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Recommended Reading

Article Table of Contents

Introduction #

I like to read, and I often recommend books to others.

These are a collection of books that come up in conversation more often than others.

I mention some books “pair well” with other books, just as certain wines pair well with a certain foods. The ideas contained within certain books may compliment (or contrast) the ideas listed in the “pairs with” book.

Thinking Well #

As humans, we do a lot of thinking [citation needed]. And, when we’re not thinking, we’re living off of habit, and should think a bit about our habits. We underestimate large risks (driving) and over-estimate small risks (terrorism, kidnapping).

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder #

Most biological systems benefit from stress in the environment. (Muscles. Exercise them, they get stronger). Many man-built institutions generally hate risk and do all they can to avoid exposure to risk. They are successful, for a time, until they catastrophically fail. You can build your life on the principles of a biological system, or on the principles of a rigid institution.

Antifragile is an annoying book. The author is a pompous, arrogant man. Unfortunately, he’s also correct.

This book, coupled with Seeing like a State and Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles has completely destroyed any confidence I’ve had in the professional thinking class. (Academics, politicians, and others with no “skin in the game”). If you would like to maintain your confidence in these people and institutions, please don’t read these books.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable #

This book is written by the same author of Antifragile, and he talks about life in “mediocrastan” vs “extremistan”, and all the implications of misjudging which world you live in. This book and Antifragile have absolutely shaped many ways in which I live my life.

Taleb is annoying. So many reviews spend the entire review discussing how annoying he is. That’s irrelevant to me - if I can glean substantive value from the ideas, I can put up with an annoying person.

From GoodReads:

The Black Swan deals with the fascinating topic of the nature uncertainty and approaches it from a variety of intellectual angles, mainly the psychological blocks that we are both born with and have created for ourselves that prevent our understanding of the improbable:

  • the narrative fallacy and the problem of induction (the tenuous relationship of cause and effect)
  • our reliance on flawed mathematical models
  • the expert problem.

Each one of these discussions reinforces his main argument but captivate independently as they are insights to the way we process information.

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) #

The “Right brain vs left brain” model is wrong. If you want to learn a technical topic, you can. Just like how if you wanted to cut a piece of wood, you can. If you have the right tool. A butter knife will not cut a piece of wood very well, but a buzz saw might.

A Mind for Numbers gives you that buzz saw. With the right tactics and motives, anyone can read anything. I read this before jumping into software development full-time, and this book delivered great value in that endeavor.

From GoodReads:

The title of the book doesn’t do it justice. This is a book about how to get good at anything, not just math and science. It’s a light read because it’s full of simple advice. But the stuff it teaches is effective, and I wish it had been taught to me back in 1997 when I was starting graduate school.

If you find yourself checking your phone or screwing around on Facebook while you should be working, read this book. If you’re having trouble learning stuff you need for work at a higher rate than you’re forgetting it, read this book. Do so especially if you’re young, because the longer the time you have left to reap the benefits, the more reading this book is worth to you.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World #

Deep Work is profound. It was the best book I read in 2016, and is no small part of the reason I went to Turing and got into software development.

From the author:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

Pursuing the skill of “deep work” will have a compounding effect on the rest of your life. A little investment now makes the rest of your efforts just a little more effective, and leaves you with more room to get better at deep work, which in turn makes your efforts more effective, and on and on.

Politics #

I’m a fan of the idea of shrinking the political sphere. Politics is where everyone has a rightful sense of ownership of the issue (we all pay taxes, after all) and where the outcomes can be influenced literally by who yells the loudest. It’s embarrassing that the way we organize ourselves relies entirely upon coercion, but for now, that’s what it is. I look forward to when our dominant political institutions go the way of the church at the end of the medieval ages.

A theme through the next few book recommendations is unintended consequences and second order effects.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed #

The craft of statehood is hard, and the state has been remarkably consistent at sustaining itself, despite myriad harms heaped upon its citizens.

I’m quoting at length from Slate Star Codex’s excellent review of the book:

[The author] starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City #

This is a brutal read. It’s not technically illegal to be poor in the USA, but from the perspective of many, it may as well be.

From GoodReads:

I didn’t realize until I read the afterward that the author of this book put himself right into the middle of the people he portrays lives. He gave them rides to look for houses, he even loaned them small amounts of money at times. He admits that he misses living in the trailer park among them.

