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Dr. Bojan Tunguz (Indiana, USA)

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Thought: A Very Short Introduction
Thought: A Very Short Introduction
by Tim Bayne
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
37 used & new from CDN$ 3.31

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Food for Thought, Jan. 1 2014
Thinking is a quintessential human activity. Capacity to think is considered such a prominent human trait that the very name of our species – Homo sapiens – means “thinking man.” Thinking comes so naturally to us that most of us rarely reflect on the fact that it’s a very complex activity. In fact, it’s very hard to properly define what thought really is.

This very short introduction aims to give the reader a better understanding of what thought and thinking are all about. The approach is predominantly philosophical, although it contains a fair dose of contemporary psychological and scientific understanding of thought processes and human mind in general. The book is very well written and it’s generally accessible, although some parts can be conceptually challenging. Readers should ideally have some familiarity with the philosophical ways of thinking and be willing to engage and entertain some pretty abstract concepts. The book presents various contemporary views on variability and malleability of thought between different individuals and across cultures. This is actually a very contentious academic area, and the book tries to be neutral between various arguments. (Sometimes to the fault, in my opinion.)

It is probably impossible to cover every topic pertaining to the idea of though in such a short book, but I do wish there were few interesting ones that were covered. In particular, I wish the book covered more on the topic of intelligence, and at least introduced artificial intelligence. The latter is one of the topics that I am very interested in, and over the past few years it has become a field that has brought out a lot of practical applications.

I really enjoyed reading this book, but its approach might be more academic than what one would have expected from a book intended for a very general audience.

Fractals: A Very Short Introduction
Fractals: A Very Short Introduction
by Kenneth Falconer
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
38 used & new from CDN$ 3.35

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and Fun Introduction to Fractals, Dec 30 2013
We’ve all come across images of fractals: almost infinitely intricate and complex visual patterns that challenge almost all of our intuitions about geometry. Fractal lines are oftentimes infinitely long, yet they are contained within very well defined areas. The same goes for other measures of fractals in higher dimensions: area, volume, etc., In fact, the very notion of dimension as we normally understand it loses meaning when applied to fractals.

This short book tries to give a very intuitive and easy-to-follow introduction to fractals. It starts by examining some prototypical fractal sets that are relatively easy to construct, at least in principle. Fractals and fractal-related notions actually have a pretty long history, but they had only become popular in the last few decades. This is largely thanks to the advent of modern computers, and the ability to visualize many of the more interesting fractals for the first time.

Fractals are not just pretty pictures. They are based on some really profound and intricate mathematical concepts. What makes fractals from the mathematical viewpoint particularly fascinating is that the rules that are required for describing a fractal are seemingly very simple, and yet in order to understand the full intricacy of a fractal requires some exceedingly complex higher mathematics. To this book’s credit it tries to explain some of the richness of this mathematics, without, of course, going into any detail. To fully appreciate this material the reader should be able to understand at least some more abstract mathematical concepts – such as imaginary and complex numbers – but other than that a curious mind and a willingness to be intellectually engaged should be sufficient.

The book also covers several applications of fractals – in nature, science and finance to name a few. These examples illustrate that fractals, far from being just an idle abstract curiosity, are actually a very useful and powerful tool for the understanding of many aspects of the world around us.

The book is very elegantly written, and it is very accessible and a pleasure to read. This is perhaps one of the best examples of popular math book that I’ve ever come across.

Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction
Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction
by David C. Catling
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.33
32 used & new from CDN$ 3.71

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Little Book, Dec 23 2013
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it has actually been written and published. Just a decade ago a book with a title of “Astrobiology” would have been squarely relegated to the science fiction section of the bookstore. Granted, we still haven’t found any signs of alien life, but our understandings of the origin and diversity of life on Earth, conditions in various parts of the Solar System, and the prevalence of potentially habitable worlds in our galaxy have grown almost exponentially over the past ten years or so. That’s why our speculations about extra-terrestrial life are now concrete enough that we can make some very reasonable guesses and estimates.

Even though the title of this book is Astrobiology (i.e. the study of life outside of the earth), most of the book dedicated to our understanding of the conditions and processes on Earth itself that had lead to emergence of life. Even though the kind of life that we are most familiar with on Earth might be very atypical of the life in the rest of the universe, the sheer diversity of physical conditions under which earthly life has been capable of thriving gives us hope that we can possibly find life under similar conditions elsewhere. There are, however, certain main conditions that need to obtain for any sort of life that we can conceive of to exist. Most importantly, there needs to be plenty of liquid water, or at least some other liquid substance capable of facilitating organic chemistry. Furthermore, any life that we can conceive of needs to be carbon based, as that’s the only element capable of creating stable molecules of almost infinite complexity. The book then moves on to discussion various planets, moons and other objects in the Solar System, and examines which one of them could possibly have (or have had) the kinds of conditions required for life. Finally, the book deals with the prevalence of possible life-supporting planets throughout the Galaxy, and gives its own set of estimates for their possible “livability.”

