Month: October 2021

What I’ve been reading

1. Catherine Nicholson, Reading and Not Reading the Faerie Queene.  A splendid book, take the title literally, and I very much liked these two sentences: “Others, however, pick it [Faerie Queene] up on impulse and find themselves helplessly enthralled, spurred by a devotion at once unsustainable and impossible to shake.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “I never meet a man who says that he used to like the Faerie Queene.”  Could it be the most underrated book of the Western canon?

2. Sophocles, Oedipus Trilogy, translated by Bryan Doerries.  I cannot judge the fidelity of the rendering into English, but it is the most readable translation of these works I have encountered and they are always worth a reread.

3. Joanne Limburg, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism.  One of the best books on autism, perhaps the best book on female autistics, and the best book on intersectionality I have read (out of few, to be clear).  Pithy and direct: “Eager to discover other women who had been misunderstood in their time, she writes a series of wide-ranging letters to four ‘weird sisters’ from history, addressing topics including autistic parenting, social isolation, feminism, the movement for disability rights and the appalling punishments that have been meted out over centuries to those deemed to fall short of the norm.”

Ports and Tolerance

An elegant essay by Saumitra Jha on why tolerance between Hindus and Muslims evolved in India’s port cities.

Port Sea Monument Gateway Of India Mumbai Historic

[W]here do institutions of tolerance emerge? Combining the historical accounts, the fieldwork, and the data, it became clear that such institutions develop in very specific places, where two conditions were satisfied. First, Hindus and Muslims needed to have incentives to work together: for example, engaging in business relationships that complemented each other, rather than competed against one another. Second, this complementarity had to be robust: it had to be difficult for one group to replicate or simply steal the source of the others’ complementarity.

One important set of examples of these were ports—like Mahatma Gandhi’s own hometown, Porbandar—that had traded to the distant Middle East during the medieval period. For one month a year, for close to a thousand years, Mecca had been one of the largest markets in the world during the Hajj—and one had to be Muslim to go to Mecca. This gave Muslims in ports—in India, but also on the African coasts, the Malay peninsula, and beyond—a strong advantage in overseas trade and shipping. And, yet, this advantage nonetheless benefited the communities they connected by sail.

Further this complementarity in overseas trade came from a trading network that was intangible, and so impossible to seize, and the scale of the Hajj was so large it was impossible for a Hindu to replicate. Not surprisingly, then—before being disrupted by European colonial interventions beginning in the 16th century—Muslims had dominated overseas trade across the Indian Ocean, from the coasts of Zanzibar to India, Malaysia and beyond, as far as China.

Ports emerged at natural harbors along India’s medieval coasts to accommodate these trading relationships. These ports also witnessed not just the emergence of rules but also beliefs and organizations that supported trade, inter-group trust, and religious tolerance. So much so, that even three centuries later—after Muslim trade advantages had ended due to European colonial interventions, and many of the ports themselves had silted up and become inaccessible to trade—this legacy of beliefs, norms, and organizations continued to shape the way people interacted with one another. The institutions of peace and tolerance outlived the economic incentives that had once sustained them.

Photo Credit: MaxPixel.

*Dune*, the movie (no real spoilers)

Score and soundtrack: A+, Hans Zimmer

Visual intelligence and sophistication: A+

Beauty: A+

Drama: I thought the first half was weak here, though the movie became progressively more gripping.  But too many of the proceedings felt stagey rather than organic or evoking of real interest.

Memorable characters: I give this award to the sandworms and the blue-eyed Fremen warrior chick.  The others were “good enough” but didn’t click for me in a huge way.

Fidelity to the original novel: Good enough, without being too slavish in its homage.

Unusual element: Huge dose of French imperialist “Orientalism.”

Straussian reading: It is trying to make both jihad and Islam intelligible and sympathetic to non-Muslim viewers.

Bottom line: I am looking forward to the sequel, and very much hope Villaneuve is on tap to direct.  It was wonderful seeing this one surrounded by the sands of Arizona.

Janos Kornai and the soft budget constraint

The most developed thesis of that book was that capitalist economies were in a state of constant excess supply (overproduction) whereas centrally planned economies were in a state of constant excess demand (shortage), and he drew out with minute detail all the implications of this analysis. I remember raising arguments from his book in my general equilibrium class in university, surely annoying the professor. Olivier Blanchard once told me he had a similar experience. Kornai’s book was extremely popular among young rebellious economists who wanted to change the world.

