Australian speculative fiction

I recently finished a book, The Two Pearls of Wisdom, by Alison Goodman who hails from Melbourne. The book is an interesting tale about a mythical Chinese empire set when there was a Chinese empire. I was drawn to it by this Orson Scott Card review (and you need only read that to be sold on the whole thing):

Australian writer Alison Goodman has written an absolutely stunning fantasy novel that deserves a wide readership, among both adults and children.

Ironically, he criticises the title, which in the US is, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. Suffice it to say that made it difficult for me to locate here even though after reading the book the US title seemed more apt than the Australian one and certainly conveys the idea that there are more books to come in the trilogy. Regardless of the title, if you like speculative fiction, it is worth a look (click here for Amazon link).

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Econometrics

Princeton University Press just sent me Joshua Angrist and Jorn-Steffen Pischke’s new book, Mostly Harmless Econometrics. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but any econometrics book with a clear Douglas Adams reference will get my attention.

Continue reading “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Econometrics”


I just finished reading Ray Fisman and Ted Miguel’s book, Economic Gangsters. The book covers their research on the micro-impediments to economic development. In many respects it is more of a tease than a treatise. Rather than explain comprehensively, the causes of mass poverty it provides chapters — each framed around their own research — that shed light on the problem. So there is a chapter on whether corruption is rampant throughout Indonesia and another one the parking infractions of UN diplomats. There is a chapter about the impact of bombing in Vietnam and another on smuggling into China.

For each you get the distinct impression of their importance. And it is hard to disagree with the general theme that getting the variables right for economic development is hard and it would be good if we could give peace a chance. But the value of the book is similar to Freakonomics: how do you scientifically work out what is the best approach? Which are the tighter constraints? What policies might stand a chance of success? This is a challenge that Fisman and Miguel have taken up in their own lives and the book is a journal of how far they have come. It is an excellent read; especially for those interested in policy evaluation, even if it does not leave you fully satisfied — but that is the fault of the world and not of the authors.

Outliers hits the mark

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, does in fact succeed. Of course, to argue that requires a definition of success. What it does not do is establish scientifically anything new about the world. It does not even generate a new hypothesis. Those would be measures of success to the frontier of knowledge but that is not how you should judge this book.

Instead, my criteria of success, for all popular expositions of scientific material is (a) does it make you think about your own world and (b) does it touch a literature you had not previously explored in depth. To be sure, those aren’t strong criteria to leap over but very few popular books make that mark.

Gladwell makes a simple point: capabilities are a necessary but far from sufficient condition for success and outstanding accomplishment. You need things which, on a world scale, amount to a great deal of luck but that is because they themselves can be rare commodities. Gladwell makes the case for hard-work. Surprisingly, that made me think. These days we often find ourselves apologists for hard work as if a softer life is in fact desirable. Economists are easy prey to this value judgement as work enters as dis-utility in assumed preferences. And similarly we angst about over-working our children.

But Gladwell isn’t simplistic on this point. Hard work is not something you can just do. You need incentives — a clear link between effort and reward — but also intrinsic satisfaction. But get it right and you have the conditions to invest 10,000 hours of effort required for outstanding success without blinking. As I reflect upon my own life and career that resonates. For instance, you can look at the sheer quantity of stuff I write these days and it is out there (never mind the quality or typos). To me, it is easy. Writing is like a muscle. The more I did it, the easier it became. And blogging is just another outlet for that. So when people ask me how I found the time to pop out Parentonomics, the truth is that I didn’t. I wrote it in little bits and during that time wasn’t even thinking about the time spent. Indeed, for most of that time, I regarded my hard work as elsewhere, particularly, research papers and submissions to government inquiries — oh yes, and meetings and stuff. There the time was felt.

There is more than just hard work to the pot of luck that is important. Legacy and cultural background appears important too. And what is interesting about these are what you might need to do to escape those things. This was a literature that I did not know too much about. I know more now.

So I can highly recommend Outliers. It is the best of the Gladwell trilogy and well worth your time.

The Gridlock Economy

I have just finished reading Michael Heller’s The Gridlock Economy. This is a terrific book that describes what happens when there is too much ownership of complementary assets. For instance, when there is too diverse ownership of complementary patents, innovators attempting to launch products combining them are deterred by a patent thicket. When blocks of land are parceled up between different owners, developers face a holdout problem in acquiring the whole lot.

