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March-April 2010


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Books in Brief
By Rick Docksai

Surprising Facts About the Brain

Brain Sense: The Science of the Senses and How We Process the World Around Us by Faith Hickman Brynie. AMACOM. 2009. 274 pages. $24.

The brain is much more dynamic than scientists used to think, according to science and health writer Faith Hickman Brynie in Brain Sense. She takes readers on a tour of how the brain and the senses interact, sharing discoveries that she says have dramatic implications for brain research and medical practice. Examples:

  • Monkeys using their own brain waves to control robotic arms.

  • Patients blinded by strokes regain some of their vision by retraining their eyes with computer-assisted visual exercises.

  • New physical-therapy regimens that relieve amputees of “phantom-limb” pain (pains in the empty spaces where those parts used to be).

Brynie points to newly discovered ways that the brain constantly reshapes its own structure and replacing circuits — or even memories — that had been lost or damaged. She also describes recent observations about how the brain perceives reality: “Our brains have minds of their own,” she says. In other words, no two people will taste, smell, or feel in the same way.

Brynie’s Brain Sense is a fascinating look at what it means to be human and conscious. It is also an exciting preview of treatments that doctors might one day achieve.

Workplaces for Changing Times

Change Design: Conversations about Architecture as the Ultimate Business Tool by NBBJ and Bruce Mau. Greenway. 2009. 250 pages. $59.95.

A well-designed building encourages creativity and cooperation within, according to architectural firm NBBJ and design company Bruce Mau. Their jointly authored and richly illustrated book Change Design showcases new buildings that offer new ways of working. Change Design presents real-life stories of 14 organizations that enhanced productivity, employee satisfaction, energy efficiency, or all three by changing the layout of their office buildings.

Case studies include the Banner Health hospital complex, designed to accommodate systematic growth over the next 20 years; Boeing, which brought manufacturers and designers — two groups that had always worked separately — together into one facility, thereby resolving problems more quickly and cutting production time in half; and developer City Developments Limited, which custom-builds high-rises with ventilation, shading, and rainwater-sequestration features to maximize sustainability and comfort.

Accompanying these stories are essays on the nature of design, the future of workplaces, the relationship between building design and personal values, and hope for resolving tensions between executives and designers. The volume also includes descriptions of change-design activities that you can organize in your own workplace.

Change Design is a delightful show-and-tell of architectural improvements and their tangible benefits. Artists, business leaders, and professionals of all kinds may find it informative and inspirational.

What the Chesapeake Bay Can Teach Conservationists

Fight for the Bay: Why a Dark Green Environmental Awakening is Needed to Save the Chesapeake Bay by Howard R. Ernst. Rowman & Littlefield. 2009. 144 pages. Paperback. $19.95.

Pollution has reduced more than 400 water ecosystems around the world to “dead zones,” notes U.S. Naval Academy political-science professor Howard Ernst in Fight for the Bay. For conservationists trying to save these ecosystems, the eastern United States’ Chesapeake Bay serves as a cautionary tale.

Since the early 1980s, Ernst explains, a publicly funded Chesapeake Bay Program has coordinated bay-restoration efforts with the governments of neighboring states Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The program, however, lacks any lawmaking power. It only organizes public education campaigns, distributes grants to citizen cleanup projects, and sets nonbinding guidelines for state officials. This “voluntary” approach — “light-green conservation,” as Ernst calls it —failed miserably. Fauna and animal life across the bay remain in jeopardy, and its fishing industries have collapsed.

There is no substitute for political action and litigation, Ernst concludes. However, he sees the Chesapeake Bay Program’s light-green approach being repeated in estuaries around North America and beyond. He hopes that conservationists will change course and accept confrontation as necessary for reform.

Ernst’s Fight for the Bay is an incisive look at an important ecosystem and what communities everywhere can learn from it. Researchers, environmentalists, and political activists of all kinds may find it an enlightening read.

Alarmingly Practical Advice For Doomsday

How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times by James Wesley Rawles. Plume. 2009. 153 pages. Paperback. $17.

Civilization is still standing now, but that does not mean it always will, cautions survival expert James Wesley Rawles in How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It.

We’d better know what to do in the event of a deadly viral pandemic, major asteroid strike, unprecedented hyperinflationary (or deflationary) economic depression, third World War, or any other global disaster, Rawles argues.

He spells out all the hazards that we might face in a post-disaster society: looting, armed violence, food shortages, etc. Then he lays out steps we can take now, such as taking survival-training courses, designing shelters, and stocking them with necessary supplies. He even offers a chapter on disaster-proof financial security: savvy investments to make now, earning income in the midst of a major recession, and bartering in the wake of a true disaster.

If all of these musings sound alarmist, he explains, consider that the world today is increasingly dangerous and fraught with uncertainty — worldwide terrorist movements since the early 1990s and the 2008 meltdown of markets across the globe are proof.

A Grander View of Things

Making the Invisible Visible: Essays by the Fellows of the International Leadership Forum edited by Richard Farson. Western Sciences Behavioral Institute. 2009. 153 pages. $29.

We cannot reliably forecast the future unless we understand the present, says Richard Farson, president of the Western Sciences Behavioral Institute, a nonprofit foundation that explores ways to improve human life. In Making the Invisible Visible, he brings together essays from 29 Institute fellows, who share their perspectives on current challenges. Among the contributing authors are:

  • Ralph Keyes, freelance writer, describes a trend of increasing groupthink throughout society.

  • Lawrence Solomon, management consultant, wonders at the human mind’s capacity to simultaneously comprehend reality and distort it.

  • Michael Crichton, the late physician and author, states his concern that our society is losing its tolerance and respect for opposing ideas.

  • Jane Poynter, aerospace engineer, debunks the common belief that we must choose between the environment and human welfare.

  • Carlos Cardozo Campbell, urban planner, notes the toll that mass urbanization takes on human and environmental health.

  • James Cramer, co-founder of the journal DesignIntelligence and co-chairman of the Design Futures Council, considers the pros and cons of society’s fixation on speediness.

The authors eloquently address deep ideas to general audiences, in thought-provoking essays that are good for reflection, discussion, and community action.

Watch for Urban Growth

The Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon. McGraw-Hill. 2009. 240 pages. $24.95.

Urban growth is inevitable, so let us plan ahead for it to make sure that it takes place in the most orderly ways possible, argue design consultants Andres Duany and Jeff Speck in The Smart Growth Manual.

“No-growth” campaigns rarely if ever succeed, they note, and often serve to undercut needed planning — so when growth does resume, it is even more haphazard and wasteful.

If given the chance, local discussion sessions among city officials and residents can minimize growth’s worst side effects and help keep neighborhood enlargement from degenerating into urban sprawl. If successful, they will design mixed-use neighborhoods that treat all residents with equity. They will also harmonize urban and rural areas, and live in accordance with their regions’ natural resource and water supplies.

The authors outline fundamental principles of smart growth, instructions for formulating a growth blueprint, and making optimum arrangements for convenient mass transit. They also cover affordable housing, vibrant neighborhood life, and conservation of energy, land, and water.

The Smart Growth Manual is an attractive, well-illustrated guidebook for building cities that will offer high quality living in the present and the future.

Young People Lead Business Revolution

Upstarts: How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit from Their Success by Donna Fenn. McGraw-Hill. 2009. 258 pages. $29.95.

A new business landscape is in the making, and the 13- to 25-year-old youth demographic is creating it, according to Upstarts by business writer Donna Fenn. A trend is rising of teens and young adults starting their own businesses, offering the world’s best hope for a flourishing post-recession global economy, Fenn argues.

She explains that these Generation Y “upstarts” are the first generation to grow up digital; they know the Internet, mobile devices, and social media and how these applications can facilitate starting and running a business. In addition, they are more frugal and independent than preceding youth cohorts. Most were raised by working parents, and all were faced with the turmoil of the twenty-first-century economy, in which any large corporation or institution can fail. The upstarts have learned to count on themselves.

Older executives who want to know where their industries are headed, younger professionals who are considering launching out on their own, and anyone else who wants to better understand Generation Y will benefit from reading Upstarts.

A Future of Abundant Harvests?

The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist’s Struggle to Preserve the World’s Harvest by Susan Dworkin. Walker & Company. 2009. 239 pages. $26.

The global food outlook is grim, says magazine writer and author Susan Dworkin in The Viking in the Wheat Field. She points out that, according to the United Nations, there will be 9 billion people on earth by 2050, and they will require a 75% increase in food supply. Meeting such an elevated feeding demand is a major challenge, since farmers have already cultivated most of the planet’s arable land. Worse still, much of the land that is available has lost its fertility due to overuse. What options remain besides destroying more forests?

One hope rests on making more-efficient use of existing crop land. Dworkin describes the lifetime work of Bent Skovmand, the late Norwegian horticultualist who spent his career developing biotechnology procedures for cross-breeding wheat plants to enhance their disease resistance, accelerate their growth, and exponentially increase their grain output. Dworkin’s account relates Skovmand’s many experiments in seed banks and their successful outcomes in Mexico, Turkey, and other locales.

In light of the much-publicized rises in food costs and shortages of water for farming, the story that Dworkin tells in The Viking in the Wheat Field is very compelling and very timely.

Why Humans Cooperate

Why We Cooperate by Michael Tomasello et al. MIT Press. 2009. 204 pages. $14.95.

In the next decade, research into human infants’ thought patterns might help answer ancient questions about human nature, speculate anthropologist Michael Tomasello and co-authors in Why We Cooperate.

Tomasello reviews studies that compared human children with apes and found the humans to be uniquely cooperative: Only human children convey information to one another, exhibit teamwork, share their belongings, or object when others are not being “fair.”

But where did humans’ unique cooperativeness emerge, wonders psychologist Carol Dweck. She argues that it is not entirely from nature; children’s altruistic behaviors are heavily influenced by other people.

Philosopher Brian Skyrms encourages researchers to study the cooperation that exists across the animal kingdom: Bacteria, mole rats, meerkats, and many insects are very cooperative with each other.

Psychologist Elizabeth Spelke posits that humans’ cooperation started after they developed language. She notes that at around age two, humans begin to display unique abilities that are possible only with language: analyzing information, understanding math, discerning other people’s intentions, communicating ideas through gestures, and helping others to achieve goals.

Why We Cooperate is an impressive convergence of philosophy and hard science that nonspecialists will find very approachable and engaging.


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