The Power of Mindful Learning

Ellen J. Langer

The modern educational system is broken and because of this most people don’t know how to learn and even fewer know how to teach. The brokenness comes down to a single concept: mindful vs mindless learning/teaching. When something is is taught (or learned) mindlessly, there is no room for creativity, doubt or context. Mindful teaching on the other hand gets students to personalize what they’ve learned and apply their knowledge in creative ways. As an example, we’re taught that the internal angles of a triangle always sum to 180 degrees. Is this true when the triangle is drawn on a globe? The answer is no. Dr. Langer says that there are seven pervasive myths which undermine the process of learning:

  1. The basics must be learned until they’re second nature
  2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time
  3. Delaying gratification is important
  4. Rote memorization is necessary
  5. Forgetting is a problem
  6. Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there”
  7. There are right and wrong answers

The Basics

The highest performers don’t mindlessly apply the basic skills they’ve learned. Instead, they’ve found a way to make those skills their own and apply subtle variations where necessary. Mindless memorization of basic concepts in any skill leaves no room for creativity and personalization. Should recipes be followed exactly? There is a real danger is overlearning a basic skill mindlessly. Both students and teachers should aim to learn and teach basic skills mindfully and conditionally.

There are two standard ways to learn. Top-down where a student is lectured and bottom-up where students rely on experience and repeated practice. Dr. Langer proposes a new type of learning she calls sideways learning which lies somewhere in the middle. A guideline is provided by some teacher but students mindfully apply their twists as they practice. Sideways learning is more exploratory than top-down or bottom-up.


It’s hard to keep focus and many times when someone loses focus they’re labelled as distracted. What if instead they were labelled as otherwise attracted. If what they were originally focused on continued to be engaging there would be no need or desire to find entertainment elsewhere. Instead of berating the distracted for not paying attention maybe we should be asking why the object of their otherwise-attraction is so stimulating. People learn best through novelty and many times novelty is lost during long sessions of “just stay focused”. Novelty doesn’t have to come from external experience. For example, when reading a book try to think about the perspective of different characters. Dr. Langer did experiments on learning through novelty and found that those who learned through memorization and focus performed worse than those who learned by varying the target of their attention (mindfulness). The hyperactivity part of ADHD may be students trying to increase the novelty of their experience. Experiments have shown that students with ADHD learn more effectively when content is taught as a game.

Delayed Gratification

I didn’t learn anything here.

Rote Memorization

Memorization rarely leads to understanding. Memorization leaves little room for creative application. Learning through memorization is hard work and tends to lead to boredom, otherwise-attraction and procrastination. Personalization of information is an easy way to get around the hurdle of memorization. Some who is mindful of their weight will immediately internalize that a burger from Store X is 2000 calories, their daily budget. The less personally relevant information is, the harder it is to remember. Another way to improve information retention is to draw distinctions. As an example, you might notice that tall people playing some sport have blonde hair. Then you might notice that not many Asian people play that sport. Then you might wonder which sports Black people tend to play. Distinctions you draw are necessarily personally relevant and help increase your understanding.


It’s ok to forget. Forgetting lets your re-experience pleasurable things. Forgetting lets you learn new facts and ideas. Forgetting lets you derive new meaning from past experiences not remembered perfectly. Dr. Langer did experiments which showed (suggested?) that losing memory as you age is a self fulfilling prophecy. She found that old people in cultures which don’t associate memory loss with age have better memory their counterparts in cultures with that association.


Intelligence can be defined by how well a person’s perception matches their environment. For example, emotional intelligence is how well someone understands the thoughts and feelings of others – a perception of their environment. Another definition of intelligence is domain-specific intelligence where the cognitive map of one area of expertise is different from the maps of other areas of expertise.

I’ve always considered intelligence as more of a meta skill. Those who are more intelligent learn faster. Intelligence, to me, is your capacity to learn.

Right and Wrong Answers

There is rarely ever a single right answer. Context is always important and what is right in one context may be entirely wrong in another context.


When learning or teaching, don’t behave mindlessly. Personalize information and experiences. Consider other perspectives. Don’t try to memorize. Mindful > mindless.

Meditations on First Philosophy

Rene Descartes

I exist. What I understand clearly must be true. I understand certain ideas clearly. I understand the idea of perfection therefore a perfect being must exist. I understand God to be a perfect being. Therefore God exists.

I’m not certain of the historical significance of Meditations on First Philosophy but I think this is where Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” comes from. In this book, Descartes tries to reason about knowledge and understanding from first principles does so over six meditations. This is among the hardest books I’ve ever read, comparable to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence, Siddartha, and The Brothers Karamazov. I read this book twice before writing this review because after the pass of superficial reading (see my report on How to Read a Book) I knew I didn’t understand most of Descartes’ arguments. I still don’t have a clear picture of his reasoning but I think his ideas are interesting.


It’s not clear to me if Descartes’ did all of this reasoning over six consecutive days or a much longer time period but he structures the book as six meditations. In the first meditation he casts doubt on everything he knows in an attempt to start from nothing. In the second meditation Descartes supposes the non-existence of all things whose existence has doubt. From here he starts building ideas the way a mathematician builds proofs and discovers how the mind and body are separate and explores the idea of substance. The third meditation reveals the existence of God. Next, Descartes explore truth and falsity and the error of judgement. His fifth meditation explores the nature of things of substance (material things) and again makes discoveries about the existence of God. In his final meditation we learn about the distinction of mind and body.


Our senses are imperfect and deceive us constantly. Our perception of something when we are far away (say a tower) may not be accurate. Its height, its shape, its color may be different once we’re up close to it. It is prudent to cast doubt on those who have deceived even once for they may deceive us again. Even in our dreams we experience our senses as if awake. How can we be sure that we are awake right now? There are no signs to distinguish reality from dreams (although we find out later in the sixth meditation that there is a sign, memory). It is better not to assume a good God but one that is deceitful and who aims to trick you in every way possible.

Knowing the Mind

Assume that everything you see and feel and touch and experience is false. How can you know you exist? Simply making this assumption of falsity means you must exist. If there some God out there deceiving you, then you must exist in order to be deceived. If you think, you are. For as long as you think, you exist. Thought is inseparable from you. From your mind. If you were to stop thinking, then you would cease to exist. You are a thinking thing. This is the great conclusion of this meditation.


An idea, considered by itself, cannot be false. Unicorns don’t exist but, with reality put aside, an idea of a unicorn cannot be false. All effects have causes. The reality of an effect must come from the reality of its cause. Something cannot come from nothing and what is more perfect (has more reality) cannot come from something less perfect. You cannot have the idea of heat or love unless that which created also had those ideas in its reality. There cannot be an infinite regression of causes and thus there must be some root cause. Some thing which contains all the reality of you. Because you are a finite being yet can imagine an infinite being, something which contains the reality of infinity must have created you. God is an infinite being. God must exist. God cannot be a deceiver. He can have the power to deceive, however the will to deceive is antithetical to the idea of this supremely perfect being.

Truth and Falsity

You only make mistakes when you judge. You got your capacity to judge from God, however your capacity is finite. If you had an infinite capacity for judgement you would never make mistakes but this is not the case. You make mistakes because you are finite. Because you are finite you will never be able to understand the will of God and it makes no sense to question His will or actions. Judgement comes in two parts: knowledge and the free will of choice. Your capacity to choose is larger than your capacity for knowledge. Because of this, you sometimes make choices on things which you do not fully understand and this is when errors happen.

Material Things

Some ideas exist independently of your mind. Ideas such as a triangle which can be described by certain immutable properties like: it’s internal angles sum to 180 degrees and it’s longest side is opposite its largest angle. However, because you can think of a triangle does not one materially exists. Because you can think of mountains and valleys (which are inseparable ideas), it does not follow that mountains and valleys exist. God and existence are also inseparable ideas (perfection and existence are inseparable) and from this it follows that God must exist.

Mind and Body

Imagination and understanding are different. You do not need one for the other. Imagination is not a part of the essence of your mind for without it you would remain the same entity. You are a thinking thing yet hold a clear but distinct idea of your body. You are not your body. God is not a deceiver and He is the one who gave you your capacity to sense. To feel and see and taste. Therefore, corporeal things must exist. Yet you and your body are a single thing. You sense pain when you are injured instead of observing the injury intellectually. How is it that your senses, which are given to you in the likeness of God, in the likeness of perfection, can deceive you? How can someone drink poison when they’re thirsty? For the same reasons that other errors occur: your capacity of choice is larger than your capacity of knowledge. You are a finite being and errors are to be expected.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman

I never understood why first impressions matter until I read Thinking, Fast and Slow. There’s a lot of things I didn’t understand until I read this book. Turns out I’m interested in psychology. People are naturally extremely intuitive and most of the time your intuition is correct. It’s your intuition that tells you when to eat and when to sleep. It’s also your intuition that lets you get fooled by advertising.

Kahneman walks us through the two systems of the mind, System 1 (your intuitive, fast thinking brain) and System 2 (your rational, slow-thinking brain). System 1 is what’s in charge most of the time and when it occasionally gets stumped it’s calls for backup from System 2.

What’s 2+2? System 1 is responsible for coming to the answer for that.

What’s 24×17? System 2 solves that once System 1 realizes that we need to work to figure it out.

The power of System 1 can be enhanced. This can be called gaining a skill. As you practice something repeatedly in a regular environment with a quick feedback cycle, the actions of System 2 can become ingrained into System 1. Learning to shoot a bow and arrow takes focus and attention (System 2) but eventually becomes natural over time (System 1).


Ideas can be thought of as nodes in a graph in your head. This is called the associative memory and time is an important component of how the memories are linked. Having just seen the word EAT, you are more likely to complete the word SO_P as SOUP and not SOAP. This is because of your associatvie memory and is called priming. One famous experiment primed experimentees with words related to old aged. Next they were asked to walk down a hall way and timed unknowingly. The treatment group (those who had been primed) in fact walked slower on average. This works in reverse also. If you walk slowly for some time and are then shown a group of words, you’ll pick words related to old age.

Advertising is a form of priming because it primes you to think about their product. The more recent an ad was seen on TV or the more memorable it is, the more likely it will brought up in your associative machinery. Experiments have shown that money-primed people are more individualistic and selfish. They are less likely to help someone in need and less likely to demand help. Having seen a word recently, it’s your experience greater cognitive ease thus giving you a sense of familiarity.

Cognitive ease is a notion where people tend to think about things which are easiest to them. Things that are familiar. This is part of the reason why media and political campaigns have slogans they repeat often. To increase the feeling of familiarity. This is also a way and lie can be turned to truth because once something has been repeated enough, truth becomes indistinguishable from familiarity.

Jumping to conclusions

System 2 governs our rational mind. Because of its inherent laziness, people are most prone to believe things when it’s busy doing something else or depleted of energy.

When System 2 tries to test a hypothesis, it looks for positive examples. This is called confirmation bias. Related to confirmation bias is the halo effect. When you like a feature about a person, you’re more likely to appreciate other things too. This is why first impressions are important. It gives people a reason to continue liking you. Going downhill vs going uphill.

System 1 is particularly good creating stories. The stories it creates are based on the bonds between different ideas in the associative machinery. The metric of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story, not the quality of the data. This combination of coherence-seeking behavior from System 1 and the laziness of System 2 means that System 2 will likely endorse first impressions from System 1. Kahneman calls this propensity for jumping to conclusions What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).


System 1 is constantly working make sense of the world and does this using models and heuristics. Judgements can be substituted for each other. When asked if it’s ok to steal some bread for you hungry family, you may instead substitute that question for “is it ok to steal?”, one that’s (potentially) simpler to answer. Two aspects of this substitution apparatus is the ability to translate values across dimensions (“If Sam is as tall as he is intelligent, how tall is Sam?”) and perform a mental shotgun where you perform more computation than necessary.

The Law of Small Numbers

People are good at intuitive thinking but bad at statistical thinking which is becoming increasingly needed in our world of information. The law of small numbers states that low sample sizes have higher variability. A study of american healthcare found that small, rural towns, usually Republican, had far fewer incidences of kidney cancer. However, the data also showed that the places with the highest incidences of kidney cancer were also in small rural towns. Their small sample size caused them to deviate farther from the norm.


When you’re asked to estimate a quantity you’re unsure of, your estimate can be swayed by knowing another estimate first. If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35. What I find interesting is that this idea flies in the face of conventional negotiation wisdom which is to never say the price first. Maybe I’m getting wisdom from the wrong places. Anchoring says that I should say a number higher than expected to anchor the other persons estimate. I know I’ve fallen susceptible to this myself, especially at flea markets.

Sometimes anchoring is part of a deliberate action of System 2. When asked you estimate something and also given an anchor, you start your estimate at the anchor and begin moving away until you become unsure. This adjustment mechanism usually ends prematurely because the scan of the estimation space is linear.

The Availability Heuristic

You are more likely to estimate something in greater quantity if it’s easier to recall. Couples were individually asked what they thought their percentage contribution to keep the house tidy was. The results showed that the sum of estimations was above 100% because it’s easier to recall your own contributions than someone else’s. This is one explanation of why someone may feel they’re pulling more than their own share in a team exercise.

The Conjunction Fallacy

Kahneman created the idea of a conjunction fallacy: judging the conjunction of two events as more probably than one of the events in direct comparison (feminist bank-teller vs bank-teller). The conjunction fallacy works because System 1 likes to make coherent stories and coherent stories become easier to make when more details are given.

Regression to the Mean

It’s likely that a normal event will follow an exceptional one. Scoring two baskets back to back from half court is less likely than just one. Evidence has shown that positive reinforcement is a better teaching aid than negative reinforcement but regression to the mean partly explains why people believe negative reinforcement works. When you yell at someone for doing exceptionally poorly, regression to the mean explains why they do better.


People tend to be overconfident about their intuitions. When your intuition is relied on for an estimation, it’s usually worse off than a simple algorithm. It was found that expert wine tasters who were asked to predict the future value of a wine they tasted performed poorer than a simple algorithm. Kahneman found that using a simple 1-5 rating for various attributes of a soldier being interviewed for officer duty did a much better job of predicting that soldiers success through the military.

Loss Aversion

Losing hurts more than willing feels good. Loss aversion is why people would turn down a bet at the toss of a coin losing $100 on tails and winning $150 on heads. Loss aversion causes people to be risk averse when they’re winning but diminishing sensitivity explains why people tend to be risk seeing during a loss – would you rather lose 950k for sure or take a 90% to lose a million? Loss Aversion explains why people tend to stick to what they know, for fear of losing something that works.

The Peak-End Rule

There are two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The remembering self governs our long term decisions and these decisions are governed by two rules: the peak-end rule and duration neglect. When remembering an experience, you overweight the peak and end intensities and forget how long the experience lasted. This is why short, intense excitement is preferable to long, moderate happiness. In a famous experiment, participants were asked to put their hand in cold water three times. Once is cold water for 60 seconds and once in cold water for 60 seconds which was then warmed for another 30 seconds. For the third trial they were asked to pick which of the previous two they would like to repeat and the 90 second trial was preferred even though it should have been strictly more painful (it was longer and never warmed up enough to be pleasant). This is because of duration neglect and because the end of the second trial was overweighted.



