Books

What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not?  Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his).  In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?

HITmakers

Here is one good review of the book.  You can buy it here.

*Deep Thinking*

by on March 3, 2017 at 3:03 am in Books, Web/Tech | Permalink

The author is Gary Kasparov and the subtitle is Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.  I am honored to have had the chance to write a blurb for this book.  It is everything I wanted from this author and title, and it also contains the inside scoop — with some truly interesting and deep revelations — about the match with Deep Blue.

Self-recommending, and interesting throughout!

One of the most rewarding parts of preparing for my chat with Malcolm Gladwell earlier this week was discovering the autobiographical memoir of his mother, Joyce Gladwell, published in 1969.  It covers growing up in Jamaica, women’s rights and recognition, a mixed-race marriage in the England of the 1960s, and a Christian journey through this world.  The most striking passages are the account of a sexual assault on a ship and a stranger in the street hurling a racial epithet at her and her sons, in addition to Malcolm’s brief cameo as a very very young man on p.178.  Most of all, this is a tale of a contemplative humility, and an account of how struggle and “the medicine of acceptance” can blend together into a successful and fulfilling life.  It is especially valuable as a reflection of how a particular kind of quiet grace is closely tied to Jamaican heritage.  Here is a short summary of the book.

What was striking on a second reading is how much this is also a memoir of how she lost her faith in adolescence, and wandered through part of her life without it, only later returning to the fold.

Here is some background information on Malcolm and his mother.  Here is a 2007 radio chat with Malcolm and his mother, definitely recommended, despite her humble demeanor she has an amazing media presence and is not afraid to overrule her son.  Malcolm also profiles her in Outliers, but that section makes more sense when you have read her directly.

They are partners at Andreessen-Horowitz, have one of the best podcast series, are consistently tremendous, and mutually reinforcing at that, it is here.

What I’ve been reading

by on March 2, 2017 at 12:45 am in Books | Permalink

1. Ian McEwan. The Children Act.  The main story line pretends to revolve around a Jehovah’s Witness who won’t take a blood transfusion, but I think it was meant as a book about Islam and he was afraid to say so.  The resulting mix doesn’t quite work.

2. Arundhati Roy and John Cusack, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden are part of the book too.  The two main authors conversing with Snowden is in fact the strongest argument against Snowden I’ve seen.  Maybe he is just being polite, but it’s the only time I’ve heard him sound like an idiot.

3. Helen Hardacre, Shinto: A History.  I’ve read only about a fifth of this 720 pp. book, but it seems to be a highly useful history on a topic hardly anyone knows anything about.

4. Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.  Compelling throughout, and worthwhile reading for anyone interested in media and media policy.  Ellsberg, of course, was closely connected to Thomas Schelling and made significant contributions to the theory of choice under uncertainty.

There is also:

After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum, is a very useful collection of writings on Piketty-related themes, including Solow and Krugman.

Nathan B. Oman, The Dignity of Commerce: Markets and the Foundations of Contract Law.  An interesting blend of “moral foundations of capitalism” and analysis of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Shahab Ahmed, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam, “…the early Muslim community believed almost universally that the Satanic verses incident was a true historical fact.”

From Wonkblog, here is my interview with the excellent Ana Swanson, transcript and video.  Here is one bit from it:

You didn’t propose many solutions to this in the book. I felt like you see much of this as inevitable. Are there things we could do to diminish school segregation?

There are plenty of solutions, like having more school choice, deregulating high-density building in urban areas, shifting away from entitlements in the federal budget and having more discretionary spending. I could go on. But part of the point of the book is the complacent class doesn’t want many of those things to happen, so probably they won’t. We probably need to hit a wall for change to occur, and we may be in the midst of that right now. So there is an air of inevitability. It’s not that there are no solutions, it’s that we’re unwilling to do them.

Also from The Washington Post, Robert Samuelson reviews the book.  And here is a clip from Charlie Rose.

Today is publication date, here is an accompanying video, with four more on the way.  It draws on some themes of the book without being either a summary or repetition:

 

Here is the page on all the videos, where you can sign up for email notification as well.

You can buy the book from Barnes&Noble here, Amazon here, signed edition here, Apple here.  Amazon reviews are welcome too!

From Dan Wang:

Let me take this opportunity to register a complaint with the term “open-minded,” which is increasingly praised as an important virtue.

I’ve started to dislike the term. First of all, it’s unobjectionable—who would profess he is not open-minded? More importantly, it’s not always clear what the term refers to, and this is worth thinking through. It might indicate the state of being “soft-minded,” in which one would readily be swayed by better arguments. But often it tends to connote “empty-minded,” in which one accepts anything and retains little. Many people are indeed open to different cultures and ideas, but they’re not necessarily conceptualizing their experience, nor active in seeking new experiences out.

I would like for everyone to be “hungry-minded,” in which one realizes that there is so much to know.

Much (by no means all) of the post is a review of The Complacent Class.  Dan of course is an excellent reader:

By introducing little oddities in the text, Cowen makes room for claims that are too difficult to baldly state; in other cases, watch for occasions in which he’s offering commentary on something other than what he’s directly writing about.

I am envious that Dan is now in Kunming again…

Here is the review, here is one bit:

“Matchers gain, strivers lose,” he [Cowen] writes in a new book, “The Complacent Class.”

