Books Proteus Read in October 2019

Happy Halloween! I read 8 books in October! Now that the month is over, it’s time to give a short review for each book, and then post all of these reviews to my big list of reviews.


simulationAre You Living In a Computer Simulation? by Nick Bostrom

Rating: 10/10

An essay about advanced/post-human civilizations and “ancestor simulations” (high-fidelity supercomputer simulations that are advanced enough to simulate previous historical eras and all of the human brains of those eras – overly simplified, think Sid Meier’s Civilization meets The Matrix). Bostrom argues that one of three things is true: 1. all advanced civilizations go extinct before making ancestor simulations, 2. all advanced civilizations decide not to make ancestor simulations for mysterious reasons, or 3. there is an absurdly high chance (I infer it’s something like 1 in a trillion or a 99.9999999999% chance) that we are currently living in an ancestor simulation right now. One of the most influential essays of contemporary philosophy – and one of the most interesting. Most probably won’t count this as a book, but 1. Goodreads does, and 2. this little essay is arguably more thought-provoking and influential than 99% of books being written. The problem I’ve seen is that most people don’t understand probability very well (or at all) and can’t wrap their head around why Bostrom gives such a high chance to you and I living in a simulation – as long as you understand probability even just a little bit, you should absolutely read this essay.

5lovelanguagessecretThe 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman

Rating: 8/10

A simple book about a simple idea: people in relationships express love in different love languages – Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. Keeping the “love tank full” in a relationship requires speaking your partner’s love language, and your partner speaking yours back to you. Mark Manson calls this the “Harry Potter of relationship books” for a reason: it’s a simple idea, everyone’s read it (or says they’ve read it), and you can find this book in every airport bookstore in the world. If you’re in a relationship, read it. Even if you’re not in a relationship, it might be a good idea to spend an afternoon reading it to figure out your own love languages.

radicalhonestyRadical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth by Brad Blanton

Rating: 7/10

Brad Blanton wants you to tell the truth – all the time, about everything. Blanton lays out the case that lying is the major cause of all human stress and illness, and for the sake of your health (and literally the survival of humanity), you should adopt radical honesty. Honestly? I’m not sure I fully buy it. I agree that lying will destroy you inside, and it’s best practice to tell truth. I’m skeptical of lies causing all illness and stress though. I’m skeptical of other stuff: Blanton tirades against moralism, resulting in moral-relativism-in-everything-but-name – which is followed by a 14 part political agenda that basically combines Bernie Sanders with Eckhart Tolle (which seems a little moralistic to me). Even if I think Blanton is a bit of a hypocrite (Blanton also thinks he’s a hypocrite), I think Blanton is onto something, and Radical Honesty is a thought provoking book.

unlimitedpowerUnlimited Power: The New Science Of Personal Achievement by Anthony Robbins

Rating: 5/10

Tony Robbins’ first book, written right at the beginning of his career as a self-help juggernaut. It has a lot of interesting ideas (some of which match other good advice I’ve read), plus some unique advice (he’s the first I’ve read recommending trampolining for superior health). Make no mistake though: Unlimited Power is a deeply flawed book. There are many references and quotes, but few citations. The book is unmistakably a product of the 80s, and many parts are severely outdated. Plus, the book is dominated by Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a form of psychotherapy that isn’t widely respected outside of self-help books. From what I can tell, Robbins’ later books are better (or at the very least contain less NLP), and you should just skip Unlimited Power unless you love Tony Robbins.

datalovestoryData, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match by Amy Webb

Rating: 9/10

An absolutely riveting tale of a woman on a mission: stop having bad online dates, define exactly what she wants in a husband (from height and build, to his opinion on cruise ship traveling), and crack the code of online dating to find the Jew…ish Prince Charming of her dreams. While this book is mostly aimed at women, it combines three things I love reading about: data science, relationships, and neurotic smart people solving problems. I’ve been fascinated by this book ever since I saw Webb’s TED Talk, and read it in an afternoon (not because it’s short, but because I couldn’t put it down). You’ll laugh, you’ll be embarrassed for her, you’ll learn something about the algorithms that dating sites rely on (which might not apply as much to recent swiping apps), and if you’re like me you’ll facepalm over Webb stress-smoking after bad dates (to be fair, these were some really bad dates). The book probably won’t be for everyone, but I absolutely loved it. Spoiler: She finds her Jew…ish Prince Charming.

luciddreamingExploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge

Rating: 9/10

A classic book about being conscious during your dreams, and even learning to control them, from the pioneer of lucid dreaming. This is not a book about dream interpretation, Freudian psychology, or about anything magical like astral projection or souls: this is a book about lucid dreaming. LaBerge keeps his book focused on scientific information and practical steps for achieving lucidity, drawing from his PhD work in lucid dreams and from ancient texts related to lucid dreams. Even if there are newer or better books about lucid dreaming (this was written in 1990), this seems to be the classic book on the subject, and one I plan on rereading.

jlscompleteJonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Rating: 8/10

A novella about individuality, self-perfection, and the willingness to be different – told with seagulls. I *suspect* a lot of people who know me wouldn’t expect me to like a book like this – it grew on me. The first part wasn’t very promising – Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a special seagull! He doesn’t want to spend his days working for food! He wants to be free, and master the art of flying! The other seagulls don’t understand him, and then they kick him out of seagull society! And then he spends the rest of his days flying until he dies. But then it turns out he *didn’t* die, and things get way more interesting. It’s deeper than it sounds, at least to me. I can understand the mixed opinions people have about this book, but I liked Seagull – I just hope I don’t reread this later, and react to it the same way a lot of people react to rereading Catcher in the Rye.

greatestmindsThe Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time by Will Durant

Rating: 8/10

A collection of essays by master historian Will Durant, covering a handful of topics from the most important thinkers in history, to the 100 books to read for a complete education. After reading The Lessons of History (which is a masterpiece), I’m now dedicated to reading as much of Durant as I can get my hands on. There are parts of Greatest Minds that are incredible – Durant’s soaring rhetoric about humanity and heroes, the list of 100 best books (I’m attempting a similar project), and the brief inclusion of Marquis de Condorcet (who in my opinion is the most underappreciated thinker in all of western philosophy). There were parts I didn’t like as much – while I love how Durant talks about humanity in general, I’m not as enthusiastic about how he talks about “savages/primitives.” And while I love Durant’s book list, I’m not as interested in Durant’s long chapter about the best poets. With all that said, read Greatest Minds with an open mind, right after reading The Lessons of History.

Tribalism and Self-Esteem: Excerpt from “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden

This is an excerpt (or really three excerpts) from the book “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden. If you’re like me, and you’re very disturbed by growing tribalism in America and other countries, you’ll find this interesting.

Throughout human history, most societies and cultures have been dominated by the tribal mentality. This was true in primitive times, in the Middle Ages, and in socialist (and some nonsocialist) countries in the twentieth century. Japan is a contemporary example of a nonsocialist nation still heavily tribal in its cultural orientation, although it may now be in the process of becoming less so.

The essence of the tribal mentality is that it makes the tribe as such the supreme good and denigrates the importance of the individual. It tends to view individuals as interchangeable units and to ignore or minimize the significance of differences between one human being and another. At its extreme, it sees the individual as hardly existing except in the network of tribal relationships; the individual by him- or herself is nothing.

Plato, the father of collectivism, captures the essence of this perspective in the Laws, when he states, “My law will be made with a general view of the best interests of society at large … as I rightly hold the single person and his affairs as of minor importance.” He speaks enthusiastically of “the habit of never so much as thinking to do one single act apart from one’s fellows, of making life, to the very uttermost, an unbroken concert, society, and community of all with all.” In ancient times, we think of this vision as embodied in the militaristic society of Sparta. In modern times, its monuments were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Between the ancient and the modern, we think of the feudal civilization of the Middle Ages, in which each person was defined by his or her place in the social hierarchy, apart from which personal identity could hardly be said to exist.

Tribal societies can be totalitarian but they need not be. They can be relatively free. Control of the individual can be more cultural than political, although the political is always a factor. What I wish to point out here is that the tribal premise is intrinsically anti-self-esteem.

It is a premise and an orientation that disempowers the individual qua individual. Its implicit message is: You don’t count. By yourself, you are nothing. Only as part of us can you be something. Thus, any society, to the extent that it is dominated by the tribal premise, is inherently unsupportive of self-esteem and more: it is actively inimical. In such a society the individual is socialized to hold him- or herself in low esteem relative to the group. Self-assertiveness is suppressed (except through highly ritualized channels). Pride tends to be labeled a vice. Self-sacrifice is enjoined.”

One encounters the tribal mentality again in the technologically advanced society of George Orwell’s 1984, where the full power and authority of a totalitarian state is aimed at crushing the self-assertive individualism of romantic love. The contempt of twentieth-century dictatorships for a citizen’s desire to have “a personal life,” the characterization of such a desire as “petty bourgeois selfishness,” is too well known to require documentation. Modern dictatorships may have a better grasp of individuality than did primitive tribes, but the result is that the hostility is more virulent. When I attended the First International Conference on Self-Esteem in Norway in 1990, a Soviet scholar remarked, “As Americans, you can’t possibly grasp the extent to which the idea of self-esteem is absent in our country. It’s not understood. And if it were, it would be condemned as politically subversive.”

The United States of America is a culture with the greatest number of subcultures of any country in the world. It is a society characterized by an extraordinary diversity of values and beliefs in virtually every sphere of life. And yet, if we understand that we will be speaking only of dominant trends to which there are any number of countervailing forces, there is a sense in which we may legitimately speak of “American culture.”

What was so historically extraordinary about the creation of the United States of America was its conscious rejection of the tribal premise. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine of individual, inalienable rights and asserted that the government exists for the individual, not the individual for the government. Although our political leaders have betrayed this vision many ways and many times, it still contains the essence of what the abstraction-America-stands for. Freedom. Individualism. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership. The individual as an end in him- or herself, not a means to the ends of others; not the property of family or church or state or society. These ideas were radical at the time they were proclaimed, and I do not believe they are fully understood or accepted yet; not by most people.”

Morrill’s Law

You may have heard of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It might take a while, especially for rarer events, but any disaster that potentially can happen will happen eventually.

You may have heard of Moore’s Law: The highest possible number of transistors that can be put in a CPU, at minimum cost, doubles about every two years (many variants and misquotes of the law can be found on the internet, possibly including this one). While there are some caveats (including rising R&D costs, and Moore himself stating that the Law would stop being true sometime between 2015-25), the Law has held for the past 50 years.

If I ever become famous enough to have an adage like Murphy’s Law or Moore’s Law named after me, I’d like to propose my own “Morrill’s Law”:

Any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.

It’s basically a more specific version of Murphy’s Law, applied to the communication of ideas – particularly new or controversial ideas.

Misunderstandings are Easy

If something you say while communicating an idea has vague, ambiguous, or multiple meanings, oftentimes the worst possible meaning will be assumed. The worse the implications are about you, the less likely you are to be given the benefit of the doubt that you were misunderstood.

If you’re trying to tell someone about your complex idea, your idea will be reduced to a (somewhat) related but simpler idea. The more complex an idea is, the harder it will be to have that idea stick in someone’s mind or have that idea faithfully reproduced.

If your idea is somewhat close or adjacent to a taboo idea, your idea will be assumed to be the taboo idea in disguise. Clear differences will be ignored, and confirmation bias will go into effect as the person looks for evidence that you secretly support the taboo idea. This will be worse if recent events (personal or political) have primed them to look for secret supporters of the taboo idea.

If your idea is outright controversial, your motives will be assumed to match those of the worst proponents of the idea. Even if there are stark or extreme differences between you and those proponents, you will be grouped together regardless.

If there is an extreme historical example of your idea (or a somewhat related idea) being put into practice, and having disastrous consequences, your idea will be assumed to result in the same exact consequences. Even if your idea is unrelated, distinct, or was designed specifically to correct or avoid those flaws, all of this will be ignored in the face of the extreme historical example.

Avoiding Misunderstandings

Supposing this law is true – that any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood – how do you avoid this? I’m not sure, however based on the above I can come up with some potential guidelines:

Be specific.

Be as specific and unambiguous as possible while communicating ideas, and be equally attentive to communicating what the idea is not.

Recognize personal barriers to understanding.

Recognize that many misunderstandings come down to differences in background, communication style, and life experiences. Work around this or with these, whenever possible.

Reduce complexity.

Reduce your complex ideas to the simplest version before other people do it for you – if you can’t control your idea being simplified, you can at least try to control what simplistic version is remembered.

Break apart your idea.

Alternatively, if your complex idea is composed of several smaller ideas, communicate the smaller/simpler ideas clearly before communicating the larger/complex idea.

Compare and contrast.

Find ways of comparing your idea to the taboo or controversial idea, in ways that very clearly demonstrate how your idea is distinct or opposing.

Demonstrate that you are not evil.

If you risk being grouped together with very unpopular, low-status, or evil people, find ways of communicating that you are not part of these groups – without arguing against these groups so fervently that you accidentally make yourself look like a secret member. “I’m not a spy!” said the spy in disguise.

Talk about historical changes.

If your idea is being compared to a historical idea that had negative consequences, note what has changed – in society, economics, technology, etc. – that would make these consequences unlikely or impossible.

Remember what you can and can’t control.

Lastly, recognize that you can only control your own actions – you cannot control people’s reactions. You can do everything possible to try and communicate your idea clearly, correct for possible misunderstandings, and still have people not understand your idea. Alternatively, they understand you, and still hate your idea for reasons you obviously don’t agree with. There are many more factors like this you cannot control – influence, but not control.

TL;DR: Any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.