Guns, Germs and Steel: notes from the 1997 classic

The distribution of productive grains and domestic-friendly animals was highly concentrated. This explains a vast amount of the inequality we face today.

That argument was made famous in the classic 1997 book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” written by Jared Diamond. The book’s case is so influential that I’ve seen it routinely referenced across dozens of books and articles I’ve read. I wanted to return to the source so I finally read the original book. It was even wider in scope than I realized.

Diamond posits that the root of cultural differences can be traced back to geographical and environmental factors, including the availability of domesticable plants and animals, the presence of diseases, and the ability to develop and spread technology.

One key point made by Diamond is that the availability of domesticable plants and animals played a significant role in the development of societies. For example, the Fertile Crescent, which includes the Middle East, had a wealth of domesticable grains and animals, such as goats, sheep, cows, and pigs, which allowed for the development of farming and the creation of larger, denser populations. In contrast, regions like Mesoamerica had fewer domesticable species and struggled to develop farming at the same rate.

Diamond also discusses the impact of disease on human societies, particularly the way that farming and larger, denser populations facilitated the spread of germs. In many cases, European colonizers brought diseases with them to the Americas and other regions, leading to devastating epidemics among indigenous populations. However, in a few exceptional cases, Diamond also notes that indigenous diseases decimated European colonizers and their livestock, as was the case in the tropics.

Finally, Diamond examines the role of technology in the development of societies, noting that the presence of metalworking and writing, for example, can be linked to the success of certain societies. Overall, Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” offers a thought-provoking examination of the complex factors that have shaped human history.

Portions of his wide-sweeping argument have been challenged. Nothing so simple is ever perfect. But it’s still provocative and important.

Find my notes from the classic below.

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How will the world end?

Given our odds, it’s a lot more likely the human species will go extinct long before Earth itself is destroyed. Funny that we don’t given that chilling nuance more thought.

The 2019 book “End Times” by journalist Bryan Walsh discusses various potential catastrophes that could threaten humanity’s survival. One of the main points made in the book is that humans have a tendency to underestimate the likelihood and consequences of catastrophic events, and that we should be more proactive in addressing potential threats to our survival. Fitting that the book was published before the covid-19 pandemic was identified.

The book covers a range of topics, including the risk of a nuclear war or environmental disaster, the possibility of an asteroid impact, the threat of pandemics and epidemics, and the long-term consequences of climate change. It also explores the psychological and economic factors that influence our ability to address these issues, such as the “arithmetic of compassion” and the social discount rate.

I found the book a mix of big-picture thinking and practical evaluation, a thought-provoking reminder of the fragility of human civilization and the importance of being prepared for potential disasters.

I shared below my notes from reading the book.

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Exploring the relevance of philosophy with “Plato at the Googleplex”

Why doesn’t philosophy progress?

Plato is still just influential as ever, but Democritus is not shaping modern physics nor is Aristotle a serious voice in modern biology.

In 2014, Rebecca Goldstein’s book “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” aimed to answer the question. The book takes a novel approach to exploring the relevance and value of philosophy in modern times by imagining Socrates visiting the Googleplex and engaging in philosophical discussions in various modern settings.

Personally, I found the premise of the book to be a bit gimmicky — modeled on Dialogues, each other chapter featured imagined discussions but it all too wooden. While it may be an interesting thought experiment to consider what Socrates would make of the world today, I think the book could have achieved the same goals without the need for such a contrived setup.

Despite my reservations about the book’s premise, I did find some value in the discussions that took place. Goldstein makes a strong case for the continued importance of philosophy in the modern world, arguing that it can help us to think more critically and deeply about the complex issues that we face as a society.

Goldstein, who is married to Steven Pinker, whose books I’ve read, certainly contributed to modernizing the themes. Give it a try. My notes are below.

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Shop Class as Soulcraft

In “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” Matthew B. Crawford explores the value and importance of manual labor and the trades in modern society. It is routinely compared to the 1974 hit “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Published in 2010 as a surprise breakout in the wake of the Great Recession, the book argues that the emphasis on a college education as the path to success has led to the closure of shop classes and a loss of appreciation for the skills and knowledge of craftsmen.

Crawford discusses the history of vocational education and the divide between “thinking” and “doing” work. He also examines the ways in which corporate culture and technology have changed the nature of work and the importance of agency and individuality in the workplace. Through his exploration of these themes, Crawford makes a case for the value of hands-on, practical work and the fulfillment it can bring.

The book deeply informed a vocational high school I am active in supporting. As a one-time plumber’s apprentice, I certainly appreciate the perspective. Check my notes below.

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Rules for Radicals: lessons from Saul Alinsky’s influential 1971 treatise

The ends justify the means.

The Machiavellian concept became associated with communist revolutionaries and then was revived again among 1960s-era countercultural activists. In recent decades, movements across the political spectrum have taken it up. Many return to a classic of the form.

Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” is a guidebook for social and political organizers, written in 1971 in response to the rise of McCarthyism and its suppression of radical thought. Alinsky begins by acknowledging that the world is not always how we would like it to be, and that as organizers, it is our job to start from where things are and work towards change. He emphasizes the importance of building bridges and creating alliances, as well as the need for self-reflection and an understanding that we may not always be right. Alinsky advises organizers to be aware of the power dynamics at play and to use any means necessary to achieve their goals, as long as they are ethical and have a moral foundation. He also stresses the importance of communication and being able to connect with and mobilize the “have-nots” in order to bring about real change. Alinsky’s book is often referred to as a “The Prince” for the disadvantaged, offering strategies and tactics for those working towards social and political revolution.

Many view the book as controversial, as Alinsky, an avowed progressive and nationally-recognized labor community organizer, outlines tactics that any movement could take hold. I found it informative and foundational. My notes are below.

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Measure What Matters: a book on setting goals and hitting them

Set an objective and guide your progress with key results.

It’s the main guidance of a long-popular management framework that was effectively outlined in the 2018 book Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs written by legendary venture capitalist John Doerr, who has long championed the process. My company began testing the framework in late 2020, as the pandemic necessitated new organizing principles, and I read the book last year.

In short, OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results, is a goal-setting method that involves setting clear and measurable objectives and tracking progress towards them using quantifiable metrics. The goal of OKRs is to focus an organization’s efforts and ensure that everyone is working towards the same objectives.

They are designed to be challenging, but achievable, and should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure they are still relevant. OKRs were developed by Intel in the 1970s and have been used by companies like Google and Bono to drive success. The effectiveness of OKRs comes from their clear framework for setting and achieving goals, their encouragement of collaboration and communication within an organization, and the regular review and update process that ensures they remain relevant.

To implement OKRs successfully, it’s important to tie them to strategy, provide feedback and recognition, and be transparent about them. It’s also important for OKRs to be seen as important at every employee level and for them to represent the majority of an organization’s work. Managers should be aware of what excites their direct reports, what they want to change, what skills they want to add for career growth, and what is blocking progress on OKRs. It’s also important to have a mix of committed and stretch goals and to use all team meetings to address OKRs.

Below I have my notes from the book.

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Three types of “Journalism Thinking” coming from outside news organizations

This was originally published as a tweet thread.

I’ve spent 15 years obsessed with the bleeding edge of journalism, marketing and online community building, and I finally have a grand unifying theory for what is happening — and where this is going.

If you’re interested in how we learn and connect together, hear me out ?

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Happiness Hypothesis

Understand your disposition as both an elephant and a rider.

Our default state of happiness is largely in our genes – upwards of 50% of our general disposition. We make snap decisions about the world (the elephant) and only afterward rationalize those instincts (the rider). We can learn and train ourselves to reduce and adapt to these patterns, but only to lessen their impact.

That’s one of the big themes around happiness that appears in Happiness Hypothesis, the 2006 positive psychology book from Jonathan Haidt. Though 15 years old, it’s part of a library of positive psychology books that I’ve been making my way through. It still offers a good foundation, and so I recommend it. (I also recommend the Happiness Equation, and this essay)

“Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire or achieve directly,” Haidt writes, pulling from extensive research. “You have to get the conditions right and then wait“

Those right conditions for happiness are love, the right goals for flow and engagement. Happiness doesn’t only come from within, then, and certainly not only from without but from between. He even shares his Happiness formula: H Happiness = S (Set Point, genes or temperature range) + C (conditions of life that can’t change as easily) + V (voluntary activities we do)

Below find my extensive notes for my research purposes in the future.

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The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us

In the hundreds of millions of years of the history of mammals, humans play a very short part. So a book about mammals ought not dwell on us too much.

That’s the case with The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us by paleontologist Stephen L. Brusatte, who rose to prominence with a similarly titled booked on dinosaurs. The book is fun but serious, with a very long and detailed accounting of what brought us to today. Get the book. (Image courtesy of this piece on mammal development after the asteroid-fuelled death of the dinosaurs)

Below find my notes for future review.

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