Monthly Archives: January 2012

Book: The Analects of Confucius (Roger Ames & Henry Rosemont, Jr.)

A sweet book… Co-author Roger Ames gave me this pirated copy in person back in 2010

Orderly politick padded with multiple layers of excellent endnotes.
A concise introduction to traditional Chinese thought.

326 pages, ★★★★★

Uncovering and decoding The Analects is like decoding the woolly mammoth genome. Just like a genome, this text evolved as it was re-recorded over time. Current copies of The Analects have probabilities assigned to each character—rather like a genome map! (See page 301.)

The notes explain everything, and more. Subtle puns—and a thousand other details—that I would have had never have picked up are explained beautifully in the notes section (see Analects 3.21). Other notes discuss the rationale behind the historical substitution of one character for another that is so common in different versions of The Analects (due to puns, changes in meaning, simplifications, or copying error).

Read this book from cover to cover: the notes are separated from the text for good reason. First, everyone, even China-novices, will love the introduction. In many respects, the introduction distills all the parts of The Geography of Thought (another book discussing East/West cultural differences) that made any sense, into just a few tens of pages. The philosophical text that follows is difficult even for Sinologists to understand, but refrain from looking at the notes and find your own meanings first time. Then proceed to read the lengthy notes section; referring back to the text when necessary.

Some of my favourite quotes are listed below:

On education… Analects 6.20: 子曰:知之者不如好之者,好之者不如樂之者。

(From the notes) This use of “love (hao 好)” evokes the expression, “to love learning (haoxue 好学)” that pervades the text. The worth of knowledge is a direct consequence of its efficacy: to what degree does it conduce to human happiness and enjoyment?

On politics… Analects 8.14: 子曰:不在其位不在其位,不谋其政。

The Master said, “Do not plan the policies of an office you do not hold”.

On class… Analects 13.25: 君子易事而難說也。說之不以道,不說也;及其使人也,器之。小人難事而易說也。說之雖不以道,說也;及其使人也,求備焉。

Exemplary persons (junzi 君子) are easy to serve but difficult to please… in employing others, they use them according to their abilities. Petty persons (xiaoren 小人) are difficult to serve but easy to please… but in employing others, they expect them to be good at everything.

The Analects were written on various materials over 2000 years ago, and the ancient text is now found damaged, scattered and buried several meters deep across central China. The last major discovery of The Analects was in Dingxian 定縣, Hebei Province 河北省, in 1973. Buried in a tomb were fragmented bamboo strips, most of which had already been broken and burned by grave robbers long ago. The legible parts of these bamboo strips were incorporated into existing versions of The Analects by aligning intact character sequences with existing copies. New text, and new versions of the text, were discovered.

Co-author Roger Ames is an excellent lecturer; I’ve attended his lecture course at PKU (Beijing University). You can watch a concise introduction to Chinese philosophy on YouTube here. For an introduction to ancient China, Roger Ames is a great place to start. ★★★★★

Films I watched in January 2012

The Chinese internet makes it extremely easy to find, download and watch movies from around the world.

Here’s a list of movies I watched in January 2012, summarised in exactly six words:

  1. 25th Hour: Edward Norton ties up loose ends
  2. A Bug’s Life: Venezuelan Coup d’État in cartoon format
  3. American Beauty: Mid-life crisis becomes calm tragedy
  4. Antz: Woody Allen’s personal revolution, accepts society
  5. Australia: Stunning photography, always running from something
  6. Dancing with Wolves: White soldier defects to Indians, integrates
  7. First Blood: Bang, bang, boom, boom, bang, boom
  8. Food, Inc: Meat production is vile. Eat well
  9. The Future of Food: Monsanto patents soy, corn. Next: oxygen
  10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Rape. Was there any other storyline?
  11. The King’s Speech: King learns to speak, gains support
  12. Melancholia: Melancholy spreads so gracefully, world ends
  13. Moneyball: Rational Billy Beane almost revolutionised baseball
  14. No Country for Old Men: Cold psychopath chases money across West
  15. Schindler’s List: Schindler saves thousands as impostor capitalist
  16. Silence of the Lambs: Psychopathic psychiatrist proves unrestrainable, cannibalistic
  17. Toy Story 3: Buzz and Woody overthrow kindergarten tyrant
  18. Waiting for Superman: Schools improved after idiots got fired
  19. Wall-E: Adorable robot lovers rejuvenate consumerist hell

Book: Hocus Pocus (Kurt Vonnegut)

Shallow Rants of a Witty Eccentric. Read 林语堂 Instead.
268 pages, ★★

I loved The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang; and Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut is it’s darker-yet-shallower (Western) sibling. These books belong together in the non-existent genre of Rambles & RantsThe Importance of Living is a rather pleasant (countryside) ramble, whereas Hocus Pocus is more of a rant.

The Editor’s Note warns us that Hocus Pocus is a collection of scribblings that the author had little intention of creating into a book. Parts of this book were even compiled from Vonnegut’s doodles on the backs of envelopes and business cards. Some of the thousands of scraps of paper that comprise the original book contain just one word each. This book is a mess, and it’s post-modernist proud of it.

Hocus Pocus is darker and less balanced than The Importance of Living. I even found Vonnegut stressful to read: he writes Hocus Pocus with moderate pessimism, and his eccentricity too often comes across as sarcasm, draining the reader. For such a scatty book, he puts too much emphasis on the Vietnam War (consider that he could have mused about anything he wanted in this post-modernist, or, “freestyle” book, but instead dwelled on negativity—and in doing so, taught us nothing). I much loved reading Lin Yutang, on the other hand, who writes with optimism, logic and beautiful balance that makes his books a great pleasure to read. See my review here. I feel that all the strong points of The Importance of Living were attempted—and failed—in Hocus Pocus.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Vonnegut so I should probably give him more time. This is the first Vonnegut book that I’ve read. For the moment, I can only give this two stars. ★★

Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Irrelevant compared to Fight Club.
214 pages, ★★★

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, civilisation on Earth has been almost completely destroyed by a combination of nuclear war and excessive consumerism. Some people have emigrated to colonise other planets. Among those who are left on Earth is protagonist Rick Deckard, who is given the task of retiring six Nexus-6 androids.

Most anti-consumerist books and movies are set in a dystopian future, rather than a dystopian present. I believe in the message of these books but disagree that setting them in the future is the best way to deliver that message.

“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” — Fight Club

Depicting a future consumerist hell doesn’t deliver the message hard enough to anybody. Present-day readers will learn that they should change their behaviour for the benefit of future generations. They will also accept the subtly-implied notion that our present-day level of white-collar slavery is somehow acceptable. Yet, future readers will have already witnessed history diverge from the trajectory predicted in the book (particularly in the tiniest, usually technological, details), and they thus see only an irrelevant, hypothetical message, rather than a perfectly apt warning to change their current lives. Futuristic books and movies like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep soften the anti-consumerist blow.

In Fight Club, the protagonist gave up his sedentary, repetitive, alienating and socially-destructive office job to embark on a journey of self-discovery. He believed there was something more important to life than being a “slave with a white collar”. Read my review here. ★★★

Book: Between The Lines: Understanding Yourself and Others Through Handwriting Analysis

90% is backed up by common sense; 10% relies on crystal balls

Fills the gap between science and the supernatural. Conversation material; not pure science.
227 pages, ★★★★

Handwriting samples collected over a long period of time can hint at character of the author. That’s the theory behind graphology. This book takes us logically through literally hundreds of handwriting features (from wide letters to thread formations to repressed lower loops) and gives us illustrated examples of each (most of them from famous people). Between the Lines was my first introduction to graphology.

The start of Between the Lines can be explained by common sense. Fast writers are impatient. People who write in perfectly straight lines are well-organised. People who write in capital letters are aggressive. But later in the book, when the handwriting features become more technical, the connection of these explanations to reality becomes more tenuous (or, at least, unexplained).

