Monthly Archives: October 2012

Book: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational
Squiggles. Soft fonts and soft colour schemes represent the soft, balanced tone of the author very well.

A happy investigation into life’s tiny decisions. A classic.
280 pages, ★★★★

The author, Dan Ariely, survived an explosion when he was 18. Lying on his hospital bed, his body covered in burns, he began to contemplate the irrationality of what had just happened. This accident spawned a fascination with irrationality—out of which, this Predictably Irrational was born.

Chapter 1 explains how people think in relative, not absolute, terms. Not only our senses, but also our perception of value, is relative. Expensive upgrades (like insurance and optional extras) only seem worthwhile when you’re buying something even more expensive. (A $330 pasta machine seems cheap when compared with a $1000 KitchenAid, but not on its own.)

Chapters 5 and 6 talk about self-control. Our aroused selves (chapter 5) and our future selves (chapter 6) don’t listen to what our present selves are saying. This explains why people sometimes don’t use condoms, don’t save for the future, and don’t do their homework on time, even when students are allowed to create their own deadlines. (Even I do it, too—I didn’t write my promised Chinese Sencha review yesterday.)

Chapter 8 ventures into economics. I like how Dan Ariely comments not only on the experimental psychology aspects (where participants click coloured doors on a computer in an experiment), but also on what these experiments teach us about real-life situations as well (he argues in favour of long-term relationships and marriage, which I like). I find this comforting to read. When I agree with an author’s moral standing, I’ll enjoy reading their books more, and probably learn more as well. (In contrast, see my unflattering reviews of such morally-bankrupt stories as I Love DollarsHocus Pocus and The Time Traveller’s Wife.)

Chapters 9 and 10 talk about appearances. A big, red, placebo pill priced at $2.50 works better than a small, white placebo pill priced at 10 cents. Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you’re told what you’re drinking. Likewise, the idea that “top universities” give you a “top-notch education” is largely based on fantasy. I found that out myself.

Finally, chapters 11 to 13 are really summaries. I enjoyed them, yet skimmed them.

Dan Ariely is an excellent science communicator. I am very comfortable reading an author who writes with such politeness and balance (sometimes, he even adds concluding sentences that ward off critics—in the style of “don’t get me wrong”). He has a rare ability to deliver the outcomes of scientific research in clear, easy-to-understand language. He illustrates each chapter with poignant examples, including some from his own life—but only when they are most appropriate. The Jobst suit example served perfectly in chapter 10.

Predictably Irrational is a guide to the tiny decisions in life; a piecemeal, micro-bible, and at the same time, light, interesting and balanced to read. ★★★★

Book: Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization
Also available in red. Hardback.

Too technical for me. Sci-fi fans probably understand this better than I do.
320 pages, ★★

Sorry. This is probably an excellent book, but my elementary understanding of Babylonian culture prevents me from appreciating it fully.

I learned three small things from this book. First, amidst a deluge of alien-sounding names, I recognised what looked like a section on a natural history of the Fertile Crescent. It was so-named by one scientist, who shaded the region that received more than 200 mm of rainfall each year. (And that area was crescent-shaped.)

Second, I learned how Babylon pioneered the construction of cities, states, social classes, division of labour and organised religion (it sounds like Babylon in many ways resembled modern society). We have a lot to thank them for.

Third, I learned how the “fight of ideas” has happened throughout history. People probably even opposed early agriculture because it rendered hierarchies in traditional hunting communities useless (the opponents of agriculture were probably the ones who personally had less to gain from it). Agriculture developed nonetheless.

Long-standing fans of sci-fi, or those who studied “Class Civ” in school, might be able to grasp this book better than I can. Babylon and I give each other two stars. I hope you learn more from this book than I did. ★★

Green tea: Japanese Sencha

Japanese Sencha

Light, refreshing and minty-cool.
Green tea » Japanese » Sun-grown, ★★★
Also known as: 煎茶, Super Sencha

Sencha, or 煎茶 (literally “steamed tea”) constitutes 80% of the tea drunk in Japan. That’s understandable—it’s a very good, yet moderately-priced tea that’s uncomplicated enough for everyday consumption.

