Recent book reviews – July 2011


Title: Decoded
Author: Jay Z
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

For Jay Z fans, this is a most-read book. For the rest of us, the reward for a bit of slogging is the picture of a thoughtful musician and some behind-the-rap-scenes tidbits. Alternating between Jay Z’s reflections on his past and in-depth explanations of his lyrics, Decoded is a useful addition to the literary catalogue on hip hop. I skipped most of the lyric information after reading the first few… the additional information didn’t add to my appreciation of the lyrics. If only I were a rapper, this would be gold.


Title: Einstein: The Life and Times
Author: Ronald W. Clark
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

Writing these reviews has made me a reflective reader. “Am I enjoying this book?” “Should I jot that good quote?” Einstein: The Life and Times, weighing in at 778-pages, required multiple revisions of my in-head tally. Knowing only that the book is “a classic on Einstein”, I was at first disappointed by the in-depth historical details. I was anxious to know more about Einstein’s philosophy and the science itself. But the fact that much of Einstein’s great work occurred as a young man, the elucidating descriptions of Special and General Relativity come quickly. And after having a taste of the technical, I enjoyed the remaining historical study. I lost a bit of steam during the descriptions of Einstein’s involvement in the Zionist movement but by that point my connection to him as a character was solidified. Einstein: The Life and Times deserves its status as a classic.


Title: The 4% Universe
Author: Richard Panek
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

I’m on a bit of a physics kick lately and I checked out this book excited to learn more about dark matter and dark energy. The 4% Universe rewarded this interest, with clear explanations of these phenomena and the role each plays in our view of the cosmos. The take-home message: A number of diverse observations and simulations have made it clear that visible matter (the atoms and photons and such that make up everything we interact with) represents only 4% of the total universe. An additional 23% is dark matter, which interacts gravitationally but is otherwise invisible. Dark energy is the stand-in term we use to explain the remaining 73% of the mass-energy that must exist in the universe to explain why the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

I found the technical bits of The 4% Universe very engaging, but as the book cover describes, the main focus is on the “dramatic story of how scientists reached the cosmos-shattering conclusion”. The competition and squabbles of scientists thus constitute more of the book than I would have liked. And while I think historical description is a great way to organize the explanation of technical topics, Panek’s writing would be greatly clarified by giving a sentence or two at the beginning of each section explaining where we’re headed. I grew a bit weary of long, historical excursions not knowing the purpose.


Title: Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution
Author: Ivan Illich
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Although much of the book deals with less-interesting issues of the Catholic church, Illich’s challenge of the assumption that school is a necessity of modern humans is extremely interesting. Though schooling is usually associated with advancement of the poor, Illich illustrates convincing examples in south America where education benefits the elite, and justifies segregation of the classes.

The number of satisfied clients who graduate from schools every year is much smaller than the number of frustrated dropouts who are conveniently graded by their failure for use in a marginal labor pool. The resulting steep educational pyramid defines a rationale for the corresponding levels of social status. Citizens are “schooled” into their places. This results in politically acceptable forms of discrimination which benefit the relatively few achievers.

It is now common to demand that the rich nations convert their war machine into a program for the development of the Third World. The poorer four-fifths of humanity multiply unchecked while their per capita consumption actually declines. This population expansion and decrease of consumption threaten the industrialized nations, who may still, as a result, convert their defense budgets to the economic pacification of poor nations. And this in turn could produce irreversible despair, because the plows of the rich can do as much harm as their swords… Only a minority needs heavy weapons, while a majority can become dependent on unrealistic levels of supply…

The process by which the marketing of “foreign” products increases underdevelopment is frequently understood in the most superficial ways. The same man who feels indignation at the sight of a Coca-Cola plant in a Latin American slum often feels pride at the sight of a new normal school growing up alongside. He resents the evidence of a foreign “license” attached to a soft drink which he would like to see replaced by “Cola-Mex.” But the same man is willing to impose schooling – at all costs – on his fellow citizens, and is unaware of the invisible license by which this institution is deeply enmeshed in the world market.

Why not, for example, consider walking as a long-range alternative for locomotion by machine, and explore the demands which this would impose on the city planner? And why can’t the building of shelters be standardized, elements be precast, and each citizen be obliged to learn in a year of public service how to construct his own sanitary housing?


Title: In the Mirror of the Past, Lectures and Addresses 1978-1990
Author: Ivan Illich
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

This is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in years. Over a remarkably wide range of lectures to different organizations, from the Eastern Economics Association to the Royal Institute of British Architects, Illich challenges the assumptions of each field of endeavor. He asks economists to question whether the fundamental concept of scarcity is a useful precept. He challenges architects to consider the success of Gandi’s hut, an un-architected space. He questions our treatment of human feces and urine as “waste”, a concept that makes humanity dirty and removes us from a more wholesome position within nature. Illich’s goal seems to be simply provoking thought. He does not always provide alternative solutions or specifics to the dangers he poses and thus the works have a tendency to seem a little pessimistic. But taken one at a time, the lectures and addresses of In the Mirror of the Past have given me great insights on my lifestyle and my future endeavors. A great read!


Title: The Workbench – A Complete Guide to Creating Your Perfect Bench
Author: Lon Schleining
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

With beautiful images and a nice balance of inspiring benches and DIY how-to, The Workbench is a must-read for the aspiring woodworker. Though not quite as authoritative as The Workbench Book (reviewed here), it is certainly worth checking out!


Title: The Information
Author: James Gleik
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This is a great work of science writing but I’m embarrassed to say that I let the hype surrounding The Information overly raise my expectations. I was a bit disappointed. Information theory is a particularly fascinating branch of science and I wanted this book to teach me more about how information is an essential quality of matter, like mass and energy. Although The Information does a decent job explaining how data, entropy, and randomness are related, the book is more focused the historical arc of our conception of information. Gleik begins with talking drums in Africa and makes his way through the history of telephony, radio, and eventually the internet. It’s all good stuff, but The Information lacked the mind-bending Aha! moments of Charles Seife’s Decoding the Universe (reviewed here)

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