Category: Books

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

What should I ask Daniel Carpenter?

I will be doing a Conversation with Daniel, who is a professor of political science at Harvard and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of regulation and also the FDA.  Here is part of his bio:

Professor Carpenter’s previous scholarship on regulation and government organizations appears in Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA (Princeton, 2010), winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award of the Social Science History Association; and of The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton, 2001), winner of the Gladys Kammerer Prize of the American Political Science Association and the Charles Levine Prize of the International Political Science Association.  With David Moss of Harvard Business School, he is the author and co-editor of Preventing Regulatory Capture: Special Interest Influence in Regulation and How to Limit It (Cambridge, 2013).

And coming out in May:

Professor Carpenter’s research on petitioning appears in his forthcoming book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 (Harvard University Press, 2021)

So what should I ask him?

What I’ve been reading

1. Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.  An excellent history of what the title claims, starting from an archaeological point of view and incorporating many of the latest discoveries.  The book is especially good at telling the reader how we know what we know about the Vikings: “Sweden has the highest quantity of Islamic dirhams in the whole of Europe after Russia.”

2. Jesse Singal, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.  An overdue and very well-executed look at how many of the problems in social psychology run deeper than just the replication crisis.  It covers topics of self-help books, posing and power, superpredators, bias tests, and much more.  It seems the core problem is that if the general public cares about an area, it is much harder to get accurate information about those same questions — I have noticed the same tendencies in economics.

3. Eric Herschthal, The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress.  A good survey of the scientific arguments against slavery, covering Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, the Lunar Society, and the technologists, among others.  The 2021 gloss would be “the Progress Studies people were especially anti-slavery.”  But why so little about the economists such as Smith, Malthus, and Mill, among others, all strongly opposed to slavery?

4. Christine Perkell, editor, Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretative Guide, and David Quint, Virgil’s Double Cross: Design and Meaning in the Aeneid. Two books, excellent in their own right, and an antidote to the common view that everything in the humanities is bankrupt these days, or just “French theory,” or whatever.  Of course you have to read them at the same time you are studying The Aeneid.

5. Natsume Soseki, Kokoro.  From 1914, very retro in its aesthetic, it deals with modernization, the nature of friendship, and yes “the meaning of life.”  Simple and charming in a way that contemporary authors find difficult to match.  From 1984 to 2004 the author appeared on the Japanese one thousand yen note.

Dr. Seuss as a policy issue

That is a Substack essay from Matt Yglesias, and open source at that.  Excerpt, using quotation marks rather than forcing further indents on the segment:

“To me, there’s something attractive about the “constitutional copyright” idea of returning to the 1790 Copyright Act rule. But there’s also something attractive about the idea of an author retaining control over their works during their lifetime. There’s also something to be said for the idea that if you publish something and then get hit by a bus the next day, maybe that happenstance shouldn’t cut your heirs out of the downside. Mashing that all together might leave you with life of the author OR 28 years, whichever is longer.

I think it’s hard to specify the exact right number (Rufus Pollock tries with some fancy math and comes up with 15 to 38 years), but these two points from Hal Varian’s paper on copyright terms seem relevant:

  • “Fewer than 11 percent of the copyrights registered between 1883 and 1964 were renewed after 28 years.”
  • “Of the 10,027 books published in 1930, only 174 were still in print in 2001.”

It is just super-rare for old works to have large commercial value. But Xing Li, Megan MacGarvie, and Petra Moser show that copyright extensions have a big impact on consumer prices. And I would argue the cultural cost is higher.”

There is much more at the link.

Ross Douthat on Substack on decadence

Meanwhile in the non-ideological regions of the culture the deepening of decadence seems assured. The pandemic has (further) weakened every cultural institution that relies on physical presence, spontaneity and localized or mid-sized audiences, which means basically all of them except the “content” industry, the ever-expanding realm of Peak TV. The spirit of Mustapha Mond presides over the Covid era: He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was museums, was symphonies; some spider-webs, and they were ballets and bookstores and Broadway theatricals. Whisk. Whisk—and where was the mid-size daily newspaper, the regional university, the local Protestant congregation, the urban Catholic school. Whisk—the place where the local movie theater had been empty. Whisk, the touring pop music acts, whisk, the minor league baseball teams, whisk, whisk ..

I know, I know: We can make art on the blockchain now, and do journalism on Substack, and host salons on Clubhouse.

But if these are the seeds of renaissance, I expect things to get worse before they get better.

Here is the full post, ungated, Ross will be doing free Substack for a limited time.  Ross’s The Decadent Society is coming out soon in paperback, and it a new subtitle and Ross says plenty of new and original material.

What I’ve been reading

1. Kevin Donnelly, Adolphe Quetelet, Social Physics, & the Average Men of Science, 1796-1874.  The Belgian Quetelet was one of the pioneers of applying statistics to the social sciences, and he had a long-running and fascinating career obsessed with astronomy, crime, opera, jokes, and short essays, among many other things.  He developed the notion of an “average man” in a statistical distribution, the error curve as a distribution formula, and much more.  The concept and measurement of BMI comes from him as well.  Somehow he has become oddly underrated.

2. Ruth Goodman, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything.  Most books of this ilk are good either on the super-micro or super-macro scale, but this volume succeeds on both levels.  Under Queen Elizabeth I, London became the first place to move away from burning peat, wood, and dung in homes to burning coal.  How did that supercharge the later Industrial Revolution?  How did it matter for household chores and for that matter recipes?  Recommended.

3. Michel Foucault, Confessions of the Flesh, The History of Sexuality, Volume 4, published posthumously just now.  I only pawed through this one a bit, but it really didn’t seem so interesting.  I still think of The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The Birth of the Clinic as Foucault’s best and most enduring books.

4. Jason L. Riley, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.  I liked this book OK enough, and certainly read it with interest, but somehow it never brought Sowell to life for me (I have never met him), nor did it illuminate the work enough (what did Sowell claim about Say’s Law anyway?  And why?  Why is his book on late-talking children important for understanding his broader body of work?  Why was he so hawkish on foreign policy?  What might he have gotten wrong?).  The most interesting parts are about Sowell writing rebuttals to Arthur Jensen.

5. Ian Leslie, Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.  A good popular science book on exactly what the title promises: “In this book, we’ll learn from experts who are highly skilled at getting the most out of highly charged encounters: interrogators, cops, divorce mediators, therapists, diplomats, psychologists. These professionals know how to get something valuable – information, insight, ideas—from the toughest, most antagonistic conversations.”

My Conversation with Patricia Fara

The last chat was with Brian Armstrong about bitcoin, this one started with Isaac Newton and bit coins (really).  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWTeam summary:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at Cambridge University and well-known for her writings on women in science. Her forthcoming book, Life After Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career, details the life of the titan of the so-called Scientific Revolution after his famous (though perhaps mythological) discovery under the apple tree. Her work emphasizes science as a long, continuous process composed of incremental contributions–in which women throughout history have taken a crucial part–rather than the sole province of a few monolithic innovators.

Patricia joined Tyler to discuss why Newton left Cambridge to run The Royal Mint, why he was so productive during the Great Plague, why the “Scientific Revolution” should instead be understand as a gradual process, what the Antikythera device tells us about science in the ancient world, the influence of Erasmus Darwin on his grandson, why more people should know Dorothy Hodgkin, how George Eliot inspired her to commit unhistoric acts, why she opposes any kind of sex-segregated schooling, her early experience in a startup, what modern students of science can learn from studying Renaissance art, the reasons she considers Madame Lavoisier to be the greatest female science illustrator, the unusual work habit brought to her attention by house guests, the book of caricatures she’d like to write next, and more

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s start with Isaac Newton. How was it that he died rich?

FARA: He earned his money from several different ways. When he went down to London, he had far more than he ever did as a Cambridge professor because he was running the London Mint. He got a fat salary for that. He also got a premium, a reward for every single gold coin that was minted.

He invested in global trading companies like the East India Company, for example, that were sending guns and textiles out to Africa and then shipping enslaved peoples over to the Americas.

He also invested in other stock market companies. There was this famous occasion — it’s the anniversary this year of what’s called the South Sea Bubble — when he invested a small fortune in a new company, the South Sea Company, and he watched the levels rise, and he stayed in there, and he sold when the stocks had gone up. He made a small fortune, but then he made the classic beginner’s error. He invested in again at a higher price, and he watched the value crash.

So he did lose several million in today’s currency on that particular venture. But in general, when he died, he was an extremely rich man, and you can tell that — the inventory of his possessions runs to a vellum scroll that’s 17 feet long.

COWEN: What was it that he collected so obsessively to have all these possessions?

FARA: Well, a lot of it was equipment for catering. He’s got this reputation for being very antisocial, but he had hundreds of plates and sets of cutlery and things like that. He also had that ultimate Georgian luxury: he owned two silver chamber pots.

He spent money on having a good number of portraits of himself painted that he would send out to other people as bribes or as rewards for their allegiance to him. He had furniture. He had decorations. He had a carriage. He had a sedan chair tucked in the stables. He had lots of servants.

On Newton’s time at The Royal Mint

COWEN: Now, as you know, Newton spends what, over 30 years working at the Mint?

FARA: Yes.

COWEN: What’s your model of why he did this? How much was it for income? Did he think he was done with major contributions, say, to physics and optics? How do you think about that decision in his life?

FARA: I think he was very frustrated with being at Cambridge. He applied for several positions there, which he didn’t get. In theological terms, he was rather at odds with everybody else at Cambridge because he was a very, very devout believer in God, but he didn’t adhere to the traditional, to the orthodox Anglican theological belief in the Trinity, so that was difficult for him.

He’d been trying to leave Cambridge for some time, and he had a very close friend, Charles Montagu, the Earl of Halifax, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, very influential man. He managed to find Newton this very prestigious job at the Mint that paid a good salary. The minute Newton heard about it, he downed tools at Cambridge, rushed down to London, and he moved and started a new life within a few months.

…COWEN: What do you think about Newton’s basic idea on silver recoinage — bring in all the silver coins, melt them down, reissue at a lower value? Was he right about that or not? Or do you side with John Locke?

Recommended, interesting throughout.

*Resetting the Table*

The author is Robert Paarlberg and the subtitle is Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.  This book is a refreshing change of pace from most of the other food books, which tend to be illiterate on the economic side.  Here is one excerpt:

Modern farming protects the environment not only by using less land compared to several decades ago; it also uses less water, less fossil energy, and fewer chemicals for every bushel produced.  One major contributors here is no-till farming, which is a method for planting seeds in unplowed fields.  This method requires specialized equipment, but it reduces soil erosion, protects soil moisture, sequesters carbon, and requires much less burning of diesel fuel, which is why farmers began doing it in the 1970s, a decade of high fuel prices.  According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, more than twice as much cropland is now under no-till or reduced-till compared to intensive tillage.  In parallel fashion, new irrigation systems such as center-pivot and drip have replaced simple flooding, thus conserving water.  Lasers are employed to help level farm fields, which eliminates surface runoff.  GPA auto-steering eliminates wasteful overlaps in the field.  Genetically engineered seeds help farmers protect against insects and weeds with fewer and less toxic chemical sprays.

Recommended, sensible throughout.

What should I ask Shadi Bartsch?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, most of all about her forthcoming and very good translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  She is a professor of classics at the University of Chicago, and here is Wikipedia:

Bartsch has contributed to classical scholarship in the areas of the literature and culture of Julio-Claudian Rome, the ancient novel, Roman stoicism, and the classical tradition.

She is an expert on Lucan, Persius, Seneca, and other writers of the time, most of all the age of Nero, and she is now working on a book on the reception of the classical authors amongst the Chinese intelligentsia.  Here is Shadi on Twitter.

So what should I ask her?

Who first noticed the tech was ready for human genome sequencing? (that was then, this is now)

Perkin Elmer’s last purchase had been a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company called PerSeptive Biosystems, a protein-analysis enterprise started by Lebanese-born wunderkind Noubar Afeyan seven years earlier, when the ink was still wet on his Ph.D. from MIT. Afeyan had sold his company to Perkin Elmer for almost $400 million. The deal had yet to be finalized, and formally speaking Afeyan wasn’t yet a Perkin Elmer employee. But he was at the meeting in Foster City, too. Like Lipe and Barrett, he shared White’s vision of “moving up the food chain” and getting into the genetic information business. But like them, he didn’t really have a clear idea how that was to be done.

It was Afeyan, the newcomer, who first said the words. The head of the multicapillary-machine production team was winding up a presentation on the instrument’s design and capacity. There were twenty-odd people around the table, discussing such matters as pricing, costs, and marketing strategy. This was the first time Afeyan had heard that the project even existed. He was taking some notes and idly doing some calculations. “You know, with enough of these machines, we could sequence the whole human genome,” he remarked. A few people chuckled at the notion, and the discussion returned to serious topics. But now Hunkapiller was hunched over his yellow pad, scribbling. After a minute he looked up. “He’s right,” he said. “Who’s right?” asked White. “Noubar. With two hundred machines, we could sequence the human genome in three years.” Most people in the room hardly knew Noubar Afeyan, but they knew Michael Hunkapiller. He would not interrupt a serious discussion except for something even more serious.

That is from James Shreeve’s The Genome War, here is more detail from the NYT in 1999, and for the pointer I thank Patrick Collison.  Of course that is the same Afeyan Noubar who co-founded Moderna and now chairs it, here is my earlier CWT with him.

What I’ve been reading

1. Honor Moore, Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury.  An excellent book on “what it was like back then.”  Plus the daughter-mother memoir often is neglected by male readers, and this is one place to start.  The mother ends up diagnosed with cancer at age fifty, and furthermore her war hero and Bishop husband turns out to be actively bisexual.

2. Zachary Karabell, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power.  A very useful treatment of an undercovered institution, and one spanning many different eras of American history.  Lots about early 20th century Nicaragua, plus this is the private investment firm that stayed private.

3. Marie Favereau, The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World.  The subtitle is maybe misleading, because this is the book that corrects all the other books with subtitles like “How the Mongols Changed the World.”  Yes they were somewhat globalized and also religiously tolerant, but Favereau fills in the rest of the details, and furthermore outlines the concept of “the horde” as a mode of governance.  I am hardly an expert in this area, but this seems to be the recommendable book on the Mongols that is both conceptual but at the same time not overly simplified.

4. Margarette Lincoln, London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City.  Is it so terrible to read another book about the world’s greatest city?  The emphasis is on London as a city of war, turmoil, and crime, rather than triumphalism.  It will be a shame when the English language of that era is no longer intelligible to us without a translation, because currently it is our very closest connection with a fundamentally different worldview.

Claire Lehmann of Quillette fame and others have edited the new Panics and Persecutions: 20 Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age.

*Empire of Silver*

The subtitle is A New Monetary History of China, and the author is Jin Xu.  This is the first book this year to go straight to my “best books of the year list,” here is one excerpt:

Let’s shift the scene back to 1262, when the two poles of world civilization, Venice in the West and the Southern Song in the East, both faced the specter of war, and funding for these wars hung by a thread.  Almost simultaneously, the authorities of both places came up with plans to deal with their emergencies, both involving the most advanced financial innovations of that time.  The Southern Song’s Jia Sidao raised military funding by using the steadily devaluing huizi to buy up public land the strip the populace of wealth.  Venice took a different road: Its parliament authorized the government to mortgage its tax revenue, and when a fiscal deficit developed, the administration issued government bonds paying interest of 5 percent.  In retrospect, Venice’s financial innovation summoned the magic power of public debt as capital and effectively led Europe into an era of financial revolution.  As for china, the excessively issued huizi did not regain the favor of the market; rather, public discontent and unrest threw open the door for invasion by the Mongolians.

…we witness China taking the lead on finance and currency, but in the wrong direction.  China, at a very early stage, had “flying money” (feiqian) for remitting funds, as well as pawnshops, silver shops, and other such establishments for credit transfer; the Song dynasty’s paper currency originated in private institutions; and private local banks (qianzhuang) and money-exchange shops (piaohao) experienced extraordinary growth in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  So why didn’t China produce a modern banking industry?

…The unbankability of China’s currency led to the failure of China’s paper currency system and forced it to take the silver route. Without banks, and without the coinage of silver, progressing from bank notes to paper currency was out of the question.  Currency could only exist in the form of confusing and outmoded metage currency.

Definitely recommended, you can buy it here.  And “metage” — what a good word!