Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Lapper, Beef, Bible, and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro.  A very good country-specific book, it takes you from “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be” to “Brazil was the country of the future and maybe never will be again.”  Did you know that the Pentecostals and Evangelicals have five times the number of radio stations as does the Roman Catholic Church?

2. Graham Johnson, Poulenc: The Life in the Songs.  An A+ book if…you give a damn.  Here is one song by Poulenc.  Compare it to this also beautiful recording.  And this one.  The book also serves as an excellent biography of the composer, the songs making up for the fact that his life did not see amazing amounts of action and dramatic tension.

2. Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz, Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United.  Short, but nonetheless one of the very best books on leadership and also talent search.  You also don’t have to know anything about soccer, or care about soccer.  Recommended, and this one supports my view that the best management books are about sports and music, not “business management” in the mainstream sense of that term.

Adrian Woolridge’s The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World is absolutely correct.  It is remarkable how many deeply wrong books the world has been generating about this topic.

Andrew W. Lo and Stephen R. Foerster’s In Pursuit of the Perfect Portfolio: The Stories, Voices, and Key Insights of the Pioneers Who Shaped the Way We Invest is a good look at the development of portfolio theory, starting with Markowitz.

There is William L. Silber, The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business.

I found rewarding Lily Collison and Kara Buckley, Pure Grit: Stories of Remarkable People Living with Physical Disability.

I have not had a chance to read Masaaki Shirawaka, Tumultuous Times: Central Banking in an Era of Crisis; he was Governor of the Bank of Japan from 2008 to 2013.

*The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery*

That is the new forthcoming Ross Douthat book, focusing on his struggles with Lyme disease.  It is very much a memoir, starting with talk of Connecticut, deer, and his family’s dream house, all leading to an unfortunate bite from a tick.  Visits to many doctors ensue, motivated by chronic pain and weakness.

Overall this is a book about the medical establishment, the psychological path of coming to terms with one’s own illness (a kind of Krankheitsbildungsroman), how bureaucracy shapes science, and a plea that a lot of people really are chronically sick rather than psychosomatic or malingerers.  It is Ross’s best-written book, and it has echoes of Susan Sontag and also Robert Burton.

If I understand Ross correctly, he is pro-antibiotic use under these circumstances, at least for his individual case.  I do not myself have any opinion about the various medical views expressed in this work.  Even prior to reading this book, my intuition was to believe that chronic Lyme disease is very much real, but that is not based upon aggregating a great deal of information.  In any case, Covid and the response of the public health establishment have made the relevance of this book much clearer.  The discussion here doesn’t give you much reason to trust them more.

I believe we are entering a new era where public intellectuals have an increasing degree of “medical sway.”

This is also a tale, under the surface, of how “the privileged” interact with the medical establishment in a fundamentally different way (I don’t mean that as snark or whining).

Here is an update on one potential Lyme disease vaccine.  Was the previous vaccine really so bad?

How should you react if electromagnetic stimulation appears to improve your symptoms?

NB: I don’t like walking in the woods.

What should I ask Claudia Goldin?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, so what should I ask?

Here is part of her Wikipedia page, which perhaps ought to have emphasized economic history more?:

Claudia Goldin…is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of the Development of the American Economy program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Goldin was the president of the American Economic Association in the 2013–14 academic year. In 1990, she became the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard economics department. Her research includes topics such as female labor force, income inequality, education, and the economic gender gap.

Here are her pieces on scholar.google.com.  And I will take this chance to plug her new, forthcoming book Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity.

*Home in the World: A Memoir*

That is the new Amartya Sen autobiography, and it is well…a biography.  You learn that he loves Sichuan duck and “hilsha fish” (if done properly with the mustard), his thoughts of enduring military service, Sen’s study of Sanskrit, his self-description as a hypochondriac, his bout with mouth cancer at a young age, and that Calcutta (!) is a great walking city, at least when Sen lived there in the 1950s, among other matters.  The readers definitely gets his or her “biography money’s worth.”

But should you care?

The name “Tagore” appears so many times in the text that it takes up 3/4 of a page in the index.  This is very much a Bengali memoir.

I learned that Sen’s family lived for a few years with him in Burma, he is sympathetic to Buddhism, he was ten at the time of the Great Famine and it had a major impact on his thinking, and that Sen was greatly influenced by Maurice Dobb and thought Marx was unjustly excluded from the economics curriculum.  Piero Sraffa was his Director of Studies at Cambridge, and introduced Sen to the wonders of ristretto.  Sen also stresses the import of Sraffa for converting the early Wittgenstein into the later Wittgenstein.  He has great praise for P.T. Bauer, both as a thinker and as an instructor.  He describes Buchanan as a “…very agreeable but rather conservative economist” who got him thinking about whether the notion of collective preference made sense at all.

This doesn’t have enough coherence to be a great book, but there is enough in here of interest to satisfy anyone curious about Sen.

You can pre-order here, I got my copy from the UK.

The manga culture that is French fiscal policy

When the French government launched a smartphone app that gives 300 euros to every 18-year-old in the country for cultural purchases like books and music, or exhibition and performance tickets, most young people’s impulse wasn’t to buy Proust’s greatest works or to line up and see Molière.

Instead, France’s teenagers flocked to manga.

“It’s a really good initiative,” said Juliette Sega, who lives in a small town in southeastern France and has used €40 (about $47) to buy Japanese comic books and “The Maze Runner,” a dystopian novel. “I’m a steady consumer of novels and manga, and it helps pay for them.”

As of this month, books represented over 75 percent of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May — and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organization that runs the app, called the Culture Pass.

Here is more from the NYT.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

What should I ask Amia Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, her forthcoming book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is already making a big splash.  Here is an excerpt from her Wikipedia page:

Amia Srinivasan (born 1984) is an American philosopher, specialising in political philosophy, epistemology and metaphilosophy. Since January 2020, she has been Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford.

Srinivasan was born…in Bahrain to Indian parents and later lived in New York. She studied for an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Yale University. This was followed by postgraduate Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. She completed her DPhil in 2014 with a thesis titled The Fragile Estate: Essays on Luminosity, Normativity and Metaphilosophy.

…She is an associate editor of the philosophy journal Mind and a contributing editor of the London Review of Books.

You can access some of her works here.  So what should I ask?

Why do they keep the books wrapped in Mexican bookstores?

Yes, wrapped in clear shrink wrap.  So you can’t page through them and see what the book might be like.  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. They don’t want you standing in the bookstore reading the thing, rather than buying it.  A bit like some U.S. comics news stands in days past.  Yet this doesn’t seem so plausible for longer books or most novels.

2. They want the books to look nicer and less grimy.

3. How about price discrimination?

Imagine there are two classes of readers.  The first is poorer, and only buys books when he or she knows the book is truly desired.  Harry Potter might be an example of such a book.   You want to read what everyone else is reading, to talk about it at school, and you don’t need to scrutinize p.78 so closely before deciding to purchase.

The second class of buyer is wealthier and usually will be buying (and reading) more books, indeed for those people book-buying is a significant habit.  That buyer wants to be on top of current trends, wants to have read whichever book is “best” that year amongst the trendy set, and so on.  If book quality is uncertain, such individuals will end up paying a de facto, quality-adjusted higher per unit price per book.  If you can’t sample the books in advance, you will end up buying some lemons, and you can’t just pick out the cherries.

Wrapped books thus extract more surplus from the second class of buyer and do not much discourage the first class.  The general point is related to the economic analysis of bundling and also block-booking — you have to buy a whole bunch of items to get the things you want.

I wonder if they would mind if I removed the wrapping to take a look before purchasing?  Maybe the store employees would be indifferent, but how about the retail outlet CEO?  The publisher?  The author?  Model this!

Or maybe that is just the way they do things.

*The Morning Star*, by Karl Knausgaard

Yes, it is the real Knausgaard again, writing under lockdown and delivering a nearly 700-pp. novel that does indeed sound like Knausgaard but is not (strictly) autobiographical.

Here is a Swedish review, excerpt:

I read mostly the novel as an entertaining study of non-reflective life, an exploration of how a secularized society chooses to refrain from considering what does not fit the common explanatory models provided by our various sciences….

Here is a Kirkus review:

A sui generis metaphysical yarn, engrossing in its particulars if broadly rambling.

I would say it is not as viscerally satisfying as the best parts of My Struggle, but about half of it is quite good, the pace is fairly quick, and I had no trouble wanting to finish the book.  Some surprises come at the end, and KK is increasingly a “religious thinker” in my sense of that term.

Two more parts will be written, and those will clear up all of the remaining mysteries.

Review of Nightmare Scenario by Abutaleb and Paletta

Nightmare Scenario opens with Anthony Fauci stripped to his skivvies and wondering whether the white powder he has just been exposed to in his NIH office is anthrax, ricin, or a hoax. The first and last he can survive, ricin is a death sentence. A security team douses him with chemicals and moves him to another office where a portable shower has been deployed. Fauci showers, calls his wife, and waits for the test results.

Nightmare Scenario is the best of the recent books on the pandemic (I earlier reviewed Lewis’s The Premonition and Slavitt’s Preventable). Based on hundreds of interviews it’s a true inside account. It doesn’t contain much in the way of analysis but that’s a strength in a journalistic history. Rather than a strict review, I will note a couple of things that jumped out to me.

An astounding amount of time was spent at the highest level of government on what do do about the Americans stuck on the Diamond Princess and other cruise ships. I was almost screaming at the book at this point “there’s just 437 Americans on the cruise ship! Pay attention to the 328 million Americans at home!” It’s ridiculous that 437 Americans should occupy the President’s time but that’s what happens when people think the President is their father (or mother) who needs to show them that he cares.

Governance by the 24 hour news cycle is by no means solely a Trump failing. Biden doesn’t need to know anything about the Miami tower collapse, for example. It’s a tragedy but a state and local matter. But the 24-hour news cycle means that politicians don’t think more than a step ahead, often to a bizarre extent. When the Dow dropped, Larry Kudlow rushed to get on the news to say the “virus is contained”. What was he thinking? If true, this would reveal itself in time and the Dow would rise. If false, he gains at best a couple of days of bump and then lose credibility. Similarly, what was Pence thinking when he wrote in a June of 2020 WSJ op-ed “There Isn’t a Coronavirus Second Wave.” You can’t confidence game a virus.

The CDC botched the initial test and when Joe Grogan at the Domestic Policy Council questioned Azar, Redfield and Fauci he was told “Everything is taken care of. The CDC is remedying the situation.” After repeated delays, the FDA sent an expert to investigate what was going on with the CDC test:

When Stenzel gained access to three key labs developing the test, he couldn’t believe what he saw. In two of the three labs, the agency wasn’t following standard operating procedure. And he discovered the CDC had put together the test in the same lab where it was running the test on live virus samples. That was a violation of the most basic manufacturing practices… “If you were a commercial entity, I would shut you down.” p.81

The CDC failing to use standard operating procedures wasn’t Trump’s fault. The rot is deep.

I was hoping to get more information from Abutaleb and Paletta about Pfizer’s peculiar change in study design. Pfizer released their trial design in mid-September. Articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times were clear that Pfizer planned to look at their data once 32 trial participants had been infected. President Trump, following Pfizer CEO Bourla, thus predicted that there would be vaccine news in October, before the election. Instead Pfizer announced their terrific results on Monday November 9, after the election. When the announcement came people were surprised that between mid-September and November the trial design had been changed. STAT News, for example, noted:

In their announcement of the results, Pfizer and BioNTech revealed a surprise. The companies said they had decided not to conduct the 32-case analysis “after a discussion with the FDA.” Instead, they planned to conduct the analysis after 62 cases.

Abutaleb and Paletta report that the Trump team was furious when they discovered that the good news had been delayed and then they say the following:

FDA officials, of course, had no control over when Pfizer reported its results, because the company could report them only after a certain number of people in the trial had contracted coronavirus.

This is blatantly false. FDA officials have only to signal what they want from a company and the company will comply. Moreover, it was precisely by changing the number of people who needed to have contracted coronavirus that control was exerted. What exactly was said in this “discussion with the FDA” that caused Pfizer to wait? Probably not coincidentally it was also in October that Nancy Pelosi began to worry that British immune systems were different than American immune systems.

Abutaleb and Paletta have nothing good to say about Jared Kushner (unlike Birx who was obviously a source) but if you read between the lines Kushner comes off surprisingly well. At the very least, he moves quickly and sometimes gets things done. Abutaleb and Paletta offer this critique:

Kushner was correct that the normal processes for procuring supplies were cumbersome and slow. But circumventing those processes risked wasting taxpayer money, buying faulty supplies, or running afoul of government contracting laws. There were protections in place to try to prevent the government from overpaying for products or supplies and to try to ensure that companies did not receive unfair advantages…” p. 258.

Oooh, overpaying for products. As if that never happens when the processes are followed. All of this makes it clear that there would have been big errors under other administrations but they would have been different errors like moving even slower so as not to run “afoul of government contracting laws.”

One thing which comes through in The Premonition, Preventable and Nightmare Scenario is that quite a few people understood the crisis early. On January 18, Scott Gottlieb texted Joe Grogan to warn him about the virus in Wuhan. Grogan takes it seriously (it may have been Grogan who was responsible for inviting Kremer and I to speak to the DPC on accelerating vaccines.) On January 28, deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger warned Trump that he could be facing the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 flu. But Gottlieb had already left the administration, Grogan would resign early, and when Pottinger started wearing a mask to work he was considered an alarmist and was frozen out of decision making. Many others had or would soon leave:

Who was left? A mix of family members, twentysomethings, hangers-on, fourth-stringers, former lobbyists, sycophants…That created tremendous pressure on the government officials who remained in their positions in 2020. Many of them were totally unprepared for what was coming. Many of them were so focused on their own survival that it never occurred to them to focus on anyone else’s. p.31.

Overall, Nightmare Scenario is an excellent read.

When a bathroom towel restored an Indian bureaucrat’s pride

From the new memoir of Kaushik Basu:

The use of the word, sir, is very common in Indian officialdom.

During a government meeting, Prof Basu recounts, he decided to keep a tab on how many times the word was said.

A senior official, he counted, was saying sir, “on average 16 times every minute (there was a minister present)”.

Assuming it took her half a second to say the word, Prof Basu calculated that 13% of the official’s speaking time was spent saying sir.

And:

Professor Basu found it is “impolite to knock” in officialdom. “Either you have the right to enter a person’s office or you don’t.”

So if you have the right, the “norm is go right in”.

“It has taken me a while to adjust to this custom, it being such a strict norm in the West to knock before entering,” he writes.

And:

But he faced a small problem, adjusting to the new norm.

“What made the adjustment harder is that, given the high humidity in India, many doors are swollen and jammed, and so one needs to push against them for them to open,” he writes.

“The upshot is that not only do you not knock when entering someone’s office, but you often end up entering the room like a cannon ball, as the door suddenly gives way.”

Here is the full story, via Malinga Fernando.

John Aubrey’s account of his own life

In part:

Born at Easton Piers, march twelfth, 1621, about sun-rising: very weak and like to die, and therefore christened that morning before prayer.  I think I have heard my mother say I had an ague [fever] shortly after I was born.

1629: about three or four years old, I had a grievous ague.  I can remember it.  I got not health till eleven, or twelve: but had sickness of vomiting for thirteen hours every fortnight for…years…This sickness nipped by strength in the bud.

1633: eight years old, I had an issue (natural) in the coronal suture of my head, which continued running till twenty-one.

1634: October: I had a violent fever that was like to have carried me off. ‘Twas the most dangerous sickness that ever I had.

About 1639 (or 1640) I had the measles, but that was nothing: I was hardly sick.

1639: Monday after Easter week my uncle’s nag ran away with me, and gave a very dangerous fall.

1643: April and May, the small-pox at Oxford; and shortly after, left that ingenious place; and for three years led a sad life in the country…

1646: April — admitted of the Middle Temple.  But my father’s sickness, and business, never permitted me to make any settlement to my study…

1655 (I think) June fourteenth, I had a fall at Epsom, and broke one of my ribs and was afraid it might cause an apostumation [abscess]…

1656: December: Veneris morbus [venereal disease]

1657: November, twenty-second, obiit domina [died Lady] Katherine Ryves, with whom I was to marry; to my great loss

Nor were those the end of his troubles…

That is all from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the autobiographical section, an excellent book more generally.  Progress Studies!

China fact of the day

By 1978, Han constituted 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population, up from a mere 6 percent in 1949.  The flow was reversed in the reform era, as many Han who had been forcibly relocated to the province returned to China proper.  In 1990, the Han share of the population was down to 37.5 percent, and official estimates of the time projected a decline to 25.0 percent by 2030.

That is from Adeeb Khalid’s excellent Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.