Saturday, December 19, 2015

On the importance of learning to cook

Back in junior high we had cooking classes. With the benefit of hindsight I now know what was all that about. Those classes were not primarily taught for the student to fix himself something when hungry, but to develop discipline and to learn how to follow orders. Some, or maybe the greater part of us, want to go our own way and particularly at that age. Following a cooking recipe demands, not only attention, but the suspension of one's own wants and idiosyncrasies. The recipe is tried and true, has clear concepts and a step by step process. If one just follows the steps as given, the results are there anyone to see and taste. Immediate feedback, cause and effect and consistent results are the name of the game. By just trying, mavericks can see the results of their actions, and begin to adapt themselves to circumstances that demand, as said, discipline.

Emeril and star chefs can get away with adding extra salt, garlic, or whatever (Bam!), because they already have mastery on their craft and know the limits of the elements they working with.  Mastery comes from discipline and only then one is allowed to push the bounds of the art.

There's also the part of shared experience. Much like in sports there's a meeting of minds in cooking. Having watched played in team sports or at least watched, one can make one's point across or get by having actually gotten one's hands into the  thick mess of things. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Eat that Frog! book review

Quite understandably one can be skeptical of the mounds of self-help books, considering the huge volumes of useless junk out there. However, there are some worthwhile titles among the refuse. Eat that that frog! by Brian Tracy is one of them.

In his book, Tracy puts forth his system of efficiency based around the idea of attacking the most unappetizing/ important tasks first. This sounds common sense, but it is surprising how often we forget  to do so. Tracy distills and packages these and other concepts into bite-sized chapters and tryouts that bring the ideas to the forefront for ready use. By the time one reaches the productive years one is supposed to have a working approach to task management, but not everyone gets to develop one on their own or have actual mentoring on these simple, yet quite important, techniques. The great value of this book is that it supplements this potential lack and quite possibly boosts the plusses that are already there.

The book will benefit the most those who feel overwhelmed by their jobs. That said,it can also benefit those who feel they are already quite efficient in them. For these persons,the book warrants even a small peek to see if they can refine even more their habits.

Probably the only 'negative' aspect is the it centers exclusively on business life with much emphasis on importance on achieving and doing as a necessity of life.  Other areas of one's life are also important and probably one of the regular time-management books can help balance this one out by taking the personal into view and consideration.  With that caveat, you can't really go wrong with this one.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tusculan Disputations & List of StoicTexts

Portrait of young teen; taken by Benjamin Miller; source:
Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could be convinced not to worry about death, pain, and other mental anguishes with no tricks or drugs? Well, there is some old school medicine that does work. Somehow, antique stuff tends to pushed back by newer, shinier offers, but the Tusculan Disputations, among others, deserve to be brought back to the foreground. Written by Cicero in dialogue form after retiring from public office and taking philosophy full time,  it delivers on this promise.

It consists of five journées (can't find an English equivalent: 'days' doesn't quite capture it) of Cicero and interlocutor covering different evils, one at a time. These are: on Death, on Pain, On Affliction, on Other Tribulations (Fear, Joy, Desire) and On How Happiness can be Attained by Oneself. Though presented sequentially, each one can be read by itself and each is prologued with an address to Brutus (yes, that Brutus) to which the work as a whole is dedicated. Chronologically, the Disputations can be placed second in a series of related treatises that also include On the Ends of Good and Bad Things (De Finibus) and On the Nature of the Gods. These treatises, and more, were written in a down period of Cicero's life where he no longer held an important sway on Rome's politics and was grieving over the loss of his daughter.

There are only two participants: Cicero and his interlocutor.The opponent or interlocutor hardly puts up a fight and is always overwhelmed by Cicero's reasonings. These cover all the bases and if something somehow is left out, it is usually pretty minor. Unlike in some Plato's Dialogues, the interlocutor has the courtesy to allow the defendant, in this case Cicero, lengthier, uninterrupted expositions.

Some working knowledge of mythology, a prior read of the Iliad, a passing familiarity with Plato's Dialogues (Apology, Fedo)  and a feel for Roman history I'd say are required to not get lost in the references. Other than that it is an easy straightforward read.

Technically, Cicero's philosophy belongs to that of the New Academy (I think) and tries to stay away as much as possible from the Epicureans and avoid the argumentative excesses of the Stoics. However, I feel that he leans more to the latter.

Far from being a disjointed collection of maxims and viewpoints, Cicero's work is meticulously crafted and seamlessly systematic  which makes it a joy to read. In the end, Cicero's arguments are very convincing, even if you assume a show-me attitude. He completely won me over on each and every of the five days and has changed me for the better. By itself it can work as a self contained secular life philosophy (though I still feel that the Bible and divine revelation is what really allows it to turn full circle).

The Tusculan was the best book I read in 2013. Now that I'm on a roll here I'll mention my "Hall Of Fame" stoic writings:

  1. The Tusculan
  2. Epictetus' Discourses
  3. On Anger by Seneca
  4. Epictetus' Handbook
  5. Seneca's Letters to Lucilius
  6. Seneca's other Moral Dialogues 
  7. Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 
  8. Fragments of the Ancient Stoics
  9. Musonius Rufus' Sayings
  10. On Duties by Cicero

The first three by themselves make an unbeatable trio.

Honorable mentions:
  • Life is a Dream by Calderón de la Barca. Worth a read in any case
  • Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy

And one more thing: if you are interested in the life itself of Cicero, there's a great bio from Anthony Trollope on Librivox. Although the ongoing theme with it is that Cicero is wrongly accused by other authors of being a coward or unsteady in his views and political affiliations, it is a fine read for all the detail and context that Trollope provides. I'm re-listening to it right now. If you're in a hurry, Plutarch's life on him might suit you.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ghostly occurrence

man in strange wooden mask; taken by: Benjamin Miller; source: freestockphotos.bizTime now for this year's Halloween special. 

A certain man had just died and left his house unoccupied. My cousin, who lives right at the US border and some of his friends decided to take a look inside at night. Among whatever else they might have found, they discovered a book of black magic. To have a better look at it they swiped it and buried it in an empty lot somewhere for later perusal. When they came back for it a couple of days later, the book was gone. They went back to the empty house but found it now guarded by a police officer.

This happened back in the 80s. My cousin told me about it not long after and I stayed with the story all this time, retelling it from time to time and probably adding some of my own and forgetting some other parts.  You know how it is with these stories where it is always a cousin, as in this case, or a friend of a friend that has the adventures. These people consistently seem to have more interesting lives than one does. Well, unlike the friends of friends that are unreachable by the degrees of separation, I could contact my cousin anytime. I decided to corroborate the facts next time
i saw him.  If I got full confirmation, or better still, more details, I was sure to submit it to the Hometown Tales podcast. My opportunity came in 2005 at my brother's wedding. There, I took my cousin aside and had him listen to the story told back to him which he heard with amusement. He chuckled at the buried book bit and when I pressed him to verify what I had just told him, he paused for a moment, solemnly pronounced that something of the sort did happen and said no more.

You can read last year's special here

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Better by Gawande book review

title:surgeons-during-an-operation; taken by john crawford; source:
Surgeon Atul Gawande has also a fine penmanship. After reading his book on when things go awry in medicine, Complications, I was eager for more and immediately began reading  his next book, Better.

Better is the inside view on how doctors, and medicine as a whole, tries, and often succeeds in  getting better results: less deaths per thousand cases, more with less, new approaches to old problems.

Despite its engaging stories, Better is not a mere continuation of Complications. It has more insight and footholds on which our minds can work upon making it a companion of sorts to Talent is Overrated of which we talked last time.  Probably one of the greatest interest for us, lay readers, is how we ourselves can get better at our own particular endeavors by looking at a generally veiled field, that of medicine, which not only relies on performance but which has lives on the line as well.

Besides the performance and ingenuity sections there is also one on doing right which explores the ways how doctors not only have  to perform well, but also do what is right simultaneously, which can and do conflict with one another.  Nudity, negligence and malpractice, insurance companies and compensation are explored here.

Gawande has two more books to his credit, The Checklist Manifesto and Being Mortal.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Talent is Overrated by Colby book review

title: cute young girl on track field; taken by: Benjamin Miller; source:freestockphotos.bizBeing the heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we Westerners conceive of talent as a divine gift stemming perhaps from the Parable of the talents in Matthew. It may come to a surprise that talents, in the modern sense of the word, have a dominating component of behind-the-scenes thought & effort.

In Talent is Overrated, Colby makes a quite convincing case that talent is not the result of luck or grace but rather from directed effort towards a goal. In the first four chapters he examines the evidence bringing many specific cases to bear, such like that of Mozart, and puts forth an alternate hypothesis to the gift/luck scheme that, in its core, consists of conscious, deliberate practice.

Once he has convinced the reader he minutely looks at the specific components that makes talent happen in chapters 5-7 and, what may be the best part, how to do that for oneself.  These chapters warrant careful combing. For these I'd recommend have take pencil & paper close at hand to unearth all the treasures.

The application doesn't end with the individual as Colby expands the framework to include organizations. In chapter 8 he shows that this can be done and what steps might be necessary to incorporate the framework to larger scale entities.

On the closing chapters he addresses some miscellaneous topics, such as creativitity & innovation, youth & age and the sources of passion.

For someone who simply wants to get better at something or excel at top levels or who coaches someone else on physical or mental skills, this book might refocus your efforts for the better or reinforce what you already believe works.

If you're in a hurry, some of the very same concepts, but without the application component, are explored in the Scientific American July 2006 cover article, Secrets of the Expert Mind by Phillip E. Ross. Now, If you want an even deeper understanding on how this stuff works there is The Mind And the Brain by Sawyer. The Willpower Instinct is also a good companion to any of these.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Way to Willpower book review

It is reasonable to suppose that once that you have struck gold, the neighboring lots might be valuable as well. Same thing happens with authors: once you have found a great book from one, it is not too far off to think that he or she might have others. Having greatly enjoyed Thinking As a Science by Henry Hazlitt I came across his bibliography on Wikipedia and discovered that he had a book on willpower as well. I immediately went on to acquire it and it also is great stuff.

As with Thinking, Hazlitt goes with great care dissecting the subject and making it accessible to the reader. This book, having been written in the early 20th century lacks all of the recent scientific developments of which The Willpower Instinct (the other great book on willpower I've read) bases itself on. Notwithstanding,  Hazlitt builds his program on the philosophy and psychology from his time and ends with commendable results. The founding stone for his method, and a very controversial one at first, is the negation of the existence of the will.  Allowing that, he builds on it by adding the costs of exercising willpower and the way of habit formation. This trio allows him to offer methods and recommendations that if, are unexplored by The Willpower Instinct, are no less powerful.

Once more, as in Thinking, one is very well rewarded by taking notes.

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.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Letter to my niblings: a gift of great books

Dear Matthew, Anne & Daniel

You are probably a bit disappointed with the gift you received from me this Christmas. Maybe you were expecting candy, perhaps toys. But you need not worry: on this holiday season I'm giving you what may very well be the very best material gift you'll ever receive. It is better than playthings and sweets I assure you. Can you imagine that?

Well, let's see. What you have here are a set of tomes, ten in all, labeled "Gateway to the Great Books". One may be apprehensive about receiving books, of all things, and pictureless ones at that. However, these books are quite different. By themselves, they are full of wonders. They consist of a collection of short pieces that relate to storytelling, man and society, science and philosophy. You already love storytelling, what grownups call literature,  and within the pages here you'll find some of the very best, some of which you'll want to read over and over again. You also have a family (a lovely one at that), friends and attend school, which means you already belong to groups that are larger than yourself. The volumes colored blue, deal with these and with even bigger groups. Now, man has been called an animal that asks questions. You also ask questions, we all do pretty much all the time. Some of these questions relate to why things are as they are in nature. Science is at it's heart the search for answers in this area. The volumes coded green, show how persons have sought to answer and explain them, from where we stand in the Universe (take a look at Kees Boeke's Cosmic View),  to how bugs (!) behave (Fabre, the Sacred Beetle), to what is what really happens when a candle burns (Faraday, Chemical History of a Candle). Math, which is closely related to science, is not a boring school subject, and in fact can be quite delightful. You use Google daily, do you know where that name came from? Or how big a number can get? Finally, there are other questions that cannot be answered, for all its worth, by science.  How should one behave? How do we know things? What is one's purpose? These, and more, are explored in the last volume. In a sense, we're all philosophers (lets grow a beard!)

These books not only great by themselves, but are planned as an entryway to even greater books that are out there. You already know about some of them: remember Achilles and the  war of Troy (The Iliad)? Have you ever heard of Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare)? Perhaps you've heard of a certain knight that once fought against windmills (Don Quixote).

Starting now, this books will let you make a better use of your greatest asset which is your mind. They'll also help you place things throughout your life in perspective, and strengthen your will and study habits, which in turn will pave the way in school, and to whatever goals you set for yourselves as members of society.

All these is set before you, if you'll only read them.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gateway to the Great Books reviewed

In my first excitement over the Great Books I found that there was a companion set and got my dad to order it for me. Somewhere during the second year reading programme of the Gateway to the Great Books I made the jump to the Great Books proper. Taking a look at the former after some years I see that I've been missing some great reading and decided to retake them.

Gateway to the Great Books (GGB) is a 10 volume set that serves as an entryway to Great Books of the Western World (GB).  It was prepared the same editors of the GB and lives within the same philosophical vein. In contrast to the GB flagship set, this one focuses on shorter works by a more diverse group of authors.

As with GB, GGB are divided and color coded into a) imaginative literature and critical essays (tomes 2-5); b) Man and Society (tomes 6-7); c) Science and Mathematics (tomes 8- 9) and d) Philosophy and Theology (tome 10). The covers have a nice texturized feel and the pages themselves are whiter than GB's cream colored.

The first volume contains the introduction to the set, the Syntopicon to the set and a reading plan. The intro is written by Adler, and here, once again rehashes his reading Methodology (of which we talked in the last post). This time, however, he puts it forth in a more polished clearer straightforward fashion. I would still recommend getting How to Read a Book if one intends to take him up on it, nevertheless. Unlike the one in the GB, the syntopicon here radiates each work to the Great Ideas and to related works both in the GB and the GGB.  The reading plan is structured according to difficulty and it is suggested to be taken from 7/8 grade to College Sophomore and covers the entirety of the works in the set.

As taken from its introduction, serving as a gateway  is GGB's only stated purpose. It is not too far off to think of the works in GGB as those that didn't quite make it into the bigger set. Nonetheless, that being so, doesn't make any of them second-rate in absolute terms.  The works are delightful to read  for the most part. I find that there a bit few, say the United Nations Charter or moderately demanding like Sweetness and Light (took me 3-4 tries to get traction), but, as said, these are by far the exceptions and still enriching. There are times when one feels the joy of learning; this set is a surefire way to get that feeling at any time without the heaviness of complexity. Many of the included works are not as readily available as those from the GB, so once again one ends ahead by having all of them in one place.

