Review: Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I am not sure if I read this book as a school assignment, but it’s obviously one of the great works of American fiction. Mark Twain published it in 1876, and now it’s available for free via Project Gutenberg.

The book’s hero is Tom, a twelve-year-old boy (it’s never stated). The plot involves Tom’s various attempts to (a) avoid school work and (b) go on adventures (often with Huck Finn) and (c) court Betsy Thatcher, a girl whose family arrives in town early in the book.

Long story short, Tom gets into a lot more adventures than he plans, which drives his Aunt back and forth between mourning Tom’s death, thanking heavens that he’s alive, and punishing him for driving her crazy.

The book’s tone of every day a new adventure is delightful and innocent, in contrast with that years’ events: the first telephone call, the first transcontinental (US) railway line, and the ongoing exploration and seizure of Native American territories.

…but by far the highlight is the lovely text, imbued with the priorities of boys in the face of adult silliness. Here are three examples:

He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while—plenty of company—and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village. Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

One feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of “fine language”; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brainracking effort was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is not sufficient today; it never will be sufficient while the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable

Brilliant. FIVE STARS…

Is there a classic that you’ve recently (re)read?

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Review: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

A white woman in South Africa suggested that I read this 2006 book by Peter Godwin, and I am glad that she did.

I mention the color of her skin because skin matters in this memoir of how Zimbabwe fell apart in the late 1990s. This “change of condition” was shocking for many (including me) because of Zim’s prior reputation and status as a safer, richer place than its neighbors. This book explains how those relative positions changed as Robert Mugabe (Zim’s dictator) struggled to hold power. (There are strong parallels with Venezuela’s more recent descent into chaos, which was fueled by a similar “power at all  costs” dynamic.)

Background: Whites controlled Southern Rhodesia in the post-colonial period, but they lost power to Black rebel groups, one of them (ZANU-PF) which was led by Mugabe. After this 1980 liberation, Mugabe allowed the Whites to stay and work, which meant that they continued to run large efficient commercial farms. These farms did not just give Zimbabweans food security and jobs (at least 100 workers for every farm owner, plus around 3-400 dependents), but also export earnings and a reasonably prosperous countryside.

The Issue: Mugabe could not deliver on his promises of a better life for all, so he started blaming Whites twenty years after they had lost power. Plenty of Blacks knew Mugabe was trying to save his own skin, and they joined a rival political party (the MDC) in an attempt to vote Mugabe out.

The Chaos: Mugabe brutally suppressed this peaceful, democratic opposition. Godwin’s memoir traces how Mugabe’s thugs attacked and terrorized Black and White Zimbabweans, extracted $1 in booty for every $999 they destroyed. Citizens’ suffering is immense (Wikipedia):

…at the time of independence in 1980, the country was growing economically at about five per cent a year, and had done so for quite a long time. If this rate of growth had been maintained for the next 37 years, Zimbabwe would have in 2016 a GDP of US$52 billion. Instead it had a formal sector GDP of only US$14 billion, a cost of US$38 billion in lost growth. The population growth in 1980 was among the highest in Africa at about 3.5 per cent per annum, doubling every 21 years. Had this growth been maintained, the population would have been 31 million. Instead, as of 2018, it is about 13 million. The discrepancies were believed to be partly caused by death from starvation and disease, and partly due to decreased fertility [as well as emigration]. The life expectancy has halved, and deaths from politically motivated violence sponsored by the government exceed 200,000 since 1980. The Mugabe government has directly or indirectly caused the deaths of at least three million Zimbabweans in 37 years. According to World Food Programme, over two million people are facing starvation because of the recent droughts the country is going through.

Godwin’s memoir is compelling because it weaves between his reporting as a journalist and the stories he tells about his friends and family.

Oh, and what about the title? It refers to a belief that a celestial crocodile will eat the sun when it is unhappy with humans on earth. Mugabe, despite an unprecedented repeat eclipse in the middle of the chaos, stayed in power for years after this book (he died in 2019). His replacement is not much better. Pity the people of Zimbabwe.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Brave New World

I read Huxley’s 1932 masterpiece a few decades ago, but I got the chance to read it again recently, and I found it to be just as compelling and sad as the first time. On the other hand, I didn’t really like the ending, which I’ll also discuss.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Orwell’s 1984 came out 17 years later, after WWII and after the horrors of totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes were well known. Both books should be required reading (especially these days) rather than substitutes for each other. Read this short comparison.

Next, let’s indeed focus on Huxley’s plot, i.e., a world where people are engineered into castes (from superior alphas down to subhuman epsilons) in a bid to maximize productive efficiencies (a tragic foreshadowing of Nazi and Soviet policies, but also a rebuke of eugenics, which was popular in the “free world”). Children are “decanted” rather than born; they do not have parents and are brainwashed away from emotional connections in favor of reliability. As adults, they spew propaganda (I gagged several times while reading this… as it reminded me of “fake news,” “Taiwan is China,” “heteronormative,” and other empty dogwhistles that displace actual listening, debate and nuance) as they move from one “maximum consumption” activity to the next (because GDP is all that matters).

The deity in this book is Henry Ford, which is why people say “in Ford’s name” all the time. Ford was a good choice.

After establishing the setting, Huxley introduces a “savage” who was born to a mother, who was allowed to read (Shakespeare, by happy chance), and who is thrilled to be allowed to leave his reservation for the “Brave New World” that he had heard so much about. The phrase is from Shakespeare’s Tempest:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ‘t.

Spoiler alert — it does not go well for the “savage” in this Brave New World, mostly because those creatures are not goodly, but also because of a culture clash between “inefficient” human instinct and “efficient” scientific scientistic planning — which Hayek clearly critiqued in a less creative, but theoretically robust manner in 1945.

As to the ending, I found it a bit of a let down, with too much violence and not enough grace in terms of how the savage would or could handle the clash between his vision and the reality of a “brave new world.” But other may disagree, and the ending does not detract from the book’s critique of the planners who seek human perfection or our willingness to “drink the kool aid” in a quest to fit in. FIVE STARS.

Review: Humble Pi

I got this book after hearing the author (Matt Parker) a few times on various podcasts. Its perspective is captured in the subtitle: “when math goes wrong in the real world.”

The book is a page turner, moving crisply (and humorously*) from one disaster to another.

In most cases, problems arise from conversion errors (metric to imperial), mistakes in formulas (dividing by zero), disagreements on starting points (you’re “zero years old” until you’ve been alive 365 days?), misusing software (Excel is nota. database!), or things going on for longer than expected (the clock runs off a cliff). The resulting problems are sometimes funny but sometimes deadly.


This is a common theme in human progress. We make things beyond what we understand, as we always have done. Steam engines worked before we had a theory of thermodynamics; vaccines were developed before we knew how the immune system works; aircraft continue to fly to this day, despite the many gaps in our understanding of aerodynamics. When theory lags behind application, there will always be mathematical surprises lying in wait. The important thing is that we learn from these inevitable mistakes and don’t repeat them.

And then we can turn from making mistakes and learning from them to the situations where marketers are deceptive (“McDonalds: We have 6,000 meal combos!), where the “average person” doesn’t actually exist (just like the average height of a point between Mt Everest and sealevel is not 4424m high), where what we see now is not what was once there (survivor bias), or where scammers or attention seekers claim big significance in spurious correlations. For example:

If you love numbers and hate the people that abuse them, then read this book. FIVE STARS.

*This was in the end notes: “Charlie Turner fact-checked the crap out of the book and all remaining errors are hilarious jokes I’ve demanded be left in”

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Tally-Ho videos…

I bought my first wooden boat in 2021. That’s when people started telling me that I should watch the Sampson Boat Company’s videos on restoring the 1910 yacht Tally-Ho.

And so I did… for 160+ videos (each averaging 25 minutes) during which Leo  Goolden (the owner of SBC) explains and shows what he’s doing and why.

Leo is a very smart, talented and charismatic shipbuilder (“… and sailor”) — read this interview — and here are a few of my favorite videos:

35: Asking for volunteers (this went way better than he expected)

37: The mind of a boatbuilder

48: Leo’s story

58: Ship of Theseus…

89: “Hey Pete, what are you doing?” (Pete is a very cool guy without feet)

132: How to sharpen tools

144: Fancy woodwork…

168: Tally-ho leaves the shed — time for a mast!

These videos are insightful, funny, and technically well produced. I have learned a lot about wooden boat (re)building, as well as fallen in love with the shipwrights in Port Townsend, WA. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Shepherd’s Life

I wanted to read this 2015 book because it touched on two areas of interest: manual labor (check this review or this one) and sustainable agriculture (read this, this or this).

In the book, James Rebanks’s vignettes and observations are collected into the seasons, from summer to fall and winter and back to spring. These seasons matter because Rebanks herds sheep in England’s Lake District.

The book is delightful for its insights into traditions, community and the ever-present and ever-varied (with seasonal variation) tasks facing farmers and herders.

But the book is far more limited for its insights into sustainability or current practices for rearing the animals that give us meat and fibers. Since Rebanks is talking about his own farm and close-knit community, which represents neither intensive, on-farm practices nor extensive, scale-of-farming realities, his perspectives should not be generalized to livestock management by other herders in the area, let alone elsewhere in the UK or world.

With respect to the intensive margin, there are many farms or livestock operations run on slimmer margins, with less respect for future sustainability over current profits, and on larger scales that disconnect man from animal, farm from community.

With respect to the extensive margin, humans are using too much land for producing meat, milk and fibers. Put differently, it doesn’t matter how much you love your sheep if there are too many sheep. (The same can be said for parents’ love for too many children.) We’re just so far over carrying capacity that Nature cannot sustain all humans and the consumption that they see as normal, prudent or justified.

For more on those themes, read my post on biblical notions delusions regarding sustainable land management, read this recent article on England’s unsustainable park management (or this one), or listen to this podcast on land use (it’s flawed for offering an Overton window that is far too narrow — focussing on the sustainable, small-scale end of farming rather than the large-scale norm).

But, putting those qualms aside (most of them far beyond the control of Rebanks and his neighors), this is a very fine book for its insights into a hands-on life that is not easy and not (often) profitable but rewarding. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Ask Me Anything

Volume 1 of Reddit’s AMA series came out in 2015. As someone who appeared in it (!), I received a free copy, which I recently got round to reading skimming (reading what I liked, skipping what I didn’t).

There was never a Volume 2 (these critics were right), so looks like this book was a fail. That doesn’t matter to you, dear (blog) readers, since you can just read the interviews — with better layout — on Reddit.

Here are 20 AMAs (out of 60) that I liked:








I give this book ONE STAR for wasting a lot of paper on links that people can read online.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Salt Sugar Fat

This 2013 book by Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Moss got a lot of attention when it came out — and it deserves it.

(Don’t confuse it with the 2017 cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, which I also recommend!)

The subject is (ultra) processed food (the book’s subtitle is “how the food giants hooked us”), which are formulated with salt, sugar and fat as ingredients that make the food more attractive to consumers. These ingredients also help with baking, storage and product quality, but the main goal is more sales.

The book is long and detailed and horrifying, in the sense with which competitive food manufacturers (think Kraft, Kelloggs, Nestle, General Foods, and the rest) have fought for “mouth share” and lower costs, with each success putting more people closer to death.

Although I can hardly claim to have grown up with non-processed foods in the 1970s, I can easily say that these foods have gotten more and more dangerous for our health with each decade. (This book made me swear off “grocery-store cookies” — I was already off candy, soda and most prepared meals — as a risk to my daily well-being and long-term health.)

Perhaps none of these observations surprise you, and perhaps you also cook all of your meals, but the vast majority of Americans — as well as an increasing share of humans rich enough to “pay for convenience and taste” are not, and these people are suffering rom obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other “rich world” diseases. Note that they are not suffering or dying from being rich — they are dying from a food-industrial complex that has — with help from the US Department of Agriculture — flooded the market with worse foods, in larger quantities, than was the case in the 1950s.

What changed?

Women’s liberation has brought great good to the world, but it was also used as an excuse to make “food” that was more convenient than healthy.

Why didn’t these busy career moms just read the label? The USDA and food manufacturers did everything they could to hide ingredients (using many names for sugar), portions (a “single serving” of 3 chips out of a bag), and implications (scientists questioning health consequences for a fee).

So this is NOT the consumers’ fault, and it is definitely a case of market failure working together with government failure.

Not-so-fun facts:

  1. Big Food invented Betty Crocker and sponsored “baking with Fritos” type contests to push their products while killing the “cooking from scratch” skills that home economics teachers used to give.
  2. Almost every product has gotten less healthy over time — sugar added to cornflakes, soda that got supersized, adding fat inside of goods (think dry croissant with the same fat) to get us to eat more, etc.
  3. Lots of unhealthy foods (hotdogs, bologna) expanded sales by repackaging (Lunchables)
  4. Some candy bars are healthier than breakfast cereals (!)
  5. The soda industry spends $700 million a year on advertising soda; Americans spend more than $90 billion a year on treating obesity.
  6. Yes, they advertised to kids — all the time — but “heavy users” are the most profitable. So the fat and unhealthy get fatter and unhealthier.
  7. Yes, there are direct parallels between these foods and cigarettes and drugs. It’s not just “cast doubt on the research strategies,” but also physical addiction (it only takes a few weeks to wean yourself off excess sugar and salt). These parallels not accidental: Phillip Morris owns General Foods and Kraft.
  8. The industry routinely switches from one substance that people are trying to avoid to another that might be just as unhealthy — or worse, e.g., loading more sugar into “low fat” cookies.
  9. Cargill is a huge food processor, selling 30 types of salt, for example. They also bought a company that puts a band on your stomach — so they are making money from making a problem, then “fixing” it.
  10. We hit a limit with sugar and salt but not with fat.
  11. Most of the experts and executives that Moss interviewed for the book do not eat the foods they have investigated or that their companies sell.
  12. Kraft cheese used to be made from cow milk; now it’s mostly chemicals and “natural cheeze flavor” 🙁
  13. The beef industry — coordinated by the USDA — spends $2 billion per year selling America on more beef. The USDA’s nutrition center spends $6.5 million per year trying to get Americans to eat healthier. That’s a 500-to-1 edge for bad choices — and I’m not even counting advertising for sugar and salt.
  14. The USDA spent $111 million on “pink slime” beef (a highly processed product taken from the parts of a cow that nobody ever ate) to be served at public school lunches. The slimy beef was 1.5 cents/pound cheaper, so the government saved $1.4 million while dumping industry slop on kids’ plates.
  15. Offering a “healthy alternative” next to the traditional product increases sales of the latter (!), since people buy a bit of the healthy, then reward themselves by doubling down on the crap.
  16. The industry has pushed — and succeeded — at getting people to eat and drink everywhere, all the time. “Don’t spoil your appetite” has turned into “see you at the morgue” (42 percent of Americans are obese).
  17. Potatoes have natural sugars that are “highlighted” by frying, which is why people over-eat potato chips.
  18. Big issue: The newest weight loss drugs do seem to reduce appetite and help with weight loss, but they cost about $10,000 per year. The food industry will surely try to make its offer more attractive, to maintain sales, which will unhelpful for the people on those drugs but catastrophic for the people who are not on them!

What should “we” do to address the slow suicide on our plates? More information does not help. Taxes on sugar, salt and fat can be useful. But the only real solution is industry-wide regulation to ban or limit substances, so that manufacturers are not tempted to add more sugar and take sales from rivals. Will Fox news (with help from sponsors) decry the “nanny state”? Yes — but a nanny who keeps you alive is better than the baby-sitter who kills you while you sleep.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Anyone interested in what they eat, misbehaving big business and government corruption should read this.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior and Institutions

My colleague lent me this book to read as a means of understanding one of our courses: “Decision Making Processes”. (The 1997 first edition is by Shepsle and Bonchek — who was a PhD candidate — but the 2010 second edition is only by Shepsle, who is the main author.)

Since I was trying to orient my understanding(s) to the book rather than read in detail or learn new concepts, I skimmed sometimes and skipped Part IV (political institutions), so my “review” is more like a set of reactions.

I think this book is really useful as a primer on political economy, i.e., the ways in which power and wealth are re-distributed. The book does this by building on “rational man,” to look into group choice (voting), cooperation and collective action (participating), and institutions (rules that oblige, restrict or permit).

Shepsle’s definition of “politics” is broad, as it should be (p 13):

For the purposes of our discussion, I will take politics to be utterly indistinguishable from the phenomena of group life generally. It consists of individuals interacting, maneuvering, dissembling, strategizing, cooperating, and much else besides, as they pursue whatever it is they pursue in group life.

We are all embedded in many groups in which such “small-p politics” are important — just as we are embedded in many “commons” — and most of those commons are governed (top down but more importantly peer-to-peer) by these politics.

