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The Five Best Nonfiction Books

June 2nd, 2014 11 comments

Okay fine, not the best. (Click bait!) But for me, the most important — the five books that, more than any others, taught me how to think about the world.

A friend in my “classics” book group asked me for nonfiction book recommendations. Here’s what I wrote:

The NF books that wow me, get me all excited, have me thinking for years or decades, are ones that are comprehensible to mortals but that transform their fields, become the essential touchstones and springboards for whole disciplines and realms of thought. Writing for two such disparate audiences is insanely hard, and the fact that these books succeed is a big part of what makes them brilliant.

Also books that cut to the core of what we (humans) are, how we know. (So, there’s much science tilt here, but far bigger than arid “science.”)

“I don’t know how I thought about the world before I read this.”

Or:

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been kinda sorta thinking, in a vague and muddled way. THANK YOU for figuring out what I think.”

These books let you sit in on, even “participate,” in discussions at the cutting edge of human understanding. They make you (or me, at least) feel incredibly smart.

And they’re fun to read — at least for those with a certain…bent…

Probably have to start with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. When it came out in ’76 it crystallized how everybody thought about evolution, hence life and humanity. The amazing Dawkins, amazingly to me, has become kind of hidebound and reactionary in response to new developments since then (group/multilevel selection, inheritance of acquired characteristics), but the new information and new thinking that make parts of this book wrong, couldn’t exist without the thinking so beautifully condensed in this book. Might not need to read the whole thing, but it’s pretty short and you might not be able to resist. Very engaging writer and full of fascinating facts about different species and humans. Also the place where the word “memes” was coined.

Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The most important book I’ve read in decades. Philosophy meets science meets sociology, anthropology, psychology, politics, law… Pinker’s core expertise is in language acquisition, how two-year-olds accomplish the spectacularly complex task of learning language (see: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.). He has a love-affair with verbs, in particular. Just loves those fuzzy little things. But his knowledge is encyclopedic and his mind is vast. And he’s laugh-out-loud funny on every other page. Also incredibly warm and human. I have such a bro-crush on this guy. (Also: everything else he’s ever written, including at least some chunks of his latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast, and Slow. Kahneman and his lifelong cohort Amos Tversky (sadly deceased) are psychologists who won the 2002 Nobel Prize — in Economics! — for their 1979 work on “Prospect Theory.” (Fucking economists have been largely ignoring their work ever since, but that’s another subject…) About “Type 1″ and “Type 2″ thinking: the first is instantaneous, evolved heuristics that let us, e.g., read a person’s expression in a microsecond from a block away. The second is what we think of as “thinking” — slow, tiring, and…crucial to what makes us human. Interestingly, in interviews Kahneman says that he almost didn’t write this book, thought it would fail, for the very reason that it’s so great: it addresses both mortals and the field’s cutting-edge practitioners, brilliantly. The book’s discussions of his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Tversky are incredibly touching.

E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. Q: How did we end up at the top of — utterly dominating — the world food chain? A: “Eusociality”: roughly, non-kin altruism. Wilson knows more about the other hugely successful social species — insects and especially ants — than any other human. He basically founded the field of evolutionary psychology with his ’76 book, Sociobiology. As with the others, this is deep, profound, wide-ranging, and incredibly warm and human in its insights into what humanity is, what humans are. Those things that are wrong in The Selfish Gene? Here’s where you’ll find them.

Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Philosophy. It draws on some scientific findings, but mainly this is very careful step-by-step thinking through a subject, a construct, that is not uniquely human, but close. (Elephants, apes, etc. do seem to care about justice, sort of.) I find it especially engaging and important because it addresses and untangles the central political arguments of recent times — is it “just” to make everyone better off by taking from the rich and giving to the poor? Should individual “liberty” trump individual rights? What rights? Etc. This book did much to help me comb out my muddled thinking on this stuff.

Morton Davis, Game Theory, a Nontechnical Introduction. Stands out on this list cause it’s not one of those “big” books. Available in a shitty little $10 Dover edition. But it’s an incredibly engaging walk through the subject, full of surprising anecdotes and insights. And he does all the algebra for you! The stuff in here makes all the other books above, better, cause they’re all using some aspects of this thinking. Here’s an Aha! example I wrote up: Humans are Pathologically Nuts: Proof Positive.

Okay, you noticed there are six books here. Did I mention click bait?

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Is it Stupid to Get an English Degree Instead of a Business Degree?

November 8th, 2011 No comments

There’s lots of chatter out there these days about how college students are getting degrees in Lithuanian Folk Dancing instead of Mechanical Engineering, and how they should stop whining about their poor job prospects.

Point well taken, but I was interested to come across this interactive table, courtesy of a link from Ryan Avent. Here, sorted by the most popular majors.

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT AND ADMINISTRATION
6.0%
$38,000
$56,000
$85,000
1
GENERAL BUSINESS
5.3%
$38,000
$59,000
$91,000
2
ACCOUNTING
5.4%
$41,000
$61,000
$94,000
3
NURSING
2.2%
$48,000
$60,000
$80,000
4
PSYCHOLOGY
6.1%
$30,000
$43,000
$65,000
5
MARKETING AND MARKETING RESEARCH
5.9%
$40,000
$59,000
$90,000
6
COMMUNICATIONS
6.3%
$35,000
$50,000
$81,000
7
ELEMENTARY EDUCATION
3.6%
$32,000
$40,000
$49,000
8
GENERAL EDUCATION
4.2%
$31,000
$41,000
$53,000
9
COMPUTER SCIENCE
5.6%
$50,000
$77,000
$102,000
10
ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
6.7%
$32,000
$48,000
$75,000
11
FINANCE
4.5%
$44,000
$65,000
$101,000
12
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND FIRE PROTECTION
4.7%
$36,000
$50,000
$73,000
13
BIOLOGY
5.6%
$35,000
$51,000
$76,000
14
POLITICAL SCIENCE AND GOVERNMENT
6.0%
$38,000
$57,000
$91,000
15
ECONOMICS
6.3%
$42,000
$69,000
$108,000
16
ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING
5.0%
$60,000
$86,000
$111,000
17
HISTORY
6.5%
$34,000
$50,000
$81,000
18
SOCIOLOGY
7.0%
$33,000
$45,000
$67,000
19
LIBERAL ARTS
7.6%
$32,000
$48,000
$71,000
20
COMMERCIAL ART AND GRAPHIC DESIGN
8.1%
$31,000
$45,000
$69,000
21

 

Clearly, people with more utilitarian degrees have lower unemployment, and higher salaries. Not surprising. But there are all sorts of interesting surprises. English majors, for instance, have only marginally higher unemployment, and marginally lower salaries, than Business Management and Administration majors. Whodathunkit. It doesn’t seem irrational to me — given most students’ inherent uncertainty about their future career paths — to spend four years doing something you love instead of something you hate.

Also: according to this table you’re more of an idiot if you got a degree in Economics when you could have studied Electrical Engineering.

I don’t have any grand narratives to present about this. Just thought curious souls would find wandering through this data as interesting as I did.

Yes: Machines Are Replacing Humans

November 6th, 2011 1 comment

Q: Does technology complement or replace human labor?

A: Yes.

I’ve looked at this in some depth — with much thinking help from Robin Hanson — herehere and here.

After thinking and reading about it for another year or so, I’m prepared to make the bald statement: Yes, an ever-increasing number of workers in America are being priced out of the labor market by technology, with help from low-cost labor in other countries (which is underpriced at least partially because low-wage employers in those countries don’t bear the costs of negative social and environmental externalities).

We’re at the “knowledge” end of a global economy with ever-increasing technology-driven productivity, meaning that ever more workers don’t have the wherewithal, are incapable, of doing the technological knowledge work that allows them to claim a decent share of the pie. The human capacity for self-improvement — of practical and especially cognitive skills — is limited. I’m suggesting that we’re hitting, have hit, that limit. An increasing number of people simply can’t climb that ladder, can do no more than gaze up at that promised city on the hill.

Those who invoke the Luddite Fallacy ignore this reality. Even a stopped clock is right eventually.

I want to keep this post short, so I’ll just end with the two graphics that for me, drive this point home:

Check out the progression: ’81, ’90, ’01, ’07. (Recessions are nature’s way of keeping the little guy down.)

Compare this:

Not the same steady progression as in the previous, but I think the stark difference between the two speaks volumes.

Update: At risk of repeating myself again some more, my solution is a greatly expanded (and simplified) Earned Income Tax Credit, with benefit levels indexed to some measure of unemployment.

Religious Knowledge of a Devout (and Morally Committed) Atheist: 100%

October 2nd, 2010 5 comments

My results on the latest Pew survey:

Here’s how you did on these 15 questions (excerpted from the larger U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey) compared with a nationally representative sample of 3,412 adults. Read the Full Report

Your responses on the quiz do NOT affect the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey’s results.

Take the test here. Or read all the Christianity/Bible questions below.

You’ve probably heard about it already, but short story, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious people.

Atheist even know more about Christianity than Christians do (despite the mealy-mouthed headline here):

White evangelicals and Mormons do know a little bit more about Christianity than atheists/agnostics (though given the overall sample size there’s gotta be pretty low statistical significance for these small slices.) But even so, they could only get 7 or 8 out of 12!? Must be a hard test.

Oh wait. Not so much. Of the twelve Christianity/bible questions in the full survey, I got 11 out of 12. Though I didn’t actually know the answer to two; on one I was able to eliminate one choice out of three, and won the toss on the other two. I also had a 50/50 chance of being “right” on the other (two-choice) one I didn’t know. So call it 10 out of 12.

