Friday, December 1, 2023

Eleventh 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: December 1 - December 31

1. Number Go Up (A), by Zeke Faux


    Interesting read, I liked it better than Going Infinite for sure. I think it humanized SBF in a way that made me really feel for him, despite Zeke's massively pessimistic view on crypto. Maybe I just relate more to cynics, but I really enjoyed the way that Zeke blatantly dunked on blockchain technology at every opportunity. Zeke portrays the cryptocurrency space as way more toxic, fraudulent, and hilarious than I remember, and his quick jabs at the weird and eccentric hustlers at places like Tether made this an entertaining read. Still, I think his bias went too far, to the point of being uninformed. He repeats over and over again that this technology is untraceable, which is laughably far from the truth especially in 2023. He makes a good point when he digs into how completely the promise of crypto has failed the unbanked, poverty-stricken people of the world, but I think he reads too much into how crypto has paved a path for evil. Even in a crypto-less world, there are still going to be compounds where individuals are tricked into slave labor and forced to scam others. Maybe crypto makes scamming marginally easier, but the dark world of blackmail and forced labor would thrive regardless.

    Zeke is a good journalist. He presents himself as the reasonable man in a world full of weirdos, which at some level he is (especially in the midst of a Bitcoin conference). But I think he plays this hand too much, to the point where it harms the reading experience. Still worth the read, as long as you don't take Zeke as seriously as he takes himself.

2. The Master and Margarita (A), by Mikhail Bulgakov


    Thoroughly entertaining book. I really enjoyed exploring Mikhail's hilarious and thought-provoking Russian world of devils and chaos. There was a lot going on and many characters, from Pontius Pilate, to Margarita the witch, to Satan, and it was a bit hard for me to keep track of it all. I probably missed some satirical references and Russian-specific humor, but overall enjoyed the book a lot.

3. The Sunlit Man (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    As I say every time, the man does not miss. Great characters, great worldbuilding, fantastic story. Just another great addition to the cosmere.

4. Sapiens (A), by Yuval Noah Harari


    I tried reading this book a few times and finally just crushed the audiobook during one of my long weekend runs. This was a pretty solid book, and I was pleasantly surprised by Yuval's very objective, scientific, and nihilistic outlook on humanity. The lens he uses to look at the world is extremely interesting, and I'm really glad to have read the book. Some of his arguments are purposefully biased, but I don't think that detracts too much from the book. Yuval is trying to be thought-provoking, and in that he succeeds.

5. Existentialism is a Humanism (P), by Jean-Paul Satre


    This was certainly interesting. Jean-Paul is an existentialist. He believes that there is no God, and thus "everything is permissible." He believes this makes humans free, as we are no bound by some great "causality" that determines our lives, and our circumstances cannot be blamed for our lives as a result. So, stop hiding behind your excuses, and write that book. Because history and the world will remember that regardless of your background, you not doing something just results in not doing something. A life where you don't take advantage of this existential freedom is one of wasted potential.
   "For existentialists there is no love other than the deeds of love; no potential for love other than that which is manifested in loving. There is no genius other than hat which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust resides in the totality of his works; the genius of Racine is found in the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the ability to write yet another tragedy when that's precisely what he did not do? In life, a man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing."

    I don't really agree with Jean-Paul in a lot of ways. I feel like the beauty of a nihilistic outlook is really only displayed in the works of Emil Cioran, and everyone else (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Satre) kind of takes a wimpy way out. There is something badass about saying that nothing matters and everything is permissible, and then refusing to try to draw some form of "meaningful" conclusion about it. Regardless, when reading this I didn't really understand Jean-Paul's take on life and freedom. This example is not his argument, but I don't like when philosophers say things like "only once we recognize that there are no rules can we truly be free." Either everything is predetermined and humans have no agency, or not. I don't really see an in-between, and I don't think being "clued-in" to some philosophical ideas changes your objective ability to navigate life in a now "meaningful" way. I wish these writings went a bit deeper, but I at least have an idea of how Jean-Paul thinks. And I just love existential philosophy, so I'll take all that I can get.

6. The Devil Finds Work (A), by James Baldwin


    James is an incredible writer, and there are certainly flashes of brilliance in this book. However, the essays are for the most part commenting on books and movies that I have not seen, and thus I am quite sure I missed the context of a lot of them. Probably one of James's least accessible works.

7. Parkinson's Law (P), by Cyril Parkinson


    Parkinson's law is the observation that the allotted time given to a task is precisely the time it takes to complete the task. This mostly relates to government bureaucracy, as officials want subordinates who are incompetent (and thus not a threat), and officials enjoy making work for other officials. This book is a satire, a comedic journey through a variety of topics such as government committees, retirement, and cocktail parties. Cyril uses overly complex mathematical equations to state how to navigate the bizarre world we live in, and his dry humor and wit makes for an entertaining read. The book is pretty slow at points, but if you are at a dead-end job or liked Bullshit Jobs, this is a decent read.

“The defect in the intelligence test is that high marks are gained by those who subsequently prove to be practically illiterate.”

8. Less Than Zero (P), by Bret Easton Ellis


    The Los Angeles counterpart to the New York of Bright Lights, Big City. Full of empty, vapid, morally deficient characters who don't do a whole lot. The book is a slow-moving chronicle of rich eighteen year-olds who turn to drugs, sex, and kidnapping and torture, not to feel something, but rather because their existence is meaningless and so is life. Warning: this book has some very, very messed up scenes. The worst I have read. But I think they added to the theme. This book isn't perfect, but it is very hard to put down and very thought provoking.

    The book opens with the line "people are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles." Towards the end of the book, the narrator says: 

"Before I left, a woman had her throat slit and was thrown from a moving car in Venice; a series of fires raged out of control in Chatsworth, the work of an arsonist; a man in Encino killed his wife and two children. Four teenagers, none of whom I knew, died in a car accident on Pacific Coast Highway. Muriel was readmitted to Cedars-Sinai. A guy, nicknamed Conan, killed himself at a fraternity party in U.C.L.A."

    This theme of the book is shown in the contrast between these statements. The world is full of horrible things: violence, rape, and death. Life is scary, and terrifying events surround us at all times. Despite all the tragedy and terror that permeate the lives of others, we choose to ignore most of it in order to function. Thus, what really scares most people is something small and stupid like merging onto a highway. The narrator says that "it's less painful if I don't care." He lives a meaningless life of total apathy and cowardice, just like all the other characters. 

    I saw this book as a pretty interesting criticism of LA culture. One character is told "you're a beautiful boy and that's all that matters," and then later, the narrator is told "you're a beautiful boy, Clay, but that's about it." The characters are all materialistic and empty, and they just disappear into whatever hedonistic desires they fancy at any moment. I'm sort of really into these 1980's novels tied to a particular city. They resonate with me for some reason, so I'm going to look for more.

9. Post Office (P), by Charles Bukowski


    Sort of an interesting read, I can't tell if  I liked it or not. The main character is the author's alter ego, Hank. The story is a bit motivating, as I was disgusted by Hank and his life. Hank's meaningless job is displayed as especially frustrating. The narrator says: "well, as the boys said, you had to work somewhere. So they accepted what there was. This was the wisdom of the slave." Part of the triumph of the book is that Hank breaks out of the cycle, finally quitting his monotone job where he wasted his life. Overall, I have pretty mixed emotions. I may read a few more of Charles's books to fully form an opinion.

10. Ethan Frome (P), by Edith Wharton


    Sort of a hilarious way to end my reading year. This book is considered a classic, but it is also widely hated. The main character is an idiot, a sort of weak, cowardly individual who is in love with his wife's cousin. The book's ending is pretty nonsensical and certainly not my favorite, but I overall had a soft spot for the story. It's good, not great, and definitely a conversation starter. 

Friday, November 3, 2023

Tenth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: October 23 - November 30

1. Training Essentials for Ultrarunning (A), by Jason Koop


    Solid overview of ultramarathon training tips. Jason is clearly an expert in the field, and I think he is probably right in that runners should see ultrarunning in the same light as they view any other sport. Sure, the numbers are big and scary, but athletes still need to be rigorous planners and focus heavily on recovery. I plan to use some of Jason's advice in my upcoming endeavors, as I am sure it will be useful.

2. The Haunting of Hill House (A), by Shirley Jackson


    After watching the television series, I decided to give the book a try. Overall, I think it was pretty much what I expected. Not the scariest story that I've ever read, but there were some creepy moments that probably made it worth the read. The horror genre as a whole has probably progressed in a much more existential and violent fashion since this book was published, so it's possible that this book was worth all the hype at the time.

3. Glock (A), by Paul Barrett


    Well, if you are interested in this history of the Glock, this book is for you. I'm sort of navigating my way through this strange genre of firearm history, and this was a pretty solid addition. The book is very detailed and well researched, but I would skip unless you like this particular niche.

4. The Gun (A), by C.J. Chivers


    Very intriguing book that chronicles the making of the first automatic firearms and follows through to the impact of small arms in modern day conflicts. The AK-47 is the real standout of the book, with probably half of the book chronicling the history and impact of the AK. This book is just as niche as Glock, but I found the knowledge way more applicable and interesting. Probably my last book about guns, although I did enjoy this short detour.

5. Between Two Fires (A), by Christopher Buehlman


    Metal. That is the best word I can think of describes this book. Angels and demons fight over the fate of humanity, while a knight and a little girl cross the plague-ridden countryside on a quest to turn the tide of the war. It's a little strange to see Christian mythology transformed in such a way, and there are certainly horrifying, dark scenes that I will probably remember for a long time. Do not read if you are very Christian or easily offended. If you are ready for some twisted, medieval ass-kicking, I suggest you take the day off, turn up the death metal on your stereo, and strap in.

6. Going Infinite (A), by Michael Lewis


    I sort of agree with the critics that Michael missed the point here. First off, it is not clear to me at any point in the book that Sam Bankman-Fried, known as SBF, is intelligent. Sure, he was apparently a somewhat successful trader at Jane Street (despite posting a $300 million loss), but what separates him from another weird, autistic oddball who goes to MIT and gets an entry level job quant trading? SBF being a sour, pessimistic weirdo who sleeps on a bean bag chair does not make him a genius, regardless of the temporary dollars to his name (which appear to have been gained through a delicate mix of luck and fraud). In terms of being a tycoon, what exactly was so great about his crypto strategy or his business execution? After picking up pennies through arbitrage, it seems that the inefficiencies of the crypto market largely disappeared and Alameda research struggled immensely. FTX was clearly a failed company, a point that Michael totally missed. The lack of accounting, compliance, and safety infrastructure at such a company is more than incompetence, it is a straight up unethical breach of fiduciary duty. Sure, people gave him money. They did this despite him playing video games all day (instead of doing anything actually useful to protect his investors), but getting away with this does not make him smart, it just means that VC's are dumb.

    I am an effective altruist. I go to conferences, I've met a lot of people in the space, and thinking about EA topics takes up an astounding amount of my time. I've had lengthy conversations with Jane Street employees who have met Sam, and I've met amazing individuals who actually have made an awesome impact on the world. Frankly, it's a community that constantly inspires me and motivates me to be a better person.

    Sam, all things considered, was probably the least effective altruist that has ever existed. In addition to severely harming the movement, he was very clearly not "effective" at prioritizing or doing a simple "expected value" calculation, despite Michael's constant insistence that SBF only thought in these terms. The sheer amount of money spent on ridiculous, unplanned real estate alone, money that could have saved many lives, points to this fact. The idea that FTX should not have a robust and complete accounting system is far from "effective" or "intelligent." The thought that Sam somehow did not play an instrumental part in stealing customer funds to try to double down on getting back in the green on trading profits, shows very clearly that he was more than just naïve. Personally, I am of the opinion that Sam was a known liar and scam artist who contributed great harm to society. Maybe his justification was actually to one day (but when? Like seriously when was he going to do all of the good?) donate his empire, but as Michael points out, there were clearly ways he could have done so (Alameda borrowing, risk controls, etc.) without leaving himself exposed to such incredible downside risk. 

