Tag: non-fiction


Review – The Righteous Mind

Posted 4 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Righteous by Jonathan HaidtThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a really fascinating book. I don’t know where you’d categorise it — I’ve read people saying moral psychology, political philosophy, sociology, anthropology… As far as I can gather, Haidt gathers up research and thought from different fields in setting out this book. And what does he seek to explore? Well, not so much “why good people are divided by politics and religion”, as the subtitle would have it, but the more fundamental question: why do people make different moral decisions with the same information?

He pulls in a lot of research as he goes through this. The fact that disgust makes people more conservative; if you can portray something as dirty (Jewish people, gay people, whatever kind of sex you disapprove of, people of colour, people with disabilities) then you’re halfway to calling it immoral already. Particularly for people who tend to be more conservative anyway. In fact, more easily disgusted people are usually more politically and socially conservative. (I’m an aberration; now I think about it, I wonder if that’s because I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies causing my fear of germs and disgust responses, rather than actually thinking that way naturally.)

A lot of this, I’ve come across before, but not synthesised into a full theory like this. (Paul Bloom uses a lot of the same ideas, for example. Particularly in his Coursera course on Moralities of Everyday Life). Mostly, it worked for me. Some of Haidt’s analogies and examples are a little clunky. The elephant (emotion)/rider (rationality) metaphor gets increasingly ridiculous the more he uses it, despite the aptness of the metaphor in some ways. Likewise the ‘taste receptor’ analogy for moral issues. I don’t know how much he tested this out on people outside his field, but I think he does need to look for feedback on his imagery.

I tried to watch myself for knee-jerk reactions while reading this. Reading other reviews made me smile wryly, as other people reacted immediately to what they perceived as the thrust of Haidt’s argument without reasoning it through. The fact that Haidt divides morality up into six regions which are more or less relevant to every culture really annoys people right off, particularly when he then shows that research has liberals focusing on three of these areas while conservatives focus on all six. As a matter of fact, Haidt seems to hold fairly liberal views himself. He’s not criticising the goals of the liberal movement so much as a short sightedness that’s preventing liberal politicians making the gains they could.

It’s basically a validation of the positive sides of conservative and libertarian ethics. It’s mostly an American Democrat writing about American Republicans, and trying to uncover the way they think and the reasonable basis for their beliefs and moral decisions.

What I don’t think he’s doing is saying that liberalism is bad, that conservatism is automatically the answer, or that the core values of liberalism are wrong. He’s looking at the positive aspects of both sides, seeing them as a yin and yang system, rather than diametrically opposed systems on their own.

I’m gonna confess that my politics probably fall fairly close to Haidt’s, so I’m not the best person to pick holes in his argument. To me, some of it felt clumsy due to the imagery he employed, but most of it made sense. I’m now reading Sam Harris, who advocates reason and scientifically proven morality, which doesn’t fit into Haidt’s system well at all. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

I will just note that from this, Haidt is capable of considering other people’s views. He makes a good response to Dawkins’ atheism, for example, and does a good job of laying out Dawkins’ position. Harris, on the other hand… This may be me projecting, but he has a kind of arrogance in the way he writes (and in the way he speaks — I’ve watched both of them lecture) that turns me off. I’m having a very hard time not knee-jerking in response.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Brain That Changes Itself

Posted 3 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman DoidgeThe Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge

Content note: discusses some examples you may interpret as animal cruelty.

I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. My main response, I guess, is “read with caution”. There are some parts which are reasonable, well-founded, and which don’t seem to be driven by any bias. Talking about the ways to help people recover from strokes would fall under this category; I was actually a bit surprised that all of the information about brain maps, and the brain’s “use it or lose it” approach to neuronal real estate, was actually considered surprising or controversial. I thought that aspect of neurobiology was fairly clear to people in this day and age. Certainly, the idea that you can expand areas of your brain by using them, and lose abilities by not practicing them, seemed to me obvious. The book was written in 2007, so I expected an understanding of brain plasticity to be the norm, not the underdog.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 2 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

Responses to emails and posts and such still pending. Sorry. On the bright side, emails have gone out to all the winners of my Strange Chemistry/Exhibit A giveaway, and all the books are ordered apart from one, so at least I’m doing something.

What have you recently finished reading?
The Brain That Changes Itself (Norman Doidge), which was… very problematic for me. Full review will be on the blog tomorrow, but I found some of his attitudes repugnant, despite how interesting the actual topic is for me.

What are you currently reading?
Many things, as usual, but most notably The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt), which is very interesting so far. It’s actually an expansion of concepts I came across in my moralities class on Coursera, with a lot of overlap with things the professor of that course, Paul Bloom, already mentioned. But it’s nice to read it laid out in such a detailed way, and from another perspective. I haven’t knee-jerked yet, but I can confirm I am definitely very WEIRD (White, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) in my responses to this kind of thing: of the various moral “receptors” Haidt mentions, I am most pinged by care/harm, and least affected by sanctity/degradation — although I also lack some other interesting features (for example, people who are easily disgusted tend to be politically, socially, etc, conservative: I’m very much a liberal) which are more universal.

And second most actively, Evil Dark (Justin Gustainis). I wasn’t incredibly won over by the first book, despite finding it fun. It’s a bit tropey. I mean, there’s even a fridged wife. But the detective character is actually showing some ability to adapt to changing situations, even when it goes against his deeply held feelings, so I’m intrigued by that.

I’ve also started, if barely, Kameron Hurley’s new book, The Mirror Empire. So far, there’s too much to hold in my head to have made any like/dislike decision yet. I’m intrigued by the gender system and how that works grammatically and socially in this world.

What will you read next?
I’m planning to read The Moral Landscape (Sam Harris), as his views are often touted as the opposite of Haidt’s. (This is another thing that makes me somewhat odd: I have not decided based on the fact that I like Haidt so far that I will dislike Sam Harris; I know he’s considered intelligent and thus will give him a chance.)

Other than that, no plans. I would say I’m somewhat limited by the books I brought with me on my visit to my parents’, but I have my Kobo with me and that’s stocked up like you wouldn’t believe, so that’s not really true. Still, I’m trying to limit myself to the books I’ve brought here or left here before. Some Ngaio Marsh is likely on the horizon.

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Review – Ignobel Prizes

Posted 22 June, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ignobel Prizes by Marc AbrahamsIgnobel Prizes, Marc Abrahams

I like reading popular science books that dig deep into something serious like genetics or something. But, a book that digs shallowly into something frivolous like the history and recipients of the Ig Nobel Prizes works just fine for me too. It’s light reading, obviously, and some of it is gross, weird, and pretty much all of it is just silly. Which is, probably, what makes it so interesting.

Marc Abrahams is the founder of the awards, so this isn’t exactly an impartial look at the awards, and I do like someone else’s comment that the book “tr[ies] too hard to make it seem like they don’t take themselves seriously”. Yep. It’s all very ridiculous.

What makes it fun to me is that all of the research in this book has been genuinely carried out, and some of it is surprisingly sensible when you learn about the rationale behind it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – My Beloved Brontosaurus

Posted 29 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian SwitekMy Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, Brian Switek

My Beloved Brontosaurus is exactly the sort of book I wanted about dinosaurs. Chatty, personal, but still closely focused on the creatures and how they lived (and died). I know a fair bit about dinosaurs thanks to another Coursera course, Dino 101, so not a lot of the information was new to me, but it was interesting to read it in another context, and to read slightly different angles on it. Switek’s enthusiasm for the subject is kind of adorable, and actually made me smile a lot.

In terms of the content, it’s not exactly on the cutting edge, or any kind of exhaustive survey of research on dinosaurs. It picks out interesting facts and theories, discusses some of the historical theories that are of interest or contributed to modern theories, and generally works fine even if you’ve never heard of Torosaurus, didn’t know that the Velociraptor portrayed in Jurassic Park is actually Deinonychus, or couldn’t tell the difference between an ornithischian and a saurischian dinosaur if your life depended on it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Spillover

Posted 28 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Spillover by David QuamnemSpillover, David Quammen

I found this book fascinating. When I originally got it out of the library, some of my friends were a biiiit concerned that given my GAD was health-focused, this would just make me have a panic attack. I’m happy to report that I was simply happily curious, digging around with great enthusiasm, stopping to google things, etc.

In terms of the level this is at, it’s perfectly comprehensible to anyone, I would say. Granted, I do have a background in reading plenty of popular science, an A Level in biology, and various science/medical courses online, but I don’t think that puts me much above the layman, really. Where something needs explaining, Quammen does so quite clearly. (Although if you do find this fascinating but a bit dense for you, this course on Coursera might be worth a look the next time it runs. I enjoyed it, anyway.)

So, granted I already find this topic fascinating, but I think this was a good read. It avoided sensationalism, aside from the couple of chapters where Quammen imagined the life of the Cut Hunter from the cut-hunter theory of the origin of HIV, which were a little much for me. That goes beyond adding a bit of human interest into a flight of fancy, which jars with the rest of the book. If you want to think delightedly of Ebola victims as being a sack of liquefied matter, I gather you want to read The Hot Zone (Richard Preston).

