Category Archives: Quotable

Sapiens unite!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (recommended by Grady Booch in his recent talk) attempts to give a brief history of mankind – specifically, Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Neanderthals and other hominids – in one book (a bit reminicent of Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.) As such it is interesting, especially the early parts about the transition from hominids to collaborating humans and the cognitive revolution 70000 years ago. It is very clearly written – for instance, the chapter on capitalism and the importance of credit and creditworthiness is something I could hand out to my students directly as a brief explanation of what the fuzz is all about.) The book has been a success, and deservedly so – very rationalist, well informed, if a bit narrow in perspective here and there. The author seems to have a soft spot for hunter-gatherer societies (leading him to describe the agricultural revolution as a step backward for individuals, if not for the human race) and a digression on whether humans are more or less happy now (has historical progress done anything to our serotonine levels (answer: no, it hasn’t, which sort of renders the argument about agrarianism mot) veers towards ranting.

The best part is the way the author describes how much of history and out place in it now is based on inter-subjective fantasies – such as money, religion and states, which exist purely in our minds, because we agree between ourselves that they do.

And easy read, entertaining, and with quite a few very quotable passages here and there, for instance these on our bioengineered future:

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.

Recommended.

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We Travel Alone

Ole Paus is a Norwegian singer-songwriter with a very sarcastic bent – essentially, a Norwegian Tom Lehrer with a guitar and a much longer career – frequently referred to as Norway’s best text writer. This is a loose translation of one of his best, a song called “Jeg reiser alene” – about children shuttling back and forth on airplanes between their divorced parents. I listened to it coming home from Shanghai, and thought it deserves a wider audience:

I travel alone
(Ole Paus, 1994)

I travel alone
I fly over land and town
children used to come with the stork
now they come by plane

I travel alone
I fly over mountains and fjords
from Mommy in the south
to Daddy up north

And under me is the whole earth
where grownups and children have their home
but if you ask me where I live
well, it’s in SK305

We travel alone
a flying army of children
equipped with teddy bears
and a suitcase with clothes

And in front of the plane lives the General
he takes all the children from home to home
and down on earth in the terminal
awaits Mommy or Daddy or God knows who

I travel alone
the stars are coming out
they are many
but we are many more than them

We are so many that you would not believe it
and the purser he is my best friend
and then we land on a spinning earth
and then we go up again

I travel alone
I fly over land and town
children used to come with the stork
now they come by plane

The complicated path from innovation to acceptance

One of my favorite essays is Elting Morison’s Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation, from his book Men, Machines and Modern Times (1950, MIT Press, PDF here). In it, he details the story of Captain Percy, US Navy, who by making changes to the sights and elevation mechanisms of the cannons on his ship increased the accuracy by about 3000%, which should be considered relevant. Subsequently, his innovation took a long time to be accepted throughout the Navy, for reasons having to do with the innovator himself (he was a rather controversial figure), the rate of innovation (simply too good to be believed) and the fact that the innovation went against certain organizational and cultural norms (no news there, I am afraid.) One of his conclusions is that no military service should be allowed to reform itself, a point I think we can extend far beyond the military.

But this well told and well documented story is not the only reason this essay is one I keep coming back to. I also like (and frequently retell) the introductory story, which goes like this:

In the early days of the last war [i.e., WWI] when armaments of all kinds were in short supply, the British, I am told, made use of a venerable field piece that had come down to them from previous generations.  The honorable past of this light artillery stretched back, in fact, to the Boer War.  In the days of uncertainty after the fall of France, these guns, hitched to trucks, served as useful mobile units in the coast defense.  But it was felt that the rapidity of fire could be increased.  A time-motion expert was, therefore, called in to suggest ways to simplify the firing procedures.  He watched one of the gun crews of five men at practice in the field for some time.  Puzzled by certain aspects of the procedures, he took some slow-motion pictures of the soldiers performing the loading, aiming, and firing routines.