This book. I hope more people get it and read it. I’ve been on a “smart book” kick lately and I’ve starred them all pretty highly but this one is just amazing. Desmond knocks it out of the ballpark. You can tell he puts his whole heart into telling these stories.

Now the stories..they are real people: You have to keep reminding yourself of that as you read this book because no one is perfect, they all mess up and the writing is so good that you feel like you are just reading a really good work of fiction.

The whole review is worth reading.

The Color of Law #

The modern US implementation of zoning is a by-product of the Supreme Court making redlining illegal. Since explicit racism was no longer legal, racist people implemented laws that were not explicitly racist, but everyone understood it to be laws to keep black (and and poor) people out of their neighborhoods.

I’ll state that again - your neighborhoods HOA, your single-family-home neighborhood, your mortgage interest tax-deduction - all this was put in place by racists, to further their vision of a segregated society.

Of course, these policies are harmful to minorities and poor people, but they are also harmful to everyone else, including those who ostensibly benefit from the policies. The US is collectively shooting itself in the foot, every day, by allowing these policies to stand.

From GoodReads:

[The Color of Law is the history] of the development of de jure segregation in the United States - that is, the deliberate result of federal laws and local policies.

[The author] demonstrates convincingly that the problem is entrenched within multiple organizations and legal standards.

For example, the Federal Housing Administration, part of the New Deal set of domestic programs, required segregation in order to qualify for low-interest financing. (emphasis added)

The government-sponsored HOLC required private real-estate agents to appraise neighborhoods and lower pricing values based on the racial composition of its inhabitants.

This of course extends beyond the federal level. State governments, city councils, neighborhoods’ associations, cooperation with non-profits or NGOs that promoted segregation, banks refusing to provide funding to black applicants, landlords charging higher fees, infrastructure projects demolishing black neighborhoods without compensation, black residents being denied access to mortgages (then forced to pay on installment plans where one missed payment meant eviction), tying public education to real estate taxes so poorer neighborhoods had worse-funded schools, and so on and so on.

The cumulative effects of discrimination over the first half of the 20th century are damning, and they have not at all been rectified.

The Color of Law pairs well with Negroes and the Gun.

Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles #

This book is a dense read, and longer than 1000 pages. You could read the first 10% of the book, and be more educated than 99% of pundits blabbering away on TV.

The author lays out a few bold claims, and backs them up:

  • There was a time when the treatment of bank deposits and bank investments were very different.
  • A bank making use of its customers deposits, for its own interests, was once considered simple fraud, illegal, and a banker who engaged in such fraud and was unable to make its customers whole was beheaded. (Today we call this “fractional reserve banking”)
  • Fractional-reserve banking is a legal fiction, and is actually fraud.
  • Economic cycles (“booms” followed by “busts”, or “corrections”) are assumed to be the normal state of affairs right now, but they need not exist.
  • Most of the money churning around the global economy doesn’t really exist, and once a very small people lose confidence in it, much of it will evaporate.

It’s so good I’ve read it twice; I wish I could recommend a smaller book that gave adequate treatment to this topic, but I have not found it yet. Just read the first 10% of the book and call it a day.

If the topic piques your attention, but you’re not down for 1000 dense pages, this review on GoodReads is a comprehensive summary of the book.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion #

You know all those people who don’t agree with you?

They’re not evil people who hate babies and puppies and want everyone to live in squalor. They most likely want almost the exact same things you do. (Safety, security, to live in peace with their family in a community of people who doesn’t hate them, etc.)

The Righteous Mind will (hopefully) give you a little compassion for those standing on the other side of a given topic. It pairs well with Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In.

If you find yourself resisting reading such a book, knowing that it might de-stigmatize “the other”, I humbly propose that you have the problem.

I first read this book in 2013 or so, and re-read it in 2017, and found it to be less compelling the second time through, but still, on the whole, of value.

Buildings and Urbanism #

To me, traditional architecture is irrelevant. Architects build buildings for other architects, not for people.

What is relevant is the buildings and environment in which we all live. We (humans) shape the environment in which we live, and we are shaped by the environment in which we live.

It stands to reason that an environment more conducive to use, at a lower price point, that encourages human flourishing is superior to one that is less conducive to use, costs more, and squelches human flourishing.

How Buildings Learn #

This book has beautiful and fascinating photography throughout, often capturing buildings that have lasted for hundreds of years. Buildings, if allowed, change dramatically over time.

