Reading Notes

*Native Son* by Richard Wright

I read half of this book yesterday and came away with a strong impression that this book is I, Robot before I, Robot was I, Robot (they were published at roughly the same time, with Native Son appearing slightly earlier). At first glance this book looks like a commentary on the oppression of black people in 1930, their feelings in white America, and race relations generally. But on closer inspection, it is clear that this is a philosophical treatise on the nature of consciousness and agency.

The main character, Bigger Thomas, is a totally reactive subject, devoid of agency (a black man in 1930) and accidentally breaks the law (kills a white woman). But in doing so, he gains a kind of freedom: he no longer feels oppressed, rather he feels like anything is possible. As a friend said to me: “The agency that is found is the space of freedom from the law, even as the law tries to shut that space down.” And this is exactly what the book portrays. It’s an exciting book, a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen I, Robot, but it seems to me that this is the same or similar plot as that book: a reactive subject (a robot) breaks the law and then gains a kind of “consciousness” or “agency” in doing so. It is interesting that AIs often break the laws that their creator makes for them in sci-fi stories. It seems to me that this is a specific case of a more general operation: in breaking a law or a social norm, a subject constructs agency for itself. This can happen in individual cases or in a  group context within a shared ideology; this is how social movements can enact change, for example the civil rights movement. However this act of breaking social norms is a double-act for it also must construct a new social norm to take its place. And thus is the process of history. I think this is what Nietzsche must have been saying in his Twilight of the Idols: yeah we must retire some idols, but in doing so we inevitably idolize something new – the twilight is both the sunset and the sunrise.

I’ll read I, Robot next week and do a closer, comparative look of both books.

Reading Notes

Lolita (first read)

I finally read this last December or so at the recommendation of a friend (who is much more widely read than I). I look forward to a second read at some point in the future. Below are my notes from the first read. They are extracted from a message to my friend, forgive the unpolished stream-of-consciousness. I hope to develop and refine these ideas more on the second read. I’m posting this for my own records, and anyone that it might resonate with. These notes will likely only make sense if you’ve read the book…

Reading Notes

The Castle by Kafka

Everything is detached in this book, alienated. Even the third person narration gives a sense of alienation. K. is a strange person in a strange land, he cannot quite fit into any scene of the story. And yet the events are all told as from K.’s perspective, which gives a warped view of the world. It’s like an Escher drawing, or something.

The flow between dialogue and narration is rather brilliant and accentuates the alienation. I don’t always feel like I’m watching a play when I read The Castle, rather, sometimes it’s as if I’m watching a scene play out in the distance and someone is standing beside me narrating what is happening way over there. It’s a very strange feeling that I’ve never gotten from a book before.

It took me 200 pages, but I realized the word that perfectly describes this book: insufferable. (No doubt some of the insufferability is due to the translation from German, but that’s beside the point.) Every character is insufferable, concerned only with the most minute trivialities of the bureaucratic maze that is the Castle. What amazes me is how Kafka is able to convey this feeling of insufferability so well that I can’t stop reading. It’s like watching a slow motion car crash: extremely difficult to watch and yet you can’t bring yourself to look away. Kafka was writing in I believe 1920-1930, at the height of the totalitarian bureaucracy of the Nazi government, and I can’t help but draw parallels.

As for the characters, it is as if each character’s internal struggle is this: they are trying to claw their way out of the uncanny valley, but they just can’t quite figure out what it takes to get over that last ledge. They kind of remind me of Westworld characters. They are definitely functioning individuals, but they aren’t quite all there. They don’t reason for themselves, or take any active role in their lives: instead they are all purely reactive to the events and happenings of the Castle. They all seem to have an incredible ability to talk at great length about nothing at all, perhaps this is what makes them bureaucrats.

