Category Archives: Innovation

Andrew McAfee – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next

Andrew McAfee – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next

This would be good for an undergraduate economics course. McAfee’s thesis captures the core insights of economic growth and what causes it. He also makes the true but unpopular case that prosperity results in a cleaner environment. Poverty pollutes. In wealthy countries, people can afford to care about environmental quality, and also develop more efficient production processes that cause less harm in the first place. McAfee never uses the term, but economists call this phenomenon the environmental Kuznets curve. Basically, pollution and other harms increase until a country reaches roughly $4,500-$5,000 of per capital GDP. At that level of wealth, people don’t have to worry as much about their next meal will come from, or basics such as sturdy shelter and tolerable sanitation. Children can go to school instead of working on the farm. With those needs mostly being met, people then become interested in next-level wants, which include a clean environment.

McAfee writes a simple, direct style that reads a little bit like an introductory textbook. He also doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty the way similar works by authors like Hans Rosling, Matt Ridley, and others do. This isn’t a bad thing; he’s serving a different niche than they are.

He is quite direct in stating his belief that free markets are the reason most of the world are now on the right side of the environmental Kuznets curve, and that markets are why he is confident enough that improvements will continue. So confident that he is willing to bet his own money that numerous indicators will improve—see his website for more, and to bet against him if you wish. He is willing to wager up to $100,000 of his own money.

Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

After a brief appreciation of the notion of precision and how it differs from accuracy, Winchester begins with the story of longitude and John Harrison’s precision clocks. The general organizational theme of the book is chronological, with engineers’ precision capabilities increasing over time.

Winchester is at his best in the lengthier middle chapters. In one, he compares two different kinds of precision—those espoused by Henry Ford and by Rolls Royce. In a Ford assembly line, workers needed almost no skill to fit the precision-made interchangeable parts together in mass quantity on the precisely designed assembly line. The handmade Rolls Royce instead emphasized that every aspect of the car must be hand-made to the most exacting precision by the world’s most skilled craftsmen, to the point that its factory could muster just two cars per day, compared to a new Model T every 40 seconds at Ford’s factory.

His chapter about the birth of the jet engine and the mind-boggling precision needed for its fan blades and other parts is similarly excellent. And the chapter on optics, beginning with how lenses are made and climaxing with the story of the Hubble Space Telescope, its initial blurry pictures due an almost unthinkably small mistake, and its 1993 repair done in space, is also a tour de force.

From there, Winchester goes into the history of the transistor, which nowadays requires atomic precision. Before too long, quantum computers may bring precision requirements down to the quantum realm. The book ends by returning to timekeeping. John Harrison’s famous H-4 clock has since been surpassed by atomic clocks and time-based GPS systems so precise they must take the theory of relativity into account.

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

A corporate history of Google from its founding up until 2011 or so. This book was written with the cooperation of Google’s founders, so it is not an objective history, nor should it be treated as such. It is still useful. A sequel may also be in order before too long. Since this book was published, Google has created its own parent company, Alphabet, and diversified into areas from video to maps to driverless cars. It is also undergoing multiple antitrust investigations, and growing ire from right and left populists could have massive consequences for consumer welfare, innovation, and for competition policy going forward.

Google has changed quite a bit since its early days, but anything violating the consumer welfare standard is difficult to find in here—though, again, this book is not an objective history. If anything, fear of regulatory reprisal put a damper on some of Google’s innovative ideas almost as soon as they realized the company would be a success. That, as opposed to market share for searches or advertising, is evidence of consumer harm.

Some of Google’s early mistakes and learning experiences still loom large today, such as its acquiescence to Chinese censorship.

Levy also has a forthcoming book on Facebook out in January 2020.

Edmund Morris – Edison

Edmund Morris – Edison

This book is organized chronologically, but backwards, and for no good reason. Morris, who passed away after finishing this book but before its publication, gives no explanation for his mistaken choice. The book begins, as most biographies do, with a late-life “Exhibit A” scene with the main character in peak form. But instead of moving back to the beginning to show how the person became that way, Morris starts with Edison’s final decline, then goes back a decade at a time in each chapter. Each chapter also is roughly themed, though mostly by title only, based on what Edison was working on at the time—phonographs, electricity and lighting, war-related inventions during World War I, and so on. Edison’s approach to life was so scattershot that this approach doesn’t really work, either. The final chapter covers Edison’s formative years, with a brief epilogue returning to his death. This historiographical choice is an experiment, fitting its subject’s temperament. Also befitting many Edisonian experiments, it doesn’t work.

We meet his children when they are already fully-formed adults who have already experienced all of their major successes and mistakes. Only later do we see them falling in love and entering into marriages that we had already seen fail in earlier chapters, or begin to fight personal demons of which we had long since seen the consequences. Only after/before all that, do we finally see them as young children missing their distant father and get a sense of why they turned out as they did.

Edison seems to mostly remain the same person throughout. He had a salty temperament, but wasn’t necessarily mean. He also didn’t necessarily mind being mostly deaf. It spared him from distractions and gave him an easy out in social situations he wasn’t interested in, and gave him a running excuse to be cranky. He insisted on working long hours while barely eating, which led to numerous chronic health problems, though he still lived and worked to an advanced age. He also enjoyed being a bit of a showman, and had a keen interest in marketing his inventions and in promotional gimmicks. He had an odd way of not much caring about other people, yet having a need to be on their mind. He used an earthy, avuncular sense of humor to attempt to endear himself to people, though he could be clumsy about it.

Totally deaf in later years, even the young Edison was deaf in one ear and had limited hearing in the other, unable to hear high frequencies such as birdsongs after about age 12. It is miracle that he essentially invented recorded music. He had a surprisingly keen sense of sonic quality, though he had some odd ideas about, and a stubborn streak that limited his progress as other inventors improved on his technologies. For more on that, see

Morris also has some pretty basic misunderstandings. At the end of the book, when he fially gets to describing Edison’s father, he repeatedly describes him as “libertarian.” The elder Edison was a confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, and didn’t necessarily respect property laws. Opposition to slavery and respect for property rights are fundamental to any liberal philosophy; its is shocking that Morris doesn’t get that—enough to question his ability to interpret other matters more important to his subject.

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

This book reminded me a bit of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants in its tech- and innovation-centric hyper-optimism. His optimism isn’t quite as sober as the Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, or Hans Rosling variety, but Diamond’s enthusiasm is contagious. Readers interested in this subgenre might also like John Tamny’s The End of Work and Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.

One useful contribution Diamond makes is a deep dive into just how disruptive new technologies are. For workers, the changes are often less severe than commonly thought. When cars replaced buggies, they still needed wheels, frames, and upholsteries, for example. Those workers’ skills did not become obsolete, though they did have to evolve. Many disruptive technologies take years or even decades for widespread adoption.

Ultimately, Diamond makes a culture-based argument for explaining technological progress. It takes more than research and development, or available capital for entrepreneurs. It takes a culture that approves of such things. People need to be willing to try something new and see if they like it or not. They need to have a certain audacity, or at least a positive view of it. People aren’t likely to give it a go if it makes them a pariah. Though Diamond openly admires Schumpeter—hence the phrase “creative destruction” in the title—ultimately his argument owes more to Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey.

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

Grant finally settles the question of how to pronounce Walter Bagehot’s name (BADGE-it). Maddeningly, he does not do this until the end of the book, leaving the reader unsure to pronounce it in their head for more than 300 pages. Even so, he has written an excellent biography of Bagehot, a prominent 19th-century English banker and economist who favored free trade. He was not the founder of The Economist, though he became its longtime editor and made the newspaper (actually a magazine) into the prominent, and generally classically liberal publication it remains today.

At times Grant seems more interested in the history of English banking than in his ostensible subject, and at times the text bogs down because of it. But he still finds the time to give a good sense of what Bagehot was like as a person. His family life was mostly happy, though not entirely so. He also worked long hours at a frenetic pace, often writing 5,000 words or more per week, every week, on a wide variety of topics. This was in addition to editing and managing a newspaper, commissioning articles, and trying to have some semblance of a home life.

Unlike some of the grandiose, difficult personalities whose biographies I’ve been reading lately (Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, Jay Gould, et al), Bagehot seems to have been a good person. He was overworked and often frazzled, but he was a decent family man and didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, outsize ego, or a need to create drama.

Grant also puts Bagehot in his place as an important figure in the birth of modern finance, journalism, and economics; Bagehot had a place in all three. Only with the beginnings of the industrial revolution did the population become wealthy enough to support full-time journalists. Before, say, Samuel Johnson, writers typically required aristocratic support. They also wrote for a mainly aristocratic audience, spoke to their concerns, and often echoed their points of view. They also did not produce fresh product every week.

Johnson was one of the first to write for a lay audience, and one of the first to make a living from them. This meant smaller per-copy revenues, made up for by selling more copies. This required the ability to print at an industrial scale, and a large middle class that can afford pamphlets and newspapers. This stage of economic development also required modern finance to capitalize. Bagehot began as just such a banker, became a journalist struggling to generate enough copy to print The Economist regularly enough to pay the bills, and to sell it to as many subscribers as possible. Even in London, the financial capital of the world, Bagehot could only wrangle a few thousand subscribers.

Bagehot was also one of the most prolific and eloquent voices in the era’s defining economic debate—free trade vs. protectionism. Bagehot took the free-trade side alongside Richard Cobden and John Bright, and it is for this that Bagehot is chiefly remembered today. The Economist, which more than a century later flourishes on a global scale, still retains Bagehot’s mostly market-liberal editorial voice, and even has a weekly column named after him. In today’s tide of rising tide of protectionism, nationalism, and populism, the world could use more Bagehots advocating for free trade in both quality and quantity.

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

The story of Cyrus Fields, a 19th century entrepreneur who laid the first transatlantic cable. Fields was a man of rare persistence. As Gordon puts it on page 12, “But it was Cyrus Fields alone who made it happen, for he served the same function in the enterprise of the Atlantic cable that a producer serves in a theatrical production. A producer does not act or direct or design scenery. But without him, neither does anyone else.” Fields was around at the right time—but he also the right person.

Telegraphy had been around for a bit by the time Fields got started, and people had also figured out that it was possible to lay cable underwater. Earlier initiatives had crossed the English channel, and of course the U.S. had a transcontinental cable over land. But Fields’ grand project required a new suite of innovations everywhere from sea exploration, knowledge of water physics, electric conductivity, cable insulation, ballast and weight for ships, diplomacy, and international finance. Fields, often through sheer force of will and personality, headed up a multi-year effort using  massive amounts of capital to successfully finish the project. There were numerous setbacks, and the on-the-ground (water?) problem-solving his ships’ crewmembers were able to improvise, at times during hostile weather, are both impressive and inspiring.

Fields paved the way for today’s transoceanic cables capable of carrying not just phone calls, but Internet traffic, video communications, and more around the world. As heroes of invention go, Fields deserves a much more prominent place on the list.