What WC Is Reading


clean houseThe weather sucks, WC is struggling with a head cold and it’s the same old same old among the yard birds. So WC has been doing a lot of reading. Much of it has turned out to be pretty good. Here’s a quick overview of recent, decent stuff.

Michael Lewis famously write Moneyball, which somehow got turned into a movie. Moneyball, you may recall, described the use of advanced statistical metrics instead of scouts’ judgment calls to evaluate baseball talent. It turned out that Sabremetrics, those advanced baseball stats, were far better than even the most experienced talent scouts.1 It also turns out that the matters discussed in Moneyball are merely a specific instance of the cognitive biases that afflict all of us. In his newest book, The Undoing Project, Lewis wraps a lay treatment of heuristics with a biography of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two men who revolutionized the understanding of human behavior and heuristics. Together, they described and identified the cognitive biases, the rules of thumb, we all use to judge events around us, aand how often they are wrong. Any Michael Lewis book is good, but Lewis found two fascinating heroes and an amazing story for Project and WC enjoyed it immensely. Even if it was distressing to see those cognitive biases in WC’s own approach to the world. Highly recommended.

A WC reader, in a comment to WC’s post on the periodic table of elements, recommended Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon. The subtitle could be “Yarns about the elements” or “the periodic table of anecdotes.” Besides a history of the periodic table elements, there are anecdotes about many of the 117 (and counting) elements and the complicated people who discovered them. From hiding gold Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis by dissolving them in aqua regis, to the mysteries of left-handed and right-handed molecules (life, like WC, is left-handed), to Glenn Seaborg’s amazing run of radiosynthesis at Berkeley in the 1950s and 1960s, Kean finds something interesting – and sometimes fascinating – about most of the elements. While Kean breaks the book up into broad chapters, the book is necessarily eclectic and, well, periodic. And sometimes Kean glosses over or passes by more interesting issues for the sake of completeness. But it’s still  fun book, with a fair amount of stuff new to WC. Recommended.

As you may have suspected, WC can’t go to long without reading a new geology book. Geology, by a considerable margin, is the least popular thing WC writes about. And plate tectonics, the science of moving puzzle pieces in three dimensions on a sphere, is admittedly abstruse. Eldridge Moores and Robert Twiss, in Tectonics, have summarized the state of knowledge of plate tectonics at 2014. They get quite technical in places. But then structural geology itself gets pretty technical in the field. The biggest barrier to understanding is the language, which imposes a steep learning curve: nappes, foliations, quartzofeldspathic gneisses. But it’s worth the effort. WC first heard of Moores in John McPhee‘s superb Assembling California, the capstone to McPhee’s four volume geology series. Moores served as McPhee’s guide and consultant for that book. Moores is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of California Davis, as is the less well-known Twiss. Tectonics is a textbook, apparently the textbook for plate tectonics. The science has certainly come a very long ways since WC was an undergraduate student. If you like geology, this book is a prize. Terrific illustrations of many tectonic processes. For others, perhaps not so much.

WC also finished Jean Edward Smith’s Bush, arguably the best biography of the 43rd president. Smith is not kind. But she is deadly accurate. Her conclusion:

Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.

That’s probably as close to “kind” as Smith gets in 660 pages. Of corse, subsequent events have upstaged Smith’s devastating analysis. Our new President makes Bush’s blunders look like farts in church. You could say Smith’s biography of the last blunderer-in-chief has been left in the dust, overtaken by President Trumpster in his first three weeks. But it is still an interesting portrait of deeply flawed man, who – stop WC if this sounds familiar – surrounded himself with terrible choices as advisors. Strongly recommended, if only as an example of what our American democracy can survive.

It’s alternating raining and snowing again, and WC’s cold medicines have worn off. Time to curl up in front of the fake fireplace with a good book.

 


  1. Exhibit A: the Chicago Cubs, who ended 108 years of baseball futility when they brought Theo Epstein and Sabremetrics to the team’s development. 
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