I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

The author is Sam Rosenfeld and the subtitle is Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.  Here is the bottom line:

Today’s pundits wring their hands about polarization and yearn for the halcyon days of bipartisan comity.  Yet pundits of the mid-twentieth century saw that very bipartisanship as the key problem in American politics.  They argued that the lack of clarity between the parties stifled progress while blurring accountability to the voters.  Polarization was their solution to this problem.  They thought making parties “real” in the sense that Roosevelt had meant — unified behind distinct policy agendas that were clear to voters — would invigorate democracy and improve policymaking.  Their ideas influenced the views of key political actors on both the left and right in the ensuing decades.

This book is the story of how that happened, and it is a useful corrective for those who thinks greater partisanship is something quite recent.

The author is Charles C. Mann, and the subtitle is Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  What a splendid book, this is, all rolled into one the reader receives two distinct biographies, a history of mid-20th century environmental science, a book on technological progress in agriculture, and one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism.

Oh how many good sentences there are:

Until I visited post-Katrina New Orleans I did not realize that rebuilding a flooded modern city would involve disposing of several hundred thousand refrigerators.

Here is one fun bit:

So ineradicable was the elitist mark on conservation that for decades afterward many on the left scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions.  As late as 1970, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day as Wall Street flimflam meant to divert public attention from class warfare and the Vietnam War; left-wing journalist I.F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.”

By the way, as for the subjects of the dual biographies:

The two people are William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.

Here is the framing of the book:

…the dispute between Wizards and Prophets has, if anything, become more vehement.  Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian).  Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, and global poverty.  Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed…Following Borlaug, they say, at best postpones an inevitable day of reckoning — it is a recipe for what activists have come to describe as “ecocide.”

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

This will end up as one of the very best books of this year.

The authors are Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and now it is out!

Robin reports:

On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 2 reviews have appeared on blogs.

I am pleased to be doing a Conversation with Robin about the book, and other matters too.  But don’t forget — conversations aren’t about talking!

My Law and Literature reading list 2018

by on December 29, 2017 at 12:42 am in Books, Law, The Arts | Permalink

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition [not all of it]

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Petina 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.

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

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Reputations

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

Shakespeare, The Tempest, Folger edition

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

Curtis Dawkins, The Graybar Hotel

Movies: To be determined.

I could just rewrite my post How to understand modern China, but change the examples.  But you can do that mental exercise yourself, and besides it is easier to access information about India in the English language.  So let me try a very specific recommendation for India:

Study Indian textiles and their history

I  found this the single most useful way to get a handle on Indian history, a bit less on contemporary India.  Here’s why:

1. The artistic side of textile history gives you a clear sense of regional differences, and also Islamic influence, or lack thereof.

2.. It focuses your attention rather immediately on the role of women and women’s work, and also how this interacted with industrialization.

3. In the early 18th century, India was a world leader at cloth production, but it lost this position by the early 19th century.  Studying textiles and cloth production offers an excellent window on their major story of economic decline, and how British import penetration, backed by colonialism, contributed to Indian deindustrialization.

4. Relatively poor and neglected regions of India, such as Bihar and Orissa, have a strong presence in Indian folk textile traditions, and you will learn plenty about them.

5. Books on textiles will explain the accompanying information about Indian history in a clearer way than will actual history books about India.

6. People who write books on textiles tend to be both clear and careful I have found, perhaps because they love and collect something delicate.

7. Studying textiles and cloth also brings you right to Gandhi’s “Swadeshi’ movement.

8. Unless your income is really quite modest, you can afford to buy and regularly view some pretty high-quality Indian textiles.  In India I’ve found some excellent pieces for as cheap as $200-$250.

9. Studying textiles also will bring to your attention India’s tribes and indigenous peoples.  And it ties in readily to India’s broader cultural influence throughout Southeast Asia.

10. Textile books have many pretty pictures.

My favorite books on Indian textiles are cited in my discussion of that topic in Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.  But it’s more a question of reading a bunch of them, rather than picking out a select few.  Simple, direct searches will get you to where you need to go.

My favorite collection of Indian textiles is in the Victoria & Albert museum in London.  Sadly, I’ve yet to get to the Calico textiles museum in Ahmedabad, though it is very highly regarded.

Andy was great, here is the text and audio, here is the introductory summary:

Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?

In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.

My favorite part was this, which Andy answered with no hesitation:

COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?

WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?

COWEN: No, we cannot.


COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.

WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —

COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.

WEIR: So, no?



WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?

COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?

WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.

COWEN: OK, great answer.

WEIR: That’s my guess.

Do read/listen to the whole thing

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

…if a speaker marks a delay with “um,” that delay will be longer than if it had been marked by “uh.”  If “uh” is used, the delay that follows before resumption of fluent speech is roughly a quarter of a second; if “um” is used, the anticipated delay approaches three-quarters of a second.

In one case (um) the delay is inserted as “a deliberate signal”, in the other (uh) it is “an unavoidable effect of having processing problems.”

In male speech, either um or uh accounts for about one out of fifty words; for female speech it is only one out of seventy words.

One study found that over 40 percent of transitions — the switch in who is talking — have gaps of within a quarter-second of zero.  In another similar study, the two parties are talking at the same time only 3.8 percent of the time, and then usually not for very long.

So says N.J. Enfield, in his new book How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation.

