Sunday, September 25, 2011

Side Effects by Woody Allen

Once again, Allen succeeds at blending high-brow intelligent set-ups with banal punch lines and a straight delivery to amuse and delight. The style and short comedic parts are similar to Getting Even and Without Feathers, perhaps not as humourous as the former but similar in funniness to the latter. That said, it is hard to say because I enjoyed them all. It's been wonderful to discover such gems.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Seven Years of Highly Defective People - Scott Adams' Guided Tour of the Evolution of Dilbert

The title pretty much says it all and if still uncertain of the content, the back of the book states "Scott Adams tells where the characters came from, why they do the things they do, and just what the heck he was thinking during the creative process."  Often, I've found that I enjoy the daily Dilbert strips more than the collections*, but I really like getting inside the creative process so this was a great book.
Recommended for Dilbert fans and those who are interested in creative process and/or how comics strips turn out the way they do.
*One collection I read earlier in the year was absolutely hilarious, likely because it focused on the inept manager.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Code of the Woosters, Jeeves to the Rescue by P.G. Wodehouse (read by J. Cecil)

Yet again, another delightful adventure of Jeeves and Wooster by Wodehouse and read by the always delightful and talented Jonathan Cecil. It was a decent story, amusing and worthwhile, with some great parts (I shan't say much else to avoid spoilers).
There have been better tales, but it's still good stuff!

Kant: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

To say the writings of Immanuel Kant are complicated stuff is a significant understatement. Known for a duty-bound existence, charismatic lectures, and changing the course of philosophy with his Critiques of Pure and Practical Reason, his moral categorical imperative, his thoughts on beauty and many other things, Kant is a force to be reckoned with. I have thus far been happy to avoid them but I had often felt a deficit in understanding from my second hand encounters. Thus the impetus for reading Scruton's primer. In short, it's good stuff. In longer I first must say that while I read every word (and re-read many of them), I cannot do much evaluative justice as I don’t have the background to assess if: a) he covered all the bases; b) he did so appropriately; and c) he gave the correct weighting to disagreements and other interpretations. It seemed so given that even an admirer of Kant, Scruton does criticize and specifically state there many interpretative disagreements, but I don’t know.
Metaphysics and morality are tricky topics, let alone when the writings are hundreds of years old in a different language containing many terms invented or redefined by the author making the argument. Who doesn't love philosophy?
Here is the example sentence that overtly displays why people don't read this stuff (and this is Scruton's helpful summary): "[Transcendental Idealism] implies that the laws of the understanding, laid down in the subjective deduction, are the same as the a priori truths established in the objective deduction.”
Obscure? Yes. Obstuse? I don’t think so. Yet… so much new stuff is hard to assimilate without repeated references to previously defined words and phrases.
At least it seems Kant and I are interested in same questions: What can you know and how can you know it? What is a self, how might selves act in the world? Do we have freedom or must we just act as if we do?
Morally, shouldn’t we try to have a universal perspective that should appeal to all rational beings? Who deserves more credit: The person who is naturally inclined to be ‘moral’ or the one who has to struggle to do so?  As well, how are we to describe and analyze the different selves within us, given the frequent occurrences of part of us desiring something while another part or self imposes our duty to restrain?
That said, much of Kant's writing appears to rest on many assumptions about how the mind works and even hopes of how the world might be. Thus he can slip God in there and some morality and freedom. That said, one must give him credit for trying to use reason regarding religion and eschewing any anthropomorphization or simplistic following of dogma. That Kant highly valued the aesethetic is interesting, but how he supposes much of experience can occur without concepts is muddy. What is doing the thinking?  I often think of what great minds of the past would think if they had the current information provided by the modern scientific method.
Once again, I’m dependent on Scruton’s interpretation but I found a passage of his near the end helpful:
“There is no description of the world that can free itself from the reference to experience. Although the world that we know is not our creation, nor merely a synopsis of our perspective, it cannot be known except from the point of view which is ours. All attempts to break through the limits imposed by experience end in self-contradiction, and although we may have intimations of a ‘transcendental’ knowledge, that knowledge can never be ours. These intimations are confined to moral life and aesthetic experience, and while they tell us, in a sense, what we really are, they can be translated into words only to speak unintelligibly. Philosophy, which describes the limits of knowledge, is always tempted to transcend them.”
Happily, I am more informed about the work of Immanuel Kant. Happier still, I feel no compunction (duty even) to go through hours of mental and emotional strain to read the Critiques. For both those reasons, this was a great book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Memory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan K. Foster

While this work will likely serve as a useful introduction to most, it turns out that my formal education in psychology actually taught me something so almost none of the content was novel to me.
The book covers the basics of the history and development of how we have learned about memory, studies by Ebbinghaus and Baddeley, episodic, implicit, declarative, short term, long term, working memory and the like (but I thought it odd Aplysia wasn’t mentioned at all, with Kandel’s pioneering work on sensitization and habituation).
The key take away: try to understand memory as a process, or even more significantly, as a series of processes. Memory is not one thing, but many different activities working together, overlapping and combining with each other.
Should you read it? If you haven’t had much exposure, give it a try. If you have, you needn’t bother.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Without Feathers by Woody Allen

 Much like Getting Even this collection of short works from a few decades ago is overflowing with 'smart-funny.' Very entertaining and intelligent, with ingenious material and amusing deadpan. While both excellent, I think I like Getting Even more due to some philosophically oriented jokes. That said, Without Feathers' has The Whore of Mensa (where a man solicits not sex, but intellectual conversation, from a call-girl), which is famous for a reason.
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Getting Even by Woody Allen

Hilarious and brilliant. It is one of the funniest books I've finished in quite some time.* Getting Even is one of three early collections of Woody Allen's short humorous articles, 17 in total, which appeared in various magazines decades ago. Some of the material may seem dated, but I did not find that to be the case.

Allen excels at "smart-funny." Sometimes I'd laugh out loud but more often I would think to myself "that's so funny" after some wry and wise remark or line. Granted, his dialogues and observations involving philosophy or various intellectual arcana may not appeal to all, but it was fantastic for me.

Faves were the philosophical stuff, Hitler's Barber, the chess game by post and the Rabbi. I certainly have a new-found respect for Allen's comedic prowess.

Highly recommended.
*Get the audio with his narration if you can find it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar

Quantum is an excellent historical overview of the development of quantum theory and the personalities and people involved in addition to providing useful explanations of complicated concepts involved in quantum physics.
The book is generally accessible but it would likely be beneficial to have read a quantum primer, prior to reading Quantum, to get more out of the work (and perhaps the rest of this brief review).
At the heart of the book, and emphasized in the title, is the debate between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein about the nature of (quantum) reality. Bohr did not really believe in a quantum world per se, but frame quantum theory as an abstract description of reality - particles do not have properties until they are examined and forced to have properties (i.e., the Copenhagen interpretation).  Bohr had his theory drive his philosophical position.
Alternatively, Einstein had a deep-seated belief in a causal, observer-independent reality. As such, he disliked quantum mechanics and sought to undermine it in some way. He first attempted to demonstrate it was inconsistent through ingenious thought experiments that taxed Bohr and friends for days, weeks or months. When that failed, Einstein attempted to show that quantum mechanics was not a full description of reality (i.e., Einstein would concede it was 'correct' but not that it was 'complete').
While Quantum centers around Bohr and Einstein, it provides sufficient detail on the usual suspects such that one learns of great rivalries, like between Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and even conflict within individuals as Bohr was initially reluctant to follow quantum theory down its rabbit hole of peculiarities, but then became one its greatest proponents.
What else? Maxwell, Planck, Born, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Dirac, EPR paper, Bell's Theorem, Von Neumann, Young's double-slit, particle-wave duality, entanglement vs. the speed of light (locality violations?), Germany and German scientists affected by the wars, the difficulty of a demarcation line between the micro and macro worlds, how it took painstaking years of math and hard work to figure any of this out and how everything is so extremely complicated. It was fascinating to think of all these exceedingly brilliant people disagreeing with each other, and further, to hear of one having a mathematical insight that the others could not have had (e.g., the maths Schrödinger and Dirac were critical). 
Additionally, I appreciated learning that the Copenhagen interpretation became dogma for decades, likely because Bohr and his students spread out over the world and advanced their interpretation (and many younger physicists thought the matter was settled and it was waste of time to revisit philosophical musing that are not easily resolved). Yet, the newer generation doesn't feel the same as the pioneers and the Copenhagen interpretation doesn't have the same majority support. What does? Perhaps no one interpretation but several and many simply saying they do not know or are unsure. The point: one of the most verified and useful theories of science does not resist on a generally agreed upon interpretation of reality. Isn't that interesting?
Anyone with a curiousity in the historical, scientific, philosophical and personal issues surrounding quantum theory will enjoy this book.
Highly recommended.