Book review: Zen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

Zen in the Age of AnxietyZen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clear your mind, relax, and read this review.

Zen in the Age of Anxiety is a guidebook and teaching manual that focuses on how to deal with stress, anxiety, and address the underlying mental behaviours that cause them. Burkett lays out the teachings and key points with easy to follow explanations and a series of anecdotes from his +50 years as a Zen practitioner and draws on his background in psychology.

This was a very interesting book. I originally borrowed a copy from the library because I’d previously read Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing. Okay, a bit of a leap between the two, but Zen teachings have their roots in Buddhism, which in turn has roots in the Dao (Tao), something Burkett mentions in passing. There are a lot of helpful insights and practices in this book that could help most people in their lives. At the very least, it was interesting to read something with such a different perspective on life.

My only gripe was a minor one. A lot of practices and philosophies, especially those with “Eastern” origins, tend to be tied up with spiritualism and mysticism. As a result, there tends to be a blending of nonsense (both ancient and modern) with the good stuff. As an example, in a later chapter, there is an example given that involves an analogy with how vaccines and homoeopathy work. Except that it incorrectly describes how vaccines work, and incorrectly describes homoeopathy as working at all. So best to use a critical eye when reading.

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Book review: American Assassin by Vince Flynn

American Assassin (Mitch Rapp, #1)American Assassin by Vince Flynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently, covert operations groups keep an eye out for future killers on lacrosse teams.*

Mitch Rapp lost his high school sweetheart in the Pan Am Lockerbie terrorist attack. He then dedicates himself to becoming a covert operative to kill terrorists rather than grieve and move on to a professional sports career. For some reason, the government decide Rapp is totally mentally stable and they should train him to become an assassin and hope that decision doesn’t backfire.**

Okay, so I’m being a little unkind in my review of American Assassin. Flynn’s book is a pretty solid thriller with plenty of action. It avoids the common flaw of these sorts of thrillers by not painting the terrorists as one-dimensional zealots. Even the decidedly gauche flag-waving moments that any book with “American” in the title is obliged to have are well handled. As long as you accept the basic premise – that Rapp is awesome because everyone around him says so, despite Rapp himself being a rather bland character – you have a good time.

But ultimately this book fails to actually put a character arc in for Rapp. College athlete turns into an assassin should involve some sort of an arc, but Rapp just kinda glides through. At some points, Rapp is even described as not pushing himself, because this gruelling training is just that easy for him. That makes American Assassin all feel a bit flat.

*Think how many school shootings they’d be preventing if they were keeping an eye out for budding killers!

**Which it kinda does. I don’t know what happens in later books in this series, but you’d have to conclude from this one that Rapp will be a loose cannon.

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Book review: Hombre by Elmore Leonard

HombreHombre by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So now you want to ride with me. I’m sure I won’t regret this…

John Russell is headed back to “civilisation”* on the last stagecoach headed north. Some of the folks onboard think Russell is an “Indian”* and don’t want to ride with him. But when bandits come for the stolen money one of the other passengers has with him, suddenly they want to ride with Russell.

Since this is an Elmore Leonard story, I really expected more from it. There isn’t anything bad about it, but this is far from Leonard’s best. It reminded me of a collection of Leonard’s short stories I own and how his best stories were immediately memorable, while the rest feel like just so many words in comparison.

It surprised me to learn that this story was turned into a Paul Newman film in the 60s. Given the positive reviews the movie has, it may be better than the book.

*I’ve used these terms as they relate to the text despite them being inaccurate.

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Book Review: Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition

Great Minds of the Western Intellectual TraditionGreat Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition by Darren M. Staloff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That moment when you realise there is an age-old profession for people who want to tell others that their way of thinking is the best.

Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition is an 84 lecture course on Western Philosophy. It covers the usual suspects while drawing in contemporary or subsequent criticisms, and it also adds in a few more modern thinkers (see links below for the full list). There is the added benefit that no one lecturer covers more than a few topics, so you get many perspectives and expert insights.

I’ve been on the road a lot lately and so +40 hours of audiobook seemed like a suitable way to keep myself entertained. There is also a good chance I learnt something, even if that thing was that even university lecturers pronounce Satre and Nietzsche incorrectly, just like everyone else.

It’s hard to offer up a substantial review of such a diverse mix of topics, lectures, lecturers, and background reading. I think some of the material was presented without enough critical examination (e.g. Nozik’s propositions are only dealt with on a superficial level and aren’t critiqued for how easily they would break down thanks to power accumulation), whilst other parts offered insights I wouldn’t have made otherwise (e.g. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is clarified as being about “your best self”, which makes his work much more palatable).

The summary I’d offer is that I feel more educated. Do the course and you’ll understand how hilarious that sentence is.

The course: https://www.thegreatcourses.com.au/co…
The list of lectures included: https://www.scribd.com/doc/159220021/…

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Book review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

AutonomousAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Future slavery gets around slavery laws by cleverly using a different word.

Jack reverse engineers pharmaceuticals so that poor people can afford life-saving drugs. She reverse engineered a new wonder work drug but finds out too late that a BigPharma company made it 100% addictive, and now people are dying. In this (dystopian) future, intellectual property and patents are protected by private armies with killer robots. One agent and his bot, Eliasz and Paladin, are hunting Jack down for her crimes as she is desperately trying to engineer a treatment for the addictive drug.

This book was difficult to review. As a novel, the writing, plotting, characters, and themes are all interesting and well done. On that basis, it is a solid 4-star book. But there was quite a bit about the premise and key plot devices/points that had me making squinty faces as my scepticism was triggered. And the more I think about those points and the premise, the more flaws I see with them.

For example, slavery is a theme discussed for humans and bots – giving rise to the title of the book. In the future companies and governments were so clever they were able to reintroduce* slavery by calling it “indentured”. This felt lazy and unrealistic. Especially since there was another part of this idea explored with franchising – parents paying to set their kids up with an education and ability to get a job – that extrapolates on the current situation for haves vs have-nots and draws upon the criticisms of capitalism. To my mind, the two ideas don’t sit together that well and meant the latter idea was wasted.

Others had some interesting things to say about the bot-human relationship. Suffice to say, it could have been done a bit better.

I suppose I was disappointed with this book. For a novel that was so well written and had clearly had a lot of thought put into it, Autonomous just couldn’t manage to drag itself away from lazy anti-corporate conspiracy ideas to the more interesting material it had on offer.

*It could be argued that slavery never stopped.

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Book review: Political Ideals by Bertrand Russell

Political IdealsPolitical Ideals by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading old books reminds you that nothing has changed.

Political Ideals is an essay Bertrand Russell wrote during World War 1 – stay tuned for WW3 – that offers critiques of capitalism, socialism, nationalism, politics, education, and offers insights into how we should go about building a better society. He does this in less than 100 pages.

Russell’s essay is filled with interesting and insightful ideas. Even if you disagree with any of them, there is value in engaging with what he is saying. E.g.:

“Few men seem to realize how many of the evils from which we suffer are wholly unnecessary, and that they could be abolished by a united effort within a few years. If a majority in every civilized country so desired, we could, within twenty years, abolish all abject poverty, quite half the illness in the world, the whole economic slavery which binds down nine-tenths of our population; we could fill the world with beauty and joy, and secure the reign of universal peace. It is only because men are apathetic that this is not achieved, only because imagination is sluggish, and what always has been is regarded as what always must be. With good-will, generosity, intelligence, these things could be brought about.” Source.

This quote has been paraphrased, rephrased, and appropriated by many in the last century (although, I’m sure these thoughts weren’t original when he wrote them). It shows Russell’s reputation as a founder of modern analytic philosophy and as having made significant contributions to many subjects is well deserved. Few could so concisely state such a complex social idea.

Worth a read, even if you disagree with Russell on some or all points.

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Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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