Category: Books

My podcast with Darren Lipomi

He is a well-known chemist (and more) at UC San Diego. We started with classic Star Trek and then moved into textiles, chemistry, music vs. sound, nanobots against Covid, how to interview, traveling during a pandemic, art collecting and voodoo flags, the importance of materials science, and much more.  Mostly he interviewed me, though it went a bit both ways.

Almost 100% fresh material and topics, and here is the Spotify link.

Favorite books by female authors

Elena Ferrante named her top forty, and I am not sure I approve of the exercise at all.  Still, here are my top twenty, in no particular order, fiction only, not counting poetry:

1.Lady Murasaki, Tale of Genji.

2. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.

3. Alice Munro, any and all.

4. Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan quadrology.

5. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.

6. Octavia Butler, Xenogenesis trilogy.

7. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

9. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter.

10. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

11. Virginia Woolf, many.

12. Willa Cather, My Antonia.

13. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

14. Jane Austen, Persuasion.

15. Anne Rice, The Witching Hour, and #2 in the vampire series.

16. Anaïs Nin? P.D.James? A general award to the mystery genre?

17. Christa Wolf, Cassandra.

18. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian.

19. Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise.

20. Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Comments: No, I didn’t forget George Eliot, these are “my favorites,” not “the best.”  Maybe Edith Wharton would have made #21?  Or Byatt’s Possession?  The other marginal picks mostly would have come from the Anglosphere.  I learned my favorite Latin American writers are all male.

What should I ask Benjamin M. Friedman?

As noted, Ben has a new and very interesting book coming out Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  He is also the author of the superb The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and the earlier Day of Reckoning, about the economic policies of the Reagan administration.  Ben has been a leading macroeconomist since the 1970s, and he taught me Ph.D. macro at Harvard in 1984, one of my favorite professors I might add.  Here is Ben on scholar.google.com.

So what should I ask him?

Erasmus Darwin, apostle of progress

Erasmus Darwin plunged into popular scientific poetry.  Cantering along in the style — if not with the elegance — of Alexander Pope, he never aspired to greatness.  His verses, however, were remarkable for their vivid pictures of evolution interlaced with stirring accounts of the advancement of science, technology, and human culture during the late eighteenth century, the very epitome of optimistic entrepreneurial thought applied to the natural world in the bright glow of the prerevolutionary era.

It is hard to recapture the full extent of the fame these writings, virtually forgotten today, brought him.  Yet for many readers of the 1790s, Darwin was the poet for the age of liberty and social advance: an advocate of industrialisation and cultural improvement; an avid admirer of the power of steam; a discipline of the French philosophes, revealing his Jacobin-like fervour for change and transformation at every turn, and deliberately provocative in taking as his publisher the radical Joseph Johnson, the Londoner who printed William Godwin and friends; at all times a poet of progress, with such an obvious sense of humor that his zest for life could not fail to amuse.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was of course the grandfather of Charles Darwin and also of Francis Galton.  And that passage is from the truly excellent biography Charles Darwin Voyaging, by Janet Browne.

Modern Principles, New Edition!

The new edition of Modern Principles is here! We take our title, Modern Principles of Economics, seriously. Other textbooks stick with the market for ice cream year after year but when it comes to new editions we don’t just add a box or two–we rewrite entire chapters with new examples and applications and we cut older material to make way for the new.

In the new edition we introduce platform economics and we use it to explain why Facebook is free; we have new material applying the elasticity of supply to understand why housing is so expensive in some cities; we have rewritten the chapter on trade to take into account the China shock and the China trade-war shock including the implications for politics; we have new material on pollution and a carbon tax; new material on the declining labor force participation rate of men and new material on supply chains and bottlenecks. Of course, there is also new material on pandemics although we had material on pandemics in the very first edition!

Modern Principles of Economics is by far the best textbook for teaching online (or offline!). Not only do you get over a hundred professionally produced videos, like this one on price ceilings and price coordination, you also get Achieve, the excellent new course management system that integrates e-book, tutorials, quizzes, exams, assessment and much more so that you can get up and running online overnight.

I’ll be covering some of the new material in Modern Principles this week.

What I’ve been reading

1. Gregory M. Collins, Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy.  Burke is underrated as an economist, and also more generally.  This very thorough and thoughtful book goes a long way toward setting the record straight.  In the meantime, it is not sufficiently well known just how much Keynes was influenced by Burke.

2. Terryl Givens, Mormonism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Perhaps if one needs to read this book, one is also under-qualified to comment on it.  Still it seemed very good to me and providing one of the better introductions.  I hadn’t know for instance that Abraham and even Adam to some extent were “in on” the covenant all along.

3. R.F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney.  A very good “short book essay” on one of my favorite poets.  That is a UK link, here is what you get when you search U.S. Amazon.  How can that be?  These days you can search Amazon better using Google than using Amazon itself.

4. Charles Camic, Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics.  It makes sense that a biography of Veblen should be…somewhat verbose.  Nonetheless this is a valuable contribution for anyone interested in the topic.  To me the main question is why the libertarian right takes Veblen more seriously these days than does the Left, perhaps it is because they read Veblen and immediately think of Wokeism?

5. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology.  From the 1830s, this remains one of the great scientific classics.  I had never known how well-reasoned or beautifully written it was, a big positive surprise for me.  Not just a bunch of crusty old rocks, though it is also about…a bunch of crusty old rocks.

There is Judith Flanders, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order.

John Fabian Witt, American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to Covid-19 is a short but useful treatment of what its title promises.  I had not known that both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X were opposed to compulsory vaccination.

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

Best non-fiction books of 2020

Usually I give this list much later in November, but shopping rhythms are off this year.  Furthermore The Strand bookstore in NYC is rather desperately asking for your business, as is Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and many other independent bookshops.  Nor would it hurt Barnes & Noble if you spent your money there, and I hear Amazon is hiring and boosting the macroeconomy.  I believe bookstores in England will be closing in a few days, so hurry now.  Finally, I hope you will stay home and read these rather than traveling for Thanksgiving!

As usual, these are (roughly) in the order I read them, not ranked by preference or quality.

Anton Howes, Arts & Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.

Garett Jones, 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.

Bruno Macaes, History has Begun: The Birth of a New America.

Thane Gustafson, The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe.

Dietrich Vollrath, Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success.

Ronald S. Calinger, Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius of the Enlightenment.

Ashley Mears, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit.

Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton, The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life.

Hollis Robbins, Forms of Contention: Influence and the African-American Sonnet Tradition.

Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story.

Joe Henrich, The WEIRDEST People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

Oliver Craske, Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar.

Zachary D. Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.

Deirdre Mask, The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.

Daniel Todman, Britain’s War 1942-1947.

Brent Tarter, Virginians and Their History.

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

Matt Yglesias, One Billion Americans.

Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History.

Michael Wood, The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People.

Kevin Davies, Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.

Nicholas McDowell, Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

This is indeed a fantastic list, really strong, and apologies to those I have forgotten (there are always some).  I will be doing a revised, updated, and last two months filled in list much later in December.

*Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art*

By Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an excellent book, a very responsible treatment of what we do and do not know about Neanderthals, with a bit on Denisovans as well.  It is a book full of sentences such as: “Micro-morphology has also provided proof that, far from being slovenly, Neanderthals were regularly disposing of their rubbish.”  It seems they enjoyed mussels and also grubs, among many other foodstuffs.  The hearth was the center of the home and they had fairly advanced systems for butchery.  They used leather and deployed pigments.

I enjoyed this segment:

Parisians, Londoners or Berliners today with ostensibly European heritage have very little connection even to Mesolithic people just 10,000 years ago.  The vast majority of their DNA comes from a massive influx of Western Asian peoples during the Neolithic.  This means that many of the first H. sapiens populations are more extinct than the neanderthals; not a great sign of evolutionary dominance.

Recommended, you can order here.

New books needed on the NIH and NSF

A reader writes —

“Despite being the preeminent model for global science funding, and far more powerful than any single university, the workings of the NIH or NSF are surprisingly opaque to most people. These bodies shape who becomes a scientist, what science they pursue, and how they pursue it. I would therefore like to fund a book about how the institutions of US science actually operate, how they’ve changed, what the relevant surrounding incentives are, and how it is that they should likely evolve from here. It’s possible, perhaps even very likely, that a good version of this book would be picked up by a good publisher. Even if it isn’t, it should exist in the public domain. I will invest generously in anyone who seeks to write one.”

This reader is highly credible. If you’re interested and have relevant expertise, please email me. (Suggestions for good possible authors — people who genuinely understand the system but who could be sufficiently objective and where relevant critical — are welcome although not as useful.)

What I’ve been reading

1. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climactic Regime.  Mostly not about climate per se, rather how we are failing at being true materialists: “In a sense, Trump’s election confirms, for the rest of the world, the end of a politics oriented toward an identifiable goal.  Trumpian politics is not “post-truth,” it is post-politics — that is, literally, a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit.”  Mostly interesting, as one expects from Latour, but not exactly in the Anglo-American style either.  It also shows a kind of convergence with the ideas of Bruno Macaes, reviewed here by John Gray.

2. Robert Townsend, Distributed Ledgers: Design and Regulation of Financial Infrastructure and Payment Systems. Bitcoin and crypto yes, but the more fundamental concept in this book is…distributed ledgers, which include Thai rice allocation schemes and Mesopotamia circa 4000 B.C.  It is highly intelligent and well done, but somehow I think books like this work better when they are more speculative and future-oriented.

3. Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life.  So many pages, and perhaps this will not be surpassed soon.  Yet it never quite tells you how he got to be so smart, or how his intellectual development proceeded, or even what his smartness consists of.  So I can’t say I liked it.  By the way, for those of you who don’t know, it seems to me that Stoppard is one of the smartest people and also the most important living playwright, most of all for anyone interested in intellectual history.

4. Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know.  Lovely visuals, blurb from Pinker, the curves slope upward, get the picture?  Let’s hope they’re right!  Ultimately I find this kind of exercise less convincing than I used to, instead preferring a broader theory that also accounts for what I perceive to be a growing disorientation.  Which brings us to the next title…

5. Slavoj Žižek, Hegel in a Wired Brain.  How do transhumanism, Elon Musk/Neuralink, the Singularity, Book of Genesis, and Hegel all fit together?  There is only one person who could pull off such a book, noting this version is dense and not for the uninitiated.  Here is one squib: “Police is closer to civil society than state; it is a kind of representative of state in civil society, but for this very reason it has to be experienced as an external force, not an inner ethical power.”  If you take away all the people who quite overrate him, Žižek is in fact remarkably underrated.

What I’ve been reading

1. Martin Amis, Inside Story: A Novel.  Except it is a memoir rather than a novel, definitely fun, and has received excellent reviews in Britain, less so in the U.S.  Does not require that you know or like the novels of Amis.  Christopher Hitchens plays a critical role in the narrative.  Idea-rich, but somehow I don’t quite care, and this one feels like it would have been a much better book twenty years ago.

2. Tobias S. Harris, The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan (UK Amazon listing, I paid the shipping charge, here is the U.S. listing). Yes a good biography of Abe, but most of all a book to make Japanese politics seem normal, rather than something connected to a country with a Kakuhidou movement.

3. Donald W. Braben, Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, Stripe Press reprint.  Here is the book’s home page.

4. Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: the Life of Malcolm X.  I pawed through this book, and it gave off signals of being high quality.  But somehow reading it didn’t hold my interest.  I then googled to a few reviews, but I rapidly realized (again) that such reviews are these days untrustworthy.  Try this NYT review, starting with this sentence: “Les Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising” arrives in late 2020, bequeathed to an America choked by racism and lawlessness.”  The reviewer makes a bunch of intelligent observations, interspersed with gushing about Malcolm X (“It is hard not to want Malcolm back, because his charisma is undeniable”), but I am never told why I should read the book.  At the end I learn the reviewer is “…the dean of academic affairs and a professor of American studies at Wellesley College.”  Signal extraction problem, anyone?  I call the current regime a tax on my willingness to put more time into the book.

Adam Thierer, Evasive Entrepreneurs & the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments, extends the important idea of permissionless innovation.

Jason Brennan, Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia.  My blurb said “The one book to read about trying to become a professor.”