I love this book. It is informative and nerdy yet eminently readable. It is about the seemingly boring subject of infrastructure—how it came to be, why, what it is for, and what it’s future is. Not exactly your modern day thriller. Yet Deb Chachra somehow tells the story of infrastructure and makes it, if not fascinating (though it is to me), interesting and approachable.
The first part of the book lays out what infrastructure is and why we have it. In brief, it is how we manage our access to and use of energy. And we have it to enable humanity as a whole to do more with less. She then pivots to discussing infrastructure in the context of global anthropogenic climate change. And this is where the book really shines.
Her premise is that we need to move from combustion as our source of energy (fossil fuels) to renewable sources of energy (geothermal, wind, solar). This is hardly new or surprising. What is surprising is that she argues that doing so would move us from energy scarcity to energy abundance. After all, there are only so many fossil fuels on our planet to burn and burning them is causing catastrophic harm to our environment. But renewables are abundant. We just need to learn how to harness them for the use of all.
The rest of the book is a vision for how this is possible, desirable, and most of all essential to the well being of all humankind and our planet. That the author has told such a clear, hopeful story about such a challenging subject around a bleak prospect is a credit to her ability and passion for such a project.
My rating: 5/5
This is a book about sex but also more than sex. Specifically it is about sex in long-term relationships. But if you are looking for quick tips and techniques, you best search elsewhere. The focus here is on the long-term relationship then the sex in that relationship.
The text builds on the author’s previous book Come As You Are. The focus of that text is that you are normal and sex is normal. Come Together extends those lessons and applies them to long-term relationships. The core idea of both of these books is that “pleasure is the measure” of good sex. If everything is consensual and it give you pleasure, it is good sex. Too often we focus on desire rather than pleasure. This is a challenge for us as our bodies grow (old) and change. But if we focus on pleasure, the problem goes away. After all, isn’t it more important to enjoy the sex we have over the amount of sex?
This book requires self-examination and work to get the most out of it. The author encourages learning about one’s own “floorplan” of emotions and how they relate to one another. In this way, one can learn how to move out of less desirable states like fear and grief toward more pleasurable ones like play and lust. The book is also filled with anecdotes of how others have applied these principles to improve their intimate relationships. I haven’t even begun the work recommended in the book, and it has already helped shift my thinking about sex in long-term relationships into a more healthy space. I’m looking forward to even more improvement once I begin the work.
My rating: 4/5
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 recently came across two books on the history of sex. Interestingly, they were both published in the UK. The first is Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex by Rachel Feltman. While it is written from a British perspective, this rarely shows through. After all, sex is a universal human activity.
The book is a primer on the history of sex . It does not cover everything. For instance, it does not cover asexual people (those who have no interest in sex at all). However, it does hit all the high points: what sex is, how normal heterosexuality is (or isn’t), how many sexes there are, masturbation, reproduction, birth control, and porn. In the early chapters it also covers the topics not just for humans but for the entire biological world.
This book is not strictly a science book, and it sure doesn’t read like one. It is funny throughout and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I would even say it is playful. But it is absolutely grounded in facts. The book has extensive end notes for reference, though most of these are more news stories that are based on science than scientific articles themselves. If you want a tongue-in-cheek introduction to sex as it is understood today, this is a good place to start.
My rating: 4/5
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.
After reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I was looking for something a little more recent in the same vein. I found The Shallows by Nicholas Carr published in 2010. The theme in this newer volume is based on scientific research that shows that our brains change based on how we use them. Using the internet is changing the way our brains are wired and not for the better.
Perhaps the most interesting idea explored is attributed to Marshall McLuhan. “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” So much of our discussion today focuses on content as the problem. What if the problem is the medium rather than the content?
I really appreciate the fact that Carr neither demonizes the internet nor treats it as an unalloyed good. Rather he points out, supported by scientific research, how the shallow, quick hit nature of the internet is changing how we work and think and how this is causing all sorts of problems. This book was published twelve years ago and the problems it lays out have only gotten worse.
The one thing I wish Carr had included in his book was a path out of this wilderness. He acknowledges that much good has come with the internet but how can we get the good while avoiding (or counteracting) the bad? Maybe that’s the next book I need to look for.
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.
Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.
In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.
The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?
Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.
If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.
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.