Books

Here is the latest from Silicon Valley:

As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.

…a new crop of virtual assistant start-ups, whose products will soon flood the market, have in mind more ambitious bots that can interact seamlessly with human beings.

Because this wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat, writers for AI must focus on making the conversation feel natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing “hmms” and “ums” into her responses to questions. Apple’s Siri assistant is known for her wry jokes, as well as her ability to beatbox upon request.

As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing. “You have to develop an entire backstory — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.

Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’ ” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”

Here is the full story.

A splendid book, here is Kate Kellaway at The Guardian:

There are two things this book requires. First, it is best read aloud – it comes thrillingly to life – it sounds tremendous. Second, it repays close reading. Studying it is to listen in on a poet with perfect pitch. Getting the diction right – so that the ancient is neither modern nor archaic – is the challenge. And Heaney shows that plain words are stormproofed. It is about more than George Orwell’s tired prescription: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It is about how plain language, like plain speaking, has integrity. And it is weight-bearing. It carries. When he introduces uncommon, eye-catching (sometimes longer) words – scaresome, asperging, hotbloods – they stand out but work harder against their plain backgrounds. Take the sighting of the golden bough. The word “refulgent” is strikingly charged, surrounded by “clear”, “green-leafed” and “cold”. Refulgent breaks Orwell’s rule and stands out like the golden branch itself. Or consider the description of Aeneas’s father, Anchises: “A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.” “Duress” is the pleasing surprise here (so much better than everyday “hardship”) seizing attention while “old age” and “worn out” do their unobtrusive work.

I will reread it shortly, you can buy it here.

It has been suggested to me that perhaps North Dakota is the most obscure state in the Union.  Maybe so!  Let’s take a look:

1. Author: William Gass would be a possible pick, but I do not enjoy his work.  Same with Louis L’Amour.

2. Humorist: Chuck Klosterman.

3. Sociologist of religion: Rodney Stark.

4. Painter: Clifford Styll is the obvious pick, except I don’t much like his work.  If you were wondering, he dominates so many rooms in American museums because of restrictions placed on grants of his paintings from the artist’s own collection.  I suspect some curators have come to resent this, but often the grants were made propitiously near the peak of Styll’s reputation.  I suppose I’ll opt for James Rosenquist, although I am not a huge fan of his work either.

5. Evening television bandleader and toastmaster: Lawrence Welk.  I can’t even think of a clear runner-up, with or without bubbles; this video will show you why he was a favorite of so many.

6. Movie and TV show, set in: Fargo duh. Otherwise it is Man in the Wilderness, which was the original and in some ways superior source material for The Revenant.

7. Actress: Angie Dickinson comes to mind, Dressed to Kill is a good movie.

8. gdp per capitaThat can set many things right, although 2016 may not be as good as was 2014.

The bottom line: Hm..but yet we must consider Delaware and Rhode Island!

The authors are Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. and the subtitle is Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.  I found this book subtle and thought-provoking throughout.  Here is one good bit:

In fact, many conservative academics feel more at home in the progressive academy than in the Republican Party.  This alienation is not because most conservative academics we interviewed are Rockefeller Republicans. In some respects, they are more conservative than self-identified Republicans in the general population.  Instead, the Republican Party tends to trouble even the most conservative professors because they share with the American founders a small-c conservatism that is sensitized to the dangers of democratic movements.  This political orientation inclines conservative professors to look askance at the populism that has shaken up the Republican Party in recent years…

What also comes through in this book is the remarkable diversity of thought among the so-called “intellectual right.”  And I enjoyed this anecdote:

A professor of history at an elite university, meanwhile, turned right after taking a course with the Marxist historian Arno Mayer.  This admiring historian recalled Mayer announcing to his class, “I’m going to assign the book I most disagree with in the twentieth century, and I’m going to ask you not to critique it, but to recreate its arguments with intellectual empathy.”  The book was Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

If only the blogosphere was always so tolerant.  I feared I would be bored by this book, but I found it a work of quality scholarship, yet highly readable too.  Here is a Jonathan Marks WSJ review.  And here is a relevant column by Virginia Postrel.

It is well written and consists mostly of reasoned economic arguments about the unworkability of various aspects of EU and eurozone affairs.  It is not a kiss and tell memoir about what really happened or did not happen in Greece in the critical months of last year.

Here is a good FT Martin Sandbu review of the book, excerpt:

He [Varoufakis] clearly, and correctly, thinks Greece should have defaulted on its sovereign debt and Ireland should have restructured its banks in 2010. But if alternative policies did in fact exist, which leaders could have pursued but chose not to, then a fatalistic monetary theory that blames everything on the euro’s design serves, paradoxically, to exonerate the mistakes of those leaders. That may not be his intention, but Varoufakis glosses over why national governments repeatedly declined to restructure debt before it was refinanced by the rescue funds. Above all he does not mention why he, as finance minister, did not restructure Greece’s banks early in his tenure, so as to undo their dependence on the European Central Bank, which last summer forced Athens to accept a third bailout by shutting down banking liquidity. This very partial focus is why Varoufakis’s literary references are so telling. The rage expressed by Thomas and Thucydides’ Melians is not a constructive anger but a cover for helplessness. Neither death nor the Athenians are moved by their rage. Nor, I suspect, will eurozone decision makers be moved by Varoufakis’s.

You can order the book here, it is titled And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Future.

Here are some key parts:

This email is to let you know that I’m going back to long-form journalism, as I hoped to, at New York Magazine, edited by the incomparable Adam Moss (with whom I’ve worked, on and off, since the late 1980s). I start today and am already working on an essay on Trump. I’ll also be blogging the Democratic and Republican conventions – two discrete, unmissable moments for bloggery in real time. I know, I know. But if I keep the blogging restricted to two bouts of four days each, I’m hoping I won’t relapse.

My other news is that I’ve also committed to two new books. The first, with the working title of “Keeping Faith,” is a spiritual memoir and theological argument about the future and meaning of Christianity in the 21st Century. The second, called “Thinking Out Loud,” is a collection of my essays and reviews and posts over the last thirty years. I’m excited to be published by Simon and Schuster, with Ben Loehnen as my editor. I’ll keep you posted as these projects unfold.

OK, OK, I have decided Nebraska is not the most obscure state.  How about Idaho?  What can we can think of which is noteworthy from Idaho?  More than you might expect, here goes:

Author: A variety of writers have lived in or passed through the state for a few years’ time, including Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Rice BurroughsA few of Hemingway’s short stories I admire very much.

Poet: Ezra Pound, yes I know he left at age three.  Still, he was from Idaho.

Native American sage and explorer: Sacagewea.  Did you know that her portrait design on the dollar coin is not in the public domain?

Economist: Lant Pritchett was raised in Boise.

Popular music: Built to Spill.

Composer: La Monte Young, The Well-Tuned Piano is one of the better pieces of contemporary classical music, still highly underrated.  Here is a two minute sample from what is more or less a five hour work.

Artist: Matthew Barney, twelve years in Idaho.  Here is an interview.

Barney

Director: David Lynch, who spent formative years in Boise.  Here is a good recent piece on how powerful Blue Velvet still is.  Is it fair to say this state has produced some pretty weird stuff?

Actress: Lana Turner, and Patty Duke just passed away.  Mariel and Margeaux Hemingway also have claims.

Movie, set in: The only one I can think of is…My Private Idaho.

Other notables: Philo T. Farnsworth invented television, more or less, and he also worked on nuclear fusion.

The bottom line: Per capita, this isn’t bad, even if not much of it is associated with Idaho.  I’ll have to look harder for the most obscure state.  It might be Idaho, but it doesn’t deserve to be Idaho.  So perhaps Delaware, Wyoming, and Rhode Island will come under the microscope soon.

I thank Roy LC, Marcus, and kb for essential pointers here.

*Money Changes Everything*

by on March 31, 2016 at 3:15 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The author is William N. Goetzmann, and the subtitle is How Finance Made Civilization Possible.  This is a very good general history about the useful role finance has played through the ages.

I also have been enjoying Robert Teitelman’s Bloodsport: When Ruthless Dealmakers, Shrewd Ideologues, and Brawling Lawyers Toppled the Corporate Establishment, a general history of American corporate deal-making.

Arrived in my pile

by on March 31, 2016 at 12:53 am in Books | Permalink

I get many, these are some of the ones which look the best:

1. George S. Yip and Bruce McKern, China’s Next Strategic Advantage: From Imitation to Innovation.  Every book on this topic is worth reading, this one too.

2. George Hawley, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism.  University Press of Kansas has been sending me more books lately, they are developing quite a nice line of publications.

3. Tom Vanderbilt, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.

4. Justin Schmidt, The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science.  A popular science book on insect stings, so far it is quite good.

5. Salil Tripathi, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy.

6. Robert S. Levine, The Lives of Frederick Douglass, this one is excellent based on about thirty minutes of browsing.

If it is the most obscure state, I thought it worth a ponder and profile of what they have produced.  And the answers are surprisingly strong:

1. Author: I’ll take Willa Cather over Raymond Chandler, but neither puts the state to shame.  I don’t care for Nicholas Sparks’s writings, but he makes the list.  Malcolm X wrote one of the great memoirs of American history.

2. Actors and actresses: There is Brando, Harold Lloyd, Hilary Swank, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and James Coburn.  What a strong category.

3. Dancer and singer: Fred Astaire, try this from Swing Time.  For his underrated singing, try “Cheek to Cheek.”

4. Music: I can think only of Elliott Smith, am I missing anything?

5. TV personalities: Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.  Did you know that Carson learned Swahili on-line after his retirement and became fluent in the language?

6. Painter: Edward Ruscha.

7. Album, set in: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, favorite song “Open All Night.”

8. Movie, set in: Election.  I feel there are others too, Nebraska for one but presumably a fair number of Westerns too.

9. Investor: Duh.

10. Economist: Lawrence Klein was born in Omaha, although I cannot say his is my favored approach.  How about Edith Abbott?

11. Other: I cannot count L. Ron Hubbard as a positive.  I believe I have neglected some native Americans born in Nebraska, maybe some cowboys too.  I don’t have favorite cowboys.

Ruscha

The bottom line: People, this state should not be so obscure!

Disruptive threats nearly always start with an attack on the large sources of profit. In the newspaper industry, the first real blow was not the replacement of the traditional newsroom as we initially feared: it was the erosion of classified revenue that paid for the newsroom by companies with weird names like eBay and Monster.

In higher education, the real threat won’t be a frontal assault on core degree programs, but the erosion of the most profitable continuing education courses and graduate programs. Coding bootcamps aren’t likely to expand their focus to challenge the preeminence of the degree any time soon. But the explosion of non-accredited programs is beginning to threaten the MBA. They have proven that they can iterate quickly and deliver a more modern learning product at a fraction of the price. Higher education will never be replaced, but the most profitable courses will be attacked, creating revenue implications that have a ripple effect across institutions.

That is from Frederick Singer, via Jeff Selingo.  Do note that Jeff’s new book There is Life After College is coming out April 12.

…Dante’s fame as a necromancer is also in a certain sense documented.

Such notoriety shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, he had a reputation as an expert in astrology, and we know that this discipline could easily spill over into magical and necromantic practices.  And then, above all, he was famous after the publication of Inferno for having descended live into the realms of the afterlife and for having encountered devils there, the souls of the damned, and having spoken to them.  It must have been a rumor widely spread and also disturbing.  It seems, according to Boccaccio, that the women who used to pass him in the street would say to each other: Look, “he who goes into Hell, and returns whenever he likes, and brings back news of those who are down there…”

That is from the new Dante biography by Marco Santagata, Belknap Press at Harvard, definitely recommended, it will make my best non-fiction of the year list for sure.

That is a question posed by Robert H. Frank in his forthcoming book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.  The main point of this book is to illuminate the major role which luck plays in our lives and then to flesh out the social and policy implications of that fact.

