BOOK REVIEW: Ten Days in a Mad-house by Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a MadHouse: The Original 1887 Edition ( Nellie Bly's Experience on Blackwell's island )Ten Days in a MadHouse: The Original 1887 Edition by Nellie Bly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Public Domain Version Here

This late 19th century work of immersion journalism tells the tale of Nellie Bly getting herself put into (the aptly nefarious sounding) Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for ten days (after which time her editor got her released.) Unlike the famous Rosenhan Experiment in 1973, in 1887 Bly had to get herself committed, and had her editor not gotten her released she might have been institutionalized indefinitely. Disturbingly, yet fortunately for Bly, it took no great acting skills to convince the authorities that she was mentally ill, pretending to be poor and having no husband got her at least 90 percent of the way to being institutionalized. Like the Rosenhan Experiments, Bly’s story showed that nobody seems to have any great capacity for determining sanity from insanity, not even the people with advanced degrees and board certifications on the subject.

At first, I wasn’t sure how skewed Bly’s account would be. She does show some bias in practically deifying journalists. She was confident that no psychiatrist would be able to discover her ploy, but she seemed sure that any journalist could out her through the briefest of conversations. So, when she complained the food was “inedible,” I considered that the same has always been said about any institutional food – from military mess halls to college cafeterias, and usually it’s perfectly adequate. That said, one of the asylum staff members did acknowledge the food was pretty horrific. Ultimately, I think the story was probably accurate because, sadly, it rings true. Bly had intended to get herself put in the violent ward, but had second thoughts after hearing and seeing what she did, being concerned that she might be seriously injured by the rough treatment those patients received.

This short book is riveting. If you enjoy nonfiction, this piece is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell StoriesThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This tome could’ve been two or more books (or, alternatively, could’ve been heavily edited into one book that stays on task.) The book’s first part contains the book that the reader expects to find. It’s that section that proposes that historically (e.g. pre-20th century) all popular stories fit into one or more of seven plot categories, each of which has a specific purpose. Part I clarifies the nature and purpose of these plot types. The seven plots are: 1.) overcoming the monster, 2.) rags to riches, 3.) quest, 4.) voyage and return, 5.) comedy, 6.) tragedy, and 7.) rebirth. While one might niggle about whether all the various myth, folklore, plays, epic poems, etc. of previous centuries can be categorized by seven plots (or some other number — bigger or smaller,) this first part isn’t particularly controversial. From “Beowulf” (overcoming the monster) to “Hamlet” (tragedy,) most of the stories one might think of probably do lend themselves to such categorization.

Where the book gets controversial, not to mention convoluted, is from Part II onward. Part II delves more deeply into the ideas of Jungian psychology upon which Booker (like Joseph Campbell) hangs his ideas about story. Now for my own controversial views. First, I think Jungian psychology is pseudo-scientific nonsense that should never be used in the treatment or understanding of the mind. While Freudians and Jungians have a big conflict with each other, I think they’re similarly useless. They both start from a laudable view that there is an unconscious mind and we should seek to better understand it. But then, instead of trying to objectively understand the workings of the unconscious mind (granted, it’s a terribly challenging task given our inability to witness the subjective mental experience of others,) each psychiatrist decided to furnish the unconscious mind with his own pet provocative scheme – Freud’s being centered on sexuality [particularly of an infantile nature] and Jung’s being more mystical, but neither man seemed to stop and think about whether said pet scheme could be defective and not universal.

Now, having said that, I don’t find it so objectionable that Booker (and Campbell) use Jung’s ideas for evaluating the fantasy realm of story. Jung’s archetypes may be a perfectly logical way for a writer to think about their characters, about symbolism, and about building nightmare realms. Therefore, I wasn’t that put out by the Jungian focus of the book – despite my lack of belief in the validity of Jungian psychology as a means to understand the mind or to treat mental illness. Still, it does reflect a mindset that is Booker is frozen in, a particular era and approach to psychology that creates many a blindspot in the author. Parts III and IV are about how plot is dead because writers have dared to go off book and abandon the purposes presented them by the titular “seven basic plots.”

Long story short: if you thought that Jung was the bee knees and that mid-20th century views on gender, art, and meaning were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then you may love this book. (At worst, you might find it rambling in places, but it often rambles intriguingly.) If you thought Jung was more a mystic than a psychiatrist, and that the approaches to art from recent decades are as valid as those that came before, you may hate it. I, personally, found a book that contained many interesting ideas, but also found that they were usually deep in the weeds (or maybe – more aptly – encrusted in the ice by which this book’s framework is frozen in time, a time that by no means represented the height of human understanding.)


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Game Theory: A Graphic Guide by Ivan & Tuvana Pastine

Introducing Game Theory: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Game Theory: A Graphic Guide by Ivan Pastine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is meant to provide a non-mathematical introduction to the basics of game theory, using examples that make the subject readily intuitively grasped. With this objective in mind, the book does a great job. Game Theory is an interdisciplinary subject that seeks to explain behavior in strategic games, a strategic game is one in which all players make decisions that can influence the outcome of the game. Let’s clarify, using a literal “game.” In chess, it’s meaningless to ask what the best move is without considering what the opponent has done and is likely to do – i.e. one’s best move must always take into account what the other player has done. This is in contrast to games of skill or chance (like a running race or roulette, respectively,) in which one doesn’t really need to respond / adapt to what the opponent has done (or will do) in order to win.

The reason I mention using an example that is literally a game is that Game Theory is used in a wide variety of domains, from military to business strategy, most of which don’t involve “games” in the common use of that word. The book draws from many disciplines, usually the ones where the concept at hand was initially developed – e.g. nuclear weapons strategy or marketing. While the book is a bit more heavily loaded with examples from the business world, it doesn’t ignore contributions from other sectors. Many of the games discussed will be familiar to the general reader at some level from the outset (e.g. the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, Battle of the Sexes, etc.) but one should finish reading with a better understanding of ideas like payoffs, equilibria, efficiency, sequential play (v simultaneous,) and coordination – all of which are crucial to applied strategic decision-making.

If you are interested in a starter book about strategic decision-making, this one is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Awakening the Sleeping Buddha by The 12th Tai Situpa [Pema Donyo Nyinche]

Awakening the Sleeping BuddhaAwakening the Sleeping Buddha by Pema Donyo Nyinche
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a concise overview of Buddhism from the Kagyu Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhist perspective. It’s a straightforward, just-the-facts look at the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, and doesn’t plumb the depths of the subject, but rather offers a readable broad-brush view. And yet the author managed to state ideas in such a way as to provoke thought and offer insight.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which takes on a major concept from Mahayana Buddhism: Buddha nature, bodhichitta (compassion,) reincarnation / karma, emptiness, Tantric science, transformation, Enlightenment, and Mahamudra (the core meditation of the Kagyu lineage.) The organization is informed by what concepts one needs to learn to move through greater levels of refinement towards Enlightenment, with the final chapter examining Buddhist teachings as presented in the Kagyu line.

I value books on Buddhist philosophy and psychology that keep things simple and don’t overly religify the topic. This book does a good job of it, and that says something when considering the great complexity and esoteric nature of Tibetan schools of Buddhism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on Buddhism from the Vajrayana perspective, this is an excellent book to read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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Enlightenment in Four Bits of Shakespearean Wisdom

If you’re looking to attain Enlightenment, you may have turned to someone like the Buddha or Epictetus for inspiration. But I’m here to tell you, if you can put these four pieces of Shakespearean wisdom into practice, you’ll have all you need to uplift your mind.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

william Shakespeare, Hamlet

Through Yoga, practitioners learn to cultivate their inner “dispassionate witness.” In our daily lives, we’re constantly attaching value judgements and labels to everything with which we come into contact (not to mention the things that we merely imagine.) As a result, we tend to see the world not as it is, but in an illusory form.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William shakespeare, julius caesar

In Psychology class, you may remember learning about the self-serving bias, a warped way of seeing the world in which one attributes difficulties and failures to external factors, while attributing successes and other positive outcomes to one’s own winning characteristics. Like Brutus, we need to learn to stop thinking of our experience of life as the sum of external events foisted upon us, and to realize that our experience is rooted in our minds and how we perceive and react to events.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

william shakespeare, as you like it

A quote from Hamlet also conveys the idea, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If you grasp this idea, you may become both humbler and more readily capable of discarding bad ideas in favor of good. It’s common to want to think of yourself as a master, but this leads only to arrogance and to being overly attached to ineffective ideas. Be like Socrates.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.

william shakespeare, julius caesar

Fears and anxieties lead people into lopsided calculations in which a risky decision is rated all downside. Those who see the world this way may end up living a milquetoast existence that’s loaded with regrets. No one is saying one should ignore all risks and always throw caution to the wind, but our emotions make better servants than masters. One needs to realize that giving into one’s anxieties has a cost, and that that cost should be weighed against what one will get out of an experience.

There it is: Enlightenment in four bits of Shakespearean wisdom.

BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book challenges one to not just look at what’s in a picture, but to reflect upon the nature of seeing and what it tells one about the deeper meaning of a painting or photograph. For example, who is seeing – i.e. whose perspective would the picture be from and what might the artist be saying about such a person? Also, what are the subjects looking at, and what does that convey (e.g. come-hither, lost in thought, etc.)

The book’s seven chapters alternate text + picture chapters (the odd chapters) with ones that are only pictorial (i.e. the even chapters.) The first chapter lays out the concept of ways of seeing, and subsequent chapters consider how those ideas can be applied to specific questions. Chapter three, for example, discusses what the differences between how men and women are depicted says about inherent societal biases. Chapter five explores the relationship between possessing and seeing, and also how everyday people begin to be rendered in art. Chapter seven investigates what the author calls “publicity” and how pictures are used to evoke dissatisfaction with what is and desire to be something else. Here one sees how advertising and marketing exploits these concepts.

The picture-only chapters are intriguing. One can see the commonality in the pictures and practice discerning what the author is trying to convey. One of the book’s central ideas is that seeing precedes reading, and that we learned to extract information from images before we did so from words.

The book has strange formatting, employing bold text and thumbnail art. The font didn’t bother me. I don’t know whether it was used to raise the page count on a thin book, or what. I will say that the thumbnail art can be a little hard to make out, even in the Kindle edition where it can be magnified somewhat. Most of the paintings can be internet searched quite easily, but the advertisements that are used to show how art is applied to marketing, not so much.

I found this book to provide excellent food-for-thought, and would recommend seeing / reading it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Humour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll

Humour: A Very Short IntroductionHumour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As both Mark Twain and E.B. White made abundantly clear, humor is like a frog; dissection kills it and few are interested in watching that happen. Which isn’t to say that dissection isn’t useful. But it does mean that readers who are looking for a book that’s a laugh-riot are looking in the wrong place. Most of the example jokes were ancient when the book was first published eight years ago. (They’re good jokes. Bad jokes don’t become old jokes, they die ignominiously.) All that aside, this book provides an intriguing look into such questions as: 1.) why do we find things humorous in the first place? (We take humor for granted, but – think about it – there’s no rationale for things being funny that automatically springs to mind;) 2.) how, if at all, does humor relate to our broader emotional experience; and 3.) when, if ever, is humor unethical?

This concise guide has three parts. In the first part, we learn the various theories of humor, and learn that the author favors Incongruity Theory (i.e. humor is – first and foremost – a recognition of and response to incongruities.) In the second, the author discusses the debate over whether humor is an emotional experience, or something else. Finally, we learn about the value of humor and, in particular, the ethics of humor. There’s a continuum from those who believe that humor – in and of itself – is always ethical to those who think that it’s virtually always unethical (unless one can find a joke without a butt,) with many nuanced variations, in between.

I found this to be an intriguing guide to the philosophy and psychology of humor, and – if that’s what you’re in search of – you should check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu by Jamie Marich & Anna Pirkl

Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied RecoveryTransforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied Recovery by Jamie Marich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 15, 2022

This book proposes that jiu-jitsu can be beneficial and therapeutic for those with trauma-related conditions (e.g. PTSD,) and it offers advice and insight to martial arts teachers, therapists, as well as trauma survivors considering jiu-jitsu. I’m curious to see how much merit these ideas prove to offer. By that, I mean neither to insult the bona fides of the authors, nor even to foreshadow skepticism. What I am saying is that this proposition isn’t one that’s been studied thoroughly and systematically. [The authors acknowledge as much. They’re at the vanguard of an idea here.] Therefore, the good news is that the book is bleeding edge, but the bad news is that it’s based largely on anecdotal evidence and the application of tried concepts to an untried (and quite unique) domain.

On one hand, few activities can teach one: breath control, now-centric living, command of emotions, and increased comfort with being in close proximity to people (who may seem physically intimidating) like the martial arts. Those all feel like positive features for a trauma survivor, and some of them (e.g. breath control) are addressed extensively in the book. On the other hand, the way martial arts teach one to keep one’s focus in the moment is via the pressure of an attacker – defender dynamic. If one is triggered by intense, seemingly aggressive activity, that’s hard to reconcile with the nature of the martial arts — which should always be safe but do necessitate a certain degree of intensity to mentally prepare students for a combative experience.

As I read through the panoply of challenges that might arise – from inability to train with someone who looks vaguely like one’s attacker to not being able to be experience a mount (one of the most fundamental jiu-jitsu positions) – I often had the feeling I’d have in response to a book entitled, “CrossFit for the Severely Arthritic” [i.e. not all fine objectives work together.] The authors do discuss alternatives like private lessons and specialized workshops / classes, but those are more realistic solutions in some cases others. (i.e. I feel that few of the dojos I’ve been in could afford to offer the range of classes for special demographics that are mentioned [workshops, probably.] But there’re only a few hours a day one can hold classes that people who can afford to attend aren’t working, and paying rent on a larger space on the amount that can be earned from those few hours a day is daunting enough.) If you can attend special trainings for trauma survivors, the book’s guidance all seems quite workable. But, otherwise, I had to wonder to what degree one could accommodate those with these needs without losing those who feel they benefit from the existing approach. [e.g. Many dojos I’ve been in used a rotation scheme so that everybody trained with everybody else, and in virtually all there was an expectation of a certain level of decorum and discipline of behavior on the mat — e.g. not wandering off in the middle of practice, not holding side conversations, and not picking / choosing what techniques one will / won’t practice. (All of which, were activities mentioned that could happen in the trauma-sensitive school, and all of which I feel I benefited from having trained out of me.)]

There was a tremendous amount of useful information in the book. How to recognize an individual has been triggered. How to best respond. It’s certainly worth reading for those reasons alone, and – maybe – they’re onto something.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miracles: A Very Short Introduction by Yujin Nagasawa

Miracles: A Very Short IntroductionMiracles: A Very Short Introduction by Yujin Nagasawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This concise guide to miracles is built around the intriguing observation that, according to polls, a majority of people believe in miracles, and yet we don’t witness supernatural events [at least not ones that can be confirmed by objective investigation.] There are coincidences (boosted in salience by selection bias and / or a lack of intuitive grasp of probability,) there are patterns that our minds turn into significant images (e.g. the Madonna on a taco shell,) and there are cases of spontaneous remission in which a serious medical condition disappears where treatments haven’t worked or weren’t tried (experienced by the devoutly religious, the marginally religious, the agnostic, and the atheistic, alike.) But those events can be explained more simply without resorting to the supernatural (i.e. probability, the human brain’s great skill at pattern recognition [re: which is so good that it often becomes pattern creation,] and the fact that under the right circumstances the human body’s immune system does a bang-up job of self-repair.)

The five chapters of this book are built around five questions. First, what are miracles – i.e. what criteria should be used, and what events that people call miracles fail to meet these criteria? Second, what are the categories of miracles seen among the various religious traditions [note: the book uses examples from both Eastern and Western religions, though generally sticks to the major world religions?] Third, how can one explain the fact that so many believe despite a lack of evidence? This chapter presents hypotheses suggesting we’re neurologically wired to believe. Fourth, is it rational to believe? Here, philosophers’ arguments (most notably and extensively, that of Hume) are discussed and critiqued. The last chapter asks whether non-supernatural events can (or should) be regarded as miraculous, specifically acts of altruism in which someone sacrificed their life for strangers.

I found this book to be incredibly thought-provoking, and it changed my way of thinking about the subject. I’d highly recommend it.


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