Monthly Archives: February 2015

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

what if

I confess. While I read Randall Monroe’s comic xkcd regularly, I also Google it regularly to see if someone will explain it to me when I don’t get it. The comic is billed as “A webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language
” and while I get sarcasm and language readily enough, the math jokes sometimes fly right over my head. This book is the same – some of the “what ifs” were easily understandable (Monroe is a good explainer, and its amazing how much his stick figure drawings help) but some made me put the book down and reach for my iPad to look stuff up.

The premise of this book is that people write to Monroe all the time and ask him weird questions, which he tries to answer using actual math and science. This book is a collection of his favorite answers. It’s not the kind of book you necessarily want to plow through in order (though you certainly could, no one will stop you) – I randomly skipped around the subjects that sounded best first. The chapter on the actual force Yoda wields, the one on how high you would have to go before dropping a steak to cook it on reentry,  and the one on the odds of finding your soul mate make this book worth the price all by themselves, and the rest are just gravy.

What reads like this book? The webcomic, of course, along with the book version of xkcd. Maybe The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios. If you want MORE “what if” fun after you’re done with the book, visit the web version here:




Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand


I have been meaning to read this book since I got a free Kindle sample of the first chapter…oh, years ago now. But I didn’t get to it until this month, when my book club decided to try it. Of course because of the movie, no copies were available, so I waited on hold forever and a day and scored the audiobook at the last possible second.

I’m not sure how this book would read in my head, but initially I found the audiobook difficult to listen to. Since it essentially relates the events of Louis Zamperini’s life, and the author doesn’t try to tell a story so much as just get all the facts out there, it’s pretty dry at first. But after a chapter or two, I got so invested in Louie’s story that I found myself making excuses to drive somewhere so I could keep listening. One of the things I found most interesting was the information about the Japanese army’s exploits prior to Pearl Harbor. I’m not sure if it is my fault or the fault of my American History teachers, but I remember learning a bazillion details about how World War II began and spread through Europe, but in my mind the Japanese just sort of burst onto the scene by attacking Pearl Harbor and – poof! – they were in the war. But that isn’t what happened at all – they had already worked their way through Asia conquering people right and left along the way, the Americans were just next. Needless to say I need to read more Pacific-oriented WWII history to get the bigger picture.

Anyway. Even if Zamperini had never spent 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific and then 2 years in various war camps, his childhood and his running career would have made him interesting enough to fill a book. The thought of an American teenager one step away from juvenile deliquency deciding one day to attempt to qualify for the Olympics – without sponsors or a lifetime of coaching – was completely bizarre to me, but in Louie’s case, it worked. And the story of his trip to the Berlin Olympics was hilarious – can you see Olympic athletes today sharing an overseas trip on a cramped boat with no exercise space and showing up at the Olympics several weeks out of condition? But that’s how they did it, and despite overeating and gaining many pounds on the voyage, Louie ran in the Olympics anyway. It’s a great story.

But then the war starts, Louie joins the Air Force, and it’s all pretty scary after that. I hadn’t realized how deadly it was to be in World War II – my father’s stories of the war always seem relatively benign. Of course he didn’t enlist until 1943, and worked in a POW camp in the Philippines, which I suppose was pretty safe from bombing that late in the war. But bomber crews rarely lasted for longer than one or two attacks, and Louie’s crew is no exception. They survive their first, but damage their plane so badly and suffer so many injuries that their whole crew gets rearranged before their fateful “rescue mission” kills everyone but Louie and 2 others. And nothing my father ever told me about his POW camp (where he essentially took the prisoners from their bunks to meals, then to the fields for the day, and then took them back to their bunks at night) could prepare me for what happens to Louie in the Japanese camps.

During our discussion, one of my book club members said that she felt bad because she read the whole book, with all of its torture and hardships, and didn’t shed a tear until the part about the duck (the POWs get attached to a stray duck that hangs around their camp – I can’t even tell you what happens to the poor thing, it’s atrocious). I understood this reaction, though – the book is so full of horrible things being done to humans that if you stopped to really feel empathy for one of the people in the story, you would have to consider how awful it was for all of the others, and you’d be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of their collective horror. But somehow, it’s bearable to cry for an innocent duck, because there is only one of him. Anyway. If you want to keep any of your faith in the basic goodness of people, skip ahead a few chapters when you get to the duck part.

As for the cruelty and inhumanity, it IS hard to take – but what I found most awful was learning what happened to a lot of the men after the war was over. Louis Zamperini is an exception – most of the men who survived the POW camps did not go on to have decent postwar lives. Even Louie spent many years trying to drink himself to death before he found religion, turned his life around and forgave his captors. Frankly, I don’t know how he did it – forgiving must have been hard, and living a Christian life of service after being forced to serve others must have been daunting. But he and his brother truly did spend the rest of their postwar lives working with kids and making people’s lives better. I know I am an skeptic and tend to knock religion, but in this man’s case, Christianity really does what it is supposed to. It helps him get his life together, and leads him to help others. I can’t argue with success.

By the end, when Louie carries the Olympic torch through Nagano in 1988 near the site of his former camp, cheered on by millions of Japanese spectators, I defy you not to feel a little better about humanity.

The Word Exchange: A Novel by Alena Graedon

WORD Jacket

Paranoid much? Do you love words, and fear that the world is full of people who use them badly? Are you convinced that ebooks and downloaded music will destroy our current model of “owning” creative works? This book is for you.

Anana (rhymes with banana but means pineapple, she explains) works for her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Doug longs for the days when people emailed or spoke face to face, and fears that Anana’s generation is losing the ability to use the written word. He disapproves of Anana’s use of her meme, a device rather like a smartphone but which integrates itself with the user over time so that it can anticipate your needs and wants. For example, it will call a taxi for you just as you decide to go somewhere, or order you takeout if you begin to feel hungry. The more you use your meme, the better it gets at doing what you want it to do before you can even ask. The most insidious thing the memes do, in Doug’s opinion, is to link the user with the Word Exchange – a service that will automatically define a word for you if you hear or read it and cannot recall what it means. For an automatically deducted fee per word, of course.

Anana loves and respects her father, but that doesn’t stop her from using the technology he warns her against anyway – until she begins noticing the effects that it is having on her memory and on the communications she has with her friends. When Doug disappears, Anana begins hunting for him – only to discover that North American Dictionary of the English Language has been sold (to the company that owns the Word Exchange, naturally) and all printed copies are being destroyed.  It turns out that Doug wasn’t just being a paranoid Luddite – a shadowy group really is hatching a diabolical plot to infect users with “word flu” – an infection that causes them to lose the ability to remember the words they need to communicate at all, rendering them fully dependent on the Word Exchange…which now owns all of the words and can make them mean whatever they want. Conspiracies abound, everyone she loves is in danger, and she can’t count on anyone once they start to muddle their words.

All in all, it’s an engaging read. I didn’t really like Anana at first – at the start she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is depressed and whiny – but as the story progresses, she becomes stronger and more determined. I like the fact that this woman of average intelligence manages to get through a horrible ordeal despite the fact that evil geniuses all around her appear to hold all of the cards.

I discovered this book by accident when looking for Max Barry’s Lexicon, which someone told me was similar. I have since found it on a lot of “If you liked Lexicon…” lists, so maybe I’ll try Barry’s next. As for other read-alikes, it is kind of like George Orwell’s 1984 in the sense that a powerful entity can make the news the public hears mean whatever it wants.