Half-Earth.

Biologist E.O. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Non-Fiction, including one for, of all things, a textbook on ants, along with numerous other awards for his lengthy bibliography of popular and scholarly works on evolution, sociobiology, ecology, and conservationism. His 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life falls into the last category while drawing on multiple fields of expertise to make his case that we should preserve half of the area of the planet for conservation to maintain biodiversity and fight climate change, but for a work by a great scholar and professor, Half-Earth feels half-hearted, as if Wilson knows what he wants to argue but couldn’t be bothered to support his side sufficiently to sway the unconvinced.

The idea of preserving half of the planet, land and sea, for conservation isn’t new nor is it Wilson’s; he credits Tony Hiss with coining the term “half-earth” to describe the concept in a Smithsonian magazine article in 2014. And there’s little doubt that man’s impact on the planet – its environment and the millions of other species on it – has been a net negative for everyone but man, with the pace of change only accelerating as we continue to alter the compositions of the planet’s atmosphere, soil, and water supply. Wilson does well when describing what we might lose or have already lost as a result of our mere presence or our industrial activities, talking about habitats we’ve razed or species we’ve driven to extinction deliberately, through the introductions of invasive species, or through other changes to the environment. But he assumes that the reader will see these losses as significant, or even see them as losses, without sufficiently detailing why it matters that, say, we’re wiping out the world’s rhinoceros population, or various island birds and rodents have been exterminated by the introduction of non-native snakes.

What’s missing even more from the work, however, is a consideration of the costs of an endeavor like the one Wilson is proposing. Man is fairly well distributed across the planet, and setting aside 50% of its land mass for conservation would require resettling hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, many of them members of indigenous populations who live in the least-altered environments on the planet. Crowding the planet’s seven billion people (and rising) into less of the space will trade some environmental problems for others, as various forms pollution rise with population density, and many large urban areas already struggle under the weight of their people, with third-world megacities paralyzed by traffic and its attendant problems. Relocating people is expensive, difficult, and traumatic. There’s also the very real question of feeding those seven billion people and supplying them with fresh water, which we’re already struggling to do; if you reserve half of the world’s land and half of its oceans for conservation, those tasks become more difficult and likely more expensive – a cost few people will be willing to bear directly. It might be necessary, but Wilson glosses over the practical problems his solution would create.

There is, however, one good reason to read Half-Earth right now, at least in the United States, where the current federal administration is rolling back environmental protections left and right, including cutting funds for wildlife area acquisition and management. But I thought Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book The Sixth Extinction made the same general case more powerfully and thoroughly, describing the current, anthropogenic mass extinction that could rival the K-Pg event for sheer number of species exterminated if we don’t do anything about it. Kolbert goes into greater depth with more concrete examples of how man’s activity has altered the planet and moved species around to extinguish some species and threaten others, including a lengthy discussion of chytrid fungus, a thus-far incurable ailment that is killing off tropical frog species with alarming speed.

I think Wilson also fell into the trap that William Easterley (among others) has identified in charitable and other “good intentions” efforts – aiming impossibly high, so that you can never meet your stated goal. You want to end world hunger? That sounds great, but it’ll never happen, and the only outcome will be the creation of a giant organization that absorbs donations without ever accomplishing much of anything. Micro-efforts yield more tangible results, and increase accountability for workers and donors alike. So while saying “let’s reserve half the planet to save it” is an admirable goal, and may even be the right strategy for the long term, it ain’t happening, and talking about it doesn’t get us any closer to solutions. If you want to help save the planet, work towards small, achievable goals. And right now, that probably means working for change in Washington.

Next up: Nina George’s 2013 novel The Little Paris Bookshop.

Evicted.

I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

Not a Scientist.

Dave Levitan’s 2017 book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science couldn’t have come at a better time … or a worse one, I guess, if you’re at all rational-minded and believe that science is real and should inform policy decisions on science. Levitan’s book looks at the various ways our elected officials – really, our elected Republican officials in nearly every example in this book – either ignore science to suit their goals or twist it to justify bad decisions. He wrote the book last year, but it was published this spring, so while our Dear Leader doesn’t figure much directly in the meat of the book, Levitan has added an introduction to at least address the topic of anti-science, which is only growing in importance as the United States continues to cede any leadership role on global issues like climate change and ocean acidification.

This quick read will be pleasant enough for right-minded people who accept facts as they are, but it won’t tell you much you don’t already know. Levitan identifies about a dozen different tricks pols use to ignore scientific realities that interfere with their plans, and you won’t be surprised at the names that appear or the topics under discussion. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe – I’d identify these guys as Republicans, but you know they all are – makes various appearances for his climate denial, since he’s in the pocket of the oil and gas industries and gladly ignores the evidence that man-made activities are warming the planet or that fracking is harmful. Trump and Michelle Bachman both appear for their vaccine denialism. Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee also appear on climate denial. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell both pushed the “global cooling” hoax – which was never a scientific consensus or proven hypothesis of any sort – as part of their denialism. Mo Brooks (Alabama) pushed some anti-science nonsense about immigrants spreading deadly diseases to justify his xenophobia. Rick Santorum appears for his bogus arguments against an EPA standard aimed at reducing mercury pollution in the water and air. George W. Bush gets quite a bit of ink here for the reasons he used for cutting funding for basic research. There are, to be fair, a couple of Democrats in here, including former DEA head Chuck Rosenberg, who threw out some serious bullshit on the topic of marijuana to try to rationalize the government’s treatment of it as a drug as dangerous as cocaine or meth. Even Barack Obama gets a little smackdown, although in his case, his error was overstating the benefits of a scientific endeavor, the Human Genome Project.

