Monthly book roundup – 2014 January

Books finished in January:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)
(Extra warning: This time the list is really long, I do not know what happened.)

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank. Shallow (left-wing) criticism of bankers, politicians and in general the politics of the American recession. There are valid points there, but the author is not likely to convince anyone with his hysterical account (and voice-I listened to this as an audiobook).

The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created by William Bernstein. Fairly standard account of the world’s economic history since the industrial revolution. Starts with the value of John Harrisons’s newly invented chronometer (to compute longitude) to seafarers in the 18th century. The invention was the result of a prize offered by the British parliament to improve navigation at sea. Bernstein talks about four essential factors: property rights, scientific rationalism, effective capital markets, efficient transportation and communication needed for prosperity. First a little bit in 16th century Holland, then spread. Argues that the communication revolution took place with the electrical telegraph from around 1840-bigger change from before that than from the telegraph to internet. I liked the hypothesis that cheap cotton underwear lead to a decline in infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Repeated side remarks about less development in non-western cultures and the dangers of cultures crashing do not add to the discussion and just drag the book substantially down.

The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell. Short stories of people on the edge.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch.

What is wrong with American schools? Apparently, measurements become goals and people are not aware of their limitations, and so we might be better off without the measurements in the first place. This point should have come before over halfway into the book.

Ravitch was for many years a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education at the Hoover education. A co-member there was economist Erik Hanushek. Hanushek has done several appearances at the podcast Econtalk. In one of those episodes the host Russ Roberts asked if it might be a problem that people were “teaching to the test” and Hanushek responded that you just had to design good test, implicitly assuming that that was possible and actually done.

She tells a tale of murky politics arround the introduction of new methods. Difficult to assess. The critique of the foundations who give money to everyone is also not altogether well-argued, in my opinion. Huge variation in charter schools – both really good and really bad.

Catalogue of how tests can have bad consequences: overfocusing on narrow tests, overfocus on basic reading and math, as opposed to science, history, social science, civics, reduced emphasis on subjects not tested, reducing standards, selecting only those that one believes will do best, outright cheating, too hard sanctions, underemphasis of responsibilities of parents and students themselves, intrasparent value-added-schemes. Ravitch commits some inaccuracies regarding the usefulness of data when going through all this, but the case is largely well made: Measures often lead to overfocus on that which is measured to the detriment of other valuable things, and their limitations will typically not be recognised.

A book worth to read for those who are interested in basic education. I lacked one thing: A discussion of the value of testing for learning about teaching, i.e. without the accountability part. Sometimes it sounds like Ravitch believes that the dangers with tests are so great that they should be avoided whatsoever. However, whatever one’s opinion on test-based accountability, tests and measurements do have roles to play in providing information.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Martians come to earth and dominate. Humans, though they have adapted, must flee or be eaten. Classic.

Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto. Modern schooling is a tool for stifling thinking and controlling the masses. Endless examples of people without much formal education who have made it big, nothing about the failures. Reasoned critiques of the school system are valuable. This book is not.

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner by Martin Gardner. Gardner was the legendary writer of a column called “Mathematical games” between 1956 to 1981, and also a prolific writer on other topics. A keen and able magician, he seems to have come across many interesting characters through the magician community. Not a professional mathematician, but says that the fact that he struggled to understand what he wrote helped him “write in ways that others could understand (p 136).” Recommended.

Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done by Ian Ayres. How to use contracts with real incentives to reach your goals. The goals can be anything, from quitting smoking and losing weight to read more books, be on time or call your grandma more often. The key is to have a contract that says if you do not reach your goal, you will give money to a friend, a charity, an enemy, or teach a class wearing only a speedo. If the threat in the contracts is credible, it allows one to commit. The simplest contracts can be based on self-reporting and honesty, but often there is a designated referee and verifiable information involved. Ayres and Dean Karlan set up a website (stickK.com) that allows people to enter into these contracts. Dean Karlan tried to make voting contracts to enable people to make a credible promise to vote, but although effective, they did not catch on so far. Thomas Schelling was early into this field as many others, he wrote about self blackmail-writing a incriminatory letter to be published if the letter-writer was not drug-free at a later testing. These contracts do not solve every problem in the world, but the changes people actually use them for can make a big difference to them.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman. Small boy gets caught up with supernatural stuff. Book of the year of 2013 in the British National Book Awards. Not my style.

The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas by Robert Frank. Most of the explanations seemed trivial or silly. I put it down quickly.

Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century by Tony Judt.

Recommended.

Historian Judt’s essays about various people and themes of the post war period in Europe, often in the form of extended book reviews. Intellectual commitment or opposition to communism a red thread. Israel another. I guess the book is sort of like a supplement chapter to the big Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945 from 2005.

Believes today’s political squabbles are often foolish. Clear about the welfare state as “born of a cross-party twentieth-century consensus. It was implemented, in most cases, by liberals or conservatives who had entered public life well before 1914 and for whom the public provision of universal medical services, old age pensions, unemployment and sickness insurance, free education, subsidized public transport, and the other prerequisites of a stable civil order represented not the first stage of twentieth-century socialism but the culmination of late-nineteenth-century reformist liberalism. A similar perspective informed the thinking of many New Dealers in the United States (p. 10).”

Interesting thoughts on what is the relevant counterfactual for Italy – could it be that some of the inefficiency helped keep a fractious country together?

One great thing with Judt is that he is almost always criticizing all sides of a debate. But he clearly has much sympathy with what used to be the left. The last chapter is partly about how the left must come to terms with its own responsibilities for what went wrong in the 20th century to become a good alternative again.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

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