Voyageur Technologique

Mini Book Reviews 2022-2024

Extracting the short (mostly 3 paragraphs or less) book reviews I’ve written from a private group chat onto my blog, because I’d rather avoid Goodreads and Amazon.

Mission Economy by Mariana Mazzucato

Mazzucato is my favourite economist. Her first book “The Entrepreneurial State” totally changed my mind about the role of government in innovation. Her second book “The Value of Everything” gave a whirlwind tour of economics while articulating why I reflexively cringe whenever people discuss the “productivity” of the financial sector. I was hoping her newest book “Mission Economy” would radicalize me into taking action. Instead, it reads like some sort of vague policy guide or maybe a pamphlet encouraging politicians to hire Mazzucato.

The book’s central thesis is an economy works best when the government actively guides it. For example, the NASA Apollo moon landing mission and DARPA were both mission-guided investment distributors which created tons of innovation. Private sources of funding are literally incapable of coordination at this scale. The government should set new missions (around the UN development goals I guess?) by inspiring the population (HOW?!? Adam Curtis would like a word with you…) and use the DARPA-style of investment/funding/licensing again.

I vibe with all of the above. So it’s not like I disagree with Mazuccato, I just don’t feel inspired. The examples she gives of governments currently pursuing missions are underwhelming: - COVID handed us several golden opportunities for government missions, such as improving indoor air quality and monitoring wastewater for outbreaks. But as documented by Zeynep Tufecki, they were almost all squandered. - The EU is apparently pursuing a Green New Deal? Germany has their Energiewende, but they somehow decided to close the nuclear plants before the coal plants, so that’s not looking good.

My scepticism of Germany’s Energiewende is only due to instinct: the book doesn’t provide tools to differentiate a good “mission” from a bad one. Even if a “mission” is good, there’s no method to diagnose poor execution, other than ham-fistedly comparing it the Apollo missions.

In conclusion, I’ll keep following Mazzucato, but I’m not sure I can recommend this book. I hope there’s more specific policy advice in her other publications.

Vacationland by John Hodgeman

I can only tolerate the unforgiving difficulty of Fromsoftware games if I’m listening to an audiobook while playing. So, I picked up Vacationland by John Hodgeman, since Cory Doctorow enjoyed it and found it to be a chill listen without any challenging themes.

A few bits that stuck out with me. First, I resonated with the realization of ageing causing an ability to fantasize about who you might become. As you get older, you realize you’ve already “become” and course correction becomes harder. My favourite quote that crystallizes this sentiment is from “How to get filthy rich in rising asia”:

Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who are gone are gone and who will go, which is to say everyone one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible.

This led to John Hodgeman exposing a “typical mind” fallacy I held. In the book, he mentions his mother dying made him realize he couldn’t trust time to let things work out for themselves. I was baffled that a discrete event prompted these existential thoughts. I thought everyone contemplated the ever-approaching spectre of death, and consequently whether they’re wasting their life, at least multiple times per day.

Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I don’t read much feminist literature, even though I find the ideas it engages with compelling. For example, I’ve been meaning to read “The Right to Sex” by Amia Srinivasan because I found one of her essays intriguing, but then I remember how hard that essay was to read and I delay buying it.

Luckily, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is way easier to read. Like “Fish Don’t Exist” its part memoir, part analysis. Except in this case, the analysis focuses on feminist theory (gender, love, family, parenthood, death) instead of David Star Jordan’s work. It is incredibly poetic. I plan on buying a copy of this book so I can annotate it and fill its margins.

How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

General take-aways were: - Cognitive Biases are real and knowing about them does not inoculate you for falling for them when planning/scoping/budgeting a project. - Planning is important. Especially when you can iterate over the plan via simulation faster than you can iterate once you start executing your plan. - Modularity lets your learn with each step of the project. But you need a lot of experience to find good points to leverage modularity. - Experienced planners/workers are worth their higher cost

Although the above points were the most important, the book was kind of all over the place in terms of advice. A whole chapter was dedicated to the importance building a good experienced team with aligned incentives and high moral that focused on an airport terminal construction team.

Most of the take-aways match my current model of the world. For example: - Modularity does seem key for scaling nuclear power according to Brian Potter’s analysis where he claims you can only get predictable nuclear reactor cost if you’re the navy and building a bunch of modular reactors for subs. - Transit projects work better with experienced staff, including internal permanent positions.

Some claims/omissions were suspicious: - The book claimed roads/highways almost never go over budget because they’re modular. So I guess the I-69 is an outlier? - Government software projects fail at a really high rate, despite being modular and iterable. But I guess those projects fail in terms of other basic requirements, like using experienced planners/workers and avoiding scope creep? Or maybe they’re not as iterable as I think they are, because of those book-length requirement documents are so inflexible? Apparently, I need to read Recoding America by Jennifer Pahlka. - The book notes at the beginning that politicisation causes project planners to ignore the book’s best practices. Sure, but how does anyone ever avoid this?

Are You Wiling to Die for the Cause? by Chris Oliveros

Reading “Are You Willing to Die for the Cause?” by Chris Oliveros really drives home how bonkers the 1960s to 1980s were in terms of domestic activism and terrorism. The book covers the early years of violent/militant Quebec separatist movement, the FLQ. They rob banks and gun stores. They steal dynamite from subway construction sites and bomb various places. They accidentally kill 6 people in the process and severely injure several others. Most informative for me was the discussion of the ideological background of the members. I didn’t know the FLQ had roots in communist revolution, I just assumed they felt oppressed by the English minority.

I can’t get over how in the late 1960s, you could:

  1. Found a terrorist group
  2. Get a bunch of people join up
  3. Execute a few of violent missions
  4. Get caught by the police
  5. Get released from prison after a few years
  6. Continue being politically active

I don’t think there’s a modern equivalent to this in North America?

I’m looking forward to the next volume which will cover The October Crisis.

Escaping the Housing Trap by Charles L Marohn Jr and Daniel Herriges

I subscribe to The Housing Theory of Everything and spend a lot of my time volunteering for More Neighbours Toronto by: - Reading housing policy - Attending public consultations - Creating short video content for YouTube and TikTok - Talking to politicians

My journey into housing advocacy and urbanism went from a basic “cars are bad for the environment and housing is too expensive” to a more sophisticated understanding thanks in part to Strong Towns and its video series with Not Just Bikes. So I was taken aback when the Strong Towns founder and president posted a podcast “The Strong Towns Tension with YIMBYISM” which claimed organization like More Neighbours Toronto were naive. This trolled me into reading his new book “Escaping the Housing Trap: The Strong Towns Response to the Housing Crisis”.

If you want a basic introduction to the housing crisis, this book is a good place to start. Its first chapters cover how mortgages and mortgage-backed securities came to be such a foundational part of the Canadian and American economy. It also introduces why zoning is incredibly bad and desperately needs reform. It doesn’t cover car-dependency and traffic engineering, which is understandable, since that was covered in the author’s previous book “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer”.

The book’s proposed solutions to the problems are: - Zoning reform - Replacing municipal sales tax and property taxes with a Land Value Tax - Governments creating short-term loans to fund small projects like building backyard cottages - Eliminating parking minimums

These interventions allow for decentralized housing growth, where instead of getting big scary developers involved, you use local resources to incrementally build more housing in your neighbourhood. The book provides a few bottom-up development success stories as examples: - South Bend, Indiana - Oswego Renaissance Association

Yet I still feel uneasy recommending this book, lest someone miss the one paragraph that admits that large cities like Toronto can’t depend on bottom-up housing development. They need a corporation or the government to build the large towers the book begrudgingly admits are necessary in some cases. In the end, I’d feel more comfortable recommending a series of YouTube videos from the likes of About Here, Oh the Urbanity! and Paige Saunders instead of this book. Even if recommending YouTube videos instead of a book feels absurd!

The Noumena Trilogy by Lindsey Ellis

The easiest way to recommend Lindsey Ellis’ Noumena trilogy is to contrast it with another successful YouTuber’s First Contact book series: Hank Green’s.

Both series use first contact with an alien race as a lens to examine contemporary social phenomena. Hank Green focuses on internet social dynamics and societal responses to technological progress. Lindsey is concerned the difficulty of understanding other minds (especially when establishing boundaries/consent) and how narratives/framing of facts can lead to wildly different political outcomes.

Tone-wise, whereas Hank is playful and optimistic, Lindsey Ellis is more concerned with the dark side of relationships to the point the atmosphere feels pessimistic/fatalist.

Despite this darker tone, my mother, sister and I all found the series easy to read and engage with. Its insightful enough that it sparked a discussion around consent between my friend Micheal and I. Most impressively its the first fiction novel I was able to finish in months.

Goodnight Punpun by Inio Asano

Weebs frequently claim Goodnight Punpun by Inio Asano to be the most devastating manga ever written. Given they’ve also heaped superlatives on the good, ( but not amazing) Frieren: Journey’s End, I was skeptical. But after reading a bunch of Inio Asano’s works, I have to admit there’s something special going on here with no analogue in other graphic novels. His characters pursue existential questions with an endearing earnest urgency. His realistic art, despite depicting mundane settings, supports the aforementioned themes while keeping me engaged in a way that other dramatic manga, like Sensei’s Pious Lie by Inio Asano’s ex-wife Akane Torikai or Our Colours by Gengoroh Tagame, fall short. And although I didn’t experience “devastation”, the various dramatic turns did feel deeply affecting.

But I wouldn’t recommend starting with Goodnight Punpun. Goodnight Punpun is long (7 volumes!), slow paced and is burdened by confusing surreal cartoonish segments. I also wouldn’t start with his more recent work Downfall, whose manga artist protagonist borders on self-indulgent navel-gazing. Instead, start with Solanin and its epilogue.