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  • Todd 11:46 am on January 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply  

    The Elephant in the Brain 

    What it’s about:  There are the reasons we say we’re doing something and then there are the real reasons.

    Interesting book bits and my thoughts:

    • The invention of weapons altered the path to success for early hominids from physical strength to coalition building.
    • “Common knowledge” (something everyone knows and everyone knows that everyone knows it) allows for a certain amount of conspiring and norm pushing. For example, everyone knows what’s in the brown paper bag that guy is drinking from, but it’s in the bag and so we can all look the other way. Also, Seinfeld can do an episode about being the master of your domain so long as nobody overtly says what is being mastered.
    • Using self-deception can help a marathon runner finish the race, but it can also be self-defeating when trying to preserve self-esteem. “It would be like trying to warm yourself during winter by aiming a blow-dryer at the thermostat.” I work in public education. The number of hair dryers pointed at thermostats is significant.
    • Strategic ignorance is a type of self-deception that can work in certain situations. Maybe this is what Trump is doing?
    • The Chinese parable of Zhao Gao is worth understanding in these times. “The truth is a poor litmus test of loyalty.” Again, Trump.
    • Laughter is way of playing around with, and occasionally subverting, norms. “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” (Oscar Wilde)
    • Too often, conversation is an exercise in showing off. By way of example, think about how scientists compete to give presentations at conferences but that listening only costs the registration fee.
    • The Prius is the best-selling hybrid because it looks like a hybrid. It’s called signaling.
    • BMW and other luxury brands advertise as much to those who cannot afford their products as to those who can. It’s called signaling.
    • Much of the mystique of higher education comes from the zero-sum admissions competition. It’s called signaling. This example reminds me of something Scott Galloway wrote in The Four. Selective colleges bragging about admissions rates is like a food pantry bragging about how many starving people it turned away.
    •  It’s hard to underestimate the importance of loyalty signaling. It is on display in churches, sports stadiums, and politics. It’s not socially acceptable to use race as a loyalty metric, but it is okay to use political identity. Again, Trump and other political demagogues.

    Let’s finish with a quote:

    “In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.”

  • Todd 10:00 am on January 21, 2018 Permalink | Reply  

    The Great Halifax Explosion 

    What it’s about:  The Great Halifax Explosion is a gripping account about the most powerful man-made explosion prior to the dropping of the first atomic bomb in late 1945. The tragedy in Halifax, Nova Scotia was the result of a collision involving the S.S. Mont-Blanc which was carrying the explosive equivalent of 1.7 million tons of TNT. John Bacon blends the stories of several Haligonians before, during, and after the terrible day of December 6, 1917 to recreate an account that covers the explosion from local, regional, and global perspectives. An excellent telling of an overlooked piece of history and a book that taught me much about the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Canada some 100 years ago.

    Some interesting bits I learned:

    • Fenway Park was designed by Halifax native James Earnest McLaughlin.
    • Most of the recovery efforts following the Titanic tragedy were coordinated out of Halifax.
    • About 1600 people were killed instantly in the Halifax explosion. Another 300+ died in the rubble of their homes and businesses.
    • Boston was the first U.S. city to provide medical and financial aid to Halifax with the first relief train leaving just 13 hours after the explosion.
    • Novia Scotia has sent Boston a spruce Christmas tree every year since the explosion as thanks.

    Let’s finish with a quote:

    “The passage of time naturally dulls memories, obscuring events that were vivid to our parents and grandparents. The Great has been pushed aside by World War II, the Halifax Explosion has been eclipsed by Hiroshima, and 9/11 seems to obscure everything that came before it. This is not only to be expected but is in many ways healthy. To maintain a slavish devotion to the past is not merely morbid but also counterproductive, something the survivors themselves realized when it came time to focus on their futures.”


