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.