The Meaning of Things – A.C. Grayling

“The ‘considered life’ is a life enriched by thinking about things that matter — values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life. It is not necessary to arrive at polished theories on all these subjects, but it is necessary to give them at least a modicum of thought if one’s life is to have some degree of shape and direction.”

Philosophy is to learn how to die, Montaigne tells us. It’s not clear Grayling agrees: as the founder of the New College of the Humanities, a private liberal arts college in London, he very much wants to teach people how to live. The Meaning of Things is a collection of short essays (2-3 pages) to that purpose, meant for a general audience and on topics ranging from loyalty, to faith, to fear, to Christianity.

Grayling is a self-described man of the left, and the essays show a consistent perspective on the world, applied to a wide range of subjects. He argues, for example, that we are today very moral – historically accepted ideas from prostitution to child labour are now forbidden – but that we are not, by and large, civil. “The loss of civility means that social feeling has been replaced by defensiveness, with groups circling their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of nationality, ethnicity, and religion, protecting themselves by putting up barriers against others.”

His best essays are on subjects such as racism, civility, and leisure. His weakest are those that deal with religion; an aggressive atheist, he does not give his opponents the benefit of the doubt they deserve, and so his essays on the subject sometimes feel like one-sided monologues rather than engagement with an issue or idea.

A subject as vast as fear can hardly be addressed well in two pages. What Grayling does do well is direct the attention to some possible sources for further insight: the essays draw from a wide range of sources, helping them fit into the broader scope of philosophy. Grayling himself also presents some nice insights, and most readers will likely find an essay or two that appeals. A difficult book to sit down and read in a single sitting, but certainly interesting as one to leaf through and browse as the mood strikes. Grayling’s goal, after all, is to prompt reflection, and in that he succeeds.

Murder at the Margin – Marshall Jevons

“She and her husband may simply have interdependent utility functions, like so many married couples. That’s what economists mean by ‘love’.”

One of the challenges of teaching – and learning – economics is that it asks students to think in three different ways: mathematically, in graphs, and in economic intuition. Students who are good at one may struggle with the others, or may learn well when a concept is presented in one format but not when the other two are used, but all three are important. As a result, economists like to dabble in different ways of presenting the three, trying to appeal to different types of students.

Murder at the Margin is a murder mystery written by two economics professors. The small, balding, Harvard economist Henry Spearman is on holiday when a murder is committed at his resort, and he is forced to use economic principles and careful observation to solve it. In the words of Alfred Marshall, economics is ‘the study of man in the ordinary business of life.’

I picked it up thinking it might be a useful resource for teaching economic intuition, having had it suggested by a friend. It is not exactly Pulitzer prize quality. It is, however, used frequently in teaching economics, and does a good job explaining economic concepts in clear, effective language. Speaking as an economist myself, it’s also quite funny: it’s from the 70s, so examples and prices are quite dated, and it is both intentionally and unintentionally amusing.

If you’re a student of economics, especially a high school student, I think it has some teaching value. I think most students would benefit more from something like Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist, but for students for whom that is too advanced, or for whom fiction might be more appropriate than non-fiction, it makes a good effort.

David & Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell

“David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants…from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.”

The story of David and Goliath is well known, of course: a huge giant challenges any man of the Israeli army to single combat, all soldiers refuse in fear, young shepherd boy accepts and defeats giant with only a sling. The classic underdog story. Gladwell takes another perspective: the biblical tale matches the symptoms of acromegaly, a condition which leads to enormous growth, but also impairs vision. That explains why Goliath needed an attendant to lead him to battle, and why he did not respond to David having a sling: he couldn’t see! What gave the giant his great size, Gladwell argues, was also his greatest weakness.

The point, Gladwell argues, is a general one. We tend to assume that great strength will always win out, but in truth, underdogs can gain considerable strength from their underdog status, while giants can be severely disadvantaged by their size. The battle is much less one-sided than we might believe.

Gladwell applies this idea to issues ranging from dyslexia to class sizes and university choice. As usual, his examples are interesting and fun, which is what makes the book work. It’s less clear to me, though, what his thesis means. One concern is that perhaps adverse conditions just destroy the weak: though the idea of hardship as crucible is popular (and I find it personally appealing), it’s hard to disentangle that theory from the idea that hardship just destroys the weak and identifies the already strong as survivors.

