Category Archives: books

Eco on Thackeray

From this interview published in the Guardian:

UE: When people ask whether I’ve read this or that book, I’ve found that a safe answer is, “You know, I don’t read, I write.” That shuts them up. Although some of the questions come up time and time again: “Have you read Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair?” I ended up giving in and trying to read it, on three different occasions. But I found it terribly dull.

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Underrated books in political science or economics

I had occasion to reflect on this topic today as I was packing my books in preparation for a move. There are two that come immediately to mind, and I think they are must-reads for not just the specific audience of political science or economics readers, but also to the general public.

The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. This book taxonomizes and characterizes mass movements brilliantly and with extremely elegant, sophisticated analysis. I think you should read this book with Hayek because Hayek, as smart as he is, has limits, and does not engage much beyond an analysis of why markets are good. Reality of course is more complex than markets, and markets should be understood in context of the cultural, institutional, and historical dynamics it exists in.

The Once and Future King, T.H. White. No, you shouldn’t read the book  because it got plugged in X-Men. You should read the book because it really is a brilliant piece of work and there are many individual passages that are superb explications of political and economic systems. As a work of literature it is sublime.

I’ll add to this later when I think of something.

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On opening theory

Check out the wikibooks on chess opening theory. Fascinating stuff. I prefer a variation on the Sicilian Defense and play it almost by rote in most informal games that I play, but there are some interesting games to study this summer.

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Godel, Escher, Bach summer reading club

This summer I want to try something novel and worthwhile. I’m going to start a Godel, Escher, Bach reading club/group blog with the general intention of doing some serious and worthwhile analysis of the concepts in the book, most centrally of course being Godel’s third incompleteness theorem.

The inspiration for this effort is simple: I’ve been reading, and re-reading GEB for several years, and there is still much in the book that I have only the barest understanding of. What better way to gain understanding than to make reading and analyzing this book a collaborative effort?

Invitations are open to anyone who’s interested. You have to have your own copy (or access to a copy) and you have to be willing to commit to keeping up with the readings and contribute some commentary. Let me know formally by leaving your information in the comments or by emailing me at eapen.thampy@gmail.com. Basically I’d want to know your name, email, what your interest in GEB is, and what strengths you bring. It would be useful to know what educational institutions or other organization you might be affiliated with, too, but that’s up to you.

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The Clock Without a Face

A new treasure hunt book! The author is Gus Twintig and the book is being sold through McSweeney’s. From the description:

We’ve buried 12 emerald-studded numbers—each handmade and one of a kind—in 12 holes across the United States. These treasures will belong to whoever digs them up first. The question: Where to dig? The only path to the answer: Solve the riddles of The Clock Without a Face!

Here is Twintig answering questions on the book. The only book on his list of inspirations for this treasure hunt that I am familiar with is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which was a favorite of mine during my early adolescence. Here is Twintig’s blog and you can follow him on Twitter as well.

Anyone up for a road trip this summer?

H/T: Shawn Borich

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Tom Wolfe on Mark Twain

In the NYT:

Twain outdid them all with a Victorian palace whose many turrets were over the top, even for the Gilded Age. Outside, a coachman and a footman stood at the ready. The palace’s interior, with its posh toff’s furnishings and six retainers, was even more extravagant. Twain bought a hellishly expensive bed from a Venetian palace, featuring a headboard carved into a bas-relief of cupids, nymphs and seraphs, the six-wing angels who guard God’s throne. He claimed he found it so sublime he had put the pillows down at the foot of the bed and slept backward so that this heavenly vision of worldly success would be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.

Life among the Nook Farmers was a ceaseless round of dinners and entertainment for one another — and for every celebrity who came to town, from William Dean Howells to Henry Morton Stanley of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame. The money, not to mention the time, his palace cost him, eventually drove Twain into bankruptcy in 1891, just as another folly, Abbotsford House, had sunk Sir Walter Scott in the early part of the century.

But just think of it — 20 years! For 20 years, Mark Twain had actually lived, in the flesh, as that heroic figure every American writer, except one (no use igniting angry letters to the editor), dreams of being: Big Spender from the East.

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The most influential books in my life

Tyler Cowen posted a list of books that had influenced him the most some time ago; the list, like so many other memes on the internet at the right place and time, went kind of viral. Here are lists from Peter Suderman, E.D. Kain, Arnold Kling, Michael Martin, Niklas Blanchard, EconJeff, Bryan Caplan, Matt Yglesias, Jenny Davidson, Will Wilkinson, Matt Continetti, Ross Douthat, Mike Konczal, Kieran Healy, Ivar Hagendoorn, Scott Sumner, and Steve Landsburg.

This is of course my non-definitive list. Now that I’m about to post, I want to add another 10 books to the list but…maybe later.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader: I have so much to say about this single text, which has informed my thinking more than any other single work, that I feel overwhelmed. But let me start by saying that the notion of Godellian incompleteness has deep and rich connections to every study or topic I am aware of. Through it I began thinking of the world in terms of systems and interactions and over time many things became obvious to me later on as I would take upper level mathematics course on chaos, nonlinear dynamics, and fractal theory, along with engaging the many related ideas discussed by Stephen Wolfram in his work (best represented by A New Kind of Science). I have lately begun to ask questions about economic systems in this light and considered modeling economic interactions using large scale cellular automata.

GEB has given me the intuition to ask questions about for instance the computational equivalence of different economic or legal systems. It has also forced me to reject classification systems based on strict hierarchical architecture because as systems get larger and more complex hierarchies tend to break down.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: I first read the abridged version on Christmas when I was 15. It took me an entire day, and later on I would find that the book was actually 6 books and available freely online. I was attracted to both the language (the english translation remains remarkably good) as well to the sense of rigor and coherent analysis I found in the historical parts of the novel (which are dense, prosaic, and effusive). Hugo was remarkable to me because overtly this is a very simple, though well-developed story; under the surface there is a richness of texture that comes from the fluid comprehension and description of the human condition. To this day the chapter on love (Marius’s first aphoristic letter to Cosette) remains one of my favorite passages in all of literature.

Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault: I don’t know if there is anything intrinsically new in Foucault, though it is certain that his was the first real coherent expression of ideas that others had never really dealt with systemically or from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Namely, Foucault talks about things like power, which is a subject that demands analysis from more than one perspective. Foucault’s dictum that power and knowledge were coterminous were revelatory to me both in an epistemic sense, but also because he didn’t dodge the obvious endogeneity nor did he let its existence hinder his understanding of it. I find Foucault’s ideas on micro-politics and relational rights to be strangely libertarian in content though not in form. Notably, my engagement with Foucault and critical theory came immediately after my fling with Ayn Rand and Objectivism, an ideology that I found sorely lacking.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre: My first true experience with literature that engaged on multiple levels. Part of it is because the book is so strange in character and tone beyond my experience, yet I found it profoundly moving. The alienation that the main character experiences was at the time something my younger, angsty self found fascinating, partly because a young angsty person really wants something to identify with. But there are nuggets of insight that have stuck with me through several paradigm shifts. I would eventually give up on Sartre, who I found grew increasingly obtuse as he aged (Being and Nothingness, anyone?). I also felt that he was too enamored with himself, which was a turnoff, and he ended up in the Marxist intellectual trap, which is to use an inconsistent system to explain everything away. (One of the marks of a good paradigm is it tells you where you are confronted with unknowable propositions).

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Really one of the more perfect novels I’ve ever read.

Ada or Ardor, A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov is one of the most wonderful writers in the english language. The one thing I can share here is that reading Nabokov is difficult because of his utter fluency and intimacy with words and language and, well, most of us aren’t used to that.

An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith: Perhaps cliche, but Adam Smith really does have something to offer us that was unique in all of recorded human thought. Here, finally, was a framework for beginning to understand the nature and dynamics of human systems.

Nonlinear Dynamics, Chaos, and Fractal Theory by Steven Strogatz: My working reference book is now a much thicker and mathematically complex text, but this was my introduction to the mathematics of systems and interactions. You don’t need much beyond a basic understanding of differential equations and a working knowledge of trig and calculus to be able to work with this text.

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer: I strongly believe that Eric Hoffer’s short text should be required reading for social studies in high school and political science majors and journalists (specifically) in college. His thoughts on the nature and features of mass movements are clear, insightful, and extremely relevant.

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