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Reviews Written by
Stephen Pletko "Uncle Stevie" (London, Ontario, Canada)

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The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told through Equations
The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told through Equations
by Dana Mackenzie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.91
26 used & new from CDN$ 20.46

5.0 out of 5 stars 2, 4, 6, 8, which equations do we appreciate??, Nov. 9 2013

"In this book, I hope to lift the veil of mystery and secrecy that surrounds mathematics and equations, so that those who are interested can see what lies underneath...

The rest of the world, outside of science, does not speak the language of equations, and thus a vast cultural gap has emerged between those who understand them and those who do not. This book is an attempt to build a bridge across that chasm.

It is intended for the reader who would like to understand mathematics on its own terms, and who would like to appreciate mathematics as an art...

The following chapters will try to explain in words--even if words are feeble and inaccurate--what these equations mean and why they are justly treasured by those who know them."

The above comes from the preface and introduction to this interesting book by Dana Mackenzie. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton and was a mathematics professor for thirteen years before becoming a full-time writer and author.

This is a history of mathematics book that uses selected equations to carry its main narrative forward. Little prior mathematical knowledge is demanded.

I appreciated that each chapter gets down to the essentials behind each equation with no unnecessary filler. Thus, this book is never boring.

The equations themselves include those from antiquity (like the world's simplest equation and the laws of levers) all the way to those equations in our own time (such as equations of the photoelectric effect and equations of chaos theory).

How were the equations in this book selected? The author used four main criteria to decide what makes an equation great:

(1) It's inspiring, telling us something we did not know before.
(2) It's concise, saying something simple but powerful.
(3) It's consequential, changing our view of the world.
(4) It's universal in that the equation will remain true forever.

Finally, peppered throughout this book are illustrations and pictures (in colour). I found that all of these illuminated the main narrative.

In conclusion, for those who what a fast, concise history of mathematics as told through its major equations, this is the book for you!!

(first published 2012; preface; introduction; 4 parts or 24 chapters; conclusion; main narrative 215 pages; acknowledgements; bibliography; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


DVD ~ Frank Langella
Price: CDN$ 8.88
27 used & new from CDN$ 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars What do garlic and a cross have in common?? They both repel...vampires. SACRILEGE!!, Nov. 2 2013
This review is from: Dracula (DVD)

Most people know the story of Dracula based the novel "Dracula" (1897) by Bram Stoker.

In this particular movie, much of Stoker's original plot was revised to make the film more romantic. And what a film!! This American/British movie is a triumph of:

(1) performance
(2) art direction
(3) atmosphere or mood.

Frank Langella as Dracula gives an electrifying performance. He stalks with the grace of a cat. And Laurence Olivia (1907 to 1989) is in fine form as Van Helsing, Dracula's nemesis.

The background music is just fantastic. (This is not surprising since the musical score is by the great John Williams.)

The special effects were also good for the time.

This movie has a tremendous, exciting ending that you've got to see.

This film is notable for switching the main female character roles. (Dracula purists might be shocked by this.)

This movie won the 1979 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film.

The DVD itself (the one released in 2004) has three extras.

Finally, the only problem was that the colour was somewhat washed out. This is a pity since the sets and costumes are just gorgeous and deserved strong, vibrant colours.

In conclusion, this is a more romantic version of the story of Dracula with a mesmerizing performance by Frank Langella!!!

(1979; 1 hr, 45 min excluding end credits; wide screen; 18 scenes; rated 'R')

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


The Enlightenment Vision: Science, Reason, and the Promise of a Better Future
The Enlightenment Vision: Science, Reason, and the Promise of a Better Future
by Stuart Jordan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 17.24
40 used & new from CDN$ 11.85

5.0 out of 5 stars "Science and reason, not superstition and/or ideology, are the best means to ensure a better future for people everywhere", Oct. 26 2013

"This book is primarily a general thesis within an even broader one. [This book] proposes a general thesis that, while the historical Western Enlightenment remains the right vision for a higher stage of human civilization, we have so fallen short of its attainment and will not likely reach the [primary] goal [the development of a better secular world based on science and reason for humankind as a whole] soon or without further struggle.

