- 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.
This book explores the key question in the history of economics: how did humanity escape the Malthusian trap? Although the author ultimately does not offer a satisyfing answer to that question, the evidence marshalled in favor of his argument is thought-provoking.
Clark’s thesis is summarized as follows:
[The Industrial Revolution] emerged only millenia after the arrival of institutionally stable economies such as ancient Babylonia, because in the interim institutions themselves interacted with and changed human nature. Millenia of living in stable societys, under tight Malthusian pressures that rewarded effort, accumulation, and fertility limitation, encouraged the development of cultural forms — in terms of work inputs, time preference, and family formation — which facilitated modern economic growth. (p. 208)
In other words, the particular timing of the Industrial Revolution was essentially random. It could have happened time after the establishment of agriculture, cities, and organized religion. This “invisible hand” explanation seems to beg the question, though. Even if that were true, what made 18th-century Britain the place where the spark caught flame, rather than a host of potential alternatives (Greece in 100BC; Rome in 300AD; medieval Arabia, China, India, or Japan; or France or Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries)?
To his credit, Clark explores most of these alternatives in at least some detail. He explains each of their failures in large part for a single reason: they did not exercise the same selective genetic pressure that English society did. The richest men in England had twice as many surviving offspring at their death as the poorest (p. 7, 116, 131). The “extraordinary fecundity of the rich” (p. 11) meant that the wealthy produced more offspring. In a Malthusian world this in turn led to their genetic traits being dispersed amongst the population since there was not enough “room at the top” for all of their children to attain the same social standing as their parents. (Another credit goes to Clark for really taking the Malthusian world seriously and exploring why institutions such as feudalism were rational in that context, e.g. on p. 35.) In several of the other potential candidate societies listed above, Clark argues, the rich reproduced at only slightly greater rates than the poorest and so this selective pressure was not present (cf. p. 73ff and p. 269).
There are several reasons to doubt this claim, though. First, treating the entire period from 8000BC to 1800AD as equivalent in terms of average workers’ life satisfaction is dubious at best. Surely workers were thankful for the advent of basic technologies such as metalworking (which led to the plow) and distillation (liquor and other foodstuffs). Even though the addition of spices and other imported foods may be difficult to measure economically, they certainly improved European cuisine (to the point that it is difficult to imagine British food without potatoes or Italian food without tomatoes). Although the differences were marginal, life improved throughout the Malthusian period in appreciable ways and the absence of this in economic figures is a fault with the figures themselves.
Second, if humanity did not exit the Malthusian period until about 1800, how is it that the writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other early modern economists accurately describes a period they were not yet living in? Were they simply science fiction authors who got lucky? Or were they empirically observing a world that had begun to change in substantial ways earlier than Clark’s figures would suggest? The latter seems far more likely given the predictive power of those economists’ work for the following two centuries.
Certainly substantial features of modern economies had already been developed well before 1800. The discovery of the New World led to both large-scale resource extraction and international trade (see La Capital). Perpetual corporate enterprises such as the Dutch and British East India Companies professionalized that trade and dispersed its economic benefits amongst their shareholders (see The Anarchy). Central banking, stock markets, and insurance were already well established; they enabled entrepreneurs to take greater risks than at times past and to benefit economically from their innovations.
Although the attention to the Malthusian world and the perspective of genetic pressure operating on national economies is interesting, Clark’s argument is ultimately unsatisfying. While these factors may have played a supporting role, they do not explain the key question about the Industrial Revolution — its place and time — nearly as well as the exogenous shocks and the institutional changes listed above.
As told in this book, the success of Wal-Mart was driven by three tailwinds. The first was a focus on small towns and suburbs, which prospered during the second half of the twentieth century. The second was deep discounting, which was made possible by innovations in logistics and offshore manufacturing. The third was information technology.
When locating stores primarily in small towns and suburbs, each manager was incentivized to serve their local market:
That is not something we can simply do in some general way. It isn’t something we can command from the executive offices because we want it to happen. We have to do it store by store, department by department, customer by customer, associate by associate. For example, we’ve got one store in Panama City, Florida, and another only five miles away in Panama City Beach, but actually they’re worlds apart when it comes to their merchandise mix and their customer base. They’re entirely different kinds of stores. One is built for tourists going to the beach, and the other is more like the normal Wal-Mart, built for folks who live in town. That’s why we try our best to put a merchant in charge of each store, and to develop other merchants as the heads of each department in those stores. If the merchandise mix is really going to be right, it has to be managed by the merchandisers there on the scene. (p. 246)
The discounting strategy began as a way to draw people into the store, but eventually spread to every item in the inventory:
The basic discounter’s idea was to attract customers into the store by pricing these items—toothpaste, mouthwash, headache remedies, soap, shampoo—right down at cost. Those were what the early discounters called your “image” items…. Everything else in the store was priced low too, but it had a 30 percent margin. (p. 61)
This later led to the “wholesale clubs” (Sam’s and Costco):
It was the early eighties, and we’d been in the discount business for around twenty years. Only the efficient operators were still in business, because prices, and margins, had been falling steadily the whole time. Suddenly, we noticed a whole new class of sub-discounter undercutting our prices, wholesalers with very low overhead who were selling at margins way below the 22 percent in the discount business — 5 to 7 percent. (p. 227)
Wal-Mart also benefited from scale, information technology, and paying attention to data:
From the time David Glass came on board in 1976, he’s been pushing me to invest and invest and invest in that system, and thank goodness he managed to be so persuasive. At the same time, he and Jack Shewmaker were also pushing hard for heavy investment in more and more, better and better computer systems, so that we could track sales and merchandise and inventories across the company—especially instore transactions. When Jack became our president and chief operating officer in 1978, he worked really hard at getting me to invest in bar coding and SKU item control, which is a computerized stockkeeping unit inventory system. Jack also was heavily involved in the creation of our satellite system, which turned out to be another one of our tremendous competitive advantages. (p. 237)
Communicating with warehouses and stores via satellite began as a skunkworks project, but paid huge dividends:
Glenn Habern was our data processing manager, and he and I had this dream of an interactive communications system on which you could communicate back and forth between all the stores and the distribution centers and the general office. Glenn came up with the idea of using the satellite, and I said, “Let’s pursue it without asking anybody.”
The satellite turned out to be absolutely necessary because, once we had those scanners in the stores, we had all this data pouring into Bentonville over phone lines. Those lines have a limited capacity, so as we added more and more stores, we had a real logjam of stuff coming in from the field. As you know, I like my numbers as quickly as I can get them. The quicker we get that information, the quicker we can act on it. The system has been a great tool for us, and our technical people have done a terrific job of figuring out how to use it to our best advantage…. We’ve spent almost $700 million building up the current computer and satellite systems we have. I’m told it’s the largest civilian data base of its kind in the world—even bigger than AT&T’s.
Many of these same insights influenced Jeff Bezos, who studied both Wal-Mart and Costco closely. That story is told in more detail in The Everything Store.
The explanation of how a basic instruction gets executed on a computer is a great tour through several levels of abstraction:
Most new microcoders, on their first job, have the odd feeling that what they’re doing can’t possible be real. “I didn’t fully believe, until I saw it work, that microcode wasn’t just a lie,” …. At the level of the microcode, physical and abstract meet. The microcode controls the actual circuits. (p. 97ff.)
Two other memorable sections of the book are:
- Page 177, when a programmer is discussing leaving a previous employer: “I thought I’d get a really dumb job. I found out dumb jobs don’t work. You come home too tired to do anything.”
- Pages 240-241 on technological unemployment and machine intelligence:
[Norbert Weiner] wrote that because of the development of the “ultra-rapid computing machine,… the average human being of mediocre attainments or less” might end up having “nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy.” …
[A young engineer] said he beleived in a time when the machines would “take over.” … He seemed immensely please with that thought. To me, though, the prospects for truly intelligent computers looked comfortably dim.
This is the story of Charles Schwab and the brokerage he founded. The brokerage rode two waves to success. The first was a series of technical innovations:
We were the first in our industry to build a network that allowed clients to walk into any Schwab office or call any Schwab broker and place an order that in turn was entered directly into our company-wide network….
[W]e had a history — a culture of innovation — that helped prepare use for the internet. We also had a solid, leading-edge IT platform already in place. (p. 217)
The second, and probably the more important, wave was a series of regulatory changes. This began with SEC deregulation of stock sales in 1975 (p. 8), known as “May Day” (p. 47). Subsequent changes included the expanded eligibility requirements for IRAs in 1982 (p. 111-2, 207-8), and the rise of 401(k) plans and associated rollovers (223, 294).
Combining these two waves allowed Schwab to operate at lower cost, for more customers. this led to the reduction — and in many cases, complete elimination — of fees that had long been the bread-and-butter of the brokerage industry.
Throughout the book, Schwab shows an awareness of how his own personality and drive contributed to professional success, sometimes at the cost of his personal life. This is most apparent when discussing his role as a father and his divorce from his first wife:
[M]ore than anything, I think our marriage was a victim of my entrepreneurial drive and ambition. I loved working, and I’m sure I pushed everything in my life to the back burner. Easy to see in hindsight, but not as clear to me at the time. (p. 42)
This is the story of Reddit: its founding by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, early sale to Condé-Nast, rapid turnover of several top executives, and eventual return of the founders. It is an unusual story both because of the revolving door of leadership, and because Reddit is such a strange site. It has developed its own subcultures, many of which are toxic in various ways.
