7 GTD lessons from cigarette smokers

Smokers do something that’s quite remarkable that nobody really talks about: they smoke a lot of cigarettes.

A heavy smoker can finish a pack a day. That’s 7,300 cigarettes a year.
At 4 minutes a cigarette, that’s about 486 hours a year.

If they started at 17 and became heavy smokers at 23, they would have smoked over 200,000 cigarettes by the time they’re 50, and spent over 10,000 hours at it! And some people smoke MORE than a pack a day!

What’s the point of all that?

Smokers have mastered the art of getting things done. The problem is that this skill is primarily subconscious, and limited to the realm of cigarette smoking. The good thing is, we can scrutinize it, become conscious of the game mechanisms involved, and apply them to our own lives- whether you want to get fitter, write more, or simply be adequately hydrated.

1: Always have your pack with you. A smoker with a pack of cigarettes smokes more than a smoker without one. Similarly, if you need to drink more water (and you do), keep a bottle of water with you at all times. If you’re a writer, have a notepad on you. If you’re a songwriter, get a recording app for your phone to capture those melodies that pop into your head at the strangest times. Some heavy smokers go so far as to keep several packs in several separate locations. As Les Brown says, “It’s better to be prepared and not have an opportunity, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared!”

You’ll never know when inspiration strikes- when a fleeting momentary impulse flickers in your mind like a careless spark. Be prepared for it, and indulge it. Leave your running shoes by the door, with your socks and running gear prominently displayed. Don’t sabotage yourself by depending entirely on fallible things like memory and initiative. Accessibility is the name of the game.

The inverse law applies- if you want to do less of something, put it away. Out of sight, out of mind. If you’re working towards giving up cigarettes, learn to start leaving your pack at home when you head out from time to time. If you’re trying to diet, keep snacks and goodies out of reach- don’t even stock them up to begin with. Discipline is overrated- accessibility is key.

2: Take frequent smoke breaks. Smokers don’t finish entire cartons of cigarettes by setting aside a couple of hours for smoking time every day- few people have the luxury of that much free time. They smoke in frequent, short bursts, using them as punctuation throughout the day. If you ordered a smoker to finish a pack of cigarettes on the spot, he probably wouldn’t be able to do it (unless he’s Slash, or Vin Diesel.)

It’s a lot easier to get large quantities of work done in quick bursts rather than in huge chunks. If you smoke 10 cigarettes at one go, the pleasure diminishes with each cigarette. Too much of anything (even sex, or chocolate!) gets sickening after a while, and when something sickens you, you won’t be able to do much of it. Figure out the minimum effective dose and stick to it.

If you need 15 minutes in the sun to trigger a melanin response, 15 minutes is your MED for tanning. More than 15 minutes is redundant and will just result in burning and a forced break from the beach. During this forced break from the beach, let’s assume one week, someone else who heeded his natural 15-minute MED will be able to fit in four more tanning sessions. He is four shades darker, whereas you have returned to your pale pre-beach self. Sad little manatee. In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months. – Tim Ferriss

chaoticlivesinterlace:  (via hxcfairy)

3: Make it a routine. A smoker smokes when he wakes up, after meals and before he goes to bed. That creates a baseline, which can sometimes help you bust ruts. A lot of us already have such standardized routines, whether we realize it or not- just that they aren’t usually productive ones.  I used to get on my computer like clockwork the moment I got home from school, wasting countless hours on Facebook and other endless internet distractions. We all have useless routines, we might as well develop a few good ones. The idea is to make part of your work “mindless”, such that you get some of it done even without having to think about it.

4: Smoke at poignant times. This is about quality, not quantity- many smokers will smoke thousands of cigarettes, yet still be able to identify their most memorable ones. Writers who write hundreds of pages will describe the same thing, as will runners who go running every morning. Quality moments are precious, and we ought to make the most of them. The trick to maximizing the value you get out of this is akin to learning to lucid dream- develop the habit of appraising your own mental state. Do this regularly- whenever you sit down, for instance- really take the time to ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now, and why?”. After a while, you’ll develop a new level of awareness, and you’ll know when you’re in a state that’s perfect for working. Over time (and I’m personally still working on this), you’ll be able to influence your mental state altogether. The absolute best moments, though, are always unexpected. Which makes it that much more important to prepare for them.

