Book reviews

Note: I provide two ratings. Overall measures the long-term appeal of the book, during the reading and (mostly) after having read it, from a 5/5, a must-read life-changing experience to 1/5, something that is mostly false or, more commonly, obvious and repetitive. Easy reading measures how easy it is to get "into" the book or the initial investment and patience necessary to finish book, from 5/5, an instant page-turner to 1/5, a book that is generally painful to read from start to finish.

Infidel, by A. Hirsi Ali

Philosophy taught by Reality

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: ??/5

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is probably as difficult a book to review as it is to read, especially because of the difficult topics it deals with and the weight of personal suffering. Ayaan Ali was born in a remote region of Somalia, with little access to technology and where traditions, even ones that we judge barbaric, are applied without question. She was able to ultimately escape this and tell her story. There is no word to express the atrocities that she went through and I shall not even try to do so here, but anyone reading this text should feel compassion for the suffering of many girls in remote, and not so remote, areas of the word. The book makes the case that it is truly a moral responsibility not to close our eyes if we truly care about other human beings.

Rather than retelling her story in a manner that would pale by comparison to the actual text, I would like to take this review to bring about a few implicit questions that emerge as themes in her experience. These are not themes unique to the context of the book but speak more broadly about philosophical and sociological truths.

Even in the most unequal of societies, reality isn't as simple as men exploiting women. This theme is one that is not new and is present in Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" which should probably be read by all men and women aspiring to modern feminism. Men have of course their share of responsibility and are shown throughout the text as prone to uncontrolled violence and intolerance. But women, in particular those that are in educational roles, aren't passive victims and many of them organize and enforce rules. They can be violent and many atrocities would have been avoided if not enforced by mothers and grandmothers. Those same persons having lived through the trauma in their childhood and young adulthood, repeat the same ordeals onto their children.

It is not easy to change people's culture when those bearing its worst support it as their meaning of life. There is a certain philosophy, tacitly accepted in international relations, that cultures are sovereign and should be accepted, a theory that I broadly describe as cultural relativism: it states that there is no absolute moral ranking to be put on culture. The book makes a strong case against this view and, yet, in doing so, reveals just how difficult it is to change people's way of life against extreme priors and how interventions can drive the very people they intend to help to despair.

It would be simple if this was only a deviation in subsets of religious groups but, unfortunately, the lesson is generalizable across ideologies: that education and early life can make people accept the unacceptable. It is probably at that point, in the family and in school, that we start forming an unchangeable mental model of society that only few people, people like Aayan Ali, find in themselves to challenge and pay the price for it. Should we believe in higher moral principles to be applied across cultures? If so, how do we explain to those who have other beliefs and who may view our assumptions as arbitrary as we see their own?

There is nevertheless a positive reading that does take form within the darkness of the story. In the end, this is a story of overcoming impossible odds, adversity that no one could imagine exists. From a village in Somalia, to elected politician to, while she keeps (incorrectly) rejecting any such expertise, a scholar taking a personal look at fundamental questions of culture and human nature. The story is an opportunity to celebrate a person who had the courage to share her testimony to change the world.

Positive moral theory, for the layman

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

In a previous item, I reviewed Richard Thaler’s excellent book on behavioral economics, noting that there is now ample evidence that homo economicus, defined as the wise calculating machine finding utility-maximizing outcome over complex set of alternatives, only takes us so far to explain observed behavior by real humans.

This book, which is NOT written by an economist, takes us along a different route along this path. Let’s leave aside the issue of how moral codes ought to be, and see if simple utilitarian models of weighted individual welfare can describe how individuals think about morality. Perhaps the strongest evidence that utilitarianism is not descriptive (and I don’t view this as a weakness – in fact, it wouldn’t be useful if it were already descriptive of what people do), is the variety of moral codes across societies, which includes many rules that do not seem to have anything to do with individual welfare but, rather, with acceptable norms in society.

The idea is to re-organize positive/descriptive moral theory into orthogonal - by that, I mean conceptually distinct – foundations that can be activated or not to say something is morally good or morally bad. These five foundations are:

- Care, e.g., protect someone from pain

- Fairness, e.g., ensure that people receive what they deserve

- Authority, e.g., respect and follow leaders

- Loyalty, e.g., do not renege on trust given by friends

- Sanctity, e.g., keep with higher principles

Any of these foundations can activate, although the degree of activation or its trigger might be slightly different depending on the individuals or political views. Take the following example the issue of sanctity, or consider how we might feel about someone who consensually agrees to be killed under anesthesia and eaten (sadly, a true story). Certainly, it’s not obvious to activate any of the other foundations, but the sanctity of the human body – independent of religious beliefs – will probably activate in many of us.

There are interesting ideas that come out of using the foundations as a roadmap. First, on the political scene, democrats primarily rely on the first two foundations, while republicans draw from all five – likely making the moral argument more effective (note: I am not saying better – we have taken aside any normative content). Second, moral activation is an intuition that we can understand and steer but can’t fully rationalize. In fact, it is often the moral intuition that drives the reverse rationalization of this moral judgment being correct. So, let’s be prudent in using rational thought in justifying moral codes by understanding why we are doing it.

The last part of the book is surprising, but also interesting. Where do these foundations come from? Why is it that certain societies weight some foundations more? I was surprised by the answer; if the selfish homo economicus is a myth, the group economicus (my words), that is, the selfish group optimally selecting foundations to maximize survival when competing with other groups is the prime cause of these moral genes inside of us. So, in the end, it’s about self-interested economic agents, except that it all happens at the group level.

I’ll conclude with an aspect of the book that’s never fully resolved and kept nagging at me. This refusal to make any value judgment, and be descriptive about the issue of morality is useful as a step to understand how humans behave, but I couldn’t help thinking that it is misleading as to directions that a modern society might want to take.