The readers who would really benefit from Not a Scientist are the folks least likely to read it: The politicians I just mentioned and all of the people who vote for them. Science is not subject to your personal approval. Vaccines work, life evolved from a single common ancestor, the climate is warming and it’s our fault, GMOs are safe, chemtrails are fake. You don’t get a vote on any of this – but you do get to vote every November, and many people (probably not many of you specifically) vote for candidates who publicly disavow or attempt to discredit settled science, all in the name of pursuing other policy goals. Their words and actions put everyone at risk – literally everyone, when it comes to climate change, and more than just humans, but coral reefs, tropical frogs, even many microorganisms whose roles in the global ecosystem we don’t even yet understand. This stuff matters, much more than whether two men living 2500 miles away from you get a piece of paper that says they’re married, but the Republican Party of 2017 has got everyone convinced that gays and ISIS are the real threats and climate change is some sort of progressive hoax. People who don’t get this, who vote for Inhofe and McConnell and Brooks and Rubio and of course the guy in the White House, need to read Not a Scientist. But they won’t, and their celebrations last November and this past January were just another nail in our collective coffins.

If this stuff bothers you as much as it does me, check out 314 Action, a new nonpartisan science-advocacy group that encourages more STEM professionals to run for political office so that we get voices in Washington DC and every state capital who speak out in favor of science and fact.

The Blue Sweater.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of a non-profit called Acumen, which funds and encourages poverty-reduction efforts that work like business endeavors rather than aid dumps. Foreign aid itself is, in general, not very useful, and often nothing more than a way to prop up corrupt third-world regimes; the U.S. is slated to send out $42 billion in foreign aid in FY2017, but there’s little to no information on how well it works – something like an ROI, for eample. Novogratz has spent over three decades working in the developing world, including substantial time in Rwanda both before and after that country’s civil war and genocide, and her 2009 memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, chronicles some of her work – but also has an unfortunate tendency to show her inability to escape her own privilege when describing the people she’s met and places where she’s worked.

The book works as part memoir – Novogratz has lived an incredible life, not least of which is the incredible story of the titular sweater, which she gave away to a donation outlet while in high school only to find a boy wearing the sweater ten years later in Rwanda – and part plea for a more sensible, rational approach to helping alleviate poverty. Novogratz details projects in multiple countries, from creating jobs for women in central Africa to developing mosquito nets that don’t lose effectiveness to expanding access to cataract surgery in India, where a small upfront investment coupled with some expertise led to a substantial return, particularly in economic growth for people who had no opportunities beyond subsistence farming and in improving health and sanitation conditions. (If you’re poor, and you’re not healthy or don’t have access to clean water, you’re much more likely to stay poor, since you can’t work if you’re sick and then can’t pay for the care to get well.)

Her individual anecdotes tend to be pretty compelling, in part because Novogratz has worked in some areas that were either desperately poor or were caught up in conflicts. One of Novogratz’ close colleagues in Rwanda was killed, perhaps assassinated, for pushing women’s rights, and another, mentioned above, ended up a leader in the genocide. She runs into surprising interference from women in Africa who resent her presence – that local men will listen to her, a white woman from the west, but not to local women, even if they boast some western education. Getting money isn’t a problem per se; it’s getting it from donors who are willing to think small, who’ll accept modest goals that people on the ground can achieve, rather than lofty goals (let’s end hunger! Let’s cure AIDS!) that are unattainable. It’s the idea behind sites like GlobalGiving, where the projects are small but the objectives clear and reasonable.

Novogratz speaks of her work in these countries with two voices, one of which tends to undermine the other. When speaking about the actual plans and execution, she sounds like a businessperson, keeping others accountable, asking questions that an investor in a startup might ask, and ensuring that money is going to where it will do some lasting good. But when she starts to talk about the locals in Rwanda, Pakistan, Brazil, and elsewhere, or to describe the places themselves, she sounds like a tourist. Everyone is beautiful, every color is radiant, everyone is so nice, even the ones who turn out to be corrupt or, in one case, associated with the genocide (and later imprisoned for her role). There’s a strain in travel literature where the white westerner fetishizes the natives of developing countries, and that’s on display here. I can’t doubt Novogratz’ sincerity, and it sounds like she’s tough on locals who come in for microloans with half-formed plans, but she appears to have met a long string of perfect and handsome people while traveling the world. The stories themselves are interesting, and I salute the sacrifices she’s made to live this life and try to improve the world, but The Blue Sweater doesn’t do enough to convince the reader that this is the right way to help the world’s poor.

Next up: I’m still several books behind in reviews, but I’m currently reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

Everything is Obvious.

Duncan Watts’ book Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us fits in well in the recent string of books explaining or demonstrating how the way we think often leads us astray. As with Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Watts’ book highlights some specific cognitive biases, notably our overreliance on what we consider “common sense,” lead us to false conclusions, especially in the spheres of the social sciences, with clear ramifications in the business and political worlds as well as some strong messages for journalists who always seek to graft narratives on to facts as if the latter were inevitable outcomes.

