21 February 2021

Book Review – The Intelligence Trap by David Robson

The Intelligence Trap – Why smart people make dumb mistakes.

The title itself is enough to pick up the book from a shelf. Once you open it, you cannot keep it down. David’s story telling style (the story on the very first page will get you) and the explanation of research to lay it down to a layman why smart people have such dichotomy of deeply held beliefs – from vaccination to climate to evolution and so on is remarkable.

The book not only explains some of the evolutionary reasons of why and how our biases lead us down these parting ways but also spends quite a few pages explaining how you can try not falling in these traps.

Here are some interesting ideas from the book to pique your interest….

1. Core thesis is when we talk of intelligent people – we reflect on “analytical” intelligence. But judgment requires two other kinds of abilities – “creative intelligence” – ability to invest, imagine and suppose and “practical intelligence” – ability to plan and execute an idea to overcome life’s messy, ill formed problems in a pragmatic way – which needs one to have metacognition (judging your own strength and weakness) and read motives of others (often referred to as social or emotional intelligence)

2. Intelligent and educated people are less likely to learn from their own mistakes, are less able to recognize the flaws in their own logic and when they do err, they build elaborate arguments to justify their reasoning.

3. A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices

4. Academic tests are timed, usually. We are taught that speed of reasoning is a quality of our minds. Hesitation and indecision is undesirable. Being “slow” is stupid. And yet, hesitation, indecision and being slow is exactly what is required to understand one’s own error in judgment.

5. People with high IQs have shown to be equally likely to be in financial distress (miss mortgage payment, bankruptcy, credit card debt) as lower IQ people!!

6. “Myside bias” (confirmation bias) is highest when it speaks to our sense of identity. This explains why we come to very quick decisions (System 1 – or Fast Thinking) when it comes to opinions on religion, politics, nationality or even sports teams! Smart people do not apply their superior intelligence for truth seeking so much as promoting their interests or opinions. Greater education and intelligence simply helps people to justify their beliefs that match their points of views. This explains anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and evolution deniers. They are as intelligent as the other side.

7. Our beliefs are first borne out of emotional needs. Intellect kicks in later to rationalize.

8. Human thought are less about truth seeking. It is about persuading others to our point of view and be skeptical of the other side (most likely from evolution). Thus biased reasoning is not a side effect of increased brainpower – it is the reason for it.

9. “Experts” come with two big challenges – their inability to see the other side (goes against their sense of identity – see above) and others tend to believe them even when what they are saying has nothing to do with with their area of expertise. “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” – Bertrand Russell. Experts confuse their current level of understanding with their prior peak level of understanding. Therefore, they find it very difficult to to say “I do not know”.

10. Hearing the same opinion from different people has the same ability to convince you as hearing the same opinion from the same person repeatedly!!!

26 January 2021

Of Montaigne and Somshekhar Baksi

This guy – Somshekhar Baksi – is what you might call a Renaissance Man. My meeting a few years back is something I savor every moment reminiscing about it. Once a year, I get to talk to him on his birthday. (Which, regrettably ends when he realizes I have taken too much of his time). Today was no exception.

Our big topic today was Montaigne. If you are not much into philosophy, this is your cue to exit. Baksi – as we used to call him in our MBA school days – led me to yet another book – not Montaigne’s “Essays” per se… but the biography written by Sarah Bakewell.

This is what I came up on Page 1… Nothing has described why I blog about mundane details about my life better than this… Or why I will never write a book…

“shared self-revelation is the best way to develop trust and cooperation around the planet, replacing national stereotypes with real people.”

For, in describing what makes me different from anyone else, I simply reveal what I share with everyone else: the experience of being human. This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity— while not unique, is often overlooked.

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28 December 2020

Book Review – Appollo’s Arrow by Nicholas Christakis

Nicholas is a renowned doctor and sociologist who has done some great research into Covid-19 and other pathogens. His research is detailed enough to show the map of rooms on the 9th Floor in the Hotel Metropole to show how the spread of the virus was fairly unpredictable. (who will get it and who will not).

He gets into some interesting descriptions of why people resort to not believing science or how pandemics end. How pandemics bring the worst out of humans and also the best out of humans. He also details how pandemics – this being no exception – mostly highlight and heighten inequality.

But mostly, he gives a gripping day by day account of what happened in the early stages of 2020 when we were learning about the virus for the first time.

A fascinating paragraph from the book:

“It is not clear why human beings should be favored to win against microbes in an evolutionary arms race. Microbes have been around a lot longer than humans, are far more numerous, do not mind dying and can mutate rapidly, evading our defenses.”

