What I am Reading This Summer (2018)

The books I am reading (and going to read) this summer, covers a large swath of fields – anthropology, mathematics, biology, philosophy, religion, fantasy fiction, and machine learning. I am knee-deep into many of them, and they are all great so far.

You might just like them too.

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (Anthropology): Great, great book on anthropology, so far. This is the first Prof Diamond’s book I am reading, and I am not disappointed at all. The aim of the book is to carry out some sort of comparative analysis between non-state traditional societies and modern societies, under the following themes: War and peace, market economics, land use, child-rearing, treatment of old people, danger and response, religion, language, and health.

And what have I learnt so far? One thing – that sometimes, we remain under the illusion that anytime we journey out from a traditional framework or system; that that had to be progress. Well, the book shows that we could be very wrong, our ancestors are really smart, and evidence for that is embedded in the fact of their survival in many respects. Sometimes we need to look back to solve some of our greatest problems.

How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (Mathematics/Statistics): I am half way through this – and I have to say that mathematics is so powerful. First, the fact that mathematics work seems to me to be a miracle – the fact that you could describe and predict real things in abstracts terms, I find that mind blowing.

Anyways, the book centers more on statistical thinking, describing concepts like linearity, inference, expectation, and regression – with very illuminating examples. For example, Dr Ellenberg’s explanation of the concept of p-value and statistical significance is ridiculously accessible, that a one-year old could understand it.

An Introduction to Statistical Learning by Gareth James (Machine Learning): Last year I attempted several machine learning books, they all flew over my head pretty fast.  I discussed my plight with a Bioinformatics graduate student in the lab and he recommended Gareth James’s book. He said, “It reads like your story books”. I knew he was joking. And he knew he was. But I am reading it anyways.

For the reader who is curious about machine learning, it is a branch of field of computer science that uses statistical technique to teach algorithms to make predictions itself, without being explicitly programmed. ML gave us self-driving cars, speech recognition, and a host of other things.

Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (Fantasy fiction): I started reading Borges this year after I came across Nassim Taleb’s review of his collected fictions. I have read a few of his books this year (the fact that they are really short helps), and I loved them. Amazon says “In Brodie’s Report, he returned also to the style of his earlier years with its brutal realism, nightmares, and bloodshed [after taking a twenty year break].”

His stories can be somewhat dry at times. But, cerebral is another word to use – and a lot of the times, that is all one needs.

The Vital Question by Nick Lane (Biochemistry): I got to know about Prof Nick Lane’s Vital Question from Bill Gates blog last year – in this beautiful video. Last month, he was invited to give a lecture about his work on the origin of life by the biochemistry department of my uni (University of Georgia). And what more, I got to chat with him over lunch, and we talked about being a writer and a scientist, among other things.

And why did I pick the book? I what to see how far scientist can go with the materialistic explanation for the origin of life (from a biochemical perspective).

12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson (Self-help): I am 8-rules deep into the book, and I find the ideas very useful. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Make friends with people who want the best for you. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Etc.

Prof Peterson uses mythology, Christian theology, psychology, psychotherapy, and philosophy to drive home the point that rules are very important for a meaningful life. So far, 12 Rules for life is one of the most sold books in 2018.

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2 thoughts on “What I am Reading This Summer (2018)

  1. Hey Bif! I am curious to what you think Jared Diamond would say about combating the issue of anthropogenic climate change. As a side effect of industrialitic progress and capitalistic consumption I dont think we have ever experienced a similar challenge like this in our past. On the other hand the diplomatic crisis of de-arming the world of nuclear weapons is a challenge in which the past could point to much wisdom in resolving human made conflict. Love to see all that you are learning mate!

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      No, we haven’t experienced such a thing. And I am not certain what he will say. Being a scientist, I will assume he will agree that a) it is real b) hence, we should modulate anthropogenic influences on climate change. The climate change problem is a wicked problem, it’s a problem that could consume us, and yet, it appears that there are ‘more important’ problems to be solved.

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