Book Reviews

Book review: State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s – 1850s, by Peer Vries.

Yet another book on why Britain and China diverged dramatically starting around 1800. This one focuses on documenting the differences between the regions, with relatively little theorizing.

Some interesting differences of possible relevance to the divergence:

  • British per capita tax collections were 15 times China’s [1]; Vries emphasizes the underlying British bureaucratic competence.
  • Britain changed its tax rules often; China treated tax rules as if set in stone.
  • British tax policy caused it to promote standardization of a wide variety of weights and measures, which helped long-distance trades; China had nothing similar.
  • Britain’s taxation was more egalitarian than China’s (but still much less egalitarian than today).
  • British government debt looked recklessly high; China consistently had a surplus.
  • British elites wanted to keep the masses poor (to make them industrious); China’s elites seemed neutral or had slight preferences for the poor to prosper.
  • Most British workers were nearly slaves – laws restricted their mobility due to the expectation that most who left their area of work were beggars/thieves; China was less restrictive.
  • Britain condoned or supported powerful monopolies; China broke up concentrations of merchant power / capital under the assumption that they came at the expense of ordinary people.
  • Britain had three times as much farm land per capita as China.
  • Britain was more urban, so it had more commercial / monetary activity.
  • China denied that anything outside its borders mattered. Britain had a fairly global worldview.

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Book review: The Measure of All Minds: Evaluating Natural and Artificial Intelligence, by José Hernández-Orallo.

Much of this book consists of surveys of the psychometric literature. But the best parts of the book involve original results that bring more rigor and generality to the field. The best parts of the book approach the quality that I saw in Judea Pearl’s Causality, and E.T. Jaynes’ Probability Theory, but Measure of All Minds achieves a smaller fraction of its author’s ambitions, and is sometimes poorly focused.

Hernández-Orallo has an impressive ambition: measure intelligence for any agent. The book mentions a wide variety of agents, such as normal humans, infants, deaf-blind humans, human teams, dogs, bacteria, Q-learning algorithms, etc.

The book is aimed at a narrow and fairly unusual target audience. Much of it reads like it’s directed at psychology researchers, but the more original parts of the book require thinking like a mathematician.

The survey part seems pretty comprehensive, but I wasn’t satisfied with his ability to distinguish the valuable parts (although he did a good job of ignoring the politicized rants that plague many discussions of this subject).

For nearly the first 200 pages of the book, I was mostly wondering whether the book would address anything important enough for me to want to read to the end. Then I reached an impressive part: a description of an objective IQ-like measure. Hernández-Orallo offers a test (called the C-test) which:

  • measures a well-defined concept: sequential inductive inference,
  • defines the correct responses using an objective rule (based on Kolmogorov complexity),
  • with essentially no arbitrary cultural bias (the main feature that looks like an arbitrary cultural bias is the choice of alphabet and its order)[1],
  • and gives results in objective units (based on Levin’s Kt).

Yet just when I got my hopes up for a major improvement in real-world IQ testing, he points out that what the C-test measures is too narrow to be called intelligence: there’s a 960 line Perl program that exhibits human-level performance on this kind of test, without resembling a breakthrough in AI.
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Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.

1.

War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.

2.

Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).

3.

Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.

4.

National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?

5.

He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.

6.

That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.

7.

In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

This book describes some interesting mysteries, but provides little help at solving them.

It provides some pieces of a long-term perspective on the evolution of intelligence.

Cephalopods’ most recent common ancestor with vertebrates lived way back before the Cambrian explosion. Nervous systems back then were primitive enough that minds didn’t need to react to other minds, and predation was a rare accident, not something animals prepared carefully to cause and avoid.

So cephalopod intelligence evolved rather independently from most of the minds we observe. We could learn something about alien minds by understanding them.

Intelligence may even have evolved more than once in cephalopods – nobody seems to know whether octopuses evolved intelligence separately from squids/cuttlefish.

An octopus has a much less centralized mind than vertebrates do. Does an octopus have a concept of self? The book presents evidence that octopuses sometimes seem to think of their arms as parts of their self, yet hints that their concept of self is a good deal weaker than in humans, and maybe the octopus treats its arms as semi-autonomous entities.

2.

Does an octopus have color vision? Not via its photoreceptors the way many vertebrates do. Simple tests of octopuses’ ability to discriminate color also say no.

Yet octopuses clearly change color to camouflage themselves. They also change color in ways that suggest they’re communicating via a visual language. But to whom?

One speculative guess is that the color-producing parts act as color filters, with monochrome photoreceptors in the skin evaluating the color of the incoming light by how much the light is attenuated by the filters. So they “see” color with their skin, but not their eyes.

That would still leave plenty of mystery about what they’re communicating.

3.

The author’s understanding of aging implies that few organisms die of aging in the wild. He sees evidence in Octopuses that conflicts with this prediction, yet that doesn’t alert him to the growing evidence of problems with the standard theories of aging.

He says octopuses are subject to much predation. Why doesn’t this cause them to be scared of humans? He has surprising anecdotes of octopuses treating humans as friends, e.g. grabbing one and leading him on a ten-minute “tour”.

