Archive for April, 2010


Larry Bird’s Biography

I just finished Larry Bird’s biography. It’s called “Drive: The Story of my Life.” This man was a legend. Take a quick peek at this story.

Anyway, I read this book to try and more fully understand the competitive spirit, which Bird clearly embodied. I have to say though, the book is really bad, but it’s bad in a very specific way, and not bad due to anything about Bird.

In fact, the book is bad because he’s humble to a fault. He basically just narrates the games that he played and offers a few comment about each one, none of which is anything an average observer in the stands could have guessed. From reading his book, you wouldn’t even really think he was that good of a player.

The lesson though comes from this lack of introspection or even personal-level detail. What I think the book proves is that competitors get, in a very specific and robust way, sucked into the sport or activity they take part in. I think Bird has nothing interesting to offer about his own reaction to games because he was completely subsumed INTO the game. There’s a part where he demonstrates his ability to remember every detail about every game he ever played in (he identifies the minutes and seconds left in a random tape he sees just by noticing the position of the band playing a fight song), everything that is, except his own thoughts on what’s happening. His attention was directed so completely outward, that you almost wonder if there was a thinking feeling person that was inside while he was playing.

So, in summary. I don’t recommend this book. The insight that you get out of it requires that you read through a lot of simple narration of events that we already know everything about, only to get to the lesson which I’ve already related: Larry Bird was a basketball playing machine. He’s great, hard-working, and a person that one can only admire. My point is just that highlight clips and interviews establish this much better than his own perspective ever can. Don’t read this book, just look up some of the games he played in.

However, you should read this book if you want to understand how single-minded competitors can be.

Also, it is a little interesting to hear about all his injuries. His hands (and fingers) particularly took a lot of punishment, but that never stopped his ability to make shots.


Wonders never cease

One view of scientific progress has thought of increasing technical knowledge of the world as that of disenchantment. As we find out more about the world, there is less space for mystery and magic. This is largely consistent with the rise of enlightenment science and its slow attack on superstitions, magical creatures and happenings, and dogmas of all kinds.

Still, I think science is re enchanting in that it always provides new puzzles and mysteries that need solving, or just facts that are wondrous in themselves.

Take these two findings. First, large pupils are attractive. I almost rushed out to an eye doctor so that I could hit the clubs with saucer-like eyes, but then I found out that its different for men and women. Apparently dilated pupils indicate sexual interest and so men prefer women with dilated eyes. Still, women don’t universally prefer bigger pupils. In general, they prefer medium sized pupils, though according to the study I linked to above, some women who prefer “bad boys” like big pupils. For the interested, there’s a whole story about reproductive success and its link to pupil size.

Far more interesting for me are dichotic listening experiments. In these experiments, different tracks are being played in each ear and the subject is asked to “attend” (that is to say, focus) on one of the channels. On the attended channel, there is a story, and the story comes to a point where there is an ambiguity in the narrative. There are two, equally sensible ways of making sense of what’s happening. Then, in the other ear, a disambiguating sentence is being played, i.e. the non-attended channel provides information for how to interpret the ambiguous story in the attended channel. The listener cannot say anything about what was being communicated in the non-attended channel, but they are disposed to disambiguate the story they ARE attending to in line with the sentence being played on the subliminal channel. There are others things that can be done with this technique, and some colloquial connections are the “cocktail party” effect in which people are capable of attending to a conversation in a noisy room, but then will still respond when they hear their name being called.

To me, these results are incredible because they reveal the depth of our everyday experience. At every second, the body is taking in data from so many sources and putting it all together so seamlessly, which then allows us to do unbelievable things in the world. I think this disrupts one entrenched view of perception, especially eyesight, which is kind of static and not-interactive. On these views, light is hitting the retina and we are seeing what is “there.” But it’s not true. The eyes are actually darting around all the time, constructing a whole picture as much by shortcuts and guesswork as by looking at “what’s there.” When we see something, we are interacting and acting on, the world, rather than just being hit by it, and this is evidence in all areas of life, including hearing, touch and the other sense. Our brain is creating the world for us, and in rich detail and flawless real time seamlessness. Wonders never cease.



I often wonder why people sometimes care about information. Of course, there is the obvious answer that they care about it because they can help themselves, or help their friends, or build something, or have fun. These are all practical reasons for knowledge, and we’re very familiar with them.

But then there are people like me, who have a taste for information of all types: information about how people experience the use of willpower, how people blame themselves for making mistakes, the nature of consciousness, and whether it makes sense to think there is a world out there. But also even more ridiculous and small minded things. Why do I care.

I think the answer has something to do with theory building. Put broadly, I think that the more people inquire about what to do, the more they need theoretical resources, and the better theories they need, the more information they need. This seems kind of obvious, but I think the ramifications are interesting. I, for one, have increasingly found that good philosophy gets done by noticing EVERYTHING and taking notice of EVERYTHING no matter how small or trivial seeming. This is interesting to me because philosophy is usually thought to be unconcerned with a a variety of merely “empirical” phenomena. Recently though, I find that to make a theory of human life, which is no doubt impossible, one would have to incorporate every facet of human existence into it; one would have to make sense of it all. As I said, it can’t be done, but the more you notice and the more you take in, the better your theory will be.

Think of science. One day (perhaps never) we will have a “theory of everything.” It will tell us what everything will do all the time. Everything will be theorized. To do this, the scientist cannot neglect any phenomenon. As philosophers of science always say, any time an observation doesn’t fit with a theory, something is wrong. Either the observation was misobserved or the theory was wrong. Either way something is in trouble.

The same is true for me and human life. Everything matters, because if my best theory cannot explain it, then the theory is wrong or I’m misunderstanding something. Kind of daunting sometimes, and also I admit, a little alienating (to always be observing and never participating), but also very enriching in some ways.


Historical Canadian assassination attempt

Don’t ask me how I came on this, but I was reading the wikipedia page  regarding Andre Dallaire, who tried to assassinate the Prime Minister of Canada.

I find the whole story incredible, primarily because of how different it is compared to assassination attempts on U.S. presidents.

First, Dallaire brandished a knife in front of security cameras outside 24 Sussex Drive, the home of the prime minister. He then walked inside and confronted the PM’s wife. It took 7 minutes for security personnel to arrive.

7 MINUTES?!! And that’s AFTER this guy just walked inside, as if I was just going over to my friend’s house. If a stranger walked on to the LAWN of the white house, he would be either arrested or shot, and it’s probably not too far-fetched to think the latter is the more likely of the two options. But then again, no one would be able to get on to the lawn in the first place. Also, a knife? Seriously?

I guess part of the difference is that the white house actually performs a lot of functions (diplomatic, policy, etc.) but I think the PM’s house is really just his house. Still, you would think that strangers would not be allowed to walk into the house. Hell, my house in Medford has more security than that; it at least has a lock.

The last thing that struck me was that apparently this guy later apologized to the PM and the Canadian people. No one who tries to assassinate a U.S. president does anything of the sort.


Cyber solitude / Cyber intimacy

I just went to a lecture with Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT that does psychological research on the internet. I thought it was a GREAT lecture, but unfortunately, the biggest thing I learned is that our society is finished.

On this blog, I complain a lot about social networking and our relationship to technology (here, here, and here), and she basically does the same thing, but with a lot more experience and data. I mostly found myself agreeing with everything she said.

First, she talked about the importance of solitude. Apparently there is a quote from Freud or some psychoanalyst that goes something like “loneliness is failed solitude,” which I completely agree with. She went on to argue that one essential psychological skill is to be comfortable being alone. We need to learn to be alone with our consciousness, alone with our fears, and alone with our hopes. Instead though, we are always have other people intrude on this reserved space through various technological appendages.

Her research methodology involves interviewing adolescents about their technology use, and she had some interesting results. Apparently, a lot of high school and young college people report using texts to avoid the embarrassment or confrontation with other people face to face. The ratio of texts to phone calls among this demographic is something like 8:1. Basically, we’re becoming unable to relate to other people except at a definable and manipulable distance.

She made one point that I disagreed with though, which was related to the speed of technology. She thinks that the speed of technology undermines our ability to reflect and reason because of its emphasis on instant response. We can find the answers to questions immediately and others count on and expect this speed, which forces us to abandon reasoned thought about complex issues.

This might be right, but I think that in a way, the threat to reasoning comes from the fact that technology SLOWS DOWN sociality. A text message conversation can play out over the course of hours, and an email exchange can take place over days, giving people time to think of responses or ignore and then respond to the idea of another person. Face to face conversations instead I think emphasize creativity, on the spot thinking, and repartee. Other forms of communication dull these skills.

She also didn’t really talk about something else I emphasize, which is the screening possibilities provided by technology. As we gain more control of who talks to us and when, the more spontaneity and the chance for new interactions is lost.


K. J. Parker, Evil for Evil

I just finished the second book in K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy, which is titled Evil for Evil. (Note: K. J. Parker is a pseudonym)

I have mixed feelings about this book. As a writer, Parker is pretty talented. He has some interesting descriptions, a pretty good sense of dialogue, though I noticed that he used some of the techniques to describe the characters’ actions. For one thing, he often has characters describe their own actions from the third person, as if they were surprised to find themselves acting. Something like, “Someone was talking, and he was surprised to find out it was himself.”

The plot itself is pretty interesting, and it revolves around a fair amount of diplomacy and treachery. I really do have to congratulate Parker on bringing a lot of seemingly unrelated actions together for a climactic and fairly surprising finish. Sometimes though, the coincidences that are required to get some things going are pretty improbable. That’s not a terrible flaw though.

My big problems are these. First, the world itself is not that interesting. There’s no map in the book, and the geography is pretty bland and vague. Further though, the various nations seem to be pretty similar to each other. Don’t think that you’re going to get sweeping descriptions of cave-cities, mountain keeps, fantastic races, or bizarre traditions. These are pretty normal people living, for the most part, like medieval europeans, just without the interesting stuff like religion. There’s a lot of hunting actually, and I have to admit, Parker knows his Goshawks from his Gyrefalcons, but after a while, it’s kind of a cheap stereotype of European life.

Also, the main character/bad guy kind of manipulates things a little too easily. I mean, it really started to piss me off how easily he used people to make ENORMOUS changes to the world through purely personal connections. I mean, the whole point of the series is that this one man, an engineer, sets out to put an elaborate “mechanism” in action that will remake the world. So far, he’s manipulated very large forces to very fine tuned effect. He’s brought down two kingdoms while at the same time tearing apart two lovers, casting aspersions on another, and baiting a technological powerhouse to mistakenly attack a band of barbarians, triggering yet another war. Everyone seems to do exactly what he wants, and we’re supposed to believe that he planned all this IN ADVANCE of these books. It’s just a little hard to swallow. It will be satisfying if this guy, Viani Vaatzes, has everything ruined in the last book.


how much for a kidney

I’m reading a lot of undergrad papers about an organ market. Personally, I think an organ market would probably be pretty great given a few commonsense safeguards.

Still, the question I wonder about is: what would be the equilibrium price of a kidney. I mean, on the one hand, you have to think that its a pretty big ordeal to get cut up and there are also sorts of risk etc. etc. But then you also have to think that once the organ market gets going, there is really no downside to doing it. Think of it this way. You can donate now and get money. Then you can wait to see if your other kidney fails. If it doesn’t fail, you got money for nothing. If it does fail, you can buy a new one for probably a similar amount of money that you got for your sold kidney. So, nothing lost. Another way to look at it is this. The supply is massive compared to the demand (80000 people need kidneys in the U.S.).

If this reasoning is even close to true, then we could expect kidneys to become VERY cheap. I mean, if the procedures get good and quick for giving up the kidney, then it seems like there is almost no downside to doing it, and the supply of total kidneys in the world is HUGE compared to the demand. Everyone would want to do it even at a conceivably very low price.

My guess is that the price of kidneys would be about $400.

One way to confirm this prediction would be to look at industries structured in the same way. Think of salt. There’s way more salt in the world than we could ever use (just as there are more kidneys than we could ever use, roughly double in fact). The only cost is getting it out of the ground (for kidneys, getting it out of people). Given that kidneys themselves are plentiful, the cost would largely converge on the time it takes in terms of incapacitation time and surgery time. Since this would converge on the worth of people’s time, things would get cheap indeed (would it approach minimum wage?)

I’d like to hear arguments to the contrary or ways to refine this crude analysis.