Author Archives: Oeystein Hernaes

Monthly book roundup – 2020 January

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

The Basque History of the World (1999) by Mark Kurlansky. Started the book because of a friend living temporarily in the Basque Country. Interesting how the Basque how preserved a distinct own culture for so long. I would guess at the cost of a lot of internal norms/pressure. A high degree of religiousness. Lost interest after a while. Did not finish.

Open: An Autobiography (2009) by Andre Agassi. Grew up with a tennis-obsessed father and a lot of pressure. Became a prodigy, but did not have it easy. Reacted by rebelling against some of the structures, understandably. From the book seems to have calmed down as time passed, but hard to judge only from his own words. Agassi is open about his life, as the title promises, and I enjoyed the book despite not following tennis. A little long for my taste. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 December

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

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (2017) by Tim Harford. Great pop history, as always from Harford.

1 The Plough – huge consequences, agriculture became more efficient, more people could be fed and cities could form.

I. Winners and Losers
2 Gramophone. Winners take all. Bowie’s prediction in XX that music would become like running water or electricity much correct.
3 Barbed Wire. Helped enable settling the West in the US, good for settlers, not for Indians. Locke’s argument that labor working land made the worked land property, (Indians had not “improved” the land) a factor, but I guess did not make a practical difference.
4 Seller Feedback
5 Google Search
6 Passports
7 Robots
8 The Welfare State. Liberated women and others.

II. Reinventing How We Live
9 Infant Formula
10 TV Dinners. Liberated women? From having to make the dinners.
11 The Pill. Liberated women more, though the effects maybe a little overstated in the book?
12 Video Games. Debatable whether labor supply actually impacted.
13 Market Research
14 Air Conditioning
15 Department Stores. Liberated women?

III. Inventing New Systems
16 The Dynamo
17 The Shipping Container. Made global trade much more efficient.
18 The Barcode
19 The Cold Chain. Fruits, vegetables, meat and other easily spoilable good could be traded and specialized in worldwide.
20 Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick
21 Billy Bookcase
22 Elevator

IV. Ideas About Ideas
23 Cuneiform
24 Public-Key Cryptography
25 Double-Entry Bookkeeping
26 Limited Liability Companies
27 Management Consulting
28 Intellectual Property
29 The Compiler

V. Where Do Inventions Come From
30 The iPhone
31 Diesel Engines
32 Clocks
33 The Haber-Bosch Process-high pressure combination of nitrogen and hydrogen -> ammonium. Haber contributed to feeding people through fertilizer and killing them through chemical weapons and did not support the career of his talented wife, who killed herself 14 years into their marriage.
34 Radar
35 Batteries
36 Plastic

VI. The Visible Hand
37 The Bank
38 Razors and Blades
39 Tax Havens
40 Leaded Petrol
41 Antibiotics in Farming
42 M-Pesa
43 Property Registers

VII. Inventing the Wheel
44 Paper
45 Index Funds
46 The S-bend
47 Paper Money
48 Concrete
49 Insurance
50 Lightbulb

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 August

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

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life (2018) by Leigh Sales. Stories about how people deal with bad things happening in their lives, typically the disease/death/near death of someone close to them or themselves. Most people get over it some way or another. Read because of some related work I have done on post-traumatic growth (as opposed to stress). Ok.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 July

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

A Boy in the Water: A Memoir (2018) by Tom Gregory. Tom Gregory in 1988 became the youngest person ever to swim the English channel, at 11 years and 330 days, swimming it in 11 hours and 54 minutes. The book documents his close relationship with his old-fashioned, demanding, warm-in-his-way coach John Bullet and the training leading up to the crossing. Recommended.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019) by David Epstein. A super interesting book. In contrast to people who claim that early specialization is the key to success, Epstein argues for breadth, or range. Having previously written on sports, he starts off noting that even there, late specialization is more common than early and the best ones have often practiced many different sports when young. Though it is not clear to me that much of this is not just due to some people being talented at many sports or unusually engaged in sports. The evidence that late specialization is better also in other domains sounds more convincing, e.g. later specializers finding better fit for skills and personality and thereby catching up earningswise to early specializers (based on research by Ofer Malamud analyzing variation in the timing of specialization in college brought about by differences in the school systems in England and Wales and Scotland). People switch to better fit and bring experience. Also, a head start in closed skills does not matter in the long run gains of early childhood interventions tend to fade out (Duncan et al.). Early sampling is the key. In general, the fact that child prodigies and savants do not tend to dominate most arenas should also be taken as indications that early specialization and practicing the most are not necessarily the best path to success.

Contrasts the Roger (Federer-late specializer) vs. Tiger (Woods-early specializer) models to stardom. Both may work, but an important complimentary factor is the environment. Epstein follows the psychologist Robin Hogarth’s differentiation between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments. In kind environments, “patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid,” while “In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both (pp. 20-21).” Golf and chess provide quite kind environments, whereas dynamic ballgames, such as tennis and football, and indeed most sports, are much more wicked. (Side note, Tiger’s father claims that early specialization in their instance was also child driven.) E.g., repetitions allow chess players to learn to “chunk” groups of pieces on a chess board together, something that accounts for their seemingly superhuman ability to remember whole chess boards quickly and accurately. This is also related to the failure of IBM’s Watson to live up to the hype that it would solve cancer–oncology is a wicked domain full of open-ended questions, while kind Jeopardy has much more structure, data and rules and the answers are known. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman expressed it as domains in which one could find robust, statistical regularities vs. others.

Many high achievers also have other interests than their specialty. That is interesting, though quite anecdotal. Epstein thinks that the benefits of specialization are greatly exaggerated even in music. Many greats played many instruments and not only their first one.
Higher education is another arena of increasingly early specialization. James Flynn is one that has attacked this and who thinks critical thinking should be taught more. Fermi questions might be a good way to practice–somewhat far-fetched questions without a clear answer that one needs to make assumptions and try to attempt to answer.

There are also some tips for one’s own learning to be had in the book: Hing-giving when practicing is counterproductive, better to try oneself and maybe make a mistake. Though this is different with motor skills, where good form/technique can be important to learn well from the start. Spacing and distributed practice and interleaving good for retaining knowledge. Mixed practice better than block practice (same type of questions together).

The book becomes more and more anecdotal towards the end. Epstein praises the “outside” view as a way to obtain realism. E.g. with infrastructure projects. This seems a little romanticized–most problems are solved by insiders and most outsiders are not like Kepler inventing astrophysics. Breadth is supposed to be good in comics, surgery and flights are kind environments. Elsewhere, we must beware of becoming so attached to our tools that we do not abandon them even whey they hinder us, like firefighters dying running from fires while still holding on to heavy tools. Tetlock’s forecasting studies supports being a generalist is good. Dan Kahan thinks experts cherry pick details that fit their all-encompassing theories.


Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Weekly hours of television and internet consumption in Norway 1991-2018

A couple of days ago, I blogged about time spent watching television and video by different age groups in Norway. Of course the issue of internet immediately popped up, so I made this graph showing both time spent watching television and time spent on the internet:

With regards to total screen time, note that these graphs leave out time spent watching video tapes and dvds and time spent on computers, electronic games and mobile phones without using the internet.

Time spent watching TV and video media in Norway 1991-2018

Inspired by a tweet by Gray Kimbrough graphing changes in television and video watching in the US between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s for various age groups, I decided to follow up with a similar figure with Norwegian data. Gray showed that in the US, people aged 45 and older increased their watching substantially, while younger people decreased it at least to some extent. In Norway the picture was somewhat different – there was very little change for the oldest groups, but the youngest ones reduced their watching by much more than in the US.

Part of the reason for making the graph was to learn how to use the pcarrow option in Stata, which I accomplished, however, I found that in this case with only five groups, a simple line chart may actually provide more information and be preferable:

Monthly book roundup – 2019 May

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

Why We Fight: One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring (2019) by Josh Rosenblatt. Another book by an intellectual type that finds himself drawn to fighting, takes up mma and writes a book about it. The book had been better had the author been less pompous and self-important, but it does manage to tell his story, which is valuable and may be inspiring to others, even if not unique. Recommended.

Fairyland (2016) by Paul McAuley. Near future science fiction about genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Despite the promising setting and topic and strong recommendations, this is the second McAuley book I have given up on. Not sure why, I just seem to lose the thread, maybe it is the writing style that is too complicated or otherwise not suitable for me.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.