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Read: Arctic Drift

Within a period of 25 years there is remarkable little change in Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series of novels. There is always the same, predictable structure and basic plot: A successful, entertaining recipe. In the more recent novels, next the the historic introduction, environmental issues have become more prominently featured. Arctic Drift, however, very clearly shows a significant change that began a couple of novels earlier.

Dirk Pitt, Sr. is getting old, tired, and hurt. He is not the (only) larger than live hero who saves the day any more. He is not the one who makes sure that the evil (greedy capitalist turned) villain is not going to hurt anyone any more. While still in the field much of the action that in earlier novels defined his character is now happening without him.

This change entails that other characters get more space. Yet, these “new” character are substantially less well development. There is a considerably smaller emotional attachment, less excitement. The Pitt series may slowly (or pretty fast) loose its appeal if this change continues.

Read: Understanding The New Statistics

Understanding The New Statistics is about understanding statistics and applying statistical methods that are not new at all. They are just under-used in the social and behavioral sciences.

It is all about abandoning Null Hypothesis Significance Tests and replacing them with the more informative Effect Sizes and Confidence Intervals. Targeted at students as a complementary text to their standard textbook the most important and distinguishing feature of Cumming’s book is its attempt to create intuition for the variability of data and derived statistics. The many excercises that rely on simulating (small) data (sets) and observing the variability of summary statistics are a great tool for understanding the properties and interpretation of these statistics.

Nevertheless, beyond facilitating said intuition the text has little additional value. The theory, the necessary math is often not presented. The exercises and indeed much of the book rely on a (free) proprietary software that I cannot use since it depends on another commercial software that I don’t own and would have never used for statistics (excel). Therefore, much of the text remained cryptic. I would have preferred an open source approach, maybe an R package.

Further, for a text that is advocating replacing NHST with substantial statistics on effect sizes and uncertainty there are too many asterisks signifying different levels of statistical significance. More surprising was, however, the absence of any glimpse at Bayesian methods that would fit the bill perfectly, showing likely effect sizes and their corresponding uncertainty. In the context of meta-analysis I would have expected an updating of our beliefs, a Bayesian aggregation of the accumulating evidence. Instead, the text remains 100% frequentist.

In the end, the text is maybe not for the student but for the teacher. And maybe the text should not be read for its content in a narrower sense but for the ideas on pedagogy on how to teach introductory statistics.

Read: Map of Bones

A fast paced story, a plot twist that is well planned and despite its development is not obvious, and a set of characters that (even though they are far from being fully fleshed out) indeed has some characters that are not perfectly exchangeable with standard cut-outs make a good action adventure, entertainment. Map of Bones has all this.

Compared to the first Sigma Force novel, Rollins has substantially improved the character development. There are no strange coincidences piling up on each other that are needed to cover up plot holes. Plot development has improved as well. Hence, even though the story is no less “fantastic” this time it seems much more credible.

I am not sure the (modest) romance is needed. Yet, it also does not distract. In the end, do not all action thriller have a little romance so the hero has someone to rescue, to prove his valor, and to be attracted by?

Read: Happy Money

So, after Stuffocation I wanted to get a bit more on (and closer to) the original research. Dunn and Norton’s Happy Money was supposed to fill that role as “Better Spending” is at the core of their research.

I had too high expectations.

The book is rather small, but not brief. There is a lot of unnecessary padding, irrelevant anecdotes, and personal back story. Hence, they say a lot less than they actually write.

Since most of the results presented in their book I already knew, Happy Money has added very little. Out of the 5 chapters that discuss the research only two offered something new. Articles on “Buy Experiences”, “Make It a Treat”, and “Buy Time” had already made it to my desk. And, unfortunately, the book did not offer anything worthwhile compared to these articles.

The chapters on the ideas that one should rather “Pay Now, Consume Later” and “Invest in Others” were more interesting. “Pay Now, Consume Later” follows directly from the concept of “pain of paying” and the peak-end effect. If there is no “pain (of paying)” at the end of the consumption experience the experience is more enjoyable, makes one happier. Getting happier by “Invest(ing) in Others” seems a bit like conventional wisdom. There is, however, a substantial amount of research on this. It took me a while to make the connection to the altruism and warm glow literature. They do not refer to any of the relevant economics artciles in this area (like James Andreoni’s A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving from the 1990) but only cite very recent articles in psychology. They do, however, refer to the Waldfogel paper on the Deadweight Loss of Christmas, the economic inefficiency of gift giving to show how myopic, narrow-minded, and thus incomplete the economic analysis of gift giving is. Consequently, they neglect all, almost all, the relevant research in (behavioral) economics, published in economics journals, and thus irrelevant to psychologists. While, of course, perfectly justifiable, I perceived this rather mono-disciplinary approach as annoying. Given the title Happy Money I expected rather a fusion of the different fields of economics and psychology.

What else annoyed me?

The authors feel it is necessary to explicitly tell their readers that they are professors at highly reputed universities and that they publish in highly reputed academic journals and that their friends are also professors at universities of the highest reputation. They were the rising stars, they were the people who will change the world. They are the authority on the book’s topic. You do not need to look any further.

And finally, in the last chapter they explain how government should make the world a better place by just applying all the principles discussed in the book, to cast them into a law and make them a guide for government action. Their recommendations are plain paternalistic policies. Given the heated debate about freedom preserving libertarian paternalism, nudging, these restricting, purely paternalistic policies that would force happiness upon the feeble-minded citizen who does not know what is good for him were a big surprise.

Read: Sandstorm

While Sandstorm started strong – its female protagonist feels truly alive – it soon seems to change into a script for a TV movie that tries to combine too many tropes at the same time. There are too many coincidences, shootouts with increasingly heavy artillery, “surprising” reunions and family ties.

As a movie this would still result in an entertaining, action packed 90 minutes flick. The novel, however, loses much of its appeal. The characters become uninteresting and uni-dimensional. You struggle through the book. You still kind of enjoy it. Yet there is the lingering feeling it could be better with a little less.

Read: Stuffocation

A downside of reading ebooks is that you cannot briefly skim the whole book to get an idea about its content, the argument the author wants to make. Yes, the table of contents can still give a clue about this. Yet, somehow with an ebook it is less likely that I will consult the table of contents (again) once I have “turned” the pages.

Hence, while reading Suffocation (as an ebook) I often wondered why the author would now discuss things like the Streisand effect, or whether he sees a future in our society for whatever he was discussing at the moment.

Wallman builds his argument slowly, carefully. Yet, without telling his reader the big picture up front. Only after a chapter, at the end of it, or even only after several chapters, it becomes clear what Wallman wants to say, why he tells what he just told, what the purpose of all the (anecdotal) evidence is. At the end, everything is obvious.

Wallman identifies a problem: Stuffocation. Materialism in the sense of buying (too much) stuff, conspicuous consumption. After the all the unclutter and simplify-your-life books and articles that seem legion nowadays he does not need to spend too much time and effort to make and explain this point. He then discusses three potential solutions: minimalism, regression to simple living, and medium chill (a result of satisficing with rather modest aspirations). They all ain’t it.

So, he identifies a common core and a less anti-materialist solution to Stuffocation, all the stuff that clutters our homes and makes us miserable, that seems more likely to catch on. Experientialism, conspicuous spending not on lots and lots stuff but lots and lots of memories (and some high-quality stuff that helps to have a great experience).

All in all, this conclusion does not seem to be very controversial. Or original. Psychologists like Gilovich and Dunn arrived at the conclusion that spending money on experiences is making people happier than spending money on consumer goods much earlier. On the other hand, Wallman asks (and answers) whether this shift in spending on goods to experiences would be viable, whether people would change their behavior in large numbers to have a lasting effect on the economy. Of course, the anecdotal pieces of evidence still hint a the current stage of this idea’s dissemination and adoption: It’s still very, very early. Right now, experientialism seems something that is mostly for the financially (very) well off. Though, of course, these may be exactly the people who feel the most “stuffocated”, who have reached the end of material scarcity, and for whom time has become the ultimate scarce resource.

So, despite all the shortcomings there were a few parts of the book and ideas for which I am happy to have read Stuffocation.

For instance, I was surprised to find a(n interesting) discussion of the economic concept of GDP in the book. While Wallman’s perspective seems to be rather anti-business (“captains of consciousness”) he quite correctly points out: (only) what gets measured gets managed. Hence as long as there is no widely accepted replacement (or at least complement) for GDP that captures well-being the progress of society will be measured as the increase of the monetary value of the goods and services produced and sold and not as the increase in its citizens’ well-being, their quality of life.

And, Wallman gave a nice summary of why conspicuous spending on experiences is better in the sense of likely to make people happier than conspicuous spending on stuff. With stuff, it is almost always easy to rank what is the better (as a proxy the more expensive) thing. With experiences the cost may not serve anymore as a proxy for the quality: a “cheap” experience may still be great. Hence, there is less of a feeling of being behind, less pressure to upgrade and spend more.