Month: <span>May 2023</span>

Decisions as a Barbell (Also a Very Meta Post)

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At the end of this post I announce some significant changes to my blog, so make sure to stay till then.

I. Habits vs. Big Decisions

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast. (I forget which one.) The guest was dismissive of the idea that having a good life is all about cultivating virtuous habits. As evidence of this he pointed out that so much of one’s life ends up hinging on a few big decisions; the impact of those few decisions overwhelm whatever small gains one gets from daily habits. 

I’m a big fan of habits and normally I would not have paid much attention to this claim. To start with, it’s tautological. Yes, big decisions are substantial and important by definition. Also I’ve been evangelizing about the impact of black swans for many, many years. In other words, tell me something I don’t know. However, recent circumstances led me to pay closer attention. In particular, I thought of my friend Mark getting scammed out of an enormous amount of wealth. His frugal habits powered the accumulation of that wealth, but it only took one spectacularly bad decision to undo years of good behavior. It raises the following questions: 

  • Did his habits somehow contribute to making that one poor decision?

I have money, I can give a little bit of it to Becky, and a little bit more. Oh shit! I’m ruined.

  • Did they create a financial blind spot?

I’m good with money, I don’t need to worry about being scammed…

The same phenomenon might explain the time I was sued. (Which I also blogged about recently.) It followed a similar pattern. In the time leading up to the lawsuit I was very focused on my habits, while I basically ignored the pending disaster.  

Look how healthy I am, I’m lifting twice a week, and playing squash every Friday. I’m reading lots of books, and using the pomodoro system to be productive.

The flaming, engineless airplane I call a job? The one that’s spiraling towards the ground? I’ll be fine. Now leave me alone, can’t you see I’m reading War and Peace. Back off man, I’m an intellectual!

Defenders of habits, of which I am one, would offer another rejoinder: that there are habits which would have helped in both these situations. Put simply, you protect yourself from black swans by being antifragile. Mark had saved money and been prudent for quite a while, but as we talked about it he admitted had gotten complacent. My doubts about my job had lead me to consider my own fragility. I was well positioned to go six months without a paycheck, I wasn’t prepared to go two years, while simultaneously funding a lawsuit.

There are things that could have been done, general prudential measures you could recommend to everyone. But what are the specific habits Mark or I should have been cultivating? 

Mark could have cultivated the habit of skepticism, and I could have cultivated the habit of trusting my gut when I had misgivings about the contract (and Jean-Ralphio). But are these truly habits? 

Consider the following: You can decide on a habit of “walking outside for thirty minutes every day”. With this habit it’s crystal-clear whether you’ve done it or not. If instead the habit you decide on is “be healthy” that’s not something you can check off. Sure you can break it down into things that can be checked off, like the aforementioned habit of walking, but then those are your habits. Being healthy is too nebulous to turn into a habit. Also health involves striking a balance between many competing priorities. 

You’re searching for the golden mean, not flipping the “health” switch. 

Skepticism and knowing when to quit are the same way. It’s just as dangerous to be too skeptical as it is to be too trusting. While I would have been better off if I’d left my job before it crashed, the best timing for that decision was far from obvious. Moreover, it wasn’t something that could have been turned into a habit.

So, to the extent I’m remembering this guest’s point correctly, I disagree that habits aren’t important. I think they’re super important. You wouldn’t be reading this very sentence if I hadn’t developed several habits around writing. The epiphany I had was neither about habits, nor prudence in general, nor a realization that black swans happen. All these things were known to me already. No, it was a revelation about the space in the middle. 

II. A Barbell Strategy of Attention

Many of you started thinking of Taleb the minute I brought up black swans, given his book of the same name. Let’s bring in another of his ideas. Taleb got his start as an investor and most of his thinking flows from that discipline.  He recommends a barbell strategy, 80-90% of your money should be in super safe assets, and 10-20% of your money should be in exceptionally risky assets, with basically no money in the middle. The safe part of the barbell protects you from negative black swans (gold is still valuable even in the event of a zombie apocalypse) and the risky side of your portfolio pays out on positive black swans.

The epiphany I had while listening to that podcast was that a similar strategy should be applied to where you place your attention. 80-90% of your attention should be on developing virtuous habits, doing the work day in and day out, and 10-20% of your attention should be focused on identifying truly consequential decisions and making sure you nail them. Very little attention should be placed in the middle.

Of course most people place quite a lot of their attention on the “middle things.” The recent push to focus on habits is an attempt to correct this misallocation of attention. But to adapt the point of the podcast to our analogy, this focus frequently takes attention not from the middle, but from the other end of the barbell — the end where all the consequential decisions are made. It would be much better if it pulled attention from the middle, the non-habitual, non-consequential space where most people spend all of their time. 

You might already have a clear picture of this “middle”, but let’s get more specific. It’s all the time you spend worrying about the latest interaction you had with your boss. The anxiety you feel trying to discern whether they’re faintly pleased with your latest TPS report or vaguely annoyed. And if it’s not worrying about your boss then your attention is focused on the daily annoyances of life. The guy who cut you off. Or when you get home with your take-out only to discover that an item is missing. 

Whether it be the interactions with your boss, or the daily annoyances, these things should mostly be dealt with by habits. 

You should develop habits of doing good work. 

You should have a habit of saving money, so if you get laid off in spite of your good work, you’ll be okay. 

You should also have a habit of checking your order before you leave the restaurant. And for those instances where habits might not help — sharing the road with bad drivers — it’s important to recognize that the annoyances they cause won’t matter in the long run. (The accidents they cause are a whole other story.) It has been said that if it won’t matter in five years it doesn’t matter now. The middle is composed of all those things that won’t matter in five years.

III. Identifying the Consequential (A Metaphor of Violence)

You can find many guides to creating habits — at this point the process is fairly well understood. That said, the other end of the barbell — identifying the consequential — is much more challenging. Consequential decisions are obvious in hindsight, but difficult to identify beforehand. Fortunately I have a couple of ideas that might help.

For the first we turn once again to Taleb. This time I’d like to examine his treatment of via negativa. I guess I shouldn’t say it’s his idea, it’s actually a key component of apophatic theology. This way of thinking points out that fully describing God’s positive qualities is impossible. How do you capture omnipotence? So instead they attempt to describe God by pointing out what he is not. 

But I digress… 

Taleb recommends applying this technique more broadly. That in all areas it is more beneficial to focus on what we need to eliminate than what we need to add. In the barbell theory of attention we eliminate the middle. Once we do that all that remains is the habitual and the consequential, and distinguishing between those categories is easy. In two easy steps we have identified what’s truly impactful.

As with so many things that’s easier said than done, but it’s definitely a start. 

The second idea comes from science fiction author Neal Stephenson. In his book Anathem, his main characters are all monks, and while not all of them are martial artists, some are. These martial artists are not only skilled at violence, but also very concerned about using violence only at the right time. In most media which feature martial artists there are plenty of opportunities to fight. Everywhere they turn there are other martial artists primed for combat, just waiting to be defeated by physical violence. This is not the case in the real world and it’s not the case in Anathem. In both settings violence is exceptionally rare, and also very consequential. You must not use violence when it’s not needed, but you must not fail to use it when it is. 

Consequently, as part of their martial discipline, these monks have developed the doctrine of emergence. They spend as much time training themselves to identify when to use violence as they do training themselves to commit that violence. This consists in noticing the precursors to violence so that they will be ready. Situations which truly call for violence feel different, and develop differently, and things can change rapidly.

I feel there’s a lesson there. Namely, it’s possible to do something similar with consequential decisions — to recognize when they’re emerging. If we can manage this, then it gives us the opportunity to apply all of our wisdom at that critical point, rather than wasting our attention on the quotidian middle — on the things that really won’t matter over the long run. 

Often, truly consequential decisions don’t unfold quite so rapidly as instances of violence. That’s good news and bad news. Good in that we have more time to think and plan, bad in that the consequential decision may be far removed from the actual consequences. In my lawsuit the consequential decision was signing the contract, which happened three years before the actual lawsuit. For my friend Mark, it may have been the very first time he helped Becky out. It took quite a while before he was completely out of money. 

Another good thing is that we get far more practice with consequential decisions than we do with violence. One would hope that this makes identifying “an emergence” even easier, that we would get better at making the right decisions. Though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

I don’t think any of what I’ve said will allow one to perfectly avoid lawsuits or scams. There will still be consequential decisions where we make the wrong choice, but given the enormous impact of these decisions anything that increases our odds of success has to be good.

IV. My Own Set of Consequential Decisions

I mentioned in my last book review roundup that I was planning to move to Substack. Since then, I’ve been silent for an unusually long time and I’m still not on Substack. 

So what happened? 

Well, I think I’m in the middle of an emergence. I was recently offered a column in the Technology and Religion section of Deciding whether to accept the offer and what to do about my other writing feels like a consequential decision, and so I wanted to take my time and make sure I got it right. Also there was some other stuff slowing me down as well. There always is. 

After thinking it over, and yes, praying about it. Here’s what I decided to do:

  1. I’m going to accept the Patheos offer. In order to make sure I give it my best shot, I’m mostly going to stop putting out original content on
  2. I am still going to move things over to Substack. I remain convinced it’s a good idea.
  3. Going forward, every Wednesday I will post something from my archives in this space. I will still continue to post my monthly round up of book reviews, and I’m hoping to occasionally publish something original that’s not religious enough for Patheos, but no promises. 
  4. I say from my archives, but the plan is to revise each piece, take another editing pass, and update it to reference anything that’s happened since I originally wrote it. So I’m hoping even those of you that have read all my old stuff will nevertheless find something new and interesting.
  5. I do not yet have a link for my Patheos blog, but as soon as I do I’ll post it here. My plan is to post there every Friday. I expect those pieces will be shorter, so I figure it basically takes the place of my newsletter The Eschatologist
  6. If you listen to me via podcast, for the foreseeable future, audio versions of everything will be released there, both the Patheos columns and the stuff.

Part of this plan comes because I want to make sure I come out swinging on Patheos, and part of it is due to the fact that I have a very busy summer. I intend to revisit things come the end of August. I don’t intend to put out stuff from the archives forever, hopefully it will just be for a few months. 

Thanks for your ongoing patience, and hopefully, when it comes to this consequential decision, it will be obvious that I made the correct one.

I’m not sure what to do about my Patreon with these changes. If you are one of my patrons (and I couldn’t be more thankful to you) I’d be interested in hearing from you. 

The 8 Books I Finished in April

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

  1. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by: Eric Schlosser
  2. Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less by: Alex Epstein
  3. The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 
  4. Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment by: Yanis Varoufakis 
  5. Apollo: The Race to the Moon by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
  6. Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1) by: Orson Scott Card
  7. The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3 by: Matt Dinniman
  8. Faith, Hope and Carnage by: Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan

April continued to be crazy busy with my business. I’ve hired some people, but in between the time it takes to manage them and the steady increase in the number of clients, thus far adding capacity has not reduced my workload. But I’m optimistic that eventually it will

Also I had a weird medical problem. This may be a case of TMI, but the whole thing was interesting. 

Both of my big toes have been tender and occasionally painful for several months. The problem didn’t seem to be getting worse, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better either. Also I eventually concluded that the nails of both had stopped growing, so I figured I’d better see a podiatrist. I expected him to prescribe some kind of cream, or for him to be mystified (as doctors frequently are.)  Instead, he knew exactly what was going on and determined that at some point I had traumatized my two big toes enough that my body had decided that the nails were no longer viable. I couldn’t remember any taxing toe trauma and told him that. He said he often saw severe shock among skiers because of the squeeze — of the boots. I had been skiing once this winter, but I thought the toenail truncation started thereafter.

In any case, because of the trauma my body had decided to give up on the old nail and switch to a new nail, but since the old nails were still there there was a good chance that the new nails would get blocked. If this happened then the body would start trying to grow a third nail, which would almost certainly also get blocked and at some point things get really backed up. The solution was to just yank out both of the old nails. 

