What I’m Reading

Very Short Book Review: “Seeing Like a State”

This is part 4 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The fourth book in this series is called “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”.

This book falls into the same category as quite a few non-fiction books I’ve read recently: educational, but a bit longer than it probably needed to be. At 468 pages, it’s not exactly War & Peace, but better editing could have imparted the same lessons in half the pages.

This book explores the pitfalls of centralized government planning when it comes to agriculture, forestry, architecture, and civil engineering. It explores what happens when authoritarian power structures impose their will on environments without a deep understanding and appreciation of what things are like on the ground.

To give a few examples:

  • In Germany and in other places, the government used to prescribe the clearcutting of forests to allow for monocropping. When you grow only one crop, you can optimize yield more easily. The end result, however, is a forest lacking in diversity and thus more susceptible to disease.
  • In cities like Brasilia, the government set out to create a perfect metropolis from scratch, paying no attention to how people actually live their lives. The result was a city that looked visually considered but was a pain in the ass to live in.
  • In the Soviet Union, the fathers of communism sought to collectivize farms and other drivers of the economy in order to maximize grain output and overall production. The result was a system that worked more poorly than the one it replaced and cast aside decades of local knowledge about how to farm and produce creatively.

The overall lesson of the book is essentially that human beings are great at accumulating local expertise (“metis”) and using it to great advantage, and thus any schemes designed to improve things need to start with this knowledge and not some utopian ideal created out of thin air. This lesson also carries with it a warning against looking at people toiling within a current system as somehow “backward” and in need of technological rescuing (I believe this is the “conservative” angle of this book).

The most interesting bit of the book, in my opinion, is the discussion of “High Modernism”… a term I hadn’t heard of before. High Modernism is essentially a philosophy that says it doesn’t matter what currently exists, but only what can exist in the future. High Modernism turns a blind eye to why people might like small, windy streets and instead prescribes strict 90 degree grids. High Modernism never considers that people might enjoy co-mingling where they work and where they live and instead carves out distinct areas of cities for each. High Modernism looks great from an airplane but works terribly on the ground. The best chapter of the book goes into great detail on one of High Modernism’s chief proponents — someone quite oddly named “Le Corbusier” — and one of its chief detractors — Jane Jacobs.

In thinking about where else we see High Modernism in life, I go immediately back to my own profession: product design. How often do we create products or interfaces that look squeaky clean but don’t actually match how people might best use them? High Modernism seems like one of those concepts that once you see, you can’t unsee.

As for this book, I recommend it if the above topics sound interesting to you. However, given its uneven level of interestingness, don’t be afraid to skim a little when you need to.

Very Short Book Review: “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War”

This is part 3 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The third book in this series is called “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War”.

I will not bury the lede here: I hated this book.

I do not recommend you waste your time with it. It is 779 pages of economics, written by an economist, ostensibly for consumption by other economists. I hesitate to call it “bad”, because the author knows his stuff and it’s entirely possible that I am just not the right audience for it. Strange though, considering I’ve studied economics and read plenty of enjoyable books on the subject in the past. Also strange because plenty of Amazon reviewers seem to have enjoyed it, as well as places like Bloomberg and the New York Times. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Here is a sampling of what you’re in for should you decide to dive into this tar pit:

Now we take a closer look at the behavior of TFP growth for the years since 1970. Shown by vertical bars in figure 17-2 are the growth rates of TFP for 1890-1920, 1920-1970, and three subperiods since 1970. The first of these intervals, 1970-94, exhibits TFP growth of only 0.57 percent per year, less than a third of the 1.89 percent growth rate achieved in the fifty years before 1970. Then the two most recent decades between 1994 and 2014 are shown separately, with TFP growth notably faster in 1994-2004 than in the other two post-1970 intervals. Black is used to fill in the bars for the two periods with relatively rapid TFP growth 1920-1970 and 1994-2004. Light grey is used to show the contrast with all the other intervals in which TFP growth is below 0.6 percent per year.

