Good Reading -- November 2021
A selection of great books, articles, and essays
Facts & Figures
Economic mismanagement [in Venezuela] has created one of the worst hyperinflations in history. The government just introduced a new bolivar, lopping six zeros off the old one—the third attempt to introduce a new “stable” currency since 2008. In total, 14 zeros have vanished (1 new bolivar is worth 100 trillion of the old ones). Put differently, all the currency in circulation in Venezuela in 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected President, is now worth a sum total of three cents. — Source: Moises Naim: The economic seeds of South American populism in Roger Lowenstein’s “Intrinsic Value”
[Americans born between 1981 and 1996 are] now the largest living generation, [and] they control just 4 percent of America’s real estate equity; in 1990, when baby boomers were a comparable age, they already controlled a third.
63 percent of North American home buyers in 2020 made at least one offer on a home that they had never stepped into.
USA: Better, 43%; Worse, 56%
UK: Better 32%, Worse 59%
France: Better 30%, Worse 58%
Japan: Better 28%, Worse 70%
India: Better 66%, Worse 24%
Bangladesh: Better 74%, Worse 10%
Ethiopia: Better 85%, Worse 11%
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty — This is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. It is deeply researched and well written, with more twists and insane plot lines than a soap opera. The Oxycontin story is beyond infuriating, but I highly recommend this book on multiple fronts.
DeepMind’s Latest Trick? Predicting the Weather — Nowcasting is a great idea, but it’s not feasible to the degree it is presented. Advancements in computational power have lead to immense improvement in weather forecasts’ accuracy, but there is a limitation of measurement, not (just) computing. Because so much of the atmosphere is unmapped and unmeasured, it must be approximated, and the errors inevitably build up as the models iterate. Improvements will come — perhaps slowly — but nowcasting is almost all marketing.
The Incredible Tale of the Greatest Toy Man You've Never Known — This is a long and fascinating profile. Cabbage Patch Kids. Pokemon. Lehman auction rate securities. NFTs. It’s all here. (h/t John M.)
How 12th-century Genoese merchants invented the idea of risk — The interesting history and etymology, which is also well covered in one of the great books on the topic, Bernstein’s “Against the Gods.”
Wendy Wein wanted her ex-husband dead. But she didn’t want to kill him herself and didn’t know anyone she trusted to do it for her. So she did what a lot of people do when they have a job they can’t or don’t want to do themselves — she searched for help on the Internet.
What Wein found was presumably reassuring. The website promised her confidentiality. It boasted of industry awards. It showed off testimonials of satisfied customers. The website bragged about complying with HIPPA, which it said was ‘the Hitman Information Privacy & Protection Act of 1964.’ Bob Innes, a 54-year-old Northern California man who forwards any serious inquiries to law enforcement, launched the site 16 years ago as part of an Internet security business that never went anywhere. Instead, it has served as a honeypot of sorts, attracting people who want to hire professional killers. Wein, 52, is not the only one who has gotten stuck in Innes’s digital trap. About 650 to 700 people have contacted him since he first registered the website in 2005, including about 400 who, like Wein, filled out his ‘service request form,’ which requires users to give their name, email address and phone number, along with the same information of their ‘targets,’ Innes said.