Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley


I had high hopes for this book. As most readers of this blog will know, I've read a lot of Young Adult dystopia -- it's my favourite genre. I kept hearing people talk about the original big dystopias and how masterful they are so I was expecting them to knock the Young Adult books out of the park but alas, no. 

This book reads, to be honest, like a proposal much more than a novel. Huxley sets up a very different world, brought about after anthrax and war devastated the planet, where citizens are grown in tubes rather than born, and grown into different classes -- the elite Alphas and Alpha-Pluses, the pretty intelligent Betas, the labourer Gammas and Deltas and the Epsilon Semi-Morons who do the most menial jobs. Babies come from Hatcheries where the different classes are specially grown -- for example, the lower classes have alcohol poured into their embryo jars to stunt their growth. Embryos for the lower classes are bokanovskified, meaning dozens and dozens of them are made with the same DNA, and when out of the tubes they don the same uniforms and look identical.

Babies are then conditioned to be happy with their class using hypnopaedia and other psychological tricks, like electric shock aversion "therapy". Hypnopaedia is a huge conditioning tool. While the infants sleep, sentences like "I'm so glad I'm a Beta. Alphas have to work so hard and are always stressed" about every aspect of life are whispered over the intercom thousands of times until they're drilled into their heads. They're conditioned to seek only pleasure and never think, and the society prizes consumerism to the extent that no new sport can be invented unless it uses at least as much equipment as another sport. Ford is venerated as a god. Children are strongly encouraged into "erotic play" with each other. People take soma constantly, a happy drug that's described as having the escapist effects of alcohol without the hangover the next day. The rulers of the society take great pains to emphasise that this society is stable, and everyone's happy now. 

The worldbuilding is really interesting, though honestly I don't find it particularly believable. Even though they're engineering the babies and conditioning them via hypnopaedia and giving them soma, I feel like statistically someone would have done something because rebellion isn't put down by force. But Huxley doesn't seem to have thought about or dealt with that much at all. 

Here's why it just seemed like a proposal for a world rather than a novel: there's no story. 

Nothing changes in the society. We just get told what it's like the whole way and there is no character or world development. 

I'm not sure who we're supposed to consider the main character, a whiny Alpha who complains about a vague feeling of discomfort the society gives him or the boy from the savage reservations who only appears 100 pages in and doesn't actually change the society (or anything really) at all.

This was where I especially missed my YA dystopias. In YA, the characters always do something. Maybe it's that teenage feeling of invulnerability, but they always at least try to change the world rather than saying hm I have a bad feeling about this and ignoring it. 

Another point to YA is that -- in the ones I've read -- we get into the characters' heads and discover the world as they do. At first they often think their world is perfect but they gradually uncover its dirty secrets and we share in that dawning horror. We get to see how the world responds when they interfere with it whereas we don't see that here because no one ever makes a dent in the society or even tries. We didn't get to explore the world ourselves at all -- the book is just entirely exposition. Now, I love worldbuilding, but it turns out that a plot and decent characters are important.

The book is also annoying stylistically -- this could just be because it's old but for example there were several pages where about four different characters were talking and they were all just jumbled up on different lines, not saying who was saying what at all. 

Finally, the ending is really abrupt and unexplained and it really just seems like Huxley wanted to present his idea for a world and didn't want to have to deal with resolving characters. 

Overall, the main problem is that the book just doesn't really have a plot. There are no stakes, because they're never presented as being in any danger. I guess we're supposed to be chilled by the idea that people could become so docile from soma and a world based entirely around fulfilling their base desires that they wouldn't need threats/danger/stakes but I'm afraid I needed a bit more from a novel. Like a plot. The details of the world are very interesting but not very believable and you can get them from reading a summary so I can't really recommend Brave New World

Saturday, 26 August 2017

August Trip 4: Vienna, Austria

To finish off my first non-business trip in years, a twelve-day trip to the Czech Republic and Austria, I stayed with my friend and fellow Council of the Youth Platform member Lili from the 19th to the 25th of August in Vienna. 

On our first night, we went to a festival that Lili told me is basically an embodiment of Austria; a drinking festival where you can play loud music. 

We saw a cool statue erected in memory of victims of the plague, and I learned from Lili that in Vienna when part of a historical building or statue has been destroyed e.g. by WW II bombing, it has to be reconstructed in a different colour so you can see which part is original. I saw that on a couple of things around Vienna, which makes sense given its history.

We then went on a sort of graffiti tour of the capital, seeing Vienna's equivalent of Prague's Lennon Wall, a place where graffiti is allowed and encouraged. Even got photos of people actively spraypainting, all chill. 

Lili brought us into the underground and showed us this really cool corridor where they have mirrors with flickering stats on them. 

This one is amount the Sahara has expanded since the start of the year in hectares, and there were ones about the number of children in poverty and number of schnitzels eaten in Vienna since the start of the year and number of relationships in Vienna, loads of stuff like that. 

We also saw a bunch of murals, one with Conor McGregor and (I think?) Floyd Mayweather shifting with "Kiss me I'm Irish" and "once you go black you never go back" above them, and another with Kylie (Kendall?) Jenner, and another which was like a screenshot of a bunch of emo texts ... it was interesting, and odd. 

Here's a photo of Lili, Lukas and me:

After Lukas left, myself and Lili explored some more.

I thought Hofburg, built in the 13th century and the seat of the Habsburg family, was beautiful. 

Another cool place was the Natural History Museum.

That's a picture of me dabbing in front of a bunch of skulls. The Natural History Museum was really cool, with so many animals from so many different parts of the world and parts of history as well as gemstones and other inanimate things  but unfortunately my phone ran out of storage and my deleting 150 photos didn't free up any somehow. Also, I couldn't really enjoy it because I was still worried about college not letting me do biology, same thing that hung over me in Prague and Brno.

On the last night, we went to a film festival held with the screen leaning against the Vienna state parliament to watch Swan Lake the ballet, but first were treated to a short film called Historic Striptease where a woman in full 18th century garb stripped down from like 8 layers of dresses to a night gown. Was funny, especially in front of the parliament building. Very stereotypically Continental.

Then on the 25th, I had to travel from Vienna to catch a flight in Prague to get to Dublin, so I got up at 5 am, got the bus and two metros, got a 5 hour international bus through Brno to Prague, got a metro and a bus, got the plane at 4, was met in the airport by Leon, got a Dublin bus and a DART and a lift, and was back in Leon's. Whew. 

August Trip 3: Brno, Czech Republic

We (Lukas and I) only stopped off in Brno for a few hours, but it was enough to explore almost all of it because it's pretty small. It meant that I got to see two of Czechia's three lands, Bohemia and Moravia, and learn some cool history. 

After taking the 2.5 hour train from Prague, we crossed the city centre in about twenty minutes (it's small) and climbed up to explore the castle. It was a more legit old castle rather than one of the impressive touristy ones, and it was in Brno, so there weren't many people there and we got a nice view. We did semi-accidentally gatecrash a wedding there, though.

We bumped into a tank painted pink. Lukas explained that the tank had been left there as a memento after the Soviets liberated the Czech Republic from the Nazis, and then kept there through the Communist regime. Towards the end of the regime, an artist had snuck up and painted it pink, making it look silly, which caused a lot of controversy. 

Before we left, we stopped off for food. I'm trying to stop eating meat and they eat a lot of meat in the Czech Republic (there was literally a bunch of animals getting spit roasted in view of us at the restaurant), so I ended up getting mashed potatoes with a side of chips. This entirely-potatoes meal was hilarious to Lukas and very stereotypically Irish, even though Irish people wouldn't actually eat that. Tasted good though so. 

We wanted to go to the cathedral but ended up having to sprint for our bus to Vienna. Oh well. Pretty nice place. 

