Monthly Archives: April 2013

Book: A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind

Inspiring, invokes sympathy.
464 pages, ★★★

Q: What should we do with an overweight Hungarian?

Protagonist Johnny Nash is a ‘flamboyant’ and ‘mischievous’ mathematical genius. He invented Game Theory and the mathematical game ‘Hex’, won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 and almost won a Fields Medal, too. A Beautiful Mind is a book in three parts: (1) the genius; (2) his illness; and (3) his remarkable recovery.

Nash was ‘ostracised’ and ‘teased’ in school. Some classmates described him as ’emotionless’ because he liked to be alone. Actually, Nash made strong friendships with a handful of people with whom he could really connect—mostly older, genius males. Most people could not relate to him—and vice versa.

He was extremely successful academically. He led a successful post-graduate career at Princeton and published papers on game theory and equilibrium theory. These were still areas of major interest to Nash by the end of the book.

However, Nash’s work on quantum theory began to deteriorate around page 221. Schizoid or bipolar symptoms became apparent. Nash would later blame “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilising” efforts to resolve the contradictions in quantum theory for triggering his mental illness.

His condition deteriorated further on page 246 when he delivered what the audience described as a ‘horrible’, “nonsensical, lunatic” seminar on Reimann’s Hypothesis. Delusions of persecution led him to Europe where, against official advice, he attempted to renounce U.S. citizenship. Grandiose delusions led him to think of himself as a “great but secret religious figure” while he was in Rome (page 312), that he was “saving the world” (page 320), that newspapers were talking to him (page 322) and that he was constantly scared of annihilation (of himself and of the world; page 324). He used multiple identities when signing his letters—names from all over the world, historical figures, even animals—which represented the fragmentary nature of his mind. Undoubtedly, he was going through great suffering at this time, so he changed names and travelled the world to escape it.

Remarkably, Nash’s life made an almost magical upturn around page 334. His illness receded, he re-married the love of his life, and he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Recovery from long-term schizophrenia is almost unheard of.

This story begs two questions for me. (1) What caused his schizophrenia? and (2) What made him recover?

(1) In my opinion, Nash’s behaviour can be explained entirely by his childhood, as predicted on page 38:

Johnny’s apparent sense of superiority, his standoffishness, and his occasional cruelty were ways of coping with uncertainty and loneliness. What he lost by his lack of genuine interaction with children his own age was a “lively sense, in reality, of his actual position in the human hierarchy” that prevents other children with more social contact from feeling unrealistically weak or unrealistically powerful. If he could not believe he was loveable, then feeling powerful was a good substitute. As long as we could be successful, his self-esteem would remain intact.

In other words, this book suggests that same factors that led him to be so successful also could have contributed to his illness. It makes sense, too—few geniuses are completely sane.

(2) As for what made him recover, the book gives no explicit answers. One possibility is that Nash’s reassurance that he was neither young enough to be drafted into the Army nor required to do defence-related research persuaded him to return from Europe to America and continue his life there. Falling in love (with Alicia) was either a cause or a result of his recovery, or maybe both, but the book gives no clear answers here, either. Either way, his story is a remarkable and inspiring one.

There are also some math problems in this book to think about. Try these:

Two cyclists, 20 miles apart, start at the same instant and ride towards each other along a straight road at a speed of 10 miles per hour. At the same instant, a fly on the forehead of one of the riders starts to fly at 15 miles per hour toward the other rider, alights on his forehead, and the immediately flies back to the first rider. The fly travels back and forth over the continuously-decreasing distance between the two riders until the two riders meet. How far has the fly flown when all its journeys are added together?

And another one:

THE JEEP PROBLEM: There are n units of fuel stored at a fixed base. The jeep can carry at most 1 unit of fuel at any time, and can travel 1 unit of distance on 1 unit of fuel (the jeep’s fuel consumption is assumed to be constant). At any point in a trip the jeep may leave any amount of fuel that it is carrying at a fuel dump, or may collect any amount of fuel that was left at a fuel dump on a previous trip, as long as its fuel load never exceeds 1 unit. The jeep must return to the base at the end of every trip.

There are ‘easy’ and ‘long-winded’ ways of calculating each of these problems.

