What I’ve Been Reading

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life – I’ve been thinking a lot about what is the best way to learn about history. Reading this book has persuaded me that reading a few biographies, which limit the discussion to a single figure and point of reference, may be easier than more comprehensive sources. This book covers the former Chinese leader’s rise through the Communist party, the war with the Japanese and Kuomintang, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution (in which Deng himself suffered greatly) and finally taking power. Rich with detail, the book will certainly provide fodder for both his supporters and detractors.

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World – How much time do you think about the stuff that makes up most of your material life? Divided into whimsically named chapters (“Indomintable”, “Delicious” and “Immortal”) this book gives a fun overview of material science. From concrete that is merged with living organisms to repair itself and seeding crystals to get the perfect chocolate, the book opens up an unseen world in everyday things.

Zen Mind, Beginner Mind – I’ve recently become interested in Buddhist philosophy. Zen is an unusual animal, both enigmatic and simple, it suggests a particularly unintellectual approach to life. The intersection with a lot of Buddhist practice and recent research on mindfulness suggests to me that there’s something worth exploring here. I enjoyed the book, but I found many of the passages confusing or opaque. If you’re interested in these subjects, I’ve found Alan Watts to be a much better introductory teacher.

The Emperor of All Maladies – The Pulitzer-winning “biography” of cancer, written by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, explores the long struggle we’ve had against this disease. The book also functions as a excellent reminder of the importance of scientific inquiries into diseases, as the history of cancer is replete with ineffective surgeries and treatments, championed by doctors who sold their approach more on charisma and authority than evidence.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – More like a course than a book, this is an excellent primer for anyone who wants to learn to draw. While I’m skeptical of the overly neuroscientific explanation for the techniques, I have no doubt that the methods taught worked. This book also focuses on the most essential aspect of learning to draw–learning to see–something that most other guides I’ve seen are surprisingly silent on.

The Secret of Our Success – A lot has been said about what makes the human species unique: language, tools, rationality, some have even suggested consciousness. This book suggests there is perhaps a more dominant cause that explains the rest of our success: culture. Human beings are uniquely able to learn not merely from our own experience, but from other people. While this book purports to explain a theory of human origins, I found it had quite a few insights for modern life as well.

The 10,000 Year Explosion – Another book in the human evolution genre, this one suggests that the common assumption–that humans haven’t evolved considerably in the last two million years–is false. While some examples (lactose tolerance, parasite resistances) are interesting, they strike me as fairly modest. Still, it’s an interesting concept that I look forward to seeing future research about.

The Computational Brain – Another in my cognitive science learning project. This book explores understanding how the brain works by comparing it to computer models of similar circuitry. While the challenges to applying this to higher systems in the brain are daunting, the preliminary work in understanding simple reflexes or how a massively distributed system could perform tasks like vision might hopefully lead to more powerful understandings in the future.

Neurobiology – A comprehensive survey of neuroscience, starting with genes and proteins, synapses, neurons, circuits and systems. The more I read about neuroscience, the more I’m inclined to agree with Neuroskeptic–we’re still very far from an understanding of neuroscience that could reliably give insights into domains of everyday life. However, even if neuroscience can’t yet tell us how to live, I think having an overview of the fundamental concepts is probably useful at least in restricting out some of the obviously nonsense claims that circulate around it.