As with the GB the pieces in the GGB are mostly devoid of footnotes or clarifying explanations. Some editor's guidance is provided however before each work along with some pointers. Unlike the GB, in the GGB allow themselves to offer selections over complete works when appropriate. For instance, in the very first work, Robinson Crusoe, the editors abridge the novel by letting go scenes, such as Crusoe's stay in Brazil, that don't relate as closely to the Great Ideas. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico centers on a single episode.

Taken as a duo, both sets interplay well as is evidenced by the Syntopicons.  Now then, both  don't really need each other other as the two can live a meaningful independent existence.

If one's gung-ho with Adler's method, this is the set to get. The brevity of the pieces, ease and greatness allow, and some level demand, the method to be tried. One can always move up to the GB when one feels she has gained sufficient proficiency in the art. Maybe one's still uncertain about this great book reading idea or project, and doesn't want to commit all the way in just yet. GGB solves this allowing the reader to dip her toe in them. Best part (best? all aspects with this set appear to be top notch) is that complete sets can be get dirt cheap at Ebay for well under $100 and not infrequently under $50. Go for it, I guarantee it'll be the best book purchase you'll ever make.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Adler's How To Read a Book

At one time reading was regarded an untainted virtue, later it was seen that it did us no good unless we read good books, and now there is a dawning consciousness that even if we read good books they will benefit us little unless we read them in the right way. But even where this consciousness has been felt, little attempt has been made to solve the problem systematically. Leisurely discourses, pretty aphorisms, and dogmatic rules have been the forms in which the question has been dealt with. Such conflicting adages as "A good book should be read over and over again" ; and "The art of reading is the art of skipping," are not  very serviceable. The necessity of some sort of orderly treatment is evident.
Henry Hazlitt Thinking as a Science

There are some books that are just difficult to get into. You try, find it isn't working, give up, retry at some later point in the future only to give up once again having not advanced much further. This has happened to me with Peter Straub's Ghost Story, which is supposed to be a fine book scare-wise, but I have not got past the Chowder Society's second or third mention. It has also happened to me with Adler's How to Read a Book. After more than a decade and a half of having it on a bookshelf and pulling it interminently to take a look at the list of recommended great books at the end, I decided to take one more crack at it and see if I could finish it this time around and get something worthwhile out of it.

In this latest attempt I now see why I had failed before:  The title itself had been misleading me all this time. Where I expected some quick set of rules, Adler instead makes a large scale exposition of the state of reading  and education and the way to revert it by great book reading. So in reality How to Read a Book is more like three books in one: a) poor education; b)rules for nonfiction; and c) guidelines for imaginative literature and the great books. By accepting it as it is, I finally got over the hump.

Now, this may only aply to the 1940 solo edition which is the one I've got.  There are in reality two versions of this book under the same title, the 1940, on which I'll center on and the more readily available 1972 refurbished edition with Van Doren. Not until I began writing this post I became aware of this.

The focus of this book are books that are for instruction, deliver an exposition and are Great in the sense of aligning themselves to the Ideas of the Great Conversation, as opposed to those books that are for entertainment, delight or are shallow.

I had also another reason for reading this book which was to learn a bit more about the philosophy of The Great Books of the Western World of which we talked about last time and of which Adler is an editor. With more berth than Hutchins allows himself on The Great Conversation Adler takes a more leisurely pace getting his point across. This takes the form in the Education/Great books/Rules triad, the latter being the core of the book. If one is approaching How to from the perpective of Education or that of the Great Books, the longish first part (now finally) makes sense.

The rules proper don't start until deep into the book and these are heavy duty. These in a sense require the reader dissect the reading material (ie. a Great book) forwards and backwards, minutely so, and put it all back together. Adler's explanations are a bit circomlocuted, but does make himself clear by the time he wraps up each point. What would have been great would have been an example to illustrate parts or the whole process with a sample text and to be sure what Adler expects from the reader and text. We don't have such in this tome. As far as I know the closest we get to hands-on examples is in the relatively obscure book General Introduction to the Great Books.

In the second section of the last chapter contains nonetheless a model reading group and ways to conduct it. This is motivating to say the least. Even more because the pontential richness of the Great Books can be drawn the most by discussion.

The final section projects a society where its citizens and state officials work in symphony with the Great Books. A society where force, charm and ease of word don't sway the minds, but reason. Editorially, I regret that as of late we have undemocratically moved away from such ideals mainly through fear. We've let our true liberties be impinged. As long as this continues, they win.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It assumes you can already concentrate in the first place, so there's no help there. You either read as he asks or you don't ; though at the very least you get a sense of what you are missing.

Instead of trying the rules full force on the inmensity Great Books proper (a gargantuan task, no doubt) why not give them a go with shorter, easier, and still 'great' books? Of these we'll talk next time.


This all sounds right and well but, and I may be wrong on this, the point on which Adler's great book reading as a solution for America's education woes hinges on is, ironically, not quite sound.

Ch VI. p101
Today's public was educated in the schools of yesterday and today; it cannot be expected to demand that the schools to change tomorrow. It cannot be expected to make demands if it does not know intimately, as a matter of its own experience, the difference between real education and all the current impostures. That "if" gave me the clue. Why couldn't it be made a matter of people's experience, instead of their having to rely on hearsay and all the crosscurrents of talk among disputing experts? It could. If somehow out of school and after it, people generally could get some of the education they did not get in school, they might be motivated as they are not now, to blow up the school system. And they could get the education they did not get, if they could read. Do you follow this reasoning?
No, not really.


"Know of their own experience": 'k'
"Make demands": 'd'

∴ k→d

Ok this is hairsplitting. I'm still sold on his general idea, but I had to call him on this one.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Britannica Great Books coda

Why not make a stunt journalism project?

On first blush the challenge of the 50+ volumes makes the set worthy material for an AJ Jacobs-like stunt journalism project, something like: "The year of reading the Great Books". I myself thought about it, but I found it unviable. Setting a deadline, an a short one at that, and adding to it the relative difficulty of the texts, is a recipe for wasted effort in my opinion. The texts just don't lend themselves to charging through them, nor you would want to if you are to reap what they have to offer. Even if you could somehow finish the project the resulting account, or blog posts, are bound to be mostly uneventful and uninteresting. There is no mirth, embarrassment or family crises, which are the prime material for stunt accounts, in just reading . There is certainly life-changing stuff here, but it takes years for it to work its magic and the changes are mostly internal, not something readily apparent to onlookers. Notwithstanding, there are at least a couple of books that do relate what's like to read great books in general and so here are their brief mention if you want to look into them (I've not read them myself so I cannot speak of their merits or goals).  These are Great Books by Denby and The Year of Reading Dangerously by Miller

Adler next time.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Britannica Great Books reviewed

According to, Mark Twain did say that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read. As far as it goes it captures the feeling of many of us: we have the certainty down there that if somehow we read the classics our lives & understanding would be enriched. Unfortunately the second part is also very true: not only most of us haven't in reality read those books, but in cases we have actively avoided them. Don't know the reason and don't care much for it. What I did care for is that I did not want to be lumped with the rest, so I decided to actually read the books and be the one who could, admittedly selfishly, raise his hand and say: I have.

Now, Twain's definition doesn't address actual titles, but there is no shortage of lists on what one should read. I decided early on on the Britannica Great Books because I happened to have a set handy.

The Britannica Great Books is a set of the greatest works of literature, philosophy, science, politics and religion in the western world as considered by the editors. There have been two editions of the set. The 1952 edition has 54 tomes and goes from Homer to William James and Freud while the 1990 edition does some reshuffling and expands the selection to include 20th century authors in six extra tomes. I'll center what follows on the 1980 reissue of the first edition.

The volumes themselves are all hardcover and standardized in height and length. For the more voluminous authors (Aristotle, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Gibbon) their works are divided in two volumes. The longest volume is around 800 pages.  The spines are color-coded according to the nature of the works, such as red for philosophy & religion or green for science. This is a deluxe set and quite handsome as an object. Unlike others in the category, the covers and spines can withstand regular use without turning unsightly.

The pages on all volumes is pleasant cream-colored. Most of text is densely arranged in two columns, though there are some exceptions (eg Paradise Lost). In the case of Chaucer the Middle-English original text is presented on the even pages (left side) and in modern English on the odd pages, in Loeb classical library fashion, for easy comparison. The margins are slim which forestall any but the most concise, in-page  reader annotations (not that I'd recommend you doing that).

All authors have a brief biographical overview. All volumes have table of contents as well.

Most of the volumes are devoid of footnotes, endnotes or clarifying explanations. Those that do have, such as Aquinas and Gibbon are more focused on references for research purposes than on clarification. Part of the philosophy of this set, traced back to John Erskine, is that all the works were originally intended for the layperson; thus, they are accessible to modern audiences.

The other important aspect of the set's philosophy, put forth in the first volume, The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins, is that each new author is acquainted with the previous ones and builds upon their themes, ideas and viewpoints in an evolving conversation through time.  In the preface to this volume he makes an apology in the name of the editors as to why for the existence of the set, the general guidelines of construction and title inclusion.  He readily acknowledges that list of works might not include everyone's favorite books.  Not all the works of a given author are included. For instance, just by looking there's no way for Freud's complete works to be fitted into one or two volumes, or have Dostoyevsky collection of novels gathered and still keep a manageable set. Hutchins also goes on to say that some long dry passages within the works are present: better that than risking editorializing with scissors at hand. The rest of the volume is an exposition of liberal education and how it is needed for the democratic ideal. This part reflect the Cold War period in which it was written, but even if the circumstances are no longer what they used to, the underlying aspirations still ring true. Reading now, decades into the future, one gets a sense of shame for the Editors' ideal having not yet been realized. If anything, the challenge is even more daunting than when the set was conceived considering the current state of education.

On brighter notes the Great Conversation aspect becomes clear in the second & third volumes: the Syntopicon. These contain a collection of the 102 most important ideas present in the Conversation according to the editors. Each idea is presented with an essay by philosopher Mortimer J Adler. These essays are just a bit steep, but give the lay of the land for the idea and  once one has put his or her mind to it are gems in themselves.  After each essay, the idea is minutely dissected into its different relevant topics (actually the topics form the idea, not the other way around). Finally, each of these topics are referenced to all its occurrences within the set, making the Conversation palpable. Nowadays you can get the works that comprise that Great Books separately one way or another, but not the Syntopicon, which thus makes it the most valuable piece of the set. It is an unparalleled tool for research!

Now, this is not the only set with similar aims. The Harvard Classics (HC) predate the Great Books by some forty years and came into being when its editor, Dr Eliot, was asked to make good on his assertion that a liberal education could be obtained by a 3-5 foot shelf of (well-chosen) books.  To bring forth more of the characteristics of The Great Books, it warrants a brief comparison with the HC set. In size, quite coincidentally it seems, the Great Books match Eliot's estimate of five feet. However, the pages of the HC are not as densely packed, resulting in less of the total works being included. Notable examples are just the first part of Don Quixote and only a few of Plutarch's Lives. The inclusion of a wider selection of material and categories in some degree offsets the partial works; though, with the benefit of hindsight the selection of the HC feels more idiosyncratic than that of the Great Books. There is substantial poetry and even travels, which the Great Books ignores. The HC has no qualms about including some Eastern works like and authors like the Thousand And One Nights and Confucius, as it is not  guided (or burdened if you will) by the Great Conversation concept. It's philosophy is just to give a chance for anyone to get 'cultivated'. It also has a disproportionate weighting of English and American writers as English language readers are its target audience. While Adler, on the side of the Great Books, makes no secret that proper great book reading is a difficult undertaking, the HC open themselves to any taker with no dire warnings about difficulty. In fact, a reading plan for children 12-18 is offered in the index tome. Some explanatory footnotes are offered here and there. In How to Read a Book, Adler doesn't resist the temptation to take a jab at the HC by pointing out their frequent un-greatness, fragmentary nature and unsystematicty.

Regarding systematicity, the editors of the Great Books offer an interesting 10 year reading plan. The set looks daunting, but having it broken down to such a long period makes it not only  achievable in its reading but exciting. For my part I've not resisted to get right into some texts and, while still striving for completion, have not followed any preset plan. The editors also agree with such course.

With only the raw texts and the barest sliver of commentary, are the Great Books readable? For the most part they are. However, a quiet place to read and concentration are even more of a prerequisite than for everyday novels; once one has gained traction, it is often the case that ease and comprehension set in.  One must be aware that there is a difference between taking the trouble to read them in the first place and really reading them in Adler mode (more on that on the next post). And it doesn't stop there; in The Great Ideas and probably elsewhere, Adler suggests that a round of discussion with other readers to top it off. I'm still dubious about the lack of explanatory comments. Some tomes, particularly those of ancient times, could profit from some guidance on obscure passages or persons. In the Letter to the Reader in the first volume, Hutchins asserts that the works become easier to read as one pushes forward. I can attest that at least for me it is the case: concepts become clearer, the themes more readily identifiable, the way of the Great Conversation brighter and, if one gives it an honest sustained effort, each new work easier to sort out (more on this on a future installment). Some of the texts will stay steep however, particularly the scientific ones, although I'm not really qualified to talk about those as of now, as I have not gotten into those yet (the one on conics by Apollonius of Perga looks really interesting though!). I suspect that is quite useless to read a couple few of these, such as Copernicus' Revolutions (The Book Nobody Read): they have a place in the set because they made an impact, but not because one can profit from them now. (Hutchins sternly warns against this viewpoint). For the rest of the tomes, in many cases, the most foreboding aspect is the double column layout.

In the end, I would recommend anyone who wants to align herself with the democratic ideal of the founding fathers and is really willing to get into them.

5 stars

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reading the OED book review

Personal accounts can offer a window into other people's passions. Part of the joy of reading nonfiction is that one gets to know about these very real experiences even if one doesn't share them. In Reading the OED Ammon Shea gives us an account of him reading every single word from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Alphabetically, each letter contains his observations on reading and owning dictionaries in general and the OED in particular, and a list of words starting with the letter in turn that for a number of reasons he finds notable, funny, unexplainable, etc.  Of both groups I stay with the anecdotal over the lists for the human element. My favorite parts were him reading in the basement of a college library and talking of mice and nonexistent rats, his views on the 'library people' and the prodigious amounts coffee he drinks which should deserve part of the credit for pulling the project through. The lists of words for their part never really caught on with me, but were not boring either. On the practical side I'm quite sure that I'll not be using any of them soon (except zugzwang which already is part of my vocabulary).

It is perhaps unavoidable to compare this one with AJ Jacobs' The Know it All in which the project was to read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica and relate what was like. Reading the OED doesn't capture Jacobs' charm and spontaneity, but there is something more endearing in Shea's exploit. Jacobs loves knowledge; Shea loves words and the dictionary, the medium itself. 

Comparing both accounts, Shea has the tougher bone. Part of the challenge of the OED's own physical being. It is large and heavy; the font small and the words dense; the citations abundant and in older English in large proportion.  Along the way Shea describes the various pains and aches he develops from reading too much. I feel amazed and slightly horrified at what he puts himself through; nonetheless, he loves every second of it.

I believe that Jacobs' project ultimately fails though because of its unsystematicity. He goes through the material alright but without an overarching plan for organization, use and retention.  Of course, had he done so, he'd probably still be at it and we wouldn't have his book. Shea on the other hand just wants to be delighted and share and by both counts he succeeds  (for my part I'm casting my lot with the Great Books of which we'll talk next time).

Would I recommend you go buy it? Can't really. For all its virtues it still is a niche account. His enthusiasm for dictionaries and words comes across, but didn't win me entirely over. I still find the whole project extraordinary.  Reading the OED has its place, but that would be after the The Know it All, or instead of, if you love words over just facts.

(I've decided to take up on one challenge Shea puts forth in this book, and do some stunt reporting of my own. We'll talk about that in a couple months' time)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Of Moves and Men part II: actually doing it

So much for the methods. Putting them to practice is the hardest part of the equation and surprisingly so. One thing is to know what is to be done and another to actually do it.

I'll go off a tangent now. I find that when I'm in the heat of the game sooner or later I revert or devolve to the very old habits that I want to supersede. My guess is that these habits have proved their worth by getting me to my present state of development; though I can clearly see that they impede my further growth; hence, my interest in this aspect of play and in these books.

If I have decided upon a method or system in a cool and reasoned manner, then I want to follow it as it appears to be the best course of action.  Following it in a slipshod way won't do and skipping it altogether is worse still. And this is not limited to chess alone as I find it also true for some other skills. Trying not to be cheesy about it, I see chess as a microcosm or lab where one can try out mental skills in a self-contained setting that can then be useful for everyday situations. In other words, if it works in chess, then it might be adapted to some other area. And what could this skills be? Memory, patience, imagination, visualization, discipline, willpower, self-regulation… an efficient zen-like state if that is not too much of an oxymoron.

Coming back full circle, the actual integration to self is the hard part. I don't know if this happens to you or if my case is better or worse than that of others but I do have a working hypothesis based, at this point, mainly on Kahnemann's ideas found in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. What I believe  is happening at this stage is that my System 1 is still is trigger happy and that I'm slowly adapting it by the application of System 2. The trouble arises from S1 wanting to shoot from the hip while S2 is too resource intensive to sustain for long.

Ease opposes change. From what I read, continued focused effort is, at the heart of it, the key. That is what training is all about. The best example integration of a system from the ground up that I've known about is that of Mystery from Neil Strauss' book The Game . First he deconstructed his approach to his problem and put it back again. Then, he tried it repeatedly again and again in rapid succession debriefing himself after each night on all encounters. Finally, he changed what had to be changed to get to his results. It is hard to find any room for improvement on the structure of his method. Let's see what he gets right:

  • Deep burning desire
  • Insights from experience
  • A flexible  method built from said insights
  • A fail fast approach
  • Debriefing
  • Willingness to try new things, integrate what works and let go what doesn't

All aspects are key as none can be let go and still have great results. The aspect that beckons me the most is the fail fast  practice. Lots of experience in a short time, isn't this how bacteria thrive when subject to novel attacks? It appears to me that this where my chess training sags. Experience is needed, but I don't play that often to fully sink in my own methods.  Maybe also more focused practice is needed, that is, not wasting time on unprofitable training. For instance, I've been reading Nimzowitsch's Chess Praxis and I feel it has helped me zilch (My System is more instructive and, yes, more fun).

The debriefing aspect on the other hand is close to what great (chess) teachers emphasize: go over your games. I have been so won over with this concept, that I built the negotiation debriefing script I posted some months ago based on this very idea . This is a tangible everyday result from my chess efforts.  It is hardly necessary to point out that the process became teachable.

So, if you believe  on a given system stick relentlessly to it until it is second nature (and then some more).

If you want to know more on effortful training I'm not yet done. I'll take a closer look on books that deal with these very matters in the near future.

(Mystery's own book, The Mystery Method, feels contrived to me and I think it could benefit from some editing and rewriting)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Of Moves and Men: Chess Calculation: Soltis books + Tisdall

Lately my biggest stumbling block in chess other than endings has been miscalculation. Therefore I decided to overhaul my thinking method (or lack of thereof).  I did some research  and bought some recommended books to remedy the situation.  These are Soltis' Inner Game of Chess & How to Choose a Chess Move and Tisdall's Improve Your Chess Now! .

As I see it all three books can be read by anyone from 1400 up, but I'm dubious if players under 1800 can benefit much. Let's start with the most difficult which is Inner. To make proper use of the concepts in it, it prerequires the reader to be tactically sharp and be able to visualize many moves ahead. Here it is all about being honest with oneself: do you really know your tactics inside out? If not, you're better off and bound to make more progress honing them first. With visualization on the other hand, Soltis cuts some slack and gives some really helpful hints on how to acquire it. Still, it is probably the hardest part of the book: I can now follow a 23 move game blindfolded , but I had to give myself six months of practice before continuing reading and I'm still aiming higher. (btw, I compiled a useful visualization game collection for myself which I may post later on).

The rest of the book centers primarily on force and its use in calculation. Each concept is illustrated with positions from real games with explanatory text  and and just enough variations. Overall I found it a worthwhile read.

