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 Gene Expression Blog / BooksTeasers

51OftfuYlSL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_ So I have an Amazon referrer account. I’ve had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It’s a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it’s passive. These are books I’ve read and want to talk about anyhow (usually around Christmas someone follows a book link, and ends up purchasing a computer or two, which is a way of “supporting my work” that I can get behind).

But one of the more interesting side effects is that I can see what my readers are buying (or if they are). For example, it heartens me when I see someone purchase Principles of Population Genetics. That means “I’m making a difference,” as I doubt that these are advanced undergraduates or graduate students. An interesting aspect is that I can see what interests people in terms of “clickbait”, before clickbait was a thing. Bobbi S. Low’s Why Sex Matters routinely gets a lot of clicks because of the title, despite the fact that I don’t flog it. In contrast, In Gods We Trust gets a lot of clicks because I tell people to read it to understand my thinking on religious phenomena.

51gYdVvOoQL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_ As the year ends I like to tally books people have ordered. It turns out that the most purchased book through this website for the year leading into December is The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. For Kindle, it’s Congo: The Epic History of a People.

Another category is conversion rate. In relation to number of clicks what proportion purchase. Tops for the books in that category is Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools. My personal experience is that for technical books many people still prefer print for physicality and rendering of figures and graphs. For Kindle the highest conversion was Intelligence: All That Matters and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. I think there was a “daily deal” or something at one point, and that prompted many purchases of the latter.

1846077 Finally, there are books I see which I didn’t recommend, and didn’t know about. An intriguing one off this list is Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. The main issue I’ve had with Cunliffe’s work of late is that he doesn’t seem to be reading enough of the Reich/Willerslev duopoly’s papers. Not that everyone has time to engage in such primary literature diving, but at this point you’re remiss if you write about archaeology and don’t include genetics. Unfortunately a search inside doesn’t indicate that By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean is DNA-heavy, but sometimes you take history and archaeology on its own terms and integrate them into your overall model of the world, rather than having someone else do that for you….

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Books 

515hZV+DqJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ As most of you who regularly read me know I’m not too interested in persuading people of things. Rather, I think that if the truth is what it is through a collaborative process of searching for it we’ll all eventually converge upon it, given enough time (which is a big condition!). Rather, the goal on this weblog is to create a set of like-minded readers and explorers. I know some of you think I’m smart and well read, but the point is that I don’t really care what you think of me. And similarly, I hope you don’t care what I think of you. The truth as we understand is its own reward. A sweetness of discovery and comprehension which most people don’t seek, nor desire. Rather, they’d prefer to run with their own horde of fellow-travelers.

With that out of the way, I was curious what books readers had purchased over the years. I’ve been an Amazon affiliate for over 15 years mostly because I do so much book-blogging. Amazon gives me records right now back to 2010. In that time over 5,000 books have been purchased through links on this website. So what are the top 30? (I picked that number because these are the number well above N = 10) It’s probably no surprise that The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization tops the list. I’ve read this book three times cover to cover since 2006. It’s really shaped my perception of how we can understand history in a positive, rather than just interpretative, sense. Second, I’m rather proud that I’ve somehow been involved in ~20 purchases of Principles of Population Genetics. These were people who didn’t purchase it for a class, but because they were interested in the topic. Finally, I have no idea why so many people bought Different Brains, Different Learners. I have never heard of this book before today. No surprise that no fiction is in the top 30.

Rank Books
1 The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
2 The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
3 War in Human Civilization
4 Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe
5 The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies
6 Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t
7 Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings
8 Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa
9 Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
10 Different Brains, Different Learners: How to Reach the Hard to Reach
11 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
12 The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
13 The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
14 The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
15 Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
16 Principles of Population Genetics
17 Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society
18 In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion
19 Population Genetics: A Concise Guide
20 Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
21 The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America
22 The Dawn of Human Culture
23 Religion Explained
24 The Nurture Assumption
25 The Price Of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness
26 War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires
27 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
28 Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality
29 Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
30 Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Books 

61LXo6U7a4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Unlike some books I did not read Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (vol. 2) in one sitting, or even over a few days. Part of the reason is length, at 977 pages in the print edition. Another aspect is the frankly verbally baroque writing style of the author. Very rarely do I encounter terms such as “architectonic” or “mycelium” in historical narratives. This is not the first time I’ve tried to read Strange Parallels (vol. 2). In 2010 I read Strange Parallels (vol. 1) while flying back and forth across the Atlantic for a wedding. Naturally a few weeks later I decided to tackle volume 2…but was daunted by the length, and the surprising substance of the sequel. I recall stopping somewhere at the point where the author was expounding at length on the nature of early state formation in Kievan Rus.

