Saturday, April 7, 2018

My Inventions by Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla’s autobiography, collected under the title My Inventions, originally appeared as six articles in issues of Electrical Experimenter in 1919. It is a surprisingly thin book, especially in light of the several biographies that have been written about him, and the possibly greater volumes propounding the mythology of an almost demi-god genius.

To be fair, Tesla was a very creative and productive inventor. His AC motors, and the power systems that support them, enabled a new level of industrial power and automation. In many ways it was the technological foundation of the power grid we have today.

Tesla was ahead of his time and he realized it. He knew that the success of AC motors was greatly aided by coming about at the right time. Even so, it took many years from Tesla’s design to become a prototype and for that to become a commercial product with an infrastructure to support its use. At the time he wrote My Inventions, the value and practicality of his later inventions were still hard for many to see.

One of these later inventions was the radio. Tesla didn’t use that term “radio.”  It’s probably fair to say that he misunderstood the phenomena he was working with. Even so, he could produce radio transmissions and put them to practical use. As a demonstration, he built radio-controlled boats. It’s a stretch to say that Tesla envisioned smart phones, but he foresaw the possibility of using radio to transmit many kinds of data and signals, sometimes to devices “not bigger than a watch.”

“The pressure of occupation and the incessant stream of impressions pouring into our consciousness thru all the gateways of knowledge make modern existence hazardous in many ways,” Nikola Tesla, My Inventions

These articles were written at the end of World War I. Tesla reflected on the potentials of technology in peace and war. He imagined that wireless communication could shrink the world, leading to the kind of cultural exchange, common ground and commercial connections that would reinforce peace. He also imagined a rocket that could be guided to its target by radio control or internal mechanism; we could call it an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Though visionary, he was not an infallible genius. He held to notions of physics that were not supported even by the science of his time. He had some wild ideas about psychology, biology and other fields, though some of these were no more far-out and off the mark that many that were popularly accepted by his contemporaries.

Tesla wrote very much from his own experience and perspective. Though he speaks of his upbringing in eastern Europe, his education and his career in Europe and the United States, he spends little time reflecting on the places, cultures and broader events he experience. You’ll learn more about Tesla’s peculiar ailments than about the life of youth in late-19th Century Croatia. Perhaps that wouldn’t have sold many issues of Electrical Experimenter.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Tesla, Nikola. My Inventions. 1919. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995.

New & Interesting Stuff April 7, 2018

Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte

Stress is shrinking your brain. If you’re living in the parts of the West, especially America, culture and policy that glorify work achievement and idealize the nuclear family result in a lot of time stress. There is hope. Brigid Schulte explores the problem and the hope for something better in Overwhelmed.

Time stress especially falls hard on women. Schulte researches this issue in some detail. I’ll admit that I skimmed some of this part—I’m a man and I have no children. Even so, I think it is a worthy topic. Men and women both need more sanity and space in their lives, and it is clear to me that women suffer more from “contaminated” time.

The idea of contaminated time caught my attention. This is time, usually intended for leisure, when we are thinking of other things that need to be done, usually some kind of work. Leisure is not just about having time to not work, it is about how you feel. If you’re distracted or stressed out by worrying about work, you’re not really experiencing leisure.

Schulte takes a broad approach to her subject. In part she explores American child care policy, even interviewing Pat Buchanan on his role in shaping it. She visits The Netherlands to see how they approach work, family and play. She talks to experts in psychology and leisure along the way.

I’ll admit I came to the book looking for answers for my own sense of being overwhelmed. The tough answer is that culture and policy change slowly, so the stressors are not going away anytime soon (though Schulte’s book suggests cultural and policy changes that might help). In the meantime, you can make choices about how you live, work and think about things. Here are some tips I gleaned from the book that might help with those choices.
-Realize that life is short.
-Decide what you want. Make it a top priority.
-You cannot make time. You can only choose how to use the time you have.
-Believe that you can make your life better.
-Be grateful.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Schulte, Brigid. Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One has the Time. New York: Picador, 2014.

The Gentleman Scientists by Tom Schachtman

The period of time around the American Revolution coincided with the Enlightenment. In Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries, Tom Schachtman endeavors to present a history of American science during this time and show how scientific ideas influenced the founding fathers.

