Books of May 2017

In May I read:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - Steven Pinker

This is the most well researched and comprehensive book that I have ever read. I was kind of annoyed when I first started it because after starting this series of my blog I want to get through a nice chunk of books every month, and this book was just so damn long. There are 10 chapters in total, and each chapter is a bit under 2 hours of reading (and I think I read pretty fast). It is just dense, packed with information, and he tackles a shit ton of subjects.

The main subject of the book is that contrary to public opinion and apocalyptic claims of the media, unilaterally and unquestionably violence has decreased in every possible way.

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The decline is sharp and undeniable, and very very very interesting. I'm not sure why I did, but I started out already believing his thesis so I didn't really need that much convincing. 

A short note on style & organization before I talk about content:
The book is organized wonderfully, and even though the chapters are super long, they're all further subdivided into more digestible sections. The roadmap he puts forth in the introduction is really helpful, and it is obvious that he had the whole book mapped out really well before he started writing. The main ideas he repeats often, and it helps keeping the takeaways in mind while reading through graphs and long explanations. His style is also pretty easy to follow, and he supplements all his data with careful and nuanced analysis.

In the book, he discusses 6 trends of declining violence: the Pacification Process, the Civilizing Process, the Humanitarian Revolution, the Long Peace, the New Peace, and the Rights Revolution, roughly by chronological order (side note: I really like his naming). In the last few chapters, looking at psychology, biology, and philosophy, he examines the inner demons that plague humanity and drive us to violence as well as the very similar better angels that drive us to pursue peace instead of violence.

Some things I found really interesting in the book (gosh there are so many):

  • Contrary to our ideas of peaceful natives and a lovely life living by the land, early life pre civilization was pretty brutal, and statistically you were much much much more likely to die (two orders of magnitude or so?). You could live in the worst city in the world and the odds of a violent death would still be much higher in pre civilization times
  • Evidence doesn't support "cycles" of violence- there are certain factors that contribute to the long and unprecedented peace. People and societies don't seem to have violence valves that need to be periodically emptied with a Purge day. 
  • He creates a simplified model of peace called the Pacifist's Dilemma (very similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma) and explains how incentives can be changed by a Leviathan, global commerce, feminization, and empathy & reason. These ideas are explained in greater detail in the book; I won't do the injustice of butchering them here.
  • Most importantly, I think, the declining trend of violence doesn't mean there will ALWAYS be a declining trend of violence. There have just been factors contributing to these declines, and it is important and useful to recognize what these factors are instead of clinging to mistaken myths so it's easier to understand and maintain peace. While I doubt that we will descend into WW3 anytime soon and start a nuclear war, in recent times populist trends, isolationist policies, and we-versus-them ideologies are certainly worrying. 

The Whipping Boy - Sid Fleischman

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I read this book when I was in lower school, and I liked it then and I like it now. I wanted to read it again because I read about whipping boys in The Better Angels of Our Nature and thought of this book. It's a nice short story about understanding other people and being nice to each other. It also made me interested in eating baked potatoes with salt as a lower schooler. Interestingly, I remember thinking the book was really long when I first read it but I ended up finishing it this time in about 30 minutes.

The Dark Prophecy - Rick Riordan

I like Rick Riordan a lot and I'm really glad he's made it big enough to have his own shelf at Barnes and Nobles. I'm sure the man is raking it in, and I think he deserves it- I've read all of his books and I've liked all of them (some more than others, I think the newer ones are a bit weaker). His strengths are in funny, exciting plots, but more importantly deeply sympathetic and nuanced characters, exploring mythology (always a fascinating subject) with great, relatable characters. His books are like Chipotle in the sense that you always know what you're going to get, and it's always pretty good.

This one is the 2nd in The Trials of Apollo series (I think there are 5 books?) and it was a much better sequel to the lackluster 1st book. It follows the events of The Heroes of Olympus series, and the protagonist is Apollo as the human boy Lester, transformed as a punishment from his father Zeus. I thought Apollo was really annoying in book 1 and was very barely redeemed by his partner Meg. Apollo was a much more sympathetic character in this book, and I liked how Riordan fleshes out Apollo's personal change and growth from all powerful god to pimply teenager Lester. I also like how he's rotating the supporting cast and bringing back different heroes from The Heroes of Olympus in each book. My main minor annoyance is the amount of pop culture references; I get that he writes for a teen audience but it sometimes feels a bit forced.

I was also excited that I recognized who the villain was before he said it in the book by his epithet (the New Hercules), and that I'm pretty confident I know who the villain in the 3rd book is based on the prophecy at the end of this book. Thanks Professor de Angelis!

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is another in a long line of books under the World War II fiction umbrella. It is a little bit predictable, and the plot does not have a lot of surprises. A lot of the big plot points are set up really early and you know what's going to happen from the start, but the story plays out really nicely. It's very well written and the characters are endearing, and the story plays out in a sad, hopeful, and always very charming way. This goes to show that you don't need to have big twists in the plot or unpredictable characters to write an engaging story. The book is lovely and I think it's a lot of fun to read, but I also don't think it's anything new or groundbreaking.

As a side note, I think it's really interesting how a lot of books are written in the same style. I first noticed it with The Night Circus. A lot of these authors write with the same short sentences punctuated roughly. I guess the short staccato sentences builds suspense...? 

The Death of Ivan Ilych - Leo Tolstoy

I read this short novella because it was discussed a lot in Being Mortal and I like Tolstoy. I really really really enjoyed this story and I highly recommend it to anyone. Tolstoy is such a masterful author and I love how he sets up his story and expresses to you what he wants to tell you without telling you explicitly.

The story is about a man Ivan Ilych who lives a very regular, bureaucratic life, and believes that life should run "easily, pleasantly, and decorously." Tolstoy starts the book with a lovely line: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." In an unfortunate and stupid accident, Ivan Ilych gets injured, and he becomes very ill. His pain is persistent and worsens, and a rotating crew of doctors cannot heal him. Even though he is dying, no one around him admits it, and more than the pain in his side, he is crushed by the pain of isolation and the fear of having lived an inauthentic life. His grasp with mortality brings him the understanding that an authentic life is marked by compassion and sympathy, and unmasks the true meaning of life his artificial existence has been denying. 

In the course of the short book, I felt the rage, the pain, the sorrow, the despair, and the suffering of Ivan Ilych intimately, driving me to think about life and meaning. I especially love the ending of the book, and I thought his final epiphany and spiritual & psychological rebirth was very touching. 

Living with Water Scarcity - David Zetland

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I heard about this book from the Econtalk episode where David Zetland talks with Russ about water scarcity. This book is short (100 pages) and enjoyable, and touches on the very important problem of water scarcity and examines economic and political solutions. I also really liked the economic analysis and he writes the book in a very legible and simple to understand way.

Many people dismiss market based solutions for water scarcity by claiming that water is a right. While water is indeed a right, getting water where it is needed is not a right, and requires money in infrastructure, resources, and energy. Water is also, despite claims otherwise, a commodity and a resource, so if water is always given away for free (or relatively close to free), then people will use water at that price. This is a particularly important point- water has a sharply declining marginal utility, so having that first bit of water (for drinking, washing, bathroom, etc.) is really important, and people will pay almost anything for it, but once you have a lot of water, water for your lawn, pool, etc. is just not as important. If it is all free, then that declining utility doesn't matter. A lot of the book is about incentives, and if water is free, the costs, including potentially hefty environmental costs, are not reflected, and people have no reason to care.

The solution is not supply side, because no matter what you do, as long as water is cheap and almost free, then there will never be enough water. Expensive desalination plants and shipping water is not the solution, because (and I thought this was really amusing) as costs of water increases for the consumer from these expensive solutions, demand will drop, and the extra water will become unnecessary anyways as consumers find ways to cut their water usage. The solution is to fix the demand for water with prices. 

People may complain about higher water prices, but acknowledging realistic water scarcity is better than living with water shortages. I really like this quote from the book:

"Prices generate revenues and reduce demand, but they also give customers choices. A regulation on outdoor watering may annoy a granny with flowers. A desalination plant may annoy environmentalists. An education campaign is condescending to some and a waste of breath on others. A campaign to install low-flow toilets may install sparkling receptacles in unused second bathrooms. Prices send a direct signal at the same time as they accommodate many responses. Customers can choose their own mix of technologies and techniques. Some will take shorter showers. Others will install drip irrigation. Some will shower at work. Others will just pay more. A higher price for water, like a higher price for any commodity, allows people to choose how much water to use. Choice is a pleasant option compared to water shortages or tickets from water cops."

A counter argument I often hear is that rising water prices will be unfairly difficult for the poor, but in reality water prices will still cheap- a few dollars per thousand gallons. But what about the poorest people in the world living in underdeveloped countries? The same- increasing water prices will actually help those most in need of clean water. With better priced water, people can get better, more reliable water and service, instead of dirty water delivered intermittently, like in Egypt where water is only available at certain times of day. Even in countries with less robust infrastructure than the US, real water prices reflect environmental costs and provides choice.

Slam Dunk - Takehiko Inoue

OG sports manga, good art, exciting storyline, funny people, great character design - would recommend. Has a lot of tropes that future sports manga have adopted and it's cool to see where they came from & got popular. I thought the ending was kind of weak but still worth reading. 

Ender's Game; Ender's Shadow - Orson Scott Card

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This is probably something like my 20th read of Ender's Game...? I read the book in middle school in the library, and I've read it every couple months since then. The science fiction is excellent and its got a really strong plot, but the real strength of the book is its characters. The characters are deeply complex and sympathetic, and Card builds out their interactions and growth with amazing depth and nuance. I most like how he explores the psychology and motivations of the characters, especially the struggle between Ender as a empathetic leader able to inspire love and loyalty and understand the enemy and a cruel commander able to exterminate the enemy.

