Peng Wang's Book Log

Ratings are from 1 to 10, with 10 the best.

NameAuthorRatingCommentFinish Date
The Conscience of a Liberal Paul Krugman 10 In this book with the same name as his New York Times column, Paul Krugman looked back at the progressive movement from The Gilded Age up to present, and the conservative movement as a backlash of it. He argues that race has always been a driving motive behind the conservative backlash. What helps me most from this book is the explanation of the three pillars of a good health care system: nondiscriminitive insurance pricing ("community rate"), required insurance enrollment ("individual mandate"), and subsidies for the poor. He also argues for the efficiency of a government-run insurance provider, which implies that a public option or a single-payer system is the most desirable. 2016
Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism -- From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond E.J. Dionne 9 A chronicle of the conservative movement from Goldwater to Donald Trump. Arguing that the GOP's promise to its supporters, which is essentially to dial back the clock to the time before the New Order and the demographic change in the twentieth century, will never materialize and will keep frustrating its supporters, because such an agenda is not wanted by the majority American people. Compare it with Paul Krugman's harsher criticism that present day GOP is basically a bait-and-switch scam by the elites to gain supports from poor white Americans by using cultural-issue dog-whistles such as abortion and guy marriage, in order to in the back hand advance the elite's ecomonic advantages (e.g. tax cutting and deregulation). 2016
Capital in the Twenty-First Century Thomas Piketty 10 A important book examining the two-hundred-year history of inequality in France, US and many other countries. It throws away the myth that capital growth r equals economic growth g in the long run and shows that r>g has been the case for the last two centuries with only two decades of exception after World War II. The consequence of this inequation is dire: the world will revert (and has reverted) to the society of rentiers and heirs characteristic of the nineteenth century, and the 'middle-class society' we take for granted is just a transitory post-war phenomenon resulted from the destruction of the two world wars. This inequation is exacerbated by the tendency of larger capitals to have even bigger growth rate (because of economy of scale). The author champions that the best policy solution is a global progressive tax on (all) capital, which has both informative and redistributive values. 2016
Dealing with China Henry Paulson 9 I once wanted to claim that this is the best China book I have ever read, because the author has so intimate knowledge of China's reforms and open-ups, and is so clear-head of where China should go. I dialed down my enthusiasm about this book since then because I agree with some reviewers that he is too soft with China on issues like human rights and freedom of speech (the book does have one chapter on them), and I think his optimism about China's future is unwarranted under current circumstances. 2016
The China Challenge Thomas J. Christensen 8 A not-bad China book, with a clear message to American (not Chineses) policy makers. The message is that China is too big to circumvent, so US needs to actively shape China's decisions, by deterrence and reassurance, aka carrot and stick. 2016
Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari 10 An ambitious book trying to describe the whole homo sapien history from dawn of the species to present. I found the begining and the ending parts of the book most thought provoking. I didn't know there was such a thing call the "Cognitive Revoloution", which is what separated homo sapiens from not-so-sapien homos. I have long suspected that language (our kind) played a central role in what made sapiens sapiens. The ending part argues that the end of homo sapiens as we know it is almost on the horizon. Biologists are doing crazy things on creatures and we are about to break the prison of evolution. Good? Bad? 2016
Japan 1941 Eri Hotta 9 A cautious tale that a crazy war can not only result from political overactive, as in the case of Nazi Germany, but also from political inactive, as in the case of Imperial Japan. A background belligerent propaganda can generate a war movement that feeds on itself, and if there is no decisive political leader to stand out and steer the direction, war will be the default outcome. To make it worse, collective inaction discharges individual cabinet members of personal responsibility, so they can all keep their conscience intact by saying "I could do nothing to stop the war". This story of Japanese nationalism going autonomous and out of control should be a warning to any regime flirting with or cultivating nationalism (like China). 2015
The God Delusion Richard Dawkins 10 Always a pleasure to read Dawkins' writing. This crystally written and patiently argued book basically kills every argument pro the existence of God(s). Here is a field guide to us practicing atheists: when hear a reason for God's existence, just replace every appearance of "God" with "the Flying Spagetti Monster" and give it back.

There are "theists", "deists" and "atheists". The difference between "agnostics" and "atheists" are trivial, because in the scientific method, categorical (i.e. provable) nonexistence is not important. What's important is the impact of something's existence to observable events. When a concept in an explanatory theory doesn't make much a different on observable events, it should be dropped (Occam's razor). This criterion applies to the teapot orbiting the sun, and God.

As for the usefulness of "God" in psychological therapy, turns out there are better alternatives based on psychology and medical science. Some anthropologists and political scientists (e.g. Francis Fukuyama) believe religion played an important role in solving the collective action problem in early human society, and in the emergence of rule of law. I agree we should put religion in the Hall of Fame for its historical contributions, but today we have other ways to foster collective actions without the pitfalls of religion, and today's laws get their authority from the democratic process instead of religion.
The Big Short Michael Lewis 10 In this book, the people who shorted the US house market prior to the 2008 financial crisis and made a fortune out of it came out as a bunch of Wall Street outsiders (or eccentrics) who got shocked and sickened by the stupidity, recklessness and greeds of the investment bankers, house loaners and insurers who blindly assumed an ever-rising house market and engulfed big fat profits from all sorts of gimmicks relying on that assumption. With nobody listening to their reason and warning, these early wakers set out to punish those greedy morons themselves by shorting the house market, sometimes out of an ethical impulse apparently. From this peculiar perspective, the book recounts the whole course of the financial crisis, explaining key concepts such as CDO and CDS along the way. A movie based on this book just came out recently, and watchers coming out of cinema are said to be somehow angry with our book heros. That reveals a moral complication here: these shorters, in shorting and punishing the greedy longers, inevitably took the other side, enabled the deals, kept the party going for a few extra years, and amplified the final loss of the society. So are these big crusading shorters to blame also? Hard to answer, unless they donate their gains to the true victims of the Great Housing Fraud aka 2008 financial crisis. 2015
Liar's Poker Michael Lewis 10 This is a fun book, and after this first book the author became more and more serious in his following works. A light-hearted depiction of the everyday work of the Salomon Brothers bond broker/traders, this book reveals how ridiculous that job is and how ridiculously set up the incentive structure is in the financial world. The central problem is a disalignment of interest between bond brokers and their clients ("customers"): if the brokers are allowed to do proprietary trading and build their own positions, how could they not sell junks to their customers and rip them off? They couldn't, so the customers got ripped off year after year after year. Some may ask how could the customers still do business with these liars. According to one broker in the book, "customers have a short memory". 2015
ISIS Apocalypse William McCants 10 According to this book, the appeal of ISIS to Western youngsters is its picturing of an epic, apocalyptic battle that is actually happening in Syria and arguably more exciting than their FPS games. Look for the bitter-sweet communications between ISIS and al-Qaeda headquarter in the book, and current ISIS leader al-Baghdadi's resume. As for the solution of how to destroy ISIS, after some comparisons and analysis, the author concludes that the best choice is to sponser the Kurds, carry out air-strike, and hope for the best. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's exactly what we have been doing. 2015
The Origins of Political Order

Political Order and Political Delay
Francis Fukuyama 10 As the titles suggest, this two-volumn book is about political order (which is the central subject of political science). It develops a comprehensive framework to the question of how to "get to Denmark", that is, how to build an efficient, rich, fair and legitimate state. The central piece of the theory is that a "good" state needs three components: (1) state (administrative) capacity, (2) rule of law and (3) (democratic) accountability. All developed countries are liberal democracies, and liberal democracies have all these three goodies. Historically, these three phenomena emerged "accidentally" from various specific circumstances: China first invented modern state and administration two thousand years ago out of a long bloody war; rule of law emerged in several religious cultures (India, Islam region, Christian region) because of the religion's independent status from the state; democratic accountability appeared in England because of that land's peculiar local political arrangements at least from 13th century on. The author gave me the impression that he recommends this sequence of obtaining the triple: build a strong state first, develop rule of law (somehow) second, and then only then pursue democracy. Emphasizing "good things do not always go together", Fukuyama recommends against trying to build them all, and hints that democracy has a genative impact on state capacity building. "Sequencing" seems to be the most important corollary from the theory.

In the case of China, the country (my country) only has state capacity, without rule of law and democratic accountability, and the balance between state and society has been heavily tilted towards the state for all the past two millenniums. This sorry state (pun unintended) somehow made do an economic miracle in the past 30 years, surprisingly. Will it work in the future? If anyone knows the answer, be my guest.

Another theory presented in the book is that humans have the social instincts of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, given by evolution (see Dawkin's 'The Selfish Gene'). All pre-modern political arrangements are centered around these two human mental 'hardware'. Modern political institutions with their impersonal and meritocratic characteristics are "unnatural" in this sense, and when modern institutions clapse, people will fall back to these two default behaviors. This is the theoretical underpinning of the "political decay" part of the book title. Falling back to kin selection and reciprocal altruism is also called "repatrimonialization" - the capture of the ostensibly impersonal political institutions by the elites, which is playing out in the US with the lobby groups, political donations and super PACs .
Zero to One Peter Thiel 7 Peter Thiel's not-so-random thoughts on start-up, emphasizing "focus". For investors, a small and focused portfolio is better than "spray and pray"; for entrepreneurs, conquering a focused niche market and spilling over to neighboring areas is better than occupying a small fraction of a big market. As a funding guideline, always start with small money and small rounds. Update: Now I can't take anything Peter Thiel says serious! 2015
Can China Lead? Regina M. Abrami, William C. Kirby, F. Warren McFarlan 7 This is a book written by three authors with very different focus of interest, so I don't know how this book works. The part by Kirby is a good read because Kirby knows China and he is funny. (Also check out the MOOC course ChinaX on co-created by Kirby) 2014
Flash Boys Michael Lewis 10 This book follows the nice Canadian banker Bradley Katsuyama from his discovery of an anomaly in his stock trading system to the reason behind it, the high frequency traders, with their ways of making money by exploiting and "rigging" the stock exchanges' infrastructure, finally to his determination to rig the system of these high frequency parasites by creating his own stock exchange, the IEX. The book made a persuasive case that HFT is an undesirable activity harming the health of the stock market, and potentially is even criminal. Perhaps just a coincident, the FBI opened an investigation into HFT firms' practice the second day this book came out. "The market is rigged" became a meme from the book. But two years after done reading the book, I came across some reports from NYT with market participants saying that the entire HFT margin is too small a number to be a serious problem, and the broker fee of the stock market did drop dramatically over these years. Perhaps, the HFT shops made a small fortune but did a big wreck. 2014
The Extended Phenotype Richard Dawkins 10 The most mind-blowing book I have read after the same author's 'The Selfish Gene', but the arguments in this book go sharper and deeper.

The major ideas are:
(1) Germ-line vs. dead-end replicators.
(2) When we say "selection", we must always mean "selection on difference". when we say "selection of a gene", we must always mean "selection of a gene agains its allele".
(3) Extended phenotype. But "phenotype" is only useful when there could be difference/variance of the phenomenon caused by a gene.
(4) Parasites can be classified in exit/timing/distance dimensions, especially the first.
(5) Epigenetic view of development is better than preformationist view. One can only choose (Epigenetic, Darwinian) or (Preformationist, Lamarckian).
(6) The difference of "reproduction" and "growth" is the existence of a single-cell "bottleneck" between life cycles, which enables selection of development process and complex organs and organisms ("frequent returning to the drawing board").
(7) The constraints on adaptation perfection.
(8) Frequency-dependent selection.
(9) The length in the definitin of a gene can be arbitrary. Practically it's usually inverse proportional to the selection pressure.

Some minor ideas or curiosities:
(1) Out-laws and modifiers.
(2) "Extended germ-line".
(3) The importance of "cumulativity" of mutations.
(4) Five meanings of "fitness".
(5) Historically our intra-cell objects and much of our genome may be parasites. But that's not important.

Ideas that I'm already familiar because of 'The Selfish Gene':
(1) Replicator vs. vehicle.
(2) ESS.
(3) Gene-centric view of selection.
(4) Extended phenotype.
(5) Single-cell generation "bottleneck".
(6) Meme.
(7) Selection of strategies.
(8) Manipulation and arms races.

I summarized several guidelines to think Darwinianly:
(1) When seeking explanation of an adaptation, always look for the "immediate" benefit of a gene. A "long-term" or "global" or "greater" good is no use.
(2) Alway look for "deferential" benefits and survival. There is no "absolute" good.
(3) Never draw any moral implication from Darwinian argument (or very cautiously do). There is still a big gap between Darwinian adaptation and human behavior.
In the last chapter, Dawkins gives a partial explanation to the emergence of organisms: they came into being because of the single-cell generational "bottleneck". But he says there needs to be an independent explanation to the emergence of this single-cell "bottleneck". My guess is that it's an equally important "luck" as the emergence of replacators. Because of replacators there comes life; because of single-cell "bottleneck" there comes organisms.
The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins 10 See 'The Extended Phenotype'. 2013
dot.con John Cassidy 8 A book about the 2001 dot-com bubble burst that is more and more relevant today, on the eve of the next tech bubble burst. If you think "this time is different", think twice and read this book. 2013
Fool's Gold Gillian Tett 9 Another book on the 2008 financial crisis from the viewpoint of J.P.Morgan (later J.P.Morgan Chase). A bunch of young bankers in J.P.Morgan invented ABS (later CDO) out of a good intention to diversify risk and create credit. During the following twenty-some years, bankers in J.P.Morgan including its boss James Dimon turned out to be the "good guys" on Wall Street, being more cautious in their risk taking, suffering from lackluster profit compared to such mavericks as Goldman Sacks and Citi, and finally emerging as the biggest winner from the financial crisis, with Jimmy coronated as the King of Wall Street. 2013
A Free-Market Monetary System and The Pretense of Knowledge F.A. Hayek 10 An article on competing monies plus the author's Nobel Prize speech. The former gave me more inspiration, since it articulated the criterion of a good money: stable in value (note: not in supply). It made me understand why gold, as well as Bitcoin, is not a good money. It also articulated the equivalence of measuring the value of money in gold vs. measuring the value of gold in money; the value of coins (which is determined by its demand/supply, not its metallic content); the idea that "gold standard is just a way to discipline money issuers (and is the only way under government monopoly)". The idea that government monopoly of money issuing is bad and competing monies are a solution are not new to me. The secone article despiced scientism in economics and other social sciences, which is an old topic to me (I hope I have had this article at hand when doing a philosophy of sciences class paper two years ago). 07/17/2013
The Constitution of Liberty F.A. Hayek 10 A very comprehensive inquiry into many aspects of liberty, ranging from the definition of "free" to the many problems of welfare states (read, all developed western countries). The density of knowledge and thoughts is very high. I personally found the third part, the part about welfare states, particularly interesting. This part has a closer relation to contemporary economic and political issues, and Hayek has 'unorthodox' positions on almost every such issue, 'unorthodox' in the sense that he on one hand disdains socialist policies, and on the other hand is ready to make concessions from 'fundamentalist' libertarianism whenever reasonable, making this book subject to critiques from both socialists and libertarians. Joyfully I found Hayek's positions very unpredictable on contemporary issues. 07/15/2013
Saving the Sun Gillian Tett 8 A chronicle of an American "turn-around master" turning around a dying Japanese bank, showing how the banking industry of Japan was obssessed with treating Corporate Japan as compatriots, comrades and family (the "convoy" model) instead of as business partners that need impersonal risk evaluation; and also how the Japanese government lacked the resolution to overhaul the banking system after the huge bad loans went bust, by letting some die and bailing out the others, instead just kept the bad loans on the book and let all the banks become zombies. 2013
China Airborne James Fallows 7 The author is a hobbyist of two things: aviation and China analysis, and he managed to write one book about these two things, which is kind of a miracle. It follows the taking off of China's aviation industry in the last few decades (with significant American help), as an epitome of China's development, mixed with achievements and serious problems. 2012
A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking 10 2004 (Chinese version), 2014 (English version)
The Grand Design Stephen Hawking 10 2013
Rock Paper Tiger Lisa Brackmann 10 2013

In Progress:
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson 7 A fairly simple theory covering many phenomena about prosperity/poverty. The basic idea is that polical institutions determine economic institutions and the two determine economic performance. The theory is simple so much of the book is spent in story-telling. The chapter about China (Chapter 15) shows that the authors have a sober observation of China's "miracle" and a fairly accurate understanding of its essence. For this I give my trust to the authors and their theory.

After reading some chapters, I found the text somewhat repetitive, perhaps because the theory is too simple.
Mom, Dad, I'm an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer David G McAfee
The World's First Stock Exchange Lodewijk Petram, Lynne Richards
Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup Andrew Zimbalist
Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling David Crystal
Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell 1 Lost interest.
Denationalisation of Money: The Argument Refined F.A. Hayek
1984 George Orwell
Law, Legislation and Liberty: A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy F.A. Hayek
The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien 1 Lost interest.
The Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison