Book Review: Level Up Your Life

Level Up Your Life is a book about self-improvement and adventure by American entrepreneur, fitness instructor, publisher, and writer Steve Kamb. The book shows people how to define goals and use a game setup of experience points and levels to accomplish those goals while avoiding various pitfalls along the way. The book is divided into six sections, each of which contains three to five chapters.

Kamb begins with a brief introduction, describing several of his most interesting adventures as well as the life he led before deciding to change his life. He talks about the online community he founded about changing one’s life to be more active and adventurous, then invites the reader to join.

The first section begins by going into greater detail about Kamb’s own experiences and backstory than did the introduction. The middle is a warning about getting stuck in the research and planning stages of an adventure without ever actually going on the adventure. The final chapter of this section is an exhortation to stop waiting and thinking you cannot live the life you want to live.

Getting started on a hero’s journey is the subject of the second section. Kamb begins by laying out the basic story arc that almost all heroic characters follow. Next, he asks the reader to describe one’s normal life and then create the superhero alter-ego that one wishes to become. The following chapter presents several common excuses that people use to justify not living a more interesting life and rebuts each of them. The sixth chapter contains advice on dealing with people who offer discouragement and resistance to one’s ambitions. Kamb ends this section by explaining how game mechanics such as experience points and leveling can be used in real life to help one learn skills and achieve goals.

In the third section, Kamb discusses how to set up one’s Game of Life. He lays out the rules that his group uses, but one can create one’s own list. The ninth chapter gives examples of character classes from role-playing games and how they might translate into real-world skill sets. The point of the chapter is to describe one’s ideal leveled-up character. The next chapter explores various quests that one could pursue in order to get from one’s current state to one’s ideal state. Kamb ends this section by sharing how he used the methods from the previous two chapters in his own quest.

The fourth section begins with more discussion of experience points and levels, then proceeds to discuss the need to self-impose both positive and negative reinforcement in order to cultivate discipline. An excellent bit of advice is given here: rewarding yourself should take the form of something that will aid in one’s quest, not something immediately pleasurable that will hinder one’s efforts going forward. In the fourteenth chapter, Kamb explains the importance of willpower. He suggests altering one’s environment to make pursuing one’s goals require less willpower and working against those goals require more. Following this, the need to create flow and momentum in one’s life is explained. The section concludes with a chapter about team-building that describes the roles of mentor, peer, trainee, and wildcard. Finding people to fill each of these roles helps make a quest more productive and interesting.

The fifth section uses the examples of four well-known fictional characters and how they overcame adversity in their stories to discuss how to prepare the body and mind for any adventure, nurture an adventurous spirit, and make necessary sacrifices in pursuit of success. The stories of Bruce Wayne, Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones, and Katniss Everdeen contain a multitude of lessons, making this the longest section of the book.

In the last section, Kamb reminds the reader that tomorrow is not guaranteed and whatever is worth doing should be started now. He encourages those who have completed their personal quests to share their stories and knowledge so that less experienced people can learn from them. The final chapter encourages those who have done great deeds to avoid resting on their laurels and move on to another adventure. The book concludes with a list of resources, acknowledgments, and a repetition of the offer to join Kamb’s online community.

Level Up Your Life is one of the better self-help books out there, and the online community is an added bonus. The greatest criticisms of the book would be that it is too much of an advertisement for the online community, and that while it is excellent for someone who is enduring life but not enjoying it, it is far less useful for someone who already uses similar methods with great success in some areas of life but is held back by failures in other areas. Even so, Kamb has created a book that is worth reading (and a website worth visiting).

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com

Book Review: The West Point History of the Civil War

The West Point History of the Civil War is a book derived from course material used at West Point to teach students about military history, strategy, and tactics. The book offers analysis of the political context of the events during the Civil War, as well as the events immediately preceding and following.

The book begins with an introduction that focuses on the role that West Point played in the lead-up to the Civil War, as well as the effect that the war had on the military academy. The main part is divided into six sections, each written by a different expert historian on the particular subject being discussed. An extensive bibliography ends the book, featuring a multitude of references and image credits.

The first chapter covers the events leading up to the Civil War, beginning with the end of the Mexican War and going through the Compromise of 1850, the battles over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, the Caning in Congress, John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, the election of 1860, the secessions resulting from Abraham Lincoln’s election, and the battles of First Bull Run and Shiloh. The second and third chapters are devoted to the war in the east in 1861-1863, which at the time meant the territory from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. The fourth chapter covers the western theater in 1862-1863, which was the territory from the Appalachian Mountains westward, although relatively little warfare occurred west of the Mississippi River. The fifth chapter discusses the coordination of Union forces and their strategy of hard war during 1864-1865 that led to the Confederacy’s defeat. The final chapter begins with a strategic discussion of the entire war, and finishes with a brief account of the Reconstruction Era that followed.

Throughout the book, many pictures, posters, and political cartoons from the period provide important evidence of the conditions and popular sentiments at the time. Accounts by troops of battlefield events help to show the harsh reality of war. Maps that show the locations and troop movements involved in each major battle help the reader to get a sense of what happened when, and the historians do a decent job of explaining why most of the commanders made the decisions they made. The greatest fault of the book is its incompleteness; important campaigns along the Atlantic coast get only brief mentions, and the Battle of Pea Ridge is completely omitted. In short, this is no West Point Atlas of American Wars, but it is one of the better new books on the Civil War.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: Freedom!

Freedom! is a book about libertarian theory written by activist Adam Kokesh. The book discusses the philosophy of libertarianism, applies it to various socioeconomic issues, and discusses its potential.

Mr. Kokesh begins by discussing the nature of freedom from a self-ownership perspective, and shows how government is philosophically incompatible with this perspective. He then shows how the non-aggression principle and the right to claim property derives from self-ownership. The validity of the self-ownership perspective has been argued with more robustness elsewhere, but we can assume that Kokesh omits a deeper discussion of argumentation ethics for the sake of brevity. Strangely, Kokesh does not include the precise definition of government that he has used repeatedly elsewhere (a group of individuals who exercise a monopoly on the initiation of force within a geographical area). He finishes the first chapter by proposing a society in which people only engage in voluntary relationships.

The second chapter is about the history of the state and how we might evolve past it, with an emphasis on the role of technology in helping people see through the lies of government propaganda and become productive enough to oppose the state in meaningful ways. The overall tone is rather Pollyanna-ish, as governments have become far more dangerous with recent advances in technology, and technology alone is not guaranteed to lead to the end of the state. There is also an alternative interpretation of the available data which is not directly discussed; namely, that the evolution from more crude forms of government to democracy did not occur because common people wanted more influence in government, but because rulers found that human livestock are more productive when given the illusion of freedom.

The third and fourth chapters briefly discuss the nature of self-defense and justice in a free society, with much more space devoted to the ways in which governments have corrupted these concepts with their monopolies on legal systems and military defense. Such corruptions include military interventionism, foreign aid, conscription, the military-industrial complex, wars against abstract ideas and tactics rather than physical foes who may be defeated, laws that criminalize victimless behaviors, laws that restrict access to weapons, courts that give agents of the state cover to assault peaceful people, the prison-industrial complex, and a legal system of punishment rather than a justice system of restitution.

The fifth chapter discusses taxation and explains why it is immoral, in both direct forms and indirect forms such as central banking. Kokesh shows that attempting to use the state to rein in the excesses of the rich will fail because the rich control the state by funding politicians. He then demonstrates that taxes discourage production because removing incentive to work in the form of income taxation will lead to less work being done (at least officially). After explaining how fiat currencies are imposed and how they are used to make it easier to tax a population, he argues that eminent domain and property taxes violate private property rights and are yet another form of theft. Kokesh finishes the chapter with a glimmer of hope; that a generation of people will come who will disown national debts because such debts legitimately have nothing to do with them. There are two problematic arguments in this chapter. First, there is the idea that taxation can be voluntary if one believes that governments serve people, one’s tax money is used properly, and one willingly pays taxes. This is false on two counts. Truth is independent of belief and morality is objective, so taxation is immoral even if one does not believe that it is. Also, consent under duress is not valid consent. As it is impossible to distinguish consent given only because of duress from consent given despite duress, it is impossible to consent when duress is present. Second, Kokesh claims that the only options for fighting taxation are to fight tax collectors in court and to conduct economic activities out of the view of tax collectors. This is false because the use of defensive force against agents of the state is also an option, even if there are not yet enough potential practitioners to make it likely to succeed.

In the sixth chapter, Kokesh begins by explaining the ideal of trade without force, fraud, or coercion, then examines how destructive government interference in trade is to the economy. He then goes into more detail about how central banks and fiat currencies distort the economy, and suggests cryptocurrencies as a possible way to solve this problem. Next, there is the problem of corporations, which led to the formation of unions. Kokesh explains that corporations are legal fictions created by the state to protect the wealthy who bribe politicians, and that this led to strong unions as a reaction by workers to the formation of powerful corporate interests. After this, he discusses the effect of government monopolization on infrastructure and utilities, which has hampered advancement beyond current technology and raised the cost of all goods and services by eliminating the increased efficiency that results from competition among service providers. The fifth section of the chapter is devoted to the method of ostracism and boycotting to bring about change in a peaceful manner. Unfortunately, the shortfalls of ostracism are not fully explored. Kokesh ends the sixth chapter by making the case that everything should be viewed through the lens of economics.

In the seventh chapter, Kokesh demonstrates how government interference in schooling, medicine, assistance for the poor, drug use, environmental protection, and the free flow of ideas has harmed everyone. Free market solutions to these problems are discussed perhaps too briefly, but discussing them at full length would make the book several times longer, and this has been done elsewhere by other authors.

The eighth chapter discusses government involvement in personal and family relationships. Here, Kokesh makes the case against laws forbidding consensual relationships as well as the case for peaceful parenting and treating children more like people and less like property vis-à-vis their current standing in society. This perspective is then applied to the problem of bullying in government schools. The chapter ends with a discussion of racism that examines its nature, its uses from a libertarian perspective, and how it is used by power elites to divide and conquer.

The last two chapters present Kokesh’s advice for living free in an unfree world, as well as his prediction for where the human species is going. His advice includes learning to master one’s emotions, becoming knowledgeable about taking care of one’s body and using that knowledge, living as debt-free as possible, doing work that one can be proud of, and choosing to have a positive state of mind. The last chapter returns to the theme of the second chapter; namely, that of technological advancement reaching an asymptote beyond which the state cannot function. Fortunately, the Pollyanna-ish tone does not return here, as Kokesh warns about the destructive potential of states with technology at a nearly asymptotic level. The next three sections discuss the methods by which people may transition to a voluntary society, which include education, civil disobedience, conducting business out of view of the state, and abolishing states gradually from the top level down rather than all at once. The use of force to topple governments is perhaps unfairly downplayed, however. Kokesh ends the book by explaining that the transition to a free society is not a revolution in the historical sense, but an evolution to something entirely new.

Overall, the book could explain some concepts in more detail and could avoid a few specious arguments, but it is what it was meant to be: a strong but concise treatise on the philosophy and potential of libertarianism.

Rating: 4/5

Book review: Unlocking More Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion

Unlocking More Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion is a book about communication of libertarian ideas written by Michael Cloud. The book is a sequel to Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion.

Mr. Cloud’s approach is to begin with insights about the nature of libertarianism as well as libertarian positions on various issues. He then tells stories and parables to illustrate points about libertarian communication, and finishes by discussing a number of persuasion techniques.

The book goes into more detail about specific issues than the first book, and is better for it. The discussions on health care, the nature of credit, and the effect of minimum wage laws are especially enlightening, and the essays about the need to define terms correctly touches on an issue that is of paramount importance for anyone who wishes to have a rational discussion. But like the first book, the focus on political libertarianism rather than philosophical libertarianism remains, along with the minarchist stance of Mr. Cloud’s writing throughout the book.

While Mr. Cloud’s libertarianism may not be 100% philosophically pure, his book is still very useful for those who seek to convince others of the benefits of individual liberty and limited (or no) government.

Rating: 4/5

Book review: Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion

Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion is a book about communication of libertarian ideas written by Michael Cloud. Mr. Cloud’s approach is to begin with stories that illustrate libertarian positions on issues as well as some lessons about communicating libertarian positions. He then discusses a number of persuasion techniques, and finishes by analyzing the psychology of some failed approaches to libertarian persuasion.