What is good about the book is Heller’s simple explanations. He has a gift for word-generation. For instance, in describing the optimal level of property rights he refers to the ‘Goldilocks problem’ off getting it just right. There are plenty of good examples and stories and a few hints at solutions.

If I have issues with the book, it is on the issue of depth. First, Heller does not cite or consider the extensive economic literature on optimal ownership. For example, the work of Hart and Moore was seminal in identifying the problems caused by diverse control rights over complementary assets. It is not to be found here. Second, the solutions Heller examines are imperfect and little new is offered. There is no research reported that examines the evidence on how the trade-offs have resolved themselves. This is disappointing because it leaves the reader knowing that there are issues but with little to go on in how to optimally resolve those issues.

Nonetheless, it is a highly recommended read.

Apple’s Inventor

While all the hype about Apple and its innovativeness was building this week, I was reading iWoz, the autobiography of Steve Wozniak, the person who invented the modern computer. This is one of the more unusual autobiographies I have ever read. The main reason was not so the story itself — which was interesting — but the style. It was plain spoken and homely. Wozniak came across as an ordinary fellow who was pretty smart. It would be unfair to call it Forrest Gumpish but that is the closest narrative analogue I can come up with. Actually, the voice going through my head was Earl from My Name is Earl. Suffice it to say, the book was a joy to read. Continue reading “Apple’s Inventor”

Imagine there’s no …

I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion. I have long had an affinity with Dawkins’ work. The Selfish Gene stands out. There, Dawkins outlined how evolutionary science had evolved, in particular, to be solidly grounded in the roots of game theory. That book was, in fact, my first real introduction to game theory and what it could do. Continue reading “Imagine there’s no …”

Light non-travel reading

If I told you that I was reading a Bill Bryson book while on holidays, you would be excused for thinking it was a travel book. Well, unless you happened to be travelling back to Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s, there is no travel-related information in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. In his latest book, Bryson recounts amusing stories from his childhood. And if you liked his other books, you will like this one. It is lightly amusing and also an insight to how people reacted to the dawn of the modern age.

Perhaps the highlight of the book are the chapter beginning press clippings from the time. Here is an economically related taste:

In Coeur ‘Alene, Idaho, after householders reported that a car was tearing around the neighbourhood in reverse, Assistant Police Chief Robert Schmdit investigated and found behind the wheel a teen-age girl who explained: ‘My folks let me have the car; and I rand up too much mileage. I was just unwinding some of it.’ [From Time magazine, 9 July, 1956]

Excellent stuff.

Caffine and economic growth

[Book Review] I have just finished reading Tom Standage’s latest book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Standage likes to put historical events through a neat and interesting lense. I enjoyed his previous works including The Victorian Internet, The Turk and the wonderful, The Neptune File. 6 Glasses was a little more cute than these other works. Basically, it looked at how major forces in the world: urbanisation, empire, colonisation, globalisation and industrialisation were associated with six key classes of drink: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. You learn about the drinks and their origins and you learn about political economy in relation to them. A good, light read. There is even a discussion of water in a final chapter but milk and juice are not mentioned. Continue reading “Caffine and economic growth”

Romer and Parallel Developments

A couple of months ago, Paul Krugman wrote a review of David Warsh’s new book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Without having read the Warsh book, I blogged that I thought Krugman was a little harsh in dismissing the impact of Paul Romer’s work. In particular, he wrote that:

Now “Romer 1990″ is a terrific paper — I wish I had written it, which is the highest praise one economist can give to another. Yet I don’t think it can bear the weight Warsh places on it. Nor is it clear that increasing returns really did transform our understanding of economic growth. In fact, Warsh seems to concede as much. “So there is a new economics of knowledge. What has changed as a result? The answer, it seems to me, is not much.”

Now that I have read the book, I think that Krugman actually accurately represents the mainstream view of the Romer Model and that his notion is reinforced by the book. However, I think that there is a sense in which the steady-state view still somewhat limits that importance of the Romer Model and perhaps what it should represent. I will try to explain what I mean, in what I expect to be a rather long post. Continue reading “Romer and Parallel Developments”

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