Category Archives: book review

Book Review: ‘You Are Not So Smart’ by David McRaney

This great work boils down to: “Despite millions of years of evolution your brain is a jumbled mess of neurons that covers up it’s downfalls by lying to you constantly. Here are just 46 ways your brain is being an asshole.”

Just like Dawkins argues against a creator in showing that evolutionary adaptations can be flawed and seemingly badly designed, David McRaney shows in this work that despite those claims that the human mind is one of the most complex structures in the known universe, it’s shoddily put together, with bits that don’t work together and bits that were added on at the last minute and that the only way it ‘works’ is that it constantly lies to itself about the reality it exists in. You have in your head a used car salesman.

David demonstrates the limitations of our brains by picking out these 46 different ways our brain lies to us and writing a small chapter on each. Each lie is well researched and refers to different published studies for evidence. For example the chapter on why you have too many Facebook friends talks about studies about the limitations of how many people you can hold in a social circle in the physical world and compares these figures to the data on Facebook. He also talks about the reason why you ‘befriend’ all those people using the internet.

Most interesting are the chapters that highlight the limitations in vision and the comprehension of sensory input. You are not a little person in a box watching a ultra high definition surround sound movie of your existence. More like your homonculus watches a scratchy silent movie from 1908 with no sound and missing film cells, a friend tells them about the soundtrack over the phone.

There are also great chapters on how you think you are better than everyone else out there. He actually gives statistics on how many people think they are better than average drivers and how many people think they have a better than average IQ. The figures will astound you.

I highly recommend this fun and enlightening read. It certainly will make you question everything you think and perceive, which is a practice that all science endorses strongly. This book is so much more than your average pop-psychology book that litters the popular science section of bookshops and libraries. It holds no punches and approaches the subject from a critical standpoint. Weeks after reading this book I’m still laughing at my brain when I know it’s lying to me.


Book Review: ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Colonel Chris Hadfield

Most of us nerds got a good idea of who Chris Hadfield is from his youtube videos last year filmed on the International Space Station. For the last few years the Mars rovers have been the sexy at NASA with the demise of the shuttle, the hitchhiking on Russian craft, oh and that psycho cross-country drive diaper caper really doing a number on NASA astronaut public image. But then Chris Hadfield and mustache came along and fixed it all up again. After a gap of 20 or so years I find myself wanting to be an astronaut when I grow up again.

So I approached this book with some delight, expecting some fun stories from his time in space; how they go to the toilet etc. Which is what you get, to some degree, but you get so much more. The same man who has enough passion to make those videos and promote space exploration so well in that medium can also write a hugely inspiring, humble and insightful work on his life, his philosophies and the universe.

Dotted between the stories of Chris’ years working at NASA are wonderful insights into behavior such as how to take criticism, how to learn not to worry and plan instead, how to constructively think negatively, how to keep yourself inspired and set and achieve goals. And most importantly how not to be an asshole while doing it. These lessons meant more to me than other ‘life lessons’ that you see in the bookstores under self-help or inspiration. This advise made more practical sense than any quote I have seen attributed to the Dalai Lama or some such. But I don’t think this type of inspiration is for everyone. I think it will be most applicable to the engineering/scientist type mindset, just like Chris himself.

So this book comes most highly recommended. I felt at times that I was right alongside Chris in parts of his journey and I listened intently to his wisdom on how to be a person with integrity, humility, determination and a sense of humour.

Book Review: ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

So after 20 or so years, I finally got around to rereading ‘The Hobbit’ and it was like reading it anew. I obviously had no previous memories of it, and I’d guess that although I read read it as a precocious child who read beyond their age, I didn’t really comprehend that much. Even though this is geared towards a younger audience.

But this time I had so much fun. The prompting to get my finger out was my enjoyment of the movies, especially ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ (going to re-watch it again in a couple of days). So it was high time I read it.

I guess with the movies being out there and the book being well-read I don’t need to talk much about the story. It is a simple story, but for when it was written it was virtually unique. And you can tell that it is written to be read out loud. I’m going to have to purchase an audiobook of this.

