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Wishing Yourself A Good Night

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of SleepDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

My Rating★★★☆☆

Wishing Yourself A Good Night

What do you do when you really don’t have much to tell on a subject, especially when you care a lot about it? You tell anecdotes and try to keep it interesting. Most neuroscience books these days tend to be packed with anecdotes that are weird, but on which there is no scientific consensus. The reader is left to his/her own devices on what to make of all the stories. This book is not much different. It starts with an admission that we know next to nothing about sleep – the activity that occupies 1/3rd of our lives.

The author sets off an a quest to discover more about his own sleep conditions and finds that he has fallen into a strange rabbit hole that exists just on the other side the pillow, and which most of are never aware of.

Once I started really thinking about sleep for the first time, the questions came in waves. Do men sleep differently than women? Why do we dream? Why is getting children to fall asleep one of the hardest parts of becoming a new parent, and is it this hard for everyone around the world? How come some people snore and others don’t? And what makes my body start sleepwalking, and why can’t I tell it to stop? Asking friends and family about sleep elicited a long string of “I don’t knows,” followed by looks of consternation, like the expressions you see on students who don’t know the answers to a pop quiz. Sleep, the universal element of our lives, was the great unknown. And frankly, that makes no sense.

A few take aways:

1. The Need for sleep:

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. We don’t know about sleep, and the book opens with the most obvious question of all—why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

Here we hear many horror stories of sleep-deprivation: Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbohydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experience visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is bound to end in severe consequences – including death. It is a bizarre downward spiral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped completely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.

2. The Amount of sleep:

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

3. The Stages of Sleep:

Researchers now say that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last stop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this type of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

4. The Ideal Pattern of Sleep (that you are not following):

Natural light is the way to go. Artificial light messes up your sleep patterns and the body pays for it in the long run. Post-Edison world has come close to banishing the night, but our bodies still live in a world where sun is the only source of light, and have all sorts of troubles processing artificial light induced sleep patters. More and more health problems are being tied to unnatural sleep patterns and Light Pollution.

Example: Electric light at night disrupts your circadian clock, the name given to the natural rhythms that the human body developed over time. When you see enough bright light at night, your brain interprets this as sunlight because it doesn’t know any better. The lux scale, a measure of the brightness of light, illustrates this point. One lux is equal to the light from a candle ten feet away. A standard 100-watt lightbulb shines at 190 lux, while the lighting in an average office building is 300 lux. The body’s clock can be reset by any lights stronger than 180 lux, meaning that the hours you spend in your office directly impact your body’s ability to fall asleep later. That’s because your body reacts to bright light the same way it does to sunshine, sending out signals to try to keep itself awake and delay the nightly maintenance of cleanup and rebuilding of cells that it does while you are asleep. Too much artificial light can stop the body from releasing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.

Poor sleep is just one symptom of an unwound body clock. Circadian rhythms are thought to control as many as 15 percent of our genes. When those genes don’t function as they should because of the by-products of artificial light, the effects are a rogue’s gallery of health disorders. Studies have linked depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer to overexposure to light at night. Researchers know this, in part, from studying nurses who have spent years working the graveyard shift. One study of 120,000 nurses found that those who worked night shifts were the most likely to develop breast cancer. Another found that nurses who worked at least three night shifts a month for fifteen years had a 35 percent greater chance of developing colon cancer. The increased disease rates could not be explained as a by-product of working in a hospital.

In one of the most intriguing studies, researchers in Israel used satellite photos to chart the level of electric light at night in 147 communities. Then, they placed the satellite photos over maps that showed the distribution of breast cancer cases. Even after controlling for population density, affluence, and other factors that can influence health, there was a significant correlation between exposure to artificial light at night and the number of women who developed the disease. If a woman lived in a place where it was bright enough outside to read a book at midnight, she had a 73 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than a peer who lived in a neighborhood that remained dark after the sun went down. Researchers think that the increased risk is a result of lower levels of melatonin, which may affect the body’s production of estrogen.

