Tag Archives: non-fiction

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.


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.

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.





Iran: A Very Short Introduction (2014) by Ali Ansari is a short introduction to the whole history of Iran. Ansari is a professor in Modern History at St Andrews University and he is also the founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies.

The book is great of the history of Iran up until about the seventeenth century and then the book takes an odd turn with Ansari inserting more references to how Iran see its history now. It reads oddly from there on and the modern history of Iran feels very rushed It seems that the book may have been substantially cut down from what the author intended and what remains feels almost like a collage.

Short Introductions are often superb short books by mainly British academics. They are like an extended edition of In Our Time at their best. However, this one really doesn’t work. It has made me want to read more about Iran, but also that the book was better edited.

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) by Anthony Boudain is a fun read from the now famous celebrity chef Anthony Boudain. It recounts Boudain’s time working as a cook and chef in New York.

It’s genuinely interesting, gritty and pretty funny in parts. From my limited experience working in a commercial kitchens it also sounds pretty realistic. The places I worked in, while good, were nothing like the incredible places where Boudain has worked, but still, there was the same camaraderie, slander and tough working conditions.

This book really shows just how incredibly tough it is working in a kitchen. The hours and the demands of the job are staggering. It’ll be interesting over the next few decades to see how much of this labor is displaced with automation, if indeed that much is. Human hands and flexibility are perhaps under appreciated.

The book also shows Boudain’s huge appreciation for food as well.It makes you appreciate the skill that goes into the creation of fine bread and other food.

Kitchen Confidential is an interesting, inspiring and amusing look at the restaurant trade and food.

Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now : The Case for Reason, Science, and Humanism (2018) by Steven Pinker is a high selling non-fiction book by a famous author that espouses that humanity’s condition has improved dramatically in the past 200 years and also very dramatically in the past 50 years. In addition to that Pinker says that the reason for this improvement is Reason, Science and Humanism. Bill Gates recently said that book is his favourite of all time. Pinker is a Canadian born cognitive psychologist professor at Harvard. He has also written a number of very successful other books.

The fact that the number of people in the world living flourishing lives in the world over the past 200 years has shot up dramatically. This fact is critically important and has been sadly under reported. The recently deceased Swedish doctor Hans Rosling made a big effort with his ‘Gap minder’ website to collate statistics on the well being of people all over the world. His TED talk is fantastic and it has had a huge impact. The data show that life expectancy has shot up in poor parts of the world along with literacy and life expectancy. Max Roser, a German researcher, has furthered this sort of data collection in his fantastic our world in data project.

The book summarises these incredible developments well. Pinker states that the system of markets, science and democracy has worked better than anything in history and that the increase in well being is absolutely staggering. The book does cover much of the same ground that Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ also does.

The other part of the book is stating that it is the ideas of the Enlightenment that have been furthered with atheism that has caused all this to take place and Pinker starts to take on those he believes are the enemies of The Enlightenment. This part is more problematic. Many of the major Enlightenment thinkers were religious, in particular Kant, as have been many major scientific figures including Newton, Maxwell and others. They were not seeking to put forward new thinking based just on reason but instead to use reason to justify their beliefs better. There have been critiques of the book from academics who study The Enlightenment that point out these issues .

Pinker also makes the point that a lot of the humanities have become heavily left wing and politicised and intolerant. Pinker points out that in many Humanities departments there are as many Marxists as conservatives with the majority being substantially left, and many hard left wing. They have also become intolerant of idealogical diversity. Pinker points out that this is also leading to much of the humanities become irrelevant. Science is seen by post modernists as just another version of truth that is primarily about propagating an oppressive point of view.

Much of the great progress over the past 20 years is also due to China’s rise and it is interesting to ponder if the rise of a nominally Marxist but certainly totalitarian state coupled to a market economy that uses science is a rise compatible with The Enlightenment.

Pinker’s previous book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ was challenged by Nassim Taleb on the basis that a single modern nuclear war would make the entire thesis incorrect. Pinker responds to this criticism in the book. However, he doesn’t name Taleb which is a bit petty.

The book concludes with a defence of Liberalism and Humanism and references to The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and a manifesto for a new Humanism.

Overall, Enlightenment Now is well worth a read for the statistics that point out just how much the modern world has improved in so many dimensions. Pinker’s idealogical justification for this rise isn’t as strong and is apparently not as well researched.




The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (2013) by Mike Rapport is another excellent very short introduction. The book describes the wars between 1792 and 1815. The author, Mike Rapport, a senior lecturer of history at The University of Stirling in Scotland. He’s written numerous other longer history books.

The Very Short Introduction books are a bit hit and miss, some of the books that describe vague concepts are not that great, but the ones that have a constrained subject they can describe in more detail than a Wikipedia page but with fewer pages than the heavyweight history books that are more ‘complete’ are often excellent. This is one of the latter.

The wars are divided into two sections, the revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars. The book also describes Total War, revolutionary Wars, the impact on soldiers and civilians, the war at sea and ‘the people’s war’.

I really enjoyed the book, learned a lot and am inspired to go and read more about the Napoleonic Wars and to find similar books about The Seven Years War and The Thirty Years War.