Book Notes, July to September 2018
The Mixer by Michael Cox — A history of the Premier League in tactics, this starts by emphasising how much the back pass rule changed football. It stopped teams (notably Liverpool) using the back pass to kill games off when ahead. Defenders had to improve technically and goalkeepers had to become footballers. More exciting, especially on television.
Cantona changes forward play, after which every team wants a foreign, mercurial number 10. Most are forgettable but then there’s Zola and Bergkamp. Arsené Wenger arrives, asking his chairman if fans would tolerate two foreign players in the team. Then the sprinter-finishers, Owen and Anelka. Reacting, clubs now need defenders to be fast too. Vialli lines up a Chelsea team with no British players, it’s a global show.
English tactics still lag European leagues, but Alex Ferguson picks it up as United get better in the Champions league. He not only built different champion teams but also derived at least three entirely different strategies to get ahead of the league. Arsené built the Invincibles. Later, Mourinho and Benitez, similar in background and in their reactive play, study hours of video and adapt each game to target opponents’ weaknesses. Their introduction in the same season lowered scoring rates in the league. Then possession football, false nines, inverted wingers and assisters. Finally the pressers, Pochettino and Klopp. Defenders had to attack, now attackers have to defend.
Football is never still. As soon as a winning strategy emerges, counterstrategies arrive to beat it. They usually arrive from abroad. I read this during the World Cup. The combination might be enough to get me interested in football again after years of only paying attention to the Reds.
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker seems so familiar to me.— The world is getting worse. Things were better in the past. The current order is broken and corrupt. A revolution is required. If people are hurt in that revolution, it’s for the greater ideological good. Facts are not facts. Wading through the daily swamp of Brexit, Trumpism and Corbynism it struck me why modern populism
Pinker makes an epic restatement of the case for the Enlightenment values of reason, science, and humanism. In the first part he takes measures of human wellbeing (health, wealth, safety, the environment, peace, equal rights, etc.) a chapter at a time and looks at the long term trends. Surprise, in nearly all the world there is no better time to be alive than today. Where I do not follow Pinker’s optimism is climate change. He doesn’t look closely enough at how and why the opportunity to decarbonise energy early was missed. The resulting climate change is already disastrous, and may well be catastrophic.
The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré — Up to the fourth Smiley novel now. Le Carre’s world of Cold War espionage is dark, messy and psychological. His spies are not just fallible but self-interested and often mediocre. Good plot.
Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham — Graham is the co-founder of Y Combinator. This collection of essays are from his blog so I’ve read some of them before. Some interesting examples are Why Nerds are Unpopular, The Hundred Year Language and How to Make Wealth. The writing is good and editing tight, but they’re mostly humourless. The ones on programming langauges are best. For a rebuttal to the title essay, see that other programmer, painter and solid writer Maciej Cegłowski.
Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser— I’ve lived most of my adult life in the centre of cities, not by accident. Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser here makes the case for urban life. First, on the agglomeration effects that have made cities hubs of productivity through history.
Silicon Valley and Bangalore remind us that electronic interaction won’t make fact-to-face contact obsolete. The computer industry, more than any other sector, is the place where one might expect remote communication to replace person-to-person meetings.
There’s a chapter that looks at the decline of industrial cities, with an interesting observation on what made those cities vulnerable.
The industrial town was unlike either those old commercial cities or the modern capitals of the information age. Its vast factories employed hundreds of thousands of relatively unskilled workers. Those factories were self-sufficient and isolated from the world outside, except that they were providing the planet with vast quantities of cheap, identical products.
Some cities have tried to build themselves back to success, which Glaeser argues is getting things the wrong way around. In fact, bulldozing might be a better, if unpopular, strategy.
Leipzig is worthy of emulation less for its cultural strategy than for its hard headed policy of accepting decline and reducing the empty housing stock. In 2000, one fifth of the city’s homes stock was vacant, a total of 62,500 homes. Bulldozing vacant homes reduces the cost of city services, eliminates safety hazards, and turns decaying eyesores into usable space. Leipzig set a target of destroying 20,000 vacant units.
The visibility of poverty in cities can give people the idea cities cause poverty but this is wet streets cause rain thinking.
Cities can be places of great inequality; they attract some of the world’s richest and poorest people. Although poverty can accompany urban decline, poverty often shows that a city is functioning well. Cities attract poor people because they’re good places for poor people to live.
Maybe we should be more concerned about the cities where we don’t see poverty.
The absence of poor people in an area is a signal that it lacks something important, like affordable housing or public transportation or jobs for the least skilled.
Living in a city is far better for the environment than living in the countryside. I’ve learnt that people are surprised when you tell them this and can get offended if they happen to be people who’ve moved out to a shire and think they’re saving the planet because they go once a month to an organic farmers’ market. They drive there in a diesel of course, like they drive everywhere.
What makes a succesful city? The book concludes with the standout example of Singapore, which provides a high quality of life and plenty of wealth for its citizens without having much in the way of natural resources. The drivers are a remarkably competent public sector and decades-long focus on education.
Education is, after January temperature, the most reliable predictor of urban growth.