Results for “my favorite things”
241 found

What I’ve been reading

1. Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Technique.  Dense but carefully argued and consistently insightful, perhaps the best introduction to its subject matter.  It is especially strong on how Kierkegaard’s Lutheranism informed his critique of Hegel, his supernaturalism, and his strong opposition to complacency.

Kierkegaard also was an influence on my Stubborn Attachments, as Hampson writes: “Given that faith is to look beyond ourselves to Christ, the ‘future’ is for Lutheranism a critical category.  In the thought of the 20th-century Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann ‘future’ and ‘God’ become concomitant.  The relation to this future, to God, takes one outside oneself, whereas to rest on my laurels (my past) is of the essence of sin.  As we shall see, for Kierkegaard, relating to the idea of eternal life is existentially life-transforming.  It follows that in this tradition there is little continuity of person, for one and again I must break myself open (in my self-satisfaction) as I consent to dependence on God.”


2. Johnny Rogan, Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: Volume 2: The Lives of Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin.  Full of amazing and loving detail, this volume covers the less famous of the Byrds, and why their careers did not go further; whether in business or the arts, we spend too much time studying the winners.  Here are my earlier remarks on Rogan’s earlier editions as an extended essay on management theory and career advice.

3. Michael D. Barr, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence.  From 2013, but all the more relevant today.  Barr’s coverage is insufficiently appreciative of good results, but nonetheless offers an invaluable “how things really work” guide to Singaporean government, most of all on where accountability lies and where it does not.  There is guesswork involved, but this book offers plenty of details and analysis you won’t get elsewhere.

4. Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon: The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Age.  Published in 1964, before Kissinger became Kissinger, although he is a war criminal this volume shows the quality of his thought: “…an equilibrium based on considerations of power is the most difficult of all to establish, particularly in a revolutionary period following a long peace.  Lulled by the memory of stability, states tend to seek security in activity and to mistake impotence for lack of provocation.”  The person who recommended this volume to me told me it would explain why the internal and external requirements for foreign policy on the Continent are much more in accord than they are for either England or America.  It does no such thing, so I still would like to read on that question.

Jack Schneider, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.  Under a true value added measure, the schools in Somerville, Massachusetts turn out to be quite good, even though their raw test scores are not impressive.

David Osborne, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Education System, covers how charter schools are transforming the American educational landscape.

The superb Michael Hofmann

…the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages.

That is from his NYT review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.  It is so far my favorite review of the year.  Here is another good part:

When the young duke reeled him in, the barely older Goethe performed the duties of a cabinet minister. He built roads. He oversaw mines. He was put in charge of a theater. He shrank the deficit. He was someone at court. He put Weimar on the map. He met Napoleon, he met Beethoven. He corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt. He helped Schiller run a literary magazine. He was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.

There is something almost clownishly omni-competent about Goethe. He was a great beginner who ultimately finished most of the things he began. (“Faust,” which he had on the go for about 60 years, was completed in the last year of his life; Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” look by comparison like something finished the following morning.) He was interested in geology and anatomy, he developed a theory of color, he made watercolors and sketches himself, 3,000 of them. He went looking for something called the Urpflanze — the basic, or original, or prototypical, plant. He acted in his own plays. He wrote poems in many modes effortlessly. They entered the language (German, that is). When he finally grew frustrated with his married friend Charlotte von Stein, he eloped with Italy for a couple of years. He buried his wife; he buried his one surviving son. He buried his best friend, who died at 45. Near the end of his life, he gave perhaps the best description of himself, as “a collective singular consisting of several persons with the same name.” We rarely see or feel the hand in the many glove-puppets.

Here are earlier MR posts on Hofmann, one of the most underrated writers and thinkers today.

What I’ve been reading

1. William Vaughan, Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall.  Another first-rate Yale University Press book of art plates and art history, for this they are the best.  Get a hold of as many of them as you can.

2. Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak.  This short Chinese noir novel, with a dash of Murakami, is one of my year’s favorites and also one of this year’s “cool books.”  I finished it in one sitting.  Set in Beijing, the protagonist sells audio equipment, and then strange things happen.  Here is a good interview with the author.

3. David J. Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.  So far I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, but I am surprised it is not receiving more positive attention.  It seems like one of the most thorough and smart and thoughtful biographies of any American president.  It has plenty of detail on Obama’s life and career, and you can learn what Obama’s ex-girlfriend says about how he was in bed at age 22 (“he neither came off as experienced nor inexperienced”, [FU Aristotle!])  Yes, at 1084 pp. of text this is more than I want to know, but what’s not to like?  Here is a good Brent Staples NYT review.  Garrow cribs his main narrative — the artificial construction of his blackness — from Rev. Wright and Steve Sailer, and doesn’t exactly credit them, although that (the former, not the latter) may explain why the mainstream reception has been so tepid.

4. Franklin Foer, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.  The title says it all.  I disagreed with almost everything in this book, still it is useful to see where the Zeitgeist is headed.

5. The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, assorted authors and editors and photographers.  One of the best and most readable introductions to Incan civilization.  I’ll say it again: you all should be reading more picture books!  They are one of the best ways to actually learn.

Two useful books for presenting meta-information on learning things are:

Ulrich Boser, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, and

Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

And Thomas W. Hazlett, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone, is a very learned, market-oriented look at what the title promises.

*Dreaming the Beatles*

The author is Rob Sheffield and the subtitle is The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.  So far this year this is my favorite book, in part because it stretches genres in a creative way.  In addition to being a study of fandom, celebrity, 1960s history, “how boys think about girls,” and of course the music itself, it is most of all a splendid take on small group cooperation, management, and the dynamic between John and Paul.  I enjoyed every page of this book, and learned a great deal, despite having read many other books on the Beatles.  Here is a typical passage”

The Beatles invented most of what rock stars do…They invented breaking up. They invented drugs. They invented long hair, going to India, having a guru, round glasses, solo careers, beards, press conferences, divisive girlfriends, writing your own songs, funny drummers. They invented the idea of assembling a global mass audience and then challenging, disappointing, confusing this audience. As far as the rest of the planet is concerned, they invented England.

A few of the more specific things I learned were:

1. For a while Stanley Kubrick was planning on making a movie version of Lord of the Rings with Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, and John as Gollum.  George was to be Gandalf.

2. When the cops raided Keith Richards’s mansion in 1967 and found cocaine, they threw it away because they had never seen it before and didn’t know what it was.

3. When Paul McCartney played an acetate of “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Bob Dylan, Dylan’s response was “Oh, I get it.  You don’t want to be cute anymore.”

4. The French title for “A Hard Day’s Night” was Quatre Garcons Dans Le Vent, which translates roughly as “Four Boys in the Wind.”

The book is funny too:

I always loved this sentence in Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Eighties edition I had in college: “The previous edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves included a brief section on astrological birth control, which just doesn’t work.”  So much going on in that sentence, dispatched with no drama.  Maybe a shade of irony, but no hand-wringing — just a change of mind announced as efficiently and discreetly and decisively as possible.


Paul has a compulsive need to feed his enemies all the ammunition they could want.  The software of “don’t take the bait” was never installed in his system.  No celebrity has ever been easier to goad into gaffes.  I love that.


As Lennon snapped in 1980, after getting asked one too many times if they [he and Paul] still spoke, “He’s got 25 kids and about 20,000,000 records out.  How can he spend time talking?  He’s always working.”

On the revisionist upswing in this book are Rubber Soul, “I’m so Tired,” “It Won’t Be Long,” and John Lennon’s “God.”  On the revisionist downswing is Let It Be and Paul McCartney’s “My Love.”

Not for the unconverted, but I’m glad to see people writing books with me as the intended audience.  Here is a quite insightful review, in which Chris Taylor writes: “…it may be the first book to encompass the entire Beatlegeist. If aliens land tomorrow, and demand to know why we keep on pumping this particular brand of music into space, this is the first book you would hand them.”

Why do people play chess again?

According to Donner: “The whole point of the game [is] to prevent an artistic performance.” The former world champion Garry Kasparov makes the same point. “The highest art of the chess player,” he says, “lies in not allowing your opponent to show you what he can do.” Always the other player is there trying to wreck your masterpiece. Chess, Donner insists, is a struggle, a fight to the death. “When one of the two players has imposed his will on the other and can at last begin to be freely creative, the game is over. That is the moment when, among masters, the opponent resigns. That is why chess is not art. No, chess cannot be compared with anything. Many things can be compared with chess, but chess is only chess.”

That is Stephen Moss at The Guardian.  Along related lines, I very much enjoyed Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World.  It’s one of my favorite books of the year so far, but it’s so miserable I can’t recommend it to anyone.  It’s a book about chess, and it doesn’t even focus on the great players.  It’s about the players who are good enough to make a living — ever so barely — but not do any better.  It serves up sentences such as:

Surely the money in chess is so bad that this can’t be all you do for a living?  But in fact in my experience, the majority of chess players rated over 2400 tend to just do chess.  If not playing, then something related to it, like coaching or DVDs.  That’s because we’re lazy, so making the monumental effort of a complete change in career is just too frightening a prospect.  So we stick with chess, even though the pay tends to be lousy, because most of our friends and contacts are chess players.  Our life is chess.  As a rough estimate, I would say there are as many 2600 players making less than £20,000 a year.


Stability. I had this conversation with German number one Arkadij Naidisch at a blitz tournament in Scotland about a year ago. (there I go, name-dropping again.)  He suggested that a lot of people don’t achieve their goals because they just aren’t stable enough.  They’ll have a fantastic result somewhere, but then that’ll be let down by a terrible tournament somewhere else.

…The problem is it’s hard to break out of the habits of a lifetime.  Many times at home I’ve said to myself while sitting around depressed about my future and where my chess is going, “tomorrow will be different.  I’ll get up and study six-eight hours studying chess.”  But it never happens.

Overall biography and autobiography are far too specialized in the lives of the famous and successful.

Seeing China through its economic history

That is my new Bloomberg View column, here are some excerpts:

Enter Richard von Glahn’s “The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century,” a book likely to go down as one of the year’s best. Over the last 15 years, the economics profession has gone from a poor understanding of China’s economic history to knowing quite a bit. Von Glahn’s exhaustive but readable book is the best guide to this rapidly growing body of knowledge.

…a lot of autocratic Chinese regimes in history have proven stable even in periods of fairly slow economic growth. It can take them centuries to fall and be replaced, and even then a foreign invasion, like ones by the Mongols or Manchus, may be required.

From today’s media, one sometimes receives the impression that a Chinese growth rate below 4 or 6 percent could mean radical instability and a rapid fall of the government, but Chinese history does not show this pattern. That is hardly proof of how things will run in the future, but it should shift our expectations in the direction of greater Chinese political stability.

Other times, Chinese regimes can fall for what might at first appear to be relatively arbitrary reasons.  And the key point is this:

If there is a single common theme running through the many centuries covered by this book, it is the never-fully-successful quest of the Chinese state for revenue and fiscal stability. One reason China fell behind Western Europe in the 18th century is simply that the Chinese state spent less on creating valuable public goods and infrastructure.

In 1993, 15 years after it began making market-oriented reforms, the Chinese central government’s direct revenue was only 3 percent  of gross domestic product, with the usual caveat that no Chinese numbers should be taken as exact measures. Only in the last 10 years has that revenue share exceeded 10 percent of GDP; by comparison, in the U.S. in normal times that number sits in the range of 17 to 18 percent. For all the images Americans might have of China’s government as a communist behemoth, the country’s political order is better understood as still somewhat immature.

Do read the whole thing.  You can order Glahn’s book here, it is one of my favorites of the year so far.

Monday assorted links

1. “Pyongyang had been a hotbed of Christianity before the Korean War.

2. “What about Montana? Nobody even lists it on lists of obscure states. Now that’s obscure.” #winner

3. Vegansexuals.  And what is the equilibrium without the plastic surgery?

4. Markets in everything: rage yoga (warning: the link eventually plays a video).

5. A criticism of Moral Foundations Theory.

6. The move of one billionaire to Florida can upset NJ state revenue projections.

7. The economics of NPR.

Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare

From the Diaries, April 13th, 1930:

I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing.  When my mind is agape and red-hot.  Then it is astonishing.  I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.  Even the less known plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.  Look at this.  “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.”  (That is a pure accident.  I happen to light on it.)  Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; and, relaxing, let fall a shower of such unregarded flowers.  Why then should anyone else attempt to write?  This is not “writing” at all.  Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

By the way, she notes that Keynes’s favorite novel of hers was The Years, which he preferred over the harder to understand The Waves.

Paul Krugman on productivity stagnation

That is the topic of his column today, I had not seen this very good point before:

One possibility is that the numbers are missing the reality, especially the benefits of new products and services. I get a lot of pleasure from technology that lets me watch streamed performances by my favorite musicians, but that doesn’t get counted in G.D.P. Still, new technology is supposed to serve businesses as well as consumers, and should be boosting the production of traditional as well as new goods. The big productivity gains of the period from 1995 to 2005 came largely in things like inventory control, and showed up as much or more in nontechnology businesses like retail as in high-technology industries themselves. Nothing like that is happening now.