  • Todd 7:16 pm on December 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    The Butchering Art 

    June 27th, 1851. Julia Sullivan, after getting stabbed by her abusive husband, arrives at the Gower Street Hospital in downtown London with several inches of intestines hanging from her slashed belly. Given the early morning hour, no experienced surgeons were staffing the hospital. Sullivan’s fate hung in the inexperienced hands of a second-year medical student. Using a combination of techniques observed in the operating theater and studied in recent issues of The Lancet, the young medical student’s first surgery ultimately saves the lives of both Mrs. and Mr. Sullivan. The former saved from bleeding out. The latter saved from a murder conviction and public hanging. It was the first of many moments giving notice to the talents of surgical pioneer Joseph Lister.

    Mid-19th century surgery is a brutal business. Just five years prior to Mrs. Sullivan’s run of terrible-turned-good fortune, London surgeon Robert Liston performed the first amputation featuring ether as a general anesthesia. Until then, the most successful surgeries were those done quickly on fully aware patients. By this accounting, Liston’s facility with the blade was well-known. If we generously measure Joseph Lister’s first surgery as having a 200% success rate, then an earlier surgery performed by Robert Liston had a 300% mortality rate. During one particular surgery, a patient eventually succumbed to his pre- and post-operative wounds, an assistant accidentally lost several fingers to Liston’s quick knife and later died of gangrene, and an elderly man had a fatal heart attack while watching the entire grisly affair. Yes, surgery was a brutal business. If you were fortunate enough to slip past the surgical reaper, post-operative infections (generally referred to as “hospitalism” at the time) had better than even odds of taking you out. It would be decades after Liston’s “triple” before a more seasoned Joseph Lister made defining advances in the treatment and prevention of such infections.

    Glasgow, England, August 1865. An 11-year-old boy is trampled by a carriage and suffers a compound fracture. It is just the sort of injury Joseph Lister, now an established surgeon, wanted to test his new surgical protocol. By dowsing the injury, his hands, and his instruments with carbolic acid (also called phenol) and following up with several post-operative carbolic acid treatments, a likely amputee, walks out of the hospital on two good legs six weeks and two days after the accident. Unfortunately, given the level of scientific ignorance and institutional inertia, it would take more than a decade before Lister’s sterilization protocols gained wider acceptance. During that time, Lister incorporated Louis Pasteur’s germ theory to explain the action of carbolic acid and adopted its use beyond the surgical theater to lower mortality rates in all hospital wards.

    Throughout The Butchering Art, author Lindsey Fitzharris provides the details behind these and others stories from surgery’s mid-19th century history, primarily via a professional biography of Lister. Fitzharris’s vivid descriptions can make for intense reading at times, but her accounts are never gratuitous. More importantly, The Butchering Art is an excellent account of how advances are made when circumstances, necessity, dedication, and brilliance all come together in the right places at the right times. Highly recommended and certainly worthy of being on my 2017 best books if I read it soon enough.

  • Todd 9:21 pm on December 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Best Books of 2017 

    Dedicating oneself to reading goals made sense for a lot of Trump-based reasons in 2017. Because reading time and meat-RAM are limited, I’m selective about the books I choose to read. As a result, I avoid lemons and find plenty to like. What follows are the best of the lot, in no particular order, of the 42 titles residing on my Books Read 2017 page.

    Scale: The Search for Simplicity and Unity in the Complexity of Life, from Cells to Cities, Companies to Ecosystems, Milliseconds to Millennia by Geoffrey West
    Although it’s probably about 80 pages too long, West presents a lively tour of fractals, complexity, emergent systems and networks within biological, engineered, and social settings. One part of the long story short…cities are the future.

    Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky
    Are you looking for a well-written explanation of the science behind human behavior? Are you looking for one that takes a retrospective view starting in the present with the neurotransmitter actions of an adult and working backwards through adolescence, childhood, in-utero, previous generations, etc.? Are you looking for one with incredibly funny footnotes? Well then, give what may be my single favorite book of the year a read.

    Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
    I typically mark interesting bits of a book with those small post-it note flags. My copy of Home Deus is filthy with post-it notes. There was not necessarily any new content here for me, but the combination of ideas and overall argument outlining the forces that have and will shape humanity were consistently compelling even if they were not always convincing. Read Sapolsky’s Behave and Harari’s Homo Deus back-to-back and you will learn much about the nature/nurture dynamic involved in humanity’s past, present and future.

    Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
    Much of what concerns Alter can be summarized in two stats: the average human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 (FWIW, goldfish have a 9 second attention span) and 70% of recipients start reading corporate emails within 6 seconds of their inboxing. People crave novelty so much that we seek it in our goddamn work email! Most of these behaviors have roots in cleverly designed smartphones and their easy access to addictive games and social media. You will not look at your smartphone the same again and, if you are like me, will become protective of your time and attention.

    Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
    Probably the most entertaining nonfiction book I read in 2017 and one of the few books I’ve read that clearly displays the power of “big data” to a wider readership. Stephens-Davidowitz is convinced he can tell a lot about us based on our aggregate Google searches. If he’s right, the implications for public health, personal identity, and politics are immense and we are just getting started.

    Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
    A popular, sweeping history offering an explanation for America’s particular brand of wackiness. Specifically, Andersen tries to explain the American penchant for falling for hucksters religious, mercantile, and political. While it is easy to accuse Andersen of writing a “just so” narrative filtered by selection bias and filled with oversimplifications, it is a fun “just so” narrative and one that I, a lapsed New England congregationalist, saw hitting close to home on several fronts.

    A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
    Although not the sweeping tomb of a book like Behave, A Crack in Creation may well be the most important life sciences book of the year. Control over germ and somatic cell lines draws seemingly closer every week and Jennifer Doudna, the key discoverer of CRISPR technology, is at the front of these scientific battles. Doudna and Sternberg do an excellent job of blending scientific explanations with stories of people and milestones behind said science. In the years to come, A Crack in Creation will be recognized as an early classic in the accelerating story of life, version 2.0.

    WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly
    Easily one of the most captivating books I’ve read this year and the needed counterbalance to the various Silicon Valley polemics I also read this year. I did not cotton on to O’Reilly’s objective at first. Is this another Silicon Valley memoir? Is this some sort of “I’ve made millions and you can too” business book? It’s a bit of the former and, thankfully, none of the latter. More importantly, it’s a thoroughly-considered take on the role technology could play, ought to play, in the lives of real people confronting uncertainties for the future of work and the broader economy. A wonderful and much needed dose of optimism firmly grounded in reality.

    Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark
    By exploring the past, present and future of artificial intelligence, Tegmark’s book creates a nice trio with Doudna’s A Crack in Creation and O’Reilly’s WTF?. While Doudna explains the state-of-the-art and future in modifying the genomic basis of humanity, Tegmark considers what the 1’s and 0’s have in store for us. Where O’Reilly tells us his personal story as a technology entrepreneur and his hopes for the role technology could play in the future, Tegmark provides a broader perspective on the historical development and plausible future technology is likely to play in all of our lives. The life sciences are situated to explore and explain who we will become in body. Meanwhile, the computer sciences may have the ultimate say in who we become in mind. Tegmark has written an important book to help us understand the overlapping spaces.

    The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell
    While far from pessimistic, Goodell’s book reminds us that, no matter how much control over Mother Nature we gain via biotechnology or how many improvements over her we create via artificial intelligence, she will be heard and she will speak loudly. Unfortunately, too few of us are listening. Goodell’s warm and even-keeled combination of story telling and science reporting makes The Water Will Come a standout example of environmental journalism. Coastlines are disappearing. Major population centers in first-, second- and third-world countries are already confronting persistent flooding. We need to come to terms with the following facts:  we need to (a) spend billions of dollars to stave off the worst effects of flooding and (b) figure out somewhere else for millions of people to live. We will need to do these things soon, very soon.

