Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

For every $10 spent on goods and services in the American economy, at least a dollar is spent in the “underground economy.” That share has trended up over the last 15 years and two recessions.

That $2.5 trillion in economic activity includes both licit and illicit activities — yes, paying the babysitter cash and buying an illegal gun are both in the underground economy. Poorer nations have higher rates, and likewise, poorer communities in the United States rely more heavily on the informal economy.

Contributing to the academic analysis, American sociologist and ethnographer Sudhir Venkatesh published in 2006 a book called Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Backed by years he spent visiting a particular poor neighborhood in Chicago, he chronicled the interpersonal and community dynamics that related to and developed its underground economy. In some ways the book shows its age (as a trivial example, his use of the word “ghetto” feels dated), but in other ways it remains a small, specific window into one community’s underground economy.

“The underground enables poor communities to survive but can lead to their alienation from the wider world,” as the author wrote.

Another of his points I especially liked: “What some might see as a mass of Americans lying about, and out of work, is in many cases an ensemble of persons who lack of private places where they can rest.”

The author renamed his characters and locations for anonymity, but generally follows a neighborhood he calls Maquis Park, including characters like a particular gang leader and an active block leader named Eunice. Below find my notes from the book for future reference.

Continue reading Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

NeuroTribes: autism and neurodiversity

Autism has been defined and its spectrum expanded in the last 80 years. We still don’t entirely understand its meaning, causes and implications.

More recently autism has been placed in an expanding understanding of what we call today “neurodiversity.” I read through NeuroTribes, the 2015 book that chronicles the history and science by Steve Silberman. A key theme it returns to often: autism is better understood as “different, not less.”

Below I share a few notes from my reading.

Continue reading NeuroTribes: autism and neurodiversity

VC: An American History

The American venture capital model is rooted in this country’s early business climate, and has been exported around the world.

For example, New England whalers came to dominate their 19th-century industry through their innovation of pooling capital and syndicating their risk across many expeditions. This established the concept of long-tail, led to the basic funding model that later developed in modern venture capital and other small innovations.

That’s a central theme of the 2019 book by Tom Nicholas called VC: An American History. The book is a thorough review of the journey that led to the venture capital and private equity of today. I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to anyone interested in business, economics and the history of financial systems.

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

Continue reading VC: An American History

The Anthropocene Reviewed

A novelist writes memoir in code.

That’s something Allegra Goodman said that John Green quoted as inspiration in the introduction to the essay collection he published last year. Green is the author of several novels himself, including the 2012 The Fault in our Stars that was made into a movie of the same name. I knew him first, like many other Millennial internet-dwellers, from various educational video projects on Youtube, including several with his brother.

He took on a mix nonfiction-memoir project with The Anthropocene Reviewed, which takes on a few dozen wide-ranging topics with short reviews interspersed with his own life. I enjoyed his approach and admire the author so I have no worthy review. Find one here. Instead, I say go read it. Below I captured my favorite dozen or so of the many quotations he references throughout the book.

Continue reading The Anthropocene Reviewed

The Value of Everything

The way we count how big our economy is gets determined by a set of changeable decisions. Those decisions have changed over time, and they can change in the future.

That is a major theme from the 2017 book The Value of Everything by economist Mariana Mazzucato.

Below I share my notes from reading the book, which are for my own purposes for review later.

Continue reading The Value of Everything

The Age of AI

Artificial intelligence will be considered a new epoch in human history. The Enlightenment was defined by the age of reason, in which a process could ensure humans develop new and tested knowledge. Increasingly though, algorithmic learning is developing so rapidly that no human entirely understands the recommendations that AI makes. This will be seen as entirely new age.

So argues the Age of AI: And Our Human Future, a 2021 book written by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and AI researcher Daniel Huttenlocher. That big idea was argued in an article Kissinger wrote for The Atlantic in 2018 entitled: How the Enlightenment Ends.

The book is neither dystopian nor breathlessly optimistic. It is not full of rich stories nor colorful visions. It is a clear-eyed book directed toward policymakers and business leaders. It outlines its authors view of current research and understanding about where AI research is heading.

I collected notes from the book below. I recommend reading it.

Continue reading The Age of AI

Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing

Money is a useful collaborative fiction to exchange and transfer value.

The 2020 book from former NPR Planet Money podcast co-host and economics reporter Jacob Goldstein is a fun and approachable social history of what we call money. It is light and breezy, full of familiar themes to those already interested in finance and economics while also a good starting point for someone who isn’t.

I captured notes for myself below. Go buy the book yourself.

Continue reading Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing

Lenape Country before William Penn

The Lenape people controlled their territory, and they meaningfully shaped the society that developed in present-day Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

So argues the 2016 book Lenape Country Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn written by Lehigh University professor Jean R. Soderlund. A prevailing narrative is of a relatively weak and minor subgroup of the Alqonquian people but this book argues something more nuanced.

Other big themes: early Swedish settlers remained primarily trading partners with the Lenape, which contrasted with the Dutch and the English who over time seemed more interested in colonizing, though the English Quakers were on the whole far more peaceable than the Chesapeake, New Amsterdam and New England regions. The Lenape themselves shaped this reality.

This is a rich social-political history of the earliest recorded details of Lenape life. I strongly recommend buying a copy if you love history and the details of indigenous and European engagement. As is my custom, I share notes from my reading below for my future reference but please do pick up a copy.

Continue reading Lenape Country before William Penn

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid

The universe isn’t remarkable because of stuff. It is remarkable because of the relationship between stuff.

That is something like a theme from the iconic and celebrated 1979 book by academic Douglas Hofstadter called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which won both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. An entire secondary marketplace of ideas and debate centers around the meaning and intention of the book, so I will not attempt to contribute to that. The book did influence computer science, especially the development of artificial intelligence, but Hofstader has said he does not identify with technology or computer culture.

Overall, the dense book brims with interdisciplinary “strange loops,” or examples of the interrelationships between concepts that create systems.The book’s title comes famously from naming three men influential in very different fields: influential Hungarian-American logician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978); Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher (1898-1972) and legendary classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). All their work are used as examples of strange loops. I share a few notes below that I may return to in the future.

Continue reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid

A Brief History of Time: Stephen Hawking’s 1988 classic theoretical physics book

A single “theory of everything” exists. We just haven’t found it yet.

That’s one of the main arguments from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), as articulated in his 1988 bestselling book A Brief History of Time. The book helped make him one of his generation’s best known intellectuals, and he used an array of impressive technologies to help him continue to shape public thought during his long battle with ALS. It helped popularize many obscure and complex ideas.

Though he didn’t win a Nobel Prize in his lifetime and he occupied a kind of celebrity status, he did contribute meaningfully to his field. In 1974, in his early 30s, Hawking argued that black holes would emit heat energy, so-called Hawking radiation, which would mean that, unless they otherwise added mass, a black hole could eventually vanish. He helped us discover that black holes might not even be, you know, black. That work gave him needed pedigree to write this book, which is a relatively breezy read while also citing much of the most exciting ideas in theoretical physics and even cosmology.

As a hobbyist consumer of pop science, I’ve long wanted to read this text. Much of what he wrote about has been covered by an array of science Youtubers and writers I follow. Yet I still got much from the book. Do read it. Below I share my notes from the book for myself.

Continue reading A Brief History of Time: Stephen Hawking’s 1988 classic theoretical physics book