This is a very interesting and well-written book. Anyone with an even cursory interest in anything to do with space and space exploration will find a lot of fascinating information in here. I’ve actually taught an introductory college Astronomy class a few years ago, but I’ve still found a lot of new information in here that I was not aware of before. Our understanding and information about the universe is constantly and rapidly expanding, and I would not be surprised if the second or third edition of this book, some ten years from now, has plenty to say about the actual discovery of life on other planets. Until then this short introduction should be adequate to slake our thirst for knowledge about space aliens.

American History: A Very Short Introduction
American History: A Very Short Introduction
by Paul S. Boyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
30 used & new from CDN$ 4.06

2.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat Informative, But Extremely Biased, Dec 10 2013
America is one of the most fascinating and influential countries in the history of the World. For a while now it has been recognized as a singularly important country in the World, be it in terms of its economic and military power, its cultural influence, or its remarkable scientific and technological advances. This is that much more remarkable considering that America is a relatively young country – as a nation it has only existed for close to a quarter of a millennium, and as an distinct political and cultural entity for perhaps a couple of centuries longer. This pales in comparison to any other major nation in the world, some of whose histories extend for several millennia. Nonetheless, America boasts of a rich and interesting history.

This very short introduction to American history aims to give a highlight of all the major historical developments over the last four centuries or so. It is for the most part a very accessible and digestible account. People who are already well familiar with American history will find a lot of information in here that they had already been exposed to in other settings. The first two thirds of the book or so is just a very straightforward and clearly written rehash of the main events and developments in American history.

Unfortunately as the book progresses it becomes increasingly tendentious and ideological. This is first manifested by the choice of topic covered (more and more space given to special grievance groups beloved by the liberal academics), then by the tendentious characterization of events and policies (liberal ones are always virtuous and “progressive,” while the opposition to them comes from the misguided conservatives), to the downright falsehood and lies that have been discredited many times by all objective sources, but have become articles of faith by the left (Bush himself never declared “Mission Accomplished,” there was no torture at Guantanamo Bay). The latter parts of the book read like a laundry list of highlights from the editorial pages of the New York Times or Huffington Post. They are not serious works of historiography by any measure. This is why I am unable to recommend this book to anyone interested in getting an objective and serious account of American history.

Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic
Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Price: CDN$ 15.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Rotten to the Core, Oct. 16 2013
The premise of this book is rather simple. In any democratic political system political parties that aspire for the control of the body politic will invariably attract various clients and interest groups with very limited and specific agendas. However, if a politician or a party is aspiring for a broader level of support necessary for a victory in election, that party or politician will need to make a broader appeal based on the sense of general good of the country. This constant tension between special interests and common good is nothing new, and it’s not limited to any particular party or a politician.

Jay Cost takes a closer look at the Democratic Party over the course of roughly the last century and a half, and tries to illustrate how various Democratic leaders have dealt with this tension. The account is very detailed, based on thorough historical research. This books gives one a much more realistic view of the American political history, especially as it pertains to the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, this is not a scathing and cynical account of either the Democratic Party or the American politics in general. Cost aims to give a very neutral and balanced view of politics as it really is.

The book’s true agenda becomes evident at the very end, in the chapters and sections dealing with Barack Obama. Cost paints a very grim picture of the 44th president, not in relation to Republicans or conservatives (who barely feature in this book to begin with), but in comparison to other Democratic presidents. Cost makes a very convincing case that Obama, unlike Clinton and Carter for instance, had no desire to stand up to the Party clients, and had completely built both his political career and his presidency around the unabashed and unrestrained support for all of his Party’s special interests. Obama is truly a transformative political figure, but not in the way that he or his apologists would like you to believe.


5.0 out of 5 stars Solid and Realistic Apocalyptic Thriller, Oct. 15 2013
This review is from: CyberStorm (Kindle Edition)
As our lives and interactions are increasingly based in and around the online world, a whole different level of security and safety concerns opens up. We have been living with the threat of computer viruses and identity theft for quite some time, but in recent years the sophistication and the reach of “cyber” threats has increased dramatically. It is not hard to imagine that at some point a malicious government with the right kind of know-how, or a very resourceful and malicious non-governmental organization might launch a devastating online attack that can cripple or seriously damage much of the important infrastructure in the US and the rest of the developed world. In fact, as many of the recent newspaper headlines can testify, NSA and many other high-level security agencies take this kind of threat very, very seriously.

