Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

2009 Review of Books

Well, it’s time for my annual look back thru the books I read this year. (Previously: 2006, 2007, 2008.) I’ve included links to reviews, where I have them, and italicized the titles of the books I recommend without reservation.

  1. The Liberal Hour (my review: 3 stars)
  2. Depression Economics (4)
  3. The Great Derangement (4)
  4. Politics the Wellstone Way (4)
  5. Who Really Rules? (5)
  6. Fat Cats and Democrats (3)
  7. For Common Things
  8. Who Governs?
  9. Supreme: The Story of the Year (2)
  10. Changing the Powers that Be (4)
  11. New Kings of Nonficton
  12. On Writing Well (3)

    This book is really dreadful, mostly because the author actually cannot write well.

  13. The Power Broker (5)

    I cannot possibly say enough good things about this book. Go read it. Right now. Yes, I know it’s long, but trust me, you’ll wish it was longer. I think it may be simply the best nonfiction book.

  14. What Are Intellectuals Good For?
  15. Priorities in Health (4)
  16. Invisible Hands
  17. The Option of Urbanism
  18. Getting There
  19. On Directing Film (4)

    Not just a great book about directing, but a great book about writing.

  20. The High Cost of Free Parking (4)
  21. The Leftmost City
  22. Outliers
  23. The Hearts of Men (4)
  24. The Power Elite and the State (3)
  25. Southern California Country
  26. Seeing Like a State (4)
  27. Traffic
  28. Fast Food Nation
  29. Building Rules (2)
  30. Urban Fortunes (4)
  31. Falling Behind
  32. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2

    Not an easy book, but Michael Mann continues to amaze.

  33. Divided Highways
  34. Prisoner’s Dilemma
  35. Running After Antelope
  36. Cities of Tomorrow
  37. Suburb (4)
  38. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

    If Feynman was a sociologist, this is probably the book he’d write. A delightful little thing.

  39. Downtown
  40. Radical Innocent
  41. Suburban Nation
  42. Zoned Out
  43. American Apartheid

    This book is criminally under-publicized. Everyone has their own crazy theories about why it is that blacks are disadvantaged in our society. Massey and Denton show it’s much more obvious than any of that: they’re victims of extreme segregation, with all the negative effects that entails. An absolutely brilliant book.

  44. Crabgrass Frontier
  45. Human Consequences of Urbanism
  46. The Essential William H. Whyte
  47. Gridlock Economy
  48. Barbed Wire: A Political History
  49. Market Rebels
  50. Blockbusting in Baltimore
  51. Chicago: A Biography of the City and Its Region
  52. The Zoning Game
  53. Zoned American
  54. Bourgeois Nightmares
  55. The Zoning of America
  56. The Sun Also Rises
  57. Bourgeois Utopias
  58. Planned Sprawl
  59. Block By Block
  60. Opus 300
  61. The Path to Power

    After you finish The Power Broker, if you want more, read this.

  62. Means of Ascent
  63. Death at an Early Age
  64. A City Transformed
  65. Master of the Senate
  66. City of Quartz
  67. The Liberal Defence of Murder

    This book is like a little miracle. I’m not even sure how to describe it, except to say that it turns one’s understanding of history completely upside-down.

  68. Categorically Unequal

    If you’re interested in inequality, this little overview is the place to start.

  69. Side Effects
  70. The Fox and the Hedgehog

    Absolutely delightful.

  71. The Threat to Reason
  72. Plunder and Blunder
  73. The Waxman Report
  74. Who Rules America? (6th ed.)
  75. Angler

    Great introduction to how to use “the bureaucracy” and Cheney’s utter deviousness.

  76. Chief of Staff
  77. Showdown at Gucci Gulch

    Best book I’ve found on how positive bills actually get passed.

  78. So Much Damn Money
  79. Return of the L Word
  80. The Way We Live Now
  81. American Project
  82. Streetcar Suburbs
  83. Creating the Second Ghetto
  84. Strangers in a Strange Land
  85. Economic Growth and Neighborhood Discontent
  86. The Federal Bulldozer
  87. The Life You Can Save
  88. Justice (Sandel)
  89. Acme 18
  90. The World We Have Lost
  91. Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato

    Great fun.

  92. Two Memoirs (Keynes)
  93. Bat Boy: The Musical

    If you ever get a chance, go see it. It’s the greatest musical ever.

