Category: Books

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics.  One man’s version of “the real Stephen Hawking story,” including the marital arrangements and rearrangements, told by a former good friend.  I am not sure that books such as this should be written (or read), but…this one is pretty good.  It also gives Hawking’s account of why he did not win a Nobel prize (“radiation must be observed”), among other tidbits.

2. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody.  The authors serve up many on-target criticisms of current academic nonsense, but somehow it is not how I would proceed.  Given the ridiculousness of so much of what is going on, I say there are new intellectual profit opportunities to mine the best insights from critical theory, postmodernism, intersectionality and the like.  I would rather read a book that did that.  Start with Foucault, and steelman everything as you go along.

3. Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History.  Truly an excellent book covering the history, politics, and culture of…the Himalayan region.  Full of substance, lovely cover too.  The USA link here has a worse cover, no surprise.  But you’ll get the British version quicker, with the preferred cover, and at a lower price.  Arbitrage!

4. The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, edited by Frederick C. Beiser, but basically Novalis, Schlegel, and a bit of Schleiermacher.  In particular I was surprised how well the Novalis has held up: insightful, to the point, and laying out the aesthetic approach to politics (and more) with a stark and memorable clarity.  If you are looking for something to read that is non-liberal, but not the tiresome version of non-liberal being beat to death these days, maybe try this book.

5. George Prochnik, Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution.  Heine has aged very well, circa 2020, and he is an appropriate liberal but also satiric counterpart to the writers mentioned immediately above, plus he was more historically prescient, and for all the talk about culture from the Romantics, it was Heine who was the perceptive observer of other people’s cultures.  This is a good book for additional historical background once you already know Heine, though not at all an introduction to his charm and import, available only from the man himself.

And I have just received my copy of Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.

Reconstructing microeconomics as a kind of anthropology

Here is the closing part of my introduction to what will be a forthcoming Taiwanese, classical Chinese character edition of my earlier book Discover Your Inner Economist:

Finally, hidden in Discover Your Inner Economist is an implied revision of how economics should be done in the university. Most economic theory starts with the notion of market supply and demand, and then proceeds to analyze problems. In my vision, it is first more important to understand how people understand the incentives before them, noting again that not all of those incentives center around money.

Our perceptions of reality, in my view, are shaped by the intersection between “signals sent” on one hand, and our “chosen self-deceptions” on the other. Our worldviews are thus formed, and then in any given social interaction we acquire an understanding – not always accurate – of what is at stake. For instance, we frame what that bonus at work really means, what kind of marriage offer is on the table before us, or what a company is really offering in a long-term contract. In other words, our view of the world comes first, and our response to incentives comes second. We cannot understand incentives without a deep understanding of how worldviews are formed, processed, and revised.

In that sense psychology and anthropology are always prior to economics more narrowly construed, and I have tried to outline how to do good economics under those constraints.

I hope you enjoy this book!

On audiobooks

From my email, from Robert Kwasny:

I imagine you listen to audio books rarely but, still, I wonder if you have any new thoughts on this topic.

Few thoughts of my own:

1. Shakespeare audiobooks are excellent. Much better than watching blu-rays. Unlike on real stage, Prospero (voiced by Ian McKellan in one production) can actually whisper softly to Miranda without worrying about people in the back rows. Stage directions are already included in the dialogue.

2. Pop psychology and self-help are terrible. Once cannot easily skip or skim the boring parts.

3. History books written by academics (e.g. The Sleepwalkers) are tough unless one already knows the necessary context. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost in the thicket of background facts. That’s probably true for all dense books. For example, Piketty’s books are available on Audible but I didn’t even bother sampling them. It’s just a wrong format.

4. I’ve had great experience with books written by authors with journalistic experience. Robert Caro’s works are excellent in audio form. William Manchester’s Churchill biography is good as well. Lawrence of Arabia by Scott Anderson too. Good audiobooks can’t be just one fact after another, they need to tell a story.

5. If the book’s author does the narration it’s usually bad. Voice acting is hard.

Unfortunately I don’t know of any book created specifically for audio. Where are biographies of Bob Dylan with songs included? Or books on rhetoric with audio of great speeches included? Audiobooks (and ebooks for that matter) don’t seem to be a new medium, at least so far. 10 years ago I would have not predicted that.

