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Books read in 2020

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

This year’s list of books and reviews and notes got a little bit out of hand (last year also did). As I’ve done in other years, I’ve included my notes and review of each book in this article as well as linked a separate article which includes the same notes and review, as well as citations and rough notes. So, this article weighs in at about 87 pages.

I only hit 21 titles this years, but many of them were meaty tomes, one in German and one in French. A lot of public-policy books this year, with the accompanying analysis. Because of COVID-19, I also spent a lot more team reading articles and learning a lot about virology and epidemiology. I also worked and wrote a lot for Encodo last year.

Queen of Chaos (2015)

by Diana Johnstone

This book is an unflinching history of the wars waged by the ostensibly post-Cold War United States (the last 30 years), with a focus on the so-called humanitarian bombings of the (now-) former Yugoslavia and Libya, the invasion of Iraq, the bombings of Syria, the sanctions and continued antipathy toward Russia as well as the machinations of NATO in Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe against both Russia and Iran. Woven into the narrative is the continued hypocrisy of purported purpose versus actual behavior, using examples from Honduras and Kosovo versus Crimea and Ukraine.

The book only occasionally loops back to implicate Clinton herself, although she was right there at the forefront for much, if not all, of this foreign policy. Instead, Johnstone tells a broader story of a national narrative, of which the Queen of Chaos Clinton is only an excellent and fitting representative. Johnstone spares no acrimony for Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Victoria Nuland and their poisonous worldview.

She provides a tremendous amount of historical detail in a well-sourced, well-written, and eminently readable) book. It is damning of the U.S. and its purported moral high ground, summing it up early on as follows:

“The United States is an irresponsible empire. It devastates countries and leaves them in shambles, with no compensation. Its actions are increasingly destructive because the purpose is not in reality to build an empire, but to destroy real or potential rivals and so maintain the position of superiority gained in World War II.”

Again and again, she shows how things that “we all know” from American history are deliberate fabrications, propaganda intended to tell history from the point of view of those in power in the States. The U.S. won WWII on its own. They were never allied with the Soviets. The French ran with their tails tucked. The Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Soviet Empire—they were defeated rather than giving up.

What would follow is an uninterrupted flow of lies, marketing campaigns for poisonous policies that benefited only a small cabal while killing millions and consigning millions more—even in the U.S.—to lives of despair. War would be made something palatable by making it seem like the most propitious and least-damaging of solutions to what seemed one intractable problem after another.

“Inherent in all this is an apology for “preventive” war. That is, unprovoked aggressive war, waged to “prevent” the rise of a rival, or to get rid of a dictator, or to head off some supposed threat, such as (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction.

“[…]

“This is the most blatant trick in the “preventive war” doctrine: we may go to war to prevent something that never would have happened anyway, but since it didn’t happen, we can claim credit for preventing it. (Emphasis added.)”

And war is only one policy that serves the primary goal: to ensure that this same tiny cabal—the 0.1%—continue to exert their control over the rest of the world. Globalization is also just a tool to enable these people to grow their empire and to never have to fear that they will lose their wealth, power, and luxury.

“[…] globalization means Americanization of the entire world. Our interests and values must prevail everywhere. In short, globalization means a world tied together by the universal penetration of financial markets in every sector of each national economy,”

In the propaganda war, the ideas of the left—progressives—must be subsumed, drained into a fallow field, where they won’t cause any further trouble. To this end, the left has only too eagerly grasped the proffered “consolation prize [of] ideological hegemony in the more sentimental area of human relations”. That is, they’ve been distracted by the bauble of purported sociological control, completely unaware that it doesn’t matter at all because they’ve long since capitulated any differing opinions on economics or determining the purpose and goals of society.

“Completely defeated in the area of economic policy, the left gets to define the dominant social doctrine, based on multiculturalism, concern for minorities, and anti-racism. Americans are taught to judge the governments of other countries almost exclusively by how they treat pro-Western dissidents or select minorities. (Emphasis added.)”

But even here, the hypocrisy is astounding, absolutely flabbergasting. Russia’s “problems with gays” (a law forbidding “proselytizing” to minors about homosexuality) are considered nearly a reason to bomb it flat without a second thought while there is no issue at all with Saudi Arabia’s death penalty for homosexuality.

The media and most of the political apparatus in America is in agreement. They are either incredibly stupid, incredibly ignorant, incredibly brainwashed, incredibly hypocritical, incredibly Machiavellian or some disgusting combination of all of these. Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to find dissidents. Thanks to media monopolies, it’s not even worth the energy to try to suppress them.

The U.S. is only too happy to throw stones in all directions, framing countries as good or bad based on their own rules. Johnstone deftly slays this paper tiger.

“Gay rights – or rather “LGBT” rights – is now the one human rights area where the United States can claim to be “in advance” of most of the world. The issue can be used to attempt to discredit and embarrass other countries at a time when the United States is lagging behind in areas such as child mortality, income equality, life expectancy, primary education, and industrial productivity. As mentioned above, there is one area in which it does lead the world: the size of its prison population. Surely this is a more meaningful measurement of the state of “human rights” in the United States than the legality of gay marriage. (Emphasis added.)”

And don’t forget that this supposed interest in gay rights—or any minority rights—is complete bullshit in the service of the higher goal of world ideological domination through capital. It’s all in the service of the goal stated at the very beginning: “destroy real or potential rivals”.

“While the United States officially hails “multi-ethnicity”, ethnic minorities in China and Russia are clearly seen as weaknesses to be exploited in order to destabilize and even break apart these great nations into more manageable pieces, on the model of Yugoslavia.”

There is no concept too sacred to twist into a weapon in the service of this goal. Johnstone takes time to see the many ways in which accusations of “genocide”—instead of being using carefully and absolutely only where appropriate–are scattered about wherever the U.S. needs advantage. And the rest of the world kowtows to this linguistic bullying, for its own selfish reasons.

“Once a leader is accused of “genocide”, there can be no negotiations, no diplomacy, no attempt to find a peaceful solution to the conflict which is the background of the alleged crime. The guilty party can only be indicted or killed. (Emphasis added.)”

The pattern repeats itself endlessly and tiresomely. To these ends, the U.S. uses its massive media empire to tell stories about the rest of the world—narrative over which it has sole control, that it alone shapes. For example, during the Arab Spring, where the entire narrative was driven by interviewees who, judging by their accents, had obviously spent their politically formative years at American universities.

We don’t seem to have any problem believing “facts” delivered by people about countries whose language and culture they know nothing about and to which they’ve never traveled. It was the same in Serbia, where “[r]eporters searched Albanian refugee camps for “somebody who has been raped and speaks English”.”

How much sense does it make to come to conclusions about foreign policy reported in this way? You can take the information in, but should reserve judgment rather than leaping to conclusions. What are the odds that the Washington Post or the New York Times has the story right about a policy in China when they get everything wrong about stories in their own country?

Throughout the book, Johnstone takes issue with U.S. control of the narrative, the “framing” of issues, of large-scale ideas like international conflict. Even in this case, people are taught to think of actual wars like flame wars on the Internet: as differences in ideology. This is a luxury that only those in the relatively opulent West have. No-one really goes to war unless they are in desperate straits. No-one but empires.

“[…] the totally unproven assumption that wars are caused by differences in political systems rather than by competition for resources, territorial disputes, or any number of other conflicts that may arise. It rules out coexistence between systems; the underlying implication is that our particular cause for going to war is to make every country resemble ours. (Emphasis added.)”

Even granting that they may have started with the right aims, purportedly independent organizations like Amnesty International (and, even worse, Human Rights Watch) are subsumed by this worldview, trumpeting the U.S.‘s truth and granting their implicit imprimatur. Each “win” advances the U.S. agenda more, moving it to its position as the “leader of the free world” in not only its own mind, but everyone else’s.

“[…] the main object of the “Kosovo war” was to put the United States and NATO above the law, where they remain to this day.

“[…]

“The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were taken into NATO on the eve of the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.””

This isn’t to say that everything the U.S. does moves it forward inexorably on a track to world domination. It is a stupid, half-blind and mean beast. It blunders about, knowing little and learning nothing, shouting accusations and conspiracy theories, often unaware that it is getting in its own way. Those who always benefit continue to do so, but they also often create more problems for themselves as well as everyone else. They just don’t suffer for it—except for maybe losing a bit on an investment once in a while.

It’s not even an efficient death machine. There is no more eloquent example of this than the mean-spirited and blinkered thinking that led to Gaddafi’s ouster. Destroying Libya for revenge against a man who’d never really harmed them has loosed more problems on the U.S. strategy than they’d anticipated—not unusual, since policymakers there understand so little of the real world and believe their own bullshit. This is bound to hamper their plans.

In the case of Libya and Gaddafi, it was about eliminating a successful, quasi-socialist regime that shared its country’s wealth with all of its citizens. Chavez and now Maduro can tell the same story about Venezuela. So has it always been and so will it remain until the sun sets on the American empire: so terrified of the communists that they let the anti-communists destroy everything instead.

Reading this book now—in a presidential election year where Hillary is opening her big yap again and Bernie is about to be torpedoed by the Dems again—is instructive. Johnstone eloquently lays out the limits of policy and ideology in the U.S.

“When it comes to domestic legislation, no truly progressive or egalitarian policies are feasible. However much they quarrel, both parties have accepted that domestic politics must conform to the interests of financial capital, “the markets”.”

This kind of single-mindedness isn’t limited to Hillary. Though she was there at each critical juncture and is the Queen in the title, she is far from alone. Instead, the U.S. is full of people in power who are guilty of,

“[…] thoughtlessly endorsing the possibility of nuclear war with no more reflection tha[n] a sports star endorsing a soft drink. This frivolity indicates that the problem of Hillary Rodham Clinton goes far beyond a single individual and reveals a far deeper crisis in the American political system.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)

by Amor Towles

This book should appeal to anyone who reads for the pleasure of reading. Towles has a knack for describing the world that, even when not impelling the story, is still so very much fun to read. The revolution of 1917 and its aftermath of Bolshevik lack of appreciation for culture is a background, but it doesn’t figure strongly in the first third of the book. In fact, for the first third of the book, the story meanders, but doesn’t really head anywhere.

Instead, we are treated to a history of Russia and its idea of itself as well as its place in the world, as viewed by a man who is unable to leave the Hotel Metropol—a luxury hotel whose purpose is at-times at odds with the purpose of the revolutionary government. It is a place that suits the gentleman’s sensibilities, but not those of the new leaders of the Soviet Union.

In the introduction, we learn that Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is to be confined to the Hotel Metropol as punishment for having been born noble. He is neither exiled nor killed because of a famous revolutionary poem attributed to him. He had been living there for a year already, after having returned from Paris after the revolution. Why did he return when nobility like him were the deposed minority former rulers? Because he is Russian and he belongs in Russia, damn the consequences for his “kind”.

We visit the hotel with the Count, going through his rituals and routines at both the fancy and more pedestrian restaurants, the barber, the seamstress and so on. The Count makes nine-year–old Nina Kulikova’s acquaintance and watches her grow up in the hotel. After a while, she is forced to move on, but she leaves him her passepartout with which he is able to explore much more of the hotel.

At the same time, the Count takes a job as the head waiter of the Boyarsky, the fancy restaurant on the second floor of the Metropol. He makes great friends with what would become the other two members of the “Triumvirate”: Emile, the chef, and Andrey, the maître’d. They tell magnificent stories. At the same time, he begins a relationship with the beguiling, intelligent, and beautiful actress Anna Urbanova.

Mischka, the Count’s friend from old days, makes good headway in the new regime, putting the finishing touches on a multi-book biography of Pushkin. He is asked to remove a sentence from one letter in the third volume in which Pushkin exclaimed over the glory of German bread, comparing it to the highly unfavorable and inadequate Russian variant. Mischka at first acquiesces, but then returns in a rage, offended to the core. He would pay for his principles with eight years of hard labor and then the “Minus Six” punishment: he would be free to travel in all of Russia minus the six great cities. The Count would see his friend only once or twice more.

The Count’s services are engaged by a Georgian Colonel Osip, who needs his erudition to learn how to deal with the outside world. The Count teaches him English and French as well as the cultures of the French, British and the Americans. Over 15 years, they become fast friends, reading many books and watching many films together. Osip is fascinated by the subversiveness and open nihilism of film noir, wondering how it is that the western governments allow it to exist. He has not quite grasped that while the Soviet was about overt suppression, America was about distraction. Orwell’s vision vs. Huxley’s.

Years later, Nina returns. She was a serious child and grew into a serious worker, intent on doing her part to further the revolution’s aim. Now, having married and had a child five years ago, she is there to ask the Count to watch her child while she searches for her husband, who’s been carted off to Siberia. She is loath to take her daughter Sofia with her, though. Would Alexander be willing to watch her for a few weeks or months until she can send for her? Of course he can. No question. He would never see Nina again.

In due course, the Count’s suave demeanor and worldly knowledge attract the attention of an American Aide-de-camp Richard Vanderwhile. They hit it off immediately and also become friends. On one side, there is Osip, whose power and rank are only hinted at and now there is Richard, on the other side, also nearly certainly more powerful than he at first seems.

Sofia is 13 years old. She has an accident playing a game with the Count—she falls down service stairs trying to race him to their apartment. He carries her to a hospital, breaking his imprisonment. His friend Osip swoops in and smooths things over, sending him back to the Metropol and assuring him that Sofia will have the best care and will recover fully.

Sofia is now 17 years old. She is still living with the Count at the Metropol. It is after WWII, nearly 1950. The Count is now 61 years old.

The orchestra conductor at the hotel discovered Sofia’s talent for piano. Over the next few years, he nurtures what is clearly not just a talent, but an absolute gift for music, for putting pathos and feeling into musical pieces of which adults several times her age are incapable. The Count is understandably proud that Sofia is excelling on all fronts.

Rostov and his troika (Emile and Andrei) are forced to take up the master of the hotel (the Bishop, formerly the most terrible waiter in the second-class restaurant and now promoted through an innate talent for sycophancy and adherence to party cant) into their meetings, making them altogether less enjoyable. Life continues. The Count’s decades-long relationship with Anna continues and grows. Stalin dies. The country shivers in the power vacuum.

Things for the Count come to a head when Sofia is invited to play in Paris in six months time, sometime in the late 50s. The Count prepares assiduously for her defection—and his own escape from the hotel. He takes his leave silently and with masterful planning and execution, rolling with a few kinks thrown into the plan by the Bishop, who gets his comeuppance, while the rest of his friends get richly rewarded with the remainder of his gold fortune that he’d kept stashed away for decades in cleverly contrived compartments in the legs of his desk.

Sofia puts on a spectacular show in Paris, then defects to the U.S. embassy, meeting up with Richard Vanderwhile and getting the large part of Rostov’s fortune hand-delivered to her then. The Count ranges into the Russian countryside, having fooled the authorities with a clever subterfuge into thinking that he’d escaped over the border into Finland. In a rustic inn, he meets up with Anna Urbanova, once again free to live out the remainder of his life with the woman he loves in the country he loves.

Osip’s favorite movies is Casablanca—a movie that he watched with the Count many times. When we see him in a final scene, in the Kremlin, in the office of the chief of the KGB, behind the desk, he has just heard of the Count’s escape and Sofia’s disappearance, to which he replies: “Round up the usual suspects.”

The Count is a gracious and polite man, relatively well-read, and of indeterminate age. The writing is lovely and appeals to my dilettantish Russophile tendencies. Towles makes references to streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and to moments in history and literature (Gogol’s Nose and Tolstoy’s Borodino and, of course, to Pushkin and Chekhov) that ring authentic for me.

Despite having been “trapped” in the Metropol Hotel for most of his adult life, Rostov’s rich inner life, philosophy and discipline allow him to consider himself to be “the luckiest man in Russia”.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Unauthorized Bread (2019)

by Cory Doctorow

Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow (Ars Technica) is a novella describing a near-future (or perhaps alternate present) that could really only happen in the United States. Hyper-capitalism has proceeded to a point where private industry has extended its tendrils into all aspects of the pitiful excuse for a social contract the state even bothers to extend to the overwhelming majority of its population.

The story is about Salima, an immigrant bouncing around the system, trying to get her feet under her. She befriends Nalifa, an Eritrean immigrant with two children, at an internment camp. After a couple of years, they get an “opportunity” to get cheaper housing in a building called Dorchester Towers.

This building offers reduced-rate housing in exchange for being able to build much higher than the local building codes would allow. There is a rich section and a handful of floors—35 to 42—reserved for the poor. The elevators prefer the rich. The poor are forced to walk in the morning, when the 45-minute wait for an elevator would make them late for already-precarious jobs. In the evening, they tend to just wait rather than walking up 35 flights.

There is no air-conditioning in the poor half of the entryway to the building. Security guards keep the riff-raff out. The apartments are small, but decent. However, none of their appliances are theirs: the toaster only cooks approved foods; the dishwasher only washes approved dishes; the refrigerator only hold approved foods. These foods are, of course, more expensive and nutritionally worse than the more “ethnic” food that most of the residents would prefer.

The story is of the failure of the web of companies—one among them being Boulangism, which makes the toaster—that were responsible for maintaining the servers with which all of the appliances communicated in order to function. So the poor floors are left without an oven too cook in and without a dishwasher to wash dishes in and a refrigerator that refuses food.

Salima learns how to hack on the Darknet—using an old notebook rather than the ‘fridge (which is the main way most people access information). She hacks her own appliances and gets not only food and a working dishwasher, but a degree of autonomy and control over her own life. She helps the rest of the poor part of the building free themselves as well. They all benefit, as they can now buy cheaper and healthier supplies rather than the corporate foods.

In her travels to accounting clients (she’s an accountant for small businesses, doing quite well for herself, actually), she meets Wye, a programmer working for the company that acquired the husk of Boulangism and is working very hard to get things back online—and providing, once again, money for the corporation.

Wye is sympathetic, but is also initially callous, not even really understanding how terrible it is for a system to force people to use such appliances and then to just drop them for months, making it illegal for them to make other arrangements, despite the state and corporation having failed to hold up its end of the bargain at all.

When the software comes online, though, it will detect all of the hacked software and pinpoint Dorchester Towers as a “bunch of cheaters”. Salima desperately tries to put things back the way they were, killing the budding revolution in the cradle, afraid (quite rightly) that the powers-that-be will exact a terrible punishment. Once she has converted all of the apartments back, she discovers a better way: run a VM in the devices that pretends to be a conforming device, but which runs another copy of a non-confirming and hacked OS.

Though the company tries to get Salima to work with them, essentially betraying her own class, Salima holds strong. At first Wye is disappointed, but she comes around and works, in the end, to help Salima continue to subvert any anti-hacking measures that the company employs.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Storage Combinators (2019)

by Marcel Weiher and Robert Hirschfeld

This paper (PDF) (Hasso Plattner Institute, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany) discusses a proposal for composing all objects in a software system using a common API called “Storage Combinators” rather than using custom interfaces everywhere. They authors demonstrate how an application could benefit from composability of such operations—akin to how the REST standard has improved composability for disparate and individually developed services—purportedly without sacrificing any of the expressiveness of a more bespoke API.

The following summary is from the “Discussion” section:

“In-Process REST in general and storage combinators in particular take an architectural style known to work well in the distributed case and scale it down to work in the non-distributed, local case in order to bring along the modularity benefits associated with that style.”

Many bespoke APIs are needlessly different from one another. It’s an interesting idea to enforce API strictures akin to REST between software components running in the same memory space. What is a bit odd is their insistence on using Objective Smalltalk for all of their examples—a language that I’d never even heard of (and I’ve been paying attention). No-one is using this language[1] and its syntax is based on two of the bigger syntax boondoggles in our industry: Smalltalk and Objective-C. Due to this idiosyncratic choice, it’s not always easy to distill the purpose from the examples.

Still, the storage combinators are interesting and end up being the “In-process REST” that the authors described in the citation above. Once they’ve defined the basic storage API—GET, PUT, PATCH, and DELETE, they define a plethora of common behavior that transforms to it: switches, logging, caching, JSON, etc. From these components, they go on to define an HTTP server and client that communicate via a JSON protocol (naturally).

An interesting addendum is that they’ve actually developed this approach in several industry projects that are in production, so it’s not just an ivory-tower exercise without any real-world basis. I personally wonder how well the average developer can grok and work with a severely reduced API (in their eyes). That is, while it’s definitely possible for a good programmer to build everything they need from these combinators (essentially first-principle building blocks), it’s unclear to me whether that scales to a large enough base of actually existing developers. The approach is complete, but restrictive; it also makes it very difficult for developers to work with existing frameworks and profit from the documentation and community available there.

This possible downside aside, a positive effect was that developers wrote a lot less custom code, instead re-using the existing building blocks and creating their own. When they stayed focused on the compositional pattern, using the at-times very abstract building blocks, they did end up with a well-performing solution. A downside, as expected, was that, since the developers didn’t write most of the code themselves and the building blocks are relatively highly abstracted, debugging was more difficult and “it was often impossible to determine the dataflow path before runtime” and “it would be difficult to debug, because a programmer has to step through the whole data transformation path during runtime”.

These are pitfalls associated with any highly generalized framework. They are not incidental problems to be taken care of in minor updates, but point to a possibly fatal flaw in an overgeneralized framework.[2] Despite many iterations, they seem to have landed on a highly generic implementation that cannot be easily used by mere mortals. My own experiences with developing frameworks have taught me to stay slightly less generic with the parts that mortal developers will come into contact with. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to get it, but that they will all have to learn from one of the masters, which doesn’t scale well.

