Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. Marcel Proust, The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories.  Yes they read like fragments, but Proust’s fragments are still better than almost anything else.

2. Michele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography.  There can never be enough books on Albert Hirschman, noting this one focuses on his ideas rather than his life.

3. Jennifer Ackerman, The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.  A good and entertaining overview of some of the most interesting questions about birds, including bird intelligence.  “Extreme behavior in birds is more likely in Australia than anywhere else.”

4. Paul Betts, Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II.  The immediate aftermath of WWII was the last time the Western world was truly chaotic, and this book captures that time well, including its intellectual milieu.  Are you interested in how West and East German books of manners differed in the late 1940s and 1950s?  If so, this is your go-to book.

5. Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology.  As I tweeted: “I am coming to the conclusion that the quality of books about birds is higher than about almost any other subject.”  Simple question: have you read a better book about the history of ornithology than this one?

Tom Standage, A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next is a very good history of what it promises.

Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, is indeed…a defense of truth.

There is Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, lots of bad news yes, but is he short the market?

*American Republics*

That is the new Alan Taylor book and the subtitle is A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.  Excerpt:

With 124,000 inhabitants in 1813, Mexico City was twenty times bigger than Washington, D.C. — and about forty times grander.  Poinsett described the public buildings and churches as “vast and splendid,” providing “an air of grandeur…wanting in the cities of the United States.”  A German intellectual, Alexander von Humboldt, thought the city’s statues and Baroque palaces “would appear to advantage in the finest streets of Paris, Berlin and [St.] Petersburg.”

…Mexico City had an array of cultural institutions created during the colonial era.  “No city of the new continent, without even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico,” marveled Humboldt.  The United States had nothing to match Mexico’s Academy of Fine Arts, National Botanic Garden, National University, and School of Mines.  Founded in 1551, the university was the oldest in the Americas.

The book is excellent, including on Mormons, and also the War of 1812, and it will be one of the best books of this year.  It is time to admit that Taylor is not only one of the best historians, but he is one of the best writers period in any field.  Recommended.

Lucan’s *Civil War* is grossly underrated, and I found reading it to be a revelation

COWEN: Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago? To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

BARTSCH: Lucan seems contemporary. Lucan is very much after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the possibility of the good state, the good empire is a real thing. What Lucan says is, “No, that is never possible. There will always be men grubbing for power and killing each other, and civil war is, frankly, a condition of life, a condition of history. Right now, I’m writing under Nero, who is not a good emperor. I’m writing about the events that led to Nero coming to power, and I hate them. They’re terrible. People lie to each other. Brothers killed brothers. Friends slashed each other in the face, all for political reasons. People use language, again, incorrectly to distort what they meant, and then — here’s the rub — because I’m writing under Nero and because Nero is one of the bad emperors, I can’t complain about writing under Nero. I have to praise him. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.”

So you get this beautiful juxtaposition of a poet starting out his poem with almost over-the-top praise. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and you’re going to be a star in the constellations. There’s never been anybody so wise as you. Civil war was worth it if you were the outcome.”

Then the rest of the poem is this blistering indictment of the present, which is the present under Nero. By indicting the present but praising Nero, he effectively shows us that his praise is false, but that false praise is what everybody has to engage in in a world where there’s no freedom. Maybe that is what seems topical to you. Or maybe it’s just about fake news, and you see Lucan is writing fake news in the beginning of his epic.

COWEN: I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re supposed to be asking me questions, but why does it seem to strike closer to home to you now?

COWEN: There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Absolutely. The polarization of political views — that is completely in Lucan. Everything is binary. Both sides are at each other’s throats. The problem is, neither side is good. They’re just both opinionated. Yes, he constantly shows us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which will never lead to anything meaningful. I think in that sense, yes, it’s an interesting comparison to what happens today.

Another interesting thing that he does is that, even though everything has been boiled down into them versus us — or actually them versus them because there’s nobody good in the epic except for Cato, who ends up dying — even as he takes on so serious a subject, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a way. What I mean by that is that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not realistic.

Here’s an example. You’re fighting for Julius Caesar, and you’re on a boat, and you’re trying to get onto a boat that belongs to Pompey, so you grab it with one arm as it comes by, but the people in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you grab it with your other arm, and then they chop that arm off. Then you’ve got no arms. So, what do you do? Well, Lucan says, you just lob yourself onto the boat armlessly and hope that you can make a difference that way. There’s arms and legs flying everywhere.

In Virgil or Homer, somebody stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you just bop around like a puppet losing limbs and legs. That’s very strange.

That is from my Conversation with Shadi Bartsch.

My excellent Conversation with Shadi Bartsch

She is a Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, and recently published a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Shadi joined Tyler to discuss reading the classics as someone who is half-Persian, the difference between Homer and Virgil’s underworlds, the reasons so many women are redefining Virgil’s Aeneid, the best way to learn Latin, why you must be in a room with a native speaker to learn Mandarin, the question of Seneca’s hypocrisy, what it means to “wave the wand of Hermes”, why Lucan begins his epic The Civil War with “fake news”, the line from Henry Purcell’s aria that moves her to tears, her biggest takeaway from being the daughter of an accomplished UN economist, the ancient text she’s most hopeful that new technology will help us discover, the appeal of Strauss to some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, the reasons some consider the history of Athens a better allegory for America than that of Rome, the Thucydides Trap, the magical “presentness” of ancient history she’s found in Italy and Jerusalem, her forthcoming book Plato Goes to China, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You may not agree with this, but many readers I speak with tend to think that Homer is somehow deeper, more mystical, or just more fun to read than Virgil. What accounts for that perception and how might you challenge it?

BARTSCH: I think they think that because both of Homer’s epics are not, per se, about politics or governments. They don’t offer etiologies of a state. They don’t talk about history. They are stories in the true sense. They are about heroes in the true sense, not about some guy who’s pushed around the world by the gods, constantly getting into trouble, crying, wishing he didn’t have to go found Rome, etcetera.

Achilles — figure larger than life. His pride is everything to him. He stops fighting in the Trojan War because he’s been insulted. The drama is, what compels him to go back into battle after that insult?

Odysseus — a fairy tale of a man wandering from island to island, meeting ever stranger creatures, but eventually making it back home. It’s a great yarn. You don’t have to learn history to read these. You get involved in the psychology of the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs.

Nobody is really interested in getting involved in the psychology of the state and its triumphs. On the one hand, you’ve got a poem that’s an etiology for a particular government. On the other hand, you have two amazing stories. I can see how reading The Aeneid would be considered duller for some.

Excellent throughout, and again here is Shadi’s excellent translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

*Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis*

Although they did not know it at the time, the seamen of the USS Cony and other ships of the Randolph group were moments away from being killed or shipwrecked by the tremendous waves that a nuclear explosion would produce. Savitsky’s torpedo carried a warhead with 10 kilotons of explosive power.  If dropped on a city, that would suffice to kill everyone with a half-mile radius. Moreover, the torpedoes’ nuclear warheads were designed to create shock waves that would topple or incapacitate ships. The 20-kiloton load tried by the US Navy in the Baker underwater test in 1946 produced waves up to 94 feet high. The Soviets tested their T-5 torpedoes near Novala Zemlia in the Arctic in 1957 but never released the results. Any ship hit by the torpedo would almost certainly have been destroyed, while the rest of the Randolph group would have suffered significant damage.

That is from the new book on this topic by Serhii Plokhy.  An excellent book, with much more on the Soviet side than any other source I am aware of.

How rational was Spock?

[Julia] Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83 percent of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

Here is the full Wired story, and here you can buy Julia’s new book.  I wonder if he is more rational in the Star Trek movies than in the TV shows, or how about in the fan fiction?  Exactly where is the demand for dramatic irrationality highest, and why?

How to extract information from on-line reviews, or why Star Wars is still a thing

Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.

Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Grseeycor4

Recommended.

From Charles Kenny

Friends: I’m writing to tell you about my latest book and ask you to take a look (and share the news).

Your World, Better is written for the smart and engaged middle school student.  It looks at how America and the World has changed since the reader’s parents and grandparents were young: what has happened to health and wealth, homes, school and work, rights and democracy, war and the environment, happiness and depression.   It talks about the things that have gotten better, the sometimes-intensifying challenges that remain, and what readers can do about them.  (Some of you might hear echoes of my earlier book Getting Better –it is a source, but this is a very different text).

I wrote it because my (middle school age) elder daughter’s friends appear largely of the opinion that everything is terrible, and after the last eighteen months it is a little hard to blame them for thinking that. Your World Better is optimistic, but it doesn’t shy away from the considerable problems we face: from inequality through discrimination and depression to climate change and infectious threats.  It is meant to encourage kids to help make the world better: tip them from hopelessness toward action, not into complacency.  I hope you think I get the balance right.

The pdf of Your World Better is available to download in my blog for free.  Or you can buy a kindle version for 99 cents or a hard copy for $8.10.  Any author royalties from those sales will be donated to UNICEF.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser.  I believe you need to have read Walser first, but if so this is a far better biography than what you might have expected the English-speaking world to have produced.  It is also an implicit portrait of where pre-WWI Europe went wrong, the history of micro-writing, and a paean to general weirdness, noting that Walser in both his life and writing is inexplicable to this day.

2. Andy Grundberg, How Photography Became Contemporary Art.  How does a whole genre rise from also-ran status to a major (the major?) form of contemporary art?  This is an excellent history with nice color plates and it is also a causal account.  I liked this sentence, among others: “Surprisingly, the acceptance of color photography had happened earlier in the art world than in the so-called art photography world.”  Polaroid had a significant role as well.

3. Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.  A truly good and very substantive management book (I hear your jaw hitting the floor).  Just that statement makes it one of the best management books ever.  Really.

4. Tom Jones, George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life.  A thorough biography of an 18th century Irish philosopher who is still worth reading.  Berkeley also wrote on monetary theory and pioneered the idea of an abstract unit of account.

5. Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning through Covid-19.  This book came out yesterday, I read it earlier, and here is my blurb: “A truly excellent book that explains where our pandemic response went wrong, and how we can understand those failings using the tools of economics.”  It is published by Cato, a libertarian think tank, and it is a much better and more integrated and science-based account than what you might find from other groups, whether libertarian or non-libertarian.

How should you feel if you attentively finish Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment?

Cameron Blevis, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, is a good book and on a more important topic than you might think.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

The new Michela Wrong book

It is called Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, and so far it is very good.  Here is one bit:

As a Rwandan psychologist once told me: “To show emotional reserve is considered a sign of high standing.  You do not just pour out your heart in Rwanda.  You do not cry.  It’s the opposite of Western oversharing, a form of stoicism.

A culture that glories in its impenetrability, that sees virtue in misleading: to someone proposing to write a nonfiction account embracing many of the most controversial episodes in Rwandan history, it posed a bit of a challenge.

Recommended, I will continue reading, and this one is likely to make the “best non-fiction of the year” list.

*Island On Fire*

A good book, recent winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, the author is Tom Zoellner and the subtitle is The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire.  Here is one excerpt about Jamaica, the central theater for the book:

Among the staple crop civilizations of the nineteenth century, Jamaica was noteworthy for what it didn’t have in abundance: granite monuments, private gardens, schools, parks, beautiful churches, columned public halls.Nobody thought to bring a printing press until sixty-six years after the British takeover.  Graceful mansions like those built in the American South were less common in Jamaica and generally seen only around Kingston and on the shore of St. James Parrish, where the wealthier planters aimed to impress their neighbors with bloodwood floors, wine cellars, silverware, china sets, and ancestral portraits on the walls.  But the master’s “Great House” was more commonly made of crude materials and sometimes looked no better than a barn with windows.  As a government secretary described them, many country estates were “miserable, thatched hovels, hastily put together with wattles and plaster, damp, unwholesome and infested with every species of vermin.”

Recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Devaki Jain, The Brass Notebook.  What is it like to grow up in a Tamil Brahmin family, be molested by relatives and Nobel Prize winners, and go on to be an economist?  Short and extremely readable.  The personal tale is very charming, the politics (Nyerere and Castro, never repudiated) are not.

2. Walter Isaacson, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.  This excellent book is exactly as you think it is going to be.

3. S.M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician.  Memoir involving many of the 20th century’s top mathematicians and physics types, including von Neumann, Gamow, Banach, Edward Teller, and Ulam himself, among others.  Scintillating on every page, as a historical chronicle, as biography, and as a look into how a brilliant mathematician thinks.

4. Eric Berger, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.  A fun and informative treatment of what the title promises.  I hadn’t know that Musk met personally with the first three thousand employees of SpaceX, to make sure the company was hiring the right kind of people.  He thought he could detect a good hire within fifteen minutes of conversation.

5. Matthew E. Kahn, Adapting to Climate Change: Markets and the Management of an Uncertain Future.  I read this some time ago, it is just published, here is my blurb: “Are you looking for an approach that recognizes the costs of climate change, and approaches the entire question with an economic and political sanity?  Matthew E. Kahn’s new book is then essential reading.”

The new Peter Boettke book is The Struggle for a Better World, which is his best statement of classical liberalism to date.