Recent Reading - December 2020


I am attempting to record more short synposes of the books I read. These are entirely for me own sake, as reflecting on my list of books I have read, there are some that I have nearly no recollection of even reading.

In December 2020 I read:

The Victorian Internet

The Victorian Internet is short history of the development, rise, and fall of the electric telegraph. It discusses pre-electric optical telegraphs (french signal towers, known to exist), the development of the electric telegraph, and the eventual replacement by phones. Some already familiar.

A few surprises or aha moments:

  1. “Telegraph hill” is a common place name because of the placement of optical telegraphs on hills.

  2. Surprised by extent of optical telegraphs prior to electric - thousands of towers in Europe.

  3. Surprised by short ‘golden age’ of telegraph operators - electric telegraphs become common in the 1840s, but automated telegraphs put operators out of work (at least as high paid/high status jobs) by the 1870s and 1880s.

  4. Obvious in retrospect, but after undersea cables became common, England build a telegraph network entirely within the empire - so undersea cables from the UK to Africa, instead of going through Europe and hence enemies.

  5. High incidence of pneumatic tube use to move messages without telegraphs or telegaph operators in busy cities. Higher bandiwdth than the telegraph.

  6. Telegraphs in Europe operated by government, so more social use than in the US.

The Last Monopoly

The Last Monopoly is a collection of essays written in the early 1990s regarding the US postal monopoly. Key surprises:

  1. Early postal service only did inter-city mail until as late as the 1900s

  2. Quote - not particularly related to post office - “[Paul David] observed that during the first 40 years after the introduction of electric motors into factories, productivity growth was relatively listless. It was not until the factories themselves evolved … from central steam engines that productivity surged.”

  3. That the postal monopoly was largely expanded at the behest of the post office itself - lots of changing definitions

War Before Civilization

Book on anthropology / archaeology broadly (a) refuting the idea of peaceful pre-state societies and (b) documenting to the best data available just how violent pre-state societies were.

Key takeaways:

  1. Pre-state societies commonly have long periods of low-intensity warfare / raiding

  2. Cumulative injury & death rates can be extremely high compared to modern conflicts, even if there are no large recognizable battles

  3. Pre-state warriors fought wisely, rationally, effectively, given their supply constraints; engaged in total war much more effectively than pre-American-Civil-War western societies.

  4. See: Native Americans expunging Viking(!) settlements in Newfoundland and Greenland, routine defeat of American soldiers against plains Native American tribes, etc.

  5. Many (at least prior to this writing) archaeological analyses simply nonsensical, over-interprets evidence as e.g. “trade” instead of “raid”.

The Misbehavior of Markets

Written in 2004, rebuttal of (then-standard) normal-curve based stock risk analysis. Instead, Mandelbrot proposes a ‘fractal’ model, including an ‘H’ score as a replacement for Beta (?). At this point, 15 years on, the core message of “fat tails” is well-documented, perhaps Taleb gets more credit for popularizing this in The Black Swan than he should have.

There are definitely some very interesting tidbits about Mandelbrot’s life, though, given it is written in the first person. Unclear to me from the reading how much of the work that Mandelbrot alludes to in 2004 went anywhere - as far as I know e.g. GARCH which he opposes is still a commonly used model.

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