Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Ten Articles from The Economist in 2015

Any reader of this blog knows my admiration for The Economist. I'm not exactly subtle. Not sure if this is a no-no, quoting verbatim a piece from the magazine about their top stories of the year. But I encourage you to follow this link to get a brief summary of the story, so I guess it's okay. I just found their analysis of top stories so fascinating I've included it below.

A FEW trends emerge from the list of The Economist's ten most-read articles of 2015. The theme of inequality remains top of mind for our readers; articles about Asian-Americans, working-class males and inherited privilege all found their way into the top four. Many articles in this list are amongst our longer offerings, suggesting that readers set aside time to read them rather than snacking on the go. And most of the pieces below are leaders, which tells us that our readers want to know not only what happened but what can be done about it. The top piece, however, is an exception to all these trends: a fascinating science report about a new breed of animal called the coywolf.    

Saturday, December 26, 2015

What's in a Word? Beware, They'll Soon Be Gone

We all know that people's vocabularies are shrinking. Written communications that convey an exact nuance with the precisely appropriate word are labelled as inaccessible or too academic. Not having an arsenal of words to choose from - say the difference between fear, apprehension, trepidation, dread, uneasiness, foreboding, disquiet, horror, terror - many simply indicate degree by saying  they're scared, or f---ing scared.  Americans tend to resort to similes - as scared as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs - when they can't think of just the right word. This can lead to colourful language, and might put a smile on your face, but IMHO, it's a sign of being too lazy to strive for exactly the right word.

And now comes woeful confirmation of my suspicions from The Economist - the mother lode of exquisitely apt words. In their issue, The World in 2016, their obituary page features an "Elegy for lost verbiage" as they bid farewell to a number of words that are vanishing from the SAT tests American students write to earn university entrance. There's a picture of them flying away in the sunset.

In a hilarious tale of word magic, Joe goes to a cocktail party, where he meets the lovely Ms Wanton and many other banned, and not particularly obscure, words. Read the whole article here.

Other Posts on Words:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lib's Book Reviews

As I expanded the number of book reviews in this blog, I started attaching a list with links to past book reviews and lists of other books I've enjoyed. The list is clearly getting cumbersome, and makes any book review post rather daunting because of its length. So I've decided to put that list in one post and update it as time goes on and I read and review more books. I'll include a link to this post at the bottom of book reviews to make it easy to find for those who are interested.

Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:


Where the Crawdads Sing
The October List
The Heirs
A Gentleman in Moscow
Rules of Civility
The Word Exchange
Gone Girl
The Girl on the Train
I Let You Go
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

Non Fiction:
Life on the Ground Floor
Flash Boys
The Gene: An Intimate History
Being Mortal
The Innovator's Dilemma
Elon Musk
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
The Year of Yes

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 Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan
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, December 16, 2015

Elon Musk

Ashlee Vance's book about Elon Musk is a great book. Of course, it helps to have such a charismatic subject.

Elon Musk has been called everything from a visionary to a crackpot. I first came across him speaking to an elite technology conference in California in 2006. He had credibility as a founder who'd made gobs of money on two Internet ventures - Zip2 and PayPal - but you'd never have known it.  Shuffling diffidently to the front of the room, he haltingly explained that he was pouring that money into a new company called SpaceX to build rocket ships that would revolutionize the space industry. (From the founding in 2002 until 2006, Musk had poured $100M  into the company). Never having trained as an aerospace engineer. With no experience in the space industry. His modest goal was to radically reduce the cost of access to space. And, oh, by the way, his ultimate goal was to enable humans to voyage to and settle Mars -  Plan B if we totally mucked Earth up as appeared likely. It was an offhanded presentation of a mind-boggling vision that stretched credulity. Most thought he was a crackpot.

Then he built those rockets. His lack of aeronautical experience led to a rethink of the then-current assumptions of the government-dominated industry. And SpaceX became the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station.  Its vertically integrated approach makes them much more efficient than the other big aerospace manufacturers - Musk figures SpaceX is clever enough to build components better and more cheaply than they can buy them. The big breakthrough will come if they can make rockets that are reusable, and that goal is within sight*. Hmm, maybe he's a visionary.

At this point Musk already had a great lifetime resumé. But he wasn't finished. Next he exploded into the public eye with his plan to build an audacious all-electric car. With no training as an automotive engineer. And no experience in the automotive industry. Maybe he is a crackpot after all. As his rhetorical skills improved, some began to think he was self-aggrandizing blowhard crackpot.

But Tesla is not 'just' an electric car. As with SpaceX, Musk questioned and challenged every assumption and belief of the traditional automotive industry. He built the car from the ground up. Never having trained as an automotive engineer. Sound familiar?

Then there's Musk's involvement and investment in batteries and his $5B gigafactory and Tesla's announcement of its PowerWall. Batteries have been a technology crying out for radical improvement, and there's Musk again. Then there's his proposal for a hyper-loop (based on those pneumatic tubes mentioned in The Word Exchange (recent review here)) as the most efficient transportation mode between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The jury's still out on this one, but it's getting ever harder to bet against Musk.

In his fascinating and readable book about Musk, Vance acknowledges that he started in the "he's a crackpot" camp and ended up in the "he's a visionary" camp. He tells a rollicking tale of how Musk ended up where he is now, including some warts on his professional and personal resume. He describes Musk's drive and commitment, almost obsession, to his projects. He gives some insight into how Musk keeps so many balls in the air - running one company as groundbreaking as SpaceX would be challenging, but adding Tesla to the mix, then batteries, and hyper-loop as a side project is truly amazing. (Hint: he spends a lot of time on airplanes).

This is a great read. Good Christmas gift book idea too.

* That other Internet mogul who's interested in space, Jeff Bezos, has also started a space company called Blue Origin. Blue Origin recently successfully had a spacecraft and rocket booster return to earth to be reused. However, Blue Origin has a much more modest goal than SpaceX; it simply wants to get to the edge of space for space tourism while SpaceX wants to send up spacecraft that go high enough to reach orbit.

P.S. Here's a link to list of books I've read, reviewed, liked or disliked.