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Nonfiction Books/Reviews

Discussion in 'Reader's Corner' started by afgpride, May 15, 2017.

  1. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    It seems like most of the threads in this section are more or less dedicated to Fiction, or at least dominated by it, so this one will be dedicated to nonfiction specifically. Philosophy, History, Autobiographies, Essays, Science, Self-help and so on are all welcome.
     
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  2. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.


    I was underwhelmed as fuck reading this book, expecting to get lots of value out of the cutting edge research, innovations and methods related to "altered" psychological states. I got an extremely brief run down on what the book calls ecstasis - the "in the zone" psychological state in which Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness and Richness (S.T.E.R.) are in full swing, and some minor physiological markers that identify this state as it relates to the brain (ie; the tampering with the prefrontal cortex). The authors then proceed to take its S.T.E.R. concept and treat it as a divine hammer to every nail that might surface in any notion of "altered states" in the world. Everything people do that can be even vaguely connected to their works is assumed to be a perfect example of ecstasis, to the point where the term becomes almost entirely redundant and underwhelming. 90% Of the book is a collection of yawn-inducing anecdotes that vaguely relate to the notion of an "altered" psychological state, with no coherent argument bringing them all together or even any specific elaboration on their individual importance. It doesn't help that all of the anecdotes are written in the same cookie-cutter, half assed way, which made them a chore to read. To make matters worse, Burning Man (a festive hipster gathering in an American desert that has cultural significance) was so insufferably worshipped by the authors, going so far as to namedrop it at least a dozen times, that now I cringe every time I read or hear that name.

    In short, I got little to no value out of this work as it relates to altered psychological states (particularly how it can be leveraged into accelerated learning and other neurological benefits, which are already backed by empirical research), and how they can be achieved either through physical practices like meditation or psychadelic drugs. All I got was a collection of boring anecdotes about an almost intentionally vague concept. Do not recommend.

    4/10
     
  3. Lucaniel non serviam

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    if you've never read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon, you should

    it's a ground-level look at the Baltimore police department's homicide squad over a year of cases, internal affairs investigations, and political change. you'll get a level of insight into law enforcement you'd never have gotten otherwise, from the process of detection to the bureaucracy and political pressures that lie heavy on everyone. and you'll get an unprecedented level of insight into the american city, too. the characters are all real, of course, and they're very well-drawn, vibrant and full of life. the prose is exceptionally good, conveying the full spectrum of emotions you feel on the job, from black amusement to horror, to sadness and despair, to the satisfaction of justice being served. it's one of the realest books i've ever read

    Spoiler: extract
     
    Last edited: May 15, 2017
  4. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.


    The author here won a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago for 'explanatory reporting'. He also wrote The Power of Habit, which I never read but nonetheless influenced my day to day significantly through a book summary I read and was impressed by. It shone a spotlight on what I now find to be arguably the most underrated psychological marker of productivity, so I had a particular respect for this author when I spotted it on a shelf at the bookstore.

    I shouldn't have bought it, unfortunately. It succumbs to self-help-itis, which is fitting for what is ultimately a self help book. It rambles on tirelessly with anecdotes, moving from one "story" to another and briefly implicating its lessons as they relate to productivity. If you mine through the mountain of text he dedicates to the anecdotal tales he orients every chapter around, some wheat can be pulled from the chaff, but it's fairly scarce. You learn that one's internal locus of control is a strong tool for motivation, that a combination of Stretch and SMART goals can allow you to both efficiently complete the targets you set and ensure your targets are worth setting, that mental models make focus a lot easier by giving your brain a reference frame by which to interpret and organize data, and that decision-making specifically is a lot easier and more effective when you compare the hypothetical results of multiple iterations of a particular decision and the consequences it may bring. In other words, nothing impressive or cutting edge. Which, of course, left me disappointed. This is nearly 300 pages of fluff, even if the writer tried to pass his anecdotes off in the appendix as meticulously researched nuggets of lessons. For what it's worth, they're written competently, and almost interesting standalone, but it's not remotely satisfying relative to its purpose, and one becomes fatigued by them less than halfway through. Do not recommend, and I'll probably steer a little clear from self help books for a while.

    4.5/10
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2017
  5. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer

    This is a meticulously researched and aptly sourced exposé of the Koch Dynasty and its meddling in American politics over the past half century. It starts with the late family patriarch Fred Koch and his rise to wealth by cozying up to Stalin and Hitler (you can't make this shit up) and then focuses in on his sons Fred (Freddie) jr, Charles, David and William (Billy), in order of age. Their upbringing is narrated with a factually accurate rhetorical snark that continues past this arc and into adulthood throughout the book, since the author, Jane Mayer, is herself a progressive liberal with a history of ideological rebukes against the right. Eventually, as you'll read, the second and third oldest, Charles and David, forcefully buy out the other two brothers late into adulthood and go on to catapult the family oil business into a corporate behemoth. This paves the way for their zealous belief in quasi-anarchic libertarianism to be thrusted down the throats of the American public through political donations, which, tragically enough, are eligible for tax write-offs in American law. This gives billionaires like the Kochs full incentive to direct their tax burden away from the federal coffers and toward a vast web of think tanks, lobby groups, PACs etc that promote free market principles and generally act as psychological conditioning toward Koch interests. Over the past decades, Koch-funded institutions have (almost single handedly) turned libertarian thought from a national laughing stock to a political norm on the right, building an army of puppets ranging from members of the Supreme Court to familiar current faces like Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan along the way. This is a heavy book full of notes, interviews and most of all, numbers, and can become numbing to read after a while. It gets especially numbing after the halfway point where every page is littered with a stampede of names, organizations and numbers that, while important, become repetitive as to their point and serve little purpose other than for reference.

    This is by no means a neutral book. Indeed, the resentment from the author can be sensed with every paragraph, but this resentment is contained in a dutiful mission to let the facts do the talking. Even so, there are times where the hyper leftism bleeds through and I roll my eyes, but these moments are relatively scarce and didn't lose my trust as a reader.

    In short, it more than does its job getting its point across. But it feels more like a 380 page catalogue of the right-wing money trail than it does a book. I don't recommend for anyone looking for an enjoyable read, but for anyone particularly interested in American politics, this is both relevant and important to get through.

    6.5/10
     
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  6. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary.

    I found a used hardcover of this book in the clearance section of my bookstore and it had a $10 sticker on it. It was practically in perfect condition save for its paper overlay, and ended up checking out at $5 instead of 10. A like-new, 350 page hardcover of a book I planned to read anyway for $5. Highway robbery.

    To add to the crime, this was a home run of a book. The author is an Afghan who chronicles the major events of Afghan history from the 1770s to 2012 with such candor that I honestly can't see anyone else with an insider perspective pulling it off the way he did. His register is witty, clean and competent, and sometimes even made me laugh. I was particularly impressed when, as a Hazara, the author wrote about the late Abdu'Rahman, aka The Iron Amir, with the respect of a detached historian. Abdu'Rahman was like a Hitler to Hazaras, raiding their homeland and subjecting them to literal slavery with a capricious brand of tribalistic racism. Ansary had every reason to chronicle his chapter with bitter contempt, but he served him justice as the King that first brought rural Afghanistan to heel, something no other leader had done before him or would do since.

    Also impressive was that Ansary didn't romanticize the failure of invaders throughout the past centuries in the "graveyard of empires" mould. He challenged often championed events like the Battle of Maiwand, an against-all-odds victory by Afghans against the British during the second Anglo-Afghan war, as being relatively minor victories in an overall domination by the British. He also challenges the claim that the British lost any of their wars, since they ultimately got what they wanted both times. My favorite line in his commentary is, and I'm paraphrasing, "it's not that Afghans unite and therefore can't be conquered, but that they fragment and therefore can't be governed". I think that's a brilliant summary of why it's been a lost cause for empires throughout the ages, from the British to the Soviets to now the United States.

