Edible Economics: A Hungry Economist Explains the World

Ha-Joon Chang (2022)

A book that combines food with economics? Not really.

I’m torn by this book. I enjoyed the food parts, especially the author’s anecdotes about his move to the UK from Korea, and how he’s observed the UK’s food scene change from incredibly insular and conservative to amazingly open and dynamic over the course of a couple of decades. It’s a change I also lived through and remember well.

I also enjoyed the economics. Chang is an eclectic collector of economic theories – all the more surprising because he’s an academic. He has an appropriate degree of scepticism for ideology and single explanation of complex questions, which is refreshing. He skewers some of the common myths, such as the “explanation” that poor countreis stay poor because their people don’t work hard enough, ingoring the massive structural factors in play. He’s equally scathing about the other “explanation” about the free-trade roots of the successes of the US and UK economies, given that they were actually massively protectionist during their main periods of growth. And he makes several policy suggestions for modern economies.

But…. as a book, I don’t think it works at all. The conceit of explaining economics through food remains just that: a conceit that’s not really threaded through the narrative in a meaningful way. The links are often just too tenuous. To give one example, a chapter that leads with anchovies ends up talking about natural-resource extraction economics using the example of bird guano – well, birds eat anchovies, so… Most of the chapters are basically diviided between food and economics with an often desperate attempt to tie them together. The economics is accessible, and a writer who can do that probably doesn’t need a gimmick to structure his work.

3/5. Finished Saturday 20 January, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

TIL: The first scientist

TIL: The first scientist

Today I learned that the first person ever to be called a “scientist” was the Scottish … erm, scientist Mary Sommerville (1780–1872), who made discoveries across several fields of mathematics, physics, and astronomy, and was one of the first two women admitted to membership of the Royal Astronomical Society.

It was the fact that she was both a woman and a polymath that led to the need for a new word. She clearly wasn’t a “man of science”, as was the common description; nor did she fall into the accepted classes such as geologist or chemist, since she contributed to all these fields and more. So William Whewell, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the person who had introduced one of Sommerville’s books to the university’s maths curriculum, decided to unify all these specific classes into the new general category of scientist. (He also introduced the terms physicist and linguistics.)

TIL: The first ever .com domain

TIL: The first ever .com domain

Today I learned that the first .com internet domain registered on the internet was https://symbolics.com and belonged to Symbolics, a company that made Lisp machines.

It doesn’t relate to Lisp any more, of course. It’s been sold to someone who “helps entrepreneurs and investors acquire high-end domain names”, which seems about as meta as things can get: the first-ever .com domain name now points a company focused on acquiring domain names.

Symbolics itself has a storied history, spinning-out from the MIT AI lab to sell hardware dedicated to running Lisp: one of two such start-ups actually. The Wikipedia page is a good place to start.

Incidentally, the rest of the top-ten first .com domains can be found here.

Making small changes to lots of files

Making small changes to lots of files

I recently had to make tiny changes to a large number of files spread nested through a directory structure. This turns out to be a lot easier than I expected with Emacs.

My use case was actually this blog. It’s been on the go for a while in several different formats, and over the years I’ve used tags to drive different presentations – for example articles tagged ‘news’ ended up on the front page. I no longer do this, which meant a lot of redundant tags to be got rid of, mainly in Nikola’s .meta metadata files but also embedded into .md markdown and .rst restructured text..

My plan was to use Emacs’ rgrep command to recursively traverse the directory structure of posts to find the tags I wanted to remove. This would give me a grep-mode buffer that hyperlinks to the files (and lines) needing changing, which I could then click through to get to where each change needed to be made. Straightforward, but time-consuming and error-prone when there were about 150 files to be changed. Clearly a problem in need of a better solution.

I then discovered the wgrep (“writable grep) package. This makes the grep-mode buffer editable, with changes being written-back to the underlying files. Exactly what I needed.

Once I’d installed wgrep, the workflow is ridiculously easy:

  1. Using rgrep gets a grep-mode buffer
  2. C-c C-p makes the buffer editable
  3. Changing the lines. In my case I could use string-replace to remove the tags I wanted rid of. More complicated cases might need regexp-replace or even manual editing
  4. C-x C-s writes the changes back out

(There are several other keybindings that wgrep makes available, notably C-c C-k to discard all changes.)

That’s it! A job that I expected to take an hour took about 3 minutes.

They Called It Passchendaele

Lyn Macdonald (1978)

A military and social history of the Third Battle of Ypres, heavily supported by material from the soldiers who were there – the Allied soldiers only, which is a shame, as it would have been nice to hear the defenders’ perspective too.

It’s trite to say that the story is horrific. Were it not that it’s so well-known in outline, it would be unbelievable that anyone could live through such a battle, or survive at all on the moonscape that Flanders was reduced to by then. The soldiers’ own stories, which Macdonald both quotes from memoirs and obtains from interviews, emphasise the sheer randomness of the deaths. There are so many stories of one man being killed when the man standing right next to him survives, or leaving a trench or shell-hole only for a shell to immediately kill everyone else who remained.

There’s a common trope aboutthe unfeelingness of senior officers towards their own men, but that isn’t on show here – with the possible exception of Douglas Haig, who adopted a deliberate strategy of attrition that accepted casualities as long as the other side was taking them too. The divisional commanders, however, are shown to have protested many times about the timing and purpose of attacks, with one (in charge of the Canadian divisions who eventually took the Passchendaele ridge) refusing to attack at all until he had positioned all the supports and artillery he needed – and then succeeded when others had failed.

There’s terrible irony to the whole campaign. At the end of the battle, the Allies were left in possession of ground that they’d lost in the First Battle of Ypres when the defenders had been Belgian and French (and some of their bodies, still in fine uniform, are surfaced by the shellfire). And later, when the final German attack of 1918 happens, the troops are pushed back to a line that had first been proposed by their own commander in 1915 – for which suggestion he was cashiered. It’s a fitting summary of the pointlessness (in hindsight) of much of the First World War.

4/5. Finished Sunday 31 December, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)