Category: Books

*Empires of Ideas*

The author is William C. Kirby and the subtitle is Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China.  The shocker is that this is actually a good book.  In contrast, hardly any books on these topics are good.  This book is substantive on virtually every page, the author actually understands how universities work, and, get this…you have to read the book to know what is inside it.  The material covers why early German universities became so successful, why they declined and stayed low quality, why they revived somewhat in more recent times, which American universities have gotten better and richer and why (with respect to their governance), and what is going on with Chinese universities and their rise to eminence.  The latter part does feel a bit out of date, but overall an impressive performance.  Perhaps the sum total of all this work is a bit more desultory than what the author intends, but I will take desultory substance any day of the week.  Especially in such a “crummy book area” as this one.  The author by the way is a China specialist (good background for understanding universities!) and a former Dean at Harvard.

What should I ask Hanif Abdurraqib?

It will be a conversation, though not a recorded CWT.  Here is Wikipedia on him:

Hanif Abdurraqib is an American poet, essayist, and cultural critic. He is the author of 2016 poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (published as Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib), the 2017 essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, the 2019 non-fiction book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest on the American hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, the 2019 poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, and the 2021 essay collection A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance which received the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Go Ahead in the Rain was on the long list for the 2019 National Book Award.

So what should I ask?

What I’ve been reading

1. Andrea G. McDowell, We the Miners: Self-Government in the California Gold Rush.  An important law and economics study of an “anarchistic” episode, going much deeper than some earlier accounts on matters involving Native Americans, fairness of trials, dispute resolution, miner-mining company interactions, and more.

2. Chris Blackwell, with Paul Morley, The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond.  Obviously an interesting story in its own right, and well-written as well.  I also found this a good take on talent search.  First, if you come across a very talented cluster (in this case Jamaican reggae), never stop supporting it and working with it!  Sounds trivial, but it runs against the spirit of our age.  Second, if you ever have a chance to work with a very talented person (people), just do it.  Yes, try to get the arrangements right but in the final analysis just do it.  Chris understands and articulates that principle very well.  One of my favorite parts of the book was his account of his decision to simply advance 4k to Bob Marley and the Wailers with no agreement whatsoever.

3. Lane Kenworthy, Would Democratic Socialism be Better?  No.  “My conclusion is that capitalism, and particularly social democratic capitalism, is better than many democratic socialists seem to think.”  The notion of writing a book that argues clearly and directly for a correct conclusion remains vastly underrated!  That said, I worry a bit this book is ignoring what is upstream and what is downstream.  If a socialist claimed “Cuba is better than Haiti,” would it really work to shoot back “The Nordics are better than either!”  How about the Dominican Republic?  What exactly is on the menu here?

4. Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797, edited by Daniel B. Klein and Dominic Pino.  It is sometimes forgotten that the great Irish thinkers of the 18th century (Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Sterne, etc., and don’t forget Shaftesbury wrote there) are really not so far behind the Scots.  Yet when do you hear talk of an Irish Enlightenment?  This much-needed book assembles excellent quotations from the wisdom of Burke.

Jorge Almazán Studiolab, Emergent Tokyo: Designing The Spontaneous City, very good for those who care.  The book also provides excellent visuals on how the city actually is laid out.  Do note that much of the Tokyo of the 1980s and 90s is disappearing, due to high-rise towers.  Visit while you can!

*Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne*

This new book by Katherine Rundell, now out in the UK but still pending in the United States for September, is one of the very best studies of an individual poet I ever have read.  The book’s style is so energetic and so carefully crafted as a whole, it is difficult to excerpt from.  What is striking to me is that the blurbs are from super-smart people, and they all are literally accurate (has that ever been the case?). So for instance Claire Tomalin wrote:

Katherine Rundell’s brave and detailed new biography of John Donne is just the book we need…Every page sparkles…

Simon Jenkins wrote:

Rundell has a wonderful touch, light yet profound, which perfectly suits her extraordinary subject…Unmissable.

The great Maggie O’Farrell wrote:

A wonderful, joyous piece of work…with fierce, interrogative intelligence. I just loved it.

All true!  Recommended, a sure thing for the year’s best of non-fiction list.  You don’t even have to like poetry, as a history book it is first-rate as well.

That was then, this is now

On July 7 [1917], while the unsuccessful hunt for fugitive Bolsheviks continued, Prince Lvov resigned as leader of the Provisional Government.  He was replaced by Kerensky.  This had nothing to do with either the July uprising or the failed offensive.  Five days earlier, Kadet ministers had resigned in protest at a decision to allow Ukraine a degree of autonomy.

Both liberals and socialists in the reconstituted Provisional Government wanted to keep the Russian empire together.  They had accepted in March that after the war Poland, now behind German lines, would break away to become fully independent, but they were determined to hold on to the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Baltic provinces and Ukraine.  their view was that the grievances and aspirations of national minorities were purely the product of Tsarist oppression, above all the ‘russification’ programmes introduced under Nicholas II which had discourages any diversity of culture or language.  A few limited concessions to autonomy were thought to be sufficient.

…Russians in Kiev never expected the Ukrainian forces to put up much of a fight.  Deliberately ignoring the reality of Ukrainian culture and history, they had taken Ukrainian patriotism as little more than a joke.

That is from the new and excellent Anthony Beevor book, Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921.

Rereading Edward Gibbon on the fall of Rome

I hadn’t looked at this work for a long time, and I was struck by how much he does not blame Christianity for the decline of the Roman Empire.  Here is one bit, closer to Ibn Khaldun than anything:

The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind.  But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.  Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted for so long. (p.435)

Gibbon also puts forward the hypothesis that basic knowledge in agriculture and the manufactures is never lost, so the overall course of history will be progressive. (pp.442-443)

He is worried about existential risk from comets, volcanoes, and earthquakes, though despairs we cannot do much about it. (p.578)

All from the Penguin abridged edition, edited by David Womersley.

Very interesting Edward Nevraumont review of *Talent*

The review makes many points, here is one excerpt:

 Everywhere I have worked, the organization’s hiring processes were tilted in favor of experience over intelligence. Interviews include behavioral questions or assessments of specific skills. Rarely is anyone on the hiring loop running problem-solving sessions that require the candidate to demonstrate how they might deal with the real-world challenges they will encounter in the workplace.


Most of the time you can win candidates by getting the basics right:

  1. Reach out to people, don’t wait for them to come to you.
  2. Build relationships before you need them.
  3. Develop followership (so people that work with you once will want to work with you again).
  4. Get candidates excited for the job before you start screening them.
  5. Make your workplace a good place to work for smart and talented people (which is NOT the same as making it a “good place to work” generally, or anything from the HR/PR lists.)
  6. Be the type of manager that top talent will want to work for.
  7. Ensure that you have someone selling the candidate once you know you want to make an offer and start the selling process before the offer is made.
  8. Be polite.
  9. Be fast.

Interesting throughout, though I feel the author significantly overestimates the extent to which we think the current talent assessment market is efficient.

My excellent Conversation with Marc Andreessen

I’ve been wanting to do this one for some while, and Marc did not disappoint.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is the summary:

Marc joined Tyler to discuss his ever-growing appreciation for the humanities and more, including why he didn’t go to a better school, his contrarian take on Robert Heinlein, how Tom Wolfe helped Marc understand his own archetype, who he’d choose to be in Renaissance Florence, which books he’s reread the most, Twitter as an X-ray machine on public figures, where in the past he’d most like to time-travel, his favorite tech product that no longer exists, whether Web will improve podcasting, the civilization-level changes made possible by remote work, Peter Thiel’s secret to attracting talent, which data he thinks would be most helpful for finding good founders, how he’d organize his own bookstore, the kinds of people he admires most, and why Deadwood is equal to Shakespeare.

And the opening:

COWEN: Simple question: Have you always been like this?

ANDREESSEN: [laughs] Yes. I believe that my friends would say that I have.

COWEN: Let’s go back to the junior high school Marc Andreessen. At that time, what was your favorite book and why?

ANDREESSEN: That’s a really good question. I read a lot. Probably, like a lot of people like me, it was a lot of science fiction. I’m one of the few people I know who thinks that late Robert Heinlein was better than early Robert Heinlein. That had a really big effect on me. What else? I was omnivorous at an early age.

COWEN: Why is late Robert Heinlein better?

ANDREESSEN: To me, at least to young me — see if older me would agree with this — a sense of exploration and discovery and wonder and open-endedness. For me, it was as if he got more open-minded as he got older. I remember those books, in particular, being very inspiring — the universe is a place of possibilities.

COWEN: What’s the seminal television show for your intellectual development in, say, junior high school?

ANDREESSEN: Oh, junior high school — it’s hard to beat Knight Rider.

COWEN: Why Knight Rider?

