Author Archives: Øystein Hernæs

Monthly book roundup – 2016 February

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

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (2014) by Ashlee Vance. Interesting and engaging about a visionary entrepeneur in online payments (PayPal), electric cars (Tesla), space travel (SpaceX), and solar power (Solar city). Musk comes off as a brililant, vain, and eccentric control freak. It will be interesting to follow him further.

The Three-Body Problem (2014) by Cixin Liu. Chinese science fiction. Something about the narrative was unlike the (Western) science fiction literature I am familiar with. An interesting experience. The parts from the cultural revolution seemed caricatured, but maybe it really was like that then.

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio (2015) by Misha Glenny. Nem ends up as Don of the Rocinha favela in Rio. In Misha Glenny’s telling, Nem is more of a businessman than a criminal, and a provider of peace and prosperity, at least compared to other Dons. But several types of police, other gangs, and other dangers are always present in this corrupt world.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 January

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

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2002) by Roberty M Sapolsky. Very good book about baboons and humans. Written by an American working in Kenya. Probably very tiresome if you do not like the author’s sense of humour, but I found it ok, and really liked the book. Recommended.

Aurora (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson. Warning: Spoiler alert! Review: Aurora is a sceptical take on space exploration. A space ship and its inhabitants reach the “Earth analog” Aurora 160 years after leaving Saturn. When starting to terraform Aurora, they discover a deadly prion and give up the project. Most return to Earth, where they start to advocate that trying to establish human settlements on other planets is futile, because either such a planet is alive, in which case it will be poisonous, or it is alive, in which case it will take too long to terraform. The novel takes biological og sociological challenges seriously, but the position that societies of tens of thousands of people will not be large enough to survive and thrive long enough to terraform another planet or reach a suitable one seems puzzling, as many long-living tribes in human history have not been larger than that. Nevertheless, good to read something less optimistic and smoothly-going than many other accounts of space exploration (though the space ship people have their share of luck as well). Ends with a meditation of the value of the nature on Earth and the experiences it gives us, which even though space exploration is exciting, should not be forgotten.

The UnAmericans: Stories (2014) by Molly Antopol. Short stories about Americans with Eastern European backgrounds. Did not do much for me.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Most Norwegians do not ski

silly proposal to spend public money on giving everyone a type of sports equipment that in average can be used around one quarter of the year got me wondering how many Norwegian actually do ski. So I looked up some data from Statistics Norway’s survey on living conditions


Source: Statistics Norway

More than half the population skis at all, skiing (on the extensive margin) is clearly on a downwards sloping trend, but is free skis to everyone the solution? Given that skis can be obtained nearly for free already, perhaps interest is just not that high. Better to build out opportunities for all-year activity close to where people live, restrict time spent watching television, raise sugar taxes, and get more physical activity into school.

Television, Cognitive Ability, and High School Completion

That is the title of a just released working paper by Simen Markussen, Knut Røed, and myself. We show that access to commercial television channels during childhood and adolescence from the 1980’s onwards in Norway reduced cognitive ability scores and high school graduation rates of young men.

In a comment, Pat Sharp apologizes (true story! thanks to @JFiva).

Monthly book roundup – 2015 November

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

Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run (2011) by Matt Fitzgerald. Modern triathlon classic given to me by an old friend. Ranges from the ridiculous (Madam Pele…) to the sublime (the race). Fortunately, the good parts dominate. Recommended.

Seveneves: A Novel (2015) by Neal Stephenson. “The hard rain” might be the most awesome plot setting I have ever come across. The story itself, about a human society descending from seven Eves trying to survive in space, goes from the near to the far future, and like always with Stephenson includes lots of technology, economics and politics as well as becomes a little long-winded at times and has some ups and downs. But overall recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2015 October

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

A busy month with too much work.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010) by Wes Moore. Two Wes Moores from the same area in Baltimore, one becomes a Rhodes scholar and decorated army officer and writes this book, the other ends up in prison on a life sentence for murder. Though both were in trouble and had absent fathers, one had it generally worse, and I think the author underplays the difference in family backgrounds and circumstances between the two, especially when explicitly contemplating what made the difference. But despite the thin plot, the book does provides a view into life in a poor place in a rich country. Ok.


Ratings and old books are in the library.

“Can welfare conditionality combat high school dropout?”

