Category Archives: Books

An interesting interview on urban planning

One wouldn’t think it would be that good, but I found this interview with Alain Bertaud on EconTalk fascinating. The gist –

  • Cities are a large, people dense labor market first and foremost, whether you want them to be or not.
  • All urban planners should focus on is affordability and mobility – anything else is not doable through urban planning
  • A good metric/optimization is – can a schoolteacher afford to live within 30 minutes of her school. Optimize for that and you’re taking care of pretty much everyone.

Speaking truth into the world

One of my happier discoveries of parenting is being able to read and revisit the classic works of literature for my daughter’s bedtime stories and see the wonder of timeless stories on someone new.  A secondary source of happiness is being able to read them out loud to her – there is an altogether different enjoyment in reading aloud compared to reading silently.  I’m reminded of something in Jordan Peterson’s book, namely that the spoken word has power that the written word does not.  In the beginning there was the word, and so forth…

You Can’t Win by Jack Black – Review

I recently read the book “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black, an autobiography of a safecracker (or yegg) who lived in the late late 19th and early 20th centuries.   The timespan between them and now is long enough for everything to be very different, but recent enough for the differences to be recognizable.  It was the best book I’ve read in quite some time.

Surprises in the book

  • There was a coherent alternate criminal society – the criminal element really did seem to all know each other – much more than I would have expected anyway.  The “underworld” seems to be an accurate name
  • Criminals really did have separate names for everything, i.e. yegg, pegging, “On the square”
  • Crime was very widespread – people did not mix criminal and straight jobs
  • Criminals specialized to a surprising degree
  • Beggars were highly valued by other criminals (as they saw everything that happened in a city)
  • Opium use was quite widespread – apparently the author maintained an active drug habit while in (American) prison with no difficulty whatsoever
  • Prisons were not overcrowded
  • Canadian prisons where somewhat more officially brutal (with lashings!) but there was no unofficial brutality – and extremely well run – I imagine both the criminal and taxpayer would prefer the Canadian system of the time to the American
  • The “silent” system and single cells seemed to  solve the prisoner on prisoner violence problem
  • The age at which parents sent children to be on their own is surprisingly low – 14 seemed to be quite common
  • The bonds between parent and child seemed to be much less than now
  • The author was sentenced to 2 years and 30 lashes in his Canadian prison stint – 15 on the way in, and 15 on the way out.  Good behavior would have the authorities go easy on him with the final lashes
  • Jail sentences were less than expected
  • People regarded the notion of identity very differently – There were no permanent records, no widespread photography, no fingerprints, no nothing.  Basically you were who you said you were unless someone said different.  And you could move 50 miles away and never run into anyone you had ever met
  • Many, many more

Let’s Kill Hitler

I recently thought of a new book idea, science fiction no less – to wit:

Many people have often talked about going back in time to the 1920s to kill Hitler – this one comes to mind.  The time traveler always goes back in time before Hitler has committed any crimes.  People see the willingness to murder an (at the time) innocent person in cold blood as a sign of virtue, or resolve, or whatever.

Say this time machine exists.  Say also that time travel results in a reboot of history at the moment of travel.

Suppose WWII never happened, but time travel did – say you have someone totally wanting to commit cold blooded murder, but wants to do it in the past to escape capture.  Say that person goes back in time, commits many murders, but does not make it back to the time machine in time and gets caught.  Say that person goes on a killing spree of historical proportions, but of course no one gets that he is a time traveler from the future.  The state executes the serial killer Adolph Hitler.  History Reboots.

Say that in the future you have some other person who wants to kill someone, evade capture, and have it be somewhat moral.  Aha!  Let’s go back in time and kill a serial killer, but before they’ve done anything (when it will be easier).  This person goes back in time to kill Hitler, starts talking to him – discovers how much they have in common and the two commit many murders together as the best of friends.  History Reboots.

Say that happens again – and again (with many reboots).  With increased numbers, what started as a lone killer, turns into a friendship, turns into a gang, which turns into a political party, which turns into a mass movement as all of the future world’s psychopaths travel to 1920s Germany.  Their deep interest in murder morphs into Naziism (as something they can all agree to).  With each new member they get stronger, and draw ever more people to come nip them in the bud.

Not really sure how it ends, probably in something pacifistic, perhaps with a paean to salesmanship.

Review of Average is Over by Tyler Cowen

Last night I finished Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over – and much like his earlier work, The Great Stagnation  – it has changed my thinking a good bit.

The root theory is that most (all?) of the coming economic advancement in the future will come from the pairing of people and smart machines, and that the future will be consumed by either making and enhancing those machines, working with the machines in new ways, or managing/motivating/services the previous two groups.    One corollary of this is that our current troubles (income inequality/political polarization, etc) are side effects of the technological shift, not of culture and not of politics (though demographics does play a role).

I either agree with, or was convinced by almost all of the arguments in the book, save the few below.

  1. Cowen has the theory that the bottom end of the income distribution (which will grow more fixed over time) will compensate for loss of income by moving to lower cost states and areas.  I.E.  a marginally employable person (i.e. high school dropout with minor criminal record say) will realize that it’s easier to move to Oklahoma or North Dakota and be marginally employed than to stay in New York and be marginally employed.  That part I agree with, but there is another force in play – namely that as income drops the social network, family, friends, etc become much more important, prompting more trade and barter.  Basically there is a trade off between the measurable wealth/income (paid in dollars) and the non-measurable income/wealth (personal and family connections, favors, barter, etc)  See the fascinating Gang Leader For a Day for more info.  A drop in measurable income might prompt a surge in investment in personal/social networks, which I imagine are more location dependent; freezing people in place (it’s hard to move everyone you know to the same state).
  2. Cowen defines technological advancement mostly in terms of machine learning, and seems to underweigh recent hardware developments.  The internet of things conceivably gets rid of  many more manual labor jobs than I think Cowen might think (go SkyNet!) – see the Adafruit blog for more examples.

Fifth Generation Warfare sighted in the wild!

Check out this interview on bloggingheads with the author of The Family, which is a book about a loose network of self dealing Christians in high placed.

From the interview (I haven’t read the book yet) it seems to match all of the definitions of 5GW (loose as they may be), and it’s been around since the 30s as well.

Thoughts from my fellow war nerds, which is to say Soob and Slog?