Category: Books

*Talent*, my new book with Daniel Gross

Due out May 17, you can pre-order here for Amazon, here for Barnes & Noble.

The subtitle is How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, and my co-author is the Daniel Gross from venture capital and Pioneer.

From Amazon:

How do you find talent with a creative spark? To what extent can you predict human creativity, or is human creativity something irreducible before our eyes, perhaps to be spotted or glimpsed by intuition, but unique each time it appears?

The art and science of talent search get at exactly those questions.

From the new Kirkus review:

Personality, they note, is revealed during weekends. Another good one: “What are the open tabs on your browser right now?” The aim is to assess the applicant’s thought processes and willingness to embrace new thinking.

And:

A useful and entertaining map for companies looking toward a creative future.

Definitely recommended.

What should I ask Lydia Davis?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, and here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Lydia Davis (born July 15, 1947) is an American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator from French and other languages, who often writes extremely brief short stories. Davis has produced several new translations of French literary classics, including Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

So what should I ask her?

Enemy of All Mankind and Indian Chemical Engineering

In 1695 the British pirate Henry Every commanding a stolen ship, one of the fastest in the world, captured the Ganj-i-Sawai an immense treasure ship carrying the granddaughter of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, from her pilgrimage to Mecca. The looting and mass rapes set off repercussions around the world.

Enemy of All Mankind is Steven Johnson’s page-turning account. I’m not fascinated by pirates per se but Johnson surrounds the narrative arc with expert historical context. Anyone can tell you that cotton was important in trade between India and Europe but you would be hard-pressed to find a more concise account of why than Johnson’s primer. What made Indian cotton unique wasn’t the cotton but Indian chemical engineering.

What made Indian cotton unique was not the threads themselves, but rather their color. Making cotton fiber receptive to vibrant dyes like madder, henna, or turmeric was less a matter of inventing mechanical contraptions as it was dreaming up chemical experiments. The waxy cellulose of the cotton fiber naturally repels vegetable dyes….The process of transforming cotton into a fabric that can by dyed with shades other than indigo is known as “animalizing” the fiber, presumably because so much of it involves excretions from ordinary farm animals. First, dyes would bleach the fiber with sour milk; then they attacked it with a range of protein-heavy substances: goat urine, camel dung, blood. Metallic salts were then combined with the dyes to create a mordant that permeated the core of the fiber.

…The result was a [soft] fabric that could both display brilliant patterns of color and retain that color after multiple washings. No fabric in human history had combined those properties into a single cloth.

Lots of other insights. Every, by the way, was never captured but in 2014 a Yemeni coin that might have come from the Ganj-i-Sawai was found in a Rhode Island orchard.

See also my previous post on Enemy of All Mankind.

Anéantir, by Michel Houellebecq

As it happens, Balzac is Houellebecq’s hero. Anéantir not only demonstrates comparable ambition to Balzac; it is also proof of Houellebecq’s tireless work. In his various books he has accumulated notes on: the stages of terminal tongue cancer; the precise topography of the Ministry of Finance; the exact operation of a guillotine (with schematics); the names, composition and texture of processed sandwiches on sale in Parisian train stations; the vernacular of Paris’s best political spin doctor; the triage of dying residents in provincial care homes, and more. When, some time around the 2100s Anéantir is re-published by Penguin Classics, the notes section will take up half the space of the novel proper. The translator will battle to properly convey the Tom Wolfe-like bleak hopelessness encompassed in ‘un sandwich Daunat maxi-moelleux au blanc de poulet-emmental dans son emballage et une Tourtel’.

Like Balzac, many of Houellebecq’s characters are drawn from real life. The book is set in the year 2026. The sitting president is transparently Emmanuel Macron, who’s been re-elected in 2022. Term limits mean he can’t run again: his cunning plan is to push a popular television talk show host to win in 2027, coached by, among others, the minister of finance, thereby keeping the seat warm for a return of ‘Macron’ himself at the 2032 election — a kind of Putin-Medvedev switcheroo.

The book just came out in France, here is more information.  Is Houllebecq best at 736 pp.?  I guess we’ll find out.  In French, on Kindle.  And in German.  When in English?  I have ordered it in German, though I am not sure when I will get to start much less finish it.

What I’ve been reading

1. Michael S. Nieberg, When France Fell: the Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance.  It is difficult to find WWII material that is both interesting and fresh, but this book qualifies.  It is a look at how America processed the fall of France in 1940, and suddenly realized the whole thing was for real and that dangers to the homeland were not trivial.

2. Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999.  I fear this book will become increasingly relevant, as it is a good introduction to what appear to be a number of growing hotspots.  The 1569 Lublin Union created a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  How did that matter, how was it the ethnic issues in that region never were settled, and have we recreated a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth today?  This book is good on all those questions and more.

3. John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand.  An excellent book, I have more to say about it and also Stewart’s life, but you’ll have to wait for my CWT with Stewart himself.  Stewart himself seems to like it, and he praised how the author’s archival research corrected many of his own faulty memories.

Edmond Smith, Merchants: The Community That Shaped England’s Trade and Empire.  There are some good recent books on the East India Company, this useful work looks at the phenomenon more generally.  The Muscovy Company was chartered in 1555, and survived until 1917, at which point it was turned into a “charity.”  Also of relevance for recent charter city discussions.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger’s Maria Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in Her Time is a comprehensive study of its chosen topic.  It doesn’t focus on the conceptual issues of liberalism that I care most about, but it is nonetheless by far the most detailed study out there.  Translated from the German.

Also new is David Autor, David A. Mindell, and Elisabeth B. Reynolds, The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines.

What Adam Smith thought of large, shareholder-owned companies

The only trades which it seems possible for a joint stock company to carry on successfully, without an exclusive privilege, are those, of which all the operations are capable of being reduced to what is called a routine, or to such a uniformity of method as admits of little or no variation. Of this kind is, first, the banking trade; secondly, the trade of insurance from fire, and from sea risk and capture in time of war; thirdly, the trade of making and maintaining a navigable cut or canal; and, fourthly, the similar trade of bringing water for the supply of a great city.

Of course that is from Wealth of Nations.  Always worried about agency problems and incentives, Smith saw them in large, capitalist firms as well.

The Barbary Pirates

Rumors held that as many as sixty Barbary men-of-war were actively prowling the English Channel, waiting for the opportunity to capture more product for the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli. For most of the seventeenth century, an English or Irish family living near the coast confronted the real possibility that the might be hauled off without warning….[the] numbers suggest that the odds of sudden enslavement by Barbary pirates were far higher for the average Devonshire resident than the odds of experiencing a terrorist attack in a modern-day Western City.

From Steven Johnson’s excellent Enemy of All Mankind, about which I will say more later.

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.

Self-recommended!

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year!

As measured by page views here are the most popular MR posts of 2021. Coming in at number 10 was Tyler’s post:

10. Best non-fiction books of 2021

Lots of good material there and well worth revisiting. Number 9 was by myself:

9. Revisionism on Deborah Birx, Trump, and the CDC

TDS infected many people but as the Biden administration quickly discovered the problems were much deeper than the president, leading to revisionism especially on the failures of the CDC and the FDA. Much more could be written here but this was a good start.

Number 8 was Tyler’s post:

8. The tax on unrealized capital gains

which asked some good questions about a bad plan.

7. We Will Get to Herd Immunity in 2021…One Way or Another

Sadly this post, written by me in January of 2021, had everything exactly right–we bottomed out at the end of June/early July as predicted. But then Delta hit and things went to hell. Sooner or later the virus makes fools of us all.

6. Half Doses of Moderna Produce Neutralizing Antibodies

One of my earlier pieces (written in Feb. 21) on fractional dosing. See also my later post A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca. We have been slow, slow, slow. I hope for new results in 2022.

5. A few observations on my latest podcast with Amia Srinivasan

Listener’s took umbrage, perhaps even on Tyler’s behalf, at Srinivasan but Tyler comes away from every conversation having learned something and that makes him happy.

4. The Most Impressive AI Demo I Have Ever Seen

Still true. Still jaw-dropping.

3. Patents are Not the Problem!

I let loose on the Biden administration’s silly attacks on vaccine patents. Also still true. Note also that as my view predicts, Pfizer has made many licensing deals on Paxalovid which has a much simpler and easier to duplicate production process (albeit raw materials are still a problem.)

2. A Nobel Prize for the Credibility Revolution

A very good post, if I don’t say so myself, on this year’s Nobel prize recipients, Card, Angrist and Imbens.

1. How do you ask good questions?

Who else but Tyler?

To round out the top ten I’d point to Tyler’s post John O. Brennan on UFOs which still seems underrated in importance even if p is very low.

Erza Klein’s profile of me still makes me laugh, “He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts…more than one groaned when I mentioned his name.” Yet, even though published in April many of these same experts are now openly criticizing the FDA and the CDC in unprecedented ways.

UFOs going mainstream or Tabarrok’s view of the FDA going mainstream. I’m not sure which of these scenarios was more unlikely ex ante. Strange world.

Let us know your favorite MR posts in the comments.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Hanania, Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy.  Could this be the best public choice treatment of U.S. foreign policy?  Gordon Tullock always was wishing for a book like this, and now it exists.  I see Hanania’s views as more skeptical than my own (in East Asia in particular I think the American approach has brought huge benefits, Europe too), but nonetheless I am impressed by his careful analysis.  This is a book that should revolutionize a field, though I doubt if it will.

2. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is one of the best written pieces of literary fiction this year.  Very Irish, and it helps to have a one paragraph knowledge of Ireland’s earlier “Magdalen laundries” problem.  It is not exciting for the action-oriented reader, but a perfect work within the terms of the world it creates.

3. Justin Gest, Majority Minority.  The book considers racial transitions and how majorities may lose their ethnic or racial majority status.  To see where America might be headed, the author considers histories from Bahrain, Hawaii, Mauritius, Singapore, trinidad and Tobago, and New York City.

4. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Persians: The Age of Great Kings.  The Persian empire had the best infrastructure of any of the great ancient civilizations.  The Royal Road for instance stretched 2,400 kilometers.  Read more about the whole thing here.

Hannah Farber’s Underwriters of the United States: How Insurance Shaped the American Founding is a good and economically literate treatment of the importance of maritime insurance during the time of America’s founding.

Gregory Zuckerman, A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of The Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine is a good account of what it promises.

In the Douglass North tradition is Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili, Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.

What should I ask Chuck Klosterman?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  If you do not already know, here is part of his Wikipedia entry:

Charles John Klosterman (born 1972) is an American author and essayist whose work focuses on American popular culture. He has been a columnist for Esquire and ESPN.com and wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine. Klosterman is the author of eleven books, including two novels and the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.

His forthcoming book is about the 90s, namely The Nineties: A Book.  So what should I ask him?  Including about the 90s of course.

*The Man From the Future*

That is the new biography of John von Neumann, by Ananyo Bhattacharya, highly recommended, probably the best book about him.  Here is one short bit:

Von Neumann himself attributed his generation’s success to ‘a coincidence of some cultural factors’ that produced ‘a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction’. In other words, their recognition that the tolerate climate of Hungary might change overnight propelled some to preternatural efforts to succeed…Moreover, one could reasonably hope that good work in these fields would be fairly rewarded. The truth of general relativity was established through experiment and was not contingent on whether the person who developed the theory as Jew or Gentile.

By the way, a lot of those famous mathematicians thought their high school was crap.  And here is another excerpt:

Equally, von Neumann had no interest in sport and, barring long walks (always in a business suit), he would avoid any form of vigorous physical exercise for the rest of his life.  When his second wife, Klari, tried to persuade him to ski, he offered her a divorce. ‘If being married to a woman, no matter who she was, would mean he had to slide around on two pieces of wood on some slick mountainside,’ she explained, ‘he would definitely prefer to live alone and take his daily exercise, as he put it, “by getting in and out of a pleasantly warm bathtub.”.

I believe my original pointer here came from Tim Harford.

What should I ask Sebastian Mallaby?

From Wikipedia:

Sebastian Christopher Peter Mallaby (born May 1964) is an English journalist and author, Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and contributing columnist at The Washington Post. Formerly, he was a contributing editor for the Financial Times and a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.

His recent writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 2012, he published a Foreign Affairs essay on the future of China’s currency. His books include The Man Who Knew (2016), More Money Than God (2010), and The World’s Banker (2004).

I am also a big fan of his new and forthcoming book on venture capital, namely The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of a New Future.

So what should I ask him?