Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics by Peter Singer

Excellent, accessible and usefully structured by mixing narrative with argument, and then restating implications/conclusions again.
Main things: Are omissions of action that different than overt actions?  By what metric should we judge 'being alive' and which capacities should be valued. As usual, comparisons to animals are initially surprising but logical coherent (if still emotionally problematic).
Highly recommended.

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor by William Langewiesche

Decent and informative, but disjointed and more narrative the relay of factual content or structured argument.
Main thing: it would be pretty hard to make and use nukes.
A newer version seems to have a more appropriate subtitle: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking
Only partially recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Years of Words

Below are books completed from the June solstice, 2008 to October, 2011 (click the entry for a review)
* = recommended
** = highly recommended

Plato in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern
Violent Globalisms by Cornelia Beyer
Musicophilia by Oliver Sachs
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
Brain Droppings and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops by George Carlin
*Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
It's Not News, It's Fark by Drew Curtis
*Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
**An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski & Triage
Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward J. Larson

*The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil
The Daily Show and Philosophy by Jason Holt (Ed.)
Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein
Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern
Nietzsche in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
**Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett
**Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
**Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner
Primates and Philosophers by de Waal et al.

**The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
**Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins
**Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Herman & Chomsky
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
*Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner
Aristotle in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern
Asylum by Andre Alexis
*Humanitarianism in Question by Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss (Eds)
*Chomsky- Foucault Debate
The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us by Robyn Meredith 

Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
*Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner
*Wampeteres, Foma & Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut
Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
Descartes in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern
Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
**Elbow Room by Daniel C. Dennett
*Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
**Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Payback by Margaret Atwood
*The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
**From Poverty to Power by Oxfam (Duncan Green)
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
*Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
*Gödel’s Proof by Ernest Nagel & James Newman
Flatland by A Square (Edwin Abbot)
**Genome by Matt Ridley
*Daniel Dennett by Matthew Elton
Entanglement by Amir Aczel
*Neuromancer by William Gibson
Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography by Janet Browne
*On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
*Kinds of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

*Wall and Piece by Banksy
*Watchmen by Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist), and John Higgins (colourist)
**The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer
**Wired for War by P.W. Singer
*The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery
Lush Life by Richard Price
Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
**The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
*Feeling Pain and Being in Pain by Nikola Grahek

Issac Newton by James Gleick
Outcast by José Latour
**Critical Thinking by William Hughes
*Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
*Saviors and Survivors by Mahmood Mamdani
*The Lesser Evil by Michael Ignatieff
WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer
Truth: A Guide by Simon Blackburn
*The End of Overeating by David Kessler
**Bonk by Mary Roach

Intimacy by Jean-Paul Sartre
*Stiff by Mary Roach
Carpe Diem by Harry Mount
The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci
The Great Crash of 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
The Mind of the Market by Michael Shermer
*American Raj by Eric Margolis
*Afghanistan and Canada by Lucia Kowaluk and Stephen Staples (Eds.)
Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer
*The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
I Drink for a Reason by David Cross
SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
The Rights Revolution by Michael Ignatieff
*The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama
*The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester
Like Shaking Hands With God (with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer)
Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut
Alexander the Great and his Time by Agnes Savill
*Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton
The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel
Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer
**Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Amnesty International)
*Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day by Peter J. Bentley
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
*Why Your World is About to get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubins
TimeQuake by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

*Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
*CBC 1967 Massey Lectures by Martin Luther King, Jr.
*Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett (again)
*Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (part of my Independent study of Vietnam. Try ctrl+f and search the title)
**The Vietnam Wars by Marilyn Young (part of my Independent study of Vietnam. Try ctrl+f and search the title)
**The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Absolutely Small by Michael Fayer
**Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand
*Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
*Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini

What Intelligence Tests Miss by Keith E. Stanovich
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton
*The Public Domain by James Boyle
*How to Watch TV News by Neil Postman & Steven Powers
**The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse 
* Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
The Bro Code by Barney Stinson and Matt Khun
Player One: What Is To Become of Us by Douglas Coupland (2010 Massey Lectures)
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris 
** Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut 
* Propaganda and Control of the Public Mind by Noam Chomsky 
* What We Say Goes by Noam Chomsky
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

** War by Sebastian Junger 
* One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse 
** Earth (the book) by The Daily Show Writers 
* xkcd: volume 0 by Randall Munroe 
** LOGICOMIX by Doxiadis et al.
Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore 
* The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy by Yves Engler
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse 
** Future Babble by Dan Gardner
** Filthy Lucre by Joseph Heath
Moral Minds by Marc Hauser 
* Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut
Our Inner Ape by Frans De Waal 
* Marx for Beginners by Rius
Half-empty by David Raikoff 
** Socialism: A Very Brieft Introduction by Michael Newman 
* Peter Singer Under Fire - Edited by Jeffrey A. Schaler
The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook
Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

*Solar by Ian McEwan 
** Beloved by Toni Morrison 
* Marx’s Das Kapital – A Biography by Francis Wheen
African History: A Very Short Introduction by John Parker and Richard Rathbone
Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk 
** Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling
Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy 
* Hopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich 
** The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law
Jeeves and the Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse
Treat Your Own Back by Robin McKenzie 
** Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas
Explain Pain by Butler, Moseley and Sunyata
Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Clapham 
** More Than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel
** The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee 
* And Another Thing by Eoin Cofler

It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth 
** Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo 
* Bossypants by Tina Fey
* Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Cornel West
The Company of Strangers by Paul Seabright
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse 
** The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci
* Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown 
** Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar

** Getting Even by Woody Allen
** Without Feathers by Woody Allen
Memory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan K. Foster 
* Kant: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton
The Code of the Woosters, Jeeves to the Rescue by P.G. Wodehouse (read by J. Cecil)
Seven Years of Highly Defective People - Scott Adams' Guided Tour of the Evolution of Dilbert
* Side Effects by Woody Allen
* Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen
** Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts
* Inside Jokes by Hurley, Dennett and Adams, Jr.

Not worth finishing
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
Djibouti by Elmore Leonard
Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body by Kim Toffoletti

Inside Jokes by Hurley, Dennett and Adams, Jr.

An enjoyable work of popular but sophisticated science that, as stated in the subtitle, uses 'humor to reverse-engineer the mind.' As usual, Dennett and Co. present a theory sketch, combining and extending other theories, offering their own insights and providing testable hypotheses and challenges to researchers. Given this is a book about cognitive science and humour, if you're into both topics, you'll like the book, if just the former, then you'll probably enjoy the fresh angle, and if just the latter, then you might find this a bit too detailed. 

Inside Jokes is full of jokes, some hilarious, many not, but all used to illustrate their analyses of humour and why we have it. Their many thesis is that humour (or mirth) is a result of the realization of a false belief and this process is 'paid for' in evolutionary terms as the fitness advantage rewarded to the organism that (generally) maintains more accurate belief structures. Secondly, there is nothing intrinsically funny of humourous in stimuli, but in the brain of the person who is amused or laughing. They draw the parallel to the lack of intrinsic colour in the objects around you as well as in your head when you 'see' colour, as the perception/experience is a combination of outside stimuli being coded/decoded in a certain way by your brain.
Although I would recommend the work, I'll reiterate the aforementioned caveat that it might be a bit thick and not the easiest read if you haven't had much prior exposure to cognitive science/psychology.

Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts

What a great book!  No mere Freakonomics or Gladwell style coverage of interesting discoveries, Watts presents an excellent defence of sociology and how its many topics are critically important to public policy discussions.  I often thought those types of works could use more theory foundation so I was pleased to see this in Everything is Obvious. The premise of the book is that most people think a lot of sociological findings are obvious when in fact they are not, and further, that they only seem this way due to psychological biases we have. For example, hindsight bias (related to creeping determinism) is the tendency to see events that have already happened as more predictable than before they occurred. People claim that x happening was obvious, when it never was. Similarly, plausible stories can often be spun to explain a phenomenon, but the problem is that equally plausible stories can be spun to explain the opposite. By only focusing on the actual outcome, it is forgotten how important actual evidence is to arbitrate between competing narratives.

The personal highlight was the analysis surrounding how we try to understand anything, from past and present to future. For example, to comprehend history we like (need?) to input narratives but this involves omission and working backwards from knowledge of the outcome the seemingly overly important events. Additionally, luck plays a large role in many events, but it is often unacknowledged by most. Everything is Obvious presents a deeper discussion than just 'omission and luck matter' so do not be put off by my cursory coverage.

Highly recommended. 

Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen

Similar to the the three previous Woody Allen works I've reviewed in the past month (with each review becoming shorter than the last), it is an amusing collection of quirky perspectives and sketches that blend banality with absurdity. Not as good as the first two but there are definitely some gems in here. I was quite impressed with the one using physics terminology near the end. All in all, I have a new respect for Allen - a brilliant comedian.