that don't fit elsewhere.
function and consciousness
Brains Think, by William Calvin
with Neil's Brain, by Calvin & Ojemann
Cerebral Code, by William Calvin
Calvin's web page
Man who Tasted Shapes, by Richard Cytowic
Illusions, by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini
Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins
and brain function
the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
and public education
Objections, by Neil Postman
End of Education, by Neil Postman
Manufactured Crisis, by Berliner & Biddle
Name Escapes Me, by Alec Guinness
Real Frank Zappa Book, by Zappa & Occhiogrosso
Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now"
by William H. Calvin. 1996, Basic Books, 184 pp.
I picked up this book on a whim in a Fort Worth bookstore. I was blown
away by it. Calvin deals with brain functionality on several levels, fascinating
and accessible to a layman like me (yes, I have a brain, but I never knew
much about how it worked). More appealing yet, Calvin explains his theory
of consciousness as the result of a "Darwin Machine", that is,
a selection process for cortical space operating on a scale of mili-seconds
to seconds. To a former evolutionary biologist like me, he makes incredibly
good sense - his theory has an elegant quality of "rightness"
that makes me sincerely hope it proves correct. I mean, imagine being
able to understand consciousness from a functional, physiological and
anatomical perspective - what an incredible breakthrough! Okay, enough.
Let me end with a quote that Calvin uses to start chapter one: "All
organisms with complex nervous systems are faced with the moment-to-moment
question that is posed by life: What shall I do next?" - Sue
Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, 1994.
with Neil's Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought and Language"
by William H. Calvin and George A. Ojemann. 1994, Addison-Wesley, 343
I've listed this book after Calvin's "How Brains Think" simply
because that's the order in which I read them. You could start with either.
To some extent they overlap in content, with "Conversations..."
tending to go into greater detail - but you'll miss some great stuff if
you skip "How Brains Think". The literary device the authors
use is kinda lame - fictitious conversations with a composite "patient"
preparing for brain surgery - but the content more than compensates. In
this book, the authors spend much more time on the physiological underpinnings
of various disorders. I found this fascinating, and offer it as a sample:
"Tourette's is highly familial and, in affected families, looks
as if it might be a male version of what, in females, turns instead into
an obsessive-compulsive disorder." One more quote that I can't
pass up, this one used to open the chapter on mood: "Throughout
history, it has been known that melancholics, though they have little
energy, use their energy well; they tend to work hard in a focused area,
do great things, and derive little pleasure from their accomplishments.
Much of the insight and creative achievement of the human race is due
to the discontent, guilt, and critical eye of (melancholics)."
The psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer, 1993.
Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind"
by William H. Calvin. 1996, MIT Press, 256 pp.
Another book by Calvin, this one devoted to explaining his "Darwin
Machine" theory of consciousness in great technical detail. The evolutionary
biologists among you will love it; the rest may think it a bit much. But,
following my pattern of offering a quote from each of his books, here's
part of his opening to chapter 2: "We tend to regard erratic copying
as a bad thing, and in the case of human documents it is hard to think
of cases where errors are improvements. I suppose the scholars of the
Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big when they
mistranslated the Hebrew word for "young woman" into the Greek
word for "virgin," coming up with the prophesy: 'Behold a virgin
shall conceive and bear a son...'" Richard Dawkins, The Selfish
Gene, 1976. (Below, I'll recommend one of Dawkin's books, "The
Blind Watchmaker" - but "The Selfish Gene" predates it
and is also a great read.)
Calvin's web page If any of Calvin's books appeal to you at all, please
check out his web page where you'll find a wealth of information! The
URL is: http://williamcalvin.com/index.html
Man who Tasted Shapes" by Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. Warner Books,
1993, 249 pp.
Perhaps the most exciting book I've read, ever. Its subtitle will serve
as introduction: "A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers Revolutionary
Insights Into Emotions, Reasoning, and Consciousness." Cytowic deals
with synesthesia, a cross-wiring of the senses in laymen's terms. The
book takes its title from a conversation in the kitchen of a man preparing
dinner for his guests. He says: "This sauce doesn't have enough points."
He can taste the sauce much as you or I can, but he also receives a tactile
sensation as well. Another form of synesthesia combines sight and sound
and is called color hearing. What fascinates me about this condition is
that it gives its "sufferers" something more than most people
get, rather than taking away some aspect of normal brain function. Quoting
Cytowic, from chapter 2: "Solving the mystery of synesthesia eventually
led me to a new conception of the organization of mind that emphasizes
the primacy of emotion over reason. ...instead of the usual recounting
wherein sensation flows from the world outside inwards to the brain,
our new view reverses the direction so that sensation emanates from
the inside out. Your brain is an active explorer, not a passive receiver."
Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule our Minds" by Massimo
Piatelli-Palmarini. 1994, John Wiley & Sons, 242 pp.
points out some fascinating errors of reason that we commonly make. It
deals with perceptual (optical) illusions, of course, but more importantly,
describes several other classes of illusion (e.g., probability) with which
we are less familiar. The author uses this illusion in his preface: What
North American city would you encounter if you traveled due north from
Caracas, Venezuela? Most people answer Dallas or New Orleans. The correct
answer is Boston. It seems our brains have circuits which tend to straighten
out angled lines. While this example may be fun at parties, many of the
examples cited have far graver implications for the quality of decision-making.
Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without
Design" by Richard Dawkins. 1996, W. W. Norton & Company,
I've never been able to read Darwin cover-to-cover; he makes me sleepy.
(I suppose that's an awful confession for an evolutionary biologist.)
Thoreau is worse - I'll never know what went on at Walden Pond because
I can't stay awake for it. (Insomniacs take note; I've found the cure!)
Dawkins is another matter: great writer, not afraid to state the case
plainly, with imagination and conviction. The edition of "Watchmaker"
that I purchased years ago came with a neat Mac application that allowed
you to evolve stick organisms, with genes for branching, length of branches,
etc. I don't know if they still offer it. Quoting from Dawkins' preface:
"This book is written in the conviction that our own existence
once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery
no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we
shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for awhile yet. I wrote
the book because I was surprised that so many people seemed not only unaware
of the elegant and beautiful solution to this deepest of problems but,
incredibly, in many cases actually unaware that there was a problem in
the first place. The problem is that of complex design."
the Mind Works" by Steven Pinker. 1997, WW Norton, 660 pp.
blend of two favorite subjects: an evolutionary perspective on evolution
of the human brain. Pinker is refreshingly objective as he reverse-engineers
the human brain, relating today's functionality to the needs of our hunter-gatherer
ancestors. The book seems to divide into three major areas: The first
compares our abilities with the best of robot and computer technology
(we come off very favorably). The second describes in great detail the
challenges of recognizing objects. (And you thought the structure of the
eye was complex? The eye is a snap compared the the processing that must
occur on the myelin road to recognition.) The third deals with human behavior,
that is, our relations with one another. Pinker salts the book with contemporary
anecdotes and back up his conclusions with 58 pages of notes and references.
A few quotes
to set the tone: "People hold many beliefs that are at odds with
their experience but were true in the environment in which we evolved,
and they pursue goals that subvert their own well-being but were adaptive
in that environment." "...here is the key to why we have emotions.
An animal cannot pursue all its goals at once. The emotions are mechanisms
that set the brain's highest-level goals." "Children use their
older relatives the way kings use food tasters; if they ate something
and lived, it is not poison." "Food taboos often prohibit the
favorite food of a neighboring tribe... That suggests that they are weapons
to keep potential defectors in." On happiness: "We are
happier when we are healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous,
knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved. Compared to their opposites,
these objects of striving are conducive to reproduction. The function
of happiness would be to mobilize the mind to seek the keys to Darwinian
fitness." On war: "Tribal people fight over anything
of value... But one motive that is surprising to Westerners appears over
and over. In foraging societies, men go to war to get or keep women. One
anthropologist wrote... 'Women? Fighting over women? Gold and diamonds
I can understand, but women? Never.' The reaction, of course, is biologically
topsy-turvy." The reason that females never evolved an appetite to
band together and raid neighboring villages for husbands is that a woman's
reproductive success is rarely limited by the number of available males,
so any risk to her life while pursuing additional mates is a shere loss
in expected fitness."
Objections: Stirring up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education"
by Neil Postman. 1988, Vintage Books, 201 pp.
Postman is a valuable curmudgeon, focusing primarily on the unanticipated,
and mostly negative, consequences of new media. In this book of essays,
television news and advertizing take repeated hits. He amplifies these
themes in other books like "The Disappearance of Childhood"
and "Amusing ourselves to Death." The titles of several essays
from "Conscientious Objections" will give you a hint of Postman's
humor, as well as his serious outrage: "The Naming of Missiles",
"The Parable of the Ring around the Collar", and "Future
Shlock." Quoting from Postman's preface will give you some sense
of his gift for language: "The two best places for a writer to
live are America and Russia. Both are dynamic imperial powers prone to
making mistakes. I should not like to live in Switzerland. Switzerland
does not make mistakes, and therefore deprives a writer of grievances.
For a writer, that society is best which is most burdensome. The favor
is returned: for a society, that writer is best who is most burdensome.
It is true enough that in Russia writers with serious grievances are arrested,
while in America they are merely featured on television talk shows where
all that is arrested is their development. This is an important difference,
but it does nothing to change the fact that grievance is the source of
all interesting prose. Without grievance, a writer tends to become a celebrant,
which is an agreeable but repetitious state. After you have sung two choruses
of 'God Bless America,' what else is there to say?"
End of Education" by Neil Postman. Vintage Books, 1995, 209 pp.
Highly recommended for Postman's views on the false purposes ascribed
to education, especially public education, today -- and his thoughtful
alternatives. A few quotes, though they suffer from lack of context, will
give you an inkling of his point of view: "...that the idea of
public education depends absolutely on the existence of shared narratives
and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness.
...public education does not serve a public. It creates a public."
"Thomas Jefferson, the Moses of the great democracy-god, knew what
schools were for -- to ensure that citizens would know when and how to
protect their liberty. ... It would not have come easily to the mind of
such a man, as it does to political leaders today, that the young should
be taught to read exclusively for the purpose of increasing their economic
productivity." Readers who share my concern for the role of technology
in learning will find 13 pages of Postman's chapter 3 especially relevant,
starting with some quotes from Lewis Perelman which Postman goes on to
Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public
Schools" by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle. 1995, Addison-Wesley
Publishing Co., 414 pp.
Point-by-point, the authors refute claims made primarily during the Reagan
and Bush administrations that our public schools were below standard and
probably beyond redemption. As an advocate for free, quality, public education,
this book fuels my sense of outrage. While I might not go so far as the
authors, to suspect a coordinated conspiracy in the Reagan-Bush era rhetoric,
I do see manipulation of the numbers and flat-out unsubstantiated conclusions
serving a political agenda, the spending of taxpayer dollars to support
private schools. There is plenty of good news about America's public schools
and this book spells it out, along with facts and figures to back it up.
Oh, there are some disasters to be sure - but they all can be traced back
to lack of funding, not to a fundamental flaw in the public school ideal.
Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor" by Alec Guiness.
1997, Viking, 214 pp.
This is a
wonderful little book for the candid view it provides on the sadness of
aging, written by someone with a remarkable gift for language. Some samples
drawn almost at random: June 7 1995 "It seems a pity that the
good old phrase 'living in sin' is likely to be dropped by the C. of E.
(Church of England) So many friends, happily living in sin, will
feel very ordinary and humdrum when they become merely partners; or, as
the Americans' say, 'an item.' Living in sin has always sounded daring
and exotic; something to do, perhaps, with Elinor Glyn and her tiger skin."
June 14 1995 "Must have my eyes tested. Today I found myself making
enticing cooing sounds to what I took to be a rather pale pigeon on the
lawn outside my study. It turned out to be a knuckle-bone left by one
of the dogs." January 27, 1996 "Can't remember where I came
across this description of someone's Wiltshire cottage" 'Simply devine,
covered in roses and smothered in hysteria.'"
Real Frank Zappa Book" by Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso.
Hard to imagine
a book more different from Alec Guiness' diary just above. Outspoken puts
it too mildly, but ah the freedom to call a schmuck a schmuck as he does
in chapter 13, titled "All About Schmucks." A brief quote will
live in a world where people preach at you constantly (like now, even)
-- telling you not to be fat, you can't smoke, you can't eat butter,
sugar will kill you, everything is bad for you -- especially
natural human urge has been thwarted in one way or another, so that some
cocksucker gets to make a dollar off your guilt.
people buy into this because they don't want to rock the boat. Unfortunately,
adaptation of this sort requires that the adaptee willingly destroys his
you wind up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your
mother, your Dad, your priest, to some guy on television, to any of the
people telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it. If
you want to be a schmuck, be a schmuck -- but don't wait around for respect
from other people -- a schmuck is a schmuck."
I can't pass
up sharing what Zappa says about "The Frame": "The most
important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other
arts: figuratively -- because, without this human appliance, you can't
know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.
You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit
on the wall?"
by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1925, Charles Scribner's Sons, Scribner paperback
edition with notes and preface by Matthew J. Brucoli, 1995, 216 pp.
What can I say about "Gatsby..."? Just that's it's beautifully
written, and structured, prose-poetry. If you haven't read it since High
School, when you were forced to, consider picking it up again. Here's
a quote from the last page: "And as I sat there, brooding on the
old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out
the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to
this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly
fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere
back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of
the republic rolled on under the night."
French Lieutenant's Woman" by John Fowles. 1969, Little, Brown
and Company, 480 pp.
A great story, and masterful use of language, but what impresses me most
about this book is how Fowles plays with his readers, preventing fiction's
natural "suspension of disbelief." Between chapters which advance
the book's plot, Fowles inserts other chapters where he chats about his
characters and the times they lived in. As if that weren't enough, he
ends the book in the middle, then recants and continues to the last 20
pages or so where he ends it twice more. I highly recommend this book
to anyone contemplating writing a book of fiction. Learn from a master
who willingly shares his bag o'tricks.
Widow for One Year" by John Irving. 1998, Random House, 537pp.
This is a
beautifully crafted piece. Both like and unlike other Irving books. I
especially enjoyed how he moved deftly forward and back in time - his
use of tenses in ways I can't recall them being used in a novel - and
how he used parallel scenes at vastly different points in the book, and
occasionally repeated specific lines - in vastly different circumstances.
Of course there's some typical Irving eccentricity in the "Sorrow the
Dog" sense. In this book he uses a series of childhood photos as his props.
One theme is long-term mourning and how we cope (or not) with tragedy
and loss. (We each mourn for different things, I think. People or ideals
or innocence or self-esteem, or...? But it seems to me that the older
we get, the more we have to mourn - unless we just aren't paying attention.)
Another theme is how we love - the varying ways we love. (One character
spends 37 years before seeing again the woman he loves. That's not giving
away the plot because early on, Irving tells us they'll meet - a minor
example of the time shifts I was talking about above.) Also, the main
characters are writers - of varying skill levels, and for varying reasons.
They interact to some degree on a professional level, and on a personal
level - but very differently. For instance, one of the poorer novelists
is strong in other ways. So, there's a multi-dimensional matrix of respect
and tolerance; at least that's as close as I can come to describing it.
Another theme which resonated with me was how we often fail to meet our
own standards for ourselves - and how we cope with that. (Sometimes I'm
embarrassed by myself; my behavior. I see myself and think, God, what
a jerk. But I'm powerless to be anyone else; I'm stuck with me. Thank
goodness I don't always feel that way.)
Two quick quotes: One character is convinced "that poetic justice
is not forthcoming on a regular basis..." (Though it ought to
be for certain people.) Later... "Horace Walpole once wrote: 'The
world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.'
But the real world is tragic to those who think and feel;
it is only comic to those who have been lucky."
Of course anything by Irving is a good read in my opinion, though
"Cider House Rules" is probably at the top of my list - and
the recent movie version truly remarkable in casting, scoring, imagery,
scripting, acting... have I left anything out? Available now on tape and
DVD. See it!
Adapted from a book of Scottish recipes, these taste good warm from the
oven or cool; plain or carefully sliced open and spread with butter and
jelly. In our house they're a weekend morning treat with fresh-brewed
coffee or tea. One batch makes 16 scones.
teaspoons baking powder
cup margarine or shortening (at room temperature)
eggs (slightly beaten)
- Mix dry
- Cut in
shortening using pastry blender until mix resembles fine meal (no large
globs of shortening visible)
- Mix in
eggs and milk with a fork.
dough into halves.
- On floured
surface, pat each half into a 1/2 inch thick circle, then cut into pie
wedges onto greased, floured cookie sheet.
- Bake at
400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until just beginning to turn golden.
Scottish Oatmeal Stuffing for Turkey
- 1 Package
Quaker Oats (regular or quick)
- 1 cup
bacon grease, melted
- 1 small
onion, diced fine
seasoning to taste
Mix in grease
to moisten oats. Stuff bird.
Here are some sites you may find useful as you explore issues of web
- McSweeney's (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/)
which challenges most of what we intuitively hold dear about web site
design. Thus an opportunity to inspect our beliefs a bit. McSweeney's
is a literary magazine (of sorts) and as such 1) relies on words rather
than pictures, 2) is more concerned with entertainment than rapid information
access, and 3) shouldn't look like a corporate or training site! I've
given you the URL for the homepage. Note that you jump right into content.
Below the content are a few suggested next articles (far from the whole
list - if you follow one of these links, you'll find a select few more
links, and so on). Finally, you'll find links to Archives (more like
the Table of Contents you'd expect to find in a magazine) plus all the
other things in a jumble that you might find on a masthead.
- peterme - Peter Merholz' stream of consciousness site (my characterization,
not his) (http://www.peterme.com/index.html)
comes to mind when I think of McSweeney's. The "younger generation"
will groove to it. Here's an unconventional site but focused on "happening"
- Gary Dickelman's web site (http://www.pcd-innovations.com/).
From here you can jump to DON NORMAN's site as well as many other interesting
places. (FYI: Gary worked for me at Aetna. He was in chage of influencing
IS to embrace the notion of electronic performance support. His strengths
are in regard to the development process for EPSS/PCS, and the use of
dynamic Process Modeling in process reengineering.)
- User Interface Engineering's web site (http://world.std.com/~uieweb/).
Scroll down the left margin and subscribe to their "Eye for Design"
Newsletter. These folks have been presenting at the Performance Support
conferences lately. They take a research approach to what does and doesn't
work in web interfaces. Not sure I agree with all their conclusions
but, hey, they're the ones out there asking the questions.
- Constantine & Lockwood's web site for usage-centered design
Lockwood keynoted the October '99 Performance Support conference and
her new book, "Software for Use...", is quite good. I'm particularly
enamored (enamoured for my north-of-the-border colleagues?) of their
advocacy for essential use cases.