writes: Most of us know that making money is difficult and saving it is even harder, but understanding money is easy–it's just coins and folding certificates, a mere medium of exchange.
That's wrong! according to Felix Martin, author of “Money: The Unauthorized Biography.” Not only is that understanding wrong but it's responsible (in large part) for the 2007 Great Recession and the pitiful “recovery” from it as well as a number of previous financial and credit disasters.
Mr. Martin draws a comparison of the orthodox understanding of money as a mere medium of exchange as typified by material objects–coins, gold bars, measuring sticks, and the like and a different way of thinking about it--as a social accounting construction based on mutual trust. That way of thinking acts as a primary social organizing tool. As such, a monetary system is much more sophisticated than just a logical extension of primitive bartering systems. It is imbued with major political aspects which account, in part, for the differences between the haves and have-nots, the policies selected to address financial/economic busts, and the relationship of the state to the monetary/financial systems.
The differing understandings of money underlie even now the varied explanations by economists of the causes of the Great Recession and the varied reactions of political leaders to it. It is also relevant to the deliberate removal of the government from the monetary system in favor of an impersonal computer network, as in the digital coin system now developing.
The author is a professional economist, bond trader, and analyst with the George Soros Institute for Economic Thinking. The book is a very worthwhile look at the concept of money as a (implicit, at least) political and social determinant and is quite topical as alternative monetary systems (mostly digitalized) like Bit Coin and competitors are garnering much attention. While the book does not address those new developments, it's clear that the digitalized coin systems imply acceptance of the orthodox understanding of money as a commodity. Some of Martin's criticism of the limitations of the orthodox view seem to apply to these alternatives, as well.
Mr. Martin writes in a relatively accessible manner relating stories, mostly, about money in historical and global contexts. His approach reminds of Malcolm Gladwell's books which use elaborate historical stories to illustrate relatively complex topics. Gladwell writes better but, arguably, covers simpler issues. However, this book, too, is relatively simple. It is no treatise on money or systems; it doesn't cover every issue which relates to money and exchange; and it seems a bit thin on theory even on those topics it does focus on. The major topic is the nature of money–a medium of exchange or social/political organizing tool and that issue has been theorized differently for centuries.
Mr. Martin starts his critique of the orthodox view of money by explaining how the early Pacific island Yap culture relied upon the symbolism of large stones (known as “fei.") These stones were kept by individuals as value storage devices, even though they had few of the characteristics which typically would be present in money systems–tokens of some sort small enough to carry and to hide, a consistent look, ease of exchange, a readily determinable unit value, etc. None of that was relevant for the Yaps as they understood money as mere transferable obligations, commercial or otherwise, based on mutual trust. The bigger your stone, the more value you had to trade, even though no stones physically moved anywhere. The Yaps had a small community and violations of community trust were easily discouraged. The stones (including a large one on the bottom of the ocean) were only tangential to the much more relevant element of social trust.
Mr. Martin reviews a large handful of other historical situations involving credit collapses, bank runs, recessions, and big bank/governmental associations to make his main point that when money is rigidly understood merely as a commodity of exchange, bad things can happen to financial, credit, economic, and political systems, especially in difficult times. Take, for instance, the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century where potential government/social aid to the jobless and hungry was stymied by creditor interests who valued the absolute sanctity of (bond and debt) contracts even at the consequences of millions of deaths. As they saw it, those victims were either responsible for their own problems or just losers in a competitive economy. Some economic thinkers at that time believed that those awful consequences were just part of the natural order and represented (unfortunately for the victims) unavoidable consequences of “good” finance.
While Mr. Martin doesn't address it much, most of the little people in America and elsewhere were also victims of the absolute sanctity of debt contracts. They lost jobs, homes, pensions, and savings in the Great Recession while big bondholders who legally had assumed investment risks lost nothing. Their debt contracts were inviolate. (The personal and social contracts of the little people naturally were worth nothing.)
Some of the major policy implications of money deal with: 1) inflation and deflation where a political decision is implied involving the contrary interests of creditors and debtors: 2) social responses to credit collapses and the role (if any) of government in moderating them; 3) who or what entities are or should be guarantors of trustworthiness (i. e., big banks? government? a computer network? 4) the role of formal contract law versus the principle of the good social good, and more. These are not mere abstract matters of formal theory but highly consequential matters of life and death (as the Irish potato farmers and lots of little people have found out.)
The author spends a lot of time explaining how trust works--in small organizations and communities, nations, and in globalized financial systems. At the top of the trust ladder (even for the most libertarian types) is the sovereign, i. e., government. There are important reasons why governments are generally lenders of last resort, stabilize financial and economic systems, and ultimately, the only potential savior for citizens from total economic collapse (as in the Great Recession.) There are various alternatives for the governmental role, none of which please everyone.
Hence, the political dimension of the money-social relationship. Mr. Martin comes down hard in favor of the flexible, social understanding of money. He praises John Maynard Keynes, Walter Bagehot, and even Salon, of centuries ago for their insights. He blames the great liberal philosopher, John Locke, of all people, for having a decidedly ill-liberal and ill-formed understanding of money. Lock was an orthodox monetarist and helped justify the philosophy which is still prominent. Each of the two philosophical approaches discussed here offer both liberal and conservative themes though rarely opposed as such.
That raises one major objection to Martin's thesis that orthodox monetary theory is wrong. He wants to substitute the social tool concept for it, but it seems pretty obvious that both frames of reference have their utility and truth. It's not easy to discredit respect for contract rights. On the other hand, it's hard to accept the starvation of millions of people to maintain them fully intact.
Nearly all such fundamental frames have their truths, even if inconsistent with the other. The better philosophical view is that we are guided (or not) by multiple, logically inconsistent frames. That is a philosophical point which he doesn't address well enough. He does concede that the orthodox theory mostly works well when times are good (but breaks down horribly when circumstances are bad.) This seems to imply a need for high-level judgment somewhere in the system, e. g., democratic political processes, a conclusion which tends to support his position.
He offers a couple of not very well-explained alternative monetary systems designed to remedy the faults of the orthodox approach while maintaining its virtues. He ends the book by suggesting that even if his thesis is correct, that getting the rest of the world to accept it is difficult–most people have rigid orthodox views, fiercely held. He lamely suggests without any elaboration that the power is within each of us to change those views. That would seem to require another book.
There is a lot of good meat, so to speak, to chew on in this book.
(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255)): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)Link to Original Source
writes: In a world of intractable wars and conflicts all over the place, spiteful and persistent political gridlock dominating (at least) American politics, rampant bare-knuckle capitalist competition and exploitation, and haters everywhere, Stephen Klein tries to convince us why it pays to get along and that we can be, and ought to be, “nice” for our personal and social benefits.
That is quite a challenge! Nevertheless, Mr. Klein constructs arguments deriving from current brain research and genetics; economics, history, and social psychology; game theory; and behavioral and anthropological experiments which are intriguing, to say the least. Klein is an acclaimed science writer and writes about complex ideas in an accessible (if not always coherent) manner. He has a remarkable synthetic overview of a large number of elements which condition human economic decisions and behavior. He draws upon individual human stories, social science research, and especially game theory and economic logic to show that purely rational self-interested behavior is rare and probably impossible on a broad, societal level. He implies that the macroeconomic theories of the Austrian school of essential self-interest are reductionist at best. Society would eventually collapse and die off without a substantial amount of altruism particularly when under stress from environmental or competitive pressures.
Emotions, psychology, and cultural conditioning play a huge role in how people interact with each other in terms of selfish versus social decisions and behaviors. He cites natural and social science research which suggests that giving and altruism are essential for happiness itself. (There's even a biochemical basis for this in oxytocin and other substances.) Elements of community-level trust and fairness are probably more prominent than naked economic calculations. He gives many examples of how these elements of trust and fairness run counter and (or are complementary) to what ought to be expected from pure self interested logic and calculation.
He also points out that even the perceived effectiveness of reason and logic strategies depends on often-ignored assumptions like differences in consequences over short, medium, and long terms, the presence of imperfect knowledge, and the like. He sprinkles numerous examples of how game theory favorites like The Prisoner's Dilemma, The Free Rider Game, Ultimatum, and the amazingly effective Tit-for-Tat strategy (where a certain short-term level of--irrational--trust is essential to its success) are relevant for a whole host of social and economic situations.
There are intricate arguments about how game-like stratagems combined with tribalist elements condition self-interest and social-interest behaviors. Surprisingly, he argues how the success of generosity and good-naturedness depend on the presence of some degree of self-interest. Community-wide mores depend on an us-them competitive situation where the tribal effects unify people into efficient social structures where altruism is essential for the group to compete with and/or defeat outsiders. If and when that competition subsides, the group may then develop "freeloaders" who will increase in number in effect and collapse the social interest by rejecting its mores of trust and fairness.
The historical perspective on all of this is not very well developed or very coherent nor are the references to evolutionary theory. Mr. Klein sides with the proponents of the current controversy over group genetic selection position versus the more established individual selection position. He argues that generosity is hardwired into the human species at both the individual and group levels. Nevertheless, Klein shows that the selfish-vs-social attitudes have evolved over the centuries due to advanced philosophical concepts and the influence of condensing world geography, cultural shifts, and globalization-like elements.
