Monthly book roundup – 2017 October

Books finished in October:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro. Very good about nontraditional forms of humans from the recent Nobel prize recipient. Ishiguro treats abstract questions about the human condition and what should count as humans in this appealing novel mostly set in the English boarding school Hailsham. Recommended.

Part Reptile: UFC, MMA and Me (2017) by Dan Hardy. For die-hard Dan Hardy or UFC fans, this book is a must-read. For others it is more mixed. It offers a fine portrait of a hard-working mixed martial artist with a varied upbringing and background not afraid to speak his mind, and a view into the mma scene in the UK and the US. However, for someone without a special interest, the material is probably not rich enough for the book to avoid becoming repetitious and too long. Recommended for the fans.

iGen: The 10 Trends Shaping Today’s Young People – and the Nation (2017) by Jean M. Twenge. Twenge, a psychologist, has written an exemplary social science book – mainly based on large amounts of quantitative (survey) data, and illustrated by and supplemented with information from interviews. (So she could be forgiven the occasional reference to Roy Baumeister, who made a fool of himself in the debate around the replication crisis in psychology.) She is also commendably careful when discussing causality, something that is very far from the norm in popular social science writing. Recommended.

The book is about iGen – the generation born after 1995, who is the first to have had access to smartphones their whole adolescence. Twenge thinks that has been mostly negative, leading to time away from in-person socializing, intense social comparisons via social media, too much weight on appearance and an unhealthy focus on sexy or even nude pictures from a very young age, and sleep loss and mental health issues. It is hard to disagree. Other characteristics of iGen is that they seem to grow up slower than before, reaching several adult milestones like having a job, getting a driver’s license, sex, alcohol, marrying, getting children, years later than earlier generations; a perverse occupation with safety and not offending anyone, leading to extreme willingness to censor unpopular views; concerns about economic insecurity; very high tolerance with regards to LGBT, gender and race issues.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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Television, Cognitive Ability, and High School Completion, forthcoming in The Journal of Human Resources

One and a half years ago, I blogged about a working paper by Simen Markussen, Knut Røed and myself showing that access to commercial television channels during childhood and adolescence reduced cognitive ability scores and high school graduation rates of Norwegian men. Now, a substantially revised version is forthcoming in The Journal of Human Resources. (Preprint here.) The effects appear to be driven by consumption of light television entertainment crowding out more cognitively stimulating activities.

Bears repeating: Pat Sharp tweets an apology (thanks to @JFiva).

Monthly book roundup – 2017 September

Books finished in September:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We like to Watch (2015) by Jonathan Gottschall. Unfit professor of literature in his late 30’s starts MMA training, goes a proper fight in the end. A very simple plot, but it works. Gottschall is prone to overgeneralizations, but that does not concern the essence of the book. The book is a good introduction to MMA for people who do not know much about it. Recommended.

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (2017) by Ben Sasse. Sasse, a Republican Senator in the US, is concerned about the state of the nation’s young. Especially that they are not driven and independent enough, but expect everything handed to them. He recognizes that people have always had such concerns, and emphasizes that today is different. I am not so sure it is, but that is not important, as any time needs to find its own answers anyway. He advocates for the important role parents have in fostering a work ethic and a broad intellectual outlook in their offspring – with which it is hard to disagree – but ducks the question of what to do for all those whose parents shirk this responsibility. Overall the book has too much generalization, e.g. about “the young” or “the past,” idolizes the past too much, and places far too much weight on old institutions like religion and marriage. Overall, this review ended up sounding more negative than I intended, perhaps because it gets worse towards the end, so let me be clear that there is good material there as well, and even if the virtues he writes about at times feel like motherhood and apple pie, it may be that they are worth re-emphasizing today.
Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 August

Books finished in August:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (2017) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Entertaining and interesting. Maybe jumping to conclusions a little fast, e.g. Obama lost four percent of votes in areas with racist searches. He often takes google searches to be random samples of people’s thoughts, which they are not, and often does not seem not to worry about selection in who searches and why. Fun: seeming breastfeeding wife fetish in India, vagina smell most searched by women, English vs Spanish autocomplete with pregnant wife; but could discuss more what drives results.
Falsifiable Freud: phallos shaped fruit like banana and cucumber not more common than other fruits and vegetables in dreams. But this does not really falsify, everything may mean something. Better on Freudian slips – typing errors with sexual connotations not unusual compared to random. But a Freudian will presumably still believe it does mean something when a human commits such an error… The book loses focus somewhat when starting to talk about big data generally. Good and sober section on the dangers and desirability/fairness of using big data information to assess loan applications etc. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Can Welfare Conditionality Combat High School Dropout? Forthcoming in Labour Economics

Two years ago, I blogged about a working paper on conditions for welfare and high school completion by Simen Markussen, Knut Røed and myself. The paper is now finally accepted for publication and is forthcoming in Labour Economics. The final version is here, freely downloadable until the beginning of October. An updated working paper version can be found here.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 May

Books finished in May:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Peripheral (2014) by William Gibson. Inspired to read this by this review by Henry at Crooked timber. However, despite as always getting a lot of praise from knowledgeable people, yet again I found a Gibson book too complicated and hard to get into and follow to enjoy. I did not get too much out of it, but if you usually do, you will probably like this one too.

The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game (2015) by Sam Sheridan. Sheridan interviews athletes in psychologically demanding sports about their mental game. Mostly fighters, in jiu-jitsu, mma, boxing or wresting, but also ultrarunner David Horton. Everyone is driven in some way, but what stands out is how people use different strategies and find motivation in different ways. There may be some commonalities, like humility and a willingness to learn. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 April

Books finished in April:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Sapiens (2015) by Yuval Noah Harari. Long history from Noah Harari. Great intro observing that “a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures (p. 11)” are insufficient as an explanation for humans’ now dominant position, as “humans enjoyed these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures.” Humans were in the middle of the food chain until we jumped to the top quite recently, with no ecological checks and balances on our power. Harari is clear that he sees agriculture as a trap increasing the number of people at the cost of lowering the standard of living. Nobody agreed, but who would volunteer to starve to go back? Another (well known) observation is how recent much of what modern geographically based culture culture is – e.g. only recently did tomatoes come to Italy and horses came to the Americas with the Europeans. Relatedly, it is always good to be reminded of both the breadth and the contingency of practices and norms. I was not aware that Columbus never realized he had not come to India and that America was named after Vespucci who was one of those who said that one did not know which country it was. There is much material on how myths/fictions keep humans cooperating, like religion, rights and the legal system, the limited liability company. Recommended.

American Psycho (Audible Modern Vanguard) (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis. Reread because of the yuppie protagonist Patrick Bateman’s idolization of Donald Trump, though it turned out that the Donald did not figure that much. Bateman is a mix of different traits, like style advice, intelligence, obsession with looks, status and what and where to eat (but has never cooked anything), both atrocious and politically correct opinions, with the psycho part shining through at times, increasingly so during the book. Despite often being erudite and knowledgeable, above all Bateman is superficial. Is that because he is the product of (American) consumerism? He is definitely shaped by it, but another culture would likely produce/shape another type of monster, so I do not think that proves anything. There are many funny scenes in the book, like giving money to a beggar that is really a student, a particular Diet Pepsi recommendation and bringing up serial killers in casual conversations. Recommended? Not sure.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.