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2017 book stats
14 books started
14 books finished
6,192 pages read
96% digital
25% fiction
25% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
A Novel
Han Kang
read on December 28, 2017

Damn this is a great book, in both subject matter, vision, and execution. (Also, that cover!). The book revolves around the events of the Gwangju uprising in May 1980, and the subsequent torture of South Korean citizens by their own government. This isn't a history book though - there is no effort to catalogue the events in any kind of academic way. Kang focuses on the events of that uprising to tell a broader story of what it means to be human in the face of the worst acts that humans can inflict on each other. This sounds terribly depressing, and many parts of it absolutely are. But finishing the book didn't leave me depressed. The writing style is so deft and poetic, that a kind of beauty comes through as well. (Credit to Deborah Smith for the English translation).

Quotes:

Certain crowds do not blench at the prospect of looting, murder, and rape, while on the other hand, others display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty in achieving as individuals. The author argues that, rather than this latter type of crowd being made up of especially noble individual;s, that nobility which is a fundamental human attribute is able to manifest itself through borrowing strength from the crowd; also, similarly, that the former case is one in which humanity’s essential barbarism is exacerbated not by the especially barbaric nature of any of the individuals involved, but through that magnification which occurs naturally in the crowds.

And another:

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered—is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?

...

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. How they forced the women, children, and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. Some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race.

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The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg
read on November 13, 2017

Wow this was a boring book. I didn't finish. Made it to just a few hours away but couldn't get to the finish line. I found myself not reading at all, avoiding starting anything else, but also avoiding wrapping this one up, which means that it's time to just call it quits.

This book was certainly informative, but sometimes just felt like too much of a lecture. Isenberg spends the first few chapters just building a case that the US was not originally a classless society. She talks about the settlers, and how they were pretty much the dregs of English society sent to their deaths, and how even in the US from the beginning there was very much a lower class. But, how does that not go without saying? Does anyone think that 18th century America was a classless utopia? Does anyone think that Thanksgiving was really a peaceful dinner between Natives and settlers? Isenberg spends so much time dispelling these myths - and the whole time I'm just shouting "duh in my head.

Other notes.

  • Interesting review of class structure during different times, but little focus on specific structural barriers to class mobility. To me the most interesting question is WHY can't the poor or the lower class change their status? To me the American founding myth wasn't ever really one of classlessness in an egalitarian way - but classlessness in an impermanent way. That in the US class doesn't exist precisely because it is not a permanent classification, but rather, a temporary station. Rags to riches, etc. Isenberg spent her time focusing on the existence of classes, and the disparity between them, but little time on why they are solid lines, rather than dotted.
  • Where Isenberg DID comment on class permanence was interesting. There was some discussion of pedigree and breeding. Class came to be seen as a bloodline issue. Particularly in late 1800's, lower classes weren't only economically separated, but believed to just be a worse kind of people. (E.g. mud-eaters).
    • This actually morphs into a national hysteria that I wasn't really aware of before. In late 1800's, early 1900's, pedigree and eugenics were highly popular and academically justified. See SCOTUS Buck vs Bell. This really gives some additional context into global mindset prior to WW1/2.
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Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Andrea Wulf
read on October 28, 2017

I only listened to about half of this (about the first quarter, and then the last quarter), so I don't really have a full picture... BUT it was pretty incredible. I literally didn't know anything about Alexander Humboldt, hadn't even heard of him, but the book and story about his life was fascinating. It's interesting to think about a time before "environmentalism", or "ecosystem", or "cosmos" were things, or even words. Humbolt was  a pretty incredible pioneer.

The final chapters, talking about people that Humboldt strongly influenced, was the best of what I heard. Long chapters on John Muir, Charles Darwin, Earnst Heckle, and others, were great. I particularly liked the description of Earnst Heckle, his radiolarian artwork,  and later came to find that he coined the phrase "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" - something that's stuck in my head since high school.

Overall, this is something I'd love to re-read properly, and hope to do so at some point in the next few years. If nothing else, for the nostalgic feeling of listening to this book during drives to Beaune, France, and throughout Crete.

