The Hot Hand

The Mystery and Science of Streaks

[Amazon Link]

I got this book thanks to an interesting interview with the author on the EconTalk podcast. The host, Russ Roberts, was effusive; the author, Ben Cohen, was interesting; the book was available at Portsmouth Public Library.

Ben (I call him Ben) is a WSJ sports writer, and a lot of the book is about basketball. The "hot hand" concept comes from there, particularly an early video game, "NBA Jam". Where, if you made a difficult shot, the game made it more likely that you'd make the next shot.

But that just codified a phenomenon that "feels right" to people in many areas: when you're in the groove, you've solved a thorny problem, you've negotiated a tricky path, whatever, you feel like you could continue to operate at a supranormal level.

But is that feeling based on anything real? Back in the 1980s, that great detector of self-delusion, Amos Tversky (with two co-authors) analyzed basketball shot data and concluded that the "hot hand" was likely a misperception, due to humans ability to imagine "streaks" in actually-random occurrences. Sigh. But this countered the actual strong feelings of all those jocks (and others) who had experienced the hot hand for themselves.

So is the hot hand real or not? No spoilers here! But Ben's book takes a wild and crazy path on the way to finding out. It's not just basketball. We wander through many wonderfully interesting and colorful side streets, discussing subjects you wouldn't expect: Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Raoul Wallenberg, Apple's iPod shuffling algorithm, the movie career of Rob Reiner, American refugee policy, roulette, and more. All presented with compelling and often drily hilarious writing. A lot of fun.

And I learned about a form of sampling bias of which I was previously unaware!

Last Modified 2020-09-14 1:32 PM EDT

Ice Cold Heart

[Amazon Link]

The latest (but not the greatest) entry in the "Monkeewrench" series by P. J. Harvey. P. J. used to be a mother-daughter writing team, but Mom died a few years back, so now it's a solo operation. And it's pretty much a paint-by-numbers lurid plot with wooden dialog and hackneyed, overstuffed, description. Here's the first paragraph of an early chapter:

When the doorbell rang, Kelly's heart started slamming against the wall of her chest. It seemed so odd, because the rest of her body felt slow and gooey and molten, like a chocolate chip in a cookie just out of the oven. It was a silly thing to think, but it somehow seemed profound, like something she should write down.

Yeesh. Where else is your heart going to slam, if not against your chest? Or the wall of your chest? Which is probably close by.

No, it's not profound, and you shouldn't write it down.

Not my cup of tea, sorry. Not even my hot cookie.

Anyway, there's psychics, abused drugs, kinky sex gone bad, cryptocurrency, hacking, war criminals, overpriced bad art, hypothermia. Not much of any reason to care about anyone involved.

How Innovation Works

And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

[Amazon Link]

A very good book on an important topic, innovation, from Matt Ridley. A Brit, but I don't hold that against him.

Approximately the first two-thirds of the book is wide-ranging history, and darn good story-telling. Chapter by chapter: how energy was harnessed to do useful work and provide reliable heat and light; how our health was improved; transportation; food production; "low tech" items, like our numbering system; communication and computing; and prehistoric innovation.

Back when I taught computer stuff, I wish I'd had Ridley's great sketch of "who invented the computer". Answer: nobody, really. Or lots of people, over decades and even centuries.

And he could have (but didn't) put in a plug for my favorite unsung area of innovation: packaging technology. There must be a bunch of pretty good stories of how hard-working techies put together metal, plastics, cardboard, paper, ink, tape, glue; all molded, folded and perforated to fine tolerances. In often attractive eye-grabbing arrangements. Simply to be easily ripped open, unscrewed, cut, or pulled apart, to get at whatever's inside. Not to mention that the packages need to be strong and safe enough to endure transportation from here to there to there to there… winding up at your domicile without spilling the goods.

I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to do that. And yet it happens, and nobody thinks it's a big deal. (Well, it's not the biggest deal. Still.)

Ridley devotes the last third of his text to pull out some general lessons about innovation. He notes that there's usually no lightbulb going off, no quantum leaps. It often happens by accident (see: Post-Its). Often involves combinations of ideas from unexpected sources, lots of trial and error. It's less likely to happen in large companies, which tend to be bureaucratic and sclerotic. (Exception: when a company sets up a blue-sky "skunk works" division that's given a green light to pursue out-there ideas.)

Finally, Ridley discusses fakes and frauds: he's got a good section on Theranos, summarizing the Carreyrou book (if you haven't read it, you should). And then there are the enemies of innovation: entrenched special interests, modern-day Luddites, etc. (Ridley should have, but didn't, give a shout out to Virginia Postrel's The Future and its Enemies.) And there are disturbing signs that America could be losing its innovative mojo as a whole. Are we destined to be out-innovated by others? (I'm tending pessimistic today, so: probably.)

The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

Adapted from the Journals of John H. Watson, M.D.

[Amazon Link]

Another Sherlock Holmes pastiche from the sainted Nicholas Meyer. Sainted for his involvement with the Star Trek movies. Especially for directing the best one ever.

But his Holmes stuff predates that, the first one (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) was from 1974 and had Sherlock meeting up with Sigmund Freud, who helped out with his coke habit. (Or something. It's been a long time since I read it.)

The book is set around 1905. Watson is dragged out of his stable marriage to saintly Juliet when Holmes is given an assignment by brother Mycroft: track down the origins of the notorious anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A lady spy has been murdered and tossed into the Thames for obtaining a copy in Russian. Can the perpetrators be brought to justice and the vile fraud debunked?

Well, if you know your history: the answer is no.

But they give it their best shot. They get a translation from real-life Russian translator Constance Garnett, and she provides an important clue to the Protocols' plagiarized origin. Holmes and Watson embark on a perilous covert journey to Czarist Russia, where anti-Jewish pogroms are becoming rife. They are accompanied by (again, real-life) activist Anna Strunsky. But the Czar's secret police, the Okhrana seem to be one step ahead of them all the way.

It's not great. There's not a lot of deduction, and Holmes seems to be outmatched, resorting to thuggish tactics to get to the truth. (Doyle wouldn't have done that!) But Meyer has done his homework for the novel's time and place: for example, the trek Holmes, Watson, and Anna take to Russia and back is lovingly described, and I imagine that Meyer dug out just exactly which trains they would have to travel on. (The Orient Express!)

Last Modified 2020-08-28 12:54 PM EDT

The Trespasser

[Amazon Link]

I got hooked on Tana French's series of novels circling around the Dublin Ireland Murder Squad: a group of detectives charged with figuring out homicides. The primary team here is the one from the previous book: Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran. The tale is told with Antoinette as the first-person narrator. And she's kind of a mental can of worms, thanks to the hostile sexism she perceives from her testosterone-heavy squadmates. She's got her shields on high, looking for (expecting, really) betrayal by her peers.

The current case seems pretty straightforward: the victim, Aislinn, has expired thanks to hitting her head on her fireplace. Unfortunately, the underlying cause of that was getting punched in the face. The suspect is pretty obvious: Rory, a guy Aislinn's been seeing, had a date with her on the evening of the crime. And he's got no alibi, and he's obviously hiding something. Relative newbies Antoinette and Steve are being "assisted" by veteran detective Breslin, And Breslin's anxious to arrest Rory and close the case. But does he have an ulterior motive? Aislinn's best friend seems to think there was another guy in Aislinn's life, but actual evidence for his existence is difficult to find.

This is really my favorite Tana French book so far. She's an uncommonly gifted writer, especially in the parts where the first-person narrator reveals more about herself to the reader than the narrator knows about herself. And (as usual for Ms French) the Murder Squad detectives do nearly as much psychic damage to themselves as the physical damage done to the victims.

In Sunlight and in Shadow

[Amazon Link]

I was pointed to this 2012 book by National Review’s Summer Reading List 2020, a recommendation by Alexandra DeSanctis. I got it on a curbside pickup from Portsmouth Public Library, a two week loan, about 700 pages, which meant I had to polish off fifty pages a day. That's a little fast, especially when the author, Mark Helprin, is a wonderfully lush writer, inviting you to linger over lovely lengths of description and musing. Sorry, Mark, we're on to the next page already!

It's (mostly) set in postwar New York City and environs, and things kick off when our hero, Harry Copeland, espies the lovely Catherine Hale aboard the Staten Island Ferry. It is love at first sight, and it does not run smooth. First of all, she's betrothed to Victor, who turns out to be kind of a bad guy. That has to be undone. The business that Harry's inherited, purveying fine leather products for retail sale, gets targeted by a nasty mobster. And Catherine, who (it turns out) has a supporting role in a Broadway-bound musical find her career path threatened by mysterious corrupt influences.

So: it's a love story, and it might make you feel a little guilty about the depths of your devotion to your own Significant Other. Harry and Catherine never make the mistake of taking their relationship for granted.

There is a long flashback to Harry's wartime experiences, as part of an elite unit performing particularly dangerous operations behind enemy lines. This sets up for the book's climax, but no spoilers here.

The plot is character-driven, by which I mean that the stuff that happens seems inevitably guided by the sort of people Harry and Catherine (and the supporting cast) are. Many decent, some impressively heroic.

Jay Nordlinger (it turns out) had a five-part essay on the book at the National Review website back in 2013. If you're interested: Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five.

Here's a bit I found amusing: one of the characters notices a movie poster and we're obviously meant to think that it's the inspiration for a famous fictional character.

[Dear Ruth]

See it? Obviously true, right?

But wrong, according to Wikipedia:

Although it is sometimes mistakenly believed that J. D. Salinger got the name for his character Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye and other works, when he saw a marquee for [Dear Ruth] the first Holden Caulfield story, "I'm Crazy", was published in December 1945, a year and a half before the movie's release.

So: it's an unbelievable cosmic coincidence.

The Decadent Society

How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

[Amazon Link]

A few months back, I found myself embroiled in a debate over at Granite Grok with an earnest Progressive who insisted that "living standards in this country have declined for the vast majority since 1980." Apparently a Reagan hater. They tend to view 1980, specifically November 1980, as the date America began its long slow slide into the toilet.

I think I got the better of that mini-debate. (Life expectancy: up since 1980; median income: up; unemployment: down; inflation: way down; poverty rate: down; …) But my adversary would have done better if he had a copy of this Ross Douthat book. Ross believes that we are slipping into decadence. And not just the US of A, but pretty much your entire furshlugginer Western Civilization as a whole. Oh well, fun while it lasted.

Ross doesn't have a particular political axe to grind, because the signs are everywhere, trends have been accumulating for decades. Manned space exploration has gotten boring, since it's running up against barriers of cost and technology. Actual economic growth shows signs of stalling out. Dynamism, research, entrepreneurship are down. Population growth is off. Politicians are more concerned with power grabs and partisan gains than actually working to find common ground. (When was the last innovative government program, anyway?) Religious participation is down.

And media seems to be recycling itself. Yeah, the new movie I most want to see is… the new James Bond flick. I saw the first one in 1962, thanks very much.

There are two ways things could end. Decadence might be sustainable! Good news for folks already in comfortable positions, poised to grab their share of a static economic pie. Not great news for people stuck at the bottom. Presumably, in order for the status quo to be "sustainable" their resentments will have to be managed. Maybe more drugs could be legalized.

Or something interesting could happen. Here, Ross advances possible scenarios, which are less convincing, but he could be right. An Africa-driven renaissance, maybe? A religious revival: Islam, Christianity, or…

Anyway, a thought-provoking book, by one of the New York Times pet conservatives. (He's over here in this cage…)

Shakespeare for Squirrels

[Amazon Link]

A gift from Pun Daughter for Father's Day. She knows I'm kind of a Christopher Moore fan.

It is the third book in Moore's series about Pocket, originally The Fool from Shakespeare's King Lear. Moore's gimmick: tell the tale from this (allegedly) minor character's point of view, where it's revealed that he's the actual mover and shaker behind many of the events. It didn't stop the Tragic Ending, as I recall. Moore tells the "true" story (rated R for language, snogging, bonking, and general bawdiness).

The second book in the series took on The Merchant of Venice. And this book deals with an even more out-there play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Downside for me: I've never (ever) read or watched any of these plays. I really recommend you do that first before tackling the Moore books. Didn't stop me, though.

It's a devilishly complex plot with a lot of characters. Pocket gets into it when he (and his assistant Drool, and his monkey, Jeff) are cast adrift on the high seas. After nearly dying, they are washed up on the shores of Greece, near Athens. And are immediately plunged into a wacky ecology of foolish mortals, fairies, goblins, and Amazons. Some of the mortals are part-time play-actors, and they plan to present "Pyramus and Thisby" in celebration of an upcoming royal marriage… And (somewhat departing from the play), it quickly turns into a murder mystery, because someone shoots Puck with a crossbow. Pocket turns private eye, interviewing suspects at his considerable peril.

And in the end, what better device to reveal the culprit than a play that's designed to catch the conscience of the… perpetrator. Yeah, even I know that's a different play. But it works pretty well.

Historical Impromptus

Notes, Reviews, and Responses on the British Experience and the Great Enrichment

[Amazon Link]

This is a grab-bag collection of articles, book reviews, and interviews from Deirdre McCloskey (DM), accumulated over decades. The Kindle version is mere $5 at Amazon, and since I am a DM fanboy, I snapped it up.

It covers decades, some bits going back to when Deirdre considered herself to be Donald. And (consumer note) a lot of this stuff is generally available on the web.

Let's be honest: some of the contents (I think it's fair to say) will be of limited interest to the dilettante reader. By which I mean: me. We get DM's side to some pretty wooly academic debates, mostly without any context or dissent. Much of DM's original research was on British economic history, and things get into the weeds pretty quickly on (for example) coal mining issues, the breadth and depth of seams dictating how practically they could be extracted. Also some stuff about swamp-draining… . Friends, I don't care and I don't feel a bit guilty about not caring. I gave long stretches of the book the looked-at-every-page treatment. I would not pass even a cursory quiz on the topics.

But everything else is good, driven by DM's punchy prose, unrivalled in my usual non-fiction reading. Specifically, DM's book reviews are fun and occasionally illuminating. Example: reviewed Thomas Friedman's 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree for the Minnesota Journal of Global Trade, and she quotes him making a stunning prediction:

China's going to have freedom of the press Globulation will drive it. Oh, China's leaders don't know that yet, but they are being pushed straight in that direction.

Well, over 20 years later, and we're still waiting. Apparently the push wasn't as pushy as either Friedman or DM thought it would be.

So I won't be reading Tom Friedman soon. But DM's glowing review of Niall Ferguson's The Square and the Tower caused me to put it on my TTR list.

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

Thinkers of the New Left

[Amazon Link]

Roger Scruton recently passed away, and I must have seen a reference to this work in one of the encomiums that sprouted as a result. For some reason, I looked at Portsmouth Public Library, and yes, it was there, so…

Not exactly what I was expecting, and not what I should have expected. This is very much a book I "read" in the sense that I looked at every page. Scruton was a philosopher, and this is a very high level discussion of the philosophy of various modern left-wing thinkers. It's an updated (2015) version of a book (Thinkers of the New Left) originally published in 1985. For the new version, he dumped a few thinkers, and added a few. But the result is the same: the thinkers examined all fail his rigorous analysis. Despite occasional praise for writing style, insight, and originality, leftist thought is largely a failed enterprise. Often lapsing into incoherence and nonsense. And indefensible apologies for left-wing regimes, before and (sometimes) after they've been revealed as massive engines of misery, terror, and death.

Here's the problem: to grasp Scruton's points in detail, you have to expend a lot of effort in cooperation, working with him in trying to dig out what the New Left folks are saying. But that's in parallel with Scruton pointing out that what they're saying is mostly hot garbage. So: a lot of work for not a lot of net payoff. There are probably some academics who could profit if this area is part of their life's work, but it ain't me, babe.

There are some bits I was able to appreciate, here and there. Scruton describes the reaction to the 1985 version of the book, and it shouldn't be any surprise that cancel culture was alive and well in academia back then: Scruton says the book's publication "was the beginning of the end for my university career". His original publisher was pressured into withdrawing the book from stores, and remaining copies "transferred to [his] garden shed."

Near the end, Scruton muses on the persistent popularity of leftist philosophy, despite its theoretical failures, and the resulting disasters whenever its political tentacles manage to latch onto power. And a worthwhile essay on why Scruton thinks conservative political philosophy deserves, but doesn't receive, more respect.