I’ve been listening to the Knowledge Project podcast for a number of years now. It is put out by an organization called Farnam Street. As part of their mission they have published a series of books called The Great Mental Models. I’ve most recently read the third volume in the series. Each volume covers a few areas that it focuses on. For volume 3, these are systems and mathematics.
The book is divided into two section (systems and mathematics, naturally). Each chapter delves into a particular aspect with examples for how it is applied as a model. These are written in clear, easy-to-understand prose.
While I liked this volume, I feel like I didn’t really learn much new. As a result, I don’t rated as highly. But I highly recommend this volume and the previous two for building up a set of models for how to look at and interact with the world. These might be particularly helpful to teenagers.
My rating: 3/5
I am fascinated by technology and how it changes us and our societies. One of the biggest concerns these days is how fragmented out attention has become due to smartphones and social media. These days it seems like no one can pay attention long enough for the person talking to them to finish their sentence. Sometimes I am talking to someone and they pull out their phone while I am still talking. Even worse, sometimes I am the one pulling out my phone while someone else is talking to me! What in the world in going on here?
This book presents research and discusses the reasons why we have such a hard time focusing, and not all of them are technological. There are two ways to address these challenges–individually and society. The first says that it is your fault. You need to get better control over your attention and what is distracting you. The author largely does not focus in this direction though encouraging the reader to do what she can. He encourages personal change to address the issues but feels they are not enough. He focuses instead on how our world has changed that makes it hard for us to pay attention. He compares it to trying to lose weight when everything around you is shouting at you to eat bad food and sit on the couch. Sure you can do something about it, but it is harder that it needs to be or should be.
My favorite aspect of this book is that the author has included all the interview audio on his website for the book. He is also very clear about where the research he shares is relatively settled or still highly in dispute. He makes a strong case for his perspective and solutions, but he doesn’t pretend that there aren’t others with differing opinions. Refreshing. A good place to start is the interview with Nir Eyal from chapter eight. Eyal favors focusing on what we can do for ourselves because collective action takes a long time. Both Eyal and Hari see the need for individual and collective change, but they differ on which we should start with.
My rating: 5/5
I read multiple books at a time–at least one fiction and one non-fiction. At the same time that I started reading The Peacekeeper, I also started reading Origin by Jennifer Raff. The Peacekeeper is a novel that takes place in an alternative present where North America was never colonized. Origin is about the peopling of North America. It is written by a biological anthropologist–she uses genetics to study our ancient human past. It turned out to be a good pairing.
In this book the author presents both the archeological and genetic evidence for how and when humans first arrived in the Americas. I found the addition of the genetic evidence fascinating. While I might have thought that genetics would have unambiguously narrowed the possibilities, this does not seem to be the case. It brings some clarity but also some questions and therefore some dispute. Raff is open and transparent about this dispute, doing her best to simply present what the evidence could mean as well as pointing to what most archeologists believe.
What I most appreciated about this book is that it is sensitive to what the genetic research means to indigenous peoples. Tribes consider the DNA and bodies of their ancestors to be sacred. Scientists and archeologists have not always respected this. Raff discusses at length in the latter part of the book how this has hampered research and the trust needed between indigenous peoples and the scientific community that are required to perform it. All in all this book is a wonderful introduction and foundation for understanding the current state of genetic archeology in the Americas as it continues to develop.
A few years ago I read a magazine article that talked about how we in the West all shower too much. By lathering up our entire bodies daily, in addition to scrubbing away dirt we are washing away and/or killing microbes that evolved with us and are beneficial to our health and longevity. I think that article was in The Atlantic but I have been unable to relocate it since. When I heard an interview with James Hamblin, a science writer for The Atlantic, discussing his 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less I knew I needed to read it.
The book takes many approaches. It looks deeply into the science of skin dwelling microbes as well as the history of cleanliness and its relation to health. The main theme throughout is that while our long term attention to cleanliness has led to the elimination of diseases like typhus, we may have gone too far. It also covers the transition from the marketing that brought us soap operas to the newer trends in marketing natural products that actually do less.
I came to this book looking for direction. I was hoping that it would provide recommendations for how best to get clean without going overboard. It doesn’t do that. But if you are interested in the science, history, and marketing around what it means to be clean and how they evolved, this book is for you.
We spend a lot of time as a culture debating what and how we should teach our children. This includes math, science, history, sex education (sometimes). But a tremendous oversight in our pedagogy is emotions. Perhaps because everyone has them, we simply think that everyone knows what they are and what they are for. Studies show that most people only identify regularly with three – happy, sad, and angry. But there are many, many more. In fact, in her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown identifies eighty-eight emotions and emotional experiences. The premise of the book is that if we want to have a more nuanced understanding of ourselves and others beyond the three basic emotions, then we need to have a better understanding of the language and nuance of emotions.
The majority of the book is definitions and research of emotions.These are grouped in chapters like “Places we go when we’re hurting” and “Places we go when life is good.” While this may sound dull on the surface, Brown’s language is vernacular rather than academic and she shows her usual vulnerability in sharing her own experiences. The is largely what the title says it is – a map of human emotions.
