Good Prose by Kidder and Todd

I knew that Tracy Kidder is a famous writer but I didn’t know that he had received many of the most prestigious national literary prizes.  For better or worse, that understanding has raised the chances I’ll end up buying Good Prose, the book he recently co-authored with Richard Todd, his long time editor. The book’s publicist certainly understood that a book on non-fiction writing will have to be sold on not only the merits of the authors’ reputation but also on first impressions of the content.  And he standards will be high since the promise of learning from a master team are dangled before prospective readers/buyers.

I’m in no immediate need to buy the book since I just borrowed it from the university library.  Ideally I can even read it once before deciding whether to spend money for my own copy.

Books to sleep by

Books pile up barely read beside my bed.  They make their way from various places of origin:  the bookshelf of my office next door, the new bookshelf of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and occasionally from the warehouses of amazon.com.  I think to myself that I must read that book, yes, that book, right away and take it home with me. The problem is:  I don’t have enough time dedicated to reading books to get through many pages, let alone, entire books.  It takes only minutes before the book I chose for the night slips from my sleepy hands and falls thud on the floor.  Sleep triumphs over even the most seductive book.

Musing on books of old and of dreams

Listening to Closing the Book (CBC Ideas Jan 31, 2011) and reading Adam Gopnik’s How the Internet Gets Inside Us was a good match.

Some points that stood out for me:

  • I’m caught in two worlds: I like both the paper books and the electronic books, but the battle being fought at a systemic level. I won’t be surprised that more and more books of interest to me will be made in digital form. Also the fact that we won’t be living in a big house (which makes me a bit sad) will increase the relative advantage of digital works for me. The portability of books is appealing. I’m even toying with the idea of buying books to run on the Kindle software, specifically Complexity : A Guided Tour. I thought Philip Ball’s Music Instinct was available in Kindle form, but not so.
  • I long for software to help me order my digital life but Gopnik reminds me that a potent way to feel more grounded is to limit the amount of digital media I consume.
  • I have wanted to contribute more to “future of the book”. There are lot of good visionary ideas by Terry Jones of FluidInfo about “writable book APIs” in Fluidinfo » Blog Archive » Interview on writable book APIs & publishing at O’Reilly TOC. I wrote Pro Web 2.0 Mashups and have wanted to come back to transforming the book to a “living object”. Finding the time and energy is a challenge, of course!

Autumn books and colors

I’m glad that I walked home this afternoon, which gave me an opportunity to figure out where the CMU Bookstore is. I always get a little burst of intellectual energy walking among assigned textbooks for courses which are either familiar or new to me. Autumn colors do much to compensate for the impending darkness of winter days.

True Enough for Training Trust?

Recently borrowed from the Berkeley Public Library is  Farhad Manjoo’s  True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.  (Wiley, 2008),  which seduced me with the promising subtitle  “learning to live in a post-fact society.”  I think a lot about how to  understand what’s actually happening, how to grasp the truth, if you will.  Almost everything I believe about the world came from sources beyond my own immediate experience; even direct experience is hardly an infallible source of knowledge.  And though I could critically examine any given assertion for its  veracity, most things I have to take on trust.  I have to build upon so many other cognitive pieces that I’ve already accepted (for the time being at least) to be true that most of the time I’m working more on faith and trust than on naked reason.

From looking at True Enough‘s  table of contents, I surmise that most of the book is about why people believe so many divergent things,  based on different universes of “facts.”  What I’d really like to know is how not get trapped in the ruts of our well-worn ideological frames — and secondarily, how to help others do the same.    I couldn’t resist turning to the last page of the narrative to find “Choosing means trusting some people and distrusting the rest.  Choose wisely.”  OK, Mr. Manjoo:  teach me how to “choose wisely” or at least how to learn how to choose wisely.

When I taught high school students in  my course The Nexus of Newton and Nietzsche, I  placed a lot of emphasis on looking for areas of disagreement as a way of sorting through complicated matters.  Focus your energies on getting to the bottom of what people fight over, and you’ll get some real insight.  Now, I wonder whether I had put too emphasis on disagreement.  We should look hard also at what everyone seems to agree upon, asking ourselves:  “just because everyone seems to say it’s so, is it really so?”

An immediate objection is “certainly, overthrowing commonly held assumption is the stuff of revolutionary science, but will it help me with daily life?” When you add up what people disgree about and what they seem to agree about, well, that’s a lot of stuff to examine.   I’m still needing to define a practical methodology about where to spend my energies.

As I mulled over Manjoo’s book, I kept thinking of a popular article in The NY Times from late last year: Barbara Strauch’s  “How to Train the Aging Brain” (Dec 29, 2009)  The essential point of the piece is that people with middle aged brains  (40s to late 60s) should focus their learning on not so much accumulating more facts but challenging, stretching, and enriching what we already have learned.  Here’s some key quotes from the article, which is worth reading in full:

If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.

[…]
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

[….]
…continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different.

[…]
…get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

[….]
Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”

These observations seem right to me as someone in my early 40s. But I wonder whether they apply to younger adults, say in their 20s — the age of most of my graduate students. (A question for the Berkeley teach-net list, methinks.)

Was Reading: Symmetry

I never finished writing this blog piece on a book I was reading, but the pieces are coherent enough to push out….

Sautoy, Marcus Du. Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature. Harper, 2008.

Fun stuff so far. One big revelation has been the parallel between simple groups and prime numbers. I’m still a bit unclear on the concepts — so I will struggle to explain them properly and clearly.

Classification of finite simple groups – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The classification of the finite simple groups, also called the enormous theorem, is believed to classify all finite simple groups. These groups can be seen as the basic building blocks of all finite groups, in much the same way as the prime numbers are the basic building blocks of the natural numbers. The Jordan-Hölder theorem is a more precise way of stating this fact about finite groups.

List of finite simple groups lists the 26 simple finite groups, including the famous Monster group.

Reading the book has made me look at the bathroom tiles, to notice that all the tiles are of one type — and that you just need to rotate them.  What symmetry group is embodied by the tiles?  Is the vast majority of commerical household tiles of the same group?

When did people start making tiles?

What is quasi-periodicity?

How does symmetry show up in textiles? I’m working through understanding List of planar symmetry groups – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Currently reading: Groopman’s How Doctors Think

I just started reading Jerome Groopman’s  How Doctors Think. 1st ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. . (1st ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.)     I remember with some fondness “Eyes Wide Open,”  an essay from 2007  in The New Yorker.   I picked this book up in hopes of learning how to better deal with doctors, a skill that would come in useful in both mundane and life and death situations.

From what I’ve gleaned so far, Groopman is focused on the type of misdiagnoses made by doctors, which he writes is dominated by cognitive errors:

In one study of misdiagnoses that caused serious harm to patients, some 80 percent could be accounted for by a cascade of cognitive errors, like the one in Anne Dodge’s case, putting her into a narrow frame and ignoring information that contradicted a fixed notion.  Another study of one hundred incorrect diagnoses found that inadequate medical knowledge was the reason in only four instances.  The doctors didn’t stumble because of their ignorance of clinical facts; rather, they missed diagnoses because they fell into cognitive traps.  Such errors produced a distressingly high rate of misdiagnosis. As many as 15 percent of all diagnoses are inaccurate, according to a 1995 report in which doctors assessed written descriptions of patient’s symptoms and examined actors simulating patients with various diseases.  These findings match  classical research, based on autopsies, which shows that 10 percent to 15 percent of all diagnoses are wrong. (p. 24)

Presumably, I’ll find out from Groopman how I as a patient can help steer my doctors away from cognitive pitfalls that might bring great harm to me and my loved ones.   That’s what I get from:

Different doctors, as we will see in later chapters, achieve competency in remarkably similar ways, despite working in disparate fields.  Primarily, they recognize and remember their mistakes and misjudgments, and incorporate those memories into their thinking. Studies show that expertise is largely acquired not only by sustained practice but by receiving feedback that helps you understand your technical errors and misguided decisions. (p. 21)

Although reviews of this book have been extremely positive overall on amazon.com, I often turn to critical comments to get a sense of what the book is like. One I found particularly useful is Amazon.com: R. Albin’s review of How Doctors Think:

Even more disappointing is Groopman’s attitude towards the most serious effort to rectify this kind of problem, the evidence-based medicine movement. For example, Groopman makes several dismissive remarks about the introduction of Bayesian reasoning in diagnosis and management.

Let’s see how well Groopman does with analyzing the role of evidence-based medicine

Brooks on Gladwell in NYT

An interesting coincidence this morning: as I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers, skimming through The New York Times and struggling to focus my attention on important things, I came across David Brooks’ latest column on Gladwell and the topic of focus, which includes the following key excerpt:

    Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

    Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

    It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

    It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

It should be noted that Gladwell argues that successful people are products of their environment to a greater degree than commonly acknowledged in Western society….

Reading about Sabbaticals

I’ve long been intrigued by what a sabbatical affords you in terms of opening up a way of making big changes in your life. Not surprisingly, you can find some books on personal sabbaticals to get guidance on how to structure a sabbatical (You can also get a sabbatical coach (e.g., Coaching Services) but you should be able to get a lot out of reading a book and spend $600/month!). Some interesting looking books on the topic include:

Figuring out some basic investing advice: use value investing?

I’ve had two investment books out from the public library on my bookshelf for several weeks: The little book of common sense investing : the only way to guarantee your fair share of market returns and The little book of common sense investing : the only way to guarantee your fair share of market returns and am finally getting a bit of time to look at them. I’ve had a fair amount of my retirement money invested in a S&P 500 index fund — so I’m familiar with the notion of investing in an index fund. As Laura and I consider investing in BRK.B – Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Laura and I learning about Value investing, particularly its relationship to Warren Buffett, which is described in the following terms:

    However, the future distributions and the appropriate discount rate can only be assumptions. Warren Buffett has taken the value investing concept even further as his thinking has evolved to where for the last 25 years or so his focus has been on “finding an outstanding company at a sensible price” rather than generic companies at a bargain price.

I’m still trying to understand how to apply concepts such as P/E ratio to assess how good a buy Berkshire Hathaway is. Should I believe what Berkshire Hathaway Intrinsivaluator says?