Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Review: The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier

The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SATThe Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book true to its name - uncovers some of the facts about SAT exam taken by 3 million students world wide. Author is a single mom with 2 kids. She works in book publishing industry and is an avid and a speed reader. She wanted to inspire her elder son Ethan by taking the SAT exam herself. A good SAT score is also a pre-requisite to getting scholarship. Being a single mom, author decides it was important that her son does well in SAT exam and be able to get some scholarship and admission to a good college. So she starts the perfect score project and she sets out to write a book on her experiences of taking the SAT exam in the year 2011. SAT exams are held 7 times in a year. She takes all 7 of those exams starting in January 2011. In the process she discovers other moms who were like her and did not consider it an oddity that she was taking SAT exam at the age of 47, just so she can inspire and work with her son to take it one day and do well in his exam. She reads several of the prep books for SAT exam on the market - from Kaplan (which was the earliest of its kind to come in the market), Princeton Review (which came next) and others. She concludes that the original material by the college board was the only good source to prepare with. The other prep books cannot get the same licensed material for the passages in the exam as college board can so they generally get some free material published ages ago (as such material won't have copyright restrictions) and this makes the exams in the prep books harder than the actual SAT exam. She also emphasizes on the use of paper and pencil to write the exam so one can practice with filling the circles (SAT exams are still conducted on paper as of this writing). Author tries different tutors for critical reading, grammar and math. She did up her score with all her attempts but still could not get a perfect score of 800 in any of the sections. She mentions that it is vain to invest too much time in preparing for essay writing as there is no guarantee if that will fetch a 12 marks instead of more commonly gotten 9 or 10. Instead students should focus more on math and answering critical reading comprehension questions correctly. Likewise she also mentions that preparing for vocabulary with the most frequently asked words for SAT should suffice and one will be wise to not put too much time in trying to learn a dictionary or learn advanced words or get vocabulary building books. There is not too much to be gained from such pursuits. SAT exams generally test the knowledge of vocabulary from the limited set of oft repeated words that appeared in the previous SAT exams. Another thing she mentions was her son became motivated to do well in his SAT exam after having visited college campus in the Spring of his Junior year. But on hindsight author feels it was too late and she should have taken her son earlier to visit college campuses. Another thing author learned was that skill at Math is not built overnight. In her final attempt she could get 560 out of 800 in math. She could not get beyond it as not that she did not know the answers but she was not fast enough in math. She says that Kumon is a worthwhile approach to practice math from younger years so one can build good speed with good understanding of math. Also she thinks the timed tests in Kumon are also great help in preparing students for SAT exam. She also mentions of some important prep websites that she discovered: - by Erica Meltzer who was also author's tutor. - by author's friend Catherine Johnson who was going to co-author the book and is also a mom like the author who took SAT herself. - a good site to practice math - this is author's website for this book.

I liked the interview between author and her son towards the end of the book. Author asks her son if he was at all inspired by her efforts and to which her son does say that he was and it meant a lot to him to have his mother work with him and be able to guide him during his preparations. Ethan wrote the exam twice and could up his score by 30 marks in his final attempt. This book is recommended for parents who want to learn about the exam so they can help their kids in the right time. Remember, higher SAT score also means good college and good scholarship.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an account of author's practice of stoicism as a philosophy for a good life. He presents different facets of stoicism as taught or practiced by the ancient greek and roman philosophers. Seneca, Zeno, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are some of the renowned practitioners of stoicism that have been cited in the book. It talks about how we can deal with negative emotions like anger, jealousy, consumerism, desires, repulsion from annoying company, lust, the fear of death and of old age or ill health etc.

It talks about the practice of negative visualizations in life (for example, thinking if what we love today in our life may go away, die or perish the next moment), and this will enable us to give more attention to the things we cherish in the present (now) when we are fortunate to have it/them. For example, our kids who we love but are too busy in our lives to give our due attention at times. This practice of negative visualization will shape our minds to not suffer as much from the loss of our beloved ones and in the mean time also let us cherish the moments with them we are blessed to have in the present.

The goal of a stoic is to look for inner peace or tranquility. If the inner peace is lost due some act then that act is not worth doing. A good read.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got to know about this book after having seen the trailer of the eponymous upcoming movie by Steven Spielberg. This book belongs to the cyber punk genre, my first book of its kind and though I have hardly played much of any video game or watched the 80’s movies that this book mentions of, i still enjoyed the story. Much like JK Rowling, author Ernest Cline has woven a new world of virtual reality. In the story, James Halliday is a creator of a virtual reality system called OASIS that much of the human world plays as it gives them an avenue to forget about the grim realities of the then real-world and become anything they wanted to be and yet remain anonymous in the virtual world. Wade Watts is a teenager who is an orphan and spends almost all of his time in OASIS, even going to a school within OASIS on a planet called Ludis. OASIS is made of several such worlds and Ludis is one of the several worlds. After Halliday dies his video announcement is released to the world where he declares that after him the person that inherits the authority over OASIS and his vast wealth will be the one who is able to find an Easter egg first that he had hidden in OASIS. That starts a hunt for the egg world wide.

