What I’ve been reading

1. Lavinia Greenlaw, A Double Sorrow.  A deeply sad but very affecting poem, based loosely on Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida.  Here is a useful review of the work, and unlike many poems it is very easy to read.

2. Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World.  This 1815 volcanic eruption in Indonesia had a bigger impact on global history than you might think.  Be afraid, be very afraid.

3. Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.  A good, readable, even-tempered treatment of what the title promises.  I learned a good deal about the 1940s and 50s most of all, recommended.  It is 816 pp. but never a drag.  I am surprised it is not being reviewed more prominently.

4. Andrew Wender Cohen, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century.  A good look at how America really ran its nineteenth century trade policies, full of good anecdotes and examples.

5. Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, it is out already in the UK, which was my source.  My main objection to this book is the overselling in the subtitle.  It is a nice, readable account of Silk Road history and the importance of Eastern land transport for global economic history.  I liked it, but didn’t feel it revised my worldview in any big way or even tried to.  The material on the twentieth century struck me as too familiar.  Here is one useful review.

I read about thirty pages of the new Salman Rushdie.  While it was better than expected, I didn’t feel compelled to continue; it is odd to tell a rationalist story through magical realist means.  Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is turning out to be one of the year’s sensations.  I’ve read about one hundred pages and seems to be of high quality but its themes don’t grab me (New York City, child abuse), and it is taking too long to become conceptual.  And for another recent novel on child abuse themes, don’t forget the new Rafael Yglesias.


"but never a drag"

Good one.

#2 It would be very nice if we stopped telling one another to be very alarmed about things, the level of alarm about everything is already way too high. The volcano doesn't care if you or I are afraid.

Even X-risk that is difficult to mitigate could still be (in expectation) one of the best places to invest public policy effort. For example, (making up numbers) perhaps the biggest risks of volcanic winter (famine, I assume) would be substantially reduced if the average global food stockpile was twice its current value (measured in years of consumption). Perhaps at an annual "deadweight loss" (assuming the X-risk doesn't materialize in say 1000 years) of 0.5% of developed-world GDP growth, efficient grain producers in the US etc could be motivated to keep bigger stocks and/or maintain farming practices that would more readily adapt to global famine with a sudden surge in production. After 100 years, the developed world would have 40% less wealth than in the baseline, but with some small probability (2%?) they would have saved roughly a billion lives in the developing world.

Replace my fake numbers with the most accurate estimates we have, and one could decide where to prioritize vulcanism X-risk relative to other forms of tail risk with various degrees of epistemic status (asteriods, super AI, and CAGW being the most prominent at the moment).

I live next to an active volcano here in the Philippines, that had pyroclastic flow about 40 years ago and constantly is spewing white cloud vapor, I think it's CO2. No big deal. A short story by nonfiction writer John McPhee also comes to mind, something like "Taming the Volcano", where in Iceland they used geoengineering to divert the lava from a volcano and save a town.

Earthquakes and volcanoes, no big deal. Big government however? THAT'S a disaster!

excellent category: "taking too long to become conceptual"

Volcano: I hear that Novarupta of 1912 was bigger. But I don't know for sure.

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