What I’ve Been Reading

Here’s some of the books I’ve read lately:

Flash Boys – Michael Lewis’s book about high-frequency trading and Wall Street corruption. I’m quite envious of Lewis’s ability to take a complicated story that hinges on weird financial derivatives and somehow make it a page-turner.

The Undoing Project – Also by Lewis, this one covers Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s scientific partnership. I’ve become increasingly fond of well-written biographies as a way of understanding history and science. Seeing how their discoveries were made, and eventually led to a Nobel prize, helps me understand the science more than if it is discussed apart from its discovery.

The Geography of Thought – I went back and forth on whether I agreed or disagreed with the thesis of this book. The basic idea is that East Asians and Westerners think differently. Part of me feels like this is almost trivially true (after all, I believe people in different professions think differently, even when they share all other cultural aspects), but part of me remained unconvinced.

The generalizations being made felt somewhat cherry-picked. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Andrew Gelman, but I found myself wondering how many forking paths and degrees of freedom some of their experiments contained. I left feeling like East/West thinking differences likely exist, but I’m suspicious that they conform to the story the authors suggest.

Buddhisms: An Introduction – I’ve been digging into Eastern religions more lately, with an emphasis on Buddhism. One of the challenges I’ve found is that the Buddhism as promoted in the West often seems very different from the Buddhism I see practiced in Asian countries. This book was great as providing a context for how Buddhism started as a religion, its diverging branches and the varieties of beliefs and practices around the world today.

The Gene: An Intimate History – Another great book. I enjoyed Emperor of All Maladies by Muhkerjee, and this book was even more interesting. It suffered a bit of controversy by a New Yorker article written by Muhkerjee which raised some questions, but it has since gotten a lot of coverage and I haven’t seen anyone objecting to the science in the actual book.

In Other Languages…

In addition to reading in English, I’ve also tried to maintain a little reading in some of the languages I speak to keep them up. Here’s two I’ve finished in other languages.

The Martian (El Marciano) – I read this book in Spanish. Overall I found it enjoyable, if somewhat less dramatic than the movie version. I really hope engineering science fiction becomes a new genre.

The Three-Body Problem (三体) – My first complete book I read in Chinese. I read this in my Pleco reader, so I could easily look up words I didn’t know. This kind of assisted reading was very helpful in bridging the gap between graded readers (which are usually boring) and real novels in Chinese (which are usually hard). I’m currently about 2/3rds the way through Moyan’s Frog (蛙) which will soon be my first novel read on paper with minimal dictionary assistance.

For past reading, see my previous lists here and here.

First, See the Circle

I really enjoyed the first season of HBO’s Westworld. I’m a fan of the robots-who-might-be-conscious-vs-exploitative-humans trope in all its many incarnations, but I felt this show did a particularly good job.

The reason I liked it most was the constant uncanny valley between spontaneous and scripted behavior. Without spoiling anything, the show does a masterful job of continually tricking you into believing something is improvised before showing that it was a script all along.

While the point of these tricks are supposed to keep you uncertain about the consciousness and free will of the robot protagonists, I think the insight equally applies to how ordinary human beings are following scripts. What feels like a genuine improvisation may be a stale pattern you’ve already played out before without realizing it.

What are Your Scripts?

I often get emails about someone enthusiastic about a new goal. They write paragraphs of text on their ideas, inspirations and motivations. But, somewhere near the end, they sneak in that, actually, they’ve had a hard time following through on similar goals in the past.

But what makes this time any different?

Idea, enthusiasm, a few bursts of momentum, frustration and then quitting. A circular script they run time and time again.

Not all circles are bad. Circles underlie much of how we function. Work too hard and you’ll need a break. Break for too long and you’re itching to do something. Wake, sleep. Relax, focus. All circles.

What strikes me about the circles isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad but that we rarely see their shape. Like the Westworld androids, we can’t see our scripts even when they should be obvious. Something in our self concept obscures or censors the circularity of our actions.

I’m not sure why this appears to be so. It might be that circles persist best when unseen, so naturally the ones in our blind spots tend to last longer. It may be that our ego protects the idea of our autonomy by focusing on the idiosyncratic reasons for each cycle’s existence and ignoring their persistent shape.

A New Year, A New Circle

If you’re reading this when I wrote it (January 2017) you might be planning a New Year’s Resolution. This circle, and the ruins of continually broken resolutions, should be particularly obvious because it’s tied to an even more obvious circle of the annual calendar.

Seeing that resolutions often fail can lead to a cynical perspective. If everything fails, why try? The only people who invest in personal improvement are morons who can’t see the futility of their actions. The smart money, therefore, is on not even trying to better yourself to avoid the embarrassment.

I understand this desire, but it goes too far. Just because change is hard, and often fails, doesn’t mean it is never worthwhile. And, despite the many struggles, we do genuinely make improvements in our lives some of the time.

A better approach is not to abandon trying, but to first try to see the circle. Instead of following it, or pretending it doesn’t exist, try to see its shape. What is the pattern you follow and why? What cascade of behavior leads to a result you dislike and how can you try it again a little differently?

Seeing the circle doesn’t always free you of it. But ignoring the circle never does.

Some of My Circles

I’m not immune to circles and I frequently get caught in their swirl.

One I occasionally fall into is believing that I’ll exercise from home. I’ll be in a new location for awhile, and not have an easy option to go to the gym. So, I’ll tell myself that I’ll work out from home—push ups, sit ups, maybe go jogging.

Except I never keep it up. I exercise once or twice from home. Often for only ten minutes before I realize I hate doing this, give up early and then find excuses for every other subsequent time.

This realization isn’t a big one—it just means I need to get a gym pass somewhere convenient or I’m unlikely to exercise. But, I fall into it time and again of thinking “this time it will be different.” I convince myself that, unlike in the past, I’ll take it seriously and really work out from home, even though that was what I said the previous times too.

Some circles are more stubborn. When I was in my late teens, and I would hit it off with a girl I liked, I tended to get overly interested, scare her off, feel depressed about it and then repeat a few months later. I recognized the circle a few years before I was able to mature enough to overcome it, and it wasn’t easy.

See Your Circles

My advice for this new year is to look for your circles. Not to ignore your big goals or dreams, but just to take a step back and see the circles that ran your 2016, 2015 and before. If you see yourself starting the circle again and you don’t like where it leads, ask yourself what you could do differently that you haven’t tried before.

If you normally hesitate until the opportunity is lost—try starting small immediately. If you get consumed by big visions and burn out on the little details—try starting with getting a little brick in place before building the entire structure. If you juggle too many goals and fail to follow-through, try pursuing only one.

Your circles in life might have a quick escape, or they may take years of trial-and-error until you can break the pattern. Some circles might be so ingrained that they must be accepted instead of overcame.

But the first step is to see that they exist.