Math & Him

When I started graduate school 34 years ago I was 25 years old. I had scored sufficiently high on the math section of the GMAT to be accepted into a program that assumed all students would be comfortable with calculus. Not only was I years since my last math class but I had never taken calculus. The experience of starting a quantitative program of study for which I was mathematically unprepared was no fun whatsoever. But there is a funny story to share, another day. For now, all eyes on this book, which a while back I had read an excerpt of here:

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad / The New Yorker

How Mathematics Changed Me

If one is inclined toward mysteries, mathematics can lead one to the conclusion that behind the veil of life there is a structure and an order.

I have written about mathematics for The New Yorker and, lately, also in my book “A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age,” and I thought that I had said everything I had to say about mathematics and my simple engagement with it, but I find I can’t stop thinking about it…

María Medem

And then yesterday I followed that up by reading this op-ed, which on its own is also worth anyone’s reading:

Math Is the Great Secret

As a boy in the first weeks of algebra class, I felt confused and then I went sort of numb. Adolescents order the world from fragments of information. In its way, adolescence is a kind of algebra. The unknowns can be determined but doing so requires a special aptitude, not to mention a comfort with having things withheld. Straightforward, logical thinking is required, and a willingness to follow rules, which aren’t evenly distributed adolescent capabilities. Continue reading

The 150 Most Consequential Years

Amanda Northrop/Vox; Getty Images

Our thanks to Vox for this conversation with one of the great economic historians of our time:

Humanity was stagnant for millennia — then something big changed 150 years ago

Why the years from 1870 to 2010 were humanity’s most important.

“The 140 years from 1870 to 2010 of the long twentieth century were, I strongly believe, the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries.”

So argues Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, the new magnum opus from UC Berkeley professor Brad DeLong. It’s a bold claim. Homo sapiens has been around for at least 300,000 years; the “long twentieth century” represents 0.05 percent of that history.

But to DeLong, who beyond his academic work is known for his widely read blog on economics, something incredible happened in that sliver of time that eluded our species for the other 99.95 percent of our history. Continue reading

Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker

The reviews are  coming in, and especially this one by David Annand in TLS makes Ned Beauman’s new book look worthy of this moment in human history:

Whimsical and cruel

A tale of capitalism, penance and species extinction

In the 1980s the American literary critic Tom LeClair identified what he called the “systems novel”, a genre of fiction concerned with the characters, acts and situations of the conventional novel while simultaneously speculating on the complex social structures – Continue reading

McKibben With 2022 Perspective

If Timothy Egan thinks that one day Bill McKibben may win a Nobel prize, do not bet against it–only ask whether it will be for his contribution to literature or instead to world peace:

In his writings, his many speeches and bullhorn exhortations, Bill McKibben comes across as one of the least cynical people on the battlefield of public opinion. He’s passionate about solving problems others have given up on, about building a better world and particularly about climate change, the issue that has made him the Paul Revere of alarm about our fevered planet. Continue reading

Ocean, The Book

It has been a long time since our last links to a favorite coffee table book publisher. Next month, it could be yours. And inside we see a page with homage to Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka, old favorites:

Ocean, Exploring the Marine World: (Pre-order)Phaidon Editors, with an introduction by Anne-Marie Melster

Price£44.95

About the book

Pre-order now. This title will ship from September 8th, 2022.

Experience the force, mystery, and beauty of the ocean and seas through more than 300 images – featuring underwater photography, oceanographic maps and scientific illustrations, as well as paintings, sculptures and popular films.

Oceanography and art collide in this visual celebration of humans’ relationship with the marine world. Continue reading

Packing Well

Digital tablet, smart phone, bag, backpack, passport, sneakers, jeans, shirt, notebook, camera, photography

If there is a smart way to do it, here is a good suggestion:

The Smart Traveler Packs a Book for Every Occasion

As I write this, I’m busy planning a vacation to Maine—a vacation that I will already have enjoyed by the time you read this. There are so many factors to consider—car rental, restaurant reservations, day trips, wardrobe, etc. But perhaps the most important is: What am I going to read? Continue reading

A Trillion Trees, The Book

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World (Paperback)We have linked to so many of his essays and articles over the years, we are slightly jealous of a friend writing from England that she attended an event where he was discussing this book yesterday. Published last year, the concept is familiar, but if Fred Pearce offers a book treatment of a complex topic, read it:

**A Book of the Year in The Times and The Sunday Times ** Trees are essential, for nature and for us. Yet we are cutting and burning them at such a rate that we are fast approaching a tipping point. But there is still hope. Continue reading

Big Science

While working on my doctoral dissertation in the early 1990s I had a clear view into how big businesses, and industry associations, influence the creation of knowledge in research universities. The big science problem (not to be confused with the Big Science album) was clearly there, we all can see now. But I did not find it so problematic at the time. Bibi van der Zee‘s review in the Guardian makes clear why we should be more concerned about who funds the creation of knowledge, and what strings may be attached:

The Playbook by Jennifer Jacquet review – how big business takes on science and wins

A ‘guide’ for companies looking to counter unwelcome research exposes the corporate world’s dark arts

“Playbook” is a term that feels overused at the moment – mostly because of Vladimir Putin’s military adventures. Continue reading

Ed Yong Explains Umwelt

Sally Deng

Ed Yong’s new book was already on our reading list, but just got notched up in the priority list:

Spectacle floods into my eyes whenever I watch a wildlife documentary. A vortex of small fish is gradually picked off by waves of oceanic predators. Snakes chase after marine iguanas. Giraffes clash at sunset. Continue reading

Biblio-Entrepreneurship, Alive & Well

Ana Cabreira/InOssining.com/AP. Amy Hall, owner of Hudson Valley Books for Humanity in Ossining, N.Y., poses for a picture in her bookstore. Ms. Hall, who offers mostly used books that reflect economic and ethnic diversity, is one of many new bookstore owners who recently opened their own store.

We have a thing for independent bookstores. They are better in several important ways. We have a thing against one particular big online retailer, whose start in books was just one step in the wrong direction. Our thanks to  Hillel Italie, the Associated Press and the CS Monitor for this story, and especially to the biblio-entrepreneurs showcased in this article:

Indie bookstore boom turns page to a more diverse America

The year 2021 saw a substantial increase in the number of independent bookstores in the United States. And a growing proportion of these stores is owned by individuals from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Laura Romani, a Chicago-area resident with a background in education and library science, had long been thinking of a new career. “I was at home a couple of years ago, reflecting on all the experience I gained and how I wanted to contribute to the Latino community, while also allowing myself to be on my own and make use of my love for books and passion for multilingualism,” she said. Continue reading

Adriatic, The Experience & The Book

When I first set foot in Croatia more than two decades ago it was for a project to assist the country in defending the coastal areas from the pressures of mass tourism development. Within a couple of years I was doing similar work in Montenegro. Before too long we were enough in love with the region to make it our family’s home for a year.

So seeing this book about the future importance of the region, by an eminent scholar, is both heartwarming and concerning:

“[An] elegantly layered exploration of Europe’s past and future . . . a multifaceted masterpiece.”—The Wall Street Journal

“A lovely, personal journey around the Adriatic, in which Robert Kaplan revisits places and peoples he first encountered decades ago.”—Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

In this insightful travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan, geopolitical expert and bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and The Revenge of Geography, turns his perceptive eye to a region that for centuries has been a meeting point of cultures, trade, and ideas. Continue reading

Tertulia & Touch

Customers in Bookmongers of Brixton, a book store in London. Apps have struggled to reproduce online the kind of real-world serendipity that puts a book in a reader’s hand. Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Yesterday’s post notwithstanding, my favorite book review in ages was published five days ago. A couple weeks earlier I had read an essay that riffs off the book, written by the book author himself.  And I was all in–hook, line and sinker as they say–after reading the author’s punchy riff. The reviewer, one of my favorite cultural commentators, filleted the book such that I had to question my susceptibility to the book author’s riff essay.

One reason I read book reviews in a variety of publications is to get the next best thing to in-store browsing; comparative criticisms. But finding and holding a book is a whole other thing. Alexandra Alter’s article, about how technology may afford that in a new way, is of interest; Tertulia, if you can simulate that sensation of discovery, I will be all in:

A New Way to Choose Your Next Book

Most books are sold online, where it’s impossible to replicate the experience of browsing in a brick-and-mortar store. Book-discovery apps aim to change that.

By some measures, the book business is doing better than ever.

Last year, readers bought nearly 827 million print books, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2020, and a record since NPD BookScan began tracking two decades ago.

But all is not as rosy as it seems. As book buyers have migrated online, it has gotten harder to sell books by new or lesser known authors. Continue reading

What the #@ ϟ ⚛︎!

The first mention of humpback whales in our pages, more than a decade ago, was a very brief reference in a post explaining the tragedy of the commons, a precursor to Seth’s environmental history honors thesis.  One post mentions humpback whales in Monterey Bay but we missed the video above until now. There have been so many posts about these whales, that missing it makes the following book review all the more interesting to read to the end. Of course, since it is a review by Elizabeth Kolbert, about a book by Ed Yong, you will want to read to the end anyway:

The Strange and Secret Ways That Animals Perceive the World

Nonhuman creatures have senses that we’re just beginning to fathom. What would they tell us if we could only understand them?

One evening almost sixty years ago, a Tufts University researcher named Roger Payne was working in his lab when he heard a radio report about a whale that had washed up on a beach nearby. Although it was a cold, wet March night, he decided to drive to the shore. Continue reading

Library!

The Long Room is at the heart of a $95 million conservation project at Trinity College Dublin’s Old Library. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

The exclamation point in this post’s title signifies enthusiastic appreciation for a pleasant surprise. A story about libraries to take the mind off all that other news, and point it to lasting treasures. Our thanks to Ed O’Loughlin for the story, Paulo Nunes dos Santos for the photos, and The New York Times for the publication:

An Irish National Treasure Gets Set for a Long-Needed Restoration

The majestic Old Library at Trinity College Dublin, where some of Ireland’s most ancient and valuable books are stored, is a popular tourist attraction.

A librarian walking along the corridors in the upper gallery. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

DUBLIN — The Long Room, with its imposing oak ceiling and two levels of bookshelves laden with some of Ireland’s most ancient and valuable volumes, is the oldest part of the library in Trinity College Dublin, in constant use since 1732.

But that remarkable record is about to be disrupted, as engineers, architects and conservation experts embark on a 90 million euro, or $95 million, program to restore and upgrade the college’s Old Library building, of which the Long Room is the main part. Continue reading

Learning To Appreciate Wasps

Wasps are one of the least appreciated creatures on the planet, but we have always suspected they deserve some respect. We just never investigated why that might be the case. So, our thanks to the Guardian for bringing this book to our attention in an article titled Why we should all love wasps:

Wasps have always had a bad press. But Dr Seirian Sumner, who has spent her life studying them, argues they are sophisticated, socially complex and essential to the environment

In The Wasp Woman, a 1959 B-movie directed by Roger Corman, the owner of a failing cosmetics company becomes the test subject for a novel anti-ageing formula manufactured from the royal jelly of wasps. Continue reading

Camping, The Book Review

A recent book by the historian Phoebe S. K. Young explores what, exactly, camping is, and how the pursuit intersects with protest culture, homelessness, and identity. Illustration by Sally Deng

We have not featured much on camping recently, but some old favorites come to mind when reading this book review titled The Confounding Politics of Camping in America by Dan Piepenbring:

For centuries, sleeping outside has been embraced or condemned, depending on who’s doing it.

By the eighteen-seventies, the society pages of Scribner’s Monthly could no longer hide it: the “American pleasure-seeking public” had run out of places to seek their pleasure. Summer after summer, vacationers resigned themselves to “broiling in a roadside farm-house” among the “odor of piggery and soap-suds.” Or they visited costly resort towns, finding “more anxious swarming crowds than those left behind.” Continue reading

Sensory Loading, Overloading & Unloading

Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell
In early August, 2007 we arrived in a leafy suburb on the north side of Atlanta. We had spent the previous year living on this island, where doors did not have locks and during the daytime the only man-made sounds tended to be those of fishing boats coming and going. At night on that island there were no noises other than nature’s, including small waves hitting the shores and in summertime the crickets. On the first night in Atlanta I opened the window to let in the night air, and the sound of the superhighway, a mile or so away, was distracting enough that I had to close the window to sleep. It’s not that I had not appreciated the quiet of the island, but I was surprised by how much I had adapted to it. The opening of this book review, for these reasons, resonates with my own experience:

Sounds Wild and Broken review – a moving paean to Earth’s fraying soundtrack

David George Haskell’s often wonderful book explores some of the lost frequencies of nature – heard clearly again during Covid’s initial human hush

Lockdown was, among other things, a sudden collective experiment in volume control. Sound waves from the regular rush-hour thrum of cities usually penetrate more than a kilometre below the Earth’s surface. Continue reading

Convivial Conservation

Click on this image to go to the page where the illustrative video about convivial conservation is embedded

New to me, but not new, is this pairing of words that have a magical ring to them when said together:

Convivial Conservation

Convivial (literally: ‘living with’) conservation offers a new and integrated approach to understanding and practicing environmental conservation. It is a Whole Earth vision that responds to the major ecological, social and political-economic challenges facing people and biodiversity in the 21st century

Click on the image above to watch a short video introducing the concept, and click to the right to read more about the book. Click here to read more about ongoing research on this topic. Anyone following our posts on this platform for the last decade+ will have seen a different pair of words frequently used–sometimes related to biodiversity and other times related to culture. Now that I have let this other word pairing have some space in my day, I expect to see the words more frequently in these pages.

Meat Me Half Way

Changing the way we eat to improve our lives and save our planet has been a common theme over the years on this platform. In case you missed yesterday’s post, this new book by Brian Kateman was mentioned in the newsletter:

We know that eating animals is bad for the planet and bad for our health, and yet we do it anyway. Ask anyone in the plant-based movement and the solution seems obvious: Stop eating meat.

But, for many people, that stark solution is neither appealing nor practical. Continue reading

Letters To Strangers

This book looks like a must-read for multiple reasons. At least 65. That is the number of writers musing on a simple question: how can an “ephemeral encounter with a stranger leave such an eternal mark?” As someone whose life story hinges on a chance encounter in an airport, and so believes that strangers can make great co-adventurers, I am in. If you want a taste of what is in store, this essay by an author we have appreciated in these pages several times over the years, titled To My Lost Trishaw Driver, is excerpted from it:

Yangon, Myanmar, via Creative Commons.

Pico Iyer on decades of letters to a man he met, once, in Myanmar.

Travel is, deep down, an exercise in trust, and sometimes I think it was you who became my life’s most enduring teacher. I had every reason to be wary when, in 1985, I clambered out of the overnight train and stepped out into the October sunshine of Mandalay, blinking amidst the dust and bustle of the “City of Kings.” Continue reading