It is for the same reason why I like Ender's Shadow even more, and why it is my favorite companion novel ever. It explores the same storyline (roughly) as Ender's Game but is told from the perspective of Bean. In Ender's Game, Bean is a smart but not super important soldier, but in Ender's Shadow, Card reveals a completely different view and changes the story so much despite it being the same storyline. I think that is incredibly mind blowing and masterful. I found Bean to be an even more sympathetic protagonist than Ender, and I loved seeing how Bean's story added and supplemented Ender's and how much depth was added to the story because of Bean. A lot of stuff that was just a sentence long minor detail in Ender's Game was a big plot point in Ender's Shadow, and a lot of minor decisions that Ender made turned out to be very significant and greatly influenced by Bean.

This is also why I was so surprised to find out Card was xenophobic, racist, and homophobic, because he writes such wonderful characters with complicated, real strengths and flaws. Apparently in his later books that comes through more strongly, and honestly if you read carefully I think you can get a bit of that in both books. The author's personal views aside, the books are amazing and are both classics. I love them and would recommend them to anyone. 

The Thing Itself: Essays on Academics and the State - Michael Munger

I was introduced to Michael Munger thanks to Econtalk, so I thought since I liked his talks so much I would probably like his books too. So I picked up The Thing Itself. It is an interesting collection of essays about the state, and how the problems of the state often have no solution within the state, because the problem is _the thing itself_. The essays are half about the state, and half about academics, and while a goodreads reviewer claims they are related, I didn't really see a big connection between the two subjects.

His essays on conservatives in academia were interesting, where he criticizes higher education as being insular and therefore failing the students. The problem is not necessarily that kids are too liberal or professors are too liberal, but rather a problem of a lack of challenge. Universities ought to be driven by education, not ideology, and education is most effective as what he calls "collision with error." Therefore, because liberal views are often accepted without challenge, education systems aren't a problem for conservatives. They are a problem for liberals, since they are never taught how to think and defend their views without a robust counterargument. An analogy he uses is a chess game. The conservative student learns the entire game because his views are often challenged, but the liberal student learns only the first move: the answer to "are you a liberal or a conservative?" He quotes Mill:

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

I like that a lot and I deeply agree with Munger. The problem that I have personally with a lot of my views is I have a hard time defending them on good grounds, and even when I see something on facebook or reddit I immediately scoff at, I also often don't understand well the counterarguments and the logic or facts behind my position. As Munger says in his book, "if you don't learn what you stand for and why you'll fall for anything," and a lot of my views feel a bit tenuous. In my experience, however, I think the core curriculum at Columbia does a pretty good job, and even if I accidentally said something right my CC professor Yogesh Chandrani would still fix me with a withering look and tell me to say more. 

I also found his thoughts about democracy and majority rule very interesting, summed up nicely here: "Requiring that government actions hinge on the consent of the governed is the ribbon that holds the bundle together, but it is not the bundle itself." 

I loved the essay on Transantiago, the bus system in Chile. It was an effective private bus service before, albeit with significant problems (pollution, lots of accidents, etc.) and it was turning a profit, so the Chilean government nationalized it and it became a public bus service. The rest is history and the bus service sucked, turning commutes from 40 minutes to 2 hours. The lessons here are rife, and as I listen to more econ talk podcasts (with Russ, who is a libertarian), I find that I generally agree with Munger and Roberts that market based solutions, with minor government tinkering, is often the best solution to problems. The essay is really interesting, if you read nothing else in the book I would read that essay. 

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu, a young woman from Nigeria, and traces her life from Nigeria to America and back. The book is also interwoven with stories from her young lover Obinze, who longs to go to America but is denied a visa after 9/11 and becomes an illegal immigrant in London. The book is sort of a novel about blackness in the 21st century, and examines the differences between African American and Africans in America, London, and Nigeria (American Blacks, and Non American Blacks as she calls it in the novel). I say the book is sort of about blackness because its scope is so much wider- it is also a novel about immigration, about loneliness, about biculturalism, and about identity.

These stories are so wonderfully personal and sympathetic because the voice telling them is so authentic. Americanah never feels fake, and Adichie never pretends that Ifemelu or Obinze is perfect. Their frustration, their struggle, their dignity, and their authenticity is what made me really connect with their experiences, and I loved Adichie's funny and accurate depictions of America. These came through the best in Ifemelu's romantic relationships and her blog posts closing some of the chapters (my personal favorite was her bemusement at the American overuse of the word "excited.")

Adichie can provide broad social critique so successfully because Americanah is centered around Ifemelu and Obinze's experiences and who they are as people, rather than the story itself. It is funny, heart wrenching, eye opening, thought provoking, and above all, always authentic. I thought it was really worth reading. 

Here are some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On race: "because this is America. You're supposed to pretend you don't notice certain things."
  • On culture: "Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought culture the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with rich."
  • On poverty: "Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor."
  • On accents: "Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American?"
  • On souvenirs: "He was still not sure whether Emenike had become a person who believed something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so."
  • On emigration: "Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burning villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty."