Reading while traveling

This is the latest edition (mailed out June 29) of my occasional e-mail newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here:

Hello, readers!

You travel to see and experience new things, and meet new people. But also to read a lot, right?

Reading is something to do while you’re in transit, when you’re wide-awake from jet lag at 2 a.m., and when you’re worn out from all that seeing and experiencing and meeting and need a break. It’s also a way to learn about the places you’re visiting. And if you’re someplace where the internet doesn’t work very well, and you’ve already downloaded a bunch of books on your Kindle or iPad, it’s something to do when you can’t get online.

So, yeah, I’m in China at the moment, and I’ve been reading a lot.

I left San Francisco last Wednesday morning and arrived in Beijing Thursday afternoon. About half of the difference was time zones, but that still left lots of hours in the air. I had meant to spend a bunch of that time writing a column, but the wifi on the plane wasn’t working and I didn’t have a plan for a column that wouldn’t require research and hyperlinks. Because I had committed to getting some work done, watching movies felt like cheating. So I read.

First I went through the big pile of newspapers I had collected in the United lounge at SFO (FT, NYT, WSJ, San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury-News). Then I started in on one of the books about China that I had downloaded onto my iPad: Michael Schuman’s Confucius and the World He Created.

Michael and I worked together at Time, although he was in Hong Kong and I was in New York and we only met once. Now he too writes for Bloomberg View, amongother places, and lives in Beijing with his wife, CNBC reporter Eunice Yoon. I was planning to have dinner with them Friday night, and figured it would be good form to have read his book first. As it turns out, dinner got moved up to Thursday night and I had to report to Michael that I was only 71% done, according to Kindle. But the remaining 29% included many pages of footnotes, so I was closer than I thought.

It was totally worth the effort — the book is an entertaining tale that gave me a much better sense than I had before of the constants in Chinese civilization over the past two millennia. Continuity is also a major theme of Tim Clissold’s Chinese Rules: Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China, which was the ebook I moved onto after Schuman’s. I had wanted to download Clissold’s memoir of his early days in the country, Mr. China, which my Beijing-based friend Mina Guli had recommended, but that wasn’t available in electronic form. So I bought Chinese Rules instead, and discovered at the end of the first chapter that Mina — Clissold’s former business partner — was a major character in the book.

The two of them had spent several years, starting in 2005, helping Chinese companies get carbon credits under the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism. Clissold tells that story quite entertainingly, and deftly weaves in a lot of Chinese history. The five “Chinese rules” come across as awkward add-ons intended to package the book as management advice, but the rest is so good that it really doesn’t matter.

After I finished Clissold’s book I started in on Jonathan Spence’s Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, which assembles the scattered writings of the great 17th and 18th century Qing-dynasty ruler into something like an autobiography. I’ve started sleeping through the night and haven’t been on any more airplanes, so I haven’t gotten all that far into it yet. But this passage seemed worth sharing:

Usually, north of the Wall, we drink river water all the time, and it’s not harmful; but in summer one has to be careful of mountain streams if no rain has fallen for some time to wash away the impurities, just as one has to watch out for dysentery if the springs have been stirred up by rain. While on the march it’s dangerous to drink from the ditches at the roadside—they can give you cholera. If there’s no decent water to be found, you must just distill what there is, and make tea with it.

This was more than a century before John Snow figured out that a contaminated well in London was the source of a cholera epidemic and that boiling water was a good idea. The Chinese knew some stuff that Europeans didn’t.

Maybe they still do. Another book that I’ve been reading in actual paper is The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian political theorist who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In this age of Brexit and of Trump, that sounds like a pretty timely topic, so I’ll be meeting with him tomorrow. Expect a column, or two, out of that.

So far the columns I’ve written here have been on Brexit and the experts and on theGreat Firewall. Before I came to China I wrote about the inevitable weaknesses of corporate boards, the meaning of affluence, the non-zero-sum side of Uber,PreCheck and graphene, among other things.

I’m in China (including Hong Kong) for another week and a half. And I’m hoping I can finish another book or two while I’m here.

Till next time,


‘A New Golden Age for Media?’ Annotated

My latest Atlantic column, headlined “A New Golden Age for Media?” online and “Start the Presses!” in the May print edition, is about how newspapers made money back before they became profit-spewing monopolies — the idea being that the future of the news media will probably look more like that than what media people got used to over the past half century.

I relied on a bunch of books in writing the piece, but only had room to mention two. And while it is possible to insert links into Atlantic print articles, the last time I tried it didn’t stick, and I was in rush this time so I didn’t bother. So here are the links and other annotations I would have liked to include.

pmarca twitterFirst, to the left, is a screen shot of the beginning of Mark Andreessen’s Twitter list of the ways digital media companies can make money (read it from bottom to top). He was later nice enough to compile these and a zillion other media-related tweets in one handy blog post.

Andreessen’s tweeting didn’t inspire me to write the piece — that was Atlantic deputy editor Don Peck’s idea — but it certainly helped organize it.

I mention two books in the column, Richard John’s Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse and James McGrath Morris’s Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power. They’re both pretty great.

Spreading the News is based on John’s doctoral dissertation, so it’s academic. But it’s good academic, offering lots of I-did-not-know-that moments, plus a framework for understanding why U.S. communications networks developed the way they did. John continues the story in Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications, which I cited in a previous Atlantic column. By the number of reviews the two books have gotten on Amazon, it appears that they haven’t attracted a general readership. They should. They’re both relevant to current issues such as the troubles of the USPS and the monopolization of broadband, they’re not hard to read, and they change how one sees the world.

John begins Spreading the News with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831-1832 travel journals, subsequently published as Journey to America:

There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods … I do not think that in the most enlightened rural districts of France there is intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as in this wilderness.

John points out that a few years later in Democracy in America, Tocqueville quantifies this observation, showing that postal revenue per person is higher in backwoods Michigan and Florida than in the Departement du Nord, “one of the most enlightened and manufacturing parts of France.” The Frenchman also offers this wonderful assessment of the inhabitants of the rude wood huts of America’s frontier:

Who would not suppose that this poor hut is the asylum of rudeness and ignorance? Yet no sort of comparison can be drawn between the pioneer and the dwelling which shelters him. Everything about him is primitive and unformed, but he is himself the result of the labor and the experience of eighteen centuries. He wears the dress, and he speaks the language of cities; he is acquainted with the past, curious of the future, and ready for argument upon the present; he is, in short, a highly civilized being, who consents, for a time, to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and a file of newspapers.

But I digress.

Morris’s Pulitzer is an entertaining, engrossing biography. So is David Nasaw’s The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, the source for most everything Hearst in the column. The stuff about James Gordon Bennett came mainly from Richard Kluger’s The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune, a book I read back when it came out in 1986, and loved. I even visited Kluger at his house near Princeton and I thought I had written up the interview for The Daily Princetonian, but I can’t find the article in the archives. This recent Prince article about Kluger looks pretty cool, though.

Most of the other information about how newspapers made money in the 19th century came from Gerald Baldasty’s The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, which is not exactly a fun read, but is full of useful facts. My brief mention of radio’s success as an advertising medium was based on a skimming of Laurence Bergreen’s Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting, which looked pretty interesting although I was mainly just digging for numbers. Such as, 1931 advertising revenues for the main radio networks and a couple of leading magazines:

  • Saturday Evening Post, $35 million
  • NBC, $25.9 million
  • Ladies Home Journal, $12.8 million
  • CBS, $11.6 million

For the rest of the 1930s, revenues just kept rising for the radio networks while they presumably stagnated or even fell at the magazines. NBC and CBS, Berggreen wrote, “were purveying a commodity desperately needed by a Depression-ravaged nation: free entertainment.” ABC, by the way, wasn’t created till 1943, after the FCC ordered NBC to divest a big chunk of its operations and the man behind Lifesavers candies, Edward J. Noble, bought it.

Still, print publications could make tons of money even in the broadcast era. The quote from Warren Buffett about newspapers gushing profits comes from Berkshire Hathaway’s 2006 shareholder letter. Sandwiched between the two sentences I quoted in my column was this:

As one not-too-bright publisher famously said, “I owe my fortune to two great American institutions: monopoly and nepotism.”

Buffett then launches into an extended (it starts on page 11 and takes up all of page 12) and very good explanation of why newspapers used to be a great business but aren’t anymore. It’s too long to quote, so just read the letter. Fun bonus: Margaret Sullivan, now the excellent public editor of The New York Times, rates an admiring mention.

Finally, while my Atlantic piece was in the editing process, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti posted a fascinating memo to staff in which he too compares the current media environment to that of before 1950. At one point he writes:

These days, media companies don’t have natural monopolies or oligopolies where one or two newspapers dominate a local market or a handful of broadcasters are the only options on a limited dial. There is more competition, the market is more fragmented, and gatekeepers have less power. Advertisers have more ways to reach consumers so they aren’t as dependent on publishers and can negotiate lower rates. In fact, some smart people in our industry don’t think it is possible to build a huge new media company anymore, that the golden age is over, and that all the growth now will be limited to pure technology companies.

Which is basically the argument of my column, although I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to build a media empire, just really, really hard. “This pessimistic view is wrong,” Peretti continues,“because it is focused entirely on what has been lost (monopoly pricing power, etc) and ignores what has been gained. This is a common psychological trap: People tend to be overly focused what is lost, while under-appreciating gains.”

The gains Peretti sees have to do with technology, scale, and diversity of talent. I totally get how those three factors all help Buzzfeed now. And I wouldn’t put it past Peretti to become the new Henry Luce. I wouldn’t bank on it either, though — and I really wouldn’t bank on Buzzfeed continuing to thrive long after Peretti and Ben Smith have retired, as Luce’s Time Inc. did. But then I do prefer history to futurism, which I guess makes me a backward-looking guy.


AdelmanMy review of Jeremy Adelman's wonderful new biography, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, was finally published in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday.

I say finally because I turned the thing in on March 18, and I think the editors only changed one word in the interim (switching out "doorstopper" for "doorstop," which seemed like a good move). I'm not complaining at all — one knows going in that a NYTBR review may take months to appear, and the Times paid me long ago. But it was still maddening to write something with great enthusiasm and then not see it for months and months and months. It took great willpower not to write Barry Gewen at the Book Review e-mail after e-mail asking, "When's it coming out? Huh? When?"

Anyway, the publication led me to go back and read some of the other things written lately about Hirschman and the Adelman biography. I had avoided other reviews at first because I feared they might taint mine, then because I was so frustrated that mine hadn't been published yet. Now I could finally savor them, and it turns out they're all worth savoring.

The first I read was an essay on Hirschman's legacy by Daniel Drezner. My review — and to a certain extent Adelman's book — focused on why Hirschman wasn't as influential as other economists of his generation such as Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson. Drezner, though, is a political scientist, and from the perspective of a political scientist Hirschman was pretty danged influential. "Anyone working on issues of economic power, economic development or economic ideas cannot do so without either building on or tangling with Hirschman’s legacy," Drezner writes, concluding that Hirschman's work "is the purest example of political economy since the days of Adam Smith."

After that I moved on to Roger Lowenstein's essay in the Wall Street Journal. Lowenstein was the "journalist friend" mentioned in my review who urged me to read Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, and his piece focuses mainly on that brilliant book. Lowenstein makes a heartfelt plea for more voice and less exit, or at least a healthy balance between the two. "Hirschman saw that when organizations make it easy to exit, voice is weakened," he writes. "Yet, for voice to be effective, a possibility of exit must be present." (The "business-school professor" who pushed The Passions and the Interests on me was Rebecca Henderson of HBS.)

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell got a lot more space than Drezner or Lowenstein or I, and he makes good use of it. When I first saw the headline ("The Gift of Doubt") in the magazine a few weeks ago, my initial reaction was of course, &^%#$@£ Gladwell, coopting Hirschman to say some facile thing or other. But it actually turns out to be a great and complex essay. It cannot, thus, be summed up in a paragraph, but I especially loved this passage about Hirschman and his brother-in-law and mentor, Eugenio Colorni:

Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t.

