Book Bits |23 July 2016

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
By Samuel Arbesman
Review via Publishers Weekly
Arbesman (The Half-Life of Facts), a self-described “complexity scientist,” presents a new framework for understanding and working with complex technological systems in this thought-provoking treatise. Arbesman argues that technological systems have become so complicated that not even those who design them fully understand how they work, nor do they always know what to do when their systems fail or return unexpected, possibly catastrophic results. He illustrates this through numerous examples of flaws or breaks in increasingly sophisticated systems such as traffic control, the stock market, machine translation, and medical devices.

Dull Disasters?: How planning ahead will make a difference
By Daniel J. Clarke and Stefan Dercon
Summary via publisher (Oxford University Press)
In recent years, typhoons have struck the Philippines and Vanuatu; earthquakes have rocked Haiti, Pakistan, and Nepal; floods have swept through Pakistan and Mozambique; droughts have hit Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia; and more. All led to loss of life and loss of livelihoods, and recovery will take years. One of the likely effects of climate change is to increase the likelihood of the type of extreme weather events that seems to cause these disasters. But do extreme events have to turn into disasters with huge loss of life and suffering?
Dull Disasters? harnesses lessons from finance, political science, economics, psychology, and the natural sciences to show how countries and their partners can be far better prepared to deal with disasters. The insights can lead to practical ways in which governments, civil society, private firms, and international organizations can work together to reduce the risks to people and economies when a disaster looms. Responses to disasters then become less emotional, less political, less headline-grabbing, and more business as usual and effective.

Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up
By William Poundstone
Review via Kirkus Reviews
The story of the dumbing-down of the American brain, as we have all become increasingly dependent on letting our computers think for us.
This breezy, pop-research overview of the decline of basic knowledge in the age of information overdrive could provide plenty of nuggets for journalists and hand-wringers over how many more millennials are familiar with the Kardashians than Descartes and can’t name a single South American novelist or locate most African countries on a map. So what? Whatever we need to know, we can Google, right? While Poundstone (Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody, 2014, etc.) is careful not to confuse correlation with causation, he suggests that, where general knowledge is concerned, “high scores correlate with high income, good health, and sometimes other positive attributes” (including happiness, in some studies).

For the Love of Money: A Memoir
By Sam Polk
Review via AP
While working at his dream job as a senior trader on Wall Street, Sam Polk received a bonus of several million dollars. He was enraged: it wasn’t enough. “For the Love of Money” chronicles the story of his life leading up to that fateful day.
Born into a working-class family with little emotional stability, a desire for more — more success, recognition — even more food — forms Sam’s early years. When his father demands that Sam and his siblings share a dessert and Sam receives one less bite than the others, fury ensues. Weeks later, he scrounges up the money to buy an entire cake, which he eats in solitude until vomiting. This scene repeats itself in varied forms throughout Sam’s life, each event seemingly tethered to his longing for his father’s approval and an unquenchable craving for wealth.

Winning at Active Management: The Essential Roles of Culture, Philosophy, and Technology
By William W. Priest, et al.
Summary via publisher (Wiley)
Winning at Active Management conducts an in-depth examination of crucial issues facing the investment management industry, and will be a valuable resource for asset managers, institutional consultants, managers of pension and endowment funds, and advisers to individual investors. Bill Priest, Steve Bleiberg and Mike Welhoelter all experienced investment professionals, consider the challenges of managing portfolios through complex markets, as well as managing the cultural and technological complexities of the investment business.