Books of 2017

– Posted February 2, 2018 the refsmmat report · a blog at

Picking up from last year, here are a few brief reviews of particularly interesting books I read in 2017, selected from a total of 45.

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby

Tries to be the intellectual successor of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, but doesn’t really succeed. Jacoby roughly moves chronologically, jumping from early America to the late 1800s (and the pseudoscience of social Darwinism), through the days of intellectual Marxism and communism, to the middlebrow culture of the 50s and the rebellion of the 60s, and on to a series of chapters on recent decades.

I found chapter 5, on “middlebrow culture”, particularly interesting. Not having lived through the 50s, I can’t judge the representativeness of Jacoby’s examples, but she portrays a nation of citizens aspiring to learn and approach higher culture, manifested through wide sales of encyclopedias, book-of-the-month clubs, public lecture series, thoroughly researched historical novels (as opposed to anything by Dan Brown), and various popular publishing enterprises reprinting classics and outlines of history. Apparently – and I wish good statistics were available – middlebrow culture was popular and people widely aspired to reading more “sophisticated” works, even if they did so via book clubs featuring a few rungs from the top of literary sophistication.

I see almost no analog of this now. Typical reading for self-improvement involves pop science or psychology works which take a few core ideas and pad them out to three hundred pages, rather than aspirational reading of “serious” (whatever that means) novels. I don’t know anyone (apart from my father) who reads history for the pleasure of understanding. There are, of course, people who take pleasure in the feeling of superiority derived from highbrow culture, but they’re the kind of people featured on /r/iamverysmart; most people don’t see the point of middlebrow aspirations now. Popular respect goes to those with great DIY or technical skills.

I giggled a bit in the final chapter, “Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward”, as Jacoby commented on Bush’s clear non-intellectualism and expressed hope that the next crop of politicians – the book was published during the 2008 election season, apparently – seemed more willing to read detailed briefings and background material. Alas, Donald J. Trump has arrived.

Some of the pleasure in reading this book derives from looking down on the parts of culture deemed inferior. Jacoby is on the shakiest foundation here, generally making implicit assumptions about what kinds of culture are superior and what people should aspire to read and watch, assuming her audience agrees with her choice of culture instead of justifying it in any depth. I particularly enjoyed one part where she quoted a music critic writing

Lately I’ve been wondering why, as a more than casual Beatles fan, I’m not interested in note-perfect covers by Beatles tribute bands, even though, as a classical music critic, I happily spend my nights listening to re-creations—covers, in a way—of Beethoven symphonies and Haydn string quartets. What, when it comes down to it, is the difference?

The critic goes on to discuss the difference between covers and classical performances. Jacoby, on the other hand, retorts:

What, when it comes down to it, is the difference? It is the difference between Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (or any Beethoven symphony) and any song or collection of songs by the Beatles. The difference is the infinitely greater emotional richness, technical complexity, and beauty of Beethoven. I too am a Beatles fan, but, let’s face it, if you’ve heard one version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” you’ve pretty much heard them all.

Way to miss the point! Perhaps there’s a genuine retort to the critic in there somewhere – pop songs aren’t complex enough for covers to have room to differentiate, which any listener to Postmodern Jukebox knows is not true – but mostly Jacoby wants to complain about how inferior modern music is, and assumes we share her feelings. It’s fun snootiness if you agree, but since I’m listening to Steve Martin playing bluegrass banjo right now, maybe I don’t quite agree with her.

Now, maybe there is a good argument she could have made. In classical music, with the score already written, the focus is on the musicianship and interpretation, and we enjoy a performance which demonstrates great skill or puts a piece in a new light. In popular music, the musicianship is often not important at all – the band members aren’t even named, just the celebrity doing the singing. The focus is on the overall sound, the lyrics, and the celebrity doing the singing, and on marketing them. Covers are interesting when a new celebrity does something different with the lyrics.

That would fit with Jacoby’s thesis about the commercialization of music, but she’s too focused on scorn to think of the point. This distinguishes her from Hofstadter, who tried to trace the history of anti-intellectualism instead of rendering value judgments. I may agree with Jacoby’s judgment that intellectual curiosity and education are necessary for good citizenship, but she could have tempered her criticism of specific parts of culture (or buttressed it with argument instead of ridicule).

The Debate on the Constitution, Part One

A fascinating compilation by the Library of America of pamphlets, letters, editorials, and speeches made in the months after the Constitutional Convention’s proposal of a new constitution for the United States.

The opposition to the Constitution was louder than I had realized, sometimes bordering on hysterical: claims that ratification of the Constitution would amount to slavery, monarchy, or aristocracy; that amendment would be impossible and end only in civil war or rebellion; that state governments would be subsumed by the federal government and soon wither to empty shells; or that a federal government would be so ruinously expensive as to be impossible.

Some of the objections seemed to be founded on very little. The insistence that Congress would quickly become an aristocracy, defeating the checks and balances inherent in its separation into two Houses by colluding to deprive the people of their liberties, is easily answered by noting that the House of Representatives can be entirely voted out in just two years. A fear that Congress’s authority to regulate the election of representatives would lead to elections being held, say, at the least convenient place in the state, so as to stack the elections, was never realized as far as I am aware. The claim that federal taxes would subsume state taxes and render the states incapable of raising revenue seems hard to reconcile with the role of the Senate as representatives of the state legislatures.

A lot of time was spent on the vastness of the United States and the difficulty of travel across them: anyone seeking relief in a federal court may have to travel hundreds of miles, making justice impossible to find, and some doubted the possibility of electing a President when finding a man known to everyone in the States would be so difficult. (George Washington excepted, of course.) Two hundred years later, with air travel and interstate highways, these concerns seem quaint.

Other objections make clear how much of our system depends on norms of behavior rather than law. Many writers insisted the Congress would never approve Constitutional amendments which limit its power, no matter how necessary; the subsequent passage of the Bill of Rights showed this to be false. Others insisted that nobody would obey the federal government without threat of force, making the internal use of a vast standing army inevitable, eliminating liberty; legal action proved to be sufficient instead. Supporters of the Constitution argued that the personal honor and integrity of the great men selected to the Senate or voted to the House would restrain them from actions which would impugn their character; perhaps too optimistic today.

Several writers seemed concerned by the prospect of bribery – of representatives, or of those who elect them. The electoral college meets on the same day in every state to make it difficult to coordinate simultaneous bribery of every elector; some defend the cap on the number of representatives by arguing that very small districts would make it easy for representatives to re-elect themselves through bribery of the voters. Modern electoral campaigns, and their enormous expenses, don’t seem to have been anticipated at all, and the influence of campaign money on politics is not recognized at all – I would at least consider it a possible reason to make terms longer, to reduce the time spent on reelection, but many argued terms are already too long and preferred annual reelection so tyrannical representatives could be immediately voted out.

It’s also interesting how little of the modern role of the federal government was anticipated by the founders. Healthcare is an obvious example given current political debates, but also telecommunications regulation (obviously), agriculture, scientific laboratories and grants, conservation, weather, emergency response (beyond a simple militia), massive infrastructure and transportation projects, international agencies, workplace regulations, environmental regulation, intelligence agencies… the role of the federal government is vastly larger than the simple commerce and international affairs imagined by the founders, and yet the states continue to have independent existences and maintain clear sovereignty.

The language of the time is also fascinating to read. I admit that when I first glanced at the Federalist Papers years ago, I decided not to read them because of their long, winding sentences and archaic vocabulary. With a bit of practice that is not an obstacle. But standards of spelling, punctuation, and style have clearly changed a great deal: dashes, colons, and semicolons are often used in different roles than we now accept, paragraphs often stretch for a page or more and contain multiple independent ideas, sentences frequently feature many complicated clauses stitched together with copious commas, and variant spellings like “shew” and “chuse” are in abundance.

The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu

A breezy history of “attention merchants”: those who sell attention as a business. Starts talking about the earliest advertisers – patent medicine hawkers – and works through early radio, television, the Internet, and finally mobile devices, showing how our attention has been sliced and diced into ever-smaller fragments to be sold.

Early patent medicine advertisements were a new concept and, of course, appeared mostly in print. Radio surprised its early developers when people willingly set aside time each day to listen to their favorite radio shows. Television began to command the power to have millions of Americans watch shows simultaneously. And at each step, attention was sliced into smaller bits to be sold: first entire programs were sponsored on radio and TV, then the “magazine” format with ads splitting up programs, to the banner ads of the Internet and intrusive banners on phones which only grab us for a few seconds at a time.

The history was fast and not greatly detailed, though enjoyable. This was more interesting just for the idea of being aware of our own attention and what demands are made of it, and not allowing outside forces to exert so much control over it without consent.

Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil

I found this to be a frustrating book to read. O’Neil has a very important thesis: that unaccountable algorithms used to make decisions about people, whether for employment screening, bail decisions, or insurance quotes, are often wildly inaccurate and perpetuate bias against the poor, disabled, or historically disadvantaged. By turning a formerly human decision into one made by an algorithm, companies can appear more objective even when they make it impossible for those rejected by the algorithm to seek an explanation or correct faulty data.

But the development of this thesis is poor. O’Neil goes through several fields, quoting examples from each: recidivism prediction software, teacher evaluations from standardized tests, credit scores, online ad targeting, and many others. But examples are only examined in superficial detail, and in ways that do not suggest O’Neil is terribly familiar with statistics or machine learning. In one segment, for example, on a company developing ad targeting models using anonymous cell phone data, she mentions how the algorithm picked out patterns without any guidance, perhaps noticing how much time people spend on roads starting with the letter J. I know of no algorithm or feature selection method that would be so open-ended, or so stupid.

Or take this discussion of ad effectiveness:

The data scientists start off with a Bayesian approach, which in statistics is pretty close to plain vanilla. The point of Bayesian analysis is to rank the variables with the most impact on the desired outcome. Search advertising, TV, billboards, and other promotions would be measured as a function of their effectiveness per dollar. Each develops a different probability, which is expressed as a value, or a weight. (page 74)

This paragraph is deeply confused. What does Bayesian analysis have to do with ranking variables? Isn’t this just a classification problem? Are we talking about naive Bayes? How is expressiveness per dollar a probability? Either O’Neil does not understand the methods, or she has simplified the discussion beyond all recognition.

I do not mean to argue that she should have quoted mathematics or given a cogent and accessible description of support vector machines. But simplification should clarify, not obscure.

In other examples I left frustrated because O’Neil glossed over interesting details. One section talked about a project at St George’s Hospital Medical School in the 1970s, using a computer to screen applicants to the medical school to reduce the workload of the humans reviewing the paperwork. O’Neil says the computer was trained to use information from prior applications and ended up perpetuating human biases, like biases against foreign-born applicants or against women. But all I wanted to know was how a computer in the 70s was doing machine learning, and what kind of method it used. Did it really “learn” to perpetuate bias, or was computing sufficiently limited that it has to be directly programmed to do so? I can’t imagine anything more complicated than regression being practical then, and certainly it was not doing deep learning on applicant files.

And then there were the small errors:

In previous generations, those in the know were careful to organize the résumé items clearly and consistently, type them on a quality computer, like an IBM Selectric, and print them on paper with a high rag content. (page 114)

Uh. A quality IBM Selectric computer?

I realize I am not the intended audience of this book, since I have the mathematical and statistical training to understand many of the “weapons of math destruction” discussed in the book. I would have liked more depth, more clarity, and more thorough analysis of the issues (and related topics, like the Fourth Amendment connections to predictive policing and Europe’s approach to privacy law), but perhaps O’Neil judged that additional depth would have been harmful. Maybe I just want a different book than she wanted to write. But I think there’s room for a better account of the issues than O’Neil provides.

Do Guns Make Us Free?, by Firmin DeBrabander

An interesting argument, attempting to show that rather than serving as our last line of defense against tyranny, guns actually make us less free.

First, one inevitable complaint. DeBrabander criticizes gun owners who make fun of gun critics who don’t know much about guns, as though the only people qualified to participate in the gun debate are those who own guns (and hence only people on one side of the debate). But later he shows why gun knowledge would be useful for critics. In one passage, he notes that after open carry laws passed in many states, purchases of larger handguns increased. Why, he asks, did gun owners want bigger handguns? Why were the smaller, more easily concealed handguns not good enough for open carry as well? The implication is that gun owners wanted to wave around bigger and more powerful weapons for no good reason; had DeBrabander talked to gun owners, he’d know that small concealed handguns can be hard to control and unpleasant to shoot (their light weight makes the recoil more potent), while full-size handguns are more ergonomic.

But that is a minor point. DeBrabander’s main arguments, neatly separated by chapter:

  1. The NRA, and gun advocates more generally, have encouraged a “Culture of Fear”. The NRA talks about “lunatics” roving the streets, madmen who will burst into your house to kill you for no reason, and even riots and looting. Mental illness is out of control and untreated psychotics rove the streets. You should be afraid, and you should defend yourself.

    But the narrative is false. Violent crime has fallen dramatically, and we live in one of the most peaceful times in modern history. (And history in general, if you believe Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.) The mentally ill are not more likely to commit violent crime than the general population. Most acts of violence are not committed by random unhinged strangers. And most acts of violence occur between poor, urban minorities, not the kinds of people who own lots of legal guns: middle-class suburban whites.

    This fear makes gun owners more likely to perceive ordinary situations as lethal threats to themselves, leading to episodes such as the guy who shot someone in a movie theater during an argument and claimed self-defense. (On gun forums you tend to see stories of how, say, the vigilant narrator was at a gas station and noticed an undesirable acting suspiciously while walking toward his car, and successfully deterred the obvious impending violence by showing his weapon.)

  2. Guns, it is claimed, are also protections against encroaching tyranny. We grant power to the government as part of the social contract; should it violate our trust and abuse that power, we must have a remedy. But, according to DeBrabander, this conflicts with the justifications for Stand Your Ground laws, which allow gun owners to take justice into their own hands. If guns are meant to uphold the social contract which grants a government exclusive use of force to ensure order, taking the power away from warring individuals, why Stand Your Ground laws implicitly deny the government’s exclusive use of force and assume we are back in the state of nature, when every man must fend for himself?

    DeBrabander also makes a silly suggestion here about Stand Your Ground laws being misused by criminals, who could, say, murder someone on the street to steal his wallet, then claim they felt threatened and had to stand their ground. Until this actually happens, I’ll put it in the category of “weird hypothetical things that no criminal would actually bother with”.

    A better point follows. Would gun owners really be able to fend off a tyrannical United States government? Some point to Vietnam, noting that guerrilla warfare worked very well, but (a) the US military is phenomenally overpowered and (b) Vietnam paid incredible human cost for its successful guerrilla campaign, which was by no means easy.

  3. Here’s where the argument gets more interesting. Why, DeBrabander asks, do politicians allow guns when they are clearly a threat to their authority? If politicians are as corrupt and power-hungry as the NRA would have you believe, surely they’d scramble to push gun regulations, NRA or not.

    DeBrabander makes a detour through Machiavelli to answer this, but the point is actually simple. Tyranny no longer needs violence. Politicians can allow us to have guns because politicians can exert power in more effective, more subtle ways. DeBrabander, though without citing Solove as far as I can tell, portrays mass surveillance and Fourth Amendment violations as greater threats to liberty than gun regulation; the erosion of privacy allows subtle exertion of power that makes dissent less likely, for fear that someone may be watching. But the people advocating for civil liberties are most often liberal groups like the ACLU, while gun advocates are all for the government being granted sweeping powers when they’re supposed to be used against terrorists.

  4. Guns are a threat to democracy. Their threat of violence silences discussion and undermines the rule of law. If we are to argue that guns are necessary to prevent tyranny, we are saying that unaccountable unelected gun owners should overthrow democratically elected governments when they overstep some ill-defined line of tyranny.

    To quote DeBrabander, “the gun rights movement has already abandoned the democratic project: it has decided that portions of society cannot be negotiated with, and government can be negotiated with only by threat of force.”

  5. Finally, a somewhat unfocused chapter on the meaning of power. Pro-gun arguments undermine the rule of law by arguing that the government is ineffective and untrustworthy, ironically creating the dangerous lawless world that gun owners fear. Threats of violence against government are more likely to harden the government and make it retaliate in kind; organized nonviolent protests are a more powerful mechanism to effect political change. And finally, a suggestion that the same demographic that buys guns has also been the biggest political loser in recent decades: blue-collar white men, with no wage growth, disappearing job opportunities, vanishing pensions, and uncaring politicians. Perhaps they think guns will give them the power they are missing.

Overall an interesting read, though I think it could have been more powerfully and clearly written. Some of the silly speculation, such as criminals taking advantage of Stand Your Ground laws, invites easy rebuttal by gun rights advocates, and a lot of the book quotes extensively from philosophers and journalists instead of developing its own coherent narrative. DeBrabander needed a stronger editor, more knowledge of the gun world, and more time to simplify and streamline his arguments.