August Trip 2: Prague, Czech Republic

On the fourteenth, I flew over to Prague and stayed with my Czech friend Lukas to explore. He's a good host and showed me lots of stuff, and it's always a plus to have a host who loves their city.

We started with Prague castle, which contains the oldest buildings in Prague, on an approx 28 degree day (I died). It was pretty but crowded with tourists, so after that we went to Lukas' preferred castle, Vysehrad aka Upper Castle, which looks over the river. Vysehrad is also very old, and contains a basilica with the remains of famous people including Antonin Dvorak. I was dying of the heat still (I looked it up when I arrived in Vienna and saw that it only crosses 30 C in Ireland once or twice a decade, whereas it's normal in summer in Prague) so I was super relieved when we walked by the river and there were sprinklers along the boardwalk to cool people down.

We also saw the Vltava river, which is pretty. 

After that, we went up PetrĂ­n Hill by cable and saw the gardens before climbing the Tower and going through the Mirror Maze. It was cool but annoyed me that everything, including using the binoculars and entering churches, cost money. 

On the way up, we saw statues that Lukas told me represented the stripping away of one's personality by the Communist regime. 

Another day, we saw this Franz Kafka head. It's made up of hundreds/thousands of little cubes and is always moving, so the face is always dissolving and reassembling. It's supposed to represent the weirdness of Kafka's work.

We met up with another friend from the Youth Platform, Veronika, and saw some important squares in Prague. We saw this cool clock that has twenty four hour time, astronomical time, a bunch of other things, and on the hour there's a dance of paintings behind the clock. 

We ended up meeting another friend too, Robert, and walking around Jewish Town and seeing Saint Wenceslas square, which I'm gonna be honest and say is a rectangle and, more than that, a street, much like O' Connell Street. 

I mentioned that I'd been interested in visiting Prague since I read Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone which is set there, so Lukas brought me to some of the locations mentioned in the book including Devil's stream. He also brought me to Lennon Wall, the part of the city centre where graffiti is allowed and encouraged. 

On our last day in Prague, the 18th, we visited the zoo! It was fun but also stressful because I was in the middle of this thing with college about whether they'd let me study biology and oh boy (more on that later), but anyway it was a cool zoo. 31 degrees though, had to sit down lots, much to Lukas' amusement. 

It was a good trip! Thanks to Lukas for hosting me and showing me around. 

August Trip I: Lablinn x Stemettes in London

I finished work at my job on the 28th of July, so August has been full of travel, to London, Prague, Brno and Vienna -- only one of which, amazingly, was a business trip. 

On the 2nd of August, I went to London for two days courtesy of the Stemettes to set up a collaboration between them and Lablinn, by creating content on Lablinn's key topics (antibiotic resistance, vaccination and open science) for science clubs the Stemettes support girls around the UK to run. 

I'll have plenty of photos to show you from my tour of the Continent, but I didn't really get to do much tourism on this trip, so there's that. 

Day 1

I spent Day 1 creating new, more hands-on activities for STEMillions clubs and Lablinn workshops in antibiotics, vaccination and citizen science alongside the Stemettes and two interns. I'm really happy with the activities -- for the STEMillions clubs, they've been combined with stuff on cool female scientists, and for Lablinn I think they'll really add a lot to the workshops. 

After we finished working for the day, I had a little bit of time before going to bed so I went shopping for materials for the new workshops and oh man I am happy that I now have an excuse to buy lots of fluorescent things. 

Also, here's a nice photo I took from the plane on the way to London -- I think it looks like a painting. 

Day 2

Day 2 was the STEMillions Leadership Academy, where the STEMettes flew over a bunch of girls to teach them how to start a STEMillions club. I thought it was hilarious that we had an Agile workshop to start the day because that's the kind of corporate-speak that's become a bit of a laughing stock. After that, we practised elevator pitching ourselves and then got set up on all the STEMettes networks. 

