Review: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Ridley's first and most consistent argument is that specialization (the ability of one person or organization to do one thing while another does another thing) and exchange (the ability to trade the products of those two things) set humans apart from other animals and enable growth / prosperity because the whole us greater than the sum of the parts. He provides a great deal of evidence for this position and his argument is quite compelling.

His second argument is that time and again humans have found ways to overcome dire threats to their well-being, hence the cause for the optimism in the title. He also argues that government regulation by and large interferes with economic growth (through specialization and exchange) and inhibits human innovation (which we need to overcome all of those dire threats).
These arguments are cogent and, if the book had stopped here, I would have given it a higher rating.


Ridley goes a step further, though, and effectively argues that, because humans have a long tradition of overcoming threats, we shouldn't concern ourselves with said threats. I take umbrage with this kind of fatalism and counter-argue that concerning ourselves with said threats is exactly HOW we keep overcoming them - but them I'm an entrepreneur while he is a [minor] British noble heir so he and I may have very different ideas about self efficacy and agency.

The author also contradicts himself frequently when convenient for his arguments. For example, in one section, he demonstrates how foolhardy it would have been to extrapolate trends from pre-industrial-revolution economies into the 20th century. The industrial revolution changed the rules of the game dramatically such that some things that had previously been linear became exponential.

Yet, when arguing against the seriousness of some current threats - like climate change - he extrapolates trends from long ago to support his point. Not only is this fallacious and hypocritical, it seems willfully ignorant in his particular case: Ridley was Chairman of the first English bank to go insolvent in 150 years at the outset of the 2007 financial crisis. If anyone should understand the folly of making decisions on anachronistic data, it should be he!

As another example, he cites multiple reasons (high cost, inconsistency of production, etc.) why green energy technologies are inferior to fossil fuels (Ridley has been accused of a conflict of interest in Parliament due to his investments in the coal industry.). However, he spends chapters describing how humans invariably overcome exactly those types of challenges. Indeed it is instructive to read this 2010 book through the hindsight of 2017 as we have seen innovations drive down the costs of green energy technologies substantially. He should listen to his own advice and be optimistic!

Ridley's worst offense in this book is a liberal use of the straw man fallacy. He portrays all environmentalists, for example, as being anti-growth and anti-technology. He also frequently uses impractical biofuels as a green energy punching bag as if they are the only alternative to fossil fuels. His data are quite selective and he introduces false dichotomies, e.g. between combating climate change and combating malaria.

This book started out well and then really fell apart for me. It's almost as if Ridley had a good concept for the first few chapters but then was compelled by his publisher to stretch it into a longer book. In doing so, he introduced many logical fallacies and made proclamations that haven't held up even just a few years after publication. That said, it was an interesting read - especially the beginning - but the content might be better suited for a TED talk than a 450-page book.

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More on the Beatles

As a follow up to yesterday's post about the Final [Fab] Four and in celebration of the UNC Tarheels basketball championship last night, here are some more thoughts on the Beatles that came from discussions in the group.

First thought: even if you go back pre-Beatlemania to their time as a cover band, their potential for greatness is already evident. Live at the BBC and several other compilation albums feature their early material - mostly covers with very little rearrangement of the source material but it's really good. Even before they developed their signature sound (and then treated us to the evolution of said sound over seven years), they were just damn fine musicians. They made simple 50s/60s rock and roll staples sound so good!

It ought to be criminal that four lads from Liverpool could do such excellent renditions of American rock and roll spanning a significant range - from Motown to Memphis Soul, from high/smooth Smokey to abrasive Little Richard, from guitar-driven Chuck Berry to vocal harmony-driven Everly Brothers. Their covers are fathful-ish to the source material but with little flourishes that put their own decided stamp on it. There's just a certain je ne sais quoi they add that takes - with rare exception - each song to 11.

