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  1. The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left by: Garett Jones
  2. The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by: Michael Easter
  3. Infinite Jest by: David Foster Wallace
  4. What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by: Randall Munroe
  5. The Sandman: Book One by: Neil Gaiman
  6. Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 by: Craig Alanson

It’s the start of 2023, so it’s probably a good time to look back at 2022. It was pretty crazy. To start with, I moved. Two words shouldn’t be able to conceal so much effort, but the process was ridiculously disruptive and time consuming. Then, the minute that was done, I went to Ireland for two and a half weeks, which was fun, but also quite time-consuming. 

In a somewhat unfortunate coincidence (I applied before deciding to move) this was also the year that I got accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business program, a 14 week intensive business course, entirely paid for by Goldman. I think it can best be described as a mini-MBA. Not only did the course itself take a lot of time and attention it encouraged me to make some major changes to my business which took still more time and attention. 

Despite all that, I ended up setting a record for the amount I read: 113 books, clocking in at just over 38k pages (so an average of 336 pages per book). It was not my intention to set a record, in fact at various points when I was buried by stuff, I thought I should do less reading. I’m way ahead. And I sort of did, but I mostly didn’t.

Of course, I need to acknowledge the contribution to the total made by the Expeditionary Force series. That was 15 books out of the total, so definitely a non-trivial contribution. I finished the final book this month so I guess it’s time to pass judgment on whether that reading was beneficial or a waste of time.

I’m hoping that 2023 will be significantly calmer. Will that result in even more books? You’ll have to keep following along to find out.

I- Eschatological Reviews

The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left

By: Garett Jones

Published: 2022

228 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That some immigrants are of a higher quality than other immigrants, that this quality persists across multiple generations, and corresponds very closely to the technological history since 1500 of their nation of origin. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Jones definitely has a controversial streak. This is the third book in what he calls his “Singapore Trilogy”. The first book was about national IQ. The second book made the case for “10% less democracy”. This is the third book and it might actually be the least controversial. Since Jones is basically pro-immigration, he just thinks some immigrants are better than others and we should prioritize the better ones.

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in heterodox opinions in general will probably benefit from this book. If however you’re looking for something comprehensive, this isn’t it.

General Thoughts

This was the December pick for the local SSC book club. A couple of the members of the group are alums of GMU where Jones teaches, so one of them invited him to participate. We expected that, if he did so, it would be remotely, but he actually flew out and attended in person which was very generous of him. In addition to coming to the book club we also had dinner with him beforehand which was very enjoyable. Obviously none of this has much to do with the actual content of the book, but the whole experience of meeting the author in person did introduce certain biases. But enough about Jones, what about his book?

As I already mentioned the book makes some controversial claims and several people, including Jones’s colleague Bryan Caplan, have been pretty critical of these claims. In the process of preparing for Jones’ visit members of the book club came across these criticisms and decided to bring them up. I wasn’t entirely sure how this was going to play out, but I imagined that things might get heated. They did not, instead Jones effortlessly answered all of the criticisms though in a somewhat technical fashion. This is probably the way criticisms should be answered, particularly in writing, but when you’re having a discussion it makes follow up hard. When Jones says that he analyzed the same data and got a different result, what else can you say but “interesting…” Whatever problems it presented for the questioners, Jones’ responses made him very convincing in person.

At this point I assume you want me to provide a specific example. Well, I wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I can speak a little bit about his rebuttal of the Caplan criticisms I mentioned earlier, but before I do I need to lay out Jones’ model. He uses three attributes to quantify immigrant quality:

  • State History since 0 AD
  • Agricultural History in thousands of years
  • Technological History since 1500

Together this is the SAT of a country (not to be confused with the test). The book focuses on presenting data that these three factors have predictive power for the amount of prosocial behavior the immigrant and his descendants will likely possess. But of the three, the attribute with the most predictive power is T, the technological history of the country of origin.

Jones’ rebuttal to Caplan is that Caplan only considers S and A, while neglecting T. Now I read Caplan’s book, and in addition to the initial review I did another whole essay about it. But at the moment, sitting there with Jones, despite these efforts, I had no idea whether Caplan had neglected to include T in his analysis. Nor, you will be sad to hear, have I had a chance to confirm it since then (mostly because the Caplan book is in a box somewhere.) Now, I had a couple of big problems with Caplan’s book, so I’m inclined to believe Jones, but talking to him in person just illustrated how difficult epistemology has become these days. A point I’ll return to in just a second, but before I do I’d like to bring up one final point.

If you’re using Jones’ SAT to evaluate different nations, China comes out very near the top, and indeed Jones spends quite a bit of time talking about all of the SE Asian countries who have benefitted from Chinese immigration. Many of his critics have pounced on this to discredit his thesis. If China has such a high SAT and if so many countries have benefited from Chinese immigrants, why is China itself such a basket case? This is an excellent question, but it once again illustrates the epistemic difficulties. China has been a rockstar for most of the 3000+ years of its existence. Should it be disqualified because it’s had a rough patch for the last 5% of that period? Maybe? How would you answer that question? What countries would you compare China to? What hard data would you assemble? I completely understand that this is a point that bears discussion, but how could you ever be certain one way or the other?

Eschatological Implications

This, then, is the problem. “How much immigration to allow and from where?” is one of the many large questions facing the world. Everyone seems to agree that the effects of policies which implement one answer over another will be large and consequential. The problem is that there is vast disagreement on whether the effects will be large, consequential and positive, or whether they will be large, consequential and negative. So how are we to resolve this? How does one decide between Bryan Caplan and his book showing that unlimited immigration will be awesome and Garett Jones and his book showing that unlimited immigration would devastate innovation and make the country’s culture unrecognizable?

I think the answer is that people largely decide based on their biases. And you probably can’t blame them, because there doesn’t appear to be any other way of deciding. Certainly I haven’t had any luck with other methods.

I’m not saying that I put forth the maximum amount of effort I possibly could to answer the question of how much immigration to allow, but I’ve put forth a lot. I’ve read and reviewed multiple books. I interacted with Caplan on Twitter and Jones in person. I’ve asked questions, and gotten answers. I’ve read at least a hundred essays, and the abstracts of at least a dozen papers. Beyond all that I’ve thought long and hard about it. In short I’ve done probably 100x as much as one could reasonably expect out of the average individual, and yet I suspect that whatever certainty I feel about my opinions is largely based on my initial biases, and only a small amount on the data. And I’m running out of ideas on how to change that.

II- Capsule Reviews

The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self 

By: Michael Easter

Published: 2021

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That our pursuit of comfort and convenience has led, at best, to an unprecedented experiment in changing our environment, and, at worst, to a huge array of harmful second order effects.

What’s the author’s angle?

Easter is an editor for Men’s Health, and a writer for Outside Magazine, so he’s obviously predisposed to be a proponent of “uncomfortable” outdoor activities.

Who should read this book?

This is very close to being an “everyone”. The way in which he summarizes research in a broad array of fields makes it both generally applicable and interesting. But if you’re already mostly on top of your health you could probably get by with just listening to one of his podcast appearances. I heard him on Peter Attia’s, but he was also on Rogan. (Which I haven’t listened to.)

General Thoughts

A full review of this book will appear in the second issue of American Hombre (Subscribe today!) So I’m leaving the meat of my discussion for that space. I will however steal one paragraph from that review:

Before we get to the actual content of the book, I have to say something about the subtitle: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. If you’re anything like me, it might be giving you second thoughts about reading the book. It shouldn’t. I have to assume that this phrase was added at the insistence of the publisher. No version of that phrase occurs in the actual text (not even “healthy self”) and even the word “reclaim” only occurs once, and it’s unrelated. The subtitle isn’t wrong exactly, but I don’t think it strikes the right tone. If I had been in charge of subtitling the book I would have gone with: Wrestle Discomfort to Salvage Your Life Before You Die of Depression or Diabetes. But who knows if that subtitle would have sold as well.