Lastly, this book won the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize, which made me realize that there was such a thing, and led me to this list of incredible books to read going forward. So, good times.

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The Science Behind the Headlines
Richard A. Muller
read on October 28, 2017

This book awkwardly fumbled between giving broad educational advice to a broad audience under the guise of it being meant for a president, and actually giving advice to a president. The two are very different. Despite being a bit odd to read, I was generally okay with it for most of the reading. The final chapters on climate change were unbearable though. Muller bends over backwards to explain how we're not 100% sure that climate change is caused by humans, and that there's a chance that it might not be. I honestly couldn't actually tell if he was for or against environmentalism (which is awful - he's a very strong advocate for addressing climate change, but none of that comes across in this book). He writes as though the president of the US is literally reading this book. If that were the case, yeah, I get it, you'd want the president to understand that, and to understand the nuance behind how all these measurements are taken, etc. But if you're writing a book meant for popular consumption, you don't emphasize the doubts. Muller needs to understand that he isn't actually briefing the president, and that any doubt he introduces is just going to stoke resentment and dampen any willingness or enthusiasm for readers to actually change their habits, or to demand better policy of their government.

Overall, the book was actually quite disappointing. I've seen other books by Muller that seem highly reviewed on Amazon, but I don't think I'll be giving him another shot. Muller might have good intentions here, but the advice he gives is horrible. Two giant gaps for me were:

Our love affair with fossil fuels ultimately derives from the fact that they are so cheap

This is false. Muller repeats this so many times in the book, and makes similar counter-claims about how cost-ineffective lean energy like solar is. And he boils it all down to the inane sentence above, which is so terribly myopic. If anything, we love fossil fuels because they deliver high energy density in an easily transportable package - THAT you can argue. But the only reason they're cheap is because 1) we've subsidized the shit out of the entire industry for the last 60 years - from low corporate taxes, to taxpayer funded infrastructure (highways, etc), and 2) we don't price in the very high externalities. Worst yet though - Muller pretends throughout this whole book that the intended audience is the future POTUS - but misses an opportunitiy here to scream at the POTUS that this is exactly the kind of thing the government needs to subsidize in order for it to become competitive and lead to greater social good. How he doesn't see and do this is mind-boggling.

Later, Muller argues that although WE KNOW AS FACT THAT 1) human activity is increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, AND ALSO 2) that increased atmospheric CO2 levels will, in part, contribute to increased global temperature due to greenhouse effects, AND ALSO 3) that Earth's temperature is rising proportionately with the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels, WE CANNOT THEREFORE conclude that 1) is directly causing 3), because we don't know for sure that the man-made increase in temperature isn't being offset by changes in cloud behavior. That is to say, Muller is arguing that it is possible (~10% chance) that atmospheric carbon increases makes the atmosphere hotter, which changes cloud density, which cools the atmosphere, and that therefore man-made CO2 increases aren't actually raising global temps, and that the increase in global temperature may be coincidental and completely unrelated. He doesn't actually believe this garbage - but he spends dozens of pages making the point, such that the book literally reads like a climate denial handbook. I literally finished the book thinking he was a climate skeptic, and only later learned that this was not the case. He's just a terrible writer.

A few other little notes below, which were interesting.

  • Intro is primarily about terrorism and has aged poorly. Focus is on dirty bombs/nukes, not on simple things like cars/guns. Also, dismissive on DPRK’s attempts at building a nuke, saying that those attempts have fizzled, whereas today they are announcing imminent testing of a hydrogen bomb.
  • Energy section is a useful cliffs notes:
    • Kilowatts are rate/flow of pwer consumption (i.e., miles per hour). Kilowatt-hours are the stock of energy used.
    • 1 kwh is approx. equal to 1 hoursepower, approx. equal to 1 sq meter of sunlight.
    • Average US household energy consumption rate at any given time is 1 kw. So, amount consumed per day is 24kwhs.
    • Average cost per kwh is about $0.10 in the US.
    • A medium sized power plant generates 100 megawatts = 100,000 kws = 100,000 households of energy.
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City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World
Thomas F. Madden
read on October 18, 2017

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. In reading Madden’s Venice book, I was facinated by the mentions and history of Constantinople, of which I knew almost nothing. By the time I had finished that book, the seed had been planted that I needed to go and visit Istanbul “someday”. Eventually, that turned into me taking a month off work, and including a trip to Turkey (with 4 days in the city). Istanbul was incredible, a facsinating place. Below are some notes and highlights from the book - though not so much from my trip.

