Articles about life

On Looking — Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking

To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.
— John Burroughs

It’s amazing what you can see if you actually look at things you’ve seen a hundred times before. Alexandra Horowitz, like most of us, has wandered city sidewalks many times, but usually without really paying attention to her surroundings. So for this book she went on a series of local walks with various experts, including a town planner, an audio engineer, a blind person, a toddler, and a dog. Each chapter describes the result as she looks at her familiar environment through a different lens.

This reminds me of walking with my own kids when they were very young: a five-minute stroll could easily take an hour. The world is such an interesting place if you actually stop and look. This book will inspire you to do just that.

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The Ant and the Ferrari — Kerry Spackman

The Ant and the FerrariThis is a readable, impassioned book about the big questions in life. Spackman explains the big bang and evolution in a very accessible way, probably the best such explanations I have ever seen. He explains how science conflicts with religion on these and other topics, but he does so in a much nicer way than the likes of Richard Dawkins or especially Christopher Hitchens. I could imagine that a religious fundamentalist could read this book and actually understand why so many people are convinced that Genesis is all just made up. It’s hard to imagine any such person getting much out of, say, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great other than the impulse to burn it.

Spackman meditates thoughtfully on the meaning of life before offering a few suggestions on improving our individual lives, and society in general. I really like his ideas — they could plant the seeds for big changes for the better. I could imagine some of them being implemented by enlightened governments in a few decades. The chances of these kinds of policy change may seem remote, but books like this will definitely help. It’s clear and easy to understand, and if enough people read it it could change the world.

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The Meaning of Things — A. C. Grayling

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.

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Thinking, fast and slow — Daniel Kahneman

My friend David lent me this book after telling me that it had been blowing his mind. I’m not sure if it has blown my mind, but it definitely helped me to understand it a bit better.

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.

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The Paradox of Choice — Why More Is Less

the-paradox-of-choice
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.

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Sunny Disposish

Any time the thunder starts to rumble down
Don’t let hope tumble down
Or castles crumble down
If the blues appear just make the best of them
Just make a jest of them
Don’t be possessed of them

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How to tie your shoelaces

For years I have tied my shoelaces using a special knot that is easy to tie, but never comes undone accidentally. I can’t remember where I learned this — maybe I invented it myself — but I always planned to pass this knowledge on to my children (when I have them) as a valuable piece of family wisdom.

I recently discovered the excellent Ian’s Shoelace Site (“Fun, fashion & science in this quirky site about shoelaces”) as I was looking for more information on shoelace knots. He lists my knot, which is actually called the Better Bow. He seems to find it difficult to tie. Even when I first started using it, I found it as easy as an ordinary knot; that’s why I like it so much. In contrast, his own secure knot, Ian’s Secure Shoelace Knot, is more symmetrical than the Better Bow but quite fiddly to tie, especially if your laces are a bit short.

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