Picture books are very good

Not just good, they are very good.  I picked up two new ones yesterday at the Arlington Library, and I am excited to spend time with both.  The first is Doris Behrens-Abouseif Metalwork from the Arab World and the Mediterranean, and the second is Salma Samar Damluji The Architecture of Yemen and its Reconstruction, only $17.97 for that one!  Here are some summary reasons why picture books are so underrated:

1. No one reads them.  Or at least no paying customer reads them (see #2).  So the writers do not have to seek to please the reader so much.  Rather the text has to look “serious enough” to a library buyer, or to a “coffee table buyer.  The writers, on their side, tend to be of high knowledge, intelligence, and conscientiousness.  How is this for a stunning review of the Yemen book?: “In what can be described as a written expedition through Yemen, Salma Samar Damluji’s meticulous cataloguing of typologies and individual structures is a work of clarity and dedication…Damluji does due justice to their memory and ensures the intent and purpose behind their construction is not lost in translation.”

2. Picture books are de facto free.  I get almost all of my picture books from the local public libraries, which buy quite a few of them.

2b. When sitting on a public library shelf, you can spot a picture book from the other side of the room.  Thus picture books are not difficult to find.

3. The basic style is Wikipedia-like in the sense of aiming at relative objectivity.  Yet the style is better than most on-line writing, Wikipedia included.  Few picture books are highly partisan or pushing some wacko thesis.

4. They don’t go viral and they are not read by groups of people at the same time.  That in turn feeds back into how they are written.  Your friends are never reading the same picture book as you are.  Thus your picture book is never The Current Thing.  Bravo.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve had someone ask me about a particular picture book.  Ever.  Could you name even three authors of picture books?  One?  Bravo all the more.

5. Pictures, photographs, and maps are excellent in their own right.

6. What makes for good pictures in a picture book?  Historical sites, the arts and design, topography, animals, birds, and dinosaurs (almost the same thing).  Most of those topics involve a minimum of b.s.


It isn’t just Putin — Russia vs. Ukraine

From Wikipedia, here is a description of the views of Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky on Ukraine:

According to many historians, despite the fact that Brodsky had anti-Soviet views, for which he was eventually forced to leave Soviet Russia and emigrate to the United States, he, with all that, had pronounced Russian-imperial views, which resulted in his rejection of the existence of Ukrainians as a nation separate from Russians. According to Russian literary critic and biographer and friend of Brodsky Lev Losev, Brodsky considered Ukraine “the only cultural space with Great Russia”, and the Polish historian Irena Grudzinska-Gross [pl] in her book “Milosz and Brodsky” (2007) Brodsky firmly believed that Ukraine and has always been “an integral part of Great Russia”. According to Grudzinskaya-Gross, “Brodsky’s Russian patriotism is also evidenced by … the poem “The People” and another poem “On the Independence of Ukraine”, attacking Ukraine from imperial and Great Russian positions.”

In 1985, even before writing the scandalous Ukrainian-phobic poem “On the Independence of Ukraine“, he entered into a debate with the Czech-French poet Milan Kundera, in which he showed his Russian-imperial views.

The most famous public manifestation of Brodsky’s Ukrainophobia was the poem “On the Independence of Ukraine”, written, tentatively, in 1992. In this poem, Brodsky sarcastically described Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and scolded Ukrainian independence fighters for abandoning the Russian language. Brodsky did not publish this poem in any of his lifetime collections, and, until his death in 1996, he managed to read only a few times at various Muscovite and Judeophile meetings in America. In particular, there is documentary evidence that Brodsky read this poem on October 30, 1992 at a solo evening in the hall of the Palo Alto Jewish Center and on February 28, 1994 in front of a group of the Russian diaspora at New York University’s Quincy College. Through this poem, critics saw in Brodsky manifestations of Russian chauvinism and accused him of Anti-Ukrainian sentiment and racism.

These views are deeply rooted in Russian culture and history.  Here Brodsky reads the poem in Russian.  He is excited.  Here is a 2011 Keith Gessen New Yorker piece on the poem.  Again, ideas really matter!  And not always for the better.

My EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts about books and reading

Here goes!

Intellectual omnivore Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and EconTalk host Russ Roberts talk about their reading habits, their favorite books, and the pile of books on their nightstands right now.

And a transcription is offered for the first half hour.  Here is one early excerpt:

Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. You don’t give away–do you lend books out?

Tyler Cowen: Not very often. I don’t own many books. So, I collected books in great numbers when I was an undergraduate, mostly history of economic thought. I thought I would build up this incredible collection of the great economics masterworks. But then I started moving around, and then I moved to Germany for a year and I’m, like, ‘This is not going to work.’ So, what I will do–there’s some economic historians in my department. If I get a history book, I will give it to them because I know they won’t necessarily read it. They’ll use it or not use it for reference. And I don’t feel I’m tricking them into reading a book. But I would be very reluctant to give you a book, Russ. Not that I don’t love you or like you, or both, but I would feel that you would feel obliged to read the book. Correct?

It is immoral to give away books unless you truly feel the recipient should read them!

I enjoyed this segment too:

Russ Roberts: You’re a lunatic.


Small Isn’t Beautiful

In our textbook, Modern Principles, Tyler and I discuss India’s small scale reservation laws which for decades made it illegal for large firms to produce many manufactured goods:

…traditionally most Indian shirts were made by hand in small shops of three or four tailors who designed, measured, sewed, and sold, all on the same premises. It sounds elegant but this was not London’s Savile Row, where the finest tailors in the world create custom suits for the rich and powerful. India’s shirts would have been cheaper and of higher quality if they were mass-manufactured in factories—the way shirts for Americans are produced. Why didn’t this happen in India? Shirts in India were produced inefficiently because large-scale production was illegal.

India prohibited investment in plant and machinery in shirt factories from exceeding about $200,000 – this meant that Indian shirt manufacturers could not take advantage of economies of scale, the decrease in the average cost of production which often occurs as the total quantity of production increases.

Do India’s small scale reservation laws seem somewhat quaint and foolish? Now consider, California.

A bill moving through the Legislature would shorten California’s normal workweek to 32 hours from 40 for companies with more than 500 employees. Workers who put in more than 32 hours in a week would have to be paid time-and-a-half. And get this: Employers would be prohibited from reducing workers’ current pay rate, so they would be paid the same for working 20% less.

The work week evolves with time. As productivity and wage rates increase, workers spend some of their wages buying more clothing and some of their wages buying more leisure (workers buy leisure by offering to work fewer hours at lower wages). There are no strong reasons to legislate the work week. What strikes me, however, is the absurdity of legislating a shorter work week for larger firms. Larger firms tend to be more productive–that is one reason they are larger! Thus, California wants to legislate a shorter work week for more productive firms. As in Harrison Bergeron the handicappers ensure equality by cutting down the productive.

Regulating the work week is a poor idea but if we are going to regulate I’d prefer a “Singapore style” plan where they limited small firms to 32 hours a week, thus encouraging production and employment in larger, more productive firms!

By the way, India has mostly eliminated it’s small scale reservation laws so you can see which countries are heading up and which down.

Addendum: Such a law would be “Singapore style” I am not saying they do this.

Larry Temkin takes half a red pill

His new book is Being Good in a World of Need, and most of all I am delighted to see someone take Effective Altruism seriously enough to evaluate it at a very high intellectual level.  Larry is mostly pro-EA, though he stresses that he believes in pluralist, non-additive theories of value, rather than expected utility theory, and furthermore that can make a big difference (for instance I don’t think Larry would play 51-49 “double or nothing” with the world’s population, as SBF seems to want to).

So where does the red pill come in?  Well, after decades of his (self-described) intellectual complacency, Larry now wonders whether foreign aid is as good as it has been cracked up to be:

In this chapter, I have presented some new disanalogies between Singer’s original Pond Example, and real-world instances of people in need.  I have noted that in some cases people in need may not be “innocent” or they may be responsible for their plight.  I have also noted that often people in need are the victims of social injustice or human atrocities.  Most importantly, I have shown that often efforts to aid the needy can, via various different paths, increase the wealth, status, and power of the very people who may be responsible for human suffering that the aid is intended to alleviate.  This can incentivize such people to continue their heinous practices against their original victims, or against other people in the region.  this can also incentivize other malevolent people in positions of power to perpetrate similar social injustices or atrocities.

The book also presents some remarkable examples of how some leading philosophers, including Derek Parfit, simply refused to believe that such arguments might possibly be true, even when Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton endorsed one version of them (not exactly Larry’s claims, to be clear).

Another striking feature of this book is how readily Larry accepts the rising (but still dissident) view that the sexual abuse of children has been a grossly underrated social problem.

What is still missing is a much greater focus on innovation and economic growth.

I am very glad I bought this book, and I look forward to seeing which pill or half-pill Larry swallows next.  Here is my post on Larry’s previous book Rethinking the Good.  Everyone involved in EA should be thinking about Larry and his work, and not just this latest book either.

Easter assorted links

1. Blockchain Basketball Training.  No there there, just a marketing gimmick!

2. More on the Israeli laser weapon.

3. MIE: Fairfax house, but with an unleased, difficult to evict person living in the basement.  There are already some offers for the home.

4. Chris Blattman advice on managing the academic job market.

5. On the new Houellbecq novel.

6. GRE and SAT scores by various majors.

7. “Bringing consent to ballet” (NYT, new service sector jobs).

What should I ask Cynthia Haven?

She is Rene Girard’s biographer, and has other interesting books as well, including on Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, and she is an expert in poetry and the humanities more broadly.  Here is one biography (how can she not have her own Wikipedia page?).  Here is her blog.  Here is Cynthia on Twitter.  To her credit, she has done all this without the benefit of a formal, tenured university post.  She also runs her own “conversations,” and is working further on Girard.  So what should I ask her?


What I’ve been reading

1. Susanne Schattenberg, Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman.  Can you have an interesting biography of a life and man that was fundamentally so…boring?  Maybe.  He ruled the world’s number two power for eighteen critical years, so surely he deserves more attention than what he has received.  “Nevertheless, Brezhnev had dentures and only stopped smoking in the mid-1970s because his doctors told him his false teeth would fall out at some point if he didn’t.”  And “Analysis of why Brezhnev’s children made themselves known largely for their drinking and scandals would fill another book.”  I’ll buy that one as well.

2. Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics.  One of the very best books on Ireland and Irish ideas, and more broadly I can recommend virtually anything by Kiberd.  Do note, however, that much of this book requires you have read the cited Irish classics under consideration.  Nonetheless there is insight on almost every page, recommended.

3. Olivier Zunz, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville.  A self-recommending biography of one of the greatest social science thinkers.  Easy to read, and good for both the generalist and specialist reader.  Note that it is a complement to reading Tocqueville, in no way a substitute.

4. Kevin Lane, The Inca Lost Civilizations.  Short and readable and with nice photos, maybe the best introduction to this still underrated topic?

Paul Sagar, Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics considers the broader implications of Smith’s thought from a “freedom as non-domination” perspective.

John E. Bowit, Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia’s Silver Age.  The early twentieth century, basically.  Beautiful plates, good exposition, and if nothing else a lesson in just how far aesthetic deterioration can run.  A picture book!

Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism is interior to my current knowledge set, but clear and I suspect for many readers useful.

Rainer Zitelmann’s Hitler’s National Socialism is a very thorough, detailed look at Hitler’s actual views.

James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington also serves as a better than average general history of the city.

Why the innocent can’t get out of prison

The main title is Barred, and the author is Daniel S. Medwed.  The book has many interesting points, here is one excerpt:

Alaska eliminated plea bargaining in 1975.  The rationale was grounded in fairness, with the governor at the time proclaiming that the new policy was designed to counter “weakened public confidence in the administration of justice.”  The conditions seemed ideal.  Small population, small(ish) amount of criminal activity, creative attorney general, open-minded governor.  The results were initially promising.  Although the number of trials in the state rose by 37 percent in the year following the ban, the system appeared capable of absorbing the surge.  But the experiment didn’t last.  A new state attorney general relaxed plea policies in 1980, and bargaining was officially back in the 1990s.  By the 2010s, nearly 97 percent of Alaska’s criminal cases resulted in pleas.  Those who’ve studied the history of plea bargaining Alaska attribute the demise of the ban to a change in  personnel in the AG’s office and a decline in state revenues.  Trials don’t come cheap.

Recommended, for those who care.

Saturday assorted links

1. “Among women in the midlife in recent years, lower levels of state structural sexism were associated with greater alcohol consumption and binge drinking.

2. Faster vaccines would have saved how many lives?

3. Yishan, on Twitter and Musk.

4. “Every chess movie, ranked.”  On the list is an oddly under-publicized Kasparov-Thiel “documentary” of the two walking/driving around New York City for a day.  Though it was only nine years ago, it feels like such a different world.  You also get to watch Peter beat Frank Brady in speed chess, and Garry then comment on the proceedings.

5. From Hannes Malmberg (email): “Pre-1920, rapid natural population growth made high immigration consistent with a low share of foreign-born. Between 1880 and 1920, the number of foreign-born more than doubled, 6.7mn to 13.9mn, while the share of foreign-born didn’t budge, 13.3% to 13.2%.“

6. “Footage of dogs hunting down and killing wild hares is being shared and even live-streamed for the benefit of overseas gamblers.

7. The Russian way of war and will it shift?

An Operation Warp Speed for Nasal Vaccines

I have been pushing for more funding for nasal vaccines since early last year when I wrote about trypanophobia and see also my Congressional testimony. The Washington Post reports that the idea is gaining traction among scientists but funding is limited:

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus moved lightning-fast around the world, it revealed an unsettling truth. The virus had gained a stunning ability to infect people, jumping from one person’s nose to the next. Cases soared this winter, even among vaccinated people.

That is leading scientists to rethink their strategy about the best way to fight future variants, by aiming for a higher level of protection: blocking infections altogether. If they succeed, the next vaccine could be a nasal spray.

…Scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — known as BARDA — are vetting an array of next-generation vaccine concepts, including those that trigger mucosal immunity and could halt transmission. The process is similar to the one used to prioritize candidates for billions of dollars of investment through the original Operation Warp Speed program. But there’s a catch.

“We could Operation Warp Speed the next-generation mucosal vaccines, but we don’t have funding to do it,” said Karin Bok, director of Pandemic Preparedness and Emergency Response at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We’re doing everything we can to get ready … just to get ready in case we have resources available.”

In my estimation, Operation Warp Speed was the highest benefit to cost ratio of any government program since the Manhattan Project. Amazingly, despite having now seen the benefits of the program and the costs of the pandemic, a government that spends trillions every year can’t get behind millions for a nasal vaccine.

To be sure, the emergency is over. The risk to the vaccinated are now tolerable and the benefits of further investment are much less than before vaccines were available. But the costs are also lower. Much of the research on nasal vaccines has already been done–what is needed is funding for clinical trials.

A nasal COVID vaccine will also pay off in future vaccine programs. If in a future pandemic we were able to use nasal vaccines to vaccinate more quickly, that alone could save many lives.

Addendum: Here’s my post on RadVac the do it yourself nasal vaccine.

Solve for the wartime presentation equilibrium

Ukrainian officials have run more than 8,600 facial recognition searches on dead or captured Russian soldiers in the 50 days since Moscow’s invasion began, using the scans to identify bodies and contact hundreds of their families in what may be one of the most gruesome applications of the technology to date.

The country’s IT Army, a volunteer force of hackers and activists that takes its direction from the Ukrainian government, says it has used those identifications to inform the families of the deaths of 582 Russians, including by sending them photos of the abandoned corpses.

The Ukrainians champion the use of face-scanning software from the U.S. tech firm Clearview AI as a brutal but effective way to stir up dissent inside Russia, discourage other fighters and hasten an end to a devastating war.

Here is the full story.  Maybe this feels gruesome, but I am not sure we should let ourselves be led by the nose of our intuitions here.  Furthermore, we have zero information on its effectiveness, or lack thereof.  So I am not ready to have an opinion on this practice.  We all seem fine with the idea of killing, so squeamishness on the “presentation side” probably is undertheorized.

I am more interested in what the next step looks like.  If this stands a chance of being effective, how might you try to “improve” the presentation?  Record death screams and send them in audio files?  A virtual reality version?  A “director’s cut” for the more committed audience members?

How about AI that scans the battlefield for fights your preferred side seems to be winning?  Then do face scans of the opposing soldiers and using internet, text, or phone calls, invite their relatives to watch the struggle.  Wouldn’t a fair number of family members click on that link?

Might some people crowdsource funding for extra footage, or shoot it themselves?  I read this (New Yorker) report about the recent Brooklyn terror attack:

Many [bystanders] also responded as no one should ever do in an active-shooter scenario—when presented with an escape route, they instead stopped to record videos.

A yet more advanced version of the footage could throw in deep fakes of some kind?  CGI?

Do you find this all more repulsive yet?  Ever watched a war movie?  We seem to accept those in full stride.  It would be weird — but perhaps a coherent view nonetheless — to think “killing fine, phony movie of killing fine, movie of real killing just terrible.”

What do you all think?

For the initial pointer I thank Maxwell.

U.S.A. poll fact of the day

Only one poll, yes, but here goes:

61% of Democrats say “improving border security and restricting illegal immigration” would strengthen democracy

To be clear, I don’t consider this good news.  The broader point is that I genuinely do not understand Bryan Caplan’s argument that there is no backlash worry from humongous levels of immigration.  I see that Angela Merkel let in one million Syrian refugees (which I favored and still favor, by the way), and that strengthened “Far Right” anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe.  I see Brexit as in part motivated by a fear of loss of control of immigration.  I see that Donald Trump focused on the immigration issue to win the Republican primaries and debates leading up to the 2016 election.  The government in Singapore is now facing a major backlash from earlier high levels of in-migration.

How can there not be a backlash from open borders?

The actual, in practice backlash against open borders simply would be to close the borders/limit entry once again, rather than anything too dramatic.  But if you continue with a “this lectern is made of ice” counterfactual where the open borders continue against what would otherwise be the political equilibrium, what exactly would be the backlash?  I, for one, am afraid to find out.  So we want “more open” borders, but not open borders per se.

And no, I am not persuaded by data from pre-1920 America, when borders were largely open and most parts of the world sent basically nobody, and furthermore there was not much of a welfare state.  And we did in fact restrict Chinese immigration to California, because of (irrational) backlash.

Friday assorted links

1. Dan Klein on Back in the USSR and the top cold war songs.

2. CNN slams libertarian children’s books, sales soar.

3. Hinckley concert sells out.

4. How ancient are gears?

5. Tokyo’s Manuscript Writing Cafe only allows writers on a deadline, and won’t let them leave until finished.

6. Mr. Daunt triumphs at Barnes & Noble (NYT).

7. “Cut the Fed some slack.”

8. Graph of the blogosphere who is the red sun?