Category: Books

How rational was Spock?

[Julia] Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83 percent of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

Here is the full Wired story, and here you can buy Julia’s new book.  I wonder if he is more rational in the Star Trek movies than in the TV shows, or how about in the fan fiction?  Exactly where is the demand for dramatic irrationality highest, and why?

How to extract information from on-line reviews, or why Star Wars is still a thing

Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.

Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.


From Charles Kenny

Friends: I’m writing to tell you about my latest book and ask you to take a look (and share the news).

Your World, Better is written for the smart and engaged middle school student.  It looks at how America and the World has changed since the reader’s parents and grandparents were young: what has happened to health and wealth, homes, school and work, rights and democracy, war and the environment, happiness and depression.   It talks about the things that have gotten better, the sometimes-intensifying challenges that remain, and what readers can do about them.  (Some of you might hear echoes of my earlier book Getting Better –it is a source, but this is a very different text).

I wrote it because my (middle school age) elder daughter’s friends appear largely of the opinion that everything is terrible, and after the last eighteen months it is a little hard to blame them for thinking that. Your World Better is optimistic, but it doesn’t shy away from the considerable problems we face: from inequality through discrimination and depression to climate change and infectious threats.  It is meant to encourage kids to help make the world better: tip them from hopelessness toward action, not into complacency.  I hope you think I get the balance right.

The pdf of Your World Better is available to download in my blog for free.  Or you can buy a kindle version for 99 cents or a hard copy for $8.10.  Any author royalties from those sales will be donated to UNICEF.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser.  I believe you need to have read Walser first, but if so this is a far better biography than what you might have expected the English-speaking world to have produced.  It is also an implicit portrait of where pre-WWI Europe went wrong, the history of micro-writing, and a paean to general weirdness, noting that Walser in both his life and writing is inexplicable to this day.

2. Andy Grundberg, How Photography Became Contemporary Art.  How does a whole genre rise from also-ran status to a major (the major?) form of contemporary art?  This is an excellent history with nice color plates and it is also a causal account.  I liked this sentence, among others: “Surprisingly, the acceptance of color photography had happened earlier in the art world than in the so-called art photography world.”  Polaroid had a significant role as well.

3. Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.  A truly good and very substantive management book (I hear your jaw hitting the floor).  Just that statement makes it one of the best management books ever.  Really.

4. Tom Jones, George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life.  A thorough biography of an 18th century Irish philosopher who is still worth reading.  Berkeley also wrote on monetary theory and pioneered the idea of an abstract unit of account.

5. Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning through Covid-19.  This book came out yesterday, I read it earlier, and here is my blurb: “A truly excellent book that explains where our pandemic response went wrong, and how we can understand those failings using the tools of economics.”  It is published by Cato, a libertarian think tank, and it is a much better and more integrated and science-based account than what you might find from other groups, whether libertarian or non-libertarian.

How should you feel if you attentively finish Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment?

Cameron Blevis, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, is a good book and on a more important topic than you might think.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

The new Michela Wrong book

It is called Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, and so far it is very good.  Here is one bit:

As a Rwandan psychologist once told me: “To show emotional reserve is considered a sign of high standing.  You do not just pour out your heart in Rwanda.  You do not cry.  It’s the opposite of Western oversharing, a form of stoicism.

A culture that glories in its impenetrability, that sees virtue in misleading: to someone proposing to write a nonfiction account embracing many of the most controversial episodes in Rwandan history, it posed a bit of a challenge.

Recommended, I will continue reading, and this one is likely to make the “best non-fiction of the year” list.

*Island On Fire*

A good book, recent winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, the author is Tom Zoellner and the subtitle is The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire.  Here is one excerpt about Jamaica, the central theater for the book:

Among the staple crop civilizations of the nineteenth century, Jamaica was noteworthy for what it didn’t have in abundance: granite monuments, private gardens, schools, parks, beautiful churches, columned public halls.Nobody thought to bring a printing press until sixty-six years after the British takeover.  Graceful mansions like those built in the American South were less common in Jamaica and generally seen only around Kingston and on the shore of St. James Parrish, where the wealthier planters aimed to impress their neighbors with bloodwood floors, wine cellars, silverware, china sets, and ancestral portraits on the walls.  But the master’s “Great House” was more commonly made of crude materials and sometimes looked no better than a barn with windows.  As a government secretary described them, many country estates were “miserable, thatched hovels, hastily put together with wattles and plaster, damp, unwholesome and infested with every species of vermin.”


What I’ve been reading

1. Devaki Jain, The Brass Notebook.  What is it like to grow up in a Tamil Brahmin family, be molested by relatives and Nobel Prize winners, and go on to be an economist?  Short and extremely readable.  The personal tale is very charming, the politics (Nyerere and Castro, never repudiated) are not.

