- 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.
- 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.
Alibaba is arguably one of the ten most important firms in the world today, but before reading this book I knew very little about its founder, Jack Ma. Unlike most founders of large technology companies, he did not have a technical background (like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) or a world-class education (like Jeff Bezos). Instead, Ma graduated from a poorly-ranked Chinese University and began his career as a teacher and then a translator. On a trip to the U.S. in the early 1990’s he encountered the Internet for the first time and decided to become an entrepreneur.
In addition to its role as a biograpy, the book also describes Alibaba’s “iron triangle” strategy: interlocking competencies in e-commerce, logistics, and finance. Clark also provides a helpful overview of China’s technology landscape, describing the competition (and at times, cooperation) between Alipay and other firms such as Tencent and Baidu.
Thanks to Sid Gunda for recommending this book.
- Don’t pursue your passion, pursue mastery of a craft
- Use that mastery to build career capital
- Use that career capital to take control of your work
- Use that control to pursue your mission
This book is the best discussion I have seen of the value of managerial talent in the so-called “knowledge work” economy. Avent’s key thesis is that the driver of economic growth before the Industrial Revolution was physical capital; that the role of human capital become important in the Industrial Revolution; and that social capital now plays a similar role in amplifying economic potential.
An extended quote helps to summarize this idea:
People who stay with a particular firm for any length of time quickly pick up lots of little, difficult-to-classify pieces of information about how everything fits together to make the place function. Knowledge of this sort builds and evolves over time….
Part of what makes the firm’s information-processing machinery work is the knowledge contained within every worker’s head: the culture of the firm. (p. 103)
However, for individual contributors, much of the value of this knowledge is not transferrable between firms. Managerial talent, at least within a given industry, is much easier to apply at a new company than knowledge of a specific software stack for example. Managerial talent is also in shorter supply than that of individual contributors (see p. 116). (Incidentally, I think this is a large part of the explanation for why software companies cluster certain cities and those cities offer much better wages to employees willing to locate there.)
What is the key insight of firms that successfully leverage their employees’ social capital? The answer rests on effective communication and integrating employees’ cognitive efforts:
The allocation of particular forms of knowledge across workers within a firm, and an awareness of the modes of communication that allow that knowledge to be called upon when needed, represents a critical component of a firm’s social capital.
In the industrial age… human labour meant not simply becoming part of the machine, but also part of the larger cognitive structure of the firm. Factories and firms… are large information-processing structures. (p. 127)
Incidentally, Avent’s use of The Economist (where is a writer) as an example of a “knowledge work” firm makes the book even more enjoyable for readers of that newspaper.
The key idea of this book is that, because by definition it takes place within a physical structure, burglary is an architectural crime. Therefore, taking a closer look at how burglars succeed can tell us about the design of buildings and cities. For example, Los Angeles freeways make the city a haven for high-speed chases and bank robberies.
Burglars’ sills also include social engineering (e.g. asking to see blueprints for a potential target), attention to detail (such as creating an exact replica of a bank vault), and the ability to leverage everday objects in unexpected ways (by using styrofoam to fool thermal alarm systems, for example).
If you are wondering which film the author says best exemplifies these ideas, it is Die Hard (p. 226).
This book provides an excellent overview of a crop whose importance to the global economy has been quite understated. It reveals, for example, that as late as 1900 a full 1 percent of the world’s workforce was involved in the cultivation, harvest, and processing of cotton into textilies.
Incidentally, the book also demonstrates the value of urbanization and clustering of industry into particular geographic regions. It helped me to understand that the reason that port cities are so vibrant is not that any one specific thing can be obtained there, but that anything that is commercially available can be obtained there.
Port cities are also places of mixing. Want to combine Madagascar vanilla with South American cacao? You’re going to be able to do that better in San Francisco than you could in either of the points of origin for the raw materials. This is due to the connections (much cheaper to transport in bulk over sea than land), the financial capital, the human capital (immigration), and the ability to combine raw materials from disparate sources. This remains true today, with the caveat that airports can serve a similar role at smaller scales.
Access to a port also greatly increases your addressable market. If you make the best chocolate in the world from a factory in Idaho, good luck–you will need to appeal to extremely devoted fans. A product produced in a port city can become a global staple quite rapidly.
Note also that you don’t have to know a priori where these suppliers or markets will be. Unlike roads, the oceans are open to all. This is one reason that early institutions guaranteeing free and safe sea travel (such as the law of the sea and powerful European navies) were such important guarantors economic growth.
What Happened is recommended reading for anyone who hopes to understand the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In this review I will focus on one particular aspect of the story: Hillary Clinton’s description of her data and analytics team. This is a small part of the overall election but an important one to understand for anyone interested in technology and our statistical understanding of the world.
Surprisingly, the book contains only four mentions of the Clinton campaign’s data team. First, it describes how the leaders of the team were hired based on advice from Silicon Valley CEO’s (p. 70). Shortly thereafter, Clinton rejects the idea that her team relied too heavily on big data, suggesting that going forward Democrats need even better data and analysis (p. 75-76). It is possible to agree with this conclusion without accepting the premise; in the future data analysis will likely constitute even greater portions of campaign spending, but it is still possible that the Clinton campaign was too focused on polling than on their “ground game.”
One particularly revealing sentence in the book is that, as late as election night, “all our models… gave us an excellent chance at victory” (p. 384-5). This suggests that the analytics team’s approach was fundamentally flawed. Whether this is because poll respondents were less willing to express a preference for Trump, or because sampling mechanisms themselves were biased, or some other reason, this is a major oversight on behalf of the Clinton campaign and a cautionary tale for future election analysts.
The final mention of the campaign’s data team is a claim that they were “outgunned” by spending on the Republican side (p. 421-22). But that seems to disagree with many other facts. For example, the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica less than $6 million out of a total campaign budget of $322 million. By contrast, the Clinton campaign’s total spending amounted to $565 million. Presumably they would have been willing to spend another 1 percent in order to increase their odds of winning.
Furthermore, recruiting talent matters mroe than overall spending. By her own admission Hillary had a large, technically savvy staff in her Brooklyn campaign headquarters. Anecdotally, it also seems that the most talented data scientists and software engineers would be far more willing to work for Democratic than Republican campaigns.
This abdication of responsibility fits with the larger context of the book. For example, there are numerous mentions of Clinton’s victory in the popular vote. While it’s true that a sizable majority of Americans who went to the polls in 2016 wanted her to be president, that’s not the contest she signed up for–and she knew that better than anyone.
Two of the other most significant themes of the campaign–Russian hacking and her emails–each got their own chapter. But at the time of the campaign, the composition and performance of her data team was much more directly within her control. This lack of attention suggests there is more to learn before 2020.
The subtitle is “Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon”. I was cautious about this book, fearing that it would induce eye-rolls at oversimplifications of the technology involved. To the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of technical acumen that the author shows. Readers will come away with a thorough understanding of how Stuxnet was created, deployed, and eventually discovered.
One way to read this book is as the post-mortem for the delivery of a very successful piece of software. “Real artists ship,” and the authors of Stuxnet were undeniably clever. Tracing the iterative development and ingenious distribution mechanisms is a great lesson for anyone interested in shipping software (legitimate or otherwise).
Another way to view the book is as a detailed case study in incident response. The researchers who systematically uncovered the clues in Stuxnet’s source code combined art and science to compile a compelling case for its origins in the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities. In this vein, the book can be seen as a companion to Apollo 13: required reading for anyone who holds the responsibility of maintaining and defending software systems.
Three aspects of this Warren Buffett biography stood out:
- Buffett publicly acknowledges his own good fortune (saying he “won the ovarian lottery” by being born to a wealthy American family).
- His intense focus; everything other than business is a distraction to him, for better or worse.
- His advice to be a passive, low-cost investor. Buffett famously told his wife to invest in S&P index funds after his death. Considering the duration of his career, Buffett himself is not even a particularly active investor.
This book argues that nonviolence in the American Civil Rights movement was a tactic used by its leaders, rather than a steadfast belief of its grassroots members, who saw violence as an acceptable form of self-defense (p. 11). It is a thorough history of the practice of armed self-defense amongst blacks fighting for civil rights. It is often forgotten, for example, that Second Amendment rights were amongst those denied to African-Americans for generations (p. 45). Early attempts at registering guns in the South were specifically intended to track blacks who owned firearms (p. 125). The author wades into the complex history between blacks and whites in the South and their firearms, and in doing so helps to flesh out the history of the civil rights era.
The late 19th century was the golden age of canal building. The completion of the Suez Canal, for instance, brought Europe 5,000 miles closer to India’s ports and made Africa an island. It was this achievement that inspired a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
There were three key enabling factors for the Panama Canal. The first was political will on the part of the French and American publics. The second was steam-based mechanical power.
The third factor was information: before about 1880 there was insufficient geographic knowledge to determine whether it would be more straightforward to build a canal through Panama or Nicaragua. Both the width of the isthmus and the height of the mountains in between were unknown. In fact, for centuries people believed that the natural level of the Pacific was 20 feet higher than the Atlantic, because of the more severe tides on the Pacific side.
Whether to build in Nicaragua or Panama was also a political question. A canal through Nicaragua would have been longer than in Panama, but it would have been 500 miles closer to the U.S. It also would have favored ports on the Gulf coast such as Mobile, which is why it had the backing of John Tyler Morgan, a powerful senator from Alabama.
The initial canal building effort was conducted by a private French enterprise. Unfortunately for them, their initial fundraising by selling equity was too small, so they had to rely on several large rounds of debt funding. Eventually the interest payments were too great and they went out of business, with the remainder of the canal completed by the American government.
This is a story of innovation, entrepreneurship, and achievement on a grand scale.
Each chapter in this book takes a scientific look at a gruesome way to die. It is perfect for fans of Mary Roach, and could also be translated into a very entertaining podcast.
I found the most cringeworthy chapter to be the one about a swarm of bees.
The book is also quite Zen. Here are example sentences from the first three chapters:
- “Even if it seems like the wind is constant, it isn’t, and the flag is in a perpetual state of change and adjustment” (chapter 1, “What would happen if your airplane window popped out?”)
- “Once you get in your car you’re way more likely to die in an accident driving to the beach, and once you get to the beach you’re far more likely to die in a collapsing sand pit on your way to the water” (chapter 2, “What if you were attacked by a great white shark?”)
- “Walking is really just a series of falls and catches” (chapter 3, “What if you slipped on a banana peel?”)
In 1953, the author traveled to Kronenberg, Germany, to better understand how common men understood their history from 1933. To do this, he interviewed 10 “little men,” mainstream working men who were self-conscious of their place in society’s lower rungs. He found that not speaking German gave him an advantage, as learning the language gave him an excuse for conversation.
The author presents a theory of totalitarianism based on (1) perceived external threat and (2) elite cues (p. 44).
For a contemporary reader, this book is at least as interesting for its critiques of McCarythism and its account of the early days of the European Union.
This book is partially a biography of Paul English and partially the story of the companies he founded, including Kayak.com. One way in which this differs from many accounts of contemporary startup success is that it takes place almost entirely in Boston instead of Silicon Valley. This is partially due to the author’s familiarity with the area and its computing industry from his previous book, Soul of a New Machine.
This raises the question of why Boston fell behind Silicon Valley as the center of software entrepreneurship. One key reason was that California does not enforce noncompete agreements, while Massachusetts does. This makes it easier for employees in California to move between companies or start their own. This plays into the book as well, when one of Paul’s early employees rejects a strict noncompete agreement.
The title comes from a saying of one of Paul’s early associates: “one day that kid is going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I want to be standing beside him when it happens.” English acknowledges that he has been “obscenely lucky” both in business (he sold one startup at the peak of the Dot-Com bubble) and in life (he was originally booked on one of the flights from Logan that flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2011, but rebooked to a cheaper option).
Classic Bryson, if you enjoy his other books you’ll like this one too. Chapter 8 is the grumpy old man version of How Buildings Learn.
Bryson’s description of London is full of the successes (the city’s green belt) and failures (e.g the failure to bury utility cables) of long-term thinking.
Theis quote (p. 132) may explain why the “great outdoors” movement gained so many preponderants in 19th century:
[The cause of Jane Austen’s death] may have been Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma or a form of typhus or possibly arsenic poisoning, which was surprisingly common in those days as arsenic was routinely used in making wallpapers and for coloring fabrics. It has been suggested that the general air of ennui and frailty that seemed so characteristic of the age may simply have been generations of women spending too much time indoors taking in gently toxic vapors.
Britain is also the most recent and best example for Americans of how to face decline with dignity (or better yet, to decide not to decline).
In the last two decades of the 18th century, Britain experienced three major social phenomena: a wealth of experienced sailors with too much time on their hands; an epidemic of petty crime thanks in part to increasing urbanization; and social norms gradually more disapproving of capital punishment. These converged into an otherwise unlikely effort: transportation of criminals to one of the most remote places on earth.
When the sailors and convicts arrived in New South Wales, this presented a particular problem: certain crimes, such as livestock theft, had far more grave consequences in the new colony than back in England. Yet, more than two-thirds of the population were prisoners who were already serving their sentences. How then to punish such crimes? Death became the only meaningful sentence for even seemingly minor offenses (p. 93).
The 2016 U.S. presidential election was very close by historial standards. With a swing of 80,000 votes this would have been a book about the second most successful presidential campaign in history. Although it is irrational to read too much into these anecodotes, Shattered still makes for very interesting reading.
The story of the campaign is told somewhat like that of a software startup: raise funding, advertise to customers, and try to beat your opponents. In a way, the competition is even more direct because you a priori which contests matter: primaries, caucauses, the party convention, and Election Day.
One theme of the book is that a division on the Democratic side was the one “that separated old-time political hustling [embodied by Bill Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’ style] from modern data-driven vote collecting” (p. 131). Time will tell whether Democrats can overcome this disagreement to achieve electoral success.
David Owen convincingly argues that the Xerox machine was one of the most unique inventions of the twentieth century. In part, xerography is unusual because it was entirely conceived by a single inventor and not a case of simultaneous discovery (p. 12).
The book gives a thorough layman’s explanation of how early copy machines worked. They did not use photographic technologies, but instead leverage static electricity. In fact, early models caused the paper to pick up so much static electricity that secretaries who worked with the copier complained that it killed the nerves in their arms (p. 204).
One harbinger of the copy machine’s success was when its developers began to use it for “dogfooding”. By the time that the model 914 was far enough along, in 1960, engineers could use it to make copies of their own technical drawings rather than sending them to a blue printer (p. 224).
Beyond sheer invention, Xerox was also brilliant at marketing. The company produced some of the most memorable TV ads of the 1960’s. Another tactic, used in live demonstrations, involved placing a customers watch face-down inside the copier to prove that it could produce 7 copies per minute (p. 254).
As with other important inventions, the Xerox machine also had social ipmlications. When copying was expensive you would only do it for important documents such as contracts. Once it became cheap it was used for previously unforeseen applications. One example is bridal registries, which did not exist before it became easy to copy a wishlist.
Two great quotes from the book are:
Civilization moves at the speed of duplication.
The crucial office supply was always light.
When James K. Polk was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1844, it took 10 days for news from the convention in Baltimore to reach him in Tennessee. By the end of his presidency, it took only a day for him to be notified that Zachary Taylor had been elected as his successor.
This is just one indicator of the great changes that overtook America during Polk’s presidency. He expanded American territory to the Pacific coast by adding Oregon and California, and to the Rio Grande by annexing Texas. This book offers a detailed account of the intrigue associate with this annexation, and the subsequent war between the U.S. and Mexico. It is an engaging account of one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history.
A new distribution mechanism, a customer-friendly idea, and a high-flying startup eager to get to market. This could be a story of contemporary Silicon Valley. Instead, this story takes place in the oft-maligned town of Bristol, Connecticut.
Bristol is almost a character in the story. Early employees talk about what a dump it was, and how hard that made it to attract talent there. It turned out (accidentally) to be a good place to put a satellite uplink. At the time that ESPN launched, it was cheaper to broadcast via satellite to the whole country than over land lines to other parts of Connecticut. In the 1990’s the network came up with a clever way to increase its subscriber fees: it signed contracts with cable providers to increase its fee by 20 percent per year, compounding for annually. This resulted in an increase from $0.40 to $1.60 in only seven years.
