Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is yet another mind-expanding book:
“About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.
About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.
About 3.8. billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.
About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.
Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.”
I just wanted to share these two very well-done and informative primers on AI and quantum computing by A16z. The latter one made a bit less ignorant about the topic. The former one is rather basic but still interesting.
“Kurzweil then takes things a huge leap further. He believes that artificial materials will be integrated into the body more and more as time goes on. First, organs could be replaced by super-advanced machine versions that would run forever and never fail. Then he believes we could begin to redesign the body—things like replacing red blood cells with perfected red blood cell nanobots who could power their own movement, eliminating the need for a heart at all. He even gets to the brain and believes we’ll enhance our brain activities to the point where humans will be able to think billions of times faster than they do now and access outside information because the artificial additions to the brain will be able to communicate with all the info in the cloud.”
I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:
“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”
“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”
“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”
“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”
Most likely a majority of readers have already heard about this famous experiment, probably on multiple occasions. Those who have not though might find it both eye-opening and terrifying. Here is the brief summary of what has been done:
Milgram told his forty male volunteer research subjects that they were participating in a study about the effects of punishment on learning. He assigned each of the subjects to the role of teacher. Each subject was told that his task was to help another subject like himself learn a list of word pairs. Each time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to give the learner an electric shock by flipping a switch. The teacher was told to increase the shock level each time the learner made a mistake, until a dangerous shock level was reached.
If you missed the buzz about Spritz startup this week, let me tell you about it. The guys behind it developed an interesting technology that might help us all read faster without an extra effort. Key idea is to eliminate the unnecessary eye movement my properly positioning words. Unfortunately, there is nothing to download so far, but I think a lot of cool apps will be developed soon.
I could not find enough time to post here recently. I certainly have been doing more reading than writing. So, I thought why not to share some of things I read? And I decided to tell you about Quora.
As you most probably already know, Quora is a questions-answers website which succeeded in doing what Google and multiple other companies failed at: provide a decent quality of responses.
Several months ago they even created their own book “Best of Quora 2010-2012“, compiled of best answers, available for free download. It covers quite a range of topics. From Steve Jobs to moldy cheese, from neurological basis of curiosity to Jay-Z. I hope to find time and selectively read the most intriguing ones.
In a meanwhile, here is the short list of questions on the website itself that I found noteworthy:
I’ve just finished listening to an interesting audiobook about memory and mnemonic techniques: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Author is a young journalist who decided to try all the memory improvement techniques himself but remain sceptical and objective while doing so. He talks about memory itself and the way it was influenced by spread of written language and by technology. Than, he tells us stories about people with extraordinarily good memory and amnesiacs, about people who had an ordinary memory but became memory champion and about mnemonic techniques they used.
Joshua begins his quest with a totaly ordinary, if not mediocre, memory. Bus after long preparation and work with best so-called “mental athletes” wins one of US memory champtionships. Although he himself acknoledges the fact that most of techniques he learned are useless in day-to-day life, I actually extracted a lot of intersting and useful ideas from the book. And this is what I would like to share with you.
Interesting facts and ideas
Memory becomes highly underestimated nowadays because of all the various ways to store information “externally”. But in fact, the better we remember our life, the more connections we can make. Memory is also necessary to understand and appreciate many things in life. For example, a person who never read or heard anything about China would not get as much culturally from the trip there as somebody who studied history and architecture of this country for a couple of months.
One of the people Joshua interviewed for the book tried to increase “subjective” (perceived) life expectancy by improving his memory. The idea is that the more events you remember the longer life seems to be.
Best chess-players don’t really evaluate all the possible moves logically. Instead, they recognize familiar patterns from other games.
Cab drivers in London pass obligatory and very demanding exam called “The Knowledge”. It has been found that those who passed it after months of preparation have larger brain region that is responsible for orientation in space. Interestinlgy, brains of “memory champions” are actually quite typical.
Odyssey and Iliad were initially created the way that made it easier to remember it and paraphrase verbally instead of writing down.
We can remember almost unlimited number of pictures. At least the fact whether we’ve seen one or not. That is why many memory techniques revolve around transforming other types of information into visual images.
Also, Joshua acquaints us with several interesting, although ambigous personalities, such as Daniel Tammet, Ed Cooke, Tony Buzan and others.
Some savants naturally use synesthesia (mixing visual, audiotory and other types of perceptions) to enchance remembering and learning through associations.
“Chunking” is a technique of breaking information into smaller pieces. For example, it is easier to remember a phone number when it is presented as 12-34-56 than when it is presented as 123456.
Major system. To use this technique, one should use the same consonants for certain numbers. Then, to remember a number, one uses these consonants to form words, which are supposedly easier to remember, by inserting vowels.
Memory palace. Images are placed in a certain space (appartment, city route or real imagined palace). The more absurd, shiny, sexual and animate the images the better.
Speech preparation. Try to remember key topics to cover in your speech by visualizing them.
Remembering texts. Try to feel empathy with an author, to resonate emotionally with a text.
Deliberate practice: here Joshua gives just another interpretation of the same old study, which almost everybody mentioned recently. The basic conclusion is that people who are best at something did not necessarily spent more time practicing it. But they practised differently.
In essense, deliberate practise is an effort to consciously improve one’s level of mastery instead of stopping at the minimum acceptable level (“ok zone”). For example, one might try to type faster than he or she would normally do in order to progress.
Deliberate practice also comprises of constant adjustment to feedback and focusing on the most difficult aspects. For example, top violinists practiced most difficult pieces instead of just playing what they already know. Top chess-players re-played best chess games in their heads trying to understand the reasons behind each move. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to write essays by first attempting to cover a certain topic by himself and then comparing the texts to those of best writers.
Person – action – object system. According to this mnemonic system, one should come up with a person, action and object for each of 100 digits: from 00 to 99. Then, these “PAOs” are used to form sentences in order to remember long lists of numbers.
Remembering names. Try to come up with a meaningful association. For example, nobody of people studied could remember name “Baker” (no associations) but majority remembered profession “baker” (a lot of associations).
The reason why people sometimes get an impression that times flies faster might be related to the fact that our life becomes more boring and we get fewer new experiences. In other words, we have less interesting things to remember. So, make your life more memorable!
Practical advice to remember things in day-to-day life: pay attention. For example, focus on remembering that name instead of just waiting for your time to introduce yourself.
However, it is less clear how to apply it all to learning things that might actually be useful, such as grammar rules, math formulas or just life experiences. Any ideas?
Overall, there are not so many practically applicable things in the book but it is still very interesting to read.
Here is the short interview with an author that covers many of the topics from the book:
Feynman is one of the brightest physicists of the 20th century who also happened to be a talented lecturer and an author of a book which is fun to read. Here are some excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” that I found interesting:
So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel heed by a need to maintain your position In the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.
Isn’t it a modern luxury that very few of us can afford?
On pointless communication
When it came time to evaluate the conference at the end, the others told how much they got out of it, how successful it was, and so on. When they asked me, I said, “This conference was worse than a Rorschach test: There’s a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!
On mindfulness and watching your thoughts become dreams:
I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!
So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.
After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don’t really know what it’s like to fall asleep when I’m not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection: