The Sun and the Moon, by Matthew Goodman, was a random pickup, something that I grabbed at the used bookstore because I had credit I wanted to use but, to be honest, while the book’s taglines intrigued me, I had some serious doubts that I would enjoy it. If I’d had to pay full price, I very likely wouldn’t have.
However, The Sun and the Moon is one of those pleasant surprises, one of those hidden gems that delight. It does drag on a bit, with seemingly longer than necessary descriptions of life in New York in the early 1800s. However, as I went along, I began to appreciate them more and more as pictures of a distant time that gave me a better feeling for the New York and United States that Goodman is exploring.
The context of the book is one in which a newspaper, in an attempt to build circulation, publishes a hoax about, of all things, the discovery of life on the moon. One of the most astonishing things about this story is that in the 1800s, such a notion was not so odd that people were all that skeptical. In fact, even educated people believed that bat-men lived on the moon. The hoax, clothed in the language of the science of the day, provided a convincing enough picture that people fell for it, hook, line and sinker. In retrospect, the hoax may be considered one of the first pieces of science fiction.
A very interesting side story is that of Edgar Allen Poe, an up and coming poet who was also very interested in both science fiction and hoaxes more generally and who begrudged Richard Locke, the author of the so-called “moon hoax,” for the notoriety he gained that Poe could not. The narrative weaves between Locke, Poe, and the new penny newspaper that, as a consequence of the moon hoax, became the most read paper in the world. PT Barnum also plays a role, perpetuating hoaxes of his own (including a 160-year-old former slave who was purported to be George Washington’s nurse-maid).
In the background of all of this is the life of the average New Yorkers who live in this very vibrant era. And it is that backdrop that proves the most interesting of all of this story. How New Yorkers responded to these sensational “news” stories and the men who told these stories is fascinating. If one can get by the some times flowery descriptions, one is in for a very interesting look into how our fellow countrymen viewed themselves and the world almost 200 years ago.
At that time, the “plurality of worlds doctrine” — that life on other planets was not only possible, but was almost a certainty given God’s vastness — was a common belief (though one stubbornly resisted by the Catholic Church). Charismatic theologians promulgated this belief as an obvious consequence of the greatness of God. The people at the time were thus naturally predisposed to believe in life on other worlds. This tendency to believe in the plurality of worlds was a direct consequence of the strong Christian faith of the country. Goodman quotes De Tocqueville, who remarked at the time that the United States was “where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.” It is amazing the degree to which such beliefs have completely changed since then while the basic makeup of the country has remained relatively similar.
One side note regarding Poe was interesting. Poe had a custom to attach literary rivals and others with whom he disagreed. In one such exchange, Poe remarked of a rival: Clark is “noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing.” I’ve got to find a way to use that sometime.
Overall, while not of much importance for 21st century citizens, this book offers a tale of human nature and human endeavor that is truly fascinating. From the extraordinary efforts the protagonists go to in building a new type of newspaper to the very different way that people viewed the world, the window this book provides into a different time is worth a few moments of our own.
After Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, the first lesson he learns is that “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Society is constantly having to relearn this lesson, especially as technological advances give us more and more power in new and different realms. Harnessing the power of the atom has given us both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Medical advances have allowed us to extend life, even create life such as so-called test tube babies. Genetically modified food offers great hope to help feed the world but also the dangers of Franken-food. And the internet has revolutionized how we communicate, both for good and bad.
One of the next big frontiers of science is neuroscience, the science of the human brain. By understanding how the brain works, we are understanding more about how we function, why we behave the way we do, and what differentiates each of us. We are now at the point that we can, using a brain scan, know if we are looking at the brain of a psychopath or a normal person. If you think about it, this is tremendous power. This is probably as close as we will ever come to Minority Report, being able to tell if someone is likely a criminal before they ever do anything.
Think about it. If a psychopaths brain is truly different from the rest, a brain scan will identify who is a psychopath before they do anything to harm anyone. We would know if they have the potential for becoming a psychopath. And we might even be able to do that scan when they are a child.
Given that we could, in principle, do such a scan and identify potential psychopaths long before they become psychopathic, what should we do with that power? Should we scan everyone’s brains, and closely watch those that are likely to become psychopaths? This seems a huge infringement on personal liberty, but if it prevented the type of massacre that occurred in Norway, might it be worth it?
On the flip side, if psychopaths and other sociopaths truly have a different brain structure, how much of their actions are they really responsible for? If it is all brain chemistry controlled by genetics, should we all be thankful we have normal brains? Should we try to identify these people so we can find some way to treat them so they can lead normal lives?
And, finally, consider the fact that there is a very fine line between psychopathy and genius. Studies suggest many of the top CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits. If we somehow controlled the behavior of presumed psychopaths, would we be impacting other areas of society, including business and politics?
I have lots of questions and no answers. I think these types of questions will soon confront us. And technology is advancing at a pace that is much faster than at least our political and legal systems can keep up with. We will be faced with a future where people who barely understand the implications of the science, much less the science itself, are placed in a position of trying to address these questions. I think the sooner society as a whole dwells on them, the better able we will be able to deal with them.
Sometimes (more often than not), I wait too long to get to writing about books I’ve read. I read Bursts by Albert László Barabási a few months ago, and having a memory like a sieve, I’ve already forgotten a lot of details. But, the basic idea is this: humans are more predictable in our behavior than we would ever expect.
A truly random behavior is often characterized by Brownian motion, named after the guy who discovered it, a guy named Brown, of course. It was Einstein who understood it and it has become a mainstay of our understanding of how random processes occur, such as the motion of atoms in solids and molecules in liquids.
If humans acted in a Brownian way, we could predict certain aspects of human behavior, such as the average time to move from one place to another, but not much more. It turns out that humans and our associated activities are not so Brownian — not so random — and we are more predictable than that. Our behavior follows “bursts”, in which our patterns are punctuated by long periods of relatively quiet activity followed by bursts of focused activity. These bursts are indicators of non-random behavior.
As an example, we don’t check our email at random intervals throughout the day. There are times in which we don’t check or answer email for a while, then sudden bursts where we fire off a number of emails in very fast succession. The same is pretty much true of everything we do, whether we are aware of it or not. This makes us much more predictable than we would think.
In fact, Barabási says that if you give him details of your activity for about 2 months or so, he can predict with better than 80% accuracy what you will do in your day.
Barabási spends a lot of time discussing the implications of this fact, from identifying terrorists (from abnormal behavior) or the fact that advertisers know better than us what we will be doing, and target us very effectively.
Interspersed with his discussion of randomness is a tale from Hungarian history, the story of György Dózsa, a nobel who first was given command of a Crusade against the Ottomans which became a peasant revolt against the nobility of Hungary. I won’t spoil the end, but it is gruesome. Barabási weaves this story throughout his narrative as an attempt to show both how predictable and unpredictable history is. I’m not sure it works nor adds to the basic point of his book, but it is an interesting historical anecdote. I did learn something about a little known aspect of European history. If this guy had been successful in his revolt, Europe might have turned out very different.
In the end, this book gives some very interesting insight into human behavior and points to the danger that companies and governments will know us better than we know ourselves. I already am wary of advertisers as they know our mental propensities better than us, knowing how to appeal to those parts of us that we barely are aware of. With the insight from work such as Barabási’s, they will also know our behavior, our activities and be able to predict what we are going to do. This kind of research offers fascinating new insight into what it means to be human, but also opens the door to more control of our lives.
I heard about Catching Fire on NPR and thought the premise intriguing, so while on vacation I picked it up. This book is full of fascinating ideas and the central tenet promises to shake up the current picture of human evolution quite a bit.
In Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham argues that the invention and adoption of cooking by our pre-homo sapien ancestors is a, if not the, key reason for our evolution into homo sapien. Cooking is an easy way of processing food such that our bodies can more easily digest it, and thus not spend nearly so much energy. That energy, instead, is redirected to our brains. That is, cooking freed our body from using energy for digestion and was able to use that energy to power our brains which could thus evolve into what they are today.
Much of Catching Fire offers various arguments to support this thesis, from the fact that raw diets result in drastic weight loss as the energy from the food cannot be extracted efficiently by the body; to evidence that processing food, even simply adding air to puff it up, makes it easier to digest; to the fact that in many cultures, cooking and sharing meals is a much more important sign of bonding between men and women than sexual relationships.
In addition to offering a new view of human evolution, Wrangham also points out some secondary effects that should resonate with our modern society. First, the more foods are processed, the more easily our body can extract calories from them. This, Wrangham speculates, is a key reason for the obesity epidemic: our foods are so processed that our bodies are getting way too much out of them. Second, cooking has lead to a nearly universal subservient role for women. In almost all cultures, women are tied to the kitchen, the cooking fire, the pit, and their lives are strongly centered on that role.
I’m still trying to figure out what the implications of the processed food argument are for my own life. For example, is it better for me to get that steak medium rare or well done? If well done, I will get more energy out of it, presumably giving me more energy myself and helping me feel overall more energetic. But, it also means it’s likely to add to my beer gut more than the medium rare steak, which my body will have to spend more work digesting. Not sure which is overall better.
It is interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter if the diet contains meat or is vegetarian, but more important if it involves cooked or raw food. Wrangham argues that our bodies have evolved to essentially need cooked food; they aren’t designed to process raw food. Our brains are too expensive, energetically, to be able to function on a raw food diet.
I felt that the book dragged on in places, with Wrangham padding his argument a bit more than he needed and sometimes offering evidence that was tenuous at best, but overall I thought that his ideas were fascinating. I certainly learned quite a lot, both about humans as a species and about how I might want to approach my own diet. I certainly recommend Catching Fire.
We like to think that things happen for a reason, that the good — and bad — things that happen to us aren’t just random. We like meaning and some sense of control in our lives. However, as Leonard Mlodinow points out in his book The Drunkard’s Walk, the reality is that randomness plays a much bigger role in our lives than we are often willing to admit, or are even aware of.
The Drunkard’s Walk is a tour of the history of our understanding of random processes, with the goal of showing how randomness infiltrates our lives. From clear demonstrations of this randomness, such as the lottery, to less obvious ones, such as the success of a movie or song, Mlodinow shows us how things all around us are quite often the consequence of randomness.
I took from this book two main conclusions. First, humans have such an overarching need to feel in control, to see order in the universe, that they often see paterns in what is really random data. Mlodinow points out that one of the biggest causes of stress in humans is a feeling of not having any control. Indeed, research has shown that people who don’t have control of even simple things — like watering a plant — give up more easily and, consequently, die at a faster rate than those that have the purpose of watering a plant. Stress is certainly one of the biggest factors in health and feeling out of control, in the sense that you have no control of your life or destiny, is a big contributor to stress. This clearly suggests to me that micromanaging is overall a bad way to run an organization, as it does not let the lower rungs of the ladder have any control of the processes they are involved with and, as a consequence, will be more stressed and less healthy.
The second point is that success is often as much influenced by randomness than not. In fact, Mlodinow implies (if not outright argues) that random factors are often more important that pure skill or talent. Many talented people succeed simply because they were at the right place at the right time, through no conscious planning or act on their part. Conversely, many talented people fail because they didn’t get the big break. This is true at all levels of society, from the homeless guy who had a string of bad luck, to the CEO who essentially got lucky overseeing a company when it hit big. Mlodinow uses a number of examples that show how the success of baseball teams has, in the end, little to do with the manager and are really just a consequence of randomness associated with whether a batter gets or doesn’t get a hit. He also highlights how past performance of CEOs or movie moguls has little bearing on future performance and it is essentially a random process. And how what song becomes the most popular is a lot of random luck and not necessarily a measure of how “good” the song is. In the end, persistence is a much better indicator of success than talent, indicating that we shouldn’t reward successes and punish failures, but we should reward effort, regardless of the outcome.
An important point he makes is that we are so hardwired to attribute success to our abilities that we automatically become condescending to people who fail. Mlodinow describes experiments in which subjects watch people being punished, either for their supposed failures at some task or because of their supposed suffering for some more noble goal. The consequence is the same: simulated electric shocks, but the explained reasons are different. In the cases in which the punishment and resulting suffering are viewed as a consequence of the person’s failures, subjects very quickly form a negative opinion of the person, attributing some shortcoming of the person.
This has consequences for social policy. If who ends up as a CEO or movie star versus homeless on the street is a much a consequence of random factors as any intrinsic talent or skill, then it could be any one of us that ends up in one or the other. It isn’t a result of our abilities, it is a result of random factors none of us can control. Thus, there is little that separates the highest from the lowest and we should do more to help those who, due to an unfair amount of bad luck, fall through the cracks.
I have discussed the role of randomness on success in the past. It seems that moer and more evidence points to the fact that randomness plays a bigger role in our lives that we readily admit. In a society that automatically assumes that success is the direct consequence of ability, should we perhaps reevaluate some of the resulting social apperati that has been built around that assumption? I’m not saying we don’t reward those who do well, but maybe we also reward those who try hard, even if they don’t always succeed?