Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Look around for recommended books from academics and business commentators and you probably won't get too far without running into Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. I heard and saw it referenced again and again. Partly because of the scope of the book, there aren't too many areas that aren't commented on in one way or another in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Certainly some areas are a bigger focus than others, but I think many experts from many fields find something of value in this book. I also found it valuable and gained a great many fascinating insights from it, but I also found it tiresome and overly long.

You won't be reading Thinking, Fast and Slow for too long before you realize it reads very much like a "Greatest Hits" of psychology and social science research with a little bit of economics and other disciplines thrown in as well. Each chapter focuses on one or several academic studies which purport to explain some element of human existence and decision-making.  Kahneman is actually a decent writer, but he spends the vast amount of time explaining how a particular research study was done, writing out percentages, and detailing sample sizes. I'm fine with this to confirm the science was done correctly or so the reader can have some semblance of confidence in the findings; however, the book drags on too long, like many business and academic books, and the reading becomes tedious. The book tried to be too comprehensive and would have benefited from limiting its scope a bit.  Furthermore, Kahneman is an entertaining writer and can be very pithy and even funny.  His personality didn't come through enough. 

Kahneman attempts to coalesce the many findings in his book by using a pragmatic framework for discussion.  He separates our decision make processes into two parts—System 1—our intuition and quick judgments—and System 2—our deliberate thought processes and rationality. It works well enough and is easily recalled when reflecting on what you've read.  Simplifying what is essentially an incredibly complex topic is very useful when writing a book meant to be enjoyed by a wider audience and not necessarily only those in a particular academic discpline.  Thinking, Fast and Slow should make most of us think twice (or three or four times) about how we actually think.  Is my response to a particular situation part of System 1 or 2?  How or why should I trust my own judgment?  Am I seeing the world as it really is?  These are difficult questions once you've read Kahneman's book.  I have both a profound love for learning and an inherent faith in our ability to progress and improve ourselves.  At the same time, I have a deep skepticism of human knowledge and decision-making.  For me, Thinking, Fast and Slow, tends to feed my skepticism more than my confidence.

As overstuffed as the book is, the information it presents is almost universally applicable—politics, academia, business, religion, family life, all of it.  Yet, just as the book suggests, one should, in my opinion, be careful with some of the conclusions found within the book.  Just as the author repeatedly reiterates the dubious nature of human perception and decision-making, it also makes bold claims about those very things.  It should give us pause.  It should make us question without necessarily becoming cynical.

Thinking, Fast and Slow does deserve the attention it gets for the ideas it brings to the table, not necessarily as a book which is structured particularity well.  The best recommendation I can give for the book is that it already has seeped into my thinking.  I think I have a greater propensity to be cautious in my thinking, whether it's fast or slow.  And any book which influences you to change your thinking or behavior is worth paying attention to.

Notable Quotes:
  •  "Experts are human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong."
  •  "The illusion that one has understood the past feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future."
  •  "The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Contagious
What You Don't Know is the Reason

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflections: The Victory of Reason

The Victory of Reason begins with a truly provocative idea, especially in our age of secular-centric historical commentary. Scholar Rodney Stark posits that the driving force of Western success was due to ideas inculcated in Christianity. With Christianity, and much of faith in general, being as unpopular as it is in academia, this is a disruptive idea. Stark attempts to prove his outlook in The Victory of Reason and does so with mild success.

I have long believed that ideas matter and have consequences. Although that seems elementary, certain scholars would not necessarily agree, especially depending on their field of study. To read a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, would make one believe that the progress of humanity has little to do with the volition of humans. Rather, the irresistible forces of evolution and chance, including something as mundane as longitude and latitude, determine the destiny of humanity. The Victory of Reason presents a very different world and outlook, a world driven by the choices of humans—collectively or individually—and those choices are driven by ideas, such as those found within Christianity.

So does Stark make his case successfully? Yes and no. The book is detailed, albeit not exhaustive, and historical evidence is confidently presented.  The trouble starts to occur with the analysis of certain historical periods, such as the Dark Ages, in which Stark rejects the common interpretation of history regarding that time period. Although most of the information is interesting, it feels farther and farther away from the original theory the more you keep reading. (I will say certain passages in the book reminded me of reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; the in-depth analysis of potato growing or wool production can make for some less than thrilling reading). Stark does eventually circumscribe his historical musings into the framework of his theory, but it doesn't happen enough and the book sometimes feels disconnected from the main idea.