There could be more discoveries on the horizon that show detrimental health effects caused by artificial light. Researchers are interested in how lights have made us less connected to the changing of the seasons. “We’ve deseasonalized ourselves,” Wehr, the sleep researcher, said. “We are living in an experiment that is finding out what happens if you expose humans to constant summer day lengths.”

5. What Should Be Your Sleep Schedule?

In the Canterbury Tales, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale” wakes up in the early morning following her “first sleep” and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth-century medical book, meanwhile, advised readers to spend the “first sleep” on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for serious study. Sleep, it seems, wasn’t always the one long block that we consider it today.

This natural mode of sleep sounds weird to the post-Edison world of artificial lights and 6 hour sleep cycles. But it was a fact of life that was once as common as eating breakfast.

For most of human history, every night, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until sometime after midnight. This was the “first sleep” that kept popping up in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning—the so-called second sleep. The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex. The last one was perhaps the most popular.

Experiments confirm this tendency: Thomas Wehr, who worked for the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was struck by the idea that the ubiquitous artificial light we see every day could have some unknown effect on our sleep habits. On a whim, he deprived subjects of artificial light for up to fourteen hours a day in hopes of re-creating the lighting conditions common to early humans. Without lightbulbs, televisions, or street lamps, the subjects in his study initially did little more at night than sleep. They spent the first few weeks of the experiment like kids in a candy store, making up for all of the lost sleep that had accumulated from staying out late at night or showing up at work early in the morning. After a few weeks, the subjects were better rested than perhaps at any other time in their lives.

That was when the experiment took a strange turn. Soon, the subjects began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour or so, and then fall back asleep again. It was the same sort of segmented sleep that Ekirch found in the historical records. While sequestered from artificial light, subjects were shedding the sleep habits they had formed over a lifetime. It was as if their bodies were exercising a muscle they never knew they had. The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life. Not long after Wehr published a paper about the study, Ekirch contacted him and revealed his own research findings.

Numerous other studies have shown that splitting sleep into two roughly equal halves is something that our bodies will do if we give them a chance. In places of the world where there isn’t artificial light—and all the things that go with it, like computers, movies, and bad reality TV shows—people still sleep this way. In the mid-1960s, anthropologists studying the Tiv culture in central Nigeria found that group members not only practiced segmented sleep, but also used roughly the same terms of first sleep and second sleep.

6. Sleep & Performance

The places where most of the cutting edge research happens and great places to understand the importance of sleep is the Military and Sports fields – areas where human excellence, endurance and performance is pushed to the limits. It stands to reason that these fields notice the effects of sleep problems first. Many sports teams now take great trouble to make sure Light is adjusted to natural cycles, athletes get the full quota of sleep, etc. It s only a matter of time before rest of popular culture catches on – just like many health ides, diets, exercises etc.

7. Sleep Timings Change with Age:

The three basic stages of adulthood—teenage, middle age, old age—have drastically different sleep structures. Teenagers going through puberty find it impossible to fall asleep early and would naturally sleep past ten in the morning if given the choice. Their grandparents often fall asleep early in the night, but then find that they can’t stay that way for more than three or four hours at a time. Middle-aged adults typically fall between the middle of these two extremes, content to fall asleep early when circumstances allow it, yet able to pull an all-nighter when a work project calls for it. These overlapping shifts could be a way to ensure that someone in the family is always awake and keeping watch, or at least close to it. In this ancient system, it makes sense that older adults who are unable to move as fast as the rest of the family are naturally jumpy, never staying in deep sleep for long, simply because they were the most vulnerable to the unknown.

The other stage – babyhood is a time with no sleep structure at all. They sleep and wake up independent of the light/circadian rhythms. To the eternal consternation of all parents!

So human society is biologically designed to live in different time zones?!

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone—and then do the same thing every night, for four years. If professional football players had to do that, they would be lucky to win one game.

8. What Sort of Bed Should You Choose?

The biggest question—whether a bed should be hard or soft—has a long and confusing history. In 2008, the medical journal Spine seemed to settle the question of firmness. It found that there was little difference in back pain between those who slept on hard mattresses and those who slept on softer ones. How hard a person likes his or her bed is a personal preference and nothing more.

In fact, the bed that you find the most comfortable will most likely be the one that you are already sleeping on.

9. Forget The Bed – Sleep Hygiene Is What You Need

While a comfortable mattress may have little impact when it comes to sleep quality, there are several other aspects of the bedroom that do. Taken together, they form what specialists call sleep hygiene. Most are common sense.

- No coffee before bed / in the evening

- Nor is drinking alcohol before bedtime a smart move. Alcohol may help speed the onset of sleep, but it begins to take its toll during the second half of the night. As the body breaks down the liquid, the alcohol in the bloodstream often leads to an increase in the number of times a person briefly wakes up. This continues until the blood alcohol level returns to zero, thereby preventing the body from getting a full, deep, restorative sleep.

- Developing a few habits with the circadian rhythm in mind will most likely make sleep easier. Adequate exposure to natural light, for instance, will help keep the body’s clock in sync with the day-night cycle and prime the brain to increase the level of melatonin in the bloodstream, which will then bring on sleepiness around ten o’clock each night.

- By the same token, bright lights—including the blue-and-white light that comes from a computer monitor or a television screen—can deceive the brain, which registers it as daylight. Lying in bed watching a movie on an iPad may be relaxing, but the constant bright light from the screen can make it more difficult for some people to fall asleep afterward.

- Walk around your house and switch off all bright lights half an hour before you sleep, including the TV, the iPad and the laptop.

- Recent studies have shown that body temperature also plays an outsized role in getting decent sleep. Takes steps to have a comfortable temperature: Take a cold shower, etc.

- Even a small increase in the amount of exercise a person gets leads to measurable improvements in the time that it takes to fall asleep and stay that way. This is particularly true for older adults.

10. The Effort Is Worth Your Time

But, though its effects were subtle, devoting extra time and attention to this most basic of human needs impacted nearly every minute of my day. Because I was improving my sleep, I was improving my life. And all it took was treating sleep with the same respect that I already gave other aspects of my health. Just as I wouldn’t eat a plate of chili-cheese fries every day and expect to continue to fit into my pants, I structured my life around the idea that I couldn’t get only a few hours of sleep and expect to function properly. If there was one thing that I took away from my talks with experts more than any other, it is that getting a good night’s sleep takes work.

And that work is worth it. Health, sex, relationships, creativity, memories—all of these things that make us who we are depend on the hours we spend each night with our heads on the pillow. By ignoring something that every animal requires, we are left turning to pills that we may not need, experiencing health problems that could be tamed, and pushing our children into sleep-deprived lives that make the already tough years of adolescence more difficult. And yet sleep continues to be forgotten, overlooked, and postponed. Any step—whether it comes in the form of exercise, therapy, or simply reading a book like this one—that helps us to realize the importance of sleep inevitably pushes us toward a better, stronger, and more creative life.

Sleep, in short, makes us the people we want to be. All you have to do is close your eyes.

In addition to all the sleep advice, the best part of the book was the full-fledged dissing of poor Freud: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, scientists could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. – “None of Freud’s claims are true by any of our standards today,” Domhoff said, dipping his spoon into his yogurt. “If you look at dreams—if you really look at them like we have—then you see that it’s all there, out in the open. You don’t need any of these symbols.” He went on. “Freudians got all caught up in the idea that there were hidden meanings to our dreams. But their interpretations only worked because we share a system of figurative language and metaphor.”

