Books

A Yoruba tongue twister

by on December 26, 2016 at 3:06 am in Books, Science | Permalink

Opolopo opolo ni ko mo pe opolopo eniyan l’opolo l’opolopo

That means “many frogs do not know that many people are intelligent.”

That is from Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things, a book of essays.

And here is yet a further update on Nigerian plastic rice.

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Petinal Gappah, The Book of Memory

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, used or Kindle edition is recommended

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Primo Levi, If This is a Man

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1, also on-line.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Reputations

Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

 

Movies: Difret, Court, The Chinese Mayor, A Separation

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

What I’ve been reading

by on December 24, 2016 at 12:10 am in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix, Beyond Earth; Our Path to a New Home in the Planets.  The core claim is that humans can (will?) colonize Titan, the moon of Saturn.  But what are we to make of sentences such as: “The temperature is around -180 Celsius (-290 Fahrenheit), but clothing with thick insulation or heating elements would keep you comfortable.  A rip wouldn’t kill you as long as you didn’t freeze.”  Pregnancy would be tricky too.

2. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi.  One of my favorite literary biographies, ever.  This is also a first-rate look at the history of the Holocaust, and the postwar Italian literary world.  Definitely recommended.

3. Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture.  One of the best and most readable treatments of the Haitian revolution, with a focus on Louverture of course.  Here is one good bit:

When it came time to pick between two extremes — slavery and unfettered freedom — Louverture stopped well short of the latter.  By order of General Louverture, all former field slaves, even those who had settled in urban areas during the Revolution, would return to their original plantations, sometimes under their former masters.  Those who refused would be “arrested and punished as severely as soldiers,” which implied that plantation runaways could be shot as deserters.  He thereby merged the two worlds he knew best — the sugar plantation and the army camp — into a kind of military-agricultural complex.

According to many critics at the time, rebel leaders were in essence confiscating the slave plantations of their former white masters.  Furthermore, the importation of laborers from Africa was to continue.

4. Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew, delivers exactly what it promises: “For many young Israelis, Arial is virtually the only font they read.”

Also in various stages of undress are:

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, foreword by Bernie Sanders.

Niall Kishtainy, A Little History of Economics, a modern-day Heilbroner.

Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, a Julian Simon-esque take on the case for optimism.

I will be chatting with him for the next Conversation with Tyler, January 26.  Here is an excerpt from his bio:

Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post…In addition to serving as the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in LA, Rabbi Wolpe has written eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe also writes a weekly column for Time.com. His writing has been included in The LA Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and the New York Jewish Week. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the American Jewish University, Hunter College, and UCLA.

Here is his Wikipedia page, and his most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.

This event will be held at the Sixth and I St. Synagogue in Washington, D.C., 7 p.m.; please note they charge admission but that is for them not for me!  This will not be a regular feature of the series moving forward, but they do need to cover their costs and we really wanted to use that venue.

So what should I ask David Wolpe?

“Folding Beijing”

by on December 16, 2016 at 2:40 am in Books, Economics, Science | Permalink

It is an extraordinary short story, one of the best things I’ve read all year, and it’s proof positive of how rapidly China is becoming a society supercharged with creativity.  I am pleased to see it received a Hugo Award for best novelette.

The author is Hao Jingfang and it’s on-line here.  Did you know she is a macroeconomics researcher at a quango in Beijing?  One key part of the plot and premise revolves around macroeconomic theory, here is an excerpt:

“Hard to say.” Lao Ge sipped the baijiu and let out a burp. “I suspect not. You have to understand why they went with manual processing in the first place. Back then, the situation here was similar to Europe at the end of the twentieth century. The economy was growing, but so was unemployment. Printing money didn’t solve the problem. The economy refused to obey the Phillips curve.”

He saw that Lao Dao looked completely lost, and laughed. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand these things anyway.”

I cannot excerpt more without giving away spoilers.  Definitely recommended, and for the pointer I thank Eva.

Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks.

Murdock J, Allen C, and DeDeo S

Abstract

Search in an environment with an uncertain distribution of resources involves a trade-off between exploitation of past discoveries and further exploration. This extends to information foraging, where a knowledge-seeker shifts between reading in depth and studying new domains. To study this decision-making process, we examine the reading choices made by one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era: Charles Darwin. From the full-text of books listed in his chronologically-organized reading journals, we generate topic models to quantify his local (text-to-text) and global (text-to-past) reading decisions using Kullback-Liebler Divergence, a cognitively-validated, information-theoretic measure of relative surprise. Rather than a pattern of surprise-minimization, corresponding to a pure exploitation strategy, Darwin’s behavior shifts from early exploitation to later exploration, seeking unusually high levels of cognitive surprise relative to previous eras. These shifts, detected by an unsupervised Bayesian model, correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career as identified both by qualitative scholarship and Darwin’s own self-commentary. Our methods allow us to compare his consumption of texts with their publication order. We find Darwin’s consumption more exploratory than the culture’s production, suggesting that underneath gradual societal changes are the explorations of individual synthesis and discovery. Our quantitative methods advance the study of cognitive search through a framework for testing interactions between individual and collective behavior and between short- and long-term consumption choices. This novel application of topic modeling to characterize individual reading complements widespread studies of collective scientific behavior.

…[Theodor] Herzl had the overture to Tannhäuser played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

That is from the quite good Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, p.102.  For one thing, Herzl was attracted by the story line that featured a man wandering without a homeland.

What I’ve been reading

by on December 12, 2016 at 12:25 am in Books | Permalink

1. Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds.  A super-fun but oddly uneven biography of Kahneman and Tversky, a meditation on the nature of collaboration, and a history of the early stages of behavioral economics (economics?) and for that matter a history of Israel in some of its early decades.  There are cameos from Rapaport, Thaler, Gigerenzer, and others.  Why did the Israelis take so readily to the idea of an economic psychology, compared to the Anglos?

2. Michel Faber, Undying: A Love Story.  The pages are arranged like poems with stanzas, but it reads more like prose.  It is the moving story of the death of Faber’s wife by cancer, very short and interesting throughout.  So far published only in the UK.

3. Robert R. Reilly, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.  A highly useful and to the point guide to classical music for the periods you probably do not listen to.  It is strongest on the “intermediate” composers, such as Vagn Holmboe, Robert Simpson, and Edmund Rubbra.  It makes a persuasive case for the 17 string quartets of Heitor Villa-Lobos, we’ll see if that was $40 well-spent.

4. Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game.  This book is a series of letters, mostly about soccer.  They are more substantive than you might be expecting, but still you have to love both Knausgaard and soccer to enjoy this one, on those I am only one for two.

5. Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis. Staying ahead of the Curve.  This is about how cities are failing the middle class throughout much of the world.  At the same time, suburbs are seeing a new poverty and urbanization is not always translating into rising living standards around the world.  This book is where the problems of urban economics “are at” right now.

I had never read The Jewish State before, so I was surprised to see how much economics it contained.  Here are a few points, most but not all economics:

1. Herzl considered Argentina as a possible alternative to Palestine for the Jewish state.

2. Zionism would require the creation of a large land acquisition company, to sell the homes of departing Jews in an orderly fashion and to coordinate real estate purchases in the new Jewish home.  It would be incorporated in London as a joint stock company under English law.  Many of the shareholders likely would be Christians.

3. In essence swapping European homes (and businesses) and arbitraging into cheaper homes would allow the joint stock company to turn a profit, thereby financing a new Jewish society and state.  The company also would ensure that Jewish buyers of the new lands do not overpay, and provide a liquidity bridge so that Jewish businesses in Europe could be sold at fair prices to Christians.  Some parts of Herzl’s description one can interpret as seeing the foundation of the forthcoming “state of Israel” as a kind of sovereign wealth fund, combined with micro-lending functions.  Herzl doesn’t quite spell out all the links, but I sense an understanding that the company will bring together settlers, internalize urban externalities, and boost real estate values, thereby creating another source of both profit and social value.

4. As for the new setting, “the detached houses in little gardens will be united into attractive groups in each locality.”  The cited architectural model was the United States, but with one crucial modification: houses will be arranged so that the Temple is visible from a great distance.

5. The main initial labor source would be poor Jews from Rumania and Russia.  After spending three years building homes, they would receive homes of their own.  During the early years of settlement, this process would be run in part like a “company town,” with some payments in services to allow for subsistence.

6. The regular working day would not exceed seven hours.  Overtime pay always should be in terms of cash, never barter.  The joint stock company also will serve as a very large labor union/cartel to help enforce these terms for work.

7. The new society also would create “comprehensive modern Jewish statistics” to help matters run smoothly.

8. “Making markets” through the above-discussed profit-seeking means is likely to be more successful than philanthropy-induced settlement.

9. Democratic monarchy is the best form of government, but impractical for the new Jewish state, because the kings of earlier times are now gone.  So the new state should try to model itself upon the old aristocratic republic of Renaissance Venice, which is otherwise the best system of government known to mankind (Gordon Tullock would have agreed).  The new government was not to be a theocracy.

herzl

10. Throughout I was reminded of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the famed theorist of Antipodean colonization, yet that connection does not seem to have been noted by the literature.

By James Stent, I thought this was quite a special book.  Most of all, it tries to explain how things actually work (it is sad how rare this is in books, outside the genre of angling tomes).  Stent tries to give the reader a good sense of what kind of demotion a failing leader of a big bank might receive, how the 1998 failure of GITIC (Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation) shaped the thinking of Chinese leaders on bank resolution, how major bank board directors are chosen, how the percentage of non-performing loans is calculated within banks, how SME loan risk is dealt with, and how the regulators try to ensure safety (lots of liquidity), among many other matters.

It is perhaps no surprise that the author has been an independent director on the boards of two Chinese banks, and has four decades of banking experience in Asia.

It’s not a thrilling read for most people, but if you read books on China or international finance you’ll learn a great deal from this one.  That said, I believe the author’s assessments are in general not sufficiently critical, noting that some recent events seem to bear out such a judgment.

You can buy it here.  Also useful, for different reasons, is the new book The Economics of Air Pollution in China: Achieving Better and Cleaner Growth, by Ma Jun.  It is funny (read: sad) how many people think the planet is at stake when it comes to climate change, and yet they will not deign to read a single book about air pollution in China.  Should they not read all of them?

“To forestall his book’s publication he paid a friend to find people who might convince him not to publish it.”

That is Jennifer Senior quoting Michael Lewis on Daniel Kahneman’s remarks about his own book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

What I’ve been reading

by on November 29, 2016 at 12:50 am in Books | Permalink

1. Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives, by Sunil Khilnani.  A highly readable introduction to Indian history, structured around the lives of some of its major figures.  I passed along my copy to Alex.

2. Haruki Murakami, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa.  More for classical music and Ojawa fans than Murakami readers, this is nonetheless an easy to read and stimulating set of interviews for any serious classical music listener.  They are most interesting on Mahler.

3. Elsa Morante, History.  In America, this is one of the least frequently read and discussed great European novels of the 20th century.

4. Miriam J. Laugesen, Fixing Medical Prices: How Physicians are Paid.  Will people still care about these issues for the next four years?  I hope so, because this is the best book I know of on Medicare pricing and its influence on pricing throughout the broader U.S. health care system.

My copy of Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy has arrived.  It is a very good statement of how political fragmentation and intensified intellectual competition drove modernity and the Industrial Revolution.

I have only perused John H. Kagel and Alvin E. Roth, Handbook of Experimental Economics, volume 2, but it appears to be an extremely impressive contribution.

Marc Levinson’s An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy details what made the post World War II era so special in terms of its economics and income distribution and why it will be so hard to recreate.

Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation, due out in March, he argues that racial equality really hasn’t improved much since 1968.

Guillermo A. Calvo, Macroeconomics in Times of Liquidity Crises is a useful book on sudden stops and related ideas.

Arrived in my pile is Yuval Noah Harati, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The best non-fiction books of 2016

by on November 28, 2016 at 12:28 am in Books | Permalink

In most cases, my review is behind the link, though a few times it leads merely to the Amazon page.  If I wrote only a few words about the book, I have reproduced them directly in this post.  And the books are listed, more or less, in the order I read them.  Apologies if I forgot your book, each year I do neglect a few.  Here goes:

Robert J. Gordon, Rise and Fall of American Growth, my review is here.

Marco Santagana, Dante: The Story of His Life.

Melancholy, by László F. Földényi.

Ji Xianlin, The Cowshed: Memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  The classic account of its kind, in this edition brilliantly translated and presented.

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em.  Unlike any other on this list, this work created a new genre.

Benedict Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries.

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

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History.

Srinath Raghavan, India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia.

Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Continental Drift: Britain and Europe from the End of Empire to the Rise of Euroscepticism.

Marie Kondo, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying.

Peter Parker, Housman Country: Into the Heart of England.  It’s already out in the UK, which is where I bought my copy.

Lawrence Rosen, Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco.  Superb descriptive anthropology.

Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and ProphetDue out in February, the UK edition is already out.  Substantive and delightful on every page.

Kerry Brown, CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.

Richard van Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity through the 19th Century.

Christopher Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam.  The best general history of Vietnam I know, and it does not obsess over “the Vietnam War.”  Readable and instructive on pretty much every page.

Andrew Scott Cooper, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.

William Domnarski, Richard Posner.

Peter Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs.

Daniel Gormally, Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World.  A personal favorite, you can read this as a study in labor economics as to why people hang on to crummy jobs.

Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.  Short descriptions of places you ought to visit, such as ossuaries, micronations, museums of invisible microbes, the floating school of Lagos, the Mistake House of Elsah, Illinois, Bangkok’s Museum of Counterfeit Goods, and the world’s largest Tesla coil in Makarau, controlled by Alan Gibbs of New Zealand.  The selection is conceptual, so I like it.  I will keep this book.

Jean Lucey Pratt, A Notable Woman.

Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich.

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

Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.

Julian Gewirtz, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China.

Marina Abramović, Walk Through Walls.

Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

shah

Here is Arnold Kling’s list.  Here is my list of the year’s best fiction.

I would describe this year as thick in wonderful, superb books, though I remain uncertain which of these is truly the year’s winner.  So many plausible contenders!  I can only promise I’ll continue to cover what comes out between now and the end of the year, and apologies if one or two of those above are from late 2015.

Buy Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.  It also will make my best non-fiction books of the year list.  See also his Miami Herald interview, and his long Brookings paper on FDI in Cuba.