5: Just smoke, damn it. The perfect opportunity will never come. Many wannabe-writers (myself included) wait for the perfect moment of inspiration, when the day is pleasant, the mind is clear and limber, the environment is idyllic… these moments are rare. Smokers, on the other hand, don’t have such pretenses and delusions. They don’t wait for ideal circumstances to present themselves- they create them, sneaking away from classes, huddle together under an umbrella in the pouring rain… ever smoker will be able to recount a story where he or she lit up a cigarette in the most ridiculous and unfavourable circumstances, just because.

Cigarette smokers don’t suffer from “Smoker’s Block”- they will smoke, rain or shine, in health or in sickness. Sometimes I think smokers even make it a point to go out of their way to smoke when conditions are unfavourable, just as a sort of rebellious fuck-you to the world- smoking in stairwells, empty classrooms and other places where they’re told they’re not supposed to. If you have a passion, you would be wise to take a leaf from the smoker’s book- you NEED to do whatever it is that you’re passionate about- you have to turn into a pressing urge, a craving, something you can’t live without.

6: Smoke with others. Smoking is both a solitary and social activity. Smokers always smoke a lot more when put in a group with other smokers. There’s a bit of an us-against-the-world mentality- it’s like a global club, a community, and not without its charms. If you’re going to do something, make a conscious effort to surround yourself with other people who do the same. There’s a bit of competition, a bit of mutual support- community has the ability to provoke, challenge and intensify. I was at my physical fittest when I had a pact with a friend to hit the gym every 3rd day- neither of us wanted to let the other down, and somehow things just seem a lot more real you have other people to validate your efforts.  Peer pressure is powerful, and you can leverage it to your advantage.


7: Enjoy it. This is kind of self evident, but easy to forget. Smokers have it easy (or hard, depending on how you look at it)- a cigarette delivers a direct shot of dopamine straight to the brain. We can do the same with anything else, if we’re crafty enough. Enjoyment, I believe, is directly related to mindfulness- you can’t enjoy something if you’re not paying attention to it.

So pay attention- when you’re hitting the gym, or practicing your instrument- don’t just tune out, focus. Turn it into an act of meditation. Pay careful attention to your fingers, your body, your heartbeat, the feel of the art that you’re creating. When you complete your session, set aside some time to contemplate it- and you’ll begin to build a mental connection with the act, a sense of peace and fulfillment. It’s really addictive.

So in summary:

  1. Keep it accessible, so that it’s never far from your mind.
  2. Break it into little chunks and exploit the minimum effective dose.
  3. Make it a routine so you do it even when you’re not thinking.
  4. Exploit special moments by being aware of them, and prepared for them.
  5. Don’t just wait for perfect conditions- create moderately favourable conditions and wing it.
  6. Exploit peer pressure to your advantage.
  7. Enjoy it.

By the way, please don’t smoke. It’s bad for you. If you’re a smoker and you’re thinking about quitting, you can make progress by reversing the above principles- they all work both ways!

The Depth Of Complexity

Most things that are interesting are simultaneously complex. Cities are complex. Living organisms are complex.

Complexity covers a vast territory that lies between order and chaos- something that is neither total disorder nor total order, non-trivial, complicated but non-chaotic- complex.

Complexity is that which is not trivial. That which is not dull. That which we all intuitive sense but are incapable of adequately expressing.

Complexity could, in some instances, be measured as logical depth- the meaning and value of a message not by its length but by the amount of work put into it. E = mc^2 is simple, yet complex. So are the works of Shakespeare. There is a lot of depth to it.

Making things look easy is hard, clarity requires depth.

A mess has no depth and is not complex, because a mess cannot be described more concisely than the way it describes itself by being a mess. The more concisely something can be expressed, the more depth it has- the value of a poker hand corresponds directly to the succinctness with which it could be described- the most valuable hand reproduced perfectly with  “Royal Flush (Spades)”, which is more concise than “Four Of A Kind Jacks and Ace (Diamond)”, which is more concise than “House Of Jacks (sans Spades) to Kings (Clubs and Hearts). We value depth, because it makes life a lot easier.

Thermodynamic depth is the idea of defining complexity as the amount of information that is discarded during the process that brings a physical object into being- a historical rather than logical notion.

The more an organism survives, the more it experiences, and the more valuable its genes become. The interesting thing is not how many genes it has, or how long its DNA is- the interesting thing is the wealth of experience deposited in its genes.

