Category: books Page 1 of 2

Taleb’s next book!

Looking forward to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s next book (of course, I have to wait for paperback):

• For social justice, focus on symmetry and risk sharing. You cannot make profits and transfer the risks to others, as bankers and large corporations do. You cannot get rich without owning your own risk and paying for your own losses. Forcing skin in the game corrects this asymmetry better than thousands of laws and regulations.

• Ethical rules aren’t universal. You’re part of a group larger than you, but it’s still smaller than humanity in general.

• Minorities, not majorities, run the world. The world is not run by consensus but by stubborn minorities imposing their tastes and ethics on others.

• You can be an intellectual yet still be an idiot. “Educated philistines” have been wrong on everything from Stalinism to Iraq to low-carb diets.

• Beware of complicated solutions (that someone was paid to find). A simple barbell can build muscle better than expensive new machines.

• True religion is commitment, not just faith. How much you believe in something is manifested only by what you’re willing to risk for it.

There is nothing really new in war

ISIS weapons arsenal included some purchased by U.S. government

Not surprising at all.

One of the seminal books about the folly of the Vietnam War is Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. It describes the career of a former US Army Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann who by the late 1960s was working with USAID in the Mekong Delta. The Saigon government was so corrupt that most of the arms the US sent there ended up almost immediately in the hands of the Viet Cong. Vann would plead with his superiors at the State Department to stop sending weapons to the Saigon government, but he was ignored.

Of course, as with all the other crazy parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, the same thing happened in the latter country as well (probably still going on). ISIS could have been supplied by friends in Afghanistan, or simply by corrupt officials in the Iraqi government.

The wonder expressed by the media of the discovery of a “rifle manufactured by the Nazis,” a 1941 Mauser k.98, is amusing. This was the standard German infantry rifle during both World Wars, and zillions of them were produced and later sold on world markets, to governments, insurgents and American collectors (like me; I have one, with a plywood — oh, excuse me — laminated stock). Early in the American war with Afghanistan I recall seeing photos of stacks of recovered WWII bolt action rifles such as Mausers, Mosin-Nagants and British SMLEs. I am surprised they found only a single Mauser. It was probably the beloved trophy of some Iraqi townsman or villager who was executed by ISIS.

The ex as an author

I’ve been noticing on Failbook chatter during the last year or so that my first wife has written a book! I didn’t know anything else about it, but this month I looked it up on Amazon and pre-ordered it. Amazon tells me it’s already on the way.

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You can order your own copy here!

The first book about the Vietnam War

I started reading Street Without Joy this week, about what the author called the First Indochina War, that is, the war between the French and the Viet Minh that preceded the US involvement in Vietnam (what we American snowflakes call the “Vietnam War,” more history-minded folks could plausibly refer to as the “Second Indochina War.” Just as how it’s weird that Americans refer to the 1991 war as the “Gulf War,” when during the previous decade there was a real Gulf War that cost the lives of perhaps a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers. But I digress . . .).

Anyway, it seems to be the unknown war these days, I’ve really never read much else about it. And holy crap was it harrowing. French forces lost 90,000 men before it was over. Some of the battle descriptions will make your hair stand up.

I was introduced to the book when I read in a memoir by Hal Moore (the American commanding officer at the first battle of Ia Drang) that he read Street Without Joy as preparation for his work in Vietnam (or maybe it was Clark Welch, who commanded a company at the battle of Ong Thanh, I forget which). Book blurbs insist the book was widely read by US planners, but I don’t know about that. How the hell anyone cold read that book and still believe America had any business in Vietnam, or could possibly prevail where the French failed, is beyond my understanding. The “Best and the Brightest” were truly a gang of arrogant idiots.

The author, a Frenchman, was extremely critical of French strategy and tactics, but unlike Neil Sheehan or David Halberstam, he actually wanted to see French victory, not a pullout. So he’s very conflicted (the Viet Minh are referred to throughout the book as “the enemy,” “commies” or “Reds”). Well, I guess he was a French nationalist. From my point of view, there was no way hanging on to Vietnam was worth 90,000 French soldiers, or 50,000 American ones, or the maybe two million Vietnamese lives the two wars cost.

Really an amazing book.

That bunny book

A friend just got a tattoo that reminded me of El-ahrairah, the progenitor rabbit from the mythology in Watership Down. That reminded me to google for some information about the book (since I didn’t know how to spell El-ahrairah anyway), and I was especially interested in the story of its publication.

