Books of August (and some of September)

One of the collateral joys of my time in São Paulo was walking around the city.   It was a long walk from my hotel to the consulate, around an hour and fifteen minutes each way.  It had “segments” and I kind of thought of it each day with the journey motif, and I will remember it fondly.  I will also remember the association of various features of the walk with particular facts and thought, since I usually listened to audio books.  There as a lot of time walking and I listen at 2x speed, so I got through a few books.  The device has a mechanism that cuts the spaces between the words, so it is not just sped up and made difficult to understand.

Before I forget too much, I thought it might be a good idea to get down a few ideas from books. I am not trying to do book reviews here, but rather a couple of memorable ideas from each.

Let me start with Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge .   I did write a short review that I posted on Amazon.  My old colleague Chris Datta wrote this book about his experiences in Africa. Look at the Amazon review.  Suffice to say here that it is an exciting book, narrated by the author.

The book that gave me the most food for thought was Who We Are and How We Got Here ,a discussion of recent developments in tracing human movements and interactions around the world through the study of DNA.  Some of the new evidence comports well with earlier historical predilections; most do not.

ALL ideas of race and nationality are silly in the context of deep time or even more than a few generations.  This is the main take-away for me.  The races, and ethnic groups of the past are no longer with us.  They were ephemeral mixes.  We like to trace our ancestry to people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, but we are mistaken to do so.
The example that I liked to think of is comparing cake, to bread to beer.  All these things share major ingredients, but they are put together in different ways producing different products.  And they are reconstituted with each creation.  The beer could not “trace its ancestry” to beers of a century ago with any more justification than could the cake or the bread.  All of them are merely the current manifestation of the ingredients.

Brought back to the DNA, ALL history is the common heritage of humanity.  We can take credit and must learn from the mistakes of any people anywhere.  Reading the book into deep history, I looked in vain for “my people” as distinct from others.  Rather I learned that “my people” include the ancestors of Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, Asian, well – everybody.  So “my” people built the great cathedrals of Europe, the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, the Great Wall of China and the walls of Zimbabwe.  Unfortunately, they also rode with Genghis Khan, sacked Rome, destroyed the library at Alexandria and engaged in endemic war against neighbors.  “My” people were on both sides of all the conflicts. They were the conquerors and the conquered, the builders and the busters, the scholars and the burners of books.  History belongs to everyone living today and we can all learn.

I also listened to She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity  along a similar theme.  It was interesting but much more personalized.  I was less enamored, but recognize that I likely would have appreciated it more had I not been listening so close to the, IMO, much more masterful work on similar subjects.

Along similar lines is  The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life .  This was a probably a great book, but I was ready to listen to a different sort after “Who we are”.   The main take-away for me was that the “tree of life” metaphor is seriously flawed the fact that we have a tree in mind when thinking of genetics leads us to faulty understanding.  The title is well chosen. The tree of life is not a tree at all, not even a bush.  It is more like a glob, with ostensible branches going both up, down, all around.

What this book shares with “Who We Are”, or at least the thought that both provoked in me, was to see the great commonality in all things.  Just as races and ethnic groups are just ephemeral combination and recombination of common material, as permanent as tears in the rain.  The same goes for whole species.  Impermanence is the rule, even as we look for permanence in theory.

The new idea is that species boundaries are very fluid.  MOST of what makes up our bodies results from colonization from something very different.  We are more like federations than a clear species. There ae implications here for biotechnology, evolution and just how we understand life.

Many “primitive” organisms common swap characteristics. It is one the traits that allows them to adapt so rapidly and calls into question about what “belongs” to each species.
The President Is Missing was written by former president Bill Clinton.  It is a kind of political thriller. The hero is the president Bill Clinton might have imagined he would have been.  I bought it because I was looking for some insights that I thought a real president might add to a book of fiction.  There were none. It is a decent book. Like a few Clinton speeches, it goes on a bit too long.  I would recommend the book, but maybe listen at 2x speed as I did.
Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America describes exactly the kinds of journeys I would like to make myself.  It is entertaining and generally optimistic about the virtue & challenges of ordinary American people.  It is mostly a series of vignettes. You could start or stop at almost any point in the book and not notice the difference.  That was the strength and the weakness of the book.  James Fallows usually writes articles and has done that here too in his book.

A great narrative of progress was The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World .  I have read other books by Simon Winchester.  What I most enjoy about his books is his facility with beautiful language, but this is also a really good story.

I never finished my history PhD, and never even started a dissertation, but I did think about a subject. I was interested in a big history topic – why did the Greeks or Romans not have an industrial revolution?  Since those long-ago college days, I have come across many ideas.  I used to think that the Greeks and Romans had all the technologies needed, but I was wrong.  They lacked intellectual technologies.  Invented within only the last 500 years were intellectual technologies like calculus, statistics, various sorts of engineering, actual scientific methods, among other things like functions (mostly) free markets. To this list I must now add the concept and ability to apply precision, w/o which true mass production is not possible.   Thanks to this book, I have added to my list of preconditions for modern life.
Ironically, my younger and more ignorant self could have written that dissertation that is now beyond me because I learned too much.

Speaking of being ignorant, You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself  covers lots of the heuristics and cognitive shortcuts that we all use, allow us not to think things through and sometimes lead us astray.  There was little in the book that I had not heard before, but that is because I have been studying persuasion and bounded decision making for many years.  Even with that, it was useful and interesting for me to hear it again.  I understand that I am not as smart as I like to think, and I need to hear these things again lest I forget.  I recommend it generally.

A similar repackaging of good ideas is Influencer: The Power to Change Anything . There was nothing there that I did not know, but it is good to hear it again and keep it in mind when you are working in businesses like I used to (sometimes still) do.

Energy: A Human History is not the kind of book you should consume as an audio book.  It is well-written and very informative, but it is the kind of book you should probably read and maybe underline some parts.  It is maybe also better as a companion to a course on energy history, or maybe just history of industrialization.  I liked some of the ways the author uses language. It is a bit archaic, but elegant.  For example, he uses phrases like “… is prodigal of energy.”