This solution was way more dramatic and potentially painful than I expected. My immediate response was to squeak out “Right now?” I honestly didn’t feel psychically prepared — it’s not like the nails were loose or anything. Fortunately, except for a brief moment of discomfort, the removal was painless. The shots to achieve that condition were another thing entirely…

It’s interesting that the initial injury was so mild I can’t even remember it, but the resolution was dramatic enough that I’ll never forget it. Recovery hasn’t been too bad. Though occasionally a wave of pain will emanate from the top of the toe, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what sets things off.

One final update: I’m 90% sure I’m going to move to Substack in May. A few things pushed me over the edge: 

  1. The referral feature is nice. I have some fans who are also Substack writers and it will be easier for them to recommend me. 
  2. I like the idea of Notes. I think that might be more my style than the Hobbesian world of Twitter. 
  3. Finally the Substack team can apparently port over my entire domain, so links to old posts will continue to work. This is a MAJOR deal. 

I mention all this, so that if at some point in May you can’t get to my site, you’ll know why.

I- Eschatological Review

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

by: Eric Schlosser

Published: 2013

656 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The development and integration of nuclear weapons into the military structure, Cold War deterrence strategy, and the numerous accidents involving nukes, many of which avoided being an accidental detonation only by luck.

What’s the author’s angle?

Schlosser is an investigative journalist, so he’s after the juicy stories. I’m not saying he juiced this particular story up, but keep in mind that he has very little incentive to moderate the juiciness.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, there’s a sense in which this is a sequel to that. More generally, anyone interested in nukes should read the book.

General Thoughts

This was a great book. It uses the common non-fiction structure of using a single incident to provide narrative momentum. Schlosser then builds off that incident into a larger examination of the general subject and its history. 

The momentum comes from the story of the Damascus Accident. In 1980, a two-man crew was servicing a Titan II missile. In order to do that they needed to use a very large socket. Unfortunately they subsequently dropped that socket. It slipped through a narrow gap, and dropped 80 feet where it ricocheted off the thrust mount and into the side of the missile. This punctured the fuel tank and the missile began spraying fuel into the silo. (Here’s a link to a YouTube video with a recreation of the accident.) The book recounts all of the events that followed, events which eventually culminated in the silo exploding and the nuclear warhead being ejected. Fortunately it did not detonate or break apart. In fact it only traveled a short distance. Nevertheless it was still an enormous disaster. Twenty-one people were injured and one person died.

On top of this story of disaster experienced and apocalypse avoided, Schlosser lays out the history of nuclear weapons and how they were handled politically and militarily. As you might imagine, he spends a lot of time talking about the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

In all this history I found the immediate post-war period to be the most interesting. I obviously can’t cover everything, but here are two facts to whet your appetite:

President Truman’s [vow to contain Soviet power was tough words [his vow to contain Soviet Power was] not backed, however, by a military strategy that could defend Western Europe. During the early months of 1947, as Truman formulated his anti-Communist doctrine, the Pentagon did not have a war plan for fighting the Soviet Union. And the rapid demobilization of the American military seemed to have given the Soviets a tremendous advantage on the ground. The U.S. Army had only one division stationed in Germany, along with ten police regiments, for a total of perhaps 100,000 troops. The British army had one division there, as well. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Soviet army had about one hundred divisions, with about 1.2 million troops, capable of invading Western Europe—and could mobilize more than 150 additional divisions within a month.

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I often heard that NATO was outmatched conventionally. Still, I always imagined that the disparity wasn’t that great. And by the end of the Cold War it probably wasn’t, but I never realized that the disparity started out at 100 to 1! When that’s the starting point it’s going to take a long time to reverse, and the impression of being outgunned will probably last long after the actual situation starts changing.

Given this disparity, it is only natural that Truman would turn to nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The problem was that no one, not even the president, knew how many nuclear weapons the US had. 

