Tag Archives: reviews

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 – 2014 December

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

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande. A great book on keeping ones priorities right while dying. No nostalgic – punctures the myth that everything was better was several generations lived together: Separation was a form of freedom, and choices for the elderly have proliferated. Makes the case for hospices and terminal care and life quality rather than treatment, the dying have other priorities than only being safe and living longer, but this often not taken into account by the close ones. “Well-being is more than just health and survival and safety. […] ok to insist that our doctors and our institutions know that and respect that as well.” Definitely recommended. (Gawande has also written other good books.)

Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC (2010) by L. Jon Wertheim. Entaining read about the rapidly growing sport of mixed martial arts, by an enthusiast.

The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (Modern Library Chronicles) (2005) by John Micklethwait. The history of the company. I liked the first, historical parts best.
Share risks and rewards. European monarchs created chartered companies to pursue their dreams of imperial expansion.” Ex east India Company, Virginia Company. Limited liability was key. “[T]he three big ideas behind the modern company: that it could be an “artificial person,” with the same ability to do business as a real person; that it could issue tradable shares to any number of investors; and that those investors could have limited liability (so they could lose only the money they had committed to the firm).”
Violent history, now different. Slavery, war, etc.
Merchants and monopolies. State monopolies inefficient. In Europe at least internal competition.
Unlimited liability. De Medici innovative-separate partnerships and profit sharing arrangements.
Northern Europe: copies much from Italy,but most imp contribution was guilds and chartered companies. Corporate bodies started, immortal. Towns, guilds, etc.
Royal charter-exclusive trading rights. Joint stock company. Start to buy shares, and limited liability. East India company troubled initially, but managed. Exclusive rights to sell tea in the American colonies-Boston tea party. Monopolies, criticism from Adam Smith. Courts. Government of big organizations and many people.
3. A prolonged and painful birth 1750-1862
Reinvigorate the idea of the company. Partnerships most common, but unlimited liability a problem. State competition to have the least regulation in order to attract companies. Railways changed things.

Recommended for the historical parts.

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) by Radley Balko. A disturbing book about the American Police Forces.

The old “Castle doctrine” (A man’s house is his castle) is now broken, no knock warrants and raids have become common. Maybe too rosy view of self-governing communities depending on mores, etc before. General Patten revealed as mad, wanted to shoot and leave dead rebellious citizens.
The name SWAT was originally “Special Weapons Attack Team”, but was changed to “Special Weapons And Tactics” because that sounded less aggressive.
Two-sidedness of the commerce clause governing federal power over the states – civil liberties and Nixon’s crime on war and drugs. Villain Nixon-hid statistics, ordered easy arrests, could “stick it to the left” with his Supreme Court nominees.
Swat proliferation, started for exceptional cases of hostage taking and emergencies. Civil asset forfeiture. Drug raids became source of revenue. Impunity. Extreme increase in swat raids, and not even in cases of violent crime, mostly for drug raids. Swat more problematic in small places, not enough training and personnell.
States decriminalizing medical marihuana, but people still targeted by federal authorities-FDA.
Often wrong door, botched raids, accidental deaths. Also poker raids. And raids under the guise of food inspection etc. Bizarre: Shaquille O’Neill and Steven Seagal joining in raids for tv shows. Military equipment more and more common.
Cable tv and cop series->violence.
Police unions a problem. Advocates cameras and liability for police officers. Public needs to start caring; some positive signs.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World (2012) by Edward Dolnick. The scientific revolution. Easy listening for nerds. Recommended.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty. Deserved its own review. Recommended.

The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (2010) by Branko Milanovic. I liked this book. Short, many facts. The stuff about the EU vs US gini coefficient was interesting (coefficient about the same, but in EU much more inquality between states). Recommended. Below is a kind of summary.

How income and affluence present in daily life
“The objective is to unveil the importance that differences in income and wealth, affluence and poverty play in our ordinary lives as well as the importance that they have had historically”
1. Inequality between individuals in a community
2. Inequality in income between countries
3. Inequality globally. Increasingly important
Focus on disposable rather than marketable income.