The argument from common sense is one of the most frequently seen logical fallacies out there – X must be true because common sense says it’s true. But common sense itself is, of course, inherently limited; our common sense is the result of our individual and collective experiences, not something innate given to us by God or contained in our genes. Given the human cognitive tendency to assign explanations to every event, even those that are the result of random chance, this is a recipe for bad results, whether it’s the fawning over a CEO who had little or nothing to do with his company’s strong results or top-down policy prescriptions that lead to billions in wasted foreign aid.

Watts runs through various cognitive biases and illusions that you may have encountered in other works, although a few of them were new to me, like the Matthew Effect, by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. According to the theory behind it, the Matthew Effect argues that success breeds success, because it means those people get greater opportunities going forward. A band that has a hit album will get greater airplay for its next record, even if that isn’t as good as the first one, or markedly inferior to an album released on the same day by an unknown artist. A good student born into privilege will have a better chance to attend a fancy-pants college, like, say, Harfurd, and thus benefits further from having the prestigious brand name on his resume. A writer who has nearly half a million Twitter followers might find it easier to land a deal for a major publisher to produce his book, Smart Baseball, available in stores now, and that major publisher then has the contacts and resources to ensure the book is reviewed in critical publications. It could be that the book sells well because it’s a good book, but I doubt it.

Watts similarly dispenses with the ‘great man theory of history’ – and with history in general, if we’re being honest. He points out that historical accounts will always include judgments or information that was not available to actors at the time of these events, citing the example of a soldier wandering around the battlefield in War and Peace, noticing that the realities of war look nothing like the genteel paintings of battle scenes hanging in Russian drawing rooms. He asks if the Mona Lisa, which wasn’t regarded as the world’s greatest painting or even its most famous until it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist before World War II, ascended to that status because of innate qualities of the painting – or if circumstances pushed it to the top, and only after the fact do art experts argue for its supremacy based on the fact that it’s already become the Mona Lisa of legend. In other words, the Mona Lisa may be great simply because it’s the Mona Lisa, and perhaps had the disgruntled employee stolen another painting, da Vinci’s masterpiece would be seen as just another painting. (His description of seeing the painting for the first time mirrored my own: It’s kind of small, and because it’s behind shatterproof glass, you can’t really get close it.)

Without directly referring to it, Watts also perfectly describes the inexcusable habit of sportswriters to assign huge portions of the credit for team successes to head coaches or managers rather than distributing the credit across the entire team or even the organization. I’ve long used the example of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks as a team that won the World Series in spite of the best efforts of its manager, Bob Brenly, to give the series away – repeatedly playing small ball (like bunting) in front of Luis Gonzalez, who’d hit 57 homers that year, and using Byung-Hyun Kim in save situations when it was clear he wasn’t the optimal choice. Only the superhuman efforts by Randy Johnson and That Guy managed to save the day for Arizona, and even then, it took a rare misplay by Mariano Rivera and a weakly hit single to an open spot on the field for the Yanks to lose. Yet Brenly will forever be a “World Series-winning manager,” even though there’s no evidence he did anything to make the win possible. Being present when a big success happens can change a person’s reputation for a long time, and then future successes may be ascribed to that person even if he had nothing to do with them.

Another cognitive bias Watts discusses, the Halo Effect, seems particularly relevant to my work evaluating and ranking prospects. First named by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect refers to our tendency to apply positive impressions of a person, group, or company to their other properties or characteristics, so we might subconsciously consider a good-looking person to be better at his/her job. For example, do first-round draft picks get greater considerations from their organizations when it comes to promotions or even major-league opportunities? Will an org give such a player more time to work out of a period of non-performance than they’d give an eighth-rounder? Do some scouts rate players differently, even if it’s entirely subconscious, based on where they were drafted or how big their signing bonuses were? I don’t think I do this directly, but my rankings are based on feedback from scouts and team execs, so if their own information – including how teams internally rank their prospects – is affected by the Halo Effect, then my rankings will be too, unless I’m actively looking for it and trying to sieve it out.

Where I wish Watts had spent even more time was in describing the implications of these ideas and research for government policies, especially foreign aid, most of which would be just as productive if we flushed it all down those overpriced Pentagon toilets. Foreign aid tends to go to where the donors, whether private or government, think it should go, because the recipients are poor but the donors know how to fix it. In reality, this money rarely spurs any sort of real change or economic growth, because the common-sense explanation – the way to fix poverty is to send money and goods to poor people – never bothers to examine the root causes of the problem the donors want to solve, asking the targets what they really need, examining and removing obstacles (e.g., lack of infrastructure) that might require more time and effort to fix but prevent the aid from doing any good. Sending a boat full of food to a country in the grip of a famine only makes sense if you have a way to get the food to the starving people, but if the roads are bad, dangerous, or simply don’t exist, then that food will sit in the harbor until it rots or some bureaucrat sells it.

Everything Is Obvious is aimed at a more general audience than Thinking Fast and Slow, as its text is a little less dense and it contains fewer and shorter descriptions of research experiments. Watts refers to Kahneman and his late reseach partner Amos Tversky a few times, as well as other researchers in the field, so it seems to me like this book is meant as another building block on the foundation of Kahneman’s work. I think it applies to all kinds of areas of our lives, even just as a way to think about your own thinking and to try to help yourself avoid pitfalls in your financial planning or other decisions, but it’s especially apt for folks like me who write for a living and should watch for our human tendency to try to ascribe causes post hoc to events that may have come about as much due to chance as any deliberate factors.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters.

Five or six years ago, at least, I was at a game in Lake Elsinore when a reader whose name I unfortunately have forgotten recommended a book to me called King Leopold’s Ghost, a meticulous, infuriating non-fiction work on the colonial history of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which for a few decades was the personal property of that king of Belgium. Leo’s abusive misrule was followed by colonial rule by the Belgian government that was only marginally better, with both regimes characterized by plundering of the massive territory’s natural resources, abuse of its natives, destruction of longstanding social and tribal structures, and the failure to establish any foundation for native rule after independence. It’s a great description of how white Europeans gave Africa’s second-largest country no shot at stability or progress once they left and are largely responsible for the failed state that the D.R. Congo has been for the last twenty to thirty years, including the seemingly neverending civil war(s) that have plagued it since late in the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko.

So at some point in 2016, while sharing a table with a woman in a Starbucks in LA, I started chatting with her about books – she was reading something that related to Africa, so I suggested King Leopold’s Ghost, and she recommended two books to me, one of which was Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. Stearns’ thorough history provides much of the second half of the history of the failed state, explaining how Mobutu came to power, how his regime fell, how the civil war in the Congo was itself an outgrowth of regional tensions and the Rwandan civil war and genocide, and why the country remains one of that continent’s biggest disasters in every definition – political, economic, and humanitarian. (A Human Rights Watch director just wrote an op ed in the Washington Post last week entitled “The crisis in Congo is spiraling out of control”, as the current dictator, Joseph Kabila, refuses to cede power and is backing increased violence against dissidents, which also includes the murders of two UN observers this spring.)

Stearns’ book focuses primarily on the civil war itself, beginning with a detailed description of the collapse of Rwanda after its President, Juvenal Habyarimana, died in a plane crash in 1994 that his supporters claimed (without evidence) was an assassination, touching off the country’s civil war and humanity’s worst genocide since the Holocaust. The post-genocide government in Rwanda blamed Mobutu Sese Seko, who had a long history of supporting rebel movements and terrorist groups in the region, for supporting the Hutu majority who carried out most of the killings. Rwanda’s new government teamed with other regional leaders to form a coherent rebellion against Mobutu, recruiting a semi-retired Marxist revolutionary named Laurent Kabila to lead a new army called the AFDL to topple the Congolese dictator, who had renamed the country Zaire. Mobutu’s forces crumbled quickly under the advance of better-funded and somewhat more disciplined rebels, although the invaders were guilty of massive war crimes themselves, and the new boss proved to be no better than the old boss – true of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated himself in 2001, and his son Joseph, who took over and showed authoritarian tendencies of his own. Laurent alienated the foreign leaders who helped him to power, leading to yet another attempt to overthrow him, and the two wars together (called the First and Second Congo Wars, although you could argue it’s all just one long ongoing conflict) have led to over five million deaths and over two million displaced persons along with the continued deterioration of the Congolese state.

This history gives more detail than you could ever want on the atrocities of the two wars and the direct causes of the conflicts – Rwanda’s civil war, the involvement of regional powers, the misrule of Mobutu, Laurent Kabila’s fast alienation of his backers. Stearns spent years on the ground in the D.R. Congo and includes numerous first-person accounts of massacres from survivors. There are no “good guys” here; every group appears to have committed crimes against humanity, including rape, torture, murder, even mutilation of the dead, and while it’s easy to handwave it away as racial animus, even that facile explanation seems to fall short under Stearns’ scrutiny. And the bulk of the deaths came not from violence – horrific as it was – but from starvation, malnutrition, and disease caused by the disruptions of the civil war. The total breakdown of the Congolese state, the displacement of millions of Congolese civilians, the inadequate international response to the humanitarian crisis, and the attacks on refugee camps by rebel and foreign armies all led to these preventable deaths. Stearns gives us plenty of stories of abject violence, which will shock and disgust the reader, but the majority of the deaths from the two wars occurred in more mundane fashion, making them less salacious on the page but no less tragic.

Where Stearns’ book falls short for me, however, is in assigning blame for the ongoing failure to establish a functioning state in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the Belgians, because at least one of the major causes of the catastrophe is that the country itself is a European fabrication. Most African borders today are based on European colonial borders, ignoring tribal or ethnic boundaries that dated back hundreds of years, but few nations are as constructed as the DR Congo’s, which still has the shape of “everything King Leopold could claim” and combines 80 million people from over 200 ethnic groups who speak over 240 languages under one national government. The country is also among the world’s richest in mineral resources, with over 70% of the world’s deposits of coltan (columbite-tantalite), the main source of tantalum for electrolytic capacitors found in many consumer electronic devices, and over 30% of the world’s cobalt and diamond deposits. The role of these “conflict minerals” in fueling the wars is debated and probably unanswerable, but their existence and uneven distribution – the country’s “mining capital” and second largest city, Lubumbashi, is over 2000 km away from the national capital, Kinshasa, and sits on the border with Zambia in the relatively well-off Katanga Province – means dividing the country along ethnic or historical lines would create huge economic disparities among the new nations. (Witness the problems with South Sudan, which was carved out of Sudan six years ago and took most of the country’s oil reserves with it – but not the pipeline to the Red Sea, which goes through Khartoum.) Perhaps the D.R. Congo was doomed to failure from before independence because the country itself is a creation of outside, white forces, and because the successful rebellions have taken over the national government rather than carving out independence for specific regions that might have a chance to function because they’re easier to run and combine fewer ethnic or linguistic groups.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters covers a tremendous amount of ground, literally and figuratively, even without delving into the question of whether this country can ever function properly given its colonial history; there’s enough detail in here on the two Congolese civil wars to give any reader more than enough insight into what happened, a good shot at understanding why, and plenty of despair over the future of that godforsaken country. The book was published in 2011, and nothing has improved in the D.R. Congo since then. A rebellion in the eastern Kivu region continues to roil, and the political crisis that began in 2015 is worsening as Joseph Kabila refuses to cede power and has been cracking down on opposition, a situation that has only further deteriorated since the main opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, who was supposed to oversee a transitional post-Kabila government, died in February. Stearns tries to end the book with a little optimism, explaining at least what the international community might do to try to stabilize the country, but given everything that has come post-publication, I think the D.R. Congo is more likely to become the new Somalia than to become a functioning state again.

Next up: Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Early Autumn.

The End of Ownership.

Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz’s book The End of Ownership gives a surprisingly strong argument that our rights as consumers are rapidly being eroded by changes both in the law and in technology, so that we no longer own many things we might believe we do. In the era of digital goods from books and music and movies to software, we are still paying for the same content, but when once we purchased, now we merely “license” – even though most consumers probably aren’t even aware of the change.

For most of the history of commerce, if you bought a good, you got the good, and that was essentially that. If you bought a book, you owned that copy of the book. You were free to do with that copy as you wished, so long as you didn’t make unauthorized copies of it. You could lend it to someone, or you could sell it outright. The owner of the copyright on that book could not stop you from doing any of those things, nor could s/he repossess the book from you for any reason. The same is true of a patented good: if you buy a widget, you can resell the widget, even if the widget itself is covered by a patent. This is known as the “exhaustion principle” or the “first sale doctrine.” (I’m sticking with U.S. domestic laws on intellectual property here; the rules laws on international exhaustion are often less clear.) I own a special green-vinyl edition of A Tribe Called Quest’s single “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo;” I still own that record, but I could lend, sell, or donate it as I please, without the group’s permission, and without affecting ATCQ’s copyright to the underlying work.

In the digital realm, however, this principle has been superseded by licensing agreements – those things you’re given when you download a digital good or install a software update, which you don’t read but you click “Agree” anyway because let’s get on with this already. Those licenses say you don’t own the goods you’re paying for, even though you probably clicked on something that said the word “buy,” which strongly implies a purchase, not a license. Those agreements, known as end-user licensing agreements or EULAs, curtail the consumer’s rights in ways that the consumer may not understand or expect, resulting in an imbalance of information between buyer and seller where the former probably believes he’s acquiring more rights than he actually is, including the rights to make copies of the good for his personal use, and the right to retain the product in perpetuity.

Law professors Perzanowski and Schultz argue that this is a three-pronged problem. One, consumers believe they’re getting something they’re not. Two, companies are unilaterally abrogating rights afforded to consumers by federal and state laws. And three, Congress and federal courts have totally dropped the ball on the entire issue, passing laws that favor content creators at the expense of both consumers and the public good, or issuing contradictory rulings that reduce our rights in ways that consumers don’t understand and that help take away any semblance of ”ownership.”

The authors give copious examples, some of which were truly non-obvious to me. As the so-called “Internet of Things” expands to include more devices that don’t obviously need an internet connection but have one anyway – like the microwave in that Conway twit’s kitchen – then our rights of ownership are also affected. You might own the physical parts of the refrigerator, but you’re only licensing the software on it, so you can’t sell the fridge because you don’t own the whole thing. You may not be able to sell your smartphone for the same reason – the manufacturers can argue that you are only licensing the software on it, which means you own the device but not the entire unit to be able to sell it.

Why is this OK? The authors give the example of a hat that is only licensed to the purchaser, not sold, so the purchaser can’t transfer ownership of the hat via any method to anyone else. Would you buy that hat? Would you even understand the legalese that accompanies it? In another example, the authors pose the hypothetical of “single-use” car tires, which your tire license would prohibit you from repairing once they were damaged or worn out. Consumers have a specific expectation when they purchase something, but when you ‘purchase’ a digital good, those expectations exceed the reality, yet for some reason we accept this loss of purchaser rights in the digital realm without any real pushback.

What about libraries in the digital world? Some publishers, including HarperCollins (mine), have created programs for libraries to buy digital books, but with heavy restrictions on how libraries may lend them out; HarperCollins only allows one ‘copy’ of the book to be on loan at any time, and after a fixed number of borrowings (I think it’s 24), the library’s license to the book must be renewed. The publishers argue that such restrictions are necessary to avoid cannibalizing the market for book sales, and that the restrictions mirror the physical decay of books that are repeatedly handled and borrowed. I can understand the former, but the latter doesn’t hold water for me, since I recently borrowed a book, Martin Flavin’s Pulitzer-winning novel Journey in the Dark, from my local library, and the edition – worn, but intact – dated back to the late 1940s.

The authors do an excellent job of translating thorny legal questions into accessible language, and offer some very specific solutions that Congress could enact to solve many of these problems – and if Congress had ever shown an iota of interest in protecting consumer interests over those of copyright holders, well, I might have some hope. The legislative history of copyright law in the U.S. is essentially all anti-consumer, with copyright terms becoming longer and such laws on digital goods reducing consumer rights even further. The mere concept of copyright was to ensure content creators were sufficiently rewarded so that they’d continue to create – if you can’t make money off your creations, you’ll have to do something else to pay the bills. The concept was not intended to provide such legal protections for two human lifetimes, but that’s about where it stands now, because there are some very big companies out there who depend on long-term copyright protections, and they can spend to ensure that works don’t fall into the public domain when they were originally scheduled to do so. The parade of degradations of consumer rights seem unlikely to cease any time soon, and the end of that path could be the end of ownership.

Next up: Upton Sinclair’s novel Dragon’s Teeth, winner of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Last Train to Zona Verde.

Paul Theroux is a famous travel writer – meaning a writer who travels, and writes about what he discovers, not a writer who tells you to visit this city and eat at these restaurants – whose work never really crossed my awareness until last year, when a stranger I chatted with at an LA-area Starbucks recommended I check out his books, and I found right then that his 2013 book Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari was on sale for the Kindle. It’s not an easy read, and a huge change of pace from any other “western writer goes to non-white country” book or essay I’ve ever read, but the last third or so on the book, where Theroux goes to one of the most closed-off countries in the world, Angola, is edifying and unforgettable.

Theroux writes of Angola, “a country that is so hard to enter makes me curious to discover what is on the other side of the fence,” a sentiment I can certainly understand, but what he finds after a difficult border crossing from Namibia is as dysfunctional a state as you could imagine this side of Somalia, and perhaps worse. Whereas Somalia and Libya are simply failed states, outlines on the map that lack functioning central governments, Angola is an extreme kleptocracy. Despite $130 billion in annual GDP ($6500 per capita) and rapid growth due to oil revenues, there’s widespread poverty and malnutrition, lack of education or basic services, and minimal infrastructure. Seventy percent of Angolans live on $2 a day or less, and one in six children die before the age of five, the worst such rate in the world. But due to corruption – it’s ranked the fifth-most corrupt in the world, according to that link – the massive oil revenues don’t flow to the people; the President’s daughter is worth over $3 billion, and last year became head of the state-owned energy firm after the company’s board was sacked. Her father has been in power for 38 years, looting a country with oil reserves to match Mexico, and while it’s not a police state, it’s a repressive country where the fortunate few live in a world apart from the 25 million poor residents.

Theroux actually starts his journey in Cape Town, South Africa, and works his way up the west coast of Africa, stopping in Angola for practical reasons (crossing the Congo River would have required a long trip inland) and emotional (his conclusion that seeing more countries would not illuminate anything beyond what he learned in Angola). Each of the three countries he does visit provides its own education, or a sort of lesson, but at least the first two have some glimmers of hope. South Africa’s cities have grown to absorb some of the impoverished shantytowns that surround them, as services expand towards the slums and provide at least some level of mobility – not what we expect here, by any means, but at least a possibility out of extreme poverty, yet one always held back by the increasing numbers of squatters arriving to expand the slums that surround all South African cities.

Namibia is often considered one of the few African success stories, as it has followed a century of oppression (first by Germans, then by the Afrikaner government of South Africa) with 25 years of a stable, multi-party democracy. It’s sparsely populated, with a significant mining industry, but an increasing reliance on European tourists who come to visit certain beaches or indulge in safari and wildlife tourism of a sort Theroux experiences and disdains. He detours inland to speak at a small conference at an isolated town in northeastern Namibia, seeing how the colonial governments and now the Namibian federal government have both ignored the Ju/’hoansi people of the interior, and then crosses into Botswana’s Okavango Delta region to visit a luxury resort and elephant preserve, eating five-star meals and riding an elephant along with the tourists paying thousands of dollars a day to be there.

In the Namibian section of the book, Theroux comes off as a bit of a crosspatch, because while he’s identifying clear socioeconomic problems, Namibia is far from a hopeless case. There’s misused foreign aid here, as in all of Africa – he cites some of the research showing that foreign aid to developing countries often does little or no good for those populations – and certainly poverty beyond what we see here, but there is a functioning government and some economic activity that could provide the foundation for growth. There are not enough jobs, and there’s not enough education, but the raw materials are here.

Angola, however, is an absolute basket case, and this is where Theroux seems to lose his faith in Africa. The government’s elites are looting the country in as venal a way possible – most of the country’s oil actually comes from the exclave of Cabinda, which is the small section of Angola located on the north side of the Congo delta and thus separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire), itself a failed state looted by a series of dictators (including my friend Mobute Sese Seko) and essentially ungoverned in the way Angola is. The former Portuguese colony is flush with cash, but roads are unpaved, schools lack books, public servants might be paid once a year, and the people are starving. It is a country completely without hope, and Theroux talks to one local who believes it’s simmering towards a revolution – a population of desperate young people with nothing to lose, aware of the money made by the tiny elites and the handful of foreign nationals, including a growing number of Chinese expats. Angola was wrecked by a war for independence and then a quarter-century civil war that has still left the land full of mines, and could quickly devolve into Somalia-like anarchy if Theroux’s friend is correct. (That friend, however, was one of three men Theroux spent time with on his trip who died soon afterwards – one was killed by an elephant at the preserve, one was murdered in his home, and one died of a heart attack. The moral of this story is that if Paul Theroux visits your country and wants to hang out, don’t.)