Master and Servant

Overall: 4/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

The pig is as the good friend who’s helped us countless times, and we take for granted. Even worse, we despise him for it, we try to rationalize that we needed his help because those things we needed help on were dirty or degrading.

The story of the pig is not new, nor is it unique to the pig. It is the story of how we treat those who serve us.

This book takes us on a journey, from its humble origin as a forest omnivore who, like us, failed to seize the benefits to specialization to new pastures. The book makes it clear that there are many parallels between the pig and the human. Like us, pig need to be more intelligent, to be able to find, and discriminate, within a wide range of foods. They can adapt to varied environments, have similar organs.

The book goes deeper into the myths surrounding misleading perceptions of pigs. As an omnivore, pigs could (and would!) often eat cadavers and excrement in cities, taking the reputations of dirty animal that is still with us today – even though, we hope, their menu might have improved. This takes us to the main theme of the book, something that goes somewhat beyond pigs but may apply to humans as well. Given how well pigs can adapt to anything, and survive, they have been one of the most mistreated animals in the history of man. These notions of being dirty, or unhealthy, are reflections of how we have treated domesticated pigs.

This is a very well-researched book, which goes deep into how various cultures have considered pigs, and how counter cultures have rejected the pig as part of rejections of other themes of another culture; it also shows how the pig was a fundamental small-scale feasible meat for the poor; how it is nevertheless delicious when fed well; and how pigs might have been fundamental to human expansion. Pigs were not fighters or noble steeds, they were meat factories treated like objects to be used when needed. Their role was never emphasized but, economically, they provided protein that no other animals could provide.

I’ll conclude with the last part of the book, which takes on the noble purpose of drawing our attention back to the modern pig. If you buy no-label pork at the supermarket, you will probably get pigs that has been raised in small cubicles, where the animal cannot move or seat, has his tail cut off, teeth sawed off, and much worse. And, yes, if you are buying it, then you are creating demand for it, and it is one step away from doing all those things yourself. The pig is the only animal that can take this sort of abuse. It is an intelligent, suffering animal whose cruel treatment has gone for the worst with modern industrialization. Perhaps we should start treating pigs humanely: they deserve it.

Behavioral laws, or examples?

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

Behavioral economics had a rough ride in economics. It is accused of the one greatest sin of economic theory: to make up its assumptions on the fly, as a function of the facts to explain, and a parsimonious over-arching theory.

Richard Thaler is a well-known contributor and advocate of behavioral economics. In his work, he carefully presents the evidence and offers a masterly explanation of the various theories, going to beginner's material to advanced topic that would be relevant to a graduate level course, such as:

a. loss aversion: people evaluate a loss relative to their current welfare rather than evaluating utility in absolute terms.

b. transactional utility: people get an extra utility boost (loss) if the purchase is a good deal (ripoffs).

c. hyperbolic discounting: people do not weight the utility of their future self in the present, as their future self will in the future, that is, Ulysses ties himself to a pole because he knows his future self will certainly go take a closer look at the sirens..

..among many other examples..

Thaler's book is clearly inspired from Kahneman's excellent piece "Thinking, Fast and Slow," but falls short from where Kahneman shines: that is, to provide a simple general principle to organize a vast body of behavioral research. Instead, Thaler's treatment is via anomalies, describing a cohort of facts that falsify orthodox rational choice. One falsification, it may be argued, is not enough to give up on a good theory. However, being a good reader of Kuhn's theory of scientific revolution, Thaler argues that we have reached a breaking point. In his opinion, many ad-hoc fixes to these anomalies (sometimes, referred to as rationalizations) no longer cut it as persuasive.

I will hold on the many examples, which can be found in the book and are truly delightful; but I will give one to give the idea of what he does.

Fact: we see that people do not always make the right choices, in the lab or in the field.

Fix: people learn, they will make the right choice with experience.

Thaler: how much repeated experience do we get of big choices (house, spouse, etc.)?

A critique will note that behavioral economics still has it easy, because its many degrees of freedom give it an unfair fit against more orthodox rational theory, where an agent maximizes a terminal consumption payoff with a certain functional form on the utility function. Even the well-established loss aversion theory has many ways to define the reference point and deviations from that reference. So, the debate between rational and behavioral economics is this: how do we evaluate truth when comparing between more versus less parsimonious theories?

This is where Thaler's book fails to respond to the most obvious critique of the behavioral research agenda. Most of the examples he gives reflect, self-admittedly, very small effects and he is extremely vague on the accomplishments of his consulting activities. For example, he claims success from suggesting to use automatic enrollment into pension plans as the default option - a theme he explored in his earlier book Nudge. This is very nice and is certainly not predicted by rational choice theory; however, it uses almost nothing of the volumes of behavioral research published in economics journals. What it uses is the smallest idea of all behavioral sciences, that is, people make mistakes.

In summary, everyone should read the facts given in Thaler's great work. These facts lay out the problems that will need to be resolved and Thaler is right to note the current potential for a leap forward. It also lays out the proper philosophy that science is backed by facts, not by dogma. That is, that individuals are rational decision-makers should not be accepted as self-evidence truth; it is only to be accepted if it is useful to explain the facts and make predictions. His position is a lot more controversial when he presents behavioral as a 'theory,' rather than a set of disjoint models. Unless it becomes a theory, rational decision theory may be, right or wrong, the only universal theory that we have.

A life of meaning

Overall: 4/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

Paradoxically, some questions are easy to answer, but difficult to understand: What's the meaning of life is one of them. In a way, the meaning of life is intuitively self-evident, that is, to do whatever things are fulfilling and what is or is not fulfilling should be apparent from the act of doing those things. Economists, for example, have often labelled this simple principle as: just maximize your utility function.

So, it is somewhat of a puzzle that existentialists challenge this almost tautological view and this fascinating sequence of lectures provides an eloquent and clear rejection of the simple theory that precedes. In summary, the rejection goes somewhat along the following steps:

1. certain individuals realize the futility of individual experiences; that is, in this large universe of ours, one may question the futility of being moved around by a world that simply does not care about us, in the same sense that a machine responding to external stimuli may hardly experience fulfillment regardless of what the stimuli is.

2. having lost the idea of individual fulfillment, maybe an alternative could be group fulfillment in the sense that individuals could matter as part of the group. But, the group is a purely theoretical construct that is not the unit of experience or the unit of self. So, this answer is no more than self-deception.

3. Hence, the meaning of life must take the form of a redefined notion of fulfillment, which is made more precise than simply seeking utility. Here, existentialist converge on the notion of fulfillment through higher-level personal experience, from individual awe toward something greater (Kierkegaard), a sense of individual creation (Nietszche) to the exercise of defining freedom (Sartre).

I'll conclude with a word. Why do we need this and why don't, instead, live in the shadows of simple acts of fulfillment, such as material consumption? As for this, existentialist rejoin the science of psychology and happiness, that consumption is not sufficient and, often, like a drug, drains its own impetus. So, we do need these insights to the extent that they give us (if we're lucky enough to agree) a path to happiness.

Making sense of Institutional decay

Overall: 4/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

Many might remember Fukuyama from over-the-top opinions about the democratic model but fewer, probably, have read his books. Democracy is not the main theme of this book, as most of the analysis takes place before the development of modern universal-suffrage democracy. The main theme is, instead, whether common forces explain the rise (and decay) of institutions. This involves answering the following questions:

Were institutions created by modern humans or did they pre-exist in pre-human times?

Are there natural or behavioral factors that naturally decay existing institutions?

Which institutional principles are more effective at preventing decay?

How do more modern institutions emerge in the first place?

In answering these difficult questions, Fukuyama takes the route of comparative history, that of scientists seeking truth from the observed behavior of societies, from ancient China, India, the Middle-East to continental Europe and the anglo-saxon world. This gives the theory that he builds a solid grounding on fact. Further, a unique research design is its focus on a historical timeline, as we see the overlying theory driving a society throughout the ages.

So, what causes the creation and decay of institutions? The second part is where Fukuyama gets the cleanest answer. The institution of family (or kin) is the original institution of pre-human times, with solidarity within the family and the method of conflict and violence for those outside. This is Fukuyama's answer to what the state of nature is and, to support this fact, provides evidence from chimps and ancient societies. It is a surprising answer that rejects the myth of the isolated men of both Hobbes and Rousseau but, at the same time, reconciles the benevolent Rousseauian and the brutal Hobbesian savages.

This starting point is taken to the next step, looking at the emergence of non-family based institutions. Interestingly, kin-based ties, sometimes we hear them described as "nepotism", gradually wear-off the basic principles of these institutions, from the fairness across non-controlling families to the selection of the most competent elites. Institutions take measures against the decay, of which we see a number of examples, such as celibacy among priests, non-married slave soldiers in the Middle-East or eunuchs in the East, but because these measures weaken but do not wholly extinguish the human nature toward kins, the rules are always gradually lifted.

So there is, strictly speaking, no decay of institution in society, but a return to the most natural institution of human nature, that of caring for one's own family. This is the place where the exposition weakens as, while the source of decay is well-documented, the source of creation of non-family institutions remains murky. The historical record is itself full of hesitation: is it the result of the power of one competent or benevolent person (like Pope Gregory)? Is it the principle of the survival of the fittest society? (like industrial Europe?) Is it an exogenous social shock? (like religious movements?) Fukuyama errs toward ideas, as the fundamental cause of institutions, but one is left wondering what IS an idea, whether it is the man that spoke it, or the society that made it possible.

This is perhaps where my main criticism lies, that the lack of understanding of the creation of institutions puts the onus on decay and against family, even though the force of decay is a very slow-acting one with many beneficial aspects, while the force of creation is fast and probably first-order. For reasons that I do not know, Fukuyama makes almost no reference to modern economics research on efficiency as a cause for institutions, except for a few grossly misrepresented theories of the state as a rent-extracting mafia which do not represent, in any way, the current state of economic theories on this matter. Economists have a lot of learn from his research, but so does he from them.

This watershed moment

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 1/5

"Capital" is, deep inside, the love child of years of careful research trying to measure wealth across and within nations. That it should be mass-marketed as a best seller remains somewhat of a mystery, however. While Capital certainly spends less space on methodology than an academic text, it makes very little compromise otherwise. Except for a few brief winks toward economic ideas, that Piketty quickly dismisses as being generally ambiguous for all practical purposes, the tome spends its time running through never-ending statistics, often repeating the analysis for different countries, for different periods, for different measures, etc. This is a difficult book to read; in fact, noting that readers have mostly highlighted the first passages of the book, the WSJ suggests that it is one of the least read books of the year among its buyers.

This is a necessary preamble to anyone who is approaching this book as a relaxed reading that would be comparable to the writings of other economists like Krugman or Stiglitz, which it is not. And, given the press coverage as well as some unfortunate reviews, let me stress that this not a book of fresh political debate. It is a book about scientific facts, or rather, the best current approximation of these facts. And the one main documented fact is, on its own, not that surprising; namely, that free markets tend to a rising unequal distribution of wealth. Hence, it is other mechanisms, such as war or the welfare state, that moderate this inequality. Actual policy recommendations, based on the assumption that inequality carries unbearable social costs, come only in the final chapters. Naturally, a reader may agree or disagree with this assumption, hence with the implied recommendations, but this does not, in any way, devalue the contribution of the book.

