The Rise of English

English is one in a long line of global lingua francas. If it’s the last, we’ll lose an important bit of culture, and reinforce elements of inequality.

That’s what Rosemary Salomone argues in her 2021 book The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language.

In 2010, British Nicholas Ostler author argued that English will be the last lingua franca, due to the values-lock of technology today. Salomone’s book is an exhaustive review of how English came to its vaulted position today – beating French, replacing Latin and joining others like Arabic, Italian and Greek that played versions of the global language of commerce of the past.

I enjoyed the book, though dense, and recommend it for language and history nerds. Below find my notes for future reference.

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Creativity is ‘Messy,’ notes on Tim Harford’s 2016 book

In June 2009, the veteran lead pilot of Air France 447 was awoken from his scheduled nap to find his junior crew in trouble. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he had three minutes to determine which of the conflicting alerts from the plane’s automated system to respond to, and what were false alarms.

He failed. Nearly 250 crew and passengers died in the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s from the easily most gripping chapter in economics journalist Tim Harford’s 2016 book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. That tragic story is a cautionary tale for our age, demonstrating the paradox of automation: “The better the automatic systems, the more out of practice human operators will be, and the more unusual will be the situations they face.”

How quickly could you look up from your smartphone if your autonomous vehicle alerted you that it had disengaged? Software, like many managers and orderly obsessives, wants a tidy world but the world is actually quite messy. That’s Harford’s message: Embrace the mess.

Below are my notes from the book for my future reference.

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The Undercover Economist: notes from Tim Harford’s 2005 debut

“Economics is about who gets what and why.”

It’s a fundamental part of how the world works, so everyone should better understand how an economy works. So argues business journalist Tim Harford in his 2005 debut book The Undercover Economist, informed by his syndicated columns. Published the same year as the breakout success Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist helped establish a category of pop economics nonfiction books to help explain the world. They’re heavily influenced by behavioral economics and mix in lots of real world examples. Harford was part of a wave of writers that brought in greater familiarity with otherwise arcane economics concepts, a trend that has only continued the last 15 years.

That’s fitting a trend to less academic and more practical uses of the field of economics. Keynes wanted economists to be not great theorists but “rather like dentists” to solve everyday problems. Harford has been part of the movement to make it so.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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The Authoritarian Moment: notes from Ben Shapiro’s 2021 book

Ben Shapiro is combative and media savvy enough that he has quickly become one of the country’s best known stewards of conservatism’s future.

The conservative commentator and Daily Wire founder has staked out some considerably right-wing opinions and built a reputation for college-campus debates, in which he and progressive 20-somethings spar for social media attention. In July 2021, he published The Authoritarian Moment, his argument against the popular narrative that conservatives represent the greatest risk of authoritarianism. The greater risk is from the left, he says.

I read generously, but Shapiro just does not come across like a good-faith actor.

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Divided We Fall

Americans choose party affiliation over national identity at our own peril.

That negative polarization keeps us from uniting and using one of our country’s best designs: federalism, which could allow for disparate state-by-state experiments. So argued David French, the conservative political commentator in his fall 2020 book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

French, a pro life conservative Christian lawyer and Iraq War veteran, has wedged himself in a debate about the future of the Republican Party, and so American life. “We are in a cold civil war,” he writes.

One cause? Tolerance: conservatives hate it and liberals misunderstand it, he writes. Or as he says Scott Alexander argues: Tolerance is misused by liberals to mean liking marginalized groups, but tolerance means tolerating something so tolerance is about tolerating out groups, not opinions you already agree with. French, who formerly lived in Center City Philadelphia while leading a free speech nonprofit, has annoyed many corners of American public life, but I appreciated his book and perspective. It’s worth reading. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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The books I read in 2022

Years back, I only read a handful of books each year and spent a lot more time on articles, blog posts and social media. Around 2016, I started publishing notes here that I took from the few books I did read, and I found it helpful to review what I learned from a slower, deeper medium.

From then on, I resolved to put more time into books, and I kicked that off with a resolution to focus on women and authors of color. A book a month seemed a realistic goal, as I juggled work and other priorities. Then the pandemic hit. In 2020, which included the birth of my first child, I read far less, and I thought my goal was doomed. But by 2021, I rediscovered my neighborhood library and found that I needed an escape from the breaking news — while still learning. I read more books in 2021 than ever before in my adult life. Then in 2022 I more than doubled that total — even though my second kid arrived that year.

Point is that I’ve gotten great joy out of engaging with books, especially from that local library. Below I recap the books I read this year for my own recollection.

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I Never Thought of It That Way: notes on having difficult conversations

Our whole lives bring us to each opinion we hold.

Or, as Mónica Guzmán puts it: “We don’t see with our eyes after all but our whole biographies”

Guzmán happens to be an old friend from early in our journalism careers. She has since joined a movement for more civil discourse. Her latest step in that work was publishing last year her book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

I’m inspired by Guzmán’s work and her approach. The book reads as a kind of manual for engaging across the political spectrum, and is part of a movement of advocates, nonprofits and organizations intending to improve civil dialogue. Guzmán advises us to pursue INTOIT moments, or “I never thought of it that way.” When do those moments confirm or challenge our beliefs?

To get there, she guides us to ask good questions that follow CARE (curious, answerable, raw and exploring). Examples includes asking “How did you come to believe?” rather than why do you believe this. Another one she likes: What am I missing? Most generally I appreciated her guidance: “The most important thing about bridges is not It to cross them but to keep them.”

Below I share my notes from the book for my future research.

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Code of the Street

In the 1990s, a 15-year-old we’ll call Tyree moved from an unstable home in North Philadelphia to his grandmother’s home in Southwest Philadelphia. Her home was stable, but he walked into a new neighborhood with new dynamics. He fought his way into a new group of teenage boys who lived there and suffered violence and intimidation. All along, he had to follow an unwritten code.

