Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Books I've Read This Week, with thoughts:

"The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki. The author argues that having decisions made by groups is better than having decisions made by individuals, even smart individuals, as long as the groups are sufficiently diverse. He says groups are even better when they have some smart people and some less-smart people than when they have all smart people. The interesting data point is that when groups of people have to, say, guess how many jelly beans are in a jar, the average of all of the guesses is usually pretty close, even if none of the individual guesses are particularly close. So this proves groups are smarter collectively than the individuals that make them up.

Surowiecki writes really well. And -- and this is an odd, odd thing to say -- he has the most humble acknowledgements section I've ever read. Just from reading the acknowledgements, I get the sense that James Surowiecki is a really nice and humble and smart and genuine human being. I have never had any sort of reaction to anyone's acknowledgements before, and maybe he's just really good at writing acknowledgements and not actually a nice person. But, anyway, the book is well-written and a good read. But it didn't convince me he's right. I mean, I believe he's telling the truth -- but he didn't change my intuition that if I have a problem, I'd rather get advice from a couple of smart people than from a whole big group of people, some smart and some dumb. Wait. I'm figuring out my problem as I write this. There's a difference between "advice" and "information." Well, maybe. I'm more willing to accept what he's saying as far as trivia goes, or even more-than-trivia, like who's going to win the election. I just have trouble taking it as far as he wants to. But it's a good book.

"A Year With The Producers," by Jeffry Denman. Denman is an actor in "The Producers" on Broadway. The book is his diary of the time from his audition to a year later when, as Matthew Broderick's understudy, he got to go on stage. It's basically a weblog in print, only he didn't have a weblog. If you've done any theater or are interested in theater, it's a terrific read. If you haven't and you're not, you'll be bored and won't care. I really enjoyed it, although I could have handled more detail and more pages. It touched on a lot of things but didn't get particularly deep. But it's interesting. Worth reading, for sure.

"Priceless," by Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling. Lisa Heinzerling is a law professor at Georgetown. I saw her speak in an environmental law debate in the spring (she was on the side of the environment). She was energetic and articulate. So I checked out the book from the library when I saw it, because I recognized her name. It's about how it's a mistake to use economic analysis to put a price on human life and nature and endangered species in order to evaluate government regulation. It's very compelling, and very well-articulated. It has a viewpoint, it argues its viewpoint, and I think I agree.

For a book by a law professor, or at least partly by a law professor, it's very readable but also doesn't come off as too simplistic and dumbed-down. It spends a lot of time criticizing the work of a professor whose class I have in the fall. I feel like I will have a semester of rebuttal to take in and sort out in my mind as far as which side I think makes more sense. Is life worth $6.1 million, or is life priceless? That's a loaded question. Sorry. Makes me look forward to the class, although also makes me guess I'll disagree with the professor. But it's a good book. No matter whether you think pricing this stuff for the purposes of making public policy is a good idea or a bad idea.