ANTIFRAGILE [Book Review]

There, I did it. It took……..a little longer than expected, and that’s already taking into account his particular writing style. Well, here we go.

Nassim Taleb has a relatively unique writing style for his non-fiction books. It’s almost flamboyant, and just as messy as the previous book I read and reviewed, The Black Swan. However, this book seems to have a little more depth, and as the author describes early in this work, it’s more of a continuation. While The Black Swan is more of an awareness type of literature, where he describes the event, Antifragile feels more applied. And as you have probably experienced in advanced classes, the two compliment each other and your understanding on both sides improves quite dramatically (that is, if you decided to pay attention).

I truly experienced this phenomenon when I took Calculus for the first time. AP Calculus during my senior year of high school, which coming from a “hick town” type of community, I felt blessed to even have the class available. Anyways, before Calculus, Trig/Algebra/pre-calculus all felt like a memorization of methods, tables, theorems, and equations (or how to read them). Which was fine, but I still felt uncomfortable applying them on my own. Then calculus starts taking these ideas and incorporating them into practical applications. How the velocity can be determined by the derivative of an items position, or how one can optimize the surface area to volume of an item. I really didn’t understand exponentials until I started integrating them, which turn out to be more exponentials…..

But I digress.

Black swans are events that are “exceedingly rare,” but have major consequences. Mostly because no one sees them coming, or refuses to plan for them due to their “low probabilities.” But there’s a thick gray line between what is normal and what is “Black Swan Territory.” Everything from people and items to corporations and ideas are affected by events somewhere on that line, and they will typically either survive (robust) or die (fragile). But there’s a third option, and that is when the object/idea will improve and become more efficient with these events.

This is called antifragile, a term basically made up by the author since he couldn’t find any other word that best describes this scenario.

Note: I can’t say “there is no term for the opposite of fragile” for one major reason (which is hammered in throughout the book). The fact that I can’t find evidence of it DOESN’T MEAN that the term doesn’t exist. The absence of evidence  is not the same as evidence of absence.

Black swans……they’re out there. Just waiting to PROVE YOU WRONG!

Antifragility. The most visibly acknowledged form of it is in building muscle. How do you build muscle? You stress your muscles. They react (torn fibers, hormone stimulation, whatever the current theory is) to these events and recover stronger than before. There are limits, of course. You can’t expect to improve if you do too much damage (like rip your tendons doings pull-ups); there’s a sweet spot for optimal strengthening.

The term can also be applied to the realm of economics. Large corporations are more fragile, with their large “presence” and complex, tortuous bureaucracies prevent them from adapting to the dynamic market. Larger government, which also over-support “too big to fail” entities, are also more susceptible to economic downturns, in contrast to the partitioned governments of Switzerland.

In describing this phenomenon, the book does has a rough form. There’s an introduction, some philosophical arguments for antifragility, some theories on how to become antifragile, and its implications in society. And of course, the lines are blurred.

Heavily.

I constantly end a chapter not really knowing the main idea behind it and still being slightly lost when the next chapter begins. Maybe its because of a higher-level of thinking and writing. I just like to think of the book as one big picture that has parts “just as they are.”

But here are some highlights that I got from the book (which I have “bookmarked by folding the corners on specific pages).

  • In order for fragility to be effective, the sub-segments of that system have to be fragile. If a product doesn’t make a profit, the company stops producing that unit. As a government improves with time, amendments must be added, edited, and/or deleted. For the human genome to evolve over time, people with weaker genes must “leave the gene pool.”
  • Ironically, the units (both success AND failures) that allow for antifragility to occur are rarely praised. This is true for entrepreneurs, where the majority of them fail (mostly due to luck). It’s these individuals that risk their time and careers trying out new ideas that could be the new black swan. But we still consider failed restaurants/companies/inventions in a negative fashion (which is unfortunate). Because they are like the thousands of ways Thomas Edison failed to make a light bulb before he succeeded (or however his famous quote goes…).
  • In order for development, randomness in the environment must be present. When muscles are stressed, resting time is required for improvements can be incorporated. Fluctuations in tensions and relaxation. And if the stress factors don’t exist, there’s no incentive for improvements to be made.
  • Where some people may find information, too much turns into unhealthy noise. If too many “warnings” are present in the system, many will actually become too independent on the system itself and lose themselves. Slight fluctuations in the stock market is noise. One can look into the details, but too much can prevent the system from being focused on its own flexibility and antifragility. So when Thanksgiving comes……. you aren’t the turkey looking for the food on the ground and miss the axe in the air.
  • One of the main way to become antifragile, in Taleb’s mind, is to have a “barbell strategy.” This is split into a “safe” and an “extreme” portfolio. For investments, for example, you have a large portion of your money in safe investments (government bonds, for example) and the rest is on high-risk investments. Not a lot in the later half, but in events where the payoffs are still large, like your next-Apple stock. Just don’t go all in (or not even close to all in).
  • The other common tactic is through “subtraction.” One does not become more flexible by adding bulk. It’s through the elimination of negative segments and habits that can improve your performance. Excess knowledge in your theory or even carbs in your diet. There’s no “magic pill” that doesn’t have no side effects. Unfortunately, fasting, while quite effective, does not make money for anyone.

