Books

My book reviews, comments, and opinions. Full reviews are posted on the main page; only short excerpts are presented here:

PinkerCoverThe Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is one of the best books about writing I have read, perhaps only surpassed by McCloskey’s Economical Writing. Pinker starts out by providing samples of great writing and then explaining, in details, what’s so particularly great about the specific examples. Next, he introduces the classic style, the style of writing he recommend, in particular for clear, non-fictional writing.

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TheMismeasureOfManThe Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

I’ve read the dry and comprehensive, but interesting and important The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The Mismeasure of Mandiscusses problems with mental tests and their interpretation as measures of something innate. The argument about innateness stems from the more general theory called biological determinism. […] I admire Gould as writer and thinker. His honest , clear, and profound thoughts on the objective scientist, for example, align with my own, admittedly somewhat more muddled, ideas.

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Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric HofferWorking and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer

I got inspired to read Eric Hoffer’s Working and Thinking on the Waterfront after a couple of quotes from it in Jacques Barzun’s Simple & DirectWorking and Thinking is Hoffer’s journal that he kept from June 1958 to May 1959, a period that was critical in Hoffer’s thinking (according to the dust cover). One way or the other, it makes for rather interesting reading. The entries are a combination of tidbits from Hoffer’s life as a San Francisco longshoreman, his social life, and his observations and thinking about little things and large things. Mostly large things.

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HemingwayOnWritingErnest Hemingway on Writing

A while back, I read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips. Hemingway was obviously superstitious and thought it was bad luck to talk about writing. He did, however, write about it. Not in a systematic manner, but here and there, now and then, in letters, articles, and books. Phillips have collected many fragments on writing from Hemingway’s hand and put them together in a somewhat orderly fashion. While the result is not all that impressive, in particular given that it comes from one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, there are several interesting points, ideas, and moments contained in the collection.

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KingOnWritingOn Writing by Stephen King

In the introduction, King reiterates one of Strunk and White‘s rules for good writing: Omit needless words. Unfortunately, I find a lot of needless words in King’s book. But he should get the benefit of the doubt; he never set out to write a book about writing in general, useful for all writers (I presume). He writes a memoir of his life as a writer, what shaped him in the early years, and how he goes about it now[…] If I were a King fan, I would certainly enjoy the biographic material and all the references to his own work, how it came to him, and how he worked with it. Also, if I had aspirations to write fiction I could perhaps benefit from King’s book.

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machiavelli_prince_cover_smallerThe Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli

I read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, in George Bull’s translation to English, recently. Machiavelli changed the discourse about politics and moved European politics into the modern ear, one might say. […] In addition to discussing ideal political behavior, Machiavelli also comments on the contemporary political situation in Italy.

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letters to a young scientist mech.inddLetters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

In Letters, Wilson aims to share wisdom accumulated during a long career as a biologist. Admittedly, I am not among his intended readers, as the book is specifically aimed at scientists in the hard sciences. But, science is science, social or not, so I decided there quite likely was some good advice there for a young social scientist as well […]

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KolbertFieldNotesField Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, provides a brief and popular account of the science and politics of climate change. Chapter 2, for example, is the best popular account of the greenhouse effect I have seen (and far better than any unpopular account I am aware of). It is also very well written. […] I guess, and hope, Kolbert is already on the reading list of all and any politician (interested in climate change or not), of all concerned citizens, of all social scientists that work on related issues, well, as many as possible should read Field Notes. Its brevity, accessibility, and sharp focus makes it a potential game changer.

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AnUrchinInTheStormAn Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould

An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould is a collection of book reviews, mostly written for the The New York Review of Books. Few book reviews standsthe test of time, but Gould does not write ordinary book reviews. Instead, he discusses issues of broader scope, with the book under review as a point of departure and to some extent as a sparring partner.

