Henry Adams, back when America was on the brink of terrible things

Papal_States_Map_1870

Reading The Education of Henry Adams is for a while a pleasant and edifying distraction from today’s troubles, but he will keep pulling one back in. Here he is visiting Rome as a young man in 1860, while his own country was edging toward civil war:

“Rome was actual; it was England; it was going to be America. Rome could
not be fitted into an orderly, middle-class, Bostonian, systematic
scheme of evolution. No law of progress applied to it. Not even
time-sequences–the last refuge of helpless historians–had value for
it. The Forum no more led to the Vatican than the Vatican to the Forum.
Rienzi, Garibaldi, Tiberius Gracchus, Aurelian might be mixed up in any
relation of time, along with a thousand more, and never lead to a
sequence.”

He might well be asking how we today wound up back in the 1930s.

The Education of Henry Adams (1907) is available, free, in various formats from Project Gutenberg.

Spurious significance, junk science

Andrew Gelman links to this nice paper by Nosek, Spies and Motel, about an exciting “result” in psychological research: instead of rushing to publish, they scrupulously rushed to replicate, and the result disappeared. The fairy tale ending is that they got a nice publication from using this experience to tell us what we already know – that “significant” results obtained from small, ad hoc experimental samples are pretty much worthless. Continue reading

A Season in the Congo


Congo, Lumumba, Mobutu… we all know the ending of this one, and appropriately the play is in a Brechtian mode: there are characters, but the tragedy is created by material interests – colonial mining interests (played by a chorus of puppets) and Cold War superpowers are Fates holding forth from opposing balconies. Character (flaws, virtues…) serves only to shape the roles the different people are given in the tragedy. With fine performances, singing, dancing, puppets and set, wonderfully in your face in the Young Vic. Continue reading

Going to London for news of the US

For parts of my childhood on a sunny wooded hillside in California, we got our international news from this damp country where I now live, in the overseas weekly edition of what was then called the Manchester Guardian. We got that paper not because my parents had any connection to England – neither of them had even been there, or done any foreign travel at all other than my father’s time in the Pacific during the war. But it was still the depth of the Cold War and the escalation of the Vietnam war and the perspectives on international affairs published in US daily newspapers were, shall we say, limited. Hence the subscription.

So my breast wells warm with nostalgia to see in today’s Guardian that the US Army is blocking access to the Guardian on large parts of its network: the paper is still playing the same role of bringing in news that’s a bit hard to find at home.

Zoe Heller award nominee

Zoe Heller’s book reviews are skillful, gleeful demolitions, and fun to read. Hence the title of this post, which has no other connection to Heller. This artilce by Afiya Shehrbano comes close to Heller’s standard, and does so in the difficult territory of polygamy, provoked into action by Jemima Khan’s recent BBC program.

The Control Revolution

Brad DeLong helpfully links to Cosma Shalizi’s 1995 review of (the now late) James Beniger’s great book, The Control Revolution (first published 1986). It’s always worth recommending, though of Shalizi’s four-and-one-half complaints the most valid, in my view, is about Beniger’s long-windedness (and if Shalizi doesn’t like that aspect, he shouldn’t be complaining about Beniger’s failure to discuss the world outside of America, or the arts … think how long the book could have been!) My take on Beniger – and some comparison of his understanding of information and control in the economy with the similar view of Alfred Chandler and the very different one of Friedrich Hayek – can be found on pp. 98-102 of The Global Environment of Business.

Eric Hobsbawm – late interview

When I was first at Birkbeck, this guy was still a regular in the staff canteen – so I must be getting on a bit myself! The interviewer is the current Master of Birkbeck, David Latchman. The revelation that several of Hobsbawm’s best books were essentially his Birkbeck lecture notes does raise the bar for the rest of us, just a bit.