Stark's personality was on display in his writing much more than many other scholars. I could appreciate his contrarian viewpoints being a contrarian myself. The writing feels caustic in some ways, but his rejection of several common beliefs is always followed by persuasive historical evidence. The profundity of the premise—that the ideas of Christianity are primarily responsible for the momentous advances in western civilization—demands a commiserate level of profundity in writing and historical commentary. The Victory of Reason as an explication fell a bit short in proving its main premise, although I don't believe Stark is wrong. Although I am very sympathetic to Stark's assertion, I wish his book would have been put together a bit more coherently and circumspectly.

The Victory of Reason is a valuable book to read and study due to its mostly contrarian viewpoint on momentous historical circumstances. The premise is fascinating, as well as much of the content, but the book doesn't quite come together the way it needs to. Having said that, this is the first book of Rodney Stark's I have read, and I look forward to reading and enjoying more of his work. He has some fascinating things to say, and I'm eager to explore more of the world from Rodney Stark's viewpoint.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Brow Bruising Reads

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Reflections: World War Z

World War Z by Max Brooks is much better than a book about zombies should be. Although zombies have been a large part of our cultural zeitgeist for years, I have largely ignored their many incarnations, iterations, and versions. I was able to stomach two episodes of The Walking Dead and promptly gave it up because I found it gruesome and gratuitous. Furthermore, the many films and video games which have zombies as the primary antagonists have gone mostly unnoticed by me. (One exception is the original Resident Evil, which remake I recently got for my PS4 and have been having an absolute blast playing again; I played the original game on the original Playstation).   As you can imagine, World War Z had a lot going against it in my mind, but it subverted my expectations, and I found it to be smart, tense, scary, and, ironically, very, very human.

World War Z abandons the normal narrative structure and instead presents a series of vignettes (normally not my favorite storytelling method) that highlights the human impact of the arrival of the undead. The diversity of experiences presented in the vignettes is the most impressive aspect of the book. The reader is presented with devastating scenarios and situations in China, then South Africa, then India, then Japan, and so on and so forth. It's really quite impressive how convincing each experience is. Max Brooks writes with confidence from each perspective, whether it be on a Chinese nuclear sub or on the International Space Station. If the dead did start to re-animate, then how would people in all of these places and cultures react? It's a fun thought experience, but it's also extremely unsettling.

World War Z presents nightmare scenarios, but it doesn't require zombies to be a nightmare. In fact, the scariest aspects of the book are in the epidemic consequences of the story rather than the undead. In so many ways, any civilization's peace and tranquility hovers precariously on a very thin line between order and chaos. It's not difficult to see the chaos which can result when law and order breaks down; it's currently happening in many places around the world and always has. It doesn't take zombies to do that. World War Z smartly reminds the reader of the realities of our modern world and then tears it all to pieces. Having said that, of all of the end of the world type stories I've read, World War Z is possibly the most hopeful. It showcases devastation, yes, but it also showcases the triumph of human reason and adaptation.

Max Brooks has written a truly human tale, even though it doesn't focus on one protagonist or even several. Brooks has exposed the common human emotions expressed in the midst of tragedy and desolation. World War Z is much, much more than a zombie book. In some vignettes, zombies are almost an afterthought. The living, not the undead, are the focus of this book, and for that reason I found it extremely troubling, engaging, and entertaining. I still don't have much interest in zombies, but World War Z is well worth a recommendation.

 Notable Quotes:
  • "The monsters that rose from the dead, they are nothing compared to the ones we carry in our hearts."
  • "The UN is a bureaucratic masterpiece, so many nuggets of valuable data buried in mountains of unread reports."
  • "Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used."
Books to Movies: I had watched the film adaptation of World War Z with Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster before reading the book; however, the film adaptation is an adaptation in name only. Although I enjoyed the film—especially the first half—the book is much smarter and more interesting than the film.

Other Topics of Interest
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: Good Omens
Reflections: Dracula