He mentions possible REM sleep in cuttlefish. That would almost certainly have evolved independently from vertebrate REM sleep, which must indicate something important.

I found the book moderately entertaining, but I was underwhelmed by the author’s expertise. The subtitle’s reference to “the Deep Origins of Consciousness” led me to expect more than I got.

Book review: Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation: Theory, Evidence, and Medical Implications, by Joshua Mitteldorf.

This provocative book argues that our genes program us to age because aging provided important benefits.

I’ll refer here to antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) and programmed aging (PA) as the two serious contending hypotheses of aging. (Mutation accumulation used to be a leading hypothesis, but it seems discredited now, due to the number of age-related deaths seen in a typical species, and due to evidence that aging is promoted by some ancient genes).

Here’s a dumbed down version of the debate:
<theorist>: Hamilton proved that all conceivable organisms age due to AP and/or mutation accumulation.
<critic>: But the PA theories better predict how many die from aging, the effects of telomeres, calorie restriction, etc. Also, here’s some organisms with zero or negative aging …
<theorist>: A few anomalies aren’t enough to overturn a well-established theory. The well-known PA theories are obviously wrong because selfish genes would outbreed the PA genes.
<critic>: Here are some new versions which might explain how aging could enhance a species’ fitness …
<theorist>: I’ve read enough bad group-selection theories that I’m not going to waste my time with more of them.

That kind of reaction from theorists might make sense if AP was well established. But AP seems to have been well established only in the Darwinian sense of being firmly entrenched in scientists’ minds. It got entrenched mainly by being the least wrong of a flawed set of theories, combined with some poor communication between theorists and naturalists. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good[1] page on the evolution of aging that says:

Antagonistic pleiotropy is a prevailing theory today, but this is largely by default, and not because the theory has been well verified.

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Book review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner.

This book reports on the Good Judgment Project (GJP).

Much of the book recycles old ideas: 40% of the book is a rerun of Thinking Fast and Slow, 15% of the book repeats Wisdom of Crowds, and 15% of the book rehashes How to Measure Anything. Those three books were good enough that it’s very hard to improve on them. Superforecasting nearly matches their quality, but most people ought to read those three books instead. (Anyone who still wants more after reading them will get decent value out of reading the last 4 or 5 chapters of Superforecasting).

The book’s style is very readable, using an almost Gladwell-like style (a large contrast to Tetlock’s previous, more scholarly book), at a moderate cost in substance. It contains memorable phrases, such as “a fox with the bulging eyes of a dragonfly” (to describe looking at the world through many perspectives).

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Book review: The Rationality Quotient: Toward a Test of Rational Thinking, by Keith E. Stanovich, Richard F. West and Maggie E. Toplak.

This book describes an important approach to measuring individual rationality: an RQ test that loosely resembles an IQ test. But it pays inadequate attention to the most important problems with tests of rationality.

Coachability

My biggest concern about rationality testing is what happens when people anticipate the test and are motivated to maximize their scores (as is the case with IQ tests). Do they:

  • learn to score high by “cheating” (i.e. learn what answers the test wants, without learning to apply that knowledge outside of the test)?
  • learn to score high by becoming more rational?
  • not change their score much, because they’re already motivated to do as well as their aptitudes allow (as is mostly the case with IQ tests)?

Alas, the book treats these issues as an afterthought. Their test knowingly uses questions for which cheating would be straightforward, such as asking whether the test subject believes in science, and whether they prefer to get $85 now rather than $100 in three months. (If they could use real money, that would drastically reduce my concerns about cheating. I’m almost tempted to advocate doing that, but doing so would hinder widespread adoption of the test, even if using real money added enough value to pay for itself.)

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Book review: Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill.

This book is a simple introduction to the Effective Altruism movement.

It documents big differences between superficially plausible charities, and points out how this implies big benefits to the recipients of charity from donors paying more attention to the results that a charity produces.

How effective is the book?

Is it persuasive?

Probably yes, for a small but somewhat important fraction of the population who seriously intend to help distant strangers, but have procrastinated about informing themselves about how to do so.

Does it focus on a neglected task?

Not very neglected. It’s mildly different from similar efforts such as GiveWell’s website and Reinventing Philanthropy, in ways that will slightly reduce the effort needed to understand the basics of Effective Altruism.

Will it make people more altruistic?

Not very much. It mostly seems to assume that people have some fixed level of altruism, and focuses on improving the benefits that result from that altruism. Maybe it will modestly redirect peer pressure toward making people more altruistic.

Will it make readers more effective?

Probably. For people who haven’t given much thought to these topics, the book’s advice is a clear improvement over standard habits. It will be modestly effective at promoting a culture where charitable donations that save lives are valued more highly than donations which accomplish less.

But I see some risk that it will make people overconfident about the benefits of the book’s specific strategies. An ideal version of the book would instead inspire people to improve on the book’s analysis.

