Saturday, February 15, 2020

Credit Bubble Stocks 2019 Book Review Compendium

In The Daily Stoic by @RyanHoliday (previously 1, 2, and especially this essay) he expands on a Marcus Aurelius observation by saying,

"The purpose of all our reading and studying is to aid us in the pursuit of the good life (and death). At some point, we must put our books aside and take action. So that, as Seneca put it, the 'words become works.' There is an old saying that 'a scholar made is a soldier spoiled.' We want to be both soldiers and scholars-soldiers in the good fight. That's what's next for you. Move forward, move onward. Another book isn't the answer. The right choices and decisions are. Who knows how much time you have left, or what awaits us tomorrow?"
Of the 48 books I read in 2019, nine ended up being lower rated than 3/5. I have an unread book backlog of about 100 books. If I read at the average 2018-2019 pace, that is more than a year's backlog plus twenty of them would be a waste of time. Even the 3/5 books are somewhat of a waste of time. It would be better to only finish books that are likely to be a 4 or higher. Looking back at the 2018 Book Review Compendium, that year I read 113 books of which 48 were a 4/5 or higher - a better batting average.

So the plan for 2020 reading is to get through that backlog, and to skip/skim books that aren't panning out in order to maintain the pace that is necessary to do it. This approach is basically what Tyler Cowen does: "Another way to read quickly is to cut bait on the losers. I start ten or so books for every one I finish. I don’t mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it. I am ruthless in my discards."

Categories of 2019 books read from biggest to smallest: economics/investing/business, biology/ecology/science, history, fiction, biography/autobiography, politics, self-help/how-to, literary nonfiction, geology, and cooking. There were no "travel" category book notes for 2019 - mostly because I went to places I had been to before and also I did not type up the notes for books in connection with the Mexico City trip.

Economics / Investing / Business (n=13)
  • Panic (5/5) Reread this - I previously reviewed back in 2015. It's now out of print and only available used. Back then, I said: "If you synthesize the best parts of Falkenstein and Redleaf, you predict that the next crisis is going to come in the investment that is currently perceived as riskless enough for highly leveraged institutions like banks to buy. In the 2000s that was mortgages, at other times it has been other investments like railroads. Right now, government bonds are accorded zero risk in calculating bank capital ratios. The idea that government bonds are riskless when governments are planning to flood the market and when the expenditures are consumed (building no collateral) may prove to be the latest delusion." Some highlights this time: "Modern financial theory amounts to the belief that hard work, superior insight, and good judgment - the keys to success in the real economy - are ineffectual for the investor in public financial markets. It tells the investor: hard work and clear thinking doesn't help here..." We are active investors, so we think in terms of sleuthing. Speaking of good judgment, he says that men who make good decisions tend to make them consistently. "Careful, diligent, and well-prepared men tend to have 'good luck'..." This fits with our high agency mindset from last year. Also, something which is relevant to indexation and the passive bubble: "Public securities markets surrender all the characteristics of strong ownership, including depth of knowledge and power to execute judgments. In exchange, public markets gain liquidity, breadth of participation, and low transaction costs."
  • Everything I Know About Business I Learned From The Godfather (4/5) "Writing about The Godfather's business lessons is not an endorsement of horses' heads in beds, garroting, cold-blooded murders of business rivals, bribery, extortion, or any other Mafia criminality, any more than writing about the US government is an endorsement of theft via taxation, regulatory extortion, crony socialism, regime changes, senseless and endless wars, intelligence agency skullduggery, Orwellian surveillance, bureaucratic rot, and nonstop lies." He quotes something from the novel that I did not remember: "He had a fleet of freight hauling trucks that made him a fortune primarily because his trucks could travel with a heavy overload and not be stopped and fined by highway weight inspectors. These trucks helped ruin the highways and then his road-building firm, with lucrative state contracts, repaired the damage wrought." He likens this to government schools: "[T]hose who love government have a growing number of votes. Many of them educated in government schools, which have instilled in them a belief in government  - a corrupt business creating more corrupt business for itself." 
  • Founders at Work (4/5) Interviews with 32 startup founders (mostly 1990s or very early 2000s) by Jessica Livingston, who started Y Combinator with Paul Graham. This interview project was obviously part of their process of training their startup founder identification algorithm. One of the interviewees is Phil Greenspun who often appears in our links: "Each class of company has one class of stars... If it's a good hospital, the doctors will be good, and it's very easy for them to hire good doctors. But it's hard for them to hire any other kind of person." Also: "People don't like to write. It's hard. The people who were really good software engineers were usually great writers; they had tremendous ability to organize their thoughts and communicate." Another interview was with the founder of Adobe who said something interesting - before desktop publishing, when people saw printed material that was printed in something besides Courier (the typewriter typeface) they thought it was old news because it would've had to be typeset and printed. Could be worth reading the other "X at Work" series: Venture Capitalists at Work and Coders at Work
  • Tragedy & Challenge: An Inside View of UK Engineering's Decline (4/5) About the decline of manufacturing in the U.K. - see our full review post. The author Tom Brown says that clueless City of London investors with no understanding of technology were always thwarting his high ROI capital investments and his long term plans for building value in manufacturing businesses. Of course: all the managements that we ever see are the opposite. They refuse to explain their plans but they always try to grow their businesses at the cost of destroying value.
  • Fraud Casebook: Lessons from the Bad Side of Business (3.5/5) These are almost all small business embezzlement cases - not big public company frauds. In most of these cases the fraud uses fake expenses. A person in accounting or accounts payable arranges to pay his company or a buddy's company based on bogus invoices, the purpose obviously being to receive those funds. (That's why it is so strange that the Tesla payables guy who was indicted just paid one legitimate vendor instead of another.) At companies with workers who are paid in cash, there could be fake payroll instead of fake vendors, but that is small time. There are a handful of cases of diverting revenue, but those are pretty small time too, like hotel employees renting out vacant rooms, or retail employees not ringing up sales. (Retail businesses have three measures of sales: those recorded on the POS system, the cash and noncash tender received, and the change in inventories.) But the big money embezzlements are fake expenses or, at someplace really profitable but really disorganized like a doctor's office, an office manager with the checkbook just writing herself checks. Which brings up the big theme of the book, in my view: small businesses can be terribly under-managed but still remain in business. If they are not noticing 1 or 2% of revenue being diverted, how much attention are they paying to any aspect of the business, at least on the cost side? I have noticed that firms that go bankrupt have poor accounting systems. How hard would it be to buy these small companies with checked out owners and improve them? You'd think there would be low hanging fruit: ditch low profit work to focus on high profit, charge more for the high profit based on improved service, cull low performers and replace them with high performers (who are a bargain). One friend of the blog thinks that there will always be profits (and high returns on capital) to be had in small business because there is so much work to be done and so few smart people to organize it.
  • Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World (3/5) My theory is that Malaysian prime minister Najib put Jho Low in charge of looting a sovereign wealth fund, with the expectation that JL would make legitimate investments that would be politically helpful, give Najib and his wife kickbacks, and take a little for himself - but JL took far more than expected. In fact the fund borrowed multiples of its assets so he looted more than 100% of it. That may be a first. The biggest purchase was a $300 million yacht, followed by big ticket NY and CA real estate, but a lot of it was blown at nightclubs, gambling, and on jewelry and presents for women. When you see people making over the top purchases like these, you have to suspect that they are made with stolen money. The looting was pretty simple - there were no internal controls, so JL just wired the money where he wanted it to go. (See the Fraud Casebook from Q2 reviews.) The big four auditors and investment banks like Goldman did not ask many questions. (Theme from 2018 reviews - no one is looking out for you.) The whole thing was incredibly clumsy and low IQ. Najib could have steered the money towards investments of supporters in Malaysia and generated valuable favors for himself, probably perfectly legally. Jho Low could have done the same. However, they both exhibited total lack of future orientation. Najib's wife acquired "12,000 pieces of jewelry, 567 handbags, and 423 watches" so she is obviously some kind of bizarre hoarder and a liability that he should have cut loose. JL should have managed the fund legitimately - a big opportunity at such a young age. There is a description of a party at a nightclub in New York that sounds like something from Tom Wolfe, with JL being mentioned in the lyrics of a song called "Check My Steezo". (Life imitates Tom Wolfe.) I agree that in the eventual movie about this, Jaime Foxx should play himself. 
  • The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement (3/5) Wiki: "The protagonist is a manager in charge of a troubled manufacturing operation. At any point in time, one particular constraint (such as inadequate capacity at a machine tool) limits total system throughput, and when the constraint is resolved, another constraint becomes the critical one. The plot of Goldratt's stories revolve around identifying the current limiting constraint and raising it, which is followed by finding out which is the next limiting constraint. Another common theme is that the system being analyzed has excess capacity at a number of non-critical points, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, is absolutely essential to ensure constant operation of the constrained resource." Also: "Alex and his team struggle to generalize a process that Alex can use when he begins his new job based what the whole team has learned as they turned the plant around. The process they find is: Find the bottleneck in the flow of work. Decide how to 'exploit' the bottleneck (make sure you maximize the flow through the bottleneck). Subordinate every other step to the bottleneck (only do the work the bottleneck can accommodate). Elevate the bottleneck (increase the capacity of the bottleneck). If the bottleneck has been broken repeat the process (a bottleneck is broken when the step has excess capacity). As chapter 36 concludes the team reflects that the word bottleneck should be replaced with the slightly broader concept of constraint."
  • The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" (Incerto) (3/5) We have previously reviewed Taleb's other works: Fooled by Randomness (4/5) and Antifragile (2/5) and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (3/5). Some interesting observations in TBS: "Venture capitalists do better than entrepreneurs, publishers do better than writers, dealers do better than artists, and science does better than scientists." Another good thought: "Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. [...] Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. [...] Collect as many free nonlottery tickets (those with open-ended payoffs) as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters..." For a variety of reasons I have shifted away from Taleb and towards Falkenstein (with his devastating critiques of Taleb's bloviation). Falky's book is a 5/5 and nothing by Taleb comes close to that. Most readers have probably seen Taleb's freak-out about IQ (where he's utterly wrong) in early 2019, but if not see some summaries [1,2,3,4]. Taleb's level of humility relative to accomplishment and actual novel ideas discovered is an unfortunate outlier. The reason we took a look at TBS and FBR within the past year is that they go from the review desk into the trash can. Now we are left with zero Taleb works on the premises. 
  • Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (3/5) Wish I'd realized that "Cities and the Wealth of Nations attempts to do for economics what The Death and Life of Great American Cities did for modern urban planning", because I'm only interested in Jacobs' thoughts on urban planning, not economics. She wrote this in 1984 and her thought was that macro-economics was a shambles (true): "Its undoing was the good fortune of having been believed in and acted upon in a big way. We think of the experiments of particle physicists and space explorers as being extraordinarily expensive and so they are. But the costs are as nothing compared with the incomprehensibly huge resources that banks, industries, governments and international institutions... have poured into tests of macro-economic theory. Never has a science, or supposed science, been more generously indulged." She's not the brightest star in the sky (or most honest?) as she's at a loss for why Germany, Northern Italy, and Southern Italy had varying levels of success after receiving Marshall Plan aid. That makes it hard to believe that any of her thoughts on economics would be worthwhile. And it didn't take a genius to point out - as she did in her key, first work - that having Robert Moses bulldoze your neighborhood to build an expressway is good for the people using the expressway but bad for you. There are a few interesting thoughts on economics though. Writing about stagflation - "a condition of high prices and too little work" - she observes "this condition is not abnormal or unprecedented. Rather, it is the normal and ordinary condition to be found in poor and backward economies the world over." This is a great point. She thinks that cities rather than nations are the most salient macro-economic entities: "most nations are composed of collections or grab bags of very different economies, rich regions and poor ones within the same nation." She contrasts "import replacing cities" with "supply regions" - "the great deficiency of poverty-stricken and backward economies is that they do not produce amply and diversely for themselves, depending to a ridiculous degree on imports instead." Successful cities grow to replace their imports and create "city regions" - "a dense, rich mixture of city and rural activities". Then there are supply regions - "stunted and bizarre economies" - that can be temporarily rich but are too focused on exporting one good and ultimately crash because they never advanced to import replacement. Uruguay did this during the early 20th C by focusing on ranching cattle and sheep, doing very well during WWII but crashing afterward due to competition from Australia and New Zealand plus substitutes for wool and leather. Uruguay did then try to do some import replacement, but directed from the top down, and failed because it "lacked the ranges of skills, the symbiotic nests of producers' goods and services, and the practice and improvising and adapting." She says, "today Uruguay has what is called a Third World Economy, but even when it was prospering, Uruguay had a Third World economy... supply regions are inherently overspecialized and wildly unbalanced economies, hence unresilient and fragile, helpless when they lose their fragments of distant markets." Who else is like this? North Dakota, the Arab oil states, even Iowa is far too dependent on growing carbs and selling them to foreigners. Attempts at making these places prosperous are like the Tennessee Valley Authority boondoggles - they fail for lack of the organic, gradual establishment of an import replacing city. One of her ultimate points is that "national or imperial currencies give faulty and destructive feedback to city economies." One last concept is "transactions of decline," like the growth of Sun Belt cities: "financed by draining older cities of their earnings."
  • Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors (3/5) Bought this to support @Tweetermeyer and because it looked like a quick read. It reads like a bit of a rush job but it does job telling the Musk story to people who have not been following as closely as we have. (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.) Basically Musk is a liar and a crook, and that strategy has worked for him for his whole career, but it is beginning to catch up with him. The early parts of the book are a reminder of how many times he has gone all-in and won: "extraordinary bluffing streak paid off". "This pattern would become a defining characteristic of Tesla's culture: The company would be stuck having to hype ever-bigger new ambitions to raise the money needed to deliver on earlier endeavors that had bogged down in execution." The ever bigger ambitions have become impossible: fully autonomous vehicles (a million robotaxis) or settling Mars. In addition to being dishonest, Musk's ratio of confidence to capability is off the charts. He is the ultimate entrepreneur as miscalibrated optimist. Big problem with the Model 3: "the lower the price of a car, the more the owner is likely to rely on it and thus the more important quality is." The idea that Musk is a physics or engineering genius is wrong - he does things that do not pencil out even on the back of the envelope. For example in 2015, he promised that the "Supercharger" charging stations would be converted to solar power. That just does not work - that amount of energy needs to come from grid power. Why Tesla has to take huge risks releasing self-driving features that aren't ready: "If Tesla were to completely eliminate the risks that killed Josh Brown, Autopilot would be almost impossible to distinguish from any other ADAS system, and Tesla's supposed advantage in autonomous-drive technology (and the billions in market valuation that it brings) would disappear." Also a good point: "The most brilliant design in the world is worth very little if it can't be made efficiently, profitably, and at competitive quality. These 'compromises' [made by other automakers] aren't the products of generic corporate mediocrity, but of survival of the fittest - the car companies that didn't embrace them have all gone out of business." Remember that Musk's plan for the Model 3 factory (the "unstoppable alien dreadnought") made no sense from the beginning. He was bizarrely obsessed with the line speed and volumetric density of the factory and proposed "a factory populated completely by densely packed robots moving so fast that no human could keep up with them." Because he did not actually have what should have been the premise of an electric car company - better battery chemistry - he decided to try to challenge companies like Toyota and Honda at what they have perfected.
  • The Great Depression: A Diary (3/5) A diary of an attorney in Youngstown, OH during the 1930s. What if it was the falling prices resulting from the great productivity increase at the turn of the century combined with an asset bubble related to fractional reserve banking that broke the economy? The deflation: "actual money in Youngstown can't be gotten." Response to crop price deflation (which made farm loans unrepayable) was to destroy crops even when people were hungry - a wealth destroying policy like cash for clunkers. People who survived this were very wary of stocks because investments in even the best companies (that survived) fell so much. The post-depression IRR of stocks is based on a best case scenario of moving from extreme caution to extreme in-caution. Prior to 1932 business leaders would predict definite times that things would improve but by that year duration was perceived as indefinite. "Those men who were wise enough to sell during the boom and then keep their funds liquid in the form of government bonds were not far-sighted or patient enough to wait almost three years to re-invest." Two Japanese premiers were assassinated during 1932. His bar association met with the judges in June 1932 "to devise means to keep the courts open in view of failure of tax collections." One thing I’d never heard of before is a secondary market for bank savings account deposits ("passbooks") selling for 60 cents on the dollar. In 1932, "almost all personal injury cases are worthless because no insurance is carried and defendants are judgment proof." "The farmers are the best organized and most militant group in the country." Also, after the inauguration of FDR: "the U.S. takes action against gold hoarders by demanding from each Federal Reserve Bank the names of persons who withdrew gold after Feb 1." He mentioned that in 1936 there was 1 lawyer in Youngstown for every 600 people. Note that 1932 was the nominal bottom but Dow/gold didn't bottom until 1933, and didn't recover to the 1929 high until 1959! I still think that Roosevelt (the low IQ, underclass man's candidate) made things vastly worse. The Trump crash will lead to a similar socialist disaster.
  • Dead Companies Walking: How A Hedge Fund Manager Finds Opportunity in Unexpected Places (2/5) Another one from Twitter that was not really worthwhile, except for two good excerpts. The first, "The financial world suffers from an inherent flaw: the people who work in it, by and large, are terrible investors." People who work in finance are hyper-competitive status-climbers, which means that they have trouble admitting failure and are highly susceptible to groupthink. The second (thread) is about the optimism bias of corporate managers: "People in management positions, even very senior management positions, are often completely wrong about the fortunes of their own companies. More important, in making these misjudgments, they almost always err on the side of excessive optimism." We have talked about the optimism bias in the past. He thinks that there are six common mistakes that cause companies to fail: (1) learning only from the recent past, (2) relying too heavily on a formula for success, (3) misreading or alienating their customers, (4) falling victim to a mania, (5) [being disrupted], and (6) being physically or emotionally removed from their companies' operations. As a shortseller, he has also noticed that stocks underreact to negative news: "Even the stocks of the most severely troubled businesses would often continue trading at much higher prices than they should have, and for far longer than they had any right to. Time after time, I would study a company's financial statements and be mystified that its share price was anywhere over a penny."
  • Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (1/5) This is a muddled book. It is a history of the period from the start of WWI through the beginning of WWII from the perspective of the big four central banks of England, France, Germany, and the U.S. It is also an argument that "mistakes" by these four central bank heads (the "lords of finance") caused the Great Depression. However, it is written by a globalist central bank functionary who lacks a coherent theory of macroeconomics, and so it is ultimately just anti-gold and pro-fiat propaganda. (The author is descended from Nizari Muslim Indians who moved to Kenya; he was educated in England.) When central planning fails, statists argue that we need even more central planning. Note that the WJB silver pro-inflation message lost because of South African gold discoveries (increasing supply and relieving gold deflation) - he was nominated for the Democrat presidential ticket three times but never won.
Biology/Ecology/Science (n=10)
  • Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down (4/5) "A society which was more creative and self-confident would not feel quite so strong a nostalgia for its great-grandfathers' buildings and household goods." Stress = load / area; how much force is pulling something apart. Strain is how far atoms in a solid are being pulled apart (increase in length/original length). Plotting these against each other for a given material results in stress-strain diagram. Hookean materials have linear relationship, but the slopes vary for different materials. The slope is the Young's modulus of elasticity; the stress that would double the length of the material (in theory). Wood has 30x higher strength along the grain than across the grain. In 19th C, metal structural collapses were blamed on "defective material," but these variances should not have been sufficient to overwhelm the factor of safety. Rather, at some unknown place in the structure the real stress must have been much higher than the calculated stress ("factor of ignorance"). Stress concentrations can come from adding or removing material: "partial strength produces general weakness." Work of fracture and tensile strength are inversely related, so almost all steel made is "mild". The key to improving steam engines was developing pipes and boilers (pressure vessels) that could handle higher pressures, so that the engines could operate at higher pressures and work more efficiently. Compression vs tension structures: "The whole business of making tension structures is set about with difficulties, complications, and treacherous traps for the unwary. This is especially the case when we want to make a structure from more than one piece of material, so that we are faced with the problem of preventing it from coming apart at the joints. For these reasons, our ancestors generally avoided tension structures as far as they could and tried to use structures where everything was in compression." Behavior of masonry structures could be predicted using scale models despite square-cube problem because they don't fail due to the materials breaking in compression. Arches are compression structures; arch bridges last a very long time. With modern arch bridges, using a suspended roadway (e.g.) means there need be no limit to rise of arch. English railways ran straight and level - "lavish use of cuttings and embankments" thanks to being rich in labor and capital. American railways used lots of bridges - timber trestle. Relative weights of tension and compression structures. In something like a tent or a sailing ship, "it pays to collect the compression loads into a small number of masts or poles, contrived to be as short as possible. The tension loads are better diffused into as many strings and membranes as may be." Overall: the topic of structures could be thought of as the economics of holding up weight. "A structure is a device which exists in order to delay some event which is energetically favored." Also, thinking about how to build stuff, and why stuff is built the way it is, continues the high agency and dimensional analysis themes from last year. I'm paying more attention to the design of bridges that I see now (suspension, arch, etc.).
  • This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know (3.5/5) Some ideas: (1) illusion of explanatory depth: "most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do," (2) determinism: "all matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics," (3) comparative advantage, (4) J.B.S. Haldane's rule of the right size: “Comparative anatomy is largely the story of the struggle to increase surface in proportion to volume.” The essay about the Reynolds number was written by George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson, who wrote a book about his rediscovery of Aleutian Indian kayak design and also a history of the invention of the computer.
  • The Trees in My Forest (3.5/5) By Bernd Heinrich (previously in links) - not as good as some of his other books from last quarter or last year. It's about his forest - three hundred acres in Maine - that he bought in 1977 after it had been recently logged. Some thoughts: "All the ingenious strategies that different tree species use to tap the incredible amount of solar energy that is available are contingent on what competitors do." "Wood itself has evolved independently several times." Wood is dead tissue that is water-conducting and also structural. About Dutch elm disease: "If it is inevitable that the tree will be killed before it reaches a half foot in diameter, then only those who have a tendency to reproduce early, while they have the chance, will pass on their genes to future generations... Perhaps the best strategy for elms now may be to reproduce at any size, immediately upon becoming infected... Theoretically a tree could evolve to require the fungus as a signal to tell it to bloom." Allergies: "Trees improve their odds of fertilization by dispersing astronomical numbers of pollen grains... [no one knows] why northern trees are mostly wind-pollinated rather than animal-pollinated." Anti-oxidants: "As part of the process of photosynthesis plants release oxygen. Too much sunlight may release a toxic excess of oxygen molecules." Plants have pigments that divert excess sunlight: "They are responsible for some of the brilliant fall leaf colors after the clorophyll" is removed from the trees in the fall. Large seeds vs small seeds strategy - large seeds invite predators to eat them and they are less mobile. "[A] tree generally produces no seeds for a few years - until all of its seed predators have starved or left." Bernd has "kept informal records of the nut crops, commonly called 'mast,' in [his] forest since the fall of 1980." By buying the forest for $90 an acre in 1977, Bernd made a timber investment when the ten year treasury was yielding around 7.5%. He says that he has sold timber on the stump (net) for more than twice the original price of the property. (See Norwegian Wood review from Q1 books.)
  • The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration (3/5) Another one by Bernd Heinrich. A few interesting things. Loons that have claimed a northern pond to nest in the spring confront "floaters;" single birds without homes. "The floaters were scouting - making assessments of both the worthiness of the others' real estate and the defensive capabilities of the resident males - to gauge the possibility for future takeovers." Indigo buntings navigate with stellar orientation. "Knowledge of the specific star patterns as such is thus not inherited, but attention to them, the capacity to learn from them and respond to them, is." Other birds can sense (and "see") the variation of Earth's magnetic field and use it to navigate - not only to fly north or south but also to estimate latitude based on the angle of the magnetic lines of force.
  • Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death (3/5) One more Bernd Heinrich. His is less consistent than John McPhee - my favorite was probably One Wild Bird at a Time. And The Nesting Season was important because it illuminates how the human mind is susceptible to harmful memes just as a sparrow is vulnerable to having cowbird eggs dumped in its nest. I might read One Man's Owl and, when it comes out next year, White Feathers. Some thoughts from Life Everlasting... who knew: "Aside from eusocial species such as ants and honey bees, parental care is quite rare among insects, and burying beetles are remarkable exceptions." Humans are "the ultimate scavengers of all time," sustaining an enormous population now using the remains of plants that are hundreds of millions of years old. The more I read about biology and ecology, the more I think that Malthus will eventually be proven right in the physics vs economics debate about the finite world. We may be starting to see this with the failure of oil shale to generate shareholder returns (or even preserve bond investors' capital) at current low oil prices. Also: vultures "find food by soaring, which has nearly the same metabolic cost as perching - it's the equivalent of perching in the sky... they are also adapted to survive fasts of several weeks or more." Points out that biocides (like rodent poisons) travel up the food chain and hurt larger animal predators and scavengers of them. "A slower but surer method would be to foster populations of native owls and kestrels." One other thing - a puzzle - why do salmon die after they spawn? As Wikipedia explains, the death of salmon looks like a "programmed senescence," "characterized by immunosuppression and organ deterioration"! ("Semelparous animals spawn once only in their lifetime. Semelparity is sometimes called 'big bang' reproduction, since the single reproductive event of semelparous organisms is usually large and fatal to the spawners.") This was the question in Cracking the Aging Code, a Q1 2019 book. Remember, that author believes that aging is a group-selected adaptation that serves to "stabilize ecosystems, to level the death rate in good times and hard times," because "despite the fact that aging is a disaster for the individual, evolution seems to have guarded and preserved the genes for aging as though they were the crown jewels. This is a dead giveaway that aging must have an essential biological function."
  • A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich (3/5) In 1793, a German schoolteacher named Sprengel published his idea that flowers are the reproductive organs of plants (using bees). The ideas was considered crazy and he was fired. Some highlights from Bernd: "Individual bumblebees of any one species learned to become specialist foragers on the flowers of specific but different plant species. They thereby increased their foraging profits by learned skills in flower finding and handling, as they carried pollen from an individual plant of one species to another flower of the same species... those plants in turn co-evolved to accentuate flower differences that favored the bees' becoming specialists (and hence reliable pollinators of those plants)." I always tell people that nests aren't birds' "houses," but - "downy and hairy woodpeckers excavate tree holes in November, apparently for the sole purpose of sleeping in them at night." Also: "Biology is in large part history, which is what separates it from physics and chemistry. And to gain a historical perspective into any specific biological pattern requires seeing where else the phenomenon may be found, and then asking if the pattern is associated with any of a large number of environmental factors that may have been in common or different with respect to a related species." I liked his Nesting Season and Beaver Bog books from last year better.
  • On Growth and Form (3/5). Abridged version. This was mentioned in previous book (Structures), and I had it on my unread shelf anyway. About how a budget and a purpose interact to produce a form or a confined set of possibilities. This is dimensional analysis before it was cool. "It often happens that of the forces in action in a system some vary as one power and some as another, of the masses, distances, or other magnitudes involved... the strength of an iron girder obviously varies with the cross-section of its members, and each cross-section varies as the square of a linear dimension; but the weight of the whole structure varies as the cube of its linear dimensions. It follows at once that, if we build two bridges geometrically similar, the larger is the weaker of the two, and is so in the ratio of their linear dimensions."
  • How Not to Be Eaten: The Insects Fight Back (3/5) We live on Planet Insect. Many insects undergo metamorphosis, either gradual (starting as nymphs) or complete (starting as larvae). The two life phases represent anatomical and behavioral specialization: the jarvae are "eating machines" and the adults are "flying gonads". Based on insect species that are known, "complete metamorphosis has been an evolutionarily more successful strategy for survival," with only 15% of species having gradual metamorphosis. Quotes Roger Tory Peterson on the insects: "The insects, which have invaded nearly every terrestrial environment on Earth, are unable to evade the birds that probe the soil, turn over the leaf litter, search the bark, dig into the trunks of trees, scrutinize every twig and living leaf. The water is no safe refuge,  nor is the air, nor the dark of night. There is a bird of some sort to hunt nearly every insect." Birds that eat insects from trees are divided into feeding guilds, the specialization driven by the principal of competitive exclusion. "People of almost all non-Western cultures eat insects, usually as a special treat." The current "elite" are working on preparing Americans to live in shipping containers and eat bugs as the country gets more crowded. There was a natural experiment showing natural selection during the 19th century in England when coal smoke blackened tree trunks and killed lichens that grew on them. The pale peppered moth quickly changed color to black (over a period of several decades) - then changed back when the air got cleaner during the 20th century! Animals use countershading - dark on upper surfaces and light on lower surfaces - "the artist, by the skillful use of light and shade, creates upon a flat surface the illusionary appearance of roundness. Nature on the other hand, by the precise use of countershading, produces upon a rounded surface the illusionary appearance of flatness." Insects that are insect eaters are especially likely to be solitary - to avoid cannibalism. Other types are gregarious and get advantages against predators from group living. "The epitome of group living and group defense is practiced by the eusocial insects..." "Insects are good biochemists," and they also use toxins created by plants. "The seeds plants produce a huge variety of toxins, may thousands of them, to deter insects and other animals that intend to nibble on them." Mentions Bernd Heinrich's observations of caterpillars that know to hide the evidence of their leaf feeding so that birds, which are looking for this, don't find them. "Insects are the most effective of the biological agents that limit the increase of plant populations." "Batesian mimicry is arguably the ultimate of the counterdefenses that have evolved so far."
  • Cracking the Aging Code: The New Science of Growing Old - And What It Means for Staying Young (3/5) Mitteldorf believes in group selection, and believes that aging is a group-selected adaptation that serves to "stabilize ecosystems, to level the death rate in good times and hard times." Aging is a puzzle: "despite the fact that aging is a disaster for the individual, evolution seems to have guarded and preserved the genes for aging as though they were the crown jewels. This is a dead giveaway that aging must have an essential biological function." He considers and rejects three hypotheses for aging: mutation accumulation, antagonistic pleiotropy, and disposable soma. One big problem with the MA theory for aging is that you would expect less-related organisms to age (at the genetic level) increasingly differently. Yet, "the homology of aging genes across such different species can only mean that aging has been around a long, long time, has been subject to natural selection, and has not been weeded out." The problem with AP theory is that in experiments (e.g. fruit flies), there is a positive correlation between longevity and fertility, not a negative correlation! And the biggest problem with DS theory is that caloric restriction universally results in longer lived organisms. Mitteldorf sees evidence for hormesis in these various research efforts: "If the body is able to prolong life under stress, despite the burden of the stress, then this can only mean that when the body is not stressed, it is holding something in reserve and not doing its best to prolong life. In this sense, the body is purposefully withholding the repair and maintenance that would help it to live longer." Also: "[Hormesis] is incompatible with the idea that the body is programmed to live as long as possible... It seems that aging is leveling out the death rate, killing more when disease and starvation are killing less." The problem with his ultimate theory - that aging has evolved via group selection - is that it is tough to make the math on group selection work, and most evolutionary biologists reject it. See Cochran's withering dismissals when it comes up on his blog, or his occasional posts: 1,2. One other observation from Mitteldorf: "Most mappings [between genotype and phenotype] could never evolve - not in a billion years, not in a billion times a billion years. It seems the genotype-phenotype map we have is optimized for efficiency of evolution [via hox genes]. This demonstrates that evolution itself is a highly evolved process. Not only has natural selection evolved living beings that are robust, resourceful, and efficient reproducers; natural selection has also created a superbly efficient system for evolving." He concludes the book with ideas for hormetic and calorie restriction mimetic anti-aging interventions. The usual stuff - aspirin, metformin. The most novel idea here is that these hormetic interventions may be tricking the body into living longer. 
  • The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (3/5) Darwin saw three key principles driving evolution: "grandchildren, like, grandfathers" (inheritance), "tendency to small change... especially with physical change" (variation), and "great fertility in proportion to support of parents" (overpopulation). Darwin's evolution ideas are yet another example of simultaneous invention - there is enough overlap with Alfred Russel Wallace that some people feel the idea was stolen. The "Tree of Life," of the descent from the last universal common ancestor, is "tangled," and this book describes the scientific history of that discovery. Like most (all?) scientific discoveries, it took the invention of new measurement tools. In this case, molecular phylogenetic research using primitive sequencing of DNA and RNA segments resulted in big surprises that tangled the tree. For example, eukaryotic cells have mitochondria that are captive prokaryotes. Similarly, chloroplasts are captured cyanobacteria. And horizontal gene transfer makes it even more tangled: "If there had been continued and extensive gene transfer, there would be a complex network with many ancestors, instead of a tree of life with sharply delineated lineages leading back to a LUCA." Takeaway: "the logical conclusion was that genes have their individual lineages of descent, not necessarily matching the lineage of the organism in which they are presently found." "Each gene has its own history."
