Armageddon in Retrospect – Kurt Vonnegut

I’m traveling for the next two weeks, so no posts from me for a bit. I’ll see what I can do to turn up some Bosnian wisdom, though!

“If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal-injection facility…here is what your last words should be: ‘This will certainly teach me a lesson.’”

In 1945, Dresden was fire-bombed. The catastrophic attack destroyed essentially the entire (historical) city center, and probably around 25,000 people. It has been controversial ever since, with critics arguing it had little to no military value and was purely attempt to strike terror into the Germans, while defenders suggest it was important to destroying a major rail and communication center. Enough to make anyone anti-war for life.

Vonnegut was there. He was a prisoner of war in the city, surviving because he was locked underground, and was later put to work exhuming corpses from the wreckage. It was an experience that permanently shaped him, including his best-known book, Slaughterhouse-Five. His description of his experience in Armageddon in Retrospect is a striking centerpiece to the book.

Armageddon in Retrospect is a posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s work, with a forward by his son. I’m a big Vonnegut fan, and the twelve pieces within cover a wide range: a letter home after WW2, short stories about trapping a unicorn or making cookbooks as a prisoner of war, even a commencement speech he was due to deliver. They are not, however, what one would call cheerful, and many of them strike a fairly consistent tone.

For that reason, I think I liked it a little less than Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five: the cutting ambiguity and subtlety that Vonnegut is so good at, where you read a light story that gradually evolves deeper layers, isn’t as present. Still good and still well written (his son, in the introduction, suggests Vonnegut somehow had an ‘extra gear’ when it came to language, recalling how his father used to help him with his Latin homework, without being able to speak Latin), but not his best.

Winter King – Thomas Penn

“For it is a strange thing, that though he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles…As for the disposition of his subjects in general towards him, it stood thus with him: that of the three affections which naturally tie the hearts of the subjects to their sovereign,—love, fear and reverence,—he had the last in height; the second in good measure; and so little of the first, as he was beholding to the other two.” – Francis Bacon, discussing Henry VII

Henry VII is one of the lesser known kings of England. He is wedged between two notorious monarchs, arch-villain Richard III and his son Henry VIII. His legacy has also been controversial: he founded the Tudor dynasty, passing on power to his son in the first untroubled succession in more than a century. Yet there was also a lingering sense of tyranny, a monarch who was greatly feared, dominating his subjects to an unheard of extent and driving many of them into bankruptcy, while making the crown one of the richest in Europe. Shakespeare forbore to write a history play about him entirely.

Thomas Penn has written in Winter King a phenomenal biography of the man, who went from a lesser prince with little claim to the throne to the richest monarch in Europe, waited on by other kings. The story itself is fascinating: Henry VII faced challenges that sound like fiction, including multiple attempts by his enemies to take random people – in one case, a boatman’s son – and raise them to look like lost princes with a claim to the throne. As a result, he was perpetually suspicious, and oversaw an enormous spy network: one never knew when you were speaking to one of his agents.

He also developed an elaborate financial network to ensure loyalty. As suggested by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, taxes were assessed using a simple rule: if you led a high consumption lifestyle, you clearly had a high income, and so owed high taxes. If you were frugal, you clearly had a lot of savings, and so owed high taxes. Funnily enough, taxes were quite high.

In addition, he used a complex system of bonds and fines to ensure that any subject faced immediate financial destruction if they crossed him. If you did something wrong, you got a suspended fine, triggered if you disobeyed again: if you didn’t do anything wrong, you were asked to post a bond, usually more than you could afford, that you would lose if you did disobey.

The whole book is interesting, from Henry’s sophisticated use of financial instruments to the complicated politics he reveled in. It’s also probably something you know nothing about. Highly recommended!

Shadow Work – Craig Lambert

“The innocence of leisure makes it vulnerable to the predations of organized bodies — and there are many — that have designs on our free time, something they view as a natural resource awaiting their schemes.”

The average American commute is 16 miles each way. At the 2015 federal auto mileage reimbursement of 55 cents per mile, that’s almost $20 a day, or $4,400 a year. Over the year, commuters each spend – on average – five forty-hour weeks of unpaid time commuting. That’s shadow work: work for which we are neither thanked nor remunerated, but which is increasingly pushed onto us by firms trying to reduce their costs. Whether we’re pumping our own gas, going to online forums for tech support, or self-diagnosing with WebMD, we’re doing shadow work, and it is eating into our leisure time at a ferocious rate.

At the end of the first chapter of Shadow Work, I was a little worried. Shadow work is an interesting trend, one that we are often surprisingly unconscious of. I just wasn’t sure what Lambert planned to add in the rest of the book. Fortunately, Shadow Work more than finds its feet in the second chapter. The rest of the book serves as a thoughtful and insightful reflection on the nature of work and the nature of leisure in the modern world, from increased complexity to reduced social contact.

Whether shadow work is good or bad depends on circumstance: I like going to automatic check-out machines in the supermarket, but find it annoying to wade through phone menus rather than just talking to someone for tech support. Overall though, as Lambert points out, shadow work gives us autonomy and self-sufficiency, but at a price: isolation. Shadow work creates the opportunity for a self-imposed bubble in which we interact with ATMs, automatic cashiers, and websites, but not our fellow humanity. It also gorges on our free time in what is already a rushed and harried world. I don’t mind giving up some leisure time for choice, but given how much I’ve already lost, I’m finding it harder and harder to think I should give up any more.

Overall, thoughtful and insightful, and analyzes a trend with implications for all of us. It’s easy to slip into shadow work without noticing, bit by bit, and Lambert is right to highlight the costs. Definitely recommended. You can read more reviews on amazon, here: Shadow Work.

The Road to Character – David Brooks

“We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate…we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.” – David Brooks

“That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in flight, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” – Cicero

In 1950, a Gallup poll found that 12% of American high school seniors considered themselves a very important person. In 2005, it was 80%. The median narcissism score has increased by 30% in the last two decades, while the number of people who say they are lonely has doubled. Our very culture can feel dominated by the message that you are special, unique, and irreplaceable. In some ways this is good, of course: self-esteem and confidence are important virtues. In others, David Brooks argues, it reflects a failure of society understand what matters, and a focus on resume virtues – what you talk about in a job interview – instead of eulogy virtues – what you’d like said at your funeral.

David Brooks himself, as he points out, is “paid to be narcissistic blowhard” as a pundit and columnist. He worries that though he may have vague moral aspirations, he lacks the concrete vocabulary and understanding of how to live a rich inner life to achieve them. To try to improve the situation, in The Road to Character he tells the lives of some men and women he believes showed true character, from American General George Marshall to the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet post, Frances Perkins.

Character is an interesting issue, and I have some sympathy with Brooks’ concern over a somewhat self-centered modern culture. Unfortunately, many of his stories didn’t particularly speak to me: not because the people weren’t impressive, but perhaps because it is difficult to show a critically reflective and wise individual from the outside. A catch-22 I don’t know how to resolve, unfortunately: I’m not sure the Buddha is likely to write a biography. I think Brooks is right the developed world could do a little more to reflect on virtue and morality, but I’m not sure this book quite gets us there. Still, in order to prompt your own reflections, potentially worth a read.

Rome’s Revolution – Richard Alston

“The great truth of history, so often unspoken, is that for most of our ancestors the key issues were not those of political philosophy, the nature of freedom and the nation, but how to feed oneself and one’s children. History is about food.”

In March of 44 BC, Julius Caesar was murdered by 60-odd members of the Roman aristocracy. They believed that with him gone, everything would return to normal, as it had in the past. Instead, a revolution in Roman society culminated in the formation of the Roman Empire, ending the Republic. Why didn’t a restoration happen? And why was the old version of Roman society destroyed, an outcome totally unexpected by the participants in the events of 44 BC?

These striking questions are what Rome’s Revolution sets out to address, in a novel and fascinating perspective on the history of Rome. As Alston points out, the Rome is often presented with the veneer of inevitability: unlike more recent history, which has not lost its power to shock, the events of Rome are so far removed from us it can be hard to empathize with how people must have felt. Yet in many ways, the events of 44 BC are more comparable to the American or particularly the French revolution in terms of associated chaos and trauma for participants, and indeed the ideals of the Republic helped motivate those and other more recent events, such as the English Civil War.

Alston has a narrative he wants to tell – the Roman revolution as a struggle between groups, and that many participants had no idea what was going on. This isn’t wrong, but for me he overemphasizes it: it’s easy to think of the past in slow motion, with all participants just a little bit less clever than us, but I suspect the contemporary Romans were well aware of many of the trends we discuss in retrospect, such as the rise of private armies within Rome. It’s just not clear what they could have done about it, an explanation Alston doesn’t sufficient much time to. Still, a great perspective on old events.

