books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: The Prophet

I am honestly starting to believe that Half Price Books is connected to some otherworldly dimension that sends books from the realm of forms into my physical reality when its time for me to read them.  The Prophet is the most recent example of this.  From what I can recall, I think I became aware of this book on an “ask me anything” Tim Ferriss podcast where he threw the reins to Naval Ravikant.  The episode posted on Jan 30, I am sure I listed a few days later, HBP did its interdimensional portal thing a few days later, reading and now this review.
There won’t be much too this particular review since this is one of those books that you just have to read to get.  Essentially its a short book of prose poetry written in an almost biblical style (think song of songs, not deuteronomy) on various topics that at one time or another are of interest to anyone thinking about the deeper meanings in life.  For example, here is the excerpt on freedom (the idea that seeking freedom can be its own shackle resonated with me deeply):

And an orator said, “Speak to us of Freedom.”

      And he answered:

      At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom,

      Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.

      Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.

      And my heart bled within me; for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfillment.

      You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,

      But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.

      And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?

      In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle the eyes.

      And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?

      If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead.

      You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.

      And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

      For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their won pride?

      And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you.

      And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.

      Verily all things move within your being in constant half embrace, the desired and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.

      These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.

      And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.

      And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.

And here is another one that I found interesting, although the ideas were not  new to me, about teaching:

Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.”

      And he said:

      No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.

      The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

      If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

      The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

      The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.

      And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

      For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

      And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

And so it goes for roughly 30 or so topics.  At less than 100 pages (and available free online) just go ahead and read it already.  There will be something in there that will help you out regardless of where you find yourself.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Mindfulness

I’m not sure when I first became aware of the concept of mindfulness (or present moment awareness, living in the “now”), but I think it had to be when I read this quote from C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters:

The humans live in time but our Enemy* destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants to them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present.  For the present is the point of time at which time touches eternityOf the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.  He would therefore have them…either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the pleasant pleasure.

Since then the idea has rattled around in my head until about a year ago I resolved to start meditating.  Everyone from Tim Ferris to Daniel Siegel to Sam Harris made a strong connection between mindfulness and meditation, so it seemed clear that if I wanted to be more mindful, if I wanted to grab ahold of that freedom that Screwtape wrote about to Wormwood, I had to start meditating.

My initial attempt lasted for about a week (two if I am being generous).  Despite my best intentions, and a few good guided meditation tracks, I just couldn’t make it stick.  I couldn’t make it a habit.  Then last year I heard about the subject of this quick review: Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  It’s co-authored by a clinical psychologist and a journalist, so no “woo-woo” (OK, a little woo-woo, but not to the point that it was distracting) and its very well written.

The book begins with an introduction to a few basic concepts.  There are two new (toe me) main ideas that I took away from the opening chapters: being vs. doing mind and the concept that effective meditation is not a mind devoid of thoughts.  The being vs, doing mind concept says that there are two modes of the mind: a doing mode which is all about accomplishing a task.  This is where our habits and rational mind exist.  And a being mode, which is all about taking things in as experience.  The authors argue that most of us spend far too much time in doing mode at the expense of being mode.  I found a strong correlation between these ideas and that of the Trivium.  Doing mode is equivalent to rhetoric, or output.  Being mode is equivalent to grammar, or input.  If we spend all of our time outputting, and not enough time inputting then over time the model we base what happens in between (logic) becomes corrupted; it becomes out of touch with the reality that is around us.  I want to get things done, but I see now that having my mind in doing mode all the time actually isn’t the most effective path.  Being mode allows you to recalibrate the model of the world I carry around in my mind, on which I base all my decisions, so that those decisions can be more effective when they are played out back in that world.

The concept of effective meditation not being a mind devoid of thoughts is a game changer for me.  I realized that I wasn’t bad at meditation simply because I couldn’t immediately drop into some sort of zen state – mind like water.  Rather, it’s called practicing because no one ever gets really good at it.  Each time my mind wanders is not a failure, but rather an opportunity to notice what has happened and direct my attention back to whatever I happen to be focusing on in this particular session.  It’s actually the noticing and the gentle redirection that IS the practice.  With this understanding in mind, my first few meditation sessions after reading the book where much more successful – I saw the effects of being able to notice when my mind had wandered or been distracted outside of the meditation, through the day and was able to catch myself and stay focused on whatever my intention was at the time.

