Archive for the ‘Books & Other Texts’ Category

I read a very good book on how to form arguments and how to spot illogical ones. Anthony Weston is the author and the books is called A Rulebook For Arguments. It was well written and so easy to understand and to follow.

It talks about some common fallacies (errors in logic) used by people when arguing. It talks about how to spot such fallacies and how to structure an essay in the best way, logically and coherently. Talk about a book I needed to read! Now, all I need to do is practice.

A great read.

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“a thought once thought cannot be unthought”. Unless you want to keep your world view intact at all costs – don’t read this book!

Okay, not sure if it’s quite that dramatic. But it is controversial – still! After 18 years we still abide by what Edward de Bono call “Rock Logic” in most of our activities. In I am Right You are Wrong de Bono sets out to make us see that perception rather than judgement is what is needed, are we to change the way we live and the world we live in.

One of my favorite sections is the one where he declares the problem with problem-solving. In problem solving we say “this is the problem” and then we go about removing the problem. “In design we say: ‘Here’s the situation. How can we move forward’? If you want to build a new town on a swamp you might say: ‘Let’s remove the swamp.’ But if you want to build a new town in the desert you do not set out to remove all the sand but instead you say: ‘This is a desert. How do we design houses that can stand on the sand?'” Design more often than not lets us improve situations, rather than problems that needs to be fixed in order to sustain the current system. Design, in many cases, creates new systems.

It’s a healther way of looking at anything, really, as new generations have new ideas and new designs that might very well improve the way we behave and live on this planet. Though, it has always taken quite a lot of effort to bring about any new change that lies outside of the old established way of thinking, but it’s needed. After all, if new ideas never had managed to penetrate old ways of thinking, we would still be sitting in some cave ranting on about how safe it is and how dangerous the outside might be.

We still abide by the old industrial rule of “if it isn’t broke then don’t fix it”. Well, if we take a real hard look, it is broke. But we shouldn’t tweak the current system as much as we should replace it entirely.

New concepts that I liked from the book is “po”. It’s a word used to stop us from emotionally reacting to a situation and just let it be “not knowing” for a while. It’s a pattern-breaker, because our reactions always flow into certain patterns, po will stop us from falling into these patterns and rather let us be in the unknown for awhile. “As a signal po is much stronger than ‘maybe’ or the Japanese device of ‘mu’. Po is not ‘don’t know’ but more ‘don’t yet want to know'”.

Additionally, de Bono mentions the Six Thinking Hats. It’s a tool for thinking that works well in groups that want to think well together. They are basically hats that you metaphorically put on your head and each hat has an attribute, or way of thinking. “There is the white hat for attention to pure and neutral data. There is the red hat to allow the input of intution and feeling without any need for justification. There is the black hat of the logical negative, which is caution and points out why something cannot be done. There is the yellow hat of the logical positive, which focuses on the benefits and feasibility. For creative thinking there is the green hat, which calls for new ideas and further alternatives. Finally there is the blue hat for process control, which looks not at the subject but at the thinking about the subject (meta-cognition)”.

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“In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”
– Benjamin Franklin

Can you see the difference between these two statements:

    “The Probability that a woman of age 40 has breast cancer is about 1 percent. If she has breast cancer, the probability that she tests positive on a screening mammogram is 90 percent. If she does not have breast cancer, the probability that she nevertheless tests positive is 9 percent. What are the chances that a woman who tests positive actually has breast cancer?”

(Most people think that the chance is 90%..)


    “Think of 100 women. One has breast cancer, and she will probably test positive. Of the 99 who do not have breast cancer, 9 will also test positive. Thus, a total of 10 women will test positive. How many of those who test positive actually have breast cancer?”

Unlike the first statement, which is very confusing and a bit hard to grasp, the second is very easy and we can see that 1 in 10 women will test positive and not 9 in 10 as the first one might look to suggest.

This is uncertainty, and innumeracy, at its best. It clearly shows how easily fooled we can be just by a differently phrased statement! Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Reckoning With Risk brings up the horrible mistakes made by people using statistics and probability.

He shows how a lot of women have been lead to believe that they have breast cancer, when the chances are small and the chances that the tests are wrong are quite large – he also shows how physicians are ruled rather by their wallet than by what’s best for their patients; the costs of cancer screening is thus way larger than the benefits. In fact, there is no evidence that cancer treatment reduces death or is even remotely healthy for the patients. The errors the so-called experts make go into prostate cancer, AIDS, DNA, and various “facts” and statistics used to convict criminals (a lot of people are found guilty by the use of what is called “prosecutor’s fallacy”).

However, Gigerenzer shows how to turn this innumeracy into insight. He also shows how statistics can be used by public policy makers to manipulate outcomes into illusions of certainty. For example, there were, when the book was written in 2003, over 1,700 “trade organisations” promoting anything from asbestos to zinc, spending around $1 billion on “image advertisement” (the number has most likely increased since then). Consider the tobacco companies during this century and their promotion of smoking as not being negative to health but in fact positive to your health (all those doctors and authorities promoting smoking in commercials and ads)!

Lung cancer research, in the 20s and 30s, that showed the connection between smoking and cancer were dismissed because the researches that conducted the research were German, and in that era Nazis! (I will lay a claim that such modern forms of witch-hunting is still going on. Consider any thoughts or research done by people currently not acceptable, or talking about acceptable things are ostracized because of it – a more concrete example is the way fanatical nationalists claim that anyone who criticize or question the way the nation behave itself are traitors or hate their nation!).

Anther interesting social phenomenon in the book is: “Thesus monkeys reared in a laboratory, for instance, show no fear of venomous snakes. However, when a youngster watches an adult exhibiting fear of a snake, the youngster typically acquires this fear just by observing it once.”

Some things that Gigerenzer says can counter the way we read statistics is by using “Bayes’s rule” and “Natural frequencies”. I am very interested in games that train these ways of looking at statistics and probabilities. I am also interested in any games that play with the ideas of probability and statistics (such as the “Monty Hall Problem”, or “Three Prisoners Problem”) – if anyone has any such games, please, do share!

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Xenophon’s work Cyropaedia is similar to that of Machiavelli’s The Prince in that it’s a stand point on how to rule. Cyropaedia discuss the philosophy of Cyrus the Great, the originator of Human Rights and ruler of the Persian Empire.

Where Machiavelli thought it was better to be feared than loved, Cyrus the Great thought it better to be loved than feared. In fact, according to Cliff Rogers two works that was mandatory for any ruler to read were Machiavelli’s The Prince and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Many of the founding fathers of the United States of America sought inspiration from the two works. That is “what makes America great”, in fact “is not so much democracy, as it is its Bill Of Rights”, Cyrus Kar says. The Bill Of Rights, has its origins in Cyrus Cylinder, where Cyrus the Great put his words down after conquering Babylonia, and so creating Human Rights.

Read about it here
Cyropaedia by Xenophon can be downloaded on the Project Gutenberg website, found here.

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A Black Swan is basically an extreme event that “lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility” and additionally, “in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable”. I’ll save myself from saying that the book itself was a black swan, because that would make a very cheap joke.

I don’t know, if I got out everything that Taleb wanted to tell me in The Black Swan. What I did get out of it was that anyone that tries to see into the future is stupid (most people, in other words!), making it giant waste of time to read newspapers and listen to economists speculate about this and that. White I never enjoyed news myself, I finally have a reason for not watching when people ask me (Taleb says so!)

He elaborately show us how the bell curve is fantastically stupid and out-dated (or that it never was in-dated) in a section of the book I naturally skipped as I “belong to the category of fortunate people who do not know about the bell curve”. It’s always refreshing when an author tells you not to read what he says.

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I got a few things from this dissertation.

It has been suggested that behavior previously thought to be automatic is not automatic and behavior thought not to be automatic in fact is. For example, Folk, Remington and Wright said in 1994 that distractions that automatically catches people’s attention only succeeds if the distractions characteristics is closely related to the stimuli that is part of the activity that is engaged or part of that person. In other words, people of different ethnicity is perceived to look the same if they are seen as a different ethnicity, as opposed to just another human being. Connected to this is the fact that babies will react negatively to faces of another ethnicity if they have not been exposed to different ethnicities before some crucial months of the baby’s life. This isn’t part of the dissertation but I’m trying to connect a few pieces of the puzzle.

If a new-born is not exposed to humans of different color before a crucial first months of their life (I don’t actually remember how many months, but presumably around the time when they can distinguish between faces) they will have negative physiological reactions to people that have other skin colors. This is likely a out-dated survival instict and is most surely one of the reasons why some ethnic groups can alienate and make other ethnic groups into sub-humans in order to attack and kill them. There is some truth in the fact that some people are unable to properly discern between faces of other ethnic groups – they were only exposed to faces of their own ethnic group and thus think that ethnic group is a threat.

Interesting research is (Simon, D.J., & Levin, D.T. (1998) “Failure to detect changes in people during a real world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review”, 5, 644-649).

This means that racism is cultural and immensely ingrained in people and their perception of the world. This also means that the only way to remove racism is to expose newly born to “other faces”. Every new generation that comes into the world can thus either increase or decrease racism simply by being exposed to human beings with other appearances than their parents.

Another interesting thing is that science shows us why it is counter-productive to “try to be happy”.

Remember any time when you tried to fall asleep (your focus was on the thought “sleep”) and thoughts comes up that goes “I’m so NOT tired right now” and “Why can’t I fall asleep”, etc. Our brains are amazing, because they actually help us focus on what we want “sleep” by showing us everything that oppose it.

You can for example not know light if you do not know darkness; so our brain is sustaining “sleep” by creating “I am not tired”. So “try to be happy” will needlessly create “Life sucks”, “I have not what I want” and everything else that potentially makes you unhappy.

Consider any sport where you think “do not miss”, the innevitable result is more often than not that we do miss!

An additional thing that the dissertation taught me was that athletes show greater general ability to concentrate than those who are not engaged in physical activity. So physical activity makes our general concentration better.

Yet another thing was that when out running, runners were more tired when they thought that the run was almost over (when it was 8 minutes left) than if the runner thought that there was quite a lot of running left (say 16 minutes). In other words, we do not focus on how tired we are if we know there is a lot left.

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A bestseller when it came out in 1933; written by Arthur Kallet and F.J. Schlink. It exposed the drug industry and how it used people as guinea pigs. John G. Fuller released a book called 200,000,000 Guinea Pigs honoring the book; in it, Fuller says that the situation has not improved but rather gotten worse.

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