2020 By the Book, Pt. 2

Daniel Issing
Jan 12 · 21 min read
Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Link to the first part.

No need to waste words on another introduction, let’s dig right into it.

Sometimes the best books are those from which you expect it least. And while I like to think of myself as someone who appreciates how seemingly mundane topics can hold deep insights, if studied with passion, I did not expect to be awed by honeybees and how they go about finding a new home. Well, guess what! Maybe I’m easy too impress, but what an intellectual pleasure to try understanding the workings of a hive.

Two things I want to note: Honeybee Democracy makes for a catchy title, but I don’t think it accurately describes the swarm’s decision-making system, which is neither a direct nor an indirect democracy, but maybe a kind of noocracy, “the aristocracy of the wise”. And it isn’t even much of a “rule”, in fact, for while the information-gathering and dancing for promising nesting sides is done only by specialized forager bees (rather than the entire swarm), the decision-making tends to be unanimous. You’ll notice how little resemblance with modern parliamentary democracy such a procedure bears.

The second point is the short section on neuroscience, which is utterly fascinating, but, alas, only touched upon in the most superficial way. Thinking of a swarm as a (loose?) analogy to the brain, with the bees taking the role of neurons, is quite an interesting perspective, one that would certainly please a Douglas Hofstadter (who is mentioned in the book). I just feel that there is much more that could have been said on the similarity of those two systems and was left our due to page constraints.

Unfortunately, the closing chapter (how the studies of bees can improve human decision-making) is rather week and doesn’t contain too many valuable insights. In fact, the biggest problem is that in a honeybee swarm, the incentives are well aligned (everybody wants to find the best new home), and a single bee cannot reasonably profit by making the resting of the swarm suffer, quite unlike questions of national interest in human affairs, or even in smaller groups. So you don’t get all the mess that results from typical coordination problems, and that leaves you with little more than well-meaning advice of which there is already plenty.

A book of popular history that sets out to correct some misconceptions about Scotland. It is well-written and certainly a pleasant read, with a number of amusing vignettes, and many details about great Scottish thinkers, engineers and entrepreneurs that I wasn’t aware of before. Scotland’s development in the 18th century is indeed rather astonishing, moving from one of the poorest countries in Europe to a nation at the forefront of research and political innovation. All of this happened after the Acts of Union, when Scotland became a part of the UK, casting doubt on whether political independence is actually beneficial for economic development. The history of decolonization in Africa in the middle of the last century offers similar sobering data.

Still, I hesitate to recommend it, because I generally don’t like recommending books that confirm almost everything I expected to get from it. There simply wasn’t any reevaluation of priors happening in my brain while going through it. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t leave room for disagreement; in fact I am quite skeptical of the central theme of the book: That there was something remarkable, unparalleled about a number of great men (few, if any women make the list) that changed the world by virtue of being Scottish. Sometimes, the evidence he draws up for this borders on the ridiculous — for example, the arguments that the American revolution was a quintessentially Scottish project because some major figure involved in it had Scottish parents, or went to a Scottish university (or an American university that was supposed to teach in the Scottish spirit, or…). He needs these arguments to feed his narrative about “inventing the modern world”, which is so heavily influenced by the rise of America as a (the?) global superpower, but all of that really makes me feel that this book could have been about many other nations as well. Couldn’t the Germans (no home bias here!) be said to have invented the modern world with equal justification(think of the printing press, the combustion engine and the car, the dynamo, X-rays, the anti-baby pill etc. etc.).

Roughly up until the second half of the book, I was afraid this was going to be a pop science rehash of my beloved Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB). Hofstadter set out to make some of the things he originally proposed in GEB more clear, which seemed — at least initially — to mean: Drive home the same points for a broader audience.

