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Irfan A. Alvi RSS Feed (Towson, MD USA)

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Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader
Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader
by Rick Tetzeli
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.19
101 used & new from $6.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, April 22, 2015
This is the first biography I've read of Steve Jobs, I didn't follow his story closely prior to his death, and of course I didn't know Jobs personally, so I'm not in a good position to judge the accuracy or fairness of this portrayal. But it does strike me as being reasonable, and I certainly found it engrossing, so I'm rating it 5 stars (for now).

I'm a fan of Apple's products and their design intent, and I knew Jobs had a lot to do with that, so I read this biography with great interest. I find Jobs to be a very inspiring figure: creative in a truly interdisciplinary way, visionary, perfectionistic about quality, hard working, persistent, and eventually a capable leader and manager who was a genuinely good guy towards at least some people, much of the time, even if sometimes temperamentally abrasive. In short, Jobs was a kind of modern-day renaissance man, integrating the arts, humanities, technology, and business in a way that has significantly changed the world. I'll never be even a mini version of Jobs, but like many others, I can certainly learn from him and his story.

This biography has piqued rather than quenched my interest, so I'll next turn to the Isaacson biography in order to get another perspective.

The Meaning of Life: Insights of the World'd Great Thinkers (Value Inquiry Book Series 12)
The Meaning of Life: Insights of the World'd Great Thinkers (Value Inquiry Book Series 12)
by William Gerber
Edition: Paperback
Price: $40.50
21 used & new from $3.88

4.0 out of 5 stars A quality book, but not really about 'the meaning of life', April 12, 2015
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One star has to be deducted right off the bat because this book doesn't focus on the 'the meaning of life'. In fact, its treatment of that topic is relatively limited and superficial compared to other books I've read on the topic.

Instead, Gerber covers many of the 'big questions' of philosophy and the human condition - what is life and its origin, what is the basic nature of plants and animals, what makes humans unique, what is the relationship of mind and body, do we have free will, are humans fundamentally good or evil, what are the stages of life, what are the basic truths of sex, love, and marriage, how should we appraise religions, etc.

Gerber explores each of these questions by surveying the thought of thinkers from ancient to modern times - primarily Western thinkers - and then offering his own concluding comments. His approach is open minded, moderate, and accepting of mystery, and I generally agree with his conclusions - which are generally inconclusive!

Overall, I liked the survey aspect of this book, which expanded my historical awareness. I'm slightly disappointed that the book had essentially no impact on my worldview - shaped by decades spent exploring these questions - but readers new to philosophical thinking may find this book to be quite mind-expanding.

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (Teach Yourself)
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (Teach Yourself)
by Donald Robertson
Edition: Paperback
34 used & new from $7.67

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too academic for my taste, March 12, 2015
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This is the third book I’ve read on stoicism, and overall I don’t like it as much as the others. I expected a straightforward practical emphasis because the author is a psychotherapist, the title refers to ‘the art of happiness’, there’s a blurb on the cover saying ‘ancient tips for modern challenges’, and the book is part of a ‘Teach Yourself’ series. What I found instead is that the book has an academic feel, with a lot of details related to terminology and somewhat esoteric specifics of what various ancient stoics said. And making matters worse, the book is tediously repetitive. Basically, you have to do quite a bit of filtering and reflecting to extract the practical points from the book.

I made such an effort, and my main conclusion is that we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to happiness, because we tend to naturally interpret our lives and circumstances in ways that lead to more negative emotions than necessary. The remedy is to become masters of our minds, using our abilities to reason and observe ourselves, so that we gradually train ourselves to habitually apply various psychological techniques which cause us to interpret things in ways that reduce negative emotions and foster positive emotions. We may never reach true mastery in this regard, but striving for it will still (hopefully) enable enough progress to make the effort worthwhile. And to help us make progress, we can use stoic sages as models for emulation (eg, ‘what would Epictetus do in this situation?’).

Here’s a summary of some key psychological techniques:

• Don’t be bothered by things over which you have little or no influence. That includes accepting that things sometimes won’t turn out as you intended or planned, so always be ready to adapt.

• Mentally prepare for tough circumstances, imagining handling them with calm composure. Such preparation will reduce fear of tough circumstances and lessen their effect when they happen. If necessary, also take a ‘time out’ to let emotions dampen. And taking it further, make tough circumstances a positive by treating them as learning opportunities.

• Be oriented largely towards the present, since the past is done and unchangeable, and the future is largely uncertain and out of our hands.

• Find a balance between being engaged in the world versus somewhat detached. Treat life as a festival or game, with the goal being to enjoy observing and participating for the short duration we’re here, but without being concerned too much about outcomes.

• Focus more on the inner development of your character rather than attaining or hanging on to external things which may be transient or beyond your control (material things, sensory pleasures, social status, health, even loved ones).

• Appreciate that things may happen according to a universal scheme which has underlying reason and meaning, but is beyond our finite understanding. Use this perspective to remind yourself that the things which trouble us are generally ‘small stuff’ in the overall scheme of things, which is mysterious but at least seems to entail an incomprehensively vast universe which has existed for billions of years.

Since most reviewers like this book, I don't want to deter people from reading it. But since the book didn't resonate with me, I think it's safe to say there will be others it won't resonate with either.

Breaking Bad: The Complete Series
Breaking Bad: The Complete Series
DVD ~ Dean Norris
Price: $74.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly intense, March 11, 2015
The Sopranos was my prior benchmark for brilliance in a dramatic series, but I think Breaking Bad has managed to surpass it. It was the most intense thing I've ever seen on TV, and I admit there were days when I watched two or three episodes back to back, as well as one weekend day when I watched five episodes.

This is basically a Greek tragedy in modern form. Most of the key characters have flaws in their character - hubris, envy, greed, vengefulness, insecurity, impulsiveness, sociopathy, etc. - and the eventual outcome of these flaws is suffering and sometimes death for them and others, including innocent bystanders. There was a point in the last season where the tragedy reached such a high level that I felt traumatized and started to regret watching the series. So I suspect that this series will be just too much for some people, unsuitable for tender souls. But in the finale, the story is resolved in a way that, for me, there's some sense of justice, along with a measure of hope going forward for bystanders who are still alive. And as a testament to the richness and humanness of the characters, I finished the series feeling profound ambivalence towards most of them, including Walter White - he embodies genuine evil, but he's also a victim for whom we can feel real pity.

Beyond the powerful and gripping story, the acting is superb (to the point where I almost can't believe that many of the characters aren't real!), and 'genius' may be the right word to describe the creators of this familiar yet unfamiliar world which we visit for more than 50 hours.

The Intelligent Brain (Great Courses) (Teaching Company) (Course Number 1642 DVD)
The Intelligent Brain (Great Courses) (Teaching Company) (Course Number 1642 DVD)
by Professor Richard J. Haier
Edition: DVD-ROM
7 used & new from $69.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Professor's perspective shows bias, but the course is still valuable, March 4, 2015
I recommend this course because the topic is fascinating and important, and the presentation is well-organized and clear. However, because this course is presented from the perspective of one researcher, it inevitably reflects his interpretations, conclusions, and biases. So anyone interested in this topic would do well to also consult other sources, and the Wikipedia articles on intelligence, IQ, etc. are a good place to start in that regard. Taking all of that into account, my general conclusions regarding this topic are as follows:

• It’s reasonable to posit something we can call 'general intelligence'. General intelligence can be 'measured' by various psychometric tests, or preferably sets of tests, and the results of these tests tend to be positively correlated with each other, but the variability in results on the tests for a given person can be significant. So general intelligence is something we can 'measure' only roughly, not precisely like height, weight, physical strength, etc. Efforts have also been underway to correlate general intelligence with objective measurements of brain structure and function, and the most important findings appear to be that, when performing the same tasks, (a) there’s considerable variability in how brains work, (b) there are significant average differences in how equally-intelligent male and female brains work, and (c) more intelligent brains tend to expend less metabolic energy.

• General intelligence involves ability to learn and remember, perform various tasks we face in daily life, perform in various occupations, and do all of these with limited instruction and guidance. General intelligence is also positively correlated with physical health, mental health, and lifespan.

• Topics and activities which are more complex and abstract generally require higher prerequisite general intelligence. For example, it’s probably impossible for a person with an IQ of 90 to become a university researcher. Once IQ is above about 120, differences in IQ seem to matter less, though there are some areas (eg, PhD mathematician) where the prerequisite IQ appears to be considerably higher than 120.

• On average, males and females have about the same general intelligence, though males tend to be a bit stronger in some abilities, and females in other abilities. And the variability among males tends to be greater than among females, which means there will be more males at both the top and bottom end of the range (hence more males attaining elite status).

• On average, general intelligence appears to be highest for Asians, then Whites, then Hispanics, then Blacks. But there’s large variability in each group, so each person needs to be treated as an individual rather than member of a 'race' – there will be many Blacks with higher general intelligence than many Asians.

• Variation in general intelligence among adults appears to be about 80% due to genetic inheritance and 20% due to environmental influences, with interactions between these factors over the lifespan. The contribution of environmental influences tends to be greater during childhood, which means that the contribution of environmental influences decreases over the lifespan. Many genes and brain centers appear to be involved in intelligence.

• Some studies suggest that exposure to language at a very young age can increase intelligence somewhat, the worldwide 25-point increase in average performance on IQ tests over the past century ('Flynn effect', based on normalizing to equate the tests over time) shows an increase in intelligence which can’t be explained based on genetic changes, and, again, environmental influences account for about 20% of variability in adult intelligence. On the other hand, IQ tends to be somewhat stable over the lifespan, and educational efforts to raise IQ haven’t had much success. My net conclusion is that intelligence *can* be meaningfully increased for an individual, and much of the apparent stability of IQ over the lifespan is due to the fact that IQ ranks people relative to each other (so that mean IQ is 100, and standard deviation is 15), and it’s the *rankings* of people which tend to remain roughly the same (and there are be plenty of exceptions to that).

• While the concept of general intelligence has some validity and usefulness, it clearly doesn’t tell the whole story, since people can have high ability in some areas despite not having high general intelligence ('idiot' savants are an extreme example of this). So there’s clearly some merit to the idea that there are multiple intelligences, and trying to condense them into a single general intelligence may be too simplistic (and unintelligent!). For example, one scheme defines two kinds of intelligence: (a) fluid intelligence, which is strongly correlated with IQ, involves reasoning, applying knowledge, and solving problems, and peaks at about age 15 then gradually declines, and (b) crystallized intelligence, which involves ability to learn, increases until middle age, and then plateaus.

• Achievement - as measured by academic achievement, type of occupation, occupational achievement relative to peers, income, and wealth - is somewhat influenced by intelligence, but is also substantially influenced by education, environment, motivation, personality, etc. So intelligence (or IQ) is clearly not destiny – many people with ordinary intelligence have achieved a lot, and many people with high intelligence haven’t achieved much. But it’s probably also fair to say that people with low intelligence will likely be limited in what they can achieve, and people with high intelligence do have higher potential for achievement. All of this has important implications for social policy.

The Modern Scholar: Philosophy of Mind
The Modern Scholar: Philosophy of Mind
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)
10 used & new from $42.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Do we even understand the questions?, February 24, 2015
I went through this course right after completing Patrick Grim's 'Teaching Company' course on the same topic. My aim was to deepen my understanding by exploring the ideas again, but with a different tour guide.

Comparing the two courses, Grim's course is more broad ranging, I found it more interesting, and I liked it more overall. Pessin's course is quite good as well (thus deserving of 5 stars), with everything explained clearly, but there's more emphasis on detailed 'technical' arguments in the spirit of analytic philosophy. I find these sorts of arguments tedious because much effort is often required to follow them, yet the terms are fundamentally *not* well defined, so I think there's often a false sense of precision there, which renders the whole effort akin to spinning wheels.

Overall, I come away from this course having reinforced my conclusion that we really don't know what to make of mind, consciousness, etc., and are far from understanding them in anything resembling a 'scientific' framework - if that's even possible (I tend to doubt it). We have the experiences that come with existence, and various words to try to (vaguely) describe and understand that experience, but that's about it, as far as I can tell. But if you want to explore the philosophy of mind despite that, this is certainly a credible course with which to do it.

Structural Engineering Art and Appoximation
Structural Engineering Art and Appoximation
by Hugh Morrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: $44.99
23 used & new from $44.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A laudable contribution to the structural engineering profession, February 19, 2015
As an engineer who has been involved in several award-winning structural designs, I'm pleased to endorse this book.

In my opinion, the author is quite correct in his assertion that qualitative and visual understanding of structural behavior, and ability to quickly perform approximate calculations by hand, are essential skills for a competent structural engineer. And I can attest that over the past 25 years, I've seen a general weakening of these skills among my colleagues, especially when comparing entry-level engineers over the years. I don't know the reason, but I suspect that over-reliance on software, and using it as a 'black box', are major factors. This book provides a means to help engineers develop or regain these skills, though of course getting the engineers who *need* to read the book to do so is another matter.

The format consists of short chapters, there are abundant illustrations (many in color), and each chapter ends with a nice summary of key points. Better editing could have improved the writing in some places, but the author is clear enough, so this isn't a big deal. Overall, the author evidently put a LOT of work into preparing this book.

The book also emphasizes buildings rather than other structures, which will of course suit some engineers more than others, but this wasn't a major deterrent for me, despite my doing little work related to buildings.

I recommend this book to all structural engineers in early or intermediate phases of their careers, and graying engineers like me are likely to enjoy the return to fundamentals it provides. The author is my kind of engineer. :-)

Mindfields: How cognitive biases confuse our thinking in politics and life.
Mindfields: How cognitive biases confuse our thinking in politics and life.
by Mr. Burt Webb
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.66
5 used & new from $11.66

4.0 out of 5 stars A bit superficial, but still useful, February 15, 2015
This book provides a decent and fairly extensive catalogue of cognitive biases, somewhat emphasizing their application to politics and social policy. Each bias is presented in a simple way, typically one bias per page, with limited depth and generally no references to other sources for readers who want to delve further. It should also be noted that the evidential support for different biases varies, and 'biases' can serve a useful function in some contexts (hence the reason why they're so prevalent), but this book doesn't convey that. This isn't the comprehensive, rigorous, and authoritative monograph on cognitive biases I've been waiting for, but it's still a useful resource, depending on your intended use.

A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
by Warren Berger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.71
85 used & new from $11.00

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Journalistic ..., January 26, 2015
Let me ask a meta-question: what is a question? Via many pages and countless examples, this book will remind you that a question is a tool to probe the darkness of ignorance by doing things like:

- Revealing our assumptions
- Clarifying what we don't know
- Identifying and clarifying problems, threats, and opportunities
- Learning new things, including connections among things we already know
- Placing what we already know in a different context
- Reminding us of things
- Verifying things
- Coming up with creative ideas (eg, solutions to problems), including ways to implement ideas
- Raising additional questions

This is all well and good, but honestly that's about all I got from this book. The book could have easily been shortened to an article, but the author is a journalist, so he's good at spinning out words and we wind up with a book which doesn't yield much more than an article. I got something out of the book, but it wasn't worth the time invested, and the vast majority of what the author says seems rather obvious, at least to me. Also, the emphasis of the book is business applications.

For a deeper exploration of ways to question and benefits of doing so, I suggest Googling 'the ignorance university'.

Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines
Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)

5.0 out of 5 stars No answers, but excellent anyway!, January 25, 2015
This course has the feel of a half-semester university course on philosophy of mind, and thus reminds me of the enlightening times I had as a university student decades ago. The subject matter ranges across philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science, and even robotics. As a result, strictly speaking, the course is more an interdisciplinary exploration of what 'mind' is, rather than purely a course in the philosophy of mind.

In my opinion, the lecturer, Patrick Grim, does an excellent job of covering this broad range of material. He's fair in presenting the various views, and the arguments for and against them, while also being willing to share his own views without being overbearing.

Normally, when writing reviews, I try to list key points in some detail, but I don't think that's the best approach with this course, since the main questions remain unanswered and possibly unanswerable (at least for humans, in this life). Instead, here are some of the broader conclusions I came away with:

(1) When we ask questions in the philosophy of mind, part of the challenge is that it often isn't clear what we're asking - the meanings of the terms in our questions are themselves questions. So as Wittgenstein advised, we need to be careful about spinning our wheels due to our questions being ill-posed without our realizing it.

(2) The mind-body problem remains unresolved. We still don't know how to connect subjective experience with our various models of an objective physical reality (which includes our own brains). Diverse ideas have been offered, but they're all speculative, some seem implausible, and none seems widely compelling. Personally, I take consciousness to be fundamental in some way, and I do think it provides a basis for some freedom of will, but I also believe that there's an objective reality, and it's clear that changes to the brain can lead to changes to the mind, some of which can be very peculiar. And even with a 'normal' brain, the connection between subjective experience and objective reality clearly isn't 'direct', as evidenced by the many perceptual illusions we're subject to, and the influence of the expectations and models we bring to bear in interpreting objective reality.

(3) As machines, computers, robots, etc. become more complex and sophisticated, having diverse interactions with their environments and apparently being able to learn, there's a question of whether they have some form of mind, consciousness, intelligence, and free will. While Grim doesn't cover it, the same question applies to species other than humans, as well as humans during the process of development from conception to adult (does a zygote have a mind?). And given that consciousness is experienced subjectively, there's also the solipsistic question of whether other minds besides our own actually exist (though I've yet to meet anyone who doubts it!).

(4) There's a question of how mind and consciousness persevere over time as a continuing 'self', given that associated physical systems can continuously change over time with the possibility of eventual total replacement of their constituent matter. Grim doesn't discuss it, but this opens the door to all sorts of metaphysical and religious conceptions of what the 'self' is (or the idea of its nonexistence and being illusory).

(5) Our confusion regarding the nature of mind results in confusion (or at least difficulty) in resolving questions of moral responsibility, psychopathology, blame, reward, punishment, law, etc.

I highly recommend this excellent course to anyone interested in the philosophy of mind. You won't come away with the answers you may be seeking, but you can at least clarify your questions and may wind up asking some new questions. Such is philosophy, and it may be argued that there's value in 'mapping our ignorance'.

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