Reading – & Now: 2017

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A love affair with books


   "Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as 'the best sounding board in Europe' for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern.
   "When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso's family. 'Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,' Einstein wrote of his friend's passing. 'That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.'"
– Dan Falk, Quanta Magazine, A Debate Over the Physics of Time⩘ 

Max Tegmark, Life 3.0
Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Life 3.0 by Max TegmarkWell narrated by Rob Shapiro.

An excellent and accessible book addressing the age of artificial intelligence we are now entering, which has the potential to accelerate greatly in the coming decades. Human-level Artificial General Intelligence—and an explosion beyond human level—is a real possibility this century, and a good outcome for humans isn't guaranteed, so Tegmark is focused on explaining what might be coming, as well as on encouraging all of us to think about the future we want.

The book explores many of the interesting, even thrilling, topics that have been explored in the best science fiction books I've come across, only here they are discussed from a clear scientific perspective and grounding.

There's also a fascinating chapter on consciousness, a focus of Tegmark's research, in which he discusses the quest to figure out what consciousness is and why it feels the way it does to us (to me, somehow separate from my physical body), as well as the possibility that GAI could become conscious.

As in his previous book, Our Mathematical Universe, Tegmark is delightfully upbeat while remaining realistic, what he calls mindfully optimistic. He has helped spark an international discussion within and beyond the AI community that is focusing on what he calls "the most important conversation of our time": how to ensure that we build beneficial AI. This has led to the launch of the Future of Life Institute⩘ , which is funding critical related research.

Yet despite the most powerful technologies we have today, all life forms we know of remain fundamentally limited by their biological hardware. None can live for a million years, memorize all of Wikipedia, understand all known science or enjoy spaceflight without a spacecraft. None can transform our largely lifeless cosmos into a diverse biosphere that will flourish for billions or trillions of years, enabling our Universe to finally fulfill its potential and wake up fully. All this requires life to undergo a final upgrade, to Life 3.0, which can design not only its software but also its hardware. In other words, Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally fully free from its evolutionary shackles.

The boundaries between the three stages of life are slightly fuzzy. If bacteria are Life 1.0 and humans are Life 2.0, then you might classify mice as 1.1: they can learn many things, but not enough to develop language or invent the internet. Moreover, because they lack language, what they learn gets largely lost when they die, not passed on to the next generation. Similarly, you might argue that today's humans should count as Life 2.1: we can perform minor hardware upgrades such as implanting artificial teeth, knees and pacemakers, but nothing as dramatic as getting ten times taller or acquiring a thousand times bigger brain.

In summary, we can divide the development of life into three stages, distinguished by life's ability to design itself:

  • Life 1.0 (biological stage): evolves its hardware and software
  • Life 2.0 (cultural stage): evolves its hardware, designs much of its software
  • Life 3.0 (technological stage): designs its hardware and software

After 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution, development has accelerated dramatically here on Earth: Life 1.0 arrived about 4 billion years ago, Life 2.0 (we humans) arrived about a hundred millennia ago, and many AI researchers think that Life 3.0 may arrive during the coming century, perhaps even during our lifetime, spawned by progress in AI. What will happen, and what will this mean for us?

See also: Future of Life Institute⩘ 

Interestingly, the day after I posted this, I came across this news item in the Technology section of "Artificial intelligence pioneer says we need to start over⩘ .

In 1986, Geoffrey Hinton co-authored a paper that, four decades later, is central to the explosion of artificial intelligence. But Hinton says his breakthrough method should be dispensed with, and a new path to AI found.

Speaking with Axios on the sidelines of an AI conference in Toronto on Wednesday, Hinton, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and a Google researcher, said he is now "deeply suspicious" of back-propagation, the workhorse method that underlies most of the advances we are seeing in the AI field today, including the capacity to sort through photos and talk to Siri. "My view is throw it all away and start again," he said.

And a day later, this: "Chips Off the Old Block: Computers Are Taking Design Cues From Human Brains⩘ " by Cade Metz,

Now, some of the world's largest tech companies are taking a cue from biology as they respond to these growing demands. They are rethinking the very nature of computers and are building machines that look more like the human brain, where a central brain stem oversees the nervous system and offloads particular tasks—like hearing and seeing—to the surrounding cortex.…

This trend toward specialty chips and a new computer architecture could lead to a "Cambrian explosion" of artificial intelligence, said Gill Pratt, who was a program manager at Darpa….

Random House Audio, 2017

A state of anticipation …

I just listened to and thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of two in-progress trilogies. Now I have some waiting to do! Book three of The Themis Files won't arrive until May of next year, while book three of the Extracted series has been written, but doesn't yet have a publishing date other than sometime next year. If only I had a time travel machine to jump ahead a bit!

Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods

Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods by Sylvain NeuvelPerformed by an amazing cast of voice actors, including Andy Secombe, Eric Meyers, Laurel Lefkow, Charlie Anson, Liza Ross, William Hope, Christoper Ragland, Katharine Mangold, Adna Sablyich, Roy McMillan, Madeleine Rose, Karina Fernandez, Olivia Dowd, and Sarah Wells.

What a story! A refreshing exploration of an encounter with extraterrestrials; by turns inspiring, mind blowing, stomach wrenching, inspirational, surprising, and shocking.

I love this new author's explanation of how he created his first book, Sleeping Giants: he was building a toy robot for his son, who wanted the back story for the robot. But there's nothing toylike about the gigantic, otherworldly robots who are awakened in this series.

This is the largest cast of narrators I've ever heard perform an audiobook, and they pull it off with finesse and grace!

A stunningly good debut and follow up. Only Human arrives in May, which can't come soon enough.

Random House Audio, 2016 and 2017

R R Haywood, Extracted and Executed

Extracted and Executed by RR HaywoodFull throttle narration by Carl Prekopp.

Apparently, Haywood is the author of the "UK's best selling zombie horror series. Since that's a genre I've never paid any attention to whatsoever, I'd never heard of him until I stumbled across Extracted the other day, which is his first Sci-Fi book. Once I started listening, I couldn't stop until I was all the way through both of the opening two books of this trilogy.

The story is mind bending, funny, brutal, sobering, wildly entertaining. Carl Prekopp brings it alive with his pitch-perfect storytelling skills, giving a unique and authentic voice to all the key characters.

In one small way, I'm glad the third book isn't available yet because I needed some sleep! In every other way, I'm like a time travel addict who has lost his machine and is suffering terrible withdrawal symptoms.

Audible Studios, New York, 2017

Zachary Mason, Void Star

Void Star by Zachary MasonSkillfully performed by Cassandra Campbell, Tristan Morris, Sean Pratt, and Michael Braun

As I was listening to chapter 11 of this book, Theater, a couple hours into the story, I was struck by the lyrical beauty of the description of the interaction between Irina, a woman with an exceptional and risky augmented memory, and an AI.¹ I started the chapter over in order to listen more carefully, and was then struck by what an extraordinary story I was listening to.

I listen to and read a lot of books. Some are okay, others bore me, a few I don't finish, and once in awhile I come across one like this, delightfully imaginative and intelligent. Wanting to ensure that I was tuned into all of the important plot lines, I started the book over again, listening more carefully to the unfolding story. At the same time, I purchased the ebook so I could read some of the passages that particularly captivated me.

I found this a challenging book, something I appreciate. I had to work to keep up, sometimes not quite sure what was happening until it would click into place a bit further along. As I finished the book, I realized I will set it aside for a bit and then listen to it again so that I can more fully appreciate the nuances of the story having the perspective of a better understanding of the general outline of the story's journey.

This is, for me, an example of peak science fiction.² Mason is a computer scientist who works in the field of Artificial Intelligence, as well as a wonderful storyteller.³ Here, he has created the most perceptive story about AI and our near future that I've come across so far, wrapped in a riveting adventure.

