Monday, August 22, 2016

Nevanlinna, Tuomas (1999): Hyväkuntoisena Taivaaseen (in Finnish; transl. "To Heaven, in a Good Shape")

What is it about?

This is a book written by one of my favourite philosophers (though not a professional academic one), Tuomas Nevanlinna, one of the discussants in the light-mooded (or even humorous) philosophical radio program, Tukevasti Ilmassa (transl. "Firmly in the Air").

The book directs a philosophical gaze on everyday life, and makes very poignant and compelling observations. As a read thread that runs through the book, Nevanlinna's style (and way of thinking) is characteristically dialectical; often for there to be something, there also has to be its opposite. For instance, for something to be original, there must be imitators, even though original roughly means "the first one" (before there were any imitators). In other words, it is only the imitators which make something original.

As much as the book is a philosophical discussion about various everyday phenomena (e.g. air travel, sports, technological development and consumerism, love, education etc.), it is quite sharp social commentary.

Was it good?

The book is, in my opinion, supremely good, and is quite faithful to Nevanlinna's characteristic writing/speaking and thinking style.

I especially like the great variety of topics under discussion, and the often surprising points of view which Nevanlinna takes and then provides rather compelling argumentation to back those up if not to show that other perspectives seem even unthinkable.

For an everyday/common reader (i.e. outside the academic philosophical circles), this is what philosophy should be.

As an example, here is a passage from page 254 (freely and quickly translated by me; emphases in original):

"One of the defining features of European culture is despise towards and dismissing of material artefacts.

Our relationship with material artefacts is defined and maintained on the other hand a technological-economical complex (according to which material artefacts are taken as discardable or replaceable), and on the other aesthetics (according to which material artefacts are, in the end, in the mercy of our individual meaning-giving).

According to both perspectives, material artefacts don not mean anything in and of themselves.

What is annoying with regard to the prevailing culture is that material artefacts, after all, are meaningful for people in ways which are not exhausted by usefulness or sensory pleasure. For example, personal, "dear to me", mementos. One does not really deny the justification of this kind of a relationship to a material artefact, but it is valid only within the dark mazes of privacy.

Why? Because science teaches us that material artefacts "as such" do not mean anything. Their experiential meaning is a consequence of either a juvenile transfer of emotions, or an arbitrary judgment of taste. Furthermore, material artefacts do not live, "suffer", and therefore one can treat them in any way one pleases.

Humanists are against objectification of a human being. Feminists criticise objectification of women. But why does not anyone speak about objectification of material artefacts?" (p. 254)

Here, there is at the same time something to think about, and a quite humorous take on the World.

The main take-away for me?

The applicability and usefulness of dialectical thinking really struck me while reading the book, and I certainly intend to "direct such a gaze" to the everyday life -- like Nevanlinna has done here.

Moreover, Nevanlinna really shows that one does not have to be entirely serious in order to be insightful and compelling.

Who should read the book?

Perhaps the book is a bit too "high-flying" for a random reader, but if one has any philosophical bent or curiosity, here's a prime example of "philosophy put to real work".

The book on Hyväkuntoisena taivaaseen

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Weldon, Glen (2016): The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture

What is it about?

The book "tells the story of Batman" (the phenomenon, not only the figure) and with the help of that, and importantly, provides a cultural historical study of fandom, or nerd culture. In the case of this book, by nerd is understood a personality very, very close to that of the Comic book guy in the Simpsons, and not a computer geek.

It becomes quite evident that while the authors and publishers of Batman (like any other such comic and later movie franchise) have always been very responsive to changes in the surrounding societal and cultural environment (driven by the profit motive, of course), the increasing adoption of the Internet has made fans -- and also the more general audience -- an increasingly influential stakeholder in movie and comic production even to the degree of movie scripts being altered during shooting in reaction to discussion forum outrages.

Was it good?

While I'm not a Batman or comics fan by any means, the book works very well at both levels: in telling the Batman story (how the figure and the stories have reacted to changes in cultural "mood", thereby reflecting societal conditions) and especially discussing the "history and increasing prominence of the nerd".

The book is quite significantly tilted towards covering the history of Batman, but regular short and reflective discussions about "what this tells us in cultural terms" well justify the ample Batman content, and make the book actually come across quite balanced.

The main take-away for me?

While it should not have been as a revelation, it still quite astounded me to realise how overly engineered comic book characters, comics and movies are. Namely, even some of the very fundamentals in a character's "origin story" can be readily abandoned in the interest of sales. For example, the early Batman, to my surprise, even engaged in time travel and battles in parallel universes...

Who should read the book?

Quite obviously the book is very likely to appeal to any Batman or superhero fan, or a proud (or insecure) nerd. However, I think that the book should also be ready by anyone who perceives superheroes or comics or movies featuring them childish, non-serious and/or a waste of time.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book and can quite readily recommend it -- also as study in cultural criticism.

The book on The caped crusade

Jenner, Greg (2016): A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age

What is it about?

The book traces the history of everyday practices and artefacts (such as toothbrush/dental care, beer, clock/measuring of time, beds etc.), built around a framing story of spending a Saturday from waking to going to bed.

Thus, the book has an organizing timeline, with the help of which the author discusses quite a number of "thematic case histories" of "how things developed to be as they currently are."

Was it good?

The big idea of the book is very fascinating: really pondering, for example, why our clocks seem and work as they do (e.g. why there are 60 minutes in an hour). The "thematic case histories" are well chosen and discuss -- at least to me -- quite interesting issues and historical developments.

On the other hand, however, the writing style is from time to time quite irritating -- that is, again, to me.  For example:

"This, of course, finally led to the English alphabet of 26 letters, which I am currently using to bore you to tears. Sorry about that. Anyway, to make it really simple, without the Phoenicians there would be no 'Alphabet Song' on Sesame Street, and I think we can all agree that would've been a tragedy."

Thus, if the book would have been written in a more neutral, factual style (or more mindfully humorous), I would have enjoyed even more.

The main take-away for me?

I was quite astonished as to how advanced the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations were in terms of technology. For example, their centralized and public water and sanitation services and technologies -- already some 2000 years ago -- allowed for water on the tap and variously heated swimming pools in public baths. Thus, human ingenuity has flourished for a very, very long time already.

Who should read the book?

I think that the book is of quite general interest, but the writing style is off-putting to such a degree, that I would recommend the book only if the subject matter seems highly appealing to you.

The book on A million years in a day

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Diamond, Jared (1997): Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

What is it about?

The book has a very ambitious goal: it attempts to explain the course of human history (in broad outlines) during the past 13 000 years or so.

More specifically, the book aims to answer "Yali's question" (a question posed to the author by a prominent politician in New Guinea): why Europeans conquered native Americans and not the other way around? Or, why some peoples and some cultures developed "further" and more rapidly than some others?

The author gives a very clear-cut answer to this. It's NOT about inherent differences in human ability, but rather about what different environmental settings afforded. This is the "deep" answer -- argued into existence very carefully and convincingly, and backed up by a lot of scientific evidence. There may be some more superficial answers (e.g. with regard to technology, language, governance structures etc.), but these are only proximate causes, all going back to the "deep" answer.

Was it good?

The book is just superb. Not only is it insightful and credible, it is also highly informative and entertaining in a lighter sense. Put shortly, the book is delightful to read throughout.

Moreover, the author must be applauded for the breath and depth of his knowledge; the scope of expertise required for writing a book like this is immense.

The main take-away for me?

The book really highlights the fact that we human beings tend to focus on quite shallow (or proximate) explanations for phenomena, whereas in most cases there probably is a "grander", "deeper" mechanism (or a bundle of mechanisms) at work. At the same time, however, this is not very surprising, because evidently uncovering such "grand" mechanisms is no small feat.

Who should read the book?

I would recommend the book for anyone; both the message and the style should be very generally appealing.

The book on Guns, Germs, and Steel

Dutton, Kevin (2013): The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success

What is it about?

The author discusses (quite in length) about psychopathy and psychopaths, and basically argues that it is a continuum or "scale" phenomenon. In other words, there are different varieties or degrees of psychopathy, and some milder variants can be actually quite beneficial in the modern world.

Moreover, the author discuses about the current state and recent history of Western societies and asks, whether sociopathic characteristics and hehaviors are increasingly in demand (or rewarded) especially in business.

The book is heavily based on interviews of psychologists and other relevant professionals -- a very good feature.

Was it good?

The book is very fascinating. Naturally enough, there are descriptions of "pathological" (or severe) psychopaths and psychopathy, but especially intriguing is the discussion about the benefits of psychopathic traits and behaviours in contemporary professional life. The author does not -- in my interpretation -- take any definite and conclusive position in this regard, but my impression is that he answers this question in the affirmative. This is something to think about, for sure.

The main take-away for me?

Quite clearly, the main take-away for me was the suggestion that "we" apparently are developing our (Western) societies increasingly into a direction where psychopathic behaviors are in demand, encouraged and rewarded.

In this sense there seems to be some kind of a dialectic going on (at least in Finland): children are thought in school quite the opposite attitudes and behaviors, but in the "adult world" mild psychopathic traits (e.g., diminished empathy, risk-avoidance and remorse, increased self-interest, and boldness) seem to be increasingly required.

Who should read the book?

I believe that the book is quite healthy reading for everyone, especially managers, leaders, politicians and other persons of power, because especially they can shape work communities and the society at large. (However, it may be that they themselves possess some of the "mild" traits described in the book, because they have ended up in such positions...)

The book on The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Elliot, Jay (2012): The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation

What is it about?

The book basically tells the "story of Steve Jobs" with regard to his professional management career and accomplishments.

The author has worked at Apple and quite close to Jobs himself. Thus, the purported distinguishing feature of the book in comparison to most similar Apple/Jobs books is that the author actually knew and worked with Jobs.

While the book mostly covers Job's career, the author tries to highlight the practices, ways of working, principles etc., which "made Jobs tick" and so successful.

Was it good?

Frankly, the book is quite similar to several other Jobs/Apple histories -- and it pretty much has to, because the story is what it is.

The insider observations are to a degree interesting (e.g. what discussions the author had with Jobs "behind the curtains"), but the above-mentioned distinguishing feature of the book comes across (at least to me) more as a form of Jobs worship than distilled and dispassionate advise.

Moreover, such passages where the author attempts at generalizing worthwhile principles or practices for "the rest of us" adopt a rhetorical style which make me to call for a more critical and reflective treatment.

The main take-away for me?

Quite apparently, both this book and others on the same topic underscore the importance of having and maintaining principles -- in Jobs' case striving for excellence, elegance and simplicity.

However, on a meta level this book, like many other management books, made me think about the role of sheer luck in business performance. I'm very much of the opinion that this is a severely understudied phenomenon especially in management science.

Who should read the book?

If you are interested in Jobs/Apple and haven't read any Jobs/Apple book yet, I would recommend this book with the above-mentioned style-related reservations. However, if you have already read one or more such books, I'd guess that there is very little new in here despite the claims by the author.

The book on The Steve Jobs Way

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Sun Tzu (5th century BCE/2007): The Art of War

What is it about?

This is a very classic book on military strategy -- and some might say, strategic thinking.

Whereas Machiavelli's book is written for a statesman, Sun Tzu's book is written for a general responsible for military campaigns and engagements.

However, the book's claim for fame is its alleged inspiration to modern-day corporate managers in their marketplace battles and rivalry over customers' patronage.

Was it good?

Actually, I would say that the book was not very good.

Of course it must be understood that the book originally was written some 2500 years ago, and therefore one can't judge it by the standards of today. I recognize this, and mainly refer to the alleged relevance for modern-day corporate strategic management, which I see as pretty slim.

