Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: Your Best Brain - The Science of Brain Development

I'm a sucker for anything by John Medina, so when I saw that he actually had a Great Courses program called Your Best Brain, I picked it up hoping that it wouldn't be too much of a repeat from say, Brain Rules for Baby.

It turns out not to overlap with the book very much at all, which is great! The major thesis of the program is that your brain is a physical object, and therefore is subject to all the laws of physics and chemistry, along with the rules set by evolution. The net result is that a lot of the times, Medina explains something through the thought experiment of thinking about what man's ancient ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti had to face, and what problems the brain evolved to solve.

The coverage then starts from Neurons and Dendrites, and then moves on to the major areas of the brain. Each lecture ends with practical tips on how to optimize your brain. Most of them are no brainers, like: "get enough sleep! Just a few hours of sleep debt is enough to make you behave like you're drunk!"

Other interesting tips:

  • If you need to learn something for a test, try to do the learning in an environment as similar to test conditions as possible.
  • Memories work best via repetition, but not cramming. And all nighters (as you would expect from the above) are a no-no.
  • Classic teenage rebellious behavior is a Western phenomenon. In most non-Western cultures, you do not get teenage rebellious behavior unless/until the kids in those cultures have been exposed to western media.
  • Elizabeth Kuber-Ross's ideas about the stages of grief ("denial//anger/bargaining/depression/acceptance") is BS. For most humans, the response to grief is resilience.
  • Get 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week to optimize brain function. Yes, that means Garmin's Vivoactive HR's "intensity minutes" approach is completely correct.
All in all, the course is great, and I can recommend it. Well worth the time.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Review: Lucifer Book 2

In the previous book, Lucifer managed to create an entire new multi-verse out of the current Cosmos. In Lucifer Book 2, the repercussions of it are brought forward as folks race towards the new multiverse to establish a foothold. In this book, Mike Carey reveals that yes, the DC Cosmology is entirely Judeo-Christian based, with the name of the universe's creator being Yahweh.

And this isn't the God of the New Testament, this is the God of the Old Testament. Jealous, petty, and probably appropriate for the age of Trump as president. Not only does he view Lucifer as the adversary, he views disobedience as reason to punish innocents as well as the guilty. We never do get to see Yahweh's face.

There are a few side stories in the book about the new world Lucifer's created, some of which are actually very well done (involving time differentials between the two cosmologies). Lucifer's still a sympathetic character, but it's also very clear that he's entirely self-centered, willing to sacrifice others to achieve his aims.

Comic books are fast, easy reads. This one was available easily on Hoopla. Otherwise I probably wouldn't have bothered making a trip to the library to pick it up. I'm not in a hurry to keep reading on to the rest of the series, however.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn is the 4th Expanse novel. In the third novel, James Holden manages to open up the star gate through which other systems can be accessed, and of course, true to American Frontier form, squatters from the outer asteroids immediately zoom through the gate in order to claim land and territory. An official UN science expedition arrives months later, and the squatters resent the presence of official authority enough to start a pre-emptive attack.

Of course, any human venture into a new frontier would result in massive chaos, huge amounts of selfishness, and eventually our protagonist Jim Holden is asked to show up and mediate between the two sides. Events escalate from there and he and his crew have to deal with the planet trying to kill them, the two sides trying to kill each other, and the mystery that's in Holden's head trying to get him to do what it wants him to do.

From the overall arc of the novel series perspective, the meta-plot and story is advancing at a glacier pace. The novel itself sets up tense situations, but shies away from actually resolving them in a realistic fashion --- the authors treat each scene like a cliff-hanger in which the crew of the Rocinante is expected to survive, thereby draining tension from the novel. There's relatively little character development, and the main villain is horribly unrealistic.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music is misnamed. It really should be labeled: The structure and form of Western Music. I don't really fault Professor Greenberg for this: it's quite clear to him that "Great Music" is restricted to those composed by Dead White People. I'll admit to mostly being a music philistine: I hated my piano lessons as a kid, and rarely understood the point of Mozart. I labelled all instrumental-only music as "classical".

Well, Professor Greenberg taught me a lot:

  • "Classical" music is actually a misnomer. There's "Baroque", "Classical", "Romanticism", and "Modernism." These labels apply to various epochs roughly corresponding to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy. Each of these epochs had unique characteristics that were reflected in the music. I was actually surprised that I could learn this because at one point during the program Greenberg played a piece of music and asked the listener to guess what epoch it came from and I actually got it right.
  • Beethoven really does sound different from any composers before him. His music, unlike that which came before, actually does represent extra-musical content. I tested this by playing a Beethoven symphony to Bowen, who did promptly ask: "What does this music mean?" Which is not a question that usually comes up with other instrumental music.
  • Professor Greenberg is a fan of Opera. Despite his immense enthusiasm, I still can't stand it. Despite his picking what he thinks are great musical pieces to listen to, I'm afraid I agree with one of the characters in John Steakley's fabulous novel: "Opera is for vampires. The living prefer rock and roll."
  • Life during the middle ages was tough. One of the composers had 20 children, out of which only 2 survived to adult hood. Many of them died young (Mozart at 35), and even when they were alive had poor health and frequently the medical care hurt them. Greenberg did not shy from providing excellent coverage of the composers' lives, which made them far more interesting as people than I would have thought.
  • The piano technology got hugely better from the 1600s to the 1800s. That's why in Mozart's symphonies, whenever the piano played the rest of the orchestra had to pipe down: the piano simply wasn't loud enough to compete with the other instruments in the orchestra. By the time you got to the 1800s the concert grand could hold its own against the orchestra and the symphonies written then didn't have to pipe down the rest of the orchestra as much. I wished Greenberg covered more of this since it would have been interesting to see what other technological changes in instruments affected composition.
  • Dance music (waltzes, etc) is not considered "Great Music", so I don't ever have to listen to them even if I was a music snob.
Conclusions that Greenberg didn't mention but that I drew for myself:
  • The various forms of music (e.g., Sonata Form) were really designed for music that was written in a pre-recorded era. That's why, for instance, Sonata Expositions frequently feature repeats of the themes. In a pre-recording era, you weren't going to listen to a piece of music repeatedly on demand, so each musical piece would have to repeat its themes during the exposition so the audience could hold it in their heads. This practice doesn't stand up in recorded music, since if you were to listen to the pieces repeatedly (e.g., if you listened to any of the numbered symphonies more than once a week), the expositions quickly become boring and feels like the composer's condescending to your intelligence. Greenberg vehemently demands that repeats be played exactly as written (and there's definitely a purist approach where that's correct), but I can definitely see why these already long pieces can't compete with shorter musical forms (e.g., Rock & Roll), which evolved in an era where recorded music that can be (re)played on-demand is the norm.
  • Classical music was used as the catch-all for Western instrumental music forms because it was the pop music of the day. The middle class was starting to happen, which meant that regular people could become amateur musicians and learn to play well enough to demand easy-listening pieces.
  • The need to express individuality and originality drove composers from Beethoven onwards to slowly abandon the traditional forms of instrumental music. What makes most modern instrumental composers unbearable to most people (e.g., Schoenberg) was when composers completely abandoned tonality.
I learned a surprising amount over the 42-lecture listen. The biographies of Beethoven, Listz, Tchaikovsky, and other composers were fun and added a lot of life to people behind the music. There were several pieces that I'd never heard before that I made notes to hunt down to listen to, and of course, I discovered that I'm a Beethoven fan and not a Mozart fan.

Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that Great Music should be restricted to those instrumental pieces constructed in the past. Certainly for today's "repeated listening" environments, I think many popular music genres out-compete the so-called classics for good reason. Nevertheless, if you have the time, I'd definitely consider Professor Greenberg's lecture series well worth a listen.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Review: Lucifer Book 1

Lucifer is a spin-off off of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. In that book, Lucifer gives up his reign in hell and decides to retire to Earth to enjoy his days. Of course, life is never that simple, and in this volume 1 we get to see what happens when heaven comes calling and asks him to do something in exchange for a passage.

Writing Lucifer couldn't have been easy: in this incarnation he's not really evil, but he effectively has to have unlimited power in this book. As a result, author Mike Carey contrives repeatedly to put him into situations where he's not the most powerful being alive, but has to trick his way into winning (which again, is not a problem for the former Archangel).

DC Universe's cosmology is a mish-mash of everything at best, and incoherent at worse. This allows Carey to get away with all sorts of situations where he essentially gets to make up the rules as he goes along, playing with your sympathies for the devil, so to speak. You also do get to feel sympathy for his subjects and the secondary characters in the book, since the blow-back from the main plot really affects them the most.

All in all, it's entertaining enough. It doesn't quite rise to the level of the Sandman, but I'm guessing if that's your standard you should read Fables and then stop.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Review: The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project is a biography of the relationship between Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky,  Kahneman, of course, was the Nobel Prize winner (and author of Thinking Fast and Slow), who together with Amos Tversky, pioneered prospect theory and many other pieces of behavioral economics. Their collaboration created a revolution in the future, and they were rightly feted with all sorts of prizes.

What's interesting about this book is that it doesn't just cover their theory, which you can do better by reading Kahneman's book. It mostly covers their relationship, the context their friendship started and was sustained by, and the eventual falling apart of their friendship, which was described by their spouses as being much worse than a divorce. The context of their lives turned out to be extremely important to their theories and the eventual persons they would become, and a shift in environment later led to their falling apart.

Academia (like any other organization, including large corporations) have a hard time with true partnership and collaboration. As a result there was a tendency in academia to favor Tversky (the more extroverted of the two) over Kahneman. A natural assumption would be that envy was what destroyed the men's partnership, the book makes a convincing case against such a simplistic view.

The subjects of the book are treated with respect, and I'm very impressed that Michael Lewis didn't try to draw any generalization from their unusually intimate collaboration. I came away from the book with much better insight into what drove them. As a bonus, the book also features Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, so you get to see what the legacy of Tversky and Kahneman are in today's world.

All in all, the book was captivating and insightful. It's the best book I've read so far this year and I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Review: Abaddon's Gate

I think I've figured out how to read The Expanse series of novels, of which Abaddon's Gate is the third novel. It is also clearly an original intended "end" of the trilogy, though like any modern author, when you get success in a series, you'll just churn out as many follow up novels as your readers can stand. The series works if you stop pretending that it's science fiction, but instead consider it to be space fantasy. Most of the mysteries and items of interest bend or break the laws of physics, and probably will never be explained to the satisfaction of an Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter novel.

Taken from that perspective, the first two Expanse novels were readable, but not great, since their characters weren't developed well enough, but the "space opera" aspects were sufficiently well done that the ending of the second novel compelled me to put a hold on the third novel. In this novel, the mystery is that of the direct consequences of the first novel have taken fruition and now takes the form of a space station known as "The Ring."

Consequences of the events of the first novel also put Jim Holden's ship in jeopardy, and we get a situation in which Jim, haunted by the ghost of the other protagonist in that novel, on a collision course with The Ring. The characters by this time are well established, and no longer the caricature that they mostly were in the first two novels. Holden no longer comes across as a pure ideologue through the plot device by which his natural tendencies are favored instead of being idiotic.

As an action/adventure/suspense novel the story works well enough that I found myself enjoying the novel. The plot is unfortunately still predictable, but would make for good TV.

Recommended as an airplane novel.