BOOK REVIEW: Invention and Innovation by Vaclav Smil

Inventions and Innovations: A Brief History of Infatuation, Overpromise, and DisappointmentInventions and Innovations: A Brief History of Infatuation, Overpromise, and Disappointment by Vaclav Smil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: February 14, 2023

This book is about technological failures, the various ways in which technologies fail, and what lessons can be learned from these failures when hearing about new “world-changing breakthroughs.” The author explores nine technologies in depth, three for each of three varieties of technology failure.

The first group are those technologies that came online as promised, fixing a major problem, only to later be discovered to have side-effects deemed disastrous. The examples used are: leaded gasoline, DDT pesticide, and CFC (Chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant. These technologies have come to be associated with health defects, air pollution, ecological collapse, and ozone depletion.

The second group (like the first) came online, but then never became competitive with existing technologies. The technologies presented as examples are: airships, nuclear fission for power production, and supersonic flight. Airships died out not only because of the Hindenburg disaster, but also because people preferred airplanes to a craft with the combined slowness of a boat and the crash potential of a plane. Nuclear fission became untenable for new commercial power plants due to a risk premium on build costs even though it doesn’t contribute to global warming and (once powerplants are paid for) is exceedingly cheap per kilowatt-hour. Supersonic flight was just too costly and short-ranged to compete with subsonic flight.

The final group are those technologies that failed to come online at all, despite intense efforts. These include travel by vacuum tube (i.e. Hyperloop, and, yes, like at the bank but with people inside) nitrogen-fixing grains (negating the need for fertilizer,) and nuclear fusion. Despite the celebrity billionaire love of Elon Musk and Richard Branson, hyperloop isn’t advancing because of challenges of maintaining vacuum over large distances. Making cereal grains that feature the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes has also proven more difficult than expected. Nuclear fusion recently experienced a moment in the sun when, for the first time, they got more energy out of it than was needed to achieve it. (This wasn’t written about in the review copy I read, but I suspect will be mentioned in the finished book. At any rate, it doesn’t negate the author’s point as it’s still just one breakthrough of several that would be needed for the technology to be commercially viable.)

In the last chapter, the author gets into a number of other technologies with shorter discussions that are meant to illustrate specific issues with excessive technological optimism. He also investigates some technologies that he believes need to come down the pike, given our present and expected future challenges.

I found this book fascinating. The author seems to love being contrarian (he not only contests popular optimism by those overestimating technological progress but also contests the pessimism regarding the first group of failed technologies, so it appears that he enjoys pointing out how mass opinion [or the opinion of another smart person] is wrong.) That said, there’s a great deal of thought-provoking information in the book. And, I think it can help people more critically consider claims about up-and-coming technologies.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

The Meaning of LifeThe Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“What is the meaning of life?” This is the question thrown at anyone accused of being a philosopher – professional or lay – though mostly in jest. In the present day, that is. In centuries past, large portions of the population took for granted that it was a question that had a knowable answer (one dictated by religion.) But as that answer became decreasingly satisfying to an increasing portion of the populace, people began to see the question as both fundamentally unanswerable and as a means to chide / test individuals who claimed wisdom or had the claim thrust upon them.

In this concise guide, Eagleton takes on the question, beginning with consideration of whether it is even a sound question. (Or, is it a question like: “What is the meaning of cabbage?” or “What color is a hypothesis?”) After considering many of the problems with the question, from the meaning of “meaning” to the presumptions about what a life has (and what it is) the book also considers some of the post-Nietzschean answers to the question and the challenges that confront them. [One that I hadn’t thought much about criticizes that many of these recent attempts are individualist (i.e. find your own meaning, one consistent with the peculiarities of your own unique life.) Is it reasonable to think that the question can only be answered at the level of granularity of the individual? Maybe, it can only be, but I did appreciate that it gave me something to think about.]

It should be pointed out that Eagleton doesn’t consider himself a philosopher. He’s primarily a critic and English literature professor. This had its advantages. First, Eagleton drew upon works of literature that explore the question, which both made for some interesting insights while also breaking up dense tangles of philosophizing. Second, much of the book deals with linguistic issues. Are the words and grammar of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” useful, and – if so – how do we understand the nature and limits of the question?

I found this book intriguing and provocative. It does have thickets of dense language, but also has its fun moments as well.


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BOOK REVIEW: Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction by Bill McGuire

Global Catastrophes: A Very Short IntroductionGlobal Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction by Bill McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores a select set climatological, geological, and extraterrestrial impact disasters and their potential planet-wide repercussions. About half of the book deals with climate: global warming and the next ice age. [Those sound like completely unrelated topics, given global climate disruption is largely about a rise in average temperatures (which has been caused by human activities) and the coming ice age is about cooling (which is mostly because of factors outside our control — e.g. our orbital path and axial tilt — but there’s a discussion about how global warming might hasten (rather than stave off) the ice age.]

The other half of the book is about the more dramatic geological and extraterrestrial threats. There’s a chapter (ch.4) about volcanos, earthquakes, and the tsunamis they cause, and the last chapter (ch. 5) is about comet and asteroid impacts.

The book contains a great deal of thought-provoking information. There are two major criticisms to be leveled. First, it leaves some important items undiscussed – e.g. there’s nothing about the solar storms that I’ve heard constitute a planetary risk. (I do understand that technologically induced catastrophes are another book entirely.) Also, there’s little mention of the mitigative activities that are in place and what impact they might have. For example, I know NASA and others have developed technologies to not only monitor but also destroy impactors. (The author mentions monitoring but says nothing of mitigative activities.) I can’t condemn these omissions severely because this is a “very short” guide. The second criticism is potentially more concerning and that is that the tone isn’t the completely objective one we’re used to hearing on scientific subjects. I don’t fault the author for having some angst about climate change or super-volcanoes, but I am left to wonder degree of confirmation bias crept into the selection of research presented. (All “sky is falling” with no discussion of possible mitigative events or best-case scenarios sets my Spidey-sense a tingling.)

This is a fascinating look at catastrophes, though the complete doom and gloom tone of the author made me wonder whether confirmation bias might be at play (or maybe there was a presumption about what people who would read such a guide may want to hear.)


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BOOK REVIEW: The Pocket Chögyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa

The Pocket Chogyam TrungpaThe Pocket Chogyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This pocket-sized guide consists of 108 excerpts drawn from the writings of Chögyam Trungpa, a prolific — if controversial — teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. Chögyam Trungpa may have been most famous in the West for coining the English term “Crazy Wisdom,” and for founding Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. [Note: while he coined the term “Crazy Wisdom,” he didn’t originate the concept, which existed already – arguably in multiple forms — in Vajrayana Buddhism from olden times.] Beyond basic Buddhist philosophy, he wrote extensively on Buddhist Psychology, Tantric Buddhism, and the Buddhist conception of warriorship.

The book is designed to be picked up at any point. There isn’t a formal grouping of concepts, but rather the book meanders around, revisiting ideas such as Enlightenment, Emptiness, emotional intelligence in multiple locations throughout the book. The entries are between a paragraph and a page long in most cases.

I found a great deal of food-for-thought in this book and would highly recommend it for those wishing to dip a toe into the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa.


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BOOK REVIEW: Goa Travels ed. by Manohar Shetty

Goa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st CenturyGoa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st Century by Manohar Shetty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up this book because I’m now planning a trip to Goa — only my second trip to India’s smallest state and my first to the north beach area for which it has become such a popular destination in recent decades. It’s always good to get a literary feel for a place, perhaps receiving some insights one might otherwise miss. In a way, this is the perfect book for that purpose in that it offers outsider views of Goa across time. [In another way, it’s admittedly a skewed view.]

This book gathers written excerpts from travelers to Goa. It’s divided into three parts. The first part mostly covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, back when Goa was a Portuguese colony. This is the largest section and includes twenty-one pieces by priests, sailors, merchants, and adventurers. This section shows a preoccupation with a few features of Goan culture that seized travelers’ attention. One of these was the terrifying practice of sati, in which a widow would throw herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre and be burned alive. Another was the obsessively guarded way wives were treated, generally barred from doing anything in public or with those who weren’t blood relatives.

The second section, also the shortest, features one piece on the Goan Inquisition, which was an extension of the Portuguese Inquisition and one of the major examples of horrifying behavior by the Roman Catholic church. While it’s alarming and gruesome to read about, it’s nonetheless fascinating.

The final section is about the modern era, which – for the purposes of this book – runs from about the 1950’s (after India gained independence from Britain, but while Goa was still a Portuguese colony,) through its days on the Hippie Trail, and on to more-or-less the present. I knew about Goa as a hippie hangout during that countercultural revolution, but I was less aware of what went on between Indian independence and Goa’s independence from Portugal. Among the seven pieces in this section, one also gets a feel for the challenges of having an intensely culturally conservative population packed into India’s smallest state with what is probably South Asia’s biggest party destination.

I learned a lot of fascinating facts from reading this book. It may be a bit sensationalist in some places and vaguely racist in others, but it’s not boring.


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BOOK REVIEW: Artpreneur by Miriam Schulman

Artpreneur: The Step-by-Step Guide to Making a Sustainable Living from Your CreativityArtpreneur: The Step-by-Step Guide to Making a Sustainable Living from Your Creativity by Miriam Schulman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: January 31, 2023

This book is about half pep talk on selling one’s art at a higher price and half guide to marketing and selling art. “Pep talk” isn’t meant to diminish what the book does. First of all, the author does offer extensive justification for higher pricing, both from the body of research and from anecdotal experiences. Secondly, this is a pep talk that needs to be delivered and is the most important function of the book, by far. That doesn’t mean the book doesn’t do a fine job with the marketing and selling bits, but there are so many books available on that subject.

The book is directed toward graphic artists, though some of book’s message is of relevance to musicians and poets as well. (Perhaps that’s why I found the pep talk part so important, because it’s broadly germane to artists, whereas sales are quite different for media where huge numbers of copies are made versus one-of-a-kind works.)

If you’re a struggling artist or would like to avoid being one, this book is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer

Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book combines a biography of the German philosopher Hegel with a quick and dirty overview of his most well-known philosophical ideas. Today, Hegel is best known for his approach to dialectics (thesis confronts antithesis, resulting in synthesis,) and for having a profound influence on the thinking of Karl Marx. However, the book addresses a broad collection of philosophical ideas including those in aesthetics, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. (With respect to the latter, it should be noted that Hegel was a believer [of the Protestant Christian persuasion,] lest one think that, given frequent co-utterances of Hegel and Marx [of the “religion as opiate of the masses” persuasion,] that the two philosophers were in complete lockstep; they were not.)

I found this book to be readable, and to be successful in conveying Hegel’s philosophical ideas – at least in a rudimentary form. It’s useful that the book wraps up by reflecting upon whether Hegel is even relevant in the world as we know it, and – if so – why? Hegel might have been a name lost to time if he hadn’t come to be so enthusiastically cited by Marx, a scholar who left a huge imprint on twentieth century history.

If you’re interested in the life and philosophy of Hegel, but don’t want to be inundated by minutiae or complexity, this is a fine work to investigate.


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BOOK REVIEW: Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law

Humanism: A Very Short IntroductionHumanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this guide, Law lays out the basic principles of humanism, discusses the arguments for and against belief in a deity, and examines the humanist conceptions of morality and meaning of life (two constructs that religious people often claim can only exist in a deist world.) Humanism is an ill-understood system, in large part because it isn’t so much a set of ideas ascribed to as a way of approaching ideas in a questioning and secular way. Therefore, defining humanism isn’t as straightforward as listing a set of common beliefs because humanism can cover a wide variety of different worldviews. That makes this a particularly useful book as it clears up a number of false equivalences. Many think that humanism is the same as atheism or agnosticism, and while humanists generally follow one of those two approaches to the question of whether there is a god, humanism isn’t identical to either.

