First and four-most was Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing.
Inspirational and a solid mix of anecdote, science, and useful information that you can apply in your everyday life, though it is far from a self-help book. A book about cutting edge neuroscience and the remarkable new therapies that can awaken dormant brain cells. It might even make you cry, from happiness.
In the same vein of helpful science, but requiring quite the well-worth commitment of time and effort, was Gary Taubes Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health.
Taubes explains why we get the often erroneous advice we get (usually a form of sunk cost is to blame) and just how wrong it often is, backing up theory with science and excellent investigative journalism. A quick easy introduction can be found at econtalk.org, where he was interviewed by Russ Roberts:
Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about why we get fat and the nature of evidence in a complex system. The current mainstream view is that we get fat because we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Taubes challenges this seemingly uncontroversial argument with a number of empirical observations, arguing instead that excessive carbohydrate consumption causes obesity. In this conversation he explains how your body reacts to carbohydrates and explains why the mainstream argument of “calories in/calories out” is inadequate for explaining obesity. He also discusses the history of the idea of carbohydrates’ importance tracing it back to German and Austrian nutritionists whose work was ignored after WWII. Roberts ties the discussion to other emergent, complex phenomena such as the economy. The conversation closes with a discussion of the risks of confirmation bias and cherry-picking data to suit one’s pet hypotheses.
This book didn’t exactly change the way I ate, I had already been suspicious of carbs, and way back in the karate days had changed my body composition by going almost Atkins, a change that has persisted to this day. I am now too skinny, after a life of being possibly on the plump (for Ontario standards, which turn out to be pretty darn anorexic) side. But if you have unwanted fat, or know people who do, this book is basically a must. It makes sense of many things you experience in your own body and helps to explain why governments want you to eat so much grain. And for Americans plagued by diabetes, this book should be essential reading.
What is Life, by Addy Pross, was a pleasant surprise and extremely interesting, and moves one from the macro to the micro and back again. His understanding of chemistry is astonishing but the concepts he discusses are for the most part thoroughly explicated, and I thought he did a good job of backing away from the philosophical and sticking with the knowable, but recognizing the inherent questions all answers raise.
The question of how life on Earth (or indeed anywhere else) began is one that has been pondered and debated by scientists, philosophers and the common man throughout history. The title of this book repeats that of an essay written by Erwin Schrödinger in the 1940s. While it is not necessary to have read Schrödinger’s essay to understand this book, anyone interested in the knotty problem of life’s origins should probably take a look.
In Schrödinger’s essay, written before the structure of DNA was known, he tries to relate the macroscopic process of heredity to the quantum worlds of physics and chemistry. In his turn, Addy Pross addresses a related problem – what is it that makes some arrangements of matter ‘alive’? What (in the chemical sense) differentiates living matter from the same set of chemicals in a dead organism, or a piece of inanimate matter that has never been alive?
Pross suggests that there are two aspects to the origin of life problem. The first is historical – how did life actually emerge on Earth just over 4 billion years ago? To this, Pross claims we will almost certainly never find a satisfactory answer. The second, more important, question covers the general chemical principles and processes by which life could emerge, and identifying the driving force behind why it should do so in the first place – seemingly in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics.
And finally, rounding out the top four books that brought science to Xty’s life in 2015, in more ways than one, I am currently listening to, and mostly greatly enjoying Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, by Richard Thaler.
Richard H. Thaler has spent his career studying the radical notion that the central agents in the economy are humans—predictable, error-prone individuals. Misbehaving is his arresting, frequently hilarious account of the struggle to bring an academic discipline back down to earth—and change the way we think about economics, ourselves, and our world.
Traditional economics assumes rational actors. Early in his research, Thaler realized these Spock-like automatons were nothing like real people. Whether buying a clock radio, selling basketball tickets, or applying for a mortgage, we all succumb to biases and make decisions that deviate from the standards of rationality assumed by economists. In other words, we misbehave. More importantly, our misbehavior has serious consequences. Dismissed at first by economists as an amusing sideshow, the study of human miscalculations and their effects on markets now drives efforts to make better decisions in our lives, our businesses, and our governments.
Well that should keep you busy for today and tomorrow. The fiction review will have to be short. And I must confess that a few books need to be finished, before that review can be complete, one of which is currently sitting on the sail boat, where it reads best: a good friend sent me Passage to Juneau, by Jonathan Raban, and while I am not sure I like the protagonist and he seems to name drop his history rather than introduce the reader to it, it is full of fascinating sea-faring stuff. Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World is absolutely charming and holds up extremely well. The Aubrey/Maturin series, of which Hollywood made but the one movie, Master and Commander, has gotten a little silly as Patrick O’Brian moves away from the historical time line, but as we approach the end of the series, having made it through The Wine Dark Sea, I heartily recommend them, especially in audio and especially if you can get them read by Simon Vance.
Outside of sailing, well mostly, surprise joy was found in Around the World in 80 Days, Dracula, and perhaps inexplicably, I still think about that irritating book Babbitt, and the growth of American conformity that it examines. 20 Gazillion Nonsensical Leagues Under the Sea, however, I can only say is an historic curiosity, and in that vein and taken with a gallon of sea salt, can be approached, but with extreme caution. Likewise The Black Arrow, and especially The Last (thank zeus) of the Mohicans. I think I would have preferred the second to last:
And finally podcasts. What a great resource. Econtalk, Sawbones, Radiolab, My Brother, My Brother and Me, Serial, The Adventure Zone, Trends Like These, Judge John Hodgman, The Ancient World, Doorway to The Hidden World … I am sure there was much more. But a cornucopia of entertainment and information, and I am sure you will be able to find something of interest in the heap. All free from iTunes, but you can always support young comedians if you feel like it …
Have a happy and interesting New Year’s Eve, and don’t be falling for mandatory drinking! Be safe and warm and do no harm, even to yourself.
*I cannot understand why some of the links are displaying oddly. They look fine in preview and do work. First it was Dracula, and I was able to fix it. Now it has spread but the html is the same for both the correct and incorrect, so I am a little stumped and will stump around in the snow with the dog and see if that helps!
Aha … something to do with Project Gutenberg links perchance, as altering Dracula to link to wikipedia has fixed the strike through, if not the colour. For my own sanity’s sake I will tackle this … but after the snow tromp.