Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Tides of Mind by David Gelertner **

Don't be confused: not brain science. The Tides of Time: uncovering the spectrum of consciousness by computer scientist David Gelertner (61) unfortunately reminded me of How to Live Longer and Feel Better by Linus Pauling and many popular business books. Linus Pauling because his training and fame (Nobel Prize Chemistry 1954) gave him a platform to expound far and wide, beyond to realms of science, sometimes with success (Nobel Peace Prize 1962) and others without (vitamin C advocacy).

And business books? When I was in business school, I was advised that be proper way to read popular business books was introduction, first and last chapter. Scanning what came between was suggested to be optional.

The author often assumes the professorial voice making broad statements with no scientific support. Here is an example from a chapter on dreams reminiscent of Freud and the Old Testament, both of which are referenced.
“The dream demands total attention. The is no room (or not much) for anything else, and thus we reach pure being…” 
As someone who regularly experiences lucid dreaming knows, this is a romantic fantasy. This is not the brain science I was looking for. Could be my fault, for the book is cataloged as philosophy, psychology, religion, not brain science.

When this 21st century author revisits neuroses, years after Karen Horney and Sigmund Fried, he returns to repressed feelings, completely ignoring the modern science of brain chemistry and function. Psychology is moving beyond this basis for therapy and treatment.

What does he base these traditional explanations on? The bulk of his supporting evidence is from classical novels by great authors like Austen and Hemingway, not the imaging and biochemistry which is today's standard.

He closes with this strangely prescient statement:
"Nothing is sadder than an eminent thinker's making a fool of himself by explaining or denouncing things he doesn't understand."
If you are interested in theories of mind and consciousness, and don't mind theories based on introspection and novels, this could be the book for you. In a century where so many are doing hard observational science on this topic, I found this book to be oddly old fashion in the style of the brilliant Freud whom the author takes as one of his inspirations.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver ****

It is said that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver demonstrates that if your only tool is statistics, everything looks like probability.

Nate Silver applies probability (Bayesian) analysis to a wide range of questions from baseball, sports betting, and poker, to earthquakes, stocks, terrorism, climate change and politics. Each topic is explored in detail, lots of numerical detail.

He gives a good example of complexity: consider a pile a sand. It is impossible to know if the next grain of sand is going to make a small change or trigger an avalanche. We know if we continue long enough we will see an avalanche, but we can not predict exactly when. That is complexity and it has rarely been explained better.

Thus is we predict an avalanche on the next grain of sand, we will most likely be wrong. In fact in fields as diverse as seismology and politics, most predictions are wrong.

However, while individual predictions are wrong, and specific events might rare, general observations can be true. Back to our sand avalanche. Avalanches are very rare and impossible to predict, but we should be surprised when they happen. They always happen.

A real world example shows how this is confusing. The chance of some individual winning the lottery twice is vanishingly small, but that someone will do this is a sure thing, and we shouldn't be surprised when it happens.

This book is filled with many interesting observations and analyses, together with a few jokes.

What does an economist do when they see a $100 bill on the ground? Nothing! They think: If the bill was real, someone would have picked it up already.

This book is every left brain, analytical, lover of math and numbers' dream. Math porn at its best.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Broker by John Grisham ****

John Grisham is a best-selling author of legal thrillers. Many have been made into movies: The Firm, The Client, Runaway Jury, and The Pelican Brief... to mention a few. It seems like every so often he gets bored. In 2001, he wrote a novel set in rural Arkansas (The Painted House) during the 1950. No lawyers. The book read like an autobiographical novel, except that the author was born in 1955.

It seems he got bored again in 2005. The Broker by John Grisham is not as far from his shelf containing dozens of legal thrillers. This book is a spy thriller. The book is engaging, but more for the John Grisham fan, as the the level of jeopardy and action is low for a spy thriller.

How low key is the story? The description of Bologna architecture, and Italian culture and cuisine, and even Italian language each carry more weight that the spy story. Most telling is that I read the novel ten years ago and at no point did I realized that I was reading the story for the second time.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why Sh*t Happens by Peter J Bentley ****

This is a pretty random, but interesting, collection of sciencey essays built around a narrative of a "really bad day." Why Sh*t Happens by Peter J Bentley includes about three dozen essays from sour milk to lightning to burns and blisters.

The book is full of interesting science and engineering. For example, even though cheese was originally made using stomach enzymes from various mammals like cows and goats, the current source of the enzyme (rennin) comes from genetically-engineered fungus. Think about that the next time your enjoy mac and cheese, or quesadilla.

Some other surprises include that birds have a single exit point for both solid and liquid waste. This is called the cloaca and explains why bird excrement looks as it does.

Twining is a type of weaving that has been in use for around 40,000 years. It allows intricate patterns on a simple, fixed hand loom.

An interesting complexity to a CD drive is that the speed of the disc is varied to keep the velocity of the read/write head constant. The was not true for vinyl records where rotation was fixed and the needle moved faster for the outer tracks and slower for the inner tracks.

I recommend this highly as a bathroom book, one that can be picked up and put down without losing continuity. Note that the author and the writing is British, and word such as American gas/gasoline appear as the British petro/petroleum.