1. Study of distribution important historically. Among social classes-workers capitalists landowners. Pareto started with individuals. Iron law-80/20. Kuznets theory of change, inverted u. Later augmented K curve.
Good and bad inequality. Keynes quote, view of capitalists as savings machines. Social monopoly vs incentives.
Atkinson welfare measure-equally distributed, equivalent income. But dependent on adding utilities. And higher u functions-Sen. Pareto criterion, but almost impossible to satisfy in the real world. Rawls: “Injustice is simply inequalities that are not in the benefit of all”, and in particular the poor.
Measurement of inequality. First about finding technical measure satisfying certain axioms. Gini. Lack of data, fiscal records often about taxes and without income and consumption, use hh surveys, but these also often not available.
Top income share, gini, etc. Between and within inequality decomposition.
Vignette 1.1. Pride and prejudice contains economics, love-wealth trade-off. Same today, but stakes do change. Anna Karenina, ratio between possible incomes w different husbands, like England stakes changes in Russia. 1.3. Richest ever, consider amount labor that could buy locally with yearly income-modern richer-Carnegie-Gates-Rockefeller. But locally khodorkovsky richer, and Slim even more. 1.5 Was socialism egalitarian? Yes, but lack of incentives, nothing exported, political inequalities, privileges, priority for goods, behavior of elites stood out. 1.7 Who gains from fiscal redistribution? The poorest, but not upper middle. 1.8 several countries in one? In Soviet Union as different as South Korea and Ivory Coast. Rich territories wanted out. In Yugoslavia regional income ratio as big as 8:1, Slovenia vs Kosovo. Raises questions about china, eu, Nigeria. 1.9. China unity survive? Soviet dissolved. Am inequality distributed more broadly, soviet regionally, like in china. Some regions (5+6?)-gang of maritime cities and provinces . 10:1. But language similar and history shared. But ethnic cleavages. 1.10 Pareto and Kuznets. Functional vs interpersonal. Recent tensions between “inequality” and “poverty”. Pareto controversial, anti-socialist. Pareto constant. Human history is history of aristocracies, some elites always in top.

2. Unequal nations
Used to be small, big started with industrial rev until 1950’s. Two methods: unweighted and weighted by population. Same previously, now more diverging last 30 years. More nations and comparability in space and time are problems-construct the new nations and use PPP. Intercountry inequality increased. But when use weighted measure, dampened, though absolute differences still huge, so poor countries need to grow at extremes just to keep up, since so low base.
Neoclassical economics: globalization->convergence, because of fdi, copy easier, specialization, can use good ideas. But we have seen divergence-have not seen much foreign investment, technology does not come free (ref e.g. IP rights).
2.1 Marx. Real wages actually started to rise around publication of Das Capital. Global inequality used to be driven by class, now by location. Third world solidarity has plummeted. 2.2. GDP is about averages. Within nation inequality needed. First divide a nation into 20 income groups, ventiles, convert income by PPP, find position of each venture in the global income distribution. Brazil extreme, covers almost from top to bottom, many countries, ex India where richest ventile is poorer than poorest of US. With percentiles a little overlap. Citizenship is fate.
2.2. How much income inequality determined at birth? Place of birth explains more than 60% of variability in global inequality. With income class of parents as well, more than 80% explained. Portion left for effort small.
2.4 Migration. A rational response to inequality. Income inequalities rising, so also migration pressure. Both push and pull factors. Integration issues. Mexican wall going to be longer than Berlin Wall.
2.5. Hraga. People who burn their papers. Frontex costs as much as what the travelers pay. Lampedusa-“the camp of identification and expulsion”. What to do with the dead bodies? Algeria did not want them. Rethorical question: “can these separate, and unequal worlds coexist…?”
2.6. Three generations of Obamas.
2.7. Globalization has not decreased inequality. And deglobalization in the beginning of 1913-38 did not increase inequality. WWII: divergence- some countries grew much positive or negative. Great Depression: rich countries lost, many others not much affected.

3. Unequal world
Inequality among citizens in the world. Do not have the data globally for before. But recent years, 1988 onwards, have good household surveys for most countries. The world extremely unequal, high gini around 0.70. Decile ratio about 80:1. In dev countries seldom above 10:1. Probably not more unequal since late 80’s. Forces for greater inequality: rising within countries and divergence of incomes between countries. Force for smaller inequality: fast growth of china and India, faster than works average. Trilemma: globalization, increasing between-country inequality, restricted migration. 3.2. Talk of global middle class exaggerated. 3.3. Eu gini about the same as in US, but structure different: more inequality between nations in eu. Social policies should target countries in eu, poor people individually in US. Positive to free circulation of people within EU-cause to believe that poor countries will catch up. 3.5. Capitalist European football system.
Rawls migration: not concerned with global inequality, takes peoples as given, and differences in their preferences; Burdened and ordered countries.
Wants EU to help Africa.
Key challenges: “how to bring Africa up, how to peacefully bring China in, and how to wean Latin America of its self-obsession and bring it into the real world, and doing all if these while maintaining peace and avoiding ideological crusades.”

A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma (2014) by Wendy Law-Yone. About Burmese newspaper man Ed Law-Yone working in Burma under the military dictatorship, written by his daughter. Picked the book up since I was going to Myanmar/Burma, but it was way too slow capture my attention.
Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2014 November

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

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
(2014) by Thomas Piketty. Deserves its own review. Recommended.


The Circle (2013)
by Dave Eggers. Privacy, surveillance, etc. Takes up important questions, but reads like a caricature most of the time. Not unrecommended.

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (2014) by Nicholas Carr. It is good that someone is emphasizing the drawbacks and dangers of increasing automation (stop thinking for ourselves, do not learn, do not challenge ourselves, leave power in the hands of others), however Carr’s book is too one-sided to be convincing. That is a pity, since the anecdotes and research that he presents are often thought provoking and potentially important.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014) by William Easterly. The book is superficial in that it repeatedly and uncritically lumps together technocrats, experts, authoritarians and dictators as tyrants. Read David Broodman’s review to see what I mean. But it also has good parts. Hayek is a hero of Easterly’s and the beginning is a good intro to Hayek’s ideas about knowledge. Rights before economic development is a pet cause, and something too few talk about. (Well-meaning) racism was a crucial element in the development of authoritarian development ideas – the powerful (colonialists, Chinese leadership, or others) had to lead for the benefit of those who were led. Another interesting history part is about research on the role of social and civic capital in the development of in particular Italian city states. Chapters 8-9 on migration are very sensible. Recommended, and do consider his critical words seriously, but ignore the unsubstantive and unnuanced ones.

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005) by David Foster Wallace. Four intelligent and witty essays. I liked best the review of the sports star autobiography genre and the report from a porn film award festival. The title essay about a lobster festival and how the author experienced 9-11 were ok. The book made me want to read more by Wallace. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2014 October

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

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) (2013) by Ann Leckie. Winner of several of the big science fiction prizes in 2014. The protagonist is an ancillary, a human body inhabited by an AI, named Greq. The AI used to be in control of a full starship including all the ancillaries onboard, but Greq is the only survivor after the starship disappeared for mysterious reasons. We follow Greq on her/his(/its?) quest for revenge. I really liked the idea of an AI in a human body as the main character.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It (2014) by Ian Leslie. Some good anecdotes and references, like one study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Maryland, in which “[t]he researchers measured the propensity of 374 five-month-old babies to crawl and probe and fiddle, and then tracked their progress over the following fourteen years. They found that the ones doing best at school aged fourteen were the ones who had been the most energetically exploratory babies.” Claiming that curiosity is the key here is of course jumping to conclusions, but I have always found early (baby-level) markers that predict subsequent behavior very interesting. Many places in the book it is annoying how selection issues are often ignored, Leslie writes uncritically about the “effect” of reading to children, watching television, etc., when it is just run-of-the-mill correlations. In chapter 3 too he starts off unthinkingly critical of the internet, although more nuanced as the chapter went on. An ok book.

A busy month again, although at least I managed one up from the previous month.

Ratings and old books are in the library.