27 April 2014

Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen [2007]

I picked this up because I heard Tyler Cowen talking about it on an old episode of Econtalk, my favourite podcast.  Cowen blogs at Marginal Revolution, which is always worth reading.

I think this was one of the first popular books on behavioural economics.  At any rate, it differentiates itself from many of the others by the fact that the author's personality very clearly informs all of the analysis.  I liked this very much, because Cowen represents the sort of intellectually curious polymathy that I consider at the zenith of the sort of broad liberal arts education I experienced.

The book contains lots of practical guidance on getting the most out of one's cultural (and culinary) life.  One of Cowen's key messages is that it is not necessary to be wealthy to be a cultural or culinary billionaire.

Becoming a cultural billionaire

There is a lot of useful guidance on getting the most out of the arts.  One of Cowen's best ideas is that we free ourselves from the artificial obligation of 'completism'.  In doing so, we give ourselves permission to put down books unfinished, to walk out of movies that bore us, and to visit selectively individual paintings in galleries.  

Becoming a culinary billionaire

Cowen finds a correlation between quality of national cuisine and income inequality - basically, the greater the income inequality, the better the culinary outcomes.  Following on from this, if you are in a country with relatively low income inequality (a country with a low gini coefficient), you will eat best in ethnic restaurants from 'high gini' countries. To support this, Cowen even prints a table showing the most favoured ethnic restaurants to visit when travelling in certain European countries:

Algerian or Tunisian
Turkish, Greek or Balkan
Pakistani or Indian
Indonesian or Surinamese
Chinese, Caribbean, Eastern European
Argentinian Steakhouse
Indian, Pakistani or Persian

I was reminded of the fact that the best Korean restaurants in London are not in the centre but in the very ordinary suburb of New Malden, which has the largest Korean population in Europe.  The rents are relatively low, which allows fabulous very ordinary-looking Korean restaurants such as Jee Cee Neh (great review here) to be sustained by local (Korean) customers.  Repeat business from informed customers together with high concentration of competitors keeps prices low and quality high.
A really good book which made me want to go and study at George Mason University, where Cowen is a professor and which seems to generate a lot of interesting ideas.

26 April 2014

The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by MeganMcArdle [2014]

I picked this up after watching the author speak about the book on the Microsoft Research visiting speakers lecture programme which has some really interesting people on it.  She was also a participant in my favourite podcast Econtalk recently.  McArdle covers most of the interesting points in her Microsoft presentation, but I am still glad I read the book because it reinforced what for me was the most interesting point she makes - namely the corrosive effect of repeated success in childhood on later life.  

McArdle's argument is that repeated early success leaves one unprepared for life.  By contrast, learning to deal with failure early - by failing at low-consequence endeavours -  ensures that one is better equipped to deal with inevitable unexpected catastrophes that will crop up over the course of an 80 year life. This flies in the face of the traditional western middle class approach to child-rearing, namely that repeated success (academic, sporting, whatever) reinforces self-esteem and provides the best platform for success as an adult.  

I saw an interesting example of this recently whilst on a ski-ing holiday with my family. Towards the end of the week, there was a mini slalom race for all the kids in the ski school.  We all stood at the nursery slope and watched our children ski down the course, one-by-one.  What was noticeable amongst the predominantly upper-middle class English parents watching the race was the heightened sense of anxiety and incredible relief when their kids made it safely through, as though the consequences of falling over would have been catastrophic. The parents' fear of the effect of 'failure' on their kids was palpable, as though the children were highly-strung racehorses.  
From McArdle's point of view - which I completely agree with - the ideal outcome for all of the children in the race would have been to fall over, realize that the consequences of failure were not terminal, and then get up and continue ski-ing down. 

This healthy attitude to failure is something that I am increasingly trying to build into the education of my own kids. It is difficult because there is a clear conflict with a natural desire to control their environment and interfere to optimize all outcomes, which could very well have the effect of shielding them from experiencing failure.  

A great and thought-provoking book.

19 April 2014

Dark Waters: True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Earth by Jason Lewis [2012]

This is an incredible story.  The author Jason Lewis is an Englishman who in his 20s embarks upon an adventure to circumnavigate the world entirely under human power. This is the first in a trilogy of books about the journey. 

The project is conceived on a shoe-string and my reaction to the first part of the book was admiration at the fearlessness of Lewis and his friend Steven Smith, whose idea it was.  It starts with a drunken plan which actually germinates into a real journey, which is great. Preparation for the journey is at the other end of the spectrum from the sort of detailed, hollowing-out-toothpaste-handles-to-save-weight list-making attention to detail which usually accompanies these sort of adventures.  Instead, the pair are desperately poor and often hungover throughout the first section of the book and somehow manage to get their pedal-powered ship Moksha built and their kit together just by bullying and persuasion. 
The core of the book is about the 111 day journey pedalling the Moksha across the Atlantic and the tone changes abruptly once they set off.  The contrast between the haphazard preparation - Smith (in charge of navigation) is still learning to use the sextant a couple of days before setting off - and the enormity of the challenge and the open water in front of them is genuinely surprising.

At sea there are some breathtaking passages which had me gasping out loud - huge waves, near misses with mysterious sea creatures and other ships: it's really exciting. Contrasted with this intermittent excitement is the claustrophobia and discomfort of being trapped in what is essentially a coffin-shaped pedalo with another person for more than 3 months.  The author and his partner suffer physical deterioration (boils, saltwater chafing) which reflects the fracturing of their relationship.  

The book is very funny but it's not light - the author is a deep and sometimes prickly man, who is looking for some sort of meaning beyond the adventure. The trial of the sea journey and the repetitive nature of the work leads him to meditation and mindfulness which I'm interested to follow over the next two books. This in itself is enough to differentiate this book from a standard wry Englishman's travelogue.  I am really pleased that I picked this up and I can't wait to read the next book, which continues the adventure overland through the USA. 

14 April 2014

Sacré cordon bleu: what the French know about cooking by Michael Booth [2008]

This is another cooking related book by Michael Booth that I picked up because I enjoyed the author's culinary tour of Japan.  It's an account of the time he spent at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, learning to cook dishes from the French canon such as coq au vin.
The book is funny and well-written and I enjoyed reading it.   It comprises a series of oddly unmemorable vignettes of the author attending classes (cooking demonstrations) and attempting to replicate the meals.  This is interesting as far as it goes, and sets up some amusing scenes.  However, I was oddly unsatisfied by its lightness; what I was really interested in would have been more on the relevance of such old-fashioned cookery in France today.  

The dishes that are taught at the Cordon Bleu remain fundamental to the idea that the French have of themselves, even though the facts suggest that they don't actually eat in this way any more.  The French have embraced US fast food with greater fervour than any of their European neighbours - it's McDonald's second-biggest market - and an exploration of that tension between the reality and the self-image would have been great.
One very interesting point which stays with me is the simple explanation of why restaurant food tastes so different from food eaten at home - it is the result of huge amounts of butter and salt.  I appreciate that this is blindingly obvious, but I had never thought of it before, and I am grateful for the insight.

12 April 2014

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - The Truth about the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth [2014]

I picked this book up because I'm very interested in Scandinavia, and I had read and enjoyed another of Michael Booth's books before.  The book has sections on Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and finishes with a section on what Booth considers to be the archetypal Scandinavian country, Sweden. 

Some interesting points:

1     The Danish concept of Hygge which is sometimes translated as 'cosiness'.  In Booth's view, Danes strive for this more than anything else.  It comes from familiarity, warmth, enclosure, identification with one's neighbours and seems both comforting but also suffocating.  Danes are reputedly the happiest people in the world, which may derive from the validation with which they accord Hygge.  However, maintaining this warmth does come with an overhead - for example there is a passage about a week-long residential choir camp that had my toes curling in my shoes.  In this respect, I was reminded very much of the positive and negative aspects to having an extended family.

2   Allied to this striving for cosiness appears to be the concept of Jante Law, which is apparently fundamental to understanding the dynamics of Scandinavian life.  This is a drive towards conformity and adherence to rigid social norms which discourages any kind of exceptionalism.  Reading about this made me understand why Scandinavian countries are so different from the USA, where exceptionalism is venerated.  

3    Scandinavian homogeneity is also reflected in a low Gini coefficient - a measure of the gap between rich and poor.  I am conflicted in my attitude to income inequality.  From a philosophical point of view, I don't think the size of the economic pie is fixed; i.e. there is no reason why more wealth at one end of the spectrum should create more poverty at the other end.  However, it is undeniable that quality of life - especially outside the home - is better in a low Gini country than in a high Gini country.

This is a thought-provoking book that will make you feel slightly jealous that you don't live in Denmark.

06 April 2014

Bird by Bird - Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott [1995]

This is a book about writing which I read about a few months ago on www.brainpickings.org.  I picked it up because I am very interested in how creative people work.

The book is full of advice about writing, mixed in with the author's own reflections on life and death. The core advice running through the book is that one should write as much as possible and avoid the destructive pitfalls of perfectionism. It is really well-written - there is an earnest US self-help tone but this is tempered by barbed lances of self-deprecating humour which are unexpected and which leaven the tone completely.  One example:

"Maybe what you care most about are fasting and high colonics -  cappuccino enemas, say.  This is fine, but we do not want you to write about them; we will secretly believe that you are spiritualising your hysteria. There are millions of people already doing this at churches and new age festivals across the land."

I thought the phrase "spiritualising your hysteria" completely fantastic and worth the cost of the book alone.

15 March 2014

The Oster Conspiracy of 1938 by Terry Parssinen [2002]

I was given this by a friend.  It's a really engrossing account of a plot to kill Hitler in 1938 that I had never heard of.  It therefore presages the more famous Von Stauffenberg assassination attempt on 20 July 1944, though interestingly, some of the same people were involved in both. In the backlash following the 1944 attempt would sweep up a lot of the earlier conspirators as well, including Hans Oster himself.

There are a few interesting points which stay with me:

1    The calibre of Oster and the men opposed to Hitler. What this book suggests is that among the German military elite there was significant distaste for Hitler and the fear that he was a lunatic.  The author contrasts this elite cadre of honourable intellectuals with the mass of the Volk who are in Hitler's thrall.

This is interesting  because of the questions it raises about war guilt and a the concept of the 'Good German'.  Like anyone who has visited Germany in the 20th century, I have been in beer halls and found myself looking across at the cuddly old grandfather and wondering 'what did you do?'  Even at the time I could appreciate that this is not a particularly healthy filter through which to view life and I am grateful for the fact that the passage of time has made it less relevant now. 

2    The parallels between Hitler's movement into Czechoslovakia via the Sudetenland and what is currently happening in Ukraine are striking.  When one reads Hitler's justification for the invasion it does not seem so different from the rhetoric coming out of Russia.  I appreciate that I am not the only person to have spotted this.

3    The author contends that the Oster plot failed because of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement.  The Munich Agreement in 1938 legalized the annexation of Czechoslovakia and this diplomatic coup by Hitler took the wind out of the conspirators' sails.  An example of the negative and unintended consequences of giving in to a bully.