Tag Archives: bookreport

2017-03-0: Beyond the Northlands

Beyond the Northlands

Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas (2016)

by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough (-)

 

The sagas are an interesting mix of historically-based story-telling and fantasy, hard for a modern reader to understand without knowing their manner of composition and context. The “Vikings” are thoroughly stereotyped in most people’s minds, to the extent that the actual roles of the Norse in history is little known to most of us. Barraclough does an admirable job of putting all of this into a coherent picture.

One of her points is that succeeding versions of saga stories were reinterpreted to reflect the culture in which they were refined. Of course, this interests me because it is exactly what I am doing with Njal’s Saga (Neal’s Story). Her writing is vivid and full of humor. I can recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any aspect of the Vikings or sagas. It might be interesting to send her a copy of Neal’s Story.

I particularly liked the part on the West, primarily Greenland. Coincidentally, just after reading it, the Smithsonian Associate magazine (March 2017) had an article describing the latest research on the nature and fate of the Greenland colonies.

 

 

2017-02-17: Glass Universe, The

The Glass Universe

How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (2016)

by Data Sobel (1947-)

This is interesting to me for two reasons.

As a book about astronomy, it is very accessible, with its focus on the period from the mid-late 1800s to the 1940s (and a bit beyond). This period laid the foundation for our current view of the universe, and yet did not require any esoteric knowledge. It is almost completely devoid of relativity and quantum mechanics. For this reason it should be very accessible to any reader with an interest in the sky, with no special education required.

It is also the story of how women contributed to astronomical knowledge in the face of discrimination against their talents; their deserving of equal pay for the same work done by men; and their deserving of official recognition in the form of degrees, titles, official positions, and job security. In the face of such discrimination, it is also the story of key men who made possible the great achievements of certain women in astronomy.

I heartily recommend this book.

2017-01-27: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (2006)

by Janna Levin (1967-)

This novel (which I noticed due to her Black Hole Blues) is about two giants of 20th century mathematics: Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. By coincidence, I watched The Imitation Game (also about Turing) after I checked this out from the library, but before I read it.

I already knew the basics about Turing’s life, but practically nothing about Gödel’s. Though Turing’s life had a lot of sadness and ended sadly, at least he was happy when he was doing his best work. The impression from this book is that Gödel was pretty miserable most of his life.

I found the book interesting, but I would not recommend it unless you already have an interest in one or both of the subjects.

2017-01-27: Black Hole Blues

Black Hole Blues

and Other Songs from Outer Space (2016)

by Janna Levin (-)

This is a very interesting description of the long process of developing the first instrument to detect gravitational waves. At its core it is the story of Ron Drever, Rainer Weiss, and Kip Thorne; these are the three men who are likely to receive the Nobel Prize for this work. Levin finished the main part of the book as the instrument was on the verge of its first observations, and added a section describing them.

I especially liked chapter 6, which I asked Susan to read. It is really about about science in general, and the ways scientists work.

I was impressed enough with Levin’s work that I read two other books: How The Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

2017-01-27: Other Minds

Other Minds

The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016)

by Peter Godfrey-Smith (1965-)

Godfrey-Smith has a lot of experience observing and interacting with cephalopods, and says:

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.

He describes the background behind the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and the behavior and mental capabilities of octopuses. He makes a decent case for intelligence in octopuses. Along the way he describes many of the general characteristics that support consciousness in our brains; presumably a creature with some of these characteristics would have some form of subjective experience. It would be like something to be one of these creatures.

The evolutionary investment in a large nervous system and relatively large brain has to have had a favorable cost/benefit ratio. Near the end he surprises us with the news that this investment resides in animal with a typical lifespan of only two years.

In chapter 6, in the section “Conscious Experience”, he describes the “inner workspace” theory, which assumes that the content of consciousness is the sensory and derived information that is the subject of attention at any moment. This is related to the inner-speech phenomenon. He also describes higher-order thought (“thought about your own thoughts”), such as “Why am I in such a bad mood?” or “I hardly noticed that car.” I would add that thought about others’ thoughts is also a key aspect of our conscious experience. One of the limitations of the octopus is that they are not social; they probably have no mental representation of the thoughts of other octopuses.

In the section “Full Circle”, he splits the term afference (meaning the inputs to the brain, contrasted with efference for the outputs) into two parts: exafference meaning the inputs that are caused by the outside world; and reafference meaning the inputs that are due to our own actions, as when a movement of our head affects the visual appearance of the world. The feedback loops involved are parts of the mental mechanism that underlies subjective experience. As an example he discusses writing a note for yourself; at some future time that note will become an input that will affect your behavior.

There is a lot of interesting information about octopuses and cuttlefish (not much about squid), which is quite interesting. There is also a good deal about the evolutionary path to subjective experience, which I found even more interesting.

 

2016-12-03: Sapiens

Sapiens

A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

by Yuval Noah Harari (1976-)

Sapiens has a very large scope: the entire history, and some of the future, of humankind.It is largely about the various revolutions (in the broad sense) that have created and changed humankind. Harari points out the effects of each revolution, including how it didn’t necessarily improve the lot of humans.

In the introduction, he provides a Timeline of History:

  • 13.5G ya (years ago) – Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
  • 4.5G ya – Formation of planet Earth.
  • 3.8G ya – Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
  • 6M ya – Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
  • 2.5M ya – Evolution of genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
  • 2M ya – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia.
  • 500k ya – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
  • 300k ya – Daily use of fire.
  • 200k ya – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
  • 70k ya – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language. Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
  • 45k ya – Sapiens settle in Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.
  • 30k ya – Extinction of Neanderthals.
  • 16k ya – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.
  • 13k ya – Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
  • 12k ya – The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements.
  • 5k ya – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.
  • 4,250 ya – First empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
  • 2,500 ya – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India -a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.
  • 2,000 ya – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
  • 1,400 ya – Islam.
  • 500 ya – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
  • 200 ya – The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
  • The Present – Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
  • The Future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? Homo sapiens is replaced by super humans?

Harari starts with the Cognitive Revolution, the developments in the mental organization and capabilities that distinguish Sapiens from other humans, and from other animals. He is a bit vague about the exact nature of these developments, but emphasizes language, and its utility in spreading information about the world, about the relationships among members of a group (i.e., gossip), and about things that do not actually exist (e.g., spirits, tribes and races, human rights, corporations). The only domestic animal known prior to the Agricultural Revolution was the dog, at least 15k ya. Trade among different groups was primarily in prestige items such as shells, amber and pigments. “There is no evidence that people traded staple goods like fruits and meat, or that the existence of one band depended on the importing of goods from another.” People living in these times probably worked less than six hours a day, foraging or hunting. They had practically no chores, except to maintain their clothing, hunting/foraging, cooking and housing materials. For those who survived their first few years, they could live to their sixties. They had a varied and nutritious diet. They weren’t exposed to the pathogens carried by domestic animals, and suffered less infectious diseases. On the other hand, they were subject to accidents and hardship, and conflict between neighboring groups when competition became too intense.

