Category Archives: Book Reviews

There is no proof too much exercise will kill you: health news is the worst

There’s been a piece of “reporting” going around saying that it’s possible to exercise oneself to death. The New York Post’s headline is “You can exercise yourself to death, says new study.” A bunch of articles share that title, or slight variations on it.  Short form: it’s bullshit.  Deep and highly piled bullshit.

The news “stories” is based on a paper that has been electronically distributed by The Mayo Clinic Proceedings titled 25-Year Physical Activity Trajectories and Development of Subclinical Coronary Artery Disease as Measured by Coronary Artery Calcium by Deepika R. Laddu, PhD, Jamal S. Rana, MD, PhD, etc. I’ve provided links so, y’know, you can read it, too, if you’re so inclined. I did.

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Review of The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier

I had mostly just thought to give The Morning of the Magicians an awful review and move on. Most of the book is profoundly stupid, and often in factual error. (For instance, Piri Reis was NOT a 19th-century admiral, but a 16th-century one thus could have presented the US with anything. Radio waves and gamma rays are both forms of light, so, yeah, you can compare them. Plus, computers are binary and human-style intelligence is analog, not the other way around.  The book’s errors are numerous and multifaceted, obvious and subtle, and even worse is the broad mischaracterizations, equally untruthful oversimplifications, and the extent to which facts are taken out of context.)

However, inside the brutal stupidity that is most of the book are two interesting parts.

First, Pauwels suggests that a being of superhuman intelligence wouldn’t need to hide. Neither would an organization of such intelligences. What they said to each other would be incomprehensible to ordinary humans, much in the same way that dogs don’t understand what humans say. It would simply be lost on us.  For a fiction writer, this is a highly interesting idea.

Review of Reich of the Black Sun by Joseph P. Farrell

It’s not a good book. For me, as a writer, researching science-fiction horror, it was fairly useful but it is not good.

I’ll jump right to the biggest problem with The Reich of the Black Sun – it’s unintentionally pro-Nazi. The thesis of the book is that Nazi scientists when they discarded as “Jewish science” relativity were able to make incredible scientific and technological advances – including anti-gravity and perpetual motion machines that could power long-ranged submarines – even though the Nazis lacked the wealth and freedom of the West (and, particularly, the unbombed United States that benefited from the immigration the largest portion of Jewish scientists fleeing the Nazis). That’s not an obviously racist thing to think, but it as I read the book, it became increasingly anti-Semitic: the only thing holding back science from technologies like anti-gravity and free energy was the pernicious influence of “Jewish science.”

I don’t think this is intentional on Farrell’s part, just the ignorant blindness of most conspiratologists. Like most conspiracy theorists, Farrell is driven by his passions past the point of all reason. There is no evidence of sympathy for Nazi goals in the book, merely an ecstatic gushing about his line of reasoning that puts Nazi scientists on divergent lines of technological development that lead to amazing places.  His prior work is a bizarre theory that the Giza pyramid is an alchemical “death star,” and that it was used to destroy a planet that threatened the earth.  This guy doesn’t seem to be ideological, just passionate about his untrue beliefs.

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Egotism and conspiracy theory

I’m reading one of the ur-texts in esoteric neo-Nazi mysticism for Dracula vs. Cthulhu, The Dawn of the Magicians. It’s pure conspiratology, and contains the same fundamental sin as The Devil’s Chessboard: Conspiratology is fascinated by “what if.” Into a broken or incomplete narrative, rather than acknowledging it is broken or incomplete, and perhaps unable to be solved due to the distance of time, place, and circumstance, conspiratologists create a narrative by asking “what if this were the case” and then deciding that their newly invented fiction is a fact.

Conspiracy is a fiction that conspiracy theorists have decided is fact – and, indeed, at several points in the 160 or so pages of The Dawn of the Magicians I have read, the authors use quotations from novels as “proof” of their thesis. They liberally quote Arthur Machen and Bulwer Lytton, saying that novelists are essentially prophets and that both men belonged to the Order of the Golden Dawn and were thus enlightened alchemists. It’s boggling, but it is part of argument built by The Dawn of the Magicians.

In this sense, it appears to me that conspiratology resembles religion. Almost all religions and religious people assert a fallacy known as “the God of the gaps.” Supernaturalist religion occurs in those parts of the universe about which humans cannot see, or do not have an adequate theory to explain. Which is why God will cure cancer now and then (a disease that sometimes goes into remission for no apparent reason, often attributed to a miracle) but adamantly refuses to regrow the limbs of amputees. Cancer going into remission is a poorly understood process that happens on the cellular level – the God of the gaps acts invisibly. On the other hand, regrowing amputated limbs is big enough to be seen, thus does not happen.

Conspiratology is “pseudohistory of the gaps.” Take for instance the assassination of President John Kennedy. The Warren Commission was deeply flawed, yes. But to leap from “the Warren Commission was flawed because we know that the CIA and FBI engaged in a coverup” to “the CIA killed JFK” puts a fictional narrative into the gaps of history. Even though there is a strong but an unprovable narrative, that the CIA and FBI wanted to deflect heat for their incompetence in keeping track of Lee Harvey Oswald (as they would later deflect the heat away from their incompetence about 9/11), conspiracy sees a gap and fills it with whatever they desire. Thus, while it is almost 100% sure that the CIA and FBI played a hard round of “cover your ass” with the Warren Commission because there’s no record, conspiratologists can leap to the conclusion that the CIA killed Kennedy.

Moving on, the authors of The Dawn of the Magicians say that we should study the 100,000 works of alchemists to discover what they discovered. The Dawn of the Magicians never goes into what a massive undertaking it would be – since the works are coded, cyphered, incomplete – and how difficult it would then be to decide which parts are useful and which parts aren’t. It’s almost certainly easier for us to rediscover whatever medieval alchemists found (assuming there’s anything left to find, given the advanced state of chemistry, metallurgy, and materials science). But they love their narrative that there MIGHT be something truly, utterly amazing hidden away in these texts, and they wildly speculate about what it might be, such as unguents that can regrow the tissues of burn victims in such a way as to leave no scars. Because, y’know, they read that some medieval doctors had such things. (They didn’t, duh.) The gap – that we haven’t sufficiently studied old alchemical journals and books – can be filled by whatever fantasy a person desires!

The idea that creative narratives are actually, for-real true is a seductive lure. Most people want to believe that the universe makes a personal sense – that we, individually, understand the driving forces behind history or the universe. Of course, we tend to imagine that the meaning of the universe or the meaning of history supports our point of view. That is the heights of egocentrism! That the universe is ordered to give tacit approval to me? That God thinks that the life I live is the best kind of life, or that my ideals are divinely granted and inspired? Heavens. Equally absurd is the idea that history ought to do the same – given weight to my fancies and prop up my worldview. That the murder of JFK becomes a prop for my fantasies is intellectually shameful and morally vacant!

Yet, that’s the core message of conspiratology – that whatever narrative that you CHOSE to believe lurks in the dark corners and past the horizons of history. There is no need to get proof! Belief, alone, is enough because history is murky. Therefore all ideas have equal merit! Which is egocentric nonsense, and contrary to any epistemology that seeks truth rather than glorifies the self at the expense of the truth.

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner review – it’s a history of the CIA!

I have finished reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. I found it to be a very odd book.

On the one hand, I have no fault for Weiner’s research. Since I’ve been following the CIA for a while, much of it was known to me, but seeing it collected in one spot was moving – the CIA has done so much evil.

On the other hand, Weiner doesn’t follow his research to the obvious conclusion: that the CIA never worked, and never will, that people operating in secret cannot be trusted, and secret services are a threat to democracy and global stability. Which is to say, the CIA should be shut down for the good of the United States and the world.

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The ass-kissing sycophancy of Ron Chernow’s Titan makes it altogether unreadable

About seventy pages in I stopped reading the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan by Ron Chernow. The reason is simple: it is unadulteratedly sycophantic and the otherwise shoddy research and analysis.

The precise moment I quit was when Rockefeller proposed. Chernow said, “One imagines the two of them smilingly shyly with relief.”

No, Ron, one doesn’t. Because you’re writing history, not fiction, and there are a lot of explanations why it might have taken Rockefeller so long to propose – ranging from profound social awkwardness to homosexuality, for instance. Maybe the reason why Rocky took SEVEN YEARS to propose is that he. . . wasn’t interested in women. Which, admittedly, might make him smile in relief, but not for the reason you mention, but because his beard agreed to it. And if we’re just imagining things, why not imagine that he was gay? BECAUSE IT ISN’T HISTORY WITHOUT RESEARCH. You don’t just get to “imagine” things!

Of course, this is the same guy who did not discuss the possibility that the reason Rockefeller avoided the Civil War, which started when he was a young man, was cowardice. But, later on, when Rockefeller doesn’t give into a bully, Chernow is quick to attribute Rockefeller with bravery. Like it’s some great feat to tell someone yelling at you in your place of business to fuck off!

