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Read: The Edge of Madness

Michael Dobbs’ novel The Edge of Madness is rather on the edge of disappointing.

For a cyber-thriller there is too little cyber, too little [or or even none] ‘wow, this is what technology can do nowadays.’ For a political thriller there is too little politics, scheming, plotting even though there are four different heads of their states involved in the plot. The characters are mostly cardboard cut-outs. Only the reluctant ‘hero’ gets a little more depth, some glimpses of his darker past.

The plot is rather constructed. The solution to the big problem is too convenient. In the end, the evil guys are all dead or get what they deserve. At the end of the episode all is back to normal.

Utterly unremarkable.

Read: How do you know?

Seemingly irrational behavior or rather bounded rationality is the result of bounded cognitive abilities, bounded willpower, bounded self-interest, and - yes - bounded knowledge. Russell Hardin offers an account of the consequences of - fully rational - limited knowledge, an economics of ordinary knowledge. The question is what extent of knowledge in terms of quantity and quality can we expect from an ordinary person.

Rational ignorance permeates all domains of our daily lives and not just public policy and politics. To illustrate his point, maybe even delineating an extreme, Hardin singles out religious belief. Believes are just one instance of knowledge by authority that lie at the core of an economics of ordinary knowledge. No one can gain expert knowledge in everything and hence has to take many bits and pieces of knowledge at face value from an authoritative source. What is an authoritative source and who is an authority from the perspective of an ordinary person then may limit the quality of knowledge, the extent of its objective truth. Hardin discusses the tension between science and religion, the individual and communal incentives to believe, sincerity, fundamentalism, and extremism. He draws a very bleak picture of society.

Even though Hardin acknowledges the existence of limits on cognitive abilities, will-power, and self-interest his analysis only drops the assumption of perfect knowledge, he is able to explain many seemingly irrational patterns in our behavior. His ordinary person still tries to maximize their utility and decides that obtaining more and better knowledge may not be worth its cost. People remain rational ignorant. Yet, already this small deviation from the standard economic analysis of decisions, choices under uncertainty and in strategic interactions seems sufficient to explain seemingly irrational, i. e. objectively sub-optimal, behavior.

Adding the further bounds to our abilities is not likely to improve the quality of our decisions and welfare. So yes, Hardin draws a very bleak picture indeed.

Read The checklist manifesto

A small, low cost, autonomy-preserving intervention that yields dramatic improvements in a desired outcome. Where have I heard this before?

Gawande describes his discovery of the checklist, its benefits, and the difficulties to design a good one so that it is actually used. With Gawande being a general surgeon the book is rather focused on his medical work. Though his narrative also adds insights from airline pilots – who has not heard of the pre-flight checklist? – and construction, and, superficially, finance.

The obvious benefits of catching small oversights with a checklist that even, no, especially trained and experienced professionals often commit seem surprisingly dramatic in medicine. Yet, I was more impressed with a, for a lack of better expression, nudge that was/is implemented with the help of a checklist and not with the direct impact of the checklist itself: Actors (i. e. the surgical team, the different specialist builders) are made to talk to each other (and learn each others’ names) and share responsibility. Indeed, responsibility and therefore decision power is redistributed from the top to the bottom. That, I believe, is a major driver for the success of groups.

Bottom line: The checklist manifesto is not a gripping thriller, it is not intended to entertain. Similar to a checklist it may seem a bit dry. And maybe there is even too much detail when Gawanda writes about his personal experiences with patients. It is interesting, though. Eye-opening even. And yes, I would like to have more checklists (or reliable, written rules and procedures that would serve as checklists) for my own work – sometimes, for the administrative parts.

Read: Medusa

The nice thing about Cussler novels is that you get exactly what you paid for (The novels are pretty cheap). There are rarely (bad) surprises. And even though the characters from the NUMA series are generated from the same template as the characters from the older Pitt series I prefer the newer, slightly fresher ones.

The plot follows the usual archetype. Despite there being no surprises, or maybe because of it, the novels offers some good hours of quiet relaxation. No active thinking needed. The books has served its purpose.

Read: We the Living

Interesting and disturbing because of its historic context, Ayn Rand’s We the Living is utterly unremarkable.

The depiction of early Soviet Russia is not unique and seems exaggerated: After all, Rand, as many others, was able to leave. Nevertheless, the background of the story, the disturbing depiction of the living conditions and abuse in early Soviet Russia is the most powerful and interesting part of the novel.

The characters remain a bit “flat” – even though there is some change it is not really a development. Most of them are unrelatable and not credible. I did not like the protagonist and so I developed some sympathy for only one character: Andrei, the tragic communist.

The plot is not overly original. Girl meets boy, falls in love. Meets other boy, he falls in love. Girl chooses the wrong boy. Bad things happen. One dies, the other leaves. She finds a tragic and very unlucky accidental death herself.

Finally, the book was hard to read. I wanted to know how it all ends so I ploughed through it. The world has not become a better place because of it.

Me on Twitter

…generated with the code from Mike Croucher on github and some post-processing of the png with graphicsmagick and pngcrush.

Update 25.11.2015

And after debugging the source – too much was deleted from the tweets (everything after an URL, everything after the first mention of another twitter user) – the whole thing looks like this:

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