Sunday, September 23, 2012

A touch of non-fiction: cognition and construction

I enjoy mixing reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction works as each type helps me enjoy the other more.  I recently finished a pair of non-fiction books on cognition and judgment and the construction of the Panama Canal, respectively.

In Blink, by Malcom Gladwell, the author uses practical examples and provides detail in compelling ways.  To me, Blink read mostly the way pop science should: enough information to get interested in a topic but moves along quickly and offers plenty of references if you want to explore more.  The overall message of the book, however, seemed a little confused to me.  Gladwell starts off by arguing people have amazing abilities to make snap judgements, then points out that experts in many fields base their quick judgements on a wealth of knowledge that they often employ unconsciously.  His example of police officers misjudging a situation highlights the limits of our quick judgements and looks at some of the systemic and environmental factors that affect rapid cognition.  I found myself wishing for more examples that showed more of the categories or nuance of when and why snap decisions are effective (or not).  Overall, the book is a quick and easy read and each of the studies Gladwell employs is interesting in its own right.

While I was in Panama, back in November, a fellow traveler recommended The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough.  Several days later, in a shared taxi, another traveler gave me a copy, which was coming apart at the spine.  I fixed it up with some packing tape, but had to finish it before I departed Haiti because I didn't have the space in my luggage.  It turned out to be a fascinating read, recounting the political, technical, and social challenges and realities of the canal's construction.  The first book covers the original surveying and the French attempt to build a canal.  The second book is mainly political, following the United States' eventual decision to take over the canal and Panama's assisted independence. The third book looks at the engineering, social, and medical challenges addressed during construction.  The book often focuses on the personal qualities of some of the important players, but also tries to explain what life was like for the different kinds of canal workers and how it evolved in Colón and Panama City during the canal construction.  It's an enjoyable, engaging read despite the length.

Having visited the Miraflores Locks, Gamboa town, and the dense, lush forest nearby increased my interest in this book, but it would be an enjoyable read for anyone curious about any of the questions raised (or answered) by the canal construction.  As a warning, it will probably make you want to visit Panama.  Enjoy!

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

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