So what more can I say? I had a lot of fun reading this and I am ashamed it took me so long to get around to it. Tolkien is the only author that I’ll read that can have a dragon on the cover and a map of pointy mountains at the beginning of the book. Have you read it yet? If you haven’t why haven’t you? Get around to it. You’ll have a lot of fun.

Book Review: ‘On The Map’ by Simon Garfield

Who here loves maps and can pore over a map of an unknown territory, real or fictional, for hours imagining the geography and the adventures to be had? Yeah you are one of those people, a lot of us are. In fact I’d hazard to say that a majority of geeks and nerds are. It’s part of who we are and a natural expression of our imagination and deep passion for things.

In the last couple of years there has been a few books about maps starting to be published. It seems that we are all rediscovering our childhoods love of the atlas and also discovering that we weren’t the weird outsider we thought we were. The last book on maps I read was a beauty, ‘Maphead’ by the wonderfully hilarious Ken Jennings (see my review on Ken takes a look at several applications of mapping in the last few decades and engages with these activities, interviews people involved and just has a lot of fun.

‘On the Map’ provides a different and more traditional look at maps by presenting a chronological history of cartography via selected maps, or mapping techniques. Simon takes us on a journey from the very first attempts at mapping the known world, the Mappa Mundi, right through to GPS systems and mapping in video games.

It’s hard not to compare Simon’s work with Jennings’ even though they take a different perspective upon the subject and do compliment each other. There were some points where I felt a little let down by Simon, but I’ll get to those points after, because despite these, it was a damn good read. Simon has chosen by far some very interesting tales to tell about the history of cartography, and it seems he has done a great deal of research. Each chapter is clear and concise and very entertaining. It is clear that Simon is a great fan of maps and is enthusiastic to share.

But onto those niggling negatives, and there are only two. Firstly, there is a chapter on mapping in video games that is quite well-researched and he admits that the maps and geography in these games are intricate and the effort that goes into these works is astounding. Yet he writes derisively about these games being time wasters and infers that people who play these games are on the fringe of society. Surely he has heard of leisure activities and that normal people play these games not just unemployed stoners. Anyway, being a bit of a gamer, especially a fan of sandbox games, where mapping and geography get expressed in the most beautiful ways, I felt disappointed  that Simon did not express a greater understanding and appreciation of these points.

Secondly, there were instances when Simon interviewed  a person about a subject that he was writing about and mentions going to meet this person etc. But sometimes there was no more information about this meeting or person for more than a paragraph. I am supposing that most of what he talked to the person about made it into the text as pure information, but it seemed like that in a few instances I would have liked to have heard more from that person and about that person. I know I have written a lot about these negatives, but they are very small.

I purchased this book without looking at a single review and it was a great surprise that it was so good. I don’t often purchase books blindly these days. Part of the motivation was that a few weeks previously I had visited a great exhibition of maps in Canberra (National Library for all the Australians. Go see it!). It was a great surprise to have a major part of a chapter about one of the highlights of that exhibition, the Fra Mauro world map, an imposing approx 3m X 3m intricately detailed 15th century map.

So Simon has produced a wonderful work that expresses deep love for the subject. It is both a fun and informative read that is also well-written. I’d recommend this book for anyone who loves maps. Yes you!

Book Review: ‘Shaman’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel may seem like a change from his past works, but in a way it fits in well with his other works. Instead of spaceships we get the end of the last ice age. And although you may think that this is a huge change in what Kim usually writes, we do get a story about humans surviving and adapting through innovation and investigation, just like all of his stories. ‘Galileo’s Dream’ may have seemed like Kim was talking about the beginnings of science, but with ‘Shaman’ he shows that there are no beginnings of science and that it is essentially part of being human.

