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:
- Lives of A Cell, Lewis Thomas
- The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
- The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb
- The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
- The User Illusion, Tor Norretranders
- The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
- The Evolution of Co-operation, Robert Axelrod
- The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris
- 48 Laws Of Power, Robert Greene
- 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.”