We think therefore I am

I’m listening to The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt and it is interesting to see how the Self is derived from a cacophony of minor selves. Every one has felt a will that overrides another within themselves, to consciously wake up early when you’re tired (or not), to take that last bite of a chocolate (or not), and so on.

Pixar’s Inside Out

First there are metaphors, like the Chariot Allegory. In this the soul is a charioteer driving two horses: one, rational and calm; the other, irrational and out-of-control. And of course, Pixar’s Inside Out where emotions are represented as little homunculi inside each person.

Then in a literal sense, there is actually a second brain in our gut. Called the Enteric Nervous System (wiki), it is a massive lining of neurons in our gut that is made of the same neural network as our brains. It can run independently and does not need need instructions from the main brain. More interestingly it has some ties to our emotions as well. For example it can apparently trigger anxiety when there’s a stomach infection. So emotions have chemical and neurological causes outside of just the metaphorical ‘heart’.

A chilling scene from Alan Moore’s From Hell

Another book, We are our brains, also drove that last point home quite level. That author leans heavily on the nurture side of things, and showed how a large part of a person’s personality is shaped by the brain and hormones. How hormones like oxytocin, prolactin and vasopressin tune how you bond, how you behave with strangers and children. How an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex leads to greater risk taking behaviour. And so on.

While I’m not an expert in any of these areas, it is fascinating to see how far we’ve come in understanding the interplay of physical, chemical and neurological phenomena in creating the I in all of us.

Books read in October (and a new Kindle!)

My new Kindle

After a spot of reader’s block in the first half of this year, I’m almost back to my old reading frequency these days. After rearranging my bookshelves recently, I realized I didn’t have much space to stock new books.

To try something different I invested in a 10th Gen Kindle. It is really nice! It is very light and also comes with a backlight so I can read pretty much anywhere / anytime. The display is really something.

So this month was a good mix of exploring Kindle Unlimited, buying some ebooks, and clearing some of the backlog from my dead tree collection. The /r/suggestmeabook subreddit was a nice place to get recommendations. Here is what I read:

The Dead, James Joyce

A short and bitter-sweet story.

Mythos, by Stephen Fry

Has his trademark light-hearted air which is really nice sometimes and a bit annoying some other times. Not sure if I’ll continue the series.

I am going through a Greek history/mythology phase right now after having put 80+ hours in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. So Madeline Miller’s Circe is next in my list.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanidhi

An exquisite book. Not an easy read (emotionally), but so lyrical. Sticks with you long after you read it.

My bookshelves in 2020

I cleaned and rearranged all my books yesterday. When I was done emptying the bookshelves, the collection looked like this:

Unsorted books

By the afternoon when I was done putting them all back, this is the structure I came up with:

I maintain an online inventory here.

Information is not knowledge

It’s hard for a book lover to convince a non-reader to pick up the habit. You nag and rave and persuade them and they finally probably accept out of politeness. So you lend them a favourite and wait an impatient week and ask them how it went, and you get the familiar list of dreaded responses.

  • “I lost interest after the first few pages.”
  • “The book was too long.”
  • “The book was too dry.
  • “I could have learnt the same thing by watching a tutorial or two on YouTube.”

Worse, with those annoying little phones constantly buzzing around us, there’s a steady drip of mindless dopamine hit after hit. The apps on these phones are backed by billion dollar companies that are hugely invested in manipulating you to use their app every moment of the day. Over time, your brain rewires itself to respond to that Pavlovian buzz. Unlock, swipe, like, and repeat.

After years of this brainwashing, how can you expect someone to pick a 400-page book and read it with concentration for more than fifteen minutes at a time? We have enough ‘light’ entertainment to suck our time away.

How, then, to convince some one of the value of deep reading? This article makes a good attempt. Yes it’s long. That’s partially the point. Complex ideas cannot be expressed in tweet-sized chunks. Reading deeply creates a richer self by letting one think through and form one’s own understanding.

In any case, convincing others may be futile. I see a value in reducing social media distractions and committing to deep reading sessions, so I shape my habits accordingly.

Suggestions

  • Install the Daywise app. It intercepts and hides all your notifications, and releases them thrice a day. You don’t get constant interruptions all through the day (apart from exceptions that you can set, like 1:1 messages).
  • Read to your kids. Take if from someone who’s earliest memories are of walking to a library with his brother and mom. This will create a life-long and deeply rewarding hobby.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves Review

I made this. Maybe I’ll do a drawing for each book review?

This one is for the pedants. Read this book if you’re the kind of person who grits your teeth every time you see a grammatical mistake in a hoarding. The title refers to a statement about a panda that eats (bamboo) shoots and leaves. But a misplaced comma makes it sound like a story about an evil panda that eats, shoots and leaves.

We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation.

Lynne Truss

Starting with the oft-misplaces apostrophe to the lesser used dashes and colons, each chapter deals with the history, usage and evolution of a punctuation mark. What I found most fascinating was the origin story of each of these little marks.

The author is not one of those crufty old people who insists that their crufty rules are the only ones that are worth following. Nor does she favour the semi-literate lower-case-ridden style of the smart phone generation, of course. What still matters is to adhere to some semblance of rules.

As a self-deprecating, fun rant, this was an enjoyable read.

Notes on the book "Flow"

Title: Flow
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’ve long been interested in Active vs Passive hobbies, why one is better than the others, and so on. Here’s a nice reddit post that captures a similar mindset around gaming. So reading Flow gave a lot of clarity to these ideas.

Any programmer who’s been ‘in the zone’ and loses sense of time knows the feeling of ‘Flow’ and that is the subject of this book — Deep hobbies that improve one’s self.

The author categorizes activities with good ‘flow’ if they meet these criteria:

  • A challenging activity that requires skills
  • Requires concentration
  • Has clear goals and immediate feedback
  • Removes awareness of everyday frustrations
  • Exercises control over ones own actions
  • Concern for self disappears
  • Sense of time altered

Here are some sections from the book that caught my attention:

“The wisdom of the mystics, of the Sufi, of the great yogis, or of the Zen masters might have been excellent in their own time — and might still be the best, if we lived in those times and in those cultures. But when transplanted to contemporary California those systems lose quite a bit of their original power. They contain elements that are specific to their original contexts, and when these accidental components are not distinguished from what is essential, the path to freedom gets overgrown by brambles of meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Ritual form wins over substance, and the seeker is back where he started.”

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

“In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point of writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along.”

The middle quote is a satisfactory answer to my question on what differentiates mindless passive hobbies from effort-intensive active ones: the latter create better versions of ourselves.