To be that awesome as a cover band across so many styles and then on top of that to be such prolific and innovative songwriters - how can that even be possible? I guess that the two are sort of part and parcel to each other, but still, it just seems like an unbelievable confluence of awesomeness. If they had been athletes, they would have been accused of performance-enhancing drugs - oh, wait, maybe that's a more apt comparison than I intended. ;-)

Another thought: who else has matched the Beatles' productivity in any other endeavor? The Beatles set themselves apart in several ways:

  • quantity of good songs (128 alone in the tournament and there were many missing songs that were cited as snubs.)
  • over a short period of time (> 1 album per year + lost of singles)
  • ratio of good songs to bad (depending on your taste, at least a 1:1 ratio and, for many, much higher)
  • innovation within their art (So much stylistic evolution during their short career - not to mention the birth of / inspiration for many sub-genres of rock!)
  • ...

Trying to draw comparisons yields many results that hit some of those achievements but not all. Has anyone else in contemporary popular music matched or exceeded them? The Rolling Stones, for example, have probably hit a similar number of good songs - but over a much greater period of time.

You could make an argument that Jimi Hendrix was heading along a similar trajectory with three amazeballs studio albums between '67 and '68. Unfortunately he was effectively a one-man show without the other band members to challenge and collaborate with him so his ceiling may have ultimately been lower and/or he simply may not have been able to keep up the pace. I like to think that he would have continued to innovate, possibly by teaming up with others in the early 70s. Either way, we'll never know.

What about in other eras of music? Mozart?

What about other arts? Picasso? Several of the Renaissance masters might fit the bill - especially da Vinci given his impact on the arts and the sciences. Like the Beatles, some of them had a group dynamic force multiplier effect. They weren't in a group together per se, but they worked in close proximity to one another, saw the works of their peers, and adapted/competed with their subsequent oevres.

What about literature? Isaac Asimov has probably been as prolific and influential in his craft - but over the span of 40 years rather than 7. Perhaps, given the size/scale/timeline of writing a novel vs a song, that's an appropriate time scale for comparison, though?

One member responded:
"It can also be argued that the vast majority of his influence on Science Fiction, in particular, in the first 10 years of his output - maybe '42-'52 - were the most prolific and groundbreaking. And I think, really, a novel is pretty directly comparable to an album, whereas a short story is like a song. In that case, Asimov BEATS the Beatles in terms - not only in output and inventiveness - but in Longevity of concentrated output. And he'd probably still have been going through the 2000's if he hadn't gotten an AIDS-infected blood transfusion."

What about other areas of work? Are there prolific academics, for example, who have matched this level of productivity relative to the norms for their fields? Multiple members offered up Russel Reiter, who has authored or co-authored 1364 peer-reviewed scientific publications over the past 45 years or so - more publications than most have even read.

The Apollo space program was held up as an example in discussion. Clearly there were thousands of people working on it, not just four, but what they accomplished, not only in the end goal but also in all the intermediate innovations that were necessary to achieve that goal, is something we hadn't seen before and haven't seen since. Interesting that it took place during the same exact time period as the Beatles!

We also discussed examples from the world of sports. Athletes are a tough comparison to make since they're limited by seasonality but I think there are definitely analogies to be made. Michael Jordan? Wayne Gretzky? Federer/Nadal? One member offered up Esther Vergeer, who was #1 in her sport (wheelchair tennis) for 14 years and retired on a 470-match winning streak!

Some of these analogies may be more apt than others but one thing is clear: the Beatles were very special. I don't know if we'll see their likeness again in my lifetime or if the time and place that brought them together was unique. Either way, we're all the better for them having been together, however briefly.


The Final [Fab] Four

While Chapel Hill is going crazy with Final Four fever, I have been focusing my March Madness attention on a different Final Four - the Final Fab Four. A friend of mine from university
drew up a bracket of 128 Beatles songs and we spent the month of March in a Facebook group devoted to the discussion of which songs were the best.

More than 100 people participated, ranging from those who were alive during Beatlemania to those, like me, who were born long after the Beatles had broken up. Everyone brought a different perspective and often there were fiercely passionate discussions of particular songs or matchups.

Songs were seeded according to the organizer's personal preferences and paired in an opening round of 64 one-on-one matchups. Over two days we voted for our preferred song in each matchup with winners advancing to the next round (32 matchups). Winners of the second round voting advanced to the next round and so on until, in the end, there could be only one.

Some of the matchups were easy. While My Guitar Gently Weeps against Got To Get You Into My Life, for example, had an obvious (to me) victor. On the other hand, though, many matchups were agonizingly difficult, pitting two beloved songs of very different styles against each other. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band against Across the Universe, for example - how do you even compare the two? It's like choosing which of your children you love the most - impossible!

The only way I could choose a winner in such matchups was to go with my heart. Many others opted to rationalize their decisions with lengthy arguments about the importance, critical reception, innovation, and influence of different songs. While I found such efforts to be misguided, the resulting discussions were packed with information - both historical and musical - much of which was new to me. Rather than this bracket simply being a fun diversion, it turned into a learning experience as well.

After each round the organizer would post a recap in the style of a sports analyst. Clever as he is, he would sprinkle Beatles puns throughout. This wordplay was welcome salve for my wounds whenever my songs would lose and fail to advance to the next round.

The link above to the bracket includes the results of voting in each round. What would have won the Final Fab Four tournament in your bracket? What do you think won in my bracket?


Uncomfortable Podcast

Stop what you're doing and subscribe to this podcast right now. My intelligent, worldly high school classmate at ABC News has launched a series of uncomfortable conversations. There has only been one episode so far but it is riveting.

In the first episode she hosts an intelligent, articulate (the most dangerous kind) white supremacist who weaves a tangled skein of rhetoric, fallacy, and hypocrisy but legitimately drinks his own koolaid / believes what he is saying. You need to listen to this because this is exactly the type of rhetoric that is swaying economically disadvantaged whites who are looking for scapegoats and giving rise to white nationalism.

I have mixed feelings on what she is doing here. On the one hand I think it's reprehensible to give someone like this a platform / megaphone and, in some ways, legitimacy. On the other hand (which is the hand that wins out for me), these are the arguments going on behind closed doors (and increasingly out in the open) and we really need to know about them / understand them.

This is not an idiot or a bass ackward hick. This is someone who is educated and has come to [flawed] conclusions that he is able to defend and use to influence weak minded and/or confirmation-seeking people. People will regurgitate his sound bites because he sounds smart and well reasoned and we need to have a response for that besides incredulity.

Give it a listen on Google Play or iTunes and let me know your thoughts/reactions.


Full of Birthday Love

What a wonderful birthday celebration it has been! Although I prefer to celebrate all month, things crescendo'ed last week. On birthday eve, a couple of guys came over to try out some new beers. Instead of beating our chests and male bonding, though, we found ourselves talking politics, economics, science, and entrepreneurship until we realized how late it had become - very stimulating!

The day of my birthday itself I started by playing Dad's old pinball machines. There must have been some birthday magic at work because I set a new high score on The Black Knight - 30 years later he still puts up a good fight!

It was actually a pretty intense day at work but I managed to duck out for a good workout  (Birthday tradition!) and the evening weather was great for some beach volleyball - very refreshing after our recent cold snap. When I came home, Katie surprised me with some decadent chocolate cake - I guess that's a tradition too!

Most importantly, I had offered up a birthday challenge to match dollar for dollar any donations to GIVEWATTS on my birthday. Several friends and family rose to the challenge and together we managed to contribute several hundred dollars to the cause - THANK YOU to those who participated! It is always nice to receive gifts and wishes on my birthday but it is even nicer to pay forward my blessings to others!

The real treat for me was over the weekend, when I hosted a dear, dear friend from IMD. Katie and I did our best to introduce him to regional cuisine during his short stay: BBQ (City BBQ), biscuits and donuts (Rise), fried chicken (Time Out), ice cream (Fresh Local), and fried green tomatoes and grits (Mama Dip's). We also visited the NC Museum of Art for a "hike" around the spacious sculpture park and interior exhibits on Ansel Adams and the Venetian Renaissance.

The pièce de résistance was enjoying the nice weather by smoking cigars and sipping bourbon out on our back deck. He and I shared cigars very early in the IMD year and neither of us smokes them terribly often so it was special to re-create that event in a very different context - different location, different cigars, and [very] different US!

It was a wonderful visit and my heart is quite full (Not to mention my stomach!) so I am deeply appreciative of him, Katie, and everyone else who has made my birthday so special. Of course there are still a few days left in March so there is more time to celebrate!


Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this hoping for something that would fill in the gaps and plot holes of the movie (as the novelization of The Force Awakens did) but I was unfortunately disappointed. This book doesn't fill in any gaps or explain away any cinematic plat holes; it is essentially a direct, 1:1 translation of the movie plot.

The novel DOES spend more time attempting to explain the motivations of different characters by voicing their inner monologues but, combined with poor dialogue (also taken directly from the script), is no more effective to that end than the movie.

I'm forced to conclude that the story and characters of Rogue One are simply bad, regardless of the medium. In fact, if anything, the novelization makes the flaws of the movie all the more glaring as it is harder to hide unrelatable characters, unearned transformations, poor dialogue, manufactured conflict, and plot overconvenience without the distraction of beautiful cinematic visuals.

Ironically the only aspect of the movie that the novelization improves is the movie's best feature: the action. Some of the movie's best action can be confusing due to many different parties fighting simultaneously while the novel can explain exactly what (and why) each character is up to.

Finally, the writing leaves a lot to be desired. The author uses a voice that doesn't match at all with the tone of the story. He employs flowery language that, instead of giving the story gravitas, sounds like a middle schooler trying to impress his classmates with his vocabulary.

I can't really recommend this book to anyone but the most die hard Star Wars fan - and even then, only if your OCD needs to read it for "completion."

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Travel Recommendations for Toscana

A friend recently let me know that she would be traveling to Tuscany and was seeking recommendations both for tourist travel and wine travel. Having lived in Florence and spent much more time since then traveling around bella Toscana, I compiled the following recommendations for her:


  • Stay away from Florence during the summer! It's overrun by tourists and you will hear more English spoken than Italian. It can also get decently hot/humid so near the Arno and many buildings aren't equipped to handle that. Autumn is my favorite time to visit Toscana; there are harvest festivals for wine grapes and olives and the lush green hills begin turning into patchworks of autumnal colors.
  • Pro tip: if you reserve a rental car for pickup in Florence, make sure that you specify Florence, ITALY, not Florence, Alabama. Not that that happened to me once . . .
  • Florence is very walkable so use the opportunity to walk off all the amazing food you will have there!
  • Visit the Duomo and, unless you are prohibitively claustrophobic or acrophobic, climb to the top for breathtaking views of the city. 
  • Allocate an entire day for the Uffizi. Pro tip: reserve tickets for the opening time then head immediately to the top floor (which will be much less crowded) and work your way down.
  • Spend time among the statues in the Piazza della Signoria; my favorite statue, Ercole e Caco, is there. 
  • Visit the Accademia and prepare to be stunned when you turn the corner to see David for the first time.
  • Make a pilgrimage to Vivoli for Florence's most famous gelato - but also eat gelato everywhere else too. :-)
  • Generally avoid eating in restaurants near the main tourist spots. Wander a few blocks off the main path and find some unassuming trattoria. Order a carafe of the house wine and enjoy damn fine food at a fraction of the cost of tourist traps. If you're a carnivore, go for the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which you order by the kilogram. Generally avoid any place that has laminated English menus with pictures of each dish.
  • Spend time oltr'Arno (south of the river) as well to get away from tourists. While you're here, visit the Palazzo Pitti and the Giardino di Boboli.
  • There are a million more things to do in Florence but these are my recommendations for a short stay.

