Monday, February 26, 2007
  Why I write & thoughts on Tools for Thought
Waddington, C. H. Tools for Thought: How to Understand and Apply the Latest Scientific Techniques of Problem Solving. New York: Basic Books, 1977. 250 pages.

My return here is essentially due to a New Years resolution. I'm proud of my image among my friends, because it seems to be pretty similar to the way I'd like to think of myself. I'd like to believe that I am a kind of rogue scholar, boundless in erudition, devouring books with all my spare time. That hasn't really been the case. I've wasted a lot of time over the last few years, and that's something I regret. So in an effort to become something more similar to the person I'd like to think of myself as, I decided to read as much as I could this year. This started with a simple idea: I'd read as many books as I could and keep track of my progress in some way. Pretty quickly I remembered that I also wanted to write more and I realized I could use this space to both keep track of my reading and force myself to write. So far it's been working pretty well, though my original goal of "read a large number of books" is in the process of transforming to "spend a large amount of time reading" because I found myself gravitating away from anything which would take too much time. I've also been working on developing a set of operating guidelines to keep me making progress. One of these is essentially "finish what you start", as in the past I've been rather bad about abandoning books about a third of the way through.

I recently came across a book that thwarted my attempts to finish it. The book in question is C. H. Waddington's Tools for Thought. I found it very promising initially. The table of contents has entries about complex systems, game theory, information theory and a few other things which are right up my alley. Plus, flipping through it, I saw that many concepts are illustrated appealingly in a style reminiscent of East Asian calligraphy. Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to its initial appeal. The author shies away from technical detail to the point of fault. Each section covers some ideas in a rather vague and unspecific way, giving the reader almost no indication of exactly what the "tool" under discussion actually is or how one might practically use it. He explicitly glosses over or just leaves out anything even remotely complicated and warns us beforehand when he approaches anything that he may need to use a technical tool (such as a "number") to explain.
I'm not totally comfortable saying outright that this book is bad. A great deal of this caution may be related to the fact that many of the ideas he does attempt to tackle were very new at the time, and Waddington was certainly targeting a popular audience, but this doesn't make the book particularly readable today. It's pretty outdated, and the author says strange things about some fields and gently condemns others (he has very little enthusiasm for "statistics".) There's an amusing quote about a "typical view of city traffic around 1995" that includes free and publicly available cube shaped electric cars. I gave up pretty close to that. This may have been better when it was written but it's not worth reading now, and it's caused me to revise my "finish what you start" policy into something like "finish what you can".

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