Book Review: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely


Author: Dan Ariely
Title: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty
Narrator: Simon Jones
Publication Info: Harper Collins, 2012
ISBN: 9780062209320
Summary/Review:

This book is a psychological and sociological investigation into lying, with the emphasis on the ways in which all humans more or less lie and cheat throughout their whole lives.  Ariely notes that while big scandals like say Enron get headlines for their irrational amount of dishonesty, that these types of problems grow from the small actions of many people making cost-benefit analysis rather than high-level conspiracy.  Interesting anecdotes about lying are backed-up by tests and studies.  To be honest, I’ve allowed too much time from listening to this audiobook to writing about, so I’m now fuzzy on the details.  But I do recall it is a fascinating book entertainingly performed by Simon Jones.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel


Author: Alison Bechdel
Title: Are You My Mother? 
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)
ISBN: 9780618982509

Previously Read By the Same Author: Fun Home

Summary/Review:  The follow-up to Fun Home, Bechdel’s graphic biography of her father, this book deals with Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother. It’s actually about a lot more than that as center to the story is the process of Bechdel writing the story about her father and how that was troubling to her mother. Psychology is also central to the narrative as Bechdel details decades of sessions with her therapists and the book is heavily illustrated with quotes from the writing of the psychologist Donald Winnicot. My favorite aspect of Fun Home was how Bechdel worked in literary allusions into her story and that is at play here, most fantastically in she compares Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with the plexiglass dome in Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book. The psychology stuff is rather heavy and kind of weighs down the story that it makes it less perfect than Fun Home for me, but nevertheless an excellent examination of the human condition.

Recommended BooksTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Rating: ***

Book Review: Young Children and Spirituality by Barbara Kimes Myers


Author: Barbara Kimes Myers
Title: Young Children and Spirituality
Publication Info: New York : Routledge, 1997.
ISBN: 0415916550

Summary/Review:

This book disappointed me mostly because it was not what I expected – namely a book that would help me as a parent understand my child’s spiritual needs.  This book is more of a psychology and childhood development book.  Kimes Myers has a broad definition of spirituality within the realms of family life, community, school and multicularism.  It’s an interesting book, but not being in the author’s intended audience I didn’t find it easy to comprehend or apply to real life.

Rating: **

Book Review: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks


Musicophilia (2007) by Oliver Sacks tells the stories of people with neurological conditions that involve music, and a study of the human brain and music in general.  The book relies largely on case studies of Sacks’ patients and others in the annals of medical literature, and more uniquely on Sacks’ own experiences.  Cases include people who have musical hallucinations more powerful and persistent than the ordinary earworm,  people with physical and neurological disorders who excel at music, and the unique role of music in therapy.

I found the book repetitive both within itself and to the previous Sacks’ book I’ve read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It’s as if Sacks just keeps piling on examples of the same or similar disorders without really coming to a conclusion or a big picture.  I guess I expected more from this book, and Sacks certainly has fascinating stories to share, but I think he needs a ghost writer.

Musicophilia unabridged library edition by Oliver Sacks. Books on Tape (2007), Audio CD

Book Review: Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger


Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) (2008) by Jeffrey Kluger is my first foray into reviewing a Advance Reading Copy of a book by of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Or maybe not since I saw this book last week in the window at Harvard Book Store.  At any rate, this is a brand new book and it’s a popular science exploration of the idea of complexity and simplicity or how simple things can more complicated than they seem, and complex things more simple.

Kluger refers to the work that’s being done in the study of complexity at places like the Santa Fe Institute.  Then he dedicates each chapter to the concept of simplexity in every day life in areas such as markets, crowd psychology, social structure, business, death, sports, fear, childhood development, liguistics, technology, public health, and the arts.  Particularly nice is his appreciation that hard-working blue color labor is overworked and underpaid. It’s hard to say whether or not Kluger sticks with his thesis, or just writes about a bunch of interesting things but either way it is a fun, breezy read that provokes thoughts and ideas.

I was struck by how many books I’ve read recently shared some basic concepts with this book.  I suppose at the very least Simplexity can be a good summary of a lot of recent literature, but better than that it can be a jumping off point to reading these other books.  Unfortunately, Simplexity does not have a bibliography (or even an index!) so here related books I’d reccomend, some of which were mentioned in the text:

Books I’ve read previously by this author:

Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) by Jeffrey Kluger. Hyperion (2008), Hardcover, 336 pages

Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki


The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) by James Surowiecki challenges the notion that experts know the best answer to everything. Instead, large groups of people often can come closer to the correct answers in problems whether it be the average guess of the weight of a pig, or the location of a wrecked submarine in the ocean. Surowiecki applies his theory through a series of entertaining anecdotes related to law, elections, intelligence, gambling, traffic, scientific collaboration, small groups, corporations, markets, and democracy.

The author breaks down three types of crowd knowledge: cognition, coordination and cooperation. He also finds four keys required for crowds to be wise: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. The lack of aggregation in particular is often the reason why crowd knowledge is seen as lacking by some and furthering a move toward centralization, such as the inability of US intelligence agencies to stop terrorist attacks on American soil (because they had not aggregated knowledge from diverse sources).

Surowiecki is particularly fond of free markets, and illustrates their advantages in way that can be convincing to a left-leaning “anticapitalist” like myself. Particularly interesting is the Iowa Electronic Markets which have been highly accurate in predicting everything from Presidential elections to Academy Awards because the participants are betting on outcomes not selecting preferences.

It was a very interesting book and interesting follow-up to reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. Of course, I can’t read a book without learning about other books and these books mentioned in the text look interesting:

  • William H. White, City
  • Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery by John E. Mueller

Favorite Passages

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, if figures out how to use mechanisms — like market prices, or intelligent voting systems — to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible. – p. xix

What [Henry] Oldenburg grasped was the peculiar character of knowledge, which does not, unlike other commodities, get used up as it is consumed and which can be therefore spread widely without losing its value. If anything, in fact, the more a piece of knowledge becomes available, the more valuable it potentially becomes, because of the wider array of possible uses for it. – p. 166-67

Author : Surowiecki, James, 1967-
Title : The wisdom of crowds : why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations / James Surowiecki.
Edition : 1st ed.
Published : New York : Doubleday : 2004.

Book Review: Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis


Several years ago my friends Mike and Annie lent me a time-travel adventure novel called The Doomsday Book (1992) by Connie Willis.  I enjoyed the book (it helped me get through a kidney stone for starters) and have been smitten with Willis’ brand of science fiction ever since.  A typical Willis novel generally involves some psychological phenomenon with a number of people obsessively trying to unravel it’s mystery.  This is true for fads in Belwether (1996), near-death experiencs in Passage (2002), and psychics in Inside Job (2005).  The Doomsday Book and its sort of sequel To Say Nothing of the Dog merely have people obsessing about time travel and the predicaments they find themselves in as a result (and remain my first and second favorite Willis books respectively). A weakness of these books are that all the characters seem equally obsessed and serve only to present new information and twists and turns rather than be fleshed out as individuals.  Willis makes up for this with a good sense of suspense, humor, and well-researched scientific and historical facts.

My fondness for Willis and Abraham Lincoln made reading Lincoln’s Dreams (1987) a natural choice.  The topic of obsession here is naturally dreams: do they rehash one’s day, foresee the future, or are they your body’s way of telling something. The book could easily be called Lee’s Dreams as a central character Annie appears to be revisiting the Civil War through the Confederate general’s dreams.  The title comes from another character, a Shelby Foote-like author, who obsesses over the dreams Lincoln had foreshadowing his assassination.  Despite a nice hodge-podge of dream psychology, history (with great historical tales about Lee’s horse Trigger Traveller), and the familiar setting of Washington and Virginia, this book didn’t hit the mark to me.  The characters are so subservient to plot and the plot so subservient to a nice pat theory of dreams that there really is no story here at all.  Then again, it’s brain candy, but a least of an intelligent kind.

Book Review: The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn


Another book about babies. This one is thankfully free of gory details. Instead The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, & Patricia K. Kuhl examines developmental psychology in children. It turns out that babies are a lot like scientists in the ways they interact with their new world and test assumptions. Or maybe scientists are like babies because it is in our earliest years that we first develop our capacity for learning.

The authors examine how babies recognize other people and themselves, differentiate objects, and develop language. They also have instinctive means to train adults and older children to help in their development. This book is a lot of fun and a fascinating read.

Favorite Passages:

It may be some comfort to know that these toddlers don’t really want to drive us crazy, they just want to understand how we work. The tears that follow the blowup at the end of a terrible-twos confrontation are genuine. The terrible twos reflects a genuine clash between children’s need to understand other people and their need to live happily with them. Experimenting with conflict may be necessary if you want to understand what people will do, but it’s also dangerous. The terrible twos show how powerful and deep-seated the learning drive is in these young children. With these two-year olds, as with scientists, finding the truth is more than a profession — it’s a passion. And, as with scientists, that passion may sometimes make them sacrifice domestic happiness. – p. 38.

The two most successful examples of human learning turn out to be quite similar. Children and scientists are the best learners in the world, and they both operate in very similar, even identical ways, ways that are unlike even our best computers. They never start from scratch; instead, they modify and change what they already know to gain new knowledge. But they are also never permanently dogmatic — the things they know (or think they know) are always open to further revision.

While the idea that scientists are like children might seem surprising at first, it helps make sense of some otherwise puzzling facts. Scientists, after all, have the same brains as the rest of us. And science is convincing because, at some level, all of us can recognize the value of explaining what goes on around us and predicting what will happen in the future. … Why would we have such powerful learning abilities if we never even used them back in the Pleistocene? …

Our answer is that these abilities evolved for the use of babies and young children. – p. 156-7

Reviews:
BrainConnection by Anne Pycha

NEA by
Marcia D’Arcangelo and Andrew Meltzoff.
Science Blog

Book Review: The Secret Family


The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours inside the Mysterious Worlds of Our Minds and Bodies by David Bodanis spends one day in the life of a typical suburban family – mother, father, teenage daughter, 10-year old son, and baby. The family wakes up, eats breakfast, putter around the house, visit the mall, return home and go to bed. Bodanis focuses on all the details of well, just about everything. Much of this is microscopic — what microbes are crawling around the shafts of our eyebrows, what poison gases are welling up under the sink, what the hell are they putting in our food (big thing with Bodanis that gets huge gross-out points), and what germs are floating around the shopping mall. Bodanis also focuses on our human behavior, the things we do without even realizing it, and what qualities are predictors for that behavior. Technology, how it works, and how we work with it is also one of the many things explicated. Often Bodanis brings in brilliant if esoteric historical connections that are reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections. Each page is filled with fascinating details and this book is well worth the read for a quick insight into everyday life.

Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is a collection of clinical case studies about people with neurological disorders. My one quibble with this book is Sacks’ writing style. He makes every patient speak like the same person in kind of Mayberry “gosh, golly” tone and frustratingly often makes references to chapters later in the book.

That being said, this book is a fascinating study of the things the brain can and cannot do and how that can shape a person’s perception of the world. Examples include:

  • The titular man who mistook his wife for a hat who cannot perceive objects in his immediate vicinity and be able to pick out features but not identify the whole.
  • A former sailor whose memories are frozen in 1945, unable to remember things that happen to him even a few moments later.
  • A woman unable to have awareness of her own body, or a loss of proprioception.
  • A man who cannot recognize his own leg as being part of his body and thus considers it a severed leg laying in his bed (and he falls out of bed each time he tries to throw away the “severed” leg).
  • Similarly, a blind woman with cerebral palsy has an agnosia that makes her think her hands are worthless lumps of clay. Sacks is able to nudge her into using her hands and eventually she becomes a sculptor.
  • A man whose sense of balance is disrupted by Parkinson’s disease and thus he always leans to one side and is not even aware of it. He develops his own special eyeglasses with a spirit level that he can see to adjust how he stands and walks.
  • A woman with visual hemi-inattention who is unable to see anything on her left, or for that matter be aware that there is a left. She has to rotate all the way around in her chair to even see all the food on her plate.
  • Witty Ticcy Ray, a man with Tourette’s who finds that Haldol treatment helps him manage a job during the work week but choses to not take medication on the weekends since it hampers his spontaneity and creativity.
  • A woman who constantly hears the music of her Irish childhood playing loudly, and other cases of people with a radio in their head.
  • A man who killed his girlfriend under the influence of PCP, has no memory of the event, an organic amnesia. After a severe head energy all the memories of the murder return in vivid detail.
  • The visions of Hildegard of Bingen and migraine hallucinations.
  • The son of a Metropolitan Opera Singer is a musical savant, able to recall Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians by heart even though he could not read.
  • Savant twins able to perform mental calculations of numbers and calendar dates with a special attention to numbers that are prime.
  • An autistic man able to draw images with great detail to the particulars.

The book is over 20 years old and seems a bit dated (especially in terms of language we’d consider insensitive today, even if they were medical terms), but I enjoyed learning about the losses and gains that can happen within the brain.