San Gimignano

  • San Gimignano is a nice day trip from pretty much anywhere in Tuscany. Climb the tours. Look out over the Tuscan countryside. Swoon. 
  • Visit the Collegiata for some real fire and brimstone, wrath of God, dogs and cats living together frescos.
  • The award-winning Gelateria Dondoli alone is worth the trip!
  • Siena is another day trip-able city that is very walkable.
  • The main religious attraction is the Duomo but make time also to visit San Domenico, where you can visit the most grotesque relic I've ever seen: the head of Santa Caterina!
  • Spend time in the Piazza del Campo and, if you ignored my previous advice and traveled during the summer, see if you can witness Il Palio, the famous in-town horse race. 
  • My strongest restaurant recommendation is Antica Osteria da Divo, where you should make sure to order the risotto that is served up from the inside of parmigiano cheese wheels!
Tuscan Countryside
  • I strongly suggest getting off the beaten path a bit to enjoy the beautiful, blood-pressure-reducing life of Toscana outside of the cities.
  • My greatest recommendation for this is Castello di Montalto, an entire hamlet about 20 minutes south of Siena.
  • I can also recommend Hotel Borgo Casabianca as a countryside home base for Tuscan exploration
  • Montefollonico is also a nice hilltop town for getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Others have recommended visiting Lucca and Pisa too but I haven't spent enough time in either to include them in this post.
Wine Touring
  • Now for the most important part: the vino! Let's start with my favorite: Brunello di Montalcino!
    • I love the little town of Montalcino itself but most can probably skip it.
    • Visiting Italian wineries is much more laid back than visiting in Napa or Bordeaux. There usually is no fee but call/email ahead to secure a time slot and to ensure that there is someone there who speaks English (if you don't speak Italian).
    • Valdicava is my favorite Brunello di Montalcino stop. It's a small, unassuming vineyard that has a very non-interventionist approach to its grape growing. They aren't really set up for tours and often don't have English-speakers on hand but, if you can get an appointment, barrel-tasting there is not to be missed.
    • Castello Banfi is the polar opposite: a huge estate owned by Americans with a massive tasting room that is very much meant to host English-speaking tourists. If this is more your style, you can drop in without an appointment.
    • Casanova di Neri has a nice, low-key tour.
    • Fattoria Barbi has a nice, low-key tour.
    • Livio Sassetti Pertimali has a nice, low-key tour (but may not have an English-speaker on hand).
    • I can't recommend Boccon Di Vino highly enough as a place for lunch when touring around Montalcino - fine dining, a great wine selection, and fantastic views!
    • Do NOT under any circumstances go to Castelgiocondo! My one time there not only did they screw up my appointment but they also lied to my face, claiming that all of their grapes were hand picked despite our having driven by their mechanized harvesters in their vineyards on our way in. Bad people!
  • Also very near and dear to my heart: Chianti Classico
    • Villa Calcinaia is my favorite destination by far. I confess bias as one of the members of the family that owns it was my professor when I was living in Florence. It's really fantastic, though; nice tastings, 300-year-old balsamic vinegar, beautiful views - Calcinaia has it all!
    • Castello di Brolio is another large estate that is well equipped for tourism if that's your speed. Even if it isn't your speed, it's a worthwhile pilgrimage to the birthplace of Chianti.
    • Dievole is a nice estate with a very charismatic proprietor and good wines.
    • The town of Greve in Chianti is best visited during the fall harvest festival. Buy a glass and walk from booth to booth sampling all the local wines.
  • Montepulciano is also a worthwhile stop, not just for its own charm but for the highly underrated Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. If you're there over the summer, see if you can time your visit with the Bravio delle Botti!
  • One final note on wine touring in Toscana: GPS is easily confused by the windy, hilly roads, so allow plenty of time to get lost and consider using more traditional means of navigation.
I hope this is helpful for those planning to visit Tuscany! Let me know how if I've missed something obvious and/or how my recommendations work out for you! Buon viaggio!