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Ask HN: Mind bending books to read and never be the same as before?
961 points by behnamoh 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 719 comments
I'm looking for mind games, plot twists, brain expanding books, and literally anything that transforms me into a smarter, wiser person.

"Permutation City" by Greg Egan is mind-bending in a way similar to The Matrix, except taken up a few notches.

Explores the consequences of consciousness being just a pattern. Would it continue if the pattern is paused? Seems yes, since we survive being unconscious. So we move in space and time, but still consciousness feels continuous.

What if you pause it, destroy it, recreate it somewhere else. Would it not continue then as well (the classic teleporter question). But it doesn't stop here.

What if you destroy it, but it just happens to continue somewhere else? Then it should continue there as well. So if you think that teleportation would not mean death, then you kind of have to accept that if anywhere in the universe at any time the same pattern exists when you die, then you can't really die because you'll just continue on from there instead.

Not sure I accept it, but it's certainly mind-bending to think about!

For higher dimensional mind bending his Diaspora book is a must read!

For mind games: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi.

Plus for a related rabbit hole: the idea that a random pattern can just pop into existence and have consciousness is basically the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann_brain concept.

Diaspora was going to be my answer as well, the ending in particular. It kinda forced me to accept as inevitable that at some point my consciousness will cease, in one way or another.

I can plausibly see life extension technology arising that gives me hundreds, or even thousands of extra years of life. It doesn't seem entirely impossible to extend that premise to millions of years, but at billions it doesn't really seem fathomable, and trillions seems to be well beyond what we know about the likely fate of the universe. And once I accepted that inevitability, it suddenly seemed a lot more plausible that my time left was probably closer to decades than even centuries, let alone anything beyond that. There were definitely a fair few existential crises in the weeks and months after finishing that book.

Uuuuuhmmmm, yes, agreed. That whole story still gives me the existential shivers sometimes. The juxtaposition of the big and small. Brilliant, raw, too elegant, too calculatingly cold, too far out - and all because of its hardness (as in I don't even know if you have to suspend disbelief, it seems so perfectly real/possible), truly a masterpiece of science-fiction.

The first chapter of Diaspora is available on the author's website, I'd highly recommend reading it:


According to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_far_future

The emergence of a Boltmann brain is on the scale of "all iron stars collapse via quantum tunnelling into black holes"

The next milestone is all matter decaying, and the universe being empty..

'Very far off to left field' side note: The human brain is still active during unconsciousness.

EEG traces of the brain show this. When you are awake, drowsy, asleep, or under anesthesia, the patterns of your brain waves are very different [0,1]. But, the brain is not 'paused', it's just firing differently than when you are awake or drowsy.

So, the 'pattern' is not just 3-D, it's 4-D. You need time as well. You'd need to transport the 'trace' over vast distances, scales, and times.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_oscillation

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3288763/ Figure 1, in particular

Sometimes I wonder if I ever actually stop thinking at night; maybe I just don't remember it in the morning? Maybe every night is just laying concious for 8 hours, thinking weird dreamlike thoughts, but being unable to form memories.

I know brain measurements show that our brains operates differently during sleep, but we may still be concious, at least internally.

Have you ever had the same "sleep stage 1" experience I have?

If I start to fall asleep in the living room around people, their voices seem to become louder, I am aware of what they are saying, their sentences make sense. Yet, if I am suddenly awaken to full alertness, I will have no memory of what they were specifically talking about, although I do remember that I heard them talking. It's as though the ability to form memories went away before full conciousness went away. I believe this is a common experience, and I was fascinated when this pattern was first pointed out to me.

> sleep stage 1

Like this?


Brain activity isn't paused, just consciousness itself.

> under anesthesia

This one is actually a little different. There is much much less activity under anesthetic vs sleeping. There are even theories that going under general anesthetic actually causes some small degree of brain damage due to the shutdown.

Greg Egan's an impressively good author even though he's writing about the kinds of sci-fi setups that usually come hand-in-hand with bad dialogue and poor characters. I actually think Quarantine is my favorite of his that I've read so far, though the sci-fi parts are less strong than Permutation City, some of it's philosophical aspects about identity feel like they're more immediately relevant.

Also take a trip to his website [1] if you haven't yet.

[1] https://www.gregegan.net/

Right, he came highly recommended, but he is just boring. His stories exist to present a sci-fi concept, not be a good story. Same as Neal Stephenson's later work, which is a tragedy.

It's either this or another Greg Egan book that has simulated people reprogramming their own consciousness. Changing their thought processes, personal motivations, and memories. I think he goes into some depth on how they can do that safely and what the implications are. One character programs himself to be obsessed with carpentry and spends lifetimes of subjective simulated time trying to craft the perfect table, but has a timer to turn off that motivation after some period of time. It's a fascinating idea that has stayed with me, and I think of it every time I see another depiction of a "brain in a computer". I'm disappointed that nobody else has tackled that idea, I think people are still getting used to the concept and it will be a few years before we see something like that in some more pop-culture sci-fi.

Diaspora includes a few examples of this as well. Mathematical discoveries can only be made in the "mines", and people install these mods to make them better at mining, after working through some of the beginner steps unaltered to see if they'd like it. There's also a mod that explicitly prevents you from ever uninstalling it; I don't remember what else it even did, it seemed to spread like a slow virus through the artistic communities in the simulation.

Was it forgetting - memories fading?

I believe that's Permutation City. I don't remember the exact details from the book but there's definitely some similar things in it.

That idea also comes back in Diaspora. That book contains some nice things, like mind-grafts, procreation/creation in a non-biological society etc. Loved that book. I also like Ted Chiangs books. I.e. the idea from story of your life (a language that treats time flow differently), also "Understand" [0] is nice: What happens we we actually increase our thinking capacity. I mean that is hard to comprehend without a nice story, for a puny brain like mine.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understand_(story)

"Understand" is one of my favorite stories of all time.

Yeah, mine too! Stories are really the best way to imagine the unimaginable. Ted Chiang is a master in of this type of story (as is Greg Egan!).

Also I shouldn't have said "nobody else has tackled that idea", I am sure it has come up somewhere else. I am just thinking of recent examples like Black Mirror or the new Upload show on Amazon, that IMO miss opportunities to fully explore the implications of simulated minds. Stuff like that would be very difficult to film though...

Sounds like either Permutation City or Schild's Ladder. Greg tackles a lot of these mind-body ideas that are really intriguing.

If it's Permutation City, the character also becomes an entomologist and a skyscraper abseiler for similarly extended periods.

I think I remember reading another sci-fi book or short story that posited the classic "teleporter problem" but the device functioned by making a copy of the individual and then destroying the original, similar to The Prestige I suppose. Part of the plot centered around the original escaping that fate and then fighting for their continued existence. I think it poses a very strong argument against a copy of consciousness being a continuation since it makes no sense that there is continuity between copy and original only if the original is immediately destroyed, it just means that the copy is the only remaining instance.

Sounds like “the punch escrow“. It was okay, although definitely not one of the better books I’ve read.


Egan is a close second for my all-time favorite sci-fi author. Some of his books read like mathematical dialogues or transcriptions of lectures (lots of the Orthogonal Series is conversations between professors and their grad students reasoning about physics of a world that we don't live in), but he also delves deep into mathematics and fringe ideas and presents them in a vista where you can enjoy the absolute splendor of the abstractions.

He also never thinks small. I thought I knew "the point" of Diaspora about 6 or 7 times, but then he just "zoomed out" and made the last point look small and trivial by comparison. The opening chapter of that book is so abstract and yet describes the birth of a consciousness in a way that feels understandable, believable, and internally consistent.

If you love finding interesting puzzles to reason about, then I strongly recommend Egan's books!

I haven't read Permutation City, though. I'm bumping this one to the top of the queue :)

So who's your favorite sci-fi author?

Ian M Banks. The Culture series is the most splendid collection of books I’ve ever read. Some are better than others but collectively they build an insight into a galaxy spanning civilization.

They are both great authors, of the two I wouldn't be able to say which one is my favourite, they scratch different itches.

I agree :)

It just comes down to my preferences for what kind of itch I liked scratched the most. Egan stretches my brain and makes me wonder at the complexity of complexity. But Banks makes me yearn for the future. Demonstrates what wonders could be possible if we fast forward technological development forward 10k years.

The magnificent intellects of the artificial minds that govern the society hits me in my soul. What a wonderful idea.

Long time ago I read some idea (probably on reddit) from some guy, that was quite similar to this. The idea being is that essentially you can't die. There is no death. If universe is infinitely large and also it keeps restarting itself with big bang and some universe death all over. Then at some point. Right after you die, something exactly as you will be reborn somewhere else. Even if it takes unimaginable amount of time for that to happen. To you, that's irrelevant, you will just be immediately reborn and start again after death. Your copy might not be alive anywhere else at this moment, but it will be at some point. And well if it's exactly like you, then it's you. I found this pretty intriguing, even though I am not into any non-rational stuff. I wonder if this idea has any holes.

Not sure how that can be described as not dying, but it sounds like this:


"Eternal return (also known as eternal recurrence) is a theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.

The theory is found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt as well as Judaic wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes) and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics [and] Nietzsche..."

Ah jeez, I was just about to head to sleep. It’s like the library of Babel, but with universes. In infinite time with infinite random arrangements of matter, the matter will undoubtedly arrange itself exactly as it is right now. Thanks for the brain melt.

I could not think of a better answer. I've read this book 2 years ago and vowed to write a review or an interpretation of some sort when I got less excited. I didn't sleep for two days. And never wrote the review.

I find Greg Egan is also very good in small doses. I highly recommend his short story collection Axiomatic, where each story explores a different idea in brief. It's still hard sci-fi but it's chunked smaller so if you're less of a hard sci-fi fan you can still find it interesting.

After recommending it for years on every HN book thread I could find I'm happy to see it's not forgotten yet, really, Egan could have written at least 3 separate books with the content of Permutation City.

I bought this on Kindle after seeing it in another HN thread but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. After reading your comment I think I'll bump it up higher on my priority list.

I loved the concept in permutation city of simulating your own mind out of order, but I think it would only be possible if we can show that consciousness is a pure function. If consciousness isn't pure and therefore depends on some internal state, then simulating out of order isn't possible because you need to go through all the intermediate states to get the right output.

I don't think this is true in a quantum world.

On a similar-ish note, Neuropath by Scott Bakker.

Scott's MO through all of his books is to write about free will, specifically the idea that we don't possess it and that our brain makes decisions by itself and that consciousness is an illusion.

And the way the book kicks off is great. The story starts with the first letter of the first page. You're thrown right in.

If you can can teleport, you likely can clone, which is even more bizzare.

In this theme, "The Mind's I" by Hofstadter and Dennett is an interesting combination of short-form sci-fi and philosophy of consciousness.

It presents a well-chosen sci-fi story that explores an extreme modification to one of the parameters of consciousness, followed by an essay analyzing the consequences of that thought experiment.

• "Laws of Form" by George Spencer-Brown, a little book that describes how to bootstrap the Universe from nothing. Louis Kauffman [1] has a lot of papers/writeups on it, from knot theory to quantum physics. If you ever wanted to make a pancake truly from scratch, this is a place to start.

• "The Unconscious as Infinite Sets" by Ignacio Matte Blanco. Reformulates Freud in logico-mathematical terms and establishes a formal system (bi-logic) to describe unconsciousness phenomena: in case you ever wanted to apply category theory to study yourself.

• "The Protracted Game" by Scott Boorman. Interprets Maoist's revolutionary strategies during 1927 - 1949 period as a game of Go. Interesting both from historical, military, and game-theoretical perspective; raised an appreciation of Eastern wisdom and 'board games as a tool of thought' [2] for me.

• "The Unwritten Laws of Engineering" by W. J. King. Written in 1944, but the advice is still relevant, more so to the software engineering field. Should be at least skimmed at any part of your career.

• "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Alber Camus. Unequivocally answers the most important question there is — does life have meaning, and if not, should you kill yourself over it? I read it in my teens while wrestling with existential dread, and lived a somewhat happy and interesting life ever after.

[1]: http://homepages.math.uic.edu/~kauffman/Form.html

[2]: There's also "Laws of the Game" by Eigen & Winkler that describes natural phenomena as glass-bead games with various rules.

You would definitely appreciate Intelligence and Spirit, which employs game theory, linear logic, and Hegel towards a theory of artificial general intelligence.

Thanks a lot for the suggestion! Sounds like an interesting work in posthumanism and synthetic philosophy, definitely fits the bill.

Retroactively, I would also add "A Thousand Plateaus" by Deleuze & Guattari to this list, except that I haven't yet read the actual thing, but only dipped my toes into related studies, like e.g. "The Allure of Machinic Life" by John Johnston that traces the history of cybernetics, A-Life and AI fields and adds a Deleuzian spin on top.

This is the only case in my life where I wanted to adopt author's philosophy and learn to see the world the way they do. The content is very interdisciplinary and heavily borrows from various fields (psychoanalysis, dynamic systems theory, biology, linguistics &c) and will surely appeal to a technically minded person.


Books like that, I think there is a lot of value in just diving in and seeing what happens. I would highly recommend it.

I think that's the main idea behind the book's rhizomatic structure, as authors put it.

In general everyone should read or listen to Deleuze. Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 are mind-bending.

The Myth of Sisyphus was so helpful to me when I was a young person.

these all sound interesting but the first result of laws of form on amazon shows an edition that claims the first ever proof of the riemann hypothesis, so now i am suspicious because that is obviously a falsehood. it's possible that someone has posthumously edited the original, but either way it shows that the book attracts cranks. any thoughts on this?

i see now that wikipedia states that spencer-brown claimed applications of his approach to big conjectures that never panned out, so now i am extra dubious. it makes sense now why people would go off and try that out.

It does attract eccentric people and spiritual seekers of all sorts ([1] gives a good historical overview), but also open-minded academics, like aforementioned Kauffman; Spencer-Brown's ideas were very popular in cybernetics at the time of Macy conferences, e.g. Varela's autopoiesis was heavily influenced by LoF. I also recall reading something about how Luhmann applied it to sociology.

There are some papers/presentations about applications of ideas based on these laws: circuit optimizations, query engines, various "iconic" algebras [2, 3]; I, like you, have a hard time buying all that (ditto author's claims about Reimann hypothesis), but still, it sounds pretty damn interesting and innovative, e.g. examples of multiplication/addition in 1st vol. of "Iconic Math" were eye-opening and intuitive for me, as a person with kinaesthetic learning style, in a sense that I deeper understood what "number" and "to calculate" mean; it also promotes the invention of various ad-hoc calculi and notations, of which I am a big fan of.

For me, the greatest thing about LoF is cross-fertilization: esoterical mumbo-jumbo benefits from formalization and mathematical approach, while technical disciplines find their root in the spiritual ground; that and the thought experiment of building the world from nothing. It bridges "above" and "below", and kinda reminds me of [4].

[1]: http://www.westdenhaag.nl/information/publications/Alphabetu...

[2]: http://iconicmath.com/

[3]: https://lof50.com/

[4]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNCUIWhG4Ck

Minor correction: not at the time of Macy conferences, but rather at the dawn of the 60s and rise of second-order cybernetics; Macy conferences ended in 1960, while LoF was published in 1969.

If you want smaller, quicker payoffs (but in no way cheaper!), consider the anthologies of short stories by Ted Chiang. Most of them are 15-45 minutes to read, with a couple longer (1-2 hours).

I've read both "Stories of Your Life and Others" and "Exhalation" in the last month and I turned to my wife and said "that story just blew my mind" for probably 75% of the stories.

You can find a few online. Here is a very short but brain-tickling example: https://www.nature.com/articles/35014679

I really liked the lifecycle of software objects and liking what you see: a documentary.

All of his stories are good though.

I’d recommend True Names by Vernor Vinge and After Life by Simon Funk if you like Ted Chiang: https://sifter.org/~simon/AfterLife/

I read Stories of Your Life and Others, and felt he had some interesting ideas, but not very interesting characters, and pretty much all of his characters sounded like they had the same voice (Which, as a writer myself, I admit it can be difficult. I struggle with giving my characters distinct voices as well).

Made it hard for me to get emotionally invested in his stories, and I found them a bit of a slog to get through.

Not sure if I'll give his other books a read, but I might.

He has a background in Computer Science, by the way, for those that might be interested.

Give some of his newer stuff in "Exhalation" a try. He's improved with time. I seem to recall 'The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling' having some distinct characters, and also a really neat setting.

Social philosophy/psychology, or cultural anthropology, is mind-bending to me.

Erich Fromm's The Sane Society - on how society impacts people's mental health, and how to build towards a sane society

Fromm's The Art Of Loving - an analysis of different kinds of loves, trying to dispel pop culture's lies about love, and love is actually hard work

Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death - on how not our fear, but our complete denial of death existing leads to the weirdest outcomes in our society

Then there's political stuff -

Orwell's Essays, any large-ish collection. I find Orwell to be a much, much better non-fiction writer than fiction writer. Extremely insightful into political processes.

Robert Caro's books, perhaps the first The Years Of Lyndon B Johnson. Can't get better insights into how power works on a local and not-so-local level.

Popper's Open Society and its enemies, hard to summarise - a defense of Western society in light of the then-ongoing WW2. You probably saw the paradox of tolerance a few times pop up, that's from that book, among a ton of other stuff.

Oh if you can, try looking for similar recommendation threads from communities completely alien to you - law enforcement forums, midwife communities, car mechanics, biologists.

HN is very insular in its interests as you can see with many posts here repeating. Midwives' recommended books probably have a higher chance of truly bending your mind into novel directions.

Any good examples of “foreign interest” forums?

I reckon subreddits are a good start, even though their lists are always domain-specific too:

Biology: https://www.reddit.com/r/biology/comments/6jfscw/what_are_so...

Law enforcement: https://www.reddit.com/r/ProtectAndServe/comments/gc13w5/mus...

Midwives: https://www.reddit.com/r/Midwives/comments/32fw16/book_recom...

Any of the Ask* subreddits usually have practitioners answer: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskAnthropology/comments/bl759q/ant...

These are excellent recommendations! Will check out the ones you mentioned that I haven't read yet. Thanks for posting!

"Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life" by Rory Sutherland

Explains why we choose brands over cheaper alternatives, why we're willing to pay a lot more to lock in a deal, why we hate registering before buying the thing (but are more than happy to do so right after), why Sony removed the record button from the first Walkman, and much more.

This book forever changed the way I think about brands, and improved my design and problem-solving skills.

A couple of Rory's rules:

• The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea.

• Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will.

A couple of "mind games" from the book:

• Merely adding a geographical or topographical adjective to food – whether on a menu in a restaurant or on packaging in a supermarket – allows you to charge more for it and means you will sell more.

• "There's your problem," I said. "It doesn't matter what something tastes like in blind tastings, if you put 'low in fat' or any other health indicators on the packaging, you'll make the contents taste worse."


Thank you for posting a bookshop.org link

Whats special about that site if you dont mind my asking?

Bookshop.com sells books from independent book stores and gives the profits of the sales to your local store: https://bookshop.org/pages/about

The food rule works for anything, but Detroit. https://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2774

Detroit-style deep dish is the best style of pizza, and nothing else is in the same league.

It actually works for a lot of stuff even if it's not food. Chrysler's "Corinthian leather" marketing comes to mind.

“Desert Solitaire” by Ed Abbey and “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn. Both are wildly different but explore the question of how different the other forms of life on this planet are from ours. “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?” By Franz de Waal et al explores this from a scientific perspective.

Abbeys about more, of course. He had that rare ability to turn his book into something that felt like a direct conversation with me, the reader. I read him in my 20s and his viewpoint definitely connects with someone wanting to examine and express his/herself first before society’s overwhelming influence. He discusses trying to free himself from the conceptual confines of the human individual and societal experience while isolated in a national park. Quinn uses a hypothetical conversation between a gorilla and a person to highlight the fundamental us versus them approach humans take with the rest of earth. Then Franz de Waal really drives home that animals are likely to be much more mentally capable than we give them credit. They’re good books if you want to know something more about the universe than what your human experience is.

Edit-corrected book title.

You may want to check out We Are All Completely Ourselves by Karen Jay Fowler - a similar theme. Thanks for the recs.

If you liked Ishmael, I recommend reading The Story of B. Its subject is very similar to Ishmael but I feel that it does a better job of portraying how the us vs them is woven into the very fabric of civilization. It's also a very entertaining read.

I read Story of B as well. But I don’t have quite a clear enough memory of it to even try to summarize it as anything past a sequel. I’ll go back to revisit them some day.

Desert Solitaire* and yes it’s great.

My bad. Thank you!

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

This book makes every bit of life advice you receive afterwards feel shallow. It feels like a reference to western thought.

It's also very well translated and reads very easily, and is very short. I read about a chapter every morning when I feel motivated, and certain passages really stick in my head.

It also helps to read whenever you feel overcome with emotion because of something.

An essential part of the hustle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_o7qjN3KF8U

This is the best thing I've watched this week. xD

Oh yes, a true classic.

I found it pretty repetitive and not that inspiring. Except for a few really cool passages that were more like diamonds in the rough.

I enjoyed Blindsight by Peter Watts. It explores several different interesting ideas.

For instance, what is the point of empathy/friendship/love in a technologically advanced society? These were very useful things for our ancestors to help each other battle the harsh environment, but we have mastered our environment, so why waste brain power on empathy now?

The Wikipedia summarizes the books discussion of conciousness very well:

"The novel raises questions about the essential character of consciousness. Is the interior experience of consciousness necessary, or is externally observed behavior the sole determining characteristic of conscious experience? Is an interior emotional experience necessary for empathy, or is empathic behavior sufficient to possess empathy?

Blindsight has been one of my favorite books from my first picking it up. Watts is such a compelling author!

It looks like Blindsight is also still available for free on the author's website [1].

[1] https://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm

"Echopraxia" is the followup that takes it even further. Very dark, but also very thought-provoking.

With respect, if your takeaway from reading Watts is that we've "mastered" the environment, I implore you to read the Rifters series and/or his blog. That's about as far from his view as it's possible to get.

It's not so much "we the humans have mastered the environment" as, well, a generic sort of we. But yes, the notable thing about Watts is definitely not his sunny optimism.

"To Mock a Mockingbird" by Raymond Smullyan. From Wikipedia:

> To Mock a Mockingbird and Other Logic Puzzles: Including an Amazing Adventure in Combinatory Logic (1985, ISBN 0-19-280142-2) is a book by the mathematician and logician Raymond Smullyan. It contains many nontrivial recreational puzzles of the sort for which Smullyan is well known. It is also a gentle and humorous introduction to combinatory logic and the associated metamathematics, built on an elaborate ornithological metaphor.

Here's an example puzzle from the first half (the second half deals with combinatory logic):

> Suppose I offer to give you one of three prizes-Prize A, Prize B, or Prize C. Prize A is the best of the three, Prize B is middling, and Prize C is the booby prize. You are to make a statement; if the statement is true, then I promise to award you either Prize A or Prize B, but if your statement is false, then you get Prize C-the booby prize.

> Of course it is easy for you to be sure to win either Prize A or Prize B; all you need say is: "Two plus two is four." But suppose you have your heart set on Prize A-what statement could you make which would force me to give you Prize A?

Fun book.

“I have a gun.”

Apart from playing twice, I can't think of a statement that could exclude you from choosing arbitrarily between A and B, since within the conceit of the problem there is no way to exclude B with a mere statement.

You probably need to come up with a statement that’s true, but is made false by the act of getting B.

So, "I don't have B"? But the system is mutable, and we can easily see that the proposition is true, and then (possibly) false. Then you have to say "I will never have B". But that's not necessarily true! You would need either an oracle, some sort of iterative evaluation, or a perspective from which the entire interaction is a single static object, something like a tree of outcomes, which you allow to be used in the evaluation (e.g. one possible implementation of an oracle). I find all of this highly unsatisfying.

"You will not award me prize B for this response."

Good enough. All this sort of thing becomes a Genie problem if you think about it too much. We all get what the solution means.

For this statement I will receive prize A or C.

"False, there is the possibility of me awarding you prize B. So here's prize C"

The answer is false and evaluation is true until the prize is actually given. Then the answer becomes true and the evaluation false.

I wonder if the question could be reworded somehow to say that the prize being awarded and the statement being evaluated true/false will happen at the same instant without taking the fun out of it.

You're not supposed to spoil it. The whole point of these puzzles is the joy and knowledge you gets from solving them on your own. Publishing the answers is selfish.

Well, I for one don't consider this a satisfying solution (you could argue it does not count as a solution at all). How is the host supposed to evaluate the future? As I said in another comment, for that the host either needs iteration or an oracle, and both of those are missing from the premise of the question. It's like asking riddle where the solution is "Use a time-machine" when no time-machine is mentioned in the riddle: it's indicative of a riddle so weak it's almost an insult.

> How is the host supposed to evaluate the future?

I don't see how "evaluation of the future" is relevant. The person hosting the game has laid out the conditions for his actions. If you say "you will not give me prize B in response to this statement":

1) If the host were to give you prize B, that would be a contradiction, as that would make your statement false, so you should have received C.

2) If the host were to give you prize C, that would be a contradiction, as that would make your statement true; per the rules, you should not have received prize C (or logically equivalent: you should have received one of A or B).

3) If the host were to give you prize A, there is no contradiction.

The only action the host can make, while honoring the rules they laid out, is to give you prize A. The host, assuming they're decent at logic (which is a premise of such problems), would consider the above and realize that they must give you prize A. There's no need for reading the future; they must merely know what actions they are permitted to make given the rules of the game, and given only one valid course of action, they must take take that action.

I don't consider it a statement about the future but rather about the inevitable consequence whenever this game is played. Maybe it should be rephrased as: For this statement one will receive prize A or C.

@Carapace I find joy in discussing the validity of answers like this and such discussion is not possible without posting the answer first. I do feel sorry if I spoiled someone the joy of puzzling themselves though.

>I don't consider it a statement about the future

Okay, so what does one will receive mean, if it doesn't reference the future???

Yeah, I haven't quite got the hang of it myself. The encoding of formal logic in English sentences is fraught with ambiguity until you grok the specific style used.

Here's an example (SPOILER ALERT: with solution) of what I mean. The English version is just a verbose translation of a simple Boolean table.

    Black-Hat Chuck

    :date: 2014-02-01 10:56
    :summary: A solution to the Three Hats puzzle.

    I recently ran across a `cool puzzle site`_. Here is one of the puzzles
    and a solution:

        There are 3 black hats and 2 white hats in a box. Three men (we will
        call them A, B, & C) each reach into the box and place one of the
        hats on his own head. They cannot see what color hat they have
        chosen. The men are situated in a way that A can see the hats on B &
        C's heads, B can only see the hat on C's head and C cannot see any
        hats. When A is asked if he knows the color of the hat he is wearing,
        he says no. When B is asked if he knows the color of the hat he is
        wearing he says no. When C is asked if he knows the color of the hat
        he is wearing he says yes and he is correct. What color hat and how
        can this be?

    .. class:: attribution caption

    ~ `Three Hats`_


    I'm going to call the three men Alan, Bob, and Chuck.

    First, let's imagine what Alan might be able to see. There are four

    ===========  =============
     Bob's Hat    Chuck's Hat
    ===========  =============
     White        White
     Black        White
     White        Black
     Black        Black
    ===========  =============

    Since there are only two white hats, if Alan sees that both Bob's and
    Chuck's hats are white his own hat would have to be black.  In other
    words, by admitting that he can't tell which hat he is wearing Alan is
    saying that either or both of Bob's and Chuck's hats are black.  If we
    eliminate the case of both hats being white we are left with three

    ===========  =============
     Bob's Hat    Chuck's Hat
    ===========  =============
     Black        White
     White        Black
     Black        Black
    ===========  =============

    From this it should be easy to see that if Bob sees that Chuck's hat is
    white his own hat would have to be black.  Bob would be uncertain of the
    color of his own hat only if Chuck's hat is black.  So Chuck, being no
    dummy, can conclude that his own hat is black.

    It's an elegant puzzle with a very simple and satisfying solution.

    .. _cool puzzle site: http://wuriddles.com/

    .. _Three Hats: http://wuriddles.com/easy.shtml#3hats

Here's a nice variation to the problem, and the solution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5vJSNXPEwA

"Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy" by Thomas Sowell. I read this as a teenager with only limited exposure to economics and it cleared up many misconceptions I held.

"Psycho-cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. A plastic surgeon shares his techniques for achieving your goals in life. 95% if not more of self-help books today borrow (consciously or not) ideas discussed in this book, and often discuss them with much less depth.

"Basic Economics" was also very effective for clearing misconceptions I held.

If you want a bit of a political counterbalance to Sowell, try Chang's Economics: The User's Guide

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was maybe the most important book I read as a teenager, and I still go back and reread it every so often. It should be required reading.

For fiction, “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy, “100 Years of Solitude” by Marquez, and “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison (or really anything by Toni Morrison, it’s all amazing).

Also, Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of the Heart Sutra, “The Other Shore”, gave me a much deeper understanding of my meditative practice and the way I understand consciousness.

I'll second “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. I read it in high school and it blew my mind. Must read.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson features a bifurcated world where a scholar-monk-class of mathematicians lives in walled-off areas that mingle with the rest of the world only on fixed dates. Some every year, some every ten years, and others only every 100 years. There is a lot more to it, but I don't want to give anything away.

Anathem features an awesome world, but I wouldn't call the book mind-bending.

Anathem is definitely my favorite Stephenson book. I've read all of his books except for his newest book, and I have yet to finish Seveneves - I didn't want it to end, so I put it down.

I concur. I’ve probably read Anathem a dozen times or more over the years. It’s had a significant impact on how I look at the world.

Snow Crash by the same author changed my thinking. The idea of an ideology as a conceptual virus really transformed my thinking towards religion. I was already an atheist, but it really made me see it in a new light-- the way religion can consume people's minds and seems to spread from one to another like a sickness.

Life changing books...

I read Decartes in high school during the teenage existential crises we all go through and it blew my mind. Opened me up to the power of thinking from first principles and a love of philosophy and questioning everything. Cogito, ergo sum!

"Atlas Shrugged" gets a lot of hate, but it's a phenomenally important book. It was one of those that completely consumed me during the read. I could not put it down – stayed up late, work up early, and rushed home from work to get back to it.

"Rework", "Getting Real", the other books by the old 37signals crew, and of course "The Lean Startup" really changed the way I thought about software development and business. I credit them for much of my startup/programming success.

Taleb's Incerto series changed how I thought about investing, risk, and life in general. "Fooled by Randomness" and "Antifragile" are especially good.

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig takes you deep into the philosophy on what is 'quality'. Once you see it you can't unsee it.

A powerful excerpt from the book: 'So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces the right values, the right values produce the right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.'

Despite all the praise it got, I really struggled with that book. I hated it so much that I had to check if I didn't pick the wrong book by accident. I found that it's a very polarising book. It's life-changing for some, and garbage for others.

There were a few insightful passages, but most of the book was pretentious rambling. It was difficult to understand what the author was even trying to say, with his head so far up his butt. It has a promising beginning, but becomes increasingly dense and confusing.

Quality is the ability of a thing to do its job. Chasing the definition of that word doesn't warrant a spiral into insanity.

> It's life-changing for some, and garbage for others.

I feel this way about Catcher in the Rye. My English teacher recommended it to me obviously on the basis that I was an angsty teenager that would identify with Holden Caulfield. But what a pile of crap it is. I still want back the hours I wasted on reading that stupid boring book.

It's a loathsome book for some people, even angsty teenagers, because not all of them are angsty for the same reasons.

I didn't enjoy it either when I was reading it, but later appreciated that it depicted a certain kind of angst— that of someone leaving childhood for adulthood, feeling anxious and threatened by this shift, and wishing to just remain as the most adult-like child (the "catcher in the rye" that gives the book its title) instead of having to go through that awkward period of being the most childlike adult.

Under that reading, it's much less irritating, because Holden isn't supposed to be valorized, just understood.

I loved Salinger's books when I was a teenager in the 80s. I just don't think his work is relevant today. The major themes are about how everyone else is a conformist and a phony. Both ideas have been turned inside out since Salinger wrote his books. What does being a "phony" mean if you're a YouTube star or say the President of the United States?

That's a weird recommendation. I think you might have viewed it differently as a bit of a retrospective or perspective piece.

I can't possibly so how the teacher thought suggesting that book to an angsty teen to be a good idea. That's the time kids need to have their world opened, not their angst re-affirmed. Very strange.

Thing is I was already reading some pretty bleak stuff at the time, e.g. Brave New World and 1984, and as you can probably imagine the trials of a mopey teenager didn't really impress much when put up against poor Winston and Room 101 etc.

Haha fair enough

This was required reading in a highschool English class. I really enjoyed it then.

Tried to read it again in my early 30s and stopped about 20 pages in, just thought it was terrible.

I found it to be an "atmospheric" (for the lack of a better word) book -- you understand by feeling as much as by, well, direct understanding. Kind of like Master and Margarita (which some people also find pedestrian).

I had a similar experience.

Reading secondary literature gave me some context about Pirsig's own mental illness and his struggles overcoming his son's death, but in the end I was still disappointed.

Edit: Also, it's not about motorcycles at all. If you are interested in motorcycle travel, read Ted Simon's Jupiter's Travels instead.

I really wanted to like JT. But Simon is a poor writer who wanders as much on the page as he did on his bike. An an author he's no comparison with Pirsig who had much more to say than merely, "I went somewhere and saw something."

Better books on motorcycling are "Long Way Round" by McGregor and Boorman or anything by Peter Egan.

Pirsig's ZatAoMM is my all-time favorite book, though I didn't finish it at first reading. The trick before reading it is not to put the book into a cubbyhole of personal preexisting expectations. It's not a travel book. It's a personal journey of discovery that just happens to be on a motorcycle. Essentially, Pirsig's bike trip is a metaphor to revisit his fragmented past and forgotten identity through the lens of a curious mind. It's a personal quest to know who he is (and was) and what in life has value that lasts.

For me, the book was transcendent.

I read Jupiter's Travels right after. It's indeed a much better book about motorcycle travel. It's a very accurate depiction of what it's like to travel on a motorcycle. It still blows my mind that someone achieved this before ATMs, hotel booking sites and fuel injection.

I had read it when I was younger and thought much of the same thing. Years later someone taught me about mindfulness in a completely different context and after applying that thinking to other aspects of my life I picked that book up again. I was able to appreciate it much more the second time.

I came to the conclusion that the book is actually about mental illness, whether intentional or otherwise.

The first time I tried to read it, I got frustrated with his style and quit -- I had been skimming over the story parts to get to the philosophy, and it was exhausting. I liked it better the second time when I wasn't as rushed.

For me the takeaways were: 1. Getting into a state of 'flow' is the ideal way to work. 2. Being dependent on technology one doesn't understand (& hence on people who do understand it) is an unpleasant fact of modern life. 3. Our culture still hasn't shaken the tendency to denigrate pleasure, and the subjective in general.

Quality is ranking things or people by their properties. Things that suck at their job can still be ranked.

You have to balance the idea and quantity of a piece to describe it's properties. Then you can rank it into a hierarchy. The UK runs on this principle of reception and qualitative judgement.

Turning the brain off with "peace of mind" is necessary, can't be thinking up new ideas and directing thoughts when you are in a state of reception, nor can you be excessively self-aware of your own being.

I haven't read Zen, it seems boring to be in that state of reception all the time, to me.

> Quality is the ability of a thing to do its job.

He was an English teacher trying to judge the quality of rhetoric though, which doesn’t have a job other than to be quality.

I thought it worked as a story, but the philosophical insights of it were either junk or too subtle for me to understand.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. I have similar sentiments about Cohelo's Alchemist and even Ayn Rands fountainhead (didn't read the second book).

I tried this book and wanted to like it. I couldn't. There's something about that "lessons in disguise" type of style that doesn't click with me. I feel it tries too hard when those lessons and the analogies are things that could be explicitly said without so much ceremony. I also found the story itself rather boring.

I prefer a book like Siddartha by HH. The lessons are there, but the interpretation is open and the narrative is not compromised. You start reading it and you don't want to stop reading it because you're now part of Siddharta's journey. You’re no expecting the punch line that has the lesson, you simply live the story and therefore live the lesson.

Really tried hard reading that book given all the praise it got...but I just couldn't make it past like 20% mark

Once I moved to a new city and business wouldn't start until a few days later. Some time to spare, I walked into the first bookstore I saw on the street. There in the corner this book caught my attention, well, because I like motorcycles and thought the cover looks appealing.

Still the best random buy I ever did.

There is so much joy in picking up an unknown book from an unknown author in an actual bookshop, then reading it and discovering that it’s So Good, that Amazon just cannot match.

One of the things I really miss of my Italian youth is having tons of quality bookshops at every corner. England outside London is sorely lacking in that respect.

How would that work in a programming environment, to not separate one self from the surroundings?

There’s another great book on Zen called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. I think what Persig is getting at is “non-judgmental observation”. The ability to look at things with no ego involved, like an absolute beginner — so that you’re mind is open to the solutions that naturally present themselves.

Both of these books had a big influence on Phil Jackson — the Bulls basketball coach. His interpretation was to not “force” things — to let them unfold.

So, for coding it could be applied by not forcing solutions and instead really calmly contemplating a system until you get to a point where the next right decision reveals itself. The idea being that the solution is there, and you just have to be open to it — rather than seeing yourself as some separate entity that’s going to impose a solution on it.


> Prince Wang's programmer was coding software. His fingers danced upon the keyboard. The program compiled without an error message, and the program ran like a gentle wind.

"Excellent!" the Prince exclaimed. "Your technique is faultless!"

"Technique?" said the programmer, turning from his terminal. "What I follow is Tao -- beyond all techniques! When I first began to program, I would see before me the whole problem in one mass. After three years, I no longer saw this mass. Instead, I used subroutines. But now I see nothing. My whole being exists in a formless void. My senses are idle. My spirit, free to work without a plan, follows its own instinct. In short, my program writes itself. True, sometimes there are difficult problems. I see them coming, I slow down, I watch silently. Then I change a single line of code and the difficulties vanish like puffs of idle smoke. I then compile the program. I sit still and let the joy of the work fill my being. I close my eyes for a moment and then log off."

