United States | Member Since 2012
Up until a few tens of thousands years ago all humans lived in bands consisting of up to a few dussin people. Thus during almost our entire evolutionary past we lived in an environment very different from the one we live in today. To understand the evolutionary pressures that have shaped our behavior and our cognition we need to look at the way our ancestors lived. This is of course more or less impossible because written history did not appear until very recently. However, there are people alive today, who live in a manner we think is very similar to the way all humans used to live. This book is about these peoples. How do they live and think, what are the similarities and differences between us and them? What can we learn from the way they live?
This book shows that the life of our ancestors was not, as some people (especially Disney employees) like to think, all romantic and in harmony with nature etc. Personally I would never switch my life in a civilized western nation for a life in the jungles of New Guinea, and I think that any informed person would be inclined to make the same choice. The life expectancy is about half of what I have now. They are also much more likely to be murdered because crime rates in such societies is extremely high compared to any state nation. Also they have no Wi-Fi, and that would suck too.
In short, life was not better before, it is better now, much better. With that said, there are many lessons to learn from traditional societies and lifestyles. Jared Diamond in “The world until yesterday” goes through many aspects of life, including but not limited to health, crime, diet, child rearing and care for the elderly. Consistently, there are things that we do better in modern western societies and to his credit Diamond points this out. However, there are also lessons to be learned from people living in traditional societies.
The justice system is good example. Crimes in traditional societies are dealt with by the community. There are no absolute laws. For example, murder is sometimes seen as justified and therefore not punished. If someone accidentally causes the death of another person then it may be sufficient for the perpetrator to pay sorrow money to the victims family. Western societies on the other hand see crimes as committed against the community and a perpetrator cannot walk away even if the victim forgives him (yes it is usually “hims”). What lessons can we derive from this. It is probably the case that we can learn things from traditional societies about finding common ground between perpetrator and victim. Grudges are usually resolved one way or another. However, in traditional societies it is also much more common that people take justice into their own hands, which can and do have fatal outcomes.
In some areas the conclusion that progress have been made is inescapable. One perhaps unexpected example of this is wars. The first time I heard about the relative casualty rates in traditional and modern “total” wars I was rather surprised. I had always thought that the second world war was the worst war in the history of mankind, however, if one compares the casualty rate in the second world war with the casualties in wars between traditional tribes it is actually much higher in the latter. In some traditional wars the casualty rate reaches one percent of the population annually whereas Germany and Russia (the two worst hit nations) saw casualty rates of about 0.16 percent annually during the second world war. In other words, you would be much more likely to die in a “traditional war” than in WW2… One factor here is also the fact that whereas children in western societies are taught that killing is wrong and often feel bad after having killed another person (even in wars), children in traditional societies are sometimes taught to feel pride upon killing an enemy. Taking into account wars as well as violence that occurs between wars, it is crystal clear that we are much better off in our modern world. As Jeff Niehaus, who was teaching developmental psychology at UCSB once said, downtown Chicago is actually really peaceful if you compare it to traditional societies.
I guess that it is clear to the reader that I feel quite fortunate that I live in a modern society and not in the jungles of New Guinea. In a few respects however the sometimes cannibalistic tribes outperform us. One obvious example is language. An average New Guinean knows five languages, which is rather impressive. I personally know only three and I think that is probably better than the average person in modern societies. Diamond argues that we should try and preserve languages which are otherwise bound to go extinct. I was not entirely convinced by his arguments. I accept that bilingualism is associated with performance on other types of tasks, delayed dementia etc, however, I also think that it would be desirable if communication between different peoples of the world was easier. Maybe there is a compromise between extinction of all languages except english (or chinese), and the ability of people to talk to each other (I’ll have to return to that topic).
In one of the last chapters Jared Diamond compares the health of people in modern and traditional societies, with mixed conclusions. Once again it is absolutely clear that we live longer in western societies. This ought to be problematic to explain for those who like to claim that a “natural” lifestyle is preferable and more healthy in general. Even though we are using more and more “chemicals” (everythings is chemicals really), we also live longer and longer. If chemicals kill us, then why do we live longer? In some respects our modern lifestyle is not so good however. We do consume too much salt and sugar. Diabetes is pretty much unheard of in some traditional societies, and high blood pressure (which occur if we eat too much salt), is also extremely uncommon. So one lesson we can learn is to eat less sugar and salt.
There are many more interesting topics in this book. One that I found particularly interesting was child rearing practices where people in traditional societies spend much more time which their kids and have much more skin to skin contact, an approach I personally do believe in to a certain extent. I also liked the discussion about treatment of the elderly which ranges from leaving them to die when they go dement (this was the practice of Swedish natives), or killing them when they are no longer of any use, to chewing their food for them when they have no teeth (yuk).
Overall I liked this book. It was 20 hours well spent although I think Diamond could have excluded certain parts that were personal and not so interesting if you are not extremely interested in Diamonds personal life. However, I did learn a lot that I did not know before and it gave me some new perspectives and it even made me want to change a few things in my own life. Above all however, the book reminded me of the privileged life I live. I live in peace. I have a family that I love (and I am under the impression that they like me too). I have a stimulating job that I like, and I am able to explore the world in a way that would be completely unimaginable to 99.99% of all humans that have existed on this planet. I really did win the lottery in the most important sense. Lucky me =)
From my list of book reviews it will be blatantly obvious that I like non-fiction, especially non-fiction science books. I therefore naturally thought that The universe within by Neil Shubin would be a perfect match. A little bit of geology mixed with astronomy and evolution combined with reportedly good writing. It felt like a safe bet for me. I was wrong.
Shubin starts out by describing a geological expedition to Greenland. It was indeed interesting to learn about the hardships associated with finding stones that were formed during the time you are interested in. Shubin quickly moves on (it is a rather short book) to state that all living creatures on earth are related to one another and then he also takes it one step further, saying that we are also related to distant stars because had it not been for supernovas of massive stars the elements on which life depends, would not have formed. This, I suppose, is a profound fact, but I guess that a few paragraphs is not sufficient to convey a feeling of awe.
The book proceeds on a wild journey through space and evolution. Shubin writes about the origin of life and about the formation of stars as well as the entire universe. He frequently diverts from the main story (if there is one) and discusses other things such as the circadian rhythm. The part I personally found most interesting was the one about earth’s climate on a geological timescale. Did you know that before the Himalayas formed 40 million years ago (due to the collision of the Indian and Chinese landmasses), earth was considerably larger than it has been since then. At some points there were not even any ice caps over Antarctica. The Himalayas, Shubin explains, drained carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which was flushed into the oceans which in turn reduced the greenhouse effect of our atmosphere which cooled earth. We should expect more such drastic changes of the earth’s climate in the future and we better hope that we humans are able to adapt to such changes.
This is not a bad book but I feel that if suffers from trying to cover too broad an area in too few pages. It reminds me of when my supervisor was going to give a talk about “cognition and evolution”, which he felt was already stretching what you could cram into one talk. The arrangers however felt that this was too modest, can’t we change the title to cogntion, evolution, and the cosmos to raise interest? I don’t know how that episode ended but I can imagine that, like this book, the result would lack focus.
This book will not teach you the mathematics behind statistics. This book is about making you understand what you are doing when you are doing statistics. Thus it is a great complement to a university course where you might learn how to plug in numbers in SPSS or MATLAB and get a p-value but don't really understand the assumptions involved and the potential pitfalls that must be considered.
Though I have studied some statistics at university level this book still provided a fresh valuable perspective on many statistical issues. It also gives examples of many, often costly mistakes scientists made in the past using statistics.
The analogy I used in the title (taken from this book), really captures an important aspect of statistics. If used properly statistics can tell us if a medication, or a certain policy is effective. If used improperly, it can lead to erroneous medical advice with fatal consequences, in the literal sense.
I would recommend this book if you are taking statistics but often don’t know what you are really doing or how what you are doing relates to real life issues. Alternatively, this book can also be read by people who don’t know any statistics but want to understand what it is all about without having to learn to do the actual math. If you are already an advanced student in statistics and know what you are doing (and know what not to do), then this book might not be for you.
I will start by admitting that I am a fan of Richard Muller. Before I even went to university I watched every lecture in his "Physics for future presidents" course at UC Berkeley, which was one of the first courses to become available online as a free webcast. I would describe Muller as an honest and rigorous scientist who is not afraid to speak his mind even when his views are controversial. He is also very critical of the way that different energy issues are portrayed in the media, something which you will realize if you read this book.
One good example of what can only be called overblown media reporting is what followed the BP oil spill in the Mexican gulf. When it happened the media was reporting on little else and many high standing politicians described it as one of the worst (sometimes the worst) environmental disasters in the history of mankind. What happened next? Suddenly the media moved on and I was surprised to learn (from this book) that though the initial explosion killed 11 workers, the subsequent oil spill only caused 6000-30.000 bird deaths. "Only" is indeed the appropriate term here, considering that glass windows kill 100.000.000 birds annually and power lines kill many million more. The BP oil spill was unfortunate, and it cost human lives, some birds and a lot of money to fix it, but it is clear that the media and the politicians got a bit carried away with this one.
Another so called " disaster" which got an unfair treatment in the media was the Fukushima power plant accident. To date not a single person have died from the radiation released and the prognosis is that a few hundred extra cancers, some of which could have a fatal outcome, will be the result of this “disaster”. My Fukushima headline would have read: “No deaths from breakdown of old nuclear power plant even though it was hit with an 8.0 earthquake and a tsunami”... (also see my pre-fukushima post on the irrational fear of nuclear power as well as my Review of the book “Radiation”).
Richard Muller spends a good deal of this book discussing the ever controversial topic of Global Warming. He was at a point very critical of the methodology used by climate researchers when they calculated the rate of global warming. For example it is not appropriate to use weather stations in populated areas because as population grows so does temperature. He also found some of the mathematics used... funky...
For this reason he did his own study, and unlike IPCC researchers this study was/is completely transparent with all data freely available for anyone who desires to make their own calculations. What did Muller find? Basically he says that the IPCC, despite their sometimes flawed methods, are correct. In other words, according to Muller the globe has warmed, and this warming has been due to human caused increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. While backing their overall conclusions about the temperature increase on earth Muller does not seem to share many peoples sense of pending disaster due to this warming. Models that predict the future climate of earth tends to have a lot of uncertainty associated with them, and it is almost impossible to know if we are able to come up with technologies that will significantly alter the future climate.
He also says that if we really want to prevent increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we should turn our efforts to China. For quite a long time they have been building one coal plant per week spewing out not only CO2, but also huge amounts of other pollutants such as lead and arsenic. Convincing them to use clean energy sources such as solar or nuclear power (by paying them if necessary), makes a lot more sense than going for expensive alternatives in the west. That is, if you aim to achieve the maximal reduction of CO2 release per dollar, that dollar should be invested in China. Muller also reiterates several times throughout the book that energy conservation will be a huge part of the future. Proper isolation of houses, driving efficient cars etc can drastically reduce energy expenditure.
I have really only touched upon some of the issues that are discussed in this book. Muller offers a perspective on many other energy related issues such as Shale gas/oil, electric cars, fusion, wind/solar/water energy, etc etc. All in all this book is both very educational and at the same time a page turner (keep in mind though that I am kind of a nerd). If you are even just a little interested in the technologies and politics related to energy issues this book is a terrific buy!
In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!
Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.
The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...
Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.
Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.
Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?
Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.
Do you think that you are in charge of your actions? What should we do with criminals who clearly committed a crime because of say a tumor in the brain? How can we use the brains ability to change to our advantage?
From start to finish this book was highly interesting, highly entertaining, and highly relavant for anyone who want to understand the brain better. Though I am soon getting my PhD in neuroscience and has taught medical students for several years, this book gave me new insights and many examples that I now use when teaching students. Though it gives you more than just the basics, the reader does not need much in terms of background knowledge. Eagleman does a great job of explaining difficult concepts.
I rarely give top ratings to books, but this book deserved it. Buy!
Everyone thinks that their willpower fails them, often on a regular basis. Those people who say they have a lot of willpower often have the least. Willpower is undeniably good to have and in studies it is correlated with all kinds of positive outcomes.
Dr.McGonigal thankfully does not teach the reader never to “give in” to the things you like. Rather you should ask yourself what it is that you would like to stop/start doing and then focus on that goal. She refers to these goals as willpower challenges. Typical willpower challenges are to go to bed in time, to exercise more, to work instead of checking facebook updates, eat less snacks etc etc.
Most people have many willpower challenges. One important lesson from this book is that you do not have unlimited willpower. Therefore you should not take on too many willpower challenges simultaneously, because that will result in failure.
So what strategies does Dr.McGonigal propose for increasing willpower? This book includes a wealth of advice and I feel pretty confident in claiming that most people will find at least one strategy that helps them. Her first proposed strategy is meditation, which is just not my cup of tea (for me doing meditation would be a willpower challenge on its own). After taking about meditation and breathing exercises she moves on to more obvious candidates: exercise and sufficient sleep. I am sure that you have all heard it before but I will reiterate: exercise is good and getting enough sleep is important for all kinds of things, including willpower. Regarding sleep she also points out that people have started sleeping less in recent decades, and in the same time people have become more obese. In is not inconceivable that the rise in obesity in the recent decades in part is related to reduced willpower which in turn is due to the fact that we sleep less. After all, those evening snacks that we consume in the evening after a stressful day can contain quite a lot of calories.
Dr.McGonigal introduces plenty more strategies for overcoming willpower challenges. The ones I feel were most useful include the following: (1) If you really want say a snack, wait 10 minutes, and then, if you still want it, go ahead and take it. (2) Thinking more about your future self. People are often prone to ignoring the needs of their future selves I don’t care so much how their actions may affect their future selves. (3) Focusing on what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do. Don’t think of pink elephants! Hard right? Similarly constantly telling yourself not to eat that snack will draw your attention to it, making it harder to resist. It is better to focus on what you should and do.
There are many willpower traps. Perhaps the most obvious one is exposing yourself to the thing you try to avoid. If you want to eat less snacks, don’t keep them in the home cause if you are like me you will eat them, sooner or later. Another trap which I personally used to fall into, is rewarding yourself after a strenuous exercise i.e., now that I have exercised so much I deserve to eat several large burgers and some candy after that =). I am not saying that such a reward in undeserved, only that the calorie intake from a large meal is much larger than the calorie output during exercise. Yet another trap is the “what the hell effect”. Having succumbed to temptation many people say to themselves - what the hell, now that I have started eating this snack I might as well eat the rest...
I sum, this book provides an accessible introduction to willpower, what it is, how it works, and what you can do if you face a willpower challenge. Regardless of whether you decide to utilize any of Dr.McGonigal proposed strategies I believe that merely starting to think and learn about willpower will help you reach your personal goals. It is also nice to know that more or less everyone has willpower issues, and very few (sickly?) people never succumb to temptation.
Would you let a young inexperienced surgeon operate on your child or yourself, even if it involved a greater risk of complications, so that they could become better surgeons? Almost everyone would answer no to this question and indeed when the authors own son experienced a complication, he insisted on an experienced surgeon. Despite this it is an unavoidable fact that surgeon need practice and if they are not allowed to practice there will be no good surgeons in the future.
The reader of this book will receive an insight into the dilemmas faced by surgeons. It is a book that acknowledges the fantastic benefits of surgery while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that doctors are merely human beings and that even with the best of intentions mistakes are frequently made.
Some questions discussed (without aspiring to provide a definite solution):
● How can you provide young surgeons with practice opportunities without compromising the care of patients (and on how many animals do you let them practice before allowing them to operate on humans)
● How much should you trust a doctors “intuition” - and how does it compare to neural networks and machine algorithms.
● How should you deal with bad doctors - doctors who compromise the care of their patients because they have a depression, are stressed out or have a drinking problem (again doctors are just human beings and are affected by such things too).
Gawande takes on these and other questions. He is consistently honest about the limitations as well as the benefits that surgery involves and it seems that he does not hide unpleasant truths. All in all, Complications is a good intriguing book which I would recommend to anyone interested in surgery or medicine in general.
I am a big fan of Bill Bryson. His writing has caused me to laugh out loud in inappropriate situations time and time again. All his travel books are absolutely amazing and I recommend them to anyone. I also liked his short history of nearly everything, which provides an enjoyable introduction to science history, albeit not as funny as his travel books.
At Home sounded like it would be a book both funny and educational at the same time. In addition I feel that there is a bias in my historical knowledge towards war and despair and I hoped that this book might remedy that.
So maybe my disappointment with this book, in part, stems from my high expectations. While I did indeed learn quite a lot about things that you don't get from traditional history books, the book seemed rather disorganized, which was frustrating. In addition only rarely did Bryon flex his fantastic humor. Why Bill? It is like having Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie wearing Burkas...
Right at the start of the book Bill rightly points out that history generally ignores all the things we do most of the time such as eating, sleeping, socializing, having sex, etc. With this introduction, Bill goes on to tell the story of the Paxton's Crystal Palace and the great exhibition for which it was built. The great exhibition is a good starting point because so many new inventions, which changed our lives but rarely makes it to the history books, were shown there for the first time.
Bryson then takes us on a 700 page tour of a house, with each room leading to different histories. For instance, you will hear about the construction of the Eifel tower, a completely useless construction, which still was deemed a better project than another proposition - a 70m high guillotine. We learn about Magellan's voyage across the pacific where his crew (those few that survived) ate rat droppings and sawdust. We learn that burial grounds were lacking and that corpses were more or less piled on top of each other. The place where the national gallery stands, 70.000 bodies are estimated to have been buried.
