Sunday, September 14, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, August 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two novels and two non-fiction books
on how our minds play tricks on us.

1. "Tigerman" by Nick Harkaway

Mancreu is a former island colony of Britain facing an environment
catastrophe. The island is a formerly dormant volcano, which has
started discharging toxic vapours. Black marketeers, drug pushers
and other shady types are taking advantage of the island's remoteness
and precarious state. Middle-aged Sergeant Lester Ferris has been
appointed to look after British interests, with a brief to merely
observe and report. The brutal murder of Shola, his friend and local
businessman, spurs Lester to defy his orders to "sit tight". With the
aid of a street-smart and comic-obsessed local boy, he decides to
find out why Shola was killed. Inspired by the boy's love of comic
book heroes, Lester even wears a costume and takes on a superhero
identity, Tigerman. The boy makes clever use of the internet to
spread the mystique of Tigerman around the world.

As I've come to expect from this author, some clever things going on
here. The villains and supporting characters spice things up. While
I did find the story interesting, it didn't quite work as well for me
as the author's earlier novels. Maybe comic fans would enjoy this
book more?

2. "Lexicon" by Max Barry

In the near-future, almost the entire population of Broken Hill is
wiped out by a mysterious incident. There are lots of conspiracy
theories, but few people know what really happened. The lone survivor,
Wil Parke, has been living in the US for a a couple of years. A secret
society, who call themselves the Poets, has located him and want to
interrogate him so they can find out what happened. The members of
this society have learned how to use words as weapons. Certain words
go beyond persuasion and can actually kill. Emily Ruff is also on the
run from the Poets. She was one of the brightest alumni of the Poet
training program, but she chose love over a career as a secret agent.

This is another novel with some interesting ideas, but which didn't
follow through in my opinion. If the writing style had included more
humour, as in the style of Jasper Fforde or Douglas Adams, I may have
been better able to suspend my disbelief. "The Rook" by another
Australian author, Daniel O'Malley, did a better job of portraying a
supernatural secret society.

3. "You Are Now Less Dumb" by David McRaney

The author continues his examination of cognitive biases and self-
delusion. Research studies and historical anecdotes are used to
describe psychological phenomena such as the halo effect (your
overall impression of someone impacts your feelings and thoughts
about that person), the Ben Franklin effect (doing a favour for a
rival makes you like them more), why hard to change minds of others
(the backfire effect), ego depletion (self-control and willpower can
run down, leading to lapses), enclothed cognition (the clothes you
wear affects how you think and act).

A worthy follow-up book to "You Are Not So Smart". By accepting our
susceptibility to biases and self-delusion, we can learn how to
overcome them. If this subject matter interests you, check out the
author's blog and podcasts at:

4. "Mind Over Mind" by Chris Berdik

Research shows how expectations, assumptions and predictions can
play a large part in shaping what happens to us, both good and bad.
The placebo effect was observed in medicine as early as WW2, when a
shortage of morphine lead doctors to give some injured soldiers
shots of saline instead. By making these patients believe their
pain would subside, the onset of potentially fatal shock was
prevented for many of them. There are various factors which
determine whether or not placebos work. The book also looks at
several other facets of life, including penalty kicks, wine tasting,
phantom limbs, economic bubbles and gambling addiction. For example,
being convinced that food is high in calories (when it actually
isn't) can make our bodies respond as if we've eaten something
fattening - in effect, food can have "placebo calories".

I found this a very eye-opening and though-provoking book. By taking
into account the importance of expectations, we can find new
approaches to deal with problems and challenges.