Patience: Casualty of Modernity [Limerick]

There was an old man, some called "ancient,"
who got riled everyone was so impatient.
"The world was much better
when we talked by letter,
and you only got instant replies if adjacent."

BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley

Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Semiotics is the study of how symbols and signs are used to represent various things and actions in language and communication. This brief guide traces the subject from its origins with Saussure and Pierce (late 19th century) to the present day. It’s not a well-known discipline and overlaps with others (e.g. information science, linguistics, etc.) so as to further obscure it’s boundaries. It’s generally considered a sub-discipline of philosophy.

I’ve read several titles in this series. This one had the fewest and longest chapters – i.e. most of these books have sections that are only a page or two long, but here the sections were generally several pages long. The book looks at differences between American and Soviet approaches as well as discussing the Prague School and the influence of prominent philosophers on the subject.

I felt that I learned something about this obscure subject, though – I must admit – knowing so little of it, I can’t say that I would have recognized if there were any glaring oversights or mistakes in the book. As should be expected of such a concise introductory guide, it’s readable and not difficult to follow. However, it can be dry; though I suspect that’s difficult to avoid, given the subject matter.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Reading Minds by Henrik Fexeus

The Art of Reading Minds: How to Understand and Influence Others Without Them NoticingThe Art of Reading Minds: How to Understand and Influence Others Without Them Noticing by Henrik Fexeus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 15, 2019

This isn’t a book about telepathy, clairvoyance, or any other form of ESP. It’s a book about nonverbal communication, and how to use it to both recognize the true mental and emotional states of others and to be able to influence said states. It draws on a range of findings and approaches, including those of Paul Ekman, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), Robert Caldini, and Antonio Damasio.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The first clarifies the nature of the “mind reading” under discussion. Chapters two and three propose how both nonverbal and verbal communication can be used to build rapport. A lot of the rapport-building chapters are about how one can subtly mirror another so as to create an impression of kindredness without freaking the other person out or seeming like one is mocking them. Chapter four investigates the role of perception in the processes presented throughout the book.

Chapter five explores emotions. Of course, any “mind reading” of value must capture not only thoughts, but how the individual feels about (and as a result of) said thoughts. Paul Ekman’s work on “leakage” is central to this topic. Ekman discovered that even when people are successful in covering expressions of their true feelings with either a poker-face or another emotional expression, they often made extremely brief “micro-expressions” of their true feelings.

Chapter six discusses the ethics and morality of this topic. The active exploitation of nonverbal communication can bear the stink of being manipulative, and that necessitates consideration of how such activities can blow up in one’s face.

Chapter seven is about “lie detection” and the truth and myth of this topic. One thing I liked about this book is that the author is quite forthcoming about the limited support for some of the ideas that are conveyed, as well as the limitations of what these tools can do for one. Many authors of this type of work suggest that these tactics are iron-clad science, which isn’t the case. The most controversial of these approaches is NLP. Neuro-Linguistic Programming has an extremely stalwart following among many people ranging from salespeople to therapists. However, NLP has not fared well when subjected to scientific investigation. NLP supporters suggest this is because investigators are fighting a straw man by considering oversimplified claims that were never made by Bandler and Grinder (the NLP founders.) As an example, NLP claims that a person will tend to look one direction when remembering and another when imagining. Some within the NLP suggest this is the basis of lie detection (if a respondent looks as though they are imagining versus recalling, they must be involved in a fabrication.)

Chapter eight delves into the body language of flirting, and educates the reader about how they might be flirting (or being flirted with) without even recognizing it. Chapter nine explores suggestibility and many of ideas that are presented are from hypnosis, though the author isn’t explicitly teaching hypnosis.

Chapter ten is entitled “Haul Anchors” and it suggests that one can act in certain ways to trigger desired emotional states in another person. The penultimate chapter is about mentalist party tricks that one can use to convince oneself and others of one’s abilities, and the last chapter is a conclusion and wrap-up.

The book offers a references section, and includes many graphics (particularly black and white photos and diagrams) as necessary to convey examples. Needless to say, a picture is often worth a thousand words when dealing with nonverbal communication.

While I’m skeptical about using some of the approaches presented in this book as the basis of one’s behavior, I appreciate that the author is forthcoming about what is controversial and what is well-supported. Fexeus takes the view that one should try it out for oneself, and draw one’s own conclusions. I also think the inclusion of an ethical discussion is essential as many of these books come off as kind of creepy – not to mention overblown. If you’re looking for a book on nonverbal communication, rapport-building, and persuasion, this one does a fine job.

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