Category: History

Baku bits, what to see in Baku

The vertigo starts, as upon arrival in the airport there are few direct clues as to which country you might be in.  You will see people from every part of this hemisphere, and furthermore the Azerbaijanis won’t stand out as such.  The facility itself looks like an average of five or six other airports, like how some TV shows film in Canada to get that generically American look.

Matters seem to go downhill as one rides into town — “Dubai, yet without the charm” is how I described it to Yana in an early, premature email.  Yet this petro-city grows on you quickly, and I don’t just mean the cherry jam.  Closer to town center there are interesting buildings in every direction, and of three sorts: the medieval Old City with walls, a blossoming of late 19th century European architecture (and they are still doing contemporary copies of it), and the Brasilia-Dubai like modern buildings.

In 1905 about half of the world’s oil was produced in or near Baku.  In 1942, it was Stalingrad that stopped Hitler from taking the place over and perhaps changing the course of history.  Not long ago, oil and gas were estimated to account for sixty percent of the gdp of Azerbaijan.

And you can see that money being spent, to the benefit of the tourist I might add.  Baku has perhaps the most attractive and walkable seaside promenade.  The walker has views of the Caspian, of spectacular buildings, of the port, and there are multiple paths with beautiful gardens and cactuses and baobab trees, benches everywhere, Eurasians in abundance, and in August the weather is perfect for a long stroll every night.

Baku is reputed to be the world’s lowest capital city, standing about 28 meters below sea level.

It is the first Shiite country I have visited, and it seems less conservative than say the Turkey of ten years ago, for instance in terms of dress and demeanor.  A small percentage of women wear burkhas, most of all by the seaside walk, but the look of their companions suggests most are tourists or expats.

In short, several generations of communist-enforced atheism do have a persistent effect.  One Azerbaijani, with whom I had an extended dialogue through a translator, stressed to me how much universal Soviet education elevated the region (and she was not pro-Soviet or pro-communist by any means).  The Azerbaijanis address me in Russian, as few can converse with ease in English.

The police go to great lengths to limit jaywalking, which is in any case dangerous.  The city roads are wide, and like some parts of central Brasilia have few traffic lights.  Never have I wished so often that I was on the other side of the street as in Baku.

Baku has three working synagogues, and, unlike in almost every other country in the world, they do not require police protection.  It is a remarkably safe city.

There is strong sentiment here that Nagorno-Karabakh, technically a part of Azerbaijan but not controlled by the government in over twenty years, is ruled by “Armenian terrorists,” backed by Putin. This issue, largely neglected outside the region, is likely to flare up again.  When I applied for a visa, I had to answer whether I come from Armenian blood (no).  It seems like a much less friendly conflict than say between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Baku was the easternmost part of the Roman Empire — does that make it European?

“Relatives may eat your flesh but they won’t throw away your bones” is an old Azerbaijani saying.

Newborns are washed in salt water, to make them truthful and bold.

As a vacation spot, I recommend three to four days here for anyone looking for something off the beaten path, but without logistical difficulties.  Here is Wikipedia on Baku.

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Michael Pollan

I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:

Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.

He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.

He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated.  Here is one exchange of relevance:

COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.

Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .

POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.

One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.

One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.

The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.

Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.

And:

COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?

For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.

If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?

POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.

But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”

COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?

POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.

But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.

In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.

COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?

POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?

COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.

W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer.  Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:

COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?

POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.

When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.

Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.

Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

My favorite things Azerbaijan

I am arrived in Baku!  Here goes:

1. Chess player: Garry Kasparov.  Maybe the greatest player of all time?  He is not ethnic Azerbaijani, but grew up in Baku.

Teimour Radjabov.  It is amazing for how long he has gotten away with playing the King’s Indian Defense at the highest levels of chess competition.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  Over the last year, he has had the best results of anyone in the chess world, including Carlsen.  His forcing style resembles that of Kasparov.

Vugar Gashimov.  He was pretty good too, passed away prematurely in 2014.

Cellist and conductorMstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku.  His Bach Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of all extant recordings.  Here is one (different) YouTube version.  As a conductor he was uneven, but capable of spectacular live performances of Shostakovich.

Pianist: Bella Davidovich, born in Baku, especially her Chopin.

Philosopher: Max Black, also born in Baku.  He edited Frege and worked on problems from Leibniz, such as the identity of indiscernibles.

Note that numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 on this list were Jews who emigrated to America.

