Lexicon by Max Barry

“At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics–at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”, adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.” (Amazon)

I can’t say I thought Lexicon was a great read but the neurolinguistics thing was interesting. I kept hearing echoes from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

“As Stephenson describes it, one goddess/semi-historical figure, Asherah, took it upon herself to create a dangerous biolinguistic virus and infect humanity with it; this virus was stopped by Enki, who used his skills as a “neurolinguistic hacker” to create an inoculating “nam-shub” that would protect humanity by making it impossible to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue. This forced the creation of “acquired languages” and gave rise to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.”

If I read Wikipedia correctly, there’s a difference between Neurolinguistics and Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). The notion of someone using words and language to “program” my thinking is disturbing. This came up again for me last year when Scott Adams begin writing a long series of posts about Donald Trump using Master Persuader techniques. I was skeptical at first now I’m not so sure.

Jim Jones talks his followers into drinking poison Kool Aide? Tony Robbins convinces folks to pay him for the privilege of walking on hot coals? David Koresh, Scientology, etc etc. Are we just “moist robots” (Scott Adam’s term) that can be programmed with a few well chosen words?

And while we’re on the subject of words… I don’t remember the last time I saw an NBC newscast that didn’t include repeated references to “devastation,” “tragedy,” “terror,” and similar fear words. I’m trying to stop watching and listening to network and cable news programs because I feel (physically) bad after watching/listening. Which I’ve concluded is the point.


I just finished a book (Lexicon by Max Barry) described by Amazon as a “thriller.” The more I thought about it the more I realized I wasn’t sure what that designation meant. What makes a book a “thriller?” And now I know.

Thriller is a broad genre of literature, film and television, having numerous subgenres. Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. Successful examples of thrillers are the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Thrillers generally keep the audience on the “edge of their seats” as the plot builds towards a climax. The cover-up of important information from the viewer is a common element. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.

And don’t miss the sub-genres. Whenever Wikipedia asks for some financial support, I kick in.

The Ruthless War on Stuff

I have a mental list of topics I try to avoid because — in my experience — they seem to make people a little (or a lot) crazy. Politics and Religion, of course. Apple products. And Marie Kondo, the best-selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I read her little book and did exactly what it said I should do to “change my life.” But I try to keep what I learned to myself (like religion and politics and Steve Jobs). But this New York Times piece is too good not to share. A few excerpts:

“By the time her book arrived, America had entered a time of peak stuff, when we had accumulated a mountain of disposable goods — from Costco toilet paper to Isaac Mizrahi swimwear by Target — but hadn’t (and still haven’t) learned how to dispose of them. We were caught between an older generation that bought a princess phone in 1970 for $25 that was still working and a generation that bought $600 iPhones, knowing they would have to replace them within two years. We had the princess phone and the iPhone, and we couldn’t dispose of either. We were burdened by our stuff; we were drowning in it.”

The success of Ms. Kondo’s book (and system) gets a big dollop of derision and smirking: “A parody book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a [expletive],” and another one called “The Joy of Leaving Your [expletive] All Over the Place.”

But the lady seems to walk the walk: “The only visible possessions in her hotel room for a two-week trip from Tokyo were her husband’s laptop and a small silver suitcase the size of a typical man’s briefcase.”

The “organizing industry” is big in the U.S. and some of the old hands are quick to dismiss Kondo’s approach. Okay, a little more than just “dismiss”:

“Somehow the extra step of thanking the object or folding it a little differently enrages them. This rage hides behind the notion that things are different here in America, that our lives are more complicated and our stuff is more burdensome and our decisions are harder to make.”

A well-written article, whatever your thoughts on, or approach to, tidying up.

Kill Process

killprocess“By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo (think Facebook), the world’s largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. […] When Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users’ fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is–another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.”

Kill Process by William Hertling

This is one of the geekier/techy novels I’ve read in awhile. The author went to great pains to get the hacker stuff right. (Or right-ish)

Reading List: Tao, Zen & Buddhism

  • What Is Tao? – Alan Watts [notes]
  • Tao: The Watercourse Way – Alan Watts [notes]
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo [notes]
  • Freedom from the Known – Jiddu Kirshnamurti
  • This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience – Alan Watts [notes]
  • The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East [notes]
  • The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are – Alan Watts [notes]
  • Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening – Stephen Batchelor [notes]
  • The Sound of Silence: Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho
  • Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi [notes]
  • Ten Zen Questions – Susan Blackmore [notes]
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn [notes]
  • Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice – Kosho Uchiyama Roshi
  • I Am That – Nisargadatta Maharaj [notes]
  • Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind – Dzogchen Ponlop
  • Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World – Lama Surya Das
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
  • Living As A River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change – Bodhipaksa [notes]
  • The Tao of Zen – Ray Grigg [notes]
  • Buddhism Plain and Simple – Steve Hagen [notes]
  • The Way of Zen – Alan Watts [notes]
  • Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – Rick Hanson [notes]
  • Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation – Alan Watts [notes]
  • Meditation Now or Never – Steve Hagen [notes]
  • The Tao of Meditation: Way to Enlightenment – Jou Tsung Hwa

Reading list: Consciousness

  • The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself – Sean Carroll AmazonMy notes
  • Consciousness and the Social Brain – Michael S. A. Graziano Amazon | My notes
  • What Technology Wants – Kevin Kelly Amazon | My notes
  • The Ego Trick – Julian Baggini Amazon | My Notes
  • The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity – Bruce Hood Amazon | My Notes
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman Amazon | My notes
  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain – David Eagleman Amazon | My notes
  • The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self – Thomas Metzinger Amazon | My notes
  • Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness – Bruce Rosenblum Amazon | My notes
  • Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe – Robert Lanza Amazon | My notes

The Big Picture

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. By Sean Carroll

Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary.

For a long time, there has been a shared view that there is some meaning, out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and acknowledged. There is a point to all this; things happen for a reason. […] Gradually, our confidence in this view has begun to erode.

“Life” and “consciousness” do not denote essences distinct from matter; they are ways of talking about phenomena that emerge from the interplay of extraordinarily complex systems.

At a fundamental level, there aren’t separate “living things” and “nonliving things,” “things here on Earth” and “thinks up in the sky,” “matter” and “spirit.” There is just the basic stuff of reality, appearing to us in many different forms. […] We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained or influenced by anything outside itself. That’s a big deal.

The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.

(The) answer to the question “What determines what will happen next?” is “The state of the universe right now.” […] The entirety of both the past and the future history are utterly determined by the present.

The universe is something like a computer. You enter input (the state of the universe right now), it does a calculation (the laws of physics) and gives you an output (the state of the universe one moment later).

Conservation of Information – implies that each moment contains precisely the right amount of information to determine every other moment.

Realistically, there never will be and never can be an intelligence vast and knowledgeable enough to predict the future of the universe from its present state. […] To simulate the entire universe with good accuracy, you basically have to be the universe. […] The future may be determined by the present, but literally nobody knows what it will be.

We don’t know any way to predict what a person will do based on what we can readily observe about their current state.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason: For any true fact, there is a reason what it is so, and why something else is not so instead.

Just as there is no reference to “causes” in the fundamental laws of physics, there isn’t an arrow of time, either.
There are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and at least 100 billion galaxies. By coincidence, the number 100 billion is also a very rough count of the number of neurons in a human brain.

The Big Bang itself, as predicted by general relativity, is a moment in time, not a location in space. It would be the moment prior to which there were no moments: no space, no time.

Information about the precise state of the universe is conserved over time; there is no fundamental difference between the past and the future.

Different moments in time in the history of the universe follow each other, according to some pattern, but no one moment causes any other.

Belief (is) anything we think is true regardless of whether we have a good reason for it. […] The beliefs we choose to adopt are shaped as much, if not more, by the beliefs we already have than by correspondence with external reality.

The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next in a way that depends only on its present state. It neither ames toward future goals nor relies on its previous history.

Most of the interesting things it is possible to know are not things we could ever hope to “prove,” in the strong sense. […] Math is all about proving things, but the things that math proves are not true facts about the external world.

Science has a simple goal: to figure out what the world actually is. Nat all the possible ways it could be, nor the particular way it should be. Just what it is.

All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life — objects, plants, animals, people — are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.

What we see when we look at the world is quite different from how we describe the world when we’re not looking at it. (the fundamental feature of quantum mechanics)

There seems to be no obstacle in principle to a universe like ours simply beginning to exist.

To a poetic naturalist, “mind” is simply a way of talking about the behavior of certain collections of physical matter, just as “heaviness” is.

To imagine that the soul pushes around the electrons and protons and neutrons in our bodies in a way that we haven’t yet detected is certainly conceivable, but it implies that modern physics is profoundly wrong in a way that has so far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed.

Life is a way of talking about a particular sequence of events taking place among atoms and molecules arranged in the right way. […] What is “life” anyway? Nobody knows. There is not a single agreed-upon definition that clearly separates things that are “alive” from those that are not.

Our brains construct models of their surroundings, with the goal of not being surprised very often by new information. Subconsciously, the brain carries with it a set of possible things that could happen next, and updates the likelihood of each of them as new data comes in.

We are all just complicated collections of matter moving in patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics in an environment with an arrow of time. Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that naturally develop along the way.

What you can see has a dramatic effect on how you think.

Episodic memory and imagination engage the same neural machinery.

What we call a “thought” corresponds directly and unmistakably to the motion of certain charged particles inside my head.

The human brain contains roughly 85 billion neurons, each of which is connected to a thousand or more other neurons, so we’re talking about a hundred trillion or more connections in total.

Memories are physical things located in your brain.

Like “entropy” and “heat,” the concepts of “consciousness” and “understanding” are ones that we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.

Who “you” are is defined by the pattern that your atoms form and the actions that they collectively take, not their specific identities as individual particles. It seems reasonable that consciousness would have the same property.

Our mental experiences or qualia are not actually separate things, but instead are useful parts of certain stories we tell about ordinary physical things.

If consciousness were something over and above the physical properties of matter, there would be a puzzle: what was it doing for all those billions of years before life came along? […] Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.

(Meaning, morality, and purpose) aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.

LibraryThing (update)

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 11.09.48 AMI started using LibraryThing to manage my library in 2005, about a month after the service launched. I was using a spreadsheet for this task but quickly fell in love with the tools and features LibraryThing provided. I find their smartphone app very handy.

I have 740 titles in my LibraryThing long ago gave away most of the books. Someone calling themselves eandino2012 has more than 81 thousand titles in her/his LibraryThing.

If you’ve considered using a service like LT or Goodreads but dreaded the task of uploading all your book titles, LT has a good import tool (see below) and their smartphone app can scan ISBN barcodes. Neither of those were around back in 2005 so I entered mine one at a time.

LT does some fun stuff (total cubic feet of your books; how high if stacked, etc) and some useful (to me) stuff: list of all characters in the books in your LT.

height characters

I know of no better use of my time than reading. Books are important to me. LibraryThing is a way to extend the pleasure I get from books.

The Inevitable

inevitable“Thousands of years from now, when historians review the past, our ancient time here at the beginning of the third millennium will be seen as an amazing moment. This is the time when inhabitants of this planet first linked themselves together into one very large thing. Later the very large thing would become even larger, but you and I are alive at the moment when it first awoke. Future people will envy us, wishing they could have witnessed the birth we saw.”

“This very large thing (the net) provides a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall, planetary scope) and a new mind for an old species. It is the Beginning. […] At its core 7 billion humans, soon to be 9 billion, are quickly cloaking themselves with an always-on layer of connectivity that comes close to directly linking their brains to each other. […] By the year 2025 every person alive — that is, 100 percent of the planet’s inhabitants — will have access to this platform via some almost-free device. Everyone will be on it. Or in it. Or, simply, everyone will be it.”

While reading Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable, I underlined passages so I could post them here for future reference. I do this with each book I read. I’m not going to do that for this book because my highlights filled 11 pages but you can find them here.

Reading becomes social

I’m burning through highlighter and Post-It flags as I read Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable. In the chapter titled Screening, he writes about what books have been and what they are becoming and it is good stuff.

With screens we can share not just the titles of books we are reading, but our reactions and notes as we read them. Today, we can highlight a passage. Tomorrow, we will be able to link passages. We can add a link from a phrase in the book we are reading to a contrasting phrase in another book we we read, from a word in a passage to an obscure dictionary, from a scene in a book to a similar scene in a movie. (All these tricks will require tools for finding relevant passages.) We might subscribe to the marginalia feed from someone we respect, so we get not only their reading list but their marginalia-highlights, notes, questions, musings.

For years I’ve been transcribing underlined passages from books and posting them to my blog. When Google Drive came along I started posting them there as well. This task got easier when I put TextGrabber on my phone. Now I snap a photo and the app converts to text.