It took billions of years for the earth to evolve one bull, but one bull and a few compliant cows will produce seven bulls relatively speedily. The distance from equilibrium is what matters. Anything wholly ordered or disordered is stable by definition, while what is complex is interesting because it appears to be unstable- consider any complex piece of music, an complex dance routine- the beauty of the complexity lies in its disequilibrium, we appreciate it because we realise intuitively how easily everything might fall apart.

 

Evolution of Co-operation, by Robert Axelrod

The Evolution of Cooperation

Summary of: The Evolution of Cooperation

“The objective of this enterprise is to develop a theory of cooperation that can be used to discover what is necessary for cooperation to emerge.”

Findings

  • The emergence of cooperation can be seen as a consequence of agents pursuing their own interests. It is not necessary to assume that those agents are more honest, more generous, or more cooperative per se.
  • What makes it possible for cooperation to emerge is the fact that the agents might interact again. The choice made now of whether or not to cooperate will affect choices made in later interactions. This called the ‘shadow of the future.’ The shadow of the future can exist even when the participants are unaware of it, as is the case in biological cooperation (symbiosis).
  • No best rule exists independently of the strategy being used by others. Despite this fact, robust strategies, useful in many contexts, are possible.
  • The evolution of cooperation requires high levels of reciprocal interactions between agents. The absolute number of agents can be small as long as their interactions are numerous.
  • Communities of cooperation, once established, can protect themselves from ‘invasion’ by less cooperative strategies. “The gear wheels of social evolution have a ratchet.”
  • The winning tit-for-tat strategy:
    1. Don’t be envious. Don’t compare your success to others, only to your own strategic possibilities, i.e. are you employing the best strategy you have?
    2. Don’t be the first to defect. Cooperate as long as others are cooperating.
    3. Reciprocate both cooperation and defection. Enforcing the rules is as important as playing by them.
    4. Be transparent. In order for others to coordinate their choices with yours, they have to understand your behavior. Keep it simple and out in the open.
  • Ways to promote cooperation:
    1. Enlarge the shadow of the future. Increase the permanence of cooperative choices or the frequency of interactions.
    2. Change the payoffs. Make the long-term incentives to cooperate greater than the short-term incentives to defect.
    3. Socialize reciprocal cooperation as a norm. Teach people to cooperate first.
    4. Improve collective memory. Collective memory, or culture, is embedded in institutions. Provide access to collective memory.
  • The foundation of cooperation is the durability of the relationship, which allows agents to learn about each other in order to cooperate.

Chapter 1, The Problem of Cooperation. Why do people (or other actors) cooperate? “The objective of this enterprise is to develop a theory of cooperation that can be used to discover what is necessary for cooperation to emerge.” It uses the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a framework for testing theories about balancing self-interest and competition.

“In the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the strategy that works best depends directly on what strategy the other player is using and, in particular, on whether this strategy leaves room for the development of mutual cooperation.”

Chapter 2, TIT FOR TAT. “The iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma has become the E. Coli of social psychology,” yet people have not paid much attention to how to play the game well. Axelrod organized a computer tournament to which people familiar with PD submitted programs encoding different strategies. The winner was one of the simplest, TIT FOR TAT.

Axelrod then constructed an environment in which different programs competed, and the losing programs were eliminated: this was an ecology that rewarded high scoring programs, and punished others. “This process simulates survival of the fittest. A rule that is successful on average with the current distribution of rules in the population will become an even larger proportion of the environment of the other rules in the next generation. At first, a rule that is successful with all sorts of rules will proliferate, but later as the unsuccessful rules disappear, success requires good performance with other successful rules.” In other words, the competition gets tougher.

“The analysis of the tournament results indicate that there is a lot to be learned about coping in an environment of mutual power. Even expert strategists from political science, sociology, economics, psychology, and mathematics made the systematic errors of being too competitive for their own good, not being forgiving enough, and being too pessimistic about the responsiveness of the other side.”

The tournaments reveal that “there is a single property which distinguishes the relatively high-scoring entries from the relatively low-scoring entries. This is the property of being nice, which is to say never being the first to defect.”

