Category Archives: Books

“The Moral Compass” by William J. Bennett

I remember a copy of Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” that my parents had, probably from the time it was first published.  Don’t recall ever having read through it though.  I do remember being intrigued a bit, probably due to the Ultima connection.

Anyway, “The Moral Compass” is a follow-on to that earlier book, and more of the same.  A collection of poems, fables, and short stories that are supposed to teach some moral lesson.  Pretty good; many stories which made me think a bit.

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” – Lincoln

Advertisements

“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

The Radch are a ginormous space empire, which until recently expanded rapidly via a large fleet of powerful warships manned by armies.  Each ship is actually an artificial intelligence, and many of the armies are actually “ancillaries.”  When a new planet is conquered by the Radch, resistance is quickly nullified and any opponents are brutally exterminated, reeducated via sophisticated brainwashing, or sent to be stored until needed as new Radch soldiers.  Entire armies of these soldiers, called ancillaries, are controlled by a single ship AI.

“Justice of Toren” was a ship, but because of plot reasons the physical ship was destroyed and all that remains is a single ancillary, AKA Breq AKA One Esk.  She* tries to unravel exactly what happened to cause her destruction, and the results lead her to a confrontation with Anaander Mianaai (love the name!), Lord of the Radch.  It’s such a busy job that many years ago, Mianaai split her conciousness into several bodies (somewhat reminiscent of House of Suns); by now there are thousands of them and they’ve lived for thousands of years.  Well, turns out that Mianaai is something of a split personality – factions have broken out among her parts…

* Interesting use of “she” throughout the book.  The narrator, the ancillary, is more or less Radch, and they apparently don’t have any set notion of gender; everyone is a “she”.  Pretty sure that Breq’s compadre, Seivarden, is a male, but actually not sure about Breq “herself.”  I guess Ann Leckie is trying to make us more sensitive to current gender fluidity issues, or at least capitalize on them??

“An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” by Grant H. Palmer

Palmer’s book is short but packed with tons of very interesting, well documented points that really call into question a lot of the Joseph Smith “truth” claims.  Things that stood out to me the most listed below.

  • Ch 1 – During the Book of Mormon translation, the word in English appeared on the seerstone; Joseph read it to the scribe.  So the old argument that “horse” really meant some “equivalent” animal makes no sense.  And even if it did, what about cureloms? There’s an unfamiliar animal for which Joseph didn’t pick the “equivalent”.   Similar: “Raca” in 3 nephi 12:22 is an Aramaic term.
  • Ch 2 – I didn’t realize how many parts of Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament, to the point of using the same phrasing. On one hand the same God would give same message…but what are the odds the translation from different languages and at different times would result in such commonality??  Sure seems probable that it is a product of someone steeped in the New Testament such that its words became his words.
  • Ch 3 – Book of Mormon prophecies are very specific up until about 1830, then very vague after. Hmm…  Also, not sure why this never stood out to me as odd, but the three days of light at Jesus birth and three days darkness at death – why were these not witnessed and documented around the world?  We have ancient records of eclipses and supernovas and the like; I’m sure such a larger event would have been noted.  I guess the event could have been localized to the Americas and not dependent on planetary geometry, so the Old World wouldn’t have been effected … ?
  • Ch. 4 – conversions in the Book of Mormon follow revival meeting pattern. The whole Book of Mormon is Methodist preaching and exhortation!  Some very striking comparisons to Methodist preachings here, similar to comparisons to the New Testament in Chapter 2.
  • Changes to the Book of Mormon — “Father” –> “Son of God” changes.   The first God in the Book of Mormon was a single individual, Father and Christ.  Later they got separated.  Some got missed eg Mosiah 15:1-4. “From the beginning, the miracle of the Restoration has been the ability of its leaders to see things in a new light.” Funny!
  • Golden Pot story – eh, ok. Kind of a stretch.
  • Witnesses – they later said that they saw with “second sight” or “eyes of our understanding” … ie imagination. All very superstitious and gullible.  Palmer points out the they and many others claiming religious experiences in this era are something like those claiming UFO sightings or alien abductions today – maybe just something about humanity; some people believe crazy stuff and it kind of propagates somehow.  Does seem disingenuous to allow church members to believe these things as physical truth, though…
  • Both Priesthood Restoration and First Vision seem reconstructed in later years to support Joseph’s preeminence in the church. The Palmyra revival was probably 1824; in 1838, when his official history was written, Joseph reported it was 1820.  Palmer suggests this was to preempt his previous sole claim on divine authority, which came from Moroni … in 1838, the Book of Mormon was being discredited, for one thing due to Martin Harris announcing in the Kirtland Temple that he had never physically seen the plates, only spiritually as discussed above.

