Exit West by Moshin Hamid, 2017

Amazon Link

A young couple fall in love in the midst of a collapsing Middle Eastern society.  As the situation worsens, they become de facto prisoners inside of their own homes, afraid to leave do to the constant threat of bombings and shootings.

They begin to hear of magical doors which transport immigrants to stable North American and European countries, where others in their position have decided to flee to.  The rumors become more and more common, and eventually the couple trust an agent to take them to a door, which in fact transports them.

Upon arrival they face all types of dislocation, and journey to various refugee camps around the world.  Eventually their relationship comes to a close, and they try to find belonging in foreign cultures.

A blurb on the back cover describes the book as “compulsively readable”, and I agree that this is an apt description of this work, and all of the Hamid books I’ve read.

This book is a further exploration of his favorite themes: immigration, dislocation, painful romance, and open, not-so-happy endings.  I’m not sure why he chose to include the magic portals from broken countries to Western ones.  I’m not sure what they were supposed to represent or what statement he’s making with their inclusion.  They were distracting for me and I think the story didn’t benefit from them, and the story would’ve remained unchanged if they’d just taken an airplane or boat.  I was very confused for quite a while when reading, because he didn’t include magical elements in other books and I thought that it must have been a dream sequence or wishful thinking for some time.

I enjoyed this book a lot—it is just such a smooth read—but I prefer The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia.

Related Books: The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia.

Recommend to Others: Read the two mentioned above first

Reread Personally:    no

 

 

 

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Autobiography by John Stuart Mill, 1873

but [I] thought myself much superior to most of my contemporaries in willingness and ability to learn from everybody; as I found hardly an one who made such a point of examining what was said in defense of all opinions, however new or however old, in the conviction that even if they were errors there might be a substratum of truth underneath them, and that in any case the discovery of what it was that made them plausible, would be a benefit to truth.  184

Amazon Link

As a young boy, Mill had an incredibly harsh and regimented life, as he was tutored by his father in history, philosophy, politics, and languages.  He started at age three, and was reading and writing for hours upon hours to get through extensive reading lists his father had devised in order to prepare him to be a scholar and philosopher.  He went on to become a well-known philosopher, writing most notably about liberty, women’s rights, and utilitarianism.

In middle age Mills endured a long and deep depression.  This has been described as outsiders as a nervous breakdown—the result of his lack of childhood, and the pressures put upon him by his father, his peers, and himself.

Mills doesn’t describe it in that way—neither hinting at long-term personality change or attributing his condition to his childhood.  He describes his low period as the result of imagining that if the political and philosophical ends he strove for were achieved, he’d have nothing to do.  He was afraid of putting himself out of a job, essentially.

The other major focus of his life, outside of his education and his writing, is his relationship with his wife.  They had a friendship for many years while she was married to her first husband, and eventually they married after his death.  She also passed away relatively young, the largest tragedy of Mill’s life.  Her influence on his progressive politics and writings is a primary focus of his descriptions.  She was, in his eyes, extremely ethical and intelligent.  She was often the uncredited writer of many of his pieces after their marriage.

Through his marriage, Mill acquired a daughter, who was also involved in the progressive politics and philosophy of her mother and adoptive father.  After her mother’s death, she became Mill’s closest confidant, inspiration, editor, and uncredited contributor.

Because Mill lived so long ago (1806 – 1873), his writing style is a bit difficult.  Much of the book discusses historical and political figures of the day, their ideas and conflicts, which can be horribly dry and irrelevant to our day.  But other sections of the book are engaging and relevant, so it’s a bit uneven.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Recommend to Others: No

Reread Personally:    No

Quotes:

58 It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the you are required to learn, easy and interesting to them.  But when this principle is pushed to the length of no requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed.

58-59 I do not then, believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with; but I am sure that it ought not to be the main element; and when it predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence on the part of the child to those who should be the unreservedly trusted advisers of after year, and perhaps to seal up the fountains of frank and spontaneous communicativeness in the child’s nature, it is an evil for which a large abatement be made from the benefits, moral and intellectual, which may flow from any other part of the education.

81 I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether.  I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.

117 Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.  Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.  The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object.

169-170  It is in this way that all my books have been composed.  They were always written at least twice over; a first draft of the entire work was completed to the very end of the subject, then the whole begun again de novo; but incorporating, in the second writing, all sentences and part of sentences of the old draft, which appeared as suitable to my purpose as anything which I could write in lieu of them.

171-172  The notion that truths external to the mind may be known by intuition or consciousness, independently of observation and experience, is, I am persuaded, in these times, the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions.  By the aid of this theory, every inveterate belief and every intense feeling of which the origin is not remembered, is enabled to dispense with the obligation of justifying itself by reason, and is erected into its own all-sufficient voucher and justification.

180 When the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion, or can only believe it with modifications amounting to an essential change of its character, a transitional period commences, of weak convictions, paralysed intellects, and a growing laxity of principle, which cannot terminate until a renovation has been effected in the basis of their belief, leading to the evolution of some faith, whether religious or merely human, which they can really believe: and when things are in this state, all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation, is of very little value beyond the moment.

209 In the pamphlet Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform I had said, rather bluntly, that the working classes, though differing from those of some other countries in being ashamed of lying, are yet generally liars. This passage some opponent got printed in a placard, which was handed to me at a meeting, chiefly composed of the working classes, and I was asked whether I had written and published it.  I at once answered ‘I did.’ Scarcely were these two words out of my mouth, when vehement applause resounded through the whole meetings.  It was evident that the working people were so accustomed to expect equivocation and evasion from those who sought their suffrages, that when they found, instead of that, a direct avowal of what was likely to be disagreeable to them, instead of being offended they concluded at once that this was a person whom they could trust.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

 

 

Paying For It by Chester Brown, 2011

Amazon Link

The cartoonist Chester Brown documents his experiences seeing sex workers in a comic book.  It’s primarily a memoir, with some essay at the end arguing for the unregulated legalization of sex work.  Finally, the book closes with an addendum by one of Chester’s friends (who is a character in the book), who describes the author from an outside perspective, clarifies his recollections of what happened in the scenes in which he appears, and pushes back on Chester’s pro-sex work arguments.

The art is simple black and white, with no major effort to appear like-like; just functional, like Dilbert.  I’m not sure how much was added to the story by telling it visually, but it’s unique and it makes sense for a cartoonist to tell his story this way.

The most interesting part of the book is the friend’s description of the author.  He describes him as highly unusual, and “robotic” (or some similar term).  He says that Brown’s emotional life is quite distinct from that of all the others he knows, and that this must influence his transactional perspective of sex work.

The author clearly seems unusual and unconventional throughout the book.  But he also seems earnest—seemingly not exaggerating his eccentricities or stances for show, but really believing in them.

His pro-sex work position is supported by libertarian arguments against government intervention and regulation, support of property rights, and harm reduction.  Some of these are standard arguments I’ve heard before.  However Brown goes further are argues, almost verbatim, that so long as you respect the property rights of others, you’ll lead a moral and meaningful life, which reads like a parody of his own libertarian ideals.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Recommend to Others:  No

Reread Personally:  No


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

 

 

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, 2017

Poor readers have more difficulty decoding—using phonological codes to recognize words—especially ones that are used less often.  Because their decoding skills are poor, they have to rely more on guessing words from the context. This is an ineffective strategy because they also have more difficulty reading the context words and are poorer guessers.

Good readers, in contrast, are better at decoding words and therefore less dependent on context.  They do not have to rely on the inefficient strategy of predicting words from the context, even though they are better at it than poor readers.  Instead of guessing which word will fit, a good reader rapidly identifies each word and integrates it with what has come before.  130

These experiments are over thirty years old, and the findings have been confirmed many times.  Yet they are still at odds with how children are taught to read, a reflection of the disconnection between reading science and educational practice…

Amazon Link

Summary: Seidenberg, a reading researcher, gives an overview of the major findings in his field.  He covers a lot of ground: the historical development of writing systems, rather detailed accounts of reading research methods and findings, dyslexia, reading instruction, and teacher preparation.

The main takeaway on the instructional side is that students need to practice phonics to become strong readers.  Guessing words from context, whole-language approaches, balanced approaches, literacy activities, etc, cannot make up for deficits in the phonological pathway that good readers depend upon.

While there are some dyslexics with brain differences that make use of the phonological pathway to reading difficult or nearly impossible, focused phonics instruction is still an effective remedy for many of these students.  Students without such difficulties also benefit from explicit phonics instruction, as it’s the most direct path to reading mastery.

It was also nice to hear a researcher express many shared frustrations about the state of teacher education/preparation programs.  Teacher training is not sufficiently strenuous, doesn’t recruit the most gifted students, and doesn’t use scientific research to inform practice where possible—instead relying too much on theory that is largely shaded by political identity.

While some stretches of the book are a bit dry and too granular for an average reader, reading teachers will get a lot from reading this book.  Seidenberg is knowledgeable and throws in many humorous allusions to keep things lighter.  This is the type of book that reading instruction courses should assign.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green

Recommend to Others: Just teachers, administrators, educational policy folk, teacher prep, etc

Reread Personally:        No

Quotes:

17-18 Speech evolved in the species.

 Reading is a cultural artifact, like money. 

Speech is universal: in the absence of pathology, everyone learns to talk.

Reading is like Wi-Fi: only some people have it.

Children learn a spoken language though interactions with other language users.

Reading is taught, beginning with alphabet songs and bedtime stories and continuing through several years of schooling. 

Speech is fast fading: the signal is gone once it is produced.

Writing systems were created as a way to transcend the impermanence of speech.  This text is not disappearing as you read it. 

27 We learn to treat the spoken word as if it consisted of three discrete sounds because it is written with three discrete letters.

46 Writing systems are fundamentally similar because they are all solutions to the problem of representing sound and meaning in visuographic form.

53 Writing Japanese with an alphabet yields a poor result because it obscures the syllables that are the foundation of the spoken language by adding unessential phonemic detail.

55 …reading is not just about spelling; it is inherently also about phonology and semantics because that is what writing systems represent.

87   Language acquisition is driven by exposure to a massive amount of data, utterances that exhibit statistical regularities at many levels.  Later, reading becomes an additional source of data about print and language.

89 The fact that most letter combinations do not occur makes it easier to recognize the ones that do.  The range of possibilities has already been severely restricted before a word is even read.

112 …much can be learned about words from relatively simple statistics such as trigrams (three-word sequences).  A common word such as LION is both preceded and followed by huge numbers of different words.  However, this is another long-tail situation.  A relatively small proportion of the words that precede or follow LION do so repeatedly (for example, LION is frequently preceded by COWARDLY and KING is a frequent follower).

114 …reading requires systematic guidance and feedback, more than occurs in casual reading to children.  In short, reading to children is not the same as teaching children to read.

118 Thus, time in school mattered more than age, evidence that argues against delayed enrollment.

124 For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get.

130 Children who struggle when reading texts aloud do not become good readers if left to read silently; their dysfluency merely becomes inaudible.  Reading aloud and silent comprehension are causally connected because the both make use of the phonology à semantics pathway…

132 The idea that spellings could be revised to keep them in alignment with pronunciation is as realistic as instituting pronunciation reform to ensure that everyone says words the same way.

156 In short, the [reading] skills that pose difficulties for children are not closely related to the skills that IQ tests measure.

169 At 2.5 years, the to-be dyslexic children produced sentences with simpler syntax and pronounced words less accurately than nondyslexics.

197 The fact that nonword pronunciation is poor means that the orthography à phonology pathway is severely damaged.  The patient is forced to rely on the orthography à semantics à phonology pathway, which is intact enough to allow correct pronunciation of main words but almost no nonwords.  However, the errors suggest that the semantic side is also damaged.  An error such as TEACHER à “student” would only occur if the patient had read TEACHER well enough to activate part of its meaning; the response was a semantically related word, not a random unrelated one.

201 Reading impairments are not reading specific. [in terms of brain function; other skills aside from reading are affected]

208 …subjects are quicker in identifying the word they hear when it can only be spelled one way

213 …two of the candidate genes implicated in reading disability DCDC2 and KIAA0319, have been tied to [neural] hyperexcitability via spontaneous firing in the auditory cortex.

234 …the emphasis on poverty also serves to relieve the educational establishment of responsibility for educational failures, offering a context for plausible denial.

240 Variability in spoken-language acquisition associated with SES is apparent as early as eighteen months of age.

243 …speaking a minority dialect is a risk factor for low reading achievement

246 For lower-SES individuals, the effects are reversed: variation in the environment experts much more influence on reading and school success than the genetic component.

250 [quoting Jal Mehta, prof of education at Harvard]:  By these criteria, American education is a failed profession.  There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance.

251 [quoting American Educational Research Association]: A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about particular methods of instruction and stops with a final exam.

258 Education as a discipline values observation and hard-earned classroom experience, setting up a conflict with science’s emphasis on understanding that supersedes personal experience.

264 paraphrase: research shows that all readers of English rely on phonology to read

“It is the good readers who make more rapid progress in mastering the mappings between spelling and sound.  Children who are able to use this information can recognize words fluently and automatically, allowing them to focus on comprehension.  Children who struggle with these mappings must continue laboring at the word level rather than developing comprehension skills and learning from texts.”

272-3 Basic skills are difficult to acquire (mainly because of the partial and abstract way that writing systems represent spoken language) and thus the area where instruction masters most.  For the beginning reader, comprehension does not require instruction because they already understand speech.  Bringing reading comprehension up to that level turn on gaining facility with print: basic skills.

276 Whole language, in contrast was brought to market based on the developers’ theory about why is should be safe and effective.  The “clinical trials” took place in the schools, as an unregulated experiment on millions of children

276 Effects of instructional practices depend on characteristics of the child but are mediated by classroom, school, community, and home factors that are exceedingly difficult to measure or control on the large scale demanded by an RCT [randomized controlled trial].

284 Modern schools of education have reinforced these concerns by holding that methods cannot be taught because they are contingent on the characteristics of individuals and cultures.  Degree programs in teaching came to focus on the social and cultural context of education and the role of the teacher in promoting social justice.  All the science needed could be codified from the work of the classic figures in the field; familiarity with scientific practices and modern research was not essential.

288 Many changes that occurred in medical education seem directly relevant to education.  The report created a professional model for training medical practitioners: students would acquire and extensive body of core knowledge through a combination of coursework and extended apprenticeships under educator-practitioners.  The model asserted the scientific basis of medicine and the validity of the scientific method as a privileged source of evidence.  Entry requirements were raised, and included a background in science.  The amount of coursework increased, and students were taught methods used in the practice of medicine.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

 

 

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, 1954

For the glory and the wonder of pure existence belong to another order, beyond the power of even the highest art to express.  34

Amazon Link

Huxley describes his experiences using mescaline under a controlled setting (with knowledgeable people and his wife surrounding, observing, guiding, and interviewing him about his experience).  He describes an otherworldly vividity and sense of presence, of “pure existence”, “naked existence” that closely mirrors the descriptions of advanced meditators.

The book is short and sweet, and Huxley does a decent job of describing the indescribable—at least relative to other accounts I’ve heard of similar experiences.  Huxley has an impressive vocabulary and there were quite a few words that were new for me.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Waking Up by Sam Harris; On Having No Head by Douglas Harding; Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, 1992

Recommend to Others:  If interested in meditation or psychedelics

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

13 The mind is its own place, and the places inhabited by the insane and the exceptionally gifted are so different from the places where ordinary men and women live, that there is little or no common ground of memory to serve as a basis for understanding or fellow feeling.  Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten.  The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.

17 I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement.  I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

25-6 [on mescalin]:

The ability to remember and to “think straight” is little if at all reduced.

Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept.

The mescalin taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting.

33 For the artist as for the mescalin taker draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being.  More even than the chair, though less perhaps than those wholly supernatural flowers, the folds of my gray flannel trousers were charged with “is-ness”.  To what they owed this privileged status, I cannot say.  Is it, perhaps, because the forms of folded drapery are so strange and dramatic that they catch the eye and in this way force the miraculous fact of sheer existence upon the attention?

43 The sum of evil, Pascal remarked, would be much diminished if men could only learn to sit quietly in their rooms.  The contemplative whose perception has been cleansed does not have to stay in his room.  He can go about his business, so completely satisfied to see and be a part of the divine Order of Things that he will never even be tempted to indulge in what Traherne called “the dirty Devices of the world.”

53 For the moment that interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show, was blessedly out of the way.

53 Today the percept had swallowed up the concept.  I was so completely absorbed in looking, so thunderstruck by what I actually saw, that I could not be aware of anything else.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.