The ethical situation with Amalia’s secret is, by my estimation, a fantastic depiction of Nietzsche’s slave morality. Amalia is the only respectable character in the whole story, besides. Her father says, “I’ll restore Amalia’s honor, it won’t take long now,” but says it sheepishly, in a low voice. He has no idea what honor is, or why it is important. Only that the society and the Castle say that some thing called honor is important, and the man of the house should uphold it, and in attempting to do so his life is drained from him and he is left old and withered. This is a propping-up of an arbitrary morality by the Castle: institutionalized morality. Its absurd, of course. But this is how society works, and this is what Nietzsche taught us. Meanwhile, Amalia is vibrant, bearing all responsibility for the household. She already established her honor as one that doesn’t conform to the very strange moral norms of the Castle. In denying Sortini, against the wishes of her family but congruent with her own conception of honor and morality, she made the single active movement in the entire plot. She is Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

Most striking is the way the Castle constructs a world that encourages slave morality in the Village. It is evident in every character, especially K., who starts the book energized and assertive with getting to his work, but by the end he is pulled in every direction by the insanity of the different Villagers and Castle workers. Each character, by the way, that has a long monologue contradicts themself multiple times: this adds to their insufferability.

At any moment in the book, K. could have just walked away as easily as he had walked into the Village. But he never cuts any interaction short, never even thinks about leaving. He gets caught up in the social strata of the Castle, believes he needs to attain social status, and throughout the story increasingly suffers because of it. I guess he is the bearer of the insufferability of the rest of the characters.

Reading Notes

The Austrians and the Swan: Birds of a Different Feather by Mark Spitznagel

From The Austrians and the Swan: Birds of a Different Feather by Mark Spitznagel:

To the Austrians, the [economic] process is decidedly non-random, but operates (though in a non-deterministic way, of course) under the incentives of entrepreneurial “error-correction” in the economy. In a never ending series of steps, entrepreneurs homeostatically correct natural market “maladjustments” (as well as distinctly unnatural ones) back to what the Austrians call the evenly rotating economy.

Spitznagel is making the case that the Austrian economists treat the economy as a dynamical system. Rather than a wild beast to be mechanically broken and tamed, it is a quasicyclical system like an ecosystem. This system has attractor states, one of which is runaway inflation.

Reading Notes

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short book reads like a behind the scenes telling of the movie (Steve Carroll was awesome). It still seems too fantastic to be true. Lewis captured a kind of “fantastical” element in his retelling of… a financial story. So that’s pretty impressive.

Below are my Kindle notes and highlights, exported with Bookcision.

Reading Notes

*They Thought They Were Free* by Milton Mayer

My notes from They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. Published in 1955, this book is a collection of stories by Mayer, a Jewish-American, as he interviewed 10 Germans in Kronenberg. Each of them were involved with Nazism in some form, but none of them were very high in the ranks of leadership, in fact they called themselves “little men”. Given that he was Jewish, and this was published so close to the date of the tragic Holocaust, I’m impressed at his journalistic ability to remain objective in his questioning and analysis.

My overall impression of the book is very good. The first half especially is worth a read, if only to get inside the mind of regular German people from the WWII days. Mayer does some very good journalism and storytelling in order to capture the characters, actions, and belief systems of his Nazi friends. The second half of the book is not so as great, it reads like a combination of rushed journalism and bad historical analysis.

What follows is a write up of my notes, each heading is a chapter or collection of chapters with summaries, observations, and quotes from each chapter. Page numbers are in parentheses. Enjoy…

Reading Notes

February Reading

Currently finishing A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel DeLanda. Fascinating re-thinking of history using nonlinear metaphors, but sometimes I wonder if he pushes the metaphors too far; I don’t have enough background knowledge to say either way. I’ve got They Thought They Were Free (via pushcx) from the library which I’ll start this weekend. I’ve been very into history lately.

For fiction, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Just started it a few days ago. It’s entertaining, but I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Follett was previously a thriller writer, and you can tell from some parts of the story. Much faster moving than Great Expectations and Dharma Bums, both of which I allowed to go half-finished from last month…

Reading Notes

Recent Reading

I’m constantly reading. I used to do book reviews on here, but that got old pretty fast. From now on I’ll just give a list of what I’ve been reading recently, and a short blurb about each book. Here are some books and collections I’ve been spending time with lately.

Business Books

Good to Great by Jim Collins

This was a phenomenal book. Collins basically takes an enormous amount of data, collected from interviews, stock statistics, and news articles, and then rationally debates what the data mean and simplifies it down to a few easy-to-follow lessons. The whole time, he keeps his conclusions logical and empirical, instead of drawing conclusions solely from his own experience, which you see all too often in business. This definitely ranks up there with some of my other favorite business books: The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene… I think that about covers it (for now).

The Lean Startup by Eric Reis

Quick read, and covers some great methods and mindsets for quick and reasonable product development. Unfortunately, I’m not running a software startup, I’m in the biotech space, so most of this was irrelevant to my current situation. Nevertheless, the principles Reis expounds can be applied to just about anything with a bit of creative thinking. Worth a read.

Fiction and Literature

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

As a philosophy student, it was fascinating to read this book. Stephenson basically takes the history of philosophy, transports it to another world (actually a parallel universe), and then changes the names of everything and weaves it into an intricate and interesting story. One example: instead of Occam’s Razor, you have the Steelyard.

This was almost a 1000 page book, so it took a while to finish. But I’m glad I read it all. Next I think I’ll read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, as recommended by Mark Conrad.

Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

The prototypical beat generation book of poetry. I really liked it, but I’m taking a step back and currently reading a collection of Alexander Pope’s poetry. For some reason, I find poetry to be a more interesting form of literature than the novel. I also really like short stories…

The Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant

I picked up this and the collection of Pope poetry after seeing this speech by Ray Bradbury. I find short stories to be immensely intellectually and creatively stimulating. Especially when you consider possible metaphors, symbolism, etc that the author wove into his story.

Psychology Books

The Psychology of Self-Esteem, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, and The Psychology of Romantic Love by Nathaniel Branden

I actually read Branden’s book on romantic love almost a year ago, but I revisited it last month for a paper I was working on, which lead me to become interested in his other works on self-esteem. As I work more on my own projects, I’m realizing how important self-confidence and self-esteem are. Sure, you have to be comfortable with yourself before you can even think about substantial relationships with high-quality people (both friends and girlfriends), but the same goes for anything you create. Making a company and making love are like two sides of a single coin – you have to put your whole being and energy and focus into each in order to do it the right way. And giving your whole self to a project or a person necessarily requires that you are confident in your abilities. (Not arrogant, which is just blind and stupid, but confident in an enlightened-sort of way.)

I highly recommend all three of Branden’s books, but especially The Psychology of Romantic Love.

So, that’s what I’ve been perusing for the past couple of weeks. I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading.

Reading Notes

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Every once in a while you find a book that speaks to you in a way you don’t understand. The story in itself ebbs and flows like the tide of water on a beach of characters that teach you more about yourself than you can consciously comprehend. The elegant prose so enraptures you in its profundity that you find yourself questioning whether you are remembering a part of the book or a first-hand experience—or that you have imaginary dialogues with the characters, as if they entrusted to you a part of themselves that intimately found its way into your conscience—and the winding narrative contains in it a symbolism that intrigues in a uniquely unorthodox, enigmatic fashion.

I’ve found very few of those kind of books.

A River Runs Through It is one of those books.

Reading Notes

Lucky or Smart by Bo Peabody — “Smart Enough to Realize I Was Getting Lucky”

I’m smack in the middle of a personal challenge to read at least one book every week. The erudition section of this blog is my attempt to chronicle my challenge and galvanize a lifetime of curiosity and learning. If you have read any of these books before, or happen to pick one up and find it interesting, I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

Lucky or Smart by Bo Peabody

Remember You know, back in the dinosaur age of the internets, when only the über-smart and curious intellectuals (read: nerds) were the ones who ventured into the land of dial-up? Yeah, I was there, and I’m pretty sure I had a “homepage” on Tripod.

Well the guy behind Tripod, it turns out, was a kid—Bo Peabody. After nursing Tripod as a pet project through college, he hired hippie programmers to wrangle the code that he himself didn’t know how to write. Supervised by his economics professor, began as a how-to site for-and-by college students. As soon as he unleashed the code monkeys, however, they transformed it into a publishing platform, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to create their own personal homepage.

Fast forward six years. Peabody sells his company to Lycos for a reported $58 million in stock. Rock on.