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Safe Haven

My infatuation with Karl Popper’s philosophy of science didn’t survive actual experience in the lab, which was far messier and more nuanced than the strict Austrian hypothesis falsification workflow Popper described. What, then, to make of this book, which is Popperian science applied to financial risk mitigation? It makes sound and persuasive arguments, but then again so did Popper when discussing general scientific progress.

In the dilemma also lies the answer — unlike Popper, who never conducted practical research, Mark Spitznagel is investor first, philosopher of finance last. He needed a framework to impart his wisdom and Popper’s served nicely, though I suspect just as much knowledge transfer would have occurred had he used verse.

How to Live

Continuing the “How to…” series, we’ve come to the pinnacle of self-help schlock… or so I thought. How to Live is a good book. So good, in fact, that I plan on ordering a half-dozen or so copies to give out as birthday presents throughout the year.

Please read slowly. One line at a time. ” says the preface. And it is the perfect advice, for what follows are pithy comments on life grouped into chapters by predominant mood. “Be independent” advises Chapter One, “Commit”, retorts the second; the chapters are internally consistent but mutually conflicted, if not exclusive.

So here is what happens: you will start reading a chapter with an agreeable-sounding name, nodding along in the beginning, until a turning point comes where that particular line of thinking is brought to (what you think are) extremes only found on BBSs, internet forums, and private Facebook groups. Or you may start the chapter by shaking your head in disagreement only to find a line, or two, or ten that are actually quite sensible, for you, at that particular moment in time.

Some savvy operator — a pioneer, the author Derek Sivers might call them in what is the only trollish chapter of the book — could have created a speaking gig, an LLC, or maybe even a cult based on what’s here. Lucky for us that he didn’t: you can order the book online in hardcover, paperback, and many electronic formats.

Twilight of Democracy

Confesions of a neocon boomer, horrified with what her generation has wrought upon the world. That it is written without a hint of irony makes it all the more amusing.

We really did have everything, didn’t we?

Four Thousand Weeks

The subtitle is Time management for mortals, but Making peace with middle age would not be too off the mark. Don’t waste your life micromanaging workplace minutia while waiting for the conditions to be right to start working on what’s important to you. Just do it.

The Nike slogan echoing throughout is not the most GenX thing about it either.

There is an important point there, but I can’t help thinking it could have been made without denigrating other books on time management. From Stephen Covey’s ladders against the wrong wall to David Allen’s 50,000-foot view, most systems have a way of reminding you about the big picture — though only as a footnote and without fancy diagrams so no wonder there are some who miss it. Good thing there is now a whole book about the big picture to add to your workflow.

The Scout Mindset

A brisk account of mental models and cognitive techniques to get you out of idea-defending and into idea-falsifying mode, or from solider to scout mindset, to use the author’s terminology. Soldiers care about status and will use evidence and rhetoric to shore up their established position; scouts care about reality, and will use evidence and rhetoric to seek out and build a better and more trustworthy map.

Yes, we could all do with some more of the scout mindset in our lives — the easiest person to fool being ourselves and all that. It is too bad, then, that people most likely to read and internalize the book are already the most scout-like among their friends. Back in early 2020 many a scout asked for more evidence and even went looking while others were digging ditches and building barricades; they are still pariahs.

Being a scout is a lonely endeavor. No surprise, then, that most humans actively avoid becoming one.

How to Speak and How to Listen

Continuing my streak of self-help indulgence, I decided to re-read Mortimer Adler’s less known work, the one about speaking and listening.1 Parts of the book aged rather poorly.

Lamenting the decline of liberal arts colleges — decline of the 1980s, not the deep dive that was yet to come — he offers some words of self-praise about teaching marketing executives on the importance of ethos, pathos, and logos in controling people’s actions and minds. Oh, how professioral he must have looked — my mind brings up images of a bespectacled jowly professor in a tweed suit; the internet agrees with my assessment and even adds a pipe — educating these know-nothings on the works of Demosthenes. Oh, how tragic is the path to which he led them, and the world.

But I kid. Mortimer Adler the man had little to do with the attention economy of days present, but his ponderings on how to be a good dinner host, impress CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and rile up a crowd to do your bidding are a good example of the tango mortale that academia played with industry in the mid-to-late 20th century. And we are all worse for it.

  1. The best-known one being How to Read a Book, which is good despite itself and its author’s pretentiousness. 

One last thing about Don’t Look Up

After two failed attempts to explain why exactly I wasn’t thrilled with Adam McKay’s Netflix movie — brevity will only get you so far — I found this review by Scott Alexander to perfectly capture my doubts about the movie’s message. I agree with Alexander only about 60% of the time, but I can agree with 100% of his review.

How to Think

The subtitle, “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds”, is closer to what the book really is: not a manual for thinking, but rather a set of instructions for responsible use of, and participation in, social media circa late 2010s. As such it is quite useful, skipping briskly in its 100-some pages from Kahneman and Tversky’s Systems 1 and 2, through Kevin Simler’s Elephant in the Brain, to a few online anecdotes of people changing their minds after communicating with the other side — whatever the “other side” was in their particular front of the culture wars.

Left unsaid is why you would want to throw your hat into the social media ring anyway. The author Alan Jacobs has himself all but abandoned Twitter and seems to have limited his online presence to a one-way, comment-less blog. Jacobs may have correctly framed thinking as inherentialy social, but social media as they are just 4 years after the book’s publication are decidedly not the best medium for thinking.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

The book that Sapiens1 wished it could be: an honest, academically rigorous, intellectually stimulating, fun overview of archeology’s current understanding of prehistory, and an exploration of the reasons why the popular view has become so divergent from the professional.

I won’t pretend to have digested all 700 pages after one read, but a few mental models popped up immediately.

The first is the importance of play: there is some evidence — and much hypothesizing — that at least some of the modern societal setup came about as a result of play. Pretend-kings of annual feasts may have, at some point, decided to be true rulers. The first use of clay modeling was to build toys, not pottery. And to extrapolate to the more recent past: powerful graphics cards built for photo-realistic video games are now mostly used for cryptocurrency mining. The outcomes don’t always need to be good!

That is another important point: the book dismantles the myth of linear progress and replaces it with a theory of multiple (social) worlds in which some may be more suitable at different times for different populations, but none could be called universally “better” than others. We are in dicey territory here, because one of the authors — the late David Graeber — was a well-known activist for anarchism and you’ll have a hard time finding a review of The Dawn of Everything which doesn’t try to frame it as some sort of a call to anarchy. But it is hardly the first book published in the last five years to point out some of the deficiencies of the current state of affairs, while pointing out that social experimentation was the modus operandi for most of human (pre)history.

The how of our mistaken ideas of the neolithic leads to another important mental model: premature codification of hypotheses as facts. The chain of events leading from Rousseau’s essay on the mythical Noble Savage to historians mistaking it for actual history echoes many of the medical myths with which I am more familiar, from iron-rich spinach to fever-causing atelectases. Most fields of human endevor won’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

My own field being as far away from archeology as you can get, I had to ask the one “real” archeologist I knew — with recent field-work experience in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean — what she thought of the facts in this book. And, somewhat surprisingly, she saw nothing new, controversial, or groundbreaking in any of the stated facts. For what it’s worth, an anonymous Amazon review from someone claiming to be an expert in the field confirms this. This is important: we can argue about interrpretation — and unlike some popular historians the authors here clearly mark the parts where they are telling a story more than stating facts — but the truth about how much we know should not be in doubt.

Meanwhile, professional book reviewers, quick to judge, easy to confuse, attention spans short, don’t know what to make of any of it: as sure a sign as any that The Dawn of Everything is a true masterpiece.

  1. Reading my review of the Sapiens I realize I fell prey to the reverse form of Gell-Mann amnesia: suffering through Harari’s other book, Homo Deus, should have made me revise my opinion of Sapiens right away, and not wait for Graeber and Wengrow to put things right. 

22 books for 2022

This is the bare minimum of non-medical books I should read this year. The last two years were abysmal in that regard, and I look forward to making excuses for why 2022 was no different.

  • The Scout Mindset (Julia Galef)
  • How to Live (Derek Sivers)
  • Understanding Nonlinear Dynamics (Daniel Kaplan and Leon Glass)
  • Light (M. John Harrison)
  • Safe Haven (Mark Spitznagel)
  • Pieces of the Action (Vannevar Bush)
  • The Demon-Haunted World (Carl Sagan)
  • Where Good Ideas Come From (Steven Johnson)
  • Calculated Risks (Gerd Gigerenzer)
  • Making Things Work (Yaneer Bar-Yam)
  • The Morning Star (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
  • Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
  • Where Law Ends (Andrew Weissmann)
  • The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis)
  • Checkpoint Charlie (Ian MacGregor)
  • Checkmate in Berlin (Giles Milton)
  • The Complacent Class (Tyler Cowen)
  • Craft Coffee: A Manual (Jessica Easto)
  • The Complete Father Brown Stories (G. K. Chesterton)
  • Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Ecco)
  • Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization (Donald W. Braben)
  • Adventures of a Computational Explorer (Stephen Wolfram)

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