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Read: Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works

It is a pity that an otherwise fine book is set on such a poor choice of paper: semi-glossy. And the ink is very reflective as well. This makes it rather hard to appreciate the different typefaces. But then, the book is only about type not the (good) design of books.

I am surprised by the huge differences, i. e. choice of type and illustrations, compared to the the German (2nd) edition.

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Read: How Numbers Rule the World

Disappointing.

How Numbers Rule The World is mostly not about the use and abuse of statistics in global politics as promised on the book’s cover. The lack of good, appropriate statistics, the over-reliance on only seemingly objective measures is a theme of Fioramonti’s book, yes. His focus, however, is on his aversion against market solutions to social challenges and the creeping commodification in all domains of life.

I agree, a badly designed market, a sloppy implementation of a well-designed market, special allowances that circumvent the intention of a well-intentioned policy (like a market for emissions) are all issues that deserve a good rant. (Blind) Management by numbers, fudging of data, badly designed incentives, and rent-seeking behavior are also topics that deserve a good rant. Put these in a book with a title that promises an in-depth analysis of the use and abuse of statistics in politics, how statistics shape the world and you have a serious case of false advertisement, wilful deceit, and a disappointed reader.

Pair this with constant references to non-relevant (to the current issues) quips by prominent and less well-known persons, references to anecdotal screw-ups in support of your rant, and the occasional tangential discussion of philosophical issues and the reader is not just disappointed.

Read: The Three Body Problem

Good science fiction is thought-provoking. It raises questions of morality, social cohesion and cooperation, or of the impact of life-altering technologies or drugs. Liu’s The Three Body Problem is good science fiction.

Set in China, the story of The Three Body Problem presents an unfamiliar perspective. Part of it takes place shortly after the Great Leap Forward, during the Cultural Revolution – I wonder how accurate Liu’s narrative of this period is. The translator felt it necessary to add explanatory footnotes to aid the western reader in this alien context. On the other hand, the novel addresses a classic question in science fiction: First contact and the effect of having proof for extraterrestrial intelligent life and advanced technology.

Liu paints a bleak picture. A few Individuals driven by their personal fate and disillusionment may be able to wreak havoc on a global scale. Relinquishing all hope for the betterment of human society they rather opt for its annihilation, inviting an alien force that seeks to escape their own fate of doom.

Now, a still fragmented human society faces the threat of an alien invasion in the far future. And the novel ends.

Read: Nonviolence

While Kurlansky’s Nonviolence could have been just as appropriately titled “War, Warfare, and the Power and Impotence of the Elite” it confirms my earlier suspicion: Driven by a purpose and having a message he wants to impress upon his audience Karlansky’s writing improves dramatically.

Kurlansky’s message is clear. And to squash any doubt he provides a summary of his book himself: 25 theses that stress the need for nonviolence and its superiority are included as the last chapter: War, armed conflict is bad. Violence begets violence. Power corrupts, and religion and good intentions are easily tainted and defiled.

By the seventh century it was already an old pattern: the religious doctrine of peace meets the power politics of [the] state, the rules are bent for the “just war,” and once the first few doses are administered the state becomes an addict that will tell any lie to get its narcotic. War is simply the means. The real narcotic is power.

There is no such thing as a just war.

The book is a brief overview of the history of violence, war, and warfare, following the standard recipe of describing the fate and fortune – mostly the fate – of several individuals to illustrate the dominant practices at a time and the emerging nonviolent opposing forces. It is rather US-centric. Focusing on individual (non-violent) actions and settling for just reporting historic events Kurlansky fails to explore the philosophical aspects of nonviolence in a befitting extent and detail. Assessing nonviolence remains an empirical matter.

Finally, given the vast amount of space dedicated to Gandhi in Kurlansky’s Salt, Gandhi occupies a surprisingly minor role in this newer book. The details of Gandhi’s nonviolent opposition are not discussed here.

All in all, even if I am not fully happy with this book I can endorse its cause: the quest for peace and nonviolence.

The hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done.

Read: Salt - A world history

When I discovered Sweetness and Power as a potentially interesting book I also stumbled upon Salt: A World History. I liked Mintz’ book about sugar. I am disappointed by Kurlansky’s book about salt.

Kurlansky is not a scientist but a journalist. Hence, his Salt is not an in-depth anthropological study of the history, sociology, and economics of salt (as may have been expected after reading Mintz on sugar). Salt is a mere collection of anecdotes roughly ordered by regions and time. Neither order is kept strictly. So a single chapter may offer some trivia from antiquity and the recent past and different chapters may revisit geographical regions again and again and then overlap in the time that is covered.

While everything is somewhat connected to salt, the book is a terrible mess. Yes, the little anecdotes are interesting and entertaining enough to read on but a coherent narrative, a deeper purpose, and a meaning are absent. Some of the anecdotes are just one paragraph long and I don’t know why Kurlansky mentions the fate or fortune of the specific individual. He just does and moves on to the next one. He never tries to generalize or interpret for his readers.

Even the last chapter, that should offer some kind of a bottom line, is curiously opaque. Is there a hint of critique on modern capitalism, or materialism, or is there just a clumsy attempt to hint at the irony that artisanship is now in demand again, that people prefer the imperfect, impure product of the artisan over the perfect, standardized salt sold by modern industry?

Kurlansky’s fact checking is also questionable. At one point he translates the Alsatian surkrutschneider with sauerkraut tailor. Sauerkraut cutter, slicer, or shredder would have been the much more appropriate translation. Another time, he mentions that a particular person published a research paper. On what, however, is not revealed. If he is sloppy with these small things his credibility in general is hurt.

In short, Kurlansky does not want (?) to convey any message. His book, though diverting, is without purpose and as soon as it is read it is forgotten.

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Read: Success and Luck - Good fortune and the myth of meritocracy

While I agree with Frank’s policy recommendation and how he arrived at his conclusion I cannot honestly say I have enjoyed his recent Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

The primary goal is not to tell a story about Success and the role of Luck it in, it is an argument for a progressive consumption tax and maybe also a reaction to earlier critique on Frank’s 2011 The Darwin Economy that argued for the progressive consumption tax, too.

While The Darwin’s Economy main rationale for the introduction of a progressive consumption tax was the reduction of wasteful conspicuous consumption that results from a consumption arms race as every consumption is assessed relative to some accessible standard, maybe the consumption of nearby (socially and geographically) reference group in society Success and Luck focuses on the chance element of being rich and successful as a justification for a tax on the (still wasteful) consumption of the rich.

The supply of status goods is limited and cannot be increased, therefore competition for these goods just drives their price up without improving the buyers’ living standard. Or, a slightly inferior good, at a lower price, would result in an even higher enjoyment if the saved (that is taxed) amount of wealth is used for public goods like infrastructure.

Frank now argues that being rich is, despite all the effort and talent that were necessary, also largely determined by luck as being rich is the result of a competition with many competitors with similar abilities and willingness to exert effort. Any competition has an element of luck in. Taking a risk implies actually the reliance on luck, the submission of oneself to one’s good fortune, not skill, not effort. As the prize of the competition is largely determined by the society, a rich society offers bigger prizes as the prize is related to the individuals human and the societies material capital. Both are at least partially the result of public goods, public investments, and therefore taxes. Consequently, the lucky rich should just (shut up and) pay it forward to enable the next generation of high(er) prized tournaments.

Nothing wrong with that. I could not agree more. I also do not mind Frank’s rather personal perspective in his narrative and rhetoric.

What is wrong is this:
Success and Luck is a neat, short book. Being short is a virtue (for a book). Frank, indeed mentions that he could have written more but chose to keep it short, not adding any unnecessary tangential material. Great. However, there is little that is new. Most (all?) of the ideas and examples that illustrate Frank’s points are already in The Darwin Economy. Indeed, I was tempted to run the present text through a plagiarism detection software to see whether he just cut and pasted the old material or whether he at least attempted some rephrasing. Either way, I found this recycling and its extent highly annoying. Even the idea of the winner takes all, the role of luck and its use as a justification for a consumption tax was already discussed at length in another earlier book of Frank’s, The winner-take-all society, published in 1995.

The original (?) content can be boiled down to the two appendices. The first offers a numeric example illustrating the impact of luck on winning contests with many participants if luck even only marginally influences performance. The second is a FAQ on the introduction of a progressive consumption tax. And yes, FAQ implies he must have answered these frequent questions already elsewhere. Hence, the numerical example is probably the only original contribution of the book. The book could have been much shorter. It should have been a blog post.

At the very least, Frank should have put a warning somewhere that he is just reorganizing old material that he has already published elsewhere. Even though his two old books are referenced for some specific points, he never acknowledges the substantial extent of overlap in ideas and concrete examples between his seemingly separate works. He is selling old wine in new bottles (which, by chance, is also a chapter title in his 1995 book). Frank cheats his readers.

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