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Category Archives: Books

Life Without a Memory – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


I have recently finished reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book by eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks taking the form of ‘clinical anecdotes’ – or, informal case-histories – on some of the more interesting patients he has encountered throughout his long and distinguished career.

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing… (I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase and entire life.) – Luis Buñuel

The above quote is from The Lost Mariner, a chapter discussing one of Sacks’ patients, Jimmy G, who – due to Korsakoff’s syndrome – lost both his memories from the previous 35 years, and the ability to create new ones. It’s a touching and sad story where you feel that the only redeeming quality is the fact that this man cannot create new memories; at least then he doesn’t know that he has this problem.

Six months ago my family-life was ticking along as normal; everything was fine. Then, during a routine operation, my grandmother passed away, leaving my grandfather – a very self-sufficient man approaching 90 – alone in their home of 30 years. While interim accommodation arrangements were being made, my grandfather was found unconscious after suffering a stroke and was admitted to hospital – not even two weeks after his wife’s funeral.

Three months in hospital saw him recover well, and he was eventually placed in a geriatric recovery ward in preparation for release. Whenever I visited him he would get angry at the sports results and moan about the “boring sods” with whom he was sharing a ward with and who refused to go outside for a walk around the hospital’s rather beautiful grounds. This was perfectly normal behaviour.

However I was fearing the worst, and it appears that these fears were well-founded. A month ago he started to develop severe dementia, leading me to make the obvious comparisons between him and Sacks’ patient, Jimmie G, whom I was reading about at the time.

The retrograde loss of memory – and losing the ability to create new memories – is a horrible thing to witness; nothing can really prepare you for it. At the same time it’s difficult to become truly sad at this fact: how can we, when the ‘patient’ themselves is oblivious to the fact – and is seemingly content – due to the fact that the condition itself causes them to lack the ability to comprehend what’s going on?

But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being – matter of which neuropsychology cannot speak. And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him… Neuropsychologicaly, there is little or nothing you can do; but in the realm of the Individual, there may be much you can do. – Alexander Luria in a letter to Sacks regarding Jimmie G.

These sort of medical conditions always raise interesting issues, but when combined with the general (and severe) decline of physical health in an older patient, some more interesting – and controversial – philosophical, moral, and political subjects are brought up. An important one of which is the topic of non-eugenics euthanasia.

Highly regulated, I believe that euthanasia would be a crucial addition to our public health system for a few exceptional and well-defined situations and circumstances. However, as this is unlikely to happen, I believe strongly that the topic of euthanasia is so important that it is at least worth serious consideration and debate – not just by medical professionals, but by both politicians and the public.

Of course, views on this vary wildly by culture, religion, and even within each individual (agreeing in some cases and not in others, even when the actual medical circumstances are the same), and for one moment please don’t think my family and I are planning any mercy killings – it just raised a debate between us and I wanted to spread the love and ignite your internal debating chamber.

In my family, many of us have made it clear that if we were in such an awful physical and psychological state that life were no longer enjoyable and was a chore, that we wouldn’t want to be kept alive. One member has even gone so far as to say (in all seriousness), that if this were the case they would be eternally grateful if we were to assist them in dying. Of course, current legislation makes entertaining this thought pointless.

Simplicity, Marmite, and ‘Getting Real’ with Don Norman

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Marmite’s high zinc content could be the catalyst that helps solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, or so Edward de Bono suggested to the UK’s Foreign Office back in 2000. The so-called reasoning behind this is that on both sides of the conflict unleavened bread is a staple foodstuff – a staple foodstuff that’s considerably lacking in zinc; a deficiency of which can cause aggression.

This was my most recent introduction to Edward de Bono; the father of ‘thinking outside the box’, and the pioneer of ‘lateral thinking‘: a creative problem-solving technique that involves looking at a given situation from unexpected – and often unusual – angles.

I was first introduced to de Bono in university when his theory of ‘thinking hats‘ was introduced to us as a way to acquaint us with parallel thinking to expand the way we look at information systems. It was an interesting 10 minutes, but after that I had completely forgotten about these techniques ’til now, when I happened upon de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats when brainstorming for books to add to my 2008 reading list.

Reading more about de Bono I find that in another of his books – Simplicityhe argues that the subject of simplicity should be taught in schools as a defining characteristic of quality, something I wholeheartedly agree with. Look at the themes running through the design of most of the successful Web 2.0 (and 1.0) companies and you’ll see that simplicity and usability are at the forefront of every design decision. Look at the design of really great ‘real-world’ objects – simple, right?

Of course, simplicity isn’t everything, and it depends somewhat on your definition of the term. To me simplicity is about delivering more from less by focusing on what’s important to the end-user: a simple – yet effective – strategy which appears to be midway between ‘Getting Real‘ and Don Norman‘s idea of user-centered design.

So, Six Thinking Hats and The Design/Psychology of Everyday Things are on my to-read list (I’ve only read extensive excerpts of the latter) – if I hadn’t already read all of it, Getting Real would be too. I guess all that’s left to ask now is; what does Simplicity/Usability mean to you, and could Marmite bring peace to the Middle Yeast? It’s definitely food for though. (Puns – unfortunately – intended. Sorry.)

A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

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The Angel of Humorous Birthday - a Flickr Photo by ca_newsomOn discussing inferential statistics, John Allen Paulos (in his book Innumeracy) gives us the example of when Phillip Kunz, a sociologist from Brigham Young University in Utah, decided to check a ‘random’ sample of 747 Salt Lake City obituaries in one year, cross-referencing the decedent’s dates of death with their birthdays.

The expected result, of course, is that there would be an even spread of deaths and birthdays throughout the year with no real correlation between them: 25% of the deceased dying within 3 months of their last birthday.

Surprisingly, however, the results showed that 46% of of those surveyed died within a three month period following their birthday. Furthermore, more than 3 out of every 4 deaths occurred within the half-year following their birthday, with a measly 8% passing away during the three month period prior to another birthday. In Innumeracy, Paulos goes on to show us that the probability of theorising that 46 or more percent would die within this time period can be computed to be so tiny it may as well be considered zero.

Thus we are shown that a person’s mental state plays a large part in their death, and that the desire for (or shock of) a final cultural milestone may be all that’s keeping many aged from their death.

Why am I worrying writing about this now? This Sunday sees me visiting my grandfather (and final grandparent) in hospital on his 89th birthday; after reading that, wouldn’t you be thinking the worst for the coming months? I’ve had my fair share of grievances over the past 6 months, I don’t particularly want more.

Darwin Day, Innumeracy, and Irreligiosity(?)

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This past Tuesday (12th) saw the coming and going of Darwin Day – the celebration honouring the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809. Nothing particularly extravagant or noteworthy occurred this year, but the astute among you may notice that this means it will be his 200th ‘birthday’ next year, nicely coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. This has got me wondering what publicly funded celebrations will be held to celebrate this rather monumental event; whether or not I may go and join in any festivities; and if there will be controversy surrounding any events due to the beliefs of certain movements.

To cut a long story short, I have now pencilled-in a trip to Shrewsbury for the weekend following next year’s anniversary as not only is Shrewsbury Darwin’s birth place, but it’s also the location of an annual, month-long celebration of his life and work, and also where my father currently lives. Two birds, one stone, and all that jazz.

On a slightly different note, all this talk of hard science is making me want to mention the book I’m currently reading: John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences. Initially sceptical that it would be written for the maths-newcomer, I became impressed as Paulos describes with gusto the common – and frankly dangerous – pitfalls that everyone faces when living in an innumerate country. Encouraging his readers to view the world in a more quantitative way, I found myself grasping for paper and pencil a few times as he succinctly describes potential consequences of innumeracy:

  • Inaccurate reporting of news stories and insufficient scepticism in assessing these stories
  • Financial mismanagement and accumulation of consumer debt, specifically related to misunderstanding of compound interest
  • Loss of money on gambling, in particular caused by belief in the gambler’s fallacy
  • Belief in pseudoscience: “Innumeracy and pseudoscience are often associated, in part because of the ease with which mathematical certainty can be invoked, to bludgeon the innumerate into a dumb acquiescence.
  • Poor assessment of risk, for example, refusing to fly by aeroplane (a relatively safe form of transport) while taking unnecessary risks in a car (where an accident is more likely)

It’s a book I definitely recommend for both the innumerate and the mathematically proficient. The former will learn a lot and hopefully gain a renewed sense of wanting to brush up on those GCSE maths skills, while the latter will get introduced to some interesting topics – a couple of which I covered in my previous post on mathematical ‘paradoxes’.