  94. John Maynard Keynes (Skidelsky)
  95. Facing Unpleasant Facts
  96. Bad Samaritans

    The best introduction to the real issues of globalization and international development.

  97. Reclaiming Development
  98. Kicking Away the Ladder
  99. Democracy and Disobedience
  100. Infinite Jest
  101. Elegant Complexity
  102. Inequality and Industrial Change (4)
  103. Network Power
  104. The General Theory of Employment, Money, and Interest
  105. Created Unequal
  106. The Roseto Story
  107. Political Economy of Industrial Policy
  108. Deception and Abuse at the Fed
  109. Balancing Acts
  110. The Global Class War
  111. Untitled New Deal Manuscript (Domhoff)
  112. Acme 17
  113. Secrets of the Temple
  114. Supercapitalism
  115. Political Control of the Economy
  116. Freshman Orientation
  117. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process
  118. The Political Economy of Trust
  119. The Audacity to Win
  120. Googled
  121. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  122. Dismantling Utopia
  123. Rub Three Times
  124. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story
  125. Adventures in Cartooning
  126. The Composer is Dead
  127. Horseradish
  128. Nemesis

    A wonderful book for anyone interested in how science is actually done. (chapter 1, chapters 2-4)

  129. Keynes: Return of the Master
  130. Chris Ware (Raeburn)
  131. Gaming the Vote

    Poundstone’s really become an amazing writer. While this isn’t as good as Fortune’s Formula it really is quite fun. Poundstone takes a rather novel tack in making the argument for voting system reform. Instead of saying that it will allow for third-parties to get a fair hearing, he argues it will protect the major parties from the insidious effect of spoilers.

    Furthermore, instead of IRV, Approval, or even Condorcet voting, he endorses Range Voting as the best voting system, arguing against Condorcet on some weird grounds about determinant ballots that just doesn’t make sense to me (p. 226).

    Both of these seem reasonable when Poundstone lays them out, but are totally insane upon further inspection. Voting reform may protect against spoilers in the short-term, but in the long term it’ll likely doom us to some kind of fractured multiparty system. (That’s not to say it’s a bad thing.) And range voting, like its proponents, is totally batshit insane. (He even passes on their ridiculous claims about it being better than democracy with a straight face.)

    Let’s think about this for a second. Strategic voting with a range ballot (which even range voting’s proponents say they’ll do) is simply approval voting (plus maybe some meaningless nursery effect — if you want that, just have a nonbinding approval box or something). So for the system to work, it depends on people voting astrategically. But obviously those people’s votes will count less than strategic votes. So range voting’s only advantage over approval voting is that it counts the votes of naive voters less. How is that fair?

    I think the Range Voting comparison with Condorcet is rigged; you’ll notice they never provide any explanation for why their supposedly strategic Condorcet behavior is actually strategic. And the only strategic Condorcet behavior Poundstone provides is trying to create a tie to force it into sequential dropping, which seems wildly implausible in a real-life scenario. So it still seems Condorcet outperforms them all.

  132. If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?

    I really enjoyed this book. It starts with a simple thought experiment: imagine you had a long-lost identical twin who grew up in a conservative home and became a conservative. You, by contrast, grew up in a liberal home and became a liberal. Wouldn’t meeting him make you question your beliefs? And thus, shouldn’t the possibility that you could meet him make you question your beliefs? (I’m not totally convinced by this; my beliefs are much more shaken by converts — people who were strong believers in X but converted to believing in Y.)

    From this, Cohen heads to a reminiscence of his own upbringing, which I found especially touching, perhaps because he has the identity I wish I had: a Canadian communist in an antireligious Yiddish-speaking home. In the middle there’s a good bit on Hegel, Marx, and why not to heighten the contradictions, and he concludes by refuting Rawls with the same argument Matt Yglesias used on Kent Conrad: Rawls says that in a just society, everyone would embrace the Difference Principle, but the Difference Principle allows for differences because some people will work harder if they get more, but if those people embrace the principle then why wouldn’t they give their money to the poor and embrace egalitarianism? He ends by addressing the title question and accepting a sort of Yglesian approach to politics: an overriding concern with the structure of political institutions, but also a strong sense of moral demands for people to achieve they best they can within existing structures.

    Finally, it got me wondering: a lot of Marx (and, I would add, Keynes) thinks about the future as some sort of society where industrial products give us abundance and economic laws loosen their hold on us. The industrial revolution didn’t do that, but perhaps the post-scarcity technological future might?

