Category Archives: Books

What is Your Dangerous Idea? edited by John Brockman

what-is-your-dangerous-idea-book-by-john-brockman1After reading This Explains Everything, I’m now a bit addicted to the series of books, in which John Brockman poses a question to some of the leading minds in the world. I quickly went through the second and am now on the third of these books.

The second, What is Your Dangerous Idea?, asks exactly that question: what idea do you have or do you think is dangerous? The meaning of dangerous is in the eye of the beholder, with some contributors discussing ideas that might be coming from science that might be taken in the wrong way by politicians or those who would repress others (such as innate differences in people in terms of abilities of various sorts) to ideas that would shatter the status quo (such as the discovery of alien life or the idea that we may soon be able to control our own evolution). Most of the ideas are very interesting and, as with the previous volume I read, thought provoking. Worth a read if for nothing else than to stir the mental juices and get one thinking about ideas that might not normally cross one’s mind. However, there is one set of ideas that I found particularly striking.

The first relates to free will. In back-to-back essays, first Eric Kandel and then Clay Shirky touch on this. Kandel describes experiments in which the subconscious mind is measured to register activity before the conscious mind is aware it is about to do something. That is, if one were asked to move their finger, there is subconscious activity before the person has actually made the decision to move their finger (or, better said, is consciously aware of the decision). Shirky discusses how this has important consequences on how we interact with and are manipulated by advertisers and politicians, amongst others. In particular, he states “everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.” (In a super-cool aside, it seems that Helmholtz, the famous physicist who was instrumental in the development of thermodynamics, was the discoverer of this subconscious activity.) The implication, really, is that advertisers and politicians know us better than we know ourselves, and know how to target messages to our subconscious, which is much more important for our decision making and behavior than we are ever aware. It is only through recognizing this and knowing how our subconscious responds to such stimuli that we have any hope of not being manipulated. Mahzarin Banaji sums this up nicely with a quote from Richard Dawkins: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

Other essays touch on this theme. Richard Nisbett points out how “When our behavior is insufficiently justified, we move our beliefs into line with the behavior, so as to avoid the cognitive dissonance we would otherwise experience.” The bottom line: we really don’t know how we think, why we think what we think, or where our thoughts come from. Those that do and are willing to use that understanding can manipulate us without us even being aware.




This Explains Everything edited by John Brockman

thisexplainseverythingEdge is a collection of people, leaders in fields from physics to biology and successful business people and musicians. People we’ve all heard of, like Alan Alda, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, along with a lot of other people that aren’t yet household names, but are leaders in their respective fields. The goal of Edge is to simply get people — intellectual leaders of all sorts — and have them talk. Have them ask questions to one another, have them discuss important topics and push the frontiers of what we, collectively, know. As they summarize their purpose:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

As part of this goal to ask and answer questions, each year the Edge contributors propose and vote on a question that they then each try to answer. This has been going on for a few years now and each year the answers are collected into a book, edited each year by John Brockman. The latest book, which is also the first one I read, is called This Explains Everything and collects the answers to the question: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

The book collects about 150 answers from a large variety of people. Each answer is 1-10 pages and vary from choosing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, to Maxwell’s Equations (what I personally would have chosen if I were part of this), to more modern cutting edge science that, to be honest, is sometimes a bit hard to follow. And it isn’t all science, there are poets and musicians who also contribute their answers.

For me, the best thing about this book isn’t necessarily knowing what Jared Diamond’s favorite explanation is, but rather to get different views on well established science, such as Darwin, as well as become exposed to new ideas that, as a scientist working in a very narrow field, I don’t come across in my daily work. Some of the ideas are simply weird — Aubrey De Grey suggests that it won’t be long until monogamy is a thing of the past, essentially equating sharing sexual partners to sharing chess partners. I’m not sure I buy that one. But, there are a lot of other great ideas which I was very happy to learn about. A couple of my favorites:

  • Scott Atran: “reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth”
  • Joel Gold: “Aristotle defined man as a rational animal. Contradictions like these [described earlier] show that we are not.”
  • Paul Steinhardt, in describing the discovery of quasi-crystals: “While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.”
  • Frank Wilczek: “In theoretical physics, we try to summarize the results of a vast number of observations and experiments in terms of a few powerful laws. We strive, in other words, to produce the shortest possible program that outputs the world. In that precise sense, theoretical physics is a quest for simplicity.”
  • Gerd Gigerenzer: “Illusions are a necessary consequence of intelligence. Cognition requires going beyond the information given, to make bets and therefore to risk errors.”
  • Anton Zeilinger: “without occasionally taking a risk, even in the most exact science no real innovation can be introduced.”
  • Andre Linde: “mathematicians and physicists can live only in those universes that are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”
  • Gino Segre: “I have spent a good part of my career searching for an explanation of the masses of the so-called elementary particles. But perhaps the reason it has eluded us is a proposal that is increasingly gaining credence — namely, that our visible universe is only a random example of an essentially infinite number of universes, all of which contain quarks and leptons with masses taking different values.”
  • Andrian Kreye: “In Europe, the present is perceived as the endpoint of history. In America, the present is perceived as the beginning of the future.”
  • Helena Cronin: “And thus environments, far from being separate from biology, autonomous and independent, are themselves in part fashioned by biology.”
  • John Tooby: “Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization — the only natural process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order.” and “Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do, they often fall into place.”
  • Peter Atkins: “We, too, are local abatements of chaos driven into being by the generation of disorder elsewhere.”
  • Elizabeth Dunn, on why we feel pressed for time: “They argue that as time becomes worth more and more money, time is seen as scarcer.”
  • Seth Lloyd: “The true symmetry of space is not rotation by 360 degrees but by 720 degrees.”
  • Tim O’Reilly: “Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other, the worst outcome really is Hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turn out to be wrong.”
  • Alvy Ray Smith, on Pixar’s development of animation: “Motion blur was the crucial breakthrough. In effect, motion blur shows your brain the path a movement is taking and also its magnitude.”
  • Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: “North America and Western European cuisine show a strong tendency to combine ingredients that share chemicals… East Asian cuisine thrives by avoiding ingredients that share flavor chemicals.”
  • Lawrence Krauss, on the unification of electricity and magnetism and Maxwell’s equations: “It represents to me all that is best about science: It combined surprising empirical discoveries with a convoluted path to a remarkably simple and elegant mathematical framework, which explained far more than was ever bargained for and in the process produced the technology that powers modern civilization.”
  • Robert Kurzban: “The idea is that when people intervene in systems with a lot of moving parts — especially ecologies and economies — the intervention, because of the complex interrelationships among the system’s parts, will have effects beyond those intended, including many that were unforeseen or unforeseeable.”
  • Samuel Barondes: “personality differences are greatly influenced by chance events.”
  • Stanislas Dehaene: “Our brain makes decisions by accumulating the available statistical evidence and committing to a decision whenever the total exceeds a threshold.”
  • Andy Clark: “Language thus behaves a bit like an organism adapting to an environmental niche. We are that niche.”
  • Nicholas Carr: “The shape of existence is the shape of failure.”

(Ok, my list is a little long… but it serves to illustrate some of the very interesting ideas and concepts that were discussed in this book.)

As I mentioned, the best thing about this book was just being exposed to ideas beyond what I encounter in my daily work. Not all of them are things I can personally use in my work, but they show some of the cutting edge work being done in other fields.

I greatly enjoyed the book and have already downloaded my next one from this group, This Will Change Everything.


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

DownloadedFileMy wife got me a Kindle for my birthday and, I have to admit, I’ve spent more time playing games on it than reading books. However, during a recent business trip to Florida (13 hours going, 15 hours coming back!) I took the opportunity to read my first piece of fiction on the Kindle (I’ve read one other book, non-fiction, and I’ll post about that soon).

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is about, well, books. Books in the tradition paper format and books in electronic format. Books as each author’s masterpiece and books as collections of data. The story revolves around a mysterious secret society, a society that is discovered by the hero, Clay Jannon, when he, as an out-of-work 20-something, takes a job at a bookstore, Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. The bookstore is stocked with the oddest of books, which are bought by the oddest of patrons. As Clay learns more about what is going on, applying computer algorithms to problems that the patrons have spent literally centuries examining, he uncovers an ancient riddle.

This is a fast paced story that interweaves a love for books and a love for modern technology, a la Google. Google features prominently, via their various technologies. I don’t know enough about Google to know if the glimpses inside Google culture are all that accurate, but it still makes for a compelling story. This is a story that has its excitements and twists and turns, but is remarkable in that the impact of the events really only concern a few characters. There is no world-changing or world-domineering bad guy, just people who have different views of things. And a puzzle to solve. If no one solves the puzzle, life goes on…

A couple of things did bother me in the plot. I won’t say much to not spoil the story, but if anyone else reads this and has some insight, I’d be interested in hearing it.

First, I don’t get the code. I don’t get how it was supposed to work. Anyone understand it? The explanation doesn’t make sense to me.

Second, I don’t understand how the Google employee, Kat, falls for the idea of what the puzzle might provide, if solved. She is a tech person, not into something supernatural. Unless that is another point the author is trying to make.

However, in spite of these concerns, the book is still very entertaining, fast paced, and does explore some interesting questions. It makes you think, at least a bit.


The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

9780316197014_p0_v1_s260x420The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is the first official addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle last laid down his pen. Officially sanctioned by his estate, the conceit of The House of Silk is that there was an adventure of Holmes that was so sensitive and involved such important power-brokers of England that Dr. John Watson had it sealed for 100 years before it could be published. Thus, it occurs relatively early in the cases that form the canon even though it was published so late.

It is also presented as if it were written late in the life of Dr. Watson, and the author, Horowitz, uses the opportunity to have Watson reflect on a number of facets relating to his relationship to Holmes. For example, he laments that he never really gave much thought to Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Holmes and Watson. This gives some nice insight into how Dr. Watson viewed the world he shared with Holmes.

sherlock holmes consulting detectiveI’m one of those who discovered and devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid. Not only did these stories introduce me to a different way of looking at the world — deductive reasoning — but they took me to a different time which, looking back, was both more sinister but more naive than our own, at the same time. These stories and the basic idea behind them form so much of what we see in our media today, from the obvious Elementary and Sherlock to shows such as Monk and House, shows I generally tend to enjoy. I also was what seemed to be the only person who got into the Sherlock Holmes “role playing game” as a kid, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a game that had an excellent foundation, but which I simply couldn’t get others to play. I was therefore pretty excited to find this new addition to the Sherlock Holmes mythos.

The House of Silk is a very well written tale that is grand in scope. The mystery that Holmes and Watson are drawn into is very intricate and twisted. The various characters are handled well. The way Holmes is handled is particularly gratifying. At one point, in which the situation is rather dire and Watson receives some assistance from a third party, I felt a little disappointed that Holmes would need to be bailed out, but it turns out the Holmes had his own solution. Overall, it was a very gratifying read and a great addition to the Holmes adventures.

There were two minor quibbles I had. First, the conceit of the novel, that this was a particularly sensitive case that couldn’t be published at the time of the original cases, felt like it closed more doors than it opened. That is, it didn’t seem to leave much room for any further adventures. Of course, there is a lot of “unaccounted time” in the life of Holmes that could be filled in, but exactly how any other story would be added is a little uncertain. Possibly there is no plan to do so, but given the success of this novel and other media versions of Sherlock, I would be surprised if the estate does not take advantage and push on this.

Sherlock-HolmesThe other quibble is that Holmes, while the central character and the most critical character for advancing the plot, is also, in some odd ways, not that present. He is of course there, all the time, giving his insight, but he feels a bit detached, a bit distant. Maybe it is part of the idea that Watson is telling this story many years after it happened, and of course his personality dominates. Whatever the reason, Holmes almost feels a bit more like a plot device than a real character. Maybe that’s the way all of Doyle’s stories were too.

However, these are minor quibbles and the story itself is a very fitting successor of the Holmes mythos. A fast and satisfying read, I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever enjoyed the original stories. This novel certainly makes me want to finally break out that annotated set of stories I’ve had on the bookshelf for more than a few years and rediscover this great character.

The Sun and the Moon by Matthew Goodman

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.