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  1. A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies by: Matt Simon
  2. Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by: Helen Thompson
  3. The Captive Mind by: Czeslaw Milosz
  4. Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer by: Scott P. Scheper
  5. The Farthest Shore by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by: Martha Wells
  7. The Mind of the Maker by: Dorothy L. Sayers
  8. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by: G. K. Chesterton 
  9. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by: Alex & Brett Harris

January is the time for resolutions, for changing course, and doing better. My essay consistency was not great in 2022, but I’ve already talked about the various reasons why that was at some length. It’s time to look forward. What am I hoping to accomplish in 2023?

I really want this to be the year that I publish a book. It may not be the greatest book, or the longest book, but I want there to be a book. I know some of you following along at home have every reason to doubt that such a thing will ever happen, let alone soon, but I’ve decided to always spend at least the first fifteen minutes of my morning writing block working on a book. 

This is not the first time I’ve made this commitment, but hopefully it will stick this time. The problem is that it will be going great but I’ll get behind on my normal blog posts, and end up deciding to skip working on the book for a few days “just until I catch up”. But if I go for too long then it becomes hard to get back into things. So no matter how far behind I feel my new resolution is to never skip this writing.

Of course it would be great if I never felt like I was behind, and as you may have already figured out, being more consistent about getting essays out, and being more consistent about working on my book are contradictory. I’m hoping the structure of all of this helps somewhat, but also I am once again resolving to try and keep at least some of my essays shorter. I mean there’s my newsletter, which is always short, but I think there’s also some space for pieces between that and the 4500 word pieces I seem to have drifted into. Ideally each month I would do my newsletter, my book review round-ups, one or two short essays and one long essay. And perhaps by doing this I can improve the quality at all levels.

In the end there is always going to be a tension between building and keeping an audience’s attention — putting out content frequently — and creating something which really deserves an audience — a fully formed book length treatment of some interesting subject.

In any case, regardless of what happens in 2023 I hope you’ll stick around.

I- Eschatological Reviews

A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

By: Matt Simon

Published: 2022

252 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which we have covered the Earth in microplastics, the potential effects of that, and the possibility of mitigation.

What’s the author’s angle?

Simon has been on the environmental beat for awhile, mostly as a writer for WIRED. You get the feeling that he’s pretty passionate about the subject.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a doomer and you want something else to worry about, this is a great book. If you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of things you can get a good sense of the scale of the problem just reading this WIRED article Simon adapted from the book.

General Thoughts

I’ve been aware that there’s a potential “problem with plastics” for quite a while, but I hadn’t really read very deeply on the subject. Thinking back, I feel like I assumed that it was connected to the worry about disposing of all the trash we create. Since that disposal problem is overblown I guess I kind of figured the plastics problem was as well. This is not to say I was unaware of the problem of BPA and endocrine disrupting chemicals, but I put that in a separate bucket, when in reality it’s just one big catastrophe. As you can tell the book caused me to “update some of my priors” as they say, the question is by how much? To put it another way, I have become convinced that the plastic problem is serious, but I’m still not clear on exactly how serious. At this point I think I’m somewhere between “definitely causing some harm, but mostly around the edges” and “from an environmental perspective it’s worse than global warming”.

Yes, we do have plenty of space for new landfills, but plastic waste is different from conventional waste in three key ways:

  1. It can last for thousands of years
  2. Despite its longevity, small bits of it are breaking off all the time. You’ve probably heard the term microplastics, the book also talks about nanoplastics.
  3. Each of these bits may contain potentially 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which, according to the book, “scientists consider to be of concern”.

The book opens with a trip to the top of Beaver Mountain in Utah, past the ski resort where I happen to go skiing every year, to collect rainwater and see how much plastic it contains. And as Janice, the person doing this collection says, “what the hell, there’s so much plastic in here”. And it’s not just on mountaintops in Utah. 

Everywhere scientists look, they find plastic particles, from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the tippy top of Mount Everest and every place in between.

Simon spends much of the book putting numbers to the “what the hell?” amount. The thousands of particles we ingest each day, the millions of threads shed by our synthetic clothes every wash. The billion particles a formula fed baby ends up consuming just because of the plastic bottles and that’s on top of the microplastics they ingest by crawling around on the floor. An amount 10x higher than what adults ingest.

Even if we stopped producing plastics right now, the plastic that is already in the environment would keep shedding microplastics. But obviously that’s not about to happen, our appetite for plastics continues to grow. 

Eschatological Implications

So we’ve got a situation where we’ve covered the planet in microscopic plastic particles that contain “concerning” chemicals. And it’s just going to get worse for the foreseeable future. How are we supposed to decide on the scope of that problem? 

At first glance it seems tractable. We can do science. We can collect data. We can pass laws. Sure, the absolute ubiquity of plastic makes it impossible to have a control. And, to play off the title a bit, the dose makes the poison. You could have some chemical that is no big deal below a certain threshold and worse than smoking at a somewhat higher level. Also if someone were to argue that, by the time we get a grip on the problem, we’ll be too late to do anything about it, I wouldn’t immediately accuse them of alarmism. But all those issues aside, there are people trying to get a handle on this problem. 

Simon includes studies of plastics’ effect on fishes and coral reefs and plants, and speculation on the effects it might be having on fertility, along with a host of other studies. And it’s all bad. (Though I guess some of the potential problems could cancel each other out. If we’re heading into Children of Men territory with fertility, then it might not matter if microplastics start reducing crop yields.) But we’re still left with the question of how bad? Where does it fall on my aforementioned continuum between some harm around the edges, and worse than global warming? I don’t know that this comparison is actually productive, but CO2 went from 320 to 420 ppm since 1960. Plastic production went from around zero to 420 million tons in the same period. And it’s projected to hit 1.5 trillion tons in 2050. And remember this is not the amount of plastic in existence, this is new plastic being added. Which is to say the curve is massively more exponential. 

I know this is a big number, and the book is full of big numbers, but what sort of harm are we talking about? Is this a forget global warming, forget Ukraine and potential nuclear armageddon and focus entirely on plastics? Or is this, yeah as long as we stop using plastic shopping bags and require better filters on washing machines and dryers we’ll be fine. Simon seems to lean towards the latter, but I’m pretty sure that he figures if he makes the problem sound too intractable that people will just give up. 

It does sound pretty intractable, so I guess I hope it’s one of those things where the curve goes straight up, but it’s fine. Though we have a lot of things where the curve is going straight up and they can’t all be fine…

II- Capsule Reviews

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By: Helen Thompson

Published: 2022

384 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book has three sections: oil and geopolitics, economic craziness post Bretton Woods, and modern democratic weakness. Thompson ties these things together in a complicated source of our current difficulties. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Thompson is a Cambridge professor, so while written for the masses, it is still pretty dense. Which is to say there is a degree to which she wants to display her erudition, which is significant. 

Who should read this book?

If it sounds interesting then you might want to read it. It adds a lot of detail to our current problems, but I don’t know that it brings any really fresh perspective. Thompson’s command of the details is amazing, but if you don’t care about every twist and turn, then you probably won’t enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

For me, the first section covered the ground I was the most unfamiliar with. Of course I knew that oil had played a major role in the world, but Thompson lays out, in rigorous detail, how access to oil drove nearly all major geopolitical decisions in the 20th century. Even if it was one or two steps removed, it was always in there if you dug deep enough. Certainly, it’s possible that she overemphasized oil’s role in some respects, but I wouldn’t want to get into a debate with her about it. I think she would slaughter me.

The second section was interesting, though I came across one review that was pretty critical of it. The review was in Foreign Policy, and the guy seemed to know what he was talking about. (This all gets back to the hard job of deciding between experts I brought up in my last set of reviews.) He didn’t have a problem with the details, rather he felt that Thompson placed too much emphasis on structural factors and not enough on avoidable mistakes made by individuals in power. Otherwise he seemed broadly on board with Thompson’s prognosis. Which is that the Euro-zone is a mess, and that it’s only gotten messier. (The reviewer did say he thoroughly enjoyed the first section however.) 

The third section was the one I was the most interested in, and it sparked the thinking that led the second essay of last month, The Optimal Dosage of War, or at least the conclusion. (Though to be clear it was written before the invasion.) I was particularly intrigued by her idea that you need a strong national identity in order to maintain a democracy within that nation. When one nation is trying to destroy another nation through the medium of war, it automatically provides that. But where does it come from in the absence of war, when the country has ceded decision making to ephemeral international organizations? When it’s mostly seen by its citizens as the provider of spoils to be fought over? 

