Book Reports (2005) Back to home
Blink:The Power of thinking Without Thinking, written by Malcom Gladwell

Last night I finished reading "Blink," written by Malcolm Gladwell. He was formerly a business and science reporter at The Washington Post. Very interesting!

Gladwell talks about how our cognition, in the subconscious works when we see the world around us. To put it plainly, "how we think without thinking," about determination in the blink of an eye in every day life or during very important events.

He discusses why some people are extremely good at it while some make fatal mistakes. He says we all can see the trueness of a matter in a blink (he calls it "thin-slicing" ), but that it becomse vulnerable due to outer influences, such as prejudice. But he says we can be trained to have a good snap-decision ability.

Malcolm Gladwell includes the research data of psychologists who are experts of mind reading and antiquities experts who can recognize a fake at a glance. He gives various examples of the effects of thin-slicing through real-life examples. He shows how curators in a museum failed to see the reality of a Greek kouros, and tells of the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police in the Bronx, New York City and so on and so forth.

I really enjoyed this book. I thank Deana who gave this book to me.

(Oct. 5, 2005)


The difference between At Home In The Unuverse written by Stuart Kauffman and

The Hidden Connections written by Fritjof Capra

I found the name, Stuart Kauffman and his book 'At Home In The Universe', when I was reading 'The Hidden Connections' written by Fritjof Capra. Since I read Oparin's 'The Origin of Life,' in my high school days, I've been interested in reading such kinds of books and wanted to know why I am here, how the first protocell appeared or how we evolved to get our consciousness. So, when I found 'The Hidden Connections' I decided to read it, and then 'At Home In The Universe', too. I wanted to know the difference between them, because my friend Naoko san told me that Kauffman also writes in this book about protocell.

The difference between them, I first noticed, was their stances. While Capra doesn't argue against Darwinian theory of evolution (I think), Kauffman thinks Darwinism isn't enough to explain the order of the living world: cells, organisms, ecosystems. He tries to connect his hypothesis of self-organization and natural selection. He says "And here, I think, may be an essential tie between self-organization and selection. Self-organization may be the precondition of evolvability itself. Only those systems that are able to organize themselves spontaneously may be able to evolve further."

His explanation of 'self-organization' of portocells is very interesting 'he uses "buttons" (nodes) and "threds" (edges) for cristallization of connected webs and lightbulds for a Boolean function. Kauffman thinks autocatalytic networks arise spontaneously at 'the edge of chaos.' He did his simulations on a computer and then he seems to be almost convinced that his theory on how the chemicals got together and formed autocatalytic system on the primal earth and how metabolic networks crystallized from the broth of a collection of chemicals contains enough different kinds of molecules, without the need for DNA and natural selection.

He says " 'selection' is the second theme." "The inevitability of historical accident is the third theme." He thinks the natural laws (the Laws of complexity?) change life on earth from being "We, the improbable," to "We, the expected."
He says "We are no accidents, but a natural law created us". "If life were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order, then we truly are at home in the universe."

The Laws of comlexity can apply to other biological phenomena and even nonbiological phenomena, and so it may represent a universal law of nature.
I think even though he says "Creation Science" is wrong, he tries to connect Christianity and his theory or implies that the natural law of complexity is God's law.
He often uses the words 'an invisible hand' like God's hand.

On the other hand Capra sees life as a whole. He explains when the first protocell was borne, membranes played the most important role. He writes, "Scientists working in this field have come to recognize that the flaw of the conventional argument lies in the idea that life must have emerged out of a primordial chemical soup through a progressive increase in molecular complexity. The new thinking, as Morowittz emphasizes repeatedly, begins from hypothesis that very early on, before the increase of molecular complexity, certain molecules assembled into primitive membranes that spontaneously formed closed bubbles, and that the evolution of molecular complexity took place inside these bubbles, rather than in a structureless chemical soup."

So he agrees with Kauffman's models for forming of protocells at "the edge of chaos", but it happened in the primitive membranes. He also expects that the complexity theory--nonlinear thinking-- will help scientists to understand other things such as 'epigenitics'.
And he applies the principles of complexity theory to analyze all of the human interactions.