When he ran these pictures over once or twice, he noticed something that appeared odd to him.  A moment before the firing, two members of the gun crew ceased all activity and came to attention for a three-second interval extending throughout the discharge of the gun.  He summoned an old colonel of artillery, showed him the pictures and pointed out his strange behavior.  What, he asked the colonel, did it mean.  The colonel, too, was puzzled.  He asked to see the pictures again.  “Ah,” he said when the performance was over, “I have it.  They are holding the horses.”

And there you have it – people just don’t want change (unless it is more of the same). Let me illustrate this with the following story, from back in the 80s when I ran user support for the Norwegian Business School:

One user came running up to the IT department’s help desk informing us that “the printer has gone”. The printer in question was an IBM mainframe printer, roughly the size of a large freezer, and was situated, all by itself, in a small (about 2 x 3 meters) dedicated room, like this:

image

The help desk person consulted his terminal, which after a few keystrokes reported the printer as present and ready. Still, the user maintained that the printer was no longer there. An investigation was launched, and a small investigation party, consisting of the user and two or three incongruous IT people set out for the printer room. After a few minutes, the IT people returned, reporting that a) IBM’s service personnel had been there and serviced the printer, and b) for reasons unknown, they had changed its position thusly (and note, the printer and a few cases of paper were the only things in this room):

image

This episode proved to me that Morison definitely was right – most people cannot handle change, and get rather upset when things are in any way out of the normal.

Furthermore, most people do not think about why the world is the way it is, but that is the subject of another essay.

May the change be with you – mostly, it is good…

Four is a little, four is a LOT!

imageMy friend Cheska Komissar is quite a character. Not only does she make a peanut sauce that restores my faith in humanity, she is also the bubbliest person alive and, as of a few months ago, a children’s book author. Her delightful Four is a little, four is a lot is just the thing to get someone turning four – and wondering, as children do: Is four a lot or just a little?

The book has four illustrators (of course), but you would be hard pressed to see the difference in styles – though the collaboration has been remote, the drawings are remarkably close in coloring and style and the underscores the text excellently.

image

So, count up the number of three-year-olds you know, surf you way over to the Four Dollar Books website and get the requisite number of books (at four dollars each, of course.) They also have birthday cards featuring illustrations from the book – and the combination will be both four-midable and four-tunate…

Highly recommended!

Quote for the day (Jaron Lanier edition)

“Separation anxiety is assuaged by constant connection. Young people announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind.”

“On any given day, one might hear of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to a start-up company named Ublibudly or MeTickly. [..] At these companies one finds rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school.”

— Jaron Lanier (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, ch. 14

Update May 9: I was going to review this book, and then Jon Battelle goes off and writes a review I completely agree with – though I would like to add that the book is also delightful for its creativity with language and sheer eclecticism.

Thinking long and hard on fast and slow

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are only going to read one book on psychology this decade – this should be it!

Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking Fast and Slow is one of those books you intend to read while taking notes, then just blow through it knowing full well you’ll have to go back and re-read it at least once per year just to swap it all in again. It sums up a lifetime of research into the surprisingly irrational ways we humans make decisions. Kahneman is a founder of experimental economics and received a Nobel price for it.

The book gives an overview of the various ways we make decisions, illustrated with many counterintuitive examples. Its central premise is that humans have two different decision systems: System 1, which is intuitive, fast, and easy, and System 2, which is rational, effortful, and lazy. We can also divide human models into two: Econs (classic Economic Man) and Humans (subject to all of Kahneman’s follies, and then some). And we have two selves: The experiencing self (living in the present) and the remembering self (living in the interpreted past).

Kahneman lays out these concepts, then show, through examples and research summaries, how they interact and influence our decisions. The intellectual stimulation and the practical implications for how we make the important and not so important decisions in our lives are immense – as an example, check this blog post on pricing experiments.

Highly recommended!

(more notes to follow, methinks)

(If you want a really good review – read Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books.)

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