What I’m Reading

  1. Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. This is my favorite novel of all time, so for Christmas, I decided to get a first-edition copy of it in Italian (the last time I had read it in Italian was back when I lived in Rome in 2001). It is probably the most erudite novel I have had a chance to read, and it serves as my cultural litmus test: every time I read it, I realized I have learned something new since the last time I read it.
  2. Meditation and Its Practice, by Swami Rama. I had been meditating for a few years when a friend recommended that I get this short book and use the method it teaches to meditate. Since I read it earlier this year, my meditation has significantly improved, as has my life as a consequence of being a better meditator.
  3. Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff was a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School when he was asked to go into Canadian politics and quickly became Leader of Opposition. In this book, he discusses the mistakes he made in the process, and what he has learned from those mistakes. This book is the antidote to all those academics who think they would be so much better than politicians at public policy making.
  4. Satan Franc-Maçon, by Eugen Weber. Weber is best known for his brilliant Peasants into Frenchmen, a classic of state building and modernization theory, and which every student of development should read and re-read. In this little book (sadly not available in English), Weber curates and presents documents related to the Taxil hoax, which was intended to discredit Freemasons and mock the Catholic Church. To this day, some people still believe that Freemasonry is a Luciferian cult because of Taxil, and it is likely that the internment of Masons in Nazi death camps happened in no small part because of Taxil.

Links: Quinoa, “Tworld Development,” TED Tyranny, and a Tasty MOOC

  1. An excellent article on quinoa in Harper’s (subscription required, unfortunately).
  2. Arun Agrawal, the editor of World Development, is now on Twitter.
  3. James McWilliams on the tyranny of TED Talks: “The irony of TED is that its promotion of original thought is undercut by the format’s canned requirement that the message inspire without challenging.”
  4. Call for Papers for the  Joint EAAE/AAEA Seminar: “Consumer Behavior in a Changing World: Food, Culture and Society.
  5. Finally, a MOOC I’d want to take: Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter. And it’s free (except for the opportunity cost of time, of course.)

Peasants Are Like Pandas

A new study by Jennifer Leavy and Naomi Hossain, of the Institute for Development Study:

So who wants to farm, and under what conditions? Where are economic, environmental and social conditions favorable to active recruitment by educated young people into farming? What policy and programmatic conditions are creating attractive opportunities in farming or agro-food industry livelihoods?

This paper explores these conditions in a context of food price volatility, and in particular rising food prices since 2007. To do so, it analyses primary qualitative research on the attitudes of young people and their families to farming in 2012, a time when food prices had been high and volatile for half a decade. In theory, assuming higher prices benefit small farmers, food farming should be more attractive since food prices started to rise in 2007.

But this simple causal assumption overlooks both that in many developing countries, it takes considerable economic power – ownership or access to cultivable land and affordable credit for inputs – to turn a profit in farming. It also fails to take into account more sociological explanations governing work and occupational choice – status aspiration and merit on the one hand, and perceived risk on the other.

These two explanations help to explain why young people from relatively low income families, particularly those most likely to innovate and raise productivity levels, do not perceive farming as a realistically desirable occupational choice. Continue reading

The Tenuous Tradeoff between Religion and the Internet

From the very serious MIT Technology Review:

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.

The emphasis is mine. You can read the whole article — titillatingly titled “How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion” – here. Oh, and here’s some “evidence” for you: Continue reading