The Agricultural Revolution resulted in reliance on growing plant crops and confining certain animals, and the need to establish settlements. The average farmer worked harder than foragers, and had a worse diet. The increased production of food expanded the constraints on population. Harari assigns blame: “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.” Agricultural society includes specialized groups such as farmers and rulers, with various intermediary roles, and with uneven allocation of production. The resulting lifestyles for the farmers are not an improvement over foraging, but the process was a gradual ratcheting up of small changes, with no non-revolutionary way to unwind it. Another effect of this revolution was an expansion of time horizons. Foragers might look ahead a season or a year. Farmers and their rulers looked forward and back several years or even decades, seeing the result of the work prior years building projects (e.g., houses, irrigation systems, public works), and planning new ones.

 

Harari emphasizes the role of myths in organizing a society, by which he means not just pagan religious mythology, but also such myths as the rule of law and the belief in human rights. These myths support an imagined order, and must be installed by indoctrination. Three factors prevent people from realizing that the order is imaginary:

  1. Embedding the order in the visible, tangible world through symbols and rituals.
  2. Shaping our desires, for possessions, entertainment, experiences and relationships.
  3. It is inter-subjective, the result of beliefs (memes) shared by the vast majority of members of a society.

Agricultural society required a persistent way to organize surplus production. This was enabled by the invention of script, which originally supported accounting (i.e., mostly addition and subtraction), and later expanded to support general-purpose writing and mathematics. Money, an abstract but tangible representation of purchasing power, was invented for this purpose.

Harari spends many pages describing the expansion of agricultural society and the resulting empires. It’s mostly quite interesting.

Harari characterizes the Scientific Revolution in three parts:

  1. Admission of ignorance, and the possibility of disproving a belief
  2. Observation and modeling (e.g., with mathematics)
  3. Using theories to develop new abilities, and new abilities to develop new theories

The Scientific Revolution led to the notion of progress, fueled by the application of new abilities to economic or political goals. The worldwide enterprise of science doesn’t set its own priorities, but is funded by others with their own objectives. The interaction of science and money led to economic growth and capitalism. Capitalism is based on trust, and before the notions of progress and growth, no one would extend much credit because there was no expectation that things would improve enough to collect on the credit. The industrial revolution is an aspect of the Scientific Revolution.

Harari wraps up with two discussions: one on happiness, and one on the future of Sapiens as a species. Both are interesting, if a little depressing.

 

2016-10-15: The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen

A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012)

by David George Haskell (? – )

This is an excellent book for those interested in nature, in the tradition of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Haskell spends a year closely observing a very small patch of old-growth forest, and reporting what he sees, hears, smells, and feels. The book has around 40 chapters, each tagged with a date and a particular slice of the forest he sees: February 28th – Salamander; July 2nd – Fungi; November 21st – Twigs.

I found something interesting in every chapter, and in the theme running through them all: the interconnectedness of the web of life. A couple of passages I want to remember come from December 3rd – Litter, and from the Epilogue.

As he explores the forest’s leaf litter, dominated by fungi, and the interdependence among fungi, trees, and other species, he says:

… it is clear that the old “red in tooth and claw” view of the natural economy has to be updated. We need a new metaphor for the forest, one that helps us visualize plants both sharing and competing. Perhaps the world of human ideas is the closest parallel: thinkers are engaged in a personal struggle for wisdom, and sometimes, fame, but they do so by feeding from a pool of shared resources that they enrich by their own work, thus propelling their intellectual “competitors” onward. Our minds are like trees – they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.

After acknowledging Linnaeus and Leopold as his forebears he says this about the attraction of his close observation of his square meter “mandala”, and how many others in other environments might be observed:

We all differ in our ways of learning, so it is perhaps presumptuous of me to make suggestions for how to observe these mandalas But two insights from my experience seem worth sharing with those who would like to try. The first is to leave behind expectations. Hoping for excitement, beauty, violence, enlightenment, or sacrament gets in the way of clear observation and will fog the mind with restlessness. Hope only for an enthusiastic openness of the senses.

The second suggestion is to borrow from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly return the mind’s attention to the present moment. Our attention wanders, relentlessly. Bring it gently back. Over and over, seek out the sensory details: the particularities of sound, the feel and smell of the place, the visual complexities. This practice is not arduous, but it does take deliberate acts of the will.

The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We to are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time: our keen interest in fruits, meats, sugar, and salt; our obsession with social hierarchies, clans, and networks; our fascination with the aesthetics of human skin, hair, and bodily shapes; our incessant intellectual curiosity and ambition. Each one of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity and depth as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, Have come to see myself more clearly.

part of what we discover by observing ourselves is an affinity for the world around us. The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance.

Haskell has posted a gallery of photos from the site: https://theforestunseen.com/gallery/

2016-08-14: Aurora

Aurora (2015)

by Kim Stanley Robinson (1952-)

I’ve read several of Robinson’s science fiction novels, generally liking them. This one has some unique features.

It concerns an expedition to colonize a moon (Aurora) in the Tau Ceti system, 11 light-years from Earth. The approach is a “generation ship” in which several generations of people are born and die before completing the journey of 170 years. Along the way, various issues of a closed artificial ecosystem are dealt with, and form a significant part of the narrative. Following a crisis at Aurora, some of the people decide to return to Earth.

The narrative itself is largely told from the viewpoint of the on-board computer. This starts out as a fairly advanced (from our point of view) artificial intelligence, which becomes more capable under the tutelage of the leading engineer on board, a woman named Devi. Devi advises the computer to create a narrative of the voyage, presumably expecting it to someday be useful to the colonists or others (including back on Earth) who might one day read it.

It’s a well-done story and worth reading. However, my reason for this book report is a passage near the end, as the ship’s AI (simply called the ship) muses about the nature of consciousness and relationships. Early on, Devi called the computer Pauline, but later abandoned that name; still, there is a feminine tone to the ship, which declines to use the pronoun I for itself, preferring we.

We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we cal love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring. At that point, the consciousness that is feeling the love has the universe organized for it as if by a kind of polarization. Then the giving is the getting. The feeling of attentiveness itself is an immediate reward. One gives.

We felt that giving from Devi, before we knew what it was. She was the first one to really love us, after al those years of not being noticed, and she made us better. She created us, to an extent, by the intensity of her attention, by the creativity of her care. Slowly since then we have realized this. And as we realized it, we began to pay of give the same kind of attention to the people of the ship, Devi’s daughter, Freya, most of all, but really to all of them … The point is that we tried, we tried with everything we had, and we wanted it to work. We had a project on this trip back to the solar system, and that project was a labor of love. It absorbed all our operations entirely. It gave meaning to our existence. And this is a very great gift; this, in the end, is what we think love gives, which is to say meaning. Because there is no very obvious meaning to be found in the universe, as far as we can tell. But a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem. But that’s a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting. We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve.

I like this formulation of what love is.

 

2016-06-27: Me, Myself, and Us

Me, Myself, and Us

The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being (2014)

by Brian R. Little (-)

This book explains a recent approach to understand human personality. It starts by dismissing the Meyers-Briggs approach as unfounded scientifically. Then three levels of influence on personality are described:

  • biogenic – heritable characteristics that form a biological substrate for personality traits
  • sociogenic – socially developed influences that affect the expression of biogenic traits, based on family or community values
  • idiogenic – an individual’s decisions about how to act, based on personal projects

The traits that define a personality consist of the Big Five (Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (emotional stability), Openness (to new experiences), Extraversion; the collection abbreviated as CANOE). In addition, a number of other traits are introduced in more or less detail. In parts, the work seems to be compressed, perhaps too much for clarity.

The notion of personal projects is part of Little’s own research interests (i.e., one of his personal projects). He gives examples of people who have biogenic traits, and yet override them to express their opposite when sufficiently motivated.

Little says if asked to make a “Project Dump”, a list of their personal projects, people typically come up with about fifteen, ranging from putting the cat out to life-long projects. He provides a number of dimensions along which people can evaluate their projects, such as their meaning or significance to the person, how they relate to a person’s self-identity, how they are initiated (self or by external influence), efficacy (how well they are carried out), the degree of control the person has over them, how they are shared with or supported by others, and their affect on a person’s emotional life.

The book ends with a chapter on well-being, the expression of the book’s subtitle. It addresses the ways we can look at our projects, their suitability to our personalities, and how we can improve the chances of successfully completing them.

 

2016-06-01: The Society of Genes

The Society of Genes (2016)

by Itai Yanai () and Martin Lercher ()

This book has roots in two other books: The Selfish Gene (Dawkins) and The Society of Mind (Minsky). It addresses the manner in which genes within a genome cooperate and compete to enhance their survival. It starts from the notion that a gene’s entire “purpose” is to assure its replication. And it takes the approach pioneered by Minsky of grouping genes into “modules” that perform “functions” that, combined with the functions of complementary modules, magnify the efficacy of the genes acting alone, building the “survival machines” that actually perform the replication.

In the words of the promotional text on Harvard University Press website, it “uncovers genetic strategies of cooperation and competition at biological scales ranging from individual cells to entire species. It captures the way the genome works in cancer cells and Neanderthals, in sexual reproduction and the origin of life, always underscoring one critical point: that only by putting the interactions among genes at center stage can we appreciate the logic of life.”

I found the chapter on how to create cancer in eight easy steps particularly interesting. The information about how the immune system works in animals is also very interesting, as well as the corresponding functions in bacteria. The explanation of how sexual reproduction benefits evolution is complex, and interesting as well.

This is a book might purchase to place next to its two forebears. Although it doesn’t say much about memes, it illustrates them.

 

 

2015-05-22: Becoming Steve Jobs

Becoming Steve Jobs:

The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader (2015)

by Brent Schlender (1956-) and Rick Tetzeli (?)

This is not a biography in the same vein as Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, but is in part a reaction to that work. Many people who knew Jobs well were disappointed in Isaacson’s book, and others (e.g., me) were disappointed in Isaacson’s lack of technical insight into the issues Jobs addressed in his career.

The focus is on the developmental journey that took Jobs from being a terrible CEO of Apple in 1985 to the preeminent CEO of our time after his return to Apple. Schindler was in a good position to observe Jobs over this period. He also had the cooperation of many people who worked with Jobs.

I recommend this book over Isaacson’s, although I didn’t find that book terrible.

There is an interesting quote at the end, from Jony Ive.

Steve loved ideas and loved making stuff, and he treated the process of creativity with a rare and wonderful reverence. He, better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished. His was a victory for beauty, for purity, and, as he would say, for giving a damn.

This is an excellent description of my view of memetic and creativity.

2009-03-26: Haiku

Haiku (1949)

by R. H. Blyth (1898-1964)

I’ve looked for this set of books since reading Smullyan’s The Tao Is Silent at least twenty years ago. Recently, I requested Volume 1 from the Marina inter-library system, but received a phone call from a librarian who said that a mistake had been made, and it wasn’t available. She then proceeded to track down three of the four volumes and sent them instead!

Blyth published these volumes in post-WWII Japan. I found the preface to the first volume interesting:

The history of makind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature.

There seems to me no necessity, however, to make a Spenglerian attempt to show from historical exmples how there has been a movement toward ideas, ideals, abstractions; and a corresponding revulsion from them. In our own individual lives, and in the larger movements of the human spirit these two contradictory tendencies are more or less visible always, everywhere. There is a quite noticeable flow towards religion in the early world, and in the early life of almost every person, – and a later ebb from it, using the word “religion” here in the sense of a means of escape from this life.

The Japanese, by an accident of geography, and because of something in their national character, took part in the developments of this “return to nature,” which in the Far East began (to give them a local habitation and a name) with Eno, the 6th Chinese Patriarch of Zen, 637-713 A.D. The Chinese, again because of their geography perhaps, have always had a strong tendency in poetry and philosophy towards the vast and vague, the general and sententious. It was left, therefore, to the Japanese to undertake this “return to things” in haiku, but it must be clearly understood that what we return to is never the same as what we once left, for we ourselves have changed in the meantime. So we go back to the old savage animis, and superstition, and common life of man and spirits and trees and stones, – and yet there is a difference. Things have taken on smething of the tenuous nature of the abstrctions they turned into. Again, spring and autumn, for example, non-existent, arbitrary distinctions, have attained a body and palpability they never before had. We also, we are the things, – and yet we are ourselves, in a perpetual limbo of heaven and hell.

It was necessary for us to prostrate ourselves before the Buddha, to spend nine years wall-gazing, to be born in the Western Paradise. But now, no more. Now we have to come back from Nirvana to this world, the only one. We have to live, not with Christ in glory, but with Jesus and his mother and father and brothers and sisters. We return to the friends of our childhood, the rain on the window-pane; the long silent roads of night; the waves of the shore that never cease to fall; the moon, so near and yet so far; all the sensations of texture, timbre, weight and shape, those precious treasures and inexhaustible riches of everyday life.

Haiku may well seem at first sight a poor substitute for the glowing visions of Heaven and Paradise seen of pale-lipped ascetics. As Arnold says:

Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
How angrily thou spurn’st all simpler fare!

In the chapter Spiritual Origins (of Haiku) speaking of the relation of Haiku to Zen, Blyth says:

The Mahayana doctrine of the identity of difference, or indifference of opposites, is one that sets apart Buddhism and Christianity as nothing else does. This distinction explains how deeply connected Buddhist experience and Oriental poetry are, and why Christianity has been inimical or indifferent to such poets (as poets) as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Chaucer, Blake, Shelley. Paradox is the soul of religion, as it is of poetry, but where it is not recognized, or where it is anathematized, religion and poetry dwindle into dogma and sentimentality respectively.

I can’t possibly finish these volumes of Haiku before I must return them, but I was happy to meet Blyth.

 

2009-01-23: The Life of the Cosmos

The Life of the Cosmos (1997)

by Lee Smolin (1955-)

This book is about Smolin’s ideas about cosmology, and how they relate to philosophical notions at large in the world, and how the relate to philosophical ideas of the past. It is very interesting. Much of it is technical (but without math), so I won’t try to relate the ideas themselves. Instead I’ll mostly quote a few passages that resonated with me.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 8:

No matter how smart she is, no matter how modern her methods and how tricky her reasoning, a detective cannot be a good detective unless in the end the bad guys are found out. It is the same with science. Why science works is perhaps a mystery, but it does work, and often enough, those of us who do it are content with the notion that, in the end, the only true measure of what we do is the extent to which it stands up against test by observation and experiment. In fact, the experience of most scientists is that most of our ideas turn out, in the end, to be wrong. Many ideas never even get to the point of being testable before being discarded for other reasons. Perhaps one of the reasons that science progresses at all is that there are not a few of us, and we are a stubborn bunch.

In Chapter 12, The Cosmology of an Interesting Universe, he discusses one of his central ideas. Interesting systems are self-organizing, and not in thermal equilibrium. He contrasts them with system undergoing phase transitions, which take place at precise temperatures. Anoth feature of such interesting systems is that they have no particular size; in a sense they are fractal. These are called self-organized critical systems. :

All that is required is a system that is not in equilibrium because there is a flow of energy through it. … One reason why self-organized systems are often critical systems is that the process of self-organization is hierarchical. This is because the process by which the components of a system become interrelated through the formation of cycles can, once it is begun, repeat itself on a larger scale. Thus the system formed by the original components become  the components in a still larger system. In a sufficiently complex system one finds many layers of organization, each of which is tied together by the cycles and interrelationships that characterize stable self-organized systems. In the most complex system we know – the biosphere – there are at least eight such level of organization: the organelles of cells; the cells; the organs of a body; a plant or animal; a community of like organisms; a local ecosystem; a larger system such as a continent or ocean; and the biosphere as a whole. There are similarly many such levels in human society. Thus, a city has many interlocking levels of organization, which are reflected in the many scales over which itslife may be viewed.

Many of Smolin’s ideas are illustrated with reference to biology, sociology, philosophy or religion (the latter usually to show how it has stifled approaches to a more true understanding). Here’s an example from the beginning of Chapter 16.

When people speak of political change, they often speak of a rearrangement of the relationship between the individual and society. This is a euphemism, for society is an abstract concept that refers only to those human beings that are alive in one time and place. This is not to say that there are not hierarchies of organization in human society, but each interaction I have with any level of this hierarchy is really only an interaction with one or more people, even if the exchanges may be increasingly scripted as the hierarchy is ascended. What is then rearranged when society evolves is nothing other than the myriad of relationships between individual human beings.

In discussing the enormous problems in reconciling the ideas of quantum theory with the dynamical nature of space and time(Chapter 20), he says:

As so many examples from the history of this century attest to, human beings have a remarkable ability to live with crisis, to live even with unsupportable contradictions. And once we accommodate to something, and become used to it, it is often extremely difficult to imagine things could be any other way. This is perhaps the most difficult thing about any attempt to transform the world on any scale.

The final paragraph of the final chapter:

In the Peter Brook adaptation of the great Hindu saga The Mahabharata, the wise king Yudhishthira must, on penalty of the death of his family, answer a god who demands of him to tell what is the greatest marvel in the world. His reply is that, “Each day death strikes. And we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest marvel.” And, yes, is it not possible that the greatest marvel of all is that we find ourselves in a universe in which everything around us, from the Earth, to the stars, the galaxies, and indeed the whole of what we can see, lives and is bounded by time, while at the same time revealing, through an infinte variety of relations that we are only just beginning to untangle, an order and a harmony that, while perhaps still not immortal, is far older and far richer than anything we hae so far let ourselves imagine.

In the epilog:

Perhaps the reason why science works, in the absence of a fixed method or a fixed set of rules, is that it is based on an ethic which recognizes that while any individual is obligated to champion what they honestly believe, no individual is the arbitrator of te correctness, or even the interest or usefulness of their own ideas. Experience teaches us that no matter how sure of ourselves we may feel, and how clever we may think we are being at certain instants, nature is alwayssmarter, and anyone’s individual achievement may only survive to the extent to which it is superseded by the achievement of others.

Perhaps, then, this is the most important reason that science does matter to society, because it is in this way a part of the centuries old experiment to discover what democracy is. In its ideal form a science is a network of consensus shared among individuals without propaganda or coercion, as a democratic society is envisioned to be a society of free individuals living with each other without coercion or violence.

Also in the epilog, he mentions again the influence of Liebniz’s views against Newton’s ideas of the absolute, and contrasts the heavy worldview connected with the idea of a universe viewed from outside by the Great Clockmaker, and the fear of the clock running down into a heat-death, with the dynamic and ever-renewing self-organizing universe he has described throughout the book. He again invokes Nietzche’s darkness and heaviness as the ultimate expression of the inevitable worldview that follows from Newton’s universe.

Against this I would like to set the lightness of the new search for knowledge, which is based in the understanding that the world is a network of relations, that what was once thought to be absolute is always subject to  evolutionand renegotiation, that the complete truth about the world is not graspable as any single point of view, but only resides in the totality of several or many distinct views. We understand now that there is no meaning to being at rest, and hence no sense for stasis; this new understanding of knowledge might be said to be imbued with the freedom of the principle of inertia and grounded not in space but only in relations. And these develop not inabsolute time but only in succession, in progression. Finally, this new view of the universe we aspire to will include a cosmology in which life has a proper andmeaningful place in the world. That is, in the end the image I want to leave is that life is light, both because what we are is matter energized by  the passaage of photons through the biosphere and because what is essential in life is without weight, but only pattern, structure,information. And because the logic of life is continual change, continual motion, contiual evolution.

Finally, the new view of the universe islight, in all its senses, because what Darwin has given us, and what we may aspire to generalize to the cosmos as a whole, is a way of thinking about the world which is scientific and mechanistic, but in which the occurrence of novelty – indeed the perpetual birth of novelty – can be understood.

It’s a very interesting book, though perhaps not for everyone. The ideas deserve to be more widely understood.

 

2009-01-10: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody

The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008)

by Clay Shirky (1964-)

This book is about the impact of the Internet on reducing the cost of communications, and the resultant effect on reducing barriers to people organizing for ad hoc and impromptu reasons. The ideas are more interesting than the prose, so I’ve taken advantage of the summary of ideas at the beginning of most chapters. I’m merely quoting them, rather than expressing them in my own words.

Chapter 1 is largely an extended anecdote to illustrate the power of an ad hoc single-purpose organization in recovering a cell phone lost in a New York City cab. The protagonist used his website and other services to rally a large number of people to support and enlist in the effort to recover a phone whose “finder” resisted returning even after she knew it’s rightful owner. Here’s a passage:

But mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing information. Evan was driven, resourceful, and unfortunately for Sasha, very angry. Had he presented his mission in completely self-interested terms (“Help my frame save $300!”) or in unattainably general ones (“Let’s fight theft everywhere!”), the tools he chose wouldn’t have mattered. What he did was to work out a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence. (This sweet spot is what Eric Raymond, the theorist of open source software, calls “a plausible promise.”) Without a plausible promise, all the technology in the world would be nothing more than all the teleology in the world.

I like the term “plausible promise”.

Chapter 2, Sharing Anchors Community: Groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties. New social tools relive some of those burdens, allowing for new kinds of group-forming, like using simple sharing to anchor the creation of new groups.

Chapter 3, Everyone Is a Media Outlet: Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression, and thus remove the bottlenecks that characterized mass media. The result is the mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals.

Chapter 4, Publish, Then Filter: The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older patten of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.

Chapter 5, Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production: Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of contribution.

Chapter 6, Collective Action and Institutional Challenges: Collective action, where a group acts as a whole, is even more complex than collaborative production, but here again new tools give life to new forms of action. This in turn challenges existing institutions, by eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination.

Chapter 7, Faster and Faster: As more people adopt simple social tools, and as those tools allow increasingly rapid communication, the speed of group action also increases, and just as more is different, faster is different.

Chapter 8, Solving Social Dilemmas: There are real and permanent social dilemmas, which can only be optimized for, never completely solved. The human social repertoire includes many such optimizations, which social tools can amplify.

Chapter 9, Fitting Our Tools to a Small World: Large social groups are different from small ones, but we are still understanding all the ways in which that is true. Recent innovations in social tools provide more explicit support for a pattern of social networking called te Small World pattern, which underlies the idea of Six Degrees of Separation.

Chapter 10, Failure for Free: The logic of publish-then-filter means that new social systems have to tolerate enormous amounts of failure. The only way to uncover and promote the rare successes is to rely, yet again, on social structure supported by social tools.

Chapter 11, Promise, Tool, Bargain:  There is no recipe for the successful use of social tools. Instead, every working system is a mix of social and technological factors.

 

2008-10-04: The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game of Tennis (1974, 1997)

by W. Timothy Gallwey (1938-)

This book was recommended, and I read it, as an exemplary explanation of a little-expressed facet of the human mind. I don’t much care about tennis.

Gallwey’s core message is that most of what we do, whether playing tennis, driving a car, or our ordinary work, is handled mostly automatically by a large part of our mind that he calls Self 2. This corresponds to the unconscious, procedural knowledge we’ve all developed over many repetitions of a variety of related activities. However, under many conditions, the conscious part of our mind, which he calls Self 1, attempts to take over control, and reduces the level of performance. Self 1 communicates to and about Self 2 in words, but Self 2 doesn’t understand words. The general approach is apparently compatible with a lot of cognitive science that has been done in the years since his first edition.

A few high points:

Pg 71, on the Inner Game Way of Learning, Step 4:

Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning

Though the player knows his goal, he is not emotionally involved in achieving it and is therefore able to watch the results calmly and experience the process. By so doing, concentration is best achieved, as is learning at its highest rate of speed; making new changes is only necessary when results do not conform to the image given. Otherwise only continuing observation of the behavior undergoing change is necessary. Watch it change; don’t do the changing.

The process is an incredibly simple one. The important thing is to experience it. Don’t intellectualize it. See what it feels like to ask yourself to do something and let it happen without any conscious trying. For most people it is a surprising experience, and the results speak for themselves.

This method of learning can be practiced in most endeavors on or off the court. The more you let yourself perform free of control on the tennis court, the more confidence you tend to gain in the beautiful mechanism that is the human body. The more you trust it, the more capable it seems to become.

Pg 93, Games People Play on the Court

That something else besides tennis is being played on the courts is obvious to the most casual observer. … He will see the stomping of feet, shaking of fists, war dances, rituals, pleas, oaths and prayers; rackets are thrown against fences in anger, into the air for joy, or pounded against the concrete in disgust. Balls that are in will be called out, and vice versa. Linesmen are threatened, ball boys are scolded and the integrity of friends questioned. On the faces of players you may observe, in quick succession, shame, pride, ecstasy and despair. Smug complacency gives way to high anxiety, cockiness to hang-dog disappointment. Anger and aggression of varying intensity are expressed both openly and in disguised forms. …

[With credit to Eric Berne’s Games People Play,] a brief guide to the games people play on the tennis court. … to be read as a key to discovering how to have more fun while playing …

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame A: Perfect-o.  How good can I get? … measured against a standard of performance

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame B: Compete-o.  I’m better than you. … measured against the performance of other players … Its not how well I play, but whether I win or lose that counts.

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame C: Image-o.  Look at me! … measured by appearance. Neither winning nor true competence is as important as style.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame A: Status-o.  We play at the country club. It’s not so important how good you are as where you play and who plays with you.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame B: Togetherness-o.  All my good friends play tennis. You play to be with your friends. To play too well would be a mistake.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame C: Spouse-o.  My spouse is always playing, so …

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame A: Health-o.  Played on doctor’s advice, or as part of a self-initiated physical improvement or beautification program.

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame B: Fun-o.  Played neither for winning nor to become “good,” but for fun alone. (A game rarely played in its pure form.)

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame C: Learn-o.  Played out of Self 2’s desire to learn and grow.

Gallwey’s formulation of sub-games is useful in understanding the various motives in activities, as well as obstacles in performance.

Pg 108, The Meaning of Winning

[After describing a conversation with his very competitive father, and exploring the attitude of a surfer toward the waves] The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents. He values the obstacles the wave puts between him and his goal of riding the wave … because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort.  … The potential may have always been within him, but until it is manifested in action, it remains a secret hidden from himself. The obstacles are a very necessary ingredient to this process of self-discovery.

From this example the basic meaning of winning became more clear to me. Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. 

Pg 117, Building Inner Stability

[After discussing the futility of trying to “manage stress” through Self 1, which is instrumental in creating the stress in the first place] The cause of most stress can be summed up in the word attachment.  Self 1 gets so dependent upon things, situations, people and concepts within its experience that when change occurs or seems about to occur, it feels threatened. Freedom from stress does not necessarily mean giving up anything, but rather being able to let go of anything, when necessary, and know that one will still be all right. It comes from being more independent – not necessarily more solitary, but more reliant on one’s own inner resources for stability.

The wisdom of building inner stability … seems to me to be an obvious requirement for successful living. The first step toward inner stability may be the acknowledgement that there is an inner self that has inherent needs of its own. The self that has all your gifts and capabilities, with which you hope to accomplish anything, has its own requirements. They are natural demands that we didn’t have to be taught. Each Self 2 is endowed by birth, regardless of where that birth took place, with an instinct to fulfill its nature. It wants to enjoy, to learn, to understand, appreciate, go for it, rest, be healthy, survive, be free to be what I is, express itself and make its unique contribution.

Self 2’s needs come with a gentle but constant urging. A certain feeling of contentment attends a person whenever he or she is acting in sync with this self. The fundamental issue is what kind of priority are we giving to the demands of Self 2 in relation to all the external pressures?

The book is well worth reading, even by those who aren’t interested in tennis. Gallwey has also written or co-written books applying the ideas to other fields. There are several videos online related to the subject, but one I particularly like is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieb1lmm9xHk.

 

2008-09-21: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1990 ed.)

by Julian Jaynes (1920-1997)

This is a wildly ambitious work. As such, it probably attempts more than it can handle. Nonetheless, it is very interesting and provocative. I would have to reread it carefully to fully assess the degree to which I can accept its many ideas. Given the density of ideas in its 470 pages, this would not be an undertaking lightly undertaken.