Prince Wang said, "Would that all of my programmers were as wise!"

Another legend said something similar in another field: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhvBTy28VJM

> calmly contemplating a system until you get to a point where the next right decision reveals itself.

I think I am not getting it because that just sounds like thinking about things and designing stuff.

I mean, sometimes, I focus on getting the right primitives so that the rest of the decisions just naturally fall out from that, but I'm not sure that's what you meant.

In the book he uses the example of trying to get a stripped screw out of something. It’s a classic example of where a lot of people will kind of mindlessly make the problem worse. But when you approach it calmly, maybe it leads you to realize it just needs some oil applied to it, etc.

So, I think we’ve all been there with coding where in either a rush, or driven by ego to solve the problem in some impressive way, we kind of get ourselves tied up. But when we calm our mind, it’s easier to see, “oh, I can just leverage this little change”.

... The idea is that, simultaneously, categories are an extremely powerful intellectual tool, and also imprison your thoughts.

In general life, as an odd monkey wandering around a built environment, that's Zen. The categories being challenged include such fundamental ones as "Self/Other"

In coding, identifying categories and choosing to perceive them or ignore them is fundamental to debugging. "The variable claims it's $foo; but I see back there it was set to $bar...." Strip away a layer of assumptions, and look underneath at what is _really_ there.

Iterated, this is what leads you to understanding performance all the way down to the silicon.

A lot of decisions are based on choosing one of two actions. You can think of them as doors. "Do I pick Door A or Door B?"

Sometimes you know that Door A is by far the "right" choice, but maybe it's the harder one. Taking a minute to drop your ego may make the choice easier. "Yeah, A is hard now, but B will bring much more pain later."

It may help to frame you decisions based on the hypothetical "1000x programmer". You acknowledge that this programmer is the absolute best. Every choice they make is literary a life or death decision, so they always make the right choice. What would they do in this situation? They would write that unit test!

Other times you don't know which one is the "right" choice. In those cases it actually doesn't matter, does it? Worrying about what may happen if you choose "wrong" will not change what's on either side of the doors.

Choose one and get on to the next set of doors. If you weren't happy with the outcome don't beat yourself up over it, instead use what you learned to better inform your future decisions.

House of Leaves is a great novel. Will feel like a completely fresh take on narrative form.

Infinite Jest is also great, if you haven't read it. It gets a lot of bad press mostly due to being fetishized by a particular type of insufferable person. The book has its flaws, but is a great piece of writing and (depending how old you are, where you are in life, etc) may offer a different lens. Also, the writing is excellent.

I didn't finish Infinite Jest. I found it kind of insufferable. I really don't want to detract from anyone who found it enjoyable; it's surely a monumental work. But personally it felt incredibly depressing and that made it hard to read.

The dialogues made it feel like experiencing isolation and disconnection from other people; the characters talk to each other, but don't listen or care for anyone but themselves or the ones/things they deify.

The thing is, I think that was kind of the point of the book (at least as far as I read). But I couldn't handle it. That, on top of the many paragraphs of needlessly esoteric language he peppers in, made me feel like I was reading a book written for someone else.

Should I go back and finish the book? What makes it compelling to others?

My favorite aspect of the book is the way in which it depicts “addiction” in its many forms such as being addicted to drugs, playing sports, consumer products or work. It makes you think hard about the elusive nature of happiness and fulfillment.

That was my primary takeaway as well. Some people I've talked to about it didn't quite get that theme from it, but I think it helps frame its point in a less scattershot way. It is still a concept I constantly think about, though it doesn't help me avoid the pitfalls much, which I think is also kind of the point.

I've just started it - I'm about 10% of the way in and I'm really engaged - enjoying it but with a kind of mental equivalent of full-body exhaustion way after a big day at the beach - it's fun but also hard and sometimes just plain difficult. I think DFW was swimming in so many ideas & feelings that Infinite Jest was a way of letting it all come out in a Kerouacian-stream without much thought for concision.

If it helps anyone decide whether to give it a go, two recent books I read and loved were 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and Underworld by Don DeLillo, and Infinite Jest is satisfying me in the hard-earned way they both did.

The first time I tried reading it, I gave up after about 20 pages. I had the same reaction to the language you did.

Tried again about 5 years later and loved it. I suppose you just have to be in the right mindset when you approach it.

I've read both of these, and don't recommend them.

House of Leaves has a very uninteresting plot, and raises more questions than it answers. It's physically painful to read, because most pages, you have to rotate the entire book every which way since the words go in spirals.

Infinite Jest is good, but way too long. A good 70% of the book could have been cut out or condensed. The writing is also intentionally bad, which makes it harder to read. There are definitely good lines, but it's kind of like DFW used a random sentence generator and some of the lines just happened to be amazing, but 90% of it is garbage.

Re House of Leaves, I don't recall it being most pages. There was a flurry of those at the end, but I found it was an effective machination that heightened the drama rather than distracted.

House of Leaves blew me away when I read it after it came out. I agree that is a fresh take on narrative form, and I personally found the process of reading it quite fun.

Infinite Jest has been for a long time in my must read list, but never got to reading it. Heard not much, but only good things about it.

>depending how old you are, where you are in life, etc may offer a different lens.

Could you elaborate more on this? I am curious. Maybe I could be right now in that situation. So in that case it would be optimal to start reading it now instead of in a year or two.

Frankly I don't know what the parent is really referring to, I think you can enjoy it at any age. I think quarantine is a great time to read it because it is a looooong read and it should provide some much-needed laughter.

So many good suggestions here! I'll try adding two more

[1] "So Good They Can’t Ignore You" by Cal Newport. It changed the way I look at my career and how I view my personal development.

[2] ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession by the US Army. Looking past the militaristic stuff, it made me change the way I see leader/subordinate relationships and how to start becoming a person others can depend on and look up to.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Good-They-Cant-Ignore-You/dp/14555091...

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Army-Doctrine-Publication-Leadership-...

I just want to comment that the Army publication you listed is really good. While you can only learn so much about leadership from books, the military is one of the best organizations at explaining what leadership is. There is another pub from the Marines that is similar and equally high quality. I think it is called "Leading Marines" or something like that.

Also, FYI, all of these publications are free online. Here is the Army one you linked to: https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN2003...

Highly recommended for everyone: "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahenman.

If you have difficulty interacting with people

1. How to win friends and influence people (Easy read) 2. Seven habits of highly effective people (Harder read)

To learn how to write well: On writing well

To understand how large products are made: Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT

I have a conflicting relationship with "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and maybe some of you may relate to this.

Disclaimer: I only read a small, initial part of the book, and I'll explain the reasons behind this.

For one, I liked the initial parts of it; for example, remembering first names is a nice and very attentive thing to do, and in general people appreciate it when I can remember their first name after meeting them a second and third time.

On the other side, I found it to be of a very manipulative nature (shouldn't be a surprise; the title contains an "influence people" part), which rubbed me the wrong way; the book presents some techniques that help you get "what you want," but are quite superficial and hollow, i.e., you only pretend to be interested. That's why I decided to stop reading the book.

The conflicting part in all this is the fact that I see this book recommended all the time (and it's one of the best-selling books of all-time), but I just cannot ignore its manipulative nature.

It might be that I'm simply not part of its target audience or that I'm misinterpreting the messages in the book.

Nonetheless, I'd be interested to read your (and other fellow HNers) comments on this book.

It's probably been 32 years since I read How to Win Friends, but my take on it was that it is like many things we learn throughout life - first we model, they we practice, finally we make it part of our nature, and eventually we achieve mastery.

I didn't come away with the impression that the techniques are intended to be used in a hollow, phony way, so much as to show the reader a set of steps to get started toward genuinely showing interest in other people.

Not everyone can jump right in to Siddhartha or Zen and the Art or some of these heavier books that might take people out of their default self-absorption towards greater awareness of other people and their needs, but Carnegie wrote something that is easy to access and get people started down a path.

> i.e., you only pretend to be interested.

No. The book requires you to take a "genuine interest in people" and must repeat that seven dozen times. It also dismisses flattery and smoke-blowing and favors legitimate praise. I think sincerity is one of the key takeaways (and also the hardest parts to master) of that great book.

I think the book is very polarizing. You either read it as “compassionate” or as “manipulative”.

For me, I’ve often been teased for missing certain “obvious” gestures my whole life. But I’m not bad with people.

Since I’m naturally an optimist and compassionate, I read it as the former category. It was helpful for me to help identify what behaviors I already do that I should reinforce to help strengthen my relationships with other people.

I find a lot of self-help books are (sort of) “common sense” already, but that by reinforcing certain “nodes” in my brain’s “knowledge graph” I’m better able to reason about the knowledge later.

Put another way, if I’m interested enough to read a book about making friends, by reviewing information about “successful patterns” to makes friends I’m better able to reason about _how I can make friends_. It isn’t manipulative to start a conversation in a coffee shop with somebody! (Unless I’m “manipulating” somebody by asking for their contact info..?)

I agree with what you said. The book encourages all kinds of shortcuts (not explicitly though), and later on I found other books to be much better on the same topics.

However, it is very very easy to read and follow. And if you are not a social person, the book is a good first read.

Years ago I read an interview with Marlon Brando in Playboy. He remarked that How to Win Friends and Influence People was "a book on hustling."

In China, the book is very popular and is sold under the title "The Weaknesses of Human Nature."

Two things -

1. Seven habits - I can't get past Covey's personal 'experiences'. They are just seemingly so contrived and fake that they just ruin the entire thought process for me. It seems like he had to make up things that related to the covenants. Is that just me?