The warm, kelpy flavour we’d expect of a steamed, Japanese tea is masked in this by a unique minty flavour. The result is cool and refreshing, not warm and vegetal.

Compare this tea with Chinese-grown Sencha (to be reviewed tomorrow) to see the difference terroir makes to a tea.

Like millions of Japanese, you could make this your everyday green tea. ★★★★★

 

Book: This Is Not My Hat

This is not my hat
A very cute children’s book. See the YouTube teaser below.

Simple. Cute. Moral. Endless fun with young children.
40 pages, ★★★★

This book is cute at first glance.

Then the over-confident protagonist fish stirs up some trouble.

Obliviously, he lets it escalate.

The end is ambiguous but we can imagine what happened.

Suitable for young children. Read and discuss with adults. Watch the trailer below.

★★★★

Book: Color Management: A Comprehensive Guide for Graphic Designers

Color Management A Comprehensive Guide for Graphic Designers
My local library stocked the red version, but blue, purple and white versions also exist. (And maybe more.)

Look, but don’t read.
224 pages,

I didn’t enjoy reading this book. It’s nice to look at, though.

Color Management‘s strength is that it’s beautifully-produced. It’s a fine example of how to make a stunning design portfolio with near-perfect color palettes and suitable font choices for your audience. It describes the process of creating color palettes, and the science of choosing fonts, but the English isn’t good enough to educate me—it merely looks good on the page.

The font is small and printed on a colored background. The page layout is confusing. Whole paragraphs are unnecessary. Some facts are repeated, and others are wrong. (On page 177, it tells us that 32-bit color allows for 16.8 million colors on your palette—in fact, it allows for 4.3 billion. Even I know that.)

The science of design is useful for road signs, billboards, packaging, pamphlets—things I’m not going to spend more than a few seconds looking at; but design overkill” in this book is distracting. Anything that’s going to be looked at for hours needs to have good content, not just a good first impression. The over-emphasis on first impressions makes my eyes wonder aimlessly around each page. Where should I start reading now? There’s too much colourful text, and the top two thirds and the bottom third of each page contain separate content.

Reading Color Management is rather like simultaneously reading a two-tier news ticker on TV (while also paying attention to the pictures on the rest of the screen). If that were possible, it still wouldn’t be fun.

I’d prefer my graphic design textbook to be mostly plain text, followed by illustrations and examples that fill whole pages. Please don’t make the whole book look like a series of advertisements. They’ve squeezed theory into an example-shaped mould, and failed to educate.

Put this book on a corporate guest table. Then when you’ve arrived early for your all-important appointment, browse through this mindless eye-candy before going in. In those situations, nobody really reads the text anyway. It looks good, though. ★★

Book: The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World
This book has many covers, all of which feature a large photo of the Dalai Lama.

A non-interactive version of McKinney’s “Happiness”. Practical psychology that’s coincidentally Buddhist.
368 pages,

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World tells us why we should be happy. It does so in fluent prose, a substantial proportion of which is paraphrased from dialogues between the author and the Dalai Lama (hence the Dalai Lama’s name and giant picture on the front cover). It teaches us that we should all be happy, that happiness is contagious, and that happiness is always the antidote to suffering. Very Buddhist.

The author raises many points that would make interesting conversation topics. He argues that hit TV show “Survivor” is the epitome of American individualism and greed: when a dozen strangers are left stranded on an island, they are rewarded for infighting (not co-operating) and all strive to be the last one standing—alone, atop a huge pile of cash. “How unhappy the winners must be!”, the author writes.

He also argues that racism is rooted in a human evolutionary preference for remembering negative news over positive news. Positive news can make you happy (e.g. “we have a bumper harvest this year”) but negative news can save your life (e.g. “a hurricane is coming”). He says this is why one group will more easily remember negative information about another group, unless they are well-acquainted. He thus infers that racism can be eliminated by cultural understanding. I like that.

