Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

leonardo-da-vinci-9781501139154_hrThis book was fascinating. I always thought of Leonardo Da Vinci as an artist who did other things aside from painting. This book changed my mind. Leonardo saw himself as a philosopher/scientist/engineer (those were sort of one and the same back then) who also paints; and after reading this book, I have to agree.

I think if it wasn’t for the fact that he didn’t publish his findings, he would be the father of modern science. His science/engineering was strongly empirical. He even disregarded religious explanations for things. I am in awe at many of his findings and discoveries. I’m also amaze at his acceptance of his sexuality, even when part of the world was claiming it was evil (to be fair, Florence in that time was sort-of like the liberal capital of the world).

I’m also glad he wasn’t a tortured soul. Yeah, he had his problems, but he seemed to have lived a long good life and that’s rare for people as exceptional as him. Another rare ocurence is that he seemed to have been appreciated in his time (not as much as later, but at least he was no Van Gohg).

I’m listening to the audio book and there’s a PDF companion that you can use to look at the paintings and drawings being described. I rarely find myself in a position to look at them as I listen to audio books while doing chores, driving, running, etc. Nevertheless the descriptions are good enough to appreciate the techniques but not the art obviously.

In the explanations of why Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings were so good I find myself in awe of the techniques he developed for his art. Specially if we consider that just perspective was something not understood very well long before his lifetime. I guess the renaissance was an important time for the development of art (I know, doh!). Something that annoys me is when the author makes subjective comparisons of the art as if they were objective (best painting, best technique, etc). Thankfully, this is not very common in the book.


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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

omnivores_dilemma_by_michael_pollan1So far the tone of this book is disgustingly hippish. I think it presents some interesting data, but the way it presents it is so annoying:

– everything modern is bad
– everything mainstream is bad
– the only good alternative is primitive farms
– food and nature is a mystery that we cannot grasp so all efforts to synthesize fertilizers, pesticides, etc are doom to fail
– the natural cycle of chickens, cows, pigs, etc is perfect and shouldn’t be tampered with (mind you, these animals are almost as artificial as computers these days).

The part that annoys me the most is how it attributes negative connotations to the term agrobusiness. The definition of that word is “the businesses collectively associated with the production, processing, and distribution of agricultural products”, so, his idyllic small farms are as much agrobusinesses as the Monsatos he criticizes.

Another example I found ridiculous is when a farmer would refuse to ship him some food because burning fossil fuels to deliver his product was against his principles and instead told him: “If you want to try it, you’ll have to drive here”. Guess what! Driving to a location burns more fossil fuels than shipping a small package through highly efficient delivery companies (unless you drive an electric car and even then, I’m not sure).

I understand if the recommendations of the author were for an individual but he often talks about society as a whole without exploring the economic implications of using much more manual labor to produce food: can we actually feed the world with traditional farms? I don’t know and I have an inkling that the answer is probably very complex and not explored a lot in this book that advocates everybody to eat from those traditional farms.


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Book Review: Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension by Matt Parker

81xpnk+4DXLI was expecting a funny read of math curiosities and indeed there was plenty of humor and curiosities in this book in the style of Matt Parker (Google him and watch his videos, he’s great); but this book had much more than that.

Some parts of the book were not easy at all. I’m glad things were not dumbed down too much for us plebes. Some parts I couldn’t understand a lot and I just skipped them. Mind you, this was bed-time reading for me, so, I didn’t put a huge effort into it.

Something that surprised me when reading this book is how much we don’t know. From studying math in school and college it feels like we have most of it figured out, but I like how often Matt points to corners of the math world that don’t look, but probably are, too complex and they are not know or resolved at all. Similarly, how much of the math that we know is rather young, as in 20th century or second half of the 20th century.

I’m happy to recommend this book to everybody that enjoy maths but for people that don’t, they should read this book, as it might change your mind.


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Book Review: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

psychopathtest_custom-9fb3036a713639d308b67686c1b07ba6358eae8b-s6-c30I went into this book with the wrong expectation. When it says “A Journey” in the title, it really means it. The book is a journal. It almost feels like the making-of of The Psychopath Test, instead of the book itself. The whole book is written in first person, with no other order than time passing. It’s like a story.

There are some good nuggets of content every now and then but for my taste, they are too far apart. For most of the book the treatment of psychopathy is very prejudicial, but it’s impossible to pin-point examples because everything is either something that happened (so and so said), something the author felt or thought (you can feel something, like, tall people are evil, without claiming it to be true), or an open question (should all psychopaths be locked up?)

I wish for a more descriptive book that was neutral as to morality. If you are after that, look elsewhere, this is not it.


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Book Review: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley, Larry D. Rosen

41aipvZ90dLMy review of this book is going to sound a bit negative, but my regard for it is not, hence the four-stars.

The book is nicely divided in three sections. The first one is the brain, how it works, studies, it’s history and evolution. The second section is about the effect of the technological world on the mind and vice-versa. And the third is about how to deal with the world, techniques to be more productive, less distracted, more engaged. I don’t have much to say about the first part except that it’s fascinating and some of the studies were new to me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The second section is where my surprises begin. For example, it spent a lot of time explaining how you cannot text and drive. I have used my phone while in the car to change songs, podcasts or the route (I use it for navigation) and every time I can clearly see my driving quality going down and thus I only do it in low risk cases (empty highway with lanes on both sides of me, things like that). I can’t believe that there are people that believe they can text and drive.

The second part also spent a lot of time explaining that multitasking is not doing more than one thing at the same time, but doing one for a bit of time, then the other and coming back and that switching has a cost and thus, doing two tasks multitasking is less efficient than doing one task and then the other. Again, is this news? I do multitask but I know both tasks are suffering. Generally I do it for enjoyment or because there’s value in one task being in-progress (silly example: applying coats of paint while reading a book, you need to wait between each coat, so, multitasking has some value).

The third section is what really surprised me the most and made me feel like a very uncommon person. My phone is by my bedside at night in case of an emergency, but only calls from certain people get through; everything else is blocked. I don’t pick it in the middle of the night and I know that when I do, or when I look at it before going to sleep, it’ll affect my sleeping cycle negatively. There wasn’t much new about this in the book but it was a good reminder to improve my sleep hygiene, which I’m going to start doing.

There was a category of recommendations that I found really interesting. Apparently, the presence of a phone, on someone’s hand or on the table, even if it never rings and it’s never touched, even if it’s off, reduces the quality of human interaction. I’m highly skeptical but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and maybe start avoiding having my phone present during these sort of interaction.

If you are struggling with messages, Facebook, mails, and so on, overriding your life, then, this book might have some good information for you. For me, it didn’t feel very applicably as I’m a work-at-home-entrepreneur, so, Facebook, email, IM tend to be much needed human interaction for me.

Aside from my experience of the book, I think the book is good, and if things are as bad as they are painted in it, more people should read it.


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Book Review: Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century by Lauren Slater

711eVpNBKRLThis book is very entertaining and contains a lot of details I wasn’t familiar with but to be honest, not many that are important in my opinion; so, if you are as familiar as I am with the great psychological experiments, it’s just entertainment (and I’d say good one).

I really like that she managed to locate and talk to some of the participants of the Milgram experiment. I never gave too much thought about the impact the experiment might have had on their lives. At the same time she ignored some of the more important Milgram findings: adding a white coat and other authority symbols increasing compliance by a lot.


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Total Recalls

We did the crazy thing. We watched 1990’s Total Recall while eating burritos and then went to the cinema to watch the remake. It’s hard to figure out which one is worse. Which is quite an achievement if you think about it. But let me start with a positive note, before I go all ranty about a single aspect of the new version.

Our beloved protagonist… bah… who am I kidding… Quaid is in a quest to get his memories back and eventually finds someone who can help. In the old movie, it’s a super-weird psychic known as Kuato that by magic manages to restore some memories. In case you don’t remember:

In the new one, Quaid is instead connected to a computer through electrodes in his head. They replaced psychics with technology. I can’t help but believe that it’s a small piece of evidence that humanity is growing up, stopping to believe in fairy tales and trusting its fate in technology and engineering. At last, three or four hundred years of steady progress in improving people’s quality of life are paying of (mind you, also fueling a few terrible wars too).

Now to the rant! This was such a blatant disregard of the laws of nature that I felt like walking away from the movie, like I did with Lockout.

Let’s start with some facts. What happens if you put people inside a vessel, like a car or an elevator, and drop it? Let me show you what happens by showing you a scene from the movie that made it to the trailer (jump to 2:00):

Disregard the part when they decelerate in only three meters and still survive.