It’s well-structured, taking us through various different zoonotic pathogens and their implications. The search for the “Next Big One” (the next pandemic) isn’t the primary focus, despite the title, and instead Quammen focuses on how the diseases are tracked, particularly how they are tracked to the reservoir species that safely harbour the pathogens until they spill over into other species. It’s not hysterical about the fact that there will be another pandemic, but treats it in a matter of fact way. Of course there’ll be another pandemic: we’re overcrowded, highly connected, highly social, and fairly careless.

I know there are people out there who will be complaining about Quammen’s bias when he notes that we are, to a great extent, making the problem worse. We destroy habitats, bring animals into closer contact with us, and thus bring ourselves into closer contact with their pathogens, which may spill over into humans. Not biased, and not hard to understand, just a fact.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – A Mind of Its Own

Posted 26 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of A Mind of Its Own by Cordelia FineA Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine

If you’ve read much on the subject, this doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s presented in a readable, well-organised format, meticulously footnoted, and adopts a pretty light tone. If you’re anything like me, you’ll smile in recognition of some of the things she says — in the middle of describing the brain’s unreliability, Fine points out that precisely in line with what she’s saying, your brain is probably insisting you’re different. It doesn’t apply to you. You’d ignore the researcher in the obedience to authority experiments, you can see through your brain’s attempts to make you believe you’re better than you are.

(And if you’re honest, you’ll admit at this point that you do want to think you’re different. My favourite bit was putting some of this together. For example, when it talked about experiments where people were told that extroverts do better at something, they went through their memories and pulled out only ones that corresponded with an extroverted image of themselves. On the other hand, I ruefully thought about all the ways I am a hopeless introvert — thereby illustrating one of the brain’s ways of protecting itself from failure, by providing myself with an excuse, i.e. ‘if I’m less successful, it’s because I’m not extroverted’.)

Not revelatory, but pretty fun.

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Review – Six Feet Over

Posted 25 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Six Feet Over by Mary RoachSix Feet Over, Mary Roach

I don’t think I’m the greatest fan of Mary Roach’s style. It’s informal, easy to read, self-deprecating — but when it comes to a topic like this, I don’t want to hear all about Mary Roach unless it really illuminates the subject matter. Granted, stuff like near-death experiences and the various ideas of what happens to us after we die are things I’ve been interested in for a long time, and don’t really need an entry-level primer on. (I had to memorise the stages of an NDE as described by Kenneth Ring for my religious studies A Level.)

Still, where this deals with facts instead of impressions, it’s interesting stuff. A couple of the studies and anecdotes were familiar to me from what I already knew: I still find the case of the woman who saw the surgical tools being used on her despite having her eyes taped shut an interesting one. (It’s convincing because it wasn’t a typical tool, not something she’d have come across elsewhere, and she didn’t see the instruments before or after her operation.)

Overall, this probably isn’t going to convince you either way, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s certainly got some interesting snippets of information.

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Review – The Twelve Caesars

Posted 13 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Twelve Caesars by Matthew DennisonThe Twelve Caesars, Matthew Dennison

The quote on the cover calling this ‘gossipy’ is right; ‘insightful’, not so much. There’s a lack of meaningful dates and orientation, and Dennison avoids picking a side so much that he immediately undermines any definite point with something else. He talks about Tiberius, for example, presents him as a little reluctant to take power, and then a couple of pages later presents him as a power-hungry tyrant; he talks about his simple, ascetic life, and then repeats gossip about his sexual proclivities and excesses.

It mostly seems as though Dennison is unsure about what the truths are, and isn’t willing to put in the scholarship to figure out how true or false any particular assertion may be. He just seems to present it all.

So yeah, didn’t find this all that entertaining, really. It’s just so vague about actual events.

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Review – The Bluffer’s Guide to Rugby

Posted 6 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Bluffer's Guide to Rugby by Steven GaugeThe Bluffer’s Guide to Rugby, Steven Gauge

I was at the Wales vs England game during the Six Nations in 2013. I know enough about rugby to know that other Welsh people will often want to kick me when I declare this, given that Wales won. Especially when I point out that my grandfather’s seats are just over the centre of the pitch, at a nice height to see everything but still close enough to pick out the individual players and feel the heat from those enormous flares they set off. Apart from all that, however, I pretty much rely on the other spectators to keep me vaguely orientated towards what is actually going on in the game. (The last game I attended was Wales vs Italy with my sister, and she helped me figure out precisely when to scream at the ref, etc.)

Anyway, this book helps somewhat with that, explaining amidst the humour what each member of the team does and a few of the rules. Mostly, though, and unhelpfully, it advocates not bothering to know the rules and just playing it by ear. It’s true that I suspect most teams of doing that, but I would like to acquire a vague idea of why the referee is awarding penalties, assuming he knows why he’s awarding penalties and isn’t just doing it because he doesn’t like the look of the hooker (not that kind of hooker).

It’s funny, and somewhat helpful, but not really substantial.

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