And then, without warning, the static is gone, and the AI's thoughts are there before her, manifest as a dully glowing nebula, riddled with storms, roiling sluggishly. Her other memory floods with its geometry and shadows.
   Zooming in, the storm's surface becomes glyphs flowing in waves over the screen. The glyphs are intricate, radiant with significance that she can't quite articulate. Like rain, she thinks, on a clear day, seen over miles of ocean. Like ideograms distended in a black hole's gravity. Like thick filaments of DNA, fraying before her eyes. This is what she always thinks, on seeing the glyphs, and then, as always, she remembers that language won't suffice here. She remembers rain blatting on the bay windows of a high room in a good hotel rising over the surf of the South China Sea; her lover, a mathematician, whom she never saw again after that night, had asked her to explain a glyph, just one, the simplest, fully, and she had tried, as the hotel swayed, just perceptibly, in the wind, offering analogies, at first, and then, when that failed, reciting the glyph's structure in a child's singsong, her voice rising and falling, and as she wound on and on she lost track of where she was, seeing blurred shadows of glyphs in the rain channels on the glass, and then of time, until, finally, he stopped her with a finger to her lips, and moved her hair aside to kiss tenderly her forehead's faded scar. She cranks the resolution, then, and the glyphs seethe, splitting and fusing, burning off into nothing, her face flickering in the violence of the light. Her perception vibrates as her other memory churns, searching for pattern, vainly, and the moments pass, and still she can make nothing of the glyphs rushing by.
   She knows, then, with an absolute and dismal certainty, that her gift is lost, that the machines' luminous otherness is closed to her for good, but then the fugue hits, and her breath catches. The theater is gone, and she's somewhere else, bodiless, lost in the light and motion of the transit of Los Angeles.

  1. In an interview by Lou Fancher in The Mercury News⩘ , Mason shares that this short chapter took three years of rewrites to complete.
  2. Apologies to the author, who doesn't like this label.
  3. While epic poetry is not a favorite genre, when I subsequently listened to Mason's debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, his prose take on alternative stories of The Odyssey, I found that it further reveals his creative storytelling genius.

Blackstone Audio, 2017

Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough
Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

No Is Not Enough by Naomi KleinVery aptly narrated by Brit Marling

As I alluded to in my previous review, I've been looking around for someone who can help me better understand WTF is going on in American national politics. I was hoping James Fallows would return from his sabbatical and begin sharing some of his wisdom, but he's not yet back. Fortunately, a super Canadian has come to the rescue!

I had read one of Klein's previous books, This Changes Everything, which is about climate change, so I already knew that she is a wonderfully perceptive and captivating writer. Her new book is an equally excellent experience and is everything I could've hoped for.

Klein clearly explains the environment that has enabled someone like Trump to grab the presidency by its genitals, walks us through what he and his oligarchy cabinet will try to do via their shock politics, soberly points out the challenges and dangers we face, and in her conclusion, provides an incredibly optimistic view of how we can take advantage of the challenge of this moment to strive for transformation. (She introduces her conclusion by quoting Jean-Claude Servais: "The hour calls for optimism; we'll save pessimism for better times.")

Thank you, Ms. Klein, for caring enough about your southern neighbors to share your wisdom with us and to infect us with a bit of your realistic optimism. It won't be easy, but you've shown us that by working together we can strive to build a better world.

As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, "The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty."
– David Frum, "How to Build an Autocracy⩘ ." The Atlantic, Mar 2017.

Audible Audio, 2017

James Fallows, China Airborne

China Airborne by James Fallows

James Fallows is a writer I pay attention to; often I find his essays in The Atlantic shed light on a subject in a way that helps me to better understand the world I'm immersed in. When he went on sabbatical earlier this year I was a bit saddened as I found it a crucial time when I would've appreciated his knack for making the nearly incomprehensible a little more understandable.

When he announced in January on his author's page⩘  that he was going off to write a book, he said, "See you in June." When June rolled around, I began checking his author's page again, and it was then that I was reminded that I still had his book China Airborne in my queue on my tablet. Having recently read that the first Chinese-built passenger jetliner, the Comac C919 just completed its inaugural flight, I figured it was a good time to explore this book.

The book addresses this core question: "With aerospace as a proxy for Chinese development in the broadest sense, what are the forces that will determine in which direction China goes?"

As Fallows acknowledges early in the book, it's possible to grasp only fragments of China:

On one of my first reporting trips to Guangdong province in southern China, a foreigner who had lived there for more than a decade and worked daily with Chinese factory owners and laborers said, "Each month I'm here, I know half as much as I did the month before." I thought he was being arch, but a few years later I began to grasp what he was saying. It's not that your store of knowledge keeps going down; it's that your awareness of what you don't know—and won't ever know—keeps going up, and at a faster rate.

Still, it's an engrossing book and a worthwhile read. Even though it was published five years ago, I think it has helped me understand a bit better the fascinating paradox that is China today.

Now I hope Fallows will return soon to helping me understand a bit better the fascinating paradox that is the United States of America today.

Pantheon Books, New York, 2012

Cory Doctorow, Walkaway

Walkaway by Cory DoctorowExquisitely performed by Wil Wheaton, Amber Benson, Amanda Palmer, Mirron Willis, Gabrielle de Cuir, Lisa Renee Pitts and Justine Eyre.

When a science fiction novel is praised by William Gibson ("A wonderful novel"), Edward Snowden ("Walkaway reminds us that the world we choose to build is the one we'll inhabit"), Kim Stanley Robinson ("In a world full of easy dystopias, Cory Doctorow writes the hard utopia, and what do you know, his utopia is both more thought-provoking and more fun"), and Neal Stephenson ("a pretty damned tight techno-thriller"), you know you may be in for a good read. And Doctorow delivers.

Cory is someone I pay attention to. I search out and read his articles, and watch his talks (though sometimes they are a bit over my head). He is working at a frenetic pace fighting the good fight for our rights, and somehow he even finds time to write books. Wow!

The thing that amazes me most about Cory's outlook—as expressed both in his real-world work and his novels—is that in the face of seemingly overwhelming and often ominous challenges to our rights and the rights of the characters in his novels, he maintains a strong undercurrent of vibrant optimism. He sees a path to a brighter future, without whitewashing how challenging it will be to get there.

As Neal Stephenson also says in his blurb, Walkaway is "the Bhagavad Gita of hacker / maker / burner / open source / git / gnu / wiki / 99% / adjunct faculty / Anonymous / shareware / thingiverse / cypherpunk / LGTBQIA / squatter / upcycling culture." If you take the time to read those terms carefully, you get a good idea of the sweeping scope of this story.

At it roots, Walkaway is a story of people trying to create a better world—for themselves, their families, their friends, their lovers, their communities, and even strangers—by using forward thinking and cutting-edge technology in the face of fierce resistance and violent opposition from the entrenched establishment with its inflated sense of entitlement.

Walkaway very well could be a glimpse of our future.

The one thing that would've made the book better for me is if the often incongruous sex scenes had been toned down a bit or left out. I find this true of a lot of books in the SF genre. I guess editors at the publishing houses must have a check box:
[ ✓ ] Steamy sex every x pages!
After a few moments of these, I find myself rolling my eyes thinking, "Alright, already, I get the picture, now you're boring me," as I hit fast forward.

DRM-free versions of Walkaway are available from Cory Doctorow's Craphound⩘ .
Printed Walkaway is available from many independent booksellers.
Paper and eBook: Tor Books, 2017
Audiobook: Cory Doctorow, 2017

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

"After this day, who knows what we may accomplish together?"

This is an intriguing novel. Tchaikovsky takes us deep into the development over millennia of a truly alien and even terrifying species, yet somehow managed to provoke within me a strong feeling of empathy for that species.

He also tells a ripping good yarn about the travels and travails of a generation ship containing the last vestiges of humanity as they search the galaxy for a new home.

As the story slowly built the tension towards an unavoidable and intense clash of civilizations, I was truly torn between my feelings of empathy for the aliens and my strong affinity with and loyalty to the colorful characters of my own kind who were portrayed. I am seldom surprised at the end of a story, but Adrian Tchaikovsky certainly surprised me at the end of this one. Kudos!

And I have to say, I love what he shares in his brief biography, especially the fact that he "keeps no exotic or dangerous pets of any kind, possibly excepting his son."

Pan Macmillan, London, 2015

Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky ChambersWonderfully narrated by Rachel Dulude

Sidra, Pepper, Blue, Tak, and Owl are as interesting, colorful, and quirky a band of misfits as I've come across in science fiction.

Big hearted and incredibly loyal to each other, they deal with some very gnarly issues: extreme inequality seen from the point of view of those who end up dealing with the toxic byproducts of an uncaring opulent class that lives far enough away not to have to be aware of the consequences of their consumption-driven wealth; the ethics of cloning; what it means to be a sentient artificial intelligence; and the challenges of inter-species communication.

While her first book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was an assured debut, with this followup—loosely connected to the first, but a fully realized standalone story—Chambers really hits her stride.

He shrugged. "The Enhanced call us m-misfits. People who don't suit their intended purpose. So, maybe, ah, maybe you're a misfit, too. Doesn't mean you're not deserving. Doesn't mean you shouldn't be here. Lovey's gone, and that's horribly sad. You're here, and that's wonderful. This isn't a zero sum thing. Both can be true at the same time." He looked at the painting. "And maybe this, um, maybe this isn't you right now. Maybe the face you're, um, the face you're wearing just needs a little time before it f-fits you. Or you fit it. Either way."

I can pay A Closed and Common Orbit one of my biggest compliments: I regretted when I had reached the last page that I couldn't spend a bit more time with the story's characters.

Tantor Audio, 2017

Leonard Pitts Jr. , Grant Park

Grant Park by Leonard Pitts Jr.Strongly narrated by Ron Butler

Leonard Pitts Jr. caught my attention a few days ago with his fiery letter to the president in the Miami Herald, "Mr. President: 'Just who the hell do you think you are?'⩘ ."

You're now what is called a "public servant"—in effect, an employee with 324 million bosses. And let me tell you something about those bosses. They're unruly and loud, long accustomed to speaking their minds without fear or fetter. And they believe power must always answer to the people. That's at the core of their identity.

I appreciate Mr. Pitts' reminder to the president that this is a nation of laws including the First Amendment's protection of the freedom of the press:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Curious about Mr. Pitts, I decided to read one of his novels, and chose Grant Park, his most recent. It's a strong story, which I found discomfiting and thought-provoking. It provided me with an opportunity to think about and feel in an emotional way what it feels like, as one of his characters says:

"You were surprised how angry he sounded?"
   [Amy Landinghams'] eyes, which had been fixed on the laptop, came up. "No," she said. "I was surprised how sad and hurt he sounded. He sounded like someone who'd given up."
   "Given up on what?"
   "On us, I guess. White folks."
   "That's absurd," said Bob. "I never did anything to Malcolm, did you?"
   "No," said Amy, "but maybe it's not about you and me. Maybe what he's given up on is the idea that he can ever make white people in general understand."
   Bob was getting impatient. "Understand what?" he asked.
   "How it feels when you're not white."

I also appreciated what he had to say in the Afterward, both on giving me a better perspective about the plausibility of the story, and also in reinforcing why it's so important to try to build bridges, even in this time of deep and bitter divisions.

