Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Books Read - Q1 2018

  • Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (3/5) The neolithic revolution as a "deskilling" of men. As Alexis de Tocqueville said regarding division of labor in The Wealth of Nations: "What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life putting heads on pins?" States appeared and disappeared for several thousand years before becoming a permanent fixture of human life. Citizens of early (or all?) states are somewhere on a slave-serf continuum. Why was not Yahweh anywhere to be seen prior to 1,000 B.C.?
  • The Soul of a Tree: A Master Woodworker's Reflections (4/5) Wonderful furniture by George Nakashima. His children are still producing at his workshop in Bucks County, PA. One of his pieces (like a coffee table) is worth high five figures today.
  • The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design (3/5) It turns out Charles Eames was a Steve Jobsian character! Did Don Albinson really design one of the only good Eames designs? Pat Kirkham said Eames was "not very mechanical or scupltural"! People are not happy to hear about this. (Remember Henry Ford was like this as well. A new archetype.)
  • Navy SEAL Mental Toughness: A Guide To Developing An Unbeatable Mind (1/5) This book is about how tough SEALs are not about how they get that way. What's the point of having mental toughness if you use it to be a neocon pawn? The real wisdom is knowing when to persist and surmount obstacles and when to try applying yourself to something else.
  • Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir (2/5) Norm Macdonald is only funny when he is not trying to be. Terrible standup and joke writer but very funny in casual conversation.
  • Love in the Ruins: Modern Catholics in Search of the Ancient Faith (3/5) Catholicism was repealed and replaced in 1965. The same year that Hart-Celler Act opened immigration floodgates to the U.S.
  • Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (See review: 4/5)
  • Retreat From Kabul (4/5) The current British NATO occupation of Afghanistan is their fourth. During the first time, in 1842, the British presence was led by Major General Sir William Elphinstone who was too timid to fight with the result that all of their fighting force of 4,500 (but one man) were killed trying to leave Kabul.
  • Enter Jeeves: 15 Early Stories (4/5) See Sailer on P.G. Wodehouse: "Wodehouse hit a long peak from his early 40s into his early 60s with six straight Jeeves novels rated above his career average". And Jeeves says: "If you have ever studied psychology, sir, you will know that respectable old gentlemen are by no means averse to having it advertised that they were extremely wild in their youth."
  • Structural Holes (3.5/5) Know lots of people who know lots of people but who don't know each other. Then you can make money as a broker like Irving Lazar or Michael Ovitz. Summary of theory: "most social structures tend to be characterized by dense clusters of strong connections, also known as network closure. The theory relies on a fundamental idea that the homogeneity of information, new ideas, and behavior is generally higher within any group of people as compared to that in between two groups of people. An individual who acts as a mediator between two or more closely connected groups of people could gain important comparative advantages. In particular, the position of a bridge between distinct groups allows him or her to transfer or gatekeep valuable information from one group to another."
  • Moon Barcelona Walks (4/5) A very walkable city! Avoid the most touristy places and the hideous Gaudí architecture. A cityscape of five and six story apartment buildings (with retail on the ground floors) and everything connected by moped, pedestrian friendly sidewalk, or mass transit is the way to live. Wear dark earth tones and a navy blue or black pea coat to fit in best. Drink Spanish vermut on the rocks (with standard orange & olive garnish). Brilliant of them to sit out both World Wars.
  • Nature's Metropolis (3.5/5) This is an economic history of Chicago during the 19th Century. Chicago got its start by marketing midwestern grain, lumber, and meat. It beat St Louis because railroads beat barges. As an example, the changing seasonal height of the Mississippi River made it hard to site grain elevators along the riverfront in St Louis, which made Chicago the better city to site grain elevators. (Grain elevators came into being in Chicago. The first one was built in 1838 while St Louis didn't have one until after the Civil War.) From elevators you have the grain exchange (CBOT) and then financial and intellectual capital in place for deeper and wider marketplaces (Merc). See also our old dual review of Floored & The Futures books. Another way to put it: "In the mid-19th century, the railroads won out over the river boats in a bitter struggle for supremacy in transportation. This helped establish the mastery of the Great Lakes and East Coast ports, and strengthened the economy of the North." Suggested book to look at is a novel called The Pit.