However, the broader thesis offers a prediction that this goal is likely to be attained and exceeded in currently unpredictable ways by descendants both more intelligent and more empathetic than we are today. Arguments are given in support of these views. No vigorous proof is attempted, nor is one possible, for the future of humanity is ultimately unpredictable. What is written here can then be called an educated guess, but one that I hope to show is a reasonable one."

The above comes from the preface of this extremely interesting book by Stuart Jordan. He has a doctorate in physics & astrophysics and is a Rhoades scholar. Jordan is a retired senior staff scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He is currently president of the Institute for Science and Human Values.

This book evaluates, thus far, how well the Enlightenment vision and its goals have been realized. Jordan presents the positives (such as radical improvements in medicine and technology) and the negatives (like overpopulation and socioeconomic injustice).

As well, this book attempts to assess where the many positive advances and the serious negative problems leave us today, and looks at our prospects for the future.

This book delves into the subjects of science, politics, religion, and economics (towards the end) as they pertain to the Enlightenment vision.

Finally, the book itself is divided into four parts, each part being composed of three chapters. The titles of these parts are as follows:

(1) The Enlightenment Then and Now
(2) Prospects for Progress
(3) Towards a More Humanistic World
(4) Reassessing the Enlightenment

In conclusion, this is a powerful book!! Jordan makes a powerful personal endorsement of the Enlightenment vision, optimistic that it will eventually prevail.

(first published 2012; preface and introduction; 4 parts or 12 chapters; main narrative 230 pages; notes and bibliography; acknowledgments; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Climate of Doubt  (FRONTLINE)
Climate of Doubt (FRONTLINE)
Price: CDN$ 26.99
22 used & new from CDN$ 8.58

5.0 out of 5 stars Is climate change or "global warming" science a hoax??, Oct. 19 2013
This review is from: Climate of Doubt (FRONTLINE) (DVD)

"In the last [American] election, few seemed to doubt that climate change was real. But since then, a successful campaign has been waged to introduce doubt about the science...How did [this] happen and who's behind it?"

The above is said by the narrator at the beginning of this very interesting documentary. This documentary was first shown on television on October 23, 2012 as part of the "Frontline" series of television documentaries. (Frontline, a public affairs television program, has received numerous awards for its outstanding work.)

This film presents how the sceptics of climate change (or "global warming") and those who want everything to stay as it is (like Exxon Mobil) are fighting the scientific warnings with regard to climate change.

This documentary shows archival footage and provides brief comments from both sceptics (mainly non-scientists) and non-sceptics (like climate scientists).

Finally, there are no extras.

In conclusion, this is a riveting documentary that explains how sceptics of climate change are attempting to silence the non-sceptics. I leave you with some of the facts found in the film:

(1) High temperature records are continuously being broken.
(2) Climate change is coming: it means drought, fire, and suffering.
(3) The entire climate is changing--it's affecting our energy, our water, our agriculture, and our health.
(4) Record-setting droughts are occurring.
(5) The amount of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean in 2012 was at a record low.

(2012; 53 min, excluding end credits; 6 chapters; wide screen; PBS)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does
The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does
by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.50
23 used & new from CDN$ 5.20

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I'm happy I read this book!!, Oct. 12 2013

(1) I'll be happy when...I'm rich.
(2) I can't be happy when...the best years of my life are over.

The above are two myths of happiness found in this well-written and inspiring book by Sonja Lyubomirsky. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California (Riverside). Lyubomirsky has won many grants for her research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.

Besides the two myths mentioned above, Lyubomirsky examines eight more myths (or "false promises") that occur at major turning points of adult life.

The myths examined are supposed to assure us that lifelong happiness will be obtained once we hit the culturally confirmed markers of adult success.

What I appreciated was the psychological research present in this book. Lyubomirsky appears to have drawn on the best psychological research (including more than seven hundred scholarly references).

Finally, this book offers the perspective we need to make wise choices, instructing us on how to slow down the effects of getting used to a positive event and how to find the way forward in a time of negativity.

