Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Two Good Books

Last weekend I read Bruce Sterling's latest, "The Zenith Angle". Very fun read, only 300 pages, academic computer geek becomes black ops cyber-warrior. A good vacation book. Sterling recently gave a keynote at some technical conference where he was saying that the Internet has become the domain of large criminal activities, and we need the Internet cops to get it under control. The main character in "The Zenith Angle" voices the same concerns. I guess he's right. The spam levels are definitely getting annoying, and I'm still waiting for my $1,000,000 to come back from Nigeria for the $10,000 I sent them ;-> Seems like things are moving in that direction, jail time recently for spammers and worm writers.

The other book I just finished last night: "The Blank Slate" by Stephen Pinker. What a fun read! I described it to a couple of people as "a feel-good book for people who don't believe in anything". It begins with a history of The Enlightenment, and then takes aim at three prevalent ideas that modern science has basically shot full of holes, but that continue to hang on, particularly in academia:

  1. The Blank Slate -- the notion that we are born with minds that are blank slates, on which anything can be written.
  2. The Noble Savage -- the notion that anything natural is good, and that, as such, primitive peoples have lived peaceful, pastoral lives in harmony with nature.
  3. The Ghost in the Machine -- the notion of the human soul, but also the notion that all living things have a vital essence.
So, after pointing out all the holes in these, he then talks about the four fears that cause people to want to believe in these things even if they are shown to be false: fear if inequality, imperfectibility, determinism, and nihilism. He shows why an understanding of the genetic and physical nature of human nature can allay these fears.

The 4th section discusses what human nature is. One interesting point here was that as we have optical and cognitive illusions, there are also moral illusions, where the inherited hardwiring in our brains causes us to react with sanctimony, moral condemnation and the taboo reaction in ways that aren't appropriate.

The 5th section then picks out five current hot buttons and analyzes them in terms of the prior sections. These are politics, violence, gender, children and the arts. He has great fun poking his finger in the eyes of sacred cows, and I laughed out loud several times in these. The chapter on children went into more detail on the basis of our personalities I had seen I think in "Genome": 50% heredity, 50% peer groups, 0% parents. He seems to want to replace the 50% peer groups with "fate" -- the random things that happen to all of us to shape our lives.

Anyway, a great read. I had read Pinker's "How the Mind Works" a few years ago and enjoyed it as well. Surprising I had no FFTKAT on it. Like this one, it is more a synthetic review than something with radical new ideas or totally little known facts.

It is untrue that I "don't believe in anything". I believe in 3 things, my postulates, as detailed in the 1st Dumb Ass blog. The nice thing about all of science, including this book, is that you don't have to believe any of it. You evaluate the data, assign a goodness measure to the theory, and move on. 5, 10, 20 years from now large parts of this book could be well-known bullshit and it wouldn't bother me, and I would think the author, in the slightest. Ah, the joys of scientific thinking!

In an online shopping note, I am still linking books and CDs to Barnes and Noble because I like their nice ISBN-based URLs. I ordered some stuff from them late last year and had nasty delivery delays, so I am back to ordering from Amazon. I have started routinely checking on buying books used from them. I had two of my daughters and one of my coworkers wanting to read "The Blank Slate" from my enthusiam about it, I ordered two used hardcopies of it for $5.00 ea plus $3.00 shipping ea. Sure beats the cover price of $27.95.