Monthly book roundup – 2019 April

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

Exit West: A Novel (2017) by Mohsin Hamid. We follow the conventional Saeed and the rebellious Nadia as they become a couple, experience civil war break out in their country and eventually flee abroad through “magical doors”. Their country is never named and is probably intended to function as any country with these experiences, but it is easy to think of Syria. I was sceptical of the magical aspects, but the magical doors seem just to be a metaphor for escaping and getting refugee status in a rich country, which Nadia and Saeed are able to obtain. In London, and later in California, they try to make a new life for themselves, not without challenges. There is no high politics in the book, only the everyday experiences of Nadia and Saeed. This works well and gives a (short) impression of the lives of the thousands of refugees in the Western world today. Recommended.

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (2014) by Jack Waitzkin. Josh Waitzkin is something as unusual as a (former) elite chess player and a world champion in a (no-bullshit) martial art. In this book, he tells about his strategies for learning and dealing with challenges in these endeavors. Waitzkin’s story is interesting in itself and many will probably take away some things they can use for themselves. He thinks focusing on chess openings in an early learning stage leads to an unhealthy focus on simply winning as opposed to learning and mastering the game and that it is better to learn the endgame first. At one stage, he was distracted by noise, etc, but then learnt to play with them and practiced with loud music. Interval training good to improve recovery from exertions and release tension. Has a fairly detailed exposition of how he worked with a guy, “Dennis”, working in finance to develop a “hot button” for focus: First, combine a cue with good feelings with something one has been in the desired state when doing, combine several times to strengthen, then use as trigger for focus at work or in other arenas. First long routine, then shorten gradually. Learnt to ignore emotions, then to use them. Use temporary setback, e.g. injury, to develop other, perhaps surprising areas. Many of Waitzkin’s strategies are nothing new, but he also does not present them as revolutionary, what is interesting is how he has applied them to perform at high levels. And, as mentioned, his story is interesting in itself. At the end, I learnt that he is also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, further strengthening his credibility. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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Monthly book roundup – 2019 March

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

Educated: A Memoir (2018) by Tara Westover. Tara Westover (b.1986) grew up in a survivalist mormon household in Idaho. She did not go to school as a child because her father was opposed to much of the outside society, even most other mormons. The family also did not go to doctors or hospitals or used other government services, relying instead on the mother’s herbs and homeopathic medicine. Tara’s father and eldest brother have mental health issues and are increasingly abusive. At 17, Tara manages to attend university, which, with many ups and downs, she greatly benefits from and likes. Mental problems are the real problem in the family, but they are allowed to be som because of their religiosity, which insulates them and prevents them from getting help, either from professionals or even the mormon society. The book is so perfectly dramatic and well told that it is sometimes too good to be true. Highly recommended.

The Last Days of August (2019) by Jon Ronson. Sad story about the suicide of porn actress August Ames. Mental health problems in various forms. Jon Ronson always readable.

The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2018) by Martin Gurri. A story of how increased availability and spread of information, through social media, blogs and other internet media, is changing the world, leading to a “slow-motion collision of two modes of organizing life: one hierarchical, industrial, and top-down, the other networked, egalitarian, bottom-up.” The first part of the book is good, documenting the above view by going through events such as the Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street, various European protests, in particular in Spain and Italy. Many of these are protests and revolts against the establishment (governments, old media, experts) without a clear program of their own. Indeed often seeming to protest anything. Gurri is afraid of the “nihilism” implied by this. However, shallower analysis later on, e.g. simplistically about whether the US stimulus money “worked” or not, though it is true that the economy is complex and not as predictable as many believe, and repeated, vitriolic attacks on Obama (“sectarian prophet”). Some interesting threads drawn also to Trump, Tsipras and Macron, promising to drain the swamp and being elected on discontent. Not recommended, despite strong recommendation from Noah Smith.

Et fritt liv (2018) av Simen Tveitereid. Selvbiografisk fra Simen Tveitereid om hvordan han og kone og barn flytter fra Oslo og overtar familiens småbruk på sørlandskysten. Der jobber han delvis fortsatt som skribent og delvis som småbruker og er veldig fornøyd med at han får vært mer ute i naturen og holdt på mer med praktiske prosjekter. Jeg liker påminnelser om slike muligheter og erfaringer, men for meg blir det mer interessant mot slutten av boka, når tvilen om hvorvidt valget er det riktige kommer fram, sammen med vurderingene om alt det middelmådige og ineffektive han driver med. Forfedre på gården spilte f eks gjerne på lag med teknologien. Allikevel, anbefales.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 February

