Sunday, February 27, 2005

Books to help you think better

The last post mentioned that I've been doing some extra reading lately. Some of it has been books on how to think better. I haven't finished all of these. Some of them are just plain difficult to understand. But they are all worthwhile and make a person look at the world in a different way or at least make you more conscious about how you think.

Frances Yates spent a fascinating career looking at Western magical and mystical thought from theElizabethan magic to old mental technologies. A lot of this was lost or suppressed. You can get a highly regarded liberal arts education and never hear about hermetic thought or the Rosicrucian enlightenment even though they had profound influences on centuries of Western thought and influence the way we look at the world to this day.

Two of the best are Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and The Art of Memory .

The first one is more about the basics of hermetic thought than it is about Bruno, although it points out a lot of interesting facts about the man. First of all, he wasn't a martyr to science and the truth. He wasn't burned because he believed that the Earth went around the sun but because he was an anarchistic, heretical renegade priest, a threat to the stability of any society he lived in and a black magician. The surprising thing isn't that the Church and State killed him as a menace. It's that they took so long to do it.

The second book is a real treasure. We think we know more about how the mind works than we ever did before. That is certainly true on a physical level, but there are old mostly forgotten technologies that demonstrated a deep understanding that is mostly lost today. One of the least of these was memory. Plato bemoaned the rise of literacy, saying that it would lead to the degeneration of the powers of remebering. It wasn't uncommon, according to Bronowski, for an educated upper class young person's tutor a couple centuries ago to give an assignment along the following lines. Listen to the sermon this week. Transcribe it afterwards and translate it into Latin, Greek and French. Summarize the important points.

Consider the first part. "Transcribe it afterwards". We don't develop our memories as systematically as people did in years past. Yates goes into the history of mnemonics from Greek oratory to Renaissance occultism. Enough technique is included to give a hard working reader the keys to developing this old skill. If you want to build a memory palace this is a good place to start. This sort of thing wasn't esoteric in its day. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci describes how a 16th century Jesuit missionary in China "hooked" Confucian scholars with memory palace techniques that every educated European knew in his day.

Speaking of old ways of training the mind, the old liberal arts were the Trivium - Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric - and the Quadrivium - Arithmetic, Astronomy, Music and Geometry. Sister Joseph Miriam's book The Trivium gives a good introduction to the first three. It doesn't have everything, but it's a good start and explains why these were considered the basics of a disciplined mind.

Logic is fascinating. There's a lot more to it than there used to be; it bridges disciplines from linguistics to philosophy and mathematics. There are many good books, but most of them are expensive and highly technical. A good introduction to modern logics can be found in The Blackwell Guide and its Companion. They are weak on mathematical logic, especially important ideas like fuzzy sets and fuzzy logic but are a good start.

Grammar didn't use to just mean rules like "don't split infinitives". It included things like digging out the real meaning of a text on several levels. These days that ends up in subjects like semiotics. I know nothing about the subject but liked Umberto Eco's fiction and have started on his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language and Theory of Semiotics which are both highly regarded. Highly regarded and heavy slogging. I'm barely keeping my head above water with these two.

One of my favorite authors as a kid was Robert Heinlein. Through him I got interested in Korzybski's Science and Sanity It's very interesting but very dense. If you're interested in the ideas you'd be well advised to pick up a copy of Susan and Bruce Kodish's Drive Yourself Sane, a study guide and commentary.

Most of my life I've been a nerd - scientist, engineer, computer jockey. Most people in these fields are busy doing science or engineering, not talking about it to non-scientists. Very few of them are any good at explaining how and why they do what they do. C.P. Snow's Two Cultures don't speak to each other very often (although the science types tend to have more contact with the arts and humanities than the other way around). It's sad. Science and engineering have had a profound effect on everything for the last four centuries. But most people treat them like they are magic or inhuman and incomprehensible.

There are a few people who can take a scientific view of the world and make it accessible.

Jacob Bronowski was one. According to an old colleague he was able to explain science to the humanities professors, culture to the scientists and both of them to the managers. His PBS series The Ascent of Man is still one of the best works on the history of ideas.

Stephen Gould was another. He wasn't just one of the most important biologists of the late twentieth century. He was a geologist and professor of the history of science who could put scientific ideas in their philosophical and historical context. He wrote twenty years of essays (mostly for Natural History magazine) including The Panda's Thumb and Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet. One his best is The Mismeasure of Man, a history of intelligence testing. Every ten years or so it has to be dusted off to slap down another bunch of pseudo-scientists including the authors of the infamous and execrable The Bell Curve.

If Gould makes biology interesting you will probably be fascinated by Ernst Mayr. His books on evolutionary thought are superb works by a man who spent three quarters of a century thinking about and developing this important and misunderstood part of science. What Evolution Is is probably the best written for the educated layperson.

After biologists physicists seem to write the best science books for non-scientists. Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking are among the best. Their technical works require a lot of mathematics and physics background and can be formidable - when Richard Feynman taught freshman physics at Cal Tech his lecture notes became classics, and legend has it that none of the students declared a physics major that year. Their popular books give excellent insight into how physicists think and do science.

Engineering is a lot like Rodney Dangerfield. It doesn't get no respect. A few authors with engineering backgrounds have taken their love for their profession and communicated it in a way that is truly compelling.

Henry Petroski has written several books on engineering, design and the history of everyday objects. A good place to start is Small Things Considered, although I also like From Thought to Thing. Donald Norman writes engagingly and deeply about the philosophy of industrial design in The Design of Everyday Things. Samuel Florman tends to rant and see Luddites under every bed, but his plea to look at engineering alongside the liberal arts is passionate and makes sense.

Mathematics is the queen or handmaiden of science, depending on whether the author is a mathematician or a scientist. Whichever is closer to the truth, there is no doubt that most people stay shy away from mathematics. In a world where statistics, projections and numbers are used to support or destroy world-altering policies it is more important than ever to have at least a nodding acquaintance with these things.

The classic is How To Lie With Statistics. This little book is 50 years old and is every bit as accurate and important today as it was then. It's a superb introduction to how people use and misuse statistics and figures and how to get at the truth behind them. Anyone who wants to be informed and think critically needs to understand the material here. And Huff makes it easy.

Another Big Idea which people have trouble with is probability. Nasim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness and Peter Bernstien's Against the Odds: The Remarkable Story of Risk introduce important ideas from probability from the perspective of a successful Wall Street traders who are also mathematicians. Some subtle mathematical ideas are presented in a very clear and entertaining fashion. A lot of common fallacies and superstitions are held up to the light, much to the reader's embarassment.

John Paulos has written a number of books aimed at correcting this deficiency. Inummeracy: Mathemtical Illiteracy and its Consequences is the most important. A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is also very good.

Somewhere between visual art, science, and communication you will find Edward Tufte. His books - The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Enivisioning Information, and Visual Explanations are classics. The reader will come away from them with a completely new appreciation for how to show things in creative ways that will touch and inform the reader and conversely how people from different cultures visualize the world. An essay and extended rant The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint gives eloquent voice to the frustrations of anyone who has sat through one too many bullet lists and the end product of the Content Wizard; it will explain exactly why Powerpoint is evil and makes people stupid.

I'll end with a couple of books that come at the world from a completely different direction.

Shaykh 'Abd Al-Qadir Al-Jilani wrote a number of books of incredible subtlety and wisdom. I'm currently working on The Secret of Secrets which is part theory and partly a guide to moving towards spiritual maturity. It goes well, surprisingly, with Maimonedes' The Guide for the Perplexed.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Metaphysical Brain Cramps

Blogging, blogging,
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Blogging, blogging

It's time to do something with this blog besides watch it gather dust. Since I'm currently a Gentleman of Leisure (i.e. unemployed) I've had some time to catch up on books that have been on the "read some day because they're good for you" shelf. Some of these books are fiction. Others are about politics, logic or philosophy. A common theme in most of them is "What do you know and how do you know it?"

In light of this, the 800 pound gorilla squatting in American consciousness is a very strange beast indeed.

We're fighting a war on terror. The news says so every night. Our president never lets a speech go by without mentioning it. The talking heads can't open their mouths without bringing it up. It sounds good. Fight the terror. Kill the terrorists. Make the nation safe and ensure our liberties. Alright. I can understand that.

But then my little amphibian brain works on it a little longer, and it seems like whoever thought of this has set up a really bad practical joke.

We're fighting a War on Terror, and every one of us, we are told, is a soldier in that war. Hold on. We're supposed to be constantly activated, motivated, on guard and alert to the smallest sign of danger so that we can defeat fear. Tom Ridge pulls out a red or orange M&M so we're supposed to duct tape our windows. The Pentagon reports "chatter" and un-named credible threats, and we need to be "alert" and "ready for a terrorist attack". We have to be always afraid so that we can defeat fear and make it an ineffective weapon in the hands of our enemies.

Something's just not right here. A picture is coming into view.

And then there's the price. We've been told by our highest elected officials that the terrorists hate our freedom and want nothing more than to take away our liberty. There's only one way to fight them. All power must be concentrated in the Executive branch. Secret trials, lifetime detention without trial, torture, arbitrary arrest, classification of previously open information, partial mobilization and a (permanent) limited state of emergency, removal of all Congressional oversight of intelligence, world wide death squads and the end of the Posse Comitatus Act are small prices to pay to preserve our essential liberty.

And now the picture has a frame.

Whether or not any of these policies is good the message is twisted enough to hide in a corkscrew's shadow. To defeat fear we must live in constant fear. To preserve our freedoms we must abandon them.