What am I up to now?

April 6, 2024

November, 2023


  1. Updates
  2. Reading
  3. Music
  4. Previously


Oxford term time is back, which means routine (perhaps too much?) is back. I have a new chair with corduroy upholstery and a brown felt blanket, where I read most mornings from 6-8am. The same smoothieOne banana
One apple
Fifteen ml of peanut butter
One fistful of frozen blueberries
Five ml tbsp of milled flaxseed
Fifty ml of greek yoghurt
Fifty g of chocolate protein powder
Quarter liter of milk
is back, at 8am every morning.Except on Thursdays, when I get breakfast at Nuffield with DB, NE, CS, etc. My desk has become more comfortable and productive, especially after dropping one of my three monitors.The desk chair has mysteriously dropped three screws in the past week, and I can’t figure out where they came from. I expect to end up on the floor at any moment. This is especially good, as I’ve lost any ability to focus at my old office Trajan House — I end up talking to people or playing table tennis or reading on a beanbag or something.

Evenings are much less structured, especially having just suffered clocks falling-back. This isn’t the furthest north I’ve spent a winter, but the prospect of <eight-hour days is dreadful. I have no idea if this routine makes me more productive. I’ve reached the self-directed stage of the PhD,Tho I’ll return to a coursework structure for one term later this year. and “time sitting at a desk” isn’t the best measure of productivity. I’ve been keeping myself accountable, both weekly with MWG and to everyone supporting my studies.

My PhD is being funded by the Heffernan-Sinclair Endowment from Brasenose College. Peter Sinclair was the economics tutor at Brasenose in the 1980s and 90s, and passed away during the cruel, disorienting first Covid wave in spring 2020. Many current economists have fond memories of Professor Sinclair: the condolence book at his final university, Birmingham, is over 40,000 words and would take me almost four hours to read aloud. There are notes from undergraduates he taught at Oxford and Birmingham; colleagues and coauthors; government officials from Indonesia, the UK, and Lesotho;The King of Lesotho, in fact. bankers and nurses; childhood friends.

Brasenose established the endowment immediately after Professor Sinclair’s death, naming it after him and his first wife, Shelagh Heffernan, whom I know much less about. She passed away in 2010; her life’s work was as a professor of banking at City University in London. She did her MPhil and DPhil at OxfordBack when a 3-term, 9 month DPhil was possible. Jealous. and wrote various books on Sovereign Risk Analysis and Modern Banking in Theory and Practice. Sinclair himself donated £25,000 in her name to the University later in the 2010s.

I never met Professors Heffernan or Sinclair. Dozens of their loved ones have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to support my studies and to pay my stipend, but the connection I feel with these two adored academics is degrees-removed and elusive. I don’t even work in the same field: their most cited papers, mostly on banking, are largely impenetrable to me.Although, the introduction to Prof. Heffernn’s Modern Banking was fun! And definitely the most I’ve ever read about banking outside of a Matt Levine column. I was the inaugural recipient of this scholarship, but their legacy will fund students every two years, going forward. For two professors who touched hundreds of studentslives, their memory will remain a blessing.

OK, onto schoolwork (which Professors Heffernan and Sinclair are presumably expecting me to do). This term, I’m only taking one course, a mandatory methods course, meaning I’ll take three in the spring term. I’m also auditing Noam Yuchtman’s new course on political economy.

This is, instead, a research-focused term. The big requirement for this year is a completed thesis, which Meg Meyer advised us to think of as “in the direction of” our eventual dissertations. My advisor, Dennis Egger, is doing really cool work on cash transfers and public economics in Africa with a macro-bent. I’m still deciding on my topic; if I don’t have a concrete description of my project here in my next monthly update, then you all should feel free to worry.

The Gambian project is also beginning to speed up. Victor Pouliquen, who pulled me onto the project, has also been introducing me to the delights of grant applications. In the genre of “academics complaining about grants,” scientists usually win out, but running a major experiment with tens of thousands of participants in a poor country is also a difficult spot to be in. And beyond applying, once a grant is awarded, it takes months !! to host the funds and begin to disburse them. And let’s hope you’re not going to hire anyone with these funds. If anything, I’m thankful to have been shielded from the application processes on the previous projects I worked on in Sierra Leone and India. But I did deal with most of the reporting requirements to the funders, and I’m equally dreading that.


The Coup

I read a lot of books about coups. My favorite book about history — have I written about this before? I don’t recall — is The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas, levelly translated by Anne McLean. The 1981 Spanish attempted coup was the last serious coup in an EU or Western European country. {EDIT: Apparently I have written about this book before: “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 stand by it.}

I hadn’t read the coup bible until this month — Coup D’Etat: A Practical Handbook by Edward Luttwak.I remember getting it out of the St Andrews library in 2015, but unlikely I actually read it at the time. I read the new edition, published in 2016, and wish I hadn’t. Luttwak has lost the plot, as the kids say. He was the subject of my favorite interview of 2022;I made this claim in June, so really it’s my favorite interview of the first half of 2022. I don’t remember reading anything better tho. EDIT: Oh yes I totally do, this one. the first two-thirds are extraordinary, the last third is straight-up psychotic. I read another Luttwak interview, from last month, and he seemed oddly excited for the next world war:

[T]his leaves us with our best ally, Vietnam. After a complicated history together, we now have a full-scale alliance with that country. They have a small, capable navy able to operate at sea, but the most important quality is their willingness to recruit themselves on land.

Vietnam is adjacent to the Yunnan province, which is home to various minority groups like the Yi and Bai; it is mostly jungle with slums like downtown Beijing. The Vietnamese line is this: if you outnumber us at sea with your ships, we will cross the border and we will fight you. The Vietnamese are rather eager to fight the Chinese, and they are convinced that they will win. These are two important assets.

Anyway, I’m only being cranky — but the new Coup D’Etat reads as too heavily editorialized. It’s clear which sections were pulled from the original, and which were updated based upon recent events — analysis of which supports a very specific geopolitical view. The update was necessary: the single most “practical” point for coup-leaders in the original edition was “Move into the city center, hold the Parliament building and the radio station.” But perhaps too heavy-handed.

Another great book about a coup, I suppose, is Julian Jackson’s brand new France on Trial, about the 1945 trial of Marshal Pétain. Pétain commanded the French Army through WWI, was the ambassador to Franco for most of the 30s, and became the head of Vichy France during WWII. He fled German imprisonment just before VE Day and De Gaulle promptly placed him on trial at the age of 89. The charges included usurping power in 1941 in order to sign an armistice — which De Gaulle opposed — and further collaboration with Nazi rule. Jackson’s book is thorough, quoting dozens of newspapers, and dozens more confidants, lawyers, and jurors. His title is his thesis — if Pétain was guilty, so was France, or rather, the French. He both collaborated and resisted, not out of any plan; he was too old, inept, or self-obsessed (tho not selfish) for that. Rather, he was handed power in 1941 and followed a path of least resistance from there.

In Pétain, I’m reminded of Arendt’s description of Eichmann. Not the banality of evil, but the “clowneries”. Both Eichmann and Pétain had the habit of finding nice turns of phrase and repeating them, to the point where the press begin to get frustrated for new quotes. They both were accused of “empty talk”. Reading Pétain’s only on-the-record statement during the trial, I got the sense he would have wished to plead, as Eichmann eventually did, “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” Arendt wrote, “The indictment implied not only that he had acted on purpose, which he did not deny, but out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds.” The same could have been said of Pétain.

Finally, on the topic of coups, I read a good bit about Jerry Rawlings this month. Rawlings was the president of Ghana for twenty years — the first half half as the head of a military junta, and then serving two terms as a democratically elected president. I can’t get a handle on him the way I have a handle on other African statesmen: Kwame Nkrumah was idealistic and obsessed with grandeur; Julius Nyerere was an uncompromising socialist whose ideologies and grudges backed him into corners; Kagame is attempting to be Rwanda’s Lee Kuan Yew. But Rawlings contained multitudes. He ruled as a socialist, nationalizing and wage-controlling willy-nilly; he later pivoted with the Economic Recovery Program, privatizing, devaluing, and abolishing subsidies just as aggressively.The best history of this is The Politics of Reform in Ghana, 1982-1991 by Jeffrey Herbst. I’ve been digging into currency and coups, and Herbst has some really interesting research on that. Moreso, this book shows the massive changes caused by Rawlings’ policy pivot. If anyone can find Herbst’s monograph The International System and the Weak State: The Politics of the Currency in West Africa, 1900-1990, I’ll give you $20 or something. Despite this roller coaster of an administration, there’s no authoritative biography; even his Wikipedia page is a mess.Tho it does have a fun Talk page. Matt Lakeman’s post on Ghana has fun details.

Rawlings’ first coup, in 1979, failed, and he was later put in power by a separate coup later that year. He handed power to a democratically elected president, who failed to address Rawlings’ archnemeses (Colonel Corruption and his sidekick, Captain Colonialist), so Rawlings coup’d again in 1981, and didn’t leave power until 2001. At the end of his second term under the new constitution, instead of amending the constitution to remove term limits as most African presidents would do, he stepped down and watched the opposition party take the presidency. Rawlings, and specifically his ERP, created the modern Ghanaian economy, pulling it out of the post-colonial death spiral. Most surprisingly, he was not very power- or wealth-seeking. Lakeman:

So, if I had to guess… I’d say Rawlings probably didn’t engage in any substantial corruption while in office. Maybe he paid himself a very good salary for 18 years, but that isn’t necessarily an instance of corruption. I suppose it’s possible that Rawlings stole a ton of money from Ghana and hid it extremely well, but I see no evidence of that. I’d even say that for an African dictator, Rawlings was likely remarkably uncorrupt.

Good Omens

OK, something cheerier. Me and MWG read Good Omens to each other over the phone and voice messages, and I can confirm Neil Gaiman doesn’t Do It For Me. But! the Terry Pratchett sections were good enough to make it worth finishing.

There’s a scene at the beginning of Good Omens where the Angel of the Eastern Gate of Eden is looking out at Adam and Eve, cast into the wilderness, and the SerpentWho is not, in this book, literally Satan, but some other demon. comes up, and asks the Angel where his flaming sword has gone.

A guilty expression passed across his face, and then came back and camped there.

“If you must know,” he said, a trifle testily, “I gave it away.”

Crawly stared up at him.

“Well, I had to,” said the angel, rubbing his hands distractedly. “They looked so cold, poor things, and she’s expecting already, and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up I thought, well, where’s the harm, so I just said, look, if you come back there’s going to be an almighty row, but you might be needing this sword, so here it is, don’t bother to thank me, just do everyone a big favor and don’t let the sun go down on you here.”

I had read Milton’s Paradise Lost last month, while in The Gambia. Milton has no Angel of the Eastern Gate,Michael, ‘the hastning Angel’, leads the couple to the gate as illustrated by Blake. but a “fierie Armie” of angels with “flaming Brands” aplenty. Michael’s final speech to Adam, promising the Messiah, is the climax of the poem, and a height of the canon. But, after finishing Good Omens, I did think it would be perfect if, after Adam and Eve climbed “down the Cliff as fast / To the subjected Plaine; then disappeer’d,” they met another angel, Pratchett’s Aziraphale, who gave them a fire, a sword, and awkwardly loving words of advice. If you would like to read my attempt at Aziraphale’s speech in Miltonic verse, let me know.


Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, 1981

Preludes, Airs & Yodels, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, 1996

I Just Can’t Stop It, The Beat, 1980

Take it Home, B.B. King, 1979

Synthesized Sudan: Astro​-​Nubian Electronic Jaglara Dance Sounds from the Fashaga Underground, Jantra, 2023

Bocelli, Andrea Bocelli, 1995

Viva la Woman, Cibo Matto, 1996This post was written with ‘Sugar Water’ on repeat.


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What am I up to now? - April 6, 2024 - Joseph Levine