I heard of Susan Jacoby's book (and Jacoby herself, I might add) through her interview on The Colbert Report. The topic struck a chord with me. I supp...moreI heard of Susan Jacoby's book (and Jacoby herself, I might add) through her interview on The Colbert Report. The topic struck a chord with me. I suppose I could describe myself as an intellectual even though I am only a teenager/young adult--I read for pleasure, as my membership on this site would indicate, and I regularly engage in thought and discourse about matters that may be labelled intellectual. As a result, a book about anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in America piqued my interest (I may as well note at this point that I am Canadian).
My overall impression of Jacoby's book is that it is extremely well-written. Whether you agree with her arguments or not, to any degree, the book is a worthwhile exploration of the subject it discusses. Jacoby charts the American attitude toward intellectualism, learning, religion, science, and more, throughout its history, from its founding to the present day. She does this in a lively, thought-provoking manner, providing quotations and statistics to back up her assertions. I found the trip through history alone quite pleasant; I enjoy books that link their subjects to historical and social contexts, thereby increasing my awareness of how the past influences our present day actions.
What of Jacoby's thesis? Well, I can't say I agree 100% with her. The great thing about living in a free country and being intellectual is the capacity to read and respect another's opinion without totally agreeing with it, of course. I share Jacoby's worries about how infotainment is crippling our children and our culture. I despise the plague of reality television and daytime TV such as Dr. Phil or Oprah. The fact that more people turn to that medium for their relaxation and entertainment--especially people may age--than read a book saddens me. I enjoy my books.
As a technophile, I can't fully support Jacoby's attitudes toward technology's role in this matter. I definitely agree that the public too often tries to find technological solutions to what are essentially social problems--as a programmer, I lament this fact daily, because it makes it harder for me to program when people constantly insist I add a feature designed to restrict something that should be common sense. I love technology; I really do. But that's because I use it responsibly. I spend what may be an unhealthy time on the Internet, I admit, but I do read books. I talk with friends, try to prod them into a vaguely intellectual discussion. I do my part.
The Age of American Unreason is a welcome break from the polarized polemics of political pundits obsessed with the upcoming American election. Jacoby may be a secularist and an atheist, but she gives the right its dues and criticizes the left when appropriate. She is emphatic and resolute in her opinions, but at the same time, Jacoby is humble--in her conclusion, she notes, "I too am nibbling at the edges. . . None of these suggestions addresses the core problem created by the media--the pacifiers of the mind that permeate our homes, schools, and politics" (315). To me, this combination makes her an effective author.
Her remarks remind me of Douglas Coupland's novel Girlfriend in a Coma, in which the main characters go through the apocalypse in order to be reminded of the most important aspects of life: to challenge everything. To question everything, to constantly seek answers and explanations. Exploration has been a constant driving force of humanity. Just because we've mapped the Earth doesn't mean exploration needs to stop. It simply means it must metamorphose into a mental exercise; we must continue to explore the nature of humanity. But we can't do that if we continue to ignore it by becoming slaves to television or shooting down opponents with ad hominem attacks. We must challenge everything we think is right, because so often, history has proven we've been wrong. And if we are right, then our efforts to prove ourselves wrong will merely make our conviction stronger.(less)
This was a very fascinating book. Some of the technical language may be new to a reader who is not already knowledgeable on computers and networking....moreThis was a very fascinating book. Some of the technical language may be new to a reader who is not already knowledgeable on computers and networking. Beyond the vocabulary, however, the book is accessible to newcomers to the field. Zittrain writes with an open invitation to discuss, talking with the reader rather than lecturing the reader. He admits that he does not have all the answers to the rather large problems the Internet faces. On the other hand, unlike many alarmists, he at least tries to propose some sort of positive solution instead of simply throwing up his hands to say, "We're doomed."
Zittrain managed to pinpoint some concepts with which I was already familiar but for which I didn't have particular words. The major one is, of course, generativity. The other one was the procrastination principle--I operate on this, although I never named it such, and it's a pretty good name. So the book was worth reading for that alone. His perspectives on generativity, the procrastination principle, the Internet's development and future, etc., are interesting. He presents a concise history of the Internet's development. I found the historical anecdotes entertaining and informative, such as the one about how a Cap'n Crunch cereal whistle could be used to get free phone calls. These anecdotes provide insight into how the Internet came to be and how it works today.
The book makes me think too, and that's always good. I'd already been considering how "appliances" like the iPhone were affecting the Internet and our own freedom, so Zittrain provided a concurrent dialogue that helped me form my own opinions.
His conclusion is essentially a call-to-arms; his theme something similar to "Why Can't We Be Friends?" He proposes that through better education and the embrace of social, as well as technological, means of fighting spam, viruses, and malware, we can improve the Internet without entering a period of security lockdowns that kill the generativity he values so much. The cynical part of me isn't very hopeful. It's too much to ask of the average person to attempt to understand this nebulous thing we call "the PC." And any attempt to make the system simpler has the risk of killing generativity. We seem to be at an impasse!
So the future will arrive, and we will hopefully be better informed, if not wiser.(less)
It's always a pleasure to read a book about science that's accessible yet still informative. Before the Dawn is a refreshing update to Darwinian evolu...moreIt's always a pleasure to read a book about science that's accessible yet still informative. Before the Dawn is a refreshing update to Darwinian evolution using the cutting-edge tool available to scientists and historians: genetics.
Wade begins by giving a brief introduction into the application of genetics in the study of human history (and prehistory). Of particular interest is mitochondrial DNA (which is only inherited from the mother) and the Y chromosome (which a father passes onto his sons unchanged, since, unlike other chromosomes, it never swaps genetic information), through which geneticists can trace lineage, mutation, and genetic drift. Wade presents genetics as an additional tool to help clarify controversies stemming from other methods of dating human development, such as the unreliable method of carbon dating. He's upfront about the limits of genetics, however, which is also something I appreciate about this book. Wade strongly supports his argument but also mentions if other studies support contrary opinions.
I appreciate Before the Dawn more for small, individual aspects rather than its overall flavour or zest. The aforementioned mitochondrial DNA/Y chromosome parts fall under this category, as does Wade's anecdotes about how the body louse helped us learn so much about our distant ancestors. It would never have occurred to me that lice, such pests as they are, would hold the key to our past. As Wade explains in Before the Dawn, however, we can look into the lice genome to see when body lice had to adapt to live in clothing instead of fur and use that to roughly pinpoint when humans began wearing clothes. Examples like that help demonstrate to people why genetics is such a useful new tool in the exploration of our past.
The first six or so chapters chronicles humanity's expansion out of Africa, starting with a discussion on how we differentiated from our ape cousins and evolved into beings with the anatomical and cognitive abilities to expand all the way to Australia and northern Europe. This isn't the same old boring story, however, because Wade's telling it from a genetic point of view, indicating where key mutations in the Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA reveal when populations split off and to where they emigrated. Wade waffles somewhat when trying to explain what happened when behaviourally-modern humans encountered their predecessors outside of Africa--the Neanderthals in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia. Ultimately it seems that the evidence isn't clear, although he suspects that interbreeding wasn't the prevalent outcome.
Beyond telling the story of our journey out of Africa, Before the Dawn clearly communicates a very important point about evolution: it's random. This gets lost, especially when opponents to evolutionary theory pick up the discussion, but it's an essential point that bears repeating. Evolution isn't working toward some end goal. Wade emphasizes time and again that the mechanisms of genetic drift and natural selection work both helpful and harmful effects upon species; we just usually notice the helpful effects because those who carry harmful attributes tend to die off rather than reproduce. Sometimes evolution's effects can be double-edged: did you know that the same mutation that causes sickle cell anaemia is responsible for boosting immunity to malaria? I didn't. But it just goes to show that if we ever take our genome into our own hands and begin guiding our evolution--something Wade mentions in the conclusion of the book--we need be very careful.
The last six chapters of the book describe human development after we've spread across the globe. These chapters are not as fascinating as the previous six. They come across as somewhat padded, particularly the chapter on "History", wherein we learn about Thomas Jefferson's illegitimate children with a slave. Oh yay. On the other hand, there are a couple of highlights.
The chapter on "Race", of course, is controversial. Wade manages to cleverly seize upon race as a genetic concept but is careful to point out this doesn't translate into a physical concept. Thus, by the guidelines of the scientists Wade endorses, a person's race is defined by his or her genes but has little to do with his or her appearance; someone who is genetically Caucasian may have very dark skin, compared to our classic idea of a Caucasian person as light skinned. Race ultimately tells us about where our ancestors came from, Wade opines, but is not inextricably linked to particular genetic attributes.
Wade also takes on Jared Diamond's famous book Guns, Germs and Steel, attacking Diamond's thesis that the environment was the major factor in human development. I applaud Wade for criticizing parts of Diamond's argument I also found weak, particularly Diamond's peculiar insistence on the intellectual superiority of New Guineans. In any event, Before the Dawn is a good companion book to Guns, Germs, and Steel, so I recommend it to anyone who has read the latter.
I have little to offer in way of criticism for Wade's arguments. As neither an historian nor a geneticist, I don't feel qualified to offer a technical criticism. As a reader, the book is more accessible than some scientific literature; it can get a bit dense from time to time, but you can just skim over those parts. The well-organized, almost episodic chapters make it easy to read over the course of a few days. If you're like me, you won't find the entire book equally interesting--some parts will be fascinating, while others will let your interest lapse as you wonder how much longer they'll last. Overall, Before the Dawn is a good addition to its field. However, if you aren't already interested in evolution and genetics, I doubt it will ignite a fire within you.(less)
I'd recommend Remix to anyone who creates content, whether as part of their day job or simply as a hobby in their basement. Lawrence Lessig takes the...moreI'd recommend Remix to anyone who creates content, whether as part of their day job or simply as a hobby in their basement. Lawrence Lessig takes the complicated issues surrounding modern copyright and explains them in terms laypeople can comprehend. Moreover, he makes a compelling argument from an economic standpoint as to why less copyright could lead to more profit.
Copyright law has got to give up its obsession with "the copy." The law should not regulate "copies" or "modern reproductions" on their own. It should instead regulate uses—like public distributions of copies of copyrighted work—that connect directly to the economic incentive copyright law was intended to foster.
Lessig succinctly reveals the flawed premise from which most corporations approach the concept of copyright in our digital age. Thanks to the Internet, it's now possible to distribute an infinite number of copies of a digital work. Regulating that work like it's a physical object doesn't work, as we saw empirically through the failed experiment of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Focusing on copying is a doomed tactic. Focusing on usage is a much better way to exercise one's control over one's content.
Never does Lessig advocate the abolition of copyright. I've often struggled with the very existence of this legal quagmire we've constructed. As a content creator in general, I am happy to release as much of my content as possible under a Creative Commons license. I love to let people benefit from my content by reusing it wherever possible. Yet, as a writer, I'm reluctant to do that for everything I produce, since traditional publishing still requires (at least in some cases) a traditional, all rights reserved copyright. So either I must accept copyright in some form, or I must abandon any hope of being published through "traditional" means.
Lessig's stance reassures me that there is nothing wrong with the concept of copyright itself--indeed, so-called "free" licenses, like Creative Commons and "copyleft" are also copyright, just of a different breed--the core dilemma we face is that copyright has become distorted during the twentieth century by increasingly restrictive regulation. Lessig argues that we need new legislation to remove our copyright quagmire and update our laws to reflect current cultural values. But how effective is his argument?
Having never read his previous works, I was in the dark regarding Lessig's rhetorical style, so I went into Remix with no expectations and an am unable to compare it to his other arguments. I found Remix both compelling and accessible. What truly surprised me was the types of premises Lessig used to advance his argument. Although both points of legality and appeals to ethos appear in Remix, Lessig's primary concern is one of economics. Would less restrictive copyright be better or worse for the economy? Is it still possible to derive value (i.e., make money) off a work with a less restrictive copyright? Lessig's answer is an unequivocal yes.
I admire this strategy more than I admire the argument itself, for I think it will go a long way toward convincing economists, lawyers, and business people--anyone concerned with making money from their content or the content of their clients--that less copyright isn't as scary as it seems. Remix is not the manifesto of a copyright revolutionary attempting to storm the Bastille of commerce and tear down the walls of sane legislation. Rather, Lessig points out that sometimes more control is less desirable--for instance, it can often bring unwanted liability to the copyright holder or stifle possible opportunities for fan-based revenue. Although making money is always a concern, it isn't necessarily the only concern--sometimes it's better to build customer loyalty or cultivate what Lessig terms a "sharing economy" than just reap profits.
I won't attempt to summarize all of Lessig's arguments here. Remix is short enough--perhaps my largest complaint about the book--and well-organized enough that anyone should be able to muddle through, and anyone with interest in these issues will derive enjoyment from it. Those of us who agree with Lessig's perspective are lucky to have such an eloquent and sharp voice for remixing. As for our opponents--well, if Remix doesn't persuade you, I at least hope that it opens your eyes as to why why some people promote remixing, beyond a twisted desire to steal profit from other content creators. Copyright certainly isn't a black and white issue; Remix succeeds in showing that it doesn't need a black and white answer.(less)
Long have I regarded the economy as a fickle, fictitious construct of humanity. If we disappeared, it would disappear (although its effects on the env...moreLong have I regarded the economy as a fickle, fictitious construct of humanity. If we disappeared, it would disappear (although its effects on the environment would remain). However, that's a very naive view to take, and not a particularly helpful one. So I set out to learn more about the economy the way we're told to learn about things in school: begin at the beginning. The Ascent of Money is an attempt to recount the wise of finance, beginning in Mesopotamia and ending in modern-day United States and Britain.
As I began reading, I reacted with scorn to Niall Ferguson's intense introduction, thinking that this would be another one of those books where the author takes his pet thesis and tries to show that it is the real reason behind everything that's happened in history. Fortunately, Ferguson toned down the rhetoric after the introduction and instead focused on imparting and interpreting the facts.
The book follows a roughly chronological path, but only because Ferguson tackles components of the economy in increasingly complex order. Each chapter is about some specific aspect of finances, such as the bond market, the stock market, mortgages, etc. Hence, Ferguson treads over the same historical periods several times, but each time with fresh eyes. I enjoyed this categorization scheme, and I think it worked better than a strict chronological organization would have. Above all, it helped stress the interdependence of these various components; they did not arise in a vacuum and they are still closely-linked today.
My favourite part of The Ascent of Money concerns the financial history of the Renaissance. Ferguson mentions the rise of the Medicis, explaining how their decentralized approach to banking protected them from the weakness of any one man in power. This is a marked contrast to the excesses of 18th century France, of course, which sparked the French Revolution. At this point, Ferguson once again veers too close to the thesis precipice. However, he's right in saying that one of the major factors of the Revolution was economic, and I enjoyed hearing the full story. It is amazing how much people could accomplish so quickly and efficiently in the days before modern telecommunication.
