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Irfan A. Alvi RSS Feed (Towson, MD USA)

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The Modern Scholar: Philosophy of Mind
The Modern Scholar: Philosophy of Mind
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)
10 used & new from $42.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Do we even understand the questions?, February 24, 2015
I went through this course right after completing Patrick Grim's 'Teaching Company' course on the same topic. My aim was to deepen my understanding by exploring the ideas again, but with a different tour guide.

Comparing the two courses, Grim's course is more broad ranging, I found it more interesting, and I liked it more overall. Pessin's course is quite good as well (thus deserving of 5 stars), with everything explained clearly, but there's more emphasis on detailed 'technical' arguments in the spirit of analytic philosophy. I find these sorts of arguments tedious because much effort is often required to follow them, yet the terms are fundamentally *not* well defined, so I think there's often a false sense of precision there, which renders the whole effort akin to spinning wheels.

Overall, I come away from this course having reinforced my conclusion that we really don't know what to make of mind, consciousness, etc., and are far from understanding them in anything resembling a 'scientific' framework - if that's even possible (I tend to doubt it). We have the experiences that come with existence, and various words to try to (vaguely) describe and understand that experience, but that's about it, as far as I can tell. But if you want to explore the philosophy of mind despite that, this is certainly a credible course with which to do it.

Structural Engineering Art and Appoximation
Structural Engineering Art and Appoximation
by Hugh Morrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: $44.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars A laudable contribution to the structural engineering profession, February 19, 2015
As an engineer who has been involved in several award-winning structural designs, I'm pleased to endorse this book.

In my opinion, the author is quite correct in his assertion that qualitative and visual understanding of structural behavior, and ability to quickly perform approximate calculations by hand, are essential skills for a competent structural engineer. And I can attest that over the past 25 years, I've seen a general weakening of these skills among my colleagues, especially when comparing entry-level engineers over the years. I don't know the reason, but I suspect that over-reliance on software, and using it as a 'black box', are major factors. This book provides a means to help engineers develop or regain these skills, though of course getting the engineers who *need* to read the book to do so is another matter.

The format consists of short chapters, there are abundant illustrations (many in color), and each chapter ends with a nice summary of key points. Better editing could have improved the writing in some places, but the author is clear enough, so this isn't a big deal. Overall, the author evidently put a LOT of work into preparing this book.

The book also emphasizes buildings rather than other structures, which will of course suit some engineers more than others, but this wasn't a major deterrent for me, despite my doing little work related to buildings.

I recommend this book to all structural engineers in early or intermediate phases of their careers, and graying engineers like me are likely to enjoy the return to fundamentals it provides. The author is my kind of engineer. :-)

Mindfields: How cognitive biases confuse our thinking in politics and life.
Mindfields: How cognitive biases confuse our thinking in politics and life.
by Mr. Burt Webb
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.75
5 used & new from $10.75

4.0 out of 5 stars A bit superficial, but still useful, February 15, 2015
This book provides a decent and fairly extensive catalogue of cognitive biases, somewhat emphasizing their application to politics and social policy. Each bias is presented in a simple way, typically one bias per page, with limited depth and generally no references to other sources for readers who want to delve further. It should also be noted that the evidential support for different biases varies, and 'biases' can serve a useful function in some contexts (hence the reason why they're so prevalent), but this book doesn't convey that. This isn't the comprehensive, rigorous, and authoritative monograph on cognitive biases I've been waiting for, but it's still a useful resource, depending on your intended use.

A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
by Warren Berger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.71
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Journalistic ..., January 26, 2015
Let me ask a meta-question: what is a question? Via many pages and countless examples, this book will remind you that a question is a tool to probe the darkness of ignorance by doing things like:

- Revealing our assumptions
- Clarifying what we don't know
- Identifying and clarifying problems, threats, and opportunities
- Learning new things, including connections among things we already know
- Placing what we already know in a different context
- Reminding us of things
- Verifying things
- Coming up with creative ideas (eg, solutions to problems), including ways to implement ideas
- Raising additional questions

This is all well and good, but honestly that's about all I got from this book. The book could have easily been shortened to an article, but the author is a journalist, so he's good at spinning out words and we wind up with a book which doesn't yield much more than an article. I got something out of the book, but it wasn't worth the time invested, and the vast majority of what the author says seems rather obvious, at least to me. Also, the emphasis of the book is business applications.

For a deeper exploration of ways to question and benefits of doing so, I suggest Googling 'the ignorance university'.

Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines
Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)

5.0 out of 5 stars No answers, but excellent anyway!, January 25, 2015
This course has the feel of a half-semester university course on philosophy of mind, and thus reminds me of the enlightening times I had as a university student decades ago. The subject matter ranges across philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science, and even robotics. As a result, strictly speaking, the course is more an interdisciplinary exploration of what 'mind' is, rather than purely a course in the philosophy of mind.

