Category: Books

Bonus CWT episode with Fuchsia Dunlop

Here is the transcript and audio, and wonderful photos, over a Chinese meal at Mama Chang in Fairfax, run by the famous Peter Chang.  I am not acting as lead interviewer, so this is more like a “Conversation with Tyler chiming in,” nonetheless numerous D.C. area food luminaries are present, as are other members of the Cowen family.  Here is one brief excerpt:

T. COWEN: You learned Chinese food in China, of course, much of it in Sichuan province, Hunan province. As Chinese teach food, how is the method of education and training different from, say, Great Britain or the United States?

DUNLOP: Well, I haven’t been to culinary school in Great Britain or the United States, so I’m not sure.

T. COWEN: You’ve been to school in these countries.

DUNLOP: The first thing is that when you go to cooking school, you are learning the building blocks of a cuisine, which is like the grammar of a language. So the basic components, the basic processes and flavors, which you then put together to make a multitude of dishes.

Whereas, I guess, if you were studying French cuisine, you will learn some classic sauces, a bit of knife work, techniques of pastry making. In China, in Sichuan, absolutely fundamental was dao gong (刀工), the knife skills.

[Lydia] CHANG: I actually have a story to share about Dad’s cutting knife. He said when he first started learning, in school, there’s only limited time, but he wants to really excel at it. So he returned back to the dorm, started cutting, using cleaver to cut newspaper to practice.

Some of you will like this a lot, but don’t expect a normal CWT episode.  And here is Fuchsia’s wonderful new book The Food of Sichuan, a significantly updated new edition of the old.

The Anarchy

William Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. He burst upon the scene in 1989 as a precocious, if occasionally a bit snotty travel writer, with In Xanadu in which he traced the path of Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Xanadu in Inner Mongolia. He really hit stride, however, with City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, an essentially perfect example of the “Year in” genre that combines humor, history and analysis and remains to this day an excellent guide to historical Delhi. In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple traveled from Greece to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to understand the ancient roots of the Christian populations in these countries. Sadly, Dalrymple’s trip has become in some respects a last document of cultures now disappearing under the stress of war, revolution and suppression. As Dalrymple aged he turned more and more to pure history. In The Last Mughal and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Dalyrmple gives what I think are the definitive accounts of the Indian mutiny of 1857 and the British invasion of Afghanistan of 1839-1842. Especially notable in both of these books is that Dalyrmple draws on previous ignored or underused Indian and Afghani accounts. There are other books, collections of journalistic essays, photographs and more but I will mention just one more, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a beautiful and unforgettable account of nine people in modern India each walking a unique religious path.

In his latest book, The Anarchy, Dalrymple recounts the remarkable history of the East India Company from its founding in 1599 to 1803 when it commanded an army twice the size of the British Army and ruled over the Indian subcontinent. I review The Anarchy at Here’s one bit from my review:

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam, for example, had been forced to flee Delhi leaving it to be ruled by a succession of Persian, Afghani and Maratha warlords. But after wandering across eastern India for many years, he regathered his army, retook Delhi and almost restored Mughal power. At a key moment, however, he invited into the Red Fort with open arms his “adopted” son, Ghulam Qadir. Ghulam was the actual son of Zabita Khan who had been defeated by Shah Alam sixteen years earlier. Ghulam, at that time a young boy, had been taken hostage by Shah Alam and raised like a son, albeit a son whom Alam probably used as a catamite. Expecting gratitude, Shah Alam instead found Ghulam driven mad. Ghulam took over the Red Fort and cut out the eyes of the Mughal emperor, immediately calling for a painter to immortalize the event.

Read the whole review and buy the book. It’s a hell of a story.

*Walter Raleigh: Architect of Empire*

An excellent book, by Alan Gallay, this one will make my year-end “best of” list.  It has merchant voyages, royal monopolies, hermeticism, captive Inuits brought to London to perish, conquests of Ireland, Edmund Spenser, virgin queens, charter cities, and the best overall understanding of early British colonialism/imperialism I have seen.  It is perhaps better read than excerpted, but here is one bit:

[John] Gilbert would not sail again for America until 1583. For three and a half years, English resources that might have gone to overseas expeditions to America had to be devoted to Ireland — the pope’s decision to become militarily involved in Irish affairs deterred the English America; in the coming decade American colonization would be frequently sidetracked by the same three things: events in Ireland, relations with Spain, and the English propensity to go plundering at sea.


For colonization to succeed, the English required investors, sailors, and colonists.  All were difficult to come by.  The English intended to turn the New World into a haven for English Catholics as a way to solve multiple problems: rid England of religious dissidents, obtain investors, and alleviate overcrowding by moving surplus populations of the unemployed overseas to become useful.  English Catholic interest wavered, however…

I am sure to read the whole thing through, you can pre-order here.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

1. Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.  I read this one straight through, it does more to bring the Aztecs (a misnomer, by the way, as it is technically the name of the military alliance…a bit like referring to “NATO people”) to life than any other book I know.