    That's not to say there isn't personal biases and anecdotes injected into the book. As the timeline draws closer to recent events, the detached neutrality definitely wavers, if not disappears completely. But even while mentioning his personal experiences and perspectives on affairs, you get the impression that it serves as offered experience for the reader to interpret as they wish rather than any sort of agenda.

    I'm biased toward this subject matter, obviously, since I'm Afghan. But that also put me that much more on guard before I read it, and this book gets a gigantic stamp of approval from me. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in a brief rundown of Afghan history. It'll definitely pay off with political takes related to Afghanistan henceforth.

    8/10
     
  7. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

    This was hiding amongst some old neglected books so I figured I'd put my queue on pause and get through this one given its short length and general infamy.

    Despite its reputation by (I'm assuming) clueless people, The Prince is almost benign in its subject matter given that it was written in the 1500s, where some of the most obscene barbarities of the ancient past were still normalized to a relatively large extent. When Machiavelli casually talks about the utility of slaughtering someone's entire bloodline as a pre-emptive measure, or the importance of war, or of finding balance between benevolent and malevolent behavior in order to achieve political aims, none of this comes from a place of evil so much as extreme pragmatism. This is a short collection of meditations relating to 16th century politics, and was written specifically to a despot in an advisory tone. It goes through the most efficient methods of state conquest, preservation, how a Prince (King) should conduct themselves, who they should empower or oppress and so on, all with the goal of establishing order and bringing glory to the ruler. It came as a surprise, then, that a large chunk of Machiavelli's meditations talked about the importance of doing good by one's peers and not being a tyrannical sociopath, since it only spells doom for the ruler and typically gets them conspired against/assassinated. In fact, for the civil chaos of the time this was written, this can almost be construed as progressive thinking, since it offers practical reasons for (contemporary) positive actions rather than appeals to piety and platitudes, which were otherwise more common. Of course, there's racism toward Moors and classic misogyny also peppered in, but when viewed in historical context Machiavelli isn't remotely the conniving demon he's often whispered to be.

    I appreciated the unfiltered, to-the-point transparency with which this was written (save for his formally obsequious tone toward the recipient), and it felt like a time capsule into the library of a 1500s Italian ruler. Most of the lessons offered are extremely useful even in the modern day, so I can understand why it's been such an influential piece of political science throughout the ages.

    7/10
     
  8. Lucaniel non serviam

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    there's a school of thought that this is satire which has become seen as serious because its context has been left behind, and machiavelli was advancing veiled criticisms of the tyrannical rulers of the time in italy by writing a piece which was a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the strategies they used to keep hold of power, like how 'a modest proposal' masquerades as serious suggestions on curing food poverty. and the reason some of the policies he advances seem reasonable is because they were seeded into the book as sabotage for anyone who seriously followed it because it would undermine their autocracy

    Russian threat
     
  9. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    That's very interesting. I'll have to be more knowledgeable of the historical context to really tell how much weight I should put into it though.

    Have you read his other works? Are they also (potentially) satirical, or do they give away his agenda more clearly? If not then that's one asterisk on this theory.
     
  10. Lucaniel non serviam

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    i haven't, would be a lot of background reading before i could really make a judgment, but it's definitely interesting, the shift it implies in how we would have to perceive the book is huge. and kinda funny
     
  11. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Reminds me of the theory that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a satire too, though I presume that one is more substantiated (or at least more commonly accepted). I love when classical works sometimes revered over the years are turned on their head like that
     
  12. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.


    "Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human."


    After the success of his breakthrough title Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, which I haven't read, Harari's newest book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow attempts to use the trajectory of human technological and social progression to make conjectures about our future as a species. The 'Deus' in 'Homo Deus' means god, and the main idea of the book is the potential ascension of humans into godhood. Whether it's terraforming planets, solving immortality or upgrading our own brains, we'll potentially be able to hack both our environment and ourselves at a level previously attributed to the divine (ie; Zeus).

    Harari starts off strong by destroying the idea that humanity is in a relative 'bad state' worldwide. In nearly every measure (death, famine, disease, war, etc), as the Israeli historian argues, the 21st century is the best era yet for the human species. The first hundred pages or so are filled with lean, intriguing food for thought virtually free of logical fallacy. This streak comes to an end when Harari starts rewriting the English language to service his obtuse philosophical commentary; he calls Liberalism, Communism, Capitalism, 'Dataism', Socialism, Humanism and so on religions in the same light as Christianity and Buddhism. He labels practically any 'ism' as a religion with its own God (root principle) in order to invent a false equivalence between formal ideologies in an anthropological context. Christians worship Jesus in the same way Liberals worship Free Will. This fallacy poisons his commentary throughout the rest of the book and turns a crisp examination of the trajectory of the human species into the meandering musings of a gay Israeli vegan Vipassana Buddhist. Perhaps that's a bit harsh - there's still a good deal of value to be extracted throughout the book - but when a fallacy is the bat by which the author strikes his ideas, the swing-and-misses that follow damage his credibility cumulatively. The main concept - that humanity will solve famine, plague and war and set its sights on immortality, happiness and divinity - is a sound one. The arguments that explore its causes and judge its implications aren't as sound. I didn't like, for instance, how the author rejects the idea that human consciousness is a natural product of physical laws functioning in the brain because science hasn't yet been able to explain it. This is like rejecting that life came from nonlife as a prelude to evolutionary biology because of the absence of scientific consensus on how it happened. Just because the how hasn't yet been explained doesn't mean the what isn't a logical assumption to make. In any case, while I was disappointed by how front-ended this book was value-wise, it's nonetheless a fascinating read. I'll probably get around to reading Sapiens eventually.

    7/10
     
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  13. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson.


    “For the first billion years, the universe continued to expand and cool as matter gravitated into the massive concentrations we call galaxies. Nearly a hundred billion of them formed, each containing hundreds of billions of stars that undergo thermonuclear fusion in their cores. Those stars with more than about ten times the mass of the Sun achieve sufficient pressure and temperature in their cores to manufacture dozens of elements heavier than hydrogen, including those that compose planets and whatever life may thrive upon them. These elements would be stunningly useless were they to remain where they formed. But high-mass stars fortuitously explode, scattering their chemically enriched guts throughout the galaxy. After nine billion years of such enrichment, in an undistinguished part of the universe (the outskirts of the Virgo Supercluster) in an undistinguished galaxy (the Milky Way) in an undistinguished region (the Orion Arm), an undistinguished star (the Sun) was born.”


    The title is self explanatory; from pulsars to neutrinos, exoplanets to Big Red Spots, this book presents the universe in digestible chunks for the curious layman. In about two hundred small pages, Tyson chronicles the birth and evolution of the universe, the birth and evolution of our human understanding of it, and ponders present day questions like time travel and alien life. He does this in his characteristic charm, replete with brevity, delicacy, humor and enthusiasm. You don't need to be remotely well versed in physics or cosmology to keep up, since everything is more or less explained elegantly. That's not to say it's dumbed down, however - it's as much technical as it is literary, but the technical underbelly of the subject matter is accessible enough not to intimidate the average (adult) normie.

    While there's few things to dislike about this book, it didn't necessarily blow me away. Perhaps it's because I already knew most of what I read, but for an author with the charisma and passion of Tyson I expected to want to purchase a telescope and gaze at the stars as soon as I read the last word. That didn't happen. Nonetheless, it delivers on its promise to act as a gateway drug for the curious layman to the cosmos. And for that, it was worth the read.

    7/10
     
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2017
  14. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Currently reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. About half-way through, will drop my review when I'm done. :catshivers
     
  15. Yasha Procreate

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    I highly recommend these:

    The Code Book
    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
    The Selfish Gene
    The Geography of Bliss
    The Gene: An Intimate History
     
  16. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond




    A 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, Guns, Germs and Steel is a transdisciplinary thesis on the drivers of power, knowledge and competency across environmentally varying populations. Challenging the notion that powerful societies owe their hegemony to innate intelligence, Jared Diamond uses his multi-pronged knowledge in the fields of geography, evolutionary biology and anthropology, botany and ecology to explain historical trends. What results is an environmentally deterministic argument spanning thousands of years, and it's as information-dense as it is ambitious.

    The book is kicked off by a prologue in which Diamond recounts a 1972 discussion he had with a Papua New Guinean politician called Yali. Diamond is asked by Yali, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?". This inquiry, henceforth referred to as Yali's Question, inspires the proceeding contents of the book.

    My immediate impression was negative. Diamond made the unsavoury decision to prime his fantastic book with a biased (and I would argue hypocritical) tilt, stating that he believes Papa New Guineans are intrinsically more intelligent than white Europeans because of their vast knowledge of plant species and spacial navigation. While the white Europeans who patronise them have fancy technology and writing, he explains, Papa New Guineans have actual survival skills in the unforgiving environment of their island, and from Diamond's experience they come off incredibly sharp. This rubbed me the wrong way, because in an attempt to counter racist assumptions about 'primitive' people, Diamond swings the pendulum too hard the other way, making equally vague and facile claims about the superior intelligence of Papa New Guineans compared to whites. I can't figure out why he would do this other than to compensate for an intellectual insecurity in the subject matter; if someone used the same criteria as Diamond in order to announce that Chinese people are smarter than Africans, Diamond would likely find it distasteful, so to invoke such a weak appeal to subjective anecdote reflects poorly on his academic intentions with the book.

    However, while I left the prologue being cynical of Diamond's integrity, I was blown away by how effectively and rigorously he argued his point the rest of the way. Right off the bat I learned that because modern humans didn't settle in Australia and America until much later than Eurasia and Africa, large mammal species there didn't evolve alongside humans and were therefore much more vulnerable to them, quickly becoming instinct (and therefore leaving these continents dry of large mammal species compared to Eurasia and Africa). I learned that the islands of Polynesia offer a fantastic case study on what happens when you take the same ethnic group and put them in dramatically different environments, and that success between the ensuing settlements varied predictably based on their environment, including the eventual extermination of the Moriori by the Maori. The extent to which colonies in the Polynesian islands varied in economic structure, population size and density, political organisation and even culture and customs despite tracing recent ancestry to the same gene pool was a convincing template for case studies on a more macro scale, applied to many more people in many more varying environments. I learned about the power of farming (plant and animal domestication), and how the food surpluses it creates promotes not only higher population densities, but allows for specialisation beyond hunter gathering, and inevitably leads to political centralisation. I learned about the variance in farming societies and hunter gathering tribes, why the latter often didn't make the transition, why the former inevitably dominated the latter, all by virtue of basic anthropology and logistical probability. I learned, thanks to Diamond's enthusiasm for botany, exactly how plants were first domesticated and the snowball effect this created continent by continent (it was interesting to learn that farming was more of a consequential practice than a deliberate one). I learned that only few large mammal species are domesticable due to the list of criteria needed, and that most of them have historically resided in Eurasia (Zebras, for example, are a large African mammal species that aren't fit to domesticate like horses). I learned of how the axes of continents are important and how this relates to climate and natural barriers. I learned about the evolution of germs, writing, technology and even government. The richness of the subject matter was not only intriguing standalone, it was extensively cited and collectively consolidated the central point, which was that historical successes we attribute to general population groups are effectively explained by environment.

    What rounded out Diamond's book was his responsible conclusion. Despite convincingly outlining how environment relates to hegemony among peoples, he accepts that it remains to be seen whether innate intelligence plays a role. His thesis doesn't disprove that intelligence in genetic groups differ; rather it explains that you don't need to appeal to that claim in order to make sense of history. Something as simple as living in fertile land with domesticable animals predicts the advent of farming, which predicts increasing population density, specialisation, political organisation and the subsequent perks of warfare prowess and technological innovation. Retrospective examination of historical groups relative to their environment consistently and repeatedly proves this relationship, among others Diamond had listed. This model of approaching history is so effective that it begs the question as to why it took until 1998 for it to enter the public conscious.

    I expected to find many avenues to nitpick about this book, but I surprisingly found little aside from Diamond's reckless prologue musings. I don't expect a book like this to be flawless in every micro-detail it comprises of, since it was written 20 years ago, so minor addenda and revisions don't bother me. The central point remains crystal clear, and the bevy of examples, citations and arguments used to build on it are a mountainous foundation which falling rocks don't compromise. Fantastic entry into anthropology for a layman like me.

    9/10
     
  17. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson



    A fairly straightforward biography of the late Renaissance polymath. Isaacson did the due diligence of sifting through Leonardo's archive of handwritten notes, putting them in context for the reader and incorporating them in the overall timeline of his life. He even went as far as to visit Leonardo's hometown and do a little investigative tourism around Italy, accessing the works firsthand (he managed to get an exclusive appointment with Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a famous sketch of the 'ideally proportioned man' inside a perfect circle, which is locked away in a vault away from the sun to protect it from wear), getting nuanced insights into particular disputed art that may or may not be by Leonardo's hand, and generally becoming intimately attuned to the overall story of Da Vinci's life. What results is a fleshed out synopsis of who Leonardo was, what he did, and key dramas that influenced him, and subsequently society as a whole.

    Aside from my basic curiosities being piqued, there was something left to be wanted when I flipped the last page. The explanations of Da Vinci's artworks felt pretentious and elitist - something a pocket-stuffed Frenchman would declare while stroking his mustache, rather than a genuine deconstruction of why the piece is considered technically impressive or artistically profound. The language used is overly assuming, vague and comes off as pandering. As if eyeballing art isn't Isaacson's profession, which it isn't, but he tries to hide it, which he can't. More importantly, the inner workings of Da Vinci's genius was never explored or fleshed out. His flying machine, engineering projects, other inventions and mathematical obsessions were hinted at in the introduction, which led me to believe they'd be explored when the timeline arrived at them. To my disappointment, none of them were. Just illustrations of said machines taken straight out of Da Vinci's notes, and superficial statements of what that project, and what that note, was about. Leonardo tried to square a circle, says the intro; Leonardo tried to square a circle, says the chapter in which Leonardo squaring the circle is a central topic. Okay, and? In a book where Isaacson flew to Venice and retrieved The Vitruvian Man from its secretive vault, he could've put in some effort to understand more of these mathematically strenuous arcs in Da Vinci's legacy.

    Nonetheless, the biography did its job, and getting too in-depth is not only difficult to do without attempting to read Da Vinci's mind, it would have bloated the book beyond the 600 some pages it came in.

    6.5/10
     
  18. Kitsune `★.。・:*:・ Advisor

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    I’m surprised you found the descriptions of his artwork pretentious. I thought the author did a good job of verbally capturing certain essential qualities in the works described. The way he talked about the Ginevra de' Benci portrait in particular summed up how I felt about it when I saw it up close a few years ago.
     
  19. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Perhaps I'm being too harsh on Isaacson, since he undoubtedly researched his opinions (thus extracting them from mainstream consensus) before committing them to publication, but liberal assumptions about grand allegories and philosophies from Leonardo based on facial microexpressions comes off as pretentious to me. This may be more of a criticism of art viewing culture as a whole, but I have to judge the book as it's written.
     
  20. Mider T VM Rapist

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    Why am I just finding out about this thread?:hmm

    I enjoyed the show. Maybe I'll check the book out.
     
  21. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: What Should We Do with Our Brain? By Catherine Malabou



    Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher that got her doctorate under the supervision of the late Jacques Derrida. Her most recognized work is the concept of plasticity, which is the central focus of this book. Plasticity is, in a nutshell, the ability to both take and give form. Malabou borrowed the concept from neuroplasticity, a phenomenon in neuroscience in which the brain changes its physical structure, from grey matter to synapses. A relatively new discovery, neuroplasticity shows us how plastic our brains really are, even in adulthood, which challenges reductionist, genetically deterministic and (to Malabou) "neoliberal" ideas about competency, intelligence and overall wellbeing. Malabou takes the concept of neuroplasticity and runs away with it, building on an idea of "plasticity" as a whole, and taking it out of the realm of neuroscience and into the realm of the social sciences. She does this by first exploring the etymology of the word "plastic" and why it's appropriate for her philosophy. Then she attempts to deconstruct neuroplasticity, and why it's insufficient in appropriately dealing with important philosophical questions like consciousness. Her notion of plasticity is, therefore, a proposed bridge between hard science and philosophy, where reductionist and anti-reductionist schools of thought can meet on a middle ground with respect to how our physical brains affect our social behaviors.

    That's the charitable synopsis.



    This is what it was like reading it.

    To be fair to Malabou, her original work was written in French, and the version I read was translated by Sebastian Rand (who himself is a Georgia State University Philosopher). Nonetheless, if the translation at all accurately mirrored Malabou's tendency to dress up her literature with unnecessary verbiage, my negative impression of her philosophy is vindicated. There was little wheat - that is, actually meaningful and concise points that built on a central argument. In contrast, there was a lot of chaff - that is, vague, arbitrary, esoteric bloviating with superficially intelligent references made to other philosophers, as if by quoting someone important the preceding paragraph of meandering word porn is suddenly profound.

    Malabou asks the question, "what should we do with our brains?" By the book's end, she hasn't answered that question herself, aside from a meaningless platitude-driven monologue. Her work here, as a result, boils down to saying "neuroplasticity exists, neuroscience can't explain consciousness, plasticity is a cool concept so let's use it to solve our problems, psychoanalysis is important".


    3.5/10
     
  22. Kitsune `★.。・:*:・ Advisor

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    Musing about Mona Lisa’s smile is very common and nothing too out there. DaVinci was a genius at playing with subtle emotional cues in the face and body. Pointing out a possible allegory for the mysteries behind all of our faces doesn’t sound off base to me.

    Art criticism is extremely subjective, so what the author perceives isn’t wrong per se. When he starts to guess what Leonardo might have been thinking you have to take it with a grain of salt, but the viewer’s response to art has to understood as a personal sensory experience.

    That’s not to say art historical study is about making things up. Scholars look at art memes from the time and take cultural context into consideration. Certain conventions in paintings actually meant something to educated viewers back then and it’s an art historian’s job to put themselves in that position when trying to understand what the artist may have intended with the work.

    I actually did have some problems with the book but for different reasons. When I read a really top-notch biography I feel as if I know the person. This book left me feeling a little distant from Leonardo. If I remember correctly, he was so focused in his notebooks on scientific and artistic discovery that he didn’t leave us much mundane information about himself. Those details can actually help make the subject more human so the biography wasn’t as engrossing as it could have been. That’s really the fault of the author even if he’s working with limited source material.

    Edit: If you want to see really top notch art historians in action, watch any BBC art documentary hosted by Simon Schama, Andrew Graham Dixon or Alastair Sooke. The way they explain a work of art to the lay audience far exceeds what’s done in this book.
     
  23. afgpride Moderator Moderator potato chip eater

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    Finished: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini



    A fairly lukewarm pop-psych book often referenced among "the classics" in business essentials. Written in 1984, the world of anecdotes used are visibly dated, but the underlying psychology that narrates them nonetheless hold water today. Cialdini goes over fixed patterns, the contrast principle, reciprocity, consistency and commitment, social proof, liking, authority, social proof and scarcity in what he describes as "weapons of influence". He starts by stating what the concept is, and then combines anecdotes with statistical data to argue why they're true. This method was more effective than I initially expected, since I was left utterly convinced of the main points after each chapter, though the anecdotes did get tiring.

    I can't say I was completely blown away by the insights delivered in this work, but certain "common sense" things I took for granted and thought were of marginal influence were shown to be much more impacting. Most interesting aside from the degree to which these concepts are effective is the denial of the people that succumb to them. Almost invariably, when something seemingly mundane has far reaching consequences (like the attractiveness of someone when buying from them), the same people when later polled will vehemently deny being influenced by that particular factor.

    Would I recommend this book? Maybe. As an entry into basic persuasive psychology, this gets the job done, both as an entrepreneur/salesperson and as a potential target of such.

    6/10
     
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