Books

That is the new book by Christopher de Hamel, and it is one of the very best non-fiction books this year, in fact so far it might rank #1.  It is twelve chapters, each one about an individual medieval manuscript, the best-known of those being the Book of Kells.   The integration of text and the visuals is of the highest order of quality.  Most of all, the book brings each manuscript to life, relating its creators and creation, the surrounding historical context, its subsequent preservation and fame, and how that history has embodied varying attitudes toward copying and preservation.  No less illuminating is the anthropological treatment of how each manuscript is currently guarded and displayed, the author’s travel history in getting there, and a more general “philosophical without the philosophy” introspection on what these objects are really supposed to mean to us.

This book is not in every way light reading, and it does assume some (very broad) background in medieval history, but it brings a whole topic to light, and instructs, in a way that few other works do.

Here is just one short excerpt:

My initial inquiry as to whether I might see the manuscript of the Aratea in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden was met with the reply that this would hardly be necessary, since there is a high-class published facsimile from 1989 and the complete book is in any case digitized and freely available on-line.  It was a response entirely within the theme of copying.  If you had applied to the palace librarians of Aachen in the early ninth century to see the late-antique Terence, they would almost certainly have assured you that you would be better off with their nice new copy by their scribe Hrodgarius.

Hamel worked for a long time in the book department at Sotheby’s and then in a library at Cambridge University.  He is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (he thinks the bustle of NYC is extreme, for instance), but nonetheless has produced a lovely and complete work that virtually every author should envy.  I am ordering his other books too, mostly on the history of books.

Here is a Guardian review, John Banville in the FT raves about it, and here is The Paris Review.  I believe I ordered it on Amazon.uk, all five-star reviews by the way.  Here is the U.S. Amazon listing, with access to used copies, I am not sure when the American edition comes out.

kells

I am amazed that the latest New Yorker contains a fair, knowledgeable and informative review-essay of Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance, and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. The author, Caleb Crain, has done his homework and he engages seriously with the literature. Here is one bit but read the whole thing both for what it says and what its publication in the New Yorker says about our times.

Brennan has a bright, pugilistic style, and he takes a sportsman’s pleasure in upsetting pieties and demolishing weak logic. Voting rights may happen to signify human dignity to us, he writes, but corpse-eating once signified respect for the dead among the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. To him, our faith in the ennobling power of political debate is no more well grounded than the supposition that college fraternities build character.

It is an edited collection, I have an essay on inequality in the volume.  Here is the Amazon link.  Here is the book’s home page, which includes a full, free pdf.  There are many famous contributors, including Jason Furman and Betsey Stevenson, Martin Feldstein, Justin Wolfers, Glenn Hubbard, George Borjas, Melissa Kearney, Casey Mulligan, and others.  Here is Strain’s introduction and an organization of the book in sections.  Self-recommending!

*Walk Through Walls*

by on October 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm in Books, Film, Philosophy, The Arts | Permalink

That’s the new and very direct and frank memoir by Marina Abramović.  It is a narrative of how a very smart and insightful person can choose (almost) never to think like an economist, and how she might evolve from a naive Serbian virgin to one of the world’s most worldly, serene, and profound performers.  Here is one part:

My parents’ marriage was like a war — I never saw them hug or kiss or express any affection toward each other.  Maybe it was just an old habit from partisan days, but they both slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables!  I remember once, during a rare period when they were speaking to each other, my father came home for lunch and my mother said, “Do you want soup?”  And when he said yes, she came up behind him and dumped the hot soup on his head.  He screamed, pushed the table away, broke every dish in the room, and walked out.

As for her famed lover, the unreliable Ulay, the cause of her broken heart:

A small crowd was there to watch our meeting [on China’s Great Wall].  I wept as he embraced me.  It was the embrace of a comrade, not a lover: the warmth had drained out of him.  I would soon learn that he had impregnated his translator: Ding Xiao Song.  They would marry in Beijing in December.