I went into the survey and pulled out those 12 Christianity/bible questions. Here they are:

What is the first book of the Bible?

Will you tell me the names of the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible, that is the Four Gospels?

Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?
Bethlehem
Jericho
Jerusalem
Nazareth

The Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus Christ appearing to people in what area of the world?
The Americas
Middle East
Asia

Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for communion?
The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or
The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ

Which of these religious groups traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone?
Only Protestants
Only Catholics
Both Protestants and Catholics
Neither Protestants nor Catholics

Please tell me which of the following is NOT one of the Ten Commandments:
Do not commit adultery
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
Do not steal
Keep the Sabbath holy

Which Bible figure is most closely associated with a. Remaining obedient to God despite suffering [no item b] c. Leading the exodus from Egypt d. Willingness to sacrifice his son for God? [questions rotated]
Job
Elijah
Moses
Abraham

Would you tell me if a. Mother Teresa was b. The Dalai Lama is c. Joseph Smith was d. Maimonides was? [questions rotated]
Catholic
Jewish
Buddhist
Mormon
Hindu

What was the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation?
Martin Luther
Thomas Aquinas
John Wesley

Which one of these preachers participated in the period of religious activity known as the First Great Awakening?
Jonathan Edwards
Charles Finney
Billy Graham

Don’t read this until you’ve answered the last question — spoiler:

Billy Graham was obviously not alive at the time of the The Great Delusioning. I didn’t have more than a vauge guess for the one about “faith alone” (Protestants?). Not that I care…

Does the Liberal Arts Model Deliver Life Success? National Success?

September 4th, 2010 14 comments

My friend Steve wonders at all the college students who study Lithuanian folk dancing and the like, and wonders whether they shouldn’t study something useful instead, and pursue less remunerative interests when they’re past their prime earning years.

This makes some sense to me, theoretically. But here’s what’s weird, something I’ve been wondering at myself for quite a while:

America (and Canada? Je ne sais pas.) is the only country in the world where “liberal arts education” is widespread, actually pretty much ubiquitous in higher ed. Every other country has a much more voc-tech model: even at Cambridge and Oxford (and certainly in France or China), when you get to college you declare your major immediately, pursue that major, then get a job in that major.

America also has, far and away (by everyone’s measure, here and abroad), the most, best universities in the world — maybe even equivalent to its military dominance. America is the number-one magnet location for students from across the globe. And countries across the globe are soliciting American universities to set up satellite shops — with their liberal arts models — in their countries.

How to explain this? The standard, loosy-goosey nostrums about developing critical thinking skills, flexibility of mind, adaptability in a fast-changing work world, etc. seem so vague and wooly up against hard-eyed, nuts-and-bolts preparation for the world of work. But on a national and global level they seem to be born out, in spades.

It’s worth noting that those university rankings give a lot of weight to the strength of graduate schools — which are, essentially, voc-techs at a high level. But (almost) all the people in those graduate schools came up through the liberal arts undergraduate system.

It’s possible, of course, that we have the best universities in spite of the liberal arts model, not because of it. Perhaps if we were more utilitarian we’d be even more profoundly dominant in higher education. But I’m thinking that that imagined counterfactual conjecture has the burden of proof on it, up against the existing evidence.

This reminds me of the comment I read a while back from history professor. His students would ask him what they could do with a history degree. He said (paraphrasing from memory here), “Unless you’re going to teach, nothing. But that’s the wrong question. The right question is ‘What do people with history degrees do?’ The answer is — everything.”

Me, I got my B.A. in Literature, Theory and Criticism, and went on to be an equity partner and/or principal in a whole string of startups, with combined values totaling tens of millions of dollars. Did that degree help me do that? I have absolutely no idea. I do know that it’s what I wanted to do at that time — what I’d work at day and night because I was fascinated by the subject. (Even though I had absolutely no intention, at any time in my life, of becoming a teacher or a professor.)

And that interest has continued, greatly enriching my life ever since. Viz. (Competing for the most-life-enriching prize is what I call my pre-graduate degree, which I took in downhill skiing — paid for by loading chairlifts in Very Cold Weather for two winters at low wages, and by the opportunity cost of not doing something more remunerative and/or career-enhancing.)

I don’t call myself representative — I’m somewhat smarter than the average bear, and I had a lot of other advantages of birth. Certainly some people will enhance their lives far more by studying something more practical.

But on a national level, I like to think about one of my kids’ friends, who is currently at the Annapolis Naval Academy, majoring in … literature.

Wacky? Maybe so. But when I look at the world around me, the balance of the evidence tells me that our country and our world are better off because he has the freedom and opportunity to do that. It’s another aspect of the freedom that our country provides — cultural, institutional, intellectual, psychological. It’s among the main reasons — maybe the main reason — that we’re such a remarkably successful country.