What I’ve been reading

1. Philippe Desan, Montaigne: A Life.  Knotty, complex, and almost 800 pp., the bottom line nonetheless is that I will not liberate this book but rather keep it forever.  I’ve read only about 200 pp. so far, but it is one of the best guides to understanding its main topic, most of all when it comes to integrating how his written texts sprang from his actual life.

2. Dieter Helm, Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels.  That’s not the right title, because most of this book covers the game rather than the endgame.  This is a careful and conceptual look at how different sectors of energy production are likely to evolve, taking good care to distinguish different parts of the world and stationary vs. mobile energy sources.

3. John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.  A very good and readable book on a much misunderstood topic.  Upon a close read of the data, it turns out the War on Drugs and private prisons are overemphasized as causes of overincarceration, whereas much of the actual blame should be placed on altered incentives for prosecutors.  Note that Pfaff also has a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in addition to his JD.

4. Kevin N. Laland, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.  If you read and profited from Joe Henrich’s The Secret of Success, this book is the next step.  Here are remarks by Robin Hanson on the book.

5. Edna O’Brien, August is a Wicked Month.  Irish fiction, 1967, old and old-fashioned enough that the sex in the story still sizzles, as does the comeuppance.  I will read more of her.

Nadia Hillard’s The Accountability State: US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity, is a thorough and useful account of what the title promises.


Here's Jason Bayz in-depth review of "Locked In:"


Number 2 is a pompously written book. Mr Helm states it would be 'spurious to attempt to pick specific winners ...' but then says emphatically the commodity-super-cycle is over. Really? Tell that to Ivan Glasenberg the brilliant CEO of super-trader Glencore. Then on page 225, Mr Helm explains 'the great trading bonanza is beginning a gradual tailing off'. Is that so? The Economist magazine reports in its Dec 10th/ 2016 issue that the commodity trader/ Glencore just signed a major marketing agreement to sell Russian oil. Incredibly on page 226, the book says traders used to keep new entrants out . So how on earth did Marc Rich & Phillip Brothers become the world's largest commodity traders in the first place- - when a decade before 1975, these oil-traders weren't even in the oil business to begin with? The conclusion sights prominent economist Robert J. Gordon who opines our best days are over. Really? Joel Mokyr, a prestigious and optimistic economist disagrees. There are too many mundane generalities in Mr Helm's book that are really predictions- - out twenty-five to thirty years. Also there are several inaccuracies in recounting the history of the fossil fuel business; i was looking forward to this study but was disappointed.

> "Tell that to Ivan Glasenberg the brilliant CEO of super-trader Glencore."

You'll have to up your game, Ivan. Insurance Panda still does this sort of spam better.

I am not Ivan Glasenberg, although I admire his business acumen, his calm intelligence, ethics and sexual prowess! The women want to be with him and the men want to invest their money in hus business.

Yawn. Name dropping noted. I'm reading the simplistic short book "Metal Man" on Marc Rich now...seems he was in the right place at the 1.5708 radian (angle) time.

'because most of this book covers the game rather than the endgame'

We have entered the endgame. 'Begun the oil wars have' is only part of it - transitioning from oil is the sort of thing that just might lead an oil exporter (cough, KSA) to keep oil's price as low as possible to slow that transition for as long as possible. KSA is working on multiple levels admittedly - attempting to damage oil revenues and production from Iran, Russia, and the U.S., for example, to retain its swing producer role, along with preventing Iran from benefitting from the lifting of sanctions.

1.5708 radian (angle) you are prior_test2! I think the fracking revolution is just buying a false sense of security. I think the anti-Julian Simons are right, and oil is a finite resource with a hard landing, coming around the time of the earth's population peak in 2050. But, like my provocative cornucopia theories involving better patent laws, I can't prove it. But history--if they read the comments section 100 years from now, and I hope they're being archived for posterity--will prove me right, in a way akin to (in spirit but not substance) what Castro and the Godwin's Law losing villain wrote about their works.

The problem with our cheap energy and the inevitable end of cheap energy is there are only two possible outcomes: Either we find that magic source of endless energy to replace it OR we lose 95% of the worlds population. That is the ugly reality.

"Either we find that magic source of endless energy to replace it OR we lose 95% of the worlds population. That is the ugly reality."

We already have. Solar & Wind power backed up by energy storage can provide endless electricity at higher prices than our current level. The non-subsidized Levelized cost of energy for Solar is $0.11 per kwh and the LCOE of wind is in the range of $0.04-0.08 per kwh. However, the cost of battery storage is roughly $0.80 per kwh.

So, the US could potentially convert to a 100% renewable electric grid for roughly $0.90 per kwh. However, the current US average is $0.12 per kwh.

We are past the days where a loss of fossil fuels would lead to a global die off. But, at this point, it would still translate to a substantial drop in global income.


".. and oil is a finite resource with a hard landing, coming around the time of the earth’s population peak in 2050."

I'd bet you are wrong about that. The declining price of renewables and batteries will tend to push fossil fuels out of electricity production and low use transportation (personal cars, etc), but oil is still a very cheap and effective long distance transportation fuel.

I'd expect the prices to increase over the long term, but I would still expect to see oil be the dominant (80+%) transportation fuel for aircraft, freight trains and large ships in 2050.

'Upon a close read of the data, it turns out the War on Drugs and private prisons are overemphasized as causes of overincarceration, whereas much of the actual blame should be placed on altered incentives for prosecutors.'

And to think that Prof. Cowen considers himself a public choice economist, and yet seems to have a glaring blind spot for the long term process involved in how those incentives got altered.

The voters got tired of rapists and murderers walking free after token sentences? If that.

There is nothing wrong with the way American jails people. The problem is that they keep letting them out.

