Aug 17, 2009

Book Reviews @ The Temple

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely - Super cool book.  Kind of just explores the ways in which we consistently do things that are dumb and make no sense.  I heard about the book by his discussion of social contracts vs. business contracts and how it affects your workplace dynamic, certainly of interest to me in a small business and I'm sure some day in a larger one.  His discussions about price are probably the most fascinating, how our brain works for establishing the worth of something, relativism, happiness, it's all really cool.  There's stuff about education, and honesty, and the workplace stuff, I really liked it.  My main criticism is he has really interesting insights with really small data sets.  That’s not a scientific defense at all - there's numbers, but only over the span of a couple class sizes worth of people.  Maybe he and others have done them with a bunch of classes over a bunch of semesters in a bunch of schools, but he doesn't say that.  As a result it seems like he's drawing pretty sweeping conclusions about humanity from 30 or 60 people.  His conclusions make sense, I believe a lot of what he said, it's just hard to treat it as evidence.  Nonetheless, I really loved the book, it "proved" things we all kind of know are true, and gave some insights to how we (including I) act that were somewhat mind blowing.  Really liked it!

The Bloodless Revolution by Tristram Stuart – Good Lawd it took me a long time to get through this book.  It’s the history of vegetarianism (in europe), and I thought it was going to be so cool.  But it was really monumentally boring.  It’s a 450 page book with maybe 50 pages of interesting things to say.  Honestly, more like 25 pages.  It would be an awesome pamphlet, but it is a excessively tedious book.  It reads like a textbook, with dry story after dry story of this guy or that who contributed to the path of vegetarianism in the west.  There are some really cool and interesting things.  Those 25 pages would be great.  The interaction/influence of india is cool, the religious response and the whole prelapsarian (returning to a garden of eden like state, i.e. before the lapse) is really interesting, and there are a couple interesting characters in history.  But mostly they are really boring.  If somehow all these people tied together in some fascinating way that justified me hearing all the details of their lives, it might be cool.  But it really doesn’t, you could spend 2 pages on each person instead of a chapter and get the point.  There are non fiction books out there that can be as riveting as fiction.  There surely could have been a way to follow vegetarianism that made it captivating.  But this definitely didn’t do it, it was boring and i would suggest it to no one, sorry.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – So I’ve never read Richard Dawkins (actually listened to this).  I’ve always had this impression of him as a bit of a hard-charger for me.  Too aggressive, too relentless.  He addresses that perception in the book, but that doesn’t excuse it.  Just cuz a jerk knows people think he’s a jerk, doesn’t mean he’s not a jerk.  I’m not saying he’s a jerk, I’m just saying acknowledging that perception doesn’t dispel it.  As for the book, there are interesting facts to be found.  Like that only 1 out of 12 people don’t follow their parents religion (or something like this, it’s so hard to go back to find a passage in an audiobook).  Things like that reinforce the silliness of religion.  Mostly, however, I know most things he has to say, and I’m familiar with the arguments, so it feels both boring and aggressive.  I don’t know all the arguments, he does bring up things I haven’t thought of.  But it’s not a revelation, he isn’t solidifying concepts I was never able to express.  Mostly I’ve already gotten there.  So maybe the book isn’t for me, I’m already on hsi side.  The goal of the book is to convert, obviously, and I’m not sure how it could really work.  I’m annoyed by him and I agree! I can’t imagine any believer would be able to listen.  The idea that religion is overall worse for humanity than better I generally agree with.  I imagine that in the before time, people needed religion to coerce them into behaving properly.  It’s sad, but I guess that’s how it works, god threatens you, and you keep it in your pants.  I rather think my parents taught me that and other nice morals without the threat of eternal damnation, and I’m not so special, so everyone ought to be able to learn as well.  We ought to be capable of community without religion (though practically, that is not often the case, I understand).  For me science fulfills that eternal question stuff to the extent that it can, and to the extent that it can’t, my day isn’t ever held up because of it.  So, I’m on board, I don’t need religion, I don’t really see how modern people do.  I don’t go as far as Dawkins, though, in two ways.  The first is I am officially technically agnostic and strongly believe that.  He argues that it’s a wussy excuse and pandering to the possibility of faith and you don’t have to prove a negative (i.e. don’t have to prove the lack of existence of god, which is true scientifically).  But I am what bill maher called a 99 percenter.  I will never ever claim I know something 100%.  I’m pretty damn sure the sun will rise tomorrow, but I can’t say 100%.  Pretty damn sure I’m a dude, the sky is blue, rocks are hard, and there is no god, but I can’t say 100%.  It’s surely more like 99.9999%, but it fundamentally, philosophically cannot be 100.  He criticizes people of this view, and I suppose that’s just an honest disagreement.  He sarcastically says that there might be an invisible pink elephant guiding our actions, and bothering to consider that possibility is just as valid as god.  I agree.  I cannot say there isn’t an elephant, but there is not one second in my day consumed with that possibility, and the same is true of god.  I am a functional atheist, a practical atheist, my day of decisions are not impacted by the existence or the consideration of existence of magical beings.  But I am technically agnostic.  My other problem with Dawkins is the aggression. He argues that because religion is a truly negative influence on humanity, it is morally requisite that he does everything in his power to convince people to drop it.  Being a jerk or being mean or going out of his way to “convert” is justified because religion is bad.  I think we’ll all be better without it, but I have a priority over the long term idea that we are better without it.  My own non-god-influenced morals require treating people a certain way.  I could be a horrendous douche to my grandmother who believes in god because I think it’s better for her.  But at the end of the day I was just a horrendous douche to my grandmother, probably didn’t convert her, and just ruined an important relationship.  I can’t prioritize the good of a secular humanity over the day-to-day decency of treating people how you should, which has to include not aggressively forcing my own beliefs on them.  Politically and officially I want atheism to grow and be accepted (atheists are very much the subject of prejudice) and improve humanity, just can’t do it by being an asshole to someone who happened to be raised to believe something.  It’s a tough call, I believe in most of what he says, and I wish people would agree.  It really does have radically bad effects on the world, it can’t be left to a libertarian ideal of do what you want by yourself.  But I can’t convince myself this is the way.  Maybe it’s part of the way, maybe in 50 years I’ll be glad he and others were bad people, but we’re better off for it.

The Art of Intrusion by Kevin Mitnick – I read the Art of Deception a few years ago by Mitnick (the most famous hacker, if you aren’t familiar).  It was pretty good, all about social engineering.  This book focuses mostly on the more technical side of technology security.  As such, I don’t find it as interesting.  Each chapter is a story of a hack, discussion of how it worked, and advice (he’s nominally a computer security guy now, as many hackers are) for how to stop attacks like it.  It’s interesting, to be sure, some of the stories are really cool.  But technical hacks because people didn’t patch their system, change their password, train their employees, or have depth in their security, just doesn’t have the same hook as a social hack.  The latter is so much harder to defend against, and so much cooler to hear about.  But, the book still has very cool stories, and some social engineering stuff as well.  It’s not really written well, it could have done with one more edit (meaning typos, believe it or not), and in general the story telling just isn’t that strong.  But that’s not why you pick it up, you read it to hear cool hacks and if you are worried about that kind of thing, what you might do to prevent it.  Though honestly if you are in charge of IT somewhere and this is your only advice for defending your system, you are in trouble.  Still, fun read.

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