The Undoing Project

A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

[Amazon Link]

A few months ago, I read the wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, describing the research that led to his Nobel (in economics). This book, by famous non-fiction author Michael Lewis is the "outside view" of Kahneman's remarkable life and research, and that of his longtime collaborator Aron Tversky. (Kahneman and Tversky are referred to as "Danny" and "Aron" throughout; I'll return the favor by calling Lewis "Mike" here.)

Things are especially compelling in the early going: Danny was born in Tel Aviv in 1934, but spent his early childhood in France. He was Jewish. Friend, you can do the math here: much of his early life was spent close to horrible death. Lewis relates this dark story with many odd and compelling details.

Aron's background was slightly less hectic: he was born, and stayed in what-was-to-become-Israel during WWII. But (here's a story), while training with the Israeli army in the mid-50s, Arib was present when another soldier fainted on top of a bangalore torpedo he had just armed to clear a barbed wire barrier. Against orders, Aron trotted over to the doomed soldier, dragged him away from the torpedo, and fell on top of him before the explosion. Amos got a lifetime supply of shrapnel embedded in his back. And a medal. And advice from Moshe Dayan: "You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won't get away with it again."

Aron died in 1996 of cancer. They don't award the Nobel to dead people, unfortunately.

Anyway: Mike is one of the best at telling these stories that combine personal stories with a lot of geeky detail, in this case psychology. I'd recommend reading this book, before or after Danny's.

What I noticed: Mike notes the career progress of Don Redelmeier, a Candadian doctor who wound up doing some work with Aron. One of Don's insights was spurred by a brain-dead helmetless motorcyclist who'd run into a tree: people were bad at judging risks, "even when their misjudgment might kill them." And there's a small advocacy of mandatory helmet laws.

This is kind of a bugaboo of mine, that misses an important point: people have wildly differing appetites for risk. I'm wary of people who pretend there's a "right" level for acceptable risk, and want to back that up with legislation.

Worse: Danny's two-pack-daily cigarette habit is mentioned, without similar comment. How risky was that? (Note: Danny's still alive and kicking at age 83.)

Chasing Midnight

[Amazon Link]

This is (according to Amazon) number 19 in the Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford series. And—sorry, Randy—I didn't care for it much. In which I seem to agree with a lot of Amazon reviewers, many of them claiming to have been (like me) longtime fans. The 1-star reviews are (as I type) the most common (27%) with only 24% giving it 5 stars.

Ah, well. I'll continue reading the series. Because that's the way I roll. There must be some name for this mental illness quirk, if you know it could you tell me? Maybe it's the sunk cost fallacy?

Anyway: Doc and Tomlinson find themselves on a Gulf Coast island, amidst a conclave of Beluga caviar moguls, environmental activists, and assorted hangers-on. They have odd names: "Odus", "Kahn", "Kazlov", "Umkeo". And (right from the get-go) things go poorly: the island's power is cut, communications with the outside world are jammed, and people start shooting. At Doc, of course. There's a lot of dodging, bobbing, and weaving. Dire threats are issued.

Part of the problem is that White continues a writing device that he's used in the past: start the book in the middle of action (presumably to grab your attention), then introduce the setting and the characters in flashbacks. This didn't work for me.

And I kept reading to the end, but I have to confess: I could barely tell the characters apart, could not figure out their motivations, and I didn't care about the caviar plot driver enough to make sense out of it,

The Death of Expertise

The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

[Amazon Link]

Tom Nichols wrote this very readable and entertaining book on a depressing subject: why "expertise" has become increasingly disrespected in recent US history, and why that's problematic. His analysis is imperfect, but he writes with honesty and straightforwardness, and is (relatively) fearless about calling out the people responsible. (One exception: he recalls a working for a US Senator who threw him "out of his office in a fusillade of curses during a principled disagreement". The Senator is unnamed, but it doesn't take a lot of digging to discover: the late John Heinz.)

And best of all (from his Wikipedia page: "Nichols is an undefeated five-time Jeopardy! champion and one of that game's all-time top players." (Unfortunately, his run came in 1994 before they dinked the rules to allow contestants to play as long as they kept winning.)

