- Machine Learning by Kevin Murphy. A fabulous introduction to advanced machine learning from a Bayesian perspective.
- Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. The best political thinker of a generation, Scott's ideas will change the way you think about power and society.
- Blood and Rage by Michael Burleigh. The single best book on the history of terrorism.
- Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann. A fictionalized account of the parallel lives of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. Not to be missed.
- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. After an illness kills 90 percent of humans, a pilot tries to survive in Colorado.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. A troupe of Shakespearean actors travels the Great Lakes region. Suspenseful to the end.
At one time, no one knew that extinction events had ever occurred. Getting scientists to accept this required a Kuhnian paradigm shift.
The key message of the book is that a creature cannot be adapted to conditions it has never before encountered.
This is a tale of technological and social change, largely due to the introduction of horses on the Great Plains.
Comanches were at a social disadvantage before horses due to their nomadic, non-agricultural lifestyle. When horses came, this became a benefit because they were able to adapt, in an almost Christensen-like fashion.
One downside of their horse centric culture, combined with egalitarianism (women rode as well as men), was that it led to reduced natality rates (early term miscarriages). This in turn increased their propensity to kidnap young Anglo girls, the most famous of whom was Cynthia Ann Parker.
The book covers the introduction of a wide range of other inventions (Colt revolvers, Spencer and Henry rifles), as well as political shifts (Texas was under five of its six flags during this period). In doing so, the author deftly handles these broad structural changes while giving detailed accounts of battles and evolution of tactics (such as Rangers learning to fight in the Comanche style).
This is essential reading for an understanding of the Great Plains.
- From the early days, dense eastern cities subsidized rural western mail delivery, one of the earliest forms of public redistribution in the US. Many in the east did not like this arrangement, whereby sending a letter from Ohio to Virginia cost the same as New York to Philadelphia. In fact, customers paid all manner of different rates: a newspaper cost less than a barrel of flour, which in turn cost less than a single-page letter
- This opened up opportunity for private couriers to transport mail at less expensive rates in dense areas (83), which led to a controversy over whether the federal government had a legal monopoly over mail service.
- Before stamps, recipients paid for postage. Often travelers would use a scheme later employed in the age of collect calls, sending a letter when they reached their destination that their family would then refuse to receive, already satisfied with the information conveyed by its arrival.
- A major impetus for home delivery of mail was the Civil War, when many letters contained news of a loved ones death, to allow grieving in private
One critical note about the book is that it is poorly edited. Several nearly duplicate sentences appear within a page of each other. For example, “By the end of the decade, Americans were mailing some three million valentines per year.” (97) and “Howland and her valentines were soon a great success, and by the end of the decade, Americans were mailing some 3 million of them per year.” (98)
This account complements Ed Catmull’s in Creativity, Inc. Where Catmull is a technical cofounder who became a senior leader, Levy joined in the early-middle stage as a business executive focused on growing the company. (Or at least, early in retrospect; at the time the company had been around for 16 years and seemed to have lost its way.)
Levy reveals a level of healthy self-doubt unusual in business books. He also tells of things Pixar ultimately decided not to do, such as produce live action films.
This book captures the Great Plains at a particular moment in their economic history.
Here is the best quote:
Certainly, no man was ever happier than the first plains Indian to ride a horse, when time and space changed in an instant, and two feet were replaced by four, and a ridge that used to be a long, hot walk away was suddenly as near as a thought, a little leaning forward, and a tap of heel to flank…. The Minicounjou Sioux John Fire Lame Deer, in his book Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, says: “For bringing us the horse we could almost forgive you for bringing us whiskey.”
Perhaps the best intro to Bryson for fans of Mary Roach and James Gleick.
Steve Rinella had the best summary of Cormac McCarthy’s writing: People make decisions, and then wish they could live in the world that existed before those decisions were made.
This is one that I will have to return to.
This is the story of a family and a country asking themselves, “are we as special as we thought?” Unlike most dystopian novels, this one narrates the decline contemporaneously rather than retrospectively–a welcome difference. This is the best dystopian novel I have found for readers of The Economist, where it was favorably reviewed.
Burleigh is my second-favorite living writer, after James C. Scott. In his latest book, he describes the historical transition from a multi-polar, Euro-centric political landscape to Cold War bi-polarity.
One of the most profound lessons of the book is how long the effects of history endure. For example, Dwight Eisenhower, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong were all born in the 1890’s but had dramatic impacts in the 1950’s and 60’s. Similarly, Western leaders in the post-WWII period feared repeating 1930’s-style appeasement and likely over-indexed on that lesson in deciding when and where to fight Communist uprisings. This is the “worm’s-eye view” that is Burleigh’s specialty.
The approaches taken in these post-colonial conflicts also informed one another. For example, the British experience in Malaysia and the French in Algeria were blueprints for Vietnam. Lessons from that era still guide counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
One sub-plot to look for in this book is how data analysis and visualization strategies evolved over time, beginning with strategies as primitive as thumb tacks on a bulletin board (p. 169).
The similarly-titled novel Small Wars is a nice companion to this book.
This three-part series (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) describes a future in which medical advances on earth extends human longevity to extremes, which in turn leads to overpopulation. These “push” motivations combine with the “pull” motivation of mining resources to lure a small population of explorers to travel to Mars.
At first, a UN treaty governs the planet as a common resource of mankind. However, transnational corporations (“metanats”) have grown more powerful than many nation states, and are willing to break these rules and renegotiate the treaty for their benefit. At the same time, terraforming efforts begin to increase the humidity and average temperature of Mars to around 270 degrees Kelvin.
The second book goes deeper into ecology and economics. After a violent conflict, Mars’ residents convene to set up their own constitution. Centrally plans for terraforming break down as different groups desire different average temperatures for the planet: some want the minimum necessary to sustain life while maintaining a semblance of Martian distinctness, while others believe “warmer is better” and seek a more Earth-like clime. This description of a centrally planned environment sheds light on both the history of centrally planned economies, and contemporary debates around preservation and what point in the past we identify as the goal to be restored.
