Recent book reviews — July 2013


Title: The Green Collar Economy — How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems
Author: Van Jones
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

Van Jones’ writing was recommended by a group of environmental activists I met at the University of Montana. In “The Green Collar Economy”, Jones explains how the problem of unemployment/under-employment can be solved with work toward a sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure. He argues that the environmental movement has largely left the poor behind, and established itself as an elite movement. He suggests a number of ways to change this, and to make the greening of our economy work for the poor first.

I love the ideas and plan to read more by Jones, but this particular book felt a little light on facts and heavy on rhetoric. I feel like I might need to look elsewhere for objective data on how to achieve Jones’ ends.


Title: The Castle
Author: Franz Kafka
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Although Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was one of the short stories that inspired me to be an English major, I haven’t read much else by the renowned author. So after hearing from my mom that “The Castle” is worth a look, I enthusiastically dove in.

How to say it… The Castle is “engagingly tedious”. The main character, K, is a land surveyor who travels to a small village, called into the employ of the nearby castle. K’s efforts to secure this work are mangled in the bureaucratic messiness of the layers and layers of official procedure and the obsessively-obedient townspeople. Through all this K falls in love, giving him hope of making a space for himself in the unwelcoming and confusing society.

The work was published after Kafka’s death, though the only clear indication it is unfinished is the lack of chapter titles toward the end of the work. It seems to me Kafka was practicing making the reader feel ungrounded and disconnected, like K’s character must feel. Almost every description and every image contains elements of uncertainty; questions posed by K, contradictions, and long sentences with a slightly broken flow. The writing leaves me feeling like I’m teetering on being lost, even though I understand every word and am following the story. To quote a random page,

They were tired themselves after the nocturnal alarms and rising early, especially the landlady, who was wearing a wide-skirted brown dress that rustled like silk, and was rather carelessly buttoned and done up — where had she found it in her haste? — and had now laid her head on her husband’s shoulder, was dabbing her eyes with a delicate little handkerchief, now and then, like a child, casting angry glances at K. To mollify the couple, K. said that everything they had told him was entirely new to him, but that even though he had not been aware of it he would never have stayed so long in the corridor, where he really had no business and certainly no desire to upset anyone, except that he was so exhausted. He thanked them, he said, for putting an end to the painful scene. If he was to be called to account for it, he would welcome that, for only in that way could he prevent his conduct from being generally misunderstood.

I found the effect very pleasing, especially when read while on tour — my own visit to new and challenging places.


Title: Web of Debt, The Shocking Truth About Our Money System And How We Can Break Free
Author: Ellen Hodgson Brown
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

I’m very interested in how our economy works and how that might contribute to over-consumption and dissatisfaction. Web of Debt takes exactly this angle, explaining how money is created through debt, and that this power of money creation is now the realm of private banks and financial institutions to the detriment of government and our larger culture. Although the book is a bit long-winded, I was thoroughly enjoying it. Unfortunately my library borrowing term is up so I won’t finish the 450+ pages. Hopefully I’ll check it out again sometime and make it to the “how we can break free” portion of the book. Until then, no loans for me!


Title: Just Being At the Piano
Author: Mildred Portney Chase
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This is a satisfying collection of the authors’ thoughts on practice and performance, collected over the years of her own study and teaching. Chase is able to speak both practically and philosophically without seeming pretentious. Although she sometimes describes her approach in spiritual terms that I avoid (i.e. “Just being — at the piano — is to each time seek to reach that place where the only thing that exists is the sound and moving toward the sound…”), I suspect that I am in complete agreement with her end-goal. Well worth the quick read!

Even though the total act of playing is complex, especially on an advanced level, it consists of many simple natural movements which are dovetailed.

In singing, since the individual is the whole instrument, much attention is of necessity given to the sensations involved in producing the sound. Too often, with the pianist, this subject is dwelt on very little or not at all.

When he gets closer to the hidden object, his friends tell him, “you are getting warmer”… It is the same with our work at the piano as we seek out and become aware of the better of our sounds.

I do not believe in counting aloud while playing. The sound of numbers does not flow and does not guide the poetic rhythm of the music with ease. When we first learn the triplet rhythm, the method of counting most often used by teachers is one-and-a, two-and-a, and so on. With a young student, I prefer instead to explain its similarity to a three-syllable phrase, such as fiddle dee diddle dee, saying it and having the student repeat it. … It is much easier to feel the music through the use of merrily merrily or tu-ra-la tu-ra-la than with one-two-three

C.P.E. Bach recommended practicing the composition, leaving out the ornaments at first, and then fitting them in once the piece was well studied. Following his suggestion makes it easier to apply the decorative patterns in a musically intelligent manner befitting the moods of a piece.


