What I’ve been reading

1. Kevin Donnelly, Adolphe Quetelet, Social Physics, & the Average Men of Science, 1796-1874.  The Belgian Quetelet was one of the pioneers of applying statistics to the social sciences, and he had a long-running and fascinating career obsessed with astronomy, crime, opera, jokes, and short essays, among many other things.  He developed the notion of an “average man” in a statistical distribution, the error curve as a distribution formula, and much more.  The concept and measurement of BMI comes from him as well.  Somehow he has become oddly underrated.

2. Ruth Goodman, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything.  Most books of this ilk are good either on the super-micro or super-macro scale, but this volume succeeds on both levels.  Under Queen Elizabeth I, London became the first place to move away from burning peat, wood, and dung in homes to burning coal.  How did that supercharge the later Industrial Revolution?  How did it matter for household chores and for that matter recipes?  Recommended.

3. Michel Foucault, Confessions of the Flesh, The History of Sexuality, Volume 4, published posthumously just now.  I only pawed through this one a bit, but it really didn’t seem so interesting.  I still think of The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The Birth of the Clinic as Foucault’s best and most enduring books.

4. Jason L. Riley, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.  I liked this book OK enough, and certainly read it with interest, but somehow it never brought Sowell to life for me (I have never met him), nor did it illuminate the work enough (what did Sowell claim about Say’s Law anyway?  And why?  Why is his book on late-talking children important for understanding his broader body of work?  Why was he so hawkish on foreign policy?  What might he have gotten wrong?).  The most interesting parts are about Sowell writing rebuttals to Arthur Jensen.

5. Ian Leslie, Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.  A good popular science book on exactly what the title promises: “In this book, we’ll learn from experts who are highly skilled at getting the most out of highly charged encounters: interrogators, cops, divorce mediators, therapists, diplomats, psychologists. These professionals know how to get something valuable – information, insight, ideas—from the toughest, most antagonistic conversations.”


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