Shachtman starts with the colonial period. Because many of the formally educated people in America, including clergyman, had studied in Europe, Enlightenment science was taught to many of the founding fathers to some degree in their youths. As frontiersman, even in American cities and upper class, practical knowledge was considered to be an acceptable subject along with classical subjects. At the time, they wouldn’t have used the word “science,” nor would they have strongly distinguished the study of science from the professions of engineering, architecture and medicine or even agriculture and skilled trades.

Americans were well-read, and the many newspapers of the time introduced common people to scientific debate. In particular, Philadelphia newspapers (including one operated by Benjamin Franklin’s brother) sensationalized the debate over variolation (inoculation) to prevent small pox. The American reputation for science was slow to develop in the colonial period, but Franklin’s success in studying electricity proved that the colonies could produce scientists to match the European adepts.

The Revolutionary War did not bring scientific study to a stop, but it necessarily diverted a lot of attention. Even so, people continued to seek scientific and technological advances, especially if they might help the war effort.

After the war, the United States continued to develop its scientific talent. Schacthman culminates his book in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and the period shortly after it. By this time, the nation had a depth of scientific talent and could mount and expedition to the western edge of the continent, start a steamboat line, and demonstrate that meteors originated in outer space.

Scientific ideas of the time shaped the founders’ political thinking. In particular, the Enlightenment was a period when many people abandoned the notion that knowledge was received from authorities. Knowledge could be discovered through observation of nature and the application of reason. In particular, people might discover the laws of effective government in much the way that Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion.

A related idea was that knowledge was tested, adjusted and improved by experimentation. They did not imagine that they were creating a perfect government, they were instead applying the lessons they learned from previous experiments in ancient and European governments to a new experiment that may or may not produce the results they hoped for. In some ways, Americans are
still participating in that same experiment.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Schachtman, Tom. Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M. Pittman & Elizabeth M. Karle

We can face all kinds of situations that cause anxiety. For some of us, that anxiety can be overwhelming and get in the way of living the life we want. Feelings of anxiety are produced in the brain as a response to triggering circumstances, and we can retrain our brains to lessen our anxious responses. Psychologist Catherine M. Pittman and her co-author Elizabeth M. Karle explain this in Rewire Your Anxious Brain.

The authors devote quite a bit of the book to describing the workings of those parts of the brain most involved in our sense of fear and anxiety. These are the amygdala and the cortex.

The amygdala has a lot of control over our fight, flight or freeze response. It is centrally located and well connected in the brain, so it can produce a powerful response before our thinking mind—the cortex—can figure out what is going on. In addition, the amygdala has its own emotional memories, independent of the cortex, so you may have an anxious response to a stimulus you have little conscious awareness of.

A big part of dealing with anxiety is retraining the amygdala. This can be difficult because it involves exposure to situations that produce anxiety. When you face those situations and see that there is no negative impact, or that they were less than you expected and you can handle it (you didn’t die), your amygdala learns that these situation aren’t so threatening and it will stop producing anxious responses. The authors show how you can take this in steps, starting will less anxiety-inducing stimulus and working your way up, but it may be faster to dive into the deep end.

Retraining the amygdala can be aided by relaxation. The book describes several relaxation practices.

Though the amygdala is always involved in producing anxiety, the cortex can be the source of it or can perpetuate it. Retraining the cortex is mainly a matter of changing your thinking. When you recognize anxiety-producing thoughts, you can change what you are thinking. You might use countering thoughts that you prepared for the situation or you might distract yourself by thinking of something altogether different. Mindfulness is a helpful practice in that it helps you to recognize that your thoughts are not necessarily the reality and you can remain peaceful while the thoughts come and go.

The book is a mix of science and how-to aimed and helping anxious people find relief. The authors strongly suggest that you get help, and I think this is a reasonable suggestion. If anxiety is interfering with your life, you will probably benefit from the aid of a professional. This book can help you understand what is happening and what can be done about it, but you may need some help to actually adapt them your own needs and put them into practice.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Pittman, Catherine M., & Elizabeth M. Karle. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic & Worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2015.

The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need by Paul Pearsall

Self-help books are baloney. Psychologist Paul Pearsall didn’t go that far, but he encouraged readers of his book The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need to have a healthy skepticism about the advice and claims of self-help books. Much of the standard advice in the genre is unsupported by research and sometimes just wrong.

Pearsall’s chief criticism of self-help is its focus on the personal and individual. He argued that there is more joy and fulfillment, along with better solutions to our problems, to be found in the interpersonal and relational aspects of life.

Good relationships are largely a matter of the value you place in them. If you want to others to like you, find ways to like them first. To get love, give love. To find a partner, become someone who would be a good partner. Look for the best in others and overlook their faults. Lasting, loving relationships are based on commitment, not passing, emotional passion.

Another important aspect of Pearsall’s perspective is that there is much to be said for accepting life as it is, good and bad, instead of buying into self-help’s striving for the perfect life.

Life is never going to be perfect anyway. There is no reason to make yourself crazy trying. Instead, aim for a good life of deep enjoyment and engagement. Life is chaotic. Remain calm and learn to enjoy the messy reality. Practice mindfulness; accept the facts of life as it is, but do not passively accept the interpretation you may receive from others. You find the great pleasures and great challenges of living in thinking for yourself.

The themes of relationships and mindful acceptance run through all the chapters of the book. In addition to those areas already mentioned, Pearsall address health and work.

If you’ve read a lot of self-help, you may feel burdened by the gap between where you are and where self-help authors say you can be. Pearsall’s book may be an antidote for that. At the very least, reading it may put things in perspective and help you give yourself a break.

Paul Pearsall also wrote

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Pearsall, Paul. The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

The Supergirls by Mike Madrid

Superhero comics have been around for more than 70 year. Women adventurers started to don costumes soon after Superman showed how fun—and lucrative—it could be. Mike Madrid describes the history of these heroines in The Supergirls.

Comic book publishers have often followed fads and borrowed ideas and genres from other media. Even though superheroes originated in comic books, they still often reflected the prevailing views of their times and sometimes lagged other media in responding to changes in culture. This is particularly true for the depiction of superheroines.

Madrid shows how the ups and downs of women in American culture were reflected in the lives of their colorful, pulp counterparts. This follows a roughly decade by decade structure beginning in the 1940s when Wonder Woman appeared to fight oppressors and teach the world about the superiority of love, and the 2000s when relatively mature and complex female characters started to become more common.

It’s interesting to me that the World War II-era superheroines were tougher, more independent and more feminist than most the female characters in the decades that followed. Wonder Woman had an openly feminist agenda and aimed to teach girls to be women who could be strong and gracious, though the comic also reflected some the more peculiar perspectives of their creator and writer William Marston Moulton.

Until recently, women in comics had to be something. The had to be object lessons, girlfriends, hangers on, helpers, cheerleaders, career women, glamorous vixens, virgins, princesses,  husband hunters or whatever else a woman was supposed to be in that era. It took a long time for comics to come around to a woman being a person. Still super-powered and still a woman, but fundamentally a person.

As I read this book, I also thought about my profession. I’ve worked as an engineer for more than 20 years. Women are much more common in engineering than they once were, but there is still a push to attract women to the field. I think we sometimes get derailed by trying to prove that girls can like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as much as boy can.  Of course, they can. We should also think that the appeal of engineering may be in other thing, for both boys and girls. I was interested in technology as a kid (and enjoyed reading the adventures of Iron Man and Mister Fantastic), but I was also interested in justice, health, economic mobility, and the potential of water, power and mobility to make people’s lives better. I’m not that interested in technology for its own sake, but I’m very interested in how technology can lead to solutions that make people healthier, richer, more connected and happier. I think that is something that could be appealing to many girls, especially to girls who read comics.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in.

Madrid, Mike. The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. Exterminating Angels Press, 2009.

The Society for Useful Knowledge by Jonathan Lyons

Colonial America was a place that demanded much of settlers. While many appreciated the value of book learning, many came to America because of their strong opinions about a particular book, their new home required them to focus on practical knowledge for developing land, repairing hard-to-get goods and getting the most out of one’s one labor. In The Society for Useful Knowledge, Jonathan Lyons explores this emphasis on utility and its influence on colonial science and the revolutionary generation.

Ben Franklin is the most significant figure discussed by Lyon. He developed an appreciation early in life for the value of skilled labor, he was a printer himself, and he maintained this even as he became America’s most famous scientist and the new nation’s representative in Europe. Franklin’s influence in the American scientific community was huge even though he spent years in Europe; his connections to European scientists were part of the reason for his influence at home.

Franklin and his compatriots saw a great value in encouraging and disseminating useful information in science and engineering, especially if it might increase the productivity of American agriculture and manufacturing. Franklin founded one of the earliest scientific societies in the colonies and it eventually had many imitators. He also supported the establishment of what eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, though he broke with the other organizers when his emphasis on utility conflicted with their desire to provide an education focused on classical languages in the European mold.

Though Franklin was not trying to establish institutions that would lead to the revolution, he and many who worked with him did it anyway. Franklin and his Quaker neighbors preferred education in useful knowledge and trades. Many colonial scientists were self-taught and learned on their farms and workshops. They saw little value in the classical education popular in Europe that distinguished the aristocracy and upper class from others, but did little in their minds to suit a person for a role of value in the community. Americans needed to get stuff done and they didn’t care much about a person’s pedigree. This opened up opportunities for people of low social status to grow in wealth and influence. (Even in Europe, amateur scientists from many classes were common and it especially leveled the social ground around England’s coffeehouses.)

Franklin’s circle of mechanics and part-time scientists influenced the generation that followed them. Franklin’s personal reputation allowed him to be a leader in that generation who became the founders of the United States. The emphasis on practicality and experience, with the accompanying devaluing of ancient authorities in dead languages, influenced American political thought as well as its science, technology and education. The connections he made as a postmaster and scientific communicator also formed a model for the political influencers of his time.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Lyons, Jonathan. The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and His Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Nearing Home by Billy Graham

In his 90s evangelist Billy Graham wrote about the challenges of aging in Nearing Home. The title is a reference to approaching death and to looking forward to being with God and loved ones who are already with Him in heaven.

That thread runs through the book, Graham’s focus is on living as an old person in this time and this world. Old age can and should be a time of purposeful living as much as any other stage of life. This is because of as much as in spite of the difficulties.

Graham did not shy away from the difficulties of aging. Our bodies lose strength. Our memories weaken. Ache, pains and illnesses beset us. More friends and family we have loved a long time pass away.

Graham encouraged his readers to prepare for aging and death some of this is practical advice for handling affairs in this world. Get your finances in order. Put documents together so your wishes will be know and followed if you are incapacitated. Wisely consider when to retire and what it will mean to leave the work world you are accustomed to for something new, though possibly even more meaningful.

Don’t let old age slip up on you. In addition to preparing for worldly concerns, it is especially important to lay a good foundation in Christ. As Graham put it, “God designs transitions and provides the grace to embrace what follows.”

Older people have important parts to play. Retirement can give you the time to be engaged in your family, church and community in a way you could not have pursued while working full time. You can encourage other because you remember many times when God has demonstrated His love, faithfulness and power in your life. You can set an example of aging with dignity and grace, even if it seems like no one is paying attention.

As I wrote this review of Nearing Home, I heard of the passing of Delores O’Riordan. In enjoyed the music of her band, The Cranberries, at the peak of their popularity about 20 years ago. I was young; I had little money and few responsibilities in those days. I should have enjoyed them more than I did. O’Riordan died at the age of 46; we were the same age. That is too young to die in my opinion.

At any age, we may be nearer to death than we know, for the Christian nearer home. Even if we are still young, or see ourselves as young, it is wise to consider that an in to this life is coming, and many years of aging may come before it. We should consider how to be ready for aging and death and how to leave a legacy, a good example, we will want to leave.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Graham, Billy. Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011.

The Irresistible Introvert by Michaela Chung

Introverts can feed out of place, in especially in the United States and other places where extroverted characteristics are celebrated and introverts are often misunderstood. Michaela Chung considers how introverts can make their own way in the word in her book The Irresistible Introvert.

Introverts are not antisocial or shy. We (yes, I’m an introvert) like people. In comparison to extroverts we tend to be more introspective, needful of solitude and quiet and slow. Some introverts are highly sensitive people (I think I fall into this group, too).

Chung doesn’t say there is a right or wrong way, there is a place for both extroverts and introverts and all the blends in between. Her point is that in extroverted cultures introverts need to find ways to be comfortable being themselves.

That is Chung’s theme: introverts should accept themselves. If you are an introvert, embrace your strengths and stop trying to fit into an extroverted mold. Be kind to yourself. Make room in your life for the quite time, solitude and thinking that you need.

Of course, introverts are social beings. We enjoy connecting with others. We like deep conversation and close friends.

For many of us, this area of connection and communication can become a source of discomfort as our style clashes with the prevailing extroverted style. In the latter part of the book, Chung shifts to showing how introverts can find ways to open up, form friendships and communicate in ways that play to their strengths.

Introverts aren’t likely to work the room the way extroverts do. We can, we just find it exhausting. Chung’s advice often touches on this issue of energy. With a little planning, introverts can manage their energy in social situations. Introverts can be spots of calm and warmth in a crowd that attracts others. They can trade awkwardness and tiredness for self-possession and intriguing allure.

Chung draws frequently on the experiences of introverts including herself. Many of these experiences resonated with me. If you’re an introvert you might enjoy the book simply because you can see someone else understands your experience. You might find some of Chung’s advice helpful, too.

I you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Chung, Michaela. The Irresistible Introvert: Harness the Power of Quiet Charisma in a Loud World. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.

Stan Lee by Bob Batchelor

Stan Lee is the face of comic books to many and has become a sort of celebrity in his more than 70-year long career as a storyteller. He began to hone his image on the college lecture circuit in the 1960s while he created a new type of superhero, typified by the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, in collaboration with artists including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It was a role Lee was ready for; he had been trying out ways to promote comic books and himself since the 1940s.

Bob Batchelor presents Lee’s life in Stan Lee: The Man behind Marvel. Though not a long biography, it starts with Lee’s childhood in New York City and runs through his 95th year, when he is still producing ideas for comics and television.

Lee was present nearly at the beginning of comic books. He started as an assistant to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America. When they moved on after contentions with Timely Comics, a forerunner to Marvel, Lee stepped up to become editor while still a teenager.

Lee was ready to quit comics by the time the 1960s. He craved to work in a respectable field and was tired of chasing trends. The right combination of opportunity and encouragement from his wife pushed Lee to write the kind of comics he would want to read, and it became a sensation.

Though Lee will always be associated with Marvel comics, by the 1980s his focus was shifting to television and film. It was a rough transition for Lee, but he had some success, especially in the production of animated adaptions of Marvel characters that were popular in the 1990s.

Lee has stumbled some in his post-Marvel career, notably the debacle of new media company Stan Lee Media. He seems to have recovered somewhat with POW! Entertainment.

Lee has detractors, which Batchelor acknowledges. Batchelor doesn’t refute those detractors, but his take on Lee is overall very positive. Lee appears to be someone who tries not to be tied down by his past, neither dwelling on his failures nor being content with many successes.

Lee was a central figure in creating some of the most popular characters and stories in the world. Well into his 90s, he is still working and coming up with ideas that find their way into print, television and the Internet.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Batchelor, Bob. Stan Lee: The Man behind Marvel. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Black History Month Links 2017

The Numerati by Stephen Baker

Hari Seldon used mathematics to study psychology and society. He developed the science of psychohistory, which he would use to predict future social, economic and political trends. This was utter science fiction when I read Foundation in high school, and doubly so in the 1940s when Isaac Asimov was writing and publishing the stories that would eventually become the novel. (By the way, psychohistory now refers to the application of methods from psychoanalysis to the study of history and social sciences.)

We’ve come a long way. Computers are much more powerful and many of us carry a networked computer around in our pockets much of the day. The computers record a lot of information about us, especially how we use them, and are crunching the numbers so people can anticipate our wants and influence our behaviors.

Stephen Baker gives us a glimpse into that world in his book The Numerati. “Numerati” is Baker’s term for the mathematicians, computer scientists and other math-literate scientists and professionals who are trying to use numbers and equations to describe and predict human behavior.

This type of analysis has applications in many areas. As you might expect, stores, marketers and advertisers are using it to try to sell us stuff. Not only are they trying to persuade us, they are segmenting the market to try to get the highest prices they can for their products from each buyer (and spend less time dealing with die-hard bargain shoppers).

Similarly, politicians are using this type of analysis to reach swing voters. Companies are trying to get the most out of workers.  Health insurance companies are seeking to minimize exposures to risk. Law enforcement is getting all the information it can lay hands on to try to find the terrorist lurking in our midst (finding a needle in a haystack may be easier).

That sounds sinister, and Baker has reservations about the benefits of us sharing so much information, but there are opportunities for those of us who are not numerati, or can’t afford a staff of mathematicians to do our bidding. The numbers that show which workers are most productive could be turned around to help us show our value and potential win a raise or promotion. The numbers that show minute changes in our behavior might help us diagnose and treat diseases earlier and less expensively, or help us live more fully with chronic diseases. They might even match us with a soul mate.

Though science and technology have advanced in the decade since this book was published, the data sciences Baker described are still new. Some of the things we see being done with computers on television or film are still new concepts that don’t work nearly as quickly or accurately as depicted. However, people are working every day to make these technologies better.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Baker, Stephen. The Numerati. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.