Book to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2022
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
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
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
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
- 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.
Let me re-iterate that this is a really good book, which I strongly recommend. §
- 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.
- 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?
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