In the third book, we see the aftermath of a revolution on Mars, and a second attempt to set up planet-wide governance. Extension and expansion of longevity treatments have bifurcated society into a richer, older group, and a younger, poorer group of both nations and societies (somewhat reflecting contemporary reality on Earth). Refusing additional longevity treatments begins to be viewed as a form of suicide, raising interesting ethical questions. The tension between local and global governance is put into even starker contrast when your planet is “default dead.”
I would recommend this series to anyone with an interest in politics, economics, or ethical questions of the near future.
Reading this nearly four years after the first Snowden revelations renewed my anger at the scope and nature of U.S. government surveillance. The only defense offered for warrantless, indiscriminate mass surveillance is that it prevents terrorism. However, no evidence has been offered to support this claim, nor is there a reasonable discussion of (if it has prevented attacks) whether the loss of privacy is a cost worth paying.
The discussion in chapter four is the best discussion of the right to privacy that I have seen. The best single sentence summary of the book is at the beginning of that chapter: “Governments around the world have made vigorous attempts to train citizens to disdain their own privacy.”
A long, in-depth look at a pair of families in northeastern North America. This is a story of how men view nature, and the consequences of taking it for granted.
It also shows changes over time in the relationship between labor and capital, from indentured servitude, to seasonal hired help, to stable employer-employee, to corporate entities. In shifting to corporations the relationship becomes depersonalized, but it also allows the executives of the corporation to plan with a longer horizon, on the order of decades, that they themselves will not see or directly benefit from (p. 574).
I liked this much better than The Shipping News. Readers who enjoyed this may also like A River Runs Through It.
This is the story of a man who values information as a tool for peace and healing, and a girl who teaches him how fragile memory can be. Think of it as an anecdotal version of The Information.
Winters’ counterfactual (of a world in which the 1860 U.S. presidential election resulted in a political compromise, maintaining the institution of slavery) runs much farther into the future than most such novels–to the present day. It is shocking to see a modern world, with familiar brands and technology such as cell phones, in which slavery still exists in the southern U.S.
One of the book’s strongest points is that it has a more realistic view of technology, including data visualization, than most contemporary fiction. Unfortunately this is not enough to redeem it, as several key plot points are implausible even in the elaborate and interesting world of this novel.
I approached this book as an adventure story, and on that count it certainly delivers. However, I was surprised over and over again to find political and economic lessons demonstrated in this account of a disaster on Mt. Everest.
One example is the politics of getting a permit to climb Everest. The mountain can be approached from either Nepal in the south or Tibet (China) in the north. As these two jurisdictions have changed the number of permits they offer over the years, as well as the cost and requirements, it has affected both the starting point and the routes popular with climbers. At the time of Krakauer’s climb, in 1996, Nepal had recently increased its fees but remained the more established base camp (p. 26-27, 342).
As with many other natural resources, Everest also demonstrates the tragedy of the commons. All manner of refuse litters the mountain, from empty oxygen canisters to frozen humain remains. By 1996 some mechanisms for dealing with these issues had emerged, mainly the removal of trash by commercial guides (who return year after year and thus have a vested interest in keeping the mountain clean as a way to curry favor with both their clients and the local governments). The Nepalese government also set up a program, funded in large part by Nike, in which used oxygen canisters could be redeemed for a deposit. This serves as more of an incentive for Sherpas, who make a few thousand dollars a year (much higher than the typical income for Nepalese), than it is for clients who pay tens of thousands of dollars to climb the mountain and are thus relatively insensitive to small price incentives.
Base camp itself is governed by a political economy of respect, with more experienced guides enjoyed informal leadership roles (p. 74). When one team provides a public good, such as maintaining aluminum ladders on the route through the Icefall, they are compensated financially by other teams (p. 94).
The guides are also responsible for establishing trust between their clients: because most client groups have never climbed together before Everest, they are relying on the fact that their peers have been assessed by the guide as a sufficient indicator of ability. Unfortunately this is not always accurate, as Krakauer relates. The guide-client dynamic also introduces risks when a guide runs into trouble since clients are reluctant to question their leaders (p. 237).
The 1980’s were a pivotal time for both India and the U.S. India was liberalizing and becoming more open to western businesses. America was becoming more open to South Asian immigrants, while at the same time experiencing a transition toward an economy built on knowledge sectors such as finance and technology (p. 167).
This book captures both of those dynamics by relating the story of a small group of immigrants from India and Sri Lanka who rose through the ranks in management consulting (specifically McKinsey) and hedge funds. In doing so, it tells of the growth of the tech industry (both hardware and software), the rise of outsourcing (euphemistically called “remote services”), and the temptations that arise when insider knowledge on publicly traded companies is available.
It would have been easy for the core narrative of an insider trading investigation to come off as dry and boring, but Raghavan relates it in an engaging way. The details of a criminal investigation, such as when to approach certain witnesses and the timing of arrests, come off as almost game-theoretic. Other seemingly minor decisions, such as the logistics of arrests and whether to allow bail, are given dramatic weight. This is a story that is strong in both its broad strokes and its minutiae.
This book summarizes recent scholarship that runs counter to several common misconceptions about indigenous Americans:
- Instead of one wave of migration over the Bering Strait, these peoples likely arrived in multiple waves.
- These were not static societies. Their cultural contributions, such as the cultivation of maize, show a growing body of knowledge about the natural world.
- America’s earliest settlers did not live in a romantic natural utopia. Rather, their efforts had massive and long-lasting impact on the environment, such as at Cahokia.
In addition to this history of the Americas, Mann also offers a welcome contribution to the history of science, explaining why earlier scholars were wrong on the above points. One reason is that travel to certain parts of South America was quite difficult, both practically and politically, until relatively recently. Another is that scholars on the left idealized societies with minimal environmental impacts, while those on the right were satisfied with descriptions of these early peoples as quite primitive.
As an aside, the discussion of Incan “verical archipelangos” makes a nice accompaniment to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed
The McDonald brothers did not invent the fast-food restaurant. Instead, they put together a collection of other innovations–disposable paper cups, a blender that could make five milkshakes at a time–into an efficient assembly line that they called “Levittown on a bun.”