  • Emporer Constantine I of Rome in 300s had fever dream that Jesus told him to put iconography on his armies. C then replaced his standard with the Chi Ro symbol. This was at a time when Christianity was a minor and ostricized religion. C won major battles, convered to CC, and the rest is history. This guy basically made Christianity.
  • Theodocian Wall - 3 tier wall system. 60 ft, 30 ft, 10ft. Then huge moat, all around the city. Inpenetrable.
  • 400's - Attila & the huns sack Rome, it falls. "Roman Empire" alive and well in Constantinople. Attila makes his way in that direction. In Northern Italy sacks Aquielia, driving refugees and escapees into the marshlands. They establish a village that later becomes Venice.
  • 400's - Council of Calcedon. Christianity going through a lot of changes and interpretations at this point, many open questions on the nature of Jesus (man vs God). This is ultimatly settled  at this council, convened in Constantinople, where they declare the holy trinity to be a thing. This is still what most Christians believe in. Nuts.
  • 450s - Justinian and Theodora, the peasant and prostitute emperors of the Roman Empire. Beset by riots, are prepared to flee the city. Theodora calls everyone in the room a coward, says she'll die on her throne. Ends up swinging the fight, they retain power, kill 30,000 rebels in the hippodrome. Grisly. Justonian goes on to create the Ella Sophia (?) church. Incredible. 
  • The One True Cross was housed in the Church of the Holy Sephulchure in Jeuruselem.
  • Around the 550's/600, history begins referring to the people of Constantinople as Byzintines, and it as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Which is odd, because they still see themselves as Romans, and Byzantium is looong gone. That finally fills in the gap of what the Byzantine Empire was though, interesting. Just Greeks and Romans that went northeast.
  • The original black rock at Mecca was "from the heavens", a likely asteroid, that the pagan Arabians worshipped long before Islam.
  • 600s. Emperor Leo fends off the Arabs, just barely. The Black Death hits. He thinks god is pissed, and blames it on worshipping idols. Goes full on iconoclastic, bans/burns every single religious figure/art. No religious art from prior to this exists today.
  • In 600s first empress of Rome/Byzantium comes to power, repeals iconocylsm, commissions portrait of Mary in Hagia Sophia. It is still there. Wow.
  • Most of the best remaining art from Constantinople was lost in 1204, when the 4th crusades (led/financed by Venetians - Henrico Dandolo) invaded and conquered the city. They sacked the whole thing. The city had been in decline for a while already (otherwise would never have lost to the crusaders) but this was really the beginning of the end. The crusaders did an awful job administering the ruined city for about 60 years, until the Byzantines were able to take power again.
  • Muhammad prophecized in the 600’s that Islam would conquer Constantinople, and that the person that did it would be richly rewarded - and so, the city had been a target of the Muslims/Ottomans for forever. They attacked it many times, but it took almost 1000 years of effort, until 1452, for them to succeed. The night before the invasion (when the outcome was obvious), Constantine XI held a final Christian mass inside Hagia Sofia, knowing it would likely be the last mass in the church for a long time. The next day the victorious Sultan converted the church to a Mosque, which is was for about 500 years. Today, it is a museum, though fundamentalists in Turkey want to convert it back to a Mosque today. The church has stood for nearly 2,000 years. It’s interesting to imagine if/when another Christian (or other religion) mass would be held there. Such an interesting history inside that building.
  • Instructive moments Teaches me to be better prepared, resourceful, teaches me humility and to be gratefulAfter Ottoman conquest, I lost a lot of interest in the book. Partly because the Ottomans themselves lost a lot of interest in the city. Other than build large, beautiful mosques (of which there are many, though none larger than Hagia Sofia), the Ottomans didn’t really do anything to the city. They weren’t interested in civic life or urban planning the way the Greeks and Romans were, and so the city, its art, statues, icons, history, and infrastructure, all pretty much deteriorated after 1453.
  • After WWI the Ottoman empire fell apart (having sided with the Germans), and was dissolved after internal revolution within Turkey. After almost 2,000 years with the same name, Constantinople was changed to Istanbul (a term already in use, derived from the Greek term “the city”). In the last 50 years or so, the population there has exploded, primarily due to unregulated urban sprawl (shanty towns that are built overnight and eventually incorporated into the city limits). This method of growth has left the city feeling especially chaotic and unplanned. While we didn’t spend any time out in the subburbs, it didn’t look like an organized or nice plae to live.

