Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 APRIL, 2013

Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah: An Uncommon Portrait of Alan Turing, Godfather of Modern Computing

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“He might ask you … whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.”

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight.

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Alan Turing

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age goes on to trace the making of an extraordinary mind and extraordinary life, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

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01 APRIL, 2013

How Abraham Maslow and His Humanistic Psychology Shaped the Modern Self

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What 1960s counterculture had to do with the timeless quest for self-actualization.

Legendary American psychologist Abraham Maslow, born on April 1, 1908, is best-known for creating the famous Maslow hierarchy of needs and endures as the founding father of humanistic psychology — the movement to focus on people’s capacity for goodness and transcendence, rather treating them as a pathological “bag of symptoms,” which blossomed into the Human Potential Movement and eventually gave rise to positive psychology. “The new age which is already upon us is essentially the product of the turning inward to the self,” he famously observed, echoing Anaïs Nin’s insistence on focusing on individual psychology and presaging Martha Nussbaum’s championing of inner life.

In Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (public library), cultural historian Jessica Grogan weaves a dramatic narrative tracing the origins of humanistic psychology in the 1950s and its blossoming in the counterculture of the 1960s, intertwined with the sexual revolution and the psychedelics underground. Grogan introduces the project:

In telling this particular story, my purpose is to make people that seriously a movement that’s been largely dismissed from the academic circles in which it arose and that’s been gratuitously associated with the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s. I also hope to remind people of a truth to which humanistic psychology was keenly attuned — that individuals in all their messy complexity should remain at the heart of psychological study and practice.

The narrative, of which Maslow is the central hero, revolves around three central arguments about the value of humanistic psychology: its emphasis on the innate human capacity for growth; its bold defense of the complexity and subjectivity of the soul; its return to William James and the roots of American psychology, humanizing a discipline that had strayed too far off into scientific reductionism; is championing of crystalline awareness as the root of fulfillment; and its wide resonance in fields as diverse as civil rights, executive management, and philosophy.

She writes:

Abraham Maslow … once asked himself in his journal how he would define the [humanistic psychology] movement in one sentence. … It is, he wrote, ‘a move away from knowledge of things and lifeless objects as basis for all philosophy, economics, science, politics, etc. (because this has failed to help with the basic human problem) toward a centering upon human needs & fulfillment & aspirations as the fundamental basis from which to derive all social institutions, philosophy, ethics, etc. I might use also for more sophisticated & hep people that it is a resacralizing of science, society, the person, etc.’

In this engrossing short film based on the book, produced by Grogan’s husband, Daniel Oppenheimer, she takes us on a journey into Maslow’s extraordinary mind and lasting legacy:

Maslow thought that we should be striving for self-actualization. That could differ for everybody, but it was this process-oriented thing, where we’re always trying to improve, we’re trying to become less guarded, less defensive, more appreciative of beauty, more in the moment, more aware, more perceptive. Feeling more, experiencing more.

Encountering America goes on to explore how Maslow and his humanistic psychology shaped the course of everything from education reform to the understanding of consciousness to the women’s liberation movement.

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29 MARCH, 2013

The Art of Observation and How to Master the Crucial Difference Between Observation and Intuition

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Why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing.

“In the field of observation,” legendary disease prevention pioneer Louis Pasteur famously proclaimed in 1854, “chance favors only the prepared mind.” “Knowledge comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us,” neuroscience godfather Wilfred Trotter asserted. That keen observation is what transmutes information into knowledge is indisputable — look no further than Sherlock Holmes and his exquisite mindfulness for a proof — but how, exactly, does one cultivate that critical faculty?

From The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library; public domain) by Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge — the same fantastic 1957 compendium that explored the role of the intuition and imagination in science and how serendipity and “chance opportunism” fuel discovery — comes a timeless meditation on the art of observation, which he insists “is not passively watching but is an active mental process,” and the importance of distinguishing it from what we call intuition.

Though a number of celebrated minds favored intuition over rationality, and even Beveridge himself extolled the merits of the intuitive in science, he sides with modern-day admonitions about our tendency to mislabel other cognitive processes as “intuition” and advises:

It is important to realize that observation is much more than merely seeing something; it also involves a mental process. In all observations there are two elements : (a) the sense-perceptual element (usually visual) and (b) the mental, which, as we have seen, may be partly conscious and partly unconscious. Where the sense-perceptual element is relatively unimportant, it is often difficult to distinguish between an observation and an ordinary intuition. For example, this sort of thing is usually referred to as an observation: “I have noticed that I get hay fever whenever I go near horses.” The hay fever and the horses are perfectly obvious, it is the connection between the two that may require astuteness to notice at first, and this is a mental process not distinguishable from an intuition. Sometimes it is possible to draw a line between the noticing and the intuition, e.g. Aristotle commented that on observing that the bright side of the moon is always toward the sun, it may suddenly occur to the observer that the explanation is that the moon shines by the light of the sun.

For the practical applications of observation, Beveridge turns to French physiologist Claude Bernard’s model, pointing out the connection-making necessary for creativity:

Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. … Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.

Echoing Jean Jacques Rousseau’s timeless words that “real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know” and Noam Chomsky’s similar assertion centuries later, Beveridge cautions:

One cannot observe everything closely, therefore one must discriminate and try to select the significant. When practicing a branch of science, the ‘trained’ observer deliberately looks for specific things which his training has taught him are significant, but in research he often has to rely on his own discrimination, guided only by his general scientific knowledge, judgment and perhaps an hypothesis which he entertains.

He cites Alan Gregg, the then-director of Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation:

Most of the knowledge and much of the genius of the research worker lie behind his selection of what is worth observing. It is a crucial choice, often determining the success or failure of months of work, often differentiating the brilliant discoverer from the … plodder.

Observation, like all virtuous habits worth acquiring, can be cultivated with deliberate practice — a skill that Beveridge argues, as E. O. Wilson advised young scientists and social scientists have corroborated, is superior to mindlessly stored knowledge:

Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.

Ultimately, Beveridge argues that the art of observation depends on developing the capacity for pattern-recognition, which in turn relies on a broad pool of networked knowledge that allows you to spot the piece that doesn’t fit:

In carrying out any observation you look deliberately for each characteristic you know may be there, for any unusual feature, and especially for any suggestive associations or relationships among the things you see, or between them and what you know. … Most of the relationships observed are due to chance and have no significance, but occasionally one will lead to a fruitful idea.

[…]

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

It seems, then, that Steven Johnson was right in augmenting Pasteur’s famous words to “chance favors the connected mind.”

Despite its title, The Art of Scientific Investigation is a priceless treasure trove of insight on creativity in all domains — highly recommended. This article was illustrated with gender-gap-defying public domain images of women in science courtesy of the ever-wonderful Flickr Commons archive.

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