Money Changes Everything

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible (2016) by William N Goetzmann is a very impressive book that looks at how finance has evolved through history. The book does a great job in explaining how important financial developments have been for the development of the world.

The book is broken into sections that look at ancient Mesopotamian finance, ancient Greek finance, Roman finance, Chinese finance, the the changes to modern finance in Europe that helped Europe explore and dominate the world and how modern finance has become global.

Goetzmann is a professor of finance and management studies at Yale and is an expert on the history of finance.

The sections on the ancient world show how important the development of finance was to the development of math and how important it was for cities and empires to employ finance. It was startling to discover that 90% of the records recovered from some Mesopotamian cities were financial records.

The sections on Roman and Greek finance showed how large cities could use finance to get their food supplies and what sort of laws were required. The section on Chinese finance is also remarkable and shows how Chinese rulers used coins and then paper money.

The section on the development of European financial developments from the twelfth century onward is fantastic. Making the point that Hindu-Arabic numerals were popularised in the Liber Abaci is very much worthwhile. The trading of bills of exchange, then the creation of companies and stock market booms and bubble is very well explained.

The weakest part of the book is the modern section where oddly Marx and Ayn Rand’s contribution to finance is pondered. While Marx is certainly an important figure in history it’s odd to have in the book. The book also has quite a bit on Keynes. Keynes is more justified but still it’s somewhat odd.

Overall the book is fantastic though. It really makes the reader ponder just how much finance has helped to develop the world.

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The Enlightenment : A Very Short Introduction

The Enlightenment : A Very Short Introduction (2015) by John Robertson is an introduction to various Enlightenment thinkers and the influence they have had and how their contribution has been seen since The Enlightenment.

Robertson is a professor of the history of Political Thought at Oxford so he’s well placed to write a book as ambitious as this that is so short. Kant, Hume, Smith, Rousseau and the other major enlightenment figures all have their impact and work described.

The book also discusses how The Enlightenment has been seen since by various philosophers and historians.

The book shows the diversity of thought of the major Enlightenment figures and inadvertently that Steven Pinker’s thesis that it is some central idea from the Enlightenment that has driven current prosperity is dubious. This is not to say modernity isn’t prosperous, just that Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment as being a secular, atheist movement toward reason is not something that many of the major Enlightenment figures would have agreed with.

The book made me want to read more of the works of major Enlightenment figures and get more of an understanding of them. It was worth reading for me to get some overview of what is meant when people talk about The Enlightenment.

Count Zero

Count Zero (1986) by William Gibson is the second book in Gibson’s sprawl trilogy. It’s not as good as Neuromancer but it does progress the world of Neuromancer in an engaging way.

The book sags in the middle but the end picks it all up and it ends in a reasonably satisfying way.

Count Zero isn’t great literature, but it is cool and fun and interesting. It’s something I’ve periodically been rereading for almost 30 years. Burning Chrome and Neuromancer are fantastic, Count Zero is the first cyberpunk book Gibson wrote that wasn’t great. It’s still quite good though.

 

The Tyranny of Metrics

The Tyranny of Metrics (2018) by Jerry Z Muller is an interesting look at problems caused by misusing metrics. It’s impressively short and Muller has read widely and pondered the problems caused by over relying on poor metrics.

Muller outlines why metrics have been used. It looks at increasing costs and people wanting, wisely, to improve productivity. Metrics were also seen as a way of resolving the principal / agent problem. They were also seen as a way of doing something objective to assess outcomes. Looking at numbers and working on productivity also helped manufacturing improve. Applying similar ideas to services, wars, education, health, police and other areas seemed like a good idea.

In practice, however, using metrics has led to many perverse outcomes. In education, just getting more people to go to University and get good grades has led to more people just going, many of whom don’t gain much from their education and also to US ‘grade inflation’. Their professors, meanwhile pump out more papers and join paper citation circles to pump their ‘impact factor’. In war ‘body counts’ as a measure of success in Vietnam contributed to the US failure there. In medicine it’s led to doctors avoiding difficult cases. Optimising for short term profits has even harmed many businesses.

Muller concludes by providing a guideline for when and how to use metrics.

Muller isn’t against all metrics, but he is making a very good case that they are often misused and that people need to be very careful about how and where they are used. The book is very much worth a read for anyone interested in policy or economics.

Factfulness

Factfulness : Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018) by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund is an absolutely outstanding book about the most important numbers in the world and how most people around the world, including researchers, do not know them.

Everyone should read this book. It is superb. This review will try and say why. The book combines an engaging narrative with insight and a plethora of facts about our world.

Hans Rosling was a Swedish doctor who worked extensively in the developing world and realised that even he did not know much about how the world has developed. He then started studying the big statistics on the plight of the world. He established the Gapminder Foundation ( http://www.gapminder.org ) that is dedicated to showing the true state of the world through the big numbers on health, population and wealth. Rosling died last year after a truly remarkable life. This book, written with his son and his son’s wife is his last act and completed by them is also a great credit to them as well.