My view is more Straussian than Bob’s: I think we have to believe in a concept of meritocracy whether it is justified or not.  (Do note that Bob covers a version of this point in one of his chapters, where he argues that reminding people of their good fortune makes them more generous; I still think society requires strong feelings of desert, and generosity often follows from a kind of false magnanimity about one’s good fortune.)  But as always with Bob, this is a deep and stimulating book, well written too.  You also learn a great deal about Bob’s highly interesting life, such as how he survived his heart attack, pulled out Cornell tenure at the last moment, and decided to track down his birth parents.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is chapter one, which starts with the heart attack story.

Anyway, the comment section is open: what is statistically the most improbably thing that has happened to you?

No, I am not there but think of this as an act of homage from a distance.  Here goes:

1. Novelist: There is Simenon, Yourcenar, and Amelie Nothomb.  I like them all but do not love them.  Can I pick Julio Cortázar, who was born in Belgium even if he did not come of age there and essentially was Argentinian?  As for a fictional character, how about Hercule Poirot?

2. Playwright: Maurice Maeterlinck, read especially Blue Bird.

3. Composer: César Franck is the obvious modern pick.  There is also Henri Pousseur, and a variety of Renaissance composers, including Heinrich Isaac, Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, and Josquin des Prez.  I’ll pick the violin works of Eugène Ysaÿe, as the Renaissance music is arguably more Burgundian or “Franco-Flemish” than culturally Belgian as it relates to the modern nation.

4. Jazz musician: Django Reinhardt, that one is easy, try this cut.  Toots Thielmans, the jazz harmonica player, is perhaps runner up.

5. Economist: Jacques H. Drèze and Robert Triffin would be the obvious picks.   A dark horse choice would be Jean Drèze, son of Jacques, for his obsessive data work in India.  He still awaits a much-deserved major profile.  Gustav de Molinari, who first wrote about private protection agencies and arguably was the first modern libertarian anarchist.

6. Painter: This has to be the strong suit.  Magritte is an obvious choice, but there is also Gerard David, Hans Memling, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Adriaen Brouwer, Luc Tuymans, Jacob Jordaens, Paul Delvaux, Petrus Christus, Robert Campin, and Pierre Alechinsky, among others.  Jan van Eyck is one of the greater painters ever, but for sheer Belgianness I will opt for James Ensor, see the image below.

7. Sculpture: Marcel Broodthaers.  Right now there is a nice retrospective of his work on at MOMA.

7. Historian: Henri Pirenne, way ahead of his time.

9. NBA point guard: Tony Parker was born there, to American and Dutch parents, that counts for something.

10. Anthropologist: Claude Levi-Strauss.  Tristes Tropiques remains a beautiful book to be read by all.

11. Movie: I cannot think of one I really like, can you help?  And I can’t easily digest the works of Chantal Akerman.

11b. Movie, set in: In Bruges, a fun dark comedy.

12. Violinist: Arthur Grumiaux, but with competition from Sigiswald Kuijken.

Ensor

The bottom line: Once you get into the period where Belgium is a modern nation, it’s all so wonderfully offbeat.

But in March 1963, a month before his final game for the Celtics, [Bob] Cousy complained to the Associated Press, “I think the jump shot is the worst thing that has happened to basketball in ten years.”  Cousy’s objections?  “Any time you can do something on the ground, it’s better,” he said, sounding very much like a coach who would have enjoyed benching Kenny Sailors or Bud Palmer.  “Once you leave the ground, you’ve committed yourself.”  Jump shot critics discouraged players from flying into the air because they feared the indecision that came when someone left their feet.  They feared the bad passes from players who jumped with no clear plan of what they’d do in the air.  Staying grounded meant fewer mistakes.  It was simply a safer way to play the game, if not as exciting.

That is from Shawn Fury’s new and fun Rise and Fire: The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shot — and How it Transformed Basketball Forever.  Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone criticize Stephen Curry for taking (and making) so many three point shots.  This is what I call “@pmarca bait.”