Overall Krugman is agnostic on the stagnation argument.

Assorted links

1. Cass Sunstein on Partyism, the academic paper.

2. ‘Be relentless in your questioning about the hardware. Astronaut selection is the least of their worries.’  There is more here: “Yet she would be willing to leave her husband behind should a Mars passport bear her name.”

3. A short essay on Mother’s Day.

4. Ten things political scientists know that many of us know too (pdf).  And Argentina werewolf myth debunked.

5. 2014 favorite things from Uncouth Reflections.

6. Sex and the Industrial Revolution.

7. Japan photo essay by Legal Nomads.  She is one of the people I envy.

The economic recovery in the United Kingdom

There is an excellent Chris Giles FT article on this topic, here is the bit of greatest interest to some recent debates:

The latest IMF fiscal monitor shows a cyclically-adjusted deficit of 5.9 per cent of national income in 2011, falling only to 5.7 per cent in 2012. This 0.2 percentage point drop in the cyclically-adjusted deficit appears tiny compared with the 2010 vintage of the same IMF document, which shows plans for a 1.4 percentage point decline over the same two years.

That’s not my favorite measure of fiscal stance, but it is the one most commonly cited.  What we see is that “austerity didn’t get much worse,” to borrow the language of many of the Keynesians.  It remains a mystery to me how this could account for the British recovery, as for instance expressed by Krugman:

Finally, Britain is growing much faster right now than I expected. Fundamental model flaw? I don’t think so. As Simon Wren-Lewis has pointed out repeatedly, the Cameron government essentially stopped tightening fiscal policy before the upturn, which means in effect that the “x” in my equation didn’t do what I thought it would. On top of that, there was a drop in private savings, which is one of those things that happens now and then.The point is that the deviation of British growth from what a standard Keynesian model would have predicted, while real, wasn’t out of line with the normal range of variation-due-to-stuff-happening; nothing there that warranted a major revision of framework.

I would say the fiscal stance of the British government stayed more or less the same, and a rapid recovery came, because the labor market was flexible and market economies have a natural (though in my view not universal) tendency to mean-revert and put unemployed resources back to work.  Furthermore the UK had a relatively loose monetary policy, which sustained nominal values, even in light of a supposed liquidity trap.  (The hypothesis that the relatively high inflation rate came from a VAT hike didn’t last long.)

I took the Keynesian position on Britain to be “they are in a liquidity trap, and possibly secular stagnation, so they will just sit there and not experience any natural tendency toward major recovery, at least not for a long time.”  If the current Keynesian position (would it now be the New New Old Keynesian view?) is “in the absence of additional negative shocks, even in a liquidity trap market economies have a natural tendency to mean-revert and put unemployed resources back to work pretty quickly,”…well, I guess I am more of a Keynesian than I used to think.

Addendum: The article also offers this:

UK officials have no time for such comparisons, based on “spurious cyclical adjustment”. The Treasury said: “It’s interesting how the people who have started saying that we eased up on austerity are the very same people who just a few months earlier were accusing us of doggedly sticking to it. We have been consistent and stuck to the plans we set out.”

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility provides data with which to arbitrate this dispute. On the public spending side, there is no evidence of a secret stimulus. Public expenditure in 2012 and 2013 was a little lower than the level planned in 2010.

Its data also show there were no significant changes to the UK tax system in 2012-13, so no deliberate stimulus. Tax revenues, by contrast, were much weaker than expected as the economy stagnated, showing the strength of the automatic stabilisers in Britain.

Measures of the degree of fiscal tightening that do not rely on tax revenues, but changes in the tax system, such as those from the OBR or the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, still show as much austerity in 2012 and 2013 as they did in 2010.

Sorry guys, but I have to call this one for some version of the classical hypothesis.  And by the way, I still think the UK recovery is relatively fragile, but not for reasons which have much to do with traditional Keynesianism.

Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post, and his plan to take over the media world (speculative)

Remember Sherlock Holmes and the dog which did not bark?  WaPo remains very much in the running to be the up-and-coming mega-web site which succeeds.  Perhaps the model is a Coasean one:

Much of the media world has been waiting with bated breath since Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million last year, eager to see some sign of the Amazon founder and CEO’s hand at work. The first tangible evidence appeared on Tuesday, when the newspaper announced a major national subscription partnership that will offer free digital access to readers of other newspapers in major U.S. cities.