Find my notes here.

Buy the book here.

The Magic of Thinking Big

By David J. Schwartz


Success is a mindset. There are 13 mindsets you need to cultivate in order to succeed. Each mindset works independently and contributes to the whole of your success.

1. Believe You Can Succeed

To succeed you must first believe you can succeed. Success rarely happens by accident. Belief is not the same as wishful thinking. Belief is wishful thinking with motivation. When you believe you can become a CEO, you naturally start finding ways to do so. Belief makes it easy to find the how. Similarly, disbelief and doubt dooms you to failure. Even if you believe you may fail but it’s belief that gets you to stand up again. Those who disbelieve or doubt don’t stand up again. Failure is permanent to them. The size of your success is tied to the size of your belief. The bigger you believe the bigger you achieve.

2. Stop Making Excuses

Successful people don’t make excuses. Average people find reasons for why they can’t or shouldn’t do what they want to do. There are four kinds of excuses: health, intelligence, age, and luck. You are never too sick, too stupid, too young, too old or too unlucky to succeed.

  • “The right attitude and one arm will beat the wrong attitude and two arms every time.”
  • “It’s better to wear out than rust out.”

3. Build Your Confidence and Destroy Your Fear

The best way to destroy your fear is to take action. When you’re afraid of something take action to conquer that fear and build your confidence. Remember that confidence is acquired and not an innate quality. Nobody is born confident. Remember to put people in perspective because it help you conquer your fear of other people. Almost everyone wants respect, time with their family, and fulfilment. People are most similar than they are different. Compromising on your morals to achieve success will undermine your confidence and ultimately undermine your success. Here are five techniques to building confidence: sit at the front, make eye contact, walk faster (although I’m not sure I agree with this), speak your mind, and smile big.

4. Think Big

You are bigger than you think. You can achieve success. Never sell yourself short (something I’m guilty of). Be progressive and think of the future. Be optimistic. Your words shape your thoughts and your thoughts shape your words. Speak in positive tones and invoke powerful imagery. Praise is cheap and provides immeasurable returns (this idea also exists in How to Win Friends and Influence People). Don’t see just what is, see what can be. Don’t get caught up in trivialities. Bikeshedding is a real thing.

5. Think and Dream Creatively

Don’t let tradition paralyze you. Challenge the status quo endlessly. Ask yourself “how can I do better?” and you will find creative ways to improve. Capacity, like success, is a state of mind. If you believe you can do more you will. Ask yourself “how can I do more?” and you will find creative ways to do more. Practice asking and listening. Small people monopolize talking, big people monopolize listening. Listening gives you more ideas and ideas are the source of good decisions. Do things that make you uncomfortable. Meet new people and try new activities.

6. You Are What You Think You Are

Dressing well makes you feel good which makes you behave successfully. This feels like a cheap trick to me. I think this is a good idea when you’re short on confidence but when you believe in your own success, how you dress shouldn’t change your belief. It’s important to remember that how you dress isn’t just for you, it’s for others too. As much as you may not like, success needs other people and what they think of you is important. If you think your work is important, if you think like your superior, you will eventually become your superior. Take pride in your work and you will be promoted. Give yourself a pep talk daily. I do this and it works. Helps set the mood of my day. Always ask yourself “is this the way an important person thinks?”

7. Go First Class

Your environment determines who you are. Make sure you cultivate a first class environment from the foods you eat to the people you spend your time with. Seek advice from those who know, not those who speculate. Spend quality time outside of work to do quality work.

8. Make Attitudes your Allies

Three attitudes are core to success: enthusiasm, self worth, service first. To build enthusiasm for something, learn more about it. To build enthusiasm in others, broadcast good news. Believing you’re important enables to you act like a leader. Believing others are important helps you build better relationships which are important for success. Everyone can teach you something. Having a service-first attitude is a long term play. Money-first attitudes are short term thinking. You need to plant seeds by doing things for others to gain long term rewards.

9. Think Right Toward People

You need other people to be successful. Never underestimate your reputation. Always make others feel important and respected. Treat people like humans. The golden rule matters. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Remember names. Praise others. Practice liking people.

10. Take Action

“The test of a successful person is not an ability to eliminate all problems before they arise, but to meet and work out difficulties when they do arise.” Do not wait for the perfect moment because it will never arrive. Take action now. Conquer your fear. Deal with problems as they arise. Almost no decision is irreversible.

11. Turn Defeat Into Victory

Defeat is a state of mind. Failure is not the same as defeat. “how you think when you lose determines how long it will be until you win.” For each failure find some way to learn. If you do this you will eventually succeed. Remember that nothing is permanent.

12. Set Goals

You never achieve more than you set out to achieve. Set big, ambitious goals 10 years from now. Use these as guideposts for everyday decisions. Remember that it’s not about where you are but where you’re trying to go.

