Some good, wholesome, surprisingly unpretentious, postmodern metafiction. I won't spoil the narrative here, but it's a very quick read that's as rewar...moreSome good, wholesome, surprisingly unpretentious, postmodern metafiction. I won't spoil the narrative here, but it's a very quick read that's as rewarding to figure out as it is enjoyable to read.(less)
Full disclosure: I have a serious admiration-crush on Commander Hadfield, so I may be biased.
I LOVED THIS BOOK. A non-linear autobiography spun as a s...moreFull disclosure: I have a serious admiration-crush on Commander Hadfield, so I may be biased.
I LOVED THIS BOOK. A non-linear autobiography spun as a sort of motivational handbook to living well, this book uses anecdotes-- the terrifying, the humorous, and the profound-- from an impressive career to illustrate some of the ways in which life as an astronaut can inform, and indeed improve, everyday life on earth. The writing is uncomplicated but never simple, the voice of humble intelligence with experience in communicating complicated ideas efficiently. Hadfield himself comes across as both ordinary and extraordinary, seasoned but wide-eyed, content but as determined as ever to contribute to the society that allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream of space travel.
The tenets of the philosophy Hadfield espouses are straightforward: (in my own words) work hard, work with passion, work with others, work for others, take pleasure in the little things, be prepared for anything, humble yourself, and learn, always. In these ways, Hadfield has managed to find happiness and maintain it over a lifetime of stress, long hours, travel, and endless learning, and even after his final stint in space was complete and his retirement nigh.
There was a lot to love and enjoy over the course of these pages. Hadfield is a sharp, witty guy, and his memory for, and appreciation of, the little details gives his stories a sort of earnest magic that draws you in. The one thing that I think will stick with me is the notion of seeing life (and careers) laterally, with moments of importance, pride, and value in every single day, instead of as a ladder to climb. The latter, Hadfield argues, will leave one in the position of never being satisfied at any rung below the top one, where no human can remain even if they're one of the lucky few to ever reach it.
I really recommend this book for anyone who wants to feel good about life, science, exploration, and the value of our tax dollars in supporting beautiful minds like this one.(less)
My first foray into Nietzsche has left me shaken to the core.
For better or worse, he was an expert rhetorician; even as one shudders to recognize the...moreMy first foray into Nietzsche has left me shaken to the core.
For better or worse, he was an expert rhetorician; even as one shudders to recognize the seeds of justification for later historical atrocities in his philosophies, one cannot help but feel enamoured by his prose and the undeniable style of his arguments. So many times I gave audible way to awe, reluctantly putting the book down to copy some choice phrases into a notebook.
To my view, this essay was a call to action for generations stuck in an obsession with existing fact and history, as pushed by then-modern education, which Nietzsche felt robbed them of their own culture and personalities and very beings, and led them to be easily ruled. The philosophy limits the value of history to that which stirs active improvement in the present, and warns us against becoming slaves to information-- taking art and feeling to be the better virtues. I agreed with much of it, but recoiled at other times, as when the ugly heads of classicism and xenophobia poked through the poetry; Nietzsche argued, for example, that the infiltration of other cultures into Germany left its citizens overwhelmingly fascinated with irrelevant ideas and histories and further moved them from a unified culture. Of course, I may have brought hindsight to the reading and tarnished his original meaning...
Nevertheless, the arguments in the essay, while generally compelling and endlessly fascinating, are a bit messy. There's a lot of self-contradiction and even meta-acknowledgement of it, alongside scathing critiques of irony that bring the effort full circle to meta-irony. A reader recognizing himself as slavishly reading a historical text that both critiques the slavish attention to history and admires the unhistorical virtues of ancient Greek culture soon finds himself in a tangle of recursion, no longer sure which way is up.
Frankly, I loved that facet of the reading. It made me think. Hard. It tickled my beautiful-prose button and mercilessly challenged my intellectual capacities, my own assumptions and philosophies, and my core beliefs as a scientist. Nietzsche is ultimately, it seems, against science-as-a-search-for-truth, arguing that it only considers what is "true" and "right" and thus "finished and historical." He writes that science "hates the forgetfulness that is the death of knowledge." Whereas I appreciate his point within the context of what he calls the historical malady, I think he has a diminished understanding of what science is. At least to me, science is incredibly fluid and creative, and is never finished. It must adapt to current understandings and must give up the constraints of ego to permit the reality of a constantly shifting truth. Forgetting is as central to science as it is to the beast who "goes into the present, like a number, without leaving any curious remainder," except that for science, the curiosity that remains is precisely the point.
Aldous Huxley's mind became a new favourite of mine by the second page of Doors of Perception; all I'd read of him before was Brave New...moreAaaaaaaaa......
Aldous Huxley's mind became a new favourite of mine by the second page of Doors of Perception; all I'd read of him before was Brave New World, and that long before I possessed the intellect to appreciate it fully. This short essay is a musing on the author's first experience with mescaline, the psychotropic substance in peyote. Huxley blends anecdote with science and philosophy into a piece that is, without question, the most lucid and insightful account of hallucinogenic drug use that I've ever encountered. His careful consideration of the effects of the drug are given in the measured tone of an intellectual, balancing the introspective experience with the scientific facts of the day and containing himself well short of the sorts of ultimately meaningless epiphanies most drug users will recount. Particularly fascinating were his offhand insights into the nature of perception and memory, as it put into the perfect words a host of thoughts related to my research that I could never have hoped to articulate half as well.
The five stars are here given over mostly to Doors of Perception, which I take as a seriously important work for cognitive science as much as for substance-fuelled philosophy.
Heaven and Hell was much less interesting to me, as Huxley fumblingly ties hallucinogenic (or as he groan-inducing-ly calls it, "visionary") experiences to religious symbolism and suggests that the former informed the latter. Whereas I'm receptive to the general idea, his chosen arguments are a sloppy set, centred largely around classical paintings and sculptures, in which the reader without an art history degree will find little to help him connect the dots of rhetoric. Nevertheless, there were a few profoundly insightful tidbits in this piece as well, rendered perhaps more meaningful by the otherwise dull context.
The book as a whole was devoured in a day and has left me hungry for more of his stunningly poignant prose. Time for a Huxley binge.(less)
A quick read (30 minutes?), valuable as a sharp reminder of the basic nutritional facts you probably already knew on some level. Pollan's no-nonsense...moreA quick read (30 minutes?), valuable as a sharp reminder of the basic nutritional facts you probably already knew on some level. Pollan's no-nonsense condensing of the information is likely to serve as an effective bop on the nose for eaters who should really know better, if only they'd listened to the common sense of older generations for whom food was a simpler but more thoughtful luxury. Even so, there were some facts I hadn't thought about myself, but in hindsight probably should have, such as the over-processing of soy products marketed at vegetarians like me. I'll be more mindful of that from now on.
There's a point of pride in realizing the extent to which I already adhere to much of this dietary wisdom, but aside from stoking my ego I think the book could find good use as a straightforward and perhaps usefully alarming wakeup call for less conscientious eaters.(less)
Michael Pollan is swiftly solidifying his position as "somebody I want to know." He's a clever writer, an inquisitive journalist, and a creative story...moreMichael Pollan is swiftly solidifying his position as "somebody I want to know." He's a clever writer, an inquisitive journalist, and a creative storyteller, as well as a shining light of simple food consciousness in an era of either not asking at all or asking far too much.
This book is equal parts natural history, social history, regular history, botanical musing, plant biology, evolutionary theory, and psychology, with a smattering of classical mythology, memoir, neuroscience, and investigative journalism to hold the threads together. Pollan sets out with the aim of tracking four plants along their coevolution with society, tying each to a human desire that shaped it into what it is today: the apple and sweetness, the tulip and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, and potatoes and control. What he ends up writing from this neat little package of a thesis is something much greater than the sum of its parts, a veritable exploration (I use the word a lot but I think it really applies here) of what it means to be human in a determinedly natural world.
One of the ideas he returns to often is that our relationship to the natural world is a balancing of Apollonian (controlled, geometric, structured, artificial) and Dionysian (frenetic, shifting, chaotic, and natural) forces, and I think he really hit the nail on the head with the notion as much as with the conclusion that it's a much more complicated relationship than it first appears. The complexity of the question is due in part to the many human urges (such as morality) that don't fit cleanly in either camp, and in part to the ambiguity of the agent in control within the framework of nature's chaos. It's an impressively thoughtful approach, and the broad reach allowed by a philosophical, as opposed to purely scientific, foundation means the reader gets to learn a little about a lot along the way.
I won't spoil anyone's enjoyment of the book by divulging details of HOW each plant and desire is examined, but I will assure you that the how is not as straightforward and easy as you'd expect. This is becoming a mark of Pollan's writing as much as it always has been a hallmark of great writing: a clear and simple idea considered with breadth and depth in a manner so well-organized that you don't realize how much you're learning until you're done. I cannot wait to read more of his work.(less)
Michael Pollan proves himself once again as a prodigious mind and a bastion of honest journalism in the sea of lies, double-talk, cover-up, and market...moreMichael Pollan proves himself once again as a prodigious mind and a bastion of honest journalism in the sea of lies, double-talk, cover-up, and marketing that surround the food industry. This book documents an insightful and often alarming collection of journeys through the food chain, following different pathways of food sources from the starting line to the dinner table. Running the gamut from the highly industrialized, government-subsidized, and deeply impersonal ecological nightmare that brings us processed and fast foods, down to the gritty and very personal realities of a hunter-forager lifestyle, Pollan's exploration is as thorough as it is fair. It's clear that while he has an opinion, he is not writing to push any agenda and is quite willing to have his views changed by what he learns. That he then shares what he's learned and encourages his readers to decide for themselves is a rare openness in what is often a heated and divisive topic.
It's so refreshing to see a writer of non-fiction admitting his ignorance and then striving to solve it, heartening to see someone so evidently concerned with environmental issues nevertheless give a balanced consideration of the real benefits of unsustainable farming (namely, it feeds a lot of people), and contagiously thought-provoking to see such breadth and depth of thought given over to food. It certainly doesn't hurt that Pollan is a great writer, hitting humour and tragedy at all the right moments and letting the facts speak solemnly for themselves when they should, and a phenomenally engaging storyteller.
Rather than hear my thoughts on the various sections of the book (though, spoilers, the part about sustainable polyculture farms blew me away and brought me nostalgically back to an age when I naively believed all farming to be like that), I really encourage anyone interested in Pollan's work to just read it themselves. You won't regret taking the time, and his full treatment will be in any case far more interesting than my summary.
If you're interested in how food happens, but don't want to be emotionally manipulated into an opinion, this is the book for you.(less)
Sort of an elaborated version of Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I had mistakenly read first, this one didn't add too much *new* informa...moreSort of an elaborated version of Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I had mistakenly read first, this one didn't add too much *new* information above and beyond what I'd learned from previous reads, whether of his or of someone else's. Nevertheless, I appreciate the full treatment given to the vital but oft-unheeded battlecry: the Western diet is killing us only slightly slower than it can spread its fingers into new hearts and minds and stomachs around the world-- an insidious promise of easy short-term gratification (economic, caloric, and political) without consideration for the enormous long-term havoc being wrought on ecosystems at all levels of analysis. He moreover ties the myriad major American industries together into what might be the greatest unplanned money-making scheme in human history, as measured by breadth, depth, growth and duration, a symbiotic market that fattens itself in perpetuity on the shoulders of its consumers (the world's first real soylent?).
The scope of the issue is really laid bare in this careful and probably, to be honest, conservative criticism of nutritionism, the young quasi-science that is stretching well beyond its current capabilities to influence public food and health policies in alarming ways. A clever mirror against the reductionist tendencies of the budding field, Pollan shifts blame for modern endemics (obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease...) from one likely factor to the next, to eventually strike upon the broader picture of what culture and evolution have to say about diet as a whole.
Whereas a lazier author could easily have spun this yarn of legitimate concern into a web of alarmist nightmare, Pollan is careful to offer solutions within full reach of the reader. He details with simplicity the thankful fact that what is best for your health is commonly in harmony with what is best for the environment, from soil to chemical waste, and bluntly points out that every consumer of a vital resource cast votes for the future with the every purchasing choice made. He cites the rise of community supported agriculture programs-- a local example of which I am proud to be a part--, the desperation of food processors to maintain a growing veneer of health-consciousness, the growth of organic produce at both public market and private garden scales, and the steadfast persistence of some traditional food cultures in the face of fast food's yawning reach, as some examples that all hope is not yet lost. I, for one, submit as further evidence the popularity of Pollan's incisive and tremendously readable critiques. I'll continue to vote with my stomach and my money, and will do so more simply and intelligently than before thanks to the insights garnered from these books.(less)
This was one of the more enjoyable issues to read since the magazine's inception. Though light on recipes (especially vegetarian-friendly recipes), fo...moreThis was one of the more enjoyable issues to read since the magazine's inception. Though light on recipes (especially vegetarian-friendly recipes), for once it felt like every written piece hit the topic spot-on-- perhaps with the exception of the trying-too-hard-to-be-weird fiction piece by Jack Pendarvis. Granted, the topic of travel is a broad one, but the editors did a great job of choosing a variety: travelogues, memoirs, tours through hidden culinary gems, quests for traditional fare in a world catered to comforting tourists, travel advice pieces, and so on. Particularly notable were Greg Larson's unsettling recounting of his guided tour through North Korea, Harold McGee's (of course!) chemistry piece on cooking with plastics, Adam Gollner's rather poetic memoir of Crete and the persistence of a tradition of abundance in a time of crisis, and Jack Carneal's reflection on the culinary importance of getting lost.
When I read this issue, I had just come back from my own vacation in Europe, and much of the feel of the issue reflected my personal approach to travel: go somewhere new, walk around, get lost, eat good food, never eat at the same place twice. Ask, try, stumble blindly into new places, and taste with an open mind. It felt like an issue written just for me, and provided some insight on where to travel next.
Moreover, THERE IS A RECIPE FOR MOCHI. I had never thought to make my own mochi before, but you'd better believe I will now.(less)
What an interesting issue! Boldly blending terrifying pre-apocalyptic fact-- dwindling oceans, soil erosion and limited agricultural resources, the sl...moreWhat an interesting issue! Boldly blending terrifying pre-apocalyptic fact-- dwindling oceans, soil erosion and limited agricultural resources, the slow disappearance of whole species of plant and animal life-- with a whimsical array of post-apocalyptic fiction, both projected and purely imagined, the reader is taken from the present into the potential future and the struggles that await us there.
Michael Pollan's opening piece, a frank discussion of sustainability that hit me right in the gut, was an important piece of journalism that reminded me I need to read his books. Sustainability is the proverbial axe we hold over our own heads that finally made me drop meat from my diet a year ago, and I was thrilled to see so much of the volume devoted to alternatives: a number of pieces on canning, jarring, pickling, and otherwise preserving food; pieces on self-sufficient gardening and seed breeding; articles on sustainable ocean-farming as a contrast to large-scale fishing and trawling; elaborate sets of instructions for baking bread, making butter, and procuring salt in a world without our current modern comforts and shortcuts; and a very interesting piece on collecting wild honey.... all alongside the relevant recipes, of course.
The thing that I so love about Lucky Peach is the barrier-free access to minds and hands that have tried and failed and can tell you what they've learned, can show you: yes, you can do this yourself. You can make this dish. You can perform this culinary technique. Here's how. And this issue really hit that note hard, for obvious reasons.
I want to make my own jams. I want to get the courage to someday find a wild beehive and make my own honey. And I probably will.
The fictional piece by Bill Cotter, moreover, was phenomenal. Better than LP fiction usually is. Total shivers. No spoilers. Just read it.(less)
It's difficult to treat this statistical hallmark fairly from a modern perspective, and particularly from the perspective of a social scientist. Fishe...moreIt's difficult to treat this statistical hallmark fairly from a modern perspective, and particularly from the perspective of a social scientist. Fisher's work, while undeniably fundamental to current statistical techniques in psychology, lay firmly in the applied realms of genetics and agriculture. Whereas it is possible to read his treatment of Latin Squares in plots of land, for example, as generalizable to the design of factorial behavioural experiments, holy hell is it tedious: it demands not only a translation of antiquated scientific prose to modern equivalents but also a translation of agricultural terminology to that of participant groups. His approach is, moreover, deeply mathematical. I skipped over much of the final chapter which, near as I could tell, dealt with algebraic proofs of the sufficiency and biases of parameter estimates-- topics that I had a hard time following in more accessible terms in my courses, lacking as I do a strong mathematical background. Having both taken and taught the topics covered in the book, I know that most students in my field have a difficult time with this dry approach to statistics, preferring instead to have the concepts bootstrapped to their research programs. Nowadays, very few experimentalists are statisticians, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, the book certainly has value as an alternative perspective for those already familiar with the techniques. Fisher illustrates the fundamentals of the exact z test, single sample and paired t tests, confidence intervals, factorial tests, chi-square tests, and others. The way he explores them is vastly different from how I learned them, but the comparison was a worthwhile exercise. My existing knowledge allowed me to better understand his approaches to the same concepts, and to expand my understanding of their theoretical foundations. Old tricks, new angles. And a few fun jabs at Neyman and Peason, to boot!
I would not recommend this book to anyone without a strong grasp of the Fisherian tradition of data analysis. Those few of you well-equipped, on the other hand, may find it worth your while.(less)