May. 4th, 2012

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Finished Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (2/5).

The premise of this book is a charming one: many of the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington, were avid gardeners. What lessons can their passion teach us?

These individuals do, indeed, have lessons to teach us, but, it seems, not quite a book's worth. These founding fathers embraced an ideal which held up the independent, innovative, beauty loving farmer as the ideal citizen (indeed, for Jefferson, this was the only type of citizen that a republic can be built upon). However, they never quite seem to grapple with the problem that the unification of these traits presupposes an education and resources not available to all.

The second lesson, and the one that resonates as a more relevant legacy today, was a pragmatic environmentalism. Although not environmentalists in the modern sense, these founding fathers saw the importance of the environment to both the economy and spirit of the United States. They were interested in reducing the use of fertility destroying farming techniques, finding new and useful plans in the American wilds, and collecting species for the sheer love of their beauty and grandeur.

The passages and sources which elaborate these views are scattered amidst sometimes tedious descriptions of minutia. Fort hose who like reading descriptions of gardens, this may be interesting. I was left bored.

Overall, it was a pleasant read, but not really worth more than half its length.
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Finished Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (2/5) [1].

Sometimes, you can read a book and see how other people like it without eing terribly fond of it yourself. This was my experience with Foucault's Pendulum.

I think it was partially structural. I tend to get less enjoyment from books that start at the climax and then spend a lot of time looking back to how that climate was reached. I also tend to like a good dose of story in my fiction, and the story was spread thin here.

Overall, not a bad read, but not really my thing.
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Finished 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman (3/5).

Books in the self help genre tend to promise quick fixes grounded in little evidence (and, not uncommonly, contradicting actual evidence). Psychological literature sometimes has validated advice, but much of it, not surprisingly, requires a large investment of time and effort. Wiseman wanted to share the scientifically validated but easy to apply tips that people could use to improve their lives.

The number of quick tips which have evidence behind them are few and lack the miraculous impact self help books promise. In this single volume, Wiseman covers many of the stable topic of self help -- happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, stress, relationships, decision making, parenting, and personality. It works out to only about 30 pages per topic (compare that to the shelves of self help books on each topic).

You can read the book if you want more background, but here's a taste[1]:
  • Listing things you are grateful for or things that have gone well increases happiness
  • Acts of kindness, even small ones, increase happiness. Donate, give blood, buy a surprise gift.
  • Placing a mirror in front of people when they are choosing food reduces consumption of unhealthy food
  • Plants in the office seem to boost creativity. Possibly by reducing stress and improving moods
  • Write about your deepest feelings about your relationships to increase the odds of the relationship lasting. Writing tends to remind people of all the good things about the relationship.
  • People lie less over recorded communication media (like email). 
  • When speaking, liars tend to have less detail, use more ummms and aaahs, and use less self reference words (I, me, my)
  • Praise a child's effort, not their ability. 
  • Visualize yourself working through the process of achieving your goal rather than the actual success. Visualization from a third person perspective seems to be more effective.
Some criticisms: The first is specific to the quality of this as an audio book. Many of the "In 59 seconds" summaries at the end of each chapter involve forms or checklists. These make for tedious listening, and it's not very useful to just have them in audio. It would have been nice for the audio book to come with supplementary material for all of these forms.

I don't know if it's the author or the research community, but the chapters on relationships and attraction seem to exude a subtle sexism. Almost all of the tips and studies mentioned describe men as active agents and woman as passive agents. This active/passive division was not the conclusion of some study (and, therefore, worth considering even if I don't like the result). Rather, they were baked into the setup of the studies. For example, a couple of studies focused on how various factors such as a man's confidence or a woman's breast size affected behavior in a night club (results were not surprising). In each of these studies, regardless of what was being varied, the researchers decided to use a setup where men were always the approachers and woman the approached. This was, to put it mildly, annoying.

Finally, this is a book that you should read for its content, not the quality of its writing. It's not bad, but it can be formulaic.

Since I tend to prefer books categorized as "psychology" over those categorized as "self help", many of these tips were not new to me. However, if you want a concise look at the science of improving your life, this book fulfills that goal.

[1] Dear Amazon/Audible, when I buy the audio version of a book, it would be really nice if I were allowed full text capabilities on the
Search Inside version when it exists. Pretty please?

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Erika RS

May 2012

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