TIT FOR TAT’s rules for success:

  • Be nice. Don’t be the first to go on the attack. This demonstrates good will, and avoids provoking others.
  • Retaliate. If others attack, retaliate. Not doing so encourages bad behavior and gives niceness a bad reputation.
  • Be forgiving. If others defect but then go back to cooperating, accept the opportunity to move back to a cooperative mode.
  • Be clear. Others can predict what you’ll do, be certain that their moves will have definite outcomes. “There is an important contrast between a zero-sum game like chess and a non-zero-sum game like the iterated PD. In chess, it is useful to keep the other player guessing about your intentions. The more the other player is in doubt, the less efficient will be his or her strategy. But in a non-zero-sum setting it does not always pay to be so clever. In the iterate PD, you benefit from the other player’s cooperation.”

Chapter 4, Trench Warfare. During World War I, “live and let live” arrangements emerged spontaneously between opposing units on the Western Front. Cooperation could take hold because “the same small units faced each other in immobile sectors for extended periods of time.” Consequently, they had a more sustained relationship than in mobile warfare, and could develop commonly-understood rules, reciprocity and restraint in attacks, displays of strength (e.g., snipers shooting at hard targets)as well as ethics (recognition that there was an arrangement and violating it was immoral) and rituals (e.g., regular artillery firing).

“Cooperation first emerged spontaneously in a variety of contexts, such as restraint in attacking the distribution of enemy rations, a pause during the first Christmas in the trenches, and a slow resumption of fighting after bad weather made sustained combat almost impossible. These restraints quickly evolved into clear patterns of mutually understood behavior, such as two-for-one or three-for-one retaliation for actions that were taken to be unacceptable.”

Chapter 6, How to Choose Effectively. Four suggestions about how to do well in PD:

  • Don’t be envious. In a PD, “envy is self-destructive. Asking how well you are doing compared to how well the other player is doing is not a good standard unless your goal is to destroy the other player.” However, in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, you can’t do better than the other player, unless they’re always suckers. “In a non-zero-sum world you do not have to do better than the other player to do well for yourself. The other’s success is virtually a prerequisite of your doing well for yourself.”
  • Don’t be the first to defect (be nice). “It pays to cooperate as long as the other player is cooperating.” In a short game, defection can make sense; but in a relationship, taking advantage of the other person is self-defeating.
  • Reciprocate both cooperation and defection. TIT FOR TAT “does not destroy the basis of its own success. On the contrary, it thrives on interactions with other successful rules.” However, the right level of forgiveness depends on the context, and the other players’ strategies.
  • Don’t be too clever. “In a zero-sum game, such as chess it pays for us to be as sophisticated and as complex in our analysis as we can. Non-zero-sum games are not like this. The other player can respond to your own choices. And unlike the chess opponent, the other player in a PD should not be regarded as someone who is out to defeat you.” “There is an important contrast between a zero-sum game like chess and a non-zero-sum game like the iterated PD. In chess, it is useful to keep the other player guessing about your intentions. The more the other player is in doubt, the less efficient will be his or her strategy. But in a non-zero-sum setting it does not always pay to be so clever. In the iterate PD, you benefit from the other player’s cooperation.”

Chapter 7, How to Promote Cooperation. Promoting cooperation can be thought of as an exercise in tinkering with the variables in a PD. “As long as the interaction is not iterated, cooperation is very difficult. That is why an important way to promote cooperation is to arrange that the same two individuals will meet each other again, be able to recognize each other from the past, and to recall how the other has behaved until now.”

  • Enlarge the shadow of the future. For cooperation to emerge, players must be in a continuing relationship, with the expectation that it will continue in the future. “Mutual cooperation can be stable if the future is sufficiently important relative to the past.” “There are two basic ways of doing this: by making the interactions more durable, and by making them more frequent. [P]rolonged interaction allows patterns of cooperation which are based on reciprocity to be worth trying and allows them to become established,” Making interactions more frequent makes “the next interaction occur sooner, and hence the next move looms larger than it otherwise would.” You might do this by enforcing isolation, or constructing hierarchies or organizations, which are “especially effective at concentrating the interactions between specific individuals.”
  • Change the payoffs. Make defection less attractive, by enforcing laws, or growing the value of long-term incentives.
  • Teach people to care about each other.
  • Teach reciprocity. Reciprocity “actually helps not only oneself, but others as well. It helps others by making it hard for exploitative strategies to survive.”
  • Improve recognition abilities. “The ability to recognize the other player from past interactions, and to remember the relevant features of those interactions, is necessary to sustain cooperation. Without these abilities, a player could not use any form of reciprocity and hence could not encourage the other to cooperate.”

Chapter 8, The Social Structure of Cooperation.
The social structure of cooperation involves labels, reputation, regulation, and territoriality.

  • Labels are fixed characteristics of an agent that are observable by other agents. Labels affect reciprocity and retaliation via assumptions of group similarity and stereotypes.
  • Reputation is others’ belief about the strategies an agent will employ. Reputation may be based on past behavior or on rumours, i.e. reputation can be accurate or merely believed. Reputation affects whether or not other agents will cooperate or defect with you.
  • Regulation involves setting the stringency of a standard of behavior “high enough to get most of the social benefits of regulation, and not so high as to prevent the evolution of a stable pattern of voluntary compliance from almost all of the companies” (or regulated agents).
  • Territoriality refers to both physical and conceptual spaces that can be ‘invaded’ by agents of differing strategies. Territoriality establishes boundaries within which behaviors will be reinforced or retaliated against depending on prevailing norms. Also, the boundary provides an ‘inside’ for agents that comply with the norms, and an ‘outside’ to which they can be expelled if they do not comply.

Chapter 9, The Robustness of Reciprocity.

  • Cooperation can get started by even a small cluster of individuals who are willing to reciprocate cooperation, even in a world where no one else will cooperate.
  • Once cooperation is establish, it protects itself from invasion by non-cooperative strategies.
  • The foundation of cooperation is the durability of the relationship, which allows agents to learn about each other in order to cooperate.

 

Communication, negotiation and the friendship of Charles and Erik

Can anything be more important than learning how to deal with yourself, and with other people? What a ceaseless struggle! Managing intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, directing and empowering oneself and others. It’s simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to do. We are inextricably bound to ourselves, and to each other.

I caught X-Men: First Class with a few friends and thoroughly enjoyed it, with all the wonderful philosophical dilemmas it raised. Most enjoyable of all was the portrayal of the magnificent relationship between Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto).

What a beautiful and tragic relationship, one between equals, peers, contemporaries. I often find myself yearning to be a part of such a powerful relationship- to have a peer who I may thoroughly appreciate, understand and relate to. Both men highly skilled, capable, intellectual, profoundly emotional and intensely admirable. If they had nothing else, they had each other- and yet they ultimately were driven apart by their differences. The most painful exchange to watch, for me, was when Erik said, “We want the same thing!”, and Charles responded, “No, we don’t.”

Don’t we all ultimately want the same thing? Do we not have more in common than we have differences? Were the views of Charles and Erik truly incompatible, was their union destined to be fleeting? I find it difficult to accept. What was it that stopped them from negotiating a compromise? Together, they had a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic that would have made them a political heavyweight- I’m inclined to believe that the reason neither of their approaches towards humanity succeeds is because each approach is incomplete without the other- it’s kind of like how good parenting is supposed to be- it can’t just be all about rewards, or all about punishments. There has to be compromise, balance.

Avianca Flight 52 crashed into a village on 25 January 1990, killing 8 out of 9 crew members and 65 out of 149 passengers. The plane had been running out of fuel. The first officer was reportedly intimidated by the gruff air traffic controller, and did not effectively communicate the fuel emergency. Lives were lost. The story breaks my heart, because those people did not have to die- if Klotz had only managed to communicate wit the air traffic control more effectively, the disaster could have been averted.

Are communication breakdowns inevitable? Is it really so difficult to find common ground, to find mutually beneficial outcomes, that even our most inspiring men and women struggle to do it? Was it really necessary for Charles and Erik to part ways? Axelrod’s Evolution of Co-operation suggests otherwise-

“We were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did—and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbor and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see one another again,—perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us! That we have to become estranged is the law above us: by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other! And thus the memory of our former friendship should become more sacred! There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path,—let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.— Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellen), a.k.a. Magneto, in 20th Century Fox's X-Men - 2000

It’s a beautiful idea, star friendship. But I think we can have more than that, I’m inclined to believe that we don’t have to grow distant from our friends. I don’t think I’m being radically idealistic- the emergence of co-operation, after all, can be seen as a consequence of agents pursuing their own interests.

We  just need to get better at communicating and negotiating– first with ourselves, to transcend arrogance and hubris, and then with one another, to find mutually beneficial outcomes. Everything else is commentary.

