It’s been just over two years since the coronavirus first swept across the country, disrupting ordinary life and injecting another dose of chaos into an already bewildered world. The 21st century has proven particularly challenging, throwing an endless stream of choices, world events, and information our way.
With this in mind, March Book Club Picks strive to help readers gain clarity in life, providing sharp mental models applicable to everyday decisions and academic thinking. More than telling you interesting facts, they retrain the brain to understand concepts in greater depth.
“Algorithms for Living: The Computing of Human Decisions” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
Algorithms. The very word strikes terror into the hearts of computer science students who have yet to take the required course on the subject, let alone non-techies. The term pops up in all sorts of chilling contexts today, often blamed for leaps in superhuman artificial intelligence or the divisive role of social media.
In “Algorithms to Live By”, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths show that algorithms can be fun. In each chapter, the programmer-cognitive scientist duo explains a computer algorithm before showing real-life adaptations of its basic principles. Want to know how many flavors of ice cream to taste before ordering a full scoop? Or how about how many significant others to date before you can tell if you’ve found “the one”? Both problems are variants of the “optimal stopping problem”, where an agent iterates over a sequence of items until it gains confidence in its ability to settle on one. As such, problems can be solved using similar algorithms.
Another relevant issue is the “explore-exploit” trade-off. Whenever we decide which song to play, which restaurant to visit, or which social group to spend time with, we face a dilemma between revisiting an old favorite or trying something new. The first choice “mines” the information we already have, while the second “explores” new options, giving us more information to use in the future. Because intelligent, self-learning systems also face decisions between the known and the unknown, computer scientists have pretty much cracked the code to find the optimal balance.
The book details many other algorithm-based insights that can be applied in everyday life, from the costs of overthinking to the wisdom of incorporating chance into decision-making. Plus, there’s a good excuse the next time your mom yells at you for throwing clothes on your chair – it’s just a caching system with spatial locality.
“How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg
If mathematician Jordan Ellenberg didn’t have his name on the cover, you might think “How Not to Be Wrong” was written by the authors of “Freakonomics” instead. The book follows an analogous format, weaving a thread between theoretical mathematics and intriguing practical applications.
Ellenberg begins by answering the age-old math question: “When am I going to use this?” It tells the famous story of “missing bullet holes” involving statistician Abraham Wald, who was tasked during World War II with finding the most cost-effective way to protect bombers. After studying the location of bullet holes on returning planes, Wald came to a counter-intuitive conclusion that armor should be reinforced on seemingly less affected parts.
The reason? Aircraft returning from combat clearly survived any bullets they took, suggesting that parts with fewer visible hits – say, the engine – were likely hit among aircraft that never returned. Wald understood the statistical concept of “survival bias,” which Ellenberg says underlies other common distortions in the way we view problems.
The book dissects additional errors that even experts fall victim to. The assumption that trends are linear led a team of researchers to predict that 100% of Americans will be overweight by 2048. As Ellenberg points out, such a model implies that by 2060, 109% of Americans will be Overweight. The example is extreme, but illustrates that our intuitions about historical patterns can lead us astray. Instead, Ellenberg argues, we should default to assuming that a given phenomenon is nonlinear, until proven otherwise.
Using fun visualizations, the book sheds light on topics ranging from the paradoxes of voting to the strategy used by MIT students to secure lottery winnings. “How Not to Be Wrong” is sure to leave the reader with a sharper mind if not a Powerball jackpot.
“Antifragile: things that profit from clutter” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Antifragile” is the 2012 sequel to Nassim Taleb’s philosophical and financial treatise, “The Black Swan.” describe as one of the twelve most influential books since World War II. In 2007’s “The Black Swan,” Taleb argued that world history is defined almost entirely by “black swans”—high-impact, unpredictable events—to which global financial systems are increasingly susceptible.
In “Antifragile,” Taleb describes principles for designing systems that embody the opposite of such fragility – instead of collapsing from negative shocks, they flow from it. He draws on well-understood examples, such as muscle growth in response to physical stress or evolution in response to environmental threats, to glean key properties of “antifragility.” Among them are redundancy, aggregation, low dependency and epistemic humility – things he diagnoses as lacking in our approaches to medicine, architecture, foreign policy, personal planning and just about everything else.
As with other entries in his “Incerto” series, Taleb eschews the easily digestible format of pop science. His writing is best read as an extended essay, mixing technical explanations with illustrative anecdotes and colorful diatribes. Taleb’s brash, freestyle is notorious for rubbing many critics the wrong way, but the contribution of his wise insights — which have been enjoying renewed interest since the disruptive pandemic — is undeniable.