Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quick Book Reviews #1

Posting some old stuff here to get a bit of momentum

The Economic Naturalist: Why economics explains almost everything by Robert H Frank
Robert Frank has found the most economical way to write a book, which is to copy a load of his students' essays. The Economic Naturalist is a great introduction to the basic principles of economics, from the basic proposition that a person does something if the perceived benefits outweigh the costs to tragedies of the commons to marketplace signals. From experience, Frank's argument that economics is taught badly - with too few practical applications and too little attention to the basics - is true. If you want an easy to read, and easy to dip in and out of, economics primer, this is a good choice.
Having studied some economics, I was familiar with large parts of the book, but it gave me a better grounding and some portions - particularly the section on discount pricing - were interesting and largely new to me.

On the downside, it's also a good illustration of some problems with basic economics. The answer to the question "can economics explain everything?" appears to be yes, as long as you expand "economics" to include just anything else you think is relevant. At least one of the answers in the book doesn't actually invoke any economics, while others beg the question. Sometimes it seems like the economics is explaining the easy bit.
Quite a few of the answers given in the book are also very dubious, and almost all are unsupported by any empirical research or evaluation of alternative explanations. Saying that economics is an excellent way of quickly generating plausible hypotheses about things is less catchy but a lot more plausible than that it explains everything. How accurate these hypotheses are is open to question.

Collapse: why societies choose to succeed or fail by Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond is a biologist-cum-anthropologist-cum-scientifically-minded-historian/archaeologist and Collapse is his attempt to demonstrate that environmental factors can and do cause societies to collapse, and to learn some lessons from this. Diamond's a good, and persuasive author, but still I wasn't massively struck by this book. Maybe I'm not a good audience for it, as I don't take much persuading. Even so, Diamond's scientific instincts to pile on the evidence, from every kind of nologist could try the patience. There's a similar issue with Guns, Germs and Steel, where the last third largely goes over evidence when you've already been convinced by the first two thirds.

Collapse is interesting in some ways. For example, Diamond doesn't come down on the side of either top-down or bottom-up solutions. They both have their places. What's particularly important is that people can't escape the results of their actions. He is positive about the potential for corporations, with appropriate pressure, to be environmentally responsible. Also, did you know Vikings were afflicted by goat-scorn? Or, more seriously, that despite being starved (literally) for agricultural and hunting resources, Greenland Norse didn't eat fish.

One quote I was particularly taken by is about how the Japanese, who had big problems with deforestation, solved their problems with the resources at hand. That is an important lesson, that you can't rely on the development or invention of new resources. It brings up the role of technology, which Diamond is very skeptical of. After increasing our environmental impact for centuries (millenia even), what are the chances technological developments will suddenly start reducing it? At the very least, we need to have a strong degree of skepticism about the impacts of more environmentally safe technologies, particularly when they involve large-scale implementation costs. At the same time, technological change is one of the strongest forces in our society. Can we not treat it as a resource, which can be directed in different ways, albeit to somewhat uncertain outcomes?

Diamond emphasises that little is inevitable, and societies choose their path. He is "cautiously optimistic" about our prospects for dealing with environmental problems, but I can't help feeling that you can't write a successful book if you're not. In particular, it's not clear to what degree key decision-makers can isolate themselves from negative changes - if nothing else, because many of those changes happen slowly. We also suffer from a serious problem of "creeping normalcy", which makes it hard to deal with gradual and stochastic (variable, climate-style) changes. Fortunately, right at the back there's a picture of Jared Diamond looking incredibly friendly and curmudgeonly, to comfort you if you're feeling a bit depressed by it all.

Watchmen, story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Seeing that the film is out, I thought "it's about time I read the graphic novel", although I couldn't read it in public because then everyone would think I wasn't cool. I won't add much to everything else that's been written about this comic, but it certainly is an acute and extraordinary piece of work. I'm not sure about the odd thing - I'm not sure the climax fits perfectly and there's a parallel comic story that's I don't entirely get. Some characters are more interesting than others, but that's inevitable when some of them are so interesting.

Amazon has the first few pages to read here.

If you've any interest in super heroes, popular culture, mutually assured destruction, morality, society, people, or just about anything else, then you should probably read Watchmen.

Postscript: I was talking to Mark the other week about the difference between the ending of the Watchmen film and comic. On the one hand, the ending of the film is significantly less mental. But on the other, it does significantly change the connotations of the ending. Which is more appropriate I couldn't say.

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