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HornbyShakespeareShakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

Shakespeare Wrote for Money is a collection of columns Hornby has written for the American magazine Believer. In the column, he writes about books he has read the last month. He also writes about books he has abandoned and books he hasn’t read. And he writes as much about reading as about what he has been reading and everything is quite enjoyable. Hornby is a funny guy, and that he is English and lives in London while writing for an American audience makes for several funny comments upon the many differences between the two countries. Shakespeare is also disturbing. I like to think of myself as a reader, but alongside Hornby’s average of more than a book per week I look like an analphabet. And as if not my to-read list was long from before, it is longer now, as I find myself tempted to read most, if not all, of the books Hornby writes of.

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ProgressAndItsProblemsProgress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan

Most who has tried to produce knowledge (to be a scientist) and tried to understand Popper and Kuhn must agree that both their theories are artificial. Laudan, however, presents a theory for scientific growth which makes good sense and agrees well with empirical (anecdotal?) knowledge of scientific development. […] it reinserted a feeling of aim and purpose into my own work as a researcher (something neither Kuhn nor Popper will likely do for you).

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AnInquiryIntoTheHumanProspectAn Inquiry Into The Human Prospect by Robert L. Heilbroner

On the first page, Heilbroner asks Is there hope for man? Heilbroner then lists three large problems which together makes his question pertinent: population growth, the spread of nuclear weapons, and environmental problems (including resource depletion, pollution, and climate change). All three problems are to different degrees still relevant today. Both population growth and environmental problems still pose threats on global scales. They are also, I think, largely viewed as connected. We still worry about nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, but the Armageddon-like prospect of nuclear war is not upon us like it must have been during the cold war.

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But Will the Planet Notice? by Gernot Wagner

But Will the Planet Notice? is a book about climate change and economic tools and mechanisms designed to help. But Wagner ranges far and wide, discussing issues like deforestation, DDT and heavy metals pollution, overfishing, endangered species, the collapse of the Easter Island civilization, and geoengineering. In the process, he reviews work by people like Martin Weitzman, Robert Stavins, Elinor Ostrom (as one would expect, I might add), and a long list of other prominent people. Most of the issues relate to the commons problem, a well-known problem in economics: If property-rights to a resource like a fish stock or clean air are un- or ill-defined, there is usually a commons problem. Overexploitation of the resource is the typical result. On the contrary, when property-rights are in place, resource-users will have to compensate the holder of the property-right for their usage, and (economic) overexploitation will probably not happen. The climate problem is a classic commons problem, as atmospheric property-rights does not exist.

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Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

I’be been reading Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s very fine book Good Omens. It is something as rare as a novel written by not one, but two great authors. While I knew some of Gaiman’s work pretty well, I had not read any of Pratchett’s. I’ve heard of its reputation, though. Good Omens was published in 1990, at a time when none of them were the superstars they are today. I came across my copy in a flea market last year. I think it was unread, for reasons I cannot understand. Because it is a great book. And a little bit strange. It has to be, I guess, being a funny book about the Apocalypse. And it really is funny.

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Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson

I’d like to think of myself as a writer. As an economist, I am one, it just does not feel like it all the time. As a writer, I decided it would be useful to read Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words. (To just have it on the shelf is not a good alternative. It needs to be read and reread on occasions.) Troublesome Words is simply a list of words and phrases which writers need to show special care, at least according to Bill Bryson. (His alternative title: A Guide to Everything in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear About Until Quite Recently. Humble guy, this Bryson. A great writer too, by the way, his A Short History of Nearly Everything is highly recommended.) Reading a list of words, although commented, may sound boring. Admittedly, at times it is, but Bill Bryson’s approach and style is refreshing and amusing.

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Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

After having it on my shelf for quite a while, I finally sat down and read Superfreakonomics; Levitt and Dubner’s follow-up to their bestselling book Freakonomics. Superfreakonomics is laid out much the same way as Freakonomics was, although less time is spent on declearing Levitt to be a genius.  However, with chapter titles as How is a street prostitute like a department-store santa?, Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance?, and What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?, the similarity to Freakonomics is unmistakeable. The similarity also makes Superfreakonomics feel like an act of duty more than a work of inspiration […]

I would recommend Superfreakonomics to anyone unfamiliar with Freakonomics, but, honestly, it’s a Freakonomics 2, and not any more super than it’s predecessor, which is, notwithstanding, quite superb

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Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

I just finished this little gem of a book by Paul Auster. There is really two stories in this book. One belongs elsewhere and happens outside the confined space of Travels. It is still fully contained in the book. The other, main story takes place in the Scriptorium (presumably), but is really only a fraction of a larger story. The reader only get hints and suggested ideas about the full story and its grand plot, like the contour of a mountain in the mist suggests its monumental dimension.

