Reviews: Moby Dick, Modern Times & Kon Tiki

Here are my comments on these three classics, in order of “publication.”

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or, the Whale came out in 1851. It was not famous when he was alive but entered the American cannon after some time. All I remember from “reading” it as a teen (summer reading, IIRC) was “Call me Ishmael,” which is the first line of the book. That’s a pity as the book is truly a masterpiece in (a) its depiction of the American whaling industry and (b) its scintillating, sometimes surreal, writing. Unfortunately, I lost my notes in the ebook I downloaded (it’s out of copyright :), but there are gems — a la Shakespeare, Twain or Dickens — on every page. Take this bit about Ahab, the obsessive captain who carries an ivory leg in the place of that which the White Whale ripped off:

Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze, too, upon that ribbed and dented brow; there also, you would see still stranger foot-prints—the foot-prints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.

But on the occasion in question, those dents looked deeper, even as his nervous step that morning left a deeper mark. And, so full of his thought was Ahab, that at every uniform turn that he made, now at the main-mast and now at the binnacle, you could almost see that thought turn in him as he turned, and pace in him as he paced; so completely possessing him, indeed, that it all but seemed the inward mould of every outer movement.

This is an amazing book in terms of writing and drama (the real event it’s based on — a whale sinking a ship — was tragedy embodied). FIVE STARS.

Charlie Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936. Although “talkies” had arrived, he decided to leave his Tramp character silent, as it helped the audience (and me!) focus on the non-verbal performance. The plot (in case you didn’t know) was the inhumanity of factory life and dehumanizing efficiency. (Chaplin was inspired by Gandhi, who opposed industrialization.)

The movie is funny, clever and still relevant. FIVE STARS.

Kon Tiki (1948/1950) is Thor Heyerdahl’s telling of his expedition to sail on a pae-pae raft made of balsa wood logs (named “Kon Tiki” after the god of the sun) from Peru to the South Pacific. Heyerdahl wanted to prove that it was possible to sail (ahead of the trade winds) from east to west, and thus show how the Polynesians could have migrated (or fled) from South America. (This hypothesis seems to be only partially supported by facts.) Here he describes how they introduced themselves to the Polynesians after 101 days at sea:

An uneducated but highly intelligent gathering of brown people stood waiting for me to speak. I told them that I had been among their kinsmen out here in the South Sea islands before, and that I had heard of their first chief, Tiki, who had brought their forefathers out to the islands from a mysterious country whose whereabouts no one knew any longer. But in a distant land called Peru, I said, a mighty chief had once ruled whose name was Tiki. The people called him Kon-Tiki, or Sun-Tiki, because he said he was descended from the sun. Tiki and a number of followers had at last disappeared from their country on big pae-paes; therefore we six thought that he was the same Tiki who had come to those islands. As nobody would believe that a pae-pae could make the voyage across the sea, we ourselves had set out from Peru on a pae-pae, and here we were, so it could be done.

After 600 pages of foreboding in Moby Dick, I was much happier to read this shorter, more hopeful, and real story. What I found fascinating is how the six Norwegians were constantly surrounded by fish, sharks and dolphins — all of which they killed and ate with ease, due to their abundance. Someone told me that Heyerdahl’s grandson made the same voyage more recently (2006, I read on wikipedia) and saw only one shark on the whole way. That reality indicates that it may be impossible to “catch your food” on such a long voyage. Tragic.

I also give Kon Tiki FIVE STARS.

How lucky we are to have such books and films!

Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Consolations of Philosophy

BZ recommended this short book by Alain De Botton, which was released in 2000. Although I tend to lose patience with most philosophy books (too many weird words debating too many obscure concepts), I found this book to be just deep enough — and just superficial enough — to hold my interest to its (not-so-bitter) end.

What I found most useful (or accessible) were the short stories and biographical sketches of the philosophers (in bold) that De Botton offers in the course of describing their thinking. The social awkwardnesses and missing relationships Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, for example, explain both their thinking and (to me) my lack of connecting to their thinking.

But let me get to my highlights and spell out a few more things:

