Monday, November 13, 2017

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was a fairly interesting book on a fascinating topic.

The title is in reference to the work of Stephens-Davidowitz as an internet researcher and how what people do in searches more representative of them than what they say about themselves and the introduction includes mention of Google Trends, a tool that notes how frequently a word has been searched for in different locations and at different times. Also, the author writes quite a bit about large data sets, and how they enable someone to be very specific in pinpointing data with particular characteristics, and yet have that data set large enough to still be statistically significant. Also noted about big data sets is the curse of dimensionality, with enough data points, you’re going to get statistical outliers.

One thing I particularly liked from the book was mention of the doppelgänger concept that I've written about a couple of times, and how, given a large enough set of people, you should be able find someone similar to you, your doppelgänger. This idea is noted as working in medicine as well, an example being the site PatientsLikeMe. There's also quite a bit in the book about A/B testing and how data can take the form of words, with particular words used telling a particular story, such as how data can reveal usage in print of "the United States is..." vs "the United States are..." through time after the Civil War.

Another things that stood out to me was mention of how New Data is great in fields where there’s incomplete or outmoded ways and types of data. It's noted how the field of finance advanced enough that there's not much room for innovation, but in opposition to this, the story of Jeff Sedar, champion racehorse evaluator is told. He helped identify future triple crown winner American Pharoah based on the enlarged size of the left ventricle of the heart, with that as a predictor of success, assuming no contradictory data points.

The book brought to mind for me others I found compelling on similar topics and while it not one of my favorites in the area, it was an interesting and fast read.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown was a solid book, with the subtitle referring to a Maya Angelou quote about belonging no place. Brown writes of how she at first disagreed with the idea, then later understood it as saying that belonging is when you show up as yourself, and as a result, you belong explicitly to yourself. It can be difficult to stand alone in the wilderness, but it's being true to your beliefs.

Brown notes towards the beginning of the book not feeling she belonged as part of her family growing up, the worst type of being an outsider, and goes on to write about four elements of true belonging:

1. People are hard to hate up close. Move in.
2. Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
3. Hold hands. With strangers.
4. Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.

In illustrating her third point, Brown tells the story of her driving in Houston and cars pulling to the side with news of the shuttle Challenger explosion. To the fourth point, she notes how strong back, soft front is a Buddhist principle, and back to the overarching idea of belonging, she covers how people should stop looking for confirmation they don't below, and to be aware of the difference between fitting in and true belonging.

Brown is a good writer and at the end of the book makes mention of additional writing being available on her website.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner

Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner was a really enjoyable to read book subtitled 53 Years of Adventures and Misadventures with My Pal Paul Newman.

The story of the two men could be described as a yarn, romp, or celebration of lives that Hotchner and his close friend lived in full. Newman's experiences as a champion race car driver and prolific actor are certainly chronicled, including how Slap Shot his favorite movie to make and the hijinks that Newman got into during it's filming, but the book focuses even more on the adventures of the two together.

Roughly half the book covers their charitable endeavors, which were just as gamely and entertainingly pursued as their leisurely pursuits, and it was great reading of how Newman used his celebrity for such good, both in the money he gave away and in the cache his name and personal involvement carried in getting things accomplished in the important causes he cared about.

Newman’s Own salad dressing was started as a lark in the barn and the two men fairly early on decided to have all profits go to charity, with when the book published in 2010, some $300M had been donated. Additionally, Newman came up with the idea for the Hole in the Wall Gang summer camps for critically ill children and the he and Hotchner made the camp a reality, and a model that's been copied by other camps worldwide.

Also covered in the book are the end of camp season galas that over a period of 18 years raised an additional $11M for charity, and the book a wonderful tale of great things done by the two, with the legacy carrying on after Newman's 2008 death, and Hotchner now at the age of 97.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was close to the tenth book I've read from Bryson and certainly the longest, with at many times throughout the read my attention waning a bit.

The chapter I liked the most was the third, titled The Reverend Evan’s Universe about an amateur stargazer in Australia who looks for supernovae, or dying stars that collapse and then explode. What appealed to me about this particular section was the science blended together with a very human story, and Bryson writes stories of both adventure and people different than most exceptionally well.

Also interesting to me from the book was chapter thirteen, Bang, about an asteroid about a mile and a half wide that hit several million years ago where Manson, Iowa is, with the event known as the Manson impact. Bryson notes the passage of time filling the crater in and leading to a flat ground, something that makes entertaining how the impact attempted to be monetized in the area.

A Short History of Nearly Everything can be a slog at times, but Bryson's voice definitely comes through in the writing and gives the sense that he enjoyed learning about what he covers in the book.