A fine popular introduction to the brain and an earnest if difficult attempt to explain how it generates consciousness.

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RETHINKING CONSCIOUSNESS

A SCIENTIFIC THEORY OF SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE

Graziano (Psychology and Neuroscience/Princeton Univ.; The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature, 2018, etc.) continues to probe the mysteries of consciousness.

Explaining how our physical brain generates consciousness is officially labeled the “hard problem,” and readers of this admirable attempt to solve it will not disagree. A thermostat registers temperature; a computer can evaluate information and make decisions. The assembly of neurons in the brain does the same, and neuroscientists are working out the mechanism. However, brains not only do stuff; their possessors also know that they are doing stuff. They are having mental experiences. Brain cells detect color, but how do we experience redness? “A modern computer can process a visual image,” writes the author, “but engineers have not yet solved how to make the computer conscious of that information.” Although their numbers are diminishing, some scholars insist that something as amorphous as consciousness can never be explained scientifically. Graziano points out that plenty of theories exist, including one he favors, which “can apply equally to biological brains and artificial machines.” He opts for what he calls the attention schema, which emphasizes that the brain is an information-processing machine that generates a conscious experience but has no way to relate this to reality. As a result, we construct a rich internal model that we consult to assure us that our perceptions are correct. We also use this model to predict the behavior of others—i.e., social cognition. It works pretty well but not perfectly. Graziano also provides an excellent history of brain evolution beginning with the first nerve cell 700 million years ago. Since consciousness is complex—but not confined to humans; other animals have it—understanding it requires a knowledge of brain function. The author delivers a lucid account, but once he focuses on his specialty, few readers will doubt that the phrase “hard problem” is no exaggeration.

A fine popular introduction to the brain and an earnest if difficult attempt to explain how it generates consciousness.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-65261-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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