Good Reading -- June 2021
A selection of great books, articles, and essays
Facts and Figures
The state of New York has more than 20.2 million residents. It lost a seat in the House because it fell 89 residents short in the 2020 census.
Startling new developments in artificial intelligence are nothing but applied geometry, analyzing paths in the infinite-dimensional space of all possible algorithms. But Abraham Lincoln wasn’t an AI developer or a paradigm-busting pure mathematician. His interest in Euclid arose, as he told Rev. Gulliver, because he needed to know what “proof” was. What distinguished Lincoln as a thinker, his friend and fellow lawyer Henry Clay Whitney recalled, wasn’t his brilliance; lots of people in public life are smart, and among them one finds both the good and the bad. What made Lincoln special was integrity, his belief that you should not say something unless you have demonstrated that it is right. Whitney writes: “It was morally impossible for Lincoln to argue dishonestly; he could no more do it than he could steal; it was the same thing to him in essence, to despoil a man of his property by larceny, or by illogical or flagitious reasoning.” In Euclid, Lincoln found a language in which it’s very hard to dissimulate, cheat or dodge the question. Geometry is a form of honesty.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need — Bill Gates reads a lot and he keeps an active blog, but this book is a departure for him. I admire Gates’s public philanthropy, and I agree with most (if not all) of the broad issues he’s tackling in this book. But my issues were notable and I found much of the book somewhat frustrating (despite its earnestness and good intentions). I would still recommend it for background/intro purposes.
A Gentleman in Moscow — The writing in this novel is engrossing. I can see why it got so much attention and so many good reviews. It’s hard to describe, and I thought the story was pretty slow to develop, but the writing is worth it.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen — I read this book purely out of idle interest, not because I would ever have a personal need or reason to read it. No, definitely not that. In all seriousness, it comes well-reviewed and it’s stood the test of time. The overall framework (listen and empathize, don’t try to immediately solve/correct/teach) makes sense. But the structure of the book was a little odd and I’m worried the material won’t stick or have much of an impact in my day-to-day life. We’ll see.
They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines - And Started a Cold War — Wow… (Thanks to Pat D. *and* Craig M. for sending this. Great minds think alike.)
“I’d Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This” — An incredible oral history of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.
Good Moods Often Lead to Bad Decisions — Danny Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass Sunstein have a new book, “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment.” I plan to read that soon, but this essay is adapted from the book and offers a good preview.
Lunch with the FT: Daniel Kahneman — “Why do we pay so little attention to noise and so much attention to bias? The problem, says Kahneman, is that we think causally, about individual cases. You can observe bias in an individual case, but to observe noise one must measure — or at least imagine — multiple cases playing out in different ways. Can we reduce noise, I ask? Certainly. ‘There is a medication for noise. I mean, if you average many judgments, noise will go down . . . if the judgments are independent, that’s guaranteed.’ But getting a second and a third opinion is expensive. And we often unconsciously suppress evidence of noise. ‘People prefer their sources of information to be highly correlated. Then all the messages you get are consistent with each other and you’re comfortable.’”
Why You Shouldn’t Buy Bitcoin When You’re Hungry — The editor should be embarrassed, because I’m sure a ton of people missed this article. It’s Jason Zweig writing about the new Kahneman/Sunstein/Sibony book. Enough said.
What Honest Abe Learned from Geometry — The source of the quote above, and a preview of a book coming out soon that I plan to read.
John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons” — This long interview is full of interesting stuff about the business and process of comedy writing.