Category Archives: Books

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel was one of the best books I’ve read, so I was very interested in reading Jared Diamond’s latest book, Collapse.  Browsing the reviews at Amazon, they were very mixed, with some finding the book boring, a rush job, or saying nothing new.  I guess I can see the last point, if I’d read more about the condition of the world’s environment.  But I haven’t, so, for me, it was a real thought-provoking, eye-opening read.  And I thought it was far from boring.  I don’t know enough about the facts behind Diamond’s claims, so I can’t judge at all the veracity or the bias behind the statistics or claims Diamond makes.  Even so, if even half of what he writes represents the real situation, then still the book is of great importance.

The basic theme of the book is that there are many examples of societies, both in the past and in modern times, that have failed.  Diamond’s task is to try to understand why, and he has arrived at a five-point framework to consider a given society’s collapse:

  • environmental damage by the society
  • climate change
  • hostile neighbors
  • friendly trade partners
  • the society’s response to its environmental problems

Not all of these factors contribute to any given society’s collapse, but, according to Diamond, at least one of these is a major contributing factor and for nearly all societies, the first one is often the most important.  Diamond tries to demonstrate this by looking at various past and present societies that did fail, including Easter Island, the island of Henderson, the Anasazi, the Maya, Rawanda and Burundi, and the Greenland Norse, and some that overcame their problems and developed a sustainable society, such as New Guinea, Iceland, the Greenland Inuit, and Japan.  As Diamond points out, some of the problems that faced some of these societies was essentially random luck, such as the quality of the land they settled.  For example, the Greenland that the Norse encountered looked lush, like their native Norway, but the soil was not anywhere near as productive and that led to some of their struggles.

The point of all of this is to understand what led to the failure or eventual success of each society so that we can apply the underlying lessons to our modern world.  Diamond illustrates those dangers by describing the current state of China, Australia and Montana, showing how ecological damage has affected the environment and, more important, the people and society of each.  He concludes that failure is not a given, that societies at some point essentially choose to either fail or succeed.

One might wonder why they would ever “choose” to fail.  To say that they choose to fail is a bit misleading.  Rather, Diamond gives 4 reasons that they essentially do not end up fixing their problems:

  • they fail to anticipate a problem before it arrives
  • they fail to perceive a problem that has arisen
  • they fail to try to solve a problem they do perceive
  • they may try to solve the problem, but fail

The third point, that they don’t even try to solve a problem that they do know about, is the hardest to understand, but in truth it seems that societies do indeed just fail to act.  Whether the choices involved in acting are too difficult, maybe involving abondoning core values or beliefs, or there are conflicting values, such as a profit motive.  We are at a point where we will have to make these hard choices to confront problems facing us, choices that many of us will be reluctant to make.

Finally, Diamond describes 12 problems that are currently facing the world:

  • the destruction of natural habitats, such as forests and wetlands
    – Diamond claims that deforestation was one of or the primary reason for the collapse of each previous society he analyzes
    – half of the world’s original forests have been converted to other uses and a quarter of what remains will be converted within the next 50 years
  • wild foods, a large fraction of protein for many of the world’s people, are disappearing, with many fisheries already having collapsed
  • many species have gone extinct, decreasing the world’s biodiversity, upsetting the balance of many ecosystems
  • farmland soil is being eroded at a much greater rate than it is being reformed, leading to the eventual ruination of that land; much other farmland is being destroyed by salinization
  • the primary energy sources are fossil fuels, which are a limited, non-renewable resource
  • most of the world’s freshwater is already being used, for irrigation, domestic and industrial use, or recreation, leaving very little for future expansion
  • we are near the photosynthetic capacity of the planet; that is, the way that sunlight can be used for plant growth is finite and we are already using about half of that, even assuming plants are 100% efficient at capturing photons
  • chemicals, either synthetic ones made by humans or natural ones that are made in extreme quantities by humans, are entering the environment; they have reached the furthest corners of the planet — the level of PCBs in the milk of Inuit mothers is at hazardous levels
  • alien species, introduced either intentionally or unintentionally, are upsetting ecosystems around the world, destroying native species and making farming extremely difficult in some areas
  • greenhouse gases and global warming
  • the growth of the global human population
  • finally, even more importantly, the impact per person on the environment is increasing