 

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A Novel
Chris Pavone
read on October 11, 2017

We picked up this book three years ago, before moving to Luxembourg, since apparently that’s something that all the American expats need to do. I never read it while there, but now upon leaving, felt obligated. Plus, it’s a great stupid/fun novel for vacation. It lived up to that expectation. A fun page turner, but the most likable bits were the descriptions of little Luxembourg. Pavone clearly has lived there, and nailed the feel of the place, while including gratuidous descriptions of specific locations that the locals would know. It’s fun to see your little nook described perfectly in a book.

A few items hit home. Of course, the Grund:

There were a handful of pubs clustered around the bridge in Grund, each with its own discrete micro-atmosphere of smoke and noise, the sound of TV rugby in one, a Euro-pop jukebox in another, sloppily drunk teenagers in a third, where a sign clearly prohibited entry by anyone under sixteen years old, thus attracting every sixteen-year-old in the city. Kate walked across the bridge, entered the long well-lit tunnel cut deep into the rock upon which the haute ville was built, the rough-hewn walls hung with derivative art, the faint stench of urine, as in every urban tunnel...

And...

This is the expat life: you never know when someone you see every day is going to disappear forever, instantly transmogrifying into a phantom. Before long you won’t be able to remember her last name, the color of her eyes, the grades that her children were in. You can’t imagine not seeing her tomorrow. You can’t imagine you yourself being one of those people, someone who one day just vanishes. But you are.

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A Novel
Maylis de Kerangal
read on October 24, 2017

I lost track of where I initially saw this recommendation. Unusually, I don't think I ever saw the cover either prior to, or while reading the book. (It was a kindle purchase, and I don't really have memory of whatever image would have been on that buy screen). Due to that, I don't really have much imagery associated with the book, and seeing this cover is a bit of a surprise now. The cover fits though. After having read it, had I had to design a cover, I would have chosen some theme on waves as well. The main character is a surfer, so that's no surprise. But my waves would have been darker. The waves here seem optimistic, great big white caps, perfect for surfing. Too upbeat. The feeling I got reading it was so much more downtrodden. Used and dingy. More like looking at the ocean on a rainy day, when you can't really tell where the rain ocean stops and the clouds start.

This book was about the consequences of death, and impact that it has on others. It was good, though not in any way that will really stick with me. Despite being mired in death, and even in how death can literally bring life, the book gave me very little in terms of how life should be lived.

From a process perspective I only really have two comments. First, that De Kerangal does character intro/exposition better than I've ever seen. In a few short pages at the beginning of each new section she'll introduce a new character, and do it in such eccentric detail that it feels perfectly intimate and genuine. Second, disappointingly, is that her female characters are not good, as they are all based on men. (By based, I mean their foundations are on other male characters - in a sense they are defined by those characters. They define themselves by who they love, who doesn't love them back, etc. Whereas the men all define themselves on their other passions.)

Some quotes:

Sean’s face—those catlike eyes—lights up the screen of her cell phone. Marianne, you called me? Instantly she bursts into tears—the chemistry of pain—incapable of uttering a word while he repeats: Marianne? Marianne? He probably imagines the echo of the sea in the harbor is interfering with the signal, probably hears her spit and snot and tears as so much static while she bites the back of her hand, rendered speechless by the horror she feels at hearing that voice she loves so much, that voice familiar to her as only a voice can be, but become suddenly strange, abominably strange, because it comes from a space-time where Simon’s accident never occurred, an intact world light-years away from this empty café; and now it was dissonant, this voice, it disorchestrated the world, tore apart her brain: it was the voice of life before.

And

It is time, now, to turn our attention to those who are waiting, scattered throughout the country and sometimes even beyond its borders, people whose names are on lists, classified by organ, to be transplanted, and who, every morning, ask if their position has changed, if they have moved up the ladder, people with no conception of the future, whose lives are restricted, suspended by the condition of one particular organ in their body. People living their lives with the sword of Damocles hanging above their heads. Imagine that.

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How Bitcoin and the Blockchain Are Challenging the Global Economic Order
Paul Vigna
read on August 8, 2017

Going into this book I really didn't know anything at all about bitcoin. I understood it vaguely to be some kind of fad whose value had risen a lot recently, but not based on any strong fundamentals. I wrote it off as a bubble, and have ignored it for the last five or so years. Even at work, where it has potentially significant and long term disruptive potential, I've never really dug in - so I'm pretty late to the game on this.

The key takeaway has been better understanding of what the blockchain is. It is, essentially, an immutable, transparent accounting history of every historical bitcoin transaction. Anyone can inspect it, and no centralized source controls it. When bitcoin "miners" are mining for coins, the computations they're doing are transaction processing for pending bitcoin transfers - they are working to organize and validate a block of transactions. When done, that block is appended to the chain permanently.

The blockchain is what allows bitcoin to be entirely decentralized. There is no, and can be no, central bitcoin monetary authority.

The advantages of bitcoin, (and potentially other digital ccys) are significant. There is no clearing network. Bitcoin transaction clearing is nearly instantaneous and nearly costless (for now, but will increase over time). The elimination of so much economic friction could be a massive disruption. 

A few bullet points on risks:

  • Security. Once bitcoin is spent, its spent. no chargebacks, debits, etc.
  • If someone gets your private key, they can steal your coins. (requires hack, often physical). If you store BTC on a public exchange, then if that gets hacked your BTC could be lost.
  • 51% miner concentration risk; if a single party owns the majority of the mining computational power, they can purposefully create a hard fork, and conspire to double spend bitcoin. There are internal incentives against this, but it remains a core flaw of the system. Mining pools have come very close to this concentration amount.

This is the best video overview I've found of Bitcoin so far. Overall a pretty good book that has gotten me hooked on the subject.

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The Making of Behavioral Economics
Richard H. Thaler
read on May 11, 2017

A great book on the history of behavioral economics. Covers the relationship Thaler had with Kahneman and Tversky, and really took me back to my undergrad thesis research. That said, didn't take good notes while going through this one, so not much to report here. As a resource on behavioral econ/finance, it was not better than Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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read on April 28, 2017

Typically I only write what I want to remember about books here - which puts me in a pickle with fiction books since there is no explicit lesson or takeaway, rather an interesting journey. I suppose if I remember anything about this book, it would be that it's the best written book I've ever read, by a mile. Wolfe spins a ho-hum, pedestrian plot into a page-turner on the strength of just great, great writing. Epically good writing. 'Bonfire' had been on my radar ever since seeing the cover slug on Bombardiers. While Bonfire doesn't center around finance or bond trading the way that book did, Wolfe captures the aura around 1980's wealth and extravagance in a similar way than Po Bronson and Michael Lewis - but Wolfe excels far beyond those other attempts. Far surpassing them. It isn't even close.

I don't have any particular pullquotes that I kept. I'm sure there are many worth quoting, but that would do a disservice to the rest of the book. The whole thing is completely fantastic. I loved it.

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How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe
Joseph E. Stiglitz
read on April 10, 2017

I've understood for a while why the shared EUR currency causes problems for its member states; mainly that monetary policy is restricted to a broad economic region, but that fiscal policy and political realities are localized to individual member states. Meaning, e.g., that Greece can't just inflate its own currency in order to boost its own economy. 

A key thing I'd like to understand after reading this book is: what is the core difference between the EU and the separate states of the USA? Why is the EU barely able to stay together (for now), and the USA has been more or less secure for 250 years? Is it just that the USA is more politically similar? I don't think that's good enough. I want to understand that better on a first principals basis. The USA is basically 50 states with 50 economies and 50 currencies that are all pegged to each other. Detroit can't inflate their currency in bad times to boost the economy...

There are three adjustment mechanisms in the US that don't sufficiently apply in the EU....

  • Ease of migration:
    • English is the common language
    • Assistance programs (medicare, medicaid, social security, SNAP) are federal, and so localized economic downturn within a state is offset by increased federal subsidies in these forms.
    • w/r/t these points, migration in EU is hard. Large linguistic, cultural, and licensing barriers. EU nations also want to preserve these cultures more than US States do. A South Dakotan is an American first, and that identity doesn't change as they move within the US.  "A South Dakotan is not in California as a guest, but as a right. A right, the revocation of which, is unimaginable. There is no distinction between a native Californian, and an immigrant from South Dakota." This is not so in the EU. A Pole in Ireland is still a guest. Most economic assistance programs in the EU are national (not federal), and so during an economic downturn the local Gov needs to subsidize the people via these programs exactly when it can least afford to do so.
  • Banking system is shared. Insolvent banks are bailed out by FDIC (a federal agency). Whereas in EU, banks are federally owned, and a banking downturn is pro-cyclical. Banks will need to be bailed out the most exactly when the gov can least afford to do so. 

Why the EUR is good

  • No FX eliminates FX risk to individual firms and workers. This should encourage investment and movement of capital across borders, to where it is most needed. This principal of economic gravity is generally true, in that, ceteris peribhus, capital-deficient areas provide the highest risk adjusted return, and so absent other frictions capital should flow there naturally.
  • Having a single CCY creates a community mindset amongst member nations. 

Why the EUR, is bad:

  • ECB's mandate is only to monitor inflation. Not to promote economic growth and/or limit unemployment. This single mandate means that's all the ECB technically focuses on, and so it misses opportunities to combat high unemployment amongst member nations.
  • Proponents of the EUR advocate that single economies can experience "internal devaluation". When the local economy falls, unemployment rises, so wages should fall, then prices should fall, since their are fewer customers with disposable income (this would be true even in a fixed ccy). Falling prices would increase exports and naturally help reset the economy, bringing it back to full employment. However, that doesn't happen as easily as predicted, partially due to wage rigidity. For prices to fall, firms need to lower wages, which is tough to do given worker moral. Additionally, local firms are highly unlikely to lower prices during local financial crisis, where they've lost confidence in their local banks. If a business doesn't have faith that it can borrow money in order to stay afloat, then it is highly incentivized to keep as strong a balance sheet as possible (buffer cash), and will be less willing/able to lower prices (than they would be if they had confidence in their banks).
  • EU "convergence criteria", the requierments that must be met in order to join and stay in the EUR, demand austerity at the worst times. In this respect it seems like the EUR leaders have no understanding of macroeconomic history. They're limited in their ability to juice the economy through deficit spending.
    • They are not alone. Clinton republicans tried to pass a constitutional ammendment capping federal deficits. Crazy!
  • EU still has someone onerous barriers to migration, particularly language, though licensing barriers are significant as well. A Spanish person trying to work in Germany is much different than a Floridian trying to get work in Ohio, noted above.
  • While EUR does have the ECB, the banking system in EU is still national, not continental. Banks within the EU are not backed by the ECB, and so are more risky, and more likely to fail when they are most needed. In contrast to USA, where banking system is nationalized. For instance, no specific state could have bailed out the banks in our 2008 crisis - we needed coordinated USG response.
  • EU does not have continental assitance programs, like USA's SS, medicare/medicaid/ snap. Assistance programs are nationalized, another pro-cyclical spend. When the local economy crashes is when spending in these programs is needed the most, but that's exactly when the local gov can least afford to spend here, and they can't run heavy deficits to do so given the convergence criteria, so there is little faith/efficacy with these programs.
  • Key levers in correcting a bad economy are: FX rates, interest rates, fiscal policy. EU nations cannot change FX rates and interest rates. And EUR convergence criteria limits the third option, since member nations must keep fiscal deficits (even temporary ones) to a prescribed minimum.

What can we do to fix it?

  • Stiglitz summarizes this by saying we either need a lot more  EU or a lot less EU. He strongly supports the former, since the EU project overall is a global stabilzer. He lists several reforms that are needed immediately. The most urgent once are expansion of the role of the ECB - giving them a common deposit insurance, and expanding the mandate to cover inflation, employment, and financial stability (like US).
  • Stiglitz has some interesting ideas in terms of how to potentially stabalize the currency from here. He suggests breaking it up into several different currencies (EUR North, South, etc) between more similar countries, and suggest ways to integrate them over the long term, eventually leading back toward a single ccy. 
  • In the end though, the book is pretty pessimistic. It seems like none of the real banking reform is going to happen, and also that the German's are going to remain in charge, and continue to impose non-Keynsian convergence policies,  which is going to continue to destabilize  the weaker EUR nations. This, combined with the anti-globalist populism that's becoming increasingly popular politically, seems like it spells the end for the shared currency. 
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A New History
Thomas F. Madden
read on March 13, 2017

We had a trip planned to go to Venice this month, and I wanted to prepare properly. Having been to Venice twice before, I'm quite familiar with the city, but had been entirely unfamiliar with it's history. Happily, this book corrected that. I really enjoyed it, but sadly wasn't able to read enough of it prior to the trip, and actually finished in the week or so after we returned, and so was left with a few things I wish I had known while we were there.

Regardless, fantastic book, amazing city. Madden calls Venice "an exquisite corpse", which I think is the best way to describe it. Venice is uniquely beautiful, but having visited it before, my impression was always part awe, and part disgust at the throngs of tourists, noisy, oily boats, gimmicky gondoliers, kitschy mask shops, and borderline disneyland feeling. The book gives amazing context behind that. Venice's history is fascinating. Some bullets:

  • Venice was arguably the first real republic. Since about the 900's, local inhabitants have been there after having fled the Huns on the mainland. Venetians had representative government long before it was trendy.
  • Venice was it's own independent, and extremely powerful state. Master of the seas, masters of trade.  They totally owned Mediterranean trade and pretty much monopolized access to spices and goods from the east. They only began losing steam when Spain/Portugal found their way around Africa in the 1500s and began trading with India directly.
  • Well... that and La Serrata, which dramatically increased inequality in Venice, undermining the efficacy of the republic and eventually (combined with the above) its economy. This came up four years ago for me in Plutocrats - wonderful to close the loop on it.
  • Venice missed overlapping with the USA by 10 years. The two never coexisted. F'ing Napoleon.
  • Venice was deeply involved in the crusades. This was covered in pretty good detail, but Madden has written several other standalone books on the topic that I'd like to get into.

That's it. I love Venice. Reading this book made me love it more. I hope it doesn't change - but if I learned anything in this book, I know that it will.

 

Madden has a followup book on Constantinople as well, which I'm highly interested in. 

 

 

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How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire
Roger Crowley
read on March 21, 2017

In the 1480's the Portuguese (a very small European power at the time) were exploring Africa for two primary reasons.

  1. They correctly assumed that by going around Africa they would be able to access India, and gain access to the trade market there, which Genoa and Venice basically monopolized at the time. This wasn't a sure thing though, since they didn't know how large Africa was (or that Atlantic Ocean connected to India Ocean. There was reasonable speculation that the Indian Ocean was actually a very large sea). They were accustomed to European scale, and assumed it to be no larger than the Iberian peninsula. Imagine the disappointment when rounding Liberia, thinking that you've finally gotten around the southernmost point, and then hitting Equatorial Guinea.
  2. They believed rumors that there was a wealthy kingdom of Christians in central Africa led by "John the Priest". And that if they alligned with him they could crusade against the Muslims in Europe/Constantinople.

Based on this, the Portuguese threw bodies at the problem until they solved it - finally rounding the Cape of Good Hope and settling east Africa and India.

What I liked about this book:

  • Maps. Lots of talk about ancient maps. How they made them, how they protected them. Maps were the most valuable IP of the ancient world. The coolest one they mentioned was Fra Mauro's map, on display today in Venice. Amazingly, about two weeks before reading about that I was in Venice, standing outside the very Library/Museum that it is in, wondering to myself if I should go it. I did bad.
  • The book gives a great sense of discovery and despair. These explorers were people that were willing/eager/expecting to die, only to have a shot at finding something new. To get on a boat and sail it further into the void than anyone else ever had. To live in that world would have been interesting. There was still mystery. No one knew how anything worked. They didn't know where anything was. Communication took years.

Anyway - great book.

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Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
Eric Schlosser
read on February 1, 2017

A terrifying book on America's nuclear arsenal - it's development, history, and current state. I didn't take good notes while listing to this, but some highlights were below. The book alternates between nuclear history, and a specific disaster in Damascus, Arkansas in the 80s. Really, really scary stuff - especially considering our current political situation.

  • Completely unbelievable the decisions that these leaders were facing, and the state of the world. How are we still alive? 
  • Interesting take on first-strike policy, and how/where to keep nukes. not until submarine were we able to step back a tic from "strike first". Nuts that we had a constantly flying airborne nuke capability for some time.
  • For the first time since war of 1812, attack on us seemed possible. NA didn't have a single radar to search for planes. (in 1949 we had only 23 radars for earstern US). In event of war, the plan was literally to have civillian volunteers search the sky with binoculars for russian planes. "overwhelmed by stress, lack of sleep and fears of international communism, SecDef forestall had recently sufferred a nervous breakdown, and leaped to his death from a sixteenth floor window at bethesda naval hospital."
  • "Two weeks after an accident that could have detonated a hydrogen bomb in morocco, the DoD and atomic enegery comision issues a joint statement on atomic weapon saftey. "in reply to inquiries about hazard which may be involved in the movement of nuclear weapons" they said "it can be stateed with assurance that the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion is so remote as to be negligible." Less than a month later, Walter Greg and his son Walter Jr were in the toolshed outside their home in Mars Bluff South Caronlina when a Mark 6 atomic bomb landed in the yard. Mrs Greg was inside the house, sewing, and her daughters Helend and Francis, aged 6 and 9, were playing outdoors with a 9 year old cousin. The Mark 6 had a variable yield of anywhere from 8 to 160 kilotons, depeding on the type of nuclear core that was used."
  • "The only weapons in todays stockpile that trouble Purefoy are the W76 and W88 warheads carried by submarine launched Trident 2 missiles. The drell panel expressed concern about these warheads more than 20 years ago. Both of them rely on convention high explosives, instead of insensitive high explosives. The navy had insisted on the use of the more dangerous explosive to reduce the weight of the warheads, increase their range, and slightly increase their yeild. The decision was unfortunate from a saftey perspective, because the multiple warheads of a trident 2 dont sit on top of the missle, they surround the rocket motor of its third stage as a space saving measure. And the navy chose a high-energy propellent for the rocket motor thats much more likely to explode in an accident, simply by being dropepd or struck by a bullet than other solid fuels. the trident submarine has as many as 24 of these missles, each carried btwn 4 to 5 warheads. An accident with one missile could detonate the third stage propellent, set off the high explosives of the warheads, and spread a good deal of plutonium around the ports of Georgia and Washington state, where Trident submarines are based."
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