The themes which antifragility are applied to cover a few, re-occurring topics: medicine, economics and finance, government, personal development, and a couple others. And the discussions are backed up by a whole section of appendices and references.

The topic is well worth the read, and it constantly led me through the maze of themes present in this novel. While I was constantly thinking of “putting it down,” the hidden gems of useful knowledge throughout the book was almost……addictive. If the book was written in a more open fashion, it would have been addictive, at least in my opinion.

Another note when reading this novel. There is also consistent bitterness against “the man.” It’s almost like he wrote the book to really bash into “success stories” and managers and talkers without skin in the game. It’s easy to get riled up with these side swipes, as many of us have felt the pain of a few crashes in the last couple decades. While it does make the book feel more biased that what the topic should be, it definitely gets points for utilizing ethos to sell the topic.

But here’s my problem. When I try to think of how I, personally, would write a book on such a topic….. I’m at a loss. Do I do separate chapters for separate topics (economy, governmental, medical) after talking about straight theory? I guess I would intersperse theory chapters with “case studies,” almost text book style. Keep the application constant to truly cement the idea into the audience. Kind of like Taleb did, but a little more organized.

But maybe it’s not that important on HOW the terms and ideas are laid out, but more on it just being there. In its own, unique way.

Hmmm….. that sound like a problem that I might have on a personal level. I’ll have to drink a glass of red wine and think about that one.

 

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Homo Deus [Book Review]

I’m finally recovering from my broken clavicle, so this will be the last book review for a while. I can at least run again, but I still can’t throw my yo-yo without causing the screws in my bone to cause some uncomfortable pain throughout my shoulder.

So let’s just get to the book.

Homo Deus. And it’s quite the heavy book. It’s not excessively long, but it’s thick cover and pages make it feel more like a tomb that you could cast spells from. But I still read all 400 pages.

The odd thing I learned about this book is the reasoning why we should care a little bit about history. History gives us a perspective on why we are in the situations that we currently have to deal with. It also gives us light on the assumptions that we feel we have to live up to. The book gives us an example about lawns; how a symbol of wealth and royalty became an affordable commodity that now the middle-class family can maintain. It takes up so much time and effort, yet it’s one of the most prized components of owning a home.

I personally prefer berry bushes and rock gardens, but I do just enjoy a nice apartment. Minimal upkeep-based responsibilities!

And history is over two-thirds of this book. And you wouldn’t really think it because the description on the book is how the author, Yuval Noah Harari, is going to predict the future of human kind. This work is on the transformation of homo sapiens to the futuristic species “Homo Deus,” the next generation of humankind in possible evolution terms. But this is only in the last third of the book. You NEED the history to follow his thought process in order to be in alignment with these theories.

The history itself is very well written. And it’s in a form that I actually enjoyed. It wasn’t about “who did this”, and “this event did that”; the junk that you would find in textbooks. Homo Deus paints a bigger picture and summarizes these overflowing trends on politics, religion, science, and how our faith in these themes has evolved through time.

The book also details our faith in the 21st century of humanism, the belief that we are individuals that control our fate by our own free will. This has been paired with our massive success in science and technology. In the dark ages, the society looked to a higher being for a bountiful harvest, a healthy family, and their “pre-labeled” rank within society. Religions were the corporations of the past which collected taxes, owned land, and even decided judgement based by ancient scriptures and environmental signs.

But now we can fertilize our crops, vaccinate our kids, and go to school to develop our own career. When someone has a medical emergency, we may pray for a fast recovery, but that’s after we call 911 and show our faith in humanity for a medical remedy.

But the trend in science has not been able to prove that we are individuals, but more or less “dividuals” that respond to external inputs from what we sense in our environment and a computed output based on our neural wiring and our current biochemical/hormonal stimuli. We are essentially complicated algorithms with a side effect of conscience. And at this rate of technological progression, there will be a time where computers and electronic networks will surpass almost all human capabilities in terms of algorithmic calculations.

This book doesn’t really discuss the issue on what to do with all the jobless personnel. It’s about how we are slowly putting less faith in ourselves, but in the data that we are collecting about ourselves and having another algorithm crunch those numbers for us. We wear wristbands that count our steps. We have Amazon and Facebook track our likes and purchases that can then recommend more links to follow and items to buy. More people are putting pure faith in online matching sites to see who’s compatible with whom in terms of long-term relationships.

It’s now easy to read your genome and discover which traits you are prevalent in, so the medical system can deliver us preferred lifestyle choices. From controlling our binge-eating of high sugar content, to staying out of the sun more, to even having preventive surgery done before cancer can take place and becomes metastatic (spreading).

While we as a society have had drastic improvement in old age issues; including starvation, plague, and war; the trend has now moved forward towards enhancing the healthy. As companies and algorithms control the data, wealth, and land of the nation, it leaves the majority behind. Possibly all of humankind. This isn’t as much of a state of poor, impoverished population. Rather, it’ll look bleak compared to genetically enhanced and extremely wealthy minority that has more of a say in how the mass population’s faith in the data will guide their lives. And even then, this minority of “Homo Deus” will still be in the same predicament; the only difference is that they will have more money to spend.

Overall, there’s a lot more to the book that what I wrote about in this review. And regardless of all this information, the book flows extremely well. The content is well sewn together, and there’s enough detail to feel satisfied in each topic without losing the reader too much (and there’s 30 pages of bibliography to back up its facts).

I personally would enjoy having a personal algorithm take the load of personal decision making off my back, and at least give me a detailed schedule / to-do list that I could follow. I feel like I spend enough time worrying about how this single bachelor is going to spend his Friday evenings and the following weekends.

But in that same case, I wish there would have been more “predictive branches” of the possible futures that we could have. Yes, I know there’s no definitive way we can know how it will unfold. But it’s also fun to imagine what it will entail. But there’s still enough of that to truly give this book a good rating. Thank you, Harari.

The Black Swan [Book Review]

So this is the book review that I dreaded typing up for a variety of reasons. The book is on a great topic, but the layout and style of writing was not only hard to follow at times, but it almost contradicts its seriousness.

Imagine meeting a stranger in a bar, and he/she is telling you his/her experiences (startup/relationship/travel/etc) that you DO find interesting. However, that person, while being quite intoxicated, incorporates a lot of unfamiliar and dark sarcasm, goes off on multiple side tangents, and never tells his experiences a temporally cohesive way (from start -> finish ).

That’s this book……….The Black Swan, on the Impact of the Highly Improbable. As an ex-stock/bond/money trader, when Nassim Taleb’s (the author) career was “thrown under the bus” (or liberated in his terms) due to the stock market crash in 1987 (?), he switched his pursuits to the study of philosophy and its correlations to modern economics. This has resulted in the creation of his Incerto, a 4 book set (5 if you count the technical companion) on these specific topics.

The Black Swan is about how unforeseen, yet significant effects have drastic effects on the marketplace, social trends, and scientific advancements. The term black swan comes from a time when no one could possibly imagine there ever being black swans. It’d be like locals in Africa believing in pink elephants. But then they did find black swans in Australia! Who saw that one coming?

Well, the difference between these swans and Taleb’s economic black swans is its level of impact. Let’s be serious here, dark birds isn’t making anyone rich anytime soon.

For Taleb personally, it was the stock market crash during his early career. No one saw it coming, and his company went under as a result. In 24 hours, he went from feeling like he had a stable job to being completely lost, career-wise. You can lose your home to an unforeseen storm, break a bone due to a tree root out-of-sight, or catch your perfect spouse having an affair. All these things could be perceived, but those involved don’t consider such occurrences until after the event, when they can finally see them in hindsight. And then become over-protective for a time period afterwards.

Truthfully, most black swans don’t just happen overnight. However, their impact is never felt until it’s too late for the affected parties.

The people on wall street don’t trade like the stock market’s going to crash tomorrow. Do they have a plan if it does? Do all marriages sign prenuptial agreements? Does every house come with a bomb shelter? There is this realization that we limit the commitments on the way our world works, focus on the close possibilities, and ignore the possible extremes.

Black swan events can also be positive (for most parties). The invention of penicillin was a positive black swan, causing a sweeping effect in modern medicine not initially foreseen. In fact, most scientific discoveries were found through mistakes. Kevlar was an accidental discovery while DuPont was creating materials for other applications. Microwaves from the cosmic background of the universe were found when builders of a microwave detector found “unwanted noise” in every direction they pointed it at. Even recent discoveries, including CRISPR-related proteins (discussed in my previous book review) wasn’t found directly due to gene-manipulation research.

