The Why Axis

I was home for a few weeks, and amongst the old mail that I rifled through, there was a book mailed from my undergraduate economics department. And so I read the book, The Why Axis, by Uri Gneezy and John List.

The book is about using field experiments to generate insights. The authors described field experiments that they performed, and the results were fascinating.

Structurally, the book could have been tighter, more concise. Oftentimes, the author would repeat exactly what he said in the previous paragraph. And there were awkward transitions that made it more difficult to follow the train of thought. Also, the chapters were written inconsistently. Some chapters had detailed storytelling or tried to focus on impacted individuals, while other chapters were descriptions of the experiment and data. There were fluff sentences with vague pronouncements that lacked any insight.

The authors state that by observing the world, you can come up with many correlations. But determining causality requires an experiment, whether the experiment was accidentally or purposefully orchestrated.

One issue the authors look at is why men get paid more. They find that in patrilineal societies, men are more competitive and aggressive. The opposite is true in matrilineal societies. Also, they find men are more likely to negotiate salary unprompted. When a job listing states that salary is negotiable and the ambiguity is removed, men and women are equally likely to negotiate salary.

The authors say much of the bias today does not stem from hate, but the desire to make money. In a field experiment, they found that disabled people were given a 30% higher quote for a car repair because it is assumed they won’t want to go through the effort of collecting multiple quotes. If they tell the car repairman that they are receiving 3 quotes, then the repairman gives them the same quote as able people. In another experiment, they found that young black males wearing hoodies were the least likely to receive help when they asked for directions. In order to receive equal treatment, they had to dress better and wear business clothes.

The authors discuss experiments they performed for Chicago public schools. In one experiment, they confirmed that loss is more motivating than gain. One effective strategy to motivate test-taking students is to give them $20 before the test and have them write what they want to spend the money on, then let them keep the money if their test scores improve. That is better than telling students that they will receive $20 if their test scores improve. In another experiment, they wanted to see what would improve scores the most, giving financial rewards to students, parents, teachers, or a mix. They found that financial rewards improved performance in all cases, and rewards improved scores the most when they were given to any one group (such as just parents, or just teachers).

The authors discuss experiments that they performed for various charities. One question they had was what would result in more giving, saying that the goal was 0% reached, 33% reached, or 66% reached? They found saying the goal was already 66% reached was the most effective. Even though people would have to give less for the charity to meet its goal, they actually gave more, because having the goal partially met provided validation that the charitable cause was valid. Another interesting finding was that when there is a matching gift promotion, all matching gifts perform equally well, whether the match is $1 for each dollar you donate, or $2 for each dollar you donate. Again, the matching gift provides validation for the charitable cause, and the match multiple does not matter.

The authors urge individuals and businesses to experiment more. They find a few reasons why businesses do not experiment as much as they should. One is that managers want to validate their positions, and they fear using data-driven methods will invalidate their own methods or compromise the appearance of their expertise. A second reason is inertia, some businesses are slow to act. A third reason is managers are scared of uncertainty and change. They want to use familiar methods that have been satisfactory in the past.

For incentives to be effective, they must speak to people’s underlying motivations, lest unintended consequences occur. Field experiments are an excellent way of discovering these underlying motivations.

Seconds

I read the comic Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the same author of the Scott Pilgrim series.

The comic is a quick read. The main character is Katie, the head chef at a popular restaurant. She meets the restaurant’s house spirit, and Katie is given a magical mushroom that lets her redo events that happened in the restaurant (or rather, the mushroom sends her to a world in which she made a different decision). Katie finds more mushrooms, and uses them in an attempt to build a perfect life. Katie is rash, impulsive, and a bit self-absorbed, so she needs to consume a lot of mushrooms to fix her mistakes.

In the end, after abusing the mushrooms and destroying the fabric of space and time, Katie reverses all her changes. She learns her lesson, and her life ends up exactly as she wanted it to anyway. Everyone gets a happy ending.

Outliers: The Story of Success review

I read Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, a discussion on what factors enable someone to be successful.

The main takeaway is, success requires preparation and lucky opportunities. Gladwell’s cherrypicked examples include Bill Gates, the Beatles, and a prominent litigator.

In the book, Gladwell claims that superstars are not innately talented, it is only by hard work that one can become an expert. Roughly 10,000 hours of practice appears to be the requirement to become an expert. He notes that people with extremely high IQs are not more likely to be successful; rather, there is a threshold where an IQ is “good enough.” The socioeconomic class of the parents contributes the most to the child’s success, more so than raw IQ.

Gladwell says there are three things that make work meaningful: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward. Children are more likely to be successful if they have parents who perform meaningful work.

While the first part of the book is how success is granted through opportunity, the second part is how legacy makes a difference. Gladwell argues that Asians are better at math because Asian cultures emphasize hard work, and the way numbers are structured in Asian languages makes it easier to perform basic math operations. On the other hand, cultural legacy can cause issues. He cites cockpit recordings from Colombian and South Korean flights that crashed, and notes how deference to authority caused the first officers to be indirect in their emergency warnings to the captains.

The self-indulgent epilogue is the story of Gladwell’s mother, and how various chance opportunities aligned so that Gladwell could become the successful author that he is today.

Spring Reading: Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude

I finally read Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I like Nabokov’s effusive prose, so good.

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, about the rise and fall of the Buendía family over seven generations. At the beginning of the book, I read it as realistic fiction due to the matter of fact tone. But then flying carpets and magical elements were introduced, and I realized these things were taken for granted as completely ordinary, versus to be interpreted as metaphor. Adding to the realism of this fantasy novel, the book interwove actual historical figures and events into the story, such as the banana massacre. Every time I picked up the book, I felt somber afterwards. The decline of the family and their village is foreshadowed and feels inevitable. Buendía family members are born, grow up, live a unique and solitary existence of their own making, then die. In each generation, the children are named after other family members, and so everyone has one of a few names, and the generations follow a cyclical pattern. Events that happened prior in the book are often recalled. The weight of prior generations stack, so that by the end of the book, at the mention of a single room, several generations’ worth of memories in that room are recalled.  At the end of the novel, a mystery introduced at the beginning of the book is finally revealed, and everything comes full circle.

Levels of Life

I read Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes. The novel is a reflection on love and loss, using ballooning as a metaphor.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Sin of Height,” is presented in historical facts and quotations. Three famous real-life aeronauts are introduced: officer Fred Burnaby, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. Their opinions and motivations are revealed.

The three aeronauts were ballooning when it was relatively new and dangerous. Aeronauts were celebrities.

Barnes states how humans were not meant to fly, but with the advent of ballooning, now people had the ability to. Ballooning is a “moral” activity: the aeronauts have a newfound perspective, that of god looking down. And when Tournachon combined ballooning with the new field of photography, something special had been created, something that transcended the two fields individually.

The second section, “On the Level,” is a fictional account of an affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. The real-life Burnaby was a courageous swashbuckler who explored Russia when it was closed to travelers. His life was filled with tales of derring-do in his military exploits and adventures. Burnaby is not portrayed this way in the book. Rather, he is a vulnerable man that is hopelessly in love with the actress. When he tells her his feelings, he is friend-zoned like all of Bernhardt’s past suitors. Then Burnaby dies in a military campaign, his last thoughts somehow tied to his time with Bernhardt.

The third section, “The Loss of Depth,” reads as a memoir, it is Barnes working through the grief over his wife.

Like other novels by Barnes, Levels of Life is extremely well-written, with insightful quotations throughout. The metaphor of ballooning high above ground to love is thoroughly explored. However, I found the novel lacked cohesion, especially the transition between the fictional second section and the narrative third section. Here we have Fred Burnaby being rejected by Bernhardt, immediately followed by Barnes’ emotional train-of-thought discussion on losing his wife. The former was portrayed as some brief fling, how could it possibly be compared to Barnes’ marriage of over thirty years? The book read as three different novels with three distinct styles, forced together through some overarching metaphor that did not quite work. Nevertheless, the book was thought-provoking and made me cry. Success!

