Sunday, June 21, 2015

Thoughts on a dwindling resource

Someone* once wrote something along the lines of 'we only read 5000 books in our life' and went on to admonish the reader that they should, presumably, make sure that all of them were worthy, worthwhile, and each should be chosen for the benefits they would be expected to bring the reader and their community.

This preyed on my mind for a time. I'm naturally a skeptic so when presented with a number like that, the first thing I do is to some mental arithmetic to work out how close this claim is to my own experience - and to see where I might fall on the continuum of people who read a lot.

I read a lot, and it defines me in that it fills a large part of my self image, and it creates a shared collective conscious with other people who read similarly. That's a subject for a long and dull essay, so I'll leave that alone for now. It creates a slightly inflated feeling of self worth (there's a smugness among those of us who read, isn't there?) and a corresponding anxiety that I measure up to the numerical count, the quantitative, but also that the books I read meet with the approval of the hypothetical 'them' before whom I'm displaying my habits for approval - that's the qualitative side.

So - first of all, the count. 5000 books in a lifetime? That sounds, well, low. I read more than one book a week, unless of course there's a task I'm avoiding, in which case the number goes up. How many more than one a week? It's hard to quantify, since I usually have several on the go at a time. Ballpark? Suppose I read two books a week, that's 100 a year, so the 5000 comes up in 50 years of active reading. Alright, leaving aside books read before the age of, what, 10? So we're starting with The Hobbit and all those other books that became the first ones you read that counted as 'grown up' books, ones that your parents had read, ones that you could discuss with adults (if you wanted to). And at two a week, I hit the 5000 at age 60. Hmm, that is a challenge then. The anxiety kicks in again - what the Hell am I doing re-reading trashy books when there is a tonne* of good stuff I've never read? 

So this is an attempt to report on a sample of my reading. It's a blog - anyone is welcome to read it and comment, but its purpose is as a journal. It's public because that forces me into a kind of intellectual honesty. I'm going to record everything I read, even the dross. I'm going to try not to edit the list (too much) so I can track my reading and (perhaps) learn something about myself. And where I can I'm going to write a review or a précis so I can look back and remember what I read, since I worry that often I read really good stuff and have no idea what it was, which makes it hard to refer back to in a discussion**.

So why do this out in the open? Really to make myself be more honest than I would otherwise be? Hardly - it's just me showing off really (or will it be? If I am honest, I might not be as fancy as I think I am) BUT there is the thought that someone might respond with suggested books or leads to other things I might enjoy. Nobody is going to do this unless they know what I've been reading and whether I liked it. So I'm crowd sourcing the 'other things you might like' algorithm from our favorite internet sales sites. It'll be interesting to see how that pans out.

What do I expect will happen? Right now, nothing much - it takes time to build up something worthwhile, so for now I'm shouting at the wind.
Next step - start a list and start a review. I might keep a master on a spreadsheet but for now let's get under weigh.***

*autocorrect tried to make 'tonne' into 'tone'. It did it again here. I will battle this with all I can, but let it be assumed that all errors, omissions and inaccuracies are due to autocorrect. Yeah, that should work.

**wild attributions without references - how liberating - but I really will try to list everything with close to APA referencing just so I can track the titles and authors. And when I make these wild assertions I will TRY to back them up, but this isn't an academic document so it'll depend on time and enthusiasm. Feel free to challenge and ask for links.

***It's really under way, but I like the archaic form

This is the famous 'jump' that you see on blogs that put in an advertisement and then say 'we'll be back after the jump' as if they're a 60's gameshow. I'm new to this as it isn't a feature on the software I use at work. Bear with me while I play with it and work out what I like the look of…OK in the edit I took it out  - it just meant you had to click to read more instead of seeing it all on one page. Silly blogger...

The first book on the list, on the first date on the list

21 June 2015 (Winter Solstice) - the solstice is a fine time to look at starting or finishing things, which is why all this happened today. Perhaps I was also aware that, having been to the library, I had a pile of intellectual and interesting books that would make me look good, get this series off to a rollicking start, and imply a level of sophistication that would so impress people that I'd gain kudos and the halo effect would see my star on the ascendant without me having to do any real work to earn it. Anyway

'The Drunkard's Walk - How Randomness Rules Our Lives' Leonard Mlodinow, 2008, Allen Lane, Penguin Group, London.

This is one of a series of books I picked more or less at random from the Napier library. I was lured by the card at the end of the aisle that said 'mathematics'. I have no idea why, but for some reason I have been buying maths books whenever I am given a voucher - I'll list them later. I picked this one as the blurb on the back cover had review quotes from Stephen Hawking, and John Gribben. Hawking is well known, and a very dull author, although I doubt that matters to him. Gribben however writes books I have enjoyed enormously - everything I know about main sequence stars and the formation of elements heavier than iron, I learned from John - I believe the book I read back in the early 1990s was 'In Search of the Big Bang' but it may have been 'In Search of Schrodinger's Cat'. Either way, he makes science accessible in a way that Bill Bryson does in 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' - also highly recommended. But I digress.

Mlodinow also wrote 'A Briefer History of Time' with Stephen Hawking, which may reduce the value of the back cover blurb as it's hardly disinterested - or perhaps, it makes it more so since Professor Hawking would hardly collaborate with someone he didn't rate. Anyway, 'The Drunkard's Walk' is a study of the history and modern application of probability theory and statistics. Wake up at the back! No, really, it's interesting. There are great stories - Galileo, Fermat and LaPlace are in there, but so is the game show 'Let's Make a Deal' and discussion of the flawed logic in DNA evidence as presented in trials such as O.J. Simpson's. Remember him?

There are chapters on why some people are born losers and some are born lucky, and why sports teams go through winning and losing streaks. Why Moonlighting and Bruce WIllis, and the Three Mile Island Leaks, and Pearl Harbour shouldn't worry you (or perhaps, why they very much should).

Where some similar books I have read lose you in the mathematical details and leave you (me) with a feeling of 'well, ok, if you say so' as I move from the argument to the conclusion, this one is clearly explained and is almost without equations (another Stephen Hawking link - famously he said on publishing A Brief History of Time "Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales. I therefore resolved not to have any equations at all.")

Mysteriously, the book also left me interested in refreshing my understanding of Chi square assessment of trials, reminded me to check my R squared values on my research project, and since it talked about the Normal distribution of random natural events quite a lot, but only mentioned the Poisson in passing, rekindled that curiosity in me too. I respect statistics but can't say I enjoyed or mastered them in my degree - just used them as a tool. But this book made them a little bit more 'real' and part of the world rather than outside of it, as I suspect they are for most of us despite that fact that we live our lives completely within a system that is described by statistical methods. And in the end the book is not about statistics but about the people they describe - it uses the word 'population' occasionally in the statistical context - the group from which the sample is taken - but in the end Mlodinow comes back to the idea  that we are individuals within a population that is made up of individuals - he brings us back from the language of the statistician to that of the humanist - and that our choices are made based on decisions we come to depending on our understanding of chance and cause and effect. In the end, he says, the way to success is to keep trying (P(success) x n trials = nP) and he says 'we ought to appreciate the absence of bad luck' and 'appreciate the good luck that we have and recognize the random events that lead to our success'. 

There is an excellent chapter on Determinism that I need to reflect on and may come back to later in here as it's a topic I find interesting and so do others - C J Cherryh writes about the Azi in the Cyteen books - the idea that you could clone a person (in this case, a leader who was killed but considered essential to the survival of a planet/population) and replicate their upbringing so precisely that, with other training, the clone would grow into a replacement for the dead leader in emotional an intellectual as well as physical terms. Preposterous in Sci Fi since we all know you'd just download the late person's personality into an AI, right?
Anyway in he book in question, determinism is what you might think of as God mode - being able to know everything about everything means you can predict everything. Lorenz n the 1960s tried that with the weather computers and discovered what we know call the butterfly effect. See, it's interesting….

Anyway - the Drunkard's Walk
It's a good read, a hopeful book, and one worth re-reading if only to remind us that if behind door number 1 there is a car, then behind door number 2 there is a goat. So you can't really lose.

Next Up - Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett, A More Perfect Heaven  - Dava Sobel, The Life and Death of Cody Parker - Remington Kane

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