Rules for picking books to read: optimise for age and readability

how to pick books to read
Arthur Schopenhauer introduces the concept of alternative cost

I have a problem: I really don’t like giving up books I started.

Is the solution to read them to the end?

No, because they are either full of mistakes and fakes or mostly because they are shallow.

Is the solution to not read them?

No, because then I’d start living in an echo chamber and that’s bad.

Is there a solution?

Yes: entertain a point of view and be able to throw it in the bin without succumbing to the slavish “it’s in a book, therefore it’s right”.

Does that mean I should read everything?

Absolutely not. For me, the purpose of reading is to come across ideas that I am not familiar with.

I recently asked the Slate Star Codex reddit thread how they choose their books because modern non-fiction has been getting on my nerves. Some good points came up and I will add some of my own (relating to both fiction and non-fiction):

1. The main criterion to optimise for is the product of age and readability

For example,

Saw The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck on the best sellers book shelf?

Read Moral letters to Lucilius (1st century AD) instead.

Is everyone reading Fifty Shades of Grey? Anna Karenina (1877) is what you need.

Looking at Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind?

Pick up The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant.

Old books are free from copyright too, so you will easily find them online.

Readability is tough one. I have suffered through many a Shakespearean play. It’s not him, it’s me. I just find him difficult to understand. It happens to be worth it.

In general, the only disadvantage to old books is that they aren’t always intelligible on a practical level.

2. If the book is recommended by a friend, consider it and if you are stuck, ask a friend for a recommendation

Make sure they themselves have read it.

This is how I got into reading Nassim Taleb.

3. If it is on your favourite subject/sub-genre, older than 50 years and still relevant, it’s worth a read

Like Sherlock Holmes? You will probably like Hercule Poirot

4. If the author is a journalist first and foremost, don’t bother with it

Let’s not get political and mention names, but they usually have a lot of interests to defend

5. Authors who spend a lot of time in your part of the world are generally easier to read

Occasionally, for me, reading modern American authors feels like watching an informercial. I mean I really don’t want the first 3 chapters explaining why I should read the book, it’s already in my hands ffs.

6. Sample three random pages in the book: if a paragraph doesn’t make sense, the whole book it unlikely to make sense

This is what I do in book stores. Style is part of substance. When it comes to reading books by academics, this is especially important.

7. If the book itself promises to change your life, destroy as many copies as you can, so that our grandchildren are saved from the intellectual pollution

I could go on a rant, but I won’t.

how to decide what books to read
Delete, delete, delete

There are obviously exceptions to the above.

In addition,

8. Books by the same author seem like a good idea, but this isn’t a reliable rule

J. R. R. Tolkien, for example.

9. Reviews aren’t very important

Arthur explains it well above.

Case in point: The Da Vinci Code is 4.5/5 on Amazon.

And what if you are too cool for books?

Who do you like to read online?

Maria’s Brain Pickings is excellent

The Brain blog is overly academic in its tone, but still nice

Massimo’s Footnotes to Plato is lots of cool philosophy

Lots of other blogs where I know, or feel like I know, the author.

The French nose triumphed over the Bashkir arrow

“During the course of an exchange of fire, we took prisoner a French lieutenant colonel whose name I have now forgotten. To this officer’s ill-fortune, nature had bestowed on him a nose of extraordinary size, and to make matters worse, this nose had been shot through with an arrow which was embedded to half its length. We helped the lieutenant colonel down from his horse and set him on the ground so that we could free him of this distressing adornment.

A few Bashkirs were among the curious people who gathered around the sufferer. Our medic grabbed a saw and prepared to cut the arrow in two so as to remove it painlessly from either side of the enormous pierced nose, when one of the Bashkirs recognised the weapon as one of his own and seized the medic by both hands.

‘No,’ said he, ‘my good sir, I won’t let you cut my arrow. Don’t offend me, sir. Please don’t. It is my arrow. I’ll take it out myself.’
‘Are you raving?’ we said to the fellow. ‘How will you get it out?’
‘Well, sir, I’ll take one end and pull it out, and the arrow will stay in one piece.’
‘And the nose?’ we inquired.
‘And the nose,’ he answered, ‘the devil take it!’
You can imagine the roar of laughter that greeted his words. Meanwhile, the French officer, not understanding a word of Russian, was trying to guess what was going on. He begged us to chase the Bashkir away, which we did; the affair was settled, and in the end the French nose triumphed over the Bashkir arrow.”

Memoirs of Denis Davidov

Are you good at writing stories, be they fictional or real?

Where do you start?

Photo by Henry Chuy on Unsplash

Abortion: the railway dilemma edition

Not to get political in the sense of trying to change people’s minds, I want to see what people think about the issue of the right to life of the unborn – reframed as a transplant problem.

In Ireland, it’s always a debated issue as Ireland has very conservative legislation on the matter.

The non-religious pro-life argument is:

  1. There is a right to bodily integrity.
  2. There is a right to life.
  3. The right to life overrides the right to bodily integrity, hence, abortion isn’t rightful.

Underlying assumption: the unborn has rights.

abortion ethics railway dilemma trolley problem

I was wondering if there is a way to use railway dilemma ethics here. To remind you:

“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?”

To me, this is identical to the following problem, though some people don’t agree:

“A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Do you support the morality of the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons and save their lives?”

I really like how the railway dilemma was reframed into a transplant issue. I was just curious, could the pro-life argument be reframed too?

So here is a thought experiment:

A grown person requires a life-saving transplant.

You are the only match in the world.

Does your bodily integrity come below their right to life?

Is it different if they are your child?

abortion eighth amendment ethics philosophy

Differences between the unique match vs pregnancy situations:

  1. Assuming that a woman became pregnant through a consensual act, she was aware of the possibility that her bodily integrity could be compromised by another being. A person living with the exact antigen type required never did anything that implied that they may need to sacrifice their bodily integrity for another person.
  2. The process of child birth is natural. Transplant is an invasive man-made procedure.

Differences between unique match to a child vs pregnancy situations in addition to the above:

The mother never envisaged that her bodily integrity would be compromised in this particular way.

What do you think?

Pareto principle as a consequence of positive feedback loops

“Alexander to Aristotle greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.”

And Aristotle, soothing this passion for preeminence, speaks, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines, as in fact both published and not published: as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.

– The Life of Alexander the Great By Plutarch

Besides the fact that Alexander was a paranoid megalomaniac, this occurred to me:

Learning begets more learning.

As well as:

  • Fitness begets more fitness.
  • Money begets more money.
  • Friendship begets more friendship.
  • Even children – traditionally people tended to either have none at all or a good few.

There is positive feedback (all up to a point of course and then returns diminish).

Why are societal things positive feedback loops whereas biological things are generally negative feedback loops? There are exceptions of course, notably the use it or lose it principle in anything neurological/behavioural as well as in exceptional situations like labour.

Can we think of any examples where there is a negative feedback loop in a sociological context?

It doesn’t have to be limited to humans by the way.

I can think of the following examples of negative feedback in society:

  • Election fatigue or the general situation of chasing after someone who isn’t interested be it in marketing or in interpersonal situations (for clarity, we can phrase it as the more attention they receive, the less attention they return).
  • Obviously, there are lots of theories about how markets self-regulate, but they are filled with problems.
  • Prices vs demand and prices vs supply is another tempting one. However, here the relationship is more genuinely between supply and demand rather than between either of those and price – and that’s not a negative loop.

And if there aren’t very many examples of negative feedback, this explains that so many things in society follow the 80/20 rule rather than the normal distribution.

In fact, you can extrapolate the 80/20 rule. Then you get:

64% of outcomes come from 4% of causes,

51.2% of outcomes come from 0.8% of causes.

I have about 20 GB worth of songs on my phone and I listen to the same 10 tracks. In other words, because there is no negative feedback (up to a pretty high threshold), these 10 songs monopolise my listening “choices”.  I have a whole wardrobe of stuff but I wear the same things all the time. Same with pots and pans. Apps on my phone.

Income inequality doesn’t quite as devilish when you think about it this way.

My thinking is that if we find more examples of macro scale negative feedback loops, we may be able to understand whether there is another way.

Or are we just always going to be in a use it or lose it situation? Are we just one giant self-similar network of walking talking neurons?

Feigenbaumzoom.gif
By BewareircdOwn work, Public Domain, Link

 

“I won’t cry when she dies”

I came across a heart-wrenching story shared by a Russian blogger, here it is translated:

“I had a sister when I was younger. I’m the older of the two. My sister was terminally ill from the age of six. And for our parents, she was everything. They never paid attention to me. There was never any praise for my hard work – and I tried, I wanted them to notice how I hard try.

And thank God I tried, because I was able to go to college and get an education.

There were no gifts. My mother often forgot to ask if I’d eaten.

Aged 10, my sister died of leukaemia. I was scared and felt sorry for her, and one day when I was crying, my mother came to the room and said: if it weren’t for you, she would have got more attention. I was 12 then.

Then it began: if it weren’t for you, we would have taken her abroad, she would at least have see the world. If it weren’t for you, we would have bought a house out the country and would have taken your sister there… and so on. My heart sank every time my mother came into my room.

It lasted about a year, then it died down.

But there was a cult of my sister in the house. I grew up and though that it would have been better if I had been the one that died, not my sister. Thank God, my father treated me much better than did my mother. He kept me from going mad. He helped me while I was studying. But then he died; it was his heart.

As soon as I could, I moved out. And now my mother demands attention from me. If I do not call for 2-3 days, she makes a complaint, she says I’m an ungrateful beast.

When I remind her of my childhood, she says: you are a liar! We loved you both equally! I say: try to remember at least one gift that you gave me. She replies: as if I am bothered reminiscing about dolls.

Now she demands that I take her to live with me, because loneliness kills, and she is already sick. It’s true, she’s really sick and angry at the world. I honestly do not know what to do.

On the one hand, she’s still my mother, although she pushed me away all her life, and on the other – I’m afraid that she will spoil my relationship with my husband if she comes to live with us. Whatever she says now, I know she will be horrible to me. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe life has taught her something. I’m really lost. But I know one thing, I do not like her. When she dies, I will not cry.”

Perhaps the narrator has a skewed view of what happened, but what can you expect from any of us when it comes to childhood memories. It’s so easy to blame our parents.

I didn’t have that level of drama in my life, I think. All the same, some of the feelings in the above entry definitely resonate with me. I am confident they resonate with my mother and how her parents treated her: she was the youngest of three girls and no one ever hid the fact that “she was meant to be a boy” from her. And it would resonate with my father: a man not overly suited to formal academic thinking forced to become an engineer – because to not follow his father’s footsteps is an abomination. And countless other people I know: virtually half the people I know well.

I guess there are good stories too. Everyone’s heard of Magdalene laundries in Ireland. One part that everyone forgets is that in a lot of cases, the woman’s family had to be complicit. Her father had to cave into the local priest, bring the poor expectant woman there and disown her – and not everyone did.

I don’t have a painful sibling story. I’ve countless stories of how my parents stood up – or bent over backwards as the case may be – for me. But I also have a painful divorce story. Every once in a while it rears its head. And I am like that too, still feeling guilty for the untameable destructive craziness of one of the parents, still feeling guilty for not being the perfect daughter though I realise the limiting factor there isn’t set by me.

  1. Are we all this fkd up or do I just have a very bad sample?
  2. What do you do with your crazy relatives?

Why Christ was a carpenter

The wonderful Pink Agendist recently introduced Jordan Peterson by quoting this:

“Haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson?

Take one part Carl Jung, one part Solzhenitsyn, one part Kermit the Frog, and one part St. Augustine. Put all this in a conceptual blender”.

While I don’t particularly like any of those ingredients, just like a Negroni, Peterson turned out to be more than the sum of his parts and just fabulous in small quantities.

He is quite right-wing compared to what I am used to. He explains the plight of young women and why they don’t “move up the corporate ladder” extremely well here. He made an interesting point: that status is more important for men compared to women because it’s the main criterion on which women judge men. This almost certainly applies in many animal societies where the winner takes all, but I am not so sure it applies with us. I think that when it comes to forming serious relationships, men require a woman to have a CV comparable to theirs, a family background comparable to theirs, etc. A man’s infatuation is unlikely to override these more prosaic factors. Herein probably also lies the real answer to “why he lost interest”: his interest was in a woman’s superficial qualities and burnt out pretty quickly as it should, while her underlying “status” wasn’t attractive enough to sustain more long-term interest. It’s less psychopathic than it sounds as it is simply based on common interests.

His advice for hyper-intellectual people is refreshing. He explains how you can be utterly unwise and even useless with an IQ of 160. It’s good for the ubereducated millenial to listen to this in a world where intelligence is pretty glorified. Peterson’s ideas are very reminiscent of Taleb’s “intellectual yet idiot”, “skin in the game” stuff.

Peterson takes a literary critic type approach to the Bible. He says that Jesus Christ was a carpenter because there is a certain honesty in a carpenter’s work: it falls down if it isn’t made well, so there is less BS-vending and more doing. Furthermore, Jesus has moral superiority without having a Ph.D. and a New York Times best-seller, so the lesson is that you don’t have to be “intelligent” to be effective.

His book, Maps of Meaning, seems to be of interest. Here is the PDF available free via his website (nice touch). Any reviews? To me, he sounds like a dilettante, albeit with a professor title. I suppose if you are popularising stuff, it’s hard to sound any different.

Some of Peterson’s videos though reek of the usual quasi-scientific verging on self-helpy aspects of psychology (one of his books is called 12 Rules for Life. Hmm.) Some of his political views seems to be sensationalist. He’s even been featured on Oprah, but still, interesting presence.

I found his list of recommended books pretty good though:

1. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

2. 1984 – George Orwell

3. Road To Wigan Pier – George Orwell

4. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

5. Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky

6. Beyond Good And Evil – Friedrich Nietzsche

7. Ordinary Men – Christopher Browning

8. The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski

9. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang

10. Gulag Archipelago (Vol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3) – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

11. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

12. Modern Man in Search of A Soul – Carl Jung

13. Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – Jordan B. Peterson

14. A History of Religious Ideas (Vol. 1Vol. 2Vol. 3) – Mircea Eliade

15. Affective Neuroscience – Jaak Panksepp

Words as violence

The Russians have a law against offending the feelings of religious followers.

It came up again today because a magazine did a (somewhat) explicit photoshoot in a church they considered abandoned:

offending feelings of religious people russia ethics
Source: Vkontakte

It turns out the church wasn’t entirely abandoned and was occasionally used. This may result in a court case against the model/photographer/publication involved: not because they perpetrated land belonging to the church, but because they offended people’s religious beliefs.

A man recently received a suspended sentence for catching Pokemon in another church for this reason.

Is the fact that the Russians want to protect the religious any different to the snowflakery millennials are getting accused of?

In West it is kind of the opposite, but the same principle applies. We’re most worried about offending those who fight for more modern things, e.g. non-traditional genders.

It’s a past time of mine to observe the parallels between two places that most people consider as different as night and day. And it allows me to ask: why is there such a global cross-cultural tendency to protect the feelings of minorities through law?

In a recent case, a woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because of what she said. Of course, her words were evil. It was emotional abuse taken to the limit.

But can words really be equated to violence?

I think that this would only encourage physical violence by closing a steam valve. It makes little of victims of real violence. There’s something wrong with putting genuinely violent people in the same category with someone who likes to rant.

Incitement to hatred? Obviously it would be ideal if we all agreed and lived in peace and love. But assuming that we’re not moving to a utopia any time soon, isn’t it better to allow people to peacefully rant and speak freely than to encourage them to band into groups and get violent against the establishment which is what we achieve by marginalising them? In fact, ranters of a denomination could verbally spar with other types of ranters. Might it even be a healthy debate?

Perhaps non-violent hating is like a small forest fire:

“Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.” – Nassim Taleb. Antifragile : things that gain from disorder.

Similarly, marginalising the “haters” just leads to real violence.

Having said that, I can relate. I have often felt like I needed trigger warnings. I get very upset at certain images in films and documentaries. But I would never feel that someone owes it to me to prevent me from them: if I made a choice to watch a film, that’s just part of the consequences. Being honest, I don’t watch that many films for this precise reason.

Virtually every book or film I process results in an overwhelming spillage of thoughts and emotions (hence, this blog). In fact, I am still haunted by a number of books I read.

When I was in school, we were always given a book list for the summer. Part of me wishes I’d never read Three Comrades and The Collector. Part of me is enraged that there wasn’t a trigger warning on those books. But by reading these books I learnt what I do and don’t like – and why.

But let’s just imagine that words aren’t violence and flip the question: should it be a crime to offend people’s feelings?

P. S. I am meant to be working on Philip Larkin‘s poetry, but I’m not a fan, hence, all this 🙂