This weekend I read a short fragment from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop at my friends James and Lucy’s wedding.
James is the person who initially introduced me to Douglas Hofstadter’s earlier book – Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid – first published 40 years ago this year. GEB quickly became my favourite book; an irresistibly playful tapestry of mathematics, art, music, programming, artificial intelligence, language, logic, and philosophy.
I Am a Strange Loop, written almost 30 years after GEB, was a sort of reinterpretation of that book. Hofstadter felt that the technical and subtle approach led many readers to miss the point of GEB, so he decided to write a less technical, more accessible, and more explicit treatment of the nature of self and machine consciousness.
Strange Loop is a deeply personal and emotional book, covering the death of Hofstadter’s wife Carol, and exploring Hofstadter’s moral basis for his vegetarian diet, among many other things. It speaks of love and death in intimate detail, in Hofstadter’s signature style. I’d highly recommend reading this book if you’re not attracted by the idea of the maths-dense GEB.
For the reading at James and Lucy’s wedding I edited a few paragraphs for brevity and context (and to remove references to death!). These are those paragraphs – I think they give a good introduction to Hofstadter’s views on human relationships:
What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love? In the terminology of Strange Loops, there is no ambiguity about what is going on.
The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely as if it had an icon that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, much as with a game that has opened up on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a “normal” context. You have allowed yourself to be invaded by an “alien universal being”, and to some extent the alien takes charge inside your skull, starts pushing things around in its own fashion, making words, ideas, memories, and associations bubble up inside your brain that ordinarily would not do so. The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person’s cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking out at it.
As a consequence, during this visitation of your cranium, you will surprise yourself by coming out with different jokes from those you would normally make, seeing things in a different emotional light, making different value judgments, and so forth. Each one of us has a brain inhabited to varying extents by other I’s, other souls, the extent of each one depending on the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question. But one can’t just slip into any old soul, no more than one can slip into any old piece of clothing; some souls and some suits simply “fit” better than others do.
Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (edited)
In discussing an appropriate portion of the book, James and I also agreed to read the following at each other’s funeral, if either of us were ever to die:
In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And when those people in turn pass on, the afterglow becomes extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.
This slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has all at once gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being — truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig — is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.
It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and thus solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.
It’s easier to read than to remember what you’ve read. I used to struggle to remember what a book was about, even just a few years after reading it.
I don’t have this problem anymore. In a few recent conversations about books, people have asked me how I manage to remember so much about books I read a long time ago.
I don’t think it’s because my brain has got better at remembering things. I think I’ve picked up habits from various places that put the information from books into my brain so that I remember it better. I now have a simple but powerful approach I use when reading most non-fiction books.
The basic structure of this approach is:
Get a broad overview of the book.
Read the book, slowly, noting key ideas and passages.
With millions of books published every year, how do you decide what to read next?
In software development there’s a concept called the rockstar programmer. This is the kind of person who operates on a completely different level to most others, and can produce 10x the output of the average programmer. Hiring one of these people can be worth more than hiring ten average people.
I think the same is sometimes true in books. You can read endless good books, or you can seek out the exceptional ones and dedicate your time to those.
This doesn’t apply to all books, but I think it applies to most non-fiction books. While fiction is highly subjective and doesn’t necessarily have one purpose, the main point of non-fiction is usually learning.
I found this out through trial and error. For example, I like reading about psychology and behavioural economics. I really enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and some of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. They’re easy reads and I came away from those books feeling like I’d learnt something. Though if you were to ask me now, I couldn’t formulate anything I learnt in a way that would be useful to me. (beyond maybe “incentives are important” and “little things can make a big difference”).
And then I read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s much more dense, and takes more time to get into. It requires more focus to read, and the chapters are longer. But it’s completely worth it. Reading this felt like other pop economics/psychology books (like the ones I mentioned above) took one idea from Kahneman’s book and turned it into a chapter, or took a chapter from his book and stretched it into four hundred pages.
Kahneman has spent decades leading research in his field, and so can talk about it in a level of depth that many others can’t. He takes the reader on a journey from hypothesis to experiment design, results, and interpretation. He’s constantly analysing his own way of thinking and shares a wealth of psychological biases that the reader can try to be more conscious of.