So here we are again, talking about how consciousness comes into being in a purely materialistic world that knows no such things as “ideas”, “pain”, “love” and a myriad of other concepts and emotions that seem part and parcel of our identity. I still find it hard to state the central idea succinctly, that is: where exactly does that ‘strange loop’ suddenly appear in our brains (and bodies — remember Descartes’ Error from part 1)? Point being, if you are not as convinced as Hofstadter that analogies hold the key to great wisdom, you will likely walk away unimpressed — after all, what does Gödel’s incompleteness theorem have to do with neuroscience? In a nutshell, both mathematics and consciousness seem to offer something over and above the stuff that they’re built of — meaningless symbols on the one side, and mechanistic cells on the other. So how do you get from that base level to the epiphenomenon? Through recursion and self-reference. Not feeling up to the task of explaining how exactly this would happen (and because you should really be reading Hofstadter), I’ll point you towards his books.

The second half contains some quite fascinating thought experiments on the nature of the self, the meaning of identity and so forth. All in all, GEB > Strange Loop, but bear in mind that this is quite a towering benchmark to compete against.

Claiming that an entire branch of science is headed in the wrong direction is a dangerous enterprise. Many people think they’re brighter than the scientific consensus, and almost all of them are mistaken (climatology is a particularly telling example). If one such person — even if she’s from the community herself — were to make the claim that something as spectacularly successful as theoretical physics is derailed, we should probably be extra cautious. But despite all these reservations, Lost in Math is a great and important book.

One thing I really appreciated about it is that Hossenfelder manages to build a bridge between what’s currently happening in physics — what are the heuristics that researchers currently rely on when nature doesn’t tell them where to look for the truth? — and timeless philosophical questions (such as: what is the relationship between beauty and truth?). It’s not one of the books that could have been written 40 years ago and wouldn’t have been any different, nor is its focus so narrow that it won’t be relevant a few years from now.

As she makes abundantly clear, in an age were physics is ‘starved of data’ (because discovering new stuff is extremely costly — think of the LHC), we have to decide before doing the experiment which theories are worth testing. So far, so unsurprising — it’s probably not the first time we enter such a phase, and there’s nothing wrong per se with picking some set of extra-empirical criteria to get started. Things only take a turn for the worse when these heuristics itself become ‘self-evident truths’ and drive the funding process long after they stopped being useful. Hossenfelder fears that this is exactly what is happening in theoretical physics: Because concepts such as naturalness (dimensionless ratios of physical constants should be of the order 1), elegance (which could mean many things, for example: a surprising reappearance of a mathematical model in vastly different domains) and simplicity (as few fundamental particles and forces as possible) to make this preselection. Granted, she says, the history of physics is full of examples that shows those concepts at play. But take something like supersymmetry, which is indeed a wonderful theory, and yet has evaded all empirical confirmation. Even worse, many of its simpler variants have already been disproved, raising the question which of these guiding principles to sacrifice first.

I have some hopes to address these issues in greater detail in the future, not least because the observations spill over to other sciences as well.

A story about an Indian scientist moving to America and dealing with the legacy his brother, an activist who was shot for his involvement in a revolutionary movement, left behind for him. Even though the Naxalite revolution serves as a backdrop for this novel, the challenges from which it arose and its legitimacy do not seem to me the most important aspect to me. Similarly, the aspect of adapting to a new society plays a rather small role, although the occasional “clashes of culture” — intergenerational or geographical — do of course occur. Rather — and this might be a rather idiosyncratic reading — it is about how much our character and intentions can really determine the shape of our lives, and how much of it is forced upon us by external circumstances. Especially towards the middle, it reminding me a lot of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.

The writing style is quite austere, even repetitive. Sentences are short and vary little, very unlike my own writing. It wasn’t my favorite novel of 2020, but definitely the one I finished fastest.

I’ll be very honest, I would have never read this book if it hadn’t been for a seminar for which it was required reading (together with Globalists from part 1, for which the same holds). And I will be equally honest with my assessment, which is: unless you have some skin in the game of Austrian Economics, you’re not going to miss much if you never lay your hands on it.

