My List: Five Books +Plus One

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Origins of the Book: Nag Hammadi Codex Collection. Among the Earliest Known Codices Extant (Book Binding rather than Scroll). Dated to ca. 200 C.E. Discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, December 1945. Photo: PD.

Well, here you have it.  My list of “Five Books +Plus One.

Sometimes having to live by your own rules is harder than one would think.  This was one of those cases.  I realized that a few of the choices I easily could have included were not books but articles from periodicals or chapters from books.  As tempting as it was to cheat, I didn’t.  I’m not even mentioning them here as kind of a back door way of saying, Oh, by the way, these were the “also-rans” and here’s why. The other issue, as I’m sure not a few of you have also encountered is the sheer volume of books we have read during our life-times. Thousands is not a stretch of the reality.  How do I winnow all those down to just six?  It was not an easy process. I even resorted to staring at my bookcases and mentally inventorying what was there.  It turned out not to be all that helpful.

Here’s my list, roughly in chronological order as I read them.  It may surprise you; to some degree, it did me:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson
  3. The Church by Hans Kung
  4. Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman
  5. The New American Standard Bible

My “Plus One”

  • The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1951.

This is the cover of my first copy of "Foundation."

I have often said that Isaac Asimov taught me how to Think (capital “T”). Other than the Bible, I have read it through more than any other book.  I bought my first copy from a grocery store book rack when I was 15 or 16 and it changed my life.  Foundation is an unusual story in the Science Fiction genre because it is about a group of people, facing the collapse of a galactic empire, who Think.  Calling themselves “psychohistorians” they developed a complex logic and math-based system of predicting events in the future.  No magic, no Force.  Smart people thinking about almost hopelessly complicated assumptions and outcomes.  Did they get it right?  You’ll have to read the book.

I wanted to be a psychohistorian, not so much for the ability to reason out the future, but to be able to explore human behavior in its most deep and subtle implications.  To that end, I pursued psychology.

I can describe two huge influences Foundation (a series Asimov stretched into fourteen novels) had upon me.  First was the inspiration of learning how to Think, to stretch my mental capacity through creative and logical thinking and education.  Once you learn how to do that, all of life in its almost infinite variabilities becomes fascinating.

The second impact was to ask the question: What does it mean to be human?  Isaac Asimov in his nonfiction works said that was the central theme of Foundation.  He was a humanist, but an optimist who saw that through our common humanity we have the ability to overcome the many inhumanities we inflict upon one another and make ourselves into a better species—even if he did use robots to help us along that journey.  That optimism struck me as a teenager, and I carry it as a core of who I am to this very day.

Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. Published in 1968.

Thinking about all of the books I read as an undergraduate as a psychology  major (even though I graduated with a major in Biblical Studies, with minors in Psychology and General Science, due to the Northwest Christian College curriculum structure in 1976), I had the hardest time narrowing this chapter in my life to just one book.  I decided, finally, on Erikson’s Identity, Youth and Crisis, for three reasons.

First, Erikson’s idea of human development and epigenetic life stages has been a key part of my professional life, even today. Though the stages have been modified, the essential concepts have stood the test of time.  Other authors, including those writing about spirituality and religious development have built on Erikson.

Second, out of a handful of books that shaped my self-identity as a “psychologist,” Identity, Youth and Crisis rightly belongs at the top of that list.  That was not an easy decision to make because the also-rans were very influential as well.  But as I thought about which of them I had returned to over the years, Erikson came in first.  The only way I can think of to describe its impact is that after I read this book, I “became” a psychologist, and through it, as I entered first seminary and then my masters in counseling program, Erikson continued to be of special importance.

So, third, I returned to Identity, Youth and Crisis in my masters in counseling program at the University of Oregon (1981).  My second year, I elected to do a reading and conference course, and chose to read Erikson as my topic.  Even though I read six of his most influential books, I started again with Identity, Youth and Crisis.  It was the anchor for the term.  I still keep my copy handy on my book shelf.

The Church by Hans Kung.  Published in 1968.

This is the choice that surprised me.  As I pondered which books have had the most profound theological effect on me, it came down to three.  One was out of my heritage as a Disciples of Christ, two were written by Catholics.  Hans Kung, one of the Catholics, won.  Why? Similar to what I noted above, it is the book I have returned to most often over the years because it is the book that was most transformational in my personal and professional development as a theologian.

Hans Kung, a German theologian has been in trouble with the Catholic Church for nearly half a century.  He’s an iconoclast of sorts, and writes things that are transparently Protestant, and therefore the Holy See takes a dim view of his views. I have read that Kung and the current pope are not on good terms.  Nevertheless, when I read The Church, I could hardly put it down.  Kung’s grasp of the history of the church, the context from which doctrines and practices arose were so eloquently explained that by the time I got to the end of it, for the first time, I finally had a clear concept of “Church” in my head, and one from which I could see how Disciples’ theology clearly fit into. The “Church” and “the church” finally made sense, and that is saying something.

Little did I realize at the time that the chapters on Catholic sacraments and things like the priesthood and Apostolic Succession, would be a necessary reference in my work, but even now, The Church is my first reference when I encounter another confusing Roman Catholic belief or practice, which after 15 years still occasionally happens.  We don’t have to tell the pope I’m using Kung to check his facts.

Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman.  Published in 1989.

  I spent eight years working on my doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Oregon, studying Higher Education Policy and Management and graduating in 2002.  One would think that at least one book in higher education would make this list.  Two almost did.  When I got to my dissertation research, however, the foundation of that work took an unexpected twist.  Blame that on my advisor, Dr. Paul Goldman.  He took a kernel of an idea I had and put it into a context that ended up with my not only getting to do cutting-edge research, but also got my dissertation published in the internationally renowned Journal of Educational Administration.  That twist was Organizational Ecology.

In a nutshell, Organizational Ecology is a branch of Organizational Theory that examines how institutions survive in the ecology of their organizational environment.  It assumes that organizations either thrive or wither depending on how well they can access the resources that “feed” their mission and productivity.  It is a very organic model, parallel to biological ecology.  It also assumes that institutions have a life span, and theorizes how they can replicate themselves across generations.   This very developmental perspective for me was a perfect fit.

Organizational Ecology changed the way I think about the institutional world.  It was a touchstone in the process of researching and writing my dissertation that changed how I think.  Literally.  The greatest moment of amazement I experienced as I finished the dissertation manuscript was the realization that the way I think had been organized into something completely different than when I began.  In one respect I had this sense that I had taken a step toward being a psychohistorian.  It was the last thing I expected to gain from earning a PhD.

The New American Standard Bible.  Published Originally by the Lockman Foundation in 1960. Authorized Updated Version Published in 1995.

It is a well-known aphorism in biblical studies that every translation of the Bible is a collection of compromises.  This is true and generally accepted, even by those scholars who believe the Bible is literally the Divinely dictated words of God. For the rest of us, the issue takes a different path.

I find value in reading a variety of translations because I understand the nature of the compromises that went into each version.  Knowing that different translations and paraphrases reflect the theological perspectives of their editors makes each a much more interesting read.

For me, I find The New American Standard Bible my version of choice.  I got my first copy of the NASB when I was 16 years old.  I still have it and use it frequently (which is a testament to the quality of its manufacture and binding, as much as to my affinity for its text).  The NASB was designed to be a Bible that was as close as possible to being a literal translation of the original Hebrew and Greek, to also be as theologically neutral as possible, while at the same time being written in excellent English.  To be honest, they got the literal and neutral parts better than the English.  The readability, however, was significantly improved when the bible was updated in 1995.  To this day I have yet to find another translation of the English Bible that does a better job of presenting the first two, even as they work on getting the English part more polished.

I suppose some of my readers are wondering why I didn’t talk about how the Bible has been the spiritual bedrock of my faith. The answer is simple. This is a list of books that have influenced my life, not a spiritual autobiography.  And why didn’t I make it my +Plus One choice?  Doesn’t it deserve that special distinction?  The answer again is simple. It was a compromise.  I wanted to highlight The New American Standard Bible as the translation that has profoundly influenced my faith and life for over forty years.  Therefore, I decided it belonged in the list of Five, those books that have been my most important standards for shaping me as a person and as a professional.

As for my +Plus One.  I’ve decided to put that in a separate post, as Part 2.  I listed it above.  Now you can ponder why I might have chosen it for that distinction.

The Black Poll War: The Defeat of the American Political Survery Industry

Part 1: Dispelling Misconceptions

This essay has absolutely nothing to do with race, racism, or the election of the first Black/African American president in U.S. history.  Really.

Part 2: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The essay’s title is a play on the book title by quantum physicist, Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. My title is a tribute to Dr. Susskind and someday I hope to understand at least half of what he wrote, whichever half that I still don’t understand.  It is kind of like a comprehension uncertainty principle.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain that below.  Really.

Part 3: The Really Scary Part

Because of what I learned from Dr. Susskind (and a few others), I am going to use some principles from quantum mechanics as analogies for “The Black Poll Wars.”  You are safe, however, to keep reading because I am not a quantum physicist and so writing as a layperson, I know my primary challenge is to get the my idea across as cogently as possible.  I admit, we’re not at that point yet.

Part 4: A Promise Not to be Too Scary

The thesis of this post is coming right after the definitions in Part 5 and Part 6.  I promise.

Part 5: Werner Heisenberg’s Very Good Idea

Definitions of the Uncertainty Principle From Three Quantum Physicists:

  1. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—The principle of Quantum Mechanics that limits one’s ability to determine position and velocity simultaneously.  Leonard Susskind (2008). The Black Hole Wars. P. 453.
  2. Uncertainty principle: There is a fundamental limit in nature in the precisions to which certain measurements can be made. Kenneth Ford (2005). The Quantum World. P. 260.
  3. Uncertainty Principle—The statement that the momentum and position of a particle cannot be known exactly simultaneously.  If the momentum of a particle is known exactly, then the position is completely uncertain, that is, there can be no information on the position.  If the position is known exactly, there can be no information on the magnitude of the momentum.  In general, the principle states that the position and the momentum can only be known with a certain degree of uncertainty.  This is intrinsic to nature and not a consequence of experimental error.  Michael Frayer (2010). Absolutely Small. P. 372.

Part 6: Uncertainty: The Answer not the Question

For those of you who are craving for at least one mathematical formula  because of the definitions in Part 5, here it is for the Uncertainty Principle.  On the other hand, if math of any kind causes you to break out in hives, please skip to Part 7.

ΔxΔp≥ ħ/2

Definition of Terms from Ford:

On the right side is the ubiquitous Planck’s constant [ħ] (here divided by 2π), which turns up in every equation  in quantum mechanics.  Momentum is represented by p, and position (distance) by x.  The Δ symbols are used here to mean “uncertainty of” (not “change of”): Δx is the uncertainty of position; Δp is the uncertainty of momentum.  The product of these two uncertainties is equal to the constant ħ (p. 213-214).*

* The alert reader will see that Dr. Ford’s definition of ħ, though correct for the value of ħ, lacks the definition of ħ/2.  Ford defines Heisenberg’s 1927 originally published  formula for uncertainty (which is the context of the definition in that chapter of The Quantum World).  Later that same year the formula was modified, known as the Kenard Revision , and was considered a refinement of the original, which is now known as the Classical Formula. (For the most recent formulation of the Uncertainty Principle, see the Wikipedia article.)

Part 7: The Black Poll War

To be clear, here is my thesis statement for this post:  The polling data being collected and published today will  in all likelihood be wrong in November when the election takes place.  Why?  The pollsters and the public believe the polls.  Right now, if you go to a website such as Polster.com, you will find an up-to-date list of all the major political surveyors and pollsters, professional and academic, party-affiliated and independent.  The people who publish the results of their surveys, for the most part, are highly trained professionals and are working very hard to mine the opinions of the American public.  They use the accepted methodologies for their survey research, collection and analysis.   They are vying for the status of being the most reliable polling organization in country, and many have the history and credentials to make that a genuinely possible achievement.  As an individual who has been trained to do research, has conducted surveys myself, using the same methods, I have, with one or two exceptions, no argument with the quality of their work.

I am growing increasingly convinced, however, they are going to fail.  Two or three of the national survey organizations at most may be lucky and get the final results right.  The rest will not.  The reason is simple; the explanation less so.

This will be the year of the Black Poll War.  The image is appealing for several reasons, aside from the allusion to the Black Hole Wars recently fought in astrophysics.  Election day will be a black day for one of the political parties.  As we get closer to that date, the polls, which historically should be coalescing into a clearer picture will appear to be doing so, but actually be less and less accurate. Those few who are paying attention to what I’m about to suggest will be scrambling to read the tea leaves, so to speak, but instead, may share with me this growing discomfort we are gazing down the maw of a black hole.  Light goes in and never comes out.  The show will appear to be the Event Horizon (the highly charged ring that encircles a black hole) and it will be spectacular, giving the pundits of all stripes an unlimited amount of material to fill the radio and TV airwaves.  They, too, however, will be stunned at how wrong they were the day after.

As I said, the reason is simple.  There is a cultural and sociological equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle at work here in the United States.  We are, undoubtedly, not the only nation experiencing this phenomenon.  But being who we are, the impact the principle is having on us has a disproportionately larger impact on the rest of the world.  If I understand the true relevance of the Uncertainty Principle, it has the biggest effect on the smallest things, such as a single photon of light, or a proton, or some other sub-atomic particle.  Now, stay with me here.  I promise no more math.  The Principle has the least affect on the biggest things in the universe, like galaxies or even clusters of galaxies.

From Royal Astrologers to the Second Foundation

The big things–That is exactly what the pollsters and public are searching for, the big trends, the big shifts, the big percentages.  That’s what surveys are for, right?  Well, of course.  We Americans are obsessed with–majority– I’ll bet you thought I was going to say big.  Just  thinking off the top of my head, we might  be past that stage in some respects.  Look at the trend in consumer electronics.  Bigger isn’t better, smaller is.  More features packed into a smaller container.  The computer I’m writing on with all the capabilities it has started life as a giant, slow, data cruncher that would have filled rooms.  In fact, those early computers couldn’t do 90% of what my lap top does.   Half a century ago if you had used the word “nano” in a sentence, the reaction would be blank stares.  Now we use in everyday conversation like it really means something.  Because it really does.

