Saturday, August 19, 2023

Eighth Group of Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: August 19 - Present

1. Dark Sun (A), by Richard Rhodes


    I made it a point to wrap up my nuclear phase last year, but after seeing Oppenheimer I succumbed to temptation. It is interesting to see that in the wake of this movie a lot of the public is being confronted with thoughts that I've previously gotten pretty deep into. Dark Sun was really good, it follows on from where The Making of the Atomic Bomb left off, fulfilling the atomic story by detailing the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Thermonuclear war is quite scary to say the least, and the stakes in this book are much tangible and horrifying. Unfortunately, this audiobook was the abridged version, a fact that wasn't displayed anywhere on Audible. Thus I feel a bit cheated and might come back at another point to read the other chapters. Regardless, this shortened version packed quite a punch, as Richard is perhaps the best writer of nonfiction I've come across.
    It is possible that building bigger nuclear bombs is a complete waste of time since the world powers are already deterred based on the kind that we have. Also, it was possible that building more than ten atomic bombs in general was a complete waste of time, a decision that set the world on track for a nuclear holocaust that very nearly happened. If US politicians would refuse to take any action that would lead to the destruction of one US city, and Soviet politicians set their number at five, you really only need ten bombs. Maybe thirty. Not thousands upon thousands. What a waste. Nuclear disarmament makes even more sense to me now, and it will be a topic I will start pushing personally.

    I am extremely glad that the US is structured as a democracy. Based on the discussions of the military hawks and the president during the Cold War, it is possible that without the accountability of public opinion and the free press, the world as we know it would be a nuclear wasteland. A preemptive strike makes a lot more sense when you don't have to worry about the next election. Also, I am glad Curtis LeMay is immortalized in this book as a villain and Teller is exposed as a whiny baby. Legacy is an important thing for the "great" men of history, happy to see the truth shakes out in the end.

2. The Road to Serfdom (P), by Friedrich Hayek


    A monstrous book despite being short, simply because it is so crammed with insightful ideas that take a while to unpack. Friedrich argues for individualism, as he states that freedom for the individual (both economic and personal) is the only truly progressive policy. Friedrich says that private property is the only guarantee of freedom, even if you do not own private property. If property is controlled by own authority, that entity is a dictator that has control over our lives. When control is decentralized, no one has complete power over us. In a similar vein Friedrich argues for federalism as opposed to centralization, as smaller groups can do a better job of taking community needs into account. I'm in a weird place with these libertarian ideas, given my utilitarian bent. I obviously don't fully agree with individualist ethics, especially when Friedrich states that there is no good or bad outside of individual responsibility. If this is true, why is there good or bad inside individual responsibility? Who says? Still, I think that individualism is actually better for the collective, in at least the overwhelming majority of cases. 
    Friedrich doesn't like that collectivism requires you to use any means to get to an end, including breaking previously considered moral rules. A centralized planner will have to use force to bring in line a diverse set of individuals with widely varying beliefs, and the planner will do some actions that some groups will consider highly immoral. "The conflict between planning and freedom cannot but become more serious as the similarity of standards and values among those submitted to a unitary plan diminishes." The planner will have to decide exactly which impoverished countries get brought in line to Western standards first, which for a lot of reasons is totally arbitrary. 
    Central planning, according to Friedrich, is crazy. "The effect of the people's agreeing that there must be central planning, without agreeing on the ends, will be rather as if a group of people were to commit themselves to take a journey together without agreeing where they want to go: with the result that they may all have to make a journey which most of them do not want at all." People want an omniscient dictator, but they refuse to realize that humans are far from omniscient. They will argue for centralization in order to make markets less "seemingly irrational," without realizing that now that have to submit to the "equally uncontrollable and therefore arbitrary power of other men." There is a lot of hand waving in economics, arguing that regular people should let the experts handle the economy. Friedrich says that "any international economic authority, not subject to a superior political power, even if strictly confined to a particular field, could easily exercise the most tyrannical and irresponsible power imaginable." 

    Friedrich says that capitalism is required for democracy. "When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself." I mostly agree, as the more you delegate to outside authorities the less power you have to take that decision making back. "The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires." I am not quite sure if I agree that "most 'planners' are militant nationalists," but I do agree with Friedrich's concerns about centralization curbing freedom. I made note of two other interesting ideas that Friedrich brought up. First, Friedrich states that we believe we are ethical since we have delegated our vices to larger and larger groups. This was an interesting take, as I do feel that the whims of the military aren't my responsibility even if I agree with their actions. Secondly, Friedrich says that we may talk "too much of democracy and too little of the values which it serves." I generally say that I love democracy, but I guess that really means I love the individual rights and protections that it offers, which are much more important than the system they are packaged in.

    Now, onto the most interesting point that Friedrich makes in the book. He states that "socialism so long as it remains theoretical is internationalist, while as soon as it is put into practice, whether in Russia or Germany, it becomes violently nationalist." Socialists in practice claim that capital belongs to not all of humanity, but only their particular nation. They never advocate that their "rich" region should be stripped of its capital equipment to help poorer nations. Why is this "collectivist" perspective never shared with foreigners? Because those advocating for socialism would actually lose out. "Collectivism has no room for the wide humanitarianism of liberalism but only for the narrow particularism of the totalitarian." Imagine being pitched following:
    ~ Listen everyone, we are going to centralize the means of production globally, and you and everyone you know will have to take a pay cut so that people in Africa can share our wages in aggregate. Globally we will have a fixed wage set to the working class levels, you will still contribute according to your ability but receive significantly less income than before. 

    Not very enticing, is it? "Socialism for the rich" has a new meaning. When we see billionaires we want a piece of their pie, forgetting that to many we appear as equivalent to billionaires. If an omniscient dictator shows up, I don't see as much of an argument against a "true" socialist movement globally, where we all take a massive pay cut. But until then I am on Friedrich's team. Overall, this was a pretty solid book that has given me a lot to think about. One of the massive benefits of reading is I get to steal the ideas of intelligent people that have spend thousands of hours thinking through issues so that I don't have to.

3. State and Revolution (P), by Vladimir Lenin


    The point of communism is "to organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service so that the technicians, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than “a workman’s wage”, all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat—that is our immediate aim." That is correct, we are going to organize the economy similar to the way that governments organize their postal services. Have you been paying attention? Have you realized the government run postal services are a laughing stock compared to private alternatives, and and often cited example (along with the DMV) of libertarians as examples of how terrible government-run organizations are? Well, maybe we should structure the entire economy that way, should work very well. Just give us postal workers guns to enforce our measly "worksman's wage" and I am sure we will be very content with the ultimate stagnation of the economic system.

    Jokes aside, Vladimir is not a very insightful thinker and not a very good writer. He sees democracy and capitalism as fundamentally intertwined, something also stated by champions of individual liberty. He believes we need to violently break this system, introduce a "dictatorship of the proletariat," and then over time convince everyone to contribute to the state's production according to their ability and receive only according to their needs, at which time the system will become self sustaining and the state will "wither away." Everything he says is utopian, fantasy-land stuff. He doesn't even really believe the things he says. He argues against non-violent "opportunists" and others who say that we need the state, as he believes that the state will disappear when people realize that a socialist economy works well. But then later he states that people will probably not fully submit to a socialist economy without some suppressive force, but don't worry we will figure out later how to make sure people freely submit "according to their ability" later. Instead of reading the book, just read the below quote:

  "Lastly, only communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary, for there is nobody to be suppressed—'nobody' in the sense of a class, of a systematic struggle against a definite section of the population. We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this: this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilized people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted."

    Um, what? You cannot claim over and over that you are not a utopian, and then state that a society of armed workers will hold each other in check and make sure no individual starts to make more money than others, in a similar vein to how people would prevent a woman from being assaulted. What does that even mean? Will incredible violence be involved? What if a group of particularly-heavily armed people decide to group together and make more money? How will anyone prevent a strong group from taking control of the power vacuum left by no state power and oppressing everyone? Vladimir is simply a violently enraged utopian with no plan and no answers. Which is fine, it just sucks that he was far more than a writer.

    Vladimir is hell bent on breaking the system. "The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without violent revolution." Vladimir believes "the proletariat needs state power, a centralized organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population in the work of organizing a socialist economy." After the revolution, armed workers will just take over the current system. Vladimir says that capitalism has built systems - factories, railways, the postal service,  etc. - that are so large and efficient that the actual jobs have become "so simplified and can be reduced to such exceedingly simple operations of registration, filing, and checking that they can be performed by every literate person." Even stateman functions are "already fully within the ability of the average town dweller and can be performed by 'workmen's wages.'" Ludwig von Mises totally exposed Lenin's lack of practical experience and overall ignorance in The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, and this lack of understanding is further exposed upon reading these words from the horse's mouth.
    Lenin actually believes that real-world jobs consist of filing papers and doing basic checking and arithmetic. He thinks that every job is the post-office, where there is no specialized knowledge and a somewhat literate "town dweller" will be able to perform their functions well at "workman's wages." Lenin, frankly, doesn't know anything. He should read Bullshit Jobs, and realize that his vision will lead to a collapsed economy. How will entrepreneurship work? How will innovation be planned? What about jobs that aren't set in factories? Who will decide who works in the factory, who works in the mines, and who becomes a doctor? Is he sure that there wasn't some particular reason that capitalism has led to such large and efficient industries? Who is to say that this technological progress will continue under a widely different system? Why would anyone be incentivized to work? Who will enforce discipline on people who refuse to work hard? How will corruption be stopped? Will violence and killing of the upper class possibly disrupt the functioning of some of their companies, or will everything go smoothly on day #2? Will there be a centralized banking system? Can you become a monk? If you try to become a monk should you be killed by the armed workers or forced at gunpoint to work? How will laws be enforced? Lenin doesn't know the answer to any of these questions. He doesn't care. All he knows is that democracy needs to be smashed as it leads to capitalistic exploitation. That's it, that's the extent of his knowledge. A hack. An emperor with no clothes.

4. Common Sense (A), by Thomas Paine


    The more I read about the revolutionary era, the less I like the monarchy. This book isn't full of particularly incredible arguments, but given the context it's fascinating.

5. Flatland (A), by Edwin A. Abbott


    I know that this is a book assigned to a lot of people in math class, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It takes some form of imagination to come up with the different dimensional worlds that Edwin does, and it's quite humorous to display the interactions between the characters when they differ in the number of dimensions they live in. Decent read.

6. The Temptation to Exist (A), by Emil Cioran


    There is usually nothing I dislike about Emil's writing. In this book, however, the essays were more hit or miss. He really leans into discussing popular European thinkers and societies, and frankly given my hundred-year lag I didn't catch a lot of the references. This will sort of be like reading a book on 2020's popular culture in a hundred years: there won't be enough overlap in experience for many of the points, regardless of their accuracy, to be interesting. 

    I am not quite sure if the "man is but a Jew un-fully realized" essay makes any coherent sense, but the final essays are classic. Where some may see Emil as dramatic as whiny, I see him as subversive and comical. When he says "if you have not resolved to kill yourself, there is no difference between you and the others" and "do you dain to breath? You deserve sainthood, canonization," he is half-kidding. His single-minded focus on the bleakness of life is an actually interesting take. I am not saying that he is correct, and I am not saying that he has thought through all of his points, but he is original. Where most of philosophy is re-used and re-hashed, Emil is actually original. I don't think I'll find much value in his remaining works. Reading too much of his pessimism is sort of transforming it into a gimmick, and I owe it to Emil to be respectful enough to delegate to this strange art form of nihilism a respectful amount of apathy.

7. The Whole-Brain Child (A), by Daniel J Siegel


    Despite kids not being on any sort of short-term horizon, I figured it would be interesting to read a book about child rearing. Most of this book makes intuitive sense, but it is unfortunately packaged as "revolutionary." I think there is a bit more ego and pseudo-science in this book than I was comfortable tolerating without discussion. I really don't like when authors decide to invent terms like "mindsight" and spend chapter after chapter explaining how revolutionary their theory is. This "mindsight" is literally just a synonym for empathy, teaching your kids to focus on how other people feel when they are faced with a conflict. It's hard for me to rate the first book I read of any genre, as often the subsequent books end up blending together and repeating each other. So I am not quite sure how original The Whole-Brain Child is, but I think it was still a valuable book for me to read. My guess is I'll eventually read dozens of books about this topic, so it's good that I'm starting now.

8. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (A), by David Foster Wallace


     David's work is a bit tedious, and some of the essays in this collection were pretty aggressively subpar. I have never been a fan of essay books, as there are too many times when the worst essays taint the entire work, and this is no exception. Some stories, especially the last one, are boring, pretentious, predictable, gross, and altogether unenjoyable. The type of stuff that you want to put down, or never have read. Where you know where the story is going and the lessons to be learned within five minutes of reading, and you realize you have an hour left. I think David is probably a bit clouded by his ego, and unless you are dazzled by his literary brilliance in every sentence, he isn't a worthwhile read.

    I mentioned brilliance, because David is immensely gifted. I noticed his writing talent immediately, and certain stories drew me in and kept me captivated in a way that few stories do. He is probably a generational talent, after all. I am heavily biased against him, still, after trying and failing multiple times and over multiple years to read Infinite Jest. I concluded at the time that David was simply a bad writer. An wildly impressive page, and then a boring and unimpressive fifty pages. The ratio wasn't worth it for me, and so I concluded my efforts. Now, I am starting to rethink that conclusion. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Seventh 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: July 21 - August 17

1. Tai-Pan (A), by James Clavell


    James Clavell has made the past year of my life wonderful. Crazy enough, I think this may be his best work. His book are all so, I really can't think of a better word, dynamic. The level of complexity James is dealing with is unreal: dozens of intricate and noteworthy characters and side plot after side plot. Sure, some of his characters have no depth to them, and there are cartoony villains, but the stories are so satisfying that I do not care in the least. However, I've read a pretty fair criticism that some of his endings rely too heavily on natural disasters. That may be true, but I sort of see this as a reflection of how real life works. Maybe you are stressed at work, constantly arguing with your boss over an assignment. For a month you can barely sleep, half the office on your side, half against you. This battle becomes the central focus of yours, until a few months later when you die from an unexpected heart attack. All the drama, all control humans think they have over their domain, all of it is insignificant. Nature and death rule us all, at least according to James.

    It is really hard to compare this novel to Shogun and Noble House. All three books are incredible reading experiences and should be required reading. Overall, I want to say Tai-Pan might be my favorite, just because of how memorable the characters are. Aristotle, Orlov, Skinner, and Gordon Chen are so unique and magnificent. May-may is hilarious, I found myself laughing out loud constantly to her outbursts. I credit the audiobook narrator with bringing to life a lot of these personalities, but it is still obvious that James captured lightning in a bottle. I know the rest of The Asia Saga isn't as well regarded, but at this point I owe it to James to finish.

2. Stories of Your Life and Others (P), by Ted Chaing


    Ted is the most thought provoking writer I have yet encountered. If I had written a single one of these stories, I would consider my life an extreme success. Had I penned "Understand" or "Hell is the Absence of God," I would spend a lifetime wandering the streets, wondering what possessed me to write such brilliance. "Story of Your Life" was made into Arrival, and that was nominated for an Oscar and wasn't half as good as the story despite being one of the best movies of the past decade. I am once again extremely jealous of Ted, because I feel that these stories are so on the nose with how my brain works that he must be just a more intelligent clone of me that learned to put pen to paper. My fiction writing overlaps so heavily with his themes that it will make it hard to write in the future, knowing such talent will never flow through my fingers.

3. The Fire Next Time (A), by James Baldwin


    It takes an incredible amount of talent to convey in a hundred words an incredibly informative and nuanced view of race. James Baldwin will rightfully assume that the childlike and underdeveloped thoughts of the typical American can be shaken to their core when compared to such depth. This is really just a superb stream of thoughts from James, requiring a insane level of both introspection and writing ability. This may actually be required reading, I will have to see first what I think of his other books.

4. A Book of Five Rings (P), by Miyamoto Musashi


    A four hundred year old book by the world's greatest samurai. This is sort of a useless book about dueling, since there are no real descriptions. Miyamtoto will says something like "And then, of course, there is the falling dragon strike. This is where you raise your sword up and cut down your enemy from the center. The method cannot be expressed in writing. You must train." Repeat this a hundred times and you write this book. He gives some interesting advice, like you should not have a favorite weapon, the spirit of defeating one man is the same as defeating ten million, when fighting and in life you must maintain a balance of calmness and aggression. Some good quotes:

"One man can beat ten, so a thousand men can beat ten thousand."

"The true Way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing other than this."

"This is a truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn."

5. King Rat (A), by James Clavell


    Missing the magic of his later novels, but I still quite enjoyed it. Given that this was based on James's real life experience as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, the subject matter was quite straightforward and bleak. The commentary on the human condition is interesting, but I think that the overall story of this book was a bit weird. It probably wouldn't work if you didn't know that James was writing from experience. Still, the ending was very solid, as it was fascinating to watch the characters grapple with the idea that the war had ended. The side plots were actually the most gripping parts of the story for me, and I found myself full of hatred for a few of the characters that James spent barely a page on. You can definitely tell that he a master at creating characters.