Self-Directed Learning (aka intensive reading)

I’ve been procrastinating about this for far, far too long. Now that I’ve hit the midway point of the 90 Week Project, I think it’s time to step it up a notch and get down to doing what I’ve been meaning to do for the longest time.

Over the next 45 weeks I’m going to make a conscious and focused effort at learning things. Most specifically, I want to digest and understand a collection of books that I own that I find incredibly challenging and stimulating. You will notice that all of these books have a sort of common thread running through all of them… I’m hoping to strengthen the value of all these books by pointing out how they all work together in a sort of cohesive whole.

The books that I’d like to crack are:

  1. Lives of A Cell, Lewis Thomas
  2. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
  3. The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb
  4. The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
  5. The User Illusion, Tor Norretranders
  6. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
  7. The Evolution of Co-operation, Robert Axelrod
  8. The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris
  9. 48 Laws Of Power, Robert Greene
  10. The 50th Law, Robert Greene

Lives Of A Cell, by Lewis Thomas

“Thomas touches on subjects as various as biology, anthropology, medicine, music, etymology, mass communication, and computers. Within lively and lucid prose, he reveals a certain prescience. In the essay titled “Your Very Good Health,” Thomas says:

“We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind, so compulsively and with such speed that the brains of mankind often appear, functionally, to be undergoing fusion.”

Thirty-some years later, with the developments in communication such as the Internet and all its derivatives (newsgroups, email, websites), the import of these words takes on a whole new meaning.

“Or perhaps we are only at the beginning of learning to use the system, with almost all our evolution as a species still ahead of us. Maybe the thoughts we generate today and flick around from mind to mind…are the primitive precursors of more complicated, polymerized structures that will come later, analogous to the prokaryotic cells that drifted through shallow pools in the early days of biological evolution. Later, when the time is right, there may be fusion and symbiosis among the bits, and then we will see eukaryotic thought, metazoans of thought, huge interliving coral shoals of thought.

The mechanism is there [n.b.: in the human brain], and there is no doubt that it is already capable of functioning…

We are simultaneously participants and bystanders, which is a puzzling role to play. As participants, we have no choice in the matter; this is what we do as a species.”

The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs

“Jane Jacob’s work has had many reverberations across the United States. The book, written nearly four decades ago, can be credited with helping start the protest and shift of policy makers from using Corbusian designs of urban redevelopment to more traditional rehabilitation, reuse, and revitalization methods to help reinvigorate cities. This book demonstrates the understated complexities and economies of city life, and how those complexities are very fragile and depend on the communication and interaction of people. Most importantly, it helps define community and how community, whether rich or poor, can overcome nearly all social ills and beat the statistics. An essential book for those who study sociology, economics, political science, psychology, architecture, urban planning, and general business.”

The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb

“It is pretty clear from this book that Nassim Taleb is beyond arrogant, and also pretty clear that you wouldn’t enjoy his company very much. At the same time, you need someone with this sort of personality to go after the academic frauds who have monopolized the conversation about the economy for far too long. They have succeeded in drowning out most other voices because the language they speak, higher mathematics, is accessible only to the elect few. The worldview that they espouse is one in which all of human behavior can and should be “modeled” using this elite language, and then future behavior can be predicted based on the model. Any challenges to this neat little closed system from laypeople who cannot speak the language are met with derision. Taleb knows the language and says that modelers are doing far more harm than good by making it appear that their models can fit the data and be predictive, when in fact the data can only be made to fit through fudging, and their predictive tool, the bell curve, is inapplicable to this type of data.

There are insights on every page in this book (in addition to gratuitous insults), but one in particular will stay with me. The statisticians always tell you that they can make predictions at a 95% confidence level for a large dataset if they sample enough data points. How do you know whether you have enough data points? It depends on the variability of the data. How do you know how variable the data is? Only if you have actually measured the data. How do you measure the data? You have to look at enough datapoints. You see how circular this is when phrased in plain English. Taleb brings plain English back to the conversation, and it is plain refreshing. A must read.”

The User Illusion, by Tor Norretranders

“I’m a big fan of the recent books attempting to explain consciousness: Dennett, the Churchlands, Owen Flannagan, Damasio, Edleman, Crick, Calvin, and so on. “The User Illusion” is unique among this crowd in two ways. First, it builds from a broader base of support, in information theory and thermodynamics. Second, it does not focus on the brain, but on the experience of consciousness. This seems at first to be a weakness, but it turns out to be a strength because what the author attempts to explain is how the experience of consciousness relates to the reality around us.
In this book, a number of different lines of evidence converge on the profoundly scientific but uncomfortably counter-intuitive conclusion that conscious awareness is an extremely narrow bandwidth simulation used to help create a useful illusion of an “I” who sees all , knows all, and can explain all.

