Short Book Reviews: May 2021

Took a break from my Stephen King read-a-thon to dive into some non-fiction this month.

As always, these are listed in reverse chronological order. So, the book I just finished is listed first, followed by the one I read before that, and so on.

Let’s dig in!

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

Polished, refined prose. Kocienda pulls just shy of a dozen stories from his time at Apple in the early 2000s to illustrate what he sees as the principles behind their back-to-back successes in that period, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad.

Each chapter begins with the story, and then ends with him picking it apart, revealing the particular aspect of the Apple process (really, more like goals or guidelines) that he wants to focus on.

It’s all well-told, and they’re entertaining stories, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could all have been summarized in one word: Demos.

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Ana Partanen

Absolutely fascinating. Partanen is a journalist and a naturalized American citizen, originally from Finland, and she wrote this book in 2015-2016 after living here for several years.

Her goal is definitely not to knock the United States — she bends over backwards, in fact, to insist over and over again how much she loves Americans and was excited to live here — but to point out the widening gap between what we say we value — families, children, individual choice — and what our policies actually value. She uses a “Nordic Theory of Love” as a through-line, connecting how Nordic policies on healthcare, vacation, school, parental leave, etc all enable a greater freedom of choice for the people that live there.

Full confession: My wife and I have been contemplating a move to Northern Europe, and I picked this up as part of some research into what it might be like to live there. While I think many of the policy changes Partanen outlines would be wonderful if adopted in the United States, given our current political climate, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon.

Partanen, apparently, agrees with me; she returned to Finland after getting pregnant with her first child (shortly after this book was published, in fact), and she hasn’t returned.

Needful Things, by Stephen King

More King! A later novel, this one’s a bit of door-stopper. But it’s still King at the top of his game: small-town Maine rendered in exquisite detail, slow-building tension that explodes in gory violence, and a victory so Pyrrhic as to be more like a truce.

I thought I knew the plot of this one, going in, based on parodies and knock-offs. But the real thing is much, much better, both more unsettling and harder to predict. The villain’s motivation was a bit of a letdown, to be honest, but his methods were chef’s kiss perfect.

I also felt a bit of shear between the setting as written and the setting as placed in time. Having read King’s novels from the 70s and 80s, this felt more like that time period than anything else, let alone the early 90s, when the story is supposed to take place. There were some markers laid down — I think one kid’s t-shirt has a 90s band on it — but they felt more like window-dressing. As if King had such deep knowledge of the Maine of 1960-1980 that he had trouble writing about the present. Which is perhaps why he’s returned so often in later books to writing about that exact period?

Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

A frustrating book. One minute, it’ll be knee-deep in the blinders and false-assumptions of economics, the next it’ll flip and call out economists for being too focused on GDP and not enough on human dignity.

That kind of whiplash makes me not trust anything the authors say. They’re too inconsistent for me to be able to piece together a coherent approach or worldview for them.

Or argue with their takes. I mean, how do you approach someone who believes the B.S. that Silicon Valley has been spouting for decades about being “disruptive” (instead of the truth: they’re VC funds chasing the bubble-high returns of monopoly) but also admits that increasing automation can displace people who should be helped?

Or a team that argues that GDP should not be used to measure growth anymore — and even that growth is not that important — but also uses GDP growth in their arguments for other policies (for example, that immigration does not hurt the societies that accept immigrants)?

It’s all over the place.

If anything, this book further convinces me of the limits of current economic thinking. So many times, the authors posit a problem (“why don’t people move around more?”) that has obvious answers as soon as your take your head out of the economic sand.

I mean, so many of the things that make it hard for them to “explain” why humans act the way they do are fundamental ideas in economics that have been debunked.

Amazon isn’t profitable because of its size. Amazon was a business failure for decades, that Bezos kept afloat through his access to capital. Only in the last few years, when it’s become an illegal monopoly and so can flood the moat around its market, has Amazon turned a profit.

The authors swallow the Amazon line because they’re still beholden to the economic idea that bigger means more efficient. But anyone that’s ever worked in a large org knows that bigger organizations are less efficient than smaller ones. They just wield more economic power, and so can remain large.

And they find it hard to explain why people don’t move around more (from poorer places to wealthier ones) only because they rely on the economic model of human behavior, which posits that people always act to increase their wealth, and do so efficiently.

Which is obvious bunk to anyone who has, you know, spent time around actual people.

The authors whiff on basically every issue they address. They find it hard to calculate the costs or benefits of social media, when Facebook’s balance sheet is publicly available (proving social media is big business). They advocate for helping immigrants find their way in a new society, without pointing out that the policies they recommend — job matching, housing, child care — would benefit everyone if implemented universally, not just the displaced (and so be more politically viable).

In the end, I think they themselves sum up the book’s “insights” best:

Economics is too important to be left to economists.

Well said.

Foreign Affairs: September/October 2020

I’ve got subscriptions to half a dozen different magazines, most of whom I don’t get through.

So I’m trying something new this month: reviews of different magazines, which highlight stories or articles that stuck with me. I’ll also be honest about any sections that I skipped out on, and why.

My hope is that it’ll incentivize me to read them through, and hopefully point you, dear reader, to articles and magazines that you might otherwise miss?

So here we go:

Overview

The theme of the issue is “The World That Trump Made,” but its contents don’t bear that out.

If anything, the articles drive home the fact that Trump has been mostly ineffective or inactive in global affairs. As a result, the world is one that others have made: Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, etc.

And they will continue to do so, as long as the United States abrogates the leadership role it’s played — for good and for ill — over the last eighty years.

Highlights

“A Grand Strategy of Resilience” is a fantastic pulling together of multiple threads, linking social justice movements to the ability of the US to project power abroad. The author rightly points out that an unjust and unequal society is a fragile one, and that great powers cannot weather the storms of global politics if they are not resilient.

I love the concept of resilience, and favor using it as a lens through which to judge policy. It’s the kind of concept that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals: Because who wouldn’t prefer to live in a more flexible, bounce-back kind of country?

“The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism” raises a problem I hadn’t even considered: As different countries race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, what will we do when/if one is found? Once made, how will presumably limited supplies be allocated? And given how global supply chains have gotten, what will we do if one country refuses to manufacture (or drives up prices on) the parts of the vaccine that its companies make?

The author argues that we should be laying the groundwork now for cooperation in sharing and manufacturing any vaccines, so agreements will already be in place by the time one is found. But like so much else, I fear the major powers have no interest in cooperating, and no leaders capable of admitting they might need other countries.

Disappointments

Went into “The Fragile Republic” expecting a good summary of threats both foreign and domestic. Got thrown out of the article just three paragraphs in, though, when the authors reach back to 1798 as their framing device, but name the opposition party as the “Republicans,” instead of the correct “Democratic-Republicans.”

It seems like a small thing, but it incorrectly projects the existence of the Republican Party back an additional sixty years (!). And if they can’t be bothered to get that one detail right (that even this non-specialist knows), how can I trust anything else they say?

“To Protect And Serve” sounds like it’s going to be a wealth of information about police practice in other countries that we can draw from. But the other than “more training,” the one reform the author advocates is a federal takeover of police departments across the US, which would be politically a non-starter and doesn’t help those of us advocating reform of our local police departments.

Skipped Articles

I skipped out on “The End of American Illusion,” an article written by someone who worked in the Trump regime and thinks only he sees the world clearly. I don’t read paeans to strongmen.

Also skipped “Giving Up on God,” because I’m an atheist and the decline of religion worldwide is both not surprising (because it’s been documented since the 1980s) and not worrying (ditto).

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

It’s difficult to think of myself as privileged.

Growing up, our family car was one donated to us by the local church, because we couldn’t afford one.

The only house we could afford was one at the very end of a dirt road so badly cut out of the weeds that the school bus wouldn’t go down it, so I had to walk a mile or so to where the dirt track met a farm road.

I always started the school year with sore feet, because we couldn’t buy new clothes for me, and last year’s sneakers, once so roomy, were now so tight that I couldn’t run in them, lest my arches feel like they were breaking.

But I was privileged, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

When I was 16, and walking home from work after midnight, the cops didn’t stop and frisk me. They didn’t arrest me for breaking curfew. They didn’t demand proof of the job that kept me out, proof I could not have provided right then, in the dark, on the street.

Instead, they drove me home.

When I was in college, smoking weed in a parked car, the police didn’t come up on me in the night, rip me from the vehicle, and put me away for possession and intention to distribute.

And as an adult now, if I change lanes without signaling, or do a California Roll through a stop sign, I don’t have to worry about the police doing anything more than giving me a ticket, if they even decide to pull me over.

If any of these things had happened to me, my life would have been derailed. My job working for the federal government could not have happened. I would not have been able to finish college. I would have been branded a criminal, and locked out of the upward mobility I’ve experienced.

I have been privileged, then, because I have been allowed to succeed.

But millions of Americans with a skin color different from mine are not allowed. And it’s something that was invisible to me, until very recently.

I didn’t know that the police have the power to stop and frisk anyone they even suspect of being engaged in illegal drug activity. That they can give the most implausible of reasons to search someone, or their car, or their luggage, without a warrant. And that given this immense power, they choose to use it not on the majority of criminals who are of European descent, but on African- and Hispanic-Americans.

It frightens me, to think of how lucky I was not to be caught up in the Drug War. And it worries me, to see the same excuses that have been used for thirty years to lock up millions of African-Americans now turned onto those trying to enter this country in search of a better life for their families: They’re branded criminals, stripped of rights because they supposedly came in “the wrong way,” told they’re “jumping the line” and have only themselves to blame for the hardships they face once they’re here.

It’s lies, all of it, and it breaks my heart that my own family, who in a different century would have been the subject of the same lies, swallows them whole.

If this conception of privilege surprises you, if you know that most criminals are dark-skinned but think poverty is to blame, or if you think justice in the United States is in any way color-blind, then I urge you to read this book.

The New Jim Crow is not a polemic. It is not a screed. It is a well-research, well-written account of how we’ve given the police enormous powers in the name of winning the Drug War, and they’ve turned them on the most vulnerable and most oppressed segment of our society. It’s essential reading, especially as we enter a new election cycle and debate what sort of government we want.

Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Eye-opening. Reminded me of the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities, of the importance of the documents Snowden disclosed.

Schneier’s style is easy to read and straightforward, no small feat for a subject that takes in law, cryptography, and communications technology. I plowed through this book in a few days, but I’ll be digesting his points for a good while.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • There are companies that sell the ability to send a silent, undetected phone call to a mobile phone. Call won’t ring, but will cause it to signal nearest cell tower, giving away its location.
  • FBI can (and does) collect personal data from third parties (phone companies, email servers, etc) via National Security Letters, without a warrant.
  • NSA audit showed it broke its own rules against spying for personal reasons at least 8 times a day (!) from 2011 to 2012