There is one question I expect to be asked a lot by people when they read this book: How much of this is real?
   The answer: it depends on what you mean by real.
   For instance, while Clarence Pym and Dwayne McLarty are complete works of fiction, their outlandish plot to kill Barack Obama is, in fact, based on a real plan hatched by two white supremacists.
   According to their scheme, which was broken up by law enforcement, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman would first have murdered 88 African Americans in a killing spree at a black school and then beheaded another 14. The significance of the numbers? Well, "h" is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so in the world of white supremacy, 88 is understood as a coded salute: "Heil Hitler."
   The other number, meanwhile, is a reference to the so-called 14 Words of white supremacy: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
   With 102 black people thus butchered, Cowart and Schlesselman planned to somehow drive toward Obama, firing automatic weapons. And yes, they reportedly planned to wear white ties and top hats. Some things are simply too bizarre to be anything but true.

Have I ever come close to doing as Malcolm does, writing a fiery, kiss-my-backside letter to white America? The answer is an emphatic "no." I am not Malcolm Toussaint, nor he me. This is a work of fiction, an attempt to grapple with the tantalizing question, What if… Though there are obvious similarities between us, I try always to remember what Malcolm allowed himself to forget: there are Joe MacPhersons in the world, yes. But there are Amy Landinghams, too. The momentary satisfaction of lashing out at the former will never be worth betraying the trust of the latter.

Audiobook: Tantor Audio, 2015
Printed book: Agate Publishing, Chicago, 2015

Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe
My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

Our Mathematical Universe by Max TegmarkAptly narrated by Rob Shapiro

A fascinating book, even if some of it was a bit beyond my capability to fully understand. Tegmark begins with an exploration of the question, "What is reality?" He does this by diving into two questions: "How big is our universe?" and "What's everything made of?" As he dives into these, he discusses parallel universes, including his personal favorite, the Level IV Multiverse.

Finally, Tegmark arrives at his "most radical and controversial idea: that the ultimate reality is purely mathematical." Of course, all of us who are familiar with Douglas Adams already know that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42, and it really doesn't take much of leap to get from there to an ultimate reality that is purely mathematical, right?

While admitting that the idea of parallel universes is controversial, and that his idea that reality is math is extremely controversial, Tegmark presents an interesting and compelling case.

I actually had to listen to the first 300 or so pages of this book two times before I could move on to tackle the final ideas he presents. Both times, I did what he suggested and took some time away from the book to think about the implications of his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis about time:

In other words, your subjective feeling that time is flowing comes from the relations between these memories that you have right now. Imagine a thought experiment where a perfect clone of me is built asleep, complete with all my memories, and is only woken up long enough to perceive a single observer moment. He'd still feel that time flowed from a complex and interesting past, even though he got to experience only that one moment. This means that the subjective perceptions of duration and change are qualia, basic instantaneous perceptions just as redness, blueness or sweetness.

This implication of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is pretty radical, so please pause your reading for a moment to take it in and think about it. What you're aware of right at this moment feels not like a photo but like a movie clip. This movie isn't reality—it exists only in your head, as part of your brain's reality model. It contains lots of information about the actual external physical reality—as long as you aren't dreaming or hallucinating—but still constitutes only a very heavily edited version of reality, akin to the evening news on TV, mainly featuring certain highlights of patterns nearby in space and time that your brain thinks are useful for you to be aware of.

Just as when you watch news on TV, you're not watching distant parts of space directly: you're watching merely an edited movie about these parts of space. Similarly, you're not watching the past, but an edited movie about the past. As opposed to watching the news during several minutes, you watch your internal newsreel all at once, thus being simultaneously aware of present and past events. A second later, you watch your internal newsreel once again, all at once, and it's mostly unchanged like a TV rerun, but has been slightly re-edited to add another second of material at the end and shorten the remainder. In other words, even though an observer moment objectively occupies less than a liter of volume and a second of time, it subjectively feels as if it occupies all the space you're aware of and all the time you remember. You feel as if you're observing this space and time from here and now, but all that space and time are just part of the reality model that you're experiencing. This is why you subjectively feel that time flows even though it doesn't.

