Sunday, August 13, 2006

The books I bought with the forgotten xmas gift certificate ...

So, we have been having a weekend of nearly-California like weather here in DC, sandwiched between the horribleness that is Washington DC in the summertime (and most of the rest of the year, too). I decided to go for a walk yesterday, rather than go to the gym, a walk up to the local independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. My wife pointed out that I had received from Mrs. Claus a $100 gift certificate to Politics and Prose, unused and untouched. Yum, yum. This is what I bought, taking advantage of remainders and sales:

Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man (Random House 2006). This is Kennedy's history of the United Nations, and it a book necessary for the little manuscript I am finishing on global governance and the UN. I count, within Kennedy's schema, as one of the sovereigntists - a democratic sovereigntist, to be exact, holding the American neocon suspicion of global governance. I've read the opening and closing chapters, and the book looks interesting, although it reveals a dubiously Whiggish view of history.

Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music (Dutton 2006). Levitin is a musician, music producer and sound engineer turned neuroscientist, and I am completely and utterly fascinated by his explanation of the neurology of music. I am through the first chapter, which I was reading until 3:00 am last night, defining what is music, its elements, and how those elements divide up into those which are "in the world" and those that are defined by the brain. Frequency, for example, is in the world; pitch, on the other hand, is a psychological construct from frequency. The book is utterly fascinating.

Joy Hakim, The Story of Science. This is a middle school textbook, and a pretty good one. Hakim wrote a history series widely used by homeschoolers - I read it all, and found it quite good. She is a clear, fluid writer, and manages to avoid much of the gobbledygook and mushiness of the typical high school or middle school text written by a curriculum committee and ghostwritten by persons of little expertise and less writing ability. She has approached science as history - which is a good way to approach it in middle school. It attaches scientific concepts to people, and to a developing story and, really, set of arguments that eventually get resolved by evidence. I picked it up for my daughter, who is in middle school but, unfortunately, on the whole badly taught (and especially badly taught for the $30,000 a year in tuition, but that's another story). Said daughter is moaning and groaning at having to read anything other than summer chick lit, but I am perservering. I'm also reading it myself - I hadn't heard of a lot of these people. I think the historical approach has virtues in other areas as well - economics for example - economics is most easily understood the first time around approached as a history of ideas, and then developed as a formal system.

Michael Howard, Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2002). I like this Very Short Introduction series a lot, and this little book, first published in 1983, gives me something to fill in the gap with students in courses like just war and military ethics who need to know something about the tradition of strategy. And it was on sale.

Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (1984). Remaindered copy of a book I had wanted - needed for my long term project on the Second Inaugural Address.

Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (Harper Collins 2006). My daughter, age 13, attends a hoity-toity DC private girls school. I read a review of this book in the Washington Post or somewhere and thought, this is my kid. Privileged only child, she's been to Europe repeatedly, Latin America, lots of places, had every educational advantage we could dream up, and while far from rich as so many of her classmates are (being a mere academic's child and all), she doesn't exactly lack for things. She is also anxious, fearful, utterly incompetent in the real world (eg, has no idea even how to get home from her school (if you are always driven, why bother with geography? it's like she lives the monads)) and, during the summer, has zero interest in doing anything other than sleeping and watching TV and reading the lightest of chick lit. She says she is clobbered with work during the school year - 5-6 hours of homework pretty much every night, one full day of homework every weekend, often more. She just wants to turn off in the summer, and who can blame her? The result is an anxious, utterly passive child - she is like a computer that, if turned on as programmed, performs amazingly well, but once the program is over, turns off completely. As Levine says, she is both "bored and boring" - has no thoughts outside of those she thinks the teacher wants to hear, not interested in developing a view of her own because, as she has long since figured out, teachers want to hear what they want to hear (it's more insidious than that - she knows perfectly well that we teachers want to hear ourselves parroted back, but told with utter sincerity, highly practiced utter sincerity, that the student spontaneously came to the same conclusion the teacher did!!). I told her I didn't really care how she spent the summer, as long as she did something, anything, just joined the ranks of producers rather than consumers - learn to cook, sew, needlepoint, dance, make a movie for YouTube, I didn't care. But she, like her friends, does not dare have any passions, because to indulge a passion means that you won't get the work done for the next day. Her primary skill is triage. She displays no initiative, merely a desire that she get a good grade with the least amount of work. There's something wrong with all of this, of course, and Levine sets out to explain what it is. The problem is, to judge by my quick read, much of it is driven by the college thing itself in a system that is essentially winner takes all - and in a peculiar way. The students who get into the toppest colleges actually are under the least grades pressure. Go to Harvard or Brown for undergrad, and you can do what you like and still get into a top grad school or law school - then go to Yale Law School, and, as my younger brother once put it, at YLS as long as you know how to kiss ass, you will have no real grades and yet do just fine. Once in the real world, the winnings go to the top. Why wouldn't I be pushing my kid to make that hurdle? Add that to a system in which any screwup will cut you out of that tier - for example, if you don't make the upper math class in 7th or 8th grade, you won't be on track to do upper math or science in high school, and at that point, the top colleges are all but closed to you even if your plan is humanities and laws school. I hate all this, and proposed to my kid that we home school her this year - take a small part of that $30,000 a year and hire math and science tutors, for example - and she could return to school in 9th grade. But no takers there - the anxious child, fearful of change, will never, ever opt out of the ratrace. Would I ever have imagined that I would have a child who is both bright and, in many things, exceedingly well trained and yet whose deepest desire is to follow the path of least resistance?

David Berlinksi, The Advent of the Algorithm ((Harcourt 2000). This is a lovely book by the author of A Tour of the Calculus which I have owned for some time but just finished reading. I thought the discussion of Leibniz at the beginning was very good - Berlinksi is extremely good at presenting abstract mathematical ideas in plain language. Lovely book.

I am also awaiting a late father's day present - a CD called Le petit mort by a violin-cello duo. A bunch of different baroque things, arranged for two instruments. I am very curious to hear it. I have been working hard on learning a transcription of the Bach flute suite BWV 1013 for cello. I like the opening allemande a lot; it is difficult for me because it involves a lot of arpeggios that require playing precisely in tune while crossing a lot of strings in the mid-positions. Hard to explain - you think the note should be on the next string over exactly where your finger is on your current string but, no, it is just slightly off of that. That's before even getting to the bowing, the thing that makes it sound like Bach, the emphasis that makes it sound like something. That's a ways off - I'm still trying to learn the notes.

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