Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Undoing Project

I recently read "The Undoing Project" a 2017 book by Michael Lewis.  It primarily tells the story of two Israelis, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who worked together for many years studying how people make decisions especially bad decisions.  Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel economics prize for this work (shared with Vernon Smith).  Tversky would probably have shared in the prize as well if he had not died in 1996 (at the relatively young age of 59) making him ineligible.

I was disappointed in this book.  It is quite long (352 pages plus notes) and unlike most of Lewis's work I didn't find it to be particularly entertaining.  It contains a lot of biographical material about Kahneman and Tversky which (while intermittently interesting) isn't especially relevant to their professional work.  It is repetitive in places (for example colleagues and students describing how brilliant they were).  It abruptly introduces other characters and then drops them without really integrating them into the narrative.  It contains chapter notes at the end of the book but no index.  It suggests that their work was very important but doesn't really explain why.

Nor did I think it was especially instructive.  It isn't technical enough to be a good introduction to Kahneman's and Tversky's professional work.  I have previously reviewed books by Ariely, "Predictably Irrational" and Thaler, "The Winner's Curse" which discuss related work on decision making.  While I didn't recommend them either they would provide a better introduction to the field.

In short I would skip this book.  It isn't a good introduction to this subject area and I didn't find it compelling as entertainment.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Chasing Hillary

I recently read "Chasing Hillary" by Amy Chozick.  Amy Chozick covered Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for the Wall Street Journal and her 2016 campaign for the New York Times.  In this 2018 book she gives a long (375 page) first person account of her experiences.

Chozick mentions several times Hillary's inability to give an inspiring explanation of why she was running for President.  One could similarly ask what was the point of this book.  It is pretty useless as history as it assumes you already know the big picture of what happened.  A college student assigned to read this book 20 years from now would not learn much about American politics between 2006 and 2016. 

The book contains a lot of autobiographical material.  In many ways it is more about Chozick than Hillary.  But it does not really succeed as autobiography either.  Chozick doesn't seem that important or interesting.  And she presents herself as such a caricature of the insanely ambitious (and insecure) career woman who only cares about getting her byline on the front page of the paper that you begin to wonder if she is writing self-parody.

And while the book is amusing in places it is far too long to succeed purely as entertainment.

The book describes a toxic relationship between Hillary and her press corps which is largely Hillary's fault as she (and her campaign aides) make no effort to hide their utter contempt for the reporters covering her.  While somewhat understandable this was a bad mistake on Hillary's part as just a little judicious flattery would probably have paid off in better coverage. 

Chozick criticizes the way the New York Times covered the material hacked from the Clinton campaign and released but doesn't explain what she thinks they should have done instead.  Hillary's speeches to Goldman Sachs were a campaign issue, once the transcripts were obtained (albeit illegally) and published on the internet I don't see how the New York Times could avoid discussing them (especially since authenticity doesn't seem to have been an issue).  Of course if Hillary wasn't  willing to release the transcripts herself she probably shouldn't have given the speeches.  It used to be fairly easy to tell different things to different audiences but it is a lot riskier now.

In general I think the Russian meddling wasn't a big deal.  It was well known during the campaign that Putin preferred Trump to Hillary.  Prior to this election being known as the candidate preferred by the Russians wouldn't have been considered an advantage (and in fact there is little reason to believe it helped Trump more than it hurt him). 

So in summary unless you are a real politics junkie you can safely skip this book, it doesn't contain much of lasting value and isn't that entertaining.