Sunday, August 31, 2008

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins

A delightful book: intelligent, amusing, quirky, mystical but scientific, wisely observational, historical, vaginal, zany, self-referential and relaxing. I agreed with many of the themes and perspectives presented, but others were too mystical and some arguments too specious. Additionally, some of the core messages contradict one another; Robbins does not appear have a problem with that, but I seem to). I was impressed by his knowledge of history, evolution and neuroscience, although I may disagree a little regarding the implications of the findings he states. A personal highlight was the wonderfully clever conversation/debate between the Brain and the Thumb.

The book shines in the later chapters, but as the whole work made me think and caused me to laugh out loud a couple times, I recommend it.

Some excerpts I liked:

Describing a small town in which the men knew “more about the carburetor than they knew about the clitoris.”

“They were discussing the international situation, which was desperate, as usual.”

“I set an example. That’s all anyone can do.”

“Authority is to be ridiculed, outwitted and avoided. And it’s fairly easy to do all three. If you believe in peace, act peacefully; if you believe in love, act lovingly…”

“I believe in everything; nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing; everything is sacred.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A decent summary

"Bush's foreign policy has been catastrophic, from the eternal war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the horrors of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, illegal renditions, the unilateral reinterpretation of the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, the abrogation of international arms control treaties and Kyoto, to the malign neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, neo-con fantasies about empire, and the triple deficits – trade, current account and budgetary."
- Heinbecker, The Toronto Star, here

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

A truly great book. Haidt intelligently presents myriad findings of social psychological research by focusing on the degree to which they support ten ideas that seem to reoccur in great texts of history (i.e., divided self, reciprocity, love and attachments, the pursuit of happiness…). The result is a highly readable and accessible reservoir of knowledge that has practical applicability to one’s existence.
Happiness = Set point (genetics) + Conditions + Voluntary actions

Everyone should read this book.*

*Those will a psych background will likely find it to be a review, but a good review nonetheless.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Two links:

(plus a important and cogent Singer piece)

Primates and Philosophers by de Waal et al.

This interesting work about morality, evolution and similarities between human and nonhuman primates consists of a lead essay by leading primatologist Frans de Waal, four commentary essays and then his response.

I liked the work because of the different perspectives and that it addressed the topics of anthropomorphization, animal rights, what can be considered a moral action and who is capable of moral action. Above all though, the emphasis on notion that human morality elaborates upon pre-existing tendencies was the most useful (not because it was new, but because reminders are useful).

I disliked that the initial essay, and some subsequent commentaries, were vague in parts. Perhaps this just reflects the current state of the topic, where there is little consensus (as if there every actually is) and so people are still arguing over the framing as well as the points.
I also thought Singer’s commentary was one of the clearest and some of his points were not sufficient addressed by de Waal.

I don’t know if there were space constraints due to a publisher’s wishes, but I thought the whole work could have been longer (there could have been another commentary or two and de Waal could have addressed more points in his response).

A decent work, but not a must read unless you’re interested in the topic.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner

Risk is an important work given the current climate of misdirected fear. It is a thoughtful analysis of decision-science research mixed with important knowledge of our evolutionary heritage. Gardner consistent attacks our preconceived notions of what we fear and provides tenable explanations as to why it is so.

I’ve read popular books on stats (Struck by Lightning, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper) and other works about psychology (Stumbling On Happiness, Blink) and encountered some decision science literature before, but Risk does a wonderful job of bringing it all together.

One of the best lines was that the media "report the rare routinely and the routine rarely."
This makes one think about what 'news' is, as it has to be 'new.' I think much of the news encourages misunderstandings of the world by confusing people about how often things happen (base-rate neglect).

I HIGHLY recommend this book.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

A detailed and prescient examination of American media and the ways in which the telegraph and television have not only changed what type of information we consume, but its presentation. As entertainment has become the paramount factor, important content and discourse dissipates in the world of televised ‘news.’

His brilliant investigation suffers in that he did not discuss evolutionary theory and our biological tendencies to act in a certain way, and that I would need more data to be convinced by his claims regarding the literacy of early America.

The book, released in 1985, is well-written and makes intelligent and interesting points on almost every page. After reading such insightful and sustained argument, it is hard not to agree with his overall message that Huxley’s (Brave New World) concern supersedes Orwell’s (1984).

To further elucidate, I’ll provided an edited version of the brief Forward:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Go read this book.

Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

A truly impressive book by one of the most remarkable thinkers of our time (and still useful despite being 17 years old). Anyone interested in learning more about who we are, why we do what we do and what consciousness might be, should read this book.
If you agree with and then can, even minimally, internalize his theory, this book might just change your life.
I like Dennett’s style, his approach and his interesting tangents, so it is unsurprising that I enjoyed Consciousness Explained. Yet, Dennett should have provided more detail regarding the supposed experience of ‘experience’ and could have reduced potential ambiguity in several places (i.e., how necessary is language for consciousness?)
Acknowledging that providing a brief summary of a 400+ page argument will be inherently flawed, I still thought it would be useful to at least attempt a short description of the content of this great book (logic is in brackets).
1. A theory of consciousness must be materialistic (dualism brings more questions than answers: how does something non-physical affect something physical and vice-versa)
2. A materialistic theory of consciousness is possible (it might actually be inherently flawed, but if we don’t try we won’t get anywhere)
3. As a first-person, subjective account has limited information and is easily biased, the approach must be to use third-person, objective analysis, while including first person reports as data (we all make mistakes and we don’t know everything about the universe nor about ourselves, therefore we should use more objective measures).
4. The feeling of a central ‘you’ is an illusion (basically, if you open up the brain, there is no one home. There is no ‘central processing unit’ nor one place where all activity converges, therefore…
5. You/consciousness is distributed in space and time (if there is no centre, then it is spread out over the brain, and therefore it is the activation of different brain parts at different places and times that give rise to your consciousness).
6. If there is no centre, there is no finish line or boundary to consciousness (if consciousness is the result of multiple brain parts/processes working together, then it makes little sense to ask “when were you conscious.”)
7. It is mainly our linguistic abilities that lead to the creation of consciousness, with ideas and words creating structures that further respond to ideas and words (but full language may not be a necessary condition – there are likely levels of consciousness. Also, although it may seem so, we probably do not frequently think in words).
8. Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all. If your model of how pain is a product of brain activity still has a box in it labeled “pain,” you haven’t yet begun to explain what pain is…’ (Your notion of what you are, think and feel may not be quite what you thought it was.
All of these points have some startling implications for the things we (seem) to think about and care about most. As for what ‘you’ are, Dennett would say that the Self is the Centre of Narrative Gravity (as real as the physicist’s concept of a centre of gravity). Here is the (likely unsatisfying statement) in Dennett’s own words, speaking as the author in the book:
“There is still one puzzle however. How do I get to know about all this? How come I can tell you all about was going on in my head? The answer to the puzzle is simple: Because that is what is what I am. Because a knower and reporter of such things thins in such terms is what is me. My existence is explained by the fact that there are these capacities in this body.”
(p. 410)
Obviously, you’ll have to read the book to get more out of this important work, but I’ll end on a summary of Dennett’s theory again using his own words:
In Thumbnail Sketch, here is my theory so far:
There is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where “it all comes together” for the perusal of a Central Meaner. Instead of such a single stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of “narrative” play short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity of a virtual machine in the brain. The seriality of this machine (its “von Neumannesque” character) is not a “hard-wired” design feature, but rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists.
The basic specialists are part of our animal heritage. They were not developed to perform peculiarly human actions, such as reading and writing, but ducking, predator-avoiding, face-recognizing, grasping, throwing, berry-picking, and other essential tasks. They are often opportunistically enlisted in new roles, for which their native talents more or less suit them. The result is not bedlam only because the trends that are imposed on all this activity are themselves the product of design. Some of this design is innate, and is shared with other animals. But it is augmented, and sometimes even overwhelmed in importance, by microhabits of thought that are developed in the individual, partly idiosyncratic results of self-exploration and partly the predesigned gifts of culture. Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless “images” and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.
(p. 253-254)
(Finally, here is an interview with Dennett by Susan Blackmore on the issue of consciousness.)

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

An interesting overview of the history of ‘progress’ (mainly technology) and how we have gotten ourselves into certain 'progress traps' that our entire socio-economic structure depends upon. I liked it, but would have preferred he elaborate more on his notion of ‘progress traps.’ Additionally, having read Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel and Collapse, there wasn’t much new here.