Review: Wheel of Time S01

Wheel of Time S01 (2022)

The Rafeverse isn’t a different turning of the Wheel as Rafe and Sanderson have claimed, nor even a Turning in which the Dark One won as some have suggested here (if that had happened, he would have been free in all worlds, at all times), but a Mirror World or World That Might Be.

The distinguishing feature of these Mirror Worlds is that while they are possible worlds, their appearance and sustained existence is improbable in the extreme. Stronk women taking down Trollocs with a pocket knife commando-style, while a blademaster can’t kill a single one. Globalized cosmopolitan age levels of ethnic heterogeneity in podunk villages that haven’t received more than a couple of peddlers per year for a millennium. Social mores of a late liberal society persisting after an apocalyptic total war and 3,000 years of upheavals and decivilization. “Darkfriends” managing to erase mention of the Eye of the World from Tar Valon’s libraries

Causality in this world is broken, with all its attendant effects on world self-consistency. Incidentally, this also explains the very low IQ of the characters in the show. Intelligence is only adaptive in worlds governed by consistent rules that can be figured out and then exploited for a competitive advantage. In a world in which an Aes Sedai can’t stop Whitecloaks from burning her at the stake while a bunch of untrained wilders destroy an entire Trolloc horde, or in which a village Wisdom can follow an Aes Sedai’s “tell” which her own Warder cannot, there is no significant payoff to intelligence, hence it was never selected for there. In this sense, Lan is actually rational and smart for not wasting his time training any of the boys in how to use their weapons, this is not how XP is actually gained in this world. He, at least, is fully cognizant of how his world works, and navigates it efficiently.

I would say that the aesthetics of this world tends to back up this theory. It has a washed out look, lack of attention to detail (costumes that spontaneously clean themselves), empty spaces, near empty sets, inconsistent distances and timelines, scales and measures that have no anchor in objective reality, and extreme warped perspectives, as when our heroes go for a Sunday jaunt into the Blight and Trollocs emerge to attack the Gap a few hundred meters behind them (in a normal world, this would beg the question of how they managed to avoid getting caught up in that flood, but not one in which time and distances “bend” in arbitrary ways as in the improbable Mirror Worlds).

One prediction we can make from this is that if the Mirror World theory is true, then it is an already highly unstable and indeed “fragile” existence, and one that may well unravel completely when balefire is weaponized again and breaks the already seeping chains of causality that hold reality in place beyond some critical tipping point. The likeliest point for that to happen is in connection with certain events at the Stone of Tear, i.e. the presumed end of Season 2.

Instead of holding anger against Rafe and the showrunners, I would suggest instead sparing a thought and extending some compassion towards the benighted denizens of this Mirror World, who live tormented and twisted lives with no understanding of how things are really meant to be, and whose very existence will probably soon end, at least bringing with it the small mercy of a final release from the permanent psychosis in which they are forced to live.

(Original).

Game Review: Civilization V

Civilization V (2010) ★★

I think it’s by far the worst of the series. This is “Civilization for Dummies,” so to speak (as one reviewed called it). Consider:

1. The AI is primitive, as if it’s actually going backwards rather than forwards with time. Difficulty levels are determined by artificially giving the computer controlled civs more resources, not improving their intelligence. This was acceptable a decade ago. Now, it most definitely is not.

2. There are now almost as many Wonders as there are normal buildings, and the benefits they provide are seemingly random and unconnected with the actual building. The Kremlin is a modern Wonder. WTF. There is no longer that feeling of anticipation and even “wonder” when you manage to construct a Wonder.

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Book Review: John Durant – The Paleo Manifesto

The Paleo Manifesto” by John Durant, published in 2013. Rating: 5/5.

Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.

It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.

Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.

The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.

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Book Review: Xin Liu – The Otherness Of Self

The Otherness of Self” by Xin Liu, published in 2002. Rating: 1/5.