10 Things I Learned: Tyler Cowen

That is a short interview with me from Northern Virginia magazine, here is one excerpt:

When did you feel you had “made it”?

Jan. 21, 1962 (his birthday). That was a turning point of sorts for me.

How do you define success?

Learning something new all the time, and staying healthy. Getting paid. Interacting with smart people. Having the chance to pass something along to others.

And:

What do you do after a disappointment?

Bid higher next time.

Give us an idea of your work/life balance philosophy.

Do I even try to do balance? For me they are more or less the same. I know that makes me difficult. But I’ve ended up writing about what were once hobbies, and using so-called “leisure” time to prepare for research, writing, speaking and so on. My social life is pretty closely tied to my work life.

And at the end:

Any advice for those who are going into your field?

Listen also to the advice of people who are not in your field. A lot of budding academics listen too much to their advisor and don’t receive enough feedback and mentoring from a broader set of sources.

Self-recommended!

*Prohibition: A Concise History*

That is a new and truly excellent book by W.J. Rorabaugh.  It is a perfect 116 pp. of text and a model for what many other books should be.

From 1825 to 1850, the per capita consumption of alcohol in the United States dropped by half, due largely to religious influence.

As late as 1914, alcohol taxes accounted for 35 percent of the revenue of the federal government.

The Russian government moved to prohibition during WWI, and the resulting loss of revenue was a significant factor contributing to the downfall of the regime.

Note that “per capita consumption of alcohol was reduced for a very long time.”  If you were born in 1900, for instance, you could not legally drink until 1933, at the age of thirty-three, a relatively late age for this habit to form.

Today “more than half of Mexican American women are teetotalers.”  And: “African Americans continue to be light drinkers, and more than half of black women do not drink.”

Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.

That was then, this is now, a continuing series

This is part of a letter from Miss Howe to Miss Clarissa Harlowe, from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa [1748].

You and I have often retrospected the faces and minds of grown people; that is to say, have formed images for their present appearances, outside and in, (as far as the manners of the persons would justify us in the latter) what sort of figures they made when boys and girls. And I’ll tell you the lights in which HICKMAN, SOLMES, and LOVELACE, our three heroes, have appeared to me, supposing them boys at school.

Solmes I have imagined to be a little sordid, pilfering rogue, who would purloin from every body, and beg every body’s bread and butter from him; while, as I have heard a reptile brag, he would in a winter-morning spit upon his thumbs, and spread his own with it, that he might keep it all to himself.

Hickman, a great overgrown, lank-haired, chubby boy, who would be hunched and punched by every body; and go home with his finger in his eye, and tell his mother.

While Lovelace I have supposed a curl-pated villain, full of fire, fancy, and mischief; an orchard-robber, a wall-climber, a horse-rider without saddle or bridle, neck or nothing: a sturdy rogue, in short, who would kick and cuff, and do no right, and take no wrong of any body; would get his head broke, then a plaster for it, or let it heal of itself; while he went on to do more mischief, and if not to get, to deserve, broken bones. And the same dispositions have grown up with them, and distinguish them as me, with no very material alteration.

Only that all men are monkeys more or less, or else that you and I should have such baboons as these to choose out of, is a mortifying thing, my dear.

I am enjoying this splendid book for the first time, and yes it is OK to read an abridged edition.

That was then, this is now

Politicians were not shy about discussing sexual pleasure, even as a matter of state business.  During Jefferson’s second term, when the ambassador from Tunis arrived in Washington, he requested that the secretary of state make his stay complete by providing him and his entourage with concubines.  Madison (generally portrayed as prim and proper) charged the ambassador’s pleasure to the government, listing “Georgia a Greek,” as one of the expenses among “appropriations for foreign intercourse”  He made light of the incident in a letter to Jefferson, noting the double meaning of “foreign intercourse.”

That is from Nancy Isenberg’s excellent Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.  I also learned that Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and that late in his life Burr spent time with Bentham, was intrigued by the Panopticon idea, and he may have influenced Bentham on suffrage

My favorite things Ukraine

I am just arriving, and for the first time  Here are my favorites:

1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin.  Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa.  But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others.  Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists.  So we are into A++ territory here.  But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine!  My head is exploding now.

1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.

2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts.  Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.

3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian.  But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian.  His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known.  A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him.  For short stories there is Isaac Babel.  Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem.  Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin.  The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.

4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization.  With Dovshenko as my favorite director.

5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera.  It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.

6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group.  Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.

7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.

8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises.  He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.