He discusses about cognitive interactions in 'Mind and Consciousness' and says "the interactions of a living organism - plant, animal or human - with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living itself is a process of cognition. Thus life and cognition are inseparably connected." He says mind = prosess. And the life's wholeness and it's cognitive process can be applied to any kinds of organizations from the living cells of the smallest organisms to business corporations and political structures.
In short, for the problems on this planet we have now, which are destroying the 'web of life', we have to found the sustainable organizations.

So the conclusions made by Kauffman and Capra are very different.

(Jun 29, 2005)

Immortality, written by Milan Kundera

'Immortality' is my second book to read written by Milan Kundera.
The first book was 'Farewell Waltz' in which I liked Kundera's black humor and his intellectual writing style. I decided to read this book when I found it in the library in my city. But I was surprised at his different writing style of 'Immortality' from that of 'Farewell Walts.'

In 'Immortality' Kundera himself appears as a narrator who is writing this novel. The story starts when he saw a woman, who 'might have been sixty or sixty-five,' waving to the lifeguard, while Kundera was waiting for his friend, Professor Avenarius, by the pool of his health club. The name Agnes suddenly occurs to him when he sees that gesture and he gets the idea of the novel.

The novel, however, is not like a usual one. It's like a collection of episodes and kind of essays on the contemporary culture especially in Europe, and deep insight into human behavior. (When I was reading I felt as if I was listening to lectures of my old teacher.)
Kundera discuses from human rights to journalism, art, music and so on. In between those episodes and essays he talks of the story of Agnes and her family. In a certain sense, all of them are related to immortality by which he means 'an eternal trial.' That is the writer's characters and their deeds have to be discussed in many ways after their death. In the part Goethe and Hemingway talk about their 'eternal trial' I couldn't help chuckling at Kundera's cynicism.

When Goethe and Hemingway meet in the heaven, Hemingway asks Goethe '....if the image you've left behind has nothing to do with you, why did you invite Eckerman to join you? Why did you start writing 'Poetry and Truth?''
Then Goethe says 'Ernest, resign yourself to the idea that I was as foolish as you. That obsession with one's own image, that's man's fatal immaturity. It is so difficult to be indifferent to one's image. Such indifference is beyond human strength. One becomes capable of it only after death. And even then it doesn't happen at once, but only a long time after death.' 'I have come to the definite conclusion that the eternal trial is bullshit. I have decided to make use of my death at enjoy the delights of total nonexistence....'

This conversation took place one hundred and fifty-six years after Goethe 's death, Kundera says. Funny, isn't it?

In the story of Agnes, her husband Paul, their daughter Brigitte and Agnes's younger sister Laura and Laura's lover, Kundera talks about ordinary people's desire to be remembered by other people and discusses the different attitudes of Agnes and Laura. He talks about Goethe and his friend Bettina in that matter, as well. Kundera suspects that since Bettina wanted to have fame after her death, she tried to associate with celebrities such as Goethe and Beethoven.

Kundera also goes over sex and death. It seems that he thinks sex plays an important role, when one talks about human behavior. But I'd like to omit that here. However I was interested in his view of death; he talks how Agnes and her father pass away. I want to die like Agnes and I understand Agnes very well. I wonder if Kundera reflects his view of life and death on Agnes's character.

All through the story you will perceive the author's black humor. At the last scene Kundera and Professor Avenarius meet by the pool as usual. Because it is precisely two years after the first scene when Kundera saw the woman, he orders a bottle of wine to celebrate the anniversary. That scene is very interesting but I'd better stop here now.

(Apr. 10 2005)


Slaughter' House - Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut

I'm thinking why it took me such a long time to start writing a book report on this book, though I was moved so much by it. It is a good book without doubt. Maybe because I have been getting away from remembering the too grim war story of it. So I can understand how hard it is to recover from the trauma of war experience. I read this book in this way.

" All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true....."
Vonnegut starts the book like this. He, himself, is Billy Pligrim, the main character, 'more or less' I assume. He was in Dresden as a prisoner of war, when it was attacked by an indiscriminate air raid in the last year of World War ll.

