What I’ve been reading lately, part 13

BASKET CASE — CARL HIAASEN

Can’t remember too much about this one: I seem to remember it involves the decline of journalism and the transformation of newspapers into advert mills, but that’s just the backdrop. The actual plot has slipped away since I read it. I do remember that I enjoyed it, though, so make of that what you will.

SKINNY DIP — CARL HIAASEN

Hiaasen again, this time with the story of a woman whose husband pushes her over the edge while on a cruise, giving himself plenty of alibis to no-one will suspect him of his murder, only to have the plans go awry when she turns up alive and recovered from her ordeal in the open ocean. As usual, there’s a cast of auxiliary characters, with varying degrees of wackiness, and an undertone of ecological consciousness.

STAR WARS — GEORGE LUCAS

I bought this not so much with the intention of reading it, but just for the nostalgia of owning it, with its distinctive cover resonating back to my earliest Star Wars experiences in 1977, and it’s super-familiar set of colour screencaps in the middle of the book.

tc-1 005

The actual reading was a bit of a slog, to be honest: I know all the plot beats so well that there was essentially no surprise. The exceptions were the few places where backstory that had been cut from the film remained in the text — for example, Luke’s friendship with Biggs on Tattooine. The outstanding example of this is in the preface, where the galactic emperor is portrayed very differently from the version we would come to know:

Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.”

It’s interesting to see an early version of something we’ve come to know inside out.

BLINK — MALCOLM GLADWELL

Having read The Tipping Point and Blink, I am still not completely sure what to make of Gladwell. Each individual chapter of either book is fascinating; but in both cases they build to … well, nothing really. Blink is couched as though it’s building a big, over-arching case, but it really isn’t. It’s just a sequence of chapters, each of them about some random interesting thing that caught Gladwell’s eye, and which he writes engagingly about. And these chapters are shoehorned into service as supporting evidence for a hypothesis that they mostly don’t support or really even have any bearing on.

I’m left with the impression that Gladwell wants us to think his work is more important than it is: that he is synthesising big ideas, when in fact he is merely a very good journalist — which of course is nothing to sniff at. The book reads like a collection of magazine articles. It’s still very well worth reading, but I fear it will be all too easy for careless readers to come away from it feeling as though they’ve learned something profound, when they really haven’t.

A BOOK FOR HER — BRIDGET CHRISTIE

Christie would no doubt hate to be introduced as such, but she is Stewart Lee‘s wife, and honestly that is what first interested me in her work. But her work stands on its own merits — I wouldn’t have driven up to Birmingham to see her live otherwise — and she presents a unique blend of explicitly feminst stand-up. it works well live, but perhaps doesn’t come across quite so well in book form, where the nuances of her delivery are lost. Christie’s stock in trade is delivery that is simultaneously indignant at male privilege and self-mocking. When that second note is absent — and it’s hard to reproduce in the written word — the result can become somewhat hectoring.

It’s still very well worth reading: I both  laughed and learned, and you can’t ask much more than that from a book. But if you have choose between reading A Book for Her or seeing Christie live, go for the live performance.

AFRICAN ADVENTURE — WILLARD PRICE

Willard Price wrote about a dozen of his wildlife Adventure books, which I absolutely loved as a kid and re-read over and over, borrowing the same books repeatedly from our town library. I remember that my little brother Gerard found the first one for me: knowing I was crazy about King Kong, he picked up Gorilla Adventure for me one week; and then I was hooked.

Mostly written in the 50s and 60s, all the books follow a similar pattern. Brother Hal and Roger Hunt are on expeditions to catch animals for their father’s business, which sells them on to zoos and circuses. As they’re going about their business, an ill-intentioned interloper appears — a smuggler, a pirate, or similar — who tries to gain the boys’ trust, usually successfully. Betrayal ensues, but the boys find a way to win out, and the animals are shipped off home to Long Island. Along the way, the books are sprinkled with natural history information, often disguised as lectures that the older Hal gives his younger brother.

It would be easy to pick holes in these books. Some of their colonial attitudes have not worn well (“Joro was easily as good as any white man”), some of the natural history “facts” are myths, and the stories really are a bit cookie-cutter. But I can forgive them all of that because they are just fine, exciting adventures and they are full of fascinating animals. Price himself wrote:

My aim in writing the Adventure series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behavior.

For me, at least, he succeeded wildly.

African Adventure is probably among the better in the series: there are plenty of fascinating animals to be had (leopards, hippos, baboons), an amusing comedy-relief character (“Colonel” Biggs, who portrays himself as a safari expert but lack both knowledge and courage) and a more than usually deadly threat (the Leopard Society, which was more or less real.) Lots of fun.

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW — DANIEL KAHNEMAN

This is the book that rendered Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink trivial for me. Kahneman’s book is long and not particularly easy, so I started it some time before Blink and finished it some time after — and against this backdrop, the relatively facile nature of Gladwell’s book was all too apparent. Thinking, Fast and Slow is essentially a summary and synthesis of all the work Kahneman did with his research partner Amos Tversky over multiple decades, culminating in the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics. It is hefty — but absolutely fascinating.

Kahneman’s field is Behavioural Economics. The starting assumption of classic economics is that individuals are selfish and rational. Because this assumption is untrue, classic economics can make wildly incorrect predictions. Kahneman and Tversky set out to investigate the ways in which individuals behave irrationally, in the hope that a better understanding of this would enable better economic models of populations. They did this with numerous elegant experiments in which the offered participants various choices and noted how the outcomes deviated from what an economist would consider “rational”. For example, if I offer you a coin-toss where you win £10 on heads and lose £9 on tails, you would be rational to accept it because the expected value of the bet is that you win 50p. But many people will choose not to take the bet.