In some sense, it’s an old story, as old as the the Roman empire or shogunate Japan, maybe older still. The difference today is this code’s interplay with race, drugs, more powerful weapons and higher expectations for we think the American promise is. This theme and that story are from the 1999 book, “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City,” written by ethnographer and academic Elijah Anderson. (It was published following to surging crime and the proliferation of drugs within cities in the 1990s, and was followed by books like Off the Books focused on the underground economy.)

Earlier that decade, Anderson wrote about similar themes in the Atlantic. The book gives more space to allow it to read almost like an oral history, with lengthy passages from residents.

The book explores the cultural and internal battle between “decent” and “street” life by going deep on several neighborhoods in Philadelphia, especially Germantown in its northwest section. That decent and street divide runs throughout the book. Through an ethnographic study and lengthy direct quotes from residents, Anderson delves into the intricate code of the street, which has developed as a way for residents to replace trust in institutions and instead rely on their own methods of justice and protection.

According to Anderson, the vast majority of residents in these hard hit neighborhoods of the 1990s were “decent” and trying to live a peaceful life, with only a small minority belonging to street families involved in drugs and violence. However, the proliferation of guns has made even small conflicts deadly, and the code of the street dictates that might makes right. Children as young as 10 years old begin to identify with and engage in either a decent or street lifestyle, with a strong cultural belief that toughness is a virtue and humility is not, he writes.

Anderson also writes about the concept of “code switching,” in which individuals alternate between decent and street behavior depending on the situation. The term “code switching” has become much more commonly used to describe how Black Americans navigate white culture, though this use is at least as important and interesting.

Throughout the book, Anderson discusses the role that economic dislocation, drugs, and a lack of opportunities play in the development and adherence to the code of the street. He also touches on the discrimination faced by black men in the job market and the impact of welfare reform on family dynamics. The consequences of the code of the street are severe, with a high rate of incarceration among black men in their 20s and the acceptance of early pregnancy and single motherhood as a way of life.

Overall, “Code of the Street” offers a detailed and nuanced look at the complex issues facing poor urban communities. Tellingly, though almost 25 years ago, the book is still informative, if only as a window into the voices and perspectives in the late 1990s confronting the cultural forces at play. I recommend the book. My notes are below.

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Intellectuals and Society

If “social justice” is the work to ensure our human-made systems operate with greater fairness, then “cosmic justice” is the understanding that the universe results in countless unexpected obstacles to that goal.

At times these forces operate in competition, and to better understand the world, one must appreciate them both. That’s among the themes of Intellectuals & Society, a dense 2010 book written by conservative economist Thomas Sowell. The book is centrally a criticism of “intellectuals,” whom Sowell describes as those “dealers in ideas” who have never implemented any. By and large, he directs his ire on left-leaning academics, authors and commentators.

Sowell’s writing and speaking are frequently distributed on social media via the Hoover Institution and other right-leaning political efforts, so I was curious to dig deeper into his work. Harvard educated and associated with the conservative University of Chicago economics department (an acolyte of Milton Friedman), Sowell is himself is one of the more prominent conservative intellectuals.

The book has a few opinions that might be considered unsavory, and others that twist facts as much as he criticizes his political opponents of doing. For example, he rightly celebrates the good of a free market, but he seems unwilling to admit of any market failures — like, industry consolidation that eventually results in limited choice, or the concentration of inherited wealth that saps productivity.

But Sowell is serious and rigorous, so I follow him for his perspective. Like, John Stuart Mill wrote of those whose politics differ from your own, “know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

In particular, I appreciate two bits of criticism he lobs at the left. For one, years back I heard his challenge that progressives spend a lot of time working to redistribute wealth without pausing much to consider how that wealth is created in the first place. In my reporting, I’ve found that to be largely (if not entirely) true. Second, in this book in particular he introduces a framework between the “tragic vision” of the world, in which the world will always be messy, and the “vision of the anointed,” in which the world can be cleaned up. Sowell, who clearly identifies with the tragic vision, criticizes intellectuals as falling victim to the vision of anointed — forever trotting out some neat and clean idea to organize the world without ever caring much about how it works in practice.

I disagree with Sowell on lots of topics. But he is someone who challenges me in important ways. I respect him, so I would recommend his books, including this long and dense tome. Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

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Merchants of Doubt

The modern era of fighting facts with doubt began on Dec. 15, 1953.

Months earlier, landmark research from Sloan-Kettering showed cigarette tar gave mice fatal cancers, and the attention was widespread. The research wasn’t even groundbreaking. In the 1930s, Nazi scientists documented cigarette dangers — but, you know, they were Nazis, so polite Allied researchers weren’t keen to rely on them. That’s why this new research from a credible American institution was so damning.

To combat this, the tobacco industry met at a New York hotel that day to decide to actively discredit the research. Not engage in it, not to adapt the product but just to muddy the waters. A now infamous internal trade memo in 1969 said “doubt is our product.” This strategy was then repeated again and again. It was employed by organizations such as the Marshall Institute, which pushed for the “balanced” coverage of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as “Star Wars”) and climate change. That’s what one-time Trump ally Steve Bannon meant when he advised political campaigns to “flood the zone with shit.”

This work and the men behind it is the focus of the influential 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt,” written by by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes and made into a movie. discusses the tactics used by various organizations to challenge scientific consensus and sow doubt in the minds of the general public, with a focus on the tobacco and defense industries. It highlights the dangers of giving equal weight to both sides of an issue, regardless of the strength of the evidence supporting each side.

More than a decade later the book is enlightening, My notes from the book are below.

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