Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Program of Reading Better


I present suggestions for reading actively, reading more and reading better books. Reading is an important path to knowledge and is a fun way to grow in empathy. In the age of the information revolution, previous cultural habits and norms surrounding reading need to be revised. Books are no longer scarce, people ought to read more books. Books are no longer scarce, but time is: readers ought to stop reading a book as soon as they can get more value from another book. I consider that readers ought to write about what they read as a way to read more critically, including writing in books and writing summaries of books. I describe how I organize my reading with lists in Trello and how I apply spaced repetition to memorize key concepts that I read. 
This blog post is organized as an essay, followed by the list of books that I read in 2018 and summaries of some of those books:


At one point in 2017, I found myself envious of Bill Gates, not for his enormous wealth, but for his leisure time to read 'about 50' books per year. I resolved to keep track of how many books I read and to make better use of my limited reading time. You can see how well I did in the below section "List of books that I finished reading in 2018." But beyond keeping score with Bill Gates, my goals for reading are:
  1. To further my continuing education. I want to know every useful thing! I especially want to pursue my own specific intellectual interests. By reading, I can grow as a person to become a better engineer, a better writer, a better musician, employee, husband, father, etc. This goal is the most important to me. 
  2. To have fun! Pure hedonic pleasure is an important end in itself that sometimes seems to be undervalued in the written word, especially by people who are insecure about whether or not others take them seriously. 
  3. To use small sections of time productively. I prefer to do creative work in large blocks of time. But with a job and small kids, often the free time comes in tiny segments. Reading is a way for me to make productive use of a spare 15 minutes that still feels like incremental progress as a scholarly and creative person. 
  4. To keep up with culture. Knowing popular stories helps me connect with others who also know the stories. Watching TV might be a more effective way of achieving this goal on its own. In the last few years, I expanded my cultural knowledge by reading the Harry Potter series, 1984Animal Farm and the as-currently-published Game of Thrones series. 
Knowing popular stories also helps you understand other writing more deeply. A reader of English will, in general, find immense use in having studied Shakespeare (I have too little) and the Bible (I have too much). I recently read an article in the New York Times that described a politician’s campaign as being “quixotic” (they seem to do this a lot). "Quixotic" takes on its deepest meaning if one has read the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. That one word is the condensation of an entire book! Actually, many words are like this: 'Faustian,' 'yahoo,' and 'serendipity' are but three examples.
Reading fiction also helps to build empathy, see "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," By David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano, Science, 18 Oct 2013 : 377-380. In 2018, I read two books that were particularly emotionally moving and helped me see another perspective: Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling. I present my own summary of Picture Us In The Light below, so I won't expand on it here. In The Order of the Phoenix, I was transported into Harry's high-anxiety adolescence in wonderful detail.
The main goal of reading non-fiction is to learn. I suggest reading more actively to increase how much you remember from your reading. But why bother remembering in the age of internet search engines? I need to know what to search for. Sometimes, I need to be fast and constantly looking bits and pieces up on the internet will slow me down, especially if I have to synthesize disparate results. I need to be able to discriminate between the silver and the dross on the internet. The question is usually more important than the answer. Furthermore, I want to be able to contribute good content to the internet for the search engines to find for other people. Reading is a step toward knowing and knowing is a step toward teaching others, to the betterment of humanity. 

