Author Archives: Øystein Hernæs

Monthly book roundup – 2016 September

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

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (2012) by Jon Ronson. Based on Ronson’s earlier magazine articles and interviews, but still very solid, like all his work I have read. The common theme is various strange people and events. Entertaining, but somewhat easy to forget since the pieces do not relate to each other.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2013) by Christopher Hayes. Meritocracy created insulated, partly corrupt, elites in a wide variety of institutions, elites that are out of thouch with and reach of the rest of society. There may be something to that, but I am not sure how much. Ok.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

“Is there really an empirical turn in economics?”

The recent “empirical” turn in economics should be known as an “applied” one and it is just one in a long series of related developments. Moreover, it is a move towards the historical roots of the discipline. Those are some lessons from Beatrice Cherrier‘s essay “Is there really an empirical turn in economics?“. Based on research conducted together with Roger Backhouse, she takes issue with the idea that there has been a revolution in economic research involving empirics. Some points I liked:

  • Empirical work has been live and well, what has changed is its recent larger role in top journals. Besides, the view of theory as dominating in economics is based on looking only at the last 50 years – pre- and immediate post-war economics used to be a lot more empirical.
  • Much theory has become more applied, often involving data. And John Bates Clark medal citations stress “applied,” often taken consisting of a mix of theory and empirics.
  • Increasing availablity of data is a development that has been ongoing since at least the 1960’s. Hype around and criticism of new, large sources of data were the same in the 1970’s as today.
  • Computerization is overrated, much modern empirical work is computationally and numerically very simple.
  • Oscar Morgenstern (of von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior fame) proposed that to become a fellow of the Econometric Society, it should be a requirement to “have done some econometric work in the strictest sense” and be “in actual contact with data they have explored and exploited for which purpose they may have even developed new methods.”

H/t: Erwin Dekker.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 August

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

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal. de Waal’s perhaps biggest point is the continuity of abilities between humans and other animals, and he makes the case well for a wide range of abilities, like memory, forward looking behavior, problem solving, tool use, various social skills, and animals (in particular apes, monkeys, birds, elephants). That is perfectly plausible to me, so I did not need convincing on that point, but I was fascinated by the ways other animals, in particular chimps, do better than humans on some traditional cognitive tasks. Examples are the extremely quick memory of chimps (short video, a little longer) and the fact that chimps may remember solutions to tasks/puzzles years later once they have learned it. A quibble: de Waal often appears unnuanced when writing about other fields, and sets up straw-men to argue against, which is not that interesting. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 July

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

Interface (2005) by Frederick George and Neal Stephenson. Political near future sci-fi thriller. Media operator Cy Ogle takes political polling to a new level, using continuous tracking of people’s emotions to fine-tune political messages. Add to that the ability to control the messenger (the politician), and he has a powerful mix to serve the interests of the Network. Cory Doctorow’s repeated endorsements were what drew me to the book in the first place. Doctorow saw the part about the politician Earl Strong as the prediction of the rise of Donald Trump. I am not so sure, Earl Strong is a minor character in the book, and, unlike Trump, is undone quite quickly in his political ambitions. We could certainly use some real life Eleanor Richmonds, however I doubt that she would have been enough to stop Trump. I liked the book, but would not go so far as Doctorow in calling it a “masterpiece”.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 May

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

Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum (2015) by Gavin Francis. I tend to think of medicine as a depressing subject, since so much of it is concerned with something that is sick or wrong. Gavin Francis offers another perspective: “The practice of medicine is not just a journey though the parts of the body and the stories of others, but an exploration of life’s possibilities: an adventure in human being.” A doctor with wide experience, Francis has many adventures to speak of. This is not a big idea book, but a series of small, interesting stories about how the bodies we all inhabit work. Throughout there are references to history and literature, for instance when we read that the hand is less delicate than is often thought and that the palm can be perforated by a nail without interfering with the rest of the hand’s functioning, we also learn that since the palm is not strong enough to support the body’s weight (a nail would tear through), cruzification could not work by nails alone, and nailing in Roman cruzification probably was probably only through the heel. The most fascinating story, and the one which gives most hope for the future, is the one about how “benign paroxysmal positional vertigo” (BPPV) was cured. This well-known condition gives severe, debilitating nausea, and had been proposed explained in various ways throghout history. It was not until the 1980’s, however, that one John Epley came up with the hypothesis that the cause was tiny, loose particles in the inner ear. Epley’s cure was a series of movements of the head to physically roll these particles away from the problematic areas in which they were perceived as body movements. Medical progress without drugs or any invasive procedure. Unfortunately that may not be representative, though that is not the topic of this book. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Of luck and “failures”

Robert Frank writes in the Upshot that “Chance events play a much larger role in life than many people once imagined.” Maybe so, but this piece is poorly argued. Frank is first quoting some small marginal effects, like time of year birh effects and author order effects. These factors probably play a role, however, in absolute size I am pretty sure they are dominated by other non-random factors. Being born in the right country is a good example, though.

This reminds me of Johannes Haushofer‘s “CV of Failures,” which made the rounds in the blogosphere and several newspapers earlier this year. (He got the idea from a piece by Melanie Stefan.) He writes in his CV of Failures:

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

I like this a lot, and kudos to Haushofer (and others he references as having done the same thing), but of course he is doing this as a hugely succesful guy. His actual CV lists PhDs from Harvard and Zurich, academic positions at Princeton, Harvard, and MIT, along with publications in top journals. What about the “failures”? Several other top schools and papers rejected at AER, QJE, Science, …

This point is that although there is some randomness along the way, it is not random or due to luck that Haushofer have accomplished a great deal.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 April

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

The Affinities (2015) by Robert Charles Wilson. Near future science fiction. New methods enable mapping people into “affinities”-collections of like minds maximizing the potential for cooperation. These groups of course become rivals. Recommended.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (2009) by Robert Charles Wilson. Did not finish. It feels like Wilson wanted to write a clichéd, predictable, traditional fairytale/adventure in an unlikely post-apokalyptic setting (though not really apokalyptic, the world has simply come down from previous, excessive consumption fuelled by oil) as some kind of experiment, but I just got bored. Not recommended.

This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon (2016) by L. Jon Wertheim. Mix of solid research and more speculative stuff about various phenomena related to sports. Easy to follow, and easy to forget. Ok.

Diaspora: A Novel (1997) by Greg Egan. Forms of post-humanism. I enjoyed the parts that I could follow, which were not too many, due in large part to a crappy audiobook edition.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Ironic debunking

Who Will Debunk The Debunkers? Daniel Engber asks in a fascinating piece at fivethirtyeight. He tells the story of “meta-skeptic” Dave Sutton, who has made it his specialty to doubt other doubters’ explanations. The first few paragraphs, about iron, prove the point that a good debunking is often too clever. Likewise with Semmelweis – the received version is probably too simple. Finally, Sutton comes off as somewhat of a megalomaniac when it comes to his work about Darwin, providing yet another layer to the story.

“Cover at last your nudiness, and do as SINA says”

Those words were part of “The Ode to Decency,” the theme song of The Society for the Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), and were addressed at animals. For a good laugh, listen to this presentation of the organisation by its president. Alan Abel must (deservedly) be well-known to many, but for me he was a new acquaintance. He was brought to my attention by Priceonomics.

The Official Organ of SINA. Source:

Monthly book roundup – 2016 March

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

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2015) by Alice Goffman. Chronicle of black, poor, and mostly criminal lives in Philadelphia in the 2000’s. I knew that On the Run had met with some criticism, however, the book had also received glowing reviews, some of which from the unlikely discipline of economics (Tyler Cowen), which has a reputation for seeing all other social science as inherently inferior. Chris Blattman’s recommendation in particular drove me to read it anyway. And it is an engaging and gripping book, telling about the tough life of a community of poor, black people living on “6th Street,” squeezed between crime and gang violence on the one hand, and ruthless, immoral, and illegal police on the other. After finishing it, I looked up the criticism in more detail. It is pretty damning. Faced with charges of inconsistencies, and even data fabrication, she appears to have had very little to say. (Paul Campos 1, 2, 3). Apparently, this is a book about how things may be and what Goffman has heard or imagined. Based on true stories, but not documentably true. Alper quotes the telling description of the research project Goffman is currently working on, which ends with “The ideas come out of field notes, but most of the examples in the text come from novels and non-fiction.”

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2013) by Oliver Burkeman. Tired of the self-helg genre’s focus on positivity in all ways, Burkeman writes a self-helt book about the power of negative thinking. Already a reality-oriented sceptic, I guess I never needed persuasion. It is nice to hear about Eipcurus, stocicism, and serious forms of mindfulness, but overall the book was not extraordinary to me. Ok.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015) by Bryan Stevenson. Powerful account of the work of Bryan Stevenson to provide legal assistance to people wrongfully convicted, or convicted on the wrong basis. The case of Walter McMillian runs as a red thread through the book. McMillian spent six years on death row on the basis of made-up charges by the police, before he was cleared in 1993, thanks to the work of Stevenson. Everyone in the book is not innocent like McMillian, but they are all poor and unresourceful in the court system. Sentencing children as adults, prison abuse, racial bias are important themes. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.