Mini-Book Review — Ridley — The Rational Optimist

Ridley, Matt, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins, New York, 2010. 438 pp.

Matt Ridley is a well-known British science writer who, in recent years, has specialized in writing books for the general public on new research in biology … evolutionary biology, genomics, plus a biography of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA.

For well over a decade I’ve enjoyed his books and been very impressed with the quality of his writing, so “on spec” I put a library hold on Ridley’s latest without paying much attention to what it was about. That decision turned out to be a wonderful piece of serendipity. I’ve been reading about European “trading republics” (ancient and modern) for a few years, and trying to assemble an amateur theory about how economic dynamism and technological innovation follow, or are reinforced by, republican values. Whether Athens, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Boston, or New York and Montreal, trade under republican regimes creates massive relative wealth and huge leaps in human knowledge and standards of living.

Now Matt Ridley looks at the innate human capacity for “exchange” … and how that unique capacity affected the course of prehistory, the introduction of agriculture and “civilization,” and more latterly, the shape of the industrial revolution and the modern world. Underlying the politics of republicanism, and individual freedom, we can see the human appetite for exchange creates persistent economic advantage. Trade flows from comparative advantage, in the words of David Ricardo, and comparative advantage relentlessly rewards more specialized use of the natural environment … from the labor of humans carrying sea shells inland for trade 80,000 years ago, to the labor of domesticated horse and sheep and dogs largely for human benefit, to the use of vast quantities of ancient vegetable matter (in the form of petrochemicals), to extend the efforts of humans out of all proportion. Our species is most prosperous when most specialized, when most dependent on the differentiated talents of thousands of others. We now can live lives like the Sun King, without a retinue of thousands.

In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls ‘bubble-up’ evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism. I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions. A flood tide, not an ebb tide. p. 350

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Mini-Book Review — Junger — War

Junger, Sebastian, War, Harper Collins, 2010, 287 pp.

The author of The Perfect Storm has written a book about his time with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the remote, steeply mountainous Korengal Valley — 200 kms east of Kabul, and 200 kms northwest of Islamabad. Patrolling and living five times between June 2007 and June 2008 with Second Platoon, Battle Company, Junger gives the reader some sense of the life of combat infantry out at the very end of the logistics chain — small high-altitude outposts protecting larger, lower bases with covering fire. Every creature comfort is reduced to that which will serve weapons and fortification. Niceties like hot and cold running water, cooked food, clean clothes, air-conditioned or heated sleeping quarters are simply absent. No one over 30. No women. No rear-echelon MFs. No one but Taliban wanting to come across the perimeter wire and kill or kidnap you. The troops live for weeks amongst scorpions, camel spiders, dust, and dirt in ramshackle outposts carved out of hilltops with their own hands. Resupply is based on occasional helicopter “speed balls” (air-dropped duffels or kit-bags) or whatever the men can pack on their backs up the mountains. In other words, Fort Apache – Korengal. No generals or pundits or “pros and cons of war” in sight.

The region of Afghanistan is so remote that it has largely been ignored by all forces in the area: Afghan, Pakistani, and European. No central government ever existed in the area. The Korengalis live in small tribes within a valley barely six miles long and one mile across. They were animists and adopted Islam barely a hundred years ago. Though speaking Pashto, they keep largely to themselves. Meager, valley-bottom subsistence farming is subsidized by illegal timber-cutting of the large cedars found high on the mountain-sides. Thus the Korengalis are entirely in thrall to their elders, the local Pakistani timber smugglers, and the Taliban forces that pass back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Americans weren’t welcome. No one was.

American forces established themselves in the Korengal to act as “spoilers” for the Taliban transit zone through the neighboring Pech River valley. The 173rd were replacing a previous deployment by the 10th Mountain Division, who in turn had replaced the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. The members of Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd were assigned to man an isolated outpost called Restrepo.

Junger’s account of his time with Second Platoon is organized as a set of squad and platoon vignettes on three major themes (Fear, Killing, Love) and bridged with his reflections on his own experiences (patrolling, combat, surviving an IED), interviews and biographic details on the troops in Second Platoon, and a review of the latest literature on combat psychology and physiology. As an established adventurer and war reporter, he was struggling to come to terms with a new and deeper experience of relentless combat in a very small group.

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Book Review — Levenson — Newton and the Counterfeiter

Levenson, Thomas, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2009, 318pp.

The publisher kindly provided a copy of this book for review.

This book was recommended during a Holiday 2009 Book Roundup on chicagoboyz here.

Fans of fiction author Neal Stephenson (The Diamond Age and Anathem were reviewed for chicagoboyz) may recall that one of the most intriguing episodes in his mammoth Baroque Cycle trilogy was Isaac Newton’s use of the Royal Mint to further his interests in the alchemy of gold. In the course of taking on Mint responsibilities, Newton also inherited the responsibility for halting widespread coin tampering and counterfeiting.

Now we have a non-fiction title by a distinguished American science writer focused on the same subject. Newton’s actions as Warden, then Master, of the Mint were less glamourous than his revolutionary contributions to science and industry, but no less critical to the rapid transformation of England into an industrial giant. The real story behind Isaac Newton’s efforts to rescue England’s silver currency from impending disaster, and to revitalize the Royal Mint, is rather unexpected. And Newton’s methodical (and rather fearsome) efforts to hunt down and hang the country’s counterfeiters turn out to be just as fascinating, and just as strange, as Neal Stephenson’s fictional tale of Newton’s derring-do. Stephenson’s blurb on the back-cover of this book confirms as much.

Levenson’s book is built around two dramatic themes.

Firstly, the “fish out of water” transition of Isaac Newton from nerdy reclusive Cambridge savant, obsessed with his privacy, to senior government functionary … comfortable in parliamentary committees, Law Courts, and in the Royal Mint’s interrogation cells.

Secondly, Newton’s multi-year game of “cat and mouse” with a notorious counterfeiter (William Chaloner) that constantly risked Newton’s professional career, and Chaloner’s life. Chaloner actively sought to have Newton pilloried as incompetent, a thief, and anti-government conspirator, and Newton did his best to see Chaloner hung, drawn, and quartered … counterfeiting being a treasonous offense.

The author first builds contrasting biographies of the scholar and the criminal, providing a snapshot of criminal London in the late 17th century. The woeful state of English silver coinage brings Newton to London where he was soon to begin an education entirely unlike anything available in Cambridge University.

SPOILER ALERT: If you’d prefer to learn the story of Newton and the counterfeiter on your own, by reading this book, please skip down to my general comments in the Section titled General Impressions where I’ve tried not to give too much of the tale away.

EYESTRAIN ALERT: This review runs about 10,500 words. Some readers may prefer to print it out.

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Mini-Book Review: Yon – Danger Close

Yon, Michael, Danger Close: The Michael Yon Story, Apple Pie Publishers, 2000, 400 pp.

Over the last decade, Michael Yon has emerged as a pre-eminent American military blogger. His photos from Iraq and Afghanistan appear occasionally in print media. Fox News will interview him and reprint his articles on their website. He’s heard on radio periodically with personalities like Dennis Miller and Hugh Hewitt. It’s in the blogosphere, however, that his impact has been the greatest.

He specializes in combat reporting and by some accounts, no journalist (professional or otherwise) has spent more time embedded with US and Allied combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than Mr. Yon. His travels with the military have also taken him to the Philippines, and training environments throughout eastern and southern Asia. His blog posts are illustrated by digital photography of a very high caliber. His insights into events, tactics, and troop morale are deeply informed by his earlier training as a Special Forces soldier. He knows the physical and mental challenges of combat, first-hand. He knows the sounds made by different weapons and their significance in the midst of the battles he witnesses. He’s often able to ask questions and evaluate troop conditions in ways that would escape a non-vet. And he’s drawn a dedicated following on Twitter and Facebook, especially amongst the families of troops that he spends time with. In many ways, he’s a unique voice and a unique set of eyes in the combat zone. The personal risks he takes to be with the troops are frightening, even second-hand. And his battles with army “public information officers,” over what he’s seen and what he believes, are almost as legendary as his combat reports. He speaks his mind bluntly and has paid the price for it a number of times. He gets booted out. Yet he keeps going back.

The sum total of his independent efforts has been a series of compelling and often harrowing pieces of online photo-journalism, supported largely through reader contributions. For the last few years, I’ve made periodic contributions to his blog’s Tip Jar, and sponsored the purchase of a box of his latest book (Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New ‘Greatest Generation’ of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope) for subsequent donation to the troops. I felt it was the least I could do to support a kind and quality of journalism I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. From time to time, Michael Yon mentions his personal history on his blog but his background is largely hidden. The audience must often read between the lines.

I’ve always been curious about how he had the motivation and confidence to take on the challenges of combat reporting, sponsored only by his readers. Fortunately, inexpensive copies of his autobiography are widely available through used book websites.

Danger Close is his personal story from childhood up to the time of his assignment to the 10th Special Forces Group in Europe in the 1980s. It covers his childhood in Florida, vacations in the southeastern United States, and completion of high school. Yon joined the Army directly from high school with the aptitude necessary to apply for Special Forces. First he would complete Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) … then onward to Special Forces pre-selection, and Phase I, II and III of the Selection Course. The autobiography concludes shortly after his completion of German language training at the Defense Language Institute facilities at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Soon after completing his Special Forces Selection course and receiving his green beret, he was involved in a bar fight lasting only a few seconds. It left Yon’s antagonist dead and Yon charged with second degree murder. That event forms the skeleton upon which his entire autobiography is hung. The ups and downs of Yon’s young life could hardly have been more extreme.

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Mini-Book Review — Jones – The Human Factor

Jones, Ishmael, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, Encounter Books, 2008, 383 pp.

This book is the career memoir of a former Marine and stock broker who entered the “non-State Department” clandestine service of the CIA and was a deep cover case officer from the ’90s through the late ’00s. It covers the story of his training, deployment, and activities overseas focusing on radiological and biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the course of tours in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, and finally a “combat tour” in Iraq. Serving overseas with his wife and children under the cover of a “software solutions expert,” he contacted disaffected or bribe-able scientists and business-people from rogue nations. By casting his inquiries as commercial and academic opportunities, he was able to gather a steady stream of intelligence on WMD programs in the Third World.

The central theme of the book, however, is how staff at the home office (from top to bottom) either intentionally or inadvertently got in the way of his doing an effective job. Most authors are the hero of their memoirs but Jones does an admirable job of giving his pride in his accomplishments a reasonable airing without masking the real value of his book. The CIA is a large modern business with a primary mandate to stay out of the newspapers and off TV. How it does so is a tale both depressing and all too familiar.

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