Then there's Cass Sunstein's take in The New York Review of Books. Sunstein may be the most Hirschmanesque (Hirschmanian?) of modern public intellectuals. He crosses disciplinary boundaries, he writes for scholars and for laypeople, he mixes hope with skepticism, he doesn't think the fact that most plans go awry is a reason not to make plans. "Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world," Sunstein writes. "It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories." Sort of like nudging.

I finished Adelman's book totally enamored of Hirschman and his way of looking at the world, but dubious of how much impact such a doubt-filled approach could have in an intellectual arena dominated by dueling certainties. After reading what everybody else had to say, I'm a bit more hopeful. Hooray for that!

One other thing that I thought about saying in the review but decided not to was that, for the first couple hundred pages or so, I thought Adelman's book might be the best biography I had ever read, period. It mixed the politics and the personal so smartly and so wisely that I was in awe of the accomplishment. I'm still in awe, but the second half of the book (about Hirschman's academic career) just couldn't be as compelling as the first, so T. Harry Williams' Huey Long retains its place at the top of my list. Although one of these days I should probably reread that to see if it's really as good as I remember.

Mistakes, I’ve made a few

I just sent off a list of corrections to HarperCollins before the paperback version of Myth goes out for another printing. It's not a very long list: a misplaced apostrophe, a "Buffet" where "Buffett" was intended, and a couple of modest fixes suggested by readers, which I discuss at the end of this post. But this is not the first list of corrections I have sent to my publisher, and it seems long past time that I assembled all the errors in one place.

There were two major waves of typo discovery, one when I got my first copy of the book and discovered a mess of misspellings in the last two pages of the epilogue (which were added after the book had been copy-edited) and another when the copy editor of the English edition read through the book. The substantive errors, on the other hand, came to light in dribs and drabs. Several were pointed out by concerned parties Dick Thaler and Gene Fama; the other corrections all came from careful readers of the book. Here's a rundown:

1. On pages 101 and 102, the original account of the first event-study research, conducted by Fama, Mike Jensen, and Richard Roll, depicted it as mostly Jensen's idea. Fama remembered it differently—and Jensen and Roll said Fama's recollection sounded about right. Here's the new version (Lorie and Fisher were James Lorie and Lawrence Fisher, the driving forces beyond Chicago's Center for Research on Security Prices, or CRSP):

At first Lorie struggled to get scholars interested in using the market data that he and Fisher had collected at CRSP, and asked his Chicago colleagues for help. Fama suggested to Jensen and Roll that they use the database to test how quickly the market reacted to new information. Together with Fisher, the trio examined price movements before and after stock split announcements.

2. On page 186, I wrote that Dick Thaler had been denied tenure at the University of Rochester. That wasn't quite right, Thaler informed me. As it now says in the book, "He tried to leverage a job offer from Cornell University into a promotion to associate professor at Rochester but was turned down."

3. On page 187, I had Thaler as a co-founder of the Society for the Advancement of Behavioral Economics. He was involved with group, but wasn't a co-founder.

4. On page 190, I wrote that when Charlie Plott had asked Gene Fama for advice in the late 1970s in testing the efficient market hypothesis in an efficient market, Fama had replied that his theory "only applies to the U.S. stock market." Fama wrote me to say that, while he didn't remember what exactly he said to Plott, it couldn't have been those words, because he'd already published papers on the efficiency of markets other than the U.S. stock market. Plott figured Fama must be right about that, so we came up with a redo that was somewhat less dependent on purported dialogue from three decades ago:

"He said his theory has nothing to do with experiments," Plott recalled—it applied only to markets in the field. "But aren't the principles of economics general enough to apply to both situations?" Plott remembers wondering. Fama's take, decades later: "Experimental research is no substitute for empirical work on real market data."

