Hello, Recently I stayed with some friends who live between Florence and Siena. When they'd invited me, on a cold and rainy day in February, I'd leap

Tom butler-bowdon

An old Roman road


Recently I stayed with some friends who live between Florence and Siena. When they'd invited me, on a cold and rainy day in February, I'd leapt at the chance of some Tuscan sun. Luckily there was plenty. I enjoyed walking country paths around the village where we were staying, past olive groves and vineyards, and eating nice pasta meals in the evening with my friends.

We spent the first day in Florence, which I'd last visited as a backpacker many years ago. It's always nice to travel with a particular purpose in mind, and this time mine was Machiavelli.

Machiavelli Me

With Machiavelli outside the Uffizi Museum

Niccolo Machiavelli was a high-up civil servant in the Florentine Republic before the Medici resumed control of the city-state, when he was exiled to the countryside. On the family farm he penned Discourses on Livy, his lengthy argument in favour of open societies, suggesting that "all countries which employ complete freedom... make most rapid progress". A commentary on this book is included in 50 Politics Classics.

But of course Machiavelli is rather better known for another work: The Prince, a handbook of power which he wrote to curry favour with the new regime. Alas, the ploy did not work, but it remains, along with Hobbes' Leviathan, one of the most powerful arguments for strong, central government as a means to ensure stability and prosperity. Some of you may have my edition of The Prince, published by Capstone/Wiley.


The original '48 Laws of Power'

Yet Machiavelli's message was also personal. If you study those who have successfully gone before you, he said, some of their prowess or wisdom is bound to rub off. Aim a bit higher than you think you are currently capable, so that even if do you not achieve everything you set out to do, you will find your target.

Machiavelli was very interested in the question of how much political success was the result of good luck or merit. As a scientist of political results, he naturally wished to reduce the role of chance in outcomes, yet he noted that a ruler can create their own luck. Fortune, he suggests, is like a river that can be directed and channelled according to the structures we have put in place, but to win the power of the river, we must first act. We should not be overawed by the fame or glory of those who have gone before, or even those better known figures who are our contemporaries. Whatever they have achieved, Machiavelli says, we can do too. However, reflecting his basic philosophy regarding the division of causal power between chance and merit, he states that, “What remains to be done must be done by you”, as ultimately “God will not do everything himself.”


On the trip I also visited the stunning hilltop town of San Gimignano, famous for its tower houses. I found it astonishing that these stone skyscrapers were put up 500 years ago, but of course it was a time of instability when families like the Guelfs and Ghibellines were constantly trying to up each other in wealth and power, and the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of self-governing cities and papal states.

Knowing this, it is easy to understand why Machiavelli was so in favour of strong state power: not for the sake of rulers' egos, but because you needed stability and rules for a people to flourish and prosper. In fact, this was much the same argument of the 2014 book Why Nations Fail (also in 50 Politics Classics) which held that the poorest countries in the world have something in common: failed political institutions. Without the transparency and stability that good government brings, the incentive to create wealth disappears.


Still on the political economy theme, last week I attended a talk by Robert G Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

The venerable American economics professor argues that, compared to the technological advances in the period 1870-1970, which saw electricity, the telegraph, and mass transportation, the advances of the post-1970 era have not been as great. Most of the innovations have been in communications and entertainment, not in areas which physically improve our lives. As a result, the growth rate of the last 45 years has been half that enjoyed between 1920 and 1970.

The book's argument is perhaps best summed up by venture capitalist Peter Thiel's now-famous remark: "We wanted flying cars, and instead we got 140 characters".

Have only just started reading it so not sure if I agree, but what I do know is the hardback, with William Gropper's 1938 mural, "Construction of a Dam" adorning the cover, is a thing of beauty.

Was chuffed when, at the book signing after the talk, Gordon wrote in my copy: "For Tom, Enjoy the cavalcade of progress. Robert G Gordon".


Named after Blaise Pascal I presume

In a nutshell

You might put the Internet at the top of a list of "Things that have changed our lives" over the last 25 years. I loved a recent talk given in Oxford by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Google's chief scientist specialising in machine learning.