Upon reading his arguments, one realizes that the most alarming aspect of all of this is that these are problems today, in a world where the First World uses 32 times more resources per capita than the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up.  The rest of the world sees how the First World lives and wants that standard of living.  Getting there will mean that they too have a much higher per capita impact on the world, exacerbating all of the problems listed above.  For example, if China alone, which is pushing hard to achieve First World standards of living, reaches the same level as the First World, the per capita environmental impact of the world will increase by a factor of 2.  This is just if China reaches that level, and many of the other very populus countries are currently poor and working to get to First World standards.

All of this made me feel very depressed and pessimistic about the future.  These are huge problems that will require huge efforts to fix, require huge changes in how we live.  It seems to me that, to reach a sustainable lifestyle, people all around the world will have to compromise.  The First World will have to realize that, even if the rest of the world stays poor, the lifestyle we have is unsustainable.  We will have to settle for a lifestyle that is less affluent.  At the same time, the rest of the world will have to realize that they cannot have the same standard of living the First World currently has, a harsh realization.  This means hard choices on both sides, choices that it is not clear to me we will all make.

Diamond does end on one cautiously optimistic note.  The problems we are facing are caused by us, meaning they can be fixed by us.  Some of them will be difficult to fix even if we decide to do everything possible today.  But, it can be done if we have the will.  Whether we choose to do so will be the big question.

There is a lot in this book that I have failed to mention.  I highly recommend this book and think it should be a topic of discussion in all classrooms in the country.  We all have to acknowledge the problems facing us for there to be any chance that we can address them.  That means we have to think beyond how we want to live and consider how we should live.

After reading this book, I am concerned about the world my daughter will live in.  Hopefully, my generation will begin to act such that her generation has a better chance for a world in which the majority of humanity can live in both a sustainable and reasonably affluent manner.

Nexus by Mark Buchanan

By now, everyone has heard about the six-degrees of separation thing, how we are all connected to Kevin Bacon by about 6 other people.  Turns out, there is nothing special about Kevin Bacon — each of us is connected to pretty much everyone in the world by about 6 or 10 other people.  In a world with 6 billion people, how can this be possible?  That is where the theories of complex networks and, in particular, small world networks come in.

In Nexus, Mark Buchanan gives an introduction to this new field (many of the seminal discoveries have occurred within the last decade).  He describes how these networks are ubiquitous in nature (e.g. the networks of streams comprising a river system), social networks (the 6-degrees thing, among others) and networks created by humans (the internet and the electricity grid, as two examples).  It turns out that there are two types of small world networks, called egalitarian and aristocratic.  Buchanan discusses how such networks arise naturally.  In particular, the aristocratic networks, characterized by special nodes that have an especially high number of links to other nodes, occur via a “rich get richer” process, in which nodes that already have a lot of links or friends or what have you are more likely to get even more.

There were a number of intriguing points in this book.  For example, when he discusses river systems, it turns out that all river systems follow the same distribution of land they drain versus the number of streams in the river system that drain that amount of land.  They follow a power law distribution.  That is, if 100 streams in a given river system each drain 50 square miles of land, then 50 streams will drain some constant times 50, and 25 streams will drain that constant times that constant times 50.  There is a power law association between the number of streams that drain a given area of land and the size of that area.  Even more interesting, just assuming the most simplest of assumptions, this distribution can be generated in a computer.  All they assume, given a random topology of land (not even a real landscape), is that water flows straight down hill.  They neglect so many seemingly important features (erosion, for example) that it seems impossible that it would represent anything about real river systems.  But, it does.

