Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Zero Degrees of Empathy – by Simon Baron-Cohen

Zero Degrees of Empathy – by Simon Baron-Cohen

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

The author’s aim in writing the book was to stimulate discussions on the reasons for human cruelty (or treating other humans as objects) from a realm of science. The focus is on studying empathy and the social and biological factors contributing to it. Zero degrees of empathy (or being at the lowest end of the “empathy spectrum”) is what leads to “treating people as objects”.

What is appealing about the book is that it is concise and presents the explanations in an easy-to-understand and structured way. The author presents an “empathy spectrum”, with the shape of a bell curve. He also introduces another spectrum, representing degrees of “systemizing”, which is also bell-shaped. The human mind looks for patterns and ways to systemize information. A high degree of systemizing can indicate strength in mathematics, science, music or other systemizing fields. However, extreme (high) degrees of “systemizing” can be associated with Asperger Syndrome and classic autism (an example of a symptom of this is going beserk when something is not exactly in its expected place in a room).

Those with zero degrees of empathy can be “zero-negative” (no positive effect) – this includes borderlines, psycopaths and narcissists. On the contrary, others with zero degrees of empathy can be “zero-positive” (with a high degree of systemizing) and therefore with extraordinary abilities but who also treat humans as objects.

The very last section of the book talks very briefly about the importance of empathy (perhaps just for completeness), but for a discussion on this, I would read books by authors such as Daniel Goleman and Stephen Covey who tackle this topic in depth.

The book provides valuable insights through scientific study. For a lay person like me with an interest in the subject, the simplicity of the presentation (apart from a few pages with technical terms on parts of the brain) made it a fascinating and enjoyable read. It is peppered with many true stories and examples to illustrate the points.

Free Books

Writer, Cristian Mihai, is giving away “Free Stuff” for download, for a few days this month and gives freebies once every month!

Cristian visited my blog earlier this month and I was delighted to discover his – it has great blog content on books and writing.

I have downloaded “Jazz” and “A Sad, Sad Symphony” and am looking forward to getting started.

Book Review: Euphamania – by Ralph Keyes

Euphamania – by Ralph Keyes

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

This is an infomative and entertaning book. It is well researched and witty at the same time, so makes an enjoyable read.

From taboo subjects to business, food, drink and politics, our language is filled with euphamisms. Different euphamisms fall in and out of fashion over time. Just think about the number of euphamisms for “telling lies” to avoid our discomfort at referring to someone as a liar. In Chrchill’s time there were “terminological inexactitudes”. We “massage the truth”, we “sweeten the truth”, we “tell the truth improved” and we “pretend”. We have also seen people “misspeak”, “make bad choices” and “exercise poor judgement”. Bernard Madoff apologised for his “error of judgement”. Richard Nixon was often “in denial”.

There are probably more stories about the history of euphamisms than in this 250 page account, but it captures the essence of how euphamisms emerge and evolve and is great for someone reading about the subject for pleasure. Above all, it is hilarious in places and great fun to read.

Book Review: Redirect – by Timothy Wilson

Redirect – by Timothy Wilson

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

The basic premise of the book is that many techniques prescibed in self-help books and programmes rolled out to address social problems lack proper scientific validation and have not worked. Many such programmes (e.g. to reduce prejudice, alcohol and drug abuse, close the achievement gap) have been implemented without rigorous testing, therefore have wasted billions of dollars and have not worked. Timothy Wilson criticises the use of testimonials by those who advocate such techniques as biased, and recommends strict scientific methods, with control groups etc. to test techniques used for social problems just as is done in medicine (because common sense arguments, although appealing, often lead to wrong conclusions).

Wilson advocates a a number of tested techniques (such as “story-editing” or redirecting the internal narrative, labelling kids’ behaviour appropriately, distancing and writing for trauma victims and other techniques) instead, to effectively deal with these problems.

I like the rigour Wilson requires and applies to the testing of the techniques to achieve objectivity, as opposed to using glowing testimonials, which are possibly biased. However, Wilson himself states that it is unclear whether applying these laboratory tested techniques in the real world will achieve the same results – there are too many complexities; however, at least it is a step in the right direction.