In conclusion, this book effectively examines some key myths of happiness. This is a good book--and that's no myth!!

(first published 2013; introduction; 3 parts or 10 chapters; conclusion; main narrative 250 pages; acknowledgements; notes; index; about the author)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Heist: Who Stole the American Dream [Import]
Heist: Who Stole the American Dream [Import]
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 67.45
7 used & new from CDN$ 54.85

5.0 out of 5 stars DEMOCRACY UNDER ATTACK: "This has been the greatest wealth transfer in the history...of America-kind if not mankind", Oct. 5 2013

"Massive job losses, record home foreclosures, lost retirement savings. The mess we're in today did not begin on Wall Street. Long before the financial collapse, the dismantling of government and regulation was well underway. Vast sums of wealth were already being channelled from the pay cheques and bank accounts of everyday taxpayers and into the pockets of the super-rich and corporate CEOs...

In a real-life development dwarfing the most elaborate conspiracy fiction, all of these consequences are the end result of a brilliantly executed coup. Everyday human lives, the common dreams of people everywhere were never a factor. All that mattered was profit. Who did it? How were they able to pull it off right before our eyes? This is the story of the biggest heist in American history."

The above is spoken by the narrator at the beginning of this powerful documentary, a documentary of reality at its most real.

In this film, we're told about such things as:

(1) weapons of mass deception
(2) the Reagan revolution
(3) super tax cuts for the super rich
(4) media manipulation
(5) outsourcing middle class wealth
(6) targeting retirees

There is actually very little narration but, instead, there are brief comments from significant others, archival footage, factoids printed on-screen, etc. In other words, this documentary is never boring. For me personally, I was riveted to the screen.

Finally, the DVD itself (the one released to 2012) has two extras entitled "for the 99%" (20 minutes) and "the sub-prime mortgage scam" (15 minutes).

In conclusion, this documentary will stay with you long after you've viewed it. I leave you with this riddle posed by one of this documentary's commentators:

"What's a four letter word that starts with an 'F,' ends with a 'K,' and stands for screw your workers?"

(2012; 1 hr, 12 min. excluding end credits; 13 chapters, full screen)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


State of the World 2013
State of the World 2013
by The Worldwatch Institute
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 20.90
34 used & new from CDN$ 20.90

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can we acheive the goal of "living cleanly and well on a healthy biosphere?", Sept. 28 2013

"This year's 'State of the World' aims to expand and deepen discussion of the overused and misunderstood adjective `sustainable,' which in recent years has morphed from its original meaning into something like 'a little better for the environment than the alternative.' Simply doing `better' environmentally will not stop the unravelling of ecological relationships we depend on for food and health. Improving our act will not stabilize the atmosphere. It will not slow the falling of aquifers or the rising of oceans. Nor will it return Arctic ice, among Earth's most visible natural features from space, to its pre-industrial extent."

The above comes from the first essay or chapter of this very interesting book by The Worldwatch Institute. This Institute is an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. It helps to inform policymakers and the public about the complex links between the world economy and its environmental support systems.

This book itself is comprised of 34 essays by just over 50 authors. (Some essays have more than one author.) It has 30 text boxes (that is, information boxes that are set apart form the main narrative of a particular essay), almost 15 tables, and almost 30 black and white figures . There are also black and white photographs throughout.

The authors are quite diverse in what they do and the majority of them have more than one occupation. The greatest percentage of authors by far are professors, followed by directors, fellows, founders, researchers, presidents, and authors & writers. Then there is a teacher, lecturer, administrator, associate, accredited professional, account executive, college senior, astronomer, anthropologist, and consultant. Those authors actually associated with The Worldwatch Institute in some way account form about 19% of the overall authorship of this book.

When reading this book, I asked myself three main questions:

(1) Is the state of the world for the year 2013 adequately covered?
(2) Is sustainability still possible (this book's subtitle), at least, hypothetically?
(3) And perhaps most important: Is sustainability still possible with continual population and economic growth?

For the first question, the state of the world is adequately covered. A vast array of topics is discussed: examples include energy and energy alternatives, fisheries, resources, planetary boundaries, fossil fuels, climate change, and agriculture.

