Book Review: The Most Human Human (in short: read it!)

After seeing the an interview with author on The Daily Show, and reading a glowing notice in The New Yorker, I made a priority of finishing The Most Human Human before I ended family leave.

It’s a delightful and discursive book, wending its way through cognitive science, philosophy, poetry, artificial intelligence, embodied experience, and more. The author, Brian Christian, writes with a deft touch, in an episodic and occasionally meandering style that feels like you’re taking part in a good conversation.

Which makes sense, considering the book’s supposed raison d’etre is the author’s preparation for being a confederate (a human participant) for the Loebner Prize, in which judges of a Turing test have conversations with computers and humans, to determine both The Most Human Computer and The Most Human Human.

As part of this training, Brian, who has B.A.s in philosophy and computer science (from Brown, natch), and an MFA in poetry, endeavors to better understand just what makes humans human. In doing so, he runs across what he calls “The Sentence,” which every discipline that studies humans (anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.) has some version of, and goes something like, “The human being is the only animal that ____________”. Except that the items that have filled in that blank (“uses tools”, “has language,” “feels remorse”, “thinks”, etc. etc.) have been taken down one by one. Perhaps the best fill-in is, “obsesses about its own uniqueness,” because, really, what does it matter if humans aren’t wholly unique (except, perhaps, in our agglomeration of traits), and yet why do we seem to get so worked up about being distinct from all other creatures? But I digress.

This book came at a particularly opportune time, given the theme of my recent writing on business in the Connected Age — that it needs to embrace our humanity. In the context of computation and automation, Brian addresses the world of work, how many activities that were once done by people are now done by machines, computers, and robots. He astutely points out that replacing people with machines isn’t the problem, but what happens before then, when people’s work tasks become so rote and repetitive, that you’ve essentially turned people into machines. You can’t have IVR (interactive voice response) until you’ve already turned customer service representatives into automatons by requiring them to closely follow a pre-defined script.

The book also digs into our collective left-brain bias, with a quote from Oliver Sacks: “The entire history of neurology and neuropsychology can be seen as a history of the investigation of the left hemisphere.” It’s becoming clear, though, that we favor the left-brain over the right at our own peril — those with strokes affecting right-brain function can find it impossible to make decisions, because it turns out decisions are rooted in emotion, not rational analysis. There’s even a mention of user experience, and how it’s ascent demonstrates a shift away from a left-brained “rational” desire for more features and functions, toward a whole-brained understanding of how people behave, to support, as my colleague Jesse calls it, “human engagement.”

Anyway, I could go on, but I simply don’t have the time. In short, get the book, read it, engage with it, talk to it, take notes as you think about it, and enjoy it.

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

The subtitle of Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, suggests that Steven is looking for his own taste of that Gladwellian mystique, writing a book that has just enough business mojo to command those $25,000 – $50,000 speaking fees at corporate events.

(I refer to the author as Steven, instead of (Mr.) Johnson, because I know him. Apologies if it feels too familiar.)

I found Good Ideas to be a surprisingly curious book. I suppose I was expecting more on the “innovation” front, from a business and technology perspective, but what Steven delivers is strongly weighted on the “natural history” front, with descriptions of coral reef formation, neuronal processes, and other natural phenomena. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising — since Emergence, Steven has had a strong natural science bent, whether ecological, neurological (Mind Wide Open), or microbial (The Ghost Map).

Let me also say that I liked the book. It took a while to grow on me. It wasn’t clear where it was leading, and the collection of stories, and their relationships, felt like a jumble for a while.

But then I realized that the book was an exercise in it’s primary biological metaphor – the coral reef. Coral reefs are remarkably fecund environments, accreting over time in such a way to support a dazzling number of species. The accretion of stories in the book ends up mimicking that process of coral reef development — Steven gathers a bunch of narratives, some with strong connections to one another, others looser, and the reader is left to make sense of the juxtapositions on their own.

This is actually where I prefer Steven’s approach to that of Gladwell. Gladwell might be a better storyteller, but he’s a terrible theoretician — a Mack truck can be driven through the holes in his grand themes (Blink being the prime offender; it refutes itself almost immediately.) Steven doesn’t attempt to knit things too neatly — he presents them, as if in a wunderkammer, with more of a curatorial than authorial orientation.