In April 1947, David Lilienthal visited Los Alamos for the first time after becoming head of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was shocked by what he saw: rudimentary equipment; dilapidated buildings; poor housing; muddy, unpaved roads—and plutonium cores stored in cages at an old icehouse… Nuclear weapons were now thought indispensable for the defense of the United States; Lilienthal had expected to find them neatly and safely stored for immediate use. “The substantial stockpile of atom bombs we and the top military assumed was there, in readiness, did not exist,” Lilienthal subsequently wrote. “Furthermore, the production facilities that might enable us to produce quantities of atomic weapons … likewise did not exist.”The number of atomic bombs in the American arsenal was considered so secret that it could not be shared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff—or even recorded on paper. After visiting Los Alamos, Lilienthal met with President Truman in the Oval Office and told him how many atomic bombs would be available in the event of a war with the Soviet Union: at most, one. The bomb was unassembled but, in Lilienthal’s view, “probably operable.” The president was stunned. He’d just announced the Truman Doctrine before Congress, vowing to contain the worldwide spread of communism. Admirals and generals were fighting over the atomic stockpile, completely unaware that there wasn’t one. “We not only didn’t have a pile,” Lilienthal recalled, “we didn’t have a stock.” The threat to destroy the Soviet Union, if it invaded Western Europe, was a bluff.

You can imagine my reaction to this. After reading the first quote, I was surprised that the USSR hadn’t invaded Western Europe. One imagines that had they been aware of the information in the second quote, they certainly would have. 

As everyone knows, the number didn’t stay at one for very long, and in our haste to assemble an actual stockpile, safety was often a secondary concern. These efforts were further stymied by the state of readiness SAC insisted on. Bombers had to be prepared to take to the air with nukes at a moment’s notice, and they frequently flew training missions with actual nukes as well. Unfortunately, planes sometimes have accidents, and if you insist on loading actual nukes onto those planes they’re going to get into accidents as well. Accidents like a fire which might set off the detonators, and trigger a full or partial nuclear explosion.

It would be unfair to say that SAC completely ignored the problem of safety, but they strongly resisted numerous proposed enhancements because they worried it would make the weapons less reliable. When you combine this with the frequent handling these weapons received, there were thousands of accidents. Most were not serious, but dozens were, and that’s a conservative estimate. Since the end of the Cold War things have gotten better, but there are a lot of nukes still out there, and they’re getting older. It’s unclear what the future holds. Speaking of which…

Eschatological Implications

For many people nothing is more viscerally eschatological than nukes. Their vision of armageddon is nothing more nor less than all-out nuclear war. Command and Control makes it clear that we came very close to mutually assured destruction several times. We came even closer to accidentally detonating one of those weapons, which might have served to trigger an all out exchange — the accident could have been mistaken for a deliberate act. The book quotes General Butler, head of SAC at the end of the Cold War. He was tasked with revising our nuclear plans.

I came to fully appreciate the truth … we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.

Regardless of how, we should surely be grateful that we did escape. But is that escape permanent? There are still thousands of nuclear weapons and just a few weeks ago the NYT reported that China is massively expanding its nuclear arsenal with a goal of becoming the third nuclear superpower. Lots of people imagine that because we survived the last 75 years with nukes that the danger is past. But it seems more likely that the danger is just beginning. Despite the dreams of pacifists and presidents, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is as far away as ever. 

Even if we can avoid war, what about accidents? As Schlosser points out, accidents are common, and while none has resulted in an actual detonation, it seems to only be a matter of time before one does. Obviously this book was written from the standpoint of the US. What would a similar book written from the standpoint of Russia and the USSR look like? Would it be even more alarming? And is there not a second book to be written about China? One where most of the pages are yet to be filled?

We are not out of the woods. We’re not even close to the edge of the woods. By all accounts, we’re actually journeying deeper into the darkness. 

II- Non-Fiction Reviews

Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less

by: Alex Epstein

Published: 2022

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the downsides of fossil fuel use are overstated and upsides are understated.

What’s the author’s angle?

I’ll get to a charitable interpretation of his “angle” below, for an uncharitable interpretation all you need to know is that he spent seven years as a fellow at the Ayn Rand institute.

Who should read this book?

