2023 By The Books: Q3

Daniel Issing
16 min readOct 15, 2023

A busy quarter. At this frequency, things are starting to look a little crowded (17 reviews in one article), so I’m considering moving to monthly posts. We shall see! Other than that, the books I read are a bit all over the place, so I hope there’s something in there for everyone.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Or “In favor of the political system that works best, whichever that may be”. In spite of the catchy title, the argument in here is not “democracy sucks, let’s get rid of it” but “if it turns out that there is a type of governance that performs better than democracy, let’s pick that (and not stick with democracy for semiotic or other reasons)”. The book is carefully argued, despite the fact that Brennan is visibly delighting in provocation. Which is all fair enough, except that it’s hard not to come away from it thinking that what Brennan really wants to argue is that epistocracy — a system that would restrict political power, however mildly, to those which more knowledge about these matters — actually does better than liberal democracy, where clueless hobbits and myopic hooligans get together to project their ignorance onto the ballot. I find this annoying, because invariably most reviewers fall for it, whereupon Brennan gets to call them out for not reading and/or understanding the book’s arguments: He wants to decide who should be allowed to vote, etc etc. Of course Brennan is right when he rebuts such claims, but it’s not a substantive victory.

To say that there are many potential angles from which to attack the central premises of the book — Should we really attempt to discredit democracy at a time when authoritarian regimes are on the rise everywhere? Who gets to decide which citizens count as competent, or what qualifies as “better outcomes”? — is not to claim that the evidence he presents should be tossed away lightly. As he is right to remark, the fact that there have hardly been any epistocratic regimes that could be used to establish an empirical track record of their performance shouldn’t per se be a reason not to try them out: After all, when America declared independence in 1776, there was little historical evidence that democracy could be a functioning governing system! In this sense, the book can be read as a plea for more institutional experimentation — on small scales, to be sure — instead of leaning back and declaring that the worst form of government (except all others) has already been identified.

Alone On The Wall, Alex Hunnold

If you already watched Free Solo — which I can only recommend you do — then there isn’t much more you’ll learn from Hunnold’s book that came out a few years earlier. You will already understand that Hunnold’s mind is very much unlike that of other people, and mostly learn about additional routes he climbed and obstacles he overcame en route. What stuck with me most is a spectacularly hypocritical section in the middle of the book, where he writes about his nagging doubts concerning an expedition in Mexico, given the environmental costs of traveling to faraway places, and how it’s in sharp contrast with the goals he pursues through his foundation. [Why do so many celebrities feel the need to create charitable foundations in their own name? Is there a better explanation than sheer vanity?] A couple of pages later, all of that is forgotten, and he happily recounts how some friend suggested they do a crazy project down in Patagonia, which he accepted without second thoughts.

That said, how can anyone not be in awe of what he achieved? I’m not a climber myself, so putting things in perspective is tough for me, but even with my limited understanding of what he’s done it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

The Anti-Politics Machine, James Ferguson

That inordinate amounts of money have been sunk into aid in a futile attempt to allow impoverished nations to join the ranks of the well-to-do is a staple of our political discourse (though see here for a more nuanced assessment). Yet even those who agree that aid is a failure are hardly ever on the same page as to why that’s the case, and there doesn’t seem to be a convergence of opinions either. Ferguson is quite aware of this, and proposes to do something other than armchair theorizing: Rather than proposing another grand unified theory, he asks us to look at a concrete example of development gone awry and see what we can learn from it.

The case study is the Thaba-Tseka Development Project in Lesotho (1975–84), sponsored in large parts by the Canadian government. Ferguson did anthropological work in Lesotho when the project was winding down, and was surprised how those managers who led the program had no illusions about the project’s abject failures, yet remained convinced that they’ve just gotten unlucky and would fare better next time they tried. And all that despite the fact that they managed to get even the most basic facts about the local way of life utterly wrong. How does this happen to the well-funded development apparatus that employs lots of highly skilled individuals?

A tempting answer is “sheer incompetence”, but this seems unlikely: Those jobs are well-paid, high status, and fiercely competed for. Ferguson suggests it is something else: They are trapped in the “development” narrative that requires them to see things through a certain lens — a lens that helps them to identify root causes within the country that lend themselves to technical interventions: market failures, infrastructure projects, you name it. Whatever didn’t conveniently fit into this frame — like the fairly obvious reality of Lesotho, economically speaking, being first and foremost a labor reserve for South African mines — was left out or treated as a minor nuisance.

