Three Summer Books

I compiled New York Times reviews of three books I read this summer and wrote summaries of these summarizes.  Like most books I read, these go below the surface of things. They are adventures about how things really are (or so I claim).

·        The Signal and the Noise : Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don't (Nate Silver)

·        White Trash - The 400 year Untold History of Class in America (Nancy Isenberg)

·        My Age of Anxiety - Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (Scott Stossel)

Below are my summaries. After that are ideas about how the books are related. After that are the NYT reviews.

My summaries

The Signal and the Noise : Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don't

Author: Nate Silver - correctly predicted winners of all 50 states in 2012 election; edits a NYT blog FivethirtyEight which is apparently high on list of places visited by data geeks.
The book is about predictions - what can be predicted, what can’t and what gets in way.
Good predictions require an understanding of what’s being predicted and lots of data – signal – related to that understanding. For example, you can’t forecast weather without understanding how weather works. And you need a lot of information about today’s weather before you can predict tomorrow’s weather. (And you need really big computers – although after a week or so chaos renders all weather  projections useless.)
Bias gets in way of prediction.  Also black swans and unknown unknowns. (Shit happens.) Some systems are too complex to ever be predicted.
Predictions depend on time and scale. 
Time - You might be able to predict things over one period of time and not another. For example, Silver says that global warming predictions are best in a window of time between the not too near and not too distant future. Near term forecasts are less reliable because of the short term volatility of weather. (before weather becomes climate.) Long term forecasts are less reliable because unknown unknowns have a chance to surface.
Scale – You might be able to predict the value of an aggregate but not the value of a particular component. For example the life span of humans as a whole can be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy but not the life span of an individual human. There can be too many  black swans.  
Forecasts of even highly predictable systems are never 100% accurate.  The forecaster has to be agile, willing to admit mistakes, to adjust his forecast as new data comes in.
Absolutes, grand solutions don’t work. We need to dig at details.
My ramble - Many predictions are virtually certain. I can predict with confidence that the sun will come up tomorrow morning. Many other events are virtually unpredictable. I cannot predict the path of a butterfly. From a human point of view some unpredictability is necessary. This gives us hope for change, novelty, excitement.  Some predictably is also necessary to prevent chaos.  Our actions must have consequences. (What if your entire life was known, every moment? Trying to do something unpredicted would itself be predicted.  Every thought, every action.  The path of the butterfly would be known.  But what if nothing were predictable? Not the sun coming up, not your next breath.)
White Trash The 400 year Untold History of Class in America
Author: Nancy Isenberg – Author, professor
Rather than being a class-free society we have, from the beginning, been class aware, influenced by the English class system brought across the Atlantic with the colonists. From top to bottom, the classes above dominate the classes below. Poor people are exploited by rich people. A particular problem has been what to do with people at bottom. The white trash.  Their defects, attitudes, limitations are well known.  Often they are viewed as genetically or socially defective - worthless, lazy, and parasitic. Well-meaning liberals seem to believe that white trash people cannot fix themselves and must be helped. Not so well meaning conservatives seem to believe that white trash people can fix themselves but are too lazy to do it, preferring to leech from the hard working classes. In colonial times the British sent poor people to America to work then conveniently die out of sight of the mother country.
MY AGE OF ANXIETY - Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
Author: Scott Stossel – Editor of Atlantic magazine
Having spent most of his life suffering from various anxiety disorders, while at the same time managing to become a successful writer, Stossel  took a writer’s approach to researching the subject of anxiety,  hoping to relieve or at least provide insight to his disorder.  His book is the result. The book goes into detail, roaming back and forth in history. It is filtered by his experiences. He reports and describes and does not argue particular treatment modalities. He is surprisingly funny.
These points stick with me.
First - having been to various shrinks all his life and having taken a rich variety of drugs and self-medication aids (booze), nothing has worked for the longer term.  At this point, he seems to feel that the only solution is to accept that there is no solution for him - to accept his condition with as much grace as he can muster.
Second - He talks about famous people who were afflicted. Darwin had vomiting (fear of) issues and attachment disorder - plus other problems.  He took a long time writing Origin of species.  Stossell also has vomiting issues.
Third - This strikes a chord. Some years ago I coined the phrase, "… suffering from angst, ennui and a keen sense of the absurd."  I thought it was so clever.  Based on what Stossel has written, what I was really talking about was an existential fear of meaninglessness, death, and aloneness.  Some psychologists and philosophers think anxiety is the result of not facing these hard core existential issues. The Dark Teatime of The Soul is where such issues peep out. Stossel uses phrases like "existential dread" to describe anxiety.

Connections Between Books

I am the one who selected the books to read so of course they are connected. Nevertheless...
Class relates to anxiety.  Poor people might be more likely to worry about real things. (Can I pay the rent?) Middle class people might be more anxious about imagined things. (Is that person looking at me?)
Predictions relate to anxiety.  It can be predicted with some certainty that today’s neurotics are likely to have neurotics in the family tree. It can be predicted with some degree of certainty that a person with a particular brain structure or genetic structure stands a better than even chance of being anxious, depressed etc. 
Predictions relate to class.  People who are born into a certain class are likely to remain in that class.  This is especially true of white trash.  At one time they were thought to be afflicted with various mental defects.  White trash people have been regarded as members of different, inferior species.  The eugenics movement was designed to breed white trash out of existence.  

From NYT book reviews –

(Naturally the NYT holds the copyrights for the reviews and the original authors hold the copyrights for the books.  I am piggybacking off that agreement.)

The Signal and the Noise : Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don't

 Nate Silver has lived a preposterously interesting life. In 2002, while toiling away as a lowly consultant for the accounting firm KPMG, he hatched a revolutionary method for predicting the performance of baseball players, which the Web site Baseball Prospectus subsequently acquired. The following year, he took up poker in his spare time and quit his job after winning $15,000 in six months. (His annual poker winnings soon ran into the six-figures.) Then, in early 2008, Silver noticed that most political prognostication was bunk. Silver promptly reinvented that field, too. His predictive powers were such that at one point the Obama campaign turned to him for guidance.

These triumphs have built Silver a loyal following among fantasy-baseball aficionados and the political buffs who flock to his New York Times blog, FiveThirty­Eight. His signature approach is to concentrate enormous amounts of data on questions that lend themselves to pious blather. For example: television blowhards are fond of proclaiming that the winner of the Iowa caucuses enjoys a big bounce in the New Hampshire primary. Silver crunched numbers dating back to the 1970s and found that the bounce comes less from winning Iowa than from exceeding expectations there.

Silver’s method is completely straightforward: how else would you approach a question like this if not by considering every previous example? But the method is so empowering that it’s intoxicating — as if there’s no question he couldn’t answer with a big enough spreadsheet.

 Which is why it’s slightly heartbreaking to read in the introduction to Silver’s new book, “The Signal and the Noise,” that, having set out to write a geek-conquers-world tell-all in the vein of “Moneyball” and “Freakonomics,” Silver decided to write an altogether different book. This one isn’t so much about his rise to statistical godliness, though it includes a smidgen of back story. It’s largely about evaluating predictions in a variety of fields, from finance to weather to epidemiology. We learn about a handful of successes: when, for instance, meteorologists predict a hurricane’s landfall 72 hours in advance, they now come within a 100-mile radius, whereas the radius was 350 miles a quarter-century ago. But mostly we learn about failures. It turns out we’re not even close to predicting the next catastrophic earthquake or the spread of the next killer bird flu, despite the enormous amounts of brainpower trained on these questions in the past few decades.

As science, this investigation is wholly satisfying. As a literary proposition, it’s a bit disappointing. It’s always more gripping to read about how we might achieve the improbable than why we can’t. And when books about statistical wizardry succeed, it’s generally on the strength of their narrative elements, not their analytical rigor. “Moneyball” was a classic underdog tale about the cash-deprived Oakland A’s; “Freakonomics” read like a series of detective stories. Silver’s volume is more like an engagingly written user’s manual, with forays into topics like dynamic nonlinear systems (the guts of chaos theory) and Bayes’s theorem (a tool for figuring out how likely a particular hunch is right in light of the evidence we observe).

And yet, while “The Signal and the Noise” doesn’t chronicle Silver’s rise, it marks an important milestone in his ascent. For that reason, it could turn out to be one of the more momentous books of the decade. Journalism is in a strange place these days. Cable and the Internet crippled the old media establishment; political polarization dealt it a death blow. In the meantime, no new establishment has risen up to take its place.

What we have is a growing sense of intellectual nihilism. The right-wing media speak only to true believers. Liberal journalists are often more fact-conscious but equally partisan, while mainstream outlets have a rapidly dwindling audience. Few media institutions command widespread credibility.

I think Silver — or at least Silver-ism — has the potential to fill the void. Silver uses statistics to scrutinize the claims of people who don’t always have an incentive to be accurate. Until now, he took aim mostly at sports pundits and political handicappers.