This book passed the core test that I wanted it to be much longer than it was.  Here is a good Carl Swanson profile of the artist and the book, maybe the best piece I have read this week.

What I’ve been reading

by on October 24, 2016 at 12:09 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Peter Ames Carlin, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon.  I hadn’t known that Simon originally recorded the Hearts and Bones album with Garfunkel, but later erased his partner’s contributions to the songs.  Nor had I known that Simon produced a stripped-down, acoustic guitar version of “Surfer Girl.”  For fans, the book is interesting throughout, and most of all the story is of an ongoing rivalry — with Art — that never became functional again once it collapsed.

2. Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama.  A 1950s Argentinean novel set in colonial times, and beloved by Roberto Bolaño; the introduction describes the author as “a would-be magical realist who can’t quite detach himself from reality.”  For fans of the disjointed tragic.  I very much liked it, but had to read the first half twice in a row to grab hold of what was going on.

3. Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and its Demons.  Fresh and stimulating throughout, I found most interesting the parts of how the Commander in Chief role of the president evolved under Lincoln, and Lincoln as the first “media president.”  Highly relevant for current politics too.

Forthcoming is Joe Quirk, with Patri Friedman, Seasteading: How Ocean Cities Will Change the World.  Comprehensive and readable, though I am not a convert.

William Mellor and Dick M. Carpenter II, Bottleneckers: Gaming the Government for Power and Private Profit, is a very useful look at how laws and regulation block progress and create barriers to advancement.

I have only browsed Milan Vaishnav, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, but it appears to be a quite interesting political economy take on the (non-optimal) transactional economies from having criminals so deeply involved in Indian politics.

Minxin Pei, China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay, takes a close look at Chinese corruption, based on a detailed study of two hundred cases.

The author is Julian Gewirtz and the subtitle is Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China.  I loved this book.  It is a tour de force on China, the theory of policy advising, and the history of economic thought, all rolled into one.  Here is one bit:

The Chinese side, meanwhile, had learned the hard way about Friedman’s dual persona and that his expertise on inflation could not be separated from his ideological intensity [TC: circa 1980]…Yang Peixin remembered Friedman as “extraordinarily stubborn,” someone who “thinks the world socialist experiment has failed,” and “would not speak politely no matter how high your position.”

It turns out that Wlodzimierz Brus and Ota Šik were two of the most important economists of the twentieth century, mostly because of their influence on China.  Both came from Eastern Europe and centrally planned economies, but urged China to find a workable mixed model.  Šik was a proponent of the ideas of Oskar Lange.

From this book you also will learn about the significant roles of Gregory Chow, James Tobin, and Janos Kornai, all explained with intelligence and lucidity.  I enjoyed this bit:

To the Chinese participants [in the seminar], Tobin’s presentation had an almost theatrical power — after all, they had never before seen an economist in action in this way.  One participant recalled that Tobin’s seemingly magical ability to make policy recommendations from quickly looking at a set of high-level data astonished him and his peers.

At one point during Tobin’s talk, the interpreter burst into tears.  The more influential Kornai instead said this:

“I had in a sense two different faces, one face for Hungary and one face for China.”

More concretely, he was recommending shock therapy for Hungary but not for China.  Friedman, by the way, had more influence when he returned to China for a Cato conference in 1988.  But still the Chinese thought Friedman did not sufficiently understand the special characteristics of the Chinese economy.

Strongly recommended, due out early next year.  Gewirtz, by the way, is a Rhodes Scholar and still has not finished his Ph.d.  I eagerly await his next work.  You can follow him on Twitter here.  He is also well-known as a poet.

…the most important technological change for the transportation of heavy goods in nineteenth-century India was not the arrival of the quick, expensive railway: it was the move from pack animals to carts pulled by two or four beasts in the first half of the century.  This was the process historian Amalendu Guha calls ‘the bullock cart revolution’.  Throughout the 1860s and 1870s railways found it impossible to compete not only with bullock carts, but also with human-powered river transport.  Rowing boats along the Ganges and Jamuna won a price war with the railways over the cost of transporting heavy goods.  Vessels powered by human beings were able to undercut steam vessels elsewhere.

