Hey, what’s that book you’re not reading?

bookfreshpressIn the Wall Street Journal this weekend I define a new metric aimed at identifying books people are buying but not reading.

How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)

At the end I suggest we call this number the Piketty Index instead, because Piketty’s unlikely megahit Capital in the Twenty-First Century comes in with an index of 2.4%, the lowest in my sample.

But it’s not the winner anymore!  Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices scores an amazing 1.9%.  But somehow I feel like HRC’s book is in a different category entirely; unlike Piketty, I’m not sure I believe it’s a book people even pretend to intend to read.

The piece got lots of press, including a nice writeup at Gizmodo today.  So I thought I’d add a few more comments here, to go past what I could do in an 800-word story.

  • Lots of people asked:  what about Infinite Jest?  In fact, that book was in the original piece but got cut for length.  Here’s the paragraph:

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  HI 6.4%.  There was a time, children, when you couldn’t ride the 1/9 without seeing a dozen recent graduates straining under the weight of Wallace’s big shambling masterpiece.  Apparently it was too heavy for most.  Yes, I included the endnotes in the page count.  This is another one whose most famous line – “I am in here” – doesn’t crack the Kindle top five.

  • Other books I computed that didn’t make it into the WSJ:  Stephen King’s new novel Mr. Mercedes scores 22.5%.  How To Win Friends and Influence People gets 8.8%.  And How Not To Be Wrong comes in at 7.7%.  In fact, the original idea for the piece came from my dismay that all the popular highlights in my book were from the first three chapters.  But actually that puts How Not To Be Wrong in the middle of the nonfiction pack!
  • Important:  I highly doubt the Piketty Index of the book is actually a good estimate for the median proportion completed.  And I think different categories of books can’t be directly compared.  All nonfiction books scored lower than all novels (except Infinite Jest!)  I don’t think that’s because nobody finishes nonfiction; I think it’s because nonfiction books usually have introductions, which contain lots of direct assertions and thesis statements, exactly the kind of thing Kindle readers seem to like highlighting.
  • Challenges:  can you find a book other than The Goldfinch whose index is greater than 50%?  Can you find a nonfiction book which beats 20%?  Can you find a book of any kind that scores lower than Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices?

 

I hate bad buts and I cannot lie

From today’s New York Times:

Scarlett Johansson gainfully posed in underwear and spiked heels for Esquire’s cover last year after the magazine named her the “sexiest woman alive.” But a French novelist’s fictional depiction of a look-alike so angered the film star that she sued the best-selling author for defamation.

The inappropriate “but” is one of the sneakiest rhetorical tricks there is.  It presents the second sentence as somehow contrasting with the first.  It isn’t.  Scarlett Johansson agreed to be photographed mostly undressed; does that make it strange or incongruous or hypocritical that she doesn’t want to be lied about in print?  It does not.  To be honest, I can’t think of any explanation other than weird retrograde sexism for writing the lede this way.  “She got paid for looking all sexy, so who is she to complain that she was defamed?”  Patricia Cohen of the New York Times, I’m awarding you anWonderWomanHellNo

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Many Words, by Little Red Wolf

One of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard lately.  Came over the PA in Froth House.  What th– what is this thing, I must have it!  You know the drill.

This is by Little Red Wolf, a Madison band, who have a great new record, Junk Sparrow, recorded by Brian Liston at Clutch Sound, the same guy who did my audiobook.  Range!

Of course the strange piano note, the one that kind of insists despite everything that it’s the right note and thereby colors the whole song with its weirdness and stubbornness, is sort of the same one that Weezer uses to devastating effect in “The Sweater Song.”   And yet the two songs are completely different.  Though the latter is also very, very beautiful.  And now that I listen to both again there’s also something in common about the way the wordless aah-ahh’s are deployed, but it might just be that everybody in the world, whether AOR-indie or alt-country, loves Doolittle.

Wait, are there readers of this blog so young as not to have heard “The Sweater Song?”  Very likely.  So OK:

 

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Mathematical progress, artistic progress, local-to-global

I like this post by Peli Grietzer, which asks (and I oversimplify:)  when we say art is good, are we talking about the way it reflects or illuminates some aspect of our being, or are we talking about the way it wins the culture game?  And Peli finds help navigating this problem from an unexpected source:  Terry Tao’s description of the simultaneously local and global nature of mathematical progress.  Two friends of Quomodocumque coming together!  Unexcerptable, really, so click through if you like this kind of stuff.

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Elliott Bay and TGK

One final note about the book tour — Elliot Bay Book Company, who handled sales at my talk in Seattle, won a special place in my heart forever, because not only did they have lots of copies of How Not To Be Wrong, they also brought along a small stack of The Grasshopper King!  And they even sold a couple.  Nice to see that little green paperback again.

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Food I ate

Of course the really important thing about traveling isn’t seeing old friends or selling books, it’s eating things you can’t eat at home.  So here’s my list of some notable things I ate.

The Koji Uehara burger at Mr. Bartley’s.  A new one, very good.  With onion rings, of course.

Peking ravs at the Hong Kong. Traditional.

A double cheeseburger at Charlie’s Kitchen.

Big sub at the amazing Bub and Pop’s.

Green curry from Regional Thai, which 15 years ago was my favorite place to eat in Chelsea (maybe tied with Rocking Horse Cafe.)  Still good.

A crottin, taken to go at Murray’s Cheese Shop and eaten while walking.

Schnitzel and bright-pink Berliner Weissbier at Lederhosen deep in the West Village.

My Ferry Terminal usual:  salami cone from Boccalone and mac and cheese at the Cowgirl Sidekick.  This mac and cheese possibly my national favorite apart from the one at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, which was farther uptown than I got this NYC swing.  (This also explains why no belly lox this time.  Though now that I think of is, this could have been my chance to try Russ and Daughters.)

I’m over Mission burritos.  Sorry.  So this time I had Mission pierogi at Stuffed.  Dumb name, decent pierogi, but surprisingly awesome sauerkraut, more like halbsauerkraut with a jolt of I think caraway?  My recommendation: just buy their sauerkraut, buy a taco somewhere else, put the sauerkraut on the taco, resell it at your popup fusion cart.  Become wealthy beyond human ability to imagine.

BBQ sampler, including kalua pig, from the 808 Grinds Hawaiian cart in Portland’s city of food carts.  The fried chicken, surprisingly, was the standout.  But if it doesn’t move, Portland, it’s not a cart.  You must accept this, Portland.  You’ll feel better when you do.

Four-chowder sampler at Pike Place Chowder.  Long line?  Tourists?  Yes and yes (though shorter lines, and fewer tourists, than at the Original Starbucks down the block.)  But really, really good chowder.  And eating chowders in a flight formation is, I think, the right way.

Terrific black fideus at Aragona.

 

 

 

 

 

HNTBW Publicity Roundup 4

Newspaper reviews are starting to come in.

Manil Suri at the Washington Post:

Ellenberg’s talent for finding real-life situations that enshrine mathematical principles would be the envy of any math teacher. He presents these in fluid succession, like courses in a fine restaurant, taking care to make each insight shine through, unencumbered by jargon or notation. Part of the sheer intellectual joy of the book is watching the author leap nimbly from topic to topic, comparing slime molds to the Bush-Gore Florida vote, criminology to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The final effect is of one enormous mosaic unified by mathematics.

Mario Livio at the Wall Street Journal:

I have a small piece of advice for readers with little or no mathematical background (who can actually benefit from this book the most): Even if a few of the explanations seem a bit long, read them with patience—you will be amply rewarded.

Jonathon Keats in the New Scientist:

How Not To Be Wrong is a superb primer, helping readers engage more sceptically with numbers.

Orlando Bird in the Financial Times:

There are plenty of popular maths books around, but this one strikes a particularly fine balance between rigour and accessibility.

And some recorded interviews.  I talked to Chris Mooney on the Inquiring Minds podcast; turns out his book has a chapter on Condorcet too, and we talked about math and its relationship with political liberalism.  Mooney has a related article in Mother Jones.  I was also on the Motley Fool podcast and Arik Korman’s iHeartRadio show.

 

 

 

Sympathy for Scott Walker

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel suggests that the slow pace of job creation in Wisconsin, not recall campaign shenanigans, may be Scott Walker’s real enemy in his upcoming re-election campaign:

In each of Walker’s first three years, Wisconsin has added private-sector jobs more slowly than the nation as whole, and the gap is sizable. Wisconsin has averaged 1.3% in annual private-sector job growth since 2010; the national average has been 2.1%. Wisconsin’s ranking in private-sector job growth was 35 among the 50 states in 2011, 36 in 2012 and 37 in 2013.

Combining the first three years of Walker’s term, the state ranks behind all its closest and most comparable Midwest neighbors: Michigan (6 of 50), Indiana (15), Minnesota (20), Ohio (25), Iowa (28) and Illinois (33).

I think this is slightly unfair to Walker!  Part of the reason Michigan is doing so well in job growth since 2010 is that Michigan was hammered so very, very hard by the recession.  It had more room to grow.  Indiana’s unemployment rate was roughly similar to Wisconsin’s in the years leading up to the crash, but shot up to 10.8% as the economy bottomed out (WI never went over 9.2%.)  Now Indiana and Wisconsin are about even again.

But I do mean slightly unfair.  After all, Walker ran on a change platform, arguing that Jim Doyle’s administration had tanked the state’s economy.  In fact, Wisconsin weathered the recession much better than a lot of our neighbor states did.  (The last years Wisconsin was above the median for private-sector job growth?  2008 and 2010, both under Doyle.)   There’s some karmic fairness at play, should that fact come back to make Walker look like a weak job creator compared to his fellow governors.

 

 

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People I saw

Another post for my own records, just to keep track of all the old friends and new acquaintances I was happy to see while traveling for How Not To Be Wrong.  Ordered roughly chronologically and from memory:

Paula and Jay Gitles, Aleeza Strubel, Daniel Biss, Stephen Burt, Jessie Bennett, Jay Pottharst, Bob and Donna Friedman, Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, Larry Hardesty, Moon Duchin, Mira Bernstein, Jerry and Cynthia and Rachel Frenkil, Audrey and Scott Zunick, Joe Schlam, Dick Gross, Noam Elkies, Ben and Elishe Wittes, Eric Walstein, Larry Washington, Manil Suri, Ivars Peterson, Tina Hsu, David Plotz, Josh Levin, Amy Eisner, Deane Yang, Michelle Shih, Warren Bass, Meredith Broussard, Jon Hanke, Tom Scocca, Cathy O’Neil, John Swansburg, Mike Pesca, Kardyhm Kelly, Charlie Jane Anders, Mimi Lipson, Annalee Newitz, Ken Katz, Jill Himmelfarb, The Invisible Cities, Patrick LaVictoire, Akshay Venkatesh, Ravi Vakil, Gary Antonick, David Carlton, Liesl Bross, Miranda Bross, Mark Lucianovic, Tom Church, Yuran Lu, Daniel Kane, Leslie Rappoport, Douglas Wolk, Derek Garton, Matt Haughey, Josh Millard, Brian LaMacchia, Lionel Levine, Ana Crossman (and her mom), Heather Evans (and her mom), Bianca Viray.

 

It was very social!  And sorry to the people I’ve inevitably skipped.

 

Quarreling with Cato

Last week Salon printed an excerpt from How Not To Be Wrong, in which I tweak Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute for asking the rhetorical question “Why is America trying to become more like Sweden when Swedes are Trying to be Less Like Sweden?”  I describe the vision of economics implied by the headline as “linear” (or, more generally, “monotone”)  In particular, the headline seems to take the view that smaller government is either a good thing or  a bad thing, independent of context.  If it’s good for Swedes, it’s good for us too.

 

Mitchell didn’t like what I had to say very much, accusing me of calling him a “buffoon”.  He complains that he doesn’t hold any such simplistic linear view.

 

And that’s right!  He doesn’t.  Nobody does, if they sit down to think consciously about what their views are.  But when you sit down to write a zingy headline, sometimes you just reach for something that expresses your vague rules of thumb instead of your carefully articulated beliefs.  (And yes, as a fellow blogger, I get that sometimes you stretch your point a little bit when you reach for that headline; take it from the guy who just published a piece about Berkson’s fallacy called “Why Are Handsome Men Such Jerks?”)

 

The headline makes it sound like there’s something incongruous about Sweden shrinking its government while we grow ours.  But there’s nothing strange about that at all – unless you have in mind something like the linear model that Mitchell correctly disavows.

So what is Mitchell’s actual view about the relation between Swedishness and prosperity?  He says it’s governed by something called the Rahn curve.  According to that curve, or at least Mitchell’s take on it, prosperity peaks when government spending is about 20 percent of GDP, and declines roughly linear thereafter.  As of 2012, there was only one country in the developed world, sorta-free Singapore, whose government spending was that low.  Which means that in the range occupied by countries from the United States to Sweden, from Australia to Korea, the relation between Swedishness and prosperity is more or less exactly the one I drew in the picture Mitchell objects to.  It may well be that the US government should spend less on its citizens.  But contra Mitchell’s headline, Sweden’s best course gives no guidance concerning ours.

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