Books

What I’ve been reading

by on December 20, 2014 at 12:15 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.  How quantum effects can matter for biological phenomena.  No, it doesn’t mean Roger Penrose was right (and this book usefully tells you why not), but still this is a stimulating book for tying together two apparently disparate areas of inquiry and two apparently disparate areas for popular science books.

2. Michael Oakeshott, Notebooks, 1922-86.  Lots about Aristotle, lots about love, good for browsing.  He wrote “‘The cowboy costume remains mysteriously sexy’.  Yes, but how much better it was when it was felt but not recognized to be so.”  That was from 1964.

3. James Hamilton, A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain.  Another era — this time Turner and his contemporaries — falls under the commerce and culture treatment.  A nice background to the forthcoming Mike Leigh biopic of Turner.  This book made a number of best of the year lists in the UK, it comes out in the U.S. in 2015.

4. James Booth, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.  A very good multi-dimensional biography for people already interested in Larkin and knowledgeable about his life, not necessarily a great introduction.

5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.  A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century.  This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.

Arrived in my pile are:

6. Alex Nowrasteh and Mark Krikorian, Open Immigration Yea, and Nay.  This book is structured as a debate with two separate parts.

7.  Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe, and Ronnie Schöb, Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, from MIT Press.

8. F. Bailey Norwood, et.al., Agricultural & Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know.

9. Andrew Zimbalist, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.

Modern Principles, 3rd ed!

by on December 16, 2014 at 7:31 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

Modern Principles 3rd
The third edition of the best written, most interesting principles of economics textbook, Modern Principles (economics, microeconomics and macroeconomics), hits the shelves any day now. The 3rd edition features a brand new chapter on asymmetric information, more material on economic growth including geography and growth, a new section on nominal GDP targeting and updated data and graphs throughout. Plus we have a very exciting and brand new feature used throughout the book…but I am going to hold off discussing that for a few more weeks. More to come soon!

*Se acabó la clase media* is now out

by on December 16, 2014 at 12:41 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

seacabo

Now out in Spanish.

How collecting takes on its own life

by on December 12, 2014 at 3:04 am in Books, History, The Arts | Permalink

Collecting, [Howard] Hodgkin insists, is a form of shopping.  But it also takes on its own life.  Once the ‘design’ of the collection has formed in the collector’s mind, according to Hodgkin, then things have to be bought out of ‘necessity as well as passion.’  That, he believes, is the most dangerous, but also the most creative, phase of collecting, involving the head as well as the heart and other ‘lower organs.”

That is from the new and notable Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford.  The book is an ongoing dialogue between the two men about classical, Renaissance, and 17th century art, centered around specific pictures they are viewing together, recommended, in this genre it is difficult to execute such a book well but they pull it off.

*Do No Harm*

by on December 12, 2014 at 1:35 am in Books, Medicine, Science | Permalink

I loved this book, which is written by a neurosurgeon with a knowledge of behavioral economics (he even has designed a talk  “All My Worst Mistakes,” based on Daniel Kahneman’s work).  The subtitle is Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery and the author is Henry Marsh.  Here is one bit:

…as the brain has the consistency of jelly a sucker is the brain surgeon’s principal tool.

Here is another:

All that really matters is that I am as sure as I can be that the decision to operate is correct and that no other surgeon can do the operation any better than I can.  This is not as much of a problem for me now that I have been operating on brain tumours for many years, but it can be a moral dilemma for a younger surgeon.  If they do not take on difficult cases, how will they ever get any better?  But what if they have a colleague who is more experienced?

And another:

Few anaesthetists believe what surgeons tell them.

How about this one?:

‘There are operations where one really doesn’t know what’s going to happen,’ I muttered to Mike.

Highly recommended, it is already out in the UK, in the U.S. coming out in May 2015.  It has made many best of the year lists in the UK.  Here are some related videos.

I reviewed this very good and very useful book by Eric and Joel Best in the 28 November issue of the Times Literary Supplement, not on-line.  Here is one excerpt from my review:

The second problem is that American higher education is much more indebted than it appears at first glance.  Most non-profit colleges and universities have only small amounts of explicit debt on their books, but there are many forms of implicit debt.  Many of those institutions made salary commitments to tenured faculty members, or promised donors they would continue various programmes, or they initiated or expanded sports teams and facilities, hoping to fund those plans with future tuition increases.  A slow economic recovery, sluggish entry-level wages in labour markets, recalcitrant state legislatures, and, yes, the student debt crisis will make those tuition increases very difficult to pull off.  This liquidity crunch is already under way and it has come first to the profit-making institutions and to stand-alone business and law schools, which will be closing and consolidating in great numbers.

I call it “probably the best and clearest book on the United States’ complex student debt problem.”  You can buy the book here.  Also buy the TLS issue, it is their best of the year, as it contains an especially fine “Best Books of the Year” list, you can stop worrying about TNR now.