Matchers, aka enthusiasts, are people who are motivated by personal interests, whether that’s record collecting, hiking, cooking, or obsessing about “Game of Thrones.” “The enthusiasts are not trying to come out ahead of everyone else; rather, they seek to have some of their niche preferences fulfilled for the sake of their own internally directed happiness,” Cowen writes.

Strivers, on the other hand, are motivated by beating others. “These are the people who strive to have the biggest office, bed the most mates, earn the most money, or climb whatever the relevant status ladder might be,” Cowen writes.

It’s not hard to see how recent trends have favored matchers. This group has benefitted from technology — from Tinder to Spotify to Google — that makes it easier for them to pursue their interests and find other people who share them. Meanwhile, strivers are suffering, faced with more competition than ever and a greater awareness of how many people around the world are beating them.

An excellent piece.

The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the energy required to solve the nation’s woes. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost their mojo.

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.

Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.

There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.

Here is the full piece.

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and here is the opening bit of the summary:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

Due out January 1, 2018, of course this is essential reading.

What I’ve been reading

by on February 19, 2017 at 12:35 am in Books | Permalink

1. Jean-Yves Camus and Nicholas Lebourg, Far-Right Politics in Europe.  A very good and extremely current introduction to exactly what the title promises, with plenty on earlier historical roots.

2. Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.  More or less a travelogue, but also one of the best introductions for thinking about Nigeria, and it does stress the different regions of the country.  Both informative and entertaining.

3. The Maisky Diaries: The Wartime Revelations of Stalin’s Ambassador in London, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky.  Paul Kennedy called it the greatest political diary of the twentieth century.  One of the best windows on the coming and arrival of the Second World War, and I don’t usually like reading the diary form.  It’s also a very good look into how such an impressive person could be Stalin’s ambassador.  By the way, why is the hardcover about a quarter of the price of the paperback?

4. Peter Leary, Unapproved Routes, Histories of the Irish Border, 1922-1972.  Soon there may be one again, so I decided to read up on the background, a tale of Derry being severed from Donegal.  This informative, easily grasped book also has a chapter on the fisheries border, a sign of the imaginativeness of the author.

5. Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.  Ellis is consistently excellent as an author, and this book is best on tying the intellectual evolution of the Founding Fathers to the troubles of the Articles of Confederation period.

There is also a new Deirdre McCloksey festschrift, Humanism Challenges Materialism in Economics and Economic History, edited by Roderick Floyd, Santhi Hejeebu, and David Mitch.  It appears to be a very fine tribute.

Stephen D. King has a new book coming out on the reversal of globalization, namely Grave New World: The End of Globalisation, The Return of History.

It is very much a twist on Adam Smith’s argument about the division of labor:

One further remark however, which I cannot omit, is that the people in America are necessitated, by their local situation, to be more sensible and discerning, than nations which are limited in territory and confined to the arts of manufacture. In a populous country, where arts are carried to great perfection, the mechanics are, obliged to labour constantly upon a single article. Every art has its several branches, one of which employs a man all his life. A man who makes heads of pins or springs of watches, spends his days in that manufacture and never looks beyond it. This manner of fabricating things for the use and convenience of life is the means of perfecting the arts; but it cramps the human mind, by confining all its faculties to a point. In countries thinly inhabited, or where people live principally by agriculture, as in America, every man is in some measure an artist— he makes a variety of utensiles, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes— he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter— he travels about the country— he convenes with a variety of professions— he reads public papers— he has access to a parish library and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics, and every man in New England is a theologian. This will always be the case in America, so long as their is a vast tract of fertile land to be cultivated, which will occasion emigration from the states already settled. Knowledge is diffused and genius routed by the very situation of America.

That is from his Sketches of American Policy, #29.

That is in the FT, here is the closing paragraph:

In most other ways, Cowen’s thesis is deeply troubling. Democracy requires growth to survive. It must also give space to society’s eccentrics and misfits. When Alexis de Tocqueville warned about the tyranny of the majority, it was not kingly despotism that he feared but conformism. America would turn into a place where people “wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity”, the Frenchman predicted. This modern tyranny would “degrade men rather than torment them”. Cowen does a marvellous job of turning his Tocquevillian eye to today’s America. His book is captivating precisely because it roves beyond the confines of his discipline. In Cowen’s world, the future is not what it used to be. Let us hope he is wrong. The less complacent we are, the likelier we are to disprove him.

The review very well captures the spirit and content of the book.  Here is Barnes&Noble, here is Amazon.  Here are signed first editions, here is Apple.

That is the new and excellent book by Jonathan Buchsbaum, offering the first comprehensive history of the debates over free trade and the “cultural exception,” as it has been called.  It is thorough, readable, and goes well beyond the other sources on this topic.

To be sure, I disagree with Buchsbaum’s basic stance.  He views “advertising dollars” as something attached to Hollywood movies like glue, giving them an unassailable competitive advantage, rather than an endogenous response to what viewers might wish to watch.  The notion that French or other movie-makers could possibly thrive by innovating and exploring new quality dimensions seems too far from his thought.  And he writes sentences such as: “France sought quickly to regulate multiplex development,” yet without wincing.

Perhaps his best sentence is the uncharacteristic: “Other commentators during the 1980s observed wryly that the only real European films were U.S. films, for only U.S. films succeeded in crossing borders in Europe.”

He spends a fair amount of time criticizing me, usually a positive feature in a book.  Furthermore, he delivers very strongly on the basic history and narrative, and draws upon a wide variety of sources.  So this one is definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in these topics.