2. For writing - I would also suggest 'On Writing' by Stephen King for this as a different take. It's probably the best 'how to write' book ever made. It's King's personal take on the theory of writing, with lessons sprinkled throughout. So good.

> 1. Seven habits - I can't get past Covey's personal 'experiences'. They are just seemingly so contrived and fake that they just ruin the entire thought process for me. It seems like he had to make up things that related to the covenants. Is that just me?

Lots of self-help and pop-business books do this and above other factors like all the padding (so very much of it), it's ruined the genre for me. Hate that crap. Makes me think their advice is bullshit.

I made it a ways into Never Split the Difference and got a little useful material out of it, but bounced off when I reached a can't-possibly-be-real story about the author buying a car and getting a great price by (he claims) just repeatedly asking "how can I do that?" (or similar) when presented with a price above what he'd offered. Give me a break. "Well, you're in luck, our rates on 5-year loans are great right now, let me introduce you to our finance guy", the salesman, implausibly, never says, instead just acting confused and stupid the whole time and eventually giving in. Dafuq? Either the author actually got had and didn't realize it, or that story was at best a half-truth.

My issue with King is that to me at least, he’s a terrible writer. Prolific doesn’t mean quality. I’m suspect what someone can get out of a book about writing from someone who writes poorly.

Read the book. I was in the same camp as you. Most of his writing is just hack nonsense. But, some is well written (The Stand, Misery, Shawshank, The Green Mile, Cujo, for example). He's just inconsistent.

Seriously, read the On Writing book. It really set his theory up for me to understand exactly why he's inconsistent. You can read his books and tell when he's thinking and processing, versus when he's writing to pay for a car or house or whatever.

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" was pretty underwhelming to me given the hype. There's much better stuff out there if you're interested in cognitive biases, behavior, etc.

Can you enumerate the better stuff if possible?

Sure. Stuff like Taleb's "Fooled by Randomness" or Caldini's "Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion" stand out as much better off the top of my head. There's more, but I'd have to go back to my notes.

Please do, those are both excellent choices.

Amusingly, the introduction to "Seven Habits" starts off arguing against a hollow "personality ethic" approach pushed by other self-help books. I could be misinterpreting, but I believe that this is Covey insulting "How to Win Friends."

I found both books full of obvious things, but also found that reading and reflecting on obvious things can still go a long way for self-improvement. Personally, I didn't like "7 Habits" though because Covey is always saying his methods/truths are "self-evident" and he uses the "this is true because it would be dumb to think otherwise" line of reasoning at the points in the book when I thought his argument was weakest.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is good if you like pop-sci, but has aged like milk if you are into the science.

I respect Kahneman for walking back some of his claims since but he needs to publish a revision.

Agreed. I ate that book up for the first half, and when I came across the concept of "priming" I was obsessed. I looked it up only to find it had been largely debunked. Immediately lost interest. There are some great concepts in there, but it's not worth my time to tease out what is and is not legitimate.

I'd also want him to publish a revision, I've enjoyed listening to Kahneman on podcasts and have nothing against him as an author

On "Thinking Fast and Slow", you may want to read criticisms of the book. For example, "Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went off the Rails", https://replicationindex.com/2017/02/02/reconstruction-of-a-...

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" is a book I buy for every person for their first birthday after I met them. It is the book that has had the most profound impact on me thus far.

Is there some mind bending revelation in the second half? I read the first half and have not mustered the will to read the rest of it. It just seems so... "obvious" for lack of a better word. Maybe I've had too much psychology lectures or something, but nothing in the first half was remotely new to me.

I read part of it as well, and it came across as one of those books that is basically a fairly simple premise that can be summarized in one paragraph, padded out to fill a book.

I mean "how to win friends" is similar, it can be summarized with just the 12 chapters, and it's padded out with anecdotes putting it in practice.

I'm sure Seven Habits is the same, I have it on my bookshelf (mandatory reading from my previous employer) and I think I started reading it but I lost interest.

I'm with you. I tried to get into that book - but felt it was a lot of verbiage and new phrases to describe things that already had terms. I gave up about a 1/3 the way through.

Most likely no one is going to like this post. My father was a physicist and he had a large library of books. Growing up all of these books were over my head but I tried reading all of them. The more difficult the book the more determined I became to read and understand the content. I found this to be mind expanding. I began a life long quest to read the most difficult books and texts I could find. It sometimes takes several passes. Some things didn't make sense until years later. I recommend reading outside your comfort zone and above your comprehension. The book doesn't expand your mind it's the reading process and thinking about the reading that forces the mind to expand. I have done this for 50 years and I still do it every day It's not one book but the sum total of books that expand your mind. Read with curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. A man who reads one book lives once life while a man who reads a thousand books life experiences thousands of lives. I hope these word aren't wasted. I thought my fathers library was the library of Alexandria and it was until I got a library card.

This is precisely what Mortimer Adler suggests in his book "How to Read a Book", to read above your current levels this is only how you grow your mind.

Strong advice but I feel it's much harder nowadays to go down that route when there are distractions like YouTube videos that are easy to watch and make you feel you're learning when really it's scratching a superficial curiosity itch with no depth.

That said, to answer OP's question, I got Mortimer's book called "Great Treasury of Western Thought" that has compiled quotes from Western classics into key themes (the human condition, love, religions, etc), and it provided the missing link between getting meaty samples of key concepts, versus actually reading ALL the classics (the book started as the the index or 'syntopicon' of the 'Great Books of the Western World', a full compilation of Western works)

Aside: The Syntopicon by Adler et. al. is an amazing resource. It is nearly incomprehensible and is keyed to specific editions of The Great Works of the Western World. But, my lord, if you get the ducks lined up in a row, the Syntopicon is an amazing piece of work.

This is a very specific question but... Stoner by John Williams is one of my favorite books. It was also more difficult for me to read than other books I typically pick up which are primarily sci-fi and NYT bestseller fiction books.

When I read the Wiki for Stoner years ago I saw this line, "Bryan Appleyard's review quotes critic D.G. Myers saying that the novel was a good book for beginners in the world of "serious literature"". I looked up D.G. Myers and to see if he had a list of serious literature or a twitter where I could ask about such a list only to find he passed away in 2014.

Does anyone know of such a list? Googling provides results but nothing... conclusive.

I was recommended Stoner by someone I respect. "Lists" of serious literature are usually crap; either apple polishing bullshit, or political oriented nonsense. I've tried this sort of thing; even Adler related "Great Books" groups are hot garbage at this point. You need to find well read people worthy of respect.

Anyway, Bloom's list: http://sonic.net/~rteeter/grtbloom.html

Adler's: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books_of_the_Western_Wor...

Stoner isn't on either one of them lists, FWIIW. Neither are other favorites of mine, such as The Bjorndal Saga.

I take well known lists (e.g. Gates') with a grain of salt, but cross referencing with personal recommendations has worked well. I ended up getting a copy of Stoner after it came up a few times in as many weeks, so it was handy last time I went on vacation.

I also usually search HN for threads like these when I'm looking for things to read. I'm fairly certain that's how I came across Seveneves.

Fantastic. That's two books I will look into.

I did a little searching this morning and did find D.G. Myers old blog where he posts a few of his favorite novels, including Stoner. Link here: https://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2012/12/my-favorite-martians.ht...

I struggle with this since I also want to read something I enjoy and not make it a chore. I tried reading Moby Dick recently and was so disappointed. I wanted to read the original but the old English threw me off and I found it boring.

Reading literature's pretty different from reading easy fiction. It takes a different approach and mindset to appreciate it but it's incredibly rewarding when one does. Think "acquired taste", or maybe the difference between reading a pop-math book and a math textbook. Ditto reading non-contemporary fiction, so that's two hurdles to overcome in this case. I don't have any sage advice on how to gain the ability to read and enjoy literature, aside from that for most people it takes practice and persistence before it's comfortable, like getting used to the temperature of a pool. Starting small helps and is probably how most people work up to the point of being genuinely excited and gripped by something like Moby Dick.

I guess if I had any advice to offer to someone wanting to achieve that (if it's an achievement) it'd be to try older popular literature (try King Solomon's Mines, it's amazing, then work your way to even older stuff) to get used to older English (nb not Old English, which is another thing entirely and you're not likely to encounter much of it in anything but an extremely deep reading of English lit) and to read short, relatively easy "literary" works that are more recent. Vonnegut's way at the easy end. Maybe try Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or his short stories? Salinger's Nine Stories? I'm not sure—at this point I have trouble judging what's approachable. I'd make a terrible teacher of literature.

Lots of things kinda work this way. Jazz and "classical" music usually take some work on the listener's part, to personally learn and develop, before they yield their greatest fruits. Most folks have trouble enjoying silent films, but there are some damn good ones out there. Just takes effort and time.

This is one of my favorite books. Frank Muller has an audiobook that makes it even better.

Moby Dick and Blood Meridian both have a certain biblical feel to them which really hits hard. Can't say they were mind bending but both were nice trips.

I liked your post.

I'll just add that the sweet spot for learning is rarely as far out as your younger self found it to be (much to the credit of your youthful determination). Too easy, and one's engaging in little more than practice. Too hard, and one lacks the conceptual framework onto which extend one's understanding.

However, I do definitely agree with your advice not to fear the uncomfortable feeling of being at the hard end of the spectrum. With time and determination, we're often capable of longer grasps than we realize.

Any advice on how to balance learning/knowing theory vs practical stuff? As a kid, I read tons of books. While I don't regret it, I kinda wish I had spent some time outside doing socializing and physical activities. I'm in awe of people who seem perfectly happy with a book by themselves but also get along nicely with other people as needed.