Where?, I hear you asking.  No, that is the title of a new book by Karl Sigmund and the subtitle is The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science.  I enjoyed this book very much, though I don’t recommend it as a balanced introduction to its chosen topic.  I liked it best for its whims and interstices:

1. The mathematician Richard von Mises (brother of economist Ludwig) was a patron of Rilke, and he established a foundation for the sole purpose of supporting Robert Musil.

2. Carl Menger was planning on writing a philosophical treatise, and one which would have had a “Vienna Circle” anti-metaphysical slant.

3. Arguably Karl Popper learned the most from a polymathic cabinetmaker he was apprenticed to in his youth.

4. Friedrich Wieser had supported Mussolini, but a young Oskar Morgenstern, in his diary, complained that Wieser was too liberal.

5. Morgenstern later became a confirmed liberal, and he also remarked a few times that game theory was for the social sciences completing the research program of Kurt Gödel.

6. Karl Popper complained that Wittgenstein threatened him, in a lecture, with a poker.  It is not obvious this was the case.

7. I came away from my read wanting to sample more Ernst Mach, more Moritz Schlick, and thinking Otto Neurath was perhaps badly underrated.

Note that most of the book is more serious than this, and less concerned with economists, much more with math and science and some psychoanalysis and positivism too.

There was the ever-present worry that aircraft would make war even more horrific.  Some called for the international control of aviation to prevent its misuse.  A few even advocated the complete destruction of all aircraft on the grounds that even civilian machines could be adapted for war.

…At the opposite end of the spectrum were the enthusiasts who expected that soon everyone would be able to fly their own personal aircraft…As early as 1928, Popular Mechanics predicted a car that could be turned into a helicopter, but most commentators thought the autogyro was a better bet — although it did need a short horizontal run before take-off…As late as 1971, Isaac Asimov was still expecting that VTOL [vertical take-off and landing system] machines would eventually take the place of automobiles.

That is from Peter J. Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G.Wells to Isaac Asimov.

One thing I learned from this book is that “money crank” Frederick Soddy was an early prophet of nuclear power, before many others understood the potential.  I am reminded of how “socialist crank” [oceans of lemonade with ships pulled by dolphins] Charles Fourier once prophesied that all of Europe would be tied together by railways.

This new memoir is one of my very favorite books of the year, and perhaps you recall Tomalin’s famous biographies of Hardy, Pepys, Dickens, Nelly Ternan, and Jane Austen.  This time it is her life.  The story is hard to excerpt, but here is one bit:

The day [for our lunch] came, and I realized I was feeling wobbly.  I resolved to take no notice and things started well.  We chatted and surveyed our menus.  I chose fish, and even as I ordered it I knew it was a mistake.  We talked on; I felt my stomach heave.  I knew Vidia [Naipaul] to be the most fastidious of men.  What should I do?  I rose carefully to my feet, excused myself in a calm voice and said I would be back in a moment.  I managed to make my way through it I ran as fast as my feet would carry me along the corridor to the Ladies, where I threw up with great violence.  I washed my face in cold water, combed my hair, powdered my nose, gave myself a shake and returned.

Vidia looked at me and said, “You did that very well.”

Strongly recommended.

Imagine a German-born, ethnically Iranian (Sunni?) Muslim — Navid Kermani — wandering around the religious art of Western Europe and telling you what he really thinks, in fairly analytical terms.  I am very much enjoying this book, here is one excerpt:

One reason why the zest that Catholic art has for Jesus’s suffering leaves such a bad taste in my mouth is no doubt because I am familiar wit it, and unfamiliar with it, from Shia.  I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition, a dissuasion from making the world a better place instead of just lamenting its condition.  [Guido] Reni does not glorify pain; he doesn’t show it at all.  He accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.

And this:

If the Greatest Master of Sufism claims that the contemplation of God is most perfect in women, the Christians’ images confirm it.

Definitely recommended (for some of you), and I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.

*The Dead March*

by on December 2, 2017 at 2:46 pm in Books | Permalink

The author is Peter Guardino and the subtitle is A History of the Mexican-American War.  This book brought the War to life for me as no other book has, most of all by considering issues of morale, organization, and how hard did the Mexicans really fight back (more than many sources claim).  Here is one good “fact of the day”:

Between 1829 and 1860 around 14 percent of regular army soldiers deserted every year.

That’s for the American army, not the Mexicans.  This one is good enough to make my best of the year list, so it will be on the addended version.

Best non-fiction books of 2017

by on December 2, 2017 at 1:02 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is my list, more or less in the order I read them, and the links typically bring you to my lengthier comments:

Neil M. Maher, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius.

Daniel W. Drezner, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.

Mary Gaitskill, Somebody with a Little Hammer, Essays.

Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.

David Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.

James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

David Der-Wei Wang, editor. A New Literary History of Modern China.

Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — And Us.

David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.

Ken Gormley, editor,  The Presidents and the Constitution.

Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.

Brian Merchant, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.

Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia.  Technically this doesn’t come out until January, but I read it smack in the middle of 2017 to blurb it.  It is my pick for “best of the year,” if I am allowed to count it.  It is one book that has changed how I frame 2017 and beyond.

Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy.

Tim Harford, Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy.

Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought.

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.

William Taubmann, Gorbachev: His Life and Times.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste.

Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won.

Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.

Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

Douglas Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.

Here is my shortened list for Bloomberg.  Here is my fiction list.