Svetlo, ktoré nevidíme

All the light we cannot see, napísal Anthony Doerr

Francúzsko, II. svetová vojna, slepé dievča, ktoré ušlo s otcom z Paríža, nemecký chlapec, ktorý vie opravovať rádiá… a úžasne napísaný príbeh. Ono je to vpodstate obrázková kniha, aj keď v nej žiadne obrázky nakreslené nie sú (ale nájdu sa vzorce!). Akoby svet popísaný pre Marie-Laure, ktorá oslepla, keď mala šesť rokov. Dve rozkúskované predčasne ukončené detstvá, ktoré sa prelínajú a na konci do seba zapadnú ako skladačka. A nie, nie je to love story, je to príbeh o tom, ako sa ľudia snažia byť dobrí aj vo svete, ktorý nedáva zmysel.  

He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.

What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ears.

Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.

Veľmi sa mi páčila.

Zaklínač

Včera pri rozjímaní o nebezpečných ženách mi došlo, že som vlastne toto leto čítala jednu feminist-friedly fantasy ságu od poľského autora Andrzeja Sapkowského:

Ciri (obrázok

Ciri (obrázok odtiaľto)

Zaklínač III. – Krev elfu
Zaklínač IV. – Čas opovržení
Zaklínač V. – Křest ohněm
Zaklínač VI. – Věž vlaštovky
Zaklínač VII. – Paní jezera

Áno, naozaj to začína treťou knihou. Prvé dve sú knihy poviedok o Geraltovi, ktoré ku samotnej ságe netreba. A celkom sa teším, ako sa k nim na vianoce alebo niekedy budúci rok vrátim. Ale po dočítaní piatej/siedmej knihy som už mala pocit, že si potrebujem zase chvíľu čítať niečo iné (lebo toho bolo veľa v krátkom čase, nie že by som toho mala plné zuby).

Ale postavy sú veľmi “ľudské” (aj keď samozrejme nie všetci sú ľudia). Robia chyby a niektorí sa z nich aj poučia. Vyvíjajú sa, nechýba im zmysel pre humor… naozaj dobré čítanie, ktoré by bolo takmer dokonalé, keby tam bolo menej násilia a brutality.

Checklist manifesto

checklistAtul Gawande: Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (moja knižka dokonca s autogramom autora)

Tak takto. To, že som divná sme vedeli. Ale že až natoľko, že budem čítať knihu o kontrolných(?) zoznamoch(!)… to neviem, či sme vedeli. A hmm… celkom sa mi to páčilo(?!).

Ono ale povedzme si rovno: nejako veľa času tejto knihe venovať netreba (jedno nedeľné popoludnie)… predsalen, koľko sa dá napísať o zoznamoch? Ale pointa je, že Gawande vás dokáže presvedčiť, ako veľmi môžu byť zoznamy užitočné. Nie preto, že by na nich boli veci, ktoré nevieme, ale preto, že robíme komplexné veci a zabúdame. Pre pilotov sú napríklad takéto zoznamy užitočné pred odletom, pre chirurgov pred operáciou (na príprave tohto operačného sa Gawande podieľal):

Checklist distilled down to 19 steps, 7 before anesthesia, 7 after anesthesia, and 5 after the procedure/operation… Checklist was then tested using limited WHO budget with baseline collected beforehand at 4 major developing world and 4 developed world hospitals. In implementation, they were careful not to force usage… Major complications for surgical patients fell by 36 percent after introduction, deaths fell by 47 percent.

Zúčastnení sa z checklistu nedozvedeli nové veci, ale menej sa zabúdalo a vyjasnili sa nejasnosti. Veľmi fascinujúce, ako môže mať takáto “nemedicínska” intervencia, taký veľký dopad. Odvtedy tento zoznam prijalo aj niekoľko krajín do svojich zdravotníckych smerníc.

Človeka samozrejme napadne, kde inde by sa dali takéto zoznamy použiť a ja som sa hneď nechala aj inšpirovať a začala vyrábať checklist na niečo, v čom sa opakovane mýlim v práci. Nemám síce zozbierané exaktné “before” dáta, ale aspoň pocitovo vyskúšam, či bude nejaký rozdiel.

Od tohto pána, ktorého som stretla aj osobne, som ešte kedysi dávnejšie čítala aj knihu Better a tá bola tiež celkom zaujímavá.

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, 2009, 470 pages, amazon

I never doubted evolution so you might ask why would I read a book like this. For the same reason why I read Darwin’s Origin of Species or plan to read Schrodinger’s What is Life? Life, it’s origin and development, consciousness, these all fascinate me. And plus, I like the way Dawkins writes (the other book I read by him is The Selfish Gene – highly recommended, too). Yes, he is sarcastic, especially towards those who do not accept evolution, but that’s the frustration of someone who’ve spent a lot of time trying to reason and give arguments only to be met with a brick wall of ignorance of people not willing to look at them.

That’s actually the big problem of this book. For people like me, who don’t need to be persuaded, it’s simply a fascinating reading with a lot of humor and “tentacles” to follow (Dawkins is know for his numerous tangent stories). But I venture a guess that not many people who don’t believe in evolution would open this book. Though they should, because as Dawkins says:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips…continue the list as long as desired…It didn’t have to be true, but it is. We know this because a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.

And he gives plenty of arguments, not limited to fossils. He goes though geology, domestification, breeding, experiment’s that have been done (e.g. the 20-year E. Coli evolution experiment – go look at it, it’s worth it. Really. I’ll wait.), DNA, “messy” design and lot of other things. Great reading.

PS If you want to do your own evolution experiment, try Dawkins’ blind watchmaker applet.
PS2 20-year old but still good lecture for kids Ultraviolet Garden by Richard Dawkins, which includes such gems as Douglas Adams reading from his book and an orchid pounding up on a bee (little after minute 10).

Beyond The Blue Event Horizon

By Frederik Pohl, 2000, 336 pages, amazon

This book is the second one in the (sci-fi) Heechee saga (preceded by Gateway). Even though it is quite self-contained and can be read separately, I would not recommend doing that. In fact, I would not recommend the book at all, read the Gateway instead.

Why? Not quite sure, it just doesn’t feel right, as it often happens with the sequels to very good books. It reads easily, so it might be good for some light entertainment, but if you’re looking for some good science fiction, this is not it. The best part of the book is the epilogue wraps it up:

The evidence was sure. It was not the sort of evidence that only Heechee could read. If any of their experiments did attain civilization and science, they would see it too. The anisotropic nature of the 3K cosmic background radiation, showing an inexplicable “drift”. (Human beings had learned to read that, if not to understand it.) The physical theory that suggested such fundamental numbers as made the life possible in the first place could be changed. (Human being had learned to understand that, but not to be sure it was true.) The subtle clues from distant galaxies that showed their rate of expansion was slowing down, had already for some of them begun to reverse. This was the point of human capability of observation – yet; but only perhaps by a matter of years or decades.

When it became clear to Heechee not only that the universe might be destroyed in order to rebuild it – but that Someone was actually doing it – they were appalled…

Pushed

By Jennifer Block, 2007, 336 pages, amazon

The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care

This book is not an easy reading. It brings tears and fear. Not of childbirth, but of US hospitals. Belongs to the same category as the movie The Business of Being Born. Why is it so scary? Because it tells stories of women who had perfect uncomplicated pregnancies and ended up pushed into unwanted Cesarian sections. Of women who wanted VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarian) with their second (or later) babies and were not allowed to have them. Of midwives who should be taking care of majority of pregnancies, leaving the complicated cases to obstetricians, but instead they are being prosecuted in some states.

These are not just some stories collected during family reunion, Mrs Block is a journalist who has done her reaserch well. Yes, the book is one-sided and biased, but presents facts, cites resources and gives opinions of obstetricians. Her basic concern is  that

What’s best for women is best for babies. And what’s best for women and babies is minimally invasive births that are physically, emotionally, and socially supported. This is not the experience that most women have. In the age of evidence-based medicine, women need to know that standard American maternity care is not primarily driven by their health and well-being or by the health and well-being of their babies. Care is constrained and determined by liability and financial concerns, by a provider’s licensing regulations and malpractice insurer. The evidence often has nothing to do with it.

And continues on:

… less than 2% of American women received “optimal maternity care” that consists of these six basic aspects, all of which are well supported by the best evidence-based medicine:
1. Labor begins spontaneously
2. Women have freedom of movement during labor.
3. Interventions are medically justified rather than routine.
4. Women have continuous emotional and physical support.
5. Pushing occurs in any position but flat-on-back.
6. Mother and baby are not separated.
In other words, 98% of women received sub-optimal care.

Is this asking for too much? Isn’t it interesting that childbirth is the only hospital event (I intentionaly don’t write procedure) for which the women (I intentionally don’t write patients) bring their own lists of things (birth plans) that they do not want to have done to them? Scary!

Useless Arithmetic

By Orrin H. Pilkey & Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, 2006, 221 pages, amazon

Or why environmental scientists can’t predict the future?

The answer given by the authors is simple. Because the scientists are trying to find exact answers to quantitative questions using models in which many parameters and interactions are still unknown. They demonstrate this using various examples from fishing industry, sea-level rising, weather prediction to very interesting one about  nuclear waste depository. They also suggest a remedy – ask qualitative questions and adapt the models on the go.

I heard about this book in one of our regular Friday Applied Math Colloquium talks. The speaker criticised it a lot (that’s what made me read it actually). Now I understand why. The book contains no mathematical models (except for the very brief appendix), but slowly describes them and points out their weaknesses. So far so good, makes reader aware that not everyting can be modelled and even when modelling things that can be, one should be extremely careful about the assumptions and reliability of the answers.

However, the undertone of the book (which was also so offensive to our colloquium speaker) is that you can’t model anything. I doubt this is what the authors had in mind, but it can be felt. Another drawback of the book is that it is extremely “slow” and you have the feeling that you are reading the same argument over and over again.

