Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Scott E. Page's "The Model Thinker"

Scott E. Page is the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics, at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You, and reported the following.
The Model Thinker describes how we use models to be better thinkers. Models are formal abstractions written in mathematics or symbols that can be brought to data. The book has three parts. The first part describe the uses of models - to reason, explain, design, communicate, act, predict, and explore - and advocate the use of many models when confronted with complex phenomena. The middle of the book contains short, self contained chapters on a core set of the most widely used models. Finally, the third part shows how to apply ensembles of these models to real world problems - the opioid epidemic and obesity.

Page 99 puts us near the beginning of the middle. The first half of the page completes the introduction to the concept of concavity. The page begins with a tantalizing notion borrowed from Jim March: concavity can explain why people are often blissful in long distance relationships.

Allow me to explain.

An increasing concave function has a slope that decreases. In economics, ecology, and other fields, such functions capture diminishing marginal value. For example, the marginal value of each additional scoop of ice cream falls as we add scoops: One scoop of ice cream is way better than an empty cone. Way better!! Two scoops of ice cream is better than one, but by less of a margin. And three scoops of ice cream may only be a tiny bit better than two scoops.

Page 99 describe how concavity implies risk aversion: one scoop of ice cream for certain is preferred to a risky bet in which with probability 1/2 you get nothing and with probability 1/2 you get two scoops. It also describes how concavity defined over two arguments -- ice cream and time on the beach -- implies a preference for diversity. Most of us would prefer one scoop of ice cream and four hours on the beach to either two scoops of ice cream and no beach time or no ice cream and eight hours on the beach.

At the bottom of page 99, I start to describe economic growth models -- which assume that the output produced in an economy is a concave function of both labor and physical capital. The logic as to why output is concave in labor parallels the logic for why happiness is concave in scoops of ice cream. One worker at a coffee shop can serve a lot of coffees. The second worker increases output as does the third and so on. But each worker, at the margin, adds less to total output because the area behind the counter becomes crowded. Plus, the workers have to wait in line to use the espresso machine.

Let's go back to those happy long distance relationships. My wife Jenna is, for me, an ideal life partner - brilliant, kind, considerate, conscientious, other focused, and ridiculously good at cribbage. Nevertheless, my happiness is concave in Jenna. At the end of a long day, sitting with her in front of the fire reading or watching a mystery, I feel quiet joy. But, were I only to see Jenna for an hour a month, during that hour I would be ridiculously happy.

That same logic applies in other unexpected cases as well. Page 99 follows up the happy long distance relationships with an observation that concave happiness also explains why condo developers invite us for a free weekend and not for a free month. For a weekend, sitting on a secluded beach can be awesome. After a month, once you've finished reading The Model Thinker and other great new books, you may find the beach a bit dull.
Visit Scott E. Page's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 10, 2018

Ralina Joseph's "Postracial Resistance"

Ralina L. Joseph is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. She is the author of Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial.

Meshell Sturgis is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Communication at The University of Washington.

Sturgis applied the “Page 99 Test” to Joseph's new book, Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media, and The Uses of Strategic Ambiguity, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Postracial Resistance plunges readers into Shondaland, a fictive place crafted by Shonda Rhimes, a Black female show runner, across a mediascape of shows including Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. While Postracial Resistance tracks the shift in language used by Rhimes from colorblind to Black-conscious, the book critiques how “in Shondaland, the showcasing of diversity of African Americans is really about the showcasing of respectable, upper-class Black folks” (p. 99). While the book focuses on upper-class Blacks including Michelle Obama and Oprah, it also focuses on the ways in which undergraduate women of color participate in meaning making as audience members, and how less privileged professionals in the television business navigate underrepresentation alongside the politics of respectability.

Methodologically, the narrative of the book arcs from textual analysis to audience ethnography. Page 99 falls in the middle of this arc where Shonda Rhimes presents both textual evidence in her shows, and the performative aspect of postracial resistance in her own use of strategic ambiguity as a leader in the television industry. “Strategic ambiguity, whether showcasing elements of colorblindness or race-consciousness, is on Rhimes’ television shows a performance especially suited to women of color.” Although the Black characters on Rhimes’ shows are limited to stereotypical positions of respectability, the instances where Rhimes’ herself identifies as Black, bringing race to the forefront of her work, reveal the writer’s navigation of postracial times where denying the role of race, and merely winking at the Black audience, contribute to the building of a televisual empire.

