Book reviews

Updated: 2013-12-31
Created: 2004-01-02

This document is an incomplete draft.

The reviews contained or listed in this page are usually my personal impression of the notable aspect and the overall worth of the things described rather than in depth ones.

List of book reviews

I used to put reviews into this page, but I have changed my mind as most reviews become rather dated and fit better within my miscellaneous blog; I will put here brief pointers to those reviews here:


Dead tree books

Baghdad Business School

Truly fascinating account of the difficulties of creating and running a (courier) business in occupied Iraq, along with passing notes on the situation.

The author is an observant, cynical businessman (and former soldier) who crucially and unlike most of the American occupiers speaks arabic and is a bit of an arabist, which gives him a much better relationship with the locals.

The normal themes of life and business in a country occupied by an enemy army emerge, and at times the book reads like a modern version of Catch 22, or the fabulous Naples '44 by Norman Lewis.

Descriptions of the brutality, inefficiency, corruption and arrogance of the American occupiers mingle with stories of the thorough vileness of the tyrannical regime they deposed, and admiration of the resigned and dignified patience of the population.

Funny cameos about former USSR air crews and their very dodgy airplanes enliven a very amusing, but also very informative, ground level story.

The wealth and poverty of nations

This books is of amazingly usefulness, in particular because instead of hiding behind the finger of facts, it robustly amounts to a collection of informed and informative judgements.

Just the quotes on comparative advantage:

are perhaps on their own worth the book.

The main arguments of the book are that development depends primarily in the long run about the environemt, and given equivalent environments, on characters.

As to the latter argument the author points out the common contribution of metics doing real work, work usually regarded as banausic by the already wealthy native ruling class, but that is the work that generates value, even if it often threatens those native ruling classes.

Another important argument is that while a pro-business attitude by the native ruling class can make a large difference in fortunes of a nation, that class can instead defend vested interests to a very detrimental degree, and that a multiplicity of ruling powers means that humanity has not put all its eggs in a single basket as to attitudes to development.

Guns, germs and steel

Interesting discussion of why certain areas of the planet have been much much better than others in making it easier to create advanced and dominant civilizations.

There are important insights, like the importance of having multiple and competing political systems.

It is strong as to the long term picture it paints, in that in the long term it seems that geography, climate, and species and political diversity do matter a lot.

The central argument of the books seems to be that the antiquity of occupation, climate and width of the eurasiatic continent provided a much better environment for high density growth of human societies than elsewhere, and eventually they overspilled it in two directions, westward (from Europe over the Atlantic) and southward (from Taiwan over the Pacific).

It is weak however when it tries to address events in the past few hundred years, where cultural factors seem to me to have been far more important, as geographical barriers have shrunk in importance.

Also, explaining the past 13,000 years and why euroasiatic nations conquered american, african and oceanian ones is one thing, explaining why in the past few hundred years some euroasiatic societies pulled way ahead of other euroasiatic societies is less easy, and noting that the fertile crescent is no longer so fertile is not enough. I regard The wealth and poverty of nations a much more apposite book for that.

However, as to the past, I think the author greatly overestimates the importance of the east-west land axis of Eurasia: it is in a sense too wide, and traveling by land is hard. I would give much greater importance to the Mediterranean being an enclosed sea with a rich variety of coasts and islands. The reason is that transport and commerce by sea is incomparably cheaper than by land.

Some commentators think that archipelagoes favour the inception of civilization, arguing that they offer variety together with ease of transport. I reckon that the closed nature of the Mediterranean made it much safer and cheaper to navigate than oceans, while being large enough to encompass a lot of diversity too.

Part of the reason why eurasiatic cultures came to dominate others across the seas is that they had navies, and these existed because of very intense sea trade. After all the world spanning empires of eurasiatic nations were as a rule thalassocracies, and land based empires did not reach as far or for as long, due to transport and communication difficulties.

Another important detail is that, while western european nations conquered much of the rest of the world, they were usually in turn conquered by waves of barbarians from the steppes of central Asia. A lot of the recent (few thousand years) history of the world is central Asians going west to conquer themselves vast empires. This drive mattered.

There are are also some other dubious arguments as to the importance of east-west propagation of technology, which is alleged to be hard in the Americas as they have a north-south axis. This looks dubious to me because at least North America is also extremely wide in the east-west axis.

In explaining how eurasiatic nations came to dominate others a central part of the argument is that they have had a very large head start, several thousands of years, to evolve a culture that takes maximum advantage of the food packages, large mammals, germ resistance and other boons of their original environment, and this explains why even when other nations received them they were dominated, as adapting to them is not enough, and that, and not innate flaws, explains why incoming europeans extracted so much value from underdeveloped lands in north america, even if potentially the natives had by then access to the same technologies as the europeans.

This to me seems like an argument that the dominance of eurasiatic cultures is unassailable for the next few thousand years, because that much is what will take the american, african and oceanic natives to evolve competitive cultures. Sure, superiority of a culture in exploiting a set of technologies is not innate, but if it takes thousands of years to evolve a comparable one it might as well be.

On a completely different note, the book presents a number of examples where in small and large ecosystems the arriving humans, either huner gatherers or reverted to being so, plundered the easy prey specieses, especially large mammals and birds, living easily for a short time, and then driving them to extinction, and thereafter living miserably, which would not have happened had they farmed those resources with a longer term view.

The examples are a stark reminder that it is possible to damage ecosystems irreparably, and this can permanently lower the potential of an economy.

They are also a reminder that the tragedy of the commons is sort of hardwired in the short term incentives of hunther gatherers, and humanity having been such for a long time still can revert to that kind of mindeset, in the big or in details.

The death of gentlemanly capitalism


The new rhetoric

Important introduction to the philosophy of persuasive knowledge, instead of cartesian evident knowledge.

The argument is that the Cartesian approach, to start with self evident premises and to derive rational conclusions from them is too limited.

There are too many areas of discussions where the Cartesian approach cannot be applied. These should not be left then to purely irrational arguments. A middle ground is to use semi-rational arguments based on plausibility and persuasion, rather than either pure reason or unreason, and this is the role of rhetoric.

The use of rhetoric in creating persuasive arguments relies on the judgement of the audience, and therefore rhetoric has two aspects, the the argument and the audience, and how to make them meet.


Liar's Poker

A coming of age novel, a bit like Tom Sawyer, but in the jungle of bond trading in a large investment bank.

The protagonist is a bright young guy on his first job as a bond salesman at Salomon, today part of Citigroup, and the story is that of his first year of work, and the impact the colourful and ruthless colleagues, and hapless customers, have on him.

There is a very slight underlying tone of moral outrage at the way things are done in an investment bank, and this is in some sense the weakest part of the book, because it is so pointless.


The new New Thing


The tipping point

This book has four interesting aspects:

The ostensible one, about the profile of epidemics
This is by far the least interesting, because the profile of epidemics has been discussed endlessly in the past. Also, the book does not have a single illustration of an S curve or of network scale effects.
The characterization of connector, maven and salesman; and the principles of small numbers, stickyness and context.
The collection of anedoctes about specific epidemics
The general principles expounded by this books are plausible, even if a bit thin, but some of the anedoctical evidence is rather more interesting, because from it one can learn if onw feels different conclusions. The anedoctes reported are interesting not just as illustrations for the principles the book expounds, but in themselves.
The implicit argument about the mechanistic nature of choice
The book makes explicitly an argument about how mass behaviour follows some mathematical laws, and this is not unexpected, after all given a number of people it is plausible to imagine that the conform to some common types that can be described almost mechanistically in the aggregate.
But this book goes much further than that: it reports that the behaviour of individuals is fairly mechanical in that their choices can be influenced to a high degree by rather simple manipulation. In part this is nothing news, but in part the examples made are striking.

There is also an interesting side issue about smoking: if the remark that salesmen and extroverts in general smoke and and introverts don't, because it fulfills a role important to extroverts but not introverts, which role is that? And before smoke was introduced to Europe, what did extroverts do instead of smoking to fulfill the same role?


Database design by Gio Wiederhold

Stunningly good, with extremely important argument that all relations belong to one of eight types.