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Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.97
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68 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, March 25, 2014
The main argument: The unequal distribution of wealth in the developed world has become a significant issue in recent years. Indeed, the data indicate that in the past 30 years the incomes of the wealthiest have surged into the stratosphere (and the higher up in the income hierarchy one is, the greater the increase has been), while the incomes of the large majority have stagnated. This has led to a level of inequality in wealth in the developed world not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. This much is without dispute.

Where there is dispute is in trying to explain just why the rise in inequality has taken place (and whether, and to what degree, it will continue in the future); and, even more importantly, whether it is justified. These questions are not merely academic, for the way in which we answer them informs public debate as well as policy measures--and also influences more violent reactions. Indeed, we need look no further than the recent Occupy Movement to see that the issue of increasing inequality is not only pressing, but potentially incendiary.

Given the import and the polarizing nature of the issue of inequality, it is all the more crucial that we begin by way of shedding as much light on the situation as possible. This is the impetus behind Thomas Piketty's new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

One of Piketty's main concerns in the book is to put the issue of inequality in its broader historical context. Specifically, the author traces how inequality has evolved from the agrarian societies of the 18th and early 19th centuries; through the Industrial Revolution and up to the First World War; throughout the interwar years; and into the second half of the twentieth century (and up to the first part of the twenty-first).

With this broad historical context we are able to see much more clearly the causes of inequality. As we might expect, what we find is that inequality is influenced by a host of societal factors--including economic, political, social and cultural factors. However, what we also find is that inequality is influenced by a broader set of factors associated with how capital works in capitalist societies (and market economies more generally).

Specifically, we find that capital (and the wealth it generates) tends to accumulate faster than the rate of economic growth in capitalist societies. What this means is that capital tends to become an increasingly prevalent and influential factor in these societies (at least up to a point). What's more, wealth not only tends to accumulate, but to become more and more concentrated at the top (mainly because those with more capital are able to earn a higher rate of return on their capital investments). For these reasons, capitalism on its own tends to produce a relatively high degree of inequality.

The natural tendency of capital to accumulate and to become ever more concentrated largely explains the high degree of inequality that was witnessed in the developed world in the early part of the twentieth century. This inequality was largely dashed, however, in the interwar years. The reason for this is that the major events of the first half of the twentieth century (including the two world wars, and the Great Depression) thwarted capital's natural tendency to accumulate, and also destroyed large stocks of wealth. The end result was that by the time World War II was over, inequality in the developed world had reached an all-time low.

After the Second World War, the natural tendency of capital to accumulate resumed. However, various political and economic measures (including progressive taxation, rent control, increasing minimum wages, and expanded social programs) worked to redistribute this growing capital, thus preventing inequality from growing as quickly as it would have otherwise.

In the 1980s, though, the developed countries did an about-face, and began eliminating many of the measures that had prevented inequality from rising according to its natural tendency. The consequence was that inequality reasserted itself in a major way, such that it is nearly as extreme today as it was on the run up to the Great Depression. Furthermore, the historical evidence indicates that capital will likely continue to accumulate and become ever more concentrated, such that we will witness an even greater level of inequality moving forward.

As far as justifying the growing inequality that we are currently seeing, Piketty raises serious doubts as to whether it may rightly be considered fair. What's more, as inequality continues to grow, it is increasingly likely that large parts of the population will also come to see it as unfair and unjustified--thereby increasing the likelihood of political opposition.

For Piketty, the best and fairest solution to these problems would be to steepen the progressive taxation applied to the wealthiest individuals. The problem, though, is that in a world of financial globalization (where there is a high degree of competition for capital--as witnessed by tax havens), it is extremely difficult to apply the appropriate tax scheme without the cooperation and coordinated efforts of the international community--and this is simply not something that is easy to achieve.

The alternative, however, is much more troubling for it is likely that it will involve reverting to protectionism and nationalism--and this is really in no one's interest.

This book is an absolute tour-de-force. The broad time-frame that Piketty explores, and the enormous body of data that he brings together, makes this study extremely comprehensive (no one will even think of accusing Piketty of cherry picking the data). Also, the reader is struck by how dispassionately Piketty analyzes the evidence he brings to the table. Indeed, while the author does have a position on inequality, one never receives the impression that this is corrupting his analysis (I consider myself to be a pragmatist politically, and often find that writers on both the left and the right massage the truth, but that was never the case here). Finally, it should be said that the book is very long, and just as dense, with the author often delving into extreme detail, so be prepared for a challenge. A must read for anyone with a serious interest in economics.

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $3.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, March 16, 2014
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Michio Kaku's 'The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind'

The main argument: Up until 15 to 20 years ago the instruments and methods used to study the brain were still somewhat primitive. Since this time, however, advances in brain-scanning and brain-probing technology have gone into overdrive--as have the computers needed to make sense of the data from these new technologies. The deluge began in the early to mid 1990's with the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and it's more powerful cousin the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and it hasn't stopped there. In addition to the MRI and fMRI, we now have a host of advanced sensing and probing technologies from the positron emission topography (PET) scan, to magnetoencephalography (MEG), to near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), to optogenetics, to the Clarity technique, to the transcranial electromagnetic scanner (TES), to deep brain stimulation (DBS) and more. In addition to these new scanning and probing technologies we have also advanced greatly in understanding how genes are expressed in the brain.

The result of these new advances is that we have learned more about the brain and how it works in the past 15 years than in all of history put together. And we are beginning to see real-world applications of this new understanding. For example, in the past decade we have learned to read the brain's functioning to the point where we can now create rough images and video footage of thoughts and even dreams and imaginings; use the brain to directly control computers, and anything computers can control--including prosthetics (and even have these prosthetics send sensations back to the brain); implant and remove simple memories in the brain; create primitive versions of artificial brain structures; and also unravel at least some of the mysteries of mental illness and disease.

And this is just the beginning. Scientists continue to refine the scanners and probes that have recently been invented. What's more, governments are beginning to put up real money to fund major projects designed to help solve the remaining mysteries of the mind. For example, in 2013 both the United States and the European Union announced significant funding for two ambitious projects whose ultimate goal is to give a full map, model and even simulation of the human brain.

Specifically, the American government contributed over $3 billion to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or BRAIN) Initiative, while the European powers contributed over $1.5 billion for the Human Brain Project.
What this means is that we can look forward to a time when some of the early advancements we've made in understanding and manipulating the brain will reach full maturity. A time when we will interact with computers directly with our thoughts (and paraplegics will power exoskeletons directly with theirs); a time when we can share our thoughts, memories, dreams, and imaginings directly with others; a time when we can upload knowledge and skills directly into our brains; a time when we will have a full understanding of mental illness and disease--and the power to cure them.

And not only does the future of neuroscience promise these great feats, it also promises to help us develop the coping stone of all technologies: artificial intelligence. Indeed, while artificial intelligence has progressed in leaps and bound in recent years, it still remains fairly limited. A big part of this has to do with the fact that we have modeled our artificial intelligence machines based on how we think the mind should work, rather than on how it actually works. With our new knowledge of how the mind does work, however, the prospect of creating AI machines with human-level intelligence becomes ever more real.

The high point of the book is that Kaku gives a very nice overview of the latest developments in neuroscience, as well as where the field is headed next. The weak point of the book is that Kaku occasionally veers way of topic, and occasionally gets carried away on wild flights of speculative fancy (to give just one example, I wasn't expecting, and didn't appreciate, a full chapter of speculation about what alien intelligence--if it exists--might look like). Still, the book certainly contains a lot of very interesting and valuable information about the latest in brain science, and it definitely gets the imagination going. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Michio Kaku's 'The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind'

Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science
Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science
by Alex (Sandy). Pentland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.09
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, February 25, 2014
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Alex Pentland's 'Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread--The Lessons from a New Science'

The main argument: The sciences that focus on human behavior, meaning the social sciences, have traditionally relied mainly on surveys and lab experiments in their investigations. While valuable to a degree, these sources of evidence do have their shortcomings. Most significantly, surveys offer but indirect evidence of human behavior (and can also be compromised by deception and self-deception); while lab experiments tend to be somewhat artificial, and fail to capture the complexities of real life.

Recently, however, new digital technology has opened up a whole new way to study human behavior. This proves to be the case since mobile devices and sensors of all kinds are now able to record a dizzying array of human activity--everything from where we go, to what we buy, to whom we interact with and for how long, to our body language, and even our moods etc. When placed in the hands of social scientists these new sources of information can prove very valuable (and are far preferable than either surveys or lab experiments); for they allow scientists to study us in our natural environments--out in the real world--and they also allow scientists to study what we actually do, rather than what we say (which are sometimes quite different).

The method of investigating human behavior in our natural environments using digital technology has come to be called reality mining, and it is revolutionizing the social sciences.

One of the pioneers and leaders in the field of reality mining is Alex Pentland, a researcher out of MIT. Pentland's main field of interest is using reality mining to explore the properties and patterns of interactions between people--what he calls social physics. Specifically, Pentland uses reality mining to investigate the social physics in a wide range of groups and situations, from social and peer groups; to social media platforms; to institutional settings such as schools and businesses; to even whole cities. And in his new book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread--The Lessons from a New Science Pentland takes time out to catch us up on his findings.

One of Pentlands's main findings thus far has to do with the importance of social interaction in influencing our behavior. Indeed, Pentland has found that much of our behavior is dominated by the influence of our close relations and the peer groups we are embedded in--everything from our diet and body weight to our political opinions and all things in between.

The influence of our social world is so great, in fact, that Pentland argues it is much more appropriate to think of ourselves as group-oriented than self-directed. This is important because Western society as a whole tends to take the opposite view. The result is that many of our policies and institutions are ill-fitted to our true nature--which leads to less than desirable outcomes. Thankfully, Pentland does offer some advice with regards to how we can re-design our policies and institutions in a way that better accommodates our nature.

A second of Pentland's main findings has to do with how ideas and behavior spread through human interactions and groups--and also, and even more important, what kinds of interactions produce the best results in terms of generating the most creative and productive ideas.

Specifically, Pentland has found that the most creative and productive groups tend to have something very important in common: the group members have numerous interactions with highly diverse people outside of the group, and the group members are also highly connected to one another.

In terms of explaining why this pattern works best Pentland argues that the interactions outside of the group are important in becoming familiar with many different types of ideas, while the interactions within the group function to winnow out what are the best ideas, and also help build common norms of behavior and trust that allow the group to work well and cooperatively together.

I was happy to get the opportunity to learn about a very new and promising science from one of its leading practitioners. Many of the `living lab' experiments outlined in the book are very interesting and I certainly learned a lot. My only complaints are that the book does have a fair bit of repetition and jumps around some, so I question the writing and organization a bit. All in all, though, a very good and interesting read about a new field that we are sure to hear more from moving forward. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Alex Pentland's 'Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread--The Lessons from a New Science'

Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming
Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming
by McKenzie Funk
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.02
104 used & new from $4.13

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, February 11, 2014
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Mckenzie Funk's 'Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming'

The main argument: That the earth's climate is warming, and we are the main cause of this phenomenon (through the emission of greenhouse gases, including especially carbon), is now beyond dispute to anyone with an objective mind and an appreciation of science.

The clearest and most obvious effects of global warming are the melting of glacial ice and the corresponding rise in sea levels. But the effects of a warming world do not end here, we now know. The models tell us that warming also means less rain and even drought and desertification in some areas; more rain in others, often in deluges; stronger storms, such as hurricanes and cyclones; and an acidifying ocean.

On a human scale, this means salinated and eroding coast lines; desiccated farmland and more wild fires in drier areas; increased flooding and soil erosion in suddenly wetter areas; more destructive and deadly storms; and threatened sea life.

With all these negative effects, you would think that the people, companies and governments of the world would be eager to step in and do everything we can to stem the rising tide of climate change (including especially cutting emissions). Instead, however, what we have seen is much talk and little action.

There are several reasons for this complacency. One of the leading ones is that the effects of climate change often seem somewhat removed from our daily lives. Indeed, even though we are now seeing the beginnings of many of the effects listed above, most of us glimpse at most a small fraction of these effects. And besides, it is difficult to attribute any one of them to global warming specifically. What's more, we like our way of life, and it's difficult to imagine changing it for something as abstract and often remote as global weather patterns.

In connection with this, many of us are wont to think that the best approach to climate change might simply be to adapt. We're an innovative species, after all, what's to stop us from innovating our way out of trouble? This idea is especially appealing to the innovators and entrepreneurs among us, for whom not only peace of mind, but profits await. Given that this is the case, it is no surprise that we are already beginning to see some very innovative business approaches to adapting to the new normal. Everything from extensive water desalination plants, to man-made floating land-masses, to storm-surge sea walls, to snow machines and indoor skiing resorts.

Continuing with our wishful train of thought, it might also occur to us that as we are innovating to adapt, we should also be able to innovate to help mitigate and even halt climate change without necessarily weaning ourselves off oil until it is more convenient to do so. Once again, there are profits to be made here, and once again, such innovations are already underway. Everything from the development of alternative forms of energy (including solar, wind, and other renewables), to ingenious ways to manipulate the weather and climate back to normal (known as geoengineering).

Beyond optimism (some might say denial), and the fact that there are big profits to be made from adapting to climate change, there is also one other factor to consider in our relative complacency when it comes to halting and reversing carbon emissions. That is that while many of the effects of climate change listed above are bad for many people, at least some are good for some people some of the time--at least in the short-term. For instance, while melting ice stands to swamp some parts of the world, it is also leaving large tracts of land in the arctic open for resource exploration and shipping routes. In addition, while shifting hydrology is leading to the loss of large tracts of farmland in drier areas, it is also often leading to richer agriculture in newly warmer, wetter areas. Also, while shrinking farmland and water resources is leading to food and water shortages, and rising prices, those in control of these precious resources are making a fortune.

As we can see, then, being complacent about cutting carbon emissions is not only pleasant for most of us, for some of us, it's even a windfall! And that brings us to the topic of the book: all the things that are now being done to profit off of climate change (which we have now been introduced to above).

First off, on the whole this book is very good. It is extremely well researched and very well written. Also, the author does well to make sense of our relative complacency regarding cutting emissions, and just what is being done to address climate change right now. My one and only objection to the book is that though the author claims he will be entirely neutral in the book, it becomes clear that he favors the carbon emissions cutting route to the adaptation route (all the while admitting to recently having bought a bigger car, and flying all over the world for the purposes of his book). And one does wonder whether in the end the author's political stance really does affect his supposedly objective reporting (though for the most part we don't get the impression that this is true). All in all, though, a very good and interesting book. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Mckenzie Funk's 'Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming'

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
by Erik Brynjolfsson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.66
95 used & new from $9.95

19 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, January 19, 2014
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of 'The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies' by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

The main argument: In the first machine age--otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution--we humans managed to build technologies that allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power like never before. The result, which has reverberated these past 200 years, has been an increase in economic productivity unprecedented in human history. And the corollary of this increase in productive power has been an increase in material standard of living and social development equally as unprecedented.

In the past 30 years, with the rise of computers and other digital technologies, we have moved from overcoming our physical limitations, to overcoming our mental ones. This is the second machine age. Though we are still at the dawn of the second machine age, it already shows at least as much promise in boosting productivity (and quality of life) as the first. Indeed, by various measures--including the standard ones of GDP and corporate profits--we can see that the past 30 years has witnessed an impressive steepening in productivity.

And this is just the beginning. For digital technology continues to advance at an exponential pace; more digital information is being produced (and kept) all the time (all of which has enormous economic potential); and new ways of combining existing (and new) ideas into newer and better ones are ever being found.

Still, what is equally apparent is that the benefits of this steepening in productivity have gone to the few, rather than the many. Indeed, while the top 20% of earners have seen their pay increase since the early 1980s (and the closer you are to the top the more dramatically your pay has increased), the bottom 80% has actually seen their wealth decrease. And the spread is widening ever more as we go.

This is no random, or merely temporary outcome. Indeed, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee demonstrate, the unequal distribution of wealth in the second machine age is a natural corollary of how digital technology works and is used. Specifically, computer technology produces an economy that favors capital over labor; skilled labor over unskilled labor; and superstars (who are able to reach and corner entire global markets) over local players.

And not only does computer technology tend to play favorites, thereby increasing inequality. It also steadily erodes human employment outright. For as computer technology advances, more and more jobs that could once be carried out only by humans, becomes possible (and cheaper) for computers to accomplish. Nor is there any guarantee that new innovations and advancements will necessarily produce new jobs as fast as old ones are being lost (as was once thought inevitable). Indeed, we have already seen signs that this simply cannot be counted on.

The problem with all this is not just that extreme inequality is a political problem on its own. It's that as more and more people are driven out of the economy, the prospects for greater growth are themselves undermined.

Nevertheless, just as wise policies have helped us overcome many of the problems with the Industrial Revolution, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the same can be done with the problems of the Digital Revolution. Specifically, more can be done to ensure that our education systems are geared to the realities and demands of the second machine age; more can be done to ignite and encourage entrepreneurship, which is needed to replace many of the jobs that will be lost; and more can be done to mitigate the inequality caused by the new technology, such as introducing a negative income tax--which preserves a minimal standard of living for all (and keeps people in the economy as consumers), while encouraging all who can to stay in the workforce.

The book is very well-researched, well-written and wisely argued. The authors have taken the facts and the data as they stand, without preconception or political coloring, and have delivered an honest and insightful analysis. Both the bounty and the spread of the second machine age are made apparent, and the proposed approach moving forward is well-measured and judicious. An important book for policy-makers, and the generally curious alike. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of 'The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies' by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power
Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power
by Dan Hurley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.08
87 used & new from $2.01

49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, January 4, 2014
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Dan Hurley's 'Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power'

The main argument: The idea that we can boost our brain power through interventions of various kinds has been around a long time. Over the years, numerous drugs, diets and other practices (including everything from physical exercise to learning a new language or musical instrument to meditation to even zapping the brain with electrodes) have been purported to pump up our mental strength. And lately, a new practice has been added to this list: brain-training games and exercises. Indeed, in the past decade a whole new industry has emerged around brain-training programs. Built on the premise that specific types of mental activities can strengthen our cognitive skills and add to general intelligence, companies such as Lumosity and LearningRx have convinced millions of paying customers that their product will give them an edge in the brains department.