2. Walter Isaacson, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.  This excellent book is exactly as you think it is going to be.

3. S.M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician.  Memoir involving many of the 20th century’s top mathematicians and physics types, including von Neumann, Gamow, Banach, Edward Teller, and Ulam himself, among others.  Scintillating on every page, as a historical chronicle, as biography, and as a look into how a brilliant mathematician thinks.

4. Eric Berger, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.  A fun and informative treatment of what the title promises.  I hadn’t know that Musk met personally with the first three thousand employees of SpaceX, to make sure the company was hiring the right kind of people.  He thought he could detect a good hire within fifteen minutes of conversation.

5. Matthew E. Kahn, Adapting to Climate Change: Markets and the Management of an Uncertain Future.  I read this some time ago, it is just published, here is my blurb: “Are you looking for an approach that recognizes the costs of climate change, and approaches the entire question with an economic and political sanity?  Matthew E. Kahn’s new book is then essential reading.”

The new Peter Boettke book is The Struggle for a Better World, which is his best statement of classical liberalism to date.

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

What should I ask Daniel Carpenter?

I will be doing a Conversation with Daniel, who is a professor of political science at Harvard and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of regulation and also the FDA.  Here is part of his bio:

Professor Carpenter’s previous scholarship on regulation and government organizations appears in Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA (Princeton, 2010), winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award of the Social Science History Association; and of The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton, 2001), winner of the Gladys Kammerer Prize of the American Political Science Association and the Charles Levine Prize of the International Political Science Association.  With David Moss of Harvard Business School, he is the author and co-editor of Preventing Regulatory Capture: Special Interest Influence in Regulation and How to Limit It (Cambridge, 2013).

And coming out in May:

Professor Carpenter’s research on petitioning appears in his forthcoming book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 (Harvard University Press, 2021)

So what should I ask him?

What I’ve been reading

1. Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.  An excellent history of what the title claims, starting from an archaeological point of view and incorporating many of the latest discoveries.  The book is especially good at telling the reader how we know what we know about the Vikings: “Sweden has the highest quantity of Islamic dirhams in the whole of Europe after Russia.”

2. Jesse Singal, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.  An overdue and very well-executed look at how many of the problems in social psychology run deeper than just the replication crisis.  It covers topics of self-help books, posing and power, superpredators, bias tests, and much more.  It seems the core problem is that if the general public cares about an area, it is much harder to get accurate information about those same questions — I have noticed the same tendencies in economics.

3. Eric Herschthal, The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress.  A good survey of the scientific arguments against slavery, covering Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, the Lunar Society, and the technologists, among others.  The 2021 gloss would be “the Progress Studies people were especially anti-slavery.”  But why so little about the economists such as Smith, Malthus, and Mill, among others, all strongly opposed to slavery?

4. Christine Perkell, editor, Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretative Guide, and David Quint, Virgil’s Double Cross: Design and Meaning in the Aeneid. Two books, excellent in their own right, and an antidote to the common view that everything in the humanities is bankrupt these days, or just “French theory,” or whatever.  Of course you have to read them at the same time you are studying The Aeneid.

5. Natsume Soseki, Kokoro.  From 1914, very retro in its aesthetic, it deals with modernization, the nature of friendship, and yes “the meaning of life.”  Simple and charming in a way that contemporary authors find difficult to match.  From 1984 to 2004 the author appeared on the Japanese one thousand yen note.

Dr. Seuss as a policy issue

That is a Substack essay from Matt Yglesias, and open source at that.  Excerpt, using quotation marks rather than forcing further indents on the segment:

“To me, there’s something attractive about the “constitutional copyright” idea of returning to the 1790 Copyright Act rule. But there’s also something attractive about the idea of an author retaining control over their works during their lifetime. There’s also something to be said for the idea that if you publish something and then get hit by a bus the next day, maybe that happenstance shouldn’t cut your heirs out of the downside. Mashing that all together might leave you with life of the author OR 28 years, whichever is longer.

I think it’s hard to specify the exact right number (Rufus Pollock tries with some fancy math and comes up with 15 to 38 years), but these two points from Hal Varian’s paper on copyright terms seem relevant:

  • “Fewer than 11 percent of the copyrights registered between 1883 and 1964 were renewed after 28 years.”
  • “Of the 10,027 books published in 1930, only 174 were still in print in 2001.”

It is just super-rare for old works to have large commercial value. But Xing Li, Megan MacGarvie, and Petra Moser show that copyright extensions have a big impact on consumer prices. And I would argue the cultural cost is higher.”

There is much more at the link.