Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Intelligence and How to Get It

Thursday, May 7th, 2009


This book was recommended by one of the economist blogs that I frequent. The author is a cognitive psychologist who bristles at the concept that 75% to 80% of intelligence is inherited. For all of the faults of the book, he gives very good data against this. The numerous problems in the book include:

  1. Reliance on IQ tests. Yes, Dr. Nisbett is very clear that IQ tests aren’t really numerical intelligence scores, though since they do track with individual’s incomes and perceptions of how smart another person is, (to say nothing of the fact there is no alternative) they are used here whilly nilly.
  2. In the second and third chapters, he closely tracks the data. He shows where the 75% to 80% figure comes from (separated identical twins) and why the data is wrong (selection bias of adopting families). This is the best part of the book.
  3. Unfortunately to flesh this to a book-sized document, he continues with three chapters of racial bias/statistics: IQ and Black Americans, IQ and Asian Americans, IQ and European Jews living in the US. None of these chapters hone closely to the numerical data, and are instead a patchwork of anecdotes and unsupportable conclusions (Asians are better because of their Confucian background, etc.). I’d like to applaud him for at least broaching this subject, but I think he steers too far away from hard data for it to be useful. (Personally, I’m with Jared Diamond on this – there is almost certainly no major racial difference in intelligence or, if there is, the New Guinea Highlanders are way more likely to be the smarter than educated Europeans or Americans – see Guns, Germs and Steel or The Third Chimpanzee.)

I’d hoped for a more closely defended book, though the first three chapters are really quite good. A moderate recommendation from me at best. I can boil it down to a simple phrase for you: “Intelligence (as defined by IQ testing) is somewhat hereditary, but not to a level higher than 50% of the final attained score. Health (prenatal, perinatal, and juvenile), education, home environment, extended environment and the like account for the other parts. Heredity may be much less than 50% of the factor involved.”

The reason I’m blogging this here (I don’t normally comment on mediocre books that I read, there are too many of them) is that the author discussed home environments of high-IQ families vs. medium-IQ families. He mentioned that not only do high-IQ families read to their children, but they also participate in discussions. Hmm.

I normally just read to the kids. I make a big show of it – lots of voices, making myself quiet or very loud, jumping when there is a lot of action, etc. But I never really talked much about the books afterwards.

Two nights ago, I was reading the Cat in the Hat to all three. Afterward, I asked if the Cat was a good person or a bad person. That was the only question that I had to ask. It’s like they’d been waiting for all these years for a chance to talk about the Cat in the Hat, but hadn’t had a chance to do it.

They went on for fifteen minutes about characters, who was bad, who was good, what they would or wouldn’t do. You couldn’t stop them. And I didn’t want to. It was a very educational moment. For me.

Camilla's First Reading Book

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009


Camilla just finished her first reading book – all 120 pages of it. It’s a shared book from Temecula Montessori, so we don’t get to keep it. I thought I’d take a few photos of the pages just to show off the work that Camilla has done over the last four months.




The first seven pages took us four days to complete, then she did the next seven pages in one day. Wow! After that, it was in fits and spurts. Very good job, Camilla!

Camilla’s First Reading Book

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009


Camilla just finished her first reading book – all 120 pages of it. It’s a shared book from Temecula Montessori, so we don’t get to keep it. I thought I’d take a few photos of the pages just to show off the work that Camilla has done over the last four months.




The first seven pages took us four days to complete, then she did the next seven pages in one day. Wow! After that, it was in fits and spurts. Very good job, Camilla!


Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Gerbeaud is the most famous cafe in Budapest. The opening scene of the book “Prague” is here. As a proud member of the diaspora of Americans who moved to Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, I can personally vouch for this book’s authenticity. The characters all ring absolutely true, as does the setting. I never finished the book; I didn’t want to. As long as I have not read the last page, the characters have not finished their journey and still live and breath, and I can yet come back to them. Lying there unfinished, it is among my favorite books of all time.

