Book Review: "Why Information Grows" by Cesar Hidalgo

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may be wondering why book reviews have made a return after a 6-year absence. The simple reason is that during my undergraduate and beginning graduate studies, most of my time was consumed with classes, and I didn't have many opportunities to sit down and read books that I enjoyed for great lengths of time. Now that I have passed my general examination and am doing research full-time, though, my weekends are much more free, so I can read and review for pleasure again. Some of these books are from collections/series (like the previous few that I have reviewed here, from the Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), while others (like this one) are from the reading list of Zach Weinersmith (author of the webcomic SMBC, which I read frequently).

The latest book that I have read is Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo. It basically goes into an easy-to-understand version of the technical (statistical) definition of information, illustrating with many examples how "information" does not imply "meaning", but that information is a much more fundamental physical concept than simply the ideas of which people can conceive (i.e. metacognition), emerging at many different levels in nature. Information requires energy to occur, solids to be preserved, and computation to propagate and have an influence on its environment, and it is a fundamentally out-of-equilibrium phenomenon. The author then applies this understanding of information to further understand how information occurs in human societies, and how the primary distinction between humans and other animals (or, in other words, "what makes us human") is that we can consciously crystallize and realize information into physical objects instead of simply reacting to the world around us. That said, humans need to form networks at various levels to be able to transmit knowledge and knowhow and thereby realize more complex forms of information, and this transmission is imperfect and not always as efficient as might be assumed from classic textbook models of market dynamics; this can explain a lot of the economic inequalities seen on a global scale.

The book itself is decently written; I think the writing becomes better and more engaging toward the middle and end, whereas the beginning seems rather trite. Additionally, some mention is made of how bureaucratic institutions are far less efficient than markets or networked structures built on trust, yet I would have liked to see a fuller discussion of the similarities and differences of the network structures of bureaucracies versus markets to better contextualize why they operate differently. Finally, I did like the quantitative analysis near the end of the text (along with numerous references to the author's more quantitative The Atlas of Economic Complexity, coauthored with several others) with regard to the correlations between the complexity of a country's economy and its level of economic development, but I would have liked to see a discussion of whether this model of economic complexity is more predictive than more traditional economic explanations. Overall, I do appreciate the pulling together of ideas from fields that used to be disparate, and I think that most of the book is written at a level that an interested layperson can appreciate.


Book Reviews: "Modern Liberty" by Charles Fried & "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen

I recently finished reading the books Modern Liberty by Charles Fried, and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen. The first was part of the "Issues of Our Time" series, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., of which Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele (which I recently reviewed) is also a part; the second was one I chose as a comparison book mentioned in a review for the first on Amazon. Both deal with liberty and freedom, but in rather different ways. Below are my brief, decidedly nonspecialist thoughts on these books (content and style). After the jump will be some musings about issues related to these books. I am not a philosopher, nor am I an economist or sociologist, so many of the things that I say will probably be wrong or inconsistent; please feel free to point out issues in the comments below.

The book by Fried is a detailed defense of what appears (to my untrained eye) to be a centrist libertarian conception of liberty. The author essentially posits that human actions, and therefore the liberty to do so, are essentially individual in origin, so individual liberty should be held paramount, and can be taken to exist even in the absence of the state. He acknowledges the legitimacy of the state to tax and spend (even when the taxation is progressive), but argues that people should keep in mind that the state can simultaneously be the best friend and worst enemy of liberty. Additionally, he argues for equal application of the law as much as possible, and for the state to not interfere with people's choices when such interference would reduce choices that they would otherwise have no problem making, especially when those choices do not directly harm others in a criminal manner, focusing on three examples in particular throughout the book. With this in mind, he argues that the state should discourage certain behaviors through taxation rather than through heavy-handed direct intervention, and that stability in the laws and tax systems enforced is the least bad thing that the state can do with respect to liberty. Though I've focused specifically in pointing out things related to the state, he focuses on more abstract philosophical notions of liberty while simultaneously bringing the reader's attention to more mundane matters such as work, market transactions, and even sexual intercourse to better illustrate these points.

The book itself is fairly short, and moves along reasonably quickly (though I admit that I did get lost in some of the finer philosophical points). When introducing each justification for its conception of liberty, it also introduces each common criticism of that justification, and tackles almost every criticism head-on, without fear. There are quite a few things that I don't agree with about the ideas in the book. The overarching difference that I have is that this conception of liberty focuses on its origin within individuals, whereas I see the manifestation of liberty as being more dependent on societal contexts. An example of this would be in his contention that things like language, music, and culture originate within individuals; I would posit that these things would be meaningless for a single human in vacuum without any human contact, and it is only contact (and the history of such contact) with other humans that gives these things meaning. This is what I see as further leading to the author's general neglect of the consequences of liberty, choosing only to talk about the origins and processes of liberty; while I can see that this is philosophically consistent with the axiomatic treatment of the individual origin of liberty (and this also seems to be consistent with the desire for a static, predictable state due to its focus only on the unchanging processes of liberty, though I wouldn't agree with that either), the biggest issue that I have is that the author brings up the problem of the homeless person who has liberty but cannot make use of it if all property in that person's area is privately owned (and would therefore lead to the homeless person being kicked off of that property), but dances around this issue without really addressing it in a satisfactory way. With all of that said, I did enjoy reading this book overall, as it got me to think about the fundamental origins and processes of liberty in a new way, because before that, I was really only thinking about its manifestations/consequences.

The book by Sen is a longer exposition into how economic and political freedoms have to go hand-in-hand if they are to both be meaningful, and how human development is part and parcel of both. The author goes into how while utilitarian consequential formulations and libertarian process formulations of liberty are both important, both must be taken together instead of taking one or the other for liberty to be meaningful in the context of economics or politics. He further discusses how measures of economic development based solely on income or GDP/GNP per capita are quite flawed, so more nuanced, granular metrics are required, based on how different people's "functions" and "capabilities" operate, are fulfilled, and can be altered. Ultimately, he demonstrates that free markets and economic liberty, in conjunction with institutional corrections for certain glaring inequalities in capabilities, would allow the greatest human development leading to the greatest freedom.

Reading this book made me realize that I had intuitions for many ideas that the author clearly put into words (so I guess for now my lay economic views have a lot in common with those of Amartya Sen); in particular, I was already thinking about how Fried's neglect of the consequences of liberty made his treatment somewhat incomplete, and how humans being social animals means that the circumstances of one's political and economic existence cannot be ignored when considering the meaning of liberty, even before picking up Sen's book. However, there are a couple of issues that I have with this book. One is that there are several times where he repeats a point overly much. I don't mean that he just just repeats few words over the course of the book: I mean that he sometimes repeats entire multi-paragraph passages for no good reason, so the book could be a lot more terse and concise than it is. The other is that he argues that loss of income can affect a person mentally and physiologically in more lasting ways than simply by loss of purchasing power, especially if that person is ill, disabled, or so on, so he argues that specific institutional safety nets (presumably like social security, food stamps, and so on) and not simply lump-sum transfers of money (or increases in income) are necessary for countering poverty and promoting human development. I'd argue instead that if he can say that loss of income (and not just low income) is enough to push people into that downward spiral, then it would stand to reason that providing a strong enough guaranteed safety net through a simple money transfer (essentially, a minimum income, which I will discuss farther below) should be sufficient to prevent that, while simultaneously giving people the choice as independent agents to spend it as they like. Finally, at vary points, he promises to discuss how lessons from development in underdeveloped countries can be applied to the development of marginalized groups in more developed countries, yet as far as I could tell, that promise was never satisfactorily fulfilled. (Also, as a minor quibble: he makes reference to Madhavacharya having catalogued various schools of "Hindu" thought, including Buddhism, Jainism, and various atheist schools of thought, while calling him a Vaishnavite. A simple Wikipedia search shows that this Madhavacharya was a follower of Advaita philosophy, and was a separate person who was born only in the last few years of the life of the Dvaita founder Madhvacharya. It seems odd that Sen, who seems familiar with the "atheistic schools of Hinduism" catalogued by the later Madhavacharya, would make this error, so perhaps this was an oversight by the editor, or maybe the distinction between the two only became clear with scholarship after the publication of this book.)

In the Amazon review that I read, it seemed like these two books would oppose each other, but I would instead posit that they complement each other nicely. That brings me to the end of the review. Follow the jump to see some further thoughts on minimum income and related things that have been bouncing around in my head of late.


Book Review: "Whistling Vivaldi" by Claude Steele

Last year, Princeton University recommended that the incoming students in the class of 2019, as well as any and all other members, read the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. I learned at that time that it was a study about the biases we carry and the way society's collective biases can affect us in different situations (along with what corrective actions can be taken with respect to those biases), so it seemed pretty interesting at that time. My interest was further piqued by seeing that my advisor was reading it then too, so I figured I should read it at some point. Classes and (later) preparing for my general examination got in the way, so I didn't really have a chance to read through it until now. Having read through it, I'm writing a short review below (my first formal book review for this blog in a long time), consisting of a summary (that is probably going to be incomplete) as well as some longer questions after the jump. At this point, I should say as a reminder that I am a physicist, not a sociologist/psychologist/anthropologist, so a lot of the questions or remarks that I make will probably be easy to refute with current research in the field; given that it isn't my specialty (so I wouldn't necessarily know how to go about it), and in the interest of starting a conversation, I would like to invite you, the reader, to respond to these issues in the comments below.