He draws upon this evolutionary process to propose that we are in a historical period (The Global Village) where people are becoming more and more interdependent, unified by communication and transportation developments, and less tribal (at the national and cultural levels, at least) than before. These events will likely promote greater elements of trust, converging senses of fairness, and a recognition of the long term efficiencies of social behavior versus that of the mere self-interested personal attitude.
As a better educated society (mainly in economic efficiency theory and morality) we can change our thinking about how we relate to one another. We will recognize the evolutionary advantages to altruism. We can practice habits of fairness and altruism. Interestingly, he refers to science which categorizes humans as comprised of three main groups: about one third are consistently self interested, one-fifth are consistently altruists, and the rest are pragmatic opportunists who act depending on the environmental variables. Optimistically, he states "The Future Belongs to the Altruists.”
I don't know how convincing this book can or will be given the enormous tidal wave of selfishness and narcissism which seemingly has infected our world. It seems right that a new way of thinking is a start towards something different, anyway, and this book certainly is intriguing and thought provoking.
(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255)): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)Link to Original Source
writes: You've got to have a lot of confidence and nerve to write and try to sell a nearly 400 page book on cooking to the take-out pizza and cola set. No cookbook is likely to turn many geeks into chefs or take them away from their computer screens. However, even though "Cooking for Geeks" contains a large number of recipes, it is not a conventional cookbook but a scientific explanation of the how and why of cooking which will certainly appeal to that group, as well as to cooking professionals and intellectually curious others.
The author is a geek himself and brings “geek-like” approaches to the subject matter – deep intellectual curiosity, affinity for details, appreciation of problem solving and hacking, scientific method, and a love of technology. What is even better is his filtering of cooking concepts by a computer coder’s framework, analogizing recipes to executable code, viewing of ingredients as inputs and as variables, running processes over and over in a logical manner to test and improve outcomes. This is not a mere literary shoe-horning of cooking concepts into a coder’s framework but an ingenuous approach to the topics that should loudly resonate with geeks.
The subject matter includes selecting and using kitchen and cooking hardware; prepping inventory; calibrating equipment (especially your oven, using sugar); understanding tastes and smells; the fundamental difference between cooking and baking (and the personality types which gravitate to one form or the other); the importance of gluten and the three major types of leavening (biological, chemical, and mechanical); the types of cooking; using time and temperatures; how to use air as a tool; the chemistry of food combinations; and very thorough and detailed discussions of food handling and safety. The book is organized into seven chapters and includes an appendix dealing with cooking for people with allergies. The recipes are indexed in the front of the book.
The major conventional flavor types of salt, sugar, acids, and alcohol have been supplemented by modern industrial elements – E- Numbered (a Dewey decimal system-like index) additives, colloids, gels, foams, and other yummy things! All are itemized, charted, and explained in the chapter entitled “Playing with Chemistry.” A whole chapter (and an interview with mathematician, Douglas Baldwin) is devoted to the latest and greatest food preparation technique –sous vide– cooking food in a temperature-controlled water bath.
Threaded through the sections are short sidebar interviews of mostly computer and techie types who are serious cooks or involved in the food industry. Some of these contributors are Adam Savage (of Myth Busters fame) on scientific technique, Tim O’Reilly (CEO of the book’s publisher) on scones and jam, Nathan Myhrvold, on Moderist cuisine, and others. Other interviews deal with taste sensitivities, food mysteries, industrial hardware, pastry chef insights, and many more. There is an insightful section just on knives and how to use and care for them.
Anyone who is interested in cooking will learn from this book. I now pay attention to things I’ve never heard of before: browning methods like caramelization and the Maillard processes, savory as a major taste, transglutaminase (a.k.a. meat glue), for example. There is stuff I didn’t really want to know – “if you’ve eaten fish you’ve eaten worms.”
Although one of the strengths of the book is the systematic organization, there are useful tips spread throughout. For example, keeping a pizza stone permanently in your oven will help even out heat distribution; storing vegetables correctly requires knowing whether they admit ethylene gas or not (a chart is included); you can test your smell sensitivity profile by using a professional scratch and sniff test kit obtainable from the University of Pennsylvania. Whatever specialized information not contained in the book is referenced to external sources, especially on the Internet.
If all of this is not stimulus enough for the geek crowd, how about learning how you can spectacularly kill yourself cooking with dry ice, liquid nitrogen, blowtorches, and especially an electrocuted hotdog. Cool! This is mad scientist stuff. Engineering-minded types can learn how to make their own ice cream machine from Legos. You’ll also learn how NOT to kill your guests with bacteria and other toxins.
The production is nicely done with easily readable text, plentiful drawings and charts, color captions, and many other quality production features. Weights are based in both grams and US volume-based measurements.
(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)
writes: Wikipedia, the free access online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute,
is a remarkable achievement. Started only in 2001, it now comprises over 9 million
articles is written in over 250 languages, and is the first choice for reference
material for millions of Internet users. Despite criticisms by some for the variable
quality of its material, the value of the contributions of tens of thousands of
unpaid volunteers is enormous, not only in notable and verified content accessible
to the vast majority of the worlds population in their native languages,
but in the opportunity for everyone to contribute to this repository of knowledge
in his or her own way (subject to the review and editing of others just like themselves.)
More importantly, in my view, is the model it represents in human collaboration
efforts, this one in creating a repository of knowledge, but applicable more broadly
to other efforts. Besides merely creating enormously useful things, the collaborative
efforts result in a community of people and groups which has its own intrinsic
values. Imagine thousands of volunteers committing their personal time and effort
into a nonhierarchical, consensus-based collaboration having as its selfless main
purpose the improvement of human society. Socialism at its best! It seems to me
that the model may be useful in areas of politics, management and administration,
education, and other social endeavors.. The Open-Source software movement, predating
Wikipedia, operates in much the same way. Perhaps the earliest example of this
collaborative model was the developmental years of the Internet.
As a casual user of Wikipedia, I had no idea of the nature of the Wikipedia project
(and its sister projects Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource,
Wikispecies, Wikinews, and Wikiversity and no doubt others yet to come)
until I read Wikipedia: the Missing Manual, by John Broughton. He
is an experienced Wikipedia editor with over 15,000 edits to his credit and is
the creator of the Editors Index to Wikipedia which lists
every reference page on Wikipedia as well as other off site pages with information
useful for serious Wikipedia editors. Wikipedia: the Missing Manual
is an extremely thorough guide to creating and editing Wikipedia articles. The
book is intended to help train new writers and editors and to improve the skills
and knowledge of existing participants.
Broughton encourages people to join the Wikipedia community of researchers, fact
checkers, and proofreaders. This community seems to be made up of committed, skilled,
and serious people who take great pride in the project. There is little organizational
hierarchy involved and a minimum of formal participatory rules, but a large set
of informal mores and practices which help maintain production, efficiency, civility,
and quality. There is always a need for more articles, although of the thousands
created every day, nearly one half of them are deleted within 24 hours by attentive
editors for a number of reasons explained in the book.
The book starts with an introduction to the basic principles of the Wikipedia
project involving notability, credibility, balance, consensus, and good faith
and moves quickly into the process of registering with Wikipedia, setting up a
user account, and starting out practicing writing, previewing, and saving edits.
In six parts and 21 chapters, the book covers how to document sources, set up
an editors account, and personal workspaces, create new articles, use page
histories, monitor changes, and dealing with vandalism and spam. It explains the
value of collaborating with other editors and participants in creating and editing
articles and in special Wiki Projects and other group efforts. There are several
chapters describing how to deal with the inevitable conflict between editors and
explains the Wikipedia editing mores of civility, ethics, legality (mostly copyright
issues), and efficiency. He explains why editors disagree, in what ways, and how
they resolve disputes. He also provides guidance on how disputes can be avoided
in the first place.
Separate chapters of the book detail how to work with article pages and sections,
tables, lists, markups and links, images and media, and categories. There are
descriptions of what makes a good article and what doesnt and there are
step-by-step tutorials on creating better articles and being systematic about
good editing practices. A most interesting feature of Wikipedia is its large collection
of free-to-use images, videos, sound clips, and other media in the Wikipedia Media
Commons area which is available for article use and for non-Wikipedia use by anyone
for any purpose.
Advanced topics include customizing your user account via preferences and skins
20 page appendix for those people content with being mere users of Wikipedia and
learning how to get the most out of it. More involved users will benefit from
Appendix C which itemizes the huge amount of Wikipedia help, reference, coaching,
and other educational sources especially valuable for those determined to become
better editors or higher-level participants like administrators of Wikipedia.
The presentation is thorough and articulate. It covers basic and advanced editing
skills. Broughton frequently notes keyword search items and tips to be more productive
and efficient. The community norms demand attentive and educated participants.
Experience with coding is appreciated. The book has plenty of screenshots illustrating
the discussions of Wikipedia features. Most of the sections contain Notes and
Tips which provide more detailed explanations of features and an experienced editors
perspective to the prospective new editor as to how and why to do things. Broughton
is (perhaps unintentionally) inspiring about participating in the Wikipedia editor
Although the book deserves great credit for its content and its tone a few problems
with the layout and design detract a bit. The layout is dense with graphics a
bit too tightly packed in with the text. Captions at the bottom of grayscale illustrations
occasionally refer to nonexistent color clues resulting in some confusion. The
density seems to reflect the nature of Wikipedia editing itself, which can be
very involved. But, rewarding.