In 1980, his magnum opus, Economics of Shortage, came out. Whereas his earlier work on the economics of planning was mostly theoretical (all that literature was very remote from how planning was done in reality), this was the first book to propose a systematic and powerful analysis of how the socialist economy really worked in practice. Starting with the concept of the soft budget constraint (state-owned enterprises in socialist economies that were making losses would never shut down), he explained how this led to increasing demand by enterprises, making them barely responsive to price variations. These increased demands led to generalised shortages that deeply influenced the behaviour of enterprise managers, consumers and planners.

That is from a broader appreciation by Gérard Roland.  Here is one original Kornai piece on the topic.  Here is a later ungated piece.  Here is Eric Maskin on different theories of the soft budget constraint.

NASA chief Bill Nelson on UFOs

And more on YouTube, for instance at 55:30.

Saturday assorted links

1. More than 100,000 people have had their eyes scanned for free cryptocurrency.” (FT, how long ago would this headline have been inconceivable?)

2. Video about bowling.

3. New results on time-weighted happiness, caveat lector.

4. New results on cognitive long Covid.

5. Sadly, the great Anthony Downs has passed away.  Here is an obituary.  He was one of the true greats, why isn’t this bigger news?

6. Taxes and regulation are too strong for the California weed industry to flourish (might this be an OK outcome?).

The greatest book(s) on Africa ever written?

Yes, I am talking about the new seven-volume set Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am now about halfway through volume II, and will read the rest, albeit slowly.  The books have plenty of text and also a lot of quality photographs.  While they are easy to read, they are not actually fast going.

These books have dozens of authors, so a systematic review misses the point. But just think: do you need to read yet another largely political history of Africa, detailing the conflict in Biafra, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe?  At what I hope are your current margins, what exactly are you going to learn?

Should you instead read seven volumes about how Africans (and sometimes non-Africans) have built Africa?  Its homes.  Its businesses.  Its government buildings and non-profit centers.  Its churches and mosques.  What Africa looks like and why.  Every significant discussion is accompanied by a relevant photograph.

Is that not a more important learning?

Where else can you find a sub-chapter “Beyond Design: Finnish Architects in Senegal”?  Which are in fact the most notable vistas in the Nouakchott fish market?  Why does it seem that no building in Mauretania is next to any other building in Mauretania?  (I am reading the West Africa volume, obviously.)

Definitely recommended, a notable achievement.

The whip-banning polity that is Reno

The Reno City Council voted to ban the possession and use of whips without a permit in downtown Reno on Wednesday.

Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus, who said she was not present when the ordinance was introduced, was the only no vote.

Brekhus said that she wants the ordinance applied city-wide and expressed concern that as is, the ban targets certain demographics.

City attorney Karl Hall explained that the ordinance is restricted to the downtown area because complaints to the police were concentrated in that area. He added that there may be areas outside of downtown where whips may be useful.

…Hall also said that those who have a legitimate use for a whip downtown can receive a permit.

This second article I find stranger yet:

The change approved Wednesday comes after police reported a steep increase over the past two years of 911 calls from residents who mistake the sound of a cracking whip for gunfire.

He said they’re also being used in public areas for fights and intimidation.

Lily Baran spoke against the ordinance earlier on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. She said that the homeless community is known for using the whips and that the ordinance will “perpetuate the criminalization of the unhoused.”

Model that!  Here is the full main story, via the estimable Chug.

Friday assorted links

1. The culture that is Cook Islands quarantine.  They just got back from the Tokyo Olympics.

2. Pierce Brosnan and Colm Toibin are on board with Jack Yeats.

3. 18,000 people in a single building (St. Petersburg, Russia).

4. Otters are moving into Singapore.

5. Haitink dead.  And Yundi Li is in trouble.

6. My University of Kentucky talk on why big tech is underrated.

7. Claims about ports and supply chains.

8. Erik Hoel has predictions for 2050 (oddly he criticizes one of my predictions and then goes on to make a version of the same himself).

The Price of COVID-19 Risk In A Public University

Wow. Duha Altindag, Samuel Cole and R. Alan Seals Jr, three professors in the economics department at Auburn University, study their own university’s COVID policies. The administration defied the Alabama Governor’s public health order on social distancing and created their own policy which caused enrollment in about half of the face-to-face classes to exceed legal limits. Professors assigned to teach these riskier classes were less powerful, albeit they were paid more to take on the risk. I am told that the administration is not happy. I hope the authors have tenure.

