Category: Books

*Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition*

By Mark Lawrence Schrad. From the Amazon summary:

This is the history of temperance and prohibition as you’ve never read it before: redefining temperance as a progressive, global, pro-justice movement that affected virtually every significant world leader from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries.

I have been reading the galleys, I will blurb it, it will be one of the best non-fiction books of 2021, more in due time you can pre-order here.

What should I ask Patricia Fara?

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

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and did her PhD at the University of London

Her areas of particular academic interest include the role of portraiture and art in the history of science, science in the 18th century England during the Enlightenment and the role of women in science. She has written about numerous women in science, mathematics, engineering, and medicine including: Hertha AyrtonLady Helen GleichenMona Chalmers WatsonHelen Gwynne-VaughanIsabel Emslie HuttonFlora MurrayIda MacleanMarie Stopes, and Martha Annie Whiteley. She has argued for expanded access to childcare as a means of increasing the retention of women in science. She has written and co-authored a number of books for children on science. Fara is also a reviewer of books on history of science. She has written the award-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) [and Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity (2012). Her most recent book is A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War” (2017). In 2013, Fara published an article in Nature (journal), stressing the fact that biographies of female scientists perpetuate stereotypes.

And she has a new book coming out on Isaac Newton.  So what should I ask her?

That was then, this is now

Many professors at universities routinely quizzed their students too, although not as commonly as faculty at smaller colleges did.  [In 1910]…a questionnaire of University of Chicago faculty revealed that 25 of 122 replying professors gave some kind of quiz each day; 31 gave them each week, and 10 others did so every other week.  The following year, in 1911, a survey of 188 economics professors around the country showed that 171 of them employed “oral quizzes” in class; only 60 of them used written tests.  Surveying undergraduates alongside faculty, the 1910 University of Chicago survey found that four of five students favored written tests over oral ones.

That is from Jonathan Zimmerman’s quite interesting The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.

The very very best books of 2020

You may recall I already posted my best non-fiction books and best fiction books of 2020.  But, unlike on previous lists, I didn’t pick a very best book of the year because in my gut I felt it had not yet arrived.  Now I have a top three, all of which came after I posted my original list.  Here are my top three picks for the year:

David S. Reynolds. Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.  At some point I vowed never to read another Lincoln biography, but this one won me over with its readability and also grasp of the broader cultural and political context.  You may know Reynolds from his excellent Walt Whitman book — could there be a better background to write on Lincoln?  Conceptual throughout.  At 932 pp. every page of this one is instructive, even if you feel sated in Lincoln as I did.

Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath.  This is like the Lincoln biography — I was convinced I didn’t want to read a thousand pages about her (though I am a fan).  And yet I keep on reading, now at about the halfway mark and I will finish with joy.  This is one of the best and most gripping biographies I have read, covering growing up as a brilliant young woman in the 1950s, poetry back then, dating and gender relations amongst the elite at that time, how mental health problems were dealt with, and much more.

Jan Swafford, Mozart: the Reign of Love.  Self-recommending.  A wonderful biographer covers one of the most important humans, to produce the best Mozart biography of all time.  You may recall I also had high praise for Swafford’s Beethoven biography from 2014.

Those are my top three books of the year.  I think you can make a good case for Joe Henrich’s WEIRD book having the most important ideas of the year in it, but, perhaps because I already had read much of the material in article form, I didn’t love it as a book the way I do these.

Finally, I will note that the “best books lists” of other institutions have grown much worse, even over the last year.  A good list has never been more valuable, and please note my recommendations are never done to fill a quota, “achieve balance,” right previous wrongs, or whatever.  They are what I think are the best books.  Scary how rare that has become.

*A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music*

That is the new book by Paul Morley, with the parenthetical subtitle “(And Decided to Rewrite its Entire History)”.

It is one of my favorite books of the year, though I recommend it most to those who already have a background in the topic. It is wide-ranging, with plenty of emphasis on the contemporary and why Harrison Birtwistle is the brilliant composer you never properly understood.  If you grade music books on “how many different pieces of music does it make me want to listen to/relisten to,” this is one of the best music books of all time.

Here is one excerpt I liked:

Eno said that he was interested in the Borgesian idea that you could invent a world in reverse by inventing the artefacts that ought to be in its first.  You think what kind of music would be in that world — in this case, background music made as art — then you make the music and the world forms itself around the music…

Bang on a Can produced a live instrumental version of the four pieces, and Eno has humbly said that their interpretation moved him to tears.  Husband-and-wife artists Lou reed and Laurie Anderson heard it performed live and they said it was heartbreaking.  Without thinking, or rather, with thinking, Eno had composed a piece of music that is all at once flat and multidimensional, barren and detailed, near and far, music and sound, feeling and unfeeling, spiritual and vacant, real and unreal, mundane and magical.

