Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis, 1978

Amazon Link

A true account of a British intelligence officer who arrives in Italy as the Second World War draws to a close.  Italy has surrendered, but some German soldiers remain and are being pushed northward.

Lewis’s account isn’t focused on the final fight against the Germans, but on the Italians who remain in a badly damaged and largely non-functional society.  Allied bombings have destroyed many towns, agriculture has ceased, the economy has collapsed; corruption, organized crime, black markets, and prostitution spread.

Lewis’s own mission in Italy, as well as the primary purpose of the Allied Forces, remains cloudy.  He’s assigned to investigate people clipping telephone wires for the copper they contain, to cultivate informants with knowledge of various political factions, and to even investigate the validity of marriages between soldiers and native Italian women.

As time passes he grows to adore Italian culture, to respect the resourcefulness of the people surviving in a disaster area, and to see the absurdity of the occupation.  Although there are many horrible occurrences and human callousness expected in war, there are many redeeming human qualities on display as well.

Recommend to Others: ?

Reread Personally: no






Audiobook Recommendations

Here’s a list of the best audiobooks I’ve listened to in the past few years.  They are all non-fiction, listed below in no particular order.

Shoe Dogs by Phil Knight – The founder of Nike tells the tale of how his company was founded and grew.  Well written, funny, with lots of details about the not-so-pretty decisions and sacrifices that went into building the company.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel – An embedded reporter follows a group of soldiers and their leader during the Iraq War.  Tragic, depressing, inspiring, infuriating.

Rocket Men by Craig Nelson – The story of the Apollo 11 rocket, the first manned mission to the moon.  The book details preparation and the mission itself.  Awe-inspiring in parts.  Did you know that the rocket had over two million parts?

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder – A doctor tries to makes a difference in Haiti.  An incredible story of sheer will and dedication.

Debt: The First Five Thousand Years by David Graeber – Learn a lot about history, society, money, and how society managed before governments issued money.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo – An amazing true-crime investigation inside of an Indian slum.  Fantastic narration, incredible view into an unbelievably harsh and painful lifestyle.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Incredible true story of a WWII solider shot down in the ocean and captured by the Japanese.  Perhaps the only person with more grit than Paul Farmer (from Mountains Beyond Mountains).

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis – An inside view into some of the shenanigans of finance.  What happens when the internet gets involved in trading?  What happens when a group of finance guys sees corruption and try to fight back?



A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, 2004

Amazon Link

Wright examines progress made throughout human civilization, and points out patterns of failure and collapse.  He frames the story by asking three questions: who are we? (primates); where do we come from? (the lone survivors among other human-like groups); and where are we going? (not looking good).

Wright sees the abuse of natural resources as the primary cause of civilizational collapse—depletion of soil, erosion, clear cutting, anthropogenic extinction events, the toll of livestock on pasture, etc.  Now that human civilization is global and deeply interconnected, these types of disasters will no longer be contained within a specific place.  Failure will spread throughout the system virally.

The book was interesting, but didn’t cover much new ground for me.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harrari

Recommend to Others: only if you are looking for an introduction to the topic

Reread Personally:  No


4 Pollard notes that the idea of material progress is a very recent one—“significant only in the past three hundred years or so”—coinciding closely with the rise of science and industry and the corresponding decline of traditional beliefs.  We no longer give much thought to moral progress—a prime concern of earlier times—except to assume that it goes hand in hand with the material.

32  By culture I mean the whole of any society’s knowledge, beliefs, and practices.

33 Civilizations are a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings.

35 …a late-Paleolithic child snatched from a campfire and raised among us now would have an even chance of at earning a degree in astrophysics or computer science.  To use a computer analogy, we are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.  This may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news.

65 …given certain broad conditions, human societies everywhere will move towards greater size, complexity, and environmental demand.

117 We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the “end” of history, in both a temporal and teleological sense.  Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow.  Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

On Having No Head by Douglas Harding, 1972

113 …the gaining of our separate and personal goals yields only the briefest satisfaction, and after that disillusion and boredom, if not disgust: whereas, whenever we have the grace to say YES! To our circumstances and actively to will (rather than passively to acquiesce in) whatever happens, why then there springs up that real and lasting joy which Eastern tradition calls ananda.

Amazon Link

Harding discusses a moment of awakening in the Himalayas, when he realized that he had—given the sensory information available to him at that point—no reason to believe that he had a head.  He couldn’t see, feel, or experience his head directly, and realized that over the course of his lifetime he had only had thoughts about having a head, instead of sensations confirming its existence.

He noticed that what he saw when peering out from his head actually seemed to be part of him.  He couldn’t even identify his head—where it existed and where its boundaries lay—so how could he separate the things he was seeing from his head?  And how could he separate the things that occurred “in his head” from what he saw that seemed far away?

Harding’s descriptions of this experience or state are intriguing and thought-provoking.  But reading about such an experience and “awakening” yourself are not the same.  Regardless, reading about it is useful, and I thought that his description was more comprehensible and useful than other descriptions of similar realizations I’ve read about or heard described in interviews.  The rest of the book isn’t as interesting as the first chapters.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Waking Up by Sam Harris

Recommend to Others:  not really

Reread Personally:   No

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.




Real Education by Charles Murray, 2008

To demand that students meet standards that have been set without regard to their academic ability is wrong and cruel to the children who are unable to meet those standards. pp. 47

Amazon Link

Murray argues that there are four crucial facts about human ability and educational practice that have been ignored, to the detriment of the students and broader society. They are: 1) ability varies 2) half of the children are below average 3) too many people are going to college 4) America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
The first three points follow from Murray’s prior research on ability and intelligence. For me, the observations that ability varies and that half of the children are below average are uncontroversial, and should influence the structure of our educational system, to a greater degree than currently happens. Students, teacher, parents, and society would benefit if students received more targeted instruction at the boundary of their capability (zone of proximal development).
The claim that too many people are going to college may seem elitist and silly on its face, but Murray isn’t arbitrarily denying people the golden ticket. He argues that students who are unable to complete college-level work, or who are unmotivated to do so, shouldn’t be punished. There should be multiple options for post-secondary career and academic training, not a one-size-fits-all certification that leaves so many without a viable way to certify their value to potential employers.
The claim that America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted had me intrigued; there are many laws and services in place to ensure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate education, and perhaps a similar approach to gifted students would encourage the school system not to squander the potential of our brightest students. Murray doesn’t worry about meeting their academic needs (presumably they are bright enough to see to that themselves, and/or their academic potential is too obvious to be missed). Rather, he worries that the cognitive elite will move through educational institutions without ethics, common decency, and a sense of duty toward society in general.
Essentially, Murray hopes that the brightest students can be trained to think about people other than themselves and those inside of their bubble. They will be leading institutions, businesses, and communities, and they must understand—and act upon—ideas like justice, duty, impartiality, etc.
Murray asserts that common principles are shared between many of the world’s global religious and ethical systems. So, the specific tradition we choose to teach students (or that they choose to study) isn’t terribly important. I’m not sure how true this claim is, and I’m confident that you could not get the general public to agree. Finally, it seems doubtful that studying an ethical system inside of a classroom will lead to enacting the principles in daily life. If mosques, synagogues, and churches continue to turn out sinners, why would an academic approach be any better?

Ideas per Page:  4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Recommend to Others: maybe

Reread Personally: no


12, 13
-Ability Varies
-Half of the children are below average
-Too many people are going to college
-America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted

21 …doing a somersault with a full twist off a pommel horse is impossible for most people, no matter how much they might practice. The difference in what they can do and what proficient gymnast can do is one of kind. … Grasping calculus requires a certain level of logical-mathematical ability. Children below that level will never learn calculus, no matter how hard they study. It is a difference of kind.

26 For understanding an individual child and what that child’s educational needs might be, you want as much disaggregation of the child’s abilities as possible. For understanding the overall relationship of the components of academic ability to educational performance and later outcomes in life for large groups of people, you are better off using a combined measure.

29 Empirically, it is not the case that we can expect a child who is below average in one ability to have a full and equal chance of being above average in the other abilities. Those chances are constrained by the observed relationship that links the abilities.

44 Children with below-average musical ability are usually exposed to music classes in elementary school, but they are allowed to drop out thereafter. … Only for linguistic and logical-mathematical ability are we told that we can expect everyone to do well.

47 In large groups of children, academic achievement is tied to academic ability. No pedagogical strategy, no improvement in teacher training, no increase in homework, no reduction in class size can break that connection.

69 For many years, the consensus intellectual benchmark for dealing with college-level material was an IQ of around 115, which demarcates the top 16 percent of the distribution. That was in fact the mean IQ of college graduates during the 1950s.

96 …the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a seventeen-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention.

106 First, we set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it.

121 [a liberal arts education should provide] a disciplined, coordinated study of the question that every college student is of an age to ask: What does it mean to live a good human life?

142 Disruptive students are not permitted to remain in class.

Students who are chronically disruptive are suspended.

Students who in any way threaten a teacher verbally or physically are expelled.

143 It is morally unacceptable to continue to sacrifice their [children who are trying to learn] futures—and we must not kid ourselves; this is what we are doing—just because we do not know how to reach the children who are not trying to learn.