Jun 122008

My daughter is now two, and likes some different books to the set I reviewed six months ago, although she still likes the Boynton books and Mother, May I? by Grace Maccarone (I suspect because it has a picture of a truck in it, and features a hug at the end).

In no particular order, we have Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins and Eric Gurney, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer, Dog In, Cat Out by Gillian Rubinstein and Ann James (lots of scope for making up stories about what’s happening in the pictures), Waves in the Bathtub by Eugenie Fernandes (make up your own music for the song, it will sound much better than the tune in the book), and Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough (ours is bundled with It’s the Bear!, which gets nearly equal billing in the toddler appreciation list). These are all books my son liked as well, so chances are good that other toddlers will enjoy them just as much. My son didn’t have Monkey and Me by Emily Gravett, but my daughter likes it.

And, of course, she also likes anything with a picture of a truck in it.

May 292008

I know I’m really slow at reviewing Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, since it’s been out for a couple of years now. I finally read it just in the last few weeks, after a colleagure recommended that I read it and Barry Schwarz‘s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less for a project I’m working on.

I’d read a few summaries of Blink, and somehow what stuck in my memory was the sound-bite that snap decisions are often the best ones. Wrong! The book shows that immediate reactions are worth listening to, if you’re an expert in that particular field. If you aren’t, your snap decision may be right, or it may be wrong. Malcolm Gladwell talks about times when your first, snap decisions are right (speed dating, but only if you don’t try to analyze what people like), and times when they’re wrong (the Pepsi taste test shows what you like when you get only a few sips, not what you like when you’re drinking an entire glass). He also goes into depth about people’s inbuilt or subconscious assumptions, and how they can influence a person into making mistakes, sometimes with tragic consequences. A good example, one that’s been reported widely, is that orchestras only started hiring women in large numbers after introducing blind auditions, where the other orchestra members couldn’t be influenced by whether the player was male or female, white or black, tall or short (all potential bases for bias). All they heard was the music, and since they were experts in music, a short audition concentrating only on that was all they needed. More tragic consequences come when police or surgeons make snap decisions that may not be the right ones.

In summary, Blink is well worth reading, and most public libraries should have it on hand if you don’t want to buy it.

I read Paradox of Choice shortly afterwards and found it amusing how the same research is used in both books (and Stumbling on Happiness) to illustrate different points. Barry Schwarz’s main message is that if you are confronted with too many choices, you either spend a lot of time making the absolute best choice, and then will often still be unhappy since you’re not sure that you really made the best choice, or you settle for something that’s “good enough”. Which is often the better strategy, as most times it is good enough, and it frees up your time and mental bandwidth to concentrate on things that matter more to you. It’s absolutely true that in many places there is too much choice; I went into the local pet store the other day to pick up some more cat food. Every time I go in there seem to be more choices for dry cat food, all said to be good and healthy, with the consequence that I end up picking something off the shelf that looks reasonable because I have no way of deciding which is the best. And if the cats eat it, I buy that brand again next time as it’s as good a method as any for making a choice.

There is also a deeper point to the book – if your choices are unlimited, then if you fail, it’s your fault. So the burden of having to prove at all times that you are doing the absolute best, that you are as thin as you should be, or as rich, or as well-read, puts a lot of pressure on people. The author points out that the American “happiness quotient” has been going down over the last couple of decades; as people have had more choices they have become more unhappy, perhaps as a result of feeling like they made bad choices, or perhaps because of not meeting their own steadily increasing expectations. The counter-intuitive idea that if you have less, you might be happier, is not one that would make the consumerist beneficiaries happy, but is worth thinking about. In summary, The Paradox of Choice is worth reading, and it might even help make you happier with your life.

Mar 072008

Tim pointed at a piece listing immoral solutions for Gaza, a piece which nicely proves that finding a good solution is impossible, and finding the best of the bad solutions often seems equally impossible.

