What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
$14.40 at Amazon ($9.12 Kindle)

“It makes me happy that an arm of the US government has, in some official capacity, issued an opinion on the subject of firing nuclear missiles at hurricanes.”

Until recently, Randall Munroe was known as the creator of xkcd, the comic with the best disclaimer ever written. (Seriously, if you haven’t read it, go find the comic and look for the warning.) A few years ago, he started taking absurd questions (What if you had a mole of moles? What if everybody pointed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time?) and figuring out scientific answers to them. Half of this book is questions and answers collected from the website; the other half is new questions researched just for the book.

Most sections of the book are pretty short; it could easily be bathroom reading. But it’s just as easy to find a comfortable spot and immerse yourself in the book for a few hours, which is what I’ve been doing since I got it. Each section generally has a bit of research, a bit of science and math, and a bit of humor, and every one is very readable. There are comics scattered throughout the book as well.

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys science.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
$23.97 at Amazon ($19.99 on Kindle)

Given my interest in economics, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on my “should read” list since it came out, but it really caught my attention after shooting to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, with almost everyone who actually read the book giving it a five-star review. Of course, by that time it was sold out and I had to wait for the reprint.

The first thing to realize is that, while it may be aimed at general audiences, this is a research book; it’s heavily endnoted (77 pages of endnotes, not counting the technical appendix on the author’s website) and the writing level is probably close to what you’d find in a graduate text. That said, the writing (at least in the English translation) is very good and quite readable. The book starts off quickly; in the first dozen pages or so, Piketty has introduced his thesis (that inequality tends to increase because return on capital is greater than economic growth as a whole, leading to more concentrated wealth), provided a short history lesson (both political and economic), and dismissed Marxism and communism. The central theme is that, because capital tends to grow faster than the overall economy, the rich will tend to accumulate a larger and larger share of the pie simply by virtue of how quickly their existing money grows.

The book is divided into four parts. Part one discusses income and capital: how they are measured, how the different returns on capital and labor lead to inequality, and the effects of the rate of return on capital vs overall economic growth. Part two is largely a history lesson; we see how the capital/income ratio has changed throughout the world over the past two centuries. Part three, which takes up most of the book, focuses on inequality The Financial Times has published an article claiming some errors in the numbers in chapter 10, which don’t appear to much effect the argument in the book. Finally, part four is what most likely gets people excited, as it contains Piketty’s policy prescriptions: a progressive income tax combined with a global progressive tax on capital (he suggests a range from 0.1% on small estates, up to 2% on capital over five million euros) and a progressive estate tax. The purpose of his proposed capital tax is not to increase the amount of money governments raise in taxes (although it would do that as well, and he advocates using either taxes or inflation to quickly reduce public debt); rather, to prevent the infinite accumulation of capital. I should note that while the book primarily covers Britain, France, and the United States (although the other major economies are included as well) the policy at the end is prescribed for Europe as a whole rather than any individual country.

I will admit, I got a little bored a couple hundred pages in, after which I quit stopping to check the endnotes (many of which are references to the online technical appendix) and just read the main text. This is a history text as much as it is an economics text and will appeal most to those interested in both subjects. This is not an easy read, but it’s an interesting one.

Does it live up to the hype? That I’m not sure of, and I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions, but judged on its own merits I can confidently say that this is a very good book.

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A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

I don’t usually read a lot of autobiographies, but I’m a fan of Elizabeth Warren and I’ve heard good things about this book, so I decided to give it a try. I figured I’d start on it this weekend and finish it later in the week, but as soon as I got into it, I was hooked. The writing is very good and I found myself laughing out loud at times (such as when the author describes setting her kitchen on fire).

The first few chapters cover the author’s life before she got involved in politics: how she grew up middle class until her father got sick and lost his job; how she earned a debate scholarship and went to college (despite her mother’s desire that she focus on finding a husband), then dropped out of college to get married and have a baby. How she finished her college degree and then a law degree, while raising two kids. Then – in what would eventually lead her to becoming nationally known – how she ended up getting involved in bankruptcy law and research into why people declare bankruptcy. As a bankruptcy expert, she lead the (ultimately unsuccessful) fight to keep the law from being changed to enhance banking profits at the expense of those who would no longer have access to bankruptcy protection.

After her work on bankruptcy, she eventually ended up leading the COP panel, which oversaw TARP (Trouble Assets Relief Program), more commonly known as the bank bailout. The panel unfortunately had no real power – they could take testimony, but could not compel people to testify, nor could they insist on being present when Treasury (which didn’t appear particularly interested in oversight) made the decisions on how to spend the $700 billion that Congress had authorized to bail out the financial system. While the committee’s power was essentially limited to issuing reports, they were able to shine enough light on the sweetheart deals that Treasury cut with the big banks to ensure that later deals were harder on the banks, saving the taxpayers billions of dollars.

In 2007, Warren had proposed the creation of a new government agency specifically to regulate financial products, as no current agency had that as its primary mission. After the economic meltdown, Congress was finally motivated to act, and Warren convinced Barney Frank (who was in charge of the bill in the House) to insist on a strong new agency. Gathering support for the bill took a concerted push by many people, from nonprofits and unions all the way up to the president, with the big banks fighting hard to destroy or disempower the new agency. This was where Scott Brown entered the story, as (having won Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat) he now had the power to filibuster the bill, which he used to add a $19 billion break for the banks before allowing it to pass. With the change, the Dodd-Frank Act was signed into law.

Unfortunately, while Warren had proposed the agency, fought hard for its creation, and then served as its acting head to get it up and running, the banks (and thus the Republican party) were dead set against her being confirmed as the permanent head of the agency. The president gave in and instead nominated Richard Cordray, whom Elizabeth recommended…at which point Senate Republicans announced that they would block ANY nominee unless the law were changed to take power away from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Due to a typo in the law (the word section was replaced with the word subsection), the new agency would not have much of its power until a director was confirmed. Cordray was given a recess appointment in January 2012, but was not formally confirmed by the Senate until July 2013.

After losing the chance to run the agency she had created, Prof Warren intended to return to teaching, but was encouraged to run for the Senate instead. Her family was against it; she was over 60 and had never run for political office. Speaking with residents of the state, however, she became convinced that working people needed to have a strong advocate in the Senate and that she could be that person. She started out far behind the popular Scott Brown in the polls, but eventually won 54-46 in a state that strongly shares her values.

Reading this book, sometimes I was laughing (she’s a very good writer), sometimes I was angry (as she describes how those with money and power take advantage of desperate Americans), and sometimes I was excited about what she wants to accomplish, but I was always entertained. I highly recommend this book.

Full disclosure: I made a small contribution to Prof. Warren’s senate campaign.

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Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by John Paul Stevens
$14.13 at Amazon ($10.99 Kindle)

In the wake of the unprecedented level of gerrymandering that followed the 2010 elections, as well as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act and campaign finance laws, it has become very clear that a constitutional amendment may be required in order to preserve the right to vote in this country. While I have not read Stevens’ previous book, I’ve heard good things about his writing, so I’ve been looking forward to reading his latest offering. It was announced early on that he would take on the second amendment, which guaranteed that the book would be controversial, but I was more interested in the other five amendments he intended to offer. Although Stevens spent nearly 35 years on the high court, he seems to feel that it has taken on excessive power, and here he advocates returning power to the people’s representatives in Congress.

After a quick review of the successful amendments thus far, Stevens proceeds to a discussion of the Supremacy Clause and whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal law, given that the language specifically calls out judges (“and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby”); he recommends adding the words “and other public officials”, with the reasoning that often state officials are in the best position to enforce federal law. Stevens clearly considers this to be a clarification rather than a change, but one which would overturn past rulings of the court.

The second chapter moves on to what I would consider one of the greatest threats to democracy: political gerrymandering. While few people have much good to say about gerrymandering (indeed, Stephens opens with a quote from Antonin Scalia describing severe partisan gerrymanders as incompatible with democratic principles), thus far the courts have declined to step in other than to prevent racial gerrymanders. Oddly enough, Stevens weakens the impact of his argument by using older examples of gerrymandering that left the minority party with fewer seats than they could reasonably expect have gotten based on their share of the vote, while ignoring the more egregious gerrymandering that happened after the 2010 elections and in some cases allowed the Republican party to capture a supermajority of seats in 2012 while getting a minority of the vote. He argues, and I would agree, that having compact districts is more important than making sure each one has exactly the same number of people (while the numbers should be approximately equal, I would argue that a 1% difference in size does far less damage than the….interesting…shapes of today’s congressional districts).

In chapter three, we move on to campaign finance. Congress has always tried to impose limits on political spending in order to avoid corruption. Most recently, the debate has been over whether Congress can limit the aggregate amount that an individual can donate to political campaigns and whether non-human entities (such as corporations and unions) can spend without restriction. So far the most interesting option I’ve seen (although one not mentioned in this book) is to expand the current prohibition on election spending by people who are not US citizens to say that money spent to promote or oppose a candidate may only come from people who could legally vote for or against that candidate. Of course, any one restriction we put into place may be gamed; Stevens suggests an amendment simply stating that Congress and the states may impose reasonable limits on how much candidates and their supporters may spend in election campaigns. Reasonable, of course, would be defined by the appropriate lawmakers.

Moving on, chapter four covers a somewhat more obscure topic: sovereign immunity. Under common law, the king could not be sued without his consent, and the states have assumed this power to themselves (and solidified it with the 11th amendment, which prohibits federal courts from ruling on suits brought against a state by citizens of another state (or another country). More recently (although this isn’t covered in the chapter, and the court has never given it much credence) we’ve seen claims that states can invalidate federal law under the 10th amendment. The proposed amendment for this chapter clarifies that a state and its agencies and officers are subject to the Constitution and to acts of Congress.

In chapter five, we consider the death penalty. Does it fall under the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment? Should it be decided at the federal level, rather than state by state? Stevens recommends adding the words “such as the death penalty” to the prohibition in the 8th amendment. I found this to be the weakest chapter in that nothing herein will convince anyone not already opposed to the death penalty that a problem exists.

Chapter six, on gun control, is disappointingly short. As expected, Stevens covers the history of judicial rulings on the second amendment, through the 5-4 votes in 2008 and 2010 (District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v Chicago, respectively) that expanded the right to keep a handgun and limited the right of the government to outlaw handguns. The topic guaranteed that this would be the most controversial chapter in the book, and I had hoped Stevens would make use of that attention by giving an in-depth treatment of how the second amendment has been interpreted throughout the history of the country, but instead the coverage of the historical record is minimal. The purpose of this chapter is primarily to argue that Congress, not the courts, should be charged with deciding on the proper regulation of guns.

As to my rating, I start out by giving the book four stars for entertainment and education. It’s very easy to read, despite what can be somewhat technical subject matter. However, I deduct a star because the book fails on several counts. Primarily, this is intended as a persuasive book, but while Stevens adequately (if only just) demonstrates the existence of each problem, he devotes no space to convincing the reader that his proposed amendment is the optimal way to deal with that problem. In fact, not enough space is devoted to the book in general; it weighs in at only 168 pages, not particularly lengthy given the subject matter, and only 2/3 of that is the actual book, the remainder being taken up by illustrations, the text of the Constitution, etc. Overall, the book is a disappointment, not only because it fails to accomplish its goal of convincing the reader to support Steven’s preferred solutions to the various problems mentioned, but because of the wasted opportunity that a book by a man in his position had to more fully inform the public.

3 stars.

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The Lego Build-It Book: More Amazing Vehicles

The Lego Build-It Book: More Amazing Vehicles
by Nathanael Kuipers and Mattia Zamboni
$15.90 at Amazon ($9.99 Kindle)

I’ve reviewed a number of Lego books recently, and they’ve all had the same problem: not much in the way of step-by-step instructions. While I can see the value in books of ideas and concepts, I enjoy following the instructions to put together a model, and it’s been difficult to accomplish that other than by buying more Lego sets. Until now.

This book (like the first one in the series, which I haven’t yet read) contains instructions on how to build ten different vehicles, from a hot rod and roadster to an excavator and big rig. The instruction quality is essentially what you would expect from a Lego set; I’ve been putting together Lego 10214 Tower Bridge and the instructions here are of similar quality and detail. Each model has photos from several angles, a complexity rating, design notes, and technical specifications, making it easier to decide what you’d like to build. I doubt I’ll build all of them, but several look interesting. There’s a little bit of theory at the beginning, but for the most part this is just a set of plans for 10 different models, as promised.

One decision I didn’t care for was the use of Lego 5867 as the base, as I found that to be a somewhat boring set (as well as being difficult to find at a reasonable price, being discontinued); it would have been nice if the authors could have picked a set that’s currently in production. Still, I imagine that when they started working on the book it was readily available, so I don’t take points off for that. Additionally, there is a complete parts list at the front of the book (though not for the individual models); while it doesn’t list the part numbers, these are mostly common parts that should be easy enough to purchase separately if you don’t want to buy the complete set.

Overall, I’d say this is the best Lego book I’ve looked at so far, although I could be biased due to my engineering background. While I’m sure it wouldn’t sell as well, I would love to see a similar book using one of the larger (and currently available) architecture or Star Wars sets. (I wanted to say Space Police, but we seem to be between versions again) I feel like having the extra model instructions really adds to the value of the set.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography

The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography by Sandra Petrowitz
$24.08 at Amazon

Everybody likes to take pictures when they travel, but few come home with great art; mostly, we see snapshots that reveal little other than “I was there”. As someone about to start work on a travel magazine project, I was interested to see what travel photographer Sandra Petrowitz has to say on the subject.

This book seems most appropriate for the advanced beginner to intermediate photographer. The assumption is that you know how to use your camera and you know the basics of photography; no space is devoted to explaining f-stops, proper exposures, and all that. It does, however, discuss the basic rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds and giving a subject space to move. Much of what is in the book is applicable to all photography, rather than specifically travel photography: changing perspective, using portrait format, using fill flash, etc.

What I would have liked to see is more information on how to choose a subject, or a view of the subject, to spice up your travel photography. There are some tips for interacting with the people you want to photograph and finding unusual viewpoints for architectural shots, but mostly it boils down to be polite, be yourself, and find your own viewpoint. The photographs illustrating the book are nice and technically well-done, but nothing that I felt the desire to hang on my wall.

Overall, I would have no problem recommending this book for a beginning or intermediate photographer, but expert photographers who want to move into travel photography should probably look elsewhere.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol 1: The Digestive System

Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol 1: The Digestive System by Gomdori Co. & Hyun-Dong Han
$12.92 at Amazon

Survive: Inside the Human body is a fun way to learn about how the body works. In this first installment of the series, after being shrunk and accidentally eaten, Geo and Dr. Brain must fight their way through Phoebe’s digestive system without falling prey to stomach acid or parasites and without harming Phoebe.

Survive! cover

The book is drawn in a clean anime style and is fun to read while being extremely educational. It’s been a long time since I took high school biology, so I learned a lot from reading this book; at the same time, I expect it would be accessible to children (the recommended age is 8 and up, although Amazon has it as 7 and up). Every so often there’s a break from the story for several pages of more in-depth detail on the body part we’re currently traveling through, which I imagine the youngest readers might decide to skip.

The book has a fair number of “Really? Ewww!” moments (this IS the digestive system, after all) that kids will get a real kick out of. The translation is excellent, with none of the lingual artifacts you often find in translated works. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Lego Space: Building the Future

Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard
$15.78 at Amazon ($9.99 Kindle)

When I was a kid, my favorite Legos were the Space Legos – Blacktron, M-tron, Space Police! I always wished I had more of them, but when I started playing with Legos again as an adult they were long since discontinued. Thus, I was happy to receive a copy of Lego Space, which promises step by step building instructions for similar models.

The book is written as something of a history, starting with Sputnik in 1957 and rapidly progressing to the birth of the Federation in the mid-21st century, proceeding into the colonization of Mars, first contact, and interstellar exploration. A variety of ships are presented, evoking all the classic models – the three previously mentioned plus Ice Planet. Ships are generally shown from multiple angles.

Overall, the book is very well done; I only have two complaints. The first is that, while the blurb suggests this is an instruction book, it actually contains only a handful of detailed instructions; for the rest of the models, you’ll have to figure out how to put them together yourself (although the pictures will give you a pretty good idea). I would have loved to have seen instructions for some of the larger ships. The other is that, as with similar books I’ve seen, there’s no parts lists for the models; if you don’t have a piece you need (or a substitute) it may be a challenge to figure out exactly what the piece is called so you can order one (or find a set containing it).

Despite those flaws, this was a fun read and it would make an excellent coffee table book.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Double Down

Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
$17.30 at Amazon ($11.93 Kindle)

In early October 2012, things seemed to be going very well indeed for Mitt Romney. He faced an unpopular incumbent presiding over a still-lethargic economy. He had access to a staggering amount of money (his total spending surpassed the president’s by over a hundred million dollars), although he had limited control over the significant fraction of it that passed through the Romney-aligned Super PACs. Finally, he was in complete control of the first debate, coming out of Denver as the clear winner. Yet a few weeks later, he would lose the election by millions of votes, with the president claiming over 60% of the electoral college.

There have already been a number of books written about the 2012 election, and will no doubt be many more, but Double Down has been hotly anticipated as a sequel to 2010′s Game Change. As in Game Change, the authors appear to have been granted extensive access to hundreds of people involved in the campaigns; they credit over 500 interviews (all, naturally, on deep background). But does the book live up to the hype?

For the most part, the writing is very good and kept me turning pages. The authors do have an annoying tendency to never use a common word where an obscure word will do, which detracts from the readability; I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary, but I found myself pulling out my phone more than once to look up yet another obscure adjective. Otherwise, the book flows fairly well. The first section, by far the shortest, covers the Obama administration in the lead-up to the election season. I got the sense that the authors felt they had already covered Obama sufficiently in Game Change and now wanted to concentrate on the republicans.

Section two covers the republican primary season. As with the primary voters, the text jumps from one candidate to another as Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and Santorum become ascendant, but always returns to Mitt Romney as the current not-Mitt flames out. Romney is definitely the star of the book, and where Obama intrudes in this section, he and his policies are seem from Romney’s point of view.