Instead, a slightly more redundant and not as highly generalized architecture tends to allow developers to build up local knowledge and synergies without constant “herding” by senior developers. They end with more code-duplication and are less able to benefit from performance improvements and bug fixes in common components, but they are able to work more autonomously—or even at all. The debugging and introspection issues mentioned above are kind of framework-killers as I don’t really see a good way around them short of developing a highly targeted DSL with its own source-level debugger, IDE, etc.

The conclusion of the paper is a bit at odds with itself: on the one hand, it writes,

“Their use correlates strongly with positive effects on code-size, performance, reliability and productivity, both observationally and in the minds of developers.”

But then immediately writes that,

“One area of future research is how to type and statically type-check storage combinators. The same generic nature that makes storage combinators so composable also makes it difficult to verify when they are connected correctly.”

This seems kind of like a fatal flaw that the team has managed to patch with having good developers who intimately understand the framework—and probably with lots of debugging hours. Their next topic in the conclusion is about debugging and discusses a DSL as I mentioned above as a possible solution.

None of these things will be easy to implement or build and it’s honestly unclear to me whether it even can be built without sacrificing the flexibility or the purity of the initial approach. In the end, you’ll end up with a compromised system with bespoke everything and many, many idiosyncratic and poorly documented behaviors. And, since everything’s bespoke, you can’t lean on external communities and documentation and search for anything. I wish them the best of luck, but don’t hold out much hope for the path that they’re on.


[1] It doesn’t have a Wiki page and the only home page I can find looks like it was built with Doxygen anno 1999 and the certificate isn’t even valid.
[2] While it’s possible for an underlying framework to be this highly generalized, it’s generally inefficient to have all of your developers working at this level—most of them aren’t skilled enough to do so. That is, a framework can benefit from a high level of generalization that significantly reduces code-duplication, but that part has to very rarely be evident to mortal developers. Instead, they should float in a substrate of other APIs, that are more more straightforward to specify (i.e. high-level APIs that benefit from composability but don’t necessarily expose it) and are more easily debugged and tested.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Stacked Borrows: An Aliasing Model for Rust (2020)

by Ralf Jung, Hoang-hai Dang, Jeehoon Kang, Derek Dreyer

This paper (PDF) (Saarland Informatics Campus, Germany) is a recent one addressing one of the main weaknesses of the “borrow checker” in Rust. What’s a borrow checker? Where other programming languages have chosen from manual memory-management (C, early C++, early Pascal, etc.), garbage-collection (C#, Java, etc.) and reference-counting (Swift, modern C++, etc.), Rust chose a new path: the borrow checker.

The rules of the language require that the program be written in a manner where it is always clear who owns memory and who is “using” memory. Allocated memory is always deallocated when it leaves the scope in which it was allocated, unless the memory was passed on to a different scope by “loaning” it. If a “borrowed” reference lingers after this scope is closed, the compiler flags it as an error. Rust also has a lot of support for explicitly copying references, when the borrow checker can’t be satisfied any other way. The algorithm treats mutable and immutable references accordingly. See the Rust documentation on references and borrowing or the paper itself for an in-depth discussion.

This approach requires more involvement on the part of the programmer, but also results in programs that provably have neither memory leaks nor access violations should the program pass compilation. This is a very interesting property for Rust to be able to guarantee—and it accomplishes it without a garbage collector (with its associated performance issues and difficulty in being predictable enough for real-time, system-level code) or reference-counting (which also incurs performance overhead and require participation of the runtime). Instead, a Rust program’s memory usage is guaranteed by the compiler to be correct, so there is no need for asynchronous tasks or runtime support.

In the current incarnation of Rust, this guarantee comes with a big caveat: the borrow checker does not deal with unsafe blocks at all. It is hoped that most Rust code can avoid unsafe blocks, relying instead of higher-level abstractions that hide unsafe code. However, what guarantee is there that the unsafe code used in the common libraries or popular crates is not misallocating or misusing memory? While the code in the base libraries is fastidiously written and covered by myriad tests, errors are bound to slip in.

This is where the software proposed in this paper comes in. The authors build on the borrow-checker concept to extend it to unsafe regions as well. They come up with a new borrow-checking algorithm called “Stacked Borrows” that is more sophisticated than the initial algorithm introduced with and still used in modern Rust. The authors show that the their algorithm not only allows a compiler to improve its borrow-checking but also increases the number of situations in which a compiler can be 100% sure of the placement of variable manipulations so that it can optimize many more situations to produce much more performant code.[3]

That is,

“In this work, we propose Stacked Borrows, an operational semantics for memory accesses in Rust. Stacked Borrows defines an aliasing discipline and declares programs violating it to have undefined behavior, meaning the compiler does not have to consider such programs when performing optimizations.”

They obviously spent quite a bit of time honing their algorithm, running their test interpreter and compiler against a large part of the Rust standard library and popular crates. Their paper includes not only the algorithm, but also several proofs for why the algorithm can guarantee certain properties that a compiler can use to optimize code much better than today’s Rust compiler. Not only that, but their attack on the corpus of Rust code yielded several cases in which highly central Rust runtime/system unsafe code was incorrect and possibly leaked or violated memory. Several of their pull requests have been accepted and the team and their tool is quite well-received in the Rust community.

They have made this tool, an interpreter named Miri available for anyone to use and test until “[we can] eventually mak[e] a variant of Stacked Borrows part of the official semantics of Rust.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Why Events Are A Bad Idea (for high-concurrency servers) (2003)

by Rob von Behren, Jeremy Condit and Eric Brewer

This is an older paper (PDF) (University of California at Berkeley) that discusses event-based systems (essentially cooperative multi-tasking) vs. threaded implementations (pre-emptive multi-tasking). The conclusion in this paper from 2003 (nearly 20 years ago) is that threads are hands-down easier to work with and offer the promised performance, given that the implementation is robust.

The fact that events vs. threads was still being discussed at the time was only due to very sub-standard threading implementations that engendered deadlocks, race-conditions and terrible performance. Modern threading implementations are based on OS constructs that trade memory for performance by storing a separate stack for each thread. Only the registers need to be switched out when switching threads/tasks.

It’s interesting that one of the main arguments against threads was “restrictive control flow” because that issue has now been nearly completely addressed by the Promise/Future pattern, encapsulated in an even easier-to-use syntax as async/await in languages like C#, JavaScript. TypeScript, and Rust. This paradigm abstracts subroutines without making any promises about how the code in those subroutines is executed.

Just from the keywords, it’s obvious that the idea is to execute the code asynchronously, but it’s not a requirement in all cases. The .NET literature is full of discussions of optimizations that balance a cooperative approach for quick “bailout” scenarios—where e.g. a value is available in constant time and doesn’t actually necessitate a thread as it will never wait on any asynchronous I/O— to those that seamlessly grab a thread from a pool and schedule the code asynchronously (and preemptively) only if needed. Many of these different code-paths are even allocation-free in the .NET Core Runtime, leading to massive performance boosts versus older implementations.

Recently, the developers of Rust have written several interesting papers—and white-paper–length blogs—about the async/await implementation in Rust that go in the same directly: weighing the pros and cons of event-based vs. thread-based implementations.

The authors of this paper concluded with:

“Although event systems have been used to obtain good performance in high concurrency systems, we have shown that similar or even higher performance can be achieved with threads. Moreover, the simpler programming model and wealth of compiler analyses that threaded systems afford gives threads an important advantage over events when writing highly concurrent servers. In the future, we advocate tight integration between the compiler and the thread system, which will result in a programming model that offers a clean and simple interface to the programmer while achieving superior performance.”

And so it would come to be.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Robinson Crusoe (1719)

by Daniel Defoe

This is the story of a young, wealthy Englishman who leaves the comforts of his well-off family to seek his fortune on the high seas. His father warns him against it, telling him to instead find comfort in the warm cocoon of the upper middle-class.

Instead, his life takes him from well-off scion to dilettante sailor to slave to slave-owner (literally just assuming that his co-escapee, also a slave, would just continue to be his slave once they’d escaped their common owner) to plantation owner to wannabe slave-trader to castaway to nearly incomprehensibly rich ship and island and plantation owner (through nearly no effort of his own, as he’d been stranded for nearly three decades, doing literally nothing to grow the fortune that he mysteriously gets anyway).

Robinson embarks in August of 1651 and soon disembarks from a shipwreck, but safe in a harbor. He sets off again, but is beset by pirates, who take him captive and sell him to the north-African Moors as a slave. He is two years a slave before he can take a boat and escape along the coast of Africa, with fellow escapee Xury. They are finally taken in by a Portugese ship with a very generous and fair captain, who agrees to buy Xury and takes Crusoe to Brazil, depriving him of not one possession.

Crusoe doesn’t at all question his assumed superiority to Xury, nor his right to sell him to the captain. That they consider him to be chattel does nothing at all to diminish their firm opinions that they are both good men.

Continuing to fail upward, Crusoe manages to parlay his minor fortune into a pretty major fortune. For a few years, he owns a plantation in Brazil before the wanderlust takes him again. In 1659, he agrees to head up an expedition to secure slaves from Africa for his and other plantations. Continuing his excellent seafaring luck, he shipwrecks about 40 miles out of the Orinoco river. No-one else survives.

The ship is still upright enough and is beached on a sandbar, close enough to shore to reach by swimming. The storm has abated. Crusoe makes several trips to the boat to retrieve supplies and float them back to the island.

He sets up life on the island, building a shelter, shooting goats and collecting water. A year in, he finds God. He explores the island, finding the other half to be much more hospitable, but is loath to move from what he now considers to be “home”, with its view of the sea and possible rescue.

He is inordinately terrified of “cannibals” and keeps his head down over years and even decades, with only his raving imaginings of potential attack to keep him company. E.g.,

“[…] where are found the worst of savages; for they are cannibals or men-eaters, and fail not to murder and devour all the human bodies that fall into their hands.”

Obviously. For they’ve nothing better to do than lust after his precious rump roast. Further on, Defoe tries to give birth to a sentence, but can’t find the end of it:

“Then, supposing they were not cannibals, yet they might kill me, as many Europeans who had fallen into their hands had been served, even when they had been ten or twenty together—much more I, that was but one, and could make little or no defence; all these things, I say, which I ought to have considered well; and did come into my thoughts afterwards, yet gave me no apprehensions at first, and my head ran mightily upon the thought of getting over to the shore.”

This sentence is a work of art. It’s convoluted to the point of incomprehensibility, seeming to have trapped the author into a whirlpool from which he can only escape via several awkward and completely nonsensical semicolons. Before that, though, he expresses his casual racism toward “cannibals”, who almost certainly don’t exist, and expresses a fear that they will kill him, although his countrymen have probably killed the islanders many hundreds of times more.

On page 147, he admits that “I had lived there fifteen years now and had not met with the least shadow or figure of any people yet,” so he’s not really in imminent danger. He goes through 18, then 23, then 24 years without seeing another soul (though he had seen a single footprint once, which terrified him, ruining his sleep, for years).

It is at this point, that he finally gets his “Man Friday”.

“It came very warmly upon my thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was the time to get me a servant, and, perhaps, a companion or assistant; and that I was plainly called by Providence to save this poor creature’s life.”

Of course, he’s going to shower the man with his beneficence by allowing him to become his slave. Nearly a quarter-century of island-living has done nothing to dim his internalized attitude toward others and his belief in the superiority of Englishmen and their proper place at the top of whatever hierarchy they may find themselves in.

Luckily for our Englishman, the “slave” is very aware of his role and jumps in with gusto, as evidenced by the passage where they meet.

“[…] and he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every ten or twelve steps, in token of acknowledgment for saving his life. I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever.”

I mean, obviously, this is hugely convenient, because our hero is doing the slave a favor of allowing him to be a slave, which he so clearly desperately wishes to be, in order to express his eternal gratitude to the obviously superior Englishman. It gets even more uncomfortable when he describes the man he’s acquired. The description is basically slave-owner porn, reading more like the description of a beast of burden or a racehorse.

“He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight, strong limbs, not too large; tall, and well-shaped; and, as I reckon, about twenty-six years of age. He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face; and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled.”

He is saved from ugliness by having aspects of the Continent about him, thankfully. It goes on at length like this, ending two pages later in a repetition of the passage above, assuring the reader that the fealty is nearly entirely the idea of the slave.

“At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived.”

So porn-y. It reads like a teenage boy’s dream journal about ruling an island. On top of that, we are reassured that, having found a new God to worship in the person of our narrator, Friday has no desires. No want to return to his people. Or to his wife or family. He is content to be with and to learn from his new God.

“I began really to love the creature; and on his side I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before”

The love is mutual, but his is a love for a beast, whereas Friday’s is the adoration of a God.

When more people show up, captives he and Friday rescue from cannibals and others who escape a mutiny that ends in shipwreck, our narrator reflects on his position, after over 27 years on the island.

“My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected—I was absolutely lord and lawgiver—they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion for it, for me. ”

Again, this is like young-adult fiction, massaging the ego of the reader. It goes on at length like this, with the narrator expressing amazement at his own magnanimity in allowing everyone to practice the religion they preferred (and, of course, Friday, absolutely prefers the religion of our narrator).

He, of course, inherits the ship of the crew who he and Friday saved—because of course they would just give him everything in thanks. There are many passages of this sort, assuring the reader that everything truly is going to work out perfectly well for Crusoe.

“He anticipated my proposals by telling me that both he and the ship, if recovered, should be wholly directed and commanded by me in everything; and if the ship was not recovered, he would live and die with me in what part of the world soever I would send him; and the two other men said the same.”

It’s nice to be super-rich and only temporarily inconvenienced rather than made destitute or a slave (again, though the first time was nearly inconceivable).

An overland trip to bring his riches back to England from Madrid is kind of tacked on to the end of the book. He ends up with a tremendous fortune, with no-one cheating him out of anything and the world seemingly showering him with goods. Also, his overland journey has adventures, but he loses nothing. Also, the island is obviously acknowledged as belonging to him. He owns it and everyone who lives on it. He even “sent seven women, being such as I found proper for service, or for wives to such as would take them,” breeding people like he did his goats when he still lived there.

The book shows its age, having no lasting philosophical statement that survives in the modern age. The writing style is convoluted and the prose is often quite childish in concept. I wouldn’t read anything by Defoe again.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

World Made by Hand (2008)

by James Howard Kunstler

This book is the first of several novels fictionalizing a world as envisioned in The Long Emergency, a non-fiction account of the coming end of cheap oil and its many repercussions for a world nearly exclusively predicated on it. In this novel, the nearly complete unavailability of fossil fuels was engendered not by a natural lack of easy resources, but by nuclear attacks on Washington and Los Angeles (vaguely hinted at, with no clear enemy blamed) and a kind of super-flu that wiped out a lot of people and put an end to any semblance of shared, national-level infrastructure.

The story is of Robert Ehrlich, who lives in Union Grove, New York (fictional, but within a couple days’ march of Albany). He’s a form sales executive turned carpenter who lost his wife and daughter to the flu and his son Daniel to wanderlust many years ago. The town of Union Grove has a decent water supply, but very sporadic electricity—it’s nearly nonexistent and therefore completely unreliable, more of a curiosity of a time long past. They grow some food, cook with wood, etc. Though they still live in the houses of a more modern past, they make very little use of any of the more advanced accoutrements.

To the north of the town is an encampment of former bikers and ne’er-do-wells who’ve monopolized the business of reclamation and re-selling of goods stripped from abandoned—and some, not-quite-yet-abandoned—houses and businesses. The place is called Karptown and is run by a miscreant straight out of the Mad Max movies named Wayne Karp.

Also near the town is a fully self-sufficient plantation run by Stephen Bullock, who is basically a lord of many serfs, but pretty benevolent. This organization is not too far-fetched and is quite likely to be one of the types of cultures that survives—as long as the ruler stays benevolent, the group stays relatively small and manageable and the community is successful without any debilitating tragedies that would throw it out of equilibrium.

The final group is a bunch of highly capable religious travelers akin to the Amish, but nomadic and far less averse to technology, headed by Brother Jobe. He settles on the area, having traveled up from Pennsylvania, where things are “much worse”. He doesn’t want to take things up, per se, but he does think that the local townsfolk have been somewhat shiftless and directionless, leaving them open to the predations of Wayne Karp, among others.

Within this structure, the basic plot points are as follows:

  • One of Wayne’s band kills a promising local young man from town while Robert doesn’t exactly look on, but is utterly helpless to do anything after the fact.
  • Jobe thinks Karp’s band should be punished.
  • Jobe and Robert visit Bullock—also the local magistrate—and ask if he’ll help bring Karp and his crew to heel.
  • Bullock is more interested in finding out what happened to four of his men and a trading vessel that he sent down Albany way.
  • They agree to help, but only if he sends supplies (lengths of pipe) to help them repair the town’s water supply. They do this and water-service is restored, restoring also a bit of self-confidence and faith in the townspeople.
  • The young man’s wife and child move in to Robert’s house to “keep house”. There is really no other choice, though several townspeople purse their lips in disapproval that stems from a way of life that no longer applies.
  • Robert and several of Jobe’s acolytes head down to Albany to investigate.
  • They discover that Albany is all buy lawless and in the hands of an even greater miscreant than Wayne Karp. Robert learns of the brutal efficiency of Jobe’s men—who, while they’ve mostly found Jesus, are also almost all former military.
  • They return with the four men and having eliminated the threat to river trade by shooting nearly the entire gang who’d coopted it for themselves.
  • Bullock celebrates their return with a giant party that empties out the town.
  • Karp’s men come down to rob the town and also to see if they can find some “action” from any ladies who didn’t attend the party (Robert’s new roommate being one of them).
  • On the same day, Jobe and his men set up a barbershop that isn’t quite voluntary and shave a bunch of beards from unwilling customers.
  • Robert and the pastor (Loren) arrest Jobe, who comes along relatively quietly and lets himself be put in jail.
  • Robert and Loren head up to Karptown to arrest Karp. Things go predictably—he says “no”—and Robert gets covered in buckets of shit, but only after Loren’s asshole is torn open by brutal paddling. They make their way back to town, with the help of some of Jobe’s men.
  • Jobe’s men go up to Karptown to collect Karp and return with him, placing him in a cell next to Jobe’s. Minor, one of the men who’d proven so essential on the trip to Albany was unfortunately killed in the raid.
  • Jobe is praying feverishly.
  • The next morning, Jobe is no longer in his cell, but the door is still chained shut. Karp’s cell is also still locked, but he’d dead, with a bullet-wound through his eye that exactly matches the one Minor had suffered the night before.
  • Robert learns that Minor was Jobe’s son.
  • Robert finds Jobe on the grounds he and his people had settled on: the old High School that he’d purchased and which his people were fixing up to house their “queen bee”, a bizarrely and grotesquely fat woman who seems to have the gift of preternatural sight…but that seems to be a plot line that will be pursued more fully in subsequent novels.
  • They talk and Jobe is super-mysterious and also just kind of disappears, leading Robert to wonder what sort of supernatural stuff is going on. The “eye for an eye” stuff gives him quite a bit of pause, especially in his fraught condition, having hardly slept, drunk too much whiskey and still being desperately worried about his friend Loren, who’d undergone surgery the night before.
  • The book ends several months later, with Robert in charge of the town and Loren having recovered more or less fully. Karp’s gang is subdued while Jobe’s crew is doing well on their own, as are Bullock’s people.

On a side note, I was quite surprised to learn that Kunstler doesn’t know how to use past tenses correctly. He very, very often uses “did” when he definitely meant to use “had done”, which I’d taken to be a more modern affectation of young authors whose education had gone missing. I’d never noticed his online work to suffer from the same affliction, so I’m somewhat mystified as to the reason behind it.

Some authors use the incorrect form in dialogue, in order to impart an authenticity to the speech patterns of their characters. The patois of upstate New York—near Albany, where the book takes place—most definitely fails to distinguish between verb forms in nearly any way, placing all of the legwork required to determine when and if something happened squarely on the listener.

Confusion abounds, but what can you do when no-one can be bothered? Perhaps this curtailed version of English is what we’ve got to work with from here on out. Perhaps Kunstler’s subtle point is that the World Made By Hand won’t have time for such niceties. The theme of the book is a world that has been simplified by nuclear attacks and influenza epidemics from our high-tech quasi-nightmare to a much more bucolic and brutal lifestyle. Perhaps the language followed suit.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, andOther Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (2005)

by James Howard Kunstler

This is a non-fiction book-length discussion of the end of oil—and the massive impact this will have on a society nearly completely predicated on cheap, non-renewable energy produced over millions of years. It ranges wide and far and includes intelligent and well-written analyses of all of the parts of our world that will have to change—whether we want them to or not. He discusses car culture, suburbs, poorly designed societies, climate change, big finance, the mortgage collapse (before it happened), pandemics (before it happened in the west), and much, much more.

The book starts with a bleak but accurate assessment of American society—from hyper-consumerism to happy motoring to ex-ex-exurbs. It continues with a discussion of what oil is and where it comes from—oil in particular because its the most flexible of the various energy sources currently available to us—and even of others that we can currently conceive of.

“Oil is an amazing substance. It stores a tremendous amount of energy per weight and volume. It is easy to transport. It stores easily at regular air temperature in unpressurized metal tanks, and it can sit there indefinitely without degrading. You can pump it through a pipe, you can send it all over the world in ships, you can haul it around in trains, cars, and trucks, you can even fly it in tanker planes and refuel other airplanes in flight […]”

The book is split into section after prophetic section, discussing how nearly everything in our modern society is possible thanks to the high-density energy of cheap fossil fuels. The United States depends on natural gas for heating and producing many of its resources—including nearly all of the fertilizer without which not a single crop would grow.

Kunstler defines what Peak Oil actually means: it’s the point at which the world has used up half of the oil supply in the world. He points out that the half we’ve used is also very much the more easily obtained half—and that much of the second half won’t be able to be obtained at all. It won’t be worth it, not only economically, but in the more prosaic and realistic measure of how much energy it would take to extract it. While the energy needed to harvest fossil fuels used to be a couple of dozen to one, we’re now lucky to get two or three to one.

The U.S. hit peak oil nearly 45 years ago now; it has never again produced as much oil as it did then. It has also long since hit peak natural-gas. Kunstler wrote his book before shale-oil and fracking took off, but he predicted it perfectly. That the US went for shale oil and fracking is indicative that we’ve hit Peak Oil. Otherwise, no-one would ever have developed such an invasive extraction technology with such poor yields and margins.

There are still those who claim that Peak Oil doesn’t matter—they try to explain it away as peak consumption rather than peak production, but that’s ridiculous. It’s like someone who loses their job saying that there’s no problem with losing their salary. When you meet them a month later, they say they’re doing fine: they’ve started robbing houses instead.

With most of the world having passed the peak, there’s no longer a way of controlling the price of oil because no-one has excess capacity to throw at the market to bring prices back down. That explains the whipsawing of prices over the years. Kunstler also predicted the fragility of fracking—witness the complete implosion of the industry after oil prices cratered due to the world self-isolating for Covid-19.

He doesn’t talk about just oil, though. He also writes about climate change…and pandemics, another thing that could easily trigger the Long Emergency.

“At the same time, the world is overdue for an extreme influenza epidemic. The last major outbreak was the 1918 Spanish influenza, which killed 50 million people worldwide and changed the course of history. […] Disease will certainly play a larger role in the Long Emergency than many can now imagine. An epidemic could paralyze social and economic systems, interrupt global trade, and bring down governments.”

Perhaps it wasn’t such a leap to predict something like this—Kunstler was certainly not alone in doing so—but the timing was just right for reading this book. He’s really a very gifted writer, weaving a convincing, if sobering, picture of the future of humanity,

“Our ability to resist the environmental corrective of disease will probably prove to have been another temporary boon of the cheap-oil age, like air conditioning and lobsters flown daily from Maine to the buffets of Las Vegas. So much of what we construe to be among our entitlements to perpetual progress may prove to have been a strange, marvelous, and anomalous moment in the planet’s history.”

He weaves similarly evocative pictures of just how impossible our world currently is—especially when you realize that the free-energy bonanza on which it rests is winding down.

“Products then moved around the globe in a highly rationalized system, not unlike the oil allocation system, using immense vessels, automated port facilities, and truck-scaled shipping containers at a minuscule cost-per-unit of whatever was made and transported. Shirts or coffeemakers manufactured 12,000 miles away could be shipped to Wal-Marts all over America and sold cheaply.”

He points out that so many economic miracles and turnarounds were almost always due to a newly found bonanza of oil or natural gas. For example, England’s turnaround in the 80s wasn’t because of Thatcher’s economic acumen, but purely because they’d just come into an embarrassment of riches in the North Sea.

His holistic vision encompasses also the financialization of global economics, describing the fire sale of an industrialized society built on fossil fuels as “like a convoluted liquidation sale of the accrued wealth of two hundred years of industrial society for the benefit of a handful of financial buccaneers,”

He’s much more familiar with his home country and takes them especially to task as being utterly unable to think for themselves.

“In effect, Americans threw away their communities in order to save a few dollars on hair dryers and plastic food storage tubs, never stopping to reflect on what they were destroying.”

The world shows itself ideologically incapable of even considering the obvious conclusions based on available data. Instead, faith in the ever-providing markets is the order of the day.

“Because the oil peak phenomenon essentially cancels out further industrial growth of the kind we are used to, its implications lie radically outside their economic paradigm. So the oil peak phenomenon has been discounted to about zero among conventional economists, who assume that “market signals” about oil supplies will inevitably trigger innovation, which, in turn, will cause new technology to materialize and enable further growth.”

The problem is more acute in the U.S., which has taken an oil-drenched lifestyle to an unparalleled extreme. Other advanced societies are also dependent on oil, but it’s still easily possible to live a life even with reduced fossil-fuel supplies. That is, the cities are still livable and can be navigated by foot, bicycle or public transportation, food is produced reasonably sustainably and locally (e.g. without natural-gas-based fertilizers, because “[n]inety-five percent of the nitrogenous fertilizers used in America are made out of natural gas”). Not so in the U.S. Just as an example, Kunstler writes that by 1974 “85 percent of Americans drove to work every day.” and that “[b]y the 1990s, American households were making a record eleven separate car trips a day running errands and chauffeuring children around.”

The U.S. is in deep trouble, much deeper than other places. This is also due to a complete political paralysis and fear of telling the truth or even of acknowledging reality.

“No politician wants to tell voters that the American Dream has been canceled for a lack of energy resources. The U.S. economy would disintegrate. So, whichever party is in power has tended to ignore the issue or change the subject, or spin it into the realm of delusion”

Kunstler stumbles in two areas: The first is foreign policy in the Middle East in the 70s and 80s, where his lens is still too U.S.-centric, as hard as that is to believe. The other is the short chapter on racism, where he’s got some decent points to make, but still ends up making them as a boorish, victim-blaming old white guy who doesn’t quite believe in systemic racism.

For example, he describes the 21st-century war on Islam as “[w]e are therefore at war with that community—not because of our choosing but because it has declared war on us.” It’s understood that the book was written only a few years after 9/11, but it’s not like that was the first act of war—Kunstler could have mentioned something along those lines.

Just as another example, here’s how he wrote about the WMD inspections in Iraq:

“Since the UN team was prevented from completing the search, the United States had to do it in person. The fact that nothing was found by American forces after the 2003 invasion does not prove that we didn’t have to look.”

He fails to note that this is because vassal nations must be brought to heel and occupation is the punishment/answer. The logic is so internalized.

Kunstler is at his best when he’s calmly expounding on his main thesis: We are shredding through millions of years of stored non-renewable energy in a couple of centuries. The society we built with it is utterly unsustainable when that energy is no longer available in that form.

“Natural hydrocarbons represent millennia of stored solar power collected by plants and distilled by geologic accident. The flare given off by igniting an ounce of charcoal starter lasts a few seconds, but the energy was derived from, say, a prehistoric tree fern absorbing sunshine for nine years.”
“Also, once these complex systems and their subsystems halt their operations, restarting them may range from difficult to impossible—the Humpty Dumpty syndrome.”

At the time the book was written, fuel cells were all the rage, in particular fuel-cell cars. In the ensuing 15 years, we’ve instead seen the rise of the electric car—Kunstler’s devastating critique of the lack of viability of building cars at all—rescuing the happy motoring culture without the fossil fuels—applies just as well to electric cars. He described Tesla 10 years before it even produced a single car.

As Kunstler points out, a lot of the cures for the end of cheap energy are based on still having access to that cheap energy. This will be the case, even after peak oil or peak natural-gas, for quite some time. That is, there is a certain (limited) supply of still-cheap energy with which we could possibly transition to something that no longer requires us to have access to cheap-energy stores—or at least we should have access to renewable cheap-energy stores. Unfortunately, as long as we have the cheap supply, we continue to spend it uselessly, on frivolities, rather than investing it on a bridge to a more sustainable future.

There is a fantastic section where Kunstler explains the history of the U.S. from the 1970s until 2004 purely in terms of drivers based on the need for oil. And oil it has to be, because of the properties outlined above: it’s very portable. As Kunstler points out, nuclear fission can’t solve many of society’s needs because “most of America’s energy needs are for things that electricity can’t do very well, if at all”.

Unlike other visions of the future (e.g. Hariri’s book), Kunstler addresses climate change seriously and in-depth. He discusses the different regions of the U.S., dissecting the problems each region faces and the degree to which it could survive a long emergency. Kunstler’s region in the Northeast would survive the best. The Southwest, with its utter lack of arable land and water, would fare the worst. It would have to be abandoned in any halfway-realistic scenario.

As already noted above, Kunstler sees quite well that a potential trigger for the Long Emergency could be virus. Reading this book now really makes you think whether the U.S. has been accelerated into a stage of the Long Emergency that the rest of the world has been able to avoid (for now). Kunstler writes,

“It takes seven months or more to create, test, manufacture, and distribute a vaccine developed in direct response to a new virus, and by that time the disease can burn through global populations. If a pandemic broke out today, hospital facilities would be overwhelmed. Nurses and doctors would be infected along with the rest of the population.”

Kunstler puts the nail in America’s coffin by noting—again—that the U.S. is ideologically incapable of doing anything about any of the myriad problems it has created for itself. The U.S. also has made many problems for itself that the nearly all of the rest of its contemporaries have avoided (excluding the UK, which at least has an NHS, despite its attempts to dismantle it).

“[…] we in America flatter ourselves to think that we are above this kind of general catastrophe—because our technologic prowess during the cheap-oil fiesta was so marvelous that all future problems are (supposedly) guaranteed to be solved by similar applications of ingenuity

“[…]

“Americans didn’t question the validity of the suburban sprawl economy. They accepted it at face value as the obvious logical outcome of their hopes and dreams and defended it viciously against criticism. They steadfastly ignored its salient characteristic: that it had no future either as an economy or as a living arrangement. Each further elaboration of the suburban system made it less likely to survive any change in conditions,”

Other countries think this, to some degree, but not nearly the degree to which the U.S. does. They were at least smart enough to make backup plans. For example, many European countries retain a dense, largely electrical, rail network that they use for at least 50% of their freight—and which could be ramped up to replace the capacity lost when trucks are no longer able to get enough fuel or the roads can no longer be sufficiently maintained. Kunstler writes, “it’s worth reiterating that a failure to get comprehensive passenger rail service going will be a sign of how fundamentally unserious we are as a society.”

And what is the main driver of the world’s problems? Big finance, big corporations, globalization, the complete disavowal of national allegiance by society’s biggest members.

“Globalism was operated by oligarchical corporations on the gigantic scale, made possible by cheap oil. By “oligarchical” I mean that power was vested in small numbers of people running large organizations who were not accountable for their actions to many of the people who were subject to those actions. By “corporation,” I mean a group enterprise given the legal status of a “person,” with “rights,” but in fact devoid of any human qualities of ethics, humility, mercy, duty, or loyalty that would constrain those rights. (Emphasis added.)”

We see this playing out right now with corporations in not just the U.S. (e.g. German car manufacturers) are vacuuming up bailout money despite not having paid taxes in their supposed home countries for years. A particularly egregious example is Carnival Cruise Lines, which sees fit to incorporate in Panama, but chirpily takes bailout money, all the while promulgating a business model that hasn’t a chance in hell of working in a post-Covid-19 world.

Kunstler points out the moral bankruptcy of the conceit that a corporation like Wal-Mart simply “competes” with local businesses on an even footing.

“Wal-Mart was considered the theoretical equal of Bob the appliance store owner, and if Bob happened to lose in the retail competition because he couldn’t order 50,000 coffee-makers at a crack from a factory 12,000 miles away in Hangzhou, and receive a deep discount for being such an important customer, well, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t been given the chance.

“[…]

“One group had all the cheap labor and another group had all the capital, and for a while one group made all the things that the other group “consumed.” Thus, comparative advantage became, for a time, a con game strictly for the benefit of large corporations, which ended up enjoying all the advantages while the localities sucked up the costs.”

On the back on this kind of feedback loop that benefitted the right people, more and more of the privileged—the elite—would take part in an orgy of investment that had nothing to with any useful economic activity.

“Finance came to be viewed as a productive activity itself rather than a means to promote production. The public was no longer buying stock to invest in enterprises that would pay dividends over time, but merely because one could get rich from buying and selling stocks.”

Not only that, but whatever real economy (e.g. manufacturing and agriculture) wasn’t replaced with finance was then replaced with a “service industry” instead.

“[…] the myth of a service economy to replace the old manufacturing economy. I say “myth” because it was essentially absurd. It was like the old joke about the village that prospered because the inhabitants were all employed taking in each other’s laundry.”

On that backs of all of these poor decisions, Kunstler saw the housing/mortgage crisis coming in 2004 already. He wasn’t alone—many other non-mainstream economists, like Dean Baker, did as well—but it’s to his credit that he saw it then, and wrote so eloquently and presciently on the shape it would take. E.g. “By the time you read this, it is very likely that the housing bubble will have begun to come to grief.” I read that sentence a dozen years after the housing bubble had unequivocally triggered the largest world global financial crisis the world had even seen. It remains to be seen whether the global stagnation engendered by Covid-19 measures tops it.

This is all to say that the U.S. is basically running the world in a fashion that doesn’t accept limits—it simply ignores them, even when obviously imposed by physics. This is a fantasy world sustained only temporarily by cheap oil. This basic attitude affects everything….and negatively. As long as enough of the people that matter believe this fantasy—or profit from it—then it will continue, by pure inertia. It will only stop when it finally hits a hard limit. And that limit will not be kind, it will not be gentle. Thus ensues the Long Emergency.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Scarlet Plague (1915)

by Jack London

This is a short story told by the survivor of a great plague that destroyed mankind. The plague happened in 2013 (making it a speculative fiction/science-fiction tale in 1915) and the tale is told sixty years later by Granser—a former professor of English—to his grandsons—unutterably crude savages who are, to be fair, much better-suited to the world in which they all find themselves than Granser with his university education.

The disease was called the Scarlet Plague because of its distinguishing initial symptom—a reddening of the face that foretold a death within hours. After that, sufferers first lost all feeling in their feet, a numbness that crept upward over the next few hours until it seized and stopped their hearts. Death was unavoidable. The only survivors were immune from the start—and those numbered fewer than one in a million. The disease incubated for several days before manifesting itself and killing its victim, allowing a ferocious spread with a shockingly high R-value.

The disease did not discriminate based on skill or knowledge—it tore an irreparable swath through mankind until the entire population of the western and former United States numbered only a few hundred people 3 generations later. Granser speculates that there are no other people left on Earth, but he has no way of knowing. Without technology, without electricity…the world is once again much, much larger than it was.

The grandsons are a mixed bag: Edwin seems the most willing to listen to and try to learn from Granser while Hoo-hoo and especially Hare-Lip are nearly demented idiots bent only on dominating their mean and small environs. Even when they seem to listen to and take Granser’s advice, they pervert it through the lens of the here-and-now and lose his message entirely.

London discusses the so-called impedance mismatch between his culture and theirs—separated by only a few decades but yielding an already hopelessly unbridgeable gulf. They understand little of what he says unless he breaks it down to their guttural and severely limited patois that comprises only the concepts necessary for survival. This is understandable on their part, but bespeaks the doom of any plan to retain the knowledge that mankind once had.

Granser: You must tell them that when water is made hot by fire, there resides in it a wonderful thing called steam, which is stronger than ten thousand men and which can do all man’s work for him.”

The story briefly describes the state of mankind and the world after the plague, but it primarily tells of the coming of the plague and the ensuing fall of all of man’s works. With a plague so deadly, there was no gradual loss of knowledge or services, no time to prepare backup plans or storehouses of either supplies or knowledge.

Granser tells of his travels and long loneliness before he discovered his first people—a couple composed of Chauffeur and Vesta Van Warden. He is a large, mean, and terrible man who has her as a house drudge, brood sow, and chattel. She is the descendant of the former rulers of the world. In the post-plague world, their roles are reversed. His physical brutishness grants him power over here, where once the brutishness of societal convention conferred upon her a power inordinate to her physical or intellectual capability. It is unclear to what degree London shares Granser’s adulation of this former nobility/royalty—I can’t tell if he’s being ironic.

At any rate, mankind bred itself to about 400 crude and fallen people 60 years after the onset of the plague, with little to no hope that they would at any point be able to make use of the storehouse of books and knowledge that Granser had set aside for them in a cave. It is his life’s work, but, being in his late 80s, his life is coming to an end, with no hope in sight that anyone will be able to retain anything of what he would have been able to impart from his knowledge of a world that once was.

“All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam. He domesticated the serviceable animals, destroyed the hostile ones, and cleared the land of its wild vegetation. And then he passed, and the flood of primordial life rolled back again, sweeping his handiwork away”

Instead, the tribes listen to medicine men who send around “death sticks” and other superstitious tripe. Mankind will leave the Earth in a sort of peace and will need dozens of thousands of millennia to re-learn what it once knew, step by painful step.

Or maybe mankind won’t be so lucky and will instead be eaten by the mountain lions that are making their way down, closer and closer to the ocean, as intimated right at the end by Edwin’s observation that the wild horses had come down out of the mountains to escape their predators.

Here London leaves us with a 50/50: is Edwin’s observation about the horses combined with a greater willingness to learn from Granser a sign that he is sharp enough to quantum-leap his tribe back to a semblance of civilization? Or are the mountain lions a metaphor for the inexorable voracity of an unpitying nature that will finish the job that the Scarlet Plague started?

London’s vision is somewhat limited by his having written in 1915: He writes of the rich in their dirigibles and advanced motorcars and mansions; he doesn’t envision anything fancier than canned goods for foodstuffs. He is also unavoidably a man of his eugenic times. He writes of the “laborers”,

“In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now, in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us. And they destroyed themselves as well.”

In 2020, that’s on its face quite shockingly racist, but it’s perhaps only more overt than the castes we retain today. Though we purport to have eliminated them, they survive in the sinews and veins of our society, more dangerous and powerful because they are so internalized that too few even question them. The argument today is the same, though delivered with perhaps more subtle casuistry. So-called American civilization today bases largely on the notion that the rich are rich because they deserve it; the poor as well.

Also, as noted above, it’s not clear how London personally felt about that line of argument (or whether he’s promoting anything at all). In an earlier passage, he wrote the following, which seems quite a bit more critical of the way his world worked (and, quite honestly, how ours still does),

“Our food-getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. These food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food […]”

I was impressed by London’s mastery. It was a damned good story—I had no idea he counted among the best of the fantasy writers. The plague of 1917/1918 followed on the heels of his having published this story, which makes him eerily prescient, to boot.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (1909)

by E.M. Forster

I first read this short story at the beginning of 2019, but recently re-read it. In these pandemic days, even more of the story resonated with me than on the first reading.

The story is about a woman named Vashanti and he son Kuno, who live on a future Earth where The Machine has long since taken up the caretaking of mankind—so that people can concentrate on getting and sharing ‘ideas”.

Each person is contained in its own little pod. One room for everything. The bed and bath slide out of the floor when needed. Medical equipment descends from the ceiling.

All communication is remote. People almost never see one another physically.

Each person has exactly one book—they all have the same book. It is “The Book of the Machine” and it contains everything that anyone would ever need to know about how the world works or how to communicate with The Machine.

Mankind thinks itself free of religion, but it has replaced its classic, irrational religions with a supposedly rational one that ends up in people worshiping The Machine. No-one knows how The Machine works; all of its mechanisms are automated and have been so as long as anyone can remember.

The world has been homogenized.

“Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.”

The following examples illustrate how our supposedly advanced civilization was pretty easily predicted by Forster a century removed from it. How unique and creative can it possibly be if he was able to predict it so well?

“Vashanti”s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date?”

Does this not describe how a phone or device acts when it returns from isolation? Is this not the experience of an average social-media user “coming back” to their phone after a temporary absence?

Amazingly, Forster’s predictions of video-conferencing are also spot-on:

“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.”

That the story nails the self-isolation of 2020 due to COVID-19 explains why the story resonated for me more on re-reading now. In our modern case, this live of video-conferencing applies only to the upper-level caste, while lower castes continue to work as usual. We don’t have The Machine (yet). In Forster’s vision, the “Machine” took care of day-to-day minutia for everyone, with seemingly no castes left over from the previous civilization. Or, perhaps more accurately, the non-upper-class castes have been eliminated.

In this next section, Forster somehow manages to capture the superficiality of TED Talks nearly a century before they even existed.

“Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately.”

The listeners are flighty and don’t really pay attention to anything specifically—they sip widely but shallowly, adding nothing of value on their own. The lecture on the sea above has absolutely nothing to do with Vashanti’s lecture. That reflects our social-media feeds quite well—like hummingbirds, many flit from topic to topic, guided by The Machine.

Hell, Forster even foresaw the delivery culture—albeit here he also foresaw everyone getting access to it, which isn’t the case with our modern version of The Machine. In our version, the workings of The Machine are still very much run on the backs of manual labor provided by an underclass.

“[…] the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.”

Forster also foresaw the homogenization of travel destinations—our cities have “tourist areas” that aim to make people comfortable by providing services that they would have at home. There’s a Starbucks; there’s a McDonalds; there’s a theme park.

“What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking?”

Finally, there is the erosion of ideas and information, recycling well-worn thought and denigrating original thought until no-one knows anything of value anymore. Experts are suspect; expertise is evil; information is best when its already known—common sense.

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. […] Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element − direct observation.”

So we have a society homogenized and reduced and made completely dependent on The Machine. (I wonder whether the world of Wall-E was based, at least in part, on this story?) Forster tells us what happens when The Machine stops after mankind has become inescapably dependent on it.

“Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

La Peste (1947; fr)

by Albert Camus

This is a work of fiction about a plague that takes place in 1947 in the Algerian city of Oran, on the Mediterranean coast. It documents a nearly overwhelmingly deadly disease.

The plague creeps in on little rats’ feet.

Doctor Rieux finds dead rats in unusual places, in residential buildings, in stairwells. The health and sanitation services confirm that they’re killing an increasing number of rats per day, dozens to hundreds. The doctor’s building’s superintendent dies of a fever. He had engorged and enlarged buboes (lymph nodes). Rieux suspects that the plague has come to town. The good doctor sees other patients with the same symptoms and sounds the alarm, beseeching the medical council for the town to declare a quarantine and to speak the ugly word “pestilence” or “bubonic plague”.

The plague is inevitable and does not care whether it is recognized as such or not. It claims victims until, at 30 per day, the town is closed off to the outside world. Rieux’s wife had been sent to a sanatorium a few days earlier for an unrelated illness. He, like everyone else, is reduced to communicating with her in short telegrams. Rail travel stops.

Rambert, the journalist, plans an escape that becomes more and more elaborate and prolonged, dragging out for weeks of planning with Gonzales and his two cohorts. He grows closer and closer to Tarrou (a tourist), Rieux, and Grand, who are working night and day to care for patients, sleeping only four hours per night. Their dedication—and Tarrou telling Rambert that Rieux, too, is not able to be with his wife—convinces Rambert to stay and join in the fight against the plague.

The plague drags on for months and months. Castel’s serum doesn’t work on a young boy/baby, but seems to be able to help some others. Father Paneloux succumbs to a different disease—nature doesn’t care about irony.

In one of my favorite scenes, on a hot night in the fall, Tarrou and Rambert go swimming together as Tarrou tells Rieux his life story. I really liked the evocative style in which it was written.

“Rieux se mit sur le dos et se tint immobile, face au ciel renversé, plein de lune et d’étoiles. Il respira longuement.

“[…]

“Rieux se retourna, se mit au niveau de son ami, et nagea dans le même rythme. Tarrou avançait avec plus de puissance que lui et il dut précipiter son allure. Pendant quelques minutes, ils avancèrent avec la même cadence et la même vigueur, solitaires, loin du monde, libérés enfin de la ville et de la peste.

“[…]

“Habillés de nouveau, ils repartirent sans avoir prononcé un mot. Mais ils avaient le même cœur et le souvenir de cette nuit leur était doux.”

Grand catches the plague, but recovers. God laughs. The plague number start to decline and the people can no longer be held back from celebrating the reopening of the city after nearly ¾ of a year.

The plague takes a few more on its way out, though: Othon (the father of the baby whom Castel could not save) succumbs; Tarrou slips away, through Rieux’s fingers. Cottard goes mad because his black-market business will come to an end. Rambert reunites with his wife. Rieux learns of the death of his wife, just days before the gates opened. He has lost his best friend and his wife. God laughs, alone privy to his mad plan.

The plague is inevitable. It takes the course that it wants. Humans can channel it and ameliorate its effects, but they cannot stop it, not before it itself has decided that is finished. “It’s done when I say it’s done,” seems to be the motto of a plague, no matter what level of technology man achieves. It is the same with any natural disaster: a tsunami also does not listen to reason. There is no use hating it. It wouldn’t care if you did.

Nearly all of the major stages in this novel have been matched blow-for-blow by our own recent and ongoing experience with COVID-19. Denial, desperation, the rich fleeing the city, closing the city down, settling into resigned isolation, travel restrictions, hygiene measures, and so on. The joy at the end, when the plague mysteriously recedes? We can only hope that our story includes this part, as well.

The similarities are many. For example, the book describes the rich fleeing the city, as they did everywhere there were lockdowns (e.g. a large percentage fo NYC’s richest population moved themselves north, out of harm’s way.

“On demandait des mesures radicales, on accusait les autorités, et certains qui avaient des maisons au bord de la mer parlaient déjà de s’y retirer.”

The fear sets in:

“C’est à partir de ce moment que la peur, et la réflexion avec elle, commencèrent.”

The collecting of statistics—also a modern obsession and made much easier by the Internet—and the dawning realization that the plague is real:

“Mais, en somme, il suffit que quelqu’un songeât à faire l’addition. L’addition était consternante. En quelques jours à peine, les cas mortels se multiplièrent et il devint évident pour ceux qui se préoccupaient de ce mal curieux qu’il s’agissait d’une véritable épidémie.”

The matter-of-fact, rational Rieux notifying the hopeful morons on his council that the plague does not care what they think, that the mission is to save people from this calamity, not to pretend that it’s less bad than it is and then to regret not having done something sooner.

“[…] si elle n’est pas stoppée, elle risque de tuer la moitié de la ville avant deux mois. Par conséquent, il importe peu que vous l’appeliez peste ou fièvre de croissance. Il importe seulement que vous l’empêchiez de tuer la moitié de la ville.

“[…]

“La question, insista Rieux, n’est pas de savoir si les mesures prévues par la loi sont graves mais si elles sont nécessaires pour empêcher la moitié de la ville d’être tuée.”

Camus eloquently describes the pain of sudden and unplanned separation from family and friends for an unknown period of time:

“Une des conséquences les plus remarquables de la fermeture des portes fut, en effet, la soudaine séparation où furent placés des êtres qui n’y étaient pas préparés. Des mères et des enfants, des époux, des amants qui avaient cru procéder quelques jours auparavant à une séparation temporaire, qui s’étaient embrassés sur le quai de notre gare avec deux ou trois recommandations, certains de se revoir quelques jours ou quelques semaines plus tard, enfoncés dans la stupide confiance humaine, à peine distraits par ce départ de leurs préoccupations habituelles, se virent d’un seul coup éloignés sans recours, empêchés de se rejoindre ou de communiquer.”

As with our most recent experience, the word “solidarity” had to be dusted off and, once again, be allowed to take center stage. To protect others and be protected by others, to hold together and defeat the common enemy of the plague, saving as many as possible.

“On peut dire que cette invasion brutale de la maladie eut pour premier effet d’obliger nos concitoyens à agir comme s’ils n’avaient pas de sentiments individuels.”

Or, even not knowing how long it would last and the ensuing impatience felt by all when an arbitrarily set deadline had been passed. We are witnessing the same in the people as the first wave has been managed by most countries and the people itch for a return to normality. We will see what happens when the inevitable second wave comes.

“En particulier, tous nos concitoyens se privèrent très vite, même en public, de l’habitude qu’ils avaient pu prendre de supputer la durée de leur séparation. Pourquoi ? C’est que lorsque les plus pessimistes l’avaient fixée par exemple à six mois, lorsqu’ils avaient épuisé d’avance toute l’amertume de ces mois à venir, hissé à grand-peine leur courage au niveau de cette épreuve, tendu leurs dernières forces pour demeurer sans faiblir à la hauteur de cette souffrance étirée sur une si longue suite de jours, alors, parfois, un ami de rencontre, un avis donné par un journal, un soupçon fugitif ou une brusque clairvoyance, leur donnait l’idée qu’après tout, il n’y avait pas de raison pour que la maladie ne durât pas plus de six mois, et peut-être un an, ou plus encore.”

Paired with this feeling, though, was a confidence that the plague is something that happens to others. We all do the same today, hoping against hope that we won’t be affected. We hear that 1-2% will die if 70% get it—we hope that we won’t die; we hope that, should we get it, it leaves no lasting mark. We hope. We don’t reason. We can’t all be right.

“Beaucoup cependant espéraient toujours que l’épidémie allait s’arrêter et qu’ils seraient épargnés avec leur famille. En conséquence, ils ne se sentaient encore obligés à rien. La peste n’était pour eux qu’une visiteuse désagréable qui devait partir un jour puisqu’elle était venue.”

The plague takes its victims and ceremonies change: for example, the citizens of Oran were no longer allowed to mourn or attend funerals as before, a restriction we have as well in many places.

“Toutes les formalités avaient été simplifiées et d’une manière générale la pompe funéraire avait été supprimée. Les malades mouraient loin de leur famille et on avait interdit les veillées rituelles, si bien que celui qui était mort dans la soirée passait sa nuit tout seul et celui qui mourait dans la journée était enterré sansdélai.”

What we did not have was the rats at the beginning (signaling the onset of the virus), nor did we have reduced communication, as they did:

“Les communications téléphoniques interurbaines, autorisées au début, provoquèrent de tels encombrements aux cabines publiques et sur les lignes, qu’elles furent totalement suspendues pendant quelques jours, puis sévèrement limitées à ce qu’on appelait les cas urgents, comme la mort, la naissance et le mariage.”

What we do have is conspiracy theories and outright denial that the plague is happening—something the Oranans didn’t have the luxury of indulging, as their plague was considerably more aggressive and deadly and, thus, could not be wished away. The plague attacked the “bubons” or lymph nodes, not the lungs, and was perhaps thus more disgusting, as in this description of Rieux’s work on a patient:

“Deux coups de bistouri en croix et les ganglions déversaient une purée mêlée de sang. Les malades saignaient, écartelés. Mais des taches apparaissaient au ventre et aux jambes, un ganglion cessait de suppurer, puis se regonflait. La plupart du temps, le malade mourait, dans une odeur épouvantable.”

Still, they gathered information wherever they could, trying to put together as positive a picture as their reason allowed.

“On pouvait voir, par exemple, les plus intelligents d’entre eux faire mine de chercher comme tout le monde dans les journaux, ou bien dans les émissions radiophoniques, des raisons de croire à une fin rapide de la peste, et concevoir apparemment des espoirs chimériques, ou éprouver des craintes sans fondement, à la lecture de considérations qu’un journaliste avait écrites un peu au hasard, en bâillant d’ennui.”

Though the plague moves slowly, at least it moves over time, showing some evidence of its passage. Can you imagine the denialism and conspiracy theories that would accompany something like an asteroid strike detected two years prior to impact? Mankind would be utterly and ideologically unable to prepare for something like that and would, despite an ostensibly higher intelligence, go the way of the dinosaurs before them.

They had speculation as well, driving prices into the stratosphere, as well as a clear divide between how the rich and poor would fare in the crisis.

“La spéculation s’en était mêlée et on offrait à des prix fabuleux des denrées de première nécessité qui manquaient sur le marché ordinaire. Les familles pauvres se trouvaient ainsi dans une situation très pénible, tandis que les familles riches ne manquaient à peu près de rien.”

There is much to admire in the prose, with many beautifully written sections. E.g. “La nuit, les grands cris des bateaux invisibles, la rumeur qui montait de la mer et de la foule qui s’écoulait […]”—describing the feeling of the city at night, by the shore—or the much longer, and also lovingly rendered description of the city at night, under a full moon,

“Sous les ciels de lune, elle alignait ses murs blanchâtres et ses rues rectilignes, jamais tachées par la masse noire d’un arbre, jamais troublées par le pas d’un promeneur ni le cri d’un chien. La grande cité silencieuse n’était plus alors qu’un assemblage de cubes massifs et inertes, entre lesquels les effigies taciturnes de bienfaiteurs oubliés ou d’anciens grands hommes étouffés à jamais dans le bronze s’essayaient seules, avec leurs faux visages de pierre ou de fer, à évoquer une image dégradée de ce qui avait été l’homme. Ces idoles médiocres trônaient sous un ciel épais, dans les carrefours sans vie, brutes insensibles qui figuraient assez bien le règne immobile où nous étions entrés ou du moins son ordre ultime, celui d’une nécropole où la peste, la pierre et la nuit auraient fait taire enfin toute voix.”

The general helplessness comes through—“Ils se croyaient libres et personne ne sera jamais libre tant qu’il y aura des fléaux.”—but the essentially existentialist attitude shines through that you do what you can anyway because what else is there? “La bêtise insiste toujours {…}” Either you kill yourself or you make the best of it, but being useless is worse than either.

“Peut-être, répondit le docteur, mais vous savez, je me sens plus de solidarité avec les vaincus qu’avec les saints. Je n’ai pas de goût, je crois, pour l’héroïsme et la sainteté. Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est d’être un homme.”
“Il ne fallait pas écouter ces moralistes qui disaient qu’il fallait se mettre à genoux et tout abandonner. Il fallait seulement commencer de marcher en avant, dans la ténèbre, un peu à l’aveuglette, et essayer de faire du bien.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

I Can’t Breathe (2017)

by Matt Taibbi

This book is an absolute tour-de-force of research and writing and empathy. The main thread of the story is the life and death of Eric Garner. He was born, lived, and died at an early age (43) in Staten Island, New York, in the U.S. He was killed by police for standing on a sidewalk. The story is much more complicated than that and Taibbi takes time to show all of the detail of how Garner ended up working on that corner, why he hadn’t done anything wrong that day, and, perhaps most importantly, what brought the police to that location and put them in a killing mood.

The story is long and involves many features unique to the American landscape. Garner was basically doomed from day one, doomed from birth just by who his parents were and where they lived. He was doomed by his skin color and his imposing size. He was doomed by a society that inordinately feared people that looked like him—and dumped its frustrations on people like him. He was doomed by a society that could find no other way to be than to sacrifice 90% of its population to live in comparative squalor while 10% does quite well.

The police are the army that enforces the borders along these two intertwined societies, that makes sure that the extraction of wealth and energy continues, that the subjugated population stays in line. This situation affects people of all races—it happens a lot to poor Whites too—but people of color—and Blacks in particular—are singled out and massively overrepresented in all forms of statistics about crime.

In Taibbi’s words,

“[Garner] was, […] “just a man,” a single flawed person ground up by the power of the state. Eric Garner was murdered by history.

“[…] The lengths we went to as a society to crush someone of such modest ambitions—Garner’s big dream was to someday sit down at work—were awesome to contemplate. What happened to Garner spoke to the increasing desperation of white America to avoid having to even see, much less speak to or live alongside, people like him.

“[…] The motive was the secret sin of a divided society, a country frozen in time for more than fifty years, stopped one crucial step short of reconciliation and determined to stay there.”

That this is the case is a self-fulfilling prophecy: where the police look for crime, they find it. There are more than enough laws for them to always find something. The books have been filled with “reasons”; their job is to match those reasons to people in ways that aren’t too obviously ridiculous. Even ridiculous generally goes unnoticed, except by the victims, whose opinions don’t matter. If “impeding government business” by standing on a sidewalk is not only a ticketable offense, but an arrestable one, then all bets are off.

“Even in Tompkinsville Park, where 98 percent of everyone you met had less than a dollar or two, the police were everywhere.”

And the police go hunting nearly exclusively in Black and Latino neighborhoods in places like New York City. They “toss” people regularly for doing absolutely nothing—more than half a million stops per year, all to feed the Compstat numbers machine that determines who gets a promotion and who doesn’t. But the police didn’t invent the machine—they’re kind of part of it, too. The upper-class people who matter, who run everything, set things up to keep the money and power funnels pouring in their direction.

As an officer Polanco describes it,

“In one incident, he was forced to cuff a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy, with his superiors telling him they’d figure out the charge later. He even recounted being ordered to summons a guy for having no dog license when Polanco couldn’t even see a dog.”

What does “toss” mean? Often enough, it means a strip search in public, in the middle of the street, with a free genital and rectal exam conducted by apparently all-too-willing police officers.

“They had a term for it: “socially raping.” Sometimes they’d yank a guy’s pants down in the precinct, but other times they’d do it in the open air, right on the sidewalk.”

“But, wait?”, you might ask. What about the Constitution? Don’t people have rights? What about, specifically, the Fourth Amendment? Those things are not for the poor, not since the Supreme Court approved so-called Terry Stops, which reduced the requirement for a search to a constitutionally laughable level.

“The Terry decision essentially said that the legal standard for a whole generation of field searches would henceforth rest in the minds of police officers.”

At the time, people were 100% aware—in no small part due to the Kerner Commission of 1968—that racism and police brutality were the problems underlying inequality and subsequent “unrest”. But the Supreme Court punted on that too, basically saying that “[w]e can’t do anything about racism or police brutality. But we can do something about crime.” And what was crime? Oh, we knew it when we saw it. And we knew where to look for it.

With this cudgel in hand, they went to work.

“What they did have, they thought, was a tool that would help reduce crime. They weren’t sure if it would be abused or not. But they were pretty sure it would work.”

By “work”, they meant “keep poor people in check” by keeping them working, too tired to resist, not agitating, not bothering their betters. The policies prevented some crime by combatting it with other crime.

No other supposedly civilized country does this. Well, corporate crime is allowed, but directly preventing potential criminal acts by perpetrating constitutional crimes on the potential perps? I don’t think so. There is, essentially, carte blanche for the police themselves to commit the crimes they were charged with preventing, as long as they stick to prescribed victims.

To be clear they were not interested in stopping crime. The continuing lax attitude and nearly outright encouragement of white-collar crime—the more you steal, the more likely you are to get a Cabinet position—makes that very clear. Nor were they interested in even collaring the poor people responsible for the actual crimes that they’d even bothered to put on the books as the ones they claimed to be enforcing.

The crimes that affect the most lives, that are the most violent in terms of destroying lives and entire generations, are actively encouraged as part of the system that makes the right people rich. Taibbi describes the scams run by Eastern Service, a real-estate company that, in 1968, introduced practices that would be emulated several times over the next decades, culminating in the breathtaking destruction of Black wealth in 2008, when the financial crisis wiped out 70% of Black wealth.

“Federal prosecutors estimated that in 1968 alone, companies like the Eastern Service operation created $100 million in defaults and more than five thousand empty houses in New York City alone.

“[…] There was no direct bribery element in 2008, but everything else was more or less exactly the same: wholesale falsification of financial records, the aggressive effort to get people with poor credit histories into homes, falsified employment data, inflated appraisals, etc.

“[…] From forty acres and a mule to the Great Society to subprime, it was the same swindle, over and over and over again: promises that turned into brutal obligations that turned into life-ruining debt and neighborhood-destroying foreclosures for some and massive windfall profits for others.”

This is where the racism is undeniable—unless you have a vested interest in denying it. I.e. you’re already in the 10% or you think that you are or you dream one day of being in it or you’re just a deluded suck-up to authority.

“This disparity echoed an earlier bizarre statistic showing that 90 to 95 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses in New York in the nineties were black and Hispanic, despite studies showing that 72 percent of all illegal drug users in the city were white. Clearly a certain form of discretion was being exercised.”

The result of all of these penny-ante arrests was to not only get the individual police the numbers they needed to advance their careers, but also to ruin the rest of those people’s lives. Once you’ve got an arrest record, the supposed largess of society is no longer available. And guess whose fault that is? Why it’s your very own fault, isn’t it?

“And thanks to the drug war, huge numbers of young men came home from prison sentences unable to vote, live in public housing, or obtain licenses to be barbers, pet shop owners, even sanitation workers. They were kept under constant surveillance, watched even when they urinated for parole officers.”

So the objective wasn’t to catch criminals. It was to produce criminals out of the parts of the population considered to be unsavory by their betters. “The objective was order, an inherently ambiguous term but a condition that people in a given community recognized when they saw it.”

Translation? No poor or black people in sight were to sully the view of anyone important (generally, the top 10%). It’s why Eric Garner was no longer allowed to stand on his sordid, sad corner in that sordid, sad park in sordid, sad Staten Island and sell cigarettes for $0.50 apiece. Across the street, important people had paid money to build an apartment complex for other important people. And no-one wanted to see a shambolic black man every day. He had to go.

Even when New York City settled a civil lawsuit about Stop and Frisk, they just kept doing it, exploiting a gaping loophole in the settlement language to simply prohibit and then report on the now-drastically increased harassment instead of stopping it.

“That they didn’t stop mass violating the constitutional rights of 50 percent of the city’s population was, sadly enough, immaterial. The city hadn’t actually promised to change, as far as Judge Scheindlin saw it. They’d merely promised to write a new policy prohibiting the wrong behavior and turn over some numbers.”

Taibbi cites case after case to bolster his point, even finding a case from the 70s in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was DA where police officers stopped a black family for a bullshit ticket, fined them $25, then didn’t trust them to pay it if billed. So they forced the family to drive to the precinct where they had to pay in cash, immediately. The father had the gall to ask for a receipt and the ticketing officer rewarded him by shooting him point-blank in the face in the middle of the precinct. That case didn’t make it past the grand jury.

Neither did Eric Garner’s case, even though there were eight minutes of video showing police officers attacking a man out of the blue, a man who didn’t defend himself, pulling him to the ground and killing him with an illegal chokehold. Most of the eight-minute video is of Garner lying prone on the street while officers mill around, joking amongst themselves before someone thinks to call an ambulance. Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.”

Even in cases like Garner’s, where there is video, the top 10% are more than happy to accept that the video isn’t real evidence because a known criminal made it on his dirty, criminal phone. They don’t claim that it’s faked, only that it doesn’t matter because the wrong kind of person made it.

By that logic, though, if two cops filmed each other committing a crime, then their subsequent criminal culpability would automatically disqualify the video they each took, exonerating each of them. Two videos of crimes. No criminals. A paradox because the criminal act disqualifies the filmer as a witness forever. It makes no sense, but it doesn’t have to in order to be effective. People generally don’t care about holes in logic big enough to drive a truck through if you’re telling them what they want to hear.

Those are just some of the details in this book. Taibbi goes deep into the numbers machine as well as the incestuous relationship between politicians and the police. He details the Orwellian laws for police that are completely different than those for mere mortals. He describes the labyrinth of the disciplinary process for police, what a black hole it is, from which no accusation can possible escape. As he puts it, the review board “is where citizen complaints go to die.”

He discusses the common police practice of planting evidence, of lying on arrest reports, of lying on the witness stand, of brutality and humiliation, of “teaching lessons” to “those animals”. The police are at war with the poor, plain and simple. They have been given this job by the rich. Black are massively disproportionately harmed and beaten down by this system.

Though the statistics would support it, Taibbi does not even bother to explain that white people are kept down by the man, too. He does not bother to discuss that, in absolute numbers, more white people are killed by police than black people. This is all true, but there is no way to focus on any of this once you realize the disgusting, shocking level of racism in the ruling class and its private army, the police.

Taibbi makes the case what so many who’ve been involved in the fight for justice for many years have known for decades: there is a deep animus against Blacks that drives people absolutely crazy. It makes them fly off the handle in ways that they absolutely do not do when dealing with “their own kind”.

“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”

It’s absolutely clear that many people still just hate Blacks for being black and want nothing to do with them, other than to perhaps continue to benefit from them as a source of cheap labor. Which they do very successfully, with the massive so-called justice system set up to funnel them into jail or prison—they have to have an arrest record—after which you can deny them public housing, jobs, anything. Then you can bleed them for their cheap or free labor while in jail—or while working a bullshit job that their employer knows they can’t quit.

The stories Taibbi tells about Garner in this regard are infuriating, with the system and the police just bleeding him dry. Killing him slowly. Torturing him. The police use him for arrest numbers, for their own careers, because they sure as fuck don’t care about cigarette taxes. They often confiscated his money using “asset foreiture”—another concept unique to America where police can just take your stuff pretty much whenever it strikes their fancy (and good luck getting it back).

It’s a tremendous waste of time, money, and it’s utterly immoral, to boot. It costs the city nothing to make the charge and it ties up the poor bastard charged for years. Then it churns its way through the conveyor belt of the courts, which rarely drop cases, regardless of how outrageously unsubstantiated they are.

“It was a textbook case of what police and lawyers both call “test-a-lying.” A police officer will come into court at a probable cause hearing, for instance, and a judge will ask him why he pulled over so-and-so’s car. The officer will respond in a deadpan: “I saw drugs lying on the center console of his vehicle.” Defense lawyers laugh about the omnipresent “center console” detail in arrest warrants.

“The drugs in reality will turn out to have been found in a jacket pocket, or under the seat, after an illegal fishing expedition. But the police will tell it in court another way. Particularly in misdemeanors and drug cases, cases without profile, judges routinely buy these dubious bits of testimony and let dirty cases move through the system.

“[…] Judges rarely throw out police testimony, and even when they do, actual charges of perjury against a police officer are rare.”

But police cases are different. Those are slowed down, dragged out over years.

“From the first knock on the door, family members find themselves facing a series of intractable bureaucracies designed to make cases against police officers vanish in blizzards of political excuses and unintelligible legalese.

“[…] These bureaucracies are designed to frustrate and exhaust families bent on getting justice, grinding them down over time until finally they become dispirited and give up. The quest for answers becomes a war of attrition, and the state almost always wins.

“[…] In these cases, obscure exceptions and precedents are constantly unearthed to narrow the field of culpability to a vanishing point.

“[…] while the cases often begin as unplanned murders and assaults committed in heat-of-the-moment situations by working-class cops, they end as carefully orchestrated cover-ups committed in cold blood, through the more ethereal, polished, institutional racism of politicians, judges, and attorneys.

“[…] Both the city and Pantaleo appealed, however, and the case was tied up in court for another year and a half. By the summer of 2016, both sides were still months away from making oral arguments in the case. Years of pitched legal battle over a single number. Even the release of that much information was too much for the city to bear.”

This is how they waste taxpayer money defending criminals and flouting justice, funneling all the attacker’s energy into an ever-more narrowly defined and ultimately useless endeavor. You want justice for a murder, but you end up losing in court two years later trying to get a single number that probably signifies nothing legally relevant. You end up dying on an insignificant hill that your enemy chose.

It would be a tragedy, but we know at least some good comes of it: it’s done in the name of generating careers and economic activity for the already privileged to the detriment of people who aren’t really people. Let’s face it: they brought it on themselves by not having been born privileged. There is no way out of this—the system has been well-designed to trap more than enough of the wrong kind of people within it. And it’s well-designed to make those trapped feel like it’s their own fault, to constantly remind them that they are being helped, even when the help is there to maintain their poor position, not to lift them out.

“The Great Society programs that came out of that War on Poverty set into motion a series of unintended consequences. The assistance programs always had a strong bureaucratic and even punitive element. The government created armies of inspectors and social workers who, in the process of administering public assistance, got involved in regulating every aspect of life in poor black neighborhoods.”

This is paternalism. Because you can’t just give someone 500 bucks a month. You have to remind them that they needed it. And, of course, let them know that they’re in charge of remedying the deficiency that led them to needing it, which was always inherent to them and not immanent to the system.

“Black America always saw the continuing schism. But white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history […] in the end mostly what people in power wanted to do was nothing at all, unless there was an immediate benefit in it for them.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Living in the Long Emergency (2020)

by James Howard Kunstler

This book is a follow-up to Kunstler’s 2005 The Long Emergency. It starts out with a recap of the thesis from the other book and then fills in with information from the last 15 years. Kunstler takes a critical look at his predictions from 2005, detailing where he got it right and where he went wrong—and why.

“I didn’t call it The Long Emergency for no reason. The operations of complex societies have many interesting features. Two in particular exist in a sort of dynamic tension of opposites: fragility and inertia. Fragility accretes insidiously as ever-greater complexity is layered onto the system. But inertia is the property by which systems in motion tend to remain in motion. A system as large and complex as ours has acquired tremendous momentum, which, of course, feeds back to aggravate its fragility, portending a more destructive eventual outcome.”
Page 1

For example, the shale-oil boom was unforeseeable and kicked the can down the road for a decade—at most. He likens it to “cutting of the top ten inches of your bedsheet and sewing it on the bottom because your feet were cold.” Fracking is capital-intensive—read: expensive—and requires heavy loans. Fracked, shale-oil wells have a much steeper expiry curve and are quickly played out.

“As independent oil analyst Arthur Berman put it: “Shale is a retirement party for the oil industry.””
Page 9

Companies that are trying to stay ahead of their creditors have no choice but to dig more and more wells to take advantage of the initial steep “play”, taking on more and more debt. Kunstler calls it “Red Queen Syndrome” because they’re “running as fast as they can to stay in one place.” It’s only ZIRP (Zero Interest-rate Policies) that even allow something like this to exist.

The more successful they are—and they have been very successful, driving U.S. oil production to heretofore unknown heights—the lower the oil price as the market gluts. When the price drops, their already-shitty and barely non-laughable business model becomes utterly fantastic and untenable. But they can’t stop producing, either.

He also discusses the increasing rise of propaganda for both alternative energy and for electric vehicles. He quickly disposes of the notion that either of these will replace the existing infrastructure in any significant way—not without drastically changing living patterns and levels of consumption.

The solution to the atrocity of suburbia, its attendant necessitating of an automobile for nearly everything, and the large-scale elimination of public transportation is not to replace the entire fleet with electric vehicles or to electrify all of the existing vehicles. There are neither nearly enough time nor resources for any of that. There’s also the poor fit—or utter engineering impossibility—of using electric for everything that we use fossil fuels for today. You can’t fly on batteries, nor can you ship overland with batter-powered trucks. Trains would work, but the U.S. blew its rail network to kingdom come decades ago.

“The likelihood that we will power the USA on “renewable” energy in anything remotely like the current configuration of activities—suburbia, Happy Motoring, air-conditioning for all, cheap food, night baseball, Netflix, Amazon, server farms, commercial aviation, et cetera—is about the same as the chance that Xi Jinping will deliver each and every one of us a dim sum birthday breakfast at home next year.”
Page 28
“The wishful public has been fed a diet of misinformation from a wishful news media that won’t tolerate anything but positive thinking about maintaining our current arrangements because imagining a different outcome is too depressing.”
Page 29
“The thinking displayed in the Drawdown Project’s manifesto ignores a primary reality of our predicament: that increased complexity leads to increased risk of systemic breakdown. It’s as if they can’t imagine a world without a continuing expansion of human activities, as represented in economic growth. That is their only context. All that needs to be done is to “green up” the growth.”
Page 212

In part two, Kunstler takes to the road to visit with and interview some of his most interesting, frequent, or long-term correspondents. He mostly visits farmers and those who have figured out how to be self-sufficient, self-taught, or at least useful in myriad ways. They almost all have the affectation common to the self-taught and somewhat cloistered: they have theories that they’ve never had refuted. Mostly, though, they seem like relatively nice (if, at times, woefully undereducated and drastically over-autodidactic) people—Ok, the white-supremacist was far less rational and more suffused with conspiracy lore than the others—who are making their way in decidedly non-mainstream and more traditional and possibly moral ways.

The third and final part looks at some topics that have come much more to the fore in the last fifteen years—and even in the year it took to write the first two parts: extinctions in Nature and environmental impact, financialization and oil and its massive and disastrous impact on savings and investment in the ten years since the 2008 crisis, the autocoprophagy of the American Left (the Right was already hopeless) in recent politics, with the seeming madness engendered by the election of Trump and, more importantly, the loss by Clinton.

This madness evinces itself as a descent into omphaloskepsis on the part of the Left, as they shatter themselves into sects of Twitter-history–scouring hordes of virtue-signalers and purity-testers and know-it-alls who show up to torpedo anyone who was ever useful for ever having been slightly less than perfect in careers that have often spanned decades of struggle and hardship.

“Social media, it turns out, amplifies and accelerates antisocial behavior among a population that was already having a hard enough time processing reality.”

Some of his further speculation is highly speculative and, in my opinion, wrong-headed, but that’s to be expected, I suppose. Whereas he’s mostly right about Trump,

“History is a prankster. You order a Gray Champion, and cosmic room service sends up a casino developer and New York real estate mogul with a laughable hairdo, a big mouth, and no experience running a government.”
Page 232

…his in-built libertarianism mounts for him the same blinkers that many Americans wear, preventing them from seeing any solution but the one put right in front of them. For example, he complains about

“[…] and a new confiscatory wealth tax on assets, not the income from assets, but a tax on what you already own.”
Page 238

But many economically successful countries have something like it (including Switzerland). The problem of inequality is probably the biggest one facing the US (and other countries), with its nearly unfettered upward redistribution of wealth. Making that wealth inheritable cements the problem. Address the idea of “seizing capital”, he writes,

“Even theoretically, the money to pay for those programs doesn’t exist.”
Page 239

It does. Other people have it. Even if future debt doesn’t work, we can take back value from those who have stolen it from us and hoarded it. There’s a decent chance that, by the time we get done taking it, that it won’t be worth anything anymore, but the money is technically available.

While he rightly recognizes that racism isn’t the biggest problem—and that historical attempts to address it in the U.S. have failed miserably—he obstinately characterizes these failings in ways that blame the wrong parties. He correctly notes that all races in a certain class are affected by the upward distribution—pointing out that telling people who’ve also been left behind that they need to share the tiny piece of pie they have is a non-starter. This is all correct, but somewhat lost in his ham-handed prose (and I’m being very generous here because he’s otherwise a lucid thinker and writer; some would just dismiss him as a racist outright, which is unfair in the other direction).

Finally, he tells of his own personal journey over the last fifteen years. He divorced, moved out of Saratoga Springs, and bought a property with a house on it in a declining nearby town. He’s got a large garden, fruit trees, and some chickens. With about ten hours of work per week, he makes a good part of his own food. He’s close enough to town to walk to Main Street. He was quite ill for nearly a decade with cobalt poisoning from a hip replacement in 2003. He seems to have battened down the hatches in his preparations for the ongoing Long Emergency (exacerbated post-publication by COVID-19).

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Im Westen nichts Neues (1929)

by Erich Maria Remarque

This book is written from the point of view of a young German named Paul Bäumer, who fights at the German/French front during WWI. Over the course of the book, the harsh world in which he finds himself hones his cynicism, makes him more jaded.

We meet Paul at the front, having already acclimated there with his colleagues, Albert Kropp, a former schoolmate from his hometown; Haie Westhus, a hulking young man; Friedrich Müller, another classmate of Paul’s, more interested in book learning than the others; Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older reservist with a ton of experience and a nearly unmatched penchant for survival; and Tjaden, a young man with a prodigious appetite: Detering, a simple farmer boy; Kantorek, the former schoolmaster and fervent supporter of the war; and, finally, Himmelstoss, the former-postmaster-turned-corporal who tormented them all during basic training.

At the front, they engage in the nearly unutterable filthiness and desolation of trench warfare, moving a few meters back and forth each day. They are all dulled by a lack of rations, but almost more by a lack of sleep.

“Katczinsky hat recht: es wäre alles nicht so schlimm mit dem Krieg, wenn man nur mehr Schlaf haben würde. Vorne ist es doch nie etwas damit, und vierzehn Tage jedesmal sind eine lange Zeit.”
Position 20-21

A common theme is that the people at home don’t understand at all what it’s like at the front. They are too quick to judge those that try to avoid the fight or to flee.

“[…] wußten wir bereits, daß die Todesangst stärker ist. Wir wurden darum keine Meuterer, keine Deserteure, keine Feiglinge – alle diese Ausdrücke waren ihnen ja so leicht zur Hand […]”
Position 113-116

Confronted with a battlefield filled with the dead, wounded and barely surviving in a roiled sea of mud, blood, and oil, … who can blame them for “forgetting” what they were fighting for, for “forgetting” the people at home and their desire for “victory”?

“Die Gewehre verkrusten, die Uniformen verkrusten, alles ist fließend und aufgelöst, eine triefende, feuchte, ölige Masse Erde, in der die gelben Tümpel mit spiralig roten Blutlachen stehen und Tote, Verwundete und Überlebende langsam versinken.”
Position 2410-2412

For the young, the war becomes all they’ve ever known. Their days in school are finished. When—if—they return, they’ll have nothing to return to. The older soldiers still have a families and jobs—they have some other routine to which they can yearn to return. The young don’t even that that. They become fatalistic without even the years of experience needed to master the philosophy.

“Der Krieg hat uns weggeschwemmt. Für die andern, die älteren, ist er eine Unterbrechung, sie können über ihn hinausdenken.”
Position 171-173

They think about what life will be like after, should they survive the war, about having spent two years away from a home that they will no longer recognize as their own.

“Kropp denkt ebenfalls darüber nach. »Es wird überhaupt schwer werden mit uns allen. Ob die sich in der Heimat eigentlich nicht manchmal Sorgen machen deswegen? Zwei Jahre Schießen und Handgranaten – das kann man doch nicht ausziehen wie einen Strumpf nachher.«”
Position 732-734

They know how senseless their survival is, that with being clever and careful they can only improve very long odds. Fortune is the final arbiter.

“Jeder Soldat bleibt nur durch tausend Zufälle am Leben. Und jeder Soldat glaubt und vertraut dem Zufall.”
Position 842-842

That’s not to say that experience counts for nothing.

“Der Stellungskampf von heute erfordert Kenntnisse und Erfahrungen, man muß Verständnis für das Gelände haben, man muß die Geschosse, ihre Geräusche und Wirkungen im Ohr haben, man muß vorausbestimmen können, wo sie einbauen, wie sie streuen und wie man sich schützt. Dieser junge Ersatz weiß natürlich von alledem noch fast gar nichts.”
Position 1104-1106

They spend long nights in wet holes in the ground. They watch fog rise from craters like ghosts. They see fields of uncollected corpses bloating in the heat. They starve, they dehydrate, they freeze. They watch deadly chloroform gas creep over the fields, fingering every crevasse with its tendrils.

From this, they suddenly return to camp and “normality”, knowing that a return to the madness and misery of the front is inevitable.

“Alles ist Gewohnheit, auch der Schützengraben. Diese Gewohnheit ist der Grund dafür, daß wir scheinbar so rasch vergessen. Vorgestern waren wir noch im Feuer, heute machen wir Albernheiten und fechten uns durch die Gegend, morgen gehen wir wieder in den Graben.”
Position 1175-1176

Paul loses the first of his comrades, watching him die in a hospital bed, getting thinner and thinner.

“[…] die Stirn wölbt sich stärker, die Backenknochen stehen vor. Das Skelett arbeitet sich durch. Die Augen versinken schon. In ein paar Stunden wird es vorbei sein.”
Position 245-248

He and his company are assigned to guard duty for a month, guarding emaciated and surly Russian prisoners of war.

They will do nearly anything to eat good food. At one point, Paul and Kat hole up in a shed with a couple of roast chickens in one of the only truly wholesome scenes in the book.

Later, when the company is assigned to guard duty for a small town, they live high on the hog. One day, he and his comrades put together a grand meal, but the smoke from the fire attracts enemies. They continue cooking during the attack, loath to leave their supper behind. “Doch das Pufferbacken wird jetzt schwieriger.”

The boys take revenge on their former DI Himmelstoss when he is finally assigned to the front—and no longer has any true power over them. They sneak across a river to spend a night with some willing French girls, fraternizing with the “enemy”.

He describes a horse dying on the battlefield, completely unaware of what has happened to it, scrabbling its way forward in its life blindly—a metaphor for many of the soldiers who fall in a similarly senseless fashion.

“Das letzte stemmt [Pferd] sich auf die Vorderbeine und dreht sich im Kreise wie ein Karussell, sitzend dreht es sich auf den hochgestemmten Vorderbeinen im Kreise, wahrscheinlich ist der Rücken zerschmettert. Der Soldat rennt hin und schießt es nieder. Langsam, demütig rutscht es zu Boden.”
Position 538-540

Juxtaposed with the death of the horses is the equally senseless death of a young recruit (der “kleine Rekrut[…] mit der Wunde”), who’d only just gotten to the front on the same day that he had his entire waist destroyed by shrapnel. He was not going to survive. It was up to the boys to decide whether to prolong his suffering with a fruitless trip to the field hospital, where he would die—or, whether they would put him out his misery themselves. The miserable scene takes place in pouring rain.

“Monoton pendeln die Wagen, monoton sind die Rufe, monoton rinnt der Regen. Er rinnt auf unsere Köpfe und auf die Köpfe der Toten vorn, auf den Körper des kleinen Rekruten mit der Wunde, die viel zu groß für seine Hüfte ist, er rinnt auf das Grab Kemmerichs, er rinnt auf unsere Herzen.”
Position 628-630

On leave, he returns to his mother and his sister, who hesitantly ask him how it is, in the war. He lies, of course. How can he begin to explain to them what it’s really like? Their worlds have drifted apart, likely irreparably.

“Mutter, was soll ich dir darauf antworten! Du wirst es nicht verstehen und nie begreifen. Du sollst es auch nie begreifen. War es schlimm, fragst du. – Du, Mutter. – Ich schüttele den Kopf und sage:»Nein, Mutter, nicht so sehr. Wir sind ja mit vielen zusammen, da ist es nicht so schlimm.«”
Position 1376-1378

In his hometown for a few days, he already has PTSD. He hears the whistling of grenades in the squeal of tram wheels.

“[…] das Quietschen der Straßenbahnen sich wie heranheulende Granaten anhört […]”
Position 1416-1418

As with so many other soldiers of other wars in the century since this book was written, he regrets having come “home”. It is a reminder of how he no longer fits in anything resembling normalcy. It makes him bitter for what he has lost, but also bitter at those who stayed behind, benefitting, however indirectly, from the unseen and largely unacknowledged sacrifices at the front.

“Ich hätte nie hierherkommen dürfen. […] Ich hätte nie auf Urlaub fahren dürfen.”
Position 1586-1588

Back at war and Paul considers how he and his comrades have come to be trapped here: by the whims of higher-ups who make decisions nearly wholly unaware of what is happening in the real world. Orders are orders and they all follow them. Those that follow them don’t understand why they were given; those that gave them don’t understand what they mean to those who follow them.

“An irgendeinem Tisch wird ein Schriftstück von einigen Leuten unterzeichnet, die keiner von uns kennt, und jahrelang ist unser höchstes Ziel das, worauf sonst die Verachtung der Welt und ihre höchste Strafe ruht.”
Position 1644-1646

Perhaps because they don’t care, but also, possibly, because they are incapable of bridging the divide. They are too far away, the situation too abstract for them to understand the ramifications. This does not excuse them; it explains how they can live with themselves. They are simply unaware of what they are doing, like a man stepping on ants. Their remove insulates them. Our goal should be to avoid making such callous decisions.

Back at the front, Paul gets turned around on a mission and spends a day and night in a foxhole alone, save for the corpse of a Frenchman he’d killed. The man had jumped blindly into the same foxhole to escape the same gas that kills Frenchman and German alike.

“Jetzt sehe ich erst, daß du ein Mensch bist wie ich. Ich habe gedacht an deine Handgranaten, an dein Bajonett und deine Waffen – jetzt sehe ich deine Frau und dein Gesicht und das Gemeinsame. Vergib mir, Kamerad! Wir sehen es immerzu spät. Warum sagt man uns nicht immer wieder, daß ihr ebenso arme Hunde seid wie wir […]”
Position 1893-1900

When they escape the front, the troops ride on top of a wagon loaded with goods—“[z]wischen uns steht ein Papageienkäfig, den wir für die Katze gefunden haben”—but there isn’t room for everyone. There are countless internally displaced persons—families who’ve lost their homes and everything but their lives—and they walk in the mud, with lowered eyes and, more often than not, nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

“Ihre Gestalten sind gebeugt, ihre Gesichter voll Kummer, Verzweiflung, Hast und Ergebenheit. Die Kinder hängen an den Händen der Mütter, manchmal führt auch ein älteres Mädchen die Kleinen, die vorwärts taumeln und immer wieder zurücksehen. Einige tragen armselige Puppen mit sich. Alle schweigen, als sie an uns vorübergehen.”
Position 2027-2029

Those that remain of the company end up in a hospital, far from the front, nursing their egregious but not hopeless wounds. The hospital has many, many patients, nearly all in worse shape than Paul. He lists them all, finishing with his usual sardonic flair.

“Im Stockwerk tiefer liegen Bauch- und Rückenmarkschüsse, Kopfschüsse und beiderseitig Amputierte. Rechts im Flügel Kieferschüsse, Gaskranke, Nasen-, Ohren- und Halsschüsse. Links im Flügel Blinde und Lungenschüsse, Beckenschüsse, Gelenkschüsse, Nierenschüsse, Hodenschüsse, Magenschüsse. Man sieht hier erst, wo ein Mensch überall getroffen werden kann.
Position 2217-2219

The war is not done with him, though. He heals. He returns to the front, but the German effort is unraveling, no longer even capable of pretending to support its cannon fodder. The English and American troops seem overwhelming, better armed, better fed. At this point, Paul is fully jaded, knowing that the factory owners back at home are growing fat on profit while the soldiers at the front tighten their belts over bellies empty of everything but a thin flour soup.

“Wir aber sind mager und ausgehungert. Unser Essen ist so schlecht und mit so viel Ersatzmitteln gestreckt, daß wir krank davon werden. Die Fabrikbesitzer in Deutschland sind reiche Leute geworden – uns zerschrinnt die Ruhr die Därme. […]”
Position 2354-2358

And still Germany manages to find more bodies to send to the front. The hardened troops look with nonjudgmental and even gaze upon the fresh troops that arrive, inexperienced and untrained, they only know how to die. There are thousands of these, in ill-fitting uniforms—none were designed for such small frames—and hollow-eyed from a hunger that has reached from the front deep into Germany itself.

“»Deutschland muß bald leer sein«, sagt Kat.”
Position 2361-2362

This was to be Kat’s final joke. He soon died of a grievous head wound, despite Paul’s heroic fireman’s carry across a live battlefield. He’d thought Kat had only a shattered shin, having overlooked the pinhole in his skull that ended him.

The title of the book comes from a report issued on the day the war finally took Paul. The author notes with cruel irony that on this day,

“[…] der Heeresbericht sich nur auf den Satz beschränkt[…], im Westen sei nichts Neues zu melden.”
Position 2473-2474

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Bullets Points and Punch Lines (2020)

by Lee Camp

This is a collection of essays by American political activist, comedian, writer, podcaster, and TV-show host Lee Camp. The foreword is written by no less an eminence than Chris Hedges himself, who is a fan of Camp’s work. The introduction is by Jimmy Dore, another comedian who’s hosted Hedges on his show several times. They are all good people on the right side of history, with good principles, good research, and strong writing skills.

I’ve followed Hedges assiduously for years and recently been quite impressed with Jimmy Dore’s YouTube channel. Hedges is scathing in his condemnation of the American political landscape, as is Dore. As is Camp.

“And, as Camp points out, the Democratic Party is as complicit in this debacle as the Republican Party. There is no way at this level to separate Trump from Obama. One may be vulgar and brash, but the other uses urbane polish to accomplish the same ends.”
Page 10 by Chris Hedges

I’ve been a fan of Lee Camp’s work for a long time—at least a decade, if not more. I started following and supporting him a long time ago, when he just had his original Moment of Clarity podcast (which he still does, but now on YouTube). I even took a long weekend in Berlin once to catch a rare European show. He’s had his own TV show called Redacted Tonight for several years now, in which he regularly delivers hard-hitting and well-crafted news and polemics.

He started out as a stand-up comedian and still does that. But he’s very much grown beyond that—becoming a well-spoken and often sardonic and hilarious voice for the downtrodden and for justice.

This is a book of essays that he’s published over the years. As you progress through the essays, you can follow along as he finds his voice. The first few essays are on interesting topics, but are a bit heavy on jokes and somewhat forced analogies. They’re not bad but they’re not nearly as good as those in the second half of the book. The book illustrates Camp’s writing style as it progresses from stand-up-comedy-like lines to truly insightful and cutting satire more akin to that of Matt Taibbi.

As the book is a collection of essays, the rest of my review simply chains together citations to give an impression of the scope.

Camp’s final word on Donald Trump’s place in the pantheon of U.S.-inspired misery is a good place to start. Trump is unexceptional, a symptom rather than the cause.

“I don’t believe Trump is the cause of our country’s main problems. I believe he is a symptom of an incredibly corrupt corporate-ruled system. He is a horrible and rather—not bright—man, but he is not the cause of the millions of hungry and homeless and imprisoned in our country. He is not the cause of the flaws in our democracy and our media. He is just the pimple that has risen up.”
Page 223

The U.S. Military & Foreign Policy

Camp’s first essays deal with the astronomical military budget, which continues to grow unchecked, to the detriment of all other societal need.

“[…] a country that can vomit trillions of dollars down a black hole marked “military” can’t find the money to take care of our poor elderly.”
Page 17
“The Pentagon’s accounting fraud diverts many billions of dollars that could be devoted to other national needs: health care, education, job creation, climate action, infrastructure modernization, and more. Indeed, the Pentagon’s accounting fraud amounts to theft on a grand scale—theft not only from America’s taxpayers, but also from the nation’s well-being and its future.”
Page 33

It would be bad enough were the money misappropriated by people who honestly thought it was better put to use in the military. Their duplicity in appropriation and distribution makes it very clear that they are just using the military as a politically unassailable vehicle to which to attach their own ambitions—for graft, money, and power.

“Have no fear, patriotic Americans, this is not “lying to the American people, stealing their money, and using it for war,” this is just “unsubstantiated change actions.” Try that on your next tax return. Put in 10 thousand dollars marked “unsubstantiated change actions.” I’m sure they’ll love that.”
Page 58

Other essays discuss what the military actually does, which is enforce capitalism throughout its empire, beating down all resistance. The biggest crime a country could be guilty of, in the eyes of the U.S.?

“Being socialist. Pretty self-explanatory. If you don’t have the same economic system as we do, we treat it like you have candy, and we’re not allowed to have any, so we slip razor blades in yours and tell everyone your candy kills people.”
Page 61

As I’ve noted, Camp has quite a way with words. His descriptions of U.S. foreign policy are succinct, darkly funny, accurate, and complete.

“The absolute last thing [Venezuelans] need is to be turned into a neocon/neoliberal parking lot in which America rips all their resources out from under them while calling it “freedom.””
Page 68

Animal Rights & The Environment

From there, he moves on to animal rights and the imperative of vegetarianism, both for moral and environmental reasons.

“We have food. We have year-round ripe mangos that don’t even make natural sense. There’s no need to keep 280 million hens and 68 million pigs in a fucking Saw movie.”
Page 87
“[The mainstream media’s job is to] make you think we live in a system that can recover from this carnage without large-scale changes, without a new economic paradigm that doesn’t reward waste and planned obsolescence and profiting off the lives of others.”
Page 96

It’s hard to know where to begin with saving the environment. Nearly everything we do right now is going in the wrong direction—and nearly everyone else we know actively benefits from this system—in the short term. In the long term, we’re all dead. It’s what our lives look like in the medium-term is where it gets interesting. We’re mortgaging our future six ways to Sunday, burning the candle not only at both ends, but in the middle in a couple of spots too. Those in power benefit; many others get short-term benefits, enough of them that it becomes nearly impossible to turn this boat around. Maybe we just can’t.

“Maybe we’re right to die off. Maybe our hubris and egos the size of SUVs have doomed us, and we should just give up and enjoy our final few years. But if that’s the case, I would like an announcement. I would honestly prefer a national address by some of our so-called leaders stating clearly,

““Look, folks, to continue civilized society of the human species, we would need to change everything. Every single one of us would have to labor toward a massive shift to a sustainable culture that works in harmony with nature rather than abusing nature like it’s a servant who gave us an ugly look. We would have to focus on achieving this new society rather than spending a third of our free time watching superhero movies. But we have no intention of doing that because it sounds kinda hard, not to mention that corporate profits would suffer in the short term. So instead, we’re declaring here and now that we’ll all just keep functioning as is until such time as the oceans turn to acid, the ever-growing storms consume us, and California feels like the inside of a kiln. According to our best minds, that will be 10 to 20 years from now, so don’t worry about starting that retirement fund. Don’t buy the extended warranty on that vacuum. And whatever you do, at no point and under no circumstances should you quit smoking and drinking…. Thank you, and good night.””

Page 100

Racism & The Police State

Camp gets the right argument about police violence. We get distracted because there are way more violent things, so it’s easier to point out all of the things that are more dangerous than the police. Deaths caused by police are just the tip of the iceberg of oppression, though. False arrests, cash bail, harassment, and so on, all impact lives to arguably a greater degree.

“Yes, it is true that cops kill a lot of white people. They kill more white people than Wendy’s trademarked Baconator sandwich. However, cops kill more people of color than the population percentages would dictate, and they’re more likely to kill people of color who aren’t armed. So while whites do lose their lives in our current police state at a ridiculous rate, they are far more likely to be waving around a gun when it happens.”
Page 164

He also gets it right when he points out that racism exacerbates the underlying anti-poverty stance and inequality. It’s a class issue. The police end up working for their real masters no matter where they start out on the ideological scale.

“In this particular instance, systemic racism does not originate in race but in the way the rich have crafted our laws and our systems to favor the rich. So it’s a class issue rather than a race issue. Unfortunately, other factors of systemic racism—such as hiring practices and who gets promoted—ensure that white people are more likely to be extremely wealthy and less likely to be extremely poor. Therefore, our country has a racial wealth gap the size of the Grand Canyon”
Page 182

When you’re rich, you make the rules that keep you rich and safe. All of those other animals haven’t earned the right to be treated fairly the way rich people have.

“All told, much of our systemic racism problem comes down to class and wealth, not just race. But race, class, and wealth are deeply, inexorably linked. And therefore, whether you choose to ignore it or not, we must acknowledge that systemic racism is a thing. It’s in our schools, our air, our water, and even our televisions. It impacts every area of our lives, and much like climate change, we need to start fixing it rather than acting like it doesn’t exist.”
Page 184

The Economy & Inequality

The stock market is essentially gambling and the house always wins. If you’re winning, it’s because you’re squeezing a profit out of some idiot who probably could afford to lose that money a lot less than you needed to win it.

“I would actually respect the whole system if right on the front of the stock exchange it said,

““Put your money into the stock market! The only way you’ll make more money is if you find a dolt to buy whatever stocks you just bought. But there are an infinite number of dolts! This gravy train is powered by morons. So you have nothing to worry about.””

Page 104

The market is rigged and the only way to really win is to be the house, as with any other gambling establishment.

“Step two is to realize that the market economy in general is designed to exploit billions of us while a tiny number get ridiculously rich. It doesn’t care about the health or sustainability of our society as it facilitates the extraction of all the wealth and resources by sociopaths. Just ask Jeff Bezos—he’s now worth 150 billion padoodles of Amazon stock, while his workers are on food stamps.
Page 107

For example, the pharmaceutical industry has incentive not to cure diseases with simple and cheap one-time vaccines if they already have a lucrative business selling treatments for the same disease. If we leave everything up to the market, these businesses will logically decide that it’s more profitable to sell suffering patients decades worth of drugs instead. We only listen to the opinion of these businesses and have been trained to think that the government, that society—with its vast resources and wealth—has no say.

“They aren’t even trying to cure infectious diseases that make them piles of cash. Instead, the moneyed interests are complaining to their clients that they need to avoid curing these diseases. Because not only do they lose money on the patient who no longer needs meds, they also lose money because that patient won’t pass the disease onto others.
Page 111

Market incentives are completely screwed up. The market provides those things that people who already have money think will make them the most amount of more money. We don’t need to go all the way to a planned economy, but this is nearly the furthest thing from it. We just keep throwing money at rich people and hope that something useful for society comes out of it. It rarely does. It’s only with concerted planning and regulation and oversight that we can actually get what we want. That gets in the way of them getting what they want.

We run the whole economy of the world just as poorly as we run any other project. And, just like those poorly run projects, we have terrible oversight and nearly no useful telemetry, using metrics chosen by those already benefitting from a crooked system and pretending that it describes our society’s health in any way realistic to all but the 1%. We measure economic health with the stock market; we compare countries only by GDP.

“How do we rate success? We look at gross domestic product—how much we’re producing. GDP doesn’t measure how many kids are drinking toxic water or breathing toxic air. It doesn’t measure how many dolphins are choking on plastic beer rings. It only measures how many beers you chug down. It doesn’t measure how many trees were planted. It measures how many trees we cut down to make the cardboard for coffee cups and condom boxes. It doesn’t rate how screwed the environment is, just how much stuff we buy to keep screwing. Buy a dildo? Good for the economy. Throw an old dildo out? Ends up in the ocean, gets stuck in a whale’s blowhole. GDP doesn’t care.
Page 130
GDP doesn’t measure how many animals went extinct. It only measures how many animals we ate or sold. You could be eating a bald eagle roasted with giraffe bacon wrapped around it. As long as you bought it at the store, it’s good for GDP.”
Page 131

GDP is a poor metric, and so is the stock market. Its macro-economic performance has long since become divorced from the economy most people experience. It’s become more obvious than ever in 2020 that the stock market has no macro-economic importance. It matters, of course, to the elite, who are busy stuffing their track-suits full of leaves.[4]

“The Post acts as if Wall Street’s growth is somehow good for average Americans. It’s not. Trump, Hillary, and the Post are all part of an elite class enjoying the spoils of a fully exploited working class. Judging the health of our society by looking at stock prices is like judging the health of a dying man by looking at the leeches on his skin. “Wow, those leeches are very happy. This man is in peak condition!””
Page 207

The only thing fantastical about the following little parable is that is assumes the existence of aliens. The rest is accurate.

Imagine the aliens that come down here after we’ve eaten everything, killed everything, and turned it all to dust. Imagine them showing up and going,

“What happened to those little fellows that used to be here?”

“Well, they imagined something called the stock market, where nonliving entities called corporations compete to see which one can exploit the earth the most. It eventually swallowed up the whole biosphere they lived in.”

“Oh, which corporation won?”

“Ironically, the one called Amazon, which used to be the name of the largest river in the world, until they paved it.

Page 132

This split society—the eternal “haves” and “have nots”—leads to jarring conclusions. One is that, in making a judgment on whether something is bad or good for society, you must always be careful to consider for whom.

“It’s like a guy driving a car and only seeing speed, being completely blind to how many people he runs down. He’d get to his destination in record time and say to the townspeople, who all had family members run over by this maniac, “We did it. I got here in record time. We should all celebrate together.” One percent of America is celebrating. It’s time to do things differently.
Page 133

There is a relatively small group in our society that benefits massively from policies that are detrimental to the overwhelming majority. It’s not as cut-and-dried as deciding on the right policy. We have to somehow scam this minority, this elite, into implementing it against their own best interests. Either that, or we seize the reins of power from them. We’ve tried the first way for a while; maybe it’s time to try the second.


[3]

I refer here to the story in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe about our likely progenitors, the Golgafrinchans, whose ark crash-landed on Earth long ago. They were on Ark Fleet Ship B—housing the most useless elements of society—with A and C to follow. It was clear they weren’t going to do so and that the A and C denizens had dreamt up the story in order to get rid of the folks on Ark B.

After crash-landing, they lacked the niceties of society, like currency, so they decided to use leaves as “legal tender”[5], making every one of them “immensely rich”. They all walked around with track-suits stuffed full of leaves. The subsequent inflation problem led them to “effectively revalue the leaf” by “embark[ing] on a massive defoliation campaign, and…er, burn down all the forest.”

[4] All citations from page 299 of my leather-bound edition of the first four books of the at-that-time-only-slightly-inaccurately-named trilogy.[6]
[5] Rather than the “increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy” that is the epithet of the next book in the series, Mostly Harmless.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Speculation in JavaScriptCore (2020)

by Filip Pizlo

I include this article in my list of “books” because it prints to 137 pages and I spent quite a bit of time reading through it, although I didn’t end up with any specific citations from it. It’s quite an incredible overview of the amount of work and consideration that a modern dynamic-code execution engine like JavaScript entails. Specifically, the paper describes how to implement speculation.

“Before going into the details of speculation, we’ll provide an overview of speculation and an overview of JavaScriptCore. This will help provide context for the main part of this post, which describes speculation by breaking it down into five parts: bytecode (the common IR), control, profiling, compilation, and OSR (on stack replacement).”

Essentially, a compiler is composed of several compilers, each of which produces code with more stringent assumptions about types and paths taken through the dynamic code. The trick is to build this code in a way that allows an incorrect assumption to bail back to a less-stringent layer without imposing too great a performance impact on the more-stringent one. The paper describes how the different layers gather profiling information that higher layers use to make educated “guesses” about the level of stringency they can apply.

The performance of the engine is determined less by individual optimizations—to which all compilers have access through common code-generation back-ends like LLVM—and more by the heuristics of how to gather and use profiling information. For example, should an optimized version of a code even be produced? How often does it actually run? With how many different parameters? How many types of parameters? How long does the code take to run at less-optimized levels? How many times has the engine compiled more-optimized code and had to drop back to a less-optimized level? Additionally, the engine must balance the amount of memory and time used to track profiling information. The heuristics must also take into account that more-optimized levels take longer to compile.

The paper goes into a tremendous amount of detail and seems aimed at helping new developers on the project understand what JavaScript Core specifically does. Most of the information is generally applicable to writing dynamic compilers/interpreters/runtimes, though.

“Speculative compilation is all about speeding up dynamically typed programs by placing bets on what types the program would have had if it could have types. Speculation uses OSR exit, which is expensive, so we engineer JavaScriptCore to make speculative bets only if they are a sure thing. Speculation involves using multiple execution tiers, some for profiling, and some to optimize based on that profiling. JavaScriptCore includes four tiers to also get an ideal latency/throughput trade-off on a per-function basis. A control system chooses when to optimize code based on whether it’s hot enough and how many times we’ve tried to optimize it in the past. All of the tiers use a common IR (bytecode in JavaScriptCore’s case) as input and provide independent implementation strategies with different throughput/latency and speculation trade-offs.”
The Last Man (1826)

by Mary Shelley

This feels like another novel from the 19th century that was written serially, for two reasons. In the first place, it feels quite padded out, with each long chapter coming to a mini-plot resolution. In the second place, the book is actually quite clearly two separate volumes, with on of the main heroes of the first book Raymond dying in a conflagration in a plague-filled Constantinople.

The first half is essentially a bullshit fairy tale, ostensibly set in 2092, but with no discernible advancements over the early 19th century, when the book was written. Everything works out without conflict or even much effort on the part of the protagonists. Everyone is happy with all of the results. They’re all rich and smart and erudite and powerful and beautiful and just…barf. The second half is the actual pandemic-destroying-all-but-the-last-man book I’d set out to read.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The novel begins with the story of Lionel and his sister Perdita, who live in the countryside in Cumberland with their mother in more-or-less abject poverty. They’d never met their father, who was a jovial ne’er-do-well addicted to gambling who’d befriended the king and was, therefor, protected to a good degree.

Shelley sets the tone of the first half of the novel with countless examples of lovely, well-written passages that quickly grow almost tedious to read. For example, the following passage describes Lionel’s father as a charming but less-than-sensible man.

“My father was one of those men on whom nature had bestowed to prodigality the envied gifts of wit and imagination, and then left his bark of life to be impelled by these winds, without adding reason as the rudder, or judgment as the pilot for the voyage.”
Page 6

He remains protected, that is, until the king marries, after which the queen drives a wedge between the king and his incorrigible friend. She eventually delivers an ultimatum—cut off the sponge of suffer my wrath. The king obliges and Lionel’s father is driven into exile, having no means of support anymore. The king, in turn, gives up the monarchy, ushering in a republic in its place. The queen is beside herself with scorn and anger.

Lionel grows up to be a strapping man, head of a band of scoundrels who ravage the countryside, stealing what they need. The king’s other son Adrian moves to Cumberland, butting up against an angry and retributive Lionel, whose heart is reluctantly softened until he flips 180º and expresses lifelong devotion to the man whom he’d long considered an arch-enemy.[7]

We are introduced to Raymond, a hero of the Greek-Turkish wars as well as Evadne, a Greek Princess who loves him. Adrian, in turn, loves Evadne. Raymond loves Adrian’s sister, Idris. Raymond loves Perdita, and Lionel loves Idris. All clear? These are all respectively strapping or lovely, brilliant, rich people, all in love with one another in a seemingly Gordian knot of unrequited love.

This next citation is just a small snippet of Raymond rambling on for paragraphs about the depth and strength of his love (see more examples from pages 64-77 below).

“Yet you do love me; I feel and know that you do, and thence I draw my most cherished hopes. If pride guided you, or even reason, you might well reject me. Do so; if your high heart, incapable of my infirmity of purpose, refuses to bend to the lowness of mine.”
Page 64

This is effusive and overly flowery prose, depicting yet another improbable love triangle. It reminds me very much of the over-the-top love stories in Atlas Shrugged that described a love flaming so hot as to admit no doubt or compromise or even slight difference of opinion. They are lovely examples of poetic prose but, after a while, it’s hard not to feel she would describe taking out the trash in the same manner.

Also indicative of the time but now difficult to connect with is the subservience of woman, not just as forced by society, but also as fervently hoped for by the woman, who chooses a secondary role to a man who deems as having completely earned her worship.

“The overflowing warmth of her heart, by making love a plant of deep root and stately growth, had attuned her whole soul to the reception of happiness, when she found in Raymond all that could adorn love and satisfy her imagination.”
Page 125

Lionel moves to Vienna for a while, to work under the tutelage of Freud, while England starts to struggle with its republic. Raymond is agitating to move back to a monarchy, with himself as Lord Protector, which is basically king. Instead of causing issues among his friends, they all think that this is a great idea—because Raymond is so singularly awesome. Much of the rest of the parliament is similarly convinced, especially whenever Raymond opens his brilliant and loquacious mouth.

Soon after, they all become embroiled in the war in Greece. Rumors of Raymond’s death are followed by Raymond’s actual death and Perdita’s subsequent suicide (she obviously had no other reason to live). Adrian and Lionel return home to find that the plague that had begun in Asia and had just started to touch Turkey and Greece has followed them to England.

This is the first part of the book, with only a hint of plague. The second part eloquently describes the plague’s relentless eradication of humanity. I read the book to see if it, too, would provide some evidence that humanity’s idea of how to handle a plague was no different then than it is now (and than it was in Camus’s La Peste).

“We talked of the ravages made last year by pestilence in every quarter of the world; and of the dreadful consequences of a second visitation. We discussed the best means of preventing infection, and of preserving health and activity in a large city thus afflicted—London, for instance.”
Page 214
“Plague might not revive with the summer; but if it did, it should find us prepared. It is a part of man’s nature to adapt itself through habit even to pain and sorrow. Pestilence had become a part of our future, our existence; it was to be guarded against, like the flooding of rivers, the encroachments of ocean, or the inclemency of the sky.”
Page 261

This sounds very much like the lessons at least some of us had learned by the end of 2020—although I sometimes seriously question whether we’ve lost some capacity for dealing with society-wide issues. Our laser-like focus on individual liberty and luxury leaves little to no room for considering the more foreboding calculus of dependencies and conflicts between unequally represented interests.

Our notion of liberty often devolves into the strong surviving on the backs of the weak (dog eat dog), the strong using their mostly fortuitously acquired and largely unearned power to fortify and substantiate with myth their position at the top of the heap.

At any rate, in the book (as in reality), the remaining populace—either not exposed or more resistant—squabble and fight over the remaining resources and power centers. But it is hopeless, as the plague is unquestionably worse than anything humans can do to one another. Still, armies are raised, with the plague rejoicing at the close quarters and squalid conditions.

“At length the plague, slow-footed, but sure in her noiseless advance, destroyed the illusion, invading the congregation of the elect, and showering promiscuous death among them.”
Page 396

Luckily, the main characters are largely untouched by the plague—at least until much later. This is another literary device she uses without explanation: she protects her characters from the ravages of the plague until a sufficiently dramatic end can be found for them.

This is, of course, artistic license and largely implausible since most of them were simultaneously selfless in caring for the sick day-in and day-out. Yet, none fell to the plague. Were we to assume it was because they were so good? That the plague couldn’t get through the shield of their benevolence?

Lionel, Idris, and Adrian—now Lord Protector—rally the remains of humanity in England and strike out for warmer climes. The winters are brutal in England and humans can no longer survive there. Although the virus is worse in the summer, they still feel it would be better to move southward. There are trials and tribulations and they barely make it to the coast of France in their boats. There, they discover that those who preceded them had split into factions: on one side is Adrian and his benevolence; on the other is a brutal leader selling a story of protection from the plague in exchange for unquestioning fealty.

Lionel is integral in remediating this problem and the remains of humanity, once again united in purpose, continue to Switzerland, where they hope that the cool heights will provide agricultural plenty while protecting them from the estival ravages of the plague. The plague has other ideas. Only four survive the trek across France to Switzerland: Lionel, Adrian, and Raymond’s two children, Clara and Evelyn). Lionel dwells a bit too pointedly on how lovely and smart Clara is—with intimations of rekindling humanity with her.

They shift to Milan and Como, spending several lovely years there, with only Evelyn succumbing to Typhus rather than the plague.

“[…] one by one, beneath the ice-caves, beside the waters springing from the thawed snows of a thousand winters, another and yet another of the remnant of the race of Man, closed their eyes for ever to the light.”
Page 413
“"Thus are we left,“ said Adrian, “two melancholy blasted trees, where once a forest waved. We are left to mourn, and pine, and die.”
Page 416

Clara decides she needs to see where her father is buried in Greece. Lacking anything else to do, they endeavor across the Adriatic from Venice, but are shipwrecked, drowning Adrian and Clara. Lionel survives. We follow him on his physical and philosophical peregrinations, leaving him a few years later, after he’d ascertained to a great degree of certainty that he was, indeed, the last man on Earth.

“Yellow lightnings played around the vast dome of Mont Blanc, silent as the snow-clad rock they illuminated; all was bare, wild, and sublime, while the singing of the pines in melodious murmurings added a gentle interest to the rough magnificence.”
Page 414

Imagine knowing that yours would be the last sentience to behold such a thing, that nature would present such shows for long eons, irrespective of observers. That the clockwork continues without us, as easily as with us. Not that we have become irrelevant, but that we always were.


[6] This sort of jarring flip-flop is a common feature. There’s not a lot of subtlety to the emotions expressed by any of the characters. It’s like humanity viewed through the lens of a teenager: everything is literally the best or the worst ever.
[7] Idris never makes it off the island, and much effort and time is expended in making sure that her body is entombed in Windsor Castle, as if anyone at all cares where her plague-ridden corpse is interred, especially considering none of them will ever return to it.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Naked Lunch (1959)

by William S. Burroughs

This book is a stream-of-consciousness brain-dump of a junkie. In the afterword, Burroughs reveals—in refreshingly erudite prose—that he wrote some of the content the book during his withdrawal from a 15-year morphine addiction.

“The addict regards his body impersonally as an instrument to absorb the medium in which he lives, evaluates his tissue with the cold hands of a horse trader. “No use trying to hit there.” Dead fish eyes flick over a ravaged vein.”
Page 57
“The addict runs on junk time. His body is his clock, and junk runs through it like an hourglass. Time has meaning for him only with reference to his need. Then he makes his abrupt intrusion into the time of others, and, like all Outsiders, all Petitioners, he must wait, unless he happens to mesh with non-junk time.”
Page 180

Much of the rest of the book was originally arose from correspondence with Allen Ginsberg, one of Burroughs’s best friends and collaborators (and also a member of the “Beat Generation”) and with whom he was trying to kindle a romantic relationship.

The book is a labor of love by many people who helped Burroughs edit and shape the final work. He was adamant about its composition—even to the point of insisting on retaining obvious typos as intentional—and wanted it to read like it does. No chapter headings. Disjointed flow. No notion of storyline or chronology. Just a strong sense of common theme: on the surface, a story filtered through the mind of the junkie who wants nothing but more junk, but below that, a story of how a thinking person can hope to make their way through a world adamantly opposed to independent thought.

In the first third—the book was originally intended to be published in three parts, but all parties involved agreed that it stood better as a single work—there is a bit of a story of a man named Bill who flees cross-country to Mexico, with a rotating cast of companions—some real, some not—and an infinitude of places to cop and shack up and nod.

He writes of psychotic doctors and dealers and pushers and users. The hyperbolic prose freely mixes real-world events with fevered imaginings and dreams and heavily metaphoric renderings (e.g. the many, many hangings in the middle of the book involving people who keep coming back, again and again, in what would turn out—for the most part—to be faked hangings partaken by hangman and accused for a supposedly unparalleled sexual gratification).

He describes drugs and their effects lucidly, then disjointedly, weaving seemingly nonsensical prose—with heavy use of ellipses—into at-times vivid renderings of immediately recognizable real-world situations and locations. As Burroughs himself stated: it is not a novel. It is, at times, an epic poem.

The book does not tell a story—it delivers impressions, often very powerful ones. It is a maelstrom of words from an author whose deliberate rawness hides his frightening intelligence from anyone so inclined to allow it to be hidden. That is, if you want to be offended, you will be, missing out on the deeper message that the world itself is far more deeply offensive to anyone with a sensitivity to hypocrisy and an undiminished sense of justice. The raw language is the only way to treat bad things honestly.

The at-time maniacal prose nearly always reveals the author to be a clinical observer—especially of people—recording exactly the details of a person or place that snaps it into sharp relief for the reader (for whom memory fills the spaces left by the skeleton of Burroughs’s description).

“The café was built into one side of a stone ramp at the bottom of a high white canyon of masonry. Faces of The City poured through silent as fish, stained with vile addictions and insect lusts. The lighted café was a diving bell, cable broken, settling into black depths.”
Page 44
“Up through the river towns, Babahoya, Quevedo, Puerto Limón, black Stetsons and the grey malaria faces color of dirty paper, muzzle-loading shotguns and vultures pecking in the streets”
Page 262

Sometimes he’ll riff on what is almost certainly a real detail, an actual memory, supplementing it with a newly formed invention or one half-remembered from when he’d picked up the detail. He’ll tell of a young man he saw on a bus, then spend paragraphs describing the man’s history or future, though he neither never knew him nor ever would, instead stitching the real world to the richer, more interesting, parallel one playing out in his head.

“A few sentences plucked from the whirl of details in his mind, of the world only he sees with a history only he knows.”
Page 73

As noted above, the strong undercurrent of the book—for lack of a better word—is a surprisingly rational scream from a highly pragmatic man who did not prejudge, but instead partook. It warns of a world gone askew, in which those who can, and those who realize, and those who are wise to its mendacity, take refuge from it in the drugs that it forbids. The nation knows that its captives can escape its raw horror using drugs, and thus deprives its residents of all but the officially sanctioned varieties (e.g. alcohol and anti-depressants), guilting people into participating in the madness of American society instead.[8] In 1959 as today. Sorry, Bill; not much has changed. Not for most of us.

““I can feel the heat closing in,” Burroughs writes, setting the tone for the entire book, although such heat has less to do with the police than with the futility of freedom in a world of systems designed to keep us from ourselves”
Page 290 (from the Afterword)

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (2014)

by Matt Taibbi

This book is nearly evenly divided between stories of how the poor in America are squeezed for all they are worth, made to pay with money and time for crimes that shouldn’t even be crimes—or that they haven’t even committed— while the wealthy, the elite, the so-called Masters of the Universe not only avoid punishment for much larger crimes that destroy countless lives, all in the name of consolidating filthy lucre to a self-selected elite: “men and women who essentially as a matter of policy now will never see the inside of a courtroom, almost no matter what crimes they may have committed in the course of their business.”

And let’s all remember the huge difference: the people who steal a lot of money when they already have a lot of money are not being prosecuted. They are instead promoted to positions of power and influence. Those who have nothing and are stealing—or failing to properly report—small sums just in order to survive go to jail immediately and pay with time and money they cannot afford.

“Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.”
Position 117-119
“[…] giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.”
Position 144-146

This works not because those in power are exceptionally clever or better than we are. They’re just initially luckier, be it by birth or by just dumb luck. Hard work does not necessarily get you into the special class, but any number of stupid trivialities can. They don’t even have to be more clever than to divide and conquer (or control). They’ve,

“[…] arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.”
Position 162-163

This is nothing new, going back to the late 70s and early 80s—and having gotten a high-energy kick-start during Ronald Reagan’s two terms (see my review of the 4-hour documentary The Reagans for more information).

“The cleaving of the country into two completely different states—one a small archipelago of hyperacquisitive untouchables, the other a vast ghetto of expendables with only theoretical rights—has been in the works a long time.”
Page 13

Taibbi recounts the interesting mechanics of the fraud that led to the financial crash of 2008. To illustrate the “divide”, he juxtaposes what happened to people who orchestrated the greatest theft of all time versus people who break minor laws.

“Once the bubble burst, lawsuits were filed everywhere and whistle-blowers emerged by the dozen, showing, in graphic documentary detail, how nearly every major financial company in America had chosen to participate in this enormous fraud. It was the very definition of systemic corruption, but curiously, despite what looked like mountains of evidence, almost nobody with any connection to the crisis was even threatened with criminal prosecution.
Page 40
“And as every individual who’s ever been charged with a crime knows, anyone facing criminal arrest can expect collateral consequences. A single drug charge can ruin a person’s chances for obtaining a student loan or a government job. It can nix his or her chances of getting housing aid or a whole range of services—even innocent members of your family may lose access to government benefits. You can lose your right to vote and your access to financial aid. You can even have your children taken away.
Page 50

It’s not that no-one cares, but that it seems to be unstoppable somehow.

“The public defenders […] can’t do much about the convictions factory. They’re like partisans trying to slow an invasion by throwing their bodies under tank treads.”
Page 115

The political will is with continuing this situation because it benefits all of the right people and doesn’t affect anyone important, by definition. The law tiptoes around businesses and for a decent reason,

“Unless a company was corrupt through and through, it did seem reasonable to try to avoid destroying it and to protect the jobs of innocent employees if possible.”
Page 67

But it got to the point where “[t]he attorney general of the United States [admits] that he asks Wall Street for advice before he prosecutes Wall Street.” This was easier because the big boys could afford a lot of lawyers and put up a real fight, so “[…] incompetent and lazy officials with a defense-lawyer mindset [would] avoid difficult contested trials and simply take cash up front and declare victory for the cameras.”

On the other hand, “You’ll never see a local prosecutor call a press conference and pat himself on the back for letting a car thief or a mugger of old ladies off with a fine.” Instead, police were vociferously encouraged to create crime on that side of the ledger with incentives that spoke directly to their own personal gain—a nearly sure-fire method with most people, for whom principles are far down the list of priorities relative to enriching themselves.

“But the steep drop in violent crime presented police with a problem. If making arrests is the only way to advance in your career, but crime is dropping, what do you do? Furthermore, what to do if the only way to make a living wage is to rack up as much overtime as possible? In the Safir era, NYPD starting salaries were on the low end for professional police forces in America, beginning at about forty thousand dollars. How do you add hours in an era when crime is dropping?

“The answer turned out to be, you simply create arrests. By multiplying marijuana arrests by a factor of ten in the space of a few years, Safir’s police force drastically increased its workload.”

Page 95

I think that the the starting pay of $40,000 as being “too low” is odd, though. I made less than that in 1994 when I started as a software developer. I might have been making that by 1998. We weren’t living “rich”. We had no car and rented an apartment, but we were getting by without issue. I suppose a police officer isn’t satisfied with living lower middle-class like we were and figured working overtime arresting people who hadn’t committed crimes was an ethically defensible way of escaping that life.

In one case that Taibbi writes about, the main reason the state used to flush one man’s life down the drain was that he had “obstructed traffic” on a sidewalk after he stepped out of a car at one in the morning to discover a cop who’d popped up out of nowhere—on an otherwise empty sidewalk—to get between him and his own apartment’s entrance.

To a normal person, this seems like the cop is obstructing the poor guy returning home from work. Since a cop can’t be liable for something like that, it must be the other guy who committed a crime. The goal was to create a crime.

“The obstructing traffic section is meant to apply to people who are willfully blocking cars or people on the sidewalk, or to be used as a tool for crowd control at things like protests, but in practice it’s code for being black on a Tuesday night.”
Page 102

It gets more insidious, as charges are turned into convictions without sufficient proof simply by applying the punishment before trial.

“[…] if you don’t make bail, you’ll almost automatically spend at least [15-90 days] in jail waiting for trial. The state knows this, so essentially, charging a person who can’t make bail with a B misdemeanor is the same as convicting that person. You file the charge, the judge sets high bail, you go back inside, and then you eventually plead to time served, because, well, why not? You’ve already done the time.

“The only difference is, you’ve got a conviction now, which means the next time you get arrested, the denial of bail—or a punishingly high bail—will be even more automatic.”

Page 117

Innocent people end up with criminal records because “[…] the speedy trial concept […] is easily reduced to a complete joke.” and the system “applies disproportionate punishment to the guilty.” Remember that, with the successful division of America, people aren’t even aware that this is the system. They don’t know that “failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons.” Combine that with the foot-dragging above, and a “prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction […]” That “[…] puts an entire segment of the population constantly on the defensive, gives it a criminal record essentially in advance.”

Taibbi now moves on to contrast that system with what happens when Dick Fuld and Lehman Brothers steal and waste a truly tremendous amount of money. Unlike with poor people, where petty, mostly victimless crime is manufactured, in this case large-scale theft from thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of victims is completely ignored, letting the criminals steal more and more from more and more victims until the criminal finally stops on their own when the system—rather than the regulators—decide that enough’s enough.

“What’s amazing about this is that the Fed saw fit as early as January 2008 to warn Chase about Lehman’s instability. But nobody ever warned the public. Nobody stepped in after the bank cooked its books in Repo 105, or misreported taxes, or made fake disclosures, or lied outright to investors. Nothing was done. The government merely sat back and watched the catastrophe unfold, allowing new victims to pour money into the walking-dead bank right up until its collapse.”
Page 152
“The deals the government and Wall Street worked out that weekend […] transform[ed] America into a permanent oligarchical bailout state. This was, essentially, a formal merger of Wall Street and the U.S. government.
Page 156

Barclays stepped in to “bail out” Lehmen Brothers for what they claimed was “cost” but ended up skimming $5B from the top, stealing it from the owners of Lehman Brothers, who were already being screwed from the original mismanagement. Now, Barclays was stealing even more money from them, all with the oversight and blessing of the government. Instead of a candy bar from a bodega, it was $5B from retirement accounts.

Next, Taibbi takes us to Georgia, where we learn how the police milk the local immigrant population by inventing crimes to produce fines and settlements to bolster the local tax base.

“The squad cars perch on the sides of the road like ticks on a vein, hauling in alien after undocumented alien and tossing them into the criminal justice/deportation hopper. From there, in a complex, arbitrary, and mindlessly cruel legal process that puts people literally in chains for the crime of going to work or taking their kids to school, the detainees get ground up into a rich financial and political meal, shared in nearly equal parts by state and federal authorities on the one hand and private prison companies on the other.”
Page 201

Because of the residency status of these people, they are de-facto afforded fewer rights. This amounts to conditional rights, depending on how much money you have.

“For a country founded on the idea that rights are inalienable and inherent from birth, we’ve developed a high tolerance for conditional rights and conditional citizenship. And the one condition, it turns out, is money. If you have a lot of it, the legal road you get to travel is well lit and beautifully maintained. If you don’t, it’s a dark alley and most Americans would be shocked to find out what’s at the end of it.”
Page 208

It is about money, and it’s definitely a class thing, but how can we do this to fellow human beings, just because they don’t have that much money? That, alone, wouldn’t be enough, which is why we mix in race-based alienation to make everything OK

“This seemed to represent the ultimate white-folks win-win: local chicken-plant owners got to keep their cheap labor, while local police still got to milk the immigrant community for any money they made working at those plants.”
Page 229

On the other side of the ledger, if you’re rich and white, you can run a scam for 13 years and nothing happens until the scam collapses under its own weight (pretty much how Lehman brothers did).

“Madoff actually went more than thirteen years without making a single stock purchase and yet somehow survived several SEC investigations […]”
Page 256

So there’s Madoff, who scams millions, if not billions, out of other rich people by not making trades. And then there are the guys who coordinate to generate artificial trades—and interest—to drive a stock price up so they can sell at that artificially inflated rate.

“To paint the tape on ADM, Graber and Israel would call eight different brokers and put in buy orders simultaneously to run up the price—at a time when Graber was holding lots of the stock ready to sell into a rising market. It was a racket the Securities and Exchange Commission was hopelessly ill-equipped to stop.”
Page 257

In case it wasn’t clear how that worked: this in insider trading. The hedge funds have prior access to information that no-one else in the market has access to, simply because they pay the analysts more for it.

Everyone else gets screwed in a market that ends up reflecting only the interests of the already ultra-rich. And these people are just getting richer because they’re already rich and stealing from others. They’re worth billions and stealing more from those who have, relatively, nothing to give. Where that should be a greater crime because it’s more morally bankrupt than stealing to buy food, this is the crime that goes unpunished.

“Tipping off a hedge fund that your analyst is going to give a “buy” rating to a stock weeks before that research is made public can be enormously valuable to the hedge fund, for the obvious reason that the fund now has a pretty good idea of a concrete date and time when the stock is going to tick upward.”
Page 267

It’s essentially like when Biff had that almanac of sports facts when he traveled back in time in Back to the Future II. Hedge-fund traders know the future and are no longer taking any risk. No-one else in the market has access to this information and, mysteriously, they don’t seem to do as well as these hedge funds.

Next, Taibbi tells the story of a how a cabal of these hedge-fund traders convinced themselves to go short on a Canadian company (they were gambling that the value of the company would go down by a certain date). When they realized they were wrong, instead of eating their losses—as the rest of us would—they instead employed clumsy, quasi-Mafia tactics to try to force the company to lose value.

This is the alternative to predicting the future. If, for whatever reason, you still guessed incorrectly (or the information you stole turns out to not be reliable), then you can still commit other crimes try to change the future so your bet still pays off. Naturally, since you’re rich, none of these things count as crimes.

“[…] in a city where police in some neighborhoods define crime as standing on the sidewalk the wrong way, these idiots took their stock-trading act-like-a-thug life, screwed it up a hundred different ways, and not only couldn’t get arrested, they couldn’t even get police of any kind to notice.”
Page 275
“Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases. But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a year, in just one county.”
Page 323

It seems the police just weren’t looking for crime where they knew it wouldn’t be (i.e. they weren’t manufacturing it there). And this isn’t just grossly unfair, but the larger, ignored crime has a ton of collateral damage, in the form of investors (often pension and index funds and 401K mutual funds) who lost money on completely fictitious and artificially generated market movement.

There was no actual economic benefit—the common defense the finance industry has for itself—because “[t]he entire thing was a battle of public relations. It had nothing to do with real economics.” Anyone who claims that the free market is doing its job of “price finding” is either a fool or a liar.

This is a system with two, quasi-official sets of rights.

“Over and over again, we hear that if you owe money in a certain way, or if you receive a certain kind of public assistance, you forfeit this or that line item in the Bill of Rights. If you’re a person of means, you get full service for all ten amendments, and even a few that aren’t listed. But if you owe, if you rent, you get a slightly thinner, more tubercular version of the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, and so on.”
Page 319
“As Americans, we’re all beginning to develop a second sense about who gets to feel the business end of the criminal justice system, and when, and who doesn’t, and why. That second sense we all carry around in our minds is our true government. […] Schoolhouse Rock! teaches us that everyone is treated equally under the law […] but at the same time we somehow know not to be surprised when that turns out not to be completely true.”
Page 321

It’s more about class than race. The line is drawn between the reprehensible, mooching poor and the deserving, job-creating wealthy.

“It’s not that it’s written anywhere that if you’re black and you live in the projects, you don’t get protection against illegal searches—it just sort of works out that way. And if this makes any sense at all, it’s not about skin color. This is a cultural kind of bias. White people who live the wrong way get caught in the net, too.”
Page 319

Hatred of the poor is more deeply embedded and unchangeable than racism. Racism has actually decreased over the years. It’s obviously still a problem, but it’s much better than it was—albeit because it was so appallingly bad before—whereas inequality has increased dramatically. Middle-class blacks are just as disdainful of poor blacks as middle-class whites are (do you remember when Chris Rock had a long bit about Niggas vs. Black People in Bring the Pain?)

“[This system] attacks people without money, particularly nonwhite people, with a weirdly venomous kind of hatred, treating them like they’re already guilty of something, which of course they are—namely, being that which we’re all afraid of becoming.”
Page 324

Almost as strong as hatred of the poor is reverence for the rich, something I haven’t noticed in any other country. It’s deep-down, bone-stupid to revere the rich, sucking up their fairy tales about how they got to be that way and you didn’t. As Taibbi puts in, hand in hand, these

“[…] twin impulses […] drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.”
Page 324

You don’t need to be smart or good or anything commendable to get into the privileged club. You just have to somehow have a lot of money: inherit it, steal it, it doesn’t matter. Once you have it, you’re protected. Go big or go home…or to jail. If you commit crimes while you’re big, though…you just add to your fortune, but don’t have to worry about going to jail. You have to worry about the size of your fan club growing too big.

“These bureaucracies accomplish just two things: they make small piles of money smaller and big piles of money bigger.”
Page 326

Taibbi tells the story of Marishka, a young woman—one who’s made mistakes, yes—trying to make ends meet. Does she get even a real first chance, to say nothing of a second one? No. She’s not rich. Instead,

“[…] she was about to become more heavily scrutinized by the state than any twelve Wall Street bankers put together.”
Page 333

Helping her would cost nearly nothing and could help her a lot. Helping hedge-fund brokers steal billions costs a tremendous amount and helps only a small group of thieves who already had more money than they knew what to do with in the first place. But we are trained to believe that Marishka is guilty until proven innocent and that the hedge-fund trader doesn’t even exist.

Taibbi has a way of presenting the facts in a way that shows the glaring irony of this two-class system.

“For instance, in 2011, the state of Ohio—the same state that lost tens of millions in the early 2000s when its pension fund bought severely overpriced mortgage-backed securities from a Lehman Brothers banker named John Kasich, who would later become governor—tried to recoup some of its losses by sending out 22,000 notices to Ohioans seeking “overpayments” in either welfare or food stamps.”
Page 341

In other words, Ohio elected the guy whose company bilked its state-pension fund out of “tens of millions” to be its governor while it scrambled to bolster its budget by scrabbling back amounts in the tens to hundreds of dollars for what it called “overpayments” (a claim that, in many cases, was highly dubious) from welfare recipients. Because the rich are unassailable, we attack the poor. Not only are the rich unassailable, they are rewarded with governerships.

“[…] the only offenders the local burghers will spend money to embarrass publicly are young, single, nonwhite mothers guilty of the [alleged] crime of improperly receiving benefits.”
Page 349

This was not just a Reagan or Bush thing. This was also a Clinton and Obama thing. This is an American Ruling Class thing.

“Bill Clinton’s political formula for seizing the presidency was simple. He made money tight in the ghettos and let it flow free on Wall Street. He showered the projects with cops and bean counters and pulled the cops off the beat in the financial services sector. And in one place he created vast new mountain ranges of paperwork, while in another, paperwork simply vanished.”
Page 351

It is the way that they keep themselves as the ruling class. For 99% of the participants, there is no discernible difference from a monarchy. There is no underlying principle except for the rich to get much richer and the poor to feel guilty about not being richer, all the while being milked every damned day. A self-selected and smug minority can’t fail, while everyone else can do nothing but fail. It’s no wonder people are angry, but their anger is wildly misdirected.

This is the American Myth. It is a palace of lies built by many, but benefitting only a few. Many that support it would probably do at least as well or even better under a fairer, more just, more moral, and more principled system, but they’re terrified of changing horses and falling into the giant crack of poverty they’ve created.

They won’t rock the boat for a principle, for fear that they’ll lose the unearned gains they’ve accrued—and continue to accrue—from the unprincipled system that they do support. So they hear, believe, and repeat to themselves the stories that the losers in this system deserve what they get—just as the winners do. To admit anything else would lead to a psychic collapse. Are We the Baddies?

One of the big problems is that hating a poor person for not reporting they got an extra $25 of benefits per week is somehow easy. At any rate, it’s easy to understand what they’re being accused of—and feeling righteous about it.

Hating a bank for setting up laws that put its president in charge of bailouts to his own bank at a federal organization, effective loaning himself billions in government money at 0% interest to buy out competitors at bargain-basement prices, prices that were artificially depressed by a collapsed bubble that he and his bank created is … somehow more difficult to understand.

Taibbi provides the details below:

“[…] WaMu and its $307 billion in assets were delivered by the state into the hands of Chase and its CEO, Jamie Dimon, for the preposterously low price of $1.9 billion, a bargain deal that was struck just a few weeks before Chase was given $25 billion in cash by the government as part of the TARP bailouts. This was Chase’s second sweetheart deal in less than a year.

“Six months before, in March 2008, Chase had “rescued” the imploding investment banking giant Bear Stearns, buying the venerable firm with the aid of $29 billion in guarantees extended by the New York branch of the Federal Reserve—whose chairman of the board of directors at the time was, get this, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

“That means that six months after Jamie Dimon was the lucky recipient of his own Federal Reserve bailout in order to acquire Bear Stearns, his bank was given another $25 billion in cash by the state to go on another shopping spree, cash he used, among other things, to buy Washington Mutual.”

Page 359

You see? It’s so complicated that the average mortal will doubt their ability to judge whether something shady happened or not. But it’s brainwashing. They’ve brainwashed you into believing that you are completely able to judge the indigent—without needing any background information, which is almost always morally, if not legally, exonerating—but are utterly incapable of judging financial malfeasance and fraud several orders of magnitude larger and more damaging, even when it stinks to high heaven.

In the first case, we know they’re guilty because we can judge downwards, but in the second, we defer to the criminals, who we assume are just much smarter than us. We are jealous of their success and attribute it to their being superior—else we’d have to think we were somehow inferior or had been suckered in some way. If they don’t do too much damage to us personally, we let it slide, rather than examine that whole house of psychological cards.

“The crucial thing to understand is that if businesses like consumer credit cards are going to give cards away in the mail to everyone with a pulse, then the process almost by definition has to involve fraud.”
Page 383

Why doesn’t our bullshit detector go off for this stuff? We take to the streets to protest COVID, we believe the Earth is flat, that the towers were taken down by the Bush administration, that Russia stole the election—we fight like mad for stupid, unsubstantiated shit that doesn’t even affect us (not really), but then don’t trust ourselves to say anything when someone is blowing smoke up our collective asses in to steal everything we have?

This leads to people like Obama telling us with a straight face that nothing actually illegal happened, that “Banks are in the business of making money […a]nd they find loopholes.”, which is bullshit. They break laws that are unenforced. They undo laws that they don’t like. They illegally bribe legislators to add loopholes for themselves before driving through them.

They are the kids on the playground who change the rules mid-game, then declare victory and we believe them. Not only that: we worship them.

The final financial sector volume deals with a woman whose job was to sniff out credit-card fraud. She found it in her own bank, blew the whistle, and was fired for it. The transactions all proceeded unfettered. All of it was vastly illegal—fraud of the highest order—with several layers of beneficiaries all sucking illegal gains out of a helpless target, already mired in poverty and debt.

This is a “market” built on obvious subterfuges intended to generate predictable outcomes and revenue.

“[…] in a huge percentage of credit card cases, the cardholder never even sees the summons and consequently never appears in court to defend himself.

“[…] the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process. The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court.

“[…] At no time in the process do most collectors ever actually need to produce evidence of a legitimate debt or a legitimate judgment.”

Page 374–376

What’s stopping them from making them up wholesale? You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. If no-one checks, then you don’t serve and just make up a number for a nonexistent card and garnish their wages after judgment. Why even buy accounts from Chase? You don’t need them for this scam.

This is largely how it works, although they do seem try to get actual outstanding debts—which is not that hard to do in 21-century America. Once they’ve obtained a judgment against a wholly unaware victim without ever having shown any evidence, they then leverage other laws they’ve engineered that let them garnish wages in most states.

The company doing the garnishing almost never has anything to do with the company to which that person actually owes money. You borrow from A and B ends up garnishing your wages with no accountability or evidence and nothing other than a court proceeding with a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff because the defendant was never aware that it had even occurred. The first they know about it is when the notice a line item on their paycheck. This is a business model that actually exists—but only affects people you’ve never met, so it’s OK.

“What this means is that the entire business model for something like Chase’s credit card business is not much more than a gigantic welfare fraud scheme. These companies borrow hundreds of billions of dollars from the Fed at rock-bottom rates, then turn around and lend it out to the world at 5, 10, 15, 20 percent, as credit cards and mortgages, boat loans and aircraft loans, and so on.

“If you pay it back, great, it’s a 500 percent or 1,000 percent or 4,000 percent profit for the bank. If you don’t pay it back, the company can put your name in the hopper to be sued. A $5,000 debt on a credit card for the now-defunct Circuit City, which was actually a Chase card, became a $13,000 or $14,000 debt by the time the bank finished applying fees and penalties.”

Page 382

Banks profiting from fraud perpetrated on welfare recipients is a direct relationship across the “divide” described in the book’s title. It really pulls everything together.

“When the state brings a fraud case against a welfare mom, it brings it with disgust, with rage, because in addition to committing the legal crime, she’s committed the political crime of being needy and an eyesore. Banks commit the legal crime of fraud wholesale; […] But they’re not charged, because there’s no political crime. The system is not disgusted by the organized, mechanized search for profit. It’s more like it’s impressed by it.
Page 383

And thing to remember is that, while the bank has “entire departments committed to [fraud]”, the individual often doesn’t commit a crime at all, as Taibbi repeatedly pointed out throughout the book. The welfare cheating is sometimes or even often just clerical errors. Credit card debt is active fraud.

Instead of prosecuting giant crimes by unacceptable perpetrators, they’re inventing and then prosecuting smaller ones, on victims who’ve been made politically acceptable by brainwashing campaigns sponsored by the perpetrators of the fraud. They teach us to hate the poor (and ourselves) and revere the rich (them), then make themselves richer than the obscenely rich that they already are, while we cheer them on as they rob our comrades and neighbors.

That this is how it’s ended up bespeaks a corruption, a failure at the institutional level on a grand scale. If the government chooses to avoid prosecutions in favor of a non-controlling financial settlement, then that amounts to the government getting a cut of the action. This is the established model now. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The banks will do it again and the government will get its fee.

This drives a conveyor belt of lucre from a permanent impoverished underclass to increasingly unassailable royalty. That’s a business relationship or I can’t tell the difference.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Tropic of Cancer (1934)

by Henry Miller

This book feels like an autobiographical novel about Miller’s long stay in Paris as a relatively poor, struggling writer. It chains together notes and snippets and observations about life and people he knew to form a vague sort of history of a man with very few cares, a man accustomed to poverty, a man with a rich inner life, a man who’s left behind a wife and family. Occasional and intense longing for this family is generously tempered with indifference and laxity.

He lives in Paris, thinking nearly exclusively of where he’s going to get his next meal, but also where his next prostitute will come from. The second being almost more important because he often goes without a meal longer than without a fuck.

This nearly incessant rutting is, honestly, incongruous with the supposedly erudite author. How he’s able to get anything done while simultaneously post-coitally stunned and starving is impressive. He is, at times, quite eloquent in expressing his deep regard for women, even if it is from a nearly purely sexual angle.

“The earth is not an arid plateau of health and comfort, but a great sprawling female with velvet torso that swells and heaves with ocean billows; she squirms beneath a diadem of sweat and anguish. Naked and sexed she rolls among the clouds in the violet light of the stars. All of her, from her generous breasts to her gleaming thighs, blazes with furious ardor.”

He can almost always transform a minor windfall or payment into a roof over his head for a month or two. This is more than sufficient security for him and doesn’t worry him enough to make him change the aforementioned priorities.

At one point, he comes up with a plan to take advantage of the good graces and manners of some of his more well-to-do friends—his erudition having gotten him into social circles that his very meager means never could.

“And then it occurred to me, like a flash, that no one would refuse a man a meal if only he had the courage to demand it. I went immediately to a café and wrote a dozen letters.

““Would you let me have dinner with you once a week? Tell me what day is most convenient for you.”

“It worked like a charm. I was not only fed… I was feasted. Every night I went home drunk. […]”

The book ends largely as it began, with Miller in Paris, debauched and writing and drinking and fucking and peregrinating by day from one café and bar to another and by night from one rented room or mooched living situation to another.

The remainder of this review will be largely annotated citations, which hopefully give a better impression of the book’s philosophical passages.

At times, he writes like Burroughs in Naked Lunch, of what are obviously hallucinatory trips through Paris.

“I lean out the window and the Eiffel Tower is fizzing champagne; it is built entirely of numbers and shrouded in black lace. The sewers are gurgling furiously. There are nothing but roofs everywhere, laid out with execrable geometric cunning.”

At other times, his metaphors are more down-to-Earth, but no less enchanting, as when describes a woman lying on her deathbed.

“Two waxen hands lying listlessly on the bedspread and along the pale veins the fluted murmur of a shell repeating the legend of its birth.”

There are some long passages of this kind of mental peregrination, with some philosophical musing that doesn’t move what little there is of a plot forward in any way. It’s nicely written, though, and segues into the segments where he directly and autobiographically addresses what it’s like to be a writer, especially one who’s achieved a modicum of success and who has acquired a fan base that expects more.

“Great God! what have I turned into? What right have you people to clutter up my life, steal my time, probe my soul, suckle my thoughts, have me for your companion, confidant, and information bureau? What do you take me for? Am I an entertainer on salary, required every evening to play an intellectual farce under your stupid noses? Am I a slave, bought and paid for, to crawl on my belly in front of you idlers and lay at your feet all that I do and all that I know? Am I a wench in a brothel who is called upon to lift her skirts or take off her chemise at the bidding of the first man in a tailored suit who comes along?”

The process of writing—and of finding something to write, of expressing the tumult of disorganized brilliance jostling in the author’s head—is given much thought as well. The following passage viscerally describes a writer’s block engendered by the inability to get started because of a fear of mimicry, made only worse by the author reading more and more voraciously in an effort to prove that their own ideas are original. This education informs the author’s own ideas, making them hesitant to write down what are now suspected be unoriginal thoughts.

“[…] And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another in order to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property. And the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes. None of them are satisfying; none of them arrive at that degree of perfection which he has imposed on himself. And forgetting completely that he has not written as much as a chapter he talks about them condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.”

He is convinced, though, that being an author—or any sort of creative person—is superior, somehow, to the common runner of the rat race, if only because these creations impart fleeting moments of glory and joy not only to those best able to appreciate them—the creatives—but also to those benighted rat-race runners. A little light is better than nothing.

“[…] now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality.”

He is an expatriate who feels infinitely more at home in his adopted city than in the city of his birth. He contrasts “[a]nd God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.” with “New York! […] A whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless.” At the same time, he knows that the Parisians, who allow him to live among them, view him—and his fellow ex-pats, whom he naturally views as less-well-integrated—as madmen, unable to understand reality in anything approaching a mature fashion.

“No wonder they think we’re all crazy. We are crazy to them. We’re just a pack of children. Senile idiots. What we call life is a five-and-ten-cent store romance. That enthusiasm underneath—what is it? That cheap optimism which turns the stomach of any ordinary European? It’s illusion. No, illusion’s too good a word for it. Illusion means something. No, it’s not that—it’s delusion. It’s sheer delusion, that’s what.”

It’s not just Miller who lives this life; among the many descriptions of friends and acquaintances, there is this succinct one of Kepi, whose description hits a bit too close to home for the author, I suspect.

“Kepi is interesting, in a way, because he has absolutely no ambition except to get a fuck every night. Every penny he makes, and they are damned few, he squanders in the dance halls. He has a wife and eight children in Bombay, but that does not prevent him from proposing marriage to any little femme de chambre who is stupid and credulous enough to be taken in by him.”

At one point, he gets a steady job as a copy-editor. He writes of the passing of a co-worker, a man named Peckover, who’d never been worth “a good goddamn” as either a friend or a journalist but who, after dying a ludicrous death in an elevator shaft he’d somehow not noticed was wide open, is covered in encomiums by most of his other, former, and more hypocritical coworkers.

Here, Miller writes of the fool who’d written the man’s obituary.

“Joe and I, who knew Peckover well and who knew also that he wasn’t worth a good goddamn, even a few tears, we felt annoyed with this drunken sentimentality. We wanted to tell him so too, but with a guy like that you can’t afford to be honest; you have to buy a wreath and go to the funeral and pretend that you’re miserable. And you have to congratulate him too for the delicate obituary he’s written. He’ll be carrying his delicate little obituary around with him for months, praising the shit out of himself for the way he handled the situation.”

Miller and his friend and co-worker Joe, on the other hand, are in no way tethered by social mores.

“There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous. And the more horrible the death the more ridiculous they seem. It’s no use trying to invest the end with a little dignity—you have to be a liar and a hypocrite to discover anything tragic in their going. And since we didn’t have to put on a false front we could laugh about the incident to our heart’s content. We laughed all night about it, and in between times we vented our scorn and disgust for the guys upstairs, the fatheads who were trying to persuade themselves, no doubt, that Peckover was a fine fellow and that his death was a catastrophe.”

It is, at heart, an existentialist novel, with many formulations and much pondering about what life really means—and coming to the conclusion that meaning is fleeting and not worth pursuing.

For example, there is this lovely passage describing the actual coupling after he’s hunted and “captured” a prostitute with FF15. He acknowledges that only the pursuit offered him anything—and that the prostitute similarly seemed less-than-interested in the whole affair. It’s all meaningless, but pursued by both parties nonetheless.

“We haven’t any passion either of us. And as for her, one might as well expect her to produce a diamond necklace as to show a spark of passion. But there’s the fifteen francs and something has to be done about it. It’s like a state of war: the moment the condition is precipitated nobody thinks about anything but peace, about getting it over with. And yet nobody has the courage to lay down his arms, to say, “I’m fed up with it… I’m through.””

This meaninglessness goes largely unacknowledged, with man seeking to imbue meaning (much as his co-workers used the occasion of Peckover’s death) to a life otherwise lived from day to day, with no overarching purpose. If Peckover’s life was worthless, then what of one’s own? Best to sing Peckover’s praises in order to convince oneself of one’s own worth.

Miller seems to argue that this is the root of man’s evil—an inability to just be at peace with inconsequence.

“For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured—disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui—in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable.”
“It’s like a man in the trenches again: he doesn’t know any more why he should go on living, because if he escapes now he’ll only be caught later, but he goes on just the same, and even though he has the soul of a cockroach and has admitted as much to himself, give him a gun or a knife or even just his bare nails, and he’ll go on slaughtering and slaughtering, he’d slaughter a million men rather than stop and ask himself why.

In the next passage, Miller offers an empathetic view of an otherwise societally excoriated profession i.e. “Pimpin’ ain’t easy”.

“You don’t think that a pimp is inhuman, I hope? A pimp has his private grief and misery too, don’t you forget. Perhaps he would like nothing better than to stand on the corner every night with a pair of white dogs and watch them piddle. Perhaps he would like it if, when he opened the door, he would see her there reading the Paris-Soir, her eyes already a little heavy with sleep. Perhaps it isn’t so wonderful, when he bends over his Lucienne, to taste another man’s breath. Better maybe to have only three francs in your pocket and a pair of white dogs that piddle on the corner than to taste those bruised lips.”

There are several passages that lament what industrial society has done to man, even back in 1934, when it had gotten a good start but hadn’t even begun to dream of the ravages it would achieve by the end of the century. In particular, it is cities that are the “machine [squeezing the] last drop of juice” from people.

“I am speaking naturally of that world which is peculiar to the big cities, the world of men and women whose last drop of juice has been squeezed out by the machine—the martyrs of modern progress.”

In a roundabout way, he explains his indolent lifestyle as a desire to avoid the zero-sum rat race—the “harness”. Industry eradicates everything in its path with its endless cry to move “Forward!” without thinking at all of why. As acknowledged elsewhere, there is no “why”, but then what’s the point of this enslavement of man to this industrial goal?

“All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico. The same story everywhere. If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward!”

Without acknowledging that his debauched life in Paris depends on a several strata of just such workers providing the fruits of a society that can sustain his mooching, Miller has mostly disdain for those who have chosen—or been forced—to take up the harness instead of throwing it off, like he has. Recall that he has abandoned a family in another country.

“There was nothing to distinguish them from the clods whom they would later wipe their boots on. They were zeros in every sense of the word, ciphers who form the nucleus of a respectable and lamentable citizenry.”

This book is most definitely the kind that depends very much on what you bring to it. Therefore, it will feel different depending on when in your life you read it. Everything is subjective and very little is as meaningful as it appears.

“[…] it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.