Thus, this book highlights some unique ideas on the topic of black swans:

  • You can’t predict WHEN a black swan incident will occur. If you could, it’s not a black swan. People would prepare for it, and it would have no drastic effects. You can’t determine the next stock market crash from the last two years of data. Like a turkey can’t predict from experiences in its caged (or “cage-free”) environment when it’ll become a family-cherished meal.
  • Black swan occurrences are often “under-predicted” by most “experts” (a term that the author likes to truly emphasize on). Most economists utilize standard textbook probabilities, the most popular being the Gaussian curve. While it is useful for physical limitations (body shape, particle physics occurrences, etc), it does not apply to economic limitations (personal salary, book/movie sales, stock prices, etc.).
  • Luck plays a major role in winners and losers. While you can study all the successful start-up big-shots and CEO multi-millionaires of the world, no one studies the graveyard of millions of untold stories from failing enterprises and garage band enthusiasts. And if you studies both, you would find the same characteristics in both parties. Confidence. Determination. Charisma. I’ve read many excellent books in my lifetime, but why did Harry Potter get so much attention? In most cases, it’s about being in the right place at the right time which separates success and failure.
  • Beyond Harry Potter, there isn’t a long list of books that even come close to its level of popularity. In the world of global commerce and digitization, the market has become a winner-takes-all concept. One person/group gets all the sales, while the others flounder. Writers, musicians, actors, (starving) artists? And once in the system, advertisement can keep the momentum and drown all others out except for a few major competitors (Coca Cola vs. Pepsi / Starbucks vs. Tim Hortons / NSync vs Backstreet Boys [yes, it’s kind of a stretch]).

The book is divided into thirds. The first part is mostly focused on mental and psychological theories that drive the massive impacts black swans have (due to their unexpectedness). However, this was the section that I remember the LEAST about. Due to his philosophical background, the writing style was personally hard to follow. With addition to the additional sarcasm and relatively boisterous approach (in terms of both word selection and objectives), I spent the first 100 pages calibrating to this style, learning to absorb his work efficiently.

The second and third sections deal more with business theory and practice with some overflow of ideas from the first segment. The lines between each section were quite gray (like it didn’t have specific chapters or sections). But more importantly, it personally felt like there wasn’t much of a flow in general. It felt more apparent as I approached the end of the book, so I believe its there is one IF you look deep enough. But you can easily be misguided into feeling like you’ve bought a book on random though exercises.

It’s as if you’re looking at a reflection of an object from collection of broken mirror shards. Due to the randomness of the mirror shard orientations, it takes a bit to take in the information before one can imagine the full picture.

But this is what makes the book unique. The author doesn’t write in a style that editors would desire, in order to help maximize book sales. If he did, he would be selling his soul to those believing in Mediocristan (the world of black swan non-believers) and contradict the main point of his book entirely.

So while you may never be able to truly prepare for a black swan, the best way to strive living in the world of Extremistan (our world with black swans) is to keep your eyes open and stay flexible. Become familiar with what you truly have control of and don’t become too dependent on external factors.

And don’t run for trains. In the case of life’s possible outcomes, it’s only painful if you’re chasing an almost improbable expectation to catch a ride on.

-KK

Note: I plan to read at least one more book of his in the future (Antifragile). It’s also a bigger book, so it’ll be an experience. Hopefully, I’ll have a better understanding of the author and his method or writing afterwards.

Life at the Speed of Light [Book Review]

I love the idea of biological engineering. I (wish to) believe it is the next, upcoming scientific revolution after the dot com and big data achievements that we are experiencing even today still. In actuality, the big data revolution didn’t do too much to the economy, in relation to the previous revolutions, due to it’s lack of physical products created; it more digitized and improved our knowledge and efficiency on already available technologies. But it’s still awesome.

But what if we could truly program biological machines to do our bidding. What if instead of conducting multiple chemical syntheses to create a pharmaceutical drug, we can tell a bacteria to do it instead? We can change a bacteria’s DNA to create function specific enzymes which help create the drug at a fraction of the required energy costs. Just feed the bacteria sugars and nutrients in a test tube, wait a few hours, and distill the compound afterwards. If we can do that with penicillin from fungi, what stops us from doing it for all chemicals (within reason, of course).

And it’s not just limited to chemical synthesis. Using controlled viruses and DNA-targeting proteins, we can eliminate genetic diseases enhance specific traits in already growing organisms. “Bio-machines” could even introduce more or even enhanced versions of mitochondria into our muscles.

If we could introduce chlorophyll into our skin cells, which could absorb light and already present CO2 in our bloodstream to produce sugars for our body, could help or truly eliminate world hunger (if you don’t mind being a weak Hulk)? I mean, there’s got to be a way for us to re-engineer chlorophyll-like organisms to absorb specific wavelengths of energy so they look pink, tan, brown, or dark (whatever your preference). We could even group them into “energy freckles!”

With a glass of wine, I think I could go on this subject for a while. The problem is that there’s SO MUCH THAT WE DON’T KNOW. Trust me, I started college in biomedical engineering and transitioned early on into Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [before eventually moving to electrical engineering for job security (and LASERS)]. The proteins we do know that are utilized in molecular biology research (ex. PCR and CRISPR) were found indirectly, and their uses were found after their unexpected discovery. Initially, the discovered organism made from these cells and we filtered them out afterwards. Now, we can code small bits of RNA to mass produce proteins though translation. But we still can’t say, “I want a truly novel protein that can do Y, so I’m going to code a RNA chain so it reads X.”

We still aren’t sure what all the DNA in the human genome does. There’s simple stuff like “This region codes for a protein.” That’s easy; just look for start and stop codons. And then there’s promoters and inhibitors, which may not code for anything, but still play a role in “what’s being made” and “how much to produce.” And sometimes there’s inhibitors to promoters to a gene. And there’s possibly hundreds if interwoven genetic effects for “how your nose looks,” “how much fat your body prefers to store,” and “how fast are you to pick up walking during your infancy.”

With their being so much “dark energy” waiting to be discovered, and I respect any branch that pushes into this vast unknown. And that’s why I was so excited to read this book, Life at the Speed of Light. The book, as depicted on the back cover, is about how the author J. Craig Venter, and his team created the “first synthetic organism.”

Of course, the term “synthetic organism” deserves its own chapter (which it did). If you transplant genes from one cell into another, is that artificial? Do you need to create everything from scratch: the DNA, membrane, cytoplasm……the Endoplasmic Recticulum [even the synthesis of that one stumps me]?

What Venter’s team conducted was the creation of a synthetic DNA for a surviving and self-replicating organism. After accumulating research from his and other groups, one can determine the bare minimum gene sequences for a cell to function. While there’s a lot of solid knowledge in why, there’s also a lot of “Well, if we knock this gene out, we don’t see reproduction. So it MUST be necessary.”

This book describes the two major factors that the team had to overcome.

1). You can’t just tell a machine to write a ~500,000 DNA sequence from scratch. There’s no “magic black box” that allows us to do it. What we CAN do is create small segments, like ~5,000 sequences each. You still have to splice them all together to complete the final DNA product (which could take a while, if you don’t know how). Essentially, each segment have to have it’s unique “lock and key” ends which will find their mates in a test tube. And since you can’t have 100 unique keys and mix them all at once, there’s a lot of partial mixing, separation, amplify, repeat. Of course, you have to make sure that the final product is compatible with the host, which is problem #2

2). How do you get that massive DNA strand into the cell. It’s huge! While it’s possible, you can’t just do it with ANY organism. At least not yet; we would probably require some nifty vector viruses to pull that off. The team even had to create a second complete genome, since their original design was basically obliterated by the host cell during “DNA absorption”. Lesson learned. Know compatible cells; add in some chemicals allowing for DNA permeation, mix, and cross your fingers. There’s a million cells and a few million DNA molecules floating around. The success rate is small, but the numbers are high.

But it actually worked; the whole process only took ~10 years. While they only made the DNA from scratch, that’s essentially the important part. I mean, we can make simple cellular membranes by mixing soap and water. Then, blow a bubble. That’s pretty much it.

Fascinating science, but how was the book? Between you and me, I would be hard pressed to recommend it as a worthwhile read unless you had a college level biology course. The book’s initial chapters cover more of the history of “what is organic” and “what specifies the backbone of our cells.” And when it comes to the chapters on DNA and cell synthesis, it comes fast. And hard. I got enough to understand what was going on, but a lot of details still slipped my mind.

And that’s the first half of the book. His group’s accomplishments in molecular/synthetic biology and the history preceding it. Then the book starts to die. Slowly yet with an acceleration that I found quite uncomfortable.

After praising his new synthetic cell (which even has its own email address written into its DNA code), there comes the following chapter of “what is a synthetic organism,” which was quite brief. And then, the last 50 pages almost felt like a rant of interesting side research activities, science fair projects, and random extrapolations of possible directions in general science.

