Author Archives: Oeystein Hernaes

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.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 March

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

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J. D. Vance. Growing up a poor hillbilly in the US. Vance is able to hold the views of both individual responsibility and lack of opportunities in his head at the same time, which makes for a thoughtful and intelligent book. Vance made it despite difficult circumstances, but considers that to be the case mostly due to two caring grandparents, in particular the grandma, and several other strokes of luck along the way, which contributed to him making some good choices. Recommended.

Moonwalking with Einstein (2011) by Joshua Foer. A history of memorization and a how-to book (though for a better introduction to the techniques, I recommend Oddbjørn By’s book Memo, in Norwegian or English) through the journalist Joshua Foer’s adventures in “mental athleticism”. Draws the long historical lines of how culture used to depend only on internal memory – in people’s minds, whereas today so much relies on external memory, in the form of books, etc. People forgot that after books became commonplace, to the extent that the theory that Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus had the form that they did (repetitions, rhymes, etc.) because they had survived long as oral works was groundbreaking. Today it is people with memorization as a hobby who keeps that flame, calling themselves “mental athletes.” I knew the basic of the person-action-object method, which is used to memorize numbers, but I learned something new about memorizing text: meaning vs. words. In real life meaning is most important and suffices, but in memory competitions exact wording and punctuation, etc. are essential, so competitors assign each word to a route and have systems of fixed associations for common, hard-to-visualize words, and use similar-sounding words for not so common ones. The book also contains an exposé of celebrity savant Daniel Tammet, who seems to have been a quite good mental athlete with standard techniques, but who at some point switched careers (and name) to become a best-selling author and exotic savant who among other things (inconsistently) feels numbers’ color, shape, etc. Recommended.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin. Science fiction novel exploring the relationship between men and women and its impact on society through the plot of a man from Earth visiting a planet where people are androgynous. More exciting than it sounds. Recommended.

Too Like the Lightning: Terra Ignota, Book 1 (2016) and Seven Surrenders (2017) by Ada Palmer. Reading these was occasioned by the CrookedTimber book event on them. One of the participants there describe them as weird. I agree. The novels are set in the year 2454, but refer mainly to ideas and writers from the (18th century) Enlightenment, and are also written in an archaic style. The plot contains implausibilities such as a tiny group of strange and sophisticated leaders largely controlling the world and religious elements. Perhaps these are just part of getting various ideas across, which seems like the goal of the novels, but readers like me are somewhat put off. The books are getting rave reviews, e.g. in the aforementioned book event, but do noe appeal strongly to me. Probably recommended for some, but I do not know who.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 February

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

Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert. Classic soft science fiction, with focus on politics, some economics, intrigue and personal relationships, even though we are in space. Clever, cynical use of religions and mysticism. Even if one thinks it too fantastic and mystic, one has to appreciate its grand epicness. According to Wikipedia, Dune is claimed to be the best-selling science fiction novel in history. Not sure I will follow up on the whole saga (five more books by Herbert, then 13 more by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson), but this first one is definitely recommended.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) by Richard Bach. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is not like the others of his Flock, he does not care for shrieking and fighting for every breadcrumb from the fishing boats, but rather spends his time learning more about and perfecting his flight. Inspirational? Yes. Banal? I do not think so. I remember I liked the book as a kid, and now reading it to my son I still found it enjoyable. The book has received a lot of bad reviews and critiques for being shallow and too simple. Of course self-improvement and following one’s passion are not the only values in life, but they are still important concepts, and any way the story also focuses e.g. on helping others. And Jonathan’s passion – flight – even has practical applications. Some passages may appear with a religious tone, butI think the book has more in common with fantasy, perhaps because there is no subordination to a god, just some fantastical elements.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2016) by Michael Lewis. The friendship between and work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The intense, personal relationship between the outgoing, charismatic polymath Tversky and the reserved, self-critical, uncertain Kahneman is the red thread running through the book, and perhaps receives a bit too much attention, in my opinion. But their work, which arguably launched the field known as behavioral economics is also present. Mostly on how people, dumb and smart, layperson and expert, make systematic errors in reasoning. The book is inevitably somewhat asymmetric in that it contains a lot of commentary by Kahneman, but not Tversky, who died of cancer in 1996. I was prepared to mention Kahneman as a fallen hero, after his unthinking denial of the critique of priming studies in Thinking fast and slow, but true to how he is described in the book, he has now publicly admitted his error.

Den som har begge beina på jorda står stille. Eller: Alveolene kommer! (1974) by Tor Åge Bringsværd. Background: The window of my office fell out for some reason. This reminded my colleague Ole Røgeberg of a passage from an old book by Norwegian author Tor Åge Bringsværd about the authoritarianism of doors and how one should rather enter through windows as a protest. Naturally, I had to go look up that passage. It is on pages 83-84:

Alveolene kommer! Dører og vinduer, s 83.84.

Alveolene kommer! Dører og vinduer, s 83.84.