Infinite Jest 

by: David Foster Wallace

Published: 1996

1079 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where it’s impossible to give a brief summation. But if you were looking for a main theme “addiction” would have to be near the top of the list.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a gripping plot, if tangents annoy you, or if you’ve never read a 1000+ page book then this is probably not the book for you. On the other hand if you’re looking for a deep, beautifully written, discursive magnum opus that’s also full of wisdom, then you might decide this is one of the best books ever.

General Thoughts

For me Infinite Jest seemed pretty daunting. Not merely because it’s long, it also seems pretty dense. And then there are the legendary footnotes, some of which go on for pages and have footnotes of their own. As a result I ended up taking three stabs at it:

My first attempt was last year, and my plan was to listen to the audiobook while walking with a physical copy of the book, so that whenever a footnote came up I could stop listening, pull the book out of my satchel, and read the footnote. The difficulty of coordinating all of this plus the length of some of the footnotes created enough friction that I stopped doing it for long enough that I felt like I needed to start over.

The second attempt was earlier this year, and this attempt flamed out when I realized that despite listening to the first 8 hours of the book a second time, and reading all the footnotes that I was still confused. This is when I picked up A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest (which I finished in September and reviewed here). That book helped, and it was nice, but in the end I’m going to say it was unnecessary. 

This takes us to the third attempt. Armed with a knowledge of all the characters and a plot summary I could refer to I set off again, from the beginning. And having made it all the way to the end here’s what I would recommend. Just listen to the book and focus on enjoying it. The footnotes are interesting, but you can also safely ignore them. Knowledge of the characters is helpful, but all of the important character information will become clear.

As is so often the case, if you’re going to tackle a really long book, audio is the way to go. Infinite Jest has numerous different styles and having a great narrator who can switch between these styles and do all the voices made listening a delight. And that’s really what this book is, a series of delightful stories with a moderate level of connection, but each scene is a gem, and you should just enjoy them.

I was accused recently of assuming that length is automatically a bad quality. The idea being that if you really enjoyed something wouldn’t you want it to go on as long as possible? The answer is that of course I would, but it’s pretty rare for that to happen. Well, it happened here. I would have been happy if the book had been 25% longer (but probably not more than that. It is a super long book.)

What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by: Randall Munroe

Published: 2022

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle gives a pretty good description, though I would also mention that the book is full of delightful stick figure illustrations.

Who should read this book?

I assume that a significant number of you are already familiar with Randall Munroe and his webcomic XKCD. In which case you’ve probably already made up your mind. If you aren’t familiar with it, well then what’s wrong with you? As penance you should probably read this book.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I would have been totally fine if it were longer. It went by all too quickly. Here are some of the questions Munroe answers:

What would happen if the Earth’s Rotation were sped up until a day only lasted one second?

What if I want to heat my house using toasters. How many do I need?

If the universe stopped expanding right now, how long would it take for a human to drive a car all the way to the edge of the universe?

The last one includes illustrations of the moon-sized quantity of gasoline that would be required, along with an illustration of the 10^17 tons of snacks which would be required, but he spends most of the space talking about how difficult it would be to fill the time. It would be a very, very long road trip.

The Sandman Book One 

by: Neil Gaiman

Published: The comics were originally published starting in 1989.

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The strange adventures of Dream/Morpheus/Sandman, starting with his decades long imprisonment and escape and then continuing on with his efforts to rebuild his domain. 

Who should read this book?

Sandman is everywhere at the moment. There’s the Netflix series and the Audible adaptation. But the comic books came first, so if you’re interested in things perhaps this is where you should start.

General Thoughts

I have long had the goal to read comic book series. I even bought the nice leatherbound collections, but that actually slowed me down because those seemed too nice to just read, and procrastination was easy and low cost. But then suddenly, as I already mentioned, it was everywhere, and the task became more urgent. I take great pleasure, when someone asks me about a TV show or a movie, of being able to archly respond, “No, but I’ve read the book.” And I was in danger of losing that small joy. So I bought this, less fancy collection, and read it.

It was good, but not revelatory. I think over the years I’d built it up too much in my mind. Which is not to say I’m going to stop reading it, merely that it might not be the greatest thing ever. So far the main character is cool, but kind of one-dimensional. The supporting characters are where it’s at. And really the best part of all is the world-building. The alternate universe Gaiman lays out here is really rich and interesting.

It is very definitely for mature audiences, unlike most of the stuff I review, so keep that in mind. 

Having read the book, the question then becomes do I watch the series and/or listen to the adaptation? That’s always been a tough question for me. If I enjoy something then it’s nice to go deep, but on the other hand surely there are better things to do than hear the same story told slightly differently for a third time? 

I guess I’ll finish all the books first and then see where I’m at.

Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2022

697 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conclusion to the Expeditionary Force series where the cliffhanger of Book 14 gets resolved and everyone, hopefully, lives happily ever after.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first 14 books, then you should definitely read this one. The bigger question is that now, knowing how it all ends, should you start the series in the first place? Well…

General Thoughts

I listened to this series, and if you add it all up (including books 3.5 and 7.5 which I also listened to) it comes to 286 hours. Now, of course, I didn’t listen to it at normal speed. R.C. Bray, the narrator, isn’t the slowest narrator out there, or the best at enunciation (he’s fine, just not exceptional) so I think I ended up dialing things in at around 2.7x, maybe 2.8? We’ll go with 2.8 which would put me at just over 100 hours — two and a half weeks of full time work. Obviously I was doing other things while I listened: walking, driving, cleaning, etc. And early on, the series was so enjoyable that I was listening to it even when I normally wouldn’t bother. Like during the five minutes it took me to go upstairs to get some food. In other words the initial 30 hours of the series went faster than 30 hours of listening normally would.

As part of that, the series made me realize that I could and probably should be reading more books just for the enjoyment of it. I think over the last few years, as I’ve publicly reviewed every book I read, that the amount of reading I do strictly because I enjoy it has declined. So if nothing else the series made a positive improvement on that front. And I appreciate it for doing that, but it also illustrates why, in the end, it wasn’t a good use of my time, and it’s probably not a good use of your time. This isn’t a hard and fast warning, if you really want to read the series you shouldn’t let me talk you out of it. But just based on that standard I know that there are several books I could have re-read that would have provided more pleasure than the 286 hours of Expeditionary Force. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is only 111 hours and I know I want to re-read that. 

You might now be wondering if there’s some portion of the series that’s worth reading. A stopping place where the expected value is positive? Possibly the first four books? But that’s a very weak suggestion. I think the middle books get pretty repetitive, and the final books, while slightly less repetitive, end up being more ridiculous. But it’s not as if the first four books are masterpieces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all fun, but even if you stop early I’m not sure that fun vs. time spent is ever definitely positive.

I might be singing a different tune if he had stuck the landing, but he didn’t. Part of what kept me reading was the world building, and the mysteries he hinted would eventually be revealed. On this front he did better than some. I don’t think he left any of the mysteries unresolved, but the reveals were underwhelming, particularly the very biggest mystery. I don’t want to oversell how bad it was. Ending things is very difficult and more often than not I end up feeling let down by them, so on that front the EF ending was average. Not especially bad, but not especially good either. If it had been exceptionally good, then perhaps that 100 hours would have been worth it. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and if you’re already eight books in, and I had something to do with that, then I apologize. I’m not saying that reading the final seven books won’t be enjoyable, I’m just saying that it will be time consuming.

Speaking of time consuming endeavors followed by mediocre endings, here we are closing out another long post, though this one was on the short side for one of my book review round ups. I keep saying I’m going to try to keep them shorter, and look at this! I kind of, sort of, succeeded. If you’re impressed by my kind of, sort of victory, then you should kind of, sort of consider donating.