The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Month: April, 2017

Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers

By Nat Greene.

I read this book because my friend wrote it and because I was intrigued by the ‘stop guessing’ admonishment. I do a lot of problem solving, though lately I would call it debugging because it’s electrical or software engineering work, and the idea that I may be inadvertently guessing at difficult problems seemed possible.

Of course there are nine behaviors: stop guessing, smell the problem, embrace your ignorance, know what problem you’re solving, dig into fundamentals, don’t rely on experts, believe in a simple solution, make fact-based decisions, and stay on target. I agree with them all, though the examples come heavily from Greene’s experience as a consultant for manufacturing lines. Smelling a firmware problems requires a base level of skill above watching a machine package something, as does digging into the fundamentals. However, I too have been lead astray by not focusing on the problem at hand (kind of ‘know what problem you’re solving’ and ‘stay on target’ rolled into one) and relying too heavily on experts.

Although there were some examples of lifestyle problem solving, like lowering your cholesterol or losing weight, it was hard to see how that could truly be successful. For instance, the lowering cholesterol piece relied on the scientific community discovering that cholesterol levels in the body are not tied to the amount of cholesterol you consume. How could I have figured that out?

I’ve had a nagging hamstring injury for a long time now but it’s very intermittent. I kept trying to think how I could apply these behaviors to help me solve this problem but no clear steps came up. I smell the problem by listening closely to my body. I’ve definitely embraced my ignorance, but I don’t have a team of experts on hand to embrace it with. I’ve done everything, but it’s a complex problem with very long feedback loops. Tendons can take months to heal properly and sometimes scar tissue forms. It’s hard to know if it has healed properly, hard to know if something I have done has made it better in the long- or short-term.

I found the book to be useful reminders for engineering but pretty hopeless for my injury.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Marlon James.

It wasn’t until the very last section of this daunting 700 page novel that I realized that the icons of the bird at the end of some chapters indicated one of the seven killings just occurred. I flipped back through the book, looking for the others to find out what were the seven, iconic killings but I couldn’t find them. The book is huge.

Much of this novel is in voice, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth but moreso because each chapter is explicitly in the voice of a character. Sometimes the Jamaican English tired me because although it is clearly English it has a rhythm that was difficult for me to understand. It was more work. Towards the end of the book this Jamaican English is commented upon by an American doctor who asks the Jamaican nurse to translate his English into ‘Jamaican’ for a patient. The nurse refuses to translate because there is nothing to translate. It’s English.

The book lulled for me around the third quarter, as many long books do, but it picked up again at the end. The book is confusing, I couldn’t always keep the Jamaican politics straight and could rarely figure out what was going on with the CIA and the Cuban anti-Castro involvement. There were plot points I definitely missed or maybe forgot, like what exactly happened to Nina Burgess. But it was a strong, engaging book that sprawled over decades and countries and such terrible, terrifying violence.

I just read the NY Times review and the reviewer compares the book to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This comparison, of a strong book I just read and a crazy intense book I love and have read twice, reminded me of another writer arguing that the American Novel is a farce, that some overly-intellectual white guy’s story can never speak for everyone, that no one can every speak for everyone, especially in America. I think my apprehension about comparing Infinite Jest to A Brief History of Seven Killings is more a cultural one: Infinite Jest, though so strange and weird, is so much closer to my experience than Brief History. I know nothing of ghettos or gangs or violence. But this doesn’t make Brief History a worse book, though I suspect it may make it harder for it to get the acclaim it deserves.

Metaphors We Live By

By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I read this book at the suggestion of two different computer science professors as I went through my grad school visits. It’s from 1980 and is a linguistics/philosophy book. It claims that metaphors are not just the poetic devices we hear in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but rather our primary tool for understanding and sometimes even defining abstract concepts.

The primary example used throughout the book is the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Think of how we talk about arguments: ‘He defended his point.’ ‘I attacked his position.’ ‘She held her ground.’ It is hard to think of how we talk about argument that doesn’t use the language of war. But it is not true that this is the only metaphor a language or culture could use. Perhaps another metaphor could be ARGUMENT IS DANCE or ARGUMENT IS EXERCISE. These metaphors would change the way we talk about argument, but also change the way we think about argument.

More examples:

IDEAS ARE PLANTS. Her ideas have come to fruition. She has a fertile imagination.
IDEAS ARE PEOPLE. He is the father of modern biology. Who’s brainchild is that?
IDEAS ARE FOOD. Those are half-baked ideas. I can’t digest all this at once. His idea smells fishy.
UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING. I see what your saying. I understand your viewpoint. That was a brilliant remark. She’s got the whole picture.
LIFE IS A CONTAINER. She’s brimming with life. I’ve had a full life. There’s not much life left in him.

They break down how metaphors are tools to map disparate concepts onto each other. A metaphor is a partial overlap that highlights some similarities and hides others. If two concepts are too similar, it is not a metaphor but rather a subcategorization. CAT IS PET is not a metaphor, for instance. Poetic metaphors are unusual ones, either ones that are rarely made in society or take a normal metaphor to lesser-known parts of the overlap. Another common metaphor for argument is AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING: ‘I’m constructing my argument.’ ‘She laid the foundation for her argument.’ ‘It’s a flimsy argument.’ A poet might say: ‘Her argument was made of cheap stucco.’ This is fundamentally the AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING metaphor but takes it to a more precise place of overlap that is uncommon.

Lakoff and Johnson are experientialists. They argue this lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity, where we create our meaning from physical experiences we have. Our metaphors are all based from experiences we have of gravity (up, down,) our posture (vertical,) our view frame (front, back,) our existence as beings separate from others (containers.) They argue that saying THE CLOUDS ARE IN FRONT OF THE MOUNTAINS requires a huge amount of abstract thought because mountains and clouds are not clearly delineated objects, nor do they have an inherent front/back. Instead we shared assumptions about how clouds and mountains can be contained by boundaries (like us) and have front/back (like us.) Or most basic metaphors are based in these experiences we have. GOOD THINGS ARE UP because being physically healthy raises us above the ground. Then follows HIGH STATUS IS UP and FUTURE IS UP. Again, part of this is cultural, not innate.

They also touch on categorization and the concept that we create prototypes for categories and certain aspects of those prototypes can be highlighted or hidden. (Look! An UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING metaphor.) Similarly metaphors, especially more abstract ones like LOVE IS MADNESS or LOVE IS CREATING A WORK OF ART, highlight and hide certain aspects of the concept.

The biggest take aways for me were:

  • Lots of our everyday language is metaphorical and those metaphors frame our definitions for abstract concepts.
  • Metaphors require partial overlap; too much overlap and it is simply categorization, too little and they don’t aid in understanding.
  • New metaphors are how we understand new concepts or ideas.