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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 33)

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

John Neffinger


An essay masquerading as a book.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed it. It's just that the point it's making – that the way we project ourselves involves a mixture of strength and warmth, which are two concepts that sit uneasily together and make it hard to make the impressions we seek to make ‐ could have been stated in a longform essay rather than a book. Instead we're treated to the same concepts applied to different personal-development challenges in ways that don't really seem to contribute anything to the message.

2/5. Finished 17 December 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Travels in West Africa

Travels in West Africa

Mary H. Kingsley


A great insight into a period now long in the past. Mary Kingsley was clearly ahead of her time, not only in her independent travel but also in her perceptions of indigenous cultures in Africa and the coastal islands. But she was also distinctly of her time in the casual assumptions of sex and race that at times get rather wearing. The sensation is somewhat like reading a Rider Haggard novel: the same sense that the author means well and is impressed by the cultures being described while at the same time feeling they're both intrinsically inferior and unbridgeably different.

3/5. Finished 04 December 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

King Leopold's Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost

Adam Hochschild


A searing indictment of colonialism and a history of a forgotten, murderous episode.

The Congo remains the only empire in history to have been created solely by the efforts of a single man, Leopold II, King of the Belgians -- and not by Belgium itself. This book reveals just how nauseous the whole regime was, and covers the efforts that led to its being gradually (all too slowly) dismantled. Leopold himself takes centre stage, with his ally Henry Morton Stanley cutting a rather sorry figure. But it is E.D. Morel, responsible along with Roger Casement, Hezekiah Shanu, William Sheppard for the first explicit campaign for human rights in history, who appear as the heroes who cleverly played international opinion.

Hochschild is right to point out the shame that we have few first-hand records of truly African origin: even the campaigners often felt it unwise (or unnecessary) to record and transmit the voices of the victims in whose names they worked. And the campaign stayed within the bounds of the intellectual landscape of the time, with its core beliefs in the need to educate and civilise the "native" populations. Hochschild is also right, I suspect, to see strength and sense in this position, arguing that a more radical approach to the rights of Africans, even if believed, would had doomed the campaign to failure on the fringes. He also doesn't make the mistake of blaming all of Africa's current problems on the legacy of colonialism, accepting the complex additions and the troubling similarities between pre- and post-colonial rule.

Nonetheless, around ten million people died during Leopold's tenure over the Congo, and this is something that deserves to be far better known.

5/5. Finished 08 November 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (What If?, #1)

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (What If?, #1)

Randall Munroe


One of the best science books of all time.

Really? Well, yes, actually. It's exactly what you'd expect from the writer of xkcd : hilariously funny, critically insightful, and quite awesomely clever. And within this rubric, Randall Monroe introduces some serious scientific method and shows how to apply theory to practice. It really doesn't matter that the practice is absurd: in fact it helps, by making the problems engaging in a way that real life (and, more importantly, exam questions) all too often fail to be.

I was sold on the book from the first question (Q: "What would happen if the earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning but the atmosphere retained its velocity?" A: "Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting."), but that's only the start. Monroe manages to explain DNA inheritance through the medium of Dungeons & Dragons character tables, the core problems in rocketry (fuel has weight), and the unexpected dangers of parsnips (they can cause delayed-action chemical burns).

This is a book to be read by every computer scientist, physicist, and mathematician, and other scientist; by everyone who's ever aspired to be one of the above; and by everyone who may encounter a small child asking questions. That about cover it.

(And if you have access to a hypersonic wind tunnel, I'll bring the steak and a video camera.)

5/5. Finished 02 November 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

I Am a Strange Loop

I Am a Strange Loop

Douglas R. Hofstadter


Douglas Hofstadter (always referred to parenthetically as "author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"), returns to the subject of consciousness and identity for a book that has the feel of a swan song. Part philosophical treatise and part autobiography, he explores how the feeling of "I-ness" emerge from physical processes that underlie the brain. As with GEB, he still has a telling line in analogies and discourses that really light-up hi explanations.

I'm somewhat at a loss to try to sum up a book like this, but here goes:

Animal minds have evolved to filter the huge volume of sense data that they receive from their environments and distil it a smaller range of concepts. Humans are unusual in that their concept maps can be indefinitely extended as new concepts are discovered and linked together. Uniquely (or, perhaps, almost uniquely), humans have been able to develop concepts referring to concept formation itself, thereby having their conceptual system feed-back to explore and influence its own processes. It is this "strange loop" – the ability to perceive, influence, and conceptualise the ability to perceive , influence, and conceptualise – that gives rise to the "I", the feeling that there is an observer observing the processes of thought as well as the world "outside". It's a pattern emerging from a symbolic representational system that's sufficiently complex to represent itself symbolically.

This being Hofstadter, he relates these ideas back to Gödel's use of self-description within the number system to argue that such hierarchies of meaning and manipulation are commonplace, and indeed inevitable in systems that are sufficiently representationally rich. It's an unusual argument for a philosopher of mind to be able to make. But he scores some telling points: my favourite is when he examines the concepts firing in the reader's mind when he mentions reading a Jane Austin novel, and shows that several parallel interpretations and contexts can be activated simultaneously. It's a strange concept to have a writer write directly about what's happening inside your (the reader's) head as you read their words!

This further being Hofstadter, he explores the consequences of his models thoroughly, of of which is the notion that one person's strange loop can live inside another's mind, albeit at a greatly reduced resolution. He runs-down and makes more scientific the common notion that the dead live on in our memories: literally true, at low resolution, in Hofstadter's formulation. (Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment sprang to my mind immediately.) He uses to explain funeral rituals, and to explore the sense that one speaks (and thinks) differently when talking to different people, because parts of your model of them become activated by their presence, making it literally the case that different symbols are being used in discussing the same concepts with different people, even without their direct input.

All in all, an interesting read and one that will hopefully inspire neuroscientists and psychologists to the same extent that GEB spoke to mathematicians and computer scientists.

4/5. Finished 24 October 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)