Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:



The spoils of a graduate school education are myriad; a firm belief in the necessity of specialization chief among them. In this book, Epstein argues that our reliance on a deep and narrow pursuit of a solution is often misplaced. Our trust in and preference for the insight and opinions of siloed specialists is pervasive in our institutions, our relationships and often our own minds. But, there are situations – many of them, in fact – where greater specific knowledge leads to worse outcomes than broader and shallower understanding. It takes some un-learning to fully recognize and benefit from the power of generalized thinking.

The key distinguising factor is the context of the problem and its formative learning environment. Epstein marks these as either ‘kind’ or ‘wicked’. Kind problems and learning environments have stable and exhaustable rule sets. They are optimizable and easily simulated. You won’t be suprised to learn that in many of these cases, computers have caught and surpassed human ability. These are also the environments where deep specialization pays the greatest dividends. Take chess. Really, the only thing that helps with being a better chess player is more chess practice. Specialization is positively correlated with performance.

The complement to kind problems are wicked ones. The rules here change frequently. So, too, do the inputs, the players and goals. Optimization is generally not possible; most decisions or choices in a wicked problem require tradeoffs, unquantified and unquantifiable uncertainties, edge cases and exceptions, limited data and no chance for repetition. Here, specialization creates blinders; local minima from which escape is futile. Major life decisions, political policies, business ventures all originate in wicked learning environments…the things that shape our lives, our societies and our planet.

Epstein’s position is not that specialization and specialists are necessarily the problem, rather that they need to be mixed with breadth and generalists in order to for truly successful decisions and innovative work to result. Key takeaways include:

If the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence (to date) have taught us anything it is that computers and humans are good at vastly different things (a form of Moravec’s Paradox). And, though the Age of the Renaissance (Wo)Man is firmly behind us, generalists are making a comeback due to their ability to tie together disparate threads of knowledge into unique and fascinating solutions for wicked problems. It just so turns out that hobbies, hunches and heuristics can offer promising leads where deep focus has failed us.


American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America:



It is commonplace today to hear that we, as a nation, are more divided than ever. Even in this Left Coast latte and laptop Liberal bubble, its hard to disagree with that sentiment. American Nations provides both a structural theory of why, but also, perhaps, a refutation of our calls for contemporary exceptionalism in the matter of partisanship. The central thesis is this:

Being a history book, the thesis is supported by plenty of facts. Woodard is a reporter, not an academic, so the story telling is solid, not amazing, but solid. This can be considered praise as there is only so much clean narrative you can weave through the tangled web of North American history. Certainly every PhD in US History has serious concerns about some aspect of this book, if for nothing else than it’s Euro-Centric approach. Woodard is very clear that he’s taken such a lens because this book is ultimatly about the ebb and flow of regional (‘national’ in this sense) power dynamics and its an easier (and perhaps clearer) story to tell from the framework of the dominant culture.

Allow me to attempt to distill the story into a moderately coherent and chronological synthesis. First came Spaniards up from Mexico to form El Norte. But, because they were far from European commerce, the land arid, the peoples brown, their story must wait. Then came Tidewater (Jamestown). Their hubris didn’t survive the winter and they ate each other. Then a flood. Yankeedom arrived in the north with their Puritan values; second sons of English gentry to the Deep South with their aristocratic mien. Scotch-Irish rebels came too, but quickly scattered to the interior to avoid being told how to live (Yankeedom) or put to work (Deep South). Tidewater recovered, bring better farmers and a more pragmatic aristocracy this time. Oh, and will the eastern seaboard of the US was being settled, New France was more or less peacefully existing (extracting natural resources) with the local indigenous populations. A rough and tumble commercial hub – a yang to the yin of the Holy city of Boston – New Netherlands (New York) developed its own Hanseatic ambitions. German farmers found a swath of land from Philadelphia due west to be both familiar in climate and soil and far enough from the virtues of Yankeedom and the vices of the Deep South to existing largely in peace as the Midlands nation.

Much of the first few centuries of American political history represent a struggle between Yankeedom and the Deep South to pull the Midlands, Tidewater and, occasionally, New Netherlands into their coalition. The Civil War was more of the same. Contemporaneously, the Left Coast and Far West were being developed. Neither a full clone of an existing nation, the Left Coast evolved most from Yankeedom stock, and the Far West from Appalachia. The world wars and the end of American expansion (save Hawaii and Alaska) brought a tenuous truce as the federation (the US) turned to its external enemies. Post WWII social changes again pushed the nations apart: free love, drugs, the environmental movement, civil rights. The church stepped in to provide a rallying cry for the Deep South, Appalachia and Tidewater; collectively the Dixie Block. The religion of the free market pushed the Far West (perhaps the biggest receipt of government investment) away from Northern Alliance (Yankeedom, Left Coast and New Netherlands) communal beliefs, while rich Left Coasters doubled down on ‘liberal’ social and economic policy.

In sum, Woodard argues that the divide between the Dixie Block and Northern Alliance remains the defining conflict in our society today. Further, he insists that what will hold it together, and what has always held it together, is a functioning and practical central government – a necessity that looks less present with every passing week. All told, it is a compelling argument, well presented. I’d add that there has evolved a second dimension: urban vs rural. I think this is especially so for rural areas in borderland zones that are not within the core of a nation and for dense urban areas the country around.

Even if you don’t buy the relatively concise and simplistic theory of Woodard’s, you’ll pick up concerning revalations about your favourite historical American, a deeper distrust of people’s motives and greater appreciation for how tenuous the path from 13 English Colonies starving through a long winter to global superpower struggling with self-goverance really was as well as the challenges that lie ahead.


Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data:



About 50 pages into this book I thought to myself; ‘they should teach this in high school’; the ‘this’ being the general statistical literacy which the book is about. Very shortly thereafter the prescriptiveness and condescension of that statement hit me and and I thought better of sharing it openly with anyone. Also, it made me realize I’m old. My personal feelings aside, Whelan’s clarity of presentation and methodical march through the basics of applied statistics is broadly approachable. And funny, to boot. The standard examples like the Monty Hall problem and laughable reverse causality situations all make an appearance. And so do new ones, like the Schlitz Beer’s taste test ploy in the 1980s, which, though commendable, couldn’t save the brand.

All humor and Stats 101 aside, there is deeper layer, a line of argument that should resonate with data and analytics professionals. It is that incorrect, misleading and malfeasant uses of statistics are not the fault of the math itself, but rather the application. In short, no amount of sophisticated modeling and analysis can overcome bad data, biased sampling, poor choices of variables and a faulty research design. More conceptually and, perhaps, normatively, Whelan argues that our thinking about how to use data has lagged seriously behind our ability to gather and analyze it. Put another way, we can put a lot of effort into building very precise models — getting the data, sampling and variables correct — only to find out later that they are not very ‘accurate’ in the sense of solving the problem we originally intended to.

Whelan equates data to offensive lineman. As such, they are a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating an accurate, useful and honest statistical analysis. Machine learning as a discipline seems to be coming around to this view as well. Modeling improvements still matter, but rarely will they improve performance to same level as greatly increasing the size of the data. Amidst the continuous improvements in computing power, deep learning and AI in general, it can be easy to forget the importance of asking the right question and collecting the right data. This book is an enjoyable read that provides a gentle reminder of why we do analyses in the first place and how to ensure that the fundamentals — the lineman — are both efficiently operating and dutifully respected.


How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real World Problems:



A decade ago, around a campfire, after many beers, we pondered the horizontal pressure of an above ground swimming pool. How much force does the water exert and was it greater for a large but shallow pool or a tall, but small (in circumference) one. Related, is it more difficult to displace water in a small versus a large pool? While we did not answer those questions that night, we did successfully melt an aluminum can and boil water in a paper cup. If you’ve ever wondered these type of wonders or experimented these type of experiments then this is your kind of book (the pool question is covered, btw). Basically a ‘deeply-researched and somewhat obscene answers to questions you are usually too sober or too embarrassed to ask’ book.

Munroe is the author of the XKCD comic strip; well known in some circles, likely unheard of in most. Here he presents legit science wrapped up in similar dry humor. There are equations, but if you skip them you won’t miss anything. There are also drawings, which shouldn’t be passed over. The formula is: 1) Insert somewhat innocuous question about how to do a standard human thing; 2) Take said question to the extreme; and 3) Supported extreme answer with math and jokes. And it works. Rare is the book that can handle Kant and Evil Knievel in successive chapters.

What else is covered? Popular Culture: Is the dig at Oak Island worth it?; Popular Wisdom: Is ‘red at night’ really a delight?; and Popular Mechanics: How to best disable a flying drone. If you still aren’t convinced, you’ll learn how far you can actually throw a given object…and for that alone you should crack the cover.


The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:



Online reviews of this book range from “Dude, totally best book ever” to “This book is a poorly done ‘Buddhism for Bros’”. I fall somewhere in the middle. It contains useful wisdom, wrapped, occasionally a bit overly so, in modern context and lexicon. The title — clearly a marketing win — sets the expectations of readers; which depending on how far down the self-help (or Psychology PhD) path one has trod could be a positive or negative push.

I took the following from this book, presented in what I gathered was the author’s line of reasoning:

This is all, of course, aimed at well-to-do, existentially-confused young westerners whose problems do not include access to clean water, malaria, famine, war, despotism and other life threatening circumstances. It is a quick read and, for those of us lucky enough to have some say in what we ‘give a fuck about’, a worthwhile reminder of the importance of setting the right values and in putting in the work necessary to nurture, express and live those values.

Prisoners of Geography:



Don’t let the title fool you, this is as much or more of a history book than a geography book. While the book is organized into chapters based on ’10 maps that explain the world’, with a few exceptions, there is almost a complete lack of interesting or useful maps to help the narrative. The ’10 maps’ are simply ten countries/regions of focus — each presented with a very standard political geography map. I spent no small amount of time referencing Google Maps during my reading and feel a sizable contribution of this book could have been in clearly locating (mapping) the forces driving each country’s decisions, both past and present.

The tagline here should be ‘selected geopolitics of the 20th and early 21st century’. With that aim in mind, it is a successful book: approachable, yet detailed. An undergraduate modern world history seminar could do well by assigning this as a supplemental reader. A few notable themes that emerge: 1) The disastrous consequences of colonial powers drawing borders without regard for historical settlement patterns; 2) The extractive development of the Southern Hemisphere leading to large coastal capitals and underdeveloped hinterlands; and 3) The continued importance of proximity in diplomacy (Moscow is near, Washington is far).

Many of the (assumed) political motivations are discussed under the umbrella of energy politics. Either I’m naive about the supremacy of energy in driving (geo)politics or this book takes an overly simplistic view. Truthfully, a mass market non-fiction book probably cannot do justice to the full suite of considerations; nonetheless, Marshall leaves the reader feeling as if the sole determinant of a state’s actions are oil and natural gas. Barring the final chapter on the Arctic, climate and ecological issues are given short shrift. Technological capital and labor markets are thinly discussed as well. Again, perhaps state machinations really are primarily driven by the quest for hydrocarbons…and if so, it would explain the world’s reluctance to address climate change and support alternative energy solutions.

All in, it is a quick and worthwhile read. Many factoids and smaller points of information may surprise — ex. the British traded their overseas bases to the Americans for warships in 1940 — while the general themes are broad and, somewhat evident. I was left with a sense of foreboding; a collision between the US and China in the Pacific seems imminent as does Russia’s dominance of the Arctic. Geography may end up being a cruel jailor.