The Signal and the Noise, and Other Readings

The Signal and the Noise

Since last year’s presidential election, everyone has heard of the legendary Nate Silver, who predicted the outcomes of all 50 states correctly. Given that he also correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election, this repeat feat seemed like clairvoyance, not coincidence. So the question is, what did Silver do right that so many polls and pundits did wrong?

Statistics.

The Signal and the Noise (2012) is basically a popular applied statistics book, with more history, philosophy, and psychology than formulas. The first half of the book illustrates the failures of prediction including the 2007/8 financial crisis, elections, sports, and natural disasters; the second half explains how to predict the correct way, using Bayesian probability. Overall it does an excellent job at explaining the concepts and not going into mathematical detail (which is probably a plus for most people; even for a math person like me, I know where to look up the details).

Sidenote: While I was reading the chess section, my mind literally blanked for about 10 seconds upon seeing the following:

My chess intuition immediately told me that something was wrong: there is no way this position could have occurred “after Kasparov’s 3rd move.” Since Kasparov was white, this implied the white position must have 3 moves, but clearly there are only two moves: the Knight on f3 (from g1) and the Pawn on b3 (from b2). Yet this book was written by Nate Silver, so he couldn’t have gotten something wrong that was so simple. Once I realized it must have been a mistake, I looked up the game and found that at this point of the game, the g2 pawn should be on g3. I thought it was an interesting mind lapse.

Breaking the Spell

This book argues that scientific analysis should be applied to religion. Namely, the title refers to the taboo of preventing rational discussion of religion, and that to “break the spell” is to break the taboo. In addition, it discusses the theories as to how religion arose; ironically the names for such theories are evolutionary theories, as they concern how modern religion has evolved over time from ancient spiritual beliefs (e.g. which specific doctrines maximize a belief system’s chances of survival, etc.).

Reading this means I have now read at least one book from each of the four “horsemen”: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Of the four, Dennett is by far the least provocative. While the other three make arguments that outright use logical analysis on religion, in this book Dennett is the one carefully arguing that one should be allowed to make arguments that analyze religion just as one can on any other phenomena. This book should be nowhere near as controversial as The God Delusion or The End of Faith.

Overall the book makes good points but is quite slow, makes overly cautious caveats, and has a very formal tone. I think if someone like Dawkins had written this, it would be much more readable. I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone who doesn’t have a lot of interest in philosophy.

CEO Material

The main competitive advantage of this book over the typical leadership book is that it quotes very often from 100+ real CEOs. Overall these first-hand experiences supplemented the author’s main points quite well. However, for the sake of privacy I presume, the quotations are not labeled with the speaker, so it is sometimes difficult to tell how any particular passage applies to a given situation. For example, do I want to listen to the advice of a food company CEO on a particular issue and apply it to run a tech company? Perhaps the overall message is similar but clearly the details matter. Some say that context is everything, and without the context of who said it, each quote has much less power.

Most of the points seemed like common sense, although that is to be expected—the system is efficient enough that if the most effective behavior for a CEO were radically different from what we already do, then we would have adapted to that already (hopefully). Even so, there are still some interesting points made with real justifications, though again it would be helpful if we knew who said each quote, even for a few of them. In all, Benton did make points that changed the way I look at things, so it was worth reading.

The Blind Watchmaker

While The Selfish Gene focuses on how genes propagate themselves and how they dynamically compete over time (evolutionary game theory), The Blind Watchmaker covers an entirely different issue: How did complexity arise?

Some of its answers, written at an earlier time (1986), seem somewhat outdated now, ironically more so than The Selfish Gene which was written even earlier in 1976. This is probably due to The Selfish Gene being more of “Here’s the progress we made in the last decade” when it was written, while The Blind Watchmaker is more along the lines of “Here’s why this work from 1802 is nonsense” and that this counter-argument doesn’t particularly need to invoke the most up-to-date findings.

But anyways, we don’t judge books by how outdated they seem in 30 years, so let’s move on to the content. Due to its premise, the book is more philosophical than The Selfish Gene, which is itself more scientific, hardly addressing at all the conflict between evolution and religion. While The Blind Watchmaker still has a formidable amount of science, it addresses some philosophical questions as well and confronts the conflict head-on. I would recommend it to those looking to question philosophical beliefs, whether of others or of their own.

Mortality

Of the books in this post, Mortality is the answer choice that doesn’t belong with the others. While the other four are strict nonfiction works that try to explain or teach certain something, Mortality comes off more as a dramatic story, the story of coming to terms with terminal illness. Hitchens opens up with the stark statement, “I have more than once in my life woken up feeling like death.” As usual, Christopher Hitchens’ signature writing style and tone are apparent.

“What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”

“It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.”

“The politicized sponsors of this pseudoscientific nonsense should be ashamed to live, let alone die. If you want to take part in the ‘war’ against cancer, and other terrible maladies, too, then join the battle against their lethal stupidity.”

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”

“I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”

“Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

2 thoughts on “The Signal and the Noise, and Other Readings”

1. 2016CU says:

Nice so these are books you read this year?

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