Category Archives: Books

An Antitrust Analogy

From p. 382 of Robert Bork’s 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself:

One often hears of the baseball player who, although a weak hitter, was also a poor fielder. Robinson-Patman is a little like that. Although it does not prevent much price discrimination, at least it has stifled a great deal of competition.

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Jonathan Gottschall – The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Jonathan Gottschall – The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Gottschall’s scholarly mission is to make the humanities more scientific. Specialization is important, but not at the cost of ignoring what other disciplines are doing. I wholeheartedly endorse this approach, despite specializing in economics. The humanities, other social sciences, and even actual sciences all factor into my work.

Gottschall’s native discipline is English, but this book incorporates psychology and evolutionary biology to make a compelling and plausible thesis. Why do humans tell stories? Most people will say it’s because we enjoy them. Yes, Gottschall asks, but why? He finds an evolutionary purpose—when kids play pretend or adults read a novel, they’re practicing. They learn empathy and put themselves in other people’s shoes. That improves social skills, and improves survival—and without harmful consequences when failure occurs.

Most stories also involve some kind of conflict or troubles. This also has instructional value, so we evolved to find stories without conflict or trouble boring. Dreams are the same way—they nearly always involve some kind of trouble or unease. More pleasant dreams and stories are wasted cognitive effort, with no social or evolutionary payoff. Stories make us better prepared for real life situations, so no wonder we’re wired to naturally crave them, same as we do sex or food.

Edward Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

It takes roughly as long to read as it did to write, yet this turns out to be a good thing. Gibbon published the first of six volumes in 1776, and the last in 1787. Factually, it holds up quite well, though it was written before archaeology revolutionized the historian’s profession.

Gibbon writes history as it should be—rather than simply reciting facts, he tells stories, has opinions, and argues a thesis. His skepticism of exaggerated claims and numbers in ancient sources is also decidedly modern; it is interesting to read this work of history as a product of its own place in history.

The Decline and Fall was written during the peak of the Enlightenment, and exemplifies its emphasis on reason and skepticism. Gibbon’s periodic prose style is superb, and his many quirks are both endearing and curmudgeonly. He openly hates superstition, is quite opinionated on various monarchs, puts naughty details in his footnotes, and really has it in for eunuchs, of all people.

Gibbon is also a true master of the art of the insult, and offers too many quality barbs to recount here. Naturally, I made highlights throughout the text.

Peter Frankopan—The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Peter Frankopan—The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

A pan-Eurasian history. The first half is especially strong, ranging from ancient times through the fall of Rome and Byzantium, through the Renaissance. Instead of focusing just on Europe, Frankopan gives proper attention to central Asian nomads, the pre- and post-Mohammed Arab world, Russia, and India and China. Moreover, he emphasizes their interconnectedness. Each was influenced by all the others, and they all acted to enrich and impoverish each other.

The book falls apart in the second half, focusing almost exclusively on colonialism and energy geopolitics. Frankopan’s sudden switch from a pluralistic to a hyper-materialistic focus excludes the more interesting, and ultimately more important forces of culture, interconnectedness, openness versus nationalism, and peace and trade versus war and protectionism. These forces, not newspaper summaries and phone call transcripts from the Iran-Contra scandal, are what will guide Eurasia’s fortunes in the centuries to come.

The first half of this book alone is worth the price of admission, but readers are best served by putting the book down when it reaches the 19th century or so.

Richard Feynman – “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character

Richard Feynman – “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character

Feynman was both a renowned physicist and a fun-loving eccentric. This collection of short biographical essays covers’ Feynman’s life and exploits from childhood to old age. He got his start tinkering with radios and electronics as a kid during the Depression, which led to a prank involving a homemade door alarm his parents did not appreciate. Feynman worked at Los Alamos early in his career, where he pranked colleagues by cracking open their office safes.

To make a point about security, he once broke into the nine safes containing all of the government’s top-secret Manhattan Project classified documents and scared the bejeezus out of a general.

Other highlights include faking his way into a prize-winning samba band as a percussionist while on sabbatical in Brazil, hosting an art exhibition and selling his own work after teaching himself to draw, and performing in a ballet orchestra despite no musical training.

Feynman also makes serious points about how to work both hard and smartly—he describes several mental shortcuts he used to do complicated math in his head, and other useful heuristics. To Feynman’s credit, he also treats his Nobel as an afterthought, thinking of it as almost a nuisance since everyone suddenly started taking him seriously. Many laureates have less humble views of their prizes.

Mark Dunn – Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

Mark Dunn – Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

A great read for lovers of language. Dunn is both playful and makes a serious point about freedom of expression. He tells the story of the island of Nollop, named for the man who wrote a 35-letter sentence containing every letter of the alphabet: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

One by one, the letters fall off a statue of Nollop containing the phrase, leading the island council to ban writing or speaking words containing those letters. Those letters also disappear from the book, making for very interesting reading as more and more letters fall. As the quality of life and language deteriorate—the two are closely related—the characters feverishly work to find a solution.

Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Coauthored by one of the lead scientists on a still-in-progress 60-year fox domestication experiment in Russia. They tell a compelling story filled with ups and downs, joy and heartbreak, backroom politicking, and all manner of close calls. They also offer a trove of insights into genetics and the process of domestication they have learned from domesticating a new species.

The researchers bred wild foxes and selectively bred the tamest ones. Selecting for this single trait came with an entire package of other new traits in just a few generations. Besides increased docility, the descendants of tame foxes also developed different coats and markings, smaller brains and jaws, reduced stress hormones, and changed vocalizations. They also retained youthful traits longer, or even permanently–geneticists call this neotony. The process exactly mirrors what happened to dogs as they were domesticated from wolves.

Strangely enough, some humans also exhibit neotonous traits, such as retaining blue eyes or blonde hair into adulthood.

Non-tame foxes bred from the same parents were also kept for breeding as an experimental control. They developed none of these traits.

Another insight is that humans are a domesticated species—we did it to ourselves, and reap the benefits to this day. Domestication is arguably a two-way process, with other species such as wheat domesticating us at the same we domesticated it. The story of the great fox experiment also shows the love that people and animals can have for each other, which warmed this pet owner’s heart.