History (n=7)
  • Baidarka: The Kayak (4.5/5) Rediscovery of Aleutian Indian kayaks by boat designer and author George Dyson - the son of physicist Freeman Dyson. The forward is written by Kenneth Brower, the author of a profile of Dyson father and son called The Starship & the Canoe. [Freeman's father was composer George Dyson, which makes three generations with Wikipedia pages. Being accomplished enough to have a Wikipedia page must be hereditary.] The opening paragraph is fantastic: "Two distinct groups of people made the shores of the eastern North Pacific their home: those who built dugout canoes and those who built skin boats. All the contrasts between virgin rain forest and barren island were reflected in their opposing techniques, yet the resulting vessels displayed equally sparse and graceful lines. The dugout builders took an enormous chunk of wood and eliminated everything, down to splinters, that was not essential to their definition of a boat. The skin boat people, working in reverse, began their boats from splinters, piecing together a framework that delineated the bare minimum of their vessel. The dugout, of living cedar, was a creature of the forest. The baidarka, of driftwood, whalebone, and sea-lion skin, was entirely a creature of the sea. The skin boat was a circumpolar concept. Along all northern coastlines, and on inland waterways as well, these craft ranges southward as far as materials, climate, and hostile forest-dwellers would permit." An early observer of the baidarka: "The hatches are so fat apart that lovers cannot indulge in osculatory or other demonstrations of affection." Another quote: "In mountaineering there is a proverb, 'Never step on anything you can step over, and never step over anything you can step around.'" About his massive baidarka, the Mount Fairweather: "If the Aleuts had conquered the Russians and everybody after the Russians, if the Aleutian culture had become dominant in the world, if an Aleut Pentagon had gone into building long-range strategic warships, then the warships would have looked something like this." About kayaking" a series of lengthy intervals spent watching distant headlands, islands, or landmarks grow slowly closer by degree, the intervals punctuated by those moments when you actually round the headland, pass the island, or reach the distant shore. And then the next objective comes into equally distant view." 
  • Village in the Vaucluse (4/5) Twitter classicist Wrath of Gnon mentioned this book by an American French professor (Wylie) who moved to rural France (Roussillon) for a year in 1950: "the lifestyle of his family changed after they moved from an American home with central heating to a farm house in Provence: it brought his family together". "Accustomed to our American house where a movement of the finger regulates the heat of the whole house... our family life, which at home was distributed throughout the entire house and which we tried to distribute throughout the Roussillon house, withdrew from all other rooms and was concentrated in the salle.""The fire of oak logs which burned day and night for siz months became the focal point of our family life."The homes were very rustic, many without plumbing or modern kitchens, far behind American houses of the time. "The absence of conveniences in the houses of some of the wealthiest people indicates that money is not the only factor involved... The teachers and the Doctor, who are the principal propaganda agents for modern hygiene, complain that whenever a family gets enough money to improve its sanitary facilities the money is invested in some other way that will increase the family's capital without drawing attention to its prosperity. If prosperity is publicized, it means a rise in taxes... For most families investments must increase income." When the industrial revolution hit France in the late 19th century, rural inhabitants fled to the cities: "by 1886, 79 of 349 houses stood empty." Real estate prices would have been crushed. (Previously.) Wylie also studied the history of the town. The generation of men born between 1785 and 1795 was "bled white" by Napoleon. More losses in WWI and WWII. He said that the demographic pyramid of 1951, compared with 1851, was "only a ragged ghost." Some economics highlights: food was expensive, the largest part of people's budgets, even though they were doing things like raising vegetables, keeping chickens, or making their own wine. Rent was the least expensive! Fuel and electricity were quite expensive. The villagers thought it was extravagant for Wylie to try to keep his house at 65 degrees during the winter. An interesting observation about farming: "One could never establish from a farmer's records exactly what his real income is... to discover his real income Pascal would have to be shadowed for three hundred sixty-five days of the year so that each of his many little transactions could be recorded..." When civilization had less division of labor, less specialization, and more self-help, people's economic concerns were less legible to the state and harder to tax. A French observation: "No one can become sérieux until he has tasted excess to the point of preferring moderation." 
  • The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (3/5) This caught my eye because of McCullough's use of both "pioneers" and "settlers" in the title. (See my review of Audubon, On The Wings Of The World: "Audubon represents early American pioneers, settlers, and frontiersmen - words you never hear anymore, replaced by 'immigrants'".) Maybe not surprisingly, my favorite part of this book was the first third, which had Congregationalists from Massachusetts carving out the first permanent settlement of the new United States in the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio (at Marietta, Ohio). One of the founders (of the land company; he never lived there) would climb up hills in New England with a barometer to measure their elevation. Random farming fact - a corn crop in 1789 was measured at 20,000 bushels on 400 acres (50b/ac). The blacksmith forge a center of social and industrial activity. One question: was Ft Harmar built to protect Indians from Scots Irish settlers? Or at least to prevent settlement?
  • Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (3/5) A Vanderbilt descendant (Arthur T Vanderbilt II) wrote this in 1989 to answer the question frequently asked of him, "why aren't you rich?" The answer is that the descendants of Cornelius, starting with his grandchildren, spent the money extremely rapidly, largely on houses. The worst offender - and the villain of the book - is a woman named Alva, who married William K Vanderbilt, the son of William H Vanderbilt, who was the eldest son and primary heir of the Commodore. This grandson (W.K.), husband of Alva, was weak and allowed her to dissipate a huge amount of the fortune on a series of mansions. (Would you be surprised to hear that she was a suffragette, and that she later divorced him?) Their "Marble House" cost $11 million in 1892, at a time when an ounce of gold was equivalent to $20. The 550,000 ounces of gold is $700 million in today's dollars. Apparently the bulk of this expense was to buy 500,000 cubic feet of marble. The U.S. GDP in 1890 was apparently about $15 billion, so this house cost almost a tenth of a percent of GDP (spread over several years), which would be more like $13 billion in today's dollars. (This overstates the expense because GDP has grown so much in real terms.) However you look at it, this was a massive malinvestment, and it was just one of the mansions - a summer house in Rhode Island used for a small part of the year. The best part is that in 1932 she was forced to sell it (worst possible time) for only $100,000 (one cent on the dollar). The psychology (mistakes and delusions) of these elite WASPs at the turn of the century is a window into how founding stock Americans lost their country. Don't worry about leaving too much money to your descendants because they'll waste it. Try to leave them good genes and culture.
  • God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot (3/5) One person said, "if you really want something ruthless done right, call in 16th century Calvinists." The pope called Queen Elizabeth "the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime" which is a great title. Protestantism in England led to intense conflict for two centuries. The British were brutally slaughtering their fellow countrymen while at the same time allowing north African Muslim pirates to abduct countless sailors and inhabitants of coastal towns. Henry 8th dismantled the Catholic Church in England during the 1530s, fewer than 20 years after the publication of Luther's theses in 1517 - remarkably quickly. It seems apparent that no English monarch during these centuries of religious strife actually believed in Christianity, but rather saw control of the state church as a fulcrum of power, and more importantly saw a Catholic church to which subjects owed a higher duty as an absolutely unacceptable competitor. As far back as 1392, during the reign of Richard II, an act of parliament called the Statute of Praemunire limited the powers of the papacy by making it illegal to appeal an English court case to the pope if the king objected, or for anyone to act in a way that recognized papal authority over the authority of the king.
  • Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan (3/5) A picture of agrarian life (80% of population agricultural workers) on a densely populated, very mountainous island. People in Edo period Japan "lived simply" - they had to; they were poor by modern standards. Most of the world was very poor until very recently, that is why poverty does not explain crime and especially does not explain senseless violence. You can tell that the Edo Japanese were very short on space, especially arable land, and very short on nitrogen. What makes our world different from theirs? Fossil fuels and synthetic nitrogen have to be at the top of the list. (Liebeg described agriculture's principle objective as "the production of digestible nitrogen".) The Japanese practice of scrubbing intensely prior to entering a shared, hot bath comes from a need to conserve energy intensive hot water. The author Azby Brown is a Japanophile and his book The Genius of Japanese Carpentry looks cool. But he's a hippie who wants us to stop eating beef - he nods approvingly at the sad lack of livestock in Edo Japan. He also mentions their practice of mabiki for population control. Rather than primogeniture to maintain a farm size that could feed one family, farmers killed sons born after the first one!
  • The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (Revised and Expanded Edition) (2/5) The author is a Communist sympathizer - he dedicates the book to the International Brigades! He describes the prelude to the SCW as a "gradual and immensely complex division of the country into two broadly antagonistic social blocks." I did not know much about those factions. He says that, "from the very first days of the Republic right-wing extremists disseminated the idea that an alliance of Jews, Freemasons and the working class Internationals was conspiring to destroy Christian Europe, with Spain as a principal target." In contrast the Nationalists were Catholics (worried about the brutal anti-clericalism of the left) and people with property. "The triumph or defeat of the military coup followed the electoral geography of the country." "Had we no sewers in Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao, all these Red leaders would have died in their infancy instead of exciting the rabble and causing good Spanish blood to flow. When the war is over, we should destroy the sewers." Spaniards caught "behind enemy lines" - in territory where people like them were not in firm control - were in big trouble once the war broke out. It is questionable whether the Nationalists would have succeeded without ample assistance from Italy and Germany - as it was, the war took three years for them to win. Franco moved very slowly, eliminating leftists in detail along the way - "which was to be one of his greatest sources of strength after 1939." Franco: "I will occupy Spain town by town, village by village, railway by railway... Nothing will make me abandon this gradual programme. It will bring me less glory but greater internal peace. [...] I am not interested in territory but in inhabitants. The reconquest of the territory is the means, the redemption of the inhabitants the end." The Republicans were armed by the Soviet Union, so this was a proxy war that anticipated WWII. Nationalists had some foreign volunteers as well, although not like the scale of the International Brigades: "the ferociously anti-semitic Romanian Iron Guard sent eight volunteers..." Stalin needed the most revolutionary Spanish Republicans to tone it down so as not to drive a wedge between the USSR and France/Britain; this led to a lot of intra-Republican violence, which was a problem the Nationalists did not have. "Soviet policy on Spain was constrained by Stalin's search for Western allies against Hitler. Accordingly, Russian help had to ensure that political and social developments in Spain would stop short at the maximum which French and British policy-makers would tolerate." The Trotskyist party in Spain (POUM) "made itself even more of a target by dint of its outspoken public criticism of the trial and execution of the old Bolsheviks Kamanev and Zinoviev." You can visit Franco's Valle de los Caídos monument (see photo) to the SCW near Madrid.