Perhaps more significantly, however, he’s also vague on the concept of hardship. At one point, for example, he suggests that students would be better off going to a worse university, so they can be a big fish in a small pond: after all, the same number of students drop out of science at Harvard as at much lower ranked universities (which, by the way, if fascinating), but the worst students at Harvard are potentially stronger than the best at a weaker university. If one chooses a small pond, however, or equally chooses to hardship when it could have been avoided, is that still the same? It seems to me it is not: knowingly choosing to make things difficult for yourself, though potentially valuable, is likely not the same as being forced to undergo adversity. If adversity strengthens, too, one wonders what choosing a little pond does to your future potential.

All that said, I liked the book more that Outliers, and find his thesis appealing. We probably are too fixed in our conceptions of what is weak and what is strong, and we should realize that there is strength in overcoming and adapting to weakness, not just avoiding it.

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

First things first: I trust you are all following the landing of Philae with bated breath. Now, on to book review.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”

I’m generally a little hesitant about Malcolm Gladwell. He presents a tasting menu of ideas: not enough to satisfy or in many cases even know what you really think, but enough to arouse curiosity or provoke thought. That can be a good thing, of course, but his reliance on stories and anecdotes – though entertaining – makes me nervous. Because I can’t tell if there is any factual basis to what he’s saying, I end up walking away from a book with some interesting stories, but no real insights to draw on because I can’t tell whether his stories generalize to anything larger. What I read from him I must look up elsewhere.

That said, two of his books that I hadn’t read happened to be in the library, so I thought I’d give them a try. The first, Outliers, focuses on the idea of success. Gladwell argues that we tend to see genius as a unique trait, something that sets the elite apart. That misses the point: success is not achieved in isolation, but rather requires opportunities. No matter how smart or how talented, without opportunities genius cannot bloom.

At the extreme, the thesis is somewhat trivial; if you get hit by a bus, genius won’t mean much. Gladwell has a point, though: we tend to neglect this fact in everyday conversation, ascribing enormous weight to individual action. I wonder, however, if this is just a question of definitions rather than the profound point Gladwell seeks to make. True genius may lie in making the most of the opportunities you are given, and so consist not just of IQ but also hard work, self-discipline, and other virtues – whether that’s saying anything revolutionary, I’m less sure. To take the Stoic line, we cannot control the opportunities we are presented with by the outside world: all we can control is how we respond to them, and that is where genius – and virtue – lies.

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

“The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.” – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker “writes like an angel.” – The Economist

Cotton clothing is made from is grown in Egypt. Did that sentence make sense to you? Probably not. It’s what’s called a garden path: a sentence that lures the reader into interpreting a phrase in one sense (in this case, cotton clothing), when in truth it is meant in another, a fact that is made clear only at the end of the sentence. They are, unsurprisingly, a good thing to avoid in good writing.

The Sense of Style is not really a prescriptive, ‘this is how to rite good,’ sort of guide, though some sections do give concrete guidelines. Instead, it is a study of what it is to write well; an effort to understand the basic principles that can illuminate and expose ideas in text.

What makes us bad writers? Several factors. First is a reluctance to take responsibility for our opinions – academics in particular hedge their sentences so much to avoid being wrong that they lose all coherence and meaning. Many of us also fall into the trap of writing about abstractions: good writers, Pinker argues, write with nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives, so that the reader can visualize what is going on. Worst of all, however, is the Curse of Knowledge. We do not realize that readers don’t know what we know, and as a result, writers fail to explain jargon, explain logic, or provide detail, making their writing obtuse and obscure.

All is not lost. The answer, Pinker argues, is to write in classic style; to write as if you were in conversation with the reader, directing their gaze to something in the world. Good writers ensure their readers don’t have to keep a lot of information in their memory as they read, share their drafts with others and read aloud while editing, and above all attempt to write clearly and coherently, presenting ideas in an order designed to make them clear to the reader, not in which they occurred to the author.

The book is good reading for anyone who spends their time writing, whether in academia, journalism, business, or anywhere else. Since I finished, I’ve found myself rereading many of my own sentences over with Steven Pinker’s principles in mind, and if my writing isn’t quite up to his standard yet, it’s improving.

A final comment: writing well is in many ways about thinking well, and in his parting comments Pinker gives advice that applies to both. Good writers, he suggests, look things up; make sure arguments are sound; don’t confuse a personal experience with the state of the world; avoid false dichotomies; and base arguments on reasons, not people. If you never write another word in your life, it’s still good advice.

The Why Axis – Uri Gneezy and John List

“Without understanding that life is a laboratory, and that we must all learn from our discoveries, we cannot hope to make headway in crucial areas.”

