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A scientific theory accurately describes a large class of observations, makes definite predictions about future observations that could be falsifiable, i.e. disproven by observation.--Derived from Stephen Hawking

The Larger Picture

Nassim Taleb

Taleb -- trader, professor, philosopher -- attempts to understand how our brains stumble when grappling with the ways in which probabilty interacts with our daily lives, describing how much of what we consider to be cause and effect isn't and how randomness plays a larger role than we imagine.

  • The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
  • Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
  • Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
  • My notes: Expose yourself to (positive) Black Swans -- take risks, make mistakes, seize opportunities, go to parties ... when losses are limited, be aggressive. To protect yourself from Black Swans, invest in preparadness, not prediction.

    Nate Silver

    Silver suggests that well-defined fields with lots of data -- baseball and to a lesser extent weather -- are amenable to predictative approaches, while more complex fields, for example economics and climate change, are not. And he highlights how Bayesian approaches can overcome some of our brain's built-in biases.

    • The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't

    Leonard Mlodinow

    Mlodinow, a physicist at Caltech and colleague of both Feynman and Hawking, introduces the reader to probability and how to apply it to daily life. He descirbes how our brains are wired to overinterpret random events as arising from patterns and peppers his story with examples of how chance dominates major events in our lives.

    • The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

    Stuart Firestein

    A professor at Columbia University, Firestein has produced a tidy (if that's possible!) and neat portrayal of science and its utility in modern life.

    • Ignorance: How It Drives Science

    Natalie Angier

    In The Canon: A Whirligig tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science", Angier asks prominent scientists what has most astonished them, and what they wish the general public knew, and then takes us on a tour of physics, biology, geology, chemistry, astronomy, and others.

    Richard Dawkins

    Dawkins edits an anthology of science writing from the 20th century, tantalizing the reader with key pages from influential works by scientists and skilled science writers.

    Steven Strogatz

    Strogatz explores a property of the universe which underlies group behavior, from clock pendulums swinging in unison or fireflies flashing in unison to excited electrons discharging their energy together to produce lasers and heart cells firing together to produce the heartbeart. With a grasp of sync, I have been able to extend my intuition to understand why routers throw away packets in order to prevent surges (WRED), how the electrical power grid works (most of t he time!), and even how life itself develops from the chemical soup of Earth's oceans.

    • Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order


    Richard Dawkins

    An evolutionary biologist, Dawkins expresses my own delight in contemplating and understanding how the world works.

    • The Greatest Show on Earth
    • Unweaving the Rainbow
    • River Out of Eden
    • The Ancestor's Tale
    • Climbing Mount Improbable
    • The Blind Watchmaker
    • The Extended Phenotype
    • The Selfish Gene

    The living world can be seen as a network of interlocking fields of replicator power. --Richard Dawkins

    Edward O. Wilson

    One of the world's leading biologists, Wilson ... come on, how am I going to summarize this guy's career in a single line? Anyway, Wilson argues for multi-level selection as a way to understand evolution in social animals ... and further suggests that eusociality tends to lead to global domination: ants/termites/bees comprise ~75% of the weight of all insects; humans comprise a similarly substantial percentage of land mammals.

    • The Meaning of Human Existence
    • The Social Conquest of Earth

    William Clark

    An immunologist at UCLA, Clark writes about the immune system, aging, behavior and the genetics and evolution behind these aspects of life.

    Michael Morange

    Morange works as a biologist and historian at Ecole Normale Superieure. He pulls together recent advances in genetics to refine what we mean by the word 'gene' and how this fuzzy concept influences on physiology and behavior.

    Matt Ridley

    A science writer, Ridley translates current research into lay terms, addressing the intersection of evolutio, biology, and human nature.

    • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

    Armand Leroi

    A lecturer at Imperial College, Leroi studies the evolution of development.

    • Mutants

    Neil Shubin

    A professor at the University of Chicago, Shubin integrates multiple disciplines to better understand the evolutionary history of modern anatomy.

    • Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body

    Mark Pagel

    A professor at the University of Reading, Pagel tackles the interaction between biology and culture in an effort to explain how humans cooperate at scale.

    • Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind

    Deep Time

    Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee

    This duo offer a feel for the expanse of time that encompasses humanity. If the history of our planet were compressed into a twenty-four hour day, Homo sapiens has been around only for the last ten seconds, and recorded history occupies only the last tenth of a second. I describe their 'Life and Death' book as 'Revelation' for the Rest of Us: a glimpse into how our current disputes don't rate, in the larger picture.

    • The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World


    Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. -- Frederick Douglass

    What grabs me about history is the chance to learn from the mistakes we have made in the past.

    James Kugel

    Faculty at Bar Ilan University, Kugel synthesizes modern biblical scholarship with ancient interpretation to offer a multi-dimensional understanding of the written and oral traditions influencing Judaism. He articulates four assumptions popularly employed when reading the Hebrew Bible which, when brought to consciousness, permit a broader and deeper understanding of what the authors of a given verse might have meant and how their later interpreters changed that meaning.

    The Four Assumptions:

    1. Fundamentally cryptic: when the text says A, it really means B.
    2. Essentially a book of lessons directed at whomever is reading it -- its meaning morphs according to the time, place, and needs of its reader.
    3. Perfectly harmonious, contains no contradictions, no mistakes; it is inerrant.
    4. Divinely given text consisting of the words spoken by the supernatural or transmitted unaltered through a prophet.
    • How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

    Bart Ehrman

    Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone... I experience this quote, found in many versions of the Christian Bible, as motivating, uplifting, electricifying -- I aspire to this kind of attitude toward other people and toward myself. My romantic side was disappointed to discover that this story first appears in a 12th century manuscript, one of many modifications made to scripture by scribes across the centuries since the original authors penned the first versions. Ehrman specializes in textual analysis of the New Testament. For me, he provides a window into how we reinterpret what we hear and see ... and how easily we deceive ourselves.

    • How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
    • Jesus Before the Gospels
    • Did Jesus Exist?: The Historial Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
    • Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
    • God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer
    • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them)
    • Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
    • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
    • Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
    • Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend
    • The Lost Gospel of Judad Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed
    • Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium
    • The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings

    Richard Rubenstein

    A professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason Univeristy, Rubenstein looks at the roots of conflict and how humans succeed, or don't succeed, in resolving them. For me, this booked ilustrated the predictability with which humans reach for power and through power sex, money, and influence.

    • When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

    Ann Finkbeiner

    Summer camp with the Jasons sounds like my idea of the perfect work environment. The Jasons are a collection of bright people who provide independent review of government projects -- Finkbeiner interviews a number of Jasons and then offers her view of what it might be like to collaborate with rationally driven colleagues.

    • The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite

    "... we believe that it's our government and that we think our government will always be better if the technical advice it gets is impartial, disinterested, accurate." --Paul Horowitz

    "... the government doesn't always want to hear from its outsider scientists, especially when an issue has, for political reasons, already been decided. But, if you're still making up your mind, you want the independent group." --William Perry

    John McWhorter

    Contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute, McWhorter writes about language world-wide and race in America -- and the intersection of the two. McWhorter is the author who helped me realize the languages change constantly, that they are bundles of dialects, that no one dialect is linguistically superior to another, and helped me see just how silly my efforts to claim otherwise have been.

    • The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language
    • What Language Is: (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be)
    • The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
    • All About the Beat: Why Hip Hop Can't Save Black America
    • Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America
    • Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America

    Current Events

    While I list some of my reads pertaining to current events, I confess to a general sense of frustration. Where is the awareness in these commentators over the role of biology in human behavior? Where is the willingness to explore competing explanations? To marshal data? To construct falsifiable hypotheses and then to test them? And where is the understanding that explanatory theory is the start, not the end, of the analytical process? However, until I find authors who field this level of expertise, I highlight below the ones who have caught my attention for attempting to tie together large scale human movements.