    • Epicurus and friends escaped the people they didn’t like by setting up a commune where they could eat, sleep, think and argue without interference or censure. “If we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
    • “It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one… Unfortunately, there is no shortage of desirable images of luxurious products and costly surroundings, fewer of ordinary settings and individuals. We receive little encouragement to attend to modest gratifications – playing with a child, conversations with a friend, an afternoon in the sun, a clean house, cheese spread across fresh bread.”
    • “Rich people could be admirable, but this depended on how their wealth had been acquired, just as poverty could not by itself reveal anything of the moral worth of an individual.”
    • “One would never imagine that a good pot or shoe could result from intuition alone; why then assume that the more complex task of directing one’s life could be undertaken without any sustained reflection on premises or goals.”
    • “Pottery looks as difficult as it is. Unfortunately, arriving at good ethical ideas doesn’t, belonging instead to a troublesome class of superficially simple but inherently complex activities. Socrates encourages us not to be unnerved by the confidence of people who fail to respect this complexity and formulate their views without at least as much rigour as a potter.”
    • Socrates was right: “The correctness of a statement cannot, the method suggests, be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted.”
    • “Socrates would naturally have conceded that there are times when we are in the wrong and should be made to doubt our views, but he would have added a vital detail to alter our sense of truth’s relation to unpopularity: errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition… It may be frightening to hear that a high proportion of a community holds us to be wrong, but before abandoning our position, we should consider the method by which their conclusions have been reached. It is the soundness of their method of thinking that should determine the weight we give to their disapproval.”
    • Important advice in an age of social media (the book is from 2000!): “We seem afflicted by the opposite tendency: to listen to everyone, to be upset by every unkind word and sarcastic observation. We fail to ask ourselves the cardinal and most consoling question: on what basis has this dark censure been made? We treat with equal seriousness the objections of the critic who has thought rigorously and honestly and those of the critic who has acted out of misanthropy and envy. We should take time to look behind the criticism… They [critics] may have acted from impulse and prejudice, and used their status to ennoble their hunches. They may have built up their thoughts like inebriated amateur potters.”
    • “Rage is caused by a conviction, almost comic in its optimistic origins (however tragic in its effects), that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life… We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.” — cue Carlin.
    • “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen. Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if our desires are not fulfilled, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more modest than the anxieties they have bred.”
    • “The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
    • You are not the center of the universe: “Behind their readiness to anticipate insult lay a fear of deserving ridicule. When we suspect that we are appropriate targets for hurt, it does not take much for us to believe that someone or something is out to hurt us. Abject interpretation: The builder is hammering in order to annoy me. Friendly interpretation: The builder is hammering and I am annoyed.” [I find this last bit particularly useful, as it’s much easier to forgive or overlook behavior that’s not directed at you.]
    • “Of course, there would be few great human achievements if we accepted all frustrations. The motor of our ingenuity is the question ‘Does it have to be like this?’, from which arise political reforms, scientific developments, improved relationships, better books. The Romans were consummate at refusing frustration. They hated winter cold and developed under-floor heating. They didn’t wish to walk on muddy roads and so paved them… Unfortunately, the mental faculties which search so assiduously for alternatives are hard to arrest. They continue to play out scenarios of change and progress even when there is no hope of altering reality… for Seneca, wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquillity.” In other words: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” — Wygal (1933).
    • “[Montaigne:] To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads… Misplaced confidence in reason was the well-spring of idiocy – and, indirectly, also of inadequacy.”
    • Social media? “What is the use of those high philosophical peaks on which no human being can settle and those rules which exceed our practice and our power? It is not very clever of [man] to tailor his obligations to the standards of a different kind of being.”
    • “The Spanish had butchered the Indians with a clean conscience because they were confident that they knew what a normal human being was… Perhaps we should remember the degree to which accusations of abnormality are regionally and historically founded. To loosen their hold on us, we need only expose ourselves to the diversity of customs across time and space. What is considered abnormal in one group at one moment may not, and will not always be deemed so.”
    • “We may share judgements with friends that would in ordinary company be censured for being too caustic, sexual, despairing, daft, clever or vulnerable – friendship is a minor conspiracy against what other people think of as reasonable.”
    • “Those who do not listen to their boredom when reading, like those who pay no attention to pain, may be increasing their suffering unnecessarily. Whatever the dangers of being wrongly bored, there are as many pitfalls in never allowing ourselves to lose patience with our reading matter.”
    • “In Montaigne’s redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it is possible to speak no Greek, fart, change one’s mind after a meal, get bored with books, know none of the ancient philosophers and mistake Scipios. A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.”
    • “They [Italian thinkers] were curious, artistically gifted, and sexually vigorous. Despite their dark sides, they laughed, and many of them danced, too; they were drawn to ‘gentle sunlight, bright and buoyant air, southerly vegetation, the breath of the sea [and] fleeting meals of flesh, fruit and eggs’. Several of them had a gallows humour close to Nietzsche’s own – a joyful, wicked laughter arising from pessimistic hinterlands. They had explored their possibilities, they possessed what Nietzsche called ‘life’, which suggested courage, ambition, dignity, strength of character, humour and independence (and a parallel absence of sanctimoniousness, conformity, resentment and prissiness)… These were, Nietzsche implied, some of the elements that human beings naturally needed for a fulfilled life. He added an important detail; that it was impossible to attain them without feeling very miserable some of the time” Nietzsche was a bit of a downer, which is maybe why he never had a serious relationship and went crazy before he died?
    • Thus I question some of his “insights” — i.e., “no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation.” Although one cannot dispute his love for — and inspiration from — exploring mountains.
    • Nietzsche: “Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfilment.”
    • What of Schopenhauer? According to his mother, “You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are overshadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people.” Not the first time a philosopher had trouble with the ostensible recipients of his wisdom.

In sum, I preferred the Romans (Epicurus, Socrates, Seneca) and Montaigne to the Germans (Nietzsche and Schopenhauer). I give this book FIVE STARS as an interesting read on a tough subject.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Adapt

I found this 2011 book by Tim Harford in the local “book exchange” on teh corner and grabbed it, since I’ve read his Undercover Economist and listened to his fun “Cautionary Tales” podcast.

I was glad I did.

Harford’s books fall into the space between Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Taleb, as he’s both an economist and journalist, and that’s where I like to hang out. (Fun fact, this book came out before Taleb’s 2012 Anti-fragile, which covers, AFAIK, the same topic.)