 Fiction (n=6)
  • The Man Who Planted Trees (5/5) An anti-war book: "In the foothills of the French Alps the narrator meets a shepherd who has quietly taken on the task of planting one hundred acorns a day in an effort to reforest his desolate region. Not even two world wars can keep the shepherd from continuing his solitary work. Gradually, this gentle, persistent man's work comes to fruition: the region is transformed; life and hope return; the world is renewed." George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1914 that "both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests".
  • The Count of Monte Cristo (4/5) Funny editor's note in this edition: "Nearly everyone has attempted to read it, but few have ever penetrated the labyrinth of the second part! Dumas was paid for quantity and nobly he responded." The famous Dantes observation about the three classes of fortunes: "I make three assortments in fortunes — first-rate, second-rate, and third-rate fortunes. I call those first-rate which are composed of treasures one possesses under one’s hand, such as mines, lands, and funded property, in such states as France, Austria, and England, provided these treasures and property form a total of about a hundred millions; I call those second-rate fortunes, gained by manufacturing enterprises, joint-stock companies, viceroyalties, and principalities, not drawing more than 1,500,000 francs, the whole forming a capital of about fifty millions; finally, I call those third-rate fortunes, composed of a fluctuating capital, dependent upon the will of others, or upon chances which a bankruptcy involves or a false telegraph shakes, such as banks, speculations of the day—in fact, all operations under the influence of greater or less mischances, the whole bringing in a real or fictitious capital of about fifteen millions. I think this is about your position, is it not? [...I]f you indulged in such reflections, you would never risk your principal, which is to the speculator what the skin is to civilised man. We have our clothes, some more splendid than others,— this is our credit; but when a man dies he has only his skin; in the same way, on retiring from business, you have nothing but your real principal of about five or six millions, at the most; for third-rate fortunes are never more than the fourth of what they appear to be, like the locomotive on a railway, the size of which is magnified by the smoke and steam surrounding it."
  • Owls: Our Most Charming Bird (2.5/5) Watercolor cartoons of owls along with silly, whimsical descriptions. I didn't really think he did the owls justice. As someone on Goodreads pointed out, the descriptions had a lot of "weird anthropomorphic metaphors". A better bet for owls is a good guide.
  • Christmas Stories (Everyman's Library) (2.5/5) As with any short story collection, some were better than others. Enjoyed The Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle and Bella Fleace Gave a Party by Evelyn Waugh. (Turns out that one was made into a short film.
  • The Road (1/5) This was an unbelievably bad novel, and an inauspicious start to the year's reading, but there is one useful side effect. The site Goodreads has a repository of reader's ratings (out of five) and reviews. Positive reviews of books are generally not very useful. Most people read so few books that they have not developed any taste, plus they like to give themselves a pat on the back for the time they've invested. So, the book was "pretty good". And sometimes they are just rubes. The value of Goodreads is in the negative reviews. This brutal one-star review of The Road captures the problems with it. (That guy has given low reviews to a bunch of other overrated books.) So does this two-star review in the form of a parody. Bad writers are easy to parody - like this parody of Taleb, who officially jumped the shark this Christmas with his breakdown over IQ psychometrics. And here's someone who submitted The Road's two clunky opening sentences at a writer's workshop and got an unenthusiastic reception. Anyway, with fiction you really have to stick to classics that stand the test of time. On the fiction reading list for 2019, we have Jane Austen, HG Wells, RL Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, Jack London, Kipling, and Borges. 
  • Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel (1/5) Neil Stephenson is the speculative science finction writer best known for early 2000s books Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. When @dpinsen posted excerpts from Stephenson's latest, they looked good. But I ordered too early - dpinsen later said the ending was bad, and I should have seen all the one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Oh well - I think it is fine to have a bias towards ordering books and taking a look at them as long as you are able to cut losses and stop reading bad books partway through. I am getting better at that. Non-fiction writers can have careers where they churn out 4/5 and 5/5 books, like John McPhee. (He has a stellar batting average.) Fiction writers do not seem to have this ability. (This may have to do with the fact that fiction is autobiographical and people only have one biography, hence only one good story in them at most.) Stephenson lives in Seattle on Lake Washington. It turns out he is (or has become) a tiresome shitlib. He thinks if left to their own devices, rural Americans (in Iowa!) would spray gunfire like opium addled Afghans, and also literally crucify people for minor violations of the Old Testament. He calls it "Ameristan." He thinks the biggest problem with the internet is that it is not sufficiently censored; that people in "Ameristan" are allowed to use social media for "shared hallucinations".
Biography/Autobiography (n=4)
  • Working (4/5) By Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Robert Moses biography The Power Broker and then the multi-volume Lyndon Johnson series. It took him seven years to write the Moses book and he still is not finished with LBJ. This collection of essays is about his research process - "turning every page" of archival materials, plus thousands of interviews. (For example, Caro got the guy who fixed LBJ's Texas Senate race - he made up 200 votes - to confess because he was an old man and proud of his role.) Similar to McPhee's recent book about his writing process. Caro got interested in Moses as a young reporter, when he saw that Moses - an unelected urban planner - had the power to completely reshape New York City. Moses used techniques like giving booze to state legislators during prohibition, or directing insurance premiums for the infrastructure to brokerages controlled by legislators. This book is great because you learn a lot about LBJ, Moses, and Caro without having to read the thousands of pages of the five biographies - it's a capsule summary, and it's additionally helpful because Caro talks about his motivations for dedicating his life to this, which you would not find in the underlying books. Moses was born 1888, LBJ in 1908, and Caro in 1935. Caro is a very clever and indefatigable researcher but his writing is not as smooth as someone like John McPhee (a fellow New Yorker writer). When the New Yorker excerpted Power Broker, editor William Shawn condensed it - something that Caro was not happy about, but he was paid more for the excerpts than he had been seven years earlier for the whole book. ("The New Yorker series is a very readable redaction of the original — and without sacrificing much essential information, easier on the attention span than the book, which requires an immense time commitment.")
  • Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World's Largest Online Auto Auction (3/5) Somebody on fintwit mentioned this - the story of Copart which is a salvage auction company, and an $18 billion company founded in 1982 by a rural Oklahoman with a high school education. He started out in 1972 with a junkyard that he bought with seller financing - selling his house to come up with the downpayment, and moving into the yard. The best excerpt that was posted from the book was this one, about how he thought about buying and acquiring salvage auctions versus how his fast-growing, "roll-up" public competitor thought about it. It was a quick read but not much marginal benefit from reading the whole thing vs just those excerpts. Book ideas from Twitter have been subpar lately.
  • The 50,000 Watt Broadcast Barnum: A Book Noir of Stanley E. Hubbard, his life and times (3/5) We need more books about how rich families got started. This one is about the founder of St Paul's Hubbard Broadcasting, Stanley E Hubbard, whose son Stanley S Hubbard is now on the Forbes billionaire list. The early days of radio overlap with the Great Depression and the crime boom in the Midwest. St Paul was a haven for Chicago criminals who needed to get out of town to escape the heat. This was when corrupt socialist Floyd Olson was governor of Minnesota. This author says that underworld figures fed information (indirectly) about competitors they wanted to get rid of to Hubbard, who would broadcast the details. There's nothing to say that Hubbard was funded by or involved with organized crime, just that he used his broadcasting power to get favors and information, and information to get favors and power. "Cross Hubbard and you'll get 50,000 watts of unpleasant news about you shot up your ass on the [10:00 news] and see how you like that. On the other hand, if you're willing to do a few favors he wants you'll receive 50,000 watts of favorable comment..." Also regarding St Paul: "[It] will never be a 'night' town. The guys that own the town want it that way. They want it nice and quiet and peaceful. Get to bed early, get up early, and get to the job and make money. You don't want noise disturbing your peace like downtown Minneapolis where on Hennepin Avenue every night there is a representative of every misfit, goofball, transvestite, doper, kook making all kinds of noise and levitating amid the glitzy, gooky crowd of disconnected or unconnected insanity. Like a big outdoor Zoo."
  • Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (2.5/5) In 1991, it was called the "most candid and fullest reappraisal of Stalin to date by a Soviet source." However, for me it was redundant because I already read Khrushchev Remembers last year. Like that memoir, this biography was anti-Stalin but only from a "true" Communist perspective. Reading about how Stalin "betrayed the Revolution" is incredibly tedious. The book which we really need - and I do not think it exists - would analyze the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent history of the USSR as an inter-ethnic conflict, because that is what it was. Two things of note: first, at the end of his life, Lenin was isolated and possibly killed by Stalin, Kamenev, and Bukharin. (Just as Stalin was isolated and possibly killed by Beria!) Second, Stalin and Trotsky were born within two weeks of each other in 1879. There is a quote from a book by Essad Bey about the two men: "Trotsky and Stalin were the two opposing poles of the Communist Party. Neither in personal nor political terms did they converge at any point. Trotsky was a brilliant European, an experienced and conceited journalist, and Stalin was a typical Asiatic, a man without vanity or personal needs, with the cold, dark mind of an eastern conspirator. Two men such as these were bound to hate each other."
 Politics (n=2)
  • The Lost Philosopher: The Best of Anthony M. Ludovici (3/5) British intellectual who lived 1882-1971, he briefly worked for sculptor Rodin. He points out that "the lesson of the Middle Ages was to the effect that Church and state were only too frequently in conflict, and unless a European monarch had either come to an agreement with Rome, or had, like the aristocratic rulers of Venice, wisely insisted on controlling ecclesiastical affairs in his own state, his authority was never secure. At any moment, the Church as the spiritual and moral guide of Christendom might intervene and champion the cause either of his subjects or of his enemies against him... and when we remember that the Christian religion, unlike the Jewish, the Greek, the Egyptian, and the Roman, is an international or Catholic religion, aiming at universality and calling itself universal, we have to recognize in its presence in the nation not only a state within the state but in some respects a foreign state within the state." We saw this in God's Secret Agents - during the reign of Richard II an act of parliament called the Statute of Praemunire made it illegal for anyone to act in a way that recognized papal authority over the authority of the king. Ludovici was a translator of Nietzsche and so, like Mencken, he was a critic of Christianity. He favored eugenics and was worried about how Christianity failed to "value man biologically and asethetically" as opposed to just morally. He traced this back to Greece: "every essential position of Christianity was first discovered and conquered by the thinkers of Greece: dualism, the immortality of the soul," etc. 
