Books

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

…if a speaker marks a delay with “um,” that delay will be longer than if it had been marked by “uh.”  If “uh” is used, the delay that follows before resumption of fluent speech is roughly a quarter of a second; if “um” is used, the anticipated delay approaches three-quarters of a second.

In one case (um) the delay is inserted as “a deliberate signal”, in the other (uh) it is “an unavoidable effect of having processing problems.”

In male speech, either um or uh accounts for about one out of fifty words; for female speech it is only one out of seventy words.

One study found that over 40 percent of transitions — the switch in who is talking — have gaps of within a quarter-second of zero.  In another similar study, the two parties are talking at the same time only 3.8 percent of the time, and then usually not for very long.

So says N.J. Enfield, in his new book How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation.

Where?, I hear you asking.  No, that is the title of a new book by Karl Sigmund and the subtitle is The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science.  I enjoyed this book very much, though I don’t recommend it as a balanced introduction to its chosen topic.  I liked it best for its whims and interstices:

1. The mathematician Richard von Mises (brother of economist Ludwig) was a patron of Rilke, and he established a foundation for the sole purpose of supporting Robert Musil.

2. Carl Menger was planning on writing a philosophical treatise, and one which would have had a “Vienna Circle” anti-metaphysical slant.

3. Arguably Karl Popper learned the most from a polymathic cabinetmaker he was apprenticed to in his youth.

4. Friedrich Wieser had supported Mussolini, but a young Oskar Morgenstern, in his diary, complained that Wieser was too liberal.

5. Morgenstern later became a confirmed liberal, and he also remarked a few times that game theory was for the social sciences completing the research program of Kurt Gödel.

6. Karl Popper complained that Wittgenstein threatened him, in a lecture, with a poker.  It is not obvious this was the case.

7. I came away from my read wanting to sample more Ernst Mach, more Moritz Schlick, and thinking Otto Neurath was perhaps badly underrated.

Note that most of the book is more serious than this, and less concerned with economists, much more with math and science and some psychoanalysis and positivism too.

There was the ever-present worry that aircraft would make war even more horrific.  Some called for the international control of aviation to prevent its misuse.  A few even advocated the complete destruction of all aircraft on the grounds that even civilian machines could be adapted for war.

…At the opposite end of the spectrum were the enthusiasts who expected that soon everyone would be able to fly their own personal aircraft…As early as 1928, Popular Mechanics predicted a car that could be turned into a helicopter, but most commentators thought the autogyro was a better bet — although it did need a short horizontal run before take-off…As late as 1971, Isaac Asimov was still expecting that VTOL [vertical take-off and landing system] machines would eventually take the place of automobiles.

That is from Peter J. Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G.Wells to Isaac Asimov.

One thing I learned from this book is that “money crank” Frederick Soddy was an early prophet of nuclear power, before many others understood the potential.  I am reminded of how “socialist crank” [oceans of lemonade with ships pulled by dolphins] Charles Fourier once prophesied that all of Europe would be tied together by railways.

This new memoir is one of my very favorite books of the year, and perhaps you recall Tomalin’s famous biographies of Hardy, Pepys, Dickens, Nelly Ternan, and Jane Austen.  This time it is her life.  The story is hard to excerpt, but here is one bit:

The day [for our lunch] came, and I realized I was feeling wobbly.  I resolved to take no notice and things started well.  We chatted and surveyed our menus.  I chose fish, and even as I ordered it I knew it was a mistake.  We talked on; I felt my stomach heave.  I knew Vidia [Naipaul] to be the most fastidious of men.  What should I do?  I rose carefully to my feet, excused myself in a calm voice and said I would be back in a moment.  I managed to make my way through it I ran as fast as my feet would carry me along the corridor to the Ladies, where I threw up with great violence.  I washed my face in cold water, combed my hair, powdered my nose, gave myself a shake and returned.

Vidia looked at me and said, “You did that very well.”

Strongly recommended.

Imagine a German-born, ethnically Iranian (Sunni?) Muslim — Navid Kermani — wandering around the religious art of Western Europe and telling you what he really thinks, in fairly analytical terms.  I am very much enjoying this book, here is one excerpt:

One reason why the zest that Catholic art has for Jesus’s suffering leaves such a bad taste in my mouth is no doubt because I am familiar wit it, and unfamiliar with it, from Shia.  I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition, a dissuasion from making the world a better place instead of just lamenting its condition.  [Guido] Reni does not glorify pain; he doesn’t show it at all.  He accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.

And this:

If the Greatest Master of Sufism claims that the contemplation of God is most perfect in women, the Christians’ images confirm it.

Definitely recommended (for some of you), and I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.

*The Dead March*

by on December 2, 2017 at 2:46 pm in Books | Permalink

The author is Peter Guardino and the subtitle is A History of the Mexican-American War.  This book brought the War to life for me as no other book has, most of all by considering issues of morale, organization, and how hard did the Mexicans really fight back (more than many sources claim).  Here is one good “fact of the day”:

Between 1829 and 1860 around 14 percent of regular army soldiers deserted every year.

That’s for the American army, not the Mexicans.  This one is good enough to make my best of the year list, so it will be on the addended version.

Best non-fiction books of 2017

by on December 2, 2017 at 1:02 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is my list, more or less in the order I read them, and the links typically bring you to my lengthier comments:

Neil M. Maher, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius.

Daniel W. Drezner, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.

Mary Gaitskill, Somebody with a Little Hammer, Essays.

Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.

David Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.

James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

David Der-Wei Wang, editor. A New Literary History of Modern China.

Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — And Us.

David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.

Ken Gormley, editor,  The Presidents and the Constitution.

Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.

Brian Merchant, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.

Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia.  Technically this doesn’t come out until January, but I read it smack in the middle of 2017 to blurb it.  It is my pick for “best of the year,” if I am allowed to count it.  It is one book that has changed how I frame 2017 and beyond.

Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy.

Tim Harford, Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy.

Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought.

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.

William Taubmann, Gorbachev: His Life and Times.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste.

Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won.

Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.

Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

Douglas Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.

Here is my shortened list for Bloomberg.  Here is my fiction list.

Doug’s new book Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy is the greatest book on trade policy ever written, bar none. and also a splendid work of American history more generally.  So I thought he and I should sit down to chat, now I have both the transcript and audio.

We covered how much of 19th century American growth was due to tariffs, trade policy toward China, the cultural argument against free trade, whether there is a national security argument for agricultural protectionism, TPP, how new trade agreements should be structured, the trade bureaucracy in D.C., whether free trade still brings peace, Smoot-Hawley, the American Revolution (we are spoiled brats), Dunkirk, why New Hampshire is so wealthy, Brexit, Alexander Hamilton, NAFTA, the global trade slowdown, premature deindustrialization, and the history of the Chicago School of Economics, among other topics.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here goes. The claim that 19th century American growth was driven by high tariffs. What’s your take?

IRWIN: Not really true. If you look at why the US economy performed very well, particularly relative to Britain or Germany or other countries, Steve Broadberry’s shown that a lot of the overtaking of Britain in terms of per capita income was in terms of the service sector.

The service sector was expanding rapidly. It had very high productivity growth rates. We usually don’t think as that being affected by the tariff per se. That’s one reason.

We had also very high productivity growth rates in agriculture. I’ve done some counterfactual simulations. If you remove the tariff, how much resources would we take out of manufacturing and put into services or agriculture is actually pretty small. It just doesn’t account for the success we had during this period.

COWEN: Is there any country where you would say, “Their late 19th century economic growth was driven by tariffs?” Argentina, Canada, Germany, anything, anywhere?

IRWIN: No. If you look at all those, once again, in late 19th century, they were major exporters, largely of commodities, but they did very well that way. You know that Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world in the late 19th century. It really wasn’t until they adopted more import substitution policies after World War I that they began to fall behind.

Definitely recommended, and here is Doug’s Wikipedia page.

Best fiction books of 2017

by on December 1, 2017 at 1:21 am in Books | Permalink

I didn’t like most of the widely reviewed fiction of this year, but I did have a few favorites, namely:

Domenico Starnone,  Ties.  This is one of the better Italian novels of the last few decades.  It is short, easy to comprehend, utterly compelling, and the basic story line is that of a married couple and their children, to say more would spoil the plot.  The introduction and translation are by Jhumpa Lahiri, also first-rate (by the way, here is my conversation with Jhumpa, toward the end she discusses this project).  This Rachel Donadio NYT review provides very useful background knowledge.

Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak.  This short Chinese noir novel, with a dash of Murakami, is one of this year’s “cool books.”  I finished it in one sitting.  Set in Beijing, the protagonist sells audio equipment, and then strange things happen.  Here is a good interview with the author.

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An old-fashioned literary drama, unfolds slowly but is gripping, reminds me of Dickens and also Vikram Seth but set in Korea and Japan as an extended set piece running throughout most of the 20th century.  For me, this was clearly the #1 fiction book of the year, and I didn’t include it in my Bloomberg column only because I read it after the column was in the pipeline.  It’s also rich with history and social science, a real winner.  NYT picked it as one of their top ten of the year.

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, the new translation and edition by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.

My best fiction reading of the year was Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, though it wasn’t published in 2017.  It is one of the best science fiction classics, ever.  Just to recap, I like volume one the most, and it is the most complex, but for many readers disorienting.  You don’t find out the real plot until p.272, so perhaps spoilers will help you.  Volumes two and three are more in the style of classic science fiction, a’la Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke.

My best “classic I had never read before” gets two picks, the first being James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer (review at the link).  The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, though come to it with at least a basic understanding of its Anglo-Catholic milieu.  Sooner or later this novel will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists.

In Spanish I will pick Juan MarséRabos de lagartija, from 2011, don’t bother with the English translation.  In German it was Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld, Der Briefwechsel, a series of letters exchanged between an author and his publisher, some of them concern money (I haven’t finished it yet but so far it is quite consistent in quality).  As good as a really good Bernhard novel, also from 2011, there is no English-language translation.

That is the new and excellent history by Leslie Berlin, substantive throughout, here is one good bit of many:

In March 1967, Robert and Taylor, jointly leading a meeting of ARPA’s principal investigators in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told the researchers that ARPA was going to build a computer network and they were all expected to connect to it.  The principle investigators were not enthusiastic.  They were busy running their labs and doing their own work.  They saw no real reason to add this network to their responsibilities.  Researchers with more powerful computers worried that those with less computing power would use the network to commandeer precious computing cycles.  “If I could not get some ARPA-funded participants involved in a commitment to a purpose higher than “Who is going to steal the next ten percent of my memory cycles?”, there would be no network,” Taylor later wrote.  Roberts agreed: “They wanted to buy their own machines and hide in the corner.”

You can buy the book here, here is one good review from Wired, excerpt:

While piecing together a timeline of the Valley’s early history—picture end-to-end sheets of paper covered in black dots—Berlin was amazed to discover a period of rapid-fire innovation between 1969 and 1976 that included the first Arpanet transmission; the birth of videogames; and the launch of Apple, Atari, Genentech, and major venture firms such as Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital. “I just thought, ‘What the heck was going on in those years?’ ” she says.

Here is praise from Patrick Collison on Twitter.

Because Doug’s book is just out, we are rushing out the podcast, here is the audio, most of all about trade, trade history, and trade policy.  We covered how much of 19th century American growth was due to tariffs, trade policy toward China, the cultural argument against free trade, whether there is a national security argument for agricultural protectionism, TPP, how new trade agreements should be structured, the trade bureaucracy in D.C., whether free trade still brings peace, Smoot-Hawley, the American Revolution (we are spoiled brats), Dunkirk, why New Hampshire is so wealthy, Brexit, Alexander Hamilton, NAFTA, the global trade slowdown, premature deindustrialization, and the history of the Chicago School of Economics, among other topics.

Here you can buy Doug’s Clashing over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy.

What I’ve been reading

by on November 22, 2017 at 12:23 am in Books | Permalink

1. John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids.  A remarkably readable and indeed prescient British work from 1951, you’ll find so much of the science and speculative fiction of the last few twenty years in here, a bit of Saramago too.  What if most (but not all) of the world goes blind but then has to fight-off plant-like invaders which turn out to be more intelligent than we had thought?  Underrated.

2.  The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649, translated with notes by Richard Price.  I hadn’t realized how many of these early Church debates were kept and passed down to the current day.  The participants really do seem to know they are debating the intellectual framework for everything else to follow, and yet people hardly talk about these books.  They are among the most significant remaining traces of the ancient world, Rome and Constantinople in particular.  How can you beat this?: “If anyone says that God the Word who worked miracles was someone other than the Christ who suffered, or says that God the Word was with the Christ born from Woman, or was in him as in someone other than himself…let him be anathema.”  Down with monoenergism!

3. Helen Dale, Kingdom of the Wicked.  Here is Helen on her book:

Kingdom of the Wicked asks what would have happened had Jesus emerged in a Roman Empire that has gone through an industrial revolution. How, I wondered, would we react to him if he turned up in a society more (or less) like the present? The answer was not one I liked much. I thought we’d mistake him for a terrorist. The novel is informed – even overshadowed – by the destruction of civil liberties and gross expansion of executive power occasioned by the War on Terror, a war now in the process of becoming war without end.

