March and April Reads

The Great Endarkenment, Elijah Millgram

This is the follow-up to Millgram’s fantastic book, Hard Truths. It’s a collection of papers that were originally published elsewhere but have been edited to cohere into this one volume. While I didn’t find this book as useful to me as Hard Truths, it’s still good and is a natural extension of the topics he developed in that first volume. Millgram himself considers this to be the superior motivating frame for the ideas in Hard Truths.

Millgram’s core thesis throughout the book is that ever since the Enlightenment humankind has experienced a process of increasing fragmentation and specialization of knowledge. He characterizes humankind as “serial hyperspecializers,” a species that, in general, moves from specialized niche to specialized niche throughout a lifetime.

Specializations come and go (e.g. jobs like a switchboard operator) and within each specialization we develop unique context-specific vocabularies and frames of reference. This specialized vocabulary allows for greater accuracy and efficiency by those operating in a niche, yet represent a cost to new participants who must ramp up on a new language. Once an individual abandons a specialized niche for another they must learn yet another specialized language, but what often happens is that they instead port over pieces from the other niche. Their borrowed concepts will vary in their appropriateness for the new niche and so we will be left with partial truths via borrowed terms and frames of reference.

Throughout his work Millgram attempts to transform metaphysics into a more modern and practical tool for science and daily life. I love the path that Millgram is on and found myself nodding throughout the book. Why aren’t more practicing philosophers thinking along these same lines?

Think on These Things, Krishnamurti

I’ve been on a big ’60s guru kick lately, see Alan Watts, below. Krishnamurti is great at playing the guru who doesn’t provide direct answers but instead prompts you in an insightful way that helps you find your own answers.

My big takeaway from the book is to spend more time exploring the thorniness of a problem before jumping to solutions. For instance, if we have trouble with being late to meetings, we usually admonish ourselves and seek to find corrective behaviors rooted in self-discipline. Instead, Krishnamurti argues we should focus on why we tend to be late in the first place. If we can reach that understanding we’ll have solved our problem in mind already.

This is second-level thinking for your own self-development: instead of taking the first-level diagnosis (“I’m late because I don’t budget enough time for things”) and prescription (“let me pad meeting times by marking them 5 minutes earlier in my calendar than when they start”), spend more time taking your analysis further (“Why don’t I budget enough time for things?”). Krishnamurti’s message is that if we can get far enough along in such an analysis of why’s, down to the very bottom of it, we’ll have already solved our problem.

Very guru-y and somewhat woo, but I like it.

The Power of Gold, Peter Bernstein

This was a great account of this history of gold through the ages. Bernstein covers the basics of gold’s inherent properties that make it valuable (malleability, density, scarcity and lack of corrosion), its first use as a trading commodity and store of value, and its role in economies and state power. As an economic history it’s fantastic, but I love the qualitative stories about gold booms and busts. I’ve spent the last few years studying bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and there are a lot of parallels of investor/speculator psychology between the old and new commodities. It puts a lot of the short-termism around bitcoin’s scaling debate in perspective – gold has had plenty of multi-year crises throughout the centuries.

Shoe Dog, Phil Knight

This book has already been lauded by nearly every entrepreneur and executive I’ve talked to about it. And rightly so – it’s well-written and captures the spirit that drives me and similar people to creative pursuits like entrepreneurship. Even though it’s a recent book it should hold up for a long time.  Knight’s story of Nike’s origins and early days is the iconic entrepreneurial adventure.

Thrawn, Timothy Zahn

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm and announced they were scrapping the Extended Universe, the biggest loss was the saga of Grand Admiral Thrawn. It’s a damn shame we’ll likely never get to see this awesome character on the big screen.

Originally set in the years after Return of the Jedi, Zahn’s first Thrawn trilogy told of a brilliant Imperial strategist who attempted (and nearly succeeded) to bring the Empire back to glory after the death of the Emperor. Thrawn was a perfect blend of intelligence, strategy, and good intentions while still being the bad guy that you want to succeed. I loved his creative strategies and how he would glean insights about his enemies. Before a battle he’d draw up everything he could about an alien foe’s art and culture to glean how they might be culturally predisposed to bluff, feint, or play a conservative hand.

This book was released last month and is a prequel to Zahn’s original trilogy. It tells of how Thrawn rose through the ranks of the Empire. If none of the above sounds interesting to you I’d skip the book, but for fans of the original trilogy it’s a great dose of nostalgia.

Out of Your Mind, Alan Watts

This is a collection of lectures by Alan Watts in audio format (available on Audible if you have a subscription). I was blown away by the wisdom and modern views he was espousing back in the 1960’s and wondered why I haven’t heard more of his stuff before. All of his ideas – about anxiety, the struggle to know oneself, and the mysteries of the universe – still hold today. He’s not as cryptic as Krishnamurti and packages Eastern thought in a way that’s more easily digestible if you have a Western-educated background. You don’t have to take my word for it – Naval Ravikant mentioned reading Alan Watts in recent podcast interviews with Tim Ferriss and Farnam Street.

Stealing Fire, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler

Another audiobook I listened to. It’s all about how we perform under altered mind-states and how to produce them. An altered mind-state, something the authors call ecstasis, is something like a flow state or that which people experience under certain psychedelic drugs. Their message is worth heeding – that we should consider when and how we’ve seen these states in our own pasts and how to cultivate them for ourselves to better our creative work.

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