Monday, July 28, 2014

This week: war, war, war

This past week has been a quiet one, as I've been devotedly reading through Castles of Steel, an 800+ page history of the naval war between Britain and Germany during World War I.  I'm just starting Jutland, and after that it's essentially a staring contest, so the end is in sight. After that I'll revisit the American Revolution, since The Men Who Lost America is finally here. Sure, it's late for my July Fourth readings, but to us real Americans, every day is Independence Day.

I jest, of course.  Between the two for leisure I'll enjoy the second volume of The Eugenics War series by Greg Cox.  Khan has just attempted to unite his genetically engineered brethren, only to realize it's like herding saber-toothed cats.  Never invite one superman who is a Marxist revolutionary and another superman who is the leader of an American patriot militia fighting the government to dinner. It's awkward and neither of them appreciates good scotch.

I haven't yet commented on nor reviewed Antifragile nor Good-Natured, so before they get pushed so far on the back burner that they fall off into "Well, I'll re-read  and review them properly later" territory (terra incognita, where there be dragons and from whence few books emerge), lo! Comments.
 Antifragile, which like The Death and Life of Great American Cities shaped my thinking long before I finished it,  examines how certain systems can benefit from stress and unpredictability rather than be undone by them, or even merely survive them.  A quotation I shared the first time I started reading the book demonstrates how there is no field of human experience that its author does not wade in and throttle.  It's a powerful work, a pot of gold mixed with scorpions  -- no reader can stick his hand in without being stung by Taleb's bellicose energy, but the man practices what he preaches. Many of his examples are drawn from the world of business, and some chapters are technical enough that even he tells readers they can leave them alone --but I figured that was a challenge on his part.  His essential point is that surviving lots of little crises is better than preventing them and then being wiped out by a major crisis. Organic systems can be strengthened by stress in the right amount; this is as true of bodybuilders (Taleb's own bulk comes from a routine that consists of him attempting to out-lift himself once a week in a quick sessions, instead of engaging in repetitions) as of economies.  Too big to fail? That's fragile, and a national economy based on them is inviting death.

Two months ago I read Good Natured, which as I feared blended in with the rest of de Waal's books. I've read them too closely together, I think.  The author uses years of observations at an expansive Dutch primate center alongside extended field reports from primatologists like Jane Goodall to examine the biological basis of moral behavior. Much of the book is taken up with de Waal presenting chimpanzees, bonobos, and monkeys of acting with respect to moral norms, and  the basis for these behaviors is that socially-healthy behaviors like morality are more evolutionary beneficial. He also addresses the delicate balance between individual actions and communal advancement, which occurs twice here -- both in behavior and in genes, as mutations always occur in individuals, but they're passed on within populations. Individuals do not evolve, groups so.  It's fascinating, and eye-opening, but I've read so much of de Waal it's like working in a cathedral or a park. The majesty becomes ordinary after too much regular exposure.

Well, off I go to big ships, baffled royals, and a book read in Ricardo Montalban's voice.

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