Good Reading -- August 2018
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. -- This book is about 20 years old, and I think I bought it a decade ago. But for some reason it sat on my shelf (despite a reminder from Mike D. to read it...two summers ago!). It is very long, but it's absolutely engrossing. This is one of the best biographies I've ever read.
The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras -- This is another incredible biography. Tim Samaras was a self-taught engineering genius with a high school diploma and a day job in explosives research who went on to do trailblazing work on tornadoes, severe storms, and lightning. Tim tragically died in 2013, alongside his son and longtime partner, when a monstrous, rare tornado overtook his chase vehicle. This is not an easy story to tell, but weather novices and experts alike will find it spellbinding.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're wrong About the World -- and Why Things Are Better Than You Think -- Maybe I've read so many of the recent pop-sociology books and articles that I didn't appreciate this one as much as I otherwise would have. I thought it was very good but well short of "one of the most important books I've ever read," as Bill Gates said. The author sadly passed away before the book's publication, but it is a great tribute to him and his career. It's well-written and the overall mindset and framework are worthwhile, of course, despite some problems.
Better and [versus] bad; good news and gradual improvement are not news; shared learning from mistakes; fear versus reality; risk = danger x exposure; constantly test your favorite ideas for weakness; be humble about the extent of expertise; be curious about new information that doesn't fit; avoid blame and consider combinations and systems.
One big issue I had -- as usual -- was the discussion of climate change. After rightly refusing Al Gore's request at a TED conference ("We need to create fear!") and disclaiming his methods, Rosling still praises Gore and claims there is an "easy" solution...despite an incredibly complex system, a paucity of data, plenty of exaggeration on both sides, etc. Climate change gets exhaustive, contradictory treatment and also makes his list of "The Five Global Risks We Should Worry About," while war gets exactly two paragraphs (with no mention of WMD) alongside global pandemic, financial collapse, and extreme poverty.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are -- This book is entertaining, and a couple of sections are quite interesting. Internet search data does provide a unique lens on human behavior, and as always we should watch what people do, not what they say (especially when responding to surveys, when posting on Facebook, etc.).
I disagree with the author's repeated assertion that "when trying to make predictions, you needn't worry too much about why your models work...in the prediction business, you just need to know that something works, not why."
Facts and Figures
"Most — but not all — people think “always” means “100% of the time,” for example, but the probability range that most attribute to an event with a “real possibility” of happening spans about 20% to 80%." -- Source
Hans Rosling, writing in Factfulness:
"How can we help our brains to realize that things are getting better when everything is screaming at us that things are getting worse? The solution is not to balance out all the negative news with more positive news...A solution that works for me to to persuade myself to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time. It seems that when we hear someone say things are getting better, we think they are also saying 'don't worry, relax' or even 'look away.' But I am not saying those things at all....I am saying that things can be both bad and [getting] better."
"Resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it's almost always more complicated than that. It's almost always about multiple interacting causes -- a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face."
Your Lying Mind: The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain -- A good if imperfect intro to the topic, with some interesting nuance on Danny Kahneman's infamous pessimism regarding the potential for self-improvement pertaining to bias, intuition, and "System 1" thinking.
If You Say Something is "Likely," How Likely Do People Think It Is? -- Markets, politics, sports, the weather -- as this article points out, there is no basic agreement in daily life as to the definition of basic terms of probability.
Venezuelans Doubt Economic Overhaul -- This would be comical if it weren't causing a humanitarian crisis. Once one of the wealthiest nations in the hemisphere, Venezuela is now reduced to farcical schemes like cutting five zeroes off its "new" currency; pegging the currency to an oil-backed cryptocurrency that is banned by the U.S. Treasury on suspicion of fraud; an attempt to raise the minimum wage 30x; and many more, all in the name of "a really impressive magic formula." Frightening to say the least.
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