The chapter on livestock management, titled “The Bovine Mystique” (seriously, who writes like this?), is especially illuminating in this regard. Development professionals noted that pastures were overgrazed, and cattle was hardly ever sold on the market, even during prolonged droughts. This made little sense to them, so they hypothesized that local farmers must have an irrational attachment to their cows and/or lacked access to markets. Not so: Upon closer investigation, it turns out that it is mostly older men who own the cattle — those who are no longer able to earn as wage laborers in South African mines. For them, cows are a kind of retirement investment, being much less “liquid” than money, and thus they’re less likely to run out of them prematurely — it’s a tax on their own short-sightedness, not unlike the behavior of poor wannabe homeowners. Not just that, they also establish a hierarchy in the villages, designed to the disadvantage of women and younger men. Without understanding the intricacies of this social fabric, any intervention is doomed to fail, either through refusal to cooperate or through outright sabotage.

But Ferguson deplores not only the tunnel vision of development professionals. Even if they were able to cast their biases aside, he holds, there is still an unjustified assumption underlying all of their work: That development can somehow be purely “technical” and escape the fangs of local or national politics. At times this is reminiscent of the old slogan about the personal being political, and Ferguson’s style has a certain overlap with mid-century Marxist discourse. Nevertheless, he’s got a point: It is tempting to forget that even totally “unpolitical” programs such as vaccination campaigns are always embedded in the context of a bureaucracy that represents, to varying degrees, the interests of the ruling class, and may be wielded to their advantage.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

In our day and age, mind-numbing brutality is not exactly what makes a story stand out, and I’d doubt this was any different back in the 1980s when McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian. While writers typically use violence sparingly to catch the reader’s attention, Blood Meridian is just one slaughter after the others so that they barely even register anymore after the first couple of pages — mere background noise to embed an otherwise unremarkable story. Some characters, notably the Judge, are remarkable creations, but overall it didn’t resonate with me much.

A Book Forged In Hell, Steven Nadler

Probably one of the best introductions to Baruch Spinoza’s theological and political views for the uninitiated (like me!). It’s very clear on the nature of these ideas, how they relate to the intellectual context Spinoza was operating in, and why the matter(ed). The key thing I learned from it is that Spinozas anticipated many of David Hume’s most famous writings, such as his analysis of miracles. Ultimately, though, I’m afraid that I do not care about the history of philosophy quite enough to appreciate this book fully.

Defending Freedom, Ralf Fuecks

Fuecks is the former chair of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, associated with Germany’s Green party, and certainly one of the most reasonable voices from this part of the political spectrum. The problem with this book is that it’s almost too reasonable — by which I mean that all too often, its pronouncements sound like tired old platitudes. YMMV — but with the exceptions of minor quibbles, areas where I would have emphasized different things or placed more weight on other factors, I found little to disagree with. Kudos to the author for correctly identifying Putin as the villain he is, when much of the German political establishment was still in total denial of the Russian dictator’s true nature.

Epic Measures, Jeremy Smith

Christopher Murray is a remarkable man, and surely biographies have been written about lesser figures before. The Global Burden of Disease, his brainchild, was a seminal step forward in global health, and it’s interesting to see how the powers that be resisted his attempts to establish a consistent database for evidence-based medicine. (In one interesting story, Smith recounts how a collaborator of Murray’s once tried to add up deaths by cause as stated by the WHO, and ended up with a number that was 50% higher than the total number of deaths.) But do we really need a narrative account of Murray’s childhood, fascination with heli-skiing and struggles to find funders, especially with cheap cliffhangers at the end of every chapter? The project surely matters a great deal, and so I would have liked to see much more on the ideas that inform it, rather than long chains of anecdotes.

Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is such an overused psychological concept (very popular in the self-help genre and adjacent fields) that one should rightfully wonder whether there’s anything to be gained from going back to the original source. So I’m happy to report that it turned out to be much more insightful than expected — the kind of book that makes you question certain life choices. None of it is particularly unintuitive or complex, but that doesn’t mean it’s not profound. Understanding, for example, that there are real limits to what happiness, that very fleeting emotion, can achieve — Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning comes to mind here — is something that every serious hedonist should take to heart. Csikszentmihalyi explains why leisure often feels so pointless and frustrating, and advocates for the Buddhist concept of serious playfulness: “act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.” And should you maximize flow?

Friedrich Hayek: An Introduction, Hans Joerg Hennecke

There were times when I got to read a lot of Hayek’s work, and discuss it in seminars, but with a single exception (The Constitution of Liberty, which I found underwhelming back then) I haven’t actually read any of his books in full. This one was still on my bookshelf, and despite initial reservations, I thought going through this relatively compact overview of his work wouldn’t hurt. Hayek remains an underappreciated thinker, at least in mainstream discourse, and this introduction is as good as any to get a sense of his contributions. It won’t convince me to dive into the massive new Hayek biography by Caldwell and Klausinger, though.

The Great Escape, Angus Deaton

Possibly the best way to summarize this work is that health and wealth are intimately intertwined (rather than just saying that more money leads to better health outcomes), and that inequality, of substantial, is the price we (have to) pay for growth along both dimensions. He argues forcefully that looking at living standards alone doesn’t tell us whether the world has gotten better, and is very critical of foreign aid, which I believe he views as a net negative. A simple statistics to highlight the point: “about half (48 percent in 2008) of the world’s poor live in either India or China, yet China and India together in 2010 received only $3.5 billion in ODA, or only 2.6 percent of total aid. That half of the world’s poor people received only a fortieth of the world’s official development aid is surely one of the odder inequality measures in the world.” Yet China and India are the two countries who are by and large responsible for lifting a billion people out of extreme poverty during the last 30 years.

There are many other substantial, although not necessarily surprising, points, about economic growth and global development. I view it as an excellent reference work, in the sense of being a great synopsis of the research in this area, but less as an original contribution.

Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray

Can you take a bunch of encyclopedias, histories of arts and science, create a database the list whose name appears how often, and use this ranking to determine in an objective manner who are the giants among men? If anyone believed this was a great idea, it had to be Charles Murray. And sure enough, after all is said and done, he is very confident to proclaim who the greatest writers, artists and scientists of all times were.

This sounds more ludicrous than it actually is, and Murray spends a lot of time defending his index against all sorts of potential attacks, from the mundane “Can you really measure artistic achievement?” to the unavoidable charges of eurocentrism, plus a few other, more subtle points. I’m not interested in evaluating his replies here, because from an impartial point of view, it’s hard to deny that there are figures without whom, as he often says, the story of human accomplishment would be incomplete. Furthermore, understanding what made them great, and how we can ensure that “we” keep producing such first-rate geniuses are questions where much worth asking.

One bit of substantial criticism to end this: I do wonder how much his ranking of scientists accurately reflects excellence and/or intellectual achievement. Early discoveries are comparatively easy, at least in the sense that they’re easier to grasp for most of us. The basic principles of Newton’s Universe are taught in high school, while general relativity is typically reserved for grad school. Yet because Newton’s insights remain so fundamental that no history of physics can do without them, he probably gets overrepresented relative to other figures that contributed to much harder problems. I’m not feeling entirely confident that sheer difficulty is a better metric, but I do expect a kind of late comer’s curse to be at work here.

Human Compatible, Stuart Russell

The best book on the “AI alignment problem” or, as regular folks call it, the potentially disastrous consequences of very potent (superhuman?) AI systems. And yet, even this doesn’t convince me this is a very serious problem that deserves considerable attention, for reasons I would rather not go into here again (TLDR: It’s complicated, but read Descartes’ Error and Secret of our Success and Enigma of Reason and see if you still think that intelligence is essentially just computational capacity). Nevertheless, this one at least talks about actual AI systems we’ve built and what we can learn from them, rather than just engaging in speculative thought experiments (it no doubt helps that Russell is one of the world’s most renowned AI researchers). And it even comes with a viable suggestion how we may make progress on aligning machine “goals” and human values. Good effort, someone should spend a bit of time thinking about this, but let’s not pretend it’s the world’s most pressing problem.

Identity And Violence, Amartya Sen

I’ve always thought of Sen as the closest you can get to being “everybody’s darling” while still saying something of substance (say what you want about the Nobel prize, but it’s rarely awarded to people who deal exclusively in platitudes). However, this may very well be a result of my own ignorance (for example, I never read his magnum opus, Development As Freedom). Identity and Violence hasn’t altered this view much — it seems to be little more than an extended variation on the theme that identity has many dimensions, not just a single category like “religion”. This book could have been a blog post!

The Rift, Alex Perry

The “rift” in the book’s title refers to a geographic formation where Africa will eventually break in two, and it’s intended to be a metaphor for the dynamism of the continent as it enters the 21st century. Perry’s mission is to shatter once and for all the monolithic conceptions of Africa as a place that offers nothing but misery, famine and tyranny. Whether he succeeds in doing so is debatable, as much of the book’s content is devoted to (civil) wars, corruption and abject poverty, with the usual glimmers of hope saved for the end.