America doesn't jail people, it jails young men. Criminal activity, that is, activity that is frowned upon by older males and the females, in all societies is the work of young men. Testosterone-infused youth are a big problem and the argument could be made that war originated as a means of re-directing destructive male energy against strangers rather than their own community. With the growth of the bureaucratic, record-keeping state, once a youthful male enters the law enforcement/judicial system he becomes tarred for life and his juvenile transgressions are then a permanent feature that influences his prospects into maturity and beyond. Maybe the answer is early castration for those with a genetic background that makes it likely they would reject societal mores. Ritalin is a step in this direction.

Gag me with an ellipsoid used to shovel liquids into one's gullet chuck martel. I suggest you read (I'm slowly wading through it now) the book "On The Run" by Alice Goffman. Everything but your whimsical (I hope) 'Maybe...' is from that book.

Great book. If you need to slowly wade through it you're probably dyslectic.

"Maybe the answer is early castration for those with a genetic background that makes it likely they would reject societal mores"

My preference is for the current system. Call it status quo bias.

An i poverished and desperate populace, devoided of worthy prospects and humiliated, ends up being driven to crime and madness as a elemental, atavistic, even telluric protest howl. Crime, in such a situation, becomes the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

This is really good writing. Is this a quote? Did you compose it? Can I quote it?

People who kvetch about 'overincarceration' object to any incarceration.

I assure you that is not the case. We are an outlier in percent of cases imprisoned and duration of sentence. http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/sentencing.pdf

We like putting people in cages for reasons and durations others in the developed world don't feel obligated to approach. To the extent these are violent offenders, I don't think you'd have much argument. To the very great extent these are Other, man, that is a cavalier attitude about putting human beings in cages.

We're also an outlier in number of murders, assaults, rapes, etc. Why wouldn't the criminal justice response match it?

We like putting people in cages for reasons and durations others in the developed world don’t feel obligated to approach.

So what? Pim Fortuyn's murderer has already been paroled. The Netherlands is a silly country not worth emulating.

The link shows sentence length, it doesn't show how much time is actually spent in prison. Account for parole and it's a lot less. I copied this chart from Locked In:


See my review:


The ability of prosecutors to put innocent people in prison without fear of ramifications is scary, but the harsh sentences here do make American society more robust to the effects of influx of young MENA males. The majority of those committing terrorist acts in Europe would have been incarcerated if in USA.

@#1 - avoid this long book, unless you are a speed reader like TC, apparently it's a translation from the French and something is lost in the translation (from Amazon's comments section). Here is one negative comment:

I could not wade much beyond the thirty-page author's introduction. Good luck to the average reader with text such as "...The goal is to elaborate a relatively vast tableau that makes it possible to place a work in its historical and political context. The author thus becomes the interpreter of a weltanschauung. His particular experiences can be understood only in the framework of an epistemology. Liberated from the problems of psychologism..." (p. xxx). Professor Desan is certainly an expert on Montaigne, but here he has written a dense, lengthy book that will only be read by his fellow scholars and a few regular people with more time and interest than I have at hand."

An excellent alternative is Sarah Bakewell's "How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer," from 2010. One of my favorite books ever.


So it is for the sort of people who would actually sit down and read Montaigne thoroughly and critically.

For those of us who love order and temperance and moderation, Montaigne is kind of a well-behaved rock star.

But capable of feeling! - "If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I."

Professor Cowen,

Something I've been wondering about recently is how do you manage to read so assiduously? Apologies if you've been asked this before (possibly many times), but I am interested in your reading habits.

You seem to post 'What I've been reading' lists of about half a dozen books every couple of weeks or so on average. I'm lucky if I get through a book a month at present. How do you do it? Do you largely eschew other forms of media? Do you stick to books and simply not read a lot of other articles/blogs etc?

How much of your time is spent reading in a typical day? How does a workday compare to a day off (reading for business versus reading for leisure/pleasure)? In what context(s) do you read (in the office, at home, commuting, waiting in line, etc.)? Are there any contexts that you will not / cannot read in?

Thanking you in advance.

He talked about it in the recent interview with Ezra Klein:


Spoiler: his secrets are, an ability to absorb the page in its totality; and two, forty years' worth of intensive and wide reading means there is less in any given work that is new or difficult to process. He said the latter doesn't help with "literary" novels, which he reads not much more quickly than anyone else would. I find surprising his wanting to devote the time saved elsewhere to reading untested brand-new fiction, and the fact that it doesn't play into the long cultural conversation among books, that he enjoys with non-fiction, suggests it seldom bears on anything at all. Maybe the foreign novels he prefers needn't stand the test of time, and are just another window into foreign culture.

#1: Ye gods. Leon Wieselteir ruined the book review section of The New Republic thirty years ago by filling it with reviews of literary biographies (half of whom, one suspects, were written by his friends). Absolutely tedious genre that exists only to get tenure for some shlub. Tony Randall once said that an actor should be known for his work and the only domestic thing the public knew about him (up to that time) was that he didn't smoke. Be agreeable if an approximation of this principle applied to the producers of literature.

The House of Splendid Isolation, by Edna O'Brien was opaque and interesting.

"A very good and readable book on a much misunderstood topic. Upon a close read of the data, it turns out the War on Drugs and private prisons are overemphasized as causes of overincarceration"

This is what pretty much everyone who actually works in the field has been saying for oh, I don't know, a decade? Private prisons are simply not very important, especially at the federal level, and everyone has been focusing on violent crime over simple drug possession since forever. It's incredibly frustrating to hear people talk about how we should treat drug addiction rather than incarcerating users when there are almost no jurisdictions that don't use drug courts, diversion, treatment, probation, etc. as a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th. responses to drug offenses.

#5 It is shocking that this book is out of print at the moment.

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