The book is written by a psychologist, and focuses on a series of controlled experiments designed to understand the role that societal biases (regarding group identities, such as race and gender) have on people's performance in situations where their presence may or may not be socially expected (e.g. women versus men in STEM fields, or white versus black people in professional basketball). These experiments have been replicated in a variety of settings and seem to show fairly consistently that especially among people who would otherwise be expected (based on prior experiences, such as test scores or basketball performance in high school) to perform well in a field where their group is not well-represented, being aware (generally through life experience, or explicitly in the course of a test in that field) of their group identity can negatively impact their performance, because their minds are subconsciously consumed by the stress of trying to consciously break the stereotype of poor performance in that field by other people in their group, to the extent that this rumination hinders their ability to focus on the task at hand and causes them to perform worse than people in a more fully represented group; by contrast, people in an underrepresented group who are told that their performance isn't meant to be judged as diagnostic of their ability, or who are otherwise convinced that past stereotypes are irrelevant to the test at hand, do just as well as people in a more fully represented group (whose members do not generally see a performance boost from such a treatment). These experiments are fleshed out to a fuller extent over the course of the book, looking at different instances of stereotype threats in different situations, and looking at different metrics (including physiological ones, like blood pressure or heartbeat patterns) for measuring the impact of stereotype threats on performance. As the author offers several lessons throughout the book on what can be done to counter stereotype threat issues, the book closes with a summary of what works under different broad circumstances, and what further issues need to be faced.

There are a few issues that I have with the book overall. One is that the "introduction" of various people (mostly academic collaborators, students, and others in academia) that the author has met seems extraneous. The sense I got was that he wanted the reader to feel personally engaged with the details of the author's academic life, but by giving only cursory importance to these meetings (and then, only to set up descriptions of the experiments they ran), his writing on this matter came out rather stilted in the end. Thankfully, the book itself is fairly short (only 220 pages), so this is less of a problem. The two bigger problems that I have follow. The first of these problems is that in the middle of the book, the author introduces the story of a man named John Henry Martin, born in the early twentieth century, who eventually freed himself from sharecropping servitude and worked incredibly hard to better his lot, though he paid a steep price in doing so (in the form of much worse health and shortened lifespan). This anecdote is used to demonstrate how a great work ethic in conjunction with terrible struggles against difficult circumstances can generally adversely impact a person's life. However, though the chapter ends not too far after that, the remainder of the chapter essentially engages in idle speculation about whether previous examples of people struggling under stereotype threats would have suffered in deeper ways if the stereotype threats were chronic (rather than short-term/acute). Not only was I confused and lost in that short section, but that whole passage seemed rather disconnected from what came before and after. As far as going into the effects of chronic stereotype threats, what comes before is sufficient, and a smoother transition to what comes after would be all that is needed. The second of these problems is that throughout the book, the author tries to use a mix of anecdotes and general descriptions of studies and their results to engage a general audience. The issue I have is that either the anecdotes should be made more compelling to justify the qualitatively-described studies, or the studies should be described more quantitatively to justify the brief anecdotes that precede them; the author tries to be a too clever in splitting the difference, but the end result feels a bit less meaty than I'd like. (As a matter of personal preference, given my expectations of what a description of controlled studies should have, I would prefer that the book feature a level of quantitative description similar to One Nation, Underprivileged by Mark Robert Rank (which I read about a year ago).)

Despite these reservations, I did enjoy reading the book, as it opened my eyes not necessarily to biases per se, but to the ways that biases can affect people's performance (as well as how people affected by these biases view and respond to them). It certainly got me thinking about some of the other ways that biases and stereotype threats can cut. With that in mind, follow the jump to see some questions that I have about the book, and please do respond in the comments with thoughts of your own (especially if you have citations for more recent research that could answer some of my naive questions).


First Paper: "Nonadditivity of van der Waals forces on liquid surfaces"

My first paper has been published! It is in volume 94, issue 3 of Physical Review E, and an older preprint of it is available too for those who don't have access to academic journals (it has all of the same figures and ideas, though it is missing a few sentences of further explanation as well as a couple of new citations that were inserted for the final publication). In the interest of explaining these ideas in a way that is easy to understand, I am using the ten hundred most used words in English (except for the two lines that came before this one), as put together from the XKCD Simple Writer and the Wiktionary list of the 1000 most used words. I will use numbers sometimes without completely writing them out, use words for certain names of things without explaining further, and explain less used words when they come up. Keep reading to see what comes next.