Category: Books

Theo asks, and I intersperse my answers

Dear Tyler,

Due to the asymmetry of fame I feel that I know you quite well so I am just going to bombard you with random questions and hope that you see fit to answer some of them.

You seem to value journalism very highly. Is it just out of necessity as a generalist, or does popular writing on a topic have important information that can’t be learned from the academic/scholarly side?

Journalists have to try to explain things that actually happened to other human beings, often educated ones but not specialists either.  It is hard to overrate the importance of that process to developing one’s thoughts and self, no matter what you may think of particular journalists in today’s MSM.

Related: Which elite profession or slice of society is most opaque to journalists and “book-learning” in general? (Oddly some of the categories that come to mind are those which are some of the most written-about – food, sex, friends, law, politics. But it’s probably maths.)

Making things.  Archaeology.  These days, tech.  Maths.  Journalism.

How much less interesting would it be to read Shakespeare if no-one else ever had? Does the answer differ much across top-tier “great” artists?

It would not be less interesting at all, maybe more interesting, because the shock of discovery would be all the greater.  Admittedly, many artists require lots of discussion with other people, maybe rock and roll most of all?  But not Shakespeare.

Overrated vs underrated: The New Yorker. How about Samin Nosrat?

The New Yorker has had a consistent voice and remarkable brand for more decades than I can remember (I recall Patrick Collison making a similar point, perhaps in a podcast?).  Since I am now above the median age for the United States, that makes them underrated.  The literariness of the historical New York and Northeast and the integration of American and European culture also have become underrated topic areas, and The New Yorker still does them, so that too makes the magazine underrated.

And who is Samin Nosrat?  She must therefore be underrated.

Does the world have too many writers, or not enough? What about comparative literature professors? How should we think about the future of literary culture when the written word is becoming so much more culturally dominant at the same time as books and journalism are falling apart?

What variable are we changing at the margin?  If people watch less TV and write more, that is probably a plus.  I also would favor fewer photographs and more writing.  But I wouldn’t cut back on charity to increase the quantity of writing.  If only comparative literature professors were people who simply loved books — at the margin a bit more like used book store owners and somewhat less like professors — and would compare them to each other…then I would want more of them.  Until then, I don’t know how to keep the extra ones busy.

Why does the USA not have open borders with Canada?

I believe America should have open borders with any nation that has a more generous welfare state than we do.  That covers Canada, even though Canadian insurance coverage for mental health and dentistry isn’t nearly as good as you might think.  As to why we don’t have open borders with Canada, I don’t think American voters would see that as solving any concrete problem (can’t we get many of the best Canadians anyway?), and it would feel a bit like giving up control, so why do it?

To what extent are Trump, Brexit, Orban, Erdogan, rising murder rates and stalling trade growth worldwide part of the same phenomenon? If they aren’t completely separate, which way does the contagion run?

Yes, no, and maybe so, get back to me in a few years’ time.

Have a great day…

You too!

Lviv, Ukraine: a brief recent history

In the twentieth century, L’viv…, now a city in Ukraine, experienced war not just once but many times.  Between 1914 and 1947, the city went through seven regime changes and was shelled by Russian, Ukrainian, German, and Soviet artillery and bombed by German and Soviet planes.  In November 1918, Poles and Ukrainians fought one another for control of the city.  Twnety-five years later, both sides were prepared to battle it out again.  During the same period, the city’s Jewish population lived through several pogroms and experienced repeated bouts of anti-Semitic violence up until the time when almost all of Jews of L’viv were murdered by Nazi Germany.  After World War II, the Soviet government forced the Polish population to leave the city…In 1914 half of the city’s population was Roman Catholic (mostly Poles), 28 percent were Jewish, and 18 percent were Greek Catholic (about two-thirds of them Ruthenians/Ukrainians).  By 1947, L’viv had become an almost homogeneously Ukrainian city…Approximately 80 percent of the city’s’ inhabitants had arrived during or after the war.

That is all from p.1 of Christoph Mick’s study of L’viv.

U.S.A. facts of the day

In 2000, 55 percent of American playgrounds had seesaws, but only 7 percent did by 2004.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation claims it has not installed a new one, except by special request, in over thirty years.  There are now only a few seesaws left in the city.

(TC: As a child, I never had an interest in those infernal things, which seemed to me dangerous and not much fun.)

Most of the “monkey bars” in NYC had been installed by master builder Robert Moses, between 1934 and 1960.

Between 2001 and 2008, about two hundred thousand American children sustained playground injuries, 36 percent of them being broken bones.

That said, Helle Nebelong, a Danish landscape architect, argues that too much uniformity in the environment of children creates other risks, because they come to expect the whole world will be smooth and predictable.  Nature, in particular, is not.

In 1949, “junk” playgrounds were a trend.  They often had paint, nails, and many kinds of secondhand building materials.

The first edition of the Handbook for Public Playground Safety appeared in 1981.

That is all from the new and interesting The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, by Alexandra Lange.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

The Bill of Rights did not become an essential feature of Supreme Court opinions until the justices needed a new justification for their authority to strike down legislation as unconstitutional.  In 1940, the Court began citing the Bill of Rights routinely and started building up the doctrine that the 1791 amendments were a linchpin of judicial review.

That is from Gerard N. Magliocca, The Heart of the Constitution: How the Bill of Rights Became the Bill of Rights.

Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: Father of Economics. Written by an MP, impressive, though I remain closer to a traditional classical liberal view of Smith.

Geoffrey B. Robinson, The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66.  Hardcore excellent across both the factual and conceptual dimensions.  It is striking that as of 1965 Indonesia had the world’s largest non-governing communist party, until this episode that is.  At least half a million people were killed and “…the vast majority were felled with knives, sickles, machetes, swords, ice picks, bamboo spears, iron rods, and other everyday implements.”  Not so much high tech, not even by 1940 standards.  Yet most were highly organized rather than spontaneous.  Definitely recommended.

Elhanan Helpman, Globalization and Inequality.  A very well done survey of what we know about this issue, from a leader in the field.

Lincoln Ballard and Matthew Bengtson, with John Bell Young, The Alexander Scriabin Companion, the definitive treatment of its topic.  Bengston is also my favorite Scriabin pianist.

On herding and social influence, there is Michelle Baddeley, Copycats & Contrarians: Why We Follow Others…and When We Don’t.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal considers Roosevelt’s early plans for the New Deal, before his election, and also how Hoover started laying the groundwork for opposition.

Ashoka Mody, Eurotragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts, has produced the best book yet on that “not quite yet in our rear view mirror” episode.

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Here are the first four:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

Here is the longer list, via Adam.  You can order the book here.

Why “grib”?

If you have co-authored with me, perhaps you have noticed that occasionally I leave the word “grib” inside a Microsoft Word document.  That is simply a marker for where I left off work and wish to resume.  You will notice that if you enter “grib” into a document search, you are unlikely to pick up any other word that has “grib” in the middle of it, and so you will arrive right to this bookmark.

And if you find yourself adding too many “gribs,” because you have left off work at too many places, only never to return, you can deploy “gribb” to express a higher level of urgency.  Your search for “gribb” will not pick up any of your “grib” markers, of course, though your search for “grib” will refer you to “gribb” too.

I do recognize that the productivity gain here is small.  And much of that gain simply may come from the feeling that “I have a system” rather than from the properties of the system itself.

Happy Fourth of July! (grib)

My Conversation with Juan Pablo Villarino

Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series.  We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men).  And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.

Here is the transcript and audio.

Here is one excerpt:

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…

For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .


COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times [for being picked up hitchhiking].

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”


COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall.  It starts with this:

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.

What should I ask Michael Pollan?

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with him, no associated public event.  Here is his home page, and the About section.  Here is Wikipedia on Pollan.  Here is a Sean Iling Vox interview with Pollan, on his recent work on LSD and other psychedelics, and his most recent book is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.  Pollan is perhaps best known for his books on food, cooking, and food supply chains. 

So what should I ask him?

What are the best analyses of small, innovative, productive groups?

Shane emails me:


What have you found to be the best books on small, innovative, productive groups?

These could be in-depth looks at specific groups – such as The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs – or they could be larger studies of institutions, guilds, etc.

I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question.  Navy Seals are another possible option for a topic area.  In sociology there is network theory, but…I don’t know.  In any case, the key is to pick an area you care about, and read in clusters, rather than hoping to find “the very best book.”  The very theory of small groups predicts this is how you should read about small groups!

But if you must start somewhere, Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies is probably the most intensive and detailed place to start, too much for some in fact and arguably the book strains too hard at its target.

I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:

1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age.  Step #1 is often “what kind of regional thinker is he/she?” and step #2 is this.

2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together.  Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations.  The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust.  These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead.  Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups.  In a sense, the logic behind an “in joke” resembles the logic behind social change through small groups.  The “in joke” creates something new, and the small group can create something additionally new and in a broader and socially more significant context, but based on the same logic as what is standing behind the in joke.

5. How large is a small group anyway?  (How many people can “get” an inside joke?)  Has the internet made “small groups” larger?  Or possibly smaller?  (If there are more common memes shared by a few thousand people, perhaps the small group needs to be organized around something truly exclusive and thus somewhat narrower than in times past?)

6. Can a spousal or spouse-like couple be such a small group?  A family (Bach, Euler)?

7. What are the negative social externalities of such small groups, compared to alternative ways of generating and evaluating ideas?  And how often in life should you attempt to switch your small groups?

8. What else should we be asking about small groups and the small groups theory of social change?

9. What does your small group have to say about this?

I thank an anonymous correspondent — who adheres to the small group theory — for contributions to this post.

Final installment of stochastically best books to read on each country

These are past suggestions from MR readers, pulled from the comments, endorsed by me only on a stochastic basis:

Michela Wrong, Eritrea

Rwanda: something Prunier, probably Rwanda Crisis though it stops in 1996

Uganda: Season of Thomas Tebo, though it’s fiction (is that disqualifying?)

Eastern Congo: Jason Stearns Dancing with Monsters (like China, the country is too big for one book)

The Government of Ethiopia – Margery Perham’s Ethiopian answer to Ruth Benedict’s Japanese The Sword and the Chrysanthemum.

Ethiopia: – Wax and Gold by Donald Levine – Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia (edited by E. Ficquet & G. Prunier

Pre-colonial Africa: The Scramble for Africa

For DRCongo, I recommend The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. It does a great job of distinguishing between the dizzying array of political factions in Congolese history. It’s shortcomings are in culture and economics. Not a lot to choose from with DRC unfortunately!

From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz was excellent, as was King Leopold’s ghost on the DRC.

Zimbabwe – The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart

Great Lakes region: this was actually good

On Australia: Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding”

On Hong Kong: Gordon Mathews’ “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong”

Tyler mentioned Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s book on the Caribbean for the region, so how about Paul Theroux’s book about the South Pacific, “The Happy Isles of Oceania”?

And if Boston were a country: J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” J. Anthony Lukas

What about outer space? Best book on Mars? The moon?

Kenneth Arrow says

1. The family of development economist Hollis Chenery owned the race horse Secretariat (!, related sources).

2. The opposition to putting the Reagan Library at Hoover and Stanford came from NIMBY considerations, not ideology.

3. The historian of Germany Gordon Craig was the greatest lecturer Arrow ever heard [TC: I can’t find any of him on YouTube.]

4. Arrow: “Well, I do remember an awful lot, and it’s not photographic memory.  I don’t remember the page exactly.  I read things in some order, and they come back, but I can’t explain how or why it happens.

…I think it’s just a desire to understand.  I just enjoy learning things.  Learning.  I don’t mean…I like to systematize, not just memorize.  To put them together.  I have this characteristic, even when I was young.  I treat everything like it was geography; in my mind I’d try to put the things on a map.  When I was reading history I’d try to make up genealogical tables, of the kings of England or something.  So I had this tendency to try to systematize things, to try and understand remote sounding things.”

5. His advice for Larry Summers [his nephew]: “Err on the side of too much regulation.”

6. Arrow once spent six months on the Council of Economic Advisors.  His two major effects may have been to veto an American version of the SST and to help veto the digging of a second Panama Canal.

Those are all from the frank interviews with Arrow in On Ethics and Economics: Conversations with Kenneth J. Arrow, by Arrow of course and also by Kristen Renwick Monroe and Nicholas Monroe Lampros.  Interesting throughout.

*High Growth Handbook: Scaling startups from 10 to 10,000 people*

Edited, produced, and partly written by Elad Gil, the book is also a series of interviews with Marc Andreessen, Sam Altman, Patrick Collison, Reid Hoffman, Keith Rabois, Naval Ravikant, and others.

Marc Andreessen says:

If you don’t start layering in HR once you’ve passed 50 people on your way to 150, something is going to go badly wrong.

Claire Hughes Johnson (COO of Stripe) says:

When I came into Stripe, I had a similar document.  I wrote a document back when I was at Google called, “Working with Claire.”  And when I first got to Stripe, I adapted it slightly, but it was pretty relevant.  I shared it with everyone who was working with me closely, but I have made it an open document.  It spread quite quickly through the organization…I think that founders should write a guide to working with them.

Patrick Collison says:

..the CEO ultimately does not have that many jobs, but I think culture is among them.  And it ought not be delegated.  Briefly speaking, I think there are five top responsibilities of a CEO: being the steward of and final arbiter of the senior management; being the chief strategist; being the primary external face for the company, at least in the early days; almost certainly being the chief product officer, although that can change when you’re bigger; and then taking responsibility and accountability for culture.

Self-recommending, you can order it here.

My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.


COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.


COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”

Claims about British and American English

1. The word “cheerio” does not precede 1910, and furthermore it has been obsolete for some time now, and not because it was pushed out by an Americanism.

2. The Brits are correct to insist on “I couldn’t care less,” rather than the American “I could care less.”

3. Americans used to call an umbrella a “bumbershoot,” yet nowadays if they hear the word they often think it is a Britishism.  The British slang term is in fact “brolly.”

4. When Americans speak, they prefer “repetitious” over “repetitive,” even though the latter is nine times more common in American text.  Perhaps repetitious is more…repetitious.

5. “One-off” is a Britishism that largely has caught on in America.

6. How can they call it “rumpy-pumpy”?

7. “The British use sorry at the rate four times the Americans do.”

All that and more is from the new and fun book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, by Lynne Murphy.

*Empire of Guns*

The author is Priya Satia, and the subtitle is The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.  Here is one good bit:

In fact, there were so many transitions between peace and war that it is difficult to establish what “normal” economic conditions were.  Eighteenth-century Europeans accepted war as “inevitable, an ordinary fact of human existence.”  It was an utterly unexceptional state of affairs.  For Britons in particular, war was something that happened abroad and that kept truly damaging disruption — invasion or rebellion — at bay.  Wars that were disruptive elsewhere were understood as preservationist in Britain…Adam Smith’s complaints about the costs of war, about the “ruinous expedient” of perpetual funding and high public debt in peacetime, staked out a contrarian position; The Wealth of Nations (1776) was a work of persuasion.  His and other voices in favor of pacific development grew louder from the margins.  By denormalizing war, liberal political economy raised the stakes of the century’s long final wars from 1793 to 1815, which could be stomached only as an exceptional, apocalyptic stage on the way to permanent peace.

In their wake, nineteenth-century Britain packaged their empire as a primarily civilian enterprise focused on liberty, forgetting the earlier collective investment in and profit from the wars that had produced it..

The book offers many points of interest.