Friday, 7 March 2014

Book Review: 'You Are Not So Smart' by David McRaney

This great work boils down to: "Despite millions of years of evolution your brain is a jumbled mess of neurons that covers up it's downfalls by lying to you constantly. Here are just 46 ways your brain is being an asshole."

Just like Dawkins argues against a creator in showing that evolutionary adaptations can be flawed and seemingly badly designed, David McRaney shows in this work that despite those claims that the human mind is one of the most complex structures in the known universe, it's shoddily put together, with bits that don't work together and bits that were added on at the last minute and that the only way it 'works' is that it constantly lies to itself about the reality it exists in. You have in your head a used car salesman.

David demonstrates the limitations of our brains by picking out these 46 different ways our brain lies to us and writing a small chapter on each. Each lie is well researched and refers to different published studies for evidence. For example the chapter on why you have too many Facebook friends talks about studies about the limitations of how many people you can hold in a social circle in the physical world and compares these figures to the data on Facebook. He also talks about the reason why you 'befriend' all those people using the internet.

Most interesting are the chapters that highlight the limitations in vision and the comprehension of sensory input. You are not a little person in a box watching a ultra high definition surround sound movie of your existence. More like your homonculus watches a scratchy silent movie from 1908 with no sound and missing film cells, a friend tells them about the soundtrack over the phone.

There are also great chapters on how you think you are better than everyone else out there. He actually gives statistics on how many people think they are better than average drivers and how many people think they have a better than average IQ. The figures will astound you.

I highly recommend this fun and enlightening read. It certainly will make you question everything you think and perceive, which is a practice that all science endorses strongly. This book is so much more than your average pop-psychology book that litters the popular science section of bookshops and libraries. It holds no punches and approaches the subject from a critical standpoint. Weeks after reading this book I'm still laughing at my brain when I know it's lying to me.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A Manual For Civilisation

I am a great fan of The Long Now Foundation, a group of people that foster long term thinking and projects within the framework of 10,000 years. They believe it counterbalances the rise in short-term thinking and planning that has arisen in the 21st century, where people can only think ahead to the next iphone model or the next election.

A great quote by Daniel Hillis is given for part of the inspiration of the foundation:

"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium."

This clock is now being manufactured and situated in the Sierra Diablo Range west in western Texas with the prototype on display in the London Science Museum.

Another project undertaken by the Foundation consists of curating a library with the intention to hold volumes that would act as a manual for civilisation. While Long Now does not predict the downfall of all civilisation in the near future, they think it is a great premise for a collection of physical books to complement their new office and meeting space in San Francisco. They are aiming at a 3000 book limit with a breakdown of types of books given:

Image Source: The Long Now Foundation.

Mechanics and Civilisation includes technical books on how to build things and how to find and refine natural resources. In essence all of the technical know-how. Cultural Canon is a series of books believed to show the essence of human civilisation including Plato, Shakespeare and others. The Science Fiction component will consist of works of speculative merit where possible futures and big ideas are discussed. Futurism will consist of non-fiction speculations upon the future of the human race with an emphasis on our history.

The collecting has already started with suggestions being made by famous Long Now supporters such as Brian Eno, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Hugh Howey, David Brin and Bruce Sterling.

Last month I read an advance copy of Lewis Dartnell's "The Knowledge" which aimed to be a technical manual on rebooting civilisation after collapse. I think this book would be a great addition to the Mechanics of Civilisation section.

What books would you like to be added to such a collection?