Title: Contagious, Why Things Catch On
Author: Johan Berger
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

Although I enjoyed reading Contagious, and took notes as the ideas applied to our advertising of the Los Angeles Taiko Institute, I’m not sure I’m glad to have read this. Each of the book’s six elements of “catchiness” (social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories) is explained with examples and then used to deduce a procedure for making something more catchy. Although Berger makes it clear these tools can be used for ill or good, I found myself pondering how to exaggerate everything in relation to LATI, to make the school maximally attractive. “Playing taiko at LATI is guaranteed to change your life!” I felt myself pulled toward dishonesty by the goal of maximizing impact. I must be very careful not to be sucked into the exaggeration and over-reach of advertising.


Title: Pension Fund Politics — The Dangers of Socially Responsible Investing
Author: Jon Entine (editor)
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

My long-term savings is largely invested in the S&P 500 (or equivalent whole-market mutual fund) and I’ve always felt uneasy about the lack of responsibility I’m taking for these investments. There are strong arguments for investing in the whole market. By investing in the whole market, you are essentially investing in America as a whole. Individual investments are not a great venue for enacting social change. Altering one’s consumption habits to support a business one likes, for example, would be more direct and likely more effective.

On the other hand, it’s undeniable that when you own stock in a company, you become an owner of that company. You profit when the tobacco company succeeds in promoting smoking abroad. I feel like I can’t deny at least a measure of complicity if I own these stocks.

So I’ve begun reading about socially responsible investing (SRI) — the attempt to make one’s investments represent one’s values.

I started with a series of three articles skeptical of SRI, compiled in Pension Fund Politics — The Dangers of Socially Responsible Investing. Many of the book’s arguments are irrelevant to my interests. For example, the authors make the case that investing other people’s money with any goal other than maximizing the wealth of the client is a conflict of interest. The authors also believe that the power of the labor unions over investment policy disenfranchises individuals. More directly related to my situation, however, the book makes the following interesting contentions.

SRI is ineffective. The chapter by Alicia Munnell and Annika Sunden claims that the poster-child of SRI, the banning of South African companies associated with apartheid, did little to support the anti-apartheid effort. “… a comprehensive survey on the effect of the South African boycott … documents virtually no effect…” Unfortunately, a reference to the survey cited is not given.

Divesting only allows less scrupulous investors to profit. “If the stock price dips temporarily below the level consistent with the discounted value of future earnings, investors not involved with the screening will swoop in, buy shares, and restore the price.” Although it contributes to the case for SRI not being effective, I don’t find this argument particularly compelling. From a moral standpoint, “if I don’t do it, someone else will”, is not tenable.

In the end, I was glad to have read this book as I begin my research. Pension Fund Politics questions the essential tenets of socially responsible investment. While the writing is clearly biased and many arguments are unsubstantiated, the book’s skepticism is worth remembering as I move on to read books biased in favor of SRI.


Title: Ethical Markets
Author: Hazel Henderson
Source: LAPL
Interest: 1.5 stars

I can tell I would love to know Hazel Henderson in real life. Her writing is sincere and kind-hearted and she has clearly dedicated herself to thinking about compassion alongside capitalism. Unfortunately, I don’t much like her writing. This book feels scattered to me, with only lists of terse examples used to prove the author’s essential themes. Henderson quotes others too liberally and too literally, using a transcript approach, simply notating the spoken language directly, making the quotes feel meandering and too informal. Alongside the text are out-of-place headshot images of the subjects. While I’m sure Henderson made these decisions in an attempt to show respect for her subjects, the result diminishes the readability and trustworthiness of the text.


Title: The SRI Advantage
Author: Peter Camejo
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Although some of the arguments of this book feel overly simplistic, the main point of The SRI Advantage decisively changed my thinking about socially responsible investing. The book’s core idea is that good environmental and social stewardship are a benefit to (if not a requirement for) the long-term success of the average major corporation. “…Investing in companies that are moving the economy in the right direction… gives an investor an advantage.” Therefore, index funds that screen out corporations that do not meet certain standards can have (and arguably have had) higher returns than the S&P 500. When I think about tobacco for instance, it is certainly plausible that tobacco corporations will continue to decline in profitability. It’s hard for me to imagine a future where tobacco is a sustainable profit-maker. So screening out tobacco companies from my investments is probably good investing, even from a purely financial-gain perspective.

Although I still haven’t found a truly dependable book on socially responsible investing, The SRI Advantage shifted the balance of my options. While I’m not done reading, it now feels more likely that I will decide to use socially and environmentally screened index funds for my future investments.

A good book to start with is Samuel Case’s Investing for Beginners. Learn what terms like mutual fund, closed end fund, stock, preferred stock, bonds, notes, figures, and options mean. Learn the basic principles of asset allocation.

Two excellent SRI balanced funds are Pax World and Winslow Balanced Fund.


Title: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Author: Daniel Kahneman
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

What a wonderful book! Thinking, Fast and Slow is essentially a massive collection of all of Kahneman’s thoughts on psychology and decision-making, with references to his own lifetime of research and the full historical record of ground-breaking experiments. He frames the topic with the (purely imaginary) concept of two systems of brain function; System 1 is the intuitive, reactionary brain and System 2 is the contemplative, logical brain. In themed chapters with titles like, “Attention and Effort” and “Intuitions vs Formulas”, he shows where each of these two systems excels and where they fail. He makes recommendations for how to recognize when a problem might trigger an inappropriate response from either system, and thus how to resist our bias toward poor decisions in these circumstances. Long, but well worth the read!

As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. … Laziness is built into our nature.

(on “priming”) In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York University — most aged eighteen to twenty-two — to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, “finds he it yellow instantly”). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was all about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.

Other primes were much more subtle, including the presence of an irrelevant money-related object in the background, such as a stack of Monopoly money on a table, or a computer with a screen saver of dollar bills floating in water.

Money primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help, a crisp demonstration of increased self-reliance. Money-primed people are also more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils. In another experiment in the series, participants were told that they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person. Participants primed by money chose to stay much farther apart than their nonprimed peers (118 vs. 80 centimeters). Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.

  • Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely.
  • Tornados were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter cause 20 times more deaths.
  • Death by lighting was judged less likely than death from botulism even though it is 52 times more frequent.
  • Death by disease is 18 times more likely as accidental death, but the two were judged about equally likely.
  • Death by accidents was judged to be more than 300 times more likely than death by diabetes, but the true ratio is 1:4.

The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible. Reliance on the affect heuristic is common in politically charged arguments. The positions we favor have no cost and those we oppose have no benefits. We should be able to do better.

“On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver. The next time they try the same maneuver they usually do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed into a cadet’s earphone for bad execution, and in general he does better on his next try. So please don’t tell us that reward works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.

This was a joyous moment of insight, when I saw in a new light a principle of statistics that I had been teaching for years. The instructor was right — but he was also completely wrong! His observation was astute and correct: occasions on which he praised a performance were likely to be followed by a disappointing performance, and punishments were typically followed by an improvement. But the inference he had drawn about the efficacy of reward and punishment was completely off the mark. What he had observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of the performance.

Julie is currently a senior in a state university. She read fluently when she was four years old. What is her grade point average (GPA)?

  1. Start with an estimate of average GPA.
  2. Determine the GPA that matches your impression of the evidence.
  3. Estimate the correlation between your evidence and GPA.
  4. If the correlation is .30, move 30% of the distance from the average to the matching GPA.

Step 1 gets you the baseline, the GPA you would have predicted if you were told nothing about Julie beyond the fact that she is a graduating senior. In the absence of information, you would have predicted the average. Step 2 is your intuitive prediction, which matches your evaluation of the evidence. Step 3 moves you from the baseline toward your intuition, but the distance you are allowed to move depends on your estimate of the correlation. You end up, at step 4, with a prediction that is influenced by your intuition but is far more moderate.

The conclusion is straightforward: the decision weights that people assign to outcomes are not identical to the probabilities of these outcomes, contrary to the expectation principle. Improbably outcomes are overweighted — that is the possibility effect. Outcomes that are almost certain are underweighted relative to actual certainty.

…I will call it denominator effect… When I think of the small urn (10 marbles, 1 red), I see a single red marble on a vaguely defined background of white marbles. When I think of the larger urn (100 marbles, 8 red), I see eight winning red marbles on an indistinct background of white marbles, which creates a more hopeful feeling.

Women who have a mate spend less time alone, but also much less time with friends. They spend more time making love, which is wonderful, but also more time doing housework, preparing food, and caring for children, all relatively unpopular activities. And of course, the large amount of time married women spend with their husband is much more pleasant for some than for others. Experienced well-being is on average unaffected by marriage, not because marriage makes no difference to happiness but because it changes some aspects of life for the better and others for the worse.

In part because of these findings I have changed my mind about the definition of well-being. The goals that people set for themselves are so important to what they do and how they feel about it that an exclusive focus on experienced well-being is not tenable. We cannot hold a concept of well-being that ignores what people want. On the other hand, it is also true that a concept of well-being that ignores how people feel as they live and focuses on how they feel when they think about their life is also untenable. We must accept the complexities of a hybrid view, in which the well-being of both selves is considered.

Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson introduced the word miswanting to describe bad choices that arise from errors of affective forecasting.

Although Humans are not irrational, they often need help to make more accurate judgments and better decisions, and in some cases policies and institutions can provide that help. These claims may seem innocuous, but they are in fact quite controversial. As interpreted by the important Chicago school of economics, faith in human rationality is closely linked to an ideology in which it is unnecessary and even immoral to protect people against their choices. Rational people should be free, and they should be responsible for taking care of themselves. Milton Friedman, the leading figure in that school …

For behavioral economists, however, freedom has a cost, which is borne by individuals who make bad choices, and by a society that feels obligated to help them. The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes therefore presents a dilemma for behavioral economists.

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