Read actively

To read better, read actively. The problem is: I read and then I forget. The goals of active reading are to get more out of the material at the time of reading and to hold on to more of that material long-term. Remembering what I read has a few levels: 
  1. Remembering that I have read something, so that I can look up the work later;
  2. Remembering high level concepts about what I read, so that I can look up those concepts later;
  3. Remembering specific details and skills, so that I don’t need to do any looking up to make use of what I know.
When I started my PhD, I didn’t keep track of what I was reading and more than once I wanted to go back to something but couldn’t even find the article. I resolved the problem of forgetting references by saving all my citations in a program called Zotereo. Having all my references in Zotereo gave me the power to look up anything a second time. Furthermore, I started a practice of writing a summary of every article that I read — a discipline that was directly useful in writing my dissertation. Hopefully, the act of writing a summary helped me to understand more of what I read and in the best cases it meant that I didn't have to revisit articles over again. Today, I continue this practice by writing a summary of each non-fiction book I read. You can read some of the summaries that I wrote in 2018 in the section "Book summaries," below.
In "A Weapon for Readers" (2014), Tim Parks recommends that we all learn to read with a pen in our hands. I first started writing in e-books because the cultural interdiction against desecrating books with a pen obviously did not apply. After reading Parks' article, I realized the benefit of writing in my own print books. (Perhaps it's still good to encourage children not to purposelessly deface books, but the short term benefit of that advice must be tempered with the possibility that the rule might outlive its usefulness.) My wife has accused me of believing too much of what I read; writing in books is one way to prime the mind for critical thinking. Marginalia are a great starting point for writing a summary. Underlined passages can be copied out as key quotations. Fermat's Last Theorem was written in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica by Diophantus. That copy of Arithmetica (if it still exists) is more valuable for that margin note. I read Linear Algebra and Its Applications by Gilbert Strang from a copy with my dad's margin notes and underlining, and I felt like I was learning alongside him. A copy with your own notes adds value to the second reading because you will converse not only with the author, but also with your past self. The process of reading and writing is social, so join in!
After reading the book, mounting a counterattack with my own pen and summarizing the book, I feel well placed to achieve the first two goals: remembering what I've read and remembering some of the high-level concepts. To hold some of the details long-term, I use the flashcard app Anki. After reading the gwern.net piece on spaced repetition with Anki, I was inspired to use the technique myself but was left with the question of what to memorize. The ideas you choose to memorize will be ready for use at any time and will build the base of knowledge that enables you to learn other concepts faster. (Naturally, you might want to memorize other things beyond what you read, like words in a new language.)
...you must concentrate on fundamentals, at least what you think at the time are fundamentals, and also develop the ability to learn new fields of knowledge when they arise so you will not be left behind...
If you read something that strikes you as fundamental, then memorize that idea! But if some idea is specialized, limited in scope or is easily derived from other, more basic ideas, then consider memorizing something else. One day, I asked a colleague to help me decipher an equation in a journal paper that I was reading. She told me that it was the inverse Fourier transform. Because the Fourier transform is fundamental to my field, I was embarrassed! The spaced repetition technique is to test yourself on a flash card with decreasing frequency for those cards consistently answered correctly, so there's not much cost for having an easy flash card in your deck. 
As a writer and a lover of language, I want to expand my vocabulary. As I'm reading, whenever I find a word that I don't know, I underline the word and copy it to one of the blank pages at the start of the book. After I finish the book, I create an Anki flash card for the definition of each of the words. The Genesis of a Music by Harry Partch produced an unusually large vocabulary list, which I have included below after my summary of the book.
Sometimes I come across an idea in a book that needs to be tried out, rather than memorized. For example, textbooks often come with exercises. Other kinds of books hint more subtly at exactly what you ought to do. For example, the best way for me to dig deeper into the ideas from The Genesis of a Music would be to write some music using one of the many musical scales that the author suggests.  Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch has a number of interesting approaches for creativity that must be tried. In addition to my notes of ideas to memorize, I keep a to-do list with ideas from what I read. 
Here's a summary of my active reading program:
  • Read the book with a pen or pencil in hand, underlining sections and writing margin notes. 
  • Underline and keep track of words that I don't know.
  • Make notes for new ideas to try or new Anki cards to create.
  • Write a summary of the book.
I vary this routine for library books (which must be returned pristine) and I usually excuse myself from active reading for fiction. Also, the list of ideas to try from books seems to grow faster than I find time to try out the ideas, which are often difficult or open-ended.

Read more

To read better, read more. Often, the opportunity cost of reading a book is that you are not watching TV or idly browsing the web. Reading is a good way to use low-quality time or to use time in a restful way. On the other hand, difficult material requires high-quality time. Once when I was reading the challenging and tremendous Linear Algebra and Its Applications I had make the room absolutely silent in order to summon a focus of the requisite intensity. If the value of the material is clear or if it's fun, then finding the time is easier. I read large portions of Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker over coffee early in the morning before the rest of my family woke up -- a serene delight!
Audiobooks and podcasts are another way to make use of other scraps of time like walking to work or pushing the stroller to get a kid to sleep. I found that noise cancelling headphones help while listening and walking down the street. E-books are another great way to make use of time spent waiting for the bus or standing in line when you might otherwise be playing the latest smartphone game. E-books are also cheaper to store and are sometimes cheaper to buy. For a little while, I was into e-books, but currently I favor print. E-books are significantly easier to search, so the ideal case would be to have both digital and analog copies of one's entire library. My recommendation is to consume more books, regardless of the medium.
In March 2017, I started using a Trello board to organize and motivate my reading. I have the following lists:
  • Interesting Titles
  • To Read
  • Reading
  • Partially read; on hold
  • Read 2019
  • Read 2018
  • Read 2017
  • Read 2016 or before
  • Partially Read and Abandoned
When I come across a reference to a book that seems interesting, I add a card for that book to the first list. When I make up my mind to read a book, I move it to the "To Read" list. Once I start reading a book, the card moves to the "Reading" list. When I finish a book, I move it triumphantly to the "Read" list for the current year. This is how I count the number of books that I read each year. (I don't include the many kid's books that I read aloud in the pursuit of my children's education.)
I add interesting titles faster than I can read books. Separating "Interesting Titles" from "To Read" helps slow down my book purchases to better match my reading speed. Thanks to mail order in the age of the information revolution, I have almost the same access to books as Bill Gates, despite being much less wealthy. Bill Gates got a pre-print copy of Enlightenment Now while I did not, so technically my book access is less than his. Still, I can get books more easily than the kings of old! The only trouble that remains is reading them.
The "Interesting Titles" list also serves the purpose of reminding me of what I do not know. In The Black Swan, Nassim N. Taleb writes:
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly, Indeed the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books, an antilibrary.
When Taleb says "Read books are far less valuable than unread ones," he probably doesn't mean that reading a book causes me to end up worse off. Despite my affection for dead tree books, I favor a digital list for the best part of my antilibrary. My financial means allows me to purchase many more books than I have space for in my house, given the eternally tight real-estate market in Valley of Element Fourteen.
The goal of cultivating an antilibrary is to intimidate oneself with a palpable sense of one's own ignorance. Reading widely also serves to expand my appreciation for my own ignorance. Recently, I was thinking to myself how I started Strang's Linear Algebra in May 2018 with the arrogant belief that I pretty much understood all of the material already and that it would mostly be review, but the process of reading the book revealed just how much I didn't understand. Keeping an antilibrary is one defense against the Dunning-Kruger effect, but actually learning about some topic typically reveals even more about that topic that remains to be learned. My prescription is to read more books and to keep a track of even more titles that you haven't read yet.
A side-note on libraries and antilibraries. My small local city library has "more than 330,000 volumes," which span numerous topic of which I am completely ignorant. Some of those books are written in languages that I have no ability to read. But against the scale of all human knowledge, my city's library is tiny. Wandering even such a small library gives one an opportunity to marvel at the orders of magnitude of knowledge that lie beyond the reach of a single lifetime. In this way, any library can be appropriated as one's antilibrary, if only for a day. While this view might make one's personal reading seem pointlessly small, it's important to keep in mind how diverse human knowledge is and how great value can be found in specialization. The list of books I have read reminds me that I do have real and useful knowledge in a narrow set of topics. The antilibrary demonstrates that I am not and cannot be an expert at everything.

Read better books

To read better, read better books. First, you need to find better candidate books to read, then you need to select which of those candidate books to start reading, and finally, you need to figure out when to stop reading a book that you have already started. Here are some heuristics for choosing good books:
  • Choose popular books, for example from a list of best-selling books. This seems to work best for fiction.
  • Choose books that are widely acclaimed and that have stood the test of time: the 'classics.'
  • Choose books recommended by trusted sources, e.g. Bill Gates recommends Englightenment Now, and so do I (in case you accidentally trust my recommendations more).
  • If you read a book and you like it, then choose another book by the same author.
  • Choose books that expand on something you already know well to deepen your knowledge. Following the references in books you read can help with this.
  • Do some exploratory reading — choose a book on a topic that you don’t know anything about or from a foreign culture that you are unfamiliar with. Follow Richard Hamming's advice and aim at fundamentals. This approach is high risk but has high potential reward. 
C. S. Lewis suggests reading old books to balance out the blind spots of the present era. In his introduction to AthanasiusOn The Incarnation, Lewis writes:
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. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. 
Lewis' guidance is particularly about developing good Christian theology, but I think his guidance applies well enough to many other subjects. Of course, I would not read a 4th century book to learn about quantum physics, but my heuristic is that if it's about people and it's true, then it's very old. Alternative perspectives can also be found in different cultures: as a child of the West, I can learn much from the writing of the Chinese, Indian and Arabic cultures.
Suppose that I have already developed a long, broad list of candidate books, that is, I have a large antilibrary, ideally as a wing of my family castle filled with hardcover volumes, but maybe only as a Trello list. How do I choose which book to read next among those candidate books? In the past, when the supply of books was limited, it made sense to read whatever you could find. Fortunately, I can buy or borrow almost any book, so I’m not limited by supply concerns. The question of what to read now is almost the same as the larger question of what to read, but with immediacy, urgency and specificity. One could select a book that addresses one of your immediate problems or current situation. For example, if you or your partner is pregnant with your first child, then now is the time to get around to reading What To Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, assuming that you already had that book in your antilibrary. When I don’t have some pressing need to know something, I usually end up choosing what to read next based on whims. One heuristic is to read what seems like the most fun. Naturally, this heuristic needs to be tempered with the long-term value of reading difficult books. Often, a book lingers in my “To Read” list while I read other books that I hadn’t planned on reading earlier. Actually, having a difficult but not too important book in my reading queue for me to avoid may be an effective application of structured procrastination
Once you start reading a book, the old wisdom is that you ought to finish it. Nancy Pearl's amendment of this rule is that you can stop a book if you have read at least this many pages: 
max(50max(your age50,0),0)
This is a great heuristic and if you're less than 50 years old, then it's super simple: you're allowed to stop if you've reached page 50. I come at the question of when to stop from a slightly different angle: I know my method for selecting books to start in the first place is unreliable. The principle difficulty is that my value of a book is unknown until I read it completely. One way to evaluate whether or not a book is good is to read part of that book. We do this all the time when we read the blurb on the jacket. Moralizing about when I'm allowed to stop reading distracts from productively solving the problem of maximizing my value per hour of reading.
I approach the value of books differently for different kinds of books. Reference books have a constant value per 'topic' that you read (e.g. a word definition in a dictionary), regardless of the order. Read a topic as required then stop, regret free. No one thinks that you should feel guilty for putting down the dictionary if you haven't read it all.
Fiction has value when reading it is fun. But there's also some value in knowing the whole story. Here's a simple model: 
value=number of pages read+finishing bonus.
Under this model, you should push through if you're close to the end. If your goal is having fun, then stop when it gets boring. Restart if you care about knowing the whole story. I remember my dad once saying that if you get bored with a novel, then speed up, without worrying about full comprehension. Sometimes I do that, but I find that my range of effective reading speeds has a rather low upper limit.  
Modeling the value of non-fiction is harder. Some non-fiction books are more reference-like, for example, when the chapters have distinct topics. One book like this is Lost Scriptures by Bart Ehrman. Lost Scriptures comprises introductions to and English translations of the texts of several non-canonical early Christian writings. Reading one introduction and one early non-canonical text adds value to one's life. But there's not much of a synergetic bonus from finishing all of Lost Scriptures; Ehrman's choice of texts is a bit arbitrary and he deliberately abbreviated some of the texts that he included. Other non-fiction books may be more novel-like, where there's one main idea and there's value in finishing the whole book. Some books, like Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, develop an idea gradually over the whole course of the book, and most of the value of the book is in completing the book.
When we sample humanity's library, we are playing a kind of multi-armed-bandit-like problem. We ought to put down one book if we think that we can get more value out of another. The conventional wisdom that one ought to finish books helps us avoid the mistake of underestimating the value of reading complete books. But we also need to avoid the opposite mistake of wasting time on mediocre books. As soon as the preponderance of evidence is against a book, then one ought to stop. In 2018, I started reading Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art by Salomé Voegelin but I stopped without the intention of beginning again. While the promise of the book is the marriage of sound art and philosophy (two of my favorite topics), the book consistently fell short of my hopes by indulging in the verbose academic obscurantism that gave post-modern philosophy its (well-deserved) bad reputation. The book overlooked a number of important, measurable aspects of subjective hearing while devoting too many pages to explicitly unmeasurable subjective and intersubjective phenomena. As I read the book, I progressively built confidence that a different title would suit me better, despite my strong prior belief that I would find the book useful. 
In a similar vein, I started The Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, translated by R. H. M. Elwes, but found the book to be too opaque, too confusing and too abundant in single-purpose re-definitions of common words. Should I have soldiered on to the end, hoping that somehow I could make sense of the master's deep-or-maybe-abysmal insights? My last margin note is on page 32: "I wanted humanist ethics not mumbo-jumbo philosophical arguments about God." Sorry Nancy, I didn't make it to page 50. I made better use of my time reading comprehensible books.


In this blog post I present a program of reading better for fun and continuing education. You should deepen and broaden your knowledge by reading books rather than wasting time with passing trivia. Read actively by freely writing in books, writing summaries for yourself and memorizing selected concepts that you read. Read better by reading more. Fill spare moments with reading, deliberately devote time to make progress through hard books, and keep track of interesting titles to read later. Read better books by making broad guesses at which titles will be most useful to you, choosing among those guesses to meet immediate needs or current whims, and putting down books that fail to deliver value. The spoils for the diligent reader are cultural enrichment, broad empathy and deep knowledge -- veritable antidotes to many of humanity's ills.

List of books that I finished reading in 2018

I finished reading 31 books in 2018. I'm happy with this result compared to Bill Gate's 'about 50' books per year.



  • Harms Reach by Alex Barclay
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (7 books)
  • Prodigy, Isaac Asimov’s Robot City, Book 4, by Arthur Byron
  • The Sacred Sword by Scott Mariani
  • Private Down Under by James Patterson and Michael White
  • Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Roy Gilbert
  • The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated to English by Ken Liu
  • A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter
  • Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • To the Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • 1984 by George Orwell

Book summaries

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By Robert M. Pirsig, 1999 ed. (The book was first published 1974.)
Pirsig presents a fictionalized autobiographical narrative of a westward motorcycle journey across the United States with an interspersed philosophical discussion inside the narrator’s mind (which he calls a “Chautauqua”). Previously in the narrator’s life, he had a mental health break down, a period of hospitalization and electroshock treatment resulting in significant memory loss and a dramatic change of the narrator’s personality. The narrator refers to his previous personality as “Phaedrus.” 
The “Chautauqua” purports to develop the marriage of the romantic and classical approaches to the world (which are similar to Nietzsche’s “Dionysian and Apollonian”) based around a monistic concept, “Quality,” which Phaedrus began developing while teaching rhetoric. Pirsig claims that Quality is the leading edge of experience and the ultimate source of reality, which is found in the relationship between subject and object. Pirsig’s complaints are essentially criticisms of a narrow modernism [1] and the way he develops his purported solution, “Quality,” is postmodern.
In confining postmodernism to a specific thing, Pirsig makes an entirely Aristotelian, modernist error. Postmodernism is the generic form of applying the tools that lead Pirsig to “Quality” but with manifold and diverse end results, and each result must be contextually evaluated. This does not imply that each result is equally true or of equal social value. For example, Pirsig’s “Quality” is useless. He could not apply the subject — object transformation back onto itself — at least, until the last chapter of the book, perhaps, but this transformation is left undeveloped since it is limited in the text to his relationship with his son.
By the way, the sound bites that postmodern means “what’s true for me is not necessarily true for you” and that “truth statements are power statements” are terrible distortions of postmodernism. They are dangerous, sideways invitations to reject the whole of postmodernism (which is mostly useful) because of its common mis-uses. For a long time, I made this mistake myself. Hammers have a tendency to hit the thumb — but that does not make them bad. [2] The best postmodernism is a superset of modernism, is in service of the highest level of rigor and is humanity’s greatest attempt at the attainment of truth (and good!).
Apart from taking a fundamentally monist approach and paying the occasional lip service to Hindu and Buddhist concepts, the book does not describe Zen or elaborate on how to integrate Eastern thought into the Western mindset. The author goes a little further on the “Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and gives deep insights into the meeting of emotion and logic in the process of debugging. In some ways, this is a fabulous work on software engineering. The section on sources of “gumption loss” are particularly applicable to software development. 
The rhetoric of the book is a rather ham-handed hypnosis where the author initially denies ideas that may be controversial for his 1974 audience, then places them on the lips of Phaedrus, and finally accepts them. The mixture of the motorcycle journey narrative and the mental health story with the philosophical development is ultimately a distraction to a clear understanding of the author’s fundamental ideas, unless the reader is hostile to those fundamental ideas. Given how terribly and thoroughly square the United States was in the previous century, the author’s serpentine approach may have been justified, but the continuing value of the book is significantly diminished.
A better education on the subject of the postmodern can be achieved by a reading of Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter (1979), The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) and meaningness.com by David Chapman (2018). The death knell of modernism sounded loud in 1931 with Gödel’s proofs. 


[1] The author’s narrow view of modernism and his surprise at his discovery of vitality in technology are unsurprising given that he is a technical writer for IBM!
[2] In 2019, our venal president, Donald Trump, is a great example of how postmodern society at large is vulnerable to a charismatic leader employing a specific rhetorical technique. The solution, however, is forward, toward a more refined postmodernism, not backward to modernism. The 20th century is littered with many megadeaths in the service of charismatic leaders who exploited vulnerabilities in modern society.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress

By Steven Pinker, 2018
Pinker presents the tremendously wonderful story of global human progress in life, wealth, health, safety and a variety of other aspects of human flourishing. Enlightenment Now made me both laugh and cry with joy. Pinker reveals data to make his case that, far from the world being bad and getting worse, the world has rapidly improved over the last few centuries and is in the best state it has ever been. While our rising standards (which are themselves evidence of progress) have made us more aware of a wider range of problems, the fact is that we have made tremendous progress. We have lifted billions out of poverty; we have eradicated many terrible diseases; we have prolonged the average lifespan; we have reduced maternal and infant mortality; we have trampled starvation; we have lived at peace; we have enriched our lives with travel, art and the internet; we have hope that nuclear weapons may be eliminated. Everything is great!! 
Pinker considers that the values of the Enlightenment were the driving factors behind this unprecedented explosion in human welfare. Specifically, science, reason and humanism have been the catalysts of progress. Knowledge has saved lives. Technology has enriched us. Humanism has directed technology toward good and away from evil. While he does not claim to be a seer, Pinker invites us to look back at the data in order to have a right view of history and to understand the factors that contributed to progress so that we can cause progress to continue. Pinker analyzes approaches alternative to reason, science and humanism and argues against them. 
Far from considering that we have reached utopia, Pinker explains how evolution and entropy imply problems and how solutions cause new problems. Solving hunger in the USA has lead to a secondary, more minor problem of obesity. Adding freedom may have also added to anxiety. Pinker considers that the two greatest problems facing humanity are climate change and nuclear weapons, but he presents possible ways that these problems may be overcome with a combination of technology and international cooperation. While Pinker does not claim to be an unqualified optimist, he does consider that future progress is possible with human efforts in the right direction. Progress is not inevitable but it is humanly possible with reason, science and humanism. Ideas matter. 


By Richard E. Cytowic, 2018
Cytowic introduces the family of perceptual super-normalities known as synesthesia in a fun, accessible and concise volume. Synesthesia is the phenomenon whereby sensory perceptions of one kind cause perceptions of another, for example, some synesthetes see colors when they hear sounds. The author explains how synesthesia is a window into aspects of normal perception and cognition, for example how there are reliable relationships between certain kinds of sensory perception in different modalities. High pitch is perceived as being small, while low pitches are perceived as being big. Perhaps the concept of metaphor is itself grounded in a kind of unconscious sensory coupling similar to synesthesia. 
The family of phenomena that comprise synesthesia includes a wide variety of sensory couplings. The most common types of synesthesia are those that cause vision-related phenomena. Synesthesia can also cause auras projected around people that relate to the viewer’s perception of those people‘s emotional state. (Therefore, not all people who claim to see auras are liars.) Also included are colors or shapes perceived during orgasm, shape perceptions caused by flavors and odors caused by words. 
The author is adamant that color is a phenomena that is constructed inside our brains. In this sense color is not objective, although the perception of color is shared by most people. Insects and other animals can perceive infrared or ultraviolet light so there is no objective meaning for colors outside the average for the human race; by contrast sounds and textures are objective and would be measured the same by any kind of creature.
This book is amusing and interesting, including information about the history of synesthesia, the range of synesthetic phenomena, and theories of synesthesia’s underlying genetic and neurological causes.

Picture Us in the Light

By Kelly Loy Gilbert, 2018
Picture Us in the Light is a great novel. The emotions are powerfully written. I felt stressed reading the book, especially as a parent in Cupertino thinking about the pressures that my kids may soon face. But I couldn’t stop and didn’t want to. The depth of emotional understanding that the author has amazed me and made me wonder if she can see right through people in real life like they’re made of glass. The main character, Danny, is lovable and I felt the sting of his highly realistic tragedies as I read. I was glad to put myself in the shoes of someone else so that I could better understand what it’s like to have Asian parents with impossible expectations (like the characters Sandra, Harry or Regina), or to be an illegal immigrant like Danny’s parents, or to be gay and isolated like Danny (at least in most of the book). I felt a little terrified even after having read the book -- such is the starkness of human tragedy that Gilbert conjured. Yet Danny shows a complex mixture of love, humility and resilience that inspires me to be a better person. 

I Am A Strange Loop

By Douglas Hofstadter, 2007
Hofstadter discusses his theory of consciousness based on the notion that the self emerges from a sufficiently expressive agent-based system of symbols, regardless of the exact physical basis of those symbols. Mosquitos and neonates, the author purports, are not conscious, because they can not (in the case of mosquitos) or have not yet (in the case of neonates) developed a sufficiently expressive system of symbols in their minds. 
Gödel’s incompleteness theorem reveals a new level of interpretation and meaning to symbolic set theory, forming a so-called “strange loop.” The healthy adult human brain is similar to symbolic set theory in that both are sufficiently complex systems that can reach the height of expressing ideas about themselves, thus bridging different levels of meaning and abstraction in the manner of a “strange loop.” Consciousness emerges from the symbolic power of embodied thought, and thus its anatomical origins are thoroughly obscured. The author does not shirk from the language of humans having “souls,” which he eventually claims not to mean in a supernatural sense. 
Hofstadter claims that intimate knowledge of another person causes one person's mind to produce a kind of low-resolution copy of that other person’s self. This is the sense and extent, the author claims, in and to which those who die continue to live in those who survive. Hofstadter gives the poignant example of how he came to a deep level of knowing his wife before her untimely death, and how he came to realize (or at least believe) that her mind continued to operate in some limited capacity within the confines of his own head. 

The Genesis of a Music

By Harry Partch, 1974, 2nd ed. 
Partch introduces a musical approach based on the principle of “monophony,” which, in the context of this book, does not mean only a single voice, but rather that all musical intervals are derived by simple integer ratios from a single frequency. The book as a whole seems to be a compendium of guides to interprete Partch’s musical scores -- in other words, the book describes the genesis of Partch’s music. 
The Genesis of a Music opens with a lengthy diatribe against “abstract” music and musical theatre, in favor of "corporeal" music. While I almost entirely disagree with Partch (all of my music is firmly in the realm of abstraction), I found this section to be highly amusing (non-ironically) and engaging, rife with words that were previously unfamiliar to me. (My new vocabulary list from the book is presented below.) Partch is an intellectual outcast, and he writes with an aggression and a put-on academic air that suggest that he is highly defensive.
Partch describes how a variety of scales can be constructed via simple integer ratios (including a scale with 43 notes per octave!), allowing for more perfect consonances than equal temperament can afford. The author belabors basic math with the inconvenient vehicle of banal prose, apologizing for that math and eschewing more direct, concise and beautiful mathematical notation. I put down the book for several months after I got bored wading through this math-prose, and because I felt the book demanded experimentation and interaction that I didn’t have time to conveniently try right then. When I picked up the book again, I started a to-do list to avoid delaying reading. 
After developing his approach to scales based on small-numbered ratios, and constructing a 43-note-per-octave scale, Partch makes brief remarks on harmony and resolution, followed by a description and history of the instruments that he made to produce music based on his invented scale. The backgrounds of six major works are presented, and their description is most entertaining. The book closes with a discussion of intonation, starting with a history, then discussions of Pythagorean intonation (that is, intonation based on multiples of the ratio 3/2), equal temperament, and just intonations.

Vocabulary words

  • dramatis personae
  • querulous
  • connate
  • concupiscent
  • liminal
  • xenogamy
  • alarum
  • renascence
  • patina
  • apotheosis
  • capricious
  • Ixion
  • Archean
  • volte-face
  • inchoate
  • limn
  • evolvement
  • radicate
  • démarche
  • dithyramb
  • hexad
  • ubiety
  • finitude
  • perspicacious
  • limpid
  • perfervid
  • periphrasis
  • obliquity
  • declamation
  • unvivified
  • systole
  • diastole
  • succor
  • usus
  • lacunae
  • portentous
  • obdurate
  • athanasia
  • surfeit
  • magniloquence
  • melomaniacal
  • extraneity
  • incucation
  • exigencies
  • immanence
  • arcanum
  • effrontery
  • amphigory
  • delicti
  • potentiality
  • forthwith
  • carboy
  • Mazda
  • irruption
  • appurtenance
  • facture
  • threnodies
  • expatiations
  • cyclorama
  • invidious
  • daimon
  • pirouette
  • houris
  • aposiopesis
  • exordium
  • depredation
  • prolix
  • fructiferous
  • insouciant
  • epigrammatic
  • sui generis
  • didactic
  • euchred
  • insufflate
  • doloriferous
  • redound
  • tessitura
  • abey
My dictionary is missing 'abey.' I think this is a misspelling in the book.