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Peter McCluskey RSS Feed (Berkeley, CA USA)

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Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind
Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind
by David Livingstone Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.92
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent but not too valuable, August 6, 2008
This book is mostly correct, and might be valuable to a few people, but will provide few surprises for people who know a fair amount about cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.
He uses a broader than normal definition of lying that doesn't require intent. I agree with his choice to focus on that broader concept, but I think deception would be a more descriptive word to use.
A few of his bolder, unsupported claims seem wrong, such as "human society ... would collapse under the weight of too much honesty".

Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime
Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime
by Aubrey D. N. J. De Grey
Edition: Hardcover
54 used & new from $2.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important; probably exaggerates a bit, July 31, 2008
This book makes a strong argument that the most important medical need in developed countries is to cure the damage associated with aging, rather than to combat the diseases which become serious as a result of that damage. It outlines a set of solutions which, if they can be implemented, look like they would add at least a decade or two to healthy lifespans.
All of the solutions look like they have a reasonable chance of being implemented within 20 years. But the probability of all of them working within that time is a good deal lower than the probability of any one solution working, and there's no obvious way to analyze whether we can get significant health benefits without implementing all of the solutions.
The authors seem somewhat overconfident about most aspects of their proposed solutions, but that doesn't affect the substance if their arguments very much. Even a small chance of postponing death and disability is worth a good deal of effort.
The parts of the solutions that appear hardest are the ones that rely on techniques similar to what are already being attempted by mainstream scientists (genetic engineering to add and delete genes from most cells in the body, massive use of stem cells, and moving enzymes across the blood-brain barrier). My impressions about the effort that has been put into these techniques and the results that have been produced so far suggest that at least one of these is likely to take much longer than the book asks us to hope for. The book gives one clear example of important research not living up to the hype surrounding it when it gives arguments that most cancer research is directed toward modestly postponing cancer rather than providing a full solution to cancer. I see no obvious way for a layman to tell whether the authors are relying on similarly overhyped research.
So even though the book gives convincing arguments that the goals of medical research ought to be reframed to focus on aging as the primary threat to be solved, it's far from conclusive about whether that should imply a large change in actual research. It may be that the hardest and most valuable tasks are the ones that are already being worked on. Or it may be that one of the critical tasks is sufficiently hard that the most important need is to invent tools that are substantially more sophisticated than what's used in existing research (i.e. that we most need something more radical that what's proposed in the book, such as nanomedicine).

Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge
Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge
by Cass R. Sunstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.02
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like The Wisdom of Crowds without the hype, July 18, 2008
There's a lot of overlap between James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds and Infotopia, but Infotopia is a good deal more balanced and careful to avoid exaggeration. This makes Infotopia less exciting but more likely to convince a thoughtful reader. It devotes a good deal of attention to conditions which make groups less wise than individuals as well as conditions where groups outperform the best individuals.
Infotopia is directed at people who know little about this subject. I found hardly any new insights in it, and few ideas that I disagreed with. Some of its comments will seem too obvious to be worth mentioning to anyone who uses the web much. It's slightly better than Wisdom of Crowds, but if you've already read Wisdom of Crowds you'll get little out of Infotopia.

Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation (Evolution and Cognition)
Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation (Evolution and Cognition)
by Natalie Henrich
Edition: Paperback
Price: $39.32
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but not surprising, July 10, 2008
This book provides a clear and informative summary of the evolutionary theories that explain why people cooperate (but few novel ideas), and some good but unexciting evidence that provides a bit of support for the theories.
One nice point they make is that unconditional altruism discourages cooperation - it's important to have some sort of reciprocity (possibly indirect) for a society to prevent non-cooperators from outcompeting cooperators.
The one surprising fact uncovered in their field studies is that people are more generous in the Dictator Game than in the Ultimatum Game (games where one player decides how to divide money between himself and another player; in the Ultimatum Game the second player can reject the division, in which case neither gets anything). It appears that the Ultimatum Game encourages people to think in terms of business-like interactions, but in the Dictator Game a noncompetitive mode of thought dominates.

Interesting Times (Discworld): Adapted for the Stage(Modern Plays)
Interesting Times (Discworld): Adapted for the Stage(Modern Plays)
by Terry Pratchett
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.56
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outdoes Monty Python, July 7, 2008
Of the eight Discworld novels I've read so far, this is the best. It reminds me of Monty Python, but produces Pythonesque absurdity while keeping the characters a good deal more realistic than Monty Python.

Reasonable Rx: Solving the Drug Price Crisis
Reasonable Rx: Solving the Drug Price Crisis
by Stan N. Finkelstein
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.65
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mix of good and bad ideas, July 4, 2008
This book provides a mediocre analysis of what is wrong with drug prices, and presents a solution that is probably a nontrivial improvement on the status quo, but isn't the most thoughtful solution I've seen.
The most important complaint of the book boils down to the fact that knowledge about drug safety and effectiveness is a public good, and the current method of rewarding drug companies for producing that knowledge is mediocre (although the book presents it less clearly than that and seems as interested in blaming drug companies' lack of altruism as it is in analyzing the incentives).
For example, it is sometimes possible to identify biomarkers which indicate that a drug will be ineffective in a patient, but that would often reduce sales of the drug.
They complain that the current focus on producing a few very profitable drugs is an obstacle to creating personalized treatments. But they do little more than imply that drug companies are misjudging the available opportunities, without presenting any clear evidence that the authors' have better judgment about what's feasible.
Their proposed changes to the drug industry involve separating drug development and drug marketing/manufacturing into two different sets of companies, and using a combination of subsidies and contractual price controls (negotiated by a government sponsored nonprofit) to lower the prices of drugs.
They didn't convince me that splitting drug companies will produce any significant benefits, although I also don't see it producing harm.
The subsidies and price controls are likely to help mitigate some of the problems created by the patent system. Their attempts to show that this solution is better than Kremer's patent buyout proposal suggest they don't understand how much harm patent monopolies cause. Their subsidy mechanism isn't clearly tied to benefits (unlike proposals for prizes based on Quality Adjusted Life Years). They claim drug prize proposals set arbitrary values for drugs and that their auction system produces a less arbitrary market price, but the subsidy part of their part of their system is at least as arbitrary, and their market based prices reflect the value of an arbitrary patent duration.
Their claim that Medicare savings will pay for their subsidies seems deceptive. When estimating the Medicare savings, they appear to rely on an assumption that prices of existing drugs will drop by a large amount. Yet when estimating the subsidy costs, they appear to count only the costs of subsidizing newly introduced drugs.
They are too quick to complain about drug companies medicalizing conditions that are mere inconveniences. E.g. they say Flomax does nothing more important than reduce sleep disturbances. This ignores the evidence that sleep disturbances cause significant health problems.
The chapter "Are Drug Companies Risky?" is pointless because it only evaluates the most successful companies (i.e. those whose gambles have already paid off).

Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism
Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism
by Ha-Joon Chang
Edition: Hardcover
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11 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A number of good points; much demagoguery, June 13, 2008
This book attacks orthodoxies of the World Bank, IMF, WTO, neo-liberal economists, free-market economists, and pundits such as Thomas Friedman. Chang often implies that they all share a common orthodoxy, but the ideas he attacks are usually questioned by some of those groups.
His criticisms of the World Bank, IMF, and WTO are often correct, but it shouldn't be surprising that they serve goals that don't coincide with needs of developing countries.
His most important argument is a defense of mercantilist protection of infant industries. He shows that the evidence on the effects of tariffs is sufficiently mixed that his selective use of examples can give the impression that he has shown tariffs promote economic growth in developing countries. He makes claims of the form "X would have failed without protection", but doesn't say why his ability to predict failure is more reliable than other alleged experts (e.g. MITI's belief that Honda would fail in the auto business). This provoked me into searching for more complete tests of the effects of tariffs. The evidence I found confirms that his confidence that tariffs work is foolish, but I was surprised to find that the evidence is too unclear to provide a guide to policy decision.
Chang has a good argument that the common orthodoxy about comparative advantage is a less conclusive reason for removing tariffs than it appears. But his attempts to describe a mechanism by which tariffs can be beneficial are naive. He talks about government protecting infant industries the way a parent protects a child, without any analysis of the political forces which cause governments to protect entrenched declining industries at the expense of less politically powerful startups.
He gives only vague hints about how to distinguish the tariffs he thinks are good from bad tariffs. I'll offer a suggestion: any tariff that is designed to meet his notion of a good tariff should be set by statute to decrease to zero over a period of about a decade and never be reinstated for an industry to which they've been applied under this statute.
His complaints about privatizing state-owned enterprises contain some valid points. I wish people didn't assume government and stockholder control are the only available choices. Having governments spin off enterprises as nonprofits would sometimes (often?) be a better option.
His comments about how patents and copyright affect developing countries are mostly correct. But he underestimates our dependence on drug patents when he implies that the 57% of drug research funding that comes from not-for-profit sources means we could get 57% of the results without commercial funding. A drug startup that will go broke if it doesn't produce something valuable does different work than someone whose success comes from publishing papers.
Chang's modest suggestions for patent reform would provide much less improvement than ideas I've found by reading free-market economists (e.g. prizes instead of patents, or Kremer's patent buyout proposal).
His comments about inflation assume that it produces some benefits, but he shows no awareness of the economic literature which disputes that assumption.
He has plausible hypotheses that increasing market forces might cause an increase in corruption in some countries. I see no easy way to estimate the size of these effects.
His arguments that cultures change in response to economic change more than most people realize are strong enough to lower my opinion of Fukuyama's book Trust (Fukuyama seems unaware that the German current high-trust culture is very different from a century ago when they had a reputation for dishonesty). But Chang exaggerates a lot when he says immigrants from poor countries working much harder in rich countries proves that work habits result from economic conditions rather than culture - those immigrants are unlikely to be typical of the culture they came from.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 4, 2011 12:44 AM PDT

Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams
Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams
by Paul Martin
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from $5.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Lots of mostly convincing claims, June 4, 2008
This book makes convincing claims that most people give too little thought to an activity that occupies a large fraction of our life.
It has lots of little pieces of information which can be read as independent essays. Here are some claims I found interesting:
"sleepiness is responsible for far more deaths on the roads than alcohol or drugs".
Tired people rate their abilities higher than people who slept well do.
Poor sleep contributes to poor health a good deal more than medical diagnoses suggest, but hospitals are designed in ways that hinder patients' sleep.
Idle time was apparently a status symbol up to a century ago, now being busy is a status symbol. This should have economic implications that someone ought to explore in depth.
People in a vegetative state have REM sleep. This sounds like cause to re-evaluate the label we apply to that state.

While the book has many references, it doesn't connect specific claims to references, and I'm sometimes left wondering why I should believe a claim. How can boredom be a modern concept? When he says "no person has ever gone completely without sleep for more than a few days", how does he know he can dismiss people who claim to have not slept for years?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 26, 2009 2:37 AM PST

The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (Economics, Cognition, and Society)
The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (Economics, Cognition, and Society)
by Stephen Thomas Ziliak
Edition: Paperback
Price: $25.75
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but could have been better, May 28, 2008
This book provides strong arguments that scientists often use tests of statistical significance as a ritual that substitutes for thought about how hypotheses should be tested.
Some of the practices they criticize are clearly foolish, such as treating data which fall slightly short of providing statistically significant evidence for a hypothesis as reason for concluding the hypothesis is false. But for other practices they attack, it's unclear whether we can expect scientists to be reasonable enough to do better.
Much of the book is a history of how this situation arose. That might be valuable if it provided insights into what rules could have prevented the problems, but it is mainly devoted to identifying heroes and villains. It seems strange that economists would pay so little attention to incentives that might be responsible.
Instead of blaming the problems primarily on one influential man (R.A. Fisher), I'd suggest asking what distinguishes the areas of science where the problems are common from those where it is largely absent. It appears that the problems are worst in areas where acquiring additional data is hard and where powerful interest groups might benefit from false conclusions. Which leads me to wonder whether scientists are reacting to a risk that they'll be perceived as agents of drug companies, political parties, etc.
The book sometimes mentions anti-commercial attitudes among the villains, but fails to ask whether that might be a symptom of a desire for "pure" science that is divorced from real world interests. Such a desire might cause many of the beliefs that the authors are fighting.
The book does not adequately address concerns that if scientists in those fields abandon easily applied rules, scientists are sufficiently vulnerable to corruption that we'd end up with less accurate conclusions.
The authors claim the problems have been getting worse, and show some measures by which that seems true. But I suspect their measures fail to capture some improvement that has been happening as the increasing pressure to follow the ritual has caused papers that would previously have been purely qualitative to use quantitative tests that reject the worst ideas.
The book seems somewhat sloppy in its analysis of specific examples. When interpreting data from a study where scientists decided there was no effect because the evidence fell somewhat short of statistical significance, it claims the data show "St. John's-wort is on average twice as helpful as the placebo". But the data would provide evidence for that only if there were data showing that the remission rate with no treatment was zero. It's likely that some or all of the alleged placebo effect was due to effects that are unrelated to treatment. And their use of the word "show" suggests stronger evidence than is provided by the data.
I'll close with two quotes that I liked from the book:
"The goal of an empirical economist should not be to determine the truthfulness of a model but rather the domain of its usefulness" - Edward E. Leamer
"The probability that an experimental design will be replicated becomes very small once such an experiment appears in print." - Thomas D. Sterling

Predictocracy: Market Mechanisms for Public and Private Decision Making
Predictocracy: Market Mechanisms for Public and Private Decision Making
by Michael Abramowicz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $57.53
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost a great book, April 25, 2008
This had the potential to be an unusually great book, which makes its shortcomings rather frustrating. It is loaded with good ideas, but it's often hard to distinguish the good ideas from the bad ideas, and the arguments for the good ideas aren't as convincing as I hoped.
The book's first paragraph provides a frustratingly half-right model of why markets produce better predictions than alternative institutions, involving a correlation between confidence (or sincerity) and correctness. If trader confidence was the main mechanism by which markets produce accurate predictions, I'd be pretty reluctant to believe the evidence that Abramowicz presents of their success. Sincerity is hard to measure, so I don't know what to think of its effects. A layman reading this book would have trouble figuring out that the main force for accurate predictions is that the incentives alter traders' reasoning so that it becomes more accurate.
The book brings a fresh perspective to an area where there are few enough perspectives that any new perspective is valuable when it's not clearly wrong. He is occasionally clearer than others. For instance, his figure 4.1 enabled me to compare three scoring rules in a few seconds (I'd previously been unwilling to do the equivalent by reading equations).
He advocates some very fine-grained uses of prediction markets (PMs), which is a sharp contrast to my expectation that they are mainly valuable for important issues. Abramowicz has a very different intuition than I do about how much it costs to run a prediction market for an issue that people normally don't find interesting. For instance, he wants to partly replace small claims court cases with prediction markets for individual cases. I'm fairly sure that obvious ways to do that would require market subsidies much larger than current court costs. The only way I can imagine PMs becoming an affordable substitute for small claims courts would be if most of the decisions involved were done by software. Even then it's not obvious why one or more PM per court case would be better than a few more careful evaluations of whether to turn those decisions over to software.
He convinced me that Predictocracy will solve a larger fraction of democracy's problems than I initially expected, but I see little reason to believe that it will work as well as Futarchy will. I see important classes of systematic biases (e.g. the desire of politicians and bureaucrats to acquire more power than the rest of us should want) that Futarchy would reduce but which Predictocracy doesn't appear to alter.
His description of why short-term PMs may be more resistant to bubbles than stock markets was discredited just as it was being printed. His example of deluded Green Party voters pushing their candidate's price too high is a near-perfect match for what happened with Ron Paul contracts on Intrade. What Abramowicz missed is that traders betting against Paul needed to tie up a lot more money than traders betting for Paul. High volume futures markets have sophisticated margin rules which mostly eliminate this problem. I expect that low-volume PMs can do the same, but it isn't easy and companies such as Intrade have only weak motivation to do this.

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