Imagine 778 more pages of that and you’ll be roughly where I am at today. On the bright side, I was able to brush up on my speedreading skills, tapping through page after page as quickly as possible, slowed only by the occasional accidental tap on a footnote link.

I did learn exactly one memorable thing from this book: if you lived in Boston in 1844, you needed a doctor’s note to legally take a bath. So there’s that.

As far as I can tell, the point of this book was to provide a mind-numbingly comprehensive economic history of the United States and explain why 1870-1970 will never again be repeated in terms of economic growth. Because that period contained so many “one-time inventions” like indoor plumbing, electricity, and the combustion engine, the author contends that every year thereafter will be pretty marginal in terms of impact. He points to a group of “techno-optimists” (that I guess I am part of) who think that technology will continue to propel us forward in dramatic and unexpected ways, but he doesn’t seem to share that view.

This book was supposed to be one of the “books to change conservative minds”, but there isn’t any material even remotely provocative until the final 30 or so pages, and by then, you just want to throw this thing in the fire already.

I did not enjoy reading this book at all and I’m trying to think of a single type of person I would recommend it to, other than professional economists maybe. Really hoping this is the only book in the series of ten that is this much of a slog. So far, the list is 2 for 3.

(deletes from Kindle)

Very Short Book Review: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”

This is part 2 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The second book in this series is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

I’ll be honest. The thought of reading a book that attempts explain conservative ideology did not seem the least bit enjoyable to me. I was worried I’d give up after only a chapter or two. After finishing The Righteous Mind, however, I have to tip my hat to Jonathan Haidt for both the substance and the style of this book. Although a lot of the best stuff is towards the end, the author skillfully opens your mind to accept foreign ideas by building a bridge throughout the early and middle sections.

At its core, this book is about all the different ways various people define morality, and how to understand people who define it differently than you choose to. As a liberal, I’ve always used something resembling the utilitarian version mentioned in the book, which is essentially “morality is the set of principles that provides the greatest amount of good and the least amount of bad”.

The book provides a couple of different lenses to morality that help explain the differences between liberals and conservatives. The first lens splits up morality into three ethics: autonomy, community, and divinity. In liberal minds, autonomy usually dominates. The wants, needs, and rights of individuals come first. In conservative minds, however, community and divinity are often more important. Things like putting family units and religious beliefs above the concerns of individuals are common.

The second lens splits up morality into a moral matrix of six “senses”: Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. The author contends that liberals use only three of these senses (with Care/Harm dominating considerably) while conservatives use all six. When you first hear a statement like this, your immediate thought is “wait, that makes it sounds like liberals are less moral than conservatives”, but that’s not really what it means. It just means that conservatives, when weighing morality, use more ingredients… which you could say is either a good or bad thing.

Another great insight from this book is the role religion plays in creating evolutionarily advantageous hive behavior. Groups of people working in lockstep with each other — suppressing selfish instincts — should be able to outperform and outlast random collections of self-serving individuals. You can see why some people believe so deeply in the importance of religion — even from a purely evolutionary perspective.

There are a lot of other great tidbits in this book including how genetics play a role in how open to change (liberal) or reactive to threats (conservative) you are, but I will let you discover them for yourself.

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it for people who are interested in how conservatives view morality as well as how emotion and reason act together in determining the way humans make decisions.

Very Short Book Review: “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”

This is part 1 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The first book in this series is called “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”.

This book, being on the liberal side of the spectrum, was not much of a stretch for me. It uses the common format of loosely intertwined case studies and social experiments to paint a larger picture of the lesson it is trying to teach. That lesson is simply that scarcity itself changes the way the brain works and has profound implications on the credit and blame we assign to different people in society for their triumphs or problems.

The simplest example is if you take the exact same person and have them perform an IQ test (or any other mental exercise) once while they are flush with money and once while money is scarce, they will perform measurably worse under the scarcity condition.

The macro point of the book is something I’ve only become aware of in the last several years but seems lost on many people from the right side of the political spectrum: poverty itself causes people to be less productive and not the other way around.

Poverty puts people in situations where so much of their energy must be spent just keeping the lights on that whatever is left over can scarcely compete with the almost entirely discretionary energy of the more comfortable classes. A child from a rich family gets home from school and can decide exactly when to do their homework and what other activities they might want to undertake in order to get further ahead of their peers. A child from a poor family might need to cook for their siblings because their parents are at their second jobs, do hours of chores to keep the house in order, or even take on a paying job themselves. If they have any energy left over after that, maybe then they can think about homework.

We love to make examples out of the tiny percentage of people who pull themselves out of poverty because of their hard work, incredible intellect, or athletic prowess, but in doing so, we fail to properly appreciate the injustice of how tilted the playing field is from birth. If we are ever going to live up to the promise of every person being created equal, we need to appreciate — and hopefully correct for — all of the hidden ways that society is not actually equal at all.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it for people who are interested in appreciating the pervasive societal forces that push people upwards and downwards in the world.

Books to Expand Your Perspective

Over the course of the last year since leaving Twitter to take some time off, I’ve managed to catch up on a ton of reading. Real reading. Actual books!

I don’t think I’ve read more than a few books a year since I was a kid, but in the last 12 months, I’ve managed to keep a healthy pace of 2 or 3 per month. Two books have stood above the rest in terms of expanding my understanding and perspective of how the world works:

  1. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

    One of the birthrights of growing up in the United States is that you are indoctrinated at a young age with a very rosy version of America’s history: the journey of a group of people seeking freedom, discovering territory, declaring independence, drafting a benevolent Constitution, and then over the course of the next few hundred years, building America into what it is today.

    While a lot of it is true, it is written from the perspective of “the victors” (as most history is). This book takes the opposite approach, instead opting to tell the story of our country through the lens of those who’ve been taken advantage of (i.e. Native Americans, women, slaves, immigrants, minorities, the poor, and even what we think of as “the middle class”). The author admits that just as textbooks are biased in one direction, his book is likely biased in the opposite direction, but the point is to better balance our view of how America began, what our behavior has been like throughout the course of our history, and what power dynamics continue to shape our society.

    I might go so far as to say this is the most important book I’ve ever read. If we are going to get through the next few years and beyond, it’s important that everyone have a sober perspective on how we got here, and the tensions that have been around from the very beginning.

  2. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

    Speaking of “how we got here”, this book rewinds the clock even further, explaining how modern humans evolved from Homo Erectus to a (mostly) intelligent species spanning every continent on earth. The emphasis is less on physiological evolution and more on the sociological advances that enabled us to live as we do today.

    There is a good amount of material on agriculture, the invention most responsible for our modern way of living, but there are also fascinating storylines about why certain groups of people ended up where they did (e.g. Africans in Africa, Europeans in Europe, etc).

    If you want to get caught up on the story of humans in a single book, this is the one to read.

What’s Next

Jason Kottke had an interesting post which linked to two reading lists from a guy named Cass Sunstein, who worked under Obama and seems like a pretty well-rounded political scholar. The first list is 5 Books To Change Conservatives’ Minds, and the second list is 5 Books To Change Liberals’ Minds.

I am going to try and read all ten, and I won’t lie: I’m not exactly looking forward to it. 176 pages from Antonin Scalia isn’t the sort of thing that gets me up in the morning. But I guess that’s the point!

To make things easier, I’m going to tackle this in machete order. Left, right, left, right, until they are all vanquished. If you’d like to do the same, I sorted them into two public lists — left and right — ordered by number of reviews. Might as well read the popular ones first.

Will report back when I’m done. Happy reading, people!

(This post also available on Medium.)

⇗ How American Politics Went Insane

"Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry."

If you're interested in how the American political system got to where it's at today, this is a great catch-me-up. I had never really considered the importance of middlemen, hierarchy, pork barrel spending, and other elements of what people disdainfully refer to as "the machinery of politics" when it comes to actually getting things done in Washington. We want to replace establishment insiders because we aren't happy with their effectiveness, but there is a very good chance inexperienced outsiders will be much, much worse.

Read more ⇗

⇗ A Self-Driving Car Ethical Problem Simulator

Via Jason Kottke comes this thought-provoking exercise challenging you to apply your own morality to difficult "trolley problem" scenarios that self-driving cars will have to deal with the moment they hit the streets. In other words, when a self-driving car must make a decision to kill (either its own passengers or pedestrians), what criteria should it use to make that decision?

Please go through the exercise yourself before reading any more of this post, as I don't want to poison your answers with my own.

Ok, all done?

There are no objectively right answers to this problem, but my strategy was as follows: First, I disregarded all demographic differences between humans. I don't feel comfortable assigning different values to men, women, the elderly, kids, athletes, criminals, obese people, etc. There was one question where I did have to use this as a tie-breaker, but that was it... and it still didn't feel good. Then, I optimized for saving people who were doing nothing wrong at the time. In other words, pedestrians who crossed on a Don't Walk signal were sacrificed pretty consistently. Then I optimized for greatest number of human lives saved (pets were toast... sorry pets). The hardest question came down to a scenario where you had to pick killing four innocent people in the car vs. four innocent pedestrians. For this, I chose to spare the pedestrians, as those who choose to take a vehicle seem like they should bear the risk of that vehicle more than those who made no such decision.

The summary page at the end is interesting, but it can also give false impressions. For instance, even though I explicitly disregarded demographics, it showed me as significantly preferring to save people who were "fit" and people who were "older". Depending on your strategy, some of these conclusions may be enlightening, and some will just be noise from a small data set. Also, don't forget to design some of your own. Here is the hardest one I could create, based on my own decision-making criteria.

Tough stuff, but it's good to get people acclimated to these dilemmas now, because although no technology can eliminate traffic deaths, self-driving cars will probably greatly reduce them. Curious to hear other strategies if you have them. Jason's, for instance, were different than mine. Also, can I just say that I love the idea of pets "flouting the law by crossing on a red signal?"

Read more ⇗

⇗ My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

Andrew Sullivan goes deep on his own experience trying to rid himself of the digital distractions that have taken over our attention spans. Lots of great thinking and food for additional thought here. It seems like there are two camps on the issue of hyper-connectivity: one is that this is the new normal while the other is that it's unsustainable. I tend to be in the second camp, and when I think of the products I really want to build in the future, most of them are squarely aimed at giving people their time and attention back so they can live better lives in the real world.

Read more ⇗

⇗ Why Do We Judge Parents For Putting Kids At Perceived — But Unreal — Risk?

As a card-carrying non-parent, one of my favorite questions to ask parents (for some reason) is at what age they will feel comfortable leaving their kids alone for very short periods of time. The answers often surprise me and are a lot more conservative than when I grew up in the 1980s. This article goes deep on why that is. The bit about the "availability heuristic" is what I had previously suspected, but the additional finding about people conflating their own moral judgement with perceived actual risks is fascinating. I wonder what other issues in society this conflation occurs with.

Read more ⇗

⇗ Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

The product of 18 months of reporting, Fractured Lands is one of the best explanations you will read about the current state of the Middle East. The storytelling style is unconventional, weaving the personal journeys of several people together into five distinct time periods, but it works and it's definitely worth your time.

The most interesting thing I learned is that the three nations most devastated by the Arab Spring are all nations the West helped create in the early 20th century: Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The power dynamics of those and other regions mentioned in this piece are fascinating and extraordinarily precarious.

The one thing I was surprised made no appearance in Fractured Lands is the role of global warming in the escalating conflict in Syria. For a great look into that angle, make sure to check out Yonatan Zunger's piece on the subject.

Read more ⇗

Subscribe by Email

... or use RSS