And my first book of the new year is Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets, which I’m already loving.

You should follow me on twitter here.

January 3, 2010


How much time do you spend on reading? That’s a book every 2.765 days for a year, which is impressive to say the least! Glancing at the archives it doesn’t seem like this is abnormal for you.

posted by Christine on January 4, 2010 #

Your comparison between Score Voting (aka Range Voting) and Approval Voting incorrectly asserts that Score Voting users have to be “astrategic” in order for it to work. That’s not the case. Score Voting achieves lower Bayesian Regret than Approval Voting with each additional expressive (sincerely expressive, or “astrategic”) voter. http://scorevoting.net/UniqBest.html

Further, you basically assert that only “naive” voters would want to be expressive. But exit polling from the 2000 USA Presidential election shows that about 10% of the Nader supporters who came to the polls actually voted for Nader. Surely they didn’t do that because they were unaware they were “throwing away” their votes. They WANTED to express their preference for Nader.

If 10% of Score Voting users are expressive, then they are better off with Score Voting with Approval Voting, because it lets them do what they prefer to do — express themselves. And the strategic voters are better off because their average satisfaction goes up appreciably (the more sincere voters, the lower the Bayesian Regret).

As for the “truly naive” voters that you worry may be disadvantaged by Score Voting, relative to Approval Voting, I would argue that

A) They are a negligible fraction of voters, and to give up the substantial benefits of Score Voting to protect them is not reasonable.

B) They are quite possibly BETTER with Score Voting, because if they are that naive, then a sincere Score Voting ballot is probably MORE STRATEGIC for them than a sincere Approval Voting ballot. That may sound counter-intuitive, but I think I make a pretty reasonable argument toward that end, here: http://scorevoting.net/RVstrat6.html

As for Condorcet methods, Poundstone does indeed explain how burial strategy can be effective. In short, the voter “buries” all the front-runners but his favorite among them. For most Condorcet methods, this strategy IS effective, as shown here with statistical analysis:


The fact that you consider the success of that strategy to be “wildly implausible” demonstrates a bit of electoral naivete. It is certainly implausible that a voter who prefers Ralph Nader can ensure that Gore defeats Bush, by insincerely switching his vote from Nader to Gore. The odds that it will make the difference are virtually nil. Yet we know quite well that the vast majority of plurality voters use that very tactic.

And empirical data (from e.g. decades worth of IRV elections in Australia) shows that most voters using a ranked system will just bury the strongest challengers to their favorite front-runner, even if they are blissfully unaware of the mathematics of the voting method. They just “intuit” that it makes sense to maximally damage strong opponents. That voters do this is just empirical fact.

And this type of “naive burial” strategy is extremely harmful in Condorcet systems. Whereas this strategy is NOT very harmful in Score Voting, because Score Voting passes the Favorite Betrayal Criterion and the NESD property.

http://scorevoting.net/FBCsurvey.html http://scorevoting.net/NESD.html

You can dismiss Score Voting advocates as being merely crazy, but we believe the evidence strongly supports our viewpoint. We further have experienced that virtually all opponents of Score Voting overlook the same things you have overlooked here, or asserts that we haven’t proven what we say we have (as you did with Poundstone, even though he showed simple examples of how Condorcet burial strategies work, right there in his book).

Clay Shentrup San Francisco, CA 206 801 0484

posted by Clay Shentrup on January 4, 2010 #

If you enjoy film books… I recommend Sydney Lumet’s book. Without reservation.


posted by Tommi on January 4, 2010 #

The interesting thing about this list is that it doesn’t have a single book on it that I also read this year — wait a minute, yes it does! ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. I didn’t want to read a book, but a friend of mine told me I HAD to read it. I said ‘no’ but he kept insisting. Finally he shoved it into my hands. It was Typical Gladwell — a few simple yet clever ideas explained by laboriously long-winded stories. I hate it — I just don’t have the patience for that. But, apparently this is what people like to read, because Gladwell is one of the country’s most popular authors.

posted by Wayne on January 5, 2010 #

I was just about to ask the same question - 2.5 books a week. How many hours are you spending reading?

posted by Steven Klassen on January 6, 2010 #

The average person spends 1704 hours a year watching TV. If the average reading rate is 250 words per minute and the average book is 180,000 words then that’s 142 books a year. So I guess the answer is: not enough.

posted by Aaron Swartz on January 6, 2010 #

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