The book provides evidence that donors rarely pay attention to how much good a charity does. Yet it avoids asking why. If you pay attention, you’ll see hints that donors are motivated mainly by the desire to signal something virtuous about themselves (for example, see the book’s section on moral licensing). In spite of that, the book consistently talks as if donors have good intentions, and only need more knowledge to be better altruists.

The book is less rigorous than I had hoped. I’m unsure how much of that is due to reasonable attempts to simplify the message so that more people can understand it with minimal effort.

In a section on robustness of evidence, the book describes this “sanity check”:

“if it cost ten dollars to save a life, then we’d have to suppose that they or their family members couldn’t save up for a few weeks, or take out a loan, in order to pay for the lifesaving product.”

I find it confusing to use this as a sanity check, because it’s all too easy to imagine that many people are in desperate enough conditions that they’re spending their last dollar to avoid starvation.

The book alternates between advocating doing more good (satisficing), and advocating the most possible good (optimizing). In practice, it mostly focuses on safe ways to produce fairly good results.

The book barely mentions existential risks. If it were literally trying to advocate doing the most good possible, it would devote a lot more attention to affecting the distant future. But that’s much harder to do well than what the book does focus on (saving a few more lives in Africa over the next few years), and would involve acts of charity that have small probabilities of really large effects on people who are not yet born.

If you’re willing to spend 50-100 hours (but not more) learning how to be more effective with your altruism, then reading this book is a good start.

But people who are more ambitious ought to be able to make a bigger difference to the world. I encourage those people to skip this book, and focus more on analyzing existential risks.

Book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane.

This book describes a partial theory of how life initially evolved, followed by a more detailed theory of how eukaryotes evolved.

Lane claims the hardest step in evolving complex life was the development of complex eukaryotic cells. Many traits such as eyes and wings evolved multiple times. Yet eukaryotes have many traits which evolved exactly once (including mitochondria, sex, and nuclear membranes).

Eukaryotes apparently originated in a single act of an archaeon engulfing a bacterium. The result wasn’t very stable, and needed to quickly evolve (i.e. probably within a few million years) a sophisticated nucleus, plus sexual reproduction.

Only organisms that go through these steps will be able to evolve a more complex genome than bacteria do. This suggests that complex life is rare outside of earth, although simple life may be common.

The book talks a lot about mitochondrial DNA, and make some related claims about aging.

Cells have a threshold for apoptosis which responds to the effects of poor mitochondrial DNA, killing weak embryos before they can take up much parental resources. Lane sees evolution making important tradeoffs, with species that have intense energy demands (such as most birds) setting their thresholds high, and more ordinary species (e.g. rats) setting the threshold lower. This tradeoff causes less age-related damage in birds, at the cost of lower fertility.

Lane claims that the DNA needs to be close to the mitochondria in order to make quick decisions. I found this confusing until I checked Wikipedia and figured out it probably refers to the CoRR hypothesis. I’m still confused, but at least now I can attribute the confusion to the topic being hard. Aubrey de Grey’s criticism of CoRR suggests there’s a consensus that CoRR has problems, and the main confusion revolves around the credibility of competing hypotheses.

Lane is quite pessimistic about attempts to cure aging. Only a small part of that disagreement with Aubrey can be explained by the modest differences in their scientific hypotheses. Much of the difference seems to come from Lane’s focus on doing science, versus Aubrey’s focus on engineering. Lane keeps pointing out (correctly) that cells are really complex and finely tuned. Yet Lane is well aware that evolution makes many changes that affect aging in spite of the complexity. I suspect he’s too focused on the inadequacy of typical bioengineering to imagine really good engineering.

Some less relevant tidbits include:

  • why vibrant plumage in male birds may be due to females being heterogametic
  • why male mammals age faster than females

Many of Lane’s ideas are controversial, and only weakly supported by the evidence. But given the difficulty of getting good evidence on these topics, that still represents progress.

The book is pretty dense, and requires some knowledge of biochemistry. It has many ideas and evidence that were developed since I last looked into this subject. I expect to forget many of those ideas fairly quickly. The book is worth reading if you have enough free time, but understanding these topics does not feel vital.

Book review: Notes on a New Philosophy of Empirical Science (Draft Version), by Daniel Burfoot.

Standard views of science focus on comparing theories by finding examples where they make differing predictions, and rejecting the theory that made worse predictions.

Burfoot describes a better view of science, called the Compression Rate Method (CRM), which replaces the “make prediction” step with “make a compression program”, and compares theories by how much they compress a standard (large) database.

These views of science produce mostly equivalent results(!), but CRM provides a better perspective.

Machine Learning (ML) is potentially science, and this book focuses on how ML will be improved by viewing its problems through the lens of CRM. Burfoot complains about the toolkit mentality of traditional ML research, arguing that the CRM approach will turn ML into an empirical science.

This should generate a Kuhnian paradigm shift in ML, with more objective measures of the research quality than any branch of science has achieved so far.

Burfoot focuses on compression as encoding empirical knowledge of specific databases / domains. He rejects the standard goal of a general-purpose compression tool. Instead, he proposes creating compression algorithms that are specialized for each type of database, to reflect what we know about topics (such as images of cars) that are important to us.
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