Category: Books

My Conversation with Alain Bertaud

Excellent throughout, Alain put on an amazing performance for the live audience at the top floor of the Observatory at the old World Trade Center site.  Here is the audio and transcript, most of all we talked about cities.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Will America create any new cities in the next century? Or are we just done?

BERTAUD: Cities need a good location. This is a debate I had with Paul Romer when he was interested in charter cities. He had decided that he could create 50 charter cities around the world. And my reaction — maybe I’m wrong — but my reaction is that there are not 50 very good locations for cities around the world. There are not many left. Maybe with Belt and Road, maybe the opening of Central Asia. Maybe the opening of the ocean route on the northern, following the pole, will create the potential for new cities.

But cities like Singapore, Malacca, Mumbai are there for a good reason. And I don’t think there’s that many very good locations.

COWEN: Or Greenland, right?

[laughter]

BERTAUD: Yes. Yes, yes.

COWEN: What is your favorite movie about a city? You mentioned a work of fiction. Movie — I’ll nominate Escape from New York.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: Casablanca.

Here is more:

COWEN: Your own background, coming from Marseille rather than from Paris —

BERTAUD: I would not brag about it normally.

[laughter]

COWEN: But no, maybe you should brag about it. How has that changed how you understand cities?

BERTAUD: I’m very tolerant of messy cities.

COWEN: Messy cities.

BERTAUD: Yes.

COWEN: Why might that be, coming from Marseille?

BERTAUD: When we were schoolchildren in Marseille, we were used to a city which has a . . . There’s only one big avenue. The rest are streets which were created locally. You know, the vernacular architecture.

In our geography book, we had this map of Manhattan. Our first reaction was, the people in Manhattan must have a hard time finding their way because all the streets are exactly the same.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: In Marseille we oriented ourselves by the angle that a street made with another. Some were very narrow, some very, very wide. One not so wide. But some were curved, some were . . . And that’s the way we oriented ourselves. We thought Manhattan must be a terrible place. We must be lost all the time.

Finally:

COWEN: And what’s your best Le Corbusier story?

BERTAUD: I met Le Corbusier at a conference in Paris twice. Two conferences. At the time, he was at the top of his fame, and he started the conference by saying, “People ask me all the time, what do you think? How do you feel being the most well-known architect in the world?” He was not a very modest man.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: And he said, “You know what it feels? It feels that my ass has been kicked all my life.” That’s the way he started this. He was a very bitter man in spite of his success, and I think that his bitterness is shown in his planning and some of his architecture.

COWEN: Port-au-Prince, Haiti — overrated or underrated?

Strongly recommended, and note that Bertaud is eighty years old and just coming off a major course of chemotherapy, a remarkable performance.

Again, I am very happy to recommend Alain’s superb book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.

The new Catholic illiberals

A few of you have asked me what I think of this movement, surveyed here (possibly gated for you), or try this coverage.  If you would like the whole thing in one tweet, maybe try this one from Sohrab Ahmari:

What I’d say to liberal friends who are men and women of goodwill: “Persuade your comrades to ease up and back off while there’s yet time. You don’t want to pit your ideology against forces much older and more potent than liberalism, which is thin civilizational gruel, indeed.”

Other than disagreeing with this group, here is my general impression.  They have not managed to produce a deep, compelling illiberal book comparable say to the works by James Fitzjames Stephens, Carl Schmitt, Burke (not actually an illiberal in my view, but the comparison remains relevant), Jean Bodin, or others from that tradition.  I’m not sure they could beat the arguments of Thomas Mann’s liberal caricature Settembrini in The Magic Mountain.

They have not attached themselves to any great social movement or revolution, either as leaders or followers, unless you count the Church itself, but that is hardly new news.

They do not have a signature policy proposal (at the end of the article behind the first link, the big policy proposal unveiled at the end is “restrictions on share buybacks” — Cliff Asness, telephone!  Are they kidding?)

Do they have a T.S. Eliot or an Emil Nolde or for that matter a J.S. Bach, who probably was not a Millian liberal?

So I believe they are part of the same “thin civilizational gruel” as the rest of us.  They are too embedded in liberalism and its presuppositions to get very far with their own programme.  That said, I am fine with them coexisting within the froth of a liberal order, insisting correctly that the heritage of “the Church” is essential to western civilization, in the meantime allowing their intuitions to be muddled by a confusion of rates of changes and levels when it comes to liberalism in the West today.

A few comments to close, returning to the tweet presented above:

1. Is all gruel thin?

2. Would thick gruel be better or worse?

3. Is Karachi haleem a form of thick gruel?

4. Isn’t the key word here “civilizational”?  It is liberalism that produced, nourished, and sustained the world’s first truly admirable societies.  There is nothing in the arguments of these new illiberals which seriously contradicts that.

5. Many people have longed for gruel, which I take to be underrated.

Do they object to dividends as well?

What should I ask Henry Farrell?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  As you read blogs, you might know Henry’s longstanding work over at CrookedTimber, and also his role in Monkey Cage.  Henry is also professor of political science at George Washington University, has with Abraham L. Newman recently published a path-breaking book on the increasingly important concept of weaponized interdependence, is an expert on comparative labor relations, and is an all-around polymath, including on fiction, science fiction, and the politics of Ireland, his home country.  Here is his home page.

So what should I ask Henry?

*Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime*

That is the new, interesting, and engaging book by Sean Carroll.  Some of it is exposition, the rest argues for a version of Many Worlds Theory, but with a finite number of universes.  Here is one excerpt:

String theory, loop quantum gravity, and other ideas share a common pattern: they start with a set of classical variables, then quantize.  From the perspective we’ve been following in this book, that’s a little backward.  Nature is quantum from the start, described by a wave function evolving according to an appropriate version of the Schroedinger equation.  Things like “space” and “fields” and “particles” are useful ways of talking about that wave function in a appropriate classical limit.  We don’t want to start with space and fields and quantize them; we want to extract them from an intrinsically quantum wave function.

I very much liked the discussion on pp.300-301 on how a finite number of quantum degrees of freedom implies a finite-dimensional Hilbert space for the system as a whole, that in turn constraining the number of worlds in an Everett-like model.  If only I understood it properly…

You can buy the book here.

Frequency of conflict initiation worldwide

That is from the new and interesting Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age, by Bear F. Braumoeller, which is largely a critique of Pinker on trends toward peacefulness (Pinker gives only the more optimistic data on Europe).  And from the text:

…there is variation in the rate of conflict and war initiation over time, and it’s pretty substantial.  Leaving aside the two jumps during the World Wars, the median rate of conflict initiation quadruples in the period between 1815 and the end of the Cold War, after which it abruptly drops by more than half.

The “falling rate of conflict” is thus not entirely reassuring.

How about the deadliness of occurring conflicts?:

Analyzing the two most commonly used measures of the deadliness of war, I find no significant change in war’s lethality.  If anything, the data indicate a very modest increase in lethality, but that increase could very easily be due to chance…Worse still, the data are consistent with a process by which only random chance prevents small wars from escalating into very, very big ones.

Overall, the arguments in this book are strong, and the discussion of data issues is subtle throughout.  You can buy the book here, its arguments seem fundamentally correct to me.

My favorite things Pakistan

1. Female singer: Abida Parveen, here is one early song, the later material is often more commercial.  Sufi songs!

2. Qawwali performers: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers, and try this French collection of Qawwali music.

3. Author/novel: Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.  I am not sure why this book isn’t better known.  It is better than even the average of the better half of the Booker Prize winners.  Why doesn’t he write more?

4. Dish: Haleem: “Haleem is made of wheat, barley, meat (usually minced beef or mutton (goat meat or Lamb and mutton) or chicken), lentils and spices, sometimes rice is also used. This dish is slow cooked for seven to eight hours, which results in a paste-like consistency, blending the flavors of spices, meat, barley and wheat.”

5. Movie: I don’t think I have seen a Pakistani film, and my favorite movie set in Pakistan is not so clear.  Charlie Wilson’s War bored me, and Zero Dark Thirty is OK.  What am I forgetting?

6. Economic reformer: Manmohan Singh.

7. Economist: Atif Mian, born in Nigeria to a Pakistani family.

8. Textiles: Wedding carpets from Sindh?

9. Visual artist: Shahzia Shikhander, images here.

I don’t follow cricket, sorry!

*The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us*

That is the new book by Paul Tough, I read it through in one sitting.  The back cover offers an appropriate introduction to the work:

Does college work?  Does it provide real opportunity for young people who want to improve themselves and their prospects?  Or is it simply a rigged game designed to protect the elites who have power and exclude everyone else?

That may sound a little overwrought, but this book actually delivers a quality product on those questions.  In addition to the well-selected anecdotes, Tough also engages seriously with the research of Raj Chetty, Caroline Hoxby, and others.  He is also willing to report politically incorrect truths (for instance the percentage of black attendees at top colleges who are from Africa or the Caribbean) without gloating about it or slanting the evidence, as is so commonly done.

Here is one short zinger to savor:

At the University of Virginia, only 13 percent of undergraduates are eligible for Pell grants — a lower rate than at Princeton University or Trinity College.  At the University of Michigan, the figure is 16 percent.  At the University of Alabama, the flagship public institution of one of the poorest states in the nation, the median family income for undergraduates is higher than at Bryn Mawr College.

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.

*Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries*

That is the new and excellent book out by David Sorkin.  I feel I have read many good books on Jewish history, and I don’t always see the marginal value of adding to that pile, but this one really delivered.  Plenty more detail without losing any conceptual overview.  Ever wonder what exactly happened to Jewish emancipation, and why, as the Napoleonic conquest of Europe was reversed?  This is the place to go.  By the way, in the middle of the eighteenth century there were more Jews in Curacao, Suriname and Jamaica than in all of the North American colonies combined.

You can order it here, worthy of my year-end “best non-fiction of the year” list.

*Never Enough: the neuroscience and experience of addiction*

That is the new and fascinating book by Judith Grisel, unlike most neuroscientists on these topics she has been addicted to many of the drugs she writes about, or at least has tried them “for real,” furthermore her book integrates her personal and scientific knowledge in a consistently interesting manner.

Here is one bit from early on:

The very definition of an addictive drug is one that stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, but there are three general axioms in psychopharmacology that also apply to all drugs:

1. All drugs act by changing the rate of what is already going on.

2. All drugs have side effects.

3. The brain adapts to all drugs that affect it by counteracting the drug’s effects.

And a tiny bit from the middle:

Excessive use of alcohol now results in about 3.3 million deaths around the world each year.  In Russia and its former satellite states, one in five male deaths is caused by drinking.  And in the United States during the period 2006 and 2010, excessive alcohol use was responsible for close to 90,000 deaths a year…

And finally:

…primates given ecstasy twice a day for four days (eight total doses) show reduction in the number of serotonergic neurons seven years later.

Definitely recommended, this will make my list for the year’s best non-fiction.

*A Beginner’s Guide to Japan*

“My colleague spends two hours a day making herself up,” my wife says, on her way to the department store where she works.

“She wants everyone to look at her?”

“No.  She wants everyone not to.”

That is from the new Pico Iyer book, pleasing throughout.  Here is an FT interview with Ayer about the book, and more.  Don’t forget:

Anime is the natural expression of an animist world.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

Ethan Pollock, Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse. The title says it all, noting that without the banya I for one would not perish.

George Weigel, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform.  Always fascinating to see there is a whole ‘nother world of politics you hardly know (or care) about.

Eric D. Weitz, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States, is indeed a history of human rights in theory but most of all in practice.

Katrina Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy covers how liberalism took egalitarian and Rawlsian turns in the 20th century.  The author makes this seem more natural than I would take it to be.

David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation, argues that from a Christian point of view all will be saved and none damned to eternal torment.  Not my framework, but I am not going to push back against what I take to be a Pareto improvement.

I am an admirer of Yancey Strickler, of Kickstarter fame, he has a new book coming out This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World.

Has a more beautiful “Progress Studies” book introduction ever been written?

On January 5, 1845, the Prussian cultural minister Karl Friedrich von Eichorn received a request from a group of six young men to form a new Physical Society in Berlin.  By the time their statutes were approved in March, they numbered forty-nine and were meeting biweekly to discuss the latest developments in the physical sciences and physiology.  They were preparing to write critical reviews for a new journal, Die Fortschritte der Physik (Advances in physics), and from the beginning they set out to define what constituted progress and what did not.  Their success in this rather aggressive endeavor has long fascinated historians of science.  In fields from thermodynamics, mechanics, and electromagnetism to animal electricity, ophthalmology, and psychophysics, members of this small group established leading positions in what only thirty years later had become a new landscape of physical science populated by large institutes and laboratories of experiment and precision measurement.

How was this possible?  How could a bunch of twenty-somethings, without position or recognition, and possessed of little more than their outsized confidence and ambition, succeed in seizing the future?  What were their resources?

That is the opening passage from M. Norton Wise, Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society.

Is this the very best book ever written?

No, I don’t mean Proust, Cervantes, or the Bible.  I mean Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.

To be sure, it is not the greatest book qua book, or even in the top tier (though it is very good and Marsh is very smart and knowledgeable).

It is possible it has become the greatest book of all time because of YouTube.  Scroll through the pithy, one-page or sometimes even one-paragraph reviews of the various songs, and play them on YouTube while you are reading.

I had not known of Marvin Gaye’s “One More Heartache,” or Aretha Franklin’s “Think.”  Nor had I known the live version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from 1966 (though is it really “Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound”?).  I heard again many favorites as well.

Let’s be honest, amusia aside, do not humans love music more than books?  By no means does everyone read, but virtually everyone listens to music, and with some degree of passion. It therefore follows that “book + music” is better than book, right?  Whatever virtues the book may have are still contained in “book + music,” or more generally “book + YouTube.”

Have we now entered an age where all or most of the very best books are part of “books + YouTube”?

Of course I’m not trying to sell you on music or for that matter on Dave Marsh.  What about reading Abraham Pais, Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, accompanied by these videos?  Might the possibility of YouTube combination make that the 37th best book of all time, displacing Braudel or Flaubert?

Should not at least 2/3 of your reading be books accompanied by YouTube?  And if not, why not?

Inquiring minds wish to know.  Perhaps there is a book accompanied by YouTube that gives the answer?

Is a quality book better or worse if there is no useful way to combine it with YouTube?

Addendum: You will note that the Cowen-Tabarrok Modern Principles text can be combined with our micro and macro videos on YouTube, and thus it is one of the best books, not just our favorite.