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World more closely resembles a psychology book than a Buddhist book. He talks about the roots of fear, and recovery from trauma with the soothing tone of a psychologist. Like McKinney’s book, The Power of Happiness (see review here), The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World is Buddhist by coincidence.

This book concludes with a dramatic change in tone. First, it resembles Thomas Freedman’s The World Is Flat. Not only are we are all equal human beings on a level playing field, who achieve great things when we work together, but we are also much more interconnected than we realise. (The latter example is illustrated by the famous Milton Friedman question, “how many people does it take to make a pencil?”). Answer: probably billions, both past and present. The effect here is to remind us that happiness is not only necessary and possible, but also contagious in the modern world. Happy people make people happy. 🙂

I’m glad I’ve read this book, even though it’s not the best in its genre. (Those, I gave five stars: see Tiny Buddha, Happiness and The Power of Happiness for better-written, 5-star examples.) I gave this book four stars because I’m such a fan of the genre. Most other reviewers would give it just three. ★★★★

Book: Student Survival Guide

Student Survival Guide
One major pitfall: this book’s target audience DOESN’T READ BOOKS.

Written by students. Never take university advice from students.
176 pages, ★

This book made BBC news. It’s a collation of sometimes conflicting advice from different students, most of which is rubbish. It concerns topics as broad as drinking, drinking games, parties, hangovers and drunken accidents. Sarcasm.

Student Survival Guide assumes not only that university students are stupid, and that they’re supposed to be stupid, but also that being stupid responsibly is the highest state of being to which they should all aspire. The sloppy title font is used for all chapter and subchapter headings—a periodic reminder not to listen to the author. Never take advice from someone who uses this font.

This book is filled with hangover cures, drinking games—yes, drinking games—most of which you already learned in kindergarten (without the alcohol). It tells students that the whole point of university is to be stupid. And that’s very irresponsible.

This book was written by two Welsh students in 2001. Back then, Welsh students were lucky enough to have all their tuition fees paid by the Welsh regional government. Maybe that’s why these authors played and drank during university—because it was free, they took the experience for granted, perhaps?

There’s nothing useful in Student Survival Guide. Students who don’t know any better will be negatively-influenced by this book. It’s full of bad advice. Keep it away from them. ★

 

Book: The Cat Selector: How to choose the right cat for you

The Cat Selector
Can you resist opening this cute book?

Felinity deconstructed. Comedy.
176 pages, ☆☆☆ (three comic stars)

Browse through categories of “playful cats”, “talented cats”, “high-maintenance cats” and more to find your ideal cat with The Cat Selector. There are cat types I never even knew existed, some of which more closely resemble rabbits and piglets than cats.

I laughed out loud in the library while reading this book. Cats are supposed to be lovely and cute, but The Cat Selector deconstructs felinity into star-ratings and quantifiable attributes. I thought that trusting your feelings was a good way to choose a cat (or partner, or friends, or anything else that breathes); but the experts at The Cat Selector seem to think numbers and statistics are the way to go. This book treats living things as something completely unemotional, like petrol or phone credit: the juxtaposition of giant, heart-warming pictures and insensitive text made me laugh.

It’s hard to give a star-rating to such a funny book. Just read it yourselves. Then buy a theoretically-perfect cat and name it “Billy Beane”. ☆☆

 

Book: A Woman’s Guide to Cycling

A Woman's Guide to Cycling
I found this 25-year-old hardback edition in a charity store. It looks like a parody now. In 2012, even the title sounds derogatory!

This comprehensive textbook complicates cycling to make cyclists look really clever.
380 pages, ★

I’ve found treasure troves of books in libraries and charity stores. This one, A Woman’s Guide to Cycling, turns a simple, physical hobby into an academic subject that, on the page, looks a lot like chemistry or physics. Mathematical formulae, diagrams, graphs and numbers abound.

One funny part allows you to calculate the length of each of your gears using a mathematical formula, then write them down and stick them onto your handlebars to help you change gear. This book also allows you to calculate the angle of the chain between the two cogs, and thus determine which of the gearing combinations are putting too much strain on the bike. (This is funny because it seems so unnecessary—like most cyclists, I just “go with the feel” and learn that way.)

