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A Better World by Marcus Sakey

sakey-a better worldMarcus Sakey’s second book in his Brilliance saga, A Better World, picks up a few months after the first. In the world Sakey has created, about 1% of people are born with extraordinary gifts, not X-Men type gifts, but enhanced perception or the ability to read body language to an amped up level, that allow them to do things a regular person cannot do. What would happen in such a world? Would the government try to control these special individuals? Would they ultimately rise up and fight back? In Sakey’s world, they do indeed.

Nick Cooper is one of these so-called brilliants, though he has worked for the government eliminating dangerous brilliants. He is doing what he thinks for God and country, but it puts him on the other side of the rest of the brilliants. In A Better World, we see the ramifications of Nick’s actions in the previous book, Brilliant. Without giving too much away, Nick is still in the center of the action, trying to save a world that doesn’t necessarily seem to want to be saved, on either side.

As opposed to the previous book, this one ends in a cliff hanger. There isn’t any easy resolution and the book ends with one hell of a bang, literally. The third book will be picking up right after the end of this book, so there is a bit of a cliffhanger, but the action is so intense and the world that Sakey has created so vibrant, with odd characters all around, that it is worth the wait.

Another glorious romp in a unique world. I understand that these books have been optioned for a movie, so in some form you will get acquainted with this world.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThere aren’t many books I read that I would recommend that everyone read. But Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow would be one.

We all want to think we are rational agents, that we actively deliberate when we make a decision, that we think about the things we hear with a critical mind. In fact, much of so-called “classical” economics is built on just such an assumption of rational people. Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning economist known for his pioneering work on behavioral economics, demonstrates with example after example that we are far from such rational beings.

Even worse, our brains essentially trick us into thinking we are rational. The decisions we make, the way we process information we see and hear, and our reactions to the world are all influenced much more than we realize by our subconscious mind. In fact, many decisions are made at the subconscious level and, only after the fact, does our conscious mind make up reasons for those decisions. That is, we create our own narratives that make our thinking self-consistent, that make our world view and our internal world make sense.

Kahneman has lead or been part of numerous studies that demonstrate how our brains process information and how we reach decisions and he describes some truly eye-opening and mind-opening examples. I won’t go into any of them here, for fear of getting them wrong, but needless to say they make one question exactly how rational and how in control of our own minds we really are. Do our thoughts and beliefs come from well-thought out origins, or are they the reaction of some deep part of our minds that we aren’t even aware of? How much do we really know ourselves?

Lest one think that these are esoteric questions, Kahneman’s examples are real-world, showing how these kinds of subconscious mental processes influence pretty much every decision we make. He includes examples of how judges make decisions, how military training is conducted, and how we do simple things like how we interpret the world around us.

The book is dense with a lot of concepts that Kahneman tries to dumb down for the average reader, but even so, some of these ideas take a few readings to absorb. I’ve only gone through the book once, but I certainly intend to revisit this book, probably multiple times.

I would highly recommend this book to any and everyone. I think that it is with this kind of insight that we can build better economic and political systems that aren’t based on fallacious assumptions about the nature of human behavior. Once we all recognize how we really do think, we can maybe make an active choice to try to, in the end, be a bit more rational.

 

Old Favorites through New Ears: The case of Black Happy

black-happy-pegheadBlack Happy was a band from northern Idaho, with some popularity in the early 1990s. Especially in northern Idaho, Moscow and the area more specifically. I must have drove my roommates in college completely insane with how much I listened to their CD Peghead. I listened to that thing over and over. When Black Happy broke up, I attended one of their last concerts, in Spokane I think (though it may have been Seattle after I moved there for grad school). They were even better live (not too many bands that can claim that), with people slam dancing pretty much the entire night. I went with a buddy who was significantly bigger (taller, stronger) than most and he got into the slam dancing. Maybe a little too much.

For me, the thing that made Black Happy distinct and special was the fast paced music, the fast lyrics, and the killer horn section that accompanied the more traditional guitar, bass, and drums.

I listened and listened to that CD, but never really listened to the lyrics. I recently pulled my CD out and gave it another “spin”, and listened a bit more carefully. Black Happy grew out of another band that was Christian metal. Not that I really knew that back when I was listening to Peghead so much. And maybe back then, in my college days, I really wouldn’t have cared.

I was more religious myself back then. I went to church regularly and even joined a Bible study group. However, with time, I just realized that, for me, religion held no answers. The answers I sought, to the big questions of the universe, always ended with “God” in religion, and that wasn’t satisfying. So, I moved on.

Today, I am a pretty liberal guy who isn’t at all religious. So, when I listen to the lyrics of songs like Bullmonkey, with their obvious religious and conservative undertones, my first reaction is negative. For example, Bullmonkey goes:

You think we’re livin’ in ’84
When you don’t know it’s sad and what’s more
Big Brother’s coming not blind or deaf
Didn’t you know he’s coming from the left

Clearly, they had some issues with liberal politics.

That said, when all is said and done, I can simply recognize the fact that these are some damn fine musicians, who played with more energy and passion than anyone in the top 40. Do I disagree with their politics, their world-view? Sure. But I can also just enjoy listening to some great music. Besides, I have more than enough songs in my playlist which represent the other side of the divide.

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

thiswillmakeyousmarterEach year, John Brockman and Edge.org ask a group of renowned scientists and thinkers a thought provoking question to stimulate discussion about important topics. In 2011, he asked “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Something like 150 people contributed short essays with their answer to the question. They range from profound to rather silly (at least, in my opinion). But they all provide new ways of thinking about the world around us.

For example, P. Z. Meyrs discusses the “mediocrity principle”. Simply put, it means that you, or me, or any of us, aren’t special. We aren’t the center of the universe. Things don’t happen to us for a reason. The universe isn’t out there to either help us or hurt us. It just is, and we are just a part of it. Sean Carroll follows up on this, by stating “Humans… like to insist that there are reasons why things happen… [that things] must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan” but, in the end, there is no such plan. In a twist to this idea, Samuel Barondes points out that, while each of us is ordinary, we are also each one of a kind.

Jonah Lehrer discusses research on willpower with an example of 4-year-old kids. These kids were sat down in a tiny room and presented with treats. They could either eat one now, or if they could way for a few minutes alone in the room, they could have two treats when the time was up. Some kids waited and some did not. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of kids having more or less willpower, but the kids who could wait for the two treats were better able to distract themselves, focusing on something else rather than the treats. The most important result: the kids who could wait, who could distract themselves from the most immediate reward, scored 210 points (on average) on SAT tests in high school compared to those who didn’t last 30 seconds before grabbing a treat. As Lehrer states, “these correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention.” If we can learn to focus on things other than the immediate reward, we can improve our overall lot in life.

Another theme that is explored by multiple authors is the human brain’s inability to really assess risk. We inordinately fear things that have an extremely low probability of happening while we don’t give a second thought to things that actually are relatively likely. Garrett Lisi summarizes this paradox nicely: “The startling implication is that the risk of being bitten and killed by a spider is less than the risk that being afraid of spiders will kill you because of the increased stress.” That is, the stress of being afraid of spiders is more deadly than the spiders themselves.

One last example is by Jason Zweig. I like it because, in an ideal world, I would try to implement this in my own life. He focuses on serendipity, and how to nurture the creative process that lead to those Eureka! moments. In particular, he says that research shows that serendipity is a consequence of abrupt shifts in the focus of our brain activity. It is when the brain completely shifts gears. To facilitate this, he personally tries to read one scientific paper each week that is not in his field and to read it in a completely different place. The idea is to break his routine, to force his brain into new circumstances, with the goal of promoting shifts in the focus of the brain. I like the idea; I just need to find some time to do it.

There are a lot of other essays that are very interesting, going into various aspects of the scientific method, or principles from economics, or the role of randomness in our lives. Like the other books in this series, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to provide food for thought about how both our brains and the universe they find themselves in work.

 

 

 

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

9781611099690_custom-9ba9bdb4ab35cd10ff6b1ac6d3ca5b74c98bf343-s6-c30The conceit of stories like the X-Men is that there are people who are born that are different than the rest of us, and that difference makes them both special as well as a potential threat. In the case of the X-Men, they have extraordinary powers — shooting eye beams, controlling the weather, walking through walls, turning into metal — that give them enormous advantages over the rest of humanity. In some ways, that is the same conceit of Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance, though here it is treated in a much more subtle and realistic manner.

Imagine a world where, instead of being born with the ability to fly, the special people do have extraordinary talents, but they are essentially ampped up versions of things all of us can do. Recognize body language, but so well that you can anticipate the actions of others. See patterns in the movement of people that you can walk through crowds of people without being noticed. Or identify patterns in computer code such that you can make the computer do whatever you want. People like this would be viewed as both an asset and a threat. Or both at the same time. At some point, it would be inevitable that the government becomes involved in the lives of these people. And some of them would rebel. That is the basic premise of Brilliance.

Some of these people, so-called brilliants, in an effort to make sure their lives are peaceful, have decided to work on the side of the devil, so to speak, working for the government to keep other brilliants in check. And keeping them in check means some heavy handed involvement by the government, including taking potentially brilliant children to special schools. One of these agents, Cooper, is on the trail of a brilliant terrorist. But, as he discovers, reality is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than his black and white view of the world.

My understanding is that this is the first in a series of novels developing and exploring this world of brilliant people. If the first one is any indicator, we are in for a dramatic ride that touches on themes such as individual freedom and responsibility, the role of government, and how we treat people who are different than ourselves.