  • On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner (2/5) William Graham Sumner was mentioned in The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes (read in Q2 2018). "The Forgotten Man" is a Sumner coinage (from this essay) which Roosevelt and his communist "brain trust" stole and turned on its head! (His words twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.) The Forgotten Man is you and me, the Credit Bubble Stocks community of thrifty workers and investors. Sumner's point was that do-gooders steal money from the likes of us to give to other people. But FDR inverted it with the absurd notion that the millions of people on his dole were the forgotten. That's Sumner's best (and only good) essay. He says: "All the public expenditure to prevent vice has the same effect. Vice is its own curse. If we let nature alone, she cures vice by the most frightful penalties. It may shock you to hear me say it, but when you get over the shock, it will do you good to think of it: a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets up her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line. Gambling and less mentionable vices all cure themselves by the ruin and dissolution of their victims. Nine-tenths of our measures for preventing vice are really protective towards it, because they ward off the penalty."
Self-help or How-to (n=2)
  • Norwegian Wood (4/5) "Trees that are of modest size and easy to handle can provide a surprising amount of energy in return for the amount of work involved... A birch 50 feet high with a diameter of size inches at chest level gives a volume of 0.12 cubic meters, which is equivalent to 150 pounds of normally dry wood. Burned in an oven that is 75% efficient, this tree will produce 225 kilowatt-hours." Key topics are splitting axes and efficient wood stoves. This is one way to think about the value of timberland owners like KEWL and PDER. Let's say that you can harvest 800 trees per acre and the energy is worth a penny per kwh. (It stands to reason that the energy from wood fuel is worth less, maybe an order of magnitude less, than current delivered to your outlet because there's so much less that can be done with it.) If those assumptions are true, the energy value of the timber stand is $1,800 per acre. The enterprise value of KEWL is $111 million and it owns 185k acres of timber in northern Michigan. That's $600 per acre. In 2018, KEWL entered into an option agreement with the state of Wisconsin to sell a conservation easement on 14,352 acres for $372 per acre. So $600 per acre is starting to seem really cheap. The PDER market cap is down to $116 million and it has an enterprise value of about $120 million. They own 165k acres of timber which means $728 for the timber and then over 300 million tons of coal reserves, 32 million mcfe of gas reserves, and a good $10-20 million of photovoltaic solar for free. If you subtract $15 million for the PV solar and ignore the value of the carbon in the ground, you're down to $636 per acre for the wood. From a timber perspective: the lowest price that random length lumber has traded in the past 20 years is $138 per 1,000 board feet, in February 2009. (Which brought it back down to the 1992 price.) Lumber traded for over $550 last summer. If you assume 5k board feet per acre, the lumber (harvested and sawn into 2x4s which obviously costs money) would be worth $690 at the 20 year low price.
  • Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (3/5) This is by GMU economist Bryan Caplan, who you may be surprised to learn is staunchly pro-natalist. Like a typical modern economist he denies that there is any Malthusian limit on population - he believes that the quantity of niche spaces for humans increases with the population, unlike any other known life form. The Edo Japanese farmers in the previous book practicing infanticide just needed a Bryan Caplan lecture! (Notice that Gregory Clark sides with Malthusians and physicists on this.) Anyway, Caplan's argument that the reader (who is presumably an educated professional) should have more children is that today's American middle and upper class parents artificially inflate the cost of having children, which of course leads to a suboptimal quantity being demanded. By making some parenting changes the cost can fall and lead to an increased quantity demanded. (He also makes the point that many of the benefits of children come later in life, while at the beginning they have "high start-up costs.") He focuses on behavior that I would call "overparenting," i.e. the way that "moms and dads tag along with their kids as supervisors, or servants." He also makes the point that "families earning six figures have plenty of fat to cut. If you have two kids, a part-time nanny will probably do more for your quality of life than a new car." (Since he's a lolbertarian economist, he also says "a nanny doesn't need fluent English or a driver's license to provide loving care for your children.") A big chunk of the book is a summary of nature over nurture arguments, with the purpose of convincing blank-slatist SWPLs that they can helicopter parent less because their children are genetically destined to strongly resemble them. (He says, "Behavioral genetics offers parents a deal: Show more modesty and get more happiness. You can have a better life and a bigger family if you admit that your kids' future is not in your hands." He even says, "trust not in your parenting but in your genes... pick a spouse who has the traits you want your kids to have"!) Ultimately, I do think that Caplan is right but for the wrong reason. I think that the biggest factor that drives down family sizes is not overparenting but the cost, or apprehension about the cost, of the American education scams: not only overpriced colleges but also secondary schools. Once you have the key insight that "selective" private collages (full of potheads) are a scam, you can save a tremendous amount of money. And as an added bonus, the "selective" college scam has also been driving the excessive extracurricular activity burden.
Literary Nonfiction (n=2)
  • The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution (4/5) The latest by Peter Hessler (previously on China: 1, 2, 3). This is his story of living in Cairo during the Arab Spring and revolution / coups in Egypt. Successful writing means finding interesting things to write about - one of the keys to McPhee's success. However, revolution tip: stay away from crowds and protests. When there are episodes of violence during a short event like a revolution or war, or a long event like a drug war, it comes down to location, location, location. Although he did visit protests in person (and broke his foot running away from gunfire), Hessler and his family lived in the nice neighborhood of Cairo called Zamalek, which is on an island in the Nile called Gezira. Zamalek has "quiet, leafy streets and 19th-century apartment blocks" in Art Deco style - sounds like La Condesa in Mexico City. When people in this part of the world are successful, one thing they do is build a six story building for their extended family. Interesting things about Egypt: Great Pyramid of Giza was tallest structure in world for 4,300 years. The monument building in Egypt shows the evolution of kingship. Kings as parasites. [Remember Against the Grain.] "After Christians began to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula, in the late 11th C, scholars translated the Arabic versions of Greek classics into Latin." Uh oh: "In a country where systems and laws had always been weak, there were other forces that kept the place from collapsing." (We don't have that?) Hessler has the idea that language textbooks "teach much more than just vocabulary and grammar." One funny thing about him - he never writes about food. He made friends with his garbage man Sayyid and got in hot water for his writing that exposed the guy's funny habits. There is a Chinese presence in Egypt, and of course Hessler could talk to them because his project before Egypt and Arabic was China and Chinese. "After 11 years in China, I couldn't recall a single instance in which a Chinese shopkeeper gave me too much change. But in Cairo this happened more times than I could count." It seems like the Chinese will be the ones to organize and colonize Africa, because they don't have white guilt or Christian sympathy for the weak. One problem that the Egyptians have, and a reason they need outside organization, is low literacy. (Another problem is that 40 percent of Egyptians married to cousins.) Hessler thinks that the low literacy is because written, formal Arabic is so different than spoken Egyptian. This leads to one of the funniest episodes in the book, a parliamentary election where the ballot has names and symbols, which the candidates pick from a list of government approved ones (that include knives, rifles, and scorpions). One man outside a polling station told him, "I voted for the lamp and the helicopter." The clan elders tell them which symbols to vote for.
  • On Trails (3/5) "A path is a way of making sense of the world... The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line. The ancient prophets and sages - most of whom lived in an era when footpaths provided the primary mode of transport - understood this fact intimately, which is why the foundational texts of nearly every major religion invoke the metaphor of the path." "A skillful herder with a willing flock can radically transform the ground they walk on... over the course of forty years, he and his sheep converted a tract of land covered in bracken, bush, and flax into a bucolic, grassy sheep ranch." "It was possible, I gathered, to spend one's life doing little else but walking. Life on the trail being exceedingly cheap, a handful of full-time hikers have managed to live for years or even decades off meager savings and seasonal work. These wanderers reminded me of mendicant monks, slipping free of the gravitational pull of society to live plainly, outdoors." At REI, I saw this cool map of the Pacific Crest Trail and a set of three maps for the Triple Crown of Hiking. It would be cool to hike those, although there are some downsides to consider. Being gone (and semi-inaccessible) for five months is not compatible with business or family concerns. Also, very long distance hiking does not seem to be physical fitness maximizing. You can lift weights, build muscle, and do occasional trail runs of the Grand Canyon. But the through-hikers report that they lose a lot of weight (including some muscle) on these long hikes.
Geology (n=1)
  • Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (3.5/5) Previously, see Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, which mentions Powell. Born in 1834, he is most famous for his expedition from the Green River in Wyoming down the Colorado River to Nevada: "Nine men had plunged into the unknown from the last outpost of civilization in the Uinta Valley on the sixth of July, 1869. On August 30 six came out." Towards the end of the journey, three of the men left the boats to try to hike out of the canyon because they did not think the remaining rapids would be survivable. "The three had climbed the wall and made it to the forested top of the plateau. They had made it no farther. They lay out there now somewhere beside a waterpocket, stripped and filled with Shivwits arrows, victims of an Indian misunderstanding and of their own miscalculation of the algebra of chance." The key to the West: "Water is the true wealth in a dry land; without it, land is worthless or nearly so. And if you control the water, you control the land that depends on it. In that fact alone was the ominous threat of land and water monopolies." And some other implications as well.
Cooking (n=1)
  • Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (4.5/5) New Yorker editor (and author of Among the Thugs) Bill Buford got very interested in cooking and worked at the Mario Batali restaurant Babbo in Greenwich Village for a year as a "kitchen slave". As you would expect from someone who made the cut at NYer, he's very astute and it's a great read. When first starting at Babbo he's cutting celery and throwing the leaves away. Batali happens to come in the kitchen and see them in the trash: "What have you done? You're throwing away the best part of the celery! Writer guy - busted! Remember our rule: we make money by buying food, fixing it up, and getting other people to pay for it. We do not make money by buying food and throwing it away." Something that's been missing from my short rib recipe: "turn the braising liquid into a sauce... pour the liquid they were cooked in through a strainer into another pot.. take this dense, aromatic, already highly extracted liquid and hammer it: you put it back on a burner and boil it to hell. Just torch it... keep boiling the thing [and skimming the fat] until it's reduce by more than half, when, lo and behold, it is no longer a braising liquid or a broth: it's a sauce." He mentions that northern Italians are polenta eaters, Tuscans are bean eaters, and "a Napoletano is a macaroni eater, the belief in Italy being not that you are what you eat but that you're the starch." Mentions economic analysis by Giovanni Rebora: "until recently, there had always been plenty of meat... meat was consumed in quantities that, to us, seem excessive. It was also cheap. Meat was so available because farm animals were, in the pre-plastic days, essential for many other things besides dinner: like leather for belts, boots, helmets, and the adornments required by Europe's vast armies". Also mentions that the diagrams for how to butcher an animal: "each one different, no two cuts alike, with few shared terms... every country-and in Italy, every region and, sometimes, every town-has its own unique way of breaking an animal down into dinner size portions." Good description from a review on Goodreads: "I felt that the most interesting parts were those chronicling his time in the kitchen at Babbo and telling Batali's personal story. The parts that, in the end, were the least interesting to me were those detailing the regional gastronomy of Italy, or the history of pasta... even as a person interested in food and cooking, some of these histories just went into too much detail and were too lengthy to hold my interest (for example, a seemingly unending chapter on when and why cooks starting adding eggs to their pasta dough)..."


Taylor Conant said...

Thanks for giving us this great info about what you've been reading.

One idea I had as you read was that you could post your proprietary backlog (book ideas you've researched on your own) and allow readers who are familiar with the works to offer a prospective (to you) rating plus a synopsis. This would allow you to prioritize the list and cut things immediately that are low yield should you so choose.

Regarding the size and age of your backlog, anything that has been on there a year or more is probably a stale idea or interest and should be auto-purged. You can always readd/read it later if you turn out to still be interested in the related subject at a later date. But the fact that it's sitting there for so long, not getting prioritized, tells you something!

Books that have taken up mindspace for that long represent an inability to accept reality, rather than a future oriented plan for achievement. Ditch it, move on and get focused!

An "interesting observation" or principle behind your compendium is that there are only so many worthwhile topics and well written books thereon. So to the idea that another book isn't the answer, it's rare for a book to truly contribute something of understanding on a subject, rather than being in some way "derivative" and not worth the time. Seek originality, which will always be in short supply!

I think this suggests either reducing time spent reading, or spending all time reading only those which are "original" works in a field, and no more? While the total number of books which have or could contribute something to "human knowledge" is exceedingly small compared to all books published, it's probably still more than any one person could reasonably cover. So this alone argues for being extremely judgmental and aggressive in what you choose to spend your time reading!

CP said...

Some thoughts by other thinkers:
:The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.: ― Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

Schopenhauer also said:
"Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents."

Seneca said:
"You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find lasting place in your mind."