Books

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with him, June 15, late afternoon, Washington D.C., location to be announced.

So what should I ask?  I already know which is his favorite novel…and plan to ask about that…and of course we will cover his new forthcoming book The World According to Star Wars.

The history of GPS

by on May 1, 2016 at 12:33 am in Books, History, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

The United States Air Force never really wanted GPS.  The 621B program, the precursor to GPS, was underfunded.  After it evolved into the GPS program in the early 1970s, the Air Force largely neglected it, to the point of disowning it and defunding it.  A few times, it tried to kill its own creation, and GPS was kept alive by the Pentagon’s largesse…

One reason the Air Force was slow to embrace GPS is the space-based projects were never seen as a priority.  “The Air Force is not a big user of space,” says Scott Page..”The Air Force gets to build for space, but the Marine Corps, Army, and Navy are much more reliant on actual space services than the  Air Force itself is.  The budget for space is in the Air Force, but in terms of the number of customers and users, they’re all in the other services.

Another source said “…the Air Force is pilots who fly planes.”

That is from Greg Milner’s new and interesting book Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds.

Milner also relates how the park rangers in Death Valley National Park have the term “death by GPS.”  It refers to park users who follow their GPS and then die:

It describes what happens when GPS fails you, not by being wrong, exactly, but often by being too right.  It does such a good job of computing the most direct route from Point A to Point B that it takes you down roads which barely exist, or were used at one time and abandoned, or are not suitable for your car, or which require all kinds of local knowledge that would make you aware that making that turn is bad news.

Recommended.

I very much like this book, it is one of my favorites of the year so far.  It resists being excerpted, as it is an old-style think piece in the style of Montaigne, or for that matter Robert Burton.  Every page is idea-rich and should be read carefully and slowly, and that is rare these days.  Here is just one bit:

Melancholics are prominent…precisely because they are too full of life; because of them, existence overflows itself.  This explains their unappeasable sense of absence: since they have left the world of moderation, overflowing is inconceivable without being emptied.  The universe is damaged in their person; hence, melancholics’ sense of being among the elect, but also their self-hatred to the point of self-annihilation.  That makes them strong and outstanding, but also exceedingly frail.  Their strength is infinite, because they have gained knowledge of the end, but they are unhappy, since having experienced the ephemeral nature of humans, they have lost their trust in existence.  Their strength and frailty, their unhappiness and their heroism, cannot be detached from each other.  This leads us back once again to the starting point of our argument, to the Aristotelian question “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?”

Definitely recommended.

Arrived in my pile

by on April 29, 2016 at 2:36 pm in Books | Permalink

The female coyote nurses the pups after they are born, yet they are hard to feed and the mother is not in ideal condition for hunting.  She therefore regurgitates her food regularly for the pups, and furthermore the biological father brings food too.  And yet:

Dogs have evolved a different parental strategy.  Human waste tends to show up at the same place daily and so the dogs, as we have noted, have very low transportation and acquisition costs.

The pregnant female village dog can stay by her food source all through pregnancy and lactation.  She can locate her den in the middle of the food source.  frequently, she goes to some quiet place outside the village (but not too far outside).  There are many quiet places in the Mexico City dump.  All over the dump are fat nursing pups.

Regurgitation is occasional rather than regular, and the father is absent altogether.  In evolutionary terms, it seems that is the result of cooperation with humans.

That is all from the new and excellent book What is a Dog?, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.  The best parts of this book draw inferences from what is observed in Mexican town dumps.

Balázs Bodó has a 2015 paper, “Libraries in the post-scarcity era,” here is the abstract:

In the digital era where, thanks to the ubiquity of electronic copies, the book is no longer a scarce resource, libraries find themselves in an extremely competitive environment. Several different actors are now in a position to provide low cost access to knowledge. One of these competitors are shadow libraries – piratical text collections which have now amassed electronic copies of millions of copyrighted works and provide access to them usually free of charge to anyone around the globe. While such shadow libraries are far from being universal, they are able to offer certain services better, to more people and under more favorable terms than most public or research libraries. This contribution offers insights into the development and the inner workings of one of the biggest scientific shadow libraries on the internet in order to understand what kind of library people create for themselves if they have the means and if they don’t have to abide by the legal, bureaucratic and economic constraints that libraries usually face. I argue that one of the many possible futures of the library is hidden in the shadows, and those who think of the future of libraries can learn a lot from book pirates of the 21st century about how users and readers expect texts in electronic form to be stored, organized and circulated.