The persuasion techniques outlined in the book are useful not just for libertarians seeking new converts to their political philosophy, but for anyone who wishes to persuade someone else to do almost anything. With interest in libertarianism rising, the book is sure to help libertarians increase the number of people who will join the libertarian movement.

The book contains a serious flaw, however. Mr. Cloud’s view of anarchism and its position within the libertarian movement is certainly not welcoming to anarchist libertarians. On page 77, Mr. Cloud says quite plainly that “libertarians are not anarchists.” This is only true of the more political types of libertarians. Those who have a philosophical understanding of libertarianism from first principles are necessarily anarchists, because such an approach leaves no room for a state to function, as it cannot do so without violating absolute moral principles. He also says in multiple places in the book that “libertarians advocate small government,” which again is only true of political libertarians, or those who do not apply libertarian philosophy consistently and from first principles.

Despite the flaw of his treatment of anarchism, Mr. Cloud has still written a useful book, and Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion is still worth a read.

Rating: 4/5

Book review: We Who Dared to Say No to War

We Who Dared to Say No to War is a collection of essays gathered by progressive Murray Polner and libertarian Thomas Woods. The book includes anti-war writings by prominent Americans from the War of 1812 to the Iraq War. Accordingly, the authors whose works are included range across the political spectrum from socialist Eugene V. Debs to anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard.

Highlights of the book begin with Daniel Webster’s speech before Congress in which he compared military conscription for the War of 1812 to slavery and murder, an argument which Vietnam-era politicians would have done well to remember.

The second section contains an admonition against the Mexican War by Henry Clay, as well as the speech in which then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln demanded to know the exact spot upon which American forces were attacked by Mexican forces (it was in Mexican territory, but this did not faze the war hawks of the time).

The Civil War section contains arguments that show how war was not necessary to end slavery in the South and that the primary motivation was economic domination of the southern states by northern banking interests, many of which are made most effectively by Lysander Spooner, better known for his essay No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.

Next, the essays deal with U.S. imperialism around the turn of the century, focusing on the Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Phillippines, as well as how imperialism is contrary to the ideals of earlier generations of Americans.

The fifth section contains essays from such luminaries as Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, and Robert La Follette, and demonstrates how people of all walks of life opposed World War I. Most prominent among this group of essayists is Randolph Bourne, whose refrain “The state is the health of war” remains a key part of the anti-war lexicon.

An explanation by Jeanette Rankin of why she voted against the declarations of both world wars bridges the gap between the World War I section and the World War II section. The World War II section is a bit sparse, containing a few essays by draft resisters but lacking the multiple hard-hitting pieces of both the previous and following sections. Stuart Chase’s “Assumptions about War” does as good of a job as one essay can, but it needs more support from other pieces. There are many surviving arguments against the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the inclusion of only Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy’s brief quote on the matter is mystifying.

The Cold War section highlights the non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party that was driven underground in the 1950s and 1960s and has only recently resurfaced with the rise of Ron Paul. Here, the most prominent piece is by Murray Rothbard, who did an excellent job of explaining the foundations of libertarianism and the illegitimacy of the state apparatus.

The Vietnam War, while technically a part of the Cold War, gets its own section, due to the massive social unrest caused by it. In this section, Wayne Morse speaks against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, General David M. Shoup makes a solid case for non-interventionism, and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern delivers one of the most potent verbal lashings ever given to Congress, telling them “this chamber reeks of blood.”

The lessons that current policy-makers should have learned from the preceding eras of American history are brought to bear in the Iraq War section, which also includes Barbara Lee’s rationale for her lone vote against the Afghanistan War. Particularly moving is the resignation letter of John Brady Kiesling, who resigned as a U.S. diplomat on February 25, 2003 in protest of the Iraq invasion.

The final section is devoted to various criticisms of war in general, from John Quincy Adams speaking about foreign policy to Harvey Wasserman’s insightful comparisons of the false pretenses that have started many wars. The best summary of the preceding chapters is given by Sheldon Richman with the title of his essay, “War is a Government Program.”

While the book does an excellent job of presenting the anti-war case, it could have been improved by the inclusion of speeches and essays against the brutality inflicted upon Native Americans in the 19th century, as well as more criticism of World War II and the many smaller interventions of the current era. Nonetheless, it is still a treasure trove of sound arguments against the worst government program of all.

Rating: 4/5