Category Archives: Books

Monthly book roundup – 2017 February

Books finished in February:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert. Classic soft science fiction, with focus on politics, some economics, intrigue and personal relationships, even though we are in space. Clever, cynical use of religions and mysticism. Even if one thinks it too fantastic and mystic, one has to appreciate its grand epicness. According to Wikipedia, Dune is claimed to be the best-selling science fiction novel in history. Not sure I will follow up on the whole saga (five more books by Herbert, then 13 more by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson), but this first one is definitely recommended.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) by Richard Bach. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is not like the others of his Flock, he does not care for shrieking and fighting for every breadcrumb from the fishing boats, but rather spends his time learning more about and perfecting his flight. Inspirational? Yes. Banal? I do not think so. I remember I liked the book as a kid, and now reading it to my son I still found it enjoyable. The book has received a lot of bad reviews and critiques for being shallow and too simple. Of course self-improvement and following one’s passion are not the only values in life, but they are still important concepts, and any way the story also focuses e.g. on helping others. And Jonathan’s passion – flight – even has practical applications. Some passages may appear with a religious tone, butI think the book has more in common with fantasy, perhaps because there is no subordination to a god, just some fantastical elements.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2016) by Michael Lewis. The friendship between and work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The intense, personal relationship between the outgoing, charismatic polymath Tversky and the reserved, self-critical, uncertain Kahneman is the red thread running through the book, and perhaps receives a bit too much attention, in my opinion. But their work, which arguably launched the field known as behavioral economics is also present. Mostly on how people, dumb and smart, layperson and expert, make systematic errors in reasoning. The book is inevitably somewhat asymmetric in that it contains a lot of commentary by Kahneman, but not Tversky, who died of cancer in 1996. I was prepared to mention Kahneman as a fallen hero, after his unthinking denial of the critique of priming studies in Thinking fast and slow, but true to how he is described in the book, he has now publicly admitted his error.

Den som har begge beina på jorda står stille. Eller: Alveolene kommer! (1974) by Tor Åge Bringsværd. Background: The window of my office fell out for some reason. This reminded my colleague Ole Røgeberg of a passage from an old book by Norwegian author Tor Åge Bringsværd about the authoritarianism of doors and how one should rather enter through windows as a protest. Naturally, I had to go look up that passage. It is on pages 83-84:

Alveolene kommer! Dører og vinduer, s 83.84.

Alveolene kommer! Dører og vinduer, s 83.84.

The book itself, a novel dealing with anarchist themes, is way too digression based for me, but the door-window passage is fantastic.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) by Cal Newport. Deep work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are ard to replicate.” Shallow work: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Stated like this, few would argue about the value and desirability of deep work. The hard part is actually doing it.

The first part of the book is about the value of deep work and how its conditions are deteriorating for modern knowledge workers, largely because of electronic communication and social media.

I was also already convinced about the importance of committing to and planning for deep work, which is what the second part of the book is about, but it helps hearing someone else say it clearly too. Part 2 is organized under the headings of four general “Rules”: 1 Work deeply, 2 Embrace boredom, 3 Quit social media, 4 Drain the shallows. That is fine, but more helpful are the small practical tips that are scattered in the text, such as: scheduling time for distraction-free deep work time, possibly amounting to a certain number of hours each day/week/month; set a fixed, relatively small quota for shallow work and schedule also that time; related, schedule time for internet/phone/email, etc., and for surprises/delays; keeping (visual) track of deep work time or small achievements; formally shutting down the workday at some point; practice concentration/focus with a hobby such as memorization, chess, etc. The tips are not always consistent, such as taking braks and constantly think about a hard problem while doing other things, but I think that is ok, everyone needs to experiment and find what works for them. Recommended if you, like me, need a push, but it should also be possible to just do it.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 January

Books finished in January:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (New Edition) (1995) by Neil Gaiman. A classic of the graphical fantasy field. Though no fan of fantasy in general, I do believe having a go at the classics of any field. And I can definitely see the appeal of this work about Sandman/Dream/Morpheus getting captured by mere humans and the trouble that gets him into. However, even though this novel mainly sets the scene for the several later volumes of Sandman, I probably will not pick them up, I just like more realistic (less magical) stuff.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 December

Books finished in December:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Skyfaring (2015) by Mark Vanhoenacker. Book about flying by a pilot. Often engaging to hear people talk about their passion-there should have been a little more of that here. One learns many interesting things-like inertial system and the gyroscope to measure rotation (not mechanical, a laser gyro, where a light is put into a closed path in two directions, and if the two beams do not meet at the exact opposite point, it is because aircraft has rotated) and head and tail wind at takeoff (headwind beneficial, because it gets the plane quicker to the airspeed it needs to be airborne). Short article by the author based on the book at Vox. Ok.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 November

Books finished in November:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2011) by Atul Gawande. Another good book from Atul Gawande. Details the usefulness of checklists in medicine, piloting, and construction work. Everyone is liable to make simple mistakes and oversights, especially under high pressure, and checklists well adapted to their users and contexts help avoid that. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 October

Books finished in October:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) by Sebastian Junger. Tribe takes the starting point that humans are adapted to live in small communities, “tribes”, and tries to use that to explain some puzzles of modern life.
-Starts with stories from pre-revolutionary US about people from (white) settlements running off to join Indian tribes. More freedom and life better adapted. Surprising-I had not heard of this before, how common was that really?
-Only in Northern European societies and North America so many children sleep alone. And get intense relationship with stuffed animals…
-More loyalty and less fraud e.g. in tribes.
-Blitz-“psychiatric hospitals saw admissions go down” “long standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids, voluntary admissions to psychiatric wards noticeably declined, and even epileptics reported having fewer seizures” … “… suggested that some people actually did better during wartime”
-Durkheim: when European societies went to war, suicide rates dropped.
-Psychiatric wards strangely empty in France during wars, and same in civil wars in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Depression rates declined in Belfast during the troubles.
-Theory of sociologist Charles Fritz: Disasters create community of sufferers. Therapeutic for mental illness.
-Somewhat controversial: victim status and various benefits like lifelong disability hampers reintegration into normal life for former combatants. Not encouraged or allowed to contribute to society. Society also needs to give these people a way to speak out and relieve themselves of their experiences.
-The book was particularly interesting to me since I have a paper studying increased effort/resilience in the aftermath of a dramatic, violent, high-impact event. Recommended. (Update: But see also this smart, critical review by Joanna Burke at the Guardian.)

The Nix: A novel (2016) by Nathan Hill. The following sentence in the synopsis of “The Nix” piqued my curiosity: “[…] Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix.” While it was what role Norway played in a US bestselling novel that made me interested, the rest of the sentence made me somewhat sceptical, so I was pleasantly surprised to encounter some really funny scenes in the beginning, as well as engaging non-sentimental others. However, the last half of the book conforms more to what one might expect from the quoted sentence. Ok.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 September

Books finished in September:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (2012) by Jon Ronson. Based on Ronson’s earlier magazine articles and interviews, but still very solid, like all his work I have read. The common theme is various strange people and events. Entertaining, but somewhat easy to forget since the pieces do not relate to each other.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2013) by Christopher Hayes. Meritocracy created insulated, partly corrupt, elites in a wide variety of institutions, elites that are out of thouch with and reach of the rest of society. There may be something to that, but I am not sure how much. Ok.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 August

Books finished in August:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal. de Waal’s perhaps biggest point is the continuity of abilities between humans and other animals, and he makes the case well for a wide range of abilities, like memory, forward looking behavior, problem solving, tool use, various social skills, and animals (in particular apes, monkeys, birds, elephants). That is perfectly plausible to me, so I did not need convincing on that point, but I was fascinated by the ways other animals, in particular chimps, do better than humans on some traditional cognitive tasks. Examples are the extremely quick memory of chimps (short video, a little longer) and the fact that chimps may remember solutions to tasks/puzzles years later once they have learned it. A quibble: de Waal often appears unnuanced when writing about other fields, and sets up straw-men to argue against, which is not that interesting. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.