Thursday, January 9, 2014

The 7 best books Bill Gates read last year

Bill Gates (he's looking good, isn't he?) published a list of the seven best books he read in 2013. No fiction and heavy on the university presses. Here they are, with Gates' notes:

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton, 2006), by Marc Levinson. You might think you don’t want to read a whole book about shipping containers. And Levinson is pretty self-aware about what an unusual topic he chose. But he makes a good case that the move to containerized shipping had an enormous impact on the global economy and changed the way the world does business. And he turns it into a very readable narrative. I won’t look at a cargo ship in quite the same way again.

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (Random House, 2010), by William Rosen. A bit like The Box, except it’s about steam engines. Rosen weaves together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind this invention. I’d wanted to know more about steam engines since the summer of 2009, when my son and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Science Museum in London.

Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature (MIT, 2012), by Vaclav Smil. There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. Here he gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story if you care about the impact we’re having on the planet.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (Viking, 2012), by Jared Diamond. It’s not as good as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. But then, few books are. Diamond finds fascinating anecdotes about what life is like for hunter-gatherers and asks which ones might apply to our modern lifestyles. He doesn’t make some grand pronouncement or romanticize tribal life. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.

Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It  Cornell, 2013), by Morten Jerven. Jerven, an economist, spent four years digging into how African nations get their statistics and the challenges they face in turning them into GDP estimates. He makes a strong case that a lot of GDP measurements we thought were accurate are far from it. But as I argue in my longer review, that doesn’t mean we know nothing about what works in development.

Why Does College Cost So Much? (Oxford, 2010), by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman. The title is a question that seems to get more attention every year. The authors are good about not pointing fingers but instead talking about how America’s labor market affects the cost of college. My view is that as long as there’s a scarcity of college graduates, a college degree will be quite valuable. So people will pay more to get one. And if they will pay more, then colleges and universities—whose labor is provided mostly by people who paid a lot for their own degrees—can ask for more. Until you get an excess supply of graduates, then you don’t really get any price competition.

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale, 2013), by Paul Sabin. Sabin chronicles the public debate about whether the world is headed for an environmental catastrophe. He centers the story on Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, who wagered $1,000 on whether human welfare would improve or get worse over time. Without ridiculing either proponent, Sabin shows how their extreme views contributed to the polarized debate over climate change and other issues that continues today.

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