If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

  1. Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by: Michael J. Sandel
  2. Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by: Jesse Singal
  3. Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) by: John Michael Greer
  4. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by: H. W. Brands
  5. Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by: Norm Macdonald
  6. The Silmarillion by: J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by: Carlo M. Cipolla
  8. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by: Roland Huntford
  9. How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion by: David DeSteno

Over the last few months I’ve been enjoying Holden Karnofsky’s newsletter “Cold Takes”. One of his central arguments is that this is the most important century. 

In this opinion we are basically aligned, but whereas I am largely pessimistic about our ability to handle the ramifications of this moment, Karnofsky is more of an optimist. Perhaps I’ll go into his assertions more on some other occasion, but for now I merely wanted to provide some context around Karnofsky before I introduce his deplorable advice on how one should read books. Which, since I’m about to review a bunch of books I’ve read, would appear to be germane

He starts off with the idea that we overestimate how much we retain from reading a book. Which is almost certainly true. Though I think his assertion suffers from never going to the trouble of rigorously defining the word “retain”. Is retention measured by telling someone to write down everything they remembered from the book, and comparing it to the actual book? Or is it measured by being able to summon forth a point from the book when it’s relevant? Or could someone be said to retain something if they can call it to mind after being prompted:

Do you remember that part in Dune when Paul chooses his name?

Oh, yeah. He asks the name of the mouse shadow in the second moon. And they tell him that they call it Muad’dib. And that’s the name he chooses.

Additionally his measurement of retention is just a percentage—what portion of the book was retained using the various methods (skimming, reading slowly, re-reading, etc.) And beyond the fact that his percentages are ridiculous, which I’ll get to, certain parts of a book are far more valuable to retain than other parts. The first 10%, the stuff that everyone knows about the book, is likely to be in such common circulation that any interesting insights will similarly be widely available. Whereas the 10% you extract after reading the whole thing, or reading it multiple times is likely to be the most valuable, or at least the rarest.

But I’m sure you want to know why I think his percentages are ridiculous. You should check out his post if you want to see his entire table but to give you a couple of examples. He asserts that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but I’m particularly flabbergasted by his contention that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title. 

Beyond his exaggeration of the importance of reading titles, he contends that in general it’s a far better use of your time to read what other people are saying about the book then it is to read the book itself. And this is where we return to the idea of the varying quality of retaining some parts of the book vs. retaining other parts of the book. As an example if you were to compare my book reviews to the reviews found on Amazon you would find that I’m frequently talking about the book in a way that no one else is. Which means my insights can only come from reading the actual book, not reading what other people say about the book, because no one is saying what I am. Now this still leaves unaddressed the question of whether my insights have any value, I could just be insane. I’ll let you be the judge of that:

I- Eschatological Reviews

Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

by: Michael J. Sandel

342 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

As meritocracy has become more deeply entrenched it has begun to take the form of a system of morality, where being successful equals having moral worth.

Who should read this book?

At any given moment some books are part of the larger conversation. This is one of those books, and if you want a better understanding of the conversation around meritocracy you should read it. 

General Thoughts

The book opens with by recounting the admissions scandal which ensnared people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Sandel chooses this story because it’s a clear example of merit-seeking corruption. But beyond this it illustrates that it’s not actual merit the parents were seeking—I haven’t come across anything indicating these parents were “tiger moms” obsessed with making their children practice various skills—no, what they were buying was the appearance of merit. While he didn’t reference it, Sandel essentially wrote a book length treatment of Campbell’s law (and also the closely related, Goodhart’s law) as it applied to merit:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

This is also closely related to the discussion from a few years ago when Bryan Caplan published his book, The Case Against Education, which argued that college was not about knowledge and increasing human capital, it was about signalling intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. The book also reminded me a lot of Freddie deBoer’s book, Cult of Smart, which I read back in April. As I mentioned already there is definitely a robust conversation around this topic. 

If I were to try to distill out Sandel’s contribution to the topic, I would say he really leans into the moral angle of the whole phenomenon. The idea that if we assume this is a meritocracy, then we further have to assume that positions are earned. That the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. And gradually the definition of deserve creeps from an evaluation of economic worth in a capitalist system to moral worth in a more transcendent system.

In large part this happens because those in charge are incentivized to move the definition in this direction. Not only that, but it only takes a little bit of bias to believe this narrative. Meritocracy has made it so that at least some hard work is required to succeed, people are no longer born to positions. Therefore those at the top of the meritocracy will emphasize their hard work while overlooking outside help and luck.

It’s the dash of hard work with the ratcheting effect of the bias that, in Sandel’s account, differentiates meritocracy from previous social systems. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

Meritocracy is a relatively new invention. Previous to it’s introduction religion and nobility were the primary systems for deciding who was in charge. In both cases people quite obviously ended up in positions of power without any hard work. One might think that this is a bad thing, and it almost certainly was for the people who were subject to this power, but it was a good thing for the system as a whole because it forced a certain amount of humility to be present. It didn’t force every individual to be humble, but the system as a whole necessarily created some humility. 

As Sandel points out:

[T]he more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.

The meritocratic concept of being self-made is also something which wasn’t present in the past systems. Under a system of nobility you were always answerable to some higher noble. Unless you were the King, and indeed that was also generally the failure point in the system. Under a system of religion you were always answerable to God. Or rather the actions of people in power would be circumscribed by the perception of their righteousness. You could only ratchet your own importance so much.

Now I understand that this overview of past systems has overlooked all kinds of nuance and exceptions, and been largely written from a Western, Christian perspective. But I think Sandel is right in pointing out that the incentives of meritocracy have produced some weird, and pernicious outcomes. None of which is to say that Sandel is advocating for a return to earlier systems. And, while I think the world needs more religion, neither am I.

For all the harms caused by meritocracy, I’m still glad that doctors, pilots, and politicians (mostly) are selected by merit. And it may be that meritocracy is similar to democracy. The worst system except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time. Let us hope that this continues to be the case. But there is an argument to be made that the harms of meritocracy are multiplying at the same time that its benefits are diminishing.

Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills

by: Jesse Singal

334 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the popularization of psychology has incentivized scientists to produce “quick fixes”, even if they have to ignore the scientific process in order to do so. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve noticed the parade of techniques that are supposed to be the solution to everything, from improving self esteem, to positive psychology and emphasizing grit. Techniques that flare in a blinding fashion before fading into irrelevance, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

For anyone who’s been following the replication crisis this book will not be surprising. Though I’m sure you’ll still come across stuff that you hadn’t heard. For myself I had forgotten about the panic over super predators and I had no idea that positive psychology had essentially taken over the military. 

But of course this latter example illustrates the point, these concepts have, when ascendent, penetrated nearly everywhere. Even power posing, which always seemed a little bit silly, ended up being prominently featured in the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg which spawned a whole movement around women in the workplace. Nor has power posing been entirely abandoned, it still has it’s defenders.

But eventually after this moment in the spotlight the principles fade, the results don’t match the hype, and (hopefully) the science eventually catches up Though, rather than being abashed that they fell for yet another fad, people immediately start looking for the next fad, the next golden bullet to solve all the problems.

Interestingly, though Singal approaches with caution, his book ends by speaking approvingly of nudges. Targeted, and limited interventions designed to accomplish very narrow aims. The classic example is the idea that people donate more to their 401k if you make them have to opt out of it, rather than opting into it. I get this, but whatever his caution I think Singal may be falling for some of the same faddish adulation he’s decrying everywhere else. 