Toward the end of the book, Between the Lines ventures slightly into horoscope territory. It tells us that people who write numbers illegibly are untrustworthy with money; that people who omit letters are not telling the whole truth; that people with blotchy writing are sensual (Casanova is the given example). This book lacks data evidence throughout (only one or two anecdotes are provided), and only the first half of the book resonates with common sense.

The most insightful area was the chapter on signatures. Do you sign your name larger or smaller than the rest of your writing? Do you sign toward the left or the right of the paper? Does your signature conceal or emphasize any part of your name, or contain additional features? The signature—and the letter t—are two of the most revealing features in graphology.

For me, graphology is to psychology as horoscopes are to astrophysics.

Yes, I’m now analysing people’s handwriting (privately) out and about where I see it. But no, I’m not using it to judge them. For me, daily-life graphology will remain nothing more than harmless fun. For me, graphology is to psychology as horoscopes are to astrophysics.

I shopped around to find the most concise, comprehensive introduction to the handwriting analysis before settling on this book. If you don’t like Between the Lines, then blame the field of graphology, not the book. ★★★★

Book: Gender Trouble (First Read)

What does this book say?

Judith Butler‘s complicated brain in prose. A conversation piece.
209 pages, ★★

I love women, but even I see Judith Butler’s brain as a incomprehensibly tangled mess.

As someone who persistently tried—and failed—to ‘fit in’, Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble in an attempt to understand her own identity. She didn’t feel fully-accepted into any socially-constructed identity, so in Gender Trouble, she carved out her own.

I care less about what she writes than about why she writes it. Contemplating the differences between men and women on a philosophical level is pointless for most of us, but it would be of great inspiration to someone in similar shoes to the author. Actually, the author said in an interview, “Gender Trouble was an attempt to understand how my family and myself failed to comply with Hollywood norms”. Voilà.

“Gender Trouble was an attempt to understand how my family and myself failed to comply with Hollywood norms” — Judith Butler

My first impression was “this book is unintelligible”. I had a dictionary at hand for words like phantasma, cathexis, exogamy and phallogocentrism but not all of them were there. After 80 pages, I retreated to YouTube and Wikipedia in search of summaries and author interviews. I side-tracked onto Slavoj Žižek videos before going back to the book. Most of it still looks unintelligible to me.

Despite not really understanding this book, Gender Trouble made an excellent conversation piece. This book stimulated hours of discussion in my living room (even though nobody fully understood this book); we talked about sex, lesbians, equality, sexual identity, and most interestingly, why some people feel compelled to write books about it all.

One reading is clearly not enough. I missed 100% of the humour and 99% of the point. Maybe that’s because I’m a man. Or maybe it’s because I’m just stupid. I promise to read it again.

I prefer Slavoj Žižek as a philosopher. ★★

Book: The Art of Civilized Conversation

This book is a gem. It's small, sweet and feels more like a bar of chocolate than a "self-help" book. Read this with a small, sweet tea, like Fenghuang Dancong (凤凰单枞) in tiny cups.

A sweet book. Persuasion to be polite, or just self-affirming reminder of common sense.
226 pages, ★★★★★

This book’s sleeve is made from textured paper (rather than coated paper), which makes touching it for the first time feel like opening a slab of chocolate. Inside the book, the fonts change playfully every few paragraphs, giving you the impression that by reading it, you’re mingling at a cocktail party. Despite the playful editing, the underlying narrative remains remarkably intact: the cocktail party that is The Art of Civilized Conversation certainly has a theme.

Most of this book is “what not to say” rather than “what to say”. It tells us repeatedly that keeping etiquette is most easily achieved by remaining silent (and not by using either nonsense or something offensive to fill all conversational gaps). This book reminds us not to get angry when talking to bigots. It reminds us to be patient when talking to drunks and deaf people. By not lecturing the reader, the author treats us with utmost respect. I wish I could express myself as politely and as delicately as she does.