While this may not be as dramatic as shutting down the printing presses to go web-only, or offering everyone a free Kindle with their subscription, it’s still a fairly dramatic departure from the approach taken not just by the Washington Post but by most newspapers with traditional management.

The partnership — which will see the Post provide free digital access to subscribers of newspapers like The Dallas Morning News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — allows the Post to (theoretically at least) build a broader online readership outside of its core subscription area. As the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, the Post effectively ceded the national newspaper market to the New York Times by not launching a national edition, but the partnership could give it a way of achieving the same thing at much lower cost.

One possible model at work here is simply to buy the best content from everyone else, at cut-rate prices, relying on the willingness of outside sources to price discriminate and shed some marginal IP rights for some marginal revenue.  Before the rest of the world is fully aware of what is going on, suddenly you have one of the best news web sites.

But wait, doesn’t this article say the Post is giving free access to its content to other newspapers?  Here is where Coasean contracting, and symmetry of externalities, enters the picture.  WaPo giving free access to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, or vice versa, end up being pretty much the same thing (over time, with renegotiations) in a world of Coasean contracting.  WaPo will end up becoming the hub and the others will be feeder spokes, with Wapo paying a fraction of the cost for the content it receives from each one.  (And I suspect there will be no easy “cross-access” of say the Minneapolis paper to the Pittsburgh paper, and so on, to limit the evolution of a rival hub.)  Furthermore, at least in the short run, the marketing work is being done by other newspapers, not by WaPo.

Over time the WaPo web site can buy bits of content from Le Monde and FAZ (translated by software programs, of course), The Guardian, The (London) Times, various local U.S. papers, London Review of Books, Boston Review, and who knows where else?  Probably only a few outlets, such as WSJ and NYT, will refuse to sell content to them at cut-rate prices.  If there is low marginal cost there will be price discrimination, so why not be the one buying on the low part of the demand curve and avoiding most of the costs?

Plus hire a few blogs while you are at it, see how that goes, and maybe over time reel in a few hundred of them.  Why not?  We’ve already seen some moves in this direction, with The Monkey Cage and Volokh Conspiracy.

How about some music streaming while we are at it?

How about calling it…”Amazon for News”?  And for other stuff too.  By the way, this hypothesis helps explain why Bezos doesn’t feel any great need to shake up the current WaPo newsroom.

In this model there is a cannibalization effect and the price and value of content end up falling.  Does that sound familiar?

Never underestimate how smart really smart people are.

For a further explication of what I take to be the Bezos business model, see my old MR post, “Luring Alex to Lunch,” still one of my favorites and a meditation on whether or not you should produce and write all of your own content.  (We don’t, and our model is sustainable.)  And thus, sometimes, I manage to lure Alex to lunch.  Here is how Alex feels about lunch.  That hasn’t changed.

Gabriel Axel, RIP

He was the director of Babette’s Feast and he just passed away at age 95.  What stuck with me most from that movie, and what is one of my favorite sentences ever, Axel himself cited upon receiving an Oscar:

Mr. Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he took the podium in Los Angeles in April 1988 to accept the award. After saying his thank-yous, he quoted a line from his film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

The obituary is here.

The innovations issue of *The New York Times*

You will find it here, and clicking through the side show of previous innovations, and their history, is fascinating.  I enjoyed this part of the accompanying write-up from Hugo Lindgren:

On his blog, Marginal Revolution, Cowen furthers his point by declaring sarcastically that “there is no great stagnation” and providing links to silly products or applications of technology, like a machine that tosses popcorn into your mouth from up to 15 feet away.  It’s called The Popinator.  Someone thought this up — first as a marketing stunt, but now they’re trying to make an actual product.  Someone also thought up the Ostrich Pillow, a big, comfy thing that you can stick your head into and nap in public places.  My favorite of Cowen’s collection is a gun for shooting salt pellets at insects — the Bug-A-Salt!  I also like the remote-controlled cockroach, a technology which has not yet been commercialized.  But maybe one day.

Cowen’s point is that under the hood of our hallowed free market is a bazaar of nutty, half-cocked ideas which do not advance the greater cause of humanity one tiny bit.  But there’s another interpretation, too, which is: The sheer volume and range of these inventions demonstrate a rapidly growing range of problem solvers with the tools to turn their ideas into tangible things.

You can read about the history of the ant farm here.