For Christmas 2014, Mihaela gave me the best Christmas present I had gotten so far (and the first I remember, which makes some sense, growing up as a secular Jew) – A year’s subscription to Audible, a book per month. Since I walk around a lot, drive, and often go on day trips to catch a flight, audio is a perfect medium for me. So here are the books and lecture series I got with my subscription, ordered chronologically, and after them books and lecture series I got without my subscription:
- This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman (12 hrs and 4 mins) – 150 little snippets of ideas from some of the most prominent thinkers of today. Honestly, it’s pretty hard listening to this. It kind of failed in its purpose (for me). I couldn’t really listen to this while walking or driving since it took so much concentration for one snippet, and then the next one was on something completely different. I regard this as convincing proof that the unconscioussness exists. I enjoyed learning about evolutionary stable strategies: why in all species there’s about a 1:1 ratio of males to females. Oh, and there are almost as many people talking about natural selection as there are those who say that they won’t talk about natural selection, leaving it to someone else.
- Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution Modern Physics for Non Scientists 2nd Edition, The Great Courses, Richard Wolfson (12 hrs and 20 mins) – If you’re not familiar with the Great Courses company, I recommend you check them out. I’m a big fan. In this course I learnt about the experiments and thought experiments that started relativity and quantum theory. Pretty cool stuff. Like how time dilation was confirmed with two clocks in a tower. One small problem with the presentation is that the professor shouts a lot when he gets excited. But he’s ok.
- How Music Works, John Powell (8 hrs and 6 mins) – I thought there would be some more “how”. But yeah, I learnt some stuff. The nicest thing was to hear a banjo playing with the attack of each note removed. I heard of the phenomenon before, but didn’t experience it. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Then click… Nope. I couldn’t find a video showing this. Essentially, taking off the start of every note from a recording completely changes what instrument I think I’m listening to.
- How We Learn, The Great Courses, Monisha Pasupathi (11 hrs and 42 mins) – This is mostly a long list of ideas intertwined with experiments. I really like this kind of combination, with Plato pointing up and Aristotle pushing down, and I get to understand it all. The studies on how language affects thinking were enlightening, for example the one comparing how English and Korean speakers attend in language and in thought to how objects can fit in each other (McDonough, Choi, Mandler 2000) – language affects thought, but maybe it can be easily fixed. Small problem though, it seems that the audio was edited to have many silent bits, like two seconds of complete silence. Maybe she drank some water or coughed or I don’t know what. But this is disturbing. It feels weird to suddenly hear completely nothing, like you’ve went into a vacuum tunnel. But at x1.5 speed it’s not so bad…
- The Darwinian Revolution, The Great Courses, Frederik Gregory (12 hrs and 7 mins) – I had no idea. Well, I had some idea. I had heard the words evolution and natural selection before, but that’s about it. From the start I was surprised to find out how many people before Darwin thought about evolution, only missing out the final, crucial piece of natural selection. It’s also pretty cool that these days we know of epigenetics, which is pretty Lamarckian in my mind. Yey for Lamarck!
- Memory and the Human Life Span, The Great Courses, Steve Joordens (12 hrs and 2 mins) – I didn’t finish this one. The guy’s a bit boring. There isn’t enough a narrative of history, i.e. what experiments and studies were done that told us something.
- Biology: The Science of Life, The Great Courses, Stephen Nowicki ( 36 hrs and 36 mins) – It’s pretty long… I’ve left it and returned to it over seven months, and I’m about half way through. The course is usually interesting, but I think there are some hurdle-like lectures. I’m happy to say that I now really understand who Dolly the sheep was and how she came into this world. DNA is obviously amazing, but I’m also very impressed with how it was discovered, essentially just from a few images. This makes me think of Plato’s cave, and why I think he got it wrong: even if they showed us just shadows on a wall, sooner or later we’d be able to say what and how these shadows reflect, even if we can’t see the source directly.
- One More Thing, B. J. Novak (6 hrs and 20 mins) – Finally, fiction! At some point I realised that Mihaela wasn’t enjoying the lectures series as much as I was when we drove places. So I looked for fiction, short stories in particular. This book has a good balance of surrealism and cursing. But unlike lecture series on science, I wouldn’t want to spoil any of the stories for you. Suffices to say that the audio snippet you can preview on the Audible website does not capture how much humour there is in the book. Which is a lot.
- 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (15 hrs and 34 mins) – A work of fiction about some philosophical ideas. It also touches on what is community, our sense of it, and how annoying accademia can be. Close to the book’s ending there is a debate between two characters, the main and a new one. It’s kind of weird. I’m not entirely sure what I think about this book.
- A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, Robert Sapolsky (14 hrs and 35 mins) – I’ve already talked about this book here.
- The History of Jazz, 2nd Edition, Ted Gioia (21 hrs and 59 mins) – I’m still at the beginning. It’s just a little bit boring. But I’ve heard it gets better and all in all is very interesting stuff.
During the year I also listened to a few other books and lecture series, not through my Audible account:
- The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales, Dr. Oliver Sacks (9 hrs and 36 mins) – Each tale is one to remember, and they all made me think. Mihaela finds Sacks’ going on and on a bit tiring sometimes, and I partially agree with her. But c’mon, this book is awesome. It has introduced me to the outskirts of mental health in a most human way. I particularly like the story about the ex-soldier with Korsakoff syndrome, who can’t remember anything new, and yet knows the layout of the garden outside the facility.
- Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, The Great Courses, Robert Greenberg (18 hrs and 23 mins) – The professor spends enough time to build my understanding of each of them. I’m delighted to know that no. 24 is one of Beethoven’s favorite, mostly for its simplicity, contrasting it with the rest. I would have enjoyed lengthier discussions on no. 31, which is one of my favorites (if I had to name two, I would say nos. 31 and 32).
- No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, The Great Courses, Robert C. Solomon (12 hrs and 7 mins) – Yes! I can now understand much more Existential Comics! I really like Camus’ reaction to the absurd. But I am conflicted with regards to Sartre’s idea of responsibility. I’m just not sure what that means. Videos like this one, with Robert Sapolsky and Alan Alda, only make it worse (though it is fun to think about all of this).
- Stress and Your Body, The Great Courses, Robert Sapolsky (12 hrs and 19 mins) – Loved it. I’ve already talked about it here.
- Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues, The Great Courses, Michael Sugrue (12 hrs and 2 mins) – Yes! Now I understand even more Existential Comics. But really, I understand quite a lot more. A great advantage I got from this course is knowing to attribute many ideas I had heard of before to Plato’s Socrates. This has helped organise my thoughts on many things, and also with the ability to now search and learn more. I like Plato’s idea of the doctor – one who knows what is sickness, but also, crucially, what is health. Thinking of modern psychology, for example, this leads to requiring the knowledge of positive psychology and not just pathology. In this context Plato’s idea is very concrete.
- Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos, The Great Courses, Steven Pollock (12 hrs and 10 mins) – After listening to the relativity and quantum theory lectures I knew that I would have to find more stuff to listen to in order to satisfy my new physics lust. Nathan showed me some lectures on YouTube on particle physics that seemed intriguing, so I knew what to look for. The course is pretty cool, again with a good combination of ideas and historical experiments. I was impressed by the neutrino experiments, putting large bodies of chlorine inside a mine and literally getting an image of the centre of the sun. The professor is enthusiastic and stuff, but he got on my nerves a few times. He called Aristotle an armchair philosopher. He said Democrats was wrong, since atoms can be divided (though later in the course he implicitly corrects this). He keeps calling Emmy Neother by her full name, mispronouncing it, even though he calls all males “Mr.”. And why is he calling them “Mr.”?
- Bossypants, Tina Fey (5 hrs and 30 mins) – It’s cute. Funny at times. The only story that made me lough out loud is the one about her daughter buying a book about a working mother. The punchline is fantastic.
- The Martian, Andy Weir (10 hrs and 53 mins) – I don’t know why I listened to this. I think it was an attrition game against myself.
All together, without including repeat listens, this adds up to 194 hours and 13 minutes of listening. On average this means 31 minutes and 56 seconds every day. Huh. In the introductions of The Great Courses the guy says something like “imagine what you can accomplish with just half an hour every day”. I guess I don’t need to imagine anymore.
Here’s what I’m listening to now and what I plan to listen to soon:
- The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Great Courses, Kathleen M. Higgins, Robert C. Solomon
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker
- Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide, The Great Courses, Scott Huettel
- The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, The Great Courses, Allen C. Guelzo, Gary W. Gallagher, Patrick N. Allitt
- The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Awakenings, Oliver Sacks
- The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, Steven Pinker
Have you listened to anything good recently? Drop a comment!