What I’ve been reading

1. Richard J. Williams, Why Cities Look the Way They Do.  Mostly interesting, think of this as a humanities-laden approach to cities, but without too much mumbo-jumbo.  Excerpt: “As long ago as 1968, a British art critic, Lawrence Alloway, grasped something of this.  Writing about the Biennial, he argued that Venice wasn’t a city, but should be better understood as a cultural medium, like an exhibition or a newspaper, ‘compounded of famous architecture, recurrent festivals, and tourist industries’.  Venice, he wrote was ‘ a communicative pattern, a geo-temporal work of art’.”

2. Evan Thompson, Why I am Not a Buddhist.  For every view, there should be a book “Why I am not X.”  This gets us part of the way there.  That said, I have simpler reasons for not being a Buddhist, namely I do not think it is true.

3. Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life.  Definitely recommended, this is an excellent boxing book, race relations book, 1960s and 70s book, and much more.

4. Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel.  Readable, with a clear and propulsive plot, but somehow it stopped being of interest to me about halfway through.  It is the recent Hugo and also Nebula Award winner for best novel.

5. Manjit Kumar, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality.  A very good study of the developments of early 20th century physics, the parts about Rutherford and Planck being most novel to me.

6. Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, with essays by A. Roy, Mishra, and others.  You may or may not agree with the pro-Kashmiri take of this book, but some issues you learn best by reading the partisans on each side, who offer clarity if nothing else, and then drawing your own conclusions.  I suspect the Kashmir crisis falls into that bucket.  (Learning when to apply this trick is one good way to make your reading more productive.)

Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765 is a useful, non-partisan, and coherent take on exactly what the title suggests.

Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, has gotten good press on Twitter, but it reminds me of Churchill on democracy.

I started two very long novels — Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School and Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, but neither clicked with me.  The former seems too simple/brutal/masculine for its 1300 pp. length, and the latter is a mix of American and obscure I don’t care about this kind of stuff.  Still, I will try them each again.

The new Stripe Press book is Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto, Get Together: How to build a community with your people, a how-to guide.



2. Surely, if you think Buddhism is not true you are already at half way there?

Particularly as Buddhism does not much seem to care about what anyone thinks or believes about it.

The pendulum has swung much too far in the "religion is not really about beliefs" direction. Sure, rituals, meditation, and a metaphysical openness are important ... but if you dig into the actual day-to-day practicalities of how religions unfold in a community it seems to me that it is more often about believing (and acting upon) ten impossible things before breakfast, often in ways that conveniently help to cement the institutional hierarchies of power in the community.

Well if you dig into the actual day-to-day practicalities of how religions unfold, there is no community. Everyone has their own idiosyncratic practices and beliefs. The difference is how much they are willing to suppress them in order to confirm to some external standard in social situations.

So whether religions is "really" about actions or beliefs depends on what level you're looking at.

#2...and yet, from your previous posts, it seems as if you'd claim to be Christian (or even Roman Catholic?). So, a guy dead 3 days magically came back to life, Earth is the footstool of God, etc. etc. All true, huh? or is this a case of the pot calling out the kettle? (but, but the demonstrably false are metaphors and the almost certainly false are allegories ...at least if they confirm your beliefs...that about sum it up?)

'it seems as if you'd claim to be Christian'

No, Prof. Cowen is an atheist, of the 'Why I don’t believe in God' variety (though it appears he is not an atheist of the Buddhist variety, which is hilarious) - https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/05/dont-believe-god.html

However, Prof. Cowen writes this about being called an atheist - 'In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.” It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs. I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated. Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.'

I might note that the last sentence is extremely accurate, at least when it comes what is generally called New Atheism, which often seems to strikingly reflect a religious crusade to purify the wicked of their sins. Anti-clerical beliefs are not necessarily atheistic, a distinction that seems to fly completely over the tea kettle that the New Atheists cannot get out of their heads.

> No, Prof. Cowen is an atheist,

Even if he is an atheist, he is projecting the faulty Christian world view about Buddhism. In essence in Buddhism there is no Christian version of 'God'. Bhuddha is not 'God', only enlighten living things, not just people. Any living things can become 'Bhuddha' in this life time or the next, or the next ...


"A Buddha is one who has attained Bodhi; and by Bodhi is meant wisdom, an ideal state of intellectual and ethical perfection which can be achieved by man through purely human means. The term Buddha literally means enlightened one, a knower."

Buddhism is philosophy of life, nothing about true or false. However most people Buddhist or not desire 'God' and have their own interpretation of the religion.

Especially in Zen, it is just about 'nothingness'. So what is true or false??

Can't this philosophy be false? I think this goes along with TC's skepticism of the therapeutic power of psychedelics. Specifically, the real world we live in every day is more interesting than what's going on in our minds (at least that's my rough take on the views expressed in this blog).

Or, to say it more simply, meditation is overrated. And if meditation is overrated, Zen is overrated, which gets close to saying it's not true. (my personal opinions is the complete opposite for what it's worth).


And though I haven't read the above-referenced post, "uncertainty about what actually is being debated" is a choice bit of self-regard masquerading as modest understatement. Which I exactly share - and goes a ways toward explaining why I am partial to T.C.'s blog.

"Least said, soonest believed": the appreciation those of us without a religious, or "spiritual" bent, may yet have for religion, its folk wisdom and power and monuments, can only decay the more adherents talk. Does that go least for Buddhism, with its pleasing, if surface, complementarity with modernity? - my familiarity with it is limited to a chapter in "The Handbook of Living Religions."

""Least said, soonest believed": the appreciation those of us without a religious, or "spiritual" bent, may yet have for religion, its folk wisdom and power and monuments, can only decay the more adherents talk. "

I'm pretty sure this was exactly TC's line of thinking when he (very briefly) dismissed Robert Wright's book about Buddhism on this blog a while back.

> Can't this philosophy be false?

It is leaned more to one's preference on how to live. There is nothing true or false with one's preference which do not affect anything physical except one's peace of mind (if you believe that).


"Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live?"

Even if it is sub-optimal it is not false. Eastern philosophy is with quantum duality, it is not like Western Manichaean philosophy of very strictly true or false, black or white. If you want your Manichaean philosophy so be it, stop judging others.

Buddhism must speak some truths in order for it to have any value. I think TC is saying it doesn't. Pretty simple. (again, I don't agree with his view, but I can see where he is coming from).

Truth? Truth of what?

Buddhism says that one source of misery is from excessive greed. So is toning down excessive greed false? Is being a millionaire but absent father the truth and the less wealthy but a comfortable family man false?? Extreme Manichaean logics will push it one way or another, extremely rich or as poor as a church mouse. Is that the value you want? Is if you are not with me you are against me logic the truth??

The Buddha (or rather a Buddha as Shakyamuni is merely the most recent one) may not be a God but he is omniscient and at least according to Mahayana omnipresent. I'm not sure about omnipotent You can ask a Buddha such as Mahavairochana or Amitabha for assistance (which is different from prayer how exactly?) and they can break the causal laws of nature to help you. Even Boddhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara/Kuan-Yin Padmasambhava have supernatural powers. The Yakshas who guard the Buddhist stupas of Thailand or the Dakinis that live in the cremation grounds and teach tantra to the Tibetans are not exactly gods but they aren't university professors either.

There is a vast amount of polemical literature where Buddhist philosophers attempt to prove the truth of their doctrines and the falsity of other religions or other forms of Buddhism for that matter.

The idea that Buddhism is "really" late-Western skepticism should be viewed skeptically.

I'm actually co-authoring a book with Thiago called "Why We Are Not Not-Cucks".

2. From the Kalama Sutta:

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it."

Non-belief and skepticism is totally fine to most Buddhists and like any religion there are cranks and worse (see Myanmar or Sri Lanka). Unfortunately such an approach to life means that the world's other major religions in particular Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have all taken away mindshare from Buddhism. This doesn't apply to Judaism, the joke there is there are 4 major branches of the faith: orthodox, reform, conservative, and buddhism.

'But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.'

Prof. Cowen would rather continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the rich get richer than to believe in anything like that.

That's a good quote. I took #2 to be a dig at Robert Wright which I find a little bit odd, because I interpret Wright as offering a pretty fuzzy and agnostic philosophy.

I don't know, maybe "is true" is an inside joke and "don't think so" is counter joke.

Just read an interview with this author from a few years back, and he is against the view of the 'mind' as solely being an isolated object located in our brain that we can then study and learn more about. Which I think is very much opposed to what Wright has written. So the dig at Wright is on the money I think.

This interview was fascinating because I think it measures up very well to TC's philosophy in that it puts fourth the belief that the 'mind' can only exist in a world where the whole body has a purpose and things to get done. Just meditating in a room all alone is a dead end. You need to go out and do things (isn't this what TC's books have all been advocating for over the last few years?) in order to fully realize your 'mind'. It's complex, but he expressed a very definite focus on actions as opposed to thoughts/meditation.

Here's the article:

'You need to go out and do things '

So, does Prof. Cowen believe or not believe in this sort of Buddhist thought then? "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

And how do you know what the Kalama sutra says? Because it has been handed down for centuries by an institution of teachers (the Theravada sangha based on your use of the Pali word sutta) who cared because they believed it is the actual words of the Buddha and were subsidized by thousands over many generations who believed that supporting the sangha will give punya in this life and the next.

Sure there are skeptical notions in Buddhist thought but the idea that they were paramount in living Buddhism is an ahistorical modern distortion. I believe that is one of the points that Prof. Thompson makes though I haven't read the referenced book yet.

The aggressive Buddhists in Myanmar and Shri Lanka are not "cranks" they are mainstream. The idea of Buddhism being particularly peaceful is another ahistorical distortion.

This to me is the fascinating thing. The modern conception of Buddhism as being essentially late-Western skepticism is only possible by an utterly unskeptical analysis of its history and practice. How did that happen?


Most Western accounts downplay or ignore the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri pundits by Muslims even under Indian rule

Concerning the Ali book:

Sometimes a punch is just a punch. But there are punches are there are punches.
Ali took punches, but with his style he didn't take a lot of hard punches. Anyone who has boxed knows you can take punches that make minimal contact, by slipping and other defensive maneuvers. Granted no punches is better than the alternative. But relatively few boxers develop the problem Ali had. (Offhand I don't recall the incidence of PD or similar issues among amateur and professional boxers relative to the non-boxer population and groups with no history of repeated significant contact to the head). But counting punches with compubox or some such doesn't tell us anything new. I'd like to hear the opinions of Sure or a neurologist with PD expertise, and who had read Thomas Hauser's book. Unlike Eig's book, Hauser was authorized and with full access to Ali and his medical records. If memory serves, Ali's wife, who was a medical dr. suspected the problem was linked to pesticides used in his Penn. training camp (rotenone among other reproduce features of PD).

Personally I would recommend Hauser's book.

Meritocracy, like Democracy, is one of those things which has some value in its use, but which becomes pathological without constraints. After all, slavery was democratically instituted and maintained in Virginia.

Like with democracy, meritocracy would benefit with some anti-meritocratic features to curb its excesses.

For instance, we might limit the ability of schools or employers to consider "extracurriculars" so that the lives of our young and ambitious are not overtaken with resume fodder. Or we might simply codify a non-meritocratic approach for the wealthy and powerful to directly advantage their children, rather than have an endless bidding war for the previous gatekeeper (e.g. prep school) or for some new time suck and dead weight loss.

Certainly in my field, the USMLE/match meritocracy has been degrading the quality of medical education for years. It further breeds cynicism and resentment among young doctors. Spending literally tens of thousands of dollars to determine exactly which medical student is superior to the other so we can award slots to Johns Hopkins by "merit" is highly counterproductive. There are many days where I think a purely random sorting process would be superior.

The guy’s recent long column in the Atlantic was... there’s always something so unsatisfying about these things, and it’s always the same problem: when they start talking about solutions. I wish I had a nickel for every cultural critical screed that nailed everything about the diagnosis. There’s always someone who actually, really does know what the problem is. And then their proposed solution is some very familiar, warmed over policy with no effort whatsoever given to explain why it will work.

1. The rich and not rich travel by very different modes, the rich in private jets and the not rich in cars on congested highways. I thought about that yesterday as a fleet of private jets delivered the rich in my part of the low country from the path of a killer storm to the safety of their mansions located elsewhere while the not rich took to the highways in bumper to bomber traffic. The neglect of infrastructure is a constant refrain, but it has a simple explanation: the rich don’t use public infrastructure and have no interest in improving or building it. Thus the design of new American cities.

Lady Astronauts? I'm afraid truth has been stranger than fiction in that genre lately

Exactly. For a funny and relevant image re: the minefield of 21st century dating, Google “Do you have a penis: the first question everyone now needs to ask”.

Just read the blurb for Ducks, Newburyport and gawd, do we really need another condescending book about uncultured Trump supporters in Ohio? It's all so boring by now. Same with Netflix. Popular culture rarely surprises you anymore it seems.

I usually enjoy stream-of-consciousness inner dialogues rather than fiction with a lot of characters, action and objective reality. But judging from all the snide references to "Trump's America" in those blurbs, the culture-war taint may be too thick with this one. With Ohio being a bellwether swing state, I'm sure the tension becomes unbearable.

#2 "He suggests cosmopolitanism instead, a worldview with deep roots in both Eastern and Western traditions" and a proven track record of slaying that nagging spiritual emptiness - today just as much as in Late Rome!

I love this: "I have simpler reasons for not being a Buddhist, namely I do not think it is true."

I've heard many explanations from friends and relatives about why they left the Catholic Church. The explanations usually take the form of a story that ends with somebody associated with the Church doing something bad. And I always feel like I just heard a very poor justification for leaving the Church. How about, "because it isn't true"? Those are exactly the words I've always used, and Tyler echoes them!

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