I think the nudges that work best are just people exercising a little more intelligence when they design systems, like the 401k example. I think other nudges will appear to work initially, but then the effectiveness will fade with time. My power company tries one of the classic nudges with me every month. They show my power usage with respect to my neighbors. And initially, when I saw that I used more power I tried various things to use less, as intended, but then when it kept coming in high I realized that there were (at the time) six people in my house. And two retirees in most of the houses I was being compared against. And now even though there are fewer people in my house I haven’t looked at those comparisons in months, nor do I care much what they show. 

All of which is to say that individual nudges may have a small effect but the concept of nudges as a new tool that will change everything (particularly divorced from any larger concepts, a point I’ll get to it a bit) is yet another fad that will fade. Which Singal allows for, but maybe not enough.

Eschatological Implications

I think most of the implications here are one’s I’ve already spent a lot of time covering in this space. For the last few centuries progress and science have given people a reason to be optimistic about the future. But it’s been apparent for a while that we were running out of things for science to revolutionize. However there was always one thing left on the list, and it’s been on the list of things to improve for at least the last century and probably longer than that. Of course I’m talking about humanity. Quick Fix is both valuable and depressing. Valuable for the truths it points out, depressing in that one of those truths is that humanity is becoming more intractable rather than less. Meaning that if you want to be optimistic about the future, science no longer provides that. If you want optimism you have to find it in the perfectibility of humanity which every day seems more impossible.

II- Capsule Reviews

Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) 

by: John Michael Greer

247 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young girl who reconnects with her extended family who are worshippers of the Elder Gods. Only unlike most novels of this sort, such worshippers are the good guys.

Who should read this book?

Greer mostly writes non-fiction and I think his fiction writing somewhat reflects that, thus you should read the book only if you feel intrigued by its unique premise.

General Thoughts

After reading the first book in this series I was kind of underwhelmed. I had enjoyed it, but I felt it hadn’t crossed the line into being exceptional. I intended to finish the series, just because that’s what I always intend, even if it never happens, but I wasn’t particularly excited for the next book. 

But, as the months went by I found myself unable to stop thinking about it, and more and more eager to find out where Greer was going to go with this unique “worshipers of the elder gods are the good guys” premise. So I picked up the second book, and once again the writing was a little dry, and the characters were a little bit flat, but the premise continues to be endlessly fascinating, and I’m really interested to see what happens in the rest of the books.

The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

by: H. W. Brands

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The post World War II career of General MacArther, and in particular his conflict with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. 

Who should read this book?

If you like history and biography at all this is one of the better examples I’ve come across. Also if you feel like you have a blindspot when it comes to the Korean War this is a great entry point.

General Thoughts

The book starts out by talking about how much the Japanese revered General MacArthur. I’m curious to know if that’s still the case. (I have a friend in Japan I’ve been meaning to ask but I haven’t gotten around to it.) It’s nice that it starts out that way because the remainder of the book is increasingly hard on him, and by the end he doesn’t come out looking very good. Which I think is the impression I absorbed of him growing up in the 70s and 80s. (Certainly the show M.A.S.H. didn’t help.) Obviously I had heard about Truman firing him, but it always felt more like a piece of trivia than a national scandal. This book definitely made me feel the magnitude of the act. And the magnitude of the Korean War, which is another thing which doesn’t carry the weight it deserves, stuck as it is between Vietnam and World War II.

If you’ll forgive me for going on a brief eschatological tangent, one of the really interesting things about the Korean War is how pivotal it was when it came to the question of nuclear weapons. At this point it was still an open question whether nukes were going to be just another weapon in a countries arsenal or whether they were going to be treated as being on a whole, separate, almost unthinkable level. It’s a credit to Truman that it was the latter not the former.

One of the things I did in October, which didn’t get mentioned in the intro, was I took a trip to Albuquerque to visit family. While there I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. I highly recommend it, particularly for those who have any doubts about the unclear status of nuclear weapons in the 50’s. You’ll see all manner of things including nuclear artillery and the infamous nuclear bazooka

To the extent I have a criticism and it’s a very small one, this book, despite its subtitle, might have been even better if Brands had spent more time examining this inflection point in the use of nuclear weapons.

Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir

by: Norm Macdonald

242 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A somewhat surreal pseudo-memoir of Norm Macdonald. About 99% untrue, but 100% of his essence. Perhaps if Vonnegut had written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is what would have come out.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who REALLY liked Norm Macdonald already has. But if, like me, you only truly recognized his genius once it was gone, this is a great way to both bask in it and pay homage to it.

General Thoughts

I was not a hardcore Norm Macdonald fan. He was rather someone I wanted to hear more from, but never got around to it. When he died, that snapped me into action and I picked up his book. It was the audio version and he did the narration which was great. 

I think the comment I made about Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson sums it up pretty well. This book is not for everyone, and it’s pretty crass to boot. But if you felt like Macdonald was taken too soon this is a great way to celebrate his comedic genius. 

The Silmarillion 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

If the Lord of the Rings is the New Testament, The Silmarillion is the Old. It’s a record of all the things that happened beforehand which were only alluded to in the trilogy. It’s also far more tragic.

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone who likes The Silmarillion, who doesn’t already like the Lord of the Rings, but liking LotR is no guarantee that you’ll like this book. I only know a few people who love it. 

General Thoughts

I am one of those who love The Silmarillion. My favorite scene from the trilogy is when Gandalf confronts the Lord of the Nazguls at the gates of Minas Tirith. The Silmarillion is full of scenes like that. It can do this because it covers thousands of years, and it basically only includes these scenes. As a consequence of this there is very little in the way of character development. And while there is something of an overarching plot the book is not a novel, it’s a collection of myths. And as such it’s not for everyone. But after reading it this time, I think I actually like it better than the original trilogy. 

On this read through one scene in particular really moved me. It concerns Húrin, a mighty warrior, who ends up being imprisoned in the dungeons of the dark lord for 28 years before he is finally released. Wandering about, old and bowed down he comes across his wife, sitting at the graves of his children:

But Húrin did not look at the stone, for he knew what was written there; and his eyes had seen that he was not alone. Sitting in the shadow of the stone there was a woman, bent over her knees; and as Húrin stood there silent she cast back her tattered hood and lifted her face. Grey she was and old, but suddenly her eyes looked into his, and he knew her; for though they were wild and full of fear, that light still gleamed in them that long ago had earned for her the name [Morwen], proudest and most beautiful of mortal women in the days of old.

‘You come at last,’ she said. ‘I have waited too long.’

‘It was a dark road. I have come as I could,’ he answered.

‘But you are too late,’ said Morwen. ‘They are lost.’

‘I know it,’ he said. ‘But you are not.’

But Morwen said: ‘Almost. I am spent. I shall go with the sun…

…and they sat beside the stone, and did not speak again; and when the sun went down Morwen sighed and clasped his hand, and was still; and Húrin knew that she had died. 

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by: Carlo M. Cipolla

64 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The 5 Laws of human stupidity.

Who should read this book?

The introduction is by Nassim Taleb. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, you should read this book. Also it’s super short (this is my ½ book for the month.)

General Thoughts

Here are the five laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and Inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. Stupid people are the most dangerous kind of people. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The rules are interesting, but it’s the idea of the bandit that’s going to stick with me. Cipolla divides people into four quadrants:

  1. The Intelligent: Those who act in such a way that it benefits themselves and others.
  2. The Bandits: Those who act to benefit themselves while causing harm to others.
  3. The Helpless: Those who harm themselves while benefiting others. (I feel like there should be a better term for this than helpless.)
  4. The Stupid: Those who cause harm to both themselves and others. 

He further divides the bandit in two. Bandits who help themselves more than they harm others— so on net they benefit society. And bandits who harm others more than they help themselves—someone who breaks a $500 car window to steal the $5 in change sitting in the center console. Obviously, just by the nature of banditry the latter type is far more common than the former. But I think the former has an interesting place in the capitalist structure. Particularly when you start to consider harms that are more diffuse.

The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

by: Roland Huntford

640 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The lives of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen and their race for the South Pole.  

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes stories of survival and exploration, but it also works as a business book.

General Thoughts

To start with I’m glad I read The Man Who Ate His Boots before reading this. The foundation it gave me on the previous era of arctic exploration was very helpful particularly at the beginning of this book.

As far as the book itself, my sense of Scott was developed in a similar fashion to my sense of MacArthur. I had evidently picked up some stuff by osmosis. Before reading this book I had a vague sense of Scott’s heroism and a vague annoyance with Amundsen, but if you had asked me to explain where I got those impressions I would have been unable to point to anything specific. Having read the book I’m not surprised by those opinions, they’re basically the opinions which suffuse the anglosphere. Though the fact that I was unaware of this osmosis might bear further examination. Particularly since the impressions I had were entirely wrong. Everyone should strive to emulate Amundsen, while Scott should be a cautionary tale for anyone engaged in any high risk endeavor.

So how is it that the conventional wisdom is lukewarm towards Amundsen, while Scott is still thought of with reverence? There are three factors: first, whatever other faults Scott may have had he was a gifted writer, and when his journal was published posthumously (and also after some extensive editing) it gave the whole enterprise a heroic narrative, which bore only a passing resemblance to reality. Second, Scott died. Objectively this can’t help but count against him, but emotionally it ends up providing a huge boost to someone’s reputation to die young. Also there’s this sense that Amundsen, by being close and winning the race, somehow contributed to it. Third, Scott’s journey was more exciting.

It’s this last bit that I want to focus on in particular, and what makes this something of a business book. How often do we judge people’s efforts by how many near death experiences come out of it, rather than how safe and effective it was. Certainly the near death stories are more exciting and get retold more often. In this case Scott was heroic because he died, while Amundsen was not because his expedition was meticulously planned and executed. Of course what we should want is not excitement and heroism, we should want things to be meticulously planned and executed. But that’s often not the way people think. 

I wonder if movies have made this problem worse? Something to chew on.

III- Religious Reviews

How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

by: David DeSteno

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How most of the stuff scientists think of for improving humanity is already being done by religion and in a more effective fashion.

Who should read this book?

People who want their support of religion confirmed or people who think that religion is entirely valueless.

General Thoughts

This book makes the argument I’ve long made. That religion isn’t a harmful batch of superstitions that idiots waste their time with, but rather a rigorously evolved package of beneficial behaviors. So in a very broad sense it’s supportive of one of the core missions of the blog. But as I’ve spent a lot of time already on that subject I’d like to talk about the interesting addendum it provides to one of the previous books I reviewed, Quick Fix.

To begin with, DeSteno’s point is very similar to Singal’s. There are no quick fixes. If you want to change human behavior it takes something massive and integrated; something that has been developed over centuries. Nor are these changes massive, mostly they are small improvements, but there are improvements which last, they’re not transitory. 

But then interestingly DeSteno ends up in the same place as Singal, talking about nudges. And there’s this sense that for DeSteno that’s all religion is. (DeSteno himself is not a believer.) That it’s a collection of nudges. For example, we know meditation is good, religion tells you to pray which is a nudge to meditate. And indeed that’s probably all that DeSteno’s data can tell him, but I think he’s only scratching the surface on the benefits of religion. That nudges are just what can quickly be measured, that the benefits of religion are mostly felt over the span of decades. This is also the scope for the harms of its absence to be felt as well. Harms which every day seem more and more apparent.

I guess this end bit that I always do is also a nudge. Let’s hope it’s one that is bundled up into a larger system of value rather than one of those nudges that fade with time. Either way if you have felt the nudge to donate, give into that impulse, it’s what science would want you to do.