Review: Valley of Genius

I bought this book for two reasons. First, I went to high school with its author Adam Fisher. Second, I am always interested in learning more about the history of innovation, entrepreneurship and start-ups.

I haven’t talked to Adam in 30 years, so my relation with him was more relevant in alerting me to the book’s existence than it was in my decision to buy it. That decision was based on Adam’s unusual method of telling the “uncensored history” through a “mashup” of first person perspectives on various Silicon Valley companies and trends. (Here’s the he-said-she-said excerpt on Facebook.)

The book’s 28 chapters are arranged into “waves” that struck Silicon Valley, moving from hardware (70s and 80s), to the internet (90s) and then to social media (00s). These topics overlap and intermingle, but the groupings provide structure in a history book with nearly as many characters as the cast of War and Peace. 

I found this book to be an exciting read due to its broad coverage of most of the major players in the Valley over the past 50 years and its technique of telling stories using the fresh perspectives of actual participants. In combination, I learned a lot more about the evolving culture in my “home town” and how that culture changed itself before it changed the world.

And what do I mean by culture? Try this (Loc 382):

Your basic values are essentially the architecture of the project. Why does it exist? And in Silicon Valley there are two really common sets of values. There are what I call financial values, where the main thing is to make a bunch of money. That’s not a really good spiritual reason to be working on a project, although it’s completely valid. Then there are technical values that dominate lots of places where people care about using the best technique—doing things right. Sometimes that translates to ability or to performance, but it’s really a technical way of looking at things. But then there is a third set of values that are much less common: and they are the values essentially of the art world or the artist. And artistic values are when you want to create something new under the sun. If you want to contribute to art, your technique isn’t what matters. What matters is originality. It’s an emotional value.

This quote captures the main tension that’s explored in the book (and prevalent in Silicon Valley), i.e., the tensions between free and corporate, hippy and troll, community and individual, art and engineering, acid rainbows and beery white dudes. 

Thus, the Valley’s inhabitants face a struggle between creating “insanely great” improvements in our lives and sacrificing us to their greed, ego and power. The book is full of warnings and wisdom from this struggle:

There was kind of a social policy: “You own your own words” was mostly about people had to get permission if they were going to quote you, but it was also about taking responsibility for your words.

Larry Brilliant: And the reason that The Well succeeded was because of those things—not because of the software, not because of the money.

The tension between taking responsibility (and being held accountable) for your actions and denying that responsibility in a quasi-libertarian excuse to screw over others also plays an important role in my research and teaching. In many instances, water policy affects the social distribution of costs and benefits. In many instances, those policies are flawed because some group is able to take benefits for themselves at a cost to others. That’s the tension between a farmer’s consumption of groundwater and the community’s security. That’s the tension between Facebook’s promise to connect the world, and its business of profiting from manipulating those connections.

I highly recommend (5-stars) this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the humans who built a Valley of Genius. Is the genius good or evil? The answer depends on who takes responsibility and who is held accountable.


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Review: Chasing Coral

This documentary follows a team of activists, scientists and divers as they try to document the death of coral reefs. Along the way, they explain how the oceans are absorbing the brunt of the impacts of climate change disruption, and how coral death is the “canary in the coal mine” of other impending impacts.

The sad part of this film is that it’s mostly about the effort to capture time lapse images of dying coral, not about actually saving the coral from death. This set of goals is mostly because so few people know that coral is dying but also because the driving force of death — net increases of GHGs — can only be countered by overcoming “the world’s greatest market failure” or what I prefer to call “the greatest tragedy of the commons.” 

I’ve tried to do the same thing (raise awareness, drive action) with the Life Plus 2 Meters books that I edited and published in the last two years, so I am both supportive of this type of media and pessimistic about its potential impact in a world where people are often too busy or indifferent to act and where politicians and corporations are often pushing for more exploitation and fewer restrictions on GHG emissions, as if their additional profits will insulate them from dying ecosystems and the ensuing collapse of food chains, reduction in global oxygen supplies, etc. (For a discussion of similar impacts from the loss of polar ice, read this depressing overview.)

The movie makes a few good points about how important oceans are. The biggest is that oceans are absorbing 93% of excess heat retained by GHGs. Without this sink, we’d have average surface temperatures of 50C rather than the 14.4C we have now. Second, they explain how coral are more sensitive to warmer ocean waters because they can’t move away. The analogy they use is that a 2C (3.6 Freedom unit) fever can kill a coral just as it can kill a human. Our normal temperature is 36.8C (98.2F) and a fever starts at 37.7C/100F, which is only 1C/1.8F higher. We are, in other words cooking the coral by raising water temperatures above their viable threshold:

In the movie, the team talks about monitoring the death of coral reefs from a floating restaurant full of people who eat and dance while floating over death. Coral reefs provide food and biodiversity. Their death will lead to the collapse and death of a large share of oceanic ecosystems, which will not just be bad for divers and the 500+ million people who depend on reefs for food, but also on the rest of the world that will be more vulnerable to tsunamis that are no longer blocked by reef ecosystems, the need to feed people from other sources (raising the price of food for everyone else), and the other numerous impacts of a disrupted ocean.