Batman: Year 100

I read Batman: Year 100, written and illustrated by Paul Pope. It is a self-contained comic set in Gotham, year 2039. The gist of the story is, Batman witnesses the murder of a federal agent and gets framed for it. He works to unravel the government conspiracy behind the event.
The art style is unique. Batman looks grittier and his costume design is more realistic than the painted-on costume design of other iterations. Pope did a great job conveying movement and action with his messy, flowing line work and coloring.
The plot reminded me of a spy movie. There is a lot of running away from groups of armed men. Batman even infiltrates a building with the directions of a sidekick on the line. There is no character development, only sleuthing, running, fighting, and other general frenetic mayhem. There are interesting villains with strong personalities, but they don’t get backstories and are disposed of easily. Batman is joined by iterations of the usual cast: Robin, Jim Gordon (grandson of Commissioner Gordon), a Batgirl/Oracle-esque computer hacker. The characters don’t evolve or change their moral philosophies as the story progresses, but they do make shocking revelations regarding the incident that Batman is framed for. The plot did not explore any of Batman’s psychological or physical traumas. We see him getting injured, bones broken, even shot, but he quickly bounces back and gets to work saving the day again.
The comic maintains Batman’s mythical persona, as everyone is amazed that in an age where everyone is documented, where there is no privacy, that a masked crusader still exists. Batman manages to crush everyone with raw fighting ability and low tech weapons. And his mind is as amazing as ever, able to recall events in his past with perfect photographic memory, focusing and slowing down his memories like a video player. The comic asked but never got around to explaining the real mystery: how is Batman still alive and moving spritely after 100+ years of crime fighting? Did the original Bruce Wayne figure out how to stay young, did someone else take up the mantle, or has Batman somehow transcended into a myth that defies all logic?
Overall, the comic is entertaining, but it doesn’t add anything to the Batman mythos, and the futuristic setting could have been explored further.

The Life Eaters

I read The Life Eaters by David Brin. The premise of the comic is, near the end of World War II, Norse gods such as Thor and Odin suddenly appear and help the Nazis defeat the Allies. The Nazis created these mythical gods by sacrificing humans in their concentration camps. The Norse gods are not loyal to their Nazi creators, but the deities sustain themselves with war and death, so they side with the Nazis for their own purposes. To combat the Nazis, some countries kill off their own population to materialize their own regional deities. These countries, with assistance from their deities, start a never-ending conflict with each other. Meanwhile, there are rebel tribes in the Middle East that refuse to sacrifice their fellow men, and they struggle for survival, fighting invading countries with conventional weapons.

No side: Asia, Africa, nor Europe, appears to have an upper hand. But the equilibrium of war is threatened when the African nations start burning their oil fields. The deities of Africa prefer heat, while the Norse gods prefer cold. The African nations burn their oil fields to produce greenhouse gases and raise the temperature.  A scientist realizes that the Norse gods could combat this by taking the air pollution to an extreme; by detonating atomic bombs, the pollution in the atmosphere will reflect all sunlight, making the earth cold (this is also why the Allies did not use nuclear bombs against the Nazis). As if the current climate of war is not enough, the scientist fears an impending “weather war” with permanent ramifications for the planet, and he warns the rebel tribes. In a very contrived scene, the rebel groups in the Middle East all forgive each other for any past wrongs and band together. They create a power suit that can best even the deities. As the comic explicitly and repeatedly states, ordinary men are extremely strong and creative, even without superpowers and mythical abilities. A single man can make a big difference, inspire a resistance movement, overcome the temptation of ultimate power. And when people work together, their resourcefulness and strength can conquer anything. At the end of the comic, the war is ongoing, but there is hope that humanity will win in the end.

Persepolis

I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi . It is an autobiographical comic book about the author’s life growing up in revolutionary Iran. Her childhood is tense and perilous. Within Iran, there is the threat of religious fundamentalists arresting and punishing people arbitrarily. Marjane’s Communist uncle is executed by the fundamentalists.  Then there is the threat from outside countries. During the war with Iraq, a scud missile hits her neighbors’ house, killing her neighbors. Despite the atmosphere of fear and stifled freedom, Marjane is headstrong and not afraid to speak her mind. She attends rallies, holds illegal parties, and talks back to authority figures. In an environment where people were being severely and arbitrarily punished, I kept expecting Marjane to be punished for her rebelliousness. But she was very lucky. While her friends and acquaintances get attacked or worse, she makes it out relatively unscathed. It seemed her greatest difficulty was assimilating to a different culture during her time studying abroad, dealing with alienation and having no family support.

The art in the comic book is simple (this is no superhero comic with creative and fantastical character design). The characters, too, are simply drawn and rather indistinguishable. During the chapters about Marjane’s childhood, I often could not tell which child was her. I could not reliably tell who she was until she started drawing the mole on her face that appeared when she was an adult. The characters, going by appearances, are forgettable, but it’s their role in Marjane’s shocking stories that makes them memorable. Also, for a comic book, there was an awful lot of narration, too much telling and not enough showing. I would rather read about Batman.

Black Hole

I read the graphic novel Black Hole, by Charles Burns. As far as graphic novels go, it is NSFW graphic. The premise is, there is an STD going around a high school that causes gross body mutations, like growing a tail, a second mouth, shedding skin. Those with “The Bug” end up being ostracized and some leave home and school and live out in the woods. The novel is ultimately about adolescence— fitting in, sex, drugs, and alcohol. The story was nonlinear. The narrator kept changing and it was not always immediately apparent who was narrating.

The illustrations were amazing, crisp black and white with great detail, each individual hair and strand of grass shaded. The panels were chock full of symbolism and unnerving images. I have never tried drugs, but I imagine the illustrations capture how disorienting they are. When I finished the book I was emotionally drained, as though I had just finished watching an intense movie.

I had a couple gripes with the plot. The two main female characters, while under the influence, threw themselves at men they did not know anything about, then became clingy and fell in love with them after hooking up. Maybe the women were supposed to come off as assertive go-getters, but they seemed rather desperate to me. Also, the characters deal with their problems by running away, they don’t confront their issues. The teenagers with “The Bug” run away from their homes. They would not reveal to their parents their deformities, even though the teenagers admit that their parents would still accept them, not drive them away. One women escapes her abusive roommates by running away, which I felt was a legitimate thing to do. But another takes running from problems too far; when he is rejected by his crush he becomes homicidal and kills himself. And then there is the main character, Keith, who runs away from situations all the time, never content to be where he is until the end of the novel. Keith is dissatisfied and frightened by his stoner friends, that they spend their time watching TV like zombies. On a really bad trip, Keith stumbles upon the encampment of people deformed by “The Bug” and befriends them. The people in the encampment seem a lot more understanding and accepting, they listen to his feelings and stories. Later on, Keith is housesitting, and the encampment people move in and mess it up. And then they all get murdered. Keith is just overwhelmed by what he sees and drives away with his girlfriend. They retreat into nature, which the characters appreciate as rejuvenating and free. And yet, it seems Keith running away from those problems is supposed to be a good ending. It is supposed to be a good thing that he left his mentally dead stoner friends and his literally dead friends from the encampment, that he is going on a road trip and starting life anew, but that just doesn’t sit well with me.

Double Cross, The Quiet American

I read Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre. The non-fiction novel tells the stories of the spies in the British Double-Cross system. These colorful and eccentric double agents successfully fooled German intelligence into thinking that the D-Day invasion would target locations other than Normandy and that the invasion would occur later than it actually did. During and following D-Day, German forces were tied up with false threats of Allied troop movements. The misinformation fed by the spies saved thousands of lives. The book was fairly interesting overall. The author took great relish in describing the debauchery of some of the spies, and how on multiple occasions the whole double-cross system came close to being exposed. The spies were not enigmatic; they were loud, selfish people, often partying or engaging in affairs. It was amazing that their often outlandish reports were accepted by their German spymasters literally and without scrutiny. This book reinforced the importance and advantage of information in war, and knowing what your enemy knows. The Allies had broken Germany and Japan’s ciphers; the Allies knew the Axis’ plans, they knew that all of German’s spies in England had been turned into double agents, and they knew that the Germans trusted the agents completely. One interesting tidbit I learned is that the people in the US intelligence system disapproved of the spies’ questionable behavior and thought they were not to be trusted. Instead of turning enemy spies into double agents, they felt they should be eliminated.

I also read The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. The fiction novel is set during the Vietnam War. It is about an English newspaper reporter named Fowler and his relationship with the titular quiet American named Pyle. Pyle reads books by York Harding (a scholar who writes about Asia without any real-world experience) and takes Harding’s opinions as his own. Harding says neither colonialism (from France) nor Communism is ideal for Vietnam, but rather a “Third Force”, a combination of traditions that would have grassroots appeal. Pyle lends American support to a Vietnamese militant named General The to make the “Third Force”,  and as a result, scores of people die. Even though Pyle saved Fowler’s life, Fowler sees that Pyle must be stopped and leads Pyle to his death. Fowler is selfish, curmudgeonly, cynical, all the more to contrast with Pyle’s naïveté and idealism. Despite Fowler’s negative traits and Pyle’s good intentions, Pyle is clearly in the wrong. The novel is full of Fowler’s frequent and heavy-handed criticism of Pyle, and so the novel is a scathing condemnation against American intervention in the Vietnam War (and war in general).