Cover of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

What is most striking about these sorrows is not their obscurity but rather their specificity. Koenig has tapped the well of human experience and amassed a sizable collection of, what are usually, deeply personal moments. For each of these, he has assigned a name, generally a portmanteau of words from an assortment of languages, and composed a description of the feeling that is utterly dripping with sorrow and nostalgia and… there’s probably a word for it in here somewhere…

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Homelessness is a Housing Problem

This is the particular kind of science that ought to be encouraged and supported. It’s one thing to expand humanity’s understanding and knowledge in a general sense. It’s another to investigate competing claims about causes of and solutions to the ills of society. Public policy must be subject to scientific scrutiny. We shouldn’t guess, we shouldn’t appeal to emotion. We should do what works, or we will be overtaken by those that do. Colburn and Aldern have done the math, made some conclusions, and written them up for broad consumption.

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Cover of Noise by Kahneman

Kahneman has done some great research, and it is a tragedy that such useful research is represented by such poor writing. This book is a slog. The authors are still defining the titular “noise” come page 72. I do not know which of the three is to blame for this travesty (I’m generally inclined to point a finger in the direction of the editor), but this book is inexcusably long and laborious. I do not recall having such a hard time with “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, but as I am in no position to hold anyone directly accountable, I will not belabor blame. I will belabor the tragedy of bad writing.

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Cover of Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

Exercise in the modern world has been commodified. The people talking about it the most are some of the least trustworthy. Daniel Lieberman has taken a step back from the fitness-industrial complex and asked the elephantine question: Are homo sapiens even supposed to exercise? Through the lenses of anthropology and evolution, he has untangled exercise from modern culture. The result is an enlightening journey through history, civilization, and biology.

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Cover of Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

This is a tight volume describing and decrying some of the ways we misuse technology, specifically mathematical models. O’Neil has both the academic and industry experience to give us a clear picture of what’s going on and why it’s terrible. And it is terrible. She wastes no time explaining models and their misuse, where they are being misused, and what it is costing us. This is a concise and thorough account, and there’s little more to say. The only criticism I will raise is the title. Calling these misused models “Weapons of Math Destruction” or “WMDs” is obviously easily confused with the other kind of WMD, and it is a clumsy name in both cases. Naming things is hard, but writing books is harder, and O’Neil can be forgiven the awkward name for she has written an important book.

Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

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How to Raise an Adult by Julia Lythcott-Haims

It is hard to see yourself. More specifically, it is hard to see your biases in the context of the great sweep of history. It takes a concerted effort to realize your faults and failings when they are part of your identity. Books on raising children have been around a very long time and this is another one. Everyone has an opinion on what is best for a child, what they need. Lythcott-Haims has somewhat inverted this by writing about what kind of adults we are producing and working backwards to identify what we are doing wrong. This is very satisfying both logically and practically.

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Nose Dive by Harold McGee

This is a book about chemistry. Actually, one could say that it’s about chemicals and only one specific group of chemicals at that. It is essentially a catalog of chemicals that you can smell. This is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The book is, on the whole, dry and repetitive, like a reference book. And yet, between the surprisingly comprehensive and thorough lists and tables, there is a wealth of fascinating information from chemistry to biology to botany to geology to history and anthropology. By looking at the world through its smells, it is necessary to take a broad view. McGee has undertaken a monumental task with patience and thoroughness and the result is a curious but unmistakably valuable book. Where else can you find answers to all those questions you never knew you had?

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