While her TV shows ultimately bring some representation to TV, Rhimes’ inconsistent code-switching between colorblind rhetoric and that which acknowledges the importance of race, limit the ability for her work to bring about social justice. While Obama is noted as succeeding with her use of strategic ambiguity, Oprah is a demonstration of the failure of such tactic. Rhimes sits in the middle of these two, having some success, but in the hands of particular audiences, her work falls short of making the change that even Rhimes acknowledges is necessary.
Learn more about Postracial Resistance at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Suparna Roychoudhury's "Phantasmatic Shakespeare"

Suparna Roychoudhury is Associate Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science, and reported the following:
This page, like many others in the book, closely parses Shakespeare’s language, with a view to uncovering implicit connections with scientific knowledge. I unpack a speech by Romeo, who, confronted with the latest violent brawl between the two feuding families of Verona, feels there is something terribly wrong with the order of things:
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created,
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is—
This love feel I, that feel no love in this. (Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.170–77)
Carnage is a sign of “hate,” but hate can be the result of a too-strong “love” of something else. Nothing in creation, Romeo realizes, is what it seems. Everything carries its own opposite. Can we really tell lightness from heaviness, coldness from fire, “anything” from “nothing”? All the comparisons Romeo lists have to do with the elemental world; he is, in a way, pondering the nature of matter, like a cosmologist. Beyond the phenomena that present to our senses—coherent “well-seeming forms”—there may be an entirely different “misshapen chaos.”

This page comes from a chapter about matter theory—specifically, the Epicurean theory of atoms, revived with the rediscovery of Lucretius by Renaissance scholars. Atomism opened up a philosophical and theological can of worms, because it said that nothing can come from nothing—atoms can’t be created or destroyed, only rearranged—and therefore contradicted the metaphysics of Christian creation. Atomism also raises questions about cognition: if everything is made of matter, does that include our thoughts and dreams? What is the substance of an imagination, a mental phantasm? Romeo and Juliet points to the kinds of doubts that sixteenth-century thinkers were starting to have about the nature of the universe. Juliet and Romeo both seem strangely attuned to the material nether-reality, rushing eagerly to meet it, fantasizing of death and dissolution. The way that scientific notions disrupted conventional ideas about the mind thus deepens Shakespeare’s tragedy. What I do here with atomism I repeat with optics, zoology, anatomy, and other knowledge areas in the book’s other chapters.
Learn more about Phantasmatic Shakespeare at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 7, 2018

John Zubrzycki's "Empire of Enchantment"

John Zubrzycki is a Sydney-based author, journalist and researcher, specializing in South Asia, in particular India. He is the best-selling author of The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback (2006) and The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy (2013). His new book is Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic.

Zubrzycki applied the “Page 99 Test” to Empire of Enchantment and reported the following:
One of Harry Houdini's signature acts was being buried alive or being placed in an airtight casket that was submerged in a swimming pool. Such acts were all the rage in the 1920s and 30s and still find their way into the performances of magicians such as David Blaine. The origin of live burial can be traced back to the feats of yogis and 'fakirs' in India. Page 99 contains the final part of an account by the British resident in Ludhiana, Sir Claude Wade, who was present when a sadhu was revived after being buried alive for forty days. There are numerous descriptions of such practices in colonial records, often presented as proof of the deviousness of the 'native subjects' as in the case of a 'miracle monger' who pretended to be buried but in fact had access to a secret passage that allowed him to escape his entombment. My book tells the story of how Indian magic influenced not just the styles and performances of Western magicians but also popular culture. In his book Dracula, Bram Stoker compares the ability of the vampire to slip out of a locked tomb with the powers of India’s wonder-workers, who can be buried for months at a time and then "rise up and walk amongst them as before". This page is part of a chapter entitled "A Bed of Nails" which looks at how religious ascetics known for their austerities and sanctity, compete with the magicians whose powers are supposedly derived from the same sacred source. The overlap between magic that is both sacred and profane is a feature of India's magical traditions.
Visit John Zubrzycki's website.

Writers Read: John Zubrzycki.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Daniel T. Rodgers's "As a City on a Hill"

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Rodgers applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America's Most Famous Lay Sermon, and reported the following:
As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon is a story of the unexpected lives of the sermon that John Winthrop wrote out on the eve of the Puritan settlement of New England. Turn to page 99, and at first you seem far away from his famous phrase. You find yourself immersed a deeply contentious business meeting of the company that sponsored the Massachusetts project. The company was in debt. Some of its leading investors had already lost considerable sums of money; others were about to have the value of their shares radically reduced. Ministers were summoned to try to adjudicate the dispute; votes were retaken. A moral “labyrinth,” Winthrop wrote, “infolded” them all.

In fact, you are at a critical origin point of the “we shall be as a city on a hill” phrase that Winthrop was to write into his “Model of Christian Charity,” though centuries of rereading has scrubbed its anti-market sentiments from it. The ideas at its heart were injunctions to set aside love of self when the greater public good demanded it: pleas to transcend self-interest that Winthrop had first formulated at that heated business meeting. Anxiety that his fellow voyagers might not live up to these values saturated Winthrop’s “city on a hill” phrase: not predictions of a future nation’s greatness or illusion that their own modest and insular settlement would be a beacon to the world.

How that seventeenth-century document was lost, found, and radically remade between John Winthrop’s day and Ronald Reagan’s day and ours is the story of the book. Turn to p. 199 and Harvard’s leading historian is explaining why the New England Puritans were still deeply in disrepute in the 1930s. A half century later, however, they had become the nation’s “founders.” A once obscure and quickly forgotten sermon had been injected into the American past as if it had held, from the first, the nation’s deepest truth. As a City on a Hill is the story of how an invented history was fashioned and a phrase was appropriated for a Cold War and post-Cold War global order. It shows far and widely a Biblical phrase traveled from a dispute over market values to a speechwriters’ cliché. Along the way it tells a story of a radically shifting America as well.
Learn more about As a City on a Hill at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Age of Fracture.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 3, 2018

Lauren E. Oakes's "In Search of the Canary Tree"

Lauren E. Oakes is a conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and an adjunct professor in Earth System Science at Stanford University. She lives in Portola Valley, California and Bozeman, Montana.

Oakes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World, and reported the following:
From page 99:
My little blue Subaru was there, dusty and covered in leaves, when I arrived, and it started slowly, still choking up months of a life laid fallow… The forests had demanded all my physical strength; now the data required mental stamina.
Page 99 marks my return to California after the first summer of making thousands of plant measurements in the remote forests on the outer coast of southeast Alaska. It’s the opening to a chapter called “Thrive,” the point in my years of research when I encounter a healthy yellow-cedar forest—still flourishing across generations despite the impacts of climate change elsewhere. I’ve been paddling between locations, hiking through thick brush and dense forest to study the dead and dying trees and their surrounding community members. By page 99, I’ve survived a season in the steady rain, heavy winds, and thick fog. It’s also the point when I realize that my question of what happens after the yellow-cedar trees die is not only a search for ecological resilience but one for human resilience as well.

“Long before humans really started messing with rates of change, Charles Darwin used the term ‘adaptation’ to describe how an organism evolves to become better suited to its habitat,” I later write. “But when it came to people adapting to climate change, I wasn’t thinking about adaptation as an evolutionary process over millennia anymore. I was wondering how people decide what we can do now, today, and tomorrow. What were the traits that could lead a person to thrive in a rapidly changing world?”

In my research, I formulated hypotheses and sought answers through systematic methods like my colleagues at Stanford were doing, but as a human being living in a world that faces all kinds of threats from climate change, I was also looking for a way out of my own sense of fear and helplessness. I didn’t talk much about that part—until I wrote this book. In Search of the Canary Tree uncovers my answers to the tough questions of “What can I do?” when it comes to climate change, and “How do you live with what you know?”
Visit Lauren E. Oakes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Robin Wallace's "Hearing Beethoven"

Robin Wallace is professor of musicology at Baylor University. He is the author of Beethoven’s Critics and Take Note: An Introduction to Music through Active Listening.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery Hearing Beethoven, and reported the following:
Oddly enough, page 99 contains the idea for the book in a nutshell. As I write about the adjustments that were made to my late wife Barbara’s cochlear implant to enable her to hear better, I explain that Beethoven made similar experiments with ear trumpets, using different ones in different environments.

Barbara became profoundly deaf in 2003, the result of radiation treatment 24 years earlier to treat a brain tumor. It was the greatest shock of either of our lives—greater by far than the cancer diagnosis had been for Barbara. She never believed she would die of cancer, but deafness was a fact, coarse and unavoidable. It was the kind of Very Bad Thing that our culture has trouble acknowledging. In Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler, a Duke University theologian who studies the American prosperity gospel, writes of the utter inability of the religion she both loves and hates to assimilate her own cancer diagnosis. I learned what she meant within weeks of the onset of Barbara’s deafness. “Maybe there’s a reason this happened,” somebody told me. “Maybe this will help you understand Beethoven better.”

I had been known as a Beethoven scholar since my first book, Beethoven’s Critics, was published in 1986. I didn’t want to be told that the catastrophe that had befallen my wife was God’s way of getting me to write another book. I found the idea offensive, as though a rosy panacea could simply cancel out the deafness, the cancer, and Barbara’s whole life. Her life and her suffering hadn’t happened in order to help me or anybody else understand Beethoven. But as Barbara began to use technology to recover as much hearing as possible, I saw surprising things take place in the wiring of her brain, and I began to suspect that Beethoven must have had similar experiences.

Barbara died in 2011. I grieved, deeply, and as part of the grieving I began to realize that I did indeed have a book to write. It couldn’t be rushed; it was fifteen years after the onset of Barbara’s deafness that Hearing Beethoven was published. In it, I speak of how Barbara and Beethoven both pursued a vocation, and both lived fuller and more challenging lives than they might have otherwise. It turns out that Beethoven taught me to love Barbara better. I can live with that.
Learn more about Hearing Beethoven at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Darius Ornston's "Good Governance Gone Bad"

Darius Ornston is Assistant Professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where he specializes in comparative political economy and innovation policy. He is the author of When Small States Make Big Leaps.

Ornston applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Good Governance Gone Bad: How Nordic Adaptability Leads to Excess, and reported the following:
By describing the startup scene in Finland, page 99 poses a puzzle: Why has Finland (and Sweden) emerged as a center for technology-based entrepreneurship, rivaling Silicon Valley in the (per capita adjusted) creation of billion dollar companies? In sharp contrast to Silicon Valley, postwar economic history was dominated by large, established companies. Even during the 1980s and 1990s, when Finland (and Sweden) pivoted from forestry and heavy industry to information technology, restructuring was driven by century-old conglomerates such as Nokia (and Ericsson) rather than new enterprises.

The startup boom not only illustrates the enduring ability of the Nordic countries to reinvent themselves, but it also speaks to the underlying mechanisms behind this dynamism. Like the main case studies, the rise of heavy industry in postwar Sweden, Finland’s movement into mobile communications, and the financialization of Iceland, restructuring was not imposed by the state, but rather reflected the rapid diffusion of new business models within tight-knit social circles. In Finland, motivated students, inspired by a handful of high-profile successes such as Rovio and Supercell, used bottom-up initiatives such as the Aalto Entrepreneurial Society and the Slush conference, to capture the imagination of policymakers and institutional investors and transform Finnish society.

Page 99 misleads in one sense, though. In highlighting the success of these young entrepreneurs and the dynamism of the Nordic region, it obscures how these dense networks get societies into trouble. For example, the Nordic startup scene is currently supported by low interest rates and abundant risk capital. While more sustainable than the short-lived dot com boom of the past, it is unclear how it would weather a shift in financial markets. This is a recurring theme in the region. As my book title suggests, adaptability is an asset, but the rapid mobilization of resources around new business models can also lead to policy overshooting, overinvestment, and deep economic crises. If this darker and more vulnerable side of the Nordic model interests you, I encourage you to read further.
Learn more about Good Governance Gone Bad at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Gary R. Bunt's "Hashtag Islam"