The author describes the technology and usage of virtual reality in a way that seems feasible in the near future. He imagines how one can be connected to the virtual world and experience the virtual reality more vividly through the glasses that can draw the images directly on the retina that renders the virtual world so clearly that even real world looks blurry in comparison. He talks about how one experiences the weight of the things in he virtual world through haptic sensors all over their body and even have olfactory sensors to generate various kinds of smells for objects seen in the virtual world - like if one smells a rose flower in the virtual world then in the real world the olfactory sensors will produce the scent of rose flower thus making the experience more real. He goes on to explain several such experiences that one can have in virtual reality like going to school in OASIS and may be that could become a reality in our near future like a university offering their classes in VR. Recommended reading material.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Review: Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Einstein: His Life and UniverseEinstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book describes the life and times of Albert Einstein, who was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. He was born in Germany and lived until the age of 75. He married Maleiva while studying in Zurich. They had a daughter who Einstein could never see and was given up for adoption. Later on they had 2 sons of whom Hans Albert Einstein was the elder one and Edward the younger. Edward was not mentally fit and had to spend most part of his life in an asylum. Einstein was not living with his sons and had married his cousin Elsa and lived in Berlin .. maleiva used to take care of their sons.. Einstein did not divorce her until much later and when he did he did so with the significant sum that he got from his nobel prize. He moved to the US at the time when Hitler was coming to power in Germany .. he chose to stay till the end of his life for almost 22 years in Princeton as a lecturer for physics and mathematics ..

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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book is about the HeLa cells and the story of the person from whose malignant tumor these immortal cells originated. They were first of their kind as most cells would die in the culture medium soon after they were separated from the human body. The HeLa cells were revolutionary as at that time in 1950s scientists wanted such immortal cells to experiment with and did not know how to make cells immortal (which they do now). So HeLa (first 2 letters from the donor's first and last name) cells proved to be a boon at that time and saved several lives indirectly by helping scientists do research on them and come up with vaccines for diseases like Polio and several others. The cells were grown in the culture medium and sold for money to different labs all over the world. The book talks about the ethical issues that this led to and the rights of the patients and their kith and kin's over the profits that were made in the process. Henrietta Lacks was from rural Virginia. She developed Cervical cancer and was being treated in Johns Hopkins university hospital in Baltimore. The doctors took some part of her tumor tissues and gave to one research lab where it was found that the cells were unique in that they survived longer than any previously known cell line. It was labeled as HeLa. Scientists all over the world got access to the HeLa cells for their research and most of them did not even think about who was the actual person behind those cells. There were several articles written about HeLa but none could go as deep as this book does. Rebecca Skloot dedicated herself to write the story of Henrietta and her family. She managed to get an interview with Henrietta's daughter Debra and they became good friends in the process as Debra whole-heartedly wanted to help and in the process get to learn more about her mother and her younger sister's fate. The plight of the family was such that they did not comprehend why Henrietta's cells were famous. They were poor and wanted to get some benefit out of their mother's famous cells that researchers did not take permission from Henrietta's family to use for research and did not provide any share in the profits that were made out of celling their mother's cells. They felt being wronged. And that is the ethical issue that this book debates about if a human needs to be informed that their tissue (a discarded part of their body) will be made use of in some kind of research, will they have any rights to the profits made from the research if there is any, will it hinder the progress of science if there are too many laws defined about the use of tissues and royalties to be paid to the donors, etc.. As it stands today, there is no law requiring consent of patient about use of their tissues by researchers and there is no right that the patients can exercise on the profits made in the process. A nice book on the subject and first one on the topic of cell culture and cell immortality for me.

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Book Review: Origin (Robert Langdon, #5) by Dan Brown

Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Brown is one of my favorite authors. In this book Robert Langdon is invited to attend a presentation by a celebrity geek Edmond Kirsch who was his student at Harward. During the presentation Edmond gets assassinated and Robert together with Ambra Vidal, the museum curator and also Edmond's friend, goes on a mission to show Edmond's presentation to the world. Edmond had created a super intelligent virtual assistant that could converse like a human would and was run by a new kind of Quantum super computer which was significantly better than Google's D-Wave and was called E-Wave. Edmond named his assistant Winston after Winston Churchill. Winston comes to the aid of Robert and Ambra to help them first find the password to unlock Edmond's presentation which Edmond told Robert was a sentence from a poem of 47 characters. With this vague information and his ingenious intuition to figure things out Robert Langdon first gets the password and then to the Edmond's lab and run Edmond's presentation to millions of viewers all across the world. The presentation was about 2 quintessential questions of mankind:
1. Where do we come from? - About our origin
2. Where are we going? - About the future
Edmond had found that given sufficient time the experiment to create life from chemicals in a test tube in the lab can be successful. This experiment was first conducted by UC San Diego professors in their lab and after 50 years they could not see sufficient signs of amino acid formation in the test tube and so the experiment was shelved. But Edmond realized that the time span of 50 years is nothings compared to how long it actually took life to form on earth since the beginning of earth's formation to the time when first unicellular protozoa came into existence. So he built a virtual time machine which was a data model for his super computer to make predictions with. He modeled the conditions of early days of earth with a test tube worth of chemicals just like the physical experiment and let the super computer generate the data of how things evolve with respect to time. This way he could go way ahead in time than mere 50 years and could see the formation of amino acid to unicellular to multi cellular organisms and to larger animal kind. He could also predict how the future will look like with technology becoming part of the human body.

The story line is not as interesting as other Robert Langdon books but it is still easy and fun to read.

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Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to know of this book from Bill Gates' review and he recommended this book so vehemently that i decided i will give this book a try. I did not read it but listened to the MP3 CD while commuting between home and work. The author Steven Pinker has done a very thorough research on the topic of how humanity has become more civilized during the course of history from being barbarians and savages to gradually more compassionate humans that we are today. He has put forth the findings from history based on what influenced humans to be more compassionate and less violent than we ever were in the past. Bill Gates puts it nicely and i will quote it from his review: "Many people are surprised to hear that we live in a far less violent time, because you see and read about tons of violence in the news. But Pinker argues convincingly that it’s our awareness and sensitivity to violence that have increased, not violence itself, which is way down."

Following are the changes that enabled humans to become more civilized or less violent during the course of history:
1. Agriculture - enabled humans to settle down in communities
2. Empathy for other humans increased as means of spreading ideas and knowledge increased with the advent of printing press and awareness of the lives and plights of the people in distant parts of the world increased
3. Better governance and the rule of law - countries where the governments are more stable and are able to enforce the rule of law in the society tend to have lesser violence.

The book also details how gruesome the past has been where humans came up with innovative ways to torture other humans, witch hunting practices, and other social evils like Sati-pratha in India, were prevalent. Those details are the evidence that author presents to support his argument that the time in which we live in is way less violent than the past.

This is a long book and i liked having listened to the audio book. I will like to read it now and take notes on my kindle.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry (Aaron Falk, #1)The Dry by Jane Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author Jane Harper has written a beautiful mystery book which is unputdownable. The plot is fast paced enough and the characters in the prose come to life with the excellent writing.

Aaron Falk, a cop working in Melbourne, is visiting his native village to attend the funeral of his friend Luke Hadler who is thought to have killed his family and took his own life but Luke’s parents believe there is more to it and wanted Aaron’s help in figuring out the real reason. There is also a past incident where Aaron and his dad were forced to move out of their village 20 yrs ago as they were suspects in Aaron’s friend Ellie’s murder. Aaron reluctantly tries investigating the case first but as he gets deeper in it he extends his visit and tries to get the root of the mystery. The characters are not too many and they fit nicely in the plot.

Will look forward to reading the next book by the author.

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Book Review: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I completed listening to the audio book The Wright Brothers today. It is an excellent biography of the two famous brothers who invented the flying machine. Wilbur was the elder one of the 3 siblings followed by 3 yrs younger to him Orville and the youngest one their sister Catherine. They lost their mother at a very young age and were brought up by their father who was a bishop at Dayton Ohio. The brothers had a bicycle shop in Dayton and they used to make and repair bikes. They were avid readers and after a reading a book on aviation by a French author Orville got interested in making their own flying machine. They were not educated in any reputed institution of the day but just by the dint of their hard work and ingenuity and perseverance they managed to invent a flying machine. At that time prof Langley was commissioned to research and create a flying machine but he failed miserably and the government sponsored project that he was working on drew harsh criticism for the money and time wasted in the attempt. Compared to $70000 that Langley’s failed project costed over a period of a decade the Wright brothers only spent $1000 of their own money to get a working model ready. They chose Kittyhawk in North Carolina as their site for flying machine experiments where they kept improving their machine to perfection and got it working around 1902. Wilbur went to France and gave a successful demonstration of their machine. They were able to demo the operation and train French pilots and got their first orders from French government. Back at home they demonstrated the first flight over Statue of Liberty at New York City. There were a million people that came to watch the spectacle. The brothers decided to not ride together in case if an accident befalls them then the surviving one will carry on the project. They established their company called the Wright company. Wilbur died at the age of 45 in the year 1914. Orville lived until 1948. There is a memorial at Kittyhawk and one in France to honor the two brothers. They never married and the book does not talk about what became of their company after Orville died. Several universities including Yale and Harvard conferred honorary degrees to the two brothers.

The invention of the flying machine was one of the greatest achievements of mankind. To make a machine fly independent of whether there was a favorable wind or not and to be able to control its direction while in flight was a challenge that many were trying to solve. Many lives were lost in the pursuit. To defy the pull of gravity and soar like a bird has been a dream cherished by many. What the Wright brothers achieved proves that man can surmount any problem with discipline and hard work. The author has a done a noble job in penning down the lives of the brothers who gave to us the magic and convenience of flight. What a leap of progress it was for mankind.

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Book Review: The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier

The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier My rating: 5 of 5 stars A book true to its name - uncovers...