Gerbeaud, the cafe in the opening of the book, sits in the middle of Budapest’s most central square, at the start of the oldest subway in continental Europe. It’s a beautiful setting on a sunny day and great for people watching.

The cafe, with stairs to the subway in front.

Years ago, I read a restaurant review which stated that the quality of a cuisine’s desserts is inversely proportional to the capital’s distance from Vienna. And Budapest is spitting distance from Vienna! Note Baby Aaron waiting quietly, wondering when he gets his dessert.

“Hi, everybody!”

Libri International Bookstore, Budapest

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008



When I was living abroad before, English bookstores were almost impossible to find. There was one large used bookstore in Prague (the Globe), which had at best an eclectic selection (the owners had people buy books at garage sales in the US and ship them over). There was a very expensive, very nice English bookstore in Moscow next to the KGB building in the early 90’s.

I was very surprised at how well-stocked the Libri bookstore on Vaci Utca in Budapest is. Two floors of English language books. The second photo is just their selection of recent science fiction titles. Certainly beats Readmore in New Castle, Indiana …

Two Readings

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

One thing about blogs on the Internet – I get a lot more interesting feedback on books (past and future) than I did before. Two of them from this morning:

Four or six draught animals were needed to pull a coach and they had to be changed every 6 to 12 miles, depending on the condition of the roads. In England it was calculated that one horse was needed for every mile of a journey on a well-maintained turnpike road. So, for the 185 miles from Manchester to London, 185 horses had to be kept stabled and fed to deal with the seventeen changes required by the stagecoaches which traveled the route. Those horses in turn required an army of coachmen, postillions, guards, grooms, ostlers and stable-boys to keep them running. As a coach could carry no more than ten passengers, fares were correspondingly high and out of reach of the mass of the population. A journey from Augsburg to Innsbruck by stagecoach, although little more than 60 miles as the crow flies, would have cost an unskilled laborer more than a month’s wages just for the fare.

This is from The Pursuit of Glory, Europe 1648-1815. I’ve already seen three reviews of this book, and it is the very next one on my reading list.

The following is an older article on Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by John Scalzi.

I never got Holden Caulfield anyway. This partially due to having my own reading tastes bend towards science fiction as a teen rather than the genre of Alienated Teen Literature, of which Catcher is, of course, the classic. If you were going to give me a teenage hero, give me Heinlein’s Starman Jones: He traveled the galaxy and memorized entire books of log tables and became Captain of a starship (for procedural reasons, granted). All Holden did was bitch, bitch, bitch. Put Holden at the controls of a starship and he’d implode from stress. Not my hero, thanks.

Fact is, I liked neither Holden nor the book. One can recognize the book has a certain literary merit without needing to like the thing, of course. But it’s more to the point to say that Holden has a certain fundamental passivity that I dislike — the desire for people and things to be different without the accompanying acceptance of personal responsibility to effect those changes. To go back to Heinlein and his juvy novels, his teenage characters are not very big on internal lives, but they’re also the sort who go out, do things, fail, do things again, and eventually get it right. Holden merely wishes, ultimately a man of inaction. He’s a failure — a particularly attractive failure if you’re of a certain age and disposition, admittedly, but a failure nonetheless. I remember reading the book as a teen and being irritated with Holden for that reason; I couldn’t see why he required any sympathy from me, or why I should empathize with him.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

Monday, July 9th, 2007

I picked up this book to read during the Mexico trip, based on Marc Andreesen’s long blog on his top science fiction picks. If one of the primary creators of today’s technological world can’t be trusted for science fiction, who can? Besides, he’s a big Robert Heinlein fan.

There is one word for Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Brutal.

While there is a lot of war/crime/espionage fiction in the world that would fit that description, 1) there is very little science fiction in that category and 2) none of the other genre’s can create in quite the same way.

Morgan’s mastery is clear. In the middle of the book, Takeshi Kovacs makes an assault on an Oakland clinic 500 years in the future. Taken at face value, the scene could be in any Terminator movie or any of a dozen cops-and-bad-guys adventure. The brutality of the scene is entirely taken up in the 200 pages of prelude and setting that Morgan has created. Truly awesome.

The book loses some points for its lack of dynamic characters, it’s one-trick pony vision of future technology, as well as a prose style I found too deep and unedited toward the end. But I picked up the sequel, Broken Angels, to read immediately after I finished Altered Carbon.

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

The Singularity

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

…the “hard” science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable . . . soon. – Vernor Vinge, NASA’s Vision 21 Symposium 1993

The world is changing quickly, much faster than it has in the past. The rate of change is accelerating. At some point, the rate of change must either decelerate or change will happen faster than we can keep up with.

I stumbled onto the Singularity five years ago when reading Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. The basic idea is easy to grasp. We’ve all seen technological change happen in front of us, in some cases very much faster than anyone expected. And with unforeseen effects: the rise of Globalization and the rise of the Internet are entwined events.

The basis of the vision is Moore’s Law – every 24 months, the number of transistors on a microchip will double. This isn’t a natural law, but an empirical observation made in 1965. It has held up now for over forty years and, since future chip designs are well known years in advance, we can easily see that it will continue for at least another ten years.

If we postulate a doubling of computing power per chip every 24 months, at some point computers reach a level of human intelligence. It may well be that computers reach the hardware threshold long before they the software is ready, but it seems inevitable that both will be reached. The natural advantage to the 1) military/espionage power, 2) computer manufacturer, 3) plane/car/spaceship manufacturer, 4) pharmaceutical company or 5) underarm deodorant manufacturer seems obvious. Given the competitive nature of all of these, someone somewhere will create a human-equivalent machine-based intelligence at some point.

When? Predications run the gambit from 2015 (Vernor Vinge) to 2059 (Ray Kurzweil). How much “hardware” is in the human brain? What about the software? How long will it take to develop? This is not an exact science, by any means. Indeed, an intelligent computer might not look or think like a human brain at all. (“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” – Edsgerd Dijkstra.)

A natural chain of events can be imagined. A weakly intelligent computer system might be created, one which is demonstrably intelligent but either slow or not particularly bright. The creators could simply throw more resources at it, building up its speed or connection capacity to improve its intelligence, or harnessing it to create a superior artificial intelligence. And, at the very least, will likely make numerous copies of either or both the weakly or superior intelligence.

From that point on, where do we humans fit in the scheme of things? If machines suddenly become the fountain of intelligence, to the exclusion of humans, where will we be?

I’m going to leave any further discussion to others who do it for a living. And I will give links. Here they are:

Best articles on the Web:

Vernor Vinge’s 1993 essay

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, by Bill Joy (a negative view)

David Brin’s Essay: Singularities and Nightmares

Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence (pdf document) Robin Hanson (Economist at George Mason Univ.)

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge. Since there is effectively no math behind the visions of the Singularity, this early work of science fiction on the topic is one of the best possible descriptions.

Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near – This is not a trustworthy author. He is clearly in love with the idea that a Singularity event will push biological research, allowing him (and anyone else who is a Baby Boomer or younger) to live forever. That doesn’t mean he’s not smart or that he doesn’t have good arguments, but he clearly has an agenda.

All that was written above is preamble. My personal position is that a Technological Singularity will likely happen. I think it is inevitable, given the nature of economic and political competition. Early on, it will give a few individuals/companies/countries a strong strategic advantage, but that will quickly (within a few years to a decade at most) devolve to where individual families will have access to the same level of power.

As an entrepreneur in 2007, what should I be doing with these beliefs? Investing my time and money into technology? Buying real estate (one thing which will not change or substantially lose value with a Singularity)? Buying real estate on Second Life? Creating a vast party of level 70 Warcraft characters? Applying to work on near-future mega projects like Lift Port (space elevator concept with big financial problems currently)?

The Last Colony

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

The Last Colony is the final book of the Old Man’s War trilogy. The first two books are Old Mans’ War and The Ghost Brigades. Old Mans’ War was up for the Hugo Award and did win Scalzi the John Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author last year.

John Scalzi is hands-down the best science fiction writer in the last twenty years, bar none. His style is very reminiscent of Robert Heinlein, with an important addition. Scalzi’s characters live and breathe. Instead of the cardboard-figure characters of most SF, here are some fully exposed, human personalities.

Another area which Scalzi handles well is the internal functioning of a bureaucracy. One, very brief example:

“They’ve formed an Exploratory Committee to look into this?”

“Yeah, but I know about these things. They typically aren’t interested in finding out anything. Someone up high just needs to cover their ass.”

All three books are a joy to read.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
The Ghost Brigade, by John Scalzi
The Last Colony, by John Scalzi


Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

I can’t imagine writing a biography. After all, a person’s whole life is such a large, amorphous body of information, data, events, influences, and ambitions, only by focusing on a few selected items can the author create a theme or a firm impression of an individual. Sometimes, the author throws away parts of his subject’s life which would seem central to any outside observer.

The most aggregious example from recent memory is American Prometheus, the biography of Robert Oppenheimer. By ignoring virtually anything associated with science or research, Martin Sherwin was able to concentrate only on the political and personal issues of Oppenheimer’s life, emphasizing his role as a martyr to McCarthy-era machinations. It’s not to say that Oppenheimer was not a martyr for 1950’s scare politics, but I sorely missed any reference to the science that Oppenheimer himself would undoubtedly want his life associated with.

Martin Sherwin spent 25 years working on this opus, and interviewed a vast range of people from Oppenheimer’s life. I believe he was simply deluged with data, and had to have a central thesis to wrap his book around. It is certainly clearly written, painstakingly researched and the heart of the author is there for all to see. Nonetheless, it is not a book to recommend to anyone with an interest in Oppenheimer as a scientist.

Anthony Everitt has written two biographies where the quantity and quality of data simply would not lead him to the same problem. There is not enough information about the lives of Cicero or Augustus to cherry-pick the data in the way that Sherwin does with Oppenheimer. Cicero was the best book I read in 2003, in large part because Everitt used his time and space to paint a more full picture of life in first century BCE Rome than any I have even seen before. He had to, in light of the paucity of real data about his subject.

With Augustus, Everitt has significantly more data to work with and uses most of the length of the book filling in details of his subject. There is less general information about the historical setting, and it makes this book somewhat less interesting than Cicero. Everitt’s central thesis is that Augustus was a great politicial personality, ingratiating himself to the Roman people and Senate in a time of Civil War in order to gain their voluntary acceptance as the first Emperor of Rome. Even Everitt points out, in the last chapter of the book, that this might not be an accurate summation. It’s hard to know, since most sources on his life are not contemporary, but written 50 to 100 years after his death and it would be difficult to separate the “spin” from facts.

The book simply shines broadly in one particular area. In most of the history that I have studied or read, the time from the death of Casear in 44 BCE to the battle of Actium in 31 BCE is glossed over, with some general reference made to the confusing time of Civil War. Everitt’s Augustus attacks this era head-on, devoting more than half of the length of the book to a detailed description of a wide range of ever-changing events as Augustus sees them.

It is a tribute to Everitt that he is able to make this work. He walks the reader through each of the treacheries, back-stabs and revolts in vivid detail; giving each of the individuals understandable motiviations and reasons for doing the things that they do. And he does this without needlessly confusing the reader–I only caught myself re-reading passages once or twice to make sure I understood the double- and triple-crossing going on.

After the whirlwind of intense political intrigue carefully presented in those 150 or 200 pages, the remainder of Augustus’ life is a poor tale of family trouble with wives and nephews and stepsons that seems lackluster.

Its a massive and heroic work, by any measure. It only falls flat in that the intensity of the Civil War discourse simply can’t be continued into Augustus’ later life.

Cicero, by Anthony Everitt
Augustus, by Anthony Everitt
American Prometheus, by Martin Sherwin