Kahneman’s experiments uncover some very strange tendencies. Here is an experiment in the same spirit as Kahneman’s (though I don’t recall whether he did exactly this). Members of Group A are given £10, then offered the 50/50 win-£10-or-lose-£9 gamble — and most decliend the gamble and kept their £10. Members of group A are offered a choice between being given £10 or getting either £1 or £20 on the toss of a coin — and most chose the gamble. Now clearly both groups are being offered exactly the same thing; but they way the offer is framed makes a huge difference to people’s risk tolerance.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of this kind of surprising result, all of it discussed with wit and erudition. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in what makes people tick, or how societies function.

HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS — DARELL HUFF

An old classic (written in 1954) on recognising when statistics are being presented in a misleading way, such as when a correlation is presented as a causation. No surprises here, but it’s worth a quick read just to be reminded of the various common tactics.

correlation

(While I’m on the subject, I must link to Spurious Correlations — a wonderful site that is both amusing and instructive.)

C. S. LEWIS: A LIFE INSPIRED — CHRISTOPHER GORDON

A redundant re-tread of the life of C. S. Lewis, based heavily on Lewis’s own partial biography Surprised By Joy. You’d do better to re-read that, instead, or one of the better recognised biographies such as George Say’er’s Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis.

 

11 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 13

  1. The Star Wars novelization was actually ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, science-fiction author of mild renown and frequent movie novelizer.

    I was turned off Malcolm Gladwell after reading an article about a basketball team coached by professionals beating teams with more experienced, athletic players by using the full court press, a computer winning at a board game in part by ignoring the implied setting, and guerrilla warfare being successful at beating invaders back, and trying to sum it up as underdogs can win by changing the rules. I almost summed it up by saying that a basketball team coached by professionals beat teams from the slums, a computer beat humans with limited experience at a board game, and armies with thousand mile supply lines can have troubles against local armies. Each was somewhat interesting, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

  2. Thanks to your post I’ve added “THINKING, FAST AND SLOW” to my reading list. Have you read the ancient but (at least in my opinion) timeless and accurate “Progress and Poverty” by Henry George? He points out other flaws in popular Economic thought.

  3. Yeah, I have been known to quote that paragraph from the Star Wars novelisation in arguments about exactly when Lucas figured out his intent – my own suspicion is that it was probably only after he realised that he was going to get to make another film or two so his broader original premise would need considerable revision. The original Star Wars is great as a stand-alone (that was always part of the joke anyway); it becomes absurdly contradictory when it’s just one film in a series.

    I do agree about Gladwell though – his populist style is great but the arguments he chooses to follow are sometimes suspect, which makes him potentially much more dangerous (cf. Donald Trump for example.)

  4. Exactly right, David Starner: all those examples are in Blink and all of them are interesting — but they don’t add up to a coherent narrative,

    kiatoa, no I’d not heard of Progress and Poverty. But I think economic theory has come on a long, long way since 1879, and I doubt many of its then insights have survived being superseded since then.

    David Brain, I share your sense that — much as I love Empire and Jedi, it might almost have been better if the original Star Wars had been left to stand alone. It certainly has a magic and resonance of its own that none of the sequels, prequels or newquels have been able to emulate.

  5. I read some, but not all, of Willard Price’s Adventure books. Together with Dr Doolittle and Gerald Durrell they stand out in my memory as my favourite non-SF books of my childhood. I’m wary of rereading things like that though, as an adult I expect I’ll spot holes like you have.

  6. Well, Paul, I think you can safely re-read the Adventure books. The flaws are there, all right, but the essential good nature of the books comes through nonetheless, and makes them always fundamentally uplifting to read.

  7. “kiatoa, no I’d not heard of Progress and Poverty. But I think economic theory has come on a long, long way since 1879, and I doubt many of its then insights have survived being superseded since then.”

    Hi Mike, your response surprised me a little but it should not have. With busy lives and deluged with data we make snap judgments to prevent cognitive overload. You reject Georgist ideas because they were first developed in 1879. You’d have to expend a lot time to study and absorb the ideas and the data available to you suggests that any pay off is very unlikely. Fair enough.

    As a final thought I’ll say that I think a basic but flawed idea took hold around that time (1800’s) and economics has been on a quest ever since to “make it all work”, similar to how ever more complex models were needed to explain planetary motion when geocentric was the prevailing view. Henry George recognized that flaw and addressed it in his book along with showing the root cause of poverty and how to fix it. I think his ideas have stood the test of time and indeed explain why economists are pretty much a laughing stock when it comes to predictive capability today.

  8. Regarding the origins of Star Wars and how Lucas’s intentions regarding it changed over time, you might want to read “The Secret History of Star Wars”, by Michael Kaminski. It goes over this stuff in a hell of a lot of detail, covering both the original and prequel trilogies. (And of course he had to piece a lot of it together due to Lucas, y’know, lying all the time about it…)

  9. For example, if I offer you a coin-toss where you win £10 on heads and lose £9 on tails, you would be rational to accept it because the expected value of the bet is that you win 50p.

    I’ll nitpick here and point out that whether this is irrational or not depends on one’s utility function[0], since that’s what you have to take the expected value of. But yeah realistically that’s usually going to be a good bet.

    This is in contrast to the second example you present, which is straight-up incompatible with having a utility function at all (and also just kind of obviously inconsistent).

    [0]If people actually had utility functions, obviously.

  10. sniffoy, you will love Thinking, Fast and Slow! When I read the first experiment, I thought exactly the same as you (though I didn’t at that time know the nomenclature “utility function”) — I thought that what were seeing was the relatively greater impact of a given amount of money when at a lower baseline. And the recognition of utility functions that capture that was indeed an important step forwards in economics. But Kahneman shows that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

    And thanks for the Star Wars recommendation.

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