technology frees minds

east of eden, john steinbeck

Classic for a reason. An effective sermon on Cain and Abel. The implication that some people are more agentic, more fully human than others - and that their choices therefore have greater moral consequence - is surprising. Compare to Augustine, who thought that sinfulness made us less fully human.

We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed—selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful—we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic—and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture?

Has anyone ever written a more convincing paen to the idea of America as a nation of immigrants?

the goal, eliyahu goldratt

A clear narrative explication of some of the counter-intuitive ideas behind toyota / just-in-time production methods. Not clearly applicable to individual idea work, except by a strained metaphor where productive time is the production bottleneck. Following that metaphor, this book emphasizes how useful it is to reorganize all other areas of your life to maximize productive time, a topic dealt with directly in other texts.

hillbilly elegy, j.d. vance

An adequately-written portrait of red-state family drama and dysfunction that lucked into being published at a time where media figures hunger for tales of white poverty. Like seemingly everything else, does a decent job identifying and describing social problems and fails to suggest plausible cures. Description is much easier than prescription, but less useful for anything besides pleasure reading and cocktail party discussion.

a little book on the human shadow, robert bly

I have a thick book of Jung that I’ve been meaning to read. This thin volume has convinced me that the shadow may be a very helpful tool for understanding my personality and directing my personal growth.

evicted, matthew desmond

Poverty limits agency; bad choices (steak with food stamps) are an attempt to recover it. Poverty imposes enormous costs - incredibly frequent moves consume time and money, make holding a job more difficult.

Our bifurcating society is creating a vicious cycle - raising rents in order to price out (undesirable | high time preference) people pushes those on the border into the poverty trap and makes it harder to climb out.

ghettoside, jill leovy

A portrait of broken windows policing gone/done wrong. The LAPD’s focus on quality of life crimes combined with reducing resources available to murder investigations turns police force into occupiers, making life much worse for both cops and residents.

One quote that stands out:

Nearly every official who dealt closely with crime in Watts felt the same way. “They have their own businesses … their own law!” prosecutor Joe Porras said of the participants in the gang cases he tried in Compton Courthouse. “It’s a parallel world, and you are trying to bring your law into it.” Cops and prosecutors felt like door-to-door salesmen, trying to peddle a legal system no one wanted anything to do with. Prosecutor Grace Rai marveled at how much work it was just to get people to participate in proceedings at Compton Courthouse.

Has David Friedman written about criminal subcultures as polycentric legal authorities?

twilight of the elites, chris hayes

A culture of unaccountability has allowed incompetents to remain in positions of power. A functioning meritocracy must instill noblesse oblige in its elites, and prevent failures from being rewarded; our kakistocracy does not.

More historical perspective would be nice; while the Iraq war and financial crisis demonstrate the incompetence of our current ruling class and various recent election results show that voters are noticing it, it’s not clear whether this state of things is new and scary or something we’ve been muddling through forever.

secondhand time, svetlana alexievich

An engaging series of interviews with people who lived through the fall of the USSR. I felt a lot of resonance with the current American climate while reading this around the time of the Inauguration.

Symbols have great importance: blue jeans and salami loom large for both pro- and anti-Soviet interviewees. For a great many people, being part of a great project was more important than material comfort. Nobody seems to deny that the Soviet era was a time of deprivation and repression; many deny that these outweigh the grand vision.

the cowshed, ji xianlin

A first-person account of an academic living through the Cultural Revolution.

Anyone commenting on recent events at (Middlebury | Berkeley | Claremont | Evergreen) should read this book. Empowering illiberal youth movements can go very wrong, and I am concerned by the explicit Maoist tendencies in current campus movements.