My Wandering Summer Reading

Although only mid-August, school will be starting up for me only too soon … during the summer months, I make a vow (at best half kept most years) to spend two hours a day reading stuff, anything that is not strictly driven by a current writing project.  I’ve found that if I can persuade myself to stop surfing the web, put aside the immediate reading for whatever I’m writing, and read across a wider range of things, I am storing up – marinating, possibly – ideas for the future.  I haven’t done so well on that assignment this summer, but I thought I would share a couple of items on the wandering list of summer reading, ranging from things that are about current writing projects, to beach reading – well, not actual beach reading, because I didn’t go to the beach, but books I read in California while on a not-quite vacation while daughter looked at colleges.  Also some things I was listening to.  Below the fold …

Carl Hiaasan, Star Island, in the category of lightest of fluffy light beach reading.  But I thought it was fun.

Tony Geraghty, Black Ops: The Rise of Special Forces in the CIA, the SAS, and Mossad.  Geraghty is a British journalist who has covered this beat for a long time, from the UK perspective.  Given my work on targeted killing, this book sounded useful, or at least a diverting read by a journalist, rather than my usual reading in these areas (much more academic. technical, and policy literature).  I bought it on impulse at the San Francisco Airport, and alas don’t think it was worth it.  I can’t figure out the organization of the book; it is far more UK focused than I was interested in (and then tried to fix that for a US audience by explaining over and over how much the US had modeled its services on the SAS); and most irritating of all (if you’ve just paid $30 for it running for a plane), perhaps a quarter of the total pages are taken up with photocopy reproductions, or close to it, of several widely available official reports, such as the McChrystal report on Afghanistan.  There are many better books if you are looking to learn the basics of the special ops services; one of these days when back at my desk, I’ll run through some of them.

Nicole Gelinas, After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street and Washington.  I’ve had this book sitting around, partly read for months.  I’ve known I wanted to read it – partly for the argument and the content, but also because I’m in the middle of a writing on financial regulation reform, and I’ve been reading many different takes.  I tend to think Gelinas is right – hail Gelinas, as Judge Posner said – but no matter what, she is a superbly clear writer.  What it also tells me, though, as someone writing in this area, is that by now the story of the financial crisis has been told and told excellently by a variety of different writers from many different perspectives, whether as inside players (e.g., Paulson) or by analysts such as Gelinas.

Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.  It is an indication of just how good a writer Lewis is that my high schooler daughter, whose inclinations otherwise run to things like Twilight and chick lit fiction, has systematically read every one of his books, entirely unbeknownst to me, starting with Liar’s Poker.  Moneyball, etc.  Moreover, she seems to have learned something.  Me too.  One question that keeps recurring to me, though, in reading this book, as a future regulatory policy matter … how hard would it be in this day of automation to assign every mortgage made something like a CUSIP number and allow its performance to be tracked in real time?  Obviously it doesn’t solve a multitude of problems, but it does seem like it would be easier for the contrarians who populate the early chapters of the book to assess the True State of the World.

(A random moneyball question, while I am thinking of it.  Have any law reviews ever pursued a moneyball strategy with regards to rising scholars in the legal academy?  Track and target underappreciated talent?  Would there be any sense to it, if one even assumed that law review editors saw enough reason to invest in the long run reputation of the journal (the incentives structure seems remarkably tilted, at least at mid tier schools like mine, away from much caring about the journal’s reputation over the long run or even past one’s own year or two).  Well, I guess part of the problem is that there is not sufficient agreement, so far as I can discern, on what constitutes a good article versus a mediocre or bad one, apart from hipness of subject matter.  Also, articles are a devalued marker among legal academics these days; one of these days we should discuss the shifting economics and reputational economics of book publishing in law.)

Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.  I am on my second read of this, and it repays every minute of attention.  What a marvelous study.  It goes up on the short list of permanent studies in financial history that, in my case, includes Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods and James Macdonald, A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy. It causes me to recall something that Soros, when I was working as his charities lawyer in the 1990s, said sometime after some crisis or other – like clockwork, every ten years, the statistical geniuses come up with another way in which uncertainty is finally converted into manageable risk, and then it blows up on them.  He then added something about reflexivity.

Wittgenstein, On Certainty.  A lot of my undergraduate study in philosophy was with the Wittgensteinean philosophers Philippa Foot and Rogers Albritton.  With the latter, I took a series of seminars on skepticism, including one on religious belief and rationality, and another on this book, On Certainty.  The reason I have returned to it arises from a sense, reinforced by a couple of years of reading the literature of the philosophy of economics and value, that many of the arguments we currently have find much deeper roots in the classic arguments over skepticism.  Actually, I mean something more specific than that, something that draws directly on a couple of Albritton’s lectures, for which I dearly wish I still had the notes (I have the notes on the religion class, by the way).  He remarked over a couple of classes that problem of skepticism was not skepticism as such, but offering a reason why this level or degree of skepticism was warranted by this kind of problem or issue.  You don’t want to approach the question of whether the fingerprints on the gun are mine with a form of skepticism about the existence of the external world.

As Albritton pointed out, however, more often than we might think, we invoke what we think is a local and limited version of skepticism “appropriate” to the task but in fact we are tacitly relying on a much more earth-shaking variety of skepticism to do the work we want to do.  I think – I won’t try to explain more here – that something like that is at work in a variety of areas in which we lock ourselves into models for, in effect, converting uncertainty into risk (pace Soros above).  (Calling Larry Solum! – I think you were in that seminar with me, along with Sharon Lloyd and Andrew Hsu  – does this ring any bells?)

Kevin Starr, California: A History.  I read this when it first came out a couple of years ago, but decided to stick it up on my Kindle as I was headed to do a big loop around California, SF to LA, LA to Claremont, Claremont to Bishop, Bishop to Tahoe, Tahoe to SF, and then home.  In the event, I was suddenly seized with the desire to turn aside at Lee Vining, much to the surprise of Beloved Wife and Favorite Daughter, and drive through Yosemite instead.  Anyway, this is an excellent read if you are trying to make sense of how California got to its current parlous state.  It leaves you off just as the literature of the California meltdown that I sometimes post up on this blog gets going.

(This has been much on my mind because I have this fantasy of buying real estate in Bishop, California – I am convinced, on not very much tangible evidence, that aging and decrepit Boomers are going to move there, figuring that even if they can’t actually hike in the mountains, they can have a great view, and it’s both cheaper and frankly much nicer as a living space than the hopelessly ugly urbanization of Mammoth (I know, sounds weird, given that Main Street in Bishop is an unending line of fast food and motels, but get off Main Street, and it is a genuine community.)  But then … driving north on 395, I saw a sign for 52 acres of roadside midway between the growing community of Crowley and the Mammoth Airport, which now flies in the jets of upper income skiers.  52 acres in Mono County for $650k?  A couple of miles down the road from the airport?  I have no idea what the zoning and other regulations are, but this being California, probably intense.  Worth it?  Can’t afford it, but still wonder if it wouldn’t be a killing down the road.  Is Nevada, Carson Valley, a safer bet for the same thing – retirees who want to be within reach of Tahoe but a real city?)

Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.  This book has received a fair amount of attention lately.  It’s a great read, and makes its central thesis persuasively: the essential transformation in getting to human is not fire or meat-eating, important as those are – it is our evolutionary adaptation to something that follows on fire, cooking.  We are adapted to eating cooked food.  Well.  Family away the last ten days, I decided to try a basically raw diet, a little bit as Wrangham describes in his opening chapters.  Not completely – I ate fish and buffalo in quantities, plus some (extraordinarily delicious – I made them with garlic and fresh lime juice and lime zest) black beans and some cooked quinoa-amaranth mush.  But I ate a head of lettuce a day, a couple of massive tomatoes, avocados, bell pepper, cucumber, green onion and other vegetables, a lot of blueberries, peaches, strawberries, raw nuts, etc.  I didn’t lack for calories, certainly not protein, given the meat and fish, some cooked carbs, and also my customary intake of olive oil and liquid fish oil.  (I’m a foodie in three things: coffee, chocolate, and, increasingly, olive oil – and California olive oils are getting exceptionally yummy.)

Results?  I was not doing this out of any dietary purity thing; no, just curious and partly interested in seeing if it would lead to weight loss.  I wasn’t on it long enough or consistently enough to test the weight loss part.  But just as Wrangham said about raw foodists, I was constantly hungry, even though I was plowing through a lot of food and my stomach was full, and fell full, even over full.  After 7 days I was starting to crave hot cooked food very specifically – not just calories, and not sweets, but something starchy, hot, cooked.  The other thing, though, was that my stomach found it hard dealing with all the crude leaves and plant material.  Possibly I would adjust over time.  I don’t mean intestinal problems, diarrhea, etc. – I mean specifically my stomach wrestling with all this raw stuff.  I deliberately didn’t shred things up small, but forced myself to chew – but it felt as though my stomach was unused to processing all this.  I tried eating corn raw off the cob, without any heating, and that caused immediate indigestion – again, in my stomach.  Wrangham talks about the physics of food and calorie extraction, and I have a much better idea of what he meant.  I also have a much better idea about what he meant about how long it takes to chew leaves, even delicate baby spinach.

Of course, tonight I went to MacDonald’s and proved another of his observations – how fast human beings can take in calories, when they are cooked, soft, mushy, and all set to dissolve into glucose in your bloodstream – I inhaled a trillion calories in the form of french fries in about five minutes.  No animal can take in raw calories as fast as that.  A chimp would take six hours to take in what I did in ten minutes – which, health and obesity aside, is one reason I have time to write this blog post, rather than spending the next few hours not just foraging, but chewing.

Listening?  Well, in the category of specialist music, I have been obsessed with Hille Perl’s album of viol da gamba music, music mostly of Sainte-Colombe, Retrouve et Change.  It doesn’t stop there … there is a series of albums of Sainte-Colombe suites for two viols, and I have been gradually listening to them, one by one.  Quite possibly the viol da gamba should have been my instrument, not the cello.  (If by any chance any reader knew where to find the music score for ‘Les Couplets’ on that album, I would be really thrilled to hear about it.  I sing it constantly as I work, walk, it has that exact ostinato pattern that speaks to my … hardwiring.  It would make me so happy to play it on my cello.)

(I’ve also been reading some robotics, security studies, international law topics this summer, but that’s all much more related to my immediate writing.  I will say, about robots, and for once not about robots and the battlefield … if I were looking to identify the next big innovation arenas, for venture capital, for new investment, the Next Big Thing, they would be robotics and cyborg technologies.  The new plastics, etc., for an aging generation.  I just hope there is enough investment capital around to take the chance on bringing them to fruition.  I love teaching students, and I actually love the kind of pedagogical reading that goes along with preparing for class, but gosh, I would love to have time to just read like this all the time.)