David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell

Be as skeptical about his books as you want, but Gladwell never asserts that his stories explain everything you need to know about the world. And these are such fine stories. They’re extraordinarily easy to breeze through, and everyone should study them to see how beautifully structured a book can be.

Tyler Cowen calls David and Goliath Gladwell’s best book. I liked it better than Blink, Outliers, and Tipping Point.  The stories are more interesting and more diverse. For the most part it’s the first time I’ve ever heard any of them, e.g. the work of André‎‎ Trocmé‎ in France, and the exact conditions faced by the Impressionists. TC takes the central message of the book to be: “here’s how to think more deeply about what you’re seeing,” and that the moral of the work is: “don’t write people off.”
My favorite story in the book was the tale of a girl who went to Brown. The message: don’t try to be a small fish in a big pond. Gladwell calls this the Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder. The illustrations: If you want a science degree, don’t go to an elite college; and if you want to publish papers when you’re an econ grad student, don’t go to Harvard.

Let’s say you love science, and make a living in science. And let’s say you want to go to an elite college, as everyone does. Here’s the argument that you can really only get one or the other.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few who are able to breeze through the toughest classes, this won’t apply. But if you’re like most people then you’ll get discouraged after seeing C’s and D’s after a lot of hard work.

The best of all worlds is to earn a science degree at an elite college. But most of us have to choose one or the other. And it’s probably better to get the science degree than do something less rigorous at an elite college. That’s why you shouldn’t go to an elite college if you want a science degree.

The other interesting part is about econ grad school. Gladwell draws on this paper by Conley and Onder to explain why a talented grad student should go to a non-top-30 school rather than Harvard or Chicago.

If you want to be a professor, then you should try to get published while you’re in grad school. You might expect that the papers published by grad students are all written by students of Harvard and Chicago; after all, they’re the mathiest students with the support of the best professors. But no. Basically, the top one or two students (in a typical class of eight) at each school publishes the same number of papers, and the bottom two or three at each school also publish the same number of papers, namely zero.

It’s a strange result. The least-smart grad student at Harvard may be smarter than the smartest grad student at a non-top-30 program. Yet the former doesn’t publish while the latter publishes two or three articles before he graduates.

The lesson in this chapter: Go to a not-well-ranked school if you’re smart. It’s better to be the top student in a non-prestigious program than to be a bad student at a great program.

The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner

The author is a staff writer at NYMag. The book is a history of Bell Labs, a technology incubator that was for most of its existence one of three legs of the AT&T monopoly. Bell Labs developed an amazing array of technologies, including transistors, fiber optics, the first American satellite, cellular telephony, early work on radar, and a lot of advances of telephones. It yielded seven Nobel laureates. And it eventually became the Lucent part of Alcatel-Lucent.

There’s a lot of science in the book, but most interesting are the implications for how research might be funded.

It was neither a university nor a strictly government-run research center, but the industrial lab of a for-profit company; and yes it had quite a bit of government support, but not as much as you might think: many of its important inventions (including the transistor and the mobile phone) didn’t enjoy much in terms of subsidies. Instead the author attributes the success of the Labs to simply gathering great minds together and giving them a lot of freedom. And it totally belies the idea that monopolies can’t be innovative. Which other research lab can claim to have kickstarted inventions as important and diverse as the transistor, satellite, and cell phone telephony?

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, by Jeremy Adelman

This is a biography of Albert Hirschman. I can’t recall exactly when it was that I first heard about Hirschman. If I’d heard of any of his exploits, then I wouldn’t have forgotten about it. Here are a few of the most interesting things.

He spoke French, Italian, English, and Spanish fluently in addition to his native German. He grew up in Berlin, getting quite involved in the socialist movement, and was active in resisting the Nazis. He left for Paris when he was a teen. In the course of three years Hirschman moved around four countries, enlisted in a civil war, joined an underground resistance, and got his Ph.D in economics. He helped thousands of refugees escape from France; these included Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and Hannah Arendt. He worked for the OSS and was an interpreter for a Nazi general in the first Allied war crimes trial. He never really talked about these afterwards.

He worked for the Fed after coming to America, but was denied further government work because the American government found his background suspicious.And he spent a great deal of his academic life studying South America, an interest that was ignited when he decided on a whim to move his family to Colombia. He spent most of his life at the Institute for Advanced Studies. It’s an amazing life.

Hirschman started his academic career with a focus on development economics. To me his most interesting work is in two fields: the study of the effects of commerce on mores; and how people respond to unsatisfactory situations. On the former he discussed how commerce softens tribalism. And on the latter he described why we choose between leaving a poor situation, or staying and trying to change it.

One insight I found revelatory: Sometimes monopolies like a little bit of competition. When you allow limited competition, your most active customers who complain the loudest will leave. Monopolists are relieved when their most outspoken critics go away.

He was one of those old-school economists who never had a great love for math. His two favorite books seemed to be Montaigne’s Essays and Machiavelli’s The Prince. He also drew on Brecht, Flaubert, and Kafka. Indeed, every one of the epigraphs that the author has chosen to each chapter comes from Kafka. You don’t see a great deal of Kafka- and Montaigne-reading economists.

It’s because he so loved words that you get fabulous book titles like Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, and The Passions and the Interests; you also get metaphors like “the hiding hand” and the “tunnel effect.”

He was an optimist; he named one of his books A Bias for Hope.

He lived to the age of 97, but was not the same after a concussion sustained on a hike. It’s quite sad to read about how he lived his last years.

The biography discusses all of his other major ideas. They’re all worth getting to know.

Once, when they went to a film together about the Spanish Civil War, as they left the theater Sarah turned to Albert and asked him: “Was it like that?” He replied evasively, “Yeah, that was a pretty good film.”

Uncertainty means that you think you may be wrong; doubt means you are not sure you know.

The change was more evident in the ways that grants forced people to learn how to solve their problems; even if they did not finally solve the problem they set out to lick, they had acquired skills, created movements, and marshaled social energy that they could apply to other problems.

Hirschmann took Hayek, in particular, seriously and appreciated the rigorous individualism after his previous diet of “lumpy” collective categories like social class.

Hirschman was skeptical of overarching models, he was less inclined to pathologize backwardness.

By the end of Strategy, the core of Hirschman’s thinking about what was scarce in traditional societies becomes clear. It was not capital. It was not a middle class. It was not “entrepreneurship” or the right kind of cultural bedrock of striving individualism. It was altogether more original: the capacity to problem solve in a capitalist world, the “ability to make development decisions.”

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is my favorite American author, and The House of Mirth is my favorite American book. It’s much better than The Age of Innocence. You get a better sense of how the American elites interacted with one another at the turn of the century. It seems like their customs are much stiffer than those of Europeans. At least the French and Italians make a sport of teasing each other; Americans are always so polite.

ToM is really tender and painful to read. It’s an excellent story and the language sparkles. There’s a great deal of scheming and plotting.

The title comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

 

 

Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis said that he wrote Liar’s Poker so that fewer idealistic college kids would dream of working on Wall Street. That is not to be believed. He makes Wall Street seem far too glamourous.

He could have filled the book with the miseries of working at your desk for 16 hours a week. Instead he made it about working in London, about making fun of trainees in hilarious ways, and about making piles and piles of cash. You get amazing stories here. Who can forget the amazing put-down: “Equities in Dallas!”

There are so many vivid characters. You feel that they’re clever, and mean, but not necessarily evil. Most of them seem superbly intelligent.

Lewis is a dazzling writer. Here are my favorite lines.

To succeed on the Salomon Brothers trading floor a person had to wake up each morning “ready to bite the ass off a bear.”

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The Korean War, by Bruce Cumings

A few interesting facts about the Korean War:

Virtually any village suspected of harboring or supporting guerillas was burned to the ground, usually from the air.

A total of 36,940 Americans lost their lives in the Korean theater; of these, 33,665 were killed in action, while 3,275 died there of non-hostile causes. Some 92,134 Americans were wounded in action, and decades later, 8,176 were still reported as missing. South Korea sustained 1,312,836 casualties, including 515,004 dead. Casualties among other UN allies totaled 16352, including 3,094 dead. Estimated North Korean casualties numbered 2 million, including about 1 million civilians and about 520,000 soldiers. An estimated 900,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in combat.

The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea (not counting 32,557 tons of napalm) compared to 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific Theater in World War II.

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Patrick Melrose series, by Edward St. Aubyn

Excellent read. Though a lot of the characters are mean, nasty, or downright terrifying.

Book I: Never Mind

There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks.

He always gave larger tips to people who called him ‘Guv’. He knew it, and they knew it, it was what was called a ‘civilized arrangement’.

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