BOOK REVIEW: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

The Meaning of LifeThe Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“What is the meaning of life?” This is the question thrown at anyone accused of being a philosopher – professional or lay – though mostly in jest. In the present day, that is. In centuries past, large portions of the population took for granted that it was a question that had a knowable answer (one dictated by religion.) But as that answer became decreasingly satisfying to an increasing portion of the populace, people began to see the question as both fundamentally unanswerable and as a means to chide / test individuals who claimed wisdom or had the claim thrust upon them.

In this concise guide, Eagleton takes on the question, beginning with consideration of whether it is even a sound question. (Or, is it a question like: “What is the meaning of cabbage?” or “What color is a hypothesis?”) After considering many of the problems with the question, from the meaning of “meaning” to the presumptions about what a life has (and what it is) the book also considers some of the post-Nietzschean answers to the question and the challenges that confront them. [One that I hadn’t thought much about criticizes that many of these recent attempts are individualist (i.e. find your own meaning, one consistent with the peculiarities of your own unique life.) Is it reasonable to think that the question can only be answered at the level of granularity of the individual? Maybe, it can only be, but I did appreciate that it gave me something to think about.]

It should be pointed out that Eagleton doesn’t consider himself a philosopher. He’s primarily a critic and English literature professor. This had its advantages. First, Eagleton drew upon works of literature that explore the question, which both made for some interesting insights while also breaking up dense tangles of philosophizing. Second, much of the book deals with linguistic issues. Are the words and grammar of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” useful, and – if so – how do we understand the nature and limits of the question?

I found this book intriguing and provocative. It does have thickets of dense language, but also has its fun moments as well.


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BOOK REVIEW: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t KnowTalking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book uses a model that Gladwell has employed to great success in many books. That model goes like this: 1.) find some research findings that are counter-intuitive or otherwise in opposition to the consensus view (and preferably not well-known outside academia;) 2.) carefully select some fascinating real-world cases that seem to highlight said findings; 3.) skillfully present the cases in a highly readable and evocative narrative form, making surprising reveals for maximum effect.

In this case, the beating heart of the book is research by a University of Alabama, Birmingham professor, Timothy Levine, that shows that people are bad at catching liars because we are wired to accept statements as true and that some portion of population present appearances out of kilter with their truthfulness. (i.e. Some people come across as liars — even when telling the truth, and others appear truthful with pants ablaze.) This contradicts earlier research that suggests liars always have tells. [Interestingly, if true, Levine’s research upends studies Gladwell used in his previous book “Blink,” research by Paul Ekman that suggested that liars have “leakage” of “micro-expressions” that reveal their true emotional state. Gladwell admits his views have changed on the Ekman work. It’s the price of dealing with ground-breaking counter-intuitive research: sometimes, it’s not going to validate as well as one would like – not unlike the controversy about the Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-hour rule” that is the core of Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” and which seems much less robust in light of subsequent research.)

Gladwell employs a number of compelling stories to show how even individuals who should be the best of us at telling truth from lies (e.g. counter-intelligence officers, industry experts, and veteran law enforcement officers) do dismally at spotting lies and at grasping the true nature of what strangers hold in their hearts. [It should be noted that people are better truth detectors than lie detectors because of the aforementioned truth bias.] Readers also learn quirky facts such as why the sitcom “Friends” is insanely popular in many non-native English-speaking countries. (e.g. In Vang Vieng, Laos, I witnessed this myself, with several cafes and restaurants playing “Friends” on a loop all day every day.) The book also presents discussion of research overturning the idea that facial expression of emotions is universal.

I found this book to be an intriguing read and would highly recommend it for those interested in learning why it’s impossible to “read” strangers. I don’t know how well the ideas will validate, but the cases are interesting and compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Survival by Michael Tougias

Extreme SurvivalExtreme Survival by Michael Tougias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 6, 2022

This book presents lessons from survival under intense, life-threatening turns of events. It focuses on the psychology of a survival mindset. The author has expertise in maritime survival, and a large portion of the cases explored involve survival at sea. Though the author did seek to include some variety, including concentration camps, home invasions, climbing accidents, etc. However, the maritime focus is worth noting because it’s in contrast to competing books which tend to give roughly equal discussion to a variety of different threats to survivorship.

There are three books I’ve read in recent years on extreme survival – i.e. Kamler’s “Surviving the Extremes,” Ashcroft’s “Life at the Extremes,” and Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” Of these, the book that is most similar to Tougias’s is Ripley’s. The first two books focus much more on the physiology of survival in extreme environments. However, Ripley’s book also focuses on the psychological / mindset dimension of survival, though through a more diverse set of disasters.

The maritime focus didn’t bother me for three reasons. First, I’d rather have a person with expertise focus in that area than stumble about in lesser-known fields. It allowed Tougias to focus more on the stories of those with whom he’d conducted first-hand interviews. [The author did engage in a variety of stumbling in Chapter 8 [on the sunk cost fallacy] when he discussed the sunk cost fallacy as a separate but similar situation to those survival scenarios he’d already described [which were also cases of sunk costs] – i.e. it sounded like Tougias believes the sunk cost fallacy only applies to financial costs, which isn’t how economists look at the matter.] Second, survival at sea is one of the most intense scenarios I can imagine facing (i.e. I’m not concerned about survival in space, and I feel more experienced, competent, and -thus- less viscerally responsive to survive on terra firma – e.g. high elevation, deserts, etc.) Thirdly, since the book was on mindset, it didn’t need to be as diverse as the Kamler and Ashcroft books which examined the physiology of challenges presented by varied environments.

That said, I’d give a slight edge to the Ripley book, if you could choose only one. Still, this was a solid book on the subject, and did a great job with narrative examples and explanation of lessons. My criticisms are small. For example, like many books, chapters begin with quotations, but I felt they were the wrong quotations. Opening quotes are a widespread and fine approach when the quote is one that taps into the theme of the chapter. However, often the quotes in this book were from people involved in cases that were later presented within the chapter, and so the quotes often lacked context. If the quotes were meant to be hooks, some landed better than others. (A few simply left me befuddled.) On the other hand, the author did an excellent job with summaries at the end of the chapters.

All in all, this was a well-written book on survival, and I learned a great deal from reading it. If you don’t plan on reading multiple books on the subject, you might look into others first, but it’s certainly worth reading. And it’s a topic that gets one interested in reading more.


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BOOK REVIEW: Identity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas

Identity: A Very Short IntroductionIdentity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book explores the slippery metaphysical concept of identity — not only as it’s presented in philosophy, but also in psychology, law, politics, anthropology, and literature. It begins with individual identity and expands outward to encompass gender, political, socio-economic, and linguistic identities. The aforementioned slipperiness of identity stems from the fact that we all have an intuitive grasp of identity that could be leading us astray. It tends to make us believe that aspects of identity are inherent features of the universe, when – in fact – they may be arbitrary designations – in which case, a given criterion or classification of identity may be chopped up in different ways than a given culture happened to glom onto.

I learned a great deal from this Introduction, and feel it was well organized and presented. How we see various dimensions of group identity (as well as how we weight them) has a lot to do with our social tensions and strife, and the issues around identity are worth dissecting — despite the fact that it might seem like a dry academic topic at first blush.

If you’re interested in learning more about identity, selfhood, and how various group identities feature in an individual’s overall identity, this book is worth investigating.


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BOOK REVIEW: Comedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis

Comedy: A Very Short IntroductionComedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This introductory guide examines comedy in a broad fashion, covering literary, historical, philosophical, and – to a limited degree – its psychological dimensions. The book investigates the shifting meaning of the word “comedy” and the changes in media and mechanisms through which it’s been conveyed. So, if you’re concerned (or hoping) that this book is simply an accounting of comedy as the literary genre counter to tragedy, that’s not the case. It discusses not only literature and drama, but also standup comedy and other devices by which humor is conveyed, and it uses “The Simpsons” as well as “Candide” and “Don Quixote” as examples to get points across.

This VSI guide does have a little bit of overlap with the “Humour: VSI,” but where that book focuses heavily on the theory of what makes something humorous, this book addresses that subject in a much more superficial way. On the other hand, this book spends more time looking at comedy from ancient times onward and how its ways have changed since the age of the classics. This guide also peers more beyond the cognitive and philosophical aspects of humor to how elements such as physicality, persona, and even death play into comedy.

It is a scholarly introduction, so one shouldn’t expect a laugh riot, but it is a more entertaining read than if it only looked at comedy as the literary mode opposed to tragedy. If you wish to develop further insight into the many facets of comedy, it’s worth checking out.


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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: 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: 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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