My takeaway from the book “Express to Impress” – by Darren Tay

Express to Impress – by Darren Tay

My friend, Darren, a 23-year old with many accomplishments already, invited me to his book launch, held yesterday, which I was happy to attend. Darren recently graduated with a law degree and was on the Dean’s list, he is a champion public speaker within Toastmasters International and is now an entrepreneur, having started his own ‘Public Speaking Academy’.

I hadn’t planned on buying the book before the event, as I already have many on public speaking. However, it was quite inexpensive, with an attractive discount at the launch event, only about 170 pages long, and well, what can I say, my curiosity got the better of me – I am always drawn to books.

What I like about the book is that it is refreshing and original. There are a gazillion books on public speaking and I had earlier thought – “what could be new about this one?” Yet, it is very much based on the writer’s personal experiences and perspectives. The stories, anecdotes and lessons learnt are uniquely the author’s and therefore to me, the book has been an interesting read.

The takeaway for me, and for any aspiring writer, is just that. No matter how beaten up a subject may be, an author’s own unique experience and stories brought to life somehow have a way of connecting with readers’ souls!

Book Review: The Age of Unreason – by Charles Handy

The Age of Unreason – by Charles Handy

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

“…there always comes a moment in time when a door opens and lets the future in…”     –  Graham Greene

This book was published in 1991. I read it at the end of 2010, almost 20 years later. The fact that I found the book so relevant almost 20 years after it was written is testimony to the author’s powerful insight into the changes taking place in the workplace and in our way of life.

Charles Handy speaks of demographic, technological, social structure and value changes affecting society in a discontinuous way. Formal organizations, he says, will be less important and more people will be outside these organizations. There will be more freedom and choice regarding how people work and live; and more people will have a “portfolio of jobs” instead of a job title. On the flipside, more choices and greater emphasis on individual achievement could mean the stronger are better off and the weak worse off, unless there is, ingrained in society, a strong ethic of support and encouragement.

Let us take stock, for a moment, of what we are seeing in the world today. With baby boomers closer to retirement age, the pyramid structure of organizations is under increasing strain. Technological changes, while applauded for increasing productivity and improving our lives, mean that different jobs have to be created in order to keep people at work (otherwise unemployment goes up and we are seeing this too). Ethics go out of the window when the rich don’t care (look at high profile Ponzi schemes, banking scandals and the like), adversely affecting millions of ordinary people. Yet, the work of philanthropists (like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and others) helps lift some out of poverty. This all fits in very well with what Handy puts forth in “The Age of Unreason”.

For those wanting to fathom the changes that we are seeing and are to come in the world and figure out how to be prepared rather than be shocked, “The Age of Unreason” provides an excellent pair of lenses from which to put it all into perspective.

Book Review: The 3rd Alternative – by Stephen Covey

The 3rd Alternative – by Stephen Covey

The 3rd Alternative - Stephen CoveyEveryone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

The gems….

It really is worth operating in the way Stephen Covey advocates and instilling this as a part of our DNA. The “Talking Stick” concept, in the spirit of the African “Ubuntu” principle, is one I would like to see practiced. The “Talking Stick” is passed from one person to another – when the person with the stick does the talking, no one else is allowed to interrupt except to ask for clarification. Later, the listeners are tasked with re-stating the speaker’s point of view, emotions and all, to the satisfaction of the speaker. This last phrase, “to the satisfaction of the speaker” is critical. It ensures proper listening and empathy – all too often lacking in discussions. From there, the parties transcend to find novel solutions not thought of previously.

Covey cites great examples of where this has worked and these are certainly worth studying.

The challenges….

It is a long book. In places, I felt it could be more concise. The examples cited are great but as with many great ideas, there are obstacles to implementing them widely in practice. How can organizations (so entrenched in shareholder value and measureable outcomes) convince shareholders that they are investing time wisely, tackling the root of problems, while their competitors get better rewarded for churning out profits? Another problem – after all the listening and empathizing, what if there is a fundamental difference in relative importance of values upheld by both parties? Things can get pretty complex.

Concluding remarks

I believe there is a lot to be gained by applying the methods in the book to problems of the world. It is most likely, though, that as with all great ideas, the book will be read and people will go back to the daily trudge of life unless a widespread effort is made to train everyone in this and make a revolutionary change in the way we do things. I for one will be bought over more if I begin to see TV debates applying the “Talking Stick” method in earnest, instead of pitting one opinionated person against another.