Books

A very good paragraph and a half

by on August 29, 2015 at 3:06 pm in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

Claire Messud on Elena Ferrante in the FT:

…the novelist remains true to her broadest undertaking: to write, with as much honesty as possible, the unadorned emotional truths of Elena Greco’s life, from timid peasant schoolgirl to respected literary icon, riven always between her origins and her ambitions, between her intellectual pursuits, her romantic desires, and her maternal responsibilities — always with Lila as her fractured mirror.

I’ve pressed Ferrante’s novels on friends with mixed results. Some fall upon the books with a familiar eagerness, but by no means all: one woman said, of My Brilliant Friend, “How’s it different from Judy Blume? Just girls getting their periods.” But I end up thinking that the people who don’t see Ferrante’s genius are those who can’t face her uncomfortable truths: that women’s friendships are as much about hatred as love; that our projections determine our stories as much as does any fact; that we carry our origins, indelibly, to our graves. To imbue fiction with the undiluted energy of life — to make of it not just words upon a page but a visceral force — is the greatest artistic achievement, worth more than any pretty sentences: Ferrante has done this, if not perfectly, then with a rare brilliance.

Here is a good review of Ferrante from The Economist.  As I’ve been saying for a while, this is one of the important literary projects over the last decade or more.  And of course we still don’t know who Elena Ferrante really is, her (his?) true identity remains a secret.  And here is the new Vanity Fair interview with Ferrante.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 28, 2015 at 12:46 am in Books | Permalink

1. William Skidelsky, Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession.  An excellent short book on how tennis has changed through technology, the nature of excellence in human performance, and why fans are interested in sports and sports stars at all.  There is no great tennis stagnation.

2. Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.  If you wish to be convinced that no one has much of a good claim to the Spratlys, this is the place to go.  The best guide to current disputes.

3. Padraig O’Malley, The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  This “substance on every page” book can be read profitably no matter what your point of view on this conflict.  It has lots of economics too, most of all a good discussion of what it would take for a Palestinian state to be economically viable.  Definitely recommended.

4. Barry Allen, Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition, is a consistently interesting take on the history of ideas in China, including Daoism, Chan Buddhism, and much more.  It is unusual for a book to both make scholarly contributions and engage the common educated reader, most of all on these sometimes arcane topics.

I don’t currently have time to read it, but Robin Lane Fox’s forthcoming Augustine: Conversions to Confessions looks quite good.

Patrick Modiano’s newly translated Pedigree: A Memoir is perhaps excellent in the original French, but I found very little in it to hold my attention.

Jeremiah D. Lambert’s The Power Brokers: The Struggle to Shape and Control the Electric Power Industry is full of useful and interesting facts, organized by the stories of various personalities, including Paul Joskow and Kenneth Lay.  Cintra Wilson’s Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style is written in exactly the opposite manner, breezy and fun but at times could use more facts.

This book already has done a good deal to raise the status of autistic people and also studies of autism.  Silberman is to be commended for extensive research into the lives of Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner and into the modern “neurodiversity” movement more broadly.  He has taken on a very difficult topic and turned it into what is likely to prove a commercially successful book.

That said, most reviews of this work, while positive, are not very assured.  It’s as if the reviewers know they are not well-informed about the topic and thus they stick to general praise, without delving into the details.  Or maybe they like the book’s conclusion and are reluctant to criticize the work as a whole.  I, in contrast, have a few more pointed remarks:

1. Leo Kanner, a co-discoverer of autism, is made out to be the bad guy, yet his writings are more subtle than Silberman indicates, even though one can pull some bad phrases and quotations.  Kanner in particular had a much stronger grasp of the diversity within autism (pdf) than Silberman grants.  It is hard, after reading that piece, to see how his conception of autism could be described as monolithic.

The contrast between Kanner and Asperger is much overdrawn.  The truth is closer to “they both had profound early insights and were unjustly neglected” rather than Silberman’s “sadly the Kanner approach to autism at first beat out the Asperger approach.”  The latter narrative is an over-dramatized storytelling convention of a popular book.  The real problem back then was how various minorities and “deviants” were treated, from gay individuals to lobotomized schizophrenics, rather than the dominant influence of Kanner’s ideas.

2. Silberman promotes an “along a spectrum (spectra?) model” rather than an “autistic yes or no” model.  Maybe so, but it is far from obvious that the “yes or no” model is false and in fact it explains some of the data better (pdf).  Silberman offers no scientific reason for his choice, and he doesn’t define the underlying concepts clearly enough to outline exactly what is at stake.  Silberman argues that the spectrum models are ethically superior and more humane, but that is an unjustified presumption and it also does not settle the substantive dispute.  In any case both models are capable of accommodating either respectful or disrespectful attitudes toward autistic people.

3. For a 534-pp.book on autism, there is oddly little discussion of what autism is or might be.  That is author’s prerogative of course, but it means the book doesn’t offer much of a framework for judging the research history of autism, as it attempts to do.

4. Silberman devotes an entire chapter to the movie “Rain Man,” and in part the movie’s main role model, namely Kim Peek.  Yet the text fails to note it eventually turned out that Peek was not in fact autistic but instead probably had FG syndrome.  This is another instance of the book’s tendency to prefer a good story over the facts.  And that Peek was so ingloriously railroaded into the autism category is part of the actual story there (Dustin Hoffman played a role in doing that), yet that is a mistake which Silberman himself essentially repeats.

I hate to rain on the parade of this book because a) I love the topic, b) the author’s research is impressive, and c) the book is genuinely humane and tolerant and it will have an almost entirely positive impact on popular discourse.  Still, I think that the original organizing themes in the work are mostly wrong.

And oddly, for all its praise of autism and autistic ways of thinking, the style of the book is remarkably non-autistic.  It’s full of long stories and blah blah blah, rather than getting to the point.

Here is a review from Nature.  Carl Zimmer interviews Silberman.  Here is The Economist review.  Here is a related podcast.  Here is the Jennifer Senior NYT review.  Here is Silberman’s LATimes piece.  Here is a Morton Ann Gernsbacher review.  Here is The Guardian.  Here is The Atlantic.  Here is a PLOS interview with Silberman.

It’s an interesting read, but I don’t think you can trust what’s in there.

*Divergent Paths*

by on August 26, 2015 at 3:16 pm in Books, Economics, Education, Law, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new forthcoming Richard Posner book and the subtitle is The Academy and the Judiciary.  Virtually everything by Posner is worth reading, and this comparison of the worlds of the professor and the judge is no exception.

Russia fact of the day

by on August 20, 2015 at 3:04 pm in Books, Education, History | Permalink

In 1912 Russia had only 1.2 teachers per thousand people.

That is from the new and interesting The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I & Revolution, by Dominic Lieven.  I liked the first sentence of the book:

As much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine.

That is not, of course, a good news sentence.

Robert J. Stevens, et.al. have done a pretty serious study of this question, based on computer analysis of texts, and here is their key conclusion:

From about 1930 through 1960 or 1970, the cognitive demands of reading curricula changed little…

In the period of 1970 through 2000 we observed a fairly consistent increase in the difficulty of reading text and comprehension tasks, particularly at third grade.

For sixth graders, however, reading texts were somewhat more complex in the 1910-1930 period.

I also found this comparison interesting:

In the 1920s, 45% of all questions asked were explicit detail questions, whereas by 1990 and 2000 curricula, that had diminished to only 8% of the questions asked.

Alas I can no longer remember who deserves thanks for this pointer.  Here is an earlier Alex post about whether TV shows are becoming more complicated.

A few of you wrote in and asked me to match this Guardian list of the top one hundred English-language novels of all time.  (It is notable how many second-rate English novels made that list, and how few second-rate American ones did…)  Well, one hundred is too many but here is twenty, in no particular order:

James Joyce, Ulysses

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Wuthering Heights

William Faulkner, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury

Huck Finn

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway

Nabokov, Pale Fire

Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Sterne, Huxley, Lawrence, Beckett, and Wharton are all knocking on the door and probably would have rounded out a top twenty-five.  Scott and Trollope too, more Hardy.  I consider the omission of Austen to be my flaw, not hers, but I just don’t love them.

You’ll note I made no attempt to be “balanced.”  I gladly would have awarded all twenty spots to the same author, had such a choice been justified.  There is also no attempt at racial, ethnic, gender, or geographic balance, none whatsoever.  I simply picked what I think are the best books.

And if you think there are some obvious omissions, they probably are intentional.  There are plenty of fine books, but no I don’t put 1984 in the top twenty, and while America has many very good novels from the latter part of the twentieth century, only a few (V?)  would receive my serious consideration for a top thirty list or even top forty list.  Not many are better than Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or for that matter John Galsworthy.

A good sentence

by on August 16, 2015 at 12:57 pm in Books, Economics, Music, The Arts | Permalink

Pretty much anyone can be a ‘rock star’ these days — except actual rock stars, who are encouraged to think of themselves as brands.

That is from Carina Chocano, the entire article is good.

That is the title of my current column at The Upshot.  I very much enjoyed my read of William MacCaskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.  The point of course is to apply science, reason, and data analysis to our philanthropic giving.

I am more positive than negative on this movement and also the book, as you can see from the column.  Still, I think my more skeptical remarks are the most interesting part to excerpt:

Neither Professor MacAskill nor the effective-altruism movement has answered all the tough questions. Often the biggest gains come from innovation, yet how can a donor spur such advances? If you had a pile of money and the intent to make the world a better place in 1990, could you have usefully expected or encouraged the spread of cellphones to Africa? Probably not, yet this technology has improved the lives of many millions, and at a profit, so for the most part its introduction didn’t draw money from charities. Economists know frustratingly little about the drivers of innovation.

And as Prof. Angus Deaton of Princeton University has pointed out, many of the problems of poverty boil down to bad politics, and we don’t know how to use philanthropy to fix that. If corruption drains away donated funds, for example, charity could even be counterproductive by propping up bad governments.

Sometimes we simply can’t know in advance how important a donation will turn out to be. For example, the financier John A. Paulson’s recently announced $400 million gift to Harvard may be questioned on the grounds that Harvard already has more money than any university in the world, and surely is not in dire need of more. But do we really know that providing extra support for engineering and applied sciences at Harvard — the purpose of the donation — will not turn into globally worthwhile projects? Innovations from Harvard may end up helping developing economies substantially. And even if most of Mr. Paulson’s donation isn’t spent soon, the money is being invested in ways that could create jobs and bolster productivity.

In addition, donor motivation may place limits on the applicability of the effective-altruism precepts. Given that a lot of donors are driven by emotion, pushing them to be more reasonable might backfire. Excessively cerebral donors might respond with so much self-restraint that they end up giving less to charity. If they are no longer driven by emotion, they may earn and save less in the first place.

On Paulson, here is Ashok Rao’s recent post on compounding returns.

That is today’s FT “Lunch with” piece, by John Thornhill, and of course she is an economist at Sussex.  I hope the article is not too gated for you.  Here is one bit:

As professor in the Economics of Innovation at Sussex University, Mazzucato is much in demand on the international lecture circuit for her iconoclastic views about how wealth is generated and the public sector’s vital role in promoting innovation. She is as forthright in her opinions as she is eloquent in expressing them.

She also has four children and I can testify she is what they call “a commanding presence.”  In Singapore not long ago I told her she should have her own TV show, and I would not be surprised if this someday came to pass.  Here is more:

Even Silicon Valley’s much-fabled tech entrepreneurs are not as smart as they like to think. Although Mazzucato lavishes praise on the entrepreneurial genius of the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, she says their brilliance tells only part of the story. Many of the key technologies used by Apple were first developed by public-sector agencies. Most of the key technologies that do the clever stuff inside your iPhone — including its geo-positioning system, the Siri voice-recognition service and multi-touch screen — were the offspring of state-funded research. “Government has invested in basic research, it has invested in applied research, it has invested in concrete companies [such as Tesla] all the way downstream, doing what venture capital should be doing if it was really playing the role it says it plays,” she says. “It is an incredibly active, mission-oriented role.”

In my view she overstates what are essentially some worthwhile points.  For more you can read her book The Entrepreneurial State.  Here is her home page.  Here is her Wikipedia page.  Here is her TED talk.  She is here on Twitter.

From the interview, I enjoyed this line:

I walk in as an economist and I walk out as a life coach…

She ordered the soup and the duck.

Shanghai Book Fair fact of the day

by on August 14, 2015 at 1:52 pm in Books | Permalink

To some analysts’ surprise, books from Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Confucius and many other philosophers are more popular than before.

There is more here about some other aspects of the Fair.

Here is my Washington Post review of that book, which I very much liked.  Here is one bit from the review:

My favorite parts of the book are about the military, an area where most other popular authors on automation and smart software have hesitated to tread. In this book you can read about how much of America’s military prowess comes from superior human performance and not just from technology. Future gains will result from how combat participants are trained, motivated, and taught to work together and trust each other, and from better after-action performance reviews. Militaries are inevitably hierarchical, but when they process and admit their mistakes, they can become rapidly more efficient.

The subtitle of the book is What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will.

*Just Married*

by on August 9, 2015 at 2:33 am in Books, Law, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new and highly intelligent book by Stephen Macedo, and the subtitle is Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy & the Future of Marriage.  I balk at only one of his conclusions: he is pro-gay marriage, where I agree, but he does not believe in legal polygamy.  For instance he argues there is no polygamous orientation comparable to a same-sex orientation, rather polygamy is a preference.  He views polygamy as unstable, and also as leading to distributive injustice, with high status males reaping excess gains.  Furthermore the historical record of polygamy is often negative.  Here are relevant comments from Will Wilkinson, who (like me) is convinced by Macedo on gay marriage but not polygamy.  Is polygamy going to be such a significant practical problem that we ultimately have to in some way wield the coercive apparatus of the state if people insist on trying to practice it?  Would polygamous-equivalent contracts be not just left unenforced but also banned?  I don’t quite see how a liberal doctrine gets you there.  Furthermore, might polygamy make more sense in some eras than in others?  (“Not your grandfather’s polygamy!”)  I still wish to defend the presumption for some notion of freedom of contract.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 8, 2015 at 12:53 am in Books | Permalink

1. Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings.  A consistently interesting take on communist architecture, not entirely unsympathetic as indeed corresponds to my own attitude.  Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a nice LRB review of the book, suggesting that the author must have visited those developments in summer rather than wintertime.

2. Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel.  A novelistic equivalent of those weird “Asia extreme” Korean movies, compelling and easy to read, recommended.

3. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.  Volume three of the Neapolitan quadrology, these novels are getting better and better and stand as one of the major literary achievements of the last decade.

4. George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan, and the Tao.  Speeches and writings by a Singaporean politician about the vision behind the country and why it has worked out relatively well.

5. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker.  The idea and method behind this book basically work — imagine an analytic version of “pilot tells all” — so I am surprised this genre has not been explored in more detail before.

Also of interest to some of you may be Helen Vendler, The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, essays on poets and poetry.

Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, is a very good general history of the country.

The author is Michael Booth and the subtitle is Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia; please note the book is (at times) as much tribute as critique.  I found it interesting and informative throughout, here a few passages:

Right now, the Danes are especially preoccupied with role playing — dressing up like Gandalf or elves and acting out violent narratives deep in the woods with their foam “boffers” (the name given to role-play weapons).  There are also 219 folk dancing clubs in Denmark, but do not worry, as with the pigs, you very rarely see them.

Here is a not funny to outsider satiric video about the Danish language, cited by the book, which refers to its “declining intelligibility.”  The video has about five million views.

On Finland:

You have got to love a country that enters Lordi into the Eurovision Song Contest and wins, which consumes more ice cream per capita than any other European country (14 litres a year), and has more tango dancers than Argentina.

I enjoyed this fragment of a sentence:

The Finns’ obmutescence seemed especially to go hand in hand with that other most famous Finnish characteristic…

On economic issues, the author thinks Denmark in particular is overextended and in denial about the need for reform.  Overall I found the Danish sections to be the most interesting and detailed, the chapters on Sweden to be the least deep, and the Iceland and Finland sections to have the most new information.

Recommended, it is fun plus you will learn something.  Imagine “Bill Bryson goes to Scandinavia,” as The Christian Science Monitor put it.