Saturday, September 30, 2023

Books - Q3 2023

[Previously: Q2 2023, Q1 2023, Q4 2022, Q3 2022, Q2 2022, Q1 2022, our 2021 Book Review Compendium, 2020 Book Review Compendium, 2019 book compendium, 2018 book compendium, and pre-2018 book compendium.]

  • Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity (3/5) We don't follow Peter Attia, but this book was recommended to us and does have some interesting ideas. He says that "Medicine 2.0" arrived in the mid-19th Century with the advent of the germ theory of disease and delivered longevity enhancing things like improved sanitation and antibiotics. It was focused on acute illnesses and injuries. He says that now a "Medicine 3.0" is needed which targets chronic disease and tries to maintain long-term health ("healthspan"), with greater emphasis on prevention than treatment, and more personalization. He has four "tactics" to increase healthspan: (1) exercise, first and foremost; (2) nutrition; (3) sleep; and (4) emotional health. (It should be noted that Attia is a bit of a basketcase.) He's interested in rapamycin and mentions the 2014 paper, "mTOR inhibition improves immune function in the elderly". He thinks that "dosing [rapamycin] briefly or cyclically inhibits mainly mTORC1, unlocking its longevity related benefits [...] a rapamycin analog or 'rapalog' that selectively inhibited mTORC1 but not mTORC2 would thus be more ideal." One problem for rapamycin research is that Medicine 2.0 "does not (yet) recognize 'slowing aging' and 'delaying disease' as fully legitimate end points," so a major experiment going on right now is the Dog Aging Project. He has his patients do an annual DEXA scan to see their visceral and total body fat levels. He would agree with Mangan that the TG/HDL and fasting insulin levels are key metrics of metabolic health: "It is beyond backwards that we do not treat hyperinsulinemia like a bona fide endocrine disorder of its own." He also recommends that his patients have CT angiograms which is pretty intense. He has a very different view on apoB particles (LDL, VLDL, Lp(a)): he thinks that they are "causally linked" to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease so just about everyone should be taking "lipid-lowering medications" (statins). So the three exogenous molecules that he likes are the statins, rapamycin, and metformin. Alzheimer's: "having type 2 diabetes doubles or triples your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, about the same as having one copy of the APOE e4 gene... central insulin resistance plays a causal role in the development and progression..." He says something I've never heard before: "APOE e4 was not always a bad actor. For millions of years, all our post-primate ancestors were e4/e4. It was the original human allele. The e3 mutation showed up about 225,000 years ago, while e2 is a relative latecomer, arriving only in the last 10,000 years." He says that the e4 variant may confer protection against infectious disease by promoting inflammation (which then sets the stage for Alzheimer's disease). He says he is "no longer a dogmatic advocate of any particular way of eating, such as a ketogenic diet or any form of fasting." I have come to agree with this, as I have seen too many people make disciplined efforts to use those approaches and have them fail. Chris Masterjohn thinks that people have many different impairments in energy metabolism which causes the heterogeneity in response to diet approaches. Attia says to try a continuous glucose monitor, which "teaches you that your carbohydrate tolerance is heavily influenced by other factors, especially your activity level and sleep."
  • Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness (2/5) Dr. Cowan starts off strong: "Modern pediatrics is essentially an assault on the cell-mediated immune system. Nothing illustrates this better than the administration of vaccines. Rather than allowing a child to contract chicken pox, we inject him with an antigenic piece of the virus hoping it will stimulate an antibody response without the cell-mediated response. Actually, the catch is that the antigen on its own produces no appreciable antibody reaction, so vaccine researchers have to link it to an adjuvant. This adjuvant can't be a harmless substance like saline because the combination won't produce an antibody response either. The adjuvant has to be an irritant, better known as a toxin. This is the blueprint for all modern vaccines: Isolate an antigenic piece of a virus, combine it with a toxin, and hope for a lifelong antibody response. As a public health strategy, this leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The first is: If you inject a child with a toxin to provoke an antibody response and at the same time suppress the cell-mediated response with acetaminophen, how will the body clear the toxin?" I'm with him on that question and it's something I'm trying to figure out. The problem is that we get to chapter six, called "Rethinking Cell Biology," where he says, "like many things in modern science, the sodium-potassium pump is a myth." He also thinks that the heart is not a pump. It is all a bit too much.
  • Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green (3/5) Would it surprise you to learn that working conditions in Chinese-owned metal mines in Africa aren't very good? Or that African autocrats are concerned with personal enrichment when they make those deals? Those sorts of things can be major revelations to the suckers who bought coal powered cars. The author (@hjesanderson) assumes an electric vehicle transition and his book is mainly muckraking about the dirty supply chains for the metals used in making batteries: lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper. But a much more important question is whether batteries will get cheap enough for there to be an actual, market-driven (not subsidized) transition from nature's perfect fuels (gasoline and diesel) to batteries. Unfortunately, Volt Rush does not tackle this question. It is certainly true that the price of lithium batteries (in $/kWh) fell substantially over the past decade, from about $1,355 per kWh to $150/kWh in 2022; an order of magnitude decrease. An electric vehicle can go about 3 miles per stored kWh of energy, which means that a 100 kWh battery pack will cost $15,000 and give you 300 miles of range. In California that amount of electricity at retail might cost $25. The gasoline to drive the same distance would be about twice as much but the gasoline motor would be cheaper than the battery and electric motors. So the big question is: will the battery "learning curve" continue to result in cost declines (in which case an electric vehicle transition will soon make actual economic sense)? Or was a meaningful part of the learning curve and order-of-magnitude cost decline caused by the commodities bear market from 2008-2020? We did see last year that EV battery prices rose for the first time due to higher input costs. Manufacturers responded to this by changing the cathode chemistry of many EV batteries to lithium iron phosphate (LFP), which has a lower energy density than nickel and cobalt chemistries do, but avoids using those more expensive metals. Iron is obviously not scarce, so the big question going forward will be the price of lithium. (Also, there's a downside of LFP, which is that it seems to do very poorly in cold weather.) You're starting to see the iron versus nickel catalyst price difference show up at retail. The F-150 Lightning standard range (230 miles) is much cheaper than the extended range (320) because the standard range is LFP. Other things: We've mentioned mining stock promoter Robert Friedland in the past, and he appears again in this book. (He's quoted as saying, "copper is the king of metals.") Thomas Edison quote: "If Nature had intended to use lead in batteries for powering vehicles, she would not have made it so heavy."
  • Crude Volatility: The History and the Future of Boom-Bust Oil Prices (4/5) See full review. There is a great tension between physics-based pessimism about natural resources and economics-based optimism (some might say cornucopianism) about the ability to respond to higher prices with substitution and invention. The electric vehicle transition can only happen as fast as the slowest one of these steps. All it takes in a series process (as opposed to parallel) is one bottleneck to delay the whole process. So, it seems like an electric vehicle transition is possible but it will be slow. And, in particular, the bottlenecks mean that it will be unexpectedly slow, which will continually discourage investment in oil production, which in turn should prolong the profitable part of the capital cycle.
  • Trillion Dollar Triage: How Jay Powell and the Fed Battled a President and a Pandemic---and Prevented Economic Disaster (3/5) See full review. The essential takeaway from this book is that Powell has faced six financial "contagions," "panics," or embarrassments in his career and has recommended, advised, or chosen the bailout every time. We should appreciate that Powell's commitment to bailouts has never been tested against conditions of rising inflation. However, interest rates this high will continue to threaten the banks, paralyze the residential housing market, and cause the interest on the federal government's debts to spiral higher. The head of the NY Fed's market desk said what was "most frightening" in the spring of 2020 was that "Treasury yields were spiking higher at the same time that equity markets were plummeting." Our best cynical prediction is that Powell and the Federal Reserve will not tank the economy and the stock market in the final eighteen months before a presidential election. But we would expect stormy weather starting after Biden's second inauguration.
  • The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (4/5) Something that never occurred to me before about Mencken is that he became a heterodox political thinker with a large audience just as severely repressive times were setting into America. He was against Wilson and the First World War, and when he was 37 years old, it became illegal to criticize the federal government. That lasted from 1917 until 1920, but it was immediately followed by Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until 1933. (I’m not sure why the government was less repressive during the Second World War than the First, but that seems to be the case.) Mencken had to be careful and keep his head down. He actually was arrested once for his publishing, but it was for violating an anti-obscenity law in Boston (and he was acquitted). With a century of retrospect, his career of dismantling society’s mores now seems misguided. That wasn’t his only crusade that now seems leftist in retrospect; another one was the Scopes trial. So some of his ideas hold up and some don’t. One of his great calls was to say that, “compared to the Moscow brigands and assassins, Hitler is hardly more than a common Ku Kluxer and Mussolini almost a philanthropist.” (See Stalin's War.) I’ve never read anyone else besides Mencken explain how Prohibition was used to help dismantle civil liberties and Bill of Rights protections. I’m with him on the silliness of low church Protestantism and Mormonism but again, was it wise of him to help dismantle the country’s Christian culture? Would that he were around today to see people’s skull tattoos. I now realize there is a bit too much “critique” in Mencken. If you live in a healthy society - and he lived in our golden age - then engaging in criticism is sort of like taking down panels of Chesterton’s fence. On the other hand, you can understand that he was frustrated with two decades of political repression during the prime of his life and writing career. (He blamed Methodists for prohibition.) Something else I realize from this biography is that he was kind of a mean person. After seventeen years of working with his business partner and co-creator of the Smart Set and the American Mercury, he suddenly excommunicated him from the business and shunned him. It’s hard to read about Mencken saying he was glad when his father died because his father had wanted him to work in the family cigar business. Also, I had always sort of assumed that Mencken was asexual since he got married extremely late (age 50) and had no children, but apparently he was kind of a cad. His love interests were homely even though one was a movie actress. As Empty America has pointed out, people in the 1920s were ugly. Terry Teachout thinks that Mencken’s Chrestomathy ("a selection of his choicest writing") is “a broadly representative cross section of his writings, one from which subsequent generations of readers would acquire a total sense of Mencken as man and artist.” He discovered a second Chrestomathy while researching at the Mencken library and had it organized and published.
  • The Scandal of Money: Why Wall Street Recovers but the Economy Never Does (2/5) George Gilder is known for his book Wealth and Poverty, published in 1981. I was interested in this more recent book of his for a "Bailouts & Rich Get Richer" reading list (e.g. Trillion Dollar Triage), but it did not serve the purpose. Something interesting, though: "Perhaps the most thoroughly documented phenomenon in all enterprise, learning curves ordain that the cost of producing any good or service drops by between 20 percent and 30 percent with every doubling of total units sold. The Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company charted learning curves across the entire capitalist economy, affecting everything from pins to cookies, insurance policies and phone calls, transistors to lines of code, pork bellies to bottles of milk, steel ingots to airplanes." He also criticizes indexation: "Index funds are even worse than they look because they base allocation not on  the expected yield of the investment but on market capitalization. As companies grow overvalued, they become an ever-larger share of the holdings of the funds. The anomalous rise of Apple to the world's most valuable corporation has saved the careers of thousands of managers. Momentum prevails until it stops." But as the economist Charles Gave of Gavekal puts it, "In a true capitalist system, the rule is the higher the price the lower the demand. With indexation, the higher the price the higher the demand."
  • The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (3/5) Written by Walter Scheidel, a professor of ancient history at Stanford. He takes Piketty's thesis from "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" - that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth - and asks what sorts of events in history have undone past concentrations of wealth. His view is that only four processes have significantly and durably reduced wealth inequality in the past: mass mobilization warfare, transformative (Communist) revolution, state failure, and pandemics. He calls these the "Four Horsemen of Leveling," and thinks that every instance of compression of wealth inequality was driven by one or more of these processes. Scheidel does not talk enough about how his four leveling mechanisms all function by making their societies much poorer. Wealth and income inequality in postwar Japan was leveled because the country was was, literally, leveled. This seems somewhat trivial as a result. If you think about power law distributions of wealth, and also assume some minimum subsistence threshold, then anything that drastically reduces total wealth is going to necessarily reduce the Gini coefficient. I read this as part of my "rich get richer" curriculum (i.e. bailouts), although what I now realize is that if you look at a past society that had a high (or rising) level of inequality, it wasn't necessarily (in fact, generally wasn't) the same rich staying rich. So in some Egyptian or Chinese or Ottoman despotism, the top one percent was claiming half of the income produced, but that top one percent would be turning over because they were killing each other. (As he says, "rent-seeking elites in Latin America or Africa may come somewhat closer to what in global historical terms must count as traditional and indeed 'normal' strategies of wealth appropriation." Or, "very large fortunes regularly owed more to political power than to economic prowess. They differed mostly in terms of their durability, which was critically mediated by state rulers' ability and willingness to engage in despotic intervention.") The world never knew anything like the prosperity, peace, and financial security of recent times. You'll see neighborhoods of people in the U.S. with $10mm+ net worth vote lockstep Communist - they are really playing with fire. Interesting fact: he talks about the economic and land reforms that were imposed on the Japanese after WWII, with the goal of crippling their ability to fight again. This included redistribution of land and wealth, breaking up of conglomerates, a new constitution, and female suffrage. Scheidel notes that the American occupiers' land reform was "in rare agreement with the Maoists who were taking over China at the time [who] regarded landlordism as a great evil"! Scheidel strikes me as a commie - he says "whether Communism's sacrifice of a hundred million lives bought anything of value is well beyond the scope of this study to contemplate." So you could interpret this work as a cryptic message to Bernie Sanders types that they need to be much more brutal towards property owners. Another sign of his leftism is that in the discussion of plagues, he notes that they "leveled by changing the ratio of land to labor, lowering the value of the former (as documented by land prices and rents and the price of agricultural products) and raising that of the latter (in the form of higher real wages and lower tenancy rents." Well gee, Walter, doesn't immigration then raise inequality by raising the ratio of labor to land? He gives that obvious supply-demand relationship only a footnote.
  • The Cloud Revolution: How the Convergence of New Technologies Will Unleash the Next Economic Boom and A Roaring 2020s (2/5) We've mentioned author Mark Mills numerous times in the past - he had recommended Fossil Future by Alex Epstein and also appeared in a couple of Links (1, 2). His essay "The Hard Math of Minerals - Why the 'Energy Transition' Won't Happen" made us think that he was a levelheaded dimensional analyst like Vaclav Smil or Tom Murphy. Actually, he has a history as something of a cornucopian. Our first mention of him was regarding an essay, "SHALE 2.0: Technology and the Coming Big-Data Revolution in America’s Shale Oil Fields". His older work on energy had the type of fantasies that the Shale Treadmill producers are currently trying to sell to their investors about productivity. Yet his "Hard Math of Minerals" piece was very realistic and grounded in physics. So we were curious what his "Cloud Revolution" idea was about. If we had to give the book a one sentence summary, is is that people underestimate how long it takes for progress in basic science to translate into new technologies in use. ("Timespans between new science and new technologies are often unpredictable and long.") And so he thinks that some recent, important scientific developments are finally about to come to market and create a a decade-long boom. But he is pretty long on overheated rhetoric and short on concrete details of recent advances in basic science that could plausibly lead to big technological advancements in our lives. The closest he comes is to claim that there is an emergent "third material era" in the "cyberphysical age" which will consist of using supercomputing and AI (naturally) to computationally design novel materials, including materials with properties that would be impossible for natural materials. I would read a whole book on that topic, but Mills is unfortunately light on support for the claim. And ironically, he doesn't talk about the recent material breakthrough that really has impressed me - the lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries that I mentioned in the review notes about Volt Rush. (He also mentions how tantalizingly useful a room temperature semiconductor would be, and this was written before the recent LK-99 excitement.) He mentions a company that was spun out of Northwestern called QuesTek that is using computer modeling to design better alloys. The possibility of overcoming material constraints through substitution and better design is the counterpoint to physics-based pessimism about natural resource scarcity. Interesting claim: "In the United States, cannabis production entails an energy footprint equal to the annual fuel use of several million cars." He mentioned a book, Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, that looks like it would be a good read (i.e. "the pervasive use of waterpower, the oil of the medieval era"). 
  • The Populist Delusion (5/5) Neema Parvini surveys the "elite theorists": Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Carl Schmitt, Bertrand de Jouvenel, James Burnham, Samuel T. Francis and Paul Gottfried. "The thesis of this book has been that democracy is and always has been an illusion., in which the true functioning of power where an organised minority elite rule over a disorganised mass is obscured through a lie that 'the people is sovereign.'" The elite theorists were all focused on seeing the world as it is, not as it ought to be, and they all tended to believe that ostensibly republican or democratic societies operated by way of an organized minority imposing its will on a disorganized majority. The discussion of Mosca points out that the wealthy own and control mas media, which means that they control the formation of the public's opinions. Remember, only Twitter autists are forming their own opinions; everyone else just believes whatever they are programmed to believe by the mass media with the highest production values (status). Also, candidates for election are pre-selected by the elite and so any election outcome will still favor their interests. Parvini thinks that Mosca's work "punctures absolutely [the] populist delusion that if conditions get bad enough, if the plebians become too disgruntled with their leaders, then the people will rise up and overthrow them." "This, as Mosca shows, has never happened in history... if people want change even at a time of popular and widespread resentment of the ruling class, they can only hope to achieve that change by becoming a tightly knit and organised minority themselves and, in effect, displacing the old ruling class." Key ideas from Pareto: "all moral philosophies in human history have been a form of delusion designed to justify" what humans already felt. Michels had an iron law of oligarchy - "the nature of organization is such that it gives power and advantages to the group of leaders who cannot then be checked or held accountable by their followers" - potential explaining why the long march of the left through the institutions (capturing the leadership positions) has been so successful. Parvini's conclusion from Michels is "the masses simply will not and cannot organize." Recent example: "a crowd without organised leadership will simply devolve into a rabble. It is difficult not to think of the so-called 'Storming of the Capitol' on 6th January 2021. Donald Trump having gathered his 'masses' in Washington DC, simply abandoned them and they devolved to a disorganised mob, with no direction or purpose. Once inside the Capitol building all the individuals involved could think to do was inanely take pictures of themselves with their mobile phones. There was no plan, no coordination, no leadership. Michels would have predicted that it would have turned out as it did." Schmitt is best remembered for two concepts: "sovereign is he who decides on the exception" and the "friend vs enemy" distinction in politics. "From the realist perspective of Schmitt, there is no structural difference between the liberal state, the communist state, and the fascist state - or indeed any other state. [...] a state wedded to liberal democracy is as 'totalitarian' as any other since, by its very nature, it will be unable to tolerate any leaders who are not already liberal democrats." About Jouvenel: "revolution is the consequence of a weakness in Power which is liquidated by a stronger one." "Schmitt states that every sovereign must declare its friends and enemies, but Jouvenel provides a rationale for who might be the sovereign's enemy at any given point." So, why does the current Power propagandize against white people? "It is because it comprises people who are independent of the state, would-be aristocrats, subsidiaries in potential, and even a few truly independent institutions, and therefore represents the largest threat to its hegemony. This was embodied in the hated figure of Donald Trump, but since he was banished from the airwaves and social media, now it must take the form of a direct attack on the disobedient people themselves, especially if they have refused the vaccination against the pandemic which is a very convenient proxy marker of 'friend' or 'enemy'." James Burnham is better known - the author of The Managerial Revolution, The Machiavellians, and The Suicide of the West. Burnham: "the nineteenth-century liberals overlooked, and the twentieth-century liberals decline to face, the fact that teaching everyone to read opens minds to propaganda and indoctrination at least as much as to truths." According to Burnham, the masses in Britain, France, and America did not want to fight WWI for the elites. In the Burnham discussion, Parvini points out that the elite are turning away 'promising new elements' with the wrong skin color (white) and says "in the long run, this will create an entire class of disaffected would-be elites". When I read this, I had the thought that someone like Elon Musk will be able to replace the current regime. (Sure enough, he's become much more politically involved, recently going to the Mexico border to livestream.) Sam Francis pointed out - long before the recent woke era - that the ideology of a managerial regime takes on an almost religious air with its own sacred heroes and symbols. Parvini: "the internet - a modern Gutenberg Press - has destroyed the ability of elites to control narratives, which is causing them to become more desperate, coercive, and brittle... it is only a matter of time until we see a circulation of elites." Ultimate thesis of book: "unless the current ruling class is prepared to become openly coercive and use force, it will be overthrown once counter-elites become organized enough to do so." Is Musk preparing to do so? 
  • Tabula Rasa: Volume 1 (3/5) This is John McPhee's latest, his "old-man" project since he is now 92 years old. McPhee says "old-people projects keep old people old. You’re no longer old when you’re dead. If Mark Twain had stayed with it [his autobiography], he would be alive today." (Apparently a second volume of Tabula Rasa is already in the works.) This particular volume describes ideas for stories and books that McPhee either canned or never got around to writing. He reveals some unfortunate political leanings for the first time, and make more sense in light of some biographical information that he reveals. McPhee says that his mother and sister spoke Plain Speech their whole lives. The Quaker background helps explain the (totally cringe) jab at Donald Trump in one essay. There are other grumbles - against ostentation and wealth. Quaker! Most of the essays are really enjoyable, but he has clearly decided to "be himself" more with this volume. One theme that is ever-present in the book is the death of his friends and associates. As put by LARB in its review, "More extensively treated than McPhee’s own future fading, however, are the deaths of his friends and colleagues. Remember, he is 92. At such an age, one’s firsthand acquaintance with death is ample. Death occurs in Tabula Rasa as an unavoidable preoccupation, a bell tolling at regular intervals. It is omnipresent."

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