What am I up to now?
February 29, 2024
Happy New Year! 2023 was much less busy than 2022, but still packed. Highlights include:
• hikes in Uzbekistan,
• thunderstorms on the beach in The Gambia,
• roadtripping around Germany and Switzerland,
• summer sculls on the Thames,
• food and volcanoes in Mexico, and
• lots of time in the Cotswolds.
That’s just the fun side — for work, I completed my comprehensive exams, received my first major research grant, rode on trash trucks, wrote a few blog posts I’m proud of, and did my first serious mentoring.
I have high hopes for 2024. If all goes well, I’ll receive my masters in the spring, and start the DPhil in the fall. Two big research projects are moving forward, which will have me traveling to The Gambia a few times, and hopefully further afield. My research agenda for the first half of the year is going to focus on the political economy of development and global health. Later in the year, I will be spending time working on farmed animal welfare.
I’m in DC/NYC/New Haven for the first week of January, then back to Oxford. I’ll also be in CDMX in February. If you’ll be in any of these spots, let me know!
Here is the list of books I read in 2023, and here’s 2022’s list. Last year, I read 30 books in translation; this year, it was six, and three of those were by Kapuściński. My ratio skewed more towards non-fiction this year, with a few interesting intermediate (HHhH, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Incest Diary, all of Kapuściński).
This list is shorter than last year’s. Part of this is from a desire to count more accurately, or at least more consistently: I’m only counting cover-to-cover reads, books I feel that I saw in their entirety. In turn, this is partly in response to Holden Karnofsky’s “Reading books vs. engaging with them.” Karnofsky claims what we call “reading” is inefficient and inaccurate,The first table in that link. and advocates for a more roundabout path to gleaning knowledge from books.The second table. His (implied) preferred efficient method of learning from a book in an area you aren’t an expert in is to:
Read reviews/discussions of the book; locate the parts of the book they’re referencing, and read those parts carefully, independently checking footnotes, and referring back to other parts of the book for any unfamiliar terms. Write down who I think is being more fair; lay out the exact quotes that give the best evidence that my judgment is right. (But never read the whole book)
This is defensible — and other peopleTanner Greer is another good citation for the claim at that link. have found it useful. However, I have found that this strategy is often not possible. Finding reviews and (more importantly) author replies for most books is very difficult! Here are three books (one, two, three) which I would like to understand deeply, and I’m willing to put Karnofsky’s suggested 16 hours into each. But there is not a rigorous debate on these books; I could find a single academic reviews of two, but no author replies. Often, a book is the last word on itself.
The best reading discourse of the year was kicked off by Sam Bankman-Fried’s comments in an interview with Sequoia Capital. “I would never read a book,” SBF tells the interviewer.
I’m not sure what to say. I’ve read a book a week for my entire adult life and have written three of my own.
“I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that,” explains SBF. “I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
Everyone else has had a go at psychoanalyzing Sam over the past year. Our culture attributes great status to people who write books; book authors get a lot of respect from other high-status people, in a way that bloggers, tweeters, long-form journalists don’t. But a book is a 5-10 hour imposition on someone’s time, and by reading a book, you’re putting yourself and your attention into the author’s hands for that time. SBF saw his own time as too valuable for anything like that.For example, videogames on Bloomberg. He was an extreme: I’ve met CEOs and heads of state — people much busier than SBF was — who read much more widely than I do. It often comes from a place of humility.I don’t know how prison works — if he has access to six-paragraph blog posts— and this is not meant as a gotcha but I am curious to know if he is reading books now.
Richard Hanania riffed on SBF — his contribution to the debate — “The Case Against (Most) Books” — attacks popular non-fictionEric Hoel, whose second non-fiction books is coming out this year, has another good article in this genre. and the classics: “the idea that someone writing more than say four hundred years ago could have deep insights into modern issues strikes me as farcical.”
I’m actually not going to defend against these attacks; that’s The Atlantic’s job. I’ll even agree that popular non-fiction can stay on the shelf. I think my reading habit is closer to a TikTok addiction than a sign of high conscientiousness, intelligence, or any other high status thing. Reading books is my default activity, the first thing I do when I have nothing else to do; my sister goes on a run; my girlfriend plans conversations with her intellectual heroes; my mom gardens; one friend in my PhD does gig data science tasks.He gets paid, a pittance, but says it’s mostly a way to ‘relax.’ I don’t think my reading habit is defensible because it funges against other things I’d like to be doing.Including, sometimes, the things other people do without trying, like exercising, gardening, or writing.
There is one way I am extremely annoying about books: gifts. If you’ve gotten me a book as a gift,This only applies to non-Star Wars books, but as I haven’t gotten one of those as a gift since 2012, it applies to all books I’ve received as a gift since 2012. I have almost certainly not read it. The one well-publicized exception is my Amazon wishlist. If you buy me a book off this list, it is close to certain I will read it.
The very first book I reviewed on this site was How to talk about books you haven’t read, by Pierre Bayard. Bayard is an even stronger advocate of non-reading than Karnofsky. The key, at the beginning of the book, puts books into four categories:
The more I read — and I’ve read, by any definition, fewer than 1,000 books — the more this categorization appeals to me. There are so many great books, life-changing books, which will be unknown to me forever. The ones I do read fade from my memory more quickly each year. I went over my list of books from 2022 and, for many books, I can probably tell you no more than a sentence about it. Bayard has the same problem:
Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable. It extends to the point where it’s as though I haven’t read the book at all, so that in effect I find myself rejoining the ranks of non-readers, where I should no doubt have remained in the first place. […] When we talk about books, then, to ourselves and to others, it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances.
The forgetting is inevitable, and in a way comforting. The best method of remembering a book is to re-read it. Knowing that I have this option available to me, to return to a book every year until it is seared into my memory, makes me less needful of that memory, and so I return to books less and less often.
These are various interesting or fun things I’ve found on the internet this month.
’‘Palazzo Corpi thereby acquired the unique distinction of being the first and only U.S. diplomatic premises to be won in a poker game.”
The Communist University of the Toilers of the East is, first, a great name for a university, and second, graduated a shocking number of mid-20th century revolutionaries who created chaos in Mexico, India, Syria, Thailand, and further afield.
Reviews of waking up times, in order.
The (somewhat apocryphal) story of Alexander von Humboldt’s parrot. As traditionally told, while on the Orinoco RiverSomewhere in modern-day Venezuela. in the early 19th century, the German naturalist encountered parrots kept by one tribe, which had captured them from another tribe they had recently massacred. These parrots were the only remaining reservoir of the Maypure language. This version of the legend was made famous by Darwin, but the truth is a bit more complicated.
Anders Sandberg factchecked:
The names do not match Humboldt’s journals, and the story seems to appear some 60 years after the expedition. The Maipure language is indeed extinct, but was a lingua franca language along the upper Orinoco rather than local. However, Humboldt does mention a story relating to the Ature tribeSandberg isn’t quite right here — that Ature didn’t go extinct, but became known by other names, the Piaroa or Adole. The language also survived in human speakers, under these names. that went extinct in the mid1700s and that an old parrot that might have spoken their language was shown in Maypures — but it is unclear if he actually saw it and there is no evidence he recorded any words.
A long, funny story about BTS in the airport in Santiago, Chile.
Edmond-Charles Genêt was Louis XI’s ambassador to Russia when the French Revolution hit, was personally evicted from St. Petersburg by Catherin the Great‘not only superfluous but even intolerable’ in 1792, and was then immediately appointed French ambassador to the US by the Girondins.In high school, I was fascinated by Tallyerand’s ability to surf the tides of French politics. Now, I’m convinced that the foreign policy institutions were more robust to revolution. He took a ship directly to Charleston, South Carolina, where he hung out for two years recruiting American privateers against the British (including one ship named after himself, the Citzen Genêt). This pissed off Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, who, working together, got the French government to recall Genêt.
By that point, the Mountain had come to power and would have guillotined Genêt if he came back. Hamilton got him asylum. He married the daughter of the governor of New York, and lived the rest of his life outside Albany.
While in the US for the holidays, I was thinking of going down to Fort Bragg to visit some friends, but I learned that it was recently renamed to Fort Liberty, because Mr. Bragg was a Confederate general. Of, course, “Republican candidates Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence in the 2024 presidential election have both pledged to rename the base back to Fort Bragg if elected president.” I think Democrats could add this to their platform as well, out of respect to Bragg’s Service to the Union:
A recent essay from Atoms vs. Bits entitled “On the Beating of Children and Other Apparently Fine Things” reminded me of my favorite David Deutsch piece, “The Final Prejudice” about a Star Trek TNG episode. In the episode, Picard and a few others are rejuvenated to the age of 12; Deutsch tells the story of how the Captain no longer commands the respect of the Enterprise crew — not a surprise in itself — and is stripped of his rights, based on his new appearance.
What is going on here? The Captain of a Starship is not being taken seriously by his own subordinates. Why? Whatever the reason is, it must be very powerful if it takes precedence over these people’s loyalty, their training, their personal respect and admiration for Picard — to say nothing of elementary decency and commonsense! For when it comes down to it, nothing of any significance has really changed.
Some good albums:
• catharsis, Covet
• Another Land, Dave Holland
• Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and Gambia, Various
• Held Together, Aberdeen
• My 21st Century Symphony (Live), Raye
• Latopa, Àbájade
• Sounding a Mosaic, Bedouin Soundclash