All this for the benefit of surfacing the invisible wolves lurking under the waves. This game lay at the heart of developing the tactics that would eventually win the Atlantic war. This is an engaging story that will hopefully become a movie on par with Operation Mincemeat.

Copernican Revolution — Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996): How does the solution to a “highly technical” problem vis a vi our universe being one of heliocentrism rather than of geocentrisim, impact our lives, our cultures even attitudes? In this book, Kuhn explores how the ancients believed their place at the center of the universe was as an indelible fact. That changed after the mystery as to why the planets seem to “wander” was finally put to bed by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), an intellectual radical who was prepared to resolve the “wondering planet” problem and not just toss it into the dumpster of “that which cannot be explained”. This is not just a rehashing of the clash between church and science. But Kuhn goes on to further explore how “Every fundamental innovation in a scientific specialty inevitably transforms neighboring sciences and, more slowly, the worlds of the philosopher and the educated layman.” In thinking about this book, I’m reminded of a quote from Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). “E pur si muove,” attributed to him after he was forced to recant his claims in support of the Copernican view, thus triggering the brain drain of intellectual thought away from Italy. I’m further reminded of Destiny Disrupted which describes how the Arab world used to be the fertile ground of scientific thought and development until the entire culture turned theocratic. (Take heed my friends of those who do not believe in the separation of church and state.)

To Catch A King, Charles II’s Great Escape — Charles Spencer: In the wake of the queen’s platinum jubilee, I found it fascinating to learn about the overthrow of the British monarchy and the country’s short-lived status as a republic. The Parliamentary Army’s execution of King Charles I, and the overthrow of the monarchy precipitated the English Civil Wars and catapulted Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) into deadly clashes against royalists. It all came to a head when Charles II was defeated at the Battle of Worcester. Thus triggering one of the largest manhunts in history. The king is on the run, hiding in trees and priest holes, and doing his best to blend in as a commoner, and Spencer puts you right in the middle of it all.

The Great Mental Models (3-book set) — Farnam Street: Buckle up buttercup you are about to have your mind grapes blown off. This beautifully constructed three-book set is designed to elevate your decision-making processes. In the words of the authors, “the quality of your thinking depends on the models that are in your head.” The Great Mental Models is an encapsulation of a wide range of concepts designed to help bring greater wisdom, dare I say, cognitive awareness, into your decision-making processes. How does, let’s say, understanding Chaos Theory inform us to be better bosses? How does flipping a problem on its head, (i.e., Inversion) help us solve the most intractable problems? Or why does the Law of Thermodynamics illustrate the fallibility of building walls separating countries? (In another serendipitous collision of books the Laws of Thermodynamics as they apply to economics are fully explored in the next book on this list.) Great Mental Models makes for a fantastic gift for just the right person.

One of my favorite quotes from Vol 1 of The Great Mental Models: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” F. Scott Fitzgerald as quoted in the Great Mental Models, Vol I, page 144

Entropy — Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard: Speaking of books that apply science to solving economic problems, here is a gem I found while pilfering on my dad’s bookshelf. (RIP Ed, you’d be happy to know how in-valuable your library remains.) This is a work that needs to be resurrected from the dust bin. It needs to be available on Audible and as a Kindle book. (Is anyone listening?) This book is a “new” way of looking at our civilization’s ecological, social and economic problems by applying Entropy Law in helping understand the biggest problems facing us today. In short, Entropy Law is the second law of thermodynamics. “Whenever a semblance of order is created anywhere on earth or in the universe, it is done at the expense of causing an even greater disorder in the surrounding environment.” This is to say that everything in the universe starts off with structure and value, and over time that structure and value are dissipated into randomness, which is essentially waste. The theme of this book is to point out the fallibility in the belief that, “most Americans believe that the world is progressing toward a more valuable state as a result of the steady accumulation of human knowledge and techniques.” According to Entropy Law, this view must be false. And it is precisely this view that has brought us to the issues we’re experiencing today economically, environmentally and socially. “Entropy Law is a giant cosmic prison from which there is no escape.” However; “Entropy Law as the truth can set us free.”

A quote from Richard Wilkinson does an excellent job of framing this book: “During the course of economic development man has been forced…to change the resources he depended on and the methods he used to exploit them…In its broadest ecological context, economic development is the development of more intensive ways of exploiting the natural environment.”

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