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

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) by Cal Newport. Digital minimalism. Newport argues that social media, smartphones and increased connectivity through the internet are mainly distracting and have lead to an increasingly noisy world. Like e.g. slot machines, social media provide intermittent, unpredictable reinforcement when we check for updates and are designed to be addictive. I am largely convinced and like many have struggled to keep these technologies from interfering with both work and leisure. Newport has a good diagnosis of the problems and has many helpful practical tips. (Although it is slightly ironic that he e.g. advocates reading, which is an earlier technological innovation also breaking with evolution.) He advocates a “digital decluttering” to get rid of the distractions. Specifically, he recommends taking 30 days off most modern communication technologies, then gradually reintroducing some of them. An important point is that before doing this, it is good to fill up with high quality activities that we wish to do more of to fill the void left by modern media. This could be doing something with friends and family, reading, exercising, a hobby, etc. Many of his anecdotes about others suggest that after some time off, social media do not appear that interesting any more. A tips I am going to try is to schedule specific time for “low quality/simple tasks/leisure” such as social media, email, texting, reading blogs, etc and only do those activities at those times. Another is putting your phone away to avoid temptation to check various updates. Among his other tips are setting up “conversation office hours” – fixed place and times when you talk to people and are social, walking more, starting projects for using one’s hands for useful purposes, such as changing car oil, install ceiling mounted light fixture, learn something new on an instrument you know, building something from good lumber, starting a garden plot. He also claims that board games are becoming more popular. To an economist, a discipline he sometimes is critical of on the basis that it purportedly advocates jumping on anything offering any bit of benefit, it is somewhat annoying that he evidently does not know that opportunity cost, in particular of time, is an essential element of economics. Newport champions being more frugal with new technologies than I imagine being, but is clear that people need to evaluate their own needs. Recommended.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018). Kiese Laymon has many experiences I do not have, of racism growing up as a black boy in the US south, of severe over-eating, obesity, anorexia, physical abuse and gambling. So many and different from mine are these experiences that I believe that I cannot truly understand him. Yet, I must try or at least try to learn about them, why else would he write a memoir such as this. He writes well and the book is engaging. Recommended.

The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays (2018) by Wesley Yang. Essays about a minority group that I at least have heard relatively little from or about, apart from regularly being held up as an example of immigration going well – people with South-East Asian background. Yang makes it clear that Asian-Americans also have various forms of racism and other challenges to struggle with and that not everything is good. The racism they experience is often less overt than racism against blacks. Stereotypes about Asians being obedient, lacking in initiative and boring is a big issue. Yang is often ambiguous about these things, giving the impression that he both feels that they contain some truth while at the same time thinking them, or at least their application, unfair. The best essay is the first one, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho”, where Yang ponders the question of whether he could have done what Cho did and what role being Asian-American played. Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. The other essays deal with anti-Asian racism and animus in other ways. I read the book after reading a glowing review from Noah Smith. Recommended.

Dyrene i Afrika (2018) av Erlend Loe. Skjende for å bevare. Det er planen til en gruppe mennesker som finner sammen i sin søken etter å finne en måte å bidra til å redde “dyrene i Afrika” på. En romantisk drøm, en håpløs, håpløst utført plan full av egeninteresser. Som mange drømmer og måter å bidra på når det gjelder klima- og miljøproblemer i den virkelige verden? Historien blir litt over the top, men er morsom innimellom hvis man liker Loes stil. Anbefalt for fansen.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 January

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

Vareopptelling (2013) av Erlend Loe. Underholdende og iblant ettertenksomt om lyriker som tar ærlig og dramatisk oppgjør med både seg selv og sine kritikere. Vanskelig å tenke seg annet enn at det er Loes egne tanker som skinner gjennom i jeg- personens og omgivelsenes ambivalente syn på fortellerens karrière og kanskje forfattergjerningen generelt.

Fvonk (2011) av Erlend Loe. Bok om vennskap mellom en mann som har litt å slite med etter å ha vært innblandet i økonomisk medlemskapsjuks (“ukultur”) og en statsminister som trenger litt tid borte fra rampelyset. Ikke så engasjerende.

Dette livet eller det neste: roman (2017) av Demian Vitanza. Roman basert på opplevelsene og fortellingene til fremmedkrigeren Tariq. Boka er strukturert som en samtale der bare den ene partens svar vises og basert på intervjuer forfatteren Demian Vitanza har gjort med Tariq i Halden fengsel. Grunnen til at Tariq sitter der er at han i 2015 ble dømt for å ha planlagt terrorhandlinger og ha støttet terrorgrupper i Syria. Ifølge boka stemmer ikke dette, der får vi stort sett høre om at han jobber som frivillig med å frakte mat, medisiner og syke og at han aldri er med i noen gruppe. Imidlertid er Tariqs motiver for ikke å fortelle om mer alvorlige ting så åpenbare, og diskuteres til og med i boka, at det er vanskelig å holde det at historien han gir kanskje ikke er sann mot boka. Oppveksthistorien og radikaliseringsprosessen blir derfor mer interessant. Tariq har foreldre med pakistansk bakgrunn, men ender opp som mye mer radikal enn dem, og med nesten bare venner med annen utenlandsk bakgrunn. Han virker ofte reflektert og gjennomtenkt, noe som er givende for fortellingen og kanskje et utgangspunkt for hele prosjektet. Det gjør det også ekstra vanskelig å vite hva han “egentlig” tenker, men det må man akseptere. Anbefales.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 November

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

Slutten på verden slik vi kjenner den (2015) av Erlend Loe. Doppler vender hjem. Opp- og nedturer. Flere interessante situasjoner når han er tilbake i hjemlige trakter enn på reise i Sverige, som i Volvo lastvagnar. Absurditeten historien, som ikke er det mest interessante, tas et hakk opp med Dopplers tilværelse som kokk og pornoskuespiller i København. Anbefalt, men Doppler, første bok i trilogien er den viktigste.

Stille dager i Mixing Part (2009) av Erlend Loe. Jeg prøvde hardt å se forbindelsen til Andreas Doppler gjennom hele boka, men selv om det var enkelte elementer jeg kunne se en linje gjennom, fikk jeg det ikke helt til å stemme. Jeg fikk meg derfor en god latter da jeg fant ut at “Stille dager i Mixing Part” ikke var tredje bok i trilogien om Andreas Doppler, men derimot var sin egen frittstående roman. Vi følger en dramaturg og hans familie på ferie i Tyskland. Ikke alltid så spennende å følge handlingen, men en god del komiske scener redder boka.

Volvo lastvagnar (2005) av Erlend Loe. Doppler fortsetter sitt liv i skogen, denne gangen i Sverige, hvor han møter to mennesker som får stor påvirkning på tilværelsen hans. En liten nedtur fra første bok om Doppler, ikke like morsomt denne gangen, men vi får tro det er en reise han må gjennom(?). Forfatteren opptrer litt for aktivt i teksten etter min smak. Anbefalt, for man vil jo følge Dopplers veier.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 October

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

Doppler (2004) av Erlend Loe. Doppler slår seg i hodet og skjønner at han må flytte fra kone og barn og ut i skogen. I skogen lever han alene, forsøksvis i en jeger/sankertilværelse, men diverse hensyn, primært behovet for skummet melk, gjør at han holder seg i nærheten av sivilisasjonen. Etter hvert får han også selskap av en elg og forskjellige mennesker. Doppler forfekter et nobelt syn om at naturen er for alle, men stjeler også uten hemninger fra både andre mennesker og butikker. Han får det for seg at “flinkheten” er den store samfunnsfienden, men her vil jeg si at han forveksler flinkhet med materialisme og statusjag. Dopplers tanker og tilværelse får en til å tenke seg og gir mye både å kjenne seg igjen i og ikke å kjenne seg igjen i. Ikke minst er boka også morsom. Anbefales.

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are (2018) by Robert Plomin. Popular science book about DNA. Fascinating material, often based on twin studies. No doubt DNA is powerful, however, one is left with a few question. For instance, it is not clear how much variance the estimated genetic propensities explain, even if they are predictive. And there are many unqualified statements about the importance of genes, with the point that it is in narrowly defined populations and environments only underlying. Should be kept in mind regarding statements about parents/schools/X “matter, but do not make a difference”. And the social sciences have found many environmental and institutional effects. The book has also been forcefully criticized by fellow scientist Eric Turkheimer on is blog, both for lacking references and for more fundamental errors – it is by now unclear how that will unfold.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Activation against absenteeism – Evidence from a sickness insurance reform in Norway, published in Journal of Health Economics Volume 62, November 2018, Pages 60-68

Or why you should take courses that are not for credit and do presentations in class.

In the spring of 2015, I followed a course in microeconometrics at the Department of Economics at the University of Oslo to learn some more econometrics. As part of the course, the students had to present published papers employing the methods from the course. I volunteered to do two such presentations, that both ended up as papers of my own!

For my first presentation, which was on the synthetic control method (SCM), I asked the instructor for that lecture, Tarjei Havnes, if I in stead could present an application of my own. I did not know much about the SCM from before, but in the lecture I noticed that it would fit very well to a recent sickness absence reform in a Norwegian region I had head about from Knut Røed, a colleague at the Frisch Centre. The fact that the seminar schedule was on a few weeks lag from the lectures gave me some time to implement a basic analysis of the reform and put together a presentation. The subsequent positive feedback in the seminar motivated me to develop it into a proper paper, which is now just published in the Journal of Health Economics. The paper if of course much extended since that seminar, but the core remained the same.

The reform in question was a program undertaken by the Norwegian region of Hedmark in 2013. It was aimed at strictly enforcing a requirement that people on long-term sick leave be partly back at work unless explicitly defined as an exception. I found that the reform reduced sickness absenteeism by 12% in the reform region compared to a comparison unit created by a weighted average of similar regions. Thus, making use of the partial work capacity of temporary disabled workers has the potential to reduce long-term absenteeism and bring down social security costs. 

A key graph is below, showing how actual absenteeism in Hedmark (solid line) after the reform diverged from the estimate of absenteeism in the absence of reform (dashed line): 

Fig. 1. Trends in the sickness absence rate in Hedmark and the synthetic control region. Note: The dotted line at the fourth quarter of 2011 indicates the final quarter of the matching period. The dashed line at the second quarter of 2013 indicates the period in which the activation program was introduced.

    The effect is driven by both increased part-time presence of temporary disabled workers and accelerated recovery. Musculoskeletal disorders was the diagnosis group declining the most. I conclude that such an activation strategy represents an alternative to traditional attempts at welfare reform involving stricter screening or reductions in generosity, and may be more compatible with already existing legislation and obligations, as well as easier to find support for across political priorities.

    The paper is freely available for a month here.