Read: Accelerando

Charles Stross’ Accelerando reminds me a lot of the work by Vernor Vinge, Peter F. Hamilton, and a bit also Poul Anderson. This is a good thing as I like these authors, and probably the reason why I took up the book in the first place after reading the teaser on the back cover. On the other hand, as Anderson and Vinge are clearly Stross’ predecessors his story may not be that original any more, I was really reminded a lot of these authors.

Accelerando is an edited collection of short stories; therefore the chapters are rather independent from each other and could be read without the others. As they each provide the “historic” context for the following chapters it is still a coherent work. As it turns out, splitting up the text into a number of episodes is indeed a good thing, it makes the text easier to digest. All the techno and science babble makes it otherwise rather tedious to read; the overuse of jargon definitely subtracts from the entertainment value of the text.

Overall Accelerando was a pretty good read. Stross did however not come close to Vinge, Hamilton, or Anderson.

Skimmed: Counterexamples in Analysis

The problem with ordering your books online instead of browsing the shelves of a bricks and mortar bookstore is that you may end up with a disappointment. And, if you are ordering in bulk you may well exceed the time allowed for sending the book back for a refund before you have your first look at it. This is was happened to me here. Though it may have been unlikely to find the book on a shelf of any traditional book store.

Counterexamples in Analysis is an enumeration of a long list of curious mathematical terms that have one property but not another that is usually implied by the first. Apart from introducing some notation this is pretty much it: a list of mathematical terms without any embellishment. Certainly not a book that anyone would or should read cover to cover. Hence, I put it down and on my shelf after about the first 10% or so. There is a lot to learn in this little book. Yet, I do not think I can appreciate this rather bare list.


Read: The Key

Toyne continues to provide good entertainment value.

Yet, the narrative loses some of its appeal. The new twist of the (remote-controlled) bankrupt church and the questionable business practices is maybe not that original as it seems a bit too close to reality. Still, it adds a nice touch. The dead, not dead and long lost, now dead father is, however, a cheap plot device. Knowing that the good guys, the good gal, will win is also killing some of the suspense. Finally, while the first book of the trilogy (as I now know it is at least a trilogy) could have ended where it ended The Key features a classic cliff hanger to lure the reader to the third novel. What is another cheap plot device in my opinion.

I finally noticed yet another cheap move, this time by the publisher. The page count is heavily inflated (and maybe justifying a slightly higher price?) as this book, again, has more than a hundred chapters. Each new chapter starts on a fresh page resulting in more than a hundred half-filled-last-pages-of the-chapter. The two books could have been about 50 pages shorter, or could have used a slightly larger font. Something that would have been highly appreciated by this reader for at least the passages that were representing handwritten material. That script font was barely readable, too thin, too small.

All in all, The key was still good enough to consider the next volume that, as a peek at goodreads reveals, is supposed to be at least on par.

Read: How Markets Work

After a few a little bit more radical, heterodox critiques of current (textbook) economics Prasch’s “How Markets Work” is rather orthodox. It still deviates from the standard introductory textbook treatment of markets in the sense that it does not blindly follow The (competitive) Market is best doctrine that advocates the market institution as the easy solution to many problems – if only the market was unregulated. Yet, the critique focuses rather on the unreflected application of the perfectly competitive commodity market model to goods and services that do not fit into the standard commodity category.

Hence, Prasch discusses the peculiar deviations of specific markets that render the standard textbook toy model inapplicable. He discusses e.g. financial asset markets that are characterized by positive feedback loops instead of negative feedback loops and that are therefore not necessarily self-stabilizing and labor markets that feature non-monotonic supply curves that bend backwards, forwards, and backwards again and may have four different equilibria, two stable and two unstable one, at different levels of wages. He also touches upon the issue of prices, values, and incommensurability. There are contexts in which the orthodox utility framework seems not to apply, where the choice problem cannot easily be represented by a scalar utility model.

Overall, Prasch’s “How Markets Work” is utterly unspectacular, non-revolutionary, orthodox, and just well thought-out. The didactic approach, starting with a discussion of property rights, is impeccable. As an added benefit the book is easily accessible also for the uninitiated and mostly non-technical as even the number of graphs is kept at a minimum. It may be a good supplementary reading for any introductory (micro-) economics course covering the analysis of demand and supply.

Read: Sanctus

Toyne’s Sanctus is a rather fast paced religious themed mystery thriller, though much of the pace seems to stem from the rather short chapters, each just a few pages long and ever changing the perspective.

The novel is perfectly enjoyable – until about the last 50 pages when the author solves the big mystery and drifts a bit too much into the supernatural. Still, I like the way he re-interprets the scriptures of the abrahamic religions.

Eventually, there are some further flaws. While most of the action takes places in a fictional small town in Turkey, everyone, even the turkish cop on duty, is pretty much US American – at least in their demeanor. While this avoids stereotypical characters (or, does it?) it also generates some rather generic protagonists. Furthermore, while coming up with a fictional place close to where you would suspect such a place if there were one avoids some controversy it just too clearly puts the fiction stamp on everything. The novel becomes less powerful than it could have been.

There is a sequel. And I really wonder what Toyne will do to the big abrahamic religion that he so enjoyingly unmasked as phony in this novel.

Read: Risk, Uncertainty and Profit

After years of pointing out the difference between risk and uncertainty – without actually discussing the consequences for economic analysis in detail – to my students in economics it is time to finally read the classic Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (pdf) by Frank H. Knight.

The obvious lesson is learned, I am prepared and eager to discuss the implications of uncertainty in class now. (It is sad that these very important points never made it into the textbooks.)

There were, however, a few other observations that I made while reading Knight’s dissertation.

First, the four prefaces give a nice glimpse into the change and constancy of the (history of) economic thought (of at least one influential scholar) at their time. These prefaces are worth reading even without the intention to continue into the main text.

Second, just a hundred years ago German economic scholars were read (in German no less) and cited, discussed and indeed at the frontier of their science. I knew that before, of course. Still, it is nice (?) to be reminded of this fact. A lot has happened since.

Third, there are some points that, I guess, no author today would make, at least not en passant as Knight did, e.g. (on p. 320):

The abolition of slavery or property in human beings rests on the fact that slaves do not work as effectively as free men, and it turns out to be cheaper to pay men for their services and leave their private lives under their control than it is to maintain them and force them to labor.

Fourth, it is very clear why Knight is one of the intellectual pillars of the Chicago School (though his ideas and perspective is markedly different from the later / modern neoclassic approach), or rather Chicago Libertarianism. According to Knight, Freedom, the power of control, is and should be inseparably linked to responsibility, the willingness to bear the consequences of one’s own decisions (p. 271):

…at the end of it we shall find that in a free society the two [responsibility and control] are essentially inseparable. Any degree of effective exercise of judgment, or making decisions, is in a free society coupled with a corresponding degree of uncertainty-bearing, of taking responsibility for those decisions.

Finally, and here I have to admit a bit of surprise on my side, given his status as the foundation of the Chicago School of economics I did not expect his deviations from today’s orthodoxy with respect to individual rationality as expressed by (p.238):

We should not really prefer to live in a world where everything was “cut and dried,” which is merely to say that we should not want our activity to be all perfectly rational. But in attempting to act “intelligently” we are attempting to secure adaptation, which means foresight, as perfect as possible. There is, as already noted, an element of paradox in conduct which is not to be ignored. We find ourselves compelled to strive after things which in a “calm, cool hour” we admit we do not want, at least not in fullness and perfection. Perhaps it is the manifest impossibility of reaching the end which makes it interesting to strive after it. In any case we do strive to reduce uncertainty, even though we should not want it eliminated from our lives.

and (p.331):

The desire (or necessity) for conforming to conventions is not the same things as the need for food and protection; the easy fallacy is confusion of the requirement for food, clothing, and shelter of the conventional kinds with the requirement for food, clothing, and shelter as physiological necessities. A large part of the consumption of persons, in the lower income strata even, does not yield satisfaction as consumption; the motives and cravings are social in their origin and nature. It is commonplace that many of the necessities of to-day did not exist or were not available for our ancestors a few generations ago, irrespective of their wealth.

And yes, he knows, of course, of Veblen’s work. Even though he did not cite him in this context.

There is more: A lot is happening in the footnotes. He is not at all shy with pointing out flaws in the argument of others. There is no list of references.

Overall it is obvious, I should read more of the classics.