The Year in Review (2016)


"The World is a lot Poorer without You": a tribute to people we lost in 2016...

 

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen Italian writer Umberto Eco Classical music composer Pierre Boulez Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami US philosopher Hilary Putnam
 
Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid Jazz composer Paul Bley Computer scientist Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email Classical music composer Einojuhani Rautavaara Polish film director Andrzej Wajda
 
Classical music composer Peter Marxwell Davies Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz Rock composer Paul Kantner Classical music composer Karel Husa British poet Geoffrey Hill
 
Avantgarde composer Pauline Oliveros Italian playwright Dario Fo Dutch football player Johan Cruyff Rock singer Alan Vega of duo Suicide Jazz composer Gato Barbieri
 
Rock keyboardist Keith Emerson Astronomer Vera Rubin Italian filmmaker Ettore Scola US boxer Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali US writer Edgar-Lawrence Doctorow
 
Sufi singer Amjad Sabri Avantgarde composer Tony Conrad Irish novelist William Trevor Computer scientist Marvin Minsky Classical music conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt
 
Classical music conductor Neville Marriner Hindustani composer Veena Sahasrabuddhe Computer scientist Wesley Clark, who built the first neural network Rock producer George Martin Rock composer David Bowie
 
Rock guitarist Greg Lake Rock singer Gilli Smyth Pop composer Prince Indian tabla player Shankar Ghosh Chinese opera star Mei Baojiu
 
Congolese musician Papa Wemba Urdu poet Nida Fazli US painter Ellsworth Kelly US playwright Edward Albee Muhammad Abdelaziz, leader of Morocco's occupied territory West Sahara
 
US film director Michael Cimino Pakistani philanthropist AbdulSattar Edhi Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail (first Arab Nobel science winner) Funk-rock keyboardist Bernie Worrell Indian sarangi player Sabri Khan
 
Antiwar activist Tom Hayden Junko Tabei, the first woman to conquer Everest Computer scientist Jay Forrester, who led the development of the pioneering "Whirlwind" computer

Recommended Books:
  • Jonathon Keats: "You Belong to the Universe". The most original interpretaton of Buckminster Fuller's intellectual legacy.
  • Charles Fernyhough: "The Voices Within". The history and science of how we talk to ourselves
  • Nick Spencer: "The Evolution of the West". It discusses how Christianity has shaped Western values
  • William Perry: "My Journey at the Nuclear Brink". Perry believes that the risk of a nuclear attack has never been greater. He tells the story of how humankind avoided self-annihilation by accident during the Cuban crisis of the 1960s. He also shows how Silicon Valley was originally funded by the military establishment to create more deadly weapons.
  • Peter Frankopan: "The Silk Roads - a New History of the World".
  • Jane Mayer: "Dark Money". Oil billionaires Charles and David Koch control the political elections of the USA.
  • David Shambaugh: "China's Future"
  • Nancy Jo Sales: American Girls - Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers"
  • Peggy Orenstein: "Girls & Sex - Navigating the Complicated New Landscape"
  • Peter Wilson: "The Holy Roman Empire"
  • Frank Dikotter: "The Cultural Revolution - A People's History, 1962-1976"
  • Elizabeth Hinton: "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime - The Making of Mass Incarceration in America". Particularly terrifying is the fact that some prisons have been offsourced to private companies, companies that have a vested interest in having prisoners commit crimes again and be sentenced again to prison terms, companies whose business would be hurt of they helped convicts become honest citizens.
  • Mark Kurlansky: "Paper". A history of paper across continents and ages.
  • Roger Crowley: "Conquerors - How Portugal Forged the first Global Empire". Portugal gets forgotten easily, but it predates and easily outdoes the British Empire in ferocity of conquest, pillaging and slave trading.
  • Jules Howard: "Death on Earth". Physics and thermodynamics of death, with discussions of longevity, suicide, mourning, and even decomposition.
  • Stuart Clark: "The Unknown Universe". Best book of the year on astrophysics, a long list of unsolved mysteries about the universe.
  • Greg Milner: "Pinpoint - How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds". Widespread use of GPS affects our cognitive-mapping abilities.
  • Robert Gordon: "The Rise and Fall of American Growth". A comprehensive history of the golden age of US economic growth: a host of new technologies and new industries (electrical, chemical, telephone, automobile, radio, television, petroleum, gas and electronics) were born in a relatively short period and fueled the US economy of the 20th century.
  • Ed Yong: "I Contain Multitudes" an accessible introduction to the science of the microbes that live in our body, without which we could not survive one day.
  • Philip Ball: "The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China".
  • Eric Kandell: "Reductionism in Art and Brain Science - Bridging the Two Cultures" - A neuroscientist analyzes the experience of seeing art
  • Carl Safina: "Beyond Words - What Animals Think and Feel"
  • John Pomfret: "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom - America and China, 1776 to the Present". This is not a great book but it is a great idea: to write the history of 250 years of US-China relations. It is not a good book because it is so parochial, starting with the subtitle ("America?" It's called "USA", not "America": America is a continent stretching from Canada to Chile, but arrogant and ignorant yankees often refer to themselves as "America" as if the rest of the continent didn't exist).

Recent Tech Books
  • Recommended:
    • Nicholas Carr: "Utopia Is Creepy and other Provocations" (2016)
    • Alec Ross: "The Industries of the Future"
    • George Church and Ed Regis: "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves"
    • Piero Scaruffi: "Intelligence is not Artificial" (2016 edition). Sorry for the vanity, but someone had to write a book to demystify Artificial Intelligence.
  • Modestly interesting:
    • Justin Peters: "The Idealist - Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet"
    • Marc Goodman: "Future Crimes". On preventing cybercrime.
    • Pagan Kennedy: "Inventology - How we Dream Up Things That Change the World"
    • Adam Grant: "Originals - How Non-Conformists Move the World"
    • Douglas Rushkoff: "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus - How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity"
    • John Naughton: "From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg"
    • Nick Bostrom: "Superintelligence" (click to read my review)
    • Joi Ito and Jeff Howe: "Whiplash - How to Survive Our Faster Future". Ito is the director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, and this is really an introduction to the philosophy and work at the Media Lab. The future of organization is bottom-up, not top-down (of course, Marxists too believed that and the result were the most top-down of all political organizations, the Soviet Union and Maos China). Since they depend on government funding (that comes from taxpayers), they wisely project optimism about the technologies of the future.
  • Mostly a waste of time:
    • Amy Webb: "The Signals are Talking - Why Todays Fringe is Tomorrows Mainstream". Webb is the founder of the Future Today Institute, and, like most futurists, has not studied history. Good luck to the entrepreneurs and executives who listen to her advice. You can read for free my and judge for yourself if she did a good job or not.
    • Laurence Scott: "The Four-Dimensional Human - Ways of Being in the Digital World". This is someone who obviously missed the digital revolution, but older readers (who also missed the digital revolution) will be fascinated by his superficial analyses. The book is worty reading, though, because of its numerous references outside tech, from architecture to theater. You won't find anything here about the real innovations of our age (whether the hackerspace or 3D printing, blockchain or gene therapy), and certainly none of the real heroes (Scott only mentions the billionaires) but a lot of erudite writing. By the end of the book you realize that, if you remove all the elegant metaphors, everything he wrote already applied to the world before the Internet.
    • Robin Hanson: "The Age of Em - Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth". Yet another book about "the robots are coming the robots are coming". Today publishers are as eager to tell you about the future of robots as they were unwilling to do so ten years ago: the psychological effect of the Great Recession?
    • Kevin Kelly: "The Inevitable". He has written much better books.
    • George Zarkadakis: "In Our Own Image - Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of Artificial Intelligence". Oh pppplease yet another book about "the robots are coming, the robots are coming".
    • Walter Isaacson: "The Innovators". I just don't seem to like the way he writes biographies of "innovators" and his selection of innovators.
    • Matt Ridley: "The Evolution of Everything" (click to read my review)
  • Lots of hype but definitely a waste of time:
  • See my Reviews of Scientific Books
  • See my Reviews of Non-scientific Books
  • My survey of the technology of the future

Top news in Science and Technology:
  • The team of Henry Markram, founding director of the Blue Brain Project at the EPFL in Switzerland used a mathematical technique to model how the brain processes information. The flow of information can be represented with directed graphs, but this flattens the picture of what happens in the brain. While graph theory has been used to analyze network topology, Markram's team collaborated with two mathematicians (Kathryn Hess from EPFL and Ran Levi from Aberdeen University) who employed algebraic topology to analyze those directed graphs, as pioneered by Francesco Vaccarino at the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI) in Italy. The result is a representation that shows a multi-dimensional structure. The brain does not think in three dimensions but in as many as eleven dimensions. (Journal of Frontiers in Neuroscience)
  • The first observation of gravitational waves, almost exactly 100 years after Einstein predicted them
  • NASA discovers that there are (at least) ten times more galaxies than previously estimated, so at least 2 trillion galaxies (each with billions of stars like the Sun)
  • Russia's hacking of the US elections
  • Chris Monroe's team at the University of Maryland created a time crystal
  • Johannes Knolle's team at Cambridge Univ for the first time observed the splitting of electrons
  • The Gotthard rail link, the world's longest rail tunnel, opened in Switzerland

Best articles of 2016:
Best films of 2016:
Best jazz albums of 2016:
Heroes of the year:
  • The whistleblower who published the "Panama papers"
  • Environmental activists Berta Caceres and Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, both murdered in Honduras
  • US senator John McCain, who called Vladimir Putin "a thug, a bully, and a murderer," adding that "anyone who describes him as anything else is lying."
  • Richard Heede, who has shown that just 90 companies are responsible for most of climate change and has been persecuted by Texas fascist Lamar Smith and the oil lobby (article in Science Magazine)

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