Category Archives: non fiction

Review of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


This book, published in 2011, was recommended to me by my son when he came to stay for Christmas. I’ll give you due warning – if you are looking for an easy, lightweight read then leave this one on the pile and come back to it when you are ready to give your grey matter a thorough workout.

Experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman has won a Nobel prize for his work on Prospect theory – but that is only part of the work he has done in a long career examining how the human mind operates. I found the font downright unfriendly as it’s far fainter and close packed than my middle-aged eyes want to tackle, but I soon discovered that this was a deliberate ploy. Kahneman has noticed that we respond to problem solving in largely two ways that he calls System 1 and System 2. Our System 1 is the normal default setting that mostly responds to the multitude of decisions that confronts us in our daily lives – it is quick, often providing an answer in less than a second; instinctive – System 1 will take clues, often inappropriately, from our surroundings and is also influenced by our emotional state. While Kahneman is at pains to emphasise System 1 works very well in a large number of situations, every single one of us make some major mistakes that can have life-changing consequences by relying too much on our System 1 reflexes.

System 2 is the type of thinking we employ when we come up against a problem that we identify as too difficult for our System 1 to process. System 2 is slower, more measured and less prone to be affected emotionally, although we should all be aware that our thinking fast and slwosurroundings have far greater impact on our mindset than we realise. Kahneman discusses a set of experiments where the participants sat in a room and answered questions about how willing they were to help friends and/or people they didn’t know. When dollar signs were displayed across the screensavers on the computers, participants were noticeably less generous – even though they didn’t consciously notice the screensavers. But Kahneman also characterises our System 2 mental processing as being lazy – it is reluctant to engage. One of the things that nudges it to work is when the font is difficult to read…

Much of his most productive experiments were conducted with his collaborator and friend, Amos Tversky, now dead. Kahneman is more than generous with attributing a great deal of the credit for his achievements to his partner – and you get the sense that this book is, in part, a tribute to Tversky.

Kahneman’s prose, is very clear and if he uses any kind of jargon connected with his studies, he is at pains to fully explain exactly what he means. And the unfriendly font and measured writing style delivers some head-swivelling discoveries. For instance, when questioning patients who had just undergone a painful medical procedure, their recollection didn’t hinge on the duration of the procedure at all. Patients judged their experience on the peak pain levels (which they were asked to evaluate on a scale 1-10 every 60 seconds) and how much they were suffering when the procedure came to an end. So one patient who endured the procedure for twenty-five minutes felt more positive than another whose surgery lasted eight minutes, because that patient’s pain level right at the end was still significant. Ah, you’re thinking – that was because the second patient was in greater pain during the shorter operation. No – both patients reported the same pain levels… And this isn’t a one off finding – when recalling similar episodes, the duration is something that most people don’t recall effectively and so don’t factor in when recalling their experiences. Although, I’m hoping that particular experiment won’t be repeated any time soon, as those patients enduring the longer procedure had their operation deliberately extended.

So does the book measure up to the back cover hype? The answer is – yes it does. And if you are thinking of dabbling in the stock market, making any large purchases, or have a crucial decision to make regarding your health, then read this book first. In fact, I think I’m going to have to get my own copy, just in case…

Review of The One World School House: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan


Over the years, a distressing scene has been replayed in homes across the land far too many times… A panic-stricken child finally realises that parents aren’t – after all – capable of helping out when really needed. While said parents, irritable and helpless when confronted with modern Maths/Chemistry/typically hard subject, find they aren’t remotely equipped to assist with their child’s homework. Tempers fray under the pressure and the generation gap yawns into an unbridgeable chasm. However this scene can be consigned to history, thanks to Salman Khan and his Khan Academy.

But don’t take my word for it – this is what Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft has to say on the subject, “I discovered Sal Khan and Khan Academy like most other people – by using these incredible tools with my own kids. Sal Khan’s vision and energy for how technology could fundamentally transform education is contagious. He’s a true pioneer in integrating technology and learning. I’m happy that, through this book, even more people will be introduced to this ground-breaking innovation.”

A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy; a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring sessions with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon. Today millions of students, parents and teachers use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which have expanded to encompass nearly every conceivable subject, and Academy techniques are being employed with exciting results in a growing number of classrooms around the globe.

1worldI first heard about the Khan Academy from the talented science fiction writer Tricia Sullivan at Eastercon, where she enthused about teaching herself Maths up to calculus level, thanks to the online lessons now available to anyone with a computer and internet connection. Immediately, I checked it out and was extremely impressed at the extensive series of colourful, unthreatening lessons and the self-testing tasks to ensure you have fully grasped the concept before you move on.

So it was a real treat when my mother sent me this book as an extra Christmas pressie (thank you, Mum!). Khan has lots of fascinating things to say about the current, unsatisfactory manner in which we teach children. As an ex-primary school teacher, I found myself muttering in agreement at his observations at the broken-backed system that – as far as I can see – is in place as a cheap way of keeping children off the streets rather than equipping them with relevant knowledge fit for the 21st century.

Khan suggests that instead of having a teacher deliver a lesson to a group of children in a totally arbitrary manner, they learn individually at their own pace using modern technology with the teacher acting as enabler. He also suggests that a far more creative, wide-ranging curriculum should be in place, where children undertake complex self-directed tasks in groups. A revolutionary approach to state-funded education? Absolutely. But our current system produces far too many children unable to master the basics, who, frustrated and angry, become an unemployable underclass. Government’s constant tinkering only further undermines discouraged teachers and destabilises an already creaking system.

Read Salman Khan’s solutions to our educational problems – and then could someone point the Minister of Education in the direction of this book? Please?? We cannot continue to squander our most precious resource – our children.

Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


This non-fiction book has become an international bestseller, charting a remarkable story that consumed the author for a decade.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing polio vaccine, helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East henrettalacksBaltimore today, where Henrietta’s children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into Space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Reading a variety of scientific articles and books over the years, I’d already heard about these remarkable HeLa cells and was prompted to track this book down when I read about it in the New Scientist. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows an amazing story, helped by Skloot’s vivid writing which grabbed me by the throat and sucked me into this incredible tale. I was appalled at the grinding poverty endured by the Lacks family and horrified at Henrietta’s treatment which seemed every bit as barbarically brutal as anything you’ll find in Tudor apothecary notebooks. It didn’t help that Henrietta was coloured at a time when the south was divided along institutionalised racial lines. However, I don’t think poor Henrietta stood a chance against the rapacious cancer that ripped through her – the sheer toughness of those cells that are still going strong today, decades after her death, is a testament to the aggressiveness of this particular cancer.

Henrietta was only thirty-one when she died, leaving behind a young family. A good portion of the story deals with the painful grief of children who were never given sufficient information to come to terms with their mother’s involuntary role in a whole number of scientific breakthroughs. While the rest of the world marvelled at the sci-fi headlines describing the HeLa cells and their contribution to humankind’s knowledge, Henrietta’s daughter was riven with horror at that thought that some debased Alien-type version of her mother was locked up in a laboratory somewhere, enduring endless torment.

In America, the law currently says that once patients have had growths/moles/tumours removed, these tissues are no longer belong to them. Furthermore, if researchers and biotechnological companies find a useful gene or cell, they are entitled to sell off these portions for a profit – and American citizens can’t do anything about it, according to the latest Supreme Court ruling. However, this book isn’t in the business of portraying scientists as unfeeling villains – George Gey who removed the tissue sample from Henrietta and was responsible for growing it on, worked tirelessly on the project and freely allowed other scientists around the world access to the HeLa cells, making it possible for the large number of advances and scientific investigations to occur.

What this book starkly highlights is that the myth that science can somehow operate outside the messy business of living, is just that – a myth. The fact that a bunch of cells harvested from a young woman dying of cancer were responsible for a number of number of medical breakthroughs, doesn’t alter the fact that her children suffered by being completely ignored by that process. And if Rebecca Skloot hadn’t arranged for a portion of the royalties from her book to go towards a foundation to help Henrietta’s descendants, the hard fact is that they probably would be still unable to afford medical insurance.

Review of Swahili for the Broken-Hearted by Peter Moore


When Peter Moore visited the West Sussex Writers’ Club to talk about his travels and the books he wrote about them, I bought a copy of Swahili for the Broken-Hearted.

Peter embarked on his African adventure in an effort to escape his misery after his long-term girlfriend and former travelling swahiliforthebrokenheartedcompanion dumped him. He decided to travel overland from Cape Town to Cairo by using a combination of public transport and lifts from people he met along the way. He is good at befriending people.

I’d expected to read a series of adventures delivered with the author’s laconic Aussie understatement that would leave me chuckling – while deeply grateful that it wasn’t me out there experiencing them. Well, that part was right. The sheer physical rigour of travelling in knee-buckling heat over cratered roads that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefield in an overcrowded bus or train for hour upon hour, shouldn’t be underestimated. And I bring it up because, while Peter gives those facts a mention – his toughness means that conditions get really dire before he starts moaning about them. And the book is generously sprinkled with amusing tales – like the indignation of his drinking buddies in a South African township over his choice of beer when buying a round. Apparently, he’d bought them a woman’s drink so they thought he was insulting their manhood.

I was impressed by his deft, insightful character sketches and his sympathetic, unsentimental account of the grinding poverty and corruption he encountered. And there is an awful lot of poverty. Like the pavement sellers weeping when forced to part with their wares at prices they couldn’t afford. Things we take for granted – like adequate safety standards on public transport – are non-existent. To the extent that many Africans were shocked on learning that he was travelling on local buses and would warn him they weren’t safe.

Every so often, events would slide from the farcical into the outright dangerous – like the riot that Peter nearly walked into in Addis Ababa where he escaped by hiding in a coffin-maker’s shop while the mob outside destroyed a Toyota pickup truck.

The spare writing style ensures the book moves along at a brisk pace, with quick, clear descriptions as each new scene unfolded along the journey. My one niggle is that I would have preferred a few more word pictures throughout the book. It is, after all, a tale of travelling.

Those of you who attended the meeting will already know that Peter possesses sufficient self deprecating charm to stop a charging rhino and his amusing anecdotes left me slightly unprepared for the sombre undertone running through the book. As you’d expect of someone fleeing a broken heart, his mood is rather melancholy – which aptly reflects the appalling plight of many Africans in their daily lives. I was struck by the Zimbabwe man who told Peter that Jesus would soon be coming again as described in the Bible – as we were living through the end-time of war, plague and famine.

I had picked up the book anticipating an amusing romp through a part of the world I’d known as a child. What I actually got was a far more thought-provoking account of a continent in crisis – without any moralising or political harangue. It’s a neat trick to pull off and Peter Moore ably manages it. I think the jokey blurb on the cover sells this book short and despite the fact that travel books aren’t normally among the piles beside my bed, I shall be looking out for his other work.

Review of Why We Lie by Dorothy Rowe


When was the last time you told a lie? Why did you do so? This interesting and carefully researched book delves into a destructive aspect of human nature that most of us spend a lot of time not thinking about. Rowe’s extensive experience as psychologist and evident interest in history, politics and science gives her a very broad basis for her fascinating insights into why we resort to lying from a very early age. Our sense of self is so precarious, argues Rowe, that we will do anything to preserve it – even lie to ourselves.whywelie

She has some sharp observations to make about those in her own profession who insist on continuing to follow the practices of Freud, even though his observations and studies have been superseded by modern techniques such as brain scans, which shows us that there is no inherent ‘inner core’ within each of us. Rather, our brain receives a mass of external information about the world around us and resolves this input into a pattern that we think of as ‘self’. However your ‘self’ is nothing like my ‘self’ because my touch, taste, hearing, vision and imagination that constitutes my sense of who I am, are quite different to your various sensory impressions. I found this first section of the book profound and absorbing as she explains just how we use lies to defend ourselves, make ourselves more likeable and bolster our own self esteem, in addition to preserving our fragile ‘self’. The explanations as to what impels people to lie were riveting and illuminating – I certainly recommend any student of human nature reading the book for this section, alone.

However, Rowe extends her analysis to the professions, business, religion and politics. By citing recent events, such as America and Britain’s ill-planned war on Iraq under the guise of seeking weapons of mass destruction, she contends that lies have cost lives and billions of dollars. She goes on to denounce the hypocrisy of bankers and businessmen who become enmeshed in scandals like that of Enron and more recently, the selling of sub-prime mortgages that led to the financial crisis which is currently making all our lives miserably insecure. Rowe is an Australian and it shows. She doesn’t pull her punches as she points the finger and wags it reprovingly at a number of well-known statesmen and financiers for their dishonesty and complete lack of guilt.

Whether you agree with her analysis or not, this book is a readable, thought provoking reflection on our society and a basic faultline in human behaviour that Rowe argues, we should all consider taking more seriously.