The Idealist

Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty

[Amazon Link]

Another book I put on my to-read list years ago, and only just now got around to. Thanks to the UNH Interlibrary Loan folks for getting it from Boston College; boo to whatever BC student (or, who knows, faculty member) who underlined, starred, dog-eared, and in one instance dropped an F-bomb in the margin.

They feel strongly about African poverty at BC, I guess.

Anyway, the author is Vanity Fair editor Nina Munk, who embedded herself with the efforts of superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a massive project, diverting millions of dollars in private/public aid to so-called "Millennium Villages" in order to bootstrap them out of their grinding poverty and into a new era of (at least relative) prosperity.

And… it didn't work. Or at least not as originally envisioned. You can't drop piles of money into an area and not see some important changes. But the poor are still poor, eking out a pastoral existence, subject to the whims of climate, corrupt government, and local criminals.

As Munk sketches out, Sachs had impeccable credentials and the best of intentions. And he wasn't above bullying donors into supporting his efforts, essentially telling them that if they didn't shell out, they were condemning millions of Africans to remain in miserable poverty. He seems to be one of those folks, like Steve Jobs or Elizabeth Holmes who could create a Reality Distortion Field while explicating their vision. (As far as fraudulence goes, Sachs lies somewhere in the middle of the Jobs-Holmes spectrum.)

Hubris was also maxed out in Sachs's case. Grand plans were conceived, only to bump into mundane reality much later. For example, let's get those African farmers to produce banana flour! Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a market for banana flour…

Sachs also butted his head against the local culture. As Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out tirelessly, capitalism (she says "trade-tested betterment") can work wonders in a culture whose values are compatible with it. Time and again, the villagers who Sachs was trying to help … demonstrated that those values were not that important to them.

Bad Blood

Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

[Amazon Link]

Pun Daughter enthusiastically recommended this book to me. It's a lurid tale of entrepreneurial capitalism gone very wrong. Also still quite popular, despite being published last year; it took a number of tries at Portsmouth Public Library before a copy became available off the shelf. It's written by the WSJ reporter, John Carreyrou, who was primarily responsible for revealing the rot.

It's the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley health-tech startup led by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes. It lasted 15 years, fueled by deep-pocketed private investors and prospective customers that Elizabeth beguiled with her charismatic description of promised futuristic diagnostic machinery: just a droplet of a patient's blood, obtained via a simple finger-stick, fed into Theranos tech would be able to quickly diagnose disease, and measure levels of countless enzymes, lipids, sugars, and minerals.

Bad news: none of this ever worked well, most of it never even came close to working. Theranos machines couldn't even get reliable results for potassium levels in blood samples.

But, geez, what a yarn. Elizabeth seemed to see herself as a girl Steve Jobs, down to dressing in a black turtleneck. She even (Carreyrou acknowledges) had a way of creating a Jobs-like "reality distortion field", persuading her listeners that she really had a workable vision that was going to revolutionize the medical tech field.

The difference was that Jobs really did, at least a lot of the time, have tech in the pipeline to eventually bear out his boasts. Elizabeth seems to have had a cargo-cult belief that if she got the outer trappings right, the technology would somehow magically be created. By the force of her personality and vision. And also having her boyfriend (and company president) "Sunny" Balwani browbeat the employees incessantly.

She acquired a lot of glitz along the way: George Shultz (the former Secretary of State), General James Mattis, Henry Kissinger. Theranos got a visit from Joe Biden, and Elizabeth was featured at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser during the 2016 campaign. She also brought in famous high-priced lawyer David Boies, both to sit on the board, and sue people.

But life inside Theranos was pretty miserable, because if you suspected there was not a lot of substance behind the hype, and brought your concerns to upper management, you were politely (well, not that politely) asked to pack your things and leave. And also threatened with legal action if you said anything about Theranos' "trade secrets". (The main "trade secrets" being: "Our stuff doesn't work, we don't know how to make it work, Elizabeth is a bullshit artist.") The company's chief scientist, Ian Gibbons, committed suicide by acetaminophen overdose just before he was to testify in court.

Eventually things fell apart. Elizabeth and "Sunny" are due to go on trial for fraud and conspiracy next year.

So: a massive waste of time, talent, and money. But the lawyers—damn, they made out pretty well. Not just Boies, but also the lawyers for the folks he sued, and threatened to sue. In a just world, Boies would be looking at jail time too.

Last Modified 2019-10-07 11:12 AM EDT

Cracks in the Ivory Tower

The Moral Mess of Higher Education

[Amazon Link]

Fun fact: I've been involved with "higher education" off and on, mainly on, since 1969. An undergrad for four years, a grad student for … too long a time, a non-tenure-track instructor for seven years, and winding up as a diligent employee geek for 25 years. I won't say I'm an expert, but I kept my eyes open.

Another fun fact: my separation agreement with the University Near Here allowed me to keep my library borrowing privileges, including Interlibrary Loan. And when I requested this book via Interlibrary Loan, the library responded: "Nah, we'll just buy it, and put it on hold for you."

I can't help but think that was a gutsy move on their part. Even though this book is published by the Oxford University Press (respectable!) and has two academic authors, Jason Brennan (McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University) and Phillip Magness (American Institute for Economic Research), it's fundamentally subversive of most features of the modern American university.

The authors make the following complaints about higher ed:

  • Faculty, administrators, and students face bad incentives that cause them to advance their selfish interests instead of working for the common good of their institution.

    One description of administrators particularly rang true: "Administrators respond [to the demand that they appear "busy"] by filling their schedules with meeting after meeting, with a large percentage of those meetings being little more than administrators reporting to each other about what happened at other meetings."

    I can report that this behavior filtered down to those lower on the totem pole.

  • Universities promote themselves shamelessly with gauzy websites, self-advertisements, festooned with meaningless slogans. UNH's "on the edge of possible" is mentioned as a good (by which I mean: bad) example. (I commented on this dreadfulness back in 2016.) Worse, universities don't even deliver on even their nebulous promises; students don't learn much that's useful.

  • Student evaluation of teaching is garbage.

  • Calculating GPAs is an inherently incoherent methodology; the results are meaningless.

  • Academics relentlessly seek their own self-interest while cloaking themselves in the language of morality.

  • Gen eds don't work; they're mostly established to serve the needs of the influential faculty and their departments, instead of students.

  • There are too many low-quality PhD programs which (inevitably) oversupply low-quality PhDs. This wastes everyone's time and money.

  • Students cheat. A lot.

  • Universities waste a lot of taxpayer money; justice demands reform.

Brennan and Magness acknowledge that their treatment only scratches the surface. They don't even touch some topics, most notably athletics and leftist political activism. That's OK; what they do discuss should (but probably won't) cause some serious soul-searching in academic halls.

[And another fun fact: Jason Brennan is a UNH alumnus.]


The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark

[Amazon Link]

I picked up this book on a lark off the new book table at Portsmouth Public Library. Why not? It was cute, short, perhaps lighthearted! Might be fun!

It was fun in spots. But even at 183 small pages with medium-size type and ample margins, I think it was way too long for the thesis the author, Cecelia Watson, seems to want to make.

The semicolon is despised by some writers. Some of them you've probably heard of, like Kurt Vonnegut. (Unmentioned by Ms. Watson: Elmore Leonard, who warned against using them in dialogue; presumably they were OK outside quotation marks.) The mark was originally "invented" (to the extent that this punctuation stuff could be said to have been invented) to signal a pause, like a rest in music. A shorter pause than a period, but a longer one that a comma.

But then didacts came up with Rules. And the more semicolons used, the more the rules multiplied and became hopelessly complex.

Worse, legislators started using them in laws. Now, legislators are not really that great at knocking the ambiguity out of words; things arguably get worse when you throw a bunch of punctuation symbols into the mix. The book goes into great detail on a Massachusetts law that, depending on the interpretation of a wayward semicolon, might have prohibited the sale of liquor in hotels between 11pm and 6am. And that issue made it to the Mass Supremes.

OK, fine. Ms. Watson is a little more laissez-faire on Rules than I am. I think that any rule-promulgator should explicitly append Orwell's last one: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

But that implies having at least a nodding familiarity with the rules in the first place.

Anyway, a few problems with Ms. Watson's book:

  • A footnote on page 87 claims the late Antonin Scalia "believed that the U.S. Constitution should be applied with reference to its writers' intentions."

    Ms. Watson elsewhere fuzzes up the difference between original meaning and original intent when doing Constitutional interpretation. It's not clear she appreciates the difference. But all she had to do was to check the relevant Wikipedia entry to find a Scalia quote:

    The theory of originalism treats a constitution like a statute, and gives it the meaning that its words were understood to bear at the time they were promulgated. You will sometimes hear it described as the theory of original intent. You will never hear me refer to original intent, because as I say I am first of all a textualist, and secondly an originalist. If you are a textualist, you don't care about the intent, and I don't care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words. I take the words as they were promulgated to the people of the United States, and what is the fairly understood meaning of those words.

    Not a huge deal, but…

  • [Amazon Link]
    Ms. Watson also disses (pp. 165-171) one of my faves, the late David Foster Wallace, taking him to task for his overly-pro-rule Harper's essay (April 2001, original here, also in Consider the Lobster, Amazon link at right.

    No point in going into details, but I encourage you to read both Wallace and Watson and make your own call.

  • And on pp 179-180, there's this drive-by:

    During the 2012 elections, when Mitt Romney ran aggressive campaigns misconstruing President Obama's statements on entrepreneurship, Jon Stewart capped off an indictment of Romney's strategy with…

    Well, never mind what Jon Stewart said; it was the usual bleeped Comedy Central f-bomb, designed to elicit clapter from the audience. (If you're interested: here.) There's no clue about what Obama said about "entrepreneurship". There's not even a reference to Romney's "aggressive campaigns". Cecelia, WTF are you trying to pull here?

    A balanced take from Tim Cavanaugh at Reason is here; it may jog your memory.

The Great Debate

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

[Amazon Link]

This book from Yuval Levin explores the contentious relationship between two rough contemporaries, Eddie Burke and Tommy Paine. They had fundamental disagreements about the nature of man, government, history, and social change; they worked these disagreements out in public via books, letters, and articles. And, Yuval shows, that long-ago conflict echos in our world today, in the differing political philosophies of left and right.

Paine, of course, was one of the major propagandists of the American Revolution. He was a thoroughgoing believer in natural rights of the individual, equality, and (above all) Reason with a capital R. This led him to believe that each generation of a free people could and should design their political institutions de novo according to their wishes.

Burke was on the side of tradition, order, obligation; this dictated that social/political changes should be gradual, with a decent respect for the system bequeathed by our ancestors.

Burke also looked with favor on the American Revolution, but for different reasons than Paine: he saw the British as trying to overturn the decades-old relationship with the colonies by an abrupt and arbitrary imposition of taxes, and other abuses. This offended his views of tradition.

Yuval notes, amusingly, that Burke and Paine ignored different parts of the Declaration of Independence: Burke neglected the first part, with its airy theorizing about rights; Paine ignored the second half, with its tedious list of grievances against the Crown.

Their differences blew up over the French Revolution, though. Paine was a huge fan of overthrowing the monarchy, and starting everything from Year Zero; Burke saw nothing but trouble was likely to ensue.

Yuval meticulously teases out their differing philosophies. I'd say he's scrupulously fair in his descriptions, although I might have detected a slight preference for Burke's sentiments, a slight bias against Paine's hubris in assuming reason's ability to design optimal political arrangements. That might just be my own viewpoint shining through.

Yuval's prose is … not sparkly, sorry. He's done a great amount of careful research, makes some good insights, and (unfortunately) lays it on the page in the dullest and driest manner possible.