The more skeptical among us, however, may find ourselves wondering just what is the scientific basis behind all these brain games and other interventions. It was just this thought that occurred to science writer Dan Hurley; and so, following his skeptical sense, Hurley decided to investigate the matter for himself. What Hurley found was a scientific field that, though young, is bustling with activity (and controversy).

The new science of building brain power may be said to have truly kicked off in 2002. In that year, Swedish psychologist Torkel Klingberg performed a study wherein he found that subjects diagnosed with ADHD improved in both attention span and general intelligence after undergoing a brain-training program that involved working-memory exercises (it was this very study that kick-started the brain training industry).

The finding flew in the face of the long-accepted belief that intelligence simply could not be enhanced through training; and therefore, it sparked a great deal of interest in the scientific community. Eager to test the new finding, scientists from all over the world launched their own studies. While not all of the studies replicated the results that Klingberg found, many did; and enough promising results were found to draw even more interest into the field (while those who found negative results began setting up a staunch opposition to the research).

Despite the minority opposition, the long-held belief in immovable intelligence was rocked, and scientists began testing other kinds of interventions as well (including all of those mentioned above). While many of the interventions tested were found to have no effect on cognitive functioning, some did, and thus the new field gained even more momentum.

Wanting very much to get to the bottom of the matter (and the controversy) Hurley decided to check out the studies himself, and also to interview the major researchers in the field (on both sides of the debate). Based on this investigation (which is explored at length in the book), Hurley launched his own brain-training experiment-on himself. Specifically, Hurley took all of those interventions which he felt had the best evidence behind them and incorporated them into a grand brain-training program to see whether he could improve his intelligence.

The routine included the following: A boot camp program (that incorporated both aerobic exercise and resistance training); Lumosity; learning a new musical instrument (the lute); mindfulness meditation; a nicotine patch; coffee; and transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). The results of the experiment? They were mixed.

Hurley's exploration of the new field of building brain power (as well as his own experiment on himself) is fascinating (and often hilarious). One of the strong points of the book is how much detail Hurley gives regarding the experiments that he investigates. However, there is one detail that Hurley often leaves out that would be nice to have: rather than specifying exactly how much a given intervention improved intelligence in terms of percentages, Hurley often confines himself to mentioning whether the improvement was statistically significant or not (which leaves us without a good indication of exactly how well a given intervention worked). Still, Hurley's book is very well researched, and both highly interesting and entertaining. A great resource for those who are interested in getting past the hype of brain boosting, and investigating the actual science. A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Dan Hurley's 'Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power'
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 17, 2014 6:02 PM PDT

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
by Charles Montgomery
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.26
50 used & new from $15.06

10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, December 10, 2013
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Charles Montgomery's 'Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design'

The main argument: The modern city owes much of its current design to two major trends or `movements' that have emerged since the time of the industrial revolution. The first trend traces back to the industrial revolution itself, when the appearance of smoke-billowing factories (and egregiously dirty slums) necessitated new solutions to the problem of how to organize city life. The answer--still reflected in cities all over the world--was to compartmentalize functions, such that industrial areas, shopping areas, office areas, and living areas were separated off from one another into distinct blocks of the city.

The second trend in urban design took full hold in the post-war era, with the rise of the suburbs. In a sense, the suburbs represent a continuation and intensification of the compartmentalization movement, as the living areas of the upper classes were separated-off still further from the other areas of the city--out into sprawling districts miles away (as automobiles made it possible for certain city dwellers to escape to an idealized haven away from the hustle and bustle).

While the suburban movement has had the bulk of its impact on the landscape outside of the city proper, the city itself has not been spared of its influence. For indeed, the city was gutted of many of the inhabitants that formerly occupied it; and, what's more, it has been reshaped by the roads and freeways introduced to shuttle-in the suburbanites from their faraway destinations.

Now, it may well be the case that all this compartmentalization and suburbification was originally intended to benefit (most of) the city's inhabitants. Unfortunately, however, the longer we live with these trends in urban design, the more it is becoming clear that this way of organizing the city leaves much to be desired.

