Archive | Science

Dataclysm | Christian Rudder

The cover of Rudder's DataclysmOKCupid is an online dating site with 12 year track record (and counting). The site was launched by a group of friends including Christian Rudder, who is now the leader of the website’s analytics team. Translation: he has access to massive amounts of data.

Dating websites collect data in various forms. You can look at what people say in response to specific questions, but you can also see how people behave. Rudder, a self-confessed math nerd, wrote many algorithms to explore this data and bring people’s behaviour to light en masse. He tells the story of this data through well designed graphs and charts.

Here are some of the (politically incorrect) things I’ve learned:

  • Men are far more generous than women when rating the attractiveness of the opposite sex.
  • Women find men around their age to be the most attractive while men of any age find twenty year olds to be the most attractive.
  • People prefer partners from their own race with one exception: every race prefers to date white people.
  • A list of frequently used terms broken down by race shows that white people are basically indie-rock lumberjacks.
  • Straight men and women along with gay women talk about their sexuality while gay men focus on culture (e.g. “anything on bravo” (181)).

Are you appalled? Remember, this is not what we say we are or what we aspire to be. This is what big data analysis demonstrates we are, whether it sounds right or not.

Dataclysm is a fascinating look at human relationships that no survey could ever tell. It’s truly “Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.”

—Christian Ridder, Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014).

The Black Swan | Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The cover of Taleb's The Black SwanWhat you don’t know is far more relevant than what you do know. The books you haven’t read yet are more valuable than the ones you have read.

What we do know allows us to speculate and create forecasts about the future. What we don’t know—the black swan—renders our patterns meaningless.

This truth comes painfully alive in Taleb’s graph of a turkey’s life. Every day the turkey receives food from the farmer and grows in size. Extrapolating from what the turkey knows suggests a rosy future for the bird. Thanksgiving dinner is the turkey’s black swan.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a unique author. He is bluntly irreverent, with the sort of disdain for common opinion only Žižek could match! This book is equal parts scientific analysis on logical fallacies and philosophical reflection on the role of randomness in life. Taleb’s prose is at the same time dense and page-turning.

The Black Swan will help you live well in a life where highly improbable events happen.

—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).

The Organized Mind | Daniel J. Levitin

The cover of Levitin's the Organized MindWe are drowning in information. Levitin illustrates this with a biological example (15). Google Scholar reports 30,000 research articles on the nervous system of a squid. You can have a PhD in biology and never know all that’s been written on the topic!

This superabundance of accessible information has left us confused. We waste our time away making meaningless decisions that would not have been a matter of choice a few decades ago. This plethora of information can leave us overwhelmed. We have this vague sense that we can’t quite keep on top of everything we should know.

Daniel Levitin draws on scientific research studies as well as time management gurus to help us understand the problem. More than that, he offers practical ways for us to (as the subtitle says), think “straight in an age of information overload.”

One of the most interesting parts of Levitin’s book was his attack on the myth of multi-tasking. While we think we can do many things at once, “what we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task” (306). This leads to two problems:

  1. We don’t devote enough attention to any one task.
  2. We decrease the quality of our attention to a task.

Levitin is aware that self-professed multitaskers will disagree with this research. In one of the best scientific jargon-laden insults I’ve read, “a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great” (306). Uni-taskers unite!

Multitasking is just a small part of this 500 page book (400+notes and index) in which every section had something interesting and enlightening to offer. If you want to understand more about how your mind works and how you can stay in control of the modern information torrent, Levitin is a great guide.

—Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2014).

Thinking, Fast and Slow | Daniel Kahneman

The cover of Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow

Riddle me this:

“If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets”—100 minutes or 5 minutes (65)?

If you answered “100 minutes,” you’re not alone … and you’re dead wrong. Think about it. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains why.

We have two types of thinking systems (thus, the title of the book). System one is intuitive and answers quickly. System two requires more thought and answers slowly. Both systems are valuable and necessary. Kahneman’s spent his lifetime studying these systems and has developed and published many experiments over the years (including the one above) which exploit the flaws in our systems.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman helps us to recognize when our minds let us down (i.e. narrative fallacies, planning fallacies, WYSIATI, etc.) and gives us the tools to recognize our own errors.

This book is detailed, thorough, and absolutely fascinating. Kahneman walks the reader through many of the test scenarios he developed over the years. Even if you prepare yourself for the “trick” and try to answer correctly, human nature wins out. It’s certainly a good dose of humility!

Many of these experiments were carried out with his friend and colleague, Amos Tversky, to whom the book is dedicated. The friendship between them and their mutual fascination with how the mind works makes this book on sociology border on memoir at times.

Read and be fascinated at your incredibly powerful and deeply flawed mind!

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011).