Much of the paper focuses on what we learn from the competitive, digital, “guerrilla” libraries of Russia — most of all Aleph — with respect to what users really want; this is a striking and original piece.

For the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

That will be the new Fuchsia Dunlop book, due out in October, July in the UK, self-recommending.  Her work is far more than recipes, but rather an extended meditation on food, history, culture and many other things.  She is one of my favorite authors on any subject.  Here is previous MR coverage of Fuchsia Dunlop.

What I’ve been reading

by on April 20, 2016 at 12:19 am in Books | Permalink

1. Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History.  Belknap Press, a carefully researched take on the political history of a poorly understood era.  A bit dry, but very well done and full of information.

2. Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.  A good introduction to where the Cuban economy is at right now, from Brookings, coming out in June.  Here is my earlier post on why I am skeptical about the country’s prospects.

3. Maya Lin, Topologies.  What has she done since the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial? Lots, though much of it is scattered widely and hard to see.  Pictured below is her Bell Tower at Shantou University. Here is the Box House in Telluride, and the Children’s Defense Fund in Tennessee.

Overall picture books are underrated.

Mayalin

4. Duncan Clark, Alibaba: The House that Jack Built.  Books on China, tech companies, and corporate leaders are all usually bad, but this one is pretty good.  Most of all a window into how Chinese entrepreneurs built up the country’s major tech companies.

5. Myra Strober, Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught me About Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others).  The memoir of a female economists who started her career teaching at Berkeley in the 1970s.  There should be many more books like this.  It is a micro-history of discrimination, and how it changed, in addition to looking at the profession through the lens of a “normal” economist rather than one of the super-famous.  Bravo.

Ruchir Sharma on Brazil

by on April 19, 2016 at 2:25 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Today the average Brazilian income is about 16% of the U.S. average, with basically no gain for 100 years.

Even more striking, since the mid-1980s Brazil has seen its GDP growth rate track commodity prices more closely than any other nation in the world. Brazil’s fortunes are so closely tied to the global commodity cycle in part because so little works inside the country. The private economy does produce some internationally competitive companies in auto parts, aerospace and other industries, but they thrive by dodging a growing bureaucracy that smothers the rest.

Spending by local, regional and national governments amounts to 41% of Brazil’s GDP, the largest for any country in its middle-income class, and a scale close to those of much richer European welfare states such as Germany and Norway. Brazilians face the heaviest tax burden of any emerging country, with collections amounting to 35% of GDP. The widespread sense that they get a lousy return in public services is another reason for mass protests against Ms. Rousseff.

Here is the WSJ piece.  Ruchir has a new book coming out on emerging economies, The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World.  I have not yet read it, but it is surely of interest.

That is the new book by John S. Strong, which I recommend highly.  It won’t charm you or interest you in the subject if you don’t already care, but the already-motivated can learn a great deal from it.

I find most books on Buddhism frustrating.  One you know the basics, they just feed you the same blah blah blah, running your mind in empty circles.  But perhaps Buddhism is like macroeconomics — you can’t understand it until you know what people argue about, and that is what John S. Strong clues us in on.  Here is one typical summary passage:

We have, in this chapter, sought to explore various iterations of the Middle Way, a notion which the Buddha sets forth at the start of his First Sermon.  In order to unravel the many implications of this principle and its applicability to other Buddhist doctrines (something the Buddha did not do in his sermon), I have presented several of its expressions and sought to set them within the context of various philosophical and religious movements that may have been around at the time of the Buddha.  Thus, early Buddhists can be seen as finding their way between karma-deniers and karmic absolutists; and as combining views of saṃsāra both as a real material trap and as an illusory trap; and as shying away from the extremes of affirmation of an Absolute Self and denial of personal continuity.  The Middle Way, however, is not the only thing set forth in the First Sermon as we have it, a text which is mostly devoted to the doctrine of the Four Truths, to which we shall now turn.

Another good way to read about Buddhism is to look at up through p.59 in Nicholas Ostler’s Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Re-Invented World Religions.  It covers the differential historical spread of Buddhism through the languages of Pali, Gandhari, Sanskrit, and Chinese.  Ostler himself claims to have a working knowledge of eighteen different languages.

Here is a Berkeley class on Buddhist economics.

The Economist’s new 1843 periodical asked me to write a short theme on that question, here is the result:

Work? What is work anyway? I’m a writer on economics and thus also a reader.  I don’t find writing to be so hard, but I need something to write about and that means reading. For me, working more means reading more. And you know what? Working less also means reading more. It does however mean reading different things.

If I worked less, I would read more fiction and less non-fiction. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps the fiction enriches me more as a human being, but I enjoy reading the non-fiction (including The Economist) just as much, sometimes more.

Plus I get paid, usually indirectly, for absorbing non-fiction material, playing with the ideas, and converting them into content for others. I enjoy earning that money, and spending it.

Also, most fiction isn’t that good. In fact, it isn’t even true. Or if it is true, it is true by coincidence or accident. That’s not a complaint, but I don’t see why I should give up cash income for the privilege of giving up reality. Can it be such a winning bargain to give up cash and reality at the same time? It’s not, and I won’t. Unless it’s Star Wars or Elena Ferrante.

Otherwise, see you at work.

Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

Here is the whole symposium, which includes Diane Coyle and Daniel Hamermesh.  This was all inspired by Ryan Avent’s excellent recent essay on work-life balance.

His new book is titled Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772.  From Harvard University Press, here is one summary bit:

The central argument of my thesis is thus that the salient financial crisis of the Scottish free banking period, the obtrusive exception to the hypothesis of greater financial stability under free banking in Scotland,was, pace Adam Smith, made more rather than less likely by precisely those regulated or “unfree” elements of Scottish banking which the author of The Wealth of Nations promoted.  Further, I argue that this conclusion should hardly be cause for surprise once we realize that it was none other than the oldest, largest, and most established banks in Scotland that had lobbied for Smith’s legal restrictions on banking; regulations that had the effects of raising barriers to entry, lowering competition in the provision of short-term credit, increasing the efficient scale of banking, and therefore, ultimately, amplifying the level of systematic risk in Scottish credit markets.

Finally, in support of Selgin and White, among others, I find that the relative competitiveness of the Scottish financial system — certainly in contrast to the highly bifurcated English banking sector of the time — along with the unlimited legal liability of shareholders in Scottish private banks, were sources of considerable financial stability, both in 1772 and previously.

Here is the book’s home page.

It is set for 3:30 EST, the Live Stream will be here.

Update: The full event video, transcript, and audio edition will be released Monday, April 25. Check back here on MR or at mercatus.org/conversations.

That was the question I had reading Joel Kotkin’s new and interesting The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.  Kotkin doesn’t himself come out and say that, but it is hard to avoid seeing how his arguments point in that direction.  He has two powerful arrows in his bow:

1. Birth rates in cities are too low, so highly urbanized countries such as Singapore and South Korea will have difficulty sustaining themselves.  Making cities nice, while it brings human benefits, does not solve this problem and in some ways makes it worse.

2. Lots of high-density, vertical building doesn’t really make cities cheaper.  In fact it sucks more talent in, and more business activity, and in the longer run makes cities more expensive.  Just look at Seoul and Singapore, which have built plenty but are nonetheless considered some of the most expensive cities to live in.  After all, isn’t that the increasing returns to scale story?

If I read Kotkin correctly (and this post is my interpretation of him, not a summary), he is not criticizing the policy choices of Seoul and Singapore, which have elevated those countries, or in nerdier terms you could say they have brought significant infra-marginal benefits.  He is simply pointing out that liberal building does not solve the problems it is supposed to solve, most of all the margins looking forward.

Perhaps to address those problems we need to look outside the realm of the city.  America, by the way, is uniquely well-positioned to do this.  Singapore, short of cutting a deal with southern Malaysia, has nowhere to go, so to speak.

Here is an excellent essay by Kotkin on Singapore.

I say Singapore should inspire more social science.  Pararg Khanna, who lives in Singapore, also has a new book out on cities and the value of interconnectivity: Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civiliation.  I haven’t read it yet but here is his TED talk on the same.

That is the new book by M.A. Orthofer, out soon this April.  If you measure book quality by the actual marginal product of the text, this is one of the best books written, ever.  Reading the manuscript in draft form induced me to a) write an enthusiastic blurb, and b) order about forty items through Amazon, mostly used of course.  The book is basically a comprehensive guide to what is valuable and interesting in recently translated world literature, a meta-book so to speak, with extensive coverage of most of the countries you might want.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is a superb New Yorker profile of Orthofer, who writes the blog Literary Saloon.  Highly recommended to avid readers of fiction.