But the book hints at his ambitions to take on weightier questions. There’s no better example of this than his chapter on climate change. In recent years, the most sophisticated global-warming skeptics have seized on errors in the forecasts of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) in order to undermine efforts at greenhouse gas reduction. These skeptics note that global temperatures have increased at only about half the rate the I.P.C.C. predicted in 1990, and that they flatlined in the 2000s (albeit after rising sharply in the late ’90s).

Silver runs the numbers to show that the past few decades of data are still highly consistent with the hypothesis of man-made global warming. He shows how, at the rate that carbon dioxide is accumulating, a single decade of flat temperatures is hardly invalidating. On the other hand, Silver demonstrates that projecting temperature increases decades into the future is a dicey proposition. He chides some environmental activists for their certainty — observing that overambitious predictions can undermine a cause when they don’t come to pass — without descending into false equivalence.isement

Continue reWhat Silver is doing here is playing the role of public statistician — bringing simple but powerful empirical methods to bear on a controversial policy question, and making the results accessible to anyone with a high-school level of numeracy. The exercise is not so different in spirit from the way public intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith once shaped discussions of economic policy and public figures like Walter Cronkite helped sway opinion on the Vietnam War. Except that their authority was based to varying degrees on their establishment credentials, whereas Silver’s derives from his data savvy in the age of the stats nerd.

That Silver is taking this on is, by and large, a welcome development. Few journalists have the statistical chops; most scientists and social scientists are too abstruse

Though his approach doesn’t apply to every issue, it’s not hard to imagine Silver and his ilk one day letting the air out of an inflating housing bubble, or unmasking tobacco-company spin, by appealing to nothing but the numbers.

Still, I can’t help feeling a twinge of ambivalence. Silver is scrupulous about not claiming more certainty than he has. He echoes the famous line from Donald Rumsfeld about “unknown unknowns” — knowledge gaps that we aren’t aware of because we haven’t even thought to ask the right questions. As he and his fellow stat-heads colonize more disciplines, will they know which questions to ask? Sorting through the numbers on climate change is a much more daunting challenge than figuring out which shortstops will hit for power or which candidate will carry Ohio. There are nuances in scientific and financial data — to say nothing about how we discuss the data in the context of a raging political debate — that people spend their careers assimilating. And, of course, the stakes are much higher when we’re talking policy.

As long as someone’s going to fill the role of public statistician, I’m glad it’s Nate Silver. But I do worry about the appearance of accuracy without the real thing. Statistics can dazzle with their aura of authority, yet reality is relentlessly messy. Genuine understanding, as even Silver knows, is more than a numbers game.

 White Trash The 400 year Untold History of Class in America

 No line about class in the United States is more famous than the one written by the German sociologist Werner Sombart in 1906. Class consciousness in America, he contended, foundered “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Sombart was among the first scholars to ask the question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” His answer, now solidified into conventional wisdom about American exceptionalism, was simple: “America is a freer and more egalitarian society than Europe.” In the United States, he argued, “there is not the stigma of being the class apart that almost all European workers have about them. . . . The bowing and scraping before the ‘upper classes,’ which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely unknown.”

In “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg joins a long list of historians over the last century who have sent Sombart’s theory crashing on the shoals of history. The prolific Charles and Mary Beard, progressive historians in the first third of the 20th century, reinterpreted American history as a struggle for economic power between the haves and have-nots. W.E.B. Du Bois interpreted Reconstruction as a great class rebellion, as freed slaves fought to control their own working conditions and wages. Labor and political historians in the 1970s and 1980s recovered a forgotten history of blue-collar consciousness and grass-roots radicalism, from the Workingmen’s Party in Andrew Jackson’s America to the late-19th-century populists of upcountry Georgia to the Depression-era leftist unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Historians of public policy, like the influential Michael B. Katz, emphasized the persistence of notions of “the undeserving poor,” an ideology that blamed economic deprivation on the alleged pathological behavior of poor people themselves and eroded support for welfare programs.

So Isenberg’s story is not, as her subtitle suggests, “untold.” But she retells it with unusual ambition and (to use a class-­laden term) in a masterly manner. Ranging from John Rolfe and Pocahontas to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Isenberg — a historian at Louisiana State University whose previous books include a ­biography of Aaron Burr — provides a cultural ­history of changing concepts of class and inferiority. She argues that British colonizers saw their North American empire as a place to dump their human waste: the idle, indigent and criminal. Richard Hakluyt the younger, one of the many colorful characters who fill these pages, saw the continent as “one giant workhouse,” in ­Isenberg’s phrase, where the feckless poor could be turned into industrious drudges.

That process of shunting outsiders to the nation’s margins, she argues, continued in the early Republic and in the 19th century, when landless white settlers began to fill in the backcountry of Appalachia and the swamps of the lowland South, living in lowly cabins, dreaming of landownership but mostly toiling as exploited tenant farmers or itinerant laborers.

In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic inferiors. In 17th-century Virginia, critics of rebellious indentured servants denounced them as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal matter. A hundred years later, elites railed against the “useless lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place she calls the “first white trash colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the isement

Continue reading the By the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Isenberg shows, crude caricatures gave way to seemingly scientific explanations of lower-class status. “Class was congenital,” she writes, summarizing a mid-19th-century view of poor whites. One writer highlighted the “runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” who birthed a “notorious race” of inferior white people. Essayists described human differences by borrowing terminology from specialists in animal husbandry. Just as dogs could be distinguished by their breeds and horses distinguished from mules, so could people be characterized as superior or inferior based on their physical traits.

By the late 19th century, some writers used family genealogies to trace the roots of criminality, illness and insanity, and warn of the dangers of “degeneration.” By the early 20th century, armed with increasingly sophisticated statistical tools and new understandings of genetics, eugenicists offered the most chilling of responses to poor whites: They argued that the state should use its power to keep them from reproducing. Those arguments shaped one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious decisions, Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing for the majority, upheld a Virginia sterilization program to prevent “generations of imbeciles” from proliferating and thus to keep the nation from being “swamped with incompetence.”

The story of eugenics offers an example of the ways that, throughout the American past, questions of class status have been entangled with notions of racial inferiority. Isenberg makes a strong case that one of the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their racial identity. Backcountry vagabonds were often compared unfavorably with the “savage,” nomadic Indian. Sun-browned tenant farmers faced derision for their less-than-white appearance. After the emancipation of slaves, politicians warned of the rise of a “mongrel” nation, fearful that white bloodlines would be contaminated by blacks, a process that might expand the ranks of “trash” people.

 MY AGE OF ANXIETY - Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

As a young boy, Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic magazine, worried every time his parents left: They’d die, he would think, or else abandon him. Years later, wild with stage fright, he hid in a bathroom to avoid getting a trophy on the dais. By adulthood, Stossel was saddled with often incapacitating nerves. His new book, “My Age of Anxiety,” uses his experience as a guide through the disorder, tracing its legacy in thought and culture. He seeks to understand what anxiety is and what it means; he probes the condition’s ambiguities. The result is ambitious, and bravely intimate: a ruminative book that often breaks into a thrilling intellectual chase.

An estimated 40 million American adults have anxiety disorders in a given year, and one in four will suffer an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetimes. Stossel shares a widely held suspicion that the true numbers are higher, since a lot of people press on without mentioning symptoms to doctors. (I’ve never sought or received an anxiety diagnosis; I’d also be entirely unsurprised to get one.) Trickier still, experts don’t agree on exactly what anxiety is. The most authoritative description, from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has defined it as a six-month period of uncontrollable worry accompanied by three or more persistent problems: restlessness, fatigue, concentration issues, irritability, muscle tension or “sleep disturbance.” Clusters of these symptoms probably describe the entire city of New York.

Does this mean that anxiety disorder is a chimera, invented by people trying to pathologize your quirks and mine? Stossel thinks not. Although anxiety has been called many things over the years — black bile to the ancient Greeks, neurasthenia to the Victorians — the problem is old. Stossel also has the proof of his experience. Today, his anxieties include claustrophobia, acrophobia, aerophobia and a mysterious fear of cheese. Also: panic attacks, a nervous stomach, stage fright. He has bolted in the middle of interviews and speaking gigs. He has soiled himself on airplanes. At the altar, preparing to take his wedding vows, he looked so fitful and intensely sweaty that the minister asked if he was O.K. He was and he wasn’t, as he fought the shaking of his limbs, “the urge to vomit, and unconsciousness.”

True to the disorder, though, most of Stossel’s anxiousness anticipates what hasn’t occurred.

A persistent problem is his emetophobia: the fear of vomiting. It governs his life, to the extent that he maintains a mental catalog of gastroenteritis outbreaks, carries stomach medication with him at all times and hoards airsick bags. He finds it hard to enjoy heightened social moments. (He pulled away from his

first kiss because he felt sure he would throw up on the young woman in question.) Most people would find Stossel’s vigilance excessive, especially since, by his own admission, he hasn’t vomited since 1977. But these regurgitation-free decades only raise his guard. Californians will recognize his wary pessimism as earthquake thinking: a long hiatus means not safety but a crisis deferred.

The mutinies of nature — often of the body — scare him most. Stossel’s current therapist suggests that reflexes like vomiting foreshadow the ultimate corporeal letting go: death. (And who wants that?) But Stossel also traces the idea, appearing often and across disciplines, that anxiety is essentially a consequence of modern life. We’re not made for this sort of thing, the thinking goes. And because our animal nature can’t find comfort in today’s demands, we’re constantly on edge — which makes bodies like Stossel’s protest all the more.

The resulting situations might, elsewhere, make for fine farce. Stossel remembers a summer he spent with the Kennedys, in Hyannis Port, researching his first book, about Sargent Shriver. While he was out one afternoon, his nervous stomach stirred, and he could find no restroom. He ran back to the house, where he availed himself of the first free commode, in the Kennedys’ lower hall. He thought that all was well, until the toilet “exploded,” soaking the floor and his trousers with a rising tide of sewage. Stossel was in the midst of hiding his pants in a cupboard when the dinner bell rang: The illustrious guests were being summoned to a living room, directly opposite the bathroom door. He wrapped his lower half in a sewage-y towel and ran for it, nearly colliding with an “utterly unfazed” John F. Kennedy Jr.

One suspects this escapade reveals more about the goings-on in Camelot than about Stossel’s self-consciousness. But his hair-­trigger shame reflex fires indiscriminately. “That’s him,” he imagines people sneering. “The one who can’t control his own bodily functions.” Plaintive self-­flagellation is a refrain in “My Age of Anxiety” — and, alas, the book’s most tedious feature. In his fretting, Stossel sometimes overlooks the implications of his premise: If anxiety is a chemical disorder, then it shouldn’t require any more apology than an epileptic’s seizures.

Or should it? “My Age of Anxiety” offers dazzlingly comprehensive taxonomies of anxiety-related theory, past and present, and in the process bears out Stossel’s wan ambivalence: Much of the research is notably inconclusive.
Continue reading the maiData over decades havae (­unfortunately) suggested a link between a mother’s behavior and a baby’s lifelong anxiety level. But it’s unclear whether that’s due to nurture or because anxious mothers pass on their dispositions genetically. And although research has found chemical sources of stress resilience (one is called neuropeptide Y; those rich in it seem immune to PTSD), lack of anxiety and heroism aren’t the same. Stossel discusses the basketball star Bill Russell, who seemed to thrive only as a nervous wreck. William James — all the Jameses, actually — ­fueled culture-changing work with powerful neuroses. Stossel barely notes it, but he himself leads a nationally scrutinized, occasionally provocative publication Audacity and heroism rise from many sources.

Which brings us to the drugs. With characteristic fair-mindedness, Stossel, who’s tried nearly everything (his current ­public-speaking preparations include Xanax, Inderal and vodka), presents opposing extremes: “cosmetic psychopharmacology” and “pharmacological Calvinism.” People leaning toward the first argue that anxiety is a correctable imbalance. Yet the data pool behind many drugs is less persuasive than consumers may think. (Anxiety medications appear to “work” less well in China.) Also, how not to quell tomorrow’s William James?

The trade-off is hazy. At a dinner party of artists and writers, Stossel found that “each of the other nine people within earshot” had been medicated for anxiety. These were not dysfunctional failures, he explains, but vaunted novelists and war correspondents. (The war correspondent was anxious not about the battlefield but about editors.) “Maybe,” Stossel gently speculates, “these stories simply provide evidence that writers are crazy.”

Maybe. Or maybe anxious temperaments aren’t the cut-and-dried impediments some would suppose. Stossel notes that people with manageable anxiety often do better work than their blithe, breezy counterparts; they’re long-thinking and less easily satisfied. The condition, at debilitating extremes, clearly requires treatment. Yet locating those extremes — when do the defining aspects of selfhood become its obstacle? — is harder, and Stossel shows we still can’t mark the line with any science. Must we? “I am living on the razor’s edge between success and failure, adulation and humiliation — between justifying my existence and revealing my unworthiness to be alive,” he writes. In his mind, the unsettledness is problematic. But to many people, anxious or not, it will sound like a state of grace.

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