Guitar Zero | Gary Marcus

The cover of Marcus' Guitar ZeroMany people have told me, “I wish I followed through with my music lessons when I was a kid.” The prevailing understanding is that it’s much more difficult to learn a musical instrument when your teenage years are fading in the rear-view mirror. Marcus challenges this assumption in Guitar Zero.

When middle-aged Gary Marcus decided that he wanted to play music, he threw himself into the project. His training as a cognitive psychologist allowed him to only to learn, but to reflect intelligently on how he was learning. That’s what makes this book interesting. The chapters in Guitar Zero flow freely between Marcus’ attempt to stretch his fingers onto the proper frets and perceptive analysis on the nature of learning a new task.

Yes, it is easier to learn a new skill when you’re young—but with determination, you can follow in Marcus’ footsteps and take on new challenges regardless of your age.

I might not be picking up an instrument as quickly as an adept child might, but as an adult I still had some advantages. I had a greater capacity to understand the abstractions of music theory and a better sense of music composition as a whole. If practice, determination, and a greater conceptual understanding hadn’t entirely overcome the twin obstacles of age and lack of talent, they had at least made for an even match (192).

—Gary Marcus, Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012).

The Information | James Gleick

The cover of Gleick's The InformationWe were taught that atoms and the quarks that compose them are the fundamental building blocks of nature. Gleick teaches how bits—discrete pieces of information—are a more helpful way of understanding the world.

Gleick’s book is ambitious. It weighs in at 426 pages with 98 subsequent pages of notes, bibliography, and index. The size of the book reflects the scope. In it, Gleick begins surveying information by considering the birth of language and ends with Wikipedia. He traces the understanding and transferring of information through all of human history!

There are many fascinating insights throughout the book. Have you ever considered the task the first dictionary compiler faced in standardizing regional spelling? Did you know that Napoleon had a system of mechanical signal towers that could pass messages throughout France (at least on a clear day)? How many repeated numbers would you expect in a long random number? Did you know that Beethoven would have only heard a small amount of Bach’s musical output, but we can now hear it all? Have you ever considered what effect knowing everything has on us?

Gleick has written more than a history here—he reveals insight into the human condition. Take this meditation on forgetfulness:

Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important  as remembering. (407)

The Information is a book from a Renaissance man who has though deeply about the human quest to relay and understand information. I found something interesting on every page.

—James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2011).

Subliminal | Leonard Mlodinow

Mlodinow has a knack for delving into specific fields of science that do not receive a lot of attention and popularizing them. He did this with randomness in The Drunkard’s Walk, and now he’s back with Social Neuroscience in Subliminal.

The strength of Mlodinow’s writing lies in the way he’s able to make scientific studies accessible. There are experiments galore recounted in his latest book. Here are a few of the ideas that expanded my mind:

  • In the Southeastern United States, people with the most common surnames tend to marry people with the same surname (“Smiths marry other Smiths about as often as they marry people with all those other names [Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown], combined”) (19).
  • Shares on the New York Stock Exchange with easily pronounceable names are funded better (27).
  • 1 in 5 average students whose teachers were informed that they were gifted gained 30 or more IQ points eight months later (114).

In addition to the fascinating experiments, Mlodinow uses compelling stories from his own history, laced with his witty sense of humour.

Unlike The Drunkard’s Walk, however, the structure of this book let me down. Despite the two-part organization in the Contents (“The Two-Tiered Brain” and “The Social Unconscious”), this book didn’t develop along any logical lines I was able to follow. While almost every chapter was interesting, they didn’t flow together or develop any overarching thesis.

In the end, Subliminal is a good popular introduction to the topics studied in the quickly developing field of Social Neuroscience.

The Universe Within | Neil Turok

I love scientists who make physics comprehensible. After hearing Neil Turok interviewed on Quirks & Quarks, I knew that I needed to read his Massey Lectures.

In The Universe Within, Turok covers every scale imaginable. He is equally at home explaining quantum mechanics and the vast scope of the universe. Despite this book being a collection of public lectures, Turok doesn’t overly dumb down his material. There were moments in the book where I reread a few paragraphs and was thankful for the paper copy! This is especially true when Turok elucidates the formula that describes everything that modern physics understands about, well, everything!

There are many good popular physics books on the shelf. This book is set apart by Turok’s humanity. He has a deep connection to Africa and has worked diligently to set up advanced physics schools where people who wouldn’t have a hope of travelling abroad to study at MIT or Oxford can research. His excitement at the thought of mobilizing the minds of the overlooked developing world is contagious.

Another pleasantly surprising element of the book was his little swipe at the new atheists. He quotes philosopher David Albert’s response to Dawkin’s harpooning of religion (in an afterword to Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing). “All that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb” (247).

I don’t know what Turok’s religious views are (his respect for Pierre Teilhard de Chardin makes me wonder) but his respect for mystery and discovery is inspirational.


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