Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Books Read - Q2 2021

Previously: Q1 2021 book reviews, 2020 Book Review Compendium, 2019 book compendium and 2018 book compendium.

  • Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances (2/5) This was one of the books in our bibliography for Timber, Tobacco, Alcohol, Pipelines, and Utilities. Thesis: "History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances. Surprisingly, we're not the only ones to do this. As you will see in the following pages, almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistence that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst, and sex. This 'fourth drive' is a natural part of our biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature." Author Ronald K. Siegel was a professor at UCLA. Interesting: "Tobacco shamanism is a relatively old pattern of drug use for our species, dating back eight thousand years." "[T]he gods of many American Indians, like those of the Mayans before them, were thought to smoke tobacco cigars, like corporate chieftans of an ancient world." Siegel's mentions that baboons were more interested in consuming drugs when they were captive: "the difference between the wild and captive baboon was the mental state of depression and suffering brought on by confinement. In this state the captive baboon expressed a 'powerful psychological predisposition' to the use of an intoxicant such as tobacco, which promised to relieve the depression by producing a state of mental exhilaration... the captive baboon reached out for escape to tobaccoland." A similar results with rats and alcohol: "A king rat developed in each of the colonies and each king was an extreme nonconsumer of alcohol. [Gaylord] Ellison speculated that 'the stress of being at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy, and failing at competition for food, leads some animals to develop extreme alcohol consumption habits.'"
  • A Generation of Sociopaths (2/5) Author Bruce Gibney went to Stanford and his roommate was a co-founder of PayPal, which he bought into. He later worked for Peter Thiel and Founders Fund. He is GenX, which makes sense: they hate boomers the most. I have often casually blamed boomers for things, so I thought it would be interesting to read an thorough indictment of them. But after reading, I am less convinced that boomers should bear the blame for our collapse. If I had to defend the boomers at their trial, like John Adams and the soldiers in Boston, the key to their defense would be that the oldest boomers were only in their 20s when the economic collapse of the middle class in the U.S. began. (It's important to get our collapses straight, because we live in a fractal of increasing collapses within collapses.) Take a look at the website WTF Happened In 1971? as well as the related twitter account. The year 1971 is when middle class compensation in the U.S. decoupled from its productivity, and all gains from increased productivity went exclusively to oligarchs, making the distribution of wealth much more unequal. Other disquieting trends started at the same time: increasing age at first marriage, the obesity epidemic, falling beef consumption per capita. What happened in 1971 was that it was the date of the second of the U.S.'s three big dollar devaluations so far. (The first was in 1933, and the third is happening right now.) The year 1970 was also the nadir of foreign-born in the U.S. labor force, which went from 5% in 1970 to (at least) 17% today. Boomers simply cannot have been responsible for this - they were too young. I think what we can say in fairness to the boomers is that they did behave selfishly because by the time they were adults, their nation had been repealed and replaced with a free-for-all economic zone. Smashing the middle class (via central banking and imported serfs) and making their neighborhoods no-go zones was not something the boomers did, it was something they responded to by adopting a code of "every man for himself." So of course boomers fled to the suburbs and committed architectural atrocities. People (including boomers) build cheap disposable houses because the U.S. middle class is a stateless people whose neighborhoods can be targeted for destruction at any time. (Twitter account @wrathofgnon feigns ignorance about the real reasons for our pathetic suburbs.) 
  • Into a Desert Place: A 3000 Mile Walk around the Coast of Baja California (2/5) I have discovered a recurring theme with these adventurers books: doing something just for the sake of doing it is not all that rewarding. We saw this with the Man Who Walked Through Time, Paul Theroux's books, and Jim Rogers' books. There's no reason to walk around the perimeter of the Baja peninsula, and the story becomes monotonous and self-similar in the same way that the peninsula itself is a fractal. In contrast, a book like Fishing With John is more interesting because fishing is a purposeful economic activity. John Steinbeck wrote of Baja California: "If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water." Macintosh quotes John Selby: "it would have been better for everyone concerned if, after the Mexican war, the United States had seized the whole couuntry." Highlights: "Meat was a precious commodity in the fisherman's paradise of Baja California." "On hot deserts it is a big temptation to take off a shirt and wear only shorts... this will do nothing but make you dehydrate faster. Clothing helps you ration your sweat by not letting it evaporate so fast that you get only part of its cooling effect." Walking along a mountainous peninsula, he has the same issue that Colin Fletcher had in the Grand Canyon: "At the first hint of light, I was up and out to assess the situation. Cutting inland was no easy option: I'd have to backtrack a mile or more to find a relatively safe place to climb, and wandering into the mountains with just over a gallon of water wasn't a particularly attractive proposition." He says, "If I could give one piece of advice to anyone believing the world to be dull, it would be this - if you have the ability to set goals and value your word, then you'll never be bored. When you're absolutely determined to accomplish something you've committed yourself to, life suddenly becomes exciting and exhilarating."
  • The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America (5/5) Like Bill Buford (author of the previously-reviewed Heat and Dirt), author Michal Ruhlman is a writer who became a cook. In the mid-90s, he attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York. "Stock is the foundation for all classical French cooking," and he learns to make it, and downstream preparations like espagnole and demi-glace, first. There is something about good writers writing about food. I'd like to read more of Ruhlman's books, plus maybe James Beard, MFK Fischer, and Julia Child. What makes the book is that the CIA instructors are such interesting characters. "Somebody asked if it was necessary to peel carrots at all if they were going into the stock. Pardus stopped peeling and said, 'Do you peel a carrot? Some people don't. I like my stock to taste as clean and fresh as possible. My way is not the only way to do things, but I've found that people who don't peel carrots don't do it because they're lazy. Put peels on their salad if they like peels so much.'" Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is "standard issue at the CIA;" "everyone should read this book straight through-twice-before graduating." Driving to CIA in a snowstorm: "In earlier years, a little drive like that would have been more fun than anything else. But this sort of fun ended when I became a parent. Kids change the way you behave; new instincts engage. One of them is self-preservation. A friend of mine who lives in Manhattan, for instance, remembers he began walking closer to the insides of the sidewalk, farther away from the curb, once he became a father. When I spun out on Route 9, floating backward into who knows what, I didn't think of myself but rather of my daughter's face." "Saute is a rapid, a la minute cooking technique. It has no tenderizing effect, so the product has to be tender. You cannot saute a lamb shank. The cooking is fast. That's why it's so much fun. Bing bang boom, it goes out the door. In a small amount of oil. Over high heat." How the CIA's cooking Skills class changed him: "Efficiency: no wasted movement. This idea, this will, bore not only on one's actions in the kitchen; it extended to one's life outside that kitchen. It changed how I packed for a trip - I tried to diminish the number of times I moved from closet to bureau to suitcase just as I learned to minimize my trips to the pot room or dry storage. I didn't make two trip to the hardware store because I forgot something or failed to have forseen a potential problem. I didn't go from the bedroom to the living room, stop before I got there, and go back to the bedroom because I forgot something. And if I did, it made me mad. I solved problems differently. When we awoke one morning with no electricity and therefor no way to run the coffee machine, for instance, I thought immediately to put a pot of water on the grill on the deck out back for coffee. I am certain this wouldn't have occurred to me before skills... With efficiency of action, one also wanted speed, efficiency's ultimate goal. I tried to do everything faster. The faster you worked - in the kitchen, in life - the more you could do. Whoever did the most the best, won - no matter who you were or what you were doing, even if you were just playing against yourself." "Do the job that can be done fastest, first." "The physical world grew more friendly because we were learning to harness and manipulate it. Look what we could do with heat and water and a steel surface. This created a sense of strength that I had not felt before. Control over properties - hot, cold, wet, dry - became a metaphor for control over oneself, one's actions and thoughts." A meat thermometer is only as accurate as you are. "You try to get to the coolest part of the meat there is. That will be the center of the thickest part of the roast. How do you know you've got the center? If you push it farther in, the temperature should rise." Mirepoix is chopped onions, carrots, and delery. "Asian mirepoix" is garlic, ginger, and scallions. Knowing how to cook or bake things - a loaf of bread, a sausage - is sometimes just about ratios. "Cooking is a mad dash. Baking is different. Baking is regimented. It is disciplined." Regarding cooks themselves: "I was continually surprised to discover that the age of this or that chef was not fity-six but rather thirty-nine." "All that work over grills, fire, hot metal, boiling water, heads in the oven, day after day, year after year. They literally cooked themselves. [...] It seemed completely possible that aging might have less to do with chronological time than with how much living and working you did in your life. Cooks got more done than most people by working faster longer. Cooks put in more hours of life in less time and therefore got older faster than most people. The solution for the question of age, combined with the physical fact that they baked their flesh daily in 120-degree heat, gradually carmelizing it, made sense to me."
  • Denison's Ice Road: Opening an Arctic Truck Route Farther Into the Wild North Than Other Men Dared (2/5) I didn't find Edith Iglauer's first book nearly as interesting as her second, the previously reviewed Fishing With John. Perhaps it's because the Northwest Territories of Canada (only 40,000 people living in a land area the size of South Africa, with half the territory too cold for trees to grow) are a less interesting place than coastal British Columbia and the Inside Passage. Still, a theme on this blog is the recognition of the early European-American settlers, pioneers, and frontiersmen: the people who actually built the country. As exhibited by previously reviewed books like Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," McCullough's "The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West," "On The Wings Of The World" (about John Audubon), and the biographies of the great 19th (and early 20th) century industrialists. Before "Ice Road Truckers," a man named Denison was building a seasonal, winter ice road from Yellowknife to a uranium mine on the Great Bear Lake, about 300 miles away. (GBL is the fourth largest lake in North America.) Building ice roads and shipping loads across them is the type of business where the "profit is sitting in the yard". Denison said, "When we were a small outfit tryin' to get along we didn't have the money to buy new trucks so we had junk to start with an not too much money in equipment, and that's how we made money." One of the hazards of ice roads, and especially ice road trucking with heavy loads, is dropping through the ice. Luckily nobody in Denison's operation had ever perished, but they had sent a number of vehicles to the bottom of lakes. However: they got most of them back! Set up an A-frame with a winch over a hole in the ice, and drop a line down. Denison said of one vehicle that was waiting to be recovered from underwater: "It's the only one we've lost but I don't think of it as really lost, just in cold storage."
  • The Patch (4/5) Rereading some McPhee. Some great ones in here - collecting used golf balls that he sees while biking and canoeing. Visiting the golf course at St Andrews and watching an Open. Collegiate lacrosse. (Among his talents, McPhee is a great sportswriter.) Very short pieces from his early writing, doing profiles for Time magazine. Why chocolate bars are partly made of granite.
  • Draft No. 4 (5/5) McPhee's writing process, and anecdotes from his writing career. In the Solstice Links there is some discussion of the dictionary/thesaurus that McPhee is using to pick the right words on his final revision - his fourth draft of a piece. Maybe with this book we're getting a taste of what his Princeton creative writing class would be like? The eight essays in the book are Progression, Structure, Editors & Publisher, Elicitation, Frame of Reference, Checkpoints, Draft No. 4, and Omission - all published in the New Yorker between 2009 and 2015.


Taylor Conant said...

I like the John Adams thought experiment about defending boomers. Because it turns out if you start asking why the previous generation fucked it up so bad you realize the can-kicking exercise extends into perpetuity historically. "Sins of our fathers" kind of thing. There are two extreme poles that form from not coming to terms with this phenomenon-- one is the idiot left revolutionary mentality that all history is a cascade of abuse and slavery, arbitrary in nature, so everyone who came before is evil and should be denounced and we can "remake mankind" on new terms. And the other is "Okay Boomerism", trying to find one scapegoat generation to blame for all of life's ills as if they had that much control over things.

Instead I counsel the Moldbug path-- the mistakes of the previous generations are a foreign country, we should visit with an intent to understand how and why, not to assign judgment and blame.

Hard to do when you're living with the consequences of their mistakes and missed opportunities. But then, that's humanity for you! One big happy family.

If you looked at the 1971 divergence as a business experience versus other businesses, you'd ascribe the durable, persistent effect to some kind of strategic advantage, aka, a moat.

Captain Obvious way of saying there was a strategic, systemic shift that occurred. So the "blame" for these particular phenomena is pretty obvious-- whatever that change was.

Few know this!

Allan Folz said...

Disappointing, but not surprising that the Boomer book is a 2/5. I downloaded and read the sample chapter and sensed a strong undertone of neo-Marxism from the author. They are the type that assigns blame for all of crony-capitalism's ills to capitalism, rather than cronyism. You see, they don't have a quarrel with cronyism, they have a quarrel with which sets of cronies are making the obscene profits. So they blame capitalism for the generally perceived messiness to it.

As for the Boomers, I've been disgusted with them since the 90's. I do recall having this discussion of whether the blame lay with them or their parents of the Statist (some call it Greatest) Generation that indulged them. I settled on that when you see a spoiled child you blame the parents, but adults are expected to know and act better. You blame the narcissistic adult on themself.

Boomers are the narcissistic generation that sacrificed nothing for anything, failed up at every turn, took out a mortgage on their children's future after they had squandered the inheritance that was left to them, and, to top if off, have the outrageous arrogance to think they actually earned any of their good fortune and deserve to be congratulated for it.

While it is true all the worst tendencies of globalism were well in play before they were old enough to be in charge, there is not a single point in time in which one could say they self-corrected and altered course on the all too obvious logical conclusions of that trajectory. Every single bad idea that was out there in the 60's and 70's they doubled-down on in the 80's and 90's, and doubled-down on again in the 00's and 10's, and sadly a third time now for the 2020's.

So, nope. They are narcissistic adults and get no quarter.

As for what happened in 1971, I think the mind virus of Malthusianism somehow infected the Elites at the highest levels. Since 86% of people uncritically believe what their peer group believes, the Elites have given up on trying to make a better planet, and instead are working on making the planet "safe" from humanity. And since they are also compartmentalized idiots, they have huge and obvious conflicts in how they go about it, like ignoring exponential population growth in Africa while trying to engender negative population growth in the developed world, and at the same time doing nothing to address that all the developed world's economic systems are predicated on 3% growth to remain solvent.

Allan Folz said...

The Ruhlman book (along with Buford) reminded me of another thing I've come to realize and so happens is my newest and best advice to anyone 18-28 years old. If you have a passion, move to whichever is the greatest place for pursuing that passion.

Damn the expense, just do it. Assuming it's not something so over-subscribed your success depends entirely on court politics (eg. acting in LA and NYC, do-gooder staffer in WashDC) you'll be surrounded by a bunch of other people equally invested in that passion and they will make sure you don't fail purely on account of funds.

The second and maybe third greatest place for it might work, but you really should aim for the number one place, if at all possible for you.

Ruhlman and Buford both went to NY to cook and write. Buford went even further to Italy for cooking. It shows in their writing.

This is my advice to my own kids too.

CP said...

However, Boomers' student protests gave the ideas the appearance of popular support they wouldn't have been able to otherwise claim. So, does one blame Boomers or does one blame the largely Silents and GI Generations that indulged them? I argue it is as with spoiled children: when they are children, you blame the parents; when they are adults, you blame the person. In the case of the Boomers, as they left college and moved into adulthood they did not correct course on any of the progressive agenda, especially when they directly benefited from it. If it benefited them, they doubled-down. In contrast, when it personally cost their cohort money, they could and did reverse course. I blame the Boomers.