Yet the mental processes actually driving our behavior are (and need to be) far more vast and process a rich tapestry of information around us that conscious awareness cannot comprehend without highly structuring it first. So the old notion of an “unconscious mind” is not wrong because we have no “unconscious,” but because our entire mind is unconscious, with a tiny but critical feature of being able to observe and explain itself, as if an outside observer.

This fits so well with the social psychological self-perception research, and recent research into the perception of pain and other sensations, that it has a striking ring of truth about it.

This does lead to some difficult conceptual problems. A chapter is devoted to the odd result discovered by Benjamin Libet (also featured prominently in Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, but not explained nearly so clearly there). Libet observed that the brain seems to prepare for a planned action a half second before we realize we have chosen to perform the action. This dramatically makes the author’s point that human experience proceeds from sensing to interpreting teh sensation within a simulation of reality, to experiencing. If we accept that the brain has to create its own simulation in order for us to experience something, there’s no reason why the simulation can’t bias our perception of when we chose to act. So we act out of a larger, richer self, but experience ourselves as acting from a narrowly defined self-aware self with no real privileged insight into the mental processes behind it.

This may well be the best discussion of conscious awareness yet presented in a generally readable form. But it does have some glaring weaknesses. The author takes great pains to build this model of conscious awareness from the ground up, but then applies it in a brief and haphazard manner to all sorts of things that deserve much more thought, such as religion, hypnosis, dreams, and so on. Even with the few weaknesses, the case made for the author’s view of conscious awareness is both compelling and useful for further discussions, because it is built on a solid scientific and mathematical foundation, and the author manages to remain within areas that are already well studied. It isn’t clear whether the author’s model makes many testable predictions beyond those made by the underlying theories of perception, but it does provide a larger explanatory framework that is at once sophisticated and comprehensible.”

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

“This small yet informative book is the heart of power politics. It was Machiavelli’s resume, written to help save both his country and his reputation. The book is often said to present a plan of leadership that is calculating and heartless. That is precisely the point; Machiavelli is a true historian who sets down the hard realities of what it is to be a leader and ignores lofty political ideals (making it obvious how few world leaders have actually studied it). As well as giving the modern reader a much needed history lesson, Machiavelli has a nearly prophetic knack for summing up the root causes of events from the 1st World War to Vietnam in a few sentences. It never fails to amaze me that leaders today would rather look at world events through hindsight than act on them by foresight.”

Evolution of Co-operation, by Robert Axelrod

“This article is an introduction to how game theory and computer modeling are illuminating certain aspects of moral and political philosophy, particularly the role of individuals in groups, the “biology of selfishness and altruism”, and how cooperation can be evolutionarily advantageous.

When Richard Dawkins set out to “examine the biology of selfishness and altruism” in The Selfish Gene, he reinterpreted the basis of evolution, and therefore of altruism. He was “not advocating a morality based on evolution”, and even felt that “we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature.” But John Maynard Smith was showing that behavior could be subject to evolution, Robert Trivers had shown that reciprocal altruism is strongly favored by natural selection to lead to complex systems of altruistic behavior (supporting Kropotkin’s argument that cooperation is as much a factor of evolution as competition), and Axelrod’s dramatic results showed that in a very simple game the conditions for survival (be “nice”, be provocable, promote the mutual interest) seem to be the essence of morality. While this does not yet amount to a science of morality, the game theoretic approach has clarified the conditions required for the evolution and persistence of cooperation, and shown how Darwinian natural selection can lead to complex behavior, including notions of morality, fairness, and justice. It is shown that the nature of self-interest is more profound than previously considered, and that behavior that seems altruistic may, in a broader view, be individually beneficial. Extensions of this work to morality and the social contract may yet resolve the old issue of individual interests versus group interests.”

