Category : Prop Head Reads

Propeller Head Reads: February

Norse Mythology
by Neil Gaiman
Odin, Thor, Loki. I knew the names but not the stories. Gaiman is a lover of myth and there could be no better guide to these tales than him. Enjoy hearing these tales sounding over hundreds of years echoing in Northern European fjords.


The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance
by Ron Chernow
This is a dense read that explores the story of the Morgan empire, and particularly the early years and the company’s adherence to its values. In later years, it was interesting and unfortunate to see the rapid culture shift in the Morgan companies.

The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson #1)
by Robert A. Caro
Get this right: Caro has written, at least on volume 1, a five star bio. Tons of details. Well researched. Great quotes. Thorough timeline. Detailed settings. But read this though and ask: Did Johnson have a redeeming quality? At all? We all know what LBJ did on civil rights but that’s in a later volume: You may have to fortify yourself to get to that part of the story.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
by Garry Wills
Deep treatment of the Gettysburg Address. Fun, stimulating, short read. Excellent exploration of the Address’s historical/philosophical echoes.

Prop Head Book Review: Thank You For Being Late

By Stephen B. Schott

9780374273538Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
By Thomas Friedman

What happens when shattering the norm becomes the norm? When disruption is not a wave that comes every so often, but the tide carrying us all? In examining both these questions, and some speculative answers to them, Friedman captures a snapshot of where he places us in 2016.

Friedman does a convincing, and even exciting, job pointing out all the accelerations happening right now. In communications, you can have a crystal clear video call to someone on Mt. Everest. In transportation, self-driving cars are here already, and will soon be in your hands. Artificial Intelligence can outthink humans in many measurable ways. And on and on.

With that technological acceleration comes a risk of being left behind. Friedman estimates that disruptive technologies used to come every 10 years and people take 5-7 years to adapt to them. Breaking that down, the new computer operating system gets developed in year 0 and people adapt to it in 5-7 years, and a few years after that, the next technology wave arrives.

Backed with data, Friedman points out that new technology waves are starting to arrive every 3-5 years, which means they are arriving faster than we can adapt to them. This puts all but the most plastic of us behind the technology curve: Frustrated and potentially economically left behind. As the disruptions arrive in tighter waves and disruption becomes the norm, what are we to do?

dreamstime_xs_32002024-2Friedman pauses in answer to this with his defining analogy. Imagining the disruptions as a flowing rapid, he says the way to control the boat is not to dip your paddle but instead, paddle hard and fast to meet the rapid’s speed. While the analogy works quite well, Friedman doesn’t have a lot of concrete advice for implementing it. Paddling hard and fast sounds great but how am I supposed to keep up with yearly releases of Windows, automobile operating system updates, mobile phones, cable boxes, and endless waves of Air BnBs and Ubers?

Friedman proposes a Zen acceptance of the changes, but acceptance is only the first step. Where do I go to set up my new mouse?

1696118467_01b2d2093eMy take: Do your best but our saving grace is coming in the wave of artificial intelligence. Right now human brains bridge the gap between what we want our machines to do, and the machine doing it.  In less than 10 years, you won’t have to know where to find your printer settings. “Siri, set up the new printer” will set it up. Already, technology has done away with unintelligible “PC LOAD LETTER” errors–soon none of us will have set up or interface pain: Our machines will (truly) just work. So, I’ll echo Friedman and encourage you to paddle fast for now, but soon you can lounge in your self-paddling boat.

If you have questions, contact me.

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Prop Head Reads: The Martian and A Brief History of Time

by Stephen B. Schott
(You can view my non-prop-head book thoughts here)

martianThe Martian

by Andy Weir
(The Martian started as a personal blog writing project for Weir and its evolution from blog to book to a soon-to-be movie starring Matt Damon is a great story in itself.)

You know the scene in Apollo 13 where a bunch of engineers at NASA are locked in a room with a box of the supplies available to the astronauts and have 7 hours to figure out how to fix the filter or the astronauts die?

Well, there are generally two kinds of people. Those who have no connection to to the scene except a vague memory of it and those who think that scene is the best part of the movie.

If you’re in the latter camp, you will love this book.

Engineers and scientists usually don’t make for great novel heroes. To make them exciting, they get a Hollywood makeover and a flying tin suit that shoots lasers. And a supermodel girlfriend. But this book does the engineer hero justice: Showing off our hero’s wits (stranded alone on Mars) and those of the people back on Earth trying to help him stay alive.

The Martian (Mark Watney) approaches each of his many challenges with an engineer’s ingenuity and even if you can’t follow all the science, you’ll appreciate his mind and attitude. If his unfailing problem solving seems a little hard to believe at times, watch an action hero dodge automatic weapon fire in an action movie and tell me which is the greater exaggeration.

A gripping original.

hawkingA Brief History of Time

by Stephen Hawking

This was my 3rd attempt at this book. I finished it this time. I have to ask myself on your behalf, dear reader, “Why would you give 5 stars to a book that you could barely comprehend and could not finish 2 other times?” First, I’ll start from the premise that I have to take on some faith: Hawking knows what he’s talking about. Working from that premise, I felt reassured and on comfortable ground as he reviewed quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, strong and weak forces, and lots of the Einsteinian stuff that it has taken me years to absorb (and that I was better at when I could do all the math).

Second, building from those premises that I am comfortable with, Hawking helped me move the ball forward on the idea of multidimensional space, the event horizon (I finally get this, thanks to Hawking), the concept of time and the Big Bang, the stability of the universe, and the time arrows he discusses towards the end.

But man, there’s some stuff that still escapes me, all these years after first studying them even when I still had the big math muscles. (1) There’s much around black holes I still don’t get. Hawking is the Mr. Miyagi of black holes in the physics world but he can talk all day about spherical black holes, spinning black holes, etc., and whoosh, right over my head. (2) The idea of imaginary time and the sum of histories. I understand the latter a little bit mostly because I remember the math that describes them that made the universe explicable, but conceptually outside the math I really don’t grasp these even a little. (3) Really, again I have to deal with virtual particles and spins? Whoosh again.

This book is not for the faint of heart. If you want a shorter and more accessible trip through physics, try Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces and Six Not So Easy Pieces books. Both are incredible and not as dense. The former explores Newtonian physics (anyone can get those concepts), the latter Einsteinian theories and quantum mechanics, which require a deeper preparedness.

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