What I’ve been reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Dan Kahneman. Science described this book as Gladwell’s “Blink with muscles” and that’s a fairly accurate, if slightly simplistic, summary. Kahneman’s book is extremely interesting and consists of almost all substance, yet is also clearly written and is a very fair account of Kahneman’s work over the years. Although it’s not directly about football given that it is about the nature of thinking and how our brains work, it’s of obvious application. Much of the book centers around the tension between what Kahneman calls our “System One” and “System Two” brains. This is not quite the same thing as saying between our impulsive and rational ways of thinking, particularly because our System One thinking is more than mere impulsiveness and it is extremely remarkable in the way that it can process and filter extreme amounts of information and form them into intuitive judgments and actions. But System One thinking is not a substitute for System Two, or rational thinking, but our brains have a limited capacity for engaging in System Two thinking — in Kahneman’s terms, our brain is often simply lazy about it — and so we’re constantly going back and forth between the two, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes not so much. It’s a fascinating read and one of the best books I’ve read in some time, though if you are extremely familiar with Kahneman and his frequent collaborator Tversky’s papers, the material won’t be particularly new.

Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics, and the 300-year Journey to the Black-Scholes Equation, by George Szpiro. I’ve already once on this site discussed a book about the Black-Scholes equation, the very good Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, so it may appear that I’m setting up some kind of cottage industry in reading books about that particular bit of financial arcana. But Szpiro’s book was actually of more general interest than the one about Fischer Black, as that one focused on Black’s life, upbringing, unique intellectual influences and fascination with the Capital Asset Pricing Model. Szpiro’s book really only builds to the Black-Scholes equation at the end, only after covering hundreds of years of mathematical history, focusing as much on Louis Bachelier, Einstein, Robert Brown and the discovery of Brownian motion, Nikolaevich Kolmogorov and the general intellectual underpinnings and history of probability theory. I enjoyed these portions of the book — though I am admittedly not a scholar of mathematics by any stretch — more than the latter chapters more specifically about finance. So I recommend it, but only for those who think they are likely to enjoy a book about the history of various mathematical characters or the development of one particular financial theory.

What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, by Thomas Nagel.

I enjoy dabbling in philosophy — it is yet another subject I enjoy but am certainly not an expert in — and this is considered one of the best “introductory” types of books around. In some ways it was too introductory; it is aimed more at a young college student or potentially even high schooler interested in the big philosophical questions, and it does an excellent job of presenting them lucidly, with the primary arguments and debating points on both sides. What made the book worthwhile is that one has to remember how difficult it is to present many of these large philosophical questions and their arguments in such a concise, compact way, and it also just so happens that Nagel is one of the great philosophy scholars around, so any kind of accessible book on philosophy by him is worthwhile. And he does come to conclusions, though often tepid ones, at the end of each chapter, so one is not left entirely with an equivocal law professor style “on the one hand but also on the other” type of conclusion — which of course merely provides further grist for discussion.

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. I have only just begun this and it is great so far — surprisingly funny — but I am not far on. It was Christopher Hitchens’s favorite of the elder Amis’s works. One may reasonably question Hitchens’s judgment on many things but humorous and witty English novels is probably not the area I would start with (and his review is engaging in its own right).

The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, by Peter Singer is also in my pile, needing to be tackled.

  • stan.brown

    re: the finance book — any discussion of the fallacy of using volatility as a substitute for risk?  I think one of the biggest issues underlying the disastrous use of the R models wasn’t just the inappropriate assumption that risk was normally distributed (see Taleb and power curve), but the assumption that volatility in normal market trading has any relationship at all to genuine risk.

  • Todd Shigley

    I have started  Kahneman’s book, and I have found it great so far.  It is a nice look into how our brains work, and I believe, too, that it has a benefit to football(coaching).  

  • Kevin Ayre

    How do you have time to read so many books…at the same time?

  • Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” is another good one. Not overly complicated and it covers a variety of thoughts.

  • Coachjax5

    Related to Kahneman/Gladwell, you might look into The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.  Gets into the process of learning/developing/perfecting skills.  Outlines a methodology called “deep practice” that has quite a few applications to coaching — especially, I think, in development of throwing mechanics, footwork for all positions, and the kicking game.  I mainly appreciate its explanation of the genesis of the Houston “KIP” program (Gladwell also references in Outliers).  Wish public education could go this direction.

  • Cromulent

    “The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, by Peter Singer is also in my pile, needing to be tackled.”

    I agree; Peter Singer needs to be tackled. Sacked, really. Sacked for a big loss.

  • Cromulent

    Yeah, years later and Taleb’s voice is still all too lonely in criticizing Black-Scholes. Too many financial academics still subscribe to CAPM.

  • Paul Meisel

    CAPM is elegant in theory, flawed in practice.  I was a quant MBA back when all this stuff was sorta new… and you could see cracks then.

  • Steven Postrel

    I’m reading Paul Glimcher’s Foundations of Neuroeconomics, which takes Kahneman’s stuff to the next level by linking rigorous neoclassical theory to specific neural mechanisms and showing where it works and where it doesn’t. Not a light read, but if you’re already familiar with the K&T papers it might be interesting for you.