Category: <span>Book Reviews</span>

The 8 Books I Finished in April

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  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.  


The 13 Books I Finished in March

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  1. What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies by: Tim Urban
  2. The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism by: David Friedman
  3. The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown by: Various
  4. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by: Edwin H. Friedman
  5. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by: Theodore Dalrymple
  6. Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us by: Russ Roberts
  7. Darkness at Noon by: Arthur Koestler
  8. The Horse and His Boy by: C. S. Lewis
  9. Prince Caspian by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Voyage of the Dawn Treader by: C. S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair by: C. S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle by: C. S. Lewis
  13. Till We Have Faces by: C. S. Lewis

In March I once again failed to get out two essays, to my eternal shame. But I did finish Part One of my book. It’s currently at 63 pages as a Google Doc (not including endnotes), but it would be 92 pages at 300 words a page, and 118 pages at the Amazon nonfiction average of 233 words per page. Basically it’s an incredibly in depth expansion of my post Fermi’s Paradox As a Proof of the Existence of God with lots of extra stuff thrown in. I have a few people who are going to read the whole thing and tell me how it hangs together in its entirety, but I could use a few more, let me know if you’re interested.

(That’s one of the problems with writing is you’re in the weeds so often that there’s always a risk you’ll step back and find out that the entire garden looks awful. Even if the individual flowers are all pretty.)

One of the reasons why I didn’t get two essays out last month is that I went to Gary Con. The annual celebration of the life of Gary Gygax put on by his son Luke. It’s been attracting some celebrities. Joe Manganiello has been coming for a while, but there are others as well. A quick story, the game I was playing was taking a break, and I ran to the concessions stand to get a drink and some chips. The guy in front of me had just ordered a cheeseburger and I was debating whether I should see if I could quickly check out ahead of him while he waited for the cheeseburger, and I was so wrapped up in my ruminations that I just about didn’t realize that the guy I was preparing to cut in front of was Vince Vaughn. Even had I remained oblivious I don’t think I would have ended up cutting ahead of him because his cheeseburger arrived pretty quickly. But it’s too bad I didn’t realize earlier that I was standing next to him. I would have told him I was a big fan of Brawl in Cell Block 99. (Definite content warning on that movie by the way, It’s brutal!) That’s the trick. I assume everyone mentions Dodgeball and stuff like that. You have to go for the deep cut.


I- Eschatological Review

What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies

by: Tim Urban

Published: 2023

746 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The answer to the question posed by the title, which for Urban boils down to adding a vertical axis to politics on top of the horizontal one we’re all familiar with. The horizontal axis is the left vs. right, Democrats vs. Republican continuum. The vertical axis goes from “primitive minds” on the bottom to “higher minds” on the top. The primitive mind consists of all the urges built into us by evolution. Urban refers to it as “our idiot ancient programming”. It’s the innate drive for food, sex, and power. The higher mind is built out of reason, science and open debate. Urban defines it as “our magical thinking brain”. Our problem is that people are spending too much time at the bottom of the vertical axis (irrespective of whether they’re on the right or the left) and not nearly as much time at the top. (Also see my last newsletter.)

What’s the author’s angle?

There’s rarely been a book where the author’s angle or in this case his journey, has been talked about as much as with this book. Urban decided to write a post about this topic. That post became a series of posts. Then midway through the series he announced that it would be a book, and six years after deciding to write about the subject it finally arrived. In other words no one can say he didn’t think long and hard about this topic.

Who should read this book?

Urban’s thought process is interesting. And his dissection of Social Justice Fundamentalism (his term for what others call wokeism) is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. But overall I found the book to be on the naive side. I think if you were previously a big fan of Wait but Why you would appreciate the book. But if you’re on the fence, or if you’re looking for a reason to say no to this book (or no to more things in general) I would just read a good review instead. I would start with mine of course, but if that leaves you wanting more, consider this one from Astral Codex Ten.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned above this book started out as a series of posts. It was called The Story of Us. At the time I was reading along, and I had decided to review those posts in this space (once he was done). It was a rare instance where I was actually working ahead. And of course I was punished for it because he never finished the series, and the book is actually pretty different. But it’s interesting to look back at what I wrote down in December of 2019 and January of 2020, to compare his initial run at this subject with the final book. It’s different enough that he has taken down those posts, so I only have my notes and what I remember.

In both the book and series of posts he starts with the idea of the “primitive mind” and contrasts it with our “higher mind”. In addition to the attributes I mentioned above in the summary, the primitive mind engages in power games, which are bad. In power games the people who win are just those who have the most power. In contrast to the primitive mind, the higher mind engages in contests of ideas. This involves debate and discussion where the best ideas win. In the series he calls these contests “value games” but in the book they’re called “liberal games”.

It’s curious that he decided to make this change, but I have a theory. One of the things that really stuck out to me about the initial series was that he basically went all in on freedom of speech. I’m a big fan of it myself, and I particularly liked that he differentiated between just laws protecting freedom of speech and an actual culture of free speech. But it’s also abundantly clear that in the age of social media, an “anything goes” approach to speech generally results in horrible cesspools. But, on the other hand, when organizations restrict speech it also leads to all sorts of problems. In the series, he didn’t acknowledge this tension which struck me as naive.

Therefore I assume that changing it from “value games” to “liberal games” is an attempt to shed some of his naivete, by framing free speech within classically liberal norms. (Not progressive norms, that’s a whole different thing.) Accordingly, I see a lot of places in the book where it looks like he dialed back some of his naive absolutism — where he acknowledged that it was complicated. But I don’t think he went nearly far enough. For example the idea that our primitive brain is “our idiot ancient programming” is a direct quote from the book. So while the book is better than the series in many respects it still has a naive idealism that significantly undermines its utility. I talked about some of this in my end of month newsletter. Let’s consider yet another example.

Eschatological Implications

For Urban, the load bearing member of his whole framework is the higher mind. The book’s fundamental claim is that if we can get people to use their higher mind as opposed to their primitive mind, and ideally with groups of other people who are also using their higher mind, all our problems will be solved. In the series he claimed that the higher mind “values truth above all else.” (Not only a direct quote but it was bolded in the original). The series also gave one the general feeling that the higher mind is some kind of transcendental, salvific force which resides in the hearts of all men.

This was one of the things he dialed down in the book. But you still get the feeling that the higher mind is something within everyone and they just need to make the decision to flip the switch on their brain from “idiot[ic] ancient programming” to “magical thinking”. He gives some mild suggestions for how best to do that, but it never sounds, on the individual level, that it should require any massive outpouring of willpower.

Whether turning on the magical thinking brain is straightforward or not, my biggest problem is with his characterization of the primitive mind.

Even in the book he has the tendency to frame the primitive mind as being irretrievably evil, and the higher mind as being entirely benevolent. That if we could just squash the primitive mind and embrace rationality, utopia would be realized.

The problems with this framing are legion. To begin with, it assumes that because our primitive mind is stuck in a world that disappeared thousands of years ago that nothing it prompts us to  do will be a good idea. And it further assumes that deciding everything on the basis of pure reason will give us better answers and better outcomes than anything we do instinctually. This is patently untrue, and the last dozen or so decades have provided numerous examples of how monumentally untrue it is. 

He spent more time attacking the primitive mind directly in the series. In the book he pivots to offering an in depth examination of how the primitive mind is currently ruining everything. He spends 75% of the book talking directly about the populist right and the woke left. But out of that 75%, 10% is the populist right, and 65% is the woke left. (I actually didn’t realize how big the disparity was until I just ran the numbers.)

I’m guessing that he feels like his average reader will have no problem seeing the primitive mind in action among the MAGA crowd, but they need significantly more persuasion to see it among their own beliefs. As I said above his deep dive into the left provides the biggest payoff of the book. But when he exempts the higher mind from what has happened and lays it all at the feet of the primitive mind, I think he’s engaged in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. By this I mean that he ignores how many people think that they arrived at woke ideology through using their “higher mind” i.e. how much intellectualization was involved in the process. But for Urban the higher mind is only the intellectualization that leads to reasoned debates and the search for truth. By taking this framing he ends up placing all the blame for postmodernism, intersectionality, and transgender maximalism at the feet of the “primitive mind”, which seems bizarre.  

I think Urban and the woke left are both making the same mistake and ignoring the wisdom provided through cultural evolution. Both assume that through the exercise of pure reason that you can arrive at a better society than what we had historically. In this journey the woke left has descended farther into tribalism, and Urban is right to point that out. But they both start from the same place: a rejection of tradition and an embrace of “reason” as the answer to everything. In the end the book is complaining about the inevitable outcome of the policy it recommends. We can start over, which is basically what Urban recommends, but I fear that no matter how many times we do, pure reason will continue to take us to places which are similarly ridiculous. 


II- Capsule Reviews

The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism

by: David Friedman

Published: 1973; Additional chapters added in 1989 and 2014

378 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of anarcho-capitalism, that attempts to cover all the bases: providing solutions, answering objections and discussing benefits.

What’s the author’s angle?

Friedman has been working this angle for a very long time (as evidenced by his repeated and extensive revisions of the book). It is something of a manifesto.

Who should read this book?

Many years ago (according to Amazon. 13 years ago) I read Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian. This book isn’t strictly a defense of libertarianism, but it seems worth comparing the two. Friedman’s book got into far more specifics and grappled with problems more directly. Based on that small sample size, I would say if you want to read a book about this corner of the political spectrum. I would recommend this one over Murray’s.

General Thoughts

This was the SSC/ACX selection for March, and we actually managed to get Friedman to attend the club (virtually). I asked him a couple of questions. The first was what sort of science fiction he would recommend as being representative of this ideological space. I guess Vernor Vinge wrote a short story called The Ungoverned, which was directly inspired by this book, so clearly it doesn’t get much closer than that. Other than that he had a couple of recommendations. I thought perhaps he would mention Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, but he hadn’t read it, which seems like a pretty big oversight. But what are you going to do?

My second question concerned whether he felt the world had gotten more or less free since he wrote the first edition of the book in 1973. His overall assessment was that it had gotten less free, though certainly there are areas where things have gotten more free, or I guess technically more anarcho-capitalist, but mostly he felt the trend has been in the other direction. I was glad to hear that he was seeing more or less the same thing I was, even though this would be bad news for him and his ideological allies if everything they hoped for is getting ever more out of reach.

Though perhaps I’m too pessimistic. It seems hard to imagine a straight path from where we are now to the world he proposes, but I can imagine a few ways in which ancap could still triumph. Perhaps in the short term things are getting worse, but what we’re seeing is the final gasp of the old system—the frantic application of more and more laws, regulations and government control, before liberty finally breaks free. I get the sense that, if you squint, it looked something like this in the immediate lead up to the American and French Revolutions, but, overall I think the comparison is weak. 

Alternatively perhaps technology will allow a segment of the population to opt out of state control and into political structures of their own devising. One of which will be the anarcho capitalist utopia Friedman describes in this book. Certainly I get the feeling that some of the big crypto advocates imagine that this will happen, but some of the big internet advocates imagined the same thing, only to end up mostly disappointed. 

What I just described might be termed a soft technological transition. You could also imagine a hard transition, some kind of singularity, perhaps positive, perhaps negative. In the former case we can imagine that a well-aligned, friendly AI, like Mike from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (another book Friedman mentioned) creates the conditions under which the state is no longer necessary. On the negative side of things lots of people imagine ancap springing up in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Friedman himself thinks getting there through violent revolution would be a very dumb idea. So that’s good.

When I was young, I was very libertarian, and I still find ideas like these very appealing, but the older I get the more improbable and naive they seem.


The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown

by: Various

Published: 2017

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of stories which were initially told live and in person as part of The Moth, an organization dedicated towards precisely that activity. 

Who should read this book?

If you like a good story told well, you’ll probably like this book. Though I don’t know that they had quite the punch I would expect. None were so engaging that I felt the need to retell them to anyone, nor do I think I’ll remember 90% of them a month from now. (And before you blame it on me listening to them at 3x I actually read the physical book in this case.)

General Thoughts

All the stories were good, a few were great, but none were timeless. And as is often the case these days, the message of many was too on the nose. If you listen to The Moth Radio Hour, or have enjoyed previous compilations, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, but if you’ve never heard of The Moth, then I don’t think this book is strong enough to carry the brand all on its own.


A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

by: Edwin H. Friedman

Published: 2007

260 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That in order to be a successful leader you have to have nerve. This comes from being mentally healthy and principled, but also from ignoring the anxious and mentally unhealthy in your organization. Nerve can also be dissipated by relying too much on data. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Friedman was a Rabbi, a therapist and a leadership consultant. This book, which was unfinished at his death, is an attempt to synthesize his observations about anxiety and dysfunction in families with a similar phenomenon in organizations. 

Who should read this book?

It’s got a lot of gems, and I highlighted numerous passages, but those gems are buried under a lot of meandering analogies, and poorly edited prose. The latter almost certainly stems from the unfinished nature of the book, which also causes it to trail off at the end. It’s possible that a strong conclusion could have entirely redeemed things. I’m not really prepared to recommend this book.

General Thoughts

This book was published in 2007, and it predicts a lot of the intra-institutional dynamics (i.e. fights) that have become so prevalent recently. It also does a pretty good job of anticipating woke capital, so on that front, Friedman deserves to receive credit for his foresight. And I expect that this foresight is a big part of the book’s appeal.

Beyond that I thought his observation that “The pursuit of data, in almost any field, has come to resemble a form of substance abuse.” was also something that was worth pointing out. I don’t accept it unreservedly, but I do think this is accurate for quite a few people. 

Probably the best part of the book for me was when he pointed out that self-assurance, which is critical to good leadership, has come to be seen as narcissistic selfishness, when in reality there’s quite a bit of difference between the two. Here’s one of the passages I highlighted:

How are parents and presidents to value, indeed treasure and preserve, self without worrying that they are being narcissistic or autocratic? To resort to being only an “enabler” for others or to try to concentrate on building teams instead simply fudges the issue. Someone still has to go first!

I think this is related to the data issue, because it’s felt that if you have the data to back up your position then it’s okay to go first. But unless the decision is straightforward you’re never going to have sufficient data. On the other hand if we allow self-reported data of individual harm, then we’ll be deluged by it. Meaning that confident and visionary leaders are being outflanked because they don’t have enough competing data. Or, as Friedman puts it in another passage:

The herding instinct in chronically anxious America has the same effect of furthering adaptation to the least mature, to those who are most unwilling to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Its influence on leaders is several-fold. It discourages them from expressing “politically incorrect” opinions and encourages them to play it safe generally; it undermines excellence by encouraging society to organize around its most dysfunctional elements; it forces leaders to engage in countless arguments that are dilatory; and it makes it more difficult for leaders to be clear, much less decisive.


Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

by: Theodore Dalrymple

Published: 2001

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of essays chronicling the author’s encounters with the underclass of England in his position as a physician at City Hospital and Birmingham Prison. With particular emphasis on their appalling behavior and misguided ideology.

What’s the author’s angle?

There’s a fine line between being well-informed and biased. I think Dalrymple is more the former than the latter, but there is a selection bias to his sample (most of the people he saw had attempted suicide) and that probably colors his observations.

Who should read this book?

Collections of essays never cohere quite as well as actual books, and it’s possible that the episodic nature of things will not be to your liking. That aside I really enjoy Dalyrmple’s prose, and the people he writes about are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.

General Thoughts

I imagine that if I had read this book when it first came out that I probably would have concluded that England was a few short years away from a complete meltdown. At least among the underclass, yet more than two decades on I’m not aware of any such meltdown. What happened?

I can think of at least five possibilities.

  1. Computers and the internet saved the underclass. Rather than acting out their bad behavior in the streets and at night clubs, they ended up increasingly staying at home. Here they binged Netflix, played computer games, and got into virtual fights rather than physical fights.
  2. It’s still just as bad if not worse, but it basically goes unreported because no one cares. And it’s particularly hard to get a clear view over here. But stories like the Rotherham grooming scandal give us occasional glimpses into the continuing awfulness.
  3. My reference class is flawed. Yeah it’s bad, but the conditions Dalrymple describes have been going on for decades. I just have very little experience with the true underclass so I assume that what he describes in this book is some kind of radical departure, but it’s actually business as usual. 
  4. It was so bad that there has been negative selection pressure. They’re essentially killing themselves off. Perhaps they’re suffering from an opioid crisis similar to the US.
  5. Dalrymple is lying.

I’m sure there are others possibilities, but those are the ones that occurred to me. I listed them according to my assessment of their likelihood (most to least). I suspect there’s some truth to options 1-3. There’s a bit of evidence for 4, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s happening in the US. Finally, I think I would have come across evidence of Dalrymple’s perfidy if any such evidence existed. 

I guess if it’s mostly the first option, then that’s good, right? Even so, I wish it were better.


Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

by: Russ Roberts

Published: 2022

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Russ Roberts is an economist, and host of the well known Econtalk podcast. This is a book about how, for the really important stuff, economic reasoning is insufficient. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Since, on some level, he seems to be undermining his entire profession, I’m not sure what his angle is. But I confess I’ve only heard maybe one or two episodes of his podcast. I’m definitely a Russ Roberts neophyte. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re struggling with big decisions, this is a useful book. And it’s pretty short. I think it also makes a solid case for getting married and having children.

General Thoughts

For me the book can be summed up in the following excerpt:

Let’s start with Persi Diaconis, a chaired professor of mathematics and statistics at Stanford University. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His research is on chance, risk, and probability. He’s presumably a pretty rational guy who you’d think would have a lot of tools for making a good decision in the face of a wild problem. Yet when he faced his own wild problem, he confessed to abandoning the rational approach from his own research, a story he told in a talk on decision-making.

Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”

This book is an examination of the limits of making “serious” decisions solely on the basis of their expected utility. Or rather the difficulty of really getting to the true utility a given decision is going to provide. That important things are difficult to measure and those things you can measure are often misleading. 

One wonders if most of our problems these days don’t suffer from these issues. But that we keep doubling down on the idea that we just need more measurement, more data, all to our detriment. 


Darkness at Noon

by: Arthur Koestler

Published: 1940

254 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A fictionalized account of the Moscow Trials when Stalin purged the Soviet leadership of anyone who was disloyal to him, particularly the Trotskyites.  

Who should read this book?

I really liked this book. It’s pretty heavy, but if you have any interest in seeing the underbelly of a dictatorship, but also one that’s not a caricature, where real philosophy is discussed, then you should read this book.

General Thoughts

I don’t want to give too much away, but this is not a simple novel, and Rubashov is not merely a victim of totalitarianism, but for many years he carried it out. When it comes for him, he gets to reflect on all that he has done and the brutal logic he has espoused all these years. It’s a great book, and rather than try to describe it’s greatness any further, I’ll turn it over to Orwell, who said it best:

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened—for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society—but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them. 


III- Religious Reviews

The Chronicles of Narnia

By: C. S. Lewis

The Horse and His Boy

Published: 1954

199 Pages

Prince Caspian

Published: 1951

195 Pages

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Published: 1952

223 Pages

The Silver Chair

Published: 1953

217 Pages

The Last Battle

Published: 1956

184 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

The adventures of British children, and others in the magical realm of Narnia. Adventures that generally end up being Christian allegories. 

Who should read this book?

Given how short the books are and their status as classics, it’s hard for me to not recommend that everyone should read all seven. But, if you’re not sure you can commit to that, I think there are two other groupings that make sense:

  1. Just read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and stop there
  2. Read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what might be called the Caspian Trilogy, so Prince Caspian, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

General Thoughts

On this read through of the series I ended up focusing mostly on two things. The standout characters (which were mostly not the children who had been transported from Earth to Narnia) and the Christian allegories embedded in the books. (Some more deeply embedded than others.)

On the character side of things, I really liked Reepicheep, but of course I’ve always liked Reepicheep. Bree, the horse from The Horse and His Boy was more fully formed than I remember. But the one who really stood out to me this time was Puddleglum from The Silver Chair. I think he barely registered when I was a kid, but I quite liked him this time around. 

Turning to the allegories they seemed mostly well thought out, interesting, slightly opaque, but not excessively so. That is until I got to The Last Battle. Lewis’s message here left me confused. Much of the plot hinges on the fact that Aslan is not a tame lion. In previous books I really appreciated this sentiment, particularly as it related to Jesus. At some point (evidently at least as far back as Lewis) people started to imagine Jesus as being infinitely meek and tolerant. Which seems to be a distortion of the scriptural record. One that Lewis is combating by having his Christ figure be a lion, and not a tame one at that.

That’s how it played out in previous books. In The Last Battle this idea that Aslan is not tame is used to excuse the idea that he could be infinitely erratic and contradictory. I sort of see how that might work in the context of the book, but I’m not sure what phenomenon of actual Christianity it’s supposed to represent. I guess it could be a representation of the opposite point, that Aslan being untamed could be analogous to Jesus being non-judgemental, and both lead to an unmooring of doctrine and expectations? But of course if it is then in our world they use it to excuse disobedience whereas in Narnia it’s used to compel a disturbing level of blind obedience. As I said I’m not sure what Lewis was going for there at the end of things… 


Till We Have Faces

by: C. S. Lewis

Published: 1956

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of Psyche’s aggrieved half-sister.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book better than any of the Narnia books, though the difference was not extreme. It’s his last novel, and generally acknowledged to be his most mature as well. It was recommended to me by a couple of other people in my writing group who also really loved it.

General Thoughts

This post is already long and late. But, on the other hand, when you read six books by Lewis in a single month you want to have something deep and worthwhile to take from the experience. Something you can pass along. Perhaps I do. Consider this quote from the book:

Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.

This is a book about holy wisdom. About denying what is actually True, for what is understandable (much like the theme of Wild Problems above, though told in a completely different fashion.)

We’ve adopted an almost entirely data-driven approach to interacting with the divine and the mysterious. We demand that it give straightforward answers and simple solutions. That we can look at the statistics and see that religious people are happier, or that they have more children. But there’s so much more:

It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.


In addition to dropping the ball last month, this post was late because I had still another trip at the beginning of April where I went completely off the grid for three days. It was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. If that reminds you of my writing, consider donating.


The 12 Books I Finished in February

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. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by: David Graeber and David Wengrow
  2. America and Iran: A History 1720 to the Present by: John Ghazvinian
  3. Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It by: M. Nolan Gray
  4. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by: Ben R. Rich
  5. The Hedonistic Imperative by: David Pearce
  6. Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health—and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More by: Christopher M. Palmer MD 
  7. Nicomachean Ethics by: Aristotle
  8. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction by: Jonathan Barnes
  9. Dungeon Crawler Carl: A LitRPG/Gamelit Adventure by: Matt Dinniman
  10. Carl’s Doomsday Scenario: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 2 by: Matt Dinniman
  11. The Magician’s Nephew by: C. S. Lewis
  12. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by: C. S. Lewis

February I turned 52, and I felt the need to do something epic. Something that showed that I still have it. So I and a boon companion (who ended up being almost a sherpa) set off to camp in The Maze, down in Southern Utah, which has been labeled the most remote area in the lower 48. (I’m not sure how they arrived at that, but I’m going with it.) It was a crazy treacherous road which was only passable with a truly tricked out Jeep. But it was beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures:

Make sure you can spot our tent in the second one.

Beyond that it was kind of a crazy month (see my Cautionary Tale post). And the trip made things even crazier, but I’m glad I did it. I guess I’m not dead yet.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

by: David Graeber and David Wengrow

Published: 2021

704 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The multitudinous variety of pre-modern societies, and the way in which modern political scientists have incorrectly imposed a teleological interpretation on history, making assumptions which are clearly refuted if you look at the anthropological record.

What’s the author’s angle?

Graeber, who died right as the book was going to print, was a noted anarchist, and if you read this book as an attack on modern state power you wouldn’t be far off. 

Who should read this book?

This is a fascinating book, and the details it gives about pre-modern societies are startling and surprising. If you like expansive and deep non-fiction, then I think you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

Midway through chapter one, the book references a quote from Benjamin Franklin, one I’ve talked about before in this space

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

A French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur, writing in 1782, made a similar observation:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

In a sense the rest of the book is dedicated to showing why this might be. It does this along three major routes.

First the book shows that there was a huge variety of social organization in the past. There were slave-holding tribes next to tribes that considered slavery an abomination. There were tribes which were loose, nearly anarchic groups during some parts of the year, and absolute dictatorships during other parts. And there were tribes where on some subjects they were strictly patriarchal and on other subjects strictly matriarchal. 

Second, the fact of this huge variety suggests that we ought to be more open to experimentation. The authors go so far as to ask:

…is not the capacity to experiment with different forms of social organization itself a quintessential part of what makes us human? That is, beings with the capacity for self-creation, even freedom? The ultimate question of human history, as we’ll see, is not our equal access to material resources (land, calories, means of production), much though these things are obviously important, but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together. Of course, to exercise that capacity implies that there should be something meaningful to decide in the first place.

Finally, they take issue with the idea of political progress in general, that we’re continually advancing from worse to better political systems, and that we’re at or near the end of that process. And to the extent that modern systems possess admirable qualities like a respect for freedom and equality, these ideas represent pale imitations of concepts that were originally introduced to the Europeans by Native Americans. 

To return to the quotes, if people never willingly choose the European option, then is it not possible that there’s a form of government that’s better than what we have and we should be experimenting more in an attempt to find it? Should we not be less attached to the idea that we’ve reached some kind of pinnacle?

There’s definitely quite a bit more to the book than these points, though I think they’re the main ones. The authors talk a lot about agriculture, arguing that it wasn’t an invention which, once created, locked us into spiraling misery and inequality, but rather something that was picked up and put down many times by groups, and often used in combination with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They also put forth a theory for societal control which involves three elements: control of force, control of information, and charisma. And then there’s the concept of schismogenesis, which posits that cultures often define themselves in opposition to surrounding cultures. All of this is very interesting, and they do a good job of exploring it.

To return to their central point, I’m totally on board with the idea that there was far more variety among human societies historically than we imagine. And that we’ve papered over this variety because it serves our interests and plays to our biases. This point has been minimized or ignored by people like Pinker and Fukuyama (who are singled out for condemnation by the authors), and this book does good work in bringing attention to it. But when they try to apply all of this to the present day as some vaguely aspirational, anarchic project I think they go from being wise and insightful to being irrational and naive. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

I’ve become something of a reluctant apologist for Fukuyama, and his claim that we have reached the “end of history”. Not because I think we’ve actually reached the end of history, but because I think Fukuyama (at his best) was making a subtler point, one that I kind of think Graeber and Wengrow completely missed. 

They do not make the mistake of claiming that Fukuyama literally said that history was over, that nothing was going to happen, unlike so many. They at least go one level deeper to Fukuyama’s claim that western liberal democracy has no remaining, viable, ideological competitors. Here their retort is that if you look at all of the myriad ways in which humans organized themselves historically that somewhere in that assemblage there must be something that can compete with WLD. I suppose anything is possible, but in order to really grapple with that question they need to go deeper still, to the level that very few of Fukuyama’s critics reach: the reason WLD has no remaining competition, they’re just much better at waging war.

At the moment, when one considers the situation in Ukraine, the ability of WLDs to wage war is looking pretty good. Just the assistance of WLDs has changed something that nearly everyone thought would be a cakewalk for Russia into a stalemate. And while it is true that China might eventually surpass us, or Russia might flip the table using nukes, that doesn’t do much to support Graeber and Wengrow’s point. Because while neither is exactly a WLD, they’re a lot closer to that, than the sorts of societies described in this book. Which is to say that on some level Graeber and Wengrow might be right, there might be some other form of government, some different way of organizing society that’s better for some definition of “better”. But how does that government stack up militarily with a modern nation state? How does it avoid being conquered, pillaged, or just annexed? And while it may have once been true that no one voluntarily chose to be a European if they could be an Indian. These days very few people choose to live in a less-developed country when they can live in a WLD. 

Now I bow to no one in my criticism of WLDs. And I think this book makes many very interesting points. But if there is an alternative to WLDs I don’t think we’re going to pluck it from the past. Yes, perhaps there is some inspiration to be had. And yes, I too think that we should be more open to experimentation. But for all their faults and for all that they might not represent the end point of social organization, I think only some kind of singularity will dislodge them, and if anything that’s the opposite of what Graeber and Wengrow are offering.


II- Capsule Reviews

America and Iran: A History 1720 to the Present

by: John Ghazvinian

Published: 2021

688 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A comprehensive history of the relationship between the USA and Iran, with every twist and turn meticulously detailed. In particular it describes how much Iran worked to have a relationship with the US up until the 1979 Revolution.

What’s the author’s angle?

Ghazvinian was born in Iran, though he left when he was one. Still he seems to have a pretty pro-Iran bias, though perhaps it only feels that way because I’ve been marinating in anti-Iranian bias for so long.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty long book, but if you really want an in depth look at one of the most contentious geopolitical flashpoints from the last 50 years, this book is fantastic. It’s also incredibly useful if you’re looking to steelman the Iranian position.

General Thoughts

I can’t possibly do this book justice in this space. I’ve considered doing a comprehensive book review, and I may yet do that, but for now I will just say that, having read the book, I am much more sympathetic to the Iranians than I was previous to reading the book. I don’t think Ghazvinian gets everything right, but he brings up a lot of things I had not previously known.


Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It

by: M. Nolan Gray

Published: 2022

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The weirdness of US zoning regulations and the problems they cause.

What’s the author’s angle?

Gray is the Research Director for California YIMBY, so he definitely has a dog in this fight.

Who should read this book?

If you’re already inclined towards YIMBYism, this book isn’t going to add much. And if you aren’t inclined that way then I don’t think this book will do much to push you in that direction. I guess if you were really interested in the history of zoning, and how it came to be, along with examples of how other countries do it, then it might be worth your time.

General Thoughts

This was February’s selection for the local SSC/ACX book club I belong to. It definitely makes a strong case for getting rid of zoning, or vastly curtailing it, but it felt pretty wonkish. As I have mentioned in the past, I have a (some would say) unfortunate bias towards sweeping narratives and big trends. Zoning is not that. It belongs in a bucket with the countless other petty annoyances brought on by bureaucracy and rent-seeking. I totally get that progress is made up of thousands of small victories, and I’m glad that the YIMBYs appear to be making progress. But…

This issue feels like an example of decadence rather than a cure for it. Which is to say, I’m not struck by the benefits which will accrue from zoning regulation, I’m struck by how difficult it is to accomplish even small improvements when dealing with large and entrenched bureaucracies. I didn’t dislike the book because zoning is unimportant, I disliked the book because it shouldn’t need to exist. The case seems pretty obvious. It shouldn’t require a book-length treatment to lay it out. But apparently it does and even the most straightforward laws end up getting undermined. 

When I discovered that the author worked for California YIMBY, I recalled that there had been some laws which were recently passed in California which seemed hopeful. So I looked through their site for details, and I mostly found articles saying things like this:

  • SB 9 aimed to legalize duplexes and fourplexes in residential districts across California. Yet recent research suggests that many municipalities are adopting local ordinances that subvert the law.
  • The data largely reflects this: most of the municipalities surveyed didn’t permit a single SB 9 unit in 2022, while Los Angeles permitted fewer than 40 units—a far cry from the permitting boom we’ve seen with accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

So I guess things have been mixed, at best? For an issue that’s getting a ton of attention, I find that depressing.


Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed

by: Ben R. Rich

Published: 1994

372 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An under the hood view of the legendary Skunk Works division of Lockheed, which was responsible for planes like the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-117 stealth fighter

What’s the author’s angle?

Rich’s career straddled the transition in military procurement from the simple, post-war era of Eisenhower to the horribly bureaucratic procurement system which was in place by the end of the cold war. He obviously prefers the earlier simpler version, and the book does a good job of making the case for why.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a military buff, I would definitely recommend this book. I think business people who like to glean management advice from unconventional sources will also enjoy this book. But even if you’re not in either of these two categories it’s still a pretty great book. 

General Thoughts

This was a great book, and it proceeds about how you’d expect. Heroic engineers in the afterglow of WW2 but also with a nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, pull off incredibly innovative spy and stealth planes. That’s the surface level. Underneath are questions of how best to create disruptive technology, government procurement, and speed of innovation.

There’s two ways of longing for the 50’s and 60s. Some people long for the culture, a more conservative time, when kids had two parents, and gender dysphoria was something only spoken of by psychologists. Other people long for the effectiveness of the 50’s and 60’s when we could still get things done. When we had an overhang of optimism and manufacturing capacity left over from the war, and bureaucracy was light. This book evokes that second form longing, and it is interesting to compare the effectiveness of Skunk Work’s various projects from this era with the disaster that is the F-35. The question is can we ever get back to that?

Rich offers some ideas, but he offered them basically 30 years ago, and from my perspective things have only gotten worse. There seems to be an inexorable trend of inefficiency that moves forward regardless of how obviously bad the results are. I suspect that it’s not quite as bad as my worst fears, but when you read about how good it once was —the amazing things a dedicated group of engineers could accomplish on reasonable budgets and in short time frames — it sure makes you want to figure out some way of recapturing it. 


The Hedonistic Imperative

by: David Pearce

Published: 1995

200 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It will shortly be possible to eliminate suffering through genetic engineering, neurosurgery, nanotechnology and drugs. And if it can be done, it should be. Our ethical imperative is to aim for a post-human future of extreme motivation, meaning and pleasure.

What’s the author’s angle?

Pearce is a transhumanist philosopher. This book is his manifesto.

Who should read this book?

It’s definitely an interesting, if fringe, philosophy, so if you’re the kind of person who likes that sort of thing. But if you’re on the fence at all I would recommend against reading it. It’s very tendentious, and the kind of book that’s not very long, but feels super long.

General Thoughts

Pearce imagines a time in the future when we will have completely eliminated suffering. Not merely for humans but for all species who might be said to suffer. I’m just going to focus on humans, but the inclusion of all life should give you a sense of his ambition. 

In place of suffering we would experience benign mania — so the most productive and ambitious you’ve ever been, and then some — and gradations of pleasure, ranging from a deep sense of well-being all the way up to incandescent orgasmic pleasure of an intensity we can barely imagine. So in essence wireheading, but in a fashion that delivers not only amazing pleasure, but incredible productivity as well.

Now if we could flip a switch and place a thousand volunteers into this state to make sure there aren’t any strange second order effects, and if necessary flip a switch and bring them all back, then I would have no problem running this experiment. Unfortunately it’s not possible to jump straight to the conditions Pearce describes. Nor can we easily unwind things.

Rather this destination lies on the other side of a fog-shrouded valley, and to get there we have to descend into that valley, exploring as we go. Pearce seems to imagine that getting halfway to the destination would get us some percentage of the benefits with no additional disadvantages. But in the time since he wrote the book we’ve had the opportunity to descend part way into the valley and it hasn’t worked that way at all.

Exhibit A would be the opioid epidemic. You can read more about what happened in some of my previous posts. But when doctors decided to declare that pain was the fifth vital sign, they were following a weak version of Pearce’s hedonic imperative. And rather than getting closer to utopia we ended up with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of additional dead opioid addicts. 

Arguably video games and porn are lesser examples of the same phenomenon. I’m not arguing that they’re as bad as the opioid crisis, but they’re certainly instruments of hedonism, and I think there’s good reason to believe that, on net, we’d be better off without them. 

In addition to problems which might arise as part of the journey, I’m not sure the destination is going to be as great as he imagines either. At a minimum it’s completely undiscovered territory. As you can see below I read some of Aristotle’s thinking on ethics this month, and it still resonates because we’re basically the same people, grappling with the same problems we had 2300 years ago. But the people Pearce envisions, those who’ve reached hedonic mastery, are entirely different in nearly every way. They might as well be aliens. Now perhaps they’ll be awesome aliens, and everything will work out perfectly, but if it doesn’t. If there are problems. They will be problems the likes of which we’ve never seen, and one’s we’ll be ill-equipped to deal with. 


Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health—and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More

by: Christopher M. Palmer MD 

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A grand-unified theory of mental illness that grounds everything in metabolic disorders, particularly at the mitochondrial level.

What’s the author’s angle?

This theory is basically the brainchild of Dr. Palmer, and this book (similar to the last book) is his manifesto.

Who should read this book?

I suspect what most people want is a list of recommendations which flow from this theory. “Okay, I get it, it’s the mitochondria. So what should I be doing based on that in order to feel better.” And on that front, the book is kind of light. It definitely has recommendations, particularly near the end. But the majority of the book is devoted to looking at the scientific basis for the theory. If you’re just looking for recommendations on what to do, you’re probably better tracking down a podcast appearance. (For example he was on Tim Ferris’ show.)

General Thoughts

I thought Dr. Palmer’s theory made a lot of sense, and the data seems to back it up as well. Whether it will bring about a revolution in the treatment of mental health remains to be seen. Going from theory to practical recommendations can still be difficult. He does come out pretty strongly in favor of intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets, but he also admits that this sort of thing isn’t the answer for all people. Even if we’re vastly simplifying the metabolism it can still be overactive or underactive and different treatments are recommended for each. And if you actually try to dig into what the metabolism looks like there are fantastically crazy flow charts that will make your brain hurt.

Still, for those struggling with any of the conditions listed in the title (anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD) or any other mental problem, or who has loved one’s who are struggling, this does seem to offer a new and evidence based approach to treating issues that have hitherto been pretty intractable. 


Nicomachean Ethics

by: Aristotle

Published: ~330 BC

171 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How virtue and ethics are foundational to a good life. That good behavior generally is found at the mean between two extremes. Too much courage is rashness, too little is cowardice. Oh, and also friendship is magic

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I think you should check back with me. There may be other works by Aristotle you should read instead of this one. At least to start

General Thoughts

NM started well and was surprisingly readable. The deeper it got, the harder it made you work. Of course Aristotle scholars will point out that most of his extant works weren’t designed to be read, they were probably lecture notes. And an arc — where things get progressively more difficult as the lecture goes on — makes sense. But I also got the feeling that Aristotle had a model and he started with things that easily fit into his model and then gradually worked his way towards things where fitting them to the model was more difficult. 

Of course the hard thing when you’re reviewing something like this is to say something unique, which I’ve probably already failed at. So let me talk about the “great books” project in general.

When you’re reading someone like Aristotle there’s an enormous amount of commentary. This holds for all of the “great books” but it’s particularly true when it comes to philosophy. So if I want to study Aristotle, what percentage of that study should be actually reading Aristotle, and what percentage should be reading what other people have to say about him? And does this ratio differ for different philosophers? Are some philosophers so inscrutable that you should read hardly any primary text and spend most of your time on commentary? While some are so accessible that you should just read the primary text and forget the commentary?

Having read NM I suspect that Aristotle falls somewhere in the middle. Maybe 50% primary text and 50% commentary, which takes me to:


Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction

by: Jonathan Barnes

Published: 2001

176 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A short overview of Aristotle’s life and thinking. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Well let’s just say they don’t hire critics to write these introductory books.

Who should read this book?

I think if you have a goal, like I do, to get maximum Aristotle knowledge with minimum effort, this is a great way to go about that.

General Thoughts

I decided to read this after the Nicomachean Ethics. I think it would have been better to read it before. But also it’s short enough that you can imagine using it to bookend one’s study of Aristotle. Read it first, read a bunch of Aristotle and then read it at the end as a way to cement things in. The book did give me a greater appreciation for Aristotle as an empirical scientist, which was not something I expected.


Dungeon Crawler Carl Series

by: Matt Dinniman

Dungeon Crawler Carl: A LitRPG/Gamelit Adventure

Published: 2020

444 Pages

Carl’s Doomsday Scenario: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 2

Published: 2021

364 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

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. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for light, pulpy fun, that would be rated R for language and PG-13 for everything else. These books go down pretty easily. (I listened to Book 2 in a single day.)

General Thoughts

This series was recommended to me by the same person who recommended the Expeditionary Force series. And it’s got a similar feel, though at this point I think there are aspects of it that I like better. But caution is in order. I got to the end of EF and decided that it probably wasn’t worth 100 hours. Also this series is probably farther away from being completed. Book 6 has been written, but audio is only available up through book 5. Why do I say it’s farther away? Well the dungeon has 18 levels, and so far book 1 covered two levels, and book 2 covered just one level. I could probably find out how far they are by the end of book 6, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’d hazard a guess that the series is going to end up in a rhythm where each book covers one level. Which would mean we’ve got a long way to go.

For the moment I’m going to continue, but view it strictly as mindless recreation. Similar to playing a video game, and one I can do at the same time as walking… 


III- Religious Reviews

The Chronicles of Narnia

By: C. S. Lewis

The Magician’s Nephew

Published: 1955

183 Pages

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Published: 1950

172 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

The adventures of British children, and others in the magical realm of Narnia. Adventures that generally end up being Christian allegories. 

Who should read this book?

Everyone. Though not necessarily in this order. This is the first time I’ve tried reading The Magician’s Nephew first, and whatever the author’s preference (which is weaker than the publisher claims). The Magician’s Nephew contains spoilers for LWW. Not big spoilers, so it’s not a huge deal, but in my opinion it’s enough to tip the scales.

General Thoughts

One of the reasons I’ve given for being unsure about reading the pulpy books (see the previous review) is that I could be doing something even better with that time. Like re-reading books I already know I like. In what is either an elegant compromise or a way to waste even more time, I decided that I would commit to re-read at least one great book for every pulpy book I read. And since it’s been probably 30 years since I last read the Chronicles of Narnia, it seemed a good place to start. (Also the Narnia books are short enough that I’m going to finish all of them before reading another Dungeon Crawler Carl book.)

First off, they’re just as delightful as I remember. And in some respects even more so, because they’re so different from most modern fantasy. Sanderson can barely introduce a character in 172 pages. And these days fantasy has to include actual scenes of poverty and suffering.

I found myself thinking of this during the amazing dinner provided to the children by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Isn’t it in the middle of winter? Hasn’t it been winter for a really long time? They seem to live pretty well given that the castle of the White Witch is close enough to walk to. 

Initially I found such thoughts annoying, but after a while they just made me appreciate the books more. They make delightful bedtime stories, and the child wouldn’t have moved out before I was done reading them.

Beyond that, being much older and reading them with an eye that’s more geared towards the allegorical nature of the books, I was struck by the differences between my Christianity and Lewis’. In particular the normal Christian doctrine of Original Sin as allegorized in The Magician’s Nephew. I thought Lewis did an excellent job with it, but I still think it doesn’t make as much sense as the LDS version.


12 books in 28 days. At that rate I’m not sure if that’s impressive or a sign that there’s something wrong with me – Probably the latter. If you’d like to make sure that I (and others) get the help they need, consider donating.


The 9 Books I Finished in January

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. A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies by: Matt Simon
  2. Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by: Helen Thompson
  3. The Captive Mind by: Czeslaw Milosz
  4. Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer by: Scott P. Scheper
  5. The Farthest Shore by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by: Martha Wells
  7. The Mind of the Maker by: Dorothy L. Sayers
  8. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by: G. K. Chesterton 
  9. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by: Alex & Brett Harris

January is the time for resolutions, for changing course, and doing better. My essay consistency was not great in 2022, but I’ve already talked about the various reasons why that was at some length. It’s time to look forward. What am I hoping to accomplish in 2023?

I really want this to be the year that I publish a book. It may not be the greatest book, or the longest book, but I want there to be a book. I know some of you following along at home have every reason to doubt that such a thing will ever happen, let alone soon, but I’ve decided to always spend at least the first fifteen minutes of my morning writing block working on a book. 

This is not the first time I’ve made this commitment, but hopefully it will stick this time. The problem is that it will be going great but I’ll get behind on my normal blog posts, and end up deciding to skip working on the book for a few days “just until I catch up”. But if I go for too long then it becomes hard to get back into things. So no matter how far behind I feel my new resolution is to never skip this writing.

Of course it would be great if I never felt like I was behind, and as you may have already figured out, being more consistent about getting essays out, and being more consistent about working on my book are contradictory. I’m hoping the structure of all of this helps somewhat, but also I am once again resolving to try and keep at least some of my essays shorter. I mean there’s my newsletter, which is always short, but I think there’s also some space for pieces between that and the 4500 word pieces I seem to have drifted into. Ideally each month I would do my newsletter, my book review round-ups, one or two short essays and one long essay. And perhaps by doing this I can improve the quality at all levels.

In the end there is always going to be a tension between building and keeping an audience’s attention — putting out content frequently — and creating something which really deserves an audience — a fully formed book length treatment of some interesting subject.

In any case, regardless of what happens in 2023 I hope you’ll stick around.


I- Eschatological Reviews

A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

By: Matt Simon

Published: 2022

252 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which we have covered the Earth in microplastics, the potential effects of that, and the possibility of mitigation.

What’s the author’s angle?

Simon has been on the environmental beat for awhile, mostly as a writer for WIRED. You get the feeling that he’s pretty passionate about the subject.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a doomer and you want something else to worry about, this is a great book. If you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of things you can get a good sense of the scale of the problem just reading this WIRED article Simon adapted from the book.

General Thoughts

I’ve been aware that there’s a potential “problem with plastics” for quite a while, but I hadn’t really read very deeply on the subject. Thinking back, I feel like I assumed that it was connected to the worry about disposing of all the trash we create. Since that disposal problem is overblown I guess I kind of figured the plastics problem was as well. This is not to say I was unaware of the problem of BPA and endocrine disrupting chemicals, but I put that in a separate bucket, when in reality it’s just one big catastrophe. As you can tell the book caused me to “update some of my priors” as they say, the question is by how much? To put it another way, I have become convinced that the plastic problem is serious, but I’m still not clear on exactly how serious. At this point I think I’m somewhere between “definitely causing some harm, but mostly around the edges” and “from an environmental perspective it’s worse than global warming”.

Yes, we do have plenty of space for new landfills, but plastic waste is different from conventional waste in three key ways:

  1. It can last for thousands of years
  2. Despite its longevity, small bits of it are breaking off all the time. You’ve probably heard the term microplastics, the book also talks about nanoplastics.
  3. Each of these bits may contain potentially 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which, according to the book, “scientists consider to be of concern”.

The book opens with a trip to the top of Beaver Mountain in Utah, past the ski resort where I happen to go skiing every year, to collect rainwater and see how much plastic it contains. And as Janice, the person doing this collection says, “what the hell, there’s so much plastic in here”. And it’s not just on mountaintops in Utah. 

Everywhere scientists look, they find plastic particles, from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the tippy top of Mount Everest and every place in between.

Simon spends much of the book putting numbers to the “what the hell?” amount. The thousands of particles we ingest each day, the millions of threads shed by our synthetic clothes every wash. The billion particles a formula fed baby ends up consuming just because of the plastic bottles and that’s on top of the microplastics they ingest by crawling around on the floor. An amount 10x higher than what adults ingest.

Even if we stopped producing plastics right now, the plastic that is already in the environment would keep shedding microplastics. But obviously that’s not about to happen, our appetite for plastics continues to grow. 

Eschatological Implications

So we’ve got a situation where we’ve covered the planet in microscopic plastic particles that contain “concerning” chemicals. And it’s just going to get worse for the foreseeable future. How are we supposed to decide on the scope of that problem? 

At first glance it seems tractable. We can do science. We can collect data. We can pass laws. Sure, the absolute ubiquity of plastic makes it impossible to have a control. And, to play off the title a bit, the dose makes the poison. You could have some chemical that is no big deal below a certain threshold and worse than smoking at a somewhat higher level. Also if someone were to argue that, by the time we get a grip on the problem, we’ll be too late to do anything about it, I wouldn’t immediately accuse them of alarmism. But all those issues aside, there are people trying to get a handle on this problem. 

Simon includes studies of plastics’ effect on fishes and coral reefs and plants, and speculation on the effects it might be having on fertility, along with a host of other studies. And it’s all bad. (Though I guess some of the potential problems could cancel each other out. If we’re heading into Children of Men territory with fertility, then it might not matter if microplastics start reducing crop yields.) But we’re still left with the question of how bad? Where does it fall on my aforementioned continuum between some harm around the edges, and worse than global warming? I don’t know that this comparison is actually productive, but CO2 went from 320 to 420 ppm since 1960. Plastic production went from around zero to 420 million tons in the same period. And it’s projected to hit 1.5 trillion tons in 2050. And remember this is not the amount of plastic in existence, this is new plastic being added. Which is to say the curve is massively more exponential. 

I know this is a big number, and the book is full of big numbers, but what sort of harm are we talking about? Is this a forget global warming, forget Ukraine and potential nuclear armageddon and focus entirely on plastics? Or is this, yeah as long as we stop using plastic shopping bags and require better filters on washing machines and dryers we’ll be fine. Simon seems to lean towards the latter, but I’m pretty sure that he figures if he makes the problem sound too intractable that people will just give up. 

It does sound pretty intractable, so I guess I hope it’s one of those things where the curve goes straight up, but it’s fine. Though we have a lot of things where the curve is going straight up and they can’t all be fine…


II- Capsule Reviews

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By: Helen Thompson

Published: 2022

384 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book has three sections: oil and geopolitics, economic craziness post Bretton Woods, and modern democratic weakness. Thompson ties these things together in a complicated source of our current difficulties. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Thompson is a Cambridge professor, so while written for the masses, it is still pretty dense. Which is to say there is a degree to which she wants to display her erudition, which is significant. 

Who should read this book?

If it sounds interesting then you might want to read it. It adds a lot of detail to our current problems, but I don’t know that it brings any really fresh perspective. Thompson’s command of the details is amazing, but if you don’t care about every twist and turn, then you probably won’t enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

For me, the first section covered the ground I was the most unfamiliar with. Of course I knew that oil had played a major role in the world, but Thompson lays out, in rigorous detail, how access to oil drove nearly all major geopolitical decisions in the 20th century. Even if it was one or two steps removed, it was always in there if you dug deep enough. Certainly, it’s possible that she overemphasized oil’s role in some respects, but I wouldn’t want to get into a debate with her about it. I think she would slaughter me.

The second section was interesting, though I came across one review that was pretty critical of it. The review was in Foreign Policy, and the guy seemed to know what he was talking about. (This all gets back to the hard job of deciding between experts I brought up in my last set of reviews.) He didn’t have a problem with the details, rather he felt that Thompson placed too much emphasis on structural factors and not enough on avoidable mistakes made by individuals in power. Otherwise he seemed broadly on board with Thompson’s prognosis. Which is that the Euro-zone is a mess, and that it’s only gotten messier. (The reviewer did say he thoroughly enjoyed the first section however.) 

The third section was the one I was the most interested in, and it sparked the thinking that led the second essay of last month, The Optimal Dosage of War, or at least the conclusion. (Though to be clear it was written before the invasion.) I was particularly intrigued by her idea that you need a strong national identity in order to maintain a democracy within that nation. When one nation is trying to destroy another nation through the medium of war, it automatically provides that. But where does it come from in the absence of war, when the country has ceded decision making to ephemeral international organizations? When it’s mostly seen by its citizens as the provider of spoils to be fought over? 

Having read section three I was somewhat disappointed, she once again gave a very detailed recounting of recent events, but I found those details more distracting than illuminating. This is almost certainly something that reflects poorly on me.  I have a tendency to prefer grand philosophical theories, and balk at the hard work of fitting the details to those theories. And if I were going to use one word to describe this book, it would be “detailed”. And my criticism would be that the details come too quickly. But in a sense that just illustrates her point, the modern world is a complicated structure. And more and more it looks like we’re unequal to the task of managing it.


The Captive Mind 

By: Czeslaw Milosz

Published: 1953

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Milosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951. This book is something of a post mortem of his time there both as a writer and as a close observer of other writers., both under the Nazis, but more importantly under the communists.

What’s the author’s angle?

Milosz is attempting to explain some of the paradoxes of communism to people in the West. And he can’t help but add a dash of apologetics in there. “Yes, me and my fellow intellectuals did stupid things, but here’s why.”

Who should read this book?

When I read books like this I end up noticing parallels between how things worked under communism and how they work today in America. I’m sure that this is in large part due to my particular biases, but even for people without those same biases I think it might be useful to see both the strangeness and the similarities between now and the Eastern Bloc in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned there did appear to be some similarities between the things Milosz described and things that are happening now. Obviously one doesn’t want to make too much of these similarities — 2023 is a vastly better place than the Eastern Bloc during the time of Stalin — but I still think there is some wisdom which might be gleaned. In particular this book dovetailed and illuminated a couple of other books I read recently. The first was Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. Milosz spends quite a bit of time talking about socialist realism, for example:

“Socialist realism” is much more than a matter of taste, of preference for one style of painting or music rather than another. It is concerned with the beliefs which lie at the foundation of human existence. In the field of literature it forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task—to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

It’s hard to be knowledgeable about everything and before reading Capitalist Realism I was unfamiliar with the idea of socialist realism, now that I’ve had it explained by someone who lived through it, I have a better sense of what Fisher was going for. Not to get too far off track, but Milosz was saying that socialist realism channeled all art into a very specific groove, you could only speak about one thing (the awesomeness and power of socialism). Dissent and rebelliousness were unthinkable. Fisher was making an analogous point, that capitalism, despite not having the top down dictatorial nature of socialism, nevertheless seems to similarly funnel everything into a specific groove. It does this not by disallowing dissent and rebelliousness but by absorbing and neutering it. I’m not claiming that Fisher was correct, but I understand where he was going much better now.

The second book it helped to illuminate was The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Milosz describes two totalitarian systems, the Nazis and the Communists. In both cases the desire to impose order was very overt, and explicitly ideological, and the order thus imposed was pretty awful. Desmet argued in his book that the desire to impose order is a property of modernity, not something specific just to certain ideologies. Certain ideologies move more quickly in their attempts to impose order, but all modern systems are headed in that direction.

As I read Milosz’s descriptions of the narrowing window of acceptable art, and the pressure being placed on authors and artists to conform, it did feel like that situation and our situation now bore some depressing similarities. Again, I’m sure I’ve got some biases on this front, but I would nevertheless argue that we’re dealing with similar impulses.


Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer

By: Scott P. Scheper

Published: 2022

594 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The one true method of notetaking. It’s Analog, Numeric-Alpha, Tree, and Indexed (thus the acronym ANTI). Based on Niklas Luhman’s actual system, not a modern digital bastardization of it!

What’s the author’s angle?

The “one true” part is a big deal. Scheper spends a lot of time (as in probably 70% of the book) explaining why the true Zettelkasten has to be done his way and how everyone else working in the space has perverted and undermined Luhman’s initial genius

Who should read this book?

If you are mostly convinced that digital is the way to go, but before you go all in you want someone to steelman analog. Or if you want to take good notes, and you want to understand analog note-taking down to its roots. If you just want an overview of Scheper’s system then you can probably do that more efficiently by watching his videos.

General Thoughts

I’ve been using Roam for the last couple of years. It’s pretty cool, but I have a hard time finding time to really take advantage of it, and thus far I haven’t gotten much benefit from old notes. I will think something is worth recording for future use, and then it will never come up again. I imagine that it might end up being useful for writing books (refer back to the intro) but overall I don’t think I’m currently great at taking notes. The question is why? Am I a bad note taker inherently? Is it just an issue of time? Or am I using the wrong system?

I feel like I have an above average memory, and that I’ve probably coasted on that for long enough that at this point I’m disposed to be a bad note taker. As far as time, Scheper confidently asserts that his system only takes two hours a day, which includes the associated reading. I think it’s clear that I read more than average, and I’m still very lucky to get 30 minutes a day where I’m reading an actual book with pen in hand — more often it’s closer to 10 minutes. Obviously I can work on my desire, or I can try to carve out more time, but it seems my best bet is finding a more efficient and effective system, which is why I read this book, and as you can imagine his two hour assertion was already a strike against it.

On the positive side, I definitely came away from the book with some ideas on how to improve things. In particular he had three recommendations that I’m going to try:

  1. He placed a big emphasis on selectivity, and it is easy with modern tools to just dump in everything and let search sort it out.
  2. Closely related to that, he also talked me into the idea of creating a network of knowledge, that rather than just throwing out tags willy-nilly you should carefully consider where to attach a given insight, and that if it attaches to everything it attaches to nothing.
  3. Finally, his idea of having a system that encourages review and re-engagement resonated with me. I re-read old journal entries and the daily notes I took in Roam already and that has been very illuminating. I think a directed subject matter review could work even better.

That’s the good. Here’s the bad. He is a huge advocate for analog, as in writing everything down on cards that get put in actual file drawers. I would guess that 80% of the book amounts to an analog polemic. And despite hundreds of pages of this advocacy I ended the book unconvinced. Sure if I had all the time in the world I would probably do analog, but I don’t. 

He understands that analog is a big ask, and he promises that if you really can’t do it he will tell you how to create a digital version.  And eventually in one of the appendices he does. It takes up all of five pages, and he spends a page and a half emphasizing that the whole thing is a dumb idea and you really should do analog. He then spends two pages offering examples of analog notes as part of the process of establishing a character limit (see step 2 below). Which leaves the final page and a half for actual instructions. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. Establish a character limit.
  3. Disable editing and deleting.
  4. Make sure it mimics his analog rules as closely as possible.
  5. Disable copy and paste.
  6. Disable tags and backlinks.
  7. No really, don’t do it. Delete the whole thing and go analog.

So his advice is to take everything that might save you time, everything that’s an advantage of digital, and dump it. And then pretend it’s analog, only you’re typing not writing.

The book has some good ideas that I’m actually going to try out, but I had to wade through a lot of “The one true way to take notes is precisely the way I’m doing it” to get to it.


The Farthest Shore

By: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1972

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. This time around he and his young companion, Arren must sail to distant lands to investigate the disappearance of magic.

Who should read this book?

This is another classic of children’s fantasy literature. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything that fits into that category you will probably enjoy this, though you should start with A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan

General Thoughts

The book opens with Prince Arren arriving on Roke, the Isle of the Mages. He bears a disturbing report from his father, the king: wizards and sorcerers are forgetting how to perform magic. By this point in the series Ged is the Archmage, and he decides that he needs to investigate, and invites Arren to accompany him. They soon discover that someone has overcome death, and that in the absence of death magic gradually ceases to function.

The relationship between Ged and Arren is well told, and after spending two other books with Ged it’s nice to see him at the point of maximum wisdom. But what I most enjoyed about the book was Le Guin’s description of what the world looks like in the absence of death and magic. 

I am almost certainly overfitting the events of the novel into my current preoccupations, but the novel felt prescient. The world Le Guin described felt very similar to our own. The lack of death led to a lack of striving, and from there a lack of art and accomplishment. We haven’t conquered death, but we’ve certainly eliminated a lot of it. We’ve also been marinating ourselves in comfort, something I’ve touched on in the last couple of posts. Out of this we seem to be suffering from a malaise similar to what’s described in the book. 

As I said I’m almost certainly overfitting, but it still gave the book a deeper sadness than it had for me on previous readings.


All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) 

By: Martha Wells

Published: 2017

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A security cyborg manages to hack its governor module, which allows it to finally experience something resembling freewill. Because of an unfortunate incident in its past, it calls itself “murderbot”.

Who should read this book?

This was actually a novella, not a novel, and thus only 3 hours on Audible. Most of us listen to podcasts longer than that. (The latest Hardcore History anyone?) At that length a book doesn’t have to be a classic for the ages. It just has to be entertaining, and this definitely was.

General Thoughts

This book won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for the best novella, and I’m not sure what to make of that. As I’ve already said it was definitely entertaining, but it wasn’t out of this world. I felt like Wells could have done more with the premise, and the plot was relatively light weight. As a result it actually could have benefited from a greater length. I mean, you could almost double the length and it still would have been a really short book. 

As usual the question now is whether I should continue with this series. The other entries are equally short, so perhaps I will. 


III- Religious Reviews

The Mind of the Maker 

By: Dorothy L. Sayers

Published: 1941

246 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that the creative process illuminates the nature of the Trinity and vice versa.

What’s the author’s angle?