The book starts with a quiz, the first few questions of which are here:

1: In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? A: 20 percent B: 40 percent, C: 60 percent

2: Where does the majority of the world population live? A: Low-income countries B: Middle-income countries C: High-income countries

3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has … A: almost doubled B: remained more or less the same C: almost halved

4. What is the life expectancy of the world today? A: 50 years B: 60 years C: 70 years

The answers are at the end of this review.

Rosling posed 13 such questions to various experts and laypeople around the world and found that people usually do worse than guessing at random. This is a truly terrible result. The book is another attempt by Rosling to get us to understand more about the way the world really is and why we have such a poor grasp of the big, basic statistics of our world.

Rosling looks at his own life in Sweden, growing up with a mother who was delighted to have a washing machine that freed up so much of her time that in turn allowed her to read to her son who became a doctor. Rosling then intertwines his own life, and extensive experiences in the third world to show how the world has changed and how it really is. He uses his experience as teacher to doctors in Sweden who want to work in the developing world but know little about the reality of it.

The book looks at why people are generally far too negative, how they see trends as straight lines rather than as things that change, how we fear things irrationally, how we generalize poorly, how we rarely think about how the past really was, how we don’t get enough perspectives, how we then seek to blame and how people exaggerate negatives and proposes Factfulness rules of thumb so we can better understand our world and the fate of people on it.

Factfulness is a deep, moving and fantastic book that really helps to educate people as to what the real state of the world is. It should be read by as many people as possible. Hans Rosling lived a remarkable life working to better humanity. The least the rest of us can do is read this entertaining book to educate ourselves better.

( 1: C, 2: B, 3: C, 4: C )

The Case Against Education

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money (2018) by Bryan Caplan is a fascinating read that questions the mantra that ‘more education is always good’. Caplan is a highly credentialed Professor of Economics at George Mason University. The book is heretical in that it takes on the belief that ‘more education = more better’ that is incredibly prevalent with policy professionals and politicians of all ideologies and with the public at large. The book has provoked a considerable response including headline reviews in The Economist.

The book looks at what students use and remember from their education. Caplan demonstrates solidly that this is not much. Few people do math in their job beyond high school level math and very, very few people use their knowledge of foreign languages, poetry or history.

Given that people remember and use little of their education Caplan then goes on to explain why education appears to yield such substantial economic benefits to those who have it. He answers this question by looking at the ‘sheepskin effect’, that is the effect of getting a certificate on earnings compared simply to additional years of learning. If it is very high, which it is, then it shows that it is the signalling effect of education rather than what is learn that is important. In effect employers use High School completion and degree completion as simple filters when hiring. It no doubt leads to some bad hires and some bad misses but overall it works well enough that most employers do this.

This has the result that education is worthwhile for individuals, provided they complete their degree, but as something subsidized massively by government it’s actually a fairly poor investment.

Caplan makes the poses the thought experiment of who would we expect to earn more, someone who had a certificate from a highly rated University without having learnt the subjects or someone who had done all the work but who had no certificate. It’s hard not to imagine the certificate being of more value in earning more.

The book also looks at the fantastic amount of high quality learning material that is now available online and says that because the most important effect of a University education is the signalling value that he believes that it won’t have that much impact. He points out that high quality paper testing has been available for decades but is rarely used by employers. One thing he doesn’t address though is that if the credentials for online courses do become even a bit more respected and more people shift to doing online degrees it may become a way of getting certification that is good enough more cheaply.

Some people say that while some University is clearly not useful but that STEM subjects are. Caplan addresses this by pointing out that a large percentage of STEM graduates do not use what they have learnt in their degree and that instead it appears that hard STEM courses are a signal of high levels of ability.

The one form of education that Caplan does approve of spending on is vocational education that he believes to have a reasonable demonstrable return.

The book covers a lot of the material of Alison Woolf’s Excellent book ‘Does Education Matter’ that looks at the impacts of education. Woolf is more skeptical of vocational education because she has seen the limited success of attempts to improve it in the UK.

Against Education is a very good book and Caplan has spent years thinking about and researching his ideas. What he presents is quite compelling. For anyone with an interest education policy the book is definitely worth reading. It’s also very well written and easy to read.

 

 

 

Explore / Create

Explore / Create: My Life at the Extremes (2017) by Richard Garriott is an autobiography of the creator of the Ultima Series and founder of Origin Systems, Richard Garriott. Garriott is an amazing guy who created incredible games, threw fantastic parties and got himself into space. His father was also an astronaut.

Given Garriott’s remarkable achievements the book is a disappointment, it reads more like a series of blog posts than a book. Despite that, for anyone who played Ultima games or knows of Garriott’s remarkable life it’s of value.

Garriott writes about how playing D & D from an early age had such an impact on how he wanted to create games. He writes about how he geocaches, how he built adventure rides in his own home, his adventures in space and in the depths of the ocean. He’s certainly led an incredible life.

The book, however, doesn’t flow and feels cobbled together. Like Garriott had so much stuff he wanted to write about but couldn’t assemble in a coherent way. Still, for anyone curious about the man behind the games and his life it’s worth a read.