Book Review: The House of Tomorrow

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My friend Kate B. intrigued me with the storyline of The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, and recommended that I read it. I’m glad she did, because it truly was a good read.

This is a novel about a teenage boy named Sebastian who is raised in a futuristic geodesic dome by his grandmother whom he calls Nana. She home schools Sebastian under the teachings of the dead, futuristic architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller. Nana is convinced that Sebastian is destined to save humanity. She also tries to prevent him from uncovering or thinking about the past, particularly in regard to his dead parents. She asks him at the end: “Just tell me how were you supposed to innovate if you were constantly stuck in a past you didn’t even remember?”

But when his Nana has a stroke and is temporarily incapacitated, Sebastian is forced to venture out in the world and befriends a boy his age named Jared, as well as his mother Janice and his sister Meredith.
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Comments (0) Aug 09 2011


Book Review: Incognito

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman proposes in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, that most of what you do, think and believe is generated by parts of your brain to which you have no access. His writing provokes thought and understanding.

The title of this book refers to its theme that we don’t really “know” ourselves. Eagleman describes how most of our thought processes are unconscious and not accessible to us, most of the activity going on without our being aware.

Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control, and the truth is that it’s better this way.Incognito When consciousness meddles in details it doesn’t understand, the operation runs less effectively. One does not need to be consciously aware to perform sophisticated motor acts. We are not conscious of most things until we ask ourselves questions about them. The brain generally does not need to know most things; it merely knows how to go out and retrieve the data. It computes on a need-to-know basis. We are not conscious of much of anything until we ask ourselves about it. We are unaware of most of what should be obvious to our senses; it is only after deploying our attentional resources onto small bits of the scene that we become aware of what we were missing. Before we engage our concentration, we are typically not aware that we are not aware of those details. So not only is our perception of the world a construction that does not accurately represent the outside, but we additionally have the false impression of a full, rich picture when in fact we see only what we need to know, and no more. (p. 28)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: Packing For Mars

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Packing For MarsOK, so I didn’t read this book thoroughly cover-to-cover. I read Roach’s first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which I really enjoyed. So I figured this book would also be pretty good; and since Brent was going to the NASA Tweetup to watch the final shuttle launch, I wanted to learn more about space flight and behind-the-scenes astronaut life. Although I skimmed over parts of the book (Brent read it too, and he caught me when he tried discussing certain parts of which I wasn’t familiar), I did learn a lot of interesting things and enjoyed Roach’s writing style. She gets actively involved in her research and incorporates humor in clever and unexpected ways. I like how she explains gravity:

Gravity is the prime reason there’s life on Earth. You need water for life, and without gravity, water wouldn’t hang around. Nor would air. It is Earth’s gravity that holds the gas molecules of our atmosphere–which we need not only to breathe but to be protected from solar radiation–in place around the planet. The term “zero gravity” is misleading when applied to most rocket flights. Astronauts orbiting Earth remain well within the pull of the planet’s gravitational field. Spacecraft like the International Space Station orbit at an altitude of around 250 miles, where the Earth’s gravitational pull is only 10 percent weaker than it is on the planet’s surface. Here’s why they’re floating: When you launch something into orbit, you have launched it so powerfully fast and high and far that when gravity’s pull finally slows the object’s forward progress enough that it starts to fall back down, it misses the Earth. It keeps on falling around the Earth rathe than to it. As it falls, the Earth’s gravity keeps its tug, so it’s both constantly falling and constantly being pulled earthward. (p. 86)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: The Upside of Irrationality

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Dan Ariely previously wrote Predictably Irrational which I read and enjoyed. In this follow-up, Ariely reveals the beneficial outcomes and pleasant surprises that often arise from irrational behavior; he examines some of the positive effects irrationality has on our lives and offers a new look on the irrational decisions that influence our personal lives and our workplace experiences.The Upside Of Irrationality

What Ariely suggests about our tendency toward hedonic adaptation is compelling:

Hedonic adaptation is the process of getting used to the places we live, our homes, our romantic partners, and almost everything else. It is an emotional leveling out–when initial positive and negative perceptions fade. When we move into a new house, we may be delighted with the gleaming hardwood floors or upset about the garish lime green kitchen cabinets. After a few weeks, those factors fade into the background. A few months later we aren’t as annoyed by the color of the cabinets, but at the same time, we don’t derive as much pleasure from the handsome floors. (p. 168)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: Death’s Acre

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Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson take their readers inside the real Body Farm, recounting how it was created and some of Bass’ more interesting forensic cases in his long career.Deaths Acre

Dr. Bass is a forensic anthropologist who founded the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility (aka The Body Farm) where Bass and his colleagues monitor the decomposition of human corpses in various environments. He spent much research on studying human decomposition and identifying human remains. He explains in his book how the bones of the pelvis, knee, and jaw all play a part in determining race or gender while the cranial sutures can determine age.

