Category: Books

*Eighteen Days in October*

That is the new and excellent book by Uri Kaufman, and the subtitle is The Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle East.  Here is one excerpt:

The ordeal of the 314 Israelis who fell into captivity during the 1973 war — 248 in Egypt, 66 in Syria — did not end when they returned home.  All were sent to a facility — not to be treated for post-traumatic stress, which was then only thinly understood — but to find out what they had told their captors.  The facility was located in the Israeli town of Zichron Yakov; the men sent there nicknamed it “Stalag Zichron.”  It was a nice play on words because it literally translated to “Stalag Memory.”  Interrogators plumbed the depths of their memories, even giving some “truth serum,” ostensibly to treat shell shock.  In interviews of these soldiers years later, the word that comes up again and again is humiliation.  Elazar asked the men, “Why didn’t you do what Uri Ilan did?  What didn’t you commit suicide?”  On a radio program interviewing the survivors of Mezakh, former chief of staff Chaim Laskov said that “falling into captivity, surrendering, these are evasive things.  An order to surrender is illegal.  The only proper order is ‘every man for himself.'”

And this short bit:

It was Napoleon who famously prayed that if he had to face an enemy, please God let it be a coalition.


My excellent Conversation with Jacob Mikanowski

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Jacob Mikanowski is the author of one of Tyler’s favorite books this year called Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. Tyler and Jacob sat down to discuss all things Eastern Europe, including the differences between Eastern and Western European humor, whether Poles are smiling more nowadays, why the best Polish folk art is from the south, the equilibrium for Kaliningrad and the Suwałki Gap, how Romania and Bulgaria will handle depopulation, whether Moldova has an independent future, the best city to party in, why there are so few Christian-Muslim issues in Albania, a nuanced take on Orbán and Hungarian politics, why food in Poland is so good now, why Stanisław Lem hasn’t gotten more attention in the West, how Eastern Europe has changed his view of humanity, his ideal two week itinerary in the region, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why isn’t Stanisław Lem more popular in the West today as a writer?

MIKANOWSKI: That’s interesting. I grew up on Stanisław Lem like some people grow up on the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. My dad’s a computer scientist. His father set up one of Poland’s first computers. The world of Polish science and science fiction: he used to read the Tales of Pirx the Pilot and the Ijon Tichy stories — the robots, the short, fun ones — like they were fairy tales. I grew up with them.

I think — actually I have trouble going back to those. I’d go back to Solaris, and I think Solaris is a real masterpiece and I think it’s had lasting influence. But there’s something pessimistic about them. They don’t have that thing that Asimov does, or even Dune, of world-building and forecasting the human future far in advance. They are like Kafka in space, and that’s absurd situations, strange turns of events — I think a pretty pessimistic view of progress. Maybe that makes them hard to digest. Also a kind of odd sense of humor with the short stories. Almost a childlike sense of humor that maybe makes them hard to take.

I think there’s been a little bit of a Lem revival, though. I know technologists, some people like them; futurologists like him. I like him.

COWEN: Some of the cybernetics tales, they seem weirdly close to the current state of LLMs. And I think I’ve seen this mentioned once, but it’s not generally known: the idea that you use them to talk to, that they’re weird, they might be somewhat mystical, they serve as therapists or oracles — that’s very much in Lem, quite early.

MIKANOWSKI: I think people should go back to them. I think — I was just thinking of Solaris, which I always thought about as this story about contacting a truly alien alien. Now it’s like, well, this is a little bit of what we’re doing with virtual reality and AI. It’s like, what would happen if you could actually talk to your dreams, if you could revive people? You could have the mimicry of consciousness, the appearance of consciousness, without anything behind it — without a consciousness.

There’s something seductive about it, and there’s something monstrous about it. I think he was there way ahead of anyone else, and people should be going back to them. Maybe they will.

Of course we talk about the Suwalki Gap as well. And this: “Given all your study of Eastern Europe, what is it you feel you understand about the current war in Ukraine that maybe other well-informed people would not?”

Recommended, interesting throughout.  Again, here is Jacob’s new and excellent book Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land.

The Great Depression is Over!

Throughout the 20th century, the Great Depression dominated macroeconomic discourse, engaging prominent economists such as Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, Lucas, and Prescott. Most principles of macroeconomics textbooks spend considerable time analyzing the Great Depression as it was this event which galvanized thinking about aggregate demand, bank runs, fiscal policy and money policy. However, the Great Depression occurred nearly a century ago and in a vastly different world, rendering its analysis more relevant to economic history than contemporary macroeconomics.  We think it’s time to revise.

In the forthcoming edition of Modern Principles we excise the Great Depression and focus instead on the Great Financial Crisis and the Pandemic Recession as exemplifying the core of macroeconomics and policy. These events showcase a demand-driven recession followed by a supply-driven one, well illustrated by our dynamic AD-AS model. Focusing on these recessions also moves the lessons beyond the shifting of curves and towards important discussions of shadow banking, securitization, the microeconomics of externalities, and how monetary and fiscal policy must change when the goal – as during a pandemic — is not to get people back to work!

The lessons drawn from these significant and more recent recessions will inform policymakers as they deal with future recessions and will be the subject of analysis by economists for generations to come. A textbook for the 21st century must analyze the macroeconomics of the 21st century.

*China’s World View: Demystifying China to Prevent Global Conflict*

That is a forthcoming book by David Daokiu Li.  Perhaps it is the very best book explaining “how China works today?”

“What should I read on China?  Which single book?” — those are two of the most common questions I receive.  There are plenty of perfectly fine history books, but I am never sure what I should recommend.  Now I have an answer to that question.  Here is one short excerpt from the text:

Many people in China are concerned with the side effects of the massive anticorruption campaign.  The first side effect is that government officials, especially those dealing with economic affairs, have now become inert.  The reason is that active officials almost surely create enemies or grumbling groups, such as through the demolition of an old building to make room for new investments.  These groups would bring their cases, and perhaps even historical cases, to the party discipline committee.  On their path to promotion and their current positions, most officials have either intentionally or unintentionally engaged in practices that are not in compliance with today’s tighter government rules.  In the Chinese reform process, laws and regulations are gradually implemented and then tightened.  The anticorruption campaign is using today’s tighter regulations to judge the past conduct of officials, which occurred when the rules were either looser or entirely unclear.  As a result, officials today are extremely hesitant to take any action that would make them stand out or draw extra attention, even if those actions are in the best interests of the locale or department they serve.

The author covers much more, including the importance of history, how the CCP works, local governments, SOEs, education, media and the internet, the environment, population, and much more.

There should be a book like this about every country.

I should note that the author lives in Beijing, so he soft pedals some of the more negative interpretations of the data, but ultimately I think this is much more fruitful than the books by journalist outsiders.  The analysis is here, and you can do the moralizing on your own, if that is how you want it.

Definitely recommended, a very real contribution.

The Calverts Cliff Decision

By the early 1970s, Atomic Age dreams of ubiquitous nuclear power were evaporating as fast as those Space Age fantasies of humanity soon spreading out into the solar system. The data show a clear break in nuclear reactor construction in 1971 and 1972, which suggests the decline in reactor construction is likely attributable to a confluence of regulatory events, perhaps creating uncertainty about the future cost of safety regulations. Two of the most important events happened in 1971: the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Calvert Cliffs decision, in which the DC Circuit Court ordered federal regulators to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, widely considered the “Magna Carta” of federal environmental laws. Basically, NEPA and related executive orders require federal agencies to investigate and assess the potential environmental costs, if any, of its projects and solicit public input. (At least twenty states and localities have their own such statutes, known as “little NEPAs.”) The following passage from the Calvert decision gives a good feel for the era’s Down Wing attitude: “These cases are only the beginning of what promises to become a flood of new litigation…seeking judicial assistance in protecting our natural environment. Several recently enacted statutes attest to the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’”

Wow. They wanted to stop the the engine of material progress and they did. Right out of Atlas Shrugged.

This is from The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised, James Pethokoukis’s cheery introduction to ending the great stagnation. Pethokoukis ably covers all the big debates about the causes, consequences and solutions to the great stagnation and does so briskly, with optimism and covering culture as well as economics. Recommended as a one-stop shop for ending the great stagnation and as a pick-me-up.

What should I ask John Gray?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Here is from Wikipedia:

John Nicholas Gray (born 17 April 1948) is an English political philosopher and author with interests in analytic philosophy, the history of ideas, and philosophical pessimism. He retired in 2008 as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The GuardianThe Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer. He is an atheist.

Gray has written several influential books, including False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), which argues that free market globalization is an unstable Enlightenment project currently in the process of disintegration; Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), which attacks philosophical humanism, a worldview which Gray sees as originating in religions; and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), a critique of utopian thinking in the modern world.

John has a new book coming out The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism.  So what should I ask him?

*Maestros and Monsters*

The author is Robert Boyers and the subtitle is Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner, and the book appears to be an account of their friendship, and also rivalry.  Here is one early passage:

Still, it ought to have been obvious that what made Susan authentically cool was not principally her image or her beauty but her demeanor, the almost impossibly self-possession stamped on everything she wrote and in her every utterance.  She was, after all, rigorous even about pleasure.  She had little or no patience with those who wanted to relax.  She wanted her pleasures rare and immoderate.  In her presence, I felt my own impulses quicken.  I felt smarter, more alert, poised to be contradicted, even undermined.  I never doubted the force and ferocity of her will, never minded that to be in her company was to revolve around her.  She was cool because she knew how to make conversation dangerous.  There was no inclination in Susan towards the obvious or self-evident.  Though she could be down to earth, even somewhat vulnerable, with those who were permitted to come close, she rarely let down her determination to be demanding.  Cool was in her a perfect, unstudied resistance to banality and incoherence.  Responsive to enigma and sublimity, she had no feeling for child’s play or frivolity.  She had her chosen masters but was always also masterful in the exercise of her own seductive powers.

I will keep reading…

What I’ve been reading

Naomi Klein, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World.  Have you ever been confused by Naomi Klein vs. Naomi Wolf?  Intellectually they are both pretty crazy.  And they are both named Naomi.  Some might think they bear some resemblance to each other.  Well, here is a whole book on that confusion!  And it is written by Naomi Klein.  How much insight and self-awareness can one intellectually crazy person have about being confused for another intellectually crazy person?  Quite a bit, it turns out.  Recommended, though with the provision that I understand you never felt you needed to read a whole book about such a topic.

Benjamin Labutut, The Maniac.  Chilean author, he has penned the story of von Neumann but in the latter part of the book switches to contemporary AI and AlphaGO, semi-fictionalized.  Feels vital and not tired, mostly pretty good, thoiiugh for some MR readers the material may be excessively familiar.

J.M. Coetzee, The Pole.  Short, compelling, self-contained, again deals with older men who have not resolved their issues concerning sex.   Good but not great Coetzee.

Gary S. Becker, The Economic Approach: Unpublished Writings of Gary S. Becker.  I am honored to have blurbed this book.

Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans is one mighty fine book.

Shuchen Xiang, Chinese Cosmopolitanism: The History and Philosophy of an Idea.  Chinese cosmopolitanism, there was more of it than you might have thought.  Should we be asking “Where did it go?”  Or is it there more than ever?

*The Genius of Israel*

That is the new book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.  The authors argue that Israel has higher solidarity and also higher social capital than recent media reports might indicate.  They are thus optimistic about the country, and the subtitle is The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Natoin in a Turbulent World.

I do not go to Israel enough to have a strong opinion on this, but their thesis is consistent with my casual observation, and also with my intuition about negative bias in media.  The book comes out November 7.

My Conversation with Ada Palmer

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Ada Palmer is a Renaissance historian at the University of Chicago who studies radical free thought and censorship, composes music, consults on anime and manga, and is the author of the acclaimed Terra Ignota sci-fi series, among many other things.

Tyler sat down with Ada to discuss why living in the Renaissance was worse than living during the Middle Ages, how art protected Florence, why she’s reluctant to travel back in time, which method of doing history is currently the most underrated, whose biography she’ll write, how we know what old Norse music was like, why women scholars helped us understand Viking metaphysics, why Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist is an interesting work, what people misunderstand about the inquisition(s), why science fiction doesn’t have higher social and literary status, which hive she would belong to in Terra Ignota, what the new novel she’s writing is about, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: De Sade — where does that come from? What are the influences on de Sade as a writer?

PALMER: Thomas Aquinas. No, lots and lots of things, but he’s very interested in the large philosophical milieu in the period. Remember that the 18th century is a moment when the clandestine bookshop is a major, major thing. And if anyone enjoys and is interested in the history of censorship and clandestine publishing, I can’t recommend enough the work of Robert Darnton, a brilliant, brilliant historian of clandestine literature.

But the same underground bookshops sell all underground materials, which means an underground bookshop sells pornography, and it also sells Voltaire and Rousseau, and it also sells diatribes criticizing the king, and it also sells radical Jansenist theological pamphlets about whether the Holy Spirit derives from the Father and Son equally or from the Father alone.

The same kinds of people frequent these shops, and the same kinds of people buy things. So, think about how, when you go into a Barnes & Noble, the science fiction and fantasy section is one section, even though science fiction and fantasy are different things. But they have a lot of overlap, both in the overlap of readership and in overlap in books that have both science fiction and fantasy elements. It was perfectly natural, in the same way, for clandestine bookshops to generate these works that are pornography and radical philosophy at the same time. They’re printed by the same printers, sold to the same audiences, and circulate in the same places.

De Sade uses his extreme pornography to get at questions of morality, ethics, and artificiality. What are the ethics of hurting each other? Why do we feel that way about hurting each other? What are so-called natural impulses, as John Locke and Hobbes were very dominant at the time, or Descartes, who is differently dominant at the time in rivalry with them? They make claims about the natural human impulses or the natural character of a human being. What does extreme sexuality show us about how that character might be broader than it is?

I mean it when I say Thomas Aquinas, right? One of Thomas Aquinas’s traditional proofs of the existence of God is that everything he sees around him in nature — this also is one that Aristotle uses, but Aquinas articulates it in the most famous way for de Sade’s period — that when we look around us, it’s clear that everything is designed to work.

Interesting throughout.

*Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage*

Have you ever visited a bookshop and noticed that a cover caught your attention in just the right way?  But then you say “Nah, I don’t want to read a book right now on that topic.”  But then you crack open the book and read a short amount and the quality of the work catches your attention all the more?  And then you buy the book?

I thought Jonny Steinberg’s Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage was one of the very best books of the year, and most of all this is a book about South Africa.  Here is one excerpt:

The outstanding feature of boxing in mid-century black South Africa was its wholesome and egalitarian dignity.  Wholesome because it could be contrasted to the brash honor of a gangster, and the township gans of those times loomed large in people’s minds, their violence dominating the newspaper headlines every.  And egalitarian because the dignity it conferred was available to everyone.  Nelson understood this and he delighted in it.  “In the ring,” he remarked much later, “rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.  When you are circling yoiur opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his colour or social status.”

I learned just how much it was the earlier white South African plan (highly unrealistic, of course) not to have blacks move into South African cities at all.

Here is a short bit about Nelson Mandela:

In prison, the present wasted away.  Only the past and the future remained, both largely foreign to him until now.  Once he found them, he worked on them ceaselessly, year upon year, threading who he had been to who he’d become once his endless confinement was over.

An excellent book on many levels, no you cannot judge a book by its cover but judging a book by its cover is underrated nonetheless.

From my email, I will read this book

I won’t double indent, here is the email:

“Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” Resistance to Change in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press; September 26, 2023; Price: $38.00), is a relentlessly frank look at higher education from the perspective of a long-time college president, dean, and faculty member.    

Rosenberg attempts, in this book, to answer a series of questions: 

  • Why is an industry so widely populated by people who consider themselves progressive so deeply conservative when it comes to its own work? 
  • Why are scholars whose disciplines are constantly evolving so resistant to institutional evolution? 
  • Why do colleges and universities that almost always speak in their mission statements about the transformative power of education find it so difficult to transform themselves? 
  • Why has virtually no fundamental practice within higher education—calendar, tenure processes, mode of delivery, grading—changed in meaningful ways for decades, if not centuries? 
    According to Rosenberg, the answers lie in the structures, practices, and cultures that have developed within higher education.  That is, there are reasons for the inability to change that go well beyond the temperament or competence of particular individuals.  If maintenance of the status quo is the goal, higher education has managed to create the ideal system.” 

The author is Brian Rosenberg and here is the Amazon listing.

*Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy*

That is the new book by Costin Alamariu, who also has self-identified as the very famous BAP.  It is a published version of his Yale doctoral dissertation on political theory.  It has been selling very well.

It still comes across as a doctoral thesis, but I feel any reviewer should excuse the unusual modes of presentation.  The doctoral thesis of BAP is going to come out, one way or the other, and better something than nothing.

I am more worried that the main claims are a mix of not true and also too bold.  Take the opening sentence — “The sexual market is the pinnacle of every other market.”

In contrast, I find it odd how little of contemporary society revolves around sex and breeding, relative to what a reading of Darwin might predict.  You might feel, a’la Hanson, that so many of our social proclivities evolved from initially sexual and mating impulses, but how autonomous they have become!  People spend so much time not having sex.  Fertility rates are plummeting, and that is at best a marginal political topic.  Rich CEOs very often utterly fail to create the harems that some might be expecting.  If there is a missing figure in this book it is Adam Smith and his TMS, who can explain so much of our social world with only minimal reference to sex.

Or take this sentence, again from early on: “Who wins in the sexual market as it is formed in a particular society, who gets to breed, is closely related, nearly identical to the question of how the next generation in that society is to be constituted.”

That seems obviously false.  There is simply a massive influence through socialization, and much of that is quite separate from the roles people may or may not have as “breeders.”  For the most talented, breeding in fact might be a highly inefficient way to influence the world’s broader future.  Intermediary institutions are systematically missing from the narrative of this book, so already the stage is set for everything to be darker than it needs to be, and for nature to have a stronger role than it ought to.

In any case it is hard to stay on the track of this argument, as the book is sprawling and repeatedly starts over again with new building blocks.  Perhaps the actual underlying belief here (see p.45) is that the Western intellectual class is boring and decrepit?  (Compared to what?  Has the author spent too much time at Yale?  It never has been easier to learn real stuff.)

We are led down paths of Nietzsche, Strauss, decaying political regimes, Pindar, and the ancient Greek world.  Frazer enters with the Golden Bough.  What I like best in the author is his willingness to throw himself into these worlds with convincing abandon.  What I like least is how little space is carved out for morality, or for the view that there is still plenty of progress in the world, and that there is a broadly common intersubjective judgment that some states of affairs are better than others.  I long for the Masons, and chatter about Hiram the Master Builder — there is a reason why ancient Greek philosophy no longer fits our world.  The simple truths of a suburban real estate developer, and the spouse and kids and dog back home, are swept under the rug.

The truly dark move would be to argue that nature must be violent, that man cannot remove himself from nature, and thus to flirt with the fascist view that violence amongst humans must be acceptable as well.  And, in this take, all of our moralities are phony adjuncts to the desire to breed.  But the exposition is somehow too winding and too replete with fresh turns for those issues to surface in a meaningful way.  Maybe some would argue they emerge from the Straussian muck?  I would have no objection to seeing them addressed directly, as surely the author at current margins is not afraid of additional cancellation.

Would more adherence to the hypothesis testing methods of the economist have done Alamariu some good?

I do agree with his view that Nietzsche was more sympathetic to Christianity than is usually realized.  The expositions and interpretations of Nietzsche probably are the best part of the book.

By the end we are given a new conclusion: “The chief intention of this study has been to offer an explanation for why the ancient city perceived philosophers as dangerous and as associated with tyrants — to argue that there was something to the ancient prejudice that philosophy was associated with tyranny.”  On that I can agree, but a simple libertarianism would have gotten us there more easily.  Alamariu can’t quite bring himself to make this conclusion either an empirical claim (too little actual hard evidence), or a logical claim (too many other variables in the model), and so it continues to hover uncomfortably in between, being put on the table with lots of drama but never receiving actual validation.

There is definitely material of interest in here, but it remains a book of its time.  Unfortunately, too much of our era has an emotionally negative predisposition toward too many things, including our current elites, and for reasons that are mimetic rather than justified, whether rationally or even by our impulses to breed.

BAP once wrote: “I will add only that Nietzsche says somewhere that it is the duty of a philosopher to promote precisely those virtues or tendencies of spirit that are most lacking in one’s own time…”  For all its pretense to the contrary, that is exactly what this book does not achieve.