It’s a depressing end to the story and, in Theroux’s case, to his lifetime of travel to and time spent in Africa. You can hear him washing his hands of the continent, not as a lost cause per se, but as a problem the West helped create but can’t solve. No one is stepping in to fix Angola now, because Angola is a stable country that sells oil. China is investing in the country, but sending its own undesirables (including criminals) to work there, not employing locals, and thus props up the kleptocracy the way we do in the Middle East. It’s a warning of sorts – this could be the African powder keg – but Theroux brings no hope that anyone, the Angolans or the West, is about to fix anything.

Next up: My favorite food writer, Michael Ruhlman, published a book of three novellas called In Short Measures a little over a year ago, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since February but never read it until now.

Superforecasting.

I’m a bit surprised that Philip Tetlock’s 2015 book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction hasn’t been a bigger phenomenon along the lines of Thinking Fast and Slow and its offshoots, because Tetlock’s research, from the decades-long Good Judgment Project, goes hand in hand with Daniel Kahneman’s book and research into cognitive biases and illusions. Where Kahneman’s views tend to be macro, Tetlock is focused on the micro: His research looks at people who are better at predicting specific, short-term answers to questions like “Will the Syrian government fall in the next six months?” Tetlock’s main thesis is that such people do exist – people who can consistently produce better forecasts than others, even soi-disant “experts,” can produce – and that we can learn to do the same thing by following their best practices.

Tetlock’s superforecasters have a handful of personality traits in common, but they’re not terribly unusual and if you’re here there’s a good chance you have them. These folks are intellectually curious and comfortable with math. They’re willing to admit mistakes, driven to avoid repeating them, and rigorous in their process. But they’re not necessarily more or better educated and typically lack subject-matter expertise in most of the areas in the forecasting project. What Tetlock and co-author Dan Gardner truly want to get across is that any of us, whether for ourselves or for our businesses, can achieve marginal but tangible gains in our ability to predict future events.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Superforecasting is the need to get away from binary forecasting – that is, blanket statements like “Syria’s government will fall within the year” or “Chris Sale will not be a major-league starting pitcher.” Every forecast needs a probability and a timeframe, for accountability – you can’t evaluate a forecaster’s performance if he avoids specifics or deals in terms like “might” or “somewhat” – and for the forecaster him/herself to improve the process.

Within that mandate for clearer predictions that allow for post hoc evaluation comes the need to learn to ask the right questions. Tetlock reaches two conclusions from his research, one for the forecasters, one for the people who might employ them. Forecasters have to walk a fine line between asking the right questions and the wrong ones: One typical cognitive bias of humans is to substitute a question that is too difficult to answer with a similar question that is easier but doesn’t get at the issue at hand. (Within this is the human reluctance to provide the answer that Tetlock calls the hardest three words for anyone to say: “I don’t know.”) Managers of forecasters or analytics departments, on the other hand, must learn the difference between subjects for which analysts can provide forecasts and those for which they can’t. Many questions are simply too big or vague to answer with probabilistic predictions, so either the manager(s) must provide more specific questions, or the forecaster(s) must be able to manage upwards by operationalizing those questions, turning them into questions that can be answered with a forecast of when, how much, and at what odds.

Tetlock only mentions baseball in passing a few times, but you can see how these precepts would apply to the work that should come out of a baseball analytics department. I think by now every team is generating quantitative player forecasts beyond the generalities of traditional scouting reports. Nate Silver was the first analyst I know of to publicize the idea of attaching probabilities to these forecasts – here’s the 50th percentile forecast, the 10th, the 90th, and so on. More useful to the GM trying to decide whether to acquire player A or player B would be the probability that a player’s performance over the specified period will meet a specific threshold: There is a 63% chance that Joey Bagodonuts will produce at least 6 WAR of value over the next two years. You can work with a forecast like that – it has a specific value and timeframe with specific odds, so the GM can price a contract offer to Mr. Bagodonuts’ agent accordingly.

Could you bring this into the traditional scouting realm? I think you could, carefully. I do try to put some probabilities around my statements on player futures, more than I did in the past, certainly, but I also recognize I could never forecast player stat lines as well as a well-built model could. (Many teams fold scouting reports into their forecasting models anyway.) I can say, however, I think there’s a 40% chance of a pitcher remaining a starter, or a 25% chance that, if player X gets 500 at bats this season, he’ll hit at least 25 home runs. I wouldn’t go out and pay someone $15 million on the comments I make, but I hope it will accomplish two things: force me to think harder before making any extreme statements on potential player outcomes, and furnish those of you who do use this information (such as in fantasy baseball) with value beyond a mere ranking or a statement of a player’s potential ceiling (which might really be his 90th or 95th percentile outcome).

I also want to mention another book in this vein that I enjoyed but never wrote up – Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, another entertaining look at cognitive illusions and biases, especially those that affect the way we value transactions that involve money – including those that involve no money because we’re getting or giving something for free. As in Kahneman’s book, Ariely’s explains that by and large you can’t avoid these brain flaws; you learn they exist and then learn to compensate for them, but if you’re human, they’re not going away.

Next up: Paul Theroux’s travelogue The Last Train to Zona Verde.

TV (The Book).

I’ve never met Alan Sepinwall but I certainly feel like I know him, having read his TV recaps and reviews for years now and watched many of his “Ask Alan” videos, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what would be in his TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, which he wrote with fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz. I was right in that I had a sense of what shows would come in for particular praise in their ranking of the medium’s 100 greatest shows, but I think I underestimated the depth this book provides on so many titles, with tremendous essays on shows’ merits, flaws, influence, and cultural legacy. It’s so good that I could even get caught up in summaries of shows I’d never heard of before – a Novel 100 for scripted, fictional TV programs.

SepinSeitz set some ground rules down before delving into their list, and I’ll repeat them here because, as you know, no one ever reads the intro (or, in this case, The Explanation). The list is limited to U.S. shows only – so no Fawlty Towers or Upstairs, Downstairs – and to narrative fiction, eliminating anything like sketch comedy. They eliminated most shows that are still airing, with a few exceptions for shows with large bodies of work already in the can, and included shows that only aired for one season but penalized them in their scoring system. That system weighs a lot of critical considerations like influence, innovation, and consistency along with what you might consider the show’s contemporary entertainment value. It works in the end, however, as the list they’ve produced is going to start a lot of arguments but at least puts all of these shows in the right buckets to get those debates going.

Since I watch very little TV now, I’m totally unqualified to question anything these guys wrote about shows from the last 15 years or so; I’ve got a few disagreements with shows from earlier in TV history, but by and large I read this book as someone just generally interested in what I missed that was worth seeing. My favorite U.S. show of all time, The Wire, makes their top 5, and several other favorites of mine, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Homicide: Life on the Street, all appear in their top 50. They break the list down into chunks – the top ten are “The Inner Circle,” the next forty are “No-Doubt-About-It Classics,” followed by twenty-five “Groundbreakers and Workhorses” and twenty-five “Outlier Classics” – that provide some structure to the list, although I didn’t think the labels were necessary given the depth of the essays on each program. Sure, Police Squad! was a groundbreaker, and Law & Order was a workhorse, but the review for each makes that clear. (SepinSeitz’ ranking of all seventeen L&O cast combinations is a highlight of the book, although I think I disagree with them on “Invaders,” the episode where Borgia is killed, one of the most harrowing of the series.)

Some other scattered observations on the essays and rankings:

• The essay on The Cosby Show is one of the book’s absolute highlights; the authors co-wrote it (many are credited to AS or MZS specifically), and cover everything, including the sheer impossibility of watching the show today given what we know now about the star. It was, however, a cultural milestone in its era, a highly-rated, critically-acclaimed show that anchored NBC’s Thursday night programming for years, and put an African-American family into TV territory that previously had been reserved for white characters. We’d seen upper-middle-class white families on TV that encountered modern problems, but if there were characters of color, they were the neighbors, or one of the kids’ best friends, never at the center of the show. For adults of a certain age today, The Cosby Show contributed to our understanding that there shouldn’t be any differences between families just because of skin color. Unfortunately, Bill Cosby the rapist has destroyed his legacy as a comedian and a silently progressive TV star, and the authors don’t shy away from that problem.

• My one disagreement with the authors here – and with Michael Schur, who knows a thing or two about sitcoms – is the placement of Cheers in their top five. I did watch Cheers pretty regularly for the first half of its run, and somewhere post-Diane, the show turned into a shell of itself, replete with repetitive one-liners, overreliant on lowbrow humor, populated with characters who became parodies of their former selves. (Friends did the same thing after the ‘big’ Ross and Rachel breakup, turning Ross from slightly nerdy but socially functional to awkwardly, annoyingly nerdy and “how is he even friends with these other people?”) I found the show’s last few years cringeworthy enough that I gradually stopped watching, and only returned for the finale and the cast’s drunken appearance on The Tonight Show. They never recaptured what made them a hit – few comedies can sustain anything that long anyway, but I couldn’t put Cheers in the Inner Circle given what it became.

• I was thrilled to see the one Miami Vice episode I remember clearly from when it first aired, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” earn a mention in that show’s writeup. It was stylish, ’80s noir, and I have often felt like I’ve seen its influence pop up in other, lesser cop shows since. (Including, weirdly enough, a Diagnosis Murder episode with Perry King.)

• Shows I was thrilled to see ranked and to earn writeups: Police Squad!, WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Moonlighting, Firefly.

• Shows I either didn’t know, or knew but hadn’t considered watching, but will add to my list of shows I would like to watch but might never get to: In Treatment, Terriers, K Street. I’d add Frank’s Place, but it seems unlikely to ever appear due to music licensing issues.

SepinSeitz don’t stop after ranking 100 shows, however, with multiple sections after that to keep you reading and well-informed on the state of TV. There’s a long section of shows currently airing that they recommend and cite as possible entrants to a future re-ranking of the top 100 (or they could do what Daniel Burt did when he updated The Novel 100, extending the ranking to 125 titles). There’s “A Certain Regard,” citing shows that had one great season (Homeland) or did something particularly notable (Little House on the Prairie). They also rank mini-series, which ends up an amusing mixture of big-budget network event programming from the late 1970s (Roots, of course, is #1) and 1980s with HBO mini-series from the current era, and TV movies and even TV airings of plays, the latter two lists by Zoller Seitz.

I could absolutely see someone using TV (The Book) as a viewing guide – maybe not starting at 1 and working your way down, but certainly picking and choosing shows to binge-watch from their rankings and breakdowns. I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of time, but as someone who likes great television and loathes the rest, I just loved the ebullient writing, the joyful praise of shows that entertained and sometimes astounded these two guys who can’t seem to get enough TV.

Next up: I’m slogging through The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970.