Wasserman tries to paint, with a broad brush, a picture of so-called Austrian School of Economics — its origins in the imperial Austro-Hungarian empire, ideological development and eventual diffusion throughout the globe. It is, to my knowledge, the first attempt by an outsider to write a serious intellectual history of the school that goes beyond trite cliches, conspiracy theorizing about the Mont Pelerin Society and the like. He also has a firm grasp conflicts that existed within the school, such as the role of mathematics in economics, the question whether or not their theories implied a specific set of policies ( keyword ‘value-free science’), the connections to the conservative right, and what exactly we should consider to be its core tenets. Even though the author cannot be said to be sympathetic to the project, his judgement is even and fair.

Most histories of Austrian Economics focus solely on the theoretical developments and disputes, and will probably be heavy on the ‘Viennese coffee culture’ side of things. Wasserman, by contrast, also looks at the the myriad ways that Austrians tried to wield influence, the connections they established to survive the Nazi era, their role in such things as GATT or G20. He also has a superb section on how the school become popular at around the time when the Austrian economists mostly stopped doing economics and turned to ‘broader’ questions. The mass appeal, if ever it had any such, derives in large parts from the political agenda it (allegedly) implies, which is probably not surprising — who’s going to volunteer their time to advance a specific theory of business cycles?

The weak points are that the book is both too detailed and too shallow. The author, a historian by trade, doesn’t seem to fully understand the economic disputes that existed not only within the school, but also between Austrians and socialists. As such, the rendering of these debates lacks important details and often simplifies nuanced arguments to the point of bumper sticker slogans (“Free markets good, socialism bad”). To fill the space left by this superficiality, we just get to hear very similar points over and over again — a tendency which isn’t countered by the author’s decision to start each chapter with a summary of what he’ll talk about, and close with a summary of what has been said either. By the end of the book, you will know a lot about who attended which seminar and when, but I didn’t exactly feel like I picked up a lot of worthwhile pieces of knowledge I was not already aware of.

Is there such a thing as corporate ethics, apart from the many grandiose things that companies claim to support through their PR channels? In here, Jackall describes his seminal case studies on the intricate maze of behavioral do’s and don’ts that managers navigate in their everyday work, and argues that there is in fact a very simple, stringent set of rules that influence every act of decision-making within a company. Some straightforward advice how to advance your own career that you can pull from his observations: Make the right kind of friends. Build loyalties. Suck ass and kiss ass.

I have some minor and some major issues with his thesis. For one thing, he could be more charitable in his interpretations — managers always have ulterior motives for him, and I thinks this prevents him from understanding them fully. Instead of “fact-check” managers’ claims, he prefers to psychologizes them. In terms of rigor, it is surprising that he actually studied no more than three corporations — named Image Inc, Weft Corporation and Alchemy, Inc. — from which he draws rather sweeping conclusions. Never mind, I can live with that. What’s much more startling is what he didn’t talk about, and what for me seems to cry for an explanation if you accept his findings:

  • You should be absolutely astonished that anything ever gets done in a corporation. As a matter of fact, a lot of our economic life is dominated by large companies, so how can this kind of business model possibly survive if it’s all about shuffling a bit of money aside for you and your friends? Does he really understand the role competition plays in this setting, for it is nowhere mentioned? How sure is he in his judgement of all the seeming extravagances, of which value an employee adds — how well is an outsider observer able to realize the marginal gain added by the individual worker? (This seems to be the same kind of error David Graeber makes some 30 years later in Bullshit Jobs.)
  • Big companies are bureaucratic, all right. Does his analysis also apply to small firms (probably not)? Then why do the big ones exists — just because of economies of scale? What is the role of governmental regulation in keeping them afloat, if any?
  • Could the state play a positive role by acting as a tie-breaker in intra-organizational conflicts over resources? After all, these kind of turf wars are highly wasteful, so how do we avoid them?

This is not to say that the book is a complete failure, and indeed it is a good reminder that organizations — whether public or private — have a tendency to grow into bureaucracies, to the disadvantage of almost everyone else.

The gravest sin of literary criticism is judging a book solely by today’s standards. In doing so, one often misses the (potentially revolutionary) influence it had on everything that cam afterwards. But since I’m not a literary scholar and care for little else but my personal enjoyment of the story, I will do exactly this. And on that account, Murders is little more than a poorly conceived, poorly executed story. The total lack of tension and an utterly random, deus ex machina-style ending were enough to leave me back dissatisfied. Even if, as many have claimed, Poe paved the way for all modern detective stories with this work, I would be hard-pressed to reverse my judgement.

This was brought to my attention via Steven Pinker, who listed it as “a book you hope parents read to their kids”. I‘m not quite sure what sort of kids he had on mind, because even though the book is written in a light, entertaining style, it takes quite some familiarity with basic math and science concepts to really understand what he’s talking about. Either way…

Gamow was a famous theoretical physicists from the middle of the last century, working on a wild variety of topics, and he shares his enthusiasm about the field with his readers. Despite being more or less familiar with all of them (all my degrees are in physics, after all), it was still fantastic to re-learn and re-appreciated some of the spectacular discoveries made in the past century. Imagining what it must have been like to be a physicists in 1905–1925, when the entire edifice of science was being overturned, is a thrilling thought.

The book is from 1960, so some things will unsurprisingly not be up to date. There’s no mentioning of quarks; instead he argues at some length why atomic nuclei are ‘almost certainly’ the most fundamental component of matter, the real indivisibles. It’s one of the many ironies of history that Murray Gell-Mann proposed quarks as a more fundamental unit just 4 years after the book appeared in print, and confirmed experimentally a few years thereafter. Tough luck!

I didn’t like the last chapter on cosmology/astrophysics so much, but I am generally not the biggest fan of cosmology/astrophysics, so there’s that.

The protagonist of Updike’s novels couldn’t be less spectacular or more representative of the median American — protestant, white, middle class, married and living in the suburbs near where he grew up. So if you believe that novels should be about extraordinary people or events, this is the wrong place to look for — it’s as ordinary as it can possibly get.

In many ways, the novel is extremely annoying — annoying because the protagonist is just such an incredible jerk, and I could never quite put away my disliking for him to focus on the many themes interwoven into his story. On curious observation I’d like to share is that (even thought nothing is said about his politics) it is not hard to imagine him as one of the disenfranchised Trump voters. To generalize hastily, he offers some hints that the “economic” theory of Trumpism — he gave a voice to rural folks who have gained comparatively little from globalization — isn’t the full story, and that — by contrast! — material well-being might translate into some kind of boredom that finds its expression in demands “to take back control” and bring technocratic rule to an end. As Updike has stated, “[i]t is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules”, and a pattern like the above exemplifies this neatly.

A little warning: The book is part of a tetralogy, so be prepared to wanting to read the other four volumes as well.

A gripping and detailed retelling of the Holodomor, potentially the biggest man-made famine in all of recorded history. After reading the book, I am shocked how many seemingly serious historians still buy the ‘official’ Soviet version of this crime as a natural catastrophe that the Communist Party did their best to try to prevent.

The most interesting part for me was about how the Soviet leadership first tried to buy the Ukrainians’ support for their cause by promoting a watered-down version of Ukrainian nationalism; supporting local culture and funding research on the region’s history and language. Only then (because the original plan did not work as intended?) did they turn against their former allies with all their might, persecuting them as ‘enemies of the people’, purging the local leadership from their positions of influence or even liquidating them.

It’s no book for the faint of heart: Reading about how specialized brigades hunted down peasants that were trying to hide a little bit of corn to survive the winter, Moscow’s steadfast refusal to accept any kind of of foreign aid as the famine was unfolding, and the continued shipping of grain abroad while their own people were dying of hunger (in order to proof the superiority of the Soviet model) makes one question a lot of things, not least the fact that there are still people advocating for a return of Stalinism.

This is without a doubt the most excellent book I read in the entire year, despite strong competitors. I have a lot to say about this, and hope to do so in a future review, simply because it touches on so many themes and raises some very deep questions. But it would be far beyond the scope of this article, so just a few notes here.