Beyond being a devout Christian, Sayers was a devout defender of the various creeds (Athanasian, Nicene). This book is a defense of their verity from an unconventional angle. Though one Sayers had experience with since she was best known as a mystery writer.

Who should read this book?

I’m not a trinitarian, and I nevertheless enjoyed the book. I think it’s applicable even if you’re an Arian heretic, but I valued it mostly for the great advice she dispensed on creativity and writing. 

General Thoughts

The book is written in a denser, some might even say, old fashioned style. And while I enjoyed nearly all of it, Sayer seemed to really hit her stride only in the last third of the book. But as I said if you’re a writer, and particularly if you’re a Christian writer, I definitely think this book is worth reading. 


The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare 

by: G. K. Chesterton 

Published: 1908

330 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Scotland Yard detective, who has been tasked with combating negative philosophies, ends up being elected as one of seven members (each named for a day of the week) of the governing council of anarchists. And then strangeness ensues.

Who should read this book?

Chesterton’s writing is always delightful and this book is thought to have inspired Kafka and Bourges. Which I did not expect. Kingsley Amis called it “The most thrilling book I have ever read.” 

General Thoughts

I have a bad habit of reading plot summaries of books. If you’re reading as many books as I do you need all the help you can get keeping things straight. That was a mistake with this book. If you’re going to read it you should definitely do it unspoiled. That said, even knowing how it ends I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Chesterton is one of those people that I would enjoy reading even if he were just describing an average day at the office. 

As something of an example of that, he has his main character defend the poetry of train schedules, and it’s brilliant. I wonder that more neoliberals haven’t adopted it as something of a motto. 

As I said, this is definitely one you should go into unspoiled, so I won’t say anything further, except that it was a great book.


Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations 

By: Alex & Brett Harris

Published: 2008

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A case for getting teenagers to take on bigger tasks and more responsibility. With a particular emphasis on finding a “holy calling” and doing what it takes to fulfill that.

What’s the author’s angle?

At the time the book was written the authors were teens themselves, running a very popular Christian youth website. I’m assuming that the book was, in part, written to promote their wider efforts.

Who should read this book?

If my kids were still teenagers I would have them read this book. There are probably better books than this one if you’re approaching things as a parent. But overall I found it very worthwhile.

General Thoughts

This came up as I was writing my blog post Challenging Children, and since it seemed directly on point to my discussion of hard things, I decided to read it before publishing. In the end I didn’t use very much from it since that post was trying to make the case largely without recourse to religion and as this book was explicitly religious. It was a great book, but I wanted to make the point in a different fashion. 

Beyond that, most books like this fall on a continuum. On the one end are hard facts, studies and data. “Teens who take on greater responsibilities are 50% less suicidal than teens who play video games all day.” (That’s an example I made up btw, not a real statistic.) “These are some proven steps which have been shown to increase children’s ability to be responsible.” Etc.

On the other end of the continuum are inspirational stories. “Fifteen year old Connor, inspired by a magazine showing the lack of clean water in Africa, decided to raise money to dig wells. In the end he provided clean water for twenty thousand people and saved hundreds of lives.” (That is a real story from the book by the way.)

This was pretty firmly on the latter end of things. Lots of great stories, some specific recommendations for how to act but mostly lacking in hard data. Which to be clear is fine, but that’s part of why I think it’s more geared towards teens themselves than their parents. You’re not looking to prove to teens that it’s a good thing to be responsible, you’re trying to inspire them, individually, to choose to be responsible and do hard things.

As I mentioned I already did a whole post on this subject, so I obviously think it’s tremendously important, and this book is a great addition to the effort. If you have teenagers I think you should get them to read this book.


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The 6 Books I Finished in December

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:

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  1. The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left by: Garett Jones
  2. The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by: Michael Easter
  3. Infinite Jest by: David Foster Wallace
  4. What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by: Randall Munroe
  5. The Sandman: Book One by: Neil Gaiman
  6. Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 by: Craig Alanson

It’s the start of 2023, so it’s probably a good time to look back at 2022. It was pretty crazy. To start with, I moved. Two words shouldn’t be able to conceal so much effort, but the process was ridiculously disruptive and time consuming. Then, the minute that was done, I went to Ireland for two and a half weeks, which was fun, but also quite time-consuming. 

In a somewhat unfortunate coincidence (I applied before deciding to move) this was also the year that I got accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business program, a 14 week intensive business course, entirely paid for by Goldman. I think it can best be described as a mini-MBA. Not only did the course itself take a lot of time and attention it encouraged me to make some major changes to my business which took still more time and attention. 

Despite all that, I ended up setting a record for the amount I read: 113 books, clocking in at just over 38k pages (so an average of 336 pages per book). It was not my intention to set a record, in fact at various points when I was buried by stuff, I thought I should do less reading. I’m way ahead. And I sort of did, but I mostly didn’t.

Of course, I need to acknowledge the contribution to the total made by the Expeditionary Force series. That was 15 books out of the total, so definitely a non-trivial contribution. I finished the final book this month so I guess it’s time to pass judgment on whether that reading was beneficial or a waste of time.

I’m hoping that 2023 will be significantly calmer. Will that result in even more books? You’ll have to keep following along to find out.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left

By: Garett Jones

Published: 2022

228 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That some immigrants are of a higher quality than other immigrants, that this quality persists across multiple generations, and corresponds very closely to the technological history since 1500 of their nation of origin. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Jones definitely has a controversial streak. This is the third book in what he calls his “Singapore Trilogy”. The first book was about national IQ. The second book made the case for “10% less democracy”. This is the third book and it might actually be the least controversial. Since Jones is basically pro-immigration, he just thinks some immigrants are better than others and we should prioritize the better ones.

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in heterodox opinions in general will probably benefit from this book. If however you’re looking for something comprehensive, this isn’t it.

General Thoughts

This was the December pick for the local SSC book club. A couple of the members of the group are alums of GMU where Jones teaches, so one of them invited him to participate. We expected that, if he did so, it would be remotely, but he actually flew out and attended in person which was very generous of him. In addition to coming to the book club we also had dinner with him beforehand which was very enjoyable. Obviously none of this has much to do with the actual content of the book, but the whole experience of meeting the author in person did introduce certain biases. But enough about Jones, what about his book?

As I already mentioned the book makes some controversial claims and several people, including Jones’s colleague Bryan Caplan, have been pretty critical of these claims. In the process of preparing for Jones’ visit members of the book club came across these criticisms and decided to bring them up. I wasn’t entirely sure how this was going to play out, but I imagined that things might get heated. They did not, instead Jones effortlessly answered all of the criticisms though in a somewhat technical fashion. This is probably the way criticisms should be answered, particularly in writing, but when you’re having a discussion it makes follow up hard. When Jones says that he analyzed the same data and got a different result, what else can you say but “interesting…” Whatever problems it presented for the questioners, Jones’ responses made him very convincing in person.

At this point I assume you want me to provide a specific example. Well, I wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I can speak a little bit about his rebuttal of the Caplan criticisms I mentioned earlier, but before I do I need to lay out Jones’ model. He uses three attributes to quantify immigrant quality:

  • State History since 0 AD
  • Agricultural History in thousands of years
  • Technological History since 1500

Together this is the SAT of a country (not to be confused with the test). The book focuses on presenting data that these three factors have predictive power for the amount of prosocial behavior the immigrant and his descendants will likely possess. But of the three, the attribute with the most predictive power is T, the technological history of the country of origin.

Jones’ rebuttal to Caplan is that Caplan only considers S and A, while neglecting T. Now I read Caplan’s book, and in addition to the initial review I did another whole essay about it. But at the moment, sitting there with Jones, despite these efforts, I had no idea whether Caplan had neglected to include T in his analysis. Nor, you will be sad to hear, have I had a chance to confirm it since then (mostly because the Caplan book is in a box somewhere.) Now, I had a couple of big problems with Caplan’s book, so I’m inclined to believe Jones, but talking to him in person just illustrated how difficult epistemology has become these days. A point I’ll return to in just a second, but before I do I’d like to bring up one final point.

If you’re using Jones’ SAT to evaluate different nations, China comes out very near the top, and indeed Jones spends quite a bit of time talking about all of the SE Asian countries who have benefitted from Chinese immigration. Many of his critics have pounced on this to discredit his thesis. If China has such a high SAT and if so many countries have benefited from Chinese immigrants, why is China itself such a basket case? This is an excellent question, but it once again illustrates the epistemic difficulties. China has been a rockstar for most of the 3000+ years of its existence. Should it be disqualified because it’s had a rough patch for the last 5% of that period? Maybe? How would you answer that question? What countries would you compare China to? What hard data would you assemble? I completely understand that this is a point that bears discussion, but how could you ever be certain one way or the other?

Eschatological Implications

This, then, is the problem. “How much immigration to allow and from where?” is one of the many large questions facing the world. Everyone seems to agree that the effects of policies which implement one answer over another will be large and consequential. The problem is that there is vast disagreement on whether the effects will be large, consequential and positive, or whether they will be large, consequential and negative. So how are we to resolve this? How does one decide between Bryan Caplan and his book showing that unlimited immigration will be awesome and Garett Jones and his book showing that unlimited immigration would devastate innovation and make the country’s culture unrecognizable?

I think the answer is that people largely decide based on their biases. And you probably can’t blame them, because there doesn’t appear to be any other way of deciding. Certainly I haven’t had any luck with other methods.

I’m not saying that I put forth the maximum amount of effort I possibly could to answer the question of how much immigration to allow, but I’ve put forth a lot. I’ve read and reviewed multiple books. I interacted with Caplan on Twitter and Jones in person. I’ve asked questions, and gotten answers. I’ve read at least a hundred essays, and the abstracts of at least a dozen papers. Beyond all that I’ve thought long and hard about it. In short I’ve done probably 100x as much as one could reasonably expect out of the average individual, and yet I suspect that whatever certainty I feel about my opinions is largely based on my initial biases, and only a small amount on the data. And I’m running out of ideas on how to change that.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self 

By: Michael Easter

Published: 2021

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That our pursuit of comfort and convenience has led, at best, to an unprecedented experiment in changing our environment, and, at worst, to a huge array of harmful second order effects.

What’s the author’s angle?

Easter is an editor for Men’s Health, and a writer for Outside Magazine, so he’s obviously predisposed to be a proponent of “uncomfortable” outdoor activities.

Who should read this book?

This is very close to being an “everyone”. The way in which he summarizes research in a broad array of fields makes it both generally applicable and interesting. But if you’re already mostly on top of your health you could probably get by with just listening to one of his podcast appearances. I heard him on Peter Attia’s, but he was also on Rogan. (Which I haven’t listened to.)

General Thoughts

A full review of this book will appear in the second issue of American Hombre (Subscribe today!) So I’m leaving the meat of my discussion for that space. I will however steal one paragraph from that review:

Before we get to the actual content of the book, I have to say something about the subtitle: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. If you’re anything like me, it might be giving you second thoughts about reading the book. It shouldn’t. I have to assume that this phrase was added at the insistence of the publisher. No version of that phrase occurs in the actual text (not even “healthy self”) and even the word “reclaim” only occurs once, and it’s unrelated. The subtitle isn’t wrong exactly, but I don’t think it strikes the right tone. If I had been in charge of subtitling the book I would have gone with: Wrestle Discomfort to Salvage Your Life Before You Die of Depression or Diabetes. But who knows if that subtitle would have sold as well.


Infinite Jest 

by: David Foster Wallace

Published: 1996

1079 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where it’s impossible to give a brief summation. But if you were looking for a main theme “addiction” would have to be near the top of the list.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a gripping plot, if tangents annoy you, or if you’ve never read a 1000+ page book then this is probably not the book for you. On the other hand if you’re looking for a deep, beautifully written, discursive magnum opus that’s also full of wisdom, then you might decide this is one of the best books ever.

General Thoughts

For me Infinite Jest seemed pretty daunting. Not merely because it’s long, it also seems pretty dense. And then there are the legendary footnotes, some of which go on for pages and have footnotes of their own. As a result I ended up taking three stabs at it:

My first attempt was last year, and my plan was to listen to the audiobook while walking with a physical copy of the book, so that whenever a footnote came up I could stop listening, pull the book out of my satchel, and read the footnote. The difficulty of coordinating all of this plus the length of some of the footnotes created enough friction that I stopped doing it for long enough that I felt like I needed to start over.

The second attempt was earlier this year, and this attempt flamed out when I realized that despite listening to the first 8 hours of the book a second time, and reading all the footnotes that I was still confused. This is when I picked up A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest (which I finished in September and reviewed here). That book helped, and it was nice, but in the end I’m going to say it was unnecessary. 

This takes us to the third attempt. Armed with a knowledge of all the characters and a plot summary I could refer to I set off again, from the beginning. And having made it all the way to the end here’s what I would recommend. Just listen to the book and focus on enjoying it. The footnotes are interesting, but you can also safely ignore them. Knowledge of the characters is helpful, but all of the important character information will become clear.

As is so often the case, if you’re going to tackle a really long book, audio is the way to go. Infinite Jest has numerous different styles and having a great narrator who can switch between these styles and do all the voices made listening a delight. And that’s really what this book is, a series of delightful stories with a moderate level of connection, but each scene is a gem, and you should just enjoy them.

I was accused recently of assuming that length is automatically a bad quality. The idea being that if you really enjoyed something wouldn’t you want it to go on as long as possible? The answer is that of course I would, but it’s pretty rare for that to happen. Well, it happened here. I would have been happy if the book had been 25% longer (but probably not more than that. It is a super long book.)


What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by: Randall Munroe

Published: 2022

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle gives a pretty good description, though I would also mention that the book is full of delightful stick figure illustrations.

Who should read this book?

I assume that a significant number of you are already familiar with Randall Munroe and his webcomic XKCD. In which case you’ve probably already made up your mind. If you aren’t familiar with it, well then what’s wrong with you? As penance you should probably read this book.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I would have been totally fine if it were longer. It went by all too quickly. Here are some of the questions Munroe answers:

What would happen if the Earth’s Rotation were sped up until a day only lasted one second?

What if I want to heat my house using toasters. How many do I need?

If the universe stopped expanding right now, how long would it take for a human to drive a car all the way to the edge of the universe?

The last one includes illustrations of the moon-sized quantity of gasoline that would be required, along with an illustration of the 10^17 tons of snacks which would be required, but he spends most of the space talking about how difficult it would be to fill the time. It would be a very, very long road trip.


The Sandman Book One 

by: Neil Gaiman

Published: The comics were originally published starting in 1989.

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The strange adventures of Dream/Morpheus/Sandman, starting with his decades long imprisonment and escape and then continuing on with his efforts to rebuild his domain. 

Who should read this book?

Sandman is everywhere at the moment. There’s the Netflix series and the Audible adaptation. But the comic books came first, so if you’re interested in things perhaps this is where you should start.

General Thoughts

I have long had the goal to read comic book series. I even bought the nice leatherbound collections, but that actually slowed me down because those seemed too nice to just read, and procrastination was easy and low cost. But then suddenly, as I already mentioned, it was everywhere, and the task became more urgent. I take great pleasure, when someone asks me about a TV show or a movie, of being able to archly respond, “No, but I’ve read the book.” And I was in danger of losing that small joy. So I bought this, less fancy collection, and read it.

It was good, but not revelatory. I think over the years I’d built it up too much in my mind. Which is not to say I’m going to stop reading it, merely that it might not be the greatest thing ever. So far the main character is cool, but kind of one-dimensional. The supporting characters are where it’s at. And really the best part of all is the world-building. The alternate universe Gaiman lays out here is really rich and interesting.

It is very definitely for mature audiences, unlike most of the stuff I review, so keep that in mind. 

Having read the book, the question then becomes do I watch the series and/or listen to the adaptation? That’s always been a tough question for me. If I enjoy something then it’s nice to go deep, but on the other hand surely there are better things to do than hear the same story told slightly differently for a third time? 

I guess I’ll finish all the books first and then see where I’m at.


Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2022

697 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conclusion to the Expeditionary Force series where the cliffhanger of Book 14 gets resolved and everyone, hopefully, lives happily ever after.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first 14 books, then you should definitely read this one. The bigger question is that now, knowing how it all ends, should you start the series in the first place? Well…

General Thoughts

I listened to this series, and if you add it all up (including books 3.5 and 7.5 which I also listened to) it comes to 286 hours. Now, of course, I didn’t listen to it at normal speed. R.C. Bray, the narrator, isn’t the slowest narrator out there, or the best at enunciation (he’s fine, just not exceptional) so I think I ended up dialing things in at around 2.7x, maybe 2.8? We’ll go with 2.8 which would put me at just over 100 hours — two and a half weeks of full time work. Obviously I was doing other things while I listened: walking, driving, cleaning, etc. And early on, the series was so enjoyable that I was listening to it even when I normally wouldn’t bother. Like during the five minutes it took me to go upstairs to get some food. In other words the initial 30 hours of the series went faster than 30 hours of listening normally would.

As part of that, the series made me realize that I could and probably should be reading more books just for the enjoyment of it. I think over the last few years, as I’ve publicly reviewed every book I read, that the amount of reading I do strictly because I enjoy it has declined. So if nothing else the series made a positive improvement on that front. And I appreciate it for doing that, but it also illustrates why, in the end, it wasn’t a good use of my time, and it’s probably not a good use of your time. This isn’t a hard and fast warning, if you really want to read the series you shouldn’t let me talk you out of it. But just based on that standard I know that there are several books I could have re-read that would have provided more pleasure than the 286 hours of Expeditionary Force. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is only 111 hours and I know I want to re-read that. 

You might now be wondering if there’s some portion of the series that’s worth reading. A stopping place where the expected value is positive? Possibly the first four books? But that’s a very weak suggestion. I think the middle books get pretty repetitive, and the final books, while slightly less repetitive, end up being more ridiculous. But it’s not as if the first four books are masterpieces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all fun, but even if you stop early I’m not sure that fun vs. time spent is ever definitely positive.

I might be singing a different tune if he had stuck the landing, but he didn’t. Part of what kept me reading was the world building, and the mysteries he hinted would eventually be revealed. On this front he did better than some. I don’t think he left any of the mysteries unresolved, but the reveals were underwhelming, particularly the very biggest mystery. I don’t want to oversell how bad it was. Ending things is very difficult and more often than not I end up feeling let down by them, so on that front the EF ending was average. Not especially bad, but not especially good either. If it had been exceptionally good, then perhaps that 100 hours would have been worth it. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and if you’re already eight books in, and I had something to do with that, then I apologize. I’m not saying that reading the final seven books won’t be enjoyable, I’m just saying that it will be time consuming.


Speaking of time consuming endeavors followed by mediocre endings, here we are closing out another long post, though this one was on the short side for one of my book review round ups. I keep saying I’m going to try to keep them shorter, and look at this! I kind of, sort of, succeeded. If you’re impressed by my kind of, sort of victory, then you should kind of, sort of consider donating.


The 8 Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Psychology of Totalitarianism by: Mattias Desmet
  2. The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge
  3. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud by: Phillip Rieff
  4. Plato: A Very Short Introduction by: Julia Annas
  5. Jesus’ Son by: Denis Johnson
  6. Tombs of Atuan by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Roadside Picnic by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  8. Purple Days by: Baurus

I finally got a chance to compile all of the survey results. One of the big questions was whether I should move to Substack, and the results there were inconclusive. So if I do end up doing that it won’t be anytime soon, also I can probably achieve most of the same results if I just utilized ConvertKit better, but distribution and promotion have never been my strong suites. Beyond that I did attempt to distribute a couple of $100 Amazon gift cards. One person politely declined, but the other is now the proud owner of more books. (Or more of one of the millions of other things Amazon sells, but I hope they bought books.)

Beyond that another takeaway is that I have been spending too much time on this book review post. Reviewing books is easier than writing essays, but the book review posts have been slowly metastasizing such that frequently they take about twice as many hours to put together as an essay, and while lots of you like my reviews, it’s also evident that they’re not the star of the show. Thus, I’m planning to dial them back a little bit. For example only one Eschatological Review per month, and a greater focus on brevity with the rest of the reviews, shifting the time thus saved over to my essays, or my “always on the horizon”, “will be done someday”, book.  Less “review you might find in a magazine” (though I’m doing some of that, see here) and more “review that you might find on Amazon”. Though I will continue to keep the different sections, unless…

No pressure, but for the few who prefer my essays to my reviews, if you could let me know what you might like to see added to the reviews to make them more appealing. And for those that love the reviews, if you could let me know what parts you would hate to see go, so I don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be great. 