That is from Jon Wilson, The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India, a new and excellent book that stresses how much British rule of India was rooted in chaos and violence, rather than the smooth operation of a colonial elite.

In case you have been living under a quiche shop, she has written the very best Chinese cookbooks ever, and her memoir is excellent too.

No, the public chat with Steven Pinker has not been held yet, but I will be recording with Fuchsia soon due to schedule constraints, so I am asking now for question suggestions.  There is no public event, as it will be centered around a restaurant meal, with myself and an illustrious panel of interlocutors, including Ezra Klein and Mark Miller, founder of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe.

Here are my previous posts about Fuchsia Dunlop.  And I can strongly recommend to you her very latest book Land of Fish and Rice, on the food in and near Shanghai, both recipes and text.

Here is her FT piece on gastro-nihilists and gastro-sexual tension.  Here are her scrapbook excerpts.  Here is a recent interview.

dunlop

Amanda Knox on Netflix is a shorter version of Making a Murderer. Shorter because there isn’t much evidence that Knox had anything to do with the murder of her amanda-knox-doc-netflix-780x439housemate. The documentary has extensive interviews with the lead investigator, a blowhard who likens himself to Sherlock Holmes but whose idea of deduction is that the murderer must have been a woman because the body was covered up. Surprisingly, the one clear sociopath isn’t the actual killer but the journalist whose lurid dispatches turned a tragic but ordinary murder into a witch hunt–a real Nightcrawler. Throw in some nationalism on both the Italian and U.S. sides and it’s not surprising that justice went awry. Trump has a cameo.

Luke Cage, also on Netflix, is the latest Marvel superhero story set in the same New York universe as Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Harlem is lovingly portrayed and the barbershop name dropping–Walter Mosley, Zora Neal Hurston, Crispus Attucks–and luke-cagevarious basketball, jazz, and rap references adds color. The central conflict, however, is flat. Super-strong, well-nigh invulnerable Cage is not evenly-matched by drug dealer-businessman Cottonmouth. Despite a watchable performance by Mahershala Ali, Cottonmouth is no Kingpin. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin had Shakespearean intensity, depth, and the physical power to battle a super-hero. Indeed, one of the things that made Daredevil special was that you could see his exhaustion and pain in every battle. Similarly, Jessica Jones’s nemesis, Kilgrave, was one of the most horrific characters ever seen on television (in a great understated performance by David Tennant) and Kilgrave had Jones under his thumb for much of the season. Super heroes need super villains. To be sure, there is pickup in the second half of Luke Cage, but it takes a long time to develop.

Westworld (HBO)–this is the one that you must watch. The first two episodes have been remarkable. Every scene has something to see or to think about. Audience expectations are continually subverted. The cinematography is stunning.

One characters says “That’s what I love about this place all the secrets, all the little things I never noticed even after all these years. You know why this place beats the real world…in here every detlevelsail adds up to something.” Very meta. The shots also speak to the structure of the plot. Look at this amazing shot of the control building–levels of meaning.

It does not pass notice that it’s bright and shiny on top but the lower levels–the subconscious–are dark, moist, subterranean. We are told that WestWorld is a maze, a maze literally and figuratively, in our heads.

Westworld also challenges us with questions. Who are we? If we visited Westworld would we be the good guys or the bad guys? How many of us secretly harbor the desire to do evil and are restrained only by fear of punishment? What kind of Zimbardo experiment is Westworld?

Or are we the operators of Westworld who treat other people (?) as mere means and not as ends in themselves? Parts of Westworld look like an abattoir and from one perspective there are mass rapes.

Or are we the robots, living in a simulation, a reality of someone else’s construction? And what is going on with the corporation? The ultimate god?

The executive producer of Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher, and writer or co-writer of Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Night and Interstellar.

We are only two episodes in but so far this is thrilling art in action.

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate!

by on October 13, 2016 at 7:20 am in Books, Music, Uncategorized | Permalink

I had heard the rumors for years, but I didn’t think it actually would happen.  My takes on a few Dylan albums:

FreeWheelin’ Bob Dylan: One of his most listenable and underrated albums, the same is true for Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Bringing It All Back Home: The album I fell in love with as a kid.  Some of it is overwrought but mostly still amazing, perhaps his highest peaks.

Highway 61 Revisited: Half of it is wonderful, but it contains excess and some so-so judgment.

Blonde on Blonde: Many see this as Dylan’s peak, but I don’t listen to it much.  Somehow the sound is a little harsh for my taste.

The Basement Tapes: The most overrated, too much murky slush and slosh.

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, vol.II: The perfect medley.

Blood on the Tracks: Maybe the most consistent and listenable album, though it’s not pathbreaking in the way that the mid-sixties work was.

Time Out of Mind: An amazing “late career” work.

Dylan’s memoir is excellent, and his most underrated contribution outside of creating music is the CDs he edited for satellite radio, many hours of Dylan selecting and playing classics from early American musical history, blues, country, mixed styles, perhaps the single best look at the early evolution of American popular music.  Many hours of listening pleasure.  Bob Dylan Radio Hour.  And the Martin Scorsese four-hour bio-documentary on Dylan is one of the better movies ever made, No Direction Home it is called.

If I recall correctly, three of the Conversations with Tyler turned to the topic of Bob Dylan.  Camille Paglia loves the song “Desolation Row,” Cass Sunstein is a big fan, especially of some of the early period work, and Ezra Klein feels he is overrated, I guess that means especially overrated now.

Here are my earlier posts on Bob Dylan.  Complain all you want, I say Bob Dylan is a better and more important artist than say Philip Roth.  It’s not even close.

Congratulations to Bob Dylan, polymath!

What I’ve been reading

by on October 13, 2016 at 12:53 am in Books | Permalink

1. Stephen M. Bainbridge and M. Todd Henderson. Limited Liability: A Legal and Economic Analysis.  One of this year’s sleeper books, it is probably the best extant treatment of corporate limited liability and one of the best books on the corporation from a law and economics point of view.  I do not understand how it ended up at $133 from Edward Elgar.

2. William F. Buckley, edited by James Rosen, A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century.  Obituaries penned by WFB, fascinating throughout.  One forgets what a lucid writer he was, and some of the more unsettling entries (MLK, John Lennon) are some of the most interesting.

3. Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation, by Robert D. Crews.  The history of globalization in Afghanistan and of Afghanistan, highly intelligent and good material on just about every page.  A model for how to take a now somewhat cliched topic and make something original out of it.

4. Morton H. Christiansen and Nick Chater, Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition, and Processing.  Have you ever wondered what is the actual professional status of Chomskyian linguistics and other claims you read in popular science books?  This is the go-to work to address that question, it is written at the right level of serious rigor yet readability for a non-linguist such as myself.

Frank Ahrens, Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.  A fun take on exactly what the subtitle promises.

I can apply that same description to Joseph Turow, The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power.

Rabbi Mark Glickman, Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books.  I found this moving and extremely well-presented.

That is the next Conversation with Tyler, October 24th, at George Mason in Arlington, you can register here.

What should I ask him?  I thank you all in advance.

What I’ve been reading

by on October 6, 2016 at 12:59 am in Books | Permalink

1. 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.

2. James T. Hamilton, Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism.  A highly original look at exactly what the subtitle promises, I thank Jay for keeping Cowen’s Second Law valid.  Has this topic ever been more important than this year?

3. Andre Schlueter, Institutions and Small Settler Economies: A Comparative Study of New Zealand and Uruguay, 1870-2008.  There should be more such books!  New Zealand and Uruguay had roughly comparable per capita incomes in 1920, yet New Zealand pulled away and never gave back much of that lead.  One factor, according to the author, was that the Kiwis had about 40% public ownership of farm land in 1930, resulting in a greater distribution of gains from agriculture and eventually a more egalitarian polity.  Uruguay, in contrast, had engaged in some badly-run land privatizations and ended up with excess concentration.  New Zealand also took the lead on frozen meat shipments, and New Zealand had a much more rapid recovery from the Great Depression, among other factors, and in Uruguay the enforceability of contract rights slipped away considerably in the 1940s and 1950s.  In sum, Uruguay ended up with more rent-seeking policies that redistributed resources toward elites.  I can’t believe this one wasn’t a bestseller.