If you want a steelman of the case for increasing the use of fossil fuels or if you want someone to reassure you that staying on the current course isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

General Thoughts

In a past post on climate change I pointed out that there are several stages/questions to any discussion of climate change:

  1. Is the Earth getting hotter?
  2. Are humans causing it?
  3. Is that a bad thing?
  4. If so, how bad?

While much of the discussion remains confined to questions one and two, this is a book about levels three and four. In particular, Epstein points out that the effects of climate change will be much easier to deal with if we have lots of energy. Of course the way we get lots of energy is by burning fossil fuels, so it’s a vicious cycle, but Epstein mostly argues that the ship has sailed. Climate change is already locked in, and dealing with it, while also dealing with an extreme lack of energy is going to make things very bad.

Climate change is such a contentious issue that I am not going to attempt any kind of deep dive on his arguments. Though I would be interested in reading something from the other side of this issue. What is the gold-standard “climate change is going to be a massive disaster” book? 

Though no deep dive, I do want to nibble around the edges. At its core the debate over climate change is a debate about impact and how it should be evaluated. (This book was a big part of the inspiration for my recent post on harm.) Consider an example:

There’s a lot of talk about ocean acidification. I frequently see it brought up as an argument against geo-engineering, because even if that serves to mitigate the temperatures we will still have irreparably harmed the oceans. Epstein discusses this at some length and puts forth a lot of different counter arguments. The one I found the most interesting was the fact that historically carbon-dioxide levels have been much higher. (Nota bene: Here historically means hundreds of millions of years ago.) But during those times when the carbon-dioxide level was several times higher than it is today, the ocean had more life in it than it does today. Historically, a more “acidic” ocean was arguably more hospitable.

This does not mean that there’s no impact. Even if the ocean is more hospitable to life, that life might be significantly different than what currently lives there. Changes to the ocean may kill off numerous species that were adapted to the current ocean. This is a very large impact, and a large part of Epstein’s book is dedicated to pointing out that zero human impact is an impossible goal, but it’s precisely the goal at the heart of the environmental movement. Zero human impact equals zero humans, so this leads them, at their core, to be anti-human. This observation is both interesting and, on some level, true.

In general Epstein makes a pretty convincing case. But I think his confidence that if we just continue to use fossil fuel that we’ll definitely be better off has a couple of very large issues. I think the speed of change has been pretty slow thus far, but that need not always be the case. Things could speed up and outpace our ability to adapt even if we don’t forswear fossil fuel (though I take his point that in the absence of fossil fuel our ability to adapt is even more limited). Just because carbon-dioxide was much higher historically doesn’t mean that the transition happened as rapidly as it is now. 

More perniciously I worry about visible effects vs. invisible effects. I think we have lots of ways to mitigate the visible effects of climate change: rising temperatures and sea level, climate refugees, droughts, etc. (whether we’ll actually use them is a different story.) But I’m certain that out of all of the effects it’s going to cause, there are some we’re not going to know about until it’s too late. While we’re busy building dikes and spraying sulfur-dioxide into the upper atmosphere, other catastrophes will be brewing and we won’t realize it until they’re too late to stop. 

The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion

by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Democracy requires free and open communication — a loose system of control. But this same system, because of its lack of control, can easily go off the rails, and be exploited. Or, as the book says, “Hence the paradox: the more open the communication we enjoy, the more endangered democracy finds itself.”

What’s the author’s angle?

Most people think that “the default state of democracy is stability, and periods of disruption are the exception.” The author’s want to demonstrate that it’s the exact opposite.

Who should read this book?

The authors demonstrate the aforementioned disruption with a survey of democratic instability throughout history, if you’re interested in such a survey you should read this book. That said, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have read. I frequently point out that my reading is far too skewed towards recent books, that I should cut some of the more recent books in favor of older books. This is a recent book that should have been cut.

General Thoughts

There are people who are surprised by the idea that democracy isn’t being subverted, that it is in fact doing the subversion. I am not one of those people. I have long known that democracy can just as easily lead to illiberalism as liberalism. I’ve been warning about it in this space for quite awhile. This is another reason why I probably should have skipped this book, it was preaching to the choir.

