The “Manual for Civilization” Project: A Library for the End of the World

With the subtitle, “How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch,” you can probably guess the genre of The Knowledge. I read this ambitious book over the holidays, hoping that I could learn some of the basics of fields I’m less familiar with such as organic chemistry and medicine. On that front the book delivers, but does it live up to its title?

Some parts of the book were very practical while others seemed superfluous. Purifying water with bleach (p. 37) could be useful in even a small-scale disruption. But in the wake of a larger disaster I find it hard to believe that knowing how to build an internal combustion engine (p. 199) or mix gunpowder (p. 232) would be near-term priorities. (As an aside, the book contains a one-decimeter line segment from which you can reconstruct the entire metric system, but I happen to think that less formal systems of measurement such as the acre–the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day–would become popular in apocalyptic scenarios.)

The Knowledge is a fun read and contains some useful tips, but I would not want it to be my go-to book for emergencies. That is why I was interested to learn of the “Manual for Civilization” initiative, started by The Long Now Foundation.  This is a library of books that were listed by domain experts and Long Now staff and donors in answer to the question “If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?

After reading through the answers I have compiled a short list of my own with the additional qualification that the book offers knowledge that is beneficial even if disaster doesn’t strike. The name after the title is the first recommender on whose list I noticed the book, with a link to their full list of recommendations. (Kevin Kelly’s compilation seemed especially good; his book Cool Tools would likely fit in the list below).

Great Gatsby, Copyright, and the Public Domain

f_scott_fitzgerald_in_carIs the Great Gatsby in the public domain? The book was written in 1925 and Fitzgerald passed away in 1940. Copyright generally expires 70 years after the author’s death, so you could be forgiven for thinking the answer is “yes.”

If you live in Australia, Canada, or another jurisdiction outside the US, you can already get the book through sites like Project Gutenberg Australia. US residents should not click that link–had SOPA been passed, this site could have been censored for even providing the link. In these United States, however, Gatsby is still not in the public domain.

Here’s Duke’s Kevin Smith (who we’ve talked to before) on the convoluted reasoning behind this:

Let’s look for a minute at F. Scott.  Because he died in December of 1940, his unpublished works do enter the public domain in the United States as of 1/1/11.  His published works, however, are another story.  If a Fitzgerald work was published between 1920 and 1922, as This Side of Paradise was, for example, it is in the public domain.  But any works published in 1923 0r later, such as The Great Gatsby, are still protected.  After 1922 (and prior to 1963), a work that was published with copyright notice  and the copyright in which was renewed is given a term of 95 years from publication (the initial 28 year term plus a renewal term, after the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, of 67 years).  Thus published works from this time period are protected until at least 2019; — 1923 plus 95 years equals 2018, so works published that year will rise into the public domain on 1/1/2019.  The author’s date of death does not make any difference for these works.

This distinction seems designed to confuse librarians and other users of works.  An archive of Fitzgerald manuscripts, for example, could digitize and make available those items that were never published, or that were published earlier in F. Scott’s career (like Tales of the Jazz Age).  But a manuscript of Gatsby or Tender is the Night is still subject to protection.

The EFF had a nice explainer on this topic recently as well. Copyright restrictions aren’t just tougher in the US, they’re also subject to the whims of Congress. Congressional action can remove books from the public domain even after they’re put there by law, thanks to this Supreme Court decision.

How does this regulation affect the availability of books? Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic called it the “missing 20th century” based on Paul Heald’s study, “Do Bad Things Happen When Works Fall Into the Public Domain?” Here’s a chart of books available from Amazon by decade of publication:

Amazon pub domain-thumb-615x368-83391

Continuing to extend copyright protection every time Mickey Mouse gets close to being put in the public domain helps Disney, but it does not help the spread of knowledge. Don’t get me started on Hollywood, though–I’m off to see the movie.

