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I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. --Baruch Spinoza

Data Streams

My favorite rags for staying current: Nature, Science, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal. And, of course, for laughs.


Fusion Science

Richard Feynman

Inspiring, clear, straight-forward, invigorating, heart-wrenching, entertaining. In addition to lecturing on physics, Feynman told stories from his life, stories which illustrate his particular blend of curiousity, wonder at the world, and delight at living.

  • Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations. --Richard Feynman


Daniel Gilbert

In Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert fuses a range of disciplines to better understand the design trade-offs in the brain which lead to our skill in self-delusion, why we do so poorly at predicting what will bring us happiness, and how it is that we don't notice our errors along the way.


Daniel Kahneman

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman provides an update on his life work spent exploring the cognitive architecture of human brains, under which circumstances they shine and of course where they stumble. He uses an extended metaphor -- the fast System I, which delivers the results we need without letting us know how it did so (and what shortcuts it took and errors it made along the way) -- and the slow System II: available to our awareness, energetically expensive, predisposed to accepting much of what System I tells us at face value, but capable, in some circumstances, of uncovering System I's mistakes.

... The procedure is simple: when the organization has almost come to an important decision but has not formally committed itself, Klein proposes gathering for a brief session a group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the decision. The premise of the session is a short speech: "Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster."


Barry Schwartz

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Schwartz draws from current psychological literature, his own research, and his own speculations to describe why freedom of choice, past a certain minimum threshold, clashes with the mechanics of our thinking processes to produce a reduced sense of control and declining happiness. He suggests techniques for counteracting these influences, including satisficing instead of maximizing, reducing expectations, and practicing gratitude.


Dan Ariely

Ariely characterizes the conditions under which human brains inaccurately assess the pros and cons of a decision, offering clues to the underlying structure of our cognitive processes, which excel at make some decisions but which predictably stumble on others.


Robert Sapolsky

In Monkeyluv, Sapolsky fuses evolutionary biology, neurology, and primatology to produce his view of why humans behave the way they do. In The Trouble with Testosterone, he explores the implications of current brain research. And in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, he describes our current understanding of stress, how it works, what it does for us, and how maladaptive it is for social animals.

  • Monkeyluv
  • The Trouble with Testosterone
  • Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

Dean Hamer

A biochemist for the NIH, Hamer outlines incomplete but tantalizing insights into how genetics contributes to human tendencies to think magically. In his model, variations in VMAT2, a gene coding for a protein involved in the transport of monoamines, result in varying senses of satisfaction and well-being when engaged in self-transcendent thinking, e.g. thinking about the larger picture. Brains which receive this boost in pleasure are more likely to do it: in some cases to engage in intuitive and creative thinking, in other cases spiritual and magical thinking.

  • The God Gene: How Faith is Hard-wired into Our Genes
  • Living with Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Psychology professors, Chabris and Simmons outline their model for understanding how we make mistakes, chunking flaws in how humans process information into six illusions: attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.

  • The Invisible Gorilla And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Intuition tells us that we pay attention to more than we do, that our memories are more detailed and robust than they are, that confident people are competent people, that we know more than we really do, that coincidences and correlations demonstrate causation, and that our brains have vast reserves of power that are easy to unlock. But in all these cases, our intuitions are wrong ...


Gary Marcus

A psychologist at NYU, Marcus looks at the interaction between biology and environment in shaping behavior.


Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee

The Blakeslees survey current neuroscience, focusing on the map model for how our brains figure out where in space we are, how inextricably linked are the experiences of pain and pleasure with our bodies, and how mirroring supports culture.


Chris Frith

A professor at University College London, Frith stitches together insights from neuroimaging and psychology to describe current views on how the brain models reality and presents an apparently seamless, though illusory, view of what is happening around us.

  • Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World

Joseph Hallinan

A journalist, Hallinan reviews current understanding of how we make mistakes, clustering them in ways which hint at underlying patterns.


Geoffrey Miller

An evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, Miller offers a model in which consumer purchases reflect hard-wired needs to advertise fitness. I don't know how far this evoutionary psychology stuff can go before it wanders into the weeds. In the meantime, I can see some of my own behavior in the mirror Miller holds up, and I enjoy the chuckles in his writing.

  • Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

Dean Buonomano

A neurobiologist/psychologist at UCLA, Buonomano starts with the associative processing capabilities of the brain and explores the resulting computational failings to which we are prone.

  • Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives

Philip Tetlock

A professor at Berkeley, Tetlock reviews a fifteen year research project in which he canvasses pundits for their predictions in the global arena and then tracks how well they do. The answer is not very well; even the best struggle to stay ahead of chance. A number of insights caught my attention, amongst them (a) accuracy in prediction and fame/influence are inversely proportional, (b) while experts beat naive predictors (undergraduates), they score no better than dilettantes, (c) a single rat can beat a classroom of undergraduates paws down (rats are better Bayesian predictors, while undergraduates look for, and find, non-existent patterns), (d) and while parsimony serves us well in science, it doesn't not serve us well when predicting the future.

In his second book, Tetlock reviews the results of the Good Judgement Project, which demonstrates that forecasting is a skill which can be both measured and improved.

  • Superforecasters: The Art and Science of Prediction
  • Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We Know?

A warehouse of experimental evidence now attests to our cognitive shortcomings: our willingness to jump the inferential gun, to be too quick to draw strong conclusions from ambiguous evidence, and to be too slow to change our minds as disconfirming observations trickle in ... learning is hard because even seasoned professionals are ill-equipped to cope with the complexity, ambiguity, and disonnance inherent in assessing caustion in history. Life throws up a lot of puzzling events that thoughtful observers feel impelled to explain because the policy stakes are so high. However, just because we want an explanation does not mean that one is within reach. To achieve explanatory closure in history, observers must fill in the missing counterfactual comparison scenarios with elaborate stories grounded in their deepest assumptions about how the world works.

First, researchers have shown that experts, from diverse professions, can talk themselves into believing they can do things that they manifestly cannot. Experts frequently seem unaware of how quickly they reach the point of diminishing marginal returns for knowledge when they try to predict outcomes with large stochastic components: from recidivism among criminals to the performance of financial markets. Beyond a stark minimum, subject matter expertise in world politics translates less into forecasting accuracy than it does into overconfidence (and the ability to spin elaborate tapestries of reasons for expecting "favorite" outcomes).

Second, like ordinary mortals, seasoned professionals are reluctant to acknowledge that they were wrong and to change their minds to the degree prescribed by Reverend Bayes ... Reviewing the cognitive strategies experts used to justify holding firm, we discover a formidable array of dissonance-reduction strategies tailor-made for defusing threats to professional self-esteem.

Third, like ordinary mortals, experts fall prety to the hindsight effect. After the fact, they claim they know more about what was going to happen than they actually knew before the fact...

Fourth, like ordinary mortals, experts play favorites in the hypothesis-testing game, applying higher standards of proof for dissonant than for consonant discoveries...

Fifth, individual differences in styles of reasoning among experts parallel those documented in other populations of human beings ... hedgehogs and foxes ... people who value closure and simplicity are less accurate in complex social perception tasks and more susceptible to overconfidence, hindsight, and belief perseverance effects.

Tetlock proposes measures for introducing accountability to punditry, similar to the measures we currently use for other professions, such as doctors, lawyers, and plumbers. He outlines the obstacles to such an effort:

Of course, we have yet to confront the most daunting of all the barriers to implementation: the reluctance of professionals to participate. If one has carved out a comfortable living under the old regime of close-to-zero accountability for one's pronouncements, one would have to be either exceptionally honest or masochistic to jeopardize so cozy an arrangement by voluntarily exposing one's predictions to the rude shock of falsifications...

In closing, Tetlock tilts his hat to an intellectual predecessor, Sherman Kent:

We can draw cumulative lessons from experience only if we are aware of gaps between what we expected and what happened, acknowledge the possibility that those gaps signal shortcomings in our understanding, and test alternative interpretations of those gaps in an evenhanded fashion.

As a fox thinker myself, I enjoyed seeing the advantages of my cognitive style quantified and squirmed to recognize the confusion and incoherence into which I can fall when asked to consider too many (unlikely) options. (Hedgehog thinkers, by contrast, tend to resist such distraction, using the same cognitive techniques they use to resist disconfirming evidence.)

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir? --John Maynard Keynes


Malcolm Gladwell

Dang this guy this is smart! Researches his books to an extraordinary level, thought-provoking, insightful.

  • Outliers: The Story of Success
  • What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Hannah Holmes

A science writer, Holmes combines recent biological reserearch with evolutionary speculation for light introduction to current insights into personality.

  • Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality

John Medina

A professor at the University of Washington, Medina attempts to build bridges between lab bench discovery and real world practice, translating how the brain works into actionable behavior in the school, home, and office. He offers a model for understanding why I perform so much better in the afternoon when I take a twenty-minute nap after lunch (as I do reliably) and has motivated me to add more animation to my educational presentations.


Michael Gazzaniga

A professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Gazzaniga translates current research into neuroscience into the vernacular.

  • Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Buddhist Psychology

If the authors above go into detail about how the brain works, then the authors below provide a quick and dirty guide to how I experience the workings of my mind. Buddhist psychology helps me work with myself in practical ways. These books describe the authors' experiences in watching their own minds and how they respond to acquire more ease and clarity.


Death and Dying

Reading about the cycle of life helps remind me to be conscious in this moment, to express gratitude, to appreciate what is happening now.

  • Chasing Daylight by Gene O'Kelly
  • The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Discovering Self

Reading how other people wrestle with their self-doubt, their fears, and their relationship to humans in need, helps me to look at myself.

  • Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak
  • The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak

Mechanics

Addressing the mechanics of living in a First World country.

John Bogle

Bogle, the founder and former CEO of The Vanguard Group, outlines the principles, both mathematical and ethical, behind his approach to saving money and to migrating capitalism from the current manager flavor to his proposed owner flavor.

  • The Little Book of Common Sense Investing
  • The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism
  • The failure of investment America to exercise its ownership rights over corporate America has been the major factor in the pathological mutation that has reshaped owners' capitalism into managers' capitalism. That mutation, in turn, has been importantly responsible for the gross excesses in executive compensation ...

    ...fund managers who hold companies for the long term and allow intrinsic value to build over time have provided higher returns to their clients than managers who hold stocks for the short term and trade them whenever Mr. Market offers a tempting but momentary price.

    Why did investment America go so wrong? Because it focused on the momentary precision of stock prices rather than the eternal importance of intrinsic corporate value, however difficult to measure.

    In sum, active management strategies as a group lose because they are expensive. Passive indexing strategies win because they are cheap.


    Jason Zweig

    Zweig, an editor and writer for Money, Forbes, and recently The Wall Street Journal, outlines current research in neuroeconomics to explain why our brains solve ancestrally relevant problems well but don't solve modern problems nearly as cleanly. In my view, he thus explains why following John Bogle's advice proves difficult for most of us.


    Gavin De Becker

    Principal of a threat management company, De Becker describes practical ways in which one can manage the fear which arises from living in a media-saturated environment.

  • The Gift of Fear
  • Fear Less

  • Self-Perception

    These stories touch me.

    • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
    • The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
    • Miss Twiggley's Tree by Dorothea Fox
    • The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
    • Death: The Time of Your Life by Neil Gaiman

    Snippets

    The young monk went to the old monk and asked: How did you acquire such good judgement?
    The old monk replied: Good experience.
    The young monk responded impatiently: But how did you acquire the good experience?
    The old monk answered: Bad judgement
    --Zen parable

    Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. --Marshall Rosenberg

    Do not attribute to cunning or guile that which can be as easily explained by fear and ignorance. --Derived from Mark Twain

    Rational science treats its credit notes as always redeemable on demand, while non-rational authoritarianism regards the demand for the redemption of its paper as a disloyal lack of faith. --Morris Cohen

    Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. --Charles Darwin

    The rage for wanting to conclude is one of the most deadly and most fruitless manias to befall humanity. Each religion and each philosophy has pretended to have God to itself, to measure the infinite, and to know the recipe for happiness. What arrogance and what nonsense! I see, to the contrary, that the greatest geniuses and the greatest works have never concluded. --Gustave Flaubert

    Well, war is obsolete you know. Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back ... but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you. --Derived from the Dalai Lama

    You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do. --Tom

    If only there were evil people out there insidiously committing evil deeds and it was only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart? -Alexander Solzhenitsyn

    I saw this in the Wall Street Journal -- the author, Jonathan Clements, summarizes my understanding of the current literature on the subject: Nine Tips for Investing in Happiness.

    Tips for converting money into happiness

    • Buy Experiences
    • Make It a Treat
    • Buy Time
    • Pay Now, Consume Later
    • Invest in Others

    And of course, Carl Sagan from The Pale Blue Dot.



    Entertainment

    Ursula Leguin, Margaret Atwood, Patricia McKillip

    William Gibson, Patrick Rothfuss, Richard Morgan, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami

    China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi, Colson Whitehead, CJ Cherryh, Robyn McKinley, Justin Cronin, Lev Grossman, Daryl Gregory

    Catherynne Valente, Cherie Priest, Patricia Briggs


    Last modified: 2017-04-28