Friday, June 28, 2013

"Subliminal" by Leonard Mlodinow

It seems like a wave of "psychology of the mind" books have come out recently--or at least I've read a number of them, including Thinking, Fast and Slow in particular. This means that each new book on the subject I read treads at least some of the same material as books before, dampening the pleasure I might otherwise get from that material. For that reason, I didn't enjoy Subliminal as much as I might have if I hadn't read Thinking, Fast and Slow, as the two cover significantly similar material.

Both books concern the division of our minds into conscious and unconscious thought (termed "System 1" and "System 2" by Kahneman). Not surprisingly, though the human mind has extraordinary abilities, it's also subject to a lot of errors, even though we're not aware of this. A lot of the early material in Subliminal echoes Kahneman, but where Mlodinow differs is in his discussion of the social ramifications of our unconscious responses. For example, all people are unconsciously biased to favor traits similar to their own. This helps explain why discrimination is so pervasive, but it also shows that rarely is such behavior malicious.

Mlodinow brings up a number of interesting points, but at times he fails to make connections that seem important to me. For example, he talks about the importance of facial recognition in our evolution--to the point where a blind person (a person whose eyes function but whose brain has been damaged in such a way that the person cannot see) can often recognize expressions. Yet, a little later, Mlodinow explains the massive errors present in eye witness line-ups. I don't doubt that these two facts are reconcilable, but I would have liked to read an explanation in the book.

Similarly, Mlodinow recounts an anecdote where his "gut feeling" saved his life, saying "that [unconscious] advice can often save us, if we are willing to open ourselves to the input" (45). But, again, he goes on to argue (as Kahneman does) that we are often enormously influenced by irrelevant unconscious input. How do we tease apart when to trust the "gut" and when to doubt our judgments?

Though it's not a self-help book, there are certainly areas where I'd love some advice. Mlodinow argues that "Teachers' expectations greatly affect their students' academic performance, even when the teachers try to treat them impartially" (113). As a teacher, I know this has to be the case, whether I'm planning for a college prep class versus an AP or writing essays with a failing student and a straight-A student. Yet if their performance is effected even if I try to be impartial, what am I supposed to do?

There was also some fascinating material about personal beliefs that I'd hope could be put to use in our current political climate. Writes Mlodinow:
When someone with a political bias or vested interest sees a situation differently than we do, we tend to think that person is deliberately misinterpreting the obvious to justify their politics or to bring about some personal gain. But through motivated reason each side finds ways to justify its favored conclusion and discredit the other, while maintaining a belief in its own objectivity. (209)
I know how challenging it is for me to recognize this, or, even harder, to acknowledge that I am not always objective myself. Mlodinow sums it up well by saying:
Our culture likes to portray situations in black and white. Antagonists are dishonest, insincere, greedy, evil. They are opposed by heroes who are the opposite in terms of those qualities. But the truth is, from criminals to greedy executives to the "nasty" guy down the street, people who act in ways we abhor are usually convinced that they are right. (212)
We are very biased in how we view ourselves, which is most obvious in studies asking people to rate themselves as "below average," "average," or "above average" in things like driving or interpersonal skills. Nearly everyone rates him or herself as average or above--a statistical impossibility.

Subliminal is an interesting book (though I could do without the cheesy jokes), especially if you haven't read much in the field yet.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Insurgent" by Veronica Roth

Insurgent is the sequel to Divergent, a YA book that, while not making up for the post-Hunger Games lack of compelling YA, did give me some glimpses into what exciting dystopian YA could be. The sequel isn't bad, but it also suffers from some of the same problems as Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

In Insurgent, we follow Dauntless faction member and divergent Tris in her fight against the faction Erudite, which has developed technology for remotely controlling other people. Tris is still with Tobias (aka Four), though each of them are keeping secrets from each other--namely, for Tris, that she killed Will (a friend and fellow Dauntless) while Will was being controlled under a simulation.

As a character, Tris is frustrating in many of the ways that YA protagonists are, though some of her more annoying qualities are, at least, explainable. Namely, she has the tendency to brood incessantly over her guilt and make rash sacrificial decisions. Both make sense in context of her being divergent: both Dauntless and Abnegation. She grew up being taught to value others over herself, so clearly killing Will in self-defense would weigh heavily on her. It also explains her suicide mission to Erudite later in the novel, even though the Erudite part of her should have weighed in enough to show that it was pointless.

Even more frustrating, though, was the descent in character. In my review of Mockingjay, I complained that I felt betrayed by Katniss' change of character in the last book: she loses all agency and spends most of the time locked up and crying. The same is true of Tris. In Divergent, Tris had insecurities and doubts, but she also had confidence in herself and made important decisions. She and Tobias supported one another, each helping the other through his or her fears. However, in Insurgent, the capable part of Tris is largely gone. She relies on Tobias constantly for assurance, without him needing reciprocation. She often sits around, waiting to be rescued, or is injured and out of commission. Her big mission at the end (again, eerily reminiscent of Katniss' useless mission at the end of Mockingjay) seems unnecessary, its need explained into reality rather than being organic to the situation.

At the same time, a lack of clear direction for the novel also gums up the storyline. We learn early on that there's a big secret that Jeanine, the leader of Erudite, is killing to protect. This "huge" secret is bandied about the entire book, and finally revealed in the end. However, the "truth" makes little sense (spoiler: it's much like the big reveal of The Maze Runner) and doesn't really seem to support the characters' actions.

I listened to the audiobook version of Insurgent, so perhaps I missed details that would have enhanced my enjoyment. I didn't dislike the book, but it also wasn't especially compelling.

Stray thoughts:
- I'm continually annoyed by YA in which characters who obviously would have sex in real life don't (in Insurgent, there's lots of kissing and grasping at t-shirt hems). I know sex is still fairly taboo in the genre, but c'mon: the characters are alone, without any adult supervision, and their world is more or less ending. I'm gonna sleep with my hot boyfriend.
- Tobias makes a big speech about how he won't stay with Tris if she recklessly risks her life again. And then she does. And he doesn't even mention it. So, I guess that was a pointless conversation?
- There was a really annoying alliterative nickname Tris and other Dauntless had for one of the places at which they stayed, and I can't remember what it is. It's driving me crazy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

First, a tangent, though I do think it circles back appropriately... This past Saturday, my husband and I needed to run a bunch of errands--pick up a dress from the tailor, go to Banana Republic, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Michaels, and visit several furniture stores we'd never been to before. A few minutes before heading out, I plugged all the locations into GoogleMaps, reorganized the stops to minimize our driving time, and we were off, typing in the addresses in my GPS as we went along. And at some point I started thinking about how much more time such a trip would have taken pre-Internet. Looking up stores in phone books; trying to find addresses on a map; having to call and get verbal directions; stopping at stores along the way when we got lost. The Internet (and computers and cell phones and GPS units...) have made navigating our world so much easier, but, in doing so, have they also made us much less clever and resourceful?

Now, this is obviously not a new question, but it's a question that's key to Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which pits the power of Google (literally) against human ingenuity and resourcefulness. In the novel, Clay is a recession-era unemployed young person, who agrees to be night clerk at a mysterious, and primarily customer-less, 24-hour used bookstore. At the same time he meets Kat, an up-and-coming programmer at Google, he also discovers that certain books in the store contain a type of code--which he inadvertently cracks one evening using a computer program. This leads to a secret cultish society, running around New York's hackerdom, a cardboard digital camera, and using the entirety of Google's servers for three seconds (among other things).

A bad analogy would be to call the novel a kind of techie, less annoying Da Vinci Code, though it's not nearly as puzzle driven. Instead, perhaps, it's more an ode to "cool"--both the cool that is Google, and the cool that is making a miniature in-detail town in your living room. The Google love can be a bit heavy, to the point where (close to manic pixie dream girl trope) Kat can be pretty annoying, though Google probably can do (nearly) everything, so I suppose I can't say anything. Also, everyone in the novel is pretty much absolutely amazing at everything... doesn't everyone need some dumb friends?

Speaking of characters, Clay, Kat, and the rest--Mr. Penumbra, Clay's childhood friend Neel, kinda-villain Corvina--are all fairly flat. They're hipsters (well, okay, Mr. Penumbra and Corvina are old, so they're not, but all the young characters are) who have plenty of time and money to go on adventures and be into weird things the rest of us are too "square" to get (a month away from thirty and see how curmudgeonly I get?).

But, back to the initial question. So, does the power of the Internet win over that darn human mind? Of course not. In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Google is awesome, but the brain (and friendship!) still triumph technological brawn. Way to have a boring response to a pretty interesting question.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Though I read (and enjoyed) the Lord of the Rings trilogy back in high school, I never got around to reading The Hobbit. My husband and I rented the new movie a few weeks back, and though I wasn't especially impressed (I fell asleep, though I'll chalk that up to not being in the mood rather than the movie itself), I did want to try the book.

As most everyone knows, The Hobbit is aimed at children, which gives it a different tone from LOTR. In fact, perhaps this is one of the reasons the movie didn't work as much for me--Peter Jackson is trying to continue the epic seriousness of the LOTR movies with a story that just doesn't match it. Instead, The Hobbit is much goofier as Bilbo and the dwarves fight imbecile trolls or Bilbo plays around with his invisibility ring. (An aside on that--in the LOTR movies, the ring is a heavy burden for Frodo; he wears it reluctantly, and it takes a huge psychological toll on him as he carries it. That doesn't seem to be the case in The Hobbit. Bilbo wears the ring frequently, for long periods of time, with no ill effect. Is that an issue of the movies changing things? [I don't remember the LOTR books well enough.] Or does the ring's power change later on with the rise of Sauron?)

Even the quest at the heart of The Hobbit has little weight. Bilbo and the dwarves aren't trying to save the world--they're trying to steal the dwarves' treasure back from the dragon Smaug. Though I suppose things in the end are for the best (no surprise, the dragon is killed, and eventually all the evil goblins are too, though that's never the original purpose), you could argue the troop's actions largely cause more harm than good (and the good that does happen isn't really because of them). And of course, there's nothing wrong with telling this kind of story--I guess it was just unexpected, given the narrative in the LOTR.

And speaking of unexpected: the dragon's death. I just didn't get it. Bilbo and the dwarves set out to recapture their treasure--and presumably slay the dragon. They arrive at the dragon's mountain, they find the treasure, and then they hole up, deciding what to do. You figure the epic battle and dragon slayage will come soon. But, then, the dragon flies out to attack a village of men and some random guy (who, literally, Tolkien introduces in parentheses with "Bard was his name.") shoots an arrow and kills Smaug. It takes maybe one paragraph. And Bilbo and the dwarves aren't even there! What? You can't just kill the big evil so easily!

I suppose, once more, the issue may be more of my expectations being subverted than an actual criticism, but I just didn't know what to do with it. The dwarves are more stupid than heroic, though in contrast, Bilbo does appear all the more stronger.

So I didn't dislike the book, but it wasn't what I expected, and I imagine it's also vastly different than the movies Jackson is putting out.