Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I really should pay better attention to these things 

Margaret from Our House blog tags me to review books.

Total number of books owned, ever: I cannot say well, because I tend to give books away almost as fast as I get them. I'm up to seven bookcases right now, mostly economics, politics and history. Fiction holdings are relatively few because I tend not to use them much. I read them and give them away.

Last book I bought: I tend to buy in bunches, and last time I bought three: Freakonomics, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, and The Tipping Point. I've already started the first and put it down, and am now getting to the second one.

Last book I read: The Wisdom of Crowds, in part because of David's interview with Surowiecki. As you'll see to the next question, one of the key questions I read about is how information and knowledge is processed in society, which for me started when I first read Hayek's Use of Knowledge in Society. Had I read that before I finished my PhD, I'm quite sure my life would have turned out differently; it completely messed with the type of economic models I was building at the time. But I couldn't tell you what I'd've done instead.

Anyway, Wisdom of Crowds is a great book because what he actually demonstrates isn't crowd behavior at all but market behavior. That is, when people have incentives to bring their own information to a decision and can communicate it to the group at relatively low cost and without interference, the resulting outcome tends to be better than using experts or some other decisionmaking mechanism. The brilliant part of Surowiecki's thesis is that the size of the profit that someone needs to make to offer his or her own little bit of information is quite small and often non-monetary. Sometimes it's just a desire to help or to look good to others. Somebody who's read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments would understand that desire.

Five Books that mean a lot to me: That could be tough to limit to five, and I somewhat answered this question when Doug asked me to list the top five books. Now that's somewhat different, and I'll vary a few, but certainly Hayek's Road to Serfdom and the Bible have to remain, because they are the two books that mean the most to me. I said The Fountainhead in that interview, which certainly was a book of great meaning to me about for about ten years. But it has fallen aside -- I tried watching the movie again this spring and actually didn't finish it, for the first time ever. Likewise Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was the book of my twenties, as The Fountainhead was the book of my thirties and early forties. But do they mean a lot to me now? I think not. I'm actually re-reading ZAMM right now for a book group my church has just formed. It will be interesting to re-experience Pirsig. Maybe at the end of the month I'll want to put the book back on the list!

So what would be three through five? Huckleberry Finn has to stay. I still believe it to be the greatest American novel ever written. I would prefer to believe that children still play this way. More importantly, I would like to think the world was as complex then as it is now; it certainly struck me as being complex as Huck experiences life on the Mississippi.

The next is simply a placemarker for a series of books where I tried to understand the evolution of data, something Margaret alludes to in her choice of Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Data. For me, though, it's summarized by James Gleick's Chaos. It drove home for me the importance of non-linearities in the world, that the world not only isn't linear but can't be described by a Taylor series either. In short, I had to start confronting the origins of the data I was taking off (back then) magnetic tapes and treating as gospel. This led to some other wonderful books like Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness, or evolutionary biology like Richard Dawkins or Robert Axelrod, thinking about brains with Steven Pinker and John Searle, all kinds of reading about financial crises, panics and crashes, and Thomas Sowell's underappreciated (in relation to his other work) Knowledge and Decisions. And in the middle of that comes Hayek.

Finally, I need a book that describes how I became interested in finding my own Armenian roots, which again is something that begat other books. As before, I'm listing the first and not the best of the bunch, but it was William Saroyan's My Name is Aram. He and I both named our sons that. It's a book of short stories about living in an Armenian immigrant family in Fresno. My own experience was much different, largely because I didn't grow up around other Armenian families, like Saroyan's Aram or Peter Balakian in Black Dog of Fate. But I wanted that experience as a child myself, and Saroyan gave me a chance to imagine it.

I guess the tradition now is for me to tag some other bloggers. Here are my five:

John Palmer at The Eclectic Econoclast. I mean, with a blog name like that...
Bryan "Saint Paul" Ward of Fraters Libertas. My NARN choice because I know less of what he reads than the others.
Jeff at Quid Nomen Illius? I bet he reads weird stuff, and he'll tag interesting people.
Sean Hackbarth at The American Mind. (He better start reading his fantasy football guides!)
Duane at Radioblogger. I want to know what the brain behind Hewitt is reading!