What I read this month:

Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719)       

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent (John Erskine, 1915)       

Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization2 (Lancelot Hogben, 1937)       

Fingerprints3 (Tobias Dantzig, 1930)       

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789)       

The Making of Americans4 (Jean de Crèvecoeur, 1793)       

The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016)       

① Robinson Crusoe

A classic adventure novel of a cast away in the 17th century that survives on an empty island for 28+ years. Covers the gamut of man vs. nature, man vs. self, and man vs. man plot themes. Illustrates human resourcefulness and creativity despite lack of knowledge, spirit and faith despite loneliness, and friendship and trust despite cultural differences.

“…here I must observe that as reason is the substance and original of the mathematics, so by stating and squaring everything by reason, and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art.”

② The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

Discusses the common theme in much classic fiction literature that depicts man as either intelligent or virtuous but not both. In essence, that wisdom and knowledge are typically used for clever strategm and is incompatible with morality. This, potentially, leaves one thinking “a man is clever or he is virtuous, but he cannot be both.” Rather, Erskine argues we must not excuse ignorance even if the motives were good. Instead, morality and intelligence are inseparable and we have a “moral obligation to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end.”

“Sin is but ignorance, and knowledge and virtue are one.”

③ Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization

Hogben argues that, as people learned grammar to read and learn for themselves rather than relying on honest and truthful knowledge being told to them, people must now learn mathematics so they can correctly interpret statistics and information. He argues that if math is left to the highly specialized, then resulting “priestcraft” or deception can occur. Although “priestcraft” may be a bit strong one can surely sympathize considering our current state of surging data collection, analysis and statistical insights regarding almost every daily task and activity. Hogben’s principal point I certainly agree with, which is “mathematics is the language of size, and that it is an essential part of the equipment of an intelligent citizen to understand this language.”

“The most brilliant intellect is a prisoner with its own social inheritance.”

④ Fingerprints

An essay that discusses how fingers are at the root of our modern day number system. And “as man learns to rely more and more on his language, the sounds supersede the images for which they stood, and the originally concrete models take the abstract form of number words.”

⑤ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

One of the key doctrines resulting from the French Revolution. Locally, it inspired the French constitution. Globally, with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, it was a major contributor to the concept of freedom and democracy. Inspired by Thomas Jefferson, it has many of the key human and civil rights elements found in U.S. doctrine - freedom of speech, religion, property rights, etc.

“For these reasons the National Assembly doth recognize and declare, in the presence of the Supreme Being, and with the hope of His blessing and favor, the following sacred rights of men and of citizens”

⑥ The Making of Americans

One of my favorite readings this month. This romantic essay emphasizes the greatness that was America back in the 18th century; some of which still exudes America’s greatness while others have disappeared or have even, contestably, become America’s side-thorns. Crèvecoeur compares the differences between the Americans and English, is the first to discuss America’s melting pot concept, emphasizes the uniqueness and opportunities offered by America’s labor market, and even explains the differences that exist between American’s living on the coast, plains, woods, urban and rural leading to my favorite quote:

“Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment.”

⑦ The Making of Americans

This 700+ page book from economist Robert Gordon provides an unbelievable historical recount of the economic progress of America and, more so, the insight into the life of average Americans between 1870 - present. Gordon argues that the period from 1870 to 1970 was a “special century,” when America was fundamentally changed and the foundations of modern American life were laid. No other 100-year period in world history has brought comparable progress and Gordon suggests that this special century should be our baseline for what real transformation looks like. Gordon goes on to argue that although the internet and technology revolution has given us some pretty cool stuff, this stuff is creating only marginal rather than fundamental improvements in our lives and businesses’ productivity. Moreover, Gordon discusses four headwinds (income inequality, education, demography, and government debt) that he projects will cause near-term growth in business productivity and personal living standards to be in line with the abysmal rates we’ve experienced during the past decade rather than the fundamental forward leaps that techno-optimists predict and America experienced during the special century. This was a great book and one that I highly recommend. You can see my full review here.

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1. Most readings that I will document will be non work related with the exception of some works that are publicly releasable and have a strong influence on my macro perspective of the defense sector.“↩”

2. This essay forms chapter one of Hogben’s book titled Mathematics for the Million.“↩”

3. This essay came to be chapter 1 of Dantzig’s book titled Number: The Language of Science.“↩”

4. From Letter III of Crèvecoeur’s book titled Letters from an American Farmer.“↩”