Category: Books

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

Indian population bottlenecks

…we found that West Eurasian-related mixture in India ranges from as low as 20 percent to as high as 80 percent…

Groups of traditionally higher social status in the Indian caste system typically have a higher proportion of ANI [Ancestral North Indians] ancestry than those of traditionally lower social status, even within the same state of India where everyone speaks the same language.  For example, Brahmins, the priestly caste, tend to have more ANI ancestry than the groups they live among, even those speaking the same language.

It also seems that a disproportionate share of the ANI genetic input came from males.  Furthermore:

Around a third of Indian groups experienced population bottlenecks as strong or stronger than the ones that occurred among Finns or Ashkenazi Jews.

Many of the population bottlenecks in India were also exceedingly old.  One of the most striking we discovered was in the Vysya of the souther Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a middle caste group of approximately five million people whose population bottleneck we could date…to betweenthree thousand and two thousand years ago.

The observation of such a strong population bottleneck among the ancestors of the Vysya was shocking.  It meant after the population bottleneck, the ancestors of the Vysya had maintained strict endogamy, allowing essentially no genetic mixing into their group for thousands of years.

And the Vysya were not unique.  A third of the groups we analyzed gave similar signals, implying thousands of groups in India like this…long-term endogamy as embodied in India today in the institution of caste has been overwhelming important for millennia.

…The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.

That is all from David Reich’s superb Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.  Here is my earlier post on the book.

*Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism*

That is the new book by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall:


Their main point is that social tactics used in interventions abroad tend to come back and haunt us at home.  I am not nearly as non-interventionist in foreign policy questions as they are, but still I wish their perspective would receive a much broader hearing.  You can buy the book here.  Here is the book’s home page.  Here is a video related to the book.

My Conversation with Agnes Callard

She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, here is the transcript and audio.  We covered Plato and Socrates, what Plato is on about at all, the virtues of dialog and refutation, whether immortality would be boring, Elena Ferrante, parents vs. gangsters and Beethoven vs. Mozart, my two Straussian readings of her book, Jordan Peterson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the best defense of reading the classics, and the Agnes Callard production function (physics to classics to philosophy), all in suitably informationally dense fashion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I have a friend who’s interested in longevity research…and he tells me there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that I actually will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with. By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

I think you can get by in a 100-year life not being too much attuned to things of eternal significance because there’s so much fascinating stuff out there, and one can go from one thing to the next and not get bored. But if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.”

COWEN: Let me give you a hypothesis. You can react to it. That which is cultural, say, listening to music, I would get bored with, even though wonderful music maybe continually will be created. But those activities which are more primeval, more biological — parenting, sex, food, sleep, maybe taking a wonderful shower — that are quite brute, in a way, maybe I would substitute more into those as an immortal? Yes?

CALLARD: I don’t see why you wouldn’t get just as bored of bodily pleasures.

COWEN: You’re programmed for those to be so immediate and riveting, right? You evolve to be maybe an 80-year-old being, or perhaps even a 33-year-old being, so you are riveted on things like reproduction and getting enough sleep. And that stays riveting, even when you’re on this program to live 80,000 years.

CALLARD: I think that at least some of those activities stay riveting for us over the course of our lives because their meaning changes…


COWEN: Let’s turn now to your new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. There’s a sentence from the book. Let me read it, and maybe you can explain it. “Proleptic reasons allow you to be rational even when you know that your reasons aren’t exactly the right ones.” What’s a proleptic reason?

This was my favorite part, though perhaps few of you will get the joke:

COWEN: On aspiration, what do you think of Jordan Peterson?

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

Here you can buy her just-published book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.  You cannot follow her on Twitter.

Edward Tenner’s *The Efficiency Paradox*, or are big tech and finance actually the same?

The author is Edward Tenner and the subtitle is What Big Data Can’t Do.  Overall, I prefer to read Tenner on engineering more narrowly construed, but still I found some novel and interesting ideas in this book, as you might expect.

Most notably, I was struck by his claim that the rise of “Big Tech” and the rise of finance are more or less the same thing.  Many of the tech innovations are in fact transactional innovations, and both the “financialization” revolution and much of social network tech promulgate the idea of “life as a portfolio,” albeit portfolios of different kinds.  Both have an ideal of “friction-free commerce,” or social interactions, as the case may be, and of course in both cases this is organized by code.