The best way I know to balance is by scheduling your time. Maybe keeping a log. When I read I usually read two or three books at a time with one book being very difficult and one being normal. I will switch books every 10 minutes to build my recall. I am extremely introverted so I don't talk to people unless I have to. I prefer to write.

I actually am planning to buy a handful of books that are way outside my education / intelligence level in hope to gain a better understanding of some concepts and tech that I'm interested in. Well see how this goes.

I had a similar experience! My grandfather was a Phd in bio from Harvard so I had his library to peruse. My favorite difficult book was Biology and Knowledge by Jean Piaget.

TLDR: Read hard books and keep increasing the level.

I agree 100%. The hardest general books are probably in the area of philosophy. My recent fav: The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper.

I reread Moby Dick as an adult within the last couple years. Found it far more interesting than I did when I was young. The book plays on narration in far more complex ways than I remembered.

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Seriously. Read it. The horrors of war leaked into your brain through a sci-fi novel. If you enjoy that, try Player Piano, a moral discourse on technology and its social effects. Even though it is old, the social complications are familiar.

To keep your brain busy, anything by Umberto Eco, but this would be my order: Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before.

Asimov’s Foundation and Robots series. Images and stories from those still pop into my head randomly decades later, and bits and pieces appear throughout pop culture. From the original trilogy up to Foundation’s Edge would be a good portion size.

The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford, 2015.

Why and how to find focus in this age of distraction. Will give you a real appreciation for woodworking, etc.

Stick and Rudder, Wolfgang Langewiesch, 1944.

Understanding how something like powered flight works—the combination of science, engineering, process, self-control, intuition, on and on—is highly transferable to nearly any other acquirable skill.

Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. Any of his nonfiction works have a style of writing that I seldom find. He has a dedication to reason and a step-by-step approach.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White. I liked writing since I learned how to. I didn't find this book until I was 17, and it unlocked me to write in a way that better helped others.

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. I guess I like writing and language. Like C. S. Lewis, Steven Pinker has a way of writing about hard things that makes them easy to understand, even enjoyable. The subject matter is also news to most people, I think, who don't appreciate just how much that language is built in to the human mind from conception.

I tried "Mere Christianity" at the urging of my mother. It was a series of logical fallacies one after the other. Although I will give him props, though, he tried to put a twist on most of them. Instead of a "false dilemma" it was a "false trilemma" and so on. It was still pretty silly.

Whenever I find a copy of Elements of Style, I chuck it in the trash.

Geoff Pullum, a revered linguist, calls it "the Nasty Book". He explained, in an essay that is easy to find online, how its chief effect is to make people insecure about their writing. The book's message is, "Here are the rules. You will have to break them to write well. But you aren't good enough to know when." In fact the rules are not rules anywhere but in the imagination of White and his acolytes. No admired writer of English knows them, never mind obeys them.

When White put out the second edition after Strunk died, he made up a bunch more rules, the went back and doctored Strunk's original text to follow his new rules.

But he didn't check his own text. Typically he breaks his own rules on the same page where he is promoting them.

The book presents a profoundly ignorant picture ofthe English language. You cannot become a good writer shackled to Strunk and White.

> The book's message is, "Here are the rules. You will have to break them to write well. But you aren't good enough to know when."

No, the books message is that there is a progression from undisciplined to rule-following to transcendent writing and you may be anywhere on that spectrum (though, if you are looking for a book on how to write, it's probably not deeply into the latter range), and that having the set of rules that the book presents available helps you move from the first to the second and prepare you to move to the third.

In general, I think it's accurate enough. The rules it presents aren't the only set of rules that can do that, and there certainly is room for debate about their merits among competing alternatives.

> its chief effect is to make people insecure about their writing

That's the opposite of its effect on me.

> The book's message is, "Here are the rules. You will have to break them to write well. But you aren't good enough to know when."

I discerned no such put-down.

> In fact the rules are not rules anywhere but in the imagination of White and his acolytes. No admired writer of English knows them, never mind obeys them.

The gist of the book is the same as other books, such as The King's English, On Writing Well, and A Sense of Style. Stephen King praises the book in his own book, On Writing. I've also read a few articles on writing that say the same basic thing.

The gist of these books is to write in service of the reader (as opposed to your ego) and to work hard at it (as opposed to being lazy and just "letting it all hang out" from the first draft), as it is a craft, like carpentry. Specifically, try to avoid wasting words, try to use the best word at each point, and try to order your words (and sentences and paragraphs) in the best way for the reader's understanding.

There are some minor rules and preferences that perhaps Geoff Pullum is pouncing on, something like, "A clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious one." I can see clearly that that is an archaism and take it for what it's worth. After all, the book is about 100 years old. But any writer should know that when you get down to that level of resolution, the detail shifts a bit in the quantum foam. Things on that level vary a bit from one decade to another, from one region to another. And language is like a craft, in that there are some rules that can be followed 90% of time, but it is not mathematics. You cannot distill a formula. I see Geoff Pullum taking it as black and white, but English does not submit to such simplification.

Perhaps Strunk was more black and white, but White seems a bit looser, and I think their combination balances each other out nicely. It reminds me that no rule is absolute. However, for the vast majority of writers, they would benefit from at least trying to follow a lot of them!

> The book presents a profoundly ignorant picture ofthe English language. You cannot become a good writer shackled to Strunk and White.

For 80% of the writing I read in books, magazines, articles, etc., they suffer from the kinds of problems addressed in the Elements of Style. There may be other kinds of problems in a minority of writing, but far and away most writing suffers heavily from wordiness, vagueness, clumsy construction. I won't fault someone for incorrectly calling a horse "clever," but now I see why most writing tires me out so much --- and I can rewrite it in my head to be clearer.

There are plenty of absolute rules in English. White didn't know them, and you don't know them, but neither of you ever breaks them, or is even tempted to.

If you need a book to tell you to use the best word, or to put your words in order, it means you need far more help than you can get from a book.

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis is truly worth reading. Lewis's non-fiction is much better than his fiction, and his fiction is world-renowned. Mere Christianity is just so pure and clear.

I liked Mere Christianity and I like C.S. Lewis's writing in general, but certain parts of Mere Christianity annoyed me because it felt manipulative. The most egregious example is Lewis's trilemma which seems constructed to win arguments, although I've never seen it win a single argument, not by a good faith argument but by putting someone on the spot and demanding that they to choose between three answers; Two of which will make them sound exceedingly rude and harm their standing in society.

The most interesting response that I've seen to Lewis's trilemma came from a psychiatric nurse. His experience of working in an psychiatric hospital was that people with delusions, such as thinking they are Napoleon, didn't seem particularly off. They were pleasant, and easy to care for. Over the course of weeks, one would get to know them. It would gradually become apparent that the delusional thinking went very deep. They really did need residential care.

So Lewis's rhetoric depends on "lunatic" connoting "raving lunatic" and there are actually four branches to his tri-lemma: liar, God, raving lunatic, some-one with serious psychiatric issues who generally holds it together and seems normal much of the time.

My take on the trilemma is that Jesus never actually claimed to be God in the first place.

It didn't because declaring it was inconceivable in the Judeo view. But he might well understood he was God.

Claiming to be the Messiah is a long way from claiming to be God. There is good evidence Jesus claimed the former and not the latter (which wouldn’t even make sense to a first-century Jew).

+1 for Mere Christianity

The Abolition of Man, also by C. S. Lewis. Not explicitly Christian, it's a defense of classical ethics.

+1 for The Elements of Style.

+1 for Mere Christianity

His Screwtape Letters are an excellent read.

I would recommend "the perennial philosophy", by Huxley [1]. Schrödinger recommends it in his "what is life" (another amazing piece).. you'll not be disappointed if you thrive for mind expanding literature! :)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Perennial_Phi...

I found Candide by Voltaire to be eye opening. I read a lot of philosophy and self help, which is a category you could put this book in to. Since it's fiction though, the message comes through more in the story than it does in the author banging you over the head with "you should".

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

The book is written to convince the reader that evolution is valid.

But to me, the shocking thing was to really understand the religious argument for the first time, and understand why evolution challenges that world view.

In a nutshell, there is a web of related arguments which support the belief that God exists. One of them is that the eye is so complicated, that it must have been designed from the beginning by an intelligent being. Therefore God exists.

But Darwin showed that many small random changes plus natural selection are sufficient to explain the eye's complexity.

Why was this shocking at the time?

Just imagine you are walking around with a vague gut feeling that God must exist every time you see a beautiful bird or a flower. You figure that something intelligent must have designed that beatiful, complex living thing. You see another complex wonder of nature, and feeling gets stronger. Perhaps it becomes the main reason that you believe that God must exist.

Then one day, wham! Darwin releases his book, and it becomes clear that there is a valid scientific explanation for the complexity of that flower which does not require a supernatural designer.

Instantly your whole world view collapses. There's nothing in the science that says that God does not exist. Science only says that other explanations are sufficient. And yet, just that is enough to collapse that entire line of thinking. There are still other arguments for the existence of God. But the one you felt most strongly is gone.

Reading the book gave me a detailed understanding of that religious line of reasoning, and what it might feel like to lose it. It gives me some understanding of why people, even today, have a desire to reject the scientific idea of evolution.

I suppose your praise is more due to Darwin's original book, although it is much less accessible nowadays - Dawkins does indeed explain it well. The thing that struck me was how Darwin's ideas achieved such quick adoption, even in that most pious of times, where to avow yourself an athiest was unthinkable. It's an idea, once you are exposed to it, is so immensely powerful and perhaps even to say in hindsight obvious - that the truth of it almost bowls you over. The eldritch horror it must have inspired in the religious mind at the time can only be imagined. And yet it could not be seriously challenged - because it was so clearly TRUE.

