Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

Dr. Haidt's book is a delight.  The bulk of it is spent introducing and elaborating upon the notion that people have a duality, which he refers to as the elephant and its rider.   The elephant was "shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain ... and that trigger survival-related motivations."  The rider is the controlled system, which Dr. Haidt positions as more of an advisor. And so he quotes Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

This isn't a philosophy text, so Dr. Haidt provides clear references of scientific experiment to support his points.  All very interesting, but I got some unanticipated insights from the book as well.

I hadn't a very clear perspective on the value of a fixed moral guideline (as typically provided by religions) compared to an ethical humanist's approach to behavior.  Let me quote Dr. Haidt from the conclusion to this section of his book - and when you read this, consider that he self identifies as a liberal and an atheist:
"I believe that we have indeed lost something important - a richly textured common ethos with widely shared virtues and values. Just watch movies from the 1930s and 1940s and you'll see people moving around in a dense web of moral fibers: Characters are concerned about their honor, their reputation, and the appearance of propriety. Children are frequently disciplined by adults other than their parents. The good guys always win, and crime never pays. It may sound stuffy and constraining to us now, but that's the point: Some constraint is good for us; absolute freedom is not."
Then, quoting from sociologist James Hunter 's book The Death of Character:
"Before the Industrial Revolution, Americans honored the virtues of 'producers' - hard work, self-restraint, sacrifice for the future, and sacrifice for the common good. But during the twentieth century, as people became wealthier and the producer society turned gradually into the mass consumption society, and alternative vision of the self arose - a vision centered on the idea of individual preferences and personal fulfillment. The intrinsically moral term 'character' fell out of favor and was replaced by the amoral term 'personality.'"
 If the book concluded after these two big themes - explaining the elephant and rider metaphor and its implications, and discussing the broader context of human behavior - I'd have been delighted.  He continued, however, to discuss divinity, virtue, and the meaning of life.  Which fits the title, but I didn't find these sections quite as engaging.  Still I heartily recommend the book.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Evolution, by Kelly Carrero

I figured out mid-way through this novel that it is targeted at teens.  Even though the lead characters mount each other like rabbits.  Oh well.

The main character is Jade.  She's infatuated with her boyfriend Aiden.  So much so that I was getting annoyed at the lousy writing when I realized it is a "teen" book and it is thus presumably appropriate for girls to be gushing.  Ugh.

Jade figures out she has special powers.  Then it seems that so does Aiden.  And his guardians.  Yipee. But then Jade's best friend is kidnapped and our heroes Jade and Aiden must rescue her.

Had it been written for adults, this might have been a really great book.

Evolution (Evolution Series)

The Crypt, by Jonas Saul

I had a tough time figuring out what was going on in this novel.  It turns out it is number three of a series.  The hero is Sarah, who at times will go into a trance and write messages from her dead, but apparently well informed, sister.  This makes her a target of a US government agency who wants to examine her abilities.  She prefers to not play with them.  Lots of other folks want to kill her.  The ending was both unclear and unsatisfying, but maybe that's because there are more books in the series.

The Crypt (The Sarah Roberts Series Book Three)

Silicon Man, by William Massa

The premise of this novel is that a highly capable android workforce is in widespread use across the globe.  The machines have sufficiently evolved to become self-aware, and some want freedom.  A group of human supporters builds an underground railway to bring escapees to safety.  A specialized military team (AI-TAC) (which really works for the mega-company that builds these androids) finds escapees and resets them, killing the human sympathizers.

In order to stop the underground movement, the corporation convinces the AI-TAC's commander to go undercover as an android.  He is "transferred" to a look-alike android.  Things go awry.  Action ensues.

Silicon Man

Nine Lives, by Tom Barber

This is a decent action novel.  Set in London, it looks at members of an armed response police unit as they deal with a terror threat.   It is apparently the first of a series, one that I will not read further.

Nine Lives (Sam Archer 1)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Luminarium, by Alex Shakar

This book was not easy to read, in that it wasn't all that much fun even though it did hold my interest right up to a rushed and rather unsatisfactory ending.

The concept is that Fred and George are identical twins, and had been co-CEOs of a New York based software startup that builds virtual worlds.  They were ripped off (or hostilely acquired due to their inexperience and/or incompetence, hard to say).  It is 2006 and 9/11 memories are still strong for all the characters in the novel.   George ends up in a coma.  Fred is a bit of a nut case loser, and the hero of the story.  He becomes a subject for a neurological study while believing himself to be communicating with his brother through some ambiguously defined computer network.

Yes, it sounds intriguing enough to pick up, but after having read it I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

The full title of Ms. Rubin's book is, "The happiness project: or, why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun."

Here's the outline:  Ms. Rubin epiphany was on a New York City bus when she saw another women out the window struggling to multitask and wondered, "Is this really it?"   This eventually turned into asking herself how she could feel happier.  And that became her happiness project, culminating in this book, a description of her year long quest to be happier.

After introducing that during her happiness project year she started a blog, Ms. Rubin started using comments from that blog as filler; I found that distracting.

Overall there is not much new news here.  A net-net review of actions that are well supported as increasing one's happiness would be a magazine article, that's not the sort of crisp exposition we have here.  There are tons of anecdotes (many of which lead to me believing that Ms. Rubin is rather a difficult person), and some interesting narrative, but it is a bit rambling.   And shallow.   And insufficiently informative.  And really not worth the bother.

One positive: I might be inspired to read another (better) book on this topic now, perhaps Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis .

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Something More Than Night, by Ian Tregillis

Imagine a sci-fi novel masquerading as a detective mystery featuring a pulp fiction detective (like a Raymond Chandler character or Nick Carter private eye), who happens to be an angel (Bayliss), and a smart new angel protagonist (Molly).   That's the model for this book.