I- Eschatological Review

The Psychology of Totalitarianism 

By: Mattias Desmet

Published: 2022

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very ambitious book, and it covers a lot, COVID, mass formation, mechanistic thinking, etc. but if one were to try to boil it down, the common thread is that increasing technological control (in the broadest sense of that phrase) is no longer the solution to our problems, but rather the cause.

What’s the author’s angle?

Desmet is a professor and a practicing psychologist from Belgium, so the word “psychology” might mean more to him than it means to you or me.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book, but as I said it’s very ambitious, and probably too short to adequately support such ambition. As such, if you demand rigorous support for arguments this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re okay with people creating grand narratives which include a lot of speculation, this is a very interesting book. 

General Thoughts

One of the reasons I’m more forgiving of grand narratives of the sort I just mentioned is that if one is going to explain the dysfunction of the modern world something grand is in fact required. If there was just one small thing wrong then we would have figured it out long ago. Even if there were numerous small things wrong this process would still be effective, and we would notice ongoing improvement. And to be fair that was happening up until say decade or so ago. Only if the problem is deep and complex would we still be grappling with it. Still, in spite of this conclusion, I’m wary of theories, no matter how subtle and complex, which claim to explain everything. Since I think that if there was just one root problem, no matter how intricate it ended up being, that we would have figured that out as well. Though perhaps not, particularly if the problem nestles comfortably within our incentives and biases, which it almost certainly does.

In any event, I found the book interesting, but for most of the phenomena he talked about I didn’t feel like he went deep enough for me to definitively judge whether he was entirely correct, mostly correct, partially correct, or entirely wrong. My sense, which was clearly informed by my own incentives and biases, is that he wasn’t entirely wrong about anything, which means he was at least partially correct about everything. Still the book would have benefited from more depth.

For reasons too lengthy to get into this is the last review I’m writing and I’m entirely out of time, so while I wish I could go into the many subjects Desmet raises, I’m going to limit my focus to just one.

Eschatological Implications

There was one area where I think he was definitely on to something, and this was something new, or at least new to me. We like to imagine that there was this fork in the road early in the 20th century. The fascists and communists went one way, and the liberals and the democrats went another way. The former descended into totalitarianism while the latter group rejected authoritarianism in favor of freedom — free markets, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc. 

The story Desmet tells is a different one. In his telling the Enlightenment and the associated progress both before and after, particularly the increasing importance of science, created a sense of control, a mechanistic view of the world. As a result of this we experienced a constant trend towards increased governmental powers, a trend which eventually ends in totalitarianism. Without democratic norms to slow things down the fascists and the communists got their first, but it’s impossible to have a modern system of government, with a mechanistic viewpoint (which is the essence of technocracy) without following the same trend, and eventually arriving in the same place. Liberal ideas like those embodied in the Bill of Rights and similar documents may slow things down, but ultimately they’re powerless before the appeal of greater control, and the better outcomes that control promises. That, as I said in a previous post, they will have found The Answer.

Lately we’ve seen that science has not quite given us the certainty or control we had hoped. And Desmet illustrates this by opening his book with a discussion of the replication crisis. However these obvious failings haven’t really stopped people. As you might imagine Desmet uses the pandemic as exhibit number 1 for using uncertain science to impose massive, arguably totalitarian, restrictions. The point being, if people think they have or can figure out the best way to run a society (again see my previous post) then it seems immoral to them not run society in exactly that fashion, regardless of who may object or the basis for those objections. 

And who are the people objecting? What power do they have to reverse this trend? Not much. They’ve been labeled as populists and largely ghettoized. Which is to say the greater libertarian streak of Western Democracies has slowed down this trend, but it hasn’t arrested it. Whatever libertarianism there once was is draining away at an alarming rate. 

Desmet’s basic assertion is that “The solution to our fear and uncertainty does not lie in the increase of (technological) control.” On this we agree. Unfortunately it appears to be the only tool we know how to use anymore.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

By: Adrian Wooldridge

Published: 2021

504 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of meritocracy, how it contributed to the modern world, why it has recently come under attack, and how to renew it.

What’s the author’s angle?

Wooldridge is a member of the global elite and a beneficiary of meritocracy (he worked at The Economist for more than 20 years.) It’s also clear that he finds populism to be distressing

Who should read this book?

I found this book to be far more a history of meritocracy than a defense of meritocracy, though it certainly tries to do both. If you’re looking for just the latter then I would skip this book, if you’re looking for both, or just the former, then I would pick it up.

General Thoughts

Part of the problem with doing a deep historical dive into a subject in order to defend your interpretation of that subject is that in the process of laying out all the facts you give people all the tools necessary to arrive at a different interpretation than the one you’re defending. This is the experience I had with Wooldridge’s book. But it may take me a moment to get there. 

I already spent a lot of time on this book in my post, Finding “The Answer”, but that was a higher level view of the entire process of organizing society, now it’s time to examine the specific methodology of meritocracy. In his historical survey Wooldridge examines several cultures and societies. As you might imagine he spends a lot of time on the Chinese mandarins and the imperial examination, which I also spent a lot of time on in that previous post. As an additional example he spends quite a bit of time discussing the Jewish rabbis, and the vast system of Talmudic education. 

…the Jewish people played a prominent role in developing the meritocratic idea. They didn’t develop meritocracy in the narrow sense of selecting people for positions on the basis of their intellectual powers, as Plato did in theory and the Chinese did in practice. But they did so in more indirect ways. They led the world in emphasizing intellectual success as a way of securing the survival of the group. They heaped honour on people who could perform demanding intellectual feats, from rabbis to scholars. They embraced objective measures of intellectual success – particularly examinations – as ways of establishing their credentials and combating anti-Jewish prejudice. Jews played a prominent role in both developing IQ tests and opposing affirmative action: think of Hans Eysenck in the first category and Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer in the second.

After giving these two historical examples along with mentioning Plato (which will be important in just a second) he goes on to discuss how Europe adopted the Chinese exam system and the Jewish mania for learning and went on to dominate the world. Ideologically things started with the renaissance, but practically it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that we start to see large scale movement from aristocracy of birth to aristocracy of talent. As you can imagine the biggest practical changes came with the revolutions. First the American, but most notably the French. 

The French Revolution injected the question of meritocracy, like a shot of adrenalin, into the heart of European politics. Article VI of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (1789) provided the most concise statement of the emerging meritocratic idea:

Law is the expression of the general will; all citizens have the right to concur personally, or through their representatives, in its formation; it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal before it, are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity, and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents [Emphasis by Wooldridge].

This contains echoes of the Chinese idea that the mandarin elite should scour the population for potential mandarins or the Platonic idea that embryonic guardians can be found in every class. But it goes further: it suggests that all citizens are equal before the state and can push themselves forward as potential decision-makers. The onus is on individuals to compete for political positions on the basis of their talents and virtues rather than for the state to micromanage things from on high.

This is very strong evidence for the presence of meritocracy. But I don’t think it does as much to explain European dominance as Wooldridge imagines. For one thing Europe was already pretty dominant by the late 1700’s. It’s not as if Europe and America had these revolutions and only then did they proceed to make their presence felt around the world. That had been going on for hundreds of years. Perhaps you might argue that while this was the full flowering of meritocracy, that other forms of meritocracy were at work in the background. The best candidate for this background meritocracy would be schooling, in particular the universities, but even there it took a long time for full meritocracy to arrive. For example Trinity College, Cambridge, which “led the way”, only introduced written examinations for admittance in 1744 and they didn’t introduce anything resembling scholarships until 1786, which seems pretty important to the operation of a true meritocracy. And as late as 1837 when the future 10th Earl of Wemyss was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, he was asked just one question: “How’s your father?” From all this one gets the sense that while meritocracy was one of the many useful tools a confident Europe grabbed onto as part of their rise that by the time true meritocracy arrived Europe was already near its peak. 

Of course it is possible that I’m creating a strawman, that Wooldridge is not claiming that meritocracy was responsible for the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and all of the other progress which took off in Europe. However his book is subtitled “How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” so if it is a strawman it’s not much of one. 

Of course there are numerous theories for why things “took off” in Europe, with not only numerous different mechanisms, but wildly varied starting points. And I doubt that Wooldridge is claiming that meritocracy is the sole explanation. (Though it seems fair to say he’d put it in the top 3.) But even if we just limit ourselves to the data presented in his book, I think there’s a different, better explanation for the success of the Chinese, the Jews and the Europeans than the one Wooldridge provided. 

Wooldridge’s preferred explanation is that all three used meritocracy to replace rule by inheritance with rule by the most gifted, and that naturally led to better outcomes. This explanation makes sense, better rulers create better rules. Under this interpretation all we have to do is keep our focus on merit and everything will turn out great. But I think Wooldridge overlooked the truly critical component to the story of the Chinese and the Jews and later the West. And here at last we return to where I started. 

Yes, the imperial examination system sought out the most talented and made them mandarins, but it also created cultural homogeneity around a set of very pro-civilizational ideas: the civic religion of confucianism. It wasn’t just that the mandarins thus selected were smart, the system also forced them to rigorously study ideas like: righteousness, sincerity and propriety. Confucianism also includes a set of five relationships, the first of which was prince over subject. (Which fell under the principle of righteousness.) Not only was all of this part of culture. It was the subject of the most intense studying imaginable as part of the preparation for the imperial exams.

We see something similar with the Jews. There it was the rigorous study of an actual religion but with a similarly civic minded and cohesive ideology. For example the idea that Jews were a special people who had been chosen by God. In both of these cases, was it the fact that they were led by proto-technocrats that allowed them to survive as a nation for thousands of years, or was it the fact that they used meritocracy as one part of an intense effort to imbue the upper class with a strong and united national identity?

All of this takes us to Europe and the West. As I mentioned, if you’re looking for evidence of early attempts at meritocracy you need to look at the schools and universities, where giving education to the talented as opposed to those who were just well-connected started as early as the 14th century. But what sort of education was it? Western universities were basically religious institutions, where the Bible was studied maniacally, and when students weren’t studying the Bible they were immersed in the Classics, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Virgil. Up until relatively recently an intense study of Christianity and the Classics was a university education. (I uncovered an article in the Atlantic from 1917 arguing that it was finally time to dispense with mandatory Latin.) 

Again we’re forced to ask the question, did the West succeed because of meritocracy? Or did it succeed because it created a unified ideology — a civic religion — among its upper class. You might point to the Protestent Reformation as a time of disunity, but does fighting over Christianity make you less devoted to Christianity or more?

It could be argued that the focus on Classics and Christianity was not as intense as the Chinese study of Confucius or the Jewish study of the Talmud, but then we still have a long way to go before we last the thousands of years both of them did, and it kind of feels like we’re not going to. 


The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud

By: Phillip Rieff

Published: 1966

325 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the modern world has embraced a “gospel of personal happiness, defined as the unbridled pursuit of impulse, and yet we remain profoundly unhappy.” 

What’s the author’s angle?

Rieff started as a huge fan of Freud and did his doctoral dissertation on him, declaring that he had written “the masterwork of the century”. But gradually came to see that Freud’s ideas heralded the beginning of the end. To understand this transition it’s useful to compare Freud to Marx. Rieff was a fan of both, and both seemed to provide visions of a much better future. But when it came time to implement these visions, the actual result was misery for millions.

Who should read this book?

Those who are really interested in the decline of Western culture and believe that it’s primarily an issue of narcissism… otherwise, probably I would pass on it, it’s super dense and academic.

General Thoughts

There are lots of people who think that the woke have gone too far. Who see the excesses and acknowledge that things have gotten crazy, but despite this craziness they’re not worried. It seems reasonable to argue that the craziness is limited to a few individuals, and that beyond that it’s a temporary condition, similar to the campus unrest of the late 60’s and early 70s which seemed apocalyptic at the time, but which are now only dimly remembered. You might be able to talk them into the idea that it’s widespread (particularly with the advent of woke capital) but if so they will fall back to the idea that it’s transitory. A short blip before we settle into a new normal. 

I think Rieff is a valuable counterbalance to this optimism because he shows that, for those who were far sighted enough, this situation could be seen from as far back as the early 60’s (I know the book was published in 66, but books don’t spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.) In other words all of the really deep and insightful criticisms of modernity were being made by Rieff decades ago.

I won’t be doing much of a review because I’m still digesting the book. It’s dense, and important. If you’re still looking for a review other people have done a good job of distilling it. And you might want to check out my review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman, which is the book that pointed me at Rieff. Accordingly, rather than try to do my own, lesser, distillation. I thought I’d just toss out a half a dozen amazing quotes to give you a sense of his prescience. These are taken largely at random, there are dozens more.

…our presently schizoid existence in two cultures—vacillating between dead purposes and deadly devices to escape boredom.

Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going…he understands morality as that which is conducive to increased activity. The important thing is to keep going.

…clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct.

As new religions are constantly being born, so psychotherapeutic faiths are constantly breaking out of their clinical restrictions.

In Jung’s interpretation, the trouble with Freud was that he had remained a Jew who had merely exchanged ritual obedience to the laws of the Hebrew God, for intellectual obedience to the laws of sexuality. 

If yesterday’s analytic thrust is to become part of tomorrow’s cultural super-ego, it must take on an institutional form, defend itself not only as true, but also as good and dig into personality as a demand system. Yet it is precisely this that the new arts and social sciences, in their very nature, cannot accomplish. They cannot create the ardent imaginations necessary to the forming of new communities.


Plato: A Very Short Introduction 

By: Julia Annas

Published: 2003

144 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where “it does exactly what it says on the tin”.

Who should read this book?

It’s marketed towards those who don’t want to read Plato’s actual writings, but really Plato is pretty readable, and there’s really no reason to read this instead of say “Crito” (which is only 4300 words). But if you’ve read a lot of Plato and you’re looking for some context and some synthesis this is a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This is my second “Very Short Introduction” book, and so far I think they’re useful. My sense was that this was better than the one on Socrates, but neither was particularly elegant. Fitting everything into a short space, where comprehension is at a premium necessitates a pretty dry style. Which is not to say that it was annoyingly dry, more that it provides no opportunity for the book to be delightfully discursive, witty or allusive.


Jesus’ Son 

By: Denis Johnson

Published: 1992

133 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of vaguely autobiographical short stories about Johnson’s time as a druggie and lowlife among other druggies and lowlifes. The title comes from the song “Heroin” by Velvet Underground which was written by Lou Reed

Who should read this book?

This book is close to being an “everyone” book, but I resolved to be more parsimonious. It’s short and it has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever encountered. I will say that the audio version is particularly compelling. Like the saddest, most broken down person you know telling you the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. 

General Thoughts

I read this as part of Freddie deBoer’s book club. Which as of this writing is still occurring, so if you’re interested in the book, and participating alongside someone would make it better, you can still get in on that. Beyond that I’d heard people rave about this book for a long time, and I should have picked it up sooner. Johnson is an amazing writer. Though as you can imagine from the description it’s definitely for mature audiences.


Tombs of Atuan 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1971

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the second book of the Earthsea Trilogy, telling the continuing adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. But he’s not the main character, Tenar, a young priestess to the “Nameless Ones” is. She’s supposed to be the latest reincarnation of all the previous priestesses, and thus the most important priestess to the most important gods, but she’s still just a teenage girl. This tension makes for compelling reading.

Who should read this book?

I will say the same thing I said about Wizard of Earthsea: Everyone. (I know I said I was going to be more sparing.) It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short. I guess if you hate fantasy, maybe not, but even then I’d give it a try. 

General Thoughts

Despite what I just said, the lack of breadth makes this, for me, the weakest of the original Earthsea trilogy, though it’s still really, really good. And as I said this was just me personally, it’s my wife’s favorite of the three, she really loves Tenar, and her whole story. So she was shocked when I told her the audiobook had a male narrator (Rob Inglis who also did the Lord of the Rings) and I can see her point. 


Roadside Picnic 

by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Published: 1972

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Aliens have visited the Earth, but rather than conquering humans or even communicating with us they just left “Zones”, areas full of mysterious artifacts and dangerous forces. Humans are compared to insects emerging after a roadside picnic, examining: ”Old spark plugs…rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind.” (This was published in the Soviet Union in 1972; apparently picnics in the Soviet Union involved a lot of car repair.) The zones are super dangerous and off limits to all but the government. Stalkers are people who illegally enter the zone in search of artifacts to sell. The novel is the story of one of these stalkers, Redrick “Red” Schuhart.

Who should read this book?

I think if you like science fiction at all you should read this book. Particularly if you like the older stuff or if you’re trying to broaden your horizons. This is one of the best known examples of Soviet science fiction, and it’s worth reading just for that.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, though I confess that I expected the book to have more of a “Soviet feel” than it actually did, but this violation of my expectations turned out to be a good thing. The differences between this book and other old science fiction I’ve read were subtle, it was less optimistic to the point of being grim, but not dystopian. It also featured a lower class of people than most English science fiction, at least what I’m familiar with. These differences helped the book to be a great story without being either weirdly foreign or heavy-handed propaganda. 


Purple Days

By: Baurus

Published: 2021

2200 Pages (According to Goodreads, and my rough Kindle calculations)

Briefly, what is this book about?

Game of Thrones fanfiction where every time Joffrey dies his life starts over again — Groundhog Day like — at the beginning of the series. After numerous deaths he starts becoming a better person, eventually saving the world almost in the fashion of a superhero.

Who should read this book?

I thought it was pretty good. But at 2200 pages it’s difficult to recommend to anyone. Though I guess if you view it as a series it’s not that bad, though it’s not written as a series, it’s basically one enormous book. 

General Thoughts

A couple of months ago I was at a Slate Star Codex meetup, and someone mentioned that they were into ratfic (which is short for Rationalist Fiction). The best known examples of this genre would be Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) and Unsong. I had read both of those so I asked him what else he would recommend. This book was his recommendation. I’m not sure if I would classify it as rationalist work, but he did, and people have posted about it in the rationalist subreddit, though the posters there share my uncertainty. 

If I had to classify it, the book spends more time exploring humanism than rationalism, but it spends most of its time just being a straight fantasy novel. I would have actually preferred it if it had been more strictly a rationalist morality tale. All of the added fantastic elements and the discursions into Joffrey recreating the renaissance, distracted from the interesting growth that just comes from trial and error. Which is the heart of rationality.  Also there was a missed opportunity to explore the overwhelming importance of X-Risks. Baurus does some of this, but by the end it’s seriously melodramatic. Those are kind of the negatives. (In addition to the length obviously.) 

On the positive side the premise was incredibly interesting, and with 2200 pages to work with Baurus does some truly amazing exploration of the more obscure corners of the world of the Song of Ice and Fire. And while the writing isn’t as polished as what you would get from a more mainstream book, it was mostly quite good.

I did feel that it started to drag near the end (so the last 500 pages), as the aforementioned melodrama began to predominate, and I ended up partially finishing it out of the sunk cost fallacy. But also, I wanted to see how it ended, he had at least made it interesting enough for that. And while there were some great moments near the end, It cut off pretty abruptly for a 2200 page book, and I’m not sure he really stuck the landing.

Despite all of this, overall I was left with the desire to read more fanfiction. Which is probably not a great idea. Though if this same person recommends something else I might just take him up on it.


This didn’t end up being as brief as I thought, but I did end up using a lot more quotes from the books, which is content I didn’t have to write, so it is a little bit easier. If you think that paying someone to copy from other books is a worthwhile use of your money consider donating.


Book Review: The Ethics of Beauty

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This is a review I did for the first issue of American Hombre, a new magazine being published by a friend of mine. I did an excerpt of it back in September, but he’s graciously agreed to let me release it in its entirety. If this makes you interested in the full magazine, the PDF is currently available for free at americanhombre.gumroad.com. But also you should consider subscribing to the print version. This magazine deserves to be held. 

