Off the Shelf: May 2021

Looking back at the month, I finished more books in May than I had thought, including two that I’ve been working on for a long time and two that I rushed since the Library wanted them back sooner rather than later.

I first heard about Paper Trails (Blevins, 2021) from a WSJ book review that caught my eye in March of this year. I’ve long been interested in the visual representation of data (see Tufte’s works) and here was an entire book telling a different perspective on the story of “how the west was won” through the dry data of when and where US Post Offices were opened in the 1800s. My local library didn’t have it yet, but I put a hold on it and it arrived quickly (and they wanted it back rather soon, too). Blevins takes a potentially dry subject and breathes life into it, resulting in a fascinating story.

Opening a new post office (at the time) was usually the result of a petition being sent by one or more “someones” who wanted one, so the openings and closings of post offices showed migration patterns that weren’t captured in other ways. He takes this data visualization a step further and applies it to the nascent money order system in 1864, showing where money orders were available (it wasn’t universal at the time), where they were requested, where they were sent and in the process, making observations about repeat customers and money order concentrations.Part of Blevins’ project was a website with additional visualizations. You can see some of them at Gossamer Network.

A year or so ago my oldest son suggested I read Boyd (Coram, 2002) and so I added it to my list, but didn’t get to it until earlier this year. A local boy (Erie, PA), John Boyd ended up joining the Air Force and having an outsized impact on fighter pilot tactics and the larger art of war. Four parts of the book stand out to me:

  1. Boyd appeared to place more importance on saving the Air Force from itself than he did on his wife and family. The book makes it fairly evident that his family was aware of and resented this but it’s not clear that Boyd was fully aware of their feelings. As a familyman, these observations were disturbing.
  2. Boyd’s theories deserve further study. I have read multiple Art-of-War type books by various authors over the years (Sun Tzu, Niccolò Machiavelli, Marshal Maurice de Saxe, Erwin Rommel, Von Clausewitz, Frederick the Great, Helmuth von Moltke, Napoleon and Vegetius) and Coram makes a strong case that Boyd’s work should be further studied, particularly Boyd’s poorly-understood OODA loop and also the implications of his Energy-maneuverability theory. (I’m specifically interested in exploring if General Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s antics at Chancellorsville fit into this model as well as finding a modern history of Boyd’s impact on the Gulf War.)
  3. Why did Boyd resist publishing a body of work during his lifetime, instead, collecting his theories in ephemeral “briefings”? While it appears Boyd strongly felt that his work was never finished or fully completed, it seems that there may have been deeper reasons.
  4. How does a fighter pilot out-maneuver a missile?

I’ve been working on Rest (Pang, 2016) for perhaps a month, mostly because I had the initial impression that it was a deep book that needed deep attention. On the contrary, many of the book’s points are easily accessible. These are the ideas that jumped out at me:

  1. Rest is indeed important and not only at night. A mid-day or mid-morning nap refreshes both body and mind. The timing, length and location of these naps seem to be person-specific, so feel free to experiment.
  2. Excelling at something requires practice (no surprise there), deliberate practice. Your effort is focused and structured–you’re “paying attention to what you’re doing and observing how you can improve.” Practicing is not simply drills and repetitions. Related to that are the sacrifices you’re making, spending that time in practice instead of other pursuits.
  3. There’s an interplay between work and rest. Some of our best inspiration happens when we’re resting, when our unconscious mind is hard at work. How many times have you gone to sleep mulling over something and awakened with the answer?
  4. Walking is important to creativity. Pang spends what feels like a good chunk of the book describing what happens when we walk, why some types of walking is better than others and how creative walkers in history did it.
  5. Vacations. How long, how often, what types — all of these are of interest to Pang’s idea of Rest.

When I finished Sears’ The Last Epic Naval Battle, I was left with a good understanding of the US Navy side of things, but feel like I would have understood more with a comprehensive set of maps. I’m on the lookout for another book covering the same battle, but with maps and charts.

It took my local Library a few months more than I expected before they acquired and shelved Levinson’s Outside the Box, but it was worth it. The subtitle, How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas, tells the story the best, though. Levinson starts with trade routes, then the story of loose cargo, takes us through container ships and from there into the ever-lengthening supply chains of recent years. Through all of that, Levinson makes a great case that the value of the things we buy is quickly shifting from the physical content (and its manufacturing) to “the intellectual property used to design, package and market it.” This is beginning to convert supply chains into value chains where one company’s ideas integrate with another’s to create even more value. And because of our global networks, it matters little where in the world these different links sit.

I once read To Kill a Mockingbird and will certainly read it again someday. Between now and then, every year or so I listen to Sissy Spacek reading Harper Lee’s classic. It’s helped me look at race, class and gender in new way, each time.

Blevins, C. (2021). Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West. Oxford University Press, USA.
Coram, R. (2002). Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war. Little, Brown and Company.
Lee, Harper. (2006). To kill a mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Levinson, M. (2020). Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas. Princeton University Press.
Pang, A. S.-K. (2016). Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Basic Books.
Sears, D. (2005). The Last Epic Naval Battle: Voices from Leyte Gulf. Praeger.

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