Aguera demonstrated some amazing stuff from the world of 'deep learning', which some believe will be the biggest thing since the Internet. Basically, artificial intelligence has moved on from the old linear models to begin copying how the brain works. These 'neural networks' can teach themselves as they go along, just as a person does, and so really for the first time, machines can 'think' in the true sense of the word.

I raised my hand and said: "We sit opposite the Bodleian Library. In terms of practical uses for this technology, what is the likelihood that deep learning software will be able to take the world's books and summarise them in a way that can actually extract their meaning?"

Aguera replied that it would happen, but didn't give a timeframe. After the talk I read the latest scientific papers on natural language processing and deep learning as it might be applied to text summarisation, to get a sense of where it is at. To my surprise, not very far. The latest work by IBM scientists can only get a machine to turn sentences about a piece of news (e.g. "russian defense minister ivanov called sunday for the creation of a joint front for combating global terrorism") into a headline (e.g. "russia calls for joint front against terrorism") and even then it makes a lot of mistakes.

You may have used things like Summarizer where you input a paragraph and get a summary; I've tried it and the results are not good. It isn't summarisation or even abstraction, just plucking out quotes. What machines can't do is distill the meaning or essence of a text, which is what I try to do with the 50 Classics books. Indeed, when I emailed a researcher who is at the cutting edge of automated text summarisation, he replied: "I do not know of any work that addresses this problem yet. It is hard to say whether we can reach human-level performance on this task...Therefore, I don't see experts like you losing your jobs any time soon :-)".

In fact, I was less interested in whether it would make me redundant, than the possibilities of working with a machine to make book commentaries even better. I may have to wait.


Publishing Update

Since 2003, the 50 Classics series has been published by Nicholas Brealey, a smallish independent company with a global reach, with offices in London and Boston. NB has now been bought by Hachette, one of the "Big Five" in publishing. It will hopefully mean better distribution of the series in more outlets around the world.

There are two more titles in the 50 Classics pipeline, and three revised editions of older works. I look forward to telling you about them in future newsletters!

PicnikCapstonClassics spine out

A milestone was passed recently with sales of 200,000 copies of the Capstone Classics series, published by Wiley and sold in the UK, US and elsewhere.

The series began as a reissue of great personal development works including Think and Grow Rich, and then expanded to include the original texts of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Sun Tzu's Art of War, Machiavelli's The Prince, Plato's The Republic, and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. With each, I wrote an Introduction that explains the import of the book and why it is still relevant - powerful, even - for the person of today.

Part of the series' success is that it brings a fresh, contemporary look and perspective to writings that have been around a long time. Yes, you can find some of these texts free online, and maybe you have some of them on your electronic reading device, but nothing beats a good-looking hardcover that you can display in your library, or to give as a gift. As with the Gordon book above, there is most definitely still a place in our world for beautiful books.


Also available on Amazon.com, just click

Finally, it's my pleasure to see the release of my friend Joe Barnes' book Escape The System.

Over the years people have asked me to work with them on a self-development book they are writing. Usually I'm too busy with my own projects, but Joe's book, inspired by the film Fight Club, struck me right away as interesting, and I helped edit it and make suggestions. With eclectic references from The Matrix to Muhammad Ali, Joe offers readers an escape route from regular thinking. It is superb read and I recommend it.

Here is Joe talking about his novel idea to clear negative thinking and boost your joy, the 'freedom shout', and here's one of his excellent blogs, 'The 3 questions you must ask before giving up on something you love'. You can also get the book from his website.

Joe was also inspired by Joseph Murphy's self-development classic The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. I leave you with a quote from that book:

…whatever is impressed in your subconscious mind is expressed on the screen of space. This same truth was proclaimed by Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, Laotze, and all the illumined seers of the ages. Whatever you feel as true subjectively is expressed as conditions, experiences, and events. As in heaven [your own mind], so on earth.

Kind regards,



P.S. my website now has social media icons for sharing, so do post or tweet any of the free commentaries on the site to your friends.

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