Books

I will be holding a Conversations with Tyler chat with her soon, no public event, podcast only.

Most of you have read her, I suspect.

She is a lead obituary writer for The New York Times, here is her Wikipedia page.  Her background is in linguistics and classical music, but by now she has penned over 1,200 obituaries, with many links to those on the Wikipedia page.  You also can follow her obituaries and other tweets on Twitter.

Here is her Paris Review interview.  Read her also at Creative Non-Fiction.  Here is a $2.99 eBook of selected obituaries.  She is funny, that is funny ha-ha, the other funny I could not say.

She also has written two excellent books: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, and Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind.

So what should I ask Margalit Fox?

What I’ve been reading

by on July 7, 2016 at 1:53 am in Books | Permalink

1. Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  Super short, large print, and in some places too speculative.  Still, this is one of the better books for understanding why 2016 seems to be running off the tracks.

2. Stevyn Colgan, Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road? How to Solve Problems Before They Arise.  How one very smart and analytical policeman thinks about the problems he encounters in his daily job.  No single part wowed me or revolutionized my ideas, but smart and thoughtful throughout.

3. Conversations with Roger Scruton.  A good introduction to Scruton’s overall thought, your opinion of this book will match your opinion of him.

4. Marwa Al-Sabouni, The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect.  A poignant and readable take on what has happened in the city of Homs, Syria, through the lens of how the architecture of a city shapes its politics, norms, and liberties, including how it ends up getting destroyed in wartime.

5. Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and ProphetDue out in February, the UK edition is already out.  Substantive and delightful on every page, this is one of my favorite non-fiction titles of the year so far, an excellent book all around.

6. Peter Parker, Housman Country: Into the Heart of England.  A lovely book, and what a wonderful opening summary bit: “My principal intention has been to investigate what I have called ‘Housman Country’, an English sensibility in which literature, landscape, music and emotion all play their part, and which finds one of its most perfect expressions in Housman’s poetry.”

I bought all of those in the UK.

Claims about clutter

by on July 2, 2016 at 11:09 am in Books, Education, Science, The Arts | Permalink

Tidy by category, not by location

One of the most common mistakes people make is to tidy room by room.  This approach doesn’t work because people think they have tied up when in fact they have only shuffled their things around from one location to another or scattered items in the same category around the house, making it impossible to get an accurate grasp of the volume of things they actually own.

The correct approach is to tidy by category.  This means tidying up all the things in the same category in one go.  For example, when tidying the clothes category, the first step is to gather every item of clothing from the entire house in one spot.  This allows you to see objectively exactly how much you have.  Confronted with an enormous mound of clothes, you will also be forced to acknowledge how poorly you have been treating your possessions.  It’s very important to get an accurate grasp of the sheer volume for each category.

That is from Marie Kondo, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying, a recommended book.  Also never tidy the kitchen first, do not keep make-up and skin care products together, and “…the first step in tidying is to get rid of things that don’t spark joy.”

I have a related tip.  If you want to do a truly significant clean-up, focus only on those problems which are not immediately visible.  This will help you build efficient systems, and prepare the way for more systematic solutions to your clutter problems.  You’ll then be prompted to take care of the visible problems in any case.  If you focus on the visible problems instead, you will solve them for a day or two but they will rapidly reemerge because the overall quality of your systems has not improved.

The author is Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon and the subtitle is Britain and Europe from the End of Empire to the rise of Euroscepticism.  It is maybe the best book to read on Britain’s earlier relations with the European Union.  Here is one bit:

The vast majority of the Labour Party was anti-EEC, believing that it was a capitalist conspiracy that would undermine Britain’s control of its own industry.

That was during the 1960s.  And this:

When it awoke on the morning of 1 January 1973 as a full member of the European Economic Community (EEC), the British public was deeply ambivalent.  In a poll taken 3-7 January 1973, 36 percent of the public reported being ‘quite or very pleased’; 33 percent were ‘quite or very displeased’ and an astonishing 20 percent purported to be ‘indifferent’ (the remaining 11 p cent were undecided, but not indifferent.

By August 1973, 52 per cent were opposed and only 32 per cent still in favor.

Definitely recommended, a book for our times.

Soon I will be recording a podcast-only, no live attendance, no live video Conversations with Tyler with Michael Orthofer.  Michael runs the site Literary Saloon and is perhaps the world’s most productive book reviewer and book review blogger, with a focus on foreign fiction translated into English.  Michael is a deeply devoted infovore, and I expect this to be one of the most interesting conversations in the series.

Here is my short review of Michael’s big book on world literature: “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 New Yorker profile of Orthofer:

“I can’t imagine not doing it,” Orthofer told me. “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.” His goal is to read a book a day, though he confesses that this is “unrealistic.” He works on weekends, too, and has written four novels that are in the drawer. His main interests, according to the site, are inline roller-skating in Central Park and building snow sculptures, some of which are big enough that he carves staircases inside them to get to the top. When he tires of working, he steps out to a library or bookstore, “to see, be around books.” Last year, and this year, he worked through Christmas.

OK, so what should I ask Michael?  Comments are open.

Addendum: Here are previous installments of Conversations with Tyler.

That is the new book by Ben Wilson, and no it has nothing (directly) to do with Brexit.  Rather it is a survey of the technological breakthroughs of the 1850s and how they reshaped Great Britain and the globe more generally.  Here is one short bit:

Japan may have secluded itself from the rest of the world, but it had not closed itself off.  That was a distinction that people in the West were slow to grasp.  The shogun’s court subscribed to the Illustrated London News, for example, and the bakufu had acquired books and papers detailing global politics and scientific discoveries through their Dutch and Chinese trading partners.  This knowledge was strictly regulated, but the seeds of scientific enlightenment were diffused in small numbers across the archipelago.  Perry did not know it — and nor did many Japanese — but his telegraph was not the first on Japanese soil.

Other parts of this book which I enjoyed were on the Great Geomagnetic Storm of 1859, how the British saw a connection between the U.S. Civil War, and the origins of Reuters.

If you want a new Brexit-relevant title of interest, try Brendan Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation.

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.