Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Godless

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godlessAtheist. I remember when there seemed no worse label to attach to someone. You could understand how others might have been mistaken in having the wrong religion, but denying the existence of God, well you just had to be “evil”, you just had to want to do anything at all without answering to any authority, you… well, you get the idea.

I just have to interject a definition of “atheist” I heard recently (don’t recall if it was in this book or not):

Atheist: a person who disbelieves in one more religion/god than you do.

There is a new “atheist” coming into focus. People who have just given it a lot of thought and come to the conclusion that they don’t see proof of a god, particularly a personal God as represented in religions descended through Judaism. The personal God that hears prayers and take sides. In previous days I could only have attributed this, as many still do, as becoming so focused on self and hard of heart that they had to deny God to justify their actions.

If this strikes a chord with you, then you really ought to consider giving this book a read. (If it doesn’t strike a chord with you, you may be more inclined to read this book, and I still think you’d enjoy it.) Dan Barker starts by laying forth his bona fides as a fervent evangelistic christian. You then take a deeply personal journey with him as he begins to question, and begins to find answers that, troublingly, don’t take him in the direction of confirming his faith.

I can hear scathing sermons about how evil, how dangerous this book is. How, whatever you do, you shouldn’t expose yourself to these sorts of thoughts. The devil will use it as a tool to erode your faith. Really?, just understanding how a fervent christian can honestly come to the conclusion that there is not good reason to assume the existence of god is dangerous? OK, take it upon yourself as a task to understand the position, the struggle, and, yes, the integrity, of a person like this.

There is a new picture of atheist emerging. (Or maybe I’m just seeing something that’s been there all along.) Folks are becoming more outspoken about how they have come to reject religion, how they’ve done it as a result of a need for the truth, not a running from it. With books like Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion becoming huge best sellers, and many sites emerging for “recovering christians”, I’m sure this is coming soon to be painted as our next great moral crisis.

There are points in the book where I feel that Dan Barker has reached a bit to far to include all counter arguments, to the extent of bringing in some weaker arguments that I think ultimately weaken the overall impact (i.e. the case would have been more convincing in the absence of some of the weaker arguments). This seem particularly true in chapters addressing arguments against “proofs” for god’s existence.

Other areas like chapters providing a background of the religious environment of the day, that shows how much of what seems so incredibly unique about christianity today was actually a very common thread of beliefs in all sorts of religious groups of that time in history, like the chapter that puts early church writing in a timeline of their writing and detailing how much more supernatural the later writings are than the early writing (no extra-biblical texts, but texts that are an accepted part of the canon (the accepted books of the Bible)), like a rather short chapter on emerging explanations about how we have evolved as moral beings with a predilection toward religious beliefs, are compelling, and I’d have liked to see even more on these topics. Of course, they’re covered in other books he refers to, and the compelling aspect of this book is understanding how a sincere person diligently seeking the truth arrives at these conclusions.

Someone once asked me “if you had to choose between your faith and the truth, what would you choose?”. I’m sure that many will see this as a non-question much like I did at the time. Hey, there’s no “choice” if your faith IS the truth. Of course, the question is more probing than that. Do you discount anything a priori because it doesn’t fit what you’ve been taught by your faith? Is your belief falsifiable? That is, can you point to anything, that, if it were proven true, would convince you you were wrong? Maybe more profoundly, do you think that you’d have the guts to change your mind? If you found that the your evaluation of the evidence demanded that what you thought and held dear was just not substantiated? Can you at least respect the courage of someone like Dan Barker who has the courage of his convictions to change his mind very publicly? Do you really think that, in our culture, it’s “easier” for someone to declare their new-found atheism or their new-found conversion to christianity?

hmmm…. guess that started to get a bit “preachy”, wonder how that happened.

Seriously, this is sure to be a thought provoking book. Consider it a dare to read the book without letting it provoke some sort of “righteous indignation”, but rather, a better understanding of an apparently growing segment of our population (and, actually a surprisingly large population in many other parts of the world).

(Can you tell that I’m stuck on bed rest for this stupid blood clot and have a lot more time on my hands for blogging?) ūüôā


Brain Rules by John Medina

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Brain Rules by John Medina

Brain Rules by John Medina

For more information visit www.mindrules.net.
Twelve rules that detail how to get optimum brain performance. It’s something to consider just how different work environments and schools might be if this research were seriously taken to heart. The author closes each chapter with just such suggestions, both for research and how work and school environments might be changed. It’s not particularly likely that you or I will see many of these, fairly radical, be applied.

 

Of course it’s not all “pie in the sky” look how much smarter we could be if we made all of these significant changes. There are plenty of practical implications to things that we can control. We can get more sleep. We can get regular exercise, etc. These sound like common advise, but the research results presented in this book drive home the significance of these practices to a degree that you might actually make changes.


Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life

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I really enjoyed this book. He does a nice job of bringing game theory to every day life. From cake-slicing to the prisoner’s dilemma. You won’t find magic solutions to arriving at a fair solution to every conflict. (So if you’re looking for a I slice, you pick solution for more complex conflicts, you won’t find it here.) Nevertheless, it’s quite interesting.


Predictably Irrational

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Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely

I just finished reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.  You can find an  outline here.

Over the past few years, it has been quite enlightening to read a number of books that speak to ways in which things we might naturally tend to think are true, simply are not.¬† It’s particularly interesting to see how we have these very strong tendencies to see things in a distorted fashion.¬† Seeing patterns that aren’t there, thinking we know what will make us happy, all manner of things we tend to believe that, upon investigation, are demonstrably untrue.¬† One of those things we believe is that we are rational beings, and that we will behave rationally.

Dan Ariely addresses this in the arena of economics.¬† Economists are very fond of mathematically trying to work out the optimal balance of the market, and of assuming that with transparency, people will behave optimally in their best interest.¬† Want to know how to price something?¬† The more you charge, the fewer people will buy your product, but the more you’ll make on each sale.¬† The less you charge, the less profit on each sale.¬† So some pretty straight forward mathematics can find the point that optimizes your total profit, and you have your perfect price.¬† Perfect right… well experiments show a much different picture.¬† Dan covers some of those in this book.¬† Turns out we’re just not so rational.¬†¬† Funny though, it’s repeatable, and, as a result, predictable.¬† Making us predictably irrational.

The book contains chapter after chapter of details from experiments Dan and his colleagues have performed to see how we actuallly behave.¬† It’s fascinating stuff and reads very quickly.¬† It reminded me a lot of Freakonomics, as well as some of Michael Shermer’s book like Why People Believe Strange Things.


More Joel on Software

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Well, shame on me. A co-worker, whose opinion I trust, recommended Joel on Software some time ago. I was aware of his blog, and read a post or two. But, I never got around to reading the book. I saw More Joel on Software and decided to add it to my reading stack.

I just finished it, and must say that if you’re involved in software development, you really ought to read Joel on Software (both books, and follow the blog). This is full of no-nonsense, throw out the common wisdom, good information. Highly Recommended.

Really strange side note…. This is the second book I’ve read since The Black Swan. And both books mentioned Nassim Taleb and The Black Swan idea. That wasn’t so much a surprise in Simplexity, but Caught me a bit off guard in More Joel on Software.


Simplexity

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I just finished Simplexity. It was interesting (kept my attention), but it seemed to really lack a “point”. It began as though it was trying to attempt to break down what made things simple or complex; maybe even implied that it would shed light on why seemly simple things are really complex. In the end, it contained several interesting chapters about various topics and why those things were probably not as simple as you might have expected. This, in my experience, tends to frequently be the case. Over the years, I’ve sometimes been assigned systems to work on that seemed, upon assignment, would be the most boring possible system to work on. Almost inevitably, there was much more to the problem than you would ever have anticipated, and the system was more interesting than I would have guessed.

As an interesting collection various studies and what makes them more complex than you would have thought, it was a pretty good read. If you’re looking for a premise and a exposition that attempts to convince you of that premise, well, I’m not quite sure what the “premise” was, so I guess I wasn’t particularly convinced.


The Black Swan

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Finished reading The Black Swan. ¬†Very interesting. ¬†I’m sure that many will find it unsatisfying. ¬†His main point centers around the idea that much of what we try to “risk manage” is fundamentally unpredictable. ¬†Maybe more precisely, that common methods of managing risk that are based upon the impact of significant outliers being diminishingly small. ¬†This is based on an assumption that these things follow a gaussian distribution (i.e. a bell curve). ¬†I think he makes a very compelling argument that there are some things that necessarily follow that type of distribution, while other things are not constrained that way (and in fact, by nature, will not follow such a distribution). ¬† Examples of these other things include the success of books, the accumulation of riches, and many other things where getting off to a good start has a compounding effect (once a book gets a “best seller” label more people want to read it, which makes it a bigger seller, which, well, you get the idea).

Incredibly, he points out the risks that banks were taking while fooling themselves that their risk management was protecting them. ¬†So in a way, he called the current situation ahead of time. ¬†Don’t get too excited, his main point is that these things can’t¬†be predicted. ¬†He certainly didn’t predict what or when, only that they were at much more risk of a “black swan” (an unexpected, even unpredictable, event with extraordinary consequences) than they predicted.

So what is “unsatisfactory”? ¬†If you’re looking for how to predict these Black Swans, the premise is that they are not¬†predictable.

Funny, that’s also what made it rather satisfactory for me. ¬†He doesn’t feel compelled to wrap things up nice and neat. ¬†There’s a good deal of information about how we fool ourselves into believing that these things are predictable. ¬†For example he points out how we always seem to be able to draw up a narrative explanation of why these things happened and why they make perfect sense (in hindsight of course). ¬†So, if you’re like me and always amazed about how the pundits can explain, very logically, how these things happened, after the fact, but don’t ever predict them ahead of time, or if you’re constantly amazed at how there seems to be a complete absence of going back and evaluating the accuracy of pundit predictions, then you’ll probably enjoy the book.


The Black Swan

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I’m currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
So far, it is quite interesting. Largely about how many things are unpredictable, despite our best attempts, after the fact, to identify why we should have predicted them. That’s a gross over-simplification I’m sure.
It is particularly interesting in light of the current economic disaster. Obviously, written before the events we are currently experiencing, he makes reference to previous troubled markets, and yet it seems even more applicable to what is currently going on.

 


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