What to read over the holiday season?

That violin's worth $3.5 million! He's playing some very complex Bach

When I started The Melbourne Urbanist I wasn’t sure what direction it would take. While primarily about planning and development issues, I imagined it might also have a major sideline in reading and literature.

Hence the Reading page in the sidebar. As things have turned out, there hasn’t been much interest in reading and books. For example, The Melbourne Urbanist had 25,000 visits in November but the Reading page only got 29 views, so next year I’ll probably move it elsewhere.

Clearly the readers of The Melbourne Urbanist don’t come here to talk literature. Fair enough, this is the age of specialisation and that’s one of the things the internet does well. However since it’s the holiday season, I have an excuse to talk books.

The thing newspapers love to do at this time of year is find out who’s reading what. Over the years I’ve found some good reads from seeing what politicians, novelists and others are reading (or say they’re reading). The Grattan Institute has put an interesting twist on this tradition – a suggested summer reading list for the Prime Minister. Here it is:

Fair share, Judith Brett, (Quarterly Essay 42, 2011)

Cities for people, Jan Gehl, (Island Press, 2010)

There goes the neighbourhood, Michael Wesley, (University of New South Wales, 2011)

Balancing the risks, benefits and costs of homeland security, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart (article available at http://www.hsaj.org/?article=7.1.16)

The rational optimist, Matt Ridley, (Fourth Estate, 2010)

Cold light, Frank Moorhouse, (Random House Australia, 2011) 

Some interesting suggestions. Of these, I’ve only read The rational optimist and can’t recommend it highly enough (I quoted from it yesterday). It would be a great summer read. If you follow the link to the Grattan Institute, there’s an explanation of the thinking behind the list. Anything by Frank Moorhouse should be interesting and Cold light is about power, secrecy and, of all things, urban planning! So I’ll put that on my “to read” list.

Of the books I’ve read this year, I’d recommend Ryan Avent’s The gated city, He argues in a mere 100 pages that opposition to density is a key reason for American economic stagnation. This is an Amazon Kindle “Single” – it only costs $1.99 and if, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can read it on your computer or, in my case, on an iPhone (not so good for the beach, though). I’ve cited it before, here and here.

I’d also recommend Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature. He argues that violence at both social and personal levels is much lower than historically it’s ever been. Another fascinating book is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: fast and slow. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel laureate – lots of insight on why we think the way we do and, especially, why we so often get it wrong. Both of these books are long (and in the modern fashion look like they never had an editor), but they’re worth it.

The best novel I’ve read this year – in fact for a while – is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. It deals insightfully and wittily with some big issues. And it’s beautifully written – a deserving winner of the 2010 Booker. Read the rest of this entry »

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– What concept is most useful for thinking?

Is congestion pricing fair?

This is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while. According to Princeton University Professor of Psychology and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, nothing in life is as important as you think it is. He gives these examples:

Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.

Income is an important determinant of people’s satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5%.

I find these insights astonishing and I suspect they throw light on key urban issues too. If nothing else, they emphasise the dangers of focussing on single causes and hence on single solutions. Professor Kahneman is one of 159 contributors who responded to the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool kit?” at Edge.Org. This site has been setting an annual question and inviting brief responses from thinkers since 1998.

The vast majority of contributors are from prestigious universities and institutions. Many are intellectuals of international stature, including Richard Dawkins (who nominates the double-blind, controlled experiment), Richard Thaler (aether), Jonah Lehrer (strategic allocation of attention), Paul Kedrosky (shifting baseline syndrome), Clay Shirky (the Pareto principle) and Matt Ridley (collective intelligence). This year’s question was set by Harvard psychologist, Steve Pinker, who also makes an interesting nomination (positive-sum games). This is the New York Time’s summary of some of the key contributions. You can read the rest of Professor Kahneman’s short piece here.

I didn’t see anything that was specifically on urbanism (there are contributions by three architects – Stefan Boeri, Neri Oxman and Richard Saul Wurman – although for my money the real value is in the scientists) however there is one by Brian Eno (ecology) and, in particular, another by Matt Ridley that should be interesting to anyone concerned with how and why cities work:

Brilliant people, be they anthropologists, psychologists or economists, assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement. They vote for the cleverest people to run governments, they ask the cleverest experts to devise plans for the economy, they credit the cleverest scientists with discoveries, and they speculate on how human intelligence evolved in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »