Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Definitely not doing that! A review of "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

Why I read this book:

While many people will know Jon Krakauer only by association - the movie "Into the Wild" was based on his book of the same title, Krakauer's account of an Everest expedition, "Into Thin Air", first earned him national recognition. While I had heard of Krakauer's work, I did not have a burning passion to read his books. It is a rather curious thing how our perceptions are shaped: armed with the knowledge that Krakauer wrote "Into the Wild", a book about a young man who discards his typical suburban life and heads into the wilderness of Alaska, and "Into Thin Air", a book about climbing Everest, and no other facts about the man to speak of, I quickly deduced that here was an author who came up with a simple winning formula: to write books titled "Into <insert extreme story/adventure/sport here>" and become fat and happy re-telling the glory tales of other men's heroics. An appealing concept, certainly, but not enough to entice me to read his works.

And so on we went with our lives, Krakauer and I, each one occupying our own little corner of the world. Now the story would typically end here, but, as it happens, fate had different ideas. One day, I was chatting with a friend (let's call him Dexter), and while the exact topic of our conversation escapes me now, it is only logical to conclude that our tete-a-tete was at least partially related to the theme of summiting Mount Everest. Whether we were discussing doing a brisk two mile hike that upcoming weekend or just walking up a steep hill, my thoughtful friend, aware of my positive disposition towards good books, exclaimed that I must read "Into Thin Air", and that he had a copy of it to give to me.

I am not one to turn down a book when one is offered to me, and that act in itself is cause enough for me to read the book. I, however, became much more intrigued by the book when Dexter informed me that Krakauer himself was on an expedition to the top of Mount Everest, and that the book is his recollection of that expedition and the tragic events that transpired during that trip. This revelation piqued my interest in the book tremendously and gave Jon Krakauer mad street cred in my eyes. I also felt guilty for having a completely erroneous and uninformed impression of him for years, but that feeling went away as soon as I realized that Krakauer very likely could care less of what I think about him.

My rating for this book:

1. Like flax-seed ice-cream - something that actively seeks to destroy happiness.
2. Like vegemite - pretty bad, but the reaction is more reserved because of cultural implications.
3. Like spam - just because something is eatable does not mean it should be consumed.
4. Like an apple - refreshing and comforting because there is probably more where that came from.
5. Like bacon-wrapped scallops - a markedly noticeable step towards peace and progress.


"Into Thin Air" is a fascinating book, and I recommend reading it. The book will give you an inside look at the world of mountaineering, and that portrait will do much to alter your perception of that world. Like most enterprises that carry high stakes and hold high reward, the world of mountaineering combines gripping tension with day-to-day tediousness and the promise of glorious accomplishment with nagging loneliness. A climber and a restless soul himself, Krakauer is a great writer and weaves the history of man's quest to conquer Mount Everest into the recollection of his own doomed expedition. I could not be farther off in my initial assumption of the book serving as a puff piece deifying a summit of Mount Everest - Krakauer writes this book as a way to recreate the expedition frame by frame in order to understand how it came to be that eleven lives were lost on that day. The book, as Krakauer admits in the foreword, is an attempt to overcome his own demons that have tormented him since that terrible tragedy. It is a controversial book, as Krakauer readily admits by including an angry letter from a family member of a deceased expedition member. As a "civilian" observer, I appreciated the author's honesty, and his effort seems sincere. Regardless of one's opinion about the sensitivity surrounding the topic of Krakauer's recollection of the tragic events and his own actions, the revealing glimpse into the domain of mountain climbing offers sufficient reward for the vast majority of the readers who are not privy to the inner workings of that small society.
While reading "Into Thin Air", I felt a sense of guarded admiration for those brave and crazy enough to risk their lives to climb the world's most daunting peak. On one hand, those who decide to summit Everest despite the gravest risks epitomize the very principles of drive and resolve that spearhead human progress and represent humanity's unyielding spirit. On the other hand, there is no way under any circumstances that I would be willing to subject myself to the experience of climbing Everest. I am not kidding - if you were to offer me my own island, like Madagascar or Tazmania if I attempted a summit just once, I would politely refuse. Then again, it is undeniable that each one has the call of the wild in us. Every child dreams of adventure, travel, and exotic lands. Over time, of course, the overwhelming majority of those boys and girls grow up, get an office job, and diligently settle into their daily routine as their dreams go by the wayside (the dissipation of dreams is remarkably gradual - see Figure 1). So it is with respect and admiration that we look at that small fraction of us who refuse to lose that sense of wanderlust and restlessness and instead become adventurers, field scientists, or elite soldiers.