“Our success” is shorthand for the spectacular triumph of the human species over all other living things, an utterly remarkable development if ever there was any. Why was it homo sapiens, and not chimps or gorillas or elephants, who left everyone else behind in exploiting their environmental niche? A major theme of the book is that of cultural evolution, i.e. the idea that certain changes in our bodies and brains a driven by cultural innovations, and not just the other way around. Cooking (or food processing more generally) is one very obvious example, which explains why our stomachs are only a third of the size of a chimp’s, even though we are genetically extremely closely related. The cultural part is extremely important here, because (he has many fascinating examples for this) these tools and techniques do not develop in isolation, and in fact they are lost quickly when groups of humans are cut off (voluntarily or by accident) from society at large.

All of this has potentially huge ramifications for our understanding of intelligence, social norms, institutional design and many other themes I’ll omit for the sake of brevity. Recommended without qualifications.

This is the third of Hesse’s books I’ve read (after Steppenwolf, which I loved in high school, although I think I wanted to like it and would not find it particularly interesting anymore, and Beneath the Wheel, which I think I would still appreciate today), and that’s probably about as much Hesse as one should read. It looks at a lot of the big questions in life, but at no point do I feel that he probes them any deeper than any philosophy undergraduate could. Not my cup of tea.

All terrible pop science books are annoying in the same way, but each great work of pop science is unique. And the more you read on a given topic, the more likely you are to put books in the first category, and I frankly expected The Undercover Economist to fall squarely in there as well. Wrong! I actually walked away from it a little wiser (presumably) and more curious (definitely) about the economics of everyday life.

The chapters on pricing strategies and auctions are among the very best. It reminded me how, earlier this year, I was arguing with a friend if this year’s Nobel in economics (awarded for work on auction theory) was deserved, given how narrow its applications are. He disagreed, saying that auction theory is probably the one thing that has undisputedly been helpful for society. And of course, he was right: Cleverly designed auction offer enormous welfare gain, and even though one need not accept the premise that states should try to maximize their revenue through auctions, I have to admit it’s a much more efficient (and just?) method than any of the other ways (inflation, debt or taxes) through which government finances its expenditures.

Only weak spot: Why countries stay poor was too ambitious a topic for a chapter, and seems to rely more on the author’s travel experiences than on solid research.

A friend working in neuroscience suggested this little book to me as a must-read for people interested in the topic. At first, I was quite underwhelmed — I really didn’t see what Braitenberg was getting at with his little machines that move around and imitate living beings in some way or another. My guess was that the book was one big shot at deconstruction — trying to break down concepts that we (the philosophers among us, at least) would list when describing what sets animals apart from inanimate objects, and humans from nonhuman animals. But even though I reread almost every chapter, thinking that I missed something crucial, I wasn’t quite convinced by the book’s arguments. Mostly because concepts learning, fear, free will and so on conjure up associations that simple mechanistic descriptions don’t seem to do justice to.

Make no mistake: I’m enough of a materialist not to invoke souls and supernatural forces in trying to explain the human mind. We are a product of evolution, and whatever differences there exist between different species (and between animate and inanimate objects) must in some sense be in degree, not in kind — even emergent phenomena are a consequence of the complicated interaction of purely physical objects. (Yes, this is extremely reductionist. It doesn’t follow that the particle level is the only objective perspective, nor that it is very helpful to understand what’s going on around or inside us. From dust we are made, to dust we shall return.) But the book didn’t do anything to strengthen that prior conviction.

So I reached out to my friend again after finishing the book, and I think I see things a little more clearly now. Looking at it from an insider’s perspective, one notices that the struggle for the soul of neuroscience isn’t over. Put less pathetically, there are many camps within the discipline that have very different ideas what the ultimate goal of it should be. Should we try to simulate the brain? Understand the parts that cause diseases better? Do we want a realistic model of the brain (and thus spending a great amount of energy analyzing the detailed structure of a neuron) or a functional one? Should we aim to explain things like consciousness? Braitenberg cuts through many of these issues by simply offering a ‘constructivist’ approach. And last but not least, you can have a lot of fun programming robots yourself to behave like his vehicles, and observe their behavior!