6. Blackshirts and Reds (A), by Michael Parenti


    If this was a satire, it would be a 10/10. Unfortunately it is not. 0/10. Michael is a staunch Marxist, soviet apologist, and very intellectually weak individual. I enjoy reading the work of people that I disagree staunchly with, as long as they have interesting arguments. At one point in the book, Michael criticizes capitalists for attacking communism and class structure with strawmen arguments. If only capitalists understood real communism, they wouldn't be so antagonistic. Then, literally on the next page, he said that capitalists think that rich people are superior, which according to him is obviously not true because rich people need so many protections (monopolies, government corruption, etc.) to stay in power. Maybe the delusional internet tankie will like this sort of baffling incoherence, but I did not. Michael spends a lot of time defending the soviet union, saying that, well, some of the people sent the gulag were bad people, a lot of them died of starvation and not synchronized murder so it's not as bad, the soviet leaders didn't have as large of houses as the White House and that matters, etc. His handwaving over major atrocities was quite disgusting. Given the hindsight of another 25 years of international development, his takes probably could not have aged worse. With extreme human rights abuses in China and Russia, including the invasion of Ukraine and takeover of Hong Kong, Michael's pro-police state position should hopefully fall on deaf ears.

    Michael will say things akin to "the worst part of China is that they are capitalist" with a straight face. I think he is simply missing the entire authoritarian/libertarian aspect of the political compass, but he doesn't own up to being a tankie in a cognitively consistent way. He brings up that crime has risen in the soviet bloc since the police state has lost its grip, which, well, it was a police state? He blames the current poverty in Russia and the soviet bloc on capitalism, as if in a counterfactual world continued communism would have been able to compete with global specialization and trade. His evidence consists solely of quotes and cherry picked anecdotes. Some worker in Poland will say ~"I miss communism because now under my current boss they get mad if I am tardy" and then Michael will treat this as a slam dunk. And then later he will admit that central planning has historically been terrible at motivating workers and growing the economy. Probably the best part of the book is when Michael went through a list of everything that usually goes wrong with communism, and then decides not to refute it but rather talk about how Marxism isn't a science but a "social science."

    Well, terrible book. Still, it sparked some thoughts of my own. I think we should recognize more that: (efficient economic system) <does not equal> (good moral system). Also, democracy and capitalism aren't totally compatible. You have to fight for both, and often they compete. With democracy you let voters vote in communists and despots (which a lot of times they do), and with capitalism you pave the way for anti-democracy where the rich have outsized control. I love democracy, and I like capitalism. There are plenty of trade-offs in each, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for both.

7. The Doors of Perception (P), by Aldous Huxley


   Aldous seems to be quite a brilliant guy. This short book details his experience after taking the psychedelic peyote. Aldous discusses beauty, morality, religion, and various other topics as he reflects on his experience. He states that “half at least of all morality is negative and consists in keeping out of mischief.” Mischief, in the human world, often involves drugs and alcohol. Aldous mentions that as a society we spend more on alcohol and tobacco than we do on education, which to him is not surprising. Despite vast evidence of lung cancer and the dangers of alcoholism and drunk driving, “a firm conviction of the material reality of Hell never prevented medieval Christians from doing what their ambition, lust or covetousness suggested. Lung cancer, traffic accidents and the millions of miserable and misery-creating alcoholics are facts even more certain than was, in Dante's day, the fact of the Inferno. But all such facts are remote and unsubstantial compared with the near, felt fact of a craving, here and now, for release or sedation, for a drink or a smoke.” 

Aldous believes that we need to turn to a different drug, likely one of the psychedelic variety. He says every 'Angel' should try it, and “if it terrified him, it would be unfortunate but probably salutary. If it brought him a brief but timeless illumination, so much the better. In either case the Angel might lose a little of the confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning and the consciousness of having read all the books.” Based on my limited knowledge of the subject matter, I find myself actually agreeing with him.

8. The Communist Manifesto (P), by Karl Marx


    I probably shouldn’t have watched the movie First They Killed My Father right before reading this book. This movie chronicles the real story of a young girl’s experience during the Cambodian genocide, one of the worst events in human history. Karl argues in this Manifesto for violent revolution, as he says Communist aims "can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing conditions." Karl's aims for “the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries of the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production.” Communist ideologues in Cambodia took Marx to heart, enacted a revolution of the same grand vision, and murdered two million innocent people.

It is clear in my mind that the past century has shown that the road to serfdom is well paved by Marxist ideas. Communist countries around the world are beacons for starvation, genocide, and other forms of immense human suffering. Violent revolutions create violence, and the leftover socialist state powers aren’t keen to uphold basic human rights. Centralized economic planning is clearly inferior to capitalistic competition, and the only successful communist countries lean heavily towards capitalistic markets. I see two forms of modern of communism: economic communism and governmental communism. Capitalism is the opposite of the first, democracy the opposite of the second. You can clearly have capitalistic markets without the democracy (China), and countries that rely on economic communism/central planning fail (Soviet Union, countries in South America). My fear is that capitalism is natural, but democracy is really an outlier in human history. A government by the people is a beautiful, yet flawed, weak link that only survives if we relentlessly fight for it. Runaway capitalism can actually drastically weaken democracy, something many liberals correctly point out. Now, let’s discuss Marx’s actual writings. 

    Karl believes capitalism will result in overproduction and crises, and he sees the state as a highly intellectual and empathetic organization capable of keeping the public's interest at heart. Both of these views are clearly incorrect. What is Communism, really? “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.” Communism also consists of: heavy progressive taxes, abolition of right to inheritance, confiscation of property of emigrants and rebels, monopolized banking by the state, centralization of communication and transport, ownership of production by the state, abolition of distinction between town and country, and free education for children. The problem I have is that "workers own the means of production" is substituted for "the state owns the means of production," and Marx assumes these to be equivalent. Discarding the obvious impracticality, communism is theoretically not a bad idea. A utopian world where everyone is equal is hard to argue against, even if it completely lacks incentives and economic freedom. A utopian version of libertarian ideas still may result in suffering for the weak and lazy. Once practicality is considered, and we start thinking of real-world applications for Marxist ideas, I clearly fall on the side of economic freedom. I think capitalism is truly better for society in aggregate (even for the weak and lazy). Three reasons: the world is built on incentives, governments and militaries tend to be power-hungry, inefficient monsters who wage unjust wars and tread on individual rights, and Marx provides lofty ideas that lack any practical implementation.

    Still, I will credit this book on actually making good points about social class. I do often view the world through the Marxist lens of proletariat and bourgeoisie, and this lens is immensely useful. Throughout history this divide has been persistent, a divide that is obviously not deserved. Karl says "In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past." Due to inheritance and luck, a few people are born ungodly rich (or in great circumstances to become rich) and the majority are born poor (with no potential to change). Marx points out that the poor don't really have private property or economic freedom anyway, so doing away with such concepts only really hurts the rich. The world is immensely unfair. It is a bit ridiculous that while millions of children starve to death every year, there are billionaires who sink hundreds of millions of dollars into abstract art. We can obviously do better, and we should. I just really don't think Communism is the best way to go about it. In fact, I believe it is one of the worst.

    On a humorous note, Karl makes some interesting claims about the family structure. He claims that Christianity is against marriage since it advocates for celibacy, which is a ridiculous claim about the "go forth and multiply" religion that preached for thousands of years that adulterers should be stoned. Communists believe that women should be communal and not shackled to one individual man. While this reeks of teenage-boy-fantasy-land mentality, Karl's justification is even crazier. He says "bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common, and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women." Karl is convinced "bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common," as he believes the upper class is full of seducers and swingers who spend all their time targeting each others wives. Even if this was true, what a crazy argument! A bit of the "you can get heroin anywhere so just make it legal" line heard at a middle school where no kids have ever tried heroin. The last thing we need is to look at the actions of a fictional and slandered bourgeois class as a model for how to live.

    Even though I fundamentally disagree with basically every single one of Marx's beliefs, I understand why his theories changed the world. Social class can be a pervasive and even evil means of oppression. The caste system in India is not a model for how we should live, it is a cautionary tale. To the extent capitalism feeds into massive power divides between individuals, we need to turn to a democratic government to create positive incentives that level the playing field. Communist revolutions are not the solution to this divide, as the past hundred years makes abundantly clear. My paradoxical take is that economic freedom and individuality is required to achieve the aims of communism (a freer and fairer society). Maybe I am wrong, but erring on the side of protecting human freedom is the one strategy Communist revolutionaries never seem to try. How has that worked out?

9. Bright Lights, Big City (P), by Jay McInerney


    "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning." This is a certified classic. This book is basically all about grief and about trying to moving through life despite trauma. "You keep thinking that with practice you will eventually get the knack of enjoying superficial encounters, that you will stop looking for the universal solvent, stop grieving. You will learn to compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure." I liked the second-person perspective that Jay uses, especially since I was so able to identify with the character. I wonder if people without such an overlap in their early 20's experience in a major city will like the book, and honestly I don't really know. Jay is a good writer, but the story isn't particularly intriguing and the ending is a bit flat. I sort of wish he picked a side and chose either redemption or depression, but I guess the middle-ground he took is a bit more realistic. Loved the book, despite its many flaws.

10. The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (P), by Ludwig von Mises


    I think Ludwig has some really good takes, but this book is sort of a rant, which detracts from a lot of the otherwise good material. Ludwig is fiery, and needless to say he could certainly tone down some of his remarks. He believes that capitalism is the only defense against authoritarianism and that communists and socialists are stupid, power-hungry liars who tread on human freedom. Luwig denounces Marx and Lenin as "professional revolutionaries" who never learned anything about the market economy. I think he pretty much misses the fact that runaway capitalism can lead to similar level power-imbalances, something we have essentially seen with massively widening income inequality.

    Ludwig believes that it is liberty and human freedom (especially economic freedom) that has brought about the massive success of the West and has led to stagnation and waste in the East (the Soviet Union and China in 1956). He says "what separates East and West is first of all the fact that the people of the East never conceived the idea of liberty." I fundamentally disagree with his simplification of two related ideas. First, Ludwig essentially says that the people in the East are backwards and brought poverty on themselves by not caring about liberty or using new technology. This is grossly misleading and discounts the guns/germs/steel/luck/natural resources aspects that probably played a larger role in the capital dominance of Western powers. Second, he is staunchly of the opinion that luck and circumstance don't play a major role in the outcome of an individual. Another seventy years of sociological research and the strong role of nature/nurture make this much harder to believe than he lets on. Ludwig also claims that in terms of global poverty and suffering, people "fail to realize that the shocking circumstances they describe are the outcome of the absence of capitalism, the remnants of the precapitalistic past of the effects of policies sabotaging the operation of capitalism." However, another seventy years of data shows that despite massive GDP growth in the United States, we have seen wage stagnation in the lowest class and pretty similar aggregate poverty levels.

    Still, I think it is actually a good take that what people decry as problems due to capitalism are actually just class conflicts and disparity that existed far before, during the feudal societies the authoritarian governments that until recently fell out of power. Capitalism hasn't really been around for very long. Also, Ludwig says that the greatest flaw of socialists is that they assume that the "unprecedented technological improvements of the last two hundred years were not caused or furthered by the economic policies of the age. They were not an achievement of classical liberalism, free trade, laissez faire and capitalism. They will therefore go on under any other system of society's economic organization." Ludwig further states that the fundamental socialist idea is that "the economic interests of the masses are hurt by the operation of capitalism for the sole benefit of the 'exploiters' and that socialism will improve the common man's standard of living." I see this as sort of a killing blow to central planning. Is socialism a good substitute for capitalism, one that creates higher levels of productivity that will improve people's standard of living? Well, historically speaking, no.

    Ludwig asks an important question. Should we surrender our freedom to an omnipotent state, where our lives will function as "cogs in a vast machine designed and operated by an almighty planmaker? Should the mentality of the arrested civilizations sweep the ideals for the ascendancy of which thousands and thousands have sacrificed their lives?" I guess, no? Well, given that central planning has never worked, why are anti-capitalists fighting so strongly for it? "No intelligent man could fail to recognize that what the socialists, communists and planners were aiming at was the most radical abolition of the individuals' freedom and the establishment of government omnipotence. Yet the immense majority of the socialist intellectuals were convinced that in fighting for socialism they were fighting for freedom." The socialist message is that we should give the state the power over individuals so that the government can split up the means of production and make things fair. However, every time this happens, the state oppresses the people and takes away their freedoms. Cue the totalitarian regime with no checks and balances. Ludwig says we used to fall for this sort of ruse, but now with all the real-world examples, people realize that freedom cannot be preserved under a socialist regime. I'm not entirely convinced.

    Ludwig claims that under capitalism, the upper class is much less safe. "The feudal lord does not serve consumers and is immune to the displeasure of the populace." If you are the son of a railroad CEO, you still have to worry about the up and coming airplane industry. You still have to serve the needs of the masses or invest in products that will, or you lose your shirt. I think this is an important distinction. Also, you can't make a living as an artist, but should you? Ludwig says that capitalism is simple: "those who satisfy the wants of a smaller number of people only collect fewer votes - dollars - than those who satisfy the wants of more people. In moneymaking the movie stat outstrips the philosopher; the manufacturers of Pinkapinka outstrip the composer of symphonies." You probably can't do what you love (painting all day), and still earn a living, unless it is useful for someone else. I hate this as much as anyone, but it is a reality, and I doubt any useful economic system could make this so. As Ludwig says, the system of capitalism is really good at achieving immense economic progress. The idea that the centralized planning required in socialism and communism can in any way compete is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Ludwig says modern socialists play word games and advocate for some flavor of "untotalitarian totalitarianism." I pretty much agree with Ludwig here that there is no compromise. Either you hand your freedoms over to the government and pray they will be omnipotent planners who have your best interests at heart and won't oppress you, or you don't. There's a lot less in-between than the revolutionaries would like to suggest.

    Overall, I see why Mises was such an influential Austrian economist. His takes are somewhat bland and incorrect in some areas, but I found others pretty insightful. Regardless, it has been pretty useful to read both sides of the capitalist/communist debate and form my own opinions.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Sixth 10 Books I Read in 2023

 Reading Period: June 4 - July 21

1. The Demon in the Freezer (A), by Richard Preston


    A bit disjointed and not quite as terrifying as The Hot Zone, but still quite terrifying. Richard now takes us through Smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases in human history. Unlike Ebola, which is actually terrifying in its natural state, the worry of Smallpox is that it could be weaponized by a bad actor intent on murdering millions or even billions of humans. Humanity eradicated Smallpox in 1980, one of humanity's greatest accomplishments. Yet, it is still around in various freezers. There is quite the interesting political battle mentioned in the book. The world had a chance to band together and completely destroy the disease (and probably would have in the early 90's), but in the late 90's the world powers changed course and decided to keep Smallpox around for lab experiments. A controversial stance, one that I am not qualified to have a real opinion on (but why the actual hell would you not kill it with prejudice?). The book discuss the Soviet bioweapons program, current capabilities of weaponized Smallpox, and Anthrax, another scary pathogen. At the end, I am left with only one thought: why are Australian researchers publishing research that shows how to create versions of Smallpox completely resistant to vaccination? Seriously, what are they doing over there? How is this sort of research allowed to enter the public domain? Will open source kill us all?

    Despite being one of the most likely existential risks to humanity, I am simply not knowledgeable enough about biology to have a real take on the danger of chemically engineered pandemics. Still, reading about the topic has been fascinating, and I will likely dive further in with some other authors.

2. Bullshit Jobs (A), by David Graeber


    A bullshit job is a job that contributes nothing to society, and even the employee believes that his or her job is bullshit. A lot of jobs are meaningless paper pushing or manual office work that could be easily automated. Some people spend a majority of their workday checking boxes on forms or providing temporary fixes to problems that could be fixed permanently with little effort. Stunningly, according to a poll done in the UK in 2015, 40% of workers believe that their jobs are bullshit.

    David presents some interesting ideas about the role of work in human happiness and why so many bullshit jobs persist. When a politician says "this new healthcare reform will create ten thousand new jobs," it is probably the case that every single one of those jobs is bullshit. More red tape creates more bullshit, meaningless jobs. The effect of having a bullshit job is interesting. Even if you are paid well, having a job that lacks any sort of positive impact is frustratingly boring, and many people quit due to the toll such meaninglessness takes on their mental health. David ends the book with his anarchist views and a discussion of UBI, but I don't find his takes well informed or particularly convincing. Probably not worth reading the book, but the article that the book is based on is short and will give you David's most important points.

3. Hiroshima (A), by John Hersey


    A series of true stories about Japanese citizens during and after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. These slice-of-life examples detail normal people dealing with an event of harrowing violence. I found the end of Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb, specifically the Hiroshima chapters, to be far more horrific and compelling.

4. Foster (A), by Claire Keegan


    This sort of book is just not meant for me. I should have learned with Train Dreams, but any audiobook written in a serious tone that is about some relatively boring, fictional event (this one about a young girl who spends some time living with relatives) is just not something I can enjoy. I am sure some people will find it moving, but its scale is simply too small for my taste.

5. Know My Name (A), by Chanel Miller


    Rapists should be sent in front of a firing squad, the triggers pulled relentlessly until morning. Only then will the legal system be made whole, equitable. Only then will the pendulum of justice begin to swing, as until then it will have been restrained, tied up to the side by a rope. This rope is etched deep with markings from a black pen, markings that, if you look closely, repeat the sentence "relentless male violence" over and over again. The rope has been there for so long that we have gotten used to it. But it doesn't have to be. We could untie it, if we really wanted to.

    Male violence against women has been a mainstay throughout human history, rivaled in duration only by one thing: the absence of consequences for male violence against women. The human brain easily gets desensitized to frequent events. If a man only gets seventy days in jail for beating a woman near to death, it is because of the frequency of the event, not the morality. If sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and then fleeing the scene only lands a man three months in jail, it is due to the frequency of the event. It is due to the comparison of this event to other crimes, crimes of greater "magnitude" in the eyes of the judge and the parole board. Crimes that they hear every day in court. Crimes all too common, all too normalized. Crimes that are not adequately punished. Chanel's legal story, while heartbreaking and entirely unjust, results in an almost unheard of outcome: a guilty verdict. It results in actual accountability: a rapist who is despised by the nation and near-universally condemned. Unfortunately, he is on this pedestal alone. There are hundreds of thousands of rapes in the United States every year. Hundreds of thousands of rapists. The standard outcome of these horrific crimes is not accountability, but emptiness. It is women and girls tossed to the curb by a broken system, by a culture that refuses to take ownership. It is largely men, but women too, who protect this system of injustice by their weak and whiny protests. By their desire for ignorance, by their illusion of safety. By hero worship, and by family ties. I hope that when humanity looks back at this time in human history, we look back in shame. I hope we look back at the statistic of "one hundred thousand rapes a year" and vomit. Nothing else is reasonable.

    Now, back to the book. Chanel Miller is a hero. She is probably the bravest, most admirable person to ever write a memoir. I am astounded by her writing ability. I have never read a more powerful, moving book. Chanel's legacy is cemented, eternal. Her voice is a commanding tone of strength and elegance. I hope my daughters grow up to be like her. I hope that I, too, grow up to be like her. I hope that this book becomes required reading. Across the world, I hope that we gradually begin to loosen the knot. I hope that, for the first time in history, the pendulum begins to swing.

6. Small Things Like These (P), by Claire Keegan


    I liked this book quite a bit better than Foster. I identified with the main character, Furlong, and theme of the book could not be more applicable (what do you owe the world, should you help others?). Claire is a really good writer, although I still can not entirely get over the small scale of the novel. This is probably what makes it beautiful, but I find less value in such a setting. Here are some good quotes:

    "Was it possible to carry on along though all the years, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?"

    "The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the net door, but the worst that could have happened was already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been - which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life."

7. The Singularity is Near (A), by Ray Kurzweil


    I can't tell if Ray is a genius who will correctly foreshadow many future events, or if he is a crackpot. He is probably a bit of both. This book was written in 2004, which is quite incredible given that some of his predictions have shown promise (drones bringing packages, AI rapidly advancing). Many of his other predictions have been flat out wrong (most of them). Maybe I am out of the loop on nanobot technology, but his bullishness seems completely misguided as of twenty years later. Overall, this book is way too long and repetitive. Really the most intriguing idea is the technological singularity: a time period that is formed by the rapid compounding of exponential advances in technology. Superintelligence is sort of a proxy for this, as the development of such intelligence and power could create a world that we could not comprehend with our feeble little brains. 

    I am not quite certain of an eventual singularity, but Ray is probably right about the development of transformative AI this century. However, his optimism is horrifying. I cringe at thought leaders who assume things will go well by default, and Ray is the poster-boy for naïve optimism. He occasionally cedes that we should be careful, but he has no useful ideas about what safety looks like. His discussion of technology drips with survivorship bias. 

    I liked Ray's discussion of death because it rings exactly true to me (death is bad, we are culturally programmed to disagree simply as a rationalization/coping mechanism). His discussion of god was ridiculously cringeworthy. Ray 2004: "yes I believe in god, as god is the universe." Regular person: "but does god judge humans over moral laws he created?" Ray 2004, malfunctioning: "god is the friends we made along the way. I define him as whatever wishy-washy nonsense I can just to appear intellectual superior despite only coming off as totally annoying. I will refuse to answer any question directly because I enjoy being a jackass." I really didn't like the aspects of Ray's personality that shone through in this book. I didn't like that he invented conversations with others in order to bestow upon us examples of his intelligence. But, his ideas were at least interesting. Most people should skip this book, but it provided some value to me. Now I have to figure out what the heck is going on with nanobots.

8. Exhalation (P), by Ted Chiang


    There could hardly be a book more up my alley. This collection of science fiction short stories packs quite the philosophical punch, as every single story is thought provoking. Ted is a masterful writer, and I could not be more appreciative of the conciseness of every story. I think that science fiction with a philosophical bent is my favorite genre. Mostly because every time I read something as good as this (or Replay), I get angry. I am mad at the fact that I did not write such a narrative, given that I know that I could. Given that the thoughts being displayed are my own thoughts, just a more advanced and thought-through version. Jealously is the greatest form of flattery.

"People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable Lovecraftian horror, or a Gödel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we've all encountered: the idea that free will doesn't exist. It just wasn't harmful until you believed it."

9. A Whole Life (A), by Robert Seethaler


    I like books about a man who lives a fairly boring life and then dies. I can't fully explain why, I suppose there is something existentially beautiful about such a book, but in all honestly I think I just like stories that are fully closed and complete. Maybe that's why the early death of someone is so tragic, because we really hate stories that don't have an ending. Plot points that are never resolved, a mystery box thrown into the fire. Humans are such curious creatures, and the slightest air of unsolved mystery can drive a man insane. This book is very, tragically simple. But I liked it, in the same way that I liked Stoner. Probably not worth the read, unless you're into that sort of thing.

10. The Hobbit (A), by J.R.R. Tolkien


    It is quite fascinating to me how much this book differs from the blockbuster movie trilogy. I think stretching this short fantasy book into nine hours of cinematic battles is some sort of crime. However, what I find most interesting is how fairy-tale-esque this book is. Full of songs, whimsical characters, and pretty interesting worldbuilding. In all honestly, I don't see this book as particularly revolutionary. I assume that it because it has since been relentlessly copied to death, but there's nothing really deep lurking under the surface. Sure, I rooted for Bilbo, but there weren't really any stakes, nothing to really worry about. The epic fantasy section is surely in the subsequent series LOTR, but I'm beginning to wonder if I really missed out.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Fifth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: May 10 - June 4

1. Persepolis (P), by Marjane Satrapi


    An easy 10/10. A graphic novel autobiography of Marjane's upbringing in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Emotional, gripping, and beautiful. I am absolutely reading the sequel.

2. Wraiths of the Broken Land (P), by S. Craig Zahler

    "It looks like your belly has room for scorpions."

    Well, definitely the most disturbing book I have ever read. I just got done with binging Craig's three movies, the most notable being "Bone Tomahawk." I really have no idea why I am so drawn to his films. Obviously the over the top violence provides the aesthetic of astonishment, but I actually think that the storytelling itself is pretty good. Not amazing, and there are plenty of dialogue challenges, but for some reason I am totally engaged. Craig has written two books, so I decided to read the second one. The book was enjoyable and grotesque, but he simply doesn't have the writing prowess to take the narrative to the next level. Here is an example quote, detailing the current character development of the main character, Nathaniel: "he was a corporeal shell that lived in the present, divorced from his former identity, obeying the threats of an evil gunfighter." There is just some amateurish quality to calling Long Clay, a compelling antihero gunslinger, the word "evil." 

    The story is gritty enough to be in a league of its own, but I really wonder what this novel would look like with better writing and better defined character motivations. It would probably be incredible.

3. Meditations (P), by Marcus Aurelius


    This book is full of wisdom and elegance. It is astounding that Marcus was the most powerful person on the planet and still managed to have a legacy as a philosopher. This book is full of simple themes (don't fear death, don't care what others think of you, be rational and avoid outburst of emotion, and focus your life on living virtuously), and there are plenty of awesome quotes: "it never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own." Despite our technological progress, the wisdom of the ancients applies to modern life as much as it ever did. One of the problems I usually have with stoicism is the idea of "taking everything on the chin" and living your current role to your best ability, and not striving for large change. "People who feel hurt and resentment: picture them as the pig at the sacrifice, kicking and squealing all the way. Like the man alone in his bed, silently weeping over the chains that bind us. That everything has to submit. But only rational beings can do so voluntarily." I think there is some sort of revolutionary blood in me that refuses to accept my situation and that of others. Controlling how you feel about your situation is strength, but I don't think that accepting it is.

4. The Manual (P), by Epictetus

    I wanted to read a book every day for a week (this was day #7 and book #11) so I added this short collection of Epictetus wisdom for the last day. I'll probably go back to some longer novels and harder material after this little experiment. I think Epictetus is my main man for Stoicism. His thoughts: if it falls outside of your control, let it go. Treat everything as borrowed from creation (even loved ones), soon to be returned. Give up friends who are bad influences, give up material desires, and be prepared to face ridicule. Better to be poor and virtuous than rich and filled with fear and guilt. Even if you set out to gain power to help others, you risk being corrupted along the way. Instead of seeking riches, build the sort of character that attracts loyal and honest friends. Epictetus also drops some absolute dimes in terms of quotes.

"Some young women confuse their self-worth with their ability to attract the attention of men, and so put all their energies into makeup, clothing, and jewelry. If only they realized that virtue, honor, and self-respect are the marks of true beauty." 

"Continually remind yourself that you are a mortal being, and someday will die. This will inspire you not to waste precious time in fruitless activities, like stewing over grievances and striving after possessions."

5. Sky Raiders (P), by Brandon Mull


    My younger brother's favorite series. Given that I made him read The Stormlight Archive, I figured I owed him this. YA fantasy with pretty cool worldbuilding. Reading YA is quite a breath of fresh air, it makes you feel like a superstar reader. Plus seeing these worlds through the lens of an eleven year old is quite nostalgic and cute. Makes me miss Percy Jackson!

6. Antifragile (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    Well, I did it. I read every one of Nassim's books. I am going to quote my first review of one of his books, Black Swan: "I hate single-idea books that are four hundred pages, I think it is a crime against the reading community to write such a book. Nicholas has committed this crime, creating an absolute slog of a book filled with incoherent thoughts and random attacks on imaginary critics." This applies to every one of his books without question. What I didn't realize at the time was the power of audiobooks. The utility I get from running on a trail counterbalances my annoyance with the frequent mention in my ears of sweaty, incoherent Italians. Yes, 80% of what Nassim says is redundant nonsense. His take in this book that no real innovation comes from science and academics was laughable (ever heard of the atomic bomb or index funds?) However, the mind of a egotistical contrarian will occasionally spew an interesting thought. Reading the entire Incerto changed my outlook in a positive way, and for that I will say that despite the slog it was worth it.

7. The Holy Bible (P), by God?


    One of my life goals was to read the Bible. It took me ten years, but I finally read every single word. I am not joking when I say reading this my greatest reading accomplishment. I am sure that some small minority of Christians have read all or most of it (no one that I know has read the entire print version), but I am more impressed given that I am not religious (was raised Catholic but have been agnostic since early high school). It took quite a bit of effort and a lot of fighting through boredom. Overall, it was worth it. I have a greater grasp on the religion than ever before, to a point where I finally feel like I understand the entire picture. Christianity is something that I could discuss for days on end. I will try to keep this post short, focusing on quotes/stories.

Old Testament:

    Full of insane stories and plenty of mass murder and horrific death. "And the king asked her, 'what is your trouble?' She answered, 'this woman said to me, "give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow." So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, "give your son, that we may eat him." But she has hidden her son.' (2 Kings 6:28). Crazy stuff. There's also my favorite insult of all time. "And when Joram saw Jehu, he said, 'is it peace, Jehu?' He answered, 'what peace can there be, so long as the whorings and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many'" (2 Kings 9:22). The Pentateuch (first five books) has the most ridiculous stories and is way more  "eye for eye" and "send a plague that kills everyone" than the latter part of the old testament. It is interesting that I found some stories more believable (Moses parting the red sea, the burning bush, Jonah being eaten by a whale) simply because of my early indoctrination. Reading new stories (a donkey talking (Numbers 22), Daniel literally slaying a dragon by feeding it cakes made of fat and hair (Daniel 14)) was shocking. Did you know that that was why Daniel was sent to the lion's den? If you would have asked me growing up if I believed that Daniel escaped the lion's den by praying, I would have been certain. But if you would have asked me if I believed he was put there for using cakes to explode a dragon, I would have had some doubts. This cherry picking is common, certainty about the uncertain and faith only when convenient. Another reason why everyone of faith should read the Bible. 

    Looking back at these 39 books, I liked Proverbs the best. There was some bad: "do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol" (Proverbs 23:13). But there was also plenty of good: "a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). The Bible in general is way more poetic than you would expect. Without the religious relevance it would be a worthless read, but the diversity of the books makes it at least more interesting.

New Testament:

    These 27 books are thoroughly misunderstood. Jesus was not a hippie. He was far from a good-natured pacifist who came to the Earth to spread peace and love. Jesus was something entirely new, entirely different. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:34). 

    Jesus was a fire and brimstone preacher who demanded allegiance and sacrifice. The old testament says pretty much nothing about Hell. Jesus brings eternal suffering to the forefront. The old testament rules were more lax. Under Jesus, you can now sin even just by thinking impure thoughts: "but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Jesus was a radical. Time and time again he rallies against the rich, saying that the only way to achieve eternal life and avoid eternal suffering is to "sell your possessions, and give to the needy" (Luke 12:33). He is clear that " cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). This makes the materialism and greed of most Christians even more astounding. I have said it before and will say it again, but the most ignored quote in human history is: "again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Jesus also continues the tradition of being anti-divorce, another command from God himself that we all choose to ignore: "but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31).

    People somehow think that the old testament is fire and brimstone and the new testament is sunshine and rainbows. There is plenty in the new testament not to like. Commands to be a good slave (Colossians 3:22) and in-your-face examples of the extreme misogynistic views held by the Catholic church, even to this day: "the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for them to speak in church" (1 Corinthians 14:34). Read that again. Then laugh, then get a little sad. Then read that quote again. Then look me in the eyes and tell me again why women can't be priests? Also, there is nothing in this book about priests being tied to vows of chastity. The whole "priests are married to the church and thus cannot have a family" is something invented way after the Bible by the church. From my reading it seems that men of the holy order were expected to have families and especially wives (1 Timothy 3:2). Again, another reason that it is important to read the Bible. An added bonus is I can now argue with my vegetarian friends "one believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables" (Romans 14:2).

    Just as with the old testament, I found the same sort of cognitive dissonance pop up when reading the new testament. It seems my early indoctrination into the faith made some stories familiar and more "believable," but other stories frightened the small Catholic-inclined part of my brain. Jesus was raised from the dead, sure, but after he was crucified was it really true that a bunch of dead corpses dug out of their graves and walked around? (Matthew 27:51). There are plenty of contradictions in the bible (the whole feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread story is repeated constantly with large differences). Also, it is really only the gospel of John that adds such close ties between Jesus and God: "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). I actually think that without this gospel ("I am the way, the truth, and the life" etc.) the Christians five hundred years later probably would not have settled on the eventual decision that Jesus was God. Again, this decision was not at all obvious after finishing the Bible. Most of Christian beliefs stem from the decisions of a powerful group of often corrupt individuals that claimed for thousands of years to have a direct line to God (The Church), and not from the Bible.  

    One last note on this religion. Jesus makes it clear that the cost of discipleship is high: "if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). You have to love God more than anything else. You have to renounce everything, give it all up. Desires, passions, relationships. All are meaningless when compared to the glory of God. You will very likely need to live a life in extreme poverty, due to your generosity. You turn the other cheek, you do not fight back. You live in fear of God and in fear of eternal punishment. You police your thoughts ruthlessly, as even sinful thoughts are a sin. You do not get divorced. You abstain from excess. You live your life as a disciple, a martyr. This is not an easy religion, not one that will make your friends or get you accolades. This is a religion that ends in prediction, with the book of Revelation. An extremely metal ending, honestly, full of fantastical imagery and a terrifying war between angels and demons. The second coming of Jesus Christ is coming soon, which means plagues and death await. This arrival will spur mass suffering and throw many people into the screaming terror of eternal hellfire.

    Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart. It is not a religion for people who value their families over the Word. It is not a religion for people that go to church twice a year. It is not a religion for the rich. What is it? It  is a religion of martyrs. It is a religion for people who would die for the cause at a moment's notice. It is a religion centered around the idea of human sacrifice, starting with the example of Jesus Christ on the cross. He showed us the Way. His bloody body stretched out on the cross is the central theme, the path forward. To achieve eternal life, you will need to go to the same lengths of sacrifice. You will need to renounce everything and live a life of pure piety. There were once Japanese monks who would spend hours with a spiked metal rope, whipping themselves on the back to exhaustion. These monks, heads turned towards heaven and bodies bleeding on the stone floor, understood more about the core of this religion than any of us.

8. High Output Management (A), by Andrew Grove


    This book is widely read and highly reviewed, but I didn't learn anything new from it. Maybe it was revolutionary in the 80's, but I am suspecting that once you have read one business book, you have read them all. Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things remain the only two business books that I found compelling.

9. The Hot Zone (A), by Richard Preston


    A terrifying non-fiction book, certainly on the same level as many of the nuclear books I read at the end of last year. This book is about the Ebola, a terrifying virus with a 50 - 90% kill rate that makes you bleed out of your eyeballs and causes your skin to fall off. Generally it kills you within seven days, and then your body promptly degenerates into a disgusting heap of flesh and blood. Did I mention it mutates and has occasionally gone airborne? The first half of this book is iconic. The descriptions of Ebola deaths are insane, and I am convinced that dying from such a virus is much worse than dying from radiation poising. This book is full of dramatic tension, and Richard is clearly a masterful writer. The last third of the book is nothing special, but the book taken as a whole is still near perfection. A must-read.

