Welcome to Syncretica by me, Alex Turnbull. I’ve spent far too much time on twitter this past year and want to expand things I am reading and thinking into more useful posts rather than overly terse threads, especially when the materials do not lend themselves to that medium. As a side effect, I hope this also reduces the amount of China related twitter beefs so we can move onto more nuanced and quantitative discussion.
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This newsletter will cover things I research in my day job that are not too proprietary and which are of policy interest. One persistent gap I’ve noticed between the financial services world is a capacity and willingness to pay up for data and spend more time doing “deep hanging out” with market participants on the one hand, and fairly quick and dirty work to get to get valuable conclusions on the other. I’ve done some work with some academics this year to get the best of both worlds: quality and rigor from the data and understanding of market participant behavior combined with really rigorous modelling and quantitative structure on the other. That will be published in January and I will be looking to do more over time. So if something on this newsletter is of interest to an academic reader I’d be keen to talk more and look if there are other areas the gap can be closed between those two research approaches. I’m particularly keen to do so in areas where the ratio of opeds and PR noise to in-depth research is low.
It may also cover interesting things I’ve been reading recently. Here are some of what I read in the last year which should provide a guide as to what might constitute the more “off piste” posts.
The Molecule of More: This is a fascinating and fun guide to human reward circuits and the microfoundations of behavior. Latter chapters get a bit more speculative but its amazing how much can be explained by relatively simple mechanics.
Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain: More a collection of papers than anything else but interesting nonetheless.
Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis: Glimcher’s survey of the field and where we are (or were, its a few years old) and how it all fits together.
Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience: Pretty niche but extensive discussion of buddhist theories of mind between Matthieu Ricard, a monk and PhD in biology from the Louis Pasteur Institute and Wulf Singer a neuroscientist (and father of Tania Singer, who does some incredible work in the field).
Economics and Finance and History Thereof
Dark Towers: A history of Deutsche Bank which is even more shocking than I expected - and I once worked there.
The Modern Detective: The modern tradecraft of deep diligence. Not so shocking to me, perhaps to other people.
Kleptopia: The truly deranged tale of how Russia, Kazakhstan, the Trumps and London are intimately connected. If you want to see policy capture and “errors and omissions” in action worth a read.
Samsung Rising: A great history of the company but also indirectly Korea’s political evolution.
The Great Rupture: Viktor Shvets’ book about everything. There are great takes, some not so great takes, I will come back to this.
Why Minsky Matters: His ideas do, and this is good punchy guide to an economist who did not write as clearly nor well as Randall Wray who wrote this.
The New Lombard Street: Mehrling’s ability to explain the plumbing of finance is second to none.
Trade Wars are Class Wars: Absolute tour de force by Klein and Pettis. I’ll write about this subsequently, its hard not to.
Indebted Demand: Hands down the best paper I read this year. Read it.
Don’t Think of the Elephant! : Framing for dummies like me who had very little interaction with the media until quite recently.
The Great Transformation: A classic must read. Tough but worth it.
The Great Delusion: Chicago school IR don Mearsheimer’s classic. Not all of which I agree with, but an interesting view nonetheless.
The True Believer: A recommendation from Nosunkcosts and a great set of archetypes of the people who are involved in social movements.
The Ruling Elite of Singapore: A great read about which I will say very little as the book is banned here.
Capital as Power: Possibly the only thing I started that is “post Marxist” and worth the time. Good tip from Blair Fix and his blog.
Chinese History and Philosophy
The Invention of China: Bill Hayton’s somewhat controversial intellectual history of Chinese ideas about China in the 19th and 20th century. I’m not sure I agree that 中国is a new thing but many of the racialized ideas imported from Europe certainly were and regrettably live on today.
The Origins of the Chinese Nation: Phenomenal scholarship by Nicolas Tackett on the intellectual history and thinking about Chinese identity under the Song, particularly with regards to the Jin dynasty. One thing that shines through is that in a predominantly subsistence society with a small caloric surplus what you spend your time doing is farming - and shared experiences are usually a shared biome. Shades of Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing which advocates reconnecting with ones biome as as way to resist the always online attention economy.
The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy: Same author as above but provides excellent background the the dismantling of the aristocracy by, and through the An Lushan rebellion.
Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy: There’s more to Chinese philosophy than Confucius and far more than the reduced form of Confucianism picked and sampled from state directed “essentialist” narratives. Worth a read.
The Way of the Barbarians: Fascinating debates around what is Chinese culture and particular with regards to “outside influences” namely, buddhism.
Anxious Wealth: Remarkable sociological study of the samsaric life of rich people in China. In a way, the most trenchant criticism of leninist systems I’ve ever found. Great to read alongside his other work on Tibetan Buddhism in China today.
The Chinese Invasion Threat: I don’t read or know much of security studies so this was an interesting introduction to the fundamental considerations of Taiwan’s military position.
The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties: I hadn’t come across Timothy Brook’s work prior to this year - it is phenomenal. There is so much in this not least of all an account of the Ming Dynasty art world, suffice to say not much has changed since then and now as displayed in this instagram account. Its also very relevant as dialogue about China today harks back to this era.
China’s New Red Guards: Jude Blanchette’s account of the Party’s struggle with its history and the evolution of “the left” from critics of market capitalism and the Party’s role therein to more a kind of historical thought police enforcing the correct - and party mandated - narratives around history and Mao in particular.
The Great Han: This is an amazing piece of sociology of the Hanfu movement - people who dress up in Han era attire and seemingly long for some kind of “good old days” of China. Kevin Carrico did a lot of “deep hanging out” for this and its a fascinating picture of the mixed feelings and responses to social change in China.
On Practice and Contradiction: If the Chinese state religion is the party, then it makes sense to read seminal texts.
On Guerrilla Warfare: As above.
Anthropology and Psychology
The Mosquito: Sometimes, its the little things that kill lots of big things that make history. A wonderful but mostly military history.
Physical Sciences including Pop Science History
The Alchemy of Air: A history of fertilizer which is absolutely gripping. Before oil, there was bird shit, and eventually synthetic ammonia which brought us more food but also a great deal more explosives. In the end, it is the tragedy of IG Farben and its start in a more tolerant and cosmopolitan era of Germany to its ultimate destruction as a wholly captured weapon of the nazis. Bosch’s arc - from brilliant scientist and Nobel prize winner to a man haunted by visions of the end who drinks himself to death is more like Macbeth or King Lear than anything. Perhaps some takeaways for those negotiating the CAI, I will come back to this.
Reality is Not as It Seems: Carlo Rovelli’s kinematics-to-quantum-gravity in under 200 pages that reads like poetry. Beautiful writing about the science of well, everything.
The Second Law of Economics: A modelling driven account of Ayres work below.
Energy, Complexity and Wealth Maximization: Energy is everything - from the big bang to biology to climate. A wonderful survey for how it weaves it all together.
Weapons of Math Distraction: Required reading for anyone subjected to AI / ML public relations guff (all of us).
Ethics and Philosophy
The Tyranny of Merit: Sandel’s latest and a great critique of the problems with technocratic meritocracy. Plenty to interleave with “The Molecule of More”.
The Lies That Bind: Appiah’s writing is always accessible and clear and in a year in which identity politics, the alt right, and seemingly everyone became an expert on all things social. The conclusion is similar to Nagarjuna below:
All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.
All the dogmatists have been terrified by the lion’s roar of shunyata. Wherever they may reside, shunyata lies in wait!
But if you aren’t a buddhist this is a wonderfully written and reasoned account of the politics and theory of identity.
The Concept of the Political: If Schmitt is becoming popular in the higher eschelons of the CCP then you can’t not read this, I regret to say much like social darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th as covered by Hayton the worst takes of the west are taking root in China.
Imagined Communities: A classic and a somewhat underrated one today. The book on the evolution of mass media and nationalism in parallel.
Cynical Theories: Everyone is reading it, so I read it. Very good, and a lot less uh, combative than the tweets. Still some weak spots and seems to define itself in opposition to the book below.
White Fragility: Everyone is reading it, so I read it. Good in parts, but something I’ll write on this subsequently.
Buddhism and Tibet Adjacent
The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet: For anyone who thinks the CIA are the all seeing, all knowing puppet masters of the modern era this is a remarkable tale of the clandestine services that reads at times like a great history, but operationally like a Coen Brothers movie with greater loss of life.
The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism: Van Schaik’s overview of Tibetan buddhism. Authoritative as ever but small warning: the Sakya bias shines through every so often.
Tibetan Zen: Is dzogchen zen? Is zen dzogchen? Read original texts from Dunhuang to find out.
Vajrayana: Taleg Kyabgon Rinpoche was a tulku in the Karma Kagyu lineage who not only had a background in traditional buddhist seminary / shedra education but also did a masters of religion in Australia. He was great at explaining one world to the other and does so well here for the more exotic elements of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibet: A History: Schaik’s authoritative history which neatly integrates some of the religious with the more social. Some of this reads like something you could turn into a game of thrones like series, it is absolutely gripping and not just for people with a relatively high baseline interest.
Enlightened Vagabond: Patrul Rinpoche was a 19th century leader of the rime or ecumenical movement in Tibet and a nyingma master. He was also one of the more hilarious and profound social critics and trolls of the era. Well worth the time.
Way of the Bodhisattva: A classic, I read from it most days. This is a particularly good translation and binding.
Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: A classic and a very heavy one at that. Phenomenal logic and argument - there is a reason Nagarjuna is referred to as the second buddha by some.
Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment: The classic text by the peripatetic saint Atisa who taught and traveled all the way from Sumatra to Tibet.
Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness: A Commentary on Nagarjuna's Precious Garland : This is a classic text and a staple of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Quantum and the Lotus: Another Matthieu Ricard special this time physics and abhidharma. A little niche, but enjoyable.
From the Heart of Tibet: Remarkable story of the head of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage. Includes brief periods working at McDonalds in Texas, surviving and escaping the cultural revolution and in a way a microcosm of Tibetan people and religions struggle to survive.
Espionage and Hybrid Warfare
I started to read about this after 2016 for obvious reasons.
Active Measures: This authoritative history is the best thing I read in this space in the past year and comes with a profound sensitivity to the paradoxes and problems with these strategies that perhaps only a German could have as Berlin was ground zero for so much of the cold war shenanigans.
This is Not Propaganda: A great account of the media and messaging PR hall of mirrors that is Russia, and how this is being exported elsewhere.
Likewar: A good overview of more recent social media driven approaches and campaigns.
Sandworm: The story of notpetya, Ukraine and where cyber risk interfaces with physical assets that, you know, can kill people.
Disinformation: A slightly racier less historical read similar to Thomas Rid.
And to be fair, plenty of other stuff mentioned by @thegrugq on twitter.
In the meantime, tell your friends!