13. Think Like a Leader

Place yourself in the shoes of those you want to lead. Think about how they will receive your message. Think about how they feel and you will inspire them more effectively. Treat your subordinates like humans. Remember their birthdays. Know about their families. This will increase their loyalty. Think progress. Nothing is the best it can be and the status quo can always be challenged. Spend time alone with your thoughts. This is when you’re most likely to come up with your greatest ideas and solve your hardest problems.


Believe you can succeed and you will. With belief anything is possible. This book is yet another which plays on the idea of the law of attraction. This book is filled with good ideas but it’s mostly anecdotes. I recommend reading it yourself but I don’t think it should be at the top of your reading list. I say that because this book review was a lot less interesting to write than my first, I suspect because this book was less interesting.


Find my notes here.

Buy the book here.

How to Read a Book

Mortimer J. Adler


The modern education systems does an inadequate job teaching it’s students how to read. There are 4 levels of reading, each of which builds off the previous. These 4 stages are: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading and syntopical reading. Almost all students are taught how to perform elementary reading, some learn how to perform inspectional reading and few are taught inspectional reading and almost none are taught syntopical reading. Some students may self educate the higher levels of reading. Syntopical reading is learned during graduate school but it should be taught well before then.

Elementary Reading

Adler’s How to Read a Book aims to outline steps students can take to achieve higher levels of understanding when reading. The first step is elementary reading. To understand a book you must first understand the symbols used to communicate. In this case, the symbols are the letters and words (mathematical and scientific books use a larger set of symbols). You must also understand the grammar of the book. This is taught early in childhood for most people. We know the alphabet and thus can perform elementary reading. We can achieve elementary understanding by performing elementary reading.

Inspectional Reading

During inspectional reading the you try to answer questions about the form of the book. What is the book about? What is the structure of the book? What are it’s part? There are two steps to inspectional reading: systematic skimming and superficial reading. Both of these steps are meant to let the reader achieve a higher level understanding of a book in a short amount of time. A book should be inspectionally read in under 30 minutes. To perform systematic skimming a you should: read the title and preface, read the table of contents, read the index, look at chapters which seem pivotal to the argument and read paragraphs (maybe pages) here and there. In many cases these steps are all you need to perform to decide if the book is worth more work. Maybe the book is poorly written. Maybe the book is filled with fluff. Maybe the book isn’t relevant to the your interests. Superficial reading requires the you to read without stopping. Reading a book beyond your level requires time and effort to understand. It is better to understand 50% of the whole book than getting discouraged after spending a week to understand 100% of the first chapter. Use superficial reading to see the forest without getting lost in the trees.

Analytical Reading

Analytical reading requires much effort. During this phase of reading the you questions such as: what is the book about as a whole? What questions is the author trying to answer? What arguments is the author making? There are four parts to analytical reading: pigeonholing the book, x-raying the book, coming to terms with the author and determining the author’s message. There are eight rules to analytical reading which come from these four parts.

Pigeonholing the Book

Reading is a two way street. Not only must the author act as a teacher, the reader must act as a student. A reader performing analytical reading has decided – because of inspectional reading – that this book is worthwhile. The author has done his job of being a teacher. Now the student must play the part of a student. Being a student is not a passive task but an active one. Students must put in effort to learn and should not expect understanding to come without work. The first step to being a student is knowing what you are being taught. Learning changes according to context. Teaching history is different from teaching physics. The words used, the arguments employed, the questions asked and the expectations of students. Similarly, learning history is done differently from learning physics. You must read books on history differently from books on physics. Pigeonholing the book you’re reading is an important part of setting your mental model of learning before putting in the work to learn.

X-raying the Book

X-raying is a deeper level of inspectional reading. X-raying a book results in finding the underlying structure of the book. In finding the bones under the flesh. Three rules must be followed to x-ray a book:

  1. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence or at most a few sentences.
  2. Set forth the major parts of the book and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the book
  3. Find out what the author’s problems were.

These three rules complement each other. By knowing the unity of the book you can put the parts of the book into perspective. By understanding the parts you both gain deeper understanding of of the whole and understand the author’s problems and his solutions. Students should strive to outline books down to their most basic units. This may result in outlines longer than the original. To find out the author’s problems the you must know what questions the author has. Knowing an author’s questions gives insights to the author’s intentions. Knowing these things (unity, parts and problems) gives you a framework from which to build understanding.

Coming to Terms with the Author

Words and terms are different. Words have different meanings in different contexts. The word “point” means one thing in a book about logic and something else entirely in a book on geometry. To understand a book you must understand the key words that an author uses and the meaning of those words. Authors may go out of their way to define their terms as teachers sometimes do. It is impossible to learn what is being taught if foundational concepts are misunderstood. Examples of terms in this book are: read, understand, elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical, term, proposition and structure.

Determining the Author’s Message

Now that you understand the author’s terms it is time to understand the author’s arguments. To understand the author’s arguments your must understand his propositions. A proposition is an expression of judgement. A declaration of knowledge. It is important to remember that propositions are opinions unless they are backed by reason or evidence. To understand an author’s message you must know the authors problems. To understand the author’s problems you must know his questions. To know his questions you must know answers. To know his answers you must know his arguments, their propositions, the fabric which weaves those propositions together and the terms used to composed the propositions.

The Eight rules of Analytical Reading

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
  5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading is the highest form of reading which gives the deepest understanding. To read syntopically is to read many books about the same topic, synthesize understanding of each book and reach understanding of the topic as a whole. Much like analytical reading, syntopical reading has steps and rules. The first step is to decide on which books to read. The second step is to read them.

Building Your Bibliography

Inspectional reading must be done before analytical reading. Building a bibliography must be done before diving into a book. You must understand the topic of interest and it’s high level themes and ideas. You may find that some books originally of interest are not germane. You may discover books and articles which you would have otherwise missed had you not built your bibliography.

Reading Your Bibliography

Once again you should not dive into a single book. Perform an inspectional reading the books in your bibliography. Find the most important passages and read them first. Iteratively increase the resolution of your understanding. High level ideas must be understood before the details. Because authors may have different terms you must create a common vocabulary for all of the books in your bibliography. Define a set of questions to which most or all of the authors provide answers, either implicit or explicit. Define issues and by the opposing answers the authors provide for the questions you’ve defined. Analyze the topic by ordering questions and their issues from highest generality to lowest. This is the hardest form of reading as now the author must come to you. You must define a framework and decide how to fit books, questions, answers, propositions and terms within that framework.


Reading to achieve understanding is no small task. Effort must be put forth by the author and the reader. Just as there are steps to a game of chess, there are steps to achieve understanding when reading a book. Elementary reading is learning what the pieces of the game are and how they move. Inspectional reading is understanding the phases of the game. Analytical reading is understanding tactics and strategy. Syntopical reading is understanding styles of play. Each type of reading builds off the previous and following these steps will help you achieve understanding more effectively and efficiently.


Buy the book here.

All my notes can be found on goodreads.

An interesting idea that stood out to me was the notion that there are two types of discovery, aided discovery and unaided discovery. Going to school to learn from a teacher is aided discovery. Coming to understand a difficult to understand book is unaided discovery. All of the information is there but it’s up to the reader to have an ‘aha’ moment.

I’ve never in my life performed inspectional reading or syntopical reading. I think it will be quite some time before I do syntopical reading. However, I now understand the value of inspectional reading.

Speed reading should not be thought of reading fast all the time. Different parts of a book deserve different levels of thought and attention. Speed reading should be thought of as reading a various speeds, as demanded by the book.

If you read on a kindle you should follow these tips to read faster. The defaults aren’t optimal.

The finite and unbounded universe

In discussing the large-scale structure of the Cosmos, astronomers are fond of saying that space is curved, or that there is no center to the Cosmos, or that the universe is finite but unbounded. Whatever are they talking about? Let us imagine we inhabit a strange country where everyone is perfectly flat. Following Edwin Abbott, a Shakespearean scholar who lived in Victorian England, we call it Flatland. Some of us are squares; some are triangles; some have more complex shapes. We scurry about, in and out of our flat buildings, occupied with our flat businesses and dalliances. Everyone in Flatland has width and length, but no height whatever. We know about left -right and forward-back, but have no hint, not a trace of comprehension, about up-down – except for flat mathematicians. They say, ‘Listen, it’s really very easy. Imagine left -right. Imagine forward-back. Okay, so far? Now imagine another dimension, at right angles to the other two.’ And we say, ‘What are you talking about? “At right angles to the other two!” There are only two dimensions. Point to that third dimension. Where is it?’ So the mathematicians, disheartened, amble off. Nobody listens to mathematicians.

Every square creature in Flatland sees another square as merely a short line segment, the side of the square nearest to him. He can see the other side of the square only by taking a short walk. But the inside of a square is forever mysterious, unless some terrible accident or autopsy breaches the sides and exposes the interior parts.

One day a three-dimensional creature – shaped like an apple, say – comes upon Flatland, hovering above it. Observing a particularly attractive and congenial-looking square entering its flat house, the apple decides, in a gesture of interdimensional amity, to say hello. ‘How are you?’ asks the visitor from the third dimension. ‘I am a visitor from the third dimension.’ The wretched square looks about his closed house and sees no one. What is worse, to him it appears that the greeting, entering from above, is emanating from his own flat body, a voice from within. A little insanity, he perhaps reminds himself gamely, runs in the family.

Exasperated at being judged a psychological aberration, the apple descends into Flatland. Now a three-dimensional creature can exist, in Flatland, only partially; only a cross section can be seen, only the points of contact with the plane surface of Flatland. An apple slithering through Flatland would appear first as a point and then as progressively larger, roughly circular slices. The square sees a point appearing in a closed room in his two-dimensional world and slowly growing into a near circle. A creature of strange and changing shape has appeared from nowhere.

Rebuffed, unhappy at the obtuseness of the very flat, the apple bumps the square and sends him aloft, fluttering and spinning into that mysterious third dimension. At first the square can make no sense of what is happening; it is utterly outside his experience. But eventually he realizes that he is viewing Flatland from a peculiar vantage point: ‘above’. He can see into closed rooms. He can see into his flat fellows. He is viewing his universe from a unique and devastating perspective. Traveling through another dimension provides, as an incidental benefit, a kind of X-ray vision. Eventually, like a falling leaf, our square slowly descends to the surface. From the point of view of his fellow Flatlanders, he has unaccountably disappeared from a closed room and then distressingly materialized from nowhere. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ they say, ‘what’s happened to you?’ ‘I think,’ he finds himself replying, ‘I was “up.” ’ They pat him on his sides and comfort him. Delusions always ran in his family.