Gary R. Bunt is professor of Islamic studies at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hashtag Islam: How Cyber-Islamic Environments Are Transforming Religious Authority, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Hashtag Islam is actually the first page of chapter 5, entitled "Smartphone Jihad". This introduces the section of the book about so-called electronic jihad (e-jihad), and discusses issues associated with concepts of jihad, and the way in which the term has been interpreted and misinterpreted over time. The chapter distinguishes between the militaristic ‘lesser jihad’, and contrasts this with the spiritual and religious striving associated with the ‘greater jihad’. The chapter goes on to discuss the ways in which e-jihad has been articulated by al-Qaeda within diverse contexts, utilising a variety of media forms. A subsequent chapter then looks at the way in which so-called 'Islamic State' drew on e-jihad principles as part of its strategy to mobilise, recruit, finance and attempt to justify its activities to diverse audiences in Muslim and other contexts. While the latter part of the book looks at jihad, this can be contrasted with the earlier section (and majority) of the book, which looks extensively at ideas of religious authority within diverse religious and cultural contexts, and the ways in which these have been expressed online through social media, apps, websites, magazines and other online frameworks.

Hashtag Islam is framed within what I define as 'cyber-Islamic environments', an umbrella term relating to diverse forms of Muslim online expression. Ideas of spirituality and religious identity have been articulated through a variety of digital channels, and have been incredibly influential in terms of shaping how Muslims relate to religious authorities and practices to fulfil spiritual, mystical and legalistic agendas. Muslims are increasingly turning to cyberspace for advice on a variety of important religious questions, and cyber-Islamic environments have challenged traditional modes of authority. This is led to the rise of digitally literate religious scholars and authorities whose influence and impact goes beyond traditional boundaries of imams, mullahs, and shaykhs. Page 99 of Hashtag Islam represents a central discussion on a significant theme associated with Islam and cyberspace, but it is not the dominant conversation for the majority of Muslims online, given the enormous amount of online material on other aspects of religious interpretation and identity.
Learn more about Hashtag Islam at the publishers website, Gary Bunt's Virtually Islamic research website and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Anne E. Parsons's "From Asylum to Prison"

Anne Parsons is an Assistant Professor and Director of Public History in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945, and reported the following:
In 1976, Acel Moore and Wendell Rawls Jr., two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the rampant corruption at the Farview State Hospital near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Page 99 of my book discusses how Moore and Rawls “reported that the institution covered up the violence [there] such as when the staff wrote off a murder as a heart attack.” To Moore, “the fact that the staff was predominantly white while so many people were black made the situation particularly dangerous.” Moore and Rawls’s series of articles led activists to call for the closure of Farview, which the state eventually did.

The campaign to shutter Farview occurred at the very moment that states around the country decreased the size of their mental hospitals, a process called deinstitutionalization. From Asylum to Prison focuses on Pennsylvania as its case study and traces how activism, changes in psychiatry, and new mental health laws coalesced to dramatically shrink mental hospitals in the United States. Not only was deinstitutionalization about mental health, however; it was also about “race, class, and caring about people whom society had discarded.”

From Asylum to Prison charts how at the very moment that mental hospitals like Farview came under fire, the rates of incarceration in the United States began to rise because of harsher sentencing laws, the criminalization of drugs, and the growth of community policing. The expanding criminal legal system absorbed many functions of the diminishing mental hospital system. In this context, Farview closed as a hospital and re-opened as a prison that served people with mental health conditions. Deinstitutionalization had not brought about the system of equitable care that activists and policymakers had envisioned. Instead, mental health became increasingly criminalized and states put their money into police and prisons rather than psychiatric care and social welfare.

Page 99 is particularly important in the book because it reminds us of the power of people to make change. Moore and Rawls pierced the veil of Farview in 1976 and brought to light the ways that institutions dehumanized and mistreated people. Today, as we face a crisis of mass imprisonment, they offer a model of how to shine a light on the ways that people with mental health conditions remain out of sight and out of mind. The book offers us this lesson and a number of others to help address mass incarceration today.
Learn more about From Asylum to Prison at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue