Monthly book roundup – 2017 November

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

Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (2015) by Doug Merlino. We follow the training and fights of four mixed martial artists from American Top Team, an elite  MMA gym, for two years. The four athletes are from different backgrounds and at different stages in their careers: “Mirsad Bektic, a young Bosnian refugee who started in karate as a boy in Nebraska, dreams of stardom. Jeff Monson, a battered veteran at forty-one, is an outspoken, tattooed anarchist enjoying a bizarre burst of celebrity in Russia. Steve Mocco is a newcomer–a former Olympic wrestler from a close-knit intellectual family. Finally there’s Daniel Straus, who, from a life short on opportunity, fights his way up to title contention.” They also embody different training and general lifestyles, with the veteran Monson being the most colorful character. He is also a tragic one, continually taking new fights and not accepting that his body, at 41, has started to decline. The book gives a good view of how varying the MMA scene and its practitioners are, and of the dangers of their profession. It is also clear on how demanding, like many other sports at the elite level, this profession is, something that is underlined by the title, where the word “Beast” is probably used somewhat ironically, ref. this paragraph towards the end: “The fighters, the good ones, knew that for all the strength they might have one day, the advantage may shift to their opponent the next time. These were men who trained six days a week, for years, to reach where they were. They had family and friends behind them, a team, a coaching staff-even, in the case of American Top Team, a financial benefactor. No one was really a beast. There were no superhuman powers. Everything was training, preparation, will, discipline, controlled aggression at the right moment. And ultimately, the making of champions happened in the quieter moments. It wasn’t just how hard you could punch, kick, or strangle someone, but how much you could sit with your fear and uncertainty and still keep going.” Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.


Make a reverse Advent calendar for your kids (or anyone) #2

Lessons from last year

Last year I wrote about making a reverse Advent calendar, based on giving rather than receiving. In terms of my kids’ enthusiasm, I would call it a measured success, however I still love the idea, and decided to make one this year also. What did I learn from last year?

  • Most importantly, the presentation of the gifts was a little dry, being basically fact-sheets about disease prevention, etc., with some very simple illustrations. I was aware of this last year, but accepted it in order to actually get it done. This year, starting from a base, it should be easier to do a little better.
  • The causes themselves probably seemed a bit distant from the children’s daily life, contributing to less than top-level engagement. That is an unavoidable problem with the causes I am most inclined to donate to, however, this year I also included tasks involving actually engaging in kind behavior on a more personal level.

Last year, the calendar had a gift only every other day. This year I kept that format for the monetary gifts, but filled in the rest of the days with more personal good deeds.

Monetary gifts

I wanted to employ the same effective giving strategy as last year, and since GiveWell have not changed their recommendations, that also saved me a lot of work. For further details about which charities to include and how to allocate between them, see last year’s post. The final list this year is as follows:

1. Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
2. Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), END Fund for work on dewormingSightsavers for work on deworming and Deworm the World Initiative
3. GiveDirectly
4.  Malaria Consortium for work on seasonal malaria chemoprevention
5. Development Media International produces mass media to promote improved health behaviors in developing countries.
6. Food Fortification Initiative and Project Healthy Children work to reduce micronutrient deficiencies through food fortification programs.
7. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)’s Universal Salt Iodization program and Iodine Global Network (IGN) aid salt iodization programs in developing countries.
8. Living Goods supports a network of community health promoters in sub-Saharan Africa.
9. Helen Keller International (HKI) – Vitamin A Supplementation (VAS) program
10. Red Cross
11. Doctors without borders
12. Amnesty Internationalxmascalendar_giftletters

I am currently working on making the documents presenting the charities a little more appealing than last year. To the right is how it looked then. Could probably do with some colors and perhaps a few personal stories and small cartoons.

Good deeds

This one was harder, as I had to come up with new items. I found some good ideas online, e.g. here. I tried to find activities that required some personal interaction, were quite easy, and could be a little fun. This is the final list, in no particular order:

  1. offer your help to 2 people
  2. leave a positive comment for someone on a mirror/wall/etc.
  3. ask someone who looks like they might be down if they are ok
  4. hug 3 people
  5. compliment a stranger on something
  6. say merry Christmas to 3 strangers, e.g. shop assistants
  7. send a postcard to someone
  8. send a message to a former teacher, etc. about something you appreciated with them
  9. give a compliment to 3 persons
  10. give a gift/gift donation or a general donation to the local poor house
  11. surprise a friend with a small treat
  12. when playing sports, compliment at least one person on something well done, even if it did not result in a goal, etc.

The final calendar

Below is a picture of how the calendar looked last year. I have not finished this year’s calendar yet, but I wanted to blog about it now in case I could inspire others to do something similar. Let me know if you want tips or some of my material to make a reverse Advent calendar yourself.


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.

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.