Thursday, June 30, 2005

Preview: Don't eat this book

Fast Food and the Supersizing of America
by Morgan Spurlock

The literary debut of the funniest and most incisive new voice to come along since Michael Moore-and the acclaimed director of the film phenomenon of the year.

Can man live on fast food alone? Morgan Spurlock tried to do just that. For thirty days, he ate nothing but three "squares" a day from McDonald's as part of an investigation into the effects of fast food on American health. The resulting documentary won him resounding applause and a worldwide release that broke box-office records. Audiences were captivated by Spurlock's experiment, during which he gained twenty-five pounds, his blood pressure skyrocketed, and his libido all but disappeared.

But this story goes far beyond Spurlock's good-humored "Mc-Sickness." He traveled across the country-into schools, hospitals, and people's homes -to investigate school lunch programs, the marketing of fast food, and the declining emphasis on health and physical education. He looks at why fast food is so tasty, cheap, and ultimately seductive, and what Americans can do to turn the rising tide of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes that have accompanied its ever-growing popularity. He interviewed experts in twenty U.S. cities-from surgeon generals and kids to lawmakers and marketing gurus-who share their research, opinions, and "gut feelings" on our ever-expanding girth and what we can all do to offset a health crisis of supersized proportions.

In this groundbreaking, hilarious book, "benevolent muckraker" Morgan Spurlock debuts a wry investigative voice that will appeal to anyone interested in the health of our country, our children, and ourselves.

About the Author: Morgan Spurlock is a writer, director, and producer, and in 2004 he was awarded the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Review 6: The Path

A one-mile walk through the universe
by Chet Raymo

For 37 years now Mr Reymo is walking the same one-mile path between his house in North Easton, near Boston, and his workplace, the Stonehill College, back and forth, nearly everyday. And he uses precisely this short path as starting point to his exploration of the miracles of Nature.

First he emphasizes on things he notices along his way (like the river, the forest, the rocky ground, animals, fossils, and so on) to make you aware of the all-abounding, but often overlooked, wonders that surround you. And then he gives scientific, but very readable, explanations of why these things are they way they are or where they came from. His elaborations cover multiple themes like biology, botany, astronomy and anthropology. To only name a few.

But what makes this book so intriguing is especially the fact that he focuses on little, simple, everyday things and then shows how they fit in the greater frame. It makes you curious and want to just start exploring your own backyard. And you will definitely see it with other eyes!

About the author: Chet Raymo is the noted author of An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, Skeptics and True Believers, Natural Prayers, and 365 Starry Nights. His popular weekly column, "Science Musings," appeared in the Boston Globe from 1983 until 2003. A professor emeritus of physics amd astronomy at Stonehill College, he lives in North Easton, Massachusetts.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Preview: Squandered Victory

The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq
by Larry Diamond

From the inside flap: In the fall of 2003, Stanford professor Larry Diamond received a call from Condoleezza Rice, asking if he would spend several months in Baghdad as an adviser to the the American occupation authorities. Diamond had not been a supporter of the war in Iraq, but he felt that the task of building a viable democracy was a worthy goal now that Saddam Hussein's regime had been overthrown. He also thought he could do some good by putting his academic expertise to work in the real world. So in January 2004 he went to Iraq, and the next three months proved to be more of an education than he bargained for.

Diamond found himself part of one of the most audacious undertakings of our time. In Squandered Victory he shows how the American effort to establish democracy in Iraq was hampered not only by insurgents and terrorists but also by a long chain of miscalculations, missed opportunities, and acts of ideological blindness that helped assure that the transition to independence would be neither peaceful nor entirely democratic. He brings us inside the Green Zone, into a world where ideals were often trumped by power politics and where U.S. officials routinely issued edicts that later had to be squared (at great cost) with Iraqi realities. His provocative and vivid account makes clear that Iraq-and by extension, the United States-will spend many years climbing its way out of the hole that was dug during the fourteen months of the American occupation.

About the Author: Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor by courtesy of political science and sociology at Stanford University. He has also been the co-editor of the widely respected Journal of Democracy since its founding in 1990. From January to April of 2004, he served as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. He lives in Stanford, California.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Review 5: The Tipping Point

How little things can make a big difference
by Malcolm Gladwell

The aim of this book is to explore how, when and why small things (ideas, trends, social behaviors) can, under certain conditions, cross a treshold, tip and then spread like wildfire. Since I've always been curious about exactly this phenomenon I had to buy it on the spot.

At the beginning the author introduces the result of his analysis: the "Three Rules of Epidemics". Those rules being the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context. According to the author they offer a way of making sense of epidemics.

The chapters of The Law of the Few introduce and detail the main actors who usually start and trigger these events or behaviors: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. Gladwell gives precise examples of each type and these real stories really make you understand the concept and how it explains a lot of what's going on around us in our everyday lives.

Next come The Stickiness Factor chapters which are about why some trends stick and grow while others wither away. The success and the efficiency of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues are dissected and it's amazing to see how the creators of those shows used their own knowledge and scientific results to make learning so much more interesting for children. And sticky.

And then Gladwell explores the one remaining law: The Power of Context. Here he analyzes, for example, the events that resulted in the amazing fall of crime in New York during the 1990s. This chapter especially is very captivating since it makes you realize that indeed small changes can have enormous repercussions and be the key to a solution that everybody before was convinced wouldn't even exist (it would also be interesting to see how this fits with the Freakonomics' theory about the same subject; I guess both theories played a role in the crime drop).

As a conclusion Gladwell applies his theories to the fight against smoking and shows why this fight has failed so far and how it could be ameliorated. It would be worth a try I guess.

Like you probably have noticed, I liked the book very much and Gladwell's style is very enjoyable to read, combining the serious, underlying research with colorful examples and anecdotes. Of course I can't judge if everything's completely correct or the only explanation, but his arguments seem reasonable, logical and well-documented. Which is good enough for me at this point. And after having read this book, you definitely see the world with different eyes.

Some information about the author: Malcolm Gladwell is a former business and science writer at the Washington Post. He is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Review 4: The Code Book

The science of secrecy from ancient egypt to quantum cryptography
by Simon Singh

As in the case for "A short history about nearly everything", this book is about a subject that doesn't sound too interesting or obvious at first. But Simon Singh describes and analyzes the history of coding in a very captivating and understandable way, the result of both thorough research and funny anecdotes he found along the way.

He starts with the earliest known accounts of coding in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome at around 450 BCE where this new ability lead to some decisive military victories. As well as to treason and intrigue in love matters of course. The methods used at that time are well explained and amazingly easy to reproduce if you know how they work. At the time most didn't
of course , so the secrets were well kept. Until up to around the year 800 CE when Muslim scholars took coding to the next level and dominated the field for 400 years. Then the Europeans woke up from their slumber and this new interest in cryptography and cryptoanalysis culminated in the 'chiffre indéchiffrable' (the unbreakable cipher). But it was only a question of time when it would be broken and so it was indeed in the 19th century. Which meant a big victory for the cryptoanalysts over the cryptographs. And cryptography was temporarily shattered. Until the early 20th century when technical and mechanical advances let it rise from the ashes. This also decisively influenced, and shortened, the two World Wars. Especially the story of the Enigma machine is mind-blowing. There then was a new lull after WW2 but the Information age brought new interest and needs which resulted in the current Internet encryption standard PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). Finally Singh then briefly explains how Quantum cryptography could work and what it would mean for the future.

That's about it. As I've said, it's very readable, enlightening and entertaining though there are parts where it gets a bit too theoretical but you can skip those pages without missing too much. It doesn't prevent understanding what follows. It should yet be noted that one interesting, somewhat off-beat, chapter shows how cryptoanalytical methods were used to decode the hieroglyphs and 'Linear B'.

So, if after reading this book you think that you've got real code cracker skills, then you might want to try to solve the "Beale Papers" mystery ... Happy treasure hunting!

Some information on the author: Simon Singh received his Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University. A former BBC producer, he directed and co-produced an award-winning documentary film on Fermat's Last Theorem that aired on PBS's Nova series and formed the basis of his bestselling book, Fermat's Enigma. He lives in London.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Preview: Secrets of the Kingdom

The inside story of the Saudi-U.S. connection
by Gerald Posner

From the inside flap: In its final report, the 9/11 Commission famously called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism.” To Gerald Posner, the bestselling author of Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11, this is a gross understatement. In his new book, Secrets of the Kingdom, Posner exposes the undeniable truth about U.S.-Saudi relations–and how the Saudis’ influence on American business and politics poses a grave threat to our security.

The result of an intensive two-year investigation, Secrets of the Kingdom penetrates the innermost layers of the shielded House of Saud and presents indisputable evidence of complicity and deceit at the highest levels–evidence that the 9/11 Commission, either deliberately or negligently, failed to consider. Using bank records and other previously undisclosed information, Posner unearths many disturbing truths and shattering revelations about the ties that bind the Saudi and U.S. governments.