The same is true in other fields. Interested in evolution? Try reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Or go right to the source, and read Darwin’s Origin of Species. You might be surprised by how relevant most of the content still is, and the clarity with which the ideas are presented. Physics? Try the Feynman lectures.
Some people are primarily writers, and their job is to sell as many books as they can. They find interesting ideas, and write them up in a way that makes people want to buy their books. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I think they rarely compare to the people whose writing is secondary to their real work.
This is where the 10x books come from — people who have invested huge amounts of time mastering a field, and who also happen to have a talent for explaining things.
These people don’t write about things because they’re new or fashionable. They probably don’t have enough material to bring out a new book every few years. But their material is far more valuable, and more timeless.
Timelessness is key. An easy way for an author to increase book sales is to cater excessively to the readers of the time, compensating for quality of content through ephemeral relevance. An extreme example of this is the news — while reading today’s news feels somehow educational, reading a newspaper from more than a few days ago is extremely dull.
You can use this as a heuristic to evaluate non-fiction books. If you’re looking for a book on a specific subject, see if there are any which are more than a few decades old and are still considered relevant. When judging a recent book, consider how useful you would expect it to be in a few decades. Hopefully this can help you find those exceptional 10x books, and avoid the ten others.
Thanks for reading! For some more book recommendations (fiction and non-fiction), check out this post 🙂
I just finished reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and found it fascinating. It’s like an applied version of Thinking, Fast and Slow, with lots of examples on how cognitive biases are exploited and how you can protect yourself against each of them.
I picked it up because it’s recommended by Derek Sivers as one of the top books on sales and marketing. There’s some great content in there, and as I found myself sharing my notes with a few friends I decided to put them up here for everyone to read. I don’t think the below summary is a replacement for reading the book, but it should give you a good idea of what the main ideas are and whether it’s the kind of book you’d like to read.
Derek Sivers also has his own notes on the book here. I’d highly recommend buying and reading the full book though, for £6/$8 it’s a great investment!
Some animal behaviours are completely governed by reactions to simple triggers. E.g. mother turkeys will care for anything that cheeps, but won’t care for a baby turkey that doesn’t. This can also apply to humans.
The contrast principle. When two different things are shown one after the other, the differentiating characteristics of the second will appear exaggerated. So if you’re selling a suit and a jumper to the same person, sell the suit first. Then the jumper will appear cheaper. This is related to the concept of anchoring.
Human societies have developed an evolutionary urge to reciprocate. This means that by giving someone a gift/doing them a favour, you can generate goodwill and potentially a return gesture. This can work regardless of whether the initial gesture was invited or not, and even if it was unwanted.
The reciprocation rule also applies to concessions — so if you ask someone for a big favour and they say no and you concede by asking them for a smaller favour, they are then likely to concede and say yes to that smaller favour.
Arrangements agreed with perceived concession generate increased feelings of responsibility (the opponent feels that he influenced the negotiation) for and satisfaction with the outcome.
The key to resisting these tactics, if used on you, is to recognise them for what they are. There’s no need to refuse all favours, but if you recognise a favour as a sales tactic then respond to it not as a favour, but as a sales tactic. There’s no need to reciprocate to a sales tactic.
Commitment and Consistency
The drive to be (and look) consistent is a highly potent weapon of social influence, often causing us to act in ways that are clearly contrary to our own best interests.
One way toy stores use this: run ads for amazing toys before Christmas. Undersupply stores with those toys so parents have to buy substitutes. After Christmas, increase supply again so parents who promised their kids they’d buy those toys and want to remain consistent end up buying Christmas toys twice.
Commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behaviour when they are active, public, and effortful. But even more importantly, the person must think they have chosen to commit in the absence of strong outside pressures.
This suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten children to do the things we want them truly to believe in. If we want them to believe in the correctness of what they have done, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take.
Lowballing: an advantage is offered that induces a favoured behaviour or decision. The subject justifies this decision to themselves by changing their views to fit the decision. Then the advantage is taken away, and the behaviour/decision is fully supported by the subject’s new views.
Two ways to fight back against opponents attempting to use your need for consistency against your best interests:
1. If you get that weird feeling in your stomach and realise what is happening, call them out on it. Say that you don’t want to continue purely for the sake of consistency.
2. If you’re not sure what you really believe, ask yourself and pay special attention to your immediate instinctive/emotional response. You can lie to yourself and rationalise things when thinking intellectually, but not as easily in these basic responses.
People use others’ opinion as another shortcut to figuring out the truth. This sometimes even works when something mimics others’ opinion even though we know it’s fake — e.g. laughter tracks make things seem funnier.
The pluralistic ignorance effect or bystander effect happens under uncertainty, when the social cues that everything is fine overcome the concern that there might be an emergency.
In an emergency, ask for help clearly. Direct your request at one person at a time. Your best strategy when in need of emergency help is to reduce the uncertainties of those around you concerning your condition and their responsibilities.
1978 Jonestown, Guyana. Jim Jones, leader of The People’s Temple, instructs his followers to commit mass suicide. 910 people did so. This was after, a year earlier, the entire community moved from San Francisco to the jungle in Guyana.
Surrounded by uncertainty, people look to the actions of others to guide their own actions.
Be wary of situations where social feedback is faked (laughter tracks, ads,…) and consciously disengage your social autopilot and examine the evidence independently. Look up and around periodically whenever locked onto the evidence of the crowd.
People are more likely to buy from or follow others they know or like, as exploited by Tupperware parties. Separately, the halo effect induces us to imbue attractive others with unrelated positive attributes by assumption.
Physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact and cooperation (familiarity), conditioning and association can all influence how much we like someone.
Kids away at camp. To increase hostility, separate them physically in different areas and give the separate groups names. Then put them in competition with one another. To increase harmony, construct situations where they have to cooperate, and where competition would be harmful to both sides.
Shakespeare: “The nature of bad news infects the teller.” A lot of strange behaviour can be explained by the fact that people understand the association principle well enough to strive to link themselves to positive events and separate themselves from negative events — even when they have not caused the events.
When talking about wins, sports fans often use “we” to associate themselves with success. When talking about losses they’ll often use “they” to distance themselves — even though it’s clear that that there is no causation in either case. People with a weakened self-image will feel a stronger need to do this.
Countering the liking strategy: it is too difficult to prevent ourselves from liking someone, but we must be aware of it when making decisions. In making a compliance decision, it is always a good idea to keep separate our feelings about the requester and the request.
Milgram experiment, 1965. ‘Teacher’ subjects continued to administer increasingly painful shocks under instruction of the researcher, even when the subject was clearly in agony and begged for them to stop.
Obedience to authority is another mental shortcut we use because in general it pays off — authority figures (teachers when we’re kids, doctors/lawyers/professionals when we’re adults) often have more information than we do. But this reflex can be abused by others taking advantage of their authority status or masquerading with fake status.
Again the pretence works as well as the real thing — even actors playing doctors are seen as having authority.
Titles, clothes, trappings — not only do these have great effect on our actions, we consistently underestimate the effect they have on our actions.
Countering abuse of authority — ask two questions:
Is this authority truly an expert?
How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?
Take care — sometimes the expert might make small concessions to appear more truthful. Seeming to argue against their own financial interests can sometimes serve those interests well, by establishing them as credible, helpful authority figures.
When customers show casual interest in an item on sale, a salesperson might pretend he thinks it has sold out — but that he could check the store room if they would be interested in buying it if it’s available. The apparent scarcity increases the perceived value of the item, and triggers a commitment that can then be used to the salesperson’s advantage when they return with the item and a sale contract to sign.
Related to the above limited-number technique is the deadline tactic. An offer is listed with an expiration date, triggering increased interest.
Primarily, our penchant for scarcity is again a shortcut based on the (generally correct) assumption that scarce items are more valuable.
A second explanation is that of psychological reactance: as opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have. According to this theory, whenever choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously.
The power of psychological reactance is most clearly manifested in two age groups: twos and teens.
Under conditions of scarcity (e.g. an item being made illegal) we imbue the scarce item with more positive attributes than we otherwise would.
Often banning or censoring information can make that information appear more valuable or truthful.
When is scarcity most effective as a weapon of influence?
Newly experienced scarcity is more powerful than constant scarcity. Scarcity can be manifested as a lack of rights, and groups who have rights taken away become much more incensed than those who never had them in the first place. Children who lose established privileges are much harder to control than those lacking never-posessed ones.
Even more powerful is scarcity that is generated by demand. This is seen in black Friday sales, and with a lover becoming more keen with the appearance of a rival. It can also be seen in open-bid auctions, where participants and up bidding much more than they intended to. In a way, the winner of these auctions is often the loser.
Countering scarcity: as soon as we feel the tide of emotional arousal that flows from scarcity influences, we should use that rise in arousal as a signal to stop short. We need to calm ourselves and gain a radical perspective.
Once that is done we can calm ourselves why we want the item under consideration. If it is primarily for the purpose of owning it (as a rare commodity) then we should use its availability to help gauge how much we want to spend on it. However, if it is something we want primarily for its function, then we must remember that the item under consideration will function equally well whether scarce or plentiful. Quite simply, we need to recall that the scarce cookies didn’t taste any better.
All these weapons of influence can be used for good or bad ends. They are based on shortcuts we use which, when the evidence they use is legitimate, serve us well. Practitioners who use these ‘weapons’ ethically serve our best interests and allow us to make effective decisions quickly.
Practitioners who fabricate or distort evidence, or construct scenarios which affect our decision making do not serve our best interests and should be treated with caution.
If you’re like me, you’re a bit conflicted when it comes to Christmas gifts. While it’s fun to buy people things they like, it’s not always easy to know what those things are. A lot of gifts end up getting thrown out, are never used, or are worn begrudgingly.
Wow, thanks nan! Those are exactly the kind of thick grey woolly socks all the cool kids at school are wearing…
If so, you might be interested in something I’m trying this Christmas: when you find yourself struggling to come up with a meaningful gift idea, consider giving a carefully chosen book. If possible, a used book. Because words don’t go off once they’ve been read, and books don’t run out of batteries.
If the book is good enough, the recipient will be so hooked after one chapter that they might even forget to feel bad about that novelty mug they got you.
Used is the new new.
Which book? Easy. I take it you’ve probably got a friend who spends most of their free time in the gym? Maybe another friend you rarely see because they’re always working? A friend who watches repeats of cooking shows, but is ‘too busy’ to actually cook? A crazy friend with an endless stream of mad ideas?
For each of these friends, I’ve picked out a book they’ll love. Some of the books are bestsellers, others are more niche. Most of these I’ve given as gifts or will be giving this year.
The Fitness Freak
Born to Run — Christopher McDougall
Did you know that primitive humans used to hunt prey not by outsmarting them, but by outrunning them? The only reason they’ll want to stop reading this book is to put their trainers on (or not!) and go running.
A look into the mind of adorable autistic academic Don Tillman as he employs questionnaires in his search for a girlfriend. If it’s good enough for Bill Gates’ friends, it should be good enough for yours.
High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity
Let top climber Steph Davis inspire them as she shares some of her best stories and her outlook on life. On running into a polar bear she writes:
“I am deeply impressed and instantly stop speculating about how to survive a polar bear attack. One look has shown me that if a polar bear wants to eat me, it will, and there’s no point worrying about it.”
On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are — Alan Watts
An exploration of the self in Eastern philosophy, from a Western point of view.
“There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out. “
A Short History of Nearly Everything — Bill Bryson
Bring them up to speed with this engaging history of science.
“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”
Yesterday a friend told me that she was going to have to cut back on reading because she was spending too much money on books.
My reaction was: “Really?! You can buy loads of books for less than the cost of the meal we just had. Reading doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t even have to cost anything! ”
So if you’re reading this, here’s my take on how you can read as much as you like for almost nothing.
1. Read Classics For Free
Project Gutenberg is a project that digitises and freely distributes popular books which have gone out of copyright. If you’re looking for a classic book to read, start by checking the list of their top 100 books. Most of the books are available to read online, or to download in Kindle, pdf, and other formats.
2. Read A Chapter For Free
How many books have you bought which you haven’t even had time to get around to starting yet? And what about the ones you started but got bored of after the first chapter? Amazon gives free eBook samples of the first 10% of a book, which is often several chapters. Even if you’re sure you’ll like a book, why not just download the sample first and only pay for the rest once you’ve read past that?
3. Borrow Books For Free
This is obvious but worth mentioning because it’s so easy to forget. Most cities have public libraries (find your nearest library: UK/US). Usually you can sign up for free, and borrow several books at a time. If they don’t have the book you want in your local library you can often order it in from another one in the region if you’re willing to wait a little longer.
There are also non-public libraries. If you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow one book per month for free. It’s not worth signing up to Prime for this, but if you already have it then you might as well make use of the book lending service!
4. Buy Used Books For A Fraction Of The Price
I don’t get why anyone would feel the need to buy a perfectly crisp, new version of a book. Books are one of the few things which gain character with use, and I would almost always prefer to read a used book than a new one. The great thing is that these can often be picked up for a small fraction of the price!
Second hand bookstores are great places to get lost and find books you would never otherwise come across. If you’re shopping online, this website will let you look up a book and show you the cheapest place to buy it, used or new (regional versions: UK/US/IN/DE/CH/NL).
5. Exchange Books With Friends
A book is no good to me when it’s sitting on my shelf. If I’ve read a book and liked it, I try to think of a friend who will like it too and give it to them. Even if they don’t return the favour, I feel much happier knowing that they might be enjoying it too! Most good friends will return the favour though, so you’ll end up with more books including ones you might not have thought of buying yourself.
6. Invest In An eBook Reader
eBook readers are a great way to read, and though they may seem expensive at first I think they’re a great investment — I’ve had mine for several years and have spent countless hours reading on it. If you’re thinking of getting one I’d highly recommend the Kindle Paperwhite (new: UK/US or cheaper refurbished: UK/US) — here’s more on why.
Any more tips you think I should know about? I’d love to hear them, please get in touch! Thanks for recommending and sharing.
As I’ve been getting into climbing, I’ve tried to find interesting climbers to learn and draw inspiration from. Steph Davis is one climber whose blog I’ve been reading regularly and whose attitude I admire. I couldn’t get enough of her blog, so I bought her first book: High Infatuation. This is a review of that book.
Often when I enjoy a book I’m reading I’ll try to read it more slowly so I have more time to savour the content. With this book the opposite happened — I couldn’t wait to get to the end so I could read it again.
Steph Davis has an impressive list of credentials: she’s one of the world’s leading climbers and the first woman to complete several milestones of the climbing world: free climbing El Capitan in one day, free soloing The Diamond on Long’s Peak and summiting Torre Egger in Patagonia.
The book starts with the story of how Steph first started climbing during her university degree, and went on to spend the seven years after graduating climbing and living out of her car with her dog Fletcher.
From there the book winds in and out of endless climbing adventures, as chronicled in her journals from the time. As well as endeavours in Moab and Yosemite the book tells of her weeks spent in snow caves in Patagonia waiting in vain for better climbing weather, doing a first ascent of Tahir tower in the military Kondus zone in Kashmir, a spur of the moment trip to Kyrgyzstan, rappelling and falling from Fremont Canyon bridge in Wyoming, and several weeks spent in the Arctic.
While these stories are fascinating in themselves, I found Steph’s reactions to the events even more interesting. She provides detailed insight into how she came to be in these situations, and what drives her to keep going. She has a very open-minded approach to life largely driven by kindness, presence, minimalism, and self-improvement.
My pursuit of climbing was initiated by impulse. In reality it was never a choice, but rather a surrender to the inevitable. Even now, supposedly older and wiser, I make my most fundamental life decisions impetuously, based on what feels right inside, and I never look back. It’s the only thing I can do.
While the focus of the book is obviously on climbing, there are times when it touches on philosophy and almost ventures into self-help. Describing her discovery of Sufism and approach to mindfulness, Steph also gives glimpses of her thought process throughout the stories in her book. At one point she spends two days travelling across the Arctic sea ice in a skidoo to get to a climbing site, and can’t stop worrying about encountering polar bears. Until she encounters one.
I am deeply impressed and instantly stop speculating about how to survive a polar bear attack. One look has shown me that if a polar bear wants to eat me, it will, and there’s no point worrying about it.
Given the magnitude of her achievements, Steph’s humility is refreshing. There isn’t a hint of boasting to be found in the book. She embodies the growth mindset, emphasising determination and persistence over genetics or natural skill. This aspect in particular made for great motivation, as it leaves no excuse not to get out there and give everything.
As a climber, I have always felt like the pesky little sister chasing after the older, faster, bigger kids… For me, it has been hard to let go of attachments, hard to let go of self-doubt… But slowly I’m starting to understand that it’s not just a fluke when I succeed. And I’m starting to realize that in climbing, as in life, determination and a commitment to learning are qualities as invaluable as unusually strong body parts. Persistence and fanatical hard work are powerful assets not to be underestimated.