Christof Koch's Book List

Chronologically arranged list of interesting books - science, philosophy, novels, whatever - I've read. By-and-large, these are books I like; otherwise I wouldn't have finished them. Books that I really enjoyed or that express a particular point of view particularly well are listed in pink.


  • The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton (2005). Historical fiction interposing Charles Darwin's signature, 5 year long, voyage on the HMS Beagle that made his name, with the quest by two graduate students in modern-day England to uncover Darwin's dark secret. Darnton has a good feeling for the sensibilities of the Victorian age and for the competition between scientists for priority and get's the history of evolutionary thought right. Too many convenient coincidences and some unrealistic character portraits make the novel less than satisfactory.

  • Running with the Pack by Mark Rowlands (2013). The misanthrope philosopher, author of the amazing The Philosopher and the Wolf is back at it - teaching us about the meaning of life while running medium-distances (5-26 miles) with his various canine companions at various locations in the US, Ireland and France. A few chapters are absolutely brilliant, in particular when explaining the difference between running for instrumental reasons - longevity, health, fitness, relaxation - and running as a value in itself - reaching the beating heart of the run to use his poetic expression. Essentially, he describes the difference between work - always done in the service of something else, most often for pay - and play - carried out for intrinsic reasons, for joy. To whit

    Joy can assume many experiential forms. There is the joy of focus, the experience of being completely immersed in what one is doing. There is the joy of dedication, the experience of being dedicated to the deed and not the outcome, the activity and not the goal. There is the joy of enduring, the experience of playing the game as hard as you can play it, of giving everything you have to the game and leaving nothing in the tank, no matter the experiential toll this exacts. This is the joy of defiance, wild and fierce: no, you will not break me, not here, not today.

    Rowlands is at his best when writing passionately about running, his wolf Brenin and his canine pack. Many other chapters are rambling reflections on the misery of life (why must so many philosopher be so unhappy and cynical? In his previous books, Rowlands refers to his fellowmen as manipulate and conniving apes while in this book, they are downgraded to worms) and on the mystic and undecipherable writings of Sartre and Heidegger - one of the bigger intellectual windbags of the 20. century. Yet I did read the entire book within 24 hours, crossing the continent both ways.

  • The Spinoza Problem - A Novel by Irvin Yalom (2012). Historical psychological-philosophical telling by the psychiatrist Yalom in which he deftly interweaves an account of the early life of the Dutch-Portuguese-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (also known as Bento de Espinoa and Benedictus de Spinoza depending on which ethnic community he is associated with), his philosophical ideas and fictionalized friendships and his excommunication and eviction from the Jewish community of Amsterdam with the life of Alfred Rosenberg, the early associate of Hitler, chief Nazi ideologue, pseudo-intellectual, author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, who was hanged in 1946 as warm criminal. Yalom, a psychoanalyst, tries to enter the mind of these two singular historical figures at the opposite end of the philosophical and ethical spectrum. It makes for Interesting, but not entirely convincing, reading.

  • Nexus - Mankind gets an Upgrade by Ramez Naam (2013). An eminently readable debut SF novel with a fertile imagination in which the confluence of nano- and neuro-science with brain-machine interfaces opens the way to manipulate your brain with software that you program in your mind. This is the post-human future. Of course, other protagonists can also hack that software and thereby control you. The novel takes place in 2040 in an America in which the surveillance state has taken hold and tries to prevent such trans-human technology - in the form of the drug Nexus-5 of the title - to dissipate into the general population (reserving it for its elite warriors). But other nation states and actors intervene. Violent, fast-paced, with believable characters and a storyline the novel offers one realistic future in which conflict arises between regular folks and the enhanced one. As a neuroscientist, west-coast techno-geek and libertarian, I do believe that the merging of our brains with our information technology is inevitable, for better or worse. It is not the business of the future to be predictable. Naam's style is somewhere between Crichton's Terminal Man and Gibson's cyberpunk novels.

  • The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan (2012). Wonderful cultural/historical account of the two colossal standing figures of Buddha in the Hindu Kush - along the Silk Road - in Afghanistan. These monumental statues, 53 and 35 meters high, were hewn directly from sandstone cliffs in the 6. century CE and covered with stucco. Admired and written about by Chinese, Indian, Islamist and European travelers throughout the centuries, both statues were dynamites by the zelot Taliban in 2001. The author does an outstanding job of analyzing the reception of travellers from many distinct cultures to these statues - the biggest in the world - spending a lot of time on the French and the British spies, soldiers and classicists (often the same) around the time of the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1840 and their misguided search for roots of Alexander the Great ("Europe's favorite psychopath'' in the author's memorable phrase). Ironically, the two empty shells left in the cliffside following their wanton destruction are, in some sense, more authentic Buddhist monuments than any physical statues.

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013). A short and intense adult novel about otherworldly 'evil' creatures invading modern day rural Britain via the unwitting help of the seven year old storyteller. The self-sacrifice of a 11 years old girl, backed up by her farmhouse mother and grandmother, and a pond that turns into a bottomless ocean are necessary to restore balance. The book is so captivating and terrifying in its portrait of intra-family conflict and violence that I skipped over passages during my first read. Almost as good as Gaiman's masterwork Neverwhere.

  • The Philosopher's Pupil by Iris Murdoch (1983). A ponderous story with a large cast of characters, none of which evoke much sympathy, who drink to much for their own good and battle each other, living in an fictitious English spa town. The start of the novel sets the tone - a nasty marital fight among the two central figures - followed by a cumbersome mise en scene. The 576 pages long book would have benefited from much tighter editing.

  • The Complete Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton (1910 - 1926). 51 delightful detective stories centered on the short and quite humble eponymous priest. Like Sherlock Holmes who uses induction and science, Father Brown exploits reason and logic to deduce the guilty party and eschews supernatural explanations of strange events. He fortifies these by his intuitive and psychological insights into the nature of evil and the ways of the world, centered on his experience as a confessor ``Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?''. Unlike Conan Doyle, Chesterton is a powerful wordsmith, with evocative descriptions (and irony) galore. To whit

    As they went through the mulberry bushes, the landscape of the garden presented that rich yet ominous effect which is found when the land is actually brighter than the sky. In the broken sunlight from behind, the tree-tops in front of them stood up like pale green flames against a sky steadily blackening with storm, through every shade of purple and violet. The same light struck strips of the lawn and garden beds; and whatever it illuminated seemed more mysteriously sombre and secret for the light. The garden bed was dotted with tulips that looked like drops of dark blood; and the line ended appropriately with a tulip tree; which Father Brown was disposed, if partly by some confused memory, to identify with what is commonly called the Judas tree. What assisted the association was the fact that there was hanging from one of the branches, like a dried fruit, the dry, thin body of an old man, with a long beard that wagged grotesquely in the wind.


    He raised his eyes and saw through the veil of incense smoke and of twinkling lights that Benediction was drawing to its end while the procession waited. The sense of accumulated riches of time and tradition pressed past him like a crowd moving in rank after rank, through unending centuries; and high above them all, like a garland of unfading flames, like the sun of our mortal midnight, the great monstrance blazed against the darkness of the vaulted shadows, as it blazed against the black enigma of the universe. For some are convinced that this enigma also is an Insoluble Problem. And other have equal certittude that it has but one solution.

  • The Truth in Small Doses by Clifton Leaf (2013). Vividly written account on ``why we're losing the War on Cancer - and how we can win it'' (subtitle). Authored by a Fortune journalist over nine years, it is obsessively sourced - 80 pages of endnotes and 87 pages of references. Through lively portraits of individual patients, doctors and researchers, the book recounts some of the success stories of the War on Cancer (launched under President Nixon in 1971): Gleevec (dramatically reducing the mortality and morbidity of chronic myeloid leukemia), many childhood malignancies (acute lymphocytic leukemia), and the estrogen-blocking tamoxifen for breast cancer. The bulk of the book is about why we are not winning this book (something which is almost completely unacknowledged).

    Upon closer inspection, the decline in cancer rates that the National Cancer Institute widely proclaim refer to death rates age-adjusted to the US 1970 population. When dissecting these wins, they turn into rather pyrrhic victories. Of course, other communities likewise express their progress using appropriate metrics; take an investment fund whose annual return is 8%. This hides the fact that the 8% is relative to the average return of the industry; in reality, the fund lost 10%, which was, however, less than the average fund in that industry.

    While crude rates (how many deaths per 100,000 people) for all deaths combined (car accidents, lightning strokes, murder etc) excluding cancer fell by 24% between 1970 and 2010, the crude cancer death rate increased by 14%. In 2013, an expected 580,000 people in the US will die of cancer, and an estimated 7.6 million worldwide. Victory in the War on Cancer appears to be as illusive as the victory in the War on Drugs! By and large, diagnostic tools have improved - think pap smear, mammogram, and colonoscopy - allowing doctors to catch tumors earlier, when they have not yet metastasized or genetically diversified.

    Leaf, a sympathetic (he suffered from s cancer as a teenager), thoughtful yet critical observer analyzes the cultural factors that led to this state. Some of them are a lack of risk-taking, an ever growing bureaucracy, few standards in the field, the lack of an effective national tissue registry and the complexity of the disease. But the primary culprit Leaf focuses on is a highly fractioned and non-collaborative clinical-academic cancer culture that maximizes winning of R01 NIH grants and the publication of papers in high-impact journals. Grants and papers make for great experiments on model systems or model organisms (which does not include humans), advance basic science, but does little to help patients. The massive investment in cancer science (an estimated $30B/year worldwide) produces studies but not cures!

    It is interesting that the original 1971 recommendations of the committee charged by President Nixon with proposing how the War on Cancer aught to be carried out had been to take the cancer effort out of the NIH, creating a NASA-like National Cancer Authority, whose mandate would be to approach the problem like the successful moon shot, looking at the overall systems-aspects of cancer and cancer mortality. The committee was quite explicit in this matter, testifying that they would not recommend continuation of the present organizational arrangements within the existing NIH. However, heavy lobbying by the clinical and scientific communities for the autonomy of the basic research enterprise scuttled this plan. Instead the NCI received a massive increase in research funding and the status quo remained.

    One wonders what would have happened if the NIH/NSF would have been charged by President Kennedy in 1961 to bring a man to the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to the planet? Probably a lot of basic science papers on planetary formation, the geology of the early moon and the existence of unique solutions of the Navier-Stokes equations that mimic the aerodynamics of re-entry into the atmosphere!

    Leaf argues for a much more focused engineering effort, one that emphasizes all aspects of the cancer problem and not just the biology of cancer, that enforces common standards, protocols and tissue repositories, in an expeditious and efficient manner. One that takes risks, just like NASA did in its early years. Yet that is unlikely to occur within the current ossified structures that serve the cancer and the university research communities so well.

  • Panpsychism in the West by David Skrbina (2005). I grew up in a devout and practicing Roman-Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless and high energy dachshund. He, like all the other, much larger, dogs that subsequently accompanied me through life, showed plenty of affection, curiosity, playfulness, aggression, anger, shame and fear. Yet my Church taught that while animals, as god's creatures, aught to be well treated, they do not possess an immortal soul. Only humans do. Even as a child, this felt intuitively wrong. These gorgeous creatures had feelings just like I did. Why deny them? Why would God resurrect people but not dogs? This core Christian belief in human uniqueness didn't make any sense to me. Whatever soul, whatever consciousness and mind are, and no matter how they relate to the brain and the rest of the body, the same principle must hold for people and dogs and, by extensions, to other animals as well.

    It was only later, at university, that I became acquainted with Buddhism and their emphasis on the universal nature of mind. Indeed, when I spent a week with His Holiness the Dalai Lama earlier this year, I noted how often he talked about the need to reduce the suffering of ``all living beings'' , and not just ``all people'' . My readings in philosophy brought me to panpsychism, the view that mind (psyche) is found everywhere (pan). As Skrbina shows in this book, panpsychism is one of the oldest of all philosophical doctrines extant and was put forth by the ancient Greeks, in particular Thales and Plato. Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz who laid down the intellectual foundations for the Age of Enlightenment argued for it, as did Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, the father of American psychology, and the Jesuit and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Declining in popularity with the rise of positivism in the 20th century, panpsychism is enjoying a renaissance in philosophical circles. As a natural scientist, I find a suitably modified version of panpsychism to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation of the universe I find myself in. But that is a different story. Skrbina's volume gives a great introduction to this doctrine and its reception in the west, from ancient times until today.

  • Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom (1989). Ten somewhat fictionalized accounts of patients that the Stanford psychiatrist has dealt with. Superbly crafted, each illuminates a different aspect of what he terms existentialist givens, of which he identifies four - (i) the fear of death; (ii) the realization that finally, each one is alone; (iii) the fear of accepting that we are all master of our own fate, that is, the fear of freedom; and (iv) the search for meaning in a universe that is bereft of external meaning. Yalom argues that these issues are present in most of us in an unconscious manner and that wisdom amounts to confronting these givens and addressing them in a beneficial and useful manner. His is a very philosophical approach to psychotherapy and avoids much of the fixation on early childhood and sexual repressions a la Freud. Yalom explicitly confirms one of my own observations, to whit ``the fear of death is always greatest in those who feel that they have not lived their life fully. A good working formula is: the more unlived life, or unrealized potential, the greater one death's anxiety.'' These stories bring out how much psychoanalysis is about process and less about content and how the analyst himself is an utterly essential partner in any therapy.

  • Why does the World Exist? by Jim Holt (2012). Personal account of contemporary attempts by philosophers and physicists to deal with the deepest ontological puzzle of them all ``Why is there something rather than nothing?''. Written by an ex-philosopher as a sort of travelogue, interviewing Andre Linde, Adolf Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, Roger Penrose (a neo-Platonist!), David Deutsch, Steven Weinberg, John Leslie and Derek Parfit, and interspersed by the death of his dog and his mother, it could also be subtitled Philosopher's Conceit as it shows up in stark detail the inability of arm-chair philosophizing to extend the limits of what we know beyond those limits already encountered by Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. For in the end, answering this question in a definite way falls outside of mathematics, cosmology or physics. One is finally left with either a circular argument, an infinite regress or a brute fact (the world exist). The most compelling argument is a probabilistic one; that is, the most likely universe is not an empty one but a universe of the type we live in that has to be conducive to life (for else, we could not reason about it).

  • The Human Genome by John Quackenbush (2011). Short, compact and concise introduction into the Human Genome Project and the underlying biology.

  • Turing's Cathedral - The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (2012). Long, detailed and meticulously researched (and footnoted) historical account of the origins of computing in World War II and in the race to build Fission and Fusion bombs. Written for historical techno-geeks, the book is centered around John von Neumann and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and includes John Bigelow - the engineer who actually built MANIAC, the IAS machine (built after ENIAC at University of Pennsylvania) - Alan Turing, Edward Teller and others (this account completely leaves out non Anglo-American contributors, such as Konrad Zuse in Germany). At times poetic, the book deeply delves into the origin of programming, Monte Carlo simulations (to keep track of neutrons splitting uranium atoms), and the unreliability of the individual components making up the computer and its memory (a major concern at the time). The five sets of problems studied on MANIAC were nuclear explosions, shock and blast waves, meteorology and biological and stellar evolution. Random-access memory consisted of the two-axis deflection of an electron beam on a 32 by 32 grid of an 5 inch wide cathod-ray tube with a 24 microsec read-out time. . They used 40 such tubes for a total address space of 40x32x32, that is, 40 kilobits!

  • Accidents in North American Mountaineering (2010). Sobering account of major accidents in climbing in Canada and the US, caused by sheer bloddy incompetence, inadequate protection, clothing and equipment, not knowing one's limits and - scarriest of them all - momentary inattention by even highly experienced climbers. Appears every year. Required reading for anybody venturing into rock and ice climbing or mountaineering.

  • Dangerous Work - Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle (2012). Modern edition of a facsimile of Doyle's diary that he wrote when Doyle, at the time a 3. year medial student, was hired to serve as a ship's surgeon on a 6 month long whaling expedition out of Peterhead/Scotland in 1880. Describes in evocative detail the beauty and isolation of the arctic, the boredom of months spent on a three master among 56 men, and the excitement of hunting seals and whales. It is obvious that even at this tender age, Doyle was a born writer. For him, this was a very formative journey and his love of adventure and excitement shines through every page. What also comes across, however, is the sheer callousness with which even sensitive and educated people killed animals at the time. Every significant creature he sees - whether rare bird or polar bear that are shot, seals that are clubbed in their 100s and whales that are harpooned - is killed without nary a thought. This lack of compassion rings so brutal to modern sensibilities. Interestingly, he seems to have discussed Darwinism several times with the mean on board. Furthermore, the high-point of the whaling industry had already been surpassed, as whales were becoming rare and the first conservation measures had been passed. The book is lovingly illustrated with several other Doyle stories (including a Sherlock Holmes case), all pertaining to the arctic.

  • The Lore of Large Numbers by Philip Davis (1961). Picked up this delightful little introduction to arithmetic and scientific computing from a used bookstore. Written when ``computers" meant ``people trained to carry out, by long-hand, long chains of numerical computations", the author, a famed mathematician talks breathlessly about ``gigantic electronic brains". Does a great job of explaining why inverting rank n matrices involves very large and very small numbers and that the heat equation at rest essentially implies that the steady-state temperature is the average of the temperature in its neighborhood.

  • Isaac Newton by James Gleick (2003). Short, pithy and insightful biography of Newton. He was a recluse, with virtual no family, no lover (he reputedly died a virgin), few friends, vindictive (his fight with Leibniz), yet within a solitary period of two years, when he was a mere 24, Newton created modern mathematics, mechanics and optics. There is nothing like it in the history of thought. The entire scientific enterprise owns more to him than to anybody else. He is prima facie evidence for the critical role of genius in at least some fields. Of course, he was also an alchemist and a mystic, whose religious writing exceeded many-fold his scientific ones.

  • The Autobiography of Sherlock Holmes by Don Libey (2012). Cleverly done pastiche, a pseudo-autobiography - unauthorized of course - of S.H. part of ``the game." Explains inconsistencies in the canon in an often highly idiosyncratic manner. Pithy, witty, sardonic, and sometimes even sad (when he writes about his autistic-like personality and psychodynamic motivations).

  • Jarhead - A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and other Battles by Anthony Swofford (2003). Breezily written memoire of a marine who saw a little bit of action in Kuwait. Delves to a certain extent into the author's psychological makeup and the training regiment, the motivation, the aggression and the liquor driving the soldiers. Doesn't paint a particularly positive picture of Marine life. Not very analytical.

  • The Mystery of Cloomber by Arthur Conan Doyle (1895). A very atmospheric mystery yarn and a great revenge story, if somewhat overwrought in its otherwordly aspects that are beyond the ken of Western science (in the author's words). This novel has elots of interesting similarities - a revenge acted out because of an earlier injustice committed while in the Army in an Indio-Afghan setting - with Conan Doyle's other early novel, A Study in Scarlet. The key difference is, of course, the denouement of the mystery by the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes.

  • Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (2012). Highly absorbing, detailed and compelling account by the reliable Davis, the anthropologist and ethnobotanist, about the psychological roots of mountaineering, climbing and exploration, in the context of the World War I. Part thriller, part careful academic study and part grand history. It makes the case that the slaughter of WWI - each month the British army (and this is an account solely focused on British climbers) required 10,000 new officers of the lower ranks simply to replace the rosters of the dead, with the recruits in the first years coming from the elite universities and schools; in 1914, the chances of any British boy aged 13 - 24 surviving the war were 1 in 3 - led some of the participants on a desperate search for redemptions that they sought and found in the, ultimate unsuccessful, assault on Mount Everest. It details the encounter between two utterly irreconcilable cultures - the British upper classes that needed to go to lonely, cold and inhospitable places to find some measure of contentment and solace - and Tibetan monks (including the 13. Dalai Lama, the predecessor of the current 14. Dalai Lama). The book concludes with the heroic tale of Mallory and Irvine who reached heights not scaled again until 30 years later, who felled to their death and whose bodies were not recovered until 1999. To quote "He (i.e. Mallory) would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but a ``a frail barrier" that men crossed ``smiling and gallant, every day." They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive."

  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009). A novel that plays in Seattle's Pioneer Square. It artfully switches between the war years (1942-45) and contemporary America, recounting the story of a Chinese American boy, raised in a traditional Chinese family by taciturn parents, who falls in love with a Japanese-American girl. As part of the notorious Presidential Public Proclamation No. 1, the girl, her family and the entire Japanese community is evacuated, ``for their own safety'' to camps in the deserts of California, Idaho and Texas. The story moves between the past and the present and between the enforced separation by the paranoia of WWII and the cultural gap between the Chinese-Americans who had suffered a bloody occupation by the Japanese Imperial army and Japanese emigrates to America. This historic novel, capturing the changing spirit of two disparate ages, is more bitter than sweet, reflecting the emotional harvest of my own mid-life crisis.

  • The Smoke Room by Earl Emerson (2006). Solid, well-crafted mystery/crime yarn involving a rookie firefighter in West Seattle who is timid, failing to act at the right time, a sexy woman 20 years his senior, 12 million dollars worth of bonds from an ex-bank robber who accidentally burned himself to death, one genuine bad guys and lots of fires. Funny, with some important life lessons, and a vivid sense of what it is to be in a house on fire.

  • Ten Zen Questions by Susan Blackmore (2009; the paperback edition has just been published under the sexier title "Zen and the Art of Consciousness"). Short, pithy, engaging and incisive travelogue by the British psychologist, scholar of the mind-body and long-term meditator, of her exploration of the true nature of her conscious experiences and how this relates to Zen Buddhism. While sitting in quiet but attentive restfullness throughout several decades of meditation practice, Sue explores what is meant by such seemingly straighforward questions as "Am I conscious now", "What was I conscious of a moment ago", "How does thought arise", "What am I doing" and "What happens next". Her suspenseful account of how something that could conventionally be called Susan Blackmore comes to what one could call a decision is striking. In an act of extreme depersonalization, she comes to doubt her very existence. She strikingly concludes "There is nothing it is like to be me", "I am not a persisting conscious entity", "Seeing entails no vivid mental pictures or movie in the brain" , ""Brain activity is neither conscious nor unconscious" and "There are no contents of consciousness." While I have the utmost respect for her valiant attempts to plump phenomenology, they also vividly demonstrate the limit of introspection and why so much philosophy of mind has remained barren. Evolution has not equipped brains with conscious access to most of its modules. Self-consciousness is much more limited than we all realize. That's why a mechanistic, neuronally based study of the mind-bod as is happening now is of the essence.

  • Hinrforschung und Meditation. Ein Dialog. by Wolf Singer and Matthiew Ricard (2009). Friendly (sometimes too cozy) discussion between a famed German neuroscientist and a French-Nepalese molecular biologist turned Tibetan Buddhist monk about the brain, consciousness, free will, meditation and the way Western science and Buddhism approach the mind-body problem.


  • The Signals and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't by Nate Silver (2012). Outstanding book about the role of prediction in modern life with individual chapters on the successes - baseball, weather and climate - the failures - financial markets and television punditry - and the in-between - earthquakes and poker playing - of forecasting future events (as compared to retrodicting them, which in some quarters in considered almost as good but which is really an exercise in over-fitting). The author made his name, and a fortune, predicting baseball statistics, as a poker player and, most famously, in calling the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections. I warmly recommend his web-site 538 as a breath of fresh air in politics, an intrusion of reality and rationality-based thinking, in a media-saturated world dominated by political operators, such as Karl Rove, and faith-based (mis)-thinking. There are many gems hidden in the pages of this book. Silver argues for a data-driven approach, in which a priori probability distributions are estimated using Big Data and posterior porbailities are computed using Bayes' theoreme.

  • The Club of Queer Trades by Gilbert Chesterton (1905). Six short stories set in the same milieu and style - but more dated - as his more famous Father Brown stories. Each is a little jewel. Chesterton's mis-en-scene is his strong suite "We were walking along a lonely terrace in Brompton together. The street was full of that bright blue twilight which comes about half-past eight in summer, and which seems for the moment to be not so much a coming of darkness as the turning on of a new azure illuminator, as if the earth were lit suddenly by a sapphire sun. In the cool blue the lemon tint of the lamps had already begun to flame. " N.B. A question to the color scientist - could this correspond to dusk when the three cone photoreceptor types are still operating while rods are emergening from saturating, effectively amounting to tetra-chromacy?.

  • Evolution - A very short introduction by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth (2003). Concise introduction to the field. It briefly discusses the analogy between the evolution of castes of sterile workers in termites, ants and the naked mole rats and the rise of multi-cellular organisms where only the DNA of the sex cells is passed on and all other (non-reproducing) cells, e.g. neurons, sacrifice themselves for the common good of the organisms.

  • The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939). Superb noir spy cum thriller novel set in the time between the world wars in the levant. Dark, witty, intelligent and gritty. A masterpiece.

  • The Third World War: August 1985 by General Sir John Hackett (1978). Fictionalized but highly realistic account of a Warshaw Pact attack on NATO in 1985, centering on West Germany (the famed Fulda Gap) and extending world-wide. Unlike Tom Clancy, who spends an entire chapter following the first five nano-seconds of a nuclear explosion and who focusses on the action of a few indviduals, Hackett, a soldier turned scholar and writer in the best British tradition, is much more analytical and concerned with the political-strategic level. The book, written as a call to arms to politicians and the general public to boost conventional defenses, ends with the nuclear annihilation of Birmingham and Minsk and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire due to the nationalistic impulses of its satellite states, including the Ukraine. Re-reading it 25 years later, I'm struck by how today's strategic debate has utterly changed from that at the height of the Cold War. Yet we should never forget that both Russia and the USA still retain sufficient A and H-bombs on missles in land-based silos and submarines to destroy the world many times over.

  • www:wake by Robert J. Sawyer (2009). (Very) canadian SF novel of the near-future that has a blind girl discover, via a neuro-prosthetic device linked to the web, that there is an online intelligence, an self-aware entity, out there that emerged from its billion nodes. This could have been a tremendous opportunity to develop information-theoretical views of consciousness. Instead, the protagonist is stuck reading Julian Jaynes' antediluvian and anti-biology tract The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind (people - never mind (sic) non-human animals - were not conscious prior to roughly 1200 BC; what is meant by consciousness is really meta-consciousness rather than subjective feelings, phenomenology).

  • Von der Nutzlosigkeit älter zu werden von Grorg Heinzen (2012). Sardonic, realistic and morbidly funny account of a leftist film director working for public television, a child of the 1960s student revolution in Germany, whose wife left him because of a brief affair, just in time for his dreaded 50-th birthday, and whose adult children now reject him as well. In an attempt to deal with his massive midlife crisis and his feeling of looming mortality, he starts a self-help group. His psychological mindset is well articulated and true to many of my own experiences, even though he is so much more defensive (being a feminist and proto socialist). Too uncanny accurate not be at least partially autobiographically.

  • The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (2011). Well crafted popular science account of QM and QED using the clock/phase metaphor for the superposition of wave functions. Although the book favors the many worlds interpretation, it shies away from overtly discussing the associated metaphysical aspects, being an adherent of the ``shut up and calculate'' school of pragmatic physics that emphasizes the amazing accuracies with which aspects of reality (such as the magnetic moment of the electron) can be accurately (and empirically verifiable) computed. An entire chapter deals the formation of the valence and conduction bands in metals, insulators, and semi-conductors and how the latter leads to transistors; the attempt to explain the Higgs boson fails (I have yet to see a comprehensible account). Perhaps the most powerful chapter is the final one in which the authors compute the balance between the pressure exerted by a dense gas of rapidly moving electrons at the core of a small star that forces the stellar atmosphere to expand and gravity that pushes the star matter into an ever smaller volume. The failure of this balance predicts the maximal mass of a star (such as our sun) whose lifecycle will end in a white dwarf.

  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990). Strange, large-scale space opera - part Canterbury's Tale, part His Dark Material - involving AI's conspiring to cause the downfall of humanity, a Satan-like creature called "The Shrike" who spears people and keeps them indefinitely alive on a "Tree of Pain", a motley crew of seven pilgrims who might save the universe, Time Tombs, a child who ages backwards, the digital resurrected poet John Keats, a separate species of people who threaten humanity's stellar empire encompassing a few hundred planetary systems, space warfare, Marines and battleship cruisers, the remnants of the Catholic church, a Jesuit priest - an archeologist and acolyte of Teilhard de Chardin - who is crucified and more. The ambitious sweep of the two novels is grandiose, constructing a sort of machine theology, but the result - while often compelling - is unsatisfactory. Too much is unexplained and appears supernatural; this unnatural mixture, this Gemisch is much less believable than the distant future described in Ian Banks' Culture novels.

  • Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972). Compelling SF novel of a visit by aliens to regions called zones, leaving behind a series of strange objetcs and bizarre supernatural phenomena. All that humans can do is to retrieve some of the objects - a very dangerous undertaking done by illegals called Stalkers - and live with the consequences. Strikingly in theme to another Soviet-era SF novel, Lem's The Invincible, the book embodies the belief that the thought processes of a truly alien civilization can never be understood and will remain forever an enigma.

  • Phi - A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi (2012). In the end, consciousness is all that matters! So writes Giulio Tononi, the author of this stunningly original scientific fantasy, in a distant echo of Rene Descartes' famous deduction. Tononi, a neuroscientist, psychiatrist and expert on sleep and consciousness, is also that rarest of modern scholars - an idealist. In this category-defying book, he presents his theory of how brain produces mind as an oneiric journey of discovery of Galileo Galilei.

    In Tononi's literary telling of this story, Francis Crick teaches Galileo basic neuroscience - such as that the brain is the seat of the mind, and that consciousness flees when neurons turn on and off together during deep sleep or seizures - as they meet scholars, scientists, doctors and artists from the Enlightenment to the modern era. It is a vast cast, including Descartes, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust and, eventually, Alan Turing. Along the way, Galileo negotiates some tricky concepts on a road long trodden by neuroscientists and neurologists seeking to track consciousness down to its lair in the brain. Even if we could point to this biophysical mechanism, and those nerve cells, as mediators of the phenomenal experience of red, we would still need to ask - why these particular mechanisms and neurons? Why not others? Historically, the great challenge has been to explain how consciousness emerges from highly organized matter without invoking magic, soul-stuff or exotic physics.

    With the advent of Shannon's mathematical theory of information, information being the difference that makes a difference, scholars averred a linkage between information and conscious experience, without working out what this could be and what it might imply. Tononi's theory of integrated information does so. Proceeding from two axioms that are rooted in everyday phenomenal experience, the theory defines a measure (the eponymous phi) associated with every system consisting of causally interacting parts. This measure is high if a system constitutes a single entity above and beyond its parts (integration) and if it is endowed with a large repertoire of discriminable states (information). The more integrated information any system has, the more irreducible it is, the more conscious it is. This framework, couched in a probabilistic language, also captures the unique quality of that experience, why blue is more similar to red than to pain or to smell.

    In Phi, this is conveyed through a series of dazzling thought experiments aided by cameos from Shannon and philosophers Spinoza, Leibniz and Thomas Nagel (the only living person to figure in the book). Through them, Galileo understands how the algebra of integrated information is turned into the geometry of conscious experiences, and how this links to the physiology and the anatomy of the brain. In the book's final third, Tononi lays out the implications of his theory. He discusses a number of points about consciousness: that it ceases in death and dementia, does not require language or knowledge of self, exists in animals in graded forms and can be present, to some degree, in the fetus. Hell, Tononi emphasizes, is all in the mind. One of the most chilling characters in Phi is the Master, an amalgam of the captain in Kafka's 1914 short story In the Penal Colony and the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The Master's obsession is creating perfect never-ending pain by manipulating the brain's informational content. In the final chapter, the Mannequin, a stand-in for Mephistopheles, throws up some logical paradoxes before leaving the dying Galileo reunited with his beloved daughter. The only character missing is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose prophetic ideas prefigure some of the implications of Tononi's theory.

    Phi is quite extraordinary, defying easy categorization. In its appeal to the reader's imagination, it resembles Edwin Abbott's Flatland novella and Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach. Yet its language is more poetic, full of cultural references and images - movie stills and often modified photos of artworks. Endnotes to each chapter link the allegories and metaphors Tononi uses in the text to the science. I believe that in the fullness of time, the quantitative framework outlined in Phi will prove to be correct. Consciousness is tightly linked to complexity and to information, with profound consequences for understanding our place in the evolving Universe. As Crick says to Galileo, this is a story for grown men, not a consoling tale for children.

  • Ignorance - How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein (2012). The author - a neurobiologist specializing in olfaction - teaches a popular class on Ignorance at Columbia University. His primary thesis is that on a day-to-day basis, Science is less about Knowledge and theory than about ignorance. Ignorance and the need to reduce it is what drives individual scientists; it's what they talk and obsess about. He has particualr disdain for hypothesis-driven research, favoring curiosity-driven science (what happens if I poke here?). While it is true that in sciences that deal with complex systems with highly heterogeneous and large number of components - be they molecules, genes or cells - such a curiosity-driven approach is much more likely to be fruitful (while decried as 'fishing expeditions' by review panels and usually passed over for funding) this is not the case in physics where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in pursuit of very specific goals (witness the Higgs Boson). An easy read, the book starts out with an unsourced quote It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat.. This proverb does capture much of the elusive nature of scientific research.

  • Kitchen Confidential - Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000). Funny but greatly- inflated account from the restaurant business with the author making himself out to be the great, scandalous anti-hero.

  • Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga (1989). Translated from the Japanese. The life story of a retired and dying crime boss as told to his attendant doctor in a series of lively vignettes. From his lowly beginning to acceptance into one of the gangs that run the gambling racket, to his various mistresses, life in prison and in the army and how he cut off two of fingers (over the same woman). It illustrates the give and take of social obligations that binds the Yakuza - and Japanese society - together. Short on violence and long on details of the late Meiji period. Lovingly illustrated by pencil drawings.

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and illustrated by Jules Feiffer (1961). I finally read the 50th anniversary edition of the classic children's fairy tale. It resembles Alic in Wonderland. An incredible fondness for puns, wordplays, metaphors, allegories pervades the book. Like the Lewis Carroll's books, it bears re-reading.

  • Mr g by Alan Lightman (2011).

  • Let my people go surfing - The education of a reluctant businessman by Yvon Chouinard (2005). Succinct autobiography of the adventurer who was one of the pioneering big wall climbers and mountaineers in Yosemite and elsewhere starting in the mid-1960s. A blacksmith by training, he founded Chouinard Equipment (that would later turn into Black Diamond) and Patagonia (in Ventura, south of Santa Barbara). The bulk of the well written book is given over to his cogitations about his sense of design and style (minimalism and elegance, where function follows perfectly form) for all of his products, his ethics and his – and Patagonia’s - strong commitment to the environment and to only design, produce and sell products that are sustainable (e.g. organic cotton), non-toxic and last for a long time. He is trying to combine ethics with being a successful businessman in a particular market (outdoor wear and equipment for active, human-powered sports). Many of his ideas seem to me to be applicable to any institution that that seeks excellence in its particular market rather that purely monetary gain. The bottom-line is that you can be a businessman without being a schmuck or lose your soul in the process.

  • The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen (2011). Short (ca 15,000 words) essay on how, since the 1970s, innovation and productivity in the US - as in all advanced Frist World countries - has dropped and will continue to be low compared to the second part of the 19th and first part of the 20th century, when plenty of wide open space and mineral wealth, massive increases in the level of education and a wave of technological revolution created wealth at an unprecedented scale. With the singular exception of the computer revolution and the internet, these "low-hanging fruits" have all been picked. Furthermore, the three biggest growth areas - more government regulation of all aspects of our lives, medical care and primary and secondary education - have stagnated over the past few decades and have not lead to any sustained increased wealth. Calls for a new wave of innovation, although it's not clear where this should come from.

  • Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby (2011). Subtitled ''The myth and marketing of the new old age" it is a furious and angry rant against the myth of growing old while remaining young at heart and in body; that is, a diatribe against aging in the US. Depressing. The only part I found myself agreeing with is the criminalization and medicalization of suicide. It is considered deviant, an abhorrence and a grave sin, even in today's secular world. This is strange. In a society that treasures the liberty and freedom of the individual above all else, isn't control over my life and the way I choose to end it the ultimate freedom?

  • Genesis by Bernard Beckett (2006). Clever science fiction novella concerning the fundamental difference between what is meant to be human and to be a machine in a post-religious world. Curiously, it avoids the issue of subjective, phenomenal feelings.

  • Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews (2011). Fascinating anthropological micro-study of the Chungking Mansions (used by famed movie maker Wong Kar-wai as backdrop for some of his movies) in Hong Kong. Populated by a few thousand transient denizens from all over the world, it shelters and nutures the small bit players in the current drama of transnational capitalism and globalization. The book explores in detail the lives, motivations and sentiments of the traders, laborers, asylum seekers, tourists, drug users, cops and prostitutes who make up this microcosm of the modern world and who prowl the building's shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and dimly lit hallways. Its highly revealing as well as entertaining - an Ode to Life

  • Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz (2011). Sentimental yarn told from the point-of-view of a working sheepdog and her trials and tribulations during a massive snow storm in the American Northeast. upsa. The author lives with dogs and is good at observing and describing their behaviors. However, he imputes unrealistic levels of cognition and visual imagery to dogs, and underplays their olfactory sensorium. Too sweetly.


  • The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942). Classical crime noir novel with the hard-boiled private detection Philip Marlowe in pre-WWII Los Angeles. Some of the scenes take place in Pasadena.

  • The Swerve - How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (2011). Vivid historical account of the re-discovery in 1417 (in a monastery in Germany) by Poggio Bracciolini, sometime private scribe and secretary to the Pope, of Lucretius's famous poem De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things (see next entry), written 1,500 years earlier. The book vividly conveys the intellectual climate of the Dark Ages, with its focus on the horrible fates that awaited sinners in the hereafter and the general denial of earthly pleasures. In uncovering the classical Greek and Roman texts, Poggio and his fellow humanists helped revive a more enlightened and genial culture that emphasizes the here-and-now, beauty and the rational exploration of the world. In the process, they played midwife to the Renaissance. Engagingly written and good at mise-en-scene, the work does read on occasion as a polemical diatribe against Christian thought.

  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011). Lengthy (650 pages) and comprehensive biography of the man who did more than anybody else to shape our culture and our sense of design and beauty. Although an authorized biography, this is no hagiography as Isaacson amply recounts the dark side of Jobs' personality, his lack of grace to others, his need to dominate, and the way he systematically belittled people. Yet he also brought the Apple Macintosh into the world, got kicked out from the company he created, built the Next computer, invigorated Pixar and made it the leading light in the computer animated film business, returned to Apple and lead it to its greatest triumphs - including a series of elegant and powerful computers, the creation of the iPod, the iPhone, iTunes, the iPad and the Apple Stores. There is a reason why I have a Macintosh Apple tattoo on my right arm. Jobs was an artistic genius who knew when a machine few even had dreamed of was perfect, an ideal marriage of form with function. For better or worse, the book doesn't attempt to dissect Jobs' psyche, the demons and angels that drove him.

  • The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley (1954). Classical account of Huxley's mescaline experience in Los Angeles. Very poetic and evocative writer. I wonder whether Sommerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence was written under the influence of some such hallucinogens, for it uses very similar ecstatic language. To whit

    Confronted by a chair which looked like the Last Judgment - or, to be more accurate, by a Last Judgment which, after a long time and with considerable difficulty, I recognized as a chair - I found myself all at once on the brink of panic.

    Having never taken any hallucinogens, I'm amazed at the magical powers he attributed to a drug that messes up the brain circuitry's in very specific ways. To quote again

    To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large - this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.

    I wonder why mescalin, LSD and psilocybin specifically affect visual texture and color perception? Does this tell us something about differential receptor distribution in the visual cortex compared to other sensory modalities?

  • The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt (2011). Out of the blue, the undistinguished poet and professor who narrates events is informed by her long-time husband that he is leaving her for a much younger colleague and that their marriage is 'on pause' (the lover is never referred to as anything else but "the pause'). The woman flees into a short-lived psychotic episode requiring hospitalization and then retreats to her roots in rural Minnesota for the summer. The bulk of the book is taken up by her interactions with an all female cast of her aged mother, her five friends, seven pubescent girls whom she teaches poetry, her psychoanalyst, a next-door neighbor and an anonymous emailer. The often somber but at times hilarious funny novel has flashes of brilliant insight into the psychology of gender but runs out of steam half-way through and is marred by a naive attitude of victimization and male caricatures.

  • Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr. Freud by Michael Shepherd (1985). Insightful essay from a British psychiatrist, known as the Hammer of Psychoanalysis for his criticism of the same. It compares the pseudo-logico-deductive method of drawing sweeping conclusions from tiny and trivial clues of Sherlock Holmes to Sigmund Freud's analytical method of inferring something about the patient's motivations and underlying emotions from slips of the tongue, dreams and other refuse of the mind. However, in both cases, the methods are completely ambiguous, often devoid of logic and essentially intuitive. What Holmes decries as ``absurdly simple'' is really ``simply absurd''. Shepherd argue that the enormous success of both, the fictitious detective and the very real doctor, are that they represents myths, mythological representations of human archetypes. In that sense, the man who never lived (SH), will never die. As to psychoanalysis, the author approvingly cites Steiner's 1984 review:

    No less than Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis remains one of the feats of the messianic Judaic vision for man after his emancipation from religiosity. Myth, be it that of an Oedipus complex, be it that of an Arcadeian adulthood, is of its essence.

  • Solo Faces by James Salter (1979). Existentialist yarn about a driven man, Rand, who needs to climb (when he climbed, life welled up, overflowed in him). He has no choice in the matter; it is an obsession to find himself in this manner; everything else in life is secondary, including his relationship to the woman that bears his son (Desire is never without price). He leaves his native Los Angeles and moves to Chamonix. After attaining fame through his Alpine climbs and the attendant tragedies, he returns to lose himself in wandering. Rand is not an overly complicated man and we're not being told a lot about his life. The novel ends inconclusively -

    There were many stories. A climber was seen alone, high up on Half Dome or camping by himself in the silent meadows above Yosemite. He was seen one summer in Baja California and again at Tahquitz. For several years there was someone resembling him in Colorado - tall, elusive, living in a cabin a few miles outside of town. But after a few years, he, too, moved on. They talked of him, however, which is what he had always wanted. The acts themselves are surpassed but the singular figure lives on. The day finally came when they knew they would never know for certain. He had somehow succeeded. He had found the great river. He was gone.

    Written in sparse, stabbing sentences, the prose is bittersweet and disturbing.

  • At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith (2003). Short but amusing satire of academic life in the humanities at a german university. Reads like a David Lodge novel only not as funny.

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (1968). The SF novel that forms the loose basis of Bladerunner, the best SF movie ever (ironically, the movie comes to the opposite conclusion than the book - androids can deeply emphatize with all life). Dark, anti-utopian, visceral, and very perceptive. It revolves around the emphatic response of humans to any other living being, animal or not, and the absence of such emotional response in realistic human replica, androids. Dick effectiovely talks about the Uncanny Valley effect several years before it was formally described by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori.

  • The Cartoon Guide to Statistics by Larry Gonick and Woollcott Smith (1993). One of the most insightful short books on the basic ideas underlying statistical sampling and testing I have read. The cartoon format forces the authors to concentrate on the essential ideas. At times, it is genuinely funny - imagine that. Recommended to me by Alan Yuille, a professor of statistics no less.

  • Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (2006). Eighteen short stories of this existentialist Japanese writer, born of a schizophrenic mother, who lived in the first third of the 20. century. Intense, gripping, nightmarish - I read them when jet-lagged, returning from Narita - psychological, they don't leave you with much, except the wind and loneliness. He did killed himself at age 35; it clearly prefigures here ("It is unfortunate for the gods that, unlike us, they cannot commit suicide.") Kurosawa's epnymous movie is taken from Akutagawa's story In a bamboo grove.

  • An artist of the floating world by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986). The point of view of a retired, famous and socially well-positioned painter a few year after the end of WWII in Tokyo who sees his world - including his two daughters - slipping away as he begins to confront his nationalistic past.

  • Surface Details by Ian M. Banks (2010). Another Culture novel, but too bizarre and overwrought to be believable. The various strands don't come together. Nothing like the fantastic space opera Matter (see below).

  • Ein perfekter Freund by Martin Suter (2002). Swiss thriller about an Italian journalist who, due to brain trauma, suffers a retrograde amnesia of the last 50 days of his life. He slowly realizes that before his injury, he was on the tracks of a big scandal involving prions in chocolate (the Swiss national food!). From a promising beginning of life with amnesia and the loss of confidence that this entails, the novel fails to properly take off. Too many unexplained but convenient suicides and affairs.

  • Once upon a time in the North by Philip Pullman (2008). Little yarn that provides some background to Pullman's masterful trilogy His dark materials. It is the first meeting of the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby with the armored bear Iorek Byrnisson, in a small arctic town. A very well produced book.

  • Love in the Rain by Naguib Mahfouz (1973). A series of enchained characters inhabiting one city quarter in Cairo, just after the abrupt and dramatic defeat in the Seven day's war in 1967. A series of enchained love stories of match-making, coupling, uncoupling in post-revolutionary, socialist Egypt where religion scarcely plays any role and the modern world with all of its virtues and vices is ever present. Told in a cool, terse, melancholic and detached style, like the movies of the Hong-Kong director Wong Kar-wai (of Fallen Angels). The people and their fates stayed with me long after I had finished this short book.

  • A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin (2006). Although written by a physicist, this account of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing is mushy, with heavy pop-psychologizing. I didn't learn anything about their mathematical accomplishments. Forgettable.

  • The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2009). Historical accurate and atmospheric spy thriller taking place in Warsaw, Paris, and Berlin in pre-WWII. It involves the spies of various nations, counter-spies, and defecting spies, overswhadowed by the impending doom of mass violence on a massive scale in the not too distant future. It also highlights the futility of much of intelligence work, as one is never sure how much any information can be trusted. Great read.

  • The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville (2011). Hyper-violent adventure novel set in an alternate universe were Hitler did press the attack at Dunkirk in 1940, destroyed the British Expeditionary Force, Churchill resigned, England sued for peace and Africa was divided between England and the German Reich. The characters are one-dimensional, most of them with the psychological flatness of an Orc, kill-kill-kill. The super-hero and the super-fiend are stock characters, drawn from a graphic novel, written with a movie (and its sequel) in mind.

  • The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands (2009). Utterly persuasive combo of autobiography and lived wisdom. It describes how the 25 years old author, a philosopher of mind by training, adopted a wolf cub - Brenin - and lived with him until his death 11 years later. This was a well-travelled wolf, living in Alabahma, Ireland, England and France. Clearly, during this time, this was by far the most important relationship Rowlands - a rugby player, and self-declared misanthrope and alcoholic - had with any other creature bar none. Funny (the primary mission of Brenin was to demolish every house and its furniture that Rowlands lived in), instructional and poignant. These external events are used to discuss the author's dysmal views on humans - clever, scheming and deceiving apes - the nature of evil and the fundamental differences between people and animals. The former live in time, either in the remembered past or in the projected future, while animals live by and large in the here and now. The books ends with a riff against conventional notion of happiness. Philosophers believe that they can construct gigantic intellectual edifices on the basis of linguistical & logical arguments; of course, these rarely take account of the much more complex nature of reality and therefore almost always fail. What I love about Rowlands existentialist philosophy is that it comes from the gut, just like Nietzsche's (who he cites approvingly). He lives his belief! A wonderful gem of a book that I devoured in a single sitting.

  • Contact by Carl Sagan (1985). I read this great SF novel just after I saw the equally captivating and epnymous movie (Judie Foster is playing one of the most realistic renditions of what it is to be a scientist). A very clever and thoughtful novel about the consequences of discovering a message beamed to earth by some extrateresstial intelligence. Has some of the smartest and most insightful science-religion dialogues since the debates between Naphta and Settembrini in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. And the closing sequence is stunning (it wasn't included in the movie since the director felt that it was too sophisticated a point for the average movie audience to understand).

  • Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges (2009). A despondent and angry Jeremiah against contemporary American society. Hedges, who wrote the very compelling War is the Force that gives us Meaning surveys popular entertainment, the adult (porn) industry, academia, and the current financial crisis coming to the conclusion that most of us will end as quasi-corporate slaves (or in an environmental meltdown). His analysis of the state of society is disappointing since it is highly biased. And these Adorno quotes are hysterical. Does he actually believe them? I mean, this sort of philosophy-lite stuff was popular in the 60s, but man, don' confuse if with factual statements about the world. His diatribe against academia, the Harvard's, Stanford's, and other elite colleges, is narrowly focused on what he perceives to be a lack of true discussion of alternate forms of societies and utopias within the humanities (code word for the various forms of socialisms that 20. century history has amply shown to be non-workable). Of course, Hedges neglects to mention that on the whole, all of us on the planet live longer, healthier and richer lives than ever before. And that's a provable fact.

  • The Love Song of Monkey by Michael Graziano (2008). A very short modern parable, a combo of fairy tale and science fiction, about love, forgiveness and meditation. The author is a neuroscientist which is, perhaps, how the 'monkey' sneaked into the title but makes otherwise no appearance what-so-ever.

  • Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (1987). His first SF novel, a space opera, set in the distant future, at the time of the Culture wars. A bit too cinematic, bombastic and violent, with too many unlikely escapes. The backdrop of a galatic civilization is very impressive though. Not nearly as compelling as Banks' later Matter.


  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999). Terse and engaging novel of a rather unsympathetic 52 years old, divorced academic, attempting to write the libretto for an opera based on Byron in Italy, in post-Apartheid South Africa. After having an affair with a student, he resigns from the university and moves in with his estranged daughter, living alone on a farm in the country. The aftermath of an unprecedented violent act, during which his daughter is raped and he is violent assaulted, further alienates him from her. As the power structure in the country changes, he fails to adapts. He ends up - out of compassion - putting abandoned, old or sick dogs down. The novel offers a bleak and meaningless view of life in which good or bad, much more the latter than the former, happens and one simply has to accept it. Coetzee has a powerful voice - the way he speaks of the disenfranchised dogs is overwhelming in its intensity. Yet like much of 20. century fiction, this book is not uplifting. Man has lost his roots, the universe is meaningless. Why is this century so much less capable than earlier ones of producing life-affirming art?

  • The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939). Ambler's best novel of intrigue, spying, double-crossing in the Balkans in the time between the Great Wars.

  • The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988). Another culture science-fiction, shorter but not nearly as compelling as Matter. It has elements of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game.

  • 69 by Ryu Murakami (1987). I was amazed when my Japanese friends told me that besides Haruki Murakami, many of whose book's I've read and enjoyed (see below), there is another Murakami, Ryu Murakami who is as least as potent and unusual a novelist as Haruki. I can confirm this for 69, a short autobiographical novel that takes place in 1969, the year a seventeen year old and rebellious Ryu attended his last year of high-school in a small provincial town in Japan. He joins a rock group, produces an independent movie, organizes a school protest, that nets him 3 months expulsion, and a festival and chases girls. All of the former activities are in the service of the latter. Very funny.

  • The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010). A short and well written, (aside from the constant jokes) popular account that gives an overview of current state of Cosmology and the attempt to explain the Big Bang without invoking a personal creator. Hawking defends what he calls the no boundary condition - in essence, time is closed - that makes it meaningless to talk about anything happening prior to the Big Bang. The text reject string theory but advocates for something called M-theory that is all promissory right now. The two physicists argue that science has to give up the ancient dream of a single, consistent theory (the Grand Unified Theory) that explains everything in the universe and that leaves nothing to choice (or to arbitrary parameters). Well, maybe. But right now we have no idea and no experimental fact to back up M-theory. I was not taken by the book. They do have a very apt analogy in Conway's Game of Life between the laws of physics and the laws of chemistry.

  • Ark by Stephen Baxter (2009). Continues where the hard science ficition novel Flood left off. Faced by imminent doomsday, caused by a global flooding wiping out all of humanity, the US government, corralled into what remains of Colorado, launches one starship with 80 people on board (depleting its remaining resources). The spacecraft uses a newly developed warp-drive to explore nearby exoplanets. Asking 80 people to survive for decades in a tiny spaceship asks for trouble and intergenerational and other personal conflicts arise. The groups splits up, one settling an unpromising earth-like planet around 81 Eridani, one returns to the flooded earth while one travels even further to make planetfall elsewhere. Despite the cataclysmic events that wipes out billions of people, Baxter has an eye for the details of plausible human interactions.

  • Kingdom of Shadow by Alan Furst (2000). Historical spy thriller taking place in pre-WW-II Paris and Eastern Europe, figuring various spies counter-spies, and defecting spies. Most of these struggles are futile, wasted effort. Very atmospheric.

  • Cultures of War - Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John W. Dower (2010). Riveting account by a MIT historian of the structural similarities and differences between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Pacific conflict of WWII on the one hand and 9/11 and Operation Iraq Freedom on the other. An easy read, scholarly and exhaustively researched and footnoted, it comes to a number of conclusions, most of them quite sobering.

    First, and of most interest to me as a student of consciousness, consider the surprise attacks on the US Pacific Fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7. 1941 and on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Al-Queda on September 11. 2001. Roughly 2,500 military died in the former and 3,000 civilians in the latter. Both were spectacular tactical successes (for the attackers). Equally, both were colossal failures of intelligence by large organizations dedicated to defend the country from such debacles. Scholarly and journalistic sleuthing uncovered reams of information that pointed to the impeding strike days, weeks and months ahead of time. In the case of 9/11, intelligence personnel had warned the administration 40 times of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Yet all in vain. Why? Countless government investigations and books came to similar conclusions. Of course, there was incompetence at many levels. Yet more insidious, much more widespread than individual failings to heed warnings, were the explicit and implicit attitudes of racial arrogance and cultural condescension in the minds of the people who could have made a difference. Admiral Kimmel, the officer in charge of the Pacific Fleet, made it perfectly clear in an unguarded moment during one of many congressional investigations: ``I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.'' More than fifty years later, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz held his opponents in the same disregard, dismissing bin Laden as ``this little terrorist in Afghanistan." Wide-spread, institutionalized stereotyping, ``how can unwashed and uneducated people, living in caves with towels on their heads, threaten us, the most powerful nation on the planet?" blinded eindividuals and organization to these threats. The events that lead to the financial meltdown of Lehman Brothers and that almost crashed the markets in September of 2008 is another example of such a pathology of thought. Here it was the widely held belief that investment risk was under control and could be leveraged away by suitable financial instruments. This is the unconscious in action.

    Second, the occupation of Japan under the visionary General MacArthur was a resounding success. A country whose cities were all but destroyed by fire bombing, who lost all of her colonies, and was governed de facto by the military, emerged as democratic, prosperous and peaceful economic giant with a large middle class. Remarkable, not a single US soldier, not one, was killed during the post-war occupation by sabotage or terrorism. Eight years after the fall of Baghdad, more than 4,000 US soldiers have died in terror-related incidences. The only way US troops move around in a liberated and democratic Iraq is in full body-armor, guns ever ready.

    Third, the real similarities are in the culture of hubris, the messianic belief in the soundness and goodness of one's actions, and the culture of conflict prevalent in the war cabinet under prime minister Tojo under the nominal leadership of the ineffectual emperor Hirohito and in the democratic war cabinet of president Bush with his cabal of vice president Dick Cheney, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condi Rice, secretary of state Colin Powell, Wolfowitz and deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage (calling themselves the Vulcans). Both Japan in 1941 and the US 60 years later entered upon a war of choice that was initially stunningly successful at the tactical level yet ended later in a debacle. In both cases, there was remarkably little long-term planning and with scant thought given to the long-term motivation of their enemies and the resources that they would be able to mobilize (did the White House really believe that selling Iraqi assets to the highest bidder, opening up this closed Society to the untrammeled free market, would endear them to the citizens on whose behalf they were supposedly occupying their country??). Despite all of the large differences between the two countries, the psychology, the decision making structures and the justification used by the Emperor System and the Imperial Presidency 60 years later are comparable and are characterized by clannish group-think, the belief in the miraculous power of technology, faith-based reasoning and judging others by their behaviors but one's own side by intentions, all the usual weaknesses of human decision making.

    Lastly, and most depressing, is the chilling propensity for unthinkable violence against unarmed combatants to be justified by high-sounding rhetoric. When questions of reducing the ``morale'' of the enemy enter the picture, morality exits. This is patently obviously in the case of the murderous al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other jihadists and their intellectual fathers (Sayyid Qutb) but less so in the case of the US and its allies. The prime exhibit here is the air war and terror bombing in World War II in Europe (e.g. Dresden) and in Japan. While early on there were attempts to limit the bombing to targets that had direct military relevance, the later stages degenerated into savage killing of large numbers of civilians by firebombing (hard numbers are difficult to come by but extend into the low millions). This culminated in the only deployment of nuclear weapons by any country, the mushroom clouds above Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The use of indiscriminate bombing continued in the Korean War - with most of the Napalm bombing taking place in North Korea in 1951 and 1952 after the front had stabilized around the present DMZ - and into later wars.

    The recognition that the can ny country, the United States of America, can act as brutally when persecuting its war as any other country or people should give us pause and be humble. It brings to mind the sad truth Homo hominem lupus, that is, man is a wolf to men.

  • Flood by Stephen Baxter (2008). A pretty good science fiction yarn about the end of civilization by a gigantic flooding from deep, subsurface reservoirs. The novel follows a few scientists and (ex)-militars - united by the fact that there were once held hostage for four years together - over 40 years as they and the rest of humanity try to survive. In the first years, it looks like it is global warming on steroids until countries and then whole continents submerge. After a lot of utopian schemes collide with the horror of a few billion people dying off - often as much as by violence as by nature - it ends when a few survivors on rafts witness the top of Mt. Everest disappearing below the waves. At times quite evocative, in particular when describing a nuclear submarine exploring what remains of London 3 km below sea. Even though it's 500+ pages and its basic assumption is unrealistic (where are all of the acquifiers that can flood the planet to a height of 9,000 meters; over the past century, sea level shows a rise of 2 mm/year; in the novel, it's thousands of times faster) I had difficulty putting it down. I also devoured the follow-up novel Ark in this disaster series.

  • Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein (2006).

  • Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (2007).

  • Island on the Edge of the World - The Story of St Kilda by Charles Maclean (1972). If you are fascinated by the romantic idea of living on an remote island, this is the book for you. Except it is definitely not Tahiti! A seasoned account of the most remote and westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, in the North Atlantic. The largest, St Kilda, is but a few square kilometers of sea cliffs and heavily weathered granite. Settled since at least the Middle Ages, this tiny community - numbering never more than 200 people and usually far less - lived off sheep, barley, potatos and hunting the large number of sea birds. These fowling activities involved considerable skills in climbing, especially on the precipitous sea stacks. These are very impressive even by modern climbing standards. In their splendid isolation, the islander lived a sort of utopian life (no crime has ever been recorded) under extremely adverse conditions. The modern world did them no good and the last 36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated in 1930. Since then, except for a small military missle tracking station, the islands are uninhabited. The archipelago belongs to the National Trust for Scotland.

  • Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner (2010). Reflection on the theological and christian underpinning of various classical movies (City Light, Unforgiven, Matrix, BladeRunner, Matrix). It contains numerous unforgettable sentences such as ``Unforgiven is the western movie version of the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon with a six-shooter."

  • The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham (1908). An early novel of his that tells of the sinister Oliver Haddo, patterned upon the British occultis Aleister Crowley, and his hypnotic influence upon a happily engaged young couple. As Maugham himself remarked on more than one occasion "I know just where I stand - in the very front row of the second rate" (writers). Need I say more?

  • War by Sebatian Junger (2010). A superb, vivid and intellectually serious account of modern small-group combat. Junger spent a year embedded with a platoon of US troops in the distant Korangal Valley, in the mountainous regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book is not about the politics or the ethics of the war and killing and being killed. It is about the universal experience, the psychological, biological and military historical aspects of organized violence of small groups of highly trained young men fighting other groups of highly motivated young men and what makes them tick. Why are these soldiers from a variety of backgrounds willing to sacrific their lives for each other? Why do they routinely perform what most would consider heroic deeds? It is not patriotism or their belief in a just war but because failing one of their buddies in battle is the ultimate betrayal and simply unconceivable! "It's about the man next to you. That's all it is", Death is the preferred option. Having learnt to utterly depend on each other, they are beholden to each other until their tour of duty ends, they are seriously injured or dead. Put differently, it is really a form of love for each other, what the ancient Greeks knew as Arete. For many, the unmitigated boredom, social isolation, deprivation and constant fear, interrupted by brief moments of combat, terror and adrenaline rush within a tighly-knit group of men provides purpose and is highly addictive. Tragically, many have grave difficulties adapting to civilian life back home. A riveting account which I read in one sitting.