Last night, I watched the excellent film, Arrival, based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which explores the idea that what we perceive as past, present, and future, actually all exist simultaneously, that the "distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion" (see the appetizer from Albert Einstein at the top of this page).

I think it's good to have my mind blown on a regular basis by ideas like the ones Tegmark presents in this book and Chiang explores in his short story. This is a big universe (or universes, perhaps), filled with strangeness beyond what most of us can even imagine. People like Tegmark and Chiang help expand the boundaries of my imagination, for which I'm grateful.

I also like the upbeat note he finishes with: "Let's make a difference!

Printed book: Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014
Audiobook: Random House Audio, 2014

Sylvia Tara, The Secret Life of Fat The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You

Read by the author

I had a mixed reaction to this book, but the good parts were good enough that I want to mention it here. The good parts were those specifically focused on what has been learned about fat through rigorous scientific research, and it's fascinating.

As someone who grew up skinny, then suddenly started gaining weight in my mid-30s, this is compelling information for me to understand. I've been puzzled for the past 25 years. For the most part, my eating habits didn't change and my diet is reasonably good, even better than it used to be: lots of vegetables and whole grains, some lean meat, and some desserts. The major change in my life that happened in my 30s was a desk job and purchasing a home, and the accompanying stress of work and mortgage. But I worked hard and continued my lifelong passion of rigorous hiking in the mountains throughout that time. Why, then, was I gaining weight?

Over the past years, I've learned more about fat, in bits and pieces. For example, I learned that our intestinal microbiome can be adversely affected if we are bottle fed as infants, with a lifelong impact. Strike one against me. I also learned how antibiotics can mess up our microbiome, again with a lasting impact. Strike two against me. During a year-long student exchange trip abroad, I contracted a serious gut infection and had to take some strong courses of antibiotics upon return to the states.

But the research Tara, who holds a PhD in biochemistry, presents in this book is much more comprehensive than anything I've come across previously. Just the fact that fat is now considered an organ was eye opening. Also surprising to me is the beneficial role fat plays in our lives. I knew fat is a mechanism to store reserves of energy, but I didn't know that it is so involved in regulating our hormones, insulating our cells, regulating the flow of nutrients into cells, and suppressing dangerous inflammation. I also didn't know that there is a virus (Ad-36) that can make one prone to gaining weight. Here I was worrying about catching the common cold, which lasts a week or two, when I really should've been concerned about catching the common fat, which can have a lifelong impact! Genetic inheritance can be another factor contributing to whether we have a propensity toward weight gain.

Even if we're lucky enough to have a good microbiome, to have received a decent genetic inheritance, and to have avoided the Ad-36 virus, none of us can avoid aging, and our bodies naturally become more prone to accumulating fat as we grow older and our hormone production wanes.

The most fascinating thing I learned listening to this book is how tenacious fat is once we have gained some weight, which becomes the new norm, so to speak. People who lose at least 10% of their weight, as I've done several times over the past 20 years, have to work harder (eat fewer calories and exercise more) to maintain the new lower weight than people who are naturally at that same weight. This explains why many people who lose weight through dieting are prone to put it back on, as I have several times. In this respect, life really isn't fair! The most important thing I walk away from this book with is a deeper understanding that my personal effort to control my weight is something I'm always going to have to work at for the rest of my life. I can't compare my own eating and exercise habits to any of the naturally thin people around me, and I don't get the luxury of letting my guard down. That knowledge is a valuable tool I can use going forward.

