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04/26 — 2022
52.35 cm 6.0 min

Recent books

I set a rather lofty reading goal at the beginning of this year – 52 books – a decision that is now starting to signal as untenable hubris, considering I am 10 books behind schedule. Regardless, I was able to read some interesting things in between balancing school and an internship these past few months.

Map and Territory - (Eliezer Yudkowsky)

This is the first book in Yudkowsky’s massive tome, Rationality: From AI to Zombies – aka ‘The Sequences’ – which could serve as an introduction to the art of rationality, cognitive bias, and Bayesian thinking.

The book is pretty dense, however the prose is quite accessible, and there are many interesting ideas put forth.

Anyone interested in learning about a style of thinking that systematically gets one closer to holding accurate beliefs about the world should read this book.

Lying (Sam Harris)

A lament against deceitful behaviour. Quite short, nothing too mind-blowing.

Many may intuit that lying is bad, Harris goes so far as to say:

Every lie is an assault on the autonomy of those we lie to.

He reminds us that a false statement can travel great distances, yielding consequences unforeseen at its inception:

By lying to one person, we potentially spread falsehoods to many others—even to whole societies.

In an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, the optimal strategy is to cooperate, and Harris echoes that sentiment with his relationship vs transaction perspective:

Do you view your life in terms of relationships or transactions? If you’re bidding on eBay, truth isn’t an issue. That is a completely transactional situation. If I’m dealing with my mechanic on an ongoing basis, it’s not a transaction. It’s a relationship, and he will make judgments about me and about my reliability as a person. And I will make judgments about him, and these judgments will have long-term effects for both of us.

Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)

This book was surprisingly very interesting and enjoyable to read. Something about Gladwell’s writing just clicks.

The book is about success, in the traditional sense, and what role the cards we’re dealt, so to speak – e.g. our environment growing up, intelligence, birth month – play in the process of achieving it.

It turns out, they play a critical role – as seen in the clustered birth months of top hockey players, the cultural heritage of top mathematics students, and how Microsoft might owe its inception to a high school ‘Mothers Club’.

We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there’s nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple.

Even though this may be the case, merit’s role is far from non-existent, and Gladwell sums it up nicely:

Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

What Does It All Mean? (Thomas Nagel)

Nagel introduces a general audience to the discipline of philosophy, using simple language – focusing on life’s big unanswered, yet comprehensively addressed, questions.

He offers his take on these questions, but that isn’t the primary motivation behind his work, it is to get us thinking about these questions – so as to confront some of the more dense philosophical works with our own worked out ideas in mind:

Before learning a lot of philosophical theories it is better to get puzzled about the philosophical questions which those theories try to answer.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and would recommend it to anyone whose curious about what philosophy is all about.

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments (Ali Almossawi)

This was a rather short read, took me about an hour, but very interesting nonetheless. As the title may hint, the authors goal is to deconstruct and delineate various types of bad arguments used in debate and discussion.

To give some examples, we encounter the straw man tactic:

To “put up a straw man” is to intentionally caricature a person’s argument with the aim of attacking the caricature rather than the actual argument.

And the false dilemma:

A false dilemma is an argument that presents a limited set of two possible categories and assumes that everything in the scope of the discussion must be an element of that set.

And the genetic fallacy:

A genetic fallacy is committed when an argument is either devalued or defended solely because of its origins. In fact, an argument’s history or the origins of the person making it have no effect whatsoever on its validity.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how to construct sound arguments – this would serve as a good enough guide on what not to do.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (Paul Hoffman)

Hoffman’s work is a biography of the famous mathematician Paul Erdős (pronounced air-dish), which goes in great depth on Erdős’ comically eccentric lifestyle and personality, while not being afraid to expose his mathematical work in an accessible and engaging manner.

Anyone interested in mathematics should read this, you do learn quite a few results as Hoffman touches on Erdős’ work in number theory, graph theory and ramsey theory. But more importantly, you get a glimpse into how mathematicians work and collaborate.