As the book continues to the present-day financial scene, more esoteric terms begin to clutter Ferguson's vocabulary. Ferguson does his best to provide explanations, especially in footnotes, but it still makes for slow and difficult reading. I know it's unusual for me to express a dislike of numbers, since I'm studying math, but it's true: I find them shifty, which is the source of my unease about economics. The jargon Ferguson so carelessly bandies about only increases that sense of unease, to the point where my eyes were glazing over (although I was also tired). Again, though, as a mathematician-in-training I understand that jargon is only jargon to the uninitiated. (And on that note, in chapter 6—page 321 in my edition—Ferguson includes the book's sole mathematical formula, used to calculate the price of an option. Afterward, he adds, "Feeling a bit baffled? Can't follow the algebra? To be honest, I am a bit baffled too." Meanwhile, I'm going, "Yay, finally something I can understand!") I'll take Ferguson at his word that all these terms mean what he says they mean and that they work like he says they do. Nor do I expect him to give me a crash course in economics—there's reasons people earn degrees in this field; I won't learn it from a single book. Unfortunately, I did find the last two chapters, particularly the last chapter, so dense with terminology I could hardly follow that they were very difficult for me to read . . . I will confess I began skimming.
One explanation I did follow was the rise of the insurance industry. Not as fascinating as Renaissance economics, but it's a close second! Ferguson clearly explains the origins of modern insurance companies and the way in which modern insurance operates—not just from the point of view of the policy-holder, which is easy enough to understand, but from the point of view of insurance companies. We're living in an era where insurance companies have substantial influence on the economy and on public policy (I'm looking at you, U.S. health care reform debate). Understanding how and why insurance companies operate as they do is key to understanding what's happening in the modern political landscape. The same goes for mortgages and the real estate game, which Ferguson covers in the subsequent chapter, albeit with that aforementioned increase in jargon.
Having read The Ascent of Money, I feel like I've learned more, and—perhaps more importantly—I feel more confident in what I know. Whereas before I knew only that the recent turmoil was caused, in part, by subprime mortgages and derivatives, now I think I could explain what those things are to other people. Or, you know, I could just tell them to read this book.(less)
I am at war with myself. The feminist in me, who has been taking philosophy courses and reading books that challenge contemporary notions about gender...moreI am at war with myself. The feminist in me, who has been taking philosophy courses and reading books that challenge contemporary notions about gender, regards much of culture as a construction, something abstract and even arbitrary that we should alter to improve the status of various groups of people. The scientist in me, who reads books about genetics and ponders how amazing it is that we're programmed to learn how to talk but have developed writing as a skill, not an innate ability. These two selves often conflict, as biological determinism clashes with cultural relativism, and I find myself forced to walk carefully the line between the two. I never thought I would have to do this for art!
In The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton challenges the commonplace assertion that our notions of what constitutes art and what we find aesthetically pleasing are entirely constructs of our culture. Rather, his thesis is that evolution plays a large role in our tastes. We prefer savanna-like landscapes because it hearkens to our homes of the past; we place a value on skill and creativity because these are useful traits in a mate. Overall, Dutton insists that art criticism must be rooted in an evolutionary perspective (he seems to like using evolutionary psychology as a poster-child) rather than any particular school of thought based only on culture.
And that's the book, right there. Now you don't have to read it. Happy? You should be.
The Art Instinct has such a great premise, but, like so many books, the execution fails to fulfil that potential. Dutton's writing is stultifying at best, arrogant at worst, and always more loquacious than necessary. It takes him forever to get to the point—he loves lists in which each point is several paragraphs long. And for such a short book, Dutton spends remarkably little of it discussing art itself. Many pages he devotes to explanations of evolution—helpful, yes, but sometimes tangential. And unlike his evolutionary asides, he seldom goes into detail about the theories of art criticism he debunks for us, so much of that went over my head.
Dutton does some things right. He does not focus exclusively on Old Master paintings (although they are there). He talks about literature and music as well. I really enjoyed chapter 6, "The Uses of Fiction," in which Dutton makes a strong case for fiction being a product of natural selection (rather than mere by-products). Also in this chapter is the best glimpse at the argument Dutton tries to make, the idea that art (or the eponymous "art instinct") is an innate concept universal to every culture.
In that respect, I agree with Dutton's assertion that cultural relativism should not dismiss other cultures' creative works because "they don't have our concept of art." So if that is what Dutton set out to achieve with this book, then perhaps he has succeeded. But I didn't enjoy it.
This is not even a very academic book, despite constant name-dropping and enough quotations of Steven Pinker to qualify him for co-authorship. Seldom do I read a book which is just written in such an unsatisfactory way that I dislike following the author's arguments. Thus, even if Dutton has managed to convince me of his thesis, he has achieved the even greater feat of doing it while boring me too.
The Art Instinct is successful, then, in showing evolution's role in the arts. I won't dismiss all of art as stemming from evolutionary roots (and I don't think Dutton is trying to argue this, but it could easily be seen that way). Culture still has a role to play—evolution might influence the desirably body types, but fads and fashions contribute to changing representations throughout history. Even so, the way Dutton advances his argument leaves me with a distinctly apathetic attitude toward the entire book. It is very "ho-hum." Books should not just seek to convince or to move; they need to shake, to challenge, to galvanize new directions of exploration. The Art Instinct does not do this. It sort of loafs around in the lobby of one's critical cortex, half-heartedly attempting to hand leaflets to passing neurons.
I have a passing interest in aesthetics, in the sense that I have taken enough philosophy to know I need to read more about it sometime soon, lest I have a vast gap in my philosophical knowledge. Unfortunately, The Art Instinct does little to fill this gap; and while it held my aesthetic interest, it did not stoke the fire like I had hoped. Dutton's just not charismatic enough, not compelling enough, to make this book great.
In my recent review of The Grand Design I went on about my love of science, particularly of physics. I’ll be honest: although biology is really, really cool, I also find it kind of gross. It’s full of squishy stuff, and it was my least favourite of the Holy Trinity of high school science classes (physics, biology, chemistry) for that reason. When I talk biology, I tend to gravitate toward the more abstract areas: genetics, evolutionary biology, and of course, neuroscience—once you get down to the microscopic or molecular levels, the squick factor is considerably reduced. Plus, the brain is just fascinating. It is the undiscovered country of biology: how does consciousness work? What makes us us? The brain is an amazing organ, simultaneously incredibly flexible and resistant yet also so fragile. Even as Jonah Lehrer explores the decision-making process from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, How We Decide also reaffirms my admiration for and awe of the brain.
I learned a great deal from this book. Some of it was about football, because Lehrer opens the first chapter with an analysis of Tom Brady’s performance in the 2002 Super Bowl. Football confuses me at the best of times, but fortunately Lehrer includes plenty of other case studies: airplane disasters, debt counselling, basketball performance, etc. How We Decide is definitely a work of popular science, and it seems to be trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible. However, I approached it as someone interested in learning about neuroscience, and in this respect the book did not let me down.
The focus of How We Decide, especially in the early chapters, is on the distinction between rational decision-making and emotional decision-making. Lehrer challenges the myth that humans are “rational animals”, that our rationality sets us apart and allows us to tame unreliable emotion. His counterexample is the stunning account of people who have experienced damage to their orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). This little area of the prefrontal cortex (itself important to the process of decision-making) has a huge impact on how we decide: it is “responsible for integrating visceral emotions into the decision-making process”, and lacking it means one essentially decides based on rational criteria alone. If the myth of our rationality were true, this would result in the ultimate decision maker, completely unswayed by appeals to emotion. Instead, people with damaged or removed OFCs are indecisive: without emotional cues, they are left to analyze even the smallest decision with relentless attention to the pros and the cons. Emotion might sometimes cloud our judgement, but it can also play a vital role in impelling us.