    Risk management is probably the most important part of being a good trader. Clearly, SBF will go down in history as one of the worst, despite a totally stacked deck. I am seriously astounded that Alameda lost so much money despite a scorching hot bull market in where SBF could sell vaporware and borrow infinite money from customers. 

    Overall, I don't think that this book was particularly good. It was clearly rushed, with the first half written before the scandal and the second half written in a half-baked attempt to bring the story to the present day. I would have enjoyed a much deeper conversation on the fiduciary duty that a business owner has to his or her clients, a discussion of how exactly SBF fit into the EA narrative, and a more complex look into where the client money actually went (instead of Michael's halfhearted accounting). Oh well, maybe another book will do the story justice.

7. Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    Not my favorite Brandon Sanderson book, but certainly not bad. A lot more disturbing than his other books, and the horror element really threw me for a loop. I think the story and characters were still pretty good, but I don't think it's really comparable to his other books or novellas. The Emperor's Soul is still his best novella by a pretty wide margin.

8. Utilitarianism (P), by John Stuart Mill


    Pretty interesting read, especially given my Effective Altruist bent. John states the utilitarian line: good things promote happiness and bad things promote the opposite of happiness. Then, he digs in much deeper and makes some important contributions to the philosophy. For the most part, this book is John explaining how consequentialism is the backbone of most moral philosophies. He states that being virtuous has a strong utilitarian backing and explanation, but the utilitarian position simply takes it one step further and states that there are important things besides virtue. I've always felt that utilitarianism and individual liberty were dissimilar, and I felt that my personal "gluing" of them together required some stroke of brilliance in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. Well, turns out John is sort of a legend in both camps and a staunch defender of both.

    John states "to have a right, then, is I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask why it ought, I can give him no other reason than general utility." His point is that without individual rights, the human experience cannot possibly be one of happiness and flourishing. If we can be deprived of our happiness and freedom at any moment, what is it worth? John states that individual rights are a "security no human being can possibly do without; on it we depend for all our immunity from evil". Basically, a world where everyone uses their own personal utilitarian calculus and tramples over each other to reach the "greater good" is a horrifying place, and the optimal society is likely one that champions individual rights and freedoms, but does so in the name of the greater good. What irony! 

    Probably my favorite contribution of John to utilitarianism is his distinction between beings with different mental faculties. He says that "a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type, but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he fells to be a lower grade of existence." The better wording of this is as follows: "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their  own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."

    I think most Effective Altruists choose to ignore this to too large of a degree. It is clear to me that there is some sort of intrinsic "utility" to higher level forms of thinking. Call this what you want, elegance, beauty, artistic brilliance, deep romance, etc., but some form of "intelligence" tips the calculation between happy pig and sad human. "Happiness" as a measure and even "well-being" are sort of over-rated, in my opinion, and I wish I had a greater read on how to calculate that missing part of the equation. We, as humans, know this intrinsically. Sure, we can shut off all of our curiosity and inject Soma into our veins 24/7, but some part of that is convinced that this world would be suboptimal. For others, but for us as well. Figuring out why is the essential struggle of the utilitarian movement
    John states that "next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory, is want of mental cultivation." He claims that our inability to satisfy our curiosity and fill in our gaps of knowledge leads to a sort of mental unhappiness. I found this really relevant to my life, as I definitely have chosen to take the trade of thinking and stressing about events outside my control (AI alignment, nuclear war, other EA stuff) quite constantly, instead of just chilling out and enjoying my time with video games and fiction books. Still, I don't regret this trade, and I don't think I'll ever fall onto the side of relaxation and bliss. Happiness, in my opinion, is a silly target to have. I feel like I would live another wasteful life if I didn't try to do a lot of good with the one life I have, regardless if I could have been "happier" otherwise. Thinking about the hardest and most distressing topics is something I probably do too much of, but I don't see another path forward. We recognize we could maybe be happier if we were ignorant, but choose not to, for the benefit of others. That is the true struggle, and the true beauty, of being a utilitarian.

