Results for “best non-fiction”
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Will the decline of galleries reshape art?

Heidi Mitchell reports (NYT):

“The gallery is a format that is struggling,” said the Argentine curator Ximena Caminos, formerly of the Malba museum in Buenos Aires and now chief creative officer of the Honey Lab cultural space in Miami’s Blue Heron hotel and residential project, which is now under development. “It’s transactional; the artist doesn’t have that much creative freedom, and there is a lot of pressure to make money in a short period of time.” Artists, she said, are seeking new places to showcase their work, especially if the pieces are large in scale.

If the number and relevance of galleries were to decline (continue to decline?), how might this affect artistic content?  Here are a few hypotheses:

1. More artists will commission pieces for corporate lobbies and condominiums, as the article reports.  That will tend to favor mainstream abstract art and disfavor political statements and obscenities.

Erica Samuels notes:

“There is a great responsibility on the real estate developers that maybe they don’t even realize, while at the same time, the stigma of an artist working with a rich developer is fading.”

2. Corporate-owned works are usually less liquid and may not be sold at all, short of bankruptcy or liquidity crunches, when they are sold under panic conditions.  Artists therefore will be less likely to have dominant dealers who prop up their prices and cultivate markets for them.  That will likely encourage greater artistic output, though also lower quality output, as might be defined by elites.  The resulting art will have to appeal to buyers at first glance, as the artist cannot count upon “sophisticated” galleries to persuade or educate potential buyers.

3. Some artists will take their craft directly to the street, as is done in Belfast or Newark, New Jersey.  They will paint for local community status, and for the joy of it, and for political self-expression, rather than for pay.  They will use cheaper materials, brighter colors, and indulge in themes and images with strong local meaning.  Political art and paid art will separate further.

4. Galleries pursue their own coherent reputations, which encourages carried artists to fit into slots which match gallery reputations.  So there are “conceptual art galleries,” “Pop Art galleries,” and so on, and artists in turn target those styles, so as to achieve entry to galleries.  When galleries are weaker, the slottable categories are created by some other set of intermediaries — might it someday be Instagram hashtags?  eBay search terms?  Something else?  In any case, those new slots or styles might have to be less “you know it when you see it” and more “you can type those words into a search function.”

5. The decline of browsing has hit published books as well, especially fiction, which saw a big decline in sales over 2013-2017: “The most commonly shared view is that it has become extremely difficult to generate exposure for novels. Fiction, more than nonfiction, depends on readers discovering new books by browsing. Now, with the number of physical stores down from five years ago (despite a rise in ABA membership), publishers cannot rely on bricks-and-mortar stores providing customers with access to new books.”  It is easier to type the topic of a non-fiction book into a search function.  In this world it is harder to develop new authors [artists], and the link directly above, while about books, is a good way to start thinking about the galleries issue.

6. Most galleries, either intentionally or not, create a distinction between what is shown on the floor and what is held in the back room.  Non-gallery art is less likely to be bifurcated in the same way, even if some pieces are more prominent on the home page than others.  That may make internet-displayed art less “bubbly,” less subject to elite manipulations and prejudices and enlightenments, and also both fuzzier and lower in price.

7. If there are fewer galleries, perhaps more will be bought and sold at auction.  The winning bidder will be less likely to be ripped off by say 3x on the price, so it will be easier to experiment with buying unfamiliar styles: “I liked the Persian carpet I saw at Sotheby’s, and figured the winning bid wouldn’t have too much winner’s curse in it.”  You can’t say the same when you go to a gallery relatively uninformed.

8. Galleries offer high implicit returns to regular buyers, who end up getting a crack at the best works in advance, even before the show opens.  That encourages buyer specialization, whereas internet and auction-based methods of selling do not.

9. What else?

*Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom*

Although it can never really be measured, he may also have been, along with Mark Twain, the most widely traveled American public figure of his century…It is likely that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other public figure of his times.  Indeed, to see or hear Douglass became a kind of wonder of the American world.  He struggled as well, with the pleasure and perils of fame as much as anyone else in his century, with the possible exceptions of General Ulysses S. Grant or P.T. Barnum.  Douglass’s dilemma with fame was a matter of decades, not merely of moments, and fraught with racism.

That is from the new David W. Blight biography of Douglass, outstanding in every way, appearing to rave reviews, and slated for the top tier of the year’s “Best of 2018” non-fiction list.

What I’ve been reading

Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies.  I didn’t quite come away with a takeaway from this book, but still I feel obliged to pass knowledge of it along to you.  It is a bunch of essays about economic themes in science fiction, and/or how the two “genres” might be more closely integrated, with a lead essay by Ha-Joon Chang.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.  Could this new book be the single best brief introduction to Reconstruction available?  Recommended.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.  I loved this book, which I also consider a paradigmatic example of how to write a wonderful non-fiction work.  Throughout it is clear, substantive, balanced, passes various ideological Turing tests, and it focuses on essentials, as well as framing everything in terms of broader theories of social change.  It is sure to make my best books of the year list, and if she had ten other books I would buy them all sight unseen.  Here is Dufton’s home page.

Bekelech Tola, Injera Variety from Crop Diversity.  She explains where all the different types of injera come from.  I hadn’t realized for instance that teff is sometimes mixed with maize, or sorghum flour, or cassava powder, all in the service of variety.

My advice for a Paris visit

This is for another friend, here are my pointers:

1. Find a very good food street/corner and take many of your meals there.  I’ve used Rue Daguerre and around Rue des Arts (Left Bank) for this purpose, but there are many others.  Spend most of your money in the cheese shop, asking them to choose for you, but supplement with bread, fruit, and of course chocolate.  This beats most restaurant meals, noting it won’t be cheap either.  And yes it is worth paying $8 for a bar of chocolate there.

2. Do track down medieval Paris, most of all the cathedrals.  This will bring you by other delights as well.

3. Especially on the Left Bank, Paris is one of the very best walking cities.  Avoid Champs-Élysées and environs, a broad-avenued, chain store-intense corruption of what Paris ought to be.  Avoid Jardin Luxembourg and the surrounding parts as well, they are urban deserts.

4. Get a peek of the major bridges over the Seine, if only by traversing them.

5. You don’t in fact have to stand in line to see the Mona Lisa.  It’s a lovely painting, but at this point in human civilization it is OK to skip it.  You don’t need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again either.  But you should go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in the Louvre, don’t neglect the Poussin room, the Michelangelo sculptures, or the Flemish and 17th century works.

6. The Louvre, d’Orsay, Cluny, and Branly (ethnographic) are the essential museums in town.  Check out Grand Palais and Petit Palais for possible exhibits.  When walking around, keep your eye out for posters (yes, posters) advertising exhibits and concerts.

7. If you want to spend forty euros for a very good but not revelatory lunch, find a “cool” area with lots of restaurants and poke your head in at their opening, at 12:30, to ask for a table.  By 12:45 it is too late and you are screwed and back to your favorite cheese shop.  By the way, I don’t think Paris is the best city in which to spend $200 on a meal.

8. In most of the parts of Paris you are likely to frequent, do not try to eat any Asian or “ethnic” foods.  The best restaurants of those kinds are in north Paris, on the way to the airport, but no one visits there.  Couscous in Paris is boring.

9. Belleville is the gentrifying Brooklyn of Paris, with relatively few tourists, if that is what you are looking for.  Avoid Montmartre.  For practical reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Paris time near Unesco, in a neighborhood that is a bit sterile but very beautiful and it gives you a decent sense of well-to-do residential Paris life.  Develop your mini-Paris residential life somewhere, and make your time there more than just a tourist visit.  The site I should not enjoy but do is Le Dôme des Invalides, also the tomb of Napoleon.

10. The essential Paris movies are lots of Godard (Breathless, Band of Outsiders, others), Jules and Jim, and Triplets of Belleville.  Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for those with an experimental bent.  Eric Rohmer for something light-hearted.  Amélie and Before Sunset are both rewarding, though at the margin Godard usually is what Americans are lacking.

11. Carry along Hugo and Balzac to read.  Flaubert and Proust are wonderful, but they are more “interior” authors and thus you can imbibe them anywhere.  Do not forget Houllebecq’s Submission.  I do not love most of the well-known non-fiction books on Paris; perhaps they become corrupted through the chance of being truly popular.  Do read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France and try to dig up a useful architectural guide to the city.  I’m also a big fan of Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

12. Don’t go expecting Parisians to be rude, I have never (well, once) found that to be the case in more than six months spent in the city.

13. My overall take is this: Paris today is fairly sterile in terms of overall creativity, or for that matter business dynamism.  But Parisians have perfected the art of taste along a number of notable dimensions, like nowhere else in the world.  If your trip allows you to free ride upon those efforts in a meaningful way, it will go very well.

My favorite or most influential Spanish-language works

Greg Irving emails me:

Hello Prof. Cowen,

I wonder if you might be tempted to create a blog post, at your convenience, of Spanish language works, ideally read in the original, that have most impacted either a) your appreciation for some till then unknown nuance or beauty in the language or b) your knowledge of/appreciation for some aspect of life in general. Might you?

Quizás obviamente, soy alguien que va aprendiendo el idioma poco a poco sólo de interés y no de necesidad. Si usted se digna a crear una respuesta por este correo electrónico, o en su blog, me alegraría mucho. Gracias por todo el conocimiento que nos da en sus escritos y por leer mi nota.

My Spanish-language reading is slow, but these are the works I found it profitable to devote a great deal of time to.  They have influenced me significantly, and mostly I found the English-language version a poor substitute.  Here goes:

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones.  This was super-slow going, but it is one of my favorite books of all time, philosophical and conceptual and in Spanish deeply hilarious.  OK in English, but this book alone is almost reason enough to study Spanish.

2. Juan Rulfo, Pedro Paramo.  Imagine redoing parts of Dante, with more narrative, in rural Mexico and with lots of comedy.  The English-language version does not come close.

3. Julio Cortázar, Rayuela [Hopscotch].  One of my very favorite 20th century novels, again unsatisfying to me in English, I would not recommend that you try at all.  Also try his short stories, most of all Bestiario and Historias de cronopios y de famas.

4. Jose Donoso, El obsceno pájaro de la noche [The Obscene Bird of Night].  A masterpiece, quite neglected in the U.S., I found this one so hard I often had to juxtapose it with the English-language text to read it at all.

5. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Noticia de un Secuestro [Notice of a Kidnapping], and Vivir para contarla [Living in Order to Tell It].  Oddly, I think his greatest works are the non-fiction.  But these are at least pretty good in English too, unlike what is listed above.

6. Pablo Neruda.  Non-Spanish readers certainly have heard of him, or maybe like him, but don’t really have a sense of how he is one of the very greatest poets of all time.  It is Canto General, a book-length narrative poem retelling of the story of the New World, that influenced me most, but I love all the classic Neruda poems.

I don’t find it so profitable to read 17th century Cervantes in Spanish, though the defect is likely mine.  The Savage Detectives and One Hundred Years of Solitude I find as good in English as in Spanish; Marquez himself suggested that was true for this work.  Vargas Llosa is “good enough” in English, except perhaps for the inscrutable Conversation in the Cathedral, which I cannot follow in either language.  Javier Marías I find “good enough” in English.  The Goytisolo brothers are often too hard for me, not fun in English but I can’t quite manage the Spanish, perhaps in my dotage.  Fuentes has never clicked for me, period.  Hombres de maíz, by Asturias, is especially good in Spanish and pretty much neglected in the English-speaking world.

What else?

My visit to an Amazon bookstore

My commentary here is late to the party, but I had not visited a branch before.  Here are my impressions, derived from the Columbus Circle outlet in Manhattan:

1. It is a poorly designed store for me, most of all because it does not emphasize new releases.  I feel I am familiar with a lot of older titles, or I went through a more or less rational process of deciding not to become familiar with them.  Their current popularity, as measured say by Amazon rankings, does not cause me to reassess those judgments.  For me, aggregate Amazon popularity has no real predictive power, except perhaps I don’t want to buy books everyone liked.  “A really smart person says to consider this again,” however, would revise my prior estimates.

2. For me, the very best bookstore and bookstore layout is Daunt, in London, Marylebone High St.  You are hit by a blast of what is new, but also selected according to intellectual seriousness rather than popularity.  You can view many titles at the same time, because they use the “facing out” function just right for their new arrivals tables.  Some of the rest of the store is arranged “by country,” much preferable to having say China books in separate sections of history, travel, biography, and so on.

3. I am pleased that fiction is given so much space toward the front of the store.  I do not see this as good for me, but it is a worthwhile counterweight to the ongoing tendency of American book markets to reward non-fiction, or at least what is supposed to be non-fiction.

4. I have mixed feelings about the idea of all books facing outward.  On the positive side, books not facing outward tend to be ignored.  On the downside, this also limits the potential for hierarchicalization through visual display.  All books facing outwards is perhaps a bit too much like no books facing outwards.

Overall I am struck by how internet commerce is affecting Christie’s and Sotheby’s in a broadly similar fashion.  The auction houses used to put out different genres, such as Contemporary, European Painting, 20th Century, and so on, for 3-4 day windows, and then they would display virtually everything up for auction.  Now they have a single big display, with highlights from each area, and the rest viewable on-line.  That display then shows for about three weeks.  Like Amazon, they are opting to emphasize what is popular and to let on-line displays pick up the tails and niches.  In all cases, that means less turnover in the displays.  That is information-rich for infrequent visitors, who can take in more at once, but information-poor in relative terms for frequent visitors.  As a somewhat infrequent visitor to auction houses, I gain, but for bookstores I would prefer they cater to the relatively frequent patrons.

5. I am most worried by the prominent center table at the entrance, which presents “Books with 4.8 Amazon stars or higher.”  I saw a book on mixology, a picture book of Los Angeles, a Marvel comics encyclopedia, a book connected to the musical Hamilton, and a series of technique-oriented cookbooks, such as Harold McGee, a very good manual by the way.  Isabel Wilkerson was the closest they had to “my kind of intelligent non-fiction.”  Neil Hilbon represented poetry, of course his best-known book does have a five-star average, fortunately “…these poems are anything but saccharine.”

Unfortunately, the final message is that Amazon will work hard so that controversial books do not receive Amazon’s highest in-store promotions.  Why not use software to measure the quality of writing or maybe even thought in a book’s reviews, and thereby assign it a new grade?: “Here are the books the smart people chose to write about”?

6. I consider myself quite pro-Amazon, still to me it feels dystopic when an attractive young saleswoman says so cheerily to (some) customers: “Thank you for being Prime!”

7. I suspect the entire store is a front to display and sell gadgets, at least I hope it is.

8. I didn’t buy anything.

*Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States*

That is the new James C. Scott book, and so far it is the most interesting non-fiction read of the year (I am about halfway through).  You can think of it as an extended essay on which technologies actually gave rise to economies of scale, expressed through governance but not only.  Ultimately the focus settles on Mesopotamia, but the discussion is wide-ranging and the lessons are applicable to much of human history.  Here is an opening summary bit:

I propose that cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building.  I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state.  Unlike many historians, I wonder whether frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization.  And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better.

Here is one good passage:

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets.  History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana Republics” don’t qualify!)  My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing.  On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects.

In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years.  If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dip up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported.

The discussion of how the technology of fire is the ultimate root of economies of scale is alone worth the price of the book.  Scott analogizes complacency/peace to the domestication of non-human animals, including the phenomenon of less violent emotional reactions and greater conformity.

Urgently recommended, and fun to read as well.

Here are various articles on the work of James C. Scott.  Here is a good NYT profile of Scott and also his farming work.

Friday assorted links

1. A Fine Theorem on Arrow and general equilibrium theory.

2. Laura Marling is back.

3. Are living room gigs the future of live music? (noisy video at the link)  And are the best LA dumplings to be found in WeChat circles?

4. Who’s complacent?: Jimmy Buffett to launch new chain of Margaritaville retirement homes.

5. Doing without dark matter?

6. The Economist reviews The Complacent Class.  And my dialogue with Josh Barro over the book.  And thanks to all of you who bought and will buy, I am pleased the book has made #5 on the Washington Post non-fiction bestseller list.

My favorite things Nigeria

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

*CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping*

That is the new and excellent book by Kerry Brown.  Almost all books on China are either bad or mediocre, but this one is the best book I ever have read on the exercise of power in contemporary China.  Every page is good, here is a short excerpt:

More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything.  It has the broadest framework within which to operate, which means it can wander into every area of administrative and governmental life in the country.  But like the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic, in a strange way China is really run on the model of philosopher kings.

Definitely recommended, one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year so far.  I can readily imagine re-reading it.

What I’ve been reading

1. Tom Bissell, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve.  Fun, engaging, and informative, worthy of the “best of the year non-fiction” list.

2. China Miéville, Embassytown.  The first of his novels that has clicked with me, perhaps because it is the one that comes closest to being a true novel of ideas, Heideggerian ideas in this case.  A new prophecy is needed, and the nature of the new prophecy, like the old, will be shaped by language.  Just accept that upon your first reading you won’t enjoy the first one hundred pages and you should at some point go back and read them again.

3. Yuri Herrara, Signs Preceding the End of the World.  Sometimes considered Mexico’s greatest active writer, this novella draws upon the Juan Rulfo-Dante-Dia de los muertos tradition to create a convincing moral universe in 128 pages.  I find this more vivid and arresting than Cormac McCarthy’s treatment of the other side of the border.

4. The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  This book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge, plus it is engaging to read.  Overall it confirmed my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use.

The other books I read weren’t as good as these.

What caught my attention in 2015

This was the year when it became clear that much of Eastern Europe probably won’t end up as free societies.  It’s not just semi-fascism in Hungary.  Poland and Slovakia, arguably the two most successful economies and societies in Eastern Europe, took big steps backward toward illiberal governance.  How can one be optimistic about the Balkans?  I imagine a future where African and North African refugees are bottled up there, and Balkan politics becomes slowly worse.  As for Ukraine, a mix of Russia and an “own goal” has made the place ungovernable.  Where is the bright spot in this part of the world?

Nothing good happened in China’s economy, although more fingers have been inserted into more dikes.  I am not hopeful on the cyclical side, though longer term I remain optimistic, due to their investments in human capital and the growing importance of scale.

I have grown accustomed to the idea that Asian mega-cities represent the future of the world — have you?

Syria won’t recover.

This was the year of the rise of Ted Cruz.

It was an awful year for movies, decent but unpredictable for books.  The idea that Facebook and social media rob the rest of our culture of its centrality, or its ability to find traction, is the default status quo.  Not even that idea has gained much traction.  Cable TV started to receive its financial comeuppance.  Yet on the aesthetic side, television is at an all-time peak, with lots of experimentation and independent content provision, all for the better.  I suspect this is one reason why movies are worse, namely brain drain, but I am hoping for longer-run elasticities of adjustment into the broader talent pool.

Against all odds, Homeland was excellent in its fifth season.

I became even more afraid to move my cursor around a web page, and in terms of content, more MSM sites became worse than better.  Banning photos would solve twenty percent of this problem.

Stephen Curry and Magnus Carlsen were the two (public) individuals I thought about the most and followed the most closely.  Each has a unique talent which no one had come close to before.  For Curry it is three point shooting at great range and with little warning; for Carlsen it is a deep understanding of the endgame as the true tactical phase of chess, and how to use the middlegame as prep to get there.  It wasn’t long ago Curry’s weapons were “trick” shots, perhaps suitable for the Harlem Globetrotters; similarly, players such as Aronian thought Carlsen’s “grind ’em down” style could not succeed at a top five level.  Everyone was wrong.

But here’s what I am wondering.  Standard theory claims that with a thicker market, the #2 talents, or for that matter the #5s, will move ever closer to the #1s.  That is not what we are seeing in basketball or chess.  So what feature of the problem is the standard model missing?  And how general is this phenomenon of a truly special #1 who breaks some of the old rules?  Does Mark Zuckerberg count too?

I realized Western China is the best part of the world to visit right now.  The food trends where I live were Filipino and Yemeni, which I found welcome.  Virginia now has a Uighur restaurant in Crystal City, and the aging San Antonio Spurs continue to defy all expectations.  Kobe Bryant, who “ranks among the league’s top 5 percent of shot-takers and its bottom 5 percent of shot-makers,” has redefined the retirement announcement, among other things.

Top curling teams say they won’t use high-tech brooms.  Just wait.

AnandCarlsen

What I’ve been reading

1. Deep South, by Paul Theroux.  It’s OK enough, but Theroux’s best writing was motivated by bile and unfortunately he has matured.  Still, he can’t get past p.9 without mention Naipaul’s “rival book” A Turn in the South.  My favorite Theroux book is his Sir Vidia’s Shadow, a delicious story of human rivalry and one of my favorite non-fiction books period.

2. Elmira Bayrasli, From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places.  A well-written, completely spot on analysis about how the quality of the business climate needs to be improved in emerging economies, and about how much potential for entrepreneurship there is.  If economists were to do nothing else but repeat this message, the quality and usefulness of our profession likely would rise dramatically.

3. Michael White, Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir.  Nominated in the non-fiction National Book Award category, I actually enjoyed reading this one, all of it except the parts about…Vermeer.  It’s better as a memoir of alcoholism and divorce, interspersed with visits to art museums.

Tom Gjelten’s A Nation of Nations is an interesting “immigration history” of Fairfax County.  I enjoyed Deirdre Clemente’s Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style.

Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State is a useful history of how a social welfare state for the military was first created, for recruitment purposes, and then  later dismantled.

I recommend L. Randall Wray’s Why Minsky Matters: An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist, forthcoming in November.  Minsky isn’t so readable, but Wray is.  I’ve just started my review copy, I hope to report more on it soon.

Don’t Fear the CRISPR

I’m honored to be here guest-blogging for the week. Thanks, Alex, for the warm welcome.

I want to start with a topic recently in the news, and that I’ve written about in both fiction and non-fiction.

In April, Chinese scientists announced that they’d used the CRISPR gene editing technique to modify non-viable human embryos. The experiment focused on modifying the gene that causes the quite serious hereditary blood disease Beta-thalassemia.

You can read the paper here. Carl Zimmer has an excellent write-up here. Tyler has blogged about it here. And Alex here.

Marginal Revolution aside, the response to this experiment has been largely negative. Science and Nature, the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world, reportedly rejected the paper on ethical grounds. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, announced that NIH will not fund any CRISPR experiments that involve human embryos.

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.

This is a mistake, for several reasons.

  1. The technology isn’t as mature as reported. Most responses to it are over-reactions.
  2. Parents are likely to use genetic technologies in the best interests of their children.
  3. Using gene editing to create ‘superhumans’ will be tremendously harder, riskier, and less likely to be embraced by parents than using it to prevent disease.
  4. A ban on research funding or clinical application will only worsen safety, inequality, and other concerns expressed about the research.

Today I’ll talk about the maturity of the technology. Tomorrow I’ll be back to discuss the other points. (You can read that now in Part 2: Don’t Fear Genetically Engineered Babies.)

CRISPR Babies Aren’t Near

Despite the public reaction (and the very real progress with CRISPR in other domains) we are not near a world of CRISPR gene-edited children.

First, the technique was focused on very early stage embryos made up of just a few cells. Genetically engineering an embryo at that very early stage is the only realistic way to ensure that the genetic changes reach all or most cells in the body. That limits the possible parents to those willing to go through in-vitro fertilization (IVF). It takes an average of roughly 3 IVF cycles, with numerous hormone injections and a painful egg extraction at each cycle, to produce a live birth. In some cases, it takes as many as 6 cycles. Even after 6 cycles, perhaps a third of women going through IVF will not have become pregnant (see table 3, here). IVF itself is a non-trivial deterrent to genetically engineering children.

Second, the Chinese experiment resulted in more dead embryos than successfully gene edited embryos. Of 86 original embryos, only 71 survived the process. 54 of those were tested to see if the gene had successfully inserted. Press reports have mentioned that 28 of those 54 tested embryos showed signs of CRISPR/Cas9 activity.

Yet only 4 embryos showed the intended genetic change. And even those 4 showed the new gene in only some of their cells, becoming ‘mosaics’ of multiple different genomes.

From the paper:

~80% of the embryos remained viable 48 h after injection (Fig. 2A), in agreement with low toxicity of Cas9 injection in mouse embryos  […]

ssDNA-mediated editing occurred only in 4 embryos… and the edited embryos were mosaic, similar to findings in other model systems.

So the risk of destroying an embryo (~20%) was substantially higher than the likelihood of successfully inserting a gene into the embryo (~5%) and much higher than the chance of inserting the gene into all of the embryo’s cells (0%).

There were also off-target mutations. Doug Mortlock believes the off-target mutation rate was actually much lower than the scientists believed, but in general CRISPR has a significantly non-zero chance of inducing an unintended genetic change.

CRISPR is a remarkable breakthrough in gene editing, with applications to agriculture, gene therapy, pharmaceutical production, basic science, and more. But in many of those scenarios, error can be tolerated. Cells with off-target mutations can be weeded out to find the few perfectly edited ones. Getting one complete success out of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of modified cells can suffice, when that one cell can then be replicated to create a new cell line or seed line.

In human fertility, where embryos are created in single digit quantities rather than hundreds or thousands – and where we hope at least one of those embryos comes to term as a child – our tolerance for error is dramatically lower. The efficiency, survivability, and precision of CRISPR all need to rise substantially before many parents are likely to consider using it for an unborn embryo, even to prevent disease.

That is, indeed, the conclusion of the Chinese researchers, who wrote, “Our study underscores the challenges facing clinical applications of CRISPR/Cas9.”

More in part two of this post on the ethics of allowing genetic editing of the unborn, and why a ban in this area is counterproductive.

Assorted links

1. The detailed program for the Coase conference, late March in DC.

2. The concept of tipping is spreading.

3. I am very happy to see my former Ph.D student, Shawn DuBravac, who recently finished his degree, at #10 on the NYT non-fiction bestseller list.  His book Digital Destiny is here.

4. “The most unforgivable sin in the world,” Mr. McKuen told The Washington Post in 1969, “is to be a best-selling poet.”  An excellent obituary.

5. Paul Krugman on how blogging is changing, or not.

6. “Semanas atrás, durante un viaje a Panamá, el economista estadounidense Tyler Cowen estaba aburrido y se puso a ver en la TV un viejo partido de básquet de 1980 entre Los Angeles Lakers y Portland.

7. Can you have a Chinese Communist Party without an ideology?