Books on sex are a dime a dozen these days. From tomes on how to create a more spiritual union or bring more spice to your marriage through the cunnin...moreBooks on sex are a dime a dozen these days. From tomes on how to create a more spiritual union or bring more spice to your marriage through the cunning use of super glue, paperclips, and a rubber band (the well-named MacGuyver technique) to how to give your lover earth-shattering orgasms through locating some mythical pressure point, this genre has risen to be one of the pillars of the self-help section of a bookstore. It's gotten so that this subgenre receives even less respect (and deservedly so) than the Harlequin romances that continue to be published at the rate of a gross ton each week. Yet when a writer as highly respected as sex columnist Dan Savage goes as far as to call this book "the most important piece of sexual research since the Kinsey Papers," I have to sit up and take notice.
No mere work of bookshelf fluff designed to titillate (hehe) the masses, Sex At Dawn is instead one of the most well-researched works on the roots of human sexuality that I've ever had the pleasure of reading. It's no secret that most modern relationships are broken affairs- soulless/passionless marriages where neither spouse much cares for the other but stays out of some sense of obligation, or cheats rather than discussing and owning up to their feelings of flagging sexual interest (which can not help but end in bitter recriminations and acrimonious heartbreak). With porn of every flavor a mere web search away, swingers on Craigslist, casual bar hook-ups, marriage counselors popping up like mold spores, the chaste Victorian notion of "one love, happily ever after" has taken a severe beating in the past century.
If humans had evolved to be monogamous pairs raising children, what authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha call the Standard Narrative, then wouldn't these systems work better? Wouldn't we naturally fall into them rather than having to create so many social pressures and laws to force us into conforming? Through meticulous research into our closest animal ancestors (that'd be the bonobo and not the chimp, for those with scorecards), anthropological studies of foraging/pre-agricultural communities, and physiological analysis, the authors make a rather convincing case that monogamy is not intrinsic to the human condition but rather a very recent adaptation that humans are still fitfully trying to conform to.
While at times a bit dry and overly analytical, the book is still an incredibly interesting read. The section on human semen competition alone provided much fodder for discussion around the dinner table. Still, as ground-breaking as their research may be, the advice they give to couples is still the same- we need to communicate our wants, needs, and desires better and to understand that flagging sexual interest and the desire for new mates is an inherent part of our genetic make-up. This book shouldn't be taken as a clarion call for men to run out and be cads, but as a means of beginning to find better ways to define our sexuality and work toward a more satisfying future for all.(less)
Within my skull, where all of those vital pieces of data surrounding science are supposed to be stored, there is instead a vast beaker-shaped void of...moreWithin my skull, where all of those vital pieces of data surrounding science are supposed to be stored, there is instead a vast beaker-shaped void of ignorance. In high school, while we were supposed to be studying the musculature of the formaldehyde-soaked amphibians pinned ignominiously to their coffinesque metal trays, I was far more interested in studying the effects of adding fire to small green buds. During my brief time wandering the hallways of the University world, I was able to do away with my prerequisite requirement by taking an “Arts of Science” course tailor-made for those more interested in empathy than entropy and, while I did manage to get a crocodile on my report card, all I took away from that class was an abiding hatred for hippies. The long and the short of all this is that I didn’t know a quasar from a neutron or a brown dwarf from a red giant (though Red Dwarf was a magnificent television series).
As a devout lover of science fiction and hi-tech gadgetry of all sorts, this was a matter of not a little shame for me. To resolve this I decided that it was time for me to fill in some of the (immense) gaps in my education the best way I know how- via book. Yet how to avoid having my eyes glaze over the moment someone started explaining cell structures or complex wave fields? Fortunately, as it often does, my television provided a solution when Stephen Colbert took a visit to the American Museum of Natural Historys Hayden Planetarium and spoke with its Director, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, while just as geeky as you would expect from an astrophysicist, is phenomenally skilled at taking incredibly complex scientific theories and translating them into a Common English that even Stephen Colbert is able to understand. My fate was sealed. This man was the ideal author to ease myself into the brave new world of stellar science.