Though the preaching was tiresome, some of it was quite trenchant. A few quotes demonstrate this:

We’re now confronting the greatest structural challenge to democracy we’ve ever seen: a truly open society. Without gatekeepers, there are no constraints on discourse. Digital technology has changed everything. Consequently, reality is up for grabs in a way it never has been before.

Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, sensed, far better than political scientists or sociologists, that our media environment decides not just what we pay attention to but also how we think and orient ourselves in the world.

We’re confronting the true face of democracy: a totally unfettered culture of open communication. Nearly all democracies up until now have been democracies in name only; they’ve been mediated by institutions designed to check popular passions and control the flow of information. 

I would disagree that we lack gatekeepers and that there are no mediating institutions. Their power has been weakened and the culture of open communication has made their interference far more transparent, but they are still there. Nor do I expect them to go away anytime soon, but what we are seeing is a fracturing into tribes and camps. The left has their institutions. The right has theirs. And even the centrists have splintered off into their own camp. As I have repeatedly said, it’s not institutions we lack, it’s a civil religion.

To their credit the authors recognize this:

All democratic communities are held together not by a shared conception of truth but by a commonly recognized experience and a commitment to active dialogue.

We have no commonly recognized experience. No universal myths we all agree on. When you combine that with unfettered democracy, that’s when you really have a problem.

Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment

by: Yanis Varoufakis 

Published: 2017

516 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An insider’s account of the 2015 Greek Debt Crisis written by the finance minister at the time, so, not just a little bit inside, very inside. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Varoufakis is at pains to show how ridiculous the process was and how intransigent the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) was. I have no doubt that his account is largely correct, nevertheless I would dearly like to read something written from the other side.

Who should read this book?

This book portrays a very narrow slice of the modern world, but cuts deeper into that machinery than probably any book I’ve read. If you want a look at the modern world which descends into the deepest depths of the ocean, through the crust, past the mantle and into the core. This is your book.

General Thoughts

This book was by turns gripping, tragic, and, most of all, damning. But I hesitate to pronounce damnation on anyone without hearing their side of the story. The functionaries and bureaucrats in this book, from Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, through Wolfgang Schäuble, German Minister of Finance, to Varoufakis’ own allies within the Greek Government, all do some really dumb things, and I can’t help but imagine that if told from their perspective that these things wouldn’t appear quite so dumb. 

In particular, I wonder what Varoufakis would point to today to prove that he was right all along. The Greek economy does seem to be growing, albeit slightly. The debt hasn’t gone down and in fact it continues to increase, but it’s so huge compared to the Greek economy that it almost doesn’t matter. Varoufakis made a big deal about the devastation austerity wrought on the poor. The poverty rate seems to have fallen in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but then started rising again, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find recent numbers. 

I’m inclined to take Varoufakis’ account as the truth, but that’s precisely why I want to know more because it’s a truth so amazing that I’m curious to know as much as possible. 

Apollo: The Race to the Moon

by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox

Published: 1989

506 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A behind-the-scenes look at the technical and engineering side of the Apollo missions: building the rocket, coming up with the idea for a lunar lander, building the Cape and Houston, etc.

What’s the author’s angle?

Murray is best known for his social science books. He wrote this one with his wife, and I think it was because the story was so amazing he couldn’t help but write it.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in the moon program or engineering, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s fantastic. 

General Thoughts

Like many great books, this one is out of print. I don’t know why because it’s fantastic. It’s not even available as an ebook to say nothing of audio. You can get a decent copy for around $40, which isn’t great, but it was totally worth it.

As far as the book itself, I never considered myself to be a deep student of the Apollo program, but I figured I knew more than most. There was obviously Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, and of course Apollo 13. And I knew there were several missions after 13.

I was also dimly aware that there were missions before 11. I knew they had circled the moon before landing on it. But these pre-Apollo 11 missions were where my knowledge was the most lacking and this is where this book excelled. Obviously just getting to the first launch was a ridiculously difficult endeavor punctuated by the enormous tragedy of Apollo 1’s fire, which killed three astronauts.

One of my favorite of these endeavors was the launch of Apollo 4. It was an unmanned launch and the first full test of all three stages. They had the rocket together for the very first time, a million pieces from countless vendors. They would start at the top of the countdown checklist, come to something that couldn’t be checked off, stop everything, fix it, and then start over. This went on for seventeen days where people were working nearly twenty-four hours a day, but when they finally fixed all of the problems, the launch went perfectly. None of the stages had been independently tested, but it all worked. No one thinks of Apollo 4 these days, but it was a massive engineering accomplishment. 

I know one shouldn’t long for the past, as things are much better on so many fronts today. But when you read about those amazing men, the challenges they overcame, and what they were able to pull off in less than a decade, it does feel like we’ve lost something. That whatever else we might be able to do today, we couldn’t do that again.

III- Fiction Reviews

Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1)

by: Orson Scott Card

Published: 1985

324 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ender Wiggins, a child prodigy, is taken from his family and sent to Battle School to be trained as an eventual fleet commander. Meanwhile his equally prodigious siblings, Peter and Valentine, engage in their own machinations back on Earth.

Who should read this book?

I expect the vast majority of people who read this blog already have. If for some reason you haven’t, you should. This is probably my sixth or seventh time reading it.

General Thoughts

Ender’s Game was originally a short story, which is how I first encountered it. My father maintains that this is the superior version. If you’re curious to compare the two, you can find the short story version in volume 1 of Jerry Pournelle’s There Will be War series (available on Kindle for $5). My personal opinion is that each version harmonizes with its respective format. The short story is more plot-driven and focuses on the twist ending. While the novel is more character-driven and focuses on the interaction between the siblings. 

One of my readers convinced me that I had to read Children of the Mind, the fourth book of the saga, because it contained some interesting ideas about unembodied intelligences, a topic in which I’ve expressed some interest. I figured in order to do that I needed to reread books 1-3, so here we are. You should expect reviews of Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide shortly.

And yes, the book was just as good as I remembered.

The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3

by: Matt Dinniman

Published: 2021

534 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you may recall, this is a series where aliens show up, take possession of the Earth, kill most of its inhabitants and make the rest participate in a real life fantasy dungeon crawl computer game. The series revolves around Carl and his sentient, talking cat, Princess Donut. In this book he has to defeat level four which, much like the internet, is a series of tubes

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for mindless escapist fantasy. And you enjoyed books one and two.

General Thoughts

Of the three books I’ve read thus far, I thought book two was the strongest. I suspect I’m going to tire of Carl continually triumphing over impossible odds by being very lucky and coming up with crazy ideas. But I guess that’s what I signed up for when I started the series. My grumbling aside, this series has been a very enjoyable diversion. I plan to continue reading it and I believe I’ll start book 4 right…now!

IV- Religious Reviews

Faith, Hope and Carnage

by: Nick Cave, Seán O’Hagan 

Published: 2022

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Cave and O’Hagan had several long conversations during the COVID lockdowns which they recorded and turned into a book. It covers a lot of territory, music, God, and, of course, all the words in the title. Carnage refers to many things, but mostly to the loss of Cave’s fifteen year-old son Arthur, who accidently fell to his death in 2015. 

Who should read this book?

My wife recommended this to me after reading it with her book club. Despite all the reviewing I do, I rarely reach out to someone and say, “You should read this book.” I did with this one. This is one you should almost certainly read. (Or at least listen to the authors re-narrate their conversations.)

General Thoughts

The conversation between the Cave and O’Hagan is so wide-ranging that it would be wrong for me to try and summarize it further. I’ll just end things with one of Cave’s numerous amazing observations:

Yes, but Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person – and, Seán, when I use that word ‘religious’, you do understand the way that I am using it, right? We’ve talked about that enough for you to understand I am not talking about being a traditional Christian or something like that. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt on a profound level a kind of deep inclusion in the human predicament, really, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled.

I messed with the categories a little bit this month, and it made me wonder if I should stop ending with religious reviews. They have a tendency to be heavy, which makes joking about donations more difficult. And yet I soldier on regardless of how tasteless it is. If you appreciate that brazenness, consider donating.