An author’s reading list contains eccentric choices. This one is no different. Taste and interests are bound to diverge when it comes to books. This is a list of non-fiction titles. I will post a fiction list later.
My goal is to recommend twelve non-fiction titles that will stimulate thinking and broaden understanding of the current information debate and controversy surround the building blocks of knowledge in science, arts, technology, psychology, economics, and biology.
There is a Thai proverb, one I used to open The Risk of Infidelity Index (2008) about a frog in the coconut shell as a metaphor for the narrow, culturally constricted thought and knowledge space where we spend most of our conscious lives. The frog’s visualization from inside the coconut shell is psychological and cognitive limited. His access about life and reality is distorted and shallow.
A remarkable book allows the frog an expanded worldview, a deeper, more powerful explanation of reality.
The recommended books may help broaden and deepen your worldview like any good journey of discovery. That is a worthy achievement. No one breaks free of the coconut shell. But insights, scientific and technical developments reveal the nature of what is the ‘coconut shell’, its contours, shape and dimensions, and our place in it, take us to new frontiers of comprehension. <Comment: Not only that, but also opening a window into the larger world outside the coconut shell? Some may even offer and telescope, no?)
In a 2014 essay Beagle Sailing Lessons for Writing, I wrote about Charles Darwin’s five-year journey on the Beagle to find evidence that formed the backbone of Origin of the Species.
Darwin’s journey resulted in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence that he gathered.
Every time I start a new book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the side of mountains and look for patterns.
Hopefully these books from writers who have taken their own personal and professional voyage and you can sign on as crew to follow that journey. The books are in no particular order of priority. Order them all or one or two titles, and begin your own Beagle voyage.
1. Thinking Fast, and Slow ( 2012) by Daniel Kahneman
This book may be one of the most important books about cognition and psychology written in decades. Everyone has them. No one is excluded. When someone says they aren’t biased, it indicates that person is blissfully unaware that is a cognitive bias. You can think of a bias as mental filter shaped by genetics, culture, beliefs, attitudes, training, brainwashing (collectively called cognitive biases). There are hundreds of them. They are key factors in the processing of information. They are responsible for the way we select, ignore, process, interpret, store and stream information, whether accessed from memory or from our sensory input. It is humbling and empowering to understand the limits of cognitive abilities. Even though we can identify the biases, Kahneman is the first to admit that such knowledge doesn’t mean that we can win the battle in overcoming them. If you’ve not read Thinking Fast, Slow, you should make a resolution to find the time to read it in 2016.
2. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015) by Philip Tetlock.
Tetlock builds on Daniel Kahneman’s work of cognitive bias. Tetlock’s book focuses on forecasting and the qualities that make for a good forecaster. Whether it is forecasting a social policy, an election outcome, economic trends, or the outcome of a conflict or war, there is a mindset that Tetlock has discovered vastly increases the probability of accuracy. If I were recruiting someone for a policy making decision or trying to predict a variety future events, this is a book that I’d turn to for guidance as to how to increase the probability of selecting a future outcome.
3. Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom
Nick Bostrom teaches at Oxford and is one of the leading thinkers of what is likely the most important issue of our time (and yes, there are many such issues to select from): the implications of developing a superintelligent artificial intelligent system. This is an important book like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is an insight into a future of intelligent machines. That future is already here for machines with narrow artificial intelligence such as Watson, which can now defeat any chess champion in the world. That is just the beginning, as next up is an artificial general intelligence. Once that happens, it is 20 to 50 years down the road, a superintelligent machine will emerge. Some of the book is technical, geek-like, but Bostrom has a dry sense of humour and ability to choose just the right metaphor to compensate for the dense, compacted ideas that will keep you thinking long after you finish the book.
4. Our Final Invention, Artificial Intelligence and the end of the human era (2013) by James Barrat
Barrat, a journalist, who cover the artificial intelligence community and reports on developments. He’s not a scholar. He’s an accumulator of scholars and their opinions, research developments, and personalizes them. When can we expect AGI (artificial general intelligence) to arrive? We already have many examples of ANI (artificial narrow intelligence) and Barrat examines the line between AGI and ANI. When AGI arrives what are the risks? “It won’t be a Q&A system anymore. And we won’t likely be able to understand its processing or to audit that process.”
5. Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think (2013) Viktory Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cunkier
While AGI is in the future, Big data has arrived. Most of our institutions, policies, and beliefs are based on ‘small’ data. We take pride in decisions based on small, exact and causal-connected data. It’s because of the ‘small’ in small data, we have enjoyed privacy. Big data spells the end of privacy. As the authors demonstrate we use algorithms to give the probability of an event or an action occurring. Life insurance, health insurance, doctor’s diagnosis, bank loans, climate change, drug policies, and crimes all have a probability graph filled in by big data. What happens to the individual in the world of ‘big data’? Do we use preventive custody because the data indicates a high probability for the next five years X who is 13 years old will commit a crime of violence? Big data provides the tools to vastly accelerate the quantification of information and to understand correlations that emerge, and free us from the prison of causation, the hallmark of small data.
6. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined (2011) by Steven Pinker.
Our modern digital world with immediate access to breaking news creates the illusion that we live in very violent times. Headlines should never be confused with trend lines (a quote attributed to Bill Clinton). The reality is that we have never enjoyed a time with less violence, less risk of being murdered. The history of our species is written in blood. It is a book with many insights gathered from historical research into the history of violence. A couple of examples: “Defenders of traditional morality wish to heap many nonviolent infractions on top of this consensual layer, such as homosexuality, licentiousness, blasphemy, heresy, indecency, and desecration of scared symbols. For their moral disapproval to have teeth, traditionalists must get the Leviathan to punish those offenders as well. [R]etracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity details a reduction in violence.” Pinker details the steep decline in death resulting from murder, execution, and warfare. For example, the chances of a violent warfare related death in prehistoric times were orders of magnitude higher than in modern time.
7. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1997) by Peterson and Wrangham
A book to be read alongside Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.
The male member of the species is violence prone. Our primate ancestors were similarly extremely violent. Wrangham’s research supports a strong evolutionary disposition towards violence. We wish to remain willfully blind to the intrinsic nature of our violence. The authors’ data on ape behavior are compelling evidence of the savagely violent nature of human history. What is genetic can’t be explained in terms of culture alone. History is a record of patriarchy and male violence.
Pinker’s history suggests how our branch of the apes has managed since prehistoric times to reduce violence through widespread domestication of the species. Like dogs, sheep, cattle and horses, our species has, to varying degrees, been domesticated. Modern States have found impressive ways to eliminate, control and subdue violence. This leaves a minority of people whose violent behavior has evaded the domestication and they receive a great deal of media attention. Wrangham’s message is clear: the violent animal history fuels aggression and can never be eliminated.
Publishers Weekly: “Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures, Harvard anthropologist Wrangham and science writer Peterson have witnessed, since 1971, male African chimpanzees carry out rape, border raids, brutal beatings and warfare among rival territorial gangs. In a startling, beautifully written, riveting, provocative inquiry, they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare, which would make modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression. They buttress their thesis with an examination of the ubiquitous rape among orangutans, gorilla infanticide and male-initiated violence and hyenas’ territorial feuds, drawing parallels to the lethal raiding among the Yanomamo people of Brazil’s Amazon forests and other so-called primitive tribes, as well as to modern ‘civilized’ mass slaughter. In their analysis, patriotism (‘stripped to its essence… male defense of the community’) breeds aggression, yet, from an evolutionary standpoint, they reject the presumed inevitability of male violence and male dominance over women.”
8. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty
How wealth and income are allocated is a complex and important decision. Piketty’s book no doubt you’ve read takes on the considerable task of researching the history over a two hundred year period to show the political, social, cultural and economic consequences of wealth and income inequality. No one has been able to successfully counter the historical record unearth by Piketty. This book has been compared to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The book has received praise for bringing into public debate the reality of the .01% who have accumulated not only wealth but used that wealth for their own political and social benefit.
“Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the most important economics book of the year, if not the decade… Capital in the 21st Century essentially takes the existing debate on income inequality and supercharges it. It does so by asserting that in the long run the economic inequality that matters won’t be the gap between people who earn high salaries and those who earn low ones, it will be the gap between people who inherit large sums of money and those who don’t.” (Matthew Yglesias Vox 2014-04-08)
“Stands a fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years… Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.” (Timothy Shenk The Nation 2014-04-14)
9. Willful Blindness, (2012) by Margaret Heffernan
Heffernan is ex-BBC producer, and if there was one book every embassy person would benefit from reading it is her Willful Blindness. Here’s a passage that will bring a smile: (page 209): “This highly unconstrained travel, between points of view, is hard work, and it can be risky, not just because it can take you off of well-established career paths, but because it provokes questions that, as a Cambridge professor once sternly reminded me, ‘one is not invited to ask.’ Questions that one is not invited to ask make everyone uncomfortable, not least because they don’t easily lend themselves to prepared answers.”
You’ve proved over your years here your courage to travel that road. That makes you a very rare person and one to be highly valued. <<I don’t understand this para. It seems ill-fitting, and hanging mysteriously here.>
10. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) by Lee Smolin
A cogent and thoughtful examination of the concept of time, the second law of thermodynamics and entropy. You thought that time was straight forward, right? Look at your watch and that is the time. It seems that our notion of time is far more nuanced and complicated.
Smolin is a good on the different arrows of time in our universe: the cosmological arrow of time, the biological arrow of time, experiential arrow of time, electromagnetic arrow of time, and gravitational-wave arrow of time.
“Evolving complexity means time. There has never been a static complex system. The big lesson is that our universe has a history, and it is a history of increasing complexity with time.”
“Time is about change, which means it’s about perceived relationships. There’s no such thing as an absolute or universal time. The observer’s situation in the universe must be taken into account including where she is and how she’s moving.”
11. Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Luican Freud (2012) by Martin Gayford
Man With a Blue Scarf may be one of the best books written about the creative process. Martin Gayford, a leading English art critic, memoir of his 18-month time sitting for a portrait carefully observes the artist Lucian Freud’s life. These observations slowly over time from Gayford’s conversations with Freud and others reveal the web from which creativity is spun.
Gayford has carefully constructed the various connected with relationship of artist to sitter, to family members, friends, bookies, gangsters, his contemporaries (Francis Bacon in particular) and famous painters from the past. The book is a portrait of the artist painting a sitter. A wonderful idea that is brilliantly executed.
Gayford’s book will broaden your worldview on the meaning of originally, the creative process, and what an artist seeks to capture in a portrait. This is truly a remarkable, inspiring and memorable book.
I have written an essay on the book: Man With a Scarf
Excellent … Not only offers fresh insights into Freud but catches the tensions and drama inherent in the business of portraiture. –The Guardian
An unexpectedly moving investigation of the artistic process –The Economist
…stands a good chance of becoming a set work for students. It would be a rarity on a reading list – a book that’s
not just read but relished. –The Spectator
12. The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is (2015) by Nick Lane
It may have been years since you studied biology. Like most science subjects the scientific investigation into the biological mechanisms and the evolution of the molecular machines that build, monitor, repair and maintain biological systems.
The Vital Question begins like a great detective novel: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology. Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other ‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail? We don’t know.”
The Vital Question is an exploration into this deep historical mystery. It will expand your worldview on the connection of life and information, evolution, and the laws of physics. It is a book filled with memorable quotes: “Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest.”
“In every milliliter of seawater, there are ten times as many viruses, waiting for their moment, as there are bacteria.”
“A major problem with neurons and muscle cells is that they cannot be replaced. How could a neuron be replaced? Our life’s experience is written into synaptic networks, and each neuron forming as many as 10,000 different synapses. If the neuron dies by apoptosis, those synaptic connections are lost forever, along with all experience and personality.”
For those interested in understanding the complexity of biological life over a 4 billion year time frame, and why it only happened once and why it started to early, will treasure this book.
He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense … intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution and perhaps, in some ways, even more so. (Peter Forbes Guardian)
Nick Lane…is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth…a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life (Clive Cookson Financial Times)
One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years. (The Economist)
One of the pleasures of good science writing is that it can awaken, or feed, this kind of curiosity and engagement in the reader, expanding his or her horizons in ways not previously imagined. And, for those willing to make the effort with a sometimes demanding but always clear text, Nick Lane’s new book succeeds brilliantly … I cannot recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane’s vivid descriptions and powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader (Caspar Henderson Sunday Telegraph)
Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. Solving this mystery leads Lane into a world of ideas that only Lewis Carroll could make sense of. Six impossible things become believable before breakfast when you are reading a Lane book, and there are plenty here… Like the best science writers, Lane never glosses over the detail. Instead he turns it into a series of detective stories. Poirot-like he leads you from the crime to the perpetrator, from the puzzle to the solution. The difference from a detective story is that these tales are real, and fundamental to life itself (Matt Ridley Times)
this is a book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas…The arguments are powerful and persuasive…If you’re interested in life, you should read this book…it does tell an incredible, epic story (Michael Le Page New Scientist)
Christopher G. Moore last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent.