Books I Finished in October
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Just like You by: Nick Hornby
Seven Types of Atheism by: John N. Gray
Why Not Parliamentarism? by: Tiago Ribeiro dos Santos
An Instinct for Dragons by: David E. Jones
Aristophanes: The Complete Plays by: Aristophanes Translated by: Paul Roche
Battle Ground by: Jim Butcher
October definitely felt like the calm before the storm. COVID numbers were rising everywhere, but with death’s lagging (and apparently a lower CFR in general) it was still possible to think that we could get through it without doing anything extraordinary. But as the numbers continued to remain high it became more and more apparent that something major would happen. Hospitals would eventually fill up, laws would be passed, things would close back down, etc.
And as if that weren’t bad enough there’s the election. I have obviously said quite a bit about it already, and I suspect following the “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation” maxim that we still have quite a bit of ruin left before things get truly apocalyptic (though I also think we’re still on a course towards that which is going to be hard to reverse) but our “ruin reserve”, even if it exists, doesn’t preclude all manner of short term black swans which could end up haunting our lives for quite a while. And the election certainly falls into the category of a short term black swan.
The former two paragraphs were written before election day, and since this is being posted after the election I thought I’d slip in my initial reaction to the last few days:
Even if Biden ends up winning, once again the polls and projections were very misleading. Note I didn’t say wrong. Perhaps when all is said and done, they will have been less wrong than they were in 2016. But just like 2016 I doubt that anyone will remember that “National polls ended up falling within the margin of error” when they remember 2020. And what will be even more memorable (or damning if you prefer) is the fact that both times they were wrong in the same direction.
The clearest example so far is Florida, 538 gave Biden a 69% chance of winning Florida with an expected 2.5% margin. In the end Trump won it by 3.3% and it’s not like Florida was sparsely polled or that no one paid attention to it. Also, remember that if the bias was random then in theory it should have been possible for it to have been wrong in either direction. Conceivably if Trump can win it by 3.3% then Biden could have won it by 5.8% and the whole thing would have been over by 9 pm on election night.
I think from the perspective of healing the nation and unifying the country we ended up with the worst possible outcome, a narrow one… And this is part of why I’m so annoyed at the polls. Once again we were promised a potential blow-out, something way more certain than 2016, and in fact the uncertainty people expressed in 2020 mostly only came about because they were so wrong in 2016. One imagines that If we hadn’t had the huge mistakes of 2016 to teach pollsters humility, the predictions about 2020 would have been even more fantastically wrong. As it was they were merely about same amount wrong as they were in 2016 and in the same direction. All of which feeds into the general impression held by Trump supporters that the system is rigged, which is one part of the fuel feeding the fire which is gradually consuming us.
I- Eschatological Reviews
By: Geoffrey West
Who should read this book?
I’ve tried to be better recently about taking notes, and tagging them into categories for later retrieval. One of my categories is “This Explains Everything” which I apply to books and other theories which seek to explain why the world is the way it is. This is one of those books, and if you’re looking for grand theories, and in this case even math, which can be used to explain the world, this is a great book for that. West does an admirable job of connecting biological rules for scaling, which were interesting all on their own, to a large number of things, including, most notably, cities and companies.
I had really hoped that as part of his discussion of scale that he would end up explaining how scaling works with respect to nations and governments. Give something of a mathematical basis for the principle of subsidiarity, or at least some analysis of what the tradeoffs are between larger and smaller governments. Unfortunately the book did not end up going in this direction, which was too bad. I think it was a missed opportunity. That said it was still pretty thought provoking. To begin with here are some interesting bits of trivia that I thought were worth passing along:
Once the generalized growth of the entire market is factored out (which I assume is different than inflation) all large mature companies have stopped growing. (Understandably “mature” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.)
History is full of examples where someone successfully tweaked something by 5% in some direction. And also numerous examples of where they tried to change it by 30% or 40% and it ended in disaster.
On average our bodies go through 170 lbs of ATP every day. Obviously it’s not all in existence at the same time.
For those people interested in immortality, it should be noted that entirely eliminating heart disease would only increase average life expectancy by six years, and entirely eliminating cancer would only increase it by three.
Unlike animals, companies, and countries, cities apparently last forever.
Following from that last point, it’s interesting to speculate if the combination of the internet, virtual meetings and COVID might finally put an end to that. Certainly James Altucher has argued that New York is done. As they say, “Big if true.”
Finally, something that requires a little bit of backstory. A month or so ago I was listening to an episode of the Podcast Radiolab that was all about fungal infections, and as part of the discussion they brought up that fungi can’t stand heat, so one huge advantage mammals have, dating back all the way to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, is that being warm-blooded makes them mostly immune to fungal infections. But obviously maintaining a temperature higher than that of your surroundings requires calories, accordingly it would be inefficient to maintain a higher core temperature than was necessary. And so some scientists ran the numbers looking for the sweet spot where calories were minimized and fungal protection was maximized and found out that the perfect balance was… wait for it… 98.6 degrees! Which honestly seems too good to be true and I want to dig into that some more before I fully believe it, but then, in this book, West mentions that If our body temperature was cooler we’d live longer, which tied into his discussion about life spans (and relates to scale because bigger mammals live longer).
As an inveterate pessimist, I can just imagine that one of the things people will try to do to extend life spans is reduce body temperature, either unaware of the danger from fungi, or thinking that the danger is manageable, and indeed whether it’s related to human intervention or not, our average temperature has been falling for quite awhile. This has recently led to a big increase in fungal infections, which was one of the main points of the Radiolab episode.
Like many of the books I review this book ended up making some predictions about the future. As I already mentioned West contends that cities don’t die, and that as they grow bigger they bring numerous advantages. Particularly in the realm of innovation. But they also bring about various disadvantages. Innovation comes with a cost. Some of these costs appear relatively mild, like an increased pace of life, or lowered trust among members of the community. Others are obviously bad, like an increase in crime. But increasingly even those costs which appear to be mild initially, are blamed for causing a greater and greater share of the ills of the world. In fact it might even be argued that the internet could be viewed as something of a giant city, with yes, far greater innovation, but also much lower trust, higher crime and something which results, inevitably, in lives which are ever more frenetic. To put things in more general terms, it’s unclear whether the advantages “scale” faster than the disadvantages, nor is there any reason why they necessarily should.
At the same time I was reading this book I was working through a long essay on cultural evolution. The first full post from Sachin Maini’s newsletter Living Ideas. And it provided an interesting counterpoint to some of the points being made by Scale. Maini’s post was all about the importance of cultural evolution, going back tens of thousands of years. And in essence, when West is talking about innovation he’s talking about speeding up cultural evolution. But as I pointed out, the last time I discussed the rate of cultural evolution, greater speed, particularly if it’s coupled with greater conformity, is not necessarily a good thing. Maini pointed out that if you have too few people collaborating you can end up with negative innovation. That you can actually go backwards as was the case with the Tasmanians. West examines what happens if you just keep increasing the number of people collaborating and the speed at which they can do so.
On the one hand if things go well, then the terminal point would appear to be something similar to what was described by Robin Hanson in his book The Age of Em. Where sped up emulated minds cluster in server-farm cities and experience hundreds of years for every actual year. Or in other words taking the features and advantages of a city and scaling them up essentially to infinity. On the other hand, things don’t actually scale to infinity very well. Generally they hit some sort of bottleneck. West recognizes this (and in fact frequently mentions Malthus in this context) and posits that the bottleneck might be energy, and as I’ve pointed out, our energy usage can’t scale exponentially forever. But these days it seems more likely that it might be trust, or social cohesion, or some other thing that gets worse as the environment for innovation gets better.
In the end, one of the central themes of the book is that when it comes to biology there are limits to how big things can get. Presumably, over the billions of years life has been evolving, bigger things have been “tried” only to eventually fail. Presumably something similar might also be true with respect to cultural evolution, that things can only get so big, or so fast, or so connected. I guess we’ll find out.
II- Capsule Reviews
By: Pankaj Mishra
Who should read this book?
It is said that history is written by the victors, this book attempts to reverse that trend, and tell the history of the Middle and Far East from the perspective of those who were colonized and humiliated by the West, particularly in the 19th century. If that sounds appealing this is a pretty good book.
I always had a sense that the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in which the Japanese fleet all but obliterated the Russian fleet, was a big deal, but I confess I had always viewed it from a Western perspective. As a demonstration of the decline and decadence of Russia rather than the arrival of Japan. Of course I have the benefit of knowing how well the Japanese navy fought in World War II, so the idea that they might come off the victor in a naval battle a few decades before that doesn’t seem particularly surprising. And, I also know what happened to Russian in World War I, so their defeat a few years beforehand is also unsurprising. Finally, I’ve always felt that there’s something darkly comic about the Russian Fleet travelling 18,000 nautical miles only to suffer one of the worst losses in the history of naval warfare. An outcome that seems all but foreordained to anyone familiar with Murphy’s Law. In any case, however it was viewed by me or the larger Western world it was a very big deal in the East, and Mishra uses it to open the book. Claiming that it was the first time the many countries subject to European colonization and domination thought that they might be able to throw off their yoke. That this battle marks the start of the East asserting itself and stepping into the modern world.
In using the phrase “stepping into the modern world” I am aware that I’m over-simplifying a very complex project and doing so from essentially a Western point of view. What constitutes the modern world? Is that what the people in the book were trying to do? (Certainly it wasn’t really Gandhi's goal.) Is the modern world inherently a secular one? Does it have to take the same form it does in the west, i.e. liberal democracy in the mold of what Fukuyama keeps talking about? Etc. To be fair the book does lend support to Fukuyama’s idea about it being necessary to wage modern war. But it also lends support to the idea that people in the East were also trying to do something different and better.
It’s clear that they were envious for a very long time of Western technology and military prowess, and most of the people Mishra profiles start off wanting to emulate the enlightenment, but eventually, and without exception, at some point they all end up talking about the moral bankruptcy of the West, and it’s lack of spirituality. In other words the history Misthra tells contains numerous intellectual currents and inevitably lots of contradictions, some of which he acknowledges and some of which he seems to ignore.
As a more concrete example the book is full of references to racism, from mentions of social darwinism, to the perpetual feelings of superiority possessed by the white Europeans, to efforts by the countries discussed to enshrine racial equality, the most famous of which is Japan’s efforts to get it included in the charter of the League of Nations. But while Mishra wants to make it look like the Japanese and others were way ahead of the curve on anti-racism, the events of World War II (and even these countries current policy on immigration) would show that the nations of the east could be and were just as racist as the Europeans, and arguably, particularly at this point, moreso.
As a final note, this is not the only way that the book goes too far in it’s Eastern apologetics. Arguably the most glaring oversights in the book are the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, which rates just a sentence in the book. And the Armenian Genocide, which also get’s just one sentence and is described in the book merely as “an act that later invited accusations of genocide”.
It’s important to read things from the “other side” of history, but finding something truly unbiased is really hard.
By: Nick Hornby
Who should read this book?
People who like Nick Hornby? I wouldn’t start with this book if it’s going to be your first by him, but if you’ve read other stuff by Hornby and enjoyed it you’ll probably enjoy this one.
This is the fifth Nick Hornby book I’ve read, and there’s a reason that they keep getting made into movies. He’s a great writer who tells engaging stories. This book was no exception, though it had one big issue. It was trying very hard to be socially conscious, and dare I say, politically correct, perhaps even woke? Now this is not a bad thing, it is in fact one of the great things literature can do, but particularly when you’re writing about something so current, there’s a real danger of laying it on to thick, and in Just Like You it felt like the politically progressive angle was always right on the edge of overwhelming the story. And probably actually crossed over the edge on a few occasions. Even if you were to end up disagreeing with me on this, at a bare minimum I still think you would find it to be distracting.
To give you just a brief taste of what I mean, it’s about a romance between an older educated white woman, and a young black man with dreams of being a DJ. It includes racial profiling by police, ackward dinner parties where the idea of “privledge” is front and center, and if all that wasn’t enough, the whole thing takes place in the shadow of Brexit, which ends up being almost as important to the plot as the romance itself.
By: John N. Gray
Who should read this book?
I think anyone interested in atheism, either as an opponent or a practitioner would find this book to be very useful. In particular just knowing that the militant new atheism that has gotten the most attention recently is just one type out of seven proves to be very illuminating.
As I was getting ready to write this review I checked over at Goodreads to see what others had said about it. One of the reviewers mentioned that he had the sneaking suspicion that Gray wrote the book “entirely out of irritation with the 'New Atheists'.” Which is the impression I got as well. Not only does he lead with that version of atheism, but he draws attention to the fact that once he’s done talking about it, he’s never going to mention it again.
Lest the new atheists feel uniquely targeted, Gray goes on to mention that he disagrees with the first five of the the seven types he covers, and he labels these five as negative atheism, only being partial to the last two, which he defines as positive atheism. It’s interesting that he should single out the last two, because while all seven categories have significant overlap, and some fuzziness in how they’re defined, the last two are the worst of all. In part this comes from Gray’s definition of an atheist:
Anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.
This definition admits the possibility of something supernatural but less focused and with no intentionality. And of course this could end up resulting in some very fuzzy atheism, but it still feels odd to me that some of the types should be so difficult to pin down, particularly since most atheists (as far as I can tell) gravitate to it because they feel it simplifies things, but the types of atheism Gray is most drawn to are the ones which end up being the most complicated. Which takes us to a brief description of each the seven types:
New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. Basically the people who think religion sucks and is a relic of a primitive past.
Secular Humanism: Gray makes the point that this form of atheism is almost entirely reliant on Christian morality, and as a result has a hard time justifying its morality without that foundation.
Faith in Science: Gray mostly brings up stuff like eugenics to show that science frequently or perhaps mostly doesn’t deserve our faith.
Modern Political Religions: Think communism, nazis, etc. I assume that atheists don’t like being lumped in with nazis even if communism was explicitly atheistic, but what Gray mostly seems to be talking about is substituting politics for religion, which is a caution more people might need to hear these days.
God-Haters: Certainly there are people who are outright nihilists who hate the world, who think that freedom is a curse, etc. But they’re pretty rare. Still it’s totally fair to include them as a type, but their importance and numbers should not be overstated
Atheism without progress: As I said this one was kind of fuzzy. He seemed to be talking about religion as a valuable social construct, even if there is no “divine mind”, an opinion I can definitely get behind, but he also seemed to be saying that if you assume that there is some sort of implacable drive for progress, some utopia we’ll eventually reach, that you can’t be this type of atheist…
Mystical Atheism? (which is my title, he labeled this type “The Atheism of Silence”): Again the exact specifics were fuzzy, but he includes in this category Spinozian pantheism (God is the sum total of everything in existence.) And I guess he would probably include James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis in here as well?
Who should read this book?
Really hardcore political science junkies. I mean really hardcore.
This book makes the case for the superiority of parliamentary forms of democracy over presidential ones. Which seems particularly appropriate right at the moment. In fact I think it’s an idea I’d like to spend a whole post on, not that I think that there’s any chance of the US transitioning to a parliamentary system, at least not without something truly unprecedented happening, but as part of a general overview of different potential political systems which might be better than the chaos we’re experiencing I think tossing it into the discussion could be very interesting.
As far as this book goes, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been less technical and data heavy and more philosophical. Obviously data is nice, and he makes a pretty strong case that parliamentary systems achieve better outcomes, but the problem with this approach is twofold. First we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have anywhere near a sufficient amount of data to make some kind of firm evidentiary claim. Dos Santos hasn’t proved anything, he’s just suggested a lot of possible connections. Second, any potential shift is not going to be accomplished because people have looked at a bunch of numbers, it’s going to happen when they sense that a parliamentary system is the answer to the problems they’re having. Consequently he could have done with a lot more real world examples. Like, under a parliamentary system this person probably wouldn’t have been the leader, or they wouldn’t have been able to do this thing you didn’t like, or, speaking to the present moment, this election would have been far less chaotic.
By: David E. Jones
Who should read this book?
If an examination of why dragons are present in every culture sounds appealing, or if you’re otherwise into cryptozoology, you’ll probably enjoy this book.
As just mentioned this book is all about answering the question of why dragons appear in every culture no matter how much time and space separates them. The answer to the question is given fairly early on, and then the rest of the book is spent defending that answer, so it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal it. Essentially Jones hypothesizes that the dragon is a composite of the three major predators early hominids and primates had to deal with, namely raptors, snakes and big cats.
The idea is fairly interesting, but Jones takes a strange path with it, at times being very mythic and at times very scientific, though seemingly refusing to go too far in either direction. On the mythic side he gets positively jungian in drawing on the collective unconscious, and also includes relatively modern accounts of giant sea serpents, but if he wanted to go full mythic he could have used such accounts and the many others out there to claim they actually existed. It’s probably good that he didn’t make such a claim, but he gets pretty close.
On the scientific side Jones brings in studies of infant and primate fear responses to buttress his claims for the primacy of the three predators that form the basis of his theory. He further attempts to pull in various neurological concepts to explain the space saving measures which lead to the three predators being collapsed into one. But then the next logical step would seem to be showing pictures of dragons to babies, apes and monkeys to see if they exhibited the same fear response to the dragon as they did to the other predators. And perhaps he didn’t have the money to do his own research, or perhaps it would be difficult to do the experiment using just pictures, but it feels like he could have done a lot more to test his hypothesis.
Beyond all of the above I had a couple of other issues. First, he didn’t spend very much effort at all rebutting the theory that dinosaur bones provided the basis for legends about dragons. He was aware of it, and it was mentioned in the book, but the few times it came up Jones was pretty dismissive. Second he put a lot of effort into showing that dragons were ubiquitous in both time and space, but then does very little with how the dragon is portrayed today, the huge volume of fantasy literature, or the vast popularity of the the game Dungeons and Dragons (of which I myself am a partaker).
It was a very interesting premise, but the execution could have been a lot better.
Who should read this book?
This was next on the list of great books I’ve been working through. If you have a similar list it might be next on your list as well. I will say that I’m less of a fan of Aristophanes than I have been of previous authors. But I’ll get to that.
In deciding what classic books to read I’ve been following the Harold Bloom list from the Western Canon. It has never been my intention to read everything on the list, (the man was an classics machine) and as such I didn’t read every extant play, as I had with the tragedies, but rather just the ones on the list:
The Birds; The Clouds; The Frogs; Lysistrata; The Knights; The Wasps; The Assemblywomen.
In part this is because I realized that I’m going to die long before I finish if I don’t pick up the past a bit, and in part this is because I just don’t like the comedies as much. At least for me the tragedies seem timeless while the comedies seem very specific to a certain place and time, with most humor either being so foreign as to be of only academic interest or alternatively, the kind of thing you might hear in a junior high locker room. (I lost count of the number of jokes about erections, homosexuality and defecation.) To be clear it was fascinating to see how many of these jokes there were, and I really appreciated this translation, which went out of it’s way to clearly present these jokes but also to put them in the common vernacular (there were many f-bombs as they say).
As far as whether you should read them, I think I have a much clearer picture of ancient Athens, which is good. But on the other hand, I can’t really say I liked any of these plays.
By: Jim Butcher
Who should read this book?
You might recall that I read the book just before this one in the series back in August. And I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine that you would read it if you hadn’t read the previous 15. That statement is even more true because now there’s 16 previous books, and this book is essentially part 2 of Peace Talks, the book I read in August.
As I read this book I think I hit on why I find the series increasingly annoying. It’s very melodramatic, and my sense is that the melodrama has increasingly crowded out the humor that used to be a hallmark of the series. Which is not to say that he doesn’t still include some bits of humor, but they often fall flat because they end up being surrounded by ponderous statements, about the stakes of the conflict, the tragedy of the deaths, or the courageous sacrifice someone just made. And all of it delivered (and this may be a problem unique to the audiobook) with a grave and overwrought sentimentality. On top of that, or perhaps because of it, I find that I like Harry Dresden less and less. He’s always been hard-headed, but as time goes on it seems less rational and more just a way of making circumstances within the book more difficult and annoying.
As a result of this I very nearly put the book down (metaphorically, as I said I was listening to the audio version). But part of me didn’t want to get into the habit of stopping books (which ended up happening last month, though in reality I probably should do a lot more of it) and part of me did want to know what was going to happen. In the end I was glad I continued, the coolest part came right after the moment I most seriously considered stopping, and it redeemed the book. But I don’t know that it redeemed the series. I suspect this will be the last Dresden book I read.
It may be the last Dresden book I read, but it certainly won’t be the last book I read. I’m going to keep reading and keep reviewing, and if you appreciate it, consider donating. Or just drop me a line at wearenotsaved [at] gmail [dot] com.