Books and Blogs 2017

This past year I’ve been reading a fair bit of science writing, especially chemistry and biology, and a smattering of different blogs.

Most fun novel: Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson (2017)
Epic fantasy set in the same universe as Sanderson’s other novels Mistborn and Warbreaker, among others. It’s a lot of fun — he’s a fast writer but not too formulaic.

Best popular science book:  The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (2010)
A tour of the Periodic Table, with some history of how it was discovered/constructed, and interesting stories of the uses and discovery of the various elements.

The titular disappearing spoon was made of gallium, a non-toxic metal that melts at 84 degrees. One of the 19th Century scientists would amuse his guests by offering them an apparently ordinary teaspoon that would melt when placed in hot tea. The book is full of lively and informative anecdotes of the chemists who found the elements.

Best blog find: Slate Star Codex
Scott Alexander is at his best investigating controversial topics in a refreshingly inquisitive, even handed fashion, A philosophy student, newish psychiatrist, part time blogger and storyteller, rationalist, and generally thoughtful person. Some of his best posts are Meditations on Moloch, about the grinding gears of necessity, I can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, about the increasing estrangement of liberals and conservatives, and Considerations on Cost Disease (along with Against Tulip Subsidies), about the economics of education, healthcare, and housing.

Blog I keep returning to even though I usually regret it: Rod Dreher 
By the author of The Benedict Option, which I started reading and didn’t finish, because it mostly just made me miss having a lovely little church community nearby. According to the baffled blog responses to various published reviews, abandonment is more common than actually reading it through. Most of the blog posts are culture-war related, usually shocked about corruption of the youth. Even so, i keep reading. Then I read the comments, begin a response, write several paragraphs, realize it probably won’t be wanted, and send it to my father instead.

Best Youtube lecturer: Dr Jordan Peterson — especially Maps of Meaning and Personality and its Transformations. Genesis from a respectfully psycho-analytical perspective is also quite interesting.

Although he’s most known for being a controversial free speech advocate, I found Peterson through the lectures on the Big Five (OCEAN) personality traits , the second half of the Personality and its Transformations series. I had been following some message boards about the Myers-Briggs typing system (MBTI), which is pretty obviously flawed, but has the best material.

Every once in a while I would read that psyshometricians find MBTI to be unsubstantiated hogwash, and find OCEAN to test something much less esoteric, for which they can design accurate and reliable tests. That’s all very well, I thought, but getting a result from OCEAN is like being compared to an ideal receptionist and found wanting. Lacking in conscientiousness, lacking in agreeableness, lacking in extroversion, lacking in emotional stability, with excessive openness. Great. These are not things I needed to know. I was already aware of being far from an ideal receptionist without needing a test to tell me so.

Peterson’s lectures do a great job of explaining what OCEAN is about, with far reaching implications about society and why people behave the way we do. They revolutionized how I think about personality psychology.

Best observational book: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)
Orwell traveled to North England around Manchester, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, in the 1930s. He’s an excellent observer, wins the trust of various working class people who let him into their homes, and refreshingly honest. In addition to liking Orwell and the topic of the Industrial Revolution, I like reading travel accounts of people who are respectful but not excessively cheery about what they find. Orwell also has some good insights about the distinctions between the lower middle class and the working class, and about socialism.

Best science short: The Electron Transport Chain
The presentation is a bit dry, but it’s super interesting that people are able to see what’s going on at the molecular scale. There are sub-microscopic turbines working constantly inside all our cells that operate something like water wheels, but they use protons rather than water, and the pull is toward electronegative oxygen, rather than gravity.

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