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“Atlas Shrugged”

Ayn Rand‘s master work about mind, productive man and his liberation. More than a thousand pages long but rarely tiresome (except for John Galt’s radio speech) the novel blends thriller with common economic sense and Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.

The economics makes sense—incentives matter and give rise to a trade-off between efficiency and equity; but it is crude—market failure is neglected. The most interesting element in the incentive problem faced by the government sponsored “looters” and “leeches” is the sanction of the victim.

The philosophy (as summarized at the end of the paperback) is less convincing; it certainly does not follow from the economics. Much more on objectivism on the website of the Ayn Rand Institute.

“How To Stay Sane”

Philippa Perry’s short book provides a succinct perspective on mental health. Perry argues that mental disorders fall into two groups: one associated with behavior that displays a tendency to stray into chaos; the other with behavior that manifests itself in excessive rigidity. She discusses the structure of the brain and the role of nature vs. nurture in integrating emotions and reasoning. The former rules.

Perry points to several areas that are central to successfully navigating between chaos and rigidity:

  • Self-observation: Wisdom and sanity build on a non-judgemental, self-observing attitude that fosters self-awareness and avoids self-justification. Self-observation amounts to re-parenting oneself. It helps develop compassion (internal and external) and it grows the brain. It requires to use feelings rather than be used by them. Keeping a diary helps, as do prayers or meditation. “Toxic chatter” doesn’t.
  • Relating to others: Brains need brains; nurturing relationships are key to staying sane. True dialogue requires honesty and thus, vulnerability. “Adhering to strict guidelines about how to behave around others is a form of rigidity. Not being mindful of your impact upon others is a form of chaos.” The “daily temperature reading” fosters emotional honesty.
  • Stress: Positive stimulation is fruitful; it fosters learning, creativity and brain plasticity and it strengthens the immune system. But it must not become overwhelming as to trigger panic and brain dissociating. Physical activity generates good stress.

When things go wrong Perry recommends to aim at re-writing one’s narrative:

  • Personal narrative: Grasping one’s guiding beliefs helps developing new perspectives. Narratives are co-constructed and form minds. They pass down “identity, wisdom and experience” from generation to generation. Telling one’s own story helps gain distance and independence, and it creates “a place of freedom” (Perry refers to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). Narratives are self-reinforcing; a genogram can help uncover and trace their roots. But stories are flexible, they can be changed, and so can lives that build on them. “Creating a consistent self-narrative that makes sense and feels true to ourselves is a challenge at any stage in life.” Optimism is productive and self enforcing; but hearing good news must be learned. Fear of losing love comes with penny-pinching. Certainty is a trap.

“Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).

World War II in 42 Maps

Timothy Lee and collaborators provide a map-based account of World War II in Vox. Short texts and 42 maps cover Germany, China and Japan, Central Europe, Finland, France and the UK, Russia, the Pacific, Africa, the Allies’ invasions, the Holocaust, Israel and Korea, among other aspects. An animated map displays the opponents’ varying spheres of influence during the war years.

World War I in 40 Maps

Zack Beauchamp, Timothy B. Lee and Matthew Yglesias provide a fascinating account of World War I in Vox. Short texts accompanying 40 maps cover the central European powers, Russia, the US, the Balkans, Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Arabia, Mexico as well as technology and strategy of the campaigns.

Text 23 on “Britain conquering Palestine:”

After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in 1916, Allied forces regrouped in Egypt and began making plans to take Ottoman-held land in the Levant. This map shows part of that effort, Britain’s successful 1917 campaign in Palestine. The British invasion of Palestine would have long-lasting consequences. On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter endorsing “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Balfour cautioned that “nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In 1922, the League of Nations officially endorsed British administration of Palestine. British policies after World War I helped lay the groundwork for the eventual UN partition of Palestine between Arab and Jewish states — and everything that followed from that.

Text 24 on “Lawrence of Arabia and Britain’s betrayal of Arab allies:”

One of the most remarkable figures of World War I was TE Lawrence, whose exploits in the Middle East were immortalized in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia. Before the war, Lawrence was an archeologist, and he got to know the Middle East during expeditions to the region. When war broke out, the British recruited him to help organize an Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. His pre-war connections made him particularly effective in this role. He fought alongside the Arabs in a series of battles between 1916 and 1918. At the end of the war in November 1918, Lawrence presented this map to his superiors in Britain, showing proposed borders for a postwar Middle East. The British had promised independence to Arab Allies who participated in the rebellion, and Lawrence attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to press for these promises to be kept. Instead, the British and French divided Arab territories under the terms of the Sykes–Picot Agreement (discussed below), which they had secretly negotiated in 1916.

Text 39 on “Sykes-Picot and the breakup of the Ottoman empire:”

World War I also transformed the Middle East. In 1916, French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and his British counterpart, Sir Mark Sykes, drew up a map dividing the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern territory between British and French zones of control. The agreement permitted British and French authorities to divide up their respective territories however they pleased. This led to the creation of a series of Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and so on — whose borders and political institutions only dimly reflected the Arab world’s ethno-sectarian makeup. Many scholars believe the Sykes-Picot borders were a major factor in the chaotic state of the Middle East in the decades since then.