Graph 1 - Hmm, strangely specific.
The trajectory plotted in Graph 1 can be avoided, of course, by asking what your Everest is and planning and executing your ascent. I will tell you one thing however - my "Everest" is not the actual Everest.

The end.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

First Milestone!

The blog has reached an important milestone today - it now contains five entries! My emotions oscillate between the joy and relief of receiving a prematurely-born infant into my arms after being discharged from the hospital, and the feeling that I am over-hyping a rather mediocre accomplishment, like a college freshman triumphantly waving his index finger during a basketball game and screaming "we are number one!" despite the fact that his team is not even ranked.

Regardless, this occasion feels like an appropriate point in time to articulate what it is exactly that I am hoping to accomplish with this blog.

1.   Produce and not just consume.

I like to read and learn new things, and the process of writing out thoughts and impressions helps to synthesize and to process information as well as to develop and to refine my own thoughts. 

2.   Keep focus on reading.

Ideally, I want to always be in the process of reading a new book. In reality, my reading habits go in spurts of intense bouts with books followed by prolonged periods of idleness. In a sense, this blog is my own way of keeping myself responsible for staying on course with my reading goals. I hope my manager-me is a total hard-ass.

3.   Improve my writing.

There is no better way to gain a new level of appreciation for beautiful writing than to attempt to write something yourself. I have forgotten, or perhaps I never truly knew, just how difficult writing is. What sounds like a Churchillian sonnet in my head inevitably comes out as barely discernible drivel on paper. Let's see if I can at least get to a level where I can publish a trashy romance novel. Not saying I would, but I want to at least have the capability to carry out the threat.

4.   Create a “safe place” for creativity.

When you are a child, the adults spend a great amount of time making sure you develop your critical thinking through creative endeavors and gain an appreciation for delayed gratification by ruthlessly rejecting your pleas for urgently needed toys. When you become an adult yourself, you immediately dispense with those lessons, and daily buy yourself the latest iteration of Apple toys while slowly sinking into the dullness of the daily grind. This blog is my attempt to reverse that pattern in my adult life. This is a momentum shift. The buck stops here. Right after I buy a retina-display everything. 

Your marketing psychology PhD thesis: I dread being an early adapter, but after two months, I  balk at making the purchase because I am now waiting for the next new thing. What to do?

5.   Capture memories and create a method for self-assessment.
Do you remember when, back in your younger days, you met your friend for brunch after a particularly heavy night out? Your friend would pull out her cellphone and play the voicemail that you left her the night before. As you listened to the message, your eyes widened in shock:  “I can’t believe what a moron I am!”. Or perhaps, after the initial tense moments, you thought in relief: “That was actually pretty funny even though I do not fully recall leaving that message”. In that vein, I started this blog because I want to find out what my future self will think of my past self. Of course, this is a two-way conversation, so listen up, future old me - please do not end up spending your retirement in front of your television in your under-garments, overweight, and with body hair entwining your back and arms like a shedding werewolf. Also, don't be that old guy at dance clubs. That's really weird. You are better than that.

6. Entertain my friends.

Although this blog is my own project for my own purposes (die rich or live trying), there is no greater pleasure than to hear a friend* send a note of a blog post well-received. One "I enjoyed that!" or "well said, I concur", or even a "please take me off this distribution" warms my heart to no end and validates the effort I pour into the blog.

*Friend - actual friends from all four tiers, acquaintances, Facebook "friends", Twitter followers, whoever has enough patience to maintain both a Facebook and a Google+ account, the one person who happens to Google search for "Ayn Rand" and "Karate Kid" in the same query, and all the Russian spam bots.

Daniel Craig gets an immediate Tier 1 friend status because he is so freaking cool. It takes a man to rock a Speedo. Like a boss. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, and the Karate Kid: Review of "Atlas Shrugged"

Why I read this book:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis (aka the Great Recession), Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", published in 1957, became a popular read among those concerned about the increasing role of government in the handling of the crisis. The book redoubled in prominence recently with the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice - rumor has it that Ryan makes all his staffers and interns read "Atlas Shrugged" which is said to be Ryan's favorite book.

My rating for this book:

1. "I hate you, you ruined my life"
2. "I can't believe we ever dated"
3. "It's not you, it's me"
4. "Can I call you again?"
5. "You had me at hello"

"Atlas shrugged" is not a book you will feel neutral about: you will love it, or you will hate it. As for me, it was simply completely, totally, unacceptably too long. This is one of those books that ruins your reading streak. You know the pattern: you slowly get yourself into a reading groove and feel like a productive, enriched person. Inevitably, you get overconfident and decide to tackle something deep and profound, like Tolstoy or Aristotle. Thirty pages in, you decide you have had enough and spend the next four months catching up on "Glee". "Atlas Shrugged" very nearly did that to me, and for that reason I give it a 2 rating.

The aftershocks:

"Atlas Shrugged" is both a novel and a expose for Rand's philosophy - Objectivism. Let's discuss the merits and the shortcomings of the book from both perspectives.

The novel:


The fiction form is certainly a better vehicle for conveying the moral case for individualism and free enterprise, which is ultimately Rand's goal, than Arthur Brooks' "The battle". At certain parts of the book, you will admire Dagny Taggart, the heroine, for her indomitable spirit and relentless drive. The story lends itself nicely for reminding us that earned success is to be admired and not to be ashamed of. You quickly recognize in the pages that you are reading the thoughts of a deeply intelligent, analytical mind. The central element of the plot: "What if the productive leaders of the country suddenly quit the parasitic world?" is a clever framing of the author's philosophical perspective.


The book is entirely too long. It is a total trap - the thin trappings of a "novel" such as plot, setting, and character development, are minimal and crude and serve only a fig leaf for the long, repetitive, abstract, philosophical rants. It reminds me of my Grandpa's favorite tactic - to pose a rhetorical question as an opening salvo for a 20 minute monologue on the most pressing issues of the day according to him.

Grandpa: "So, what do you think is going to happen to the Euro?"
Me: "Great question, Grandpa, I think..."
Grandpa: "Europe sucks. This country is going down the toilet as well. Everyone in DC is a terrible driver...(fast forward 20 minutes)...why aren't you married yet?"

Character development exists only so far as to create caricature representations of good and evil. Thus, Dagny Taggart is a driven and resolute executive, while her brother James Taggart is an indecisive hater of Truth and Reason, and Wesley Mouch is a slimy, corrupt politician. The dialogue between characters and description of events are equally awkward. At one point, an ex-employee of a closed-down factory describes to Dagny Taggart how the factory went out of business. At first, the exchange convincingly conveys the gradual decline that stemmed from the abandonment of capitalistic principles. Then, suddenly, the guy exclaims that a man "died..in a knife fight with somebody in a saloon, a fight over nothing in particular - such fights were beginning to happen among us all the time". The book is riddled with such sudden jumps and unrealistic portrayals of human interaction and behavior.

In this sense, reading "Atlas Shrugged" feels like you are watching "300" or "Sin City", but without the gratuitous shots of bearded men with six packs in loincloth.

Leonidas was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism.
What I am saying is - lay off Paul Ryan, please. He is too intelligent to subjugate his minions to the torturous experience of reading this "novel" for no reason. Reading this book is a test, a right of passage - if you have the dedication and grit to complete this assignment, you can clearly be trusted with the rigors of serving the Congressman's constituency. Remember the Karate Kid? Did Ralph Macchio learn the "Crane" style in the first week of his training with Mr. Miyagi? No, first he had to learn the virtues of humbleness and patience. Then, once he established a strong moral base, he went on to defeat Kobra Kai, get the girl, and win the hearts of a generation. Wax on, wax off. Paul Ryan is simply applying the same lessons to the way he selects his staff.

(by the way, another great trick for you if you have to manage people: invite your employee into your office and ask them to close the door. Sit silently for one minute and thirty seconds, staring directly into the employee's eyes and saying nothing. After the aforementioned period of silence, slowly say: "Is there anything you want to tell me?" and watch the employee confess to taking donuts from the lounge without paying for them or admit that she's been selling documents that contain the location of our nuclear submarines to the Chinese. )

The philosophy:


It is easy to admire the idea of motive power, the resolute drive of the human mind and spirit that conquers, invents, and moves forward, and the values that result from honest competition - the purity that results from the pursuit of a goal, like an asymptote that shoots up towards Truth and Reason. You can see these qualities in masters of a craft, where even perfect adversaries have great respect and understanding for each other. Many values that Rand advocates - reason, thrift, taking no less as well as no more than you deserve - would deserve praise from people on all sides of the political spectrum.

