Book Review — Real Quanta: Simplifying Quantum Physics for Einstein and Bohr

Real Quanta: Simplifying Quantum Physics for Einstein and Bohr by Martijn van Calmthout is a layman’s look at quantum physics. Calmthout is the editor of exact subjects and surroundings, physicist, science expert and fancier, Einstein biographer, author of popular scientific books, host in the monthly KennisCafé in de Balie and radio presenter De Kennis van Nu (NTR).

There are many books explaining physics to layman from unknown writers to television celebrities like Michio Kaku. The basic concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics are available to all who have access to a library. This does not mean the reader will absorb all the mathematics and become an expert, but like classical physics, most people know how it works without the mathematics — action-reaction, bodies in motion…

Newtonian physics plays a role that we see in everyday life. We drop things. We feel the force of being thrown forward against seat belts during a sudden stop. We may not like the effects but we have learned to accept them. Quantum interactions take place at subatomic levels and Relativity takes place on the huge scale of the galaxies and the universe. Both do affect us since we are made of organized collections of subatomic particles and live in the universe. We just don’t experience it with our senses.

What it holds for mankind may be far greater than tunneling diodes. Computers are made of transistors but many people (younger than the transistor radio era) may not have seen a single transistor, but rather the millions put on an integrated circuit or chip. Science is at its limit of shrinking transistor sizes. Quantum physics may off the answer with quantum computing bits will no longer be a 1 or 0 they will become 1, 0, or both. Searching with a quantum computer would explore all possible answers at once instead of one at a time. Amazingly fast but it would kill credit card encryption algorithms.

Calmthout journeys through the world of quantum mechanics and relativity in a coffee shop with two guests. The old man of physics Albert Einstein and the young upstart Niels Bohr. There is a little banter between the two giants of physics but mostly it’s a bit of history and the future of physics. The cell phone plays a role in the discussion for several reasons besides computing. Secure communication and uncrackable encryption are two examples of quantum power. It’s fairly easy to tie physics to chemistry but Calmthout also ties it to biology and biological systems from migration to chloroplasts. The more that is understood about quantum mechanics the more that can be seen in our world and the more we can build upon the discoveries of the subatomic world.

Calmthout takes the reader on an exciting trip into the world of quantum mechanics. It is a place where “spooky interaction at a distance” is not so scary. It is a place that will make current microelectronics seem as clunky as an abacus. Real Quanta takes a look at the real world, its path, and possible future. Easily readable and very informative.


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Book Review — Dunbar

Dunbar is a modern retelling of Shakespear’s King Lear. It’s been quite a long time since I read Lear as an undergraduate and I wondered how much of what I remembered would affect what I read. To a casual reader, it is easy to see how Lear makes the skeleton that the book is built on.  Dunbar ruler of an empire divides his corporation between his daughters to avoid taxes and in the process, the daughter’s plot against him with the help of Dr. Bob. Dunbar finds himself medicated and trapped in a mental health facility.  His only friend is a depressed, alcoholic comedian who helps him escape.
Dunbar has three daughters.  Two daughters, Abigail and Megan, are plotting to manipulate the corporation’s leadership and standing in order to make a huge profit.  Their ally, Doctor Bob, has his own plans and entertains the reader with his self-medication and affairs with the two sisters.  They are despicable characters but with enough backstory to make them interesting.  The third daughter, Florence, is more attached to her father as a person than his riches.  She wants no part of the empire.  Florence is environmentally conscious — does not want to fly in the corporate jet, lives in Wyoming, worries about her carbon footprint.
This is a book where the evil characters seem to be more likable and definitely more interesting than the good.  Florence although only wants to do good seems boring when compared to her sisters.  Dunbar has rage issues, is power hungry, and his life had been his empire and nothing else.  There are plenty of similarities between Dunbar and King Lear to keep a Shakespear fan interested in matching plot and the characters.  For those who have not read Lear, it is a modern tycoon story that fits in well with American politics and business today.
This book was received from in exchange for a review.

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Book Review — A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov

A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov by Peter J Bowler is look back on science-fiction prophecy and what the future actually became. Bowler is Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Queen’s University Belfast. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has published a number of books on the history of biology and several general surveys.

Flying cars, wristwatch phones, and robot servants were all part of the future when I was young.  There was plenty of disappointment growing up with 8-track tapes and phones that were still affixed to the wall.  Some things, however, did come about.  The electronic pad that Captain Kirk regularly signed is close to an iPad, the computer may be an advanced “Alexa” device, and the communicator is much like a cellphone.  Yes, there are differences but not bad for a 50-year-old science fiction show that begins with the launch of the Enterprise in the year 2245.

