Andy's Staff Favorites
Andy splits his reading time between poetry, physics, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy (mostly Eastern). He has been with Annie Bloom's since July, 2011.
A series of linked essays on different aspects of linguistics, this book doesn’t deliver just one truth about language. Each chapter debunks a common assumption about language; for instance, that the proper use of language is declining (spoiler: it can’t). The book as a whole is very readable and entertaining, presenting seemingly complicated, technical ideas in a lucid manner. A wealth of material is covered (etymology; phonetics; the social, psychological, cognitive and anatomical dimensions of language; translation) but all in a way that’s neither stuffy, nor academic, but quite fun. You will also be introduced to some brilliant linguistic thinkers: Wittgenstein, Grice, Tomasello, Chomsky and others. A light read on a heavy topic.
Stanisław Lem, the Polish science fiction writing genius, gave us a short story par excellence with The Seventh Voyage. It’s one of many adventures of his indefatigable comedic protagonist Ijon Tichy. In this instance the innocent Ijon is merely cruising in his space ship when he gets caught in a time loop. As a result, past and future Ijons begin showing up inside the ship and hilarious mayhem ensues as they attempt to extricate themselves from the loop. Not all of the Ijons work well together and the potential frustrations of arguing with oneself are hysterically exploited. An enormous added bonus is that the Caldecott winning illustrator Jon Muth has turned the text into a graphic novel! His playful pictures perfectly complement the text and have made a unique masterpiece into a double masterpiece.
Every brain needs a break and every mind needs some down time. Unfortunately, the brain is constantly seeking the next experience, which our society overwhelms us with, and has also evolved to expect the worst. Luckily, in Empty Brain Happy Brain, neurobiologist Niels Birbaumer shows how we're able to reach a state of emptiness in which "the defense and stress systems in the brain are inhibited, a strange kind of openness occurs in the senses, thinking in words and sentences is rolled back, and any feeling of 'drive' ebbs away." Music, meditation, flotation tanks, marching in step, chanting at sporting events, arrowhead poison and other portals to emptiness are described. The Buddha, Schopenhauer, locked-in patients, psychopaths and college students grace the pages. It is a wide-ranging book connecting many disparate disciplines, most interestingly contemplative practice and neuroscience.
This is a wonderfully unrelenting critique of the myopic do-gooding of the moneyed elite. The ruthless business practices of "winners"—think financiers, Silicon Valley CEOs, globalizers—cause and perpetuate inequality. These same winners then try to change the world for the better with their ill-begotten wealth by employing the same market-based strategies that caused the inequality in the first place, while "keeping the social order largely as is." Giridharadas shows how this tack fails by interviewing thought leaders, a former president, entrepreneurs and others and by chronicling their incestuous meetings. He also details how this "philanthropy" undermines democracy by allowing anti-government elites to dictate which problems are addressed and the form of the solutions on an extra-governmental level. Threaded through the book is a documentation of the elite corruption of the intellectual public sphere and, quite often, words themselves. Fascinating and infuriating, Winners Take All provides another perspective on the corrosive effects of gross economic inequality.
The first half of Amy Chua’s look at politics through a tribal lens details how American blindness to tribal politics in our promulgation of democracy and free markets has resulted in many foreign policy disasters. Politicians and policy makers have not understood that political instability and extremism arise through the frustration and humiliation of economically and politically marginalized groups. In such fractious climates, “Vote-seeking demagogues find that the best way to mobilize popular support is not by offering rational policy proposals but by appealing to ethnic identity, stoking historical grievances, and exploiting group fear and anger.” The same logic is applied in the more detailed second half of the book which shows the tribal roots of the divisiveness in current American politics. A concise look at the rise of identity politics on both the left and the right is insightful, as is an analysis of how demographic changes fuel tribalism, but most illuminating is her detailing of the chasm between the “rural/heartland/working-class” and the “urban/coastal” elites.
Written in the 1920s but only recently come to light, this is easily one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a compelling story full of: tall tale adventures, continental Idealist philosophy, page-turning action, devastating critiques of Communist Russia, novel theories of probability, poetic language and puns galore. Make sure you read the endnotes!
An insightful book that attempts to give an account of why reason arose in humans in the first place and why it has such a bad reputation at present. There are hundreds of cognitive biases that have been documented so how could something so bad have persisted in our species for so long? The short answer: human beings are out of their evolutionary context in our 24-7 fluorescently lit world. The most interesting conclusion of the book is that reason is naturally social. We think more clearly and come to better conclusions in dialogue with one another.
A sardonic, biting but side-splitting-laughter-inducing critique of our capitalist society set in the world of the Flintstones. It bears very little resemblance to the original cartoons but a slight familiarity with them makes the postmodern hilarity even more funny. The comics are peppered with a hope that is centered on making meaning in their (and our) world through our relationships with others.
It is fascinating how the incremental addition of simple elements with some seemingly simple assumptions leads to incredible results; e.g., E=mc2, rest mass, time dilation, length contraction, the inseparability of space and time. It involves the child's play of imagining experimental situations, building possible worlds--just trying things out to see what happens. Of course, it's all easy when someone has the answers and leads you very slowly through them, patiently repeating the difficult points and reminding you to keep reviewing things that look complicated. This is naturally what Susskind does in this, his third volume of The Theoretical Minimum series (and yes, the jokes are still so bad they'd make Groucho, et al. groan).
“The death of expertise…is a different problem than the historical fact of low levels of information among laypeople. The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture, and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.”
Nichols details how the Dunning-Kruger Effect, confirmation bias, and our social brains combine to stifle reasoned, in-depth argument and deliberation. He shellacs the customer service model of higher education and journalism, the state of journalism in general, Wikipedia, the Internet and its glut of information, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, experts themselves, and many more. This disturbing book makes plain what our shallow-to-nonexistent discourse and our inability to be intellectually humble is doing to our democracy. The truth is that, if you’re reading this book, you’re one of the least likely people who need to be doing so—because you read lengthy works and not just headlines. But it needs to be read.
The authors detail how, until directly questioned, we believe we understand a great many things about the world. They stress that the world is simply too complex and full of too many details for one mind to master, so we often rely on intuition instead of deliberation. We operate under this "knowledge illusion" in part because we rely on the thoughts and expertise of others while rarely explicitly acknowledging this. As such, intelligence is best conceived as being spread over a community. We're always working in teams and always relying on an unspoken "division of cognitive labor" while attempting to achieve our goals. The knowledge illusion results in a host of problems when we attempt to deal with complex issues (e.g., climate change, the economy, politics). The book shines when the authors remain in the areas of their expertise. When they venture into philosophy and physics, their examples are scant and the issues they bring in become oversimplified. This criticism (or compliment), of course, is a good example of the main thesis of the book.
To my knowledge this is the first translation of a primary work by Vasubandhu on a nonacademic press. It is an unbelievably dense philosophical treatise that deserves a chapter of commentary per verse, which is what Connelly gives us, along with his very readable translation. As the subtitle indicates, it is a guide for practice rather than a voluminous excursion into the detailed and complex realm of Yogacara philosophy. Connelly does give us a taste of the philosophy but mainly sticks to explicating what each verse can do to enhance anyone’s engagement with Buddhism. His insights are great and are delivered in a warm, caring fashion. Any time spent with Vasubandhu’s masterpiece is extremely rewarding. Consulting other translations and commentaries, many of which are helpfully cited in a bibliography, is highly recommended. I’ve only looked at three and, as with all translations, each one has its own slightly baffling indiosyncrasies!
An unbelievably funny romp through a great many foibles that evolution has gifted to our brains, which do often get us into trouble. Burnett is a neuroscientist that moonlights as a comedian and the dry British wit is relentless. He catalogues how different processes in our brains are often pulling in different directions, how our memories are unreliable and ego biased, how we terrify ourselves by obsessing over things that never did and never will happen, how we change our behaviors when we’re in groups and the list goes on. Certain chapters are also refreshingly self-skeptical—he doubts his own theories and often states that our techniques are not yet adequate for making strong claims about brain behavior. The book sometimes feels like it loses focus but in the end that is part of its charm—and certainly something our brains are good at as well.
A translation of a very interesting set of poems that many scholars believe is part of the oldest strata of Buddhist texts. The author does admit that he chose a provacative title, as it is not known exactly when these words were written down or if they were used only in a specific community of practitioners. None of that detracts from the powerful directness of these seemingly simple poems or from Fronsdal’s lucid commentary. Many of them do not have the numbered lists which became prominent with later systematizations of Buddhism, e.g., the five aggregates, the twelve links, four Noble Truths. The main message is one of letting go—of views, of the need to become anything or not become anything, of sensual desire...
This is an interesting book about something that is so common, so quotidian, and so useful that we overlook it: inner speech. Charles Fernyhough details his own “dialogic theory” of inner speech, which posits that we have silent conversations that take place in our heads with “virtual” partners of our own creation. All of us may have distinct, different conversation partners (the Faithful Friend, the Proud Rival, etc.), each of whom serve a different pragmatic purpose, which quite often involves planning. This ability to juggle many virtual perspectives is also something that is key for creativity. His chapters on reading to yourself and having linguistic interactions with characters while writing novels are fascinating. Fernyhough and many colleagues are also putting their research into the service of destigmatizing and alleviating the symptoms associated with “voice hearing” that have often fallen under the now very problematic label of schizophrenia. Fernyhough refreshingly supports a pluralistic view of inner speech. He gives the reductive theory he has been working on and makes room for other theories that, in the end, each have something to contribute to our understanding of this very complex and still (by his own admission) poorly understood phenomenon.
This is a very dense, methodical work of Buddhist philosophy that I’ve read through at least three times. I also spend time with individual chapters or individual verses almost on a daily basis. It’s safe to say this is a book that one can never quite finish. Some background is needed; if you’re not familiar with the Four Noble Truths, dependent arising, the five agreggates, etc., the book to start with is Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught. If you do have that acquaintence with Buddhism then you’ll find Nagarjuna’s precise lucidity nothing short of stunning.
A tightly crafted historical survey of Protestant Christianity in America and its relationship with money from just before the America Revolution to the present day. It is much more detailed in its treatment of Prostestantism, including colorful portraits of charismatic preachers and revivals, than in its descriptions of how America developed its love affair with capital. Lehmann has distilled the development of this country’s obsessive focus on the individual and that individual’s money down to American Protestantism’s antithetical stress on a single person’s Gnostic contact with God and its stress on the worldly success of that person as a marker of their divine favor. The book provides part of the answer to the question of how America became so inequitable.
If you have not read a book on cognitive biases this is a great place to start. Psychology has become very skilled at showing how bad we all are at thinking carefully and logically and how much we misestimate our inabilities in everyday life. Our intuitions fail us regularly and this often has dire social consequences. The aim of the book is to correct this--to make the reader "wiser" and better able to live with others. I kept saying to myself that the book was written too simply. It's easy to read, easy to understand, but it kept providing more and more little epiphanies. The fantastic first chapter delineates how our staunch adherence to our own viewpoints can ensnare us in many unnecessary conflicts. The following chapters highlight strategies to un-entrench ourselves. Much of the reported research has to do with personal psychology and then gets tied in with larger social problems near the end of the book; conflicts between nation states, underperformance in the classroom (specifically "stereotype threat"), and climate change. The only thing missing was an authorial self-critique. How many of the cited studies were done in contrived laboratory settings with college students as subjects? This omission by no means invalidates the plethora of insights in this enlightening work.
The lovely refrain of A Fearless Heart is: just like me, everyone desires happiness and wishes to avoid suffering. This elementary observation is the basis from which "compassion cultivation training" begins. Compassion is not something new we must learn or add to ourselves, it is always within us but may require refining. "Through training...we can make compassion our basic stance, the very outlook with which we perceive ourselves and the world around us, so that we engage with the world from that place." Eminently practical, the text is full of meditative exercises to help make compassion the basis for all of our interactions. The book contains a deeply insightful diagnosis of the detriments of putting a premium on individual glory; the most poignant chapters were those diagnosing our endemic lack of self-compassion and the exercises to alleviate this unnecessary suffering. Though its roots are in Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practice, "the exercises are spiritual practice[s] that can be embraced by everyone, those of different faiths as well as of no faith." Many Western studies of meditation are cited to underscore the utility of the practices. Both East and West agree on the paradoxical result: being kind to someone else will make you happy, too.
A wonderful presentation of how two eminently pragmatic endeavors can inform and advance one another: Western neuroscience and Eastern contemplative practice (specifically Tibetan Buddhism in this work). No background in either is necessary to absorb the wealth of insights lucidly laid out in this book. If you're interested in consciousness and how the brain and mind interact, this is a great book to tackle.
“If you want to succeed in a job interview…or in choosing a life partner, you can be quite sure that there is no equation that will guarantee you success.” What we actually utilize in these everyday situations that are not governable by explicit mathematically based theories are algorithms that “run in environments unknown to the designer and… learn by interacting with the environment how to effectively act in it.” He makes a valiant go at defining and quantifying these pragmatic, “common sense” strategies, which include generalizing as well as reasoning and learning. The model of reasoning presented is simple but powerful: we manipulate (using his concept of “robust logic”) a limited number of concepts within our working memory, all of which come from either the complex outside world or our long-term memory. He does acknowledge the main obstacle to this work: “…the learning algorithms that are hard-wired in the brain are yet to be learned.” The application of his theories to biochemistry and behavior in an evolutionary context seem premature, specifically because how the former gives rise to the latter is not understood at present and may not be tractable. He gives a nice overview of the limits of computation and machine learning while not employing very much math or technical jargon. The philosophical extrapolations near the end of the book are quite good as well.
Fair warning is given in the introduction: this book is for “mathematically literate non-physicists” and a “basic knowledge of calculus and linear algebra” are necessary. Susskind and Freeman give us the bare minimum for attempting to understand quantum theory, showing us the basic “rules of the game,” laying them out methodically and, thankfully, not too quickly. Susskind does not digress into any philosophical discussion whatsoever, almost achieving metaphysical and ontological neutrality, never speculating on the quiddity of quanta themselves. One could almost call it quantitative epistemology, a numerical and symbolic mapping of an (almost) unbelievably abstract territory. When I saw Anton Zeilenger speak, he swooned over the math of quantum theory, and Susskind does show the elegance and beauty of the symbols dancing and their almost miraculous delivery of numerical predictions. The book also cleared up some things that have bothered me about quantum theory: Why are imaginary numbers necessary? What is the nature of entanglement within the formalism? What is the wave in the famous Wave Function? What kind of a space is Hilbert space? The only real disappointment in the book is a lack of suggested reading. I am grateful that Susskind has taken the time to make this fascinating subject approachable above the qualitative plane—the only way to skin the quantum cat is with math.
This is a necessary book for anyone with a modicum of interest in the claims of neuroscience. The authors gently make the case that caution and skepticism are mandatory: neuroscience is still in its infancy and most of the promises its proponents have made have not come to pass. They undermine the certainty of the claims of many neuroscientists by detailing the limitations of their techniques and instruments, e.g., EEG and fMRI. Their most obvious yet most striking proof is that a brightly colored brain scan is not a picture or snapshot of any brain. Satel and Lilienfeld go on to apply their skeptical outlook to many areas where brain science has been making inroads, including marketing, the treatment of addiction, lie-detecting, moral responsibility and, most disturbingly, the courtroom. The book doesn't just decry brain science using technical arguments. It also employs ideas from philosophers and legal scholars to show how we can't reduce the whole human being to one organ. They emphasize the importance of the fact that each mind lives in the context of many other minds and that nature and nurture are intertwined. Satel, a psychiatrist, and Lilienfeld, a psychologist, are both very hopeful about the future of neuroscience--they just aren't keen on its current grandiosity.
Deacon’s aim in Incomplete Nature is to characterize things that are absent (e.g., function, reference, purpose, value) using information theory, thermodynamics and chaos theory. He mobilizes arguments based on evolution and emergence and coins some neologisms to allow him to push those concepts forward. Along the way he attacks reductive materialist accounts of consciousness and puts forth his own theories of how the first forms of life may have started. Heavy on philosophy and dense with physics, it is worth the effort!
Part neuroscience, part history of ideas--a wide ranging and challenging work. Even if you don't agree with McGilchrist's conclusions he gives you a lot to think about.
A fantastic and accesible introduction to Buddhism written by an excellent scholar. It makes clear how coherent, consistent and practical the Buddha's teachings are.
When Jack Gilbert titled a collection of poems Refusing Heaven he meant it. His work is an affirmation of this world and our myriad experiences in it. The gravitas his poems are infused with is infectious. In a poem called “Métier” he states flatly, “I don’t/write funny poems.” He deals with the grand old themes that are threaded through the human condition:
The overcoming of suffering, from “A Kind of Courage”: "Until all the world is overcome/by what goes up and up in us, singing and dancing/and throwing down flowers nevertheless."
The dealing with death (of his wife of eleven years), from “Married”: "I came back from the funeral and crawled/around the apartment, crying hard,/searching for my wife's hair./For two months got them from the drain,/from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,/and off the clothes in the closet."
Passion, love and eroticism, from “The Great Fires”: Passion is a fire of many woods,/each of which gives off its special odor/so we can know the many kinds/that are not love..."
His poems are short, emphatic and full of sentence fragments that ground the reader in the here and now. His career is a modern legend: he won the Yale Younger Series award for his first book (which was all but inaccessible until now) and then seemingly disappeared. He spent time living in Europe and then about twenty years later published his next collection of poems. He never really spent any time on the American Poetry “scene.” His Collected Poems is a long awaited treasure trove for fans and includes over twenty uncollected poems.
This is a truly singular piece of fiction. It’s a post-apocalyptic masterpiece, a page-turner, fantastically imaginative, philosophical and darkly comic. Most importantly, it is written in what could only be called garbled English. At first it seems almost unreadable but very quickly Hoban’s mastery of language becomes clear. Many words take on new and different meanings. Others express multiple definitions simultaneously. When you’re done with the book you’ll be able to read “Riddleyspeak” with ease. And, yes, this is the same Russell Hoban who wrote Bedtime for Frances!
One of the most creatively designed children's picture books I've ever seen. It's a fun surrealist story that will introduce Magritte and fascinate anyone.
This reading edition is culled from the three volume The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Varorium Edition which contains every known version of each of the poems. In this reading edition R.W. Franklin has selected the latest version of each poem and has retained Dickinson’s idiosyncratic (and wonderful) spellings, punctuation and capitalizations. Franklin is the expert on Dickinson’s manuscripts so this reading edition is the new authoritative volume of her poems. Compare the versions of the poem “Dare you see a soul at the White Heat” in Franklin’s edition of the poems with that in Thomas Johnson’s edition. You’ll notice a slight but significant difference!
I thought I couldn’t cook Indian food due to the vast array of spices that weren’t in my cupboard and the fact that I don’t have a Tandoori oven—too many special things to get that I would only use for one recipe and never again. I do love my slow cooker, so I flipped through The Indian Slow Cooker when I saw it and figured I’d give it a go. I then spent the miniscule amount of money at the bulk spice section at the Food Coop to make a meal happen. After eight hours on low I discovered that I could cook Indian food. I made Aloo Gobi!!! Then came the dals. And the nihari. And the chicken tikka masala. This is the most consistent cookbook I have ever cooked from. The recipes that aren’t fantastic are excellent. Highly recommended.
An excellent exposition of how getting exactly what we want as soon as we want is unraveling our political structures and our ability to relate to one another as social beings who deserve each other’s compassion. The analysis of the erosion of the middle class by corporations focusing only on this quarter’s profit is well done. Most importantly buying this book right now will make you feel good. Chapter three will detail how if you use your credit card you might not even remember how much you spent after you purchase this awesome book.
It focuses on TV, but most of the ideas can be applied to the Internet as well. A fantastic, trenchant analysis of what entertainment has done to our intellects.
Gazzaniga is a major figure in neuroscience and this book shows the breadth of his understanding. The first part of the book is an excellent rundown on current knowledge in the field. He also details some history, personal as well as from the distant past. He then brings in free will and determinism and highlights what we can and can’t say about those concepts. Instead of making definitive claims he states what direction we must go in to further explore how our minds work and the relationship between the mind and the brain. His introduction of downward causation is intriguing and his idea about morality and how it arises from the interaction of individuals is interesting as well. His most intriguing idea by far is that we have an "interpreter" module in our brains that explains our actions to us after we've carried them out! The book is fun and readable to boot!
This book details the pitfalls of believing what you think. Kahneman has an extremely inquisitive mind and has done an enormous amount of research on how we think we make decisions. It is a wonderful compendium of his work and the work of others who brought the insights of psychology into the field of economics (often being met with great resistance along the way). It’s both fun and disconcerting to try the thought experiments the book is peppered with. In the end the insights gained are definitely powerful and hopefully helpful in our day to day lives
Stanlislaw Lem is shelved in science fiction but would be found in European philosophical fantasy if we had such a section (or if any bookstore had such a section). Solaris is an excellent book that forces the reader to reassess what being human is. It also is a sharp critique of science and it’s a good yarn to boot. Deep and gripping at the same time.
By far the best "lay" physics book I have ever picked up. It seems most physics books fit in one of two categories: extremely technical or extremely watered-down. Penrose's book is right in between. In the first half he catches you up with the math that modern physics employs (Riemann Spheres, complex analysis, tensor calculus, hyperfunctions and much, much more!). The second half is a run down of modern physics itself. And it's infused with Penrose's unique insights and his love of the subject matter. Highly recommended.
This is a wonderful, accessible and funny run down of the entire history of economics and a succinct explication of the current economic crisis—which ends up showing the painful repetition of history in some detail. If you know what a credit default swap is, or why you might want to avoid the riskiest tranche in a mortgage backed security, this book is too simple for you. If these terms mean nothing to you, or if you don’t know the similarities between the actions of Hank Paulson and Andrew Mellon, this book is necessary reading. It is a great starting point for exploring our current economic situation and its intimate ties to politics. And, again, the author and illustrator have done the impossible: it’s funny and entertaining! It’s actually a page-turner! This would be an excellent book for a teenager too. Go to economixcomix.com and you can see the list of references for this well-researched (if biased) book. - Andy
A fun introduction to the mathematics of the infinite with philosophical overtones to boot. It includes some interesting personal narrative as well as an interview with Kurt Godel. There are also exercises (with answers!) to help keep you thinking.
This book is not for the faint of heart. It is a wonderful, highly technical account of all the theories trying to account for the origination of life on this planet by a physicist turned biologist. Familiarity with information theory, molecular biology and genetics is a must. -Andy
A nice translation of a monumental work of Buddhism. Quite helpful in emptying the mind but it is quite technical. Familiarity with basic Buddhist terms and concepts is definitely necessary to absorb the full import of the book.
A great collection of sutras organized by theme. There is a nice general introduction as well as small introductions before each thematic chapter. -Andy
A fun romp through Western Philosophy. A good story too!