Panic Reading

One positive activity possible during the Covid-19 panic induced confinement is more time available for reading. It is good to have something different to do and think about besides this debacle. Here is the list of books I have been reading with brief descriptions.

Jacques Semelin: The Survival of Jews in France (1940-1944)

I read this book in French (La survie des Juifs en France 1940-1944) before the confinement, but it was very much on my mind during this period because of its resemblance of the Covid-19 confinement to the occupation (i.e., “I want to see your papers please”). The key statistic that is the basis of Semelin’s study is that 75% of the Jews in France somehow survived the occupation without being deported. In contrast, in occupied Belgium only 25% survived. There is no single reason why, but the stories are as varied as the landscapes and peoples of France (see Braudel below). One ironic and humorous reason to any person who must deal with the French administration was the complaint by the Germans that the slow, impenetrable performance of the French bureaucracy did not meet their quotas in rounding up Jews. The Survival of the Je... Semelin, Jacques Buy New $31.72 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details)

My interest is deepened by the fact that my wife is working with Semelin on a documentary covering this topic.

Charles Williams: The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (free)

Williams was a less known member of the Inklings. He had a significant influence on among others C. S. Lewis and Dorthey Sayers, especially with this interpretation of Dante. It is perhaps 30 years ago that I read the Divine Comedy and The New Life. If you are a lover of Dante, you will appreciate this book. If not, but you are interested you might start with Mark Vernon’s canto-by-canto description. Here I will just provide a morsel about what Dante’s poetry and Williams book is about.

Love then, however he speaks of it, is a quality—a quality of himself towards Beatrice. It is this quality, once he has become aware of it, which he is to express and analyse, by ‘a passion and a miracle of words’. ‘Dante’, wrote Coleridge, ‘does not so much elevate your thoughts as send them down deeper’; that is, make them more profound. The distinction was well made; it is not a rarefying but a deepening and enlargement of this quality and relation which is in question, until it becomes the universal relationship, in its most intense quality, of the close of the Paradiso.

The Figure of Beatrice... Charles Williams Buy New $0.99 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details) Virgil has a kind of tender loftiness in his answer. ‘You—all of you—are always thinking of those things which are diminished by sharing. But above, the more there are to say ours, the more of good and the more of love each has and knows.’ ‘How can the good itself be greater for each when many share it? how greater than if few?’ ‘Because the more the love, the greater the good; the larger the number of those who comprehend each other, the more love, e come specchio l’uno all’altro rende—and each like a mirror renders it back to the other.’

Fernand Braudel: The Identity of France:Volume One: History and Environment

This book will be a great treat for anyone who has, or would like to, travel around France. Braudel provides a history from the bottom up, with geology, geography, climate, etc. playing the key roles. Politics and war when considered still follow the lay of the land, so to speak. It is thus an exemplar of economic description, the real economics of how people live in a particular region, move over the surface of the Earth to produce the things necessary for life.

The figures in my edition are not of very good quality, but wonderful nonetheless. Consider this one, the distribution of roofing materials of all things! The arrow points to the region where I have a house in the south of Burgundy. Note the roofing material is the same as for the Mediterranean coast. As Braudel explains, the Rhone and Soane river valleys made the connection economically practical. My neighbor there, Marc Jambon, is a retired wine maker. His son Pierre-Antoine is I think the eighth generation in the family to make wine on this property (since 1752). It is truly wonderful wine. Mr. Jambon has unlimited patience in explaining wine making to a novice like me. He first told me about the Mediterranean roof tiles and how the river affects the local climate. Take a look at the beautiful landscape and the very reasonable prices for this extraordinary product.

Smedley Butler: War is a Racket (free)

Smedley Butler was certainly an amazing person who lived an amazing life (winner of two Congressional Medals of Honor). He also had some very excellent things to say that are compiled in the free downloaded version I read. But this was not a very good book in the sense of making an organized case. A few examples of his excellent insights are provided. The Identity of France... Fernand Braudel Best Price: $3.77 Buy New $24.73 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details)

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

So vicious was this war propaganda that even God was brought into it. With few exceptions our clergymen joined in the clamor to kill, kill, kill. To kill the Germans. God is on our side . . . it is His will that the Germans be killed.

There are only two reasons why you should ever be asked to give your youngsters. One is the defense of our homes. The other is the defense of the Bill of Rights and particularly the right to worship God as we see fit. Every other reason advanced for the murder of young men is a racket, pure and simple.

The third group of militarists in this country represents honest and sincere patriotic citizens of the type who believe all they are told—without stopping to analyze the motives of the tellers. They are ordinary citizens whose homes are their most cherished possessions. Clever propaganda has convinced these misguided people that the lack of a huge national defense program is a direct threat to their individual homes. These people are convinced an enemy army in apt to swoop down on them any moment, set fire to their homes, murder their children and rape their women if Uncle Sam is unable to send a powerful fleet of battleships to the harbor of Timbuctoo, on the other side of the world.

Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (free)

War is a Racket Butler, Smedley Buy New $0.99 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details) I was spurred to read ZAMM through my habitation of the little corner of the internet that followed Jordan Peterson to investigate the Meaning Crisis (see my description here). In particular, the YouTube channel A Quality Existence created by Sevilla King, who has read and commented on ZAMM. But I became aware of this book many years ago when I was a mechanical engineering grad student at Duke University. My advisor taught an engineering design course where the students were required to read ZAMM. I didn’t understand this choice at the time, and as I was not a zen kind of guy (sports and engineering) I took no interest. My advisor recently wrote to me that the students really enjoyed reading it. It is a very different kind of book; a travel story, a family story, very much a philosophical treatise, but perhaps most interesting to me was the tension of a man describing his own insanity (see the last book below). Pirsig had undergone electric shock therapy. He is the narrator who describes Phaedrus, his former self before the therapy. Perhaps the most famous line from the book is “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.” This and many other fundamental truths are presented in the building of his philosophy of quality.

This condemnation of technology is ingratitude, that’s what it is (see my recent article).

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All The time we are aware of millions of things around us…these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road…aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge.Kingdoms, empires, churches, armies have all been structured into hierarchies. Modern businesses are so structured. Tables of contents of reference material are so structured, mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured…so much so that in some fields such as biology, the hierarchy of kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species is almost an icon.

An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another. Zen and the Art of Mot... Pirsig, Robert M Best Price: $6.02 Buy New $10.29 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details)

The purpose of the scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself. And what Phaedrus saw in the isolation of his own laboratory work years ago is now seen everywhere in the technological world today.Scientifically produced antiscience…chaos.

He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth,for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of these functions.

It’s a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him.

Scientific materialism, which is commoner among lay followers of science than among scientists themselves, holds that what is composed of matter or energy and is measurable by the instruments of science is real. Anything else is unreal, or at least of no importance. “What you like” is unmeasurable, and therefore unreal. “What you like” can be a fact or it can be a hallucination. Liking does not distinguish between the two. The whole purpose of [the] scientific method is to make valid distinctions between the false and the true in nature, to eliminate the subjective, unreal, imaginary elements from one’s work so as to obtain an objective, true, picture of reality.

It is not uncommon, he said, for Indian villagers to see ghosts. But they have a terrible time seeing the law of gravity. Dominion: The Making o... Holland, Tom Best Price: $25.62 Buy New $29.63 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details)

Which facts are you going to observe? he asked. There is an infinity of them.

Traditional Scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination…”unstuckness,” in other words…are completely outside its domain.

My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all. God. I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out.

Tom Holland: Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind

In the same corner of the internet where Sevilla King discusses Pirsig, the Calvinist pastor Paul VanderKlay has been promoting this book on his YouTube channel for several months. Holland makes a convincing argument that Christianity has forged the world view of the West to such an extent it is, though invisible to many such as diehard atheists, fundamental to how we understand reality. And because the West came to dominate the globe, this observation applies to virtually everyone on the planet. An example of this world view is the concept of the secular versus religious that Holland explains is a purely Christian concept. This is an important book.

Adrian Bejan: Freedom and Evolution: Hierarchy in Nature, Society and Science

Freedom and Evolution:... Bejan, Adrian Best Price: $16.90 Buy New $12.14 (as of 03:08 EDT - Details) Dr. Adrian Bejan was another one of my graduate school professors in mechanical engineering at Duke. He was immediately an impressive guy to us students, in part due to his size as a former basketball player in his native Romania. Dr. Bejan has made major contributions to the practical engineering fields of thermodynamics and heat transfer. He has also made a mark as an educator through his books and his approach to analyzing and explaining complex phenomena governed by systems of partial differential equations using scale analysis. I can attest to this as I was a student in the first class he taught at Duke more than 30 years ago. This graduate level course on convection heat transfer was a revelation as I will explain. In those days, before computational methods were so dominant, there was an emphasis on the difficult mathematics associated with finding solutions to the Navier-Stokes equation and the coupled conservation equations of heat and mass. But by using scale analysis Bejan, in a seemingly simple fashion, was able to quickly pass the mathematical difficulties to illuminate the core physical phenomena under investigation. Certainly in the end the rigor of the math was present in the course as it has been in the whole body of his work.

Over the intervening years he has developed the Constructal Law that is concerned with flowing systems, or in another sense living systems; living because there is movement. The law is thus formulated that, “for a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to survive) its configuration must evolve (morph) in time in such a way that it provides easier flow access.” On this single basis he is able to show precisely how and why the complex geometric patterns occur in nature. “The Constructal Law is predictive: It teaches us how to discover the drawing and how to predict the evolution—the morphing—of the natural design over time.”