You can also see more reviews of Rome’s Revolution.

Daily Rituals – Mason Currey

“One’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.”

Beethoven believed the perfect cup of coffee had 60 beans in it: he would count them out personally to make sure it was correct. Franklin believed in air baths, sitting in his room naked for an hour, reading or writing, to reinvigorate his constitution. Victor Hugo, in contrast, would give himself ice water baths on his roof, in full view of both passersby and his mistress, who lived a few houses down. B.F. Skinner, practicing what he preached, had a buzzer to get him to start and stop working; Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart. Buckminster Fuller was a polyphasic sleeper, napping for thirty minutes every six hours.

There are a couple of lessons you could draw from those daily rituals. One is that most of us aren’t eccentric enough to be famous. Another is that there is a surprisingly large amount of variation in the routines of the successful: some got up early, some slept late. Some worked every waking hour, others would work a few hours and then take the rest of the day off. Some ate little; others ate lots. Some preferred solitude, others company. There are a lot of possible routines that can support a creative and productive lifestyle.

Daily Rituals is a quick and engaging read: Currey has done a great job gathering anecdotes and ideas from various successful authors, artists, and others. The book isn’t long on concrete take-aways, but it’s definitely entertaining and rich with anecdotes for use at cocktails parties. Who doesn’t want to hear about how geniuses did their thing? My only complaint would be the book is heavy towards creative types: not that they aren’t great, of course, but a few more scientists, politicians, and businesspeople might have been of interest to provide contrast. Perhaps in the next one!

The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel

“To resist a temptation we have to cool it, distance it from the self, and make it abstract. To take the future into account, we have to heat it, make it imminent and vivid.”

In 2013 and 2014, Sesame Street devoted itself to self-regulation. In one episode, the Cookie Monster played the ‘Waiting Game’ – he could have one cookie now, or if he waited, he could have two. During the episode, he learns strategies to help him wait. Sounds a bit familiar? It should – Walter Mischel was a consultant on the show.

Resisting temptation is a pretty useful skill. The classic example is the marshmallow test – children were told they could have one marshmallow now, or if they waited, they could have two later. In the cutest videos ever made, these children wrestle with their willpower, trying to find ways to resist the marshmallow (or chocolate, or whatever, depending on what they found most tempting) and wait for the greater reward.

What helped? Covering the treats so children couldn’t see them made it easier. Children who distracted themselves, or were told to do so beforehand, either by thinking about other things, singing to themselves, or even sleeping, could wait much longer. Focusing on non-tempting aspects of the marshmallow – imagining it as a picture, thinking of it as puffy cloud, etc. — also helped. Thinking about sad things, in contrast, reduced how long the children could wait.

Mischel (who ran the original marshmallow test) argues this captures the difference between ‘hot’ immediate stimuli and ‘cold’ distant stimuli. Hot, tempting things are what we find appealing in the short term, but if asked in the abstract whether we’d prefer one or two marshmallows, we know we’d prefer two. The key to willpower is making hot things seem cold, and/or cold things seem hot. Make punishments and costs immediate, and the benefits seem distant.

I find willpower fascinating, and so am always pleased when the giants in the field write about it. The Marshmallow Test isn’t perfect: it can feel a bit disorganized at time as it tries to cover 50 years of experimental work, and a lot of its content is already in the public eye, the danger of having NYT columns written about you. That said, for an engaging and enlightening look at the willpower field, particularly if you’re new to it, it’s hard to do better than one of its greats!

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy – Michael Barber

“Increasingly, prime ministers are like CEOs or chairmen of major companies. They have to set a policy direction; they have to see it is followed; they have to get data on whether it is; they have to measure outcomes.” – Tony Blair

Laws and sausages are two things one should never watch getting made. Politics is trendy – see House of Cards, Borgen, Homeland, or any of the other political thrillers out there at the moment. What isn’t trendy is delivery, the part where the meat actually gets processed and squeezed into animal intestine. Of course, without delivery, you don’t get any sausages.

