Tag Archives: book review

Book review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

Would you like to have the mind of Shakespeare? Put pen to paper and write your way into fame, forever? Well, dear reader, then this book

This book is not what you’re looking for. It is not a shortcut. It won’t teach you how to craft pretty words or witty lines. It won’t bring you fame on stage or the love of millions. What it does do, and very well, is to take a look at our current system of education and see where its failings lie. Scott Newstock’s message is that thinking like Shakespeare has much less to do with copying his form or his topics, and much more with instilling young minds with the habits and tools they need to become the next Shakespeare.

“How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education”
By Scott Newstok
Princeton University Press, 185 pages | Buy on Amazon.

The world is full of books telling us what to think. There’s no shortage of books telling us how to think, either. But How to Think like Shakespeare is a book that aims to help us think well.

The book is structured in fourteen “deliberately short” chapters, each dealing with an aspect of what Newstok considers to be “key aspects of thinking, and how to hone them”. This book is the product of his own experiences with the U.S. educational system, both internally as a teacher and a professor, and externally, as a parent. Through this exploration, Newstok heavily criticizes what he sees as ineffective or outright damaging trends in education, often campaigned for under the banner of progress through technology, or fairness under standardisation.

Heavily but delightfully peppered with great quotes from great minds throughout history, How to Think like Shakespeare makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Hard figures, charts, graphs, these are not really the meat of the book. And yet, through metaphor and wit, it makes just as compelling an argument as you’d expect from a mathematical proof.

I will confess that, at first, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t like this book. As Newstok himself quips, I did pick up the book hoping for a shortcut, an easy way towards a great mind. Instead, I found that a case was being made for things such as the importance of engaging in past work, in ‘tradition’, to foster creativity. How imitation or outright copying of other’s work can help guide us to our own voice. All of them things that, as a highschooler or college student, I would have dismissed as the uninformed ramblings of a crusty old man out of his time, and out of his depth of understanding. “I,” was my first thought, “have been deceived”.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Both in the way it reads, and in regards to what it has to say. At its core, How to Think like Shakespeare hits upon something that rings undeniably true: education is a very personal act. Screens, standardized tests, optimized ‘learning objectives’ at the head of every lesson, these can be great tools with which to acquire facts, and knowledge — but an education is much more than simple facts.

Newstok looks at the importance of seemingly innocuous factors, such as simply being in the same place and time with teachers, and your class-mates, in shaping our ability to think, and think well. Or, for example, how our obsession with being original, our disdain for plagiarism, actually limits our performance, and stifles creativity. How insisting on efficiency and optimization in the curriculum actually makes us all poorer, intellectually, and how an obsession with assessment and measurement hides the very essence of education from us. Or how, in putting our hopes for a freer and more convenient education in the hands of technology, we’ve lost sight of the fact that thinking aides are not a substitute for thinking.

All in all, this is a book I couldn’t do justice in any way in a simple review. Newstok has a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of literature, insight into why words have power, and an understanding of how to craft them. It presents valuable ideas in an engaging format, and will help you understand both our education systems and your own mind better. It will also give you the tools you need to guide the latter one better, and the insight as to where you want it to go. I thoroughly recommend you give this one a try.

Book Review: Britain’s Habitats

Britain’s Habitats: A Field Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Great Britain and Ireland – Fully Revised and Updated Second Edition
by Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still, and Andy Swash
Princeton University Press

There’s something distinctly intriguing about a country that has agriculture covering 69% of its land surface but loves its habitats and wildlife as much as Britain. It’s hard to find a nation that loves its habitats more than the Brits, who have described it in lavish detail and from myriad perspectives for centuries. From Daniel Defoe’s classic A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain published in 1724 and even before that, Britain has had no shortage of books describing its beauty.

But things have also changed. Gone are the days when most people would look for impressions and intricate journal stories. What most of us want now is quick and accessible information. Somehow, Britain’s Habitats manages to do a bit of both.

Personally, I quite enjoy it when books are true to their title. Britain’s Habitats does just that — it describes the country’s habitats, virtually all of them. There’s nothing groundbreaking about that, but where it truly shines is presentation.

