Summer reading

Some summer reading and maybe finding patterns that do not exist.

I am usually reading a few books over the same period, so I get them confused. This is not helped by the fact that I tend to read related books, since the interest in one leads me to the others. Amazon is complicit in this, with their “people who bought this also bought these” hints.

I finished four books this week. “The World According to Star Wars” by Cass Sunstein, “In Pursuit of Elegance” by Matthew May, “Peak” by Anders Ericsson, and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly. I highly recommend all of them, and it is not a bad idea to read them around the same time. I found lots of commonalities. Maybe I just imagined them, but they have helped me put things in context.

“Peak” for example, is about getting really good at something through deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson is the source for the “10,000 hours rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. This is the idea that anybody gets to be an expert at something with 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson says that this formulation is way too simplistic. While you cannot find any real experts in anything who have not put in the time (the idea of spontaneous genius is a myth) just putting in your time is not sufficient. Natural abilities do play a role and there is some question about whether it requires a certain natural ability just to put in the time, i.e. the capacity to practice that much might be an indicator of ability as well as a creator. He also wrote that the skills are not fungible. Playing chess very well does not teach you to be logical in other realms, although a person attracted to chess might have the predilection to be logical. Cause and effect are difficult to sort out, even in simple cases. Deliberate practice works where the process can be understood and there are measurable goals. Reading this made me think of computer or mechanical processes. If you understand all the steps in a process, you can make a machine or program a computer to do it better than a human can. Which fit in well with my next book, “The Inevitable.”

“The Inevitable” is a great book and I will write more about it on its own. In this context, however, I was interested in what the author had to say about cognition being a type of utility. He said that there is really no single type of intelligence and that it would be less useful if there were. This fits well with the idea in “Peak” that skills are no easily fungible. The chess playing program does not also play football. But most parallel was when the author, Kevin Kelly, described how they have made machines that learn to play games. This is different from a chess playing program when the moves are programmed into the software. This newer cognition is where the computer is programming with rules to learn. He described how a computer learned to play Pong (recall that primitive video game). At first, the machine did poorly, but it got better with each try until it could beat any human player AND had devised a strategy to get around the boundaries that no human player had contemplated. This was deliberate practice and an iterative, evolutionary process. The difference is that the machine did not forget as humans might. To repeat what I said above, if you understand all the steps in a process, you can make a machine or program a computer to do it better than a human can. Can and are doing.

Building on that brought me to “The World According to Star Wars.” This is a light-hearted book but it explores serious issues from Sunstein’s earlier work on “choice architecture,” that he explained in “Nudge” and goes into more detail in a book I am reading now called “The Ethics of Influence.” Choice architecture is simply the circumstance, environment of choice. For example, stores put candy near the checkouts. You have a choice to buy or not, but the architecture encourages a particular outcome. When we “add cognition” as Kevin Kelly says, we must choose a particular choice architecture and that will greatly affect outcomes. Kelly devotes a whole chapter to filtering. We have so much going on and so many choices available that we must use filters to get through the day. Filters are useful, but dangerous. We increasingly live in a peculiar and idiosyncratic world created by filters which we may or may not have set up or even be aware about.

Which led me inexorably to my fourth book, “In Pursuit of Elegance.” I rarely have read a book that is so much like what I think. Elegance consists of doing the right things and doing them smoothly. Instead of thinking about what can be added to a process, a wise person looks for things that can be subtracted. There is the old joke that it takes a lot of planning to be spontaneous and it takes a lot of understanding of complexity to be simple. The choice architecture should be simple based on a deep enough appreciation of the complexity so that we know what to leave out, what to leave alone and what to leave to others.

Returning to “The Inevitable,” Kelly does not lament that machines may be “smarter” than humans. Of course they are. A calculator is much smarter, but only in the calculations. Humans can delegate to the machines those parts of cognition most appropriate for them. The machines will be tools, cognitive tools that increase our intelligent advantage much as a physical tool increases our muscle power. Humans integrate well with their devices. When I ride my bike, it feels like I am doing the movements and I am. The same goes for cognition. Humans will have the capacity for elegance working with machine cognition.
I am not sure my books were really very closely related, but I think I did find a path among them useful to be and that is why I bought the books and took the time to absorb them, so it worked.