Books Reviews 2022

The Signal and the Noise

by Nate Silver

Nate Silver is a predictor. He is well known through his website, five thirty eight, for his statistics-driven predictions and analysis. In The Signal and the Noise Silver explores a few topics relating to statistics and prediction. Basically the book has three goals: explain what "making a prediction" means, defend the field of prediction against naysayers, and advocate for a Bayesian approach.

I think this is an excellent introduction to the world of guessing, especially for the non-mathematically inclined. It is rigorous while staying readable; it makes an intricate subject interesting. Silver includes anecdotes from weather forecasting, poker playing, earthquake preparation, sport scouting, and political polling. At times I was reminded of the work of Malcolm Gladwell: Silver is a weaker story teller than Gladwell but ten times the data scientist. On balance, Silver comes out favorably.

I give this book 6/7. Thanks to Justin for recommending it.

The 48 Laws of Power

by John Robert Greene

I was drawn to this book because of the divergent ways people brought it up: some commenters thought it was an insightful masterpiece and others thought it was a manual for psychopaths. Generally I find there is an odd prejudice against self-help books. I cannot figure out why, but many people hold that working to improve interpersonal skills is cheating; that any behavior that does not come "naturally" is inauthentic. Happily I can say this problem does does not apply to this book because The 48 Laws of Power's advice is untenable.

As the name suggests, the books is divided into 48 sections. Each section contains a general principle and a historical anecdote where the anecdote illustrates the principle. Any one of the 48 sections might constitute a decent essay but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Laws are contradictory and unworkable. How is one supposed to simultaneously employ enemies (for they are more loyal than friends) but also crush enemies completely? How is one supposed to act like a king but also never outshine the master? The only "rule" the book is really advocating for is to make the choice that produces a good outcome. But that is not really actionable advice. How does one decide on the right move? It is easy for Greene to assess the right move with the benefit of hindsight. Setting aside these problems, the advice skews far too much towards the paranoid and unnecessarily cruel for my liking.

I give this book 3/7. The book promises to do 2 things: entertain and educate. It succeeds at the former but fails at the latter.

The Secret of Father Brown

by G. K. Chesterton

I have previously encountered Chesterton through The Man Who was Thursday. Chesterton is a member of the catholic literacy revival of the early twentieth century. In The Secret of Father Brown, the third entry in the Father Brown series this is apparent. The book is framed with the titular priest recounting how he solved some particularly vexing crimes. Each crime has everyone stumped until Father Brown applies his empathetic and merciful worldview, then it becomes obvious to Father Brown. His explanations reveal something about human nature. Two comments on human behavior I found truthful: First, our ability to imagine behavior in others is often limited to what we ourselves are capable of. Second, what many people call tolerance or forgiveness is really a lack of moral condemnation. Generalizing about a collection is hard but generally I found the mysteries weak and the moral lessons poignant.

I give this book 6/7.

A quote: "I have a sympathy with the tribe," said Father Brown. "A Philistine is only a man who is right without knowing why."

The Heroine with 1001 Faces

by Maria Tartar

The Heroine with 1001 faces is Tartar's response to Joseph Cambell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Tartar, Cambell did not adequately address, or even consider, women: Cambell treats hero as a gendered term. This book addresses that deficiency. At times Tartar builds on Cambell's work and at times she criticizes it. Tartar outlines several archetypes for female heroines that are outside the model outlined by Campbell and therefore unique to women. Tartar also addressed several adjacent topics: the relegation of female-centric stories to "old wives tales," the importance of female authors, and the changing literary landscape.

While I agreed with many of Tartar's points, I disagreed with her interpretations of many stories, sometimes sharply. She also seemed shockingly vulnerable to the very biases she outlined. For instance, she strongly criticizes the western paradigm but also notes the similarities of nearly every female example to the Greek goddesses. Tartar's scholarship is strong enough that such flaws are not fatal.

I give this book 5/7. Thanks to Lorena for recommending it.