Let us begin with the suburbs, and work our way inwards. In the first place, those who have fled to the suburbs have found that there is a steep price to pay for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, and that price begins with all the driving. And the hellish commute is only half of it: virtually nothing that the average suburbanite wants and needs, and no place they want to go, is accessible without a car trip. Obviously, all this driving is unpleasant in itself, but this is just the beginning. Second, and even more important, it leaves less time for other things--including family life. Also, the piling up of time spent behind the wheel is just plain unhealthy, as it leads to both obesity and--by extension--several other health problems. Additionally, having to drive everywhere is expensive, and is only getting more so as the price of oil continues to rise. Finally, because suburbanites spend so little time actually walking through their neighborhoods, they tend to have little casual contact with neighbors, which at least partly explains why they tend to be more detached from their communities.

With all the negative consequences of suburban life, it is no surprise that many of those who had formerly fled to the burbs are now fleeing back to the city. Actually, in many cases, suburbanites have had little choice, as the rising price of oil--together with the housing crash of 2008--has left them with no way to afford their suburban nightmare regardless (thus many of the suburbs have become as abandoned as the inner city once was).

Unfortunately, life back in the city has seldom been much better. For one thing, outdated compartmentalization in the city has interfered with accessibility in a manner that is similar to the way that sprawl has interfered with accessibility out in the suburbs. Second, since transportation networks in the city have been rearranged to suit cars, alternative forms of transportation have largely been compromised, thus leaving citizens with less real choice when it comes to getting around. Also, because it has been so expensive for cities to service the suburbs (they being so far away, and so spread out), there has been less money to fund public goods that serve the city, such as public transit, parks and sociability-inviting squares--thus the city has actually become a less livable place in the suburban era.

Thankfully, at least some cities around the world (from Bogota to Copenhagen to Vancouver etc.) have begun taking efforts to remedy these issues, and are beginning to embrace a vision of the city which (according to the research) is both better-functioning and leads to happier citizens. In broad outline, the happy city is composed of multi-use, multi-income communities; laced with parks and public squares of varying sizes; and tied together with transportation networks that reintroduce walking, cycling and public transport as real options. (This vision of the city is often referred to as the new urbanist movement.)

In his new book 'Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design' urbanist and writer Charles Montgomery takes us through the history of the modern city, and the latest efforts to reform over a century of ill-conceived design decisions.

Montgomery's book is a fantastically informative and fun read, and the author does well to introduce the ideas of the new urbanist movement, and the efforts that are currently underway to implement it around the world (as well as the forces that continue to oppose it). If the stories and research presented here do not render you a full convert to the new urbanist movement, it will at least make you rethink where (and how) you'd like to live. Bravo Charles Montgomery! A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Charles Montgomery's 'Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design'

Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life
Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life
by J. Craig Venter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.44
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, November 26, 2013
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of J. Craig Venter's 'Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life'

The main argument: Ever since the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the field of biology has advanced at a lightning-quick pace. In this time, we have learned how DNA codes for the manufacture of proteins of which every living thing is made, and thus acts as the blueprint of life. We have also learned to read this blueprint; to splice it (to transfer genes, and hence features, from one organism to another--and even one species to another); to synthesize it from its component parts; and we have even learned to rewrite DNA to yield wholly new biological products, features and organisms. Thus recent advances have not only allowed us to gain a better understanding of what life is and how it works, but have also allowed us to take control of life and to manipulate it to help advance our ends--and in fields as wide-ranging as food production, medicine, energy, environmental protection etc. And this is just the beginning, for biologists still have much to learn about which genes code for what features, and how to manipulate DNA to achieve the best results--and thus we can expect that some of the greatest applications to come out of biology are yet to come.

The biologist J. Craig Venter has been at the forefront of biological research for the past 35 years, and has played a pivotal role in some of its most important advances (including everything from sequencing the human genome, to creating the first synthetic life form), and in his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter takes us through the major advances that have occurred since the time of Watson and Crick--and also touches on what is likely to come next.

After taking us through the basics of DNA, Venter touches on the advances that led up to his effort to sequence the entire 3-billion-letter human genome. This story includes all of the major advances in biologists' ability to read DNA, and culminates with the success of the human genome project.

From here we are taken through biologists' efforts to move from reading DNA to synthesizing it in the lab. Once again, Venter and his collaborators have played a central role in these advances, including being responsible for the latest and greatest accomplishment here--which involved synthesizing a modified version of the genome of a single-celled organism, booting it up inside a recipient cell, and having it survive, thrive and reproduce. Venter gives a detailed account of this accomplishment, and thus we are given an inside view into the scientific process--with all its trials, tribulations, and glorious successes.

Finally, Venter details where biology is headed now, and next--including where his own research is taking him. Here we learn about the cutting-edge of synthetic biology, which is the attempt to transform biology into an engineering science. Specifically, we learn how biologists are continuing to perfect the art of manipulating DNA, and how this is leading to exciting new applications across many fields. To give just one example, take Venter's work with influenza vaccines. Venter is in the process of using synthetic biology to design, manufacture, and deliver influenza vaccines in a fraction of the time that it now takes--work that promises to save millions of lives in the event of future influenza outbreaks.

On the more speculative side of things, Venter ventures into how new advances might be used to probe for life in other parts of the universe--and how the genomes of any such life might be read, and sent back to earth on the back of electromagnetic waves to be synthesized and recreated in the lab. Life at the speed of light indeed!

It was a delight to read about the recent history and latest advances in biology from one of its most accomplished and renowned practitioners. Some might find Venter's level of detail regarding his own work to be somewhat tedious at times, but I found this to be one of the strong points of the book. The only short-coming of the book, I thought, is that it does jump around somewhat, and the details are occasionally difficult to follow (so be prepared to read through it VERY carefully). All in all, though, a very good popular science book. A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of J. Craig Venter's 'Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life'

40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World
40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World
by Howard G. Buffett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.20
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, November 9, 2013
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Howard G. Buffet's '40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World'

The main argument: In the developed world, the vast majority of us enjoy a standard of living unmatched in the history of humankind--and going hungry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that poverty and hunger have been eradicated in the developed world entirely (in the United States, for example, 1 in 6 are considered food insecure--including 16 million children). Still, the greatest problems with poverty and hunger continue to exist in the developing world. Indeed, despite substantial improvements over the past 30 years, poverty remains a significant issue, and nearly a billion of the world's 7 billion people still face chronic hunger (while about twice that number are malnourished in some way)--and millions starve to death every year.

It is not that many well intentioned people and organizations have not spent a great deal of time and money trying to solve the world's poverty and hunger issues. Indeed, over the past half century the amount of resources that have been poured into these problems is staggering. So, just why do the problems of poverty and hunger stubbornly persist?

Well, at least part of it has to do with the fact that there are several significant obstacles standing in the way--everything from armed conflict, to corrupt governments, to particular cultural practices etc. The humanitarian Howard G. Buffet has been involved in fighting poverty and hunger for upwards of 30 years, and knows these obstacles all too well. However, Buffet insists that there is yet another reason why all of the well-intentioned efforts have fallen short of reaching their ultimate goal. And that is that many of the approaches have proven to be inadequate (if not downright counter-productive).

The fact is that most of the aid flowing to the poorest parts of the world has been (and continues to be) in the form of projects that are meant to help people in the short-term. For example, NGOs commonly enter an area, drop off bags of seed and fertilizer, and then turn around and leave. This approach may help the area for a season or two, but in the end the seed and fertilizer do run out, and the community is right back to square one. Thus the approach acts more as a band-aid, than a self-sustaining solution that addresses the root causes of poverty and hunger.

Thankfully, in Buffet's 30 years of work as a philanthropist he has learned that there is indeed a better approach, and one that stands a much better chance of rooting out poverty and hunger for good. The more effective approach is much less about aid as development--less about helping people as enabling people to help themselves.

The development approach involves linking subsistence farmers up with the larger economy, and establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem that will allow this connection to be maintained into the future. It involves things like helping to establish agricultural schools and private seed companies; working with farmers to improve farming techniques and yields (and not in a way that assumes that what has worked well in one place--or one's own backyard--will work everywhere); establishing grain storage systems; physically connecting farmers to markets; and working with governments to establish and maintain the infrastructure (especially roads) needed to make the system work smoothly.

The development approach may be more involved and take longer to get off the ground, but it pays off in the end, as when it is done well, it only has to be done once (Buffet speaks often about NGOs needing to take an approach that ultimately puts themselves out of business).

And helping impoverished farmers join the larger economy is not just a matter of helping them help themselves. The fact is that the world's population is continuing to grow, while we are running out of good farmland to farm. The UN estimates that in order to feed the world's projected 9 billion people by 2050, farmers everywhere will need to increase the planet's food production by 70%. Part of the solution to this problem must involve helping the world's subsistence farmers to produce a surplus to help everyone.

But the solution doesn't end there. Farmers everywhere, including in the developed world, will need to increase their yields to meet the growing demand. However--and this is important--farmers will need to increase their yields in a sustainable way. That is, they will need to do so in a way that does not degrade the soil, or threaten the world's fresh water or woodlands--as too often happens now.

Thankfully, Buffet's experience as a farmer (which he has been practising even longer than philanthropy) has shown him that here too there is a solution. And a big part of this solution is a very straightforward approach known as no-till farming. No-till farming is an approach that eschews tilling the soil in favor of planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops. The approach not only increases water retention, saves soil, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, it also helps increase yields (and thus it's a win-win solution). Now it's just a matter of convincing other farmers of this--which is a big part of Buffet's project.

This is a fantastic book. Don't let the fact that Buffet is the son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet dissuade you from taking him seriously. The author may have had a head start in life, but he stands on his own two legs, and he has used his privileged position to help him gain perspective (rather than let it make him arrogant and entitled). Anyone interested in the hunger problem (and the best way to approach it) would be well advised to read this book. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Howard G. Buffet's '40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World'

The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life
The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life
by Uri Gneezy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.56
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, October 29, 2013
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Uri Gneezy and John A. List's 'The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life'

The main argument: Until quite recently, the field of economics was dominated mainly by theory-making. Specifically, economists applied their intellects to the human world, and developed abstract models to explain (and predict) the unfolding of economic events. At the heart of all this theory-making stood homo economicus--a narrowly self-interested individual who responded to incentives and disincentives in a perfectly rational way.

In the past half century, though, various economists have added new wrinkles to the field's repertoire. To begin with, pioneering economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced controlled lab experiments (among other things) into the fold. And these experiments succeeded in adding nuance to our understanding of economic-man (he's not quite as one dimensional and rational as he was once taken to be), as well as texture and complexity to our understanding of economic phenomenon.

More recently, economists such as Uri Gneezy and John A. List have stepped in and showed that controlled field experiments also have a place in economics. For Gneezy and List, the world is their laboratory: the two go about slyly manipulating the natural environment in a controlled way (often fiddling with incentives and disincentives of all types) to see how we humans respond to the tweaks. Gneezy and List have been practicing this approach for upwards of 20 years now, and in this time they have helped shed light on everything from how to decrease crime rates; to how to improve school success; to how to encourage more charitable giving; to how to promote healthy living and decrease obesity; to how to set prices on products (so as to maximize profits); to how to understand (and limit) discrimination (to name but a few lines of research of theirs). And in their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life the two catch us up on their experiments and their results (while also touching on the experiments of other like-minded practitioners).

Take education, to begin with. Gneezy and List have gained a fair bit of attention recently for showing how monetary incentives can be used to help improve grades and graduation rates (particularly with at-risk students)--and even curb school violence; and here we are apprized of the ins and outs of the experiments that were used in this research. What is less well-known is that the authors have also recently become involved in a massive longitudinal study that is designed to test the effectiveness of different approaches to pre-kindergarten education. Though still in its infancy, the study has already yielded some very interesting results; and given that the researchers intend to follow their experimental subjects throughout their lives, the study should help shed a great deal of light on just what approach to early childhood education is most effective.

When it comes to charitable giving, Gneezy and List's experiments have worked wonders in showing just how to encourage as much charity as possible--and have challenged many of the industry's long-held beliefs in the process. The authors cover everything from how much seed-money is needed for a project to maximize donations; to how to approach follow-up requests made to established donors; to how to leverage raffles, lotteries and tontines for best success.

On the topic of business, Gneezy and List remind us how a failure to use an experimental approach can lead to business disaster (as illustrated by Netflix' 2011 decision to modify its business model without experimental research--a decision that drove hordes of customers away, sent the company's stock plummeting, and nearly sank the business outright). The lesson: business tweaks (including changes in pricing) should be tested in a controlled way in a small market (say a given city) before being adopted across the board (an approach that has been utilized to great effect by such companies as Intuit and Humana).

When it comes to discrimination, Gneezy and List have been able to use their experiments to reveal that much of the discrimination that happens nowadays is motivated less by hatred (or animus) as it is by plain old self-interest. Though perhaps not as threatening as outright hatred, discrimination practiced out of self-interest (known as economic discrimination) is problematic in its own right, and Gneezy and List also explore what strategies are best to curb it (this work is more important now than ever, as the internet [combined with data-driven analysis] has made economic discrimination very easy to practice--and hide).

The book is a very fun and interesting read, and Gneezy and List clearly have a knack for telling about their research in a highly entertaining way. The only issue I had with the book is that the authors occasionally exaggerate and over-state just what we can conclude from their experiments. Still, there is much of interest to be learned here, and the book is well-worth the read (just make sure you take it with a grain of salt). A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Uri Gneezy and John A. List's 'The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life'
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