The concept is that the shared frames of references of angels creates a mantle of ontological consistency (MOC) which keeps the cosmos running in an internally consistent fashion. The angels do not, however, want to stick around to keep the system running, but are held in place with an unbreakable link.   One of the angels, Gabriel, is murdered, which leads to Bayliss' and Molly's interaction, which leads to - well all sorts of drama.

Dr. Tregillis, a physicist, let's his training show with a continual flow of obscure references that are more of a conceit than an advantage.  The union of scientific drivel with 1950's dialogue is not pretty:
"Trust a nickel grabber to solve an epistemological problem through the radical application of astrophysics. It's extreme, like re-normalizing the fine-structure constant to swat a fly."
"It smelled like bubble gum and a smattering of elements that lived on an axis orthogonal to the rows and columns of the Periodic Table."
"Naturally the high rollers had claimed the front-row seats. ...The knoll overlooked a narrow sound formed by multidimensional breakwaters of quantum indeterminacy. Slow ripples of mathematical entropy lapped at the shoreline, eroding the non-Abelian symmetry groups along the water's edge into towering pillars of salt." 
This novel is almost amusing.  There is a good twist in the plot which nearly makes it worth sticking with the book in spite of its affectations.

Something More Than Night

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Bucolic Plague, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

The sub-title of this charming memoir is, "how two Manhattanites became gentlemen farmers."   The narrator is Josh who used to work as a nightclub drag queen and more recently works full time in the advertising industry.  His partner is Brent, a physician who (as the memoir begins) works for Martha Stewart's media firm.

The couple falls in love with the idea of being gentlemen farmers.  They buy an old home (the Beekman Mansion) on 60 acres in upstate New York.  And while commuting to their day jobs in New York City, they become gentlemen farmers.

The best way to give you a sense of the book is to quote the opening paragraph of the prologue:
"The last time I saw 4 A.M., I was tottering home in high heels and a matted wig sipping from the tiny bottles of Absolut I always kept in my bag for emergencies.  Emergencies like 'last call.'"
This isn't a laugh out loud book, but there are several audible giggle moments, and overall it is both captivating and enjoyable. It is also a love story.

Purcell and Ridge turned their part time fascination with the simpler life of farming into a business; because it is difficult to earn a living in agriculture, they sell soaps and such. Their web site is beekman1802.com

I can't imagine what it must cost to heat a huge, 250 year old mansion in an upstate New York winter. But the place is lovely, as you can tell from the photos.


The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir (P.S.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, by Caldwell Esselstyn

This is a terrific book.  It does not reflect generally practiced medical care in the US.  Because, as Dr. Esselstyn says, "I believe that we in the medical profession have taken the wrong course.  It is as if we were simply standing by, watching millions of people march over a cliff, and then intervening in a desperate, last-minute attempt to save them once they have fallen over the edge. Instead, we should be teaching them how to avoid the chasm entirely, how to walk parallel to the precipice so that they will never fall at all."

The precipice that he's talking about is coronary artery disease.  Here's more from Dr. Esselstyn on this:
"The United States spends more than $250 billion a year on heart disease. ... But here is the truly shocking statistic: nearly all of that money is devoted to treating symptoms.  It pays for cardiac drugs, for clot dissolving medications, and for costly mechanical techniques that bypass clogged arteries or widen them with balloons, tiny rotating knives, lasers, and stents. All of these approaches carry significant risk of serious complications, including death.  And even if they are successful, they provide only temporary relief from the symptoms.  They do nothing at all to cure the underlying disease or to prevent its development in other potential victims."
The first part of the book explains the medical research and science behind his reasoning, in a clear and simple fashion that any layperson could follow.  The second part includes recipes and ideas for how to deal with meals.

The only problem is following Dr. Esselstyn's advice, because he strongly asserts that moderation is a killer.  To effectively reverse (or prevent) heart disease, he says you must avoid meat, poultry, fish, dairy products - so far, not that difficult - and also avoid oil, of any kind, as he says, "not a drop." That's tough.  And, generally, you can't eat nuts or avocados.   Oh, and whole grains not processed grains.

There's the rub for me and for many vegans:  the combination of oil and processed grains are the foundation of our ability to eat a (nearly) whole food plant based diet.  According to Dr. Esselstyn's research though, it is really important to cut out those fun, oops, I mean those deadly, items as well.  All of them.  Fortunately, the second part of the book has ample advice to deal with this.

All it takes, according to Dr. Esselstyn, is three months of eating this way to remove the desire for fats (oils) and other delicious (I mean deadly) foods.

Related titles include:  The Starch Solution by John McDougall MD, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, by T. Colin Campbell PhD, and also his book The China StudyThe Spectrum by Dean Ornish MD, and this one from a more popular writer, former professional athlete and fireman, and Dr. Esselstyn's son, Rip: My Beef With Meat.

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

This is an odd book.  Set in a pre-civil rights New York, it feels as though there's a race relations statement intwined with the story line.  Which features Lila Mae: as an elevator inspector in the powerful "Elevator Guild" she faces hassles as both a woman and a black woman in a bigoted and misogynist agency.  Oh, and there's a third mark on Lila Mae: she's an "intuitionist" and the "empiricist" clique for elevator safety is in power.

So yes, the framework for the story is a world of elevator inspectors, a world in which this is an extraordinarily important function.  The novel is pretty interesting until around the half-way point.  Lila Mae goes rogue a bit, starts learning some background on her colleagues and her specialty, and the difficulty of the read increases substantially.   To the point of reading becoming drudgery.

I wasn't a huge fan, but maybe I just needed more coffee at the end.

The Intuitionist: A Novel