You can use the coupon code ‘RW’ to get 10% off a subscription or $1 off the price of the print issue. The next issue is coming out in January and it will include another review by me. (The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter, if you’re curious.) 

The Ethics of Beauty

By: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Beauty will save the world.

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. 

And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?

This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.

But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)

I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The Cliffs of Moher, featuring the “Harry Potter Cave” (because it was used in one of the movies.) You might also be familiar with them as the “Cliffs of Insanity” which played such a prominent role in The Princess Bride.

As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise. 

But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values. 

Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.

Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.

But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. 

To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not. 

Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?

First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general. 

Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example.

II- War and the Associated Trauma

The northern transept of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which contains battle standards from previous wars in which the Irish fought.

Patitsas starts his discussion of Beauty in an unusual place. He devotes the very first chapter to a discussion of war, specifically how to heal the trauma that pervades modern warfare. He asserts that much of the reason trauma has become so pervasive is that we have abandoned all efforts at healing soldiers with beauty. We focus only on the truth of it. The deaths, the injuries, the horrible things soldiers witness. Essentially we wallow in the awful facts of war, while making no effort to craft a larger, more spiritual narrative of sin and redemption.

Patitsas asserts that in our current, trivialized conception of beauty, there is nothing beautiful about war or its aftermath. It’s all ugliness, and much of modern therapy is designed to dig up and highlight the ugliness. But under Patitsas’ broader philosophy, healing the trauma of war has to begin with a beauty-first approach to war. There’s the beauty of individuals sacrificing for their brothers in arms, which wars inevitably require. There’s the beauty of community and brotherhood, which creates the necessary bonds for that sacrifice. These are perhaps sometimes acknowledged in the treatment of trauma, but Patitsas goes even farther. 

For Patitsas, trauma is the result of anti-theophanies. Trauma comes from experiencing things that occlude the divine, that make you viscerally doubt the existence of God. It seems overly simplistic to describe it merely as ugliness, but for Patitsas that’s basically what it is — a deep, soul destroying ugliness. The only way to heal it is with true-theophanies, or Beauty. How do we give theophanies to those suffering from Trauma? Patitsas mentions things like Alcoholics Anonymous, and the larger 12-step community, with their core tenet (step 2) of belief in a higher power. But, when talking about war, he spends most of his time talking about the Iliad. 

He borrows this approach from the book Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. Shay argues that reciting the Iliad was a therapeutic act for the ancient Greeks, a way of treating the trauma of war. Patitsas interprets this as healing trauma with beauty. 

Think of how many of our own war movies today tell the story of war in terms of heroics and blood lust. But though the Iliad contains such elements, its larger message is a noble sorrow for the soldiers whose lives are cut short, who experience bad leadership, privation, homesickness, confusion, fear, and pain. The poem was recited to a group of veterans who felt all these emotions again, but on behalf of Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Odysseus, and all the other warriors who in the story go through just what these later soldiers have gone through. The listeners are healed because in grieving for the heroic and ideal combat veterans, they learn to grieve for themselves. 

Patitsas goes on to claim, based on Shay’s work, that this beauty-first approach is more effective than the truth first approach, and leads to better results and fewer military suicides. This makes intuitive sense to me, for reasons I’ll shortly get to, but I haven’t read Shay’s book, so I’m not sure what kind of factual basis he provides for the power of the Iliad. 

For me, this is one of the few weaknesses of Patitsas’ book (the other is its length, it could have been shorter). He largely alludes to other books as providing a factual foundation, which he goes on to interpret using his philosophical framework. So while it’s easy to find statistics about the increase in military suicides, until I get around to reading Shay’s book I’m not sure what kind of evidence there is for treating trauma by reading the Iliad vs. other forms of therapy. 

As I just said though, it does ring true to me, because, as long as we’re referencing other books, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, makes an analogous point. Junger, who does provide hard statistics, points out that the PTSD rate among World War II veterans was far lower than the rate among Vietnam veterans, despite the fact that WWII was far bloodier. And we see the same trend of more PTSD combined with fewer injuries when comparing Vietnam veterans to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes of this disparity are not entirely clear, but it seems safe to say that whatever we’re doing it’s not working.

Junger speaks of the same noble sorrows Patitsas does, and explains that these were sacrifices that soldiers made for their tribe, for their larger society—another way of describing a beauty-first approach. War is horrible, even soul-destroying, but at least you were doing it for your tribe. A truth-first approach focuses entirely on the first part, how horrible it is, without the second. Or as Patitsas says, “truth-first methods can take the soul apart, but they cannot put it back together.” 

III- Beauty for the Non-spiritual

The ruined cathedral, or Teampuil Mor of Kilmacduagh Monastery in Ireland. The cathedral was built in the 15th century and is mostly intact except for the roof.

When Patitsas implies that Beauty can put the soul back together, he’s asking us to assume that we in fact have a soul, and that it can be reconstructed by bringing it into contact with the divine, which must also, by necessity, exist. 

At its most stripped down Patitisas is advocating for dualism over materialism, but this advocacy is far from abstract. He wrote an explicitly Christian book from an uncompromising Christian perspective. Should one take from this that if you’re not Christian, religious, or at the very least spiritual, that the book has nothing for you? I don’t think so. Certainly, should you decide to read the book you should be aware of Patitsas’ forthright Christian advocacy, but in the midst of that he makes several points which should be valuable even for committed materialists.

Before we get into a more intellectual discussion of things, take a moment to consider beauty in raw form. Take a look at the picture at the top of this section, and if you want extra credit look at the rest of the pictures in the review as well. If we momentarily put everything else aside, are these pictures beautiful? I suspect if you’re honest you’ll admit that they all possess significant beauty. Why is that? To just take the picture at the top of the section as an example, why would a ruined chapel full of graves be beautiful? If we have a soul and God exists, the answer is straightforward. But what’s the purely materialist/scientific/evolutionary explanation for the beauty of that picture? Shouldn’t evolution want us to avoid ruin, and eschew death? 

Obviously, there are many potential answers to this question, and a comprehensive discussion of the potential evolutionary basis for beauty would take up far more space than we have. But it’s still worth taking a stab at things.

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, is a book about hemispheric differences in the way the brain operates — the old left-brained vs. right-brained idea. But this is not a book about the popular science version of this difference, it’s a 600 page multidisciplinary dive into neurology and culture, art and history and it gives us our dualism without needing to resort to theology. 

McGilchrist asserts that the right brain, the hemisphere that collates information into a cohesive worldview, and the source of our holistic, intuitive understanding of the world, has historically been the Master. This is in contrast to the left brain, the part that breaks things down, that is focused on the minutia, the parts and pieces, which historically was the Emissary — the part that was sent out to return and report. While reading Ethics of Beauty, I couldn’t help but be reminded of McGilchrist’s book, which posits that the Emissary has usurped the role of the master, that modernity has placed too much emphasis on breaking things down into comprehensible pieces. McGilchrist calls this a left-brained approach; Patitsas appears to be describing much the same thing, but calls it a truth-first approach. Both assert that by following this path we have abandoned an integrated, intuitive understanding — a right-brained understanding (McGilchrist), or a beauty-first approach (Patitsas). This obvious comparison is one of the reasons why I found Patitsas’ book to be so valuable, it dovetailed nicely with things I had read elsewhere, but from a new direction. 

Patitsas work also dovetails with the work of Jane Jacobs, and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has been called the single-most influential book written about urban planning and cities. Published in 1961, the book was a searing critique of “urban renewal”, charging that it created unnatural, sterile spaces, in the process destroying older, more organic communities.

This may seem like a somewhat unusual connection, but second only to Patitsas’ status as an Orthodox theologian, is his status as a protege of Jacobs. He worked closely with her for many years, and Ethics is peppered with anecdotes of their interactions. Once made aware of the connection between the two it’s easy to see how Patitsas’ framework fits over Jacobs’ critique. The urban renewal of the immediate postwar period was a “truth-first” approach to city planning, which supplanted the previous “beauty-first” design naturally adopted by people historically — in the absence of top down diktats such as zoning regulations, building codes, and minimum parking requirements.

Patitsas ties Jacob’s insights into a three-tiered progression for science. His first tier is the science of establishing correlation between two variables. His second tier is the science of statistical analysis. And the third tier is the science of complex systems. In this latter tier we have both strictly organic systems, like plants and animals, but also pseudo-organic systems like cities. Jacob’s genius was uncovering the presence of this third tier within the discipline of urban planning. It is also within this third tier that Patitsas locates beauty. But how does one square his initial definition of beauty as the experience of mini-theophanies with this second definition where beauty is located in complexity? For me it helped to pull in the duality described by McGilchrist — complexity and deep intuition are both right-brained tasks — which is why I did it, but Patitsas doesn’t have access to McGilchrist, he only had access to Jacobs so how does she make the connection?

…Jacobs then proposed something much more radical…which was that in studying organic systems it was a scientific fact that you would never understand such systems if you didn’t first love them! 

…Jacobs’ logic was that living systems are so complex, so alive, that you almost have to “win their trust,” or at least have to give patient, sympathetic attention to them, before you will ever come to see their surprising rational structure. This importance of love is very odd for a scientific method, and it is one more way that problems in organic complexity reverse the assumptions behind the first two kinds of science. Cold objectivity is no aid to the science of complex systems, Jacobs insisted.

The way I put it to my students is that organic systems cannot be understood or known unless we somehow let them “know us back.” For example, you won’t know a particular city until it has claimed you for itself, has changed you. This is not a principle of Enlightenment science by any means, but Jacobs says that in organic systems this is what you have to do. You have to love what you are studying, and you have to let it “know” you. You have to let this organic phenomenon you are studying impart to you a new intuition, a new faculty of awareness, appropriate specifically to it. 

You can certainly imagine this “new intuition” he mentions in connection with complexity to be essentially the same thing as the theophany definition we started with. This is also another illustration of the difference between a truth-first approach and a beauty-first approach. Traditionally science, by emphasizing cold objectivity has no room for any emotion, let alone “love”. But as we seek to understand more complex systems, it’s necessary first to appreciate their beauty, i.e. to love them, before we can truly understand them. Reductionism alone is perhaps inadequate to yield comprehension of the whole which as a cohesive entity is something other than a mere sum of its parts.

IV- Tying it all together

The N11: Star Clouds of the Large Magellanic Cloud.

As this is the first book review in the first issue of American Hombre it seems like an appropriate place to have a discussion about the point of reviewing books in the first place.

For most reviews the primary goal is to answer the question: Is this book worth reading? At its most basic this might be accomplished with a simple “yes” or “no”. But generally this sort of accuracy is only possible if you’re reviewing the book for someone you know very well. When you’re reviewing it for a more general audience, the process of conveying that information becomes significantly more difficult. Given these difficulties it might be worthwhile to break the process down into discreet steps:

  1. What is the book about? What is the author attempting to convey to the reader? 
  2. How does the person writing the review feel about the author’s attempt? (As a subset, does he think it’s true?)
  3. What should the person reading the review take from all of this? 

Most book reviews (including this one) spend nearly all of their space on the first step, which is as it should be. The book is the star, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t have anything to add to that. Without some time spent on step 2, a reviewer might as well just list the table of contents.

It’s when we get to step 3 that things get really difficult. The reviewer has to imagine not merely the average person reading his review, ideally he should cast a net that catches all of the readers. Such a thing is of course impossible, but I’d like to give it my best shot.

I’m imagining that like me you occasionally experience powerful emotions around music, art, and stories. There are things that deeply move you without needing to have any connection to your life or your loved ones: Beethoven’s 9th fills you with a sense of triumph; Michelangelo’s Pietà fills you with inexpressible sorrow; and maybe you also, like me, cry at the end of the Iron Giant. You’re not sure why you experience these emotions so powerfully, but sterile explanations of evolutionary adaptation seem inadequate. 

You’re someone who looks at the picture of stars and interstellar dust at the top of the section, and you can feel the beauty of the overwhelming vastness of space. But you wonder why that should be? Such a view has only been available for a few decades, why should it nevertheless feel familiar?

You’ve heard the explanations for why things are or aren’t beautiful. Why certain forms of art inspire emotion completely out of proportion to their impact on your day to day life. But your intuition tells you that something deeper is going on. Perhaps it’s supernatural or divine, or perhaps it’s just some profound connection to the world in its entirety. Whatever it is, it deserves a deeper discussion.

Out of all of this you came to the same starting point as Patitsas. Beauty is foundational, and the world has made it superficial. If you want to leave behind that superficiality, and see what can be built once you truly start with Beauty as a foundation, then yes, you should read this book.


After reading this you might be wondering why I don’t include more pictures in my post. Mostly it’s because I also do an audio version of the post and pictures complicate that. But as I look at the ones included here, it feels like I should figure out a way to do it anyway. If you’d like to fund that endeavor, consider donating


The 7 Books I Finished in October

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. What We Owe the Future by: William MacAskill
  2. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by: Michael D. Gordin
  3. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by: Jonathan Shay
  4. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by: C.C.W. Taylor 
  5. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy by: Mortimer J. Adler
  6. A Wizard of Earthsea by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

 

A couple of months ago I decided that it was time for another survey (I last conducted a survey in 2018.) I figured that my 300th post would provide a good excuse for it, and that the newsletter would be the best place to announce it. Looking ahead I calculated that I would have to do three essays in September and October to get the timing right, which seemed only fair since my output in July and August had been so pathetic.

On top of trying to fit in additional writing, I could have picked better months to do it in. Things have been crazy with my business. I’m enrolled in a sort of a mini-MBA, my biggest client has kept me super busy, and I hired a couple of people (only one of whom is working out, the other I’m going to have to let go.) Beyond that I still haven’t completely unpacked after the move to the new house, and to complicate the chaos, we just barely moved my mother-in-law into the basement.

I bring all of this up because there was a moment in October when I realized that I had way too much on my plate, and something had to give. In that moment I suffered a mini existential crisis where for a brief period (basically the space of an afternoon) I reconsidered everything, including reading. 

Among the many things I recognized in that moment of panic is that reading, which was usually relaxing and enjoyable, had become oppressive. The panic didn’t last, and it was mostly caused by all the other things I was trying to juggle, but I did make a few decisions: I started skimming a bit more. For obvious reasons this happened more with books I read than books I listen to. I also decided that each month I would make sure to have a book or two I actually enjoyed in the mix. Probably something I had already read, where enjoyment was guaranteed. (Thus the Wizard of Earthsea.) Also, I read a lot of recent non-fiction about how the world might be screwed up. Going forward I think I’m going to try to cut back on that, at least a little bit. It’s unclear how successful I’ll be there. The drive that keeps me writing (see the last post) also drives me to read books like that. But I think I should be alel to back off a little bit. 

But, yeah, this all kind of started with wanting to put out a survey, so it would be great if you could spend a couple of minutes filling it out if you haven’t already. I’m giving $100 Amazon gift certificate to one random person. Though some people have told me they didn’t fill it out because they didn’t want to take $100 from me. If that describes you, you can just say don’t enter me in the drawing. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

What We Owe the Future 

by: William MacAskill

Published: 2022

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The ideology of long-termism in particular our responsibility to the potentially trillions of humans who might come after us. 

What’s the author’s angle?

MacAskill is right at the very heart of the effective altruism movement, being not only one of the originators of the idea, but also the co-founder of many of the institutions most closely associated with the EA movement.

Who should read this book?

As someone who’s very familiar with effective altruism and long termism, I’m not sure how much new stuff I really got out of the book. So if that describes you, or if you’ve listened to one of the thousand or so podcasts MacAskill is on you can probably skip this book. But if you’re just now hearing of long-termism/effective altruism then this is a great introduction.

General Thoughts

When one is reviewing a book that has received as much press as this one, it becomes quite the challenge to say something which hasn’t already been said—possibly dozens of times. To this I say, “Challenge accepted!” Though of course you may already see what the problem is. Unless I have watched, listened to, or read every piece of commentary on the book (which I haven’t) and remembered it all (even more unlikely) then I will never know if I was successful in this challenge. But I trust my readers to point out if I’ve failed. 

With that throat clearing out of the way I’d like to expand on an analogy he briefly introduces in his chapter on stagnation. 

We may be like a climber scaling a sheer cliff face with no ropes or harness, with a significant risk of falling. In such a situation, staying still is no solution; that would just wear us out, and we would fall eventually. Instead, we need to keep on climbing: only once we have reached the summit will we be safe.

There is a lot of pressure these days for making things sustainable, and the point of MacAskill’s analogy is that sustainability might not be an option. Not every point in our civilizational trajectory represents a good stopping point. As an example he points to the 1920’s:

[C]onsider what would have happened if we had plateaued at 1920s technology. We would have been stuck relying on fossil fuels. Without innovations in green technology, we would have kept emitting an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Not only would we have been unable to stop climate change, but we would also have simply run out of coal, oil, and gas eventually. The 1920s’ level of technological advancement was unsustainable. It’s only with the technological progress of the last hundred years that we have the capability to transition away from fossil fuels.

That period’s lack of sustainability is obvious in hindsight. But is our current position similarly unsustainable? MacAskill thinks it is and he mentions that we’re at a point with “easy-to-manufacture pathogens and other potent means of destruction”. But he thinks that if we keep climbing the cliff then we will eventually get beyond these dangers and “reach a point where we have the technology to effectively defend against such catastrophic risks”

This is of course one possibility, that there is some sort of safe summit with respect to technology. That we’re currently in a position where we’ve created the harm but we need to go a little bit farther (or maybe a lot farther?) to create the defense. He mentions defending against pathogens but where does he get the faith that such a thing will ever be trivial? Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that it is and always will be a wickedly difficult problem. I suppose once we’ve spread outside of the solar system it will cease to be an existential risk. (See here for why it needs to be outside the solar system and not merely a Mars colony.) But if so we’ve still got a very long climb ahead of us, and if we’re already tired?

Another possibility is that there is no safe summit, that even if there was a reasonably effective defense against pathogens, by the time we’ve developed it we will have developed a host of other harmful technologies, which require us to develop still more complicated defenses. (Everyone’s favorite example here is AI.) 

This lack of a summit is another expression of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I have talked about several times, most notably here: The idea that technology is like drawing balls of an unknown shade from an urn, and if we ever draw a pure black ball that it will mean the end of humanity. In fact, it’s interesting that MacAskill should use the analogy of climbing towards a summit, because no one climbs in order to reach safety. Summit’s aren’t safe, and in fact the highest summits in the world are in something called the Death Zone. Called this because human life is unsustainable for extended periods, and the vast majority of people need supplemental oxygen. 

There’s a reading of this whole analogy where sometime around the Enlightenment we became obsessed with reaching the summit of a nearby mountain so that we could see the rest of the world, and that we’re going to succeed in reaching it, only to have no idea what to do once we get there. In fact there’s an argument to be made that our confused arrival at the summit is what’s happening at this very moment. 

Beyond the two choices of continuing to climb or falling to our deaths, there are other ways we might extend the metaphor. Perhaps MacAskill is right and we do need to reach the summit, but we’ve picked an impossible route, and if we carefully retreat there’s another route we might be able to take. Or perhaps there’s a ledge where we could rest before we continue with the route we’re already on? And why do we have no “ropes or harness” in MacAskill’s analogy? What reason did we have for creating this exceptionally fragile situation? Perhaps ropes and harnesses represent traditional methods of reducing fragility? Things like religions which encourage high birth rates and prudent behavior. This all makes one wonder why MacAskill would choose for his analogy what may be the least prudent behavior humans engage in. 

There’s another interesting dichotomy to consider here. People like MacAskill, Holden Karnofsky and others believe that we’re at a unique moment in the history of humanity. Karnofsky calls this the most important century. Still others, like David Deutch (who I recently reviewed here) and Steven Pinker think that we’re just walking up the mountain, not climbing, but rather than being alone we are in a group. Also, it’s possible that recently the terrain has gotten more difficult, and some members of our group are starting to complain. And the group as a whole is getting tired. But for them the key danger is that we’re going to end up camping in the least hospitable terrain, or worse start fighting, when in reality the difficult terrain is just a temporary inconvenience.

Eschatological Implications

In the last section I talked about our position on the mountain, in this section I want to talk about our condition. Are we tired as a civilization? Are we beginning to lose our grip? If so, why? Here I think that MacAskill suffers from focusing on the wrong thing. He has a whole chapter on stagnation, which is good, but all of his proposed solutions revolve around technology. He mentions our declining birthrate but mostly in the context of increasing the number of researchers. When he talks about whether biotechnology could help, his example does not involve how it might help with infertility, but that we could clone Einsteins. For MacAskill, stagnation is caused by the slowing of technological advancement and can thus be solved by figuring out how to speed it back up. 

But is slowing technological advancement really the cause of stagnation? I mean sure, tautologically it’s the cause of technological stagnation, but is that really the stagnation we should be worried about? 

In the chapter immediately preceding the one on stagnation MacAskill has one covering collapse. That chapter obviously discusses the potential of nuclear annihilation, and includes the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But those cities, rather than being examples of devastation, are actually examples of resilience, as MacAskill himself is at pains to point out:

Before learning about Hiroshima’s subsequent history, I would have thought that, even today, it would be a nuclear wasteland, consisting of little more than smoking ruins…Despite the enormous loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, power was restored to some areas within a day, to 30 percent of homes within two weeks, and to all homes not destroyed by the blast within four months. There was a limited rail service running the day after the attack, there was a streetcar service running within three days, water pumps were working again within four days, and telecommunications were restored in some areas within a month. The Bank of Japan, just 380 metres from the hypocenter of the blast, reopened within just two days. The population of Hiroshima returned to its predestruction level within a decade. Today, it is a thriving modern city of 1.2 million people.

The Japanese had every excuse to abandon Hiroshima. And even if they didn’t abandon it, it would have been perfectly understandable if it had stagnated, but neither of those things happened. Rather what MacAskill describes is an amazing vitality. This is the opposite of a civilization being tired, and yet it happened at the end of one of the most brutal defeats ever recorded. Technology wasn’t what prevented stagnation or collapse in the example of Hiroshima. It could have caused it, but it definitely didn’t prevent it. Something else was going on. 

The question I have is not whether technology is stagnating, though it might be. The question I have is could we bounce back from disaster as quickly as the Japanese did in 1945? If we can’t, that’s the stagnation I worry about. That’s the weariness that is going to make us lose our grip and fall off the cliff face. You might call it willpower or cohesion, but whatever it is I don’t think modernity has served to increase it. 


The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

by: Michael D. Gordin

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The controversy over Immanuel Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision, and the origins and meaning of the term pseudoscience.

What’s the author’s angle?

Gordin is a science historian who decided to spend a few hours looking at the massive, posthumous collection of Velikovsky’s papers, which had been stored and cataloged at Princeton. He was so taken by what he found there that a few hours turned into a few years and a book.

Who should read this book?

If you’re really curious about Velikovsky then this is a great book. But I suspect that not many people fall into that category. In fact Gordin claims that if you’re younger than 50 you’ve never heard of Velikovsky. For what it’s worth I had. Carl Sagan “rips him a new one” (as we used to say) in his book Broca’s Brain. The book does have some interesting things to say about our current battles, but only in a very broad sense. There’s very little specific advice.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I was stuck at work late. We were doing some kind of server migration which involved a lot of waiting. And somehow we got on the subject of pseudointellectuals. And as we discussed the topic it gradually became apparent that people were using the term differently, to the point where we stopped the conversation and asked everyone point blank to give us their definition of that word. We discovered that out of the half dozen or so people who were there that every single person was using the word differently. I regret that at the distance of nearly two decades that I can’t recall all the definitions, though I do recall that all of them essentially boiled down to “pseudointellectuals are people I don’t like”. 

I was reminded of that conversation for the first time in quite a while by this book. Because Gordin makes a similar claim. He points out that there is no universally accepted definition of pseudoscience. And that much like my coworkers all those years ago, People use it and its synonyms to refer to any intellectual effort which they find objectionable. Or as Gordin memorably says in the very first line of the book:

No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, “I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudo experiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudo-facts.

In light of this Gordin decides to dig into the history of the word, and how one of the most famous accusations of pseudoscience played out by examining the case of Velikovsky and Worlds in Collision. As I already mentioned, if you’re younger than 50 you probably have no idea who Immanuel Velikovsky is. But despite the fact that he’s entirely obscure now, he was so well known and so ubiquitous at one point that if you’re over 60 it’s impossible that you haven’t heard of him. For those who are unfamiliar with him or his book, I’ll going to steal Wikipedia’s description:

The book postulates that around the 15th century BC, the planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object and passed near Earth (an actual collision is not mentioned). The object allegedly changed Earth’s orbit and axis, causing innumerable catastrophes that are mentioned in early mythologies and religions from around the world. The book has been heavily criticized as a work of pseudoscience and catastrophism, and many of its claims are completely rejected by the established scientific community as they are not supported by any available evidence.

When you hear the description it probably sounds so fantastical you wonder that anyone took it seriously, but it was amazingly popular. The book itself was a huge bestseller. There were, ostensibly, academic (pseudoacademic?) magazines. College courses were taught around this hypothesis. Carl Sagan and Velikovsky gave contending speeches at the 1974 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where Velikovsky supporters, who had flooded the meeting, gave him a standing ovation. The thing that surprised me the most was that Velikovsky even ended up getting to be really good friends with Einstein before his death. So yeah, it was a phenomenon. 

As you might imagine many of the same dynamics are playing out today in the debates over what science is. Despite this, it’s unclear what lessons to take from these past efforts. As this statement from one of the combatants illustrates:

Dennis Rawlins, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, deftly noted the catch-22: “If one simply ignores the crank, this is ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘arrogance.’ If one then instead agrees to meet him in debate, this is billed as showing that he is a serious scholar. (For why else would the lordly establishment agree even to discuss him?) Irksome either way.” So the 1974 experiment [the AAAS meeting] was never repeated. It had been neither success nor failure. It raised the visibility of scientific opposition, but it had resolved nothing.

Currently, the more respectable scientific bodies seem to lean towards not formally engaging with ideas they consider to be pseudoscience. Deciding that it’s better to appear close-minded or arrogant, than to give it any status. I’m not entirely sure that’s the right play. But as the quote points out there is no perfect solution, it’s a catch-22. As such I don’t have many takeaways on what we should be doing. But I am very interested in how the topics we’re fighting about have changed.

Eschatological Implications

Both eras identify certain things as pseudoscience, but outside of that commonality there has ended up being a huge difference in what those things are. The fight over the veracity of Worlds in Collision had no direct impact on people’s lives. Even if it were to be established that Venus was ejected from Jupiter, for the vast majority of people that wouldn’t change anything concrete. People would still send their kids to school in the morning, go to the same job, and eat the same things for dinner. That’s not the case with the things we’re currently debating. Current battles are very different in that they have the possibility of affecting all of those things.  As with so many things the big example here is the debate we had over pandemic precautions. 

Does this mean that it’s more important to stop pseudoscience (whatever that is) cold? Because while believing that Venus dispensed manna thousands of years ago is ultimately harmless, believing that vaccines don’t work gets people killed? Or does it mean the exact opposite, that we should give these ideas as much attention as we can spare? Because lives really are at stake, and locking in the wrong consensus could have massive negative consequences?

I would personally lean towards the latter. At some point you either believe in the scientific process or you don’t. The people who decided to invite Velikovsky to speak to the AAAS, obviously really did believe in that process. They believed that if they honestly grappled with the facts that the truth would emerge, and while it appears that they didn’t consider that invitation to be successful at the time. The influence of Velikovsky arguably started to decline at around the same time and, a few decades on, no one has heard of him. 

I will say that times are very different. And also that there was a localism to solving problems back then which has largely dissipated. (Which, I would argue, is another step in the wrong direction.) But I think if scientists back then were willing to take Velikovsky seriously, that we need to do a much better job of taking current concerns seriously, and not just dismiss anything we don’t like as pseudoscience. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character 

by: Jonathan Shay

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the experience of combat, and the subsequent PTSD experienced by soldiers in Vietnam, parallels the experience of the Greeks and Trojans, and particularly Achilles, in the Iliad.

What’s the author’s angle?

Shay thinks we’re treating PTSD all wrong. In support of this hypothesis he turns to the Iliad as an example of how soldiers used to be treated, and contrasts it with the failed methods we used both during and after Vietnam.

Who should read this book?

I suspect this book might be a little bit out of date, but I’m definitely no expert on current best practices for PTSD. Also I’m curious about data on soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sebastian Junger’s Tribe (which I talked about here) seemed to indicate that PTSD has gotten even more prevalent. 

General Thoughts

I read this book because it featured so prominently in The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas, which I reviewed for the magazine American Hombre. I was particularly curious about whether Shay claimed that studying the Iliad was more effective than traditional therapy at healing PTSD. He sort of does, at the end, but I think Patitsas may have overstated the case. 

Also as I was reading the book I was reminded of a post by Bret Devereaux, ancient historian, and author of the very popular blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, where he claimed that

[T]here is vanishingly little evidence that people in the ancient Mediterranean or medieval Europe experienced PTSD from combat experience in the way that modern soldiers do.

I’m inclined to believe this, nevertheless Shay does draw some remarkable parallels between the experiences of Achilles and the experiences of the hundreds of Vietnam veterans he’s worked with. They really do seem to be describing much the same thing as Homer, and having read the book it’s hard to believe that Shay’s not on to something. But exactly what continues to be elusive.

I already mentioned Tribe by Junger, which covers similar ground. And actually claims that PTSD has gotten even worse since Vietnam. He does speculate that PTSD provides an easy path to getting declared 100% disabled and thereby being eligible to receive around $3300 a month, inflation adjusted, for the rest of your life. This is a non-trivial incentive for veterans to lie about such things. Junger also points out the very counterintuitive fact that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experienced combat are less likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. So there’s a lot about this subject that needs unraveling. 

Another thing that makes me doubt that PTSD is getting more prevalent, is just how bad Vietnam was. Shay includes story after story of truly awful events, and I know such events also took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s hard to imagine that either conflict was as bad as what the veterans in the book say about Vietnam. Still, if you just look at reported rates they’ve gone up.

In the end I’m just some guy who’s read a few books. I have no direct experience of combat and very little experience even of trauma. But I still can’t shake the feeling—a feeling this book only reinforces—that we’ve gotten a lot worse at dealing with such trauma. 


Socrates: A Very Short Introduction

by: C.C.W. Taylor 

Published: 2019

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Socrates, the historical man, the character in Plato’s dialogues, and a few other things besides.

Who should read this book?

As an audiobook this was just four hours, and in that time it distilled out a lot of information. I read it to broaden my understanding of classical philosophy, which I’m still trying to work my way through.

General Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned before in this space I’m trying to work my way through the great books of the western world. I kind of fell off the wagon this year, and I’m hoping to get back on, and I figured reminding myself of what I had already read was a good way to do that. Also this was a test of the Very Short Introduction series, a collection of books put out by Oxford on, as of this writing, 754 different topics. If they’re good they would be an excellent resource to be able to draw on. 

I found the book to be very informative, but kind of dry, though I kind of expected that. I’m going to try out the VSI for Plato as well, and we’ll see how it goes.


Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy 

by: Mortimer J. Adler

Published: 1997

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The philosophy of Aristotle summarized for a modern audience.

Who should read this book?

I read this in preparation for reading actual Aristotle (which is the next author on my great books list). It’s another short one, only five and a half hours on audio. I thought it was pretty good, but I’ll know more once I read some actual Aristotle.

General Thoughts

I thought the book was structured well. And flowed pretty easily. Also it was somewhat less dry than the Socrates book. As I alluded to, I mostly read it to lay a foundation before actually reading Aristotle, so that I don’t get too lost. Whether it fulfills that purpose is yet to be seen.


A Wizard of Earthsea 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1968

205 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ged, a talented wizard who is consumed by pride until that pride leads to a horrible mistake which he spends the majority of the book trying to rectify.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short.

General Thoughts

I suspect most of my readers have heard of A Wizard of Earthsea, so I don’t intend to spend much time discussing the actual book, rather I want to talk about why I decided to read it. I believe Tim Ferris mentioned that the audio version was fantastic, but more than that I realized recently that rather than reading 3-4 non-fiction “This is why the world sucks” books every month (which don’t get me wrong I enjoy, they’re my jam.) I could read 2-3 such books and have time to re-read a couple of books I really love, like A Wizard of Earthsea. So going forward I intend to do that. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to read next, but I’m excited to figure that out.

I will include one quote from the book that struck me on this read through:

[T]he truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.


III- Religious Reviews

Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances

by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

Published: 2012

556 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An apologetic work which examines the temple ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In particular the similarities between these ordinances, the Masonic Ordinances, and what we know about ancient temple ordinances.

What’s the author’s angle?

Over the years the Church has frequently been attacked for copying its temple rituals from the Masons. As an LDS apologist, Bradshaw sets out to show that the rituals have many elements which existed as part of ancient temple rituals, but which were not part of masonic rites. Given that these elements were not known at the time of Joseph Smith, this would imply that they came by way of revelation.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is interested in the connection between LDS temple rites, Masonic rites, and Ancient rites. (Which I assume will mostly be members of the Church, but doesn’t have to be.)

General Thoughts

Surprisingly, I don’t read as many LDS books as you might expect, so I’m not an expert on what sort of books have already been published on this subject, but this one seems pretty authoritative. It’s one of those massive books where it’s only about half primary text, and the other half is bibliography and endnotes.

As you might expect there’s no ironclad proof that the LDS Temple Ceremony was practiced anciently in its current form, but there are a whole host of elements whose existence is confirmed by ancient texts which only appear in the LDS ceremony and not the Masonic rites, and furthermore this ancient evidence was not something that Joseph Smith would have had access to. I assume as per usual, some people will find this very compelling and other people, less favorably disposed to the Church, will think that Bradshaw goes too far in the connection he draws. 

But for anyone genuinely looking for answers to this question of the connection between the Masonic Rites and the LDS Temple Ceremony, there is no better or more fascinating book on the subject.


If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that this is my 301st post. It’s possible I only had 300 of these clever(?) end of post donation requests in me, and that going forward I’m going to just have some boilerplate outro. You know one of those ones where I thank my patreons by name? If you want to see your name on a low-traffic, niche blog, with severe brevity issues, there’s an easy way to make that happen.


The 12 Books I Finished in September (One of Which I’m Not Allowed to Talk About)

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. The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization by: Peter Zeihan
  2. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by: David Deutsch
  3. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by: Anne Applebaum
  4. Post-Truth by: Lee C. McIntyre
  5. Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be by: Steven Pressfield 
  6. A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest by: Robert Bell and William Dowling
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by: Agatha Christie
  8. Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1 by: Jack Campbell
  9. Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2 by: Jack Campbell
  10. Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3 by: Jack Campbell
  11. Outland by: Dennis E. Taylor

As mentioned in the title, one of the books I finished this month I’m not allowed to talk about because it hasn’t been published yet. This is not the first time someone has handed me a preprint, but in the past, I either never got around to reading it, or by the time I did it was about to be printed anyway, and so I didn’t need to delay my review. But this time around the book is a long way from being printed, and I only read it because a friend of mine was eager to get my thoughts on it. I found that not being able to review a book I was reading was very frustrating. I suppose that’s a good thing. It means on some level that my book reviewing habit has been firmly established. And not being able to immediately hold forth on a book is annoying. I’m hoping to still write the review while it’s fresh, but as I’m not under any kind of a deadline I may end up procrastinating, which would be bad.

Other than that I was really looking forward to September after the awful heat of the summer, but I ended up being cruelly disappointed. The month started by smashing all of the daily records and September 7th ended up tying the record for the hottest day ever at 107. And while October has been better, it’s still supposed to hit 80 degrees today and tomorrow. I know some people hate winter, but not me. I can’t wait for it to arrive.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization

by: Peter Zeihan

Published: 2022

498 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The catastrophic consequences which will attend the coming end of American Hegemony, or what Zeihan calls the “Order”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Zeihan’s major focus is on geography, as such he’s very focused on how that will help and hinder some nations. Also this book is something of a culmination of his previous books.

Who should read this book?

If you read this blog you should probably read this book. That said, I think Zeihan is wrong about a lot of things.

General Thoughts

I have a love-hate relationship with Zeihan. I think he’s fantastic at identifying the numerous fragilities the modern world has accumulated. But when it comes to predicting how these fragile things are going to break, and what the world looks like afterwards, I think he seriously overestimates his predictive ability. I agree with him that serious Black Swans are on the horizon, but Zeihan is confident enough about the nature of these swans to assure his readers that the US will be fine, Japan will be okay, and China will end up as a warring collection of 18th century warlords. I am less confident about these precise outcomes. Let’s take each in turn.

The US: In the aftermath of WWII the US created what Zeihan calls the “Order”. Zeihan describes it thusly:

[T]he Americans offered their wartime allies a deal. The Americans would use their navy—the only navy of size to survive the war—to patrol the global ocean and protect the commerce of all. The Americans would open their market—the only market of size to survive the war—to allied exports so that all could export their way back to wealth. The Americans would extend a strategic blanket over all, so that no friend of America need ever fear invasion again.

There was probably a little bit of benevolence involved in the establishment of the Order, but it was mostly a way of containing and confronting the Soviet Union. (Presumably when Zeihan speaks of “wartime allies” he’s not including them.) Without having to start yet another war. 

But of course as we all know the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1990, but the Order continued, why? Zeihan argues that it was largely out of inertia, and the fact that it was still working pretty well. Also, after the Soviet Union fell, America was still on top and it could afford to be magnanimous, but such magnanimity can’t last forever. This is in large part because, according to Zeihan, it brings very few benefits and numerous costs. Which is to say, the US doesn’t need to be magnanimous. It doesn’t need international trade, it can feed itself, and since the fracking revolution it could pretty easily be energy independent as well. So it doesn’t need to maintain its costly “strategic blanket” over the seas. This situation of absolute security on the oceans was always incredibly anomalous, though we don’t think of it as such. As Zeihan puts it:

What we all think of as normal is actually the most distorted moment in human history. That makes it incredibly fragile.

So far he and I mostly agree, but let’s move on.

Japan: Ever since reading his book The Accidental Superpower (review here) I’ve been mystified by how bullish Zeihan is about Japan. Though it’s possible that it’s less being bullish about Japan and more being bearish about China, and we’ll get to that, but let’s first consider Japan by itself. Japan cannot feed itself (it produces only 39% of its food locally) nor is it energy independent, and it’s an island. So we’re already in a situation where Japan is very dependent on ocean going trade. So why is Zeihan so bullish? Apparently it all comes down to the Japanese Navy. If the chief cause of the coming disaster is the withdrawal of the global protection of the US Navy, then the only way to avoid disaster is for countries to have their own blue water navy, and according to Zeihan, Japan already has one of the best in the world. And to be fair to Zeihan, the Japanese Navy is pretty good, but is it really that much better than China’s navy? A quote from the book might give you a sense of Zeihan’s optimism:

Japan would seem set to inherit [Asia’s First Island Chain], but the future isn’t going to be nearly that tidy. Sure, Japan’s superior naval reach means it can strangle China in a few weeks and choose the time and place of any blue-water conflicts, but even in weakness China has the ability to strike targets within a few hundred miles of its coast. That doesn’t simply include portions of the Japanese Home Islands, but also most of South Korea and all of Taiwan. Anything short of a complete governance collapse in China (which admittedly has occurred several times throughout Chinese history) will turn the entire region into a danger zone for any sort of shipping on the water.