One of the most staggering intellectual achievements of mankind. Philosophers since Ancient Greek times had been speculating on the causes of being (some even came close to guessing something like evolution) but they were just that, guesses. Then finally we get Darwin, and bam, no guesses, here is the answer (I acknowlege several others got just pipped to the post on it). That such a simple idea lurked just out of our understanding all this time, but took such staggering genius to unlock...


Darwin's book stayed very clearly away from any talk about religion.

Years later religious arguments against Darwin popped up.

Dawkins' book addresses these religious arguments head on.

I haven't read that particular book of Dawkins, but I have encountered a mathematical argument I find somewhat troubling, though I don't have the background to really examine it in depth.

It's discussed in this interview here:


Essentially the number of possible configurations of the sequence of a piece of genetic code required to produce the instructions for producing a usable protein are something like 10^77 to 1. The state space is filled with an astronomical amount of unusable junk.

The next part of the argument hinges on the Cambrian explosion. They claim that mathematically there isn't enough time for life produce enough trials to give rise to the amount of species seen during that period given the duration of the period and the sheer number of combinations life has to try in order to find viable ones.

They sort of say that Darwin was like Newton. A good enough explanation of a large portion of observable phenomenon, but it breaks down at the edges and a new theory is needed.

They seem to want to fill it with Intelligent Design. I'm an atheist myself, so I don't feel compelled to fill it with the god of the gaps, so to speak. But I'm finding it hard to accept Darwin as the whole answer.

Does Dawkins book address this? Is there any book that addresses this?

I dunno.

In the one Dawkins book I read, the mathematical part definitely gets addressed. It may change your mind about the mathematical part.

I once read elsewhere that almost all the specific details Darwin came up with have been overturned by other scientists. But the new scientific results prove evolution and natural selection even harder.

My own personal speculation is that there may be many simple proteins that have some type of use or another. I would be interested in reading about how they came up with that 10^77 number. Sounds high to me.

On the other hand, I've read scientists make comments similar to your comments. Not in papers, but in casual interviews. Some agree with you and say that even given the current theories, there just wasn't quite enough time on earth to create life from non-life.

It's not an accepted scientific theory at all. More like a crackpot idea that will probably never be proved or disproved. But take a look at the panspermia theory. Small seeds of some kind move from planet to planet. Maybe one landed on earth long ago? It's a crazy idea. But it does address the issues you brought up.

Have you looked at this four part article? I haven't read it yet.


Ah this looks like the kind of thing I'm looking for. Thanks.

Hmm... So it comes down to 'what is the actual mechanism behind which novel proteins arise?'

Well that at least leaves me in a different position than I started. Thanks.

The foundations of peoples' beliefs are not tied to logic or truth, it is tied to time, effort, character and way of life.

Any change in belief that will influence their way of life will raise psychological shields. People will very readily change their logic to maintain a belief if that meant preserving other other aspects of their lives that they have put time and effort into.

This book is written for people who already understand the true nature of science and religion. I highly doubt it can convert people, I have yet to find a technique or even a book that has the ability to do so. It's just the way people are...

Whenever you see someone convert from religion to science most of the time the underlying foundations of it had nothing to do with logical realization and more to do with some form of minor or major trauma.

If you experienced a conversion to science from religion and you yourself describe the experience as a "logical realization" I would argue that you probably weren't that invested in the religion in the first place OR that there was some associated trauma that coincided with the "logical realization."

Haha. You are much better at psychology than I am. You are so right that logical arguments just make people cling to their old beliefs harder.

But then...

What is the purpose of the book? Is it just to give scientifically oriented people a playbook of arguments to use against anti-evolutionary bible thumpers when debating school curriculum? I'll accept that.

Try Julian Jaynes book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". Whether his conjectures are right or wrong, their scope is mind-blowing. Don't be put off by the title - it became a surprise hit as a popular science book.

Likewise Dennett's "Consciousness Explained." I don't agree with a lot of what he lays out, and it doesn't quite accomplish the title, but it challenges a lot of common intuitions about consciousness in a way I found productive.

I found this book to be fun, but ultimately kind of silly. It reminds me a lot of Jung, which I had more patience for when I was younger.

Great book! What's science's modern verdict on this theory?

I second this book. It is a very powerful hypothesis and really helped me understand religion in addition to consciousness.

For Mind games, something from the Culture series - Use of Weapons which does have a nice twist.

For sheer scale and sensawunda - A Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge.

I concur on the Vinge picks. The Vinge story that really blew my mind was "Marooned in Realtime", which I contend is best read in the context of the other works in "Across Realtime":


For mind games, I submit "Kiln People" by David Brin. What if you could fork your consciousness into another body and rejoin periodically? "Kiln People" explores this idea in some remarkable ways.


I found Deepness in The Sky an incredibly frustrating read. I _really_ didn’t enjoy the switching between perspective of human and alien. (Especially the personification)

I was able to get about a third of the way through the book because my friends kept saying it gets better... but it’s a thick book and I just didn’t get it as I kept chugging

If I’m reading fiction it’s OK to put a book down. I ask you, dear internet stranger, what do you enjoy about these books?

I can't think of any way of commenting on what you said that isn't a spoiler - perhaps worth noting that the personification you object to turns out to be a pretty important thing in its own right.

Also, focus has got to be one of the most terrifying concepts anyone has put into a SF book.

It's building up to a tricky denouement, but if you're not also enjoying the journey, I'd say it's not for you. Some of what I like about Vinge:

- Imaginatively exploring grand futures.

- Evocative hints you have to fill in yourself.

- Intelligent characters.

- Computer security as an often central concern.

- Tightness. There's a reason he barely manages a novel a decade.

- The prose style just breathes sense-of-wonder to me.

I loved A Fire Upon the Deep, but I thought Deepness was a little disappointing because the aliens aren't alien enough. They seem like regular people who happen to look like bugs and who sometimes need to hibernate because of how their sun works. Ironically, it seems like the all-human Emergency is Vinge's vehicle to explore an alien way of thinking.

A Fire Upon the Deep has a much bigger scope and includes a menagerie of truly weird aliens.

I miss Ian M. Banks deeply. What a fantastic mind. Even after watching interviews with him, I find it so surprising that he built such a fantastic universe. Excession is definitely my favorite. What a wonderful wonderful journey of exploration.

You might like the Gateless Gate by Mumon. http://oaks.nvg.org/gate-struggles.html

Hui-Neng's "Your Minds Move"

The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved; they argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion.

The Sixth Patriarch Hui-Neng said, "It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your minds that move."

Joshu sees the Hermits

Joshu went to a hermit's cottage and asked, "Is the master in? Is the master in?"

The hermit raised his fist.

Joshu said, "The water is too shallow to anchor here," and he went away.

Coming to another hermit's cottage, he asked again, "Is the master in? Is the master in?"

This hermit, too, raised his fist.

Joshu said, "Free to give, free to take, free to kill, free to save," and he made a deep bow.

Ok, cute, but does it mean anything? Of course the wind moved the flag. Are they all ignorant of physics?

No of course not. Its some metaphysical plug about relationships or something. One of those 'one hand clapping' things. I guess the point is to get you to stop overanalyzing. Which I'm doing.

But no, I didn't get my mind blown by monks in semantic circles. I guess I'm not ready to be enlightened.

Lots of those stories come off as more wanky and esoteric than they're supposed to. That one... maybe not, but most are supposed to be approached with a lot more context than a Westerner with little exposure to Buddhism (and especially the history of and other stories about the monks involved in the stories) is likely to have, going in cold. They're not supposed to be nearly as confusing as they can seem (or, at least, should be differently-confusing) when one reads without some guiding commentary to fill in the gaps in knowledge one is expected to have before approaching them.

That sounds a lot like a post-facto apologist slant. Sure you can 'explain them' but everybody hears them where their mind is at now. And for most folks, especially junior monks just starting out, they might sound wanky too.

> That sounds a lot like a post-facto apologist slant.

Uh, no. Lots of them definitely rely on knowing who the monks are, their reputations, and their relationships to one another. And other facts about the world in which they occur ("Three pounds of flax!"). One is not even going to get at the interesting parts of them without that. Lots will come off as gibberish or as confusing in ways that they are not intended to be without that context.

> Sure you can 'explain them' but everybody hears them where their mind is at now.

It's not about explaining them, it's about the coming-to-terms phase of reading from How to Read a Book. Even smart folks would probably have a bad time approaching a graduate-level math text book without a little context so they get where it's even starting from and understand the references and vocabulary that the book was written assuming the reader would already have.

I think they are supposed to be 'esoteric and wanky' for the beginner, like 'mu' and 'one hand clapping' - even for the eastern audience. The idea, if I understand it correctly, is to get your mind hung up on a solution until you either get frustrated, or find your way out of the conundrum.

I hope I didn't do any harm here. I was hoping to share some of what I thought was pretty mind bending.

Even for the first story in Gateless Gate it's probably intended that the reader know what "mu" means and the orthodox Zen Buddhist position on who/what does or does not have Buddha-nature—and WTF "buddha-nature" is—before tackling it. Those parts aren't supposed to be mysterious.

The first one is literal: there is no wind, there is no flag.

The physical universe is as a reflected image on the surface of a lake, illusory.

However, the "level" at which that is true is above/below/beyond the "level" at which there "really" is wind and flag.

There is no wind there is no flag there are no monks only your mind. Its really not just semantics. Skip the Buddhism and go read Andy Clark's Surfing Uncertainty. Its humorously written, its current science and it'll blow your mind ;)

I thought I understood what 'semantics' meant; that statement makes zero sense with my understanding.

A koan is a tool intended to be wielded by a teacher. I've never found it helpful to read them, anyway - it seems to miss the point. Language only obscures the fundamental truth.

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