Later, Lehrer looks at the converse, where emotion misleads one’s decision-making process. He uses high-stakes situations, such as playing Deal or No Deal, to illustrate that emotion can prevent us from choosing the better settlement. When we’re angry or feel that our pride is on the line, we can be rash, leading us to reject otherwise fair offers. Credit cards and other abstractions of money make it easier to spend money, because our emotional brain is fooled into thinking we aren’t spending all that much money at all. (Lehrer attributes the subprime mortgage bubble to this kind of thinking, and points out that this is how credit card companies sucker us in to high lifetime interest rates by using low introductory offers. If you can only take away a single piece of advice from How We Decide, try this: “read only the fine print.”)
In fact, what begins to emerge from these chapters on rationality versus emotion is a theory of automatic versus deliberative decision-making. For situations that are familiar to us, it’s best to keep autopilot on and let our unconscious do the thinking. Our brain is used to the situation, and thinking through the steps is more likely to screw us up than help (this is where Lehrer’s sports examples make a lot of sense). However, as will come to no surprise to most of us, our automatic brains are very bad at dealing with unexpected information. In particular, most people’s automatic brains suck at math. This is where rationality and a more thoughtful decision-making process becomes essential: we have to analyze the new information and figure out how to incorporate it into our model before we can proceed. If we do not, we might end up rejecting a deal that is much more lucrative than what any of the remaining briefcases might offer.
All this might sound rather obvious so far (if so, congratulations on your smartitude), and you might be thinking, but what about the science behind these conclusions? Well, it’s there, but it’s so well integrated into the book that if I start trying to tease it out and present it for our mutual amusement, I’ll probably just end up making it sound dry and boring. Suffice it to say, the second chapter is called “The Predictions of Dopamine”, and Lehrer goes into great detail through the book about the roles various sections of the brain play in decision-making, as well as how we know this—mostly fMRIs, sometimes monkey torture. And of course, it’s worth keeping in mind that none of this is as simple as Lehrer makes it out to be, and that there are probably alternative explanations—e.g., game theory, evolutionary psychology, etc. Lehrer occasionally makes reference to these, but for the most part he sticks with a very functional exploration of our brain. And that’s fine; if I want to read different perspectives, I can always seek out books on those particular topics.
In the spirit of this book’s subject matter, I’ll acknowledge a bias in my decision to like this book. How We Decide lends support to a lot of positions I personally endorse. For example, Lehrer points out that, “people with a genetic mutation that reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex] … are significantly more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol”. This belies the contention that addiction is a choice rather than a disease and that addicts simply lack sufficient “willpower” to improve their lives. I’m not saying that we should just drug everyone based on his or her neurological profile—but certainly understanding biological factors that influence our tendencies can help us combat negative tendencies, such as addiction. (Lehrer and I also share a mild disdain for economics and attempts to play the stock market like it’s a predictable phenomenon.)
If there is a theme to How We Decide, it’s that we often suck at making decisions. Not only do we have numerous biases left over from evolutionary adaptation and social inculcation, but the complex interplay between conscious and unconscious decision-making means sometimes we relegate decisions to a part of our brain that isn’t particularly suited to them. Lehrer’s theme, however, is that not all is hopeless: by being aware of these biases, by thinking about how we think, we can mitigate them and improve our ability to make decisions. It turns out that how we decide is influenced a great deal by thinking about how we decide.
And so that’s why I loved this book. It is an excellent scientific look at decision-making through both anecdotal and empirical evidence. (The former is, of course, worthless in a court of science but invaluable in the court of opinion.) Moreover, How We Decide is useful, offering salient advice about how to improve one’s ability to make decisions. I don’t doubt that many people will dislike this book, or at least Lehrer’s style or his derision for economics, but I do highly recommend you give it a try.
The Invention of Air has a catchy title, but its subtitle better describes the book itself: A story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of Am...moreThe Invention of Air has a catchy title, but its subtitle better describes the book itself: A story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Steven Johnson uses Joseph Priestley as a touchstone for a much larger argument about the relationship among science, religion, and politics and the effects this had on the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. Priestley's role in isolating oxygen and his interactions with Antoine Lavoisier make an appearance in the early half of the book. For the most part, however, this book is not so much a biography of Joseph Priestley as it is an attempt to combat the anti-intellectualism, anti-science atmosphere now insinuating itself into American society, and particularly American politics. As he confesses in his Author's Note, which precedes the book itself, Johnson is concerned by the way we view science as something relegated to a domain of professionals rather than intrinsic to humanity, saying:
If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science.
I can get behind this theme. Canada, like the United States, is struggling with the role of science in informing politics and political decisions, albeit in not quite the same rhetorical, polarized fashion happening south of our border. I am quite aware that, despite their hyperbole, the Tea Party does not speak for the majority of Americans, and that most Americans are sensible people with a varying degree of respect for the sciences. I am lucky enough to have met American friends on Goodreads and elsewhere online who fall into this category. I cringe, though, when I read newspaper articles and blog posts written by people who view science as a threat to their religion or, more basically, their way of life. I feel sorry for those people, and I kind of worry about America's future. So if Johnson wants to fight this by writing a book (which strikes me as an oddly intellectual way to fight anti-intellectualism, but whatever), more power to him.
Johnson's thesis also agrees with sentiments I've developed over the past few years, sentiments particularly influenced by a Philosophy of Science course. He draws upon Thomas Kuhn, of course, and discusses Priestley's discoveries in hindsight as a type of paradigm shift. In particular, as a writer he has to praise Priestley's choice to tell the story of the discovery of electricity, to be the first person to tell science through the lens of narrative rather than as a logical discourse. I have to agree; both forms have their uses, but I particularly like reading books like The Invention of Air because they are exciting and entertaining as well as educational. I'm fascinated by the history of science, as well as its philosophy. I like learning about the circumstances and coincidences that surround discoveries—for example, Priestley began investigating air because he temporarily lived behind a brewery and noticed that their vats emitted "fixed air" (carbon dioxide). From here, Johnson launches into a description of how, through trial and error more than any real hypothesis, Priestley manages to deduce that there is a component of air essential to respiration, that plants somehow produce or replenish it, and that it is combustible. (Unfortunately, Priestley would continue to subscribe to the theory of phlogiston until his death, even though it was discredited long before he died.)
I don't want to let my enthusiasm for Johnson's aims colour my evaluation of the book too much. As much as I like what Johnson tries to do, the result feels haphazard. The book begins with Priestley's voyage on the Samson to the United States; then it hops back to the young Joseph Priestley joining the Honest Whigs in London and works its way forward roughly chronologically to where the book begins. This should have worked fine, but Johnson spends far too much time talking about what we are about to learn. Every time the name Benjamin Frankling or Thomas Jefferson came out, Johnson could not help but remind us about Priestley's influence on these men. I get it, but could we please get on with Priestley's experiments in his lab?
I also wish we could have learned more about Priestley's life in general, particularly his relationship with Antoine Lavoisier. Johnson mentions, in passing, how Priestley met Lavoisier and influenced him, how Priestley found an improved formula for gunpowder and accidentally shared it with a French spy, who in turn shared it with the head of France's gunpowder committee—yes, Lavoisier. (Sometimes life is a lot better than fiction, eh?) Johnson mentions a lot, in passing, but it's frustrating because most of what we learn is bereft of details. He only occasionally deigns to go deeper into the story, as was the case with Priestley's isolation of oxygen, preferring mostly to skim along the surface. This is a short book, and it feels like a short book.
Mostly well-written but sometimes extremely frustrating, The Invention of Air discusses science and religion in the context of the founding of the United States, and it does so in a genuinely interesting way. Johnson is on the right track with a lot of his arguments and with the perspective he brings to subjects like the Founding Fathers; this book is quite original, just very brief. Joseph Priestley sounds like a fascinating fellow. I just wish I had learned more about him.
Africa is this huge, Africa-shaped continent south of Eurasia and kind of east of South America. It’s well known for many reasons, such as elephants,...moreAfrica is this huge, Africa-shaped continent south of Eurasia and kind of east of South America. It’s well known for many reasons, such as elephants, lions (but not tigers or bears), and cheetahs. It’s the place where modern hominins evolved … yet now, millions of years later, it is one of the most impoverished places on Earth. Of course, I’m speaking broadly here. As anyone who has actually done much work on or in Africa will tell you, and as Dambisa Moyo points out in her book, “Africa” is a convenient political fiction. There is such a diversity of nations, people, languages, cultures, and societies in Africa. Some countries are prospering even as they deal with a crisis in HIV/AIDS. Some countries are mired in years of dictatorial rule, torn by civil war, hungry from years of regular famine.
Of course, you already know this. It’s hard not to know it—though it might slip to the back of our incredibly cluttered consciousnesses until recalled by one of those TV ads. You know the ones I mean, with the images of malnourished children accompanied by a voiceover telling us how we can help with “only $1 a day”. Meanwhile, we’re told that our governments are not sending enough money to Africa, not investing enough in aid, not helping to meet various development goals. We’d fix the problem, if only we committed to more aid.
But why hasn’t the existing aid worked? What if sending less aid is the solution? That’s what Dambisa Moyo proposes in Dead Aid, and on the surface it seems counterintuitive. Yet there are also some readily apparent arguments for her thesis. Firstly, imposing an external solution on Africa (mostly by attaching various “conditionalities” to our aid, not to mention deciding which nations get that aid) isn’t going to work, and it’s just an extension of the colonialism that is partly what contributed to the mess in the first place. Secondly, there are many countries that have received metaphorical truckloads of money—yet their citizens remain in poverty, their infrastructure is underdeveloped, and their government officials are corrupt. There is an inverse correlation between amount of aid received and an African nation’s prosperity, and according to Moyo, this correlation is actually causation at work.
Do I believe her? I don’t know. Honestly, economics is still over my head, despite the fact that I can run circles around the differential equations it employs. I can do the math, but the meaning behind it is lost on me; with more work I could probably learn more, but I don’t find it all that interesting. And that’s a shame, because I understand (begrudgingly) how important it is.
Moyo’s argument has some convincing features. She begins by examining the history of aid to Africa and follows up by speculating what would happen if we “turned off the tap” gradually over five years. Her ultimate hope is that a mixture of foreign investment—as we’ve seen from China—and emerging free markets would allow the economies of many African nations to recover. It’s the economy, she claims, that is essential to the spread of democracy, freedom, and wellbeing the continent over, not the other way around.
By the way, if you do understand the economics behind the math, then Moyo can hook you up: Dead Aid is full of statistics and figures and a cogent (at least from my limited perspective) analysis of the facts. It’s impressive, but at the same time I’m glad the book is as short as it is.
There are some salient points to Moyo’s argument with which I completely agree. For instance, it is outrageous that countries in Africa often have to borrow more money (i.e., accept more aid) to pay back the interest owed on previous aid. It’s a vicious cycle, and suddenly all that chatter I heard as a child about “forgiving debt” makes a lot more sense. I don’t see how anyone expects these countries to work their way back into the black if we’re constantly pushing them into the red with demands for aid repaid plus interest. If we give aid because we have this idea that all the African countries need is enough money to get them standing on their own, then that idea is wrong.
I think Moyo is right, however, when she conjectures that we often give aid because it is habitual and because it looks good. Giving aid makes us feel better, even if it isn’t actually effective. (When I say “aid” here, like Moyo I am talking about money lent by foreign governments and funds like the World Bank and the IMF, not emergency relief from organizations like the Red Cross.) Giving aid can also be competitive; no one wants to be the first country to stop giving aid! So just as the African countries are trapped in a vicious cycle, so too are the governments and organizations dedicated to helping them.
Moyo seems awfully optimistic about the potential for free market solutions. She thinks aid is in many ways harmful: it breeds corruption, curtails export income, and costs taxpayers money because the government still has to pay interest whether or not it uses the aid. Remove aid from the equation, and she says that homegrown solutions will emerge, citing numerous micro-finance schemes that lend to groups of borrowers who use trust as collateral. She even mentions M-Pesa, which I had previously heard about on an episode of Spark. (Interestingly, she does not mention that M-Pesa was initially funded by the UK’s Department for International Development.)
I can’t quite muster Moyo’s enthusiasm, but I agree with her on one component of the argument: solutions for Africa are more likely to come from Africans and people who have lived in Africa for much of their lives. I don’t know much about the sociopolitical nature of Africa; Moyo mentions countries I had never heard of prior to reading Dead Aid. It’s obvious, though, that there are unique challenges in climate, terrain, and population distribution that Africans are more familiar with. Therefore, they are better equipped to develop innovative ways of overcoming these obstacles—mobile micro-finance is but one of them. While we should not abandon Africa and leave it to its own devices, it is clear that the current system does not work. Pumping more money into it will not work. Rather, we should look at how we can help Africans regain their own agency—and this is Moyo’s particular solution. Sometimes I think she waxes slightly idealistic: for example, I sincerely doubt that her proposals to reduce subsidies to farmers in developed countries will be met with much acclaim. There is just so much pressure to buy local food. Moyo has some good ideas, but she does tackle the problem from a narrow, very market-centric perspective.
Niall Ferguson, whose Ascent of Money I’ve read, provides the foreword for Dead Aid. He opens by talking about how most of the discussion about Africa and aid has been done by non-African white men, saying, “The simple fact that Dead Aid is the work of an African black woman is the least of the reasons why you should read it. But it is a good reason nonetheless.” Well, I think he could have phrased it better, but he’s right. Just look at who gets invited to debates about how “we” should “help Africa”; look at the economists who advise various government aid departments. Ultimately, as Moyo articulates with a palpable sense of frustration on her part, if we want to see Africans succeed, the rest of the world needs to stop treating them like children—and that includes pumping unlimited money into the country in the hope that it will somehow make things better.
So I guess you could say that Dead Aid moved me and provoked me to think, and that is always a good thing for a book to do. I don’t agree with Moyo entirely, and her book isn’t perfect: its length is an advantage for the reader, but it means she has to summarize where she might prefer to rhapsodize. She succeeds in convincing me that aid can be more harmful than helpful, and that a more nuanced view of the situation is necessary if we are going to improve it. I’m not sure all her proposed solutions are sound, but at least she is trying to come up with some.
I always regret not being more handy than I am. The feeling I get when wielding a screwdriver is the closest I can come to understanding what people m...moreI always regret not being more handy than I am. The feeling I get when wielding a screwdriver is the closest I can come to understanding what people mean when they say, “I just can’t do math!” It always bothers me when people insist upon this, as if mathematical skill is something that you either have or you do not. But when I am reduced to basic manipulation of the physical world, I understand their frustration. Like any skill, there are some who have a talent for it and others for whom it will always be an uphill slog. Some are like that with math, and I am like that with tools and any kind of physical labour.
So I have immersed myself in the world of intellect, becoming exactly the kind of disembodied, disconnected ivory tower individual against which Matthew B. Crawford argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft. Well, it’s not so much that he’s arguing against such people—he admits that, if academic pursuits are your thing, you should go for it—but he laments that we have somehow become the standard against all rising stars are measured. Crawford would rather see the trades and the crafts restored to a place of honour; for that matter, so would I.
Crawford paints a bleak picture of how our rising exuberance for computers at the end of the twentieth century muscled out shop classes in high schools across the United States. I think the situation in Canada is little better, though my limited experience here in Ontario shows glimmers of hope in the more enlightened, trades-oriented options that many high schools offer students. In some places, we are beginning to realize that a balance can be had, and we are striving to attain it. Whether the rest of society is willing to follow, I don’t know.
As the subtitle, An Inquiry into the Value of Work, suggests, Crawford sings the praises of the “honest work” of the people who build, repair, and make things. He intersperses more theoretical and academic approaches to the subject with his own, personal experience, first as an electrician and then as a motorcycle mechanic. In both cases, Crawford emphasizes how physical work offers access to a type of knowledge different from that which we acquire from books and from social interaction. There is certain wisdom one can only acquire through direct experience.
I enjoyed the sections in which Crawford describes his journey from novice to confident mechanic more than I thought I would. Even with the wonderful artist illustrations and his own explanations, I still can’t fathom or picture the magic he worked inside the guts of those machines. The way he describes doing something, the number of variables that he must account for, the amount he must know … it baffles me how anyone is able to do it. I guess that’s how people feel when I describe working on a math proof or programming. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing that someone else knows something you can barely comprehend.
I’m not sure how successful Crawford is at convincing someone more sceptical of his ideas, since I began the book firmly believing in the value of work. For that reasons, a lot of his arguments left me with a, “Yes, so?” reaction, simply because I felt like everything he was stating was pretty obvious.
Instead, Shop Class as Soulcraft was more useful to me as a mirror for my own frustrations. In my first year of teaching, which I spent in England, I ran up against a most fearsome dragon, that of standardized testing. I was teaching 16-year-olds who had no concept of how to multiply properly, let alone finding area and perimeter or the missing angle of a triangle. Somehow, though I was supposed to prepare them for a test that would give them a grade that would determine where they could go next for schooling and what kind of jobs they could get. It was madness. I could have taught much more basic math, arithmetic and personal accounting, the kind of thing that could really seem relevant to them. But my hands were tied by the test.
I always feel a little hypocritical when I try to extol the virtues of the trades to students. After all, it’s clear I didn’t go down that road—so who am I to try to convince them it’s worthwhile? Not only that, but it’s painfully clear I didn’t go down that road. Some teachers have the virtue of straddling the divide between academic and applied, of fusing these worlds together into a harmonious whole. That distinction is not mine to hold. Throughout my life, people have remarked that I give off the vibes of one dedicated to intellectual pursuits. That gives me pleasure, of course, but it also makes my attempts to downplay the academic life a lot more problematic. I basically feel like a fraud. Unlike Crawford, who has truly lived in both worlds, I have always been confined to one.
As I mentioned above, Crawford is at his best when recounting his own personal experience with the value of work. When he strays further into the territory of sociology and psychology, his arguments become less captivating even if they are more objectively robust. Probably most interesting of these sections is his explanation of how the introduction of assembly lines and mass production offered an effective alternative to the craftsman in his own little castle. It was the era of the assembly-line worker that ushered in the harsh distinction between blue collar and white collar, Crawford argued.
I’m not so sure, but I think he makes a good point when he links the rise of mass production to a reduction in respect for the trades. We are raised now as consumers first, producers second—production is something other, something that happens away from us. Moreover, society continues to become blazingly, bewilderingly complex. It’s just not possible to be good at everything any more or to know everything the human species knows. We have to specialize, and in turn this means we have to outsource certain tasks, whether it’s tax preparation or car repair, to other people whose specialities those are. Crawford provides some compelling explanations for why this makes us feel uneasy.
Shop Class as Soulcraft is exactly what it claims to be. It’s competently written, with an interesting mix of personal anecdotes and more abstract, philosophical reasoning. It isn’t quite as inspirational or awe-inspiring as it might be; this is more a sobre prod towards thought and action that it is a plea for swift change. You wouldn’t do wrong to read it, but I’m not particularly put out that it took me this long to get around to doing so.
At the beginning of Free, Chris Anderson presents a generalized dichotomy toward "Free." Some—mostly the older users—are suspicious of Free and insist...moreAt the beginning of Free, Chris Anderson presents a generalized dichotomy toward "Free." Some—mostly the older users—are suspicious of Free and insist they will have to pay somewhere down the line. Many younger users, on the other hand, think that Free, on the Internet at least, is a truism. Anderson says his goal is to convince us that neither camp has it completely right and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
This is an attitude that we can apply to the Internet in general. As newspapers and record labels have found, approaching the Internet like it's another form of print doesn't work. The rules are different, and in that respect, the Internet is a game-changer. Yet the difficulties the Internet presents us are not all new and unique to that medium, and this is not the first Free crisis in history. Indeed, the most important thing I learned from Free can be expressed as another truism: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Let's level for a moment and crowd onto the same page (or pixel): this is popular economics. Anderson is a businessman, so he knows his economics, but he's chosen to distill it in an accessible way that isn't always rigorous, favouring the simple explanation over complicated economic theory. As someone who is intelligent about most things but stupid when it comes to economics, I'm glad he did that. Had he chosen otherwise, I would not have read this book. But if you're looking for a textbook on economic theory, you'll be disappointed. This book has no bibliography (which actually surprised me) and very few footnotes. That being said, Anderson treats his topic with the nuance and subtlety it deserves.
Free offers a granular analysis of exactly what types of Free economies you'll find, both offline and online. There's freemium, gift economies, cross-subsidies, etc. Sometimes it gets a little technical, but what matters is that Anderson is unambiguous in his division of the Free world; not all Free is created equal, and he shows us examples of each case. Moreover, he stresses that the idea of Free as a marketing tactic is far from new.
What the Internet changes about Free is that it drives marginal costs for the producer to zero. Microprocessor production has become so efficient that microchips are essentially "too cheap to meter," as Anderson puts it, which means that bits, unlike atoms, are in abundant supply. In the physical world, Anderson has to make tough decisions about which articles get the finite and valuable page space in Wired. Online, he can allocate as much space as his content creators need. That is the almost science fictional difference provided by the Internet, and if you wrap your head around this key point, you're well on your way to understanding Free.
The paradigm case for Free online services is, of course, Google. Anderson spends a lot of time discussing Google (although not as much as one might think), and he also looks at how other companies have used Free to compete with Google. In particular, he presented a brief case study on how Yahoo! prepared for the competition of Gmail in 2004 by introducing unlimited email storage (as compared to Gmail's 1 GB and increasing email storage). I liked this example, because it belies the critics of Free who claim that it will somehow eradicate capitalism and no one will make money any more. Google's profits show that those who embrace Free instead of viewing it as a threat can still be successful.