The book itself, a novel dealing with anarchist themes, is way too digression based for me, but the door-window passage is fantastic.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) by Cal Newport. Deep work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are ard to replicate.” Shallow work: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Stated like this, few would argue about the value and desirability of deep work. The hard part is actually doing it.

The first part of the book is about the value of deep work and how its conditions are deteriorating for modern knowledge workers, largely because of electronic communication and social media.

I was also already convinced about the importance of committing to and planning for deep work, which is what the second part of the book is about, but it helps hearing someone else say it clearly too. Part 2 is organized under the headings of four general “Rules”: 1 Work deeply, 2 Embrace boredom, 3 Quit social media, 4 Drain the shallows. That is fine, but more helpful are the small practical tips that are scattered in the text, such as: scheduling time for distraction-free deep work time, possibly amounting to a certain number of hours each day/week/month; set a fixed, relatively small quota for shallow work and schedule also that time; related, schedule time for internet/phone/email, etc., and for surprises/delays; keeping (visual) track of deep work time or small achievements; formally shutting down the workday at some point; practice concentration/focus with a hobby such as memorization, chess, etc. The tips are not always consistent, such as taking braks and constantly think about a hard problem while doing other things, but I think that is ok, everyone needs to experiment and find what works for them. Recommended if you, like me, need a push, but it should also be possible to just do it.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 January

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

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (New Edition) (1995) by Neil Gaiman. A classic of the graphical fantasy field. Though no fan of fantasy in general, I do believe having a go at the classics of any field. And I can definitely see the appeal of this work about Sandman/Dream/Morpheus getting captured by mere humans and the trouble that gets him into. However, even though this novel mainly sets the scene for the several later volumes of Sandman, I probably will not pick them up, I just like more realistic (less magical) stuff.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 December

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

Skyfaring (2015) by Mark Vanhoenacker. Book about flying by a pilot. Often engaging to hear people talk about their passion-there should have been a little more of that here. One learns many interesting things-like inertial system and the gyroscope to measure rotation (not mechanical, a laser gyro, where a light is put into a closed path in two directions, and if the two beams do not meet at the exact opposite point, it is because aircraft has rotated) and head and tail wind at takeoff (headwind beneficial, because it gets the plane quicker to the airspeed it needs to be airborne). Short article by the author based on the book at Vox. Ok.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 November

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

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2011) by Atul Gawande. Another good book from Atul Gawande. Details the usefulness of checklists in medicine, piloting, and construction work. Everyone is liable to make simple mistakes and oversights, especially under high pressure, and checklists well adapted to their users and contexts help avoid that. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Make a reverse Advent calendar for your kids

SOS Children’s Villages Norway have a project for schools that they call a reverse Advent xmascalendar_giftletters2calendar, in which pupils collect funds every day and learn about the organisation’s projects. I think that is a great concept, combining doing some good, letting kids join in the do-gooding, and teaching them something about the world at the same time. I wanted something to implement at home for my 8-year old, however, and when I did not find anything, I decided to make my own.

I felt that to prepare something for all the 24 days before Christmas eve would probably require too much work to do it properly, and would also risk turning the reverse calendar into a chore, so I decided to go for every other day. I wholeheartedly support the thinking behind GiveWell’s strategy of efficient giving, and therefore took as a basis the seven top charities from GiveWell, combining three of those working on deworming to create three groups:

1. Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
2. Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)
3. END Fund for work on dewormingSightsavers for work on deworming and Deworm the World Initiative
4. GiveDirectly
5.  Malaria Consortium for work on seasonal malaria chemoprevention

I added four groups from their six Other Standout Charities (GiveWell’s descriptions):

6. Development Media International produces mass media to promote improved health behaviors in developing countries.
7. Food Fortification Initiative and Project Healthy Children work to reduce micronutrient deficiencies through food fortification programs.
8. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)’s Universal Salt Iodization program and Iodine Global Network (IGN) aid salt iodization programs in developing countries.
9. Living Goods supports a network of community health promoters in sub-Saharan Africa.

That made 9 charities in total. I also wanted to have represented some well-established charities that my son might have heard of or come across himself, and that I believe do important work but that for various reasons are not able to cut it in the kind of evaluation that GiveWell performs. Thus for the final three I chose:

10. Red Cross
11. Doctors without borders
12. Amnesty International

For each charity, I prepared a one-page document presenting some of the charity’s work xmascalendar_giftlettersin simple language and with some illustrations. (Tip: The organisation Effektiv altruisme, which bases its recommendations on GiveWell, has material available in Norwegian about some of the top charities.) I wanted each donation to be presentable as a round number, and since giving NOK 100 per day had some salience, I settled for an average of NOK 200 (€22) per gift. I ended each document with the words “We give X kroner to cause/charity”.

GiveWell recommends prioritizing the Against Malaria Foundation because they have the most valuable current funding gap, so I decided to allocate 900 NOK to them, 200 to the other four of the top five, and 100 to the rest.

All the envelopes were with Christmas stickers and hung from the curtain pole. The first picture above shows how it looked in the end.