Recent book reviews — October 2011


Title: Physics for Entertainment
Author: Yakov Perelman
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

Although the thirteenth and final edition of this delightful exploration of mechanics, friction, gravitation, and other scientific topics was printed in 1936, the information is surprisingly accurate. Alongside interesting facts of physics, the translation retains the charm of old-school language, with phrases like, “You will understand what I am driving at if you ask yourself: why did the fire, which the trapper lit, run towards the other fire and not contrariwise?” The frequent references to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne complete the steampunk-for-nerds mood.

Over the course of the book I remembered many facts I’d forgotten; throwing a ball into the air also pushes the earth downward and the ball’s gravity also pulls the earth upward (albeit to a diminutive degree). My favorite thought problem was a precurser to explaining the Doppler effect with newspapers on trains, quoted below. Definitely worth checking out from LAPL for the young scientist in your life.

Here it is. Daily, at noon, a train pulls out from Moscow for Vladivostok. Also daily, and again at noon, another train leaves Vladivostok for Moscow. Suppose the entire journey takes ten days. The question is: how many trains will you meet on your way from Vladivostok to Moscow? Most people rush to give the answer: ten. That’s wrong though. Besides meeting on the way the ten trains that will leave Moscow after you depart from Vladivostok, you will also meet the trains already on the way at the time you left. Consequently, the right answer is not ten but twenty.

We have come to the end of Physics for Entertainment. If now that you have read it, you feel you would like to learn more about this boundless domain of knowledge from which this motley handful of simple facts has been culled, I shall consider my task fulfilled and, happily content, will write The End.


Title: The Art Instinct
Author: Denis Dutton
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

The Art Instinct makes the case for an evolutionary basis of art and is an interesting read for someone contemplating the definition of “art”. Unfortunately, my simple approach of evaluating art in terms of its total effect on the creator, the viewer, and society, was not challenged by this book. I found myself losing interest during Dutton’s attempts to delineate “art” vs “craft” and it seems straightforward to me that our basic instincts should play a role in our appreciation of music, painting, and other forms of creative expression. Even when my mind wandered, however, The Art Instinct inspired thoughts about art that were useful and enjoyable.

The whole idea of asking whether a culture has a “different concept” of art from ours raises a curious challenge: you cannot even call it a different concept of art unless it shares something in common with our concept. Otherwise, why did you use the word “art” in the first place? Chapter 4 explores this paradox, arguing that cross-cultural transformations have been wildly exaggerated and misunderstood by anthropologists and others intent on exoticizing foreign cultures and denying the universality of art.

With the arts, perhaps we should regard ourselves like moths who have “succeeded in inventing a lantern in order to have fun circling it.” If the arts are like the lantern, the Darwinian question is why we worked so hard to invent them and why we have such fun circling them in the first place. The evolved adaptations are there to be discovered, and so are their extensions into our artistic and aesthetic lives.

But if art is an adaptation, mere survival is a completely inadequate explanation for its existence. The reason is clear: artistic objects and performances are typically among the most opulent, extravagant, glittering, and profligate creations of the human mind… The classic case is the peacock’s tail, as both Darwin and his early critics well understood… Darwin worked slowly over years developing his solution to the riddle… sexual selection by mate choice.

[random trivia] Men, on the other hand, may produce around twelve million sperm per hour and, in principle, may inseminate large numbers of women — and then abandon them at will. Thus the biggest recorded number of children born of one woman, an eighteenth-century Russian peasant, is reported to be sixty-nine, but that included many multiple births in twenty-seven pregnancies. The largest number of children fathered by one man, Mulai Ismail Ibn Sharif, a contemporary of Louis XIV, is said to be 1042, naturally involving hundreds of mothers in a harem. (This number is on the low side: it is merely when they stopped counting.)

We pay craftsmen to paint houses or repair clocks because of the dependability of learned techniques: these people know what they are doing. But in the sense of using skill to produce a preconceived result, creative artists strictly speaking never know what they’re doing. Even Mozart, who could compose music faster in his mind than he could actually write it down, and might therefore look to a naive observer like he was transcribing a preconceived outcome, was fully an artist in the sense described: he did not, after all, compose his music before he composed it. The domain of craft is one of recipes, instruction books, formulas, methods, and routines. The arts, Collingwood argued, are always open to the unexpected; a change in a single word or note or brushstroke can alter or even reverse not only the meaning of the work but the artist’s entire objective.

As the literary theorist Ihab Hassan has put it, politics, “when it becomes primary in our lives, tends to exteriorize all the difficulties of existence. It literally makes them superficial as Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Pascal are not. Tragedy is not injustice.”

Why would anyone find it awkward when two women show up at a party coincidentally wearing the same evening dress? Where did we learn to react in this way? The answer is that we didn’t simply learn it, as we learned the road code. The sense of awkwardness comes from an intuitive recognition that an evening dress — along with the coiffure, the makeup, the jewelry — ought in the context of a party to be the expression of an individual personality, ought to show the originality of a person. … If personal distinction is a basic desideratum in social life, it is much more important in the life of art. … The fascination, sometimes near obsession, with individual expression is evidence for its being an extension into the arts of an evolved adaptation relevant to interpersonal recognition and evaluation — something that has come about, no doubt, through a pathway in sexual selection.

If you are an artist, the most enduring way to achieve a lasting artistic success is to create works of aesthetic pleasure that are perceived as yours. Cheap sentimentality in art traffics in emotions that are everybody’s: that is why soap opera is a genre art; consumers of soaps have little curiosity about who writes them.

Psychologically, some of the most staggering moments in aesthetic experience, the ones we may remember all our lives, are those instants where the events that make up the whole of a vast novel, an opera, or a poem, sonata, or painting fall meaningfully into place. … The are marked by the utmost lucidity and coherence.

The evolutionary implications of waist-to-hip ratios for art history are not unlike the evolutionary implications for the presence of sweetness in food. That sugars are found in all cuisines and that sweetness makes some foods more attractive for evolutionary reasons does not mean that a bowl of corn syrup and a plate of sugar will ever be dinner.

The kitsch object openly declares itself to be “beautiful,” “profound,” “moving,” or “important.” But it does not bother trying to achieve these qualities, because it is actually about its audience, or its owner. Thus an expensive and ostentatious set of “great works of literature bound in hand-tooled leather” does not exist for the sake of the actual literary works it contains.


Title: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed — Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century
Author: Howard Gardner
Source: LAPL
Interest: 1.5 stars

This book examines the terms “truth”, “beauty”, and “goodness” in detail, asking whether they are relevant in a contemporary context. It is critical of much of post-modern thought, arguing that multi-culturalism and moral relatavism have overstepped, undermining values that are relevant and useful. As with The Art Instinct, however, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t find the essential questions of the book particularly challenging, and when my mind wandered this time, it wandered to a new book. I didn’t finish Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed and will leave a full review to someone else.


Title: Life Inc. — How the World Became A Corporation and How to Take It Back
Author: Douglas Rushkoff
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

Life Inc. is a stirring condemnation of the developed world’s shift of values to economic priorities and corporate power. Although I don’t have the historical knowledge to refute or verify much of the evidence presented, even read with skepticism, the book is compelling. The final chapter encourages individual action and is a relief from example after example of corporate greed. The book changed the way I listen to NPR’s “Marketplace” program and solidified my desire to build a home without taking out a loan.

The problem was that, unlike railways, cars required public space to operate. Who would build, and pay for, all the roads? Although it might have seemed logical for drivers to pay the tolls and taxes required to maintain automobile thoroughfares, this would have discouraged people from buying cars in the first place. Instead, the automobile companies, as well as tire manufacturers, oil companies, and, of course, land developers, pressured the government to pick up the tab. While GM’s role in dismantling the city streetcar has been overstated, the company did identify the cities where trolly systems were vulnerable, and then created competetive lines that put them out of business. Once this was done, GM would convert the new system into a bus line — serviced by GM’s buses. Then GM would divest itself of the company. This practice spurred the transition from city streets that served pedestrians, merchants, and kids along with trolleys, to roads that served the automobile.

For his first client, Dichter took on Betty Crocker. The new instant cake mixes were failing, but why? Dichter’s free-association sessions with housewives revealed that the product’s image of ease and convenience made these women feel guilty — as if they weren’t really providing for their families, or being adequate mothers. So Dichter suggested that Betty Crocker give housewives a greater sense of participation. By removing egg from the mix, and requiring women to break and add a real egg instead, the company could turn the procedure into an unconscious symbol of fertility and nourishment. After making this change, Betty Crocker saw sales soar. Dichter became a sought-after consultant and millionaire.

The landscape of corporatism favors the selfish over the social, the brand over the product, and the central over the local. This is why our search for solutions has been so stunted; we look for nationally branded answers to problems that can be approached only on a local or a personal level. We are drawn to solutions that offer the same instant gratification as consumption, the same frictionless immediacy as high-end salesmanship. Political leaders have all the emotional power — and insubstantiality — of the tested images on which their campaigns are based. As long as we experience the world from the perspective of its corporate conglomerates, we will remain oblivious to the activity and opportunities still available to us on a human scale. We will continue to fight on a battlefield that was created to benefit corporate actors while disempowering and dehumanizing real people.

Through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, lender nations would be in a position to assist developing nations with huge injections of cash. By accepting the loans, however, borrower nations would be obligated to open themselves to rules of free trade as established by the international lending community at Bretton Woods. … Taking a loan meant opening one’s ports to foreign ships, and one’s markets to foreign goods. It meant allowing foreign corporations to purchase land within a country, and to compete freely with any domestic company.

The department-store sales floor is no less coercively biased than the the playing field on which free-market competition supposedly takes place today. The store uses the language of free and fair competition to justify near-absolute control over its empoyees; salespeople fight over a supply of customers made artificially scarce through overemployment, and learn to measure their own success against the failure of others. … Under the guise of promoting its workers’ self-direction, the store manages to pay less for more work. The greater competitive marketplace, likewise, works under the presumption of a natural and free contest between self-directed individuals, unencumbered by “senselessly” debilitating regulations.

Given the premises he worked under, Hayek’s conclusions were intelligent enough… When it’s working as designed, the free market can accurately predict and address a wide range of human needs, with a minimum of central planning. … But both principles are operating in a social landscape and economic framework dominated by their own forced implementation. We built this economy from the ground up — at the expense of other social mechanisms — and then used its existence as evidence that this is the way things have always been. … By accepting greed as the foundation and the market as the context of all human interaction, we ended up replacing a coplex ecology of relationships with a much simpler and balance-sheet-friendly set of zero-sum equations.

There is a vast middle ground between attempting to design a socialist welfare state and leaving self-interested individuals alone to spontaneously develop a free-market utopia — especially when the rules of that marketplace have been imposed by forces as powerful as any dictator. To approach that middle ground, however, we must dispense with the assumption that human beings were born to be economic actors or, in Hayek’s more nuanced view, that we were all the unconscious arbiters of natural market forces. The principles of the intentionally corporatized marketplace are not embedded in the human genome, nor is self-interested behavior an innate human instinct. If anything, it’s the other way around: a landscape defined by the competitive market will promote self-interested behavior.

In a practice first introduced in ancient Egypt, a farmer would reap his harvest and bring it to a grain store. The grain-store operator would then hand the farmer a receipt, indicating the amount of grain, wine, or other commodity he was storing on the farmer’s behalf. This receipt then served as money. … The local coinage was not saved for long periods, because it didn’t earn any interest. In fact, the longer it was kept, the less it was worth. That’s because the person storing the grain had to be paid, and because a certain amount of the grain was lost to water, rats, and spoilage. So once a year on market day, if the grain had not been claimed, the grain-store operator collected his fees by reissuing the money. … He simply issued new coins with a new date imprint, and exchanged back, say, three coins for every four he collected. … Hoarding money meant losing money. … The fact that the currency cost money encouraged people to think of other ways to create value over time. On average, at least 10 percent of gross revenue was immediately invested in equipment maintenance — a higher percentage than at any time since. … The coexistence of these two kinds of currencies [locally vs nationally-recognized currencies] with very different purposes and biases led to an economic expansion unlike any we have seen since. Sometimes called the “first Renaissance,” the late Middle Ages offered an enviable quality of life for ordinary people. The working class enjoyed four meals a day, usually of three or four courses. They worked six hours a day, and just four or five days a week — unless they were celebrating one of about one hundred fifty annual holidays. Medievalists from Francois Icher to D. Damaschke almost unanimously agree that between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the quality of life of Europeans was better than at any other period in history, including today.

Alan Greenspan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, repeatedly deregulated markets, leading to the average CEO’s salary rising to 179 times the average worker’s pay in 2005, up from a multiple of 90 in 1994. Adjusted for inflation, the average worker’s pay rose by a total of only 8 percent from 1995 to 2005; median pay for chief executives at the three hundred fifty largest companies rose 150 percent. The top tenth of 1 percent of earners in America today make about four times what they did in 1980. In contrast, the median wage in America (adjusted for inflation) was lower in 2008 than it was in 1980. The number of “severely poor Americans” — defined as a family of four earning less than $9,903 per year — grew 26 percent between 2000 and 2005. … In 1894, John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in Guilded Age America, earned $1.25 million — about seven thousand times the average income in the United States. In 2006, James Simons, a typical hedge-fund manager, “earned” $1.7 billion, or more than thirty-eight thousand times the average income. On top of this, hedge-fund managers’ salaries are taxed at “capital-gains” rates much lower than the rate that average workers pay…

Those of us who don’t understand the capabilities of computers are much more likely to accept the limits with which they are packaged. Instead of getting machines to do what we might want them to do, the machines and their programmers are getting us to do what they want us to do.

