Friday, December 27, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013 - Fiction

1. Sharon Cramer, 2012, The Execution, B & F Publishing, 348p.

This is a very enjoyable read and highly recommended. The story takes place in 14th century France and starts with a young priest visiting a prisoner who is to be executed the next day. The priest quickly realizes that the prisoner is his twin brother who he never knew. They end up spending the night before the execution telling each other their story. I pretty much guessed the ending, but that didn't subtract at all from the great read.

2. Ian McEwan, 2012, Sweet Tooth, Nan A. Talese, 320p.

Great finish! As with all Ian McEwan's novels, there is an unexpected twist right at the end, and, as always, the reader is totally unprepared for it. I think that is what I like about his books; the reader can't anticipate the ending.

3. Christopher Moore, 2004, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, William Morrow, 432p.

If you are interested in learning about the missing years in the life of Jesus, those years between his birth and when he begins his ministry at about age 30, this books for you. However, after a few pages, you will begin to understand why the Church did not include The Gospel According to Biff in the New Testament.

This novel is full of sarcastic humor and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. One of my favorite passages is the story of Joshua/Jesus healing the two blind men (Amphibians 24:7-21):

'Then Joshua climbed down from his camel, laid his hands upon the old men's eyes, and said, "You have faith in the Lord, and you have heard, as evidently everyone in Judea has, that I am his son with whom he is well pleased." Then he pulled his hands from their faces and the old men looked around.

"Tell me what you see," Joshua said.
The old guys sort of looked around, saying nothing.
"So, Tell me what you see."
The blind men looked at each other.
"Something wrong?" Joshua asked. "You can see, can't you?"
"Well, yeah," said Abel, "but I thought there'd be more color."
"Yeah," said Crustus, "it's kind of dull."
I stepped up. "You're on the edge of the Judean desert, one of the most lifeless, desolate, hostile places on earth, what did you expect?"
"I don't know." Crustus shrugged. "More."
"Yeah, more," said Abel. "What color is that?"
"That's brown,"
"How about that one?"
"That would be brown as well."
"That color over here? Right there?"
"You're sure that's not mauve."
"Nope, brown."
"And. . ."
"Brown," I said.
The two former blind guys shrugged and walked off mumbling to each other.
"Excellent healing," said Nathaniel
"I for one have never seen a better healing," said Philip, "but then, I'm new."
Joshua rode off shaking his head.'

4. Kathy Reichs, 2012, Bones are Forever, Turtleback, 400p.

This is the fourth book of Kathy Reichs that I've read, all staring the forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan. This series is now a regular series on TV. I especially liked this story because it takes Brennan to some places I've been: Edmonton and Yellowknife, Canada.

5. Toni Dwiggins, 2012, Volcano Watch: The Forensic Geology Series, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 342p.

I enjoyed this book because the main character was a forensic geologist who lives in a town on the side of an active volcano with a ski resort on its slopes.

Honorable Mention:
1. Stephen Frey, 2012, Arctic Fire, Thomas & Mercer, 344p.
2. John Kess, 2013, Elly's Ghost, Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 218p.
3. Janet Tavakoli, 2013, Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, Create Space Independent Publishing, 324p.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013 - Non-fiction

1. Johathan Gottschall, 2012, The Story Telling Animal; How Stories Make us Human, Mariner Books, 272p.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall explains in an easy-to-read and entertaining manner how stories make us human. At an early age, children start making up stories as they play. Children at play are training for the roles they will play as adults. As adults, daydreaming is a way we tell ourselves stories; we make up stories about work and how we will tell off the boss, we tell ourselves stories about how we will win the heart of another, we tell stories about how we will write that great-American novel. We are even able to turn our dreams at night into stories. No matter what it is, in order to make sense of it, we make up a story; it doesn't matter if it is true as long as it seems to make sense to us.

An area of his book I found particularly interesting was his explaining how fiction is so much more powerful than nonfiction is getting people to change their minds about things. With non-fiction we tend to be more critical and skeptical. With fiction, if the author is able to pull us in and get us absorbed with the story, we become more emotionally involved and more readily accept what is being presented; especially if it is coming from likeable characters.

This is an easily quotable book. Some of my favorite:

"Fiction has positive effects on readers' moral development and sense of empathy."

"We misremember the past in a way that allows us to maintain protagonist status in the stories of our own lives."

"The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can't."

"Most of us believe that we know how to separate fantasy and reality - that we keep information gathered from fiction safely quarantined from our stories of general knowledge. But studies show that this is not always the case. In the same mental bin, we mix information gleaned from both fiction and nonfiction."

"We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums."

2. Paul Offit, 2013, Do You Believe in Magic?, Harper, 336p.

This is the book I would recommend to both those who practice alternative medicine. Offit does well in describing the background to the various modalities of alternative medicine and the politicians and celebrities who helped made them so popular. 


3. Sean Carroll, 2012, The Particle at the End of the Universe, Dutton Adult, 341p.

I enjoyed this book because it gave me a better understanding of particle physics and what the discovery of the Higgs particle means. Physicists have different ways of seeing particles depending on what they are looking for. They may think of the particles as waves or fields, yet find them as particles. 

4. David Roberts, 2013, Alone on the Ice; The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration, W. W. Norton & Company; 368p.   

Alone on the Ice is a story to match Shackleton's amazing adventure in Antarctica aboard the Endurance. This book tells of Douglas Mawson's 600 mile journey by dog sledge in Antarctica in 1912-13. After losing his two companions, Mawson manages the last 100 miles back to base camp on his own. An incredible story of one man's will to survive.


5. John Brockman, 2013, Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction, Harper Perennial, 432p.

This book is a nice collection of articles by the psychologists and philosophers who are investigating how we perceive, think, and make decisions.


Honorable Mention:
1. Neil Shubin, 2013, The Universe Within, Vintage, 240p.
2. Paul Bloom, 2013, Just Babies; The Origins of Good and Evil, Crown, 288p.
3. John Loftus and Randal Rauser, 2013, God or Godless, Baker Books, 208p.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughts on Thinking

According to Daniel Kahneman, in "Thinking, Fast and Slow", published in 2011, there are two ways of thinking, intuitive (system 1) and analytical (system 2). Intuitive thinking is the fast thinking; it is the thinking we do in making quick decisions with limited information. Along with instinct, intuitive thinking likely arose in our pre-primate ancestors.  Intuitive thinking helped our ancestors survive by avoiding the noise in the bush that may have been caused by a lion or other dangerous predator rather than just the wind. If you don't know, it is safer to react to the noise as coming from a dangerous animal. Those early hominids who lacked intuitive thinking, which includes common sense, may have attempt to investigate the noise and ended up removing themselves from the gene pool. Those who avoided the bush survived to pass on their genes, whether or not a predator was in the bush.
Analytical thinking may not have evolved until modern humans appeared. Analytical thinking would have been needed by early hunter and gatherers in planning hunting and foraging excursions. These humans would be able to process data from different sources; tracks to determine the kind and size of the animal, droppings to tell how long ago the animal had passed, wind direction to plan the direction they would approach the target animal. Analytical thinking was probably also important when early humans learned to create stone tools. It became further developed when civilizations arose and together with critical thinking got a boost from the Greek philosophers and again during the Enlightenment.
Today most of us use both intuitive thinking and analytical/critical thinking skills. However, many seem to stop with intuition; they feel intuition serves them just as well as analytical thinking. There are also times when intuition may be all you have available, or all you think you have available. Sometimes when people think they making an intuitive decision, it is because they are not aware they are actually making a decision based on past knowledge and experience. There are times people can't explain why they made a particular decision that in the end turned out to be the right one. They probably did is subconsciously; their mind was capable of analyzing the knowledge that resided there in making what seemed to be an intuitive decision.
If data is available, it is better to use analytical thinking rather than ignore the data in favor of intuition. Many people, however, don't like to think analytically. It's too hard or takes too much time. They would rather just know rather than have to think about it. That's why religious and political leaders are popular; they tell people what to think, saving the people the effort. And, that's why people often stay with the same religion or political party as their parents. They really don't think much about either.
Analytical thinking can also be abused. When some people try to make a decision about something, they will investigate the available data until they find something that feels right and then stick with that position no matter what other evidence may eventually become available. Once they have decided, they only see the evidence that confirms their belief and none of the evidence that denies it. This is called confirmation bias and is very common in pseudoscience beliefs such as astrology, alternative medicine, ESP, conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc.
If data is available, it is best to use analytical thinking and consider all the data. Intuition can often lead one astray; particularly in this modern world of science. Much of science is not intuitive; it cannot be arrived at using common sense. For example, intuition without science tells us that the sun orbits the Earth; rising in the east, passing overhead, and setting in the west. Intuition tells us that we are standing still on a stationary Earth and not traveling with the Earth's rotational speed of 1,040 miles per hour (at the equator) and it's speed of 67,000 miles per hour as it travels around the sun. If we are traveling that fast, why isn't it messing up our hair? Intuition tells us the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon were always there. Analysis of the science tells us something wonderfully different. It took the Rocky Mountains tens of millions of years to be uplifted and millions more to be eroded down to their present landscape. It took rain and rivers millions of years to erode and sculpt what we see when we view the Grand Canyon today. That is where the wonder and awe of science come in to play for me. When I see a beautiful forested valley leading up to snow-capped peaks while hiking in the mountains, I see the time involved and the forces acting in and on the Earth that created the scene I am seeing. Intuition alone will likely tell you God did it all.
1. Kahneman, Daniel, 2011,  Thinking, Fast and Slow,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512p.
2. Mithen, Steven, 1996, The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Thames & Hudson, 288p.
3. Ehrenreich, Barbara, 2009, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Metropolitan Books, 256p.