Why haven't I been reading?
Those two of you who actually look at this site may wonder why I haven't posted any book reviews in over a month. Lots of reasons. Things got busy at work. I got a new car, so I was driving instead of taking public transit to work, which cut into my reading time. I took a five-day weekend to attend a friend's wedding in Washington D.C., where I almost finished a book (David Brin's Transparent Society) on the plane ride back, but haven't gotten around to finishing it since then. I've been distracted trying to keep up with my normal Economist and Science News subscriptions. I've been trying to write more blog entries. October and November are the start of the new television season, so I was watching a couple new shows and several old favorites. It's also football season, so Sundays now have a significant time-sink. I've started playing ultimate and taking salsa lessons. Lots of excuses. No good answers. And it's not likely to change until the new year because I've got craziness in the chorus coming up, with the christmas concert and the Messiah on consecutive weeks in December. Rest assured I will get back to reading at some point, probably when my monster Amazon order gets in - I currently have something like $100 worth of books sitting in my shopping cart at Amazon, just waiting for me to click "Checkout".
posted at: 00:46 | path: /books | permanent link to this entry
So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, "I'd love to become instantaneously more sociable and more comfortable around people." It's hard to explain to folks who aren't introverts how difficult being sociable is. My friend pointed me to an article in the Atlantic Monthly on the subject which has a lot of good stuff in it. But most "normal" folks, aka extroverts, who thrive on other people, think that meeting people is just about going up and saying "Hi!". And, for them, it is.
It's funny because people that have known me for a while don't believe that I can possibly be an introvert. In a social setting where I'm comfortable, I'm loud and brash and can take over the conversation. Not at all the stereotypical wallflower. But put me in a bar or club, or at a party, and the wallflower takes over. I sulk in the corner for a while, have a miserable time, and leave. Partially it's the fear of rejection, of going up to somebody, saying "Hi" and having them be bored and walk away. Mostly, though, it's just not having anything to say. I'm terrible at small talk. There's definitely a place for it - as Hayakawa puts it, "The prevention of silence is itself an important function of speech." But I'm okay with silence. In fact, I crave it a lot of the time. So if I have nothing to say, I don't say anything. And given that inclination, it's really hard to strike up conversations with folks you don't know. With folks you know, it's easy; you have a shared background to draw upon, you've got things you know you have in common, and you don't feel like you necessarily have to sustain a conversation. With folks you don't, there's a lot more pressure.
I also just plain don't get along with most people. I'm weird. I've accepted that. I've moved on. When I was growing up, I thought I was this weird solitary freak who was different from everybody else. Turned out it was just that I was different from everybody else in the town where I grew up. I went to college, found a living group with a bunch of other freaks like me, and called it home. So, okay, I'm still this weird solitary freak, but I know I'm not alone. And that makes a huge difference. I don't feel like I have to settle for blending in, for being one of the crowd, for throttling myself down to deal with the "normals". I do it at work, and in social settings with polite company. I tried it for three years in grad school. But I know there are people out there with whom I can be all of me, weird and wacky and prone to making wild generalizations and strange references and improbable leaps of conversation - people with whom I can say the crazy things that come into my head without having them wonder if I'm insane(*). And so I seek out those people. And there ain't many. But they're there, and I've found a few, and I'd love to find more.
Of course, I haven't figured out how to do that. Unfortunately, because the kind of people I'm looking for are few and far between, it exacerbates the problem of meeting people. Because I have to sift through a lot of people that aren't right before finding the few that are. At this point, I've mostly given up; I just wait for my friends to meet cool people and expand my social circle that way. But it's not really holding up my end of the deal to do that.
It's a pain in the butt. If I were willing to judge on surface characteristics, it'd be much easier. Attractiveness is easy to judge; it may be personal, but you can look at somebody and decided if you're attracted to them. The spark of weirdness I'm looking for is much harder to evaluate. One friend once described it having an appreciation of the absurd in life. It's partially a sense of humor that matches mine, partially a broad enough and similar enough background to catch the references I like to drop into conversation, partially an attitude of never being intimidated by blatant generalizations or academic gewgaws. I don't know how to describe it, which makes it hard to look for. It's funny, though, because when I find somebody who fits the criteria, there's an almost audible click. When I first walked into TEP at MIT, within five minutes I had the feeling of having come home for the first time. It was spooky.
I'm mostly frustrated because I'm doing all of these activities now, and meeting all these people, and still don't feel like I can hold a decent conversation with any of them. Which is partially why I'm resorting to writing these rants online. It's all I've got at the moment. Argh. Enough for now.
The Liaden universe, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
(originally posted 9/4/03, fixed links on 11/17/03) After reading Partners in Necessity, I said I'd go pick up the rest of the series. Which I did. The day after. And then read most of it over a three-day weekend. And I really enjoyed the rest of it. So I recommend the whole set now. In universe chronological order (as opposed to publishing order), they are:
I was intrigued by one of the forewords calling these romance novels set in space. I suppose they might be considered such - four of them (the three prequels, and Agent of Change) have as their main plot arc the meeting and "lifemating" of two prominent characters. I didn't feel that the romance dominated the novels, though, as I expect them to in "romance" novels. I'm not even sure what I mean by that, but I'm sure it's some sort of rationalization to avoid me having to consider the possibility that I would enjoy romance novels as I enjoyed these.
One of the other things I really liked about this series was the concept of melant'i, describing the confusing mix of roles that characters play in their lives. One of the main characters, Val Con, is a younger cousin, a clan head, a Scout, and a husband. As a younger cousin, he properly shows deference to his elder relatives. However, as clan head, he deserves their deference. Lee and Miller disentangle these roles by postulating the Liaden language to contain different modes that are appropriate for each role. By a combination of non-verbal actions such as bows and hand gestures, and verbal hints (addressing Val Con as Delm indicates he should be in his role as clan head, as opposed to the younger cousin), the different roles that compose each character's melant'i are kept distinct. This concept is particularly interesting to me since I've been reading a lot about semantics recently, and the power of language to shape our thoughts and attitudes. So the idea of a language that differentiates the many roles that we play in our daily lives sounds like a good one to me. It would lead to much less confusion, I suspect.
But anyway. I digress. Great story. Interesting characters. Interesting culture and world. Neat aliens. All good. I highly recommend. Or just borrow them from me sometime.
posted at: 00:41 | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry
Quantum Psychology, by Robert Anton Wilson
I saw this book while looking around on Amazon for books related to Korzybski's Science and Sanity (much like how I found Hayakawa's book). I picked it up because I've read two of Wilson's sci-fi trilogies, the Illuminatus trilogy and the Schrodinger's Trilogy. I liked them, but they were very weird, so I was surprised to find out that his works would be referenced next to serious academic works like Hayakawa and Korzybski.
It turns out that Wilson calls himself a Transactional Psychologist, which he says "holds that we do not passively receive data from the universe but actively "create" the form in which we interpret the data as fast as we receive it. In short, we do not re-act to information but experience transactions with information...derived from our gambles as our brain makes models of the ocean of new signals it receives every second." In this book, he's basically trying to take a layman's impression of quantum mechanics and apply it to psychology, with varying degrees of success. The most interesting correlation was the idea of the observer-created universe. In quantum mechanics, when doing an experiment, there is no "result" until the experimenter makes a measurement or an observation. Until that time, the experimental system exists in a state of superposition, and the waveform does not collapse. This sounds spooky and non-intuitive, as has been illustrated by Schrodinger's thought experiment with his infamous cat.
Wilson takes this idea and several of Korzybski's ideas to try to develop the theory that the entire universe is observer-created. And there's a lot of merit to that idea. Two people observing the same event will often tell two completely different accounts, depending on their backgrounds and their predispositions. This comes up often in our judicial system where eyewitness accounts are incredibly unreliable. Wilson's example: "A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying "Stay away from my wife" and has a fourth view of the "meaning" of the situation. Etc."
He also delves into several of the same issues as Hayakawa's book, such as the perils of confusing our mental maps and symbols with reality, and the dangers of saying something "is" something else. In fact, Wilson recommends using a modification of English called E-Prime, where "is" doesn't exist, instead using "appears" or "is observed as". For instance, the wave-particle duality issue of physics goes away by using E-Prime - instead of "The photon is a wave" or "The photon is a particle", we have "The photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments" and "The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments." The wave-particle "paradox" is due to our language and preconceptions because we "know" that a photon can't be two things at the same time. By saying it has to be one or the other, we get confused. But the "paradox" is the result of our trying to impose our Aristotelian classification system onto the world, rather than accepting what the world is telling us. It's not an either-or world - what we see depends on how we choose to observe the world.
