Forgettable Books

Have read a lot of books that aren't worth writing about, so here is a list with ratings:

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel - 2/5

The Dude and the Zen Master - 2/5

Investing - The Last Liberal Art - 2.5/5

Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life - 3/5

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others - 1/5

The Book of Five Rings - 2/5

Rethinking the Equity Risk Premium - 3/5

Passage Meditation: Bringing the Deep Wisdom of the Heart into Daily Life - 3/5




The Right Stuff

No surprise here, but the book is much better than the movie.  Tom Wolfe’s writing is electric, and his subject matter fascinating.  There are no modern equivalents to the test pilots and astronauts of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I wonder how people of the internet age would react to the constant death defying, or death inducing, stunts like those undertaken by these pilots. These crazy bastards put their lives on the line to test the limits of speed, space and technology.  Imagine volunteering to be a test pilot knowing the following:

In 1952 sixty-two Air Force pilots died in the course of thirty-six weeks of training, an extraordinary rate of 1.7 per week. Those figures were for fighter-pilot trainees only; they did not include the test pilots, Bridgeman’s own confreres, who were dying quite regularly enough….56 percent probability, to be exact, that at some point a career Navy pilot would have to eject from his aircraft and attempt to come down by parachute. In the era of jet fighters, ejection meant being exploded out of the cockpit by a nitroglycerine charge, like a human cannonball. The ejection itself was so hazardous—men lost knees, arms, and their lives on the rim of the cockpit or had the skin torn off their faces when they hit the “wall” of air outside—that many pilots chose to wrestle their aircraft to the ground rather than try it … and died that way instead.

One figure showed that there was a 23% probability of death if you were a part of the program. But the book is about the right stuff, and those with the right stuff didn’t sweat figures like these because “The figures were averages, and averages applied to those with average stuff.”  You have to love the attitude and egos of these men.  Oh and they were always drunk:

Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)

I loved Wolfe’s description of astronauts as the cold war equivalents “single combat warriors”

Just as the Soviet success in putting Sputniks into orbit around the earth revived long-buried superstitions about the power of heavenly bodies and the fear of hostile control of the heavens, so did the creation of astronauts and a “manned space program” bring back to life one of the ancient superstitions of warfare. Single combat had been common throughout the world in the pre-Christian era and endured in some places through the Middle Ages. In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.

If you like American History and/or stories of pushing the limits of human capability and endurance, this book is for you.

A Brilliant Conversation

I wish there were more books whose format was simply a transcribed conversation between interesting people.  Jean Francois Revel and his son Matthieu Ricard are two very interesting people who sat and had a sprawling conversation about Buddhism and its relationship to the West.  The resulting book is called “The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life.” J.F. Revel was an author, philosopher, political & economic commentator, and was a-religious.  His son, Matthieu earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics before becoming one of the more famous Buddhist monks living today. Their conversation touched on all aspects of Buddhism, with a special focus on why the West has become increasingly interested in Buddhism and what the Buddhism has to offer Westerners – spiritually, psychologically, and otherwise.

This is Jack Miles, in the book’s foreword, summing up the problem to be addressed:

Let me call [the] secular Western philosophy of life the philosophy of enlightened self-interest… Enlightened self-interest seems to hold as a necessary postulate that the world is real and the world’s goods really worth acquiring. A stock portfolio, a law degree, a flat stomach, an art museum membership card, a foreign vacation, a sex life, a baby – the list is long, and each item on it seems to have generated an advertising campaign, a market strategy, an expert adviser. Materialism is too narrow a word for the army of cultural imperatives that both preserve and besiege the Western self. Narcissism might be better, or solipsism, or cultural autism. Whatever word or phrase is chosen, it is clear that a revulsion has begun to set in. The news that the self which is served by all this effort, this calculation, this cultivation, this from-birth-onward preparation – the news that this self may be an illusion is news that, for the affected minority, seems already to have arrived. They welcome it less as revelation than as confirmation.

The book overall was a fantastic - if somewhat circumloquacious - conversation on many great topics.  It is crystal clear after reading Matthieu’s account that living the path is much different than reading about it (I am still mostly in the reading phase). I highly recommend it with the caveat that you should feel free to skip chapters that don’t pique your interest.  Oh and one more thing, FREE TIBET! Here are a few of my favorite passages:

Matthieu, Buddhist, doing his best Richard Dawkins impression:

Let’s take all-powerfulness, for instance. A Creator would have to be all-powerful. Either the Creator doesn’t ‘decide’ to create, in which case all-powerfulness is lost, for creation happens outside his will; or he creates voluntarily, in which case he can’t be all-powerful, either, as he’s creating under the influence of his desire to create…Can a Creator be a permanent entity? No, because after creating he’s different from how he was before he created. He’s become ‘he who created’. What’s more, if he creates the whole universe, that necessarily implies that all the causes of the universe must be present within him. Now, one of the bases of the law of cause and effect, or karma, is that an event can’t take place as long as all the causes and conditions for its arising are not assembled, and that it can’t not take place once they are. That means that a Creator either could never create or would have to be constantly creating. This sort of reasoning, and many others like it, can be applied to all the traditions that envisage a Creator who’s eternal, all-powerful, who exists intrinsically, and so on.

On the self:

MATTHIEU – Attachment to the self is a fact, but the self that is the object of that attachment has no true existence; it exists nowhere and in no way as an autonomous and permanent entity. It exists neither in the different physical and mental parts that constitute an individual, nor somewhere outside them, nor in their combination. If you object that the self corresponds to the meeting of those parts, that amounts to conceding that it’s just a simple label that the intellect imposes on the temporary meeting of various interdependent elements. In fact, the self doesn't exist in any of those elements, and when they separate the very notion of it disappears. Not to unmask the imposture of the self is ignorance, the momentary inability to recognize the true nature of things. It’s that ignorance, therefore, that is the ultimate cause of suffering. Once we manage to get rid of our erroneous understanding of the self and our belief in the true and solid existence of phenomena, once we recognize that this ‘I’ doesn't really exist, there’s no more reason to be afraid of not getting what we want or being subjected to what we don’t want.

On leaving science for a spiritual life:

MATTHIEU – My scientific career was the result of a passion for discovery. Whatever I was able to do afterward was in no way a rejection of scientific research, which is in many respects a fascinating pursuit, but arose rather from the realization that such research was unable to solve the fundamental questions of life – and wasn't even meant to do so. In short, science, however interesting, wasn't enough to give meaning to my life. I came to see research, as I experienced it myself, as an endless dispersion into detail, and dedicating my whole life to it was something I could no longer envisage.

On science and happiness:

MATTHIEU – It’s true that biology and theoretical physics have brought us some fascinating knowledge about the origins of life and the formation of the universe. But does knowing such things help us elucidate the basic mechanisms of happiness and suffering? It’s important not to lose sight of the goals that we set ourselves. To know the exact shape and dimensions of the Earth is undeniably progress. But whether it’s round or flat doesn't make a great deal of difference to the meaning of existence. Whatever progress is made in medicine, we can only temporarily treat sufferings that never stop coming back, and culminate in death. We can end a conflict, or a war, but there will always be more, unless people’s minds change. But, on the other hand, isn't there a way of discovering an inner peace that doesn't depend on health, power, success, money, or the pleasures of the senses, an inner peace that’s the source of outer peace?

Once again, bottom-up works better than top-down:

J.F. REVEL – Do you mean that the only way to attain lasting peace in the world is the reform of individuals? MATTHIEU. – To think otherwise is surely utopian. The reform of individuals would, of course, have to include our leaders as a first step!

The Lessons of History

I’ve just finished this classic book by Will and Ariel Durant who are, for my money, the greatest historians in all of, uhhhh, history.  I have always appreciated how fairly the Durants treat their subjects; they never have any sort of agenda or ideology to advance.  This book was written after their epic (four million words!) “Story of Civilization” series, which documents all of recorded history up through the Age of Napoleon.  “The Lessons of History” is by comparison a tidy little volume.  It is like a cliff notes of history: you can read it in a day, and in so doing get the gist of all history has to teach us.

One central idea discussed is the circular nature of things. “History,” Durant says, “repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large…Civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear – or linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.”  Wealth equality and inequality, paganism and Puritanism, open markets and collectivism, peace and (more so) war - all wax and wane.

Progress is another key topic.  Clearly we have made tremendous technological and scientific progress, but Durant reminds us:

One of the discouraging discoveries of our disillusioning century is that science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build. How inadequate now seems the proud motto of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power”! Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.

The scientific method has changed the world in great ways and is no doubt one of the most important and positive ideas in history. It is the engine that has driven the recent explosion of technological progress. The economic system most compatible with the scientific method is western capitalism; but one byproduct of western capitalism is an obsession with accumulating wealth and pleasing the senses. These tendencies are, in my opinion, huge road blocks to true happiness and well-being.  My worry is that no progress is being made in the average level of happiness. Buddhists would likely agree with me that part of the problem is that we spend almost all of our time investigating the world outside and very little time on the world within. More introspective investigation and experimentation tends to lead to more compassion and more happiness.  I suggest, spend more time getting to know the knower. Start meditating!

Here are more lessons learning by the Durants:

On Freedom and Equality:

For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way.

On Religion:

Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive. Add to the crimes, wars, and cruelties of man the earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, pestilences, tidal waves, and other “acts of God” that periodically desolate human and animal life, and the total evidence suggests either a blind or an impartial fatality, with incidental and apparently haphazard scenes to which we subjectively ascribe order, splendor, beauty, or sublimity. If history supports any theology this would be a dualism like the Zoroastrian or Manichaean: a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men’s souls. These faiths and Christianity (which is essentially Manichaean) assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee. Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.

On Economics:

Economic ambition, not the face of Helen “fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,” launched a thousand ships on Ilium; those subtle Greeks knew how to cover naked economic truth with the fig leaf of a phrase… The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient. Normally and generally men are judged by their ability to produce—except in war, when they are ranked according to their ability to destroy… Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws. Despotism may for a time retard the concentration; democracy, allowing the most liberty, accelerates it. The relative equality of Americans before 1776 has been overwhelmed by a thousand forms of physical, mental, and economic differentiation, so that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome. In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.

On the Redistribution of Wealth:

In the Athens of 594 B.C., according to Plutarch, “the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor had reached its height, so that the city seemed to be in a dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances… seemed possible but despotic power.”35 The poor, finding their status worsened with each year—the government in the hands of their masters, and the corrupt courts deciding every issue against them—began to talk of violent revolt. The rich, angry at the challenge to their property, prepared to defend themselves by force. Good sense prevailed; moderate elements secured the election of Solon, a businessman of aristocratic lineage, to the supreme archonship. He devaluated the currency, thereby easing the burden of all debtors (though he himself was a creditor); he reduced all personal debts, and ended imprisonment for debt; he canceled arrears for taxes and mortgage interest; he established a graduated income tax that made the rich pay at a rate twelve times that required of the poor; he reorganized the courts on a more popular basis; and he arranged that the sons of those who had died in war for Athens should be brought up and educated at the government’s expense. The rich protested that his measures were outright confiscation; the radicals complained that he had not redivided the land; but within a generation almost all agreed that his reforms had saved Athens from revolution.