This book does a good job of organizing the debate and laying out arguments and counterarguments. I learned a lot by reading the book and by deliberating over the points of contention. There were points where I think more could have been said. For example, in the chapter on the meaning of life, after systematically dismantling the religious argument that a meaningful life is the sole domain of religion, Law doesn’t offer any guidance as to the humanist approach to pursuing a meaningful life (stating merely that most humanists agree with the religious about what is a meaningful life, even if they disagree about why it is.) I realize this is a brief guide, and the author might have wanted to avoid stepping on the toes of other guides in the series that investigate the question, but it stands as a deficiency. True, there wouldn’t be a list of what makes a meaningful life so much as an outline of how to approach it, but, still, even an overly simplified statement would have been useful.

I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it for anyone wanting to gain insight into the debates around humanism.


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BOOK REVIEW: Made in Chicago by Monica Eng & David Hammond

Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown BitesMade in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites by Monica Eng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023

Chicago is a food city. Once famous for its stockyards and still a major transit point for the products of America’s breadbasket, the city is home to a diverse people, a gathering of migrants and immigrants who brought a wide variety of foods from their homelands and put the necessary twists on them to make them salable to Chicagoans while using available ingredients. This book features entries on thirty foods and beverages that are products of Chicago ingenuity, be they dishes that were wholly invented in the Windy City or one’s that have a distinctive Chicago-style variant. Foodies know exactly what is meant by Chicago-style hot dogs, pizza, or tamales.

If all you know about Chicago cuisine is that ketchup on a hot dog is considered a sin, you’ll learn about some colorfully named Chicago inventions such as: “the Jim Shoe,” “the Big Baby,” and “the Mother-in-Law,” as well as many others that are more prosaically named, if equally calorically dense. One also sees the mark of Chicago’s immigrant story in the Akutagawa, Flaming Saganaki, Gam Pong Chicken Wings, the Maxwell Street Polish, and Chicago Corn Roll Tamales.

Each chapter discusses the nature of the respective dish, its influences, the [often contentious] origin of each item, where one can obtain said dish, and (for most) includes a recipe for making one’s own home variant. So, it’s mostly food history, but with a bit of cookbook, as well. There are pictures throughout, of the foods and in some cases of the location that invented or popularized each dish.

Be forewarned, while Chicago is a city that loves food, it’s not a place that’s wild about nutrition or moderate serving sizes. In fact, I feel certain that many people attempting to consume every item in this book in, say, one month’s time would drop dead of a coronary shortly thereafter (if not during.) Most of these dishes are foods done fast and served with an allowance of fat, sugar, and / or meat suitable for a family (for several days.)

If you’re a traveler (or a Chicagoan) and want to know more about quintessential windy city foods and where you can sample them, you must read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short IntroductionThe Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book succeeds in systematically exploring the topic, but it fails to do so in a readable fashion for a non-expert reader who’s looking for a rudimentary grasp of the basics. It’s true that the topic is complex and challenging (as the author argues up front,) but I don’t believe the book’s daunting nature all lands on the subject matter. I’ve read up on other difficult topics using this series (VSI,) and found some books much more approachable.

The main problem was a lack of clarity (versus precision) in the language. In other words, the author didn’t want to oversimplify or use analogies, even though those are what’s needed for a neophyte reader to build an intuitively grasp a subject. For example, while the chapters are nicely organized by the laws of thermodynamic and presented in their usual order, there’s no quick and dirty definition of the respective law given at the beginning of each chapter. A simplified definition (incomplete and imperfect as it might be) would allow the reader to gain a basic intuition of the concept. Then, the reader can tweak and expand the concept as they go. But that’s not the approach taken here. Instead, several paragraphs are taken to get around to a statement of the law in question. There was also a lack of analogies and other tools to help the reader gain a foothold based upon what they know. I suspect these tools were avoided because they are all incorrect at some level of precision, and it was the scholarly fear of imprecision that resulted in their teaching effectiveness being abandoned.

This is a great guide for people who think mathematically and / or who are looking for a quick refresher of ideas they once knew. For those who don’t have a background in science and who need verbal explanations that make an effort to be comprehensible, it’s probably not the best one can do.

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