Last Modified 2019-09-18 5:36 AM EDT

The Doomsday Calculation

How an Equation that Predicts the Future Is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe

[Amazon Link]

An impulse checkout from the Portsmouth Public Library. And it turned out to be a lot of fun, William Poundstone's latest exploration into the deep dark woods of fringe science, contemplating some of the ultimate questions of physics and probability.

It begins with a description of the "Copernican method" invented and popularized by J. Richard Gott III, a respected physicist; its purpose is to estimate the lifetime of something, when the only thing you know about something is how long it has been around so far. Called "Copernican" because it assumes that there's nothing particularly "special" about your observation in either time or space. But especially, here, time.

The argument is: you're unlikely to be observing this something either at the beginning or the very end of its lifetime. The most likely scenario is: you've come across it sometime in its middle age. And that gives you a shot at predicting how long it's going to last.

Gott came up with this in 1969, viewing the Berlin Wall, it being 8 years old at the time. He predicted with 50% confidence that it would not be there in 1993.

And (ahem) it was not.

Poundstone explores Gott's Copernican method, where it applies and where it doesn't. And then goes on to visit related and unrelated weirder areas of scientific/mathematical speculation. For example, Zipf's Law, which states that the Nth most-common word in English text has a frequency proportional to 1/N. So, for example, the 50th most common word will occur about twice as frequently as the 100th most common word.

And the math behind this is similar to the math behind the Copernican method. Hm.

Poundstone covers a lot of area. The Fermi Paradox ("Where are all the space aliens?"); Are we living in a simulation created by others? Why are there three macroscopic spatial dimensions? That fine-structure constant, a dimensionless value approximately 1/137: a little bigger, or smaller, and atoms would not be able to exist. The possible menace of Artificial Intelligence (Poundstone is less sanguine about such menace than Steven Pinker). The implication of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. The possibility that our universe is simply a "bubble", one of many created out of a high-energy vacuum.

And more. I suggest you read this book in relatively small doses; there's so much mind-blowing theorizing herein, you might walk around in a daze for days.


[Amazon Link]

This 2011 novel was Elmore Leonard's last; he passed away in 2013 at the age of 87. He wrote it just as the TV series featuring US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, Justified was in its early years.

It's set in a slightly different universe than the TV show. It's also set in a slightly different universe than Leonard's previous Givens-featuring novella Fire in the Hole; at the end of that one, Boyd Crowder has been shot deader than dead. But in Raylan, (surprise!) he's back, healthier than ever.

The novel interweaves three plot threads: (1) a transplant nurse masterminds a gang who steals victims' kidneys; (2) a ruthless coal company exec comes to town to try to negotiate the sale of a mountain; (3) Raylan is asked to track down a fugitive college-aged poker player, but gets caught up with a sleazy pimp who is branching out into bank robbery, with the help of his stable.

People who are familiar with the TV show will recognize plot elements and characters mutated semi-recognizably from the book. (For example, the book has Dickie and Coover as members of the Crowe family, under the thumb of their daddy. On TV, they were Bennets, and it was their mom, the unforgettable Mags Bennett, who was running their criminal show.

And the wonderful, precocious, Loretta McCready has a cameo.

All in all, a fun read. This ends my Elmore Leonard reading project, at least for now. It's been fun.

Openness to Creative Destruction

Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

[Amazon Link]

This book has a clunky title. And somewhat misleading. The actual subject is in the subtitle: what the author, Arthur M. Diamond, Jr., calls "innovative dynamism" (which I'll just call "ID" from here on out.)

As Schumpeter observed, modern entrepreneurial capitalism involves both ID and "creative destruction". Can't have one without the other, as new ways of doing things leapfrog and obsolete the status quo. Diamond gives a full-throated defense of this process. Or, actually, celebration. Because, of course, we're unimaginably richer thanks to a few centuries of ID. And we should fervently hope for more in the future.

The book concentrates strictly on economic/business dynamism. (Appropriate, since Diamond is an econ prof at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.) Culture is the tail wagged by the economic dog here. I think that might be a slight problem, but it's a minor one at best. Diamond tells a rich and interesting story with lots of examples, both recent and historical. Colorful tales, for example, dying Steve Jobs demanding a more esthetically designed oxygen mask.

In my case, I didn't need a lot of persuading, but his thesis is pretty convincing: a healthy level of ID benefits society generally and nearly all individuals.

Problems: stifling regulations, onerous taxation both hold back ID. He makes a pretty good defense of patents (although he advocates reforms that would quash overly broad ones).

Although the book is published by Oxford University Press, there's nothing in here that would challenge a bright high schooler or an interested undergrad. Highly recommended.

The Rule of Nobody

Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government

[Amazon Link]

This sat in my "get at library" queue for a long time, and my newly-acquired Portsmouth Library card allowed me to get it, and so… sorry, I was kind of disappointed.

The author, Philip K. Howard, is unhappy, nay, disconsolate, with the state of American governance. In a phrase, we have become "rule happy", ever-increasing layers of detailed regulations that impede or prevent all sorts of worthy endeavors. Lots of anecdotes, like about the Bayonne Bridge road-raising project; it was delayed (but not successfully) by seemingly endless (but not actually endless) environmental review and litigation (probably frivolous).

Howard's argument is weak. He laments America's inability to "make public choices". But: one of the things he bemoans (page 41) is New Jersey's then-Governor Chris Christie's call to kill a plan to build a "much-needed train tunnel under the Hudson River".

But I wanted to protest to the author: that was a public decision made by an accountable official. In other words, the sort of thing you said you wanted to happen! And as near as I can tell, there's been no effort to revive this fantastically expensive project now that Christie's out of office.

Howard conveniently sums up his thesis in 18 "propositions", developed throughout the book. (Example, number 7: "Official authority requires an open area of choice defined by legal boundaries". Fine.)

His solution? Five (count 'em, five) constitutional amendments; he calls them collectively the "Bill of Responsibilities".

They aren't awful. There are even theoretically good ideas in there, like giving the President a line-item veto of spending items. But amendments are devilishly difficult to enact. My objection is the same as it is to a "balanced budget" amendment. If there's sufficient public agreement and sentiment for an amendment to do accomplish goal G, there's enough agreement to accomplish G legislatively. (I.e., just balance the freakin' budget, Congress; it only takes a majority vote.)

Simple Dreams

A Musical Memoir

[Amazon Link]

Linda Ronstadt's "musical memoir" is not great, but somewhat interesting to this longtime fan. She's a much better singer than she is a writer. (In fact, after reading some painful passages, I thought: "this is what a bad writer thinks a good writer writes like".)

One interesting observation is the stuff she leaves out. For example, back in the eighties, she played Sun City, in South Africa, during apartheid. For $500,000. In the face of an active boycott. And people were pissed.

There is nothing about Sun City in this book.

Also she had a relationship with George Lucas. Yes, the Star Wars guy. But… nothing about George here. (She only mentions that her great album Cry Like a Rainstorm was recorded at the Skywalker Sound studios.)

So it's incomplete. Linda just talks about what she wants to talk about. It's a real contrast to some of the other musician memoirs I've read, which get down into serial sexual infidelities, substance abuse details, scrapes with the law, etc. There's some of that here, like Linda claiming that the only time she tried cocaine and wound up having her nose cauterized. Ouch! And she got arrested once because her manager bought stolen airplane tickets for a trip to Hawaii.

So she mostly concentrates on the music. And I was impressed with her hands-on direction of her career; she could have just been a rock/pop goddess the entire time. But she followed her muse instead: Mexican music from her childhood, singing with her friends Dolly and Emmylou, American songbook classics, opera. Fine, but geez, I would have liked a few more rock/pop albums. Selfish, I know.

She's mostly complimentary to everyone. The only person she really slags is Jack Nitzsche, and only then because he was a very mean drunk. (This gets tedious after a while, say about the fiftieth time she compliments an acquaintance's amazing musicianship.)