A milestone in some sense (one of the earliest portraits of the conflict between mankind an an extraterrestrial civilization), a fairly standard novel in others ( the build-up of tension particularly). I don’t have a lot to say about it, so here’s just a brief remark on the plausibility of the story and the famous Fermi paradox (yes, this only surfaced 40+ years after the novel appeared): Is it indeed likely that a civilization would develop just one planet away, only slightly more advanced than ours (recall that the story takes place a mere 70 years before we managed to land the first probes on Mars — that’s nothing in planetary timescales!), but whose invasion would fail due to their inability to take into account the existence and devastating effects of bacteria? Was Well concerned about the odds of his story actually happening? Or was he well aware that it was purely speculative?

“Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution” (T. Dobzhansky). Human diseases, belonging squarely to that realm, should not be an exception to the rule, but their evolutionary aspect remains underappreciated. Indeed, what’s the whole point of getting sick? Why would we evolve to have fever, cancer, PTSD, and all the other medical conditions that plague our civilization, when all that matters for our genes is to pass on copies of themselves to the next generation?

Why we get sick is filled with countless examples of how those things were indeed shaped by evolution, contrary to what one might expect at first. It urges us to not only look at the proximate causes of illnesses (as doctors are typically taught to), since doing so will often blur the line between bodily reactions that help to combat a pathogen, and cases of misfiring that can be ‘safely’ suppressed. The authors look at the competition between pathogens and host, with all the strategies and counter-strategies involved, the seemingly inexplicable case of autoimmune diseases, design compromises and trade-offs that makes use vulnerable to certain kinds of diseases, and the beneficial ‘motives’ behind mental disorders. The work is very high-level and rarely descends to suggest a concrete change in protocols, but instead formulates a research program by presenting interesting cases from a wide variety of conditions. Written in 1994, it would be most interesting to see what influence the book had on ‘normal medicine (to use Thomas Kuhn’s terminology) and where treatment indeed got better due to their insights.

Here’s but one interesting example: A virus has, roughly speaking, two different avenues available to maximize reproductive success. I could try to exploit the current host maximally (over a long lifespan) before moving on, or it could quickly try to get to the next host. In the latter case, the disease caused by it will often be virulent, sometimes lethal, because the current host is of little value. But if we manage to reduce transmissions, it might well switch to the first strategy (not intentionally, of course, but through random mutations and selective pressure), with its considerably milder toll on the host’s health. AIDS seems to follow that trajectory: It appeared when increased global connectedness allowed for many more sexual contacts than before, and was extremely deadly. Today, through widespread use of condoms and sterile needles, transmission rates are much lower, the virus is also less virulent (irrespective of new drugs that were develop to ease the symptoms).

[But see here for a metanalysis that seems to come to a different conclusion.]

There’s also a great section on civilizational disease, which is what evolutionary medicine is mostly famous for. Here, however, they do not fall for a nostalgic version of the past where people lived in harmony with nature, and deplore how today’s environment is uniquely bad for us since our bodies are still in stone age mode; neither do they deny the advances made by modern medicine. But there is a bigger question looming, namely: Are these advances only temporary, a provisional lead in the Sisyphean battle between pathogens and hosts? Antibiotics that worked well lose their power, treatments to relieve some kind of pain may have secondary effects that are wore still. And above all, there is the dominating issue of senescence: Are most disease just a result of our bodies being optimized for youth and vigor (the typical hunter-gatherer would not live beyond age 30 or 40) instead of longevity? Clearly, a challenging and extremely stimulating book that I heartily recommend.

As always, feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments, or leave suggestions how these reviews could be made more interesting!


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Daniel Issing

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Le bonheur et l'absurde sont deux fils de la même terre.


A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).