Thursday, August 25, 2016


I have major catchup to do on book reviews, and am surely forgetting some.

Natural Justice, by Ken Binmore: I actually read a draft of this book in 2005 when Ken was visiting Caltech and taught a class on it, but I've forgotten 90% of what I learned in college and 100% of that class, other than that I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was thrilled when my reading group picked it. It's one of the most thought-provoking and deliciously idea-dense books I've read in a long time and I say this despite the fact is it horrifically badly organized (not badly written, per se - I loved most sentences but then had no idea what they added up to...) I planned to read the two-volume treatise that it is a condensation of in order to get a better handle on what the actual theory is, but Robert Sugden's review pans the original version for being miserably organized/written and expresses hope that the condensation will clear things up, so I guess I'm out of luck either way. We'll see; fingers crossed since I'm now working on project pretty directly related to his theory. As best as I can tell it is written in reverse order (half a book of justification for approaches that will only be revealed later), so maybe the second time through will make more sense.

Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms, by Vernon Smith: Unnecessarily long and dense, but hey, Ken Binmore makes him look like a literary master. Very interesting, needless to say. I loved his memoir but found this one merely good without it taking up residence in my subconscious, in part I think because I'm the choir.

Feeling Smart, by Eyal Winter: Fluffy.

On Democracy, by Robert Dahl: Oh boy I could rant about this one at length. Maybe I'll do a separate blog post on it.

Evolution and Rationality: Decisions, Co-operation and Strategic Behaviour, edited by Ken Binmore and Samir Okasha: This was the first book I read (most of) with the interdisciplinary reading group that has become a reliable weekly highlight. It, and readings since, have definitely changed how I think about behavioral economics, spending much more thought on the evolutionary context in which behavior arises. I therefore recommend it highly.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov does it again. I've only read three of his books but I can't even express how great each of them was, in completely different ways, although with the common denominator of the most amazing prose and character development I've ever encountered. This was definitely the strangest; it opens with a poem taking up a quarter of the book, which put me off of it for years (my eyes glaze over and reading comprehension plummets to an elementary school level at the first sign of lyricism) but Matt eventually persuaded me, and boy was he right. Go read now.

Museums and Women, by John Updike: Picked up this short story collection on the communal bookshelf of Barry's "eco-lodge" on Atauro Island, East Timor, when Matt and I were there on vacation prior to my teaching a class at the ministry of finance (unlikely things happen when you can't say no to travel opportunities). It was great and definitely reminded me why I loved John Updike when I first read The Same Door, but man that guy was obsessed with infidelity.

Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, by Robert Kurzban: I saw a fantastic seminar by Robert when he visited UQ and had a thoroughly enjoyable dinner with him and a couple other behavioral economists and psychologists afterwards, so I read his book, which was a little underwhelming comparatively. I think I'm not the audience he is arguing with, and by the time he backs down from the polemic, I can't quite tell how literally to take him anymore. I'm sure there is some degree to which I disagree. He aggressively argues that brains are composed of modules, rather than having coherent preferences. Modularity is certainly and obviously true, but it doesn't mean you have to model reasoning as a bunch of independent modules running around! We have executive function (which he seems to deny exists, and I admit I may be using the term incorrectly by psychologists' standards) to integrate modular function, perhaps subconsciously, and ultimately choice tells you which module(s) have won out in a given situation, which he seems to ignore. Models that treat the brain as weighing competing incentives (the definition of choice...) therefore work well even if biologically "competing incentives" are represented by "different modules".

Hiroshima, by John Hersey: An extended essay, really, from the August 1946 New Yorker. Seeing the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima was extremely powerful, and two years later, I finished reading this before even making the conscious decision to start. Intense stuff.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, by Walter Mosley: During those couple of weeks in East Timor I also crashed an ex-pat book club, which had read this. Relatively entertaining. Writing in accents annoys me, although I don't know what better alternative there is.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion: Couldn't put it down.

This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin: This would probably be great for someone who isn't already quite educated about the mechanics/physics of music.

Surviving Maggie, by John Fingleton: This was a good story, engrossing despite not being great writing, based in Brisbane. It was recommended to me by a colleague when I first arrived here but took forever to read just because I couldn't get a kindle version. It's always fun to read books based in a location you're familiar with so I'd recommend it to Brisbanites but probably not others.

What Women Want, by Daniel Bergner: If Dan Savage says everyone needs to read a book, I believe him. It was good but not as illuminating as I'd hoped, perhaps because I'm a woman so what it's like to be a woman is kind of old news, and also because the scientific questions I'm really curious about simply don't have answers yet (stunningly).

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson: Not as entertaining as his travel stories but it's definitely the most entertaining history of science I'm aware of. Most of it was old news to me, given how much science and history of science I read as a kid, but the parts and anecdotes that weren't made it very enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

satellite data

Planet Labs, Matt's former company and a very cool project that I'm surprised to find I haven't blogged about explicitly previously, has a fun blog with company news and demonstrating cool uses of and findings from their high-frequency land imagery data from their flock of small satellites. They recently featured an awesome use of satellite data to measure trade between China and North Korea via counting containers at border crossings in photos from this year and last. Economists out there involved in the harrowing task of accurately measuring trade and related quantities may want to consider this source of data!

The funniest thing about the post, though, is that apparently the Washington Post thought comparing photos from a Saturday and Sunday at the end of the lunar new year holiday week to photos from a more normal time the year before was a reasonable way to measure the time trend in trade levels... *Sigh*