Monday, December 31, 2018

Books Read - Q4 2018

Read 29 books in Q4. See the Q1 (24), Q2 (26), and Q3 (34) lists. Total of 113 for 2018!

  • The Dark Forest (4/5) Sequel to Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, contains his axioms of cosmic sociology. "Survival is the primary need of civilization. Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant." The result: "The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful because in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life - another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod - there's only on thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It's the explanation for the Fermi Paradox." It is scary how good Chinese science fiction is - while this guy is an award winning western science fiction author. Also, be aware that the Chinese have a grudge against the west.
  • Hillbilly Elegy (2.5/5) I wonder why this became so popular? The message of the book is that Appalachian whites are totally hopeless. It is true that they behave very differently than Germanic or Scandinavian whites (e.g. Minnesota and Wisconsin, see Sailer): more violent and less future oriented. But rural whites would be doing much better if the country had not been deliberately deindustrialized. All the more reason for Trump's tariff program. The problem is that for reindustrialization to occur, tariffs would need to be perceived as permanent, and Trump will be gone after one term. (Also, Trump is not smart enough to win Oval Office debates about this against his globalist staffers.) So, the 2019 crash will be blamed on Trump (because he was desperate to claim credit for the final years of bubble), and therefore blamed on populism and nationalism.
  • A Sense of Where You Are (4/5) One of McPhee's earlier profiles, on Bill Bradley as basketball player. From Wikipedia: "Bradley's basketball ability benefited from his height—5'9" in the 7th grade, 6'1" in the 8th grade, and his adult size of 6'5" by the age of 15 - and unusually wide peripheral vision." After Princeton basketball, he played in the NBA, then was a senator for New Jersey, and challenged Al Gore in the 2000 primary - from the left. Hasn't been seen since. Every McPhee piece of writing is an investment in a certain topic, and when the subject vanishes from the earth (like Thomas P. F. Hoving), it must hurt the back catalog sales.
  • The Geese of Beaver Bog (3/5) Continuation of the Bernd Heinrich natural historian approach to birding: watching local species throughout their lives, over multiple seasons - in this case geese. In this book he is living in the Vermont woods. Summary: "Geese do not, contrary to myth, mate for life. They are wedded to place, not to individual partners. Each year they return to the breeding area they know best, and a battle ensues for the right of parentage. Each large area that provides appropriate safety and food for the vulnerable three-week nesting period is permitted only one, or occasionally two, breeding pairs." Territory is life. He mentions Lorenz: "Given the specificity of adaptation, hybridization would break up genetic coherence and result in harm of the species."
  • The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (4.5/5) Never really understood Nietzsche until H.L. Mencken explained it here - consistent with our "old books are better books" program. "Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins."
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution (3/5) An interesting story here is the decline of the "gentleman" as a man who could afford to live solely off of capital. John Adams: "Leisure for study must ever be the portion of a few." This was something that colonial Americans aspired to but which was only tenuously possible here. "From the beginning of the eighteenth century a number of thinkers had attempted to reconcile the astonishing growth of English commerce with traditional notions of gentility." Now the word "gentleman" is meaningless. Also, America was more liberal than Britain: "on the eve of the Revolution the crown instructed its governors to veto all colonial efforts to liberalize the divorce laws." Mentions that the term "waiter" was adopted in the late 18th century because white servants preferred that term.
  • The Best American Travel Writing 2004 (3/5) The best pieces were The Accidental Explorer's Guide to Patagonia by Tim Cahill, Chasing the Wall by Peter Hessler, and A Fleet of One by John McPhee. Here is a Stanford travel writing syllabus that agrees with these picks. Also Tim Cahill explored Patagonia with EarthRiver which is still in business doing those types of trips. Looks like he's written eight travel books.
  • Without Remorse (3/5) This was Tom Clancy's seventh novel. I would say his best are The Hunt for Red October and The Sum of All Fears. According to Wikipedia, Clancy started working on Without Remorse in 1971, abandoned it, and went back to the finish it in 1992. As with The Man Who Walked Through Time, it is a bit suspicious when a book sits on the writing table unfinished for a long time. Also amusing is that the book has been in film development limbo for the past 25 years, and Keanu Reeves was offered the role but turned it down. Imagine the timeline where Keanu made Without Remorse instead of Speed!
  • Travels With Samantha (3.5/5) By Phil G who often appears in our Links. He drove a minivan from Boston to Anchorage and back in the summer of 1993. You can't see the full route he took in the cool fold-out map leaves (why Phil?!) but it was close to 12,000 miles. [My conclusion is that driving to Alaska was a mistake - people do it because they can't comprehend how far away it is.] On the trip, he mostly slept in tents or at people's houses (he was a grad student at the time). He thought schoolteachers were the happiest people he met on the road (they had the best balance of time and money for travel). [My observation is that most of the people at places like the Grand Canyon are either early 20s or late 50s/60s empty nesters. Few people in the prime of life are having any fun.] In MN: "St. Paul is Minneapolis's plain sister." He mentions that Saulk Center, MN celebrates Sinclair Lewis even though the Nobel Prizewinner's novel mocks the town. He said that Edmonton was "Houston without the charm". He thought that eastern Washington was more backward than Alaska. [Which reminds me, the Great Basin is a fascinating place.] He did the crazy Slickrock mountain biking in Moab and mentions an interesting sounding Black Canyon at Gunnison National Monument which drops four times as much per mile as the Grand Canyon. He suggests reading Arctic Dreams and Remains of the Day. When he gets back to MIT, his ending thoughts were to "be a tourist in your own city" and encountering a typical Cambridge type, said "If tolerance was good in her feminist-liberal worldview, why was she upset with me for not hating my fellow Americans?" My thinking on road trips is that if there's an area you want to explore, fly there and rent a car. 
  • The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 (3.5/5) Best pieces were: Fish Out of Water by Ian Frazier about the Asian-carp invasion; Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science by David H. Freedman about Dr. John Ioannidis; Letting Go by Atul Gawande; The Treatment by Malcolm Gladwell; Waste MGMT by Evan Schwartz; and The Killer in the Pool by Tim Zimmerman. It has been surprising how low the hit rate of really good essays are in these Best books. The pieces in our CBS weekly Links are of much higher average quality.
  • Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (3/5) In 2006 Paul Theroux repeated his journey from thirty years earlier of The Great Railway Bazaar. "Purgatorial as a national crisis is for a traveler, it is preferable to public holidays, which are hell: no one working, shops and schools closed, natives eating ice cream, public transport jammed, and the stranger's sense of being excluded from the merriment - from everything." He says about India: "'The Indian miracle was a boasting rant in every Western newspaper and magazine, but on the evidence of Amritsar this assertion was a crock, not just a joke in bad taste but the cruelest satire. It seemed to be that little had changed except the size of the population, an unfeedable, unhousable, uncontainable 1.3 billion people..." "The landscape and the lifestyle of rural Cambodia were, and still are, closer to Africa than China." "The remotest parts of Russia - the farthest from Moscow - are easily accessible from Japan." 
  • The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (3.5/5) Simon Winchester's verbosity is almost unbearable at times, but he picks excellent subjects, which is half the battle of being a nonfiction writer. Unexpectedly, in addition to being a history of geology this is also partially a history of the decline in educated people's religious belief. For example, fossils were first thought to be lapides sui generis ("stones unto themselves"), created to "reinforce in humankind's collective mind the omnipotence and imaginative beneficence of God". However, this view ran into trouble when people started to notice that the fossils represented animals and plants that no longer existed. How could parts of Creation go extinct? Winchester's view is that "for the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obesiance to religious teaching and dogma..." Geologists as big walkers theme - "a trek of fifth miles seemed to Smith no more than a casual stroll". Great quote - "The Mearns Pit at High Littleton has a standing in the history of geology that is comparable to the one that Gregor Mendel's Moravian pea garden has in the science of genetics, the Galapagos Islands in evolutionary theory, and the University of Chicago football stadium in the story of nuclear fission." The protagonist and "first geologist" William Smith was a canal and mining engineer who invented stratigraphy based on the identification of fossils. Unfortunately he had immense difficulty shipping work (maps, papers) which reminds us of Audubon. So much difficulty that he ended up in debtor's prison briefly! Reminds us of this thought: "it's a very bad sign to have a lot of projects that are '90% complete'". Another interesting idea is the Earl of Leicester who took over farming when one tenant did not renew his lease. He has a lot of fun experimenting with new soils and fertilizers, crossbreeding sheep and pigs - all part of the beginning of the British Agricultural Revolution.
  • The Worst Poverty: A History of Debt and Debtors (3/5) Speaking of debtors' prisons - this is very informative on the history of how debtors were treated from the middle ages through present (but only in the U.K.). One reason for debtors' prisons was that English law "showed a mercy to house and land which they denied to flesh and blood": "If the English creditor has not taken his knife with Shylock or the old Roman usurer, he has wielded a scarcely less formidable machinery of bolts and bars. Engines of infliction he had in plenty, degradation and confinement for all, and starvation besides for the truly insolvent debtor. But the misfortune always was, he was yet without that for which all these instruments of evil were given him - a remedy." So realty was protected but debtors' persons were not - creditors could have debtors arrested and detained before even getting a judgment against them! Thus, "powers of vexation instead of powers of sale". Funny: "Among the creditors of the gentleman prisoner are always to be found a greater or less number of tailors. His tailor's bill is often indeed the largest individual claim against him." In 1793, Lord Kenyon had said, "Imprisonment for debt is virtually a part of the British Constitution, and without that, or some other strong mode to compel justice to be done to the creditor, our trade, commerce, and in short, the source of all our wealth, must soon be destroyed." But imprisonment for debt ended finally in 1869. Also: "It is the misfortune of many other gentlemen to turn out of the seats of their ancestors to make way for such new masters as have been more exact in their accounts than themselves." At the end of the 16th C, "moneylending was on the way to enjoy the legal security of recognised and reputable profession. Naturalistic political arithmetic was set in place of theology - part of a revolution that turned religion from the master interest of mankind into one department of life with boundaries which it was extravagant to overstep." Hilarious story about a noble who was three years behind on his wine merchant's bill. When the wine merchant threatened legal action, the noble's butler wrote to say that he was so dismayed by the amount due that he would need a case of the merchant's best brandy before he could recover.
  • Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight (3/5) William Langewiesche is the son of the author of Stick and Rudder, and went into a career writing about transportation disasters. He gets called by Atlantic or Vanity Fair if a ship sinks or a plane crashes. In Q2 we read his book about the "stubbornly anarchic" world of ocean shipping. One part is the early history of instrument flying: "Those veterans [who] kept insisting they could fly by the seat of their pants, and they thought less of those who could not. Their self-deception now seems all the more profound because the solution - a gyroscope adapted to flying - was already widely available." "The sense of accelerating into a turn is the same as that of decelerating from the opposite turn. Here at last was the explanation for the persistence of so much confusion and death." The gyroscope for aviation was invented by Elmer A Sperry and it was "like cutting a porthole through the fog to look at the real horizon." The "gyro" in gyroscope and in gyros meat both refer to "turning" or "rotation"! Also, "William Ocker was giving birth to modern instrument flying. He had discovered the most disturbing limitation of human flight - that instinct is worse than useless in the clouds, that it can induce deadly spirals, and that as a result having gyroscopes is not enough, that pilots must learn against all contradictory sensations the difficult discipline of an absolute belief in their instruments." The dark ages of weather forecasting based on pattern recognition: "they called it the 'analog approach' but might more honestly have called it educated guesswork. The results were poor for the obvious reason that no two storms are ever the same. A weather pattern today that looks like one last year will become something quite different by tomorrow."
  • Lying for Money (3/5) New this summer by British author Dan Davies. He divides white collar crime into four categories: the "long firm" (basically a bust-out), counterfeiting / forgery, control fraud (and distributed control fraud), and then "market crimes". His idea is that fraud is an "equilibrium phenomenon" - basically positing that people will substitute trust for precautions until the expected fraud loss begins to exceed the cost of precautions. The problem with this is that is does not explain the really easy to detect, but undetected, frauds that we have seen like Theranos and Madoff, either of which could have been detected with high agency guesstimation or dimensional analysis type checks. (See Q2 reviews for more on those important mental tools.) It actually seems to me that most people are only capable of believing some sort of average of what the people around them believe. (Maybe that saves the simulation a lot of processing power on the simulated non-player characters?) So to them, if Elizabeth Holmes is getting magazine covers it would be utterly unthinkable to actually try her testing device (even for n=1 sample) before sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into a business partnership with her. Davies has nothing useful to say about the social dynamics (or possible social mood causes) of these lapses in diligence. He also does not observe (as Glenn Chan or I have) that a lot of smart psychopaths are getting away with business fraud. See my review of Financial Shenanigans last quarter - "the more stupid investors in the market (who do not read financial statements), the bigger the advantage in cost of capital that crooks have over honest people. Perhaps this is why there is so much fraud at the top of economic cycles." The tales that Davies highlights are the comically incompetent frauds like Ponzi. He does point out that fraudsters try to "find a new and incredibly rich mug to defraud, and sell the control fraud's assets at a premium to the fraudulent valuation, making the original victims whole" which reminds me of Musk's plan to sell to the Saudis. Another good point is that "anything which is growing unusually quickly needs to be checked out, and it needs to be checked out in a way that it hasn't been checked before." "Nearly all of the frauds in this book could have been stopped a lot earlier if people had been a bit more cynical about growth."
  • The Patch (5/5) John McPhee's latest: a collection of bits of his writing over the past 60 years, previously published in magazines but not in books - going all the way back to his Time magazine celebrity profiles from the 50s and 60s, where he got his start. The "patch" refers to a patch of lily pads where he would fish for chain pickerel and also to the patchwork quilt of the small excerpts. "Detonations of knowledge" as his profiler said. Some of these excerpts are so good you hate to imagine them not making it into print. He gives an explanation for his "congenital opacity to birds." The erosion of the granite rollers in the Hershey's chocolate conching machines. Bill Tierney leaving Princeton to coach lacrosse at Denver, "in every respect, including geography, a spectacular jump downscale." McPhee is going to be 88 in March. 
  • Arctic Dreams (3/5) We've read McPhee on hyperborea, now it's time for Barry Lopez: "This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration. In a simple bow from the waist before the nest of the horned lark, you are able to stake your life, again, in what you dream." Trees in the Arctic: "A cross-section of the bole of a Richardson willow no thicker than your finger may reveal 200 annual growth rings... Much of the tundra appears to be treeless when, in many places, it is actually covered with trees - a thick matting of ancient willows and birches. You suddenly realize that you are wandering around on top of a forest." Niche space: "These Tununiarusirmut men... knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what made them happy, what gave them a sense of satisfaction, of wealth. An abundance of animals." He says that the Bering Strait is a paradise for bird watchers. Audubon: "all wildlife that live in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the summer months funnel through the Bering Strait twice each year". Mentions the diary of an Arctic ship captain (from the age of sail) trying to navigate through a day of dangerous squeezing ice: "I did the heaviest smoking of my life. I smoked twenty-two cigars and numerous pipes, and I had coffee brought to me every hour. I don't know whether it was the tobacco or the coffee that brought us through, but we made it with no damage." The original nootropics! Mentions William Parry's drawings of solar arcs and halos. Also about niches: "The itineraries of arctic animals are not obvious. [...] The land in some places is truly empty; in other places it is only apparently empty. To those who had no interest in the movement of animals, the entire region seemed empty. They could not grasp a crucial fact - semi-nomadic people living here in such small numbers were an indication that the animals themselves moved around. Either the animals did not stay very long in one place, or there were not very many of them to begin with, or they were very hard to kill. Or there would be more people, living in more permanent dwellings. The land was not empty, but it teemed with animals that would sustain men only in a certain, very limited way." Only tiny portions of the Earth's surface are habitable, and these are now desperately crowded.
  • Levels of the Game (2/5) This is my new least favorite McPhee. It is a joint profile of Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, centered around the tennis match they played at Forest Hills in 1968. How to structure a story like that is a major interest of McPhee in the art of literary nonfiction. Ashe died young and Graebner retired more than 40 years ago. Both are well on their way to being entirely forgotten.
  • A Burglar's Guide to the City (3/5) Written by Geoff Manaugh, who has appeared in the Links. This was not as good as Where the Money Is, about bank robberies and heists in Los Angeles during the 80s/90s bank robbery renaissance. Some of these heists and robberies are done by incredibly high agency, clever, intelligent people. (Remember The Great Train Robbery from the second quarter.) That type of person probably just goes where the opportunities are. In a bubble it is cryptocurrency startups, but in a recession it will be something dangerous or harmful like robbing banks or being a revolutionary. This is why elite overproduction is a threat to the ruling elite. It really seems as though the current globalist elites are desperately using bubbles to cope with that problem, which is why we have had three bubbles in twenty years. Other lesson: burglars don't go through doors! "[Doors] are a distraction and a trap. By comparison, the wall itself is often more like tissue paper, just drywall and some two-by-fours... Like clouds, apartment walls are mostly air; seen through a burglar's eyes, they aren't even there."
  • Eiger Dreams (4/5) I forgot that Jon Krakauer is a great writer. This is a collection of mountaineering essays for magazines from the 80s, a solid decade before he wrote Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. This is his golden age, and the problem is that after this he went off the rails with some really boring and then politically correct topics: a book about a suicidal GenX'r who dies in the Alaska wilderness, a book about Pat Tillman, a book about "a white college football team with rape scandals", a book about kooky Mormon Fundamentalist communities as though they are some big problem. So, only Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air are worthwhile  - and they are the only ones that have been translated into German! Regarding mountaineering: you could climb 20,310' Mt. McKinley, but should you? The "Type A" variety of high agency people can fall into a trap where they do something simply because it is hard and unpleasant. So the highest peak in North America and third most topographically prominent on Earth hijacks the "success center" in their minds. Climbing McKinley costs ~$10k, takes three weeks, is crowded and dirty (Krakauer lamented in the 80s!), and runs serious risks like falling, avalanche, and altitude related injury. (It's also easy to fail to summit.) Climbing at extremely high altitude may as dumb as scuba diving. Here's an experienced climber whose friend died on Mt Shasta (only 14k'!) in California. While it would be fun to accomplish, an economist remembers that every human action competes with the universe of other potential actions. With $10k and three weeks, you could do some serious exploration of Japan, including an inn-to-inn hike between onsen with hot spring soaks and Japanese cuisine. You could live like a king for 10 days of skiing in Utah or Colorado.  
  • Silent Coup (3/5) "We are witnessing the classically American genus of the coup d'état, achieved by folly as well as cunning, by commercial calculus, and by public relations, by both the manipulation of institutions and their own craven abdication, by cold intention and no little inadvertence, and - perhaps most essentially - at no sacrifice of the popular mythology. (A distinguishing mark of the American coup is that it should remain concealed from its victims and history even after its successful execution.)" Gary North has raised two good questions about Watergate that are still unanswered: "Historians have never figured out why somebody on Nixon's staff ordered the break-in. What in the world did this person have in mind? What did he expect to discover in the Democratic Party National Committee's headquarters?" and also "How did the government know which sections of the infamous Watergate tapes to demand from Nixon and his lawyers?"
  • Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism (4/5) Even more extreme than Kondo! Minimalism is good for aesthetic reasons (see 1,2,3) but I have realized there is more too it than that: minimalism is also about focus. There are only so many things that you can do - time is extremely limited. (That's why spending three weeks camping in an ice field in order to try to climb a 20k foot mountain may not make sense.) Extraneous stuff crowds out what is important. These days I get rid of all books after I read them, unless I specifically want to read them again someday. If a book is worthwhile, share it with a friend. If it's not, sell it or throw it away. Minimalism is good practice for overcoming the sunk cost fallacy.
  • Khrushchev Remembers (2/5) This was billed as Soviet premier Khrushchev's frank memoir, supposedly dictated by him onto tapes after he was removed from power in 1964, and smuggled to the west for publication. But reading it, I started to notice that - as the New York Times said of the book in 1971 - "it would take a small book to list the omissions, distortions and plain mistakes". He deflects all blame for the crimes that he and the other Stalin minions had a hand in. A convincing theory is that this book - which is anti-Stalin from a "true" Communist perspective - was published at the behest of Brezhnev to deal with problematic Stalinists still in the party. And to give Brezhnev plausible deniability, it was published first in America after being "smuggled out" by Time Magazine Moscow correspondent and deep-stater Strobe Talbott. (Regarding the transition of power from Stalin to Khrushchev, make sure to see The Death of Stalin.) Read Khrushchev's 1956 "secret speech" about the Stalin cult of personality.
  • Invisible Planets (3/5) Chinese science fiction anthology compiled by Ken Liu, the translator of Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem series which we read at the beginning of the quarter. We had mentioned that it is scary how good Chinese science fiction is, especially since the Cixin Liu books are advocating the survival of the fittest civilization rather than western transvaluation of values. (The Chinese would have gone extinct in the early 60s without western outgroup altruism.) The good news is that Cixin Liu and Ted Chiang are by far the best Chinese science fiction writers, none of the others come close, and they are the only ones whose thinking is superior to all current and most past western science fiction thinkers. The best story in this collection is "The Circle" by Cixin Liu.
  • Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings (4.5/5) There was a time when everything made out of wood was built with hand tools: hand saws, planes, chisels, etc. "No matter how simple a thing of wood, it is scarcely possible to put two sticks together decently without using a plane. Wood must be smoothed, squared up, and made to fit - the three main jobs of a plane." The illustrations are excellent. Aldren A. Watson was born on May 10, 1917; his daughter is a children's book illustrator. Aldren did a similar blacksmithing book. "Whether practiced as a trade, an avocation, or simply as a practical adjunct to daily exercise, working wood with hand tools satisfies some elemental needs of the human animal - for manual work, development of innate skills, peace and quiet, and a sense of control over his temporal affairs."
  • Exit 13A: A Control Tower Diary (4/5) A novel about bureaucratic organizational dysfunction, by a retired air traffic controller. Part of the story is the old-school USMC Irish protagonist's interactions with affirmative action hires in his Newark control tower, so it is shockingly (but hilariously) politically incorrect. The author's view was that the incompetent controllers (who don't measure up as "tin men") would cause catastrophes. This does not seem to have happened, even though there are occasional close calls. He seems to realize that police forces and newspapers are corrupt too, but does not form a generalized theory of corruption as agents responding to incentives. Exit 13A is the FAA equivalent of John T Reed's writing about being in the military. It isn't just the FAA, or the military, or government agencies that will expect employees to lie and cheat for them but then throw them under the bus for doing so when convenient. This would be true in any organization. I'm sure that many GE employees could commiserate with John T Reed or this tin man. Note - the way that John T Reed describes the workings of corrupt organizations is important and worth preserving here: "[W]hether it be Enron, the NY Police Department during the time that Frank Serpico was an officer, the Mafia, or the U.S. military, newcomers are tested before they are 'trusted'. As Al Pacino said over and over in The Recruit, 'Everything's a test.' Relatively new NYPD officers like Serpico, also played by Al Pacino, were invited to accept small bribes to show they were 'one of us' before they were permitted knowledge about bigger stuff. Mafia wannabes are required to commit crimes confirmed by Mafia guys before they are allowed into the inner circle. This has two purposes, to identify and screen out any 'boy scouts' or undercover agents who are squeamish about corruption, and to get something on everyone so no one can later change his mind and snitch. Signing false documents is a court martial offense. It violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If you sign a false document, you both gain entry to the 'club' and you put yourself in a position where you cannot get out because if you ever go over to the media or authorities, they can trot out the false documents they know you signed to discredit and court martial you." Also: "In his 2008 book The Logic of Life, Tim Harford uses a slightly different phrase describing the uncorrupt in corrupt organizations with a similar meaning: 'Your option to escape means you can't be relied upon.' I have seen this phenomenon in a number of different organizational situations that I and my family members have experienced throughout our lives. Organizations like employees who are dependent upon the organization. They fear independent employees." And also: "No man can be more honest than his boss. If your boss is dishonest and you are honest you will very quickly be forced to rat him out. If you can’t be more honest than your boss, your boss cannot be more honest than his boss, and so forth. So the comprehensive way to state it is that no one can be more honest than anyone above them in the chain of command in their organization."
  • Travels (3/5) Michael Crichton actually wrote four nonfiction books, including Travels. (The others were about medicine, the artist Jasper Johns, and personal computing in 1983.) I knew that he had children with two different women but I forgot that he was married five times. I wonder how expensive that was - did he get taken to the cleaners in California? If you have to split your wealth four times you're left with only 6.25% of what you started with! Goes to show you how long there has been soft polygamy in the U.S. among elite men. While he was working in Hollywood (movies and TV), he would take trips to exotic places - and this was before many of them were over-touristed. I was also surprised that he really fell for hippie stuff in the 60s: psychics, meditation retreats, etc. "[S]cholars do not know how this ancient temple-building civilization of the Mayas arose, why it flourished, or why it died. Such reminders would be unnerving. Nobody on vacation wants to walk through a great ruined city and be told, 'we know nothing about this place.'" In Baltistan: "Ten of the thirty highest mountains in the world are strung along the small Karakoram Range, which extends barely two hundred miles, little more than a tenth the length of the Himalaya. I imagined the Karakoram to be green and forested, like the American Rockies. I did not understand that the major Karakoram summits were an average of two miles higher than those of the Rockies, and that they were in essence desert peaks rising above a high desert floor."
  • Road Fever (4/5) Tim Cahill was one of the best in Best American Travel Writing 2004 (earlier this quarter), so I picked up his story of driving the Pan-American Highway in 1987 to set a Guinness World Record of 24 days from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. (You actually can't drive the whole way because of the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia but the car is loaded on a ship for that short part of the journey.) "I am constantly reading between the lines of the most recent adventure or travel book: how did the author finance this saga? Do we have an airline ticket scam here, a generous book advance, an articles piggyback, a cigarette company advertising expedition? Some journeys are clearly self-financed and they often result in the best books. A tight budget is the mother of adventure." Going through the Andes: "a series of high plateaus surrounded by higher peaks (Aconcagua in Argentina rises to 22,834 feet, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere), stretch 5,500 miles from the tip of South America to the continents northernmost coast on the Caribbean. The mountains run generally north and south. For most of its length, the Andean chain of mountains is visible from the Pacific Ocean. In some places, the continental divide is no more than fifty miles from the Pacific coast. The great rivers of South America, then, run east, almost all of them." Like all adventure travelers, he is a weepy liberal: "a diplomat we'd talked to was the first to point out what I began to see as a bitter irony. Right-wing countries, known for abusing human rights, were generally the safest." The dry Atacama desert in northern Chile with places that get an inch of rainfall a century. The mountains in south America cause scary bus rides. "Sooner or later the bus will justify everybody's worst fears by plunging (Latin American buses never crash, they plunge) into a deep gorge, ravine, gulch, coulee, or canyon..."
  • The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (4/5) By Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (who write the West Hunter blog). We know the size of the genetic difference between chimpanzees and humans and we know the approximate length of time since the species split, so we know the long term rate of genetic change. The rate of genetic change in humans over the past few thousand years (i.e. since agriculture) is ~100x greater! Populations that experienced different ecological histories had different evolutionary responses. Thus, the various human subpopulations are astoundingly different, which is one reason that multiethnic societies tend to collapse. (The other reason is that people who aren't related can't trust each other and high-productivity societies run on trust.) This was published in 2009 so it's probably a bit out of date now. Reading Cochran's recent posts, like his review of the David Reich book on human population genetics, might be a better way to go. Cochran says that "hobbies" exist because in Malthusian farming societies people were selected to want to work, even where there was no immediate necessity to do so! A study of skull shape in Europeans showing changes over just the past 700 years: "our medieval ancestors had more prominent faces and smaller cranial vaults than modern man". Santa Maria del Mar church in Barcelona is as old as those archaic skulls. Cochran and Harpending observed that elites "raise" peasants, culling the aggressive ones. Humans have been domesticated / tamed by agriculture, resulting in changes analogous to ones wild animals have when domesticated. Their theory is that the Indo-European expansion was driven by the lactose tolerance mutation. Dairying produces 5x as many calories/acre as raising cattle to slaughter. And when two similar populations use the same resources, the one with greater carrying capacity wins. Someday it would be good to read Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton. There's a great quote from a Jared Diamond book: "When I was living among Elopi tribespeople in west New Guinea and wanted to cross the territory of the neighboring Fayu tribe in order to reach a nearby mountain, the Elopis explained to me matter-of-factly that the Fayus would kill me if I tried. From a New Guinea perspective, it seemed so perfectly natural and self-explanatory. Of course the Fayus will kill any trespasser: you surely don't think they're so stupid that they'd admit strangers to their territory? Strangers would just hunt their game animals, molest their women, introduce diseases, and reconnoiter the terrain in order to stage a raid later."
A great year of reading. We may do a followup post with the 2018 books by category, or maybe just the best ones, depending on what people want to see.

And perhaps we should do a book review scatter plot with book age at review vs rating.

For 2019, maybe not quite as many books as 2017/2018, but better books (more 4s and 5s) and older books.


Anonymous said...

You know that classic Republican straw man about poor people? It goes something like –

“In the glorious modern American capitalist economy, all people can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good living if they really want to. The only way to fail is to not try hard enough. Poor people are all lazy loafers who would rather take drugs, rack up illegitimate children, and become welfare queens, than work an honest day in their lives. It’s their own damn fault they’re poor.”

Vance argues that this straw man is basically true.

Yes, of course it’s more complicated than that. There are external factors at play that makes the lives of his fellow hillbillies in Appalachia worse, like the collapse of American industrialism. But underlying the depressed economies, high unemployment, underfunded schools, and shoddy welfare networks, are simply a lot of bad decisions made on an individual level.

Tom said...

Thanks for sharing!!