With all this spiritual stuff being confused for physical … can’t really trust Joseph or anyone’s speeches as literal.  Although I suppose that is true for all men at all times – we can never be sure what their true feelings are vs what they want another to think.  The arts of persuasion and manipulation are real.  Of course that goes for historical accounts as well.  Man, now I don’t know what to trust anymore…

“No Man Knows My History” by Fawn M. Brodie

After reading this book, I can see why LDS church leaders really got ticked off at Fawn Brodie and excommunicated her.  But it was really well written, seems to be well researched, and was very interesting to read for someone familiar with other Joseph Smith accounts. Brodie assumes and makes the case that Joseph Smith was most definitely a fraud, either intentionally to make a living (and later as his standing grew among his people, to get whatever he could — mostly other men’s wives or young girls in bed) or perhaps due to being incapable of distinguishing physical reality from his Bible-influenced fantasies.

Brodie’s history of Joseph’s early days contain many discrepancies with the official church account.  His first autobiographical sketch in 1834 “contained no whisper of an event that, if it had happened, would have been the most soul-shattering experience of his whole youth” — the First Vision.  “If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family.”  Furthermore, Joseph spent the years after his remarkable vision not in preparing the way or himself somehow for his prophetic mission, but in searching out secret treasures — “money digging.”

After an arrest and acquittal on fraud for money digging activities, Brodie suggests Joseph retooled his methods and came up with his next act.  There was a lot of speculation about Indian origins and artifacts around his area of New York, particularly burial mounds.  Per Joseph, an angelic visitor named Moroni led him to secret buried golden plates, from which he “translated” the Book of Mormon.  (Quotes around “translated” since by all accounts he didn’t actually read from the plates, but rather read the English words off a seerstone.)  Alexander Campbell sarcastically noted that the Book of Mormon neatly solved all religious controversies debated in New York over the previous ten years.  Also, to couple with the First Vision ambiguities, the original Book of Mormon clearly made Christ and the Father the same God … odd since Joseph had seen them as two distinct beings.  (Well, at least there were two beings in a few of the First Vision accounts…)  Most of these references to one God were subsequently changed, but some still remain.

Other notes of interest:

  • Brodie seemed to suggest in her explanation of the witnesses, and visions shared with Cowdery that Joseph was a hypnotist??  Or maybe I misunderstood.  Would be interesting…
  • One of Joseph’s miracles was healing Elsa Johnson’s arm.  But contrast with numerous failed healings at the first general conference in Kirkland… Maybe many of the “miracles” we hear about today were only a fraction of the attempts, a kind of survivor bias.
  • Similarly, most of Joseph’s prophecies went bust.  One that is still trotted out from time to time is his prediction of the Civil War, beginning in South Carolina.  Well, actually he was anticipating a much shorter term realization of that prophecy, in what became known as the Nullification Crisis … of course about 30 years too early for the real war.  The prophecy was apparently an embarrassment until dug up by Brigham in the 1860’s.
  • Zions camp was kind of hilarious, eg. getting so mad at cousin Sylvester Smith that he threw the Ram’s horn used to call the camp to attention at him, breaking it.  But the whole thing was really a strategic debacle – marching an army made the Missouri situation more desperate and forced the mobbers hand, thwarting efforts of the Governor to bring peace.
  • During the defense preparations in Far West, Joseph along with Rigdon were very outspoken in calling for violence, eg. “Joseph Smith or the sword” and insinuating anyone anyone fleeing the coming fight should be killed.  Joseph preached that the power of God would prevail and angels would fight with them “And for every one we lack in number to match the mob, the Lord will send an angel to fight alongside.”  But later during the siege, he secretly sent emissaries secretly to “beg like a dog for peace” and surrendered the next day.  “You are good and brave men, but there are 10,000 men approaching Far West, and unless you were angels themselves you could not withstand so formidable a host.”  Uh, wait a minute, Joseph, what about your promise from yesterday???
  • Short but revealing account during the Far West time of Rigdon saying something disapproving about Joseph’s wrestling on the Sabbath, then Joseph going over to him, ripping his coat and mocking him.  Kind of seems like an arrogant person who thought himself above the law, including God’s.
  • Never realized this:  one reason the Saints found (temporary) peace in Nauvoo was that they were a bargaining chip in Illinois politics.  Desiring to please the leader of this new, large voting bloc, politicians of both main parties felt the incentive to keep Joseph from being extradited back to Missouri, and otherwise give in to his demands (eg. Nauvoo charter).
  • Lying for the Lord: Joseph made numerous public denials of polygamy, as did other leaders and even some of his wives.  Apparently they rationalized this because they were against “polygamy” but for “the doctrine of plurality of wives”.  Ok….
  • Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde: sad stories of having wives taken…
  • In the later Nauvoo years, Joseph kind of seemed to go off the rails. On attorneys – “I know more than they all”. “God is my right hand man.”  Said to Josiah Quincy, in joking tone – “They think I’m a prophet!”  And this is ridiculous: “He had the city council pass an ordinance providing that if any officer came to Nauvoo with a writ for his arrest based on the old Missouri difficulties, he should be arrested, tried, and if found guilty sentenced to life imprisonment in the city jail. He could be pardoned by the governor only with the consent of the Nauvoo mayor – that is, Joseph himself.”

Brodie’s picture is of an actor playing a role. Joseph was a prophet because he thought he was a prophet, and people believed him.  When claiming a “revelation” he was really saying ‘I’ve thought long and hard about this and I feel that this must be the Lord’s will, since it is so obvious to me that it’s the very thing that he would want to tell his people right now.’

‘Joseph would allow no arrogance or undue liberties,’ said one friend, ‘and criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable, and contradictions would rouse in him the lion at once, for by no one of his fellows would he be superseded.’. Herein was his great strength and his most fatal weakness. For no man whose chief virtues were love of compromise, justice,and prudence could set himself up as a prophet. But neither could any man who trampled on these virtues survive as a political force in America.

 

“Symphonies of Beethoven” by Robert Greenberg

Only listened to part 1 of 3, which covered Beethoven’s bio plus Symphonies 1 & 2.

Beethoven was a creative genius for sure; but also strikes me as an insufferable, arrogant, and uninterested in most other things in life besides his art.  The story of his growing deafness, and the fact that he still composed some of the greatest music while mostly deaf, is fascinating.  The Heiligenstadt Testament discusses some of his feelings of despair upon realizing his deafness was not going away but was getting worse, and how it made him feel like a fraud or at least a laughingstock.  Tragic!

The format of lectures on the Symphonies themselves was off-putting to me, but mostly because I don’t have the musical vocabulary to understand what the lecturer is talking about.  He was pretty entertaining – describing a section of music as sounding like something you would dance to when “a weevil was stuck in your undergarments” is a pretty funny line.  But the symphony is only played in pieces, and those usually less than a minute, with lots of (mostly unintelligible to me) commentary in between.  I think I’ll skip parts 2 & 3 and just get a copy of the Symphonies themselves to listen to.

“Magnificent Desolation” by Buzz Aldrin

 

If you want a story about Apollo, this isn’t it.  It’s much more a story of Buzz’s journey through alcoholism and depression in the decades since his famous moonwalk.

His response is kind of understandable – his whole life, he always had big goals driving him.  Fighter pilot, MIT PhD, astronaut training, then going to the Moon.  But once you have walked on the Moon, what other goal can even come close?  What do you do after accomplishing your dream?  I’m not sure if Aldrin is satisfied yet, but I think he is on the right track with trying to inspire others to achieve similar goals (return of manned space travel, especially to Mars).

He tells that wherever he goes, people always tell him about where they were on the day he walked on the Moon.  Buzz thought it was strange how consistently people felt the need to share.  Then he realized what it meant – Apollo 11 had permanently inspired in some way virtually everyone who witnessed it.  (I wasn’t alive yet; but I get choked up and a little teary-eyed thinking of the grandeur of it all, if that is even the right word…)

A good chunk of the latter part of the book is a lot of gushing over how great his (third) wife Lois Driggs Cannon is, and how she saved him from depression, etc.  It’s all pretty cringe-worthy, since he and Lois divorced two years after this book was published, and he and his next flame apparently met and started their relationship during the book tour for this book that says so many great things about Lois…

Lois gets a backstory chapter or two, and for some reason the tale of her first husband stuck in my brain.  Maybe because they were/are Mormon?  He was kind of a “most likely to succeed” type in school, then launched a successful business career and family with by all accounts a charming wife.  But he was always restless.  He was unhappy with a series of great executive level jobs.  He took the family on some wild adventures, RVing around Europe for one and river boating around Europe for the other.  But he never found whatever could cure the restlessness.  He eventually divorced Lois out of the blue.  (At least according to Buzz’s account.)  Anyway, seems kind of boring as write about it but I dunno…at my point in life approaching mid-life (“crisis” you might say) I kind of understand that restlessness: what’s the point of it all?

Anyway, enough about that.  Some other interesting tidbits:

  • Buzz was a big supporter of getting non-astronauts up in to space, particularly artists, poets, or songwriters who could convey the emotions better than pilots or engineers.  The first time NASA tried this was … the Challenger mission.  They ended up sending a teacher as the first civilian in space, but Buzz reports that at least at some level John Denver was considered for the post.  I think post-Challenger, NASA got very gunshy about sending civilians up on dangerous journeys … too much potential backlash if things go wrong, with an huge downside of losing all public support.
  • The Omega Speedmaster watch Buzz wore on the Moon was later stolen.  The “Holy Grail” of Apollo collectors.  Gotta be out there somewhere.

“Irrational Exuberance” by Robert J. Shiller

I’ve really been interested in this book for awhile, wondering if it might contain some insight on how to profit from/avoid pain from economic bubbles.  (One bubble of particular interest to me is the ongoing Bitcoin/cryptocurrency bubble.)  While I could tell the book had lots of good stuff and I did take lots of notes, it was kind of a slog to get through for some reason; and didn’t have much actionable intelligence.  Basically, bubbles sometimes “happen for no good reason” (direct quote from the concluding chapter), and then they pop.

Bubble = “a situation in which news of price increases spur investor enthusiasm, which spreads by psychological contagion from person to person, and, in the process, amplifies stories that might justify the price increase and brings in a larger and larger class of investors, who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are drawn to it partly through envy of others’ successes and partly through a gambler’s excitement.”

  • Big bubble factor is a public impression that a revolution is underway that will change everything (eg. Internet in late 90s; probably Bitcoin today)
  • In Shiller’s analysis of large stock market bubbles around the world, the reason for large price increases that often get talked about in media don’t usually make logical sense and there is no actionable pattern. Sometimes there is a kind of bubble feedback going on: a bubble/crash exists only because people think that there is a temporary bubble/crash and want to ride/avoid it
  • If we all knew perfectly what our own trading abilities were, there would be no trading: if you were below average, you would never trade because you know you lose most of the time; then the rest would have no one to trade with.
  • Market price is by no means a “vote.” Most investors are just trying to follow the perceived “wisdom of the crowd”
  • Short sale constraints (such as a limited supply and holders unwilling to lend shares) prolong bubbles, because “smart money” is unable sell down the price. Suggests to Policy makers that bubbles can be overcome by freer and more numerous markets. (Converse: less free, fewer markets = bubble breeder?)
  • Higher CAPE can still yield good returns if interest rates low enough
  • Ok, I guess there is something actionable:  sometimes, you need to ignore pleasant fantasies and defend what you already have.

“Mistborn” by Brandon Sanderson


The setting is a fantasy world where, a long time ago, the bad guy won.  The world is a heap of ashes; few trees or living things still exist.  The Lord Ruler, immortal and omnipotent, rules from his palace of dark spiral towers.  The aristocracy cruelly use and abuse the enslaved majority “skaa” population, who have little hope of change in the future.

There is magic in this world, called allomancy.  Allomantic powers are hereditary and only available to those of aristocratic descent.  Each power is linked to a certain metal, like bronze or tin, which is ingested in small quantities and then “burned” as needed to provide the user with specific superhuman abilities.  Most allomancers are only able to use a single metal.  But, rarely, a “mistborn” comes on the scene who is able to use them all.

Probably the most dramatic/cool of the allomantic powers is the “push” and “pull”, which turns the allomancer into something of a supermagnet able to reverse polarity at will.  Essentially, this allows the mistborn to pretty much fly around, provided enough metal objects are sufficiently available in the nearby environment to use as anchors, either to push away from or pull oneself toward.

(The allomantic magic system is interesting, but very formulaic.  I though back to Jonathan Strange – magic in that book is very vague, mysterious, and undefined; here in “Mistborn” is an opposite, well-defined and limited system. )

Vin is an orphan skaa teenage girl who ends up in a thieving crew, a risky business of scamming and stealing from the aristocracy.  She ends up joining Kelsier, a crew boss turned Mistborn.  Although hereditary, it usually takes a unique, stressful event to awaken allomantic powers in an individual — for Kelsier, he was captured in a failed job and sentenced to labor in the Mines of Hathsin until death, but his power awoke and he escaped.  Now Kelsier has a plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler.  Early on, the book has Kelsier assemble his team, Ocean’s Eleven style.  Then they get to work on the plan, even though no one but Kelsier really believes they have a chance.

Kelsier realizes Vin is a mistborn like himself and sets about training her for the good fight.  Later, she is given the task of impersonating a noble in order to infiltrate the series of balls attended by most of the aristocracy and dig up rumors and information that might be useful to the team.  Along the way (gasp!) she ends up falling in love with a seemingly fair and change-minded young heir, Elend Venture.

I thought the author did a very good job with pacing.  At the beginning, the reader is in the dark about the world itself, and bits and pieces are slowly revealed.  Then, the mystery and revelations smoothly transition to the origin of the Lord Ruler – how did he go from Hero of the world to evil overlord?

SPOILERS BELOW>

  • Turns out that there was a prophesied Hero of long ago, who undertook a journey to the “Well of Ascension” to do …. something …. which somehow stopped an evil called the Deepness from eating the world.  Or something like that.  Very vague.  Well, anyway, one of his guides became very jealous, particularly because the guide was a Terrisman, which race had made and kept the prophecies whereas the Hero was a foreigner.  Somehow the guide took the Hero’s place, and became the Lord Ruler.
  • The Lord Ruler’s power is from a combination of allomancy and feruchemy.  One character speculates that maybe the Well of Ascension granted allomancy itself, as it wasn’t present in the world prior to that.  Feruchemy is a Terrisman skill similar to allomancy, but users are only able to “store up” their own strength or other abilities to use later by voluntarily becoming equally weak or impaired for an equal amount of time.  Somehow the combination yields almost omnipotent power as well as effective immortality.
  • Atium, the metal mined in Hathsin, is also a key part of … something.  Part of the team’s plans involve stealing the Lord Ruler’s suspected large stash of atium, but as it turns out it can’t be found anywhere.  It is implied that the Lord Ruler, evil as he is, was doing something to keep the Deepness at bay … perhaps using atium?  If so, not a good setup for our friends in the near future, as Kelsier ends up destroying Hathsin and all atium production for several centuries.
  • Kelsier’s plan, ultimately known only to him, was kind of unique.  He thinks the only way the world stands a chance is if the skaa gain hope and rise up, and the best way to do that is to give them a martyr/savior to look to.  He becomes that savior – builds up an almost-religion around himself, then challenges the Lord Ruler and is killed … which results in exactly the effect he intended.

“Orange is the New Black” by Piper Kerman

Prison doesn’t sound too bad – just kind of a pointless state of limbo for the prisoners.

“Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt


An account of the last few years of the Taiping Rebellion, with a focus on British involvement.  Although sparked by a religious movement, the author characterizes the Taiping as a long-suppressed reaction of the majority Chinese to centuries of (mis)rule by the foreign Manchu invaders, ie. the Qing Dynasty.  The Qing were ripe for overthrow and quite ineffectual by this point; their demise was postponed 50 years or so by two factors; first that the British (eventually) threw in their lot with the Qing against the Taiping on rather flimsy and biased reporting by just a few officials, and second that Zeng Guofan declined to take power for himself when he definitely could have done so.

British policy during this period flip-flopped or otherwise struggled to find a direction.  Technically, they claimed to be neutral in the Chinese civil war … but at one point, they were fighting separately against both parties.  British in Shanghai were defending against a Taiping assault while a British fleet attacked the Qing’s Taku forts and the Summer Palace at Beijing in the climax of what is now called the Second Opium War.  Soon after, the British were persuaded by Frederick Bruce that the Taiping were up to no good and the only hope for stability in China would be to help the Qing stay afloat.

Many others, including historians today, believe the Taiping were on the road to victory and would have done alright, in spite of the somewhat crazy behavior of the founder, Hong Xiuquan.  (Sidenote – not much on Hong Xiuquan’s rise or Taiping doctrine or society in this book; really just about the war.  At one point though it said that Hong Xiuquan was claiming to be the new member of the Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit…)

A fascinating character when thinking about what the Taiping might have turned into is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin.  Long before his cousin’s visions, Hong Rengan was a Christian convert in Hong Kong and worked as an assistant to foreign missionaries.  When the Taiping became ascendant, he was sent to his cousin with high hopes that “true Christianity” would replace the Taiping creole.  At first things seemed to go better than their wildest dreams – Hong Xiuquan heartily welcomed his cousin and offered him the title of “Shield King” and responsibility as the foreign minister for the Taiping government.  Hong Rengan had a grand plan of strong friendship and cooperation with Western powers in a bid jumpstart Chinese industry and technology, much like the reforms of the Meiji Restoration later in Japan.  (Another sidenote – the author points out the Japan profited well by observing China’s problems – first by opening up to the West peacefully whereas the Chinese went kicking and screaming via Opium Wars; second by accelerating technological progress to catch up to the West whereas the Qing stagnated.)  Despite his best efforts, Western perception of the Taiping went downhill and Hong Rengan’s plans were never to be.

Finally we have Zeng Guofan, the scholar-general.  A Qing government official (though not a Manchu) and product of the examination system, he became a local militia leader in Hunan in the fight against the Taiping mainly because no one else at all was left to take the job.  From the accounting in this book, he seemed very methodical in his leadership — he thought deeply about the problems at hand, devised a strategy with much careful deliberation, and then stuck to that strategy no matter what until the goal was achieved.  He became something of a warlord and ignored direct orders from the Emperor when they went against his own strategy — not out of disloyalty, but because he knew that the Emperor didn’t know as much about the “situation on the ground” as he did.  Anyway, at the end of the day, Zeng’s army conquered the Taiping capital of Nanjing, effectively killing the movement.  He very well could have taken his army on to Beijing and toppled the severely weakened Qing, but did not.  Perhaps something of a George Washington character (leaving after two terms instead of becoming King George) or maybe he just didn’t want to take on all the empire’s problems any longer.

Both Zeng, the other Qing, and the Taiping were very brutal in this conflict.  Entire populations of cities, whether the Manchu district if conquered by Taiping, or everyone if conquered by Qing, were murdered upon their capture.  Cannibalism became common in besieged cities and also in the countryside at large, being devasted by a decade of roving armies.  Not a fun time to be alive.