Surprisingly Undervalued Books

I saw ‘Moneyball’ recently. It’s about a baseball coach who takes on a failing team and turns them into a huge success. His method? Acquire players who seem terrible, but are actually good. In other words, find undervalued baseball players.

This got me thinking about books. I’ve read some great books recently which I wouldn’t have heard of by reading ‘best of’ lists or going through an A-Z of the classics. In almost all cases, I heard of them through bloggers or forums. Yet I consider these to be some of the most important books I’ve read so far.

These books don’t look like they’ll be worth much on the surface, and turn out to be really great. They’re undervalued.

I’m not necessarily talking about obscure books/authors here. I’m talking about the ratio of how good the book is to how good you expect it to be. These are the outliers, the ones that most people don’t talk about very much or haven’t heard of, and yet turn out to be profoundly brilliant.

One interesting pattern these books display – with the caveat that this is a very small sample size – is that they’re generally in a particular niche. ‘Impro’, for example, is disguised as a drama book but turns out to be a book about education philosophy, creativity, the theory of narrative and the role of status in human interaction; ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ looks like a tennis instruction manual and turns out to be a book about Zen, the ‘two selves’, and other things.

I’d love to find more of these. So if you know of any, please email me, Facebook me, tweet me, whatever.

The list so far:

1. ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone. Learning certain sets of concepts – like Newtonian mechanics, calculus, comparative advantage – changes the way you see the world. ‘Impro’ gave me at least a piece of the set of concepts for understanding human interaction at a conscious, theoretical level. Yet it’s a totally unpretentious book about improvisational drama.

This is probably the book I’d recommend the most from this list to the average person.

2. ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by Timothy Gallwey. This is supposed to be a book about getting better at tennis, but only one chapter is devoted to the actual mechanics of tennis. Instead, it’s a great instruction manual on emotion, stress, Zen Buddhism, and achievement. Frankly, it blew my mind.

You can get a taste it it in this brilliant video with Alan Kay, but it’s only a fraction of the kind of thing you’ll find in this book.

3. ‘The Philosophical Investigations’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is probably the book with the most ‘classic’ status of the bunch. I find that it’s thoroughly undervalued by philosophers, though, who see it as an arcane and eccentric work of little value. And ordinary people don’t bother reading it, probably for good reason: it’s a difficult thing to read. However, spending the time to understand it is hugely rewarding.

Ironically for a book ignored by most philosophers, it contains the answers to a lot of their questions, and the method for answering all of them.

4. ‘Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenter / Seymour: An Introduction’ by J.D. Salinger. I was tempted to put ‘Franny and Zooey’ here too, but I think it has enough devotion that it’s disqualified. This collection of two stories by Salinger, however, is much less well known. Yet I’d put this in my fiction top 5. I must have read Seymour: An Introduction about 20 times.

I’ve recommended this to a few people and only one other person has liked it as much as I do. Most people didn’t get it. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that.

5. ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ by Stephen Booth. If you don’t get poetry, read Stephen Booth. Maybe you’ve read some poems and really like them, but you can’t articulate exactly why beyond just gesturing. Booth gives a definition of why poems are good that is, I think, objective enough that you could develop a computer-generated index of the goodness of a poem out of it. Not everyone will agree with it, but I’ve found it works really well. Wikipedia has a good list of some of his stuff online here.

6. ‘Principles‘ (pdf) by Ray Dalio. Dalio’s a hedge fund manager – the most successful one in the world. His firm, Bridgewater, is known for being radically transparent: every meeting is recorded and recordings are available to anyone (so I could access the recordings of a meeting between two managers discussing my feedback, for example).

This is good reading if you’re in business and want to understand what makes a good company culture, and how to solve problems. It’s also good reading in general, because Dalio has a relentlessly rational, critical take on things and it’s good for people to see that kind of mind at work. He talks a lot about how to achieve things as well, which is always useful. His advice here is better than any self-help book.

7. ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards. Again, this blew my mind. I sucked at drawing as a teenager, and this book taught me how to do it. She specializes in teaching people to draw competently over short periods of time using what I can only describe as extremely clever hacks.

In the process, the book also taught me that (a) with hard work and the right methods, you can learn most things, and your barriers are probably mental; (b) ‘bad’ drawers don’t look at the thing itself and draw its shape, they translate reality into abstract concepts first and then draw what that concept visually looks like, and a great way to prove this (and hack the process) is to copy a drawing upside down; (c) seeing things as they really are is harder than you think.

8. Ray Carney: not naming a particular book here. Like the other books here, his writings seem to be just about films, but if you read them deeply enough they turn out to be a recipe for more than that – in this case, how to be a good, empathetic human being. He got me into John Cassavetes, which alone makes him worth the read. His writings on film are amazing. You can find a bunch of them via Wikipedia.

I actually don’t expect most people to like the books on this list – that’s just a sober prediction. To me, though, that’s a good sign. If everything I liked was what everybody would like, then I’d have something to worry about.

How To Learn

  1. A person won’t become proficient at something until he or she has done it many times. In other words, if you want someone to be really good at building a software system, he or she will have to have built 10 or more systems of that type.
  2. A person won’t retain proficiency at a task unless he or she has at one time learned to perform that task very rapidly. Learning research demonstrates that the skills of people who become accurate but not fast deteriorate much sooner than the skills of people who become both accurate and fast.

– Philip Greenspun

Are There Objective Probabilities?

Apparently, the All Souls exam is the hardest in the world. Whether that’s true or not, the questions are interesting, and answering them is a good mental challenge. In this series I intend to do that – without looking at anything external.

The first question is taken from the paper Philosophy I, here.

Let me begin by describing two opposed answers to this question, based on intuition. I will then combine these intuitions into a view which honours the right in both, while avoiding any confusions.

Suppose, at time t, there is a box and it contains, with probability 0.5, a marble.

Intuition 1: Objectively, measuring the state of the world at t, the marble is under Box 1. Before opening any boxes, I conclude that the marble lies under Box 1 with probability 0.5. After opening box one, however, I conclude that the marble lies under Box 1 with probability 1.

Nothing about the world has changed except that I have observed something. The probability has changed because of this observation. But an objective thing is something about which my observations and subjective state of knowledge cannot possibly make any difference. Therefore, there cannot be any such thing as an objective probability.

Intuition 2: At time t, if it is true that the probability of the marble being under a given box is 0.5, then if I guessed randomly, I would be correct one out of two times on average.

This simple observation gives me objective, usable knowledge about the world. Consider a game in which there are 100 boxes, each with 0.5 probability of containing a marble. I have to guess how many of these boxes actually contain a marble – call my guess N. I guess, then I lose £|(N-X)|.

In this game, my dominant strategy – i.e. the strategy which minimizes |N-X|, my loss – is to guess ‘50’ every time. This is an empirically demonstrable result – someone who disbelieves this is welcome to play the game and guess ‘1’ or ‘2’ instead of ‘50’ and observe the outcome. If an intelligent alien changed my brain such that I mistakenly believed that the probability was, e.g., 0.01, then that would not make the probability 0.01. The fact that the probability is 0.5 is completely independent of whether or not any particular mind believes that it is 0.5. But this is the definition of an objective truth. Therefore, probability must be objective.

How to resolve this paradox?

We have proven, informally, that:

  • Probability is mind-independent, i.e. probabilities do not depend on someone believing in them to be true (objective)
  • Estimated probabilities can change based on the state of knowledge of the observer (subjective)

Objective things are mind-independent. A rock does not depend on someones observing that rock; it exists whether or not someone is there to observe it. Moreover, if a rock is an igneous rock, then it is an igneous rock regardless, once again, of whether someone is there to observe it.

However: my estimation that the rock is igneous, depends on my state of knowledge about the world; or, in Bayesian terms, myprior. The probability estimate can change as I discover new facts, e.g. that the rock has a glassy texture or displays layering. Moreover, the fact that I believe that the probability is X, is not a fact about the world, it is a fact about my mind.

Does that mean that anything goes? Obviously not. The probability of a fair coin landing heads is 0.5. Provided that I know all the facts, I cannot change this probability by changing my beliefs. If I could, then we would witness people winning the lottery, or poker, at will. Clearly, this is not the case.

To sum up: probabilities are (a) true or false, (b) regardless of what I believe about this probabilities. Estimated probabilities (c) depend on the prior knowledge of the mind in question. Moreover, (d) the fact that the probability is X is a fact about my mind.

Based on these facts, it is wrong to conclude either that probability is subjective or that probability is objective. For example, traits a and b are features of things we call objective, but traits c and d are features of things that we call subjective.

We know all the facts. Telling us that it is subjective or objective gives us no additional information, nor does it lead to any differing expectations about reality. (Like the old question: if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? It depends on whether your definition of sound includes ‘someone hearing it’, or whether it’s just ‘acoustic vibrations’. That’s it. There’s no factual disagreement here, it’s all at the level of language rather than the world.)

Probability has conceptual features from both classes, so some composite label would be best, if a label were necessary. As it is, neither ‘subjective’ nor ‘objective’ will do.