March Reads

This month I wrote far more than normal. Three complete articles, two drafts, and comments on some papers. No dips and no devours; just some semi-weekly dives.

Dive

Utopia by Thomas More. Thomas’ in the Prologue of how difficult it is to find time for self-study and intellectual wandering was like a TUMS, calming my nerves.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Here are some choice cuts from this past week.

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering—while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and ship, which would threaten to jam him—still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life.

Chapter 72 The Monkey rope

[The context is that the giant head of a sperm whale hangs attached to the side of the ship. The crew has killed a Right Whale, and plan on balancing it out with another head of a lesser Leviathan].

In good time, Flask’s saying proved true. As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale’s head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.

Chapter 73 Stubb and Flask kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

February Reads

February

Devour

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott – This is a great introduction to these two men. Excellently written. The prose style creates tension and drama.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser. I love Ed.

Economic Hierarchies by Gordon Tullock.

Dive

Alternatives in Assessment of Achievements, Learning Processes, and Prior Knowledge* Helpful in the discussion about how coherent a curriculum needs to be.

Dip

Keynes’ General Theory: Reports of Three Decades

The Land that Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History by David Sinclair. I hope to return to this and devour it.

Questions about the Early Jesuits

Tyler is reading *The Jesuits: A History*:

Here is one passage that for obvious reasons caught his eye:

The Jesuits invested the lion’s share of their bureaucratic efforts in personnel planning.  We have already encountered the Society’s obsession with the quality, education, and development of its members several times — this passion was translated into bureaucratic procedures to an astounding degree.  Every Jesuit’s mental, spiritual, intellectual, and physical capacity was routinely evaluated.  The Society devised elaborate procedures for conducting such examinations.  Even the wording of these assessments was prescribed.  A kind of grading system with standard content was devised that was then used to answer about a dozen questions from each member.  Every three years, local and provincial superiors were required to prepare interviews of the staff under their authority, whom they were required to assess in table form.  These catalogues have justly been celebrated as an outstanding example of the bureaucratization of the modern period.

The 17th and 18th century Jesuits seem like a miracle of human capital formation.

Last year I read three books on the Jesuits for quite similar reasons. My thought was how did such a small organization create a culture of excellence that pushed the bounds of science, sociology, and politics so well (or did it? Maybe Jesuit mythos and reality are quite separate?), and what mistakes caused it to be suppressed?

The bureaucratic excellence might be one such reason. I am almost disturbed by the level of obedience these men had to superiors. The intense cultivation of ability combined with the “state capacity” to aim member’s abilities towards all manner of problems. That combination does seem frightening to anyone without such organizational competence. Don’t compete with this superhuman foe, the king and lords of Spain thought, shoot for suppression.

How much internal dissension was there? How was it dealt with? What were the most politically unwise or impolitic moves the Jesuits made in the 18th century? Who were the Jesuits enemies and why? How can we compare Jesuit accomplishments to the secular accomplishments of the day? What was the Jesuit role in the wars between the enlightenment secularism and the Catholic Church? Which Jesuits engaged with John Locke or Montesquieu?

I am not satisfied with any of the answers I have found, though I now know a fair deal more about Jesuit education. I need more nuts and bolts of Jesuit organization in the 17th – 18th century. I lust for more details.

Jesuits: a Multibiography (1997)

St. Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University (1957)

Jesuit Education in Light of Modern Educational Problems (1904)

January Reads

This year I want to record my reading in a way that matches how I read. So I am dividing books into three general categories Dip, Dive, Devour based on some combination of energy, insight, and follow through.

Absolutely Devoured:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

No comment needed. It’s better written and faster paced than I expected, a classic for a reason. My contrary reading is that the Encyclopedia actually did save civilization, and though this is obvious throughout the novel, none of the characters know it.

Knowledge Spaces: Application in Education

This is the first step in getting much more serious in thinking about assessment and useful tools in education. Thanks to Jimmy Koppel for the pointer. I am going to test out Aleks with some students in a month or so.