Wilson ridicules the whole idea of "is"-ness. When we say something "is" something, we are contending that the object has some sort of ineffable, eternal quality about it that Wilson calls "spooks" (after Max Stirner) or "semantic noise". As before, he uses the ideas of quantum mechanics to demonstrate that everything is always changing, and the question of what something "is" at any moment is ultimately undefinable, due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the distributed nature of probability waveforms.
From there, he departs into some much stranger ideas, including the idea that faith healing may be related to the dispersion of neurotransmitters through the body, and the possibility of non-local phenomena related to the non-local correlations demonstrated by the EPR paradox and the Paris Aspect experiment. He concludes by hoping for "a HEAD Revolution - Hedonic Engineering And Development" where "the neurosomatic healings and neurosomatic "highs" (yogic or chemical ecstasies) found intuitively or accidentlaly in the past will then give way to a precise technology of staying High and living Well."
All in all, I liked a lot of what Wilson had to say. But I think his application of quantum mechanics to psychology was seriously flawed. He makes the mistake of doing what he criticizes, by taking language and treating it as reality. The language of quantum mechanics is linear algebra. Not English. I took quantum mechanics at three levels on my way through my physics career, and the math is gorgeous. After they introduced the linear algebra notation (instead of the horribly clunky integral notation originally used), the equations just fell out so beautifully. They are wonderfully predictive and useful, as evidenced by the omnipresence of semiconductor technology in the modern world. However, despite having been fairly adept with those equations, I still couldn't tell you what they "mean" or how to interpret those results in an intuitive sense. The equations are the equations. The math is the math. Trying to apply them to systems other than subatomic particles, even as an aid for intuitive understanding, is using an inappropriate tool, like trying to use a hammer for measuring distances.
By the same token, any description of quantum mechanics that happens in English is automatically imprecise and inaccurate. So to take those descriptions and treat them as reality and draw conclusions from them is a flawed process (Wilson admits that he has never taken a physics course and is going purely on descriptions). I think that many of the conclusions that Wilson draws are interesting and possibly useful, but not because of their derivation from quantum mechanics. They are (or, I should say, they appear as, to properly use E-Prime) interesting and useful in their application to human relation and our daily lives. And, as Wilson says (and I agree), utility should be the judge of ideas and systems, not some ineffable essence.
posted at: 00:40 | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry
Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa.
(originally posted on 8/17/03, link fixed on 11/17/03) I found this book in a roundabout way. In Conscientious Objections, Neal Postman reviewed the book Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski, calling it one of the most important books of the last century. Korzybski developed the field of general semantics, a system of thinking about language and thought. I was going to get it, but was a bit intimidated by the reviews at Amazon, many of which recommended Hayakawa's book as an easier to read introduction to the field. So I got this book instead.
It's amazing. It codifies a lot of my personal philosophy and attitudes in a more coherent manner. In particular, it focuses on several cognitive mistakes that drive me crazy, including the confusion of the map with the territory (or the generalization with the specific, or the word with the object), the perils of the two-valued orientation (which dominates news and other venues because of the ratings appeal of arguments - see Breaking the News, by James Fallows for a more thorough investigation), and the inability of some people to move up and down the abstraction ladder.
There were so many great ideas in this book that I wish everybody would read and live by the precepts in this book. I'm definitely interested in reading more on the subject of general semantics, and one of these days I may get around to tackling Science and Sanity. We'll see.
Specific things that I took note of in the book include:
Hayakawa believes that many of our institutions, both social and political, have induced this type of behavior in us. The arms race is an obvious example - in previous centuries, more weapons meant more protection and higher security. With nuclear arms, though, this equation quickly becomes meaningless because of the introduction of infinities. Yet, our governments still held onto the previous arms race metaphor. Our advantage over mice is that we can eventually cope. Hayakawa reminds us of this ability, and asks us to use it to reform our institutions' collective insane behavior.