Twenty-Four Quotations About The Yale Book Of Quotations

The Yale Daily News Magazine just published my glowing review of The Yale Book of QuotationsI also profiled the book’s creator, Fred Shapiro. This is my last piece of original journalism for any Yale publication.

The article includes an interesting call to action. Fred needs help writing the next edition. If you’d like your favorite quote to end up in a book that sells tens of thousands of copies, read until the end, or just read the pitch right now.

 

Twenty-Four Quotations About the Yale Book of Quotations

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

 –Francis Bacon, Of Studies

“Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.”

–Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Word Book

 

The Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) is a magnificent beast of a tome, a rare creature found only in libraries and the homes of the most devoted litterateurs. Most books have one or two quotable lines. The YBQ has over twelve thousand. And though it is 1100 pages long, it remains, fundamentally, the project of a single man: Fred Shapiro, a librarian in the Yale Law School.

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Alpha Gamma Reviews: Edge 2015

Each year, Edge.org asks a few hundred very smart people how they’d answer a certain question. The results are always a mixed bag, but it’s one of the most exciting mixed bags in the intellectual world.

This year’s question dug into one of my own interests: “What do you think about machines that think?” 

In other words: What does the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) mean for humans, for the universe, and for the machines themselves? What will happen if and when AI becomes “general” or “superintelligent”, outperforming humans at almost every task?

The answers to this question would fill a book (and will, since Edge publishes one book each year). But even if you don’t have time to read a book, you should sample the content, because there’s always a ton of interesting material.

This post is my attempt to gather up some of the best answers and individual quotes, while responding to a few misconceptions about AI safety that popped up in the responses.

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The Five Best Clickhole Articles of All Time

As I write this post, on February 13th, 2015, clickbait parody site Clickhole is the funniest thing in the world. They leapfrogged The Onion, their sister site, by starting off without 20 years of historical baggage. They produce absurd sketch videos and insane listicles with equal fluency.

I don’t know how long this period will last, because the media Clickhole mocks may not be around for long, and all good ideas inevitably lose steam. But I’d like to honor the art form of the Fake Buzzfeed Article while I can, in the most appropriate possible format — an arbitrary list. No commentary should be necessary.

 

The Five Best Clickhole Articles Of All Time

  1. Are You A Big Jazz Boy, Or A Little Jazz Boy?
  2. George R. R. Martin: “When I Started Writing Game Of Thrones, I Didn’t Know What Horses Looked Like”
  3. They Said He’d Never Walk Again. But Who Were They, And Why Were They Saying Stuff About Him?
  4. 10 Kicks You Should Know About Before You Watch The World Cup
  5. Which One Of My Garbage Sons Are You?

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The Best Books of My 2014

What is the point of writing a “best books of the year” list?

If you are Amazon or the New York Times — and if you are, how are you reading this, you enormous corporation? — you write the list because you expect that people will buy books from you, or at least listen to you, no matter what you recommend.

I do not expect either of those things to happen. At best, the person reading this might decide to look up a single free story on the internet, or check out a single book from the library.

Thus, I’ve sorted this list into a series of “bests”: a Best Graphic Novel for people who like those, a Best Book About Selling Stuff for people who like those, and so on. Whoever you are, I’d probably recommend many of these books to you. And some of them are free, including my #1 for the whole year!

If you’d like to see a list of every book I remember reading, check out my Goodreads account.

 

The Best Books of My 2014

Best List Of All The Books

Not in any particular order, save for #1.

  1. Worm (this year’s favorite) (free!)
  2. Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death (free!)
  3. Stories of Your Life (some of the stories are free online)
  4. Complications
  5. A Path Appears
  6. Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own
  7. Poking a Dead Frog
  8. One More Thing
  9. The Motivation Hacker
  10. Mission in a Bottle
  11. Getting Everything You Can Out Of All You’ve Got
  12. Ogilvy on Advertising
  13. Building Stories
  14. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
  15. The Charisma Myth
  16. Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead 

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Review: CFAR Workshop

Note: This brief report reflects the way I felt shortly after the CFAR workshop. My feelings haven’t changed much since then, but if you’d like an update — or have questions this post doesn’t answer — please let me know! I’m always happy to talk about applied rationality.

 

In April 2014, I spent four days working to improve my life with the help of the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). It was a good experience, and I’d recommend it highly for most of the people reading this post.

If you’d rather skip the summary, or have questions afterwards, send me an email and tell me what you want to know.

Quick Summary

CFAR teaches participants to better understand their minds, plan their actions, and achieve their goals. It does so through a series of small, hands-on seminars, run by some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen at work. It also introduces you to a community of other self-improvement-minded people, many of whom will become your friends.

The workshop is a lot like your best semester of college, but it happens in four days, costs a lot less, and is more likely to give you knowledge that will help you ten years down the road.

Some representative moments of my CFAR experience:

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Highlights: Life Itself, by Roger Ebert

The life of a man whose death was untimely, and never would have been timely. An entertaining book and recommended read, especially if you like movies, the art of journalism, or the state of Illinois.

I lack the energy to summarize the book, and lives are hard to summarize anyway. So instead, here are some of the best lines (from a man who averaged 1.2 great lines per review).

 

On Art Petacque, Ebert’s colleague at the Chicago Tribune:

“He was our mob reporter. He was priceless for his sources. He was the only Chicago newsman who knew all mob nicknames. It was rumored he invented many of the nicknames himself.

“Nobody ever complained. What would Joey “The Clown” Lombardo do? Write a letter to the editor?”

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Lightning Review: 1Q84

I am warning those who have never read Murakami before that that is NOT the novel to start with.

–Ias Cosas, Amazon.com

The review system outlined in the beginning of this piece maps out how I’ll try to review nonfiction from now on. Not so sure about fiction, which isn’t as goal-oriented.

I finished this 1,156-page book and can’t figure out if I am better off for reading it or not. –Ninette Enrique, Amazon.com

And since I drafted this review long ago, I’ll try something different, limiting myself to 500 words—roughly 1 for each 1000 Haruki Murakami used to write 1Q84.

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Roger Schank: How to Fix Education

Reading time: 7 minutes

I’ve written a lot of book reviews, but I recently realized that I have a model in my head of what a “book review” should be, and that the model doesn’t make much sense.

I’m a fan of fancy book reviews that are more about life in general (or the reviewer’s ideas) than the book itself. David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith do those very well.

But most people seem to read book reviews to answer some of the following questions:

  • Should I read this entire book?
  • What is this book about?
  • If this book isn’t worth reading, which bits are worth knowing anyway?
  • If the author has an opinion, why might they be wrong?
  • Where can I find out more about the book’s ideas?

These questions provide helpful structure, and structure means I can review more books! Huzzah!

This particular review is about the book Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own, by Roger Schank. Awful title aside, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (If it weren’t, this review would be much shorter, or bundled with other reviews.)

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Recent Work: Fall/Winter 2013

September

Unschooled: CT’s Most Radical Homeschoolers (in the cool surfer sense of “radical”)

Review: Janelle Monae, Electric Lady (the album was good, this review isn’t)

Interview: Chris Stedman, author of Faithiest (part of the launch of the Yale Humanist Community; I’m on the board of directors)

Making Believe: Religious Conversion at Yale University (includes this companion post)

“Witt’s religious awakening was outside my realm of understanding. I wondered if it was really a coincidence that her new relationship with Jesus began at a retreat where she’d begun new relationships with a few dozen Christian friends. Why would God wait to find her on a dock in the woods when she’d been going to church her entire life?”

October

Yale University Commencement Address, May 2014 (Yale jokes)

“As I look upon this crowd—with your narrow shoulders, your pimply foreheads, your dumb, bovine gazes—I almost pity you. You must have been overwhelmed when Yale opened its gates to you, for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps you were Australian, or a mediocre synchronized swimmer. Perhaps your mother was an especially talented applications-essayist.”

Levels of Hell Left Out of Dante’s Inferno

Indiana Jones and Printing at Bass Library (Yale jokes)

A Playlist for Your Worst Moments (Yale jokes, pop music, fourth essay down)

“Heaven has a plan for you, and the plan is that you will grow old and die, like everyone else.”

November

Long Day’s Journey Into Cambridge (Yale jokes) (alternate universes)

Profile of a Coffee-Shop Owner Who Bans the Internet

December

Gourmet Heaven, Wage Theft, and the Convenience of Indecision (warning: angst)

SXSW Chronicles: Big Ass Spider!

Out of Order didn’t want to take this one off my hands. Here you are, Internet!

It will help you imagine the rest of the movie if I tell you that those helicopters have no missiles and just hover there until the spider crushes them.

 

 “It’s a B movie,” they said. “Don’t expect too much,” they said. “Have a few drinks first,” they said.

 I tried to listen, except for the part about the drinks, but the trouble with Big Ass Spider! wasn’t expecting too much, but expecting anything at all, save the monster promised in the title.

There is a spider. It is big ass, big-ass, bigass, however you spell it.

There are also some human characters, two of whom are funny. One of those never appears after the first scene, which is clever and promising and in no way representative of the rest of the film. Instead, we get a stock parade of gruff general, pretty no-nonsense girl soldier, non-soldier girls with large breasts running away from things, grunts being sent into futile combat against an unkillable opponent, and a Hispanic janitor who is Hispanic.

I’d like to comment briefly on the grunts. Even in a horror comedy, it feels a little insulting to tell us that the Army’s main strategy in dealing with an eight-legged monster with tank-like armor is to throw out foot soldiers without a single rocket launcher between them. Director Mike Mendez’s attempt to inject some military pathos into the script later on falls even flatter than it should have following the abject and inexplicable massacre of so many helpless men. Soldiers are massacred all the time on film, of course, but even Transformers at least takes them seriously.

Anyway, sorry for the interlude, but it’s the only non-surface thing I could think to say about the flim. Props to Mike Mendez for making his vision reality without much of a budget, but writing a good screenplay costs exactly as much as writing a bad screenplay, and he took the low road. There are no surprises, precious few laugh lines, and no real logic in any aspect of the growing-spider situation (compared to Cloverfield or Aliens or even most bad modern monster movies). The spider looks okay, but is more in-your-face powerful than frightening after it molts into its first big-ass form. (There are many different forms, and we hear about them in absurd detail.)

Some say there’s an audience for any movie. I honestly do not think anyone reading this review would enjoy Big Ass Spider! Please do something else with your time.