Books I Finished in November
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Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years by: Vaclav Smil
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley By: Malcolm X (Author), Alex Haley (Author), Laurence Fishburne (Narrator)
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets By: Sudhir Venkatesh
Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters By: Abigail Shrier (Moved to the next post)
The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage By: Anthony Brandt
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations by: John Bartlett
The Golden Age By: John C. Wright
How to Start Your Homeschool: What I Learned My First 5 Years by: Taylia Clegg Bunker
Destroying Their God: How I Fought My Evil Half-Brother to Save My Children By: Wallace Jeffs (Author), Shauna Packer (Author), Sherry Taylor (Author)
The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book by: Neal A. Maxwell
November ended up being a pretty chaotic month. As people who follow my blog closely may have noticed (are there such people?) my output was below average. Some part of this was due Thanksgiving, but mostly it was due to a combination of my Mother being in the hospital and the election. As to the first of those, my Mom was in the hospital for two and a half weeks with necrotizing pancreatitis, which is not great, particularly when it’s also happening in the midst of a pandemic, but by this point she seems well on her way to a full recovery. This last week she left the hospital and was moved to a skilled nursing facility. (Which I think is the new and improved term for what we used to call a nursing home, but I’ve never been entirely clear on that.) And we hope this sort of facility will be less of a danger during the pandemic than they were at the beginning, and less of a danger than returning home to be with my Father who’s still teaching school in an area of the state where mask compliance is somewhat less than perfect. The crisis with my Mother was time consuming for all of the obvious reasons, but also we decided that someone would be with her most of the time, and so I spent several afternoons up at the hospital watching Reality TV and Lifetime Christmas Movies. (Did you know they start running those 24/7 on October 23rd?)
The election was at least as much a drain on my attention as it was a drain on my time. I would frequently find myself, while in the middle of something else (like writing), almost involuntarily opening up a new tab to check the latest news, where numbers were trending, and of course, how Trump was reacting to it all. As that last bit became more and more the dominant story I ended up in several conversations with people from all over the ideological spectrum about whether Trump really did have any chance to overturn the results (I maintain that he doesn’t) and what things might look like between now and the inauguration. I ended up placing several bets as well (and not all on one side of the issue either.) As you may recall from my pre-election post, I expected this kind of chaos if things were really close. I didn’t expect it to get this bad if multiple states needed to switch in order to change the outcome. I will say that at this point in the process I think we’ve reached peak craziness (possibly with the claim that Army Special Forces and the CIA had a fire fight in Germany in order to seize servers with election data on them?) and having passed the peak that we’re on our way back down, but who knows?
I- Eschatological Reviews
Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years
by: Vaclav Smil
Who should read this book?
Of the many books I’ve read about existential risk, this one seemed the most down to earth, the least speculative and the best if you’re interested in short term problems. There’s no mention of AI Risk, or of mini black holes being created by the Large Hadron Collider, but lots of discussion of near-term environmental issues, and international relations. Does Russia regain its superpower status? Does America hold on to its superpower status? Will China’s growth continue? That sort of thing. If that sounds appealing you should read this book.
As long as we’re on the subject of international relations, and the questions are already out there, I’ll give you Smil’s answers. He thinks birth rates and internal political weakness are going to keep Russia from being much more of a player than it already is. He acknowledges American decline, but emphasizes that it’s going to be gradual, more gradual even than people think. And finally he’s pretty pessimistic about China’s chances. In this area he reminded me of Peter Zeihan.
As China’s chances have been on my mind a lot recently, it’s worth diving in there a bit, though before we do it should be noted that the book was published in 2008, and certainly some things might have changed in the last 12 years, though if I had to guess none of the issues have improved dramatically. Rather than engage in a deep dive, here’s a brief collection of alarming facts:
China has 20% of the world’s population, but only 9% of the world’s farmland.
Moreover, as China continues to develop, the conversion of farmland to other uses, plus soil erosion, salinization, and desertification means this disparity is only going to get worse.
China has only 7% of the world’s freshwater resources, and those they do have are not near the population centers.
”Economic losses attributable to China’s environmental degradation have been conservatively quantified as equal every year to 6-8% of the country’s GDP”. This is basically the same as their GDP growth, so they’re Red Queening it. Running as fast as they can to stay in the same spot.
On top of all this they have numerous demographic challenges, like a skewed sex ratio and lopsided ratio of old to young.
This list also demonstrates something of a fusion between the book’s emphasis on geopolitics and the environment. As far as the latter, he seems relatively sanguine about climate change and warming, which is not to say that he denies the impact, but rather that he’s far more concerned about the nitrogen and water cycles than he is about the carbon cycle. He considers excessive CO2 to be a tractable problem that we’re already making good progress on, not so when it comes to nitrogen and water. In other words we can generate energy through means which don’t produce CO2. But we can't grow food, at least in sufficient quantities, without nitrogen fertilizer and lots of water. Perhaps in the short term the consequences are not as severe, but over a long enough horizon there seems to be nothing we can do to avoid them, unlike climate change.
Sometimes I kind of have to stretch to connect books in this section to catastrophic outcomes for the world, but not this time. Clearly this book is all about catastrophic outcomes, some of which we’ve already covered, but the other thing I try to cover when I talk about the eschatological implications of a book, is how it expanded my understanding of catastrophic risk. Here the most interesting bit is how close he came to predicting the current pandemic while at the same time, all of the recommendations he offered based on this prediction wouldn’t have helped and besides that he overlooked the largest impacts of a pandemic.
Smil is obviously aware of the threat from pandemics, and he spends quite a bit of time on them. He even confidently predicts that there will definitely be at least one pandemic in the next 50 years (the scope of his book) if not two. But then, having done this he focuses all of his attention on the flu, never apparently suspecting that the next pandemic might be a particularly bad coronavirus. In consequence of his prediction that it will be a new flu variant, he recommends as a mitigation strategy stockpiling Tamiflu, which as far as I can tell has not been shown to do anything for people suffering from COVID.
From this assumption that it will be the flu, he then predicts that if we follow his recommendations while we won’t be able to stop the global spread of the disease (air travel is too ubiquitous) that we can use Tamiflu to knock the R to an acceptable level and that will be that. He does mention the potential psychological toll of the disease, but just like everyone else, he doesn’t foresee the vast economic disruption a pandemic would bring, in particular all the people who end up being unemployed.
The point, as usual, being that predicting the future is tough. Essentially he got everything but the identity of the pathogen correct. (He even correctly predicted that it would come out of South China.) But because of that one mistake his recommendations didn’t help, and even though it was unrelated to that mistake, he also completely missed the financial toll. But none of this is to say that we won’t have a flu pandemic and when that happens a stockpile of Tamiflu would sure come in handy. Meaning the moral from all this would seem to be:
Predicting the future is tough.
But we don’t want to ignore those predictions either
And we particularly don’t want to use one danger as an excuse to reduce our preparedness for other dangers. The fact that Tamiflu didn’t help with this pandemic doesn’t mean we should get rid of our stockpiles, if anything the pandemic should be our cue to stockpile even more.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
By: Malcolm X (Author), Alex Haley (Author), Laurence Fishburne (Narrator)
Who should read this book?
I found this book to be fascinating, and I would say that it, along with the next book I’m reviewing (Gang Leader For a Day), are much better books for understanding racism and Black America than White Fragility (which I read back in June). I cannot compare it yet to the other current favorite, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Though I imagine eventually I will. I was actually thinking about slipping it in last month, but it didn’t happen. Though I suspect that when it happens I will still think these books are better.
Just because I said that this book gives a better understanding does not mean that it gives a true understanding, and it definitely doesn’t mean that I have a complete understanding, but I think whatever meager understanding I do have has been significantly enhanced by reading this book and the next.
Going into the book I didn’t know much about Malcolm X. In my mind, Martin Luther King Jr. was the non-violent side of the civil rights struggle while Malcom X occupied the more muscular side. I knew he had been assassinated, and I knew he was Muslim and had been to Mecca, and probably a couple of other miscellaneous things besides, but that was about it. Which is my setup for saying that it was a far better story than I would have thought. It’s an excellent autobiography and a pretty unbelievable story even without the larger historical context. It was widely believed that his father was also assassinated. His mother ended up being institionalized in a mental hospital for decades. Shortly thereafter Malcolm went first to juvenile detention, then to a foster family at a nearly all white junior high, where he was near the top of his class, before getting fed up and moving first to Boston, and then later, when he was only 17, to Harlem where he made a good living as a hustler, before eventually being arrested. He joined the Nation of Islam (which is it’s own very strange thing) while in jail, eventually becoming their most outspoken advocate, only to later be repudiated by their leader Elijah Muhammad (who Malcom felt intense, and I mean intense loyalty to). And finally, it was also this organization, most likely, who sent the men who killed him.