The last section of the book devolved into an extreme weight-loss self-help story that, if anything, left me feeling discouraged rather than inspired. The effort the author expended and the lifestyle she adopted in order to lose her excess weight and fit back into her "skinny jeans" seemed to me to border on masochistic. If that's what I would have to do to become thin again … well, there's just no way. Fortunately, there is an in-between, a balanced state in which the goal isn't necessarily to lose all excess fat, but rather to keep it at more healthy levels by eating right and enjoying—that's a key term—regular exercise. That's something we all can strive for.

Fortunately, most of the book was focused on the science, which made this a worthwhile read overall.

Once the subjects had been stabilized at their reduced weight, Leibel and Rosenbaum got to work assessing their metabolic changes. They found that after losing 10 percent of their body weight, both lean and obese individuals needed about 22 percent fewer calories to maintain their lower weight compared to someone who was "naturally" at that weight to begin with. This meant that most people who had lost only 10 percent of their weight would have to eat about 250 – 400 fewer calories per day or exercise that much more if they wanted to keep it off compared to someone who was at that weight without dieting. So gaining weight and then losing it levied a caloric "penalty."

How could fat sustain itself on fewer calories? In order to understand this, the researchers studied how energy usage in the body changed after it lost fat. Through complicated calculations, the team isolated the total energy expenditure of the body into its components, which include the energy used while at rest as well as the energy burned while active, such as during exercise.

Leibel and Rosenbaum noticed that after a 10 percent weight loss, the energy expended at rest decreased by about 15 percent. However, the energy expended during physical activity decreased even more—by 25 percent. So once we lose weight, our bodies are more efficient and conserve energy at rest, and are even better at doing so during exercise. Put another way, a person who has lost weight has to run five miles for every four miles a person who is naturally at that weight does in order to burn as many calories. If the dieter who's achieved a new lower weight eats and exercises like a person naturally at the same weight, the dieter will put on pounds. It's unfair. But after the hard work of shedding fat we have to work harder than those who have not dieted to keep it off, and are forever at higher risk of getting it back. So, even a temporary weight gain can have lifelong consequences.

Why would bodies of equal fat and mass require different amounts of calories depending on whether one dieted or not to achieve that target weight? Leibel and Rosenbaum hypothesized that changes to hormones were involved. They tested this hypothesis by drawing blood of participants before and after they reduced weight and found that leptin levels decreased significantly after weight loss. This was not surprising, considering that fat secretes leptin, and these subjects now had less fat. But in addition to lower leptin, thyroid hormones decreased significantly as well. Thyroid hormones regulate metabolism—when their level decreases, so does our metabolic rate. The researchers also measured adrenaline and noradrenaline, hormones that increase metabolic rates. When participants lost weight, those levels also dropped, thereby slowing metabolism. After losing weight, the body was making a coordinated effort to return to its known and comfortable weight by decreasing how many calories it burned.

Random House Audio, 2016

Iain M. Banks, Culture Series

Covers of the five books in the Culture Series written by Iain M. Banks and narrrated by Peter KennyNarrated by Peter Kenny

There's nothing else quite like the stories in the Culture Series by the late Iain M. Banks. The breadth and depth of his imagination is simply astonishing, reaching to the far corners of the galaxy and to dimensions beyond. His stories are deadly serious, revolving around the greatest of clashes of cosmic cultures intertwined with the most intimate intrigues of individuals. Yet he also paints them with deft strokes of humor, especially in how he depicts his artificial intelligences, beings with capabilities far in advance of the humanoid creatures they adventure alongside, creatures they often seem fond of and at the same time just barely tolerate, often with much virtual eye rolling and apparent boredom.

Peter Kenny's performance of these stories is pitch perfect. He pulls us into this enormous tapestry with an amazing range of voices that deftly portray the wide array of colorful personalities populating the vast reaches of these space operas. There are more books in the loosely joined Culture Series, but Kenny's sublime telling of these five tales creates a series within the series, a fun 79-hour romp worth listening to as a whole: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, The Use of Weapons, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata.

Hatchette Audio, 2011 – 2013
Books originally published by Macmillan and Orbit, London, 1987 - 2012

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