Anyway, to the book: Nichols is (rightly) disturbed by the increasing levels of know-nothingism in the American populace. Specifically, he's put off by the aggressiveness demonstrated by the willfully ignorant. Caricature: "My opinion's as good as yours! even though you have a Ph.D. and years of experience in the field, I spent a few minutes with the Google and found these websites…"

The sources driving expertise-demise are named and shamed. Four big culprits:

  • The system of US higher education, which has become corrupted by a "customer is always right" mentality, concentration of "lazy river"-style entertaining fripperies for students at the expense of academics, grade inflation, and a dumbing-down of course content. As a result, a college degree (depending on the major, of course) has become devalued, but the students coming out of the process seem to be increasingly arrogant and entitled.

  • The Internet. It makes it easy to look up lies and errors, and (probably worse) social media sites make it easy to connect with the equally-deluded, and to establish an echo chamber/bubble in which people can remain cozily unchallenged in their delusions.

  • Journalists. They're unskeptical, biased, and often unqualified to sort out nonsense from fact. (It doesn't help that they're products of our higher education system — see above.) Like colleges, they cater to their customer base. What results is a "product" which has to be treated with huge amounts of skepticism.

  • Experts themselves. As Nichols shows in a late chapter, they can be wrong, and arrogant about it. Surprise: they're human beings too. And instead of being patient, tolerant, and unbiased, they can be … the opposite of those things. Understandably, the rest of us react poorly. Especially, when an "expert" is caught unpantsed, it tarnishes the whole group, and degrades the notion that experts should be (at least) recognized as more reliable sources of information and advice than Joe Schmoe.

I mentioned imperfections. Here are a couple:

Nichols has a (funny/depressing) rant about raw milk. He notes a CDC report that claimed "raw dairy products were 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause food-borne illness".

Now, I don't disagree with Nichols' main point: consumers should make food choices based on solid information. But the "150 times" factoid is pretty useless for determining that; it's just a scary big number. What might be important and useful to know is the absolute risk, not the relative risk.

Specifically: If the illness risk for pasteurized products is negligible, then 150 times that risk might also be negligible. And (I bet) that risk goes down a lot if you buy from a reputable source, and follow sensible food safety procedures.

And Nichols' factoid is absent of context. Even if he had reported the absolute risk for raw milk, how does it compare to the risk of food-borne illness from other sources? My gut (heh) feeling is from news reports of food recalls and hospitalizations: problems are entirely from produce and meat, nothing from dairy. Am I wrong? Maybe. But good luck finding out relevant facts from "expert" sources.

[Disclaimer: raw milk is legal in New Hampshire—live free or die, baby!—and I tried some once. I did not die.]

The second issue is Nichols' occasional overbroad brush. I was taken by this (page 111):

The deeper issue here is that the Internet is actually changing the way we read, the way we reason, even the way we think, and all for the worse.

I read that, and I thought: hey, someone talk Tom down from that ledge. His "we" is certainly overstated ("what do you mean 'we', white man?") and "all for the worse" is unsubstantiated and (almost certainly) false. And I bet he'd rewrite that if he had the chance.

Note: I was led to this book by this Noah Berlatsky review in Reason. I liked the book better than Berlatsky did, but that may be because I'm slightly more conservative than the average Reasonoid. Still, Berlatsky's critique is worth reading in conjunction with Nichols' book.

Snow Blind

[Amazon Link]

Number four in the sister-recommended Monkeewrench series. It's a page-turner!

The grabber here (after a couple of flashback prologues to be explained later) is the murder of two cross-country-skiing cops in a Minneapolis park. The lurid detail: they've been stood up and entombed in snowmen.

Meanwhile, a dangerous wife-abuser abducts his parole officer, and is off to a remote part of Minnesota, where his ex-wife has taken up residence in an unusual community of women. The local sheriff is a newly elected woman with minimal law enforcement experience. She lives on a remote and spooky farm, and … what do you know? … the abuser just happens to pick her farm in which to take shelter on his quest to mete out more abuse.

So, yes, it's a little contrived. By which I mean, a lot. And, despite the series name, the Monkeewrench gang doesn't play a big role here. But, as I said above. It's a page-turner, because the mother-daughter "P. J. Tracy" writing team is pretty good.

