Books

Here are two notable excerpts:

The windows were usually clamped shut and the blinds were often drawn; one of Rand’s cats had jumped to an untimely death, condemning visitors thereafter to endure the stuffy air in her apartment.

Are cats that stupid?  (Did not Aristotle describe the cat as the rational animal?)  And:

…the fact that Greenspan was following the ways of Washington was precisely the point.  Half a year into his tenure, Greenspan had completed his journey from Ayn Rand’s outsider salon to the inner circle of power; he might still condemn the status quo from time to time, but in truth he was now part of it.  In voting against Greenspan’s confirmation, Senator Proxmire had misjudged the man.  Ideas were not what drove him after all; his courteous, clubbable, and nonconfrontational manner proved to be a better predictor of his conduct in office than his libertarian ideology.  However disarmingly Greenspan might portray himself as a sideman, he was only human, after all.  He wanted to be at the center.

I’m on p.194, more reports to follow.  You can buy the book here, it is one of the best of the year even from just the first 193 pp.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 28, 2016 at 1:25 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Robert Kanigel, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs.  Lots of information about Jane Jacobs, so it has to be a good book and indeed it is.  I found Becoming Jane Jacobs more engaging to read, but this one covered the latter part of her life in great detail, unlike the previous bio.

2. Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond.  This is not a plot-based novel, rather it is Irish and poetic and much of it I read a second time.  Most of you would find it frustrating.

3. Alain Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy.  I would not describe this as stirring narrative, but that is more the nature of the material than any fault of the author.  It is by far the most comprehensive treatment of what we know about the ancient Greek economy.  Here is Mark Koyama on theorizing about ancient economiesNB: I have only browsed this book.

4. John Stubbs, Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel.  A good detailed biography, focusing more on Swift’s times, Ireland, and religious and political disputes, rather than Swift as writer per se.   A very useful supplement to the other major Swift biographies.

5. Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War.  The best, clearest, and most instructive military history of the Civil War I have ever read; the pre-history summary of war origins is good too.  Someday I should write a full post on all the reasons why I find so many Civil War military history books unreadable, in the meantime this one hit a home run.  By the way, the two authors live in Fairfax, VA.

Also noteworthy is Leigh Eric Schmidt, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.

Richard English, Does Terrorism Work? is a good, balanced historical look at what terrorists have and have not achieved.  The best chapter was on Ireland, and the book is mainly non-Muslim examples.

Arrived in my pile, and looking very interesting, are:

Roger E.A. Farmer, Prosperity For All: How to Prevent Financial Crises.

Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World.

Arrived in my pile

by on September 27, 2016 at 2:21 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Sebastian Mallaby, The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan.

Self-recommending, I will start it as soon as possible.

*Hitler’s Soldiers*

by on September 25, 2016 at 11:37 am in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

The author is Ben H. Shepherd and the subtitle is The German Army in the Third Reich.  That may seem like a timeworn topic, but I found this book consistently fresh and interesting, also well-written, analytic throughout, one of the year’s best non-fiction studies.  Here is one bit:

Two occupied populations whom the German army particularly tried to cultivate were the Muslim peoples of the Crimea and the Caucasus.  The Sunni Tatars comprised a quarter of the Crimea’s population, and German army administrators saw them, as they would also come to see their Muslim brethren in the Caucasus, as presenting an opportunity to woo Islam in the Soviet Union for political and military gain.  The Germans granted the Tatars religious rights and concessions and reintroduced major religious holidays, and Manstein’s otherwise infamous November 1941 order required his troops to treat the Tatars with respect…the Germans appointed a Muslim committee to re-establish the religious infrastructure.

…Yet the failings of German occupation were soon apparent to these Muslim peoples.

Overall the message is that the German army was less effective and less moral [sic] than many other historians had suggested.  Recommended.

The concept of equilibrium (temporary?)

by on September 22, 2016 at 2:18 pm in Books | Permalink

booksuranga-3g

That is Carmela Uranga.

According to Donner: “The whole point of the game [is] to prevent an artistic performance.” The former world champion Garry Kasparov makes the same point. “The highest art of the chess player,” he says, “lies in not allowing your opponent to show you what he can do.” Always the other player is there trying to wreck your masterpiece. Chess, Donner insists, is a struggle, a fight to the death. “When one of the two players has imposed his will on the other and can at last begin to be freely creative, the game is over. That is the moment when, among masters, the opponent resigns. That is why chess is not art. No, chess cannot be compared with anything. Many things can be compared with chess, but chess is only chess.”

That is Stephen Moss at The Guardian.  Along related lines, I very much enjoyed Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World.  It’s one of my favorite books of the year so far, but it’s so miserable I can’t recommend it to anyone.  It’s a book about chess, and it doesn’t even focus on the great players.  It’s about the players who are good enough to make a living — ever so barely — but not do any better.  It serves up sentences such as:

Surely the money in chess is so bad that this can’t be all you do for a living?  But in fact in my experience, the majority of chess players rated over 2400 tend to just do chess.  If not playing, then something related to it, like coaching or DVDs.  That’s because we’re lazy, so making the monumental effort of a complete change in career is just too frightening a prospect.  So we stick with chess, even though the pay tends to be lousy, because most of our friends and contacts are chess players.  Our life is chess.  As a rough estimate, I would say there are as many 2600 players making less than £20,000 a year.

And:

Stability. I had this conversation with German number one Arkadij Naidisch at a blitz tournament in Scotland about a year ago. (there I go, name-dropping again.)  He suggested that a lot of people don’t achieve their goals because they just aren’t stable enough.  They’ll have a fantastic result somewhere, but then that’ll be let down by a terrible tournament somewhere else.

…The problem is it’s hard to break out of the habits of a lifetime.  Many times at home I’ve said to myself while sitting around depressed about my future and where my chess is going, “tomorrow will be different.  I’ll get up and study six-eight hours studying chess.”  But it never happens.

Overall biography and autobiography are far too specialized in the lives of the famous and successful.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 18, 2016 at 12:44 am in Books | Permalink

1. Europe Since 1989: A History, by Philipp Ther.  And yet it is all told through the vantage point of central and eastern Europe.  Recommended, not just the usual and interesting to see “the West” treated as the periphery.  Makes you wonder if eastern Europe ever had a chance.

2. Jeffrey Edward Green, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship.  “The ocular model, by contrast, is grounded on the People’s eyes and its capacity for vision, rather than on the People’s voice and its capacity for speech.”  Think of it as Exit, View, and Loyalty, for the contemporary age.

3. Naomi Duguid, Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan.  Not only an excellent cookbook, but a good regional study in its own right.

4. Paul Bloom, Against Empathy. “Singer goes further and argues that individuals like Kravinsky [an organ donor], motivated by their cold logic and reasoning, actually do more to help people than those who are gripped by empathic feelings…”

5. Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books.  Fun and interesting, this gives you the real story behind those women and their connection to libertarianism.  Here is a short essay by the author excerpted from the book.  I cannot, however, say this book drove me to wish to read the original sources.

The new Coetzee and McEwan novels are OK but they don’t thrill me.  There is also George J. Borjas, We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative, coming out soon.

Arrived in my pile

by on September 12, 2016 at 8:24 pm in Books, Science | Permalink

Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

Due out in February!

What I’ve been reading

by on September 12, 2016 at 12:55 am in Books | Permalink

1. Against Everything, Essays, by Mark Greif.  The worst of these are still well-written and interesting, and the best are among the best essays being written today.  There are many good sentences: “Were “In the Penal Colony” to be written today, Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.”

2. The Blind Photographer, edited by Julian Rothenstein and Mel Gooding.  Here is an article on Pedro Martinez, one such photographer from Oaxaca.  An excellent book, thought-provoking about both the nature of disability and photography, and also the mind’s eye.  Here is a good National Geographic article on the volume.

3. Harvey Cox, The Market as God.  Harvard theologian argues that economists have started to argue as theologians do.  The closing sentence is “When The Market does not have to be God anymore, it might be a lot happier.”

4. William Domnarski, Richard Posner.  This biography focuses on Posner the infovore, and is itself a big pile of information.  We should not forget Posner’s role in founding the Journal of Legal Studies and Lexecon when awarding him a much-deserved Nobel Prize.  Every page of this book has information, recommended, even if (because?) it is a bit of a splat.  Here is one cited account of Judge Posner: “One of my favorite lines is when he would characterize a lawyer’s answer as “mere words” when in fact he wanted a “real reason.”

Do not miss Posner’s descriptions of various (unnamed) colleagues on pp.193-195, for instance: “…certainly ambitious, but that cannot be rated a fault.  He has a vaguely cold and supercilious exterior; of the inner man I cannot speak because I do not know.  But I do have trouble seeing him actually marrying an outdoors girl [as was the rumor], as he is very definitely the hot-house intellectual plant.”  Another, from the philosophy department at Chicago, was “a timid, small-bore type.”  Also stunning are pp.249-250, when Posner discusses his own naivete when witnessing the behavior of others, most of all his colleagues in academia.  pp.251-256, which close the book, are just sublime.

I don’t think I will have time to get to Lynne B. Sagalyn’s Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan, but it looks very good.

I read only a fragment of Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe, but found it well-written, to the point, and illuminating for both the specialist and general reader.

1. Jacobs was born in Scranton, PA, but moved to NYC in 1932 and as early as 1935 she had published some of her impressions of the city in a multi-part series in Vogue magazine.  Earlier, she had written poetry for the Girl Scouts’s magazine, American Girl.

2. She published a 1941 book on the intellectual foundations of the American Constitution, with Columbia University Press under her maiden name Jane Butzner and the title Constitutional Chaff.  At about the same time her manuscript was being accepted, she was kicked out of Columbia for taking too many extended studies classes, and not allowed admission to Barnard.

3. In 1940 she wrote an article based on her study of the embossed acronyms on manhole covers.

4. She then worked as writer during WWII for the Office of War Information and the State Department.  Before Pearl Harbor, she had been an isolationist.

5. Henri Pirenne’s work on medieval cities was one of the biggest influences on her.

6. In the 1940s, she also worked for a metals industry magazine, and smoked a pipe in her office.  They started to wonder whether she was a troublemaker.

7. She married an architect in 1944, then taking the name Jacobs.  They enjoyed bicycling and sociometry together.  She had sons in 1948 and 1950.

8. Alger Hiss had been her superior at the State Department, and in the late 1940s Jacobs was investigated for possible Communist ties, in part because she had tried to apply for a visa to Siberia, using Hiss as her contact.  She stated in response that she abhorred communism and favored radical decentralization.

There is much more!  But that is a taste from the new and excellent Becoming Jane Jacobs, a runs-up-through 1972 biography by Peter L. Laurence, definitely one of the best books of the year.  This is the biography of Jacobs I have wanted to read for forty years.

Addendum: There is a new Jane Jacobs movie coming to the Toronto film festival.

Strauss’s pedagogical method was famous for its simplicity and directness.  A student would be asked to read a passage from the work being discussed; Strauss would make a comment or two, noting contradictions or discrepancies with earlier passages; a student might then raise a question, which would lead Strauss to digress, taking it to a much higher level and illustrating with with often earthy examples.  (He was particularly fond of examples from a newspaper advice column of the time, “Dear Abby.”)  Then on to the next passage.

That is from Mark Lilla’s new book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.  There is also this bit from the book:

Michel Houellebecq is not angry.  He does not have a program, and he is not shaking his fist at the nation’s traitors…He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of feminism or immigration or the European Union or globalization.  Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.  For him, that wager has been lost.  And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God.  Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.

I enjoy such books.  But in earlier times I preferred Ann Landers to Dear Abby.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, which focuses on Edward Conard’s new book The Upside of Inequality (not a good descriptive title for the book, in my view).  Conard’s central idea is that risk-bearing equity capital is the truly scarce asset in most economic situations, and economic analysis should adapt accordingly.  He is very creative in seeing some of the implications of this view, for instance:

This framework makes Conard a revisionist on the U.S. trade deficit. The traditional story is that Americans buy goods from, say, East Asia, and the sellers respond by investing those dollars back in the U.S., a win-win situation. Conard believes that analysis would hold only if people who accumulate cash from foreign transactions invest their funds into risky, innovative enterprises.

But too often they buy government securities, and so Conard views the U.S. trade deficit as something that makes the government bigger without making the economy more dynamic. This confounds the traditional libertarian defense of free trade by indicating that we are not really getting market-oriented investments when the funds return.

That is the kind of argument that few people are willing to accept, yet they typically don’t have a good rejoinder to it either.  And on supply-side economics here are my comments:

Maybe supply-side economics isn’t as wrong as its reputation indicates. Maybe the earlier supply siders just spent too much time focusing on one supply obstacle – high taxes – when other barriers were bigger problems.

…Cuts in marginal tax rates became overrated after the Reagan recovery years of the 1980s, but maybe after the failed Bush experience they are now somewhat underrated.

Perhaps no economic policy is going to work especially well in a time when median incomes are falling. If we can clear away other impediments to supply, tax cuts may prove potent once again. Don’t forget that there are decades of research in economics showing that tax incentives matter.

Ditto!

I disagreed with much in Conard’s book, but found it very stimulating to ponder.  It puts many of the pieces together in a new and different way.

*The Fall of Heaven*

by on September 7, 2016 at 12:43 am in Books, History, Political Science, Religion | Permalink

I loved this book, the author is Andrew Scott Cooper, and the subtitle is The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.  It is the best book I know for understanding the Iranian revolution, and it is compulsively readable throughout.  Did you know for instance that the Ayatollahs were deeply disturbed by the presence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and also Rhoda on Iranian TV?

Here is one excerpt:

Iran’s political and economic malaise gave a renewed sense of urgency to the Shah’s top priority, which was to settle the question of the Imperial succession once and for all.  His initial preference was for a European princess who could provide the House of Pahlavi with the luster of dynastic legitimacy.  He soon ran into trouble.  The Windsors rebuffed his interest in Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin Princess Alexandra of Kent, while his favorite, Princess Maria Gabriella, the Catholic daughter of the deposed King Umberto of Italy, was ruled out owing to opposition from the Vatican and Iran’s ulama.

And this, from the Shah himself:

“When everybody in Iran is like everybody in Sweden, then I will rule like the King of Sweden,” he declared.

I would describe this book as relatively sympathetic to the Shah, and also arguing that the oppressions and tortures of Savak are sometimes overstated.

This one makes my best non-fiction of the year list, and it will be in the top tier of that list.

And self-published “indie” authors — in part because they get a much bigger cut of the revenue than authors working with conventional publishers do — are now making much more money from e-book sales, in aggregate, than authors at Big Five publishers.

And this:

The AAP also reported, though, that e-book revenue was down 11.3 percent in 2015 and unit sales down 9.7 percent. That’s where things get misleading. Yes, the established publishing companies that belong to the AAP are selling fewer e-books. But that does not mean fewer e-books are being sold. Of the top 10 books on Amazon’s Kindle bestseller list when I checked last week, only two (“The Light Between Oceans” and “The Girl on the Train,” both mass-market reissues of novels that have just been made into movies) were the products of major publishers. All the rest were genre novels (six romances, two thrillers) published either by the author or by an in-house Amazon imprint. Their prices ranged from 99 cents to $4.99.

That is from Justin Fox at Bloomberg.

Group selection bleg

by on September 2, 2016 at 12:56 pm in Books, Education, History, Science | Permalink

What are the best arguments for and against explanations relying on the concept of group selection?  I would like to read more in this area, your suggestions are welcome, please leave them in the comments.  Thanks!