    Here’s to 2018…

  • Todd 3:30 pm on October 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    What I’ve been reading 

    My enjoyment of texts describing the monopolistic downsides of Silicon Valley’s behemoths knows no end. Here’s another article in this vein from Noam Cohen in advance of his upcoming book, which I’m almost certain to read.

    Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon have become world dominators, the questions of the hour are, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is? And do we still have the regulatory tools and social cohesion to restrain the monopolists before they smash the foundations of our society?


    Most of my reading time is spent on nonfiction or, as I like to call it, “triction” (Why should book categories be based on false narratives?). One category of nonfiction that I do not explore enough is biography. I think the last biography I read was Einstein by Walter Isaacson. It’s a lock that the next will be Leonardo da Vinci, also by Isaacson. Here’s an excerpt about the Mona Lisa.

    Stand before the Mona Lisa, and the science and the magic and the art all blur together into an augmented reality. While Leonardo worked on it, for most of the last 16 years of his life, it became more than a portrait of an individual. It became universal, a distillation of Leonardo’s accumulated wisdom about the outward manifestations of our inner lives and about the connections between ourselves and our world. Like Vitruvian Man standing in the square of the Earth and the circle of the heavens, Lisa sitting on her balcony is Leonardo’s profound meditation on what it means to be human.


    The United States has decided that the murder of 20 school children and 58 concert goers is the price we pay for a most expansive interpretation of the 2nd amendment. For reasons that pass all understanding, we take the idea of a bunch of weekend warriors dressed in army surplus camo as a check of government tyranny seriously. As Michael Shermer points out, it’s actually all the amendments (and the rest of established law) that keep our worst impulses in check.

    …if you’re having trouble with the government, a lawyer is a much more potent weapon than a gun. Politicians and police fear citizens armed with legal counsel more than they do a public fortified with guns. The latter they can just shoot. The former means they have to appear before a judge.


    In 1939, about 20000 Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden. That’s right, Madison Square Garden. Watch the video and try not to vomit in your mouth. At one point, there is a ruckus on stage. I’m sure there was blame on both sides.


    I finished Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen this week. If you think the U.S. is experiencing a troubling break from reality and truth these days, keep in mind that religious fanatics were among the first settlers to these shores. Since then, the nature of our delusions has morphed over the years (gold rushes, quack medicines, Scientology, speaking in tongues, anti-vaxxers, presidential astrologers…), but a propensity for the fringe of the bizarre seems to be baked into this American life.

  • Todd 11:33 pm on October 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    What I’ve been reading 

    “Let the market decide.” How often do we hear this and similar pronouncements from those favoring market-based approaches to economic issues? I many cases, such an approach is all fine and good but markets need to allow freedom of movement for employees looking for raises and promotions within the industry. Many fast food joints disagree. Here’s one of their lawyers saying so in Orwellian terms.

    “There has never been, ever, any intention, by drafting this type of provision [restrictions on hiring workers from other fast-food businesses], to restrict employee mobility, restrict wage competition, or suppress employee pay,” Mr. Hershman said.


    There was no good time for Donald Trump to be president. But this is a uniquely bad time for us to have a race-baiting, science-denying divider in chief. He is impossible to ignore, and yet reacting to his daily antics only makes us stupid…

    Roger that.


    The free speech vs. hate speech debate on college campuses is becoming dominated by issues of security. More specifically, paying for security. Could it be that far right speakers enjoy coming to campus in part to redirect public money to security? Maybe every dollar spent on security is a dollar unavailable to pay the salary of a gender studies professor. Not surprisingly, some professors continue to miss the importance of free speech by offering such doozies as…

    “Words can be like rape — they can destroy you,” Professor Scheper-Hughes said in an interview.


    In Germany today, Professor Wehrheim said, “you will get jailed for certain speech — and I think that is absolutely the right thing.”


    Just started Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire: A 500 Year History. You know it’s good because of the two colons in its title.


    I get closer to dropping Facebook every day. If it happens, I’ll have Cal Newport to thank/blame.


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