Two Books That Helped Me Understand the World Around Me


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With a three month break from work, I've been able to get some good reading done. Here are some of the books that have stood out for me this summer. Interestingly, much of what I've read recently ends up having a heavy emphasis on behavioral psychology. I didn't start out with that plan in mind. But, I'm glad I ended up there. It has given me some perspective on the world around me that is more nuanced. Combine this with my class on complex systems and it stirred up a lot of thoughts about how our world works - and sometime fantastically fails these days.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a book I actually began reading in late 2012. But, I finally managed the time to finish it off during my break.

This is a very dense book. Filled with much of what Kahneman has learned during his 40 years of psychology (which includes a Nobel prize in 2002.) It is built around an base idea that we have two dominant "systems" in our thinking. System 1 is akin to an automated pattern matching system that is fast and intuitive. System 2 is a slower more thoughtful and logical process. These two systems interact in a way that creates some unusual but very common outcomes and ultimately leads to "irrational" behaviors. He provides great detail and examples that dive into cognitive biases, overconfidence in decision making and and why we have so much trouble predicting what will make us happy. The insights are fascinating and a bit discomforting. I'm not certain I'll trust what I 'think' I know again or not. But, I ended with a healthy awareness of what causes people to make so many irrational decisions. It turns out that deep logical thinking is a small subset of how we use our brian. I doubt I'll be able to change that in myself (which the author basically confirms through a number of examples.) It will be helpful to at least understand what's happening around me.

Liars and Outliers

Liars and Outliers is the latest book by Bruce Schneier. I started following Schneier as I worked to understand the Patriot Act, NSA disclosures and what is happening with privacy on the Internet these days. I found him to be a thoughtful and rational voice that stays focused on the real issues and not on the sideshow stories. When I came across this book while wondering through a Denver Bookstore, I eagerly picked it up.

This wasn't exactly what I was expecting from the "internationally renowned security technologist." There was no detail on how to use technology to secure systems or analysis of where we've left exposures. Instead, it was a deep and thoughtful look at how trust is created and maintained in societies. It looks at the pressures that drive societies to follow certain norms of behaviors and limits defectors who work against those norms. Theses societal pressures come in the form of morals, reputations, institutional rules and security measures. It is a great model to understand how we are driven to align in society, where conflicts exist as we belong to multiple societies with competing objectives, how institutions/corporations/groups act as members of society and how the growth of societies from village-sized to global has changed the dynamics of trust. It was a great read and wonderful model to leverage as we start engaging on some of the new trust and security issues in front today's societies.

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