There’s a lot to get into, but I already feel somewhat unqualified to offer much commentary so I’ll just briefly list some more things I found interesting:
It felt like there were a lot of parallels between the current moment and the one we’re in right now. As if we’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort without making much of a dent in the problem, or at least without making much dent in how the problem is perceived. The language used by Malcolm X is very similar to the language being used today.
There’s a major theme in the book of black men preferring white women and vice versa, which I’m not passing judgement on, I’m just putting it out there because it surprised me.
As a Muslim, much of what Malcolm recommends seems very conservative. Blacks need to stop drinking and doing drugs, get married, dress in suits, pray, etc.
In general, though I think most people already knew this, he was wary of the “white man” doing anything, and was a staunch “Black Nationalist”.
Finally a quote:
Revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, “I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.” No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, as Reverend Cleage was pointing out beautifully, singing “We Shall Overcome”? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging.
I’ll be combining this book with the next.
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
By: Sudhir Venkatesh
Who should read this book?
Venkatesh is best known for his collaboration with the Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubnar, the Freakonomics guys, and so I went in thinking this book was going to mostly be about the way in which the economics, structures and incentives of gangs are very similar to the economics, structures and incentives of corporations. And certainly there is a lot of that in there. But what I didn’t know going in was how much it was going to reveal about the de facto governance and politics of the Chicago Projects, which, similar to the Malcolm X biography, was very illuminating. Far more illuminating than any of the current pieces I’ve come across on Social Justice.
Speaking of governance, it’s the gang leader, JT, who Venkatesh befriends that gets all the attention, but I found Ms. Bailey to be far more interesting. She’s the nominally elected community representative of the projects, the one who liaisons with the housing authority and sometimes the cops. She initially comes across as an island of calm benevolence in the sea of disorder and despair, but by the end I viewed her as more akin to a mafia boss, or maybe a very adept but also very corrupt union leader.
One story to illustrate things. Venkatesh goes around to all the people in the projects and asks them how they make money in the informal economy and how much money that is. He interviews everyone from the handyman/auto mechanic to pimps and prostitutes. Basically everyone he can get his hands on. By this point he’s gained their trust and they are remarkably candid with him. Later he’s in Ms. Bailey’s office with her and JT and they ask him what people told him. So Venkatesh, who’s naivete is a constant theme, tells them everything. Well given that JT is the local gang leader, it’s unsurprising that he skims a percentage of everything that goes on in his territory. It’s also unsurprising, given this adversarial relationship, that the people in the territory have been hiding some of what they make. The final unsurprising bit is that when Venkatesh reveals their true earnings to JT, he immediately demands the money they’ve been withholding (it should go without saying that this is under threat of violence). What is surprising, is that Ms. Bailey is doing exactly the same thing and has exactly the same reaction. Apparently gangs don’t cause the unregulated, essentially tribal environment, they’re a consequence of it, and so is Ms. Bailey.
Another thing that comes through in this book and the last is the issue of police corruption. Of course with Malcolm X you could argue both that it was long ago, and that the narrator might be unreliable, with Venkatesh it’s more recent and presumably the observer is more objective. This is one of the issues I always run into when I’m reading about the broader subject of immorality. The scope of immorality always seems exaggerated, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m sheltered and don’t see it, or if it’s because the people reporting it have a selection bias where the really bad instances get remembered and reported on. Some books, including Malcolm X’s, give the impression that all rich people are secretly engaged in seriously depraved sexual behavior, and these books will offer up numerous anecdotes in support of that assertion. And with all such anecdotes, I’m never sure what that translates to in percentages. Certainly some rich people live secretly depraved lives, and some police are definitely corrupt, but clearly not all of them. But how much should that factor into the current fight over police brutality? I’m not sure.
The central question of both of these books and indeed of White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist is what should be done about racial tensions, disparities and injustices? And having read both books I don’t know that I’ve come away with any additional suggestions. And I wonder whether I should even pursue the subject, but since it might contribute to your decision to read the book, and probably the more people who read these books the better, I’m going to proceed.
Malcolm X divided things into three potential buckets: integration, segregation, and separation, and advocated for the latter. Initially it might seem like segregation and separation have a lot in common, except perhaps status, but Malcom X seemed to be arguing that segregation was a combination of integration and separation with the choice between being made on the basis of what most helped in the advancement of whites. For instance integrating blacks economically (using their labor), but separating them educationally, that sort of thing.
