What am I up to now?

September 25, 2022

July, 2021

The rainy season has arrived in Freetown, and I’m leaving. I will be in and around DC from 7 July to 3 August, with short trips up to New York and Connecticut; if you’d like to say hi, shoot me a text or an email.My cell is (240) 370-8956. I wasn’t going to put this on the internet, but then I figured I can’t get any more spam calls than I already do. Somehow, the collectors on my fake student loans have followed me to West Africa.

Book reviews are abbreviated this month, as I’ve been doing a lot more writing than reading.


  1. Reading
  2. Listening
  3. Writing
  4. Eating


The first “serious” history book I read was McCullough’s “1776,” which I found under a friend’s bed during a middle school sleepover. Since then, it’s always surprised me when history books carry over from December 31st of one year to January 1st of the next. To a sixth-grader memorizing dates and places, the year is the natural unit of historical analysis.

A year is convenient. It’s convenient that in 1968 the Tet Offensive kicked off in January and the first men arrived at the moon on Christmas Eve. 2020 had a Joycean story arc.

Ray Huang’s “1587, a Year of No Significance” has an irresistible title. Huang presents a snapshot of the declining Ming Dynasty in an entirely inconsequential year. The year has no convenient plot elements; no coups, no new emperor, no plague or invasion.

Really, nothing of great significance happened in 1587, the Year of the Pig. China was not facing a foreign invasion, nor was the country engulfed in a civil war. Even though the capital district did not have sufficient rain during the summer and epidemics broke out in those months, and though drought was reported in Shantung, and flood in South Chihli, and earth- quakes took place in Shansi in the autumn, none of these disasters occurred in alarming proportions. For an empire as immense as ours, such minor incidents and setbacks can only be expected. On the whole, the Year of the Pig would go down in history as an indifferent one.

Can we therefore omit that year from history books? Not quite.

Huang also has excellent insight into the power of the eunuchs, fear of external influence, and optimal tax policy, all with a strong theme of decadence. It’s an excellent history book on public choice theory, as well.

Another literary year was 1606, covered in James Shapiro in his “Year of Lear.” I read Shakespeare’s “Lear” again before diving into Shapiro’s entertaining book, and it was a useful primer. Shapiro engages in historical and political analysis, not literary criticism. “Lear”, preceding “Macbeth” by just a few months, is a much more Scottish play than it is English, or perhaps it’s more of a “Jacobean” play than an “Elizabethan” play.

The word “England” had appeared 224 times in his Elizabethan plays. But in the decade after James became king, the word “England” appeared only twenty-one more times in his works (most of them in his late and collaborative Henry the Eighth), and “English” (which he had used 132 times during the plays he wrote under Elizabeth) would appear only eighteen more times in all of his Jacobean plays. Shakespeare had never found an occasion to use the word “British” before James’s accession; the first time that audiences heard it in one of his plays was in King Lear, where it occurs three times. Similarly, the word “Britain,” which had appeared only twice in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan drama, occurs that many times in King Lear alone, and twenty-nine times in all in his Jacobean plays.

“Year of Lear” entertains on every page. But every non-fiction book about Shakespeare reminds me how little we know about the man. His biography will have to wait for time travel.

If a year is too short to really grasp an era of history, how about 38 minutes? The best book on history I’ve read this year is “Anatomy of a Moment” by Javier Cercas. Cercas attempted to write a novel about the 1981 Spanish coup, but failed upwards into a brilliantly researched and written account of the crisis and its personalities. I’ll return to this book in a couple of months, when I post a massive review of George Orwell’s works; Cercas succeeds at something Orwell attempts in “Homage to Catalonia”: making obscure Spanish leftist internecine conflict interesting.

Away from history, I sped through “Foundations of Astronomy,” the highest-rated introductory textbook on the subject. I finally learned what a parsec is, and plan to remember this time.

In fiction, I’ve just finished Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” and have no comments yet other than a vague thumbs up. I’ve been binging Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction and translation work over the past few weeks, and will soon have thoughts to share on Bengali cuisine, the immigrant experience, Rhode Island, and what it means to describe illness across languages.See my recent attempts trying to explain the difference between typhoid and typhus to linguistically-conceited Germans.

The most pleasantly surprising fiction I’ve read this year was “The Greenhouse” by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. Of all the flavors of European existentialism, Icelandic might be my favorite: it’s one-third sex, one-third death, and one-third gardening:

“What do you mean when you say you constantly think about death?”

“About seven to eleven times a day, depending on the day. Mostly early in the morning when I’ve just got into the garden and late at night in bed.”

I’m half expecting him to ask me how often I think about the body and sex. I could even envisage discussing those things with him, but it’s easier to start discussions about important things on a more manageable subject than sex. But if he were to ask me, I’d say about as often as death. Seven to eleven times a day. As the day progresses, thoughts about death start to give way to thoughts about the body, I would say. If he had asked about plants the answer would have been similar, too. I think about plants as much as I think about sex and death.

The book delivers on gardening, sex, cooking, and despair. It’s a fun book. It’s also short, 240 pages, which is becoming one of my top criteria for choosing fiction. Highly recommended.

Finally, in sci-fi, I sprinted through Lem’s “Cyberiad.” “Solaris” has never been able to hold my attention, so I’ve long been afraid that I just wasn’t a close enough reader to understand Lem. Now I’m thinking it was a problem of translation.I had tried the Kilmartin–Cox version, which came from Polish to French to English, and reportedly disappointed Lem. The Cyberiad” was brilliantly translated and I bought two more books by Lem, including a more up-to-date translation of “Solaris,” before I was a chapter in. How could you not, with paragraphs like this?

And the mathematical models of King Krool and the beast did such fierce battle across the equation-covered table, that the constructors’ pencils kept snapping. Furious, the beast writhed and wriggled its iterated integrals beneath the King’s polynomial blows, collapsed into an infinite series of indeterminate terms, then got back up by raising itself to the nth power, but the King so belabored it with differentials and partial derivatives that its Fourier coefficients all canceled out (see Riemann’s Lemma), and in the ensuing confusion the constructors completely lost sight of both King and beast. So they took a break, stretched their legs, had a swig from the Leyden jug to bolster their strength, then went back to work and tried it again from the beginning, this time unleashing their entire arsenal of tensor matrices and grand canonical ensembles, attacking the problem with such fervor that the very paper began to smoke. The King rushed forward with all his cruel coordinates and mean values, stumbled into a dark forest of roots and logarithms, had to backtrack, then encountered the beast on a field of irrational numbers (Φ) and smote it so grievously that it fell two decimal places and lost an epsilon, but the beast slid around an asymptote and hid in an n-dimensional orthogonal phase space, underwent expansion and came out, fuming factorially, and fell upon the King and hurt him passing sore. But the King, nothing daunted, put on his Markov chain mail and all his impervious parameters, took his increment Δk to infinity and dealt the beast a truly Boolean blow, sent it reeling through an x-axis and several brackets—but the beast, prepared for this, lowered its horns and—wham!!—the pencils flew like mad through transcendental functions and double eigen-transformations, and when at last the beast closed in and the King was down and out for the count, the constructors jumped up, danced a jig, laughed and sang as they tore all their papers to shreds, much to the amazement of the spies perched in the chandelier—perched in vain, for they were uninitiated into the niceties of higher mathematics and consequently had no idea why Trurl and Klapaucius were now shouting, over and over, “Hurrah! Victory!!”


I’ve had unfortunately little new music this month. The highlight was Sam Enright’s Beginner’s Guide to Miles Davis, which provided a fantastic excuse to return to some of my favorite records from high school. Every record is worth listening to once, but my favorites from Sam’s list are “On the Corner,” ““Four” and More,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The post also put Ken Burns’ “Jazz” on my reading list with one quote: “When historians in 1,000 years look back on America, it’ll be remembered for three things: baseball, the constitution, and jazz.”

My Zakir Hussain kick has lasted more than a year now, and I’m still finding fantastic records. Bill Laswell has top billing on “Lost Roads” but Hussain and Aïyb Dieng are the main draws. In an astonishingly diverse sextet, the percussion holds the record together.The guitarist, Skopelitis, is Greek; the violinist, Shankar, and Hussain, are Indian; the congo drummer, Ponce, is Cuban; Dieng is Senegalese; Laswell is American.


I’m circulating a draft of my paper on the long reflection; if this sounds interesting to you, let me know and I’ll send it along. I’ve got two other working papers on political economy up on my research page; I’m scheduled to present both of these at APSA 2021 in Seattle.


Nothing much to add on food; I’m looking forward to decent Chinese food and bagels when I’m back in the States.

To make up for it, here are two of my favorite econ papers on the economic history of food. First, from Nathan Nunn, “The potato’s contribution to population and urbanization.”

According to our most conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato accounts for approximately one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900.

To the extent that urbanization serves as a measure of the shift from rural agriculture to urban manufacturing, our estimates also provide historic evidence of the importance of agricultural productivity for economic development. According to our estimates, the introduction of the potato explains 47% of the post-1700 increase in the average urbanization rate. Our estimates suggest that increased agricultural productivity can play a significant part in promoting the rise of urban centers, industry, and economic development.

The paper has very fun methods, if you’re into that sort of thing, and provides a new appreciation for starches.

Second, “The Ocean’s Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick” by Paul Josephson. If food were to be competing for status, this paper would lower the status of hot dogs and raise that of fish sticks.


June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - September 25, 2022 - Joseph Levine