5. On page 201 I said the two papers from the behavioral finance session at the 1984 American Finance Association meeting that were subsequently published in the Journal of Finance had both been previously rejected by academic journals. That wasn't true of Thaler and Werner De Bondt's paper on market overreaction (it had never been submitted anywhere), so I deleted that assertion.

6. On p. 319, I mistranscribed a quote from John Maynard Keynes. The corrected quote:

The right remedy for the trade cycle is not to be found in abolishing booms and thus keeping us permanently in a semi-slump; but in abolishing slumps and thus keeping us permanently in a quasi-boom.

Some of these errors were fixed in time for subsequent hardcover printings of the book; all were fixed in time for the paperback. But the e-mails from readers keep trickling in.

The most substantial error discovered since the paperback release has to do with Jan Mossin, the Norwegian economist who was one of the several fathers (or at least an uncle) of the Capital Asset Pricing Model. I identified him on page 88 as affiliated with the University of Bergen; in fact, he taught at NHH, which is rendered in English as either the Norwegian School of the Economics or the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration. It is near Bergen, but it's separate from the University of Bergen. The next paperback printing will also mention, if there's space, that Mossin got his Ph.D at Carnegie Tech. This seemed relevant given the school's role elsewhere in my book. The definitive online biography of Mossin, in case you're curious, is here.

Also, on page 242, I referred to NYSE specialists and Nasdaq market makers on second reference as "brokers." A reader suggested that wasn't quite right, so I'm changing it to "securities firms."

Got anything else for me?

A review of Myth of the Rational Market in The Hindu (and other matters)

The Indian edition of The Myth of the Rational Market is now out (it's the UK edition, printed on different paper), and last week it was reviewed in The Hindu, one of the country's big English-language newspapers. The review, by D. Murali, is mostly just a summary of the book, but the writer does conclude that it is a "Recommended addition to the professional investors’ shelf."

In other news, Bloomberg's James Pressley included Myth in his list of the top 50 business books published since Jan. 1, 2009, and the included it on its roundup of "the best books on the financial crisis and its aftermath."

Also, P.J. Anders Linder of Stockholm's Svenska Dagbladet, whom I remember taking to dinner almost 20 years ago at a sidewalk table at O.T.'s in the lovely (albeit unlaked) Lakeview neighborhood in Birmingham, said something or other in Swedish about the book in his "blogg," and somebody named Elliot wrote a very kind and thoughtful review in his blogg. Or maybe it's just a blog.

Oh, and The New Haven Register covered a speech I gave in New Haven back in April.

Also, the U.S. paperback edition will finally be coming out toward the end of the year. But don't tell anybody. We're trying to keep those hardcover sales going for a while.

A Chinese edition (complex characters) is out!


The first foreign-language edition of The Myth of the Rational Market is in print. From Wealth Press in Taipei. I like the sleeve with all the big headlines (review blurbs and Notable Book citations, I imagine). Other foreign-language editions currently in the works: Japanese, simplified-character (=mainland) Chinese, Korean, French and (Brazilian) Portuguese. Still no Spanish or German or (wat jammer!) Dutch, though.

13 hours, 38 minutes of Myth of the Rational Market fun

The Myth of the Rational Market is now out as an audiobook! I just bought a copy. It's still downloading (58 minutes remaining) as I write this. I can't imagine I'll ever listen to the whole thing, but I am looking forward to sampling narrator Alan Sklar's rendition. He and I did a lot of talking on the phone over the holidays, as he checked the pronunciations of characters' names with me. The man has a fine voice.

I knew most of pronunciations, but there were a couple that I had never heard said aloud—and discovered, after some asking around, that I had been mispronouncing in my head. Turns out the late University of Chicago economist Melvin Reder's last name is pronounced "Reader" (thanks to Edward Lazear for setting me straight), and rational expectations pioneer John Muth's is pronounced "Myouth" (Bob Lucas came through on that one).

In other news, there are new book-related interviews up at the website of Chai University (a new online MBA provider) and at the Motley Fool's UK site. Plus, I did a commentary for public radio's Marketplace that was informed by my book research.