Category: Books

How many pages must you read to know?

I am writing this after only ten fun-filled pages of John Twelve Hawks’s The Traveler, the new publishing sensation.  I dragged Alex and Robin Hanson to Borders after lunch yesterday and picked up a copy from the front table on the first day of release.  Is it a spy story?  Fantasy?  Science fiction? 

The author, by the way, claims to "live off the grid," here is a profile (of sorts).  To maintain his anonymity he (supposedly) speaks only by satellite phone to his publisher and agent.  Here is the book’s entertaining website, which includes Q&A with the author.  Here is a strong Janet Maslin review, from The New York Times.

My books

I’ve been tagged by both John Moser and Arnold Kling, here are my answers to the book questions:

1. How many books I own: I have a large pile of paperbacks to take on plane trips.  I own classics such as Leibniz and George Eliot.  Plus a small number of economics books — accidents rather than choices — for reference.  The major Haitian art catalogs.  Reference books on film and music.  Many cookbooks.  My own books. 

2, 3. Last books I bought and read: Just scroll down MR.

4. Five books that have influenced me most: Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, by David Marsh.  Jean-Christophe, by Romaine Rolland.  The Crimson and the White, by Michael Faber.  The Once and Future King, by T.H. White.  Starmaker, by Olaf Stapledon.  The Buru Quartet, by Pramoedya Toer.  Selden Rodman, Popular Artists in Tune with Their World.

5. Favorite Michael Jackson songs: I Want You Back, Billie Jean, She’s Out of My Life, Girlfriend, Black or White, The Way You Make Me Feel.

Textbook Socialism

Contra Tyler, the problem with the market for textbooks is not monopoly but monopsony, and a peculiar kind of monopsony at that.  Twenty states, including the big three, California, Florida and Texas are "adoption states" where a bureaucratic committee of so-called experts chooses which textbooks are to be used in all state schools (non state-approved textbooks are not funded).

Centralized adoption encourages politicization.  Interest groups of all stripes lobby for their pet issue to be included or their pet peeve to be removed.  As a result, textbooks tend to get longer but blander and dumber.  Not only must all textbooks contain appropriate numbers of men and women, blacks and whites, Indians Native-Americans and Caucasians – all doing gender-neutral, politically correct activities – in California you can’t even mention ice cream because it’s fattening.

The adoption system, by the way, didn’t become politicized it was born of politics.  It began during Reconstruction when Southern states demanded central control of textbook adoption so they could require textbooks to write about "the war for Southern Independence" instead of say the civil war.

The necessity of passing through the state hurdle creates a winner take-all-market. Navigating the committees and their thousands of requirements takes
years of preparation –  it can cost $20 million just to create a textbook proposal.  Thus, in this case, monopoly is caused by monopsony.

The solution is to get rid of state-wide adoption systems altogether and let the teachers decide – preferably in a fully funded voucher system.

Markets in everything

This book is a cross between Dr. Seuss and Ayn’s Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand would be proud of the message and Dr. Seuss would be proud of the beautiful illustrations and rhyming verse in this lively tale of free-markets versus excessive government regulation. †¢ Hardcover, 27 beautifully illustrated pages! †¢ Follow the trials of bright Bridget Blodgett as she struggles to produce her widgets and wodgets in the face of increasing taxation!

Here is the link.  If you are wondering, I found this among the blog ads on Brad DeLong’s site; we’ve been advertising the plight of the unemployed.

The new Thomas Sowell book

Black Rednecks and White Liberals, here is one summary by Sowell:

The culture of the people who were called "rednecks" and "crackers" before they ever got on the boats to cross the Atlantic was a culture that produced far lower levels of intellectual and economic achievement, as well as far higher levels of violence and sexual promiscuity. That culture had its own way of talking, not only in the pronunciation of particular words but also in a loud, dramatic style of oratory with vivid imagery, repetitive phrases and repetitive cadences.

Usually I find books like this only in my dreams

Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, by Perry Mehrling.

Fischer Black spanned the worlds of academia and finance.  His formula for the pricing of options remains essential on Wall Street.  His macroeconomic theories — which claim money does not matter, not even for the price level (more on this soon) — are still regarded as crazy.  His personal life sounds like that of a high-functioning Asperger’s:

He did almost all of his work in an outlining program called ThinkTank, which he used as a kind of external associative emmory to supplement his own.  Everything he read, every conversation he had, every thought that occurred, everything got summarized and added to the data base that swelled eventually to 20 million bytes organized in 2000 alphabetical files…Reading, discussion and thinking that Fischer did outside the office was recorded on slips to paper to be entered into the database later.  Reading, discussion, and thinking that took place inside the office was recorded directly.  While he was on the phone, he was typing.  While he was talking to you in person, he was typing.  Sometimes he even typed while he was interviewing a prospective job candidate, looking at the screen not the candidate.

Robert Skidelsky and Sylvia Nasar raised the bar for economic biographies some time ago.  This book is the next step in that chain.  Pre-order it here, in the meantime here is a Perry Mehrling paper "Understanding Fischer Black."

Alex and I do *more* than just blog together

Should you be just a little more ambiguous about your commitment to heterosexuality (if indeed there is one)?  After all, leaving it unclear can make life easier for gays.  Making a point of announcing your mainstream orientation makes it hard for others to leave their preferences unspoken.

Or does it work the other way around?  Perhaps we need openly gay friends and acquaintances to make society more tolerant.  It is inducing people to come out of the closet which brings the positive externality.  Positive declarations of heterosexuality ("My wife is very fond of Alex…") should then be encouraged.

Are you interested in "tipping" issues, and the social construction of norms?  Read the new, excellent, and surprisingly analytical Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights, by Ian Ayres and Jennifer Gerarda Brown.

Koran abuse

It turns out that terror suspects have been complaining about Koran abuse for some time now.  Perhaps they are lying but I fear the worst. 

Rarely is it explained just how important the Koran is to Islam.  As I understand it, the Koran itself is seen as holy, the closest to an extension of God that we have on earth.  No, Muhammed is not parallel to Jesus, but in some regards the Koran is.  That is one reason why it is so important to learn the book in Arabic.

Desecrating the Koran approaches a direct attack on God; it is much worse than tearing up a Bible in Christianity.  Of course this sacred status for the Koran also makes it harder to have a Reformation in Islam. 

For many years I failed to understand the attraction of the Koran (for the record, I am a non-believer).  It seemed to me rather simple and not as dramatically gripping as the Bible.  Then I heard an amazing Koranic recital in Arabic.  This was the best introduction to the Islamic world I have found; it hadn’t occurred to me that a musical dimension was needed.  You can buy my favorite Koranic recording here.  I recommend this highly, both as an aesthetic, musical (not until Robert Ashley did Western music catch up), educational, and for some religious, experience.

Five books I am embarrassed not to have read

Matt Yglesias offers his list, and Will Wilkinson passes the meme to me.  So here are my choices:

1. Summa Theologica: A classic, yes.  But I am neither a Catholic nor an Aristotelian.  Get this randomly chosen excerpt: "There is nothing to prevent a thing which in one way is divided from being another way undivided, as what is divided in number may be undivided in species; thus it may be that a thing is in one way one, and in another way many."

2. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness – This can seem intriguing when I browse it, but then I have the urge to pick up Pascal and I never come back.  I haven’t finished Heidegger’s Being and Time either, but I am not embarrassed by that fact.

3. Harry Potter, various installments – I can’t get through them, and yes I have tried the deeper and darker #3.

4. Gibbon on Rome – I read volume one, but stopped paying attention somewhere in the middle.  The main thesis — that Christianity wrecked the Roman empire — simply isn’t true, and I don’t find the prose mesmerizing, at least not in a positive fashion.

5. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water.  This is the only one on the list I decided I should start reading.  It is superb and gripping, and my guilt will be gone soon.

Some people will flagellate themselves with such a list, others attack the books.  The real question is which one this exercise induces you to pick up.

How to order in a restaurant offers the following parody:

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Glance quickly at the menu and order whatever catches your eye first. Spend no more than 2-3 seconds deciding or the quality of your choice (and your meal) will decline.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
The key to ordering a good meal in a restaurant is understanding the economic incentives involved. Ask the server what they recommend and order something else…they are probably trying to get you to order something with a high profit margin or a dish that the restaurant needs to get rid of before the chicken goes bad or something. Never order the second least expensive bottle of wine; it’s typically the one with the highest mark-up on the list (i.e. the worst deal).

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
Take the menu and rip it into 4 or 5 pieces. Order from only one of the pieces, ignoring the choices on the rest of the menu. You will be happier with your meal.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
Poll the other patrons at the restaurant about what they’re having and order the most popular choices for yourself.

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Order anything made with lots of butter, sugar, etc. Avoid salad or anything organic. A meal of all desserts may be appropriate. Or see if you can get the chef to make you a special dish like foie gras and bacon covered with butterscotch and hot fudge. Ideally, you will have brought a Super Sized McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal into the restaurant with you. Smoke and drink liberally.

Thanks to Chris Masse for the pointer.