Neither did Ray Kroc create the business that would make him one of the world’s wealthiest men. He saw potential in the McDonald brothers’ idea and acquired the right to franchise the business. The franchise model was a win-win. Budding business owners could reduce risk by using a tried-and-true business model (the “Bible” they received included forms for all major operations) and benefit from economies of scale in national marketing campaign. Similarly, the core business was able to offer consistency at its many locations while also allowing small experiments in local innovation (such as partnering with local organizations or creating special milkshakes for holiday fundraisers).
It took years for Ray’s bet to pay off, and during this time he earned his living selling Multimix blenders (the same ones that McDonald’s franchisees used to make their milkshakes). This reminded me of Adam Grant’s point in Originals that often entrepreneurs find ways to launch their business by moonlighting while maintaining a stable income.
The magnitude of Kroc’s business success was equalled by his personal problems, including alcoholism difficult marriages. Napoli focuses on the third of these marriages, and Joan’s philanthropy efforts after Ray’s death.
Although the pacing of the book is a bit uneven, it is a welcome look at a man who made McDonald’s a household name and the lesser-known woman whose charitable efforts are underappreciated even years after her death.
This is one of those books that I have heard summarized so frequently that I was unsure whether I needed to read it. To my pleasant surprise, it is much deeper than it’s one-sentence summaries suggest. This is a book that would benefit from occasional re-reading.
There are two main schema offered in the book. The first is four types of games: competitive games (think chess), games of chance (craps, roulette), games that induce vertigo (skydiving, roller coasters), and mimicry (theater or dance). These categories describe a wide range of human experience that can induce feelings of captivation or entertainment.
What types of situations induce a state of flow? Challenges for which you are highly skilled. If the level of challenge or the level of skill are low (or mis-matched), your experience will be one of the other three in the table below.
Challenge High Low Skill Level High Flow Boredom Low Anxiety Frustration
It is difficult to tell history in a non-retrospective way, but this book is an exception. The author vividly describes how, in the last days of the Third Reich, the US began to prepare for competition (if not outright conflict) with the USSR to acquire German military secrets. She also reminds us that the Allies were still at war with Japan at the time, and hoped to apply Axis innovations in the war’s final theater.
This book can also be read as a story of eminently pragmatic talent acquisition, with a series of powerful actors willing to overlook their moral repugnance at Nazi actions. Fear of the future is often a more powerful motivator than bitterness or disgust over the past.
This book largely focuses on matchmaking markets: non-monetary, two-sided allocation problems such as school placement and organ donation.
Roth identifies three challenges facing two-sided markets:
- Thickness (getting enough buyers and sellers)
- Quickness (designing transactions to be easy to make and accept)
- Safety (limiting downside risk for both parties)
This makes an excellent companion read alongside Algorithms to Live By
The book offers its own best summary: “The history of private life is the history of getting comfortable slowly.”
A secondary thread in the book shows how economic policy (property taxes, income taxes, sinecures, and so on) affects what people do in and with their homes. Bryson deftly shows that history, like charity, begins at home.
A story about starting a restaurant when you’re not sure that starting a restaurant is the right thing to do. The author is also a co-host of the Spilled Milk podcast.
The earth’s rotation begins to slow, the days get longer. Society divides into “clock-timers” and “real-timers.” Very entertaining novel, as told through the narration of an eleven-year-old protagonist.
A novel about the human desire to know where you've come from and where you belong.
Beyond a certain scale, every business with physical deliverables becomes a logistics business. This book explores that point in great detail. One chapter is for aluminum cans what The Box is for shipping containers. Another chapter describes a single day’s traffic fatalities in the US, driving home (no pun intended) how deadly this form of transportation remains. The chapter about UPS speaks to the scale and difficulty of last-mile delivery. Overall this is a very detailed look at transportation as an economic and urban planning problem.
Highly recommended, especially once you get past the first chapter (which sounds like the musings of a college freshman, or at least that student’s favorite professor). Two things I couldn’t get out of my mind while going through this book were the quote, “Time doesn’t exist, clocks exist,” and this XKCD comic:
Very interesting look at the mental health industry, and at a classification problem where false positives and false negatives are both very costly.
The quantity of hijackings that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s is unfathomable today (as is the number of bombings). In fact, hijacking was not even a crime in the U.S. until the mid-1960s, so early “skyjackers” were charged with kidnapping instead.
The author of this book uses two strategies to better understand this phenomenon. The first is an epidemiological approach, pointing out copycat hijackings that are proximate in space and time to their inspiration. While this is true for both notable cases like D.B. Cooper and some minor ones, the approach is ultimately unconvincing.
Another device used in the book is a focus on the 1972 capture of a Western Airlines flight. It is not entirely clear why this particular incident was chosen, but the two protagonists (Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow) are interesting characters. This was also one of the first occurrences with a team of hijackers, and at the time it set a record (quickly broken) for the most ransom money elicited from an airline.
One interesting historical sidenote is how opposed airlines were to stricter airport security. They viewed the all-in cost of recovering a hijacked plane ($20,000 including making amends with passengers, diverting traffic, and giving crew members extra vacation days) as doing less damage to their business than the delays caused by extra screening. Moreover, they were probably correct; William Landes calculated, in a landmark study, that deterring a single skyjacking cost about $9.25 million, or nearly 20 times the record-breaking amount that Holder and Kerkow obtained (a large portion of which was quickly returned by authorities).
Excellent overview of the search for the Northwest passage in the 19th century. The discussion highlights the different mindsets of local Inuit, French-Canadian voyageurs, and British naval officers and their consequences. Recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of exploration and mapping.
Highly recommended. Here are a few of my notes:
- “[M]any of the world’s payoffs are arguably more static today than they’ve ever been. A berry patch might be ripe one week and rotten the next, but as Andy Warhol put it, ‘A Coke is a Coke.’” (in the discussion of the explore/exploit tradeoff on p. 54)
- When I go to the library, the cart of books being put back on the shelves is a great place to look: it means those books have been selected by someone recently. In fact, libraries are essentially memory management institutions with several layers of caches (see p. 89-91).
