Saturday, August 29, 2015

Thinking as a Science book review

In his latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, cartoonist Scott Adams describes the ways he has found to to hack his wet computer, ie his brain, for success, health and happiness. His advice is a bit spooky as it goes the grain of established wisdom and because of, as he readily admits, the source. However, its a fine book and the contents appear as they might work.

I bring that up as excuse to mention Thinking as a Science by Henry Hazlitt. This one too, helps one get hold of the resources of one's own mind but in an organized, rational way. In a sense: hack it too. Somehow, this gem has fallen out of the attention of the wider public, and deserves to be brought more to the forefront. The goal of it is to bring method to the thinking process and this geared towards the solution of practical problems.

Here's the table of contents:

I The Neglect of Thinking
II Thinking With Method
III A Few Cautions
IV Concentration
V Prejudice and Uncertainty
VI Debate and Conversation
VII Thinking and Reading
VIII Writing One's Thoughts
IX Things Worth Thinking About
X Thinking as an Art
XI Books on Thinking

Chapters 2 & 4 are the core of his system. Chapter 2 spells out the different thinking methods one can unfurl at a given problem and how to thread them together. Chapter 4 is of particular interest are his recommendations on concentration, which jibe well with the views of William James, neuroplasticity and zen practice. By itself, this one is worth its weight in gold.  Other chapters reinforce the method like nos. 3 and 5 while  chapter 6 extends the method to include other persons. This area has been explored and expanded by other authors independently, so you might also want to check out other books devoted to it.

All throughout, but on chapter 7 in particular, this book is surprisingly against reading. Drawing heavily from Schopenhauer's essay On Thinking for Oneself, Hazlitt believes that reading actually is an excuse for not using one's own mind and offers remedies.  This part reminds me about Brottman's Solitary Vice which also assails reading as an act but from a different angle. Despite his apparent aversion, he obliges and shares his advice on tackling texts. Another virtue of his advice on reading is that it is easier to apply than others, such as Adler's of which we talked recently.

I admit it:  I too usually shoot from the hip when faced with problems, rather than taking a more rational stance as a Hazlitt proposes. If you're anything like me, you  are likely to do likewise. Why shortchange ourselves, when there's help at arm's reach? As I see it, there are two aspects to habitual use of thinking as a science: 1) the acquaintance with the techniques, starting from actually being aware that there are such; and, 2)  getting into the habit of using them when needed, which I feel is the most difficult part (more on this related to chess on a previous post). Good ol' Harry Lorayne used to stress this point. Hazlitt retakes it on the second to last chapter and offers guidelines.

A further reading section is included at the end (with commentary).

The book stands on its own, but Hazlitt made a retrospective comment on it on a later book, The Wisdom of Hazlitt, which rounds off his system. Here, a mellowed Hazlitt relaxes his  stance against reading and gives further advice . The further reading section is now greatly expanded.

One of the best books I've read over the last couple of years, because, if anything, challenges ones viewpoints. Bring out pen and paper.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Reading Set: An OED stunt journalism project

Is it me or have we seen this one before?
In Reading the OED, under the letter 'S', Ammon Shea issues a friendly exhortation to the reader to read the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary which is for the word 'Set'. Within the proposal one can notice some challenge undertone  which makes it too good to pass. So, having already read his experiences with the whole dictionary, liking the word 'set' myself, and wanting to experience some stunt  journalism firsthand I decided to take him up on the challenge.

The first difficulty was to actually be able to read the words. Yes, I have a set handy, but that is the 4 in 1 compact version, the one with the included magnifying glass. For a quick look up I can  easily do without any magnification, but not wanting to to reenact any of Shea's physical discomforts I brought out the glass. Setting it at about two inches from my eyes and five from the page I got comfortable sized text.

Now, since I decided not to rush through the definitions, I decided to break the job into 5 to 10 minute segments. I figured this would give me both the experience and the greater attention span without any of the physical strain. Since my available deskspace was already taken over by other projects I decided to lay down the dictionary flat on the floor and read hunched over it.

As I read I found that my gaze is constantly wandering from the older quotations to the the newer ones and from the quotations in general to the next definition. I attribute this to my greater interest to actual meanings and elegant corralling of signification than Old or Middle-English archaeological sifting. This is just me; I'm sure older eras of the language can be fascinating enough for a lifetime, but I'll pass on that. Also, after two or three of the quotations, generally the more recent ones, I get already the sense spin at hand and don't really feel the need for more.  Yet, there are many more still to go through and one feels under some sort of obligation to at least acknowledge them.

Part of the whole in stunt reporting is embarrassing yourself when explaining your project to others.  One day when my nephew, Matt, came in for a visit he found the oed lying open on the floor and asked what was it. I took the opportunity to briefly introduce him to it telling him that it was the largest dictionary in the English language.

"But, what is it doing here?"

"Oh, I'm in the middle of a project: I'm trying to read all the entries for the word 'set', which I'm told is the longest defined word in the book here. Someone says its quite difficult to go through all of them. It is 25 pages in all."

He, quite prudently, did not pursue the topic, thinking perhaps that his uncle was odder than he previously imagined.

On another occasion my dad came up and asked me

"Are you looking up something?"

"No, I'm trying to read all the definitions of a word"

Next day he asked again

"Are you looking up something?" as if the previous conversation had never happened.

"I told you yesterday. Do you remember?"

"Ah, yes I remember. You told me that you were reading it because it has lots of words."

Anything interesting?

The senses themselves generally do stand well separate, yet sometimes the senses  threatened to go and stay in unfamiliar territory, but they always came back. After all, most of the definitions are senses of put or place, only each differentiating from the other in their own particular twist. Sometimes however I cannot tell one sense from another like sense 1 (first def) and sense 15 (third def)  which both refer to the setting of a heavenly body like the sun: they both look to me the same (oh, I get it now, one is the verb and the other is the verb as a noun […]).  It also appears that s.34 (setting a fire) could be included in s.25, but a distinction is made, which I've not yet  fathomed.  Alternate spellings of other words like suit or sit add some amount to the bulk. In at least one instance these came round in a full circle.  A hen can set itself on eggs (s. 5b) or if presumably it doesn't want to on its own, you can either set the hen to the eggs (s. 1c) or set the eggs to the hen (s. 15d). This pun has been made before, but isn't this an instance fowl play?   Before brushing ourselves clean of feathers let's not forget that also the eggs themselves, as a clutch, can be a set (s. 9e).

Just by reading this word I also got the eerie sense that Shea describes about doubting if one is speaking English at all when talking to others.  There are so many shades of meaning that one feels dizzy.

The sources are varied and mostly obscure to me. The most notable find is the letters of king Richard III taken as a source.

As for typos I only found one on s. 109 where "to cause to move" is printed as "to canse to move" as far as I can tell.  Even with the glass I can't really be sure if it's a misprint or not, though I believe the type was not set right for this word (Ok. I'll stop now).

So in true stunt fashion, I must state what I've learned from the experience. I've learned that I wouldn't read the OED more than an hour daily (30 minutes appears to be my max) even if paid. I've learned that even one word can surprise you with a kaleidoscope of meanings; that citations can be boring  as [fill in the blank]. I've learned why the setter dogs are called that (they are set to game), how old are pancakes (dating at least to the XV century; try to to find where I got that from), what do you set on the Ready, set, go! (your muscles), and that there is more than one way to have your eggs set.