In the final chapter, she it all together when she shares her research backed method for cultivating meaningful connection. She summarizes why this is important to us as a social species when she writes, “Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves.” And since we lack any formal education for dealing with our emotions and connecting with one another, this book is a fantastic place to start in educating oneself. I know that I will be referring to this book and learning from it for years.
Shortly after it was first published in 1985, I read Contact by Carl Sagan. I was a nerd in high school who loved hard science fiction by authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I’d watched the PBS series Cosmos and was very much interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Of course I was going to read this novel!
When I first read it way back then, I was an altar boy with a deep faith in God. Now as a divorced man in his early fifties, I find myself more of an agnostic than a believer of any religious faith. While I no longer believe in the supernatural, I do recognize there is much in our world that remains explained. I believe in the incredible capacity of humanity for love and the undeniable beauty in the universe that inspires awe.
Given this change over the last thirty-five years or so, when I recently thought of this book I decided to read it again. I am so glad I did. I was surprised by how much of the book I didn’t remember. Most of it in fact. But despite my changes over the intervening years, I loved the book just as much this time as when I first read it.
Despite his public status as a non-believer, the author respected religion in many ways throughout the book. In fact, much of it involves the interplay between religion and science, though indirectly. In the end, he reveals how much these two have in common, specifically the numinous experience of awe and the foundation of love.
Yes, this is the hard science fiction story of how an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence contacts the human race and how the human race responds to that contact. But on a deeper level, it is about human relationships and how they interact with the enormity of our universe and its limits. It deals with these intelligently, intellectually, as well as emotionally. Carl Sagan may have been known as one of the preeminent astronomers of the twentieth century, but he was also a committed and loving husband, father, and humanist. And both of these sides shine forth from this incredible novel.
Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s latest book is The Power of Regret. It is based on scientific research that he commissioned as well as numerous previous studies. What is unique about this book is how the information is presented. It is both highly accessible and incredibly informative and practical.
The main argument is that regret is actually a positive emotion. It focuses us on how we can do better. Of course, focusing too much can incapacitate, and the book shows how to tap into this power of regret while avoiding its downsides.
Most studies group regrets by life categories–work, family, friends, romance, etc. But Pink sees similarities in regrets across these categories discovering four core regrets that he classifies as foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. He details each of these regret types and shares examples from regret surveys.
In the final part of the book, Pink shows how to “optimize” regret in a way that makes life better. In some cases this simply means taking the lessons from our regrets and moving on. In others, it involves undoing regrets.
I have had many regrets in my life. I spent the latter half of my forties working through a lot of them–learning from them and frankly growing up a bit. I feel like I learned so much of what is in this book the hard way. I sure would have appreciated learning sooner with the help of this book.
I continue to read The Power of Fun by Catherine Price. The book is about how to have fun more in our lives, showing how to do this. Before doing so, the author starts a little dark discussing in part how we all need to face our own mortality. Then she goes on to review the science behind how True Fun is actually a health benefit. One of the study results that she reviews is the devastating health consequences of loneliness. Some scientists compare the effects of loneliness to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! And since True Fun is defined by the author as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow, having more True Fun is an effective remedy for loneliness.
I’ve now finished the first part (Fun, Seriously) and am moving on to part two (How to Have Fun). I am looking forward to learning that. And since the book came out this year, I am hoping it will take into account the greater restrictions we have all felt to connecting brought on by the pandemic.
Sometime in 2020, I decided to seek out news from both the left and right of the American political spectrum. I wasn’t interested in breaking news. I was looking for real journalism. I found one monthly magazine from the left and one from the right and have subscribed and read both of them since. As the pandemic raged on that year, I also started to look for a source of scientific news that was independent of politics and dedicated to the scientific method. I found The Skeptical Inquirer which describes itself as “the magazine for science and reason”. I subscribe to and read it as well.
In the January/February 2022 of The Skeptical Inquirer there is a fantastic article by a teacher who struggled with teaching science to non-science students. She was passionate about the scientific method as a tool for critical thinking. She saw her class as the best way to reach non-science majors with these tools. But she found that these students just weren’t interested in the “baby bio” class she taught. Rather than blame her students, she decided to examine her curriculum.
She came upon a study that showed the positive effects of teaching the skills of science rather than the discoveries and historical findings of science. So she changed how she taught. That made all the difference. Now not only do her students rave about her class, they leave it equipped to deal with fake news, pseudoscience, and conspiracies based on their own critical thinking and research skills.
Before I read it, I thought this book was about specific foods or personal care items, what is in them, and whether they are good or bad for you. It isn’t. It is about a much bigger topic. How to tell when science is legitimate, especially when reported on in the news.
It is an entertaining, informative, and accessible look at how to evaluate the science behind all those headlines that tell you what is good to eat and what will kill you sooner. The section on the “potholes” to look out for in the scientific studies you read about is alone worth the time to read the book.
His last chapter is his advice after having gone through all the science in the rest of the book. His final four “bits of advice” are:
- Don’t worry so much.
- Don’t smoke.
- Be physically active.
- Try to eat a healthy diet; any doctor-approved diet will do.
Oh, and if you are religious, you might want to skip the appendix. It will likely offend you.