Furthermore, if you make buying and finding things much easier, finance as a percentage of gdp likely will go up.  Do not forget that Jeff Bezos was first a young star at Shaw, a hedge fund.  Is it any accident that finance and tech are often, these days, competing for the same pool of talented young quant workers?

Here is one good bit from Tenner:

We have all heard of Jeff Bezos, founder of  Only technical specialists and historians have heard of Jacobus Verhoeff.  Yet when Bezos planned to transform online retailing, bookselling was a natural beginning because, thanks to Verhoeff’s algorithm, more books had standardized product numbers than any other category of merchandise.

You can buy the book here.

What I’ve been reading and not reading

Linda Yueh, What Would the Great Economists Do?: How Twelve Brilliant Minds Would Solve Today’s Biggest Problems.  Think of this as the updated Heilbroner.

John Blair’s Building Anglo-Saxon England is a remarkable look at the archaeological and historical evidence on what went on before 9th century A.D.  This is not a book of irresponsible generalizations.

Sebastian Edwards has a new, forthcoming book American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle Over Gold.

Adam Winkler, We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights, is a useful and readable treatment of the history of how businesses acquired various kinds of “personhood.”

Michael J. Piore and Andrew Schrank, Root-Cause Regulation: Protecting Work and Workers in the Twenty-First Century is an interesting book, written under the premise that the Continental model of labor safety and labor market regulation is a good thing, including for Latin America.

David C. Engerman, The Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India.

I have only browsed Fawaz A. Gerges, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East, but it looks quite good.

Ge Zhaoguang, What is China?: Territory Ethnicity Culture & History is the result of a China scholar considering all the questions suggested in the subtitle.  I was not ever astonished, but it is about time we all read more books by the Chinese about China.

Self-recommending is Richard Sylla and David J. Cowen, Alexander Hamilton on Finance, Credit, and Debt.

I spotted several intellectual and emotional fallacies in Zadie Smith’s Feel Free: Essays.

*Neruda: The Poet’s Calling*

That is the new and excellent biography by Mark Eisner, here is one good bit:

“The antagonism toward Borges may exist in an intellectual or cultural form because of our different orientation,” Neruda answered. “One can fight peacefully. But I have other enemies — not writers. For me the enemy is imperialism, and my enemies are the capitalists and those who drop napalm on Vietnam. But Borges is not my enemy…He understands nothing of what’s going on in the contemporary world; he thinks that I understand nothing either. Therefore, we are in agreement.”


After [Juan Ramón] Jiménez’s “great bad poet remark, Neruda and his friends started to prank call Jiménez’s house, hanging up the phone as soon as he answered.

This book is remarkably well-constructed and easy to read, the best treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

Sentences about dairy

But there has never been a culture more dependent on milk than the desert nomads known as the Bedouins.

And originally, ice cream was only for aristocrats.

Others [in 18th century France] called ice cream fromage.

Jefferson liked to serve ice cream on sponge cake with a lightly baked meringue on top.

The United States became the ice cream country.

Fidel Castro took a personal interest in developing Cuban ice cream, and he was determined that Cuba would make better ice cream than the United States.

Ice cream is in general more profitable than milk, but ice cream cones are one of the more profitable ways to sell ice cream.

Those are all from the newly forthcoming and entertaining Mark Kurlansky book Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas.

*Who We Are and How We Got Here*, by David Reich

This is a truly excellent work, readable and informative at A to A+ quality, and the subtitle is Ancient DNA and the new Science of the Human Past.  It has occasioned some public controversy for its discussion of race and genetics, but most of all this is a book about how science is done.  For instance, the page and a half discussion of how researchers try to ensure that human DNA does not contaminate Neanderthal DNA is just beautiful.

Here is one good summary passage:

The case of the Ancient North Eurasians showed that while a tree is a good analogy for the relationships among species — because species rarely interbreed and so like real tree limbs are not expected to grow back together after they branch — it is a dangerous analogy for human populations.  The genome revolution has taught us that great mixtures of highly divergent populations have occurred repeatedly.  Instead of a tree, a better metaphor may be a trellis, branching and remixing far back into the past.

Here is another excerpt of note:

Analyzing our data, he [Iosif Lazaridis] found that about ten thousand years ago there were at least four major populations in West Eurasia — the farmers of the Fertile Crescent, the farmers of Iran, the hunter-gatherers of central and western Europe, and the hunter-gatherers of eastern Europe.  All these populations differed from one another as much as Europeans differ from East Asians today.

The concept of “ghost populations” will enter your mental conceptual vocabulary.  And:

The extraordinary fact that emerges from ancient DNA is that just five thousand years ago, the people who are now the primary ancestors of all extant northern Europeans had not yet arrived.

Most of all, this is a science book, not a “race book.”  (“Having been immersed in the ancient DNA revolution for the past 10 years, I am confident that anyone who pays attention to what it is finding cannot come away feeling affirmed in racist beliefs.”)  You may know that Reich is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Here is his earlier NYT essay (though I think the very first link in this post is the best place to start, do read that carefully), well done but not quite representative of the book either.  You can buy it here, this is definitely one of the books of the year and one of the best popular science books of any year.

*The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars*

I found this book by Sebastian Abbot very stimulating, though I wished for a more social-scientific treatment.  The focus is on Africa, here is one bit on the more conceptual side:

But focusing on a young player’s technique still tells a scout relatively little about whether the kid will reach the top level, even when the observations are paired with physical measures of speed and agility.  A study published in 2016 looked at the results from a battery of five tests conducted by the German soccer federation on over 20,000 of the top Under-12 players in the country.  The tests measured speed, agility, dribbling, passing, and shooting.  The researchers assessed the utility of the tests in determining how high the kids would progress once they reached the Under-16 to Under-19 level.  The study found that players who scored in the 99th percentile or higher in the tests still only had a 6 percent chance of making the youth national team.

So what else might you look to?:

They assessed the game intelligence of players by freezing match footage at different moments and asking players to predict what would happen next or what decision a player on the field should make.  Elite players were faster and more accurate in their ability to scan the field, pick up cues from an opponent’s position, and recognize, recall, and predict patterns of play.


Researchers have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup soccer they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard.

The implications for economics study and speed chess are obvious.  Finally:

Researchers found that athletes have a 25 percent larger attention window than nonathletes.

Is that true for successful CEOs as well?  By the way, I hope to blog  soon about why human talent is in so many endeavors the truly binding constraint.

This is an interesting Africa book, too.

*Cognitive Gadgets*

The author is Cecilia Heyes, and the subtitle is The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, published by Harvard/Belknap.  It is not always a transparent read, but this is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences.

From the book’s home page:

…adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.

The key substantive points from this are malleability and speed of evolution, and overall in her theory there is a much lower reliance on cognitive instincts and thus a fundamentally different account of social evolution: “In contrast, the cognitive gadgets theory applies cultural evolutionary theory to the mechanisms of thought — the mental processes that generate and control behavior.”

And “…social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think.”

The chapter on imitation is the best appendage to Girard on memesis I know.  One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love.  To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities.  Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly.  This too we learn through cultural gadgets.

Mindreading is also a mental gadget, it must be learned, and it is surprisingly similar to print reading.  In an odd twist on Julian Jaynes, Heyes suggests that humans five or six thousand years ago may not have had this capacity very strongly.  And as with print reading, there is cross-cultural diversity in mindreading.  There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too.

What about language?  Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning.”  This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187).

Most generally, if someone is trying to explain X, maybe both genetic/instinct and cultural evolution accounts of X are wrong — try a cultural gadget approach!  And think of this book as perhaps the best attempt so far to explain the weirdness of humans, relative to other animals.

Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts.  Furthermore, social media may indeed matter a great deal, and in revisionist terms some parts of Marx are not as crazy as they may seem (my point this latter one, not hers).

I need more time (years?) to digest the contents of this book, and decide how much I agree.  It is somehow neither hard nor easy reading, but most MR readers should be able to make their way through it.  Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Buy it on Amazon here.  Here is a Heyes lecture on related ideas, also click through to part II.

My advice for a Paris visit

This is for another friend, here are my pointers:

1. Find a very good food street/corner and take many of your meals there.  I’ve used Rue Daguerre and around Rue des Arts (Left Bank) for this purpose, but there are many others.  Spend most of your money in the cheese shop, asking them to choose for you, but supplement with bread, fruit, and of course chocolate.  This beats most restaurant meals, noting it won’t be cheap either.  And yes it is worth paying $8 for a bar of chocolate there.

2. Do track down medieval Paris, most of all the cathedrals.  This will bring you by other delights as well.

3. Especially on the Left Bank, Paris is one of the very best walking cities.  Avoid Champs-Élysées and environs, a broad-avenued, chain store-intense corruption of what Paris ought to be.  Avoid Jardin Luxembourg and the surrounding parts as well, they are urban deserts.

4. Get a peek of the major bridges over the Seine, if only by traversing them.

5. You don’t in fact have to stand in line to see the Mona Lisa.  It’s a lovely painting, but at this point in human civilization it is OK to skip it.  You don’t need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again either.  But you should go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in the Louvre, don’t neglect the Poussin room, the Michelangelo sculptures, or the Flemish and 17th century works.

6. The Louvre, d’Orsay, Cluny, and Branly (ethnographic) are the essential museums in town.  Check out Grand Palais and Petit Palais for possible exhibits.  When walking around, keep your eye out for posters (yes, posters) advertising exhibits and concerts.

7. If you want to spend forty euros for a very good but not revelatory lunch, find a “cool” area with lots of restaurants and poke your head in at their opening, at 12:30, to ask for a table.  By 12:45 it is too late and you are screwed and back to your favorite cheese shop.  By the way, I don’t think Paris is the best city in which to spend $200 on a meal.

8. In most of the parts of Paris you are likely to frequent, do not try to eat any Asian or “ethnic” foods.  The best restaurants of those kinds are in north Paris, on the way to the airport, but no one visits there.  Couscous in Paris is boring.

9. Belleville is the gentrifying Brooklyn of Paris, with relatively few tourists, if that is what you are looking for.  Avoid Montmartre.  For practical reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Paris time near Unesco, in a neighborhood that is a bit sterile but very beautiful and it gives you a decent sense of well-to-do residential Paris life.  Develop your mini-Paris residential life somewhere, and make your time there more than just a tourist visit.  The site I should not enjoy but do is Le Dôme des Invalides, also the tomb of Napoleon.

10. The essential Paris movies are lots of Godard (Breathless, Band of Outsiders, others), Jules and Jim, and Triplets of Belleville.  Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for those with an experimental bent.  Eric Rohmer for something light-hearted.  Amélie and Before Sunset are both rewarding, though at the margin Godard usually is what Americans are lacking.

11. Carry along Hugo and Balzac to read.  Flaubert and Proust are wonderful, but they are more “interior” authors and thus you can imbibe them anywhere.  Do not forget Houllebecq’s Submission.  I do not love most of the well-known non-fiction books on Paris; perhaps they become corrupted through the chance of being truly popular.  Do read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France and try to dig up a useful architectural guide to the city.  I’m also a big fan of Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

12. Don’t go expecting Parisians to be rude, I have never (well, once) found that to be the case in more than six months spent in the city.

13. My overall take is this: Paris today is fairly sterile in terms of overall creativity, or for that matter business dynamism.  But Parisians have perfected the art of taste along a number of notable dimensions, like nowhere else in the world.  If your trip allows you to free ride upon those efforts in a meaningful way, it will go very well.

*Waste of a Nation*

The authors are Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey and the subtitle is Garbage and Growth in India, here is one excerpt from this worthy book:

In India, the tool for cleaning teeth and gums had long been a twig usually taken from a neem tree…, which can be plucked each morning, chewed into a teeth-cleaning brush, and then thrown away.  Neem also has medicinal properties.  Tooth powders gained popularity in towns and cities in preindependence times, but in smaller towns as late as the 1960s shops that sold toothpaste had to be searched for.  Consumption of toothpaste was meager.  India’s toothpaste industry in the mid-1970s was estimated to produce about 1,200 metric tons a year for a population of more than 600 million.  An Australian population of 16 million consumed 5,000 metric tons of toothpaste.  By the late 1980s, the Indian market was said to be growing rapidly, but the industry estimated that only 15 percent of the population used toothpaste and that per capita consumption was only 30 grams a year.

…By 2014, a single new factory set up in Gujarat by Colgate-Palmolive was capable of making 15,000 metric tons of toothpaste a year, more than ten times the quantity produced in all of India two generations earlier.