R.I.P. Stephen Hawking

Teeshirt reads: Obey gravity. It's the law!
Obey gravity. It’s the law!

When I was twelve, my father recommended I read a book. It is the only book one I can think of that he has ever made to me. But, I have to say, it was probably the best recommendation anyone has ever made to me. See, when I was a kid, I loved space technology and astronomy. I could recite fact after fact about NASA missions, the planets, and the stars. Anything I could learn about them was appreciated.

A Brief History of Time by Hawking opened up to me cosmology, physics, and quantum mechanics. Reading about these topics stretched my brain and put me in my happy place. I save up the books about this stuff for when I feel at my lowest because diving into them will correct my mood. A difficult week at work? Definitely, time to remove thinking about that stuff by thinking about the multiverse, chaos, and quantum entanglement. Perspective is everything.

Dr. Hawking also represented something I think science desperately needed: celebrity. His popularity and brand recognition showed that academic papers are not the only way to talk about science to the masses. He paved the way for Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Greene. Scientists are writing great books on their areas and the masses are gobbling them up because there is interest. It makes me happy that a society we think of as having gotten intellectually lazy has a hidden interest in science.

It makes me sad that he is gone because he provided me so much more than I could ever adequately explain.

Actions > Words

Sitting at a restaurant reading while I eat is a normal thing for me. People know me as that guy. They make assumptions like that I only read paper or Kindle then ask when I show up using the other.

Last week a guy sat next to me and kept me from reading due to his need to talk. He was bragging about being a slow reader. That he only reads dense academic history with more endnotes than text. And switched to talking about the Olympic skating needing a 100m event. He never read while I was there and interrupted me when I tried to return to reading.

All the while I was thinking the reason he cannot as much as he wants is he is easily distracted.

Goodreads Page Stats

The better metric for tracking how much I have read, in my opinion, is the number of pages. The number of books is okay, but the reality is reading a 50-page novella is not nearly the same commitment as a 1,500-page tome. (I might prefer a statistic for words when looking at my daughter’s reading counts.)

Unfortunately, Goodreads used to include the stats page in the challenges, but they removed the link to it. It is still there. (For now.) You can build the link to it by:

  1. Go to your profile. In the top right corner is your user photo in a circle. Click it.
  2. Click the Profile link.
  3. Replace the URL up through show/ with “https://www.goodreads.com/review/stats/”.
  4. Add “#pages” to the end.
  5. You should have a URL that looks like: https://www.goodreads.com/review/stats/999-name#pages

The page has buttons for books, pages, and publication year.

  1. Books: The number of books read broken down by year.
  2. Pages: The number of pages read broken down by year.
  3. Publication Year: A graph with year published in the vertical axis and year read in the horizontal axis.

Read Old Books

C.S. Lewis:

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones… People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

This quote amused me because it certainly feels like we are making the same mistakes. I suspect our lack of reading about the past (new or old books) leads to Dunning-Kreuger style hubris where we commit the same mistakes.

Resolution Progress 2017: First Half

(Original ; First Quarter ; Half ; Three-Quarters ; Final)

For the first half, I should have progressed about 50%. So, let’s see where I am.

Review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in 2012, I took the Moral Foundations Questionnaire test. So almost five years later, I finally got around to reading the book that explains it. Since it is now Facebook integrated, I kind of want ALL my friends to take it.

The framework presented here makes sense to me. I was fascinated by Drew Westen‘s
The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation
talking about fear being the key to reaching conservative voters. I could see that in the 2012 and 2016 elections. But, in the 2016 one, it felt like there was something missing. This book explains that pretty well for me. First, there are several values: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. People who favor certain ones tend to skew into certain parties.

Also, the cycle tends to be we feel something, then judge it based on the feeling, and then create reasons to explain away the judgement. We mistake the reasoning as the basis for values and morality when it is much more subservient to the feelings. I would love to see where Behavioral Economics could go with Moral Foundations Theory.

Applied to politics, I finally understand why people so often vote for policies that will hurt them. They are keyed to emotional reactions to values triggered through how candidates express themselves. Being such a fan of behavioral economics, my impression of humans as purely rational was discarded long ago. MFT fits my observations of others and even myself better than anything else I have seen.

We also are highly social and dependent on the group dynamic. And yet, what policies are chosen to by governments can fray the social capital they have. Immigration and ethnic diversity can trigger a push back leading to more racism.

The book does not really have answers. The questions will drive some of my reading for the next decade in search of them.

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Review: Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works

Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works
Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works by Rick Santorum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Santorum believes the family is the core unit of society not the individual. That has interesting implications such as what does that mean where there are so many divorces, single parents, and “failures to launch”? Making policy decisions based on that are also interesting.

I can definitely see evidence that supports Santorum’s story that Trump based his campaign on ideas from this book. Certainly he sought the votes of those in the rust belt, jobs for everyone, gut the government, repeal Obamacare, eliminate regulations, vouchers, and lower taxes. Something about feels hollow though.

The examples have that right homey feel politicians are so good at relaying. I found myself frustrated with the prescriptions, but I agree with the problems.

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Review: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have not read Moby Dick. My guess is if I had read it first or been a fan of stories about ship life, then I would care more about the sailors, the details, and the narrative. Then again, I found the claim interesting that MD was not successful or acclaimed when it was published. I guess it found fame later? How and why that happened would be easily worth another star.

Philbrick’s writing is concise and direct. Flowery narratives in biographies from some of the acclaimed authors who bully their editors annoy me with feeling bogged down in unnecessary language. Then again, I should have felt the harrowing-ness of this event.

These are people who…
* Have had the unthinkable happen of a whale sinking their ship.
* They are a couple thousand miles away from South America.
* All they have to cross this are short distance vessels.
* They lack the food and water to make the trip.

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Books and FCB

I sent my Recommendations post as a response to something on Facebook.

In the aftermath, it made me realize some things.

  • The false consensus effect which is why we are tempted to think others agree with us about political stances is what also causes us to expect others we like like the same books, TV shows, etc. The post I’d sent was my musing about disliking it that others do this in an effort to justify to myself fighting my own temptations to do it. FCB was not in my vocabulary when I wrote that post.
  • Subjectivity leads to diversity. Coming from the standpoint that my friends like strange things leads to trying things outside my normal self-imposed bounds. I dislike some chicklit and lie some others. I’ve got to try something new to find out whether or not I like it.
  • Subjectivity leads to better friendships. Trying things my friends recommend leads to better understanding my friends and myself. If something leads me to better understand my friends because even though I do not like it but I can see why  my friends do, then I feel the risk worth reading books I hate.

Why You Should Read Books You Hate

But reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?

A few years ago, things were really in a weird state. Work was not going well. My sleep was atrocious, so every day I was in a foul mood.

I decided to read The Painted Bird. This book is the mental equivalent of self-harm. A sociopath might be able to read it without getting really upset. What I did not put in the review is my headspace. I think now that choosing to read it then was perhaps a good thing.

As bad as I thought things were? Nah. The perspective of this kid revealed my problems were not at all problems.

Reading fiction improves empathy by getting the reader into the perspective of others. Meaning, outside the book, readers are better able to tie another person’s behavior to a character they have followed and come closer to understanding.

I try to stick out books I dislike in hopes of finding something of value. I also try out new genres because who knows. Maybe I will like it? I sometimes like chicklit, horror, and other genres not normally in my usual rotation. I come up with challenges to my reading to pull me out of my comfort zone. The challenges help keep things interesting.