Category: Books

From Charles Kenny

Friends: I’m writing to tell you about my latest book and ask you to take a look (and share the news).

Your World, Better is written for the smart and engaged middle school student.  It looks at how America and the World has changed since the reader’s parents and grandparents were young: what has happened to health and wealth, homes, school and work, rights and democracy, war and the environment, happiness and depression.   It talks about the things that have gotten better, the sometimes-intensifying challenges that remain, and what readers can do about them.  (Some of you might hear echoes of my earlier book Getting Better –it is a source, but this is a very different text).

I wrote it because my (middle school age) elder daughter’s friends appear largely of the opinion that everything is terrible, and after the last eighteen months it is a little hard to blame them for thinking that. Your World Better is optimistic, but it doesn’t shy away from the considerable problems we face: from inequality through discrimination and depression to climate change and infectious threats.  It is meant to encourage kids to help make the world better: tip them from hopelessness toward action, not into complacency.  I hope you think I get the balance right.

The pdf of Your World Better is available to download in my blog for free.  Or you can buy a kindle version for 99 cents or a hard copy for $8.10.  Any author royalties from those sales will be donated to UNICEF.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser.  I believe you need to have read Walser first, but if so this is a far better biography than what you might have expected the English-speaking world to have produced.  It is also an implicit portrait of where pre-WWI Europe went wrong, the history of micro-writing, and a paean to general weirdness, noting that Walser in both his life and writing is inexplicable to this day.

2. Andy Grundberg, How Photography Became Contemporary Art.  How does a whole genre rise from also-ran status to a major (the major?) form of contemporary art?  This is an excellent history with nice color plates and it is also a causal account.  I liked this sentence, among others: “Surprisingly, the acceptance of color photography had happened earlier in the art world than in the so-called art photography world.”  Polaroid had a significant role as well.

3. Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.  A truly good and very substantive management book (I hear your jaw hitting the floor).  Just that statement makes it one of the best management books ever.  Really.

4. Tom Jones, George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life.  A thorough biography of an 18th century Irish philosopher who is still worth reading.  Berkeley also wrote on monetary theory and pioneered the idea of an abstract unit of account.

5. Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning through Covid-19.  This book came out yesterday, I read it earlier, and here is my blurb: “A truly excellent book that explains where our pandemic response went wrong, and how we can understand those failings using the tools of economics.”  It is published by Cato, a libertarian think tank, and it is a much better and more integrated and science-based account than what you might find from other groups, whether libertarian or non-libertarian.

How should you feel if you attentively finish Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment?

Cameron Blevis, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, is a good book and on a more important topic than you might think.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

The new Michela Wrong book

It is called Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, and so far it is very good.  Here is one bit:

As a Rwandan psychologist once told me: “To show emotional reserve is considered a sign of high standing.  You do not just pour out your heart in Rwanda.  You do not cry.  It’s the opposite of Western oversharing, a form of stoicism.

A culture that glories in its impenetrability, that sees virtue in misleading: to someone proposing to write a nonfiction account embracing many of the most controversial episodes in Rwandan history, it posed a bit of a challenge.

Recommended, I will continue reading, and this one is likely to make the “best non-fiction of the year” list.

*Island On Fire*

A good book, recent winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, the author is Tom Zoellner and the subtitle is The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire.  Here is one excerpt about Jamaica, the central theater for the book:

Among the staple crop civilizations of the nineteenth century, Jamaica was noteworthy for what it didn’t have in abundance: granite monuments, private gardens, schools, parks, beautiful churches, columned public halls.Nobody thought to bring a printing press until sixty-six years after the British takeover.  Graceful mansions like those built in the American South were less common in Jamaica and generally seen only around Kingston and on the shore of St. James Parrish, where the wealthier planters aimed to impress their neighbors with bloodwood floors, wine cellars, silverware, china sets, and ancestral portraits on the walls.  But the master’s “Great House” was more commonly made of crude materials and sometimes looked no better than a barn with windows.  As a government secretary described them, many country estates were “miserable, thatched hovels, hastily put together with wattles and plaster, damp, unwholesome and infested with every species of vermin.”


What I’ve been reading

1. Devaki Jain, The Brass Notebook.  What is it like to grow up in a Tamil Brahmin family, be molested by relatives and Nobel Prize winners, and go on to be an economist?  Short and extremely readable.  The personal tale is very charming, the politics (Nyerere and Castro, never repudiated) are not.

2. Walter Isaacson, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.  This excellent book is exactly as you think it is going to be.

3. S.M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician.  Memoir involving many of the 20th century’s top mathematicians and physics types, including von Neumann, Gamow, Banach, Edward Teller, and Ulam himself, among others.  Scintillating on every page, as a historical chronicle, as biography, and as a look into how a brilliant mathematician thinks.

4. Eric Berger, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.  A fun and informative treatment of what the title promises.  I hadn’t know that Musk met personally with the first three thousand employees of SpaceX, to make sure the company was hiring the right kind of people.  He thought he could detect a good hire within fifteen minutes of conversation.

5. Matthew E. Kahn, Adapting to Climate Change: Markets and the Management of an Uncertain Future.  I read this some time ago, it is just published, here is my blurb: “Are you looking for an approach that recognizes the costs of climate change, and approaches the entire question with an economic and political sanity?  Matthew E. Kahn’s new book is then essential reading.”

The new Peter Boettke book is The Struggle for a Better World, which is his best statement of classical liberalism to date.

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

What should I ask Daniel Carpenter?

I will be doing a Conversation with Daniel, who is a professor of political science at Harvard and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of regulation and also the FDA.  Here is part of his bio:

Professor Carpenter’s previous scholarship on regulation and government organizations appears in Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA (Princeton, 2010), winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award of the Social Science History Association; and of The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton, 2001), winner of the Gladys Kammerer Prize of the American Political Science Association and the Charles Levine Prize of the International Political Science Association.  With David Moss of Harvard Business School, he is the author and co-editor of Preventing Regulatory Capture: Special Interest Influence in Regulation and How to Limit It (Cambridge, 2013).

And coming out in May:

Professor Carpenter’s research on petitioning appears in his forthcoming book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 (Harvard University Press, 2021)

So what should I ask him?

What I’ve been reading

1. Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.  An excellent history of what the title claims, starting from an archaeological point of view and incorporating many of the latest discoveries.  The book is especially good at telling the reader how we know what we know about the Vikings: “Sweden has the highest quantity of Islamic dirhams in the whole of Europe after Russia.”

2. Jesse Singal, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.  An overdue and very well-executed look at how many of the problems in social psychology run deeper than just the replication crisis.  It covers topics of self-help books, posing and power, superpredators, bias tests, and much more.  It seems the core problem is that if the general public cares about an area, it is much harder to get accurate information about those same questions — I have noticed the same tendencies in economics.

3. Eric Herschthal, The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress.  A good survey of the scientific arguments against slavery, covering Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, the Lunar Society, and the technologists, among others.  The 2021 gloss would be “the Progress Studies people were especially anti-slavery.”  But why so little about the economists such as Smith, Malthus, and Mill, among others, all strongly opposed to slavery?

4. Christine Perkell, editor, Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretative Guide, and David Quint, Virgil’s Double Cross: Design and Meaning in the Aeneid. Two books, excellent in their own right, and an antidote to the common view that everything in the humanities is bankrupt these days, or just “French theory,” or whatever.  Of course you have to read them at the same time you are studying The Aeneid.

5. Natsume Soseki, Kokoro.  From 1914, very retro in its aesthetic, it deals with modernization, the nature of friendship, and yes “the meaning of life.”  Simple and charming in a way that contemporary authors find difficult to match.  From 1984 to 2004 the author appeared on the Japanese one thousand yen note.

Dr. Seuss as a policy issue

That is a Substack essay from Matt Yglesias, and open source at that.  Excerpt, using quotation marks rather than forcing further indents on the segment:

“To me, there’s something attractive about the “constitutional copyright” idea of returning to the 1790 Copyright Act rule. But there’s also something attractive about the idea of an author retaining control over their works during their lifetime. There’s also something to be said for the idea that if you publish something and then get hit by a bus the next day, maybe that happenstance shouldn’t cut your heirs out of the downside. Mashing that all together might leave you with life of the author OR 28 years, whichever is longer.

I think it’s hard to specify the exact right number (Rufus Pollock tries with some fancy math and comes up with 15 to 38 years), but these two points from Hal Varian’s paper on copyright terms seem relevant:

  • “Fewer than 11 percent of the copyrights registered between 1883 and 1964 were renewed after 28 years.”
  • “Of the 10,027 books published in 1930, only 174 were still in print in 2001.”

It is just super-rare for old works to have large commercial value. But Xing Li, Megan MacGarvie, and Petra Moser show that copyright extensions have a big impact on consumer prices. And I would argue the cultural cost is higher.”

There is much more at the link.

Ross Douthat on Substack on decadence

Meanwhile in the non-ideological regions of the culture the deepening of decadence seems assured. The pandemic has (further) weakened every cultural institution that relies on physical presence, spontaneity and localized or mid-sized audiences, which means basically all of them except the “content” industry, the ever-expanding realm of Peak TV. The spirit of Mustapha Mond presides over the Covid era: He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was museums, was symphonies; some spider-webs, and they were ballets and bookstores and Broadway theatricals. Whisk. Whisk—and where was the mid-size daily newspaper, the regional university, the local Protestant congregation, the urban Catholic school. Whisk—the place where the local movie theater had been empty. Whisk, the touring pop music acts, whisk, the minor league baseball teams, whisk, whisk ..

I know, I know: We can make art on the blockchain now, and do journalism on Substack, and host salons on Clubhouse.

But if these are the seeds of renaissance, I expect things to get worse before they get better.

Here is the full post, ungated, Ross will be doing free Substack for a limited time.  Ross’s The Decadent Society is coming out soon in paperback, and it a new subtitle and Ross says plenty of new and original material.

What I’ve been reading

1. Kevin Donnelly, Adolphe Quetelet, Social Physics, & the Average Men of Science, 1796-1874.  The Belgian Quetelet was one of the pioneers of applying statistics to the social sciences, and he had a long-running and fascinating career obsessed with astronomy, crime, opera, jokes, and short essays, among many other things.  He developed the notion of an “average man” in a statistical distribution, the error curve as a distribution formula, and much more.  The concept and measurement of BMI comes from him as well.  Somehow he has become oddly underrated.

2. Ruth Goodman, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything.  Most books of this ilk are good either on the super-micro or super-macro scale, but this volume succeeds on both levels.  Under Queen Elizabeth I, London became the first place to move away from burning peat, wood, and dung in homes to burning coal.  How did that supercharge the later Industrial Revolution?  How did it matter for household chores and for that matter recipes?  Recommended.

3. Michel Foucault, Confessions of the Flesh, The History of Sexuality, Volume 4, published posthumously just now.  I only pawed through this one a bit, but it really didn’t seem so interesting.  I still think of The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The Birth of the Clinic as Foucault’s best and most enduring books.

4. Jason L. Riley, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.  I liked this book OK enough, and certainly read it with interest, but somehow it never brought Sowell to life for me (I have never met him), nor did it illuminate the work enough (what did Sowell claim about Say’s Law anyway?  And why?  Why is his book on late-talking children important for understanding his broader body of work?  Why was he so hawkish on foreign policy?  What might he have gotten wrong?).  The most interesting parts are about Sowell writing rebuttals to Arthur Jensen.

5. Ian Leslie, Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.  A good popular science book on exactly what the title promises: “In this book, we’ll learn from experts who are highly skilled at getting the most out of highly charged encounters: interrogators, cops, divorce mediators, therapists, diplomats, psychologists. These professionals know how to get something valuable – information, insight, ideas—from the toughest, most antagonistic conversations.”

My Conversation with Patricia Fara

The last chat was with Brian Armstrong about bitcoin, this one started with Isaac Newton and bit coins (really).  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWTeam summary:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at Cambridge University and well-known for her writings on women in science. Her forthcoming book, Life After Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career, details the life of the titan of the so-called Scientific Revolution after his famous (though perhaps mythological) discovery under the apple tree. Her work emphasizes science as a long, continuous process composed of incremental contributions–in which women throughout history have taken a crucial part–rather than the sole province of a few monolithic innovators.

Patricia joined Tyler to discuss why Newton left Cambridge to run The Royal Mint, why he was so productive during the Great Plague, why the “Scientific Revolution” should instead be understand as a gradual process, what the Antikythera device tells us about science in the ancient world, the influence of Erasmus Darwin on his grandson, why more people should know Dorothy Hodgkin, how George Eliot inspired her to commit unhistoric acts, why she opposes any kind of sex-segregated schooling, her early experience in a startup, what modern students of science can learn from studying Renaissance art, the reasons she considers Madame Lavoisier to be the greatest female science illustrator, the unusual work habit brought to her attention by house guests, the book of caricatures she’d like to write next, and more

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s start with Isaac Newton. How was it that he died rich?

FARA: He earned his money from several different ways. When he went down to London, he had far more than he ever did as a Cambridge professor because he was running the London Mint. He got a fat salary for that. He also got a premium, a reward for every single gold coin that was minted.

He invested in global trading companies like the East India Company, for example, that were sending guns and textiles out to Africa and then shipping enslaved peoples over to the Americas.

He also invested in other stock market companies. There was this famous occasion — it’s the anniversary this year of what’s called the South Sea Bubble — when he invested a small fortune in a new company, the South Sea Company, and he watched the levels rise, and he stayed in there, and he sold when the stocks had gone up. He made a small fortune, but then he made the classic beginner’s error. He invested in again at a higher price, and he watched the value crash.

So he did lose several million in today’s currency on that particular venture. But in general, when he died, he was an extremely rich man, and you can tell that — the inventory of his possessions runs to a vellum scroll that’s 17 feet long.

COWEN: What was it that he collected so obsessively to have all these possessions?

FARA: Well, a lot of it was equipment for catering. He’s got this reputation for being very antisocial, but he had hundreds of plates and sets of cutlery and things like that. He also had that ultimate Georgian luxury: he owned two silver chamber pots.

He spent money on having a good number of portraits of himself painted that he would send out to other people as bribes or as rewards for their allegiance to him. He had furniture. He had decorations. He had a carriage. He had a sedan chair tucked in the stables. He had lots of servants.

On Newton’s time at The Royal Mint

COWEN: Now, as you know, Newton spends what, over 30 years working at the Mint?

FARA: Yes.

COWEN: What’s your model of why he did this? How much was it for income? Did he think he was done with major contributions, say, to physics and optics? How do you think about that decision in his life?

FARA: I think he was very frustrated with being at Cambridge. He applied for several positions there, which he didn’t get. In theological terms, he was rather at odds with everybody else at Cambridge because he was a very, very devout believer in God, but he didn’t adhere to the traditional, to the orthodox Anglican theological belief in the Trinity, so that was difficult for him.

He’d been trying to leave Cambridge for some time, and he had a very close friend, Charles Montagu, the Earl of Halifax, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, very influential man. He managed to find Newton this very prestigious job at the Mint that paid a good salary. The minute Newton heard about it, he downed tools at Cambridge, rushed down to London, and he moved and started a new life within a few months.

…COWEN: What do you think about Newton’s basic idea on silver recoinage — bring in all the silver coins, melt them down, reissue at a lower value? Was he right about that or not? Or do you side with John Locke?

Recommended, interesting throughout.