In section three, the stage is set, the candidates selected. From the Obama side, we see the reconciliation with Clinton and the struggles the candidate has in switching from his preferred professorial lecture mode to the style required of modern presidential debates. Still, the focus remains on the Romney campaign, the struggles they have with introducing their candidate to the country, and some of the innumerable missteps they took along the way.

What disappointed me about this book was that, except for things I would classify as gossip (such as who told Harry Reed that Romney went a decade without paying taxes, and several incidents demonstrating why Obama’s feelings of betrayal when private stories were leaked to the press), there isn’t a lot of new information in this book. I had hoped to read more about the Obama administration’s get out the vote operation and their vaunted computer system (and the Romney campaign’s disastrous ORCA system), but these went unmentioned; while they’ve been covered to some extent in other books, I haven’t seen one that covers them in the level of detail I would like to see. What I did enjoy was the details of how each of the republican candidates, most of whom I would consider to have zero chance of becoming president, came to sincerely believe at one time or another that he or she would win the nomination and the election.

In the end, this is a book not about tactics or policy, but about people – about the choices that Obama and Romney (and, to a lesser extent, the other republican candidates) made about how to present themselves to the voters. Right up to election day, Romney believed that he would be the victor, and this book attempts (largely successfully) to demonstrate how he and the people around him viewed his candidacy. For the most part, this is the story of Mitt Romney.

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Querying Microsoft SQL Server

Training Kit (Exam 70-461): Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 by Itzik Ben-Gan, Dejan Sarka, and Rom Talmage
$43.79 at Amazon ($69.99 cover price)

I’ve been using SQL Server at work for a couple of years now, but I’m not a DBA; I mostly just run simple queries to test that data was loaded correctly by our ETL process. This year I’m leading a small group of coworkers who want to become more proficient in SQL Server, so we’re studying for the MCSA in SQL Server 2012. This certification requires passing exams in three areas; the material on the first exam, 70-461, is the subject of this book.

The book starts out with the obligatory disclaimers: real-world experience is required to pass the exam, and you should already understand how to write a query and run it, even if you don’t know the fine details. Naturally, you’ll need a copy of SQL Server 2012 (a trial copy is fine). The book comes with a CD containing practice tests, an PDF of the text, and a copy of the scripts (which can also be downloaded from O’Reilly). Finally, the book includes a coupon code for 15% off any Microsoft Certified Professional Program exam; the tests normally run $150, so that’s probably a $22.50 savings if you plan to take the exam.

Before getting into the code, we start off with Chapter 1: Foundations of Querying, where we learn a little about set theory and the difference between standard SQL and Microsoft’s T-SQL. (Incidentally, if you’re trying to do a search for how to do something in SQL Server and want to avoid getting results from other flavors of SQL, searching in T-SQL is a good way to do it.) Chapter two brings in some code: the select statement. At this point, you’ll need to have installed the TSQL2012 database (which, as mentioned, is a free download). With the basics down, chapters three through seven discuss various ways of querying and managing the data, including filtering, sorting, combining, and grouping. In chapter eight, we start actually creating our own tables; chapters eight through eleven cover the various data structures (tables, views, functions, etc) that we can create and how to insert, update, and delete the data in them. After that we move into more advanced topics, such as error handling, dynamic SQL, and performance.

My study group has been going through the book at a rate of one chapter per week and found it quite readable. My only real complaint has been that the test questions at the end of the chapter sometimes ask about something that wasn’t actually discussed, but this is a minor irritant. A few chapters are fairly dense, but most of the writing flows easily, and we found a few tidbits that should be helpful at work.

The practice test gives you several options First is study mode, in which you choose how many questions you want and can look at the answers whenever you like; this mode is not timed. In certification mode, you have a 44 questions to complete; this mode is timed (with two hours given) and you cannot stop the timer. In custom mode you can set it up however you like, including specifying the objectives to be included. When looking at the explanation (either during a study mode test or afterward) you also get a reference to the appropriate chapter of the book and relevant pages on MSDN. After completing a test, you’ll see your overall score as well as your sub-score on each of the exam objectives, and can generate a learning plan (that is, links to MSDN pages on what you missed). All of the questions I’ve seen so far are multiple choice, however, which I’ve heard is not true of the actual exam.

I haven’t taken the exam yet (I expect to do so in October or November, though scheduling it is inconvenient) so I can’t say for sure how well the book has prepared me for it, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot about T-SQL by reading it. I’ll update this review after the test, but for now I rate this book a definite buy.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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