Reddit’s first employee, Chris Slowe, gives this explanation for how the site’s moderators fumbled in their early attempts to handle inappropriate content and why Huffman was able to have an impact after his return:
“Things that should be treated as case law started getting turned into the Constitution.” What he meant was that standalone, and often poor, decisions to allow certain behavior or content ended up being elevated to govern everything that happened on Reddit. That incoherent and disjointed constitution then dictated that when completely immoral content… showed up on the site, it was considered fine.
Never was this tension more apparent than when Huffman stepped back into the CEO role. Huffman wasn’t just the new CEO; he was Reddit’s James Madison. As Reddit’s “creator,” the author of most of the site’s initial codebase, he was imbued with the power to rewrite its constitution.
For related stories about the outsize influence of founders in technology companies, check out:
This is a rare book: the story of working in a high-growth technology company as an individual contributor. Most stories about these companies are told by or about the founders, or senior executives and leaders. By providing the “bottom-up” view, Kocienda gives a feel for what working at Apple was like for typical employees, especially software engineers.
Kocienda played an influential part in the design and implementation of the first iPhone and iPad keyboards. Through the lens of these projects, he explains Apple’s demo-focused development cycles. It is eye-opening to see how contingent the final product was on so many experiments and refinements.
One memorable software engineering quote from the book is, “When software behavior is mysterious, get more organized.” (p. 128)
One of the key insights behind the success of Visa was that, by the late twentieth century, money had become data:
Realization slowly dawned that money had become alphanumeric symbols recorded and transported on valueless metal and paper. This still left a gap in understanding, for symbols themselves had no value. Anyone would write down letters and numbers; printing presses and computers could spew out infinite quantities. Money had become guaranteed alphanumeric data expressed in the currency symbol of one country or another. Thus, a bank would become no more than an institution for the custody, loan, and exchange of guaranteed alphanumeric data. (p. 95; emphasis in original)
This insight built upon the earlier technology of double-entry accounting, and was a natural stepping stone along the path toward the ideas in the Bitcoin white paper.
When money became alphanumeric data, then the Visa network took on three purposes:
Was credit really the nature of our business? What was the essence of the transaction when a customer presented a sliver of plastic to a merchant? [Their credit card] was a substitute for a driver’s license, social security card, government identity card, or other means of identification. Thus, the first function of the card was to identify buyer to seller and seller to buyer….
The seller would receive good funds in local currency and the buyer would be billed later in the currency of their country. Thus, the second primary function was as guarantor of the value data….
The fact that many card issuers allowed the customer to pay for the transactions over a period of time… was really an ancillary service and not the primary function of the card…. [T]he third primary function was origination and transfer of value data. (p. 97-8, emphasis in original)
Visa benefitted from the fact that all three functions were able to reach global scale using the information technology available at the time. Beyond the insights listed here, the story of this book is one of an organization and its founder who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Readers of this book might also enjoy a more detailed history of Visa in VISA: The Power of an Idea.
If you think about your family tree, you have two parents (strictly biologically speaking), four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. Going back n generations, you had 2n ancestors in that generation. Considering your lineage from the other direction, however, it quickly becomes clear that there were not 2n unique individuals alive if you go far enough back. For example, if you suppose there have been thirty generations between 1000 AD and today (allowing for a bit over thirty years per generation), that would give you over 1 billion ancestor positions at that time but estimates of the entire population alive at that time range from 250-310 million.
This seeming difficulty is resolved once you realize that not all the ancestor slots on your family tree were unique. Some of your ancestors partnered with people they were related to, whether closely (such as a first cousin) or more distantly. The next conclusion that you can draw from this line of thought is that at some point in the past everyone who was alive at that time is the ancestor of everyone who is alive today.
Rutherford’s clear explanation of this fact is one of the book’s strongest passages:
Our family trees coalesce and collapse in on themselves as we go back in time. You certainly must have a trillion positions on your family tree, but the further you go back, the more frequently these positions will be occupied by the same individuals multiple times. It is quite possible that although I had sixty-four ancestral positions at the same tier as Mary Huntley, they may have been occupied by fewer than sixty-four women. Family trees coalesce with startling speed. The last common ancestors of all people with long-standing European ancestries lived only six hundred years ago—meaning that if we could draw a perfect complete family tree for every European, at least one branch on each tree would pass through a single person who lived around 1400 CE. This person would appear on all our family trees, as would all their ancestors. The fact that multiple positions are occupied by the same people indicates that the notion of a tree is again not the most accurate metaphor for describing genealogy: Trees only ever branch, but family trees contain loops. Your own pedigree rises from you like a tree, but sooner or later two of those branches will collide in a person from whom you are descended twice. These people sit atop genealogical loops. …
Go back a few centuries further and we reach a mathematical certainty referred to as the genetic isopoint. This is the time in history when the entire population is the ancestor of the entire contemporary population today. For the people of Europe, the isopoint occurs in the tenth century. In other words, if you were alive in the tenth century in Europe, and you have European descendants alive today, then you are the ancestor of all Europeans alive today (we estimate that up to 80 percent of the population of tenth-century Europe has living descendants). Another way to think of it is like this: One branch of a family tree of two first cousins crosses in a shared grandparent; one branch of all European family trees cross through one individual in 1400 CE; at the isopoint, all branches of all family trees cross through all people for that population. (p. 82-84)
This argument for how closely humans are related makes it clear that racist claims are not supported by genetic science. Even if there were multiple origins of human ancestry, there are genetic isopoints for large swathes of the global population within recorded history.
Where the book comes up somewhat short is in regards to its subtitle: what genes can or cannot tell us about human difference. Rutherford spends substantial time on sports performance and whether certain groups are better suited to athletic activities such as running. In this section of the book he could have marshalled stronger evidence from existing research, and tackled other claims regarding additional aspects of human behavior.
This book’s title is evidently intended to cash in on current dialogue regarding race and racism, but its overall evidence for human similarity and introduction to population genetics is valuable beyond the present moment.
Jim Simons founded the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and its Medallion Fund has been the highest returning fund of the twenty-first century. This book tells the story of Simons’ early life, academic career, limited success with his earlier investments. It also explains how Renaissance found its edge with quantitative analytics, market-neutral strategies, and short holding periods for its investments.
Early on, the company’s analysts faced a classic explore-exploit trade-off. The simple strategies they were using were so lucrative that putting time and effort into more complex models seemed like too much work:
Building formulas was difficult and time-consuming, and the gains figured to be steady but never spectacular. By contrast, quickly digesting the office’s news ticker, sutdying newspaper articles, and analyzing geopolitical events seemed exciting and far more profitable. (p. 61)
Over time the company began to collect its own price data and hire programmers and mathematicians to analyze it and build predictive models. An early insight they had was that their own trading could push prices against them, driving away their advantage. This phenomenon is known as “slippage,” and makes it difficult to trade profitably even if your predictions are correct (p. 150). In response they began to make more trades but hold for shorter time periods.
[B]uying and selling infrequently magnifies the consequences of each move. Mess up a couple times, and your portfolio could be doomed. Make a lot of trades, however, and each individual move is less important, reducing a portfoliio’s overall risk. (p. 108)
This is not the same as today’s high-frequency trading of the kind described in Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys which is more of an arbitrage strategy than a prediction of price movements (p. 222-3).
Shorter trading periods also meant that more data was available to them. There are only a bit over 100 non-overlapping time periods for annual price data, but orders of magnitude more daily and intra-day prices available for modeling (p. 246).
One notable difference between Simons’ team and other quantitative modelers is that the former were more interested in predictive accuracy rather than understanding causal relationships (p. 111). This is not to say that they would accept any signal the model picked up on, though. They still required it to have some degree of plausibility:
“Volume divided by price change three days earlier, yes, we’d include that,” says a Renaissance executive. “But not something nonsensical, like the outperformance of stock tickets starting with the letter A.” (p. 204)
The company’s employees faced two challenges once their models became so successful. One was the feeling that they weren’t really doing anything, since the trades were made without human intervention. The second was the psychological challenge of trusting the models when markets turned against them:
The goal of quants like Simons was to avoid relying on emotions and gut instinct. Yet, that’s exactly what Simons was doing after a few difficult weeks in the market….
Simons’s phone call [to Ashvin Chhabra, asking if he should switch to a short-selling strategy] is a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to turn decision-making over to computers, algorithms, and models — even, at times, for the inventors of these very approaches.
Even for the man who “solved” quantitative investing, human reactions can run counter to better judgment.
This history of the East India Company shows how the Company used violence to establish itself and its home nation as the colonial rulers of India. After its victories over Mughal armies,
The company, which had started off as an enterprise dominated by privateers and former Caribbean pirates, [transformed itself] into a relatively respectable international trading corporation, wich a share price so reliable its stock was regarded almost as a form of international currecy. [It was not only] a vehcile of trade operating from a scattering of Indian coastal enclaves, [but] the ruler of a rich and expansive territorial empire extending across South Asia. (p. 201)
The author shows that it was not British imperial forces that conquered India, but traders. By ensuring that members of Parliament were financially interested in their success, they then gained the backing of Britain’s government and military forces:
India’s transition to colonialism took place through the mechanism of a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.
The Company’s conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. (p. 394)
While the extent of its violence is unmatched, the East India Company’s efforts are part of a larger story of state-making and organized crime. Particularly during the period from about 1600-1900, the lines between legitimate governments, criminal syndicates, and corporations are quite blurry. Consider, for example, the Sicilian mafia which enjoyed early success cornering the market for citrus sales to the British navy.
