Book Reviews

Since I started a new job and classes at just about the exact same time, I haven’t had much time to sit down and write. Because my boss took the day off, I can put a whole day’s worth of work into this thing—the problem is, though, I’m out of the blog zone and I’m not sure how to get back in. When DJ and I play tennis, the one who lost the point has to sprint around the court. At first, the loser of a single point continued to lose several points. Running made it hard to concentrate on the game. But as we played on, we got better. The interpoint sprints actually honed our mental and physical stamina. I don’t know of an analogous blogging exercise.

So, without any prepared material, I write on. Hoping that you’ll keep reading. And while I haven’t been writing lately, I have been reading. In the past week I’ve started four books. You’ll see that three of them fall into an obvious theme. Maybe you can guess it by the first’s title:

Social Learning and Cognition, by Rosenthal and Zimmerman, was written in 1978. I don’t know how much of the book is still current, but what they say seems to make sense. Like the other books I’ll mention, I haven’t made it very far: I’m only in the first chapter. To be fair, this one only has three, individually long chapters. Basically, social learning combines information processing—which came about once people began that quest for artificial intelligence—with a behavioral twist. As far as I can tell, this sort of thing has been applied mostly to criminology. What I’m reading smacks of Vygotsky, who, due to political barriers, never made it big in the West. Bandura, the guy who sort pioneered this sort of thing, applied his work most closely to violent behavior. Hence the trajectory towards criminology. However, just about anyone—folks in public service, education, corporate training, and community building at large—should know about this stuff. We learn from each other all the time.

The second book I’m reading for class. In fact, I found Social Learning only because it was near Uncommon Genius on the shelf. The author, Shekerjian, tries to figure out what creativity is through interviews with forty of MacArthur fellows: those men and women given a cool half mil from what has been popularly dubbed the “genius award.” Sadly, she didn’t interview the two MacArthur fellows I know. To be fair, Zaldarriaga, the guy who co-taught a course on cosmology I took last year, neither knows me nor had received the award before the time of this book’s publication. It’s an enjoyable read. Don’t expect any research, though. Sheekerjian warns you from the outset that her book isn’t rigorous investigation of creative thought. The anecdotes are apt and her writing is smooth. Her analysis falls into same linear model of thought as much of the research literature on creativity, though. Pick it up if you have a short flight and you’re bored.

The last book hasn’t been published yet. The Emotion Machine is Marvin Minsky’s soon to be released follow up to Society of Mind. If you can’t wait until November to read it, you can find a draft online on his personal website, though I’m not sure for how much longer. Minsky, who you can tell is a trained mathematician by his style, gives a very easy introduction into the basics of artificial intelligence, which, by the way, doesn’t preclude its telling us something about human intelligence along the way. Minsky writes in a semi-dialogue form, injecting objections and commentary by invented philosopher, student, and citizen characters. They move along the discussion in an informal way which hides its unusual directness. If you had to choose among these three, you should probably choose this one.

The fourth book, which I only started about an hour ago, is Sakurai’s Modern Quantum Mechanics. I started this one based on a recommendation of one of my college roommates, who’s gone on to do her PhD in physics. She says that everyone agrees, Sakurai’s exposition is wonderfully clear though advanced. I guess they use this in a graduate-level QM course either at Harvard or MIT. (She cross-registers a lot.) Being an undergraduate mathematician, I missed out on quantum mechanics. As a high schooler, I thought that it would be my ultimate achievement. In the meantime, my dad has started spending a lot of money on some heinous line of products based on the study of so-called biophotons. This ever-authoritative Wikipedia entry sums it up nicely:

The field of biophoton related study also appears to have recently become rife with new age, complementary and alternative medicine, and quantum mysticism claims from those wishing to exploit such clams [sic] for financial benefit. Numerous claims are even made that by “harnessing the energy of biophotons” that supposed natural cures for cancer are guaranteed. Mainstream medicine and science strongly reject these claims as outright fraud and a dangerous diversion from actual medical treatment for someone who is suffering from such disease.

I figure if I can master the basics of QM, maybe I can have my dad ask questions that will confuse his prophets—because that’s what this has become. He defends these guys as if they were his gods.—and demonstrate that they’re just out to get his money. Even if that’s not your aim, you should read Sakurai, especially if you have a strong background in linear algebra (including Fourier analysis).