For years, Amazon naysayers have warned that the e-commerce giant’s ambition would drive it to compete ever more directly with the merchants who sell goods on Amazon’s popular online marketplace. On Wednesday, the company is introducing its own line of diapers and baby wipes, which will only raise these fears.

Called Amazon Elements, the line of diapers and baby wipes will only be available to customers who belong to the Amazon Prime membership program, adding another item to the growing list of membership perks. By working directly with a manufacturer, Amazon will be able to price the brand aggressively, with a 40-count package of diapers starting at $7.99. That works out to about 19 cents a diaper, compared to competitor prices that mostly range from 24 cents to 34 cents.

I would think Amazon is an especially likely competitor in areas where brute force goes a long way, it is economies of scale rather than expertise which lower costs, and a direct marketing pipeline to the buyer is important.  Oddly — or perhaps not — books do not seem to fit those characteristics.  But do diapers?

There is more here, via Samir Varma.

What I’ve been reading

by on December 4, 2014 at 2:33 am in Books | Permalink

1. Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq.  Short stories about the conflict in Iraq, by an Iraqi.  I expected to find these widely heralded stories to be disappointing, as the premise is a little too easy for the Western critic to embrace.  But they are excellent and this book is one of the year’s best fiction releases.

2. Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Excellent and informationally dense literary essays, I especially like the ones on the German-language poets and writers, such as Benn and Walser and Bernhard and Grass.

3. Andy Weir, The Martian.  Ostensibly science fiction, but more a 21st century Robinson Crusoe story — set on Mars of course — with huge amounts of (ingenious) engineering driving the story.  Lots of fun, many other people have liked it too.

4. Andrew MacGregor Marshall, Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the 21st Century.  It is hard for me to judge the specifics of the argument, still this is a readable and conceptual account of the mess that is Thai politics, namely that much of it is about royal succession.  If true, this is a very good book.

Arrived in my pile is Amy Finkelstein, Moral Hazard in Health Insurance, with Gruber, Arrow, and Stiglitz as commentators.

Our Guild-Ridden Labor Market

by on December 2, 2014 at 7:24 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Could right and left unite in opposing occupational licensing? In an excellent primer Morris Kleiner makes the argument:

One unifying theme about the growth of occupational regulation has been the opposition from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Many on the left are concerned about the reduction in job opportunities, the increase in prices, and the diminished availability of services for those in or near poverty. On the right there is concern for economic liberty and access to the labor market and jobs. Many licensed professions are relatively low-skilled jobs, such as barbers, manicurists, nurse’s aides, and cosmetologists. The social costs of a bad haircut may be negligible, but the social costs of creating additional employment barriers for disadvantaged populations are not. Licensure laws often exclude ex-felons—defensible in many professions, but not in all, and such prohibitions make it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to find post-prison employment, thereby contributing to America’s high recidivism rate.

…If both the left and right oppose more occupational regulation, why is it growing? From the time of medieval guilds, service providers have had strong incentives to create barriers to entry for their professions in order to raise wages. In contrast, consumers who will be affected by the higher costs due to licensure are unorganized and arguably underrepresented in the political process.

Read the full post and Kleiner’s excellent book for many useful references. Here are previous MR posts on occupational licensing.

Arrived in my pile

by on November 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm in Books | Permalink

1. John A. Allison, The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure.

2. Peter J. Wallison, Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again.

3. Ted Gioia, Love Songs: The Hidden History.

4.Andrew Palmer, Smart Money: How High-Stakes Financial Innovation is Reshaping Our World for the Better.

Best non-fiction books of 2014

by on November 24, 2014 at 1:34 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

First there are the economics books, including books by people I know, including Piketty, The Second Machine Age, Tim Harford’s wonderful macro explainer, Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down, Lane Kenworthy on social democracy, The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, Daniel Drezner The System Worked, and Frank Buckley on why the Canadian system of government is better.  And Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.  We’ve already talked, written, and thought about those plenty, and they are not what this list is about, so I will set them aside.  Most of you are looking for excellent new books in addition to these, books you might not have heard about.

Here are the other non-fiction books of the year which took my fancy, mostly in the order I read them, noting that the link usually leads you to my previous review or comments:

Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.  Long, exhausting, and wonderful.

Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya, a broader history than it at first sounds, fascinating from beginning to end.

Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert.

John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition.  An excellent treatment of how much work remains to be done in the “nation building” enterprise in South Asia.

Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City.  A sociology graduate student hangs out with lawbreakers and learns about police oppression, an excellent micro-study.  My column on her book is here.

Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, Tibetan scholar goes to India and records his impressions, unusual.

George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of His World.  I loved this one.

I’ve only read the first half of the new Tom Holland translation of Herdotus’s Histories (I will get to the rest), but surely it deserves note.

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  This book won the National Book Award for non-fiction.

David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.  A look at China’s outermost regions and their ethnic minorities.  Just imagine that, we had two excellent popular China books in the same year.

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa.  Repetitious in parts, sometimes incoherent too, but it offers a smart and unique perspective you won’t get from any of the other books on this list or any other.

Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.  This treatment stresses the (partial) cognitive advantages of having a tendency toward depression.

Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, assorted facts and insights about the English language, you don’t have to feel like reading a book about poetry to find this worthwhile.

David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, huge, expensive, wonderful, more than just a cookbook though it is that too.  I’ve spent some of the last few weeks learning these recipes and what makes them tick.

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  A good overview of how some of the main pieces of today’s information technology world fell into place, starting with the invention of the computer and running up through the end of the 1990s.

Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.

Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.  As good or better than the classic biographies of the composer.

Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, vol. 1.  This one I have only read a part of (maybe 150 pp.?), it is very long and does not fit my current reading interests, but it seems very good and impressive and also has received strong reviews.  So I feel I should include it.

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.

So who wins?  If I had to pick a #1, it would be The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, not the kind of book I would be expecting to coronate, which is a testament to the magnetic force it has exercised over my imagination.

Then I would pick Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City and David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition as the runners-up.

My fiction picks were here.  There are still some wonderful books to come out this year, and already-published books I will still read, especially after mining other “best of” lists, so around Dec.31 or so I’ll post an updated account of what I would add to this list.

…cetacean brain size, relative to body size, increased substantially about thirty-eight mill years ago when the odontocetes evolved from the ancient archaeocetes…

What drove these changes? It does not seem to have been the transition to an aquatic existence itself as that occurred about fifty-five million years ago and brains stayed at roughly the same relatively small size relative to body weigt as the archaeocetes made their gradual entry into the ocean.  A better hypothesis is that the increased brain size of the odontocetes thirty-eight million years ago was driven by the evolution of echolocation.  The early odontocetes had inner ear bones that were good at picking up high frequency sound, which suggests that they had developed a form of sonar.  Lori Marino thinks “that echolocation came on line and then got co-opted for social communicative purposes.”  In this scenario, the odontocete brains increased in relative size to deal with the acoustic information itself, as well as, perhaps, a new perceptual system based on the data from the returning echoes.  But…the change may have been even more profound: “This may indicate that the large brains of early odontocetes were used, at least partly, for processing this entirely new sensory mode [echolocation] that evolved at the same time as these anatomical changes and perhaps for integrating this new mode into an increasingly complex behavioral ecological system.”

That is from the new and notable The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, previously covered on MR here.  And here is my earlier post on the economics of dolphins.

You will find it here (pdf), forthcoming in the Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez, who in turn drew upon Patrick R. Sullivan, a commentator at The Money Illusion.

Human-dolphin fishing cooperatives

by on November 21, 2014 at 2:37 am in Books, Education, Science | Permalink

1. They have been reported to exist in Australia, India, Mauritania, Burma, and the Mediterranean, but the best known are in Brazil.

2. In parts of southern Brazil, human fisherman have been cooperating with dolphins for many generations (of each species).

3. If fishermen clap just the right way, dolphins will herd fish into the desired areas of fishermen, in muddy lagoon areas.

4. The dolphins perform a distinctive kind of dive to signal to the humans it is time to cast the net for the fish.

5. Only some individual dolphins are able (willing?) to do this well, perhaps the others belong to the forty-seven percent.

5b. The dolphins which cooperate with the fisherman are also more social, more socially connected, and more cooperative with other dolphins.

6. The Brazilian fishermen name the star cooperating dolphins after ex-presidents, soccer players, and Hollywood stars.

7. The names aside, it is not clear whether dolphins benefit from offering this assistance; some commentators suggest the dolphins end up with isolated or injured fish from these exercises.

Here is one blog post report on these practices.  Here is one piece of the original research.  I stumbled upon this while reading the new and excellent Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, a new book from University of Chicago Press.

What I’ve been reading

by on November 21, 2014 at 1:55 am in Books | Permalink

1. Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag: A Biography.  I never tire reading about her, or reading her, for that matter.

2. Richard Bernstein, China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice.  A very good book on how the Americans had a decent relationship with the Chinese Communists in 1945 and how rapidly that fell apart and why.

3. Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order.  A good and useful introduction to the beliefs of those who believe in the subtitle being true.

4. Michael Pye, The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are.  The topic is so intriguing to me that I’m going to start this book over again fresh.  My first crack at it yielded no success, as I felt it was too much about Bede and Frisia and didn’t tie together a larger picture.  But I paid extra shipping charges to get it early from the UK (it’s not yet out in America), so perhaps I am not treating sunk costs as sunk…

5. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, This Earth of Mankind, volume one of the Buru Quartet.  These are the greatest books which most educated people never read, and I am giving them a reread.  So far volume one is as good as I remember it, maybe better.  I think of the set as an extended, four-volume meditation, by an Indonesian political prisoner, on what a life really consists of.  Here is a short essay on the quartet.