I Kindle-bought Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China. The “Needham question” is why, if China was so advanced technologically up to 1400, was it so behind 400 years later. That is a fascinating question, but the book is all about what a quirky guy Needham was. Winchester strives hard to be entertaining, but the result is a bit lightweight.

I sampled Day of Empire, by Amy Chua.

For all their enormous differences…every society that could even arguably be described as having achieved global hegemony–was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence…tolerance was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony…the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia, and calls for racial, religious, or ethnic “purity.” But here’s the catch: It was also tolerance that sowed the seeds of decline. In virtually every case, tolerance eventually hit a tipping point, triggering conflict, hatred, and violence.

That paragraph sounded better the first time I read it. Now, it sort of sounds like: tolerance is great, unless you have too much tolerance, ’cause too much tolerance leads to intolerance, and that’s badAnother quote from Chua:

Many of history’s past hyperpowers, including Achaemenid Persia and the Great Mongol Empire, fell because they lacked an overarching political identity capable of holding their ethnically and religiously diverse subjects together.

She thinks that America has a great inclusion story for citizens, but we don’t have one for non-citizens, and that is going to cause problems in the hinterlands of our empire.

I also sampled The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

First, it is an outlier…Second, it carries extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I love the third point. That’s why every time there is a tragedy of some sort, there is a Congressional investigation. We could have known that 9/11 was coming, or the sub-prime mortgage crisis, or what have you. We cannot reach closure about an event until we reassure ourselves that it was explainable and predictable.

Another quote:

Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not…they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating–or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models.

By the way, I’ve completely turned around on the Kindle. The “free sample” feature is my favorite. I can do with the Kindle exactly what I do in the book store, which is sample a dozen or more books before choosing one to buy. For example, I’m not inclined to buy Taleb’s book, because I fear that most of it will be reinforcement of what I already believe.

So Kindle is my portable bookstore. Will having a bookstore at my fingertips lead me to buy more books or fewer books? On the one hand, more books are available. On the other hand, at the margin it often looks like my time would be better spent sampling another book than reading an entire book (should not be true for fiction, but then I don’t read so much fiction).