Tag: history

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: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin

80571For this review I’m considering, without any fact checking or cross referencing, that this biography is factual and true to the events although clearly some of the statements in the book would be hard to evaluate as they describe the feelings of large groups of people.

I knew a bit about The Manhattan Project and it was fun to have another take on those years of science, innovation and destruction. What I didn’t know is what happened before and after in the life of Oppenheimer.

During the earlier years, I was surprised by how active Oppenheimer and other people were in the projects of the communist party. It sounds as during those days, for many Americans, it wasn’t the enemy’s ideology but a potential solution to their ongoing socioeconomic problems. Some glorified the Soviet Union before they knew and understood how tyrannical it was. I can’t begin to fathom at the absurdity of the witch hunt that was McCarthyism and what a negative force it excreted on the American scientific society. I can’t help but notice the parallel with the trial against Alan Turing.

What surprised me the most about what I read in this book was Oppenheimer’s transformation. You could never guess that the boy and young man described in the early chapters could ever become a leader of scientists, a pragmatic that could put a practical goal above the intrinsic curiosity that pushes people into science and achieve so much. I guess the fear of a Nazi world was a great motivator.

★★★★☆

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Book Review: Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents by Great Britain Home Office

81DKEZAB9NLThe only real way to judge this book is whether it helps you pass the Life in the United Kingdom test or not and I don’t yet know that. I’ve read the book (it actually took me one full day to go through all of it) and I’m probably going to re-read at least once, but for my actual study I’m using the mock tests at: https://lifeintheuktests.co.uk/life-i… I’ve found many sources of mock tests, but that one seems to have the hardest questions and I personally know someone that passed the test studying from there.

Judging the book by itself, I found it terrible. There’s two reasons for that:
– It’s written for the lowest level of English that would allow you to become a citizen, so, the prose is terse and simple.
– It’s designed to cover just the information you need to pass the test and nothing more, so, it’s almost a regurgitation of facts.

About the last point, for some bits of history that I know a bit about and that are super interesting (WWI, WWII, Scotland’s joining the UK, and a few more) I found the book super boring and skipping all the interesting bits just because it’s not in the exam. It makes sense for this book but it makes for a boring book. I have to admit that it made me curious about some things that I want to read more about and also some places I want to visit now.

★☆☆☆☆

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon

the-rise-and-fall-of-american-growth-2I read it as an audiobook and it doesn’t make a good one. It’s full of figures, numbers, charts, diagrams, etc which get lost in the audio version. This might cause a bias on my review.

The book feels thoroughly researched. I caught a couple of small errors but most time when I thought “What about this or that” the book answered my objection a couple or paragraphs earlier.

The first two parts cycle between a dry list of numbers and little stories or descriptions that are very interesting. It is, as the title suggest, very American centric but every now and then it compares USA with Europe.

The last part is different, specially the last two or three chapters, which talk about the present and the future. I was heavily entrenched in what this books call techno-optimisim. Techno-optimists believe progress is happening and it will accelerate. AI will solve all problems and destroy all jobs. We also believe robots are the biggest source of unemployment today. This book made me challenge these assumptions. I’m not sure what to believe. Some of the conclusions that you may arrive at from the information here can be very xenophobic/protectionist.

The postscript, America’s Growth Achievement and the Path Ahead is great and concise. I think it should be mandatory reading to be a politician of any kind. Actually, the US should elect Robert J. Gordon as their president.

★★★★☆

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How I found one of the earliest browsers in history

Yesterday, the web celebrated its 25th birthday and to join in, I have a little story. A couple of years ago I found a NeXTcube. I’m not going to say where it is to avoid vandalism (the computer is publicly accessible under some circumstances without much oversight), but this is the story. Sir Tim Berners-Lee coded the earliest version of the web in his NeXTcube workstation when he was working at CERN, so, I was always interested in this machines, from a historical/playful point of view.

The cube that was in front of me was more or less abandoned and I asked the owner if I could play with it. He was very reticent but I was more relentless and I got to play with it. He told me that Next computer belonged, at one point, to CERN and that it has not been used since then. I decided to explore it.

The first interesting thing I found was a file containing a lot of email addresses from people that seemed to work at CERN or be related to CERN in some form or fashion. The owner of the computer decided to be overly professional and deleted the file.

The second interesting thing I found completely blew my mind. There was a folder called WorldWideWeb and inside it several files called WorldWideWeb_0.1.0.tar, 0.1.1.tar, 0.2.0.tar and so on. Could this be? I opened one by one and indeed they were apps. I started with the oldest and executed them one by one.

The first one raised an error as it tried to contact cernvax.cern.ch (this Next cube was disconnected) and then it crashed:

WorldWideWeb_0.1.0

I kept on going and eventually one started. It was very plain but I knew what it was. I quickly went back to my terminal, open vi, and wrote a small HTML file, which then I passed as a parameter to the little WorldWideWeb_0.2. It worked… it displayed an h1 as a title!

I was jumping out of my skin. I don’t want to publish the whole picture to avoid releasing private information, but I’m standing, next to the cube, pointing and what could possible be the earliest version of the web browser that still works today, displaying a web site I just coded (it says Hello World):

WorldWideWeb_0.2

Then I discovered the browser allowed me to edit the page, directly there, without having to do anything special, and I remembered that Sir Tim Berners-Lee originally designed the web to be read-write, not read-only.

That was one of the most exciting moments of my life. When I got home I wrote an email to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, telling him of my finding and where he could find that computer, just in case he wanted to get ahold of those binaries (I couldn’t find any source code anywhere on that machine). He never replied, I don’t know if he ever got my email. I bet he gets a lot of it and that he’s a very busy man.

Update: explained a bit why I don’t want to reveal where this happened.