End of 2019 Book List
I've always liked book lists. That doesn't mean I can write them: advertising doesn't come naturally to me, and summaries are a lousy form of recommendation. But I have read a couple of books this year. Some are new, some are older. I think they're all worth a look - everyone's taste will vary, but these are the books I personally got the most out of in 2019.
The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters
Rose George (2008)
There are two books that I have bought as gifts multiple times and will always recommend: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman. Now there's a third. The Big Necessity outlines the underlooked importance of toilets and sanitation in the world. According to Gary Ruvkun, the toilet is declared as 'the single biggest variable in increasing human life-span', with modern sanitation adding twenty years to the average human life. Exploring the world of toilets from the futuristic Japanese washlet, to the London sewerage system, toilet entrepreneurs in India, biogas generators in China, and the Singaporean Mr. Toilet (the world's "Number 2 Man", and founder of the World Toilet Organisation - the other WTO), Rose George's exposé on effluent is the ideal companion to the porcelain throne and the best book I've read this year.
Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel
Tom Wainwright (2016)
As of 1 January 2020 Illinois will have legalised cannabis for recreational use. It joins Canada and 10 other states in the United States that have legalised the drug (15 others have decriminalised). New Zealand will vote on an issue on 21 November 2020. Luxembourg and a suite of other nations are set to follow. Like the removal of alcohol prohibition, a key justification is the removal of monopoly profits to cartels and underground sellers. Tom Wainwright is the Britain correspondent for The Economist, and a former correspondent to Central America and the Caribbean. Like all businesses the illegal drug trade responds to incentives: starting from this premise, Wainwright takes an in depth look at cartel activities (especially in El Salvador, Colombia, and Mexico), the economic drivers of the drug trade, and the policy responses that have proved effective. Key ideas include the role violence plays in maintaining monopoly control on supply lines; why targeting coca farmers at the bottom of the pyramid in Colombia is ineffective (the value-add of the product jumps enormously as it nears the United States, but is cheap and easily replaceable at the source); and a blueprint for the role legalisation can play in defanging the cartel beast in a war which should not have been fought.
The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fall of Liberty
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2019)
I'm cheating, because I haven't finished this. In 2012, Acemoglu and Robinson released 'Why Nations Fail', a book which fundamentally changed how I view the world - how nations develop (legal, economic, and political) institutions which can either foster growth or suck it away. The Narrow Corridor follows this up by examining how nations can become free, the fragility of this situation, and the opposing forces can remove the scaffold required for a Shackled Leviathan to emerge - a State powerful enough for positive institutions to develop, but restrained enough to avoid falling into the trap of despotism. Like Why Nations Fail, the key draw of the book is in part the central premise but more so the litany of persuasive historical examples, from the communal societies in Togo, to the conquests of King Kamehameha in Hawaii, to modern trends in the United States and China. Thomas Hobbes once wrote, "... with those that contend on one side for too great Liberty, and on the other side for too much Authority, 'tis hard to pass between the points of both unwounded" - The Narrow Corridor has valiantly attempted to find a path to do so.
Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl (1946)
In 1944 psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was transported to Auschwitz in Poland. After processing, he was sent to the Kaufering III work camp of Dauchau. I visited Dachau in 2017, and thought then as now that there is no adequate way to describe it - it is a terrible and horrid place. Frankl describes his observations of the people who lived there: how they responded to the shock, depersonalisation, and the depravity. He argues that the people who were most able to survive were those that retained a personal sense of purpose: whether it was to return to a job, their family, or a personal project. For Frankl it was possible for meaning to exist even when life consists of suffering and death. The philosophy is an existential one: the idea that there is no objective meaning in life, but that it must be created by the individual. Eventually Frankl was to develop a branch of psychology (Logotherapy) around this central concept - a will to meaning as a driving psychological force and a map for surviving in the depths of psychological or physical misery.
Innovation Tools: The Most Successful Techniques to Innovate Cheaply and Effectively
Evan Shellshear (2016)
I picked this book up when the author came to speak at the University of Queensland. It provides an overview of recent market trends, and makes the case that innovation is often a case of managing risk: of enabling situations in which it is cheap and effective to explore new methods, while minimising the consequences for failure (i.e. not to avoid failure, but to keep the failures cheap). The key strength of the book however is in its case studies: looking at developments in 3D printing, open access software, innovation competitions, cloud services, hackerspaces, drug discovery, and other emerging trends. A central idea of innovation is that it is incremental: often the most successful products are small modifications to existing inventions, with the bulk of rewards heading to the second or third mover instead of the first (the Pebble - the cheap, crowdfunded smartwatch released in 2012 was the investor's second attempt at the idea, and it has itself been supplanted by the Apple Smart Watch and other developments). Highly readable and filled with useful examples.