Another fascinating section in A Woman’s Guide to Cycling include “how to avoid getting harassed while cycling”. I wasn’t even aware that being harassed while on a bike was a problem for women. Maybe it was in the 1980s, when this book was first published?

A Woman’s Guide to Cycling is not an introduction. It overcomplicates cycling and turns it into an academic subject that might even put people off. (Maybe that’s the publishers’ intention—to give ‘face’ to those who can cycle.) In my view, an introduction to cycling for women (as opposed to for children) should be no more than a pamphlet, which explains the health, wealth and time-saving benefits of riding a bike. In 2012, this book seems totally irrelevant. I give it three stars purely for comic value. ★★★

Oolong tea: Oriental Beauty

Oriental Beauty

Darjeeling’s cousin. Light, fruity and heavily-oxidised for an oolong.
Oolong tea » Traditional » Taiwan, ★
Also known as: 东方美人茶, Dongfang Meiren Cha

Oriental Beauty is very highly oxidised, with a few furry tips included. The dry leaf looks a little like two teas blended together. And the taste more closely resembles a light, fruity black tea (such as Darjeeling) than an oolong. A quick look at this tea’s Wikipedia page helps us to explain why:

“Dongfang meiren is the chhiⁿ-sim tōa-phàⁿ (青心大冇) cultivar grown without pesticides to encourage a common pest, the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana), to feed on the leaves, stems, and buds. These insects suck the phloem juices of the tea stems, leaves, and buds, producing monoterpene diol and hotrienol which give the tea its unique flavor. The buds then turn white along the edges which gives the tea its alternate name, white tip oolong. The insect bites start the oxidation of the leaves and tips and add a sweet note to the tea.” — Wikipedia.

I can feel the muscatel flavour (reminiscent of grape skin), and a fruitiness similar to that of fruit infusions (or “fruit teas”) in later brews. The medium-tannin, low-caffeine taste lasts for many hours on your tongue after drinking.

Oriental Beauty would appeal to playful tea drinkers. These are the tea-drinkers who like to add fruit, nuts, popcorn and milky flavours to the leaf, or even create their own tea-blends. In producing this tea, the farmers have done exactly that: they’ve introduced insect species with the specific intention of altering the tea’s flavour. Personally, I prefer simplicity.

I’ll give this tea two stars, but those who prefer black teas, dark teas, fruit teas and rooibos infusions could possibly give it all five. ★★

Black tea: Ceylon FBOPFEXSP

Ceylon FBOPFEXSP

Milk chocolate taste with light, smokey notes and a nonsense acronym attached.
Black tea » Indian* » Ceylon teas (Sri Lanka), ★★★★

This tea tastes a little harder than the softer Assam teas, especially the nutty-chocolatey Assam from Nonaipara Estate.

First, you’ll notice a milk chocolatey taste and mouthfeel. It’s pleasant and would handle lemon or milk and sugar very well. Traditional, British tea-drinkers would love this Ceylon.

Second, you’ll feel a very slight smokiness that becomes a little more evident in later brews (as the sweetness wanes). It’s not overpoweringly smokey—it’s not a smoked tea. By comparison, the smokey taste is on a similar level to that of Gunpowder Green (another unsmoked tea).

I have no clue as to what those letters in “Ceylon FBOPFEXSP” stand for. That’s not because I don’t understand the grading nomenclature, but because there is no such acronym for describing a grade of tea. Google the acronym on its own and you’ll be directed to the product page for my local tea store, T2. I’m wondering whether “Ceylon FBOPFEXSP” is just another clever marketing trick by T2. Bless them.

I would definitely buy this tea. ★★★★

* the “Indian” branch of my Tea Types 2012 chart represents teas from the Indian subcontinent (of which Sri Lanka and three Indian regions are all sub-categories). It’s geographically rational, but politically wrong. But tea trees don’t care about politics.

Book: The Personality Compass

The Personality Compass
Subtle, introverted colour choices. Is the publisher a little shy of promoting this weak thesis?

Over-simplistic theory milked ad absurdum without any redeeming comic value.
Like turning Tic-Tac-Toe into a religion.

304 pages, ★

I pity this book. Its oversimplified thesis won’t teach you anything worth knowing about psychology. Worse than that, this book might even make you dumber. So don’t read it.

The premise is simple: there are four types of people, which can be labelled as ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ and ‘west’ personality types. The premise is then inflated to a level of detail it doesn’t deserve, with 300 pages of quizzes, quotes, checklists and puzzles in the style of a typical self-help book.

Just imagine taking the thesis to heart and sharing it with some friends. You’ll first have to explain the four types of personality (north, south, east and west), which is tedious in itself, but you’ll then start giving lifestyle advice to people based on arbitrarily-allocated compass-points. You’d look crazy and lose your audience’s interest in doing so. So don’t.

The Personality Compass might make an interesting picture, diagram, or maybe a bedroom poster. But this throwaway thesis should never have been inflated into a 300-page book. It sells second-hand for $1—even at that price, you should leave it on the shelf. ★

Scented tea: White Monkey Jasmine

White Monkey Jasmine

Overwhelmingly thick, smooth and fragrant. Pralines and crème liqueurs.
Scented tea » Jasmine » Traditional, ★★★

I never expected a traditional jasmine tea to have such a heavy scent. Yet, I feel a powerful praline and crème liqueur taste in this brew.

I say “liqueur” because the vapour feel (茶气) is thick and heavy, rather like breathing in over a shot of alcohol. It’s unique to find such a deep aroma in tea.

The jasmine scent here is a rich one, not a light, floral one. The aroma closer resembles praline than flowers—again, unusual for a jasmine tea.

It’s a good-quality tea, and many people would love it. But the 茶气 is just too heavy for me to enjoy regularly. While the overly-heavy aroma dissuades me from buying White Monkey Jasmine, there are plenty of people who would select it especially for that trait. ★★★

White tea: Bai Mu Dan (and a digital teaspoon)

Bai Mudan

A dry, light, white chocolatey infusion.
White tea » Fujian New White Teas, ★
Also known as: 白牡丹, [King] White Peony.

Bai Mudan (Chinese: 百牡丹, English translation: White Peony) is incredibly light in weight. A typical three-gram infusion is larger than a heaped tablespoon of this tea. When measuring your teas, pay attention to the density of the loose leaf: one teaspoon of tea can weigh anything from 1 gram (large-leaf white tea) to almost 3 grams (CTC black teas).

I use a digital teaspoon to weigh exactly 3.0 grams of tea for every pot that I brew. Here’s my spoon below:

magic teaspoon
My digital teaspoon. It can weigh tea leaves (or anything else) to within 0.1 grams of accuracy!

I also check the water temperature with a thermometer.

digital thermometer
My digital tea thermometer. With this and the magic teaspoon (above), you get perfect brews every time.

The thermometer reveals two things:

  1. that water boils before 100 °C, and that water poured straight from a boiling kettle into a cold cup is only 88 °C.
  2. that once poured, hot water cools very slowly. Hot water in a glass jug without a lid cools by 0.1 °C every five seconds.

I brew each tea for three and a half minutes at the recommended temperatures: 70 °C for green teas, 75 °C for white and yellow teas, 80° C for black and oolong teas, and 90 °C for pu’er teas, fruit infusions, traditionally-scented teas and tisanes. My phone serves as a stopwatch.

This results in perfect brews every time, and allows for fair comparisons of different teas.

*

Bai Mudan is actually a lower-grade pluck of Silver Needles, although many tea-drinkers prefer the taste of Bai Mudan. The former contains sticks and mature leaves, and is suited for personal consumption, whereas the latter contains the finest, furriest, fluffiest tender buds of the same bush—and is the better choice when sending a tea gift.

It tastes of white chocolate and honeydew melon. The flavours aren’t obvious, and over-brewing will bring out a dry white wine taste, which some people enjoy!

I drink all my teas plain, because I want to enjoy the subtle flavours unhindered by fruits, spices, cream or sugar. With a refined palate, you can taste all of these (fruits, spices, cream and sugar/sweetness), and more flavours, in natural, unadulterated tea. Conclusion: do not add ginger to Bai Mudan.

Bai Mudan is light and voluminous. A normal brew, just three grams, is approximately one flat melon-scoopful of tea leaves. It also tastes very dry, so don’t drink too often. Drink it in combination with Silver Needles to demonstrate the differences between finer and rougher plucks very nicely. ★★★★

Book: Europe East & West

Europe East & West

Gripping accounts of what Norman Davies learned from writing a legendary history book.
335 pages, ★★

Europe East & West isn’t the legendary history tome that the cover alleges it to be. Instead, (the advanced introduction aside) it’s a series of relaxed, organised accounts of the author’s journey in writing a history book. (The book itself is called Europe: A History.)

This book raises many interesting points. It deconstructs “the west”, and told us how “western” is an obsolete term; not just because eastern countries are now catching up economically, but because for much of ancient history, eastern europe has been remarkably successful. The author’s specific interests in Poland and Wales highlight how both the Celts and the Poles were in many ways more advanced than their closest neighbours, the Germans and the English. I like myth-busting.

Some of the facts are surprising. It tells us that “England is not an island”—that’s the author’s Welsh interest becoming apparent. He then argues (more seriously) how Britain never fully adopted the notion nationhood in the way that France did, and missed its last opportunity when the British Empire was downsized. It tells us the Roman roots of the 1054 schism in Christianity which still lasts to this day. It also tells us how George Ludwig made a perfect king because couldn’t speak any English, which allowed for the emergence of a ruling cabinet under a figurehead monarch (which we also still have today). He also argues that the Muslims have long been more accommodating of the Jewish people than the Europeans ever have, and gives plenty of comparisons and examples to prove his point.

I have deep admiration for the author’s understanding of history. His 12-year-old son can name six of the seven European empires which ruled over Muslim subjects:

“I remember asking my twelve-year-old son how many European empires had Muslim subjects. I started off with the British empire, which ruled over Muslims from northern Nigeria to Brunei, and the French empire. Then we thought of the Russian empire. Then he came up with the Dutch empire, which I’d forgotten, in the East Indies. And we ended with the Spanish empire in North Africa and the Italians in Libya. We forgot the Portuguese in Timor, but six out of seven is not bad.” — pages 203-204

I also admire the author’s impartiality. He doesn’t give in to recent cultural and political biases—in fact, he ignores them completely. (I thin much of this comes from his love of both Poland and Wales, both of which are under-represented in most of Europe’s historical narratives.)

If you want to learn about European history, but are basically starting from scratch, then read this Europe East & West as an ice-breaker before cracking the epic tome (Europe: A History) itself. ★★

Book: Presentation Skills for Students

Presentation Skills for Students

If monkey see, monkey do, then don’t read this book.
139 pages, ★

I learn by seeing and doing. I copy. Therefore, if a teacher uses a bullet lists on a PowerPoint presentation to tell me how to deliver an eloquent, engaging speech, then I’m really not going to learn. Actually, all I’d learn is how not to speak.

Presentation Skills for Students is a written embodiment of the PowerPoint bullet-list culture that most of us detest. This book tells me to speak up, project my voice, choose suitable fonts, colours and graphics, blah blah blah, but doesn’t deliver the information in a way that I find in any way engaging: it’s littered with dull, bulleted lists and emphasises theory over practice, which ironically contradicts the book’s purpose—to train good speakers.

Watch Obama’s speeches if you want to improve your speaking skills. Here’s an excellent one below. Learn from the best!

If you still insist on learning the theory, then watch this TED video as well, called “Talk Nerdy To Me”.

Presentation Skills for Students reminds me of the Fight Club corporate meeting scene with Microsoft (or in the film, a generic company), where the protagonist’s boss tinkers with the colours of his slides—and the leader replies, “efficiency is key, people”. The best part is that the author, not the character, is being ironic. Presentation Skills for Students is an equally pointless display of procrastination. Watch Obama instead. ★★