books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Alexander The Great

A quick review of the most recent casualty out of my “to read” pile: Alexander the Great by Lewis V. Cummings.  Short for two reasons: I have to head to the airport in less than an hour (to fly to Germany for 12 hours to present 5 slides to 4 guys to get one question answered…but that’s another story) and because I’m not sure I am taking away any grand themes from this read.
This was added to my read pile a few months back on a monthly trip to Half Price Books.  Unlike most of my other acquisitions there, this title was not on a wish list.  Rather, I have been interested in reading more about Alexander, specifically after having read Persian Fire earlier this year.  I almost looked at it like a sequel ;-).  What I didn’t know when I picked this one up is that it was originally written in the 40s and as a testament to how dumb we (or at least I) have become I found the phrasing a bit difficult to get to.  The challenging phrasing was compounded by all the unfamiliar Greek and Persian place and people names (sometimes I wasn’t sure whether it was one or the other) and a relative scarcity of maps to correlate the advances I was reading about.  Overall this was a rather difficult book for me to get through.  But it was worth doing.
A few ideas that stuck out to me about Alexander and his conquest:

  • It’s amazing how far he went in such a short time.  Persia, Egypt, India and nearly beyond.  Immediately before his death he was preparing for an invasion of Arabia.  I can only imagine how different he modern world would be if he had lived for another decade or two.
  • He was most certainly a psychopath.  Or at least extremely disturbed.  How could you not be with the sort of childhood he had (Aristotle’s tutoring being perhaps the one exception…although he later causes Aristotle of being a sophist, so maybe even that didn’t “take”).
  • Maps are a relative thing.  The cities described in the book don’t exist anymore or have been through several name changes.  The borders don’t exist at all.
  • I’m calling out my own stupidity here, but I will admit that I didn;t realize that he wasn’t Greek.  He was Macedonian.  And calling him a Greek would be like calling someone from the deep south a yankee.
  • He was always very concerned about protecting his flanks and rear.  To accomplish this he would often leave the king of the city he conquered (either through arms or surrender) in charge with the help of a few of his own “military advisors”.  This shows that it wasn’t personal (he didn’t hate the kings) put purely about power.  In some cases he also took hostages from the conquered kings kinsmen with him if he though the king might not follow the advice of his “advisors”.  This struck me as strangely similar to some of the “dotted line” reporting structures in some modern corporations…
  • A note about the book rather than Alexander: this book made me realize (again) how hard it is to really know what happened in history.  Cummings uses extensive footnotes, and half of them point out where the primary sources disagree.  I can’t imagine trying to comb through Plutarch, Arrian, etc and try to figure out who is right.
  • For all his accomplishments, and despite his nearly constant attempts to be worshipped as a god, he was still mortal and was likely killed (according to Cummings) by malaria.  We all live in the same reality.

Favorite anecdote from the book (near the end): he was sailing down the Euphrates and his hat blew off.  One of the crew dove in after it and, afraid that the water would damage it, put it on his head.  Alexander rewarded him with a silver talent for saving his hat and then ordered him to be immediately executed for daring to place the royal symbol on his head.
Favorite quote from the book (beside the speech he gave to the Macedonians at the end which is a direct quote from Plutarch):

He (referring to Alexander) had, consciously or unconsciously, reached the conclusion that every tyrant before and since has at last had to learn, that no man ever ruled any body of people without there consent; that the instant they ceased to give that consent, whether passive or active, that instant they were his masters, and continued to be his masters as long as they could act in unison.

Off to the airport now with a copy of Our Mathematical Universe.  The pattern seems to be history – science – philosophy.  This one should check off two of those categories so it will be back to history when I land.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: The End of Faith