Some extra discussion should also be given to a few unfair criticisms, often made by those who have only read its cover. First, this is no modern Marx: the book does not predict that inequalities would necessarily grow so large to explode the social order - in fact, references to the "Belle Epoque" make it quite clear that high degrees of inequality can be very sustainable - that the working class will rise and challenge greedy bourgeois or that some kind of great reshaping of the state should occur. Beyond this, it is saddening that, at this age, some would still lower themselves to any form of Reductio ad Marx. Second, some commentators have questioned a few methodological assumptions of the research which is, undoubtedly, a good thing and in the way of healthy dialogue. However, it is intellectually dishonest to use a couple of (very debatable) side debates to draw judgment on the book which is almost entirely unrelated to these assumptions. Third, this is not an attempt at philosophy or economic theory. Very little progress is made in terms of conceptually defining capital. Capital is what we can measure and what we can measure is capital; for this reason, the largely un-measurable human capital is not included as capital, for better or for worse. Lastly, the thesis is not nearly as controversial as one might think: certainly, if we remove any notion of the state except for the protection of property rights, it is quite plausible that inequalities might increase over time. There is controversy somewhere, but it is more subtle. That is, should a person or family have the right to preserve wealth across generations to preserve all of descendants from any kind of want OR is it unbearable to imagine a future society where a portion of its people toil for the wants of others whose sole claim to wealth is successful ancestry.

I do not offer to give an opinion on this question, and neither does the author. It is not the function of economists to decide on the right model of society. However, it is their function to document the facts and the available tools to get to alternative models of society. This is the great treasure that is to be found here.

Revolution vs. tradition

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

The French Revolution is this two-headed historical anomaly. On the one hand, a brutal repression (think: off with your head) followed by the most devastating wars until the 20th century. On the other hand, it is the first spread of democratic ideals and human rights in continental Europe. The point is not to judge but to try explain the commonality between those two, very different, interpretations and, perhaps, draw more philosophical lessons on the price paid for liberties we enjoy idea.

The book delivers a set of answers to this question and it is of course, nearly impossible to summarize those answers in a few sentences or without the historical context. Yet, I'd like to try to phrase the most contemporary insight that comes out of it. Human progress, as it seems, appears to be driven between the forces of tradition and order (conservatism) vs. the forces of idealism and change (liberalism). Where tradition is based on concrete practices, inherited from parents and ancestors, idealism posits fresh beliefs and ideas. Where order emphasizes social peace, change values the destruction of whatever came before.

Perhaps this one-time event in history is teaching us the value of moderation, of a middle way. That even idealistic improvements to human conditions, where applied brutally with no respect for existing institutions and context, are portent of ill consequences. The end does not justify the means. It also tells us that unrestricted reverence for a set of traditions without any consideration of their social consequences is a dangerous route. In summary, it tells us about the value of slowly evolving, adaptative institutions.

Eyes wide open

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

The French Revolution is this two-headed historical anomaly. On the one hand, a brutal repression (think: off with your head) followed by the most devastating wars until the 20th century. On the other hand, it is the first spread of democratic ideals and human rights in continental Europe. The point is not to judge but to try explain the commonality between those two, very different, interpretations and, perhaps, draw more philosophical lessons on the price paid for liberties we enjoy idea.

The book delivers a set of answers to this question and it is of course, nearly impossible to summarize those answers in a few sentences or without the historical context. Yet, I'd like to try to phrase the most contemporary insight that comes out of it. Human progress, as it seems, appears to be driven between the forces of tradition and order (conservatism) vs. the forces of idealism and change (liberalism). Where tradition is based on concrete practices, inherited from parents and ancestors, idealism posits fresh beliefs and ideas. Where order emphasizes social peace, change values the destruction of whatever came before.

Perhaps this one-time event in history is teaching us the value of moderation, of a middle-way. That even idealistic improvements to human conditions, where applied brutally with no respect for existing institutions and context, are portent of ill consequences. The end does not justify the means. It also tells us that unrestricted reverence for a set of traditions without any consideration of their social consequences is a dangerous route. In summary, it tells us about the value of slowly evolving, adaptative institutions.

Steve Jobs, by W. Isaacson

A modern Achilles

Overall: 4/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

Great subjects are a necessary condition for great texts but, in the end, there is no great text without meaning that transcends its subject. So: do we have a straightforward factual biography or is there some deeper existential insight to be found here.

A life lesson from Jobs would have been, perhaps, a more theatrical but also more accurate title for this. Because this biography is not just a tale of a successful magnate, more than this, it is a tale of many (big) failures and that force of will never to accept defeat against any odds. Take a few examples:

1. Steve Jobs did found Apple, sure enough, but the most successful early Apple products were done by someone else who did not even want to be part of such a venture.

2. He "designed" the Mac but it wasn't unclear that Mac was even such a success; further, most of the technical backend had been muscled out of a poorly managed competitor and the tech crew of Apple.

3. He managed a large chunk of the company with the fame of the only founder that kept an active role; yet, it took only a few years for everyone around him, including many close friends, that the company would be better-off with him gone.

4. He created another company of his own; that did not seem to work and he had to continue to breathe life into it from his own money. In fact, the whole enterprise appeared to be doomed unless some crazy person decided to make a play for it.

And this goes on and on..

Jobs was able to get to success only after going forward after many from small to catastrophic failures. It takes greatness not to ever give up and the book offers a great example of resilience in the face of adversity and advice for the next generation of Jobeses in the making.

I will mention two non-trivial caveats to the whole exercise, an unfortunate missed opportunity that will prevent this text from becoming the reference text on Jobs. One place where the book falls very short is in terms of complacency toward the subject. Although this is not an autobiography, the reverence of the biographer is distracting. Do we need personal judgment about the merits of competing non-Pixar movies? Why do we not hear the side of those that opposed Jobs during his life? Another place which I personally lament is that the biography is nearly entirely based on the public record. I don't mean here that there is no great talent in filtering and organizing the public record, there is; and I don't mean that I would be looking for some juicy personal anecdote, glossy magazines will probably do that better. But there is somewhat of a missed opportunity in not bringing forward some personal moments to better understand the humanity of the person.

No food, no heat, no electricity, no escape

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

Mi-Ran is an elementary school teacher and, while she may not know it yet, one of millions of prisoners in a gigantic concentration camp. Her life, like the life of many others, could not be more ordinary. She teaches the greatness of the leaders and is, like others, hopeful to begin officially dating and even start of family when she reaches her late twenties. Surely, times are difficult: with the lack of food, her class of young children is slowly shrinking, never to be seen again. But no drama, no heroic moves around her, not even one grand protest followed by repression. As the regime holds its iron grip, normality is that the people should starve or die of disease. All of this for no apparent purpose. No major exploitative goulag, no public works. All of this for a mad regime that seems to revel in the misery it creates.

This is not just Mi-Ran's story but the narrative of many escapees from the horrors of North Korea. Based on hard-to-believe testimonies, this would read as fiction if it were not so sad and depressingly real. In retelling these stories, Barbara Dernick goes well beyond what one might expect. There is an obvious danger of selection bias in these testimonies, i.e., we only observe those that made the step to escape so probably what they saw, even if reported honestly, paints an overly dire picture of what there is.

Not so: those refugees we hear from had the least reason to escape or were generally well-treated or active party members. Among others, we have a doctor at the top of the social pyramid, a party member, a person in a rich and well-fed family. It is an amazing thing about North Korea that, because it is so difficult to escape, it is those that are relatively better-off that can leave and, for those that are not, no food, no heat, no electricity, no escape.

The stories go into not only the drama but the many unexpected facts of life of the people that live through it. North Korea seems unique in its flavor of totalitarism in ways that make the book a must-read for anyone with some interest in international matters.

Six shots of history, hangover likely

Overall: 3/5, Easy Reading: 2/5

Allow me the obvious one: it is too bad for a book about drinks to be so dry. Yet, leaving aside some of the narrative, the book presents an illuminating and rather unique perspective on modern history, that the big ages of humanity were coincidental with changes in the most popular drinks. Armchair economists beware though, the book is non-committal as to whether the new availability of the drink was a significant factor in the end of an era, or if it is the new era that caused the greater popularity of the new drink. Nevertheless, there are some troubling facts: for example, the first written records of counting were about beer, tea helped factory workers stay productive for long hours, stored hard liquors would allow sailors to stay on board for weeks in a row or coffee shops opened the minds of the great modern philosophers, poets and scientists. It is much much easier to explain the influence of the drink on an era, especially because the new drink tended to precede it, than it is to do the reverse.

What makes the book more of a curiosum than a homerun is that, like a coffee table book, the material is too dispersed and unfocused to make for a compelling single narrative to swallow in just one sitting. Yes, the drinks just don't mix all that well and each new chapter tosses one drink aside to focus on the next without much attempt to explain why a drink might have fallen into disfavor. Worse, much of these drinks still enjoy great popularity today and not much thought appears to have been given to follow-up on their access during but also throughout the ages. Did the consumption of beer decrease since the ancient times? How did the consumer base of each drink change from its apogee to modern times? How did perceptions of each drink change? Are there no drinks that were popular in the past but disappeared due to the competition of these six drinks?

Another very disappointing part of the book, specially for an overall extremely well-researched study, is that it almost completely lacks any quantitative or statistical facts about the drinks. It is very difficult to estimate from the book what proportion of the common man had each drink, and what quantities they had, even though I assume such estimates do exist somewhere in the historical record.

Yet, all of this said, this remains a very refreshing take on just everyone's favorite drink.

There is no simple way out of poverty, but there are simple things that help

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

For anyone who's even briefly browsed The Economist, there is a lot that we think we know about development, most of it gleaned from armchair economists' big ideas about what should be done, how the world can be changed, etc. This book takes a very different perspective and looks directly at what the evidence from the field really tells us. There is so much that we think we know but we just do not (or we have it completely wrong). If you choose to read it, I recommend that you take pencil and paper, and ask yourself a few questions:

Why are the poor malnourished?

Why are the poor unhealthy?

Why do the poor have so many children?

Why don't the poor save?

Why are poor countries corrupt?

I found the book illuminating in coming to answer these questions from ACTUAL field evidence in ways that are not only unexpected but ring true. It is such a breath a fresh air when most of what we hear in this area is speculation about might happen given one or another aid policy.

Yet, and this is only one part where I should caution the reader, the book is not nearly as objective as the authors want us to believe. In some places (microcredit being the big example), the authors depend on the willingness of non-governmental institutions to share their private data and, understandably, are unwilling to explicitly write against them. Given the quality of most of the book, this becomes laughable in some places when, for example, Banerjee and Duflo do a parenthesis on the great intelligence of a person in an out-of-the-blue impromptu or, in contrast to the rest of the book, when the authors become vague about unfavorable findings in their own statistical research. Such a conflict of interest is unavoidable for sure but I wish it had been stated more clearly at the beginning of the book.

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by P. Bronson and A. Merryman

Preaching the obvious

Overall: 3/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

As a new parent, I felt like reading about children even though I find the general purpose of this type of endeavor unclear. Perhaps the problem with education is not so much knowledge of the material as it is the consistent execution of what works.

NurtureShock is sold off as "new thinking" but, to be honest, there is nothing very new to be found, and certainly the overall narrative fits well as part of the modern educator's tool set. For example, I usually test a book by quizzing a friend (in that case a young parent like myself) about the content the book and that friend was not particularly surprised. Certainly, praising a child's intelligence might increase the fear of failing. Sure, indifference can be worse than fight. And, yes, it's good to interact/speak with baby.