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). Quite original adolescent book about a young child who is raised by the dead on a graveyard. I keep on reading his books in the hope of discovering another Neverwhere masterpiece.

  • Francis Crick - Hunter of Life's Secrets by Robert Olby (2009). Well researched and documented, 500 page long, biography of Francis' life, the intellectual giant who dominated biology in the 20. century unlike none else. The penultimate chapter From the searchlight to the soul covers Francis' and my joint work on the neuronal basis of consciousness from the mid 1980s until his death in 2004. All in all, we wrote and published two dozen joint papers and book chapters, and one book each on these topics.

  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1940). Each time I read this great piece of literature I discover something new in this many-layered philosophical allegory, satire, this slapstick novel about metaphysics, passion, not accepting the world as it is, the human imagination, salvation and redemption. It is magical realism decades before magical realism. It is about Margarita, the Master's mistress, who refuses to despair of her lover, a hopeless dreamer who is consigned to a mental assylum, and his one great work of art, a novel about Pontius Pilate. She is invited by the Devil to Walpurgis Night, becomes a witch, commits adultery, and learns to harness her unleashed passions; naked, she flies over the deep forests and rivers of Mother Russia and returns to Soviet Moscow - where nobody wants to believe in the supernatural - to serve as the hostess for Satan's great ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they pour up from the opened maw of Hell. Ultimately, she is reunited with her lover, who leaves the psychiatric ward, and they are given the eternal rest of Dante's Limbo.

    The novel takes place during Easter in 1930 Moscow which is visited by the devil and his retinue - a hilarious gang that seeds confusion everywhere they visit. They target the literary elite and its trade union, MASSOLIT, its headquarter and privileged restaurant, wrecking havoc among corrupt social-climbers, bureaucrats, profiteers, and their wives and mistresses. The novel also describes a parallel world, just before Passover in Jerusalem two thousand years earlier in which the astrologer's son, the fifth Procurator of Judea, the cruel Pontius Pilate, condemns an innocent man - Yeshiva Na-Nozri - to death, knowing fully well that he has acted cowardly and then, to calm his troubled mind, instigates the murder of one Judas of Karioth who betrayed Yeshiva.

    In the end, all resolves itself and climbing onto a broad path of moonlight, a man in a white cloak with a blood-red lining walks besides a young man in a torn chinon and with a disfigured face. The two, Pontius Pilate and Yeshiva, are engaged in a heated but friendly debate. Behind them walks a magnificent, calm, gigantic dog with pointed ears.

  • No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts (2006). Well crafted and illustrated personal account of the climbing exploits of Viesturs from Seattle, America's preeminent mountaineer. From his early days as a guide for Rainier Mountaineering, as a vet and as a carpenter (enableing him to drop any job at a moment's notice to go climbing somewhere), to his succesful climb of all 14 mountains that are higher than 8,000 meters (26,247 ft; all of these are in the Himalayan and in the Karakoram mountain ranges) and his family life. He was the star climber of the Everest IMAX movie, that took place during the 1996 Everest debacle that cost 8 climbers their life. And he did all of these climbs without oxygen. Climbing any mountain over 8 kilometer tall is not conducive to your health. The ratio of the number of climbers who successfully reach the summit compared to the number who die on the mountain is 7:1 for Everest, 3:1 for K2 and a remarkable 2:1 for Annapurna (of Maurice Herzog fame; this was the first 8,000plus peak to be climbed in 1950). Because of his remarkable success, Viesturs feels compelled to make a bogus probability argument about his risk of dying being so much lower than everybody else's. It is amazing how people continuously underappreciate the role that chance plays in their life. Other than that, I recommend this book that tries to explain not only why Ed feels compelled to climb but how.

  • Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner (1985). An extended, turbulent and sprawling philosophical ghost-story that descends into campus politics, an ancient incest-murder, a much more recent murder, a maybe murder, a suicide, drunkenness, divorce and madness of one Peter Mickelsson, a once well-known philosopher who has now fallen on hard times at Binghamton University in upstate New York. He misses his college-age children (sic), has various affairs and muses on Kant, Nietzsche (mainly) and Wittgenstein. Pursued by the IRS for failing to pay taxes, his alimony-hungry ex-wife and unpaid bills, he manages to acquire a dilapidated ancient farm house that may, or may not, have once housed Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons originated from this part of the woods). Mickelsson, not the most sympathetic of protagonists, encounters plenty of ghosts, some apparently real, some a figment of his overheated and brooding imagination and some that may be engaged in real criminal enterprises. Murakamis' A wild sheep chase written a few years later, must have borrowed some elements from Gardner. My version of the book is literally falling apart - the 590 pages are not well glued together and this is the 2. time I've read it. Although not lite reading, I highly recommend it. It has much quotable material. To wit: ``Such was the fruit of all those eons of evolution, from hydrogen to consciousness: galaxies wailing their sorrow. Music of the spheres."

  • The New Quantum Universe by Tony Hey and Patrick Walters (2003). Highschool textbook with very little mathematics. Does work well at the conceptual level. It has one of the simplest explanation of Bell's inequality. Considered by many to be the most profound theorem in science, it deals with measurements performed at distant locations on pairs of entangled particles.

  • The Game by Laurie King (2004). Not nearly as entertaining as her first book in this series (The Beekeeper's Apprentice). Mary Russell has married (yes, married!) Sherlock Holmes and they have an adventure in British India of the 1920s. There could be a lot of scope for psychological exploration for what it means for the aloof, quasi-Asperger personality of Holmes to be a lover and husband but none of that is even remotely touched upon. Disappointing.

  • What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami (2008). A slim running journal about his experiences and ruminations during marathons, an ultramarathon and a triathlon. Overall, he adopts a genuine Zen attitude to long distance running. He fails to explain, though, his obsession with running on the clock. He admits that he's an amateur yet months before any race he's already concerned whether or not he can run a sub-four hours marathon. I guess I'm way over that - I now run purely for the enjoyment, with very little training and without watch. I'm not gloating here. During last month's Death Valley marathon, my time was abysmal - no training except one very long run the previous week - yet the scenery was so unique that it was an awesome experience. Why spoil this by constantly glancing at your wristwatch?

  • The Matrix by Joshua Clover (2004). A book length, post-modern interpretation of the eponymous movie (as well as similar edge-of-the-construct cinematic visions as the superb cult movie Dark City). I did learn, however, why Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Mr. Smith and his clones wear those signature shades.

  • The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King (1994). A delightful feminist take on Sherlock Holmes. As is well known, after his final case, Sir Arthur has every's thinking man favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes retire in Sussex, keeping bees. In this novel, we are introduced to a precocious american teenager, who lost her parents and is about to study theology and mathematics at Oxford. She unexpectedly becomes Holmes's student, something he never had in real life (as it were). I enjoyed this unconventional pastiche.

  • The Last Stand of Fox Company by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin (2009). Well written and fast-paced account of the battle over Fox Hill - part of the Chosin Reservoir Debacle in the cold (down to - 30 F) and misery of North Korean's mountains close to the chinese border during the Korean War. A few hundreds US Marines fought a five day battle against numerically vastly bigger Chinese forces. Although three-quarter of the Marines died, they held the pass. The book is very good at rendering the chaos, intensity and violence of twentieth-century combat at the level of the individual soldier.

  • World War One - A Short History by Norman Stone (2007). A short military history about the follies of WW-I. Stone's dry and ascerbic style emphasizes the massive blunders by politicians and generals on both sides. What is striking is the stunningly horrific losses of this war. Take the battle of the Somme in north-eastern France in summer and fall of 1916. Initiated by the British and French forces, by the time it ended a staggering 1.5 MILLION casulties had occurred on both sides (yet senior officers in the Britosh High Command portrayed the battle as a success). On the opening day alone, close to 20,000 British soldiers died, the bloddiest death toll in UK history; yet the obstinate army persisted for more than 100 days. The British gained approximately three km of German-held territory during this time and lost about 420,000 soldiers in the process, meaning that one centimeter cost more than one soldier!. Total killed or missing on both sides in this one battle was around 300,000. Germany lost on average 1,200 soldiers - dead - every single day of the four year war! And the end, in 1918, was inconclusive. Fighting would erupt again 21 years later into World War Two, which should really be seen as a continuation of WWI. The sheer stupidity of it all; and everybody enthusiastically contributed, from the lofties academic and intellectuals to the workers. Depressing.

  • Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend (2009). A fun little monograph on Charles Darwin, the consumate dog lover, his extensive friendship with breeders of dogs and other domesticated animals and how his astute observation of canine behavior influenced his evolutionary thinking. Detailed accounts of various dog behavior appear quite frequently in both The Origin of Species (1859) and, in particular, The Descent of Man (1871).


  • Logicomix - An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou (2009). You would think that a 340 pages graphic novel about truth in mathematics would be pretty dry stuff and couldn't be done. Well, this work of art is totally captivating. The book is centered on the life of Bertrand Russell and his work, with Whitehead, on the Principia Mathematica. Russell was fueled by an obsession, a need to show that logic could be fully based on rigorous formalism so that nothing was left to intuition or to chance. They ended up taking 363 pages to prove "1+1=2". Other major characters in the book are Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel. It was Gödel, of course, who provided the terminal blow to the ancient belief, growing out of some sort of theological desire, that any sufficiently powerful mathematical statement would have to be either true or false. The graphic artist do a superb job of converting these abstract concerns of the main characters into believable motives helped by the love-life of Russell and his anti-war stance. This is a must-read for anybody concerned with notions of relative and absoluet truth and mathematics.

  • Matter by Iain M. Banks (2008). An utterly compelling hard-core science-fiction novel of the far future, in a galaxy with thousands of distinct human, quais-human, computer, robot and alien civilizations at different levels of sociological and technological development. These range from the more-or-less medieval culture in which the novel starts out to races so advanced that they have ``sublimed'', achieving a sort of immortal godhood as beings of pure energy. The only novels that posses such a grandious and compelling view of multi-threaded natural and artificial life in the universe is Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Matter is no abstract, dispassionate birdeye view of life in the distant future. The book is driven by passion - it follows two brothers and a sister as they try to deal with the brutal murder of their father, a king. The true hero of the novel, though, is an extraordinary creation, the planet Sursamen. This construct, built by an unknown and extinct civilization eons ago, consists of a gigantic series of shells, each a thousand miles apart, filled with different environments - lands, mountains, oceans hundreds of miles deep - lit and heated by internal thermonuclear sun-like sources and interconnected by tunnels that permit travel - for those in the known - between the different levels. Each level is inhabited by different creatures and races. This equilibrium is disrupted by the discovery of a very ancient artifact that comes to life. Matter is a stunning novel and a must read for anybody interested in the ultimate boundaries of technology.

  • North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings (2004). During my three months sabbatical at Korea University in Seoul, I read a lot of books about both Korea's. I'm particular fascinated by North Korea, an enigmatic country - where 99% of the population live in a quasi agrarian, dysfunctional industrial state under highly egalitarian rule, supervised by Communist Institutions and lead by a tiny elite and an effective hereditary king - soon in the 3. generation - who is revered as a God. Indeed, this is very much a continuation of the Confucian tradition and of the way the traditional Korean Joseon kings have been treated. Cumings, a very left leaning professor from the University of Chicago makes the reader understand the seemingly crazy behavior of the North Korean, why they got to be so paranoid. Without condoning the rampart political suppression and famine that has lead to mass starvation he does describe North Korean as a consistent anti-liberal, anti-capitalistic model. The amount of brain washing in North Korea is enormous (among others, all men must spend 10, that is TEN, years in the army without ANY trip home). The end result is a state that is often unable to feed its population. Visiting the DMZ at night and lookig North, one is struck by the near complete absence of any light - they are conserving precious electrical power - or any cars. Yet Cumings argues that the regime will survive, no matter what. They learned from the collapse of East Germany.

  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985). Being on a Murakami roll, I decided to read this science-fiction novel that is supposedly about he nature of consciousness and the unconscious. It takes places in two distinct worlds, one of them an isolated village surrounded by a high wall. The novel has a dream-like feel to it. It reminded me of the first photorealistic game, the magical Myst. All it all, the novel is too bizarre to recommend it.

  • A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (1989). One of his better novels. A strange and compelling combination of mystery and detective novel with metaphysical, ghostly and otherwordly elements, combining elements of hard-boilded noir fiction with Japanese anime. It all revolves around a magical sheep.

  • Deception Point by Dan Brown (2001). Absolute trash. Reading this vapid thriller while in a severely jet-lagged state at the airport, I became so feed up with the plot that became predictable around page 10, its bogus science and paper-thin characters, that I threw it in the trash. How did this guy ever become popular? At least, Crichton got his facts straight. Plus, I hate it when I read novels that are thinly disguised screen plays.

  • After Dark by Haruki Murakami (2007). His usual metaphysical, alienation fare, ever so well written. The action, if we can call it that, takes places over a single night in Tokyo, starting off at a Denny. Spooky, creepy, a compelling read:

    Before long there is movement in Eri's face again -- a reflective twitching of the flesh of one cheek, as if to chase away a tiny fly that has just alighted there. Then her right eyelid flutters minutely. Waves of thought are stirring. In a twilight corner of her consciousness, one tiny fragment and another tiny fragment call out wordlessly to each other, their spreading ripples intermingling. The process takes places before our eyes. A unit of thought begins to form this way. Then it links with another unit that has been made in another region, and the fundamental syste of self-awarenes takes shape. In other words, she is moving, step by step, toward wakefullness.

  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman (1962) given to me by my brother Michael. A lively description by a historian on the way the World - here taken to mean in the main England, France, Germany and the US - felt in the two decades leading up to the mass killing that was World War 1. A degree of optimism and belief in ever lasting progress, in science, in class and in country that we, children of Dachau and Auschwitz, of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, of Communism and Fascism, of the killing fields of Cambodia and of Global Warming, find difficult to marshall. Particular enlighting for me was the chapter on the Anarchist movement just before the turn of the century. Born out of misplaced idealism, anarchists killed the heads of state of the US (McKinley), of France, of Spain (two different ones), Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and the King Humbert of Italy. The deed was carried out by a single man, who let himself be taken by the police to emphasize the ``pure" nature of the deed. Quite a difference to suicide bombings we're used to.

  • Sturz durch alle Spiegel by Ursula Priess (2009). Idiosyncratic but well crafted autobiographical account (in German) of the relationship between the daughter of the famous Swiss playwright and novelist, Max Frisch, and her dad. They became estranged from each other after he divorced her mother but find, many years later, an uneasy balance. The book reflects, in an interesting manner, the temporally distorting and creative power of memory. That is, unlike computer memory, we often, or perhaps even commonly for long-term personal memories, don't remember when something occurred nor do we recall what happened but what we think happened.

  • The Cat in Numberland by Ivar Ekeland (2006). Incredibly imaginative, and beautifully illustrated (by John O'Brien), short ``children's" book about the mathematician Georg Cantor's ideas of infinity and David Hilbert's rendition of these difficult ideas in terms of a hotel with infinitely many rooms. In a playful manner, the book illustrates that even though all rooms are occupied by a guest, the hotel can always accommodate twice the number of guests, one of many strange properties of infinity. It can even host all fractions but not all decimals. A true gem!