In such interdimensional contemplations, we need not be restricted to two dimensions. We can, following Abbott, imagine a world of one dimension, where everyone is a line segment, or even the magical world of zero-dimensional beasts, the points. But perhaps more interesting is the question of higher dimensions. Could there be a fourth physical dimension?

We can imagine generating a cube in the following way: Take a line segment of a certain length and move it an equal length at right angles to itself. That makes a square. Move the square an equal length at right angles to itself, and we have a cube. We understand this cube to cast a shadow, which we usually draw as two squares with their vertices connected. If we examine the shadow of a cube in two dimensions, we notice that not all the lines appear equal, and not all the angles are right angles. The three-dimensional object has not been perfectly represented in its transfiguration into two dimensions. This is the cost of losing a dimension in the geometrical projection. Now let us take our three-dimensional cube and carry it, at right angles to itself, through a fourth physical dimension: not left-right, not forward-back, not up-down, but simultaneously at right angles to all those directions. I cannot show you what direction that is, but I can imagine it to exist. In such a case, we would have generated a four-dimensional hypercube, also called a tesseract. I cannot show you a tesseract, because we are trapped in three dimensions. But what I can show you is the shadow in three dimensions of a tesseract. It resembles two nested cubes, all the vertices connected by lines. But for a real tesseract, in four dimensions, all the lines would be of equal length and all the angles would be right angles.

Imagine a universe just like Flatland, except that unbeknownst to the inhabitants, their two-dimensional universe is curved through a third physical dimension. When the Flatlanders take short excursions, their universe looks flat enough. But if one of them takes a long enough walk along what seems to be a perfectly straight line, he uncovers a great mystery: although he has not reached a barrier and has never turned around, he has somehow come back to the place from which he started. His two-dimensional universe must have been warped, bent or curved through a mysterious third dimension. He cannot imagine that third dimension, but he can deduce it. Increase all dimensions in this story by one, and you have a situation that may apply to us.

Where is the center of the Cosmos? Is there an edge to the universe? What lies beyond that? In a two-dimensional universe, curved through a third dimension, there is no center – at least not on the surface of the sphere. The center of such a universe is not in that universe; it lies, inaccessible, in the third dimension, inside the sphere. While there is only so much area on the surface of the sphere, there is no edge to this universe – it is finite but unbounded. And the question of what lies beyond is meaningless. Flat creatures cannot, on their own, escape their two dimensions.

  • Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The Stars

We eat berries and roots. Nuts and leaves. And dead animals. Some animals we find. Some we kill. We know which foods are good and which are dangerous. If we taste some foods we are struck down, in punishment for eating them. We did not mean to do something bad. But foxglove or hemlock can kill you. We love our children and our friends. We warn them of such foods.

When we hunt animals, then also can we be killed. We can be gored. Or trampled. Or eaten. What animals do means life and death for us: how they behave, what tracks they leave, their times for mating and giving birth, their times for wandering. We must know these things. We tell our children. They will tell their children.

We depend on animals. We follow them – especially in winter when there are few plants to eat. We are wandering hunters and gatherers. We call ourselves the hunterfolk.

Most of us fall asleep under the sky or under a tree or in its branches. We use animal skins for clothing: to keep us warm, to cover our nakedness and sometimes as a hammock. When we wear the animal skins we feel the animal’s power. We leap with the gazelle. We hunt with the bear. There is a bond between us and the animals. We hunt and eat the animals. They hunt and eat us. We are part of one another.

We make tools and stay alive. Some of us are experts at splitting, flaking, sharpening and polishing, as well as finding, rocks. Some rocks we tie with animal sinew to a wooden handle and make an ax. With the ax we strike plants and animals. Other rocks are tied to long sticks. If we are quiet and watchful, we can sometimes come close to an animal and stick it with the spear.

Meat spoils. Sometimes we are hungry and try not to notice. Sometimes we mix herbs with the bad meat to hide the taste. We fold foods that will not spoil into pieces of animal skin. Or big leaves. Or the shell of a large nut. It is wise to put food aside and carry it. If we eat this food too early, some of us will starve later. So we must help one another. For this and many other reasons we have rules. Everyone must obey the rules. We have always had rules. Rules are sacred.

One day there was a storm, with much lightning and thunder and rain. The little ones are afraid of storms. And sometimes so am I. The secret of the storm is hidden. The thunder is deep and loud; the lightning is brief and bright. Maybe someone very powerful is very angry. It must be someone in the sky, I think.

After the storm there was a flickering and crackling in the forest nearby. We went to see. There was a bright, hot, leaping thing, yellow and red. We had never seen such a thing before. We now call it ‘flame’. It has a special smell. In a way it is alive: It eats food. It eats plants and tree limbs and even whole trees, if you let it. It is strong. But it is not very smart. If all the food is gone, it dies. It will not walk a spear’s throw from one tree to another if there a no food along the way. It cannot walk without eating. But where there is much food, it grows and makes many flame children.

One of us had a brave and fearful thought: to capture the flame, feed it a little, and make it our friend. We found some long branches of hard wood. The flame was eating them, but slowly. We could pick them up by the end that had no flame. If you run fast with a small flame, it dies. Their children are weak. We did not run. We walked, shouting good wishes. ‘Do not die, ’ we said to the flame. The other hunterfolk looked with wide eyes.

Ever after, we have carried it with us. We have aflame mother to feed the flame slowly so it does not die of hunger. Flame is a wonder, and useful too; surely a gift from powerful beings. Are they the same as the angry beings in the storm ?

The flame keeps us warm on cold n ights. It gives us light. It makes holes in the darkness when the Moon is new. We can fix spears at night for tomorrow’s hunt. And if we are not tired, even in the darkness we can see each other and talk. Also – a good thing! – fire keeps animals away. We can be hurt at night. Sometimes we have been eaten, even by small animals, hyenas and wolves. Now it is differen t. Now the flame keeps the animals back. We see them baying softly in the dark, prowling, their eyes glowing in the light of the flame. They are frightened of the flame. But we are not frightened. The flame is ours. We take care of the flame. The flame takes care of us.

The sky is importan t. It covers us. It speaks to us. Before the time we found the flame, we would lie back in the dark and look up at all the poin ts of light. Some points would come together to make a picture in the sky. One of us could see the pictures better than the rest. She taught us the star pictures and what names to call them. We would sit around late at night and make up stories about the pictures in the sky: lions, dogs, bears, hunterfolk. Other, stranger things. Could they be the pictures of the powerful beings in the sky, the ones who make the storms when angry?

Mostly, the sky does not change. The same star pictures are there year after year. The Moon grows from nothing to a thin sliver to a round ball, and then back again to nothing. When the Moon changes, the women bleed. Some tribes have rules against sex at certain times in the growing and shrinking of the Moon. Some tribes scratch the days of the Moon or the days that the women bleed on antler bones. They can plan ahead and obey their rules. Rules are sacred.

The stars are very far away. When we climb a hill or a tree they are no closer. And clouds come between us and the stars: the stars must be behind the clouds. The Moon, as it slowly moves, passes in front of stars. Later you can see that the stars are not harmed. The Moon does not eat stars. The stars must be behind the Moon. They flicker. A strange, cold, white, faraway light. Many of them. All over the sky. But only at night. I wonder what they are.

After we found the flame, I was sitting near the campfire wondering about the stars.

Slowly a thought came: The stars are flame, I thought. Then I had another thought: The stars are campfires that other hunterfolk light at night. The stars give a smaller light than campfires. So the stars must be campfires very far away. ‘But, ’ they ask me, ‘how can there be campfires in the sky ? Why do the campfires and the hunter people around those flames not fall down at our feet? Why don’t strange tribes drop from the sky?’

Those are good questions. They trouble me. Sometimes I think the sky is half of a big eggshell or a big nutshell. I think the people around those faraway campfires look down at us – except for them it seems up – and say that we are in their sky, and wonder why we do not fall up to them, if you see what I mean. But hunterfolk say, ‘Down is down and up is up. ’ That is a good answer, too.

There is another thought that one of us had. His thought is that night is a great black animal skin, thrown up over the sky. There are holes in the skin. We look through the holes. And we see flame. His thought is not just that there is flame in a few places where we see stars. He thinks there is flame everywhere. He thinks flame covers the whole sky. But the skin hides the flame. Except where there are holes.

Some stars wander. Like the animals we hunt. Like us. If you watch with care over many months, you find they move. There are only five of them, like the fingers on a hand. They wander slowly among the stars. If the campfire thought is true, those stars must be tribes of wandering hunterfolk, carrying big fires. But I don’t see how wandering stars can be holes in a skin. When you make a hole, there it is. A hole is a hole. Holes do not wander. Also, I don’t want to be surrounded by a sky of flame. If the skin fell, the night sky would be bright – too bright – like seeing flame everywhere. I think a sky of flame would eat us all. Maybe there are two kinds of powerful beings in the sky. Bad ones, who wish the flame to eat us. And good ones who put up the skin to keep the flame away. We must find some way to thank the good ones.

I don’t know if the stars are campfires in the sky. Or holes in a skin through which the flame of power looks down on us. Sometimes I think one way. Sometimes 1 think a different way. Once I thought there are no campfires and no holes but something else, too hard for me to understand.

Rest your neck on a log. Your head goes back. Then you can see only the sky. No hills, no trees, no hunterfolk, no campfire. Just sky. Sometimes I feel I may fall up into the sky. If the stars are campfires, I would like to visit those other hunterfolk – the ones who wander. Then I feel good about falling up. But if the stars are holes in a skin, I become afraid. 1 don’t want to fall up through a hole and into the flame of power.

I wish I knew which was true. I don’t like not knowing.

  • Cosmos, Carl Sagan