9. The Most Dangerous Game (P), by Richard Connell


    Pretty short book, detailing a stranded sailor who is hunted by a murderous Russian on a deserted island. Better than I expected, and worth the hour or less read for sure.

10. Nothing Personal (A), by James Baldwin

    I really like James's writing. This is his shortest book, and my main problem was actually more related to the reader of the audiobook than anything else. The narrator talked at length about how James's writing relates to modern events like the election of Trump and white supremacy. Which is fine, it's just not really what I signed up to listen to. I'd rather have stuck to the nuanced and elegant takes that James delivers.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Ninth 10 Books I Read in 2023

 Reading Period: October 2 - October 22

1. Notes from Underground (A), by Fyodor Dostoevsky


    Right up my alley, that's for sure. Still, it is hard to judge this novel without having a better understanding of the entirety of Fyodor's work. While this book was great, and I loved the philosophical and self-reflective content, it is certainly not enough to cull my appetite. After getting a taste of what Fyodor is able to do, I'll certainly seek out more. Maybe then my thoughts, outside of "wow I love this," will become clearer.

2. As I Lay Dying (A), by William Faulkner


    Not for me. I'm sure there are some people who love this sort of stream of consciousness writing style and rugged "realist" plot. For me, it all felt overdone, boring, and tacky. I'd rank this as one of my least enjoyable reads, probably in the bottom two or three books I've read in my life.

3. The Pearl (A), by John Steinbeck


    Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The plot was pretty simple and there's not really a complex lesson to take away, but the writing quality was solid. John is pretty talented, and I figure I should tackle his better known works before the end of the year is up.

4. The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (A), by Martin Bunton


    Given my immense level of ignorance about one of the world's most complicated and distressing issue, I figured I'd start small with this audiobook by Martin. Now, I feel much more informed about the historical context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, but I am no more resolved on the solution. Recent tragic events in Israel have brought this conflict to the forefront of world news, so I will likely be diving deeper into my thoughts over the coming months.

5. On Liberty (P), by John Stuart Mill


    Thoroughly interesting read. John discusses the struggle between liberty and authority. He states that the "will of the people" is a synonym for "will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people," and that oppression of minority opinion by this group must be avoided. Society itself can be oppressive, imposing rules and practices that can infringe on individual rights. Thus, "there needs protection against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling." This is a really good argument against aggressive law making, and in favor of laws that blanket protect individual rights. The will of the majority of the current generation should not dictate the freedom of future generations!

    John is very motivating. He claims that the great renaissances in art and science have one thing in common: they defy authority. They push boundaries, not only cultural and societal, but also religious and moral. It's a waste to refuse to follow your independent, innovative thoughts just because other people might disapprove. Conformity, according to John, can shove it. In our world, the main question people ask is: what have other people in my position done? And they use that answer to guide their lives. What a waste!

    There are a few other points I'd like to mention. First, John states that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." If people have sound minds, which can be persuaded and changed, you have no right to force them into anything. Second, a lot of our current views (this was written in 1859) are silly. In some court systems, jurymen who refuse to profess a belief in God are barred from testifying, because some are convinced that atheists are liars. John rightfully points out that this is self-defeating, as you are left with the atheists who are actually willing to lie, and exclude the honest ones. Somewhat randomly, John has some interesting quotes on Christianity. I'll end with these, but not first without reiterating that this was an extremely insightful book.

"Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) "thou shalt not" predominates unduly over "thou shalt.""

"All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers—are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ."

6. The Old Man and the Sea (A), by Ernest Hemingway


    Name a more iconic duo than a man and his fish. You can't. Overall, I enjoyed this book. I saw the deeper meaning as the struggle between life and death, and the futility of it all. Being able to draw my own conclusions, and not have to take a literature exam after, probably led to me liking this book far more than the general public.

7. American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms (A), by Chris Kyle


    Some people I work with love history, especially the history of American firearms. I figured I'd venture out from a point of complete ignorance, to at least knowing why the M1 Garand was such a significant rifle and what exactly a 1911 is. This book allowed me to accomplish this, but I don't think it was particularly good in any other sense.

8. Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (A), by Daniel Gordis


    This book was a supremely good overview of the history of Israel. I felt that Daniel did a very good job focusing on the political conditions relevant to the creation of Israel and the subsequent military and economic conditions that led to Israel's survival in the region. I think that Daniel overstepped a bit, specifically in his desire to include random tidbits of Israeli movies, music, and art into his story. These injections felt forced and irrelevant, and I don't think added any truly useful information. Also, Daniel is a passionate defender of Israeli, and his bias shows clearly. His takes may very well be justified, but it is hard to not acknowledge that you a reading a very slanted view of Israeli history.

9. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (A), by Joby Warrick


    Incredibly interesting read. The most terrifying terrorist organization of the past century was not created in a vacuum. The specific events leading to the formation of ISIS, specifically the influence of US intervention in Iraq and the fallout from the Syrian war, were very fascinating. I found it interesting that the sheer brutality of ISIS and its terror attacks were a strong contributor to its rapid rise (radical Islamists bent on volunteering), but also led directly to its downfall. Carrying out terror attacks on Muslims and embracing true brutality gave the West and its allies moral license to destroy ISIS at any cost, which thanks be to god they did. Not a controversial take, but I really, really do not like terrorism.

10. The Sense of an Ending (A), by Julian Barnes


    Wasted potential. The beginning of the book was so interesting and engaging, but in the end the book fell flat. The confusing and non-reliable narrating frustrated me, but what was more frustrating was the lack of closure. I looked up different interpretations of the ending, and each one of them felt cheap and half-baked.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Eighth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: August 18 - October 2

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.

9. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (A), by David Foster Wallace


    It is hard to determine exactly how I feel about most of these essays. I think, overall, they are very good. How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, an essay where David gives a scathing review of notorious tennis star Tracy Austin's autobiography, is excellent. Consider the Lobster, an essay about a lobster festival and animal rights, is excellent. What I think separates these from the rest of the pack is that David goes a level deeper, digging into the significance of each of his thoughts and providing his actual interpretation of the meaning of things. Some of his other essays feel more shallow, relying on the reader to draw a conclusion that David can't quite put his finger on. I don't think this is "lead a horse to water" sort of brilliance, I think, despite all of his talent, David can miss a certain level of insight. He takes himself, his writing talent, and his superiority, much too seriously. Were he to relax his standards of himself and of his readers, he might see the irony of some of his statements, and he might stop forcing an idea into empty space. Maybe it is too much to ask for a David Foster Wallace with a touch of humility, as maybe this level of prowess fundamentally requires an ego.

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (A), by Stephen Chbosky


    I've always loved books that evoke strong emotions. To do so requires a level of believability and build-up that only a few writers can pull off well. The problem is, there is a fine line when it comes to sad books, a line between cheap emotional tricks and true emotional brilliance. Some authors evoke emotion through the former (needless, surprising conflicts that serve no other purpose), but I think Stephen is definitely talented enough to pull off the latter. For the most part, this book is awesome. I did, however, often have a significant problem with believability. 

    Charlie is not a 15 year old boy. As a previous 15 year old boy, there is no way, full stop, that a 15 year old boy acts or thinks the way that Charlie does. Charlie is blatantly underdeveloped, autistic, or socially challenged. And/or, everyone at the school treats Charlie a certain way out of pity (since his close friend recently committed suicide). This second option is really the only explanation for the actions of his friends and his teacher, and I don't think explicitly stating this is in the book would have taken anything away from its conclusion. Still, I loved the story. This book is an emotional rollercoaster, a genius calculation of relatability and tragedy. Barely a step away from perfection.

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.