If I take this framework and try to apply it to today’s situation (a dangerous activity) I feel like one might be able to say that we’re moving back towards segregation except now we choose integration or separation based on what will most help the advancement of blacks. And perhaps that’s entirely fair, but I also think an argument could be made that segregation might be wrong regardless who it’s in service of. And a lot of people have made that argument and the debate continues. But even if we decide that this new form of segregation is appropriate in order to rectify historical injustices, there’s still going to be debates on how to apply it at the level of policy, which takes us back to a discussion of Gang Leader.
As I said it’s set in the projects, and near the end of Venkatesh’s time it becomes clear that the projects are going to be torn down with its residents distributed among other neighborhoods. This may seem an example of reversing harmful separation and replacing it with beneficial integration, but if so why did all the residents seem opposed to it?
I’m sure in part it was familiarity, and it also may have been a selection bias on Venkatesh’s part. He was mostly interviewing people who were successful in the projects, and they naturally feared they would be less successful in the suburbs. Another element might be fears that they were repeating a cycle in which the government temporarily throws money at the problem, just like when they built the projects, and then leaves them to decay over the next several decades before temporarily getting all gung-ho about another project only to once again later forget about it.
Perhaps this is what Malcolm X was getting at with his calls for separation. If you’re looking to external forces for salvation then inevitably you’re also at the whim of those forces. Or to phrase it, perhaps, how he would have, “What the white man gives you the white man can take away.”
Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters
By: Abigail Shrier
I had really intended to put this review in with everything else, but the combination of two things eventually convinced me that it should get it’s own post. First, as I’ve tried to explain it to other people it’s become apparent that they have lots of questions, questions which deserve in-depth answers. Second, it would be difficult to provide those answers if I’m trying to do it while also reviewing nine other books as well. So I’ll be covering this book in my next post. I’m sure some of you are filled with anticipation and some of you are filled with dread. Both emotions are probably appropriate.
II- Capsule Reviews
The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage
By: Anthony Brandt
Who should read this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by the far north, the vast expanses of Canada and Siberia where the population density drops to less than one person per square mile. I also like stories of exploration, survival, and historical mysteries. This book checks all those boxes (though much more Canada than Siberia) so if any of those items are on your list, you might want to consider picking up this book.
When it comes to books of exploration and survival this one is better than most, but not as good as some. (For instance, I thought Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone was better.) Part of it is due to the territory, Arctic exploration was pretty boring, particularly at the beginning, and it mostly involved long stretches of waiting 10-11 months while trapped in the ice, interspersed with a month or two of laborious sailing. And some years there was basically no movement because the ice never thawed. Also as far as survival stories, the book included so many that none of them received much of the focus, and the one that needed focus the most couldn’t get it because no one survived.
So as I said I enjoyed the book, but the biggest thing I got out of it was a minor epiphany. We seem fascinated by 19th Century England. We still read Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes. Jack the Ripper is the most famous serial killer and when we picture England we picture the Victorian Era, or shortly thereafter (Downton Abbey). And this book made me wonder if there’s something about the mix of danger and modernity that created the perfect alchemy. As an upper class Englishman (and the stories are always about the upper class) the luxuries of modern life (trains, ships, telegram) had arrived, but at the same time, there were still areas of the globe that were mysteries. You could go from comfortable domesticity to dying in a cavalry charge, or being trapped in the ice for two years, in a way that’s completely unthinkable now.
I realize that this observation is embryonic at best, but nevertheless I feel like there’s something there, an energy which people might touch on through extreme sports, or long backpacking trips, but which the modern world has made very difficult to access in its entirety.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
by: John Bartlett
Who should read this book?
If you have a mania for quotes (which sort of describes me) then this is the book. It’s also a good book to read a little of every day (Which is what I did. It took two years). For most everyone else it’s great as a reference.
I’m guessing you can imagine this book just based on what I’ve said so far, and I don’t have much to add to that. My one observation is that the quotes, which were arranged in chronological order by birth year of author, decreased in quality the closer that year got to the year it was published. Not only were many great quotes not included, many horrible quotes were. In particular the modern poetry they included was terrible, and from people I mostly hadn’t heard of (and I was an English major). It was a great example of the Lindy effect.
