Category Archives: Books

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.

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.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 April

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

Exit West: A Novel (2017) by Mohsin Hamid. We follow the conventional Saeed and the rebellious Nadia as they become a couple, experience civil war break out in their country and eventually flee abroad through “magical doors”. Their country is never named and is probably intended to function as any country with these experiences, but it is easy to think of Syria. I was sceptical of the magical aspects, but the magical doors seem just to be a metaphor for escaping and getting refugee status in a rich country, which Nadia and Saeed are able to obtain. In London, and later in California, they try to make a new life for themselves, not without challenges. There is no high politics in the book, only the everyday experiences of Nadia and Saeed. This works well and gives a (short) impression of the lives of the thousands of refugees in the Western world today. Recommended.

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (2014) by Jack Waitzkin. Josh Waitzkin is something as unusual as a (former) elite chess player and a world champion in a (no-bullshit) martial art. In this book, he tells about his strategies for learning and dealing with challenges in these endeavors. Waitzkin’s story is interesting in itself and many will probably take away some things they can use for themselves. He thinks focusing on chess openings in an early learning stage leads to an unhealthy focus on simply winning as opposed to learning and mastering the game and that it is better to learn the endgame first. At one stage, he was distracted by noise, etc, but then learnt to play with them and practiced with loud music. Interval training good to improve recovery from exertions and release tension. Has a fairly detailed exposition of how he worked with a guy, “Dennis”, working in finance to develop a “hot button” for focus: First, combine a cue with good feelings with something one has been in the desired state when doing, combine several times to strengthen, then use as trigger for focus at work or in other arenas. First long routine, then shorten gradually. Learnt to ignore emotions, then to use them. Use temporary setback, e.g. injury, to develop other, perhaps surprising areas. Many of Waitzkin’s strategies are nothing new, but he also does not present them as revolutionary, what is interesting is how he has applied them to perform at high levels. And, as mentioned, his story is interesting in itself. At the end, I learnt that he is also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, further strengthening his credibility. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 March

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

Educated: A Memoir (2018) by Tara Westover. Tara Westover (b.1986) grew up in a survivalist mormon household in Idaho. She did not go to school as a child because her father was opposed to much of the outside society, even most other mormons. The family also did not go to doctors or hospitals or used other government services, relying instead on the mother’s herbs and homeopathic medicine. Tara’s father and eldest brother have mental health issues and are increasingly abusive. At 17, Tara manages to attend university, which, with many ups and downs, she greatly benefits from and likes. Mental problems are the real problem in the family, but they are allowed to be som because of their religiosity, which insulates them and prevents them from getting help, either from professionals or even the mormon society. The book is so perfectly dramatic and well told that it is sometimes too good to be true. Highly recommended.

The Last Days of August (2019) by Jon Ronson. Sad story about the suicide of porn actress August Ames. Mental health problems in various forms. Jon Ronson always readable.

The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2018) by Martin Gurri. A story of how increased availability and spread of information, through social media, blogs and other internet media, is changing the world, leading to a “slow-motion collision of two modes of organizing life: one hierarchical, industrial, and top-down, the other networked, egalitarian, bottom-up.” The first part of the book is good, documenting the above view by going through events such as the Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street, various European protests, in particular in Spain and Italy. Many of these are protests and revolts against the establishment (governments, old media, experts) without a clear program of their own. Indeed often seeming to protest anything. Gurri is afraid of the “nihilism” implied by this. However, shallower analysis later on, e.g. simplistically about whether the US stimulus money “worked” or not, though it is true that the economy is complex and not as predictable as many believe, and repeated, vitriolic attacks on Obama (“sectarian prophet”). Some interesting threads drawn also to Trump, Tsipras and Macron, promising to drain the swamp and being elected on discontent. Not recommended, despite strong recommendation from Noah Smith.

Et fritt liv (2018) av Simen Tveitereid. Selvbiografisk fra Simen Tveitereid om hvordan han og kone og barn flytter fra Oslo og overtar familiens småbruk på sørlandskysten. Der jobber han delvis fortsatt som skribent og delvis som småbruker og er veldig fornøyd med at han får vært mer ute i naturen og holdt på mer med praktiske prosjekter. Jeg liker påminnelser om slike muligheter og erfaringer, men for meg blir det mer interessant mot slutten av boka, når tvilen om hvorvidt valget er det riktige kommer fram, sammen med vurderingene om alt det middelmådige og ineffektive han driver med. Forfedre på gården spilte f eks gjerne på lag med teknologien. Allikevel, anbefales.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 February

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

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) by Cal Newport. Digital minimalism. Newport argues that social media, smartphones and increased connectivity through the internet are mainly distracting and have lead to an increasingly noisy world. Like e.g. slot machines, social media provide intermittent, unpredictable reinforcement when we check for updates and are designed to be addictive. I am largely convinced and like many have struggled to keep these technologies from interfering with both work and leisure. Newport has a good diagnosis of the problems and has many helpful practical tips. (Although it is slightly ironic that he e.g. advocates reading, which is an earlier technological innovation also breaking with evolution.) He advocates a “digital decluttering” to get rid of the distractions. Specifically, he recommends taking 30 days off most modern communication technologies, then gradually reintroducing some of them. An important point is that before doing this, it is good to fill up with high quality activities that we wish to do more of to fill the void left by modern media. This could be doing something with friends and family, reading, exercising, a hobby, etc. Many of his anecdotes about others suggest that after some time off, social media do not appear that interesting any more. A tips I am going to try is to schedule specific time for “low quality/simple tasks/leisure” such as social media, email, texting, reading blogs, etc and only do those activities at those times. Another is putting your phone away to avoid temptation to check various updates. Among his other tips are setting up “conversation office hours” – fixed place and times when you talk to people and are social, walking more, starting projects for using one’s hands for useful purposes, such as changing car oil, install ceiling mounted light fixture, learn something new on an instrument you know, building something from good lumber, starting a garden plot. He also claims that board games are becoming more popular. To an economist, a discipline he sometimes is critical of on the basis that it purportedly advocates jumping on anything offering any bit of benefit, it is somewhat annoying that he evidently does not know that opportunity cost, in particular of time, is an essential element of economics. Newport champions being more frugal with new technologies than I imagine being, but is clear that people need to evaluate their own needs. Recommended.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018). Kiese Laymon has many experiences I do not have, of racism growing up as a black boy in the US south, of severe over-eating, obesity, anorexia, physical abuse and gambling. So many and different from mine are these experiences that I believe that I cannot truly understand him. Yet, I must try or at least try to learn about them, why else would he write a memoir such as this. He writes well and the book is engaging. Recommended.

The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays (2018) by Wesley Yang. Essays about a minority group that I at least have heard relatively little from or about, apart from regularly being held up as an example of immigration going well – people with South-East Asian background. Yang makes it clear that Asian-Americans also have various forms of racism and other challenges to struggle with and that not everything is good. The racism they experience is often less overt than racism against blacks. Stereotypes about Asians being obedient, lacking in initiative and boring is a big issue. Yang is often ambiguous about these things, giving the impression that he both feels that they contain some truth while at the same time thinking them, or at least their application, unfair. The best essay is the first one, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho”, where Yang ponders the question of whether he could have done what Cho did and what role being Asian-American played. Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. The other essays deal with anti-Asian racism and animus in other ways. I read the book after reading a glowing review from Noah Smith. Recommended.

Dyrene i Afrika (2018) av Erlend Loe. Skjende for å bevare. Det er planen til en gruppe mennesker som finner sammen i sin søken etter å finne en måte å bidra til å redde “dyrene i Afrika” på. En romantisk drøm, en håpløs, håpløst utført plan full av egeninteresser. Som mange drømmer og måter å bidra på når det gjelder klima- og miljøproblemer i den virkelige verden? Historien blir litt over the top, men er morsom innimellom hvis man liker Loes stil. Anbefalt for fansen.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 January

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

Vareopptelling (2013) av Erlend Loe. Underholdende og iblant ettertenksomt om lyriker som tar ærlig og dramatisk oppgjør med både seg selv og sine kritikere. Vanskelig å tenke seg annet enn at det er Loes egne tanker som skinner gjennom i jeg- personens og omgivelsenes ambivalente syn på fortellerens karrière og kanskje forfattergjerningen generelt.

Fvonk (2011) av Erlend Loe. Bok om vennskap mellom en mann som har litt å slite med etter å ha vært innblandet i økonomisk medlemskapsjuks (“ukultur”) og en statsminister som trenger litt tid borte fra rampelyset. Ikke så engasjerende.

Dette livet eller det neste: roman (2017) av Demian Vitanza. Roman basert på opplevelsene og fortellingene til fremmedkrigeren Tariq. Boka er strukturert som en samtale der bare den ene partens svar vises og basert på intervjuer forfatteren Demian Vitanza har gjort med Tariq i Halden fengsel. Grunnen til at Tariq sitter der er at han i 2015 ble dømt for å ha planlagt terrorhandlinger og ha støttet terrorgrupper i Syria. Ifølge boka stemmer ikke dette, der får vi stort sett høre om at han jobber som frivillig med å frakte mat, medisiner og syke og at han aldri er med i noen gruppe. Imidlertid er Tariqs motiver for ikke å fortelle om mer alvorlige ting så åpenbare, og diskuteres til og med i boka, at det er vanskelig å holde det at historien han gir kanskje ikke er sann mot boka. Oppveksthistorien og radikaliseringsprosessen blir derfor mer interessant. Tariq har foreldre med pakistansk bakgrunn, men ender opp som mye mer radikal enn dem, og med nesten bare venner med annen utenlandsk bakgrunn. Han virker ofte reflektert og gjennomtenkt, noe som er givende for fortellingen og kanskje et utgangspunkt for hele prosjektet. Det gjør det også ekstra vanskelig å vite hva han “egentlig” tenker, men det må man akseptere. Anbefales.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2018 November

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

Slutten på verden slik vi kjenner den (2015) av Erlend Loe. Doppler vender hjem. Opp- og nedturer. Flere interessante situasjoner når han er tilbake i hjemlige trakter enn på reise i Sverige, som i Volvo lastvagnar. Absurditeten historien, som ikke er det mest interessante, tas et hakk opp med Dopplers tilværelse som kokk og pornoskuespiller i København. Anbefalt, men Doppler, første bok i trilogien er den viktigste.

Stille dager i Mixing Part (2009) av Erlend Loe. Jeg prøvde hardt å se forbindelsen til Andreas Doppler gjennom hele boka, men selv om det var enkelte elementer jeg kunne se en linje gjennom, fikk jeg det ikke helt til å stemme. Jeg fikk meg derfor en god latter da jeg fant ut at “Stille dager i Mixing Part” ikke var tredje bok i trilogien om Andreas Doppler, men derimot var sin egen frittstående roman. Vi følger en dramaturg og hans familie på ferie i Tyskland. Ikke alltid så spennende å følge handlingen, men en god del komiske scener redder boka.

Volvo lastvagnar (2005) av Erlend Loe. Doppler fortsetter sitt liv i skogen, denne gangen i Sverige, hvor han møter to mennesker som får stor påvirkning på tilværelsen hans. En liten nedtur fra første bok om Doppler, ikke like morsomt denne gangen, men vi får tro det er en reise han må gjennom(?). Forfatteren opptrer litt for aktivt i teksten etter min smak. Anbefalt, for man vil jo følge Dopplers veier.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.