2023 Reading

Some books I read & liked this year:

The Oceans and the Stars, Mark Helprin.  Subtitled ‘a sea story, a war story, a love story’ and set in the present era, this novel centers around Stephen Rensselaer, a talented naval officer who should have been an admiral. But his support of a new kind of warship antagonizes the president of the United States, who ensures that Rensselaer is assigned to a career-ending post commanding the only example of that type that will ever be built. While supervising the Athena‘s fitting-out in New Orleans, he meets a lawyer named Katy Farrar and falls in love with her.  But on Athena‘s first mission, Stephen will receive definitive orders that conflict strongly with his conscience.

Last Ships from Hamburg, Steven Ujifusa.  Between 1890 and 1925, a large number of Jews–estimated at 2.5 million–fled Russia and Eastern Europe to the haven of the United States.  This is the story of two men, both themselves Jews, who played a major role in enabling that immigration.  In Germany, Albert Ballin was managing director of the Hamburg-America line.  He put major focus on the immigration business, improving conditions in steerage class and providing shore-side accommodation and transport as well as ocean transportation; he even persuaded the German government to give his company control of part of its border, giving Hamburg-America a huge advantage over its rival North German Lloyd.  In the US, Jacob Schiff..the immensely wealthy managing partner of Kuhn, Loeb…contributed large sums and much energy to help with the housing and assimilation of these new Americans.

The Valley of Decision, Marcia Davenport.  This 1942 book could be subtitled An Industrial Romance, as could the 1945 movie starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck.  It is centered on a family-owned steel mill in Pittsburg from 1873 thru the late 1930s.  Outstanding; I reviewed both the book and the movie here.

Rust, Eliese Colette Goldbach.  Like Valley of Decision, this book is focused on the steel industry, but it is a memoir rather than a novel and is set in the current era. The author graduated had graduated from college and earned an MFA degree (which she never received owing to failure to fill out the proper form), and had never thought about becoming a steelworker. But seeing a friend’s paycheck from the mill convinced her to give it a try.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, as Viewed from the Early 1950s.  There were numerous SF stories in the early 1950s speculating about the future impact of “thinking machines” and robots.  I reviewed some of the most interesting ones here.

The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, Meyrle Secrest.  The story of this Italian company’s early pioneering efforts in computing.  Its Olivetti P101, introduced in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair.  Prefiguring Apple, the design of the product gave strong emphasis to its visual appearance–the P101 won the Compasso d’Oro industrial design aware–and ease of use. Memory capacity was 240 bytes, stored in a magnetostrictive delay line–one of the interesting memory technologies developed prior to the availability of the microchip RAM–and programs could be stored on magnetic cards.  About 44,000 of these systems were sold.

In addition to the interesting company history–surely unfamiliar to most Americans–the book argues that Olivetti was the target of a CIA plot to cripple its computer business in order to protect the American computer industry…something that seems to me to be most unlikely.

The Social Leap, William von Hippel.  The author argues that the development of human mental capacities was driven to a considerable extent by the need to learn from other people, not only the improvement of purely individual intelligence.

The Culture Transplant, Garrett Jones. The subtitle is ‘How migrants make the economies they move to a lot like the ones they left,’ and data is presented suggesting that attitudes brought by migrants on many dimensions of values and behavior are very long-lasting.

Lydia Bailey, Kenneth Roberts.  I actually read and reviewed this book in 2022, but it is highly relevant today in view of the depredations against shipping committed by the Iranian regime through their proxies, the Houthis.  Published in 1947, Lydia Bailey is set shortly after the American Revolution and portray some aspects of American and world history that are not well-known by most people today…the Alien & Sedition Laws, the Haitian revolution, and the war against the Barbary pirates.  Indeed, the history of the Alien & Sedition Laws is also unpleasantly relevant given the multifront attack currently going on against free expression.  I reviewed the book here.

The End of the World is Just the Beginning, Peter Zeihan.  The book is subtitled ‘Mapping the Collapse of Globalization’, and the author argues that our present highly-interconnected world was made possible only by America, and that America has lost interest in keeping it going.  He sees global trade as having been primarily driven by the protective influence of the US Navy, which protective influence he sees as being substantially withdrawn.  Recent events in the vicinity of Suez do tend to fit with that point of view.

The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterly. A critique of top-down international development and anti-poverty efforts.  Many examples are provided.

Americana, Bhu Srinivasan.  Subtitled  ‘A 400-year History of American Capitalism’, the book focuses particularly on the relationship between government and business–and offers some unique perspectives. (Have you ever thought of the voyage of the Mayflower in venture capital terms?)

14 thoughts on “2023 Reading”

  1. I haven’t read The Tyranny of Experts, but I did read The Road to Hell by Michael Maren “All of this might be dismissed as unfortunate side effects, but Maren uncovered UN documents showing that some refugee relief groups didn’t care that their work was worse than useless. Their only significant interests were in maintaining their staffs and the funding levels.”

    Likewise I haven’t seen The Social Leap, but it sounds related to The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich: our knowledge, and certainly our crystallized intelligence, is highly social, and there needed to be “coevolution” of body and technology–which is transmitted culturally. e.g Our jaws and digestion want food to be ground/cooked/etc.

  2. I read Lydia Bailey 5 years ago, but don’t remember a thing. Though if I were to reread it, much would seem familiar.

  3. ‘Lydia Bailey’…there was a 1952 movie made from *part* of this book..the Haitian Revolution part. An interesting but not a great film. Probably will never happen, but there could be a very good multipart tv series done based on the book.

  4. At David F’s recommendation, I read “Lydia Bailey” – and found it to be excellent. Also, another of David’s past recommendations: “The Year of the French”, about a failed Irish revolt against English rule – equally good.

    A book which can hold its own with those two is: “In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand & Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette”, by Hampton Sides (2014). It presents the fascinating history of an unsuccessful exploration venture in the 1870s, when there was still the possibility of an undiscovered continent at the North Pole.

    Other books I have read in recent years which are recommendation-worthy include:

    A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age“, by J. Soni & R. Goodman (2017). Despite his importance for today’s world, Shannon is relatively unknown — in part because he had little concern for the limelight. This is a beautifully-constructed biography of a man who marched to the beat of his own drummer.

    “Stalin’s War”, by Sean McMeekin (2021) – although the book might have been better titled “FDR’s war to make the world safe for Communism”. This history might change one’s perception of US involvement in the European theater of World War II; it certainly changed mine.

    “Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard” by Fan Shen (2004). This is a well-written moving autobiographical elegy about a life which extended from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to a professorship in Minnesota. In our declining West, it is a reminder of how good people can so easily get caught up in bad events.

    “Men of Mathematics: The Lives & Achievements of the Great Mathematicians from Zeno to Poincare”, by E. T. Bell (1937). Huffing feminists can relax – in the 1930s, educated people used the term “man” as a synonym for “humankind”. For anyone whose interests extend in that direction, this is a highly readable account of the development of mathematics.

  5. If this is a book reading post, here are a few of my choices. I tend to choose authors and read everything they write. One is Andrew Wareham who has written many novels but there are several series of his that are outstanding. One is this series of 14 novels, which record the history of the Industrial Revolution in England. The author taught Economics for 10 years. He also has other novels which are about war and naval history.

    Another is PT Duetermann who writes great WWII novels and novels about Washington DC and the Pentagon where he spent years as a career naval officer.

  6. I would second David’s endorsement of Zeihan’s book. Not in total agreement with his supporting or main arguments and he desperately needs a better editor but he touches on the main issues in this framework and it is a quick breezy read.

    For the past year I finished Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. Part of it was by audiobook as John Lee is one of my favorite narrators. Things got a little tired toward the end of the series but his last book Metropolis is fantastic

  7. Yes the Gunther series which I started in the middle, one would think a policemen in the midst of the Great Devouring, but Kerr does endow Gunther with a certain bemused wit, in his 30s era and later in the 50s, cycle, I got as far as the second to last one, Greeks bearing Gifts,

  8. My dad convinced his company to buy an Olivetti P101 around 1967, I remember reading through the manual and might have written a simple program or two. I wish I remembered more about just how it was programmed. The cards were about the size of IBM cards with a broad stripe of mag tape on the back. My dad wrote a program that used a 30 x 30 matrix to estimate the labor to do various electrical tasks, like installing a receptacle box. So it was more powerful than the small memory would indicate. It took a little time to solve that matrix but compared to the hours it might have taken to do so by hand, nearly instantaneous. The practical alternative was to submit the job to the company computer with a 24 hour turn around.

    The CIA story doesn’t sound so far fetched to me, except that it actually worked, apparently without blow back. This is the same outfit that tried to assassinate Castro with an exploding cigar. Communists had a lot of power and presence in the Italian government and industry and wouldn’t have objected to selling them to Russia. The Russians would have bought a few and then tried to rip off the technology, China learned that trick too, leaving Olivetti with nothing.

    Doing a little looking on the web, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of the next model. The $3,400 it cost in 1964 would have bought a nice car, by 1970, there was a lot of competition. I had the use of a Friedan 130 calculator, not programmable but much cheaper at $1,200, the square root key was an extra $800. I got good at using the stack on that Friedan with Newton’s method for approximating square roots.
    I also had access to a GE timeshare computer for programming. The beautiful, award winning, heavy and expensive cast aluminum case and quickly obsolescing electronic design was probably enough to sink the product line before continuous product development became widespread. Here’s a good site about the Olivetti:
    NASA used them on the Apollo program.

  9. $3200 in 1965 would be about $32000 today. It is amazing what some things cost back in the day.

    One reason I doubt the CIA sabotage theory is that IBM was viewed as so overwhelmingly powerful as to be virtually unchallangeable. And very few people & entities–certainly not IBM itself–understood how important small computers were going to be.

  10. Friden also had a “small computer” that was about the size of a desk. In fact there were so many more brands of everything from farm tractors to typewriters in the ’60’s and ’70’s, mostly all gone. In ’71-’72, my school system had a Hewlett Packard mini set up so we could access it with teletypes over the phone system. Now HP is just a brand of printer ink. They’ve spun off their scientific instruments and test and measurement divisions as “non core”. IBM can’t decide which business they’re in from one year to the next. I’ll bet every one of those vanished brands has a might-have-been story.

    Right now, Boeing seems to have forgotten how to build airplanes. Having part of the fuselage blow off is not a good look for the brand. Lucky the passengers were still in climb out and everyone was buckled in and nobody sitting next to the missing piece. Is Boeing too big to fail or too big to succeed?

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