Blake Riley

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Samuel Johnson by Jeffery Meyers

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Samuel Johnson: The Struggle
by Jeffery Meyers
Rating: 5/10

Three five-word summaries:
Sam feels lot of guilt.
Poor writer envies rich publishers.
Johnson equal to forty Frenchmen.

While this book is exemplary as a biography, I lost interest half way through. Johnson’s character and relationships are what shine through, rather than the actual course of his life, so while this was a worthwhile read, diminishing returns set in very quickly. Feel free to skip around rather than stick to the chronological ordering.

New York : Basic Books, 2008. xiv+528 pp.

* * *

p. 22 — “He devoured books with deadly seriousness, in the same way that he devoured food. He’d often keep a book on his lap while dining, a habit that Boswell cheekily compared to a dog holding a bone in its paws while chewing on scraps.”
p. 24 — “Johnson believed, like that other uneasy wanderer D.H. Lawrence, ‘When in doubt, move.’ ”
p. 29 — “In Johnson’s time, when the average height of an Englishman was five feet, five inches, only three men in a thousand reached his impressive height of five feet, eleven.”
p. 40 — “Aware that he’d wasted time during his first year, he promised in his diary of October 1729, the beginning of his second, to ‘bid farewell to Sloth, being resolved henceforth not to listen to her syren strains.’ But he cast this resolution in mythological rather than personal terms and, like many a vow made throughout his life, was unable to keep it.”
p.  46 — “In a famous pronouncement in Rasselas, he declared, ‘of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.’ Johnson — renowned, ironically, for his uncommon sense, sound judgment and rational thought — was terrified that his rational faculty would weaken and he would lapse into permanent darkness.
p. 48 — “The direst danger was solitude, which made his mind stagnant and morbid. His great aim in life was to escape from himself, and he tried to prevent mental disease by constant company.”

Written by blakeriley

2010.02.5 at 11:38

Posted in books, reviews

Attributes of the Icons

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I recently posted my icons, a visual reminder of intellectual inspirations and role-models. But why those nine and not others? Here are some of the key traits they share: My icons…

  • Are communicators: In particular, they tend to write for non-specialists. A selection effect is at work here; as a young grad student, I read specialist-oriented authors, but I haven’t become intimately familiar with many yet. Even so, writing for an intelligent popular audience forces clarity. My icons’ writing communicates. That may seem tautological, but too many authors send messages off into the void without being received. If the audience fails to understand, no communication has taken place. I don’t necessarily aspire to being widely read, but when I write or speak, I want my point to get across.
  • Have a sense of humor: They are clever and willing to look on the lighter side of life. Confidence in their work is a contributing factor. None are so worried about being taken seriously that their work is dry, dour, and formal. They are unafraid to let their personality come out. There is also a hint of optimism. While DFW had an occasional melancholy tone, the sarcasm endemic in modern humor is missing from all of them.
  • Have high standards: The important counterpoint to this aspect is a willingness to continue producing until their standard is met. I tend to shut projects down that set off my crap-meter. This blog is first and foremost a means for me to produce, but I still plan to attend to the good example set by these nine regarding quality.
  • Are analytical: Left-brained and often technical, they share the distinctive style of thinking associated with math, science, and philosophy.
  • Have diverse interests: They are known not just for writing on a variety of subjects, but weaving them together in defiance of subject and genre. While specialization is still a key to success, they do so by creating their own niche, rather than burrowing into an old subject.  The best way to be a specialist is to be sui generis.
  • Are foxy: In Berlin’s sense and since revived by Tetlock, foxes are likely to see complexity and nuance in the world, in contrast to hedgehogs who subscribe to overarching theories. My icons’ multiple influences and broad interests give them an appreciation of the competing explanations of the world. They tend to be more cautious and more willing to change their mind. They advance policies, ideas, and methodologies while remaining non-ideological.

The last trait explains why Robin Hanson didn’t quite make the cut. His public persona¹ is highly centered around a couple big ideas like signaling and near/far modes of thinking. Because big ideas are, by their nature, widely applicable, I frequently find myself asking what Hanson would think of a behavior or phenomenon. So, while I try to emulate foxes, one of the best ways to do so is collecting a large collection of hedgehog shoulder-daemons ready to give their explanation.

* * *

1: In a recent interview by Colin Marshall, Hanson explains he is much more of a generalist in everyday life, but thinks promoting a small core of ideas publicly will have the highest impact.

Written by blakeriley

2010.02.3 at 15:51

Posted in values

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Colin Marshall started the trend (if three data points constitute a trend) to create a grid of intellectual inspirations, role-models, or icons. Here are mine:

In order, from left to right and top to bottom,

  • David Foster Wallace: Novelist and essayist. Though I came across his work in the post-death coverage, I did not realize DFW had died until after devouring A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and  Consider the Lobster. His humor, descriptive power, and mathematical background left me grasping for any work of his I could get my hands on.
  • Colin Marshall: Broadcaster and blogger. I have a feeling Marshall would object to being placed on anyone’s icon list. Nevertheless, I admire his ambition, high personal standards, will to produce, dedication to his aesthetic, and desire to improve himself. He might not have much name recognition now, but I expect his personal brand will rise sharply in value over time.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky: AI theorist and blogger. While still at Overcoming Bias, Yudkowsky wrote daily essays for over two years, explaining everything from rationality and consciousness to quantum mechanics and ethics. Besides the high volume, his posts maintained a surprisingly high signal-to-noise ratio. His knack for coining phrases and illustrative stories makes the concepts stick, ready to be deployed in everyday thought.
  • Ben Casnocha: Entrepreneur and blogger. In addition to the obvious admiration he deserves for venturing into business so young, Casnocha strikes me as thoughtful, caring, and optimistic to an uncommon degree. His initiative and demeanor are both worth emulating.
  • Tyler Cowen: Economist and blogger. This man deserves the central position. He exemplifies Berlin’s fox, drawing insight from a vast array of sources and unwilling to hew to a single explanation. Economics, cuisine, history, literature, psychology, philosophy, and travel all play side by side in his works. Of anyone I hope to one day be compared to, it is Tyler Cowen.
  • Douglas Hofstadter: Cognitive scientist and author. Gödel, Escher, Bach is his best known work, but Le Ton beau de Marot is even more stunning. Hofstadter’s attention to quality, down to the page breaks in his books, is awesome. His ideas are deep and shook many of my previous beliefs about language and thought to the core. He introduced me to Lisp, a language that is still special to me. His works show the possiblities when you are truly committed to a project. I’m still amazed at the number of spine-tingling moments per page his writing produces.
  • Umberto Eco: Novelist and essayist. Eco’s novels have a depth to them that astounds me. Additionally, he is a public intellectual who remains surprisingly free from the fuzzy-headed thinking usually associated with that status.
  • Donald Knuth: Computer scientist, programmer, and typographer. Despite its name, Knuth’s famed Art of Computer Programming is a favorite math book of mine. I admire his tenacity in pursuing that project. Begun in 1968, the work continues into the present. Talk about long-term vision. In an effort to ensure it was done right, he invented TeX along the way, which I am grateful for. I’ve been known to put math books down solely because they weren’t typeset in TeX.
  • Paul Graham: Programmer, essayist, and venture capitalist. Graham gains bonus points for promoting Lisp, but his essays are the main target of my admiration. His writing is a paragon of relevance and clarity. He also works to foster the next generation of entrepreneurs through his venture capital firm Y Combinator.

Other close runners-up include Robin Hanson, Terry Pratchett, Seth Roberts, Edward Tufte, John Conway, and Dan Dennett.

Written by blakeriley

2010.02.2 at 21:30

Posted in people

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