I have a new working paper out, joint work with Simen Markussen and Knut Røed. Simen has written provocatively about the paper in the today’s Dagens Næringsliv, which is also running a companion piece. These are only in Norwegian (and behind a paywall), however, so here is a brief summary in English:

We investigate what happens when Norwegian social insurance offices increase their use of conditions would-be welfare recipients need to satisfy in order to receive welfare. Using the staggered introduction of this program and based on double and triple difference models, we find that such conditionality reduces the number of young people that receive welfare, and more importantly, increases the high school graduation rate. For young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, we find substantial and precise effects, whereas we find no effects on youth from more resourceful backgrounds, as expected. A few years later, we find that those who were exposed to new regime have more education, earn more, and are more likely to be employed. Thus even though activating these people may cost something upfront, it pays off in the long run.

The newspaper has an interview with a guy who got on track and gets some work experience through this system. Here is the abstract of the research paper:

Based on administrative data, we analyze empirically the effects of stricter conditionality for social assistance receipt on welfare dependency and high school completion rates among Norwegian youths. Our evaluation strategy exploits a geographically differentiated implementation of conditionality. The causal effects are identified on the basis of larger-thanexpected within-municipality changes in outcomes that not only coincide with the local timing of conditionality implementation, but do so in a way that correlates with individual ex ante predicted probabilities of becoming a social assistance claimant. We find that stricter conditionality significantly reduces welfare claims and increases high school completion rates.

Monthly book roundup – 2015 September

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

Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (2015) by Geoff Colvin. We are at the fourth turning point of workers (1. Industrial technology, 2. Electricity, 3. IT). Amazing advances by computers and robots. In stead of asking what computers can never do, ask what we will insist that humans do. Examples of the latter include roles of accountability for important decisions, like judges in court of law, CEOs, generals, other types of leaders; dealing with organizational issues where the conceptualization and nature of a problem keep changing; and areas where we want to look someone in the eye, like a doctor (this one puzzled me, given the advances made by computerized diagnosing). All this assuming society still run by humans, and that cyborgs that look perfectly like humans have not come into being. The value of empathy in forgin interpersonal connections. Good examples of the value of practice, often in various forms of simulations, from the military. Colvin makes the claim that human teams are still key, however the amassed evidence is here a bit short on causal relationships. Luckily this is not a trait running through the book. Recommended.

Guantánamo Diary (2015) by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Writing in 2005, Mohamedou Ould Slahi from Mauritania tells the story of how in 2001 he was detained by Mauritianian authorities, transferred to Jordan, then Afghanistan, then in 2002 to Guantanamo, Cuba, where he has remained since. It is difficult to evalutate a book like this, both because the author has obious incentives to represent his story in a certain way, and because the other side does not go out with all they supposedly know. It is hard to not be moved by his story, though, and the reasonableness with which he describes his situation, himself, and his guards. The New Yorker and the Guardian have good reviews. Recommended.

Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy) (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer. An expedition sets out to explore the abandoned, mysterious “Area X”. Too much horror/fantasy for me. Not recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2015 August

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

Apex: Nexus Arc Book 3 (2015) by Ramez Naam. Action-filled conclusion to Naam’s Nexus trilogy (Nexus, Crux, Apex). Against a backdrop of geopolitics, drug policy, fear of the unknown, development policy, and human rights, transhumans, AI, and humans clash. The first book (Nexus) provided the basic “science fictional” elements, here we see how these play out on the political scene, with its many actors with different motivations. Recommended.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (2014) by Steven Johnson. Popular history of six innovations: Glass, cold (refrigeration), sound (recorded), clean (hygiene), time, light (artificial). Ideas that went through several phases and continually changed societies and opened up new possibilities and unintended consequences. A wealth of stuff to learn, but pay attention, otherwise things will go past you, as happened to me on this reading. Nevertheless recommended. Apparently also a TV series, favorably reviewed by Cory Doctorow.

Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A long letter from the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son about being black in the United States. From slavery to today’s frequent killing of black men, by other blacks, police, and others, “black bodies” have been or been in the danger of being “taken”. Coates is pessimistic and despairing, even though the US of today is surely an improvement from slavery, and from even 50 years ago. However, his aim is neither to count the successes, nor discuss policy, but to emotionally tell (his son) how bad he thinks the situation still is, and how he sees today’s wrongs as a continuation of the past’s. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Basic income pilot in Finland, headed by top economist

Via MarginalRevolution’s assorted links and others, a short BBC article about a pilot project in Finland on universal, basic income. Economist Ohto Kanninen, coincidentally a fellow student of mine from graduate school, describes the project:

The prime minister has expressed support for a limited, geographical experiment. Participants would be selected from a variety of residential areas.

Mr Kanninen proposes testing the idea by paying 8,000 people from low income groups four different monthly amounts, perhaps from €400 to €700.

They also have the Prime Minister on board:

Prime Minister Juha Sipila has praised the idea. “For me, a basic income means simplifying the social security system,” he said.

This sounds really exciting, and I cannot wait to see the working paper.