Barber presents his 57 rules for effective government programs – not advice in policy, or what you should be doing, but conditional on you knowing what you want to do, how to make sure it happens. Ironically for a man with 57 rules, prioritization is rule 1. Most of it isn’t revolutionary, but it requires a methodical and careful approach, something that is sometimes lost with all the excitement around strategy and blue-sky thinking.

Barber led Tony Blair’s delivery unit, and it’s no surprise he advocates for one in general. Basically, it’s a small team with direct access to the PM (or whoever), which is entirely focused on delivery of programs. They don’t pick what to deliver, but when it is picked, they design metrics, track data, and make sure everything is going to plan. Having a group focused on this means that data can’t just slip through the cracks, or never be tracked at all, and it’s a model that has been adopted in several places, from Malaysia to several U.S. states.

Delivery isn’t flashy, and though Barber does his best, it’s hard to keep the book interesting. It is chock-full of fun ideas, though: he hates 3 point scales, for example, because far too many people just stick in the middle. He always uses 4 point ones. Apparently, he also went through and rated every project done by the UK government by their probability of succeeding at their goals, an exercise I imagine irritated almost everyone. For someone interested in service delivery and how sausages are made, well worth a read.

Exodus – Paul Collier

“Individual migrants succeed in capturing the huge productivity gains from migration. But migrants collectively have an interest in precisely what individually is most detrimental: entry barriers.”

Some countries ban immigration entirely; some encourage it; some allow people to settle, but forbid them citizenship. The range in immigration policies spans almost the entire spectrum of possible options, and it seems unlikely all of them are optimal.

Immigration is a controversial topic, in the UK more than most. It’s also one where arguments are generally made with very little evidence on either side: it’s not impossible immigrants are good or bad for the economy/social welfare/tolerance/the social fabric, but it’s hard to know either way. With that in mind, an evidence-based look at immigration is welcome. There are a lot of good sections in Exodus, but unfortunately as whole it also has some weaknesses.

The book basically goes through the costs and benefits to the three groups affected by immigration in turn – migrants, recipient countries, and sender countries. That’s helpful, and Collier makes some insightful points on each. Overall, though, his argument is that the costs and benefits to societies from sending or receiving immigrants are probably small, and the benefits to individual migrants are huge, making at least some migration attractive. At some point, however, there might be too much immigration, given the effect on social fabric and public services.

At the extreme, the possibility of too much immigration seems plausible – purely from a population density perspective, that almost has to be true. The extremely salient question of how much is too much, however, goes entirely unaddressed. Exodus also relies on abstract models to make its points, the stock and trade of economists but something I suspect most other readers will not find convincing. Data is a better approach for this sort of controversial issue, and there the book has much less.

Overall, I think immigration is aching to be addressed in as rigorous, empirically- and evidence-driven a manner as possible, but I’m not sure Exodus is quite there. Presents a useful difference in perspective from usual accounts, but certainly not decisive.

Under Another Sky – Charlotte Higgins

“I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape — not just through the sublime contours of the Northumberland hills, but in humbler urban and suburban tracts of territory.”

If you pull a pound coin out of your wallet (assuming you’re in the UK, or like carrying the currencies of many countries around with you), you’ll see the phrase Decus et Tutamen written on the edge of the coin. It’s from Virgil: Aeneas bestows some armour on one of his soldiers as prize for valour, and describes the cuirass as ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – Decus Et Tutamen. Slightly more recently, Charles II put in on English coins. Why? The goal was to prevent milling: if thieves attempted to shave off bits of precious metal from the coins, they would destroy the phrase. Hence: ornament and safeguard. No longer quite so relevant with a modern coin, but kept for history’s sake.

The Romans have played what is in some ways an astonishingly pivotal role in much of history: long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, children were taught Latin in school while their elders studied and argued over Cannae, the Gracchi, and the reasons for the fall. Higgins has written a book devoted to the Romans in Britain, or rather, how their presence has influenced and continues to influence the British.

The book ends up part travelogue, part history text, and part repository of interesting facts. It works because Higgins has a focus on beautiful imagery; as she discusses her trips to the extant sites of Roman Britain, she summons them up for the reader, before discussing how they affected later British generations. Despite being on the fringes of empire, England also has a lot to say: Constantine the Great, who turned the Roman Empire Christian, was crowned in York, and other emperors made repeated trips, both to visit and to build walls.

If you have no interest in Romans, I’m not sure this book will sell you on them: if you’re already a believer, this is a nice way to learn more about Roman Britain.