Some of the things you will learn about pandemics and pathogens:

1. Concept of IFR and CFR (infection fatality rate and case fatality rate) as well as RE and R0 (called R naught) to understand how bad a virus can be.And how the value of R0 defines what percentage of the population need to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

2. There are only seven types of coronavirus that infect humans. Four of them cause common cold!

3. SARS-1 was fundamentally different from SARS-2 since a SAR-1 patient could not infect BEFORE being symptomatic. (mismatch period was virtually 0)

4. Future mutations of virus get increasingly WEAKER not stronger. Due to Darwinian evolutionary pressures, it is AGAINST the interest of the virus to kill the host. It simply wants – like everybody else – to multiply and spread.

5. Irony in our education – we dedicate pages after pages in history books for wars – like World War 1 – and none for pandemics like the 1918 influenza. Yet the latter killed far more people than the former!!

6. The term “quarantine” goes back to the days when ships were kept offshore for 40 days in case there was an infection onboard. The number 40 has many references in the Bible (e.g. the flood that had Noah building the ark lasted 40 days)

7. Contrary to what most people think, medicine has actually played a surprisingly small role in the decline of most infectious diseases across time. In fact a vaccination was always found decades after the peak of deaths. We managed with socioeconomic improvements and public health measures

8. The book predates the Covid-19 vaccine. First time in our history, we have managed to find a medical solution (vaccine) with the pandemic barely completing a year. This once, medicine WILL play a big role in the decline of deaths. Which made me think – could it be that as we get into more respiratory pandemics (about once every 20 years), we will find medical solutions in a matter of a couple of months – ultimately technology triumphing the microbes?

9. While most pandemics are U shaped (if you plot age on X-axis and fatality on Y axis) or L shaped (and in some cases W shaped) – Covid-19 has been an exception in the sense, it is J shaped (fatality rises sharply at the older ages).

10. The author predicts that our practice of shaking hands in the Western world will go the way of spittoons in movie halls and cigarette smoking in airplanes.

11. The reason why we had toilet paper shortages is not entirely explainable by hoarding. In fact, in a 24 hour day, taking away 8 hours of sleep, with no office to go to, time spent in home doubled (from 8 to 16). Increasing demand for TP in every home by a factor of two (moved the demand from office bathrooms to home bathrooms). But the supply chain for paper products to home versus office are completely different and it takes a lot of time to switch!

12. 38% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form sometime in the last ten thousand years! Over 25% Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth!! And 61% cannot identify Big Bang as the origin of the universe.

13. All modern plagues are zoonoses coming to us from wild animals. Our other major contagious diseases (smallpox, TB, measles etc) came to us from animals we have domesticated.

Anyways, I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. Two thumbs up for this book.

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11 December 2020

Book Review: How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

As mentioned before (see here) this is a book recommended to me by Avi Basu. As I had mentioned there, the author’s basic premise is that while we remember an invention for its immediate effect, in reality, there are a lot more profound downstream effects that we do not pause to realize. One example he talked about was how the printing press led to telescopes and microscopes. In a fashion that you will fail to connect – even after I tell you that one led to the other.

He calls this the “hummingbird effect”.

The six “inventions” the author focuses on are Glass, Cold (as in air conditioning), Sound (recreation of sound), Clean (-liness), Time and Light.

To me, the book starts on a high note, maintains the level of excitement for a couple of more chapters but towards the end (Time and Light), I found the discussions to lose the energy and sometimes the point the author was trying to make to be a little abstruse.

But that should not take away any merit from the very interesting and unique way Steves has tried to tie together the tapestry of various inventions.

Did you know that the world renowned glass making island of Murano (we visited in 2015 and got this from there) was a result of protecting public safety? (the glassmakers were banished there)

Did you know the origins of air conditioning included cutting up huge ice pieces from lakes in Massachussetts and then shipping them to the tropics? The invention of air conditioning not only circulated air molecules, it circulated people too! Hitherto barren lands – now called Texas, Florida and California rapidly saw people move there due to the tolerable temperatures that could be created inside. Florida went from less than a million people in 1920s to the Top 4 populous state in under 50 years!

This has had a very interesting effect – on Presidential Elections!! The redistributing of electoral colleges that air conditioning effected decisively moved election attention to the Sun Belt.

The ability to recreate sound quickly gave rise to the radio and then jazz. The author asserts that jazz – which created overnight celebrities (mostly Africa-Americans) led to a profound breakthrough – for the first time, white America welcomed African-American culture into its living room. Eventually paving the path to the birth of the civil rights movement.

In another interesting example, the author traces how a dangerous and unauthorized experiment with chlorine (lime) released into a New Jersey water tank proved the thesis a John Seale had – chlorine disinfects water of its contamination – and how that eventually led to people taking daily showers (a rather modern less-than-100-year practice in the USA). Which then led water to be used for as social entertainment – the swimming pool – which then led women to shed multiple layers of clothing that was the common practice to exposing almost all skin in public in a very short period of time!!

Go figure!!

One interesting point in the book – while we remember a person for an invention (Edison for light bulb, as an example), it is rarely one person who actually invents anything. (In fact, Edison did not invent the lightbulb but that is a story for another day). All inventions are fundamentally built on work (and other inventions) done by others and sometimes within a small period of time, multiple people invent the same thing. The time and forces of nature are just right at that point.

Easy reading. Recommend it.

27 November 2020

Started a new book…

This time it is a recommendation from Avi Basu – Steven Johnson’s “How We Got To Now”. This book focuses on six inventions and the surprising downstream long term changes they have brought – “Hummingbird Effect” – as he calls it. These are inventions that you will not come up with very quickly – glass, air conditioning etc.

And that is his point – while we easily understand the short term, immediate effect of these inventions, if you think thru it a few more steps, you will realize that the long term effects have been profound for these seemingly innocuous inventions. As an example, he cites how the printing press gave way to our understanding of the edges of the universe.

While the connection is not apparent at first, the author points out how spread of printed material made people realize they are farsighted (could not read as well the smaller scripts) which gave rise to glasses (lenses) which gave rise to microscopes on one end and telescopes on the other. Without the need to read the small print so often, we would have never stumbled upon lenses, the author argues.

Will continue to enjoy reading the book by the fire the next few evenings.

27 November 2020

Book Review: Here’s looking at Euclid

This is an absorbing book if you have any cursory interest in numbers and how they came about. Alex Bellos, a British journalist has a good story telling style and presents fairly well some of the mysteries behind numbers.

For example, did you know…
… if we did not go thru math classes, we would naturally think of numbers in logarithmic scale? We would think 1,2,3, a few, many… We understand ratios better than differences. (Remember that example from a previous post on why we would not walk 50 yards to buy a car for one buck less but will do so for a 2-buck coffee?).

… that base 10 is very inconvenient? 12 is the most convenient base (explaining 60 minutes to an hour, 12 inches to a foot…). But 10 became standard because it was easier to count with our fingers that way. Ever wondered why a finger is also called a ‘digit’?

… there are some fascinating stories about Pi. You can read about them in a prior post here

… why do we call a variable “x”? Originally we used upper case vowels for variable and consonants for constants. Descartes switched to lower case. He denoted variables from the end… “z”, “y”… and constants from the front “a”, “b”… But while publishing his book, the printer started running out of “z”s and asked if he could use “x”. (there was not much use of “x” in words). Descartes replied that he did not care. The rest became history. If not for the printer running out of letters, we could have had Z-Rays to check your chest infection today or Malcolm Z !!

… what an ambigram is? See this post on how I now have started writing my name in ambigram.

… that the largest number smaller than 1 simply does NOT exist?

… that leaves tend to sprout out at 137.5 degrees relative to the previous leaf? (if you see from the top of the shoot) This is rooted in the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence. (It maximizes the sunlight the plant can get regardless of the number of leaves)

… (speaking of Fibonacci numbers)… that most flowers have petals that is a number in the Fibonacci sequence? So do the spirals in a pineapple, spruce cones, sunflowers…

This and many other fascinating facts that our teachers never used to make math really interesting to us can be found in this book. You do not need to know math to enjoy this easy reading book

Highly recommend it.

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11 October 2020

Book Review: Why zebras do not get ulcers

This book took me a lot of time to finish. It is a fairly dense book and filled with too many medical terms that made me slow down to get the full impact. Even then, I suspect I caught only some of the major points.

The author – a neuroendocrinologist from Stanford University – tries to explain how stress messes up pretty much every system we have in our body. The funny title of the book is to highlight the point that humans are the only animals that get stressed about what MIGHT happen in the future.

There are about twenty odd chapters. Each chapter has essentially two parts. The first part explains how a system works – circulatory, nervous, sensory, reproductive etc etc. I found these portions fascinating since it helped me understand a little more about how our body works. The second part of each chapter focuses on how stress – or rather the specific hormone “glucocorticoids” plays havoc with the systems when over produced OVER A LONGER PERIOD OF TIME. I do not believe I could concentrate as much in these portions to follow everything.

Here are some interesting snippets…

1. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. Not so for humans.

2. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage – heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular diseases etc…

3. Our stress response system gets mobilized not only in response to actual stress but in expectations of them too.

4. A funny quote – The sympathetic nervous system mediates the four F’s of behavior – flight, fight, fright and sex. (Get it? 🙂 )

5. No cell in your body is more than five cells away from a blood vessel – yet the circulatory system takes up only 3 percent of body mass.

6. Only vertebrates gain acquired immunity as they grow up. Invertebrates do not. It is not exactly known why this is so.

7. Being under stress does make you more susceptible to cold

8. During stress, memory for emotional components is enhanced (although the accuracy is not necessarily all that good), whereas memory for the neutral details is not.

9. If you test young and old people and give them lots of time to complete an IQ test, there is little difference. As you stress the system – in this case, by making the subjects race against a time limit – scores fall for all ages, but much further among older people.

10. Genes are rarely about inevitability in humans. It is more about propensity and tendency.

I enjoyed the book. Hope you will too!

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25 July 2020

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

William Irvine has written this book on Stoicism from a unique perspective – he teaches Stoicism in college and is a practicing Stoic himself.

Among other things, he does a good job of tracing the history of Stoicism. Most of us know and read about the Roman version of Stoicism. But Stoicism started in Greece and had a couple of more interesting facets – reasoning logic (if A, then B; A; ergo B) and physics!!! But they got dropped by the Romans when Panaetius of Rhodes took the philosophy from Greece to Rome.

He also does a good job of explaining the different philosophical schools that competed with Stoicism at that time – Cynics, Epicureans, Skeptics, Megarians and so on.

The practices that the author suggests to any aspiring Stoic are:
(*) Negative Visualization – to fight off “hedonic adaptation and appreciate what you have
(*) Dichotomy of Control – the author extends it to Trichotomy of control – to not worry about the things you cannot control and “internalize goals” when you have some control.
(*) Fatalistic about the past and present but never the future
(*) For advanced practitioners, practice “voluntary discomfort”
(*) Being selective of which social function you attend and who you associate with.
(*) Use self-deprecating humor to counter insults
(*) Deal with anger by reminding yourself of the impermanence

Some interesting quotes from the book:
“Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes”
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”
“If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself”
“To know how many are jealous of you, count your admirers.”
“If we seek social status, we give other people power over us.”

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29 May 2020

Book Review : The Religions of Man

It was in the beginning of April that I had received an email from Erin Stahmer bringing my attention to David Allan’s TEDx talk titled “Who Knows What is Good or Bad?”. While reading the transcript, I found a reference to a Taoist parable that David credited the book “Religions of Man” for.

That is how I got curious about the book. Getting the book was a little more difficult though. This is not available in electronic format. So, had to order the paper version and wait for two weeks for it to appear. For about a month, I was a sight laying down in the bed every night with a highlighter in my mouth trying to take the book in.

Overall, two thumbs up. Loved the book and some of the quotes in it. It also made me put all the important religions on a timeline of when they started. Do you know which is the oldest religion and which is the youngest one?

The author does not get into too much historical details other than explain the societal background against which each of the religions emerged and then explains the basic precepts of each one of them and how they came about.

Some of the facts I learned:
1. How Abraham came to have two sons and how they eventually evolved into the two strands of Jews and Muslims
2. Violence in nature is aplenty. But violence within the species is fairly concentrated in humans only.
3. Had it not been a guard who would not let Lao Tzu go thru the Hankao Pass (he was trying to get away from society on his water buffalo) without writing down his thoughts, we would have never had a religion called Taoism!

Some of the quotes I enjoyed:
1. Tagore: “Truth comes as conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as a friend”
2. Talleyrand – “You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them”
3. Asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I didn’t know we had quarreled”.

Happy reading!

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19 April 2020

Book Review: Stillness is the Key

Overall, I would give it a thumbs sideways.
If you have ever read any book on meditation, the concept of being in the now or slowing down, then you can skip this book. If you have not, this might be a good first book to get introduced to the concepts.

To me the benchmark to beat is still Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.

Compared to that, this book would come across superficial and trying to address too many topics in too few pages. I am not sure I can recommend this.

But if you are very early in the journey of understanding your own self and how to stay still, this is bound to be a great first read.

There is something this book talks about from Taoism that appealed to me. And that is how nothingness can have a lot of meaning when it is put in the correct context. A cubic meter of air in front of you means nothing. Unless I put a clay cover around it. Suddenly it can hold water (like a pitcher). The concept of doing nothing, achieving nothing … cannot be truly understood unless you put the context of a full life around it.