Category Archives: Books

Sean Howe – Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe – Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

I’ve been interested in corporate histories recently, from Ron Chernow’s books on Rockefeller and Morgan to modern biographies of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. This is another one from that pile, though it also served the ulterior motive of familiarizing me with the Marvel Universe’s universe of characters in advance of seeing Avengers: Endgame. My Marvel fandom is decidedly casual, and I am unfamiliar with many of the characters’ origins and backstories. Adding to the confusion is that they are all interconnected in a larger universe.

This book also gives some background on just how much those characters and their universe reflect their time and place, from 1940s pulps to the national fascination with anything atomic in the 1950s and 1960s. The characters change and grow as the times do, and so does Marvel itself, which has frequently had to fend off bankruptcy as it periodically falls behind the times.

The company has been bought and sold several times over the years, and personalities clashes abound as art and commerce collide. Stan Lee turns his attention to Hollywood and being an ambassador of comics. Co-creator Jack Kirby gets nowhere near the credit he deserves, is stiffed financially, and leaves Marvel for its rival, DC Comics. Other writers also get screwed over, leading to a growing movement of independent companies.

As comics buyers grew up and had kids of their own, Marvel also had to add new titles, drop old ones, reboot stale characters that still had compelling attributes, and change its approach to hold onto its customers, and attract new ones. Progress is this department has been uneven at best; the comics world still isn’t exactly friendly territory for women or minorities, and some of the more hardcore fans are a little stunted—though they would likely still be that way had comic books never been invented. The companies slowly began to realize the goldmines they were ignoring, but many of their attempts are cringe-worthy. Things are better than they used to be, but this stunted male juvenile aspect of the business remains a work in progress.

This book is part business history, part explainer of the Marvel Universe, and part cultural history of 20th century America. That’s an ambitious scope for any book, but Howe pulls it off. He might have done a bit more on the business side, but this reader has no serious complaints. As with the best Marvel stories, I was entertained and educated at the same time.

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A Yardstick for Reform

While recently revisiting my old friend the Export-Import Bank, which is up for reauthorization this September, I was reminded of a quote from Nobel laureate Ronald Coase’s 1975 essay “Economists and Public Policy,” which appears on p. 57 of 1995’s Essays on Economics and Economists:

An economist who, by his efforts, is able to postpone by a week a government program which wastes $100 million a year (which I would call a modest success) has, by his action, earned his salary for the whole of his life.

By this measure, the Ex-Im Bank controversy over the last several years was a success, though there is more work to be done. In 2014 the agency’s authorization lapsed for nearly a year, and after that it was limited to small transactions until May 2019. The total savings run into the tens of billions of dollars.

Venki Ramakrishnan – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Venki Ramakrishnan – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Ramakrishnan won the 2009 chemistry Nobel for figuring out the structure of ribosomes. DNA and RNA contain instructions for protein molecules; ribosomes use that information for actual protein assembly. Ribosomes are an organelle that exists in every cell. There are more than a trillion ribosomes in your body right now; they are not rare. But getting a handle on their structure and how they go about their work was a longstanding mystery. It took Tamakrishnan more than two decades to suss out. Along the way he pioneered the use of x-ray microscopy and crystallography. Some of the science went over my head, but this career autobiography still offers plenty for a layman. As I so often find with these sorts of books, it unintentionally confirms the arguments in the economist Gordon Tullock’s 1966 book The Organization of Inquiry (free PDF), a public choice analysis of professional scientific behavior.

Nasim Nicholas Taleb – Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Nasim Nicholas Taleb – Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Taleb, at least in his writing, has an off-putting personality. That is in full effect in Antifragile, moreso than in his other books. There is also plenty of counterintuitiveness-for-its-own-sake that make Taleb popular with people who like TED talks a little too much. But as with Taleb’s other books, there is still some good insights that make worth wading through the pretense and occasional New Age quackery.

As far as the title, something is fragile if stress makes it weaker. It is robust if stress doesn’t affect it. And something is anti-fragile is stress actually strengthens it; think of how muscles respond to weightlifting, or an immune system after learning how to fight a disease. Taleb’s goal is to find ways to make financial markets, technologies, and public policies anti-fragile, and not fragile or merely robust.

One insight is that market volatility can actually make financial markets anti-fragile. Suppose the stock market plummets and reaches a two-year low. This will scare some skittish investors out of the market altogether, leaving only hardier, usually more expert investors left to evaluate investments and drive their prices. In this way, policies designed to prevent market volatility can actually make financial markets more prone to crashes, not less.

There are also some things in Anti-Fragile that can be safely ignored. This includes Taleb’s workout and dietary recommendations, his inconsiderate habit of only scheduling appointments same-day, his fondness for running shoes with articulated toes, or his unsubtle bragging about speaking three languages, having homes in two countries, and being able to read an entire book on London-New York flights, which he is sure to let the reader know he takes regularly. This is a book that offers some food for thought, along with plenty of opportunities to practice eye-rolling.

Dan Jones – The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

Dan Jones – The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

An utterly conventional kings-and-battles account of the period. It’s a good survey of the period, but readers will have to go elsewhere if they want memorable portraits of the personalities involved, what everyday life was like in castle or court, or for the soldiers and their families, what the period’s economy and technology were like, what intellectual or religious life were like, or even the larger historical significance of the York-Lancaster rivalry.

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Brutal honesty has been a running theme of Hanson’s career, and he has caused some controversy because of it, though it is nearly always overblown. Simler has a similar approach in his research, and the two make a good pair in this book. Mostly a blend of psychology and economics, Simler and Hanson explore why people lie to themselves as well as to others in justifying their actions in a number of spheres, from work to romance to everyday life.

The drawbacks of this are obvious, from the lies themselves to the bad behaviors they can enable and rationalize. But the benefits are an avoidance of cognitive dissonance and negative views of self and others. Total honesty would decimate nearly everyone’s sense of self-worth, as well as peoples’ ability to trust and interact with others.

In that sense, Hanson and Simler have put together a view of human nature that mixes Hobbe’s nasty and brutish view of human nature with a David Hume- or Adam Smith-style emphasis on humanity’s inherent need for social interaction. As Smith put it, people need both to love and be lovely (by which Smith means worthy of being loved). Reconciling the two is a messy business, but Hanson and Simler do it uncomfortably well, backing their arguments with plenty of empirical research.

Frank Knight – Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit

Frank Knight – Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit

A 1921 classic in economic theory. Knight emphasizes the inadequacy of the perfect competition model. He also offers frequent psychological insights on human behavior that foreshadow today’s behavioral economics movement, though Knight lacks that movement’s ideological commitment to a top-down approach to public policy. Knight, as a student of emergent order processes, is skeptical of top-down direction as an effective way to nudge human behavior.

The book is most famous for Knight’s insights on economic change and a rejection of Walrasian static equilibrium modeling. A lot of the discussion hinges on Knight’s boutique definitions of the terms “risk” and “uncertainty.”

For Knight, risk is something that can be quantified—I know there is a 50 percent chance of such-and-such happening in the economy, and its general impact on my company, for example. Uncertainty cannot be quantified; it is a true mystery. I have invented a brand new product; will it sell?

A world of pure predictability, in which things sit in a Walrasian equilibrium, sounds comfortable. But it would have no progress or positive change. The whole reason people and companies gamble on risks and uncertainties is because they want profits—all three words in Knight’s title are essential. Standing pat won’t put food on the table. Adapting to change, and creating change, are the ways to succeed in the market.