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  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.