I don’t want to sound overly demanding, but really, unless a writer is the next Kant or Heidegger, he owes it to his readers to make his prose at least minimally engaging. With this book on too many occasions I was under the impression that I was reading something from the Postmodern Essay Generator. Here is a totally random quote I just pulled from THE OTHERNESS OF SELF: “As Carr argues, a solution to the problem of experience is provided by the Husserlian idea of retention-protention as a horizon from which the experience of being experienced at the present moment stands out.

Come again, amigo? About 80% of this book is PoMo-babble, as verbose as it is apparently meaningless – one is under the distinct impression that Xin Liu is padding out a thesis paper with references to thinkers who are not really at all relevant to the putative object of his studies, the Beihai Star Group and South Chinese business culture. It is with this in mind that we come to the actual content, unearthing which expends no small time of energy and sanity.

In this book, the anthropologist Xin Liu argues that “the human experience itself is narrative in character… time is the life of narrative.” By extension, social life is centered around the perception of time as it relates to the past, present, and future, as well as to the sense of “before” and “after”. He analyzes China’s changing society through the prism of its changing conceptions of temporarily as described in three contemporaneous books representative of the time periods in which they were written, as well as his own observations of business life in Beihai.

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Book Review: Benjamin Schwartz – In Search Of Wealth And Power

In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.

in-search-of-wealth-and-power-benjamin-schwartz

In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that  contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

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Book Review: C.S. Friedman – Black Sun Rising

Black Sun Rising (Book 1 of the Coldfire Trilogy) by C.S. Friedman, published in 1991. Rating: 3/5.

The Coldfire Trilogy is sometimes described as a successful fusion of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So what better work to start reviewing on this site?

I will be forthright: By far the most wondrous and intriguing element of this series is the world Celia S. Friedman built. Not really in the details – names are generic, and cities have no character of their own – but in the metaphysics. This is a world where simply thinking about something can bring it into being. This is reminiscent of other fantasy worlds like Solaris, numerous Philip K. Dick creations, and The Wheel of Time’s Tel’aran’rhiod. If you’re the type who has a lot of nightmares, living there probably wouldn’t be your cup of tea: “Erna is a harsh mistress.”

The interrelations between the cognitive and physical realms are mediated by the fae. The fae are a sort of energy current that can be manipulated, or “Worked,” by conscious minds to produce what we might think of as magic. But don’t call it that! For as the main hero of the story points out, “The fae is as natural to this world as water and air were to our ancestors’ planet.” Nor is it all bad: It can reinforce buildings against earthquakes, and cure wounds (giving faith healing an altogether more literal meaning!). The natural world, as a result, is subject to Lamarckian evolution: “Here, if trees grow taller, the next gaffi calves are born with longer necks.”

As it is now more than a millennium since humans first settled the planet, the concept of a world without fae is hard to imagine. Even though Damien Vryce, the main protagonist, serves a Church that is committed to the extirpation of the fae, he himself reacts to a vision of such a world with terror:

Explosives fire like a sharp drumroll in the distance, the crack of a hundred pistols perfectly synchronized. He feels a sharp bite of fear at the sound, at the unnaturalness of it. What kind of Working must it take, to make it possible for so many guns to fire successfully, with such planned precision? … For the first time in his life, he knows the rank taste of terror. Not the quantifiable fear of assessed risk, but the unbounded horror of total immersion in the unknown. Guns fire once more in the distance, and for the first time since coming here he realizes why they can function with such regularity. Man’s will has no power here—not to kill and not to heal, not to alter the world and not to adapt to it. The whole of this world is dead to man, dead to his dreams, impassive to his needs and his pleas and even his fears. The concept is awesome, terrifying.

This vision was created by Gerald Tarrant, the anti-hero of the story, to evoke fear in Damien. He is a centuries-old sorcerer who escaped death by pledging himself to demonic forces, gaining immortality and great power over the dark fae in return for regularly engaging in murder and feeding off the fear and terror of his victims – hence, his psychological torture of Damien, which the latter agrees to. But Tarrant is also the original founder of Damien’s Church, even if he has long abandoned its ideals (albeit he says it’s not that simple). This makes for an uneasy and tension-filled relationship between the two that looks like it will evolve in interesting directions in the next two books. It is also the main reason that I will continue reading the series to its end.

So why the rather mediocre rating? Plot. Characters. Consistency. It is not entirely clear why Damien became so committed to Ciani in the course of a weeks-long fling that he would literally travel to the ends of human civilization to bring back her stolen memories. Nor do I even recall why she was singled out in particular. The Big Bad’s fortress is originally described as a massive, physically-impossible structure of “naked stone” that “rose up from the earth like a basalt column,” but soon afterwards it becomes a citadel that was like “a jewel, a prism, a multifaceted crystalline structure that divided up the night into a thousand glittering bits.”

The very title of the book is “Black Sun Rising,” but there is only one reference to a black sun that I can recall. And unless it’s a metaphor for Tarrant, I don’t see it leading anywhere:

In the far north, across the Serpent’s waist, a midnight sun is rising. Black sphere against ebony blackness, jet-pure; a thing that can only be Felt, not Seen. Into it all the light of the world is sucked, all the colors and textures that the fae contains: into the crystalline blackness, the Anti-Sun. He stares at it in adoration and horror and thinks: There, where all the power is concentrated, like matter in a black hole . . . there is the power we need for this quest. Power to shake the rakhlands and make our kill and move the earth besides!

Apart from the stolid Damien Vryce and the darkly seductive Gerald Tarrant, the other characters are quite wooden, Senzei in particular giving off the vibes of an expendable (and accurately so, it turned out). Despite or rather because of his inherent intrigue and dark mystery, Gerald Tarrant is – looking at it in another way – a quite banal product of the feminine erotic imagination. Like a fusion of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, and the serial killers who get bags of love letters in the mail, as channeled through Ciani:

With consummate grace, Tarrant walked to where she stood, took her hand in his, and bowed gallantly. Gritting his teeth, Damien was forced to acknowledge the man’s charm. … With a sinking feeling Damien realized just how drawn she would be to the Hunter, and to the mystery that he represented. It would mean little to her that he tortured human women as a pasttime, save as one more fact for her to devour.

It’s all the same power to her. He’s just another adept. More interesting than most, perhaps—but that only makes him more desirable. The cost of it means . . . nothing.

Essentially, the sheer awesomeness of Gerald Tarrant paradoxically cheapens him as a character, especially when he decides to slum it with mere humans. But maybe I am missing something big that explains all this in a later book.

Finally, there is also an ecological and anthropological element to the story. There is “The Forest” that Gerald Tarrant had engineered into existence with the force of his will, his need, and his intellect; sunlight and its solar fae are deadly to a man of the dark like himself, so over the long centuries, he created an entire ecosystem that could thrive without sunlight. There are the rakhlands, home to the rakh, a cat-like species that – under the avalanche of human fears over a rival species – evolved intelligence. The humans tried to exterminate them out of existence, with the result that the rakh retreated to an isolated part of the continent and erected a barrier called the “Canopy” to protect themselves from humankind. In a world where thinking really is existing, the Canopy can be seen as an “extentsion of their communal protection [and of] their need for protection [against man].” We also meet the “Lost Ones,” subterranean-dwelling relatives of the rakh who eat creatures from the above – including their cousins – for sustenance. They are the Morlocks/Falmer of Erna.

Have no illusions: This is not a landmark fantasy series. The characters are forgettable, with the partial exception of Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant (although the latter has his own issues). The plot meanders considerably, and is barely discernible in places, like the earth fae over the ocean. I think there are too many points of inconsistency for them all to have been a result of errors on my part as a reader (if so: Apologies. Maybe somebody was stealing my memories when I was reading the book?). There is also one character’s miraculous and unexpected survival at the end that, much like Sherlock Holmes’ faked death, strains the bounds of credulity. I wonder if the author will explain this sometime, or whether its a deus ex machina that will lie buried – unlike the unlikely survivor – to the end.

But it intrigued my just about enough to download the second book. I guess that means that aura of Erna can still draw you in even despite quite significant flaws in execution.

Book Review: Arthur H. Smith – Chinese Characteristics

Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, published in 1894. It is available free hereRating: 5/5.

chinese-characteristics-arthur-h-smith-intellectual-turbidity

In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is ahistorical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country.

The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather, etc. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province.

Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4% of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase!

Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French:

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Book Review: Matt Forney – Confessions of an Online Hustler

Confessions of an Online Hustler by Matt Forney, published in 2013. See the Amazon version of this review. Rating: 4/5.

confessions-of-an-online-hustler-matt-forneyLet’s get one thing straight right off the bat: This book isn’t for the casual reader. Despite the title, it’s not a “life interest” story with a morass of prurient and scandalous details, nor is it a deep social or philosophical commentary. It is very specifically written for those who want to grind a living from online writing and punditry (especially those who write on controversial subjects like HBD and feminism, as does Matt Forney). If that doesn’t describe you, I can’t in good conscience recommend you buy this book. On the other hand, if you enjoy writing and wish to make a living as an iconoclastic blogger, then this book will definitely add much value and save you a lot of trouble.

Much of the book is taken up with the technical details of setting up a WordPress blog and publicizing it. As someone who has been blogging for 5 years and counting, I can testify that this book has an accurate and succinct summary of all the most important things you need to bear in mind. You can find the same information for free elsewhere, but the problem is that the Internet has a low signal to noise ratio – it will take time, and may well lead you down dead ends. Why not fork up the equivalent of an hour’s worth of a minimum wage job and spend a single evening’s reading time to avoid going through all that?

But at least to me the most interesting and original part was Matt’s (well, not entirely his, but he refined it) concept of “tiered blogging.” I have come to much the same conclusions on my own, if via annoying and costly errors, but it was great to see it so lucidly formulated and systematized. Here’s the lowdown. A Tier-3 blog is an everything-that-interests-me kind of blog, where you post whatever the fuck you feel like. The problem is that unless you develop a cult of personality, like Tucker Max, then you’re not going to get massive amounts of traffic (or money) through that alone. But you will notice that some posts of yours are going to get a much better response than others. Say, to take my own example, while most readers couldn’t care less for my ramblings on Human Biodiversty and dog pictures at AKarlin, a great many of them are interested in reading my ramblings on Russia. So I create a far more narrowly specialized Tier-2 blog like Da Russophile that is specifically about Russia just for them. This audience is much more homogeneous than my AKarlin audience – they, at least, are all interested in Russia at a minimum, whereas the AKarlin folks may be interested in HBD, dog pictures, professionally trolling me, and any combination thereof.

Once you get your Tier-2 hustle going, you can start thinking of making money. But it’s not as simple as putting up a ton of ads and retiring with your laptop to the Caribbean; unless you manage to become a “superstar” blogger, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever make any significant money from running ads. It’s virtually impossible if you are an original thinker and would rather cut off your hands than engage in the vacuous vapidity that passes for mainstream commentary. Getting money through donations and affiliate marketing can be more profitable, but they will (realistically) only get you a modest secondary income – and an unstable one at that. Selling information products is where the real game is at: DVD’s, software, music, and, of course, books. This is Tier-1, the “summit of hustle mountain.” Almost every “professional” pundit does that: Liberals like Glenn Greenwald and conservatives like Steve Sailer, players like Roosh Vorek and “online hustlers” like Matt Forney himself. And for that matter I too will soon be joining their ranks with my upcoming book The Dark Lord of the Kremlin about the Western media’s war against Putin’s Russia.

But at this point, I have to make my own confession. I lied to you back there. In reality, I got the whole “tiered blogging” thing ass backwards. I started out writing at Da Russophile, but did not have the discipline to keep it confined to Russia period, and started mixing it up with unrelated things like peak oil and my shifting political ideologies. That drove away a lot of people. Only gradually over several years did I realize the vital importance of compartmentalizing my interests – which can be fickle as well as controversial – away from “hustles” with dedicated but easily alienated audiences. To illustrate the concept, say my Da Russophile audience consists of 100 liberals, 100 conservatives, and 100 people who care nothing for anything not Russia related. Now suppose that for every post about Russia there I were to also write a post defending gun rights and a post on global warming. I would alienate both the liberals and the conservatives, bore the hardcore Russia watchers, and create three times the work for myself to boot. It’s raving lunacy!

But unfortunately, that’s only obvious in retrospect. I could have saved myself a lot of time and disillusioned readers had I practiced “tiered blogging” from the very start.

This does not mean I agree with everything here. I think Forney’s attitude to regular blogging is too strict and disciplinarian, and may well be part of the reason that writing a new blog post now brings him about as “as much joy as a crack whore sucking off another dirtbag behind the club dumpster.” While there’s no disputing that discipline in blogging is a good thing, is it really worth it if it sucks all the joy and passion from what should really be a hobby? If that’s how you look at it, then how is it any different from your bog-standard, soul-crushing 9-5 job then?

I appreciate Forney’s nods to the Cracked school of writing that intersperses bouts of flippant levity in between paragraphs of actual information. This makes it much more readable than your standard, dry as a nun’s nasty self-help book. (See what I did there?). For all that, perhaps the reader could have done with a couple less allusions to pasty-faced virgins and homosexual orgies, Matt.

The one very substantial issue I disagree with him is on optimal book pricing, especially as applied to e-books. He claims that $10 is an entirely normal price for a Kindle book, and that charging less can even hurt your total sales because customers have learned to associate low prices with poor quality. A nice and plausible enough theory, with only one problem: Actual data doesn’t support it. The “sweet spot” for Kindle books in terms of maximizing revenue has been convincingly demonstrated to be $3-$4 (with a 40% markup if said book is non-fiction).

Self-improvement is a roadmap, not a guided tour. There can be no guarantees of success – as Matt himself, unlike the vast majority of self-help gurus, is honest enough to admit. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that reading this book will appreciably improve your chances of success. And considering that a hell of a lot of money can depend on this – maybe even a new career – this book way more than pays for itself in terms of the additional positive expected value it generates for you. If you wish to make serious money through blogging – well, through writing books and propagandizing them on your blog – then you could do a lot worse than getting hold of Matt Forney’s literary debut and spending a couple of hours digesting the hard-won wisdom in its 120 pages.

At the very least, as Matt himself might say, it would be “healthier than some of the other things people do in their spare time, like going to furry conventions.”

Book Review: Paul Wade – Convict Conditioning

Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade, published in 2010. Also Convict Conditioning 2, a followup published a year later. Rating: 4/5.

convict-conditioning-coverA couple of months ago, I was walking in a park with my dad. We passed an outdoor gym sort of place and decided, “Why not try out some of the exercises?”

It was quite embarrassing – for me, that is, not my old man. I eked out maybe two or three pull-ups, only the first of which was in perfect form. He did more than a half dozen without problems.

This I found to be strange, as I am not objectively a weak man. Until I stopped going to the gym – I can never be motivated enough to keep going at it for more than a few months without a break – I was doing 75 pound dumbbell bench presses and 50 pound dumbbell shoulder presses. This was significantly more than my dad could do though he doesn’t go the gym at all really. But he whooped my sorry ass at pullups, and even came close on pushups.

I recalled this episode when reading through Convict Conditioning, which had been recommended to me as a good intro to calisthenics. Paul Wade is an ex-con who, by his own admission, spent 19 of the past 23 years in some of America’s toughest prisons for various drug offences. (Some commentators have voiced skepticism as to whether the author is a real person. If I had to guess I’d say he is, but even if the whole jailbird thing was a marketing ploy, I honestly couldn’t care less; my interest is in effective information, not personalities). Most prisons don’t have much in the way of gyms. There are no free weights – for good reason, as you might imagine – while barbells only come in a very limited number of weight categories, which makes progressive training impossible. As such, the cons have to improvise and practice self-reliance to bulk up. And Paul Wade was one of the best at this.

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Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz – The Great Divergence

Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s reviewThe Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

The Power Of Contingency: Why China Didn’t Rule The World

great-divergence-pomeranzIt’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

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