This book is very strong at characterizing situations and explaining strategies that may (not) work in them. Special interest groups, for example, may be easier to defeat if they can be isolated (or isolate themselves)  into small groups that do not join together to oppose the majority. This strategy can work with an indirect reform. A tax on carbon imports, for example, will raise opposition from foreign oil firms but not domestic oil firms. With the subsequent fall in competition, and thus higher prices, the goal (lower carbon consumption) will be met, even as domestic firms get bigger profits, which can be taxed as such.

I’ve been a fan of zero-based budgeting for decades, but I do agree that there’s a weakness if agencies get to propose entirely new budgets every year and legislators do not bother to question every line item. Inertia is more efficient in such cases of asymmetric information (and effort).

What is public interest? Who gets to identify it? This summary (p 193) is worth a read

Group decision making may depend upon individual preferences and may reflect individual preferences, but it depends upon and reflects much more besides. First, as I have mentioned throughout these chapters, individual preferences do not announce themselves. They are not transparent or self-evident. Rather, they depend upon the disposition of each individual to reveal preferences sincerely or strategically. Second, even if the disposition to report preferences honestly or not were of no consequence, the fact remains that there are many procedures by which to reveal preferences and combine them into social outcomes — procedures that produce profoundly different social outcomes.
To these considerations I must add one more: Collectivities are unlike individuals in the sense that their “preferences” rarely add up in a coherent fashion. For nearly any method of group decision making that we would find minimally acceptable on grounds of fairness, the group outcome often violates the central notion of coherence (transitivity). In important ways, the actual outcome of group choice is arbitrary. So much depends upon the frictions of institutional minutiae — the order of voting, who gets to make motions, and who gets to decide when enough motions have been made.
We might even become dubious about the idea of a public interest. A public has no identifiable interest if its preferences are either incoherent or overly idiosyncratic. [snip] We must understand, when we judge a political outcome, that it is often the result of split- second coordination by some temporary majority that exhibited coherence for a nanosecond before “morphing” into some new political entity – hardly a firm foundation on which to build a philosophy of public interest.

Small groups struggle with cooperation; large groups struggle with collective action. Where is the line between small and large? It’s defined by the Dunbar number (around 140 people), which means that cooperation can emerge when people “know each other,” but not when the group gets too big. In those cases of collective action, other incentives and institutions are required.

Political entrepreneurs can help overcome collective action problems (e.g., everyone free rides). They are needed if smaller groups want to grow in numbers and influence. One way to motivate people in these groups is to favor “experiential behavior” (a consumption activity) over “instrumental behavior” (an investment activity), since consumption (e.g., going to a political rally) provides a direct benefit that investment (e.g., what’s the chance my attendance will make a difference in the polls?) cannot. Thus, we have a social or psychological answer to the paradox of voting.

I strongly recommend this book to any one interested in (academic) social sciences as well as (reality) political dynamics. A good complement would be Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: A Civil Action

I grabbed this 1995 book by Jonathan Harr because it was about a lawsuit over water pollution in Massachusetts.

It was a bit of a slog, in terms of reading, but nothing like the slog that the plantiffs’ lawyers went through to bring their case in the early 1980s.

Harr was “lucky” to get interested in the case in its early stages, which meant that he was literally the “fly on the wall” for much of the story’s development.

The case revolves around trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of groundwater, which is — the lawyers claim — linked to a cluster of fatal cases of leukaemia.

Most of the book is about the (intentionally) drawn-out legal battle between prosecuting lawyers for the victims (working on contingency) and defence lawyers for the large corporations (billing by the hour).

And it’s painful to read about all the manoeuvres of the defence (many legal, most unethical) as they try to obfuscate, delay and deny the guilt of their clients — guilt that was proven and admitted under a subsequent EPA investigation.

“Real life” can be very messy, and Harr does an excellent job at tracking the many details and emotions of the many participants in the case.

As an economist, I see this book as a rebuttal of the ease with which we call out “externalities” and advocate for “polluter pays” policies when those polluters have plenty of money, lawyers and sympathetic legal and political systems. Justice is just not that easy, which is why it’s so often absent.

I give this book FIVE STARS for boiling down such a complex case.

Addendum (5 Sep 2023): Just another story about a company trying to dodge responsibility for polluting groundwater  (with PFAS). 28 Sep: The company is guilty of lying.

Here are all my reviews.