Category: Books

My Conversation with John McWhorter

This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days!  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.

John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.


COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?

MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?

COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.

MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.

COWEN: You think it’s just as good?

MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?

COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?

MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”

But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.


COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?

MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.


What I’ve been reading

1. Nicholas Hewitt, Wicked City: The Many Cultures of Marseille.  Every city should have a good book about it, and now Marseille does.  I would say you have to already know the city, however, to appreciate this one.

2. Peter Johnson, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959.  British Columbia had a quarantine station that late, and this is its story.  Leprosy, smallpox, and meningitis are a few of the drivers of the narrative.  It continues to startle me how much pandemics and quarantines are a kind of lost history, though they are extremely prominent in 19th century fiction.

3. Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story.  Probably the best history of the company were are going to get, at least for the earlier years of the company.  Even the jabs at the company seem perfunctory, for the most part this is quite objective as a treatment.

4. Katie Roiphe, The Power Notebooks.  Power, sex, dating, and romance, but surprisingly substantive.  Much of it is written in paragraph-long segments, and willing to be politically incorrect.  “Rebecca West: “Since men don’t love us nearly as much as we love them that leaves them a lot more spare vitality to be wonderful with.”

5. Sean Masaki Flynn, The Cure That Works: How to have the World’s Best Healthcare — at a Quarter of the Price.  A look at how to translate ideas from Singapore’s health care system into the United States.  It overreaches, but still a useful overview and analysis.

6. Paul R. Josephson, New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, The Siberian City of Science.  Imagine the Soviets trying to build a “city of science,” and meeting problem after problem.  Yet “Marchuk acknowledged that in a number of fields researchers had contributed to…the speeding up of scientific technological progress.  The physicists built synchroton radiation sources with broad applications; the biologists tacked plant and animal husbandry with vigor; the mathematicians, computer specialists, and economists were engaged in modeling and management systems.”

Anne Enright is honest about books

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I was a book-a-day child, a pretentious teenager. I read hugely in my 20s and 30s — all the good stuff, nothing very odd or esoteric. As I started getting published, I read my contemporaries in a way that was not entirely pure. Then, after I had children, I stopped. It is possible more books were written than read by me, in the years when they were small. I don’t think I am a recreational reader. I am always looking for something and I am not sure what it is. These days, I am increasingly restless. I throw books aside. I blame the internet. I blame the chair. I yearn for books not published yesterday or next week. I stick to nonfiction. And then suddenly, I can’t leave a book out of my hand. This happened most recently with “Where Reasons End,” by Yiyun Li.

Here is the full interview (NYT).

*The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life*

That is the new forthcoming book by Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton, which will prove one of the best and most important works of the last few years.  Imagine following one thousand or so Dunedin New Zealanders for decades of their lives, up through age 38, and recording extensive data, and then doing the same for one thousand or so British twins through age 20, and 1500 American children, in fifteen different locales, up through age 15.  Just imagine what you would learn!

You merely have to buy this book.  In the meantime, let me give you just a few of the results.

The traits of being “undercontrolled” or “inhibited,” as a toddler are the traits most likely to persist up through age eighteen.  The undercontrolled tend to end up as danger-seeking or impulsive.  Those same individuals were most likely to have gambling disorders at age 32.  Girls with an undercontrolled temperament, however, ran into much less later danger than did the boys, including for gambling.

“Social and economic wealth accumulated by the fourth decade of life also proved to be related to childhood self-control.”  And yes that is with controls, including for childhood social class.

Being formally diagnosed with ADHD in childhood was statistically unrelated to being so diagnosed later in adult life.  It did, however, predict elevated levels of “hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and impulsivity” later in adulthoood.  I suspect that all reflects more poorly on the diagnoses than on the concept.  By the way, decades later three-quarters of parents did not even remember their children receiving ADHD diagnoses, or exhibiting symptoms of ADHD (!).

Parenting styles are intergenerationally transmitted for mothers but not for fathers.

For one case the authors were able to measure for DNA and still they found that parenting styles affected the development of the children (p.104).

As for the effects of day care, it seems what matters for the mother-child relationship is the quantity of time spent by the mother taking care of the child, not the quality (p.166).  For the intellectual development of the child, however, quality time matters not the quantity.  By age four and a half, however, the children who spent more time in day care were more disobedient and aggressive.  At least on average, those problems persist through the teen years.  The good news is that quality of family environment growing up still matters more than day care.

But yet there is so much more!  I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating book.  I will not here betray the results on the effects of neighborhoods on children, for instance, among numerous other topics and questions.  Or how about bullying?  Early and persistent marijuana use?  (Uh-oh)  And what do we know about polygenic scores and career success?  What can we learn about epigenetics by considering differential victimization of twins?  What in youth predicts later telomere erosion?

I would describe the writing style as “clear and factual, but not entertaining.”

You can pre-order it here, one of the books of the year and maybe more, recommended of course.

Transcript of my Stanford talk on *Stubborn Attachments*

You will find it here, along with the video link, previously covered on MR without the transcript.  Recommended, this was an almost entirely fresh talk.  Here is my beginning paragraph:

I’d like to do something a little different in this talk from what is usually done. Typically, someone comes and they present their book. My book here, Stubborn Attachments. But rather than present it or argue for it, I’d like to try to give you all of the arguments against my thesis. I want to invite you into my internal monologue of how I think about what are the problems. It’s an unusual talk. I mean, I think talks are quite inefficient. Most of them I go to, I’m bored. Why are you all here? I wonder. I feel we should experiment more with how talks are presented, and this is one of my attempts to do that.

In the Q&A I also discuss how to eat well in the Bay Area.

*Very Important People*

The author is Ashley Mears and the subtitle is Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit.  I loved this book, my favorite of the year so far.

Haven’t you ever wondered why more books shouldn’t just take social phenomena and explain them, rather than preening their academic feathers with a lot of non-committal dense information?  Well, this book tries to explain the Miami club where renting an ordinary table for the night costs 2k, with some spending up to 250k, along with the underlying sociological, economic, and anthropological mechanisms behind these arrangements.  Here is just a start on the matter:

Any club, whether in a New York City basement or on a Saint-Tropez beach, is always shaped by a clear hierarchy.  Fashion models signal the “A-list,” but girls are only half of the business model.  There are a few different categories of men that every club owner wants inside, and there is a much larger category of men they aim to keep out.

Or this:

Bridge and tunnel, goons, and ghetto.  These are men whose money can’t compensate for their perceived status inadequacies.  The marks of their marginal class positions are written on their bodies, flagging an automatic reject at the door.

A clever man can try to use models as leverage to gain entry and discounts at clubs.  A man surrounded by models will not have to spend as much on bottles.  I interviewed clients who talked explicitly about girls as bargaining chips they could use at the door.

The older, uglier men may have to pay 2k to rent a table for the evening, whereas “decent-looking guys with three or four models” will be let in for free with no required minimum.  And:

Men familiar with the scene make these calculations even if they have money to spend: How many beautiful girls can I get to offset how I look?  How many beautiful girls will it take to offset the men with me?  How much money am I willing to spend for the night in the absence of quality girls?

How is this for a brutal sentence?:

Girls determine hierarchies of clubs, the quality of people inside, and how much money is spent.

Here is another ouch moment:

…I revisit a second critical insight of Veblen’s on the role of women in communicating men’s status.  In this world, girls function as a form of capital.  Their beauty generates enormous symbolic and economic resources for the men in their presence, but that capital is worth far more to men than to the girls who embody it.

if you ever needed to be convinced not to eat out at places with beautiful women, this book will do the trick.  Solve for the equilibrium, people…

You can pre-order here.  (By the way, I’ve been thinking of writing more about “lookism,” and why opponents of various other bad “isms” have such a hard time extending the campaign to that front.)

What I’ve been reading

1. David Nutt, Drink? The New Science of Alcohol + Your Health.

A very good introduction to the growing body of evidence about the harms of alcohol, in all walks of life.

2. Samuel Zipp, The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World.

Who cares about Wendell Willkie? I received this review copy determined not to read it, but of course I could not help but crack open the cover and sample a few pages, and then I was hooked.  The first thirty pages alone had excellent discussions of early aviation (Willkie was an aviation pioneer of sorts with a cross-world flight), Midwestern family and achievement culture of the time, and the rise of the United States.

3. I was happy to write a blurb for Michael R. Strain’s The American Dream is Not Dead (But Populism Could Kill It).

4. Simon W. Bowmaker, When the President Calls: Conversations with Economic Policymakers.

The interviewed subjects include Feldstein, Boskin, Rubin, Summers, Stiglitz, Rivlin, Yellen, John Taylor, Lazear, Harvey Rosen, Goolsbee, Orszag, Brainard, Alan Krueger, Furman, Hassett, and others.

4. Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers.

Thorough and useful, though not exciting to read.

5. Gabriel Said Reynolds, Allah, God in the Qur’an.

A very good treatment of what it promises, with an emphasis on the concept of mercy in Islam.

6. Sophy Roberts, The Lost Pianos of Siberia.

A wonderful book if you care about the lost pianos of Siberia and indeed I do: “Roberts reminds us in this fresh book that there are still some mysterious parts of our world.” (link here)  Also of note is Varlam Shalamov, Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, the first third being remarkably moving and incisive as well.

There is also Sidney Powell and Harvey A. Silverman, Conviction Machine: Standing Up to Federal Prosecutorial Abuse is a frank and brutal documentation of why you should never trust a prosecutor or speak to the FBI.

Also new and notable is Lily Collison, Spastic Diplegia–Bilateral Cerebral Palsy: Understanding the Motor Problems, Their Impact on Walking, and Management Throughout Life: a Practical Guide for Families.

My Conversation with Garett Jones

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

Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: But let’s say it’s the early 1990s. Eastern European countries are suddenly becoming free, and they ask you, “Garett, what electoral system should we have?” What do you say?

JONES: What I really would go for is presidential systems, if you can handle it, something like a first-past-the-post system, where those people elected from local districts focused on local problems — which have less of a free-rider problem involved — go up to the parliament and actually argue their case. The presidential element is less important than the parliamentary idea of the single-district voting. I tend to think that creates more accountability on the part of the government.

And more:

COWEN: For the United States, what is the most effective way, in your view, that you would want us to have 10 percent less democracy? What’s the one thing you would change?

JONES: I would change the House of Representatives to a six-year term. I picked that because it’s not outside the range of plausibility, and because I think people would instantly understand what it accomplishes — not because it has the highest payoff, but because it balances payoff with plausibility in a democracy.

And on boosting IQ:

COWEN: But what’s the key environmental lever? Whatever Ireland did [to have induced an IQ rise], it’s not that people were starving, right? That we understand.

JONES: No, true.

COWEN: So why don’t we do more of whatever they did, whatever was done to the East Germans, everywhere?

JONES: Exactly.

COWEN: But what is that lever? Why don’t we know?

JONES: I would say that thing is the thing we call capitalism.

COWEN: Capitalism is a big, huge thing. Not all of capitalism makes us smarter.

JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

There is much more at the link, an excellent Conversation.  Here you can order Garett’s book 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.  You can read the introduction to the book on-line.

An argument for weaker copyright in books

From Barbara Biasi and Petra Moser:

Copyrights, which establish intellectual property in music, science,and other creative goods, are intended to encourage creativity. Yet, copyrights also raise the cost of accessing existing work – potentially discouraging future innovation.This paper uses an exogenous shift towards weak copyrights(and low access costs) during WWII to examine the potentially adverse effects of copyrights on science. Using two alternative identification strategies, we show that weaker copyrights encouraged the creation of follow-on science, measured by citations.This change is driven by a reduction in access costs, allowing scientists at less affluent institutions to use existing knowledge in new follow-on research.

The paper title is “Effects of Copyrights on Science: Evidence from the WWII Book Republication Program.”

In praise of art books

Running out of things to read?  Do you ever have the sneaky feeling that books might be overrated?  Well, for some variation at the margin try reading art books.  That’s right, books about art.  Not “how to draw,” but books about the content and history of art.  Some of them you might call art history, but that term makes me a little nervous.  Just go into a good art museum, and look at what they are stocking in their bookstore.  Many of them will be picture books, rather than art history in the narrower, more scholarly sense of that word.

Art books offer the following advantages:

1. They are among the best ways to learn history, politics, and yes science too (advances in art often followed advances in science and technology).  Even economic history.  Since the main focus is the art, they will give you “straight talk” about the historical period in question, rather than trying to organize the narrative around some vague novelty that only the peer reviewers care about.

2. They are often very pretty to look at.  You also feel you can read them in small bites, or you can read only a single chapter or section.  The compulsion to finish is relatively weak, a good thing.  You can feel you have consumed them without reading them at all, a true liberation, which in turns means you will read them as you wish to.

3. They have passed through different filters than most other books, precisely because they are often “sold into the market” on the basis of their visuals, or copyright permissions, or connection with a museum exhibit, or whatever.  Thus they introduce variation into your reading life, compared to say traditional academic tomes or “trade books,” which increasingly are about gender, race, and DT in an ever-more homogenized fashion.

4. They are among the best ways of learning about the sociology of creativity and also “the small group theory” of history.

5. These books tend not to be politically contentious, or if they are it is in a superficial way that is easily brushed off.  (Note there is a whole subgenre of art books, from theory-laden, left-wing presses, with weird covers, displayed in small, funky Manhattan or Brooklyn bookstores where you can’t believe they can make the rent, where politics is all they are about.  Avoid those.)

6. A bookstore of art books is almost always excellent, no matter how small.  It’s not about comprehensiveness, rather you can always find numerous books there of interest.

7. Major reviewing outlets either do not cover too many art books, or they review them poorly and inaccurately.  That suggests your “marginal best book” in the art books category is really quite good, because you didn’t have an easy means to discover it.

8. You might even wish to learn about art.

9. This whole genre is not about assembling a reading list of “the best art books.”  Go to a good public library, or museum bookstore, and start grabbing titles.  The best museum bookstore I know of is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

10. It is also a very good introduction to the histories and cultures of locations such as China and India, where “straight up” political histories numb you with a succession of names, periods, and dynasties, only barely embedded in contexts that make any sense to you.

“Boring Friends”

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

That is a Lydia Davis short story (yes, the whole thing) from her excellent book Samuel Johnson is Indignant.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

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

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.