- “Small data is big data in disguise” (in the discussion of Bayesian priors on p. 109)
- Seeming verbal ticks such as “y’know?” actually help to ensure the fidelity of communication, asking the listener to acknowledge receipt of the speaker’s message.
- All the gold ever mined amounts to about 125,000 tons, or about one-millionth of the amount of steel produced in a year.
- The difficulty of mining gold makes it a good store of value (very little inflation). It’s relative uselessness makes it a good currency (unlike say, cigarettes or oil).
- At times when there was a rapid increase in the supply of gold (e.g. the Californian, Australian, and South African gold rushes), it still grew slower than (a) the overall rate of the economy and (b) demand (due to popularity of the gold standard).
- In 1859, with production from California, Australia, and Siberia, gold output was 275 tons–a 10x increase from a century before.
- In the nineteenth century, news spread very slowly over land: word of Sutter’s mill reached Australia before the first gold deposits from California arrived in DC. Most Americans learned of gold in California from Polk’s 1849 State of the Union address.
Buildings are time-shifted decision making. The decisions about where you enter your home, which room you use to sleep, and where you eat your breakfast were all made for you, probably by a stranger. Winston Churchill said as much: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This book explores the idea that this shaping is not once-and-for-all, but an ongoing pattern of interaction.
Here are a few of my notes:
- Different types of buildings (commercial, residential, and institutional) change at different rates.
- Different parts of buildings change at different rates: site, structure, skin, services, space plan, stuff (p. 13).
- Most buildings do no adapt well, because they are not designed to adapt; that is, they “misuse time” (p. 2).
- Houses used to be built with the intention of expanding and changing them over the years. In the third world this is still common with exposed rebar. In wealthier societies we tend to want everything to look “finished” even when it is just at a temporary pause in construction.
- Buildings inspired by art look good at a distance, but are nonfunctional
- A few more choice quotes: “water is the root of all evil” (114), “flat roofs always leak” (115), “do you want material that looks bad before it acts bad, like shingles or clapboard, or one that acts bad long before it looks bad, like vinyl siding?” (118)
This book was at times too ambitious, ranging as it does from ancient Mesopotamia to modern Amsterdam. However, the chapter on water is worth a read all on its own.
Here are some of of the interesting facts I learned from this book:
- Constructing the Colosseum required 44 billion kcals, 34 billion of which were for oxen and 10 billion of which were for human workers (p. 162)
- The population of Europe was basically flat between 1345 and 1780 (p. 197)
- In 1854 London had 200,000 cesspools, the contents of which were removed by farmers for manure. Ones in the central city were more expensive to reach, so they were less likely to be cleaned regularly. This contributed to the cholera outbreak of the 1850s, which was also related to the discovery of guano (p. 198)
Rose is at his most interesting when he compares pairs of cities. For example, Birmingham and Atlanta were both given the opportunity to become the headquarters for Delta Airlines. Atlanta won and has become a major transportation hub.
After reading this book I am more convinced than ever that there is an interesting book to be written on the economic history of air conditioning. Rose describes how Mesa, Arizona, grew from a population of about 7,000 in 1950 to nearly a half-million today; this is unfathomable without air conditioning. Apparently heat waves also kill more people each year than any other type of weather event.
This was a book that I had seen reviewed widely, and did not think I needed to read because it seemed to contain one simple idea. I was wrong. The Box is about much more than the invention of the shipping container. It is about a revolution in transportation brought on by standardization, and the wide-ranging economic effects of this change.
Before the advent of shipping containers, cargo (which could be in a bag or box of any size or even loose) was loaded and unloaded by longshoremen. This was a labor intensive process. A ship that took ten days to travel from New York to Germany could take four days to unload–nearly one-third of the entire transit time, not counting loading. Productiviy of longshoremen decreased during the first half of the twentieth century.
The work of longshoremen was also rife with corruption. Because it was ad hoc labor, workers were not guaranteed any fixed about of labor or pay. This led foremen, who were responsible for choosing which laborers worked that day, to take bribes. Given this informal labor structure, as much as ten percent of valuable commodities such as coffee might be “lost” after arriving in port.
Enter Malcom Mclean. McLean was a savvy businessman who entered the transportation industry in 1935. One efficiency he found was securing routes that allowed his drivers to carry loads in both directions. After WWII, he found that he could buy surplus ships that were relatively inexpensive. He began to consider whether it would be worthwhile to drive trucks onto ships and ferry them up the east coast. The limiting factor in that idea was that the trucks’ cabs and wheels would take up a large amount of space–but what if you could get rid of all the unnecessary parts of the truck?
Shipping containers, then, are not the result of a single lightbulb moment but of small incremental improvements to both technology (containers, trucks, ships, and cranes) and processes (loading, unloading).
Containers are also a case of simultaneous invention. Matson Navigation shipped Hawaiian produce to the mainland, and returned with small packages from grocers requested by customers in Hawaii. This led to a series of loading and unloadings, and goods would be unloaded from the ship in Hawaii and had to be sorted by destination before being loaded onto trucks. (The key difference between Matson’s containers and McLean’s was that Matson’s were shorter, being designed primarily for use in California rather than the U.S. East Coast.)
As we consider the future of transportation, such as automated long-haul trucking, two elements of Levinson’s account stand out. First, at the time that shipping containers were developed trucking, maritime shipping, and railroads were all regulated as separate industries. This meant that McLean had to fight regulators in three separate industries in order to secure the economic efficiencies of his idea. Second, longshoremen were strongly opposed to automation. However, because lower costs increased the amount of shipping, their pay and benefits actually increased over the second half of the twentieth century.
This is a well-written and thoughtful account that is about so much more than a “box.”
Here is the most interesting paragraph, one to ponder:
[C]hanges in the amount and variety of information exchanged between different communities may be a crucial determinant of rates of innovation. Europe in the early modern period found itself swamped by new information. At the hub of the new global exchange system, it was the first to receive a mass of new knowledge abou the New World…. Europe became a sort of clearinghouse for new geographical and cultural lore. Thus it was here that the torrent of new infomration flowing through the first global exchange network had its earliest and greatest impact on intellectual life and activity. (p. 393)
A welcome follow-up to The Information
Why do people congregate in cities? There are cultural reasons, to be sure, but economic reasoning is at the heart of this decision. Small businesses depend on a vast array of other enterprises for their survival, and thus do best by locating where these other businesses are. Put differently, cities offer benefits to smallness. As Adam Smith said, specialization is limited by the extent of the market.
However, a city is made up of strangers, not all of whom are nice). This makes safety a fundamental concern for city-dwellers. Jacobs argues that safety in cities is not guaranteed by police, but by citizens who have a vested interest in the community. How, then, does she recommend fostering vibrant neighborhoods? There are three key conditions that she identifies for diverse and robust communities.
First, city districts must be mixed-use. That is, it must be usable by people with diverse needs and diverse schedules. If a business lies idle for much of the day it will have difficulty justifying and supporting its continued existence. A central business district that is in use only from 8am to 5pm can only support certain businesses: office work and secondary establishments that cater to those workers (coffee shops and lunch restaurants). These secondary establishments must be able to handle large queues in a relatively short period of time at peak traffic, which means only certain sorts of restaurants (those with a broad appeal and quick service). Other establishments, such as a library or movie theater, cannot survive in such a neighborhood because they would nto have enough off-peak traffic to justify the expense (p. 203). This further compounds the effect of rush hours, since everyone arrives and departs in a short window of time.
The second condition is a varied age and condition of buildings. This allows businesses with varied economic yields to locate near one another. New buildings require highly profitable businesses. A candy shop probably cannot survive on the first floor of a skyscraper. Note that it is businesses, not historical associations, that support the preservation of older buildings. A diversity of uses rather than legislation protects older buildings (and is thus closely related to the previous point). Low rents also allow businesses to experiment with new ideas, and to grow (the ability to move down the street to a larger or nicer location in the future, without losing local customers). This in turn makes a neighborhood more robust: the businesses and the buildings they occupy are of various ages and types, so the odds that they all fail at the same time are greatly reduced.
Jacobs’ final condition for diverse neighborhoods is a dense concentration of people. This supports variety, since homes and business can coexist in a relatively small area. For a longer discussion of the opposite strategy, low-density neighborhoods, see my review of The Power Broker.
I expected to spend much of my time reading this book actively disagreeing with its author’s positions. Instead, I was surprised to find well-reasoned economic arguments. Jacobs is not a supporter of paternal zoning laws, nor of historical preservation for its own sake. The criticism of automobiles is not as strong as you might anticipate from reading secondary sources. This work, especially part two, is well worth reading in the original.
Trails are an external memory, a form of collective intelligence. They save a traveler from having to discover a new route each time, instead offering a finite set of options that have proved valuable in the past. The wisom of a trail is demonstrated in its balance of durability, efficiency, and flexibility.
The discussion of trails in this book ranges from traces of ancient organisms, to ant paths, to elephant migratory patterns, to the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail could be regarded as one of the most successful human-made trails, as could the interstate highway system. Designing a sustainable walking trail, the author explains, requires managing the flow of water and the flow of people (whose behavior is not that different from water).
The role of technology in both traveling and making trails is also a recurring theme. Some modern tools, like water purifiers and GPS, are widely accepted by hikers, while others are spurned. In a way, the author argues, the internet itself is a system of trails represented by hyperlinks.
Understanding trails has important implications for emergent systems, such as swarm robotics. This quote, from a conversation the author had with Jean-Louis Deneubourg, is worth reproducing in full:
“The interesting thing is that in Rome, originally that was a grid system,” he said. “The whole ssytem was destroyed by time, and then it converged into a medieval organic system.” Likewise, many cities across Europe that were built on the Roman grid–Damascus, Mérida, Caerleon, Trier, Aosta, Barcelona–later collapsed back into an organic layout, as people began taking shortcuts across empty quadrants, filling in extravagant plazas, andaltering the imperial road network to their needs. Left to their own devices people unwittingly redesigned their cities precisely as ants would….
If he [Deneubourg] were the mayor of a new city being build ex nihilo, like Brasília, how would he organize it?
“I would like to see the emergence of a town,” he said. “If I was the mayor… my attitude would be very liberal. My objective would be to offer different types of material to help the citizens find the solution that they prefer…. To believe that you have the solution for another person is a form of stupidity.”
The work of Orville and Wilbur Wright presents several lessons for innovators:
- Learn greedily. The brothers wrote to the Smithsonian institute for reading materials and took up bird watching as a way to learn more about flight (this is where they got the idea for ailerons, crucial to steering).
- Learn on the job. The brothers estimated that the most experienced glider pilot of their day had a total of about 5 hours of flight experience, spread across many years. They realized that experience in the air was crucial for understanding how to build and operate aircraft, and focused on getting as much time in the air as possible.
- Find an unfair advantage. The strong winds at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, allowed them to start with a glider rather than a powered airplane (furthering their ability to gain flight experience). The sands at Kitty Hawk also gave them a soft place to land, making it easier to keep costs down and try flying multiple times with the same equipment.
- Keep your experiments cheap. The glider that the brothers built for their first trip to Kitty Hawk, in 1903, cost only $15 in materials. It was easy to abandon–they gave the materials to some local residents when they returned to Ohio, and the fabric on the wings was eventually made into dresses. Their total costs for the first three years of their experiments, including travel to and from Kitty Hawk each fall, amounted to less than $1,000.
It is striking how many important people Alexander von Humboldt influenced during the course of his career, including Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and many more.
Bust of Alexander von Humbolt, West Central Park
This book is both wide ranging (from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the Enigma machine) and deep (it has the best explanation I have seen of the work conducted at Bletchley Park and how it related to other military activity of the era). It also illustrates how, as communication becomes more public (via a telegraph operator, airwaves, or satellites) encryption becomes more desirable.
This is a far-ranging take on the history of GPS and related technologies. Every chapter is a delightful essay on its own, and taken together they give a comprehensive overview of the many aspects of our lives affected by this system of technologies. The author makes a convincing case that GPS is a more important development than the internet. This is a strong contender for the best book I have read so far this year.
Rather than try to discuss the book in detail, which would not do it justice, I made a mind map of the most important themes of the book:
This book is about the character of buildings and towns, and how it is influenced by the people who design and occupy them. Character is defined as the “patterns of events that keep on happening there,” (p. X). As the author explains later, “what a town or building is, is governed, above all, by what is happening there” (p. 62). These are not exclusively human events, either: natural elements such as bodies of water and the weather matter as well.
Things and places also speak to the character of a town and what kind of things happen there. For instance, freeways tell you that there is a lot of commuting. Libraries suggest reading. The places in a town do not dictate its nature though: a sidewalk in Dallas and a sidewalk in Delhi exhibit quite different patterns of daily life (p. 72).
This idea of patterns is also prominent in the book (and one of the main reasons it is well-known within certain circles of computer programmers). Each town or building (or really, any made and many natural things) is made up of a repetition of patterns, and variations of the instances of the patterns. Consider an arch for a bridge. The physics of the arch are the same for any bridge of this pattern, but the specifics (size, location, material, the water it crosses) are unique to a particular instance.
Waterfall Bridge, Acadia National Park
Balancing pattern and variation is an activity of craftsmanship. Even when the ingredients differ, the process remains the same.
Here there is no mastery of unnameable creative processes: only the patience of a craftsman, chipping away slowly; the mastery of what is made does not lie in the depths of some impenetrable ego; it lies, instead, inn the simple mastery of the steps in the process, and in the definition of these steps (p. 161).
The power of a pattern language is that it reduces the number of things that a builder or designer has to think about: they are largely copying the patterns they have seen before (p. 177). (These rules of thumb are what James C. Scott calls metis.) This is not to say that they lack originality, though. A simple pattern such as “every room should have light on two sides” can become difficult to manage when balanced against competing goals.
These patterns consist of context, problem, and solution. A solution to a problem that makes sense in one context may be totally unsuitable in another. Patterns exist at many different scales (247). Consider the “problem” of two roads converging at a right angle. In one context (say, Paris) the likely solution is a traffic circle. In another context (the U.S.) the solution is more likely to be a four-way stop. In both cases the designers of the road are copying what is most common around them.
Once a pattern is implemented, is the building or town static? Hardly. Alexander encourages residents to take an active role in how their building or town grows (as we will explore soon in Stewart Brand’s book. These changes can be improvements, expansions, or repairs–developers would call them “refactorings.” (The right to repair campaign comes to mind.)
Whether you are an architect, designer, programmer, or builder, this book will challenge and improve your process.
This is a collection of 192 short (1-4 page) essays in response to the 2015 Edge question.
Here are some broad trends within the essays:
- Those who think we will have artificial general intelligence(AGI) relatively soon point out how much faster technology progresses than biology. Those who are skeptical of AGI in the near future point out that there is no one discovery or lightbulb moment that will make it possible, but an accretion of minor discoveries.
- AGI proponents rely on some faulty statistics, such as the number of neurons in the human brain (a popular estimate is off by orders of magnitude) and what current supercomputers can do. This is like saying that because a car engine has more horsepower than a human it could run to the moon–they are qualitatively different pursuits. Furthermore, AGI is a software and not a hardware problem (at least for now).
- Another major divide between essayists is that some say AGI is “far away” (whether that’s 100, 1,000, or more years) while others counter that if AGI is (eventually) inevitable, we should give serious consideration to how to govern and relate to it now. This is a question of discounting
- The question of AGI’s humanity (human-ish-ness?) comes up in several essays. Some argue that if AGI is designed by humans then it is more like a prosthetic brain than it is a peer (an appendage and not a bet), while others counter that if AGI is evolved by large amounts of data, then even its human creators cannot understand it well.
- Plenty of authors in this collection question the premise (sure, machines compute, but do they think…) and even more try to move the goalposts (sure, they think, but do they have culture or emotions or desires). The essays that go down this route are mostly skippable.
Some of the best essays in the collection are the following:
- Peter Norvig: “Ask Not Can Machines Think, Ask How Machines Fit Into The Mechanisms We Design” (probably the best in the whole collection)
- David Christian: “Is Anyone in Charge of this Thing?”
- Scott Atran: “What Neuroscience And Machine Models Of The Mind Should Be Looking For”
- Brian Eno: “Just A New Fractal Detail In The Big Picture”
- Bart Kosko: “Thinking Machines = Old Algorithms On Faster Computers”
Steampunk mind candy. Turing machines play prominent roles. Interesting ideas on culture and politics, as usual from this author.
Ben Franklin issued a challenge to future biographers by writing his own, very popular autobiography. This attempt by Walter Isaacson falls far short. It is really more of a quick sketch, never spending too much time in any one area of Franklin’s life, and never giving much evidence of Isaacson having done much original research. There are also several assertions throughout that aspects of the popular image of Franklin are incorrect, without any real arguments to back them.
A few things that you might not know about Franklin:
- In 1756, wealthy after retiring from his printing business, Franklin funded a private militia to defend Pennsylvania’s settlers from Native Americans. This suggests that at least one founder did not have states in mind when he read the phrasing of the Second Amendment.
- Throughout the lead-up to the American Revolution, Franklin attempted to find a series of compromises such as an American Congress that was loyal to the king. However, once he decided to support a war for independence he was one of the strongest advocates of the cause.
- Many of the phrases in Poor Richard were not original, but polished to be more memorable. Franklin was an early student of memes.
Claude Shannon’s landmark 1948 paper was like a lens: it moved “information” from the background to the foreground of history. By popularizing both the term and the concept, he made it possible to see that the genes of a single celled organism, the beats of African drummers, and a one-bit message manifested as one or two lanterns hung in the window of the Old North Church were all instances of the same phenomenon.
Shannon’s insights showed the linkages between what became known as the information science: math, communication, electrical engineering, computer science, psychology, and physics. These fields provide leverage on each other. Viewing genes as information means that a computer scientist can offer insights, such as the error-correcting mechanism of RNA. In turn, a biologist can offer communication theorists the concept of a meme. Advances in one field can also be counterproductive in others, though, such as by abstracting away the physical aspects of computation. (Quantum information theory has begun to bring back in the truism that information is inevitably physical.)
Gleick’s treatment of the history of information is enjoyable throughout, and full of interesting bits of trivia. For example, as with so many things, the development of Morse code is less straightforward than it is often told in hindsight. It started as a mapping from numbers to words. Morse’s great insight was to use shorter dot-dash combinations for more frequent letters. To determine which letters were used most often, he examined their distribution in the type cases at a newspaper (a use of statistical data, one means of communication learning from another).
The connection between technologies of communication and transportation is apparent throughout the book. After all, for most of history these amounted to the same thing. The speed of trains made apparent the existence of time zones. To keep track of locomotive schedules and keep them from colliding a faster means of communication was needed, so telegraph lines sprung up coextensively with train tracks. Later on, airplanes moved faster than ballistics calculations could be done and required second-order differential equations and noise filtering for radar data, resulting in another close linkage between transportation and communication.
The economics of transportation may also apply to communication as well. When transportation is expensive, value-added activities tend to be performed before goods or shipped. In the 18th century farmers turned their corn into whiskey to make shipment cheaper and more lucrative. Economists today know this as the Alchian-Allen theorem, discussed in more detail here and here.
When storage and transportation is cheap things of speculative value tend to be stored, such as Silicon Valley startups hoarding data about their users and the predominance of server-side computation. Apple is already starting to question this by doing distributed computation on devices. Wikipedia similarly challenges the notion of information scarcity, as embodied in their reminder that “wiki is not paper.”
Living in an age of abundant data, it is hard to fathom that for most of human history a table of numbers would have been meaningless. Data begets analytical methods begets insight. The cycle continues.
There are several other insights offered that I will not explore fully here. These include:
- Redundancy as a means of ensuring fidelity of information in a noisy channel. Think of Homer’s “wine dark sea” in its original oral transmission, or pilot’s use of “bravo” and “victor” (vs. “bee” and “vee”).
- An introduction to Charles Babbage’s early entries into mechanical computing, and the deep connection between computational methods and time (ch. 4).
- Many instances of simultaneous invention: Newton and Leibniz, Boole and De Morgan, Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell
- Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, a fictionalized account of early attempts to measure longitude
- Measuring the World on Gauss and von Humboldt
- The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (graphic novel)
- Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash
- Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, which introduced the idea of memes (“A library is a scholar’s way of making another library.”)
- Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants
- Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson
- “Entropy Explained” by Aatish Bhatia
- Hello Internet episode 42 on the existence of free will
The eponymous question that the other asks is, “does the world embody beauty?” He defines beauty as symmetry and economy, and answers with a resounding “yes.” Determining the answer to this question is both a perceptual and an inferential problem, and a fairly enjoyable one to explore alongside teh author.
This is the best explanation I have seen of color vision as a low-dimensional, probabilistic projection of an infinite dimensional electromagnetic space (pp. 151-156). It is also an exciting explanatin of quantum physics, aided by the generous “Terms of Art” section at the end of the book.
As its subtitle indicates, this is the story of ‘one house, five families, and a hundred years of Germany history.’ In this way it is somewhat similar to The Farm, but instead of a single family it tells the story of a single house over the course of the twentietch century.
This is a better account of inter-war Germany than any I have read. By focusing on one small niche of history it makes otherwise overwhelming events more relatable.
There is also some interesting trivia in the book, such as the way that the owners and lessors first arrive at the house, shifting from horseback to car over time. Located about a 40-minute drive from Berlin, the house was affected by that city’s fate as well. Berlin’s population doubled between 1870 and 1890 (from 800k to 1.6m), prompting the first owner’s move to a country estate. Between 1918 and 1928 the population increased from 1.6m to 4m, which made the property desirable as a weekend getaway (and hence the construction of a lake house). Housing shortages under the East German government at one point prompted the house to be split between two families.
The house was also incidentally related to a number of historic events. It was near Hitler’s favorite airfield that he used to travel to Berchtesgaden. Land by the lake was used as a training camp, first by Nazis and then by Soviets. In 1961 the Berlin Wall cut the house off frmo the lake (just 50 meters away), and invited cross-border intrigue into the home.
This book can be thought of somewhat like an anecdotal version of How Buildings Learn. What was once a bedroom becomes a music room. A wall with French Windows is closed up. Over time the greenhouse is removed and the garden falls into disrepair.
These changes are shown in diagrams of the house over time:
The original house (1927) Note the change to a music room (1937) Split between two families due to East German housing shortages (1952) The house reunited as "Villa Wolfgang" (1965) A state of disrepair (2003)
This turned out to be a fairly long review, so I have posted it here.
This is a book about our species’ “zest to explore and exploit.” Although the subtitle is “A Vision of the Human Future in Space,” there is also substantial attention given to our history as wanderers.
One unexpected aspect of the discussion is the politics of crewed space programs, including a discussion of the Apollo program’s Cold War origins (ch. 13). This was also the first I had heard of George H.W. Bush’s plan, announced in 1989, to put humans on Mars by 2019. SpaceX was founded 13 years after the rollout of Bush’s plan, but may miss its target date by only 6 years. (Musk has predicted that humans will arrive on Mars by 2025, but then again he is famous for overly optimistic timetables.)
There are also brief asides that, read 22 years after Pale Blue Dot was first published, seem almost like predictions. For example, Sagan mentions the role of profit as a motive for space exploration (p. 217). He also describes how the advent of artificial intelligence could cause use to think differently about our own consciousness (p. 10).
Without giving away any spoilers, chapter 17 contains the seed of the plot in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, while chapters 21 and 22 contain ideas about long-term human survival that are relevant as well. Besides Stephenson’s novel, other books to read alongside this one are The Clock of the Long Now, Apollo 13, and the Elon Musk biography.
Imagine you are the American ambassador to Germany in the mid-1930s, the official go-between for F.D.R. and Adolf Hitler. To complicate matters you are not a career politician, but rather a lifelong academic who took the post (after originally petitioning for an ambassadorship in Brussels or another out-of-the-way European capital) as a sinecure in order to finish your magnum opus. This was the plight of William Dodd, the protagonist of In the Garden of Beasts.
I was surprised to read that Dodd did not believe that war was imminent in Europe. One of his main goals was to ensure that Germany continued to repay its debts resulting from WWI.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the book (chapter 31) details how the Dodd family responded to German surveillance. Not only were their phones tapped and their mail opened; they also suspected their household staff of spying for the German government. In this day of (sadly) ever-present government surveillance, including the U.S. government toward its own citizens, it was almost refreshing to read of a family whose members were shocked by such behavior.
For a work detailing such a dark time, this book also contains moments of levity. For instance, Ernst Hanfstaengl (“Naziism’s foremost political pianist”) is said to have described Hitler as “resembl[ing] a suburban barber on his day off.”
Isserman’s topic is the making of mountains in the American imagination. In the early years of the republic, for example, mountains were seen as an obstacle to progress. There are a number of brief biographies here, including those of John Muir, John Fremont, and Clarence King.
I also learned some fun facts from this book, such as that the second tallest mountain in the U.S. is also the second tallest mountain in Canada.
This biography of Theodore Roosevelt focuses on his work as a naturalist. I had no idea what a difficult life Roosevelt had, including childhood battles with asthma and the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day.
Lunde captures the milieu of the late nineteenth century. Hunting was a popular sport due to both the familiarity of Civil War veterans with firearms, and newly invented cartridge guns (which were easier to use than ball-and-powder rifles). At the time hunting was viewed positively as a way of engaging with nature.
Another phenomonen that this book makes clear is how the idea of “wilderness” was still in the process of being invented. This idea is explored in much more detail in William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”.
Overall I found this book a bit disappointing, as if it was unsure who its target audience is. However, if you are looking for an accessible introduction to the connection between math and computing then this is a good start.
In lieu of reading the book, you could also watch these two videos:
Like the author himself, there was so much that I did not know (or misunderstood) about the sinking of the Lusitania before picking up this book. For example, the ship was less than 12 miles from the British coast when it sank and over one-third of the passengers survived. The sinking did not precipitate America’s entry into WWI, either; that happened about two years later.
U-boats at the time were relatively unsophisticated. It was a single (“lucky”) shot that sunk the Lusitania. Numerous advance warnings (including an announcement from the German high command that passenger ships carrying munitions would be targeted) went unheeded. In the aftermath, the Cunard Line (who operated the ship) were mostly concerned with assigning blame to the captain. If Apollo 13, was an instructive example of incident management, this book is a lesson in how not to respond to a disaster.
Larson is a master of weaving a tale in which the mundane and the historic coexist and this book did not disappoint. Whether you read Dead Wake or not, it is well worth four minutes of your time to watch this video of Andrew Bird’s song “Lusitania.”
I read this (in audio book form) after watching the miniseries on Hulu. If you have watched the series I recommend reading the book; if you have not watched the series then just reading the book is plenty. There are several characters who appear in the book but not the show, and many key differences between characters that appear in both.
This was the first fictional book by Stephen King that I have read. After this I feel slightly more justified in reading one of his nonfiction books that has been on my list for a while On Writing.
One theme of the book that I appreciated is the desire to see order or conspiracy in an essentially random event. Readers of this book would likely also enjoy The Lady or the Tiger and Mrs. Paine’s Garage.
Wallace Stegner’s biograph of John Wesley Powell was a great read, reviewed in more detail here. It also contained some very interesting facts:
- The three types of geologic drainage (antecedent, consequent, and superimposed) were first developed by Powell and are considered fundamental today (p. 153).
- For the depth of its imprint on America’s autobiography, only 400,000 families successfully obtained land under the Homestead Act (less than five percent of the population; p. 220).
- Powell estimated that mapping the territory of the United States would take 24 years and cost $18 million in 1884. By 1952 only about 60 percent of the country had been mapped, at a cost of $100 million (p. 280).
Insightful meditation on life and dying. This had been on my to-read list for a while and was worth the wait. Sam Altman’s essay “The Days are Long but the Decades are Short” makes a nice pairing.
Fascinating premise but the series on Amazon Video is a better execution.
I put this on my to-read list after finishing All the Wild That Remains and was not disappointed. Although semi-fictionalized, this is largely a biography of Mary Hallock Foote based on her letters. It takes place partially in Leadville, Colorado, which made it especially interesting to me. Highly recommended.
Also “read” in audiobook form on a long drive. Entertaining enough.
Chosen because it is by the same author as The Dog Stars. I listened to this as an audiobook while traveling to and from Durango. It takes place in Colorado and New Mexico which made it a great fit.
Recommended for anyone who has to deal with incident response.
Chosen for a book club at work. Full review here.
I first read John Seymour in my early high school years, and the quote about making flour with a coffee grinder stuck with me. The introduction mentions Louis Bromfield, author of The Farm, which I did not recall from my earlier encounter with this book.
The history of one Ohio family over the course of the 19th century. Recommended by John Roderick on this episode of “Road Work”. It’s also mentioned on an earlier episode of “Roderick on the Line”.
An Italian prisoner of war escapes long enough to summit Mt. Kenya and plant a flag. Rooting for an Axis POW can be an odd experience. I wish I could remember who recommended this and thank them.
I read this biography of Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey before reading their own books. I made a point to fix that soon after by reading Angle of Repose.
A fun look at the periodic table, which is an early example of data visualization. This episode of the RadioLab podcast makes a nice accompaniment.
Elon Musk is probably the most inspiring leader in technology today. Great biography for those outside the tech world who want to understand more about it.
This is a story of the difference between how artists and engineers see the world, as told through a plane crash. A bit stereotypical at times, but enjoyable as mind candy.
I read this as part of a batch of post-apocalpytic/dystopian novels that I still intend to blog about some time. Highly recommended.
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