Would I recommend it? Maybe just skim over it in the library (and read the passage on Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage). The best words you’ll find in the book, don’t even come from the authors, but from C. S. Lewis:

We all want progress, but progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken the wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. And in that case the man who turns back the soonest is the most progressive man.

A Mathematician’s Apology

By G. H. Hardy, 1940, 153 pages, partial text, amazon

I propose to put forward an apology for mathematics; and I may be told that it needs none, since there are now few studies more generally recognized, for good reason or bad, as profitable or priceworthy… A mathematician does need not now consider himself on the defensive… The public does not need to be convinced that there is something in mathematics. All this is in its way very comforting to mathematicians, but it is hardly possible to be content with it. Any genuine mathematician must feel that it is not on … crude achievements that the real case for mathematics rests, that the popular reputation of mathematics is based largely on ignorance and confusion, and that there is room for more rational defence. At any rate, I am disposed to try to make one.

And that is what he gives in this tiny book. More than a third of it is a foreword by C. P. Snow, which introduces Hardy to the reader, introduces him as a mathematician proud of what he’s doing, person with very delicate and unorthodox thinking who places high expectations on everyone and highest on himself.

Then you start reading the essay itself and whether you are a mathematician or not, you’ll be absorbed. For non-mathematicians this is an amazing opportunity to peek into mathematician’s way of thinking, reasoning, motivation and notion of beauty. For mathematician (in addition to all of the above) this is a unique verbalization (sparse, but very much to the point) of what they understand on an intuitive level, but would probably have a hard time expressing so clearly.

Even though you might not agree with all of Hardy’s ideas (I don’t, especially with the those concerning applied mathematics… which is probably due to the fact that applied mathematics is today something very different from what Hardy considered it to be), you cannot help yoursel but admire the way he presents his points.

And what is he actually apologizing for? You need to read that for yourself. Highly recommended!

PS On a similar note (but not as beautifully written), from much younger (but at least as talented) mathematician Terry Tao comes an article What is good mathematics?

Does God Play Dice?

By Ian Stewart, 1989, 317 pages, partial text, amazon

This is a book about chaos. Not the chaos you have in your closet after three years of not cleaning it up but the mathematical chaos. And it is written with almost no equations at all, which makes it highly readable for non-mathematicians, but leaves the mathematicians somewhat hungry by not going deep enough. That was probably the intention, though – to provide interesting enough introduction that the hungry go on reading further on their own.

Also the book is some 20 years old and much have been done in the theory of chaos since – another reason to look for further reading – but it provides a very nice background of how people started to realize that in the nature there actually exist something “between deterministic and random” – something that can be deterministic and random (in a sense) at the same time. And it shows how we encounter this kind of stuff almost everywhere – problems with prediction of weather, movement of asteroinds, fluid dynamics, etc and how it took people from different areas of expertise to find out what it is.

What I also liked about this book was that since it is a popular math book, it takes various side trips, talkes about mathematicians, their lives, about non-mathematicians and their approach to math. It gives hope to an aspiring applied mathematician:

To criticize mathematics for its abstraction is to miss the point entirely. Abstraction is what makes mathematics work. If you concentrate too closely on too limited an application of a mathematical idea, you rob the mathematician of his most important tools: analogy, generality and simplicity. Mathematics is the ultimate in technology transfer…

However, technology transfer needs more than just the technology. Someone has to transfer it. So, while mathematicians should be encouraged to continue doing whatever it is that mathematicians do – whether or not the outside world can understand a word of it – it will remain just an art-form unless enough people are willing to make the effort to apply it to problems outside mathematics. The story of chaos is full of such people. They come from all subjects – physics, biology, engineering, chemistry, physiology, astronomy as well as mathematics. They are the true ‘applied mathematicians’ and they do what that phrase ought to mean. They take mathematics and they apply it.

PS. If God played dice, He’d win.

Guesstimation

By Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam, 2008, 301 pages, amazon

What does guesstimation mean? Something between guess and estimation or even better – a little bit of both. Subtitle of this book is “Solving the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin” suggests what this book is about. Shows you how to guess/estimate answers to some not so obvious questions and even though you can be sure you’re not going to be right, you can be confident that you’re at least in the correct order of magnitude (which is pretty good for general comparison).

Some of the questions this book asks (and answers) are: How many km do Americans drive in a year? How many piano tuners are there in Los Angeles? Is it safer to drive or to fly? How long is all the DNA on your body? What is the surface area of a typical bath towel? How much electrical power does the US use in a year? And many more…

All you will need to answer these questions is a willingness to think and to handle big numbers… You will be astonished at how much you can figure out starting with the knowledge you already have.

With this and two very short chapters on some basic principles, the book immmediately dives into the problems themselves.

Don’t expect that after reading this book you will be able to guesstimate just about anything, but you will be able to guesstimate a lot and have an idea how to approach the rest. Recommended, easy to read and fits a bigger pocket.

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