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Pieces of the Action

Old men and their tales are good for many things: knowledge, inspiration, amusement, and, occasionaly, ridicule. Vannevar Bush provides all four in this series of (mostly war) stories about innovation and how to kill it. The anecdotes are loosely grouped into themes, and are even more loosely chronologically arranged; an opportunity for a joke, a pun, or a humble-brag trumps any attempt at organization. The feeling is very much like sitting crossed-legged on the carpet next to your grandfather’s airmchair as he — pipe in one hand, tumbler of scotch in the other — spins you a yarn.

Quite a yarn, though. Bush spent time as a leader in academia, government, and industry, in that order, and has good and bad things to say about all three. His preference is for strict hiearchy; his favorite part of government is the military, his most hated subordinates are those who don’t follow chain of command. One doesn’t win a World War without gaining some appreciation for epaulets and funny hats, I suppose.

That said, his is the most convincing case for patents that I’ve come across: they should be seen as a way to secure a return on investment for the venture capital, not a monetary incentive for the inventor. Having a few patents in his name, he knows an idea by itself is worthless without the resources to implement it, resources which won’t come unless there is a guarantee someone else won’t be able to come and lift the final product, bypassing the costly process development. Fifty years after this clear and concise explanation, people still make the mistake of describing patents as rewards (more on Steve Johnson’s book — which if we are being pedantic came out 40-some years after Pieces of the Action — some other day).

So an intelligent, wise, industrious man in the twilight of his career retells his life’s story — all well and useful — but he also gives some predictions: that American politicians are becoming more leader-like and that we should expect to see even more leadership in high-quality politics in the coming days, possibly thanks to that new darling of American intellectuals, the television set. Pieces of the Action came out in 1970, two years before the Watergate break-in and four years before Nixon’s resignation. The difference between metaphorical peaks and real ones is that you don’t know you are on the former until you are well on your way down, and if you spent your life inventing the modern world, running corporations and fighting Nazis, the way down is hard to imagine.

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