Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction (2011) by Robert C Allen is an excellent overview of the world’s economy. Allen is a professor of economic history and clearly knows his subject in depth. The book is well written and provides an excellent overview of global economics.
The chapters are The Great Divergence, The Rise of the West, The Industrial Revolution, The Ascent of the Rich, The Great Empires, The Americas, Africa, The Standard Model and Late Industrialisation and big Push Industrialisation.
The book has a standard model for economic development from the 19th century. Mass education, transportation improvements, a national bank for stable currency and tariffs to protect nascent industry.
The book is actually more than the sum of the parts. The combination of Allen’s expertise, the subject and the requirement for succinctness is really quite something. Allen’s stating of various theories and his own ideas about what helped and hindered economic development in the varying specific cases is really good. It would be hard not to learn quite a bit from the book.
Global Economic History is a surprisingly successful book on a big subject. Allen writes well and provides a really excellent overview of the subject.
Free-Range Kids : Giving our Children the Freedom we had without going nuts with worry (2009) by Leonore Skenazy is a really excellent look at how to try and raise kids who get as much freedom as kids who grew up until about the late 1990s had.
Skenazy became a bit famous in the US for being ‘the worst mother’ because she let her 9 year old ride the subway. In the book she explains why she did this and why more freedom is good for kids. She has the facts on her side. Kids are now safer today than they have been for decades.
The big point in Free-Range kids is to just to try and relax and let kids be kids and to get out and explore the neighbourhood. It seems that this paranoia about kids is worse in certain parts of the US than it is in Australia. Or maybe the book exaggerates this.
Free-Range kids is a fun, short read that has a lot of good advice for parents who are trying to reduce their worry about their kids. It’s not brilliant, but it is well worth a look.
The Legends of Luke Skywalker (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) (2017) by Ken Liu is a book that gives the fantastic writer Ken Liu a chance with the Star Wars Universe. He does remarkably well.
I am a huge fan of Star Wars but almost all Star Wars books are actually fairly terrible. I’ve started quite a few more than I’ve finished. Star Wars films are great but when you try and flesh out the universe it often becomes apparent how completely silly it is. It’s a real challenge in a book, that needs a bit more depth, to not write things that are ludicrous.
Liu confronts this challenge and overcomes it. He has managed to write involving and genuinely interesting stories about Star Wars. He’s picked a character who is right for him. He’s also managed to absorb the Star Wars universe rather than it absorbing him.
The stories give a fascinating idea of what Luke might have done since the last of the original trilogy and before the start of the new one. They are clever and have some depth to them and even the way they are told, in a thousand and one night’s style, is clever.
It works well and it’s a delight for people who want something more from a Star Wars book and appreciate Liu’s fine writing.
Superconductivity: A Very Short Introduction (2009) by Stephen J Blundell is a really fine history and introduction to superconductivity. The author is a professor of Physics at Oxford who has also written a number of physics textbooks. It’s great to see someone who can explain things so well at many different levels.
I recently listened to the excellent Omega Tau Podcast on superconductivity and decided to read a book that had some more information about the history of superconductivity and how it works. This book provides exactly that in a really digestible form and there are even a few funny jokes in the book.
Superconductivity was a surprise discovery made when people were experimenting with just how cool they could make things and if they could obtain liquid Helium. That conductivity became infinite was highly unexpected. The physical explanation for this took decades. It’s interesting to compare the long time it took to explain superconductivity to the relatively short time it took work out how to make nuclear reactors and weapons.
The explanations for superconductivity have to be quantum in nature. Then the way in which higher and higher temperature superconductors have been discovered is really remarkable. It gives an insight into just how much great research there is into materials going on quietly all over the world. It’s also startling how the highest temperature superconductor having been created went from 3K in about 1900 to about 25K in 1985 then to 138K in 1993.
It’s a really well done book that is very informative, fascinating and easy to read.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) by Donal Glut is a novelisation of the sequel to Star Wars. The film is the one that really cemented the place of Star Wars with fans. The character of Vader and the relationship between him and Luke made the series something more than magic knights in space. Also Han and Leia’s relationship developing improved the series.
However, the novel really doesn’t capture whatever it was that made the film. It does the job, it’s pretty much Glut writing up the film, but it fails to generate the feeling of the film. It’s serviceable. But nothing more.
I read Star Wars and Return of the Jedi as a kid after the movies came out and have since reread them and somehow found those books better. It might be age, but it might also be that the lack of nuance in those films made the books easier to write.
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think (2011) by Bryan Caplan is a Libertarian Economist’s view of why people should have more kids than they think and his views of parenting.
Caplan thinks that people should have more kids because kids are really good to have when they are 30 and that people spend too much time trying to get everything right for their kids and over protecting them with helicopter parenting and such.
He looks at the very strong evidence of twin studies that shows that genetics dominate in what people become with environment being fairly haphazard. It’s really very strong, identical twins show far more similarity than fraternal ones and adoption makes little different in outcomes. Except, for as Caplan states and is true, whether your kids like you. Care for your children reasonably but try and make time for what you enjoy as well. Don’t make yourself a slave is what he is saying because the evidence indicates that it isn’t worth it.
Unfortunately Caplan doesn’t discuss the best bit of evidence against this – ‘Tiger Mums’ and East Asian parenting and achievement. Or would he argue that something genetic in East Asians makes that group perform better academically?
The book goes through lots of solid evidence about twin studies and genetics and the fact that environmental randomness isn’t controllable. He also summarises ‘Free Range Parenting’ and shows that there is very strong evidence for allowing kids to walk to school at a fairly young age and to be as independent as possible.
The book also echoes arguments about why having kids isn’t that bad for environmental reasons and makes the important point that people are Julian Simon’s Ultimate Resource.
The book is well written and fairly clear. It’s not a great book but it is worth a read and provides food for thought.
Postmodernism : A Very Short Introduction (2003) by Christopher Butler is a very readable introduction to the subject of postmodernism. The book has a more fun style than many very short introductions.
Butler looks at how postmodernism rose up, according to Butler by looking at texts, ignoring Wittgenstein and most of Analytical philosophy and adding Marx and Freud into the mix. Text is then interpreted by the subject using their identity which is a combination of sexuality, gender and race. Hence the role of Postmodernism in driving identity politics. Postmodern denies any fundamental and universal interpretations and values but in practice seems to be very focused on those who are not seen as mainstream identities. Quite a few postmodernists have denied the universality of Liberalism, Marxism and science. However their ideas have been hugely influential.
Butler looks at Postmodernism and politics, Postmodernist culture and the Postmodernist condition.
This is a quick easy read and one that many people should get quite a bit out of. The fact that it’s quite an amusing read also really helps.