Recent book reviews – May 2010

Read on for reviews of the five books below, including the possible discovery of an historical artifact and a fun music listening test!

Title: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within
Author: Edward R. Tufte
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 2.5 stars

Continuing my recent Tufte streak, I enjoyed this 31-page essay on the ills of PowerPoint as a presentation medium.  Already sharing these beliefs and having now read some of Tufte’s other, more substantial works though, I didn’t learn much from the book.  The most interesting bit for me was Tufte’s explanation of the unfortunate role PowerPoint played NASA’s poor decisions regarding the Challenger space shuttle.

Title: Priceless, The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)
Author: William Poundstone
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 3 stars

Priceless is a fun tour through research in behavioral economics showing how dramatically our decisions are affected by subtle stimuli.  Poundstone clearly explains diverse research revolving around the Ultimatum Game, where one participant is tasked with splitting an amount of money and offering part of it to another participant.  What percentages in the split are acceptable to the participants vary dramatically depending on what numbers have been recently seen, the context of the question, and the gender of the participants.  The book is a collection of 57 short chapters, an arrangement which I found refreshing at first, but a bit stuttering after a while.  Having recently enjoyed Ariely’s work on behavioral economics, when reading Priceless I found myself wanting the author to provide a bit more guidance to the overarching themes and take-away messages.  Take this criticism with scepticism though, as I can imagine another reader will find Poundstone’s skillful writing and respectful tone in all ways delightful.

Title: Brain Rules
Author: John Medina
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 2.5 stars

Shoji turned me on to Brain Rules.  It’s a fun read and John Medina’s gentle explanations are easy to follow.  There are moments when I felt coddled by the author; perhaps due to Medina’s attempts to maintain interest through “relevant anecdotes” and frequently changing topics.  The organization of the book and overall style reflect the lessons it espouses:  concepts are presented in digestible chunks, repetition is used extensively, meaning is presented before details.

For all this, the book feels a little insubstantial to me… the way a magazine article feels compared to one of Tufte’s books.  I wonder if this reveals a trained bias in me; that good art is somewhat “stand-offish”.

Interestingly, my copy of the book has a hand-written inscription on the first blank leaf of the book.  It has been painted over with white-out (I assume by LAPL) but looking at the page through light from the back reveals the following.  Could it really be Jared Diamond’s signed copy?!

(click pic for larger version)

To Jared:

I am just one of the
legions of your fans
who have been
shaped by your
thinking and goodness
of heart.

All the best!

John Medina

Title: The Ethics of Authenticity
Author: Charles Taylor
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 1.5 stars

I’m embarrassed to say that I only read the first chapter of this book.  The description on the jacket is compelling:

“At the heart of the modern malaise… is the notion of authenticity, of self-fulfilment, which seems to render ineffective the whole tradition of common values and social commitment.  Though Taylor recognizes the dangers associated with modernity’s drive toward self realization, he is not as quick as others to dismiss it.  He calls for a freeze on cultural pessimism.”

As a white male, relatively-wealthy, self-employed taiko player, I undoubtedly live a privileged life.  With all the freedom I have, I feel a lot of pressure to live responsibly, and this book seemed to touch on relevant principles.  Unfortunately, the three “malaises about modernity” that the book tackles are not worries I share personally.  “The first fear is about what we might call a loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons.”  I have the opposite sensibility; that the world is more peaceful and caring than it has ever been.  “The second concerns the eclipse of ends, in face of rampant instrumental reason… for instance, the ways the demands of economic growth are used to justify very unequal distributions of wealth and income…”  I don’t believe that reason leads to a justification of inequality.  I think I have rational reasons to believe that inequality is not in my own interest.  “And the third is about a loss of freedom.”  I feel like I have tremendous freedom, especially considering how far I am allowed to stray from societal norms.

With a small stack of books eagerly awaiting me, I couldn’t muster the motivation to finish the book.

Title: Virtual Music, Computer Synthesis of Musical Style
Author: David Cope
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 5 stars!

Incredible!!!  David Cope is incredible!  His understanding of western music composition is so thorough that he can easily mimic Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and more.  Above and beyond this talent, however, Cope has written software to automatically compose music in these styles.  (!!!)

Can you tell which is which?  Guess whether each piece was composed by Chopin or Cope’s software!  (Then read on for the answers.)

Mazurka 1 (mp3) (ogg)
Mazurka 2 (mp3) (ogg)
Mazurka 3 (mp3) (ogg)
Mazurka 4 (mp3) (ogg)

Virtual Music explains the inner workings of this music-writing software, Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI).  It presents the theory behind the algorithms (some of which was over my head with my limited music theory and notation training) along with interesting commentary from other composers and academics on the artistic ramifications of the fact that computers can now write convincing music.

I found the book absolutely fascinating and am deeply inspired by Cope’s work.  He is able to think of music and compose with a remarkably high level of perspective.  Whereas I’m often caught up in the minutia of composition, Cope is able to think about whole classes of melody and rhythm and the underlying concepts.  He is able to codify successful compositional strategies and communicate them clearly.  In answer to the question of how to write music, so many composers wax poetic… “I open myself to the creative muse and let it flow.”  How about some advice that’s more helpful?!  Cope speaks more precisely… “retain the name of the destination pitch to which each voice moved in the next beat… (and) collect these beat objects in various groups called lexicons named according to the pitches and register of their entering voices (e.g., C1-G1-C2-E3, where the number suffixes reflect the octave of the note names.)”  Ask and you shall receive!

After reading Virtual Music, I am inspired to learn more about Cope’s music, about classical music generally, to practice composition, and to try and develop a deeper understanding of my musical preferences.  I have checked out a music theory book by Cope and am gradually working my way through.  (SPOILER ALERT) By the way, Mazurka 1 and 4 above were composed by EMI. (/SPOILER ALERT)  They were written more than 10 years ago and his software is even better today!

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5 Responses to “Recent book reviews – May 2010”

  1. Brandon Martin says:

    I’m going to have to read Tufte’s work on Powerpoint presentations. I’ve found two overwhelming problems with Powerpoint: (1) the technology distracts from the charisma or personability of a strong speaker / storyteller diminishing the overall impact of a presentation and (2) the technology has created standardized pitches and presentations that ignore the specific knowledge of the individual presenter and the particular needs of the audience. (2) is particular sensitive to me because I was recently tasked with delivering a Powerpoint presentation someone else created that just didn’t address the concerns that the audience had. As a third criticism, I’ve noticed that PP presentations are often just two general… it’s good to provide a roadmap, but it seems few PP presenters ever go beyond that roadmap.

    Also, very cool that you tried to be fair to Charles Taylor. I’m actually intrigued and might just order the book…

  2. kris says:

    It turns out the “Cognitive Styles of Powerpoint” is a chapter from Tufte’s newest book, Beautiful Evidence. Review coming soon!

  3. Margaret says:

    Ack! I read to the end of this posting and discovered which Mazurka was composed by what before I listened…. spoiler alert requested!
    Thanks for casting the net wide & sharing what you’ve caught, Kris. Never a dull moment. :)

  4. Brandon Martin says:

    Great, I’ll try to wait to check out Beautiful Evidence until after I’ve read the review…

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