I read the book maybe 25 or 30 years ago and I loved it. But I long wondered how it ever got published, a book about rabbits and their troubles and their religion. I always said I would have liked to be in the room when it was finally approved for publication, or maybe just when it was being pitched.

From Wikipedia:

Watership Down was rejected seven times before it was accepted by Rex Collings.

No shit!

The one-man London publisher Collings wrote to an associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” The associate did call it “a mad risk” in her obituary of Collings; “a book as bizarre by an unknown writer which had been turned down by the major London publishers; but it was also dazzlingly brave and intuitive.” Collings had little capital and could not pay an advance but “he got a review copy onto every desk in London that mattered.”

A one-man publisher, that explains a lot. Of course, once it was published, it won all kinds of book prizes and became a best-seller and was made into a movie.

I haven’t read it in a long time, but I recall it really is an interesting and engaging and well-written book. I know it’s sort of aimed at children now, because, you know, bunnies, but I didn’t think it came across as a children’s book at all. It actually has some pretty adult themes.

A much more lightweight book (that really is a children’s book, but certainly a few notches above Where the Wild Things Are) is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which Wikipedia informs me, to my surprise, came out before Watership Down. I was initially attracted to the book because, you know, rats, but it’s really a pretty charming and clever story. Several times I have given the book to adults to read, and they were always surprised by how much they enjoyed it.

Rats of NIMH was made famous because it was made into an animated film by a group of renegade Disney animators. It was probably the last classic Disney animated film, though it wasn’t made by Disney Productions. I don’t remember much about the film, except for the one scene where the rats of NIMH set up machinery to move the mouse Mrs Frisby’s home (a concrete block) out of the way of a farmer’s plough during a nighttime thunderstorm. Some pretty breathtaking ink-and-cell animation, that scene.

Later when I was noodling around with science fiction stories of my own, I borrowed the rats of NIMH idea (they were hyperintelligent rats as a result of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Heath), considering it was plausible that genetically engineered hyperintelligent rats would be useful in the maintenance of space ships, since they could crawl into all kinds of tight spaces.

Back to Watership Down, apparently it irritates the feminists:

In “Male Chauvinist Rabbits,” an essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review, Selma G. Lanes criticized Adams’s treatment of gender. She observed that the first third of the story is a “celebration of male camaraderie, competence, bravery and loyalty as a scraggly bunch of yearling bucks … arrive triumphant at a prospectively ideal spot”, only to realize that they have no females for mating. “Fully the last two-thirds of Adams’s saga,” Lanes argued, “is devoted to what one male reviewer has blithely labelled “The Rape of the Sabine Rabbits”, a ruthless, single-minded and rather mean-spirited search for females – not because Watership Down’s males miss their companionship or yearn for love, but rather to perpetuate the existing band.” For Adams, Lanes continued, the does are only “instruments of reproduction” to prevent the achievement of reaching Watership Down from “becoming a hollow victory.” As evidence, Lanes pointed to Hazel and Holly’s assessment of the rescued Nuthanger does’ value: “it came naturally … to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren.”

Lanes argued that this view of the female rabbits came from Adams himself rather than his source text, Ronald Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit. In Lockley’s text, by contrast, the rabbit world is matriarchal, and new warrens are always initiated by dissatisfied, young females. Hence, Lanes concluded, Adams’s novel is “marred by an attitude towards females that finds more confirmation in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy than R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit.”

Wikipedia

Those are all fair criticisms as far as they go, but what’s the point? It’s a children’s book, a fantasy about rabbits, written in the late sixties by a guy born in 1920. What a tiny little world people like this must occupy if they seek out ways to be offended and then actually spend the time to write a detailed attack on Watership Down. My reaction to essays like this is, fine, how about instead of writing pointless feminist critiques of children’s books you go out and write a children’s book of your own, politically and socially pure, that is as entertaining and engaging and thrilling and just plain wonderful as Watership Down?

But they never do.

And I know why they don’t: they can’t. These people are attacking the very narrative archetypes at the basis of Western thought, of civilization itself. They might not like them, but they can’t make them go away and they discard them at their peril (and ours!). No feminist, rejecting Genesis and Gilgamesh and Homer and Star Wars and everything else on which we base our literature and indeed our very morality, will ever produce a work that will resonate through the ages as, for one simple example, this novel about bunnies making the hero’s journey.

Re-reading

A few weeks ago I was reading at Joe Bob’s Chicken Joint in Sparks and the bartender asked me what I was reading. I forget what it was, but she said something about how she likes reading books about Vietnam (the war, I assumed). In fact, she didn’t look like the sort of person who ever read anything about anything, but I said next time I saw her I’d have a book for her about the Vietnam War.

So I ordered two copies of Michael Herr’s Dispatches from Amazon. I was able to give one copy to the bartender last week, but she hasn’t mentioned it since. I’m reading my copy now.

I read the book over 30 years ago (dunno what happened to my original copy), and remembered it was really amazing writing, like Hunter Thompson in Vietnam, but with far more vivid imagery. Herr worked on the script for Apocalypse Now! and also worked with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket. In fact, reading the book now, I noticed Herr making a connection between Vietnam and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I wonder whether that’s where Coppola got the idea.

It’s not a subject I really enjoy reading about, but holy crap is it an excellent example of New Journalism.

Lessons from Atatürk

I am more skeptical of democracy than most people, but I just finished a biography of Kemal Atatürk and it taught me a lot about the value of democracy (more on the book in general later).

Atatürk led a political revolution in Turkey following WWI. He was also a social revolutionary, and though he always intended to be a dictator, he set up the institutions for a democratic government from the very beginning, because he wanted his reforms to endure. Unlike all the other dictators at the time, Atatürk understood that dictatorships last only as long as the man. And while democracies in emerging nations are often unstable, if you set them up right they will in fact offer more political stability than a government based on a personality cult. I think this was one of Atatürk’s essential perceptions.

So I have given up my plans to become prince of a post-apocalyptic Northern Nevada. Instead, I’m going to set up a parliamentary assembly I can control, as Atatürk did.

The future will probably not be like the past

ProTip: if you are relying on an artificial levy to keep river waters from flooding your home, think about moving to higher ground. Those levies were designed to protect against historic worst cases, but the thing about the historic worst case was that when it occurred, nothing like it had occurred before. So there is no reason to believe the historic worst case, the event the levies were designed to resist, will be the actual future worst case. In fact, a study of nature indicates the historic worst case will almost certainly be topped. As will the levies protecting your home.

Some advice from reading Antifragile. There will probably be more later.

Also, whether global warming is caused by humans or not, it will affect the climate, and the river-containing infrastructure was designed for yesterday’s climate, not tomorrow’s.

“We’ve never seen water this high,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told CNN’s “New Day.” “The Meramec River is going to be 4 feet over its historic level.”

At its peak, the Mississippi should be at its highest level ever, Nixon said, beating the highest level of the great flood of 1993.

At least with regard to rivers, I have always been suspicious. When visiting Reno, we walked along the beautiful Truckee River, and my first thought was, “I wonder how high this gets.” Then when we met with the commercial Realtor, we learned it gets very high indeed. Reno has experienced catastrophic flooding in 1950, 1954 and 1997. So I will make sure my new home is above the flood zone (my new office will probably be in the flood zone since that’s where most commercial space is, but there’s things you can do with a business to mitigate the effects of a flood).

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Realistically speaking, Jesus was pretty non-confrontational.

A friend

Maybe. We don’t really know because the earliest Gospel was written long after his death. And his cult was twisted by Paul into something he probably wouldn’t have recognized.

I’m a bit of a fan of Jesus literature (he is easily one of the most interesting and elusive figures in history). Two books that cast a different light on him and his ministry are Robert Graves’ King Jesus; and Zealot by Reza Aslan.

The former is a novel by a great scholar of Hebrew and Western mythology, and seems to paint the most compelling picture of the man and his origins, underscoring the point that is typically lost on modern Christians: whatever Jesus was, he was certainly a fundamentalist Jewish mystic, whose spiritual message was necessarily bowdlerized by the cosmopolitan Latin Paulists who interpreted him later.

Aslan makes a compelling case that Jesus was simply one of a number of contemporary Jewish revolutionaries, basically what we would today call a jihadi. His attack on the moneychangers is one of the authentic acts in the Gospels to support this, and of course it also solves the mystery of why a Jewish blasphemer was put to death by the Romans instead of the Sanhedrin, and explains Matthew 10:34 (the verse that got me banned from Calguns).

So while the picture of Jesus as a charismatic but essentially peaceful man is an attractive one, there is good reason to believe it’s a completely inaccurate image.

We are doomed

Last week I finished one of the most important books of the last 30 years, Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. I’ve heard about this book off and on over the years, but never have I seen it regarded with the attention I believe is warranted, now that I have read it. I was thinking about this as I came to the end of the book and I concluded the book makes many, many people uneasy.

It is about America’s water management policy in the West, a land that is largely high desert and inhospitable to agriculture. The amounts spent, in terms of dollars and environmental damage, on making the West bloom are truly staggering. The bad guys are of course the dam builders, but it’s not that simple, and I think that’s where readers’ ambivalence comes in. While there is a lot of meat here for environmentalists, the typical champion hailed by environmentalists, the Federal government, is the most dangerous and destructive of players. Clearly, the government is the problem in this case, not any kind of solution. This is unambiguous. On the other hand, the book points out (as the Economist has for years) how most of the conservative, Republican-voting agricultural and other Western special interests benefit hugely from massive Federal expenditures, subsidies and transfers, and will do anything they can to keep the gravy train running on their behalf.

Not only does it show how both “sides” cause so many problems, it makes it clear that solutions are not easily arrived at because all the players – farmers, bureaucrats, businesses, special interests, ordinary people – are selfishly and exclusively concerned with their own situations, and couldn’t care less how others are affected by their preferred actions. It’s a parable for . . . everything.

The book also makes it pretty clear that America’s water policies have created a monster where one could not have existed before, and that monster cannot, in the long run, be sustained: someday the water will run out. The entire West is threatened. Everyone sort of knows this, but no one can do anything about it. You wonder: is the solution ever more gigantic, expensive and destructive water projects (for example, bringing water thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest, or Canada); or do we throw up our hands and admit we never should have settled the West in this way in the first place?

I’m generally suspicious of running-out-of-a-resource scare stories. These are typically applied to petroleum, but they always miss an aspect of the situation and so get their conclusions wrong: there is more petroleum in the ground than we even know about; what changes is the technology we use to get it out of the ground. We will probably run out someday, but that day is very remote indeed. Water is different: we know pretty much how much water there is in the ground, and we know what falls out of the sky every year. Once the groundwater is gone it is never coming back, and the water falling out of the sky is affected by climate change and even periodic (and predictable) droughts. Then there is the problem of irrigated soil being poisoned by salt . . .

The manner in which this book came into my hands is interesting. Last year Ingrid attended a series of lectures put on by our local water district. I didn’t go to any of these, I’m not the kind of guy who goes out to watch lectures. At some point during the lectures, the book Cadillac Desert was recommended to her and so she bought it and read it. It’s a 500 page book and Ingrid doesn’t read very fast, so she was at it for a long time. She didn’t talk to me much about the contents of the book at the time.

So last month I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s second adult (as opposed to young adult, his typical genre) novel The Water Knife. As with his first science fiction book, The Windup Girl, it is set in a dystopian future of environmental collapse. Reisner’s book is mentioned several times, indeed a physical copy of the book is a plot device. It was actually mildly irritating that a contemporary book could have such a prominent role in a science fiction fantasy: it was treated as some kind of prophetic Bible.

Now that I have read Cadillac Desert, I understand why. For The Water Knife, Bacigalupi basically extrapolates Reisner’s worst-case scenarios and builds his future world from them. It’s actually pretty awesome, real science fiction, or speculative fiction, as it’s often called. The ambient conditions and setting of The Water Knife are just as Reisner laid them out: The Ogallala Aquifer has finally run out, which has depopulated great swathes of west Texas, refugees from which flood into Arizona (which has also collapsed due to loss of access to the Colorado River), attempting to make their way to California, which has plenty of water because it has plenty of wealth (as Reisner said repeatedly, the water flows to the money). But the southwest has Balkanized, and states like California and Nevada have set up barriers at their borders to keep Texans and Arizonans out. It is a vivid and believable scenario. Why should we expect Californians to treat Texans with any more compassion than they afford to Mexicans? A re-reading of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath reveals how Californians responded the last time environmental calamity struck other American states and refugees came flooding in.

I think I raved about The Windup Girl on this blog when I read it. The Water Knife is even better, but it should be accompanied by Cadillac Desert, which you ought to read first. Once you put it down you can ask yourself, “So what’s going to happen?” then read Bacigalupi’s answer to that.

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