Rereading my criticism of his prior work, The Invention of Air, I’m amused at how what I found to be flaws in that work turn out to be strengths in this one. In Air I criticized the aimlessness and lack of explicit direction, whereas in Ideas those serve the subject. I think it’s because Ideas is a book about ideas, which are nebulous, networked, and squishy things, whereas Air was ostensibly about a man and his work, which necessitates a focus that I found lacking.

Anyway, Ideas is among the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while. It’s the perfect book-club book, the kind of book you want your friends to read so you can talk about it with them.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There was a period a few months ago where, if you listened to NPR podcasts like I listen to NPR podcasts, you couldn’t avoid mention of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks nor the voice of it’s author, Rebecca Skloot, answering questions about the remarkable story she uncovered (and took part in).

I finished this book on the road trip, meaning I returned it to the library something like 6 days late (and have the $1.50 fine to show for it). I’m more than happy to pay up–it was a book worth turning in late. Before I started reading, I was afraid I’d heard the whole story from all the radio interviews, but the book offers much much more.

Immortal Life is a definitively American tale, exposing a bizarre and unfortunate dichotomy in our society — scientific and technological innovation at its highest, world-changing levels, and poverty, racism, and neglect unconscionable anywhere else in the developed world.

The book intertwines two distinct threads — the discovery and development of HeLa cells, an immortal strain that has proven a remarkable boon to biotech; and the trial and tribulations of uncovering the life of Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman (or, in the parlance of the time of her death, “negress”), whose cervical cancer served as the fount of these cells.

Either story on it’s own is fascinating. The idea that there’s a strain of cells that, given just a bit of food and culture, will live forever, endlessly reproducing, seems like the stuff of science fiction (and has been the inspiration for such).

The biography of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants, poor African-Americans who somehow manage to get by, but face trouble (health, money, alcohol, drugs, jail) at every turn is heartbreaking. And always lurking around is the book’s fundamental irony, that Henrietta’s family cannot afford the health care that her cells have made available.

The patron saint of the book proves to be Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s mercurial daughter. After much effort, Skloot bonds with her, though Deborah occasionally slips into paranoid phases where she believes Skloot is out to get her, to be yet another white person profiting off of her mama’s cells. Deborah’s behavior gets to be quite trying, even for the reader, but it speaks to Skloot’s power as an author that, at the end of the book, when you hear that Deborah has died, you feel immensely sad. More than anything else, Deborah did what she could to preserve the memory, and good name, of the mother she never got to know, and deserves our respect.

Book review: CHRONIC CITY

I don’t know if it’s related to fatherhood, but in the past year I’ve read a lot more fiction than had been my habit. My two favorite novels from this past year are China Mieville’s The City and the City and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. (I only just realized I never reviewed The City and The City, and as it has been a while since I read it, I won’t do a full review here. Rooted in the hard-boiled detective genre, it’s a tantalizing mindfuck of a book, involving a pair of Eastern European cities that actually overlap, and where the populace conducts a consensual hallucination to ignore the other city (and if they break the spell, they’re taken away). This construct allows Mieville to pursue ideas on urban existence, many revolving around the idea of “unseeing”, an act that citydwellers unconsciously do everyday.)

Chronic City is also a mindfuck, though in a different way. Set in a parallel-universe Manhattan (the 9/11 bombings have been replaced by a mysterious gray fog; The New York Times publishes a war-free edition; every character has a strange, but awesome name), our guide and narrator (the book is mostly first-person) is Chase Insteadman, a former child actor engaged to a marooned astronaut. In the opening chapter he meets Perkus Tooth, an apartment-bound pot-smoking contrarian intellectual driven by conspiratorial thoughts at the fringes of pop culture, and gets caught up in Tooth’s associations, both human and cognitive.

I really enjoyed the book. Mostly, it’s a lot of fun. Lethem constructs a oompelling simulacrum of Manhattan, and teasing it out provides endless amusement. The mind-trip is well executed. And Lethem has evolved into a remarkable prose stylist, a master of metaphoric language, someone who can really paint with words in a way I haven’t read in a very long time.

If you like trippy fiction; if you’re a pop culture and literati junkie; if you already find Manhattan otherworldly, Chronic City is definitely worth a shot.

Book Commentary: How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer

How We Decide is the latest book of pop cognitive science to attract significant attention. In it, Jonah Lehrer positions his discussion as something of a battle, or, at least, a give-and-take, between the brain’s deep-seated emotional urges and its rational considerations. One is not better than the other — each excels in certain situations (emotion is great for split-second decisions; reason helps make better choices given a limited number of options) and is detrimental (emotion is easily exploited through reactions to things like loss aversion; reason can lead to overthinking when given too much information) in others.

The book has a lot of information in it; which might also be it’s downfall. It’s clear that Lehrer has attended the Gladwell school of non-fiction writing, anchoring his facts in stories. The difference is that Gladwell employs just a handful of stories over the course of a book, letting each one breathe, having each one carry significant weight. Lehrer stuffs How We Decide with little story after little story, and after a while, you lose the bigger plot. I would have preferred Lehrer to focus on just a few key tales — the firefighter who figured out how to save himself in a raging brush blaze; the kids with the marshmallows; the poker player who embodies the perfect balance of reason and emotion — and let go of the study after study after study that he relates.

Another challenge this book faces is the glut of adjacently-themed texts. Having read Gladwell’s Blink and Outliers, and Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and having heard the marshmallow story (it’s become a surprisingly prevalent flash-meme in the past few months), I was familiar with much of the book, and in an odd way — I kept wondering if I had read the story earlier in How We Decide, only to realize I had read it in another book.

My guess is this is a good book for those who haven’t been keeping up on the latest discussions in cognitive science, and are looking for an informative foundation. I respect Lehrer for not engaging in the type of specious/fallacious reasoning that has afflicted Gladwell’s work. Lehrer recognizes that the sentiment “it depends” is not only valid, but essential to the discussion, and doesn’t propose sweeping generalizations or applications.

Book Review: Outliers

I mentioned a while back that I was listening to the audiobook for Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers. Readers of this blog know I’ve been following Gladwell since before The Tipping Point, and I’ve always been quite critical. I’ve written about how TTP didn’t tie together, Blink had no legitimate argument, and his misunderstanding of the role of paper in the modern office.

Outliers is much the same as his prior two books — a set of distinct, well-researched and engagingly told stories tied together by the barest wisp of connective tissue. The theme of his book seems to be: People become successful because a) they’re given remarkable opportunities others are not and b) they work really really hard. Actually, the theme of his book is “stop thinking that brilliance is inborn; all successful people worked hard at it.” Somehow, this is meant to tie together hockey players, Bill Gates, inner-city students, and airlines pilots who don’t crash planes when faced with trouble.

Let me correct myself. Gladwell’s point is to insist on equality of opportunity, and for us to understand the systems and forces at play that lead to inequality. It might be Gladwell’s first book with an explicit social message, and, frankly, it’s one that I agree with. It’s also a realization that any systems-oriented thinker had some time by college if not sooner. You cannot, say, understand Darwinian evolution without realizing the role that opportunity plays in enabling success.

Still, some good stories. Definitely worth checking out from the library.

Book Review: The Pixar Touch

As part of my life of nerdiness, I’ve attended animation festivals since I was in high school in the late-ish 80s. At Cal (1989-1993), I would work the shows when Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation came to school (it paid $5/hr!). Computers were also (obviously) an interest, and each year one company would produce a computer animated short that was always loved at the festival — Pixar. I was an eager audience member for Toy Story, and have seen every Pixar film, except for Cars (which looked simply juvenile, and, well, I’m not a car guy).

So, reading The Pixar Touch was a walk down memory lane for me. David A. Price offers a biography of the pioneering animation company, tracing it’s founders from their roots in computer graphics and animation, to how they meet at Lucasfilm, to their struggles as a hardware company, through their ownership by Steve Jobs, the triumph of Toy Story, and Disney’s acquisition of Pixar for $7.4 billion (which, given the terms, you could argue was as much of a merger as an acquisition).

Apart from nostalgia, however, the book doesn’t offer all that much. It’s a serviceable history, relating the facts of Pixar’s story, but it provides very little in the way of insight — what makes Pixar the special kind of company it is, particularly how it has been 9-for-9 in terms of feature film successes, a track record unheard of in major motion pictures. In other words, it doesn’t really reveal what “the Pixar touch” actually is. I think the biggest problem is that it’s clear the author had no access to the three most important people at Pixar – John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, and Steve Jobs. So everything he has about them is secondhand.

If you’re a Pixar fan, the book is probably worth reading, as it’s quick, (I finished it in just a few days), and provides some context about the people who made the company what it is. I suppose I’d recommend it as a library read, since I don’t think it warrants permanent placement in anyone’s library.

There’s one part of the Pixar tale that I did find illuminating. It came from a letter to shareholders written by Steve Jobs in 1997 (thank you Internet Archive!), after he had renegotiated with Disney a more equitable contract:

Second, branding. We believe there are only two significant brands in the film industry– “Disney” and “Steven Spielberg”. We would like to establish “Pixar” as the third. Successful brands are a reflection of consumer trust, which is earned over time by consumers’ positive experiences with the brand’s products. For example, parents trust Disney-branded animated films to provide satisfying and appropriate family entertainment, based on Disney’s undisputed track record of making wonderful animated films. This trust benefits both parents and Disney: it makes the selection of family entertainment that much easier for parents, and it allows Disney to more easily and assuredly draw audiences to see their new films. Over time we want Pixar to grow into a brand that embodies the same level of trust as the Disney brand. But in order for Pixar to earn this trust, consumers must first know that Pixar is creating the films. Hence, our need to dramatically expand the Pixar branding of all our products.

Jobs was right (and, to a large degree, still is). It’s interesting how film studios have pretty much put no stock in branding, probably thinking that the stars are the only brands they need. Pixar, by working so hard to associate themselves with certain characteristics, a certain “brand promise,” were, 10 years after this was written, able to get $7.4 billion from Disney in the acquisition.

Meme Theme – Systems approach to biographies

Just after reading The Invention of Air, I’m listening to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers. One thing that’s immediately apparent is that the two share a common theme — frustration with the “Great Man” approach to history and biography, where we credit someone’s success to that individual’s talent, perseverance, innate abilities. Instead, both take an intriguing systems approach to biography, suggesting that individuals are as much players in a larger context beyond their control, and success comes from largely from chance — people being fortunate to be in the right position at the right time. It intrigues me that these two writers have made this the central theme of their latest works at this time, and I wonder, well, what larger systems forces are in play that reveals this shared approach to biography.

Book Review: The Invention of Air

Among my favorite things in San Francisco is Green Apple Books. My favorite thing about Green Apple Books is their “New Arrivals” section, which features the latest books sold to them (they are primarily a second-hand book store), and you can typically find newly-released books at deep discount. On my last trip there, a couple weeks ago, I was able to pick up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of Air, before it had been officially released. This is because Green Apple seems to be the favored secondhand store among SF’s book critics.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson since before he wrote books — he was one of the founders of FEED, one of those four-letter original content sites from Ye Olde Webbe. His first book, Interface Culture, was a primary inspiration when launched, and I’ve read every one of his books except Everything Bad is Good For You (which is probably his bestseller, but which I felt I didn’t need to read after reading so much about it online in and magazines).

Steven has a knack for covering subjects that directly interest me, whether interface design, complexity theory, cognitive science, or city planning. He’s the closest to the public intellectual I think I would be if I weren’t too afraid to stop earning a paycheck and instead wrote books and pursued interesting subjects for a living.

It’s probably because of my kinship with his subject matter that I’m particularly critical of his work. Looking back over recent posts, there’s my review of The Ghost Map which called into question his boosterism of cities, and my frustration at a talk he gave on The Long Zoom, where it felt like he was stretching in order to make a point.

And it’s with that critical eye I read The Invention of Air, a not-biography of Joseph Priestley, most famous for “discovering” oxygen. My criticism makes me a little uneasy — I can’t say I know Steven well, but I have interacted with him some over the last 10 or so years (he even spoke on a panel of mine at South by Southwest in 2000 (scroll to March 17)), and he even twittered his interest in my thoughts. All I can hope is, if he reads this, he takes it with the constructiveness I intend!

I say “not-biography” because although Priestley is main subject of the work, it only focuses on a few key events in his life. I also say “not-biography” because Air is confused about just what kind of book it wants to be. It addresses everything from ecosystems theory to the founding of America, from Priestley’s experiments with gases to how he was the subject of much discussion between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their famous epistolary exchange in their later years — and does this all in just over 200 pages.

As such, I walked away not knowing exactly what was Steven’s point. I think what really drove him wasn’t Priestley per se, but instead how Priestley’s story supports Steven’s “Long Zoom” theory of history, which disputes standard historical narratives (“Great Man”, “movement”) and says that the only way to appreciate history and biography is by understanding actions at a number of scales, from the micro to the macro. This was implicit in The Ghost Map, which went from the cholera bacteria, up to the human transmitters, and up again to the infrastructure of cities. He makes it explicit here because he’s clearly frustrated by standard historical practice. The problem is that the narrative pretty much stops at the point of Long Zoom explanation, and it signals the first moment of confusion for the reader — just what am I supposed to be taking away?

The other thing that makes me think that Priestley wasn’t really the point is that, after reading it, I still have very little understanding of the man. I know some events from his life, and how he touched others, but I left Air without a sense of what kind of person Priestley was (apart from optimistic and friendly). And I think that’s because Steven felt compelled to cover too wide a range of material for such a small book. If this were a meaty 600-800 page tome, he could have done justice to all the book’s components, and probably marry it with a novelistic style. Instead, at 200 pages, we end up getting a book of ideas more than a book about people, and as such, it’s pretty bloodless.

Now, I look a good book of ideas — and if that’s what it’s gonna be, own it from beginning to end. Steven’s Emergence is a book of ideas, and a brilliant one at that, and probably still his most essential book. He made complexity theory engrossing and approachable, and tied it into a set of things that really mattered. It also happened to be his first “Long Zoom” work. But, like Ghost Map, it was implicit. And I think such implicitness would serve Steven better. I think the concern for making a “Long Zoom” history/biography got in the way of delivering a strong narrative that compelled the story forward. For a historical text, simply tell the story, and let us readers realize the connective structure — you don’t need to do the meta-thinking for us.

My favorite part of Air is the retelling of Priestley’s experiments with a sprig of mint, candles, and mice, the first hint that plants exhale a substance that allows candles to keep burning, animals to keep breathing. And Steven’s point that this is essentially the beginning of ecosystems theory, presaging the Gaia hypothesis by about 200 years, is exciting. (I also love that it’s Ben Franklin who is the first to draw the systems inference from Priestley’s experiment). Had the book remained focused on air and such natural systems, I probably would be less critical.

However, the book continues discussing Priestley’s religious and political life, and his role in informing the thoughts of America’s founding fathers, beginning with Franklin (they got to know one another when Franklin lived in London) and then John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And a lot of effort is made connecting Priestley to early American political thought, though it’s based largely on how frequently he’s cited by Adams and Jefferson in their letters — letters written after Priestley’s death, and when both men are essentially retired from public life. It comes across as quite an overselling of Priestley’s influence — yes, it’s interesting that he probably made some impact, but, really, Priestley’s impact was relatively small compared to all the things which influenced early American ideology. Whereas his scientific legacy remains importantly influential to this day, there’s little that connects his religious or political thought to contemporary times. In a book of this size, such discourse should have been treated as an epilogue of interest, not as warranting half of the text.

Now, saying that, I’m violating one of Steven’s key tenets, which is that you can’t separate the scientific from the religious and political in Priestley’s life, nor could you in the educated life of the times. But, really, the religious and political work simply isn’t as compelling as the scientific, because it has had dramatically less impact. And again, this calls into question, just what is the central thesis of the Air — is it the Long Zoom, or the importance of consilience across science, religion, and politics? I think trying to address both weakens each argument.

OK. I’m done writing about this for now. (This is the third pass I’ve made at this post.)