Having read section three I was somewhat disappointed, she once again gave a very detailed recounting of recent events, but I found those details more distracting than illuminating. This is almost certainly something that reflects poorly on me.  I have a tendency to prefer grand philosophical theories, and balk at the hard work of fitting the details to those theories. And if I were going to use one word to describe this book, it would be “detailed”. And my criticism would be that the details come too quickly. But in a sense that just illustrates her point, the modern world is a complicated structure. And more and more it looks like we’re unequal to the task of managing it.

The Captive Mind 

By: Czeslaw Milosz

Published: 1953

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Milosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951. This book is something of a post mortem of his time there both as a writer and as a close observer of other writers., both under the Nazis, but more importantly under the communists.

What’s the author’s angle?

Milosz is attempting to explain some of the paradoxes of communism to people in the West. And he can’t help but add a dash of apologetics in there. “Yes, me and my fellow intellectuals did stupid things, but here’s why.”

Who should read this book?

When I read books like this I end up noticing parallels between how things worked under communism and how they work today in America. I’m sure that this is in large part due to my particular biases, but even for people without those same biases I think it might be useful to see both the strangeness and the similarities between now and the Eastern Bloc in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned there did appear to be some similarities between the things Milosz described and things that are happening now. Obviously one doesn’t want to make too much of these similarities — 2023 is a vastly better place than the Eastern Bloc during the time of Stalin — but I still think there is some wisdom which might be gleaned. In particular this book dovetailed and illuminated a couple of other books I read recently. The first was Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. Milosz spends quite a bit of time talking about socialist realism, for example:

“Socialist realism” is much more than a matter of taste, of preference for one style of painting or music rather than another. It is concerned with the beliefs which lie at the foundation of human existence. In the field of literature it forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task—to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

It’s hard to be knowledgeable about everything and before reading Capitalist Realism I was unfamiliar with the idea of socialist realism, now that I’ve had it explained by someone who lived through it, I have a better sense of what Fisher was going for. Not to get too far off track, but Milosz was saying that socialist realism channeled all art into a very specific groove, you could only speak about one thing (the awesomeness and power of socialism). Dissent and rebelliousness were unthinkable. Fisher was making an analogous point, that capitalism, despite not having the top down dictatorial nature of socialism, nevertheless seems to similarly funnel everything into a specific groove. It does this not by disallowing dissent and rebelliousness but by absorbing and neutering it. I’m not claiming that Fisher was correct, but I understand where he was going much better now.

The second book it helped to illuminate was The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Milosz describes two totalitarian systems, the Nazis and the Communists. In both cases the desire to impose order was very overt, and explicitly ideological, and the order thus imposed was pretty awful. Desmet argued in his book that the desire to impose order is a property of modernity, not something specific just to certain ideologies. Certain ideologies move more quickly in their attempts to impose order, but all modern systems are headed in that direction.

As I read Milosz’s descriptions of the narrowing window of acceptable art, and the pressure being placed on authors and artists to conform, it did feel like that situation and our situation now bore some depressing similarities. Again, I’m sure I’ve got some biases on this front, but I would nevertheless argue that we’re dealing with similar impulses.

Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer

By: Scott P. Scheper

Published: 2022

594 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The one true method of notetaking. It’s Analog, Numeric-Alpha, Tree, and Indexed (thus the acronym ANTI). Based on Niklas Luhman’s actual system, not a modern digital bastardization of it!

What’s the author’s angle?

The “one true” part is a big deal. Scheper spends a lot of time (as in probably 70% of the book) explaining why the true Zettelkasten has to be done his way and how everyone else working in the space has perverted and undermined Luhman’s initial genius

Who should read this book?

If you are mostly convinced that digital is the way to go, but before you go all in you want someone to steelman analog. Or if you want to take good notes, and you want to understand analog note-taking down to its roots. If you just want an overview of Scheper’s system then you can probably do that more efficiently by watching his videos.

General Thoughts

I’ve been using Roam for the last couple of years. It’s pretty cool, but I have a hard time finding time to really take advantage of it, and thus far I haven’t gotten much benefit from old notes. I will think something is worth recording for future use, and then it will never come up again. I imagine that it might end up being useful for writing books (refer back to the intro) but overall I don’t think I’m currently great at taking notes. The question is why? Am I a bad note taker inherently? Is it just an issue of time? Or am I using the wrong system?

I feel like I have an above average memory, and that I’ve probably coasted on that for long enough that at this point I’m disposed to be a bad note taker. As far as time, Scheper confidently asserts that his system only takes two hours a day, which includes the associated reading. I think it’s clear that I read more than average, and I’m still very lucky to get 30 minutes a day where I’m reading an actual book with pen in hand — more often it’s closer to 10 minutes. Obviously I can work on my desire, or I can try to carve out more time, but it seems my best bet is finding a more efficient and effective system, which is why I read this book, and as you can imagine his two hour assertion was already a strike against it.

On the positive side, I definitely came away from the book with some ideas on how to improve things. In particular he had three recommendations that I’m going to try:

  1. He placed a big emphasis on selectivity, and it is easy with modern tools to just dump in everything and let search sort it out.
  2. Closely related to that, he also talked me into the idea of creating a network of knowledge, that rather than just throwing out tags willy-nilly you should carefully consider where to attach a given insight, and that if it attaches to everything it attaches to nothing.
  3. Finally, his idea of having a system that encourages review and re-engagement resonated with me. I re-read old journal entries and the daily notes I took in Roam already and that has been very illuminating. I think a directed subject matter review could work even better.

That’s the good. Here’s the bad. He is a huge advocate for analog, as in writing everything down on cards that get put in actual file drawers. I would guess that 80% of the book amounts to an analog polemic. And despite hundreds of pages of this advocacy I ended the book unconvinced. Sure if I had all the time in the world I would probably do analog, but I don’t. 

He understands that analog is a big ask, and he promises that if you really can’t do it he will tell you how to create a digital version.  And eventually in one of the appendices he does. It takes up all of five pages, and he spends a page and a half emphasizing that the whole thing is a dumb idea and you really should do analog. He then spends two pages offering examples of analog notes as part of the process of establishing a character limit (see step 2 below). Which leaves the final page and a half for actual instructions. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. Establish a character limit.
  3. Disable editing and deleting.
  4. Make sure it mimics his analog rules as closely as possible.
  5. Disable copy and paste.
  6. Disable tags and backlinks.
  7. No really, don’t do it. Delete the whole thing and go analog.

So his advice is to take everything that might save you time, everything that’s an advantage of digital, and dump it. And then pretend it’s analog, only you’re typing not writing.

The book has some good ideas that I’m actually going to try out, but I had to wade through a lot of “The one true way to take notes is precisely the way I’m doing it” to get to it.

The Farthest Shore

By: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1972

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. This time around he and his young companion, Arren must sail to distant lands to investigate the disappearance of magic.

Who should read this book?

This is another classic of children’s fantasy literature. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything that fits into that category you will probably enjoy this, though you should start with A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan

General Thoughts

The book opens with Prince Arren arriving on Roke, the Isle of the Mages. He bears a disturbing report from his father, the king: wizards and sorcerers are forgetting how to perform magic. By this point in the series Ged is the Archmage, and he decides that he needs to investigate, and invites Arren to accompany him. They soon discover that someone has overcome death, and that in the absence of death magic gradually ceases to function.

The relationship between Ged and Arren is well told, and after spending two other books with Ged it’s nice to see him at the point of maximum wisdom. But what I most enjoyed about the book was Le Guin’s description of what the world looks like in the absence of death and magic. 

I am almost certainly overfitting the events of the novel into my current preoccupations, but the novel felt prescient. The world Le Guin described felt very similar to our own. The lack of death led to a lack of striving, and from there a lack of art and accomplishment. We haven’t conquered death, but we’ve certainly eliminated a lot of it. We’ve also been marinating ourselves in comfort, something I’ve touched on in the last couple of posts. Out of this we seem to be suffering from a malaise similar to what’s described in the book. 

As I said I’m almost certainly overfitting, but it still gave the book a deeper sadness than it had for me on previous readings.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) 

By: Martha Wells

Published: 2017

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A security cyborg manages to hack its governor module, which allows it to finally experience something resembling freewill. Because of an unfortunate incident in its past, it calls itself “murderbot”.

Who should read this book?

This was actually a novella, not a novel, and thus only 3 hours on Audible. Most of us listen to podcasts longer than that. (The latest Hardcore History anyone?) At that length a book doesn’t have to be a classic for the ages. It just has to be entertaining, and this definitely was.

General Thoughts

This book won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for the best novella, and I’m not sure what to make of that. As I’ve already said it was definitely entertaining, but it wasn’t out of this world. I felt like Wells could have done more with the premise, and the plot was relatively light weight. As a result it actually could have benefited from a greater length. I mean, you could almost double the length and it still would have been a really short book. 

As usual the question now is whether I should continue with this series. The other entries are equally short, so perhaps I will. 

III- Religious Reviews

The Mind of the Maker 

By: Dorothy L. Sayers

Published: 1941

246 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that the creative process illuminates the nature of the Trinity and vice versa.

What’s the author’s angle?

Beyond being a devout Christian, Sayers was a devout defender of the various creeds (Athanasian, Nicene). This book is a defense of their verity from an unconventional angle. Though one Sayers had experience with since she was best known as a mystery writer.

Who should read this book?

I’m not a trinitarian, and I nevertheless enjoyed the book. I think it’s applicable even if you’re an Arian heretic, but I valued it mostly for the great advice she dispensed on creativity and writing. 

General Thoughts

The book is written in a denser, some might even say, old fashioned style. And while I enjoyed nearly all of it, Sayer seemed to really hit her stride only in the last third of the book. But as I said if you’re a writer, and particularly if you’re a Christian writer, I definitely think this book is worth reading. 

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare 

by: G. K. Chesterton 

Published: 1908

330 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Scotland Yard detective, who has been tasked with combating negative philosophies, ends up being elected as one of seven members (each named for a day of the week) of the governing council of anarchists. And then strangeness ensues.

Who should read this book?

Chesterton’s writing is always delightful and this book is thought to have inspired Kafka and Bourges. Which I did not expect. Kingsley Amis called it “The most thrilling book I have ever read.” 

General Thoughts

I have a bad habit of reading plot summaries of books. If you’re reading as many books as I do you need all the help you can get keeping things straight. That was a mistake with this book. If you’re going to read it you should definitely do it unspoiled. That said, even knowing how it ends I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Chesterton is one of those people that I would enjoy reading even if he were just describing an average day at the office. 

As something of an example of that, he has his main character defend the poetry of train schedules, and it’s brilliant. I wonder that more neoliberals haven’t adopted it as something of a motto. 

As I said, this is definitely one you should go into unspoiled, so I won’t say anything further, except that it was a great book.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations 

By: Alex & Brett Harris

Published: 2008

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A case for getting teenagers to take on bigger tasks and more responsibility. With a particular emphasis on finding a “holy calling” and doing what it takes to fulfill that.

What’s the author’s angle?

At the time the book was written the authors were teens themselves, running a very popular Christian youth website. I’m assuming that the book was, in part, written to promote their wider efforts.

Who should read this book?

If my kids were still teenagers I would have them read this book. There are probably better books than this one if you’re approaching things as a parent. But overall I found it very worthwhile.

General Thoughts

This came up as I was writing my blog post Challenging Children, and since it seemed directly on point to my discussion of hard things, I decided to read it before publishing. In the end I didn’t use very much from it since that post was trying to make the case largely without recourse to religion and as this book was explicitly religious. It was a great book, but I wanted to make the point in a different fashion. 

Beyond that, most books like this fall on a continuum. On the one end are hard facts, studies and data. “Teens who take on greater responsibilities are 50% less suicidal than teens who play video games all day.” (That’s an example I made up btw, not a real statistic.) “These are some proven steps which have been shown to increase children’s ability to be responsible.” Etc.

On the other end of the continuum are inspirational stories. “Fifteen year old Connor, inspired by a magazine showing the lack of clean water in Africa, decided to raise money to dig wells. In the end he provided clean water for twenty thousand people and saved hundreds of lives.” (That is a real story from the book by the way.)

This was pretty firmly on the latter end of things. Lots of great stories, some specific recommendations for how to act but mostly lacking in hard data. Which to be clear is fine, but that’s part of why I think it’s more geared towards teens themselves than their parents. You’re not looking to prove to teens that it’s a good thing to be responsible, you’re trying to inspire them, individually, to choose to be responsible and do hard things.

As I mentioned I already did a whole post on this subject, so I obviously think it’s tremendously important, and this book is a great addition to the effort. If you have teenagers I think you should get them to read this book.

If I had a nickel for every particle of microplastic you breathed in while reading my blog, I wouldn’t be a wealthy man, but I might be able to quit my day job. I’d take even a penny per microplastic particle. If for some reason this strange logic appeals to you, consider donating