Another feature that has such a power law distribution is the amount of wealth held by a given percentage of the population.  Known as the Pareto principle, it basically is the observation that in most countries in the world, regardless of type of government or economy, about 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people.  And, as you look at the number of people who own 90% of the wealth, it is a constant factor of 20%, and so on.  This, to me, is amazing.  Furthermore, again in simple computer experiments in which you allow people to exchange wealth in one of two ways — they can either (a) buy something from someone else, involving direct transfer of wealth, or (b) they can invest their money with some random rate of return — this Pareto distribution is reproduced.  This is true even if you assume that all players have the same skill in investing.  It all comes down to random luck and the rich get richer principle.  As someone gets lucky and wins on their investment, they in turn have more money to invest.  Think about the implications: the distribution of wealth in most countries might be mostly due to random luck.  Sure, government policy (e.g. taxes, etc) would change the slope of the distribution, or the power in the power law, and skill might as well, but that this distribution can be obtained without any of that suggests that the wealthy are wealthy not because they worked harder or were smarter or anything like that, it is just pure random luck.  If this is true, what does that mean about how we view the wealthy’s role in society?

This book had a number of intriguing points such as this that really make you look at the world in a different way.  These small world networks are so pervasive (they even occur in the sexual relationships of people — there are some people who have so many sexual partners that they essentially connect everyone within a few links of one another; this has implications on how you might treat, e.g., sexually transmitted diseases) that understanding how they come about and what they teach us about how the world works is absolutely essential.  Knowing that we are all connected so intimately and what that means for how we interact is fascinating.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how people, atoms, computers, rivers — so many different things — interact with one another.

For more information about small world networks, see this Wikipedia article.

Short Stories, Light and Dark

I just finished two collections of short stories, chosen seemingly at random.  I basically picked these up because their covers intrigued me, having heard nothing about them.  Also, I’m a fan of short stories as they are often a quick read but can contain very powerful statements about the human situation.

These two collections are very different.  The first, Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem, is an exploration, in some sense, of the superhero genre, though some of the stories touch more on science fiction than pure superheroics.  But, more than that, these are just devices for Lethem to explore human personalities.  In some cases, the protagonists aren’t even human, like in Interview with the Crab, in which a crab, who starred in a sit-com as a youngster, is interviewed in his later years about his fame and fortune.  Super Goat Man is about one near-hero, a guy who really has no powers except he looks a bit like a goat, and how he never lives up to being a hero.

All of these stories explore different quirks of people.  At times, I felt the stories were a little flat, though there were definitely times, like in The Spray and The Shape We’re In, which describes a cell’s adventures in a human body, when I wondered how the hell he came up with this stuff. Some of the stories are definitely inventive and pretty way out there, making the overall collection well worth the read, even if in a couple of cases, I was growing a little bored.

The second collection is Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.  I was intrigued by the title as I had seen the movie Rashomon by Akira Kurasawa in college, a movie which I really enjoyed and highly recommend.  It wasn’t clear to me there was a connection, but I picked it up anyways.  And, indeed, there is a connection.  Though, it is a little convoluted, as Akutagawa’s story Rashomon has little to do with the movie.  It is rather In a Bamboo Grove that inspired the movie Rashomon.  I enjoyed most of the stories in this collection.  They start out with his fiction, usually set in feudal Japan, and explore the human experience by putting people in odd situations.  In a Bamboo Grove describes a death from multiple perspectives, giving each person’s take on what happened, including the victim.  Hell Screen is about a painter who is commissioned to paint a screen with the Bhuddist hell depicted on it and the events that occur to complete the painting.  The later stories move into more modern territory, but no less odd events.  One describes a man who dies at the wrong time and is returned to life with the legs of a horse as his had already rotted.  The last few stories are more autobiographical and describe Akutagawa’s descent into madness (he ultimately committed suicide).  While I think it is very hard to convey the despair that someone must go through in such a state.  I’ve read Plath’s The Bell Jar and just didn’t feel the anguish she was trying to convey.  I feel it a little bit more here, as Akutagawa describes the random things that end up tormenting him.  In all the stories, Akutagawa has a unique perspective and is inventive in his subjects.  This is another collection that I enjoyed and would recommend.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Finally, after a year of carrying it around in my bag and half starting it, I just finished reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.  I have to say, I found this one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time.

Basically, this is an introduction to the concepts of collective decision making — colloquially knowns as “the wisdom of crowds” —  the idea that groups of people can make better decisions than the individuals within the group.  Surowiecki gives a number of examples of this phenomenon, some that are truly amazing.  The canonical example is at a fair in England.  A hog was being raffled to the person that could most accurately guess the weight of the hog.  Some of the people guessing were, of course, farmers that raised hogs, but many of the people were just regular fair-goers who had no real clue (I mean, seriously, how many of us could guess?).  It turns out that the average guess was much better than nearly any individual guess.   The errors of guesses by less expert people go on both sides of the right answer, giving a good overall estimate.  This is just one example of this phenomenon.

These ideas have become more formalized in recent years – for example by Scott Page and others — with a solid mathematical foundation.  Surowiecki doesn’t go into this foundation, rather introducing the importance of the concepts.  But, he does discuss the implications of collective decision making in companies and corporations, small working groups, government, and several other aspects of life.  These ideas have led to the creation of decision markets, in which people effectively trade “stocks” on the answers to questions such as who will win a given election or which drug should a drug company persue for development.  The best known example of such a market is the stock market, though it isn’t a perfect market, for reasons discussed in the book.

To me, the most interesting part was when he was discussing management of corporations.  He discusses how corporations are more successful when everyone within the corporation has some stake in decision making, when decisions aren’t top-down from upper management.  He also points out that bonuses for executives tied to certain deliverables lead to deception on the part of the executives, as they either overplay how hard the deliverables are to meet or just out-right deceive, cooking books or what not to meet expectations.  It seems that, in many places, management is actually moving the opposite direction.  I think all managers should be required to read this book.

I am really intrigued by these ideas and really trying to figure out a way to include them in my work.  Not just in how I interact with people, but just more generally.  We’ll see if I can come up with anything useful.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that deals with groups of people.  The insights into how people work as part of a group are invaluable and, in many cases, counterintuitive.  Not only would it help people understand better how to interact in part of such groups, but it would also help to best create those groups in the first place.   The key, if I got the point correctly, is effectively cognitive diversity — diversity in how people think.  Even people who aren’t expert in the relevant area, as long as they have some knowledge, even if they are not the smartest people in the group, add significantly to the group and make the group smarter overall.

The lessons in this book are wide ranging and would impact many aspects of life.  I can’t emphasize enough how much I think anyone involved in management or decision making should be familiar with the ideas presented here.  I highly recommend this book.

For a summary of some of the ideas presented, take a look at this Wikipedia page.

The Three Investigators

The Three Investigators The genre of kid detectives is a pretty rich one, with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and others.  However, my favorite as a kid was The Three Investigators.  The Three Investigators, as the card says, were Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews.  I never read any Hardy Boys or any of the others, but these stories really captivated me as a kid.  I think there was something about these seemingly normal boys and their adventures solving mysteries and crime.  It helped that their were stationed out of Jupiter’s aunt and uncle’s junk yard, where they had built a secret headquarters out of an RV left in the yard.  Jupiter also invented lots of other little devices with the junk in the yard, like communicator devices and such. And they were sponsored, so to speak, by Alfred Hitchcock (though, at the time, I’m not sure I really realized who he was).

I don’t remember any of the adventures all that well now.  I just remember waiting with anticipation for the next book to come out.  Looking back, there were some 44 books published (according to this Wikipedia article), many more than I ever read (though I probably read 15-20 of them, I imagine).  I remember that they seemed plausible (to a young kid) and they seemed intelligent.  The boys did things on their own, using their own ingenuity and smarts, and in a way that seemed believable.

According to that Wikipedia article, the series is still hugely popular in Germany and a movie was even made, though one review said it wasn’t too good.  It seems like perfect material for a TV show for young kids/pre-teen audience.  Now, some of the stuff is a bit dated (who needs some special communications device when you have a cell phone).  So, it would need updating, but with a clever writer, I’m sure the concept can be modernized.

The original author was Robert Arthur, who’s daughter runs a website in dedication to her father, with a lot of information about the series (including the addition 40-odd books written in Germany).  Another site with cover scans and other information is T3I.

Anyways, just wanted to share this bit of nostalgia from my childhood.