Yet another fascinating story is the one about lighting and how people used to walk streets in complete darkness which was convenient for criminals but not for ordinary persons. Then came the time of the oil lamps which caused innumerable fires as well as wide spread whale deaths. At last electricity was discovered and the light bulb was invented, with one light bulb providing lighting equivalent to numerous candles. What fantastic progress! I think it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before. Of course there were the all to common anti-progress people who said that electricity was dangerous and would spell our surmise, when Edison assistant accidentally electrocuted himself they became even surer of them selves. One does not have to look far to find comparative situations today.
Bryson will provide the reader with many more snippets of interesting information, which may come in handy at the next cocktail party, here are a few of my favorites…
• In the past chairs were always placed up against the wall (to avoid tripping over them in the dark) and therefore chair manufacturer did not paint the back of chairs.
• Peppercorn is actually a dried wine, which used to be an immensely valuable commodity.
• Mice can squeeze through 10mm cracks and are everywhere humans are
• Rats do enter houses via the toilet
• Before the invention of synthetic fertilizer, bird droppings were the favored product, and Peru’s export largely consisted of bird sh*t.
• George Washington determined the location of Washington DC – near his plantation
• Approximately 300.000 people in the UK are seriously injured from falling in the stairs each year.
• Selling corpses to anatomists used to be a lucrative business
• Smallpox used to kill 400.000 individuals each year before a vaccine was made
• Queen Anne was so fat she had to be lifted out of Windsor castle using a crane
This list could of course be much longer, and if you decide to read the book you will get a lot of this. However, as already hinted at I think that the book lack a structure or a thread which is easily followed. The connection between the room that a chapter is focused on and what Bill writes about is sometimes… elusive
One of the things I found a bit disappointing was that the book is very centered on the UK and US, which I suppose I should have expected, but I really would like to know more about the everyday life of people in different cultures.
All in all, while this book may be a hit for some people it is not one that I would recommend to my friend. Rather go for one of Bill Bryson’s other books, which are frequently unforgettable.
I generally dislike self help books (especially the ridiculous ones claiming that the universe or quantum laws are doing the job for you). However, if a book at least aspires to be science based then I am willing to give it a try. In addition positive psychology i.e., the scientific study of what makes happy people happy, is a hot topic within psychology today and Martin Seligman is one of the founders of this field.
For these reasons I was able to overcome my fear of beeing pursuaded to change my life by a silly self help book. It was a nice surprise when early on Seligman acknowledged that happiness is not everything. One can find meaning in life without being extraordinarily happy. Interestingly, happy/optimistic people are actually quite inaccurate in their beliefs about the world when compared with depressed people. For instance, happy people thought they were in control of completely random events much longer than depressed people who acknowledged their inability to affect events much earlier.
Still happiness, at least statistically, is correlated with many beneficial effects. Happiness and optimism correlates with longevity, income, and ability to endure pain, and whether or not someone would end up in a happy marriage correlated with the type of smile (genuine or fake panam smiles) people had on photos from their youth.
So how do you become happy? Having the right genes helps but at least according to Seligman (who does quote a lot of studies), there are thing you can do to become happier. Be warned though, it requires an effort. Up to a rather low limit, money makes you happier. Having friends and a wife is also correlated with happiness.
Another strategy if you do not fancy wives and friends but would still like to be happy is to engage in gratifying activities. Gratifying activities (e.g. hiking) are the one that make you feel good about yourself for a “long” time after you have done them (often they require you to work in some way). This should be contrasted with pleasurable activities (e.g. eating chocolate) that make you feel good when you do them but not afterwards. Seligman (thankfully) does not say that you should never engage in pleasurable activities, only that to achieve happiness we should really focus on gratifying activities.
Seligman further argues that it is important to use your “signature strengths”. Signature strengths are essentially the positive parts of your personality. This includes things such as passion, curiosity, openness, integrity, sense of justice humour etc etc. In other words, the things that others value in you. Try to steer towards situations that let you use your signature strengths and you will become a happier person...
Have this book changes my life? Not really, no. It was interesting and it has made me think more about what type of activities I find gratifying which include training and doing research, and I try to do more of this. All in all “Authentic Happiness” is a good interesting book that I would recommend it to people interested in positive psychology, and who would like a science based understanding of happiness and its consequences.
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