Luck played a large role in ESPN’s early days. Its founders heard “no” many times before Getty Oil got involved, looking to diversify its investments. The story of Stuart Evey wresting control of the network away from the Rasmussen family has echoes of The Founder.
By distributing its content over cable and satellite, ESPN monetized through subscriber fees. This meant that they wanted dedicated fans, not just high ratings–true fans who would complain if their local cable provider did not offer the channel. This in turn pushed ESPN toward diverse programming such as Australian rules football: it was cheap to produce and its fans were vocal. ESPN thus played a role in the diversification of American sports. For example, it changed NASCAR from a Southern pasttime to a national sport.
When these contests were difficult for casual viewers to understand, the network fell back on telling stories of the personalities involved. For example, the America’s Cup was not a mainstream viewing event so the network cast it as a contest between “white hats” and “black hats”. This contributed to the celebritization of athletes. Later the network would similarly celebritize its announcers.
One notable event in the history of ESPN was its acquisition by Disney. At first, higher-ups did not coordinated between ABC Sports and ESPN. This meant that the two organizations competed over things like bids for football games. The first time the two groups cooperated was the 1998 World Cup in France, since union rules did not apply overseas.
A recurring theme in interviews is how concerned network executives were to avoid “precedent setting.” By the end of the book, one has the distinct impression that at times it would have been beneficial for them to relax this a bit for certain one-off scenarios.
Two other themes of the book are the role of technology and occasional controversies that befell the network. Examples of the former include the unsuccessful ESPN phone, the popularity of ESPN.com, and the rise of Bill Simmons. The latter includes cases of sexual harassment, racist comments (including several ill-advised, on-air Hitler references), and conflict between employees. This is an account of a small cable channel that grew into a global brand, and it is highly recommended for anyone in the startup world today.
The story of pioneers setting out on the Oregon Trail to make their fortunes in the West is commonly conceived as the epitome of American individualism. Buck challenges this popular view, arguing that voyages along the trail were in fact a community enterprise. Dangerous river crossings, mountain passes, and sandy bluffs like California Hill (in Nebraska) required the cooperation of groups of settlers, sometimes including dozens of wagons.
At its peak of popularity (around 1850), the trial became so crowded that cholera outbreaks were common, killing as many as 2,500 migrants per year. These diseases also impacted Native American tribes, who had not previously encountered them and therefore had no natural immunity.
The wagon itself was perhaps the most important technological innovation that made this migration possible. Several well-known corporations such as John Deere and Sears-Roebuck got their start manufacturing wagons. The modular design of the “Prarie Schooner” meant that broken parts could be swapped out quickly. In the trails latter days, it became so common to order replacement parts via telegraph that a shorthand arose, compounding the original compression of Morse code.
Rather than try to unify the many distinct threads in this account, here are a few notes:
- The emancipation of the serfs was one of the (or, as Evans argues, the single) most significant events of 19th-century European politics
- The impact of “the year without a summer” continues to astound me every time I read about it
- The British had a substantial first-mover advantage in the railway industry, and it was their engineers who ensured that 4.5-foot gauge became standard throughout Europe
- There was no legal requirement to drive on a particular side of the road until 1835 in Britain, and as late as 1899 in Belgium (p. 314)
- Energy consumption is a useful historical proxy for economic progress: in 1860 London used twice as much gas as the whole of Germany (p. 314)
- The discussion of popular resistance to official weights and measures (p. 376) is evocative of James C. Scott, whose next book is due soon
This is an account of the irony of Ross Ulbricht building an online marketplace dependent on trust, while simultaneously destroying the trust of his closest friends and family (see p. 64).
The first version of the Silk Road website was hard to find, and once you did you still had to convert currency to Bitcoin in order to make a purchase. There were so many hurdles that a site like that could probably only work for purchases that were already high-friction, such as drugs (p. 44).
One thing that is striking to me about the book, and in interviews Bilton has done, is how vehemently he argues for the veracity of his account. He writes compelling “narrative nonfiction” (as he calls it, in a manner suggesting that the first word acts as a qualifer on the second), with details that would be unknown to anyone who was not present at the time they occurred, such as private conversations between Ulbricht and his girlfriend. Bilton’s argument is that he did detailed research on everything from weather conditions to private chat logs, and was thus able to piece together a mosaic. I would not be surprised if it later comes out that he exaggerated or invented certain parts of the account. Nevertheless, it makes for a compelling read.
America’s electric grid is really good at transporting electricity–and really bad at storing it. This is a challenge for renewable energy sources, which tend to produce at high rates under certain conditions (sunny days for solar, windy days for turbines) and not at others (cloudy or calm days). The grid was designed to be managed in a centralized manner, with generation and transmission intertwined. Since 1996 that has not been legally required, but the informal governance of the system has yet to catch up (p. 21-22).
This is a very good book, one that I plan to re-read in the next year or two. The post-mortem of the 2003 Northeast blackout is worth reading for anyone who has to deal with incident response in complex systems (ch. 5).
A few additional notes:
- Hawaii has so many home solar panels–around 12 percent–that in 2015 the local utility stopped allowing them to connect to the grid (xxi). Electricity is expensive in Hawaii due to the fact that its generated from oil that comes over on tanker ships.
- Bakke claims that 60 percent of men employed by our electricity system are within 5 years of retirement (p. 4). Can that be true?
- American wind farm developers are obliged to use turbines that are small by international standards due to the Wwakness of our grid: if the wind picked up, the wires could not handle it (p. 15).
Two sentences to consider:
The largely pastoral economy of Sweden and Finland left production decentralized in peasant households where many tasks could be taken over by women in their menfolk’s absence. A far higher proportion of the male population could be conscripted than in the cereal economies of Central and eastern Europe, where men were required to work on their landlords’ fields. (p. 187)
I would enjoy seeing James C. Scott’s take on this.
Another thing I learned from this book is one reason disease was so deadly to pre-modern armies. Because they had seldom traveled very far from home, marching into enemy territory was the first time many soldiers were exposed to unfamiliar microbes (p. 483).
As for the impact of Westphalia:
[T]he congress was a ground-breaking event. Medieval church councils were the closest precedent, but this was the first truly secular international gathering…. [T]he congress eroded the medieval principle of hierarchy. (p. 672)
Although the great power that ruled central Europe for over a millenium is widely known today as the Holy Roman Empire, that name was never used in official documents. To its contemporaries, it was simply, “the empire” (p. 19). Although there are as many definitions of empire as there are historians, the one used by Wilson is apt: it is defined by its unwillingness to limit its physical boundaries.
This book is organized thematically which, when combined with the detailed chronological appendix, leads to a broad overview of the period. One theme is how, during this period, European political culture was very much one of personal presence (although this declined in the Ottonian period). Perhaps this is why Europeans and Americans were earlier to develop comfort with doing business in distant, abstract ways such as contracts rather than in person agreements (p. 269). By 1250 or so it became common to exercise authority in writing, and to summon lesser nobles by letter rather than by Gerald (p. 365-367). Being absent from the assembly also allowed the ruler to ignore certain disputes (p. 419).
The middle period of the empire also saw the emergence of a middle class, the Burghers. However, their rights were not portable between cities. If a burgher moved to a new city, he would have to apply (and pay) for recognition of his rights to conduct commerce (p. 243). Trade fairs (p. 464ff) were an opportunity to conduct international trade on a level playing field.
Several other miscellaneous notes will also be familiar to readers of Seeing Like a State:
- Libraries were political instruments. By having the most comprehensive archive of documents, the pope could produce documentary support for his political claims (p. 54).
- Censuses and military service quotas were used as to prevent some rulers from free riding on the defense budgets of others (p. 404-5)
- The Black Death and agricultural failures around the same time led to market specialization and increased bargaining power of labor (p. 494-5)
Does inequality increase inexorably, or are there reliable predictors of when and how it will decline? That is the key question of this book, which considers four possible means for reducing inequality: mass-mobilization warfare, revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. The result is a very engaging account with some potentially uncomfortable implications.
Scheidel starts with a basic discussion of the conditions under which inequality can exist. Inequality of wealth requires durable goods (for storing wealth) and leisure time (for enjoying them). Inequality of income requires an economy that produces beyond subsistence level, anda sedentary lifestyle (i.e. non-nomadic, agricultural). One mechanism for inequality to increase over time is the transmissability of wealth between generations (p. 37); Timur Kuran has explored this in a cross-cultural context (todo link).
Historical levels of inequality are difficult to comprehend for those familiar with contemporary developed economies. To measure this, Scheidler relies on a variety of creative data sources including ancient burial sites and archaeological data on house sizes. Roman society was unequal on a scale almost unimaginable today (p. 78). By contrast, in industrial societies at the turn of the twentieth century, the top one percent received about 15-20% of all reported income.
Since ancient Athens, military conscription and widespread service has been used as a means to mitigate inequality. As the title suggests, the core thesis is that war reduces inequality. The specific mechanisms are progressive taxation, unionization, and democratization (p. 170), all promoted by a shared, difficult experience. Total war also typically involves rpice freezes, increases in top tax rates, rationing, and intervention in equity and bond markets, all of which have a disproportionate impact on the wealthy (p. 119).
In this respect, mass mobilization warfare (defined as more than 2 percent of the population at arms) differs from either revolutions or civil wars. The U.S. Civil War is an interesting case with respect to inequality: it made the North less equal, and the South more so (p. 176-77). However, this was perhaps the last time in history where elites on the winning side gained and elites on the losing side, well, lost (p. 179). In earlier periods, repeated success in warfare made societies more unequal, as their elites benefited disproportionately (p. 200). Elsewhere, there an abundance of research on whether inequality predicts civil war, and relatively little in the reverse direction (p. 203; note also that civil war has an impact on data quality, before, during, and after a conflict).
The impact of catastrophic plagues is also interesting to consider. The Black Death reduced population substantially, which in turn increased the scarcity (and thus the value) of labor relative to capital. The Spanish flu, according to Scheidler, did not have such an impact, but this is difficult to disentangle coming as it did on the heels of the First World War.
This analysis leads to several questions that merit further consideration. First, is there an alternate possibility that war causes social and economic upheaval, leading to different winners and losers in society? The top 0.1% in 1940 and 1945 are not necessarily the same individuals, firms, or families. It could be that war destroys business models that were optimized for pre-war conditions.
Second, what are the other, related indicators of increased post-war inequality? The best example of this is the expansion of the franchise in democracies (p. 168). In Britain, the NHS was largely seen as an entitlement for a society that had endured so much.
Third, how did the shift to an all-volunteer military in the U.S. (and many other countries) affect inequality? And can the shared experience of mass mobilization warfare be substitued by mandatory national service? (Matt Yglesias offers a compelling argument that the answer is “no” in this recent episode of “The Weeds” podcast.)
As Scheidler concludes, “[a]ll of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow.”
This book covers several categories of innovation that have shaped the modern world: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound, and light.
The history of air conditioning and refrigeration is especially interesting, and merits an entire book of its own. Ice is perhaps the only commodity ever shipped from a low energy environment to a high energy environment. After books and photographs, frozen food was one of the earliest forms of time shifting.
There is also a recurring discussion of how innovations come about, through networks of innovation and the expansion of the adjacent possible.
Notes about the other categories are below:
- Glass was once so valuable that Tutankhamen had a scarab made of it in his tomb.
- Jazz sounded better than classical music on early (static-prone) radios, contributing to its popularity.
- The first “flashlights” were a mixture of magnesium and gunpowder fired from revolvers by NYC police patroling slums and tenements.
This book is a very detailed overview of the Indian Wars fought between 1860 and 1890.
The most interesting point in the book is that, although we group these conflicts under the rubric of “Indian Wars,” Native Americans themselves did not see it that way. Until very late in this period, many tribes saw themselves as distinct units and had no sense of “Indianness” (p. 9).
The 19th century was a period of intertribal conflict as much as between Indians and whites, especially as settlement drove eastern tribes westward onto other tribes’ lands. Furthermore, almost every tribe was split into two groups, one wishing to accommodate whites and one opposed to them (p. 16).
This is a book about fear (p. 3).
Both the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs had learned lessons from the Thirty Years’ War (p. 62). Ottoman army units were much more autonomous, typically composed of men who were related to one another. Austrians were more top-down, relying on brilliant generals who viewed their units as abstractions (p. 64).
The Austrian side was vastly outnumbered, with about ten thousand able-bodied men compared to 50-80 thousand Turks.
Disease affected the besieged city. Some polish mercenaries and Austrian regulars who entered the city just before the Turks arrived brought with them a disease known as red flux. As the siege dragged on, all stray cats and many rats were eaten by citizens (p. 150). Fortunately for the Viennese, there were no fresh outbreaks of plague during this time.
Vienna was both a bastion against and a connection to the Islamic world (p. 189) as exemplified by the fact that coffee houses were quickly established in the city after the siege was lifted, using beans left behind by fleeing Ottoman troops.
This book takes a comprehensive look at the rise of opiate use in America over the past few decades.
Two major themes stood out to me in the book. The first the accounts of alert professionals who first discovered the issue of overprescribed opiates (an epidemiologist and an employee of the Washington state workers’ compensation agency; p. 247).
The second major theme is the entrepreneurial nature of Nayarit drug traffickers (p. 54). These dealers lived by one rule: no violence. Instead of using violence to compete, they offered more convenience to their customers.
This raises a question about the key premise of the book, however. If users were really addicted and going to buy it no matter what, wouldn’t they be willing to go to greater lengths to obtain it? It seems that the convenience played a major role in keeping users on opiates.
As a minor side note, the role of Levi 501’s in the Nayarit economy is interesting in its own right. Why were they such prized possessions? Is it because they were durable and stayed in style for a long time? Or was there some sort of tariff that made Levi 501’s especially expensive in Mexico?
Readers who are interested in this book will also enjoy the interview with the author on the Econtalk podcast.
John Hickenlooper is a business owner, politician, and (now) author. If he runs for president in 2020 he will have my vote.
One downside of the book is that it spends a lot of time on Hickenlooper’s early life, and less than 20 percent on his time as mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado.
After finishing business school at Stanford, Phil Knight took a year-long, round-the-world trip–a rare thing today, and even more so in the early 1960’s. One of his stops was in Japan, where he made arrangements to become an importer of Tiger running shoes (this was a large part of the motivation for the trip).
Early on, his company (not yet called Nike) opted for a direct-to-customer strategy when rejected by sporting goods stores. This meant that they developed connections with coaches of track teams, which in turn led to a few endorsement deals.
Knight also describes an interesting “hack” that he used to travel between his office in Portland and the company’s first retail store in Los Angeles. He was still a reservist in the U.S. Army, so each weekend he would put on his uniform and take a troop transport. This kind of scrappy thinking is exemplified in several key anecdotes throughout the book.
One of the main differences between the 1960’s and today, according to Knight, was the relative scarcity of capital at the time. There were only two commercial banks in Portland back then, and Knight’s relationship with each of them became fraught at times.
Interestingly, although he was a passionate runner, Knight wasn’t wedded to the idea of creating a shoe business. He thought Nike might fail, and if it did he wanted it to fail fast so that he could learn from it and move on.
The book is organized in a very readable fashion, with one chapter per year from Knight’s first trip up to 1980, when Nike had a successful IPO. The most memorable part of the book, though, is the conclusion in which Knight gives an inside look at his philosophy for business:
For some… business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood…. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic process of living.
Once you’re lucky, twice you’re good, the saying goes. What does that make Peter Heller, then, with his excellent third novel? Quite simply one of the best authors writing today.
In this novel, as in The Dog Stars Heller’s love for the American West is as clear as day. Celine could become the first in a series about the intriguing private detective. If so, readers will eagerly await the next installment.
The 1918-1919 influenza outbreak was the most deadly in human history (in absolute numbers; the 14th-century plague killed more people as a percentage of population). Estimates range from 20 to as high as 100 million dead. The high degree of uncertainty has to do with the global nature of the outbreak, with remote areas such as the Arctic being the most uncertain.
As the author explains,
Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death… killed in a century; it killed more people in 24 weeks than aids killed in 24 years. (p. 5)
Two factors made the pandemic especially devastating. First, it came on the heels of the Great War. In fact, war and disease have historically been close bedfellows–disease killed more U.S. soldiers than combat before the 1950’s. War brings people into close quarters, both troops in their barracks and transports, as well as support workers in urban settings. Conflict also causes travel of distances that are historically unusual, both for soldiers and displaced civilians.
The second reason for the flu’s historical impact was that many of its victims were young adults. Typically most influenza casualties are the very young or the elderly. By killing people in the prime of their lives, they were “doubly dead,” as one observer put it.
In this book, the author argues convincingly for one origin tale of the outbreak. He shows how it likely originated at a military camp in Kansas in March, 1918. From their, it spread via troops trains and ships, and by the fall of that year had become a global disease. A second outbreak in spring, 1919, took even more lives. In the American military alone, the disease caused more deaths than all Americans killed in combat in Vietnam (p. 239.)
The social response mostly involved banning public gatherings, including religious services. Different cities responded with different degrees of urgency. Boston was very proactive. Philadelphia was in a state of denial. Gunnison, Colorado, isolated itself, its citizens keeping outsiders at bay by threatening them at gunpoint.
Civilian response was complicated by the fact of wartime censorship. Bad news was “unpatriotic,” so early warnings about the pandemic were silenced. In fact, this is why the outbreak is known as “Spanish influenza”: Spain remained neutral during the war, so outbreaks there were reported widely and early (p. 171).
This is an important book for students of history, science, and politics. Most instructive is how such an outbreak might still occur today.
A divided nation, an unpopular war, economic uncertainty. Many of the issues of the 1966-1972 U.S. elections are surprisingly familiar today. The circumstances, however, are radically different today. The 1960’s had violent riots that lasted for days. Today, violent crime in America is at a decades-long low.
The lessons of those elections may still yield lessons for contemporary politics, though. In a nutshell: “openness feels like closedness to those previously over-represented” (Book 3, Chapter 24).
The author maintains a steady pace, which helps to undertand the order of events (compared to many accounts of the Watergate break-in, which are told in a backwards-looking investigative style).
Some other surprising lessons:
- The US was surprisingly close to a universal basic income in 1969
- By the early 1970’s, conservatives were even more active at counter-protesting than progressives
- Many Republicans who would become instrumental in the Reagan and (both) Bush administrations cut their teeth under President Nixon
- Nixon was really, really popular in a way that is difficult to understand today
From the author of River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, this is another engaging story about a strong masculine protagonist. This little-known (at least to me) story from Churchill’s early life makes for an exciting entry point to his biography. For example, I learned that within four years (1895-1899) Churchill took part in four wars on three continents.
To American readers, there will be unmistakable parallels between the Bantus and the Comanches, and between the Boers and American pioneers. The Boer War is a conflict that deserves further study, and this is a great introduction.
Two things surprised me about this book. First, when it was published it was widely considered an American masterpiece. Donna Tartt’s essay about True Grit is well worth listening to, and her reading of the audiobook is wonderful. (David Sedaris said on Michael Ian Black’s podcast that Tartt was meant for the role, and he was right.)
Second, the book is absolutely brimming with economic logic. We learn about Tom Chaney’s character from the fact that he works for hire rather than shares. He owns one of the nicest rifles of the day (a Henry) but carries it on a cotton plow line, suggesting he doesn’t care for his belongings. Mattie’s father, by contrast, still carries his service pistol and the two gold pieces he was given for his wedding. These details, along with the fact that he rides to Ft. Smith to save money, suggest that he is a conscientious man.
The three-party negotiation between Mattie, Rooster Cogburn, and LaBoeuf is a study in self-interested reasoning and expected value. First, LaBoeuf tries to convince Cogburn to join him in seeking the reward money that the Governor of Texas is offering for Chaney (a.k.a Chelmsford). Cogburn is skeptical, though, because that will require taking Chaney alive (and thus he assigns a lower expected value the potential $500 than to Mattie’s dead-or-alive $100 reward):
“How much is she paying you, Cogburn?”
“She is paying enough,” said Rooster.
“Is she paying five hundred dollars?”
“That is what the Governor of Texas has put up for Chelmsford.”…
“What is the terms?” said Rooster.
“Payment on conviction.”
Rooster thought that one over. He said, “We might have to kill him.”
A few minutes later, Mattie tries to convince Rooster to ignore LaBoeuf’s suggestions by suggesting that he is engaging in cheap talk. Rooster counters that he has his own self-interest to look out for:
“You are thinking about that reward money,” said I. “It is a pig in a poke. All you have heard from LaBoeuf is talk and I have paid you cash money. If you believe anything he says I do not credit you with much sense. Look at him grin. He will cheat you.”
Rooster said, “I must think about myself some too, sis.”
Overall this is an under-appreciated book, one that is well worth your time, and the rare example that is better in audiobook form than in print.
To my pleasant surprise, this book is largely based on sociological research that the authors conducted. It also includes an unusual approach to convenience sampling with binary response: measuring the volume of audience claps in response to certain questions. The potential sources of incorrect inference with this method, such as Simpon’s paradox, remain underexplored.
One nitpick is the way that relationships were conducted in the 1950’s is given privelege-of-place as “the way things were always done.” In fact, mating rituals had undergone radical transformation in the first half of the twentieth century with the advent of the movie theater, new modes of transportation, and disposable income for the middle class.
Aside from romantic relationships, this is also a good read on the risks of social media in the modern age. Candidates preparing for job interviews would benefit from reading both this book and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Has a rise in material comforts led to decreased ambition and innovation amongst the American people? That is the case that Tyler Cowen makes in his latest treatise. Compared to the 1950s and 60s, he says, America as a whole experiments, invents, and even protests less, and despite widespread claims of “disruption” our society is more stable than ever before.
Cowen argues that there was more to appreciate about that earlier period than is widely recognized:
There was something to be said for less-compatible, more challenge-laden accidental pairings with all their conflicts and messy resolutions. At the end of the day, you weren’t quite satisfied with your pairings, and so you felt you had to go away and do or build something great, because you had no notion of just waiting for the next social network-base encounter to come along.
Is it really fair to characterize a closeted homosexual or an interracial couple kept apart by the force of law as “not quite satisfied” with their lot? Even if social outcasts are more likely to innovate than their mainstream counterparts, rolling back decades of progress on civil rights seems like a high price to pay. Let’s leave this aside for the moment, though, and consider Cowen’s arguments on their own merits.
The two reference groups to which Cowen most frequently compares contemporary America are (1) contemporary Asian societies, especially China, and (2) mid-century America. Are these actually fair comparisons? The unprecendented levels of GDP growth in China and India have tremendous social welfare consequences, but they are merely catching up with existing levels of technology. As they get closer to the technological frontier, these countries will likely encounter the same diminishing returns and barriers to innovation that Western societies have.
A large part of the reason why America was so innovative in the 1960s had to do with broad social changes, such as the broader inclusion of women and minorities in the workforce (especially in professional positions). Bringing online so many previously-ignored great minds was akin to picking low-hanging fruit in our society, a point that Cowen has himself discussed at length. There aren’t as many “dollar bills on the sidewalk” today (to mix the metaphor). Potentially similar opportunities include open borders (which would bring more great minds to work on important problems) and a single-payer healthcare system (which would promote entrepreneurship). (In a recent interview, Cowen discounted the second of these ideas.)
Furthermore, many of the “great projects” Cowen points to had their basis in military conflict (WWII, the Manhattan project, the interstate highway system, and the Apollo moon landings). Now that the Cold War has ended, there is less impetus for this type of research and development. The military procurement process today is more concerned with sustaining rather than disruptive innovations. In face, the high proportion of the federal budget spent on defense is likely hampering rather than helping our economy, since it attracts such a high degree of rent-seeking.
What are the alternate explanations for Cowen’s observations? Four come to mind: demographics, political polarization, economic homogenization, and rising housing costs. Nearly twice as many Americans, as a percentage, are retirement-age now compared to 1940 (6.8 percent vs. 13.0 percent). The proportion in the most innovative age segment of the population, 18-44, has dropped from 42.8 percent to 36.5 percent (source). The drop in the population of potential innovators is even worse than these numbers would indicate, however, because young adults now spend more time in school and professional training (learning about earlier innovations so that they are prepared to exploit and expand upon them). The costs of caring for these aging members of society are also high, both in government spending and individual household budgets (see p. 49).
Political polarization and economic homogenization are two sides of the same coin insofar as they inhibit geographical mobility. If you are in one of the few blue counties in a red state (or vice-versa), you may be less eager to move to another nearby county. If moving from a 60 percent blue county to a 60 percent red county requires you to “spend a great deal of time actively disagreeing with people” (source), that may be a price higher than you are willing to pay. Moreover, the pool of jobs in that other county is likely to be not-that-different from the ones available where you currently reside: they have about the same mix of dentists, dog-walkers, and dry cleaners there, too (see p. 31).
Another explanation, which has received more attention the past few years, is rising housing costs. If a greater proportion of your household wealth is tied up in your home, wouldn’t that make you less likely to move? Often this wealth remains untapped until retirees take part in a cost-of-living arbitrage and move from expensive housing markets, like California and the Northeast corridor, to less costly ones like Florida or the Sun Belt.
To be sure, Cowen explores some of these alternate hypotheses. For example, on p. 31:
The dentist job outside of Cincinnati just isn’t that different from the dentist job outside of Denver…. A dentist doesn’t have that much reason to move from Cincinnati to Denver or vice versa; instead he or she will pick a preferred city and stick with it.
However, that doesn’t explain what makes one city preferable to another (culture? amenities? proximity to family?), nor what has changed in this respect in recent years.
The one notable exception to these trends, you may be thinking, is the technology industry, especially in Silicon Valley. Why is it that this sector is one of the few sources of innovation in our economy? Is it because companies here can outpace regulators, gaining a foothold before legal frameworks catch up? (See, for example, the discussion of AirBnb in The Upstarts.) Cowen downplays the amount of innovation happening in this sector, largely because there are fewer jobs at startup firms today than in past decades (see chapter 4). Certainly these companies are more efficient, on a revenue-per-employee basis, than ever before.
What are the long-term consequences of these trends? One is that lower rates of interstate mobility would seem to inhibit the roles of states as “laboratories of democracy.” Perhaps this is why more and more political causes are pushing for national uniformity (on laws related to marriage and healthcare, for example) rather than state-by-state reform.
One particularly weak area of Cowen’s argument is that the number and intensity of protests are a proxy for innovation and disruption. In discussing the dearth of protests since the 1970s, Cowen overlooks the massive demonstrations that took place in the 1990s: riots in response to the Rodney King verdict (and O.J. Simpson trial), as well as anti-globalization and pro-environmentalism protests. (As a minor nitpick, he also twice mistakenly cites the Ferguson riots as taking place in 2015 rather than 2014).
While there is much to quibble with in this book, it is a very thought-provoking read. On its strongest points, such as the lack of geographical mobility in contemporary America, it is quite strong. If Cowen is right, America’s future looks a lot more like contemporary Europe. Whether that is a satisfactory outcome remains to be seen.
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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