June 30, 2022

Book to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2022

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the (linked) decay of our infrastructure and our institutions, or to evaluate books on pregnancy (but then neither does that author).

Walter Jon Williams, Lord Quillifer
Mind-candy fantasy, competence-porn division. I very much enjoyed the latest installment in Quillifer's adventures and mis-adventures, but you really need to have read the previous books (1, 2) to get anything out of this. §
Emily Oster, Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong --- and What You Really Need to Know
There are two hooks here. (Neither is that the "conventional pregnancy wisdom" is all wrong.) One is Oster bringing the clarity of decision theory to pregnancy: let the doctors tell us the probabilities of outcomes under various contingencies, then let pregnant women come up with their utilities for those outcomes and decide which risks are worth it. The other hook is that Oster actually understands study design, and pokes at the medical literature on pregnancy and child-bearing to see which bits of it can support any weight. I am much more persuaded by the second part than by the first, if only because I had independently read a bunch of the same studies Oster and came to similar evaluations. The medical literature isn't all on a level with the Journal of Evidence-Based Haruspicy, but a surprisingly large part of it comes shocking close. I'm sure there are real obstacles to doing better, but it wouldn't hurt the medical system to admit how little confidence they ought to have.
As for the decision theory, well, I just defy anyone to actually implement that ideal. To repeat a favorite anecdote from the great Persi Diaconis:
Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussions. Finally, one of them said, "You're one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility." Without thinking, I blurted out, "Come on, Sandy, this is serious."
That said, I did appreciate Oster's efforts at providing actual estimates of various probabilities, however imperfect. §
ObLinkage1: I am sure this will cause all kinds of awkwardness at the farmers' market. I find the criticisms of Oster in that essay unfair, despite agreeing that public policy is needlessly mean and has, in many ways, grown meaner over my lifetime. The flaws of public policy around parenting, pregnancy, etc. are not Oster's fault; they're not even the economists' fault collectively; it seems fine to not go into policy in a book of advice to prospective mothers, even if you think policy is very important.
ObLinkage2: This puts many of Oster's anecdotes about her own mother in a different (and more impressive) light.
NoLinkage: I am vaguely aware that Oster has made herself controversial with ideas about how to respond to the pandemic. I haven't followed that, I have no opinion on it, I don't see how it's relevant (one way or the other) to this book, and I don't intend to learn anything about this matter, if I can help it.
Chris Raschka, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop
I thank Dmitri Tymoczko for bringing this to my attention.
Chris Ferrie and Marco Tomamichel, Blockchain for Babies
I blame Dmitri Tymoczko for bringing this to my attention, and will not dignify it with a purchase link.
Thomas Thwaites, The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch
What it says on the label: an art student tries to build a toaster, from raw materials sourced from Great Britain. Whether he succeeds is a matter of interpretation, but many valuable lessons about technology, knowledge, materials, the division of labor in society, and the nature of the built environment are learned along the way. Recommended if you can enjoy, or even just tolerate, wry, self-deprecating, Very British humor. §
Anna Clark, The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy
I think it's fair to say that this is the standard account of the Flint disaster, and it should be: it's well-written, impassioned, meticulous without being overwhelming, and provides a lot of important context. That said, there are a few points where I want to push back a little on some things Clark seems to imply.
  1. In Flint, when ordinary people complained that their water was bad, blamed it for all sorts of mysterious medical complaints, and disbelieved official reassurances, the plain people of Flint were, in fact, right. But when ordinary people complain about MMR or Covid vaccines, blame them for all sorts of mysterious medical complaints, and disbelieve official reassurances, they are very, very wrong. (Anyone taking this as an occasion to send me anti-vax rubbish will be piped to /dev/null.) I don't expect Clark to give us the tools to differentiate between these two cases, in a principled way which could help readers going forward --- she's a journalist, not a prescriptive social epistemologist! But I do wish her writing showed some awareness of this pitfall of celebrating the wisdom of the common folk.
  2. Relatedly, "hundreds of protesters bang[ing] on the locked doors of the ornate capitol building, shaking its wood panels" as the legislature tries to go about the ordinary business of democratic self-government (p. 167) --- well, that registers a little differently now, doesn't it?
Let me re-iterate that this is a really good book, which I strongly recommend. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Natural Science of the Human Species; The Beloved Republic; The Continuing Crises; The Great Transformation; Scientifiction and Fantastica

Posted at June 30, 2022 23:59 | permanent link

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