Category: Books

What should I ask Ashley Mears?

From Wikipedia:

Ashley Mears is an American writer, sociologist, and former fashion model. She is currently an associate professor of sociology at Boston University. Mears is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, and is regularly quoted in media as an academic expert in the culture and economics of fashion.

I am also a big fan of her forthcoming book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, which is one of my favorite books of the year.

So what should I ask her?  Here is more about Ashley on Google.

Comfort foods make a comeback

Comfort foods from big brands are seeing a resurgence, executives say, as consumers seek familiarity and convenience amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many shoppers have favored fresh and specialty brands over Big Food’s processed products in recent years, while others have opted for cheaper store brands. Now, the world’s largest makers of packaged foods say frozen pizza, pasta sauce, and mac and cheese are rising in favor as consumers in lockdown eat at home.

Nestlé SA NSRGY 3.04% became the latest to detail the trend Friday when it reported stronger organic sales growth for the first quarter driven by Americans stockpiling its DiGiorno pizza, Stouffer’s frozen meals and Hot Pockets sandwiches. Baking brands like Toll House and Carnation also performed well, it said…

Overall, U.S. store sales of soup rose 37%, canned meat climbed 60% and frozen pizza jumped 51% for the week to April 11, according to research firm Nielsen…

“We’ve seen time and time again that big brands tend to do well when people are feeling anxious and under threat,” Chief Executive Alan Jope said. He added that he expects the shift to larger brands to last a couple of years.

I wonder how general this trend is.  I have seen data that readers are buying more long classic novels, and I am struck by my anecdotal observations of satellite radio.  I am driving much less than before (where is there to go?), but per minute it seems I am more likely to hear “Hey Jude” and “In My Life” on the Beatles channel than in times past.  Who wants to go out for their periodic 20-minute jaunt and have to sit through 6:34 of George Harrison’s “It’s All too Much”?

Here is the full WSJ story by Saabira Chaushuri.  As for food, I am more inclined to consume items that can be easily shipped and stored, and if need be frozen.  That favors meat and beans, and disfavors fresh fruit and bread.  Frozen corn is a big winner, as are pickles.  The relative durable cauliflower and squash do better than some of the more fragile vegetables, such as leaf spinach.  I am not desiring comfort food per se, but I do wish to cook dishes requiring a relatively small number of items (otherwise maybe I can’t get them all), and that does almost by definition overlap with the comfort food category.

My Conversation with Philip Tetlock

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether the world as a whole is becoming harder to predict, whether Goldman Sachs traders can beat forecasters, what inferences we can draw from analyzing the speech of politicians, the importance of interdisciplinary teams, the qualities he looks for in leaders, the reasons he’s skeptical machine learning will outcompete his research team, the year he thinks the ascent of the West became inevitable, how research on counterfactuals can be applied to modern debates, why people with second cultures tend to make better forecasters, how to become more fox-like, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could take just a bit of time away from your research and play in your own tournaments, are you as good as your own best superforecasters?

TETLOCK: I don’t think so. I don’t think I have the patience or the temperament for doing it. I did give it a try in the second year of the first set of forecasting tournaments back in 2012, and I monitored the aggregates. We had an aggregation algorithm that was performing very well at the time, and it was outperforming 99.8 percent of the forecasters from whom the composite was derived.

If I simply had predicted what the composite said at each point in time in that tournament, I would have been a super superforecaster. I would have been better than 99.8 percent of the superforecasters. So, even though I knew that it was unlikely that I could outperform the composite, I did research some questions where I thought the composite was excessively aggressive, and I tried to second guess it.

The net result of my efforts — instead of finishing in the top 0.02 percent or whatever, I think I finished in the middle of the superforecaster pack. That doesn’t mean I’m a superforecaster. It just means that when I tried to make a forecast better than the composite, I degraded the accuracy significantly.

COWEN: But what do you think is the kind of patience you’re lacking? Because if I look at your career, you’ve been working on these databases on this topic for what? Over 30 years. That’s incredible patience, right? More patience than most of your superforecasters have shown. Is there some dis-aggregated notion of patience where they have it and you don’t?

TETLOCK: [laughs] Yeah, they have a skill set. In the most recent tournaments, we’ve been working on with them, this becomes even more evident — their willingness to delve into the details of really pretty obscure problems for very minimal compensation is quite extraordinary. They are intrinsically cognitively motivated in a way that is quite remarkable. How am I different from that?

I guess I have a little bit of attention deficit disorder, and my attention tends to roam. I’ve not just worked on forecasting tournaments. I’ve been fairly persistent in pursuing this topic since the mid 1980s. Even before Gorbachev became general party secretary, I was doing a little bit of this. But I’ve been doing a lot of other things as well on the side. My attention tends to roam. I’m interested in taboo tradeoffs. I’m interested in accountability. There’re various things I’ve studied that don’t quite fall in this rubric.

COWEN: Doesn’t that make you more of a though? You know something about many different areas. I could ask you about antebellum American discourse before the Civil War, and you would know who had the smart arguments and who didn’t. Right?

And another:

TETLOCK:

…I had a very interesting correspondence with in the 1980s about forecasting tournaments. We could talk a little about it later. The upshot of this is that young people who are upwardly mobile see forecasting tournaments as an opportunity to rise. Old people like me and aging baby-boomer types who occupy relatively high status inside organizations see forecasting tournaments as a way to lose.

If I’m a senior analyst inside an intelligence agency, and say I’m on the National Intelligence Council, and I’m an expert on China and the go-to guy for the president on China, and some upstart R&D operation called IARPA says, “Hey, we’re going to run these forecasting tournaments in which we assess how well the analytic community can put probabilities on what Xi Jinping is going to do next.”

And I’ll be on a level playing field, competing against 25-year-olds, and I’m a 65-year-old, how am I likely to react to this proposal, to this new method of doing business? It doesn’t take a lot of empathy or bureaucratic imagination to suppose I’m going to try to nix this thing.

COWEN: Which nation’s government in the world do you think listens to you the most? You may not know, right?

Definitely recommended.

What should I ask Adam Tooze?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  He has been tweeting about the risks of a financial crisis during Covid-19, but more generally he is one of the most influential historians, currently being a Professor at Columbia University.  His previous books cover German economic history, German statistical history, the financial crisis of 2008, and most generally early to mid-20th century European history.  Here is his home page, here is his bio, here is his Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask him?

Fiction and classics to read under lockdown

A number of you asked me for a list of books to read during lockdown, mostly novels and fiction (like Plato, right?).  Here is a list I drew up maybe fifteen (?) years ago, with only slight revisions since.  I feel a current list might be quite different, but actually the early list is perhaps closer to most of your tastes?  Here it is.  It starts with classics and then goes through more recent novels maybe up through 2000 or so.

My Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel

I am a fan of her two latest novels Station Eleven (about a post-pandemic world) and The Glass Hotel, and many other smart people like them too.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWTeam summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss , including why more white-collar criminals don’t flee before arrest, the postcard that haunts her most, the best places to hide from the Russian mob, the Canadian equivalent of the “Florida Man”, whether trophy wives are happy, how to slow down time, why she disagrees with Kafka on reading, the safest place to be during a global pandemic, how to get away with faking your own death, how influenced her writing, the permeability of moral borders, what surprised her about experiencing a real pandemic, how her background in contemporary dance makes her a better writer, adapting for a miniseries, her contrarian take on , and more.

By the way, I would fake my own death by going on a cargo vessel and bribing them to claim I fell overboard.  Here is one bit about the pandemic:

COWEN: Have people been more or less cooperative than you had thought?

ST. JOHN MANDEL: My impression — and the problem is, we don’t see people anymore — but my overall impression is they’ve been more cooperative.

Definitely in the literary community, I’ve seen a lot of people really trying to support their independent bookstores, which has always been a thing. But I think there’s been a greater awareness that if you don’t buy your books from your independent bookstore — and by the way, they do all sell online mostly — then that store might not be there when all of this ends. So I see people pulling together like that, to try to support the businesses they love. That’s been a major one.

I wish I could see people and bring back a report from actual humanity, [laughs] but that is my impression. There’s been more cooperation.

And:

COWEN: In so many postapocalyptic novels, it seems that people wander a lot. Do they wander too much? Should they just stay put?

ST. JOHN MANDEL: I had this conversation with another postapocalyptic novelist. Would everybody stop walking? Why is everybody wandering endlessly in a postapocalypse?

And:

COWEN: How good is Frozen II, if I may ask?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s pretty good.
COWEN: Pretty good?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. This is a controversial statement. I know a lot of parents who hate it, but I find it more interesting than Frozen I.

Perhaps I like The Glass Hotel a wee bit better than Station Eleven, but maybe Station Eleven is better to read first?

*Markets, Minds, and Money: Why America Leads the World in University Research*

One of the best books on the history of American higher education, author Miguel Urquiola of Columbia argues for the importance of market competition in the rise and dominance of the American system.  Strongly argued and full of good evidence and stories, here is one excerpt I found of interest:

That Columbia would be among the first successful American research universities would have surprised many observers around 1850, as the school had seen real oscillations in its fortunes.  For the first decades after its creation in 1754, Columbia was a wealthy but small school.  In 1774 it had the highest collegiate endowment, but only 36 students, while Harvard and Yale had four or five times as many…in 1797 the college had eight faculty members, during most of the 1800s it had four.  In 1809, an inquiry warned that Columbia College “was fast becoming, if it has not become already, a mere Grammar School”; between 1800 and 1850, even as New York City grew, the school’s enrollment stagnated, and even in 1850 the average entering age was 15.

And this:

Among wealthy countries, the United States is unusual in letting its university sector operate as a free market.  Self-rule, free entry, and free scope are much less prevalent in Europe.

Recommended, you can pre-order here.

New books of note, which I’ve been reading parts of

Jia Lynn Yang, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle over American Immigration, 1924-1965.

Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters.  How to be a better listener — get the audiobook!

Kevin Peter Hand, Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space.  A remarkably under-written and under-booked topic, I am delighted to see this book in particular.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa: a novel, about a high school teacher abusing one of his students, effective if you are wishing to read a story with this plot line.

Alev Scott and Andronike Makres, Power & the People: Five Lessons from the Birthplace of Democracy.  Due out in September, a useful look at how politics worked in ancient Athens.

Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

John Guy, Gresham’s Law: The Life and World of Queen Elizabeth I’s Banker.

Jennifer A. Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism.  Manufacturing is one of the topics du jour, and this book gives good background on one particular angle of that story.

As for older books, I very much liked Paul A. Offitt, Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, a biography of Maurice Hilleman.  How soon we forget that in the early 1960s — when I was born — the measles virus was killing about eight million children a year.  Even in 2018 it was 140,000 deaths a year.  Also excellent is Kendall Hoyt, Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, a paradigmatic example of Progress Studies.

*Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment*

That is a recent book by Ahmet T. Kuru, published in August.  All books should have a (non-Amazon) abstract, and here it is for this book:

Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages? Ahmet T. Kuru criticizes explanations which point to Islam as the cause of this disparity, because Muslims were philosophically and socioeconomically more developed than Western Europeans between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Nor was Western colonialism the cause: Muslims had already suffered political and socioeconomic problems when colonization began. Kuru argues that Muslims had influential thinkers and merchants in their early history, when religious orthodoxy and military rule were prevalent in Europe. However, in the eleventh century, an alliance between orthodox Islamic scholars (the ulema) and military states began to emerge. This alliance gradually hindered intellectual and economic creativity by marginalizing intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world. This important study links its historical explanation to contemporary politics by showing that, to this day, the ulema–state alliance still prevents creativity and competition in Muslim countries.

I don’t really have my own view on these issues, and due to various duties and also the slowness of my on-line reading, I have read only a segment of this book.  I can report it is clearly written, to the point, and well argued, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

I think I will use MR today to catch up on some “book news,” after that back again to coronavirus for a while.

That was then, this is now — Pushkin under lockdown

In autumn 1830, Pushkin was confined by a cholera outbreak to the village of Boldino, his father’s remote country estate in southeastern Russia. Desperate to return to Moscow to marry, he wrote to his fiancée: “There are five quarantine zones between here and Moscow, and I would have to spend fourteen days in each. Do the maths and imagine what a foul mood I am in.”

Pushkin went on complaining bitterly but, with nothing else to do, he produced an astonishing number of masterpieces — short stories, short plays, lyric and narrative poems, and the last two chapters of his verse novel Eugene Onegin — in a mere three months.

Here is the full FT piece by Robert Chandler.

What should you read during the crisis?

Agnes Callard writes (NYT):

Like many others, I have been finding my taste in books and movies turning in an apocalyptic direction. I also find myself much less able than usual to hold these made-up stories at a safe distance from myself…

If I have something to feel guilty about, I want to feel guilty. If something frightening is happening, I want to be afraid of it. Which is to say: When things are bad, I want to suffer and would choose to suffer and even seek out suffering.

Having just rewatched Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and then The Virgin Spring, I agree at the margin, but not altogether.  I would raise the following points:

1. In times of turmoil, we may have a stronger craving for art that “feels real.”  But such art is in fact often especially phony.  The “special effects” have to be all the better, so to speak.  None of what we are consuming is a realistic experience in the first place, so perhaps we are seeking out greater artifice and fooling ourselves about its realism even more than usual.

2. Should we be watching videos of bad events in hospitals? (originally Chinese hospitals, now NYC).  Some people are indeed doing this, but as a substitute for Jane Austen?  How about videos of people dying from Covid-19?  Videos of other respiratory diseases as the next best fill-in?

3. What about the art vs. non-art margin as a larger choice?  Don’t many people with terminal diseases (more terminal than usual that is) want to go for long walks in nature?  Doesn’t fiction exercise much less of a hold on elderly minds and matter most for teenagers and people in their early 20s and perhaps also women in their 40s-50s?  Perhaps the implication is, during a pandemic, to move away from art and literary fiction altogether.

4. The Guardian reports that sales of long, classic novels have gone up.  What do those novels have in common?  Are they a kind of comfort food?  Do we value their length?  That they are high status?  That we read them already in earlier and perhaps happier periods of life?  Are they long projects we can absorb ourselves in?  Those seem like illusion-laden motives for reading them, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

5. Perhaps we like to read especially pessimistic dystopian novels as a kind of talisman.  “Tell me the worst, let’s get dealing with the fear over with, then I will feel protected that reality will not disappoint my expectations because things won’t in fact be that bad.”  That is again another kind of illusion.  The aforementioned Guardian link suggests that sales of dystopian novels are up in general, even if they are not about plagues and pandemics.

6. Yiyun Li said: ““I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing,” she wrote.”

7. If people are bored, should they then wish to experience further boredom through their choice of fiction?  Or would a diversion from boredom be acceptable and indeed preferred?

Somehow I think in terms of a portfolio approach to aesthetics.  In harder times you need more tugs, pulls, distractions, and offsets than usual, but they should not all run in the same direction, or they will become predictable and cease to move you.

So when it comes to fiction, take some chances in your reading and toss in some of the older classics and horror and dystopia as well, and lots of fun and warmth and those walks in nature too.

So yes make a (marginal) turn in the apocalyptic direction, but in part it is to shore up your own sappiness.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighth cohort

Eibhlin Lim, Penang and University of Chicago.

“I interview founders from different industries and around the globe and share their origin stories to inspire the next generation of founders to reach for their own dreams. I previously shared these stories in Phoenix Newsletters, an online newsletter that organically grew to serve more than 7000 high school and university student subscribers primarily from Malaysia. In July 2018, I decided to self-publish and distribute a book, ‘The Phoenix Perspective’, which contains some of the most loved stories from Phoenix Newsletters, after learning that some of our biggest fans did not have constant access to the Internet and went through great lengths to read the stories. With the help of founders and organizations, I managed to bring this book to these youths and also 1000+ other youths from 20+ countries around the globe. I hope to be able to continue interviewing founders and share their origin stories, on a new website, to reach even more future founders from around the world.”

Carole Treston/Association of Nurses in AIDS Care

To jump-start a Covid-19 program to produce cheap informational videos and distribute them to their nurse network for better information and greater safety, including for patients.

Kyle Redelinghuys

“Right now, the main sources of data for Coronavirus are CSV files and websites which make the data fairly inaccessible to work with for developers. By giving easy access to this data more products can be built and more information can be shared. The API I built is an easily accessible, single source of Coronavirus data to enable developers to build new products based on COVID19 data. These products could be mobile applications, web applications and graphed data…The API exposes this data in JSON which is the easiest data format to work with for web and mobile developers. This in turn allows for quick integration in to any products. The API is also completely free to users.”

Seyone Chithrananda

17 year old from Ontario, wishes to work in San Francisco, he does computational biology with possible application to Covid-19 as well, Twitter here.  His Project De Novo uses molecular machine learning methods for novel small molecule discovery, and the grant will be used to scale up the cloud computing infrastructure and purchase chemical modelling software.

Joshua Broggi, Woolf University

To build an on-line university to bring learning programs to the entire world, including to businesses but by no means only.  His background is in philosophy and German thought, and now he is seeking to change the world.

Congratulations!

There is also another winner, but the nature of that person’s job means that reporting must be postponed.

Here are previous Emergent Ventures winners, here is an early post on the philosophy of Emergent Ventures.  You will note that the Covid-19-related work here is simply winning regular EV grants, these are not the prizes I outlined a short while ago.  I expect more prize winners to be announced fairly soon.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

We do another CWT, here is the audio and transcript (link corrected), a very good installment in the series.  Here is part of the summary:

Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

A welcome relief from Covid-19 talk, though we did cover Lyme disease.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

Definitely recommended, a very fun CWT with lots of content.  And again, here is Ross’s (recommended) book The Decadent Society: How We Became a Victim of Our Own Success.