  • World of Carbon (3/5) This is an old one by Issac Asimov, who actually wrote a fair amount of nonfiction. There are two halves of chemistry, organic and inorganic. Being the "world of carbon," this is about inorganic. Might be interesting to followup with his World of Nitrogen, which is about organic nitrogen-containing compounds.
  • Artemis (3/5) This is second book by the author of The Martian. Favorite idea was having "soft landed grams" be the unit of currency on the moon. Not as good as his first but wouldn't be surprised if it gets made into a movie too. Critics hate the book: "takes that same genial dad-joke personality and superimposes it onto a main character who’s supposed to be a take-no-shit brilliant young woman", "offers the same flat, sweary prose, fistfights and scientific mini-lectures - on the moon," "the author seems to be offering up this one as some sort of gift to the gods of political correctness". I think he still doesn't have a day job anymore though. See his conversation with MR. 
  • Dark Star Safari (3/5) Yet another Paul Theroux book - picked this up at a used bookstore before a long flight. Important to remember that he's a 76 year old former Peace Corps hippie; sometimes his books say more about him than the places he's visiting. "He resides in Hawaii and Cape Cod, Massachusetts" according to Wikipedia.
  • Massacre at Montségur (4/5) A history of a forgotten episode from 13th Century France. During the 11th C in the Languedoc region of France, Christianity spun-off a sect called Catharism, a Gnostic revival named after a Greek word καθαροί for the "pure ones". Cathars eventually spread to Eastern Europe (Bulgaria) as well. Cathars thought that the Old Testament God (YWH) was the evil God, in addition to being sole creator of the physical world. (Why doesn't anybody realize that Christianity is polytheistic?) Catharism in France was also a reaction to corruption of the Church. In reaction to this threat, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against these fellow Christians. Might makes right, so Cathars' goofy beliefs (like not reproducing themselves) resulted in martial weakness and a dead end as a Christian sect. The ethnic cleansing was brutal (burning the "heretics") and Dominican inquisitors created what may be the first modern-style police state. The phrase "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" ("Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own") comes from one of the slaughters of Cathars in this crusade. Author's conclusion: "From the thirteenth century onwards we no longer find saint or doctor in the Catholic Church bold enough to assert that a man who errs in religious matters is still one of God's creatures."
  • Brokerage & Closure (3.5/5) This is the sequel to Burt's Structural Holes mentioned earlier this year. "Brokers do better." People who bridge groups are more likely to have creative ideas and be able to implement them. Creativity by brokerage is moving an idea mundane in one group to another where the idea is new and valued. Ways of thinking are more homogeneous within than between groups so people connected to otherwise segregated groups have more optionality from more ideas. Other ideas: Homophily in friendships [e.g.]. Paul Revere as a broker [Han paper]. (See also Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere.) Closed network ~ high trust society on macro scale. Schumpeter on heirs who have inherited his wealth without his ability (link).
  • Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony (3/5) Worth studying a culture that produces (by far and away) the most reliable automobiles in the world. This author (who's a nerdy white guy) thinks it is partly a product of moving very slowly and deliberately in decision making. Half of the 130mm country lives in Tokyo-Yokohama-Chiba (with 38mm) or Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe (Keihanshin, 20mm). The greater Tokyo area has the population of California! Few movie theaters - they prefer comic books? The best selling Japanese musician is Ayumi Hamasaki. Not mentioned in the book but here is a great tweetstorm by Marcin Wichary "things that surprised/amazed me about Japan".
  • Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (3/5) This is a collection of Scalia's speeches on various topics (law, religion, etc) published after he died. Scalia thought that the new constitutional law system where the Supreme Court legislates its opinion on social and moral issues, came from the Warren Court (1950s and 1960s). However, the anti-Federalists (such as "Brutus") predicted that the Supreme Court would be a super-legislature and would have no check against its power, being superior to and not coequal of the other branches. (All of the defects in the goofy Constitution that the anti-Federalists pointed out quickly came to pass.) For some reason Scalia repeatedly recommends that listeners read the Federalist Papers but never once the Anti-Federalist Papers. Scalia is the classic conservative as principled loser. He was "dear friends" with RBG who would like nothing more than to confiscate guns from Scalia's people so they can be ethnically cleansed. Scalia is also recognizably un-Anglo Saxon in his attitudes, which was perfect for the unrepresentative Court. He also believed that the 4th amendment did not protect against government wiretapping. Overall, it is no wonder that the country is in such marked decline with a guy like this representing "our" interests. If I have to acknowledge one positive thing about him, it would be his dissents.
  • Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy (3/5) Intangible assets are a greater and greater share of the investment component of GDP. Intangible asset heavy companies change how to think about financial statements, e.g. price to book becomes much less meaningful because investments in the intangible assets are expensed not capitalized. Coca-Cola trades at 11x book value. (And over 400x tangible book value!) Mentions something interesting about this, The End of Accounting. (Of course, non-GAAP has already happened: "between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of public companies reporting non-GAAP (“pro forma”) earnings doubled from 20% to 40%.")
  • Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped By the Greatest Land Sale in History (3/5) Agrees with Spoils of War - restrictions on interior land purchases helped provoke colonials like GW to rebel. This ban and the Boston harbor blockade were mistakes by George. The result is the ultimate historical disaster, the American Revolution, which led the colonies to mistakenly believe they had anything in common. The U.S. is a nation of land speculators (like GW was) and every political decision happens to maximize value of raw land. Unrelated but good quote: "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind..."
  • Sibley's Birding Basics: How to Identify Birds, Using the Clues in Feathers, Habitats, Behaviors, and Sounds (5/5) This was a great one. Author David Allen Sibley and (competitor Roger Peterson) are the kings of North American ornithological field identification guides. Look at their collections: Sibley and Peterson. Sibley says to train yourself to see details so you can make comparisons, and figure out what species of bird you are looking at. Form follows function, so many of the characteristics that differentiate are features that are specific to a certain lifestyle. He says the scientific names are less accessible but more valuable. And then once you are looking at the scientific names, think in terms of genera rather than just species. (Egrets and herons are both Ardea, for example.) Mentions the American Ornithological Society's Birds of North and Middle America Checklist - the official source on the taxonomy of birds. So you could see that there are many, many species of hummingbirds (and genera) all in the family Trochilinae.
  • Against the Gods (3/5) Peter Bernstein treatment of the big names and discoveries in probability, statistics, and then finance and behavioral finance. I actually confused him with William Bernstein, author of the Birth of Plenty and Splendid Exchange books. Anyway, did not know that Edmund Halley (of the comet) put together life tables which were maybe the first ones since Ulpian in 225 AD. Speaking of probability, I thought that this Bayesian Python book looked interesting. 
  • Nature: An Economic History (4/5) By Geerat Vermeij, the blind Dutch evolutionary biologist. I mentioned this one all the way back seven years ago to talk about investor genotypes in an investing ecosystem. Decided to reread without any investing notions in mind. Plants make nitrogen or carbon toxins as defenses (depending on which is relatively more available in their environment), but never phosphate because it's so rare. So nothing was naturally resistant to our organophosphate pesticides. There are a million species of insects and 80% are parasitic. C4 photosynthesis has evolved 30+ times. Agriculture has evolved ten times and nine of the times are fungus farming insects! The equatorial zone is more extravagant in the number of species, their aggression, color, etc. Apparently the numbers on mass extinctions weren't truly compiled until 1984? The terminal Cretaceous extinction had a 96% species kill rate! No tetrapods weighing more than 25kg survived. The Chicxulub crater was identified in 1990 as the impact of the 10km asteroid. (A million times more explosive force than the biggest nuclear weapon.)
Q1: 24
YTD: 24

Remember from the 2017 book post that the goal was to read two a week, which we did achieve for Q1. Did not hit the goal of having a higher batting average, but part of that is that I am plowing through a lot of books that people have given me over the years. How does anyone like the new "brief note" for each book, and then an occasional (rare) review (e.g.)?


Tom said...

Thanks for all your input/output!

J. said...

Scalia is also recognizably un-Anglo Saxon in his attitudes

Can you elaborate on this? I don't doubt it, but I'm curious what specific things in his speeches give that impression.

Anonymous said...

If you are OK with recommendations from the field, Tim Noake's book "Lore of Nutrition" is pretty amazing as an expose' on the dismal state of conventional dietary advice, and how hard vested interests are willing to fight to maintain the status quo.

Midwest Pete said...

As far as short takes vs. the in-depth reviews, the short takes don't really leave me wanting to read the book, while the in-depth reviews almost always did.

BTW, the last comment was mine too. I think the form lost track of my name after I previewed my comment.

YN said...

Long time cbs reader here. I remember one of the earliest mentions on Geerat in this post (, and that included Geerat quoting the biologist Wolfgang Sterrer... which is one of the most perfect sentences I have ever come across:

"An organism represents a hypothesis of its environment, continually tested by selection for its predictive value, and modified by adaptation for a better fit."

This quote eventually led me to a book I recently published. It's called "The Analyst". Sterrer's quote opens the book. It is speculative science-fiction about Wall Street/money/investing...

Hopefully something readers can enjoy.

League of Women Voters said...

That looks interesting.

Who is "Y N"??

League of Women Voters said...

The elusive "Y N"... going to read it.

Does that stand for Yes/No?

CP said...

So why would anyone come into the city? Scott argues, based on reconstruction of ancient soils and climate, that around 5,000 years ago, droughts in the fertile wetlands of Mesopotamia made wild foods critically scarce, which meant that foragers had to rely more and more on grain to feed themselves. Once a system of labor was in place, fresh bodies could be hustled into it by the new sub–ruling class of soldiers, or swept up en masse in slave raids. Enslavement was nothing new, but the tax-grain-surplus regime enabled the new cities’ rulers to scale it up immensely. Once the exploitation machine called civilization was running, it was self-perpetuating.

CP said...

"As far as short takes vs. the in-depth reviews, the short takes don't really leave me wanting to read the book, while the in-depth reviews almost always did."

That's good! We are saving you time!

CP said...

Tom W / Midwest Pete / YN:

As loyal commenters, feel free to get in touch via email CP [AT] Creditbubblestocks [DOTCOM].

CP said...

After further reflection, Against the Grain should be upgraded to at least 4/5.

See the SSC review:

CP said...

The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.

The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.

Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the reaminder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.

CP said...

Scott’s great advantage over other writers is the care he takes in analyzing the concrete machinery of statehood. Instead of abstractly saying “the state levies a 10% tax”, he realizes that some guy in a palace has resolved to take “ten percent” of the “value” produced in some vast area, with no natural way of knowing who is in that area or how much value they produce. For most of the Stone Age, this problem was insurmountable. You can’t tax hunter-gatherers, because you don’t know how many they are or where they are, and even if you search for them you’ll spend months hunting them down through forests and canyons, and even if you finally find them they’ll just have, like, two elk carcasses and half a herring or something. But you also can’t tax potato farmers, because they can just leave when they hear you coming, and you will never be able to find all of the potatoes and dig them up and tax them. And you can’t even tax lentil farmers, because you’ll go to the lentil plantation and there will be a few lentils on the plants and the farmer will just say “Well, come back next week and there will be a few more”, and you can’t visit every citizen every week.

But you can tax grain farmers! You can assign them some land, and come back around harvest time, and there will be a bunch of grain just standing there for you to take ten percent of. If the grain farmer flees, you can take his grain without him. Then you can grind the grain up and have a nice homogenous, dense, easy-to-transport grain product that you can dole out in measured rations. Grain farming was a giant leap in oppressability.

In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states. Within a few centuries, Uruk and a few other cities developed the full model: tax collectors, to take the grain; scribes, to measure the grain; and priests, to write stories like The Debate Between Sheep And Grain, with immortal lines like:

From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. People should submit to the yoke of Grain. Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whoever has Grain, and pass his time there

And so the people were taught that growing grain was Correct and Right and The Will Of God and they shouldn’t do anything stupid like try to escape back to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty.

CP said...

New @pdxsag guest review of Y.N.'s book The Analyst:

CP said...

What ever happened to Y.N.?