Perry is hugely critical of Western interventions in Africa, whether in the form of aid or in the form of humanitarian missions. His criticism isn’t entirely unjustified, as he documents countless cases, ranging from sheer incompetence to malice, where the international community look more like the heir of colonial empires than good samaritans. Unfortunately, he is so determined to condemn outside actors that he overlooks both the good that has been achieved and the extent to which at least some of Africa’s problems are homegrown. I appreciate that he resists to common urge to fit all his observations into a grand narrative, but at the end the reader is left to wonder what his point is — the chapters are only loosely connected, with little to no overall structure.

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

The truth is I gave up about halfway through. At some point it becomes rather repetitive (another dangerous fertilizer, another threatened species…) and much of it is probably out of date, or no longer applies. The book is thought to have led to a ban on DDT (the story is a little more complex, and in some places it’s still used for malaria control), and many have accused Carson of fearmongering. I can’t judge whether her claims were indeed often slanted or simply wrong, and the only sources I find arguing in that vein are the usual suspects.

In places it’s a little too black-and white, as when she pits the natural world against “chemistry” in a dichotomy that falls apart the moment you begin to examine it more closely. And maybe there pendulum has swung a little too much in her direction today, where environmental review boards can whimsically block development projects for the most spurious of reasons. But back in the early 1960s, Big Agrotech really seemed to have display a callousness towards the (medium and long-term) consequences of their doing that are nothing short of baffling. And, for all her shortcomings, that we pay more attention to whatever unintended consequences the indiscriminate application of pesticides may cause should be credited to her and her supporters. The framing of the issue in terms of negative externalities is certainly more useful than the popular “Mother Earth good, humans bad”!

Son Of Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef

Welp. This could have been a fascinating recounting of how the son of a Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef renounced his past and became a double agent for the Israeli government, allegedly preventing dozens of suicide attacks. Why “allegedly”? Because the way the story is told makes me wonder whether this isn’t just a massively stylized version of the events that actually took place. Two examples: Why did he collaborate with the Shin Beth to begin with? He grew up despising Israel, and went through a series of (arbitrary?) arrests, torture and solitary confinement before eventually being offered a deal to be freed. So far, so good — yet the way he tells it, it isn’t a tale of him reaching a point of utter despair where he would eventually give in. His reaction to the offer, instead, bears close resemblance to the way one might reply if asked to join for a holiday trip.

The second example is his eventual conversion to Christianity, a source of much controversy. At no point does he ever describe nagging doubts about renouncing Islam, concerns about what might await an apostate. Instead, it’s presented almost as just another lifestyle choice, triggered presumably by Bible classes (how did he end up there?) and a coptic priest, who, according to the author, demonstrated that “the Quran is full of lies”. All of this could be blamed on Yousef just being a mediocre stylist (although he didn’t write the book alone), but my overall impression isn’t just that the dramaturgy is poor, it’s that it’s partly scripted — and in an utterly unconvincing way. While I can’t claim to have superior insight into what role Yousef really played in the whole scheme, I’m sure there are better sources to this episode than his own book.

The Stuff Of Thought, Steven Pinker

Yes, I remember very well that I pledged at one point in the past I would never read another of Pinker’s books, having been seriously disappointed by The Blank Slate. Why did I relent? Mostly because I happened to have the book flying around on my Kindle, and wasn’t into whatever else I was reading at the moment. And having finished it, I think this is Pinker at his finest, since for once he writes about a topic he’s actually a (world-renowned) expert in.

That we should be able to turn to language as a window into the human mind is not exactly a revolutionary suggestion, but I think the way Pinker approaches the task offers some genuine insights. He stakes out a territory for himself between a radical form of innateness (children are born with an almost complete repertoire of words for different objects) and an equally radical form of pragmatism that asserts, with Humpty Dumpty, that words just mean whatever the speaker chooses them to mean. “Language is above all a medium in which we express our thoughts and feelings, and it mustn’t be confused with the thoughts and feelings themselves”, he asserts, and goes on to explain why the usual approach (think of Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, or various forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) have it exactly backwards. There’s also a long chapter on swearing and cursing that, other than sporting an impressive frequency of slurs, actually helped me make sense of why they’re considered taboo, and yet used everywhere, all the time.

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Daniel Issing

Book reviews, trail running, physics, and whatever else I feel like writing about.