Book Notes, October to December 2017
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back by Tim Harford — The sequel to his tour of microeconomics, this one covers macro, with a bit of the life of Bill Phillips and his MONIAC hydraulic computer.
We learn about failures of supply like the ‘prison-camp recession’ and failures of demand like the ‘babysitting co-op recession’, and that in practice it’s hard to tell which is happening. So in response, short-run Keynes, long-run classical is a rule of thumb. It then covers inflation, printing money, GDP, and there’s a chapter explaining how independent central banks committed to low inflation work as Dr Strangelove-like doomsday devices. Having them should mean we don’t have to use them, but it was the ECB’s device that went off in Greece.
A History of the World by Andrew Marr — I don’t know why after SPQR I’ve gone for another history book covering such a mad amount of time but I liked the style of Marr’s History of Modern Britain so thought I’d like this one too. The time spent on non-European histories was most useful for me, particularly what was going on in China relative to what was happening with Christianity and Islam in Europe and the Middle East. Also the Americas and Russia. I should read some Tolstoy.
Marr makes no apology for it being a history of significant individuals but doesn’t always convince me that someone else would not have come along with the same idea. Watt and his steam engine for one example, or Ghandi’s Salt March. In some cases it is clear that one person moved the world in a certain direction, like Zimmermann with his Telegram and most significantly Genghis Khan.
The Vital Question by Nick Lane— Lane takes us through a radical, wide-ranging new theory on the origins of life and then complex life. The theory puts energy right at the centre of the problem with the sort of derivation from first principles you get in physics. So I enjoyed that.
The energy we gain from burning food in respiration is used to pump protons across a membrane, forming a reservoir on one side of the membrane. The flow of protons back from this reservoir can be used to power work in the same way as a turbine in a hydroelectric dam.
It starts with a search for the sort of consistent energy gradients needed to kick things off. He rules out lightning (not enough) and UV radiation (too destructive) but reveals one candidate on Earth with the right conditions: those hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean.
Exactly the kind of dissipative structures that we seek: continuous flow, far-from-equilibrium electrochemical reactors.
Once simple life is sorted we find out how, after two billion years with nothing but bacteria and archea, eukaryotes (complex life like animals and plants) branched off with one extremely rare event when a bacterium got inside an archea (the rare thing is that they didn’t both immediately die) and formed a nucleus with a mitochondria power plant. Why that was so revolutionary: single-cell organisms have a limit on how big they can get while bringing in enough energy to support themselves, because the energy throughput of the membrane is limited by surface area, which increases squared as the volume increases cubed.
The rest of the book takes the idea on to why complex life is like it is: sex, ageing, disease, death. There’s a lot of biology terms through the book, which left me needing the glossary or lost in an argument. He’s good at recapping though so I stopped being bothered about that, just skipping on to catch up.
The Marches by Rory Stewart — A journal of long walks in the borderlands between England and Scotland. The first, along Hadrian’s Wall, he takes with his 89-year-old father, comparing the end of Roman Empire with retreat of British Empire, which in the Malayan Civil Service and MI6 his father saw firsthand. The second is a meandering walk from Cumbria to Crieffe, investigating what it means to live in the middleland, and how firm the boundaries really are.
While the people hereabouts (and a good way north) have over the past 2,000 years spoken Cumbrian, Welsh, Latin, Northumbrian, Norman French and Borders English, they have never spoken Scottish Gaelic and never called this place Alba.
Grave New World by Stephen D. King — A look at the retreat of globalisation and return of nationalists over the last couple of years, and where this could take us.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann— This is a shocking, tragic crime history from 1920s Oklahoma. The sisters in a family of the Osage tribe of Native Americans, rich from oil strikes on the rocky land they’d been shoved onto, started dying off. The surviving family have to pay for the new federal Bureau of Investigation to pull together a band to find the murderers and the conspiracy protecting them.