2. Daniel M. Russell, The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics.  I don’t need this, but I suspect useful for many.

3. Thomas O. McGarity, Pollution, Politics, and Power: The Struggle for Sustainable Electricity.  A very useful of the last four decades of transformation in the electricity industry.

4. Norman Lebrecht, Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World 1847-1947.  An informative and engaging account of what the title promises (you can learn more about Heine and Alkan and Moholy-Nagy).  Nonetheless the author never really addresses the question of why that period was quite so remarkable for Jewish achievement, relative to the rest of world history.

5. Edmund Morris, Edison.  Lots of impressive research, but this book didn’t have the emphasis on innovation and institutions that I was looking for.

There is also Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.

My Conversation with Ted Gioia

Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History.  We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more.  Here are some excerpts:

GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.

Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.

That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.

The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.


COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…

GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?

Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.

People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.

“And what a decade it was”

From Alex X.:

With the decade coming to a close, I would be curious on everyone’s favorite of the decade [gives list of categories]:

Without too much pondering, here is what comes to mind right away:

Film: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or A Touch of Sin.  Might Winter Sleep by next?  It was probably the best decade ever for foreign movies, the worst decade ever for Hollywood movies (NYT).

Blockbuster/action film: Transformers 4?  Big screen only, live or die by CGI!

Album: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Single: I don’t see an obvious, non-derivative pick here that really stands out.  Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” probably is the mainstream choice, but do I ever go over to the stereo to put it on?  Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” is another option, but is it such a big step beyond Prince?  Lorde or Beyonce?  LCD Soundsystem seems more about the entire album, same for Frank Ocean.  Something from Kanye’s Yeezus?  To pull a dark horse option out of the hat, how about Gillian Welch, “The Way It Goes“?  Or Death Grips “Giving Bad People Good Ideas“?  I’ve spent enough time on Twitter that I have to opt for that one.

TV Show: Srugim, Borgen, The Americans.

Single Season: Selections from same, you know which seasons.

Book Fiction: The Ferrante quadrology and Houllebecq’s Submission.

Book Non Fiction: Knausgaard, volumes I and II.

Athlete of the Decade: Stephen Curry or Lebron James.

What are your picks?

What I’ve been reading

C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, is a beautifully written history of exactly what the title and subtitle claim.

Also noteworthy is Richard Brookhiser, Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Essays, a kind of companion volume.  Can you beat the title, especially given world trends today?

Eric Schwitzgebel, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.  Collected essays, interesting throughout, and among other points Schwitzgebel shows that ethicists do not in fact behave better than other human beings, higher rates of vegetarianism aside.

I do not have time to read David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans, but based on a browse it is 918 pp. of substance on everything from the Polynesians to the monsoon to sailing across the Atlantic, and then some.

I am a big fan of Yuval Levin, and now he has a new forthcoming book A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.

Why are Jamaicans the fastest runners in the world?

That is one chapter in Orlando Patterson’s new and excellent The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament.  One thing I like so much about this book is that it tries to answer actual questions you might have about Jamaica (astonishingly, hardly any other books have that aim, whether for Jamaica or for other countries).  So what about this question and this puzzle?

Well, in terms of per capita Olympic medals, Jamaica is #1 in the world, doing 3.75 times better by that metric than Russia at #2.  This is mostly because of running, not bobsled teams.  Yet why is Jamaica as a nation so strong in running?

Patterson suggests it is not genetic predisposition, as neither Nigeria nor Brazil, both homes of large numbers of ethnically comparable individuals, have no real success in running competitions.  Nor do Jamaicans, for that matter, do so well in most team sports, including those demanding extreme athleticism.  Patterson also cites the work of researcher Yannis Pitsiladism, who collected DNA samples from top runners and did not find the expected correlations.

Patterson instead cites the interaction of a number of social factors behind the excellence of Jamaican running, including:

1. Preexisting role models.

2. The annual Inter-Scholastic Athletic Championship, also known as Champs, which provides a major boost to running excellence.

3. Proximity and cultural ties with the United States, which give athletically talented Jamaicans the chance to access better training and resources.

4. The Jamaican diet and a number of good public health programs, contributing to the strength of potential Jamaican runners (James C. Riley: “Between 1920 and 1950, Jamaicans added life expectancy at one of the most rapid paces attained in any country.”)

5. The low costs of running, and running practice, combined with the “combative individualism” of Jamaican culture, which pulls the most talented Jamaican athletes into individual rather than team sports.  (That same culture is supposed to be responsible for dancehall battles and the like as well.)

Whether or not you agree, those are indeed answers.  The book also considers “Why Has Jamaica Trailed Barbados on the Path to Sustained Growth?”, “Why is Democratic Jamaica so Violent?”, and a number of questions about poverty.  Amazing!  Those are indeed the questions I have about Jamaica, among others.

Recommended, you can pre-order here.

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.


FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.


FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.


What should I ask Shaka Senghor?

I will be having a Conversation with Shaka, no associated public event.  So what should I ask him?  Here is the main part of his Wikipedia page:

Shaka Senghor is director’s fellow of the MIT Media Lab, college lecturer, author, and was convicted of murder in American courts. As of October 2015, he also teaches a class as part of the Atonement Project, a partnership between him, the University of Michigan, and the MIT Media Lab. His memoir, Writing my Wrongs, was published in March 2016. Senghor was named to Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders in 2016.

And here is Shaka’s home page.  I thank you all in advance for your suggestions.

*In the Closet of the Vatican*

That is the highly controversial book by Frederick Martel, subtitled Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.  For some time I had been resisting reading the book, as usually I find tales of corruption and scandal boring.  But I misunderstood the fundamental nature of the account.  It is not quite a homage, but Martel seems to admire the evolved culture of homosexuality (not my preferred word, but appropriate in this context) in the Vatican.  See this review: “The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses.”

If anything, the study reminds me of Diego Gambetta’s work on the Mafia, at least in terms of some of its methods.

Have you ever thought “there should be more books about how things actually work!?” — well, this is one of them.  Here is one excerpt:

‘Being of the parish’ could even be this book’s subtitle.  The expression is an old one in both French and Italian: I have found it in the homosexual slang of the 1950s and 1960s.  It may pre-date those years, so similar it is to a phrase in Marcel Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah and Jean Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs — even though I don’t think it appears in either of those books.  Was it more of a vernacular phrase, from the gay bars of the 1920s and 30s?  Not impossible.  In any case, it heroically combines the ecclesiastical universe with the homosexual world.

‘You know I like you,’ La Paiva announces suddenly.  ‘But I’m cross with you for not telling me if you prefer men or women.  Why won’t you tell me?  Are you at least a sympathizer?’

I’m fascinated by La Paiva’s indiscretion.

And another bit:

It took me several months of careful observation and meetings to understand the subtle nocturnal geography of the boys of Roma Termini.  Each group of prostitutes has its patch, its marked territory.  It’s a division that reflects racial hierarchies and a wide range of prices.  So the Africans are usually sitting on the guardrail by the south-western entrance to the station; the Maghrebis, sometimes the Egyptians, tend to stay around Via Giovanni Giolitti, at the crossing with the Rue Manin or under the arcades on Piazza dei Cinquecento; the Romanians are close to Piazzadella Repubblica, beside the naked sea-nymphs of the Naiad Fountain or around the Dogali Obelisk; the ‘Latinos’ last of all, cluster more towards the north of the square, on Viale Enrico de Nicola or Via Marsala.  Sometimes there are territorial wars between groups, and fists fly.

You can buy the book here.  I would add this: I do not have much knowledge in this area, but Martel seems to go out of his way to avoid making speculative accusations.  But if you would like to read a negative Catholic review of the book, here it is.

Tyler Cowen on meritocracy

As economist (yes, Harvard-educated ) Tyler Cowen has quipped: “The best critiques of the meritocracy have come from those with extreme merit.”  I’ll come back to this puzzle later, for it’s one that Markovits’s book, like others in the genre, doesn’t fully explore.

That is from Kay S. Hymowitz, reviewing a new book critical of meritocracy.

What I’ve been reading

Peter Gatrell, The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent.  A very nice history of earlier post-war European migration, such as Turks and Greeks moving to West Germany, Cape Verdeans settling in Portugal, and so on.  Excellent background for the current debates.

Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapić, Model City Pyongyang.  An excellent picture book, mostly of architecture, presenting Pyongyang as yet another installment in the 20th century series of deeply weird cities.

Jason Lyall, Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War.  Perhaps the most thorough look at how cohesion has made some armies and fighting forces stronger than others.  For instance there is a chapter “African World Wars: Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the Modern Battlefield.”  I view this more as a cohesion story than an “inequality” story (current U.S. forces seem pretty sharp), in any case a good integration of military history with modern social science.

Paul Blustein, Schism: China, America and the Fracturing of the Global Trading System.  Given the import and timing on the topic, I am surprised this book has not received more attention.  It is “more boring” than Blustein’s earlier works, such as on Argentina, but full of facts and substance on every page.  For now it is the go-to book on this topic.

Four very good books!