Sunday, July 24, 2016

Prohibition Will Confuse Our Grandchildren as it Should Embarrass Us: Wainwright's "Narco-Nomics"


This was an interesting book with a good angle - the fact of prohibition drive so much crime both at the source of the drugs and as they are passed along the value chain that prohibition doesn’t work, since these supply-side interventions barely raise the street price and do little to dent demand. Demand is driven more by fads and trends - and in the case of opiates, doctors over-prescribing legal pills that become too expensive so heroin is a cheap choice.’

The book’s subtitle is “How to run a drug cartel,” and I think that may over-sell it. I don’t think that I could go and run a cartel based off of the information in this book. It seems to be misplaced in terms of marketing: the book for the most part focuses on the americas, but there is an interlude about synthetic drugs in New Zealand that is interesting but seems out of touch with the rest of the narrative. It seems the author interviewed one of the synthetic entrepreneurs and wanted to keep that part in even though the bulk of the book focused on the origin of drugs in South America to the ultimate markets in the US and Western Europe (Very little mention is made of Asia, and none of Africa that I can remember, so this is not a global model, but a very western one).

Ultimately, I feel that Wainwright makes a strong case, but I was on his side before I even picked up the book. The current fact of prohibition (especially in marijuana)  is going to be one of those cultural embarrassments in a generation, KIds will be goggly-eyed at that fact that not only was weed illegal, the state would lock up men and women for decades just because they owned some of it. In a nation where owning people was fine for a significant part of its history, this fact is hard to justify - and this book helps show why.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

On Gleick's "The Information"

This book is a wide-ranging take on information from before Babbage to today’s computers with a side trip through theories and practices of information.

Once I was done, it made me pick the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus I had laying around from the last time I read a book like this (Logicomix, a graphic novel about Russell and Whitehead and Ludwig). This time I got through Russell’s introduction - but even now I know that the project was a failure, I can’t see why he failed - it takes a Godel for that. (For that matter, I need to go back to and try Douglas Hofstadter again).

This is an accessible work that makes you want to go deeper in your understanding of how signs and signifiers work in the world, and boolean logic too. I must have missed all that in school, thinking that the philosophers were just guys that hung out wearing togas while corrupting the youth. This is a good introduction that should well-thumbed.

I Finally Read Piketty's Capital!

This is one of those books I was looking forward to reading so much that I went and ordered it early, even though it was pretty pricey - come on university presses, get your discounts on Amazon. The thing is that it created so much buzz between the big conference of the Economists in January and when it was finally released in translation in the spring, so many people had written on and about the book that actually reading the book and taking in the argument for myself seemed pretty superfluous at the time, you know. It is a big book and if people are going to tell you that the rate of return is greater than the rate of growth on a long time scale in less than 700 pages I was ready to listen. My physical copy has it’s bookmark firmly on page 113, right in front of the beginning of chapter three. (I have Robert Gordon’s new book on my pile, afraid it will reach the same point).

But I then had an extra credit on my audible account, so I thought I would listen to it. I’m convinced by Piketty’s argument. I worry that the information he has is not full enough to jump to huge conclusions. He treats the big wars of the 20th century as one-off things. I’d bet that they are not the last big wars that civilization will see, and those are pretty good at destroying wealth in the form of real estate and equities (minus defense, I’d wager). And the data-sets, as impressive as they are are limited to only four countries for the longest sets, and to just France for the longest set. So let’s go with a global wealth tax. Just tell me how to implement it.

The other thing is that though I was an English major, I read mostly the 20th century, so the Austen references go over my head (not to say the Balzac ones, an author to me known only for what his name rhymes with in English). It seems to be a novel way to track price movements and what not since inflation nowadays makes mush of the idea of stable prices (all one needs is 500 pounds and room of one’s own to do the math on that on).

Utopias to Utopia: David Frayne's "The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work"

This is an interesting text since I haven’t thought much myself about the systemic disalienation of your labor as a point of protest. The first chapters of Frayne’s book introduces me to several thinkers I have never heard of, and takes ideas from those who are more familiar, back to old grandfather Karl. But for me the Marxian framework is more about refiguring the ownership of the labor output than direct nonwork. Frayne goes back to Keynes to show that there was a leisure trade-off that was once thought inevitable that was instead traded for more consumption.

The theoretical beginning is interesting, but the book really gained steam when the author talks to people who have removed themselves from the labor force for some kind of idleness or aggressive loafing. I’m being too facile here, since each person he talks to has their own unique perspective on what they wanted to gain through work and what they want and are enjoying through not work. The idea of these individual utopias is nice, but when I was reading I couldn’t help but think that this removal will always be a niche thing since capitalism is touching even those who try to remove themselves from the economic system.

This concern is taken up in the last chapters, where Frayne takes the call from the individual and tries to make it part of a larger program where we can still meet our material needs but also think of our leisure time as ours and not the time we have when we (like I am right now) just plugging away because it is when you are not at work - this definition of free time is dependent on what you are free from. It’s not just time. I’m skeptical, since work is so definitional of who we are. Kids are defined by their parents work, students are defined by what they’re studying towards, and then you become something by having a title and a business card and you can finally define who you are by how you make your money. I had a bit of this myself. I was unemployed for two years and uncertain of what the next thing that was going to happen to me. I then worked myself so that I was chosen to be on the show Jeopardy!. How do they introduce you there? Your name, what you do, and then where you’re from. I was called an “Educator” though I haven’t been in front of a classroom in the five years since.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and made me want to read more in the subject. It did have its deficiencies though. First was that the citations to the texts were done in-text, like a student’s paper. This was distracting since it didn’t usually offer the text in introduction, so if I wanted to track down the text, I’d have to go to the index anyways. But it also had the year of the cited work, not the year of the original publication. This meant that the citation was something like “(Marx, 1959)”. And I know my buddy Karl wasn’t active in that year so it was distracting. This was a lesser issue in the middle chapters. The other concern is that the interviews were just a handful of anecdotes, and not hard comparable data, so the conclusions from a dozen interviews may not be applicable on a broader, more international basis.

On "Invisible Influence" by Jonah Berger

I end up reading a lot of these kinds of books that are basically repackaged original research (much of it done by other researchers) that is then taken and put a structure around it. The structure allows the author (sometimes a scientist, sometimes a journalist) to tell a story. Hopefully the research helps the story; hopefully the story is interesting and supported by the research.

I would not have picked this up off the shelf if it were not for the cover design, a clever cover that from one angle shows the title and from the other says “Everyone’s reading it”. That was the most novel thing about the book, since because I have read a lot of these books, the grass is not growing for me on this particular path. If you haven’t read a lot of popular behavioral science books, this one is fairly well done and you would not disservice yourself if you were to read it as an introduction to the field. I do have to note there was one thing that Berger talks about which shined a different light on the world  - he walks the reader through why counterfeiting is good for consumer product manufacturers. That starts around page 138.