Month: November 2018

Best non-fiction books of 2018

First let me start with three books from my immediate cohort, which I will keep separate from the rest:

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education.

Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three.  Otherwise, we have the following, noting that the link often contains my longer review.  These are in the order I read them, not by any other kind of priority.  Here goes:

Varun Sivaram’s Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet.

Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.

David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.

Nick Chater, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.

Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death, and Resurrection, 1815-1849.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.

Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.

W.J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Concise History.

Victor Sebestyen, Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

There are also books which I think very likely deserve to make this list, but I have not had time to read much of them.  Most notably, those include the new biographies of Alain Locke, Thomas Cromwell, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Overall I thought this was a remarkably strong year for intelligent non-fiction.  And as always, I have forgotten some splendid books — usually it is yours.  Sorry!

The game 12 draw

From an email I just sent:

My view was this: if you play out the main computer lines for 8-10 moves, Black’s position does not really improve, nor are White’s holding moves hard to find (he just has to shuffle back and forth).

Black does not have the structural advantage to enable a later transposition into a favorable endgame.

So it actually is a draw!  (sort of)

Does the agreement[to draw]  have to be non-Bayesian?  There is a “vague range,” and by Magnus Carlsen offering the draw maybe he, as Kasparov suggested, lowered his own chances for the rapid tiebreak (shows some loss of nerve), until they were in the same “vague range” as the game 12 final setting.

So Magnus is saying “I don’t have a way of pressing that is better than my chances in the rapid tiebreak,” and Caruana is agreeing and knows that Magnus knows this.

Maybe not “strictly” Bayesian, but it doesn’t seem crazy to me either.

I thank S. for a relevant conversation on these points.

Tyler Cowen predicts our coming 19th century future

Here is my podcast with New York magazine, with a short excerpt of it offered in print.

And they offer this summary: “On the latest episode of 2038, Cowen predicts that over the next 20 years, “this nation will go back to an earlier version of its politics, which were highly dysfunctional. You had plenty of people becoming president who probably should not have been. And yet at the same time we muddled through that era and emerged as modern America.””

Thanks a Thousand

For Thanksgiving I read a book about giving thanks, A. J. Jacobs’s, Thanks a Thousand. It begins like I, Pencil (which Jacobs discovers half-way through his book) and I, Rose:

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the presence of one of the most mind-boggling accomplishments in human history. This thing is so astounding in its complexity and scope, it makes the Panama canal look like a third grader’s craft project.

This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers and goatherds.

It required airplanes, boats trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets and shoulders.

It needed hundreds of materials–steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.

It has caused great joy but also great poverty and oppression.

It relied upon ancient wisdom and space-age technology, freezing temperature and scorching heat, high mountains and deep water.

It is my morning coffee.

Jacobs then sets out to thank everyone–which he soon finds is impossible, so he limits to a thousand people–who contributed to getting him his morning miracle. From the obvious, the barista and the coffee growers to the less obvious, the manufacturers and designers of the coffee lid and the NY water department, Jacobs sets out to offer thanks, giving the reader some interesting background along the way (“New York water is tested 2.2 million times a year.” “According to one estimate, pallets account for more than 46 percent of US hardwood lumber production.”).

Jacobs is also good on the importance of gratitude. Being mindful of and thankful for the things we ordinarily take for granted can make for a better life. He asks philosopher Will MacAskill what he is grateful for. “Sometimes I’m just thankful I have arms.” Yes.

Jacobs sometimes forgets, however, that the value of gratitude is more in the giving than in the receiving. He thus confuses gratitude with charity. But gratitude is neither payment nor alms. It’s nice to be recognized and thanked but thanks don’t make the world go round.

I ask Andy whether it feels good that the coffee in his warehouse brings joy to millions of people. Andy looks at me, his eyebrows knit. It’s as if I just asked him if he enjoys being a Buddhist monk who mediates ten hours a day.

“Well let me ask you this,” I say, “What are you thankful for?”

“My paycheck,” he says, laughing.

I like Andy. Andy understands that working solely for the sake of others can be demeaning and degrading. Andy is working for himself and his loved ones and more power to him. Beyond a few special relationships, to make doing for others one’s primary motive is undignified and subservient. Humans are not worker ants eager to die for love of their Queen. Each person’s life is their own.

The true marvel is that despite the fact that most people are not living for others we can still all live together harmoniously. As I like to put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the coffee brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

China possible fact of the day

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Here is the full story.  Here is further background.

Best fiction of 2018

This year produced a strong set of top entries, though with little depth past these favorites.  Note that sometimes my review lies behind the link:

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Stories.

Gaël Faye, Small Country.  Think Burundi, spillover from genocide, descent into madness, and “the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history.”

Madeline Miller, Circe.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, volume six, My Struggle.  Or should it be listed in the non-fiction section?

Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.

Anna Burns, Milkman, Booker Prize winner, Northern Ireland, troubles, here is a good and accurate review.

Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Uwe Johnson, From a Year in the Life of Gessine Cresspahl.  I haven’t read this one yet, I did some browse, and I am fairly confident it belongs on this list.  1760 pp.

Which are your picks?

Sunday assorted links

The best book of 2018

Soon I’ll offer up my longer lists for fiction and non-fiction, but let’s start at the top.  My nomination for best book of the year is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.  It is a joy to read, the best of the five translations I know, and it has received strong reviews from scholars for its accuracy and fidelity.  I also would give a top rating to the book’s introductory essay, a mini-book in itself.

Normally I would say more about a book of the year, but a) many of you already know the Odyssey in some form or another, and b) this spring I’ll be doing a Conversations with Tyler with Emily Wilson, and I’ll save up my broader thoughts for then.  I’ll just say for now it is one of the greatest works of political thought, as well as a wonderful story.  In any case, a reread of this one is imperative, and you will learn new and fresh things.

There you go!

Daredevil and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Image result for daredevil season 3Daredevil on Netflix: Season 3 is excellent. A fight scene (in the prison) is as good as the famous hallway scene in Season 1. Another stellar performance by Vincent D’Onofrio. A good plot and a satisfying filling in of Karen’s backstory. Sophisticated visuals and use of sound.

That was my tweet. One thing that did annoy me was the prominent reliance of the writers on the Thou Shall Not Kill trope. Foggy even says “once you cross that line, there’s no return”. Ugh, give me a break. The trope is tired and it also annoys me as an economist. Daredevil has been in a lot of fights and with probability approaching 1 he has already killed. Did none of those prison guards or cops have thin skulls? And why should there be a line? Is killing two people with expected probability of 1/2 really so much better than killing one person with expected probability 1?

As I thought about this more, however, the Thou Shall Not Kill trope is least objectionable in Daredevil. Daredevil is a serious Catholic and can thus call upon Thomas Aquinas’s Doctrine of Double Effect. Aquinas argues that:

moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention…

Thus, Foggy, the ever-precise lawyer, is correct. Catholic doctrine draws a line between intending to kill and expecting to kill. Expecting to kill is ok, intending to kill is not. I am not a fan of the doctrine of double effect as among other flaws it too easily allows people to shrug off war crimes and the killing of innocents (heh, we only intended to kill the groom, the fact that we also killed the soon-to-be wife and guests, well that was beside the intention). Nevertheless, I will allow that the doctrine of double effects gets the Daredevil writers off the hook for inappropriate use of cliche. Batman, however, has no excuse.

Addendum: For an excellent review of Daredevil Seasons 1-3 from the point of view of Christianity, see this post at Christ and Pop Culture.

Facts about lotteries

The $29.8 billion Americans spent on the lottery in 1995 worked out to about $112 per capita. Today, per capita spending is up to $225 dollars a year. Again, part of that is the result of more states jumping on the lotto bandwagon.

These are per capita figures, accounting for every man, woman and child in the country. The average lottery player spends quite a bit more than that: If we subtract the 73 million people under age 18, and divide the remaining 250 million in half (since only 49 percent buy a lotto ticket in a given year), it works out to $600 a year in expenses for the average lotto player. Some survey data show that a disproportionate share of regular lottery players fall into low-income brackets.

…Massachusetts leads the nation with an astonishing $767 in annual per capita lotto spending. It’s followed by West Virginia ($594), Rhode Island ($513), Delaware ($421) and New York ($421).

Here is the story by Christopher Ingraham.

*A Fistful of Shells*

The author is Toby Green, and the subtitle is West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.  Here is one excerpt:

The past twenty years have seen a huge boom in studies that show the many different ways in which — even in the shadow of slavery — Africans were decisive actors in building modernity in the Americas.  Rice-growing technologies in West Africa contributed to the emergence of rice plantations in South Carolina and northern Brazil; livestock and herding skills from West Africa were used by Africa herders in many parts of the New World, from Louisiana to Argentina; and fencing techniques  were imported from West Africa and used in agriculture and in defending communities of runaway slaves (known as maroons).  Healing practices from Dahomey and Angola were brought to Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean, and helped to develop new treatments in the colonies; healing practices and medicines were also borrowed by the Portuguese in Angola in an early form of ‘bio-prospecting’.  Warfare techniques learn in the Kingdom of Kongo and in the Oyo-Yoruba Kingdom of what is now southern Nigeria were vital to the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804, as well as the rebellions against slavery in Brazil and Cuba in the early nineteenth century.  In short, just as there were shared frameworks of diplomacy through which Atlantic African kingdoms sought political influence, so the modern world emerged from a mixed cultural framework in which many different peoples from West and West-Central Africa played a significant part.

This book is full of economics, currency movements (both gold and cowrie shells), battles between empires (Portuguese vs. Dutch, above all), and the longue durée.  It is the “Braudel of West Africa,” and the best book on West Africa I have ever read.  It is especially strong on Lusaphone Africa, and one underlying theme is that West Africa was globalizing even before colonialism came along.  Toby Green, by the way, has an impressive background in philosophy and music as well as in history more narrowly conceived.

Very strongly recommended.  It is not out until March of 2019 but you can pre-order now.

Nairobi information markets in everything

I recently spent several weeks in the slum districts of Nairobi, researching al-Shabaab’s criminal activities in the Horn of Africa. I expected to learn about the traditional criminal practices of terrorist groups: drugs, arms, money laundering, and perhaps even a regional particularity like sugar smuggling. What I wasn’t expecting to discover was a highly structured, hierarchical network in which sex workers sell information gleaned from their customers — specifically, corrupt police officers — to al-Shabaab. As one interviewee noted, “If you want information here, you use the prostitutes and street kids — they see everything, go everywhere, and nobody notices them.”

The strength and depth of this sex worker-militant network surprised me and many terrorism experts in the West I spoke with, but it’s an open secret among Nairobi residents. My first interview subject didn’t understand why I wanted more details — surely everyone knew about it? Many of my interviewees were neighbors of, or otherwise friendly with, the sex workers involved. They described an arrangement in which al-Shabaab offered money to women who picked up interesting information in the course of their regular sex work — pillow talk from politicians, police officers, and businessmen. One local memorably opined: “Of course! Half the reason these men go to [sex workers] is to complain about their lives. Why not get paid for listening?”

Here is more from Katherine Petrich.