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books essay philosophy

Self as Story

I recently read Conscious (2019) by Annaka Harris, a delightfully short, fascinating overview of the current state of consciousness research, philosophy and science, a field of inquiry relatively new to me. The following (and in all likelihood, quite unoriginal) random ideas came up.

The exact nature of consciousness is a topic for endless discussion; from my simple vantage point, I’ll just equate it to an awareness of being, which some might call the self. My initial, rather straightforward thought leans towards consciousness as an attribute of our brain, a hack or construct used to build a cohesive narrative (possibly including post-fact rationalization) around events – at their most basic level, sensory stimuli – for the evolutionary purpose of helping us remember and learn. “I” is the first building block of memory, letting us bring literal order to randomness through narrative capture. Stories harness space and time (the mnemonic method of loci comes to mind), and subsequent analysis and rumination, whether real-time or deliberate, facilitates “learning” – the generation of ideas and new behavior in the service of actual self-preservation. At a fundamental level, consciousness lets us process information, translate this into action, and create change. 

Over time, the advent of language helped humans shape this vague abstraction, conceptualize a self to construct narratives both individual and collective around, and create culture: inherited behavior. One could argue that language is critical for the very idea of our selves, indeed, for the voice inside our heads to be able to say anything at all. We are predisposed to narratives, convenient templates that wrangle meaning from chaos, a predilection that sometimes gets us in trouble – Tyler Cowen, in fact, cautions us about the unreliability of story – perhaps our propensity to create stories developed as evolutionary advantage and was the original purpose of self. Stories become history and memory, and it’s easy to speculate that beyond learning, memory also grants the self a persistent existence in a reinforcing virtuous cycle of sorts.

All this would imply that physical death is the termination of consciousness, as a property of the physical body. Consciousness as illusion and the role of emotions and our thoughts appear to be orthogonal issues – what matters here is that the presence of consciousness conveys a significant survivability benefit by allowing us to learn from past events.

Categories
books notes social

Winners Take All , Anand Giridharadas (2018)

Subtitled The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas eloquently explores the belief system and myths the elite class uses to justify the status quo; through reporting, anecdote, surveying what others have written, and personal experience, he argues that the path forward lies in fixing our democracy and strengthening our political institutions. This was a favorite read last year on a topic I hadn’t thought about much before, and it helped crystallize and shape into words the vague unease I’d had about the genre of self-improvement and pop-psych books, TED talks, and other things of a similar nature; brief chapter highlights follow.

A very much-related but broader cultural take is Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap.


But How is the World Changed?

It often seems that the only way to change the world is to become part of the system that the rich and powerful have built, and employ the problem-solving techniques that the system espouses, and drive its worldview: measure, analyze, optimize, solve. Giridharadas calls this MarketWorld, a prized new phrase of mine: the “enlightened” elite that aims to do good while still profiting from the status quo and free market, and includes the network and community of so-called thought leaders, the Goldman Sachs, McKinsey-ites and others of their ilk.

Categories
books notes wellness

The Obesity Code (2016), Jason Fung

I read this at the end of 2018, and it galvanized me on a path of personal change and continual learning about health and wellness. That space has exploded in recent years, especially in the age of podcasts and social media we’re in, and there’s been more research since, but this book was my trailblazer, and what follows are some notes – by a non-physician and neophyte to the material, so keep that caveat in mind – I made for myself back then.

Just educating myself a little more about how our bodies – the most important thing we have – function, felt empowering, and it was also surprising, given what I thought I knew already. I still find it somewhat shocking that fasting, something that barely crosses our minds, so simple as to be banal, can be so transformative. The Diabetes Code, by the same author, is similarly excellent.


Obesity as an epidemic is recent, only materializing in the last generation. It began in the 1950’s, as a function of increased life expectancy: the average age of the first heart attack is 66 years, and more people were reaching this age. Cholesterol was thought to cause heart disease, and dietary fat was thought to increase cholesterol, so physicians advocated lower-fat diets, which in turn increased carbohydrate intake. In 1977, a government committee (not a committee of physicians) introduced the Food Pyramid, advocating less fat and more carbohydrates, and the rates of obesity started increasing from that very year. Because refined carbohydrates couldn’t be both good (low in fat) and bad (fattening), it was decided that they weren’t fattening, and instead, excess calories were to blame.

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books essay notes social

The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits

I read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All over the holidays, which I enjoyed immensely. This led me to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap in the new year, which delves in the same broad pasture, but adopts a more academic bent and broader brush, surveying history, social science and economics. I’ve tried to summarize what I think the main ideas are, mingling a paraphrasing of the book with a few of my own thoughts, along with some ideas from the first book. Both are well worth your time, imho.


I was recently thinking about why I do what I do, and inevitably, the idea of money crossed my mind. Money incentivizes activity, all kinds of activity – it motivates us collectively and as individuals, to move and then stay in motion. Perhaps much of this activity is not broadly meaningful, but a small percentage probably is, and that is enough to move civilization forward, step by step or large leaps at a time – inventions, ideas, scientific discoveries, processes, systems. As a catalyst for progress at scale, it’s hard to beat. Money is the reason that capitalism, an economic system where production exists to generate profit for the owners of capital, and the basis for the most powerful economy on earth, can exist – it establishes a direct conduit between incentives, action, and reward.

Capitalism in turn, drives the culture of meritocracy that is the foundation for so much of our economy today. My reading of meritocracy: a culture where individuals are explicitly compensated according to actual “value”, or impact on a firm’s bottom line. In a capitalist system based on production, it is contribution to profit and productivity that ultimately accrues the highest rewards, and this explains the extravagant pay of CEOs compared to other employees, made possible by how much technology has amplified the leverage of management within a company. Technology enables scale in many facets of production, and when used with capitalist intent, becomes a key component of today’s meritocracy and an enabler for wealth concentration. In my view, capitalism (money as incentive), technology (and education), and the meritocratic culture amplify and feed each other, a “virtuous” cycle of sorts.

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books notes

Slack (2002), Tom DeMarco

Notes

    • Task switching has a penalty – get people to do only one thing.
    • Today’s knowledge worker is after personal growth – give them control slack – the opportunity to make their own mistakes, and so learn from them.
    • Full-time interactions consume brain power. The fewer the interaction lines radiating from a person, the less energy and overhead consumed on communication.
    • Having a gofer can save a LOT of energy and time.
    • Management is hard not because of the amount of work (a manager should not be doing work his reports are doing) but because the skills are inherently hard to master.
    • Empowerment means putting process ownership (and creation) into the hands of the people doing the work. The manager gives some control to the worker, who understands and appreciates the trust placed in him.
    • In the knowledge world, quality is inversely related to quantity.
    • Management metrics don’t tell the whole story, or quantify the entire benefit to the company.
    • People fear change because they are giving up the known/mastery for the unknown/novice-dom – remember, people identify themselves in part, through their work. Never belittle people who are going through this change.
    • Leaders acquire trust by giving trust.
    • Growth is the most opportune time to introduce change.
    • Trust and communication between middle management is essential for organizational reinvention.

Key lesson – today’s knowledge worker is after personal growth.

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books notes

Everything Bad is Good for You (2006), Steven Johnson

Notes

Unlike media-created perception, Computer Games are complicated, and exhibit delayed gratification. So why would anyone want to play them?

  • Because they have a reward system (either clear, or intrinsic), and we are wired to seek reward.
  • They force you to make decisions, as you have to do in real life.
  • They force you to learn how to probe the game, so you understand how it works, in order to win. Isn’t this just another way of describing the scientific method? Create a hypothesis, test, feedback.
  • They force you to telescope – plan your tasks, and sequence them logically so you can correctly progress through the game.

The value of games is not their content (often childish, banal, or morally suspect), but their cognitive skill development.

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books notes

Iconoclast (2008), Gregory Berns

Notes

An iconoclast breaks away from the status quo, and achieves his status by being, seeing and doing differently, and bringing into being some disruptive innovation. To be an iconoclast:

  • Look at new things to perceive old ones differently – you can do this by being in new environments, or being with new people. Our brain rigidly categorizes for efficiency in processing inputs, and so we need to shake the perceptual system out of its categories. Categories are death to imagination.
  • Stress – transform fear into more productive emotions, such as anger. Fear distorts perception. The pressure to conform (especially when among strangers) is because of fear of social isolation, and fear of looking stupid.

There are three steps to achieving successful iconoclast status:

  1. See differently – see things as they are, not as others do. Create a new idea / vision.
  2. Face down fear, so it doesn’t influence your decisions. Be brave enough to stand out.
  3. Social network so others (enough people and the right people) see the way you do. Social intelligence, networking and connectedness are crucial to succeeding – they help you build reputation, experience and eventually, productivity. Familiarity quiets fear (in others).

Finally, in order to see differently, you could consider drugs. The SSRIs and betablockers inhibit fear and anxiety, and have few side effects. Also the hormone oxytocin has been shown to increase social bonding and social intelligence.

Key lessons – see differently, face down fear, and social network.

Categories
books notes

Brain Rules (2008), John Medina

Notes

  1. Exercise during the day improves cognitive ability. It halves the chance of mild dementia, and reduces by 60% risk of Alzheimer’s. This underscores the importance of Physical Education in school.
  2. The brain improvises on a database (knowledge store).
  3. Individual brains develop differently on different time tables, based on different life experiences. Your brain rewires itself based on different experiences in life.
  4. The more attention your brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded and retained. Emotionally charged stimuli are the most memorable. Association between different data points aids memory, ie. hierarchy, which means put concepts / meaning before details. Have a 10 minute check out rule in lectures / learning. The brain can’t multitask – pay actual attention to many things at once.
  5. Spaced (over time – meaning not too often) and varied repetition enhances remembering. Forgetting allows prioritization.
  6. The brain is active during sleep; only 20% of sleep is non-REM. It is an opportunity for offline processing and furious memory creation.
    1. Sleep patterns differ from person to person – I am active in the mid-morning, and in the middle of the night. Each person has a sleep archetype, or chrono-type – ie. early, late or middle. For many people, a 30 minute nap during the day (especially the mid-afternoon siesta) improves performance.
    2. Sleep aids creativity, while sleep loss ages the body, and also causes mind loss.
  7. Stress (overload – some stress is good) causes a sense of helplessness, and lack of control. Chronic, prolonged stress / cortisol kills brain cells.
    1. Depression deregulates the thought process. Stress prevents learning and brain function – hence, your home and personal life will affect your work and school performance.
    2. Control is key – if I have control in my personal life, I can better insulate myself from stress caused by lack of control at work. Marriage success is often about limiting the severity and frequency of hostile interactions.
  8. Stimulation, especially multi-sense stimulation, including the rarer touch and smell stimulation, can increase creativity.

Key lessons – exercise regularly, have a satisfying and full personal life to manage stress, and make sure you get enough sleep at the right times. To remember important things in your life, encode them emotionally and deliberately.