Category: Books

Brazil fact of the day

Considering the limited infrastructure routes, high rate of wear and tear, and the need for various input materials, per-mile Brazilian infrastructure costs are typically quadruple those of a flat, arable, temperate territory — with additional premium for the roads that must pierce the Escarpment.

That is from Peter Zeihan’s quite interesting Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in a Disunited World.  The Escarpment, by the way, refers to the cliffs that run along Brazil’s coastal zones and have kept Brazil so long from integrating their cities and building a truly stable nation-state.  The lack of navigable rivers throughout most of the country does not help either — North America was blessed in this regard.

Here is Zeihan’s take on Rio:

…its decline will be emblematic of several of the country’s coastal cities.  It’s too far from the Northern Hemisphere to be involved in manufacturing supply chains, too isolated to serve as entrepot or processing center, and too densely populated to be safe.

Zeihan likes to solve for the equilibrium.

What are the best books of this year?

Yes I am compiling my usual list, to be presented right before Black Friday in November, but assembling the list has been much harder this year.  I am sent fewer review copies, the public libraries have been closed for many moons, and I haven’t been able to get to Daunt Books in London, or to my favorite Kinokuniya store in Singapore for that matter.  I haven’t been to a real bookstore period since the lockdowns started.

So I am double-checking with you all — what are in fact the best books of this year?  And please…in the comments list only the truly good ones.

How Canada was populated, and depopulated

Americans were the first major population group to settle permanently in Canada in more than token numbers, and they dominated Canada’s population for six decades.  From the 1770s until the 1830s, the majority of English-speaking Canadians were U.S.-born…

Over the preceding decades, most ambitious and inventive immigrants to Canada had quickly departed for the United States.  The colonies were left with a self-selected group who didn’t want much from life: an agrarian, very religious, austere population of peasants and labourers who tended to see change and growth as a threat rather than an opportunity and a consumer economy as generally sinful excess.

That is from Doug Saunders, Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million, in addition to its positive programme this is also a useful book for understanding Canadian history.

What I’ve been reading

1. Brent Tarter, Virginians and Their Histories.  The best book I have read on the history of Virginia, by an order of magnitude.  And in turn that makes it an excellent book on race as well, and also on broader American history.  If I have to spend the whole year in this state, I might as well read about it.  I learned also that 21,172 Virginians have identified themselves as American Indians, and that this movement is more active than I had realized.

2. Diary of Anne Frank.  It seems inappropriate to call this a “good” or even “great” book.  I had not read it since high school, I will just say it deserves its enduring status, and the reread was much more rewarding and interesting than what I was expecting.

3. Howard Brotz, editor, African-American Social & Political Thought 1850-1920.  A fascinating selection from the debates of the time, reprinting Douglass, Booker T., Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, and others.  Douglass holds up best, including his critique of colonialism.  The weakest argument in the volume was “Haiti is working out fine, so Liberia will succeed as well.”  Of greatest interest to me was the extent to which the African-American debates of that time overlapped with opinions about Africa and the Caribbean.  Recommended, and excellent background for many of the current disputes.

4. Simone Weil: An Anthology, and Gravity and GraceGravity and Grace is the early work.  Its ten best pages are superb, but reading it is mostly a frustrating experience, due to the diffuse nature of the presentation (to be clear, overall I consider that a relatively high reward ratio).  The former collection is the best place to start, noting again there is a certain degree of diffuseness, but as with Žižek there are insights you just don’t get anywhere else.  A good question for any talent selection algorithm is whether it would pick out the teenage Weil and give her a grant to pursue her writing projects.  Sadly she died at age 34 in 1943.

Unbundling disability rights

From my email:

My name is Max Grozovsky. I’m an economics student at the University of Delaware (until I finish a few more papers and can start my life) and a fan of your blog/column.

Thanks a lot for using your platform to elevate disability rights. I hope you’ll write more on the topic going forward, perhaps mentioning supported decision-making mechanisms which have been touted by the National Council on Disability as alternatives to guardianship that actually help people rather than bundle and strip their rights wholesale based on the canard that incapacity in one area implies incapacity in an unrelated one.

Also, since you (or is it someone else?) sporadically post on Islamic architecture/history, here’s my favorite nonficiton book, unsolicited.

What should I ask Matt Yglesias?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, based in part on his new forthcoming book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  While I have not yet read it, I strongly expect it will be excellent.

And to be clear, this will be the conversation with Matt I want to have, not the one that you might think you wish to hear.

So what should I ask?

Rereading Ayn Rand on the New Left

It used to be called The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, but the later title was Return of the Primitive.  It was published in 1971, but sometimes drawn from slightly earlier essays.  I wondered if a revisit might shed light on the current day, and here is what I learned:

1. “The New Left is the product of cultural disintegration; it is bred not in the slums, but in the universities; it is not the vanguard of the future, but the terminal stage of the past.”

2. The moderates who tolerate the New Left and its anti-reality bent can be worse than the New Left itself.

3. Ayn Rand wishes to cancel the New Left, albeit peacefully.

4. “Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned.”  Ouch, it would be good to resuscitate this entire essay (on racism).

5. She fears the collapse of Europe into tribalism, racism, and balkanization.  I am not sure if I should feel better or worse about the ongoing persistence of this trope.

6. It is easy to forget that English was not her first language: “Logical Positivism carried it further and, in the name of reason, elevated the immemorial psycho-epistemology of shyster lawyers to the status of a scientific epistemological system — by proclaiming that knowledge consists of linguistic manipulations.”

6b. Kant was the first hippie.

7. The majority of people do not hate the good, although they are disgusted by…all sorts of things.

8. Like many Russian women, she is skeptical of the American brand of feminism: “As a group, American women are the most privileged females on earth: they control the wealth of the United States — through inheritance from fathers and husbands who work themselves into an early grave, struggling to provide every comfort and luxury for the bridge-playing, cocktail-party-chasing cohorts, who give them very little in return.  Women’s Lib proclaims that they should give still less, and exhorts its members to refuse to cook their husbands’ meals — with its placards commanding “Starve a rat today!””  Feminism for me, but not for thee, you could call it.

Overall I would describe this as a bracing reread.  But what struck me most of all was how much the “Old New Left” — whatever you think of it — had more metaphysical and ethical and aesthetic imagination — than the New New Left variants running around today.  As Rand takes pains to point out (to her dismay), the Old New Left did indeed have Woodstock, which in reality was not as far from the Apollo achievement as she was suggesting at the time.

*False Alarm*, the new book by Bjorn Lomborg

The subtitle is How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.

I agree with the author’s claim that climate change is not an existential risk for humanity.  Still, both the title and subtitle bother me.  The alarm does not seem to be a false one, even if many of the worriers make grossly overstated claims about the end of the earth.  And right now “climate change panic” is not costing us “trillions,” rather virtually all countries are failing to reduce their carbon emissions and most are not even trying very hard.

There should be more of a focus on the insurance value of avoiding the worst plausible scenarios, which are still quite bad.  There is no argument in this book which overturns the Weitzman-like calculations that preventive measures are desirable.

I can report that the author endorses a carbon tax, more investment in innovation, and greater adaptation, with geoengineering as a back-up plan, more or less the correct stance in my view.

There is much in this book of value, and the criticisms of the exaggerated worriers are mostly correct.  Still, the oppositional framing of the material doesn’t seem appropriate these days, and Lomborg will have to choose whether he wishes to be “leader of the opposition,” or “provider of the best possible message.”  Or has he already chosen?

What I’ve been reading

1. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.  Yes compelling, and a sufficiently influential book that you should read it.  But aren’t you ever tempted to ask: has anyone ever behaved like that?

2. Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History.  An elegantly written book, offering an optimistic take on human nature and cooperativeness.  I am not sure there is anything fundamentally new in here, but I did in fact read and finish it.

3. Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.  A very good and readable biography of exactly what it promises, also manages to avoid hagiography.

4. R. James Breiding, Too Small to Fail: Why some small nations outperform larger ones and how they are reshaping the world.  A very useful book expanding on the theme that smaller nations have the potential to be much better governed and thus to have smarter policy and greater accountability.

I have not yet read Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, but in general I enjoy his works and find them smart.

There is also Jim Tankersley, The Riches of This Land: The untold, true story of America’s middle class.

Richard W. Hamming, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn is the latest Stripe Press blockbuster.  Here is more information about the book.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.

*Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe*

By Suzanne Marchand, this a tale of commerce, creativity, mercantilism, nation-building, globalization, industrial organization, and much more.  And this book actually delivers on all of those fronts. Short excerpt:

In accordance with mercantile practices, porcelain makers first sought to pay their bills by increasing sales abroad.  The two markets most hotly pursued at midcentury were the Ottomans and the Russians, both big consumers of hot beverages but lacking functional tableware factories.

Yes it’s that kind of book.  And this:

This focus on porcelain and material goods generally is not an approach familiar to most historians of Germany, who, for understandable reasons, typically feel obliged to treat more serious, often political, subjects.

Recommended, you can pre-order it here.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jon Elster, France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime.  A useful historical introduction to the period, but most notable for taking canons of good social science explanation seriously throughout each step of the analysis.  For one thing, it helps you realize how few people do that, but at the same time you wonder how much restating events in terms of social science mechanisms actually helps historical explanation.  A smart book and very well-informed book in any case.

2. Paul Preston, A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain.  A highly detailed but also analytical account of how Spanish political economy became so screwed up.  Runs from the 1830s up through the financial crisis, and focuses why Spain was backward in nation-building.  Maybe too detailed for some but I believe there is no other book like it.

3. Henry M. Cowles, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey.  Argue that the true scientific method did not develop until the mid-to late 19th century.  A good book, although perhaps more for historians of ideas than students of science per se.

John Anthony McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History is both a good introduction and deep enough for those well-read in this area.

There is also Paul Matzko, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built and Modern Conservative Movement.  I don’t listen to (non-satellite) radio, but some of you should find this interesting.

That was then, this is now

About 55 percent of British servicemen [in World War II] were married.

Furthermore, by mid-1943, British military units were dealing with almost one hundred cases of “family anxiety” a day, with about two-thirds of those being infidelity issues, summing yearly to about 7.5 percent of the married British servicemen in North Africa and the Middle East at that time.

That is from Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War 1942-1947, a book I already have reviewed positively.  Reading further, it remains excellent and interesting on every page, is still grossly under-reviewed by MSM, and would make the top five or even top three non-fiction books of the year list since I have started blogging.

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.