What to read over the holiday season?Posted: December 23, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: books, Daniel Kahneman, Elliot Perlman, Grattan Institute, Human Transit, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker 5 Comments
When I started The Melbourne Urbanist I wasn’t sure what direction it would take. While primarily about planning and development issues, I imagined it might also have a major sideline in reading and literature.
Hence the Reading page in the sidebar. As things have turned out, there hasn’t been much interest in reading and books. For example, The Melbourne Urbanist had 25,000 visits in November but the Reading page only got 29 views, so next year I’ll probably move it elsewhere.
Clearly the readers of The Melbourne Urbanist don’t come here to talk literature. Fair enough, this is the age of specialisation and that’s one of the things the internet does well. However since it’s the holiday season, I have an excuse to talk books.
The thing newspapers love to do at this time of year is find out who’s reading what. Over the years I’ve found some good reads from seeing what politicians, novelists and others are reading (or say they’re reading). The Grattan Institute has put an interesting twist on this tradition – a suggested summer reading list for the Prime Minister. Here it is:
Fair share, Judith Brett, (Quarterly Essay 42, 2011)
Cities for people, Jan Gehl, (Island Press, 2010)
There goes the neighbourhood, Michael Wesley, (University of New South Wales, 2011)
Balancing the risks, benefits and costs of homeland security, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart (article available at http://www.hsaj.org/?article=7.1.16)
The rational optimist, Matt Ridley, (Fourth Estate, 2010)
Cold light, Frank Moorhouse, (Random House Australia, 2011)
Some interesting suggestions. Of these, I’ve only read The rational optimist and can’t recommend it highly enough (I quoted from it yesterday). It would be a great summer read. If you follow the link to the Grattan Institute, there’s an explanation of the thinking behind the list. Anything by Frank Moorhouse should be interesting and Cold light is about power, secrecy and, of all things, urban planning! So I’ll put that on my “to read” list.
Of the books I’ve read this year, I’d recommend Ryan Avent’s The gated city, He argues in a mere 100 pages that opposition to density is a key reason for American economic stagnation. This is an Amazon Kindle “Single” – it only costs $1.99 and if, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can read it on your computer or, in my case, on an iPhone (not so good for the beach, though). I’ve cited it before, here and here.
I’d also recommend Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature. He argues that violence at both social and personal levels is much lower than historically it’s ever been. Another fascinating book is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: fast and slow. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel laureate – lots of insight on why we think the way we do and, especially, why we so often get it wrong. Both of these books are long (and in the modern fashion look like they never had an editor), but they’re worth it.
The best novel I’ve read this year – in fact for a while – is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. It deals insightfully and wittily with some big issues. And it’s beautifully written – a deserving winner of the 2010 Booker. Read the rest of this entry »
What does ‘random’ look like?Posted: November 24, 2011 Filed under: Miscellaneous | Tags: cognitive illusion, Ed Purcell, gambler's fallacy, London Blitz, Poisson, statistics, Steven Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, The Better Angles of our Nature, Thomas Pynchon, Waitomo 8 Comments
The exhibit shows two seemingly similar patterns – but one of them is random and one isn’t. Can you tell which is which? More in a moment.
I’ve taken these plots from Steven Pinker’s new book, The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. It’s in a Chapter titled The statistics of deadly quarrels where he discusses the statistical patterning of wars and takes a small detour into “a paradox of utility”, specifically our tendency to see randomness as regularity with little clustering.
This cognitive illusion has relevance to all disciplines but is of particular interest to anyone interested in spatial issues, as a couple of these examples show.
Professor Pinker, who’s a psychologist at Harvard, cites the example of the London blitz, when Londoners noticed a few sections of the city were hit by German V-2 rockets many times, while other parts were not hit at all:
They were convinced that the rockets were targeting particular kinds of neighborhoods. But when statisticians divided a map of London into small squares and counted the bomb strikes, they found that the strikes followed the distribution of a Poisson process—the bombs, in other words, were falling at random. The episode is depicted in Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, in which statistician Roger Mexico has correctly predicted the distribution of bomb strikes, though not their exact locations. Mexico has to deny that he is a psychic and fend off desperate demands for advice on where to hide
Another example is The Gambler’s Fallacy – the belief that after a long run of (say) heads, the next toss will be tails:
Tversky and Kahneman showed that people think that genuine sequences of coin flips (like TTHHTHTTTT) are fixed, because they have more long runs of heads or of tails than their intuitions allow, and they think that sequences that were jiggered to avoid long runs (like HTHTTHTHHT) are fair
The exhibit above shows a simulated plot of the stars on the left. On the right it shows the pattern made by glow worms on the ceiling of the famous Waitomo caves, New Zealand. The stars show constellation-like forms but the virtual planetarium produced by the glow worms is relatively uniform.
That’s because glow worms are gluttonous and inclined to eat anything that comes within snatching distance, so they keep their distance from each other and end up relatively evenly spaced i.e. non-randomly. Says Pinker:
The one on the left, with the clumps, strands, voids, and filaments (and perhaps, depending on your obsessions, animals, nudes, or Virgin Marys) is the array that was plotted at random, like stars. The one on the right, which seems to be haphazard, is the array whose positions were nudged apart, like glowworms
Thus random events will occur in clusters, because “it would take a non-random process to space them out. The human mind has great difficulty appreciating this law of probability”. Read the rest of this entry »