It starts with a wholesome introduction to the great diversity and variety of ecosystems, including details about the country’s geology, climate, and conservation measures. It’s inspiring to see just how much conservation is emphasized in the book, and this manages to create something that all books on nature should: it creates an emotional connection to the reader. I found myself interested in things I already knew, or things that would have seemed obscure and dull just moments ago. I wanted to know what flowers grow on upland wet heaths, or what makes coastal marshes unique. Although the book is filled with facts and information, it also speaks to the human, not just the brain — and that’s something that’s too often overlooked.

The essence of the book, however, are the brief descriptions of habitats. Every habitat is presented on a few pages, starting with a general description (lavishly decorated with photos), a map of where the habitat can be found, information about rare species, and other practical information (like how to recognize the habitat or when to visit it).

Disclaimer: I’m a sucker for both nature photos and maps. Britain’s Habitats hits hard on both ends. Curiously, the book doesn’t really opt for an eye-catching approach — there are lots of photos of bushes, shrubs, and things that wouldn’t strike the average traveler as particularly interesting. But to this reviewer, it seems that the book doesn’t strive to be pretty, it strives to be interesting, and that it accomplishes.

Overall, I’d say Britain’s Habitats shines in two regards: it makes for an excellent guide for those travelling through Britain (anywhere in the country), and it offers a deeper understanding of what nature has to offer. In these pandemic times, maybe we need a bit more of this.

Book review: The Infinite Desire for Growth

How did we get from subsistence farming to living long, prosperous, and entertaining lives — but wanting more? Is our current economic paradigm of an always-increasing GDP a viable option for the future, given issues such as climate change, social unrest, growing inequality? Why do we want it so much in the first place, and can we afford to keep yearning for it?

The Infinite Desire for Growth tackles these very questions in a light, accessible way, while still managing to provide surprising breadth on the topic.

“The Infinite Desire for Growth”
By Daniel Cohen
Princeton University Press, 165 pages | Buy on Amazon

Economic growth always has a spot in our headlines these days — be it to celebrate good news, or report on a bad year. It’s not hard to see why: economic growth, more than any other metric, is used by officials to showcase their achievements to the public. It is, in effect, the chief indicator that we check to see if everything is alright in our countries.

Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really add up. More wealth is nice, sure, but wouldn’t happiness levels be a better indicator of how well our lives are going? Wouldn’t net worth be a better indicator of how rich we are?

Why are we looking to the growth of the economy when life expectancy, access to goods and services, and the amount of useful free time we have are much more impactful on our lives? Especially when you consider that economic growth doesn’t mean everyone gets to enjoy more wealth, due to income inequality. This growth is also responsible for more and more environmental damage — we are knowingly hurting the planet and all life on it in our pursuit. So what gives?

Daniel Cohen, a French economist, chips away at this question in his very-aptly named The Infinite Desire For Growth. And you might be surprised to hear that, in his eyes, what lies at the root of this tendency isn’t want of riches or greed — it’s hope, and a search of meaning.

Economic growth, Cohen argues, has taken the place of religion. We may not pray to the Big Dollar in the Sky, but the hope of a good afterlife in Heaven as reward for a good life has been replaced by the hope of a good life on Earth, as reward for working hard.

Growth offers the promise of a better life to all of us. Despite rarely delivering on it (due mostly to a growing inequality gap), the promise in itself is enough to keep us happy. This transition is surprisingly new, made possible mostly by secularization and industrialization.

The Infinite Desire for Growth is a very unusual book about economics, in my eyes, because I actually enjoyed reading it. Cohen doesn’t start his analysis from those tropes economists so easily fall into — such as the idea that people are always rational actors when it comes to money. His book doesn’t look for the best way to maximize wealth, offers no tips and tricks on how to increase your company’s bottom line. It looks at how culture, society, politics, science, and geography influenced the birth and development of economies.

But most fascinating to me is that he describes these through the lens of individual desires, how they compound to create supply and demand, and dictate how they’re handled.

He examines how we’ve come to virtually worship the idea of economic growth, to take for granted that there will always be more wealth to share, that we will be enjoying a better quality of life than our parents if we’re willing to work for it. And then, of course, Cohen asks what this means for today, when economic growth is stuttering, sometimes absent, and humanity is damaging the very planet that keeps it alive.

It takes a very wide look at economies and the people who create them. The cost of this is that Cohen doesn’t always go into deep detail about the concepts he discusses, but he does supply us with ample references to support his claims.

The Infinite Desire for Growth asks how we’ll contend with a simple fact: working hard no longer guarantees social inclusion or income. Automation is increasingly encroaching in the workforce, lowering the price of work (wages), and making the wealthy wealthier. Ecological degradation is threatening all of us, but the poorest will suffer the most.

Cohen ends his book by arguing that today’s selfish economic model isn’t sustainable in the future. There simply isn’t enough Earth for all of us to always be wealthier than we were yesterday. Our obsession with economic growth, he argues, has run its course. In the 21st century, humanity will have to wean itself off material gain, and rethink what “progress” actually means.

Great Ideas.

Book review: ‘Ten Great Ideas about Chance’

If life is a game a chance, knowing how to weigh your odds makes all the difference.Great Ideas.

“Ten Great Ideas about Chance”
By Persi Diaconis, Brian Skyrms.
Princeton University Press, 272pp. | Buy on Amazon

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gamblers and mathematicians set the stage for a new line of thinking that would shape nearly every field today, from economics and finance to physics and computer science: they transformed chance from something that happens to you into a well-ordered discipline, something you can calculate and quantify. This book traces ten great ideas that shaped the field, exploring the mathematical, historical, philosophical, even psychological aspects of probability and statistics.

Accessible, yet meticulous in its math, Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms‘ Ten Great Ideas about Chance is an instructive but fun lecture.

Roll the dice

The book was borne of an interdisciplinary course the two authors — one a mathematician and one a philosopher — taught at Stanford University. As such, it’s built on the assumption that you’ve had some prior experience with either statistics or probability. In case you haven’t, the authors included an Appendix with a brief rundown of the basic elements of probability.

Each of the ten great ideas discussed in the book gets its own chapter. The first will take you through a brief tour of the early days of probability theory, starting with the 1500s, and introduce the concept that chance is, in fact, something we can measure. Chapter 2 also deals with measurement, showcasing how probabilities can be measured in more complex situations that lack a finite collection of equally-probable outcomes.

The third great idea is that, as humans, we’re inherently bad at dealing with probabilistic concepts. One simple example that shows how much wording influences our perception is the operating room scenario: telling a patient that they have a 90% chance of surviving an operation, for example, is more likely to induce him to agree to the procedure than telling him he has a 10% chance of dying — despite that both statements mean the exact same thing.

The fourth and fifth chapter explores the connection between probability and frequency, followed by two chapters dedicated to Bayesian analysis. Chapter 7, titled “Unification”, binds all these together and cements the links between chance, probability, and frequency.

The following two chapters impart context to probability theory, showing how it relates to other disciplines. Chapter 8 deals with algorithmic randomness, the use of computers for random number generation, while chapter 9 looks at probability in the context of physics. The final chapter deals with Hume’s assertion that, in the authors’ words, “there is a problem of understanding and validating inductive reasoning.”

Should I read it?

Ten Great Ideas about Chance treats the topic from an unusual angle, and it will help any faculty members teaching probability by providing a fresh take. The book uses calculus quite freely, and a solid understanding of integral signs and limit arguments will come in very handy while navigating its pages.

But don’t get discouraged by the technical talk — the book packs this stuffy topic in a pleasant, easy to read format. As someone with only a summary education in the field, I can attest that even those of us who are newcomers to probability will find quite a lot of interesting information here, peppered with “aha” moments. Even if math wasn’t ever your cup of tea, Ten Great Ideas about Chance remains accessible — despite some chapters being quite challenging and likely to give non-specialists some hard times, most of the book (especially its earliest chapters) do a great job of conversing with a wide audience.

One feature I’ve especially appreciated is the inclusion of end-of-chapter summaries, as it really helped wrap my brain around some of the topics I’ve had difficulty with. Ten Great Ideas about Chance also features an annotated bibliography and appendices in many chapters, which treat topics the authors deemed too tangential or technical for the main body of the work.

All in all, it’s a great book for anyone who wants to understand some of the central tenets of probability, how they were discovered, and how they can be tamed in our day-to-day lives.

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

Book Review: ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

 

“Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve”
By Ian Morris
Princeton University Press, 400pp | Buy on Amazon

What we consider as ‘right’ or ‘just’ isn’t set in stone — far from it. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, Stanford University’s Willard Professor of Classics Ian Morris weaves together several strands of science, most notably history, anthropology, archeology, and biology, to show how our values change to meet a single overriding human need: energy.

Do you think your boss should be considered better than you in the eyes of the law? Is it ok to stab someone over an insult? Or for your country’s military to shell some other country back to the stone age just because they’re ‘the enemy’? Do leaders get their mandate from the people, from god, or is power something to be taken by force? Is it ok to own people? Should women tend to home and family only, or can they pick their own way in life?

Your answers and the answers of someone living in the stone age, the dark age, or even somebody from a Mad-Men-esque 1960’s USA wouldn’t look the same. In fact, your answers and the answers of someone else living today in a different place likely won’t be the same.

Values derive from culture

They’ll be different because a lot of disparate factors weigh in on how we think about these issues. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll bundle all of them up under the umbrella-term of ‘culture’, taken to mean “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” I know what you’ll answer in broad lines because I can take a look at Google Analytics and see that most of you come from developed, industrialized countries which (for the most part) are quite secular and have solid education systems. That makes most of you quite WEIRD — western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

As we’re all so very weird, our cultures tend to differ a bit on the surface (we speak different languages and each have our own national dessert, for example). The really deep stuff, however — the frameworks on which our cultures revolve —  these tend to align pretty well (we see equality as good, violence as being bad, to name a few). In other words, we’re a bit different but we all share a core of identical values. Kind of like Christmass time, when everybody has very similar trees but decorates them differently, WEIRD cultures are variations on the same pattern.

It’s not the only pattern out there by any means, but it’s one of the (surprisingly) few that seem to work. Drawing on his own experience of culture shock working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in non-WEIRD countries, Professor Morris mixes in a bird’s eye view of history with biology and helpings from other fields of science to show how the dominant source of energy a society draws on forces them to clump into one of three cultural patterns — hunter-gatherers, farmers (which he names Agraria), and fossil-fuel users (Industria).

Energy dictates culture

In broad lines, Morris looks at culture as a society’s way to adapt to sources of energy capture. The better adapted they become, the bigger the slice of available energy they can extract, and the better equipped they will be to displace other cultures — be them on the same developmental level or not. This process can have ramifications in seemingly unrelated ways we go about our lives.

To get an idea of how Morris attacks the issue, let’s take a very narrow look at Chapter 2, where he talks about prehistoric and current hunter-gatherer cultural patterns. Morris shows how they “share a striking set of egalitarian values,” and overall “take an extremely negative view of political and economic hierarchy, but accept fairly mild forms of gender hierarchy and recognize that there is a time and place for violence.”

This cultural pattern stems from a society which extracts energy from its surroundings without exercising any “deliberate alterations of the gene pool of harvested resources.” Since everything was harvested from the wild and there was no way to store it, there was a general expectation to share food with the group. Certain manufactured goods did have an owner, but because people had to move around to survive, accumulating wealth beyond trinkets or tools to pass on was basically impossible, and organized government was impractical. Finally, gender roles only went as far as biological constraints — men were better tailored to hunt, so they were the ones that hunted, for example. But the work of a male hunter or a female gatherer were equally important to assuring a family’s or group’s caloric needs were met — as such, society had equal expectations and provided almost the same level of freedom and the same rights for everyone, regardless of sex. There was one area, however, where foragers weren’t so egalitarian:

“Abused wives regularly walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism [in foraging societies],” Morris writes, something which would be unthinkable in the coming Agraria.

“Forager equalitarianism partially breaks down, though, when it comes to gender hierarchy. Social scientists continue to argue why men normally hold the upper hand in foarger societies. After all, […] biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm are abundant […] and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce […] and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs,” Morris explains in another paragraph. “To some extent, this does happen,” he adds, noting that male foragers participate “substantially more in childrearing than […] our closest genetic neighbours.”

But political or economic authority is something they can almost never demand from the males. This, Morris writes, is because “semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling.”

“Because [males] are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men,” he explains.

This is only a sliver of a chapter. You can expect to see this sort of in-depth commentary of how energy capture dictates the shape of societies across the span of time throughout the 400-page book. I don’t want to spoil the rest of it, since it really is an enjoyable read so I’ll give you the immensely-summed-up version:

Farmers / Agraria exercise some genetic modifications in other species (domestication), tolerate huge political, economic, and gender hierarchies, and are somewhat tolerant of violence (but less than foragers). Fossil-fuelers / Industria was made possible by an “energy bonanza,” and are very intolerant of political hierarchies, gender hierarchy, and violence, but are somewhat tolerant of economic hierarchies (less than Agrarians).

These sets of values ‘stuck’ because they maximised societies’ ability to harvest energy at each developmental level. Societies which could draw on more energy could impose themselves on others (through technology, culture, economy, warfare), eventually displacing them or making these other societies adopt the same values in an effort to compete.

Should I read it?

Definitely. Morris’ is a very Darwinian take on culture, and he links this underlying principle with cultural forms in a very pleasant style that hits the delicate balance of staying comprehensive without being boring, accessible without feeling dumbed down.

The theory is not without its shortcomings, and the book even has four chapters devoted to very smart people (University of Exter professor emeritus of classics and ancient history Richard Seaford, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale University Jonathan D. Spence, Harvard University Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard, and The Handmaiden’s Tale’s own Margaret Atwood) slicing the theory and bashing it about for all its flaws. Which I very much do appreciate, as in Morris’ own words, debates “raise all kinds of questions that I would not have thought of by myself.” Questions which the author does not leave unanswered.

All in all, it’s a book I couldn’t more warmly recommend. I’ve been putting off this review for weeks now, simply because I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I do it some tiny bit of justice. It’s the product of a lifetime’s personal experience, mixed with a vast body of research, then distilled through the hand of a gifted wordsmith. It’s a book that will help you understand how values — and with them, the world we know today — came to be, and how they evolved through time. It’ll give you a new pair of (not always rose-tinted) glasses through which to view human cultures, whether you’re in your home neighborhood or vacationing halfway across the world.

But most of all, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels will show you that apart from a few biologically “hardwired” ones it’s the daily churn of society, not some ultimate authority or moral compass, that dictates our values — that’s a very liberating realization. It means we’re free to decide for ourselves which are important, which are not, and what we should strive for to change our society for the better. Especially now that new sources of energy are knocking at our door.

Book Review: ‘Birds of Kruger National Park’

Birds of Kruger National Park
By Christopher Keith Barnes and Ken Behren
Princeton University Press, 224 pp | Buy on Amazon

When people think of African animals, they usually think of lions, giraffes, or elephants. But Africa’s stunning biodiversity isn’t limited to mammals — there’s quite an array of birds too. Beautifully designed and easy to browse, Birds of Kruger National Park fills an important gap and will be useful not just in the park, but in many other areas with similar habitats, to everyone wanting to explore Africa’s avian wildlife.

Kruger National Park in South Africa covers an area of 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 sq mi). Kruger’s complex geology gives birth to complex ecosystems, hosting a stunning variety of wildlife. Most visitors of the park are interested in the “big five” — the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. But as Keith Barnes and Ken Behrens suggest, birds also have an elite squad; a “big six,” actually, featuring the Lappet-faced Vulture, the Martial Eagle, the Saddle-billed Stork, the Kori Bustard, the Southern Ground-Hornbill, and Pel’s Fishing-Owl. These are the top attractions for birders, but of course, there’s an extremely wide array of species you can find in the park. This is where this book, serving both as a general guide and as an identification tool, comes in.

With over 250 described species. Birds of Kruger National Park will prove useful for newcomers and experienced birders alike. You get beautiful photos, physical characteristics, and a description of varying size for all of them. There’s all the basic information you could want, and a lot of extra stuff for the big six which particularly useful. In the case of the Pel’s Fishing-Owl for instance, that can be quite crucial since the species is notoriously difficult to locate.

All in all, the book checks all the boxes. It’s big enough to cover many of the park’s species and small enough to not be a drag to carry around. It blends in lovely, detailed images, and quite a bit of text. Even if you’re not into birds at all, it’s just a great book to get you started and know what you’re looking at.

It’s as good a bird book as any, and I’d recommend it to everyone visiting Kruger Park as well as other, similar, habitats across the continent.