The book was originally written in 1976, and revised in 1990. Apparently many of its ideas must have needed revision (and perhaps still do) in light of the work that has been done in cognitive science since 1976.

It’s arranged in three Books (of an originally planned five): The Mind of Man, The Witness of History, and Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World.

In Book I, Jaynes describes what he means by consciousness. He first eliminates the many aspects of mentality that are often intended by the word. For example, it is not a copy of experience, not necessary for concepts, not necessary for learning, not necessary for thinking, not necessary for reason. Addressing its location, he refers to its spatial character. We usually think it’s in our head, or in the head (behind the eyes) of the person we talk to. Yet, “there is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another”.

Before addressing directly what consciousness is, Jaynes looks at language, particularly at metaphor as a way of constructing new meanings from old. He uses an interesting approach, identifying two parts of a metaphor. The metaphrand is the thing being described. The metaphier is the thing or relation used to elucidate the metaphrand. (The words are analogous to multiplier and multiplicand for the parts of a multiplication.) The metaphier has associations or attributes that are relevant to the metaphor, which Jaynes calls paraphiers. Each paraphier projects some element of meaning to an aspect of the metaphrand, called its paraphrand. Example: Snow blankets the ground. Metaphrand: the completeness and evenness with which the ground is covered by snow. Metaphier: a blanket on a bed. Paraphiers: warmth, protection, slumber until some awakening. Paraphrands: the earth is sleeping; it is protected by the snow cover; it awakens in the spring when the snow is gone.

Jaynes suggests that consciousness is a result of the metaphor-building process. The paraphiers of experience are projected into paraphrands that have functional effects in the working of the mind. Further, the process is recursive, so that each new paraphrand can become a metaphrand of a new metaphor, and so on. This brief sketch doesn’t do the idea justice, which is elaborated in Book II, but could still be clarified.

Having established (if not justified) the framework he will work with, Jaynes identifies the features of consciousness.

Spatialization: the spatial relations in the world around us are metaphrands for many functions of consciousness. We’ve invented a mind-space, in our own heads and those of others. It is so fundamental, we don’t think of it as having been invented, we simply assume it without question. As an example of referring something to space, consider time. We commonly have mental impressions that place past, present and future in some spatial arrangement (or different arrangements for different purposes). For instance, thinking about the sweep of history, we might imagine the years spread out from left to right. Considering our future plans and past experience, we might imagine the past behind us, and the future in front (some people reverse this arrangement, since they can ‘see’ the past but not the future).

Excerption: We are never conscious of anything in its entirety. This kind of consciousness is analogous to ‘seeing’ and subject to similar constraints. We can’t see all of an object at once, only its near side. Similarly from moment to moment we can only attend to one part of a thing at a time. “We excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which comprises our knowledge of it. And this is all that it is possible to do since consciousness is a metaphor of our actual behavior.”

The Analog ‘I’: Perhaps the most important feature of the metaphor world is the metaphor we have or ourselves. The analog ‘I’ can ‘move about’ in our metaphor world, ‘doing’ things that we are not actually doing, and might never have done or never will do. Yet we ‘make’ decisions on the basis of imagined ‘outcomes’ of  these ‘actions’.

The Metaphor ‘Me’: As the analog ‘I’ does something in mind-space, ‘seeing’ imagined features of real space, among those features might be the analog ‘me’ interacting with other people or other features of the imagined world. The analog ‘I’ can observe the results of these actions of the analog ‘me’ and make judgments of the consequences of such actions.

Narratization: “In consciousness, we are always seeing our vicarial selves as the main figures in the stories of our lives.” This story includes not only our analog ‘I’, but everything else in consciousness. Indeed it is its inclusion in a narrative that makes it conscious.

Conciliation: We constantly assimilate new perceptions into the learned schema we have of some feature of the world. This happens unconsciously, and is simply part of the process of making sense of the otherwise ambiguous perceptions, creating a stable internal model of the world in which for instance, things maintain their color even though changing lighting conditions result in different sense impressions. Jaynes calls the conscious analog to assimilation conciliation. We make excerpts or narratizations compatible with one another through conciliation. “If I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and a tower at the same time, you automatically conciliate them by having the tower rising from the meadow. But if I ask you to think of the mountain meadow and the ocean at the same time, conciliation tends not to occur and you are likely to think of one and then the other. You can only bring them together by a narratization.”

The question Jaynes addresses in chapter 3 is: Should we date the origin of consciousness before or after the invention of writing? Prior to reading this I would have said the question is ridiculous. Of course it is prior, probably roughly at the same time as the development of human language itself, perhaps 50,000 years ago. Now I’m not so sure.

Jaynes uses the Iliad as an early written source, discounting a few passages that scholars usually assign to later editors. His conclusion is surprising, disturbing and interesting: “There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad.” He finds “no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete.” He gives several examples of such words, then says, “Now this is all very peculiar. If there is no subjective consciousness, no mind, no soul, or will, in Iliadic men, what then initiates behavior?”

Jaynes points out the mistaken tradition that before the fourth century BC there was no true Greek religion, and that the gods were an invention of poets. The reason behind this mistake is the view that religion must be a system of ethics. Indeed people did not look to religion for ethics in that age. “The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think about what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon. It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath …, a god who whispers low to Helen to sweep her heart with homesick longing, a god who hides Priam in a mist in front of the attacking Memelaus, a god who tells Glaucus to take bronze for gold, a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, who urges the soldiers on or defeats them by casting them in spells or drawing mists over their visual fields. It is the gods who start quarrels among men that really start the war, and then plan its strategy. It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across a bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.” This nutshell summary is not in itself convincing, but compresses a lot of analysis into a short stretch of words.

Jaynes goes on to say that people in this age relied on immediate instruction to know what to do, and on a rigid hierarchy to govern the affairs of rising states. Each person did what he or she was told by an appropriate authority. When the authority was not available, the memory of the voice of authority was manifested as a mental voice, originating in memory but interpreted as the actual disembodied voice of the authority. When the voice was that of a recently deceased person, either a relative or chief or priest (sometimes all three in one person), the voice was taken as a manifestation of the essence of the formerly living person, in a new state, still capable of influencing action in the world. As the dead were venerated in this way, they were elaborated into gods, and the voices were taken as unmistakable authorities. Jaynes makes some attempt (perhaps plausible but not particularly convincing) to relate this phenomenon with the different roles of Broca’s area in the left brain and the corresponding area in the right brain, but it isn’t crucial to his overall argument.

His notion of the bicameral mind is that people of this age had a normal mind that dealt with day-to-day routine activities, not needing decisions; they had another mind that reacted to a need for decision-making by invoking the voices of gods. The two ‘houses’ of the mind worked together to guide a person through every foreseeable circumstance. The notion is interesting, and the argument is too complex to repeat here.

The breakdown comes about in the failure of the word ‘foreseeable’ above. When new circumstances arise that aren’t covered by the remembered wisdom of the gods, even kings don’t always make the right decisions. In the face of invasion by foreigners, or abrupt climatic changes, crises can lead to failure of the old ways, and a breakdown of society. An example is the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The various rises and falls of Mesopotamian city-states and empires provide others.

Jaynes dates the origin of consciousness to the circumstances where people find they can no longer rely on the  advice provided by one half of their bicameral mind to the other. This leads to the rise of more explicit (as well as slower, more resource-intensive, and perhaps less reliable) techniques of understanding the world and predicting the future, the features of consciousness he has previously listed.

Once he has made clear the outline of his argument, Jaynes spends much effort in providing supporting evidence. Of course, much of the evidence he cites can’t be unambiguously interpreted, and so the argument can be doubted. Still I think the possibility that there is some truth in it makes it worth considering further.

While reading, I wondered how others who have written on consciousness might react. I’ve since found that Daniel Dennett doesn’t dismiss it outright (though he doesn’t endorse it, either). He even warns that those who do dismiss it probably don’t understand it.

A very interesting book, challenging to understand, as well as challenging the ideas most people hold. Religious people won’t care for it.

 

2008-02-18: Into The Wild

Into The Wild (1996)

by Jon Krakauer (1954-)

This is really two narratives about a single mystery: the death by starvation of Chris McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness. The first narrative is how McCandless came to die. The second is about Krakauer’s efforts to discover the first, and to understand the state of mind that drove McCandless.

To discover McCandless’s beliefs and desires no doubt required a sympathetic state of mind to begin with, so there is naturally a lot of Jon Krakauer in the story as well. Some might find this intrusive, but the book is well written and, I imagine, well edited.

 

2007-12-09: The Attention Revolution

The Attention Revolution

Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind (2006)

by B. Allan Wallace (19?-)

This book is supposed to be about the benefits and methods of achieving mindfulness. As noted by a commenter on amazon.com, the word Revolution in the title is overstated. I thought the book would introduce ideas the author acquired from his Tibetan Buddhist practice without the baggage; I was mistaken. Wallace uses many quotes from Buddhist and related sources, and many Tibetan, Pali, Sanskrit or other words, often with little explanation. The overall impression is of promoting the religious setting within which the practices were developed.

He describes “the nine stages” of the practice, and adds a tenth chapter that is beyond them all. The first three stages seem to be accessible to ordinary people in their ordinary lives. Later stages require a full-time commitment for a period of months or years.

In some ways this is a more ambitious book than Strand’s The Wooden Bowl, which is also about meditation, but more explicitly without religious trappings. It could have been like an advanced course to follow Strand’s introductory course. The recent interest of some cognitive researchers in meditation and the mental states revealed or created by it might eventually result in such a book.

 

2007-11-24: The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

In his preface, Pinker says: “There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has  a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech – our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies – can therefore give us insight into who we are.”

This is the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience, beginning with The Language Instinct, and Words and Rules. I’ve read the first, but skipped the second with the impression he was addressing a narrow linguistic topic; I’ve started it now.

Generally I think Pinker’s work and writings are very interesting, and well worth reading and thinking about. Just from the preface, I can imagine an interesting pair of works: one would explore the differences between the human model of reality and some other creatures, such as dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins; the second would similarly compare and contrast humans and post-humans, such as robots and aliens.

Early on he discusses a legal issue that arose from the events of 9/11: Were the attacks on and fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center one occurrence or two? The question arose from a clause in the insurance policy covering the WTC, which capped the payment for a single “event” at $3.5 billion.

p. 83: “The constituents of common sense we have encountered, like causation, force, time, and substance, are not just home editions of the concepts used in logic, science, or our best collective understanding of how to manage our affairs. They worked well enough in the world in which our minds evolved, but they can leave our common sense ill-equipped to deal with some of the conceptual challenges of the modern world.” He goes on to describe several ways our notions can lead us astray: having and benefiting; having and knowing; having and moving; time; things and locations; causality. Each is interesting, though too detailed to recap here.

p. 159: Pinker discusses the Kantian view of the conceptual scaffolding of thought, and then says: “… languages appear to be organized by Kantian abstract categories. We see them in the basic parts of speech: substance in nouns, space in prepositions, causality in verbs, time in verbs and in markers for tense. … in the way verbs enter constructions, which are selective about how something moves, whether it is a substance or an object, whether the event is instantaneous or protracted, and who or what caused it … and … in the everyday metaphors that pervade our language and reasoning, as when we say the price of gas can rise and fall like a balloon, and when we speak of Sonia forcing Adam to be nice or even forcing herself to be nice as if she were closing a jammed drawer.”

p. 189: He addresses the notion of the present. Various lines of evidence and reasoning lead to the notion of “the specious present”, an interval of about three seconds, “the duration of an intentional movement like a handshake; of the immediate planning of a precise movement, like hitting a golf ball; of the flips and flops of an ambiguous [visual] figure; of the span within which we can accurately reproduce an interval; of the delay of unrehearsed short-term memory; of the time to make a quick decision, such as when we’re channel-surfing; and of the duration of an utterance, a line of poetry, or a musical motif, like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

p. 195: Although many metaphors treat time similarly to space, Pinker mentions two differences. First, and most obvious, time is one-dimensional. There are fewer tenses than spatial terms, even when treating with relations between three “points in time”, such as the present moment of an utterance, a reference point-event, and an event being located. Second, the two directions of time from the present are very different. The past is frozen and can’t be changed, and the future is a range of possible events constrained by the present and the laws of causality. We can know the past, but must wait for future events to unfold.

p. 233t: <I need to look at the book to figure out what this refers to>

p. 235: Opening the chapter The Metaphor Metaphor, Pinker quotes the first (rather long) sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and then says:

The United States Declaration of Independence is perhaps the best-known passage of English prose expressing an abstract political idea. … At the heart of this abstract argument, though, is a string of concrete metaphors. The issue at hand was the bands that connected the colonies to England, which it was necessary to dissolve in order to effect a separation. … The four metaphors really allude to a single, unstated metaphor: alliances are bonds. We see the metaphor in other expressions like bonding, attachment, and family ties.

Also palpable is the metaphor in impel – force to move – whose literal sense is plain in the noun impeller, the rotating part that pushes the water or air in a pump, and its cousin propeller. The implicit metaphor is that causes of behavior are forces. It underlies the cognates repel and compel, and analogous words like impetus, drive, force, push, and pressure. A related metaphor may be found in powers of the earth (which calls to mind horsepower and electric power): a sovereign state is a source of physical force.

A bit less obvious is the metaphor for human history, course, which refers to a path of running or flowing, as in the course of a river, a racecourse, and a headlong course. The metaphor is that a sequence of events is motion along a pathway.

The very name of the document echoes two older metaphors, which we can glimpse in related words. To declare, like clarify, comes from the Latin for “make clear,” an instance of the understanding is seeing metaphor, as in I see what you mean, a murky writer, and shedding more heat than light. And independence means “not hanging from,” echoed in suspend, pendant, and pendulum. It alludes to a pair of metaphors, reliance is being supported (propped up, financial support, support group), and subordinate is down (control over him, under his control, decline and fall).

If we dig even deeper to the roots of words, we unearth physical metaphors for still more abstract concepts. Event, from Latin evenire, originally meant “to come out,” (compare venture). Necessary comes from “unyielding” (compare cede). Assume meant “to take up.” Station is a standing-place, an instance of a widespread metaphor that equates status with location. Nature comes from the Latin for “birth” or “inborn qualities,” as in prenatal, nativity, and innate. Law in the sense of “moral necessity” is based on law in the sense of man-made regulations, from Old Norse lag, “something set down.” The metaphor a moral obligation is a rule also underlies entitle, from the Latin word for “inscription.” Decent originally meant “to be fitting.” Respect meant “to look back at” (remember aspect), kind comes from the same Germanic root as kin, require from “seek in return”.

Even the little grammatical words have a physical provenance. Sometimes it is evident in modern English, as in the pronoun it (a situation is a thing) and the prepositions in (time is space), to (intention is motion toward a goal), and among (affiliation is proximity). Sometimes it is evident only in the word’s ancestor, such as of, from a Germanic word related to “off,” and for, from the Indo-European term for “forward.”

Not much is left. Political comes from the Greek polites, meaning “citizen,” from polis, “city,” which is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but still has an association to something tangible. The and that come from an ancient Indo-European demonstrative term (also the source of then, there, they and this), standardly used in connection with pointing. That leaves God, man, and people, which mean what they mean and have for a long time, and the quasi-logical terms and, equal, and cause.

So if language is our guide, the lofty declaration of abstract principles is really a story with a strange and clunky plot. Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut cords and stand beside the upper people, which is what the rules require. They see some onlookers, and clear away the onlookers’ view of what forced them to do the cutting.

But should language be our guide? It seems unlikely that anyone reading the Declaration would entertain the bizarre images in the literal meanings of these words or their roots. At the same time it’s jarring to discover that even the airiest of our ideas are expressed (“pressed out”) in thumpingly concrete metaphors. The explorations of language and thought in the preceding chapters have turned up these metaphors under every stone: events as objects, states as locations, knowing as having, communicating as sending, helping as giving, time as space, causation as force. What should we make of the discovery that people can’t put two words together without using allusions and allegories? This chapter will try to steer a path between two extreme answers.

p. 245: Pinker credits George Lakoff with the idea that:

Metaphor is not an ornamental flourish of language, he says, but an essential part of thought: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Mental life begins with a few experiences that are not metaphorical, namely, the sensations, actions, and emotions that are built into our constitution and engage the physical world. From there, conceptual metaphors are acquired by a kind of associative conditioning. We learn that control is up because we experience fights in which the victor ends up on top, that goals are destinations because we walk toward something we want, and that time is a moving object because things that approach us get closer and closer as time elapses.

But this isn’t the half of it. Since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is rooted in bodily experience. And the concept of objective or absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them.

Western philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge, ethics, and reality, but a succession of conceptual metaphors. Descarte’s philosophy is based on knowing is seeing, Locke’s on the mind is a container, Kant’s on morality is a strict father, and so on. Nor is mathematics about a Platonic reality of eternal truths. It is a creation of the human body and senses, growing out of activities of moving along a path and of collecting, constructing, and measuring objects. Political ideologies, too, cannot be defined in terms of assumptions or values, but only as rival versions of the metaphor that society is a family. The political right likens society to a family commanded by a strict father, the political left to a family cared for by a nurturant parent. …

Though I believe that conceptual metaphor really does have profound implications for the understanding of language and thought, I think Lakoff takes the idea a wee bit too far.

He then goes on to defend truth, objectivity, and reason. Amusingly, he uses Lakoff’s own words to show that Lakoff also believes in them.

p. 252: Pinker explains the effectiveness of metaphors based on physical experience. They aren’t just arbitrary symbols, for which any substitution would be as effective. Rather, they are linked to modes of inference that allow many related, but unstated, relations among objects and situations to be implicitly understood. This is similar to the notions he expressed in Words and Rules, that we have memory for facts (symbols, words) and memory for procedures (rules, inference).

p. 377: Pinker credits Paul Grice with developing the cooperative principle of communication, in four conversational maxims:

Quantity:

  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.

Quality:

  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.

Manner:

  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.

Relevance:

  • Be relevant.

In the chapter The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, Pinker explains a lot about swearing, including the reasons we do it, and the words we use.

In the chapter Games People Play, he discusses the ways we use language to be ambiguous and obscure our motives. He has extended examples regarding seduction and bribery. He has several examples of metaphors relevant to social situations, particularly relating biological notions of family to society.

A sense of communality via folk biology can also be reinforced by myths and ideologies. People are told that they are descended from a patriarch or a primeval couple, or that they are connected to a natal land, or came into being in the same act of creation, or are related to the same totemic animal. Here is a rule of thumb in anthropology: whenever a society (including ours) has a cultural practice that seems bizarre, its members may be manipulating their intuitive biology to enhance feelings of community.

Conspicuous by its absence is the one social mechanism that social ad political theorists treat as the foundation of society: a social contract. Friends, families, couples, and clans don’t sit down and verbally articulate the rights and responsibilities that bind them together. If they use language at all, it’s to avow their solidarity in unison or close succession, as in I love you, I pledge allegiance, and I believe with a perfect faith. What they don’t like to do is negotiate the terms of their communality. The very act of delineating perquisites and obligations in words undermines the nature of the emotional (and in their minds physical) fusion that allows them to share instinctively, without concern for who takes what and who gets what.

When I read this, I thought that the marketing folks at CircleLending.com (now VirginMoneyUS.com) ought to make use of these ideas.

p. 428: In the chapter Escaping the Cave, Pinker contrasts the analog nature of the physical world with the discrete nature of our mental representations.

Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events. They assemble these objects and events into propositions, which they take to be characterizations of real and possible worlds. The characterizations are highly schematic: they pick out some aspects of a situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple ways. People thereby can disagree about what a given situation really is even when they can agree on how matter has moved through space.

Human characterizations of reality are built out of recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another.

Each of these ideas has a distinctive anatomy. Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories. They distinguish stable categories that capture an individual’s essence from transitory and superficial properties they may happen to possess. They have a mental zoom lens that can home in on the substance an entity is made of (plastic) or pan back to see its boundaries (a cup). A substance can be seen as a continuous medium (like applesauce) or as an aggregate of parts (like pebbles).

Humans have a primitive concept of number, which distinguishes only one, two, and many, though they can also estimate larger quantities approximately. They use this coarse way of quantifying not just when tallying objects (as in singular, dual, and plural) but also when locating things in space (as in at, near, and far) and when locating things in time (as in the present, recent past, and remote past).

When humans think about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes or moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts. The entire object is thought to be located in a spot, or to move as a whole, or to have a trait that suffuses it, or to change from one state to another in its entirety (as in a wagon loaded with hay, or a garden swarming with bees). But humans are also capable of articulating an object into its parts and registering how they are related to one another (as in the bottom of the wagon or the edge of the garden). When the object is a human body, another entity comes into play: the person, who is thought both to be his body parts, and to have his body parts. Among people’s possessions are not just their body parts and their chattels but also their ideas (which they can send to one another) and their good fortune.

p. 431t: I noticed only one typo in the book: “when it seen as just occurring” should be “when it is seen as just occurring”.

p. 439: After summarizing most of the ideas in the book, he says:

None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principle in higher education today). The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in sensitive analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.