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Irfan A. Alvi RSS Feed (Towson, MD USA)
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Business Genius: Deceptively simple ways to sharpen your business thinking
Business Genius: Deceptively simple ways to sharpen your business thinking
by James Bannerman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.93
47 used & new from $12.09

5.0 out of 5 stars A solid survey and review, July 31, 2015
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Based on almost three decades of business experience in the engineering sector, I'm surely no 'business genius', but I've done well enough and feel good about the company my colleagues and I have developed. With that context in mind, I can't say that this book made a significant impact on me, but the book is still well written, I enjoyed the many stories of how people achieved business success, and I found the book to be a solid survey and review of business ideas. Anyone involved with business, at any stage of their career, should be able to get something out of the book. Perhaps the book will even stimulate eureka moments for some readers, even if it didn't do that for me.


Understanding Cultural and Human Geography
Understanding Cultural and Human Geography
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Academic and somewhat boring, July 29, 2015
I watched the video version of this course, and I don't think much would be lost by listening to audio version. While the video version has some graphics, there's less use of maps than you might expect, and I actually found the professor's teaching style somewhat overzealous, which may not be as evident in the audio version.

The more important question is whether this course is worthwhile in general. I came to it with much interest, but must say that I often found myself bored and had a hard time finishing the course. On the one hand, there *seems* to be a lot of content in the course, but the problem is that it tends to be somewhat academic and abstract, and the course didn't meet my hope of richly illustrating what's happening around the world and the history of how things got to this point. So all I really got out of the course is reinforcement of the following general ideas:

- Globalization has been increasing for centuries (or arguably millennia) and will continue to do so, with the pace possibly accelerating.

- Globalization may be beneficial overall, in some respects, but it creates both winners and losers at the levels of states, nations, industries, companies, communities, and individuals, and who wins or loses can shift over time. Globalization also creates global risks, including the risk of disease pandemics.

- Globalization has diverse effects on cultures, ranging from enrichment to commodification to homogenization to extinction of languages.

- Humans have a large effect on the environment, and vice versa, and this is unavoidable. We need to think in terms of how to *best* change the environment, not how to *avoid* changing it.

- Urbanization has been increasing and will continue to do so in coming decades. While cities may not appear to be 'natural', they're actually an efficient form of organization in terms of human productivity and environmental impact per capita.

Overall, I can't really recommend this course, but I can appreciate why people with limited exposure of the world might get something out of it.


Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems
Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems
by Jules Evans
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.53
58 used & new from $7.48

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Value of the book depends on YOU, July 23, 2015
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I've spent decades exploring the subject matter covered by this book, so I didn't learn or grow much from the book and the value for me is only 3 stars. Frankly, I could have saved time by not reading the book, while not really missing out on anything. However, I can totally understand why other readers would love this book and get a lot out of it, thus rating it 5 stars. So it all depends on your starting point when you read the book. I'll split the difference and give it 4 stars.

The subject matter is the ideas of ancient western philosophy - particularly ideas on 'how to live' - and their application to contemporary life. The author covers this subject matter very well, using a clear and unpretentious writing style, discussing the ideas in some depth, connecting them to many examples from contemporary life, and being honest and fair in his assessment of the ideas. His basic conclusion seems to be that we don't have answers to the 'big questions' of life, so our best bet is to take a moderate and eclectic approach, which draws on all of the schools of ancient thought, but retains an open mind and doesn't dogmatically adhere to any of them. Fair enough, though certainly not a revelation.

Anyway, here are some notes from the book, most or all of which may seem fairly obvious:

- One of our biggest inherent problems is that our subconscious mental processes (which include emotional components) can cause us to do dumb things. So we need to pay attention to what we're doing, detect when we're on the verge of doing dumb things, and preventatively override that tendency through rational conscious thought, thus exercising increased self-control. By doing this repeatedly, and emulating good role models, we can gradually do less dumb things and more right things until it becomes a matter of habit, but recognize that it can take a long time to adequately ingrain good habits, and habits can fade if not regularly reinforced.

- Developing improved self-control makes us more resilient. Learning to endure physical hardships can also foster mental resilience.

- Find a balance between being individualistic versus social, in-the-moment versus long-term, austere versus materialistic, skeptical versus credulous, idealistic versus pragmatic, abstract versus concrete, etc. In other words, moderation is nearly always better than extremism. Moderates will likely agree with that view, and extremists likely won't!


Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
by Walter Isaacson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.68
159 used & new from $2.28

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well done, June 6, 2015
This review is from: Steve Jobs (Paperback)
Overall, I think Walter Isaacson did a good job with this biography. It comes across as a balanced and honest portrayal of a unique person. The biography is quite long, but the story of Jobs is well worth the time. Jobs will go down in history as one of the great pioneers and innovators in the early decades of information/communications technology for personal use. We learn that he was a man who blended technology and art in a way that showed deep insight into human nature. And a man who had the worth ethic, tenacity, exacting standards, and business acumen to make his vision a reality, not just in terms of 'insanely great' products but also a great company, one that will hopefully last beyond him. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but it came with the territory of who he was, and it undeniably got results. I was moved when Jobs passed away, and at the end of this biography those feelings were both renewed and intensified. Read this and learn about one of truly remarkable people who lived during your lifetime. Yes, Jobs was indeed a genius.


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: $22.23
102 used & new from $10.18

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
22 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
Price: $12.33
35 used & new from $8.41

15 of 15 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 incomprehendably 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.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2015 2:52 AM PDT


Breaking Bad: The Complete Series
Breaking Bad: The Complete Series
DVD ~ Dean Norris
Price: $79.99
43 used & new from $59.36

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
6 used & new from $63.99

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.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 12, 2015 6:25 PM PDT


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.


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