10. The Wisdom of Life (P), by Arthur Schopenhauer


    Given my love for pessimistic philosophy, Schopenhauer was inevitable. I figured I'd start with The Wisdom of Life, a collection of three slightly optimistic essays. The first, "Personality, or What a Man is," was the best. Arthur follows some of the Stoic and Buddhist traditions. He claims that one of the main obstacles towards happiness is the desire to be well liked by others. He also rallies against materialism, claiming that "what a man has in himself is, then, the chief element in his happiness." According to this tradition, it is not what happens to you, it is how you think about those events that matter. Arthur also quotes some of the greats: "the happiness we receive from ourselves is greater than that which we obtain from our surroundings" (Epicurus), "it is not wealth but character that lasts" (Socrates), and "when Socrates saw various articles of luxury spread out for sale, he exclaimed: how much there is in the world I do not want." 

    Health is extremely important in Arthur's worldview: "health outweighs all other blessings so much that one may really say that a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king." Randomly, he makes the following remark: "for without a proper amount of daily exercise no one can remain healthy." For all of his thoughts, the one I identify with the most is the following: "and still men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has." Despite hundreds of years passing, his words ring true to this day. Especially among us workhorses that feel the pressure of intense, all-encompassing careers. "It is a great piece of folly to sacrifice the inner for the outer man, to give the whole or the greater part of one's quiet, leisure, and independence for splendor, rank, pomp, titles and honor." Arthur favors leisure, and strongly argues against a life aimed at fame and fortune. "Not fame, but that which deserves to be famous, is what a man should hold in esteem." Funny enough, one quote rings especially true in our generation, or I guess it was true across all generations: "fame and youth are too much for a mortal at one and the same time."

    Life is simple: "the most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom." Either you are too poor (and thus seek a life of status-seeking) or too rich (you are hopelessly bored). "Ordinary people think merely how they shall spend their time; a man of any talent tries to use it." One final quote I thought was funny: "the cheapest sort of pride is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud; otherwise he would not have recourse to those which he shares with so many millions of his fellowmen." The last part of the book is really all about dueling. Particularly, why dueling is stupid and why this ridiculous idea of knight's honor is a tragedy (the strongest person, or best marksman, (the strongest person, or best marksman, should win? What about the one who is actually morally correct about the issue at hand?) Overall, I think this was a good introduction to Arthur's work. Given by the sheer amount of notes I have despite the short page count, I am slightly worried about the 1,000 pages of The World as Will and Representation that awaits me.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: April 19 - May 10

1. The Coddling of the American Mind (A), by Jonathan Haidt


    I don't think that this was a good book. The ideas are somewhat solid: coddling children doesn't prepare them for real life, college campuses are no longer places of free and fair debate, woke culture can sometimes be legitimately bad. However, I didn't like the execution. The book was fairly boring and massively anecdotal. The leaps in logic were pretty absurd. For some chapters, it is like the author simply had an idea (hey, children don't play outside as much as they used to) and determined that this revelation somehow explains current society. Also, this book is pretty much just about universities being regressively leftist and stifling free speech out of cowardice. I feel like it should have stuck to the "coddling of the American university" stuff, which it did well, and avoided trying to make the actions of a few thousand upper class students speak for the thoughts and beliefs of four hundred million American people. 

    Tim Urban did it better. "What's Our Problem" is legitimately better in every way, and I wonder if the existence of that book now makes this one irrelevant. Also, I am not convinced by this idea that the world is more closed minded and hostile now. Every generation says that the newest generation is full of spoiled brats who can't think for themselves and are poisoned by the newest technology. Every generation says that "we used to all get along, not sure what happened to all of you." Political parties never fought fair, and were never not massively hypocritical. It will be really difficult for Jonathan to avoid the comparison to "Old Man Yells at Cloud," and rightfully so.

2. Between the World and Me (A), by Ta-Nehisi Coates


    Masterful. I am pretty astounded at Ta-Nehisi's writing ability. Even offhand remarks come off as supremely powerful: "every girl I've ever loved was a bridge to somewhere else." His line "the same hands that drew red lines around the life of Prince Jones drew red lines around the ghetto" is such an awesome consolidation of ideas that I stopped the audiobook to think. I wish he said "white lines" when referring to Prince but the point still stands. This book was just really, really good. It is awesome to get a unique perspective in such a format.

3. Fooled by Randomness (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    I would consider myself both a Nassim lover and a Nassim hater. I think he is the most bombastic, annoying, arrogant, predictable writer that I have come across. At least, that covers 80% of the material he puts out. However, and what is most annoying, the other 20% of his content (spread very unevenly through his books) is legitimately brilliant. This is immensely frustrating, but I wonder  if that glimpse of brilliance can only come from such an unusual character. Every book that goes by I get more used to his style and better at ignoring the 80%. This is my favorite book by him so far. Basically, he makes the claim that everything (the stock market, our lives, historical events) is far more random than we think. Predicting anything with certainty is basically useless, especially predicting events in the past (hindsight bias and survivorship bias are incredibly persuasive). This may not sound revolutionary, but it is actually incredibly unique. I know very few people who truly view events through this lens. Regardless, believing in a straight, logical line of cause and effect is bound to cause much confusion and trauma over your lifespan.

4. Tress of the Emerald Sea (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    For every Sanderson novel I may just keep commenting: "the man does not miss." Such a great, beautiful, whimsical read. It is insane that he can pump out a fantasy tale better and more unique than "Stardust" in only a couple of months. The man could hardly be more talented.

5. The Fall (A), by Albert Camus


    As a massive Emil Cioran fan I walked into this book heavily biased. Emil mentioned that Camus was pompous and arrogant, despite not being particularly talented. So, I was not expecting much. Then I realized that most existential philosophy is pretty similar and that I massively enjoy every bit of it. This is one I'd like to go through again in a few years, as some of the quotes were pretty powerful. When the narrator is discussing women, he says "I loved them, according to the hallowed expression which amounts to saying that I never loved any of them." Simple stuff like this made the book quite great. I'll probably read another book of his this year as a result.

6. The Bed of Procrustes (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    This collection of aphorisms seems like some sort of cash grab (apparently Nassim got a $4 million dollar advance in order to write this book). It was pretty short and nothing was super novel. The same tired Nassim themes (Harvard people = dumb, MBA people = dumb, economists = should be killed in the streets, deadlifting = super cool, fat greasy New Jersey people who mumble their words = even cooler) made up 90% of the content. His general philosophy is a bit condensed here "both markets and models are extremely stupid," so I guess someone might get value out of this as an introduction. If you are familiar with his work I would recommend skipping.

7. Train Dreams (A), by Denis Johnson


    I read Tress of Emerald Sea in basically a day. Given that it was ~500 pages, I wondered if I could dedicate similar effort to reading five ~100 page books on a random Thursday. This ended up being the second, a pretty short novella detailing a man in the 1900's who lives near a railway line and loses his wife and daughter in a wildfire. I couldn't really get into this book and I found the ending pretty empty. It reminded me of  "Steppenwolf" but without the cool philosophical parts.

8. Letters to a Young Poet (A), by Rainer Maria Rilke


    This was a pretty darn good read. I am going to say probably the most artistically beautiful and profound book I have read in a while, and it was less than 100 pages (making it even more beautiful). I really enjoy these short, romantically written novels ("Art and Fear" comes to mind). This is another that I will probably re-read.

9. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (P), by Carlo M. Cipolla


    Originally a pamphlet sent around to friends, this short book was pretty comical. Carlo gives five separate laws: we underestimate the number of stupid people, being stupid is independent of any other trait, stupid people are defined as those who damage other members of society as well as themselves (for no logical reason), non-stupid people underestimate how damaging stupid people can be, and "the stupid person is the most dangerous type of person." Carlo also uses a basic graph to demonstrate the types of people (the x axis is how much you harm/benefit yourself, the y axis is how much you harm/benefit others). This whole thing is very tongue-in-check and I would advise you not to take it seriously. I thought it was worth the read.

10. The Call of Cthulhu (P), by H.P. Lovecraft


    Rounding off my five-short-books-in-a-day day, I decided to end with a Lovecraft story. I enjoyed this for sure, probably about equally to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." There has been enough praise for Lovecraft's work over the past hundred years, so I won't waste more time explaining how good he is at writing horror. All I'll say is I am thoroughly creeped out by everything I have read of his. "Was I tottering on the brink of cosmic horrors beyond man's power to bear?" The coolest thing about his work is the connection to cosmic, all-powerful gods of terror. This lore gives the reader a unique feeling of powerlessness they fail to experience elsewhere.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Third 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: March 23 - April 19

1. What's Our Problem (P), by Tim Urban


    Tim Urban, author of the popular blog Wait But Why, massively influenced my life. His blog is the reason that I started this one, and a handful of articles on Wait But Why legitimately changed my interests. His posts on artificial intelligence, the Fermi paradox, and choosing a life partner are seriously some of the most important collections of words I have yet come across. So, I decided I owed Tim the honor of purchasing his book and reading all 746 pages. It was worth it, although I think that my expectations of the book differed greatly from the actual product. The book is pretty much only about US politics, and the majority of the pages discuss "woke" culture and the problems with current Social Justice Fundamentalism. I guess I agree with everything Tim says, and I now think that this "lower rung" type of thinking prevalent in politics is a much greater danger than I would have previously thought. Still, it's hard to not be suspicious that Tim spends too much time on Twitter, and it's easy to imagine that "high rung" politics have never really been a thing. Still, knowing how this usually works I'm sure this book will completely change my interests and the way I act, so thanks Tim!

2. The Alignment Problem (P), by Brian Christian


    This book was extremely difficult to get through. I think Brian must just be a boring writer or something. It's hard to explain why, but I think it took me over a year to read the entire book, despite this subject being the one topic in the world I am the most excited to learn about. The last three chapters of the book were really good and I learned a lot of useful information, but honestly I would not recommend this book.

3. The Rise of the Ultra Runners (A), by Finn Adharanand


    Pretty solid running book that chronicles Finn's entrance into ultrarunning and a few of his races. He comments on the sport of ultrarunning as whole, and I definitely learned a lot. Probably not as great of a read for those not interested in ultrarunning.

4. Alexander Hamilton (A), by Ron Chernow


    Funny enough, I finished pretty much this entire book (28 hour audiobook at 2x speed) during a 50 mile ultramarathon. That race and this book will forever be intertwined, and all I can say is my hate for Aaron Burr helped push me through. I loved how biased Ron was in this writing, and he did a hell of a great job writing a compelling story. The Founding Fathers have always been, in my opinion, the most talented and impactful group of intellectuals the world has ever seen. It is astounding how productive this small group of men were, and I am fascinated by the quality of their character. George Washington in particular is quite the legend. Maybe Ron embellished, but it seems that Hamilton was one of the most impactful figures in American history. His story is quite astounding, and his tragic flaws make him quite worthy of a book. His writing ranged from petty squabbles to all out wars with the pen, and the amount of drama and gossip that stemmed from "anonymous" letters written in newspapers was hilarious. My favorite bit about Hamilton was that he used a pseudonym and wrote an essay in a paper  condemning John Adams. Then, he used another pseudonym to write another essay praising the wit of the other pseudonym (himself) and further lambasting John Adams.

    This might be my favorite biography. The atmosphere of the American revolution is quite motivating, and I want to either start another revolution or listen to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat, maybe both. The book has heroism, villainy, and some amazing insults. It gives the reader an insight into American politics from the beginning, and I learned a ton. I didn't realize how close Civil War seemed at the beginning of the US, and a lot of the actions of the founders, given what was at stake, make a lot more sense given that context. Hamilton and others were so steadfast and strong headed because they truly believed that they would be able to have a profound impact on society for generations and generations. They were right.

5. Models (P), by Mark Manson


    One of the worst books I have ever read. Absolute trash. Unbelievable. If going on dates with "dozens" of women makes you qualified to write this book (really, Mark that's it?) I guess I am way more the dating guru than this pathetic author. Being a man is not about being a sleaze-bag who manipulates women and treats people like dirt. Regardless of Mark's qualifying statements, that is  exactly what this book seeks to create. Mark's idea of a pickup line: “let’s check out the Science museum, they have an awesome exhibit on the human body." Mark's idea of how dating works "once a girl kisses you, she’s usually going to be comfortable and/or horny enough to go home with you." Mark's idea of success: "have sex with two women in the same 24-hour period: Shower in between optional." Mark's idea of how consent works "just know this: the correct answer to the “no sex” objection is always an affirmative while continuing to escalate physically." I'm embarrassed on behalf of Mark, as his short-lived legacy in this universe will consist of vomiting up a pile of worthless pseudo-dating-advice-garbage into the world and then dying.

    There is something to be said for having upstanding moral character and treating the people around you with kindness and respect. In a world full of deceivers and manipulators, being a man of honorable intentions will set you apart. If you want to attract women, be worthy of attraction. Focus on fulfilling relationships full of love and mutual respect, and avoid stooping below that line to anything else. Many years ago, I decided that my two main goals in life were to be an amazing father and to be an amazing husband. More than anything, this decision and my obsession with faithfully pursuing it has led to a life full of meaningful relationships that were a hell of a lot of fun. I don't judge men for being angry at the dating process, and I don't judge men for turning to resources like this. But I despise men who take awful advice to heart, especially when it is so hell-bent on manipulation. There are clearly better ways to live your life, ways that will lead to your long term happiness as well as the long term happiness of others. Read "The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work." Read biographies of great men who strived to uphold their moral values and make the world a better place. Meet someone worthy of your admiration and respect. Fall in love. Build an amazing partnership, something beautiful. Avoid garbage written by people like Mark.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (A), by J.K. Rowling


    Magical. That is how I would describe this series, a series completely in a league of its own. I totally understand the fasciation with the Harry Potter universe, and I think it deserves its spot as the most popular book series of all time. I didn't really enjoy the first half of this book, and I really wish Voldemort was more than a one-dimensional villain. Still, maybe it is the nostalgia talking but I am really glad I went through this series. I felt like a kid again, entranced in a world full of wonder and adventure.

7. Rhythm of War (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    Brandon Sanderson never misses. Still, I would probably rank this last out of the Stormlight Archive series, simply because it took me quite a while to get through. I wasn't very interested in most of the flashbacks, and there were a few plot points that I took issue with. Still, the book is very clearly a 9/10. The characters are great, the worldbuilding is phenomenal, and the last two hundred pages are impossible to put down. Classic Sanderson.

8. Irreversible Damage (A), by Abigail Shrier


    Reading this book, given the current political climate, made me feel subversive and rebellious. If the subtitle of a book you are reading is "the Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters" you almost don't want to add it to your Goodreads for fear of potential backlash. Overall, I think the conversation around "gender affirming surgery" for minors is actually pretty important. We probably shouldn't let minors make life-altering decisions and we probably should have protected spaces for biological women (prisons are the obvious example that you can't really argue against). I am not quite sure I agree that there is a transgender craze in America that is sweeping up young women, but that is simply because I have no relevant exposure. I understand Abigail's stance against puberty blockers, but honestly if you feel from birth that you were born in the wrong body I can't see why we should make you endure puberty. If you are 18, even if you are misguided, you should have full say over what you do with your body. Still, society should absolutely make you wait until then. 

    It is sad and disturbing that many doctors have turned into service providers, simply bending to the will of a small minority of people with radical beliefs about gender. I think the nod towards how the medical profession helped create the opioid crisis was important, it is clear on mass that they don't really have their patient's best interest at heart. Abigail is incredibly biased, but I think this conversation is really important. If non-binary people are getting hysterectomies, that is cause for concern. If young girls that like engineering and sports are led to believe that liking traditionally masculine things makes them a boy, that is cause for concern. Too often liberals take traditional gender roles seriously and invalidate their own beliefs as a result (explain how there are 72 genders but also that this young girl is definitely a boy and needs surgery otherwise they will kill themselves). If you are a man, you can love wearing makeup, like fashion, and have sex with other men. This doesn't make you any less of a man, and it doesn't make you necessarily a woman. Many progressives are extremely regressive when it comes to gender identity, and seem to cling to centuries old rigid gender roles as gospel. I have no problem with people transitioning, and we should treat everyone with respect. But we should also be mature enough to have difficult debates about books such as this one.

9. The Hundred-Page Machine Learning Book (P), by Andriy Burkov


    "All models are wrong, but some are useful." A great quote at the header of every chapter.

    Every time I read a book about machine learning I wonder if I should just give up and stick to working in finance for the rest of my life. This book was very good, and I really liked that it was short enough to actually read without getting massively frustrated (looking at you, Deep Learning). I don't think my technical knowledge was sufficient to understand a lot of the algorithms mentioned, but I am still glad I read it.

10. Skin in the Game (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    Well, I learned that Nassim's books are 100x easier to get through if you do an audiobook instead of a print version. As usual, this is a pretty mean spirited book with a lot of irrelevant, useless information. Nassim loves harping on his usual, trite thoughts (economists are bad, ivy league people are bad, Nassim is a genius). I wonder if, like many people, he is just still salty to this day that he didn't get into Harvard. Regardless, the core idea of "skin in the game" is actually massively useful and makes the book worth a read. People should have better incentives, and we shouldn't let bankers and politicians get only upside regardless of their behavior. As an individual, you will live a better and more fulfilling life if you are a risk-seeker that finds opportunities that could expose you to both massive gains and massive losses. 

    Nassim would be legitimately insufferable to hang out with. I swear if he would have mentioned deadlifting one more time, I might have burned the book. He assumes that the world is entirely fair and meritocratic. A classic take from someone with self-proclaimed "f-you" money. He said that he would rather trust a fat Italian doctor without a medical license to do a surgery than an established Harvard M.D. His rationale is that the gruff, incomprehensible Italian doctor would have to have overcome more obstacles to get into his position and thus would probably be better at surgery. I wonder if Nassim lives his life this way. Given how brilliant 10% of the book is, I wonder what Nassim's legacy would be if he had the personality of one of the upstanding intellectuals he criticizes, instead of that of a toddler.