Free to Learn – Peter Gray

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives.”

Ask someone over 50 for their favourite moment in childhood, and most of them will raise a time when they were playing with other children, far from adults. Today, Gray argues, we deny children the same opportunity to be free to learn: we over-regulate and over-structure their lives, denying them the opportunity to develop essential skills through independent growth and learning.

Peter Gray, as he puts it, is an evolutionary development psychologist: he studies child development from a Darwinian perspective. That sounds a bit Hunger Games, but in truth what he means is he studies how child behaviours evolved. That leads him to a number of interesting insights, chief of which is the value of free play in childhood. Play, he argues, is how children evolved the ability to build skills, develop the ability to control their lives, and learn to be adults.

When children play, they don’t fear failure, they are forced to be creative, and they learn how to accommodate others and see things from the viewpoint of others: after all, if someone else doesn’t enjoy the game, they leave. Only in school and adult-run environments, where participation is mandatory, can you remain safely oblivious to the feelings of others, since they don’t have the option to leave. You also don’t need to come up with your own rules, settle conflicts on your own, or otherwise do much of value other than follow the orders of adults – hardly the first-best skill for our children.

The first half of the 20th century was a golden age for play – as children worked less and less, they had more time to devote to their own activities, closer to the pre-industrial era. In the last 50 years, however, school hours and structured time has steadily increased. Free play is increasingly a scarce resource.

The book is interesting, and it advances a compelling thesis, that children should be free to make mistakes and free to learn. Gray also studies several schools which have taken a low-regulation approach in depth, including Sudbury Valley School, which is entirely democratic: teachers and students all have one vote apiece. My sole criticism would be he discusses almost exclusively lab research: understandable for a biologist, but unfortunate. Economists and others have done some great working in actual schools looking at some of these questions, which could give his arguments more external validity. Still, a worthwhile and sometimes provocative read.

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

“The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

Most of us assume that thinking over a decision is better than making it immediately – that the first best option for choice is taking our time, gathering information, and being as rational as possible. Gladwell points out this isn’t always the case: that sometimes instinctive decisions can be as good or even potentially better than slow ones, helping us integrate information in a way we might struggle to do consciously. When we’re deciding whether to switch jobs or marry someone, we can certainly draw up a list of pros and cons, Ben Franklin–style, but our instinctive reaction to the choice might actually give us more information as to our true preferences. Though he doesn’t mention it, this is the reasoning that underlies the suggestion that to make a decision, flip a coin until you aren’t unhappy when it lands.

Blink is perhaps the best known pop-social science book out there, and Gladwell is well known for his cocktail-party-appropriate anecdotes and stories. This one follows the trend: some great research is included, from Gottman’s research on marriage durability (the four horsemen of divorce are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt, of which contempt is the true death knell) to American war games that pitted complex algorithmic strategy against a decentralized, rough and ready approach. As always, it’s also brilliantly written and tremendously engaging.

I’m not quite convinced, though. The problem with instinct, it seems to me, is it is hard to tell whether it’s right or not without deliberation. It may well be just as good in some cases, but without checking, how can we know? That suggests it’s useful only once we have justified its use with deliberation, which seems significantly more subtle than just claiming decisions made quickly can be as good as those made cautiously. That said, we all use instinct sometimes, and we can definitely do better at training and improving our thin-slicing abilities. Blink does a great job giving examples of thin-slicing, and also starts the conversation on how we can do better.

To Sell is Human – Daniel H. Pink

“Selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a car lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred.”

You probably believe you have a job that isn’t sales (unless you are in sales). Perhaps you think you’re a university professor, a doctor, a machinist, or an electrician. That’s all well and nice, says Pink, but you’re kidding yourself. Almost all of us spend a large chunk of our time convincing other people to do things – as teachers, we convince students to learn, or as office workers, we convince our coworkers to help on our projects or our bosses to listen to our ideas. Despite the bad name of sales, says Pink, this isn’t a bad thing. In the modern world, salespeople can no longer rely on asymmetric information to bamboozle their clients: instead, in an age of free information, they have to rely on actually working in the client’s interest.

It’s an interesting point, and an interesting book. I’m not quite convinced, though. I agree we all spend a lot of our time convincing others of things, but I’m not sure that’s a modern phenomenon: I suspect that’s been true in almost any age. Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal, after all. I’m also not sure sales doesn’t – in part – still deserve its bad name. It’s true, the internet means you can look up a used car as well as the salesman, but even when the information exists, finding it isn’t easy given how much else is out there. Salesmen still have an advantage because they curate information, even if they aren’t the sole holders of it.

The book also has a bunch of cute stories, as these books often do. The first ‘elevator pitch’, for example: the man who figured out how to make elevators safe for people needed a way to convince them it worked, so he built an elevator at a world fair, hoisted it up, and cut the cable. To the gasps of the crowd, it plummeted…until the automatic brakes kicked in and stopped it. I’m not sure I agree with the book’s thesis, but for a quick summer read, it’s light, entertaining, and interesting.

Summer Book Recommendations

As it hits the peak of summer (but not Midsummer, which was ages ago, confusingly enough), it seemed apropos to pass on some summer book suggestions: a selection of reviews I’ve written over the past year

What If – Randall Munroe

A recommendation I share with Bill Gates – a hilarious yet educational way to learn why not to swim in nuclear waste ponds (hint: it isn’t because of the nuclear waste)

Business Adventures – John Brooks

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates’ favourite business book. What more needs to be said? It’s a classic discussion of the fundamentals of running and understanding a business.

The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley

A light but compelling read on the educational systems of Finland and Korea, both of whom have schoolkids who do very well on international test scores, Poland, which has dramatically improved recently, and the US, which…has not and does not. Light and suitable for summer, but on a important topic and full of great ideas.

Daily Rituals – Mason Currey

We all have our daily rituals – waking up at a particular time, checking our phone, sitting in a room naked having an ‘air bath’ for an hour. That last one might only apply to Benjamin Franklin. A fun walk through some eccentric rituals, rich with stories for summer barbecues and even a little motivating.

College Disrupted – Ryan Craig

A study of the American educational system and how it needs to change. Data driven and insightful, it takes the unusual step of looking at the whole educational system, not just the top 50 universities we usually think of.

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marquez writes beautifully and thinks deeply. His books are always worthwhile, but Love in the Time of Cholera is a beautiful meditation on the nature of love.

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

Summer can be a great time to work on our own projects. Perhaps one of your is improving your writing with help from a man who, sayeth the Economist, writes like an angel?


GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History – Diane Coyle

“Environmentalists believe it leads to an overemphasis on growth at the expense of the planet, “happiness” advocates think it needs to be replaced with indicators of genuine well-being, and activists such as those in the Occupy movement argue that a focus on GDP has disguised inequality and social disharmony.”

GDP gets used a lot, in almost any discussion of politics or economics. It’s easy to forget it’s a recent phenomenon: the idea dates back only to the 1940s, and as recently as 1985, we really only had GDP data for around 60 countries, and that of poor quality. Only in 1999, when Angus Maddison published long-run estimates, did we actually get long-run GDP data on most countries, and even those are limited.

Today it is the rod by which all else is measured. As Diane Coyle points out, however, it is also deeply limited – some would say flawed. It counts some major sectors poorly, such as services, and omits others, such as household work: if a woman marries her gardener and stops paying him, GDP falls. The current system also gives a vast estimate of the contribution of financial services to the economy, giving that sector tremendous political influence, as in the UK: it’s not clear this estimate is reasonable, since in some ways it measures how much risk they bear, not how much value they are creating.

What’s the solution? Coyle argues that attempts to replace GDP with a new single metric won’t work: whether it’s happiness or inequality, no single number can capture the complex mix of freedom, prosperity, fairness, and the human capability to innovate and create that we believe is important. Instead, she suggests we use a dashboard approach: that using a mix of indicators allows us to measure how we are doing in a number of areas, and to tradeoff one against the other as necessary.

A sensible idea, in a sensible, well-written book. I’ve met Diane personally, and her personality shines through clearly in her writing: data-driven, clearly analyzed, and well-researched. The history of GDP may never be a summer thriller, but the book is about as light as it could be, and it covers and important and interesting topic.

The Art of the Long View – Peter Schwartz

“The point of scenario-planning is to help us suspend our disbelief in all the futures: to allow us to think that any one of them might take place. Then we can prepare for what we don’t think is going to happen.”

How do you take the long view to prepare for the future? Do you try to predict what’s most likely, then prepare for it? If so, you’re doing it wrong.

Schwartz instead argues for scenario-based reasoning. The core of the idea is that the world is unpredictable: since we cannot know for sure what will happen, it is foolish to prepare for only one future. Instead, you come up with several plausible scenarios of how the future might turn out, and then look for solutions and plans that allow us to prepare for all of them. I would call this prediction using confidence intervals, not point estimates, but the point is the same. By using a point estimate (or single scenario), we blind ourselves to other possible outcomes, and neglect ideas that might have served us well in an uncertain and unpredictable world.

By using stories, we can make these futures seem real, helping us truly change and deepen our mental models of the world and take a long view. Typically, three scenarios are enough to capture three possible types of future: more of the same, but better; worse; and different but better. Of course, there are infinite possible futures, but these three classes generally help us prepare for them.

Though pretty simple, I actually think the method is pretty compelling, and the book is a well-written introduction to it. Among other things, I think Schwartz’s method helps provide a common language for discussing the future, something often not accounted for. As Greece negotiates with the euro, for example, I think both could benefit by having some scenarios of what the future could look like.

It isn’t a perfect method: there were a few points I found unconvincing, particularly that you should never probability-weight scenarios. If you come up with three, one of which has a 90% likelihood of happening, should you really prefer a solution that works better in the other two? I’m happy to agree you should consider all three, and if a solution works for all then great, but the hard decisions are when solutions are good in some scenarios, and bad in others. Still, a powerful method that deserves broader application.

Speaking of the future, having had my PhD viva last week, I am finally left with a bit more free time, and so hopefully can start posting reviews more regularly again. Look forward to it!

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

For much of history, religion was a dominating force in human history, and a central focus of human life. Today, at least in the West, that faith has faltered, and people no longer spend their Sundays in church. Many of us, however, still spend our Sunday in ritual, whether it is watching football, hiking with family, or surfing the internet. These, Gaiman suggests, are our new gods: having evolved with a need for faith, the modern world has simply changed where it places that faith, from Odin and Zeus to airplanes, the internet, and conspiracy theories.

American Gods blends Americana, fantasy, and mythology into a heady brew. It won a wide range of awards when it was released, including Hugo, Nebula, Locus, SFX Magazine, and others. It is also, rather conveniently, a great read: fun and engaging, with splashes of serious mixed in. Most of the book follows Shadow, an ex-con who hires on to help Mr. Wednesday, an old god that seeks to resist the growing power of the new gods.

American Gods also covers a great cast of minor characters, gods both old and new: Technical Boy, the incarnation of our belief in the internet, to Mr. Nancy, representing the trickster spider-man Anansi from African folklore. We also hear how these gods arrived in America, carried by their believers as they were exiled from the old world, captured as slaves, or simply emigrated.

I read the more recent extended edition, about 12,000 words longer than the book’s original form. Either, I suspect, is interesting, and can make for an excellent summer read: if you need to relax, the story itself is fun, and if you’re in the mood to think, there’s a lot of depth behind it.

“People gamble to lose money. They come to the casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and tun with the cards and lose themselves in the coins, in the slots. They want to know they matter.”

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”

Armageddon in Retrospect – Kurt Vonnegut

I’m traveling for the next two weeks, so no posts from me for a bit. I’ll see what I can do to turn up some Bosnian wisdom, though!

“If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal-injection facility…here is what your last words should be: ‘This will certainly teach me a lesson.’”

In 1945, Dresden was fire-bombed. The catastrophic attack destroyed essentially the entire (historical) city center, and probably around 25,000 people. It has been controversial ever since, with critics arguing it had little to no military value and was purely attempt to strike terror into the Germans, while defenders suggest it was important to destroying a major rail and communication center. Enough to make anyone anti-war for life.

Vonnegut was there. He was a prisoner of war in the city, surviving because he was locked underground, and was later put to work exhuming corpses from the wreckage. It was an experience that permanently shaped him, including his best-known book, Slaughterhouse-Five. His description of his experience in Armageddon in Retrospect is a striking centerpiece to the book.

Armageddon in Retrospect is a posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s work, with a forward by his son. I’m a big Vonnegut fan, and the twelve pieces within cover a wide range: a letter home after WW2, short stories about trapping a unicorn or making cookbooks as a prisoner of war, even a commencement speech he was due to deliver. They are not, however, what one would call cheerful, and many of them strike a fairly consistent tone.

For that reason, I think I liked it a little less than Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five: the cutting ambiguity and subtlety that Vonnegut is so good at, where you read a light story that gradually evolves deeper layers, isn’t as present. Still good and still well written (his son, in the introduction, suggests Vonnegut somehow had an ‘extra gear’ when it came to language, recalling how his father used to help him with his Latin homework, without being able to speak Latin), but not his best.

Winter King – Thomas Penn

“For it is a strange thing, that though he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles…As for the disposition of his subjects in general towards him, it stood thus with him: that of the three affections which naturally tie the hearts of the subjects to their sovereign,—love, fear and reverence,—he had the last in height; the second in good measure; and so little of the first, as he was beholding to the other two.” – Francis Bacon, discussing Henry VII

Henry VII is one of the lesser known kings of England. He is wedged between two notorious monarchs, arch-villain Richard III and his son Henry VIII. His legacy has also been controversial: he founded the Tudor dynasty, passing on power to his son in the first untroubled succession in more than a century. Yet there was also a lingering sense of tyranny, a monarch who was greatly feared, dominating his subjects to an unheard of extent and driving many of them into bankruptcy, while making the crown one of the richest in Europe. Shakespeare forbore to write a history play about him entirely.

Thomas Penn has written in Winter King a phenomenal biography of the man, who went from a lesser prince with little claim to the throne to the richest monarch in Europe, waited on by other kings. The story itself is fascinating: Henry VII faced challenges that sound like fiction, including multiple attempts by his enemies to take random people – in one case, a boatman’s son – and raise them to look like lost princes with a claim to the throne. As a result, he was perpetually suspicious, and oversaw an enormous spy network: one never knew when you were speaking to one of his agents.

He also developed an elaborate financial network to ensure loyalty. As suggested by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, taxes were assessed using a simple rule: if you led a high consumption lifestyle, you clearly had a high income, and so owed high taxes. If you were frugal, you clearly had a lot of savings, and so owed high taxes. Funnily enough, taxes were quite high.

In addition, he used a complex system of bonds and fines to ensure that any subject faced immediate financial destruction if they crossed him. If you did something wrong, you got a suspended fine, triggered if you disobeyed again: if you didn’t do anything wrong, you were asked to post a bond, usually more than you could afford, that you would lose if you did disobey.

The whole book is interesting, from Henry’s sophisticated use of financial instruments to the complicated politics he reveled in. It’s also probably something you know nothing about. Highly recommended!

Shadow Work – Craig Lambert

“The innocence of leisure makes it vulnerable to the predations of organized bodies — and there are many — that have designs on our free time, something they view as a natural resource awaiting their schemes.”

The average American commute is 16 miles each way. At the 2015 federal auto mileage reimbursement of 55 cents per mile, that’s almost $20 a day, or $4,400 a year. Over the year, commuters each spend – on average – five forty-hour weeks of unpaid time commuting. That’s shadow work: work for which we are neither thanked nor remunerated, but which is increasingly pushed onto us by firms trying to reduce their costs. Whether we’re pumping our own gas, going to online forums for tech support, or self-diagnosing with WebMD, we’re doing shadow work, and it is eating into our leisure time at a ferocious rate.

At the end of the first chapter of Shadow Work, I was a little worried. Shadow work is an interesting trend, one that we are often surprisingly unconscious of. I just wasn’t sure what Lambert planned to add in the rest of the book. Fortunately, Shadow Work more than finds its feet in the second chapter. The rest of the book serves as a thoughtful and insightful reflection on the nature of work and the nature of leisure in the modern world, from increased complexity to reduced social contact.

Whether shadow work is good or bad depends on circumstance: I like going to automatic check-out machines in the supermarket, but find it annoying to wade through phone menus rather than just talking to someone for tech support. Overall though, as Lambert points out, shadow work gives us autonomy and self-sufficiency, but at a price: isolation. Shadow work creates the opportunity for a self-imposed bubble in which we interact with ATMs, automatic cashiers, and websites, but not our fellow humanity. It also gorges on our free time in what is already a rushed and harried world. I don’t mind giving up some leisure time for choice, but given how much I’ve already lost, I’m finding it harder and harder to think I should give up any more.

Overall, thoughtful and insightful, and analyzes a trend with implications for all of us. It’s easy to slip into shadow work without noticing, bit by bit, and Lambert is right to highlight the costs. Definitely recommended. You can read more reviews on amazon, here: Shadow Work.