He also quotes several times even in the first seventy pages, the “philosopher” Max Weber. Weber’s contributions to philosophy are racist and sexist – and as one of the founders of sociology, his racism and sexism would cast a long, fascist shadow.

In particular, Chernow is obsessed with Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have no fucking idea why Chernow would quote this book during the early years of Rockefeller’s life, given that it was published in 1905 and not 1955, except that Chernow is a terrible historian. Chernow also gives no indication whatsoever that Weber ever influenced Rockefeller, or even that Rockefeller was aware of the German philosopher.

From the start, Weber’s work was also highly controversial, even in theological circles. Immediate critiques flowed in from Catholic and atheist Germans who were less than impressed by Weber’s “reasoning.” And, of course, there were a lot of German philosophers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Why not discuss Schopenauer, Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche? Of all the German philosophers to pull, why Weber?

Because Weber provides an intellectual-sounding rationalization which casts Rockefeller’s greed in a positive light. Rockefeller was successful because of his Baptist theology which created virtue, and (Chernow repeats this) teaches that wealth is gained to be a steward of God’s creation. Bringing up those other Germans would reinforce the possibility that Rockefeller was aware of his greed and how ethically atrocious it was, and how charity is a poor substitute for political action.

Lastly, while Weber is still highly regarded in sociology, his works are intensely racist. The Protestant Work Ethic is an ideal example of this. Weber took the previous century of human existence, and his feelings about it, as “proof” that Protestants work harder than other people, and it is from their hard work that wealth is created. It ignores, of course, the effects of colonialization perpetrated by Protestant nations, including Germany, but especially England. It also ignored poorer Protestant nations, particularly Scandinavian countries, in the 19th century – that wealth was created along the lines of conquest and colonization rather than religious background.

Of course, it also ignores that the origins of capitalism arose not in Britain, but in Renaissance Italy and that for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it had been Catholic nations that were economical, politically, and culturally dominant. And, of course, it ignores that the reason industrialization happened more in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe were the easily accessed coal in England, Scotland, and Germany, as well as the captured markets created by European colonization.

I could go on in this vein for a while, of course, but suffice it to say that Weber twisted history in racist ways to prove his “point.” And as I have said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, if you have to go on a campaign of wholesale lying to prove your point, you don’t have one.

In the context of Titan, then, one would ask what any of this has to do with Rockefeller? The answer is simple: nothing, other than a reason for Chernow to get down on his knees and shove his tongue up Rockefeller’s anus. By repeatedly returning to Weber, Chernow can create a facile intellectual argument that Rockefeller wasn’t just a grasping, greedy sonofabitch, but motivated by ethics. Which is why Weber comes up half a dozen times in the first seventy pages – every time Rockefeller does something sketchy, Chernow drags out Weber’s corpse to say we shouldn’t be too hard on the old boy. I found this sycophancy disgusting and intellectually dishonest.

If one looks at Weber’s other religious works, this bias becomes more evident. In his book on Protestants and capitalism, Weber focuses on the 16th century forward. In Weber’s The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, he primarily looks at ancient Chinese history. Which conveniently ignores having to face the troubling aspects of European colonialism in China, such as the British engaging in a policy of addicting China to opium, which was highly relevant at the time Weber was writing. (The Boxer Rebellion was in 1899, whose origins were the Opium Wars.)

It is highly interesting today, a century later, because no one in their right fucking mind would say that the Chinese suck at capitalism or that they don’t work like rented mules. Weber rationalized the present economic domination by Protestant nations in a simple, ahistorical, and inherently deceptive way. Confucianism and Taoism did not stand in the way of economic development! Most most of human history, China has been a powerhouse of trade, industry, and technological progress, as well as good government. But rather than look at why China, in 1920, was “the weak man of Asia,” after literally thousands of years of cultural, military, and economic dominance of the greater portion of humanity, Weber studied things that happened literally thousands of years ago and drew the Hegelian conclusion that China was “frozen” in development. It is teeth-grindingly racist, and Chernow embraced him to “demonstrate” the benevolence of Rockefeller – which is depraved, and demonstrates how poor Chernow’s research was and that his analysis was worse.

And time and again, Chernow characterizes Rockefeller in a positive light, offering only flattering portrayals. So Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not cowardice, even though Chernow stresses that Rockefeller was an abolitionist, but guided by his desire to serve God by making money, so he could be a steward of wealth to help people. Just ask Max Weber.

When Rockefeller went behind his partners’ backs to set up funding and then dissolved the company without consulting them, this is not characterized by Chernow as a slimy, borderline illegal business practice, but a sign of his vision and adamantine will that viewed things on a longer timeline than us ordinary mortals. (This kind of language about Rockefeller’s “vision” being above us normal folks is everywhere in Titan, even though in my previous review I covered how Rockefeller stumbled into the oil business through coincidence, not vision.)

When Rockefeller overexposed himself by buying the business from his partners, it is again described as will and vision – not happenstance. In retrospect, we know that oil becomes the biggest business in the world, but at the time there was no reason to think that. The oil vanished in Western Pennsylvania very quickly, and there had been no other discoveries. But in Chernow’s farcical world, this happenstance is “vision.” If the oil had vanished in Pennsylvania just a year or two sooner than it did, Rockefeller’s financial overexposure when buying out his partner’s refinery would have spelled doom. But there is simply no acknowledgment that Rockefeller got lucky, that Rockefeller had no fact-based reason to overextend himself buying the refinery, or fact-based reason to think that the oil would last.

At any rate, the book is terrible. When Chernow wanted us to imagine what might have happened when Rockefeller proposed, though, it veered from simply bad analysis and writing to outright fiction.

But there’s always another book about a rich asshole being written, and hopefully, my research into the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will go better.

When biographies say one thing but describe another: Chernow’s Titan

As y’all might know, I’m a pretty critical reader, so it is very hard to read biographies of wealth.

I’m reading the a bio of John D. Rockefeller, Titan, by Ron Chernow. Like the bio of wealth I read before it, about J. Paul Getty, it is awful, full of prattling about willpower and concentration while describing mere ruthlessness and opportunity and ignoring chance.

So, Titan wants to present Rockefeller as a genius – a man of rare intellectual ability, concentration, and willpower, who brought an empire into being out of nothingness. But the actual story doesn’t seem to support that analysis.

John D. Rockefeller was, without doubt, a hardworking and skilled businessman. There are a lot of those, though. The narrative of his success, as told in the book, is stated to be one of genius but the events tell a different story. Titan tells of a talented businessman who, in his youth, started a commodities business on the eve of the Civil War. The remarkable success of his commodities business wasn’t due to any particular or unusual talents of Rockefeller, but his good luck to be a Cleveland businessman during the Civil War. Ohio was the breadbasket of the Union Army, and people who bought and sold foodstuffs made a lot of money. Rockefeller did not anticipate the war; he simply went into what he thought would be a profitable business, and before the war, it was profitable but not remarkable.

Then during the war, flush with cash from profitable wartime commodities trading, a man came along looking for funding for oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania, less than a day away from Cleveland. Rockefeller, at the time, did not think very much of the oil industry, which hadn’t taken off. He was simply a local businessman in the nearest city of note who happened to have a lot of money due to circumstances beyond his control. Rockefeller knew nothing about the oil business, then, and didn’t think it would amount to much, just a side business to his commodities trading.

This is not the origin story of genius. Unlike the man who intuited that Pennsylvania petroleum could be refined into a cheap illuminant (in this case, kerosene), Rockefeller didn’t have the vision of a future market in mind. Unlike the Yale professor who discovered the refining process, Rockefeller did not have the scientific acumen to process raw petroleum into finished products. And unlike the engineer who figured out how to drill for oil, Rockefeller added nothing to the extraction.  He was just there with money.

As I said, one dollar is much like another, and one businessman is much like the other.

But at no point in discussing the origin of John D. Rockefeller’s origin does Chernow admit that chance played a big role in the creation of Standard Oil. Despite his numerous descriptions of the various ways that chance played a role in creating Rockefeller’s wealth, the book presents this advance as not primarily luck but unusual abilities. I believe this is to retain the narrative that the intellectually undistinguished Rockefeller nevertheless has some unique quality – a genius – that justified his incredible wealth. The other story – the one where a talented but mostly unremarkable businessman found himself in the right place at the right time – is far less heroic, after all, and makes business success seem more like circumstance than ability. The narrative of that circumstance is more important than ability is contrary to capitalism’s ideology, and is avoided in the United States.

That is precisely what Chernow describes. It could have been any capable businessman with four grand in his pocket that started Standard Oil. Any at all.

Another example of how atrocious Titan is, Chernow never once considers that part of the reason that Rockefeller didn’t fight in the Civil War was that Rockefeller didn’t want to get shot. The possibility that cowardice might have been at the root of Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not brought up. It is an interesting lacuna.  When a possibility is unpalatable to a capitalist-loving audience, Chernow simply dispenses with it.  There is considerable irony because Chernow does acknowledge that Rockefeller had a selective memory.

The book is useful in the sense of providing the details of the life of Rockefeller. I’m capable of doing the interpretation on my own, and I have trained myself to see inconsistencies and contradictions, but the book is awful.

Lastly, I want to criticize editors, again. The problems in Chernow’s book aren’t subtle. He never demonstrates how, for instance, Rockefeller has more concentration than someone else. He consistently ignores alternate explanations for events in Rockefeller’s life despite them being obvious and plausive (such as Rockefeller being a physical coward as the reason he avoided fighting in the Civil War). But since Rockefeller’s business life is the center of the book, ignoring the extent to which chance played a role in Rockefeller’s business is particularly galling, editorially. If someone gave me a manuscript and said that Rockefeller succeeded due to the non-specific traits of “willpower” and “concentration,” but described success due to chance, I’d send the manuscript back. I’d say, “There is a disconnect between your description of Rockefeller and your description of his actions. It wasn’t genius or willpower or concentration that got him into the oil business, but happenstance – that he was flush with money from wartime speculation in commodities and someone happened along and convinced him oil would be a good side business. If Rockefeller had lived in a different time or place, if he had stayed in Owego, New York, instead of moving to Cleveland, or been born ten years later, we would never know about him.”

Once again, I find myself wondering at the usefulness of content editors if they miss what seems so obvious to me. At the bare minimum, it suggests that content editing does not improve a manuscript, but instead simply improves it for a specific audience – while, at the same time, moving it away from other audiences. Editorial decisions to ignore the role of chance in Rockefeller’s life to create the illusion of a capitalist genius formed by willpower sells to a different group of people than a book which openly admits that time and chance play a role in everything we do – and perhaps the biggest role.

Falsity of “strength of will” in Painfully Rich by John Pearson

jp_getty1944In Painfully Rich: J. Paul Getty and His Heirs by John Pearson, the author talks about “willpower.” As I research Atlas Stumbles and very wealthy people, I’ll hear that word again and again: willpower.

But in Painfully Rich, you don’t have to go very far to get to the essential absurdity of the term. When describing Paul Getty, has “formidable resources – originality, strength of will and an obsessive mastery of detail.”

The same writer on the same page says that Paul Getty was driven by competition with his dead father to create a huge fortune. Paul Getty had indomitable willpower, but is driven by a clichéd daddy complex? At the same time, Paul Getty is also a master of his emotions, but obsessed by this same childish revenge fantasy against his dead father!

Which is it? Does Getty have “strength of will” or did he spend his life seeking his dead daddy’s love through the pathetic surrogate of material acquisition? It seems to me that a person with real strength of will – if one believes such things exist – would conclude a person of great willpower wouldn’t particularly care that they didn’t live up to the parochial expectations of their parent’s fundamentalist morality. They could get by or through it to live their life on their own terms, unhaunted by the ghosts of the dead. In short: they would exercise self-control.

It is an inherent paradox to say that someone was both master of their fate but also driven by the ghost of their dead father. It is a contradiction to say that someone has mastered their emotions, while also obsessed with chasing a dead man’s approval. John Pearson fails to note these essential contradictions – often on the same page.

Atlas Shrugged Reviews as Political Commentary

My finishing purge of Atlas Shrugged is to discuss the flaws in her political and social reasoning, as opposed to merely talking about why the book is a disaster artistically.  (And it is a disaster artistically, as close to objectively awful as a book gets.)

Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged and elsewhere, isn’t just proposing a form of laissez-faire capitalism. She is proposing a system of ethics in which selfishness and greed are the dominant – maybe even sole – principles. To many people, this is absolutely terrifying, and Atlas Shrugged does a very good job of exposing the reason that’s terrifying, even though Rand doesn’t seem to notice it.

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Atlas Shrugged: Reviewed as Art

atlas4My agonies are done. I have finished reading Atlas Shrugged. I will have to go back to it, time and again in the coming months for research, but the worst is over. I no longer have to engage in the novel as a novel, but merely as a resource to drive my parody.

In this review, I’m going to talk about Atlas Shrugged as art. It is a book that is both philosophical and political, but I’m going to leave that for another review. This one is just about Ayn Rand’s art.

I can say with absolute certainty and clarity that this is the worst novel I’ve ever finished reading in terms of artistry. Atlas Shrugged is not I novel I dislike, it is a novel that is as close to objectively bad as can be written. I am going to write a numbered list – who on the Internet doesn’t like numbered lists? – that outline just some of the absurdities, bad research, and contradictions of Atlas Shrugged. Some will be general, others quite specific.  Their sheer number is so breath-taking, so overwhelming as to remove all doubt about the quality of this novel: it is garbage.  No, no, it is objectively and uncategorically garbage.

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