We study a “market” for occupational COVID-19 risk at Auburn University, a large public school in the US. The university’s practices in Spring 2021 caused approximately half of the face-to-face classes to have enrollments above the legal capacity allowed by state law, which followed CDC’s social distancing guidelines. Our results suggest that the politically less powerful instructors, such as graduate student teaching assistants and adjunct instructors, as well as women, were systematically recruited to deliver their courses in riskier classrooms. Using the dispersibility of each class as an instrument for classroom risk, our IV estimates obtained from hedonic wage regressions show that instructors who taught at least one risky class were paid more than those who exclusively taught safe courses. We estimate a COVID-19 risk premium of $8,400 per class.

What I’ve been reading

1. Paul A. Offit, You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation.  The stories and anecdotes are fun, most of all about the early history of the polio vaccine and how poorly some of the process went.  By the end of the book, however, it doesn’t add up to very much.  The underlying theme is that early innovation is fraught with risk, but Offit is unwilling to draw straightforward conclusions that we should be more tolerant of such risks.  He instead inveighs against the “disturbing show of hubris” from the recent vaccine manufacturers.  Is that really the problem right now?  (How many ways are there for the biomedical establishment to show that its “anti-expected value, anti-corporate” side can morph into subtle forms of anti-vaxx sentiment?)  He also has the annoying tendency, like many of his peers, to dismiss massive ethical issues with a single paragraph that would not withstand scrutiny in an undergraduate philosophy course.  Yes, we will always treat sins of commission as more important than sins of omission, as Offit argues.  But does he endorse this approach?  (He won’t say.)  Does he think we should vary our practices here at the margin?  (He won’t say.  Too inconvenient!)  Still, the book is informative and enjoyable enough, so I don’t regret buying it or finishing it.  But if you are looking for a “biomedical establishment punching bag,” well it is that too.

Straussian Beatles, Paul McCartney solo edition

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Paul is his willingness to be a plain, flat outright snot about other people.  Did you see lately when he called the Rolling Stones “a blues cover band”?  Not wrong!  Ever listen to the lyrics of “Another Girl“?

Anyway, if you paw through the Ram album you will find some real daggers.  “Dear Boy,” for instance, is Paul mocking Linda’s ex-husband, here are some lyrics:

I guess you never knew, dear boy, what you have found,
I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That she was just the cutest thing around,
I guess you never knew what you have found,
Dear boy.

I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That love was there.
And maybe when you look to hard, dear boy,
You never do become aware,
I guess you never did become aware,
Dear boy.

When i stepped in, my heart was down and out,
But her love came through and brought me ’round,
Got me up and about…

I hope you never know, dear boy,
How much you missed.
And even when you fall in love, dear boy,
It won’t be half as good as this.
I hope you never know how much you missed,
Dear boy, how much you missed

Maybe it’s OK to take public stabs at your new wife’s ex-husband (is it?), but keep in mind Paul was raising the guy’s daughter at the time.  What did she think?  Or maybe up in that Scottish farm she just never listened to Ram, or this song.  Paul himself has admitted the underlying meaning in radio interviews.  The guy, by the way, committed suicide — woe unto him who is attacked by Paul McCartney!

Brian Wilson, by the way, was a big admirer of the voices and harmonies on that one, here is the cut.

Gentler but still cutting is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey“.  It’s Paul’s account of why he has not been calling “the rellies” back home, namely because they are too boring and too removed from the reality of his life.  Paul is reporting (sarcastically) that his life is too boring to have anything to say to the guy:

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But there’s no one left at home
And I believe I’m gonna rain

We’re so sorry, but we haven’t heard a thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But if anything should happen
We’ll be sure to give a ring

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But we haven’t done a bloody thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But the kettle’s on the boil
And we’re so easily called away

Of course he really did have an Uncle Albert, and I bet he didn’t call much.  Can you blame him?  This interpretation, by the way, comes from Paul himself, many years later on satellite radio.

“Too Many People” — the paradigmatic Macca Straussian song deserves a post of its own.  It has more passive-aggressive references to John Lennon than are usually reported.

And that is all just on one album!  Here are previous installments of Straussian Beatles.  By the way, “Yesterday” may in part be about the early death of Paul’s mother.

Thursday assorted links

1. Why so little eSports in Japan?

2. Are emergency sirens dangerous? (NYT, though it seems they help recruit volunteers in rural areas).

3. Which vehicle prices are up the most and the least?  Can you model this?

4. NYT on the postliberal Right and Orban.  A more serious piece than you might have been expecting.

5. Department of counterproductive responses, philosophers’ edition.

6. A (bad, mood-affiliated) critique of long-termism.

7. No more flow for the flow guy, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.