To end the day, we went up to the trading floors (the event was held at Bank of America Merill Lynch in London, a place I spent an hour looking for in the morning after getting off the train) and learned about what they do. I learned that traders are basically just salespeople because the algorithms do the work. I also asked our guide what the purpose of BAML (an investment bank) is, because y'know medical researchers cure diseases, civil engineers build bridges, and I don't really understand why people would work somewhere that just passes money around. It did help me figure out my philosophy a bit more -- I realised that I don't actually mind if people aren't saving the world with their jobs like I want to, as long as they're doing something, making something. So for example Snapchat isn't saving the world, but it's a thing you can point at that you made. Money, at least to me, is not supposed to be the end goal -- it's supposed to be an indicator of value created -- and it seems like banks etc are just short-circuiting, skipping the value and going straight to the money. I think everyone should be able to answer "What's the purpose of your work?" proudly. 

It was also interesting to learn that they have whole floors of researchers upstairs, with e.g. one person whose job it is to know all about handbags.

I also met someone who ended up becoming a Lablinn team member there, Alexandra, which was cool. 

So that was London! It was a cool trip, and many thanks to the Stemettes for my flights and lovely hotel. Excited to continue working with the Stemettes to finish up those STEMillions lesson plans and to apply the work to Lablinn -- which, while I was away had a temporary logo made by one of our graphic designers, Eoin. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is extremely famous in the world of science-communication, mostly for his show Cosmos -- that's why, when I made the goal last August to read 15 pop science books in a year, his Cosmos was one of the first to come to mind. 


I bought Cosmos and tried reading it a few weeks ago but didn't get far in (mostly because of the very annoying font), but Leon bought me The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for my upcoming birthday so I read it. 

Unfortunately, this reads more like the rantings of a fourteen-year-old militant atheist than the writing of a widely-respected scientist. He spent several long chapters describing and debunking alien abduction myths which (a) don't interest me at all (b) I didn't need debunked. I also don't think they're really much to do with science. In general, the book was mostly about hoaxes and then some ranting about how science isn't prioritised.

It was weird because a lot of his points seemed to line up exactly with my views, the central points about how scientific thinking is important for democracy and we should share it with everyone, but he does it a lot less positively? He just seems to focus on the negative impacts of scientific illiteracy and is angry about a lack of progress, which I suppose is fair if he'd spent his life working on it and not gotten very far, and I definitely acknowledge the risks of scientific illiteracy, but I also believe in sharing science because it's something positive people deserve access to, and I didn't get that vibe off him. He goes on a diatribe about how shows like the Flintstones are not scientifically accurate (in fairness, they're billed as educational) and it's just kind of like...come on, man. 

Yet again, I don't think I was the target audience for this book even though a lot of it should've lined up with my beliefs, because I already study science. He put down Maxwell's equations (which I don't know) and said they were very difficult to understand and involved vectors, then "explained" vectors in an unbelievably vague way that did not at all line up with their definitions as I know them from college, and it sucked because people who haven't studied it wouldn't know that it wasn't actually telling them anything, they'd probably just take him at his word that it's really hard. I'm not denying that the equations are hard or that they're a great achievement, but I feel like he didn't make much of an effort to explain it, content to say "it's hard" and move on. Again, I'm not saying he could explain Maxwell's equations in a perfectly accessible way, but vectors themselves are not that difficult a concept and it's weird that he gave up just because he couldn't explain the full equations accessibly. 

He talked about the witch trials a fair bit and damn, they sound awful, and the book certainly didn't endear me to religion. But yeah, just a very angry atheist vibe all over. It's fine to be angry about the abuses of the Catholic Church, but I much prefer a more constructive approach. 

I think the main issue with the book was it didn't really have any central narrative thread -- it was much more like a series of blog or forum posts than a book. Two chapters, for example, contained just reprintings of letters he'd received, presented without comment. Sure, they were interesting, but added to the blog impression. I think if Sagan had lived later it's quite likely each chapter could've been written as a blog post. Not what I expected. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

15 Pop Science Books: Roundup

In August 2016, I set 14 goals to complete by the end of June 2017. One of those, and one I successfully completed, was to read 15 popular science books. Here's a roundup of those. 