Admittedly, the book contains insightful statements with quite universal applicability, but the problem for me is that such statements are so obvious that one most probably learns very little from them. For example:

"So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even if you have a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself." (Chapter 3)

And when the bulk of the 'wisdom' is -- in my opinion -- like this, I really can't see how the book should reside at the bedside of corporate strategists.

The main take-away for me?

I have to grant to Sun Tzu that thinking on competitive strategy has flourished already some 2500 years ago. In this sense, the forefront of strategic management scholarship can be said to be "a series of footnotes to Sun Tzu" (c.f. "The safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" by Alfred North Whitehead).

Who should read the book?

I think that everyone who has heard or read the book as being recommended as a reader in modern-day strategic management should read the book and see for him-/herself whether there is anything there for him-/herself.

The book on The Art of War

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1532/1998): The Prince

What is it about?

While an oversimplification, the book is a kind of an instruction book for the rulers (i.e. princes) of 16th century of city states and other such smallish states.

According to Machiavelli, the primary goal of a prince is to obtain state rule, and once ruling, keep ruling. The methods put forth are to be judged only in terms of whether those are effective towards the ultimate goals of obtaining and maintaining state rule.

The book is notable in that it abandons 'ideals' in favor of 'what works', apparently an innovative choice in 16th century political philosophic writing.

Was it good?

Well, I found some sections of the book significantly more rewarding to read than others. In a nutshell, parts 7 and 8 (chapters 14 through 23) are in my opinion whether the most characteristically Machiavellian stuff resides. And some of that stuff is quite straightforwardly applicable even today: for example, Machiavelli underscores that only appearances matter, regardless of what actually would be the case:

"He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.” (chapter 18).

The main take-away for me?

Again, the main take-away perhaps resides at the meta level. On the one hand, Machiavelli is very realistic in discussing 'what works', but on the other I'm a big believer in 'how things should be' (both descriptively and normatively). Thus, the take-away is some kind of a lingering background thinking about the mutual relationship and respective worth of each of these perspectives.

Who should read the book?

I wouldn't recommend the book as such, because it is quite tiring at places for a modern-day reader. Instead, I would recommend some kind of an introductory text in political philosophy where Machiavelli would be discussed and put into context. For example, Yale University offers an open course Introduction to Political Philosophy, with two lectures devoted on Machiavelli -- and this book in fact.

The book on The Prince

Plato (380 BCE/2012): The Republic

What is it about?

This is one of the major philosophical works of the ancient Greece. It mostly discusses about the nature of justice and a just society.

In addition, there are some other well-known ancient philosophical concepts or ideas put forth such as the theory of universals (or Platonic ideals) and pleasure or happiness as the absence of pain.

The most characteristic feature of the book is that it is mostly written as a 'Socratic dialogue', i.e. a dialogue between Socrates and his various discussants.

Was it good?

The key ideas put forth certainly resonate (e.g. the theory of universals, or the the notion of a theory or a concept). However, the dialogue format started to become a major distracter after the first third of the book. Namely, the bulk of the book reads something like this:

Socrates: Argument
Discussant: Well, you are entirely correct there
Socrates: Further argument
Discussant: Oh, how could it be otherwise -- now that you have explained it
Socrates: Rhetorical question
Discussant: I don't know, but please do not keep us any longer waiting for the answer
Socrates: Further argument
Discussant: Yes, of course -- your reasoning is beyond our capabilities

Thus, perhaps a better way to really digest what is said in the book would be to read a modern commentary/interpretation of it.

The main take-away for me?

I really don't know why, but the notion of the absence of pain as pleasurable or happiness caught my attention. Even though in my interpretation Plato/Socrates does not advance it as a definition of happiness let alone a life goal, I think that there is something worthwhile in that humble notion: "absence of pain".

Who should read the book?

I think that this book in its 'raw' form is appealing to only those who want to read what Plato actually wrote (admittedly translated, of course). For an average reader, I would suggest a derivative work such as Plato: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annes, published in Oxford University Press' "Very Short Introductions" series.

The book on The Republic