Although they are eventually able to capture the before and after images of a reef that dies over the course of a few months of hot water (image below), I am sad to see that there’s still far too little attention on the looming oceanic catastrophe that is going to hit humans in the near — not far! — future.

My one-handed conclusion is that we’re going to suffer a great loss of biodiversity with the death of the ocean’s corals (about half the world’s coral has died in the past 40 years, with 40% of that death occurring in the past three years). I highly recommend this film (5 stars), if only to educate yourself to a world not long with us.


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Review: Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth’s book has attracted a lot of attention. Students has asked if I “teach the doughnut.” Raworth is feted as a rockstar at various festivals. Some reviewers claim a “breakthrough… that will help save the planet.”

So I had to take a look at this book, and a look was all I took.

First — and no surprise — Raworth has not discovered or uncovered anything. She’s just written out a number of well-known ideas that economists have discussed for decades.1

Second — and quite annoying — Raworth presents these ideas as a radical rejection of “conventional economics,” but her strawman caricature of those conventions is based on a Frankenstein-copy/paste-mess of ideas that are usually out-of-date, discredited or merely misinterpreted (by her).2

Third — and thanks god — she does explain a number of useful concepts that economists (and other social scientists) have been exploring for years. These ideas include many that I use for teaching and research, which is why I was not really impressed by the doughnut. (FYI, the idea is that we don’t want to “fall in the hole” of being too poor and miserable, nor “exceed the boundary” of unsustainable behavior.) With this in mind, I might recommend her book, as I would recommend Freakonomics or Economics: A Users Guide, except that all these books distort what economists actually do and the economic method. Raworth, in other words, gives a distorted view of economics (often derided as the “Econ 101 perspective”) that is likely to deceive readers into thinking they understand when all they’ve learned is a superficial perspective that falls apart when questioned.

I often say that an expert is someone who knows what’s missing from an argument (and thus what questions to ask). From this perspective, I can say that Raworth’s arguments are full of holes and wishful thinking.

Fourth — and here’s my elitist perspective — Raworth’s background (BA and MSc degrees from Oxford; 10 years at Oxfam) means that she has lots of real world NGO experience but lacks experience with markets and economic theory. It’s thus no surprise that she’s suspicious of “neoliberal markets” and unaware of economists’ work on market failures, environmental economics, etc. I often say that an expert is someone who knows what’s missing from an argument (and thus what questions to ask). From this perspective, I can say that Raworth’s arguments are full of holes and wishful thinking. I would have been interested in her analysis of development, as Oxfam’s model puts far more reliance on “good people helping poor people” (and often failing because they are either not that good or just do the wrong things; read my paper) than on poor people helping themselves (and succeeding when corrupt governments and dodgy aid groups are not conspiring against them). 

Fifth — and here’s my impatience — I didn’t read her whole book. Indeed, I could barely manage the first two chapters before I sat down to write this. Her prose is chirpy and her passion clear, but I disliked her preachy and snide tone (“it’s us good ones against them bad ones, dear”) on topics that are familiar to me and better discussed by other writers. (I’m now reading The Secret of Our Success and — wow –Heinrich’s work is stunning; review to come.)

Sixth — and here’s the (w)hole — Raworth seems eager to toss out the baby (economics) with the bathwater (her confusions of economics with politics, human actions with human aspirations) in her quest to “think like a 21st century economist.” The sad part is that many all of these ideas were in circulation among economists in the 20th century, but not in general circulation. Why not? Because many people don’t like sharing the commons, many people want new cars, and many people, sadly, don’t care about poor people. So Raworth doesn’t need to “fix economics” as much as “fix humanity.” I doubt that this message will reach her readers — probably all of whom are well-meaning and well-off but politically naive or powerless. In every course I teach, I emphasize that markets are embedded in society/politics but that markets (where “excludable” goods are managed) have nothing to do with development or sustainability — the “non-excludable goods” that Raworth doughnut emphasizes — which are subject to political and community management.

Bottom line: I give this book 4-stars for its aspirational discussion of how we should behave, its selective review of useful economic ideas, and its overall emphasis on ideas that economists have been working on for 50-plus years. If you want to understand how economics actually works, then start here or here [pdf]. If you want a good overview of “political-economic thinking” and the state, then listen to Pete Boetkte (and read his SEA paper).


  1. Example: The 1987 Brundtland Report
  2. Example: “There will be no shortage of the Earth’s resources, claimed the laissez faire economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, if markets are permitted to do their job.” That may be true by the strict definition of “market resources” such as oil or gold, but she uses this example to claim economists think “EARTH, which is inexhaustible — so take all you want” [p 70]. That statement is much broader, since Earth’s environment — as something we share in the commons — is not a market resource. This difference is known by the vast majority of economists (“negative externalities”) but I’ve written more here.

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