Bowler pulls heavily from several writers in the book; Wells, Huxley, and a little Asimov and Clarke.  Perhaps much of the predictions of the future as more so come from the understanding of man than science.  One thing many writers got right is man’s willingness for war and creating better weapons.  Airships and aircraft are a means for more destructive warfare that targets cities and civilians.  Much of the pulp fiction, however, are stories of “cowboys and Indians” played out in space as earthlings against aliens.  Little is done to explain the technology of ray guns and rockets.  It’s just entertainment.

Many future predictions in science fiction were based on the newest technology of the time.   Electricity was more than a power source it was the path to utopia.  Radiation, on the other hand, could be a blessing or a bane.  Flying cars, an idea which seems to be as old as cars themselves is never clearly thought out.  Thought to be the end of road-bound traffic, however, no thought, however, is given how to organize and control an airborne rush hour.  Outside of the science, many thoughts are given on future governments — World government, weakness of democracy, totalitarian rule, interplanetary rule.

As I sit here and write this review there is one thing the past never predicted.  There were predictions of robots with computer brains.  There are predictions of computers the size of city blocks. But perhaps the biggest miss of science fiction predictions is the personal computer.  The machine that has transformed modern life like no other is missing.  No internet.  No social media.  No online shopping.  No movies on demand.  It is the unexpected that makes the future.

Bowler gives a detailed look at the past looking forward.  Nearly one-third of the book is source material providing even more detail for those interested.  How the past saw the future is interesting in the evolution of the newest technology of the time.  Nuclear power held the promise of almost free electricity (another marvel of the past) but no thought of what to do with the nuclear waste.  Visionaries of the past did understand human nature and saw the many dangers the atom could bring as well as the dangers man could bring on himself.  The history of the future depends on man’s development as much as the development of science.

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Book Review — Know It All Whiskey: The 50 Most Elemental Concepts of Whiskey, Each Explained in Under a Minute

Know It All Whiskey: The 50 Most Elemental Concepts of Whiskey, Each Explained in Under a Minute by Charles MacLean is both a history and an education on whiskey.  MacLean has been described by The Times as “Scotland’s leading whisky expert.” He has been researching and writing about whisky for 35 years and has published 15 books on the subject.

My understanding of whiskey has changed since those underage and early twenties Jack and Cokes.  What better whiskey was there than Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, or that special high-end whiskey Wild Turkey?  I have never developed a taste for Scotch, but not from lack of trying.  Today a nice rye is my favorite and no need to mix it.  Growing older I have discovered that whiskey tastes good on its own. If I want to mix, though, it’s back to a blended whiskey or big name whiskey.  

Know it all Whiskey will take the novice reader through the history of different whiskeys and their origins.  Facts like Japan is one of the big five whiskey producing countries along with the US, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland are found throughout the book.  Rye is an American whiskey that contains at least 51% rye in the mash.  In Canada, however, whiskey is commonly referred to as rye although is a blended whiskey that does contain some rye.  The reader will also travel the world and out more information on Scotch and its varieties.  Whiskey itself is a generalization distilled mashes much as wine covers the many varieties of fermented grapes.  Bourbon is different from Rye, is different from Scotch, is different from blended whiskey.  These may also vary by location.

The book itself is well organized.  The pages are nicely illustrated and the small history lessons are done on a black background with white text. The main text is written in the center column.  On the right is the “3-second nip” and “3-minute distillation” providing nice simple summaries.  On the left is “Related Topics” with page references inside the book, information on distillers, and the variety expert.  Between chapters is a list of keywords and their definitions.  Know It All Whiskey provides a wealth of knowledge in a very usable form.  Tips on tasting and serving will allow the reader to choose the right whiskey for every occasion.  


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Book Review — Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House

Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House by Joshua Zeitz is the story of LBJ’s grand plan for the United States.  Zeitz is the author of several books on American political and social history and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Dissent, and American Heritage. Zeitz appeared as a commentator on two PBS documentaries – Boomer Century, and Ken Burns’ Prohibition — and has commented on public policy matters on CNBC and CNN International. He has held faculty positions at Harvard, Cambridge, and Princeton and is the author of four books.

Today, Johnson is probably more associated with the Vietnam War than with his Great Society.  Zeitz looks at the president and his staff along with the Great Society and Civil Rights programs without making Vietnam the central point of the presidency.  The war does come into the book near the end, but the primary discussion is not the war. LBJ was a Texan and it showed in some very stereotypical ways.  He was gruff and used his power and favors owed to gain what he wanted.  He was not above intimidating his staff and opponents.  In one example while swimming with one of his senior staff, Johnson stopped at the right spot where his feet firmly touched the bottom of the pool but the shorter staff member needed to tread water while Johnson poked at the staffer’s chest and berated him.  Johnson always took a position of power.  He also enjoyed panicking guests by driving his (amphibious) car into the lake on his ranch while yelling that the brakes went out.  

Johnson could be a bully but he did have a soft spot.  He was a teacher in poor, primarily Mexican communities.  The racism and poverty had a deep effect on Johnson.  America was at its highest point of wealth and industry.  The vast richness of the United States should not be squandered.  All Americans should benefit.  Johnson spoke In a 1965 Speech at the signing of the Higher Education Act in San Marcos, TX:

I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.

Johnson worked on many programs that would seem out of place for his public image. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a project that evaded Kennedy.  Johnson used all his power and influence to push through the Act.  It became the starting point for his Great Society Program which became the 1964 campaign slogan.  Johnson believed that the Civil Rights Act had cost him and the Democrats the South. Johnson did, in fact, lose the Deep South (and Arizona) to Goldwater but carried the rest of the country.  He had a mandate for his Great Society.  The Voting Rights Act was pushed through despite resistance from southern leaders. He appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and Robert C. Weaver became the first African-American to hold a cabinet position. Head Start, Food Stamps, National Endowment for the Arts and the Federal Work Study Program all saw their start under Johnson.   Medicare, Medicaid, and public broadcasting all saw growth under LBJ.  Johnson’s Great Society did not come easily. Congress became conscious of costs, especially with the growing spending on Vietnam, and racial issues in southern states.  In the north civil rights was support in word but not always deed.  People would pay lip service to civil rights but resist desegregation of schools.  Much like the words of  Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, Johnson too seemed to have experienced “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  Vietnam overshadowed the good Johnson accomplished.  He felt the unfairness and once remarked:

If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: “President Can’t Swim.”.

Zeitz gives the reader an inside look at the Johnson presidency.  His staff members and inner workings of the presidential policies are examined in detail.  Original source material and first-hand accounts as reference material make this book an excellent account of LBJ’s years as president.  Also, moving Vietnam to the backburner allows the read to see the “good” Johnson intended to accomplish with his presidency.  Personally, Johnson was far from perfect; professionally, too, he believed the ends sometimes justified the means.  An important work on the man who shaped modern liberal policy and improved the lives of many Americans.  


Available January 30, 2018

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Book Review — Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason


Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason by David Harvey is a modern critique of Marx’s three volumes of Capital. Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he graduated from University of Cambridge with a Ph.D. in Geography in 1961.

Madness seems to be the description of modern capitalism.  It’s destroying the planet.  It is built like a Ponzi scheme were continual growth is required to keep it alive.  It’s nearing its limits as an economic system.  Wages have remained stagnant in the US while the standard of living is propped up by cheap imports and rising personal debt (not to mention worldwide debt).  More and more people around the world are buying cars only to sit in them for hours in traffic.  Climate change is real and brought on by mankind by the burning of hydrocarbons and the stripping of the land.  We have planned obsolescence of consumer goods.  We are hit at every turn with fees; look at a cell phone bill, for example.  Companies charge convenience fees to pay online over mailing a check.  As a whole, we are not living as well as our parents did.  We, as a whole, also, don’t have the jobs that gave us affordable comprehensive health care.  Skilled labor is disappearing as industries deskill the labor force and create a surplus of workers to keep jobs scarce.  We are living in times much like those Marx and Engles had witnessed in their lifetimes.

Harvey covers all three volumes of Capital with real-world explanations and where Marx got things wrong.  Marx many times forget to take into account expanding technology.  Machines were seen and are things not to make the worker’s job easier but as something to increase profits.  Today machines take many old jobs away as well as the expansion of globalization.  In early industrial England, wages were set to the price of bread.  Workers had to eat to remain productive.  To increase profits, industrial leaders pushed for laws allowing the importation of cheap grain.  Workers backed this idea; cheaper bread meant better living.  Industrialists supported it because they could keep wages lower if bread was cheaper maximizing their profits.   Today this exists in the big box stores keeping prices down so workers do not realize their wages are stagnating and subsidized processed food keeps prices down so we think we are well fed.

One particular case in the book concerns China.  It is 200 years of capitalism rolled up into a handful of decades.  When thinking of New York City, Los Angeles, the highway systems, and the concrete sprawl of America consider that in the 100 years between 1900-1999 the United States used 4,500 million tons of concrete to build all of that.  Between 2011 -2013 China used 6,500 million tons of concrete. In a two year period, China used more concrete than the US did in 100 years.  The banking crisis that started in the US in 2007-2008 could have been a worldwide disaster.  When US and western markets crashed, imports went down.  China found itself in a crisis.  A totalitarian state does not want labor unrest and with millions now out of work China began a massive public works project.  Roads, dams, and even ghost cities were built with borrowed money.  The government told the banks to loan money and loans pour out of the banks.  China prevented its collapse by temporarily diverting labor to other projects until the crisis passed.  The command economy of China is not Marxist; it is a totalitarian system that mimicked a century of capitalism in a handful of years.  China, like the US, now sits under a mountain of debt.

Harvey writes an interesting study of Capitalism as seen by Marx and sometimes as revised for the modern world.  The ideas are the same.  Capitalism exists not to make a better life for everyone, but to maximize profits.  Totalitarian regimes paid lip service to Marx in the past but none really came close to following his theories, hence, Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism where Marx was merely a wrapper covering atrocities.  Today, in America, socialism is misunderstood and feared.  People hate socialism except for public roads, public parks, public schools, subsidized food…  Some of that has changed after the bank collapse and the recognition that hard work and a good education will still leave many poor and deeper in debt.  The 1% has changed from being a symbol of outlaw motorcycle gangs to bankers, vulture capitalist, and CEOs.

No one is saying that we need a revolution or the Marx was 100% correct.  We have seen what capitalism can and will do when its free to operate on its own or even forced as the case of China.  Instead of condemning Marx to the dustbin of history we need to take look at it without the lens of the Cold War.  Marxism did have a positive effect on Europe in the mid to late1800s.  Workers organized work weeks were shortened.  Leisure and vacations became more common for workers.  Labor is an important part of any economy but rarely gets the respect it deserves.


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Book Review — Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks is a report on the use of technology in determining government assistance programs. Eubanks is the co-founder of Our Knowledge, Our Power (OKOP), a grassroots anti-poverty and welfare rights organization, and is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Public assistance programs are seen as a drag on the economy to many people.  People work hard for their money don’t want to see their tax dollars abused.  Reagan exaggerated stories of welfare queens.  The 1970s were filled with images of Caddilac’s parked in front of welfare offices.  Public assistance is typically seen as an abused system.  The good that it does is under-reported when compared to the abuse.

Over seventy percent of full-time workers say they live paycheck to paycheck.  The average American also has nearly $16,000 in credit card debt.  For those seeking an education, student loan debt piles up faster than job opportunities.  Many Americans are balancing on the edge of homelessness and bankruptcy.

Eubanks looks at three separate areas in three different parts of the country and examines what automation has done in determining benefits and the problems it causes. Poverty in America is real and a growing problem.  We see it every day and do our best to block it out.  Americans also have a history of moving away from poverty — out of the cities and into the suburbs and back again.

The first area Eubanks describes is automation and privatization of public services to save money and limit fraud (which is very small).  Applications are done over the phone to a call center (which was problematic for the deaf) or online.  In poor areas, libraries and librarians are overrun trying to provide internet service to patrons filing for benefits.  In one case (years ago, I imagine) a woman added the food stamps phone number to her family and friends list because she spent so much time on the phone with them over benefits.  When Indiana automated it was a disaster.  Call centers and document centers did not follow through on paperwork many lost benefits for failure to cooperate when paperwork was lost.  This was life-threatening to many on medication.  Fixing problems was met with resistance, paperwork, and delays.

Skid Row in Los Angeles became the defacto homeless area.  Keeping a defined area homelessness helped insulate the public from the homeless.  Gentrification, however, pushed the homeless out of their “home.”  Arrests for sitting or laying on the sidewalk, confiscation of property, and basically criminalizing homelessness became the government’s solution.  In Pennsylvania, Child Services uses an algorithm to predict future behavior.  Vendetta calls remain in the parent’s/child’s records.  In both cases, algorithms have taken over for human interaction and understanding.  Computers take certain answers but most of the time no matter what is being filled out “Other” is filled out especially when something as important as physical and mental health.  Computers are poor interpreters of “other.”

Automating Inequality demonstrates the problems of algorithms and automation and what it does identify the poor and many cases work to keep the poor poor.  The system was intended to provide assistance for the short term and help people out of poverty has become a system to perpetuate poverty.  An interesting report based on real-life examples and real-life workers.


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