Recent book reviews – May 2011

Title: The Happiness Project
Author: Gretchen Rubin
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

This is a fun book, detailing one woman’s year-long quest to understand happiness and improve her own well-being. While I’m glad I checked it out, I only gave it a perfunctory read; the initial chapters didn’t capture my attention and the specific suggestions were not usually applicable to me. I did like the suggestion of a “gratitude notebook”, however, and have implemented that. As Rubin states, any individual’s happiness project will be decidedly personal… I’m really happy most days, so think my own approach is working!

Title: Michael Polanyi
Author: Mark T. Mitchell
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Michael Polanyi was a concise and useful introduction to Polanyi’s theories. Polanyi was a scientist-turned-philosopher and a complicated man and thinker and Mitchell’s book provides an overview that is well organized and readable. Unfortunately I wasn’t particularly inspired by the writing, or given a sense of the importance of Polanyi in modern thought. I found myself resisting a temptation to reject Polanyi’s theories on morality and tradition as outdated, and some of the arguments felt semantic. Assuming I am understanding them correctly, I was not persuaded by Polanyi’s justifications for “faith” and “belief”. I’m interested in reading Polanyi’s texts directly to see if I feel the same.

I did get the sense, however, that under the philosophy jargon I would find in Polanyi a man worth emulating. For all his sharp introspection, he sounds like a kind and open-minded individual.

The coordination of order that ensues is not commanded from the top, but is what Polanyi calls a “spontaneous order”. Polanyi argues that, wherever complexity exists, the same principle will apply. “It applies even to a sack of potatoes. Consider how ingeniously the knobs of each potato fit into the hollows of a neighbor. Weeks of careful planning by a team of engineers equipped with a complete set of cross-sections for each potato would not reduce the total volume… so effectively as a good shaking and a few kicks will do.”

“The ever-unquenching hunger and thirst after righteousness which our civilization carries in its blood as a heritage of Christianity does not allow us to settle down in the Stoic manner of antiquity.”

… whereas moral perfectionism within a Christian context is moderated by the doctrine of original sin and the deferral of perfection to the end of history, the perfectionism of a post-Christian world provides no such moderating counterbalances. The passionate perfectionism of Christianity remains despite a rejection of the doctrines that formerly prevented it from wreaking havoc on the society committed to its ideal.

When a child learns a language, he believes (trusts) that the language-speakers who surround him are not uttering gibberish. Likewise, all skills require submission to a master because the novice does not yet comprehend what he is practicing.

If Polanyi’s account of knowing is accurate, the ideal of objective detachment is untenable, for the active participation of the knower is indispensable. Furthermore, if all knowing comes about in this triadic fashion, which necessarily includes elements that are unspecifiable, then we can agree with Polanyi that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. The ideal of a purely explicit knowledge — the cherished goal of objectivism — is ultimately rendered impossible.

Title: Organizing from the Inside Out
Author: Julie Morgenstern
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

Organizing from the Inside Out is a useful overview of Julie Morgenstern’s empowering and well-considered philosophy of organization. The beginning of the book was the most engaging for me, where Morgenstern presents a useful definition of “organized”. “When we are organized, our homes, offices, and schedules reflect and encourage who we are, what we want, and where we are going.” She goes on to explore the misconceptions and psychological barriers to organization, and provides tips for overcoming them. The title derives from her recommendation to start with understanding one’s self, one’s goals, and the impediments to achieving those goals, rather than beginning with the purchase of more containers, more shelves, and more storage space. I particularly liked the “S.P.A.C.E.” acronym: Sort, Purge, Assign a Home, Containerize, Equalize (though I’d change “Equalize” to “Evaluate”.)

While I whole-heartedly agree with Morgenstern’s thesis, I didn’t find much in the book that I’m not already doing. Hiro and I have adopted a procedure of building very specialized containers to organize the things we own, to provide a proper space for each, but also to take a guess at what set of items we truly need.

We pick the kitchen tools we think we use the most, build a drawer container for them, and then use it for a few months to see if other tools have snuck into the drawer, or others go unused. I was hoping to find very specific advice like this but Organizing from the Inside Out is not that technical (or perhaps anal-retentive?).

Title: Massive – The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science
Author: Ian Sample
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

Massive is an overview of the hunt for the Higgs boson, the particle implicated in our theories of how most of the known elementary particles become massive. I expected the book to be slightly more technical, and was disappointed at the half-way point, but came around to enjoying the book as an historical narrative. Though it feels a bit like the book is written for those personally involved with the accelerators described (like a yearbook for Higgs Highschool), as a wannabe geek myself, I appreciated the info for its insider’s look at scientists, their culture, and the LHC, the largest experiment in the history of humankind.

If all stable matter we know of is made up of quarks and electrons, then surely these elementary particles embody the smallest units of mass possible. By that reckoning, they are the origin of mass. If that was so, you could work out how much mass any object had just by totting up the contributions from all the zillions of quarks and electrons inside. It turns out it’s not that simple…

The bulk of a proton’s mass comes from the energy locked up in the movement of the quarks inside and the forces that bind them together. It leads us to a remarkable truth: any object you care to mention, from your pet dog to your cellphone, owes most of its mass to the intense energy it takes to keep it in one piece.

Their skills [the scientists at Princeton] had been honed by something of a tradition at the institute, weekly lectures with the intriguing name of Shotgun Seminars. At these lectures, no one knew who the speaker would be until a name was drawn from a hat… every member of the audience had to put his name into the hat and be ready to give the seminar if his name was the one drawn.

In the hearing… Senator John Pastore asked Wilson to explain how the facility [the National Accelerator Laboratory] would improve national security. Wilson said it had nothing to do with national security, but Pastore persisted. Finally, Wilson explained the value of the machine. “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture… It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

Feynman described an experiment in which sugar is made from scratch in the laboratory. The sugar molecule is simple, made up of just 12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen atoms, and 11 oxygen atoms. What happens if you put the synthetic sugar into some water and add bacteria? Curiously, the bacteria will eat only half of the sugar. Here’s why: synthetic sugar contains equal amounts of left-handed and right-handed sugar molecules. The two kinds are chemically identical, but mirror images of one another. In nature, for reasons unknown, sugar molecules only come in the right-handed variety…

Title: Against Method
Author: Paul Feyerabend
Source: LAPL
Interest: n/a

Although I was intrigued by the book’s main thrust, I had difficulty maintaining interest through the details. After a fantastic start — “The following essay is written in the conviction that anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology, and for the philosophy of science.” — I had difficulty maintaining interest. As I read back, I am unsure why this could be… the writing is precise and the subject is one I love. Perhaps I am simply distracted by the current flood of books from the library and will return to Against Method later.

Title: Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite — Evolution and the Modular Mind
Author: Robert Kurzban
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this book. I was fascinated by the concept of the “modular mind” but a swarm of issues with the writing and presentation wore me down. The moment when I decided to stop reading was like turning off the fan above the kitchen stove; more relief than I was expecting.

The book’s modular mind exploration is eye opening, and has added greatly to my concept of my own brain. Kurzban explains that the mind is a group of discrete modules, evolved over millennia to tackle specific tasks and provide specific abilities. Some of the modules are inter-connected, and others are not. Instead of a unified individual, the “self” is a sometimes collaborating, sometimes bickering, sometimes aloof set of modules. Great stuff!

Unfortunately, I found Kurzban’s frequent asides and informality frustrating. The book crawls along, and the sub-chapters feel scattered. Most of the examples intended to prove our brains’ fallibility were not applicable to me. When trying to show how we are irrationally optimistic, for example, (and for this I should certainly qualify!), Kurzban writes, “On average, students (incorrectly) predicted they were 50% more likely to like their post-graduation job, 41% more likely to have a starting salary above $10,000 (this was meaningful back when the article was published, in 1980), and 35% more likely to travel to Europe. On the negative side, students thought they were 58% less likely to have a drinking problem, 56% less likely to attempt suicide, and 49% less likely to get a divorce.” As an anti-marriage, never-had-alcohol, happily touring musician with the goal of poverty, examples like these have the effect of reinforcing the mental delusions Kurzban is trying to reveal to me. (And I feel like a niggling prude to bring this up, but the book’s font is awful.)

(Kurzban quoting Minsky) The mind is a community of “agents.” Each has limited powers and can communicate only with certain others. The powers of mind emerge from their interactions for none of the Agents, by itself, has significant intelligence… In our picture of the mind we will imagine many “sub-persons,” or “internal agents,” interacting with one another. Solving the simplest problem — seeing a picture — or remembering the experience of seeing it — might involve a dozen or more — perhaps many more — of these agents playing different roles. Some of them bear useful knowledge, some of them carry warnings or encouragements about how the work of others is proceeding. And some of them are connected with discipline, prohibiting or “censoring” others from thinking forbidden thoughts.

… a more recent study shows that people in accidents serious enough to send someone else to the hospital rate themselves nearly identically to control subjects on self-reported measures of driving skills and safety.

James Henslin did a compelling ethnography of cab drivers who also played craps. He reported that people throw the dice harder if they want high numbers and “easier” (softer) if they want low numbers.

Title: Modern Spice — Inspired indian flavors for the contemporary kitchen
Author: Monica Bhide
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

After hearing an interview with Bhide on NPR, I hoped Modern Spice would help me overcome my intimidation with indian cooking. It did! Thus far I have made the “Indian Burger”, “Brown rice pulau with vegetables and cumin”, and the “Butternut Squash Stew” (with kabocha instead of butternut), and they were all great. The best part of the book is the explanation of indian spices at the beginning with specific brand recommendations. Armed with a list of starter spices from the recipes that looked promising, I was able to pick up everything I need from a local indian shop.

The recipes are not all vegetarian, and it’s a shame there are not photos for each recipe, but Modern Spice is a great starter book if you’re looking to try your hand at indian cooking.

Title: Making Workbenches
Author: Sam Allen
Source: LAPL
Interest: 1.5 stars

This is a decent, if uninspiring, introduction to designing and making a workbench for the wood shop. Allen’s refreshingly unpretentious design philosophy is undermined at moments by ill-conceived simplifications like drawer construction using commercial fasteners or the tragic high-end version: half-blind dovetails on the front and back, the front covered with facing (attached with screws?!) and cheap, metal sliders. Ugly and hard to make.

Title: Treasure Chests
Author: Lon Schleining
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

With beautiful photographs of beautiful woodwork, Treasure Chests contains many inspiring designs. A quick read for fun ideas.

Title: The Workbench Book
Author: Scott Landis
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

This is an absolutely wonderful book on the history, design, and construction of wood-working workbenches. With an eye for satisfying details and an appreciation of simple beauty, Landis goes to great lengths to explain the woodworking concepts and work-flow behind a number of specific designs. The Workbench Book includes a photo of a shaker-built drawer with tapered sides and construction details for building a Frank Klausz-style bench. Wonderful!

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