BOOK REVIEW: Messy by Tim Harford

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our LivesMessy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The book’s premise is simple: being neat and tidy isn’t the great virtue you’ve been led to believe, and being messy isn’t inherently a vice. Over nine chapters, Harford explores the various dimensions in which our impulse to toward tidiness can get in our way, and for which a little messiness might be the cure. Each chapter uses a central story or two as exemplars, with other stories and anecdotes providing support.

The book’s introduction sets up the idea by describing a famous concert in Köln (Cologne) by Kieth Jarrett in which the pianist reluctantly agreed to play the concert on a sub-par piano, and (it’s argued because of the limitations of that instrument) went on to produce the best-selling solo jazz album. This tale sets up chapter one, which focuses on creativity, nicely. Creativity may be explicitly the topic of chapter one, but it’s a concept that cuts across the entirety of the book. Tidiness – it is argued — is antagonistic to creativity. In the first chapter, Harford describes how David Bowie partnered up with Brian Eno, and how Eno’s “oblique strategies” – while they annoyed the musicians to no end by throwing monkey wrenches into the act of making music – were highly successful in producing a unique sound.

Chapter two discusses collaboration, which always makes a mess. Central to this chapter is a discussion of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and the famous Erdős number that virtually all scholars are familiar with — at least those in who work in math, science, engineering, and other disciplines with a quantitative bent. It’s sort of a Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation for those who make mathematics. The number describes how far removed one is from having a paper penned with this notoriously prolific mathematician (co-authored, one removed co-author, etc.,) and everyone publishing quantitative / mathematical scholarship desired a low number. The point made by Harford wasn’t just that collaboration in general is messy, but that working with Erdős, specifically, was, and it required collaborators to adjust to his peculiar, professorial ways.

Chapter three explores how tidy workplaces sometimes hinder productivity. The central case is MIT’s Building 20, which was popped up in record time to meet a wartime demand. The building housed a disproportionate amount of world-class science and engineering, and it’s argued that this was in part because its poor design put random people together on long walks to exits or toilets, and in part because – since it was a hideous monstrosity of a building – no one cared if its labs and offices were a mess or not.

Chapter four delves into the value of mess in improvisation. Of course, Jazz is revisited in this chapter, but the lead story is Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech and how it came out of being forced by circumstance to abandon his usual process of extensive preparation and editing. Chapter five describes messy tactics as winning strategies. Erwin Rommel’s success by disruption and chaos creation is at the heart of this chapter as is the development of Britain’s SAS which sometimes beat Rommel at his own game by using a similar approach using smaller, more agile, and more elite forces. There is also an extensive discussion of how Amazon went from humble beginnings to being the 800 pound gorilla of online shopping.

The sixth chapter investigates the role of incentives. For an economist, this is a fascinating topic as the key to understanding economic behavior is usually to follow the incentives. Of course, unintended consequences often go hand in hand with attempts to produce / manipulate incentives. Much of this chapter describes how attempts to tie up loose ends through regulation have ended up generating worse outcomes than could ever have been anticipated.

The next chapter (ch. 7) is about automation, which could be seen as an attempt to clean up messy activities. Harford discusses the situation with self-driving cars, which it’s hoped will help to make highways safer. However, the case he concentrates on is that of flight Air France 447, which went down in part because its inexperienced pilot at the helm couldn’t cope when the fly-by-wire system designed to anticipate and smooth the pilot’s inputs into the controls suddenly went off-line. In other words, the junior pilot wasn’t used to flying messy.

Chapter 8 is about resilience, and here the author challenges the age-old economic notion that specialization always results in greater productivity. Harford suggests that diversity and intermixing of activities and people – rather than specialization and homogenization – often results in a better outcome. The final chapter takes a wider view at how being messy can help one in life. The author spends a great deal of space to the question of how on-line dating services do such a poor job – spoiler alert – they try to make the messy process of finding a soul mate neat and tidy.

The book has citations and end-notes. In the Kindle edition, these notes are hyperlinked for ease of use. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it to offer many fascinating cases. I will say, as I was reading these well-researched and interestingly described cases, I sometimes had to think hard (maybe do some mental gymnastics) to make the connection between the case at hand and the book’s central theme – leaving me to wonder if I was missing something or whether there wasn’t some shoe-horning of interesting anecdotes into the book to produce a work that was more about being interesting than about proving a particular point. That said, I would recommend the book, particularly for anyone interested in increasing their creativity, productivity, or both.

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A Third Roti: A Story with an Elephantine Moral

IMG_0047I went to a talk at the Rangoli Metro Arts Center last night entitled, Foresters’ Elephants. The talk was hosted by a group called “Friends of Elephants,” and the panel of speakers were all Conservation Officers in South India who were responsible for public lands home to Elephants.

The discussion offered some intriguing insight into state and local politics in India. But the best explanation of the night came from the Chief Conservator of Forests for Kodagu in a story that could be titled “A Third Roti.”

The Conservator explained that, as a junior forest officer, he’d been assigned to a remote station. His housing took the form of an old decrepit colonial era building. This house had a vermin infestation, and the hungry rodents would get bold as he and his wife slept and would nibble at their fingers and toes. Of course, this made for sleepless nights. To solve this disconcerting problem, the Conservator took to getting a third roti with his meals. [For my India-inexperienced readers, a roti is a circular flat bread that’s a common element of meals in many parts of India.] Putting the third roti out for the rodents negated the rat’s need to engage in the mutually terrifying act of nibbling on the forest officer or his wife.

I don’t know if the story is true, and–if it is–whether it’s truly the Conservator’s story. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it’s a great use of story to make a point. The point in this case is that a solution often needs to take into account the fundamental needs of the “adversary.” In other words, regulation and punishment can’t always provide the solution–especially when basic needs are not being met. One could try to scare the rodents away or one could set traps (potentially at risk to oneself), but if the rats are driven  by hunger they might find the risk worth taking. The problem that he was addressing was the need for wood for fires, fence posts, and other needs. This caused people to enter public forests, putting themselves at risk of running into wild elephants.

The idea of trying to find a third roti for problems really resonated as an approach to creative solutions.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human PerformanceThe Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is NOT a book about the comic book hero. It’s a book about a mental state called “the flow” and how adventure and extreme athletes have used it to make tremendous strides in their sports. The characteristics of the flow include extreme focus, time dilation / time distortion, a vanishing sense of self, extremely high performance, fearlessness, and a falling away of everything non-essential to the task at hand.

Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled Flow first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book–in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow–Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.

(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good at finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.

While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech–i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.

I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.

For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.

Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was–at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate–just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)

As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and what areas shut down–which is more important to flow states. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.

Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one rooted in their own neurochemistry.

As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes by Deepak Chopra

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the WorldThe Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World by Deepak Chopra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is Deepak Chopra’s attempt to capitalize on society’s fascination with superheroes. By “capitalize” I’m not necessarily saying to “make money off of,” but perhaps to “use to his advantage in conveying his lessons.” [I’ll leave it to the reader to make judgments about the former.] There are books on the physics of superheroes, the philosophy of superheroes, and the mythology of superheroes, so why shouldn’t there be a book on the spiritual life of superheroes?

The book uses both the superheroes of mythology—i.e. Indian, Greek, Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and others—as well as the superheroes of comic books. While Chopra’s knowledge of the former is considerable, he enlists the co-authorship of his son Gotham (not named after Bruce Wayne’s hometown) to offer insight into the latter.

This book is also intended to capitalize (again, take that as you see fit) upon Chopra’s best-selling book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, but without rehashing the same laws. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes format is as straightforward as its title. There are seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Chopra’s laws. Said laws address balance, transformation, power, love, creativity, intention, and transcendence.

As I read the book, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way about the writing. It wasn’t that I had major disagreement with Chopra’s ideas, but rather the way he was stating them. At first I thought this was the use of gratuitous assertion. He often began chapters with detailed statements about what superheroes are, do, believe, and understand without much—if any–substantiation of these claims. However, as I got into the first chapter I noticed that he would put one section in each chapter that discussed an example in-depth, offering at least anecdotal support for his claims.

This still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It was because he used general statements like “superheroes know…” and “superheroes understand…,” and then provided a solitary example that fit his statement well, but leaving a vast cast of heroes that didn’t. It seemed a low form of inductive reasoning. In other words, he was attributing an enlightened way of thinking and acting to characters like Hulk and Wolverine.

Chopra and his supporters might make the claim that saying, “The Hulk understands X [insert any of the laws here]” doesn’t necessarily mean he understands them as an intellectual exercise, but rather that he shows this understanding through his behavior. Let me give a story that may make my meaning clearer.

An economist is giving a lecture on consumer behavior. Someone in the audience says, “Professor, how could consumers possibly behave in the way you suggest? Your theory requires complex Lagrangian optimization mathematics, which very few of them understand?”

The Professor replies, “Most of them don’t understand Newton’s work either, but they obey the Law of Gravity without fail.”

I thought about Chopra’s statements from this perspective, but concluded that his point was probably something entirely different. As an author of self-help books about the mind, when Chopra says “Superheroes understand X,” he’s not saying “Each and every superhero understands X,” but instead he’s saying, “If you want to be a superhero, you need to understand X.”

Accepting that that’s what Chopra meant, only one more qualm with the book remained. Laws can be clearly stated (OK, perhaps not tax law, but laws of physics—which seem to be more the kind of law he seeks to emulate), but Chopra’s discussion of his “laws” is vague and ill-defined. Each chapter begins with a large-font italics statement. I don’t know if this is supposed to be “the law” or not. It usually begins with a definition (some vaguely stated) and then statements that superheroes comport themselves in accordance with said definition. Maybe the unstated laws are supposed to be, “Superheroes live a life of balance,” and so on for the other chapters. As one trained as an economist, I’m well-aware of the wide-spread overuse of the term “law,” and maybe the ill-defined nature of Chopra’s laws is a recognition of this.

This book is written for Chopra’s usual audience of seekers of enlightenment. I don’t know that it’ll do well with hard-core science fiction or comic fans, and I don’t know that the Venn intersect of “spiritual self-help readers” and “comic book fans” is as big as Chopra would like. (But, I could be wrong.) Some of Chopra’s ideas about the potential spiritual ramifications of “quantum entanglement” are quite popular with sci-fi fans, but I’m not sure that that offers this book a clear audience. (It might. Chopra is a trained physician, and has some scientific bona fides—unlike many who share shelf space with him and who exist in a spiritual plane entirely unrelated to the world as we know it.)

All this being said, there are some thought-provoking ideas in this book, and the superhero and mythological examples help entertain and—in doing so—become the spoon of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Another testimonial is that I read most of this book in a single sitting, and I tend to jump from a chapter in one book to another book unless something really holds my interest.

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