His latest book is almost a stream of consciousness (pun of flow intended) as he treats such a wide array of subjects, but at the core is his Constructal Law. I think this book is an opportunity to observe a great mind at work. It is a very rare academic to author over 600 papers and more than 30 books. But it is unheard of, literally unknown to me, of anyone to amass this productivity without an army of postdocs. You see, Bejan really is an innovative thinker, with an emphasis on thinking. He would walk 3 miles from his home to campus in those days. I can imagine him observing the trees in Duke Forest while conceiving of the Constructal Law. Furthermore, he made fundamental contributions to topics in fluid mechanics and thermodynamic analysis (therefore applicable to heat and mass transfer). In fact, in Wikipedia there are two entries for the Bejan number. Yet it is amazing that the Bejan number I recalled was different, related to a critical length scale for the transition to fluid dynamic turbulence.

I will give one example from the new book regarding the distribution of a flow into a surface made up of equal nodes, distributed uniformly. But he then explains why a hierarchy still develops. handling MR. HYDE: que... Katz, Ira Best Price: $17.20 Buy New $12.98 (as of 04:58 EDT - Details)

The flow from the square territory to the outlet is distributed nonuniformly through the uniform grid. Most of the total flow rate … is concentrated in a small group of channels, …. Geographically, that group is composed of individuals who happen to be in the vicinity of the point of attraction, which serves as outlet for the big stream. This is how we discover that inequality persists even when the “one-size” design is imposed artificially. Geography is the reason for inequality in this extreme design. The “equals” who are positioned close to the point source or sink are the huge beneficiaries. This is the physics basis of the birth of oligarchy in post-communism Russia.

I would add this also describes the physics basis of the Federal Reserve that explains the oligarchy in all but name ruling the United States. Those closest to the big stream money spigot: banks, Silicon Valley, hedge fund managers, universities, and of course the government itself have gorged on the wealth of the country. I agree with Bejan in that…

Inequality is an alternative description of the nonuniform hierarchical distribution of movement on earth. This alternative is common when it refers to two equivalent measures of movement, namely, fuel use and wealth. Inequality has a negative connotation implying lack of justice, empathy, and access to wealth. This implication is in total contradiction with the natural origin of hierarchy, which is freedom of movement. The origin of hierarchy lies in the equal access that freedom provides to the whole, to morph its flow architecture, and to liberate its flows.

But again, the current hierarchy resulting from the actions of the Federal Reserve is not natural and I think is dangerously unstable like the Ancien Régime in France before the revolution.

Paul Bauer: The Coldest Winter in a Century: Book 1 Deeds Not Words and Book 2 The Hurt Men Forest

Paul Bauer is another friend from my Duke years. Arriving from St.Louis, via Princeton and a brief sojourn in New York, Bauer received his PhD from the notorious Duke English Department chaired by Stanley Fish. He was a very smart guy and did get a non-tenure track teaching position at Marquette University. However, he is at the bottom of the intersectionality totem pole so a tenure track position was a one in a million shot. Thus he made a sensible decision to take a law degree from Marquette after he had met his future wife there. In the intervening years he has built a wonderful, gifted family and a solid law career based in Milwaukee. But he never gave up his love of literature. As well as writing this novel, he has left his legal practice to teach literature in a local high school.

This is an old fashioned book. And I seriously mean that as a high compliment. With his Midwestern sensibility, Bauer treats men as men and women as women, and the human response to the age-old themes of love and war. The story begins in a previous volume called Saint Ed. Ed Rybowski is a Princeton student from the other side of the tracks with a very well defined moral character (hence “saint”). But he ends up in a poor marriage and in the infantry during WWII. His 22nd Regiment (which has the motto “Deeds Not Words”) lands at Utah beach on D-Day and fights all the way to the Siegfried Line and the meat grinder debacle of a battle in the  Hürtgen Forest (called by the soldiers The Hurt Men Forest). The book ends (abruptly to me) as the 22nd takes the German town of Grosshau at the end of the battle; so I am eagerly waiting for the next volume. I would call this novel Trollopian, that is in the style of Anthony Trollope; having the microscopic complexity of human relationships set within the macroscopic expanse of world events (e.g., Trollope’s Palliser novels and The Way We Live Now). Bauer tells the historical aspects of the story with the precision of a well researched and written legal brief along with the literary nuggets of an English professor. But it also is a pleasure to read this good story about interesting people. The book indicates the author is not only a very smart guy but also a wise and learned man.

Stanley Katz and Ira Katz: Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression

Like a traveller to a foreign land that has returned to describe what we otherwise could not imagine, my late brother Stan has described what it was like to be psychotic (like Pirsig) under the influence of manic depression. I read this book we wrote together for the first time in almost twenty-years to prepare it for a new printing. While there may have been some changes in psychiatric approach since first published, the key points about the role of family, work colleagues, law enforcement, the justice system, commercial establishments and of course the medical community in dealing with mental illness, I think, are as cogent as ever. I miss my brother very much so I am happy I have this monument to his courage and intellect to return to. I recently did a podcast discussing the book at The Meaning Code YouTube channel with Karen Wong.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts