- Social intelligence
That’s what happens in the central event of There But For The — a man, Miles, gets up in the middle of an excruciating dinner party, goes upstairs, and barricades himself into the spare bedroom. He stays there for many weeks, eventually becoming a local celebrity.
Redirect lays out a set of techniques for achieving real, lasting change in our behaviour and improving our lives. Actually, this book doesn’t really tell you what to do — it isn’t a self-help book — instead, it describes why these techniques work so well (and also points out that many other ideas don’t).
Story-editing is a way to change behaviour indirectly, by changing the narratives we all have about the kinds of people we are, and the way we interpret the thing that happen to us. This is important because flawed concepts of ourselves and others leads us to all kinds of damaging cognitive errors (see also, for example, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Blind Spots). All of us fall prey to these errors. Yes, that includes you. (Also, me.) Wilson also talks about story-prompting, subtle ways to influence behaviour for the better (or otherwise, as the advertising industry has discovered). This is covered thoroughly by another book, Nudge, which I have read but somehow forgot to write about.
“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” This plot micro-summary was enough to make me pick up this book. That and Kate Atkinson’s reputation. I had planned to read her first novel when it was released; then her second and third, but somehow I never managed to read any of them. I probably will now.
So I wondered, suppose you did get the chance to live your life again and again. How would you know that you were getting repeat chances? And how would you know when you finally got it right? And then what would happen? Atkinson manages to convincingly address these questions, but without letting the technical issues dominate an affecting story of an engaging and (necessarily) resilient protagonist living through two world wars. The story is about her inner life, her family life, and society during these unimaginably difficult times.
This book is all about the field of Behavioural Ethics — how what we do is affected by the way we think about what we do. And vice versa. (Perhaps I could have explained that better.) Probably the most important concept is the idea of Ethical Fade, which happens when a problem with a strong ethical dimension is recast as a different kind of problem. For example, company executives trying to decide how much to charge for some drug might think of it as purely a business decision; the ethical element fades away, leading to a decision that may benefit the company’s profits but is actually at odds with what the executives would normally wish to do.
This is related to the hoops that our minds jump through in trying to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance. This idea is developed more in an earlier book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).
This book of thoughtful mini-essays on life’s big topics is a pleasure to read. But maybe I only think that because I agree with a lot of what Grayling has to say. But maybe I only agree with him because he’s right. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.
Most of the essays are only a page or two, so this is a good book to delve into at random. (In fact that’s what Grayling recommends. I always ignore recommendations like that though — I’m a “begin-at-the-beginning” kind of guy.) They are grouped into three categories: Virtues and Attributes (such as Fear, Death, and Blame); Foes and Fallacies (Racism, Christianity, Capitalism); and Amenities and Goods (Education, Reading, Age). The essays originally appeared as newspaper columns, so there is some repetition and a few rough edges — the book could do with a bit of editing.
Kahneman suggests thinking of the mind as composed of two notional systems: the fast-thinking, intuitive System 1; and the slow, deliberate, accurate but lazy System 2. The interplay between these two results in the amazing, yet often incomprehensible, behaviour of our minds.
This classic book lays out, as you might expect, a technique for producing ideas. It’s very short and simple. In a nutshell, you must maintain a good supply of general knowledge, steep yourself in specialist knowledge about your problem, and then forget about it and go and do something else. The ideas will come as if by magic.
This book is almost 50 years old, but its technique is still good today. I’ve read these ideas in various other current books and on the web, so it seems that many people are discovering it even today. It does seem to make sense, and for me at least it works.
The Guardian called The Fall “the most perfect of his meditations on human isolation and bewilderment before an enigmatic universe.” Yet for all that, I really enjoyed it. It even made me laugh in some places. Well, smile at least. Grimly.
The characters in Fight Club have a cruel self-destructiveness that I would hate to encounter in real life, but seems strangely appealing on the page. It’s the only way they can exert control over their lives, and it grows into Fight Club and spirals out of control in quite a satisfying way.
I wasn’t excited by this book when it first appeared, even when the movie version duly arrived. But I loved the Dust Brothers’ single “This is Your Life”, which consisted of a collection of rants by the character Tyler Durden with electronic accompaniment. I loved the result, which sounds like some twisted motivational speech or a dystopian self-help tape. (“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake!” etc.) I made a mental note to read the book. And now, barely 12 years later, I finally have. It’s not for the squeamish though — the descriptions of the fights are graphic enough to discourage me from watching the film version. I think I’ll listen to the Dust Brothers again.
Some books are so good that you can’t put them down — you have to keep reading them, even if it means reading by torchlight in the middle of the night. Jim Flynn has read a lot of good books — The Torchlight List describes 200 of the best.
I love this book. Fiona Farrell started out writing a travel book about walking in different countries and places, but the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11 imposed themselves on the writing. As she says, “The quake sent a jagged tear right through my text.”
The result is a book of stories and observations from many years of living and walking in various places. But it’s shot through with stories, essays and poems about the Christchurch earthquakes, and earthquakes through history.
I have always found it exasperating the way politicians rarely admit being wrong. They should simply say “sorry, I made a mistake, but I learned from it and won’t make that mistake again.” Instead, they evade, they prevaricate, and they spout spurious justifications. Why do they do this, even when (as described in this book) owning up to mistakes will often actually make them more popular? Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) offers an answer.
When we make a mistake, our self-image (I am smart and moral) conflicts with the facts (I just did a stupid and bad thing). This leads to feelings of cognitive dissonance, which our minds find intolerable. To reduce the dissonance, we should change our self-image (I am smart but sometimes I do stupid things). But instead, we try to change the facts (it wasn’t really a bad thing because it was for their own good and only I was smart enough to realise that).
I don’t know how many books have been written about neurotic 12-year-olds, but I doubt many of them are as good as The 10pm Question. The central character, Frankie, is a portrait of a boy struggling with (he feels) the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s so serious, yet still a kid and a very human character. Pretty much all the other characters are weird or colourful in their own way, but never too cartoonish (with the possible exception of the Aunties — but they are so likeable I don’t really mind).
The book’s official site has a little essay written by the author, describing the ideas that went into the book and how it was written. Don’t read it until you’ve read the book though.
I never seem to have enough time to read all the books I want to read. So I grabbed this book, which promises to put more books in your life (including itself, I suppose).
The thing I really liked is the idea of maintaining a Library of Candidates, a fancy name for the pile of books you own but have not yet read. Having lots of unread books has always seemed like a bad thing to me. I have thought of it like a large pile of clothes that have to be ironed, as if reading books were an arduous chore instead of a pleasure. Instead, I should revel in the number of unread books on my shelf, secure in the knowledge that I won’t run out. I will keep all such books together on my shelves, so I can easily choose one during those happy moments when I have time to start a new book.
100 Ways to Happy Children: A guide for busy parents by Dr Timothy Sharp
What parent, busy or otherwise, doesn’t want happy children? This book is a good list of reminders for all these things that parents know they should do, but sometimes forget.
“The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” is the subtitle of this book and a pretty good summary of it too. We tend to feel bad about making mistakes, but Better by Mistake helps remind us that mistakes are one of the most important learning tools we have.
Two of this book’s ideas resonated with me. The first is that effort is more important than results. I think this is particularly true for people as they are growing up — you learn more from trying and failing than you do from effortlessly succeeding. I have found that children (mine and others’) respond more positively when praised for effort rather than achievement — they keep on trying, rather than just basking in the warm pleasant glow of approval.
This useful book is a careful and spirited defence of the idea that children should be taught to think for themselves rather than uncritically accept the views of some authority, be it parental, religious or governmental. You’d think that this view would be completely uncontroversial. But surprisingly many people mistakenly think that this leads to anarchy, moral relativism, a rejection of traditional values, or all of these things.
Every time I read a graphic novel, I become keenly aware of yet another vast area of culture that I am largely oblivious of.
This clever, self-referential, beautiful book is a kind of fictionalised biography of a graphic novelist, as written by… himself. It’s also a mystery, since he has actually disappeared, and clues are pieced together in interviews with his family. There’s text, photostrips, and many comic strips. There are appearances from historical figures from literature, music and other arts. God is also a minor character. There’s a lot in this book — while reading it I had the same feeling I get when talking with a bunch of smart people. I learned some things, I saw things from a different viewpoint, and I had a lot of fun. And that is what I call a really good book.
Are we truly in control of our own actions, or are they are really determined by our genes and environment? Are our brains really just machines operating according to the laws of physics? Is our free will nothing more than an illusion? And if it is, how can we be morally responsible for anything?
These questions are just about the biggest and most difficult questions we can think about. I know what the answers are, but if you don’t, it would be worth your while to read the first half of “My Brain Made Me Do It” by Eliezer Sternberg. Sternberg raises the questions, discusses some of the evidence and research and identifies some current approaches. It’s a good exploration of the topic and it does get you thinking.
Here comes science! This is a great CD/DVD for the young people in your life — and that includes you. I gave it to Jay for his 5th birthday recently. TMBG do a nice line in kids’ music and video, and this is the best so far.
I love TMBG’s regular albums, but their kids’ stuff is understandably not always my cup of tea. No! was pretty good, but Here Come the ABCs was just too simplistic for my sophisticated musical sensibilities. (My pre-school children quite liked it though.) But Here Comes Science is just about on a par with their best. I didn’t like all the “funny” voices on ABCs, but Science keeps them to a minimum.
This is a collection of short stories; but mostly they are so short I would call them sketches rather than stories. Some are only a paragraph or two. Quite dense and evocative. Some are quite affecting, such as the title story.
Thanks to Leslie for lending me this on a long plane journey many years ago. (2000, if you must know.)
I love the way that some of the word combinations lead to odd turns of phrase and overextended metaphors that you wouldn’t see in any normal book, such as
This book is not really about being right. It’s about winning arguments, even when you’re wrong. The 38 tactics include such classics as “Use your opponent’s views”, “Beg the question” and the ultimate: “Become personal, insulting, rude”. You’ll recognise these from many annoying and unsatisfying arguments you’ve had. This book helps you avoid them, and if necessary, use them yourself. Very useful, and all based on “the natural baseness of human nature”. Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on that.
Thanks to Wikisource and the wonders of copyright law, you can read The Art of Always Being Right online for free.
The increasing amount of choice we have now allows us to lead lives that are objectively better, but subjectively worse than before. This thought-provoking book by Barry Schwartz tries to show why the increasing amount of choice in our lives isn’t making us happier — in fact, it’s making us less happy. Fortunately, he also describes solutions to allow us to manage the negative effects of choice.
I tend to agree with him in general. Here’s a rather trivial example of a way I have tried to avoid the problem. When confronted with a restaurant menu, I try to read down the menu until I find something that sounds good to me. Then I stop, and order that thing. There are some restaurants I have been to several times where I have never read to the end of the menu, because I know that I will end up agonising over my choice and thinking I should have chosen something else anyway.
The film-makers dug deep into their box of tricks for this film. The timeline zooms back and forth across the 500 days. A voiceover occasionally offers explanations. There’s a surreal moment when the thunderstruck protagonist turns into a drawing and gets erased, and an even more surreal song-and-dance number during an earlier happy moment.
That guy from The Office (who despite many other noteworthy roles including this one is destined always to be known only as “That guy from The Office“) really is pretty funny. He’s much more likeable in this film than the painful idiots he plays in The Office and Extras.
(OK, his real name is Ricky Gervais. But I had to look it up.)
Headless Chickens played their first gig in almost a decade last Friday. The setlist was packed with great songs, the crowd was into it, the sound was excellent. They rocked.
Headless Chickens have been one of my favourite bands since the early ’90s, even though they pretty much called it a day in about 2000. I remember listening to their first recordings on BFM in New Zealand 20 years ago, and then the splash they made in Australia a few years later with their Body Blow album. I still listen to their music now, so imagine my surprise when the Fiona McDonald we met when we moved back to Auckland turned out to be Fiona Headless Chicken, whose sweet yet gutsy voice helped make the Chooks such a unique band. And imagine my even more surprised surprise when I found out that the band were going to re-form for a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Mellow mellifluous melodies. The Bads are a girl/boy duo from New Zealand; you could call them a guitar-based pop/rock group, or even a “popular beat combo” (as John Peel used to say). But that would just be lazy pigeonholing, so if you pretend you didn’t read that then I will pretend I didn’t write it. Anyway, it seems that of the two Bads, Diane does most of the singing, with Brett singing backup and breaking into the lead occasionally. I can’t find any information on what they each play, so I suppose they are both prodigious multi-instrumentalist polymaths.
Song titles such as Feels Like Rain, Trouble Rides A Fast Horse and Bush Fire Sunset make this sound like good ol’ country music. The first of these songs does sound pretty much like that, with its lazy drawl and twangin’ guitar, but the rest of the album shows some nice variation. The opening song Off The Rails has just the most irresistible chorus — I find it tremendously uplifting, in a minor-key sort of way. The driving Carry The Weight is another of my favourites, with powerful guitar and nice male/female harmonies.
Here’s a set of simple, affecting songs, beautifully sung and sympathetically arranged. The overall theme is Love Gone Wrong, the traditional singer-songwriter preoccupation. But Anna Coddington turns it into something that sounds great — “beauty exploding from despair”, to use one of her own lines.
I was looking forward to buying this CD, since I enjoyed Anna Coddington’s performance a few months ago. Even though it’s been quite a long time since then, I still remember quite a few of the songs. The songs worked really well live, with Anna accompanying herself on guitar; the fuller production on the album adds another dimension without ever overwhelming the basic voice and guitar structure.