In my opinion, the lecturer, Patrick Grim, does an excellent job of covering this broad range of material. He's fair in presenting the various views, and the arguments for and against them, while also being willing to share his own views without being overbearing.

Normally, when writing reviews, I try to list key points in some detail, but I don't think that's the best approach with this course, since the main questions remain unanswered and possibly unanswerable (at least for humans, in this life). Instead, here are some of the broader conclusions I came away with:

(1) When we ask questions in the philosophy of mind, part of the challenge is that it often isn't clear what we're asking - the meanings of the terms in our questions are themselves questions. So as Wittgenstein advised, we need to be careful about spinning our wheels due to our questions being ill-posed without our realizing it.

(2) The mind-body problem remains unresolved. We still don't know how to connect subjective experience with our various models of an objective physical reality (which includes our own brains). Diverse ideas have been offered, but they're all speculative, some seem implausible, and none seems widely compelling. Personally, I take consciousness to be fundamental in some way, and I do think it provides a basis for some freedom of will, but I also believe that there's an objective reality, and it's clear that changes to the brain can lead to changes to the mind, some of which can be very peculiar. And even with a 'normal' brain, the connection between subjective experience and objective reality clearly isn't 'direct', as evidenced by the many perceptual illusions we're subject to, and the influence of the expectations and models we bring to bear in interpreting objective reality.

(3) As machines, computers, robots, etc. become more complex and sophisticated, having diverse interactions with their environments and apparently being able to learn, there's a question of whether they have some form of mind, consciousness, intelligence, and free will. While Grim doesn't cover it, the same question applies to species other than humans, as well as humans during the process of development from conception to adult (does a zygote have a mind?). And given that consciousness is experienced subjectively, there's also the solipsistic question of whether other minds besides our own actually exist (though I've yet to meet anyone who doubts it!).

(4) There's a question of how mind and consciousness persevere over time as a continuing 'self', given that associated physical systems can continuously change over time with the possibility of eventual total replacement of their constituent matter. Grim doesn't discuss it, but this opens the door to all sorts of metaphysical and religious conceptions of what the 'self' is (or the idea of its nonexistence and being illusory).

(5) Our confusion regarding the nature of mind results in confusion (or at least difficulty) in resolving questions of moral responsibility, psychopathology, blame, reward, punishment, law, etc.

I highly recommend this excellent course to anyone interested in the philosophy of mind. You won't come away with the answers you may be seeking, but you can at least clarify your questions and may wind up asking some new questions. Such is philosophy, and it may be argued that there's value in 'mapping our ignorance'.

Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits
Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits
by Paul Martin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.92
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, authoritative, and encyclopedic, January 24, 2015
If you have an interest in human encounters with extreme environments (primarily on a voluntary basis), this is a fascinating book. The book provides a detailed summary of the findings of extensive research into this subject matter, illustrated with plenty of examples. The thoroughness of the book makes it read more like a scientific literature review than a work of popular science (20 pages of notes, 30 pages of references). That will reduce the readability and enjoyability of the book for some readers, but it also makes the book more authoritative and comprehensive. In that regard, I should note that I first listened to the audiobook, and I found it to be information overload despite the excellent narration, so I wound up getting the print book so that I could take notes and better absorb the information.

The book covers the personality traits and motivations of people who choose to spend time in extreme environments, the mental and physical effects those environments have on them, and the individual and collective attributes they need to have in order to succeed in those environments. Each chapter concludes with a brief summary, and here is a summary of those summaries, to show you the tip of the iceberg:

- Coping with the stresses of extreme environments is as much a mental as physical challenge. Extreme environments involve risks, and therefore require meticulous planning and preparation, but they also offer the prospect of rewards which are unavailable in everyday life, and can also improve our ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life.

- We can manage fear and be brave by using relaxation techniques, cognitively reappraising situations to make them less daunting, and equipping ourselves with a good repertoire of behavioral responses to choose from.

- Hardships such as moderate hunger, thirst, pain, and squalor seem worse than they are, and many of them have evolutionary protective functions. Rather than fearing them and overestimating their harm, we should instead develop techniques for coping with them.

- Inadequate sleep has a range of detrimental mental and physical effects, not unlike alcohol intoxication. Caffeine is helpful, but napping is even better.

- Monotony and tedium have detrimental mental effects. Effective remedies are little pleasures such as eating, socializing, and playing games.

- People vary in their ability to cope with solitude, but to prevent the detrimental effects of feeling lonely, we should use solitude as an opportunity to be reflective and creative.

- Social conflict can be very stressful, and being confined with people for long periods greatly increases the potential for such conflict. To mitigate that, we need to make extra effort to be tolerant and tolerable.

- Teams need to have the right mix of personalities and skills, guided by leaders who are competent, trustworthy, and genuinely concerned with the well-being of team members.

- Extreme environments require good planning, preparation, judgment, and decision-making. Experience, deliberate practice, and training can aid developing expertise in these areas, but even experts must contend with various subconscious biases.

- Coping with extreme environments requires sustained periods of focus while ignoring distractions, which is not easy, because our minds naturally wander and we're easily distracted. Meditation is an effective technique for developing ability to focus. Focus not only may be needed for survival at times, but it also reduces boredom and promotes being in flow.

- Stresses can break us, but they can also foster development of resilience. Other ways to bolster resilience are social support, humor, meditation, and finding meaning in adversity.

- People choose to experience extreme environments for various reasons, including aversion to boredom, curiosity, and/or desire to help others.

- Ultimately, facing extreme environments and their attendant challenges can enhance our lives in many ways and on multiple levels.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in extreme environments, and especially to those who experience such environments or are contemplating doing so.

Divine Fury: A History of Genius
Divine Fury: A History of Genius
by Darrin M. McMahon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.45
94 used & new from $6.08

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but left me somewhat unsatisfied despite being a long book, January 7, 2015
This is a long book, perhaps longer than what most people will be looking for on this topic. And the topic isn't the concept of genius, or the history of geniuses, but rather the history of the concept of genius, primarily in the Western world.

We learn that the concept of genius emerged at least as far back as the ancient world, and has continued to evolve since then. The impetus for the concept has always been trying to account for why some people stand out so much in their superior abilities in various domains, and what the limits of those abilities might be. Speculations in this regard have elicited a range of thoughts and feelings among the masses: wonder, inspiration, hope, and sometimes also fear when genius was in the domains of politics or warfare (eg, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Lenin, and Hitler).

Regarding the source of genius, earlier thinking was that it came from outside the person, from some kind of spiritual or divine source which guided the genius, or even used the genius as a mere vessel. This itself could elicit fear, since such agencies could be malevolent in some cases (hence the 'evil genius'). As we moved into more modern times through the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic period, with spiritual and religious thinking coming more into question, the source of genius became more mysterious for some, and for others became grounded in pantheistic 'Nature' inspiring or acting through the genius. Then with the rise of biology in the mid 1800s, we saw genius increasingly rooted in the anatomy and then physiology of the brain, with the associated question of nature versus nurture, and eventually a shift towards focusing on a continuum of intelligence levels rather than a distinct category of genius. And most recently, the idea that there may be multiple kinds of intelligence has become somewhat prominent, and some have taken that further by suggesting that everyone (or nearly everyone) has potential to exhibit one or more kinds of intelligence, possibly even to the genius level. That democratic promotion of equality dilutes genius to an extent that it nearly vanishes, and creates checks and balances on any individual acquiring too much power, yet we still yearn to believe that there are people around with special powers, even if the source of those powers is perhaps more mysterious than ever (the usual explanations having been largely discredited).

The author generally covers all of this fairly well, but as I noted at the outset, the book may be longer than what most people are looking for, and I'm disappointed that the level of detail drops off fairly sharply as we approach contemporary times. So I found the book quite lacking regarding the history of the concept of genius (and intelligence) during the past few decades, despite much work having been done during this period. Because the book is quite lopsided in this regard, and therefore left me unsatisfied, I'm deducting two stars, but I still gained much from reading it. The book is a glass half full.

Safety-I and Safety-II: The Past and Future of Safety Management
Safety-I and Safety-II: The Past and Future of Safety Management
by Erik Hollnagel
Edition: Paperback
Price: $29.53
20 used & new from $23.12

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading, but be prepared to debate the author as you read it, January 4, 2015
This is the most recent book written by Erik Hollnagel, a prominent safety researcher with decades of experience in the field. That alone is sufficient reason for anyone involved in safety to read the book. I personally found the book to be stimulating and thought-provoking (as expected), but also tantalizingly frustrating.

The author describes two frameworks for thinking about safety. Safety-I aims at preventing failure by reacting to failures via investigating them, identifying their causes, and implementing measures to prevent recurrence of those causes in the future. Safety-II aims at maximizing success by proactively trying to anticipate how the system may evolve and promoting actions believed to foster success. There's some merit in this classification, but at some points in the book, the author argues that nearly all modern systems have become so complex that Safety-I is obsolete and we must move towards Safety-II, at other points he suggests that Safety-I may be fine for many systems, and in the end he seems to argue that we need a combination of Safety-I and Safety-II.

I agree with the last perspective, but would argue that preventing failure and promoting success are largely two sides of the same coin - I'm not convinced that the distinction is as sharp as he suggests. And I would go further and argue that, rather than generalizing, we need to look at the specifics of each particular system we're dealing with, including understanding the *modes* of failure and success for the system, as well as possible *degrees* of failure or success in each mode. For example, with 'passive' systems like bridges and dams, it may be appropriate to focus on preventing failure, whereas in business and investing people clearly have an interest in maximizing success (eg, returns) while still paying some attention to preventing failures for the sake of risk management.

I also question whether Safety-I necessarily must be reactive and Safety-II proactive. I don't see inherent contradictions in proactively trying to prevent failures by doing things like watching for warning signs of failure (one of the traits of 'high-reliability organizations'), or reactively trying to promote success by studying what has lead to both success and failure in the past (which can enable identification of 'best practices'). In general, why not use all the diverse tools at our disposal? How about aiming to both prevent failure and achieve success (as your particular system warrants), and applying this dual approach both reactively (learning from experience, both good and bad) and proactively (anticipating potential future scenarios and adapting as the actual future unfolds)?

In short, I do think this book is worth reading because it will provoke you and get you thinking deeply about what safety is and how to achieve it. But go into the book knowing that the ideas in the book need to be developed further and warrant doing so.

Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (Volume 1)
Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (Volume 1)
by Patrick Ussher
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars True to its title, January 1, 2015
The first book I read on stoicism (which I read recently) is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine. I think that's the place to start for anyone new to stoicism. Irvine systematically presents the practical ideas of stoicism in a way that enables application to our daily lives today, while also linking these ideas to their historical precursors.

This book edited by Patrick Ussher complements Irvine's book by providing further illustrations of how the ideas of stoicism can be interpreted and applied in daily life. The book consists of many short pieces written by people from diverse walks of life facing diverse circumstances. Some of the pieces have a relatively broad scope, others are more focused on topics like parenting, death, sports, etc. Even if some of the pieces don't connect much with you, there are likely to be plenty that will.

While I did feel that I was benefitting from the book as I read it, reflecting back on the book now, I have to admit that not much of its content is sticking in my mind. Perhaps I learn better from more systematic monographs, so that's where I'll be headed next, specifically Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: A Teach Yourself Guide (Teach Yourself: Relationships & Self-Help) by Donald Robertson.

The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error
The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error
by Sidney Dekker
Edition: Paperback
Price: $33.20
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5.0 out of 5 stars Another excellent book from Dekker (though somewhat repetitive), December 31, 2014
I agree with some other reviewers that there's a bit too much repetition in this book, and in fact there's considerable repetition across Dekker's numerous books. But they're good books which have substantially shaped my thinking related to safety, and I enjoy reading them because Dekker probes the issues deeply in an engaging and conversational way.

This particular book purports to be a 'field guide', implying that it has a 'how to' orientation. To some extent it does, but it should be clarified that the focus is *understanding* human error, not investigating it or preventing it (and the book challenges the utility of the concept of 'human error'). As such, the main goal of the book appears to be presenting a theoretical framework for thinking about safety which Dekker, as a member of the safety research community, has developed over the past two decades. The core elements of this framework might be summarized as follows:

(1) Many of the systems we deal with are complex, with interactions of both human and physical factors.

(2) Complex systems aren't inherently safe, their natural tendency is to drift towards failure.

(3) We don't see more failures than we do because people, generally being well intentioned, are continually making an effort to cope with the pressures they face to achieve various goals, while simultaneously trying to avoid failures and maintain safety. This usually requires transcending formal rules and procedures in order to adapt to the needs of particular dynamically evolving circumstances. But sometimes these efforts do fall short, cumulatively over time, hence we have some failures.

(4) To understand why people's efforts fall short, both individually and collectively, we need to avoid hindsight bias and instead put ourselves in their shoes, to understand why their decisions and actions made sense to them at the time. This shifts the meaning of 'human error' to being an act which simply contributed to an undesired outcome, rather than an act resulting from carelessness, complacency, overconfidence, etc. But ironically and unfortunately, a long record of success *can* foster complacency or overconfidence which increase the risk of failure.

(5) Putting ourselves in people's shoes will often reveal problems with the way the organization is operating overall, and those problems are where are efforts for reform should be directed, rather than seeking to simply identify and eliminate bad apples. More automation will often not be the answer, since it can insulate us from the operational reality of the system and wind up contributing to failures. By contrast, improving flow of information within the organization will usually be helpful.

(6) Much resistance is likely to be encountered when trying to implement such reform and establish a 'safety culture'. So safety departments should have both independence and sufficient resources, while still having close exposure to the daily operational reality of the organization.

I can certainly recommended this book, but again keep in mind that much of the content can be found in Dekker's other books. Also keep in mind that, while Dekker may be considered essential reading for anyone interested in safety, it's also important to read other authors to hear different perspectives. I suspect that Dekker himself would agree with that advice!

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