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Lowy Institute's books of the year, part 1

Lowy Institute's books of the year, part 1
Published 10 Dec 2013 

In the lead-up to Christmas, we offer Lowy research staff selections for the best book they've read this year.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. Selected by Michael Fullilove, Executive Director.

Richard Flanagan’s new novel is magnificent. It is, at times, grim. But it contains profound insights on war, the Australian character — and, most importantly, love. On Remembrance Day I interviewed Richard at the Lowy Institute on the themes of his book. The audio of the interview is available on the Lowy Institute's website.



The Circle, by David Eggers. Selected by Rory Medcalf, Director, International Security Program.

This novel is nothing less than 1984 for 2013, and I have barely wanted to go near my Facebook account since. What reads at first like a satire of life on the Google campus becomes something much grimmer — and frighteningly believable. It is a funny, dark page-turner about social media gone mad — or carried to its logical conclusion. It’s about world domination, with an emoticon smile. It’s about what happens to your mental health when you feel the need to answer every email, favourite every tweet. It’s about the workplace as prison; about what happens to your soul when you discover the true nature of your surrounds only at the point where you know you can’t escape. And most of all it’s about the perils, indeed the evil, not of secrecy (the global Left’s villain of the moment) but of something much more dangerous to civilised coexistence and personal freedom — absolute, blundering, pitiless transparency.

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Nate Silver. Selected by Marty Harris, assistant digital editor.

In 2008, Nate Silver correctly predicted the electoral college result in 49 of 50 US states. In 2012, it was 50 out of 50. He’s perhaps the world’s best known psephologist.

Published before last year’s presidential election, The Signal and the Noise looks at humankind’s predictive capacity in fields as diverse as earthquakes, economic growth, climate change, baseball, and, of course, election results. In the era of ‘big data’, Silver outlines the difficulty of identifying trends in the huge amounts of available information, and separating statistical evidence from prior assumptions and bias.

The biggest take-out for me is the need for pundits to more explicitly indicate the levels of uncertainty in their forecasts, particularly in economics. The chapter ‘How to drown in three feet of water’ demonstrates both the toughness of predicting economic growth rates, and how forecasters and the media often undersell uncertainty: ‘experts either aren't very good at providing an honest description of the uncertainty in their forecasts, or they aren't very interested in doing so.’

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