Death by Black Hole is a collection of essays the Tyson penned for Natural History magazine over the course of several years. Each essay addresses a different topic, running the gamut from the birth of the universe, the history of astronomical discoveries, humankind’s fixation on the red hills of Mars and the life-bringing water that may lay frozen away, all the way to the Pluto Wars (it’s amazing just how contentious Pluto’s status as planet is). Of course there’s some overlap between the chapters and some facts get repeated but, rather than bugging me, I found it to be a good refresher of what had come before that helped solidify my basic understanding of the concepts at hand. Most interesting to me, policy junkie that I am, is the closing essay in which Tyson writes about the plague of scientific ignorance sweeping the country. After almost brutally doing away with that Bible-in-textbook-clothing anachronism that is “intelligent design,” he makes great points about America’s waning prestige in scientific research and the future costs, both economic and academic, that we will have to pay due to ceding our intellectual priority to advance knowledge. I’m not much interested in sustaining American supremacy in any field, but I can always get behind an argument for strengthening education.
What I most enjoyed was the excitement that Tyson has for his field. He doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of atomic weights and the like, but thrills at the possibilities of quantum mechanics and takes an almost excessive amount of joy in ruminating over the possible ways that people can be killed in space from the atom-splitting nullification of crossing a black hole’s event horizon to the persistent fear of a species-leveling asteroid striking Earth. Tyson is a man possessed of a childlike sense of wonder at the mysteries of the universe that sees the current limits of our scientific understanding not as having reached the final frontiers of science but as hurdles to be vaulted over in our quest to know. His enthusiasm is quite contagious and I challenge any reader to emerge from this book without being excited about science. (less)
Malcolm, meet Fonzie. Fonzie, Malcolm. I think you two will get along well together now that you’ve both jumped the shark. I never wanted to introduce...moreMalcolm, meet Fonzie. Fonzie, Malcolm. I think you two will get along well together now that you’ve both jumped the shark. I never wanted to introduce the two of them, but I sort of feel obligated to after reading Outliers. In this, his third book, Gladwell stretches his sociological study of all things common sense to its ultimate breaking point. The cover touts the book as an answer to the long-standing question that thousands have tried to answer before him: why is it that some people succeed at their chosen field while others toil for years without ever rising above mediocrity? The answer is an obvious one: people succeed through a fortuitous convergence of different factors.
It is not enough to merely be smart, or from a rich family, or have unique opportunities to embrace your field- be it music, writing, business, or whatever. All of these things form a good base layer for success, but in no way guarantee success (though anyone looking for such a guarantee may buy it from my website, along with some other steals: bridgeinbrooklyn.com). An outlier must also come of age in an appropriate time period to best take advantage of changing business situations (getting in at the beginning of the industrial revolution or the construction of Silicon Valley). In other words- success is determined by a large and complex system of variables that might benefit a determined individual. It all comes down to each person seizing any opportunity that might come their way and capitalizing upon it. Like I said, common sense.
Still, just because it’s not ground-breakingly revelatory doesn’t mean that this book is without merit. Any reader familiar with Gladwell will expect the diverse examples that he draws from- ranging from Canadian hockey to enterprising Jewish immigrants and software programmers. Most interesting to me, though, were his examples of those people who should have become outliers but, for some reason or another, failed. His recounting of the world’s smartest man (IQ 192) who was unable to even graduate college due to an inability to adjust from his standard adversarial approach to hierarchical systems reminded me of dozens of people I have known who, despite phenomenal intelligence and creativity, flounder in the so-called real world and end up in dissatisfying and meaningless jobs. I do enjoy when authors of self-help or finance books admit that most of the problems that we deal with in our daily existence are created by us- Radiohead said it best when they sang “You do it to yourself, it’s true, and that’s why it really hurts.”
Overall, though, this book seems scattered and more than a little unhinged. Much of the demographic analysis seems cherry-picked to support Gladwell’s theory of successful determiners and some of the examples seem to bear no relation to his main point but were included to pad out the length of the book. Still, I’m a little bittersweet about having finished it. I’ve been listening to Gladwell’s books, the above and his two previous, The Tipping Point and Blink, in their audiobook incarnations narrated by the author and his voice is just so calm and soothing, I wish I could make him read all of my books out loud to me. Hell, I’d settle for simply attending a lecture in order for a chance to hear his voice live. This alone is enough to guarantee that I will read his next attempt.(less)
With his study of how ideas spread in The Tipping Point and then with his explanation of how humans rely on intuition here in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell...moreWith his study of how ideas spread in The Tipping Point and then with his explanation of how humans rely on intuition here in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell has carved a comfortable niche for himself among the pop-science authors of today. With his eye for patterns and a knack for putting into words many of the quirks of humankind that we take for granted, Gladwell has made a science out of common sense.
In this, his second book, Gladwell looks at our ability to subconsciously process information in a far faster and more detailed way than our conscious minds are typically capable of. This is hardly new ground- the Beats intoned “First thought, best thought.” Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke to “trust your instincts” and Luke managed to blow up the Death Star without aid from his targeting computer. Examples abound. Gladwell, as all social scientists must, puts his own stamp on it by renaming it "thin slicing" (the knack we have for deriving often correct solutions/ideas from a small sampling of information).
There's not much that is new or ground-breaking within these pages. Gladwell builds his case for thin slicing with many vastly different examples, from studies performed to read the micro-expressions in people's faces which betray their mood and thoughts (I think someone at Fox must have read this book before developing "Lie To Me") to the way in which people may be "primed" to be more cooperative or smart simply by being exposed to a series of terms or thinking about the traits of a good professor (the most disturbing example of this is when Gladwell cites a study in which a group of African-American students attending an Ivy League school take a test in which they are asked their racial information at either the beginning of the test or at the end. Those who fill in the racial info before taking the test performed far worse due to being primed to think of all the stories about black students' inability to perform well on standardized testing.)
The latter half of the book is spent analyzing those events in which our intuition leads us astray, the most glaring example of which is the 1999 shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo by a group of four police officers. While interesting and definitely a good check on those who read the first half of the book and want to go out and only trust their instincts, I felt that Gladwell never really made clear the instances in which we should rely on our gut or when we should proceed in a thorough and detailed manner. Still, this was an incredibly interesting read that provided much fodder for both thought and discussion around the supper table. I'd recommend it for those in search of a quick non-fiction read or who enjoy the slow accumulation of trivia.(less)
The eminent sage and philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once said "As we know, There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there a...moreThe eminent sage and philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once said "As we know, There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know." Now I never gave that phrase much thought, other than requisite snort of derision, until recently when I began listening to the audiobook for Mary Roach's Bonk. It was only then that I understood the scope of what Rummie, in his standard garbled manner, was talking about.
You see, I know that I don't know a lot of things. I know that I don't know the distance from Earth to the Sun, the mating ritual of the ladybug, why Lady GaGa refuses to wear pants, or why tortillas are the most perfect thing to wrap food in. It wasn't until reading Bonk, though, that I realized that I didn't even know that I didn't know about such wonderful things as vaginal upsuck, teleclitoridians, porcine foreplay, scrotal moles, or the scientific studies that were performed to study these delightful subjects. Oh brave new world, that has such things in it!
With her customary self-deprecation and humorous asides, Roach dives deep into the world of the sexual sciences. A very skilled researcher, Roach simultaneously looks back to the dawn of reproductive study, through the titillating studies on the female orgasm performed by the sadly unsatisfied Princess Bonaparte, the modern studies of Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, and out into the future. Written in a very conversational manner (helped greatly by the fact that I listened to the audiobook), the book proved to be one of the most interesting thigns I've read all year. The only complaint I can muster is that Roach sometimes tends to skimp on the details in the chapters where I was most interested and then piles them on in the segments where I could stand for some things to be glossed over (ie- the description of skinning the penis prior to inserting an implant). Even so, this is nitpicking. The book is eminently enjoyable, a proper followup to Stiff that has me curious about her other book, Spook.
While I had pre-ordered this book months before its release in 2008, it took me until this past March to actually blow the dust from my copy and crack...moreWhile I had pre-ordered this book months before its release in 2008, it took me until this past March to actually blow the dust from my copy and crack the heavy spine open. I will admit to more than a little bit of intimidation on my part. After the epic size and scope of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, I knew that Anathem would be a read that I would need to fully dedicate myself to in order to appreciate/understand it as much as my meager mind is capable of. It’s fortunate that I waited as long as I did before reading this because I doubt I would have appreciated this half as much had I not spent the past year or so fleshing out my scant knowledge of science and math to a point where I have at least a nodding acquaintance with the ideas that Stephenson puts together in this, his fictional attempt at explaining his own Unified Field Theory of Everything.
This is the book that Stephenson has been building up to ever since he first put pen to page so many years ago. I would not hesitate to call it his magnum opus were he not still feverishly penning new tales that I am certain will astound me further. Ideas that were first expressed in embryonic stages in his earlier writings (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Diamond Age) have been gestating over the years until springing, like mythical Athena, fully formed from his mind ready to astound. Not that this is all dry science and Platonic dialogues. No, with Stephenson you are guaranteed a wild ride through an intricately imagined universe with your daily dose of metaphysics.
The tale begins within the walls of the Concent of Saunt Edhar (think coed monasteries for thinkers), following the young Fraa Erasmus as he prepares for his first visit outside the walls since he arrived at the concent ten long years earlier. He exists in a world of pure though, utterly isolated from the Secular World outside the walls. His days are spent under the tutelage of older and more experienced Fraas, in Convo with his peers puzzling out logic problems and explaining things like the three dimensional plotting of coordinates to a young autistic initiate. The scenes in the concent remind me of nothing so much as the vivid descriptions of monastic life in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The universal clock which forms the central basis of life in the Math is as detailed as the labyrinthine library at the heart of Name of the Rose and the intrigues between the various sects nearly as convoluted.
The first hundred pages or so are a struggle, but one that is well worth it once the stage has been set and the story begins to reveal itself. Stephenson borrows and adapts a lot of terminology from our world to create his own vocabulary. Normally things like this throw me off and ultimately sour me on a book (I know what a “fork” is, but I’ll be damned if I know “dinglehopper”) but Stephenson puts some explanation into his phrases. For example, because the avout aren’t religious, they have Saunts in the place of Saints- saunts being a new rendering of savant. Confusing? Don’t worry, there’s an index of phrases just before the appendices. Don’t be misled though; this book is not all dry theorizing and descriptions of centuries-old wall carvings. I don’t want to give too much away, because that would be extremely easy to do and most of my pleasure with the book came from being as in the dark to what was occurring as Erasmus was, but suffice to say that the plot is a riveting one that takes Erasmus from the comfortable walls of his concent to a hellish trek across frozen wastes to a free-wheeling zero gravity ballet that culminates in a reality-bending climax that would make even Philip K. Dick smile in bemusement.
The problem with reviewing a book as dense as Anathem is that, invariably, you will never be able to touch on as many of the highlights as you would prefer. I haven’t even begun to talk about the debates between the Halikaarnian and Procian sects of avout that left my mind reeling and wondering whether I even existed at the end, nor the secretive Ita (derived from I.T. Administrators) who maintain the avout’s limited access to technology, nor the Jedi-like duo of Fraa Orolo and Fraa Jad who provide most of the forward momentum in this tale. This book had, quite literally, whole worlds crammed into its few pages and I was astounded that Stephenson brought it to a serviceable conclusion without extending it into a full series as he did with the semi-unwieldy Baroque Cycle. This is a great book to fall into when you want to disconnect from the world at large for a time and simply live through the adventures of a dewy eyed youth, far from the drama of day to day living. I recommend it to all fans of speculative fiction or anyone looking for something new and exciting. (less)
A little macabre and a lot interesting, Roach takes a look at the what happens to your corpse when you donate your body to science. From plastic surge...moreA little macabre and a lot interesting, Roach takes a look at the what happens to your corpse when you donate your body to science. From plastic surgery centers in San Francisco where docs are given the opportunity to practice new techniques to a sunny hillside in Tennessee where forensic specialists chart the stages of decomposition to assist with murder investigations readers are treated to a very up-close and personal look at the multitude of uses your body could have post-inhabitance.(less)