The initial decision to use violence was made by those present in India, not back in London:
This was something quite new in Indian history: a group of Indian financiers plotting with an international trading corporation to use its own private security force to overthrow a regimate they saw threatening the income they earned from trade. This was not part of any imperial masterplan. In fact, the EIC men on the ground were ignoring their strict instructions from London, which were only to repulse French attacks and avoid potentially ruinous wars with their Mughal hosts. (p. 121)
It was this financial backing, first from the Indian merchant class and later from upper-class Brits, that enabled the company to pay for its mercenary armies (p. 366).
Eventually the British government realized that the Company ruled large portions of India with a firm hand. Once that realization sunk in, the government sent General Cornwallis to serve as Commander-in-Chief, Governor, and reforming influence. Having learned from his defeat at the hands of Washington’s revolutionary army, Cornwallis was careful not to allow for the establishment of an Anglo-Indian middle class that could eventually challenge Britain’s rulership (p. 327).
This colonial rule, and in particular the hollowing out of the middle class, has had an enduring impact on India. Another persistent impact has been the idea of a joint stock corporation, “one of Tudor England’s most brilliant and revolutionary innovations” as an institutional form (p. 7).
When historians debate the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea, and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much as any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweights that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.
While that may be overstating the case somewhat, Dalrymple’s description of the Company’s impact on Indian history is thorough and detailed. This was a chapter of history that I did not know much about prior to reading this book. It left me wanting to know even more about how the Company administered its nascent empire. Violence was a part of the story, but so was bureaucratic administration. The East India Company seems to have truly created a state.
- In the 1990’s Cisco Systems promoted the idea of having a “URL for everything we do” (p. 4), an idea that is also popular at GitHub
- As Jim Barksdale liked to say, the two ways to make money in business are bundling and unbundling. The tick-tock between “integrated solutions” and mixing solutions from different vendors is no different (p. 6).
- “Gardens last for hundreds of years, companies don’t. That’s because people love and take care of gardens.” — Larry Ellison (p. 8)
- The idea that enterprise software should be as user-friendly as consumer software was once novel (p. 14)
- Product naming makes a big difference (p. 40). Ellison applied this lesson with his company’s first database product: “The first version of our database was called Oracle Version 2. I didn’t think anyone, not even the government, would buy Version 1 of a database from five guys in California.” (p. 62)
- Ellison went through the challenge of disrupting his own company multiple times. “[G]etting Oracle to change direction was not just a question of articulating a new strategy and expecting people to get on with it. The efforts of the entire company, from the the developers building the applications to the sales and consulting teams who were selling and installing the software, were dedicated to making client/server a success.” (p. 41)
- Ellison’s aspirations began as what we would today call a “lifestyle business” (p. 56)
- Software projects are never truly “finished,” (p. 63) but releasing a buggy version too soon can substantially damage a company’s reputation (p. 74).
- Ellison is an engineer at heart, and applied an engineer’s mindset to the sales process at Oracle (p. 172-3).
- “We pick our enemies very carefully. It helps us focus.” (p. 263)
- Ellison decried Microsoft’s lack of innovation and choice to acquire or crush competitors instead. There are many parallels between this and discussions of Facebook today (p. 264ff.).
- One of the earliest recorded censuses that we still have access to is the Domesday Book, which dates to the eleventh century. It was recorded on vellum and bound into book form. A 1986 effort by the BBC to replicate its scale in 1986 was recorded on laser discs, which have already become much harder to read than the much older books (p. 50).
- The longest recorded genealogy is that of Confucius and his descendants. The “main line” can be traced for 80 generations and another chain can be traced for 86 generations (p. 53).
- The antecedent of modern statistics was known as “political arithmetic,” which consisted of applying shopkeepers’ mathematics to demography (p. 61ff). One of its early successes was estimating the population of London using bills of mortality to extrapolate the number of living citizens based on the number of adults who died each year (p. 63).
- When Scotland joined with England to form Grate Britain in 1707 it gained 61 Ministers of Parliament. Despite having a roughly equivalent population by the mid-1700’s the US colonies had no such representation, which was a leading grievance in the eventual revolution (p. 71).
- Early censuses in North America and Europe made it difficult to cross-tabulate data because of the way questions were asked. Reporters took the count of how many people in each househould had various characteristics, such as being employed and being literate, but it was difficult to estimate had multiple characteristics, such as being both employed and literate. The 1840 US Census had 48 columns with convoluted combinations (p. 99). The 1850 census was revised to have one row per individual in the household, simplifying it greatly to only 13 columns (p. 102). The dimensional design made analysis much easier, and without it the later innovation by Hollerith to use punch cards and mechanical tabulation would have been unlikely. When Hollerith did introduce his system, an important feature was that the transfer of information from handwritten responses to cards “would happen only once, but counting would be repeated over and over again for all the different subgroups on which the census reported: once for men, once for women, once for those native-born, once for those foreign-born, and so on.” (p. 105)
- One of the saddest chapters in the history of demography is that of the required registration of Jews under Nazi rule (p. 146ff.). These and similar population records were of such value that Allies targeted them for bombing. Even destroying a fraction of the records held in central repositories gave plausible deniability to resistance fighters using false papers, for example.
- How do we know the accuracy level of a census? Modern bureaus use a technique known as “capture-recapture” estimation, which was originally developed for studying populations of wild animals who are obviously much more difficult to quanity (p. 233). It involves taking two samples from a population in short succession and estimating the total size using the amount of overlap between the samples. Today census bureaus often run a large-scale survey (although still much smaller than a complete enumeration of the population) shortly after a census to estimate under- or over-counting. The 2010 US Census was estimated to have overcounted the population by 0.01 percent, which is about as close as any group can get to perfect accuracy given the complications involved (p. 242).
The central idea of this book is brilliant: a survey of the world in the year 1,000 A.D. This approach differs from most history books, which sacrifice global context in favor of particular details. By taking a wider view, The Year 1000 gives readers a birds-eye perspective on technological, economic, and political trends across the globe at the turn of the last millenium.
One example of innovation at this time was increasingly accurate calendars. Establishing correct lengths for days, months, and years all depended on empirical observation. Knowing when to plant, when to harvest, and when to pay your taxes were all important concerns (p. 148-9). In this respect, Eurasian empires had similar needs those served by Mayan calendars as discussed in The Fifth Sun.
However, in its eagerness to describe connections between disparate empires, the book sometimes goes beyond the facts supported by the best available evidence. For example, in trying to link Viking voyages to Newfoundland with the Mayan Empire of Central America, the author explores claims that apparently light-haired individuals depicted in Mayan murals were Viking captives. Despite these minor flaws, the book is worthwhile for the wide perspective that it offers.
This is the story of what’s widely regarded as one of the most successful acquisitions of all time. Two founders and a small group of employees built a product and a company that was acquired for $1 billion. However, even with such a lucrative exit, many early employees did not benefit from their equity grants:
Most of the employees weren’t getting rich. A couple weeks after the deal, a Facebook representative came into Instagram’s South Park office to join Systrom and Krieger in offering everyone new contracts: new salaries, new stock options, and cash bonuses if they stayed at Facebook for more than a year. One by one, they went into the conference room, and some came out ashen-faced.
Silicon Valley employees often decide to take lower salaries in order to work at a startup like Instagram that offers stock options—the option to purchase shares cheaply at a later date. Those options are restricted based on time. Usually a quarter of the total grant in the job offer becomes available after each year that they continue working, giving an incentive to stick around. For an employee who picks a winning company, the small slice of ownership yields life-changing wealth, like winning the lottery. Instagram was the biggest mobile app acquisition that had ever happened—the best equity they could have chosen. But if the Instagrammers accepted Facebook job offers, Facebook would cancel their stock options in Instagram and grant them restricted stock units in Facebook instead. Their equity vesting schedule would start over, as if they hadn’t already worked many months.
Only three employees had been at Instagram long enough to have the option to buy a quarter of their Instagram shares and convert them to Facebook shares at a lower price. Everyone else would have no wealth from Instagram stock. Because Facebook was about to go public, the three long-term employees had to act quickly. At least one of them couldn’t actually afford to purchase their Instagram shares to turn them into Facebook ones. Because of the value of the deal, that employee would have needed to get a more than $ 300,000 loan to afford it. Their lawyer advised against the financial risk, explaining that Facebook was not a safe financial investment to take on as a twenty-something. Nobody knew if the shares were going to do well. (Facebook shares have increased in value by about 10x since Instagram joined, meaning this employee’s share would be worth about $ 3 million today.)
Systrom and Krieger, on the other hand, were awarded life-changing sums. Krieger solidly owned 10 percent and Systrom 40 percent, and so netted an estimated $100 million and $400 million, respectively, per the original deal price. Systrom was proud; he told friends that the day after the deal, he went into the local deli to buy five copies of the New York Times and was amused that the cashier didn’t recognize him as the man pictured above the fold.
Overall this book is more a set of recollections than reflections on important lessons. However, there are a few useful nuggets.
First, a lesson that Iger learned on the importance of market size. Shortly after Disney acquired Iger’s previous employer, Capital Cities, he was considering starting a magazine:
In fairness, it was a small idea and arguable not worth the time and investment…. Dan Burge taught me that exact lessons early on…. Dan handed me a note that read: “Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!” (p. 61)
On the importance of time management:
Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager. (p. 63)
An interesting aside is that, after many months of negotiation, the final impetus for acquiring Lucasfilm was taxes:
It was an upcoming change in capital gains laws that eventually salvaged the negotiations. If we didn’t close the deal by the end of 2012, George, who owned Lucasfilm outright, would take a roughly $500 million hit on the sale. If he was going to sell to us, there was some financial urgency to come to an agreement quickly.
For more, see this episode of the Acquired podcast.
This book about the Haber-Bosch process touches on scientific discovery, engineering, agriculture, war, and politics. The process extracts nitrogen from the air and converts it to ammonia, which can then be converted to fertilizers and other products.
- Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are essential elements for agriculture. Nitrogren is so important that the author says, “the secret of successful farming is moving nitrogen around” (xiii). For most of human history that meant using manure and compost to enrich soil.
- Deposits of nitrogen in the form of guano were mined from South America and used to redistribute soil fertility around the world (p. 9). Germans were the most efficient transporting it without delays (p. 33). Shipping guano from South America to Europe was so important that the first major sea battle of WWI occurred off the coast of Chile (p. 141).
- Bosch was the perfect leader to transform Haber’s method from a scientific discovery into a scaled industrial process: “Even the accidents were useful. The equipment designers removed the broken machines, autopsied them, and used what they found to make better models.” (p. 107)
- The first scaled Haber-Bosch plant at Oppau was “a single machine as big as a town.” (p. 129) “Bosch had done everything he could to maximize efficiency and cut the cost of production…. Oppau had barely reached full production before Bosch was planning an expansion…. It was the birth of an entirely new technology, high-pressure chemistry” (p. 130-31).
- In order to find the best catalyst for converting nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, Alwin Mittasch ran “about twenty thousand experiments,” and designed new machines to allow him to run the tests quickly (p. 111).
- Haber-Bosch is a dual-use technology: it can be used for fertilizers, but it can also be used to create explosives (recall that the Oklahoma City bomb used fertilizer as its raw materials). During WWI this led to a literal guns-and-butter (or bombs-and-beets) trade-off: “The more fixed nitrogen that went to bombs, the less there was for farmers” (p. 146).
- The book is also an unique perspective on inter-war German political economy, including the rise of the Nazi party and the cooptation of German industry (p. 235ff.).
Two ideas stand out in this book. The first is an idea that Godin repeats, both in the book and in his podcast: “People like us do things like this.” The phrase is repeated at least four times verbatim in the book. It means that marketers should tell a story about a culture, about the people that belong to it, and about the choices those people make. If your audience identifies with that tribe, they will feel social pressure to engage in the behavior you are highlighting.
The second idea is closely related to that tribal notion: that instead of seeking the widest audience for your product, you should seek the smallest viable audience. If you can please a small group, they may then go on to tell others about how much they love your work. It is also easier to surprise and delight your customers if you know what they want, and you know who your work is not intended for. This is related to Kevin Kelly’s idea of “1,000 True Fans.”
This history of Amazon is full of useful facts about the history of what is now — depending on the day — the world’s most valuable company. One area where the history is especially engaging is around the history of Amazon Web Services. AWS, which now accounts for a significant portion of Amazon’s revenue (and profit), started small. It initially had only two services: S3 (for storage) and EC2 (for compute).
The two services started a bit differently from each other, though:
In late 2004, Chris Pinkham, head of the company’s IT infrastructure, told Dalzell that he had decided to return with his family to their native South Africa. At this point, A9 had taken root in Palo Alto, and Dalzell was busy establishing remote developer centers in Scotland and India, among other places. Dalzell suggested to Pinkham that instead of leaving Amazon, he open an office in Cape Town. They brainstormed possible projects and finally settled on trying to build a service that would allow a developer to run any application, regardless of its type, on Amazon’s servers. Pinkham and a few colleagues studied the problem and came up with a plan to use a new open-source tool called Xen, a layer of software that made it easier to run numerous applications on a single physical server in a data center.
Pinkham took colleague Chris Brown along with him to South Africa and they set up shop in a nondescript office complex in Constantia, a winemaking region northeast of Cape Town, near a school and a small homeless encampment. Their efforts would become the Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2—the service that is at the heart of AWS and that became the engine of the Web 2.0 boom. EC2 was born in isolation, with Pinkham talking to his colleagues in Seattle only sporadically, at least for the first year. The Constantia office had to make do with two residential-grade DSL lines, and during the hot summer of 2005, one of the country’s two nuclear reactors went offline, so engineers worked amid rolling brownouts. Pinkham later said that the solitude was beneficial, as it afforded a comfortable distance from Amazon’s intrusive CEO. “I spent most of my time trying to hide from Bezos,” Pinkham says. “He was a fun guy to talk to but you did not want to be his pet project. He would love it to distraction.”
The dozen engineers concurrently developing what would become Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, or S3, did not have that luxury, despite their best attempts to keep to themselves. They worked in an office on the eighth floor of Pac Med, ate lunch together every day for nearly two years, and often played cards together after work. Neither they nor their manager, Alan Atlas, a veteran of crosstown digital-media startup Real Networks, were able to hide half a world away. Bezos was deeply interested in the evolution of Web services and often dived into the minutiae of S3, asking for details about how the services would keep up with demand and repeatedly sending engineers back to the drawing board to simplify the S3 architecture. “It would always start out fun and happy, with Jeff’s laugh rebounding against the walls,” Atlas says. “Then something would happen and the meeting would go south and you would fear for your life. I literally thought I’d get fired after every one of those meetings.” (p. 211 and following)
This book describes the inner workings of ambulance services. Some insights include:
- “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) orders are very important, especially as you get older: “the word of God Himself, written in triplicate.” (p. xvi)
- Once someone dies in an ambulance, the crew has very few options for where to take them. Hospitals will not accept a corpse (p. xviii)
- The difference between an EMT and a paramedic comes down to training. Paramedics are the senior members of the team, and have about eighteen months additional training. They also get paid more, and so very few ambulance services run crews with two paramedics (p. 10-11).
- Nursing homes are more willing to call private ambulances than 911, due to reporting concerns (p. 40).
- Ambulance services routinely claim that their transportation was necessary and that a cheaper option such as a wheelchair van would not have sufficed. This allows them to charge Medicare a higher rate (p. 40).
- Ambulance crews have high turnover, with some members burning out after only a few months (p. 229). Hazzard categorizes crew members as either tourists (short-timers motivated by curiosity), true believers (dedicated to saving lives), and killers (those who have stayed past the point of burnout).
- Ambulances operate similar to other transportation services such as trucking and taxis, including using fuel cards for bulk purchase discounts. However, sometimes the cards fail and the crews have to leave the station attendant with an IOU (p. 231).
What are the Jobs to be Done by Weight Watchers?
One is social:
Finding companionship and camaraderie was maybe even more important than the diet or even weight loss. Ten weeks into her weight-loss program, Jean announced to her friends that she had lost twenty pounds. They wanted to know her secret. So she decided that she’d invite six of her friends who struggled with dieting to come to her apartment to play mah-jongg and she’d tell them what she had learned the day before in diet class. (p. 93)
Another is emotional support:
[T]hey opened up to each other . Jean immediately felt that same liberation she had when talking to the woman in Florida who had, like her, lost a child. She looked around the room and realized that each woman was confessing about her habits and her life for the first time. Any initial embarrassment about what their friends might think of their favorite foods or midnight snacking turned to relief. Someone asked to meet again the following week, and Jean suggested they meet every week. That’s how Jean the housewife created a space where a group of women struggling with their weight could come together and be honest about their lives. (p. 93)
The job-to-be done is different for various groups, though. Younger members tend to prefer meeting online (p. 35), as do men:
Men were always about 10 percent of the Weight Watchers program and the advent of an internet-based plan that didn’t force you to publicly weigh in or attend meetings suited their demographic. The company launched an online program specifically for men (seemingly for straight men, given the “manly” language used: “Lose like a man” and “Real men don’t diet”) . The Basketball Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley was the celebrity spokesman. The message was about sticking to the program and losing weight; it lacked the therapeutic tone of redemption often used on women and also the self - abnegation of how much this was all your fault. (p. 258)
The book is also an overview of food trends and dieting fads throughout the twentieth century, as well.
One theme of this book is that government agencies don’t do what you think they do. The USDA manages national forests and grasslands, for instance. The Department of Energy keeps the world’s nuclear weapons safe. And the Commerce Department has all of the best data.
Another thread in the book is how people make use of that data. One of those is DJ Patil, who learned to forecast complex systems by working with weather data and then moving into national defense:
The relevance of that ambition became a bit clearer after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “There was a sense that this was, among other things, a failure of data analysis,” he said. “If we had known how to distinguish signal from noise we’d have seen it and prevented it.‘ Hey, why are all these guys suddenly taking flight lessons?’” The assassins’ use of credit cards alone, properly analyzed, would have revealed they were up to no good. “The image of a good network is messy,” said DJ. “It’s really hard to fake messiness. It’s hard to fake being an American with a credit card.” (p. 154)
Later he went on to work at LinkedIn and helped coin the term “data scientist”:
The people in human resources complained to him that the company had too many data-related job titles. The company was about to go public, and they wanted to clean up the organization chart. To that end DJ sat down with his counterpart at Facebook, who was dealing with the same problem. What could they call all these data people? “Data scientist,” his Facebook friend suggested. “We weren’t trying to create a new field or anything, just trying to get HR off our backs,” said DJ. He replaced the job titles for some openings with “data scientist.” To his surprise, the number of applicants for the jobs skyrocketed. “Data scientists” were what people wanted to be. (p. 156)
Patil went on to become the U.S. Chief Data Scientist.
David Friedberg also found innovative ways to use data that the federal government provides. He founded WeatherBill, which offered crop insurance to citrus growers and packers (in addition to government insurance, which was only available to farmers). Then, he worked with Google to digitize decades of NOAA’s satellite images to better understand the citrus growing cycle and found out that the farmers had been cheating the insurers:
Plants absorb visible light and emit infrared light: you could calculate the biomass in a field by how much infrared light it emitted. Friedberg brokered a deal with Google, which had digitized the information and gave him access to it for free. “That’s when we discovered that farmers were lying about the dates they were planting,” said Friedberg. The federal crop insurance program, seeking to minimize the risk of freeze, stipulated the earliest date that a farmer was allowed to plant. But the earlier the seeds went into the ground, the richer the crop. To qualify for the insurance, farmers had been claiming to have planted their seeds later than they had. The lie had been captured for decades by satellite, but no one had been able to see the data. (p. 182)
WeatherBill was later renamed to Climate Corporation, which was the first unicorn in the ag tech space.
Lewis’s account of the lesser-known areas of the federal government is a compelling read for anyone interested in how we make the world more legible.
One thread in this book is the evolution of Facebook’s APIs that allow developers to access user information and connect it to other systems. Many companies use APIs (Jeff Bezos famously instructed his teams that internal APIs were the only way their systems should communicate) but as Facebook worked to gain popularity, it sacrificed users’ control over their own privacy.
When Facebook released their first API, it was considered a failure because it did not gain widespread adoption.
It flopped. “We said, Hey come one, come all, use the Facebook platform to build interesting things,” says Fetterman. “But no one noticed.” It turns out that simply releasing an API wasn’t enough. For one thing, there had to be a way for Facebook users to know that there was some other social application using the API, and that their friends were using that app as well. It was a problem of distribution. (p. 151)
In reaction, the company decided their next API would be not just a “platform” but an “operating system”. One difference is that they would require data sharing from their partners.
Like so many things, API usage was an instance of the Pareto principle: one customer (Zynga) accounted for 80% of their usage. Will we see this as well? If so, who will it be?
“At one point we were eighty percent of their API usage, says Pincus. “At our peak with them, we were sixty percent of their app DAUs [daily average users]. And I heard that by the time they went public, we were something like twenty percent of Facebook’s overall revenues.” Facebook was so dependent on Zynga at that point (its 2012 IPO) that the prospectus listed it as a business risk. (p. 168)
The company struggled with deciding how much user information to expose. Don’t err on the side of user pain!
Will Cathcart, an engineer who left Google to join Facebook in 2010, dove into the data and found an alarming trend. “One of my growing fears is that we’re routinely erring on the side of avoiding pain for developers and in the process causing user pain,” he wrote in a 2011 email. He cited data to indicate how people were tiring of developers’ tricks. “Users don’t trust apps to do the right thing,”” he wrote. (p. 170)
It turns out the users were right. Later the company weaponized their API buy turning off access for competitors such as Twitter (p. 263). They also failed to follow through with enforcement of their policies around privacy and data retention (p. 267). This set the stage for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which the book also details.
Whether or not you continue to use Facebook (and its subsidiary products), this history will help you understand the company and how it treats your data.
This book tells the story of Mexico City’s rise as the capital of the Aztec empire, to a flourishing colonial capital, to the largest metropolis in North America. Its portraits of historical figures and the ebb and flow between chaos and order are both worthwhile. Its real strength, however, is in its treatment of the economic history of Mexico.
The timeline of shocks to Mexico’s economy begins with the rise of the Aztecs, who constructed a system of islands and canals in Lake Texcoco at the beginning of the 14th century. The stroke of genius in this effort was that it combined resources that had been geographically distant beforehand: fertile soil from the valley rim, and water from the lake (and freshwater springs on the island itself). This allowed them to develop an agricultural society that in turn contributed to their military superiority against other tribes (p. 30ff.).
The next great shock was the arrival of Spanish explorers. Their great desire was gold &emdash; which the Aztecs had in abundance — but they also brought new technology and goods to the region. One of the most significant imports was cattle. The early scarcity of beef resulted in high prices, while maize was relatively inexpensive. As more cattle were shipped from Spain (and bred in the new colony), the price of beef decreased. Land that had been used for growing maize was converted to ranching, resulting in an increase in the price of that staple. These changes benefited Spaniards (who could afford to dine on beef) at the expense of natives for whom maize was the staple of their diet (p. 203ff.).
Another major development in the early colonial period was the introduction of large-scale mining operations, especiall in Zacatecas. Most of the silver extracted was shipped immediately to Spain (p. 184-7). Spain used that wealth to extend its reach in the Pacific. Mexico City’s merchant class soon realized that they could establish direct links to the Philippines that were much more profitable, benefiting as they did from public goods such as Spain’s military power, a common language, and well-developed shipping industry (p. 237-8). Spain responded by taxing mercurcy, a key input to the refinement of silver (p. 238-43).
Those who became wealthy in mining and shipping tended to purchase haciendas with their wealth. One reason for this is that these land holdings could serve as collateral for loans, which in turn helped their businesses to grow. Another motive is that large land estates were easier to divide amongst their heirs compared to silver mines (p. 240-1).
Typically inheritances were divided amongst siblings. The wealthy class soon realized, however, that obtaining noble titles was a path to intergenerational wealth. Becoming a member of the nobility “was often a prerequisite for an ‘entail’ — a royal dispensation which allowed a family to pass on half its fortune intact to a single heir instead of fragmenting it among siblings.” (p. 245) In retrospect this was the first step toward the staggering levels of wealth inequality in Mexico today.
As merchants began to diversify their businesses, they sought to protect themselves against economic downturns (or a change in tax policy from the mother country) in any particular sector. The period immediately after independence, though, saw a depression that across all parts of the economy:
Mining output fell to less than a quarter. Agricultural and industrial production declined by one third…. Internal commerce lagged because of the dearth of commerce and credit.
This period was also characterized by revenge against those who had obtained Spanish nobility. Many renounced those ties, but were still exiled to Spain in the 1820’s (p. 304ff.).
The middle of the 19th century saw a series of wars, first against rebels in Yucatan and Texas; then against the United States in the 1840’s; and finally against the French under Maximilian, sponsored by Napoleon III.
After a period of stability in the final quarter of the century, President Porfirio Díaz began to demobilize soldiers from the swollen ranks of the army. Lacking other opportunities, many of them turned to crime. The long coach route from Veracruz to Mexico was a particularly attractive target: “At best, the travelers might hope to receive a voucher from the first gang to rob them.” (p. 359) Later reforms helped to reduce crime, but it was the introduction of a rail line that finally made the route safe to travel (p. 369).
The interplay between transportation, economic resources, and governance has produced a vibrant history in Mexico. Anyone interested in history or economics would do well to learn more about the country and its people.
A noteworthy book, but a rare case in which — if you are interested in learning about the author’s life — the movie is better.
One of the author’s key insights is that management is a moral profession, meaning that the emphasis is on doing the right thing by your company and your team (p. 123, 127).
One thing that I learned from this book is that the Allied war effort in the Pacific Theater was not one thrust but two: one push by MacArthur from Australia, to New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Phillipines; and the other, led by Admiral Nimitz, beginning in Midway and taking a more northerly route toward Japan. It was Nimitz, not MacArthur, who used a strategy of “island-hopping.”
MacArthur decries the strategy of island-hopping in favor of his own “new strategy of war” in his Reminiscences, quoted at length on p. 336:
I inteded to envelop them, incapacitate them, apply the “hit ‘em where they ain’t — let ‘em die on the vine” philosophy. I explained that this was the very opposite of what was termed “island-hopping,” which is the gradual pushing back of the enemy by direct frontal pressure, with the consequent heavy casualties which would certainly be involved…. “Island-hopping,” I said, “with extravagant losses and slow progress, is not my idea of how to end the war as soon and as cheaply as possible. New conditions and new weapons require new and imaginative methods for solution and application. Wars are never won in the past.”
Although he describes it as a novel strategy, MacArthur’s idea of “leap frogging” was actually a classic application of military technique.
His note of concern about the expenditure of human life is a theme throughout the book, and MacArthur was remarkably successful in this regard. Throughout the entire campaign in the Southwest Pacific, from Australia to Tokyo, he lost only 90,437 troops under his command. By contrast in the European Theater, 106,502 American lives were lost in the Battle of the Bulge and 29,000 on D-Day alone.
Another theme of the book is MacArthur’s talent for self-promotion. He diligently maintained his image, including in the famous photo of him wading ashore at Leyte, accompanied by the line “I have returned.” Overall, this biography of a larger-than-life figure is one to remember.
This history of the Aztecs is based on recollections passed down and recorded in the 16th century. The Aztecs had a particularly advanced calendar that ran on 52-year cycles, adapted from the one used by the Mayan peoples. It is notable that in order to collect taxes (even when paid in-kind, such as with grain), subjects and their rulers must agree on the calendar in order to know when the taxes are due.
This account of Winston Churchill and his family is unlike any I have ever read. It gives a clear account of what life was really like in England under the Blitz, including an exhausting series of sleepless nights for the population (p. 225).
Reading this while under a stay-at-home order made it even more profound. Here’s how the Churchill family coped with similar circumstances:
While London braced for Hitler’s reprisal, Mary Churchill and her mother were savoring the peace of a warm summer night at Breccles Hall… where Mary was supposed to spend another few weeks….
Here, in these farmish lands [the Blitz] seemed especially remote…. The girls rode bicycles and horses, played tennis, swam, went to the movies, and danced with airmen at nearby RAF bases, occasionally bringing them back for the now-familiar “snogging” sessions in the hayloft….
The girls also resolved to learn the sonnets of William Shakespeare and to commit one to memory each day — a task at which they failed, though Mary would retain the ability to recite several for years afterward. (p. 193)
Britain in 1940 shared another phenomenon with the early days of the 2020 pandemic, as well: a shortage of toilet paper, affecting even the king:
A visiting American found that he could buy chocolate cake and lemon meringue pie at Selfridges, but cocoa was impossible to find. Shortages made some realms of hygiene more problematic…. At least one brand of toilet paper was also in perilously short supply, as the king himself discovered. He managed to sidestep this particular scarcity by arranging shipments direct from the British embassy in Washington, D.C. With kingly discretion, he wrote to his ambassador, “We are getting short of a certain type of paper which is made in America and is unprocurable here. A packet or two of 500 sheets at intervals would be most acceptable You will undersstand this and its name begins with B!” The paper in question was identified by historian Andrew Roberts as Bromo soft lavatory paper. (p. 245)
For another excellent biography covering Churchill’s early life, see Hero of the Empire.
One recurring theme in this book is how difficult it is to maintain multiple residences.
Folds describes his career in music, and the tension between what’s best for the music and what’s best for life.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, was created by Dwight Eisenhower as part of the Cold War space race. Inter-agency squabbles resulted in the agency losing that original charter very quickly, and it re-focused on defense related projects.
In the Vietnam era the agency conducted research on counter-insurgency, as well as direct action such as spraying defoliating agents (“Agent Orange”) from aircraft. By the time the military again needed expertise in counter-insurgency, after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the agency’s focused had changed yet again toward technology.
The agency’s most significant contribution to society was ARPANET, a precursor to the modern internet. It was designed as a way to share information that would be robust to nuclear attacks (p. 116). After the end of the Cold War, the agency began financing research that was almost purely scientific in nature. For example, it makes the news most often these days as the organizer of the Grand Challenge competitions that launched contemporary autonomous vehicle research.
This book is an engaging account of what could otherwise be a very dry subject: the history of a secretive bureaucracy and its impact on both the military and civilian worlds.
Olivetti may be the most important technology company that Americans have never heard of. The company developed the first fully transistorized computer in the 1950’s. This book tells the history of the company, from its founding as a manufacturer of electrical tools, to its heyday as a maker of typewriters (it acquired Underood, a famous American typewriter company), to its decline after being acquired by GE.
In order to get his business off the ground, founder Camillo Olivetti first had to train his workforce:
He was seriously thinking of starting his own business. The business climate was favorable and he had lots of wonderful ideas. The problem was that most potential workers in Ivrea and its immediate surroundings scarcely knew what electricity was, never mind how to use it. As a student of Ferraris’s, Camillo was aware that a tool to measure the voltage of direct and alternating currents was available. It was a mercury motor meter that was easy to read. But that was only the beginning; many more such instruments were needed and he was probably the only man for miles who knew what they were and how to invent them. His solution was the essence of simplicity; he would start a course and hold classes in his villa in Monte Novale. He was immediately assailed with the argument that farmworkers could not learn, would not learn, lacked the necessary intelligence to master this new calling. (p. 23)
At the time, industrial work was not respected in Italy. Camillo took objection to this:
He said, “We are still the progeny of the [ancient] Romans who left all industrial work to their servants and freedmen and held it in such low esteem, that while the names of the most mediocre proconsuls, poets and actors that ever amused the decaying Roman civilization were handed down to us, the names of the supreme engineers who built roads, aqueducts and the great monuments of the Roman Empire were never divulged.” (p. 27)
The company faced challenges during WWI and WWII, including shortages of workers and supplies, but its factories were never bombed. This may be in part to heir Adriano Olivetti’s overtures to the OSS, a precursor of the CIA.
The book uses Adriano’s suspicious death as both a way to engage reader interest and a launching point for a conspiracy theory involving the CIA and IBM. However, this intrigue is largely unnecessary: the history of the company is lively enough without cloak-and-dagger routines.
This book is about how economists understand risk. Its biggest strength is its explanation of the differences between the closely related concepts of diversification, hedging, and insurance.
Diversification, in Schrager’s explanation, means spreading out your bets across multiple risks that are loosely correlated. This reduces idiosyncratic risk (e.g. a single company failing, by investing in multiple companies) and in some cases can reduce your systematic risk (e.g. the risk that all stocks decline in value, by buying bonds). Diversification reduces the variance of outcomes.
Hedging reduces downside risk in exchange for giving up some upside risk. The costs of hedging may not be fully known in advance, since the potential upside is unknown. Hedging can reduce both idiosyncratic and systematic risk, since you are taking bets with opposing outcomes.
One reason to hedge is to allow yourself to focus, by reducing incidental risks. For exapmle, airlines often hedge their exposure to oil price changes so that they can focus on operating their core business (p. 141).
Insurance reduces downside risk by paying a fixed (or at least well-known) cost, in exchange for keeping all the upside for yourself (p. 137-8). It can sometimes be more expensive than hedging, since its benefits are more clear (p. 152). The insurer transforms idiosyncratic risk into systematic risk by diversifying its pool of customers (e.g. by insuring many homes across different cities, rather than only homes in a single geographic area with correlated risks such as earthquakes, floods, or fires).
Thinking in Bets is a complement to this book.
Danny Meyer is the restaurateur behind such varied restaurants as Union Square Café and Shake Shack. This book is part memoir, part entrepreneurial journey, and part a treatise on the values that Meyer instilled in the company he founded.
Those values include:
- Understanding hospitality and how it differs from service (p. 65): service is the technical delivery, while hospitality is how it makes the guest feel.
- Shared ownership (p. 78): employees and guests should talk about a restaurant as if it were their own.
- Connect the dots (p. 81): be on the lookout for small details that make a difference, like someone who is dining alone or a couple celebrating a special occasion.
- Context is everything (p. 99): make the restaurant fit the neighborhood and the city it is in.
- Invest in your community (p. 114): help improve the neighborhood so that others benefit from your success.
- Know thyself (p. 121): you do not have to be all things to all people. Knowing who your business is not for is as important as knowing who you are trying to serve&em;otherwise you will disappoint both groups.
- Have a reflex for excellence (p. 141-3): Meyer talks throughout the book about qualities he looks for in his team, and this is perhaps the most important. Look for employees whose instinct is to go the extra mile, such as ensuring that a wineglass has no fingerprints or smudges.
- Set the center (p. 189): leaders should exercise constant, gentle pressue (p. 191-2) to define and demonstrate the values of their organization.
- Communicate ripples in advance (p. 193-4): people are not at their best when they are surprised.
- Give your team opportunities to feel heard (p. 204): you might not always like what you learn, but it helps to create a thriving culture.
- Address mistakes (p. 223): acknowledge the problem and apologize, but never make excuses.
Another strong point of the book is the way that Meyer talks about his own growth as a leader. He describes the process of becoming a first-time manager as feeling like their is a microphone stitched to your lips, and that everyone has their eyes on you. He argues that the right reaction to this is to accept it and see yourself as the servant of your team (bottoms-up leadership).
One minor weak point of the book is that it is unclear how some business decisions have followed from these values. For example, which of the values above explains Meyer’s decision to move away from tipping at his restaurants? (The decision was controversial and reportedly caused a 30-40 percent turnover in staff, which is normal for the restaurant industry but much higher than normal for Meyer’s company.)
For more lessons from the hospitality industry, see the review of Medium Raw.
The thesis of this book is that thinking about choices as bets improves the decision-making process. By doing this, it forces the decision-maker to evaluate the strength of the belief (subjective probability) and the significance (upsides and downsides) of each possible outcome (p. 66). Uncertainty about the outcome could be due to either incomplete knowledge or inherent randomness in the problem at hand (p. 69).
Quantifying uncertainty helps in two key ways. The first is that it allows you take an inventory of why you believe something (p. 66). Even if your uncertainty is over a wide range (e.g. something is 20 to 80 percent likely), setting bounds helps you to focus. Second, by quantifying your uncertainty it also means that changing your mind doesn’t have to be a binary process. As the author says, “I was 58 but now I am 46 percent sure” feels better than “I was right but now I know I was wrong.” (p. 70) Treating your beliefs as probabilities helps to avoid loss aversion bias around the ideas you hold.
Another theme of the book is that you should carefully evaluate the quality of decisions based on the information you knew at the time, not based on whether you turned out to be right or wrong. The author callsthe latter method of evaluating decision-making “resulting,” by which she means overindexing on the quality of the outcome rather than the quality of the decision. One way to improve your decision-making is to participate in a group that holds you accountable for your decisions and the accuracy of the information on which you made them (p. 130). In fact, one succinct way to summarize the book is that “a bet is a form of accountability.” (p. 135)
One paragraph of the book is worth quoting in full:
Surfers have more than twenty terms to describe different kinds of waves. The reason is that the type of wave, the way it breaks, the direction it’s coming from, the bottom depth, etc., create differing challenges for surfers. There are closeouts (eaves that break all at once), and double-ups (a type of wave created when two waves meet to form one wave) and reforms (a wave that will break, then die down, then break again). Non-surfers just call all of these “waves.” On rare occasions when we non-surfers need to be more specific, we just add a lot of extra words. Those extra words don’t cost us much because it doesn’t come up very often–maybe never. But for people involved in specialized activities, it’s worth it to be able to communicate a complex concept in a single word that laypeople would need lengthy phrases to convey. Having a nuanced, precise vocabulary is what jargon is all about. It’s why carpenters have at least a dozen names for different types of nails, and in the field of neuro-oncology, there are more than 120 types of brain and central nervous system tumors. (p. 197)
This is a clear and thorough explanation of why jargon exists in various fields. As the author shows, the language of bets applies very generally and can help to improve decision-making any time you encounter uncertainty.
A few notes:
- Quantification of debt and the consequent depersonalization of relationships requires money as a unit of account. Credit money may be a more likely origin than barter money.
- Lending to someone who is not a close relative or neighbor often requires a threat of violence for enforcement (this is closely related to the “origins of the state” literature, see e.g. Charles Tilley).
- Barter is a synchronous, low-trust, low-consumer surplus, high transaction cost event.
- Credit is an asynchronous, high-trust, low transaction cost event.
- Credit requires trust and stable identities (knowing who owes whom).
- For a money economy to work, you must have a level playing field: courts police and fair weights and measures. Barter was often for commodities that were uniform and homogenous “known quantities” (a goat in the ancient Middle East, a rifle on the American frontier, etc) not for works of art. A unique value proposition is not amenable to barter. Barter goods have to be durable over time (cigarettes in prisons) since they need to be stockpiled. Even a gold ingot is exchanged based on the trust that it can later be exchanged for something else.
- Gift economies are high context, high trust. You give without the guarantee of future repayment but with a general idea of reciprocity.
- Human economies (the ancient practice of giving a female relative to become someone’s wife) are a perfect example of where barter or like-for-like exchange fails due to asynchronicity or asymmetry in supply and demand.
- War is a state-making and and market-making activity. If stationary bandits want legibility and uniform currency for paying taxes, how much more so does a roaming bandit who has limited time, attention, and information. Gold, silver, and jewels travel well.
- Coins may have first been minted to pay mercenaries. They require almost zero trust, travel easily to the front lines, and can be used there to purchase goods and services.
- Axial religions arose at the same time as debt became commonplace, and adopted its language for their understanding of the world.
- When you give a religious contribution in the form of a bull or some flour it cannot be used to earn interest or reproduce in knd. When you give money its fungible and can be lent out, creating a permanent endowment. Organizations like the Roman Catholic Church would not exist without this.
- Similarly with taxation: once taxes are required in state currency you have to engage in markets (this is the meaning of “cash crops” in, e.g., Faulkner).
Although it is hard to conceive of matches as “new technology” today, in the early twentieth century that is exactly what safety matches were. Ivar Kreuger found a way to turn that technology into a business monopoly, and then turn that monopoly into an unprecedented financial scandal.
In many ways this book parallels The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean’s account of Enron. The specific similarities include:
- Using shell companies to hide money for a rainy day (p. 50)
- Mark-to-market accounting (p. 53)
- Moving subsidiary debts off the balance sheet (p. 78-79)
These two books pair nicely and should be read together or in close succession.
This book is exactly as good as everyone (especially Jeff Atwood) says. Rather than trying to summarize its 800-plus pages here, instead I will link to the books it referenced that made their way onto my to-read list:
- Effective C++ and More Effective C++ by Scott Meyers
- Peer Reviews in Software by Karl Wiegers
- Writing Efficient Programs by Jon Louis Bentley
- Software Engineering Economics by Barry Boehm
- Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister
- Large-Scale C++ Software Design by John Lakos
- The Practice of Programming by Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike
- The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg
This book is about the work of architecture and craftsmanship that goes into building a house, and the deep satisfaction that comes from doing those jobs well. It contains lessons about not only creating physical structuers but also the parallel tasks of creative people in other professions.
The first step in the process was gathering requirements and putting down a design on paper. The design was known to be imperfect, a starting point for iteration between the architect and the builders. As the designer put his ideas on paper, the sketches themselves became a source of inspiration pushing him toward what the house “wanted” to be (in the phrasing of architect Louis Kahn, see p. 56).
In this case the architect was a soft-spoken man designing his first house, so he did not always push vigorously for his own ideas. Over the course of the project, though, his confidence grows:
If he is not disposed to be a martinet, an architect needs to be a salesman. Bill is a good one…. About his own views, he often seems diffident. He gropes for them. He stammers. His deep, deep voice cracks slightly. What he’s driving at is sort of this and kind of that, and he must ask if you see what he means. But then, in the midst of such qualified talk, Bill calls a halt and says, “No. Not sort of. It is.” (p. 59)
One way that Bill persuades his clients to accept his recommended style is by marshalling historical evidence for the its popularity in the area where they have chosen to build. Although he departs somewhat from the bare facts, his arguments are accepted. As his client explains, “It’s sort of like an ad, you know. You won’t drink a beer you don’t like, but if you like an ad for one, it might help you decide. If he had told me this particular design was a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s, it would have pushed me the other way.” (p. 65)
After the initial blueprints are drawn, the builders begin construction. They know that the design is not completely finalized and that by starting their work they will help to push it along. “You’re always making value judgments, you know, about what’s straight or plumb, but sooner or later you gotta nail it. You’ve got to have confidence it’s right enough, or if it’s not, that you can fix it.” (p. 107) Once the framing is in place, one of the builders “thinks back to that forbidding-looking framing plan and he says, ‘It doesn’t look nearly as complicated now. When you start building, it makes sense.’” (p. 139) This type of evolutionary, iterative design-build-design loop is common in other fields as well.
The author also takes an interesting side trip through the world of forestry economics, discussing the technological progress that has been applied to raw construction materials. For example, in 1980 America harvested about the same amount of timber as in 1900 but was able to do more building with it. This is in part because wood is used far less for fuel, and partially because plywood is much more efficient: “To cover 100 square feet of floor with boards, you’d need to use up 10.1 cubic feet of wood, but it only takes 5.2 cubic feet to produce the plywood taht will do the same job.” (p. 115) The transformation from rough timber–which still resembles a tree–to commodified lumber is an almost alchemical one (see pp. 123-125).
Another interesting detail is that even in the age of written contracts, so many of the specifications for a house are still based on oral discussion and mutual understanding. The phrase “in workmanlike manner” did the heavy lifting: it specified a widely agreed-upon standard against which witnesses could compare the quality of the finished product. As the variety of building materials, designs, and roles on the job site has increased it has become difficult for workers across specializations and geographic areas to reach consensus about what constitutes “workmanlike manner.” Consequently, written contracts have grown longer as they attempt to spell this out in legal text (see p. 279-281 and the end notes).
Given its thorough explanation of the building process and its attention to engaging diversions like the ones above, this book is highly recommended for anyone interesting in creative pursuits or the economics of how raw materials are converted to livable dwellings. This is the best book I have read all year.
Autonomy is an account of the development of driverless car technology from the earliest days of the DARPA Grand Challenge through the present. The author, a former GM executive and current advisor to Waymo, is decidedly optimistic about technology from the first page of this book to the last. Consequently, he seems to understate the policy controversies and social upheaval that could accompany the shift to autonomous vehicles.
Another criticism of the book is that it is too focused on the U.S. passenger vehicle market. Autonomous vehicles are already commonplace in industrial applications, such as in Australian mining operations. This is a far cry from driving safely on public roads, but autonomous driving in the U.S. is also quite different from driverless operation in the “hyper-multimodal” crowded urban centers of India or major African cities.
The strongest aspect of the book is its clear identification of major schools of thought amongst the developers of autonomous vehicles. One such divide is whether to use custom hardware or off-the-shelf materials (p. 54). Similarly, companies that have made substantial progress on autonomy systems also debate whether to partner with automobile manufacturers or develop new vehicles from the ground up (pp. 257, 265).
The authors also explain for a general audience the important role that maps play in autonomous driving systems. The decision to use maps was one of the critical “hacks” that facilitated the success of Carnegie Mellon’s entry in the first DARPA challenge:
If Red Team members could give Sandstorm an accurate map of its surroundings before the race, they could remove a time-intensive step from the computational task…. The team had assumed they were trying to build a robot that could sense the world so well, it could discern a road in the desert and navigate it safely for 150 miles. Using maps meant that the robot could be told in advance where the road was, and how to drive it. The method had the potential to allow Sandstorm to travel much faster than it otherwise might. (p. 33)
The development of Google Maps–and especially its Street View component, with images of virtually every road in markets where Google operates–was also a major contributor to the early success of the Chauffeur project (which was eventually spun out of Google as Waymo during the Alphabet re-organization):
Google’s development of the Street View service stands as a carographic achievement unmatched since the days of Vasco de Gama and Magellan….
Chaffeur’s approach to the safe and reliable deployment of self-driving cars required highly accurate maps of the roads its vehicles navigated…. 3-D map data provided the Chauffeur vehicles with the ability to locate themselves in the world, just as preexisting maps did for Thrun’s Minerva robot tour guide and Levandowski’s pizza-delivering Pribot. (pp. 172-73)
Although there is potential for the development of mapless or “maps-light” autonomy systems in the future, for now mapping provides an incredibly useful prior about the state of the world: “[G]etting to full autonomy, the kind that allows you to think it’s a good idea to make a car without a steering wheel or brakes, requires really good maps–a high resolution 3-D scan of every road the self-driving car is going to ride, ever.” (p. 285)
Despite its shortcomings listed above, this book is a useful history of autonomous driving systems. It is a useful reference for both the general public and AV practitioners to understand how this technology got its start and became part of the “adjacent possible” in just a few short years.
There are four close parallels between the world of software development and the culinary industry:
- The rise of credentialization
- The celebritization of higher-ups (software executives and chefs)
- Opportunities for on-the-job-learning
- A belief of each subculture in its own meritocracy
Given these similarities, Bourdain’s books should be required reading for any early-career software developer. It is no coincidence that one of the essays from this book, “So You Wanna Be a Chef” made the rounds on sites like Hacker News and Lobsters a few weeks ago. It is well worth reading in full for its discussion of points 1 and 3 above. Seriously, go read it now and then come back.
The second point above (celebritization) comes up in chapter 14:
Under commandment 19 Richmond lists, “show us the chef.” “If dinner for two is costing $200, you have every right to expect the chef to be at work.” … [Richmond] also well understands, one would think, the economics of maintaining the kinds of operations he’s talking about. Yet he demands and expects us to believe that every time a table of customers plunks down $200 at one of Bobby Flay’s restaurants that Bobby himself should rush on over and personally wrap their tamales and then maybe swing by and give them a little face time over dessert….
The whole suggestion is predicated on a [big lie], one which Richmond himself happily helped create and which he works hard on a daily basis to keep alive. See, it makes for a better article when you associate the food with a personality. Richmond… built up these names, helped make them celebrities by promoting the illusion that they cook–that if you walk into one of dozens of Jean George’s restaurants he’s somewhere back there on the line, personally sweating over your halibut, measuring freshly chopped herbs between thumb and forefinger.
Every time someone writes “Mr. Batali is fond of strong, assertive flavors,” however true that might be… it ignores the reality–if not the whole history–of command and control and the creative process in restaurant kitchens…. There are plenty of great cooks in this world, but not that many great chefs. The word chef means “chief.” A chef is simply a cook who leads other cooks. That quality–leadership–the ability to successfully command, inspire, and delegate work to others is the very essence of what chefs are about.
This is remarkably similar to the way that technology leaders are discussed in the popular press. Tim Cook is not designing ARM chips for the next iPhone, and Patrick Collison is not likely to be found committing code to production systems at Stripe these days. What makes these individuals so impactful is their ability, like a great chef, to “successfully command, inspire, and delegate work to others.”
One chef who struggles to delegate, David Chang, helps to illustrate the fourth similarity above: the belief of both chefs and software developers that they work within a meritocratic system (ch. 17).
“What took me to cooking was that there was something honest about it,” says David Chang. “There is no lying in the kitchen…. You either can or can’t make an omelette. You either can or can’t chop an onion, shake a pan, keep up with the other cooks, replicate again and again perfectly the dishes that need to be done. No credential, no amount of BS, no well-formed sentences or pleas for mercy, will change the basic facts. The kitchen is the last meritocracy.”
Software developers might be better off if they understood the similarity of their role to other artisans–chefs, carpenters, cobblers–for whom the act of showing up on time and creating work that speaks for itself is a matter of pride. For insights like these, Bourdain and other lifelong students of a craft (such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Shop Class as Soulcraft) are worth reading again and again.
This is the story of intellectual property theft. The care and cultivation of tea plants was a closely guarded secret in China as recently as the mid-19th century. Dissatisfied with their existing trade agreements, the British East India Company dispatched a botanist-turned-spy Robert Fortune to steal tea plants and transport them to India for the development of new plantations.
In addition to industrial espionage, this account also describes key technological and policy changes that allowed Fortune to be successful. One was the reduction in the Glass Tax that allowed greenhouses to become widespread, supporting the transplantation of flora from more moderate climates to Britain. The transport of those plants also depended on a newly-designed Wardian case which enabled the spread of plant specimens beyond just the hardy varieties that could survive a trans-equatorial trip in the open air of a ship’s deck. This in turn developed new industries across the British Empire, such as rubber plantations in South Asia.
Tea also inspired manufacturing improvements. Before tea was popular, English ceramic cups could not be used to hold boiling water. After the drink became commonplace, high-quality porcelain (still known today as “China”) was necessary.
Even transportation was impacted by the tea trade. Over the course of a decade in the mid-19th century, the time to travel between London and China was reduced by a full month. This was largely the result of the entry of America into the tea trade, using faster ships known as “tea clippers.”
“For All the Tea in China” is interesting and engaging throughout.
This is a suprisingly compact and readable book about how to read a balance sheet and income statement. Although the first edition was published in 1937 it is still relevant today despite a few changes in common terminology.
As an exercise, I converted the material in Part II to a Google Sheet. This consists of the income statement and balance sheet for the Bethlehem Steel Corporation as of Dec. 31, 1928. Each of the analytical calculations in the text is also included in the sheet, along with definitions and formulae.
- Scavengers (nightsoil men, bonepickers) formed an entire economy that has been replaced by modern waste management systems.
- Coal (cheap energy), commoners (cheap labor), and caffeine (cheap sustenance) were three drivers of the industrial revolution and accompanying urbanization.
- Miasma theory posited that bad air was the cause of cholera. Its proponents found support in fact that higher elevations had less disease, but this was because they were less dense and less likely to get water from the Thames.
- Crucial data became available when a deceased’s water source was added to bills of mortality, in addition to their cause of death and location.
- Snow needed a matched pair of locations, similar in every respect except where they got their water. Three London districts were served by both S&V (which delayed until the last minute) and Lambeth (which was early to move its intakes beyond the tidal reach of the Thames). This was the critical “ceteris paribus.”
In the opening sentences of the book, Agassi reveals a personal truth: he hates tennis. Throughout this autobiography, he shares accounts of telling close friends this and in each case their reaction is the same–disbelief, followed by sympathy. He hates both losing and winning, with the only difference being that he hates losing more. However, eventually he realizes that “maybe doing what you hate, doing it well and cheerfully, is the point.” (Chapter 21)
Lessons from the book include:
- Your attitude is the most important thing you can cultivate. As Agassi puts it, matches can be won hours ahead of time by practicing constructive self-talk.
- Attention to the details of your tools. Agassi is the only one who ever touches his tennis bag, and he knows how much it should weigh down to the ounce.
- Even in a solitary game such as tennis, you build a team of trainers and coaches. Agassi is very loyal to his team, and they are loyal to him in return.
- Helping others is its own reward. By the end of his career, Agassi had earned tens of millions of dollars but he was still motivated to earn money for his educational foundation.
Soviet military maps were extremely detailed (1:5,000 for some major cities such as New York). Civilian maps issued by the Soviet government had intentional inaccuracies introduced. Because they had done this themselves, this led the Soviets not to trust and commercially available maps of other territories, particularly the US and Great Britain (47).
The military maps were of such high quality that coalition ground troops and pilots relied on them during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and were still using them as late as 2003 (134).
This book had been on my to-read list for quite some time, since it comes highly recommended by Ben Horowitz and others. Although the book is mainly directed at middle managers in large corporations, many of its lessons are applicable to all “knowledge workers.”
The key idea of the book is to take an output-based approach to your work. Figure out what it is that you (or your team) could be said to produce: widgets, TPS reports, lines of code, etc. Your goal is to produce this output in the most effective way possible. In order to do that, Grove discusses three areas of management: production, leverage, and performance.
To improve your production, you must recognize what the component parts of your work look like. This means categorizing your work into process steps (e.g. a standup meeting), assembly steps (writing code), and test steps (running the code to see if it works). There are many alternative ways to approach any given task, and your responsibility is to find the most cost-effective approach.
One important lesson that Grove shares about testing steps is to try to find problems while your output is still at the lowest-value stage possible. In other words, verify the quality of your inputs before expending effort to add value. For example, you could review a co-worker’s report while it is still in the rough draft stage to see if they are on the right track, rather than waiting until the end and suggesting they start over. In software development, one way to apply this lesson is to verify the quality of data before investigating potential bugs in code.
The second part of the book is focused on leverage. The key insight here is to recognize that in contemporary workplaces, work is pursued by teams rather than individuals (xii). Furthermore, teams perform well when individuals are motivated to do their best. To help with this, team members need task-relevant feedback in order to improve.
Work simplification is one example of a way to increase leverage. Ask why a particular step is performed. If it is unnecessary, remove it. If it is necessary but could be made moree efficient, do so.
A knowledge worker can also increase her own leverage in several ways. One is to increase the rate of activity: do the same things, only faster. This could be achieved by reducing latency or using higher-quality inputs. Another way is to increase the leverage of her activities, such as by shifting the mix of activities away from low leverage activities and toward higher leverage ones.
The book concludes with practical tips for performance. The first is to realize that your day-to-day activities should not be confused with your outputs. Day-to-day activities of a manager typically fall into one of the following categories: information gathering, decision making, and nudges. Recognizing when to apply each of these (and when they have reached diminishing returns) is a key management skill.
Some of the tips in the book are very tactical. One suggestion is to use your calendar as a production planning tool, rather than as an inventory of who has requested your time. Another recommendation is “ask one more question”: whenever you think a team member has said all they want to say, follow up a bit to be sure. This is most applicable in 1:1’s between a manager and a report, but could be used in other settings as well.
Overall this book provides highly general advice, and there is a good reason that it is so widely recommended.
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, The 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, in 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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