Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Science is the Only News

February 15, 2010

Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.

–Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline (2009), p. 216

Allocate Your Studies Wisely

October 14, 2009

Studies photo

There’s a danger that lurks for those of us who are curious about lots of things and love learning, and it is that our “learning efforts” (of which there is a scarce supply) end up being allocated by external factors rather than by internal priorities. These outside forces bring us somewhere – and it might seem like a good place to be – but if we had initially asked ourselves where we wanted to go, it probably would’ve been somewhere else.

That might not be very clear, so allow me to demonstrate what I mean with three real-world examples:

Whole Brain Emulation
Earlier this year, during a trip to Detroit, I read a paper by Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom titled: Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap.

Going in, I knew that my goal was only to get a good idea of what was currently possible and where things were headed with whole brain emulation (WBE). I didn’t understand most of the paper (a lot of it is very technical), but the ~10-15% that made sense to me was enough to reach my goal, so I accepted that a lot of it was over my head.

To get to a level of comprehension significantly higher than the one I had would’ve required a massive amount of efforts, and that would have been disproportionate in relation to my target (my goal was not to become a brain scientist, but rather to understand the challenges and opportunities of WBE specifically).

Not long ago, I got Judea Pearl’s Causality (a book I’ve been meaning to read for years).


Most Crashes Happen On Dry Roads…

September 26, 2009

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt image

The excerpt above is from page 185 of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt.

It comes at the end of a chapter on risk perception, ie. roads that seem safer can be more dangerous than we think because they encourage us to drive more dangerously, while roads that seem dangerous can actually be safer than we think since they make us slow down and pay more attention. The dangerous-looking roads might still be more dangerous than the safe-looking roads in the absolute, but both of them might not be respectively as safe or dangerous as drivers tend to think…

Anyway, what annoyed me is the last sentence of the excerpt. I think it’s a good real-world example of misleading statistics.

While it might be literally true that most crashes “happen on dry road, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers” (I wouldn’t swear to it, I haven’t seen the stats), it doesn’t take into account the difference in sample sizes. In most places, the roads are dry more often than not, and most days are sunny, and most drivers are sober.

These conditions might produce a higher total number of crashes, but what really matters is how many crashes they produce per driver. If you look at it this way, it’s probably pretty obvious that wet roads, at night, with drunk drivers cause a lot more crashes.

See also: Rationality Articles

Amazon Text Stats

September 20, 2009

Amazon Text Stats image

Analyzing and Comparing Books
I have just noticed that Amazon has a “Text Stats” section on its book pages. I’m not sure how long it has been there, but it’s very interesting.

  • The Fog Index was developed by Robert Gunning. It indicates the number of years of formal education required to read and understand a passage of text.
  • The Flesch Index, developed in 1940 by Dr. Rudolph Flesch, is another indicator of reading ease. The score returned is based on a 100 point scale, with 100 being easiest to read. Scores between 90 and 100 are appropriate for 5th and 6th graders, while a college degree is considered necessary to understand text with a score between 0 and 30.
  • The Flesch-Kincaid Index is a refinement to the Flesch Index that tries to relate the score to a U.S. grade level. For example, text with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 10.1 would be considered suitable for someone with a 10th grade or higher reading level.

Information Technology & Book Writing
I wonder how long before publishers and writers start to use this data to better zero in on certain targets in the hope of better reaching their target demographics. I’m sure that someday – if it hasn’t already happened – writers will get notes from editors asking them to “bring the Fog Index rating of their manuscript down by at least 20%” or “reduce the number of complex words by 10%”, all based on statistical analysis of the composition of recent best sellers.

A kind of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for books, in a way.

Like all tools, it could be abused and lead to bad results. But if used properly, it could result in more readable books and reduce the variability in quality output between individual editors (probably not by much, but any improvement would be welcome).

The pic on top of this post is from the Amazon page for I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter (which I’m currently reading).

Here’s an excerpt that I liked:

I Am A Strange Loop book

Update: Just to make it clear, this post isn’t an ad for I Am A Strange Loop. It’s just the book I looked up on Amazon when I noticed the Amazon Text Stats feature, and I thought some people might be curious to know which book the Text Stats in the screenshot came from.

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Discipline for my Information Diet

June 14, 2009

One of the demons I’m wrestling with when it comes to my information diet is keeping a high signal to noise ratio for an extended period of time. I know that the time and mental energy I’m spending reading news items about business, politics and technology are taking away from the energy I have for settled science and more timeless information (I mentioned this previously in Curiosity: Good Friend, Bad Master).

I think my problem is mostly discipline. I know that I’ll get more out of reading books and textbooks from my to read list than by reading The Economist and whatever interesting blog posts are featured on Hacker News, but even after I resolve to focus on the highest-quality material first and read other fun things on the side, as weeks pass I get less and less vigilant about it… until I some day I realize that I open the ‘hard’ books infrequently and spend most of my time reading lighter things that give me less lasting value. Once in a while there’s a big spike of willpower that brings me back on track, but it doesn’t last and at the bottom of the cycle I end up feeling feeling that I wasted an opportunity to learn new things and grow.

Why is it such a big deal to me? Because I feel that there’s a qualitative difference in how much I benefit from the highest quality material compared to whatever’s being written about this week. In short: More life-changing books like Gödel, Escher, Bach, and fewer articles about what’s happening this week in Myanmar.

Solution (?)
Maybe what I need is a way to keep track of my commitment, both as a reminder and a motivator. It worked pretty well with my molecular biology textbook… Until I moved to Ottawa. I haven’t opened that textbook in a month. You see what I’m talking about?

In fact, if I’m totally honest with myself, I’m thinking that maybe what will give the best result is a more drastic change. I’ve already unsubscribed to a few periodicals in the past, but maybe I should make deeper cuts and even create some rules about which websites I can visit and when (or maybe just re-arranging my bookmarks and RSS feeds would be enough to modify my behavior?).

If you’ve had a similar problem and found an effective way to deal with it, let me know in the comments.

See also:

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What I’ve Been Up to Lately

April 2, 2009

Beach in Cancun, taken by Michael Graham Richard

Moving to Ottawa
In a little less than a month, Mélanie and I will be moving to Ottawa. We’ve found a small but comfortable apartment, and it will be our first time actually living together.

While doing research to prepare for the move, I found many cool things that I think will help make our lives better. They are:

  • Dumping the phone company and going 100% voice-over-IP. I find Bell Canada’s prices for plain old voice phone outrageous in the Internet era, and felt it wouldn’t be right to support them out of inertia. The company I signed up with is Babytel.
  • Switching to a new ISP (TekSavvy) that can do dry-loop DSL, so that I can connect to the internet from a phone line that isn’t active for voice calls. This ISP doesn’t throttle traffic (unlike most big ISPs in Canada) and offers premium routing for better pings.
  • We bought a Mac Mini so we can use it as a media center (music, photos, films, TV series, etc). Plex is a free and open source app that allows you to do that and use a remote. This should replace a bunch of other electronics while also allowing me to do more scientific distributed computing.
  • I read up on the best air-filtering plants; NASA had a study on this, and one of the authors of that study wrote a book that I’ll borrow from the library as soon as we move. I like having some plants around, and figure I might as we get those that will have the biggest impact on air quality.
  • Mélanie has asthma and some allergies, so I did a bit of research on ways to help her breathe easier. Found some air vent filters that look like they could help some.
  • The apartment is small, and I tend to go to bed later than Mélanie… So at first I looked into air purifiers, figuring the noise they make could help her sleep better and we’d have better air quality, but my research mostly told me that these devices didn’t do a very good job. So instead I looked into white noise machines. This one sounds good (literally). I figure that if it gives us both better sleep, it’s worth the money.
  • I also want to get headphones in case one of us wants to read, and the other wants to listen to music or something like that. Not sure which model to get yet, but I’ve heard good things about Sennheisers.

Follow Up on “What You Can Measure…”
I recently wrote about some challenges I gave myself. I’m happy to say that it’s working well, possibly better than I expected.

On the fruits & vegetables side, I’ve kept to the “5 extra portions a day, what goes in regular meals doesn’t count” rule and since then (about 5 weeks ago) I’ve eaten 198 portions of fruits and vegetables (lots of carrots, bananas, apples, bell peppers, oranges) that I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise. That’s a big win for me, and I intend to keep doing it for as long as possible.

My other challenge was to read at least 4 pages a day from a molecular biology textbook (on top of the other things I read — yesterday I finished reading a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, for example). The reason was that while I loved reading it, it was more arduous than the other books I was reading, the textbook is big and heavy… I was always finding excuses to avoid it and wasn’t making good progress. At the rate I was reading it, it would have taken me years to go from cover to cover.

Well, in the past ±5 weeks I’ve read about 155 pages, and I’ve only missed two days (completely forgot about it). This means my real average is higher than 4 pages a day, and I should hit the back cover in about 6-7 months. I consider this another win, and plan to keep doing this – or something similar – with technical books (and maybe also with online video lectures). The goal is to avoid the “hay fire” trap, where I start with really high motivation and burn out quickly and kind of forget about the book (even if when I do actually pick it up I find it fascinating).

Reading on the beach in Cancun, taken by Michael Graham Richard

Trip to Cancun
In February, Mélanie and I went to Cancun, Mexico, to visit her grand-parents for a one-week vacation. It was my first time south of New York City, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. The first photo in this post was taken on the beach there, and the second one shows what I spent a lot of time doing (in this case, reading a compilation of letters by Richard P. Feynman).

What You Can Measure You Can Improve

March 7, 2009

Measuring to Improve photo

Example #1
I’ve never been a very healthy vegetarian, getting a lot of my daily calories from cheese and pasta. It has always been obvious that I should eat more fruits and vegetables, but somehow I just wasn’t taking the step to really do it with any consistency. Small victories stayed isolated, and my eating habits stayed pretty much the same.

So I decided to challenge myself to eat at least 5 extra portions of fruits and vegetables a day. What I would normally be eating as part of a meal didn’t count; it had to be, for example, an extra bowl of carrots or an apple.

Results: So far in slightly less than 2 weeks I’ve eaten over 65 portions of fruits and vegetables that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise. It hasn’t been hard or complicated, but I know that without some metrics and way to stay accountable (see on the photo above), I wouldn’t have gotten this result.

I intend to keep doing that for at least a month to see if I can pick up the habit. If I don’t, I might stick with this system for as long as I need to. I figure that the small hassle is worth the price of an improved health (and possibly lower food bills).

Measuring to Improve photo

Example #2
As I’ve already mentioned on this site, I read a lot. It hasn’t been hard to keep a good rhythm with books because I just love reading. I don’t need any external motivation.


China’s Great Library of Alexandria

January 30, 2009

Quin Dynasty Book Burning image

Most educated people know about the burning of the great library of Alexandria, and what a tragedy for humanity that was.

But I suspect that fewer people – at least in the Western hemisphere – know about the Quin dynasty’s massive campaign of book burning in 213 BC.

The emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), at the suggestion of his chancellor Li Si (李斯), instituted book burning (he condemned “all previously written historical books as worthless and ordered them burned, much to the detriment of our understanding of early Chinese history,” according to Jared Diamond), the persecution of intellectuals (including the burying alive of many Confucians), and a restriction on formal education for the common people. I think this can fairly be described as proto-totalitarianism.

As with the great library of Alexandria, we can only speculate about what has been lost.

Ancient Wisdom is Actually Early Draft

May 8, 2008

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius book photo

For the past few days I’ve been reading (among other things, of course…) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, a roman emperor who lived from 121 to 180. He is known as one of the most important stoic philosophers.

One thing that has been on my mind while reading this is the fact that many people are very impressed by anything labelled “ancient wisdom” and have a bias towards giving it more weight than more recent thought. Part of that inclination is rational: If something has endured that long, there’s a good chance that it is because of its quality. But another part of it is not rational. It is based on the false parallel between the fact that older humans are generally considered wiser and the fact that the text is old.

From our point of view, the text is old. But from the point of view of human knowledge, old texts are ‘younger’ than modern texts.

So while I appreciate many of Marcus Aurelius’ stoic principles (look for truth, mind your own business, don’t waste your time on frivolous things, clearly define what matters to you so you can better stick to it, be open to have your mind changed by evidence, eliminate the unnecessary, etc), I simply chuckle when I read about his conception of the universe, the gods, reality, destiny, dualism (soul separate from body), death, etc. This is the best information that was available at the time, but compared to what we know now, it’s clearly archaic and if the roman emperor had been born today, he probably wouldn’t believe what he believed then (not to mention his positions on slaves, women, homosexuals, etc).

Yet some people will automatically give more weight to these ideas than to ideas that come from more contemporary sources because they come from “ancient wisdom”. If you suffer from that bias, you should recognize it, look back on how it might have influenced you in the past, and keep it in mind for the future. Judge ideas on their own merit, not on their capacity to endure the passage of time. With some things, it doesn’t matter too much (f.ex. morality). With others, it changes everything (scientific fields such as cosmology, biology, physics, etc).

If more people realized this, fewer Bronze Age myths would be taken seriously.

Is There a DNA Puzzle in Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell?

April 7, 2008

Last November, I bought Molecular Biology of the Cell by Alberts (5th edition). I’m a few chapters in, and so far it’s an excellent textbook, I recommend it.

But there’s something that has been intriguing me for months: Once every few pages, seemingly at random, there are groups of 4 red letters inside pointy brackets. At first, I thought it was probably formatting meta-data, some kind of printing accident. But the second time the red letter popped up in a weird place, I noticed that the letters were all DNA letters (T,A,G,C).

Could this be a puzzle? Is this some kind of clever biological joke by the authors?

If it is, what do these code for? Some well-known protein?

It’s a mystery so far.

Update: Unless this is a well-known joke among biologists (it’s a common textbook, after all) and someone tells me about it in the comments or via email, I’ll probably compile a sequence of nucleotide letters long enough for it to be unique and then Google it. I had my “duh” moment and realized there’s no need to go through the whole 1000-page book and compile all of red letters…

My Defective Copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach

March 14, 2008

Godel, Escher, Bach (GEB)

Ten minutes ago, I was lying comfortably in bed, reading Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter. I turned a page and the text stopped making sense.

“Maybe it’s another one of his games,” I thought.

I looked at the page numbers and they went from 82 to 51.

“Clever! He’s doing a recursive motif to illustrate his point.”

But sadly, that wasn’t it. Pages from 51 to 82 are printed twice, and pages from 83 to 115 are missing. Argh. Such a brilliant book too… No choice but to go cold turkey.

Can’t wait for the replacement to arrive.

Update: I received another copy of the book and all the pages are there! Also in the same package: Angela Hewitt’s interpretation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier and Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of Bach’s Art of the Fugue.

Made me Smile

March 9, 2008

From the preface of Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe:

Road to Reality by Roger Penrose, preface

Considering the current state of my math skills, I expect to look like the third drawing most of the time.

Internet is the New Turn-of-the-Century Vienna

February 18, 2008

Map of Vienna, 1958 image

Vienna, the capital of Austria, was the place to be at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Paris and London, it was quite small: You could walk across it in half-an-hour. It had operas, theaters, museums for natural history and the arts, good banks, a stock market and some of the best universities in the world.