I have no new thoughts on audiobooks!  Though for my next book (which is co-authored), I was asked to read at least part of the AudioBook.  I will thus develop additional thoughts over time.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

*Where is my flying car?: A memoir of future past*, by J. Storrs Hall

Who is this guy?  How come no one told me about this book until Adam Ozimek asked about it?

One of the main arguments of the book is that we could have had major technological advances in multiple areas if only we had put in another fifty years of hard work on them.  Flying cars could have been a thing some time ago!

The author estimates that if quality nanotechnology were up and running, it would take only about a week to rebuild the entire United States.  Just imagine how silly the current building permit system would seem then.

The anecdotes on the history of helicopters are interesting and obsessive in a good way.

One of the arguments is simply that we have not much succeeded in boosting our aggregate use of energy.  Hall also argues we do not face sufficient challenges, in part because nuclear deterrence has worked so well.

An editor would not approve of the organization and rambling structure of this book, including the lengthy digressions on technologies of the author’s choice and fascination.  It does not bother me.

Here is one short bit, not actually representative of the basic style, but I enjoyed it anyway:

If you are a technologist working on some new, clean, abundant form of energy, I wish you all the luck in the world.  But you must not labor under the illusion that should you succeed, your efforts will be justly rewarded by the gratitude of the people you have lifted from poverty and enabled to have a bright and growing future.  You will be attacked, your work will be lied about by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation.

But only if it works.

You can buy it here, Kindle only for $3.14, note it is a full-length book with all the proper trappings.  It’s one of the best and most interesting books on technology in some time, either ignore or enjoy the organizational infelicities, first published in 2018.

What I’ve been reading

1. Stephen Hough, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More. Scattered tidbits, about half of them very interesting, most of the rest at least decently good, mostly for fans of classical music and piano music. Should you develop the habit of warming up?  Why don’t they always have a piano in the “green room”?  How many recordings should you sample before trying to play a piece?  What kinds of relationships do pianists develop with their page turners?  That sort of thing.  I read the whole thing.

2. Jeremy England, Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things.  A fun and readable popular science book on why life may be likely to evolve from inanimate matter: “Living things…make copies of themselves, harvest and consume fuel, and accurately predict the surrounding environment.”  Who could be against that?

3. Dov H. Levin, Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral Interventions.  “A fifth significant way in which the U.S. aided Adenauer’s reelection was achieved by Dulles publicly threatening, in an American press conference which took place two days before the elections, “disastrous effects” for Germany if Adenauer was not reelected.”  A non-partisan, academic work, “This study is the first book-length study of partisan electoral interventions as a discrete, stand-alone phenomenon.”  From 1946-2000, there were 81 discrete U.S. interventions in foreign elections, and 36 by the USSR/Russia, noting that outright conquest did not count in that data base.

4. John Kampfner, Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country (UK Amazon link, not yet in the USA).  You should dismiss the title altogether, which is intended to provoke British people.  In fact the author spends plenty of time on what is wrong with Germany, ranging from an incoherent foreign policy to the weaknesses of Frankfurt as a financial center.  In any case, this is an excellent book trying to lay out and explain recent German politics and economics.  It is more conventional wisdom than daring hypothesis, but the conventional wisdom is very often correct and how many people really know the conventional wisdom about Naomi Seibt anyway?  Recommended, the best recent look at what is still one of the world’s most important countries.

5. David Carpenter, Henry III: 1207-1258.  “No King of England came to the throne in a more desperate situation than Henry III.”  The Magna Carta had just been instituted, Henry was just nine years old, and England was ruled by a triumvirate, with a very real chance that the French throne would swallow up England.  This is one of those “has a lot of unfamiliar names that are hard to keep track of” books, but don’t blame Carpenter for that.  In terms of scholarly contribution it stands amongst the very top books of the year.  And yes there was already a Wales back then.  They also started building Westminster Abbey under Henry’s reign.  Here are some of the origins of state capacity libertarianism, volume II is yet to come.

6. Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults.  The last quarter of the book closes strong, so my final assessment is enthusiastic, even if it isn’t in the exalted league of her Neapolitan quadrology.  It will probably be better upon a rereading, which I will do.

Not your grandpa’s South Asia libertarianism

I did an Ask Me Anything for the South Asian chapter of Students for Liberty, based on their reading of my book Big Business: Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

By far the two most popular topics for questions were a) social media, and b) sexual harassment.  Understandable, given South Asian circumstances, but not necessarily what you would hear in the United States, especially from an SfL group.

I think most Western libertarians and classical liberals still do not understand how much South Asia is going to redefine their discourse.

The new Elena Ferrante novel, up through p.138 (no spoilers)

Some surprises have come, and I am liking it more.  Is it fair to judge it against the Neapolitan quadrology?  This book has only one major character rather than two, so is it doomed to be only half as good?  Can any current book manage to be half as good?  Can we read this one fresh at all?  (Is it better to view the Mona Lisa “fresh,” or not?)  Should we be trying to discard prior expectations, or not be trying to discard expectations for a book such as this?

You’ll be getting another report soon, please note I am deliberately not reading the book too quickly.  Here is my previous post on the book.  I agree with the commentator who described the male characters as mostly flat.

*The Stakes: American at the Point of No Return*

That is the new book by Michael Anton, the famed then pseudonymous author of the “Flight 93 piece.”

I consider this to be the very best book for understanding where the current Intellectual Right “is at.”  In that sense I recommend it highly.  The opening chapter is a polemical fear that all of American will go the route of California, and then Anton keeps on digging further in on what has gone wrong.

To be clear, my vision is not the same as Michael’s.  I would like to see more emphasis on economic growth, on individual liberty, to recognize the emancipatory strands within the Left, to move away from the current historical pessimism of the Right and of Anton in particular, to be more unabashedly cosmopolitan, think more about science, and to become more Bayesian.  Nor do I agree that “…there’s little wrong with President Trump that more Trump couldn’t solve.”

Nonetheless this book serves a very valuable purpose and many of you should read it.

The new Elena Ferrante novel, up through p.63 no spoilers

It is a thrill to be dragged into her Neapolitan world of class and romantic intrigue and family strife once again, and the book is clearly Ferrante from the get go.  Yet I have some doubts.  The plot seems more accessible and less complex, and with fewer layers to be unpeeled.  It has not yet moved out of “father-daughter cliché land.”  Every page is engrossing, but I am still looking for the surprise.

They have been so stingy with advance review copies that there are still no Amazon reviews.

*The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941*

The author is Paul Dickson, and the subtitle is The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor.

For one thing, I enjoyed the examples of “fast action” in this book.  For instance, the U.S. passed draft registration Sept.16, 1940. All men between 21 and 45 are supposed to register, and on a single date, Oct.16. Almost all of them do, including people in mental hospitals. Some stragglers register over the next five days, but the overwhelming majority pull it off on day one, and with very little preexisting infrastructure to draw upon, as draft institutions had been abolished right after the end of WWI.

I had not realized how instrumental George Marshall had been, before Pearl Harbor, in investing in building up America’s officer corps.

The famous movie star, Jimmy Stewart, was drafted but then rejected for being ten pounds too light at 6’3″ and 138 lbs.  He then put on ten pounds so he could join the service.

The tales of poor morale, mental illness, and prostitution camps (no antibiotics!) in 1940 are harrowing.

Recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Daniel Halliday and John Thrasher, The Ethics of Capitalism: An Introduction.  This book is reasonable, empirical, non-dogmatic, readable, and largely but not uncritically pro-capitalist.  It is indeed “an introduction,” and not designed for say yours truly, but we need many more works like this.

2. Ken McNab, And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatlesxxx.  I regularly opine that sports and entertainment books — provided you already have familiarity with the topic area — provide better management lessons than do management books.  This volume, as I read it, presents the Beatles story as a tale of two sequential founders — first John (who had most of the early excellent songs), and then Paul, the turning point in my view being when Paul commandeered the engineering of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” otherwise very much a John song but in fact Paul did most of the actual work on it.  Eventually the first founder rebelled against the ever-more-domineering second founder, and then the Beatles went poof.

3. Martyn Rady, The Habsburgs.  Most books about the Habsburgs confuse me, this one confuses me less than those other ones, consider that a recommendation.  I learned the most from the section about all of the early ties to what is now part of northern Switzerland.

4. Jeff Selingo, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. Most books about college admissions do not confuse me (the reality already is so absurd), but this one informs me, consider that a recommendation.  Selingo has done actual extensive research, including a direct pipeline into the processes of several major institutions, and he puts informativeness above moralizing or exaggeration.

5. Richard E. Spear, Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial: Thwaytes v. Sotheby’s.  A surprisingly taut and suspenseful treatment of a dispute and then lawsuit over whether a supposed Caravaggio was in fact “real” or not.  NB: if they have to ask whether or not it is real, most of the time it ain’t.

6. William C. Summers, Félix dHérelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology.  I wanted to read up on bacteriophages, in part as a broader proxy for abandoned lines of scientific inquiry (superseded by antibiotics, and did you recall they play a big role in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith?), and it seemed this was the right book for that.  Short enough and to the point, clear enough for the non-specialist, and it has plenty on the history of science more broadly.  It also covers d’Hérelle being invited to Georgia, USSR, to pursue his research, a fascinating episode in his life.  For a brief introduction, here is his Wikipedia page.

7. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening.  A few months ago I started reading this one, figuring it would win a Booker, and indeed it just did.  I read up through p.102, and quite liked it, but also figured that a Dutch farm tale of mucky perversion, flapping meats, and a mordant, vibrant nature did not in fact fit into my broader life plan.  Indeed it did not. But if you are considering this one, while likely I will not finish it, I still would nudge you slightly in the positive direction.  Cumin cheese makes an appearance (ugh).

I have not had a chance to read Adrian Goldworthy’s Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conqueror, but it appears promising.

Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe is a reprint of a 1980 classic, with an emphasis on the roots of liberalism in European religious thought.

My Conversation with Jason Furman

Yes, the Jason Furman, here is the audio and transcript, please note this was recorded in January.  Here is part of the summary:

Jason joined Tyler for a wide-ranging conversation on how monopolies affect investment patterns, his top three recommendations to improve American productivity, why he’s skeptical of place-based development policies, what some pro-immigration arguments get wrong, why he’s more concerned about companies like Facebook and Google than he is Walmart and Amazon, the merits of a human rights approach to privacy, whether the EU treats tech companies fairly, having Matt Damon as a college roommate, the future of fintech, his highest objective when teaching economics, what he learned from coauthoring a paper with someone who disagrees with him, why he’s a prolific Goodreads reviewer, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: The US is losing some of its manufacturing capacity, and certainly a lot of its manufacturing workforce. Are there external benefits to keeping those activities more in the US? Significant benefits?

FURMAN: I don’t think that manufacturing itself should be an important objective of US policy. It’s one type of job. It’s been a good type of job, but there’s other good types of jobs as well. I wouldn’t focus on where physical things are being made as opposed to where services are being made. In fact, if anything, I think the error in policy is probably a little bit too much emphasis on manufacturing and a little bit less on services.

COWEN: What do you think of the national security argument? That, say, when building a ship, we might be dependent on South Korean components. If there were a war in Asia, those might be, for some reason, unreliable. We depend on China for rare earths. We depend on Taiwan, to some extent, for high-quality chips, even though we make our own. Is the supply chain extended too long, and it was a kind of economic fantasy, and it doesn’t make national security sense?

FURMAN: I don’t consider myself an expert in any of those national security questions, so I would be open to thinking about the national security concerns associated with the supply chain. I have an awful lot in specific cases — both when I was in government and just in the world more generally — heard people make national security arguments that I found tendentious and pretty unpersuasive.

There may be some that are persuasive and that are true. There’s an awful lot that aren’t. Our administration, towards the end, worried a bit about semiconductors. When I’ve looked at that, there’s enough of a diversified world supply, enough of an ability to scale up if necessary in the United States, that I don’t think on semiconductors — there, it was protectionism under the guise of national security.

So I think we should accept the possibility of national security, take it seriously, but be really, really wary that a lot of protectionist arguments use that trappings.

Economics throughout, with a touch of Dickens.  Recommended.