Five Lessons on Strategic Thinking from Jane Austen

austen-game-theoristOn Monday I mentioned Michael Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. In this post we take a deeper look at Chwe’s argument: that Jane Austen was teaching lessons about strategic thinking through her novels in what he calls “folk game theory.” We will do that by going through chapters nine and ten in which Chwe examines five lessons on strategic thinking found in Austen’s six novels. I will focus here on examples from Pride and Prejudice as a way of narrowing the field and because it is probably the most popular of the six; page numbers refer to Chwe’s book.

1. Strategic thinking can lead to strong partnerships

One of Chwe’s goals in his book is to help dispel the notion that game theory is strictly atomistic. Austen does a good job of this because some of the strongest couples in her novels result from two characters jointly strategizing. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are first in conflict because they are strategizing differently (Mr. Darcy cannot imagine Elizabeth turning down his proposal of marriage; p. 146). Austen is shows the importance of choice and in particular the choice of a woman to accept to reject a proposal. As they encounter other strategic situations throughout the novel, though, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy gradually establish a pattern of working together. By learning how the other thinks, they engage in what for Austen is the height of intimacy. This type of joint strategizing can also strengthen female friendships (for Austen females are the more strategic of the two genders; p. 151).

2. You can strategically manipulate yourself

Another matter of choice–again, a primary theme in Austen’s work–is the decision to engage in “self-management” (156). An individual can have multiple “selves,” some of which are more in line with her long-term goals than others. Temperament alone is not sufficient to maintain commitment to your long-term interests, so you must allow your more rational self to override your short-term interests. This strategy can also be used to work against your own biases if you are aware of them (157-8). Mr. Darcy argues in a letter to Elizabeth that he was aware of his bias and was able to avoid letting it influence him: “That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain,–but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influence by my hopes or fears.–I did not believe her indifferent because I wished it.”

3. Preferences can be changed

Most social science models take preferences as given, but Austen is interested in how they can be shaped. One mechanism for changing preferences is gratitude (158-9). When Elizabeth learns that Mr. Darcy helped support the marriage between her sister Lydia and Wickham she becomes much more open to the idea of a relationship with him  (telling him that “her sentiments had undergone so material a change… as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances”). Love in Austen’s novels is a coordination problem, and being in love can also affect individuals’ preferences (160). A third factor that influences preferences is reference dependence: to what baseline are you comparing your current options (161-2).

4. Commitment requires strategic thinking

As discussed above, understanding how someone makes decisions–their preferences and strategies–is for Austen the basis of intimacy. By understanding another, you can view subsequent choices that might otherwise seem inconsistent as flowing from the same strategic point of view. This allows you to understand their goals and recognize their commitments (169). It also helps you to predict how they will react in changing circumstances, allowing you to assess whether and how committed they are to you.

5. Strategic thinking has its disadvantages

This final lesson is truly an innovation on Austen’s part, since contemporary game theory does not often consider downsides to rational thinking. Several complications may arise if you are known to be a strategic thinker. First, others might rely on you too heavily to make decisions for them (172). It may also lead to moral complications if others ask you to engage in strategic actions on their behalf, such as deception. Others might be less willing to help you if they know you are thinking strategically (173). If they view you as always looking for your own most preferred outcome, they may also become less trusting (175-6).

Through these lessons we can see that the manner in which an individual engages in strategic thinking can either strengthen or weaken her social interactions. Austen’s “folk game theory” helped to teach a disadvantaged social class how to outthink their counterparts and end up in more desirable circumstances. She also showed that game theory need not be individualistic, and how strategic thinking can be used to help others. If you enjoyed this post, there is much more to learn from Austen and Chwe does a great job of drawing out those lessons from all six of her novels. One of the biggest lessons in Austen’s novels–that others think differently from you–is still valuable today.

What Can Novels Teach Us?

Is it worthwhile for a social scientist to read fiction? What can novels teach us about human behavior? This post summarizes the work of several authors who would answer the first question with a resounding “yes,” and describes their arguments about how novels help us understand social behavior.

Most recently I had the pleasure of reading Michal Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Austen herself likely would have preferred the term “imaginist,” which is how the title character in Emma describes herself, referring to her strategic thinking abilities. Chwe’s argument in the book is that Austen is systematically analyzing strategic thinking through her novels. Austen certainly understood that novels could help teach social behavior: she writes in Northanger Abbey that novels contain “the most thorough knowledge of human nature [and] the happiest delineation of its varieties.” On Wednesday we will take a more detailed look at Chwe’s argument. In the meantime you can find a presentation summarizing the book here.

Austen would be in good company with Ariel Rubinstein. The central thesis of his recent book, Economic Fables, is straightforward: “Economic models are not more, but also not less, than stories–fables.” (You can read the book for free here, or see Ariel explain the motivation behind the book in this video.) Rubinstein’s view is actually the converse of Austen’s: he is not arguing that works of fiction are illustrative of human behavior, but that many social science models are themselves useful fictions. (Ed Leamer has advanced a similar view with a more practical twist in his book, Macroeconomic Patterns and Stories.)

Tyler Cowen helps to identify the key differences and similarities between models and novels in his paper, “Is a Novel a Model?” Here is the abstract:

I defend the relevance of fiction for social science investigation. Novels can be useful for making some economic approaches — such as behavioral economics or signaling theory — more plausible. Novels are more like models than is commonly believed. Some novels present verbal models of reality. I interpret other novels as a kind of simulation, akin to how simulations are used in economics. Economics can, and has, profited from the insights contained in novels. Nonetheless, while novels and models lie along a common spectrum, they differ in many particulars. I attempt a partial account of why we
sometimes look to models for understanding, and other times look to novels.

This interview with Tyler contains a summary of his perspective on novels and much more.

Cowen’s former GMU Economics colleague Russ Roberts also agrees that novels are useful for understanding social behavior–so much so that he has written three of them. Each of the novels illustrates one main economic lesson, and all of them support the idea of free markets for solving problems. Roberts interviewed Rubinstein the Econtalk podcast, in which they discuss some of the ideas that led to Rubinstein’s new book.

Overall this attention to useful fictions is a positive development for social science. Novels can help reach a much wider audience than journal articles and many nonfiction books. One danger–which we are far from now but still exists–is that we value the elegance of the novel itself (the language it uses) rather than the lessons it teaches. Another downside is that it is difficult to convey the policy relevance of a novel. Nevertheless, teaching lessons about human behavior in an enjoyable and memorable form is a huge step forward from most contemporary social science.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Book ID Numbers

Pink identifies the prefix, current only 978 or 979. Purplse is the registration group element, identifying the geographical source of the book (1-5 digits). In light green is the publisher or imprint's ID, up to 7 digits. In yellow is the publication element for idenfitying the edition or format of the book. Highlighted in grey is the check digit, used to verify the number. "5" in red identifies US dollars as the currency for the price, highlighted in dark green.

Pink identifies the prefix, current only 978 or 979. Purplse is the registration group element, identifying the geographical source of the book (1-5 digits). In light green is the publisher or imprint’s ID, up to 7 digits. In yellow is the publication element for idenfitying the edition or format of the book. Highlighted in grey is the check digit, used to verify the number. “5” in red identifies US dollars as the currency for the price, highlighted in dark green.

If you are a bookworm like me, you have evidence of this micro-institution all around you. Grab a nearby book and look at the back cover, or a couple of pages inside the front cover. You will see a series of numbers that uniquely identify the book: its International Standard Book Number (ISBN). That 10 or 13-digit number serves as the worldwide identifier for books, helping customers at online retailers like AbeBooks, Half.com, and Amazon be sure that they are purchasing the right reading material without physically inspecting the product.

Ironically, it is those same online marketplaces and their accompanying e-readers that now endanger the future of the ISBN. The supply of ISBNs is finite, you understand, and demand is high:

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN), invented in Britain in 1965, took off rapidly as an international system for classifying books, with 150 agencies (one per country, with two for bilingual Canada) now issuing the codes. Set up by retailers to ease their distribution and sales, it increasingly hampers new, small and individual publishers. Yet digital publishing is weakening its monopoly.

Publishers who were in at the beginning got great blocks of ISBNs. Many have plenty still in stock. Some countries, including Canada, Hungary and Croatia, make them free to bolster book publishing. But in Britain, America and Japan, where ISBNs are needed for any hope of mainstream publication, they are costly.

Self-published writers understandably do not want to pay for a costly ID number when they are making small margins off of an e-book. If they are only selling through a single retailer (say, an Amazon Kindle edition) there is little incentive to get a unique number–customers will be able to find the book without it. And alternatives are cropping up:

Amazon has introduced the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) tag articles in academic journals. Walmart, an American supermarket chain, has a Universal Product Code (UPC) for everything it stocks—including books. Humans are also getting labels: the Open Researcher and Contributor ID system (ORCID) identifies academics by codes, not their names. And ISBNs are not mandatory at Google Books.

It is foreseeable that one of these options will emerge as a privately-provided institution, replacing the ISBN. The transition is unlikely to be smooth, however–switching equilibriums rarely is. As you trace your finger across an ISBN number on a printed page, you are not only touching a micro-instituiton. You may be holding history in your hands.

Steve Jobs and the Value of Time

Steve Jobs’ attitude toward time comes through clearly in the Walter Isaacson biography. This trait seems to have been ingrained well before his years spent suffering from cancer. According to Steve Wozniak, as early as 1985 Jobs acknowledged that his drive to create stemmed from a sense that he might die young. Two particular attitudes toward time show up in the book: respect and focus.

Respect for others was not a trait Jobs had in spades–you were either a genius or an idiot in his dichotomous view of the world–but he respected time. He was particularly reluctant to waste users’s time. Even a small delay becomes immense when aggregated across many users:

One day Jobs came into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, an engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain, but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs… showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes per year. (p. 123)

Jobs also mastered an ability to focus. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said. For example, Jobs implemented this practice when he simplified Apple’s bloated product line down to a simple 2×2 grid (consumer/pro and desktop/portable). Nietzsche also highlighted this trait in Human, All Too Human (1878):

In reality the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering. (quoted in Jonah Lehrer’s recent Imagine, p. 75)

Placing value on time, then, leads us to cut away the unnecessary.

New Feature: Reading Lists

Several colleagues have recently asked me to curate reading lists for them, either to brush up on an unfamiliar subject or as the basis for part of a survey course. I have decided to include these lists on a new page, and to generate new lists from time to time.

To kick off this feature, I have included two lists. The first is a basic overview of economics and economic history. This list is intended for someone who already has a basic familiarity with the topic, but wants to refresh their knowledge or consider some other perspectives. The second is a brief survey of the security studies literature, with multiple options in each sub-category. It is intended as an introduction to the topic at the undergraduate level. Graduate students or professors who use this list should note that many of the works on the list are controversial.

Suggestions for amending the existing lists or topics for future lists are welcome in the comments section.

The Politics of Children’s Literature

From Tales for Little Rebels:

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ […] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.

[Via Brain Picker.]

Gelman’s Five Essential Books on American Elections

The Browser today has an interview with Andrew Gelman, one of the best-informed researchers on American elections (and other things). His selections are a bit strange eclectic, but readers of this blog might find them interesting. The one that I am most likely to read is The 480, a novel about political consultants.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: Literary Recipes

The blog is Paper and Salt, and it is described thusly in its inaugural post:

A love of good books often comes with a love of good food.  It’s in the many mouth-watering descriptions we encounter in novels, the wealth of new food memoirs, and the explosion of incredible food writing and blogging online. But it isn’t just today’s writers that have a personal obsession with food. We hear about it in Ted Hughes’ letters, see it in Emily Dickinson’s recipes, and imagine it in Hemingway’s cafés. And when I hear about the food that inspired them, I want to eat it too.

One of the early recipes is salmon croquettes, accompanied by an amusing anecdote debunking the myth that William Faulkner lived entirely on a liquid diet.

For more foodie fun check out Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch. The book has been reviewed widely, including by The Atlantic, which is the source of the video below.