We now move over to Tisdall's book. It covers a wide range of topics which the author feels will benefit the aspiring reader. I just focused on the first couple of sections that deal with  calculation &  visualization. Although less exhaustive than Inner, it does supplement the concepts put forth by Soltis and both approaches meld nicely. A nice bonus is his way to calculate on the defensive. Both authors are critical of Kotov's tree scheme and offer sensible, practical alternatives. Just  100 elo points easier than Inner

Up to this point,  one can have a sure footing with moves that are suitable for calculation. What about quieter moves? To that purpose I also got How to Choose. This one is quite different to Inner, not only in its scope but on its outlook: It is a bit depressing. I for one hoped for a system, but instead, at least on the surface, opens more questions than it answers. It also ends in a down note with Fischer v Taimanov where Taimanov sees an opportunity, mentally does everything right and as recommended and still  loses. Way to go.

It is also more confusing in it's presentation of the material as there is no as clear progression as in Inner. Notwithstanding, How to has valuable material once the reader gets to chapters 7 to 11. Chapter 8, a reality check, is especially useful.

Most of the examples can be followed without board. I'd say it is about 50 elo points easier than Tisdall's.

In conclusion, if you have calculation issues and cover the prerequirements, do get Inner Game and if you've got some extra cash buy Tisdall's book too and compare methods. If you're hungry for more, there is How to, but be aware of its drawbacks. All these three, imo, require you to take notes to get a clearer picture.

Ps. Be sure to check The Creation of a Thinking Technique article by Silman in the August 1998 issue of Chess Life and take a (critical?) look at step 3 in de la Maza's approach at chesscafe: . Finally, the latest wrinkle in calculation books appears to be Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation by Jacob Aagaard which I have not read. However,from what I gather from the net, it is both high level and a workbook.

Pps. A very condensed view of Soltis' view from Inner can be found in a chapter his newer book  How to Study Chess. This last one I recommend for all the wider material it covers.

More on this next time

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Harry Lorayne's Miracle Math

Cover to the B&N editionAs a coda to last time's Lorayne post I wanted to mention his book Miracle Math. Mr Lorayne has written a lot on memory but as previously said he has expanded a bit into other mental areas. Math is one of these areas, but I feel that somehow this volume has not received the attention it deserves.

It deals with the four arithmetic operations, but in an entirely new (at least for me) and efficient way. I don't know were he got his material from but he deconstructs and puts back again the basic operations in ways that are more useful, faster and more logical. The result is both quicker calculations on paper and an expanded range for mental arithmetic (look ma no hands!).

The techniques are well explained and easy to grasp and apply. There are lots of exercises to test yourself on, though I would advise not to write on the book, as it mars pages and curtails other solvers.

This book has been so very useful and the techniques so much better that they have entirely superseded the old methods I learned from elementary school in my mind; so much so, that I no longer know how to calculate the old way: It is not necessary!

There are probably other books that revolve around the same theme. This is the one I know and so is the one I praise.  This a great book for a motivated child.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Harry Lorayne

My old copySome persons go bananas about the one book that changed their lives. I believe that in many instances this has been the case, but for my part I am hesitant to give that lofty title any such tome. That said, there are a couple that have been so useful and shaping, that they have served as a base for my education and world outlook. Both are from memory expert Harry Lorayne.

The first book is The Memory Book written with Jerry Lucas. Found this one while just browsing at my local bookstore. From the beginning I was hooked and readily began to apply his systems to schoolwork. I was at junior high at the time, and with them I quickly set myself apart from the rest of my classmates. Not only was I better than before on the memory stuff, but I could study the applicable material in less time and with less effort and boredom.

His systems, technically called mnemonics, rest on a single readily applicable  principle ( I won't spoil it for you here).  In this book, the authors explore Harry's systems and how can they be applied and further developed. The book is an easy read and can be useful even for young children. As for seniors, I cannot positively say it, but I'm confident that it can be of benefit to them as well.

So as to not rest on his laurels, he has also reached into other aspects of mind use. The fruits of his scrutiny are gathered in the other book I wanted to talk about: Secrets of Mind Power. His thoughts are not based either on scientific studies or on unprovable esp-like phenomena, but on bona fide practical American common sense.  The methods are simple, sensible and useful.  He gives a golden warning, however: as with the memory stuff, the methods must be given an honest try for them to work and that must be done now, not later.

Here are some of the topics he covers:

Time organization
Forming habits and breaking them
Public speaking
Worry control
Making your own luck

Years now into the future I've found some even more powerful tools from philosophy and psychology in general and from Henry Hazlitt in particular. Notwithstanding, Harry Lorayne's methods are the ones that gave me the start and no one can really go wrong with them which makes this book a great place to begin with any self-improvement programme.

Most of his suggestions are fine and workable. Some few methods though could use tinkering or alternatives; for instance, I've tried his concentration suggestions several times, but have gotten better results with alternate methods.

There are some books one wishes to have read earlier in life. I was fortunate to be acquainted with these at the right time.

(There's another book from him on the mind, Instant Mind Power, but I do not know how it relates to the Secrets, since I've never seen a physical copy.)