This is not so much new thinking, as mainly everybody knows what is there, but a question of whether parents are really willing to do it; as I said, knowing something does not mean you would like to do it. Most parents might want their kid to feel good about themselves, not maximize intellectual prowess, or do not want to be facing constant fights between siblings, or might not want to involve baby in all of their conversations. Or perhaps we should? I am not saying that that these are good things, but that presenting these as grand insights are like teaching that eating burgers every day is probably not the best diet choice.

One place where praise is due is in terms of the academic research to support each theory. One just cannot go wrong when documenting serious and well-designed studies of the reactions of kids to different situations. This is not just feel-good or common-sensical advice but theory that is validated in many experiments; certainly, even if one knew that already, it gives much greater validity to the ideas.

How to prove a Ponzi scheme?

Overall: 2/5, Easy Reading: 3/5

The title says it all "A True Financial Thriller." This is not intended as an account of Madoff's fraud but as a thriller of a person in search of the world's largest fraud. Although mildly entertaining, the book fails completely as either a personal biography or a thriller, let alone as an explanation of the fraud or the SEC investigation. Right from the start, there is little Markopolos actually knew about Madoff, since he gathered most of what he knew from public sources. Except for the 'mathematical' proof, which should have triggered further investigations, most of the book is spent rambling about other people's inability to dig deeper. We do not know why they dropped the ball, and there is not much Markopolos could do about it, which makes for a very poor setup for a thriller.

The 'proof' mainly relies on two bits of information. One, the type of high consistent returns produced by the fund, if they were real, suggested at least two frauds: (i) that Madoff was front-running (i.e., using his other job as market maker to trade against his market making clients), (ii) that Madoff was smoothing his earnings to achieve consistent gains. Two, the enormous size of the fund (billions and then tens of billions) made it impossible that such strategies would be sufficient. As long as the golden eggs kept coming, no one wanted to open up the golden goose.

Surprisingly, the chief villain in the story is not Bernie Madoff, who had no contact with Markopolos except perhaps indirectly and this is where things, as far as good reporting goes, begin to turn sour. Markopolos' beef is with the SEC, an institution with which he had many contacts and which dismissed his investigations repeatedly. I am not about to pass judgment but this condemnation of the SEC is naive, in the best of worlds, and factually misleading. As an academic, my research is on financial accounting practice, and I have occasionally dabbled into the history of institutions. The SEC is an institution that has been created, and still operates today, to protect the interest of small, generally unsophisticated, investors that may be predated by various financial schemes. This is why accounting scandals such as those of Enron or Worldcom, where many small investors lost their lifetime savings are within the scope of the SEC.

But can we make such a strong claim that the SEC failed its mission in the case of Madoff? For one, Madoff was not open or advertised to the general public; many of the investors were extremely wealthy individuals, sometimes sophisticated money managers and, occasionally, endowments under the supervision of experts. Madoff did not advertise his products as a regulated investment, like a mutual fund, and did not promise any transparency. And, lastly, many of the investors in Madoff's products were fully aware that something off was going on (like front running) and did not want the fund to be more closely regulated. The investors in Madoff's scheme knowingly took a chance, knew the returns but also knew the risks that their trust might be misplaced. Is it the SEC's job to protect sophisticated financiers from making risky gambles that partly rely on personal trust? I do not think so.

Hard to believe as a true story

Overall: 4/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

"I don't want to be a good man, I want to be a great man". That is NOT a quote from this book (it's from a recent Disney movie) but it would fit the book like a glove. Frank Abagnale was born into wealth, with an otherwise caring mother and father; he was introduced to good society and probably could have been part of the local bourgeoisie with no great effort on his part. And, then, there were women, women are expensive and he could not help wanting more, and more, of it. More than the regular allotment of a good man, that is for sure.

This is how it started and how Frank W. Abagnale entered a career of deception that took him from being a professional pilot, a medical doctor to practicing law with a real (almost) honestly acquired law diploma to vouch for it. This is a 100% non-fiction but certainly does not feel like it; little is lost with details and the sole nerve of the person makes for one hell of a ride. The only minor disappointment is the ending, which lacks closure and stops in the run of it; it's a pretty minor thing though because the rest is history.

Is is worth reading on top of Leonardo's movie? I say a moderate "yes" partly because the Hollywood version presents a sanitized version of what really happened; although it is not like the book itself is extremely rich in personal facts. All in all, it's a good addendum of the movie for those who wanted a bit more detail on how he could get away with things or, to say this in a different manner, the kind of heavy preparation that he needed to put together.

Economics of central banking during the 20s/30s, for everyone

Overall: 4/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

I admit it, I delayed reading the book; the Great Depression of the 30s and its preambles is a fascinating period. However, the inner workings of the Central banks seem the most boring place from where to watch history unfold.

This is not the case. Ahamed makes a convincing case that a few people, namely the four heads of the major central banks, were central in the grand orchestra of the Great Depression. Their errors, perhaps a mix of poor economic training, selfishness and the wrong kind of obstinacy, led to real consequences, prompting the world toward what would be the greatest disaster in human history.

You will find here a detailed account of the consequences of Britain joining the gold standard, France's policy toward gold hoarding, the well-intentioned but ultimately destructive support by the Fed toward European cheap credit and, lastly, the lacking attempts as everything unravels to take power away from these men.. too little too late.

There is one point where the author, apparently not an economist, appears overly naive and out of context. The book is about the errors of a few men in power, but in places, the admiration for the economist John Maynard Keynes becomes blinding to the extent that it misrepresents both current attitude toward his theories or, even, at the time, whether his ideas would even have worked. In a gratuitous manner, the book ridicules I. Fischer not on theoretical grounds but on silly side comments he made, or completely fails to note that Keynes' work, falsely presented as the panacea that protected us from crises, collapsed during the decade of the next crisis of the 70s.

The book shines as an epic economic history of the times, not as a guide for future policy.

Military history, at its best - two reviews in one

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

I remember playing the game Battleship (touché-coulé in France); it was the electronic version in which each player faced a vertical grid and the game beeped satisfyingly when the coordinates you put in were a hit. I do remember that the bigger boats were the worst, once they got one hit, a likely event given the size, the other player would bring in everything he had to finish it.

Researching for this review, I learnt that the game actually dates back from WWI but, amazingly enough, it fits perfectly as a description of what it was to wage carrier war during the Pacific campaign. As the author puts it, an aircraft carrier is like a pro boxer with a glass chin. The carrier would launch its plane toward a "guessed" destination (no satellite back then and recon above the clouds is as bad as it seems) and the other carrier would do the same. One bomb, one torpedo can be all it takes to sink a major boat like an aircraft carrier so if each carrier launches about 30 bombers/torpedo planes, figures.. This is not even counting fun things like U-boats, collisions with friendlies or sucky weather.

I find many good things to say about both Pacific Crucible by Ian W. Toll and The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds. It is a testimony about the courage of the pilots and sailors who won the war, many of which did not survive. Equally as important, it is a testimony toward the courage of the Japanese fighters which took on the world's most powerful nation and initially won through sheer willpower. Too much bad ink has been spilt about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor - certainly not one of Japanese noblest moments - but the book corrects this bias of history by showing how Japanese troops later on fought with great courage during the campaign of 1940-1941.

Historians often present Midway as the turnaround of the war, and this book is no exception. Yet, the facts are there that Midway was not the turning point and the war was lost on Dec. 7 1940, when the raid on Pearl Harbor fail to destroy the carrier fleet and many of the damaged ships could be recovered. The event prepared Japan for a long-term war of attrition against the United States that the Japanese generals knew could not be won. Given a weak hand, there is only one thing the Japanese general could do: to bluff the United States into a great naval battle before it would be ready for a full-scale assault. Midway was that bluff and, like any bluff, it has to show some weakness to work. Fighting in Midway, thousands of miles from Japan was that bluff. This day, the bluff did not work and the Japanese advance ended about six months prior to schedule. Without general Yamamoto's fateful decision, the two sides might have been matched for slightly longer and many more lives would have been wasted on both sides.

I strongly recommend these books to anyone who wants to know what REALLY happened. By that, I mean: who were the generals that made the decisions and why did they do so? Who were the known and lesser known heroes of the war? What is a naval battle and what is an air assault? And, yes, how many people really perish during a naval war? The Battle of Midway is probably the most interesting the two, because it takes a more personal approach to each character involved in the battle, although the Pacific Crucible does a nice job at introducing the first moments of the campaign. Reading both is the best option.

A Concise History of the Middle East, Ninth Edition, by A. Goldschmidt and L. Davidson


Overall: 1/5, Easy Reading: 1/5

I went to audible and got this book because we seem to bashed with European and US history but have very little exposure to anything else. Given that the middle east is the cradle of modern civilization, the topic of the book seemed a perfect place to start; I had listened previously from audible the really great books "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," "Charlemagne," "Postwar" and "No Simple War," all books that I strongly recommend for those like me who want an entertaining yet detailed account of historical events.

Gosh, was I for a disappointment with this one. What the authors call "history" is an accumulation of names and labels with almost no context about the social environment where things happen. It is very difficult to relate to anything when things are exposed in a dry sequence of historical terminology without any broader analysis that can weave facts together into a conceptual narrative. I do understand the role of religion, but does a proper history book needs to offer extensive quotes to religious texts; shouldn't we expect the authors to summarize these quotes and draw the conclusions from observed historical behavior? And, not that religion is unimportant for the history of the region but, if this is to be history and not theology, shouldn't the rise of new religions be explained as part of the social environment rather than an exogenous fact?

But perhaps what I miss the most is the lack of un-historical facts we find in the best history books, the historical anecdotes that give new light to the dry historical facts and which, I suppose, would require a lot more research. Combine encyclopedia-style exposition with some religious quotes and this is what you should expect here.

Scratch out History from the title

Overall: 2/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

In my opinion, a good history book for the general public begins with deep research about a topic that no one really examined before and then an art to bring it to life. A renegade history begins exactly with this premise: among the citizens of the US, probably a good portion were criminals, low-life, outlaws that lived, worked, stealed and, ultimately, had a great influence on the direction the country takes. Yet, history tends to systematically focus on the grander figures and the great moments, or the small but good people, leaving aside all of these "renegades".

While the topic is rich, I found myself getting completely disinterested from the book very quickly. The problem is not that the author did not do research (research is extensive) and not that he does not bring life to the telling (he does), but rather than there seems to be very little to say after all, beyond what one would imagine or already know. Yes, there was certainly a lot of prostitution and debauchery; yes, alcohol was always a recurrent problem; yes, slaves would often mix with the common man in lower-class taverns; yes, some of the disturbances against the british did originate from drunken brawls. But, did anyone really think otherwise? The book does place some historical precision into these events but, if you are curious, will not teach a lot that is very new.

My impression is that the book has been written with the idea of a "fix" against the kind of extreme patriotic idealized discourse that one sometimes finds in the media or in the classic "A ... history of the United States". That would work well if those that take the discourse literally were to read this book, but I doubt that is the case. Instead, it reads like a cheap shot at the establishment.

History: an F grade

Overall:1/5, Easy Reading: 2/5

Let me tell you what you should expect in this book: while the book states this will be a history of the world, what is actually in the book is nothing of the like. What the book does is to spend most of the time ruminating facts about religious movements without any attempt to fit this into a social analysis, providing insights about why certain features of religion come to be and how this fit into the broader history.

Really, should the history be about complete parts of the Bible? The obvious intent of the book is to hide some religious message in the guise of a history book which I find almost dishonest. I do not have any preconceptions about fitting the history of mankind within the scope of religion, but I think that, if this is the thesis, it needs to be worked out as a documented thesis in a scientific manner rather than assumed as a way to ignore everything else.

I read a few reviews about the book, and some complained about the still strong focus on western history. I don't find anything of the like to complain about in the book; this is not the problem: the problem is that this is not a history book at all.

Foundations of Modern Europe

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 3/5

I am not sure why I bought this book. The history of western Europe after the war does not exactly seem the most fun to hear portion of human history; in fact, one would expect a lot of economic numbers about what Europe rebuild while all of the interesting historical stuff was happening in Russia, the US or in Asia.

Certainly true, western Europe is not just economic growth but there was a lot going on at the time. First, these were the times were the foundations of the European Union were put into place. As a French, I always took that as a given and view the Germans as some of the friendliest in Europe (certainly more than the French). Nothing like that post-war, I did not know that, even in the fifties and sixties, the German government acted to stop the prosecution of known nazis or that a third of Germans had favorable views of Hitler (of course, that's very different now!). Second, I did not realize the general cultural boom all across Europe, specially given the current constant hammering of American pop culture in modern Europe. Third, there is a lot of dark history to be learnt from eastern Europe and its complete abandonment by the western countries.

The greatness of the book is the material is delivered in a very lively manner, in a way that is very accessible to a history layman. The only possible cost of this is that the economic history has certainly taken the back seat, and (while this is just my opinion) it seems that most of western history is due to politicians rather than the evermore inter-connected business world.

Economical Writing, by D. McCloskey

Learn how to write and learn how to read: non-fiction welcome!

Overall: 5/5, Easy Reading: 5/5

This is a trio of must-read books for writing academic papers. Writing is tough - from the getting-started part to the making-it-work part. As academics we're overly trained in knowledge and tools, but never properly educated in effective discourse. The best of ideas will be entirely lost if incomprehensible: in fact, is it even an idea when it cannot be correctly explained.

There is far too much knowledge in these books for me to summarize, so I encourage everyone to read them, take notes, and think about them while writing. I don't want to spoil the experience of the many 'ha-ha' moments but I can guarantee that there is an immediate 'first-application' effect on one's own writing effectiveness.

Nevertheless, let me summarize a few big points that stick:

  • Economical writing: that's the art of revising one's writing to convey the same meaning in as few words as possible, therefore, saving effort and time on the part of the reader.

  • Precision: Every time the best word for the right meaning, no jargon, no confusing use of multiple words for the same thing.

  • Sentence construction: avoid long sentences or any sophisticated sentence construction that create fatigue.

  • Making every line interesting: Any word must engage the reader; tell him something he does not know or was not thinking about. Just remove what's not interesting.

  • The Spiral method: Each sentence is sequentially connected - no break in the flow or parenthesis - to 'spiral' in toward the main insight.

In the end, there is no single model to write effectively and it is not about style - in fact, I've seen in my own academic work that native speakers are usually no better writers than non-native. What it is about is to create clarity in one's mind at the writing stage. One of my advisors in graduate school was an English Ph.D drop out, who then become a leading researcher. He did take away from his English training the importance of writing and was very clear in sending the message that writing is not just a first-order aspect of academic success but an integral part of knowing what we're doing. I would fully agree with this view; even after having solved a model, I would rarely know deeply what is going on until many months of writing.

Those national heroes, guilty of mass murder: A history of WWI

Overall: 3/5, Easy Reading: 4/5

The Great War is perhaps the one cause of nearly a century of human disasters and, as such, a book that takes the time to cover the sequence of the events should be read by anyone who has some interest in modern civilization. Here are a few insights one may get from reading the book: What caused the war to be so deadly? Why did the main powers decide to continue fighting for so long? What errors were committed that caused things to be worse than they could have been? What seeds were left to prepare the coming of the second world war?

The book works very well as a page-turner for a history layman (like me and, I assume, most of its audience) but it is somewhat disturbing on several aspects. To give an example, it consistently judges the incompetence of many generals as promoting worthless assaults that would cause many casualties for no gain, as attackers, generally the Entente, would simply come out of the trenches to be decimated by machine gun fire. There is only truth in the endless sacrifice of human life that these assaults caused as well as the disregard of generals for the life of their soldiers, but that this strategy would lead to absolute military disaster is historically dubious.

The author spends considerable time with sensational statements about "major" mistakes which are often unsubstantiated by actual casualties statistics. The UK and France had a population of 85 million vs. 65 for Germany. If one includes on both sides, Russia and Austria-Hungary, the difference goes to 270 million for the entente vs. around 120 million for the central powers. With such number difference, it can be explained that the entente did not need to inflict equal casualties to win the war, and the assaults did so repeatedly. What the author seems to claim as the worst mistakes of the war, like the Sommes offensive in 1916, had a count of around 650,000 casualties for the entente vs. 450,000 for the central powers; hardly a rate of casualty that the central powers could maintain and something that Entente commanders knew.

Other judgments that are made are dubious. The author takes time to criticize Conrad of Austria-Hungary, sometimes as cheaply as noting that he was relaxing behind the lines while his army was in battle. Bad as it is, and while Conrad did fail in the end, the author fails to remind the reader that it might be quite difficult for a country of around 50 million, including many slavic populations unwilling to fight for a regime they did not support, could challenge a country of 170 million, while most of the divisions from Germany were still on the western front. Similarly, a general the author presents as a genius, Brusilov of Russia, is the cause of incredible casualty rates on his army, much worse that any of the criticized offensives and which, at the end, suggest that the author does not weight casualties on each front equally.