Thursday, July 26, 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein (Joshua Foer, 9:31) I resisted this book for a couple of years, even though it's a well-written discussion of memory, the palace inhabited by the human brain's monarch. Foer (the Safran's younger brother) goes all-in with mental athletes, who pride themselves on mastering techniques to quickly memorize. Foer opens with the discovery by the ancient Greeks of the imagine-linking trick called the "memory palace." Effectively, one visualizes a familiar physical space, and links each idea to be remembered with a locus. (This linkage is explicit in the term "topic" which originally meant "place" (topoi in Greek).) Even though Foer recurrently discusses the classical provenance of the discipline of memory tricks, he never mentions the one place where memory prodigies are still revered, namely, in fundamentalist Islam. But this is a participant's report, with a lot of insight into how tricks can work with sufficient deliberate practice. It's relevant to hear Foer admit that even after becoming a virtual master (and US memory champion in 2006), he still frequently lapses into not exerting the effort required to burn items into his memory. That means both that memorizing isn't really a muscle, and perhaps more interestingly, that using the skills of locating ideas in an imagined visualization moves the native talent away from memory, toward imagination.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You Know when the Men are Gone

You Know when the Men are Gone (Siobhan Fallon, 5:51) This author won recognition, even prior to publishing her first novel, as one of the most noteworthy to the New Yorker. The prose is tight in this book (which is actually a thematically integrated set of short stories set in Fort Hood, TX). The longing of the left-behind, and the brutal impact on families when the soldiers return, is displayed in stark and undeniable clarity.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man (Graham Farmelo, 19:42) Paul Dirac won't come back. Other than the name behind the Dirac equation, I only knew of his famous remoteness, and dimly recall Feynman talking about the shortness of their conversation while he worked away on QED. This book explains his life with warmth, and the author has captured records of all of the few times he did open up, revealing to someone that his childhood was torture. It's impossible to know if it was in fact horrible, or whether his quasi-autistic personality caused it to be felt as excruciating. It's somewhat moot, at this remove, but it's necessary to maintain some objectivity about his feelings. My favorite story is apparently widely quoted on the web (see - While giving a lecture, he was asked to pause to see if there were any questions. An audience member said, "I don't understand how you got the first formula on the board." Dirac stood in silence, until the host prompted him to respond. He only said, "That was a comment, not a question."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oaxaca Journal

Oaxaca Journal (Oliver Sacks, 4:13) A charming little travel memoir, written after Sacks took a trip to Oaxaca with the NY Fern association in about March of 2000. I last visited those parts just a few months prior, so the overlap in our physical light-cones is tight. Yet, I never once noticed a fern in my time there. Quite enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma (Andrew Hodges, 31:05) Great pleasure to dive in and learn about his entire life. Turing was powerfully influenced in childhood upon reading a book about the human body that explicitly called it a complex and subtle machine. His invention of his eponymous machine, in the paper on Computable Numbers, is said to be linked. It's clear that his unusual mind turned ideas into very concrete representational schemes. The work he did in Bletchley Park gives the bio its name. The Germans' hubris went hand-in-hand with his ingenious code-breaking, since they never even considered the possibility that anyone could decrypt the machine. Turing's intellectually playful style expressed itself by such acts as his running scavenger hunts & doing home chemistry experiments. I've always most admired his work on morphogenesis, with his observation that wave formations could enable self-differentiation in an initially uniform medium. Here I link to the original paper, the slightest scan of which convinces me that I'd only learned about his work second-hand. He credited himself with one great idea every 5 years (the Turing machine for the entscheidungsproblem; cracking the Enigma machine; building the first computer; morphogenesis). Never ashamed of his queer bent, he reported a theft which he linked to the boy he'd brought home. Once the detectives heard him frankly describe his 'gross indecency' with the lad, that set in motion the machinery that crucified him via chemical castration with estrogen, and likely precipitated the bummer mood that led him to poison himself.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The social conquest of the earth

The social conquest of the earth (E.O. Wilson, punted after an hour or so) I thought I'd read this, to learn about his latest kehre (turning), embracing group selection. It wasn't very gripping, and before I could get far, I came across too many critiques of the theory to be satisfied starting with his book length exposition, when it's necessary for me to understand the technical position more exactly.

Friday, July 06, 2012


Flaubert (Geoffrey Wall, stopped after 8 of 14 hours) One of my favorite authors, yet I was disinclined to read his whole life. The whoring is tolerable, but the melancholic isolation agitated me. So, after vacillating, I'm deciding to just punt.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Book of Ecclesiastes

Book of Ecclesiastes (No author, 40:23) This somehow comes from Audiobooks of Mike Vendetti. Although the language and stark realism make this a personal favorite, I can't say it stood out in this audible.