Took a Dive into:

In the Service of the Republic: the Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar. This book feels more like an outline of ideas than a book, but the ideas are important and serious. Public choice and the realization that incentives only increase in importance over time are crucial insights for government.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. More nuanced than I was expecting and more balanced than his enemies give him credit for. No surprise there. He is not some laissez-faire zealot and acknowledges from the beginning the tenuous link between democracy and the free market.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Anthony Esolen. I actually share a lot of aesthetic values with Anthony. Yet despite the shared love of group singing, traditional church music, and kids running in the streets, I find this mode of cultural critique to be blind and useless. He has to paint with a broad brush to compensate for his ignorance of flourishing subcultures. In his view, the world is a monoculture of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ culture. Furthermore, most of the book lacked any notion of the causal forces behind aesthetic and cultural change; my library copy dutifully supplied one with a neatly written anti-Jewish comment in the margins of the penultimate chapter. Not recommended except for the literary style, which is why Tanner Greer recommended it to me in the first place.

Keynes: a very brief introduction by Robert Skidelsky. I didn’t know Keynes was so lively and such a florid writer. Had I known this earlier, I would have started imitating him sooner. Like Antony above, his ability to write invective and turn a colorful phrase makes true writers green with envy and makes economists blush for shame.

Took a Dip in:

Aquinas – always dipping
Talmud – just keep dipping
Critique of Pure Reason by Kant – down this road lies madness?
Human Action by Ludwig Mises – intrigued

Book Dump 2021

I dived into a lot of books in 2021, more than ever. But finished only a few. Here are my favorite and most recommended books from the year, followed up by a fairly complete and ridiculously long list of books I spent a substantial amount time with.

My favorite and most recommended books of 2021.

Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia. Poetry, modern. Excellent.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Fantasy, long. Worth it.
The Model Thinker by Scott E Page. Math and epistemology. Phenomenal.
An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics by James Franklin. Math and philosophy. Excellent.
Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century by Joel Kaye. Economics, medieval philosophy, history, and Latin. What could be better?
The Wars of the Roses by Gillingham. I checked out every book on The Wars of the Roses; this is one is clearly the best written, even if a little more out of date. When history is well written I fall in love again. Highly recommended.
The History of Chemistry by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers. This is the best history of chemistry in print, and there is no coincidence that it is a translation from French.
Talmud: from Classics of Western Spirituality Series. The Classics of Western Spirituality is hit or miss frequently, but I am enjoying the the selections from the Talmud here.

Below are all the books from 2021 by category.

Fiction:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  2. The Napoleon of Nottinghill by G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Ship of Theseus by V. Straka
  4. Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia
  5. Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  6. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Cenodoxus by Jacob Bidermann
  8. The Golden Country by Shusako Endo
  9. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Philosophy and Social Science

  1. The Model Thinker by Scott E Page
  2. On Commerce, by David Hume
  3. The Use of Knowledge in Society, F. Hayek
  4. The Wealth of Nations Book I by Adam Smith
  5. Protagoras by Plato
  6. Charter schools and their Enemies by Thomas Sowell.
  7. Universal Economics by Armen Alchian (incomplete)
  8. An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics by James Franklin
  9. Saint Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University by Ganss
  10. Economy and Nature in the 14th Century by Joel Kaye
  11. The Interests and the Passions: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph by A. O. Hirschman
  12. Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
  13. Open Borders: the Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zach Wienersmith
  14. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  15. The Cult of Smart: How our Broken Education System Perpetuates Injustice by Frederick deBoeur
  16. The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
  17. Jesuit Education in Light of Modern Educational Problems by Shwikerath
  18. 10% Less Democracy, Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less By Garett Jones.

History

  1. Viking-age War Fleets: Ship-Building, Resource Management in Maritime Warfare in 11th century Denmark by Morten Raven
  2. Qumran in Context reassessing in the archaeological evidence by Yizhar Hirschfeld
  3. The Wars of the Roses by Gillingham
  4. Book Wars: the Digital Revolution in Publishing by John B. Thompson
  5. Battlegrounds by H. R. McMaster
  6. Keaton by Tom Dardis
  7. The Letters of Alcuin by Rolph Barrows 1909
  8. Kissinger: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson 

STEM

  1. The History of Chemistry by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers
  2. Calculus for the Applied, Life, and Social Sciences
  3. Introduction to Chemistry by John D. Mays
  4. The Richness of Life the Selected Writings of Stephen J. Gould
  5. The Double Helix: a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D Watson.
  6. Biotechnology 101 by Brian Robert Shmaefsky
  7. Vectors and their Applications by Anthony Pettifrezzo
  8. The Molecular Biology of the Cell by various authors (sc. Not all)

Religion

  1. Jesuits: A Multibiography
  2. Decreation the End of all Things by Paul Griffiths
  3. The Life of Brother Jordan of Saxony by anonymous
  4. Super Boethius de Trinitate by Thomas Aquinas
  5. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola
  6. A Rabbi Talks With Jesus by Jacob Neusner  (incomplete)
  7. Talmud Classics of Western Spirituality Series


Science and Technology Read 2020

The Devil’s Doctor by Philip BallTerribly meandering book. Had very little to do with Paracelsus, mostly because the author realized that Paracelsus is an incomprehensible charlatan. However, The book offers a very pleasant overview of 16th century flavor. And has good references to more interesting vistas, namely De Re Mettalica.
De Re Metallica by Georg AgricolaA thorough and systematic treatment of metals from finding the ore, to setting up the company, to digging, refining, and crafting. I wish more books were like this! This is a true science and engineering text. Perhaps the first truly comprehensive one in history. The Hoovers were wise to translate this and promote its place in the history of science.
Every Tool’s A Hammer by Adam SavageInspirational anecdotes about creating things.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua FoerJournalist adventures into the art of memorizing. This volume while filled with stories, had just enough information for the reader to figure out how to start crafting memory palaces, and begin their own adventures in memorization.
Speed Reading in a Week by Tina KonstantI wanted to investigate the speed reading literature because even a modest improvement in my reading speed could mean an extra book or two read per year.
Evelyn Wood Speed ReadingBut it turns out that speed reading only kind of exists as a learnable skill. Most of the techniques are actually just extensions of the methods for reading well found in How to Read a Book, which is a far better use of one’s time.
Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, Mark LynasMark Lynas is environmental activist who advocates nuclear and GMO proponent. In the book he talks about the anti-nuclear myths held by a lot of green activists which are holding back the fight against climate change.
I didn’t know about these myths, but somehow I had come to believe some of them, especially the idea that nuclear waste is a BIG PROBLEM holding back scaling up nuclear power production. Turns out it’s not.

People are the under the impression that if a reactor goes bad or is hit by an earthquake it will explode killing hundreds of people and damaging the environment for centuries. But a Japanese Nuclear Plant close to the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake took no damage, and while Fukushima melted down, 1 person died and there was some environmental contamination.

But other sources of power contaminate the lungs of workers, spill in the oceans, and spread CO2 in the atmosphere (or as the other alternate fuels are – inefficient and are NIMBY’d to death). To the bigger political point though, nuclear energy summons great fears in the minds of people; the grassroot support isn’t there.
Wiring CompleteVery helpful guide in how to wire things around the house! Highly Recommended!

Philosophy and Economics Read 2020

De Anima Commentaries by Themistius, Avicenna, Therese Corey, Averroes. Reading De Anima and the history of commentaries upon is like watching the same movie as imagined by many different directors. This philosophical tradition is so thorough in its discussion of questions that anything short of this method feels inadequate.
Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen. He’s not Aristotle, but he offers a fresh take on what it means to be a worldly philosopher, in other words, a philosopher interested in the good of the world. Although I still have no idea what the title of this book means, I can tell you that content concerns a eloquent apologia for making sustainable economic growth as moral concern, something we should care about. I would be sold but moral concerns and logical arguments only work on honest and virtuous people.
The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior by David C. Rose considers the basic decalogue that must be secured in order for there to be economic behavior. Inspired by his rule-based vision of moral foundations, I wrote a little list of seven rules that match it with the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Painting and Reality by Etienne Gilson. You can’t recreate the Sistine Chapel without the Michelangelo’s dyes! Beautiful reflection on the unique aesthetic qualities of painting.
De Rhetorica by Aristotle plus a few commentaries by Adam Smith. How is that one mind can speak so well on so many topics? In this blockbuster Aristotle instructs the eager philosophical public on how to bend the mind and emotions towards truth through the power of language. Adam Smith offered a pleasant insight in his Belles Lettres lectures when he cautioned that when the audience is positively disposed be like Aristotle, when they are negatively disposed be Socratic in one’s speech.
Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. This was pleasant dose of encouragement on how to survive in the age of information and noise and to be more accommodating to people who differ from me. The book is really a call for magnanimity. But most importantly it pointed me in the direction of Das Glasperlenspiel.
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. The book on social capital, but do I even recommend it? It was solid, but soulless.
Big Business A Love Letter to an American Antihero by Tyler Cowen. While the author sees this book as a failed project, I came away with some important data and hard to rebut counterarguments to some common cultural assumptions about how business works. Some arguments I thought were quite weak or unappealing (I would prefer if businesses unrelated to culture did not become the arbiters of culture and orthodoxy…), but the chapters on CEO pay, inequality, and big tech made up for the small weaknesses. To me it was a huge success. Recommended.
Creative Destruction: Globalization and the World’s Cultures by Tyler Cowen. Look on the sunny side of globalized culture… there are Swedish musicians who specialize in Americana and Blues Rock, and Turkish musicians who make rap. But it cuts the other way too. I get to listen to Turkish folk music and Finnish pop and All of Bach! Demand for all genres is actually up, and musicians can access a global audience.
The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat. A rhapsody on American culture. I like Ross’ writing.
A Time to Build by Yuval Levin. A fairly light read, it is more of a sermon than a serious treatise. The thesis of the book is that institutions are supposed to form each of us into a particular type of person. They ought not be mere platforms for self-glorification and expression. The goal of an institution is to coordinate people around certain ideals and mission, not merely to apply intelligence and efficiency to solving problems, but to apply character and integrity in the fulfillment of obligations and responsibilities. (It’s some timely moralizing, I’d say!) Here is a nice quote from the book:
“Many Americans are not lucky enough to have the benefit of a flourishing family, or the opportunity for rewarding work, or an uplifting education, or a thriving community, or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings. All of these institutions now need us, and we can help by taking them seriously.”
Russian Conservatism by Paul Robinson. “There are more types of Russian Conservatism, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Revolt of the Public

Ex-CIA digital media analyst, Martin Gurri, explored the politics of negation in 2014 and updated his thesis in 2018 in The Revolt of the Public.

The Revolt comes in pink.

The major thesis is that while the public becomes more highly networked and integrated with each other, elites have remained about as removed as they were pre-internet. This high visibility highlights their many failures, creates widespread distrust in their authority, and enables various revolts against the status quo in the form of (usually unreasonable) demands. The typical elite response is bewilderment and indignation. The savvy elite response is joining the public in blaming the leaders, the bureaucracy, or whatever malevolent force it is, and denouncing the system they are apart of.

Chesterton’s quip about love gains new meaning when the concept of neighbor becomes everyone we encounter on and because of the internet. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people,” (Illustrated London News, July 16, 1910). This is why Christians are known for their calm and loving presence in the midst of Facebook flame wars…

The key, I believe, to getting the most out of this book, is to avoid thinking about the book in terms of our own favored political armies, and instead to focus on our personal self-adaptation. A noisier world is upon us. Living well within it is the challenge. The movements of today flash out like solar flares. Suddenly a mass of people can turn against an election, or a particular company, a particular minority, a city government, a court, a religion or a statue, a sector of the economy, or a nation. Indeed, anyone can be a besieger and anyone can be besieged by a suddenly formed public. And since criticism is cheap and available, we tend to engage in it too and judge ourselves vigilant and intelligent for seeing all the wrong.

Chesterton’s response is that “what embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism,” (“On Bright Old Things and Other Things,” Sidelights on New London and Newer New York). For if we fail to see our own failures, we will fail to forgive others their own. Martin Gurri’s response adds a little more detail than this. Building trust across a nation built on traditional brick-and-mortar hierarchies requires humility, integrity, and openness. He spells this out as the only way forward for systems to appear legitimate in a highly connected world.

I am concerned with how to build trust in an age of distrust. How to build well and offer a positive vision despite all noise, much of it vile. Martin Gurri’s book lays out a solid analysis of one level of the forces at work, but there are many others. Ideology, economy, laws and culture still matter. However all of these are influenced by the lightning fast information age.

Fortunately integrity in the internet age is about the same as integrity has always been, we just have to use the new tools to fulfill it. At the personal level: never lie, explain your reasons for what you’re doing/believing, be open about the good you wish to do, be open for input, strive for virtue, take responsibility for your actions. In your organizations, serve your clients and colleagues, take responsibility for their good, encourage them to also strive for virtue, be open for input, create goals (and be led by them!), and never lie.

Religious Works Read 2020

Populorum Progressio by Paul VI
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis by John Paul II
Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation by Joseph Ratzsinger
Witness to Hope by George Wiegel
Gaudium et Spes by Paul VI
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
Code of Canon Law 1983 Vatican, Pope John Paul II
Saint Louis Jacques LeGoff
Fratelli Tutti by Pope Francis
Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great
Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict

Fiction Read 2020

Milton by William Blake. Wild bright eyed prophetic mythopoesis by the great seer of the Romantic era. Illustrations by the author are grand and delightful.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. With the first chapter featuring the persecution of a physicist during the Cultural Revolution in China, we have the set up of a solid novel. Coming from the perspective of an author whose country has come from killing scientists to enthroning them within a generation, optimism and belief in the possibility of progress pervades the story. This novel can stand alone without reading the next two books! Thus it’s not a huge commitment.
There Once Was A Mother who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back in by Ludmilla Petruvaskaya. From a Russian translation, comes three stories about the depressing psychology of desperate people. My wife and I read this in the hospital after childbirth. Our child has moved in, may he not move back in!
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. The megalopsychoi war against decadence.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu. What is progress? We begin with environmental degradation on earth and end with environmental degradation of the universe. “Make time for civilization, because civilization doesn’t make time.” A wonderful meditation on the relationship between progress and civilization. In our novel, the quest for unyielding progress can diminish civilization. But civilization without progress leads to decadence. Ultimately only self-gift can save us.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Inspiring philosophical novel blending music and philosophy into a rarefied community. Since I am a total sap for intellectual coming of age stories and this one is framed in the ironic mode of a well-researched biography, from the onset the philosophical musings of the book pulled me. The dialogue form did not survive Plato, instead it was elevated into the philosophical novel. Here is a philosophical novel without reservation. The book also features some wonderful poetry, translated from German, such as “After Dipping into the Summa Contra Gentiles.” This was the best novel I read this year.
The Man in the High Castle by Phil K. Dick. Unsettling escher-like look at the reality of history. Ultimately, however, I found the most interesting part of the book to be PKD’s notion of economics. He presents a world in which Nazi economics is doomed to inefficiency caused by centralization but stands superior to Japanese traditionalism. He also thinks New Deal economics would have worked well, or does he? That’s the question.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Want to be punched in the gut by depressing and potent visions of a failing America? This is your book, though it’s ultimate message is hopeful. I enjoyed it, but really stopped feeling strong emotions after the first half of the book, when circumstances improved. I am undecided on whether I will continue to the next book, Parable of the Talents. Though, I do love a good parable.