  • The Intelligent Portfolio by Christopher Jones (2008). The best book on investing in bonds, mutual funds, stocks, ETF and so on I've encountered. It is written for the intelligent layperson. The author, the CEO of an investment company, is a strong believer in the Random Walk theory and tailors his advice accordingly: there is no free lunch, mistrust any get-rich-quick scheme, go for inexpensive index funds, minimize any and all fees, invest for the long-term, be tax-wise and so on. He focuses on the very large fluctuations of financial markets (e.g., the standard deviation of annual returns for the US equity market is an astonishing 20%) and on the relationship between risk (that is, variance) and returns. The book is thoughtful, often analytical, without being prone to endless repetitions and silly examples. In today's age, when you have the good fortune to be the master of your own finanical future but money matters always bored you and you only want to read one book, then let it be this one.

  • Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (2005). A 500 pages long rousing mystery-historical novel, similar to the Da Vinci Code but more intellectual and of higher literary quality. It weaves back and forth between modern France and the early 13-th century in the Languedoc region of the South of France. The 500 page novel vividly describes the events surrounding the violent suppressions of the Cathars, a religious sect that had strongly Manichaean beliefs that put them at odds with the Catholic Church. A confluence of political and religious forces lead to the Albigensian Crusade, during which up to one million inhabitants of these regions were slaughtered, and Occitania lost its independence to the French crown. The storyline is sweeping - even though the denouement at the end is a bit too mystical for my taste. A great read.

  • The Ladies of Grace Adieut by Susanna Clark (2009). A collection of eight fairy-tales set in the same milieu, the early 19-th century England and the awakening of true Magic as her phenomenal first-time novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that I loved. These stories, focussed on women of magic, are simply not of the same engrossing and realistic caliber.

  • Dog on it by Spencer Quinn (2009). A short detective novel figuring the standard burnt-out and cynical ex-cop turned private eye (in desert Arizona). What makes this book unusually enjoyable is that it is narrated from the point of the wise and lovable canine companion who does not understand such human concerns as divorce and cash flow problems but who is unfailing loyal to his human partner; he has a very short attention span and is always willing to follow female dog-scents, take treats from any human and relishes a good fight with dogs or people.

  • Buridans Esel by Gunter de Bruyn (1968). Very well written novel by a East German writer taking place in East Berlin during the communist regime. It describes the trials and tribulations of the head of a local library who leaves his wife nd young children to live with a young colleague. However, in the end he cowardly returns to his wife. Conveys the point of view of all three key actors.

  • Stoner by John Williams (1965). A wonderful sparse, almost existentialist novel of the unremarkable life of a professor of English at a Midwestern University. Stoner, the protagonist who is drawn very sympathetically, leads a tightly constrained life, moving from a poor farmer's upbringing to the modest poverty of an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, constrained by early 20-th century rural morals. Stoner never leaves the small university town, marries very unhappily, raises one daughter whom his wife deliberately estranges from him, has one passionate love affair, aspires to be a good teacher to his students, and dies of cancer shortly before his retirement. This gem of a novel, little known, is about the quintessential academic life (brought out in the New York Review of Books Classic series.

  • Wastelands - Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams (2008). Anthology of short stories concerning the aftermath of usually not further described apocalpytic happenings that end life as we know it. My personal favorite is the very compelling And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear. It has a female biker deliver a special `package' through the nuclear waste of the American South-West encounter somebody resembling the Baron Samedi. Never despair by Jack McDevitt evokes the powerful oratory of Winston Churchill during the darkest days of World War Two.

  • The Language of God - A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins (2006). Like the DNA molecule that the author has been so intimately involved with, this is a double-stranded book. One strand is an autobiographical account of his journey from benign neglect of religion is his childhood home to atheism during university days (on his way to getting his PhD) until a gradual awaking of his spiritual nature in Medical School, culminating in his conversion into an evangelical Christian. At the same time, he became a famed gene hunter - helping to discover the mutation in the gene for cystic fibrosis, a common hereditary disease - and the leader of the worldwide, public effort that lead to the decoding of the human genome. The other strand is the confluence of faith and science. Collins assembles the empirical arguments in favor of belief in a creator God: the existence of something rather than nothing, the creation of the universe in the initial singularity of the Big Bang, the remarkable fine-tuning of physical constant facilitating the emergence of stable and complex elements (anthropic principle), the remarkable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the universe we find ourselves in, evolution by natural selection (a remarkable efficient means for the emergence of conscious creatures), and - with a big nod to CS Lewis - the existence of a Moral Law that is universal to be found in all cultures and at all times. Collins makes a very cohesive argument that he believes in a personal God because rather than despite of science (calling evolution, ``God's way of giving upgrades''). Collins is also a powerful public speaker, addressing for two hours a packed house at Caltech, a seemingly robustly secular high temple dedicated to Science and Technology. Even here, the hunger for the numinal, the search for meaning, cannot be repressed, despite the explicit or implicit disdain that most of my colleages in academia have for religion (taking religion to mean the fundamental, anti-rational religio-political movement that dominates in the US).

  • In Hazard by Richard Hughes (1938). A ripping great adventure tale of a steam freighter caught in a terrible hurriance for many days and how some men crack and some thrive under the tremendous stress, the near constant presence of death. The book has a concise summary of one version of the solution of the mind-body problem in the guise of a conversation between two Scotish engineers (it's easiest to understand if you read it aloud).

    ``Weel, noo. Are we to tak' it that a human Chreestian is compoondit o' three pairts; his body, his min', an' his speerit?" MacDonald grunted. ``The body dees, the speerit leeves?" MacDonald grunted again. ``Than whit o' the min'? That's nayther speerit nor body. Yet it's vera boont up wi' the body. A disease o' the body can disease the min'. A blow on the body can blot oot the min'. The min', like the body, grawls auld an' decays. The daith o' the body, tha: is that the daith o' the min' tae?" ``Alloin' it to be," said MacDonald. ``Than the future life canna be of a vera pairsonal nature, A' thinkin': it is a saft, imbecile sort o' thing ma speerit would be wi'oot ma min': nae William Edgar Soutar at a'.''

  • Being or Nothingness by Joe K (2008?). I have no idea what to make of this bizarre book that was mailed to me by somebody called "Maurice" from Sweden. It only has 21 pages, plenty of references to Sartre, Kafka, Herman Hesse, Sir Conan Doyle, the Bible and so on. On the cover is Escher' famous woodcut of the two hands drawing each other. On the inside is a 'copy' of a letter to Doug Hofstadter. I this performance art or part of an elaborate viral campaign?


  • Idyll mit ertrinkendem Hund by Michael Köhlmeier (2008). A tightly composed autobiographical vignette of a writer living in a small Austrian village close to the Rhine. At the occasion of a three day visit of his editor in winter, he reminisces how the tragic climbing death of his 21 yrs old daughter a few years ago has profoundly affected him and his wife. The author regains a belief in life when something in him refuses to let a dog, who broke through the ice and is drowning, die despite him (i.e. the author) almost freezing to death in the process. Wonderful therapeutic for anybody who has lived through a major family trauma.

  • The Family that Couldn't Sleep by Daniel Max (2006). Very readable account of the discovery of Fatal Familial Insomnia in an Italian family. It is an inherited prion disease and family members have a 50% of having the gene. Its onset is around 50 years and the patient dies within a year from lack of sleep (their thalamus is affected). A truly horrible way to die. Like all prion diseases, it is untreatable and is invariable fatal. Family records trace it back at least two centuries. Max also describes the other prion diseases, in particular kuru - the laughing disease that was endemic to the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea (transmission occurred due to their cannibalistic of eating the brain of their dead relatives), Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as "mad cow disease") and related diseases in other animals. The disease-causing agent is a protein, PrP. It has a normal form - of unknown function - and a lethal configuration. It is fascinating since this is a disease that involves stereo-chemistry. You take the normal protein, fold it up in a different configuration and many years later it expresses itself in amyloid form in the central nervous system, killing the organism in nasty ways. The book vividly describes all of this, including a colorful cast of characters, in particular Carleton Gajdusek and Stanley Prusiner (both of which won, independently, Nobel Prize; this is rare). The book has an insider twist as the author himself suffers from misfolded proteins, in his case a nonfatal and slowly progressing neuromuscular disease. I recommend this book.

  • Love Me by Garrison Keillor (2003). Great novel; funny, thoughtful and poignant. The story of a real-life romance, marriage and aging with all the warts of real life. Adult version of the Prairie Home Companion with more sex and anti-republican rants.

  • Isaac Newton by Gale Christianson (2005). Pithy (ca 120 pages) and worthwhile biography of Newton, arguably the greatest genius-as-scientist who ever lived. It made me appreciate the extent to which Newton was both an intuitive experimentalist and one of the most gifted mathematicians ever. Newton was only 24 when he invented calculus with fluxions - quantities with a constant rate of change. By then he had also carried out the famous prism experiments and had the first insight into universal gravitation.

  • Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (2008). An implausible historical, literary, ghostly murder mystery with elements of a love story interwoven. It takes place in both the 21. century Cambridge - involving a neuroscientist working on psychotic neuro-active agents and a radical animal rights group - and the historical Newton turning to alchemy at Trinity College in Cambridge of the late 17th century. The novel has a ghost from the 17th century killing somebody in contemporary England. The book starts out strong but then descends into nonsense.

  • Liberty Bar by Georges Simenon (1932). A classical Inspector Maigret novel. Tight and sparse prose, about murder, human weakness, lust and alcohol among the beautiful surroundings of the Cote D'Azur and about somebody who had it all but who, in middle age, threw it all away because he could not resist temptation. Not cynical but sad & poignant. Recommended.

  • Spook Country by William Gibson (2006). A continuation of his earlier novel Pattern Recognition. It deals with the familiar Gibsonian themes of the nature of art and media (he introduces locative art, that exploits a combination of VR and GPS-sensitive interactive art), the socio-cultural effects of advanced technology, the privitization of functions that were previously carried out by the government and the shady underbelly of society, inhabiting by post 9/11 intelligence and military operatives as well as criminals and private individuals with unlear motivations (but a far cry from the much more free-wheeling Sprawl that figures so prominently in his earlier signature cyberpunk stories). The novel follows a variety of characters around Los Angeles (at the W and the Standard) and New York who don't know what they are doing until they all converge at a warehouse in Vancouver. The denouement is a bit thin but that's not the point of the novel.

  • Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis (2003). A witty, and at times very funny cultural-study tract considering the many and varied benefits of adultery. One of Kipnis' often repeated points is that the prevalence of adultery constitutes a referendum on modern monogamy. With roughly half of all marriages ending in divorce, perhaps it is time to change the institution itself. She argues that it could not survive without being constantly ideological reinforced via the idealization of romantic love as the sine qua non norm in pop-culture, movies, books, songs, religious institutions, and the law (in most countries, bigamy is a crime). Viewed from a Marxist point of view, marriage is too much work and not enough play and submitting to the repressive regime of marriage that she lovingly describes in pages upon pages (based, perhaps, on personal experiences) of ascerbic prose, is simply a private enactment of a larger social conformity demanded by capitalism. And so she sounds the clarion call: when romantic love and sex become buried under careers, childen, and daily life, adultery liberates the adulterer. Like any polemic, she chooses not to defend the other side. She never mentions the obvious powerful biologcial urges that drives the vast majority of us to serial monogamy and completely sidelines the stability, friendship, and love that can be found in so many long-term marriages. Read this not for a penetrating analysis about the flaws in this ancient institution and what could be done to make it more sustainable in today's culture but for some very funny prose and great quotes (for example, Adultery is the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic; or It is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we're not quite in the ground yet .

  • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (1915). His all-time classic, partly autobiographical novel of self-discovery, liberty, determinism versus freedom, the meaning of life, and the various shades of love. At its heart is the obsessional relationship between the protagonist, Philip, and the vulgar cockney waitress Mildred that almost proves his doom. He is deeply enslaved to her, against his will, and he knows this and, yet, is powerless to do anything about it. This brings to mind Spinoza's Ethics, "Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions," where Spinoza writes "The impotence of man to govern or restrain the [emotions] I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master, but is mastered by fortune, in whose power he is, so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he sees the better before him." Truer words never spoken.

  • Artifacts - An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley by Christine Finn (2001). Interesting account of one year - 2000, the height of the dot com bubble - a British archaeologist, actually more of a social anthropologist, spent in and around Silicon Valley. Her main vehicles are interviews - including one with Carver Mead. She considers the culture and its traditional roots, its transition from rural to hypermodern, its artifacts and what is lost in the hubris and the Über-emphasis on speed and technology.

  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006). Wonderful account of the romantic and brutal aspects of circuit life in Depression-era 'Small Town America' told from the vantage point of the protagonist growing old and senile in a nursing home; his feelings of helplessness and anger that he experiences in such a setting are well described. He recounts his early life as a 23 year old dropout from Cornell following the suddent death of his parents in a car accident and his running away with a circus. The protagonist finally finds happiness after death, murder and a stampede. A roaring good read.

  • The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeff Zaslow (2008). Very well written, short instant classic of the inspirational literature. Pausch, a CS proofessor at CMU, is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Following a beautiful germanic academic tradition of giving a last lecture - summarizing and celebrating one's lifetime academic achievements (Abschiedsvorlesung) - he focusses on his childhood dreams and how critical they are forming a happy, and situated and ethical person. A bit sentimental at times. In the face of certain death, Pausch clearly has lust and zest for life - he talks ever so fondly about his father, his wife, his children, his students, his doctoral adviser and other heroes in his life. Despite the fluff, definitely to be recommended.

  • The Philosopher's Dog - Friendships with Animals by Raidmond Gaita (2002). This book should be for me - the author, a moral philosopher, goes gaga over dogs and he used to be an avid mountain climber. Lot's of interesting anectotes concerning the canine (and the feline and the birdish) and the alpine (and his father) abound. The central theme of the book is how knowledge of our death makes us different from animals. He offers some strange opinions without further justifications (uconditional love has no application to animals). Overall, while a fine piece of writing on friendship with animals it is not cut from a single, intellectually convincing monolithic block.

  • We Think the World of You by Joe Ackerley (1960). Depressing and strange novel about a psychological timid and stunted gay man who develops an obsession with a German shepherd, Evie. She comes to completely dominate his life. Set in the outskirts of impoverished post-WWII London among working class people. I have an intense relationship to dogs - can't pass one without talking to it - but this is unnatural.

  • The Seeker by Sudhir Kakar (2007). A historical novel, based on private letters and diary entries of Madeline Slade, the daughter of a high British naval officer, who joined Mahatma Gandhi in his Indian ashram, dedicated to self-discipline, austerity and tolerance. The book describes in compelling manner the intensity, dedication and intense need for purity that drives a spiritual person such as Madeline to live what most of us would consider a life of extreme deprivation and poverty and how in the end she runs up against the limitations of her own psychology. This is a nice quote, epitomizing the sense of the book
    Perhaps I still doubted whether a life of the mind (and at least a modicum of the senses) I had envisaged for myself would also provide enough nourishment for my spirit. Fifty years later, I realize that I still do not have an answer. Perhaps this is a question to which there are no answers, or one to which each must find the answer on his own. I still wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed with Bapu (Ghandi), immersed in a cause greater than myself, guided through the journey of life by a man people have likened to the Buddha and Jesus. Instead I chose to strike out on my own, with a road map of happiness that detailed ways of satisfying the needs and longings of my self. Yes, I chose to seek pleasure, however balanced and sensible my pursuit might have been.


  • Jerusalem - City of Mirrors by Amos Elon (1989). A collection of essays about the fascination that the Holy city of Jerusalem has exerted on the Western mind for the past three thousand years. A great counter-point to Michener's The Source, it gives a sweeping view of this city's bloody history, and its collection of zealots and sinners and saints and plain nut cases (of course these categories are often indistinguishable) who have been attracted to Jerusalem. The book covers the post 1967 period, when Jews, for the first time since the Roman empire took over direct control around the time of Jesus' birth, control all of the city again. The book has minatory words for the future - it remains unclear whether in this new age of religious extremism, any stable and peaceful solution to people of very different sensibilities co-existing side by side can be found. I read this book as I was enjoying the warm hospitality of the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Guesthouse, with a spectacular view from my bedroom window of the walls of the Old City built in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent. Every night, I would venture forth to some part of the Old City. After a while, however, the city and the inhabitants with their obsession with the past and with living according to obscure rules set down hundreds and even thousands of years ago, in a completely different age, became oppressive. Elon's book well expresses this. Take the Church of the Hold Sepulchre in which five competing Christian sects jealously guard their particular fraction of the sanctum. The city is all about the past and only very little about the future. I happily made my escape to America, which is the opposite. For better or for worse, the fault-lines of the future run through California.

  • The Farbric of the Cosmos - Space, Time and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene (2004). Exceedingly well written romp through modern fundamental physics, from quantum mechanics, special and general relativity to inflationary cosmology (the masterful written chapters 10 and 11), superstrings and beyond. Himself a superstring theorist (as if there were an exprimental superstring physicist) at Columbia, Greene has a gift for the well-turned metaphor. His topic is, of course, awe inspiring. Just consider that quantum fluctuations in the pre-inflationary universe (a trillionth of a trillionths second after the beginning of the universe) gave rise to the large scale distribution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies we observe today. Thus, fluctuations at the smallest of scales determines what happens at the largests of all scales (and then some people consider the brain a deterministic system)! Highly recommended to the educated reader; it is not an easy read.

  • Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (2006). More than two dozen surreal short stories dealing with loss, alienation, the many ways that love can develop and the essential strangeness and unfathomability of life. My favorites are ``Man-eating cats" and "The kidney-shaped stone that moves every day". Reminescent of Kafka.

  • Les Adventures de Tintin: L'Etoile Mysterieuse by Herge (1941). A one day academic conference took place on at the Jerusalem guesthouse where I was staying. Out of sentimentality - I read all 23 adventures as an adolescent growing up in Marocco - I bought his tenth adventure and enjoyed the clear, expressive drawing style and the warmly rendered stock characters - Tintin and his inseparable terrier Milou, Captain Haddock, and the single-minded and obsessed scientists.

  • The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev (2001). Translated from the Hebrew. A folksy, whimsical and fantastic account of the founding of an agricultural cooperative by Ukrainian Jews in a swampy part of the Galilee. The novel spans three generation of idiosyncratic individuals, their trials, tribulations, loves and hates, all told by the grandson of the founder, who ends a fat, rich and exiled undertaker.

  • The Pea and the Sun: A Mathematical Paradoxon by Leonard Wapner (2005). A non-mathematical introduction into set theory and transfinite numbers, culminating in a thorough discussion of the famous Banach-Tarski Paradox. Take a sphere in three or more dimensions and partition it into four non-overlapping subsets. When these are appropriately moved around and re-assembled, you end up with two balls, each with the same volume as the original sphere! No cheating occurs - the subsets are only translated and rotated, no stretching or adding of new matter. This violates our deeply held intuitions about conservation of space/volume. Controversial when it was published by the two Polish mathematicians Banach and Tarski in 1924, this result is now accepted as a consequence of the axiom of choice. The paradox does not apply to `real' physical space as the subsets in question are non-measurable - they can't be obtained by cutting the sphere with a knife (but maybe with Philip Pullman's Subtle Knife from his His Dark Materials). Ultimately, the Banach-Tarski paradox is a further weird consequence of infinite numbers and sets similar to Hilbert's Hotel with its infinite rooms. Wapner's book does an admirable job of conveying the relevant mathematics in just over 200 pages.

  • Hidden Dimensions - The Unification of Physics and Consciousness by Alan Wallace (2007). A gifted writer with a background in physics as well as a Buddhist monk, Wallace makes several intriguing arguments in this easy-to-read monograph. Most cogently, Wallace argues that science must make a more serious attempt to study the phenomenological mind. Science spends untold hundred of millions of $ each year on studying the objective, third person manifestations of the subjective, conscious mind - think of fMRI experiments in humans or electrophysiological investigations of animal cognition. Yet we mind-brain scientists only make use of very crude and unsophisticated descriptions of the subjective attributes of the phenomenological mind. We ask subjects to rate the intensity of some stimulus as 'low' or 'high' or whether or not subjects saw a briefly flashed face. Yet any serious meditative practice involves 1,000 to 10,000 or more hours of training to contemplate the mind, without distraction of forms, of percepts, of memories, of thoughts, of positive or negative emotions, of desires, wants and fears. With the right attitude, these techniques are as reliable as any scientific method (which likewise require year of practice in the form of graduate school and post-doctoral apprenticeship). I do agree with the author that the contemplative, Eastern traditions have a lot to teach to Western science of the mind.
           Wallace's second, more lengthy pursued, argument is that the modern view of physics as provided by quantum mechanics and ancient Buddhists beliefs are congruent. Both assert that the classical distinction between subject and object is illusory, that both are deeply linked and that the so-called measurement problem - think of Schrödinger's cat, Heisenberg's uncertainty relationship, the collapse of the wave function, the many-worlds interpretation of Everett and so on - and consciousness depend on each other. One can't exist without the other, a variant of Idealism (without subject no object). While this is an appealing notion, the actual evidence on the ground that the brain relies in some non-trivial sense on macroscopic quantum phenomena, in particular on entanglement, is non-existent. Mind you, at 300 degrees Kelvin, the brain is very hot. It is also wet and strongly coupled to the environment. All of this makes it very unlikely that the brain is a quantum computer. All the evidence is in favor of the 'boring' hypothesis that at the scale relevant for its behavior, the brain obeys classical physics. Furthermore, ever since I read Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics donkey years ago, I'm skeptical of the highly selective interpretation of these two radical different domains of thought. As pointed out by Peter Tse, these similarities should be viewed next to the significant incompatibilities between the two - for instance, the Buddhists belief in reincarnation, in various forms of extrasensory perception, and other spooky stuff with no hard-nosed evidence. Anyhow, I enjoyed reading the book and ordered Wallace's most recent one.

  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996). Wonderful moving account of the peripatetic, post-College, two year long peregrination - in the original sense of pilgrimage - of Chris McCandless (alias Alexander Supertramp) throughout the American West and his death from starvation in the Alaskan wilderness north of Mt. McKinley in August of 1992. An intense, idealistic young man from an educated and privileged background, Chris was obsessed by a need for Tolstoyian purity and poverty, living a rigorous, monkish life without any of the trappings of modern civilization, and a need for adventure. Far from being suicidal, Chris managed to survive for more then 100 days in the wilderness on 10 pounds of rice he took along, whatever berries and roots he could scrounge up and on what he could shoot. It reminds me of what the philospher Richard Watson has written about such driven personalities:

    Suicide? Don't be absurd. They don't want to die. They don't intend to die. They choose to do something very difficult right at the limits of human possibility in order to savor the joy and satisfaction of having done it. The risk is essential. It defines how hard it is. Even more, risk of death raises awareness of life to a peak. Socrates said, Know thyself. On the edge we are reminded of our mortality, knowledge of which makes us human.

    That's the way to live my life!

    Krakauer uses elements of an earlier, autobiographical story that I love - The Devils Thumb from his collection of essays, entitled Eiger Dreams, about his three week long solo climb of an isolated mountain in Alaska - to explain why some men, driven by unresolved psychodynamic conflicts, find such intense, solitary high-risk experiences so very life-affirming. I confess that I only read the book after I saw the eponymous movie that closely follows the book and the life of Chris.

  • How to be Idle: A Loafer's Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson (2007). Fun and quick read by the British editor of a magazine, The Idler. A tongue-in-check counterweight to Pieper's book on leisure. Questions the strong association in Western cultures - in particular in protestan, Anglo-Saxon countries - between idleness and wasting time. The book makes the interesting sociological observation that never has such a large fraction of the middle classes worked so hard than today - despite technology, larbor-saving devices, extension of life span, pension systems and so on. This certainly applies to me. Yet I find it almost impossible to relax, to truly enjoy life. I feel the need to work hard, or play hard, or run 20 miles, or read a book a day. It's a compulsion.

  • Wendepukte im Lebenslauf by Jürg Willi (2007). A Swiss-Germany psychoanalyst's musing about personality development following drastic changes in life circumstances (death of a loved one, unemployment, divorce). He points out the dramatic loss in the way one interprets the meaning of one's life and its significance when leaving any long-term relationship. Many years or even decades of joint experiences are rent asunder with profound consequences for one's sense of wholeness.

  • Leisure - The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1948). Originally published in German as Musse und Kult. On the importance of leisure, or contemplative celebration or serenity. Citing Aristotle's ``we are not-at-leisure in order to be at-leisure", Pieper argues that leisure is at the basis of true culture and that Modernity, with its insistence on total work, is forgetting this at its own peril. Today, leisure is only meant to serve as a reprieve from work, to make us more efficient or more creative. Leisure stands opposed to this exclusive ideal of work as social function. Leisure does not exist for the sake of work. It is of a higher order than the world of work. Its justification is not that the worker should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that he should be a man (in this sense, leisure is totally opposed to laziness, idleness or sloth). Pieper reminds us of the ancient origin of liberal arts. The Artes liberales are those studies that serve no useful function, that are only justified in themselves - while the artes serviles are those practices that lead to useful knowledge including the sciences, engineering, law, and medicine. The book serves as a wonderful antidote, as a counterpoint, to the attitude to life I, and most of my colleagues and friends, embody but that is so difficult to give up: despite, or possible because, of our vast technological powers, we work more than any other educated people in history!

  • Straw Dogs - Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray (2002). A cynical pessimist muses about human nature, so-called progress - illusory except in the sciences - vices of Christianity, the imbecility of any sort of religious beliefs and other edifying themes. Well written but predictably Cioran-like dreary. Can't recommend it.

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957). Well, I finally read this quintessential 'Beat Generation' novel in its 50-th anniversary edition - identical to the original scroll the way Kerouac wrote it in 1951. It is a continuous stream-of-consciousness creation and a great, hyperkinetic account of Kerouac and his friend criss-crossing America in search of adventure, girls, music, and booze. The last trip the book recounts, from Denver to Mexico City in a few days, is a blow-out and a must read. I love the book's raw and unsophisticated energy, enthusiasm and zest for life "...because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing...but burn, burn burn like a roman candles across the night." I understand well why this book can have such a big impact on the adolescent male mind.

  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (2007). When hiking over an alpine pass, have you ever suddenly come across a gorgeous mountain valley filled with horrible condos, ski lifts and hotel and have indulged in the seductive fantasy `what if there wouldn't be any people around?' If the answer is yes, this book is for you. An original and utterly compelling, if morbid and sad, investigation into the future of our planet sans people. In a doomsday scenario reminiscent of "The Quiet Earth" or "The Day of the Trifids" or countless other science fiction movies and novels , the author extrapolates into the proximal and distal future with the aid of archeologists, biologists, physicists, engineers and others. Weisman starts by imagining what would happen to our houses and homes if people would simply disappear - wiped out by a virus or whisked away by aliens. He figures it would take Nature between 100 and 1,000 years to reclaim these, depending on how much stonework was used in their construction. What would happen to Manhattan? Within a day or two, the subway would flood and within a few years, wolfs and other wild animals would soon haunt central park, cats would became feral and would continue to hunt the grossly increased bird population, and Lexington Avenue would cave in, becoming a river in the process. Weisman visits places that have been left alone for decades - the DMZ between the two Koreas, the 30 km 'Zone of Alienation' around Chernobyl, the Green Zone in Cyprus - to observe how quickly Nature reclaims these regions. He figures that there are still enough open lands with enough wild animals today that they could rapidly do away with our domesticated animals we raise for food, work or companionship (except for cats). However, this will not be true anymore a century from now, when humanity will have wrecked so much of the planet that only the suitably evolved successors of our domesticated plants and animals will have filled ecological niches occupied and swept clean by mankind. The most chilling chapters are on the legacy left by plastic and nuclear energy, lasting well into geological times. Neither existed 50 years ago; now about 500 nuclear reactors litter the planet and 100 million tons of non-bio-degradable plastics are produced every year. Among the longest lasting human artifacts are the presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore - made out of granite in a geological very stable part of the country - and the two spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 that have entered the distant realms of the solar system where the sun's influence gives way to those of other stars. Parts of the book make for desolate reading. In my younger days, I was 'Gung Ho' about the future of mankind. Now, when I see the mess we have made of our planet, I frequently despair. This situation brings to mind Shelly's Ozymandias

    I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Given the ever increasing pace of technological development and economic expansion, this can't go on for very much longer without some large scale catastrophic, planetary-wide reorientation, forcing us to live within a dramatically reduced footprint (shades of Jared Diamond's "Collapse"). A must read.

  • The Magus by John Fowles (1977). A novel that follows its hero, a rather flawed but intelligent cynic with few ambitions, as he falls unwittingly under the spell of a very rich and unusual patron while teaching on a hauntingly beautiful and distant Greek island in the early 1950s. This patron manipulates the hero using a large cast of actors and actresses for unclear reasons. While the first few 300 pages are written in a very compelling and engaging manner, the increasingly unrealistic arc of the story, the ever less compelling coincidences, the passive nature of the hero, put me off the story. I was glad it was over (by page 670!).

  • Descartes - A Biography by Desmond Clarke Barrett (2006). An exhaustive (at close to 500 pages) but not exhausting account of the peripatetic life of René Descartes, the foremost philosopher of the modern, scientific age (1596 - 1650). The Irish scholar Desmond places Descartes's life into context, explaining the prevailing philosophical, social and historic forces within which Desartes lived and acted. Descartes comes across as a genius for his seminal contributions to physics (his principle of inertia), mathematics (Cartesian coordinate systems), physiology and metaphysics but not as a pleasant fellow, a recluse, excessively adulatory to those above him and hypersensitive to criticism from his peers. The book highlights the obfuscation of medieval scholasticism with their endless forms (e.g. a burning piece of wood has an inherent property, a form, called ``burning"), their disdain for acquiring new knowledge, their endless re-interpretations in the light of The Philosopher (aka Aristotle). Descartes sweeps all of this away with his theory of knowledge that opens the epistemic gap between our subjective feelings and objective, external realities by explaining such sensations as heat, light or hunger in terms of the action of particles that are only distinguished by their size, shape and motion. The book well describes the sociology of European scholars and their mode of interactions. In some cases, nothing has changed from today: when there was an intellectual dispute involving Descartes, the University of Utrecht set up a committee of professors to report on it! Other things have changed, as the style of academic disputes among natural philosophers appears to be more gentile today. Witness the title of this treatise (1640): A sponge with which to clean the filth of the objections that James Primrose, Doctor of Medicine, recently published against the Theses in support of Blood Circulation that were recently disputed at Utrecht University.

  • Irrational man - A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett (1958). A highly readable account of the crisis of Modern Man as expressed most coherently within Existentialism. His account of the decline of rationality, what he calls the dream of the "Crystal Palace" (think of the Victorian world exhibit in London in the mid 19. century), the attendant decline of the luminous Medieval dream of an orderly and comprehensible world, with God located at the apex, is masterful. He traces the roots of existentialism from Plato, Christian sources, Hebraism and Hellenism until he comes to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. What becomes apparent is the barren pursuit of these latter thinkers, obsessed with such topics as dread, nausea, essence and being; far, far removed from the ancient Greeks desire to comprehend the world in a rational manner. Some quotes from the book: "And the final solution for Job is not in the rational resolution of the problem, any more than it ever does in life, but in a change and conversion of the whole man". Or "Plato's is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of a philosophy which we may now call essentialism, which holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existentialism, by contrast, is the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence. The history of Western philosophy has been one long conflict, sometimes explicit, but more often hidden and veiled, between essentialism and existentialism." And "Most people, of course, do not want to recognize that in certain crises they are being brought face to face with the religious center of their existence. Such crises are simply painful and must be got through as quickly and easily as one can. Why, in any case, should the discovery of the religious come to us at the moment in which we feel most sundered and alone, as Abraham did on Mount Moriah or as Kierkegaard did face to face with his own deprivation? Kierkegaard's answer to this is pretty traditional: "The fear of the Lord", says the Bible, "is the beginning of wisdom"; and for modern man, before that fear and as a threshold to it, are the fear and trembling in which we begin to be a Self." And, finally, "But the whole man is not whole without such unpleasant things as death, anxiety, guilt, fear and trembling, and despair, even though journalists and the populace have shown what they think of these things by labeling any philosophy that looks at such aspects of human life as "gloomy" or "merely a mood of despair." We are still so rooted in the Enlightenment - or uprooted in it - that these unpleasant aspects of life are like the Furies for us: hostile forces from which we would escape. And of course the easiest way to escape the Furies, we think, is to deny that they exist. It seems to me no accident at all that modern depth psychology has come into prominence in the same period as Existentialism and for the same reason: namely, that certain unpleasant things the Enlightenment had dropped into the limbo of the unconscious have begun to backfire and have forced themselves finally upon the attention of modern man.

  • The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem (1967). A thoughtful reflection on evolution, self-organization, and the inability to communicate with a radical different life form. This short book takes the form of a science fiction novel in which a space ship, the "Invincible," lands on a desert planet and is confronted by totally alien machine-life. After the death of a civilization of biological creatures, their surviving machine artifacts fought each other and finally, after eons of selection pressure, evolved into tiny, cellular-like, hexagonal organisms that can aggregate - if the need arises - into gigantic cloud-like colonies with highly adaptive behaviors. Written many years before the birth of Artificial Life, Lem is pessimistic about the possibility of fundamentally incompatible creatures understanding each other.

  • Bethlehem Road Murder by Batya Gur (2004). Her last novel involving the pensive Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon of the Jerusalem police. A very slow-moving and thoughtful and terrifying murder mystery. It starts out with this clarion call: "There comes a moment in a person's life when he fully realizes that if he does not throw himself into action, if he does not stop being afraid to gamble, and if he does not follow the urgings of his heart that have been silent for many a year - he will never do it."

  • From Bauhaus to our House by Tom Wolfe (1981). A wonderful essay in book-form, nay, a hilarious diatribe against the excesses of modern, i.e. Bauhaus, architecture. He describes how Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Gropius (aka the White Prince) invented their minimalist style on anti-bourgeois-principles, ending up with the soulless naked, steel, glass & concrete buildings we associated with modernism (and some forms of post-modernism). Following the rise of the Nazis, this arcane and esoteric cult of the minimal ('less is more') was then imported to America where it took hold among university architectural departments, inhibiting and delaying the emergence of a genuine American style of architecture. Chapter V "The Apostates" is the apotheosis of Wolfe's book, dealing in one fell swoop with the sterility of much of modern art in painting, music, photography, philosophy and architecture. Personally, I never understood why people - including my parents - held the Bauhaus in such high esteem since most of their houses and offices were sans life, devoid of the organic, cold. Why would anybody sane want to live in such a building if they didn't have to? (however, let it be said that two of the most comfortable chairs I own are Bauhaus designed: Breuer's Wassily Chair and the Rietveld's chair, built by my son Alexander; and three of Josef Albers color prints 'homage to the square' given to me by my father, hang in my lab). Wolfe is a gifted writer: "which is to say, the proper concern of philosophy was the arcane of the philosophical clerisy itself", "as the Eagle screamed his supremacy in the twentieth century".

  • Free Will - a very short introduction by Thomas Pink (2004). Highly unsatisfactory defense of libertarian freedom - a position I am very sympathetic to - by purely philosophical arguments combined with appeal to common sense (where would physics or biology be if physicists or biologists would limit themselves to understanding biological creatures, elementary particles or the cosmos in terms of our common sense notions of time, space, wave, particle and so on). There is almost complete disregard for any scientific arguments for or against the various positions on free will that philosophers have advocated (Pink concentrates almost exclusively on Hume, Hobbes, Kant, Acquinas, Calvin; the 20-th century and its discoveries seems to have passed him by). This monograph represents the worst kind of armchair philosophizing, uninformed by and seemingly indifferent to relevant knowledge gained by studying animal decision making, studies of patients with relevant brain lesions, a thorough discussion of the physics and the mathematics of causation). Pink offers a vague account in which 'libertarian freedom' can influence events without amounting to either a random choice of yet another cause.

  • The Wandering Jew by Stefan Heym (1981). Translated from the german novel Ahasver. A retelling of the story of Ahasverus, condemned to walk the earth until Christ returns for refusing to offer Jesus a temporary restinng place when he carried the cross to Golgotha. Similar to - but not as powerful as - The Master and Margarita, it jumps back and forth between the career of a spineless protestant elder in post-reformation Germany, and his seduction by Lucifer, and the modern day German Democratic Republic (now fortunately defunct).

  • Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (2006). Fast-paced and quite violent cyberspace crime noire, cyber-punk novel that takes place in San Francisco of the 25. century. It assumes that you can download your mind into any body (sleeve). If the body is killed you download a backup copy of your mind - sans the latest personal memories, of course - into the next sleeve. I should write a critique of this from the point of view of present-day neuroscience.

  • The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan (2006). Sagan's 1985 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. Such a superb, clear and compelling thinker and writer. The actual topic is more on natural knowledge but Sagan touches on questions of why people believe, the weird and highly idiosyncratic nature of beliefs, the question of God, what can science confidently assert (plus, of course, on Sagan's signature themes of astronomy, SETI and nuclear winter). An excellent job and a superbly edited book. I recommend it highly.


  • Next by Michael Crichton (2006). Crichton has turned into a cynic - every character in this novel about human-animal chimera and the academic/biotechnology establishment - is a sleaze ball driven by lust, publicity, or greed. I think he's been living to long in La-La land; I can't recommend the book. Crichton does not have a feel for what drives academic scientists. He is right, though, about the deleterious effects of granting patents on genes.

  • The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (1958). Pleasant travel and mountaineering yarn of two young men of the 'beat' generation in San Francisco and the High Sierras.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004). An amalgamation of the social sensibility of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens with the imagery and fantasy of JR Tolkien. Takes place in a fictitious England during the Napoleonic Wars when true "magic" is being rediscovered. It's like the historic England except for select acts of magic. Although 800+ pages long, this is truly a novel that I wished would have been twice as long. I finished it very late on Christmas Eve. My favorite novel of 2006.

  • Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes (1637 and 1640). Foundational texts of Western Philosophy and Rationalism.

  • Grown-Up Marriage by Judith Viorst (2003). Folksy but enjoyable account of marriages and the problems they encounter from a psychoanalyst.

  • Descartes' Secret Notebook by Amir Aczel (2005). A quick read of Descartes' life; not very penetrating. Talks a bit about his mathematics and 'Euler's law (F+V=E+2)" that Descartes discovered almost a century before Euler.

  • Intuition by Allegra Goodman (2005). A very realistic depiction of life as a post-doc in a high-pressure cancer biology lab. It shows how fraud could happen and makes it plausible. Although not written by a scientist, the author faithfully captures the atmosphere and typifies the various scientific personae in a sympathetic manner. Has overtones of the David Baltimore case.

  • Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2006; from the German). Very readable, semi-fictionalized account of the lives of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. One problem is that it's left unclear what actually happened and what is purely imaginary.

  • Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (2006). ok collections of short stories. Nothing like Neverwhere.

  • Scream Queens of the Dead Sea by Gilad Elbom (2004). Very funny but quite outrageous at times. The front-page, "Sex! Heavy Metal! Linguistics!", gives it pretty much away.

  • The Question of God by Armand Nicholi (2002). An interwoven biography of CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud and how they dealt with the question of God. Very well written. PBS made this lecture series into a superb DVD.

  • Chasing Daylight by Eugene O'Kelly (2006). OK biographical account of an executive who discovers he only has a short time left to live.

  • Francis Crick - Discoverer of the Genetic Code by Matt Ridley (2006). Precise, insightful and very readable account of Francis' life. Paints a very vivid picture of his personality and what drove him. Matt had some personal acqauintance with Francis and also interviewed me extensively about him. Probably the best biography for years to come.

  • The Primordial Emotions by Derek Denton (2005). Short and very readable account of the evolution of consciousness across a variety of species. Its center of gravity is an interoceptor driven theory of consciousness, focusing on animal and human experiments manipulating thirst, hunger, breathlessness, micturition (the need to urinate), pain, temperature control, ejaculation and so on.

  • Darkness Visible - A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990). Classical account of a writer's descent (and ascent) into living hell in the form of a severe and acute depression that almost ended in suicide. In this slim volume, the author honestly tries to describe his internal state and speculates on the various causes and effects of depression. I wasn't as impressed with it as I felt I should have been from the book's reputation. But I suspect it is like trying to explain color to a color-blind person. If you don't have a morbid, negative personality you have grave difficulties understanding this horrible condition.

  • The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Batelle (2005). Humdrum, not very analytical, journalistic account of Google.

  • Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (2006). Poetry by the Canadian singer while living in a Zen Monastery on Mt. Baldy, 20 miles from here.

  • The Wine of Wisdom by Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005). Insightful book on the life, poetry and philosophy of Omar Khayyam and his enormously influential Ruba'iyatt with his quatrains. Discusses his variable reception in the West. I can recommend it highly.

  • Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies by Nancey Murphy (2006). A readable monograph on a theological account of the mind-body problem on the background of physicalism. Makes the interesting historical point that the belief in dualism was not necessarily co-extensive with the belief in resurrection and an eternal afterlife.


  • Pompeii by Robert Harris (2004). Another great novel by the British historian; he is particularly good and making you feel what it was like to be a Roman, to think roman thoughts.

  • Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (1975; but I read the updated 2002 edition). The book by the Australian philosopher that gave the modern animal rights movement its intellectual underpinnings. Compelling.

  • Rethinking Life and Death by Peter Singer (1994). A must-read book on traditional ethics, to what extent they don't meet our modern needs and (subtitle) how to construct an ethics for the 21. century.

  • State of Fear by Michael Crichton (2004). Takes a strong anti-global warming perspective by selective (but correct) citations of the literature. The bad guys are a global-spanning, terrorist environmental organization, an evil twin of Greenpeace, with the usual Crichtonian arc that ends in disaster. Was the novel co-sponsored by Fox News? Crichton loses much of my respect.

  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (2005). The usual fantastic, surreal Gaiman fare, well presented.

  • Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon (1952). My first Simenon novel (a stunning half a billion copies of his books have been sold). Stark existentialist prose about a well-off Parisian who suddenly one afternoon leaves his wife, family, house and business for no compelling reason, on a whim. A strangely compelling psychological drama.

  • iCon - Steve Jobs - The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey Young & William Simon (2005). Readable biography.

  • The runner by Richard Watson. A sparse, existentialist novel of an obsessive-compulsive runner and his - on the whole - sad life and lack of any meaningful connections.

  • Happiness - The Science Behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle (2005). Popular account of the psychology of happiness. The principal take-home message is the disparity what peope want (i.e. money, fame) and what makes them content (family, marriage, social engagement).

  • Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1993). Acceptable, fourth volume. I then re-read the first volume of the original trilogy Foundation. Although I loved it when I first came upon it as a teenager, I found the characters stilted and one-dimensional. I still love the series for the vast canvas in space and time that it paints upon. Curiously, in Asimov's Galactic Empire, no significant advances in biotechnology have been made from today. No Internet either. Asimov's creativity is focused onto progress in physics and in the material sciences.

  • Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks (2005). Delightful travel journal as Sacks visits Mexico with some botanical friends looking for ferns (yeah, ferns like in plants). I loved it.

  • Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (2005). I like Diamond and his universal, catholic view of the sciences and the history. This book didn't disappoint, in particular his superb discussion of the demise of the Viking settlements in Greenland and the Eastern Island.

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2005). A very perceptive novelistic account, in the form of a mystery story, of a teenage boy with Autism/Asperger. The extent to which his thought-patterns resemble that of a scientist (i.e. myself) is disconcerting.

  • The Shining Company by Rosemary Sutcliff (1990). Pleasant historical adolescent novel set in Arthurian England by the author of the impressive Sword at Sunset.

  • Fantastic Voyage by Ray Kurzweil & Terry Grossman (2004). Intriguing and well-written book on improving your health and (possibly) extending your lifespan. Goes into great detail, with plenty of footnotes to dig into, discussing the current literature on health, inflammation, nutrition, vitamin supplements etc. What makes the book wacky is the - apparently sincere - belief of the authors that true immortality, meaning to live without death, is just around the corner. Kurzweil himself pops on the order of 250 (this is not a typo) pills a day. Of course, they never discuss in the book the vast potential for negative synergistic effects all of these drugs and supplements.


  • Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (2000). Written before the Da Vinci Code and much more believable. At the heart this novel, playing on contemporary Vatican City, is about the conflict between faith and science in modernity. The author writes about this theme in such passionate terms that I suspect he himself is torn by these questions, as I am.

  • The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight & Change the World by Richard Watson. A pithy, eminently readable and no-nonsense book on how to live a full-filling and healthy life by a philosopher who is an ardent fan of Descartes - including plenty of advice on how to eat - by a philosopher. What other dietary book has such chapter titles as Fat, Food, Roughage, Running, Sex, How to Live and How to Die. This last chapter is a jewel. I frequently consult this book. Highly recommended.

  • The Black Death by Gwyneth Cravens and John Marr (1977). An enthralling account of the coming of bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, to modern day New York City. One of the authors is head of the local Bureau of Preventable Diseases. Both authors obviously love NYC and New Yorkers. Has a chilling, but all too believable end.

  • Atlantic Fury by Hammmond Innes (1962).

    Last modified on November 23. 2013 by Christof Koch