    Amy Chua

    A professor at Yale, Chua synthesizes a range of fields, including globalization and ethnic conflict. She offers a model for understanding how the adoption of laissez-faire capitalism plus democracy tends to exacerbate ethnic tensions and produce violence, as it does today in developing countries. She argues that the West avoided much of this violence through a gradual adoption of democracy, the evolution of capitalism into socialist economy, a fracturing of its ethnic subdivisions through racism, and the lack of market-dominating minorities.

    • World on Fire: How exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability

    In the West we grapple daily with the problem of economically underprivileged ethnic minorities -- blacks and Hispanics in the United States, African immigrants in France, aborgines in Australia, Maori in New Zealand, and so on. In stark contrast, the non-Western world today tends to be characterized by just the opposite dynamic: the presence, in country after country, of a tiny but economically powerful market-dominate ethnic minority.

    The problems of ethnic conflict in the Western world today are therefore strikingly different from those outside the West, with very different implications for free market democracy. In the developing world, markets tend to enrich ethnic minorities, while democracy tends to empower poor, "indigenous" majorities, creating a highly combustible dynamic. By contrast, in the contemporary Western nations both markets and democracy tend to reinforce the economic dominance of a perceived ethnic majority.


         ...Imagine a well-meaning laborious mechanic, fondly attached to his 
    wife and children. Bad times come. He sees the wife whom he loves grow thinner 
    and paler every day. His little ones cry for bread, and he has none to give 
    them. Then come the professional agitators, the tempters, and tell him that 
    there is enough and more than enough for everybody, and that he has too little 
    only because landed gentlemen, fundholders, bankers, manufacturers, railway 
    proprietors, shopkeepers have too much. Is it strange that the poor man should 
    be deluded, and should eagerly sign such a petition as this? The inequality 
    with which wealth is distributed forces itself on everybody's notice ... The 
    reasons which irrefragably prove this inequality to be necessary to the 
    well-being of all classes are not equally obvious.
         ... is it possible to believe that the millions who have been so long and 
    loudly told that the land is their estate, and is wrongfully kept from them, 
    should not, when they have supreme power, use that power to enforce what they 
    think their rights? What could follow but one vast spoliation? One vast 
    spoliation!  --Thomas Babington Macaulay 1842


    Why didn't democracy [in the West] result in confiscations and one "vast spoliation"? Why doesn't it do so today? Redistribution is one reason: All the Western nations today have enormous tax-and-transfer programs, dulling the harshest edges of class conflict. But redistribution is only part of the answer. As the West started down the road of free market democracy, a number of different institutions and cultural factors worked together to defuse the fissionable conflict between market-generated wealth and majoritarian politics. It is important to take a look at the most important of these institutions and cultural factors, to see whether they might be transplantable to countries outside the West today.

    Fareed Zakaria

    The editor of Newsweek International, and former editor of Foreign Affairs, Zakaria looks at the intersection of capitalism, law, and democracy for insights into global governing trends. He aruges that increasing democracy -- the direct influence of the average person in government -- produces a corresponding decline in liberalism (the freedom of the minority from the tyrannty of the majority), along with inefficiency and even paralysis in government.

    Harm de Blij

    A professor at Michigan State University, de Blij uses geography as a theme to weave together an understanding of the modern geopolitical topology. Seeing the world as divided between a global core inhabited by 'globals', the periphery inhabited by 'locals', and the 'mobals' who move between the two, he is skilled at deploying maps illustrating population characteristics overlaid on geography -- population density, urbanization, families of language, families of religions, infectious diseases, the shattering consequences of continental drift -- and using them to bolster his interpretation of current events.

    • The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape

    Michael Lewis

    A former Salomon Brothers trader and now an author, Lewis provides a lay person's introduction to the systemic weak spots in the financial markets which allow the less conscientious to such resources from the rest of us.

    • The Money Culture
    • Liar's Poker

    Last modified: 2017-04-28