The Last Three Things (beginning with an \’E\’) I\’ve Read

Einstein\’s Dreams — Alan Lightman

Lightman\’s writing reminds me of Martin Amis\’ short stories — which I consider a huge compliment. Compared to his novels, Amis\’ stories are a bit stilted, but there\’s always a compelling exploration of some idea. Lightman captures the same in each chapter of Einstein\’s Dreams. There\’s nothing as powerful as Amis\’ evocative sentences (EG, Money\’s opening line, \”As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows.\”), but considering Lightman doesn\’t have enough time to give any of his dreamscape inhabitants a name, their depth is impressive.

The weakness comes in the repeated structure. For each dream of a world where time behaves differently, there is the same pairing of extremes, \”Some people fear traveling far from a comfortable moment?. Others gallop recklessly into the future, without preparation for the rapid sequence of passing events.\” And with this is the explanation of how time works in each dream. But amidst this cornucopia of parallel structure, there is something interesting and challenging. You begin to think of how Lightman\’s descriptions differ from your own visions of such worlds. And that imagining is the real substance of Einstein\’s dreams.

Emotional Design — Donald Norman

Overall, I think I was disappointed here. I probably shouldn\’t have been. I know Norman\’s style. He gives more anecdotes and examples than studies and guidelines. He too focuses on stimulating the imagination — talk of robots with emotions, and other ways in which our perception of technology (and its of us) can be controlled and improved. But there is little real substance. A more enamored reader may find some meat by digging through the bibliography, but while I?was content to listen to Don\’s ideas of the future, it didn\’t drive me to push any further. It was a good read, but not much beyond that.

The Extended Phenotype — Richard Dawkins

I\’ve been meaning to get to this one for years (ever since Dawkins told me, \”you shouldn\’t have read this, you should have read The Extended Phenotype instead,\” at the end of The Selfish Gene). I waited far too long. This book has invigorated me more than anything I\’ve read in quite a while (although Tufte\’s Beautiful Evidence is on my short list for next reads). There is a constant building to some great revelation, but each page contains revelations of its own. Amusing cases where observed behavior caused organism-centric biologists to create Ptolemaic descriptions are followed by elegant descriptions of the gene-centric explanation. By no means am I qualified to debate Dawkins\’ methods or conclusions, and in fact I?wouldn\’t have been able to approach this without The Selfish Gene as a primer, but its the energy in his writing — the drive to push the boundaries of what we know — that motivates me to behave the same in my work.

If for no other reason, you should pick up The Extended Phenotype just to read about the insane behaviors that have evolved in different species over time. You\’ll be entertained, and you\’ll walk away with an entirely different perspective on what can be inferred from behavior. (At what point does intelligence become more than an arbitrarily complex set of automatic reactions to stimuli?) It\’s a must-read for anyone who feels the need to break out of a stagnant thought process — and we all do at some point or other.

One Response to “The Last Three Things (beginning with an \’E\’) I\’ve Read”

  1. Arto Bendiken Says:

    To follow up on The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, may I put in a good word for The Blind Watchmaker, which is possibly the most important of Dawkins’ works, in tackling how we all got here in the first place. I myself am eagerly awaiting the release of his next book, The God Delusion.

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