Book Reviews

Book review: The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems, by Emmanuel Todd.

What features distinguish countries that embraced communism from countries that resisted?

Why did Islam spread rapidly for a century and a half, then see relatively few changes in its boundaries for more than a millennium?

Todd’s answer is that the structure of the family is a good deal more stable than ideologies and religions, and different family structures create different constraints on what ideologies and religions will be accepted. Published in 1983, it still seems little-known.

Maybe this neglect is most pronounced in the English-speaking parts of the world, where one family structure is overwhelmingly popular, and alternatives are often dismissed as primitive relics. France seems more conducive to Todd’s insights, since France has four different family structures, each dominating in various regions.

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Book review: Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein.

Doctors are more willing to order a test for patients they see in the morning than for those they see late in the day.

Asylum applicants chances of prevailing may be as low as 5% or as high as 88% purely due to which judge hears their case.

Clouds Make Nerds Look Good, in the sense that university admissions officers give higher weight to academic attributes on cloudy days.

These are examples of what the authors describe as an important and neglected problem.

A more precise description of the book’s topic is variations in judgment, with judgment defined as “measurement in which the instrument is a human mind”.

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Book review: Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, by Andrew Steele.

The latest book on aging is a bit more ambitious than the previous two that I reviewed, but still rather modest compared to Aubrey de Grey’s book that heralded the start of serious attempts at fighting aging.

Ageless is relatively balanced, well-organized, and comprehensive.

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Book review: The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values, by Brian Christian.

I was initially skeptical of Christian’s focus on problems with AI as it exists today. Most writers with this focus miss the scale of catastrophe that could result from AIs that are smart enough to subjugate us.

Christian mostly writes about problems that are visible in existing AIs. Yet he organizes his discussion of near-term risks in ways that don’t pander to near-sighted concerns, and which nudge readers in the direction of wondering whether today’s mistakes represent the tip of an iceberg.

Most of the book carefully avoids alarmist or emotional tones. It’s hard to tell whether he has an opinion on how serious a threat unaligned AI will be – presumably it’s serious enough to write a book about?

Could the threat be more serious than that implies? Christian notes, without indicating his own opinion, that some people think so:

A growing chorus within the AI community … believes, if we are not sufficiently careful, the this is literally how the world will end. And – for today at least – the humans have lost the game.

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Book review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett.

It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one’s understanding of other cultures.

The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.

Here are a few of the insights I got from the book, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten from visiting Asia frequently:

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Book review: The End of Alzheimer’s Program, by Dale Bredesen.

This sequel to The End of Alzheimer’s is an attempt at a complete guide to a healthy lifestyle.

Alas, science is still too primitive to enable an impressive version of that. So what we end up with is this guide that would overwhelm anyone who tries to follow it thoroughly, while still lacking the kind of evidence that would convince a skeptic.

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Book review: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich.

Wow!

Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author’s future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich’s grand overview of humanity’s first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn’t quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books.

The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic.

However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book’s focus and value.

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Book review: The Precipice, by Toby Ord.

No, this isn’t about elections. This is about risks of much bigger disasters. It includes the risks of pandemics, but not the kind that are as survivable as COVID-19.

The ideas in this book have mostly been covered before, e.g. in Global Catastrophic Risks (Bostrom and Cirkovic, editors). Ord packages the ideas in a more organized and readable form than prior discussions.

See the Slate Star Codex review of The Precipice for an eloquent summary of the book’s main ideas.

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