Saturday, September 12, 2009

What I've Been Reading

1) Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy. The overall quality of reading experience is good as always with Cormac, even if the actual story doesn't have as much to offer. The best line was, "Where do we go when we die? he said. I don't know, the man said. Where are we now?"

2) Creativity in Science, by Dean Keith Simonton. He uses statistics and historical records to explain the the developmental and career factors underlying scientific creativity, based on publication data. It's a quant approach and at the beginning you must slog through theoretical underpinnings, learning about stuff like the equal odds rule, Price's law, and the backwards J-shaped curve of publications within a lifetime. But the qualitative observations he derives from this background knowledge are well worth the entry costs. See my notes here for more.

3) The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel Wegner. This book argues that although you have the sensation of walking around and making decisions on a day-to-day basis, there is good reason to expect that this sensation is contrived. For example, when a decision is surreptitiously made for a subject, that person will still inevitably find some reason to rationalize that action. This is clearly outrageously counter-intuitive, but at the same time it's hard to pick holes in his argument. It's a terminology laden book, but for me it was worth the effort to understand.

4) The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. Super weird and windy plot that has some seriously impressive moments. Conspiracies within conspiracies. I found myself underlining tons of words I didn't know, so much so that it became more of a jigsaw puzzle than a novel. And at 160 pages, the opportunity cost is not too cumbersome.

5) Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar. His thesis in this book is that social communication is the hominid form of the constant grooming seen in other primates. Instead of merely stating that "humans are social creatures" like nearly everyone else does, he proposes some explanations for why that might be. Among his evidence for his argument is that sixty to seventy percent of conversations focus on purely social topics, like personal relationships, personal likes and dislikes, personal experiences, the behavior of other people, and such. There's also a really sweet section that describes how the limit to a conversation size is about four people, above which the conversation will falter and eventually break down into multiple groups.

6) Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, by Joseph LeDoux. He explains some interesting experiments about emotions, especially with respect to the amygdala. But I wanted more detail, more methodology, and more numbers, and ultimately this book was written with a more casual fan in mind.

7) Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. I was annoyed by the beginning of the book because I thought it was too predictable, but once the predictable event occurred near the middle the book gained steam. Indeed, I couldn't put it down for the last 200 pages and stayed awake until 4 AM to finish it, a remarkable feat given how much I value my sleep. The core theme of this book is as relevant in 2009 as it was in 1988, and many of the details haven't even changed. Recommended if you're willing to make a long-term commitment.