The second question is also adequately focused on. In fact, this entire book is structured around the concept of sustainability. The first part of this book, "The Sustainability Metric" (8 essays) details exactly what a rigorous definition of sustainability (or environmentally sustainable) should be, helping to make this important concept both measurable and meaningful. The second part, entitled "Getting to True Sustainability" (14 essays) explains what we should be doing now to make progress toward it. "Open in Case of Emergency" is the title of the third and final part (11 essays). Here, we're told how we might cope if we fail to achieve true sustainability.

The third question posed above is linked to the second question but is more specific and applicable to modern times. Both population growth and economic growth are major limiting factors to sustainability. I felt that these two limiting factors were discussed too briefly.

Thus, my final rating for this book is based on how adequately the three questions indicated above were answered. For question (1), this book deserves 5 stars. For question (2), 4 stars. For question (3), this book gets 3 stars. My final rating is an average of these three individual ratings.

My favourite three essays were as follows:

(1) the stand-alone essay entitled "Beyond Sustainababble." It was written by Robert Engelman, the president of the Worldwatch Institute.
(2) the last essay (#34) entitled "Is It Too Late." This was written a novelist and science fiction writer.
(3) the 30TH essay that has the title "Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline" written by two authors, a research director and an executive director. Forced by the Soviet Union's collapse, Cuba suffered a period of harsh adjustment but has scavenged a culture with a small environmental footprint and high levels of nonmaterial well-being. Note that this country has a relatively small population (with its population growth rate being negative) and a economic system not based on capitalism.

Finally, I appreciated the diversity and number of authors who contributed to this book. (In fact, we're told this edition has "more contributors than ever appeared in a previous edition.") However, I felt that perhaps there were too many authors thus not giving the book continuity with respect to the book's subtitle "Is Sustainability Still Possible."

In conclusion, this book tells us how we can achieve the sustainable goal of "living cleanly and well on a healthy biosphere, sharing Earth with the rest of the creatures who rely on it."

(first published 2013; acknowledgements; A Year in Review timeline, December 2011 to November 2012; stand-alone essay/chapter: "Beyond Sustainababble;" 3 parts or 33 essays/chapters; main narrative 380 pages; notes; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration
Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration
by Buzz Aldrin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.44
51 used & new from CDN$ 5.98

4.0 out of 5 stars The second man on the Moon says, "I believe this nation should commit commencing American permanence on...Mars", Sept. 21 2013

"Humans will one day live on Mars. The year 2019 will mark the 50TH anniversary of the first time humans set foot on the Moon. I have long suggested this historic anniversary is an ideal time for a future President to announce a commitment, similar to that of President Kennedy's that brought about Apollo, to establish a permanent human presence on the planet Mars within the following two decades."

The above comes from this fascinating book by Buzz Aldrin (with Leonard David). Aldrin, best known for being the second man on the Moon, is educated in the scientific disciplines of mechanical engineering and astronautics. He has been decorated with numerous awards. (David is a veteran space journalist who has been writing about the space industry for more than fives decades.)

In this book, Aldrin presents what he calls his "Unified Space Vision" which is ultimately about getting a human presence on the Red Planet and beyond. Along the way he discusses such things as the business case for space exploration, the importance of science education, space tourism, near-Earth objects, returning humans to the Moon, and missions to asteroids.

Personally, what I enjoyed most about this book was the historical details, especially about his historic Moon landing.

For me, the last chapter is especially good because it gives a tribute to Neil Armstrong (1930 to 2012), the first man on the Moon.

Peppered throughout the book are black and white illustrations. As well, there are a set of sixteen colour photographs at the center of the book. I found most of the black and white illustrations and colour photographs quite interesting.

Finally, the only problem I had with this book is that certain things are not explained or elaborated on.

For example, we're told of "today's elitist nature of going into space." I'm not sure what this means and this phrase was not really elaborated on.

Or we're told about "space entrepreneurs" providing such things as space tourism, orbital hotels, and other space services to "ordinary people." Now, we're not really told what a "space entrepreneur" is but it seems to be a person that has acquired obscene amounts of money in some industry (like music, entertainment, or the Internet) and is now magically qualified to bring his or her profit motive to space. Again, I would have liked more explanation, more elaboration.

In conclusion, this is a thought-provoking and awe-inspiring book told by a person who has been as far from Earth as any human being!!

**** 1/2

(first published 2013; forword; 8 chapters; main narrative 210 pages; appendix; illustration credits; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Decoding Neanderthals
Decoding Neanderthals
Price: CDN$ 26.66
23 used & new from CDN$ 18.30

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I've been called a Neanderthal before. I never knew I was being...complimented!!, Sept. 14 2013
This review is from: Decoding Neanderthals (DVD)

"They were the brutes of Ice Age Europe. Although a branch of our human family tree, they were seen as a dead end, deep in our prehistoric past. They were called Neanderthals.

They etched out a marginal existence, hunted by brute force, with only simple stone tools. They were considered primitive with no language, art, or the higher-level thinking of advanced species like us.

They began to disappear 40,000 years ago, as modern humans, our species, came on the scene.

But this primitive picture is being replaced by a different image of Neanderthals. It's bringing them much closer to us, as genetic evidence revises our human family tree and reveals their mysterious presence right within our genes.

Now archaeologists are finding new evidence to resolve bitter debates. In tool-making, they're seeing signs of language. A new Neanderthal mind emerges. And if scientists are finally finding the real legacy of the Neanderthals buried deep in our history and our genes, what does it say about all of us?"

The above comes from the preview of this exceptional documentary about Neanderthals, our closest extinct ancestor.

This program looks at such topics as the technologies of Neanderthals, their intelligence, and their genetic makeup. (The genetic studies on Neanderthals took about four years to complete.)

The end of this program asks the question:

"Why are we [humans] still here and the Neanderthal not?"

The answer to this question may shock you.

Finally, throughout this documentary are brief comments made by university professors, geneticists, etc.

In conclusion, this is an exceptional program that may radically change your perception of Neanderthals. I leave you with this documentary's last words:

"We're finding out that we owe a debt to a mysterious, long-vanished branch of the human family in ways we are only just beginning to discover."

(2013; 55 min; wide screen; 6 chapters; PBS--NOVA)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Scatter Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction
Scatter Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction
by Annalee Newitz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.06
7 used & new from CDN$ 13.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life on Earth has almost been erased in the past. Another global disaster is coming!! Can humans survive it? How??, Sept. 7 2013

"My argument in [this book] is that humans face a dangerous future. But that future is not filled with unknowns...humans have a history of surviving in adverse conditions. And we also have a geological record stretching back billions of years, which reveals how other creatures survived climate collapses that were many magnitudes worse than our own. By learning from the successes of our ancestors--humans and otherwise--we can make it possible for [our species] to stick around for at least another million years...

Ultimately, this book is about how to survive Earth's great mass extinctions...things will get dicey on the way, and more than a little strange. But we will survive."

The above comes from the preface of this interesting book by Annalee Newitz. She is a journalist with a decade's experience in writing about science, culture, and the future. Newitz was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

This is a speculative book, grounded in science, that focuses on humanity's long history of surviving mass extinction. As well, it considers new threats that we may face in the coming years. It explores how scientific breakthroughs today may help us conquer possible future disasters.

I noticed that this book is quite well-researched. The author explains:

"I interviewed over a hundred people in fields from physics and geology to history and anthropology; I read about survival strategies in scientific journals, engineering manuals, and science-fiction novels; and I traveled all over the world to find evidence of humans' quest to survive."

Where does this book's somewhat strange title come from? This title is actually a "distillation" of those survival strategies that worked for humans in the past.

Finally, peppered throughout this book are black and white illustrations. I found the last one, an image of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, especially informative.

In conclusion, this is an interesting, well-researched book worthy of your consideration. I leave you with its very last paragraph:

"Things are going to get weird. There may be horrific disasters, and many lives will be lost. But don't worry. As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive."

(first published 2013; preface; introduction; 5 parts or 23 chapters; main narrative 265 pages; acknowledgements; notes; illustration credits; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


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