Posts Tagged ‘review’

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

August 27, 2013

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. Anthony Grafton puts it in perspective in the foreword:

machiavelli_prince_cover_smallerMachiavelli hated ‘unarmed prophets’ (profeti disarmati) […] Yet he himself was armed only with a pen when he became the prophet of a new understanding of politics. He gave permanent, unforgettable literary form to the sharp, unforgiving vision of politics that had long been cultivated by members of the Florentine élite. At the same time, however, he made clear the limitations of that inherited vision, as well as those of the more idealistic one that had previously dominated political literature. No wonder that his portrait of the prince […] retains its power to fascinate, to frighten and to instruct [pp. xxviii-xxix*]

Machiavelli discusses different types of states and how to rule them, with examples from contemporary Italy (late 1400’s and early 1500’s), Roman times, and the antique. Most examples are rather arcane for an unstudied bastard like me, but George Bull’s extensive notations makes it at least theoretically possible to dive into historical sources. Bull also provides a useful glossary of names; as said, many of the historical figures referred to are unknown to me and probably many, if not most, readers of today.

It is tempting to dive into some of the historical cases, as many of Machiavelli’s examples seem interesting in their own right. In part because few nations has a richer history than Italy, perhaps particularly when it comes to governmental issues, but also in terms of culture and science, for example. A particularly interesting example that Machiavelli discusses is that of Severus and his rise to become ruler of the Roman empire (see chapter XIX). Introducing the example of Severus, Machiavelli writes:

Because what Severus did was remarkable and outstanding for a new prince, I want to show briefly how well he knew how to act the part of both a fox and a lion, whose natures […] must be imitated by a new prince [p. 63].

The prince should be both a fox and a lion! Machiavelli elaborates further on how a prince (or ruler, in current terms) need to behave:

A prince […] must be very careful not to say a word which does not seem inspired by [five qualities]. To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man. And there is nothing so important as to seem to have this last quality. Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to com in close touch with you [the prince is the intended reader, that is]. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are [p. 58].

I guess most politicians today, and most public figures for that matter, can subscribe to that last observation: Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.

In addition to discussing ideal political behavior, Machiavelli also comments on the contemporary political situation in Italy. For example, Machiavelli suggests that Italy stayed fragmented in small states and city-states after the fall of the Roman empire (Italy wasn’t united until well into the nineteenth century) because of the many weak rulers who relied too much on hired or allied troops. An interesting theory indeed, but the situation was probably a good deal more complicated.

I always have to struggle to engage in political debates; often because I quickly become confused. Now that I have read Machiavelli, I at least have a background to extrapolate political arguments from. Perhaps I will enjoy politics more in the future.

*Page numbers refer to Penguin Books paperback version, reissued with revisions, 2003.

Sigur Ros at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco

April 19, 2013

Yesterday, I finally got to see Sigur Ros live. I have been listening quite carefully to them for years, but have never found the occation to see them live before. They played the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in downtown San Francisco. The Bill Graham is a pretty large venue with room for 7000 souls. It was sold out.

While it hurts a little to say it, the gig was somewhat underwhelming. First of all, they started by playing the first two-three songs behind a curtain. The curtain was used for projections, with the band barely visible. Now, the music is what matters of course, but part of the live experience is the personal feel. The curtain did not feel very personal. And while I’m sure the projections were great, I have long since disliked the excessive use of projections and video art on live music concerts. In my view, it distracts from the music most of the time. Nuvel. Another thing is that they could perfectly well have used a more transparent curtain. Projections would have worked just as fine; perhaps not the part where the lead singer (Jonsi) stood infront of a spotlight playing his guitar with a bow, I would not mind.

Things got more interesting once the curtain dropped. It turned out they were a bunch of people on stage. Four main members and perhaps six more on various horns and strings. The benefit of such a large ensemble is that one has much more depth and, in the case of Sigur Ros, it could be essential to pull off certain parts of their music that sometimes have many, many layers. (Their live album Inni demonstrates, however, that they work very well without orchestral backup.) The drawback is that the more people are involved, more stuff can go wrong. Wrong is perhaps strong (although they did mess up a couple of times; whether they were genuine fuckups or a technical errors, I do not know), but they were never really tight. They never nailed it. In periods, if felt like they did not even try. The beat on Popplagid was everywhere. Much of the music Sigur Ros make is pure magic, but their live performance last night was never really magic. Jonsi demonstrated a magic voice, but that was it. The crescendos was not as intense and sound-drenched as they should have been. The strings were too low. The guitar-bow thing was too low. Perhaps they had their heads elsewhere (Perhaps I had?) Perhaps they were exhausted after a long tour.

After all my whining, I should say I did enjoyt the concert. Sigur Ros makes really great music, and a slightly uninspired and cluttered performance cannot take the greatness away. Just too bad it did not really work out, because I think it could have been a blast if everything clicked and they’d just let go.

Sigur Ros in San Francisco, 2013

UPDATE: Walked by a homeless singing on the street the other day. Realized there is always some magic present when someone sings their heart out. Sigur Ros really did that, sing their heart out and created magic, I just missed it.


An Overview of Empirical Analysis of Behavior of Fishermen Facing New Regulations

December 17, 2012

Some time ago, I published a review article in Environmental Economics (2012, volume 3, issue 2). It is based on a lecture I gave as part of my dissertation defence in 2010, and the title is derived from the topic I was given for the lecture. When I prepared my lecture, I wrote up my notes in article format. Later, I spent some time polishing and preparing the article for submission. Oddities intervened, and the submission was put on hold for a substantial amount of time. But, I came out in the end, and I am happy about it. Here is the abstract:

Environmental EconomicsThis paper reviews the empirical literature on fishermen’s behavior under changing regulations. The review is not exhaustive; instead, the work focuses on the historical development of empirics in fisheries economics and the parallel development of fisheries regulations. While historic parallels are difficult to observe for later developments, recent empirical analysis of fishermen’s behavior illustrates the breadth and interdisciplinary nature of current empirical fisheries economic research. It merges biology, economics, and social science with statistical, mathematical, and rhetorical methods. The author hopes to capture some of the interdisciplinary interplay in the review.

But Will the Planet Notice? by Gernot Wagner

November 13, 2012

I am among the semi-irregular contributers to the REConHub; a new blog from the Norwegian School of Economics. I recently posted a review of the book ‘But Will the Planet Notice?’ by Gernot Wagner. Here goes:

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.

In the eyes of (the economist) Wagner, economists are at the center of the climate change problem:

Scientists can tell us how bad it will get. Activists can make us pay attention to the ensuing instabilities and make politicians take note. When the task comes to formulating policy, only economists can help guide us out of this morass and save the planet (p. 11, first edition).

Let me add that the subtitle of Wagner’s book is How Smart Economics Can Save The World. Save the world, no less. Now, the short answer to insufficient property rights is to establish sufficient property rights. If one is interested in the long answer, it quickly becomes complicated. Coase taught us that it matters who owns property rights and how they are traded. Wagner does not get into this, or the other ideas and concepts he touches upon, to any serious degree. I think it is unfortunate. A deeper and more detailed discussion, with fewer detours to discuss related issues, would be more interesting and valuable. Wagner’s idea of a solution to the climate problem is to cap carbon dioxide emissions and make the emissions rights tradable. Exactly how and why this would work, is not left much space.

An important message for Wagner, one which even inspired the title of his book, is that small, individual, and uncoordinated adjustments to deal with the climate problem will not help. In order to drive the message home, he uses a very odd, rhetorical trick: He gives the planet, the physical planet, and other parts of the physical world, an opinion, and asks: Will the planet notice our individual adjustments? Does the atmosphere care? (It does not, according to Wagner. If anyone used me as a sewage, one of Wagner’s metaphors for how the atmosphere gets treated, I would certainly care for even the smallest adjustment.) While the personification of things environment might be a great idea (how would I know?), I have my doubts. I find it annoying. Nevertheless, despite the lack of impact , we should still make small (or large), voluntary adjustments to reduce our personal carbon footprint, Wagner says. It is the moral thing to do.

There’s simply no way to go about tackling this problem other than taking seriously the incentives all of us face. Getting several billion of us to behave differently-to behave morally-means guiding market forces in the right direction, making it in our interest to do the right thing. It’s the only way to make the planet notice (p. 216).

Here, Wagner passes upon the opportunity to discuss the ethics of climate change, which I think would have been interesting. (Not even a reference-laden footnote, if I remember correctly.) I am not so sure the casual reader or layperson would feel compelled to make voluntary lifestyle adjustments just because he ought to, when it has no impact, the atmosphere does not care, and no weight is put on why he still should.

Wagner got his economics training from great places, and is well-read. It shines through. He cites most of the canoncial resource and environmental economics literature, but also a lot of stuff I was unaware of, stuff I probably should know already. (Note to self: Read up.) He also refers to much interesting main stream writings. Unfortunately, Wagner does not provide a list of references. I find it odd, as the type of book usually provides a reference list. Keeping track and finding back to the references of interest require more effort than what it would otherwise.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend Wagner’s book. (And I apologize; I always think reviews should be written by someone enthusiastic about the work. It makes for more interesting reviews.) He brings little, if anything, new to the climate change discussion. While the book could have been a must-have for students and even some professionals, the missing reference list makes it not so. The weird personification of the planet, the atmosphere, and other physical, dead, unconscious things downgrades the book further on my part.

Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 2

October 19, 2010

Part 2? Take Two, rather (This is Take One). It surprises me how difficult it is to get to grips with this book, particularly given its apparent brevity (the main body of the book runs through page 215 in a relative small format). Of course, I’m not even an amateur philosopher of science, but still.

A part of the difficult lies in the chaotic or at least hidden structure of the book. Fuller announces his motives in the introduction (‘to recapture the full range of issues that separate [Kuhn and Popper],’ see p. 3*). The ‘full range’ is presumably a lot of material; the already mentioned brevity is thus surprising. But Fuller do not list nor declear the ‘issues’ he wants to address. There seem to be no plan or structure. Rather, he seems to move from issue to issue in a haphazard fasion, and the motive or aim of the discussion is often out of sight and elusive. The conclusion of the book is also something of an anti-climax. The last chapter seemingly only discusses one of the issues separating Kuhn and Popper; there are no final remarks, no conclusion, or anything that resembles a closure.

Kuhn vs. Popper did increase my understanding and knowledge of the ideas of both Kuhn and Popper, and also how their ideas connect to the ideas of other important thinkers. Perhaps more importantly, Fuller has helped me see the important differences between Kuhn and Popper. Throughout the book, for one thing, Fuller comes up with comparative statements.

Kuhn and Popper represent two radically different ways of specifying the ends of inquiry: What drives our understanding of reality? Where is the truth to be found? [p. 56].

Kuhn was indeed authoritarian and Popper liertarian in their attitudes to science. This point has been largely lost, if not inverted, by those who regard ‘Kuhn vs Popper’ as a landmark in 20th-century philosophy of science [p. 13]

Popper was a democrat concerned with science as a form of dynamic inquiry and Kuhn an élitist focused on science as a stabilising social practice. Nevertheless, they normally appear with these qualities in reverese. How can this be? [p. 68].

To dig deeper into these differences, one has to dig into the actual ideas. Kuhn first:

For Kuhn, science begins in earnest with the adoption of a ‘paradigm’, which means both an exemplary piece of research and the blueprint it provides for future research […] Kuhn deliberately selects the phrase ‘puzzle-solving’ (as in crossword puzzles) over ‘problem-solving’ to underscore the constrained nature of normal science […] A ‘revolution’ occurs [upon a ‘crisis’] when a viable alternative paradigm has been found. The revolution is relatively quick and irreversible. In practice, this means that an intergenerational shift occurs [pp. 19-20].

An important aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy of science is how history is rewritten after a scientific revolution, such that the scientific development appears streamlined and meaningful. In Kuhn’s view, Fuller writes,

[…] the secret of science’s success – its principled pursuit of paradigmatic puzzles – would be underminded if scientists had the professional historian’s demythologised sense of their history. After all, in the great scheme of things, most actual scientific work turns out to be inconsequential or indeterminately consequential [p. 20].

Another important feature of Kuhn’s ideas regards how people become scientists. One becomes a scientist through a “conversion experience or ‘Gestalt switch,’ whereby one comes to see the world in a systematically different way” (p. 21).  These features, combined with the conservative flavor of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, led Popperians to liken Kuhn to ‘religious and politcal indoctrinators’ (p. 21).

But of course, this was not how Structure was read by most of its admirers – if they actually did read the book. For while Kuhn’s examples are drawn almost exclusively from the physical sciences, these are the disciplines that have probably paid the ‘least’ attention to Structure, even though Kuhn himself was qualified only in physics. Kuhn’s admirers are to be found instead in the humanities and the social and biological sciences [p. 21].

Kuhn’s admirers persisted in wrenching Structure from its original context and treating it as an all-purpose manual for converting one’s lowly discipline into a full-fledged science. These wishful readings of Structure have been helped by its readers’ innocence of any alternative accounts of the history of science – often including their own – with which to compare Kuhn’s [p. 22].

When Fuller turns to discuss Popper, his sympathies with Popper become obvious:

[Popper] was always a ‘philosopher’ in the grand sense, for whom science happened to be an apt vehicle for articulating his general world-view [pp. 22-23].

For the ‘grand philosopher,’ philosophy of science is only a reflection of more fundamental attitudes:

Once Popper’s philosophy of science is read alongside his political philosophy, it becomes clear that scientific inquiry and democratic politics are meant to be alternative expressions of what Popper called ‘the open society’ [p. 26].

Popper grew up intellectually among the positivists in the Vienna Circle, but disagreed with them on their attitude towards the role of logical deduction.

For the positivists, deduciton demonstrates the coherence of a body of thought, specifically by showing how more general knowledge claims explain less general ones, each of which provide some degree of confirmation for the more general ones. For Popperians, deduction is mainly a tool for compelling scientists to thest th econesequences fo their general knowledge claims in particular cases by issuing predictions that can be contradicted by the findings of empirical research. This is the falsifiability principle in a nutshell [p. 25].

Fuller neatly sums up the difference between the 20th century’s giants in the philosophy of science:

Whereas actual scientific communities existed for Popper only as more or less corrupt versions of the scientific ideal, for Kuhn the scientific ideal is whatever has historically emerged as the dominant scientific communities [p. 6].

* Page numbers refer to the Icon Books 2006 paperback edition.

Related post:

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

September 10, 2010

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.

Just like John Whitehead, I enjoyed Freakonomics more than I did Superfreakonomics. I also agree with Whitehead that the highlight is the epilog on monkeys learning to use money. Levitt and Dubner do a great job, however, coming up with surprising conclusions:

This is a strange twist. Many of the best and brightest womenin the United States get an MBA so they can earn high wages, but they end up marrying the best and brightest men, who also earn high wages which affords these women the luxury of not having to work so much (p. 46).*

So, perhaps there’s more to getting an MBA than high wages? Bright men, for example. Next, do what you want to do:

Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. The people who become excellent at a given thing aren’t necessarily the same ones who seemed to be “gifted” at a young age. This suggest that when it comes to choosing a life path, people should do what they love […] because if you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it (p. 61).

Partly beg to differ. I think many of those really good at something (like, world-class-good), at least has to begin practicing at an early age.

Other amusing and at times unsettling conclusions are that death rates in Los Angeles drop when doctors go on strike (p. 81), in Singapore they have the the Manitenance of Parents Act (p. 106), economists believe more in theory than in the real world (“Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”, p. 115), the Endangered Species Act endanger rather than protect species (p. 139), buying locally produced food increases greenhouse-gas emissions (p. 167), and the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion (p. 169).

Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is the chapter on global warming, where Levitt and Dubner embrace geoengineering as the short-term solution. The noise around the chapter was seemingly so annoying to someone that critical posts on the Freakonomics blog were removed (see here, for example). Among the disturbing claims Levitt and Dubner provide is that climate scientists ‘turn their knobs’ such that their model do not provide outlier estimates, because an outlier model is hard to get funded. The economic reality of research funding generate a scientific consensus, rather than independent research (p. 182). The claim ressonates with a seminar I recently attended. The seminar was given by a Danish climate scientist who were concerned that the famous hockey stick graph, hailed as the undisputable proof of man-made climate change, resulted from lack of data, inappropriate methods, and an assumed stable temperature prior to the industiral revolution. The discussion in Superfreakonomics do, however, seem fairly balanced in places, see for example the discussion on page 199.

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. Superfreakonomics is perhaps an easier read (or I’ve become a better and quicker reader), but lacks a character like Sudhir Venkatesh.

* Page numbers refer to the Allen Lane UK edition.

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

August 26, 2010

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. (Ups, getting carried away.)

I cannot write much about this book. First I don’t know what to write. Second, it’s so small that Imay reveal too much too easily and too soon. Instead, I’ll quote from a review of reviews (a strange concept, indeed; fitting for the strangeness of Travels):

A fairly conclusive sign that a book has confounded its reviewers’ critical faculties is when the reviewers in question aren’t even sure just what the book is. I can certify that the words “A Novel” appear on the front cover of Paul Auster’s newest release, Travels in the Scriptorium, yet, “about a third of the way through,” writes Allen Barra for Salon, “you may get an odd sense that you’re not reading a real novel.” John Freeman in the Philadelphia Inquirer Review labels it a “short, brisk, odd little fable,” and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Daniel Dyer calls it a “spare, sometimes puzzling allegory of the mind of a novelist.” Steven Poole in The New Statesman says it is “a sort of manifesto.” Lightheaded with enthusiasm, Howard Norman in The Washington Post writes that it’s a “fictional treatise on crime and amnesia,” and then, mere paragraphs later, calls it “part dystopian myth and part literary séance.” […]

Fable, allegory, manifesto, treatise, myth, homage, exercise (James Gibbons’s word in Bookforum), “comment on the modern condition”: since Travels in the Scriptorium is only 145 pages long—it’s brevity is nowhere disputed, although those who like the book call it “spare” and those who dislike it call it “skimpy”—some equivocation is detectable here.

Be warned, the review of reviews (a super reveiw?) do reveal parts of the plot, and the plot is limited but still grand, so go read the book instead. Read reviews later.