It was almost impossible not to constantly meet friends, colleagues and relatives on the street. Even the most famous and powerful people were close:

Opera singers, stage actors, and members of the royal family [were on the streets]. When a famous singer walked by, or one of the more than sixty archdukes drove by in their carriage, people would greet them with spontaneous applause. […] Yet the best example – and almost unbelievable for us today – was [emperor] Franz Joseph himself, who frequently departed in just his carriage from the […] palace. Anyone could walk within reach […] and lift his hat to the white-haired emperor.

Within two generations, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert appeared on Vienna’s stages in rapid succession, something that is without precedent in history. Passion for music united all strata of the population. In the words of William Johnston: “Slovenliness might be tolerated in politics, but not in musical or theatrical performance.”

The elites did not confine themselves to exclusive social circles and ivory towers. In cafés, the Viennese met to talk business, exchanged ideas, debated issues and met people who worked in various fields. For students and young intellectuals, school was very hard at the elite gymnasiums, much closer to modern college than high-school, but their education did not stop outside the classroom: the cafés were also a place to learn and grow.

The better cafés subscribed to the major international journals of science, art and literature. Designed for the entertainment of customers, these subscriptions made the cafés function as a kind of private library.


Incubating a New Project Pt.2

January 22, 2008

After thinking about this some more, I’ve come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t work. Maybe with some other book, but not with Molecular Biology of the Cell.

A.J. Jacobs could read 100 pages of the Britannica and then pick 5 interesting entries to write about, add some anecdotes about how he used his new knowledge in his daily life and voilà. That wouldn’t work with a textbook, I’d end up summarizing almost everything because it’s all inter-linked and that’s not something I want to do.

I’ll keep an eye open for another book that could be turned into a book diary, and I’m certain I’ll find a few cool stand-alone parts in Molecular Biology of the Cell that I can write about here, but for now I’m putting this project on ice.

Incubating a New Project

January 22, 2008

The Know-It-All, by A.J. Jacobs

I’m reading The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs’ book detailing his experience reading the whole 2002 edition of the Encyclopeadia Britannica, and it gave me an idea. Maybe I could document my journey through a difficult book too. The first that comes to mind is Molecular Biology of the Cell, a technical but fascinating and well-written molecular biology textbook. I want to better understand how life works, and it seems like a good place to start.

I don’t think I could make it as entertaining as Jacobs’ book, but it might motivate some people to learn some biology in the same way that the Know-It-All makes me want to pick up an encyclopedia.

This project needs more thought before I commit to it. Molecular Biology of the Cell is an intimidating book, all 1,268 pages of it… Far from Britannica’s 34,000 pages, but hey, this is hard science! Figuring out a structure wouldn’t be quite as straightforward as mixing up historical trivia and personal anecdotes the way Jacobs does. Maybe I just won’t find a way to make it work — Encyclopedias offer bite-sized info while textbooks are more linear and constantly build on top of what came before, making it hard to skip over or isolate parts.

Pros: Even if I can’t make it all the way through, I’m sure I’d get something out of it, if only better retention of what I read.

Cons: I’m not exactly good at sticking to reading plans. My interests tend to be all over the place and go through phases (I’ll read a book on economics, then on WWII German generals, then on neuroscience, etc). But even if I read other books in parallels and sometimes pause because I’m too busy with other things, this could be a long-term, open-ended project.

To be continued…

In the Mail: A.I. & Neuroscience Books

January 14, 2008

Beyond AI
Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine, by J. Storrs Halls.

Synaptic Self
Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, by Joseph LeDoux

The Emotion Machine
The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind, by Marvin Minsky


In the Mail: Molecular Biology of the Cell

November 26, 2007

By Alberts & al. 5th edition. According to Amazon, it’s supposed to come out on December 31st, but here it is in all its glory:






In the Mail: Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry

October 25, 2007

Lehinger Cover

Lehninger Contents

Lehinger random page