What, then, is our obsession with majorities?  Politically speaking, the answer is straightforward.  Democracy, as we define it, runs on the foundation that majority rules.  And the reason that formula is used is because we get to cast our vote on a remarkably large number of issues, both regarding choosing the people we want to lead us and in (many different ways) choosing which laws we want to help structure our philosophy of what constitutes an orderly society.  Inherent in this kind of governing system (yes, I know, technically the United States is a republic), is the fact that every time we vote, someone or something wins and someone or something loses.

The people who voted for the person or law that lost are never happy about it, but in a republic, that is the way of things. Since the losers might have been the winners, we agree as citizens living under one Great Code of Governance we call The Constitution, someone always will be in the role of the loser, or to borrow the more genteel phrase from our British friends, “the loyal opposition.”

In the contemporary setting, we are doing far better at the opposition part than the loyal part. There is this emerging undercurrent that the opposition considers itself to be loyal and the majority to be disloyal.  No matter which party is in the majority, when that political shift begins to be a resonating theme of discontent, the very foundation of the republic is at risk.  That analysis, however, is not direction I intend to go in this essay.

My guess is that the field of survey polling exists only because of democracy and voting.  Prior to that political innovation, kings and queens, emperors and empresses, and all sort of other sovereigns wanted to know the future.  The role of astrologers was to provide them with that information.  They didn’t consult the monarch’s subjects; they consulted the stars.  Despite the Disneyesque concept we have of sorcerers and viziers, astrologers were generally among the educated elite (they had to be to write the horoscopes for their particular  patron), and used more sophisticated methods of obtaining information than just drawing planets and epicycles on sheets of parchment.  It is likely that the best astrologers had agents out in the field gathering information for them.  Most were probably covertly operating spies so as not to blow the astrologer’s cover of celestial omniscience.  In one respect it helped assure the Royal Astrologer kept his head attached his body.  In another respect it was the birth of polling.

With the emergence of democracy, covert information gathering on the mood of the populace could finally step into the sunlight.  Both the leaders and public wanted to know the present sentiment of the voters, and also wanted to use that information in all sorts of creative ways, some legitimate, some as a complete distortion.  The goal was and is to achieve the Majority.  Everyone wants their side to be the majority, because of the control and power it conveys.  To meet that demand one of the branches of the science of statistics began developing formulas.  And they were very good at it.  Within a century statistical polling became one of the most powerful tools of any political party, candidate, or ballot measure or initiative proponent.  And for the most part, since Americans not only love to vote, but love to express our opinions about how we plan to vote, survey polling is one of the most lucrative fields to be in (well, as long as you are on the executive side of things).

Survey polling, though, has a huge flaw.  The “black poll war” is going to produce an across-the-board defeat of the field.  The flaw is that survey polling is based on separating the majority and minority, and reporting it as if it were real.  It is their philosophical “theory of everything.”  The issue, from their perspective, is settled.  Yes, methodologies can be refined and trend analysis can be made more robust by the addition of ever-more-precise demographics.  Increasingly sophisticated software run on supercomputers can crunch data at mind-boggling speeds.  All of those things however are no more than a paper mache disk painted to look like a man-hole cover.  You don’t want to step on it.

The flaw is this: Survey polling is still operating in the classical world of majority research.  It is by analogy the same difference between the classical world of Newtonian physics and the Planckian world of Quantum Mechanics.  Survey polling has no equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle, and that is going to make all the difference.

Waiter, there’s a quark in my soup bowl.

Think of it this way.  Suppose I invite an experienced pollster to lunch  for soup.  I place two identical bowls in front her .  One is filled with a steamy hot, delicious soup with a wonderful aroma.  The other contains water filled to the same level.  Then I ask her, as a pollster, to describe the characteristics of each bowl.  Playing along, hoping that she will get the bowl with soup and not the water, she adeptly describes the contents of each bowl.  Next, I ask her, “if each bowl represented a bloc of voters, which one will win?”  Since both bowls are filled to the identical level, she correctly says, “I can’t tell.  I can only make a decision which has the majority.”  I take away the bowl with the water and replace it with an empty bowl.  I repeat my question, and she quite accurately answers “If the amount of soup is the equivalent to the number of votes cast, then the bowl with the soup wins.”  I ask my final question.  “The votes are based on the number of quarks (a subatomic particle that is part of every atom) in each bowl.  Which bowl has the most quarks?”

How would you answer?

We will attempt to find a solution to this question in the next post.  Happy pondering!