Warning: The following quotes describe the changes through which the human body goes in a fire:

The human body undergoes dramatic changes in an intense fire. The arms and legs are the first to go. Relatively thin and surrounded by oxygen, they’re like kindling, easy to ignite and quick to burn. At temperatures of only a few hundred degrees, the skin quickly blackens, the fat beneath the skin starts to sizzle, and within a matter of minutes the skin splits open and the flesh begins to burn. Then the limbs begin to move–the hands and feet clench, the arms curl up toward the shoulders, and the legs spread slightly apart with the knees flexed. It’s function of biomechanics and muscle strength: The flexors, the muscles that cause our arms and legs to bend, are stronger than the extensors, the ones that cause our limbs to straighten. As a fire cooks and dries out the muscles and tendons of the body, they shrink, just like a steak on the grill, and the flexors overpower the extensors. The resulting position is very much like a boxer’s stance in the ring; for that reason we call it the “pugilistic posture.” If, on the other hand, the arms are ties or pinned behind the back, they won’t be able to curl up, so finding a burned body whose arms are straight can be an important clue that the victim was somehow confined or restrained. (p. 76)

The other truly dramatic change that occurs is to the head. The skull is basically a sealed vessel, filled with fluid and moist brain tissue. It doesn’t take long for that moisture to reach the boiling point and create pressure in the cranium; the hotter the fire, the greater the pressure. If there’s an outlet for that pressure–for example, a bullet hole in the skull–the pressure vents harmlessly. If there isn’t, the skull can literally burst, fracturing the cranium into numerous pieces. (p. 77)

I will spare all you squeamish readers the details Bass and Jefferson share about differential decay, putrefication, adipocere, autolysis, green bone, or any of the other grotesque terms related to human decomposition. For me, I must admit, it is all very fascinating. :-) It reinforces my desire to study forensic anthropology.

Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: The Grand Design

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In their book The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinow explain the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape our understanding of how our universe (and possibly others) formed out of nothing.The Grand Design

Hawking is eloquent in the way he describes and explains the workings of the universe.

Orbital eccentricity is a measure of how near an ellipse is to a circle. The degree to which an ellipse is squashed is described by what is called its eccentricity, a number between zero and one. The earth’s orbit has an eccentricity of only about 2 percent, which means it is nearly circular. Circular orbits are friendly to life, while very elongated orbits result in large seasonal temperature fluctuations. On Mercury, for example, with a 20 percent eccentricity, the temperature is over 200 degrees F warmer at the planet’s closest approach to the sun (perihelion) than when it is at its farthest from the sun (aphelion). (p. 150-151)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: The Social Animal

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The Social AnimalNew York Times columnist David Brooks uses his book, The Social Animal, to assemble his evidence for the causes of success and failure in life, and to draw implications for social policy.

Brooks shares some insight in the way we learn and communicate, which I found interesting:

Automaticity is achieved through repetition, or “reach and reciprocity.” You start with the core knowledge in a field, for example, then venture out and learn something new. Then come back again and reintegrate the new morsel with what you already know. Then venture out again. Then return. Too much reciprocity and you end up in an insular rut. Too much reach and your efforts are scattershot and fruitless. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information. (p. 87, 89)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: The Tipping Point

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The Tipping PointThe Tipping Point is about social phenomena and change, in which Gladwell presents life as a social epidemic. He explains how ideas and behaviors spread. Gladwell makes an interesting discovery about kids viewing the show Sesame Street:

After holding experiments, researchers discovered that kids were a great deal more sophisticated in the way they watched the show (or TV) than had been imagined. Kids don’t watch when the are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused. Psychologist Elizabeth Lorch said, “Children didn’t just sit and stare, either. They could divide their attention between a couple of different activities. And they weren’t being random. There were predictable influences on what made them look back at the screen, and these were not trivial things, not just flash and dash.” (p. 101-102)

Gladwell also discusses a study of how the frequent cleaning of graffiti from railway cars actually reduced the occurrences of vandalism. He explains it with the idea that crime is contagious. He proposes that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does.

There is an epidemic theory of crime that says crime is contagious–just as a fashion trend is contagious–that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community. Criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. (p. 141)

I found The Tipping Point a well-written, interesting and entertaining read.

Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: Endless Forms Most Beautiful

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Endless Forms Most Beautiful
Brent has been participating in a science book club. I love reading books about science; however, going to school in addition to working full time makes it difficult for me to find the time for leisurely reading. Fortunately I had a week of vacation from work scheduled simultaneously with a break between semesters of nursing school. I eagerly picked up this month’s assigned book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo from the library.

Author Sean B. Carroll discusses evolutionary developmental biology which is the relationship between embryonic development and evolutionary changes. He explains how “tool kit genes,” a small number of genes which emerged 600 million years ago, are the primary components for building all animals. He discusses how the amazing diversity in the world is controlled by “genetic switches” which instruct these tool kit genes where to act and what to do.

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Comments (0) Jan 08 2011


Book Review: Predictably Irrational

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I just read a fascinating book called Predictably Irrational by Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT, Dan Ariely. He explores the idea that our irrationality happens the same way again and again. He performs several experiments and examines the way we make decisions, coming up with some interesting findings.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Ariely begins the first chapter by discussing relativity:

There’s one aspect of relativity that trips us up. It’s this: we not only tend to compare things with one another but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily.

He writes that evaluating two houses side by side yields different results than evaluating three: A, B, and a somewhat less appealing version of A. The subpar A makes it easier to decide that A is better–not only better than the similar one, but better than B. The lesser version of A should have no effect on your rating of the other two buildings, but it does.

Most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. Ariely performed an experiment at MIT in which he selected pairs of photos of random people: one of them physically attractive (A), and the other one noticeably less so (B) in each pair. He then doctored the photo in Photoshop, creating a slightly but noticeably less attractive version of each of them–a decoy (-A and -B). He then approached students, presenting them with three pictures. Some of them had the regular picture (A), the decoy of that picture (-A), and the other regular picture (B). Others had the regular picture (B), the decoy of that picture (-B), and the other regular picture (A).

Whenever I handed out a sheet that had a regular picture, its inferior version, and another regular picture, the participants preferred the regular person–the one who was similar, but clearly superior, to its distorted version over the other, undistorted person on the sheet. This was not just a close call; it happened 75 percent of the time.

Humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly.

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Comments (3) Jun 14 2009