Category Archives: Non-fiction

“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…

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“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.

“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.

“Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre

Thoughts on stock trading from “Larry Livingston”, a pseudonym for Jesse Livermore, successful trader around the turn of the century.

  • “Give up trying to catch the last eighth, or the first.  These two are the most expensive eights in the world.”  In other words, don’t buy too early (without a clear upward signal) and don’t sell too late.
  • It’s more important to catch the big, market-wide bull/bear runs than the little fluctuations of an individual stock.  I think of the “buy the dip” approach — this only works if you are in a bull market.
  • Ease into positions.  If you think you want 500 shares, start at 100 shares and see how the market goes.  If it goes up 1%, then by the next 100 and wait again.  Repeat until you have your whole position.  Always have a -1% trailing stop in mind.
  • Price doesn’t really matter – what you want to know is the “line of least resistance.”
    • Maybe in our day and age, he would be a proponent of order book analysis?
  • Traders must reverse the natural inclination of hope and fear.
    • Natural:
      • Hope when your stock is down that it will come back up, so you hold too long
      • Fear when your stock is up that it will go down, so you sell out too soon
    • Must change to:
      • Hope when your stock is up – hope it keeps rising; don’t sell winners too soon
      • Fear when your stock is down – fear it could drop even lower; don’t hang on to losers
  • Tips are worthless — realize you are being manipulated.
  • Towards the end of the book, lots of stories about market manipulation that didn’t seem very applicable to us little fish, except to recognize such things happening amongst the whales.
    • If you get to be a whale, remember that liquidity matters.

“From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History” by Kenneth J. Hammond

Listened to another Great Courses sweeping history series during my commute.  Plenty of interesting stuff, but I admit I got kind of lost between the Han/Song/Ming etc.  I think I just don’t have the necessary framework.  Plus maybe learning some Chinese characters would help with visualizing different people’s names in my mind and actually remembering them.

Anyway, three takeaways:

  • History is always in flux.  China in particular is a series of high points and low points, with frequent takeovers by nomadic invaders like the Jurchen, Mongol, Manchu.  Yet through it all, what remained was still China; albeit changed somewhat by each conqueror.  Still, though, Chinese identity is linked to the Han Dynasty, back in 200 BC, and not to some plains people origin.  A testament to Chinese cultural superiority?  Or just that there are so many of them?  (Yes, a relatively high Chinese population relative to surrounding tribes and the world in general has been a constant feature throughout history.)
  • To continue with the above, China is currently emerging from an anomalous period (200+ years) of backwardness and is regaining its usual position at the head of world culture and leadership.  Kind of exciting.
  • The story of the Tai Ping movement really caught my interest and I plan to read more about it.  The founder read a few Christian missionary tracts (but never the Bible), had a vision and claimed he was the brother of Jesus.  Was a very charismatic leader and attracted millions of followers to a strict, fanatic lifestyle for many years and into a war.  In some ways (except the war part and some details of course), it seems similar to Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism going on at about the same time.

 

“One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson

Excellent Bill Bryson as always.  A snapshot look at what was happening in America in the summer of 1927.  Of course, most of these events had backstory and aftermath that went beyond that summer, but nonetheless:

  • The biggest story by far was Charles Lindbergh‘s crossing of the Atlantic.  The event generated tons of enthusiasm; this was almost as big a deal and as incredible to imagine as the moon landing would be a generation later.   But, what really may have made the most lasting impact was Lindbergh’s follow-up cross-country tour, where he appeared in parades and other events in different cities day after day.  There was heavy press coverage; and reports of it taking him only a few hours by air to travel between cities which took a day or more by train caused interest and investment in aviation.
    • A side note to the Lindbergh story is that of Charles Levine, one of his competitors to be the first across the Atlantic by plane.  It’s almost a fable-like story: he (well, his plane the Columbia) probably would have been first if only Levine wasn’t such a big jerk.  He had two pilots lined up for the flight but kicked one out at the last minute in favor of taking a spot for himself; this pilot got an injunction that stopped the flight for a week or more.  Which is when Lindbergh took off.
  • Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs playing for the 1927 Yankees, considered by many the best team ever.  He was known as “Babe” because of his sheltered upbringing at a boys school/orphanage.  Apparently he quickly lost the boyish innocence; he was a well known womanizer and drinker.
  • President Coolidge spent the summer in South Dakota, modeling a fancy cowboy outfit.  Also he participated in the kickoff for Mt. Rushmore.  The creator, Gutzon Borglum, was an interesting fellow and a Mormon (or at least started out as one.)
  • Prohibition was in full swing.  I didn’t realize that the government intentionally poisoned “denatured” alcohol, an idea encouraged by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti Saloon League, so it wouldn’t be used for drinking – many thousands were killed anyway.
  • The curious Van Sweringen brothers were building the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, a prototype of the modern shopping mall.  They also invented the suburb in Shaker Heights.  The Van Sweringens lost everything in the Great Depression.
  • Error in the book!  Said Philo Farnsworth went to “Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City”.  It’s really in Provo, which no one outside of Utah would lump together with Salt Lake City.
  • The advent of “talkie” movies = start of dominant American culture worldwide.  Before this, many actors were immigrants – didn’t matter that they had an accent or couldn’t speak English well.  Now, the movie star image around the world became totally American.