Free's value to the average reader comes in the connections it makes between practice and business. I know that Google gave away most of its services for free because it made money off ads. I also know that Google collects an amazing amount of data about people, companies, and websites as we browse the Web. Yet I didn't consciously connect these two and realize that one reason Google makes its services free is to facilitate data collection. It sounds sinister (and certainly has that potential), but it's also brilliant. Anderson's example is Google's 411 service, which was free of charge. Google didn't stand to make much money from that service if it did charge; by giving it away for free, it acquired voice data for use in its voice search and recognition algorithms. For businesses, this is another example of how Free can be better in the long-term. For readers, it raises awareness of the motives a company has behind its offerings of Free. In both cases, the message is the same: Free can sometimes be the most beneficial path for a company to pursue.
From Gillette to Jell-O, Anderson has enough anecdotes of companies creating successful products (or in some cases, entirely new markets) with a Free strategy. Aside from showing that Free works, these examples are valuable because they considerably pre-date the Internet, and they demonstrate that the phantom of Free has lingered over our economy for a long time.
Newspapers decry the availability of free news online; music labels complain about piracy. We're seeing pressure on governments to regulate and legislate these companies back into profitable business models. This is somewhat ironic, since if these companies really believed in a free market (small F, note), they should be changing those models, not asking for a rule change. It's important to recall, however, that this situation is not new. Lawrence Lessig points this out in Remix, and Anderson reiterates it in Free. New technology has always presented challenges to incumbent businesses:
Radio Broadcast magazine announced a contest for the best answer to the question "Who is to pay for broadcasting and how?" . . . The winning entry sought a tax on vacuum tubes as an "index of broadcast consumption." . . . There were some suggestions that advertising might be the answer, but it was by far from a popular solution. It seemed a shame to despoil this new medium with sponsored messages.
Does that sound familiar? "Who is to pay for music downloads and how?" "Who is to pay for ebooks and how?" The technology and the content might have changed, but the question remains the same: who's going to pay? Radio did find a solution—advertising—but then when it became viable to play recorded music over the radio, this triggered another crisis in revenue for recording artists. So the cycle began again.
We found solutions to those crises. So why are people so doubtful that we'll find solutions to the current crisis? Maybe I'm just not being empathetic enough for the poor newspapers and recording labels. Yet I can't help but think that trying to legislate a way toward a static situation in the face of changing technology is a losing endeavour. Best to adapt now, get ahead of the curve, and be the trend-setter.
So in case you can't tell, I liked Free. It was accessible, but not over-bearing, in its analysis of the Free economies. Although "Free" may be a radical price, this is not a radical book; it offers sound advice that can probably be repackaged as common sense. Even if you aren't planning to start your own business any time soon, I would still recommend this book to you, for the simple reason that it raises awareness of how companies use Free to make money. And when companies make money, the older generation is right: someone pays, somewhere. But the Internet has changed that too, because more than ever, consumers interact with companies on a very personal level. So it behoves you to know where the money's going (and whence it comes). Read Free, be savvy.(less)
I saw Dave Isay on The Colbert Report and decided to buy this book as a Mother's Day gift. The idea of StoryCorps itself appeals to me, so a book cons...moreI saw Dave Isay on The Colbert Report and decided to buy this book as a Mother's Day gift. The idea of StoryCorps itself appeals to me, so a book consisting of interviews about motherhood sounded interesting. I was not wrong.
The stories in Mom are moving in a way I suspect many people would dismiss as a case of reality being unrealistic, though I'm sure Isay chose these particular stories for their emotional impact. In other words, there's nothing dull about Mom. The people telling these stories talk very openly about memories of their mothers or their own experiences of being a mother; in so doing, they provide perspectives that most of us will never have. I certainly won't ever be a mother, and while I'm lucky enough to have a mother, I only have one, so my pool of memories is necessarily limited. Mom is storytelling at its most basic, the sharing of experiences that are uncommon yet knowable.
Most of us are aware of the significance of being a mother—we do have a day to celebrate it, after all—but few of us have the time or inclination to ponder truly the meaning of motherhood. Which is where books come into play. The stories here are varied enough that they don't give a single, overwhelming definition of motherhood. They allow you to judge, to form your own idea of what it means to be "mom." There are several similar stories, some from people who were adopted and found their biological mothers, others from women whose relationship with their mothers was different than their relationship with their daughters. The former belies the traditional "nuclear family" ideal that has been fracturing for decades, reminding us that whom we label family has more to do with blood or with birth. The latter again testifies to the diversity of opinions on parenting and motherhood. There is no one correct way to be "mom."
Not that I'm trying to make Mom sound like some sort of parenting tips magazine. It's not an instruction manual, but more like a serious and intimate form of YouTube. The stories here are powerful because they're genuine, and that makes them both enjoyable to read and thought-provoking. I'd recommend Mom as a gift to mothers, but it's not just for mothers. It's for everyone, because we all had, if not have, a mother somewhere.(less)
I first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living Biblically...moreI first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living Biblically”. This intrigued me, so I decided to read the book he was pushing at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, because I didn’t know what types of experiments Jacobs had performed. But the book is short, and his writing, if sometimes overbearing, is usually entertaining too. The Guinea Pig Diaries is genuinely interesting and enjoyable.
This is a compilation of articles that appeared, in one form or another, in Esquire. I considered talking about each chapter briefly, but with nine chapters, the detail I would like to devote to each experiment would make this review long and frightfully boring. I loved some chapters and didn’t like others. So I’ll give you the highlights.
The first chapter, “My Life as a Beautiful Woman” was one of my favourites. I spend a lot of time online. When I was younger, I was (probably wisely) relatively anonymous. Gradually I allowed that anonymity to evaporate, and now I use my real name everywhere. This is important to me, because I do not want to create a dichotomy of online/offline personae; I want to be me, whether I am on the Web or in person. But for other people, anonymity is a necessity or a desire. It’s a chance to escape, to gain voice, to explore an alternative identity. The fact remains that despite some legislators’ brutal attempts to curtail the fundamental openness of the Internet, it is very difficult to verify someone’s true identity.
In the case of Michelle’s online dating profile, Michelle was actually the user and participated on the site … but she had Jacobs ghostwriting for her. I loved Jacobs’ account of how this experience changed the way he saw some of these men and, in turn, what he thought about dating and dating sites in general. He expresses his disappointment when dates he has arranged for Michelle don’t go well. He exhorts men to be prudent in their selection of usernames: “topnotchlover” sends a very specific message…. I found myself wishing for more of this chapter, just because the story of this partnership between Jacobs and Michelle to navigate the waters of online dating was so intriguing!
Fortunately, “My Outsourced Life” also proved interesting. The idea of outsourcing one’s entire life sounds like—and usually is—a joke. Jacobs plays it up this way at first, making light of how he hired two different Indian companies to attend to his business and personal tasks, respectively. His assistants, Honey and Asha, did research for him, composed emails, placed delivery orders, etc. Jacobs has his assistants write emails to his boss, write apology notes to his wife, and even conduct a phone call with his parents! It’s all right-out-of-the-textbook hilarious. But as the chapter progresses, a theme emerges:
When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is screwed. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.
It is a small and subtle observation of the culture of entitlement and complacency that belies the myth of the American dream that one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Other countries are trying that tactic too, and they are reaping the benefits of getting Bootstrap v2.0.
“The Truth About Nakedness” is a slightly underwhelming chapter. It is not, as the title and risqué photo that precedes the chapter might suggest, about Jacobs’ year of living nude. No, instead he discusses how Mary Louise Parker agreed to pose nude for an article she was writing for Esquire about what it feels like to pose nude. Parker said yes, but she wanted Jacobs, as her editor, to pose nude as well. And of course, being the human guinea pig that he is, he acquiesced. I was not that interested in his account of the details of the photoshoot and his feelings at the time. However, the coda to this chapter is a strong voice for critiquing media:
I can never look at a nude picture in the same way. I can still admire a nude photo, but I can no longer separate it from the context in which it was created. I can’t forget, as Mary-Louise put it, the loss of control and possible objectification.
Photography has this amazing power to capture a moment and keep it suspended with infinite potential: what is happening, and what will happen? The right photograph at the right time can be evocative and inspiring. Yet photography can also reduce a human subject to an object, something to be admired or lusted after. For a photograph to be inspiring and empowering, there needs to be that human connection. Jacobs underscores the idea that every photograph has a story, and when we look at a photo, we should wonder about that story.
There are other chapters that are well worth reading: he spends a month doing everything his wife asks; he spends time trying to act completely rationally; he spends a month dressed as George Washington. With each chapter, Jacobs mixes witticisms with genuine reflection, and he always manages to dig down to some kind of profound, albeit not earth-shattering, truth. Despite Jacobs’ engaging tone and the book’s short length, The Guinea Pig Diaries is not a light, fluffy bagatelle. Sometimes that tone bothered me—Jacobs writes with the smugness of someone who is being funny and knows it, and that sardonic self-awareness irked me. His writing has that feel of being smooth, practised, and edited, with the perfect parenthetical inserts and the oh-so-well-timed asides. But this is a minor complaint for what is otherwise a solidly entertaining book.
The subtitle of this book is My Life as an Experiment. I hope that most people’s lives are experiments of one sort or another. I don’t ghostwrite for women’s online dating profiles or live by the personal code of conduct of one of America’s Founding Fathers … but I like to think that even as an introvert, I manage my own little experiments quite well. You don’t have to be audacious and ostentatious in your experimentation if you don’t want to … although, who knows, maybe it means you have a book deal in your future!
For most people, computers are magic. Which is to say, they are technology sufficiently advanced to the point of mystification. I include myself in th...moreFor most people, computers are magic. Which is to say, they are technology sufficiently advanced to the point of mystification. I include myself in this camp, for despite my comfort with computers and my fluency in programming, a great deal of mystery still surrounds them. With the emergence of the Internet into the public sphere and the rise of the Web, computers and the phone system are now fundamentally intertwined, and vast swathes of our infrastructure are dependent on them. The dangers of cyberwarfare are very real. At the same time, however, it's important that we don't exaggerate or misrepresent this threat. Movies and television sensationalize the abilities and proclivities of hackers for the sake of drama and entertainment. Real hackers are quite different, and their motives and actions are as diverse and varied as the people they hack. Real hacking is independent of platform and technology; it's often more of a case of appealing to the weakest element in the system: the human.
Ghost in the Wires is the autobiography of Kevin Mitnick, “the world's most wanted hacker”. His is a fascinating, even bizarre tale of the convergence of law enforcement, ego, and addiction. Thanks to Mitnick’s impressive abilities, equally impressive capacity for self-delusion and self-denial, and the media’s tendency to think the worst, exploits and escapades that start as harmless fun result in a years-long manhunt and nearly a decade of jail time.
Mitnick's gateway into hacking is “phone phreaking”, unauthorized access to the phone company’s systems. This was in the days before the Web, before even personal computers, when computing itself involved entering programs line-by-line into computer memory and watching the read-outs on a printer, not a screen. It’s an era utterly alien to someone of my generation, let alone younger readers—and I love reading about how people interacted with computers at that stage.
As computers and phones become more advanced, so too does Mitnick. He explains how he acquires the ability to clone cell phone numbers, and how he uses space in dormant accounts on university and company servers to store source code he steals from companies like Sun, Novell, and Motorola. He obtains access to the IRS and DMV records, which later becomes instrumental as he creates false identities and goes on the run.
Mitnick keeps the structure of the book strictly chronological, with just enough foreshadowing to whet our appetites in anticipation of future events. However, some common themes quickly emerge. After his first few brushes with law enforcement over his hacking, Mitnick attempts to “straighten out” and quit, only to relapse time and again. In this sense, hacking is an addiction—it’s a challenge that provides a cognitive reward. No matter how hard he tries to give it up, he returns to it. This inability to rein himself in, even when he recognizes the dangers and the possibility of overreaching, is one of the reasons he eventually gets caught and goes to jail.
Mitnick also faces a revolving door of betrayal. Best friends and confidantes turn coat and rat him out to get lighter punishments; people he thought he could rely on turn against him. I sympathize. However, these accounts are necessarily one-sided, and I get the sense from reading between the lines that there was a lot about Mitnick as a person that contributed to these changes of heart.
Ghost in the Wires is a hefty book, especially as a paperback, and the pace is very slow. Mitnick enjoys teasing out every detail of his latest hack or discovery. Yet I never tired of hearing about it; I seldom wanted to put this book down. I just wanted to know what happened next: what was the next hack, the next run-in with the law, the next problem Mitnick had to overcome? Even before he becomes a fugitive, there is a sense of danger always around the corner. Though he spends a lot of time celebrating his ability to outwit and evade security employees from the telephone companies, he also gives due credit to those people who manage to outwit him. Once in a while, a technician or sysadmin catches on and boots him out. My reading pace is different for every book, but I literally did not want to stop reading this, stealing every possible opportunity to read as much as I could each day. There is just never a dull moment in the book.
It’s also truly terrifying to see how quickly rumours become exaggerated and become part of the legal record. Mitnick stresses throughout the book that he never hacked for profit or out of malice. For him, it was merely an exercise in ego. That doesn’t excuse the actions, but it does mean that charges amounting to terrorism are unjust. The ignorance of the law enforcement and judicial officials involved in this case is staggering. The overreactions—not letting Mitnick have any access to a phone for national security reasons—are a sobering reminder of how easy it is to mislead people who are less informed. When those people are in positions of power, they can abuse or misuse that power unwittingly, under the impression they are acting in the interests of public safety.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation in this book isn’t a technical one at all. Rather, Mitnick accomplishes some of his most daring hacks through social engineering. It’s incredible how willing people are to help him cirumvent their own company’s security procedures. With a little research and some guile, Mitnick poses as an employee from another office, tells a plausible story, and gets remote access or other information that people shouldn’t be so ready to divulge.
The weakest link in our cybersecurity is not the technology. It’s us. The trusting operator, the cheerful colleague … these are all parts of being human and having positive interactions every day. But the best, most secure systems are worthless if all you need to do is sweet-talk someone into reseting an account’s password. Mitnick’s approach still works today. Just ask Mat Honan, who had his Amazon and Apple accounts hacked through social-engineering of customer support representatives, and from there, the hackers disassembled the rest of his digital existence.
Ghost in the Wires is that sweet spot of books about technology. It’s accessible to everyone. At times Mitnick’s terminology definitely becomes a little technical and specialized—I don’t know enough about how our phone system works to pretend to follow his explanations of how he tricks the system into rerouting calls and letting him listen into private conversations. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book or my ability to follow what he was achieving. It also has a strong social message. Mitnick’s relationship with hacking is an addiction just as damaging to his life as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Moreover, the book is a warning that unless we make sure people in positions of power are better-educated about the capabilities of technology, we run the risk of innocent lives being ruined by misinformed authorities.
The majority of Mitnick’s tale takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, in the infancy of the World Wide Web. There was no Facebook or Twitter, no Amazon or Google. Now we spend more and more of our lives online. Mitnick might have been the world’s first “most wanted hacker”, but I doubt he will be the last. And we’re all going to have to get a little more clued-in, or we will be in for a rough time.