Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Reading Shelf

I've been reading more of late and I wanted to express some thoughts about the material as well as some subjective judgments about their quality.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan is essentially a long essay on the problems with probabilities that depend on Gaussian distributions (i.e. the Bell curve). As it turns out, the Bell curve is only useful in describing mostly useless qualities such as the height or weight of a population. Things that defy the Gaussian distribution (but perhaps not obviously or within a certain sample) are those such as wealth, performance of a stock market, or weather trends. The problem is that you can't just take past data as a good indicator for future performance. Because that's when the Black Swan bites you in the ass. The namesake of the book derives from the once commonly held belief that all swans were white, simply because all observed swans were so. Then, surprise! The same sorts of things happen in the real world. The stock market can steadily climb, and then for no apparent or attainable reason, crash. The book claims that the reasons that things happen is almost impossible to know for anything worth knowing. Therefore you can't really predict anything. Even worse, it's often harder to tell what happened in the past than what will happen in the future. At least, barring the Black Swan. There's really so much more to the book than this, but this is its central thesis as seen by me. An excellent read for anyone interested in philosophy, economics, mathematics and probability, or history.

Hiding in the Mirror by Lawrence M. Krauss

Essentially the history of physics from the discovery of electrodynamics through relativity and up to current postulations using string theory. It claims to focus on mankind's fascination with extra dimensions and it does to some degree. There are, however, only a couple of chapters directly dealing with cultural and artistic relations to the idea of living in a place with more dimensions than we can sense. Otherwise, it falls back to the journey from electricity to strings. There are, during this history lesson, consistent references to humanities preoccupation with these hidden dimensions, including the use of such to attempt to describe religious and psychic "phenomena". As it progresses the physics gets thicker and thicker and stretches the capacity of the average reader's cognition. Or at least mine. There were some pretty heavy physics going on, without enough detail for me to really "get it". But that's somewhat understandable, given the depth of its subject matter covered in relatively so few pages. Still an interesting read, infused with amusement (reference to the mathematical equivalent to masturbation) and a realism about the state of affairs in theoretical physics. Krauss makes no arguments that string theory is going to do anything for real physics and indeed, still seems on the fence about the matter. He also refers to the hubris of theoretical physics and admits that it may be so far into left field that in may actually be in the infield (this is, of course, a reference of my own invention relating to the possible curvature of space discussed in the book). Still a good read, but I'm not sure who the audience is supposed to be. Physicists probably wouldn't find too much insight and the layman will probably have an aneurysm. Recommended if you enjoy science and have some intuition with it.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

This is a Discworld novel. My twenty-fifth have I not lost count. It's definitely in the better fifty percent of Discworld novels, but probably not much further on the list of my personal favorites. It is, as usual, satire of the real world, about an army regiment in Russi..., I mean Borogravia, where women aren't allowed to serve, but have nonetheless snuck into the service by cutting their hair and finding a creative use for a sock. Very entertaining and simultaneously poignant regarding the position of women in the past and to some degree the present. A nice twist in the plot and change of pace with all new characters in the Discworld universe, with cameo appearances from some of the Watch.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

I had always meant to read a translation of Beowulf, so here was one I found. The book itself is bilingual with the original text set parallel with the translation. This was a nice touch. As a heroic myth, it was enjoyable and I can see where authors, such as Tolkien, got some of their inspiration. I can't really remark on the quality of the translation since I don't read Old English. For a poem, however, the translation's not very poetic, but that may be an artifact of the original; I can't say. Lots of fighting, death, singing, drinking, etc. Honor and tradition play a big part in the story and probably bring more harm than good to the characters. Even though it's over a thousand years old, it's not completely antiquated in its views of the world. But mostly it is. But what do you expect? Recommended if you've never read it and enjoy that sort of thing.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

This is a delightful little book about the spiritual journey of a man named Siddhartha. He suspects teaching and teachers of being useless and that real lessons and ultimately enlightenment must be learned through experience. Interestingly enough, he later learns this lesson itself through experience. It's about finding happiness and contentment but not seeking for it. It's about learning about the self and about wisdom. Again wisdom isn't something that is taught or learned as much as it is trained through experience. Life is a pretty amazing place to be and just getting to be there is pretty sweet. It rang some bells with with its treatment of asceticism and its allegory of the Hindu/Buddhist concept of samsara. An excellent read that can be finished in an afternoon, although I recommend taking longer, eyes open.

And I'm currently reading The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This was in the queue and I was itching to get to it, not exactly remembering why it was that I bought it. I opened to it randomly and saw a reference to atman and Krishna and thought, "well, this will be a good follow up to Siddhartha." I started it yesterday and so far I've been blown away. It's the story of an Indian man told from his perspective (possibly as told to the author as a plot device, but I haven't figured that out yet). The man goes by Pi Patel, was raised in a zoo and simultaneously considers himself Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. He doesn't mind atheists, but agnostics bother him. The most amazing piece yet was his comparison of religion to a zoo - in that people always assume that the animals would be better off out of the zoo and "free", while Pi shares that this is not generally the case. The parallels here go further and are only hinted at subtlely. So far, so great.


Josh said...

I saw that book on the mantle and thought it might have been about the history of the circle ratio.

NastyPredator said...

Hi Matt -- sorry I'm posting this here (didn't find an e-mail address on your site).

I have been deeply inspired by your blog and now have started to write my own. I would be happy to have a few regular readers and therefore would like to ask you if we could do a "link exchange"?

Please let me know whether you are interested.

Best wishes from Switzerland


my blog is http://nastypredator.blogspot.com