Archive for the ‘bookular readings’ Category

Mauve and Cerise, I think


America, circa 1958, according to JK Galbraith:

The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. (The goods which the latter advertise have an absolute priority in our value system. Such aesthetic considerations as a view of the countryside accordingly come second. On such matters we are consistent.) They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?

The point he’s making is about a social imbalance caused by differences between private and public spending. In America, a society of affluence, where the production of comic books and pornography count as valuable economic output, the outlaying of money on roads, parks, policing, education, and other public services is considered nearly valueless and unpalatable.

America is still often considered a land of crumbling infrastructure, but compared to the America described above, some things have improved. The countryside is largely visible, our parks no longer a menace to morality, and the air has been mostly purged from the stench of decaying refuse.

Our private consumption has has also made progress over the decades, seeing as we’ve developed the good taste not to continue buying our autos in the colors of Wild Berry Skittles.

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Penmanship has never been my strong suit, the doodlings of my pen having been described both blandly as chicken scratch and more memorably as looking like those of a serial killer. Little did all my critics realize this little “flaw” of mine would give me insight and empathy into one of history’s most influential minds!

From The Worldly Philosophers, a thus far great book:

Marx had no work–except his never-ending stint in the British Museum from ten o’clock every morning until seven o’clock at night. He tried to make a little money by writing articles on the political situation for the New York Tribune, whose editor, Charles A. Dana, was a Fourierist and not averse to a few slaps at European politics. It helped for a while, although it was Engels who bailed Marx out by composing many of his pieces for him–Marx meanwhile advising by letter as follows: “You must your war-articles colour a little more*. When these articles stopped, he tried to get a clerical job with a railway, but was rejected for his atrocious handwriting.

p. 150

‘Tis true, however, that my horrid handwriting is sometimes a burden. The wine business for example requires me to make several bank transactions every week, and all the forms must be handwritten. How the tellers interpret my name, which I both print and sign on most of the forms, can be amusing:

Jeff Molmes indeed!

The interpretation can also confound:

That rogue Mr. Ildnes--my Moriarty

That last one had me puzzled for longer than I care to admit as to who exactly this Jeff Ildnes was and how he had gained access to the account.

*German syntax much?

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Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper.

So said Robert Solow of Milton Friedman. I’ll beg Solow’s and your indulgence, Reader, for these days I have wine on my mind, and I can’t keep it out of the blog.

A few days ago I read the following passage in The Alchemist, which I’ve now finished:

Page 60

The old man continued, ‘You have been a real blessing to me. Today I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so. ‘

A fun coincidence, reading this when I did, as it came just after a disappointing meeting with a restaurant owner. Despite a drawn-out conversation, the owner to the end held the position that while our wines were better than her limited selection and reasonably priced, she thought her customers were content with what she had and couldn’t be bothered to care about something better. Perhaps she was right, but to me her position smacked of a certain cognitive dissonance, as if she felt she would be better off by denying a choice existed rather than having to make one.  Even still, I doubt this business owner, unlike the one in the book, felt worse afterward.


As for my thoughts on the book itself, in short, I didn’t like it. Too easy, simple, trite, thoughtless, contradictory. It reminded me of this bit of data showing Americans, particularly better off ones, like to use the metaphor of a journey to describe their lives. Like Tyler Cowen, I wonder if just reveals “our tendency to impose a false or misleading narrative on events.”

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One of the most important features of a system of property rights is excludability. That is, if I own something–a fruitful avocado tree, say–I can exclude you from eating my delicious avocados unless we come to some mutually agreeable arrangement. Because I can capture as much of the tree’s benefit as I choose, I have a much stronger incentive to grow and maintain the tree than if people could pilfer the fruits of my labor at will.

Some things are however non-excludable by nature, meaning that it is prohibitively costly to prevent others benefiting from them. A classic example economists have long used is a lighthouse: With a lighthouse, there’s no way an owner can exclude ships from navigating by the boat-saving beam. Because free-riding would be easy, no one could ever hope to make any money from it and wouldn’t bother building the lighthouse, despite the obvious value of the service.

Non-excludability is the main feature of “public goods,” or those goods and services that seemingly can’t be produced (or aren’t produced enough) in private markets. Because public goods are still valuable, the government usually becomes their purveyor. Often public goods are nonetheless provided privately in creative ways. I happened to come across a Rwandan example last night in the book A Thousand Hills:

The two-lane highway that winds northwest from Kigali toward Lake Kivu qualifies as a fine one by African standards…It also has a feature rare in Africa and unique in Rwanda: a short stretch of it is illuminated by streetlights. At night you drive through the unbroken dark, always slowly in order to avoid hitting people. Suddenly the road is bathed in light. A couple of miles later, as you are still marveling at this wonder, it is over and you pass back into blackness.

The first time this happened to me, I wondered: Of all the highway stretches in Rwanda, why did the government choose to illuminate this one? Friends gave me a startling answer. The government did not choose this stretch, nor did it erect these streetlights, nor does it pay the electric bill. It is all Gerard Sina’s work.


The reason Sina illuminated a two-mile stretch of highway is that he owns a strip of businesses there. He has a grocery store with its own bakery, a sit-down restaurant, a snack bar that offers take-out service, a motel, and a pair of clean public restrooms. It is the only highway rest stop in Rwanda. Cars, trucks, and buses are always parked out front (pp. 318-319).

Charging for streetlights is a fool’s errand, but that’s not to say compensation can’t be had—just bundle the service with things for which you can charge, like Sina did. In 19th century England, private operators tied in the lighthouse service with the port fees, to varying degrees of success.

Gerard Sina has offerings throughout Rwanda, and I enjoy very much his pili-pili, often to the exclusion of other condiments.

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Even as I read The Black Swan for the first time, I’ve already read it. I’ve listened to several in-depth interviews with Nicholas Nassim Taleb since the book came out in 2007, and he’s had a recent resurgence in attention as the credit crisis fits his titular metaphor aptly.  Despite my familiarity with the main thesis I’m still enjoying the book, just as one might still enjoy slurping down the spiced milk after finishing his Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Indeed, I’ve not come across another book that so completely elucidates (in a far more sophisticated and erudite manner, granted), how I’ve come to think about things generally.

I’m 2/3 of the way through the book and have come across many passages tempting me to blog, but the following will probably be the only one I excerpt (you, yes YOU, should really just read the book).  In it, Taleb describes the limitation of making predictions in a complex system by using an example computed by a mathematician named Michael Berry:

If you know a set of basic parameters concerning [a billiard] ball at rest, can compute the resistance of the table (quite elementary), and can gauge the strength of the impact, then it is rather easy to predict what would happen at the first hit. The second impact becomes more complicated, but possible; you need to be more careful about your knowledge of the initial states, and more precision is called for. The problem is that to correctly compute the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table (modestly, Berry’s computations use a weight of less than 150 pounds). And to compute the fifty-sixth impact, every single elementary particle in the universe needs to be present in your assumptions! An electron at the edge of the universe, separated from us by 10 billion light-years, must figure in the calculations, since it exerts a meaningful effect on the outcome. Now, consider the additional burden of having to incorporate predictions about where these variables will be in the future. Forecasting the motion of a billiard ball on a pool table requires knowledge of the dynamics of the entire universe, down to every single atom!


In a dynamical system, where you are considering more than a ball on its own, where trajectories in a way depend on one another, the ability to project into the future is not just reduced, but is subjected to fundamental limitation. (p. 178)

Austrian economists like Hayek used similar reasoning in the early 20th century to critique Soviet-style central planning. One oft-forgotten miracle of prices is that they provide a basis of comparison for completely different things. If I decide to use my $100 for golf lessons, I know exactly what I’m giving up for them: $100 worth of Braeburn apples, Suzie’s babysitting, Tide laundry detergent, Clive Owen’s acting, the neighbor’s stash of dope, the additional interest I would earn in my Citibank savings account, a lecture by Al Gore, Hamburger Kunsthalle tickets, the copyright on Beatles sound recordings, taxi rides from JFK to Manhattan, common stock in a Mumbai start-up, etc. In other words, prices tell me about relative values. In the absence of a price system, the Austrians argued, it would be impossible to ration resources effectively, and even if prices were used, no central planner could ever hope to set them correctly because prices reflect an incomprehensible amount of dispersed knowledge particular to time and place.  Just think about the task Mr. Planner would have to face:

  1. Set the price of every resource (including, for example, the time of every person in the economy)
  2. Make sure each price is correct relative to every other price both now and in the future.
  3. Repeat steps 1-2 every second as conditions change.

Could we, like Camus, imagine Mr. Planner happy in his Sisyphean task? And to extend it to Taleb’s point, do we really think anyone could make a certain and accurate forecast of where prices will be in a decade? A year? A day? For that matter, are my powers of clairvoyance to be trusted?

Happily I can report they are, for after reading the above passage and forming this post in my head I turned the page to find a brief section discussing Hayek;  Roma Downey has my undying gratitude.

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Nelson Mandela is an icon of statesmanship, a principled activist who spent decades in jail for his efforts to bring an end to apartheid and the start of multi-racial democracy in South Africa.  In addition, he can also help me with the ladies!

A similar survey carried out in December for the National Year of Reading Campaign found half of men and one third of woman have lied about what they have read to try and impress friends. The men polled said they would be most impressed by women who read news websites, Shakespeare or song lyrics. Women said men should have read Nelson Mandela’s biography or Shakespeare.

I also learn from reading the article that my own reading habits are feminine and rare:

A study of reading habits showed almost half of women are ‘page turners’ who finish a book soon after starting it compared to only 26 per cent of men.

I’m a page turner. Check.

The survey 2,000 adults [sic] also found those who take a long time to read books and only managed one or two a year were twice as likely to be male than female.

I manage much more. Check.

Men are also more likely to have shelves full of books that have never been opened.

Dog-eared pages and cracked spines greet any browser of my bookshelf. Check, although I tend not to collect books anymore.

The only similarities between the sexes came among those who have two books on the bedside table at once and who start one book on the middle of reading another, switching easily. Twelve per cent of women were in this category – exactly the same number as men.

As I’ve written before, having a reading pool with multiple titles is an old–and evidently unique–habit of mine. Check.

On a related note, blogger Steven Berlin Johnson makes one novel point about the Kindle that makes it even more appealing:

When he was on John Stewart, Jeff Bezos mentioned that the Kindle was great for one-handed reading, which got a salacious chuckle from the audience (and Stewart), but I think it’s best for no-handed reading: i.e., when you’re reading while eating a meal, one of life’s great pleasures. It’s almost impossible to read a paperback while eating, and you really have to snap the spine of a hardcover to get it to lie flat, but the Kindle just sits there on the table helpfully while you cut up your teriyaki.

As a kid, my family ate out often. My parents tended to talk about work the whole time, so to stave off silent boredom I began bringing books to the booths and got pretty good at eating while reading (One wonders whether my love of chicken fingers had as much to do with their ability to be eaten blindly with one hand as it did with taste.).  I wholeheartedly agree that the practice is one of life’s great pleasures, but I almost never do it anymore because of the difficulties outlined above. Johnson’s observation, however, gives me hope that one day I will again experience the sublimity of restaurant reading. I can see it now, some time hence: sitting at a fancy restaurant and shushing my date as I read Mandela’s biography.


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A book I just finished reading:

Worship of money was an old-world trait; a healthy appetite akin to worship of the Gods, or to worship of power in any concrete shape; but the American wasted money more recklessly than any one than anyone ever did before; he spent more to less purpose than any extravagant court-aristocracy; he had no sense of relative values, and knew not what to do with his money when he got it, except use it to make more, or throw it away…The American mind had less respect for money than the European or Asian mind, and bore its loss more easily; but it had been deflected by its pursuit till it could turn in no other direction. It shunned, distrusted, disliked, the dangerous attraction of ideals, and stood alone in history for its ignorance of the past.

p. 328

I liked this book, but found the last hundred pages hard to get through. An autobiography written in the third person, Adams details his lifelong quest for the education he felt he did not get in school ( A schoolmaster is memorably defined as “a man employed to tell lies to little boys.”).

If more people read this book, my post-collegiate decisions would not be so inscrutable to so many; self interest compels me thus to recommend it.

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