The meditations I started after finishing Mindfulness are described in the core of the book, after the introduction.  The authors prescribe an 8 week course with specific guided meditations each week.  The goal is to complete the prescribed meditation for the week 6 out of 7 days, then move on to the next week.  Each prescription includes a single or in some cases a series of audio tracks to guide you.  What clicked here for me was not the audio tracks however, I had tried guided meditation before.  This attempt was different because I had a why.  The book explained the goal and the principle behind each meditation.  It wasn’t just a soothing voice telling me to focus on my breath.  I knew why I was doing it.  As odd as it may sound, what finally got my doing mind quiet enough to let my being mind step forward was a reason, a “why”.

I’m into week 6 of the 8 week course so far and I can already see results.  I do notice when I am getting distracted and can get myself back on track much more easily.  I do notice more of whats around me and what’s happening and am spending less time living “from the neck up” or “lost in thought.”  When I am in doing mode, it is a much more conscious decision and the results seem to be much more effective and directed.  Most of all, I my overall goal is starting to shift from happiness, to peace.  I can see clearly how I can be more at peace, how a “mind like water” can emerge as part of my daily life by spending some time focusing on how unlike water it can be during meditation.

As a complete novice, I can say with some level of confidence that I think everyone would benefit from meditation.  Just like starting to exercise or eat better, you just have to get past whatever hang-ups you have and stick to a plan long enough to see the differences that make it a habit.  Mindfulness got me past my hang-ups and gave me the plan.  If you think you are ready or need the benefits that living in the present, pick-up a copy and give it a try.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Man's search for meaning

The subject of this book review is yet another Half Price books find: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  Unlike a lot of the books on my recently read pile lately, this one didn’t come from the Tim Ferriss podcast, but rather a recomendation from Bill Buppert over at zerogov from Porcfest a few years ago.  Like most of the books I have picked up at HBP over the past few years, I took it as a sign that it was time for me to read it when I happened to see it there.  It was actually a “double” sign that I saw it all since it was in the psychology section (reasonable, but not somewhere I normally browse) and its really short so its really narrow so hard to spot.
Dr. Frankl was a holocaust survivor who later developed a system of treatment called logotherapy.  The second part of the book goes over the logotherapy system in laymans terms.  That was interesting, but the part that captivated me was the firs, which describe his experiences in the concentration camps.  Early in the opening section, Dr. Frankl echoes Nietzche when he writes:

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.

From there he goes on to outline the three basis “whys” people can adopt as their raison d’etre:

  • by creating a work or doing a deed;
  • by experiencing something or encountering someone;
  • by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The first two he discards as relatively self explanatory / well understood, focusing on the third.  Dr. Frankl makes a clear distinction that for this third “why” to work, the suffering has to truly be unnecessary, meaning we have done everything we can do to alleviate it and it is truly something we can not avoid.  This “why” doesn’t help you if you simply have a victim mentality.
The focus on unavoidable suffering and the attitude you take towards it reminds me of the little bits I understand about Buddhism and Stoicism.  For example, this quote would be at home in any of the Buddhist or Stoic texts I have read:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

What makes Man’s Search for Meaning different from any of the other books I have read are the combination of being written by someone that tested their philosophy through the most demanding conditions imagined and came out the other side even more convinced of its merit and the recency of the events he had to live through.  All of the other accounts of those that had their philosophies put to the test are centuries old or are written by people who mostly have first world problems by first century standards.
Dr. Frankl was able to find happiness in one of the most grim situations that I can imagine.  Because he knew that:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Sapiens

This is a gapper review.  I actually finished this book several months ago, forgot (or neglected) to do a quick review at the time, added it to my to do list where its been sitting there for the better part of 3 months.  Thankfully, I just finished another (audio) book (review forthcoming….soon….since this one has been jamming up all the other reviews for the five or six books I have finished since I realized I missed this one) which is helping me to see the folly in leaving things on my list that long, so this morning, I am going to hammer it out, despite my fear that it won’t be perfect…or even very good.
The subject of this review is Sapiens.  Sapiens is one of a long list of books I first heard about on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  It came up in rapid sequence on a few interviews as one of the books lots of folks in Silicon Valley were reading.  That alone didn’t really interest me; what got me was the basic premise: the author, Yuval Noah Harrari, attempted to look at the evolution of the human species from a detached, non-human lens, the same way a biologist might look at a newly discovered species of deep sea plankton.
This is a book of many, big ideas.  I can see why it has captivated the intellegensia of the valley.  It starts with the fundamentals, describing how physics begat chemistry which begat biology which begat history.  From there it goes on to try to answer the basic question: why have homo sapiens taken over the planet?  The basic answer seems to be that we evolved from a tribe of story telling monkeys.  It was our ability to tell each other stories that allowed us to shift gears, from depending on the slow mechanism of biological evolution, to the much faster mechanism of cultural evolution.  This seems related to (but stop far short of) to the narrative construction of reality concept put forward by Bruner.
From this basic premise, Professor Harrari, goes on to investigate some of the most important stories our particular band of story telling monkeys has come up with in the past 5,000 years.  I found his two chapters on money and religion (which interestingly are the bread in a sandwich around a chapter on imperialism) to be fascinating high level overviews of these two topics, with some interesting intersections.  Hararri intertwines says that money and religion are both stories we tell each other, but with one important difference:

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas a religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something

Its seems to me that Harrari would be more comfortable at a Starbuck’s full of occupy wallstreet folks than in the local chapter meeting of the Carnegie foundation, with insights like this in his chapter on capitalism:

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’ The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

That being said, I didn’t really see his politics get in the way, or alter his main insights, some of which can be gleaned from his “iron laws of history”, which he sprinkles through the book.  Some examples:

  • Luxuries become necessities which then span new obligations
  • Every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable
  • What looks inevitable from hindsight was far from obvious at the time.

Harrari has written an important, albeit ambitious book.  It seemed to me to loose some steam near the end, in its explorations of artificial intelligence and other potential “next chapters” in the history of the story telling monkey tribe know as homo sapiens.  That being said, overall it is a worthwhile read and may be one of the best books I have picked up in the last year.  It covers everything from history to philosophy, from science to economics.  I think you would be hard pressed to finish it and not come away with at least a few new ideas or perspectives.
While biology is clearly an important evolutionary force so things like GMO and life extending technologies deserve our attention, its much clearer to me after reading Sapiens that equally important are the stories we tell ourselves, both individually and as a group.  Terrence McKenna might have been on to something when he said:

The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Waking up to the dark

At last a book that made it into my to read pile from something other than a podcast (although I must admit that I think I at least heard of the research mentioned at the start of the book on a podcast at some point): Waking Up to the Dark – Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age by Clark Strand.  This book was the subject of a discussion group at my church last week, so I grabbed it and read it the week before so I could sit in on the discussion.  It’s rather hard for me to categorize this book, so I won’t.  It’s very clear Mr. Clark is a mystic, but I can’t really say of what type.  He’s a Catholic buddhist maybe?  Do those exist?
The book starts with a exploration of some sleep research conducted Ekirch and Wehr about sleep patterns when artifical light is taken away.  What they found was that after some time (a few days to a few weeks), all of the study participants fell into a similar pattern: lying still, falling asleep for a few hours, waking into a near meditative state, then falling back to sleep for a few more hours before dawn.  While this research has been called into question, Strand uses it as a launching point to make his case that light is the source of all that is wrong in the modern world.  Light, and one of its specific byproducts: an over abundance of consciousness.
When I first came to Strand’s thesis, I was a little suprised.  I knew from the Preface and a few of the stories he shared that he was deep into Buddhism and as such it seemed strange to me that he would claim that too much conciouness was a bad thing.  My impression is that Buddhism seeks enlightment in the form of a universal conciousness; a conciousness that is one with all.  However, what I think he really meant to get across was that too much rationality, or to much “doing mind” (as opposed to “being mind”) is the problem and the byproduct of artificial light.  I may be wrong, but if that was his point, it seems far less shocking to me.
But it does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: definitions.  Throughout the book I was never quite sure what Strand was talking about.  He takes a left turn midway through and starts relating his mystical encounters with the embodiement of the dark, a 17 year old auburn haired girl whom he has “visions” (not sure he would call them that) of repeatedly, eventually engaging in dialog.  I think he was trying to draw some analogy between how modern society has suppressed the feminine as an analogy to the suppression of the dark…but I could also have been missing the point entirely.
One point I did not miss, and is the source of my other criticism of the book, is the overt environmentalism.  There are several places where he leaves the spiritual realm and talks directly about how we are running out of oil and killing the planet.  It seemed strange to me that for most of the book he argues that there are forces at work which are larger than humanity and that, despite our best efforts, we will ultiamtely succumb to while at the same time arguing that humanity also has the capability to ruin everything.  Again, I might be missing the point, or making to much of a black and white distinction, but it would seem to me that we are either masters of the universe or just along for the ride.
Despite these two criticisms, I did enjoy the book and would reccomend it to anyone looking for something that comes from a fresh perspective.  I think Strand calls for a return to balance – between light and dark, between masucline and feminine, between doing and being.  That resonates with me.  In the end the lack of clear definitions make the book similar to long form poetry: each reader will interpret it in their own frame of reference, taking away their own meaning.  If you are looking for a quick read (less than 150 pages) that will get you thinking, Waking up to the Dark delivers.  Although what it delivers may be completely up to you.  Strand certainly looks at a number of things in a new….light 😉

books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: Influence

Influence made it onto my to read pile from listening to some now forgotten episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast.  It actually may have been a few episodes that I listened to in close proximity.  Each time it was referenced as one that “everyone” has read and since I hadn’t I added it to my Amazon wish list.
A few weeks later, I was on my way to a rather important meeting and had the urgent need to actually influence a few people.  With an 8+ hour flight ahead of me, I went out on a limb, purchased the paperback and spent an extra couple bucks to get the Kindle version so I could start right away (via Match Book – a very cool Amazon service I had just learned about a week or so prior).  Lucky I did since I had had to head to the airport a few hours before the UPS man showed up with the hard copy.
Kindle in tow, I read about half of it on the flight over and finished it on the way back.  That tells you the first thing you need to know about this book: it’s an easy read.  In a little less that 300 pages, Cialdini covers the 6 basic mechanisms that people can use to influence others:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Sacrcity

He dedicates a chapter to each and gives lots of good examples of how each works, some in pretty suprising ways.  For example, in the chapter about reciprocity he gives an example of a boy scout asking him to buy a $10 raffle ticket.  When Cialdini refuses, the scout “offers” to relent and only ask him to buy a $2 chocolate bar.  The scout has “given” hom something in the form of not pressuring him to buy the more expensive raffle ticket, so he feels internal pressure to reciprocate and buy the chocolate bar…even though he doesn’t like chocolate.  He ends each chapter with examples that have come in from readers of each mechanism at work – either by them or on them.
And really that tells you the second thing you need to know about this book: it’s mostly just a set of “tricks” to get people to do what you want.  I think its most useful for those who want to defend against these tricks more so than those that are looking for a scientific / psycholgical explanation of why they work.
Cialdini concludes with the basic premise that all of these mecahnisms work because they are natural shortcuts to decision making that have evolved over tens of thousands of years.  To Cialdini’s credit, he actaully closes with a screed against anyone who would use these shortcuts to deceive (i.e. as tricks):

The real treachery, and the thing we cannot tolerate, is any attempt to make their profit in away that threatens the reliability of our shortcuts.

If its true that “everyone” has read it, then you might as well too. (trying my social proof influence there ;-).  In all seriousness, it was worth the read, but its ending up on my shelf next to others of its ilk.  It’s a bit like Krav Maga is to a finer martial art like karate: quick and too the point with none of the theory.  Both have their place, but if you want to dig deeper and understand why people react the way they do to outside infleunces, you may want to look elsewhere.  In a more recent Tim Ferriss podcast I added something that might fit the bill to my wishlist.  If I have an urgent need to influence someone, you can read the review here.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Our Mathematical Universe

Not sure where to start with this one, so I guess I will start at the beginning.  First, a disclaimer: I am not afraid of reading above my weight class, and while I think I’ve bulked up a bit, there is still a ways I have to go before I will fully grasp all of Our Mathematical Universe.  Don’t let that scare you off though – even though I know there are ideas I didn’t fully grasp, as well as ideas that I didn’t even notice were present, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  Besides, you are probably a lot smarter than I am.

After reading, Our Mathematical Universe, I finally understand what Schrodinger’s Cat (thought) experiment was trying to demonstrate. (No, not this)

This book made its way onto my to read pile courtesy of the Sam Harris podcast (aside: I am still struggling to determine if I am a Sam Harris Fan or Hater.  I think I’m a bit of both).  The book’s author, Max Tegmark, is a physics professor from MIT.  Our Mathematical Universe is his attempt to make his ideas about the ultimate nature of reality accessible to the masses, in the tradition of those like Richard Feynman.  His basic idea is this: reality is math.  No, not that reality is described by math, but at it’s core actually IS math.  Unites, featureless.  Just quantity and relationship.
While that may seem like a pretty straightforward (if potentially hard to believe) claim, it has some pretty hard to grasp consequences, specifically that we exist within a four level multiverse.  I’m not going to cover all the details of the four different levels, but merely comment that level 1 was pretty easy for me to grasp.  Level 2 I think I almost understand.  Level 3 lost me.  And I think I get level 4 too – but I have doubts.
What fascinated me most about this book is the connections I found with topics ranging far beyond cosmology and particle physics.  If I worked at Half Price Books and Our Mathematical Universe was on my cart to be shelved, I could just as easily put it in the Philosophy section (or even Buddhism) section as the Physics section.  This is not to say that the book isn’t scientific.  As Dr. Tegmark points out, quite rightly, for a theory to be scientific, you don’t have to be able to test all of its predictions, only some of them.  Rather, the ideas he touches on sound similar to those I’ve been reading in those other areas.
Take for instance the ideas about the perception of time passing that comes in the chapter talking about the relationship between physical reality and mathematical reality:

Subjective perceptions of duration and change are qualia, basic instantaneous perceptions, just as reddened, blueness or sweetness.

Compare that to this quote from Zen Buddhist master Ch’an Master Hui-neng, writing in the 7th century:

In this moment there is nothing that comes to be. In this moment there is nothing that ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Thus the absolute peace in this present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein lies eternal delight.

Or the discussion of self concept:

I’m arguing that your perceptions of having a self, that subjective vantage point you call “I”, are qualia just as your subjective perceptions of “red” and “green” are.  In short, redness and self-awareness are both qualia.

Sounds like the same idea as Anatta to me.
I also found some interesting implications for my objectivist friends:

If you believe in an external reality independent of humans, then you must also believe that our physical reality is a mathematical structure (emphasis added)

Looks like the Randians need to study up on their math ;-).
There are a few other ideas that were new to me, but also struck me as deeply insightful in a philosophical sense.  For example in a discussion about the level 4 multiverse, Dr. Tegmark draws a few conclusions from the idea that we live inside a mathematical structure that seem profound (to me anyway).
First an interesting idea coming from a math and physics guy:

Infinity is a convenient assumption, but not part of reality.

He goes on to explain that infinity helps us solve a certain class of math problems, but just like Newton’s laws of motion are only useful on objects of a particular scale, the assumption that there is an infinity sub dividable space may just be a “convenient” stand in, for lots and lots of granular space that is too hard for us to measure and count.
Then a few ideas about “initial conditions” which come from some discussion about the permanence of mathematical structure and the concept of space time being fixed and unchanging:

Initial conditions aren’t about our physical reality, but about our place in it.


Although we though all this information (referring to initial conditions) was about our physical reality, it was about us.

and finally:

Apparent arbitrary initial conditions are caused by multiple universes, apparent randomness is caused by multiple you’s.

Ponderous, man, really ponderous.  Seriously, I’m not sure what to take from these specific ideas, but they strike me as being really important to understanding my place in the universe and perhaps provide an alternative perspective to the things that happen to me in daily life.  More meditation and processing is required.
The last idea that jumped out comes later in the chapter on the level 4 multiverse.  He writes that there are 3 basic mathematical concepts with well defined relationships: formal systems, computations and mathematical structures.  He goes on to wonder if there is something even more fundamental at the base of these three ideas that we have yet to discover.  For whatever reason, this made me wonder if that is something we can actually understand?
Let me explain.  In Sapiens (which it just occurred to me that I never did a review of here….thought I was caught up after this one…sigh…), Harari argues that the thing that makes humans unique/powerful when compared to all other animal species is our storytelling ability: our ability to create myth, fiction, and story and to communicate it to others.  Some have taken this further and claimed that our internal reality is only understood in the context of narrative.  No, this isn’t “tell a story and it’s true”, but rather the idea that the only way our brains can actually comprehend anything is through story.  If this is the case, then I wonder the core beneath formal systems, computations and mathematical structure is so abstract, so absent narrative, that humans are unable to understand it?  This seems similar to the idea of the Tao: if you can talk about it, it’s no longer the Tao ;-).
In the end, I am really glad I heard about this book, bought it and read it.  While I’m sure there is knowledge I am leaving behind in its pages, it has opened up and connected some ideas for me that were previously disorganized.  If you feel like stretching a bit, or are more of a Physics and Math Zen Master, then I highly recommend it.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Ann Arbor, MI for a week for business.  I drove up late on a Sunday for an all day people performance review meeting on Monday that was a precursor to a larger meeting for the middle of the week and then a team meeting at the end.  Hopefully that week met my meeting quota for a while.

After the first day of meetings, the group I was with setup a dinner a mile or so away from the hotel we were staying in at Zingerman’s Roadhouse.  It was a very nice meal (I had some ribs that were quite good), but I didn’t think much of it otherwise.  On the short drive home, I happened to see a “Zingerman’s coffee” sign on the grocery store across from our hotel.  Hmm?  Next morning, I boarded the bus to the farm where we were having our large team meeting and as we pulled up the sign read “Zingerman’s Cornman Farms”.  Who is this Zingerman?  Why does he seem to own half of Ann arbor?  And does he have a famous pig?
I never discovered the answers to any of those questions, but I did learn quite a bit about the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses over the next few days.  (As near as I can tell Zingerman’s is name the original founders made up, but I am sure there is a better story than that…).  I learned that Zingerman’s grows its own organic vegetables for its restaurants on its farm. I learned that Zingerman’s makes its own cheese and butter at Zingerman’s creamery.  I learned that Zingerman’s got its start as a Deli (that is still there today) in the 80s in downtown Ann Arbor.  And I learned that one of the founders wrote a few interesting books.
Ari Weinzweig came to speak to our group on the morning of the last day.  When he introduced himself as a lapsed anarchist and went into a quick spiel on how he spent lots of time reading early 20th century anarchist literature when he was in college and how it he sees it clearly applying to how business should be run, I was hooked.  Although I normally am not one to introduce myself to strangers, I felt compelled to introduce myself to Ari.  We talked for 10 minutes or so and I walked away with copies of his first three business books (he has more in the works).
The first in the series is called a Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business.  The feel of the book is best described as a cross between Murray Rothbard and Tom Peters.  Its all the energy of the best modern, progressive management books but comes from a perspective of free will and individual choice being the best only way to really get things done.  The main part of the book is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the “12 Natural Laws of Building a Great Business” (these should come as laminated cards that ever leader can stick on their monitor) to the need for systems (which he admits as an anarchist, lapsed or not, was difficult for him to accept).
For me the most impactful essays focused on vision.  The “vision” term gets thrown around a lot mostly by corporate PR hacks and high priced consultants.  Ari’s description of a vision as simply a story that describes what life will be like for you, your team and your customers when you get to where you are going at some reasonably distant, but not too far, point in the future, in my opinion, is far more useful than the corporate speak laden visions that adorn so many plaques.  Words on a plaque never made anyone do anything great.  A shared story of where you are headed though – that can be inspiring.
In the epilogue, Ari writes:

Sometimes I think of my life as being bookmarked: not so much in the usual sense of marking pages with pieces of paper, but in the sense that so many of my ideas are bracketed by somewhat random reading selections that happen to coincide with what is going on with (and around) me at the time I crack open the covers.  Books often pop up for me at fortuitous times.

This happens to me too all the time as well.  I read pretty widely and have a huge to read pile and a Amazon wish list in the thousands.  Despite all these variables, it does seem to be more times than not that I end up cracking the covers on something helpful for whatever I’m facing at the time.  That has certainly been the case in reading a Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business and I’m sure it will be true for the other two I added to my to read pile (once I get through the other 4..or 5…or is it 6? other books I am in the middle of…promised myself not to start anything new until I finish at least half of them).
For anyone looking for a good business book from a practitioner and a true believer I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  For anyone looking for all that AND a viewpoint consistent with free choice and individual empowerment, I guess I have to find a way to recommend it just a little higher.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Alexander The Great

A quick review of the most recent casualty out of my “to read” pile: Alexander the Great by Lewis V. Cummings.  Short for two reasons: I have to head to the airport in less than an hour (to fly to Germany for 12 hours to present 5 slides to 4 guys to get one question answered…but that’s another story) and because I’m not sure I am taking away any grand themes from this read.
This was added to my read pile a few months back on a monthly trip to Half Price Books.  Unlike most of my other acquisitions there, this title was not on a wish list.  Rather, I have been interested in reading more about Alexander, specifically after having read Persian Fire earlier this year.  I almost looked at it like a sequel ;-).  What I didn’t know when I picked this one up is that it was originally written in the 40s and as a testament to how dumb we (or at least I) have become I found the phrasing a bit difficult to get to.  The challenging phrasing was compounded by all the unfamiliar Greek and Persian place and people names (sometimes I wasn’t sure whether it was one or the other) and a relative scarcity of maps to correlate the advances I was reading about.  Overall this was a rather difficult book for me to get through.  But it was worth doing.
A few ideas that stuck out to me about Alexander and his conquest:

  • It’s amazing how far he went in such a short time.  Persia, Egypt, India and nearly beyond.  Immediately before his death he was preparing for an invasion of Arabia.  I can only imagine how different he modern world would be if he had lived for another decade or two.
  • He was most certainly a psychopath.  Or at least extremely disturbed.  How could you not be with the sort of childhood he had (Aristotle’s tutoring being perhaps the one exception…although he later causes Aristotle of being a sophist, so maybe even that didn’t “take”).
  • Maps are a relative thing.  The cities described in the book don’t exist anymore or have been through several name changes.  The borders don’t exist at all.
  • I’m calling out my own stupidity here, but I will admit that I didn;t realize that he wasn’t Greek.  He was Macedonian.  And calling him a Greek would be like calling someone from the deep south a yankee.
  • He was always very concerned about protecting his flanks and rear.  To accomplish this he would often leave the king of the city he conquered (either through arms or surrender) in charge with the help of a few of his own “military advisors”.  This shows that it wasn’t personal (he didn’t hate the kings) put purely about power.  In some cases he also took hostages from the conquered kings kinsmen with him if he though the king might not follow the advice of his “advisors”.  This struck me as strangely similar to some of the “dotted line” reporting structures in some modern corporations…
  • A note about the book rather than Alexander: this book made me realize (again) how hard it is to really know what happened in history.  Cummings uses extensive footnotes, and half of them point out where the primary sources disagree.  I can’t imagine trying to comb through Plutarch, Arrian, etc and try to figure out who is right.
  • For all his accomplishments, and despite his nearly constant attempts to be worshipped as a god, he was still mortal and was likely killed (according to Cummings) by malaria.  We all live in the same reality.

Favorite anecdote from the book (near the end): he was sailing down the Euphrates and his hat blew off.  One of the crew dove in after it and, afraid that the water would damage it, put it on his head.  Alexander rewarded him with a silver talent for saving his hat and then ordered him to be immediately executed for daring to place the royal symbol on his head.
Favorite quote from the book (beside the speech he gave to the Macedonians at the end which is a direct quote from Plutarch):

He (referring to Alexander) had, consciously or unconsciously, reached the conclusion that every tyrant before and since has at last had to learn, that no man ever ruled any body of people without there consent; that the instant they ceased to give that consent, whether passive or active, that instant they were his masters, and continued to be his masters as long as they could act in unison.

Off to the airport now with a copy of Our Mathematical Universe.  The pattern seems to be history – science – philosophy.  This one should check off two of those categories so it will be back to history when I land.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: The End of Faith

I’ve been stuck on this review for a while, but we are leaving tomorrow for a mini vacation to New Hampshire, so I decided to just get down what’s in my head and check it off the list.  It’s not going to get any better with time – at least for now.  One the plus side I am actually completing this review before I have completed the book I picked up after i (Sapiens…although I do only have 17 pages left, which I intend to get through as soon as I hit publish on this post ;-)).  And I did actually read another book after it which I am not going to do a review of since it was for fun.  I am getting closer to getting these done as I finish the books and before I start the next one.  But still not quite there.  Maybe they’re better with a little time?  I heard somewhere that the real reading happens when the eyes are off the page anyway,
The subject of this review is End of Faith by Sam Harris.  I first heard of Sam Harris on an interview he did on the Joe Rogan podcast.  I put him in the same mental bucket as I had Daniel Siegel in: scientists who have a thing or two to say about the reality behind mindfulness and meditation.  Mr. Harris (had to look up whether it was Dr…couldn’t find anything that said so in a quick search, so my apologies if I missed it) certainly does have some interesting things to say about those topics, but he has a lot more to say about a few other topics.   After subscribing to his (fairly recent) podcast and listening / watching a few of his youtube videos, I discovered that Mr. Harris is considered to be one of the leading voices of the modern atheist movement.  While not an atheist myself, I must admit I was captivated by someone who had such interesting things to say about the mind, present moment awareness and even spirituality, yet was also an atheist.
So it was that when on a trip to Half Price Books that I saw End of Faith in the Philosophy section, I had to buy it.  I was done in about 10 days, but that was more than 3 weeks ago.  I’m still not quite sure what I think about what he had to say in this book.  I picked it up with the idea (he would say intention) that I would disagree with most of what he had to say.  And there are some wide disagreements.  But there is also a lot that he has to say that I can’t find any holes in.
That being said, I’m still not sure that it was a book that I enjoyed.  I am not the most well read person with the largest vocabulary.  But I would consider myself in the top 25% or so.  Inflated self image or not, I found it a struggle to decrypt some of his sentences.  The phrasing and vocabulary was so complex, verging on obtuse, that I wasn’t quite sure what he meant sometimes.  This is more likely a commentary on my own mental abilities rather than his, but it did get in the way of my complete understanding of what he was trying to say.
One of the most surprising outcomes from reading The End of Faith is the amount of sympathy I developed for Mr. Harris.  I can imagine that he must find it difficult to fit in with most mainstream labels (left/right, conservative/liberal) based on his viewpoints on things like religion, immigration, the role of the state and even gun control.  I may be projecting, but I have some of the same issues – having to pick and choose what topics are OK and which are out of bounds depending on who I am talking to.  I am even more sensitive to this after reading Haidt’s book.
He covers a variety of different topics in the book, but one that has gained it (and perhaps him) the most notoriety is the screed against Islam.  I agree with one of his main points here: the intersection of relatively easily available planet destroying weapons and a faith that is OK with destroying the planet (at least a portion of it…the faith…not the planet) is unprecedented and calls us to do more than live and let live when it comes to matters of belief.  After that we part ways on the topic of Islam.
One point he tries to make a few times is that Islam today is just like Christianity was in the 14th century.  However, for some unstated reason, he claims that Islam will not be able to go through a similar moderation / transformation as Christianity.  It could be that he believes that some radical Islamist will prove that Sagan’s idea about Fermi paradox was right, but I didn’t see this plainly presented.
Even more egregious is his overwhelming….faith….in the the state.  For a man that claims to be an atheist, he seems to exhibit many of the behaviors of a state worshiper.  His solution to the Islamist problem seems to be to bomb them out of existence.  This flys counter to his self described rationalism since that’s exactly what we have been doing in the past few decades and to what effect?  ISIS is far worse in simple terms of human suffering than Saddam’s Royal Guard ever was.  My understanding of the rationalist approach is to take in real data now and again to update your rational model of the way the world should work, but perhaps that is reserved to the empiricist subset of the rationalists?  Mr. Harris goes so far as to not only call for increased violence to end the threat of future violence, but also denies that past violence has done anything to escalate the present violence.  It boggles the mind.  My mind anyway.
If not by violence, what will “save” us from the threat represented (in Mr. Harris’ mind anyway) by Islam?  It has to be the through better ideas.  If Islam is to moderate and follow the same path that 14th century Christianity did, it has to be through the marketplace of ideas.  This will not be a fast or an easy process, but its the only one that will work.
One claim that I have heard Mr. Harris make in a few different venues is that intentions matter.  I agree with this whole heartedly.  Setting an intention and making it real matters.  But the results of your intentions matter as much if not more.  This isn’t to say that you can’t make mistakes when trying to make your intentions real in the world.  Making mistakes is part of learning.  Making the same mistakes over and over again is incompetence or malice.  Perhaps he’s never heard that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  On second thought, he probably has…he just doesn’t think there is such a place.