Books

I have pre-ordered this forthcoming Robert P. Jones book, here is the Amazon description:

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), challenges us to grasp the profound political and cultural consequences of a new reality—that America is no longer a majority white Christian nation.

For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA)—the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians—set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence, following declines within both its mainline and evangelical branches. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation.

Sam Tanenhaus called it (NYT): “…quite possibly the most illuminating text for this election year.”

There is audio, video, and transcript at the link.  I introduced Cass like this:

The Force is strong with this one. Cass is by far the most widely cited legal scholar of his generation. His older book, Nudge, and his new book on Star Wars are both best sellers, and he was head of OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] under President Obama from 2009 to 2013. Powerful, you have become.

So tonight I’d like to start with a survey of Cass’s thought. We’re going to look at legal theory and then go to Nudge and then consider Star Wars, how it all ties together, and then we’re going to talk about everything.

On every point Cass responded clearly and without evasion.  We talked about judicial minimalism, Bob Dylan’s best album, the metaphysics of nudging, Possession, the ideal size of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of Yoda, Hayek, why people should choose their own path, the merits of a banned products store, James Joyce, why the prequels are underrated, and which of the first six movies is the worst of the lot.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let’s take a concrete example from real life: Jedi mind tricks. Obi-Wan comes along and says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And what does the stormtroooper do? He goes away. Now, is that a nudge?

SUNSTEIN: No, it’s a form of manipulation. So — .

[laughter]

COWEN: OK, but how do you draw the metaphysical categories? It seems like a nudge that just happens to work all the time.

SUNSTEIN: OK. I’ll give you a quick and dirty way of getting at that…

Here is another:

COWEN: If you were to pick one character from Star Wars who would nudge you — you get to elect them; you’re the only vote. Even Samantha doesn’t get a vote, just Cass — not your children — which character would you pick? Whom would you trust with that nudge? It’s a universe full of Jedi here, right?

SUNSTEIN: Yoda.

COWEN: Yoda?

SUNSTEIN: I trust that guy.

COWEN: But I worry about Yoda.

SUNSTEIN: I trust him.

Finally:

SUNSTEIN: Thank God for libertarian paternalism, that Luke has a choice. The Sith, by the way, like the Jedi, respect freedom of choice. In the crucial scene in Episode III where the question is whether Anakin is going to save the person who would be emperor, he says, “You must choose.” And so there’s full respect for freedom of choice. Nudgers have that. Good for them.

COWEN: Bad guys always tell you the deal, and then they say, “Choose evil.” It seems the good guys always mislead you.

There’s this funny tension. Star Wars makes me more nervous about nudge. I’m not like this huge anti-nudge guy, but when I look at Obi-Wan and Yoda lying to Luke — “Ben, Ben, Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” How many times have I heard that in these movies?

SUNSTEIN: It’s fair to ask whether Obi-Wan and Yoda had it right.

There is much, more more…self-recommending!

View story at Medium.com

The old take:

Book superstores such as Barnes & Noble cause risk-averse publishers to double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.

The new take:

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.

The first of the two is my memory, the latter of the two is a quotation.  I found this claim, by author Alex Shephard, interesting:

Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

Could it be that without book superstores fewer books will be sold, but a higher percentage of those sold will be read?

What I’ve been reading

by on June 21, 2016 at 1:03 am in Books | Permalink

1. Andrej Svorencik and Harro Maas, editors, The Making of Experimental Economics: Witness Seminar on the Emergence of a Field.  Transcribed dialogue on the origins and history of a field, including many of the key players including Vernon Smith and Charles Plott, among others.  There should be a book like this — or better yet a web site — for every movement, major debate, new method, and school of thought.

2. Adam Kucharski, The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling.  The subtitle is an exaggeration, nonetheless this is an interesting topic and book.  There is invariably a frustrating element to such an investigation, because the best schemes are hard to uncover or verify.  Nonetheless have you not thought — as I have — that a determined, Big Data-crunching, super smart entity could in fact beat the basketball odds just ever so slightly?

3. Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.  A good book, and a good introduction to her writing.  I have to say though, I did not find this incredibly profound or original.  Chernobyl is deeper and more philosophical.

4. Srinath Raghavan, India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia.  Consistently well-written and interesting, the title says it all.

Three useful country/topics books on Latin America are:

Lee J. Alston, Marcus Andre Melo, Bernardo Mueller, and Carlos Pereira, Brazil in Transition: Beliefs, Leadership, and Institutional Change.

Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.

Dickie Davis, David Kilcullen, Greg Mills, and David Spencer, A Great Perhaps?: Colombia: Conflict and Convergence.  After Uruguay, is Colombia not the longest standing democracy in South America?

The robot administers a small pin prick at random to certain people of its choosing.

The tiny injury pierces the flesh and draws blood.

Mr Reben has nicknamed it ‘The First Law’ after a set of rules devised by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.

He created it to generate discussion around our fear of man made machines. He says his latest device shows we need to prepare for the worst

‘Obviously, a needle is a minimum amount of injury, however – now that this class of robot exists, it will have to be confronted,’ Mr Reben said on his website.

Here is more, with pictures of (slightly) injured humans, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

A reader has been asking me this question, and my answer is…no!

Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a stimulating and wonderful book.  And if you don’t believe me, here is The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Hanson’s book is comprehensive and not put-downable.

But it is best not read as a predictive text, much as Robin might disagree with that assessment.  Why not?  I have three main reasons, all of which are a sort of punting, nonetheless on topics outside one’s areas of expertise deference is very often the correct response.  Here goes:

1. I know a few people who have expertise in neuroscience, and they have never mentioned to me that things might turn out this way (brain scans uploaded into computers to create actual beings and furthermore as the dominant form of civilization).  Maybe they’re just holding back, but I don’t think so.  The neuroscience profession as a whole seems to be unconvinced and for the most part not even pondering this scenario.

2. The people who predict “the age of Em” claim expertise in a variety of fields surrounding neuroscience, including computer science and physics, and thus they might believe they are broader and thus superior experts.  But in general claiming expertise in “more” fields is not correlated with finding the truth, unless you can convince people in the connected specialized fields you are writing about.  I don’t see this happening, nor do I believe that neuroscience is somehow hopelessly corrupt or politicized.  What I do see the “Em partisans” sharing is an early love of science fiction, a very valuable enterprise I might add.

3. Robin seems to think the age of Em could come about reasonably soon (sorry, I am in Geneva and don’t have the book with me for an exact quotation).  Yet I don’t see any sign of such a radical transformation in market prices.  Even with positive discounting, I would expect backwards induction to mean that an eventual “Em scenario” would affect lots of prices now.  There are for instance a variety of 100-year bonds, but Em scenarios do not seem to be a factor in their pricing.

Robin himself believes that market prices are the best arbiter of truth.  But which market prices today show a realistic probability for an “Age of Em”?  Are there pending price bubbles in Em-producing firms, or energy companies, just as internet grocery delivery was the object of lots of speculation in 1999-2000?  I don’t see it.

The one market price that has changed is the “shadow value of Robin Hanson,” because he has finished and published a very good and very successful book.  And that pleases me greatly, no matter which version of Robin is hanging around fifty years hence.

Addendum: Robin Hanson responds.  I enjoyed this line: “Tyler has spent too much time around media pundits if he thinks he should be hearing a buzz about anything big that might happen in the next few centuries!”

Looking for something to do this weekend in New York? Story, a concept shop that completely changes theme every few months, has relaunched this week as a Mr. Robot-themed space. In addition to being a retail shop selling an assortment of gadgets, accessories, and Mr. Robot-themed wares, there’s an “Evil Corp” ATM at the front of the store that will dispense real money (up to $50) if you figure out the four-digit code. The clues are hidden around the store, and we’re told they’ll probably change often.

Here is the full story, with many photos and an address.  To think that they closed Tower Records and Borders for this…sigh.

That is the new Arnold Kling book, I very much liked the earlier draft I read.  Think of it as Fischer Black macro for 2016.  Here is Arnold:

The main point of the book is that you need to keep in mind the overwhelming complexity of specialization in a modern economy. Non-economists miss it when they use simple intuition. And academic economists tend to miss it when they build their “models,” particularly of the GDP factory.

Any reader of this blog will be able to follow the book. But what I really want is for everyone who is about to start graduate school in economics to read this book. I want to say to such students, “Don’t get too suckered in by what your professors are going to be showing you about how to do economics. Don’t let them lead you to forget about specialization and trade.”

A key theme of the book is how the increased acceptance of gender fluidity and industrialization – which brought men out of the fields and into offices, where they have no inherent strengths compared to women – has destabilized traditional power structures.

[Frank] Browning said the gender revolution can help explain the resurgence of rightwing extremism in Europe and why it is possible for a former reality television show host to become the presumptive Republican nominee for US president – even though he has made racist, sexist and xenophobic comments.

“We’re going to see in a decade what we’ve seen in the last five years, a movement for which Trump happened to be the dandy on hand,” Browning said. “And gender is a big piece of that”. Browning said that today, men hold fewer positions of power and are being demoted in society. Simultaneously, people are exploring gender more openly and have easier access to online forums through which to explore differing types of gender and sexual expression.

Here is the article, I just ordered the book here.  Here is my earlier post on this topic.  File under speculative.

Bravo to Yale University Press

by on June 9, 2016 at 3:10 pm in Books, History | Permalink

They have recently published two blockbusters, both highly readable as well:

Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, and

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.

The average resale of “Hamilton” tickets on StubHub is roughly $872, according to a New York Times analysis, a markup of $700 above the current average original ticket sale price.

For any given performance, roughly 13 to 22 percent of the seats at the Richard Rodgers — somewhere between 180 and 300 tickets — are available on the secondary market, according to The Times’s research and interviews with ticket sellers. So for each performance of “Hamilton,” ticket sellers and brokers are reaping roughly $150,000. With the Broadway cast putting on more than 400 shows per year, that means these sellers could reap about $60 million per year, just in New York — money the producers, investors and Mr. Miranda will never see.

I still find this equilibrium puzzling.  By the way, here are some numbers on book tie-ins:

“Hamilton” can even sell books. “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a behind-the-scenes book about the creation of the musical by Jeremy McCarter and Mr. Miranda, went on sale in April with a list price of $40. In less than two months, it sold more than 101,000 copies, according to Nielsen, and hit the No. 1 spot on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. (Other authors have benefited from “Hamilton” fever, too: Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, which inspired Mr. Miranda to write the musical, has spent 33 weeks on the paperback best-seller list. This fall, Three Rivers Press will publish Jeff Wilser’s self-help book “Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life.”)

Here is the Michael Paulson and David Gelles NYT piece, it has much more of interest on the economics of the show.

That is a Mary Beard feature in the 3 June 2016 edition of the Times Literary Supplement.  Various luminaries were asked what they thought of Brexit.  My favorite answer came from Colm Tóibín:

The European Union, despite its flaws, or perhaps because of them, is a wholly rational institution.  Like most of us, it is in constant need of urgent reform and can handle anything except a crisis.  Even though it is deeply secular, the EU has performed miracles.  It has allowed France and Germany to move close to each other; it has allowed Irish and British ministers to meet as equals, which the Irish have enjoyed.   It can also make us laugh — the group photographs of the EU leaders after their meetings and the antics of the European Parliament are wholly ludicrous…

More brutal was Jan Morris:

Being politically in or out of Europe has had no impact at all on my own work, and I have no idea what it’s done for or to the cultural life of Britain.  For myself, I have long argued for a federal Britain within a federal Europe, but it was always a dream anyway, and I’ve woken up now.  If reasons you require, look around you!

Declan Kiberd had a good point:

They [the English] realized that in some ways England’s was an immensely stressed society, whose people had been so distracted by the British cultural project that they still faced an unresolved identity question of their own.  It’s a long time since Bernard Shaw described England as the last, most fully penetrated of the British colonies — which could be why its people feel such ambivalence about the more recent transnational scheme.

I do recommend that you all subscribe to the TLS.  If you would like yet another point of view, from Dissent, here is Richard Tuck with the Left case for Brexit.

From Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan:

The present research investigated whether digital and non-digital platforms activate differing default levels of cognitive construal. Two initial randomized experiments revealed that individuals who completed the same information processing task on a digital mobile device (a tablet or laptop computer) versus a non-digital platform (a physical print-out) exhibited a lower level of construal, one prioritizing immediate, concrete details over abstract, decontextualized interpretations. This pattern emerged both in digital platform participants’ greater preference for concrete versus abstract descriptions of behaviors as well as superior performance on detail-focused items (and inferior performance on inference-focused items) on a reading comprehension assessment. A pair of final studies found that the likelihood of correctly solving a problem-solving task requiring higher-level “gist” processing was: (1) higher for participants who processed the information for task on a non-digital versus digital platform and (2) heightened for digital platform participants who had first completed an activity activating an abstract mindset, compared to (equivalent) performance levels exhibited by participants who had either completed no prior activity or completed an activity activating a concrete mindset.

Here is also the press release, and for the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

What I’ve been reading

by on June 1, 2016 at 1:09 pm in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Tom Bissell, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve.  Fun, engaging, and informative, worthy of the “best of the year non-fiction” list.

2. China Miéville, Embassytown.  The first of his novels that has clicked with me, perhaps because it is the one that comes closest to being a true novel of ideas, Heideggerian ideas in this case.  A new prophecy is needed, and the nature of the new prophecy, like the old, will be shaped by language.  Just accept that upon your first reading you won’t enjoy the first one hundred pages and you should at some point go back and read them again.

3. Yuri Herrara, Signs Preceding the End of the World.  Sometimes considered Mexico’s greatest active writer, this novella draws upon the Juan Rulfo-Dante-Dia de los muertos tradition to create a convincing moral universe in 128 pages.  I find this more vivid and arresting than Cormac McCarthy’s treatment of the other side of the border.

4. The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  This book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge, plus it is engaging to read.  Overall it confirmed my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use.

The other books I read weren’t as good as these.

Coloring book markets in everything

by on May 30, 2016 at 10:25 pm in Books | Permalink

There are coloring books for every imaginable interest group, including “Game of Thrones” and “Harry Potter” ones, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump versions, and, in a new and surprisingly durable trend, “sweary” coloring books. Because how better to demonstrate that your coloring book is not for kids than by incorporating lots of four-letter words?

Here is the Alexandra Alter NYT piece, I have yet to see a good essay on the broader implications or causes of the coloring book trend.