I recommend this succinct, clearly-written book for anyone inspired by genius or inspired by stories of miraculous recovery★★★

P.S. I think The answer to the riddle at the top is, “Make him go to Hungary/too hungry”.

Book: Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated
Everything is Illuminated

276 pages, ★★

Somewhere, buried deep beneath layers of Jewish humour and outrageous English, this book contains a novel about one man’s personal quest to solve a Holocaust mystery. The story is so hidden, though, so completely suffocated with humour (to the point where it stops being funny), that it would takes at least a couple of readings to fully appreciate the plot.

The protagonist (who shares the same name as the author) goes to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The story is told from a variety of perspectives, with large parts told in the form of letters in hilariously broken English from the protagonist’s Ukrainian translator, Alex.

Anyone as clueless about Jewish humour as I am would probably be able to tell you that while most of this book appears to be funny, they can’t actually identify where the punchlines are. That’s how I feel. The deeper Holocaust narrative is inaccessible to me because it’s been concealed so heavily by slapstick wordplay. The film looks much clearer, though:

Everything is not Illuminated by this book. I’m a little disappointed with its lack of clarity. While some people can understandably give this 4 or 5 stars, I can only give it two. ★★

Book: SuperFreakonomics

Sequel to Freakonomics.

Crowd-pleasing. More Freakonomics.
320 pages, ★★★★★

SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as:

  • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
  • How much good do car seats do?
  • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
  • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
  • Are people hard-wired for altruism or selfishness?
  • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
  • Which adds more value: a pimp or a Realtor?

SuperFreakonomics pleases the same audience as Freakonomics (excitable rebellious young males—the Top Gear crowd). In fact, when I first read this book aged 21, the idea that volcanoes, stratospheric aerosols and specific types of clouds can have a huge influence on global temperatures fascinated me. I liked it so much that I copied basically the entire chapter on climate change completely unknowingly into an ‘important’ university essay. I began researching contrails and cloud-brightening ships obsessively, and even applied to do PhD projects on climatology. That’s how much this book inspired me!

This book inspires other young people, too. Best of all, SuperFreakonomics gets kids reading. ★★★★★

Also consider: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (similar level, more sociological); and The Big Short by Michael Lewis (advanced level, more about finance than economics).

Book: Freakonomics


Modern classic. Trains logic, rational thinking and rigid essay structure.
336 pages, ★★★★★

Freakonomics is a collection of humorous essays that use economics to explain real-life situations. Its overall message is that prejudice can be overcome by rational thinking.

I taught to students at a Beijing secondary school back in 2011, and they loved it. First, kids love reading about money. Second, it sates kids’ appetite for controversy: where else can you learn about abortion, drug dealers, racism and the KKK in one class? Finally, its highly logical structure allows you to lose concentration half-way through and still understand the rest of the book. Similar books (e.g. David Brooks’ The Social Animal and Neil Strauss’ The Game) also gripped them in a way that novels and fiction didn’t.

Freakonomics‘ only shortcoming is that it lacks an overarching narrative. You could read the chapters in reverse order and still get the same message! While it would be easy to teach just rational, logical non-fiction, schools should balance this book with ‘realistic fiction’ to develop character arc and story structure skills in their English curricula. ★★★★★

Book: Please Stop Laughing at Me

Please Stop Laughing at Me
Please Stop Laughing at Me

Bad inspiration for people struggling with bullying.
304 pages, ★★★

Please Stop Laughing at Me is an autobiographical story loaded with pained descriptions about how horrible it is to be bullied. These passages would resonate with some kids and grip their attention, which is a shame because the author provides some irresponsible solutions towards the end of the book.

I have two major problems with this book.

First, the protagonist is in a very privileged position. She’s fortunate enough to have two parents who care about her deeply. She’s quite well-off, and she’s able to change schools when the social environment at one school gets out of hand. Since many bullied kids are from deprived social backgrounds, how can this girl’s exotic holidays and expensive surgery (more on that later) inspire the majority of those struggling with bullying to find a way out? Bullied kids reading this book might get the erroneous impression that friends and happiness depend on having lots of money. They will be disappointed.

Second, the author places a large amount of emphasis on how corrective surgery on her breasts solved her bullying problem. She went against doctors’ advice and had this surgery too young. Doesn’t this teach kids to defy authority and give in to peer pressure? And what about those kids who are bullied despite looking ‘normal’? How can surgery ‘correct’ them? This books fails to illustrate how resisting bullies requires being mentally strong—not physically “perfect”.

In conclusion, Please Stop Laughing at Me tells children that money and breasts make you happy and popular! While the author’s journey was certainly a difficult one, it’s not a journey than can—or should—inspire young people. Be sure to criticise this book with any child who’s read it. ★★★

Book: The Saber-Tooth Curriculum

I just got married! I also just finished reading The Saber Tooth Curriculum

The Saber-Tooth Curriculum
The Saber-Tooth Curriculum

Classic satire full of good quotes. Subject of running jokes since 1939.
139 pages, ★★★★★

The Saber-Tooth Curriculum is a collection of seven short, satirical stories that illustrate some quirky aspects of our education system. The same Stone Age society is used as a metaphor for our modern world throughout.

Allusion to the modern world is thinly-veiled. This Stone Age society has middle schools, universities, education officials, investors, and even a national curriculum. Only humour—including humorous names of people and school subjects—separates this Stone Age society from reality.

The main messages in this book’s seven stories are:

  1. The scientific method has made absurd yet un-disprovable theories become accepted in education; (See this example.)
  2. Schools teach an outdated set of skills to students;
  3. School reform meets resistance from all angles;
  4. Universities dictate school curricula with lofty, academic content and overcomplicate education with ‘credits’, ‘units’ and rules on ‘pre-requisites’;
  5. Unions control education for the short-term benefit of society;
  6. When young people learn outdated skills, they can’t find meaningful work;
  7. All of this is extremely difficult to change.

I agree with most of these points. After graduation from Cambridge during the economic crisis with no job, no practical skills and no employers even remotely interested in hiring biology graduates, I felt I’d been cheated into some massive con. Unlike history or art, biology isn’t particularly interesting to other people, either. I would love to see curricula become more relevant to society than they are today—we’d have a more interesting, more employable crop of graduates in years to come.

Part II, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, is the most famous story in this book. In synopsis, a cave-dwelling society refuses to alter its school curricula despite an impending ice age which completely redefines the skills required in the workplace. This story highlights how schools still teach swathes of irrelevant knowledge (too much maths, too much chemistry) and neglect the useful skills to the detriment of everyone (reading, writing, health, religion, and more).

The most incredible thing about this book is that it’s still relevant 70 years after being written! As long as school curricula are playing catch-up with society, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum will stay relevant. Recommended for anyone who went to university. ★★★★★

Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans
A Modern Chinese Classic

Bloody, detailed, action-packed account of Chinese history from the warlord-ridden 1920s to the reformist 1980s from the perspective of three generations in one family.
666 pages, ★★★★★

Through the eyes of three generations of women in one family, we learn about China’s tumultuous transition from the corrupt “warlords & concubines” era in the 1920s, to the “heaven on earth” 1950s, to the rough 1960s to the “post-Mao, reformist era” of the 1980s. Together, over six decades, their stories document China from both urban and rural perspectives, from both coastal and inland perspectives, and from the perspectives of every rung on the social ladder. Wild Swans covers basically every aspect of China’s transition—it’s an excellent starting point for studying modern Chinese history.

There’s also focus on Chairman Mao in this book. This is inevitable, as he dominated every Chinese person’s life from the Lei Feng cult (1962) to the end of the worst of the Cultural Revolution (1972). Jung Chang’s next book is a 1000-page biography of the Chairman himself, and it’s on my reading list.

[The next 984 words are omitted. After I wrote them, I felt uncomfortable about putting them online. Email me if you want a copy.]

In conclusion, while Communist China was bloody, violent and imperfect, Wild Swans suggests it was a more progressive and much happier place to live than the Nationalist China that preceded it. This conclusion isn’t obvious, however, from the number of pages that Wild Swans devotes to graphic descriptions of each historical episode. Wild Swans also paints a more flattering picture of the Communist regime than does Mao’s Last Dancer, whose author was born after Nationalist rule had ended.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who loves modern Chinese history★★★★★

Essay: Student alternative conceptions in secondary level plant science

After much deliberation, I’ve decided to put this online. Here’s the first essay I wrote during teacher training. Monash University was kind enough to award it the top grade 🙂  Continue reading Essay: Student alternative conceptions in secondary level plant science