Tag Archives: book

Review: Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky is one of those authors that I just can’t get enough of. After seeing a talk of his on TED a few years ago I got his first book, Here Comes Everybody, and loved it. When I found out he had another book out, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

Here Comes Everybody was largely a How book, exploring how people were using new forms of communication to accomplish things we never thought possible before. Cognitive Surplus is a Why book. Why, exactly, do we have Wikipedia? Why do we have Kiva? Why do we have Linux?

His proposition is because of we’ve got a cognitive surplus, which we’ve finally come to realize due to the new connectedness of the internet. The 20th century brought about a substantial amount of leisure time in the western world, but we were still very isolated. If you had a hobby, like model trains, odds were that very few people around you shared in that hobby, so you while you enjoyed it your basement or garage, it was something you often didn’t have kindred spirits to share with. Lacking this kind of reinforcement for hobbies, we filled that time with things that did give us a shared experience: Television.

The internet let us find kindred spirits and help us unlock our desire to create by finding new communities that don’t need to be within driving distance.

The book is a great romp through a set of stories about why certain communities have formed, and with bits of advice in energizing your own community. I highly recommend it to just about anyone, though I’d suggest reading Here Comes Everybody first if you haven’t yet.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I just finished listening to the audio book of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was great, but I’ll get to that after a brief digression. 

I’ve been listening to a decent number of audio books over the past few years, but until now I’d never heard the same reader in 2 books of different genres.  In addition to being an excellent reader for this book, Scott Brick also read the most recent Dune books.  So I was mildly distracted through the first couple of discs waiting for the words “kwisatch haderack” to come out of his mouth.  I guess given the epic nature of this book, it was appropriate, but a little jarring at first. 🙂

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is Michael Pollan’s big food treatise, which starts with a simple premise: trace the path of 4 meals produced in different ways from grown raw ingredients to the final meal to be eaten.  As he states in the intro, it was originally going to be 3 meals: industrial, organic, and self supplied (for lack of a better term), but as he started investigating the organic industry, he realized there were really 2 camps there, the industrial organic and local organic.  While the local food movement was still young in 2002, it was there, and presumably his book helped further it dramatically over the years.

There is so much in this book that is fascinating.  The entire first section of the book, the industrial meal, dives into the absolute reliance of our modern food supply on cheap corn.    How we got to having all this cheap corn, and the effect it has on the rest of the food chain is pretty amazing.  The average american gets > 50% of his/her callories from corn.  Either directly processed, or through meet that was fed cheap corn.  Because industrial grown corn requires artificial fertilizer (which is petroleum based) you can calculate the gallons of oil required for a pound of corn, and even a pound of beef.

The industrial organic and local organic sections show a rich history of where the organic movement started, and where it’s ended up after scaling up to global levels.  The juxtiposition of the two is amazing, and the exploration of ways to produce meat outside of the industrial system is quite compelling.  You’ll learn more about the biology of many farm animals and grasses than you ever thought you would, and will be better for it.

Lastly Pollan addresses his final meal, where he is determined to grow, hunt, or gather every element of it.  He makes an incredibly elaborate meal, including bread with air captured yeast, so he’s really pushing the limits as to what you can do in full hunter gatherer mode, and the results are impressive.

I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  The writing style is great, and what you’ll learn along the way is invaluable to understanding many things.  Why high fructose corn syrup is in everything?  Why America is continuously going through food fads while the rest of the world is not?  And why we spend so much of our energy on figuring out what to eat?  Which is, of course, the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” for the last couple of weeks, and this book is amazing.  Bill Bryson, most known for various humorous travel books, turned his eyes on the history and progression of science.  It’s a journey about what we know about the universe across many disciplines (astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology), and how we came to know that information.  The narrative is very compelling, and often similar in style to James Burke’s Connections (so if you loved that, you’ll love this.)

He uses big questions to drive the narrative.  The first of which is something that seemed like a simple question, “what is the age of the earth?”.  It’s somewhat surprising to realize that our current answer of 4.5 Billion years wasn’t figured out until the 1950s, and that that discovery was intertwined with the discovery of a massive cover up in the lead production industry on the health effects of lead, and would lead to the banning of the substance for fuel and paint. 

You get to see how the chains of science build upon one another, where a new better answer is made based on what came before, and how over time our methods continue to refine themselves.  The stories on the feuds in the dinosaur hunting communities are incredible.  It also goes to show that individuals shape history much more than they are often given credit for.  This is even more true in the fields of science, where a new discovery or insight often opens up massive new industries or fields of study.  None of modern gene sequencing and DNA analysis would be possible had not a curious researcher decided to take samples from Yellowstone’s hot springs and on a lark see if anything was alive in the boiling sulfuric waters.  This is even more amazing given that conventional wisdom at the time assured that no life was possible there.  Decades later we discovered that one of those microbes has a curious ability to crank out DNA copies, thus opening up the modern science of genetics.

I can’t say enough good things about this book.  It is a perfect, digestible, approach to science literacy.  Your understanding of the universe will be greatly enhanced in the process, and you’ll never quite look at a lump of dirt, a wispy cloud, or the night sky again.