What happens is that the contents of the vessel seem to float because they are free falling with the same acceleration and initial speed as the vessel. In a more complex scenario but still using the same principles, you can experience weightlessness inside an aircraft. NASA uses that to train astronauts, Hollywood used that to film Apollo 13 (jump to 4:15):

And if you seen the movie you know where I’m going with this. In the new version, there’s a hole through the earth, from the UK to Australia. I’m not going to analyze how expensive that is or why it makes no sense. Keeping all our houses at spring temperature all year around, no matter whether it’s hotter or colder outside was, at some point, so impossible people wouldn’t even dream of it (specially the cooling down part). Science fiction is about dreaming, so, let’s dream about a hole from UK to Australia.

This hole is used for transport. They have a huge cylinder that people enter that travels through the hole. They sit in rows and get strapped to the seats like in a roller-coaster. I’m not spoiling anything, this is shown at the very beginning. They drop the cylinder and… what should happen now? Think of the car being dropped and make your guess: The cylinder is in free fall and so is everything inside it, things should appear to float… that’s not what happens in the movie.

In the movie, they enjoy gravity… and if you think that’s bad… get ready for more. When they are getting closer to the center of the earth, the PA system says something like “get ready for gravity reversal”. For a period of time they are weightless and some parts of the cylinder, with people strapped to the seats, is turned around, which is quite cool. When they leave the core of the planet, gravity comes back like someone waking up from a nightmare and everything falls. That is so wrong.

There seems to be no extra propulsion system, which if the hole through the earth is not vacum, would make for a very long trip… 20 hours or so? I don’t know, I didn’t calculate it. Even if the hole is free of air it’ll take a while… 2 hours? 3 hours? I don’t know… again, I didn’t do the math, if you want it, just ask me and I’ll do it.

What is more important though, is that without any propulsion system, you wouldn’t get to the other side of the earth. If you did, you’d have a perpetual motion machine, which violates the second law of thermodinaics, rigorously formulated by Sadi Carnot in 1824. Let’s assume there’s a propulsion system, ok? An invisible one… let’s say… it’s maglev on the walls or something like that… please? thank you.

Now Hollywood says: but isn’t this whole gravity reversal extremely cool? we want it on the big screen!

Agreed… but Mr Hollywood, hear me out… this is how that transport system should have worked:

  1. Everybody goes inside the huge vessel and get themselves strapped to the seats like in a roller-coaster… it looks cool and realistic, as it’ll be quite a ride.
  2. We have a countdown (awesome! why don’t airplanes have countdowns? imagine everybody going in unison 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, brakes released! take off!).
  3. The cylinder drops and everybody inside experience instant zero gravity… things float, drinks are spilled, people vomit… ok… not that one.
  4. We turn everybody upside down, like they did in the movie, while they are weightless.
  5. We hit the rockets… yes… the vessel now has rockets to accelerate. Or maglev, or whatever, doesn’t matter. The vessel accelerates at 2g (1g is gravity’s pull, another g is caused by the rockets), making earth-like artificial gravity. Alternative the vessel accelerates at 3g or 4g, because they are just a bunch of shitty workers and can take it. If that acceleration is kept, by the time it reaches the core, it’d be traveling awfully fast, and by that I think space-shuttle-worthy fast… I can do the math if you ask me.
  6. At some point they turn the rockets off and it starts falling at 1g again and everybody inside experiences another weightless moment.
  7. We turn everybody around again.
  8. We fire the rockets in the oposite direction… remember, we need as much force to stop it as we need it to get it moving, so everybody experiences gravity again. Instead of rockets, we could just use the atmosphere inside the tube to slow it down. Air is used to slow down spaceships coming back to Earth all the time, and that’s why landing on Mars is harder than landing on Earth… you have less atmosphere to slow you down.
  9. Getting closer to the end of the trip, the strong deceleration stops and everybody experiences zero gravity once again, which is quite convenient, because we turned them upside down twice, which leaves them pointing up in the UK, but pointing down in Australia. So why they experience zero g again, we turn them again and we slowly stop it just in time to see some kangaroos.

So… Hollywood… wouldn’t that have been much more impressive? you had rockets and instead of one wrong gravity reversal, you’d have three correct ones in every trip. Think of the plot potential! I’m giving you three for the price of one!

Science fiction fans: would you put your money where your mouth is?

The SciFi channels changes its name to Syfy to be able to attract people that don’t like science fiction, pissing off scifi fans. Then they cancel good shows and keep crappy ones. Recently they’ve cancelled Stargate Universe and people is all pissed about it. Meanwhile Star Trek, once a magnificent series, is rebooted into a dumb lens flare designed to make money out of idiots.

SciFi fans, it’s clear mainstream media no longer cares about you and as time goes on they’ll care less and less. I’m not sure why, I have a couple of hypothesis but that’s not important. What’s important is what you are going to do about it. First, you’ll have to make a sacrifice, you’ll have to forget about Star Trek, Stargate, Babylon 5 and all those great franchises. They have owners and the owners are saying “screw you!”.

The future is independent media, even user generated content. There’s no much of it yet, but it’s growing and it requires your support. For example, Pioneer One is an independent series released straight to BitTorrent. Have you donated to it already? It might not be exactly what you want, but if it succeeds it’ll send a clear message that it’s possible and maybe someone else will create what you want. You don’t have any money? Cancel your cable TV and use that extra 50$ or so per month to donate to Pioneer One or the next interesting thing.

Meanwhile technology is getting better and better and creating great content is getting easier, just look at this beautiful short:

As people get the ability to tell any story they want, instead of the sceptic, bland, non-challenging and generic stories Hollywood tells we’ll get much more interesting and fascinating tells. The future is going to be awesome but we may need to push, to band together and collaborate, to have it sooner.

Science is cool

I’ve created a blog called:

Science is cool

It is my first try at a blog with a subject. The subject is, of course, science and coolness. Well, cool science. I find things related to science, every day, that are cool and I want to share them. Videos of experiments, conferences that are funny or inspiring. This is my way to share them with everybody.

It’s also a statement in an age where myth and legend are jumping at us everywhere, we have to remember that science and technology brought us where we are and that science is cool.

My web site was born around 1998 or 1999. Since then it has been many things, but for a while it has been a blog. My blog, my personal blog, where nothing I write is off-topic. Science is cool is my first try at a blog with a subject and that a blog that I intend to grow beyond a handful of friends.

Of course, linking, sharing, re-tweeting and so on is very welcome.

What I didn't like about Avatar

I’ve just seen Avatar. I liked it, except for one thing.

In Avatar there are two societies, one is technologically advanced and believes in science; the other is religious. Of course they gave some consistency to the religion, but it remains a religion. The technological society, the humans, are warmongers; while the spiritual society is peaceful. They go to war and the religious society wins. I don’t think that’s the right message.

I’m a geek. I believe in reason. I believe in science. I believe in technology. I believe the human race will only survive if it stops taking myth and legend seriously and start seeking proof, learning, studying, researching, building. Look at medicine, people were dying of very simple deases a hundred years ago. Today we conquered a lot of them!

The life expentansy is growing at the rate of one year every two years. If today the life expectancy is 80 years old, by the time I’m 80, it’ll be 106 years old. And that’s consider the growth of the life expectancy linear, it’s actually accelerating.

The previous generation of science fiction authors dreamed of supercomputers in our pockets, being able to pick up a microphone and talk with anyone on the planet. We are living that and it’s great.

Back to Avatar, for me a story that is much more worthy of being told is the one of Rama. In Rama there’s an alien civilization, extremely advanced and technological, and at the same time very pacific. They inhabit part of a huge ship while the humans inhabit another part. One day the stupid humans decide they want the whole ship. Maybe they were procreating too much and were overpopulated, go figure!

Stop reading know if you intend to read Rama, spoilers ahead.

They start invading the technological civilization. A selected group of the technological civilization gathers to save their race, they develop a virus that would kill adult human males; the group that was actually attacking them. In a couple of hours, the war is over, every human adult male is dead and peace returns.

The individuals of the advanced civilization who participated in the extermination, all commit suicide. It’s part of their law: those that participate in war must kill themselves at the end, even the leaders. Nobody that causes the death of other beings is fit to return to the society.

How many soldiers would enlist if they knew that after returning from a tour, what awaits them is suicide? Very few. How many wars would we have in the world if those declaring them would have to blow their brains out at the end of it? None.