In the chapter “biological teleportation,” it starts out with quantum entanglement. Which has NOTHING to do with the topic. It’s kind of correlated to the fact that now we can send data from one spot to another, and we could have a machine at the end that can receive the data and do biological engineering samples. But I can guarantee it’s not going to be through entangled particle communication anytime soon. And even if it did, we can transport ANY sort of data through the method: lab results, XUHD (eXtremely Ultra High Definition) media, and R2D2 holograms (Why not. When you can can play oracle, anything is possible).

The last 50 pages felt like the editors told the author that his original story wasn’t long enough for a book, so just throw something to the end to make it look impressive in the consumer’s hands. It’s not like most people ever get halfway through the book, anyways. Right….?

But besides that last bit, the book’s excellent. There I said it.

Think of it this way. Even if customs getting back into the USA is a major taxation on your mind and spirit, you are still going to have a fantastic time while in the rain forests of Costa Rica. I did, at least!

 

 

Note: If I was born 50 or 100 years later, I totally would have stuck with molecular biology. Right now, I’ll be lucky enough to be alive just to see where this finally ends up going.

 

Light [(Picture) Book Review]

I’m not going to lie; reading is not THE most favorite activity that I enjoy doing. I prefer to be physically active and get out there. Climbing, biking, swimming, and more recently running. And on my free time, I enjoy yo-yoing, playing guitar, and just being social (especially if wine is included).

However, that recently changed earlier this month when I fell off my mountain bike going downhill and smashed my collarbone in half. Completely. Three weeks and twelve screws later, I’m now physically grounded for the months of June and July. And due to my one-handed limitation until the fracture heals, I read a lot this month (and 4 book review will soon follow now that I can finally type again).

broken shoulder      img_0151.jpg

Before Surgery                                   :             After Surgery

Note to self: Don’t mountain bike alone, especially if it’s a new trail >30 mile drive from home.

Anyway………the first review:

Light, co-authored by Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke, was the shortest and prettiest of the books I’ve read in the last month (or perhaps the last year). And it’s mostly a picture book, with the aim to help educate the “village idiot” about the electromagnetic spectrum (from radio waves to Gamma radiation) and all of its wonders and capabilities.

It’s actually the third book in the square-shaped Black Dog Publishing books that I own. I loved reading The Elements; from Hydrogen to UUH (or whatever it is now), you can read the book cover to cover and get a glimpse of all the “awkward elements” that you really don’t know much about (which doesn’t happen until you get to Scandium (#21)). I also own Molecules, which isn’t as whimsical personally, but it does paint a solid picture on how anything can go due to the vast possibilities of atomic orientations can lead to drastic material alterations.

Spoiler alert: A lot of elements are shiny gray metals, and most purified compounds are white powders.

However, Light felt more …….. like an extremely distilled book. For middle schoolers. And unfortunately, I was hoping for a bit more. The biggest problem is how the book doesn’t scratch any surfaces, which meant I didn’t learn much. For example, a page will say something like this: Some animals can detect UV radiation. Here’s a pretty picture of a butterfly that can (or might. It’s hard to confirm).

One thing that I personally wanted more from the book in detail is in which ways do we or nature create and detect specific wavelengths.  Please tell me HOW the butterfly detects UV radiation. It also seems that everything in space can radiate anything. So what processes correlate to which light energies? Or is it just a temperature thing (Plank Blackbody Radiation).

Another thing: >50% of the images are space-related images: galaxies, planets, satellite images.  30-40% are pseudo-random pictures of nature. And the remaining 10-20% are more technical images. In hindsight, the book IS written by two NASA employees. So when your tool is a hammer, your solution involves nails. So when your weapon of choice is satellites, well………..

I’ll still keep the book for now. It might be cool to show it to my kids (if that ever happens). But if you really want a space book, you are better off getting a space book.

The Particle at the End of the Universe [Book Review]

As is states on the cover “How the hunt for the Higgs Boson leads us to the edge of a new world,” you can easily tell what the book is about. However, in the book, written by Sean Carroll, this only takes up about half of the book. The flip side, which is interwoven quite well, is what I would call a beginner’s primer on particle physics.