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

“Dawkins is, of course, famous as an evolutionary biologist, and he also discusses the appearance and survival of religious beliefs from an evolutionary point of view. In the words of the novelist Barbara Trapido, “People have no sooner got themselves born than they start to imagine the gods want them to flatten their heads, or perforate their genitals, or arrange themselves into hierarchies based on the colour of their skins. The gods require them to avoid eating hoofs, or to walk backwards in certain sacred presences, or to hang up cats in clay pots and light fires underneath them.” For this sort of thing to make evolutionary sense there must be a survival value for the individual in religious belief. What can it be? Dawkins explains it in the same way as he explains the habit of moths of burning themselves to death by flying into candle flames, not as something beneficial in itself but as an unfortunate by-product of behaviour that in nearly all circumstances is indeed beneficial, namely flying towards a light source. For religion, he suggests that it is nearly always beneficial for small children to believe what their parents tell them, with the consequence that they believe not only in the dangers of playing with fire, but also in whatever nonsense their parents tell them as well.”

The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris

“Whether it’s musical talent, criminal tendencies, or fashion sense, we humans want to know why we have it or why we don’t. What makes us the way we are? Maybe it’s in our genes, maybe it’s how we were raised, maybe it’s a little of both–in any case, Mom and Dad usually receive both the credit and the blame. But not so fast, says developmental psychology writer Judith Rich Harris. While it has been shown that genetics is only partly responsible for behavior, it is also true, Harris asserts, that parents play a very minor role in mental and emotional development. The Nurture Assumption explores the mountain of evidence pointing away from parents and toward peer groups as the strongest environmental influence on personality development. Rather than leaping into the nature vs. nurture fray, Harris instead posits nurture (parental) vs. nurture (peer group), and in her view your kid’s friends win, hands down. This idea, difficult as it may be to accept, is supported by the countless studies Harris cites in her breezy, charming prose. She is upset about the blame laid on parents of troubled children and has much to say (mostly negative) about “professional parental advice-givers.” Her own advice may be summarized as “guide your child’s peer-group choices wisely,” but the aim of the book is less to offer guidance than to tear off cultural blinders. Harris’s ideas are so thought-provoking, challenging, and potentially controversial that anyone concerned with parenting issues will find The Nurture Assumption refreshing, important, and possibly life-changing.”

48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene

“When it comes to morality and ethics, people are used to thinking in terms of black and white. Conversely, “The 48 Laws of Power” deals primarily with the gray areas. At the risk of sounding melodramatic and trite, I say that most of the Laws covered in this book can be used for great evil or for great good. It depends on the reader. There is really nothing wrong with most of the Laws per se.
Each Law comes with true stories from history about those who successfully observed it and those who foolishly or naively trangressed it. Robert Greene has an interpretation for each story. Though each Law is self-explanatory, Greene’s explanations are not padding, fluff or stuffing to make the book longer. They actually give greater clarification and depth. Greene’s insight even extends to crucial warnings about how the Laws could backfire.

There are two reasons to read this book:

1. For attack: To gain power, as have others who have carefully observed the Laws;
2. For defense: To be aware of ways that people may be trying to manipulate you.

As Johann von Goethe said (as quoted in “The 48 Laws of Power”, of course): “The only means to gain one’s ends with people are force and cunning. Love also, they say, but that is to wait for sunshine, and life needs every moment.”

Those who say they have never used any of these laws are either being hypocritical–or lying.”

The 50th Law, by Robert Greene

“The 50th Law, a book like nothing you’ve ever read before. I first expected a continuation of Mr. Greene’s other books (48 LOP, TAOS); this is to say the least completely different. Fearlessness is the basic focus of The 50th Law. The book explains how fear can cripple most people from living their lives well and with power. It also gives examples of those who lived on the fringes of society, who applied themselves fearlessly to the mastery of their own particular goals in the midst of despairing circumstance. The book’s co-author 50 Cent, is one of Robert Greene’s most adept pupils who rose in fame, money and power in a few short years amidst many life-changing setbacks. What an inspiration for anyone who wants more than their current situation in life can give them right now. This book is for the hustler, he doesn’t think like everyone else because so many people are afraid to have his responsibilities and therefore don’t enjoy his rewards. That’s the book’s “audience”, the hustlers who make ways were none seem to be available and prosper because of it. This is why the hustler will always find a way to have power in this world. Read this book with an open mind, you may realize that fear is the only thing holding you back from what you truly want. It may be hard, gritty and abrasive yet this is the only book that will tell you the truth about how exactly one rises to power in this world; it’s not pretty and it’s fearless.”