Kim has stated that his inspiration for this novel come from extensive hiking near glaciers and the type of environments that Europe would have been like at the end of the last ice age. On these hikes Kim would imagine what it would have been like to be a human at this time. Other inspiration has come from the ongoing investigation of Otzi, the five and a half thousand year old body found exposed in a glacier in 1991. Clothes and other artifacts found with the body have survived wonderfully and provide a great insight into the technology and innovation of the time.

What Kim produces is a heart-warming, coming of age tale of an apprentice shaman. We join him in his first wandering, cast aside into the wilderness naked and with no tools. We learn an awful lot about his clan and how they function in day to day life. And every character you encounter is well-drawn and is a complete individual. These people and the book itself does well to remove itself from using the standard caveman stereotype and indeed shows that ‘humanity’ has been with us all along and did not come about with the rise of civilisation.

I found that I did not enjoy this novel as much as some of Kim’s other works such as the Mars trilogy and ‘Galileo’s Dream’, but compared to most other works out there, it is still a brilliant and thoughtful work full of wonder and heart. In my opinion even when Kim is experimenting and trying something different like this, he could write the pants off all but a few authors.

Book Review: ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex’ by Nathaniel Philbrick

Any reader who has read ‘The Life of Pi’ and ‘Moby Dick’ should be all over this as both works of fiction were inspired by the tragic events of the Essex.  The Essex was an American whaling ship that was attacked by a disgruntled sperm whale (well the whalers had attacked it with harpoons) and sunk in the south-western Pacific in 1820. All the crew survive the sinking but they are stranded in the middle of the Pacific, in a region desolate of life, and they seem to want to make it back to civilisation the hardest way possible. Hilarity ensues. That was sarcasm.

Nathaniel does a magnificent job in describing the events on the Essex. But what also sets this book apart is his description and history of the whaling industry of Nantucket. The town is dominated by Quakers at the time and it is interesting how that justified this religion with systematic slaughter of animals and bolstered a whole industry around it. For a supposedly peaceful and placid religion, these people were blubberthirsty.I don’t know if this is spoilerific (can history have spoilers?) but it also goes on to talk about the aftereffects of the tragedy and how the survivors went on living.

But the heart of the story is that of the survival of the sailors. How they relied on each other and how they tried to survive despite all odds. Having read this after years after reading ‘The Life of Pi’ I feel a bit ripped off. There are so many parallels in the fictional story, and it would have been great to get all the references.

A great read that taught me a lot about the whaling industry with a lot about ocean survival. Recommended to all fans of those two fictions I mentioned earlier and would make a great gift for someone going on a cruising holiday.

Book Review: "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality" by Jacob Tomsky

This read was a bit of a gamble. Written by a employee in the hotel business it professes to tell great stories, tips on getting the best service and an insider look behind the scenes. With many other writers this could have been quite dull, but Jacob’s wit, heart and cynicism makes this a great read that does deliver on all the promises.

The memoir part takes up most of the book with a chronological tale of his employment from a valet parer in a luxury hotel in the southern U.S., through the lofty heights of management, and finally to a bitter front desk clerk in New York. You get to experience the differing hotel environments in each hotel he works in and see the direct effect of these styles on the staff, which of course reflects in the service of the clients.

Jacob has wonderful tales from his time in each hotel from the classy woman who only hires a New York room for 3 hours regularly, to the CEO client who stays multiple times a week and leaves a bag behind containing some interesting luggage.
So many funny and weird tales.

Interspersed throughout is Jacob’s advice to us, the paying public. How do you get the best service and the added perks? What the fuck is up with minibars and how do you get stuff for free from them? And why do people constantly underestimate the power of the front desk clerk? This person has complete control over your stay and if you treat them like shit, they can make your stay hell. The methods for making a client’s stay not so nice are rather funny and clever, but do not worry, you probably won’t get to experience these methods unless you are an asshole to the clerk, or do something nasty in their presence such as treating your wife, girlfriend or especially kids like crap in front of the clerk.

This book is a wonderful and fun read, with the added advantage of being educational on what happens behind the scenes in the hotel industry and how you can make the most out of your next stay at a hotel.