Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Books Read - Q3 2020

Read 10 books this quarter versus 15 books in Q2 2020 and 16 in Q1 2020. (In 2019, read only 48 books. In 2018, read 113 books.)

  • Mine Were of Trouble (4/5) It could happen here: "escalating violence between left- and right-wing political factions boils over." See the guest review from earlier this year. As we mentioned then, "the Republicans were armed by the Soviets and the Nationalists were armed by Italy and Germany. Since today's Russia and China must be tired of U.S. meddling in their spheres of influence (e.g. Ukraine and Taiwain), they will almost certainly have the idea of arming the factions in the upcoming U.S. civil war. However, my guess would be that they will not so much care which side wins as to make sure that the fighting is as prolonged and destructive as possible, which would mean that each will arm both - or all - sides to the conflict." Author Peter Kemp was a young Brit who joined the nationalist fighters. Here is a tweetstorm with excerpts from the book, and another with excerpts from the sequel with Peter Kemp's WWII experiences. Notes: "If I had been willing to join the International Brigade and fight for the Republicans it would have been simple; in every country there were organizations, ably directed by the various Communist parties, for that very purpose. But the Nationalists were making no effort to recruit in England." "The Republican paramilitary organizations were provided by the various workers' Unions... common criminals... were immediately enrolled in the various militias." "On many occasions during those early days it was the courage and initiative of individual commanders that turned the scale for the Nationalists... 'If Franco's generals hadn't had more guts than the White Russian generals, Spain would now be Communist." "Nationalist[s] made virtually no concessions to the Press, while the Republicans laid out enormous sums on propaganda abroad." Someday, will have to visit Toledo (the Alcázar) and the Valle de los Caídos near Madrid. Half a million people were killed in a country of 24 million (~2%), although about 100k of the 1,000k fighting were foreign.  
  • Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (3.5/5) This is the first volume of a "Pacific war trilogy," covering Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway in 1942, by Ian Toll - an equity research analyst turned military historian. I didn't know much about Wake, the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, or how the Japanese lost their four carriers at Midway. (Their codes were cracked and the U.S. knew exactly where and when to ambush the Japanese fleet.) Couple things about the book: it's a purely naval history, and really focused on naval aviation. It also completely ignores the "conspiratorial" (but true and becoming more mainstream) history of Pearl Harbor. FDR deliberately provoked the Japanese, had actual warning of the attack on PH, and evacuated the valuable carriers while leaving obsolete battleships to be attacked so as to gull the American rubes out of isolationism and into war. There's actually a smoking gun document, a memo by Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum with an 8-point strategy on how to get Japan to attack the United States. Also, after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Halsey's carriers oddly searched to the south even though Nagumo's carriers had withdrawn to the north. But if he had chased them to the north, he would've been outnumbered 6:2 and might have lost the Enterprise and Lexington. As with 9/11, Roosevelt needed to receive an attack that was provocative to the American people while being strategically meaningless. The battleships were obsolete because of aircraft carriers. A whole generation, including the Japanese, had been influenced by Alfred Mahan's book: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan's ideas were themselves a disruption, coming from the second half of the 19th century when the industrial revolution "utterly demolished and recreated the hardware and technology of naval warfare". The three Mahanian dogmas were the big gun battleship, concentration of forces, and attempting to completely annihilate enemy fleets all in a single decisive battle. The Japanese crushed the Russian navy in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Anyway, after Pearl Harbor, Churchill sent two of Britain's finest battleships (Prince of Wales and Repulse) to protect Singapore as "Force Z". These were sunk by Japanese land-based bombers, "a conceptual triumph within naval circles all over the world for the cause of aviation." After this and Pearl Harbor, battleships were "relegated to a support role within task forces built around aircraft carriers." Battleship guns became useful only for shore bombardment in support of amphibious troop landings. At least in the minds of the Allies - the Japanese held out hopes throughout the war for a decisive clash of battleships at sea. That was why Yamamoto wanted to attack Midway, to try to fight and defeat all of the carriers in the Pacific. One of the reasons they were horrified by the U.S. carriers was the Doolittle Raid of Tokyo very early in the war. Yamamoto was to Japan as Nelson was to Britain; both island countries, the admirals "occupied a peculiar place in the national imagination". More about Pearl Harbor: "the battleships were too slow to operate with the carriers, and incapable of defending themselves against air attack... the Japanese had converted the American fleet from a seventeen knot fleet to a twenty-five knot fleet." Churchill stayed with Roosevelt in the White House right after PH in December 1941. On his first morning, he told the butler, "One, I don't like talking outside my quarters; two, I hate whistling in the corridors; and three, I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple glasses of scotch and soda before lunch and French champagne and ninety-year-old brandy before I go to sleep at night." The U.S. broke the Japanese codes and had advance knowledge of every detail of the Midway attack. "The aircraft carrier... was a weapon suited to hit-and-run warfare. The ships themselves were extremely vulnerable, but they could inflict heavy punishment on an enemy from long range, if they could find him and strike him first. The tactical imperatives were to keep moving; to keep your scouts in the air, flying wide search patterns; and to hide your flight decks in weather fronts while pinning your enemy down in zones of clear visibility." The problem with the Japanese Midway attack plan was that the Mahanian principle of concentration conflicted with the need to disguise the size of the Japanese fleet that was present so that the U.S. carriers would all come streaming out of Pearl to be attacked. "There was no way to construct an operational plan whose distribution of warships was both deceptive and mutually supporting. The two goals were antithetical. Yamamoto knew he couldn't have it both ways, and he willingly sacrificed mutual support to the perceived need for stealth." Since the U.S. knew Midway was coming thanks to the cracked codes, they deliberately let Halsey's carrier force (Enterprise and Hornet) be sighted in the Coral Sea, far away from Pearl, before making a beeline back to help defend Midway. That cleverly tricked the Japanese into believing that Midway would not be fully defended while also discouraging any Japanese attacks in the South Pacific.
  • The Deals of Warren Buffett Volume 2: The Making of a Billionaire (2/5) We read Volume 1 in 2018, which covered Buffett's first $100mm of net worth. That one was fascinating. At the beginning of Buffett's career, he took gigantic positions, going practically all-in. He was really hungry for wealth and fame. The deals were also worthwhile - there were net-nets that he could take control of, unlike today when micro cap companies trading below liquidation value all have controlling shareholders. But this volume covering his mid-career stage was not nearly as interesting. It was unbearably hagiographic: repeating Buffett's comments about "tap dancing to work" is really cringe. It is actually comical how millenial investors think that they are going to get a chance to "relive" Buffett's life story. Buffett's crucial, productive years as a young investor were during a time when valuations were low and property rights were secure. In contrast, we have the highest valuations in history and eroding property rights.
  • The Last Crusade: Spain 1936 (3/5) A Spanish Civil War book (from pre-war through 1936 only) written by Warren H. Carroll, founder of the Catholic liberal arts Christendom College in Virginia. (He also wrote a six volume history of Christian civilization, and histories of leftist anti-Christian terror like the Bolshevik revolution and the French revolution.) The Spanish right had something very valuable: the Traditionalist Communion, or Carlists. They had a true community and organization, including a militia (Requetés). In Navarre they were powerful enough to seize control over the region single-handedly. "If reaction dreams of a bloodless coup d'etat like that of 1923, it is entirely mistaken. If it supposes that it will find the regime defenseless, it is deluding itself. To conquer it will have to surmount the human barrier with which the proletarian masses bar its way. There will be a battle to the death, because each side knows that the adversary, if he wins, will give him no quarter. Even if this were the way it had to be, a decisive engagement would be better than this continuous blood-letting." Other notes: "[Franco] saved Spain from the worst fate that could befall any nation in the twentieth century - conquest by communism - giving his people instead a generation and a half of peace, security, prosperity, and personal - if not political - freedom in which the Catholic Faith was restored and flourished throughout the country. The Valley of the Fallen will stand against the sky as his just monument when all his venomous critics are dust." "After July 25 [1936], no Mass was publicly celebrated again anywhere in Republican Spain, with the sole exception of the Basque provinces, until the end of the Civil War. Churches not burned or sacked were closed and locked. Even the Communists in the Soviet Union did not go quite this far. The only historical parallel is Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror..."
  • Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (2/5) This is by Trump's niece Mary, the daughter of his brother Fred - the alcoholic who died very young. There are two reasons why Trump's presidency has been useless and even counterproductive: he is not very smart, and he is a stooge who is controlled through extortion. (Like most Republican politicians.) The book is not very interesting because it is about Mary Trump's sad personal story, which has mostly to do with her father being an alcoholic and some part to do with Trump family problems. It sounds like Trump and his father both had low affection for other people, which would explain their greed, Donald's absurd risk taking, and Donald's divorces and unhappy marriages and parent-child relationships. And Donald's risk taking is what put him in a position where he is financially compromised: he is dependent on his lenders and financial desperation also led him to have tax problems and financial fraud problems. (His kids too!) Trump's association with Epstein makes you think that he may be blackmailed in other ways too. He has always had a remarkable insecurity about his sex life, although perhaps understandable. But it is also possible that Trump and Epstein were in the same business. Think about the fact that Trump was involved in hotels, casinos, and beauty pageants. These are organized crime and human trafficking industries. Something else I did not know about the Trumps (this is not in the book): the grandfather Frederick, born in Bavaria, had a restaurant in Pioneer Square, Seattle, then moved to Snohomish County before heading up to the Yukon. Frederick sold his share of his Whitehorse, Yukon restaurant when the local government announced the suppression of prostitution, gambling and liquor rackets. Hmm...
  • A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (4.5/5) Norman Maclean was born in 1902 and his family moved to Missoula in 1909. There were only 13,000 people living there, and only a few hundred thousand in all of Montana. During WWI, he worked as a lumberjack. Believe it or not, the gas chainsaw had not been commercialized yet, so he and a partner were cutting down these trees with muscle alone. There are probably still buildings in Montana with lumber from trees that he cut down by hand a century ago. That is the difference between being a settler or pioneer and being an immigrant. The 1992 film still holds up well, and I think that the book works for anyone who: cares about the geography of western Montana, is interested in fly fishing, and/or has a troubled sibling. I suppose it would also be interesting if you were the child of a Presbyterian minister. Some notes: "Practically everybody on the West Coast was born in the Rocky Mountains where they failed as fly fisherman, so they migrated to the West Coast and became lawyers, certified public accountants, presidents of airplane companies, gamblers, or Mormon missionaries." From his logging essay: "Their clothes were very expensive; they claimed they were robbed up and down the line and probably they were, but clothes that would stand their work and the weather had to be something special. Central to both the lumberjack's and the cowboy's outfit were the boots, which took several months of savings." It may be worth reading The Norman Maclean Reader with more of his pieces.
  • The Most Fun I Never Want To Have Again: A Mid-Life Crisis in Community Banking (2.5/5) The author was the CFO of a startup community bank in Georgia that started in 2007. Some highlights: "From an operational perspective, a community bank is really just a collection of third-party technology contracts with lenders, tellers, and staff people stacked on top. A new banking enterprise doesn't have nearly the resources of budget to handle functions like clearing checks, delivering on-line banking services, and restocking ATM machines. Those functions in practice are handled through service bureaus and technology providers that make up the internal plumbing of the entire banking industry. The process of vendor selection in opening a new bank is meticulous... In January 2007, I had no idea what a 'core processor' was. By January 2008, though, I could argue technology, parse the pricing plans and articulate the strengths and weaknesses of at least five major industry providers." They had the dumb luck of starting their bank right as the 2008 crisis was starting: "Touchmark would become a significant buyer of investment grade agency securities throughout the first several quarters of its history. Investment income and securities gains would subsequently provide more than half of Touchmark's gross revenue throughout its first two years of operation. Touchmark's bond portfolio as a percentage of assets was among the highest of any bank in the country at that time - and it is not an overstatement to content that Touchmark is still in business because of it."
  • The Collected Poetry of William Butler Yeats (2.5/5) Poets are remembered for their best poems, not for their average. It doesn't matter how many bad ones they crank out as long as just one sticks. Yeats' life was bracketed by the end of the U.S. Civil War and the beginning of WWII - he lived to be 73. He happened to be too old for WWI (almost 50) and of course also the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. His father was an artist and he was... just a poet. I think that his poetry lacks for interesting life experience. He was an odd fellow. When he was 34 he met a 23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist named Mayd Gonne. He "began an obsessive infatuation" and proposed to her in 1891, 1899, 1900, and 1901. She married another Irish Nationalist (John McBride) who fought for the Boers and then later participated in the Irish Easter Rising, before being shot by the British. The physiognomy of McBride and Yeats is a classic "chad vs virgin" dichotomy. I think Lamentation of The Old Pensioner is worthwhile, and of course Yeats is remembered primarily for The Second Coming: "a perfect poem can still go viral in a distinctly predigital way: that it’s become a part of the culture’s water supply. Slouchy though they may be, the misapplications amount to a tribute." That poem was put to perfect use in a scene that Oliver Stone wrote for his film Nixon. (Although the CIA threatened the production and it was cut!) A far better poet than Yeats is his contemporary Rudyard Kipling. Their lives overlapped almost precisely. Both born in 1865 (Kipling in Bombay), Yeats outlived Kipling by only three years. But Kipling's life was much more interesting. As a young man, he worked in British India for newspapers. When he left India to return to London after finding success as a writer, we went via the Pacific through Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, and much of the U.S. He met Mark Twain, who was thirty years older. "Twain, who rather liked Kipling, later wrote of their meeting: 'Between us, we cover all knowledge; he covers all that can be known and I cover the rest.'" Kipling got his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907 and Yeats got his in 1923. They were on opposite sides of Irish independence.
  • The Carnivore Diet (3/5) It's not clear that carnivore is superior to keto / low carb / or even just Mangan's basic concept of avoiding sugar, refined grains, and seed oils. But it is interesting to see people successfully subsisting on just meat, because it means that you can take an elimination diet to that limit in order to see what might be causing problems. The thrust of the carno argument is that "plants are waging chemical warfare," so you should not only avoid Mangan's 3 but avoid all plant products as well. While we know that plants have defenses against herbivory, it ignores the potential hormetic effects of these phytochemicals. That's not to say that Shawn Baker is completely unaware of hormesis (taking saunas for "hormesis without having to eat nasty broccoli toxins"), just that his argument about phytochemicals in the book does not engage with it. And some plant poisons we laugh at, like the alkaloids "Vitamin N" and caffeine. He repeats the idea, which we have mentioned previously, that glucose competes with vitamin C absorption, so carnivores do not need as much of it from diet. He mentions from having practiced medicine that while total cholesterol is only weakly associated with cardiovascular disease, out of all the factors that are associated the TC level is the *easiest* to manipulate, chemically, with a profitable statin pill. He makes a good point that you can take people with familial hypercholesterolemia, at the top of the TC distribution, and predict their CVD risk from insulin level. This is consistent with the Mangan idea that insulin resistance is the key factor causing lifestyle disease. He mentioned a book, Arctic Village, about a man who visited people surviving solely on caribou meat in remote northern Alaska. He's also aware of a concept that we've discussed in the past - hunter gatherers who were healthier than nation/state agricultural slaves. As someone tweeted a couple of years ago, "If I wanted to enslave & subjugate a race, I would introduce agriculture. Weakens men: Less protein, less testosterone (grains, phytoestrogens, omega-6) Matures girls sooner: Phytoestrogens Result: Faster reproduction, shorter lifespans, less ability to resist (weaker/shorter)." By the way, that tweet is gone and so is the account that tweeted it. Banned for thoughtcrime? The censorious totalitarians who control twitter really thwart networking and knowledge accumulation.
  • Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump (2/5) It says everything about Garry Trudeau's abilities as a political cartoonist that he found Obama "hard to satirize". So his comics about Trump are really dull, going for the most obvious jokes: the bad hair and the bragging. There is no insight into Trump's insecurity.

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