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A Question of Balance by William Nordhaus

Before I went into summer mode, I finished William Nordhaus’s book A Question of Balance (read short excerpt). The book’s subtitle is Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies. The book is somewhere inbetween a popular account of the economics of climate change and a technical report on Nordhaus’s (and his team of research assistants’s, one might add) analysis of different approaches to mitigate global warming. A lot of details are saved for the actual technical reports available online. (Note: Details have been updated since the book was published [2008]). Nordhaus still goes through and explains the main equations of the famous DICE model (Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy), such that most economists could use his online computer code to verify results and further play around with the model. Before the technicalities, however, Nordhaus provides a ‘Summary for the Concerned Citizen’ (slightly pompous guy, this Nordhaus). The chapter gives a fair overview of the current concerns over global warming and how economists view and deal with them.

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Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

I just finished Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and am amazed. I did not expect it to be so interesting. I knew about Sudhir Venkatesh from his appearance in Freakonomics (the book) and knew he was an interesting figure with some extraordinary experiences to tell of. However, where Freakonomics were a bit dull and drawn out in parts, Gang Leader for a Day is interesting and facsinating throughout. Notwithstanding, the comparison is unfair; Freakonomics is about applied economics and some surprising and amusing conclusions thereof while Gang Leader for a Day is mostly descriptive of gang life in Chicago, in all facets.

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A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark

I’ve discussed A Farewell to Alms at some length in three parts. Very shortly, Clark views the economic history as follows: For millennia, the world was trapped in the Malthusian era, then the Industrial Revolution happened and ever since, some societies have enjoyed great prosperity and (most) others have become increasingly poor (it is all summed up in Figure 1.1, p. 2). To Clark, the history poses three interconnected problems:

Why did the Malthusian Trap persist for so long? Why did the initial escape from that trap in the Industrial Revolution occur on one tiny island, England, in 1800? Why was there the consequent Great Divergence? (p. 3)

A Farewell to Alms is a thoughtprovoking approach to world economic history.

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The Pacific Salmon Fisheries by Crutchfield and Pontecorvo

A while ago, I had the opportunity to read Crutchfield and Pontecorvo’s book on the Pacific salmon fisheries. The Pacific Salmon Fisheries, published in 1969 and subtitled A Study of Irrational Conservation, was an early contribution to the empirical literature on fisheries economics. The subtitle clearly signalled Crutchfield and Pontecorvo’s opinion on both the current and historic regulations of the fisheries. Perhaps the status as a ‘classic’ can be debated; notwithstanding, its scope and ambition is nothing but impressive: The Pacific Salmon Fisheries discusses theory, describes the various salmon fisheries along the North-American Pacific coast; the gear, the environment, the regulations, and their histories, it discusses the different fisheries potential and performance, and finally alternative regulations.

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Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

Fragile Things. Had it for years, read it just recently. I cannot remember any particular reason for not reading it before, other than that I didn’t have time when I bought it. Fragile Things is a collection of ‘Short Fictions & Wonders.’ It also has a couple of poems. In the introduction, Gaiman tells a little bit about each story; how or where he came up with the idea, what inspired him, or what he wanted to do. […]

Fragile Things are filled with all this wonder, and everyone should have something wonderful in their life. Gaiman is one way.

Read the full review.

Adam’s Fallacy by Duncan Foley

Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology is a beautiful little book. It contains some of the most lucid exposition of the core ideas of economics that I have ever read. Laid out pretty much on the same plan as Heilbroner, though with none of the attention to history that makes The Worldly Philosophers such a gripping read, Adam’s Fallacy leads the reader through the ideas of Adam Smith (“Adam’s Vision”), David Ricardo and T.R. Malthus (“Gloomy Science”), Karl Marx (“The Severest Critic”), Alfred Marshall (who in “On the Margins” rates but a single mention, in contrast to many entertaining pages on Thorstein Veblen), and, finally, of the twentieth century trinity of John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter (“Voices in the Air”). As a penetrating critic of capitalist economic development, with its “immense opportunities, and its equally immense social and moral stresses,” Foley has few peers.

David Warsh’s discussion of Adam’s Fallacy has been published several places; read more excerpts here.

Reason and Rationality by Jon Elster

In Reason and Rationality, Elster ‘proposes a unified conceptual framework for the study of behavior.’ Further, Elster provides ‘a brief, elegant, and accessible introduction to his work’ (both quotes from the back-cover). The latter first; to someone not familiar with Elster’s writings, nor with the writings of moralists and philosophers in general, I do not find Reason and Rationality particularly elegant nor accessible apart from its brevity.

Read the full review.

TruthVersusPrecisionTruth Versus Precision in Economics by Thomas Mayer

The main claim in Truth Versus Precision is that economics is a victim of the principle of the strongest link, which leads to increased rigouization and decreased real-world relevance.

Mayer argues persuasively that economists has incentives to spend too much time on formalism, and that the formally explicit parts of arguments thus gets too much attention. Weaker parts of arguments are usually tended to by arm-waving. Strong, mathematically explicit arguments are subject to relatively much attention and are thus made stronger; weaker, implisit or verbal arguments receives less attention and remains weak.

Read the full review.

Related posts:

The Cult of Statistical Significance

The Cult of Statistical Significance by Ziliak & McCloskey

As (almost) always; first things first: The Cult of Statistical Significance carries some important messages. The Cult tells us that statistical significance is not the same thing as substantive significance, that statistical significance is often misused and appears to be misunderstood by many a scientist (and particularly economists), and that only by attending to quantitative, scientific magnitude and judgement will sciences like medicine (yes, medicine), economics, and other statistically confused fields be able to move ‘into the age of science and humanity’ (p. 251; all page references are to the paperback edition).

Read the full review.

The Cult of the Amateur

A Short Comment on Keen’s Book

First of all, it’s important: Particularly important if Keen is as alone as he claims to be in his critique of the destructive powers of the internet. I agree to much of what he writes, but not everything.

Important or not, the book is a disappointment. It is not particularly well-written (who am I to say that, by the way?); it doesn’t ‘philosophize’ over the issues it discusses in the same way Weinberger does in his ‘opposit’ book (the comparison may not be fair, but Keen do after all compare himself to Weinberger); it is actually quite short (which is nice since it was a disappointment, but I would rather have a long, interesting book); and, most important, it does not convince me. Or rather, I don’t find it convincing (as I said, on most issues I agree with Keen already).

Read the full comment.

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Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka: The Trial

The part that stood out and which I like the best is the short story “Before the Law” in one of the last chapters. It’s about a farmer that wants to gain access to the law, but the gatekeeper won’t let him in. It’s quite an absurd story, but it fits very well in the context of the book. The main character in ‘The Trial’ discusses the story with a priest, and their discussion is also one of the highlights of the book. In fact, the entire chapter containing “Before the Law” is brilliant.

Everything is Miscellaneous

Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

The book is about how the web and its new ways of organizing and connecting things changes how we think, how we work, how knowledge forms, and, ultimately, us. That last point, how the web 2.o (which is a fancy buzzword for web pages and appliances letting its users contribute in different ways) changes us is actually never discussed in the book, but it certainly is understood and implied in Weinberger’s grandiose views. After all, how we think is a part of who and what we are.

Weinberger main topic is order. There are three orders: The first order is the order of physical things, like how books are lined up on shelves in a library. The second order is the catalogue order. A catalogue typically refers to a physical order; it is still physical, but one can make several catalogs of the same physical order. Weinberger’s prime example is the card catalog of libraries. The third order of order is the digital order, where there is no limit to the number of possible orderings. The digital order frees itself from physical reality, and in it, everything can be connected and related to everything else: Everything is miscellaneous.

Read the full review.

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A Mathematician's Apology

A Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy

I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite a while (I’ve had it for over a year) as it has been mentioned in several other books and texts that I’ve read earlier. From what I’d read about it beforehand, I expected some sort of philosophical discussion and understanding of mathematics. I also expected a mathematician’s position in relation to some fundamental philosophical questions like religiousness. Hardy do discuss mathematics in what you may call philosophical way. I was, however, disappointed.

[…]

It seems clear that Hardy, despite all his devotion and appreciation of it, reduces mathematics to an art, and resembles great mathematicians like Hilbert and Abel with other great artists like Mozart and Picasso . Not that I don’t think highly of art. Art, to me, is a product of the human mind; meant to please or provoke; meant to mean something; meant to influence someone; and, not the least, a product of an urge to create. Art is a sign of prosperity and abundance, not necessarily a necessity. Pure mathematics, however, is different; it is an expedition into the absolute; investigating and observing logic; not meant to please or provoke, but a necessity to progress. It may resemble art, nonetheless, depending on creativity and inspiration, but still being different, and, in my eyes, more important; while any artist may be much more important to any one individual, the great mathematicians are much more important to the human kind.

Read the full review.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

The main theme of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that the path the world is on is unsustainable in several aspects. Global warming has the potential to change the world as we know it in ways we cannot imagine. More and more people around the world take part in the globalized market place, and they all demand a middle-class consumption level; development and modernization flattens out differences in living standards and consumption levels around the world.  The increased consumotion puts an enormous pressure on the worlds resources. Finally, the current, explosive population growth will put even further pressure on the worlds resources and potentially make the global warming problem worse. In a world that is hot, flat, and crowded, a whole range of important issues needs to be addressed, and fast. Friedman gives a good overview of the most important issues, discusses how they are all connected and different potential solutions.

Read the full review.

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Saul Smilansky's 10 Moral Paradoxes

10 Moral Paradoxes by Saul Smilansky

I’ve only posted discussions of two of the chapters in 10 Moral Paradoxes so far; I still plan to come back to it and discuss or review the whole book because it is an interesting and challenging book. Stay tuned!

Fortunate Misfortune, a philosophical paradox?

I have many problems with this book (more than I remember actually; I have to start to keep notes) and I want to discuss some of them here on my blog. Before I get to ‘Fortunate Misfortune’, however, I should make (somewhat) clear what Smilansky thinks of as a paradox. There’s two extreme and oposite ideas of a paradox; a paradox is a logical contradiction, or merely something unexpected or ironic. Smilansky deliberatly places himself somewhere inbetween these extremes, and does not require a strict logical contradiction but still wants to be ‘quite rigorous’ in what he considers a paradox (p. 3). The way I see things, what he discusses is often merely hypothetical paradoxes, and I ask: Is a hypothetical paradox a paradox, and, more important, is it interesting?

So, the first chapter in ‘10 Moral Paradoxes’ concerns Fortunate Misfortune (capitalized to be safe). Smilansky claims that sometimes, misfortune can be fortunate and that such fortunate misfortune is paradoxical. Well, I do not disagree to the paradoxical figure of speech (fortunate misfortune), but I do only agree to it in the ironic sense of paradox; if one should be more strict in what one regards as a paradox, Fortunate Misfortune is not a paradox.

Read the entire post.

A Smilansky paradox: Beneficial Retirement

Smilansky claims that a large share of those in a particular job/position should consider retirement because of the likeliness of someone better than them replacing them; a better replacement would be beneficial. Particularly, this applies to typical ‘offical’ jobs (e.g., doctors, researchers) that often are less exposed to competition than many jobs in the private sector (at least once you are in the job). I don’t like this idea. This implicitly demands that everyone (because the argument really applies to everyone) put everyone else above themselves, and I think that is to demand (and hope) for too much from people. And, the situation does not exactly support a stable society, where half the workforce (at any given time, the way I read Smilansky) gave up their job and went searching for other jobs or did not contribute at all. It hardly sounds like a beneficial situation.

Read the entire post.


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