Book Review: Writing to Learn by William Zinsser

I wrote this book to try to ease two fears that American education seems to inflict on all of us in some form. One is the fear of writing. Most people have to do some kind of writing just to get through the day – a memo, a report, a letter – and would almost rather die than do it. The other is the fear of subjects we don’t think we have an aptitude for. Students with a bent for the humanities are terrified of science and mathematics, and students with an aptitude for science and mathematics are terrified of the humanities – all those subjects like English and philosophy and the arts that can’t be pinned down with numbers or formulas. I now think that these fears are largely unnecessary burdens to lug through life.

WritingToLearnCoverThat’s how William Zinsser – writer, journalist, teacher, and former editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club – begins Writing to Learn. Part autobiography, part writing guide, and part inventory of exemplary writing from fields not renowned for their engaging prose (e.g. chemistry, mathematics, music), the book is – as you might imagine – well written. The focus is non-fiction, or as he calls it, “explanatory writing: writing that transmits existing information or ideas,” although parts of the book are relevant to fiction writing as well.

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Book Review: The Relativity of Wrong by Isaac Asimov


Often enough it’s the book itself that draws us in, but sometimes it’s the author.

Isaac Asimov was an intellectual force of nature, a truly rare event. He was extraordinarily prolific, pumping out over 500 fiction and nonfiction books on a huge range of topics. As someone who is familiar with just how much effort it takes to put together a decent book-length manuscript, I am truly in awe. It’s also mind-boggling to think that this single man wrote more books than many people read in a lifetime. And he wasn’t putting out drivel either – he was widely considered one of or perhaps the best science fiction writer of his day, and his Foundation series earned him the prestigious Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” – beating, among others, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien!Read More »

The Bistability of Partisan Politics

Few topics today are more divisive than politics. In this post, I’ll dive into a nonpartisan, data- and logic- driven exploration of “why“. The short answer: there are distinctly different environments in which politicians operate – one that encourages compromise, and one that discourages compromise. Unfortunately, a few years ago, we left the environment that encourages compromise… and the future implications are grim.

[Note: This post focuses on US politics, but I’ll wager that the reasoning extends equally well to most two-party democracies.]Read More »

Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright

why-buddhism-is-trueWe’ve all had times where our thoughts have held us hostage, where we’ve been captives to a blind rage, intoxicating lust, or crippling anxiety – and afterwards, we’re generally left worse off.

Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, lays out a practical and surprisingly non-religious framework for understanding and dealing with our unruly and conspiratorial brains. Read More »

Flat-Earth theory, climate change, and “the relativity of wrong”

Published in 1989 by the legendarily prolific Isaac Asimov, the essay “The Relativity of Wrong” makes a couple of punchy points about the progress of scientific understanding through time.

Throughout the essay, he convincingly argues that just because two ideas are both wrong, they are not necessarily equally wrong.

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong. However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts…

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Book Review: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, said of Finite and Infinite Games, written by James P. Carse: “A number of people have been recommending this book to me. I’ve read it, and I’m not yet sure it’s not horse exhaust.”

Other high-profile reviews at the time of its publication, in 1986, were less indecisive – it’s definitely horse exhaust. But here we are, over thirty years later, with the book standing the test of time. It continues to sell well, and many recent readers adore it. What gives?Read More »

No, we don’t see by shooting light from our eyes (but sometimes that’s not too far off)

One day I was driving alone through West Virginia on a nearly empty highway, enjoying the scenery of rolling hills and autumn leaves, when I began to notice something about my vision that I had never experienced before: sparkles. These kaleidoscopic and shimmering sparkles started at the center of my vision, and over the course of the next hour or so, became a ring that slowly expanded outward until my vision was normal again. Then I got a headache.

Pretty similar example of what I experienced. (By Mikael Haggstrom)

It wasn’t until years later that I finally learned what was going on. Read More »