4. John Richard Boren, For Intellectual Property: The Property Ideas of Andrew J. Galambos.  As far as I can tell from this intriguing but maddeningly vague book, and based on what I have heard, Galambos was a 1960s-70s libertarian astrophysicist who believed in intellectual property rights for all ideas, indeed in ideas and not just for the expression of ideas as under current law.  The rumor, possibly apocryphal, was that those who knew his true doctrines were forbidden to explain them to others without first making the requisite payments.  I saw this in the bibliography in the back of the book:

Sic Itur Ad Astra, Volume One by Andrew J. Galambos.  This is the transcript of his 1968 delivery of Courses V-50 and V-50X.  The book discloses the basics of the Science of Volition but has been removed from sale by Galambos’ trustees.  Used copies are sometimes available.  Some of Galambos’ recorded lectures…can be heard online at the FEI website, www.fei-ajg.com, where the trustees have imposed significant restrictions on access.  Only one Galambos course, V-76…is available for purchase on CD without restrictions.

In fact I know more than I am letting on.

5. James Joyce, Ulysses, always worth a reread, in bits and pieces.  Don’t start on p.1.  That way, you won’t be discouraged by not knowing what is going on.  That is serious advice.

I have browsed the useful-seeming Johan A. Lybeck,  The Future of Financial Regulation: Who Should Pay for the Failure of American and European Banks?  Most books with titles like that are bad and boring, this seems to be a very useful collection of facts about previous bailouts.

And these days, that means today is a Messy day:

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives: why it’s important, why we resist it, and why we should embrace it instead. Using research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, as well as tales of inspiring people doing extraordinary things, I explain that the human qualities we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – are integral to the disorder, confusion, and disarray that produce them.

As I wrote the book, I grappled with the way Martin Luther King’s speechmaking style evolved from careful preparation to impromptu genius. I tried to tease out the connections between the brilliant panzer commander Erwin Rommel, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, and the primary campaign of Donald Trump. I interviewed Stewart Brand about the world’s most creative messy building – and Brian Eno about the way David Bowie would reject perfection in favour of something flawed and interesting every time.

I loved writing this book.

As I’ve already written, it is Tim’s best and deepest book.  Here is the book’s home page.  You can order the book here, it is out today a messy day it must be.

In this issue (.pdf):

Instrument found flat: Stan Liebowitz criticizes an influential Journal of Political Economy article about music piracy’s impact on the sound recording industry.

You get what you measure: Daniel Schwekendiek explainshow South Korea followed a proven template of incentivizing exports to boost Web of Science publications and raise the rankings of its academic institutions.

Now entering a Republican-free zone: Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel Klein report on the voter registration of faculty at 40 leading U.S. universities in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology.

Whither science in gender sociology? Charlotta Stern investigates whether gender sociologists blinker themselves from scientific findings about sex differences.

Carl Menger on classical political economy in relation to the politics of his day: A first-ever English translation of Menger’s 1891 article calling for a recovery of the Smithian tradition, with an introduction by the translators Erwin Dekker and Stefan Kolev.

How to Do Well by Doing Good! In this 1984 essay,Gordon Tullock counsels young economists that doing well and doing good go together. Some elements of the essay, if accurate once, are dated now, but others are timeless.

EJW Audio

Erwin Dekker on Carl Menger on Adam Smith

Frank Machovec on Perfect Competition

Call for papers

EJW fosters open exchange. We welcome proposals and submissions of diverse viewpoints, and also submissions ‘beyond Econ,’ from contiguous social sciences.

Download entire September 2016 issue (.pdf)