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson


A rollicking read filled with personal spats between scientists and an easily readable explanation of a huge range of subjects, including space, paleontology, evolution, particle physics, microbiology, anthropology and more. Only issues were some annoying numerical errors and an avoidance of scientific notation. Review here, feat. hilarious quotes. 

2. Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

★★★ (yes, 6 stars)

An absolutely incredible book, covering the history of cancer suffering, diagnosis and treatment over thousands of years, plus the writer-doctor's own experiences with his patients. The book takes a compassionate approach to patients and a cutting one to cons and charlatans, covering ill-fated radical mastectomies, the first leukemia treatments for children that were about as likely to kill the child as the disease was, the evidence linking smoking and lung cancer and the tobacco industry's fight against it, the rise of patient advocates, and much more. Made me cry. For some reason, I didn't review this book. Probably because it knocked me flat. 

3. Zero to One: Notes on Startups by Peter Thiel


Okay fine, this isn't science. It's only barely tech, but I read it for tech so hush. 

This was really interesting, filled with lots of trade knowledge, from how PayPal got started to monopolism to easy vs hard vs impossible problems to intersection markets vs union markets. I would not recommend buying it, though, because he's a horrible person, so if you want to read it get the free MIT copy online.

Review here. 

4. Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman


Neurotribes is a masterful tome that traces the history of our understanding of autism from "childhood psychosis" to changeling children to refrigerator mothers to neurodiversity, through the horrifying extermination of disabled people during the Holocaust and the eugenics movement and the growth of nerd culture's creation of Aspie communities. Occasionally gets bogged down, like on ham radios, but overall illuminating, comprehensive and important. Highly recommended. 

5. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre


Sheds light on the dodgy doings of pharmaceutical companies in all their mundane horrors -- no hiding a cure for cancer, more fudging results to get a borderline drug on the market. I found the part about how they can mess with scientific papers most interesting, loved the introduction to systematic meta-analyses (forest plots <3) and enjoyed the ideas for making trials more reliable, like pre-registration. He also talks about pharma companies bribing doctors and lots of other ways bias is introduced, and about half of the book is about ways medicine is broken other than pharma (#marketingploy). He tries to involve the public in every chapter, something it seems like his publisher may have told him to do, because a lot of it is just like: "Things you can do as a member of the public: call your representative" in every chapter. I didn't enjoy it as much as Bad Science, but still a pretty good read that really could've done without the witch-hunt vibe. 3.5 stars.

Review here. 

6. Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom


This is definitely the hard-scienciest book on the list, and honestly probably doesn't even count as popular science. It's, as far as I can tell, the book on AI, and it's essentially a textbook. It covers lots and lots of different angles, is incredibly clever (you can constantly see evidence that the writer has thought about it a lot, which is good since that's their job) and taught me a huge amount so I'm really glad I read it even though it was difficult to get through. The difficulty doesn't actually come from any technical terms, he just writes incredibly academically with a stunning vocabulary so I had to keep looking things up. A strong contender for most I've learned from any single book. 

Review here.

7. The Social Animal by David Brooks


A very strange book, a mix of fiction and non fiction. The Social Animal talks about the social and subconscious development of humans by telling the story of two humans' lives and filling it with facts. I liked the "trees", the psychological facts it's peppered with, but didn't like the "forest", which held sweeping generalizations and a religious ethos. Review here. 

8. The Meaning of Science by Tim Lewens


I loved some of this, and even enjoyed the less relevant second half. The first chapter was about whether we can trust science, about Karl Popper's idea that you can only disprove things via experiment and never actually prove things no matter how much evidence you build up, and then an argument against Popper's that you can't even do that because to disprove things you need to do experiments with assumptions that you get from other theories. It talks about whether science is real and rebuts underdeterminism and pessimistic induction, and then the second section talks about the bearing of science on philosophical questions in our lives, like whether we have free will. The arguments were very solid and you could see they'd been thought about a lot. The second half was less relevant but still interesting. Would recommend. Review here.

9. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

★★☆ (debatably one star for saying women can't do linear algebra)

This was a disappointing collection of essays by Richard Feynman, because I'd heard such good things about him and for the most part the essays weren't enjoyable (though some, e.g. at Los Alamos, were), he was really sexist and honestly just seemed like a bit of an ass. I don't care that it was the 1950s or whatever, because if he was smart enough to figure out quantum electrodynamics he should've been smart enough to figure out that women are people. The book also just didn't grab me -- I put it down for months after starting it. Review here

10. CODE: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold


This book goes through the nuts and bolts of computers, taking you from simple electrical systems up to basic programming. I did expect a lot more, y'know, code -- the vast majority of it was hardware, and most of the code was machine code -- but I did learn quite a lot and it definitely answered the question I asked Leon's housemate which caused her to recommend the book: how do computers actually work? Without the abstraction? Definitely a book you need a pen and paper to understand. First half's a lot better than the second. Review here

11. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi


A moving story by a former brain surgeon who died of lung cancer, with half the book on his medical training, his journey to the very end of training and incredible job offers and success lined up, and then his diagnosis of lung cancer and decline. It's a really interesting insight into both sides of the table, from anatomy classes and doing surgery to terminal cancer. The book made me cry, and a lot of the sadness is that Kalanathi spent a life in preparation, always working really hard for the future and his career, and just as he was about to start it was all torn from him. As for the first half, there was just so much gravity to it, the story of this ancient, sacred profession, sacred in the sense of our shared humanity -- the wonder of consciousness and the sadness of its extinction. Also, the writing style is beautiful. Review here

12. Do No Harm by Henry Marsh


Another neurosurgeon memoir! I really like doctor-writers. This guy didn't die early though, and this book was written after he retired about his mistakes in neurosurgery and about the power and potential for things to go wrong. Each chapter is named after a different brain ailment and man, brain surgery is barbaric and awe-inspiring. Like When Breath Becomes Air, it renewed my passion to go into biomedical science and cure diseases because they're so unfair. A very moving book, highly recommended. Review here

13. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

Hated this book, absolutely hated it. I'd heard such good things about Oliver Sacks, and this is supposedly his best book, but it was just terrible. He wrote in the most unbelievably purple prose, constantly referenced some psychologist called Luria (which would be fine if it was actually academic, but everything was incredibly wishy-washy and fairly pseudoscientific, which honestly has made me distrust neurology if he's the best they have to offer) and was horrible about the people he profiled, acting as if they were freaks and he their benevolent freakshow master at best and outright insulting them at first (e.g. saying autistic people are incapable of thinking abstractly or doing science). Both massively offensive and a huge pain in the ass to read because of the poor writing -- and it worries me that people consider this good, because that says something about what people think of (e.g.) autistic people. Burn it. Review here.

14. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren


Saw rave reviews saying the book talked about botany and her experience researching it, was disappointed to find out it's actually just a memoir with very very little actual science. Sure, like I was told, roughly every second chapter was about trees; the issue is that the trees were being used as a vehicle for her memoir. She'd spend a chapter waxing lyrical about how hard trees must try to survive, and segue into how hard she had to try. She'd talk about how trees reproduce (without using any actual scientific terminology or mechanisms or studies or, well, specifics) and segue into her own experience of giving birth. For someone who talks so much about how much she loves botany, she wrote almost none of it. There were only about three actual studies cited, and those were very interesting -- I just wish they'd been half the book like I was expecting, and I could've actually learned a significant amount about the science of plants. She led in well, made it sound so interesting, how plants give the whole biological world its energy, but then didn't deliver the goods on how that happens. Disappointing. Review here

15. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan


Carl Sagan is very well respected in the science communication world, so I was disappointed to find out that this book is more like a series of blog posts by a fourteen year old militant atheist. 

I really loved some of the books, had a bad time with others (and there was something of a trend, see graph), but I'm really glad I did the challenge.