ANDREESSEN: There was a wave of these near science fiction shows in the late ’70s, early ’80s that coincided with . . . Some of it was the aftermath of Star Wars, but it was the arrival of the personal computer and the arrival of computer technology in the lives of ordinary people for the first time. There was a massive wave of anxiety, but there was also a tremendous sense of possibility.

Recommended, excellent throughout.

James Joyce, entrepreneur

At the critical elevator pitch, Joyce whetted investors’ appetites with the opening gambit: Dublin, a European city of 350,000, had no cinema and two more cities in the same country, Cork and Belfast, were also without a cinema. (Joyce the hustler bumped up Dublin’s population to 500,000 for effect.) Ireland, with close to a million urban dwellers, was virgin trading soil ripe for far-sighted operators. For a man who was a better spender than saver who would experience money problems throughout his life, the contract Joyce negotiated reveals a canny financial operator, and a true salesman. He convinced the partners to give him 10 per cent of the equity and profits, although he didn’t invest a penny. He was also paid expenses and a wage. Hands were shaken, the deal was done, Joyce was off. The portrait of the artist as a young entrepreneur.

…the mind that wrote Ulysses was also the mind that opened Ireland’s first cinema.

Here is the full FT story.  By the way, this being the 100th year of Ulysses, you should read that book if you haven’t already.  It is one of the very best books!  And it really isn’t that difficult.  If you need to, just keep on going, don’t try to figure it all out…

What I’ve been reading

1. Dan Werb, The Invisible Siege: The Rise of Coronavirus and the Search for a Cure.  An excellent book on the history of coronaviruses more generally, with much of the strongest material coming on how earlier coronavirus investigations fed into the progress we have made on Covid-19.  Recommended, not just what all the other Covid books are telling you.

2. James Poskett, Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science.  A useful account of what the title promises, with a look at contributions from pre-conquest Mexico, China, and other non-Western locales.  Maybe the book pushes the non-Western theme a little too much at points, but this is basically a sane and readable account, and most of the cross-cultural connections are valid rather than strained.

3. Evan Lieberman, Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa After Apartheid.  An interesting book, and one which contains a lot of useful information.  Yet the author works too hard to avoid recognizing just how badly matters have gone.  Overall, incomes are down and the racial wealth gap has not improved…and that is after getting rid of one of the most inefficient economic systems of all time, namely apartheid.  For sources try this and this, among others.  The income gains you can find are focused in a super-small group.

4. Paul Mango, Warp Speed: Inside the Operation that Beat Covid, the Critics, and the Odds.  Written by an HHS insider and participant, this is kind of cheesy and fanboyish.  But probably it should be!  For one thing, the book gives you a sense of just how much talent was involved in OWS, an under-discussed lesson.  On p.69, you can learn that they repeatedly considered human challenge trials and learn their question-begging reasons for refusing to do them.

5. David Hackett Fischer, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals.  An extended history of U.S. slavery, focusing on regional differences, for instance Carolina Gullahs vs. New Orleans vs. Mississippi.  As you might expect, the broader story is integrated with that of the particular African origins of the slaves as well.  A strong book, recommended.

Michael Magoon’s From Poverty to Progress: Understanding Humanity’s Greatest Achievement is a very good introduction to the importance of progress and material wealth in history.

Tim Harford covers *Talent* and parallel design

And Brian Eno.  Here is one opening bit from the FT:

Consider the advice for job interviewers in Talent, a new book by economist Tyler Cowen and venture capitalist Daniel Gross. They suggest asking a routine question, such as “give me an example of when you resolved a difficult challenge at work”. Then ask for another example. And another. The pat answers will be exhausted quickly, and the candidate will have to start improvising, digging deep — or perhaps admit to being stumped.

“If the candidate really does have 17 significant different work triumphs,” write Cowen and Gross, “maybe you do want to hear about what number 17 looks like.”

Indeed, one way to describe this tactic is that the interviewer is asking for answers in parallel rather than answers in series. Instead of stringing together a logical sequence of 17 questions, the interviewer is asking for 17 different answers to the same question.

Recommended, a great piece, subtle, and goes well beyond the topics of the book.

Rubin and Koyama on the Industrial Revolution

From Dylan Matthews:

The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by Chapman University’s Jared Rubin and George Mason University’s Mark Koyama, provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries.

Here is the full coverage with interview.  And you can order the book here from Amazon.  I haven’t read it yet, but this is surely self-recommending…