The Art of Civilized Conversation leaves me with two homework assignments. First, I’ll react appropriately to other people’s conversational slip-ups. This book demonstrated that the conceited individuals one meets at (Oxford and Cambridge) dinner parties in fact know no more about the rules of etiquette than I do. When those obnoxious social ladder-climbers offend me in person next time, I shall respond more appropriately with lines from this book. Second, I’ll be looking out for stereotypes. The Art of Civilized Conversation introduced several types of poor conversationalists (the Schoolteacher, the Complainer, the Bore, and many more). Not only will I be hunting them down, but I’ll be trying to avoid becoming one as well.

Interestingly, this book contradicts the “brag pompously and name-drop like confetti” thesis of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read 

Interestingly, this book contradicts the “brag pompously and name-drop like confetti” thesis of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (click for my review). How To Talk was written in pompous language that made me uncomfortable; and it broke all the rules of The Art of Civilized Conversation. Should I ever encounter a How To Talk snob, I’ll flatten them with this book, while breaking no rules of etiquette myself. At least, that’s the theory.

This is not a self-help book. It’s more of a sweet, pleasant reminder to be aware of one’s own actions. The hardback edition is a pleasure to hold, a pleasure to read, and will provide me with the ability to amuse myself ad infintum at the next bigot-filled garden party I choose to attend. Recommended for everyone. ★★★★★

Book: A Life Decoded

This is the book I was looking for when I ordered Jay-Z's "Decoded". I've admired Craig Venter since the first year of university, and have finally found time to read his book.

Chronicles of an adrenaline junkie
400 pages, ★★★★★

A Life Decoded portrays a benevolent, macho J. Craig Venter.

When most of us were playing with toy cars, trains and planes, Venter was playing with the real thing. He satisfied his thirst for adrenaline by pressing pennies on railway tracks (to his disappointment, new U.S. pennies are too robust to be flattened by trains); by using bicycles to chase airplanes during takeoff (before the runway area was protected by an unscalable fence); and built engines with his friends and their parents.

His science career got off to an unusual start as a medic in Vietnam. He writes that the grotesque scenes of violence and disease spurred his desire to work in the field of medicine after his return from duty. But his actions toward the end of the book indicate that his desire to “help people” would always remain subordinate to his giant ego: an attribute that benefitted both him and his companies later (and, arguably, the sequencing industry) in the political and ethical minefields of human genomics. Evidence shows that it was not a “medic’s benevolence” but a relentless desire to win that would keep him so motivated.

Venter is best-known for sequencing the first human genome (his own genome!) with Celera Genomics. A more popular, publically-funded initiative to sequence the human genome was already underway, but Venter’s company was first to claim victory. On the day of Venter’s historic announcement (which was at the White House, with heads of state present via video-link), 46 per cent of Americans in a CNN/Time poll responded that Venter’s efforts bore “negative consequences” because his superiors ruthlessly patented the genes they discovered (on an unrelated note, biological patents have gotten out of hand: one patent was granted for a peptide sequence so short it could fit onto Twitter). Venter’s rebuttal can be summarised as, “I have always known that only a tiny proportion of human genes have yielded profits. The only viable alternative to patenting those genes would have been to keep the codes secret—which would have benefitted no-one”. Basically, “I could have done worse”.

Venter has always known that only a tiny proportion of human genes have yielded profits. The only viable alternative to patenting those genes would have been to keep the codes secret—which would have benefitted no-one.

Venter’s own genes are interesting. He starts by joking that his billion-dollar genome scan revealed the gene SRY (the gene for testes), which make him (as a man), “more likely to commit crimes, go to prison, be depressed, be addicted, get cancer, be violent, get rich, and die young”. He continues intermittently with descriptions of his genetic makeup: OAC2 gave him blue eyes, DAT1 contributed to his ADHD, MAO created his thirst for adrenaline (expressed through ever-larger yachts in later life), his DRD4 makes him less susceptible to addiction and schizophrenia, and his FTO type helped him keep a lean figure. His 5’HTTLPR made sure he didn’t get long-term depression, and while he prefers to work in the evenings, he’s not a “night owl”, which we can tell by looking at his Per2 and Per3 genes. Most interestingly, he is one of the lucky 1% of individuals who possess the rapid caffeine degradation gene CYP1A2, which eliminates the long-term side-effects of drinking coffee (cancer, heart problems) almost entirely. He describes many more.

Now, I really want to get my own genome analysed. It’s only $399 for a basic SNP scan from http://www.23andme.com. Genetic research is now advanced enough to make the investment worthwhile. For the insight it provides, it’d be money very well spent. ★★★★★

Book: Class Warfare: Inside the fight to fix America’s schools

Class Warfare: several heroic Americans busted a trade union to make education better and cheaper for all.

Written from the front lines of politics, not from in front of a blackboard.
478 pages, ★★★ 

Reading this book feels like skimming the travel journal of a candidate on a presidential campaign. Class Warfare is dry, piecemeal, littered with bureaucratic bullshit and lacks clear direction. This is a book about politics, not about education. In total, students are granted less than one page of attention. Teaching techniques are mentioned even less often and can be condensed down to, “put your kids in a U-shape—bad ones go in the middle”.

This is a book about politics, not about education

This book was irrelevant for me. I expected to learn how to reform broken schools, how to train teachers, or at least how to teach a class. Instead, reading Class Warfare just tells us there are two problems with America’s education system: (1) incompetent teachers (some of them sleep during class); and (2) unions. Since the former are locked in overpaid employment by the latter, the unions can be blamed for America’s declining public schools (and basically everything else—this is clearly a Republican book). Busting those unions (and laying off incompetent teachers) is described repeatedly as the best remedy.

A few heroic characters join the fight against unions: Bill Gates, Jon Schnur, and Jessica Reid. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded school reform in New York, in which, the right to bypass unions was central to the program’s success. Bypassing the teachers’ union gave schools the right to pay less, fire people, reward good performance, and, most importantly, allowed education managers to do their jobs without fear of excessive, crippling derailment from co-ordinated (angry) teachers and parents. Teachers unions had schools in a straightjacket.

Yes, unions have been partly responsible for the decline of America’s public schools because they turned teaching from a respected (but low-paid) profession into a comfortable safety net for the otherwise unemployable (for every great teacher, there are several idiots who just get by on the same salary). But after reading this book, I still think that busting those unions is not the best way to reform public schools. Ideally, the unions could lead the reform. Unions could set up classes where “good” teachers teach “bad” teachers; or provide teacher training rather than saying “more money for teachers” repeatedly. Unions caused problems in America’s public schools, but, as groups of interested professionals, they also have the potential to fix them.

Anyone interested in political bickering should read this. Republicans, especially, will get a buzz from this book even if they don’t learn much from it. Democrats should read this as a fictional drama, which is at worst, just slightly offensive. The political divide gives Class Warfare very mixed reviews on Amazon.

What did I learn? I’m done with education, and I’m done with politics. And I’m extremely happy to be independent and self-employed in an industry with zero regulation. That’s all the relevant knowledge I need from this book. ★★★

Book: Decoded (Jay-Z)

Decoded is wonderfully-produced in full colour on glossy paper. The producers are playful with fonts and photoshopped images. And the paper feels great.

A self-employed salesman’s glorious transition to adulthood
317 beautifully-produced pages, ★★★★★

We all loved Steve Jobs‘ biography. Steve Jobs was a white slumdog millionaire, who followed his heart from poverty to the same superstardom that surrounds L. Ron Hubbard and Chairman Mao. Steve Jobs was the American Dream personified twice, with international reach: some Chinese youths even sold kidneys to buy an iPhone or iPad 2. If you loved the recent Steve Jobs biography, then you’ll connect with Decoded, too.

Jay-Z’s story is similar to that of Steve Jobs. Both their fathers left when they were young. Both were excellent showmen and both of them succeeded in business. Both became extremely successful in more than one field. Both were supporters of Barack Obama. Jay-Z didn’t enjoy the success on the same scale as Steve Jobs, but his starting point was also much lower (“…you could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time”). Their climb was roughly equal.

“You could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time” — Jay-Z

Jay-Z is a professional salesman. He started aged 13 by selling crack cocaine to supplement his single mother’s income, when a couple of characters from his inner circle introduced him to poetry to vent stress from the job. To date, none of this early-age poetry has ever been published.

Jay-Z kept (relatively, aside from selling crack cocaine) out of trouble and kept doing what he loved. He kept writing poetry. The skills he learned from selling crack cocaine (life’s too short; don’t do drugs; stay away from trouble; everyone’s trying to get their hands in your pockets) hardened him for the dog-eat-dog environment of the music industry, which he describes as “one of the most ruthless industries in America”.

“Being a recording artist on a major label is probably the most exploitative contractual agreement in America, and it’s legal.” — Jay-Z

Decoded helped me understand the journey I took in 2011. I used to crave the salaried office jobs that Jay-Z criticises (“American Dreamin'”, page 30), with the water cooler conversation (page 79) and the safety net of having a fixed salary (“Freakonomics”, page 75). Most of these jobs (especially corporate finance) are just as socially-useless, money-obsessed and unfulfilling as selling crack cocaine on the street. They bring large paycheck at the expense of huge social damage; and Jay-Z reminds us that subprime mortgages are much worse than crack cocaine. ★★★★★

Book: Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100

I am edging closer to fiction by reading this book. This book belongs in the middle group of "realistic fiction".

Written from a science fiction perspective
387 pages, ★★★★

Physics of the Future makes references to dozens of (mostly sci-fi) movies that I’m now tempted to download and watch. The author’s a professor of physics but relies very heavily on dozens of examples (Star Wars, Star Trek, Bladerunner, Twister, Rain Man) to illustrate which technologies will become a reality. Robots, genomes, and cheap energy are all among them.

Each chapter focusses on one area of expertise. The chapters are broken into three subsections: early 21st century, mid-21st century, and late 21st century. Each subsection then contains a list of technologies that will transform our lives (such as cold fusion, warm superconductors, space elevators, and human cloning).

Most of this book is pretty accurate. There are some cute mistakes, such as “one day, we’ll all carry our genomes around on a CD-ROM”; but most of the book is well-thought through. He predicts the future of manufacturing and capitalism, as well as the more cliché areas such as energy and transportation. Each technology has a limitation that stops it being a reality today (usually financial limitations, but sometimes insufficient science, ethics or political limits are invoked). I’m comforted to read that technology only seldom has intrinsic limit.

Magic happens hen you piece all of this together: all the obstacles fall like dominoes. Superconductive power transmission allows for a renewable energy boom. Carbon nanotubes allow for space elevators and thus cheap spaceflights. Nuclear fusion allows for energy-hungry magnetic levitation; and super-fast transportation. Mastering just one of the technologies in this book (particularly nuclear fusion or room-temperature superconductors) would allow most of the other technologies to fall into place, like magic!

Machines can become IQ billionaires but will always have an EQ of zero. The further we advance our understanding of robotics and computers, the higher we increase demand for EQ-based “human” services to work alongside them. Widespread computers and robots have the potential to make our work less menial, and our personalities more human. And that’s a world I would love to live in.

Physics of the Future introduces non-fiction readers to fiction; and coaxes science-lovers into reading science fiction. Admittedly, it would be a dull book for sci-fi buffs or lovers of literature, but is a page-turner for a non-fiction lover like me. ★★★★

Book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement

China is awash with photocopied books. Check out any university and you'll be hard-pressed to find one student with an original book.

The happiest story you’ve ever read.
The closest you’ll get to a book about YOU.

423 pages, ★★★★★

The Social Animal is about as close to fiction as I ever get: a life-like story of two fictitious (but very ordinary) people. This book follows the lives of Harold and Erica through the proposed “six stages of life”, the most interesting of which being my stage: “odyssey”.

“Odyssey” is defined as the “ten years of wandering that follow adolescence but preclude a settled adulthood”. It’s a modern phenomenon that arises both from globalisation, and from lack of pressure in Western societies to settle down early. Twenty-somethings spend up to ten years travelling and trying on new personalities (like new clothes); and The Social Animal explains why we do this.

David Brooks makes dozens of references to research mentioned in MIT’s excellent Introductory Psychology lecture series (available for free on iTunes U). He also makes many reassuring references to studies outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

The most comforting aspect of this book is that the author knows the characters better than they know themselves. David Brooks explains all the characters’ feelings, actions and reasoning before they act. He cites psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in science who has an aversion to reading fiction for fear of “not learning anything”. We learn about ourselves by reading fiction. I now aspire to having read enough literature that I, too, could understand myself on a similar level to this book. ★★★★★

Book: The Sociopath Next Door

This book makes you feel more uncomfortable than talking to a shrink. At least Amazon's books are cheap!

Like talking to a shrink: it’s written in obsessive, repetitive language with no intention to cure. The author is sick.
242 pages, ★★★

Sociopaths in this book are only “bad” because of the damage they cause. The Sociopath Next Door tells us that despite the suffering they create and the “crocodile tears” they unleash, sociopaths are in fact having a really great time. So why not become one? The Sociopath Next Door fails to answer that question.

According to this book, the sociopathic 4% among us can do anything without regret. They can extort, murder, rape, declare war, or torture people without feeling empathy. Capitalist society encourages sociopathic behaviour within corporations and some sociopaths have become extremely rich as a result of their ruthless behaviour. But sociopaths without a business talent tend to fare less well: one in five prisoners is also a sociopath.

The Sociopath Next Door is extremely repetitive. Despite being a shrink, the author obsesses over the 4% statistic (which, the author reminds us countless times, equates to one in 25 people). She tells us in each chapter that sociopaths cause great harm (many of the victims have approached the author for counselling) and that sociopaths love to take control of people in strange ways (such as stealing postage stamps or seducing women). Many times, she states that sociopaths love their condition so much that they seldom seek help.

This book is fuzzy. Chapters 1 and 4 both tell us how to diagnose a sociopath using the following six (chapter 4) or seven (chapter 1) criteria. A sociopath is someone who:

  1. Is spontaneous;
  2. Takes risks;
  3. Has charm;
  4. Is never monogamous;
  5. Fails to conform to social norms; and
  6. Fails to honor social obligations.

According to these criteria, I’m a sociopath! However, the book gives us new definitions of sociopathy elsewhere, which include “not having a conscience”, “not feeling regret”, “obsessing over controlling people” and the Dalai Lama’s definition of “not living a fully-developed human life”. According to these criteria, I’m certainly not a sociopath.

The fuzziness starts here: The Sociopath Next Door concludes by telling us that we’re all capable of excising some small fraction of society and labelling them as “inhuman”. Hitler is the favourite example. The book tells us that some people would put Osama bin Laden, capitalists, communists, black people, white people or any other social group and lump them into the same “inhuman” category. We’re all capable of treating some people as inhuman occasionally.

But then the author makes a huge mistake: she tells us that sociopaths lump everyone into the “inhuman” category all the time, and thus treat everyone worse than dogs. It is here that the author fails to realise that the author herself is treating 4% of us as “inhuman” by labelling us as sociopaths and writing an obsessive book about it! Shrinks have a huge incentive to over-diagnose and not to cure, and thus label people (as “ADHD”, “depressed”, “sociopathic” etc) because they want their money; and the only way to escape this dilemma is to reject the notion of sociopathy.

As the conclusion admits, Buddhism gives us far more insight than psychiatry. Eastern religions tend to emphasise loving oneself before one can love others. And if people are in situations where they barely have enough energy to love themselves and their families, they are of course going to show no love for others—particularly strangers in need. Just as we choose which books not to read when we go book-shopping, and which partners not to marry when we get married, we also choose which people not to care for when our spiritual resources are limited. Are all racists, rapists, fascists, and thieves sociopaths? No. They just haven’t been loved. And the answer to that problem doesn’t lie in an expensive shrink’s chair; it comes from falling in love. ★★★