Polyprofundis: June, 2018

I READ THE FOLLOWING 9 BOOKS IN JUNE

–“Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsory”, Anne Edwards. This lively examination of one of Great Britain’s famous modern queens at once humanizes the great lady while detailing the consequences, good and bad, of her astonishing devotion to the monarchy. She took her duty as a matriarch and symbol of continuity, power, and majesty very seriously, brooking no lapses from other members of the royal family. This is part of what made her such an effective and popular ruler. Another part was her exceptional intelligence — by all accounts she was smarter than almost everyone around her, memorizing lengthy passages of Shakespeare, taking great trouble to read literature in the original French and German, devouring volumes of Indian history and even learning basic Hindi phrases in preparation for an extended visit to British India.

This book also imparted a sense, foreign to an American such as myself, of just how important the monarchy was to the British people. The Queen’s stern countenance and unyielding steadfastness in the face of personal tragedy, world wars, and the rising tide of modernity were a source of great strength to her subjects. Edwards (the author) speculates that the Nazi bombing of Buckingham Palace during WWII was a profound tactical blunder because, in showing that even the monarchy was not immune to the catastrophes falling daily from the skies above onto the streets of London, it did more to bring the country together than almost anything else could have.

— “If Aristotle Ran General Motors”, Tom Morris. This slim volume examines business and ethics through Aristotle’s four cardinal values (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity), making a philosophical and empirical case for cultivating each in our working lives. Excellence in business, argues Morris, rests on honestly dealing with customers and workers, on feeling that our work connects to a larger purpose and stimulates us aesthetically, and in knowing that what we do in the office is a function of who we are as a person. Though it was written at the turn of the millennium the book’s tone and style reminded me of classic self-help books like James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh”.

Good stuff.

— “The Origins of Political Order” ^ “Political Order and Political Decay”, Francis Fukuyama. This is Fukuyama’s famous two-volume look at what drives the development of progressively more complex human societies (answer: lots of stuff) and what makes some of them function better than others (answer: also lots of stuff). Though Fukuyama has a real blind spot around free-market economics, I still gained in both broad sociological perspective and in knowledge of specific historical periods.

-“The Languages of Pao”, Jack Vance. I have a real fondness for these old-school SF paperbacks, with their endearingly-cartoonish cover art and a panoply of goofy names for what is supposed to be high technology (“hammer-beams!”, “mind-blinders!”). The underlying premise is an interesting one: in the far future the descendants of humans have colonized various worlds, one of which is the titular Pao. Aeons of peace, plenty, and certain features of their language have made the Paonese into something like docile cattle, to be milked by more bellicose neighbors and slaughtered, as required.

Royal intrigue results in the young heir to the throne being taken to the Breakness world as a kind of hostage/squire. Over the years he conceives a burning desire to return to Pao as its rightful “Panarch” to bring it into modernity. This will require deposing the current ruler, as well as introducing a language-based caste system which will match features of three new languages with the requirements of brand new classes of warriors, industrialists, and intellectuals — the likes of which have never been seen on Pao.

Unforseen consequences of this scheme, as well as the competing interests of various powerful and crafty malefactors entangle our Panarch in plots which could cost him everything, including his world and his life.

Published in the 50’s, I couldn’t help but thinking that the book’s driving premise could use a modern reboot. Surely with modern linguistics, psychology, and economics much more could be done with it. Still worth the read.

“Seveneves”, Neal Stephenson. The book begins with the explosion of the moon in the skies over Terra; a few pages later it occurs to the relevant authorities that eventually the pieces are going to rain onto the Earth and kill 99.999% of everyone on it.

After that, the action picks up a little bit.

With the possible exception of Jean L’Flambeur being shot between the eyes by the All Defector in Rajaniemi’s “The Quantum Thief” I can’t recall another work of fiction that punches the reader in the nose as soon as they open the book. In classic Stephensonian style we are treated to lengthy discussions of topics like space suit pressurization, orbital mechanics, and the fluid dynamics of tears in space. But the author of “Anathem” and “The Cryptonomicon” has never give short shrift to non-technical subjects, and so we also explore everything from the interpersonal dynamics of humans living in tin cans their entire lives to the effects of social media on human attention to the long-term consequences of humans separating into genetically distinct races.

If you liked his other work you’ll like this one; if you didn’t, then we are very different people.

“The Voice of Reason”, Ayn Rand et al. Mostly I read this because I was experimenting with ways of turning PDFs into audiobooks and I had this PDF lying around. If you’ve read other collections of Objectivist essays there won’t be any surprises here, but her meditation on the absurdity of American antitrust legislation was especially solid, Peter Schwartz’s critique of early libertarianism merits consideration, and Leonard Peikoff’s poignant, illuminating reflections on his thirty-year friendship with one of the most polarizing thinkers of the twentieth century was well worth reading.

“Debunking Utopia”, Nami Sanandaji. If you read just one book on economics this year, it should probably be this one. Sanandaji — a trained Norwegian economist sympathetic to government-sponsored programs like universal healthcare — challenges the standard Leftist talking point that the Scandinavian countries are prosperous because of their enormous public sectors.

His case can mostly be boiled down thusly: make a list of all the things you like about Norway/Denmark/Finland/Sweden. With virtually no exceptions it can be shown that those positive social features either 1) predate the establishment of socialist-democratic governments by decades or centuries; 2) also mark Scandinavian immigrants to other countries, like the U.S., which completely lack such public-sector initiatives; 3) are actively eroding the cultural basis for Scandinavian success.

“The New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander. A sobering look at how truly terrifying the American judicial system has become and how far outside the mandates of the Constitution we’ve wandered, with the predictable, tragic destruction of countless lives. I have not yet decided how I feel about the book’s central thesis; Alexander’s view that implicit and explicit racial prejudice was the primary motive for the war on drugs and stacks the deck against poor non-whites in ways clearly meant to be discriminatory has been challenged by the left no less than the right, and for my own part I think there are noteworthy evidentiary omissions and places where she overstates her case.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to read about ‘Operation Pipeline’ or civil asset forfeiture without a rising sense of incandescent fury on behalf of all those crushed under the bulk of a monster whose evil and stupidity will someday be described as nothing short of breathtaking.

“Antitrust: The Case For Repeal”, Dominick T. Armentano. A leading antitrust scholar draws on more than a century of data to demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion,a combination of legal ambiguity and arbitrary enforcement makes this law little more than a means by which firms can punish successful rivals and the government can plan the economy.

 

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