Tag Archives: nonfiction

Global Economic History

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.

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Free-Range Kids

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.

 

Superconductivity

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.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

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

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.

 

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) by David Graeber is a really interesting book that looks at how people perceive their jobs as pointless and what Graeber thinks. Graeber describes himself as an an ‘anarchist and anthropologist’.

Graeber wrote an essay in 2013 ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ which was very popular online. After the book was written he solicited and obtained many accounts of people who found their jobs to be a waste of time and how they dealt with them. This book is the result. Graeber combines these accounts with his theories of anarchism and how society and the economy works. The accounts are remarkable and often very amusing as well as genuinely interesting. Graebers theorizing as to what work is productive and how things should be organised is far less compelling.

It would be hard to find people who have either experienced or seen people working in jobs which were, essentially pointless but that were often quite well paid. Graeber suggests that people who work in communication, HR and corporate lawyers are anyone who works in finance as working in jobs that don’t need to be done and that they know do not need to be done.

Graeber takes issues with other people who have defined jobs that don’t need to be done to include telephone sanitizers and hairdressers, including Douglas Adams and thinks that instead many private sector and administrative jobs are the ones that truly don’t need to be done.

He certainly has a point. There are undoubtedly many people writing reports that are ignored and even most economists would agree that the finance sector has expanded beyond what is productive. Graeber classifies BS jobs as ‘Flunkies’, ‘Goons’, ‘Duct Tapers’, ‘Box Tickers’ and ‘Taskmasters’. When asked in an online UK YouGov poll 37% of respondents said that they were sure what they did made no meaningful contribution to the world. This is extrapolated by Graeber to suggest that at least a third of the workforce isn’t really doing anything useful and they know it.

Many of the accounts of people with BS jobs are fantastic. People given jobs on projects known to be pointless is a remarkable thing. That many firms and governments have done this is quite something. Graeber points out that many accounts of these things happening largely in the public sector are wrong. Although even he can’t help pointing out some incredible examples in the public sector where people even stop going to work and continue to get paid for years. He also does suggest, but downplays that people who have a BS job in many places can convert it to a useful job once they are inside an organisation.

Graeber goes on to provide his theory of how society and the economy should be organised and this is fairly weak. Instead of acknowledging that markets have provided unprecedented prosperity for many people he states that the whole system needs to be dismantled. The idea that markets have changed the world dramatically for the better but that they are still often terribly wasteful and that with some thought perhaps working hours might be substantially reduced is not even discussed and instead various classes in conflict are proposed. He goes on to suggest that a universal basic income UBI would stop people doing pointless work and make us all better off. Graeber blithely seems to think that the pointless jobs can be easily identified and that UBI would happily work.

Bullshit Jobs is a genuinely interesting book. Hopefully lots of people read it and think about the myriad of inefficiencies that it points out. However, the theories and answers offered by Graeber are far less strong.

 

 

 

Mining the Sky

Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from Asteroids, Comets and Planets (1996) by John S Lewis is an interesting but quite heavy going look at the resources available in the solar system that could be extraced. Lewis is Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The book systematically looks at the resources available in the moon, asteroids and on other planets and points out that the potential is staggering, enough minerals, metals and energy to provide all the resources for a much larger population of humans and for exploration of other solar systems.

The book isn’t an an easy read because it tends to barrage the reader with the details of the chemical composition of the planetary bodies but it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how space exploration could be economically viable.