Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Stephen R. Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People quickly became something of a modern classic, at least in the self-help category, after its publication in 1989. It's really six habits—three private, three public—with a rather vague final step of daily mind, body, and spirit renewal. Covey makes crystal clear the fact that private victories must precede public victories, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. No matter how hard you try, you're really not going to achieve consistent productivity without your internal house in order.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey book Read more reviews on Amazon While the themes in this book tend to be wordy and drawn out, they may actually sink in that way. You may think the book is common sense and could have been written by anybody, but the author deserves credit for being the first one to actually write it.

The biggest issue I have with this book is its cornucopia of unsupported assumptions. You get the feeling that if you follow the advice you'll be better off than if you didn't. But as far as Covey making scientific sense, you'll be disappointed. "When you exercise your patience beyond your past limits, the emotional fiber is broken, nature overcompensates, and next time the fiber is stronger." Huh? Such dubious paradigms along with a sprinkling of Christian references clearly weaken the work, but they can be readily ignored by the philosophically inclined looking to become more practical.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: Genealogy of Morals

In Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche offers a theory of how morality emerged and evolved over the ages, suggesting that the concept of evil was the clever creation of otherwise weak-willed humans who resented being dominated. These "slaves" called themselves "good," in the moral sense, and their masters "evil." Meanwhile, their masters called themselves "good" in the effective sense and the slaves "bad," or ineffective. The masters, according to Nietzsche, didn't spend time thinking about morality or the people they dominated—they lived relatively cheerful lives without feeling guilty about their sometimes violent ways. In contrast, the slaves spent their lives resenting the power of their masters, eventually adopting religious paradigms as an escape from their circumstances in this world.

Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche book Read more reviews on Amazon I must say that I find this theory to be compelling. Though most modern people talk about morality, their behavior often seems to follow this master/slave dichotomy. Imagine the wealthy CEO who hardly even thinks about his ill-paid workers, who in turn become bitter and ultimately obsessed with the CEO. Who is more likely to become pious, the powerful or the disenfranchised?

Nietzsche suggests that with the transition to agriculture, masters and slaves alike turned their animal instincts inward, with their own "souls" as the new wilderness to struggle against. Though I think Nietzsche is on to something here, his theories aren't easily testable. In the work he criticizes English historians for equating the origin and utility of morality, but then fails to provide evidence for his own historical theory of morals. Nietzsche is also heavy on amor fati, the love of fate, almost universally insisting people's circumstances are an expression of their inner nature. I think he misses how fluid these roles and paradigms can be, especially in the ever-confusing modern world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: Cosmos

Allegedly the most popular science book ever written in the English language, Carl Sagan's Cosmos has been the most compelling demonstration I've found of why the natural world is more interesting than superstitions and myths. With incredible elegance and grace, Carl takes readers on a journey more timeless than his even-more-popular television series ever could. While the TV version of Cosmos had an enormous scope, the book's scope deserves the word cosmic.

Cosmos by Carl Sagan book Read more reviews on Amazon By cosmic scope I mean that Sagan interweaves history with philosophy, science with politics, astronomy with personality. He explores great minds and lost cultures—even lost futures, like the future we lost when the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground. By connecting the dots of such diverse natural phenomena and human creations, Sagan empowers readers to break free of a parochial interpretation of life. Reading Cosmos is like viewing the Earth from space; in fact, Sagan includes a photo of Earth taken from the Moon and labels it as "the home planet of an emerging technical civilization, struggling to avoid self-destruction." Who will ever replace Carl Sagan?

While most readers will appreciate Carl's enthusiasm for science, his optimism on the human future, unfortunately, is more problematic. He suggests that humans ought to work out their differences so that civilization may progress, but he often declines to make a judgement on who should back down when conflicts arise. Also problematic is Sagan's baseless assumption that intelligent extraterrestrials would be benevolent to humans. Despite these weak points, Cosmos is transformational. In the final chapter Carl asks, "Who speaks for Earth?" More than anyone else, Carl Sagan speaks for Earth.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ungraceful Degradation

There's this idea in web development called graceful degradation. It refers to the design philosophy that developers should ensure their websites are also accessible for those using older or less-sophisticated web browsers. This way, someone running Internet Explorer 7 (a full 2% of the browsing population at the time of writing) can still read the basic content of a webpage even if they miss out on the latest special effects. Ever since I started paying attention, I've never heard anything but unwavering support of graceful degradation.

But why should people spend their time ensuring their webpages degrade gracefully? The trade-off seems clear to me. You can spend your time using the latest web technologies to innovate and create something new, or you can cater to the lazy, unintelligent, or uninterested hordes of apes who managed to sit down in front of a computer. What would the internet look like today if every hour of graceful degradation work was spent trying to answer this question: How can I use these new web technologies to create something that does not yet exist? There certainly is no innovation in trying to get a webpage to look right in a five year old version of Internet Explorer. There certainly is an undeserved reward for those who make no effort to keep up.

I can anticipate one objection. "What's wrong with web accessibility for those with disabilities?" For example, webpage images can be tagged with text which can be read aloud to a blind person using a custom browser. When a website is rendered in this way, I do not see it as degradation so the objection misses the point. The Opera browser, for instance, is a modern browser that leads the others in accessibility for those with visual and motor impairments. How many "graceful degraders" spent time opening up their webpages to the visually impaired? Graceful degradation is a high-tech reflection of the cultural phenomenon of catering to the unsophisticated and uninspired.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Nietzsche for President

Nietzsche 2012
It is with an astronomical degree of certainty that I can say I am not inspired by our politicians. The reasons why this is the case are less clear to me. It is not that I feel they are lazy or unintelligent, which are the two things that typically prevent me from really admiring a person. Rather, I believe that to succeed in contemporary politics you need to be extremely ambitious and, at least at the level of the U.S. president, somewhat intelligent. Perhaps then it is because I don't see our politicians as genuine, authentic, honest people. So who do I think would be? For one, Friedrich Nietzsche.

An issue that I think politicians are particularly inauthentic about is the space program. I won't claim that a Nietzsche administration would support human exploration of the cosmos. What I will say is that Nietzsche would see our current manned space program as almost entirely pointless because we are not accepting significant risks. It was the risk of failure and death for astronauts that made the Apollo landings so incredible. These risks are what galvanized thousands of people in this glorious effort.

We can keep telling ourselves that we are doing ambitious things in space even though our astronauts are exposed to a fraction of the risk accepted by the early pioneers. We can tell ourselves it is possible to be both bold and risk-averse at the same time, but inspiration is hard to fake. It seems the only risk in space we are willing to accept is the risk of wasting vast sums of money on very little inspiration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: One Up on Wall Street

I'm always skeptical about books whose cover shows the author smiling with arms crossed. At least Peter Lynch is facing the reader squarely in this one. One Up on Wall Street is a very readable book offering practical instruction on stock investments. It lacks any rigorous theory on why stocks go up, but basically concludes that stock prices follow company earnings in the long run. This seems to be confirmed by history and it makes sense when you consider that a share of stock represents ownership in a company. Lynch warns against trying to predict anything related to the economy, including the stock market, in the short term.

One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch bookRead more reviews on AmazonOne Up is enjoyable to read because of its clear writing and humorous references. "The 1960s was the greatest decade for diworseification since the Roman Empire diworseified all over Europe and northern Africa."

Lynch's advice to "ignore all the adjectives" about a stock seems wise since any information obtained so uncritically is likely to be followed by the masses—in which case an investor has no edge. One Up is sprinkled with other good points that might be easy to overlook, such as the risk in a "can't fail" idea with no patent or niche to protect it. A common misconception about Lynch is that he thinks insider activity is solid indicator of a company's prospects; in reality, he thinks insider selling is a "terrible reason" to dislike a stock and that only insider buying is important to note. The author's basic strategy is to invest in proven, but unnoticed, enterprises that an average person could understand.

Lynch's distaste for stock options, futures, and short selling comes through in One Up in an unhelpful way. He mentions how he agrees with Warren Buffett that stock futures and options ought to be outlawed, but he doesn't justify his prejudice against these more speculative investment methods. He claims short selling is "more like borrowing with criminal intent," but doesn't explain what the crime would be. You almost get the impression that Lynch thinks irresponsible behavior should be illegal, but the reader doesn't learn much about why—or how Lynch manages to reconcile this with a general belief in capitalism.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Imagine a World without Metaphysics

Untold hours are spent across planet Earth trying to resolve questions that are unresolvable. Such questions include the existence of God, what happens after you die, whether there are other universes, what happened before the universe, and the ultimate purpose of the universe. It's not just that scientists haven't found these answers yet; rather, the answers to these questions are impossible to obtain. The questions themselves are literally senseless: our senses cannot ever access information that would help answer them. As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed, there is something wrong with trying to answer metaphysical questions with the language we use.

The cosmic paradigm is essentially the rejection of metaphysics as a legitimate field of inquiry. For a cosmic paradigm to prevail, humans will have to fully divorce metaphysical questions from the realm of public policy. I believe that if secular societies dominated the landscapes of our solar system, humans will eventually quit demanding that others live by their metaphysical assumptions; indeed they will eventually turn away from seeking objective answers to metaphysical questions entirely.

Though some will always cling to metaphysical interpretations of life, I believe people will largely begin to seek solace in this world, in this life. I believe that what energy has historically been channeled into metaphysical projects, such as the building of magnificent cathedrals, will be diverted into projects whose rewards are unambiguously intended for this life. What wonders would be possible in a world without metaphysics?