Sunday, May 29, 2011

Explain Pain by Butler, Moseley and Sunyata

An very informative and accessible introduction to the nature of the body's pain system and how different pains are processed throughout.You'll read about pain receptors, nerve transmissions, neurons firing and the social/environmental/psychological aspects of pain.Finally, it has some excellent advice for how to manage pain and the effects on one's life.
A good introductory work.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

A decent overview of both the content and interpretation of several of the key players and ideas in ancient philosophy (defined as the ideas of the Greeks instead of Eastern thinkers). In some way, every book is an opportunity to realize one’s ignorance; this one even more so as that was Socrates’ claims to fame.
You’ll read about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans and many others, on issues of happiness, epistemology, logic, nature and the scope of inquiry. A cautionary theme was that we should be wary of assuming words meant the same thing to us now as they did to the Greeks then (how could they, being English words?), but more important is that there was disagreement among the Greeks as well. To illustrate, ‘happiness’ was not seen as a temporary experience, but something that could only be evaluated after a life lived. Similarly, ‘physics’ and ‘sceptics’ had different meanings, and 'virtue’ was a general way of being, not a practice to cultivate one thing.  Additionally, and unsurprisingly, the popular perception of the Sophists, Epicurians and Stoics is not entirely accurate.
Annas does a good job discussing how a suggested interpretation of a work biases the reading of it. For example, if you have read Plato’s Republic were you told it was political philosophy or philosophical history or ethics or… ? Further, people and groups project onto texts and there can be interpretative battles over the centuries. Such disagreement is useful, but if one interpretation becomes dominant and then become institutionalized, new readers may end up with unfounded ideas about what a text is. She uses differing views on The Republic to support this point.
Annas knows her stuff, but I didn’t like the less-than-clear-cut structure of the work. Also, I went into this work seeking more historical knowledge than ideas that are currently thought to be valid, but even with that mindset I still found myself thinking, “but this is just a bunch of thoughts- where’s the science?” Granted, many questions and ideas discussed will not be arbitrated by data, but there are still contributions to be made by science. For example, science has much to say regarding what emotions are, how brains function, and our evolutionary past. But I do know that every book can't be all things.
Other tidbits:
-Interesting to hear about how Aristotle couldn’t imagine a Darwinian process as he didn’t have the time scales and thought things immutable, but I’d like to think that, given his brilliance, he would have come around if he had had access to the evidence.
-Epicurus went against teleology, which was a difficult position to hold as it was deemed implausible and the world was thought to be created for man.
-It does seem that Plato systematized things, making philosophy an object of inquiry. Previously, discussion and debate was mainly ad hominem, and refuting and criticizing instead of proposing.
-Propositional logic beyond Aristotle existed long before Frege and Russell (re)discovered it. Such are accidents of history.
-Proposing a dichotomy between Western rationalism and Eastern mysticism creates a false contrast. However, it is common because many Eastern philosopher's emphasized the differences with Western thinking even though there was diversity within Eastern ideas and, as such, a similarity to many Western perspectives.
Recommended for those curious for a decent primer. 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

 A masterpiece. I do not often use such language for two main reasons: (a) I rarely think a work deserves such a descriptor, and (b) I believe managing expectations is key to enjoying experiences, so I don’t like to raise them too high. Yet, I think Slaughterhouse-Five deserves it. I’m a huge Vonnegut fan and I’ve often thought that I was drawn more to his ideological bent and observations than his prose. In this work, he excels in both domains. The writing is still his simple style, but the flow of the work, as well as the frequency of interesting situations or quotable lines, brings a richness and sophistication beyond most of his books. For example, chapter five has something noteworthy on almost every page.
I realize I have gone this far in the review without even describing the basic plot, as I had inadvertently assumed that you have either heard of it or already read the novel. In short, it is about the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany in WWII and the absurdity of war. Beyond that, I would say it is about perspective and appreciating moments as they happen. I shan't say more about the story to avoid spoiling the experience, but I will say that I have a minor structural/presentation issue: the first chapter should be labelled 'preface.'
Vonnegut fans will enjoy seeing some usual suspects appear (Trout, Rosewater, W. Campbell Jr.) and any reader will find it hard not to adopt the refrain of “So it goes.”
There is a reason this book is taught in schools.
Highly recommended.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Treat Your Own Back by Robin McKenzie

This is a great little book (under 75pg) that will provide a basic understanding of acute lower back issues and offer exercises to treat them. The book usefully reinforces advice that we all know but infrequently follow: posture is important, lift carefully, don’t sit for long periods with poor back support…etc. It also provides basic exercises to get the spine back to a preferred ‘natural’ curve. While useful in many cases, this is not for those with severe or chronic problems. If interested, you can probably just Google the McKenzie method and find material that way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jeeves and the Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse

Another delightful adventure of English gentlemen Bertie Wooster brought to you by Wodehouse and master audio-presenter J. Cecil. This is the 6th Wodehouse for me and it was an enjoyable listen, as I had missed the style and Cecil’s voices. It wasn’t as good as The Inimitable Jeeves or some of the others, but it was worthwhile all the same. The problem with this particular work was the sheer number of relationship dynamics, both overlapping and duplicative, as some characters were pretending to be others. Intermittent confusion aside, there were several good laughs, and I found the latter half to be the more enjoyable chunk.
Recommended for Wodehouse/(Cecil) fans.

Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law

An excellent introduction to humanism, primarily as it contrasts with standard religious beliefs. Law concisely and smartly covers a brief history, the arguments for existence of God, the arguments against existence of God, religious vs. humanist morality, the meaning of life, and other related social and cultural issues. Humanism is rigorous on the philosophical arguments and logical implications of different beliefs as well as related complexities, despite the brevity of the work.
That said, it wasn’t quite what I was seeking; most of the content was well-worn territory given my other readings, so there was some disappointment. I wanted more about humanism itself, a history of actions and people and its changes over time. The work was not without merit as I appreciated having some nuance added to my argumentative repertoire. For example, Law provides a deeper examination of the ‘Evil God’ hypothesis and contrasts it with the refutations the religious often use to support the notion of an Omnipotent, Omni-benevolent God. By showing one could make a (still-flawed) case either way, he highlights the problematic nature of the entire argument. Further, the idea of not being able to be good without God dismisses hundreds of millions of Asian people who are not atheists proper but who have a conception of God that similarly disqualifies them from typical assumptions of Christian Goodness.
Law was right to point out the whole ‘meaning of life’ question is often a category error (i.e., is ‘life’ such a thing that can have ‘meaning’) but I thought his treatment could have been better.
This would be a great introduction for those with less of a background or perhaps even as a gift to that religious friend who wonders how the non-religious can be moral or why they may not believe there is a god.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

A great book! As this was a re-read, I can say that I thought it was great last time and I still do now. One would be hard pressed to find a more readable and comprehensive overview of the field of social psychology as it relates to happiness. Haidt occasionally presents an over-simplified view of things, but more complexity can be found in the references.
The main analogy used throughout the book is that of an elephant and a rider. The elephant represents our subconscious disposition and inclinations, while the rider is our conscious mind. The rider tries so hard to control the elephant, but can manage only little change. This fact should bring peace and a realization that we only have so much control.
As our “elephant” is a creation of evolution mixed with culture, it often has different ideas of how things should be than our “rider” and this leads to a conflicted self, one that unjustly criticizes others and finds it hard to not pursue less-fulfilling positional goods (bigger houses, fancier cars…etc.)
Haidt does not promote apathy regarding one’s development of greater happiness, but meditation, cognitive-behavioural therapy or medication. Additionally, it seems that people’s happiness is improved by having less disturbing noise, having a shorter commute to work, having greater autonomy in work/life, minimal shame in appearance and action, and an extended social network.
We all have a genetic set-point, with some generally happy people winning the cortical lottery. The rest of us should try to change the things we can, make some effort at changing the less mobile structural restraints, and attempt to accept our dispositional nature.
Highly recommended.