Here’s a cliff notes version of the primer:

  • Quantum Mechanics – The world is made of of “things” (let’s just call them particles for now) that can either act as objects or waves based on its setting. If it’s left alone, it’s a wave; it it’s observed or measured, it’s more like a spatially localized unit.
  • Particle Physics – These particles can either be fermions (particles that exhibit mass – quarks / leptons / neutrinos) and bosons (particles that typically don’t have mass – photons / gluon / graviton).
  • Quantum Field Theory – The idea that these particles are actually a disturbance (or waves) in their appropriate field (which is typically at 0 energy), which more massive particles appearing as more tightly confined “wavelets” in space.
  • The Weak Force – The fourth force of nature, which is responsible for nuclear decay (and also one of the hardest to explain!). However, it’s associated bosons (W/Z’s) DO have mass. Thus, causing friction in older theories and a search for WHY.
  • The Higgs Field – There is a special field that isn’t at 0 energy (almost like how the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t a vacuum like in space, it can be measured in atmosphere pressure > 0).  This field, almost like the universe’s resistance, gives fermions and W/Z bosons mass (but unlike our atmosphere, the particles don’t decelerate).
  • The Higgs Boson – And like all the other fields, you can create a disturbance in the Higgs field, which will result in the “temporary” creation of the Higgs Boson particle.

Got all that? Don’t worry, I’m still trying to wrap my mind about it too.

So the whole idea of the Higgs Boson, as you can see in the trail of theories above, is to prove that the Higgs field exists to back up our current theory called “The Standard Model.” To many particle physicists, this is both exciting and BORING at the same time. The Standard Model has been around for almost 50 years, and every experiment has been like ” …..yep, nothing new here. Let’s move along.” They would like to see a new revolution, but their princess is in another castle.

But the book doesn’t just throw you under the bus, deep into these theories, until after it lays down a brief history of Large Hadron Collider and the politics and construction drama that occurred along the way. But important of all, it really gives you a sense of passion behind the topic. The people involved, the reasoning behind the scientist’s motives, and an overall impression on our international culture towards science and technology.

It’s not like “finding the Higgs Boson” is going to lead us to new technology in the near future, a term constantly re-phrased as “When do I get my jet pack?”. It was a massive money “sink”, requiring billions of tax payer dollars from many different countries and ethnicities. But science is one of the few successful topics that the human race as a whole can come together and show (almost) non-conditional cooperation and successfully come to a productive (and relatively efficient) process and actually deliver results. The book lists a famous quote from Robert Wilson used during the fund hearings for the project:

“It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

From the book’s perspective, they interweave these “Reasoning of Why,” at the beginning, end, and within the technical theory behind particle physics. To constantly help pull you through the “textbook-like” chapters. To be truthfully honest, the difficulty in ready didn’t hinder my progress until I hit chapter 11 (which I’m going to have to re-re-read at some point). While much may be over the average reader’s head (since not everyone has the time and patience to get their graduate degree in advanced physics), the theory is just as important as the political and historical story painted behind this research.

A good read, and a nice reference (including appendix chapters) in case I have to refresh myself on any of these topics. Thank you Sean.

Fasting [A Rant]

I had a slight knee injury last week, which means I couldn’t do all the fun stuff I love to do on my free time (climb, bike, run). So I decided to kick something off my bucket list: fasting. I had no solid food for 4 days. And only juice for the first and last days.

Note: I will never water fast again. At least voluntarily…..

It’s not the hunger; that’s the easiest part. And it wasn’t the bad breath, strong case or BO, or excessive oily perspiration. And I did get mild headaches and weird aches in random locations on my body

It was the feeling of physical weakness. People in favor of fasting would probably say it’s just mental. But when you raise an arm for 30 seconds and it starts to feel like it’s full of pin needles when you bring it back down. The weird feeling in your intestines, where food blockage may be occurring (because there’s no other food pushing it through). And when you lie there, 40 hours into no caloric consumption and your muscles start to shiver like a cramp is on its way……

You feel the odd presence of your body…….slowly eating itself from the inside out.

What exactly happens during a fast is kind of up for debate. There are medical professionals from both sides describing the helpful and harmful effects of such a practice. So I’ll just rant about my personal opinions of what could possibly be happening (with a help of a Human Anatomy & Physiology book, by Elaine Marieb and Katja Hoehn).

I know it’s not pure truth. But if there’s already tens of thousands of websites already posting their ideas and opinions of food intake, or lack of, then one more wouldn’t hurt. At least I’m throwing my disclaimer out there.

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On a typical day, I eat food. Three to five times a day.

Eggs for breakfast, some pre-lunch nuts, a lunch of carrots and hummus, a light pre-supper of yogurt or an energy bar, and a late post exercise supper of vegetables and chicken (or tofu if I don’t have anything fresh).

My body will typically absorb the useful stuff and convert them to glucose and glycerol. We typically use these molecules to create high-energy particles called ATP (via the Krebs cycle) which are used for …..everything. If you’ve ever taken a biochemistry class, there are A LOT of breakdown pathways for a variety of compounds, and a lot of enzymes to facilitate these processes.

What you don’t use tgets stored. Typically, my body will start making glycogen from the excess glucose. It’s easier to store and breakdown when needed. Nice and tucked within various tissues, like skeletal muscles. But we don’t need much of it. S whatever glucose (and family) is left will be stored into fat.

Ironically, when we consume fat, it doesn’t go straight from our intestines to our white adipose tissue (fat cells) without going some sort of transformation. The majority of it all started out as broken down form of glucose, glycerol, or a modified triglyceride.

Additionally, our stored fat is constantly being broken down, re-released into the blood, and then re-absorbed back into the tissue after making a few laps in the body via the bloodstream. My text literally states “that bulge of fatty tissue you see today does not contain the same fat molecules it did a month ago.”

So when you stop eating, things start to change over time. The body continues as normal, depending on how much glucose/glycerol is in your blood. But after about half a day, it realizes that……….it should start setting some priorities.

Priority #1, your brain!

Glucose sparing. That’s what the textbook calls it. The free glucose energy in your blood is reserved for your brain to maintain your capability to move around, find food, and stay alive (well…..if you aren’t choosing to starve yourself). Most of other tissues switch to alternative energy sources.

And yes, this is when your organs and muscles start to burn more fat for fuel. Lypolysis is the academic term. And typically it needs a compound (oxaloacetic acid) to do it cleanly. But when you are water fasting, there isn’t much of it to go around (it’s being consumed by that ever-so-important brain). So……..it just haphazardly shreds it through ketogenesis. The result is a variety of “aromatic” compounds which makes your breath smell,  armpits reeks, and piss quite pungent (even though you didn’t eat asparagus….or anything).

If we solely relied on fat breakdown (in this fashion), the body would suffer “metabolic acidosis.” The blood pH would dangerously drop, lots of bad things would happen (proteins and nerves would fail), and we would die ….. nuff said.

Fat cells also store a variety of compounds, including necessary vitamins. But I believe they can store a lot of weird molecules. When your body digs into these reserves, they ultimately come out as a consequence (and not very pleasantly). I would like to think that my fast allowed for some “fat cell cleansing” during my experience. My mouth did taste a little “metallic.”And it makes sense.

For example. Tuna is known to be a source of high concentrations of mercury. This is due to the accumulation from living a carnivorous lifestyle. By staying old and consuming a lot of smaller fish, it tends to hold all the heavy metals from digested prey until something else eats it (like you). And then we accumulate those heavy metals.

It’s like an attic in a house. We put stuff there we don’t want to (or easily can’t) throw out. And we don’t go up to the attic and routinely organize and clean it out. We’d rather leave it be, unless something forces us to go through the clutter. Like moving. Or a wasp’s nest….

Because ketogenesis is so unfavorable, the body will acquire energy through other means. The body will start ripping your muscle fibers apart for metabolic requirements. It’s easier to do, a lot less messy, and you get more energy/weight out of it. And this will happen a lot more after 24 hours of fasting. By that time, my body didn’t seem to smell as bad, but it’s when the physical reminders of “weakness” started to emerge.

This is why some have praised the idea of intermittent fasting. Where you only eat in an 8 hour window each day, so there’s that 16 hour window to induce fat breakdown, without digesting too much muscle fiber content.

Surprise, a study telling you to NOT eat breakfast!

If fasting still continues, somewhere after three days the body starts to digest just about everything else. By that time, there’s not much glucose left to spare and the brain starts eating other things (like them nasty ketones), making your head hurt more than it already did. There are still priorities; the brain is definitely not going to eat itself away. But once the body eats away at something (like your heart, or kidney, or your soul), it fails and death occurs.

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I do enjoy juice fasting. Taking in a small amount of glucose and protein. It allows me to realize that disconnect between needing substance and “being hungry.” A reminder to me what my body is actually telling me.

But I did obtain my strenuous fast experience (even though I wasn’t hungry at all during my water fast days), and I’m hoping that my physical build wasn’t impacted that much. I also did lose 12 lbs in 4 days (mostly water and salt), which I’ll slowly gain back in the next month or so. And I’m fine with that.

But for now, I’ll work on not how how my body looks………but what I can do with it.

 

Note: I kind of have a similar reaction with the level of attraction I have with women. I never did get that “boobs or butt” preference thing. If they can hike with me 600 m vertically up a mountain at an impressive pace, that’s a 10 in my book.