To be fair he doesn’t discount the idea that it’s going to get hot, but this idea that the Japanese navy could easily blockade China does not match what I’m seeing anywhere else. I couldn’t find any source which ranked the Japanese Navy as being better than the Chinese Navy. Mostly what I’m seeing are discussions of whether even the US Navy could match China, at least around Taiwan. And remember for all of this to work out for Japan, they have to beat China, and still have enough of a navy left to guard their shipments of food and oil. And all of this while their population plummets

China: Of course China also has serious demographic problems, but given that they start out with 10x the population of Japan, their situation is quite a bit different. Zeihan puts quite a bit of weight on demography, but despite China’s rapidly aging population he seems to think that their biggest source of weakness is that their growth is backed by truly staggering levels of debt. As in a corporate debt load that’s 350% of GDP, and a monetary supply that, since 2006 has increased by eight hundred percent. Zeihan draws this comparison between all the big economies:

So, have the Americans played a bit fast and loose with their monetary policy? Perhaps. Will that have consequences down the line? Probably. Will those consequences be comfortable? Probably not. But it is the Europeans and Japanese who have gone off the deep end, while the Chinese have swum out to sea during a hurricane and dived headfirst into the Texas-sized whirlpool that serves as Godzilla’s front door. Scale matters.

So out of all this Zeihan’s theory for the collapse of China goes something like this: The US will start withdrawing from its job as globo-cop. This will disrupt supplies of food and raw materials. This will take the rug out from China’s ability to finance continued expansion which will disrupt growth, and growth is the Chinese leadership’s sole claim to legitimacy. Any attempt on China’s part to secure food and raw materials will be blocked by the Japanese Navy, and if that doesn’t do it the Indian Navy is also in the way (particularly if China wants to get oil from the Middle East.) This will all be too much to bear for China’s vast and factious population leading to a China that is a ghostly shadow of its current power—if not to its entire disintegration. 

Zeihan never mentions what role the Chinese nuclear arsenal might play in this process. In fact, as far as I can determine he goes the entire book without ever mentioning China’s nuclear weapons at all. This is a strange omission, and one that was also present in his last book as well. I’m not sure what to make of it. 

But to return to my original point. Zeihan is great at identifying a certain class of modern fragility, and I agree that the world is set to break. But he’s entirely too confident about what the world will look like after it’s been smashed into a thousand pieces.

Eschatological Implications

Eschatology is all about the end. And while the end of American hegemony will not be the literal end of the world. Zeihan is right that it will be the end of the world as we know it. To begin with he argues that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I’m not sure it happens the first time someone shoots at one, but the first time one of them is sunk by a hostile nation? Then yeah, everything we know changes. 

The question is how does this come about? Zeihan assumes that any day now the US is going to realize that it doesn’t need the rest of the world and call its navy home, because that’s the logical thing to do. This assumption is so deeply embedded that Zeihan doesn’t really ever bother explaining the chain of events that would lead up to this withdrawal. For him it just seems so obviously the smart thing to do that it has to happen. It would be one thing if we were trending in an isolationist direction. Instead, if anything, we’ve gone the opposite way. We’re deeply involved in assisting Ukraine against Russia, and on no less than four separate occasions Biden has asserted that we’re going to defend Taiwan. Of course his advisors have tried to walk those assertions back, and no one is entirely sure what happens under the next president, but Biden has the public’s support. The number of Americans who think we should defend Taiwan has been going up, and crossed 50% for the first time last year

I totally agree that American hegemony can’t last forever, and that it’s already starting to fray. And Zeihan’s analysis of the fragility which will be exposed when it does end is more than worth the price of admission. But I think it’s going to last longer than he thinks—that we’re going to try to hold on to it for as long as we can. This will make a big difference because as Zeihan points out, that’s what everyone else wants as well, so if we’re all on the same page it could end up continuing for decades. And as time goes on things will inevitably change, and the elements of Zeihan’s analysis will have to change as well. China’s navy will continue to get stronger. The horrible demographics of the modern world will continue to play out. Elections will happen. China will make a play for Taiwan. Putin will use nukes, or he won’t. But I think the idea that the US will sit back comfortably enjoying self sufficiency while the rest of the world breaks down into regional spheres of influence is too simplistic. I think it’s going to be a lot crazier than that.


The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

by: David Deutsch

Published: 2012

487 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The infinite potential which has been unlocked for humanity by the creation of explanatory knowledge, or what we normally call science. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I thought this description from an article in Scientific America was spot on. Deutsch is a  “quantum theorist [who] thinks we’ll solve war, global warming and consciousness—and that will be just the beginning.”

Who should read this book?

I’m leaning towards placing this in my “no one” category. It is useful as the record of a sort of blind humanistic optimism, which in 100 years will either be held up for extreme ridicule (if it’s remembered at all) or viewed as being so self evident as to be boring.

General Thoughts

Somewhere along the line I came across a list of book recommendations by Neal Stephenson, and I naively assumed that since he wrote such excellent fiction that his non-fiction recommendations would be of a similarly high quality. Unfortunately this has not proven to be the case. I’ve been trying to work through my backlog of audio books, and this is the month I ended up in the middle of all the books I impulsively added from that list. This was actually not the first book from the list. That was The Constitution of Knowledge, but I didn’t make the connection at the time. Though you may recall that I wasn’t particularly impressed by that book either. 

Most of the books on the list (that I read) are pessimistic in ways which I’ll discuss, but not this book. As I already mentioned, this book is overflowing with optimism. His central claim is that humanity, by discovering how to generate explanatory knowledge, has set itself on a path which has no end, that we are at the beginning of infinity. To quote from the book:

[E]very putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either

– impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or

– achievable, given the right knowledge.

That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. {Emphasis mine]

Most importantly we have figured out how to get that knowledge. Some people disagree, pointing out that monkeys, while intelligent, will never understand calculus, and that perhaps there is knowledge which is similarly situated beyond our intelligence. But Deutsch points out that because we can invent tools which increase our abilities, that we are not subject to that restriction. That yes, there might be some things normal humans can’t understand, but that humans plus computers can. Humans are universal constructors. 

I obviously don’t have time to get into all of his reasoning, but you might be interested in some of his other assertions:

      • The knowledge-friendliness of the physical world
      • Almost all environments create an open-ended stream of knowledge
      • People are universal explainers
      • All interesting problems are soluble by virtue of being interesting
      • The existence of universality in many fields
      • Biological evolution was merely a finite preface to the main story of evolution, the unbounded evolution of memes.

In many ways this book reminded me of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Deutsch is also a big fan of the Enlightenment. But whereas Pinker’s book was full of statistics Deutsch’s book comes across as almost mystical. This despite Deutsch being, as near as I can tell, an atheist. 

Clearly there are people who have a mystical faith in continued progress. You might have heard people using the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But why does Deutsch belong in a similar camp? Because he’s basically saying the same thing. Though he might prefer it if people said, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards knowledge.” And he asserts that it doesn’t require recourse to anything supernatural, that it’s just a matter of understanding the true power of human potential.

Eschatological Implications

When someone claims that we’re at the beginning of infinity, they’re basically claiming that we’re at the end of the finite and static period of humanity. And Deutsch in fact does spend quite a bit of time criticizing static societies, and he holds particular disregard for the precautionary principle. Which is to say Deutsch puts forth an eschatology, it’s just a very positive eschatology. As I mentioned in my last post, it would be great if this were the case, but as you might imagine I have my doubts.

Recently, this book, and a few other things, have reminded me of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I discussed at length in a previous post. As a reminder, Bostrom likens new technology to blindly drawing balls from an urn. Each ball can be any shade from pure white to pure black. The lighter the ball the more beneficial the technology, the darker the ball the more harmful it is. If you ever draw a pure black ball then it’s a technology which is so destructive it means the end of humanity. On the other hand, a pure white ball would mean the eternal salvation of humanity. 

Deutsch not only denies that pure black balls exist, but his essential claim is that we have already drawn the pure white ball sometime during the enlightenment. You could even say that the whole book is a description of this pure white ball. But even if you set aside the fact that Deutsch believes we have already been “saved” by science. He makes further claims about the nature of the balls in the urn. By claiming that the physical world is “knowledge-friendly” he’s basically saying that the urn is set up to deliver white balls. You might retort that just because the world is knowledge friendly doesn’t mean it always delivers good knowledge. If humans will eventually be able to do anything not forbidden by the laws of nature couldn’t they blow up the planet, or eradicate all life? It would seem so, but Deutsch has an explicitly optimistic view of knowledge. In fact he puts forth what he calls “The Principle of Optimism”, which is:

All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.

This means that as soon as humans developed the ability to reliably create explanatory knowledge, that they had it within their power to banish all evil. That sure feels like a mystical eschatology. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism 

by: Anne Applebaum

Published: 2020

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The rising authoritarianism in the West, with a particular focus on Poland. But it also includes significant discussion of Hungary and the UK (think Brexit). 

What’s the author’s angle?

As an international journalist Applebaum has been right in the thick of things, and this is a surprisingly personal account of changing Eastern European politics from the inside.  She’s also married to a Polish politician (Radoslaw Sikorski, who, among other things, was the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007-2014). And more recently the guy who tweeted “Thank you, USA” in reference to the explosions which damaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

Who should read this book?

You have probably heard of Victor Orban, you might even have a strong opinion about him. You probably haven’t heard of Jarosław Kaczyński, who is sort of the Orban of Poland. If you want the inside baseball of Kaczyński’s rise to power, and the parallel rise of authoritarianism and conspiratorial thinking then this is the book for you. If that all sounds a little bit niche, and of limited applicability, then you should skip it.

General Thoughts

This is yet another book from the Stephenson list. And it suffers from the problem common to most of the other books on that list (though not Deutsch’s): They all do a reasonably good job of describing some of the things happening on the ground, but then their solutions are either laughably naive (as was the case with Constitution of Knowledge) or non-existent as was the case with this book. Applebaum is very worried about the future of democracy, and she wonders if democracy will end up always sliding into authoritarianism. Certainly the Founders worried about that, and Applebaum mentions these worries, she also mentions statistics indicating that a third of the population has an “authoritarian predisposition”. From this her contribution is to point out that even should these people exist that that’s not enough for the rise of authoritarianism. An additional step is needed: 

They need members of the intellectual and educated elite…who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.

The book opens with a New Years Eve party she and her husband threw in Poland at the end of 1999. And then she goes on to detail how so many of the people at that party who she thought were her allies, ended up joining this authoritarian elite.

This is great, and interesting to hear about, but she doesn’t ever offer any ideas for how to prevent this. She gives a very interesting narrative of the process, but she never really gets into why that process starts or how one might prevent it.


Post-Truth

by: Lee C. McIntyre

Published: 2018

116 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Post-truth, which the OED named as their word of the year in November of 2016, and defined as: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

What’s the author’s angle?

This book is part of the MIT Essential Knowledge Series, McIntyre is a professor at Boston University and an Instructor at Harvard. This book has a real “declaiming correct beliefs from the heights of the ivory tower” feel.

Who should read this book?

No one. Yes, this is another Stephenson recommendation, and it’s weak in the same ways that the last one was weak. Also to the extent that it does have something worthwhile to say it’s out of date. A lot has happened in the realm of post-truth since 2018.

General Thoughts

From the very first page McIntyre admits that it’s impossible for him to be neutral about this subject, and to look at it dispassionately. And I agree that there’s really no case to be made that we should abandon truth, but as you read the book it becomes clear that what he’s really attempting to do is cover for his profound political bias. Yes, the left did come up with postmodernism, which is the “godfather of post-truth” but it was only weaponized by the right’s lust for power. All of the science denial comes from the right as well. And then, of course, he talks about Trump incessantly. (Some version of the word Trump appears 222 times, so an average of almost 2 times per page.) I think everyone reading this already has a pretty firm opinion, one way or the other, on Trump. Certainly McIntyre does, so I’d like to focus just briefly on science denial.

McIntyre spends a lot of space talking about climate change, (71 instances) and the science denial on the right about that subject, but you can search in vain for a discussion of gender self-id and the denial of physical differences between men and women, which is clearly science denial from the left, nor is it that the only potential example. Now to be fair it was published in 2018 and a lot has happened in the last four years on that front. But one feels like it would have been possible to come up with a left wing example, even if you wanted to argue that it’s not as bad. 

Finally, like all of the Stephenson recommendations, the solutions on offer are pretty anemic, and consist mostly of more discussion of how awful Trump is. I get it, you guys don’t like Trump. But if he were to die tomorrow your problems would not be solved.


Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be 

by: Steven Pressfield 

Published: 2022

148 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Tough love about how to succeed at the “War of Art”. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Pressfield is well known for his passionate advice on writing and creating in general, and this is an extension of that. 

Who should read this book?

Pressfield gives great motivational speeches for aspiring artists. If you fall into that category and need motivation this is another great (and very short book) from him.

General Thoughts

As I just said this is a very short book. Basically two hours as an audiobook. That’s a large part of its appeal, you get a lot for a short expenditure of time. And if you’ve read any of his other books, you know what you’re getting. If you haven’t read any of his other books, you probably shouldn’t start with this one. I would recommend The War of Art.


A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest 

by: Robert Bell and William Dowling

Published: 2005

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The title pretty much says it all. If like me, you need help reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, then you might want to pick up a book like this.

Who should read this book?

I have not finished Infinite Jest, but this book has been very helpful in keeping me from getting overwhelmed.

General Thoughts

I’m on my third time starting Infinite Jest. I picked this book up in the middle of my second attempt, but then my crazy summer intervened before I could get to it, but it was helpful enough that I decided to start over for a third time. I’m hoping to finish it soon, but man, that is one hefty book!


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

By: Agatha Christie

Published: 1926

312 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. As you might expect someone is murdered and Poirot solves the murder. However, there are several interesting differences: to start with, Poirot is retired.

Who should read this book?

I don’t read a ton of murder mysteries, but I thought this was a particularly fine example of the form. If you do read a lot of them, then you should definitely read this one.

General Thoughts

My daughter set out to read every book ever written by Agatha Christie. She completed this task recently and reported that out of all the books she liked this one the best. Well, with a recommendation like that, I had to read it. I can definitely see why she would place it in the number 1 spot. To say much of anything would spoil things, but I will say that it was very inventive with great characters.


The Lost Fleet Series

By: Jack Campbell

Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1

Published: 2006

304 Pages

Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2

Published: 2007

295 Pages

Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3

Published: 2007

299 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

John “Black Jack” Geary, hero of the Alliance, thought to be dead, is found and revived after spending 100 years in cryosleep. This happens just in the nick of time because the Alliance fleet has just lost a major battle and is stuck deep behind enemy lines, and only Black Jack can get them home.

Who should read this series?

I really like the premise of this series, and it started strong, but after book three I abandoned it. So I would say either read the first book or two and then stop, or don’t read it all. 

General Thoughts

As I said, I liked the premise. Imagine if Nelson or Napoleon returned to their respective countries in the middle of WWI. How would the British Navy and the French Army react to that? The series is also an homage to Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, a group of Greek mercenaries who found themselves deep in Persia and on the losing side of the war. 

Unfortunately, in order for the books to play out in the most dramatic fashion possible Campbell asks us to swallow a lot. The easiest thing to swallow is that the commanders of the Alliance fleet would leave a recently revived Black Jack as fleet commander while every last one of them goes to negotiate a surrender, only to be slaughtered. For one thing, it’s another allusion to Xenophon. But after that things get more difficult to digest.

Black Jack is a hero because of one battle early in the war, after which he disappeared. And yet his fame, 100 years later, is equal to or greater than that of a Nelson or Napoleon who accumulated their fame over the course of dozens of major engagements. 

Additionally, even though 100 years of constant war has taken place, the technology being used has hardly changed.

But the hardest thing of all to swallow is that Black Jack turns out to be the best commander ever because, despite the aforementioned 100 years of constant war, the current Alliance commanders have forgotten how to fight. This is convenient for the story, but the exact opposite of how things work in reality. Campbell tries to explain it by saying that the war is so vicious that no commanders live long enough to become experienced, which implies that they’re incapable of learning from the mistakes of others…

If this had been all there was I probably would have persevered, but it started becoming quite the soap opera with large chunks of the books taken up by the drama of Black Jack’s romantic entanglements, which was not what I signed up for.


Outland

By: Dennis E. Taylor

Published: 2015

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

College students discover a way to open up a portal to a parallel Earth (the eponymous Outland.) This discovery happens to occur right before the Yellowstone Supervolcano explodes, and the students end up being the only people who can save civilization. 

Who should read this book?

This is by the author of the Bobiverse series, and the humor is similar, so if you liked that, or if you like end of the world science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book. But it is Taylor’s first book, so it’s a little rough.

General Thoughts

This is perfectly serviceable science fiction, with an interesting premise, a well crafted plot and okay characters. It pretty much is what it claims to be on the cover. But as with his Bobiverse books Taylor makes some very curious world building choices. (See here for a discussion of his choices in the Bobiverse.) What does he do in this one? Well if you’ll permit me a mostly-spoiler free rant:

As I mentioned the students figure out how to open portals to parallel worlds, but in this book rather than there being one world for every possible choice, the worlds have a tendency to settle into a groove, or perhaps revert to some sort of mean. Consequently they’re only able to open a portal to two different worlds. Outland, which is a world without humans (or at least there are no humans in North America). And a world they call Greenhouse Earth. 

In Outland the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted sometime in the last hundred thousand years, and this is presumably why there are no humans. 

Greenhouse Earth, on the other hand, is only featured very briefly, but the temperature is 194 degrees, and atmospheric pressure is twice that of “Earth Prime”. That all seems pretty implausible, but I suppose some ancient divergence could create an Earth with those characteristics, except apparently the divergence wasn’t ancient because when they look through the portal they can see the ruins of the university. Including a building that was constructed in 2002. The novel gives every indication of being set in the present day. Which means up until very recently conditions were still temperate enough that they were constructing buildings as per usual, and then in the space of a 13 years the average temperature goes up by 100 degrees, and the pressure doubles! 

And yes, given that it’s an alternate dimension the timelines could be different by more than that, but even if it took a century that would still be climatic change at insane speed. Nailing down the actual timeline isn’t the point, but rather the key point is they get two views into what might have been, and in both of those views disaster has struck. But rather than worrying about how a world that was otherwise identical to theirs in terms of tech and progress suddenly became Venus junior, they spend all of their time worried about the possibility of the supervolcano.

Now of course the protagonists of novels have a way of being correct, and the Yellowstone Supervolcano actually does explode on Earth Prime but if you were playing the odds our best guess is that Yellowstone has a yearly probability of blowing up of around 1 in 730,000. While apparently the chances of the insanity of Greenhouse Earth are 1 in 13, or perhaps, if we’re being generous, 1 in 100?

I went on a long rant because this sort of phenomenon—interesting disasters getting all of the attention while likely disasters end up relatively ignored—is something that affects a lot of our thinking around risk. And as with so many things the pandemic is exhibit number one. Not only weren’t we prepared despite the very high priority, we don’t appear to be doing much to increase our preparedness should another pandemic emerge.  


As I mentioned I was disappointed in Stephenson’s recommendations. If you think you can do better feel free to email me at we are not saved AT gmail. Of course if you were an actual supporter I’d have no choice but to read and review whatever you recommended. That’s just how it works! 


Excerpt: Book Review- The Ethics of Beauty

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


If you’ve been following along you’ll know I had a book review published in a brand new magazine. With the permission of the publisher I decided to put out the intro and the first part of the review. If you like it, and want to see the rest, consider subscribing to the magazine or at least purchasing the first issue. You can use the coupon code ‘RW’ to get 10% off a subscription or $1 off the price of a single issue (which would make it $3 for the PDF or $5 for print). 

That address to do that is: https://americanhombre.gumroad.com/

The Ethics of Beauty

By: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Beauty will save the world.

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. 

And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?

This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.

But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)

I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The Cliffs of Moher, showing as well the Harry Potter Cave

As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise. 

But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values. 

Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.

Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.

But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. 

To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not. 

Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?

First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general. 

Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example

II- War and the Associated Trauma

For the rest, you’ll have to buy the magazine…


As a committed and believing Christian myself, I often wonder whether a given thought is divinely inspired or whether it’s just a random thought that happens to sound good. Patitsas provides a helpful rule of thumb: “You should never assume that it’s not and you should never assume that it is.” That you should treat it as provisional inspiration, and begin to act on it. And through acting it’s true nature will be revealed. That essentially a certain amount of faith is required. I think the idea is similar to that expressed in John 7:17. Perhaps at this very moment you’re thinking of donating and wondering if it’s inspired or just a pavlovian response from reading my usual end of post appeal. Well, there’s only one way to find out…