I’ve been stuck on this review for a while, but we are leaving tomorrow for a mini vacation to New Hampshire, so I decided to just get down what’s in my head and check it off the list.  It’s not going to get any better with time – at least for now.  One the plus side I am actually completing this review before I have completed the book I picked up after i (Sapiens…although I do only have 17 pages left, which I intend to get through as soon as I hit publish on this post ;-)).  And I did actually read another book after it which I am not going to do a review of since it was for fun.  I am getting closer to getting these done as I finish the books and before I start the next one.  But still not quite there.  Maybe they’re better with a little time?  I heard somewhere that the real reading happens when the eyes are off the page anyway,
The subject of this review is End of Faith by Sam Harris.  I first heard of Sam Harris on an interview he did on the Joe Rogan podcast.  I put him in the same mental bucket as I had Daniel Siegel in: scientists who have a thing or two to say about the reality behind mindfulness and meditation.  Mr. Harris (had to look up whether it was Dr…couldn’t find anything that said so in a quick search, so my apologies if I missed it) certainly does have some interesting things to say about those topics, but he has a lot more to say about a few other topics.   After subscribing to his (fairly recent) podcast and listening / watching a few of his youtube videos, I discovered that Mr. Harris is considered to be one of the leading voices of the modern atheist movement.  While not an atheist myself, I must admit I was captivated by someone who had such interesting things to say about the mind, present moment awareness and even spirituality, yet was also an atheist.
So it was that when on a trip to Half Price Books that I saw End of Faith in the Philosophy section, I had to buy it.  I was done in about 10 days, but that was more than 3 weeks ago.  I’m still not quite sure what I think about what he had to say in this book.  I picked it up with the idea (he would say intention) that I would disagree with most of what he had to say.  And there are some wide disagreements.  But there is also a lot that he has to say that I can’t find any holes in.
That being said, I’m still not sure that it was a book that I enjoyed.  I am not the most well read person with the largest vocabulary.  But I would consider myself in the top 25% or so.  Inflated self image or not, I found it a struggle to decrypt some of his sentences.  The phrasing and vocabulary was so complex, verging on obtuse, that I wasn’t quite sure what he meant sometimes.  This is more likely a commentary on my own mental abilities rather than his, but it did get in the way of my complete understanding of what he was trying to say.
One of the most surprising outcomes from reading The End of Faith is the amount of sympathy I developed for Mr. Harris.  I can imagine that he must find it difficult to fit in with most mainstream labels (left/right, conservative/liberal) based on his viewpoints on things like religion, immigration, the role of the state and even gun control.  I may be projecting, but I have some of the same issues – having to pick and choose what topics are OK and which are out of bounds depending on who I am talking to.  I am even more sensitive to this after reading Haidt’s book.
He covers a variety of different topics in the book, but one that has gained it (and perhaps him) the most notoriety is the screed against Islam.  I agree with one of his main points here: the intersection of relatively easily available planet destroying weapons and a faith that is OK with destroying the planet (at least a portion of it…the faith…not the planet) is unprecedented and calls us to do more than live and let live when it comes to matters of belief.  After that we part ways on the topic of Islam.
One point he tries to make a few times is that Islam today is just like Christianity was in the 14th century.  However, for some unstated reason, he claims that Islam will not be able to go through a similar moderation / transformation as Christianity.  It could be that he believes that some radical Islamist will prove that Sagan’s idea about Fermi paradox was right, but I didn’t see this plainly presented.
Even more egregious is his overwhelming….faith….in the the state.  For a man that claims to be an atheist, he seems to exhibit many of the behaviors of a state worshiper.  His solution to the Islamist problem seems to be to bomb them out of existence.  This flys counter to his self described rationalism since that’s exactly what we have been doing in the past few decades and to what effect?  ISIS is far worse in simple terms of human suffering than Saddam’s Royal Guard ever was.  My understanding of the rationalist approach is to take in real data now and again to update your rational model of the way the world should work, but perhaps that is reserved to the empiricist subset of the rationalists?  Mr. Harris goes so far as to not only call for increased violence to end the threat of future violence, but also denies that past violence has done anything to escalate the present violence.  It boggles the mind.  My mind anyway.
If not by violence, what will “save” us from the threat represented (in Mr. Harris’ mind anyway) by Islam?  It has to be the through better ideas.  If Islam is to moderate and follow the same path that 14th century Christianity did, it has to be through the marketplace of ideas.  This will not be a fast or an easy process, but its the only one that will work.
One claim that I have heard Mr. Harris make in a few different venues is that intentions matter.  I agree with this whole heartedly.  Setting an intention and making it real matters.  But the results of your intentions matter as much if not more.  This isn’t to say that you can’t make mistakes when trying to make your intentions real in the world.  Making mistakes is part of learning.  Making the same mistakes over and over again is incompetence or malice.  Perhaps he’s never heard that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  On second thought, he probably has…he just doesn’t think there is such a place.

books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: The Righteous Mind

I need to pick up the pace on getting these quick reviews done, with the goal of getting them hammered out pretty much as soon as I finish the book.  I finished this one a week ago and have already picked up and read into a couple of other books.  As a result, this review may not be as sharp (if any of them are ever sharp) since new ideas have started to take the place in my short term memory.  Nonetheless, I wanted to get this review out since I did thoroughly enjoy The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.
Haidt reveals his motivations for writing the book become clear about midway through: as a self described liberal (in the modern, not classical sense) he was trying to help liberal politicians appeal to a broader audience in order to fare better in popular elections.  He felt that the characterization than conservatives simply triggered fear mechanisms in their constituents was far too simplistic an explanation which caused the left to miss something important.  He set about to answer this question through a combination of moral reasoning, psychology and group level selection as an evolutionary mechanism.  The result is an interesting view into how the human mind actually works, presented in three basic premises.
His first premise is that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”.  The analogy he uses to explain this premise is the elephant and the rider, where the rider is our rational consciousness and the elephant is our intuitions and emotions.  Haidt’s idea is that the elephant is in charge most of the time.  The rider can have influence now and again, but usually the elephant starts to head in a direction and then the rider just has to hold on and try to warn everyone who might be in the elephant’s path.  He argues that most people waste time when trying to influence others by talking to the rider, when they should be talking to the elephant.
His second premise is that “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness”.  This is where the book got really interesting.  The analogy he uses here is that of taste buds.  Just as humans have a distinct set of taste buds for sweet vs salty, etc they also have a distinct set of moral receptors that are sensitive to various moral questions.  Examples of these include the care vs. harm receptor or the fairness vs. cheating receptor.  He outlines a total of six different morality receptors, and even discusses a reformulation of one of his original receptors as he accumulated more data.  In researching this premise he found an answer to his original question.  What he found was that self described liberals are highly sensitive to three of the six moral receptors, where as self described conservatives are equally receptive to all six.

Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much trouble since 1980.  Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats.  Republicans speak more directly to the elephant.  They also have better grasp of the Moral Foundations theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.

His final premise is that “Morality Binds and Blinds”.  There are more fascinating ideas here as well.  The analogy he uses here is that the human mind is 90% money and 10% bee.  He admits to resorting to a somewhat controversial theory to support this idea, namely that of group selection in evolution.  This theory states that the principles of Darwinian evolution can also be applied to groups of individuals as well.  He gives a good example of this principle in action in discussing an experiment conducted on egg laying hens.  When highly productive individual hens were selectively bred to produce the next generation, overall egg production in the flock went down.  It turns out that highly productive hens have some characteristics that make them poor neighbors in a coop.  However, when the most productive coops (i.e the group) was selected as the basis for breeding the next generation, overall production did increase.  After defending the group selection theory, Haidt goes on to show how adaptations arising from group selection have driven us to bind together as a group as well as cause us to hold other groups at a distance.
The most interesting application of this idea are his ponderings on Religion as an outgrowth of this “hiveishness”.  The “Religion is a Team Sport” chapter is worth the price of the book in my opinion.  In this chapter Haidt lays waste to the popular atheist theories about religion (brain parasite model…not actual parasites, but rather conceptual) and suggests an adaptive evolutionary based model that isn’t dependent on supernatural concepts that demand acceptance without proof: groups with religion outcompete groups without.  The explanation of the origin of all religions as overactive agency detection (that being an evolutionary adaptive trait) was also fascinating.

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects.  That’s what religion is all about.  And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.

Overall I have to say I really enjoyed this book.  Haidt’s writing is clear.  He explains his ideas, uses analogies, presents data to support his claims, admits where he has blind spots and biases and summarizes succinctly.  If you have ever wondered why your perfect line of logic has failed to persuade someone, you might want to give it a read.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An oldie but a goodie this week.  This was another one that was on my “to read” list that made it’s way on to “to buy” list as a result of a quarterly trip to Half Price Books and then on to my “reading now” list as I was looking at my stack before a recent trip to Germany.  It was a timely selection.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) was written by Robert Pirsig in 1974 and is considered by many to be a modern classic of philosophy.  It’s a combination travel log and philosophical treatise all wrapped into one.  This was actually my second time through the book, the first more than 20 years ago when I was in high school.  I can’t say I got much out of it then.  I don’t think I had enough miles on the speedo yet to really understand what the author was getting at, nor did I understand the argument he was trying to make against one of the classical foundations of western thought: rationality.
To be clear, I am not sure I accept all of the ideas that Pirsig presents, but I do find them all worth entertaining in an Aristotelian fashion (which would probably drive the author nuts).  For example, at one point the main character (a never named first person narrator whom everyone presumes, correctly I think, to in fact be Pirsig) claims that in the battle between Socrates and later Aristotle and the Sophists, it was actually the Sophists who had things right.  That is interesting, but is going to be hard for me to accept.
The central theme of ZAMM is what the author / narrator calls Quality.  The whole book in fact is an attempt to explain what Quality is, where it comes from and where it fits in the hierarchy of reality.  It’s in attempting to define Quality that the Zen in the title is introduced when Pirsig invites the reader to look beyond subject vs. object duality and realize that both the classic (i.e. functional) and romantic (i.e. holistic) view of reality aren’t really separate, and don’t really oppose each other.  In reality they are, Pirsig claims, inseparable and its only rationality that divides them.
It’s not all highly theoretical philosophy – there is plenty of practical advice to go around.  Early on there is a detailed description of how a chain tightener works on a motorcycle, although to be honest I am not sure how many modern motorcycles have manual chain tension adjusters anymore.  I crashed the motorcycle I had (or in a subject / object view, I was crashed into by another careless driver) before I had need or chance to find out.
Perhaps a little bit more universally practical, Chapter 25 is loaded with some very practical advice about so called “gumption traps” and how to avoid them:

As far as I can see there are two main types of gumption traps.  The first is those in which you are thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances and I call these “setbacks.”  The second type is traps in which you are thrown off the Quality track by conditions which are within yourself.  These I don’t have any generic name for -“hang ups,” I suppose.”

From there the rest of the chapter goes into techniques for recognizing you are caught in one of those gumption traps and approaches to get out of them as well as to avoid them in the first place.  In some ways the advice reminds me quite a bit of the stoic ideas about circle of control/influence vs. circle of concern.  Perhaps another sign that Buddhism (kissing cousin of Zen) and Stoicism are brothers by another mother.
In what is perhaps a case of confirmation bias in my book selection or what could be just accidental syntoptical reading, I do see some common themes emerging from the philosophy, psychology and mathematics books I have been reading.  In many passages throughout ZAMM, Pirsig gets pretty close to the idea of a strange loop that Hofstadter talks about in Godel, Escher and Bach (a book I need to pick up again and finish…) and as I already mentioned, a number of the Zen (Buddhist) concepts are extremely similar to the stoic ideas in books like The Obstacle is the Way.  There is even a thematic connection to the book I picked up after ZAMM (and just finished), The Righteous Mind by Haidt (review coming soon).
Overall I found ZAMM to be extremely enjoyable and well worth reading.  As I mentioned, I took it with me on a trip to and from Germany and got so into it, I read half of it on the plane ride over and half on the ways back, still managing to sleep a little both ways.  Sometimes you find books and sometimes books find you.  This is one that found me in the right place at the right time…at least the second time around.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: The Obstacle is the Way

I first heard of Stoic philosophy a little over a year ago.  It immediately appealed to me (another book I just started would say that was more intuition than reasoning, but that review will come later) and I downloaded a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (the link is to the translation that everyone says you should buy, not the one I read…will pick it up in one of my quarterly book buys eventually) on my Kindle.  I made it about halfway through and stopped.  Not sure whether it was the format, where and when I was trying to read it (intervals here and there throughout the day) or my mindset, but it just didn’t take.
Fast forward a few months and I picked up a copy of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and this time it took.  Everything in Irvine’s book was clear and had just enough explanation that understood not only the what but the why,  I was able to go back shortly thereafter and finish Meditations in a few sittings.  I’m not sure I will read it yearly, but I do have a sense that it will be one that I revisit from time to time.
In this third book on stoicism, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday gives his spin on Stoic ideals without getting bogged down in a lot of metaphysics or epistemology.  Holiday focuses on three main topics: perception, action and will.  His main thesis is if we can master these three aspects then we can live happy, directed and fulfilling lives.  While not exactly a “classic” grouping of stoic topics, he weaves the more traditional stoic practices such as negative visualization, accepting things as they are and present moment throughout.
The Obstacle is the Way was a quick read for me.  I read each of the three 60-70 page sections in a day or so.  Again, Holiday’s goal is not to construct an argument from base principles into a fully formed philosophy, but rather to simply describe how Stoicism looks and what it produces when its put into action.  He readily admits that there are plenty of other authors who have come before that do the former, so he spends his time providing a connection between these ancient ideas and the troubles of modern times.
If you are looking a complete and consistent justification about why Stoicism is a good way to live, you may want to look elsewhere.  If you are “fan of philosophy”, interested in Stoicism specifically, or even just want to figure out a better way to be, I highly recommend you pick up a copy and give it a read.  Looking at things from different perspectives is the first step at turning the obstacle into the way forward.