The Short Summary

Too Lengthy for your tastes? Would reading such a big review eat into your sleep quota for today? Here is a Quick Summary:

1. Sleep for eight hours. Sleep is the natural repair mechanism of the body. If we mess with it, we are bound to have repair related diseases – such as cancer.
2. Follow the natural cycle and your circadian Rhythms. Dont live in perpetual jet lag conditions.
3. Sleep by around 8-9 and wake up at around 12, go back to sleep by 1 and wake by around 4-5 (add 2 hours if possible on either side)
- if you are older, you will need to sleep earlier to be able to fill your quota. it will be almost impossible to sleep late into the day as you age.
4. Avoid artificial lights while sleeping, make sure you are exposed to natural light
5. Relax yourself before sleep, make sure you get some exercise every day.
6. Don’t indulge in dangerous/delicate activities when sleep deprived. Sleep well for high performance.
7. Sleep properly to be more healthy in general – it affects all sorts of things in your body.
8. Don’t impose your sleep patterns on the rest of your family, esp when they are of another age. Dont impose adult sleep patters on kids.
9. Make sure your naps are always 90 minutes or longer. Take naps before important activities, or when stressed.

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Posted by on September 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing NeedsBuilding Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

My Rating★★★★☆

Is Yunus the only practicing (as in the type who never came across the proverbial armchair yet) nobel laureate in economics? (his field is, if not the nobel)

His ideas and beliefs are rooted in and grown from the experience of running what sounds like hundreds of companies and offshoots and sister concerns – almost all successful, launching an entire industry and redefining one of the oldest businesses of the world.

Yet, in spite of full awareness of the credentials of the author, everything inside a reader militates against the seemingly utopian picture Yunus paints. You want to shout at him: all this is fine but REALITY is different! But the reader forgets – Yunus has seen and succeeded in the stark reality of one of the poorest, most torn landscapes in the world and he is proving that the ‘reality’ that economics teaches us is a very constrained reality. All the talk of incentives being the fuel of the human growth engine fall flat. But you don’t give in, you keep drilling deep holes in every cheerful statement of Yunus throughout the introductory chapters, after all you have years of economic training to back you up.

Finally Yunus gets to the case studies, and you read on with growing astonishment that the very principles outlined earlier, the principles that you had in your economic wisdom so thoroughly cut into pieces, all seem to just work on the ground. You scratch your head and try to figure it out. Then you forget your criticism and congratulate yourself on your own positive outlook towards humanity. Until next time.

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the HumanitiesNot for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

My Rating★★★☆☆


Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.

Nussbaum wants to change this situation with this manifesto, with this call to action. With the very poignantly titled Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.”: a world-wide crisis in education. She focuses on two major educational systems to illustrate this: one in the grips of the crisis and in its death-row. The other carelessly hurtling towards it, undoing much of the good done before (and worse, the USA is a leader in most fields, and rest of the world may well follow where it leads).

What is this developing crisis? Nussbaum laments that the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers, parents and students as nothing but useless frills, and at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

This is most prevalent and inevitable in the placement-based institutions, especially the IITs and the IIMs and the newspapers that hawk their successes, that measure their success purely on the drama of placements and on the excess of the pay-packages. This sort of a higher education orientation also changes the early school cultures, with parents having no patience for allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success by getting into the IITs and the IIMs.

Nussbaum says that in these IITs and IIMs, instructors are most disturbed by their students’ deficient humanities preparation. It might be heartening that it is precisely in these institutions, at the heart of India’s profit-oriented technology culture, that instructors have felt the need to introduce liberal arts courses, partly to counter the narrowness of their students.

But it is not really so. Even as professors struggle to introduce such courses, as students at IIM, we have an all-encompassing word for anything that comes anywhere close to the humanities: “GLOBE”, and boy don’t we love using it. This throughly derogatory terms sums up the purely career-minded, profit-driven orientation of education in India’s elite institutions. I now feel a sense of complete despair at every laugh shared in the use of this expression. With the standards of success thus set, is it any wonder that the culture is seeping across the education spectrum?

After this dispiriting survey of Indian education, Nussbaum says that the situation is not as bad yet in the US due to an existing strong humanities culture in the higher institutions, but issues the below caveat:

We in the United States can study our own future in the government schools of India. Such will be our future if we continue down the road of “teaching to the test,” neglecting the activities that enliven children’s minds and make them see a connection between their school life and their daily life outside of school. We should be deeply alarmed that our own schools are rapidly, heedlessly, moving in the direction of the Indian norm, rather than the reverse.

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World LooksOn the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A collection of entertaining anecdotes. Not particularly mind expanding, not at all knowledge-expanding, unfortunately. One good sample tidbit is that the popular ‘Hic sunt dracones’ (here there be dragons) is just a misrepresentation, those words never permeated medieval maps after all. Another is the origin of the expression ‘orienting oneself’. If the bulk of the anecdotes were similarly obscure or offbeat, the book might have been worth it. The poetical intro by Dava Sobel is the best chapter. Not for Mapheads, this one. Not the right kinda trivia.

Another tidbit for the curious (from the second best chapter in the book): Steinberg’s Manhattanite’s view of the world – the precursor to many of the maps that invade your facebook timelines periodically.

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“The parody has been parodied many times, but the best modern parallel, and certainly the rudest, is to be found in the work of the much travelled Bulgarian graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov. Tsvetkov, who works under the name Alphadesigner, may well have constructed the most offensive and cynical atlas in the world, all of it stereotypical, some of it funny. His Mercator projection entitled The World According to Americans showed a Russia labelled simply ‘Commies’, and a Canada labelled ‘Vegetarians’. He has also produced the Ultimate Bigot’s Supersize Calendar of the World, which includes Europe According to the Greeks. In this one, the bulk of European citizens live in the ‘Union of Stingy Workaholics’, while the UK is categorised as ‘George Michael’.”

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Posted by on August 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Economist Presents: Economics: Making Sense of the Modern Economy by Simon Cox

Economics: Making Sense of the Modern EconomyEconomics: Making Sense of the Modern Economy by Simon Cox

My Rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is easy to be stunned by the manifest foresight that a book like this can showcase. But the reader has to remember that in a magazine like The Economist, a number of contrasting ideas about the current world economy would always be sloshing around. To later make a selective compilation of those articles that proved to be ‘prophetic’ is an exercise in exclusion that is designed to present a false sense of confidence or analytical foresight. Just because a collection of articles from a magazine turned out to be quite close to the mark, there is no reason to believe that any random article you might pick up from this week’s Economist will be of equal predictive value.

I have nothing against the magazine or the book. I greatly enjoy the magazine and to a more moderate extent liked the book as well. But the blatantly triumphant endnotes trumpeting the date of each article and a further note on how the world actually played out was grating to say the least.

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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in Books

 

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Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

My Rating★★★★★

It is hard to put a finger on what this book tries to do but it does something important. It narrates history in a detached way without giving any undue importance to the ‘major’ events. It is one of those rare instances when its brevity is the greatest strength of a historical narrative. It is not that lacks in detail detailed, don’t get me wrong here. It does go on about how people did things to each other and developed theories about each other, about how people and nations thought and acted, about large numbers and statistics of war, and about how absurd it all was. It never says in so many words that it was absurd, of course. But it makes you realize that when history is told by someone who has (or seems/ attempts to seem) no agenda or alliances or a spirit of inquiry or even an interest in educating the readers (etc.) but is just told, told as if it is just something that happened – then that narrative has the power to show you how small everything was and how collectively we are a bunch of such magnificent buffoons. There is a touch of Douglas Adams in there somewhere, in that humor and in the sad irony that keeps on putting a half-smile on the reader’s face despite the subject matter being dealt with (Hint: I am not talking of Adams’ sci-fi books here). It is only apt that Ouředník is also the translator of Beckett and Queneau and perhaps most pertinently, of Rabelais.

This should be required reading for students of History – even as we learn about the great nations and the of great wars and of the heroes and of the generals and of the great science and its advances and of turning points and tragedies, we should also learns perspective and learn that history was just about a large bunch of people making decisions that would always seem absurd (like the proverbial best-laid schemes…) to everyone but themselves – either to other countries or at least to posterity . And that would be a valuable lesson… I am not doing justice to this, as I said it is hard to put a finger on what this book does. Just read it?

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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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