The Art of Being Free

How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves

[Amazon Link]

Back in January, I noted a glowing article from Nick Gillespie at Reason about The Art of Being Free by James Poulos. ("If You Want To Find Freedom in Trump's America, Read This Book!") So I eagerly put it on by things-to-read list, and requested it via the Interlibary Loan program of the University Near Here (thanks, Bowdoin College!) and…

Well, rarely have I been so let down. I am frankly puzzled about Poulos's intended audience for the book. At times he seems to be talking to himself. But, given Gillespie's praise, I suppose I'd also guess he's talking to guys like Gillespie. But not me, sorry. This is one of those books where "I read it" means, pretty much, "I looked at every page."

Poulos's thesis, as near as I can tell, is that Tocqueville's Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, has much of value to tell us of the current American situation. We are still in what Poulos calls the "Great Transition" between the ancien régime, the age of aristocracy, and the age of democracy. And it's driving us Americans all crazy (Poulos uses "crazy" a lot). He analyzes how this trend and our mental states, play out in different arenas, each one a chapter title: Change, Faith, Money, Play, Sex, Death, Love. The book bursts with references to serious social philosophers (Nietzsche, Philip Rieff, Robert Bellah, Emerson, …), but also to literary/pop culture icons: Bret Easton Ellis, Marilyn Manson, Batman, Beck, … One gets the feeling that unless your reading and entertainment habits match Poulos's pretty closely, you're going to miss whatever points he's trying to make.

And let me tell you: I'm pretty sure Poulos took the movie Zoolander a lot more seriously than you did.

The prose is… not for the fainthearted. (The reviewer for National Review deemed it "prolix". I wouldn't be that complimentary. Picking a page (137) at random:

We long for unity through the medium of our equality—seeing ourselves in the image of money, not (for instance) the image of God; if only we could be as mutable, commensurable, and passable as that which constantly reinforces and reminds us of our interchangeable insignificance.

Yeah, whatever. I would object that making such a sweeping generalization about what "we long for" would be unwarranted, if only I could figure out what he meant in the first place.

I'll give him a slight thumbs up, when he suggests that while our official motto In God We Trust might capture a popular response to "the craziness of everyday life", a more useful motto might be "Deal With It".

That's pretty good, I'm willing to back whatever legislation needed to make it so, but it also appears on page 2, and the book never gets back to that level of accessibility.

That's me, though. If you're more like Nick Gillespie, you will almost certainly like it better.

The Cleanup

[Amazon Link]

As readers may know, my to-be-read pile is deep, and my attacks on it are whimsical. So when Amazon tells me that I bought this paperback in August 2007… well, that's not surprising.

It has a lot going for it. There are glowing cover blurbs from Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and Laura Lippman! I think the reason I got it, however, was (somehow) I became aware that it was set in Omaha, where I spent many of my Formative Years (1961-1969, age 10-18). And I can (finally) report: it's pretty good, crime fiction in the Elmore Leonard vein.

The protagonist, Matt Worth, is an Omaha beat cop whose career, and life generally, is on a downward slide. His wife left him for a homicide detective, and the resulting altercation got him assigned to the graveyard shift at SaveMore, an open-all-night supermarket. There, his attention is drawn to a young cashier, Gwen. She's nice, but occasionally comes to work with injuries that Worth's cop instincts (correctly) deduce are due to an abusive boyfriend.

Then things take a turn for the disastrous. Gwen's hospitalized, the boyfriend turns up dead, and Matt finds himself in the boyfriend's car with the corpse in the trunk (along with, unbeknownst to Matt, a boatload of cash). Also complicating matters: organized crime, dirty cops, a freak October snowstorm, a nosy neighbor, and discount furniture. So that all keeps the pages turning.

At the time of the book's writing, the author, Sean Doolittle, lived in Omaha, and it shows. The protagonist went to Central High, and there are references to real places like Creighton U, Clarkson Hospital (that's where I got my tonsils out in 1956!), Westroads, etc.. The "SaveMore" grocery store is placed at Saddle Creek and Leavenworth, which Google Maps tells me is really a Baker's these days.

