Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Black Swan

“!!”: A wonderfully insightful book, strolls though history, academia, psychology, cognitive science, probability theory, philosophy, statistics and more. The back of the book claims that the book _”will change the way you look at the world”_, and it does.

A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.

Taleb argues that events and life itself are far more random than we perceive them to be – the human brain just isn’t able to cope up with the complexities of the modern world, most of which have sprung up in the last couple of hundred years, while our brains still haven’t evolved much further than the hunter-gatherer stage. This is the most interesting part of the book, where Taleb discusses various studies on how the human brain processes and perceives information, probability and data. We fit explanations to events post-facto – but the world is not so easily squeezable into the theories we built to describe the past and than extrapolate to predict the future.

Our brains are wired in a such a way that we construct linear narratives, or theories about events, in an attempt to simplify and understand – but real life is not linear, and these stories about how events happen are too simplified to be of much use when the next Black Swan comes about.

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Tim Harford: The Logic of Life

!! Another great economics book from “Tim Harford”:, exploring the hidden rationalizations we make during everyday life. “In this deftly reasoned book, Harford argues that life is logical after all. Under the surface of everyday insanity, hidden incentives are at work, and Harford shows these incentives emerging in the most unlikely places.”

A great followup to “The Undercover Economist”: Thomas Schelling, a Nobel prize winning economist on the book: *”This is a terrific read. It’s one those books that forever changes the way you look at things. It proves economics is not a subject for dull textbooks; but is really a way of thinking that can shed light on all aspects of life.”*

A lot of newspaper editorials, opinion pieces and even the reporting consists of the proverbial blind man groping a herd of elephants, trying to figure out why things happen the way they do in Pakistan – Tim Harford lucidly explains that often even the most seemingly irrational acts have a logical explanation.

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Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons

!! The book traces Pakistan’s nuclear history, wherein Pakistan with Chinese, Saudi, American and North Korean help (and a whole lot of private contractors) developed numerous types of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

The book is really interesting, not because of the exact details of how Pakistan developed the bomb, but the insight it gives on how Pakistan really operates. It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who kicked of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, famously declaring “we will eat grass if we have to, but we will make the bomb”. For the next 20 years this statement was literally and figuratively true – everything took a backseat was tens of billions of dollars were poured into two competing nuclear labs.

This is the most depressing account of Pakistani/American political history I’ve read. The old maxim “the end justifies the means” was the one and only motto of the Pakistan Army & the Republican Party, which ran the country for the next 30 years, sucking in practically every dollar of foreign aid and diverting it to nuclear weapons development and regular arms procurement. They had to let parts of the billions of dollars pouring in for the Afghan war though, under American pressure, but development aid money was mostly fully diverted to the bomb.

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The Undercover Economist

!! This is the book which every Pakistani politician, columnist, drawing room warrior, TV talking head, the proverbial man on the street, newspaper & TV reporter, and just about everyone else breathing on the streets of Pakistan should read, now, before it’s too late.

The lack of economic knowledge, and the number of economic things people get wrong even, even Harvard and Oxford educated politicians, is amazing. Newspapers, and TV especially perpetuates many economic myths and fallacies, and often make doom-laden statements which make no sense – though with our politicians it can be (and has been) said that they make no sense on anything at all, at least if you’re viewing it from a logical point of view. This book cuts through all that nonsense and lay’s bare the economic workings of much that we see going on around us.

For example, just today there is a report in the paper about how 6 major bridges are about to collapse in Karachi as the City government can’t be bothered to fix them – the poor reporter rails and rants trying to figure out why this is the case – he/she will really benefit from reading this book.

The chapter on “Why Poor Countries are Poor” is a good explanation of how Pakistan works – though a lot of Pakistani’s understand innately as to why we are where we are, Tim Harford logically lays it out, and the heuristics built up over years of dealing with bureaucracy and corruption make even more sense.

There are many other ‘readable’ books on economics being written today, but this book really stands out.

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Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

bq.. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

I hate to give the game away right here at the beginning of a whole book devoted to the subject, and I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a couple hundred more pages or so. I’ll try to resist, but will go ahead and add a few more details to flesh out the recommendations. Like, eating a little meat isn’t going to kill you, though it might be better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to “eat food,” which is not quite as simple as it sounds. For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlikesubstances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims, which brings me to another, somewhat counterintuitive, piece of advice: If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

You can see how quickly things can get complicated.

p. The above is from the introduction of a new book by Micheal Pollan, “In Defense of Food”: Read the “whole introduction to the book here”: It’s the single best, most concise food advise I’ve ever read.

His last book was, “The Omnivores Dilemma”: was eye opening, and this book is now on my list of must read books. The “Google page on the new books has some reviews”:

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Fooled By Randomness

“!!”: One of those rare must read books, the sort which you go out and recommend to people.

You could look up the “comments on Amazon”: for a whole lot of reviews, opinion and just plain noise, but better yet, just read it!

In short – the world is a lot more random than we perceive it to be, for our brains just aren’t wired to deal with what the world has become – our genes and brain patterns remain stuck in the past while trying to deal with a world which has advanced faster than we have.

Risk, probability, literature, how the brain works, wall street – just a few of the many topics the Taleb touches on.

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The life and times of the Thunderbolt kid

“!!”: Just plain wonderful. Too wonderful for words. A kid-eyed travelogue through white middle-class America in the 50’s, and what a world that was. The funniest book I’ve read a in long, long time. A “comment on Amazon”: calls it _”This is a ray of sunshine in the literary world”_ and damn right it is! … Read moreThe life and times of the Thunderbolt kid

Jinnah of Pakistan

bq. Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation state. “Muhammad Ali Jinnah”: did all three. Stanley Wolpert on Jinnah in his biography “Jinnah of Pakistan”: A fascinating read about a fascinating man.

Books everyone should read

There are books, and then there are books, and a big fat thick line which divides the great books from the rest. The divide between just a book and a great book is so vast that they should be called something else altogether. Too many literature published today, to take a popular one at random like the Harry Potter series, is damn good entertainment, but certainly not a great book. Probably the main difference between a regular book and a great one is that the regular one entertains for the duration of the book, while the great one stays with you for life, and has the power to potentially redefine the way you think.

Wikipedia definition of a great book:

* the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;

* the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit;

* the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.

There are many lists floating around the interweb, but the problem with them all is that they’re not this list.

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