It is the kind of book that suddenly stops and reels off 89 numbered points you are supposed to be interested in.  And I am.  But sprawling it is, and your mileage may vary.  And yes most of it is about actual “classical” music, whatever that is supposed to mean these days.  This is one book I will not throw out.

What might an end to the Great Stagnation consist of?

If indeed it did, they are asking a similar question at The Economist. In recent times you might cite the onset of Apple’s M1, GPT-3, DeepMind’s application of AI to protein folding, phase III for a credible malaria vaccine, a CRISPR/sickle cell cure, the possibility of a universal flu vaccine, mRNA vaccines, ongoing solar power progress, wonderful new batteries for electric vehicles, a possibly new method for Chinese fusion (?), Chinese photon quantum computing, and ongoing advances in space exploration, most of all from SpaceX. Tesla has a very high market valuation, and Elon is the world’s second richest man.

Distanced work is very important, and here is a separate post on that.

I would say that almost certainly the great stagnation is over in the biomedical sciences.  It is less obvious that the great stagnation is over more generally, as we might simply retreat into our former sloth and complacency once we are mostly vaccinated.  Applied Divinity Studies has posed some pointed questions about why we might think that stagnation is over.

If you are looking for a quick metric to indicate the great stagnation might be over, consider total factor productivity.  It is entirely possible that tfp in 2021 will be 5 or more, its highest level ever.  (To be sure, this will show up as a measured increase in inputs more than as tfp, but we all know why those inputs will be increasing and that is because of science…yes this is a problem with tfp measures!)  Over the two years to follow after that, we should be seeing very high tfps around the world.  So that will be very high tfp for a few years.

Again, that is not proof of a permanent or even an ongoing end to the great stagnation.  But it is something.

Two more general points seem relevant.  First, many of the biomedical advances seem connected to new platforms, new modes of computation, new uses of AI, and so on, and they should be leading to yet further advances.  Second, there are (finally!) some very real advances in energy use, and those tend to bring yet other advances in their wake, and not just advances in bit space.

But not all is rosy.  If you recall my paper with Ben Southwood, the obstacles standing in the way of faster scientific progress, such as specialization and bureaucratization, mostly remain and some of them will be getting worse.

My The Great Stagnation, published in 2011, offered some pointed predictions.  It argued that the “next big thing” was already with us, namely the internet, but we simply hadn’t learned to use it effectively yet.  Once we put the internet at the center of many more of our institutions, rather than treating it as an add-on, the great stagnation would end.  Numerous times (using roughly a 2011 start date) I predicted that the great stagnation would be over within twenty years time, though not in the next few years.  The Great Stagnation in fact was an optimistic book, at least if you read it to the end and do not just mood affiliate over the title.

By no means would I say that specific scenario has been validated, but as a prediction it is looking not so crazy.

The gains from truly mobilizing the internet may in fact right now be swamping all of the accumulated obstacles we have put in the way of progress.

I also wrote, in 2011, that as the great stagnation approaches its end, we will all be deeply upset, and long for the earlier times.  That too is by no means obviously wrong.

That was then, this is now; science and chaos edition

A blast from the past, circa 1688 and thereabouts:

Even as the House of Lords was starting to consider what to do after the departure of James, many sprang to settle old scores and reopen old issues.  Legal toleration made the Church of England more defensive and less tolerant of sceptical or heterodox opinions.  The Nine Years War from 1688, in which England at first suffered severe reverses at sea, strained the economy and finances of the country almost to breaking.  The great silver recoinage of the late 1690s aggravated the problems; Halley was then deputy controller of the country Mint in Chester.  He may have suffered from the great disaster of 1693, the loss of many ships of a Levant Company fleet off Lagos.  The war lasted for much of the time that Halley was Clerk, and it undoubtedly delayed his project to observe the magnetic variation in the Atlantic.  It was an anxious decade, a dangerous decade for anyone holding responsible office; in it [Edmond] Halley had some of his most original and influential ideas.

That is from Alan Cook’s Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas.  Halley was a contemporary of Newton, Wren, Pepys, Hooke, Purcell, Locke, and Dryden, among others.

How should the possible end of the Great Stagnation influence your media diet?

I’ll soon write more on whether the Great Stagnation truly is over, and how we might know, but for now it suffices to mention a lot is going on in science and also in applied science and actual invention, not just nifty articles in Atlantic.  On net, this means you should spend more time consuming YouTube videos (try this one on protein folding).  They tend to be current, and to explain difficult matters in visual and also in fairly memorable terms.  There will be such videos for virtually every new advance.  You should read fewer normal books, more vertigo-inducing books, and spend less time on social media.  You should read more Wikipedia articles, and when you read books you should select more from the history of science and times of turmoil.  You should read this blog more often too.

What I’ve been reading

1. Darmon Richter, Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide.  This year’s best travel book?  And do you get the joke in the subtitle?  It has an unusual flair, excellent photos, and will make the updated “best of the year” list.

2. Martin J. Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  a very well-done book about mankind’s biggest problem and risk — what more could you want?  I didn’t find much shocking new in here, but a very good overview for most readers.

3. Stephen Baxter, Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time.  Yes that is Baxter the excellent science fiction author and here is his excellent book on both the history of geology and the Scottish Enlightenment.  What more could you ask for?

4. Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe.  Among its other virtues, this book makes it clear just how much valuable architectural the world lost in Syria.  I had not known that the Strasbourg Münster was the tallest medieval structure still standing in the world.  Good photos too.

5. John Darwin, Unlocking the World: Port Cities and Globalization in the Age of Steam 1830-1930 (UK link only, I paid the shipping costs).  I felt I knew a good bit of this material already, still this is a well-researched and very solid take on one of the most important factors behind the rise of globalization and international trade, namely the fast steamship and how it enabled so much urban growth for ports.

6. Charles Koch, with Brian Hooks.  Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World.  The best of the three Charles Koch books, interesting throughout, and much more personal and revealing than the generic title would imply.  I read the whole thing.

There is Deirdre Nansen McCloskey and Alberto Mingardi, The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State, a book-length reply to Mariana Mazzucato.  For me it was too polemical, though I agree many of Mazzucato’s claims are overstated.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Think, Write, Speak:Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor is an entertaining read.  It is good to see him call out Pasternak’s Zhivago for being a crashing bore. And to call Lolita a poem, repeatedly.

Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age, I agree with the argument, and it is a good example of a philosopher using social science empirical work.

And Simon Baron-Cohen, The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention.  OK enough, but underargued relative to what I was expecting.

I have only browsed them, but two very good books on Roman history are:

Anthony A. Barrett, Rome is Burning: Nero and the Fire that Ended a Dynasty.

Michael Kulikowski, The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantinople to the Destruction of Roman Italy.

What is the meta-rational thing to do here?

…the LessWrong community…just released our first book set “A Map that Reflects the Territory: Essays from the LessWrong Community“. It’s a collection of essays from 2018 by Scott Alexander, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and over twenty other writers on LessWrong. It’s a 5-book set, and we actually used quadratic voting to determine what went into the books and what didn’t.

We’re now offering the books on pre-order for $29. It turns out the demand is much higher than I expected, we only planned to print 500 sets but we already sold that many in the first 48 hours.

That is from my email…

My excellent Conversation with Zach Carter

Zach is author of the recent book The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, which has been on many year-end “best of” lists.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Zach joined Tyler to discuss what Keynes got right — and wrong — about the Treaty of Versailles, how working in the India Office influenced his economic thinking, the seemingly strange paradox of his “liberal imperialism,” the elusive central message of The General Theory, the true extent of Keynes’ interest in eugenics, why he had a conservative streak, why Zach loves Samuel Delaney’s novel Nova, whether Bretton Woods was doomed to fail, the Enlightenment intuitions behind early defenses of the gold standard, what’s changed since Zach became a father, his next project, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: [Keynes is] sympathetic to his own ideas and wants to promote them. But to me, there’s a discord. Milton Friedman spends, what, 45 minutes talking to Pinochet, has a very long record of insisting economic and political freedom come together — maybe even too simplistically — writes against the system of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, calls for free markets there. And people give Friedman hell over that.

Keynes writes the preface for the Nazis and favors eugenics his whole life, and that’s hardly ever mentioned.

CARTER: I don’t know that the way that Keynes talks about eugenics is as salient as you suggest. The best article that I came across on Keynes and eugenics is by this guy — I think David Singerman. It’s in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the way Keynes came to eugenics and what he did and did not support. It’s very clear that Keynes didn’t support eugenics in the way that Americans sterilizing poor Black workers in the South were interested in eugenics.

Keynes was broadly interested in it from the perspective of birth control. This is a time when eugenics and genetics are not as clearly defined as they are today, so he’s thinking about heritability of eye colors — how he gets involved in this stuff. He never really supports anything other than birth control.

When he actually has power as a policymaker, he just doesn’t do any of this stuff. He is working on the Beveridge plan. He is working on financial stuff that is much more egalitarian than what we think of him when we think about eugenics.

COWEN: But he is chair of the British Eugenics Society for eight years late in his career.

CARTER: He doesn’t do much there. There are big debates that are happening within that society, and he’s mostly sitting them out. Singerman goes into this in much more detail. It’s been a while since I read the article, but Singerman seems to think that this is a useful way of understanding Keynes’s worldview, but not that Keynes is some guy who’s going around wanting to sterilize people and do the things that we think of with the eugenics movement in the United States.

COWEN: I don’t think he wants to sterilize people, but he has those essays on population, which are not put into the collected works. They’re not mentioned by Roy Harrod. He is greatly worried that the people from some countries — I think including India — will outbreed the people from Britain, and this will wreak havoc on prices and wages, and it’s a big crisis. He even says, “We need to worry not only about the quantity of people, but the quality of people in the world.”

A very good episode, definitely recommended.  And here is Zach on Twitter.

Why you should use *Modern Principles* for your class

Alex has had numerous posts on Modern Principles, but here is my two cents.  A textbook, as the name indicates, is a book.  It has to be conceived of as a book, and thought of as a book, and written as a book, and ideally it should be read as a book.  There are many other textbooks out there, and I do not wish to name names, but consider the following question.  Which are the authors who really love books?  Who spend their lives reading books?  And indeed writing books.  And who spend their lives studying what makes books good or bad?  Who view books as truly essential to their overall output?

An ancillary question to ask is who are the authors who are truly dedicated to video, and to on-line communication more generally, as an independent outlet for their efforts and creativity?

Here is information on our new fifth edition, better than ever.  Because we love books.

Teaching Modern Principles Online

I’ve been teaching hundreds of students the principles of economics using Modern Principles of Economics and its online course management system and the response has been excellent. Most students like the class but what always surprises me is that some students like the online class better than any other class they have ever taken. A good lesson about different learning styles. Some reviews:

  • I wanted to say thank you for the way you teach your class. I just started it and it is way better than I expected. The videos you made are why I’m thanking you. In high school I would always have to go home and watch videos explaining what the teacher taught us….your class is already the best class I have taken in my life because it fits the way I learn. I’ve never really written an email like this so forgive me if it breaks the usual business casual email approach. Thank you again!
  • I am a student a George Mason…I would like to say that these classes are the best online classes I have taken and wish all my classes would be like this! Especially with Mason being mostly online and all of my classes being online this semester, I think that this class’s design should be an outline for other online classes. The videos themselves are very well edited and can be fun to watch! Instead of just watching a PowerPoint online and taking notes, being able to see the professor speak, while incorporating graphs, and even animations makes the class much more enjoyable, and in my case easier to absorb. Another aspect I wish all online classes did is giving quizzes along with the videos to check information learned. Speaking from my experience in your previous class the “Learning Curve” and other pre-test activities did wonders for me when preparing for chapter tests and exams. Overall, these classes are a great experience and I look forward to this semester in Econ 104! As a little side note, my favorite videos/lessons from last semester where the ones where you and Professor Cowen would debate over subjects learned in class. It gave useful insight and thinking to both sides of the argument.
  • I really liked how it was set up with the videos. As someone who has diagnosed ADHD, this type of online class, and class in general has made it so much easier for me to constantly go back on videos to hear what the professors were saying and trying to teach us. Honestly best class experience I’ve ever had, and I wish more were like it.
  • Prof. Tabarrok’s videos that accompanied our course material were of high quality. Even though this was a distance learning course, I felt that I got an in depth lecture for each section of the course. I did not feel that I was left to read the book myself; it was like I had great in-person lecture that I could re watch again and again.
  • Since this is an online course, I expected it to be very short cut and not interactive. This course was the total opposite. Being able to watch videos about professors genuinely teaching economics and answering questions while following the video was so helpful.The aspects of the course allowed me to connect with different imperative issues & solutions across the world.

My podcast with Darren Lipomi

He is a well-known chemist (and more) at UC San Diego. We started with classic Star Trek and then moved into textiles, chemistry, music vs. sound, nanobots against Covid, how to interview, traveling during a pandemic, art collecting and voodoo flags, the importance of materials science, and much more.  Mostly he interviewed me, though it went a bit both ways.

Almost 100% fresh material and topics, and here is the Spotify link.

Favorite books by female authors

Elena Ferrante named her top forty, and I am not sure I approve of the exercise at all.  Still, here are my top twenty, in no particular order, fiction only, not counting poetry:

1.Lady Murasaki, Tale of Genji.

2. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.

3. Alice Munro, any and all.

4. Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan quadrology.

5. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.

6. Octavia Butler, Xenogenesis trilogy.

7. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

9. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter.

10. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

11. Virginia Woolf, many.

12. Willa Cather, My Antonia.

13. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

14. Jane Austen, Persuasion.

15. Anne Rice, The Witching Hour, and #2 in the vampire series.

16. Anaïs Nin? P.D.James? A general award to the mystery genre?

17. Christa Wolf, Cassandra.

18. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian.

19. Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise.

20. Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Comments: No, I didn’t forget George Eliot, these are “my favorites,” not “the best.”  Maybe Edith Wharton would have made #21?  Or Byatt’s Possession?  The other marginal picks mostly would have come from the Anglosphere.  I learned my favorite Latin American writers are all male.