18 August 2007

A Tale of Two Books

I've recently read two books that had diametrically opposed effects on me.

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is essentially a rant against the evils and narrow-minded thinking of religion (and aggressive defense of atheism). I substantially agree with his point but the book contained little that made me think or explore the topic further; as my housemate Matt said, "Poking holes in weak theological arguments doesn't seem especially fruitful."

On the other hand, The Black Swan: The Effect of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes as its central thesis that Gaussian distributions are fundamentally incorrect and should be stricken from our analysis habits. That assertion is wrong in the fields of endeavor where I spend most of my time, and the prose itself far inferior to Dawkins'; yet, the book and it's strongly and personally argued points made me think at every turn. There's a decent chance I will reread the book (rare for me), not to reabsorb the main thesis but to relive the side arguments and intellectual explorations it inspired.

I'm sure I'll write more about the Black Swan book; after all, the author starts from experience and then applies models, an approach I'm much more comfortable with. And, I fundamentally believe in the applicability of his thoughts to the world of finance, where he originated, and wish more people grasped the fundamental risks he highlights (which I was exposed to some years ago via chaos theory).

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