In CyberStorm Mathew Mather makes a very detailed and gripping thought-experiment in which he imagines what would really happen if a very devastating computer attack were in fact to happen. He weaves a gripping and persuasive narrative around a group of families living in Manhattan. (For some reason all the worst disasters in fiction always hit Manhattan.) The story follows day-by-day events and paints a very painful picture of the deterioration of all civilized behavior and norms of conduct in the face of such a devastating catastrophe. Some parts of the book have a feel of an episode of The Walking Dead, a scene from The Road, or any number of other post-apocalyptic movies or novels. Nonetheless, CyberStorm is very unique in terms of its subject matter, especially of the details concerning the workings of the technological infrastructure on which we depend.

The only big issue that I have with this book is that the last part felt pretty rushed, and the ending was rather abrupt. I got the sense that the author was getting a bit tired of writing, and wanted to hurry up and finish it all up. Granted, some parts were a bit too drawn out, but a more balanced rewriting could have cut a few scenes or developments from the first part of the book, and replaced them with more detail in the latter parts.

This is overall a solid thriller that can feel a bit too disconcerting at times. In my book that is a good thing.

The European Union: A Very Short Introduction
The European Union: A Very Short Introduction
by John Pinder
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
33 used & new from CDN$ 3.36

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars European Union: Institutional View, Oct. 4 2013
European Union is one of the most ambitious and expansive political projects in history. Its ultimate goal, it is now quite clear, is the unification of almost all of Europe into a single political entity. The project has grown from its rather modest origins from a purely economic organization into what is now one of the most important political and economic unions in the World. However, both the path to this point and the future ahead are beset by numerous challenges.

I’ve been eying this short introduction for a long time. As someone who is originally from Europe and who still has the majority of the family members living there, I cannot really afford to be ignorant of the events on that continent and its political structure. However, I am now glad that I’ve waited to purchase this book in its third edition, since it now includes mentioning of Croatia. Since I am now officially an EU citizen, I have even more reasons to try to understand it the best I can. After reading this book I certainly have much more appreciation for all the intricacies of the EU’s political mechanisms.

This is a very detailed book with a lot of information and facts strewn throughout its slim 150 pages. It takes a largely chronological approach to the Europe’s integration, and goes into some detail in explaining various policy decisions. The book assumes a fairly neutral point of view, aiming to inform the reader rather than to shape his or her opinions. The third edition is thoroughly updated and includes all the major developments up to 2013. However, as witnessed by the tumultuousness of the ongoing economic crisis, all of the European institutions are still in the state of flux, and it is very likely that the fourth edition of this book will be in order before too long.

Even though the book is well written and extremely informative, it is still a pretty dry read. Various policies, political and economic maneuvers can feel rather esoteric, technical and opaque. The book’s view of EU is highly institutional, without much scope for deeper ideas or relevance to the daily lives of most Europeans. This is probably the reflection of how most Eurocrats view their project: as an ongoing bureaucratic venture that is almost an end in itself. There might be many virtues to this attitude, but it sure doesn’t manage to inspire.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar board book
The Very Hungry Caterpillar board book
by Eric Carle
Edition: Board book
Price: CDN$ 10.79
174 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Fun Educational Board Book, Oct. 3 2013
We are huge fans of Eric Carle and all of his works. This board book is a welcome addition to our growing collection. The illustrations are simple and artistic at the same time, as is the text. Unlike all of the other Carle books we've owned so far, this one actually has a single linear narrative that spans the entire book. It is also written entirely in prose, so some people who enjoyed his rhyming books might be a bit disappointed. This book also features a fun and unusual formatting - several pages vary in length, and they feature the small holes through which the caterpillar has presumably burrowed. This is innovative, but sometimes it can make it tricky for the small hands to turn those pages - our toddler is still getting used to this. However, the small annoyances are nothing compared to all the fun that we all get out of this beautiful little board book.

Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution
Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution
by Mary Eberstadt
Edition: Hardcover
15 used & new from CDN$ 5.21

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well Intended but Poorly Argued, Oct. 2 2013
Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I am extremely sympathetic to the idea that the sexual revolution has had some truly appalling consequences, and it is responsible for a lot of pain and suffering in the modern western world, especially among the weakest members of society. Furthermore, as a very devout Catholic I am fully committed to the ethical teachings of the Catholic Church on matters of sexual morality. So my fairly negative review below is coming from the point of view of a "fellow traveler" on these social and moral issues.

Without exaggerating too much I believe that the principle "argument" of this book can be summarized as follows:

1. Some time around 1960 easy and accessible effective birth control became widely accessible.

2. Today we have a lot of societal ills that are either sexual in nature or caused by various forms of sexual activity.

3. It is OBVIOUS that 1. has caused 2.

4. Therefore let me offer some of my own musings on this topic.

My biggest beef is with the point number 3, but both 2 and 4 have a lot of problems as well. First of all, if the causal connection between 1 and 2 was as exclusive and conclusive as the author implies, the obvious question would be why is this not more obvious to everyone. The author tries to address this issue by appealing to the analogy of the Cold War. During that period many intellectuals in the West (perhaps even a majority) were, if not quite communists themselves, then very sympathetic to the communist block. Aside from the issue of how accurate this analogy really is (I grew up under communism, have lived and worked in the American academia for the most of my professional life, and I am not entirely persuaded) the problem with this approach is that it's just an analogy. It helps illustrate the situation, but doesn't really explain it. I would really like to know HOW exactly does 1 cause 2. This is the bare minimum that I would expect from a book-length development of this “argument.”

Mary Eberstadt is really fond of analogies. She dedicates two full chapters of the book (one on food and another one on tobacco) on the analogies with our treatment of these substances and the way we treated porn in the past. Again I am not entirely persuaded about the analogies. The moralistic obsession with food is still VERY restricted to certain elite circles - most of Americans struggle with being overweight and eat pretty much whatever they want. But with the food analogy my reaction is one of "So what?" How does that help me understand the moral hazards of sexual permissiveness and, even more importantly, what to do about it? In the case of tobacco the purpose of analogy is clearer. Eberstadt advocates the introduction of policies and restrictions on pornography that were similar to those that were imposed on Big Tobacco. This is something worth considering, but the nature of the difference between the two products (physical goods vs. digital files nowadays) makes the difficulty of this approach obvious to anyone who is familiar with the history of futility of trying to regulate anything online. (If even the NSA can't keep their files secret, good luck trying to regulate porn.)

Another big issue that I have with this book is that it overwhelmingly relies on popular articles and essays for its main source of information - both positive and negative. Furthermore, instead of analysis more often than not we are offered little more than an opinion. It is reasonably well-informed opinion for the most part, but Eberstadt has a tendency of becoming preachy where probing would be much more called for. This book might have been intended as a form of preaching to the choir, but even the choir needs some rigorous analysis every once in a while.

I had high hopes for this book, but it turned out to be a big disappointment. It is very poorly argued, and it doesn't offer any substantially new insights. For a more incisive book on the failure of the social norms in the US I would recommend Charles Murray's "Coming Apart," and for a look at the impact of the sexual revolution on the falling birth rates I suggest "What to Expect When No One's Expecting."

Risk Communication: A Handbook for Communicating Environmental, Safety, and Health Risks
Risk Communication: A Handbook for Communicating Environmental, Safety, and Health Risks
by Regina E. Lundgren
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 74.36
23 used & new from CDN$ 74.36

5.0 out of 5 stars Well Written Resource, Oct. 1 2013
When a few years ago the new particle accelerator was scheduled to open at CERN one of the journalists asked a certain CERN Physicist about the rumors that the new powerful machine would create a tiny black hole. The Physicist, being the exact science type of guy, gave the journalist the estimate of such an event, which turned out to be so small that the exponential notation was required to express it. Unfortunately, most of the public is not familiar with such a notation, and even those who are have hard time conceptually grasping numbers that are so small. Under most circumstances this does not create much of a problem in our day to day lives (such numbers are, almost by definition, entirely outside of our normal experience), but as black holes have become a part of our intellectual culture, this entirely true but largely irrelevant statement by the honest Physicist became a cause of a lot of alarm and even panic in the popular press. This lead CERN to require of its entire staff to from then on say that the chance of a “black hole event” happening was exactly zero. The moral of this story is that risk communication is a very important subject, and there are the right ways and the wrong ways of going about it.

Most of the high-risk situations and circumstances don’t involve such exotic objects as black holes and particle accelerators. They primarily involve environmental, safety and health risks, and this handbook is an excellent source of ideas and best practices involving those risks.

The book is very well written and it has primarily practitioners in mind. It provides many useful and to-the-point tips and suggestions, including several checklists and other practical materials. Throughout the book there are many important examples and case studies designed to help the reader with the understanding of this subject. The book can be used as a reference, stand-alone resource, or as a textbook for a class on this subject. It covers a lot of material and it references an impressive amount of primary material. The book can even be of some use to all public relations officials and practitioners, even in the areas that are far removed from its intended audience.

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