A theme throughout the book is that we should expect buildings to change, and plan for them to change.

I’m quoting a GoodReads reviewer:

You will love this book if, like me, you think that modern and postmodern architecture has gone terribly, terribly wrong. (Conversely, if you worship Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and their ilk, you will probably be offended.) Stewart Brand argues convincingly that the buildings that survive are those that can be flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs and tastes successive generations of inhabitants. He is particularly trenchant in his criticism of the overprogrammed, over-designed, sculptural architectural buildings (he calls them “magazine architecture”) that are often obsolete before they are completed, and he points out that, Frank Lloyd Wright’s opinion notwithstanding, it is not in fact a sign of architectural success if the roof leaks!

Also be sure to check out his very original comments on “low-road” buildings, those whose designs are so throwaway that successive inhabitants can and do feel utterly free to knock down walls, cut through floors, and otherwise jerry-rig them to adapt to current needs. It’s a brilliant exploration of an often neglected but probably ubiquitous subset of buildings.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities #

Jane Jacobs loves cities. She loves the unplanned, chaotic, messy way that cities evolve. She might well make you love the same thing.

She hits hard in this book, and her words are even more relevant today than they were in the 1950s.

Quoting from this excellent review on GoodReads:

Jacobs’s recipe for creating a healthy neighborhood has four ingredients:

  • (1) mixed uses, so that different kinds of people are drawn to the area at different times of day for different reasons;
  • (2) a mixture of old and new buildings, so that there is low-rent space available for small businesses and low-income residents;
  • (3) small blocks, so that streets are not isolated from one another; and
  • (4) sufficient density of residents, to create the necessary amount of economic and social activity.

The goal is to produce a neighborhood like her own Greenwich Village: with lots of street life, with successful residents who choose to stay long-term, with local stores and restaurants and cafes, and with a steady influx of immigrants.

This book discusses the tension between “chaos” and “order” in a way that pairs very well with Seeing like a State. It pairs well with Antifragile, as well, as Jacobs talks about small bets, organic growth, and the dangers of “cataclysmic money” and top-down growth and planning.

Theology #

Every person is a functional theologian. “Theology” is defined as:

the study of the nature of God and religious belief.

Most of us don’t intentionally engage in “studying theology” - this would be sidestepped by someone who says “I don’t believe in god” or “maybe there is a God, maybe there isn’t, but I don’t think about it.”

The good news is this is an example of applied theology. We are all practical theologians, because we all have a stance on the existence of God. Maybe it’s apathy, maybe it’s the flying spaghetti monster.

Everyone has opinions on “god”. Indeed, to refuse to consider the existence of “god” is an applied theology.

I am one of those weird folk that have a very specific theology. Were I to have to define my theology, I’d just throw my lot in with the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

If you’ve not encountered such a thing before, take a gander at 5 reasons you need the Westminster shorter catechism.

Its easy to get into the weeds on the finer points of theology. I argue its mostly irrelevant unless it impacts how you live your life.

A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the most profound relationship you’ll ever have.

It can seem like a big ask, right, to say that GOD HIMSELF walked around the planet a long time ago, said stuff, did stuff, etc.

It seems like a big ask because it’s a really big deal if he did or not. To that end, I recommend the following book:

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism #

This is my go-to book for someone who’s curious to know more about my crazy beliefs about the world. The author was a pastor of a church in New York City, and does a great job unpacking the core pieces of Christianity, from a range of perspectives, in a way that would lead you to agree that it is internally consistent, and is respectful to the perspectives of skeptical people.

By “internally consistent”, I mean that if you are comfortable with a small number of starting assumptions, the implications of those assumptions are reasonable. One of those starting assumptions (indeed, the only important one) is:

A few thousand years ago, a man named Jesus was born, said some things, was killed by the religious leaders of the day, and then didn’t stay dead.

That assumption, right there, is the foundation of the entire Christian religion. If it happened, it’s a really big deal. If it didn’t happen, feel pity on us all, because we are wildly misguided and stupid.

If that happened, the things he said have great weight. If they didn’t happen, its the ravings of a lunatic and should be forgotten posthaste.

I recommend the book. If you read it, shoot me an email. I’d love to hear about it.

When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy #

This (and the next few books) are written by and to those who agree with the basic tenants of the Christian religion.

This book was written as a follow-up to Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.

I, and many others I’ve spoken about this with, often struggle to feel a sense of satisfaction, peace, and rest.

If you happen to care about what the Bible says, you’ll quickly recall that there is no satisfaction or peace apart from God. That won’t stop us all from trying to find it in something (programming! Rock climbing! Travel!) but we’ll come up short.

This book will point you in the right direction. It’s served me well.

Parenting #

I’m not a parent. I’m sure once I have kids I’ll have a different set of books to recommend.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think #

This book gets the notable distinction of being why Kristi and I want to have kids in the near term. It had a profound and measurable impact on our plans and thinking. Enough said.

The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It #

Physical play is deeply satisfying. I rough-housed with friends all the time when growing up. This book does make a case for the myriad benefits children, their friends, and parents can experience with roughhousing, but it’s mostly a manual for how to roughhouse.

It’s got a few dozen suggested (and illustrated) games that are appropriate for all ages, and all size differences.

The Art of Roughhousing shows how rough-and-tumble play can nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, boost confidence, and more. Drawing inspiration from gymnastics, martial arts, ballet, traditional sports, and even animal behavior, the authors present dozens of illustrated activities for children and parents to enjoy together-everything from the “Sumo Dead Lift” to the “Rogue Dumbo.” These delightful games are fun, free, and contain many surprising health benefits for parents.

A surprisingly practical and immediately relevant read for anyone who has kids. I plan on re-reading it once I have a child of my own.

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success #

Relationships and Emotions #

Most of the books in this section are written by Christians, and adopt a christian perspective of relationships, which is:

All people are broken and selfish, and it’s mostly fruitless to try to repair relationships with others and ourselves entirely independent of our relationship with God.

(I don’t make much effort to detangle my relationships from my theology, so you might want to read that section before proceeding.)

What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage #

This is a book written to Christians. If you’re a Christian, and married, I strongly recommend this.

If you’re not a Christian, go read The Reason for God (recommended above), and then read this book.

Marriage is hard. Two broken sinners married each other, and live in a fallen world. Any illusions of perfection and endless honeymoon period will quickly be crushed under the reality of our own sinfulness.

If that seems discouraging, you’ve not yet seen how the gospel redeems all of this. Read the book.

When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage #

This is a short, digestible, practical book. Again, written for Christians.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most #

Not a christian book, but extremely relevant. The “value” of productive-but-difficult conversations is 100x almost any other kind of conversation.

Difficult conversations are how you define relationships, work through challenges with your significant other, resolve work conflicts, and so much more.

The simple act of reading a book about difficult conversations changes the tone of the next hard conversation you have. Instead of wanting to run from it or avoid it, you will see it as an opportunity to apply your learning, and work for a good outcome for all parties.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead #

This book is about vulnerability. Some people eschew being vulnerable. Some people try to be way too vulnerable and overshare everything with everyone.

Neither of those are good, but vulnerability is critical. The best way to build closeness in a relationship is (essentially) reciprocal self-disclosure.

Finally, vulnerability is not being “soft”, or “weak”. It has great use in simple maintenance and progression of relationships. Do you think specialized tools are appropriate to use in specialized situations? (Impact drivers in construction, version control in software, GriGris in rock climbing?)

Vulnerability is simply a specialized tool for specialized situations.

Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (And World Peace) #

Kristi and I have both become huge fans of meditation since reading this book. I seem to remember meditation getting a bad rap when I was a kid, but since then have swung around to seeing it simply as exercise for the brain.

If I can train my muscles for rock climbing, why shouldn’t I train my mind for focus or self-observation?

The general theme of this book is improving ones “Emotional Intelligence”, which happens to be a huge predictor of generalized success in working with, or being in relationships with, other people.

Since most of us interact with other people, doing some work to improve those interactions is appropriate.

A big part of that work is being able to observe how you are responding to certain situations.

Simple example: There is a world of difference between being angry, and feeling anger. The latter is superior to the former. When you are something, you’re controlled by it. When you feel something, you can choose how to respond to it.

This book has served Kristi and I both quite well.

Money #

Money is… complicated. It’s easy to have too little, to have too much, or to not manage wisely the money you do have. It’s an emotionally charged topic, and there’s not a lot of good examples out there of people having a good relationship with it.

These two books were formative for my understanding of money (and the acquisition and spending of it).

Your Money or Your Life #

From a GoodReads review:

[Your Money or Your Life] was recommended to me by a friend, who gave up her stable teaching position to run a used bookstore after reading this book.

This was my first foray into the self-help genre. The prose is laughably hokey at the most inopportune times, but the message is worth slogging through the mantras and the affirmations.

Plus, the “nine-step program” actually works, if you’re willing to commit to it. I started out, skeptical, with a step I thought I could stick to—keeping track of my spending, and became curious about the rest of my financial health from there.

By the time, a year-and-a-half later, I faced the last maudlin step (calculating how much time you have left in your life), I found it so thoroughly shocking (in my case, less than half a million hours based on average life expectancy) that I realized staying in a job that made me miserable wasn’t worth it, so I quit.

I guess, in that sense, this book delivers on its hokey promise to change your life.

I Will Teach You to be Rich #

Ramit Sethi is a polarizing, opinionated person. That said, I’ve gotten jobs and raises almost exclusively because of the things he’s written.

This book is ten years old. Some if it is outdated. Some of it his not. This book pairs well with Your Money or Your Life because Ramit is leans much harder towards

if you want to spend your money on something, or anything, great! Do it! Just make sure you’ve got a system in place where you’re moving in the direction of better and better financial outcomes.

From a GoodReads review:

Sethi gives advice on “automatically enabling yourself to save, invest, and spend - enjoying it, not feeling guilty…because you’re spending only what you have.”

His main point: automate your finances so you effortlessly save and invest, leaving you money to spend on things you love without feeling guilty. Automatic saving and investing helps overcome psychological barriers and laziness.

You won’t find a single recommendation to track every penny you spend, or to build a budget. Most people can’t be bothered to set one up, but instead of feel guilt about this, just build a “conscious spending plan”.

Uncomfortable books #

I include this section for books that hold uncomfortable ideas for broad sections of the population. If you find yourself in total agreement with the arguments in one of these books, great! Pick another book off of this list. It’ll make you uncomfortable.

The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey #

This book (its technically a textbook written by a professor from Colorado University - Boulder) argues that “political” authority cannot be arrived at from first principles, and building institutions upon a foundation of one group legally exercising coercion against another might be legal (in the same way that slavery used to be “legal”) but it’s not moral.

The Problem of Political Authority is the best book I read since at least 2016.

The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia #

When some religious authority in the US makes a pronouncement of how laws should be written, in order to sustain a moral community, I will always think of this book. There was a time when many christian thinkers expended great energy to justify the existence of slavery. So, when {topic of the day} mixed with {“political” solution to said problem} involves steamrolling over some marginalized group… I’ll just think back to the sections in this book outlining the theological justifications religious leaders used for slavery.

From an Amazon review:

So here’s a book whose very title might alienate . . . most people. If you are not a Christian, why take the time . . . If you are . . . you don’t want to hear about it. I am still bothered by the term “Proslavery Christianity.” As a Christian and a Baptist and an American Southerner by background, it was difficult to not take some of the information presented in this book personally. I didn’t want it to be true. How can real Christians be “Proslavery?” Our American upbringing allows us to view Slavery as something separate and distinct from Religion. And our oversimplified understanding of history allows us to blame the sins of the past on long dead bad people not at all like us.

But what if the “bad” people were like us? What if they even thought they were right? What if they were . . . Christians.

Well, I don’t want to spoil the story, but . . . it happened. People, Christians included, can mix right and wrong together for so long that we end up simultaneously doing both and call them both a just cause. And we still do this. We go along with others definition of evil and good in the world. And we still allow economic, political and cultural power holders to narrow our faith to non status quo threatening endeavors.

The Privatization of Roads and Highways #

That which we’ve grown up with, we (humans) tend to assume is not just ideal, but morally correct. We’ve grown up (as a nation) with government-built roads. It’s so impossible to imagine something else that as soon as someone suggests some crazy idea, a standard retort is “but who would build the roads?” followed by “if you like anarchy, move to Somalia!”.

This book addresses the first portion of that objection.

spoiler: for most of the time that humans have been building roads, they’ve been funded and built privately. Public road building has catastrophic implications for everyone.

Regrettably, the book is poorly written, and it’s just a collection of essays by the author, so the book covers much of the same territory multiple times. I have not found better treatment of this topic, so until then - this is the book I recommend.

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms #

I’m skeptical of regimes where the government is charged with protecting some minority group. My reason for this is three-fold:

  • Governments are an expression of the people in them, who are a sub-section of the population as a whole. The government tends to have the opinions of the majority of the people
  • If “the people” are racist, the government will be racist, and will use its power to further racist goals.
  • If some of the people are not racist, and try to change the government’s policies to be less racist, they will not be successful until enough of the population is no longer racist that the government will, by default, be less racist.
  • The government’s “progressive” policies tend to lag the policies of the general population.

This book outlines, among other things, how a strong federal, state, and local government used its power to inflict incredible harm on black people. Much of this harm was inflicted after the “legal” elimination of formal slavery and the Jim Crowe laws.

It’s rare that I cry when I read a book. This was one of maybe three books that has done that to me.

From a GoodReads review:

A great written history of african americans from slavery through the 1970s whose only form of a self defense was a firearm.

This is a painful account of state and local law enforcement duplicity in the terrorizing and lynching of (mostly) southern blacks.

The book does a great job identifying people history has overlooked who made significant contributions to protecting their communities and eventually protecting those who were marching for equality and civil rights.

The book did not propose that everyone who took up arms had a satisfying outcome. In some cases, self-defense led to larger, angrier mobs of Klan and their supporters. Gun control and self defense is a difficult topic.

The author did a great job of presenting both sides of the argument and why the choice of firearms should be an individual choice and not a government mandate.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster #

We’re told that when society breaks down, we devolve into a state of anarchy and will kill each other, or be killed by each other. This happens to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It turns out that when disaster strikes, things tend to work out pretty well.

If we think bad things happen when disasters strike, bad things will happen.

If we think good things will happen when disasters strike, good things will happen. (This is related to the theory in international relations known as constructivism.

Since your expectations will shape your reality, if you think you might ever find yourself impacted by a disaster, this book would serve well as preparation.

A GoodReads review:

In A Paradise Built in Hell Solnit mounts a spirited argument that this pessimistic view of how people respond to catastrophe is fundamentally wrong. Instead, she argues, disasters are far more likely to bring out the best in people – there is a natural desire to help one another, which is actually easier to put into action, given the relaxation of social barriers that often prevails in the wake of a disaster. You might go for years just nodding at that neighbor across the street, but after the earthquake/fire/blackout the two of you may just end up having a real conversation.

Solnit grounds her argument in five specific case studies:

  • the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
  • the 1917 explosion of the munitions ship Mont Blanc in Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake
  • the World Trade Center attacks of 2001
  • Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Seeing like a State #

I cannot do justice to this book, so I’ll quote extensively from Slate Star Codex’s review. (You should really just read the review, then the book.)

Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Scott starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.


Suppose you’re a premodern king, maybe one of the Louises who ruled France in the Middle Ages. You want to tax people to raise money for a Crusade or something. Practically everyone in your kingdom is a peasant, and all the peasants produce is grain, so you’ll tax them in grain. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? You’ll just measure how many pints of grain everyone produces, and…

The pint in eighteenth-century Paris was equivalent to 0.93 liters, whereas in Seine-en-Montane it was 1.99 liters and in Precy-sous-Thil, an astounding 3.33 liters. The aune, a measure of length used for cloth, varied depending on the material(the unit for silk, for instance, was smaller than that for linen) and across France there were at least seventeen different aunes.

Okay, this is stupid. Just give everybody evenly-sized baskets, and tell them that baskets are the new unit of measurement.

Virtually everywhere in early modern Europe were endless micropolitics about how baskets might be adjusted through wear, bulging, tricks of weaving, moisture, the thickness of the rim, and so on. In some areas the local standards for the bushel and other units of measurement were kept in metallic form and placed in the care of a trusted official or else literally carved into the stone of a church or the town hall. Nor did it end there. How the grain was to be poured (from shoulder height, which packed it somewhat, or from waist height?), how damp it could be, whether the container could be shaken down, and finally, if and how it was to be leveled off when full were subjects of long and bitter controversy.

Huh, this medieval king business is harder than you thought. Maybe you can just leave this problem to the feudal lords?

Thus far, this account of local measurement practices risks giving the impression that, although local conceptions of distance, area, volume, and so on were different from and more varied than the unitary abstract standards a state might favor, they were nevertheless aiming at objective accuracy. This impression would be false. […]

Just read the review