Thursday, November 19, 2015

High School Student Explains Special Theory of Relativity - Really

I've written about the Khan Academy a couple of times - here and here. Khan Academy specializes in making sophisticated concepts easy to understand through short video lectures accessed online for free. What started as a simple lectures by Salman Khan on mathematics has expanded to include over 5,000 lectures on a wide variety of topics by a wide variety of faculty. What a bounty of free educational help for students who struggle with concepts, particularly those who don't enjoy good teachers.

The approach has received high accolades, (and of course criticism too about whether the benefits have been adequately proved). I personally have used a few Khan Academy lectures to improve my understanding of certain areas and found them quite helpful.

A recent innovation is the Breakthrough Junior Challenge which invites students between 13 and 18 to submit an instructional video:

The winner this year was Ryan Chester with a thoughtful and coherent explanation of the special theory of relativity. See the video here. You gotta be impressed!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Word Exchange

Douglas Johnson, the brilliant editor of the third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, has disappeared. And so has the about-to-be-released third edition of the dictionary. Even worse, a word flu pandemic is spreading: people are falling ill and their speech is littered with gibberish. So begins this marvellous dystopian science-fiction thriller as Dr. Johnson's daughter Ana tries to unravel the mysteries.

The novel is set in the nearish future. Our smart phones have evolved to really-really-really-smart phones called memes making knowledge look-up so easy that it's not worth storing any knowledge in our own brains.  Word meanings are among the lost knowledge, but that doesn't matter much as you can look up words on the Word Exchange for a few cents. Hm, cornering the market on words would raise the value of the Word Exchange, wouldn't it? A great opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs.

As the memes get compromised, some ancient technologies come into their own. People discover fax machines, typewriters and even those Victorian wonders pneumatic tubes. Although pneumatic tubes are no longer used for transporting information, they are still used to transport things - think of their handy use in hospitals transporting test samples between departments. The Wikipedia entry on pneumatic tubes is fascinating.

I highly recommend this book. Quirky and endearing characters and a fast-moving plot make it highly entertaining, while musings on the dangers of where our technology could take us make it very thought-provoking. What would our world look like without words?

Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:
Non Fiction:
Being Mortal
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean (my most viewed book review)
Curiosity (my second most viewed book review)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Checklist Manifesto
The Lean Start-up
The Upside of Irrationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Steve Jobs
Global Warring

Life After Life
A Possible Life (I love anything by Sebastien Faulks)
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Rules of Civility
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Faithful Place
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Help
The Housekeeper and the Professor

Some series I've liked:
Donna Leon's series about the Venetian detective Guido Brunelli: A Question of Belief
Canadian Peter Robinson's series about British detective Alan Banks: Before the PoisonBad Boy
James Church books about a North Korean detective: A Corpse in the KoryoHidden MoonBamboo and BloodThe Man with the Baltic Stare
Gianrico Carofiglio's series about an Italian policeman: Involuntary Witness
Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole: The RedeemerThe RedbreastNemesis
Alexander McCall Smith's series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Andrea Cammillieri's books about Sicilian Inspector Montalbano: The Shape of Water
Martin Walker's series about French local policeman Bruno, Chief of Police
Louise Penny's detective series set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Still Life
Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Danish detective Carl Morck: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Ruth Rendell's books about Chief Inspector Reg Wexford
Arnald Indridsadon's books about Finnish detective Erlendur: Arctic ChillHypothermia and Outrage

Other books I've also liked:
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Better Angels of our Nature
The Believing Brain
Hellstrom's Hive
22 Britannia Road
The Imposter Bride
Murder as a Fine Art
The Invisible Bridge
This Body of Death
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Berlin Crossing
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Makioka Sisters
Suite Francaise
The Man from Beijing
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
The Ghost
The Council of Dads
The Elements
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
The Janissary Tree

Some books I didn't like very much:
A Perfect Heaven
Potsdam Station
The End of the Wasp Season
The Dark Room
Dead or Alive
A Vintage Affair
The Finkler Question
When the Devil Holds the Candle

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Welcome Back 007

As Bond aficionados (and I count myself one) await the latest Bond movie, The Economist Daily Chart (of which I'm also an aficionado) featured some deeply meaningful charts. These charts just might be as hilarious as a Bond movie.

This first one compares the martini/romances/kill ratio for each of the Bond actors or as The Economist so quaintly puts it, booze, bonks and bodies. Connery had the highest ratio of conquests - why doesn't this surprise me - while Brosnan has the highest proportion of kills - and this did surprise me.

Here's a chart showing the loose connection between ratings (at least as shown on IMDB) and box office success. Click here to view it on the Economist web site where it's interactive.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Last weekend my husband and I decided to go to see The Martian. I perused the online listings to choose a time and theatre. But it was much more complicated than that!

Did we want to see the movie in regular seats, or go to a VIP theatre? In 3D, AVX or UltraAVX? Dolby Atmos? And what about D-Box? And different theatres had different combinations of all those special technical features. I was faced with a dozen decisions.

Experiments* have shown that offering too many alternatives dampens consumer purchases. That almost happened in our case, as I came close to giving up in frustration. But we finally opted to see the movie in 3D, with AVX, Atmos and D-Box, in a regular, not a VIP, theatre. Found the D-Box seat vibrations somewhat distracting. If they're going to move the seat around I think they need to pick one point of view - the main character. In this movie, mostly we were supposed to feel like Matt Damon, but sometimes they'd jerk the seat when a piece of equipment fell down as if we were that piece of equipment. Not satisfying.

By the way, really liked the movie. Much better than the last space sci-fi movie I saw, Gravity.

*For those not familiar with this famous experiment, here's how Barry Schwartz describes it in The Paradox of Choice. 
When researchers set up [in a gourmet food store] a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.