Billy Pilgrim is a senile widower living in Ilium, New York. "Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next."
In his senile day dreams, he has to relive his past life mainly during and after the war and also he lives future life as well.

One day he is doing his business as an optometrist, then in Dresden in war time, or in a veteran's hospital near Lake Placid, being given shock treatments, or in a hospital after an air crash, where he meets a person who planned and carried out the Dresden air-raid, and he lives even in the SF world on a star, Tralfamadore, which is too far to be detected from the earth, he claims. That is the way this story is told. The future parts and before his joining the war parts makes the story less harsh and even funny, diluting cruelty of the story as it otherwise was.

Vonnegut tells also about nice germans in Dresden, a doctor couple and the family who run a restaurant in a suburb of the city where they treated starving American war criminals as their guests instead of German city residents (almost no one escaped from the air-raid). Ever since the doctor couple reminded Billy that the horses, they were driving, were in such a bad condition that they could barly walk anymore and how it was hurting them, Billy often weeps silently without any reason after he has returned to the US.

Vonnegut's writing style is not like a cry out but just talks in a matter-of-fact approach which makes the book more impressive and makes the reader think.

(March, 4 2005)


Da Vinci Code, written by Dan Broun

Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who is in Paris on business, receives an urgent late-night phone call from the police department: the elderly Louvre curator has been murdered inside the museum. The police have found a mysterious cipher near the body as a dying message. Because Langdon's name has been written in the message, the police have suspected he is the murderer. Sophie Neveu, a Cryptologist of the police department, who happens to be a granddaughter of the murdered Louvre curator, realizes that Langdon isn't responsible for the crime. She helps him to escape from the police and they try to solve the enigmatic riddle.

They find the deceased curator was involved in the Priory of Sion also known as the Knights Templar, an actual secret society. They are racing against the time and trying to solve the riddle. At the same time they are trying to slip through the net of the police and an enigmatic religious group Opus Dei and it's self-devoted believer who is an albino and killer.

The story is stunning and sounds very interesting at first with history of religious back ground. But when I kept reading I found the story is one-dimensional and the characters are boring. There are some suspenseful moments and it is written in a very simplistic style which made me keep turning pages. But as the author might have tried and created too many twists, some of them are too far fetched, having made the book cheesy.

I'm surprised to know that Steven Spielberg is going to direct the movie with Tom Hanks staring as Robert Langdon. How will he perform such an uninteresting character?
I don't know if it's because I have read 'The Name of the Rose' before this book that I feel this way. Between the two books, both of which are on religion, there is an incomparable difference like between water and wine.

(February, 23 2005)


Phantoms In The Brain, written by Ramachandran, M.D., PH. D., and Sandara Blakeslee

I found this book when I was watching a TV program about the patient who was being cured from his paralysis caused by a stroke. In the show the patient, who used to be one of the Diet members, explained that he used the box in the middle of which a mirror is set and there are two holes in both sides, so that he could put his hands to each one of them.

He showed inserting both of his arms (one of which had been paralyzed) to those holes and seeing only the healthy arm and the reflection in the mirror of the healthy arm. Then he opened out and then clenched both the healthy hand and paralyzed one, which of course couldn't work at first, but he could see as if both his hands had been working. Through doing that practice every day, his paralyzed hand started to work little by little and he said now he could use his paralyzed hand almost as same as before. Our brain can be cheated and trained (or the damaged part of the brain can be replaced by a part close to it, I guess. In the book this mirror boxes are also used for the patients who have painful sensation in their severed arms or legs.)

The reporter in the TV show mentioned that the miller box was introduced by Doctor V.S. Ramanchandran, who is a professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, and his book, 'Phantoms in The Brain.' 'Wow that's interesting!' I thought.

In the book Doctor V.S. Ramanchandran shows us how our brain works, with some of the interesting illustrations and meticulous explanations.
And he construes the abstract subject by citing concrete examples which he has gotten through his medical examinations, for example some patients who claim that their amputated arms or legs are hurting, or the patients who ignore their one side, or the patients who insist that their paralyzed arms can work perfectly (one of the patients insisted her forefinger almost touched the doctor's nose) and a patiant who lost her eyesight but can insert a letter into the narrow entry of a post (in her brain the part which recognises "what it is" was damaged but the part which catches up "how to do it" still worked,) etc.

