Author Archives: Øystein Hernæs

Monthly book roundup – 2018 July

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

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2013) by William B. Irvine. Introductory book about stoicism and its value as a philosophy of life. The book serves both as an elementary history of stoicism and an introduction and guide to stoic practice (or at any rate the author’s versions of these). Irvine repeatedly battles the supposed negative connotations of the word “stoic,” which I do not recognize, but I guess that is his experience. To me it was good that the he also spends quite some time marking out the differences between the stoics and the cynics. E.g., I learnt that the cynics placed a much heavier emphasis on asceticism. The concrete advice on various stoic techniques for a good life I found the most valuable:
-Negative visualization the most important tool. Visualize loss of relatives, friends, material goods etc. Makes us appreciate what we have more.
-Things that happen to us are relatively insignificant- realize by imagining our reaction if that had happened to others.
-Think about that an experience might be the last – enjoy and concentrate on it more.
-Sometimes actually lived as we had lost various things. Both prepares us specifically and for deprivations in general.
-Wait for need to arise before satisfying it. E.g. thirst.
The suggestion that we should set as goals as that what we already have, I find somewhat problematic. Being happy with what we have is often good, but may deter improvements and good developments. The counter-argument that a stoic should still strive and has a duty to be useful and not seek fame and fortune, but maybe gain it as a side effect, is somewhat unsatisfying. Recommended. (H/t: Marc Andreessen.)

The Wild Shore: The Three Californias Triptych, Book 1 (1984) by Kim Stanley Robinson. Life in a small fishing village in 2047 in an isolated US which has been the target of a nuclear attack. A realistic if somewhat boring portrait of life in such a village, which would presumably resemble life in similar villages 100 years ago, and getting in contact with the wider world. Not recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 April

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

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (2018) by Charles C. Mann. Two approaches to growing population and increased pressure on various resources: Wizards see innovation technological and scientific solutions, Prophets believe in restraint and cutting back. These two schools are represented by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution (in particular the development of higher-yielding crops) and William Vogt, one of the founders of the environmentalist movement. A good book that contains a lot of what should be common scientific knowledge, however, it is fairly dense at times and one needs to really pay attention to get the material. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to do that at the moment, perhaps another time. Recommended for those who have the ability to pay attention.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 March

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

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (2017) by Malcolm Harris. Argues that today’s adolescents and young adults spend too much time and effort on homework and building a resumé in order to get into college and get a job, and then only obtain precarious employment when eventually in the labor market. These are valid concerns for at least some young people today, however, the book’s hysterical tone, over-generalizations and lack of nuance do not do the author, nor the understanding of and thinking about solutions for these challenges any favors. Not recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 February

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

The Years of Rice and Salt (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson. People being reincarnated between different “realms” in an alternate history novel. Perhaps I could have worked more on this book, but I am not such a fan of these things, so I put it down quite quickly.

Nutshell (2016) by Ian McEwan. Love triangle. I did not relate to the characters, who could have done with a more even distribution of sympathetic traits. The plot with a fetus as storyteller was mostly weird. Did not finish.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 January

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

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: A Novel (2017) by Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson. It takes a lot to get stories of time travels to work, and this book does not make it. Too much that is not realistic and indeed fantasylike in my opinion. I quit it about halfway through. Not one of Stephenson’s best.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2017 December

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

Tenth of December: Stories (2013) by George Saunders. Short stories. The most memorable one is The Semplica-Girl Diaries, a tragicomic story of a short-sighted couple making a mess of things also published in the New Yorker. Key ingredients of that story are the eponymous (human) Semplica-girls. Funny and serious. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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).