Book review: This Is Burning Man by Brian Doherty.
This book gives a description and history of Burning Man that is mostly consistent with what I know of it. I particularly like how he calls it “a social revolutionary movement that is not about fighting authority but is dedicated to working with it”.
He glosses over the inconsistent beliefs in the culture over property rights. He has one brief mention of bicycle theft without much indication of how big a problem it is or how it affects the culture. He occasionally implies it’s considered ok to destroy someone else’s possessions, but doesn’t provide a clear enough description of how much of a cultural difference that is.
He describes some of the disagreements over the what Burning Man should be, including some early disputes over whether it was ok for it to become an art festival, and whether attempts to introduce political advertising fits well with the anti-commercial rules. He suggests that control of the culture is sufficiently decentralized that no small group can decide the answers to those disputes.
The main hint he provides for those hoping to create similar events elsewhere is beyond some minimum level of safety and logistics planning, the success or failure is largely in the hands of participants rather than leaders, and the leaders of Burning Man don’t have a clear idea of how they succeeded.
He suggests that a sense of crisis, mostly due to the hostile environment, helps create a sense of bonding. I think he wildly exaggerates the effects of the physical environment (whose main value is minimizing political objections to Burning Man).
Archive for December, 2008
Book review: This Is Burning Man by Brian Doherty.
Mike Linksvayer describes a good perspective on why it’s important to have most information in a commons rather than restricted by copyright.
Most economists have a strong bias toward assuming transaction costs are unimportant. Coase has fought this. It sure looks to me like the Coase Theorem ought to be understood as demonstrating that one of the most important tasks for economists is to improve our understanding of how to reduce transaction costs. Economists have invested too much in models which depend on transaction costs being insignificant to easily be persuaded to adopt such a different focus.
Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World describes why having some commons can be as valuable as having some resources protected by secure property rights, and why it matters for science and technology. But his argument style is designed for ordinary political debates, and doesn’t provide the breadth or power that a good economist would produce when attempting to reform economics.
I have little idea whether Creative Commons will put additional money to good use, but the value of its goals should not be overlooked.
Book review: The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters by Diane Coyle.
This book provides a nice overview of economic theory, with an emphasis on how it has been changing recently. The style is eloquent, but the author is too nerdy to appeal to as wide an audience as she hopes. How many critics of economics will put up with quips such as “my Hamiltonian is bigger than yours!”?
The most thought-provoking part of the book, where she argues that economics has a soul, convinced me she convinced me she’s rather confused about why economics makes people uncomfortable.
One of her few good analogies mentions the similarities between critics of evolution and critics of economics. I wished she had learned more about the motives of her critics from this. Both sciences disturb people because their soulless autistic features destroy cherished illusions.
Evolutionary theory tells us that the world is crueler than we want it to be, and weakens beliefs about humans having something special and immaterial that makes us noble.
Likewise, economics tells us that people aren’t as altruistic as we want them to be, and encourages a mechanistic view of people that interferes with attempts to see mystical virtues in humans.
Some of her defenses of mainstream economics from “post-autistic” criticism deals with archaic uses of the word autistic (abnormal subjectivity, acceptance of fantasy). These disputes seem to be a disorganized mix of good and bad criticisms of mainstream economics that don’t suggest any wholesale rejection of mainstream economics. It’s the uses of autistic that resemble modern medical uses of the term that generate important debates.
She repeats the misleading claim that Malthusian gloom caused Carlyle to call economics the dismal science. This suggests she hasn’t studied critics of economics as well as she thinks. Carlyle’s real reason (defending racism from an assault by economists) shows the benefits of economists’ autistic tendencies. Economists’ mechanistic models and lack of empathy for slaveowners foster a worldview in which having different rules for slaves seemed unnatural (even to economists who viewed slaves as subhuman).
I just happened to run across this thought from an economist describing his autistic child: “his utter inability to comprehend why Jackie Robinson wasn’t welcomed by every major league team”.
She tries to address specific complaints about what economists teach without seeing a broad enough picture to see when those are just symptoms of a broader pattern of discomfort. Hardly anyone criticizes physics courses that teach Newtonian mechanics for their less-accurate-than-Einstein simplifications. When people criticize economics for simplifications in ways that resemble creationists’ complaints about simplifications made in teaching evolution, it seems unwise (and autistic) to avoid modeling deeper reasons that would explain the broad pattern of complaints.
She points to all the effort that economists devote to analyzing empirical data as evidence that economists are in touch with the real world. I’ll bet that analyzing people as numbers confirms critics’ suspicions about how cold and mechanistic economists are.
She seems overconfident about the influence economists have had on monetary and antitrust policies. Anyone familiar with public choice economics would look harder for signs that the agencies in question aren’t following economists’ advice as carefully as they want economists to think.
I’m puzzled by this claim:
The straightforward policy implication [of happiness research] is that to increase national well-being, more people need to have more sex. This doesn’t sound like a reasonable economic policy prescription
She provides no explanation of why we shouldn’t conclude that sex should replace some other leisure activities. It’s not obvious that there are policies which would accomplish this goal, but it sure looks like economists aren’t paying as much attention to this issue as they ought to.
She appears wrong when she claims that it’s reasonable to assume prediction market traders are risk neutral, and that that is sufficient to make prediction market prices reflect probabilities. Anyone interested in this should instead follow her reference to Manski’s discussion and see the response by Justin Wolfers and Eric Zitzewitz.
There are lots of small Chinese companies trading on U.S. stock exchanges that look at first glance to be ridiculously underpriced. One reason for the low prices are that it’s harder than you might expect to enforce U.S. law on Chinese companies that have few or no assets in the U.S.
The most blatant example I’ve seen is Eternal Technologies Group Inc, which has ignored a judgment in a lawsuit that seems minor compared to the cash the company reports having, with the result that a receiver has been appointed who is likely to collect some money in ways that badly hurt stockholders who bought before the lawsuit.
Another hint at how little the company cares about stockholders (at least those in the U.S.) is the careless way their press releases are written: “5. Radification of the elecrion of the auditors” (they managed to spell election correctly on the prior line, so it’s not simple ignorance).
I’ve noticed problems with other U.S. traded Chinese companies that leave me uncertain which of them can be trusted. I’ve been trading stocks listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange a fair amount, and haven’t noticed any similar problems there. I presume the stronger cultural and/or legal ties are more effective than anything that can be accomplished by U.S. law.
Book review: The Indian Clerk: A Novel by David Leavitt.
This book portrays the characters of mathematicians and related society in England circa WWI, although it doesn’t provide much help at understanding the math.
It does a good job of capturing the eccentricities of people who are obsessed with math. One quote that seemed particularly apt: “It’s as if each of the integers is one of his personal friends”, which reminds me of the analysis in Keith Devlin’s book The Math Gene. But this realism means that the characters aren’t sufficiently likable or exciting for me to want such a lengthy story about them.
One aspect of the book which puzzles me is when he suggests Ramanujan died of lead poisoning. He cites A. B. Young as a source of information on Ramanujan’s illness, in a way that suggests that Young supports that diagnosis. So I was surprised when I checked and saw that Young concludes he died of a liver parasite.