9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.

10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.

11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.

12. Legal scholar, blogger, and First Amendment advocate: Eugene Volokh.  And don’t forget Sasha!

Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan.  The region produced a few good chess players too.

Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian.  They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.

How phony was the “phony war”?

It is misleading to think of 1939-1940 as the phoney war or twilight war, or the Sitz-krieg, or bore-war, with all the sense of lack of authenticity and reality these terms now convey.  This was war as Britain and France wanted to wage it and win it.  The dominant propaganda line in Britain in the early months of the war was ‘assurance of victory’, the policy was economic offence and military defence.  Britain was fighting a war ‘for King, for Empire, and for Freedom’, as British propaganda put it.  One reason we still think of the early war as phoney is that the air force was not used for bombing and that Germany was not attacked on land either.  But the navy went on the offensive.  German shipping and trade were swept from the seas.  Imports into Germany were blocked, and from November 1939 its exports too, both extraordinary changes to a world economic system in which Germany was a more significant trader than France.

That is from the quite good Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton.

Dan Wang on how technology grows

It is a short essay, here are a few scattered bits:

The real output of the US manufacturing sector is at a lower level than before the 2008 recession; that means that there has not been real growth in US manufacturing for an entire decade. (In fact, this measure may be too rosy—the ITIF has put forward an argument that manufacturing output measures are skewed by excessive quality adjustments in computer speeds. Take away computers, which fewer and fewer people are buying these days, and US real output in manufacturing would be meaningfully lower.) Manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 at nearly 20 million workers; it fell to 17 million in 2000, 14 million in 2008, and stands at 12 million today. The US population has grown by 40% since 1979, while the number of manufacturing workers has nearly halved.

And:

I think we should try to hold on to process knowledge.

Japan’s Ise Grand Shrine is an extraordinary example in that genre. Every 20 years, caretakers completely tear down the shrine and build it anew. The wooden shrine has been rebuilt again and again for 1,200 years. Locals want to make sure that they don’t ever forget the production knowledge that goes into constructing the shrine. There’s a very clear sense that the older generation wants to teach the building techniques to the younger generation: “I will leave these duties to you next time.”

And:

There’s an entertaining line in the Brad Setser piece I linked to earlier. He tells us that one of the reasons that the US has such a high surplus in the services trade is that Americans have a low propensity to travel abroad. I don’t view that as a great way to earn a trade surplus.

There is much more at the link.

Are there more spies than you think?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

We tend to focus on the cloak and dagger side of the KGB and successor institutions, but they’re also just government agencies trying to boost their budgets and achieve higher status in their home country. In other words, spy agencies play the typical bureaucratic games.

To maintain their status and privileged perch, spy agencies may try to take credit for as many activities as possible. This emphasis of quantity over quality is a typical bureaucratic response to a political system based on imperfect information. It is hard for national leaders to judge how effective their spy agencies are, so the spy agencies want to pass along good numbers, much as a corporation might try to slant its quarterly earnings report.

And:

John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence, admitted in 2006 that the U.S. was deploying about 100,000 spies around the world. Given that the U.S. is the world’s technology and military leader, and yet has a relatively small share of global population, is it so crazy to think the number of people spying on us is larger than that?

Do read the whole thing.

Noah Smith on the Gennaioli and Shleifer theory of the great recession

Gennaioli and Shleifer explain these patterns by turning to their own preferred theory of human irrationality — the theory of extrapolative expectations. Basically, this theory holds that when asset prices rise — home values, stocks and so on — without a break, investors start to believe that this trend represents a new normal. They pile into the asset, pumping up the price even more, and seeming to confirm the idea that the trend will never end. But when the extrapolators’ money runs out, reality sets in and a crash ensues. Gennaioli, Shleifer, and their coauthors have been only one of several teams of researchers to investigate this idea and its implications in recent years.

When extrapolative expectations are combined with an inherently fragile financial system, a predictable cycle of booms and busts is the result. At some point during good economic times, irrational exuberance takes hold, pushing stock prices, house values, or both into the stratosphere. When they inevitably come down, banks collapse, taking the rest of the economy with them.

Here is his full Bloomberg column.  Here slides from the authors.

What does the pessimistic scenario look like?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  No, these are not forecasts, but which of them are so far from the current reality?:

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

And:

Other technologies will indeed provide a bounty, but not all of it will be positive. Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

Do read the whole thing, which includes a discussion of “my own petty gripes.”  Consider it your pick-me-up for this morning.