Five books: Pandemic Pentateuch

During the last 12 months,  I read quite a few books that I really liked.  I doubt my overall reading volume increased during the pandemic (more time at home, but also less time in trains and planes), but for some reason, the past year yielded a memorable crop of books. Here are five of them: 

  • Apocalypse Never, an interesting and timely book, with solid coverage of the fundamentals of climate change. Besides being full of information, as I wrote in a previous blog post, it helps you think more clearly about what is good for the environment.
  • Apollo's Arrow  a very good book about the topic of the year: Coronavirus.  It covers all dimensions and is very educational on how to understand the pandemic in terms of medicine, epidemiology, sociology, evolutionary biology, public policy, history, etc. Lots of interesting details about how the pandemic unfolded in different places from  Wuhan to New York City.   It also helps to understand how things might evolve going forward.  For example, are future mutations of SARS-CoV-2  likely to be more lethal or less lethal? I won't tell you the answer because you should really read this book!
  • The Shadow King: "Fiction is a shadow of real life, great fiction is Truth! Furious, illuminating, warm, fantastic, can't say enough about this book. Highly recommended",  I  tweeted.  The author is a childhood family friend, and I was really happy to see it short-listed for the Booker Prize. But I can honestly say that was not at all on my mind while engrossed in the story.  
  • The Plot to Kill Graziani. "Deeply researched, meticulously sourced, highly readable account", was my brief review on goodreads.   This real life historical thriller would be fascinating to anyone interested in Ethiopia, Fascism, etc.  As a personal bonus,  I was able to use this book to fill in  a few specific details in my family tree. Interestingly I read both Shadow King and this book before the current war in Ethiopia started in Nov 2020.  Having the 1930s fresh on our minds is helpful  perspective on the current crisis. In the darkest hours, it helps to remember two thousand years of history, could not be wiped away so easily.
  • The Monk of Mokha, a real-life story of a guy who decides to make Yemeni coffee "great again" (my silly choice of phrase).  Nice deep dives into the ancient history of coffee,   the technicalities of high quality coffee in the modern world. A real tragic, dramatic and hilarious story, brilliantly  told.  If Shadow King shows how fiction can be very real, the Monk of Mokha is the converse, it shows how non-fiction can be as good as a novel. 
As usual with my "five books" -- not definitive. If I did it again, I'd likely come up with a different list. Some honorable mentions:   The Master and Margarita, an absolute classic; and  Le naufrage des civilisations a poignant personal view of history from one of my favorite authors, who has appeared a few times on this blog. 


Five books: historical fiction

By historical fiction, here I don't just mean novels that are set in the past, but more specifically, accounts of actual events and people, but that are not strictly historical. While the main story is real, the author takes the liberty of imagining the details like thoughts, conversations, relationships, even some side characters. These details of course can't be known for sure but imagining them allows us to access a deeper truth. Here are some of my favorites in the genre:

  • Mémoires d'Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. A brilliant imagining of the inner thoughts of the great Roman emperor. I read it a pretty young age, having found it while browsing the bookshelf out of sheer boredom. At the time I didn't really read this kind of stuff but to my surprise I ended up completely engrossed.  Much later in life, I came to appreciate stoic tradition, which makes me appreciate it even more in hindsight.
  • Léon l'Africain by Amin Maalouf.  Imaginary "auto-biography" of Ibn Battuta aka Leo Africanus. A great explorer who traveled a huge part of the Africa, Europe, and Asia, and had many incredible adventures. Everyone learns about Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus etc. But this guy should really be covered more.
  • Samarcande by Amin Maalouf. Another fantastic book by Maalouf, describes the life and times of Omar Khayyam, a great poet of the middle ages.  The city of Samarkand still exists, in present day Uzbekistan. It's fascinating to think that this place,  which we think of as so remote nowadays, was once a major world city, the equivalent of Paris or New York today.
  • Burr by Gore Vidal. The story of Aaron Burr, the second vice-president of the US, famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I read this a long time ago, before the current Hamilton craze, and never formally studied American history in school, so  knowing more about Burr than Hamilton gives me an unusual perspective.  Very vivid description of life in the early 19th century New York. Every time I pass by  Jumel Mansion, I remember this book.
  • Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Imagine real life in the times of Buddha, how people lived and what they thought. Very wise book, historical, spiritual, took me a while to appreciate this gem.


What is "good for the environment"?

Consider two pretty obvious statements. First, living in dense cities is much more energy efficient than living in rural areas, especially in cold places where you need heating. Second if we had 1,000 cities the size of New York City, that would be all of humanity, and they would only occupy a small fraction of the earth's surface. A somewhat larger fraction would be used for producing food and extracting some resources but  the vast majority of land on earth could be devoid of humans.  Yet, for years, I've been surprised at how often people are surprised by these points. Somehow, people assume that cities are bad for nature and that living in a rustic rural cabin or hut, using wood fires for energy is more friendly toward nature. Obviously the flaw in such reasoning is that they are thinking not of humanity as it exists today or in the future, but subconsciously going back to a time when there were very few humans, and so it didn't matter if we were extremely wasteful of resources. Of course the reason there were few humans is that most of them died very quickly.  It's a  "wet streets cause rain" type of reasoning that is surprisingly prevalent.

Another bit of inanity is that many people believe using bio-fuels is "good for the environment". Indeed the US government mandates blending corn ethanol in gasoline.  This is good for corn farmers, and good for politicians who depend on them, and maybe even good if you think foreign oil is a problem.  But in fact, when compared to just using gasoline without corn ethanol,  it results in an increase in green house gas emissions, not a decrease.   Yet the belief that it's good for the environment persists.

A new book, Apocalypse Never, by Michael Shellenberger covers  these as well as many other such points, in making a very good case that the current global alarmism around climate change is doing more harm than good.  Normally, the title and the marketing of the book would have turned me off. The last thing I want is more political BS from climate change deniers.  But this book is not that at all. The author not only agrees with the conventional view that the climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions, but he's actually one of the pioneers in the space.  Second what actually made me notice the book in the first place was that people were trying to get it banned or de-platformed. Which naturally kind of proves the point that he's making. And it made me want to look into it. (So maybe giving it a provocative title is a good strategy after all!).  Which I don't regret.

He also does a good job debunking the idea of "extinction of humanity". Of course we won't go extinct because of global warming. Isn't it enough to say it will cause a huge problem and enormous suffering? Similarly "saving the planet" is misguided hyperbole. The planet will still exist, even if it's boiling hot or completely frozen, and certainly more CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature changes of a few degrees are no big deal on a geological timescale. So this is just misguided and confused language that is counter-productive. It's like when people scream about "genocide" whenever there's some political violence or war that is ethnically motivated.  Constantly calling everything a genocide is not helping the cause of peace.  Similarly saying that smoking a joint is exactly the same as a heroin overdose is not helping kids avoid drugs.   

If you care about solutions and the well-being of humanity, you should be more precise in your thinking. What we care about is how we live, and what we mean by "we" is critical. The book does a good job of explaining this and the underlying basic concepts, perhaps the most important of which is "energy transitions", and he generally summarizes the science and arguments pretty fairly 

Still there are a  few points where I disagree with it, three in particular.

First, in a section on the "Tragedy of the commons", a paper and concept with which I'm intimately familiar, he  seems to imply that the "tragedy" in the paper is uncontrolled breeding of humans, which is inaccurate. But the "tragedy" is that when shared pasture land (aka commons) is not properly managed to align incentives, that leads to over-grazing and destruction of the shared resource. The real legacy of that classic paper is about mechanism design, pricing, property rights etc. But Schellenberger seems to reduce this classic insight to just the Malthusian aspect. This is a rather small technicality and doesn't change the main point he's making so I can give it a pass.

The second one is a much more serious problem. In discussing solar power he says "the achievable power density of a solar farm" is "up to" 50 watts/m2 (p. 188). But the solar constant is 1.37kw/m2 and the maximum solar energy on the surface of the earth is about 1,000 watts/m2. So he's assuming solar conversion achieves 5% efficiency at best. But this is not true, as we can see from this chart, we're at about 20-30% now and gaining about ten percentage points per decade, as I've written about before.  So his take is really unduly pessimistic about the future of  solar power.

Third, he makes a really good case for nuclear power for electricity generation. But he fails to address what to me is the strongest argument against it. Chernobyl and Fukushima are "supposed" to happen once every few hundreds of years.  But if we do a Bayesian update on those priors, the probabilities are much worse than advertised. Or to put it more simply: How come no nuclear power plant can get private insurance? If the risks are as low and manageable as he and other advocates claim, then one should be able to get free market insurance for it. But that has never happened.  I used to be pro-nuclear power, but I've become more skeptical over the years. And despite devoting a lot of the book to it, Schellenberger didn't quite convince me.

Overall, this is a good book, it helps the reader think of many of the questions in a more holistic way, and paints a coherent big picture of environmental humanism. Recommended reading.


Proof of royal blood

I have royal blood. I'm a direct descendant of one of the great kings in the history of the world. I am sure of it. Pretty cool eh? 

Which one you ask? Well, ahem, I don't know which one exactly but I'm mathematically almost sure I am a descendant of a great king.  And so are you.  

Here's the proof. First, like everyone, (except clones if there are any)  I have 2 biological parents, 4 grandparents, .... 2^n direct ancestors n generations back.  This is not an estimate, it is a precise fact. Second, I am not a descendent of extra-terrestrials, so I must have human ancestors on earth who were around at all points in human history.  Now  let's take say n=30.  That would be about 1000 years ago.   That means I have 2^30 that is about 1 billion ancestors that existed then. Woah. But the world population was only a few hundred million. So how is that possible? How can you fill a billion positions on my family tree, which, remember *must* exist, when there are only a few hundred million humans in existence. Obviously it's because the same person must fill multiple slots. If there was 100M people  let's say, then each one on average must appear 10 times. Of course, some get more than average and some get less. It's like a lottery. And the odds of each person on earth getting many slots in my tree are directly related to how many children, grandchildren etc they had. Obviously most kings have more descendants than the average person by far. Not only do they have more kids they are more likely to survive and so on. Therefore in that lottery if the average human appears ten times then the average king who existed 1000 years ago must appear way more than 10 times.  Therefore I have lots of kings at n=30.  Now if we keep going, as n gets larger, each king gets exponentially growing number of lottery tickets to win sits in the tree. If you add it all up, the probability that I have at least one great king approaches 100%. QED.

P.S. I first read a version of this argument in a magazine article years ago, I think it was Harper's or something, will try to find it and give credit.

P.P.S. The picture is of King David (I love how it looks like "Dawit" but I think it actually says "Davidus"), from the Nine Worthies in the Palazzo Trinci, Italy, circa 1410.


Pray for me: bossa nova Bob

Deep in the second hour of "The Bedroom Tapes", there is a song called "Pray for me". Today for the first time I listened to a cleaned up version. Though the quality is still terrible, genius shines through. The Jazz guitar ending is ... So sweet and unexpected.   I play it again, and realize it's all jazzy, bossa nova. Wow. World's colliding.  After all. these. years. Yet another dimension of Bob ... A gem within a gem within a gem.


A few years ago, I stumbled upon the amazing "Bedroom Tapes". This morning I was thinking about police brutality, injustice and so on, as one is wont to do these days, and I remembered the song "Jailbreaker" from those tapes:

The jury found me guilty
But I found them guilty too
I'm a Jailbreaker, hotstepper

As they take him to the gallows, an old priest says to him:

Son, I know you haven't  done wrong,
What a pity the things of today,
good got to suffer for the bad
But the townspeople were singing: he's a Jailbreaker

Powerful stuff. Jesus going to the cross. Where are these images coming from? I realize the images playing in my mind are from  "The Master and Margarita".... I've been rereading it over the last few months.

But then Bob goes on:

Old priest get out of the way
You don't know what I've had 
Watch this,  I'm a Jailbreaker
You can call me a hotstepper
Babylon get nervous, 
They know we've got to tear it apart


Five books: recently read biographies

In the last year or so, I've stumbled into an unusual streak of 5 really good biographical books.

1. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight. Standing in an airport bookstore with a few minutes to kill, I saw this book and picked it up. I remembered an article I read years ago  in Wired about Nike's early days. For some reason I remember the phrase "halcyon days" being used. Such an interesting word. Halcyon. But I digress. Anyway I opened the book and read the first few sentences and it was surprisingly good. So I decided to buy it and was not disappointed.  It's well written, and focuses on the interesting early years rather than then better known recent history.  Does a great job of showing exactly how a tiny humble importer of Japanese sneakers born out of old school business hustle and a passion for running, grows into a manufacturing and branding icon.