I find it works both as fiction and as thought experiment; see the related essay by Mark Koyama.

4. Alexander Thurston, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement.  Makes a murky history relatively easy to follow, by the way: “Put all these ideas together, and “Boko Haram” means something like “Western culture is forbidden by Islam” or “the Westernized elites and their ways of doing things contradict Islam” — not just in schools but also in politics and society.”

Beyond Austerity: Reforming the Greek Economy, edited by Costas Meghir, Christopher A. Pissarides, Dimitri Vayanos, and Nikolaus Vettas, is an intelligent and useful look at where Greece goes next.

I will be having a Conversation with him December 4th, by the way, you can register here.  His forthcoming book is spectacular, but we will talk about everything under (and above) the sun, what should I ask him?

Way back when, I considered the ten books that influenced me most, a list I still stand by.  In response, someone asked me to name the books that influenced me, but whose influence I probably was not aware of.  Let’s ignore the semi-contradiction in that request and plow straight ahead!  Here goes, noting that if memory serves I read most of these between the ages of 10 to 12:

1. Alexander Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster.  From this book I realized you could think you understood a chess position, but then later learn you didn’t really understand it at all.  A huge lesson, one I learned again and to a higher degree when high-quality chess computers came along.  Most of the commentariat on economic and social affairs could use a reminder on this one.  This book also taught me that you learn by doing — trying to solve actual problems — not so much from pure reading.  Or the two in close conjunction.  It may be the distortions of memory, but still I feel this is one of the best books I ever have read.  Hail the Soviet training system!

2. Bobby Fischer, My Sixty Memorable Games of Chess.  Reflects a certain kind of classicism in thinking and method.  Later, it was revealed much of the analysis was faulty and in part was from Larry Evans and not Fischer himself.

3. Reuben Fine, Basic Chess Endings.  I wasn’t influenced so much by this book itself as by a long series of articles in Chess Life and Review, showing the analysis was full of holes.  See my remarks on Kotov.

4. David Kahn, The Code-Breakers, The Story of Secret Writing.  I read this one quite young, and learned that problems are to be solved!  I also developed some sense of what a history could look like and what a history should report.  I recall my uncle thinking it deeply strange that a boy my age should be reading a book of such length.

5. Rudolf McShane and Jakow Trachtenberg, The Trachtenberg System of Basic Mathematics.  From this I learned how powerful the individual human mind could be, and also how much school wasn’t teaching me.  It began to occur to me that the mainstream doesn’t necessarily have the best or only methods.  That said, non-mainstream approaches still have the responsibility of coming up with the right answer.  Query: does it these days ever make sense to actually use this stuff?

6. The Baseball Encyclopedia, or something like that.  From this book I began to figure out statistics and how they fit into broader patterns of historical explanation.  I spent a lot of time with this one even before the age of ten.  It helped me understand my baseball cards in terms of a much longer perspective and also, if I recall correctly, it explained the underlying meaning of many of the statistics, albeit in what would today count as a very naive, non-Moneyball manner.  I still know that Chief Wilson hit 36 triples in 1912.

Honorable mentions: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Joy of Sex, all given to me by my mother.  I believe they helped inculcate some of the 1960s-70s ethos of individual freedom into my thinking.  I also consumed numerous sports memoirs, such as Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer and also the war memoir Guadalcanal Diary.  From those I began to think about the relationships between character, work habits, teamwork, and success.  The Making of Star Trek helped me master the details of what was then my favorite TV series, and also to think about cosmopolitanism across different kinds of intelligent beings.  In addition to chess I also was influenced by playing paper and dice war games, most of all Barbossa (the exact title may differ slightly), a really scary game where you have to consider the possibility the Nazis could have won and thus think about the contingency of history.  I began to understand that violence could be a reality that stood above all else and how important it was to avoid such a scenario.

Then there is youthful science fiction, though perhaps that someday gets a post of its own.  I read a lot of books about music too, many about jazz solos and chord composition, including in American popular music.  Much earlier, maybe ages 5-8, it was maps and books full of facts about the world (ahem) and animals, most of all the taxonomic arrangement of the animal kingdom.

Finally, at the time I was fully aware that I wasn’t getting a single one of these titles through my formal school system.