Not that I have a problem with an exploration of a topic like the genesis of the precursor of the modern Russian state, but the survey seemed ridiculously expansive. In Strange Parallels the author leverages his area knowledge of early modern mainland Southeast Asian state formation, and applies those insights more generally to arc of French, Russian, Japanese, Indian, and Chinese socio-political development. These specific cases are used to explore a descriptive observation about Eurasian polities over the past ~1000 years: many of them developed in a synchronistic manner in regards to economic growth and political robustness, or lack thereof.

Human-Web-300 The author explores a variety of hypothesis to explain this pattern, but more important is the massive “core dump” of specific detail which surveys the histories of these disparate nations. Though Strange Parallels is conceptually fertile, with ideas such as “charter states” and “protected vs. exposed zones” (in relation to Inner Asian nomads), it is in the empirical richness that the work justifies a close reading. It’s one of those books where you inspect the footnotes! Though the prose and the length of the work are somewhat of a slog, going through the whole book is worth it to gain a broader understanding of Eurasian political and social history over the past 1000 years.

Addendum: There are many similarities with William McNeill’s The Human Web, though Strange Parallels is a much more expansive book that focuses on a narrower time period and a more finite set of societies.

• Category: History • Tags: Books, Strange Parallels 

41PHSZN6AEL My friend Randall Parker sent me an email where he suggested I should put up a post relating to books for the holidays. This makes sense, since I’m a book nerd. Over the years I’ve started to realize time is precious, and have offloaded a lot of the hard work of figuring out things to others who have domain specific specialties (e.g., I have friends who are into nutrition or exercise, and rely on them to give me appropriate pointers and direction). As implied by the title I’ll probably try and do this every year now. Also, I’ll avoid textbooks in the following list, and will attempt to be more diverse in my disciplinary focus than usual….

The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. The variorum edition from 1958 with J. H. Bennett is what you want. R. A. Fisher is dense, but this isn’t a textbook. If you understand 10%, that’s a lot of understanding.

The Isles. Norman Davies’ magisterial narrative history of the British Isles.

In Gods We Trust. You won’t look at religion the same way after.

kwonhardcoverKnowledge and the Wealth of Nations. All about endogenous growth theory and its origins. More interesting than it sounds. As important as it sounds.

From Plato to NATO. This book has had many lesser copycats.

The Truth About Everything. A history of western philosophy. It has illustrations.

Prehistory of the Mind. Underrated hybrid of evolutionary psychology and paleoanthropology.

The Fall of Rome. A materialist take on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I’ve read this book three times.

The Number Sense. Like The Language Instinct for numeracy.

What_Hath_God_Wrought_-_The_Transformation_of_AmericaWhat Hath God Wrought. An anti-Jacksonian history of early America.

When Genius Failed. The template for “too big to fail.”

The Imitation Factor. Great short read on behavioral ecology.

Mutants. Armand Leroi can write beautifully even about the grotesque.

Descartes’ Baby. The child is the father of the man.

downloadCalculus Made Easy. This is an old and chatty book. It’s not a text.

A Beautiful Math. Game theory and John Nash’s science.

Grand New Party. Not the Tea Party.

Genome. Compulsively readable.

The Human Web. One of William H. McNeill’s later books.

From Dawn to Decadence. Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus.

Readers are invited to offer their list of 20 in the comments. Randall has been challenged to put one up at his blog. Though I hope people will try and make the books at least somewhat accessible and relevant to a general intelligent audience (e.g., no books on Design Patterns or The Art of Computer Programming).

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Books 

With the turning of the New Year I hadn’t noticed that The Wheel of Time is finally over, as Brandon Sanderson’s A Memory of Light was published. Is it a spoiler to divulge that apparently “the Good Guys” won? You can read a fun review at io9. Like many people I lost interest in the books back in the mid-1990s, but I’ve kept track of the series as a cultural phenomenon. In case you don’t get why this is interesting or of note, this enormous fantasy series spanned 14 books. The original author, Robert Jordan, died in 2007, leaving the series unfinished. A younger author, Brandon Sanderson, was commissioned to complete it. At that point it was a total narrative disaster area, so it was almost more interesting to see if Sanderson could revive the series from its somnolence. From the reviews it seems he did, though he could never rewind it back to to the verve of its early books. I feel that the reality that many people kept slogging through the series despite the fact that came to detest the characters (especially the “braid-tugging” ones) and become exhausted by the lack of plot development a classic illustration of a sunk cost fallacy.

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Books 

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

… Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration… 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.

From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales…Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

…In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.

An immediate issue with this op-ed is that it engages in shell games with quantities. Starting from a baseline of zero a new technology will undergo incredible rates of initial growth in adoption. But this will level off rather quickly. A 34% rate is still indeed healthy, and a sign I think that the explosive phase is giving way to robust and expansionary growth as the market slouches toward maturation. Other data in the piece seem to me to be irrelevant red-herrings. People who read e-books tend to be readers, so naturally one would expect that they read physical books. Most people with e-books have extensive personal libraries, and many works which they already own are not in e-book formats, or, are expensive in e-book formats (e.g., I have textbooks which I purchased for more than $100, which are discounted 50% for e-books, so they still come in at $60!). Additionally, asking all Americans about reading is rather misleading. A small proportion of the public are intense readers, with most being casual at best, if they read at all.
To the left is a figure I generated from an AP/IPSOS survey on American book reading habits in 2006. As it is a self-report this probably overestimates the reading habits of the general public, as well as the nature of what they read. 25% of Americans admitted reading no books in a year, while the median number of books read was 6.5. This I think gets at the heart of why e-books aren’t as popular as you might expect: books are’t that popular! The typical entry-level e-reader runs in the $50 to $100 range. This initial fixed cost is heavily subsidized because the makers of these devices want you to purchase content from them. But consider that the average American reads on the order of 5 books a year. And Daniel McCarthy brings up the important issue that you need to analyze the trends across age cohorts; most readers are older, but most future readers are not going to be from the older cohorts. Some of these books that people read are likely to be relatively cheap mass market paperbacks or library books, but assuming on average $20 per book, the expenditure of Americans on new books per year is going to be about the same as an e-reader. These devices are not without hassle or risk, they break or malfunction, and, there are the notorious issues with digital rights.

So why e-books? Interestingly Carr asserts those who read more “serious” books prefer the physical medium. I’d like to see more analysis of this. Certainly I am of the opposite opinion. Though I don’t read mass market science fiction or fantasy paperbacks anymore, these $8 purchases are the sort which I would run through once, never to revisit. I don’t need to have something in my digital library if I never revisit it. This is in contrast to meatier references and classics. But for someone who reads a lot one of the biggest hassles of physical books is storage and retrieval. I’m an avid user of libraries, and am assiduous about making a trip to the used book store every few years, but even I nevertheless have a relatively cumbersome collection of texts which I have to transport on every occasion that I move. In addition, any travel plans would often result in my deciding how many books I could stow before it became more of a nuisance than a boon.

Because I do much of my reading on a Kindle I’ve accrued a massive portable library of classics, most of which I purchased for a few dollars at most. I’d wager that the number of people who would actually read War and Peace all the way through (as opposed to being seen reading it, or mentioning offhand that they’re reading it) would be facilitated by its packaging in a less cumbersome format. Contrary to the waxing of someone like Nicholas Carr about the tactile physical experience of a book I’ve never enjoyed the fact that works of more than 500 pages tend to be unwieldy. This is not an abstract concern for me, I’m an intellectual generalist who has a taste for very expansive surveys on a variety of academic topics. Both A History of the Byzantine State and Society and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would benefit from not being in a physical format (the latter is heavier than my laptop in hardcover!). Not only is the reading experience made difficult by the mass of the book, but the long term physical integrity of the work is often endangered by the reality that the number of pages tends to exceed the capacity of the binding of the spines.

What of the musty pleasures of the scroll?

Finally, there’s the issue of what e-books are in relation to various other forms of books, printed or audio. I think the analogy to audio books is totally ridiculous; e-books and printed books are fundamentally the same thing, only in somewhat different physical formats. Additionally, the printing press was a quantitative, not qualitative, change. It took the codex format, which attained popularity in late antiquity, and elevated it to the level of mass industrial production. The big change in qualitative formatting was the move from the scroll to the book over 1,000 years earlier. Prior to this there was the shift from the antique Near Eastern forms of writing, such as cuneiform or hieroglyph on heavy non-portable medium, to alphabetic script on papyrus. The alphabets packaged in a light scroll allowed for literacy to be more broadly accessible to the higher orders of society, rather than just the specialized vocation of a scribal class. Reading has always been subject to periodic revolution. I am dismayed by the fixation of some on the physical medium of the book, as opposed to the information content of the book. If the smell of paper and the tactile experience of a hardcover jacket is so critical, then I think consumers of text are missing the point somewhat. Frankly, it makes me think that the term “book slut” is more than metaphorical. Many of the lovers of the physical porn linger longingly upon vivid descriptions of smell and texture of the page in a manner which is reminiscent of what “food porn” factories such as the Food Network indulge in.

All that being said there are genuine concerns with the transition to e-books, in particular the scope of intellectual property, and the possibility of monopolistic domination of the sector by a firm such as Amazon. The struggles of the Nook should worry those who appreciate the spur and pressure which competition forces upon companies, though one must remember that e-book consumption occurs across a variety of platforms (e.g., I can read my Kindle books on the phone, computer, and Kindle, as well as tablets). A more substantive concern is the control which we cede to Amazon when we purchase e-books in their specific format. These are real difficulties which we need to address over the next decade, but I think they’re surmountable, and will be resolved. Information is too important to simply abdicate all control of the means of production to a few firms.

If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

Addendum: Unlike CDs I believe that physical printed books will persist for the indefinite future. There are some works which are important references where I think many people will want to have in physical format not tied into technology and stored in a cloud. But, the number of these works will be small, and most people will not have any physical books aside from the Bible or a religious text, which has sacred value. Interestingly this will result in a physical reversion to the state of affairs of a few hundred years ago, when for most households the only book might have been of a religious nature.

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Books, Culture, E-books 

Christmas is a time when I accelerate my reading, and catch-up for lost time. Here’s my three books I plan to get through:

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. I’ve read this twice already. This short book has been one of the most influential works in my own personal thinking. Even if you don’t agree with the thrust of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ thesis, it will clarify your own position.

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. The author, Peter Brown, is the modern day eminence on ‘Late Antiquity’. I’ve read many of his earlier works, and always found his exposition enjoyable. But I’m re-reading The Fall of Rome in part to have a good counterpoint in my head to Brown’s arguments, which are subtle and difficult to box in (for what it’s worth, I think Brown makes a bit too much of Late Antiquity, but to some extent this is a normative judgement).

The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics: A Centenary Reappraisal. This is an exciting time to be interested in evolution and genetics (see Haldane’s Sieve and prepare to be overwhelmed!). But I also think it is useful to have some historical perspective. Science is a human enterprise, and it is critical to step outside of the flowing river, and observe the parameters which shaped its past course and trajectory, and therefore where it may be going.

With that, an “open thread” for what you are reading, and why.

Note: The comments systems should be improved in the near future. Or so I’m told.

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Books 

Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Books 

With some leisure, I plan to read a bit. Here is my tentative “stack”:

- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

- Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850

- Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

- Mirroring the Past: The Writing And Use of History in Imperial China

- Meditations

- Consolation of Philosophy

I also plan on browsing more of Brian and Deborah Charlesworth’s magisterial Elements of Evolutionary Genetics , and my friend Joel Grus’ Thinking Spreadsheet. I’m skeptical that I would prioritize fiction, but if I manage to read some, I’ll try and finish The Sacred Band, the last in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy.

What are you reading for the holidays? (and if you aren’t reading for the holidays, why are you spending your marginal time reading this blog!)

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Books 

I haven’t had time to read a book front to back in 2 months. Probably the longest period I’ve gone like this since I was 13. I plan to “binge” as much as I can over the Holidays. Is there anything interesting you’re reading? And yes, I already have The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on my Kindle.

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My post from last week, Relative angels and absolute demons, got a lot of circulation. Interestingly I received several emails from self-described lurkers who asked me for recommendations on world history, with a particular thought to rectify deficiencies in non-European history. These were people who were not looking for exceedingly abstruse monographs. Below are some suggestions….

China: A History. The author is a journalist, so this should be a starting off point, as there are major shortcomings in the narrative. But if you don’t have much background I’d recommend this.

India: A History. Same author as above, same strengths and weaknesses.

China: A New History, Enlarged Edition. A classic survey. Nothing to shout home about, but useful (if sometimes thin and dated).

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. The author is hated by many Hindu nationalists, but the period is old enough that much of the controversy is not relevant to this work.

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. A narrative history of the dynasty which crystallized much of Islam as we understand it.

Empires of the Silk Road. This is more a magnum opus, but it’s not a dry one. It can help “connect” the histories of the peripheral zones of the Eurasian ecumene.

A History of Iran. Iran is a small country, but its location is such that an understanding of it’s history can illuminate a great deal.

Power and Plenty. An economic history of the past 1,000 years.

After Tamerlane. The past 600 years. Becomes progressively more Eurocentric, as it should.

The Early Chinese Empires. This is not a long book, and it gives you a sense of what China was like before foreign influences (e.g., Buddhism).

The Classical World. Most people know very little of Western antiquity.

God’s War. This history of the Crusades ranges from the Baltic to Egypt. It has a wide enough spatial and temporal coverage to be a world history.

The Peacock Throne. To some extent this treatment of Mughal India almost seems out of Bollywood in terms of its dramatic nature. But then again the Timurids provide great raw material.

Africa. The title is short, but the yield is long.

1491. Many people know everything in this book, but too few still.

A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC. This is an understudied subject. You need this to see long term patterns which began only with the Classical Greeks.

The Rise of Western Christendom. You can’t understand the core of antiquity and the roots of the Middle Ages without this book.

The Human Web. A world history co-authored by one of the masters, William H. McNeill.

That’s all for now. I haven’t updated it in a while, but you might want to check out Razib on books.

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• Category: History, Science • Tags: Books 

That’s what Ann Patchett is claiming. More specifically, there are no bricks & mortar institutions which specialize in selling new books. There are places you can get used books in the city of Nashville. To remedy the situation Patchett is opening up a bookstore herself. She asserts that “…we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000. Amazon is always going to have everything – you can’t compete with that. But there is, I believe, still a place for a store where people read books.”

I recall going to a Barnes & Noble when I was in Nashville in the summer of 2004. Here’s some demographic data: “As of the 2010 census, the balance population was 601,222. The 2000 population was 545,524.” The details here are a bit muddy because parts of Davidson county are included with the Nashville total, but you get a general sense of how substantial the population of this city is. As a point of comparison Eugene, OR, has a population of 156,185, and 29 Yelp hits for bookstores. Nashville has 46 results.

Back to Patchett’s claim, I think there is something there. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out in the details. But consider the fact that it is far cheaper to brew your own coffee at home, but more and more people are frequenting shops which sell coffee at a much higher per unit cost. Obviously people are going for the experience. The main issue with bookstores is that the per unit cost of a book is higher than even a fancy drink at most coffee shops.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Books 

On occasion I browse through books on Amazon with an eye for really good negative reviews. The other day I stumbled upon a really strange positive review of the awful fantasist David Bilsborough. It was confusing to me to see 4 out of 5 stars for this author, but the “review” was even more perplexing:

In the tunnels under the mountains of Eotunlandt, Nibulus leads the Questor survivors of the battles as they struggle to reach the surface where they expect their enemies the Thieves will attack them en masse. Instead when they finally reach the outside, no one eerily awaits to ambush them.

This is a direct sequel to The Wanderer’s Tale that takes time to get started as the various key players and their allies are established for new readers. Once the action accelerates there is no slowing down as this military fantasy goes into hyperspeed with confrontations seemingly everywhere. With all the various armies at war and new leaders and heroes emerging, A FIRE IN THE NORTH still pares down to the destined Wanderer. He remains the only one who can save an apathetic prosperous world from the malevolent Drauglir and the wicked necromancer Scathur as The Annals of Lindormyn move forward.

This wasn’t really a review, but more like a repackaging of what you might be able to glean from the jacket. It reminded me of the kind of prose that content-mills produce! Then I recalled this profile in Time from 2006 of the Amazon reviewer, Harriet Klausner:

Without the web, Harriet Klausner would be just an ordinary human being with an extraordinary talent. Instead she is one of the world’s most prolific and influential book reviewers. At 54, Klausner, a former librarian from Georgia, has posted more book reviews on than any other user—12,896, as of this writing, almost twice as many as her nearest competitor. That’s a book a day for 35 years.

Klausner isn’t paid to do this. She’s just, as she puts it, “a freaky kind of speed-reader.” In elementary school, her teacher was shocked when Klausner handed in a 31⁄2-hour reading-comprehension test in less than an hour. Now she goes through four to six books a day. “It’s incomprehensible to me that most people read only one book a week,” she says. “I don’t understand how anyone can read that slow.”

Publishers treat Klausner as a pro, sending her free books—50 a week—in hopes of getting her attention. Like any other good critic, Klausner has her share of enemies. “Harriet, please get a life,” someone begged her on a message board, “and leave us poor Amazon customers alone.”

Some have pointed out that even assuming she reads as fast as she claims the math has a hard time adding up. Additionally, Klausner’s reviews aren’t of a very high quality (they aren’t selected as “helpful”), adding very little value to what the publishers and Library Journal give you. You can look at Amazon’s top reviewers. Klausner has nearly 25,000 reviews and 95,000 helpful votes. Someone who goes by “Chandler” has fewer than 500 reviews and 28,000 helpful votes!

I have see no big reason for why Klausner is doing what she’s doing. She gets free books, and I assume she gets paid to review in some venues. And there’s always the cachet of being Amazon’s #1 reviewer. But in hindsight it looks like Klausner was ahead of her time, and prefigured the rise of quantity-over-quality content mills.

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A friend asked me today if I thought that Powell’s would be around a year from now. I had no idea what he was referring to. By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know he was referring to Powell’s Books of Portland. I mean that I had no idea that Powell’s was in any trouble. I thought of Powell’s as an institution which could weather any shocks, its huge selection and special experience giving it an edge over other independent booksellers (and even over Barnes & Noble and Borders). The main Powell’s store covers a full city block, 1.6 acres. The total inventory of the company is at 4 million books (new, used, etc.). The downtown Portland location can be overwhelming and all consuming. And I have many fond memories of the Powell’s in the Hawthorne District from when I lived in Portland in 2002. In fact, between 2000-2005 I purchased quite a few books at the main location, as well as at Powell’s Technical. Despite not living in Portland for most of that period, I regularly visited, and always made a point to get lost at Powell’s when I came through town.

And yet I just realized that it’s been five years since I’ve been to Powell’s! I just checked out their website, and it has obviously been through a redesign. I think it’s been five years since I purchased a book through that website. In my own mind the mythic proportions of Powell’s lives on (I even made a point to visit the original store near the University of Chicago in the summer of 2007), but quietly the reality of Powell’s has become marginalized.

Here’s what happened at over the winter to trigger my friend’s query, Powell’s Books Announces Layoffs:

The rise of e-books and declining store sales have led to layoffs at Powell’s Books, the landmark bookstore in Portland, Ore. The store’s management said on Tuesday it would lay off 31 employees as part of its “response to the unprecedented, rapidly changing nature of the book industry.”

The news that Amazon is selling more e-books than normal books looks a lot less surprising. If Powell’s can’t resist the tide, who can?

Is the bookstore going to die? As we know it, yes. But I suspect that physical locations will go through some sort of reinvention. ~10 years ago everyone was bemoaning the decline of independent booksellers at the expensive of mass market chains, but the reality seems to be that online distribution channels have kicked the legs out from under Barnes & Noble and Borders. So where does that leave independent booksellers? Their ultimate value add was never in rock-bottom prices driven by economies of scale. There are niches to be perfected, to be created. I’m looking for some creative destruction in the future.

Image credit: Cacophony.

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• Category: Science • Tags: Books, Culture 
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• Category: Science • Tags: Books 

In the New Year’s Open Thread D. Chamberlin suggested:

I think your many book reviews ought to be more accessible. They were for me an excellent guide as to which books I should buy as well as educational in and of themselves. You have a long list of books you reccommend over on Gene Expression Classic but clicking on them just links you to the book seller. Just as a suggestion if you could link to your previous book reviews that are buried in years gone by I think many people would appreciate them as much as I did….

I have taken that to heart, and set up a new website where I am spending a little time each day adding links to a few book reviews which are “buried” in the posts of my various weblogs over the past 8 years. I’ve also added links & quick comments to books which I have never reviewed, but are part of my “cognitive furniture,” such as Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.

The basic format is this: title, cover photo + link to Amazon, and then link to review or comment. That’s it. It’s not a “blog,” but rather a site devoted to organizing stuff I’ve already put out there. My current plan is to devote about 15-20 minutes per day to putting content on the site from my “back catalog.” When I post a review to this website, I’ll also automatically link to it from there. One thing to note is that over the years I’ve stopped reading popular books on science, and focused on the primary scientific literature more, so the “books” page will be loaded with my non-science interests.

I’ve hooked “posts” into my total content feed, but you can subscribe to its own feed as well (I am also pushing the posts to my twitter feed).

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440px-Köln-Tora-und-Innenansicht-Synagoge-Glockengasse-040Today we’re seeing a transition in the medium of literacy. I’m alluding to the emergence of digital formats, which will transform the physical experience of reading. You’re part of the process right now, unless you’ve printed this out. Of course we have books around, and we will for quite some time. I assume for the most precious elements of our literary collections the physical book will remain preferred until the current generations pass on. But this transition is not the first one. The book, also known as the codex, has been the primary medium of literacy in the Western world (which I will define as from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic) for only ~1/3 of the whole period across which humans have been literate. Before the book, there was the scroll, and before the scroll, there were cuneiform tablets. From Wikipedia:

The Romans used precursors made of reusable wax-covered tablets of wood for taking notes and other informal writings; while codices of parchment or papyrus appear to have been widely used as personal notebooks, for instance in recording copies of letters sent (Cicero Fam. 9.26.1). The pages of such notebooks were commonly washed or scraped for re-use; and consequently writings on codex were considered informal and impermanent.

The first recorded Roman use of the codex for publishing and distributing literary works dates from the late first century AD, when Martial experimented with the format. At that time the scroll was the dominant medium for literary works and would remain dominant for secular works until the fourth century….

I thought of this while perusing Jonah Lehrer’s post, The Future Of Reading, in which he makes reference to the new Stanislas Dehaene book, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. Lehrer offers up the argument that sometimes making the process of reading easier may actually result in us not making use of our full-spectrum cognitive resources. I’m skeptical of this argument, though I’d be curious as to what cognitive neuroscientists would make of it. Until then, an amusing reenactment of the travails of those who weren’t quite early adopters of the codex technology:

Image Credit: Willy Horsch, Torah Scroll

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• Category: Science • Tags: Books, Culture 

The Less Wrong community is having a book discussion and offering up recommendations. I’m currently reading Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages (long time readers will know that I’m a particular fan of Xun Zi though). It is revising my view of the “received orthodoxy” as to the development of state sponsored Confucianism during the Han dynasty. A good complement to The Authentic Confucius, which is less a historical work and more a religio-philosophical exegesis of the sage’s life. I did finish Empires of the Word, but I will review it at some point so I won’t say more than I would recommend it, though with a critical eye.

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Danny reminded me that I still hadn’t read Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Since I know him a bit (at least internet “know”) I’ve decided I can’t put it off any longer, and I’ll tackle it soon. I just finished two books, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. I can recommend the first, but not the second. Since I will (or plan to) review Replenishing the Earth, I won’t say more about it here. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens was written by the author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The author is a bit on the pro-Mongol side (he always ends up making Genghis Khan a benevolent warlord!), and his writing style doesn’t have the density which I prefer in these sorts of works, but Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was a serviceable book. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens on the other hand is too sensational, and it seems rather obvious that the source material was much thinner than for Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (he admits as much repeatedly), so he had to include a lot of apocryphal material, with caveats, to fill it out. I much preferred The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age, which I read earlier this summer. A naturally more turgid work without a central narrative (each chapter was written by a different academic), but lots of dense data.

So what are you reading? What would you recommend? Over the years I’ve noticed I don’t read much science in book form; I much prefer papers. But since I don’t read physics or chemistry papers that means I haven’t recharged my familiarity, at least on a superficial level, with these fields in years. So I plan to a hit a few popular physics books at some point summer. And I’m always up for economics, world history, international affairs, cognitive psychology, etc.* I suspect I’ll avoid fiction until George R. R. Martin gets his next book out, but that might mean I’ll avoid fiction for a long time.

* In my short-term stack The Sea Kingdoms: The Story of Celtic Britain and Ireland, Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages, Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World’s Prosperity Depends on It and The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. In my medium-term “must-read” queue, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like and Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.

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Read More Books!:

If you really want to understand any issue more complex than Brad and Angelina’s marital status, there’s really no substitute for a book. Not instead of blogs and newspapers and Twitter, but in addition to them. So: read more books! They’re good for you.

I’ve heard and read about how awesome Charles Darwin was as a thinker, but I had to (re)read The Origin of Species to really grok what was being communicated here. So yes, books are important. The point that the content of what is being examined is critica can’t be overemphasized.

It seems that disciplines which exhibit a great deal of tight contingency, such as the natural sciences, are easier to digest in purely non-book form, than those more humanistic domains which are messier and less causally clear in the network of the relationship of facts to frameworks. As an example, very little of Charles Darwin’s argument in The Origin of Species was illuminating as such, it was by and large integrated seamlessly into the body of science if it was worthy, and discarded if it was not. This applies much more forcefully to the physical sciences which have been more strictly formalized. There is also the problem that if you picked up a scholarly book which discussed evolutionary fitness landscapes or the physics of quasars it would probably be unintelligible to you unless you had absorbed the prerequisite scholarship. The structure of learning in extremely contingent disciplines is relatively straightforward. If you want to learn quantum physics, there are necessarily specific math and physics prerequisites. If you want to learn about Russian history from the time of Ivan the Terrible to the rise of the Romanov dynasty, some prior knowledge of late Byzantine history might be useful to understand the cultural-political roots of Russian Orthodoxy, but it is not necessary.

When it comes to “softer” disciplines I think books are critical, because it is so easy to mislead yourself on the shape of scholarship. When I occasionally hear Creationists observe that there is a scientific controversy about evolutionary theory, or even more blatantly that evolutionary theory has fallen into disrepute within biology, they are either being lied to, or, they are lying. It is simply impossible to avoid the fact that there is no alternative universe of Creationist scholarship which has a credible scientific framework which explains the pattern and nature of biological diversity. But what about a discipline such as economics, one of the “harder” domains outside of natural science? You’ll get a very different perspective if you read Greg Mankiw (PhD, MIT) vs. Paul Krugman (PhD, MIT). More outlandishly, many individuals with a political ideology of libertarianism are strongly attracted to the Austrian school of economics, despite the fact that this is a totally marginalized heterodox tradition today. In this case, normative preferences generate a positive feedback loop in terms of how one explores the sample space of scholarship. One can debate whether the marginalization of Austrian economics is justified or not (see The Eclipse of Darwinism), but it is also an empirical fact that it is marginalized.

Reading a wide range of books is a good way to diminish the power of preferences when exploring scholarly landscapes with which one is unfamiliar. When searching for journal articles it becomes easy to get caught in circular networks of citation, or fixating on particular journals which one finds congenial. Additionally, in less contingent disciplines the synoptic vision of a scholar who has dedicated their life to absorbing and reprocessing a mountain of data and generating insight and inference can often be helpful. If they are honest they will sample from the distribution of data in a manner which is not selection biased, something that you as an outsider will likely not be able to do because you do not know the shape of the distribution.

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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"