Vacation and Books

The greatest value of vacation is it snaps you out of your normal routine. In the absence of the standard trappings of the 21st (as we were in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota for the entire trip), I brought a stack of books. The two books that actually got some attention were “Serious Creativity” by Edward De Bono, and “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker. Both are non fiction.

Serious Creativity is a book that sums up all the Lateral Thinking methodology that I learned last year in my leadership classes. The book largely overlaps with what we learned in the class, concept fan, provocations, random word, etc. While the book is great, I’m honestly not sure how much sense it would make to someone who didn’t also do 2 days of training on the techniques. There were a few new interesting bits in the book though, like the introduction of the 6 thinking hats (a much more interesting way to run meetings), and some comparisons of western and japanese biases around putting products into the field (which helps explain why there are so many cool new things coming out of japan all the time).

The first semester of my junior year of college was my death semester. I took the following 4 classes:

  • Advanced Quantum Mechanics. Yes, it was as hard as it sounds. This class was by far the most challenging, and rewarding class that I took. The class often produced up to 40 hours of homework a week, and the 24 hr take home final (which was 6 questions) took me 18 hours to complete (21 hours walk clock time, as I slept for 3 hours in the ITS Helpdesk before going back to complete problem 4).
  • Radiation and Optics. This was the 3rd and final Electricity and Magnetism class in the Wesleyan Physics Dept E&M sequence. While not nearly as challenging as Quantum, R&O was taught by my favorite instructor at Wesleyan, and was a hefty chunk of work by itself (6 – 8 hours a week).
  • 3rd Semester Ancient Greek. A 3 person class (which meant there were some occasions where it was a 1 person class) in which we translated 3 of Plato’s works. This represented the end of my ancient greek studies as I didn’t put in the work required to really get to the next level (due to Quantum swallowing most of my time).
  • My blow off class, Chomsky Linguistic Theory. Learning rules of transformational syntax, applying them to arbitrary English. The optional book for this class was Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct, which I bought. However, you may understand why I never actually opened the book while at school.

I had tried digging into the book a few years ago, and gotten about 50 pages in, before it went back on the shelf, though I still can recall much of the discussion on how pidgin languages are formed. I decided to start where my bookmark was an journey on from there. It turned out to be a great idea.

I’m about 3/4 through the book, hoping to finish in the next week or so. Pinker sets out in this book to explain why language can’t be a fully learned skill, i.e. there must be some innate structures / skills that let us acquire language. There are a few things that are a bit dated, as he goes to explain why audio transcribing software of the time (1995) fails miserably, however the bulk of the book holds up very well a decade later. It many ways it lays out some pretty reasonable explanations of where the hardware / software boundary of our brains lies, which parts are field programmable when it comes to language, and which parts aren’t. I love books like this, as they generate a lot of new random neuron firings, and make you think about all kinds of things in different ways. It’s like mountain biking for your brain.

It’s funny to think that such a fun and interesting book has been staring at me for 10 years, and it takes a week away to actually pick it up. But that’s what vacation is for, to break you out of your routine. 🙂

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