The essence of dissecting "Atlas Shrugged" is understanding the motivations behind the ideology that deifies extreme individualism. It is difficult to digest Rand's proposition of naked self-interest when you grow up in a country that protects private property and guards against government interference in men's private affairs. In order to understand Rand's motivations, you have to consider her background and the context within which her writing took place. Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and fled to the United States at the age of 21 after the Communists came to power. A stranger in a new land, she worked for every bit of the success that she eventually found. An admirer of the United States' democratic and capitalistic principles, Rand was more familiar than most with the savagery of the Communists and the dangerous allure of the counterfeit promise of utopia. When you look at the provocative, excruciatingly simplistic view of human existence that Rand's philosophy offers as a daring declaration of rebellion against the onslaught of Communism, her convictions become much more palatable.
Basically, think of that wild-eyed, scruffy-beard dude on the metro sitting next to you who screams: "We are all going to die! Mark Levin and Sean Hannity are the only ones who get it.", and you are about to start debating the pros and cons of cable talk shows when it occurs to you that the dude's hot (lets give him the benefit of doubt) wife probably just left him. In other words, the source of his anger is not the loss of transparency in campaign contributions caused by Citizens United, but rather his shitty life and the slow accumulation of frustrations and arguments over taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and leaving the cupboard drawers open. Suddenly, you realize that the situation calls for empathy and understanding rather than an argument. Also, you do not feel like getting stabbed today.

In a perverse way, Rand's philosophy gains your respect precisely because the limits of its appeal to our natural instincts are so obvious. It is easy to see the shortcomings of a selfish, hyper-materialistic existence; it is much more difficult  to resist the siren song of a selfless, collectivist promise. This call to our moral sense of brotherhood and equality was used as a veil for atrocities throughout history, from the French Revolutionaries to the Soviet Communists to Mao's China. It is as a stark reminder of our propensity to let our sense of morality get ahead of practical realism that Rand's vision gains its shining moment. It is a reminder of the essential conservative principles - that private property is an inviolable right and that tyranny of government has been a rule in history rather than an exception, and thus must guarded against.


Rand's philosophy is an incorrect, or rather, an incomplete, assessment of human nature. Her version of idealized human being elevates reason at the cost of total suppression and elimination of passion as a driver for human behavior.

How extreme is her case? She picks on Robin Hood as the greatest moral criminal of the common lore! After reading that, I half expected to find a blistering critique of puppies as useless moochers. Talk about a losing definition of morality! For better or for worse, human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures. Observe a hawk swooping down on a bunny. Both are simply trying to survive, yet our instinct is to chase the hawk away. Why do we feel empathy for the weak and defenseless, even if they are solely responsible for their own condition? Perhaps that instinct is a necessary adaptation that allowed our unusually frail predecessors to survive as a species.

Wolf puppies have almost no impact on the nation's GDP, but the are SO freaking cute!

Either way, we can observe that we are both rational creatures as well as passionate ones. A robust philosophy cannot ignore that both of these drivers co-exist within each of us. Ayn Rand understood and despised the ugliness of the mysticism of the Czarist Russia and the threat to individual freedom posed by Communism under the veil of the collective good. What Ayn Rand failed to consider is that passion underlies even our most rational thoughts. Thus, at the zenith of the triumph of the school of rationality and the economic boom brought on by the Industrial advances, the unchecked growth of the school of rational thought led to attitudes of racial superiority and eugenics in advanced countries. While Rand's celebration of the human drive is admirable, it is incomplete without humility and temperance in the knowledge that we are prone to stray from the path of reason - even by an unyielding belief in reason (what!?).

Ayn Rand's downfall is evident by the adaptation of her ideals by unworthy proponents who are guilty of the same flaws against which she so passionately rails. Her philosophy, a one-dimensional view of human nature, is subjugated by those who bear the same negative traits as the villains in her novel instead of people who transcend above the petty elements of human nature.

If you are seeking literature to serve as the standard for the church of individualism, let me recommend "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a much shorter read, although the dude's writing is quite saturated. Let's just say that if it were a wine, it would be a port. If you are more into fiction, read anything by Jack London. His stories of exploration, competition, and survival first captured my imagination when I was a child. His writing offers a far more captivating case for the church of life than "Atlas Shrugged".

The end.