Red Planet

[Amazon Link]

As I've mentioned once before (oops, make that twice before) (well, actually, thrice before), Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein, was the first "big boy" book I read, checked out from the Oakland, Iowa public library at some point in the late 1950s, when I was seven or eight years old. It hooked me on science fiction generally, and Heinlein specifically. It could have easily appeared on my Ten Influential Books list back in 2010, but it already had two other Heinlein books on it, and I didn't want to look like a total fanboy. (I left that until now, I guess.)

So why reread it now, nearly sixty years later? Second childhood? Well, maybe, but my official reason was an intriguing factoid from the Heinlein biography written by William H. Patterson. The version of Red Planet that made it into my grubby little hands back in Iowa was the product of a contentious dispute between Heinlein and Alice Dalgliesh, the editor at Scribners for his "juvenile" novels. Among other things Ms. Dalgliesh was adamant about the plot's reliance on some of the characters carrying handy weapons at all times. Aieee, what do you think this is, Robert? America?

So, yes, this is Heinlein's restored, uncensored version of Red Planet. Cool!

The story has teenage hero Jim Marlowe, a Mars colonist from Earth. He has (sort of) adopted a native Martian pet, a "bouncer" he's named "Willis". Willis is usually a featureless beachball, but occasionally eyes pop out, and protuberances he uses for locomotion as necessary. Willis also has an uncanny ability to listen to sounds—conversations, music, what have you—and play them back flawlessly. This becomes an important plot point.

Jim is sent off to school, accompanied by his close buddy Frank. Things rapidly take a turn for the disastrous when the easygoing head of the school is replaced with a petty martinet, fond of imposing arbitrary rules on his charges. When he discovers Willis, dollar signs appear in his eyes, and the bouncer is confiscated for nefarious purposes.

But it tuns out that this school tyranny is only a shadow of worse things in store for the entire Martian colony. Jim and Frank set out to make things right, only to become wanted fugitives on the run, over hostile Martian wilderness.

So, yes, it's a lot of fun. There are the usual Heinlein character types that show up in a lot of his work: the cynical, wise-cracking mentor/sage, the officious, snooty, older female (think Margaret Dumont, except nastier, and no Groucho in sight).

I didn't notice any major differences in the "uncensored" version. But I probably wouldn't after (see above) nearly sixty intervening years. What I do fondly remember from the original was the Clifford Geary illustrations. You can find some of them with some Googling, but it would have been neat to have them here. Maybe some diligent publisher will put it all together someday. If that happens, I'll open my wallet one more time.

From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez

Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship

[Amazon Link]

Back in the pre-blog dark ages (mid-1980s or so), I read a fine book, Political Pilgrims, by Paul Hollander. It chronicled the voyages (physical and intellectual) taken by some Western intellectuals to the Communist world, and how they reported back glowingly about the wonders they found. The book was both ludicrously entertaining and damned depressing, I remember.

So I requested Professor Hollander's new book from Interlibrary Loan. UNH's crack library staff got it from UMass/Amherst, where Hollander is an Emeritus. (Given what I've read about UMass/Amherst, Hollander must be sort of a sore thumb there.)

To avoid treading the same ground as Political Pilgrims, Hollander concentrates about intellectuals' attraction to dictators, rather than to ideologies. There's some overlap, of course, but it's a fruitful line of inquiry. Intellectual objects of affection have included Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and a host of less-major tyrants. Hollander does his forensic duty, combing through the works and biographies of various Deep Thinkers who found these dreadful people admirable, looking for common threads.

It was not a matter of "charisma": although some of these guys had it (Castro, Hitler, Mussolini,…) others did not (Stalin, Mao, …). Instead, it seems that (as Hollander's subtitle implies), there's a bit of "worship" involved. A cult-like secular devotion develops as a replacement for more traditional religious feelings. (As Chesterton (never quite) said: "A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything."). Some of the sycophantic quotes Hollander unearths in this regard are telling and (should have been) embarrassing. Example, I. F. Stone on Che:

In Che one felt a desire to heal, and pity for suffering. It was out of love, like the perfect knight of medieval romance, that he had set out to do combat with the powers of the world. […] In a sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded from the unregenerate revisionism of human nature.

The intellectuals chronicled also seemed to be united in their hatred of bourgeois liberalism, capitalism, and individualism, which seemed "empty" to them (and, significantly, tended to not afford them the respect they thought they deserved). This found a natural partnership in revolutionaries striving to overturn the corrupt and decadent, replacing it with something shinily egalitarian and communitarian. So much that when such revolutions inevitably turned to terror, mass murder, and repression, intellectuals were ready with a panoply of excuses: it's all America's fault, the "good intentions" of the dictators must be respected, etc.

Intellectuals' sycophancy was also nourished by whatever camaraderie they could extract from the objects of their affections. Dictators obviously found such devotion useful, and did their part to encourage intellectual gullibility.

The book appears to have been lightly edited. Page 94 tells us of two "Noble" Prize winners, "Philip" [should be Philipp] Lenard and Johannes Stark, who were early Hitler cheerleaders. And page 166 contains a nod to Joseph Needham, who hailed Stalin "in the 1903s". I got these mistakes without looking, so it's safe to assume there are some more, hopefully none more significant that typos.

All in all, a fine entry in the educational/entertaining/depressing genre of historical research.


Last Modified 2017-03-27 6:59 AM EDT

Refusal

[Amazon Link]

As we know, the writing of Dick Francis novels has been taken over by his son, Felix. In fact, the "official" title of this book is Dick Francis's Refusal, but that seems a little silly to me. It might seem silly to Felix as well: this title doesn't appear on his book page, at least not as I type. The page otherwise seems definitive. What's the deal?

And, after I was less than thrilled with Felix's previous DF novel Bloodline, I had kind of thought I would stop reading his efforts. But I saw this on the remainder display at Barnes & Noble, and (as you'll notice over there on the Amazon pic) there's a little red toothy circle that says: "Sid Halley RETURNS".

Well, OK. I like Sid a lot. Let's see what Felix does with him.

It turns out Sid is in retirement from his previous job as a racing investigator. He's now married to a molecular biologist, they have an adored six-year-old daughter, and he's making a decent living as an investment advisor. But (of course) that would make a pretty dull book. Out of nowhere, an old friend calls him to investigate some races that exhibited odd betting behavior on the "Tote" (Britspeak for "parimutuel"). Could the races have been fixed, without the notice of racing officials? Sid is reluctant but agrees to check the list his friend provides.

Well, before you can say "watch out, Sid", the friend is dead, an "apparent suicide". And a mysterious phone call threatens Sid unless he writes a note to the racing officials saying "Nope, nothing shady going on as far as I can tell."

Sid soon finds himself up against a very nasty guy, who's not shy about utilizing every nasty tactic in the extortionist's cookbook: kidnapping, dognapping, arson, frameups, physical violence, and more. Could Sid be, at last, outmatched?

Well, no.

Specialization and Trade

A Re-introduction to Economics

[Amazon Link]

A little book (in the "physically small" sense) from Arnold Kling, published by Cato. Impeccable credentials, there.

The book sets forth Kling's argument for a new epistemological approach to the field of economics. He calls it a new "framework of interpretation", but potayto, potahto. Either way, it's very similar to the sort of thing ("paradigm shift") Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the old ways of "doing" economics are losing explanatory power, its "expert" predictions are too often off the mark, and there's a general air of musty stagnation around the field. It's as if physicists were still building their research efforts around phlogiston and the luminiferous aether.

Kling proposes starting over with a change in the fundamentals: analysis should begin with the atomic concepts of (guess what) specialization and trade. He argues, convincingly, that without specialization, you don't even have much of an economy. And, indeed, economic history is very much the story of how individuals perform increasingly "special" tasks, none that important in themselves, trading with each other as necessary to generate general prosperity.

Kling's explanation is clear and his enthusiasm is obvious. He proceeds to apply this framework, showing its explanatory power in various areas. His criticisms of alternate frameworks, especially Keynesianism and "MIT"-ism, are compelling. (His chapter titles betray an unfortunate obsession with alliteration, but we'll forgive him that.) There is special emphasis on the 2007-8 financial crisis that "nobody saw coming".