Tag: <span>CS Lewis</span>

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

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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.