2.  So much things to say, by Roger Steffens.  An "oral history" of Bob Marley. It's a collection of transcripts of people who were close to him talking about their memories of the singer.  Bob means a lot to me, I grew up with his music, I know the lyrics to even the most obscure unreleased songs, his biography in great detail etc. Still this book was enlightening and very deeply touching.  I happened to read it a unique time -- was it high tide or low tide? think of that song here -- in the late fall 2018 -- Bob was born in 1945, just like my mother. Possibly one of my favorite books of all time.

3. Lenin, by Victor Sebestyen. Really thorough book on the life of the revolutionary Soviet leader.  In our new world order, many old isms and schisms are coming back. Nationalism, mercantlism, Marxism. People see them and argue about them.  Leninism is different. It's meta. It's about the processes of ideology and power. And it is more relevant than ever. Osama bin Laden and Steve Bannon are Leninists. While this book is about none of that, simply reading the life and thought process of this man is worth it as, in a way, we still live in his world.

4. The First Tycoon, by TJ Stiles. A very solid biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, well researched. Great window into US history. Through this one person’s life you learn a lot about (among other topics): steamboats in the early 19th century; railroads in the mid centurye; east-westtravel, the panama canal; and filibusters! woah. US-Nicaragua relations: this was perhaps the most surprising part,  it gives really really interesting context  to the US-Nicaragua problems of the last 30 years or so; the evolution of the modern corporation; the early stages of the stock market. Great read. My only criticism is that the author is a little too sympathetic to the subject. I prefer when a biographer is a bit more neutral, still this book is really a fountain of information.

5. Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Excellent in every way.  One of the best writers in the english language: very precise, efficient, elegant, unpretentious style.  Very interesting story, important history and super relevant to what’s happening int he world today.  


12 rules

Apparently everyone does this. So here are mine. Like my lists of books,  if I did this ten times I would generate ten different lists.

1. Burgers: well done. E. Coli.

2. Don't buy the second item on the menu (see my previous post on this). Relatedly for wine: order domestic or same continent. Imports tend to be  over-priced

3. Insurance: only buy insurance for losses you can't afford, or if you have asymmetric information

4. Debit cards: don't use them. Cash or credit are strictly better options.

5. Shoes: one area where it is usually worthwhile to pay the premium. Prioritize quality (comfort, weight, stitching) over quantity.

6. Investments: only make investments without deadlines,   timing is often where hidden uncertainty is greatest, so make sure time contingencies are on your side.

7. Identity: keep your identity small. (h/t Paul Graham)

8. Food:  the food chain is acyclic. don't eat animals that can eat you

9. Butter is always better than margarine. Never use artificial sweeteners.

10. Premature optimization is the root of (almost) all evil in software engineering (h/t Donald Knuth)

11. Never rewrite from scratch (h/t Jamie Zawinski)

12. My phone  does not notify me. I notify it.


Desire and scapegoating

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the thoughts of  Rene Girard. It's a pretty rare occasion when something makes you really think about the most basic things in a new way. That tweet led me to reading a bit more about it (thanks Dan!).

People are driven by memetic desire. Beyond our objective needs, what drive us most  is wanting want others want.  To put it in game theory terms, my utility function is a function of the utility function of others.  This most obviously explains things like fashion for example. But also, more deeply, the notion of status in society.

I want something because others want it. This is a self-reinforcing mechanism, and the object of desire can become scarce, so it creates occasional  instability,   frenzies of desire, and ultimately violence.  This is a fundamental process in all human societies.
The way societies deal with it is through scapegoating.  As the frustrated desires get stronger and stronger and become unsustainable,  societies create  scapegoats: some invidual or group which is blamed for the inability of the many to satisfy the memetic desire.   The frustration of desire reaches a paroxysm of violence on the scapegoat.   Scapegoating works as an auto-immune mechanism: by channelling the violence onto the scapegoat, and even institutionalizing it, society avoids self destruction.  And societies that don't scapegoat fall apart into chaotic violence. Thus scapegoating is an evolutionary adaptation to memetic desire.

This sheds some light on the institutionalization of  violence throughout history, whether it is Mayan human sacrifice or the politics of immigration.



Et ça, c'est le prince,
qui, sur le chemin de grâce
fait une pause pour réfléchir
au bord d'une mer de miel.
C'est là, le salut.