Paying students for marks gives them an incentive to study. Does it also crowd out intrinsic incentives for the same, crippling students by making them unable to study when they are not immediately paid for it? If a gay couple tries to buy a car, does the dealership discriminate against them because they are inherently hostile to gays, or because they believe they can increase their profits by doing so? Should charities allow people to opt out of receiving mailings, and if so, will that increase or decrease donations?

If you are a teachers’ union, activist, or charity, you likely have strong opinions on the answer. What you may not have is any actual knowledge. Gneezy and List, two great experimental economists, argue that fundamental questions such as the best ways to educate, fight discrimination, and run businesses lie at the heart of experimentation. Without it, we cannot understand the world we live in, forced to reason by post hoc ergo propter hoc: that because things occur at the same time, one must cause the other. With experimentation, we can establish true causality, understanding how what we do affects the world around us.

To understand education better – and with the help of a $10 million dollar donation from some hedge fund managers – they have established their own schools, one focusing on teaching will-power and delaying gratification, and the other a more standard academic curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic. To understand discrimination, they tried having gay couples purchase cars while signalling they planned to check other dealerships, and found that discrimination disappeared; to understand charitable giving, they experiment with several different approaches, finding that having a pretty girl ask for donations and offering a lottery prize for donating are equally effective in increasing donations, but that the lottery has long term effects while the pretty girl does not. Giving people the opportunity to opt out of mailings is most effective of all, however, increasing initial donations, leaving long-term donations unchanged, and saving money on mailings.

The Why Axis is another in a stream of books by economists popularizing their work. As with many such, it is reasonably well written, and stocked full of anecdotes, stories, and examples. It is more interesting than most, however, because experiments provide particularly interesting fodder for discussion. In addition, Gneezy and List argue passionately for a more experimental way of looking at the world. Whether we are considering a new job, a new product, or a new policy, trying it out on a small scale provides information essential to avoiding blunders. To my mind, they’re definitely correct we would be better off if we experimented with different ways of doing things a bit more; in that spirit, pick up a paper or two of theirs to see if you find them interesting, and if so, the book might well be worth it.

Business Adventures – John Brooks

“The [Tax] Code, a document longer than “War and Peace,” is phrased – inevitably, perhaps – in the sort of jargon that stuns the mind and disheartens the spirit; a fairly typical sentence, dealing with the definition of the word “employment,” starts near the bottom of page 564, includes more than a thousand words, nineteen semicolons, forty-two simple parentheses, three parentheses within parentheses, and even one unaccountable interstitial period, and comes to a gasping end, with a definitive period, near the top of page 567.”

Any book that is the favourite of both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet is self-recommending, and I feel a little second-rate saying I really liked it as well. Nevermind. Business Adventures is a great book!

What distinguishes Business Adventures from other business books is the quality of the writing. It’s a collection of New Yorker articles by John Brooks from the golden age of print journalism, and it shows. Topics include the rise and fall of Xerox (invented by accident – they just kept adding elements from the periodic table to their ink till they found one that worked, and had no idea why), the Ford Edsel (a brutal failure of a car design for Ford), income tax, cornering a market in order to destroy short sellers (sadly now illegal, which might be why short selling is so popular), the first supermarket (Piggly Wiggly Stores – the owner would become a millionaire and then go bankrupt several times), the manager of the Tennessee Valley Authority, currency crises, and a vast scope of other subjects.

It’s a hard book to find these days, but Amazon has it on Kindle. It’s tremendous, and I recommend it. For the quality of the writing, for the quality of the stories, and even for the insight. It won’t teach you to be a modern investment banker, but it will teach you about the fundamental concepts businesses and businesspeople need to think about, concepts that can often feel obscured in a haze of electronic trading and hedge funds today. As the real estate crash in the US showed, however, technology and advanced degrees are no substitute for understanding the classical principles of business.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders – M.A. Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas

“With very few exceptions, we are all continuously bombarded with portraits of “successful” types who allegedly merit emulation…The difficulty lies in the fact that these dubious paradigms tend to glamorize lives that are as superficial and inane as they are unreflective.”

Leadership is always a bit of a fraught topic to write about: almost everyone has an opinion, and most comments come across as superficial at best. It’s also often treated as the silver bullet that could solve everything: if we only we had better leaders, we moan, healthcare/foreign policy/the environment/our favourite issue could be resolved in a heartbeat.

The reality, of course, is not so simple. Identifying exactly what makes a good leader, or what skills we would prize in one, is hard. I don’t personally see consultants or even most managers as models (no offense to them) – they’re more like drivers instead of leaders, to take Warren Bennis’ phrase. Charisma and charm are often necessary to be popular, but they’re not the same as leadership.

Soupios and Mourdoukoutas identify another possibility, based on classical wisdom. Leadership, they argue, comes from knowing yourself. Being reflective and thinking deeply about issues, though not idolized in modern media, is what gives you the ability to understand and empathize with subordinates. It can also give you a broader philosophy of life, one that helps guide you and provide direction. Leaders, after all, inevitably have to be in front of others, and to do that you need direction of your own.

For me, that highlights an important point. Lots of would-be leaders these days seem focused on leading for the sake of leading: they don’t mind where the crowd is going, they just want to be leading them there. I’m not sure that can work. One can drive a crowd in a direction from behind, but to lead one must be in front, and that suggests being there before the crowd. Sometimes the crowd follows and sometimes it doesn’t, but part of being a leader is not needing to look behind you every thirty seconds to see who’s there.

The book isn’t perfect: the introduction is well written and definitely worth reading, but as with many such books, several of the chapters can feel clichéd. It nevertheless raises a point well worth thinking about, and highlights a number of useful ancient texts to refer to. Better, perhaps, as a short article than a book, but still worth the read.

Disclosure: I read this book as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released November 11th. You can also read more here.

Rebellion: The history of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution – Peter Ackroyd

Rebellion: a beautifully written, compellingly organized tale of a century that would shape much of England’s history to come.

The 17th century laid the foundations for much of the English history that followed. Agricultural and Industrial revolutions were driven by Francis Bacon and Newton’s devotion to empirical science, as well as the study of greats like Christopher Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke; religion was fundamentally shaped by the civil war in England as well as the release of the King James Bible; the seeds of empire were sown with the establishment of colonies in North America and the West Indies, while merchants visited ports in Africa, Asia, and America; Cromwell would score some of England’s greatest military victories, including conquering Scotland, which no English king had managed, as well as disabling Spain’s naval power and assuring English dominance of the high seas; and writers would shape English literature, including Milton (private secretary to Cromwell), John Bunyan, Pepys, and Hobbes. Even national holidays would be given a kickstart with Fawkes’ attempt to blow up parliament, odd as the English national fetish about that is.

It was a busy century. Peter Ackroyd tells its story, one focused around the civil and religious war that would end in the beheading of Charles I and the elevation of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration that would bring back Charles II as king. The book’s greatest strength is that Ackroyd truly does tell its story: he presents a narrative that is as interesting as any novel. Much of the book focuses on the lives of kings, but chapters do also examine things like the role of women in society, literature, and other topics, giving the book a breadth it would not otherwise have.

The book is the third of six planned volumes on English history. Its fault, perhaps, is that it ends not with a bang but a whimper: having covered the glories of Restoration, the book can drag a bit as it ends with the politicking of Charles II that would lead to the Glorious Revolution. That aside, Ackroyd is a fascinating writer of history, and for quality of writing as well as depth of knowledge, Rebellion appeals. Newcomers looking for an introduction to an important but under-known period of history and experts should be equally delighted.

Disclosure: I read Rebellion as an advance reader copy. It is released October 21st.

Lament for a Nation – George Grant

“Like most other human beings, Canadians want it both ways. We want through formal nationalism to escape the disadvantages of the American dream; yet we also want to the benefits of junior membership in the empire.”

In light of the recent Scottish referendum, Lament for a Nation seemed somewhat appropriate, a Canadian classic on fears about cultural hegemony. It’s written by one of the foremost Canadian political philosophers (confession: that isn’t a large comparison group, but he’s still very good), and in Lament George Grant worries about the future of Canada and its possible end as a sovereign state due to US cultural encroachment.

His thesis is that with technology, cultural differences are almost impossible to maintain: economies must modernize to participate in the world, but as you modernize education and culture, you lose what makes you distinct. Even worse, he argues, early capitalism had restraint because of cultural restrictions: a Protestant work ethic, a British sense of self-restraint. In the age of technology such restraints disappear, and capitalism goes unchecked. Modern conservatives are thus doomed because to be popular they must accept technology, but to do so, they are no longer conservatives.

It’s a classic of small-c conservatism. In some ways, it’s interesting because that voice is diminished in modern politics, where the choice can often be between social liberals and economic liberals (in the traditional sense of liberal, not the American left-wing sense). Though Canada has to some extent preserved its culture, current Middle Eastern politics are in some sense a response to the same feelings of insecurity against American cultural hegemony. There may, of course, be things we like about American culture, such as human rights or individual freedom, but the question of how to encourage their adoption without making cultures feel attacked is fundamental, at both an individual and social level.