Of course I imagine you also want me to include some quotes, so here are a couple picked somewhat randomly from the pages with turned down corners:
Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man’s upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground floor.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
The science of life is a superb and dazzling lighted hall which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen.
By: John C. Wright
Who should read this book?
This is one of those books that takes place in the far future, and imagines what it might be like and what people might have done with technology. In particular, the changes in language and ideology that might accompany those changes. It reminded me of the Hyperion Cantos and the Quantum Thief. If any of that sounds good, this book might be for you.
The big challenge in a book like this is creating a believable setting while neither being too opaque nor too pedantic (i.e. long sections of explanatory exposition), and from the standpoint of setting Wright does an amazing job of this, but from the standpoint of plot it’s a little uneven. Some of the scenes felt disconnected from one another, and scenes of great importance sometimes didn’t carry that weight with them, but rather you realized they were important only later based on the reaction of the characters.
As usual it’s a series and at this point I probably will continue to read it, the writing and the setting were amazing, and perhaps if I read the rest of the trilogy the plot will be more satisfying as well.
How to Start Your Homeschool: What I Learned My First 5 Years
by: Taylia Clegg Bunker
As far as length, it’s kindle and short, maybe around 50?
Who should read this book?
I feel like anyone thinking of starting a homeschool, but having no idea where to start would find this to be a fantastic place to do just that.
This is a short book, but that’s part of its strength. It’s designed to be a non-intimidating first step. It’s length guarantees that it’s not intimidating and its content is perfectly designed for people taking that first, exploratory step. I really thought hard about homeschooling my kids, but in the end I didn’t (my youngest is now a senior) but if I had had this book I think I would have. It’s everything you need to feel confident about starting down the path, with links to all the places you’re going to want to go once you get a little deeper into the woods.
III- Religious Reviews
Destroying Their God: How I Fought My Evil Half-Brother to Save My Children
By: Wallace Jeffs (Author), Shauna Packer (Author), Sherry Taylor (Author)
Who should read this book?
If you’re curious about the inner workings of the FLDS church and in particular Warren Jeffs then this is a pretty good book for that. Particularly if you want an insider’s account.
This is a strange book, but then again the whole FLDS phenomenon is strange. The fact that it’s an inside account is both a pro and a con. It’s pro for all of the obvious reasons of providing stories and insight you might not be able to obtain anywhere else, but Wallace also obviously has an axe to grind which colors the account quite a bit. Now to be fair, the claim that people from the church messed with his brakes, almost killing him and putting him into a 45 day coma, seems credible, so it’s not like there’s no reason for his axe grinding, but it does complicate the narrative. And perhaps that’s the best way to describe the book, a very complicated narrative, that left me with almost more questions than answers.
Wallace Jeffs claims to have hated Warren Jeffs from the moment he set eyes on him. And the book is chock full of stories from their childhoods including Warren being a Hitler admirer. (Though I couldn’t find mention of anywhere else.) So far so normal, but then if this was all true, why did Wallace stay so dedicated to the church even after Warren was made prophet? Clearly there are some deeply interesting psychological phenomena going on there, in addition to the possibility that Wallace is exaggerating things, and I would have been more interested in examining things from that perspective. What keeps it going even after all the revelations? (I should mention that in order to describe Warren’s sins this book ends up in some pretty R-rated territory.) What kept Wallace in it for so long? How did the church not end up reaching the failure point of too few women for too many men earlier?
So yes, it was a very interesting book, but also a very strange one.
The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book
By: Neal A. Maxwell
Who should read this book?
If you like Neal A. Maxwell, you’ll like this book. If you don’t like him, or have never heard of him...
This was another book I read a little bit of each day this year. (There’s a couple more coming next month.) That’s probably the best way to read a book of quotes should you be inclined to do so.
For those who made it this far, and don’t know, Neal A. Maxwell was an Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and generally considered to be one of the most erudite as well. I’ll end with a couple of samples:
It is one of the ironies of religious history that many mortals err in their understanding of the nature of God and end up rejecting not the real God but their own erroneous and stereotypical image of God.
There is no detente with the devil. He knows that weak individuals make great dominoes. He knows that the collapse of individuals precedes the collapse of systems. This is how he has brought down senates and civilizations; he destroys societies by destroying individuals. We must build societies by building individuals—not the reverse.
If you think having a middle aged white man holding forth on the whole history of racial injustice on the basis of reading a few books is the kind of thing that should be allowed even if it’s not encouraged, consider donating.