History

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Read: The Ascent of Money

Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money was aptly timed; with the financial turmoil of 2007 that we still feel and need to surmount it was bound to attract some interest. It helps, of course, to have a acompanying tv documentary.

The book is, however, not as aptly titled. “The ascent and decline of private and public debt financing” would describe the book’s content more appropriately. Though this would be less appealing to the paying costumer, wouldn’t it?

In spite of the book’s subtitle “A Financial History of the World” the book is rather slim; just about 260 pages excluding the endnotes and index. Not what you would expect from an endeavor with such a title. Yet, it does not state that the (his)story told is comprehensive. It is not. Ferguson focuses on a few historical turning points, a few historical figures in our financial past. He offers some glimpses in what was going on and why. His focus is, however, not on money – the thing we nowadays call certain printed papers – it is on debts and debt financing of private and public ventures, on risk taking and risk takers. Interesting nonetheless. Yet, I really would have loved to read something that was more focusing on the history on money: From pebbles, to coins, to printed papers, to plastic cards.

Apart from that, The Ascent of Money is quite an entertaining and instructive little book. Ferguson does not stick strictly to the timeline to advance his narrative, he rather organizes his material around some themes that follow a logical sequence. The writing is clear; my only animus are the endnotes; I would prefer footnotes that are so much easier to find…

Read: Unknown Quantity - A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra

Unknown Quantity was part of my last year’s advent calender. A surprise since it was not on my wish list. Yet, it could have been on the list as I am – at least once in while – interested in math, or the history of math.

Unknown Quantity traces the history of algebra from its roots to modern times. While it seems quite comprehensive concerning the earlier phases of discoveries it becomes rather patchy in describing the development during the, say, last hundred years. Of course, a lot was happening during these years and most can only be understood with a proper degree in mathematics. A fact that led the author John Derbyshire (apparently quite a character) to add some more technical notes (on the easier topics) to the historic accounts and biographical notes.

The book is rather interesting and informative; though certainly it is not the authoritative source on the history of math, or even just algebra.

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