This book’s premise is that we can hardly hope to get it right the first time, especially when exploring new ideas or facing new challenges, so he says we should focus on adaptation, which is useful for dealing with climate change but also to any other change.

The way to do this is summarized as the Palchinsky Principles*:

  1. Seek out new ideas and try new things.
  2. Try new things on a small scale, so failure is survivable.
  3. Seek feedback and learn from mistakes as you go.

You can stop reading here, as that’s “the lesson,” but I will (as usual) add a bunch of notes (only a fraction of the notes I made while reading) that give more context to those steps.

  • Life as hunter-gathers was simple: eat, walk, sleep, fuck. The leader had a few simple responsibilities but got respect. In our extremely complex world, leaders cannot hope to understand or manage those systems, but our primitive mind keeps assuming they can.
  • The survival or success of firms has little to do with their leaders, which should make you question their stupid-high salaries.
  • The Soviets were spectacularly bad planners, but the USSR survived on the wits of its citizens, many of whom were punished for “deviations.” Palchinsky (*mentioned above) was murdered by Stalin’s goons for making too much noise about all that was going wrong.
  • “If formal experiments hold few joys for traditional leaders, informal feedback will often fail to reach them, too… There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk” (p 30)
  • High modernism and grand visions are dangerous because they over-reach.
  • Whistle-blowers and short sellers are hated for interfering with the vision, but they should be rewarded for pointing out dangers (and actual fraud).
  • “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” or, in Mike Tyson’s words, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
  • Hayek said a lot of this in his amazing 1945 paper (one of my favorites)
  • The US only recovered from early failures in Iraq (recall the book came out in 2011) due to local leaders giving local soldiers authority to ignore orders from the top (“frag the lieutenant”) and solve local issues.
  • Variation in ideas (and actions) is safer (see #2) than pursuing one big idea (cf., market indexing vs superstars).
  • Many good ideas (and many more failures) come from “skunk works” filled with engineers and others freed from corporate oversight (#1, #2).
  • Don’t be fooled by the “success” presented to you. Look at all the data (#3).
  • A simple (sophisticated) economy usually makes simple (sophisticated) products due to many factors. Simple economies are usually poorer than sophisticated ones, but that’s not always true. Saudi Arabia is rich, but simple (selling oil), which is why its people have trouble making sophisticated products. Israel’s current wealth could be predicted by the  (educational and cultural) sophistication of its people.
  • The northern European port city of Lübeck (now in Germany) exported it successful model and founded the Hanseatic League (which dominated European commerce for centuries) because its ruler, Henry the Lion, established a stable and open trading policy in 1158.
  • John Tyndall’s 1859 description of the Greenhouse effect was based on some pretty clever science (he showed that sunlight would heat water vapor in a flask but not if the flask was a vacuum)
  • Most of our understanding of cause and effect, as applied to climate chaos (e.g., recycle! drive an electric car!) is off or wrong, so we should be worried about “targeted policies” (looking at you, politicians) and favor a direct instrument like a carbon tax: “What the carbon tax would do, then, is recreate the fantasy carbon calculator app, and give it teeth. No central database would be needed. Every product in the world would change in price according to the carbon content of the energy that produced it, and that would give every decision maker, fromthe electricity company to Geoff himself, an incentive toreduce their carbon footprint using whatever tactics occurredto them” (page 168).
  • A complex, tightly coupled (think falling dominos) system is vulnerable to blowing up. That’s what happened in the Global Financial Crisis, when everyone realized that the bankers had no fucking idea what they were buying and selling. The current crypto-market blow up is a smaller, far less regulated, version of this (see #2) that would NOT have been avoided with regulation. (Lack of regulation is a feature, not a bug, when you’re inventing a market.)
  • Separating banks into “utility” and “speculative” was a good idea in 2011, and it’s still a good idea, but bankers have bribed politicians to keep the casino open — and they’re gambling with your money.
  • Financial regulators and auditors don’t spot corporate fraud: Journalists, whistle-blowers and other (non-financial) regulators. Why? None of these later types are paid by the firms they “oversee.”
  • Individuals die as the population adapts, via selective breeding. That’s bad news for the individual but good for the species.
  • Peer monitoring is far more effective than the boss looking over your shoulder.
  • Disruptive innovations only get going because incumbents don’t see the potential in better ideas. They are comparing a new, rough idea to their old, refined one. “Big mistake” — Elon Musk.
  • “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman. It’s for this reason that I named my website kysq (kill your status quo), since (#3) the first step to learning is admitting (not denying) that you’ve made a mistake. This is why good writers can “kill their babies” (paragraphs); they need to make peace with their losses.
  • “I am not a failure. I have made a mistake.” (p 257)
  • Self-employed people tend to be happier than employed because their customers give immediate feedback, good and bad, whereas employees need to rely on bosses who may not pay attention or know what’s good or bad.

My one-handed conclusion is that we can all benefit from Palchinsky’s Principles — and reading this book, especially as we enter an era that (in my evolving opinion) will not look like the 1930s or 1970s, but the 2020s, and it’s going to full of chaos and the need to adapt. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Cork Dork

I can’t remember who recommend this book to me, but I am glad they did. It is about wine, and the weirdnesses we attach to wine, sometimes for good reasons, but often not. It’s a good companion to a movie like Sideways for those people who have a tendency to put their noses too deep into their glasses.

Bianca Bosker sets out with a huge ambition (to become certified as a sommelier, aka “cork dork”), and she learns a lot on the way from those kind enough to give their time (or too slow to escape her persistence). This book is her record of that process of going from “red or white?” to someone able to recognize the smell of a particular grape, vintage AND region.

I won’t go into step-by-step details, except to say that the process gives some excellent structure to writing that balances between funny failure and caustic critique of the many steps between the grape and your glass.

The good news is that most of us can drink tasty wine for $30 per bottle (these are restaurant prices, so maybe $10 from the store?). The bad news is that anyone who wants “something different” — and especially if they want something that’s more handmade (a thousand cases per year) than industrial (a thousand cases per day) is gonna be paying $100 per bottle ($30 in store) and up, until you get to showoff bottles ($500 and up) that are not really worth the extra Benjamins.

Along the way, I made some notes:

  • The per-glass price to a customer is roughly the per bottle price to the restaurant.
  • If you’ve heard of the grape (e.g., cabernet sauvignon), then you’re likely to be over-paying for such a crowd-pleaser. Weird grapes are better value for money.
  • Sommeliers can steer you to more expensive wines, but they are more likely to get excited about finding “the most interesting you have for $30,” since they can actually put their knowledge to work.
  • Intellectuals and scientists have neglected smell as a sense, which is why we know so little about it in comparison to other senses. It’s also hard to collect anything like “objective” data on smell, since we have different sensitivities to different smells and can’t easily explain what we smell to others. It’s much easier to describe what we see or hear…
  • A “dry” wine has turned all its sugar into alcohol, so its stronger and less sweet.
  • Rules rules rules: “Don’t pour men before women, don’t pour hosts before their guests, don’t pour more for one person than another. And God help you if you drip. Don’t pick up glasses to pour, and don’t take more than two pours to fill one glass. Don’t empty the bottle the first go-around. Don’t ever block the label with your hand. Don’t look awkward. Don’t fidget. Don’t pour from the left. Don’t walk clockwise. Don’t ever swear. Don’t make guests ask you the vintage. Don’t be so eager. Don’t be so serious—you don’t want to be a funeral director, do you? Don’t be so shy. Don’t say “um.” And for the love of God don’t look so nervous. This is supposed to be fun.”
  • “Flavor” happens in the mouth. “Taste” combines flavor, smell, and even touch (feel).
  • Humans can smell more accurately than dogs, sometimes, and smell can help us avoid dangers, such as sick people or food that’s gone bad. Protip: If the wine is corked, then say something. I got a corked glass once and sent it back. I was amazed to see that it came from a nearly-empty bottle, which meant that three people before me hadn’t noticed that the wine tasted (=smell + flavor) like shit corky-syrup.)
  • Marketing? “These mass-market wines are what you see over and over again in every liquor store you visit, or on the laminated menus in chain restaurants. They usually have critters on the label, or puns that get chuckles around the office water cooler (“Marilyn Merlot,” “Seven Deadly Zins”). And they drive oenophiles crazy. Wines like Yellow Tail have all the delicacy of “raspberry motor oil,” railed biodynamic winemaker and cellar celebrity Randall Grahm in one of his newsletters. To the elite, these are overmanipulated, nurture-trumps-nature, factory-made Frankenwines
  • Lots of marketing: “Anything that costs $500, it’s not about wine. You’re not buying wine. That’s a collectible,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton University econometrics professor who collaborates with Karl on the Journal of Wine Economics. Putting aside speculation or sentimental value, when it comes to flavor, “there’s no justification for a $500 bottle of wine. I guarantee you I can get you one that will cost only $100 and you won’t be able to tell it apart,” he said. “The world is full of people buying bullshit
  • All the crazy words associated with taste (start with “forest fruits” and keep going to “wet socks”) are there for two reasons — pretension and communication — that are hard for normal people to separate (=they’re meaningless). These “flavor words” were only invented in the 1970s, so Churchill (a legendary drinker) was not asking for a “lively” wine with “a dose of rich mineral character,” and which was “very refined with a driving slate imprint that intensifies the already seething soil/fruit battle.
  • Sommeliers who cannot afford to taste the wine menu are not going to be able to say more than “others have chosen this” when it comes to recommending expensive bottles. Part of their high price, therefore, is the cost of helping the somms learn what’s on offer.
  • Is there such a thing as “super smell”? Maybe for some people but that’s not what somms specialize in: “Though I’d initially wondered about super-noses and über-tongues, I no longer had any doubt: Advanced flavor-fanatic sommeliers don’t possess better physical equipment, like ten times as many taste buds or thousands of extra olfactory receptor genes. Rather, it’s their manner of thinking that is unique. They perceive and interpret the flavors they encounter in a more developed way, and that filter changes everything.

This is an entertaining fun book. If you like wine, then read it. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Longitude

Since I got into watches, I’ve heard more about more about Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, a book by Dana Sobel that was published in 1995.

The book is short (191 pages) and blazing read, which stems more from Sobel’s clear and direct style than from the simplicity of the plot, which takes many twists and turns between the 1714 announcement of the “Longitude Prize” and its ultimate (but anti-climatic) award 60 years later.

What was the Longitude Prize and why did it matter? 

After “just a few too many” maritime disasters resulting from ships now knowing their correct longitude, the British Parliament offered the  prize to direct inventors and scientists towards finding a solution. What was the problem? Sailors at sea could easily identify their latitude, or distance from the equator, by observing sun’s noon height above the horizon, but they could not determine their longitude, as that distance could only be known relative to a starting point to the east or west.

Two main solutions were proposed. The first method tracked the difference in time between the starting point and the current location (comparing “local noon” to time at the starting point), which would tell you how far you were, in terms of the 24 hours it takes for the Earth to rotate. The second method compared the “star map” above one’s head to a published guide of star locations, to understand where in its rotation the Earth stood.

The first method was a challenge because there were no clocks (let alone watches) that could stay accurate as a ship sailed and swung and dipped and heaved across the seas, through changing temperatures and humidities. Few clocks could stay within 5 minutes per day, let alone the 5 seconds per day needed to win the prize. The second method was a challenge because it required mapping stars from different locations on Earth across the 16-year cycle it took the Earth, while wobbling, to pass through its “star cruise.” The second method was also useless in cloudy conditions or when the moonlight was too bright.

A determined problem-solver

The hero of the story is John Harrison, a carpenter-turned-clockmaker who spent most of his life (from 20 to 80 years old) inventing, refining and improving various clocks, and then finally a pocket watch (see the cover image). The villain(s) of the story are the astronomers who blocked recognition of Harrison (they were in charge of awarding the prize) while promoting their preferred “star solution.”

Although I am no watchmaker, I was impressed by the many advances that Harrison created and refined, such as a constant-tension winding spring (to replace a pendulum) and bimetallic components whose differing reactions to temperature maintained the same shape (length or thickness) in hot and cold conditions.

Although the Longitude Board could should have recognized Harrison’s victory as early as 1737 (and certainly by 1761), it issued smaller awards here and there, to encourage several contestants, before finally recognizing Harrison (after intervention by King George III) in 1773. Harrison was 80 years old. One of the main reason’s for his ultimate success was the ease of using his clocks/watches, which gave a location quickly and easily in comparison to the star method, which required several hours of calculation.

In these days of GPS and atomic clocks, most of us do not struggle to know our time and location, but these “modern delights” are only due to the efforts of determined, creative geniuses like Harrison. (NB: His pocket watch lost 5 seconds over 80 days in 1761; a modern, Swiss-certified “chronometer” — such as a Rolex — is allowed to lose 10 seconds per day!)

I give this book FIVE STARS for its compelling and interesting story.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Kleptopia

Tom Burgis’s 2020 book, subtitled “How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World,” provides interesting and scary insights into a world where money and power are abused. Kleptopia is not a place, but a community of corrupt politicians, fast-buck “businessmen,” and the many professionals — lawyers, lobbyists and marketeers — who help them rob the poor. It is an excellent follow-on to Glenny’s 2008 McMafia.

The key to understanding the dynamics of kleptopia is that it is ok to over-pay professionals, kill the curious and persistent, and lie about one’s work and plans while in the process of stealing $billions from citizens. Since the goal is turning other people’s [stolen] money into your own [clean] money, it is ok to lose 90 percent on the way. After all, 90 percent of someone else’s $1 billion is still go enough to take you from $0 to $100 million!

The book is full of examples of crooks in poor countries (Zimbabwe, Kazakstan) working with fixers from rich countries (UK, US) to rob elections, rig markets, and punish opponents everywhere. When did this “business” get big and bad? After the end of the Cold War, when crimes against citizens would no longer be tolerated by US or Soviet allies. The corrupt needed an updated business model and there were many “consultants” ready to provide it.

Ex-Soviet states are featured in the book. Kazakstan’s Nazarbayev insisted on loyalty as he stole billions. Russia’s KGB (where Putin got his start) was very efficient at converting Soviet assets into power and wealth (at least $50 billion) for its members:

“Yeltsin would recall… ‘A country can’t be rich if it has no rich people in it. There is no real human independence without private property. But money, big money (which is actually a relative concept) is always, under any circumstances, a seduction, a test of morals, a temptation to sin . . . In order to cross that ethical line, in order to run that red stoplight, under Russian conditions you don’t necessarily have to peddle pornography, sell drugs, or deal in contraband cheap goods. Why fool around with such nickel-and-dime stuff? It’s easier to buy one government official after another” p 170.

There is no rule of law in Kleptopia, only delays, oversights and “interpretations” that make no sense to outsiders — until you understand that the goal is robbery, often accompanied by violence.

Tony Blair is one such person. Here’s the advice he gave to Nazarbayev on how to spin a massacre of his citizens (protesting the loss of their jobs due to their company being stripped of assets by Nazarbayev’s allies) in the city of Zhanaozen:

“Dear Mr President… I think it best to meet head on the Zhanaozen issue. The fact is you have made changes following it; but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made. Dealing with it in the way I suggest, is the best way for the Western media. It will also serve as a quote that can be used in future setting out the basic case for Kazakhstan.”