Explaining the collaborations between our optic nerves and brain's work, he shows us why some patients have hallucinations, and the connections of some parts of the brain (in the temporal lobe) and spiritual experiences. He says he doesn't know if that sorts of spiritual experiences are just because of hallucinations or Gods want to talk to us through that part of human's brain. He jokes, saying 'What would happen to the patient's personality---especially his spiritual leanings---if we removed a chunk of his temporal lobe? Would we have performed a "Godectomy"?' He says all our sensory experiences are hallucinations and says "perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input."

Though he says there are many problems which they can't solve yet since neurology is only at it's starting point, he ventures how we got to have our consciousness. He thinks our human consciousness is a result of not only evolutionary but also cultural pressure which interact with each other. Ramachandran suggests that the consciousness lies in the circuitry of the temporal lobes and associated limbic structures.

The book was easy reading at first: however, it got difficult little by little while I kept reading and the last chapter was the hardest part to understand. But it is such an interesting thematic subject that I could keep reading and was fascinated with his philosophy, with a hint of Asian mentality (he is originally from India) and his sense of humor. At the same time I was impressed by his earnest sincerity as a person of science.

(January, 24 2005)


The Name of The Rose, written by Umberto Eco

When a chat friend of mine suggested that I read this book, I had no idea what kind of book it was. Then I learned about the author, Umberto Eco, who is a prominent professor of semantics at Bologna University in the north of Italy. After I read some of the articles about him and his lecture through the internet, I started to take an interest in him. I ordered his two novels, The Name of The Rose and Foucult's Pendulum.
(I'm planing to read the second one later on.)

As soon as I started to read I was intrigued by the book's very enigmatic atmosphere and complex story and historical background which are marvelously written, as I kept reading. It wasn't an easy reading but worth reading very much. There are many unfamiliar words and quotations in Latin and other languages (which I skipped to read.)
Usually when I read books I don't use a dictionally but this time I used it a lot, but I couldn't find a few words even in my dictionary.

At the first page there is an abbey layout (this helped me a lot while reading), then the story starts like this, 'On August 16, 1968. I was handed a book written by a certain Abbe Vallet, Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, tranduit en francais d'apres l'edition de Dom J. Mabillion...... So the narrator of this book is an old monk named Adso of Melk who talks about 7 days' incidents in his youth.

In 1327 Adso and his mentor, an English Franciscan whose name is William of Baskerville, visit a wealthy Benedictine abbey in northern Italy where an important but controversial theological meeting supposed to be held and William was appointed to the job as to lay the groundwork for a smooth transaction. There they encounter 7 murders, one in each of 7 days. While William, with Adso's help, investigates to solve the gruesome murders he gets to know that there is a key book about laughter and comedy written by Aristotle. The book has been hidden in the labyrinthine library because it was thought to be dangerous to the belief of Christianity.

Eco creates wonderful medieval personages, not to mention William (who is a student of Roger Bacon and adores Aristotle) and Adso of Melk but also Jorge of Burgos, the irascible old blind monk (who sets a fire on the books), Bernardo Guidoni, the Inquisitor who sentences two monks to be burned at the stake because of their hereditary conectin, and he sentences a peasant girl (with whom Adso happens to make love only once in his life) also to be burned at the stake as a witch, so that he wins the disputation of the meeting. I shouldn't forget William's old Franciscan friend, Ubertino of Casale and so on.

Historical back ground is also interesting, for example the main conflicts in the story are the fighting for preeminence between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and that of between the Pope and Franciscans over the question of poverty, (because of accumulated wealth of the Pope, there were many groups who accused the Pope and were excluded and burned alive on stakes as heretics.)

Of course I stand by the Franciscan's side and William, who loves philosophy and reason. He says to Adso indicating Joege's face 'In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, who does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, .....'
This can be said of all the extremists and fanatical believers of any kind.

(January, 7 2005)