The 95 percent of Gates Foundation holdings that aren’t spent on charities each year often work against the very causes the foundation tries to champion. A study by the Los Angeles Times revealed that 41 percent of Gates Foundation investments have been in companies that counter the foundation’s charitable goals or socially concerned philosophy. … It holds $1.5 billion of stock in the very drug companies whose pricing policies are restricting the flow to Africa of medicines that the foundation is supposedly trying to get there.

An even more promising variety of complementary currency, like the grain receipts of ancient times, is quite literally earned into existence. “Life Dollars,” such as those used by teh Fourth Corner Exchange in the Pacific Northwest, are not exchanged for traditional currency. Instead, members of the Fourth Corner Exchange earn credits by performing services or providing goods to one another.

Finally, we must fight the notion that redirecting our concerns in this fashion represents a retreat into provincial self-interest. The efforts may be local, but the effects are global. Every gallon of gas we don’t burn is a few bucks less going to exploit someone in the Middle East. Every student we educate properly has more potential to create value for us all. Every plate of chard we grow is another patch of top-soil saved, another square foot of room on a truck, and another nail in the coffin of Big Agra. Every Little League game we coach is an assault on the obesity epidemic, every illiterate adult we teach to read may become one fewer welfare case to fund, and every hour we spend with friends is that many eyeballs fewer glued to the TV. The little things we do are big, all by themselves.


Title: Moonwalking With Einstein — The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

What a delightful read! On tour without a computer, I read Moonwalking With Einstein in three days, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Foer engagingly describes his year-long experiments with memory practice and his participation in the U.S. Memory Championships. The story-telling is interspersed with overviews of specific memory techniques and Foer’s research into the changing historical concepts of memory.

“I figure that there are two ways of figuring out how the brain works,” he (Ed Cooke) said. “The first is the way that empirical psychology does it, which is that you look from the outside and take a load of measurements on a load of different people. The other way follows from the logic that a system’s optimal performance can tell you something about its design. Perhaps the best way to understand human memory is to try very hard to optimize it — ideally with a load of bright people in conditions where they get rigorous and objective feedback.”

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.

The variability that is built into the poetry of oral traditions allows the bard to adapt the material to the audience, but it also allows more memorable versions of the poem to arise. Folklorists have compared oral poems to pebbles worn down by the water. They’re made smooth over many retellings as the harder-to-remember pieces get chipped away, or made easier to retain and repeat. … work by Parry’s successors has found that virtually every word in the Odyssey and the Iliad fits into some sort of schema, or pattern, that made the poems easier to remember.

Though years of language use condition us not to notice, scriptio continua has more in common with the way we actually speak than the artificial word divisions on this page. Spoken sentences flow together seamlessly in long, blurry drawn-out sound. We don’t speak with spaces. … For a period, Latin scribes actually did try separating words with dots, but in the second century A.D., there was a reversion — a giant and very curious step backward, it would seem — to the old continuous script used by the Greeks.

Michael Montaigne expressed the dilemma of extensive reading in the sixteenth century: “I leaf through books, I do not study them,” he wrote. “What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.”

As the early-eighteenth-century Dutch poet Jan Luyken put it, “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks.”

Remembering numbers proved to be one of the real world applications of the memory palace that I relied on almost every day. I used a technique known as the “Major System,” invented around 1648 by Johann Winkelmann, which is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace. The code works like this:
0 – S
1 – T or D
2 – N
3 – M
4 – R
5 – L
6 – Sh or Ch
7 – K or G
8 – F or V
9 – P or B

… “learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus,” says Buzan. “The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.” If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be coming up with new ideas.

Ben (Pridmore) developed a similarly Byzantine system for memorizing binary digits, which enables him to convert any ten-digit-long string of ones and zeros into a unique image. That 2^10, or 1,024, images set aside for binaries. When he sees 1101001001, he immediately sees it as a single chunk, an image of a card game. When he sees 0111011010, he instantaneously conjures up an image of a cinema. In international memory competitions, mental athletes are given sheets of 1,200 binary digits, thirty to a row, forty rows to a page. Ben turns each row of thirty digits into a single image. The number 110110100000111011010001011010, for example, is a muscleman putting a fish in a tin. At the time, Ben held the world record for having learned 3,705 random ones and zeroes in half an hour.

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