I’m sure I’m not the only person flabbergasted by the whole Israel/Lebanon/Palestine mess, and I’ve read a few books trying to make some sense of it. The only one I wholeheartedly recommend is Thomas Friedman‘s From Beirut to Jerusalem. The book is old; it was first published in 1989, but it is (unfortunately) still relevant in that none of the problems it describes have been solved. Many of the people are no longer in power, or no longer on this earth, but the problems they didn’t manage to solve are still here, still affecting the lives of those who live in that part of this world.

I’m not going to try to summarize the book; there are lots of reviews out there. Suffice to say that if you don’t know much about the Middle East, but do want to know something about why people disagree so violently and why a solution still seems so heartbreakingly out of reach, get this book and read it. You may disagree with lots of it, you may find characters described within it worthy of respect or you may find them despicable. I learned a lot about some of the fault-lines within Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine societies, and the horrible consequences that have come of well-meaning actions.

Dec 172007

Our toddler daughter (18 months old) likes having books read to her. Some of them are definite favourites, to be read as often as possible, while others are the ones she likes when she’s told to go and get another book. They’re not necessarily books I would choose myself, but it’s not my taste that counts <grin>. The versions we have are mostly boardbooks, well worthwhile at this age since she often sits on the floor and looks at her books on her own, and she can turn the boardbook pages easily enough that she doesn’t get frustrated.

Her top favourites currently are We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (Powell’s link), I Love You With All My Heart by Noris Kern (Powell’s link), and Mother, May I? by Grace Maccarone (Powell’s link).

The next bunch of books also hold her attention for a bit, but she tends not to bring them over to be read as often as the books in the first group. Sandra Boynton features heavily here, and her books are small enough that the girl can hold them while she’s being changed. They’re fun to read as well, as they lend themselves to silly voices. We have Hippos Go Berserk (Powell’s link), Barnyard Dance! (Powell’s link), and Moo Baa La La La (Powell’s link). Rounding out this are A. J. Wood’s Hubble Bubble, Cauldron Trouble (Spooky Tales) and Nina Laden’s Grow Up! (Powell’s link), where she really likes the chicken page for some reason.

Of course, by next week the favourites might be a completely different set of books.

Nov 082007

Lest anyone think that physicists don’t care about the real world, Bob Park publishes a short weekly newsletter that touches on subjects ranging from scientific hoaxes to inconsistencies in the way the U.S. Administration handles various issues. It mostly concentrates on science and technology, but not only. The Friday, October 26, 2007 newsletter also discusses the successful methods WWII soldiers used to interrogate Nazis, while the Friday, November 2, 2007 newsletter includes the quote “John Marburger, head of the White House science office, realized that the situation she described was serious; decisive action was needed at once – so he deleted half the report. “

The tagline on the site is Opinions are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be. I’ve been reading the newsletter for years and it’s always been interesting.

Professor Park also wrote a book, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, that neatly debunks a lot of hoax (or misguided, to be more charitable) science in a readable way.

Oct 252007

Here’s a fascinating piece discussing how fixed prices on books in Germany was actually pushing prices down (contrary to economic theory), while supporting a wide range of booksellers.

When I was last in Germany, apart from my usual beef about German booksellers not taking credit cards, I found no reason to complain about the range of books that was available. Children’s books are more expensive than I’m used to here, but a lot of that is also because most children’s books are only available in hardback and thus inherently more expensive. Paperbacks seemed reasonably priced in general, and of good typographical quality.

Peter Brantley has some questions at the end of his piece, which I think can be applied not only to books, but also television, news, indeed many aspects of what is commonly called “culture”. When the mass media and mass entertainment industry are desperately trying to increase ratings by catering to the fads and whims of the mass market, is this a “race to the bottom” as has been postulated? Is the long tail sufficient to enable people with diverse interests (and that’s all of us at some stage or another) to have those needs met, those itches scratched? How do people find those groups, if they don’t know what to look for?

Choice is important, knowing that you have choices is even more important. It’s a bit like free speech.

/* ]]> */