Some draft passages followed. ‘I love my country . . . essential religious tolerance . . . strong ally of the coalition . . . progress and openness . . .’ Then a little false modesty: ‘But as the tragic events of Zhanaozen last December showed, there is much for Kazakhstan still to do . . . I understand and hear what our critics say. However, I would simply say this to them: by all means make your points and I assure you we’re listening. But give us credit for the huge change of a positive nature we have brought about in our country over these twenty years . . .’ Move on to a catalogue of reforms under way, then build to the climax[…]” — p 255.

Blair was paid $13 million per year for such advice — around $1 million per massacred protestor.

Why is real estate so expensive in London, New York and Dubai? Buyers are not looking for value; they want to launder dirty money into clean real estate. They don’t care if the price is outrageous; they don’t even live in the properties. That’s why they pay — and sellers are happy — to accept cash. The same is true about investors into poorly performing hedge funds: annual returns are irrelevant if the main goal is cleaning the principal.

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” — Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Fake news, loyal media, and outright lies are the language of Kleptopia. We can see it in the speeches of Putin and other (would be) dictators, but we can also see it in Trump’s words. Why? Because he’s been laundering money for decades via various “Trump projects.” Does it matter that they go bankrupt or fall in value? Not if the backers are able to turn $100 of dirty money into $50 of clean assets. Indeed, casinos (another failed Trump endeavor) are often used as places to launder cash, with the house getting a cut.

Corruption is always and everywhere a drag on prosperity, cooperation and human flourishing. It’s also a reason for mass death and suffering:

“Putin and his brother dictators in the other ex-Soviet republics wanted to use control of natural resources to magnify their influence abroad, be it by shaking down BP, listing mining companies in London or turning off gas supplies to Ukraine whenever its leaders leaned overly Westward. At the same time, their primary mission was to divert money from the collective to themselves. If you could figure out a business deal that would achieve both ends at once, there were fortunes to be made” p 352.

Although I am glad to see the Ukrainians resisting Putin’s invasion, it’s also sad that westerners (Blair, Trump and thousands of white collar “facilitators”) have helped kleptocrats, oligarchs and dictators beat and rob their people through lobbying, privacy laws, shell corporations and the like (the invasion has put these “under review” in the UK, but I’ll wait to see what laws actually change).

Are all westerners so eager to help the thieves? No, but those who do oppose them are killed “suicided,” fired, and hounded by police and prosecutors defending the flows of money. (The Swiss have gone after more than one banker for “breach of secrecy” aka, exposing money laundering.)

Remember that this book was released in 2020, so today’s headlines (Russia pivoting to China; Trump claiming Putin is “a genius”) are not accidents:

“Trump was helping to construct a new global alliance suited to the times. It was an alliance of kleptocrats. Like the court of Nazarbayev, they might at times seem like rivals, even enemies. In truth they were united in their common resolve to advance the privatisation of power. And what progress they had made. With Trump’s election, they controlled the three great poles of power. In the White House, a launderer, installed with the help of Putin’s Kremlin. And in Beijing, Xi Jinping. They had prime access respectively to the great repositories of plunder: the world’s biggest economy, the riches of the former Soviet Union, the one-party state containing a fifth of humanity” — p501

Are Xi’s hands clean? Not at all. He, like Putin, used “anti-corruption” to attack his enemies and hide his own crimes. Stay tuned for more, as Xi officially declares himself “leader for life.” It’s only a matter of time before corruption overwhelms all other decisions and facts.

My one-handed conclusion is that many thieves in “poor” countries have been aided and abetted by helpers in rich countries. If we’re going to stop corruption abroad, then we need to start at home. I give this book FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Dead in the Water*

This book, with the *subtitle “a very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe. . . the death of the Murray-Darling Basin” is not subtle.

Richard Beasley is smart (his critiques are top notch), angry (rightfully so, given the incompetence on display), and well-founded (he makes legal briefs digestible) in his critiques of the Australian government’s catastrophic (fucking obvious) and monumental (total failure to deliver) implementation of the Water Act of 2007 and (dependent) Basin Plan of 2012.

tl;dr: You should get this book (which seems to have limited international distribution outside Australia) if (1) you want to learn about an environmental policy failure driven by the greed of a few politicians and short-term thinking of the water-consuming industries (90% farmers and 10% water “optimizers”), (2) you are willing to wade through endless examples — documented — of failure and obfuscation, and (3) you can’t wait to laugh at Beasley’s quips, footnotes and fuck you’s [redacted].

It’s a long book, but never boring, and definitely infuriating (*hence the subtitle).

This book’s theme and the recklessness of its protagonists matches — in terms of frequencies of wtf? and magnitudes of delusion — the water situation  in California (which I know well), as well as maybe 80 other countries, from Saudi Arabia to China to India to Spain, Chile and Mexico. (Just fill in your choice, and there’s bound to be a case where environmental protection — the type that keeps us alive — is discarded in favor of “cheaper” farming or affordable housing urban sprawl.)

So, yeah, anyone can learn from this, in terms of recognizing all the games, lies and shenanigans that politicians will pursue to meet “co-equal goals” of, for example, delivering both “yes” and “no”.

Wait a sec…

I’ve just scrolled through my 30+ notes and highlights on the e-book I have, and I can’t really see the point of copying or commenting on the text. The  book is best seen as a piece — an angry, well-documented denouncement of feckless, relentless, not-accidental corruption.

The fact is, and has always been, that there’s an impact of taking water from the environment. In many cases, that can be “sustainable” as ecosystems can adapt. And food is surely useful. But there are then so many greedy cases in which diversions kill ecosystems for green lawns or cheap cotton, when the trade-off has gone from “socially responsible” to “let’s turn the nation’s water into our paychecks.” That’s a fail. It’s common, and it happens in places as civilized as Australia.

My one handed recommendation: Anyone involved or interested in the management of bulk water for agriculture, the environment or society (all of you, right?) should read this book. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Actual World, Possible Future

I saw a preview of this documentary on the lives and works of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom in 2019. It aired on PBS in 2020 (watch at the link).

The documentary traces their careers from early days (Lin being denied entry into UCLA’s PhD program because she was a woman; Vincent participating in early city planning), to their move to Indiana U, where they set up the Workshop as a means of avoiding disciplinary silos, to Lin’s “discovery” (or recognition) of the commons as an area of effective action, to their joint development of the Institutional Analysis and Design Framework and Policentricity.

I learned a lot about the evolution of their thought in this documentary. I also was charmed by their enduring decency, curiosity and love for each other (they died within three weeks of each other in 2021, after nearly 50 years of marriage).

I strongly recommend this movie. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Mine!

I heard about this book (subtitle “how the hidden rules of ownership change our lives”) via this Econtalk podcast and “acquired” a copy.

The authors (Heller and Salzman, or H&S) turn what looks like a simple topic — ownership (or property rights) — into an engaging and though-provoking essay on the vague borders between what’s mine, yours and ours. (I reviewed Salzman’s 2012 Drinking Water: A History.)

Their main points are that (1) ownership is not always clear and (2) some actors try to leverage this vagueness into profits and/or advantage, i.e., “as valued resources becomes scarcer, people compete more intensely to impose their preferred ownership story, and entrepreneurs find ways to profit” [p 5]. Theme (1) is important in most of the work I do on the commons (where ownership is either unclear or impossible to assert), so I found their examples — coming from both economic and legal perspectives — to be very interesting.

Here are some notes on the book’s contents:

  1. Rights to private property are easier to understand, respect and protect than rights to “digital property,” which is both novel and non-rival. Non-rivalry occurs, for example, when I share my digital photo with you. Now both of us are “owners.” (Read more on different types of goods.)
  2. There are six ways to claim ownership: grabbing it first, physically possessing it, applying effort to it, linking it physically to something you own, its attachment to your body, and inheriting it.
  3. Ownership claims are often upheld by courts and governments, but they can impede larger social goods. Patent rights can keep a useful medicine (e.g., vaccines) from the poor. Slavery was terrible. Musical, fashion, artistic and technical innovations often depend on “stealing” from others. “Too much existing ownership can make it impossible for people to create new, more valuable things… creating ownership gridlock… When too many people own a piece of one thing, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears, and everybody loses” [p 97].
  4. “All property conflicts exist as competing stories. Each side picks the story that presents its claims as the moral high ground, and each side wants ownership bent toward its view. But don’t be fooled. There are no natural, correct descriptions that frame mine versus mine conflicts. There are, however, better and worse choices that we can make to solve these dilemmas. And if you are not the one choosing, then someone else is making the choices for you” [p 15].
  5. Speaking of rights, their chapter title “who gets what and why” is a direct copy pasta of the title of Al Roth’s 2015 book. Thieves!
  6. Since property rights are complicated (subjective), it’s common for politicians to re-assign them to friends, lobbyists, the rich and powerful. The assignment of rights to the poor, under-privileged and/or deserving  is more the exception than the rule. For example, “Being the first Christian European was what justified, as a matter of law, the claims of Spain to the Caribbean, Texas, Mexico, and California” [p 24] or “The ways some Native Americans hunted and gathered—moving in a seasonal pattern to follow wild game, fish runs, and ripening berries—simply didn’t count [for ownership]… labor led to ownership only if you made New England look like the Old England the colonists had left behind… [this shaky reasoning]… was enough for the Court to justify dispossessing the Native peoples of America” [p 83].
  7. Rights based on possession often lead to over-exploitation of a “free” resource (e.g., water or animals) by those hoping to establish ownership.
  8. Sometimes rights are “unfair” but efficient (e.g., fishers claiming a territory based on historic use), so it may be better to leave them in place.
  9. “Caught food was an important nutritional resource [in Colonial America]. So states favored labor and possession [of animals] over attachment [those animals are on my land]… as a deliberate anti-aristocratic rebuke to England, which reserved rich hunting and foraging lands to large landholders and the Crown” [p 125].
  10. Property rights should change if a resource’s scarcity or value is changing. When water is abundant, then anyone can use it. When it’s scarce, then rights need to change to reflect scarcity. (I wrote a book or two about such reforms 🙂
  11. Employers try to limit employee’s right to work (and increase their profits) with “non-compete” clauses. One reason Silicon Valley is still productive is because California prohibits non-competes.
  12. I can’t even tell you how disgusted I was reading about how Whites in the Jim-Crow South used inheritance laws to “trick” Blacks out of their lands, thereby impoverishing generations. Read this, this, this and/or this about “forced partition sales,” which are neither necessary nor common (German laws avoid the issue). Similar laws took land away from Native Americans. The English also used it against the Irish. I’d say these examples support claims of “systemic racism” more than respect for private property.
  13. “The reality today is that, overwhelmingly, wealth in market economies is held not by individuals focused on exclusion but by groups of people working together. Think about marriage, condominiums and cooperatives, unitization, trusts, partnerships, and corporations. All these are successful examples of… “liberal commons property.” [snip] To be successful, every enduring liberal commons must address three trade-offs. The first is the trade-off between individual choice and group authority… The second is the trade-off between enforcing majority decisions and respecting dissenting views… The last is the trade-off between protecting group values and allowing individual freedom to exit” [p 211].
  14. Lobbyists used lies and deception to convince Americans to weaken estate (“death”) taxes. How? “Nearly 40 percent of Americans mistakenly believed they were in the top 1 percent, or soon would be, and thus were potentially subject to the tax” [p 214]. This is not the first time America’s poor sided helped the rich: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires” — a thought inspired by Steinbeck.
  15. “America sustains the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth. Make no mistake: this transformation is not happening by accident, by magic, through the free market, or just naturally. It’s a brilliantly designed heist, engineered by family-dynasty lobbyists and accomplice legislators. And lower taxes for the super-rich mean higher taxes for everyone else” [p 227].
  16. H&S give some examples of success (Individually Transferable Quotas with fish) and failures (Certified Emissions Reductions with HFC-23) in creating property rights to address environmental issues. The HFC one is deservedly notorious: “These companies…  duly incinerated every pound of HFC-23 they created. And for every pound of super greenhouse gas they destroyed, the companies were awarded CERs—which they then sold to polluting countries and companies in Europe and Japan” [p257].
  17. Digital rights, micro-ownership, the “sharing economy,” streaming, and other innovations are aimed at profits and consumption, not sustainability and simplicity. Beware the marketers!
  18. “And the sharing economy does not build wealth; for most of us, it consumes wealth. People lose the discipline of saving up for big purchases, taking out loans or mortgages, paying them off, and owning equity—in their jewelry, cars, and, most of all, homes… After mortgages were paid off, homes gave retired people a secure place to live or provided cash if they downsized. By contrast, renters pay month to month, and streamers day to day, accumulating nothing” [p 271].
  19. “Communities also suffer if everyone streams accommodations rather than makes long-term commitments… Community solidarity is intangible, hard to measure, but its loss is a real cost nonetheless. In this tragedy of the commons, individual homeowners rationally choose to profit by listing on Airbnb, but collectively we all lose connection to our sense of place, to what makes us feel truly at home” [p 271]. Read my op/ed  on Airbnb’s assault on community.

Although the book is a bit heavy on examples, my one-handed conclusion is that anyone interested in prosperity, sustainability and the rules underlying our cooperation and happiness (as well as racism, inequality and corruption) should read this book. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Reviews: Up mountains & over seas

A few months ago, I came across a list of outdoor/adventure books and acquired six of those that I still wanted to read.*

I am writing brief reviews of two to give you a feel for their variety and  encourage you to do more reading and less doom-scrolling in your social media feeds. Most books can be downloaded in the open source .epub format that is useable by various reading apps (I use Apple Books).

Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1956) recounts his “walk” with an exuberant, slightly mad friend to Nuristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. Most of their journey involves pain, confusion and surprises. Only a few chapters actually deal with their attempt to climb a tall peak. To me, the book reminds me the rarity and difficulty of recreational travel — an idea that arose when the British combined colonialism, romance and oddity. I am pretty sure that it is still difficult to get to Nuristan, but their overland journey in a wreck of a car from England to Afghanistan shows how much safer, cheaper and easier it is to travel these days (Covid permitting). Recommended to anyone with a passion for hiking, dry wit, and polluted water sources (4 stars).

Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) tells how he sailed his 11.2m (36 foot) wooden boat, the Spray, from Boston to Gibralter to Brazil to the Cape Horn (where he was trapped by storms for 40 days), to Australia (sailing 73 days without hitting land), and then around the Cape of Good Hope back to the US. The book is deservedly famous among sailors for his solo voyage (made possible by the Spray’s extremely stable cruising configuration, which allowed him to read or rest while the boat “sailed itself”), as well as his “first” of solo circumnavigation. Slocum’s fluid writing about sailing as well as his ports of call gives readers a number of interesting insights. (I personally am not going to be making that trip anytime soon!) Slocum and the Spray, by the way, disappeared at sea in 1909. Like many old school sailors, he had never learned to swim, and I am pretty sure he saw no tragedy in going down with his ship. Recommended to anyone who has thought of sailing into the deeps (5 stars).

* Try Project Guttenberg, Open Library or — for those still under copyright — Library Genesis, but be careful about what you download from LG.

Here are all my reviews.