Category: Books

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

*Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made*

That is the title of a new and excellent book by Michael Zakim.  Here is one bit:

A single block fronting Wall Street in 1850 was thus home to seventeen separate banking firms, as well as fifty-seven law offices, twenty-one brokerage houses, eleven insurance companies, and an assortment of notaries, agents, importers, commission merchants, and, of course, stationers.  A rental market for office “suites” developed apace “fitted up with gas and every other convenience,” which also included newly invented “acoustic tubes” that allowed managing partners to communicate with porters in the basement and clerks in the salesroom without ever having to leave their desks…

All this office activity spurred a flurry of technological spillovers that included single standing desks and double-counter desks, sitting desks featuring nine or, alternately, fifteen pigeonholes, and drawers that could or could not be locked.  “Office chairs capable of swiveling and tilting became available as well, together with less costly “counting house stools” that lacked any upholstery.  Paperweights, check cutters, pen wipers (the woolen variety being preferable to silk or cotton, which tended to leave fibers on the nib), pencil sharpeners, rulers, copying brushes, dampening bowls, blotting paper (less important for absorbing excess ink than for protecting the page from soiled hands), wastepaper baskets, sealing wax (including small sticks coated with a combustible material ignited by friction and designed to be discarded after a single use), seal presses, paper fasteners, letter clips (for holding checks while entering them into the daybook), writing pads, billhead and envelope cases, business cards, receiving boxes for papers and letters, various trays (for storing pins, wafers, pencils, and pens), and “counting room calendars” spanning twelve- or sixteen-month cycles — all became standard business tools.  So did the expanding inventory of “square inkstands,” “library inkstands,” and “banker inkstands” designed with narrow necks which prevented evaporation and shallow bodies that kept the upper part of the pen from becoming covered in ink, thus avoiding blackened fingers and smudged documents.

There is then a whole other paragraph about the different kinds of paper that developed and their importance for clerical work.  This is perhaps the most thorough book I know on the importance of “small” innovations, and it is also a useful book on the history of accounting.

Kenneth Arrow, weather officer

Following the U.S. declaration of war on December 8, 1941, Arrow, who was certain to be drafted, enlisted in the hope of securing an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army Corps where he believed he would have a chance to use his mathematical and statistical training.  He was quickly approved to attend an aviation training program at New York University in October 1942, taking “active duty” breaks from classes for rifle drill, which he and his colleagues thought rather silly.   Nonetheless, he came out of that program in September 1943 commissioned as a weather officer with the rank of second lieutenant and was assigned to a weather research facility in Asheville, North Carolina; in July 1945 he was transferred to the weather division headquarters of the Army Air Force.  It was during that time in Asheville that he wrote a memorandum that later, in 1949, became his first professional paper (“On the Use of Winds in Flight Planning” in the Journal of Meteorology).  That paper presented an algorithm for taking advantage of winds aloft to save fuel on North Atlantic air crossings, an idea that was not acted upon by the military at that time but became the canonical practice for North Atlantic flight paths in the postwar period.

That is from the new, excellent, and consistently interesting Finding Equilibrium: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit, by Till Düppe and E. Roy Weintraub.  Unlike many history of economic thought books, this one tells you “what actually happened,” such as how an Econometrica editor (Robert Strotz) decided to publish the McKenzie paper before the Arrow-Debreu paper, when he had both in hand.

*Unfabling the East*

That is the new and noteworthy book by Jürgen Osterhammel, and the subtitle is The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia.  Here is one good bit of many:

For Alexander Hamilton, there was nothing more acoustically disturbing on his extensive travels in Asia than the bells that tolled through the night in Portuguese Goa.  Asian cities are quieter than European ones because they have hardly any paved roads and there are few, if any, carriages with iron fittings.  Festive banquets are marked by an absence of polite conversation because the hosts are too busy tucking into their food to bother with such niceties.  Court ceremonies generally unfold in an atmosphere that strikes Europeans as eerily hushed.  Few words are exchanged during Siamese and Tibetan audiences.  All is calm around the Chinese emperor too, as courtiers and mandarins glide to and fro in felt-lined slippers.

Definitely recommended.  Here is the book’s home page.

*The Radical Fool of Capitalism*

Bentham…appraised the trophies — dismissively dubbed “baked heads” — as technical innovations and recognized their potential for his own plans.  He enthusiastically praised the “savage ingenuity.”  An 1824 draft of his will was the first to contain the score of his wishes: first, to see the corpse as an inheritance…

According to legend, Behtam carried around the glass eyes intended for the Auto-Icon in his pocket in his final years.  (Supposed) attempts to dehydrating body parts in his home oven are said to have yielded satisfactory results.  Bentham believed the [Maori] mokomokai process would discolor facial traits and produce a parchment- or mummy-like appearance (which could be corrected with paint), while maintaining the physiognomy.

But Southwood Smith botched the job.  He sprinkled sulfuric acid onto the head, and in doing so docked Bentham’s nose.  He used an air pump to aid dehydration, which caused the skin to shrivel.  Bentham’s face appeared melted, the physiognomy destroyed.  In spring 1833, Smith commissioned a replacement head of wax…

That is from the new, excellent, and short The Radical Fool of Capitalism: On Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon, and the Auto-Icon, by Christian Welzbacher.

Erik Brynjolfsson interviews Daniel Kahneman

Mostly about AI, here is one bit:

My guess is that AI is very, very good at decoding human interactions and human expressions. If you imagine a robot that sees you at home, and sees your interaction with your spouse, and sees things over time; that robot will be learning. But what robots learn is learned by all, like self-driving cars. It’s not the experience of the single, individual self-driving car. So, the accumulation of emotional intelligence will be very rapid once we start to have that kind of robot .

It’s really interesting to think about whether people are happier now than they were. This is not at all obvious because people adapt and habituate to most of what they have. So, the question to consider about well-being and about providing various goods to people, is whether they’re going to get used to having those goods, and whether they continue to enjoy those goods. It’s not apparent how valuable these things are, and it will be interesting to see how this changes in the future.

Kahneman tells us that his forthcoming book is called Noise, though I don’t yet find it on Amazon.  Here is an HBR essay of his on that topic.

*My Morning Routine*

The editors and co-creators are Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander, and the subtitle is How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired.

They were generous enough to include a contribution from me, on my theory of how to get ready in the morning for the day to come:

I make sure I’ve already showered.  Too many people waste some of their most productive morning time showering.  Showering relaxes you and calms you down — why should that happen in the morning?  I prefer to enjoy my shower during the evening, when I know I’m winding down in any case.

And here is Scott Adams on related topics, from the same book:

I’m a trained hypnotist, and when I learned to do hypnosis I learned that self-hypnosis, if you’re trained to do it, is more effective and faster than meditation.

You can order the book here.

*Bull Shit Jobs: A Theory*

That is the new and entertaining book by David Graeber, probably you already have heard of it.  Here is a brief summary.

Coming from academia, I am sympathetic to the view that not everyone is productive, or has a productive job. And my ongoing series “Those new service sector jobs…” is in part reflecting the wonder of the market in providing so many obscure services, but also in part a genuine moral query as to how many of these activities actually are worthwhile.  You are supposed to have mixed feelings when reading those entries, just as with “Markets in Everything.”

Still, I think Graeber too often confuses “tough jobs in negative- or zero-sum games” with “bullshit jobs.”  I view those as two quite distinct categories.  Overall he presents the five types of bullshit jobs as flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters, but he spends too much time trying to lower the status of these jobs and not enough time investigating what happens when those jobs go away.

He doubts whether Oxford University needs “a dozen-plus” PR specialists.  I would be surprised if they can get by with so few.  Consider their numerous summer programs, their need to advertise admissions, how they talk to the media and university rating services, their relations with China, the student lawsuits they face, their need to manage relations with Oxford the political unit, and the multiple independent schools within Oxford, just for a start.  Overall, I fear that Graeber’s managerial intelligence is not up to par, or at the very least he rarely convinces me that he has a superior organizational understanding, compared to people who deal with these problems every day.

A simple experiment would vastly improve this book and make for a marvelous case study chapter: let him spend a year managing a mid-size organization, say 60-80 employees, but one which does not have an adequately staffed HR department, or perhaps does not have an HR department at all.  Then let him report back to us.

At that point we’ll see who really has the bullshit job.

American dams in the 19th century

To appreciate how essential dams were in the nineteenth century, simply look at the 1840 U.S. Census: It found that almost every river had a dam, and many rivers had dozens.  In total, the twenty-six states that made up the United States at the time had around 65,000 dams.  With a population of only 17 million at that time, the United States had one dam for every 261 people.

That is from the new and often quite interesting Martin Doyle, The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers.

What I’ve been reading

The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony.  Falls into the “contrarian, but shouldn’t need to be contrarian” category.  It makes good points, but I felt it was interior to my knowledge set.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Spring, a comeback for Knausgaard.

Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Quran and the Bible: Text and Commentary.  I won’t have the time soon to work through the thousand pages of this book, but it appears to be a major achievement and of very high quality.  Here is the book’s home page.  Here is a good piece by Reynolds on related topics.

Nick Polson and James Scott, AIQ: How People and Machines are Smarter Together, is a new and (believe it or not) original and very good take on this theme.

Heiner Rindermann, Cognitive Capitalism: Human Capital and Wellbeing of Nations perhaps covers too much ground, but is still a very useful 500 pp. plus survey of exactly what the title suggests.

Jan Assmann, The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus.  One of the best introductory works on the best and most important book ever written.

*Parking and the City*, edited by Donald Shoup

This is the definitive book on the economics of parking, here is one short summary bit by Shoup from his introduction:

Remove off-street parking requirements.  Developers and businesses can then decide how many parking spaces to provide for their customers.

Charge the right prices for on-street parking.  The right prices are the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on each block, so there will be no parking shortages.  Prices will balance the demand and supply for on-street parking spaces.

Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets.  If everybody sees their meter money at work, the new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular.

You can order the book here.  Here is my earlier NYT column on the economics of parking.

*The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50*

I was very happy to have blurbed this new and wonderful book by Jonathan Rauch, here is one adapted excerpt:

Like adolescence, the happiness dip at midlife is developmentally predictable, and can be aggravated by isolation, confusion, and self-defeating thought patterns. Like adolescence, it can lead to crisis, but it is not, in and of itself, a crisis. Rather, like adolescence, it generally leads to a happier stage. In short, although adolescence and the trough of the happiness curve are not at all the same biologically, emotionally, or socially, both transitions are commonplace and nonpathological. But one of them has a supportive social environment, whereas the other has … red sports cars.

You can order the book here.

*Paul Simon: The Life*

In 1974, near the peak of his fame, Paul Simon started taking music lessons.

The melody of “American Tune,” my favorite Paul Simon song, is taken from a Bach chorale from St. Matthew’s Passion.

Paul Simon originally was to have played guitar on “Rock Island Line” for the Nilsson/Lennon Pussy Cats album, but Lennon and Simon could not get along with each other and Lennon kept on putting his hand on Simon’s guitar strings to stop him from playing, eventually causing Simon to leave.

Art Garfunkel originally was slated to be dual vocalist on the Hearts and Bones album (TC’s favorite Paul Simon creation by the way), though Simon cut out the vocal tracks that Garfunkel had recorded.

Around 2012 Simon developed a strong interest in the music of American “hobo composer” Harry Partch.

Those are from the new Paul Simon biography by Robert Hilburn.