Off on another slightly related tangent, I recently came across an interesting article Prof. Paulos wrote for ABC News: 12 Irreligious Questions to the Candidates (via kottke):

Is it right to suggest, as many have, that atheists and agnostics are somehow less moral when the numbers on crime, divorce, alcoholism and other measures of social dysfunction show that non-believers in the United States are extremely under-represented in each category?

Ah to hell with it, have another tenuously-linked topic… The above book (Innumeracy) has renewed my interest in performing mental math and better thinking – a personal development subject I first started working on about 12 months ago with the help of the Mentat Wiki – an interesting website from the author of Mind Performance Hacks. Providing you with new memory ‘systems’, you can use these to perform some useful (and not-so-useful) memory feats and improve your maths, all without the use of a calculator or other aid.

Yeah, that’s right baby: squaring and cubing large numbers… in my head! Hell yeah, that’s how I roll!

And seeing as it’s Valentine’s Day, have some VD cards you can send to your ‘loved’ one. Perfect. (Bitter? Me?  No.)

Intelligence by Osmosis – What Do I Want to Know?


I’m a big fan of Clueless About Wine, (the now seemingly defunct) 365 Cheeses, and Get Rich Slowly – websites where the author has a go at being both student and teacher by writing on a subject that interests them in order to learn more about it. They’ve inspired me: what can I do that I can write about while also learning from the experience? What do I want to know?

When you really think about that question it’s actually not as easy to answer as it first seems. Like most things, as soon as you scrape the surface it becomes more complex and confusing than you thought. Of course there’s a lot I want to know, but what do I want to know that I can learn on my own, is interesting enough to become a viable long-term/permanent fixture of my life, and – more importantly – what can I make the most use of right now and in the future?

Then the signs came.

First was Scott H Young on Lifehack claiming that “it only takes reading 10-20 books on a subject until you know more on that topic than most of the population. Read 200-300 books on a subject and you’re an expert.” Next came a BBC article quoting a governmental study where “half of men aged 16-24 haven’t read a single book in the past 12 months with some claiming to have never read a book in their life.

Let’s put these astonishing yet dubious statistics aside for now – after all, it’s not the stats that are important here: it’s the thinking behind them. And what is that? That reading gives you information and we should all be doing it. Sounds fair enough to me.

Through reading you are helping yourself communicate with every single person you come across, every single day: by reading new words in context you expand your vocabulary; by being ‘well read’ in many diverse topics you can engage more people in interesting conversation; having read ‘classic’ works you can understand what people mean when they reference them, quote them, or compare them to contemporary topics; you can, for once, answer that perennial modern question – Was the book really better than the film?; the list goes on. Let’s face it: absolutely nothing bad can come from reading a book – give or take a handful of paper-cuts in your entire life – so reading is a completely net-positive activity: for the logicians out there, this should surely be enough.

So by now I’m sure you’ve guessed it: I want to read more and write about it, right? Well, sort of. Above all I plan on changing my current reading habits: I have decided to try my hand at Intelligence by Osmosis.

Huh, what?

It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Honest. It’s just a sound-bite/buzz-word I concocted to make myself sound special when all I’ve done is make a decision to read more books written by intellectuals, whoever they may be. Generally I mean people who are well renowned in their field, rather than pretentious buggers who should know better.

I plan on reading a lot more non-fiction (or philosophical fiction) in order to learn more about specific topics, rather than spend the majority of my reading-time devouring novels – as is the norm for me. Why ‘osmosis‘? Well you see, I’m not going to read textbooks with the sole purpose of learning facts – I don’t want to actively seek knowledge; mainly because I don’t think that’ll be fun. Instead I plan to read more ‘pop-non-fiction‘: books authored by experts; on their topic of expertise; written in an engaging, interesting, and intelligent style, hopefully leading me to learn about these topics in a more enjoyable and passive manner. Hence Intelligence by Osmosis. Get it? Clever, huh? Oh OK, forget it!

The usual suspects of ‘popular science’ will be here: Noam Chomsky for linguistics, Steven Pinker and Edward Bernays for psychology, Sacks in neuroscience, Sachs in Economics (and Friedman, natch), Dawkins for Evolutionary Biology, and – of course – Hawking, Dyson, and even possibly Feynman, in theoretical physics. You get the idea.

Reading list to come soon. If you have any suggestions please, please, PLEASE let me know them – it’s not an easy list to come up with. Design, architecture, mediaevalism… anything… let me know.