Of astronomy and nuclear arms

This week has seen the fall of two TBR titles that double as my first science reads for 2022.

StarTalk Radio is a podcast hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and features interviews with prominent scientists, policy makers, etc, along with a rotating panel of guest hosts who are described as comedians*. StarTalk draws on the shows, particularly the “Cosmic Queries” segments devoted to listener questions, to offer a smattering of information on both astronomy and Earth science. Each chapter is based on an episode of the show, and uses listener questions as a jumping-off point into a broader subject. It’s very much a coffee table book, largely proportioned and very visually-appealing. Text-wise, it’s very busy, with multiple sidebars and quotes per page surrounding a paragraph of two of the actual narrative. The section subjects run all over the place and leave the domain of science towards the end, with chapters on futuristic speculation. This is a great book to look at and glean quick information from, but it’s not a satisfying read.

* Tastes vary, but I find most of the comedians to be more inane than entertaining.

Regular readers here know that I regard nuclear energy as the practical approach to move beyond the fossil fuel economy, given its ability to provide a steady base load that does not depend on fickle things like wind and cloud cover. I purchased Atomic Awakening back in 2016 to learn more about the nuclear power industry. Although the cover describes it as being about the past and future of nuclear energy, this is thoroughly a history, first of science and then of technological enterprise. The book’s first third is devoted to the line of studies that began with the mysteries of X-rays, and then revealed radioactivity and the structure of the atom, before shifting to the United States’ full-steam-ahead effort to weaponize the atom before Germany could. Following the close of World War 2, the author then shifts to the growth of atomic power in the postwar era, from military applications (nuclear submarines, attempts at a nuclear airplane), civilian development (nuclear energy and wildly irresponsible construction proposals) and the origin of radiotherapy, as well as speculation about nuclear-powered spacecraft. Although the author is a nuclear proponent, he doesn’t shy away from covering nuclear accidents (both in the labs and in application, with sections on the Demon Core that killed two scientists in two separate incidents, and the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl). His coverage of modern reactors is surprisingly nonexistant, aside from commenting that rising concerns about peak oil and climate change have prompted a resurrection of interest in expanding the nuclear contribution to nations’ power grids. Unfortunately, the Fukushima affair (despite its lack of injuries or deaths) has had another chilling effect, for a reason that the author comments on in his text: appearances matter more than substance. Although I wanted more information on the likes of molten salt reactors, Atomic Awakening proved incredibly interesting given the variety of applications it reviewed for nuclear power.

A Bright Future, an argument for nuclear energy as a keystone of combating climate change
Command and Control, Eric Schlosser. A history of accidents involving nuclear weaponry.

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On horses, septic tanks, and roving Spainards

I began the year by returning to a favorite subject of mine: horses! The Equine Legacy is a history of not only horses in America, but donkeys and mules, from the Age of Discovery to just after the Great War. Having read works like The Horse at Work and The Horse and the City, I was familiar with the wide uses of horses in industry, agriculture, and transportation. The information on mules and donkeys was fresh, though, and I was interested to find out how much of America’s early mule population owed its life to George Washington, who first created a distinct donkey breed (the American Mammoth Jackstock) and then engaged his prize specimens as studs to create particularly strong work mules throughout the States. Mules were particularly valuable in mines, as they weren’t as nervous as horses and were intelligent enough to be trained in behaviors that allowed them to survive the mine’s dangerous conditions. The author comments on the terrible losses horses suffered during the Civil War (over a million were killed or died from disease/overwork), and even offers a chapter on horses’ engagement with canals.  

One of my longstanding ambitions has been to buy land in the country, with no neighbors save deer and far from the noise of highways and boomboxes. That’s not something that will happen anytime soon, given my current medical challenge, but I was actively working towards it last year before I became sick: it’s the reason I’d started a side job. I know so little about the practicalities and background requirements for investing in land, though, so I decided to do a little background reading. The Country Property Buyer’s Guide is extremely functional, with large sections on the vagaries of rural financing, and the importance of understanding one’s septic and water systems. There’s some smaller chapters on being a good rural neighbor (i.e. don’t let your cows and dogs roam all over other people’s property),  but most of the content was on the practical/technical side, which recommends it.

Lastly, I read a Kindle Unlimited title called Alabama Footprints Exploration: Lost and Forgotten Stories, which proved to be excerpts from older histories, chiefly Albert J. Pickett’s 1851 History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from the Earliest Period. The author sometimes compares the facts of the retellings against other narratives,  but this isn’t a critical evaluation of the original narrative, just a passing-on of it in more accessible language. Enjoyable enough; it’s part of a series and I may continue in it as time allows, but TBR takes priority.

I’m currently plowing through The Real Anthony Fauci, giving The Oil Kings the odd despairing look, and just starting a TBR/science twofer.

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The Judge’s List

In 2016, John Grisham introduced readers to the fictional Board of Judicial Conduct, a political organization in Florida providing oversight for Florida’s judges, fining them for showing up to work drunk or talking about current cases at Rotary Club meetings.  The Whistler had an interesting premise, involving a corrupt judge in bed with a criminal organization, skimming money from an Indian casino, and John Grisham apparently liked his main character a lot more than I did, because he wrote a sequel.   An anxious young woman approaches the BJC with the fruits of her own investigation, two decades in the making: one of their sitting judges is a serial killer, and she’s scared that she may become his next target if she goes to the police.  What follows is fairly typical Grisham fare these days, with a tolerable-at-best main character, lots of nondescript dialogue, numerous very convenient plot developments, and an unsatisfying ending  Even the  serial killer was boring, armed as he was with a NCIS-esque Magic Computer that can do anything, and only the bizarre antics of his accuser (who begins mailing him poems, taunting him) which result in her being kidnapped add any drama. The Pelican Brief it ain’t, but if you’re stuck at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, it will keep you from having to watch the TV, so that’s…..something.  

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The Top Ten Most Additions to my Pile O’ Doom

Today we’re yakking about recent additions to our book collections. 

The Judge’s List, John Grisham. This legal thriller about a homicidal judge was given to me as a Christmas present. The fact that I haven’t already read it testifies to how unexcited I am about Grisham these days…

American Sherlock: Murders, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI. Kate Winkler Dawson. This was on sale at some point in November/December and I thought it might make an interesting science read.  

Life in the Confederate Army, William Watson. A Scotsman  joins the rebel cause and offers a memoir.  Of obvious appeal given the author’s status as a quasi-outsider. I’m always curious about the divided loyalties of immigrants to the rebel and union causes.

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg. Chosen for a book club I’m a member of as our first-quarter read.  I’ve read Borg before (a biography of Jesus) and expect this to be interesting.

Shotguns and Stagecoaches: The Men Who Rode for Wells Fargo, John Boessennecker. I’m really looking forward to this one. It’s meant to be for an American history series in June-July, but don’t bet on my fighting temptation that long..

Pioneer Priests and Makeshift Altars: A History of Catholicism in the Thirteen Colonies, Fr. Charles Connor I’ve been planning to read this one for years, and intend to use it in June-July.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Food, Farming, and Love. Bit of an impulse buy…it was quoted in a history of horses and mules I’m meandering through and attracted my attention.

Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, and Literature. Joseph Pearce.  On the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful — and their relationship to one another.

Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy, Andy Ngo. I first heard of Ngo when I saw a clip of some blackbloc bottom-feeders attacking a random Asian man (who was one of their supporters) on suspicion of being Andy Ngo.  Intrigued, I looked up Ngo and he proved to be one of the few voices spotlighting the unchecked violence  and laughable hypocrisy of this organization, which behaves exactly like the SA/SS goons of old who it purports to be against. They’re as far from Hitler as Stalin, which is to say — not far at all.

The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.. This is a new release selling for $3, and considering that the corporate media tried to memory-hole it, I figured it must be worth reading.

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2022: A World of Cities

I’m posting this largely for planning purposes. (I’d made the header at some point last year….bit of a shame not to use it!). I have a few titles already in hand for this, and hope to pursue it further in the year. The cities empaneled above are Babylon, Athens, Istanbul, London, and Guangzhou (I think). I would have searched for either Guangzhou or Shanghai to reference China’s exploding metropolitan habit.

Civilization as the Story of Cities

Books on cities in general

The Challenge of Making a City

Books on modern urbanism and infrastructure

Cities in History

Histories of specific cities, especially as they defined, dominated, or epitomized an era in history

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The way of men – pagan and Christian

Late last year I re-read Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men, written for identifying what it means to be a man, and what men need and want. Donovan argues that men are largely driven by the need for the respect of men who we are united to by a common purpose. The way of men is the way of the gang — small groups of men defining and protecting the tribe’s boundaries, driving away or destroying its enemies, joining together in larger parties to take down quarry or raid other tribes. This is what men were made for: it is the mandate expressed in our bones, and it guides the way we regard one another, consciously or no. The evolutionary orientation of men toward the gang and its mission — the hunt, the fight, the watch — establishes four virtues at the heart of man: Strength, Courage, Honour, and Mastery. These are not virtues possessed by men alone, but they define men, and are how we gauge one another. No woman is thought less of for not having bulging biceps, or from backing down from a fight; men would be. Girls mature into women simply by the dictates of genes, but men must work and fight for a place in the ranks, to be regarded as a man among men. After exploring each virtue in full, Donovan further argues that the modern world is incompatible with the expression of these traits — it no longer values men or our purpose — and urges men to form their own gangs and reject being a passive consumer. Instead, embrace the struggle of reality, and do it with men who you can respect and trust. It’s a bit as thought Tyler Durden wrote a book, with the same mix of insight and zeal.

Related: Art of Manliness interview with Jack Donovan on the book. My introduction to it.

A few quotes:

“While the job description for men undeniably changes according to time, place and culture, the primal gang virtue that unifies them all is ‘being able to carry your own weight'”.

Their version of a good man is isolated from his peers, emotional, effectively impotent, easy to manage, and tactically inept.   A man who is more concerned with being a good man than being good at being a man makes a very well-behaved slave.

Men must have some work to do that’s worth doing, some sense of meaningful action. It is not enough to be busy. It is not enough to be fed and clothed given shelter and safety in exchange for self-determination. Men are not ants or bees or hamsters. You can’t just set up a plastic habitat and call it good enough. Men need to feel connected to a group of men, to have a sense of their place in it. They need a sense of identity that can’t be bought at the mall.

Forming gangs and potentially wrecking things is not exactly the constructive mandate and life-defining purpose a man would hope for. It’s Good to be A Man offers a Biblical argument that parallels Donovan’s to some degree, in effect sanctifying his thoughts and others by making them inform a Christian approach to masculinity rather than Donovan’s pagan* one. The authors here argue that man is made for Dominion, and that patriarchy is inevitable: men are compelled by their nature to compete for rule, so the only question is : what kind of men will prevail? The authors draw heavily on the Creation account in Genesis, and argue that men are mission-oriented — created for the purpose of dressing and keeping the garden. Women are a complement to the mission, and not the mission itself: living for romance, they write, is a fool’s game, one which will inevitably ruin the relationships initiated. To idolize a romantic partner is to miss their status as a Person, and to expect them to complete us or make us happy is to place the weight of the worlds onto the shoulders of a single individual. This is both unjust and unwise: the more a man relies on a woman to validate his masculinity, the needier he becomes, and the less attractive a partner. Hence the authors’ repeated advice: pursuit excellence, not women. We find completion through determining God’s mission for us, and living it out. The authors felt compelled to write because 21st century men are completely lost — not just in the religious sense, but lost as men. Family culture and the skills it once propagated have largely evaporated, making most men directionless and often incompetent — forced to rely on youtube for instructions on how to change a tire or knot their tie. They emphasize, too, the importance of male relationship, writing on the need for male mentors and brothers to support one’s growth. Jordan Peterson may be an excellent guide, but in-person accountability is necessary for lasting maturity. This book proved to draw from far more varied sources than I’d expected, quoting everything from The Church Impotent to No More Mr Nice Guy. Related titles would be Leaving Boyhood Behind (to be reviewed in May alongside Defending Boyhood), The Catholic Gentleman (Sam Guzman) and Be a Man! by Larry Richards. These are about Catholic masculinity as opposed to Foster and Tennant’s more protestant approach, but the underlying theology is compatible.

A few quotes:
We are the ones now living in burning Jerusalem, and we are the ones who must rebuild the walls. We are the ones who must overcome the evil patriarchs of our day, whether in the deep state or the media-industrial complex. We are the ones who must refuse to be turned aside to their will by deception and gaslighting, refuse to be numbed by their offers of cheap pleasure, and refuse to be cowed by their intimidation and oppression.

Whenever there is an unbalanced emphasis on one virtue, it can become a vice. This happens simply because each virtue must be applied in another. Wisdom without the strength to put it into action is worthless. Strength without wise application is destructive. Workmanship without wisdom is toil and futility, and so on.

Do not be harnessed, pacified, or destroyed; rather, build yourself up, and start working to exercise dominion over yourself and your world. Everything else will follow from that.

*I don’t mean “pagan” as in “secular”, I mean pagan as pagan. Donovan regards masculinity as essentially religious, and he has a particular devotion for Odin and Zeus. He’s a fascinating author, often disturbing but never boring.

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2021, Year in Review!

What’s this? Another year gone? Well, on to the books!

Most of my reading fell into the above categories, the remainder being small fry like fantasy, Star Trek, and world affairs. Most of my reading was nonfiction, no surprise there – 62% if you want the cold hard number. A slight majority of my books were e-books rather than physical, and an even slighter majority of them were borrowed instead of purchased.  

Starting out I had several goals – to restart the Classics Club with fifty fresh titles; to read more southern history and literature, and to make progress on my TBR pile.  I’d say I did well on all three; the continuing existence of TBR pile is mostly my friends’ fault. They keep giving me books, the villains! The Classics Club Strikes Back is off to a good start, with 20 titles read, and a respectable distribution across the categories I chose, the exception being Classic Science Fiction, I most favored One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, not only for its illustration of how abysmal life in the Soviet Union was,  but  for its message that a man could still triumph over the dehumanizing nature of the prison camp. 

History made its usual showing, though science was right on its tail for most of the year. There’s no shortage of excellence here; Midnight in Chernobyl and Touching History: 9/11 in the Skies both come to mind, as does Liza Picard’s Victorian London. The latter drove me to buy several books by Picard, which will feature in 2022’s Read of England. 

Science had, on the surface, a strong year, with twenty titles read. When I looked back at my reading, though, I was dismayed to find that I hadn’t posted many proper reviews at all, instead relegating virtually all my science reviews after February to mini-reviews, presenting them in twos and threes. My favorites were Good Reasons for Bad Feelings and How Emotions are Made, though The Storytelling Animal was another strong contender.  

 Religion and Philosophy had a good, if….weird, year. I attempted to read all of Ayn Rand’s nonfiction (two volumes remain), finding her more interesting than expected, and a welcome rebuttal against the mobbishness that’s dominated 2020 and 2021. My favorite reads in this area, though, were Brad Birzers’ Beyond Tenebrae, and Seeking Christendom, both reviewing Christian humanism and literature connected to it.

In Science Fiction and Technical Thrillers,  there were numerous hits. Project Hail Mary was arguably the best, but The Warehouse  showed a future we’re not too far away from now. Doctorow’s Attack Surface was a welcome continuation of his Little Brother series.  I was in a serious dystopian mood during the summer, thanks in part to how insane organizations, governments, communities, and private companies have been in the last year. It’s been a strange period of collective madness, of institutionalized hypochondria.

Historical Fiction, which typically puts in a strong showing, faltered a bit this year. I continued with a few familiar authors (Cornwell, Collard) and began exploring Ben Kane’s works, which proved very promising. His Eagles at War was a superb depiction of Rome’s defeat by the Germans; only the surprise return of Richard Sharpe in Sharpe’s Assassin gave it any  competition. 

Southern Fiction, which debutes in the end-year review this year,  has Robert Ruark and Rick Bragg in serious competition; as much as Bragg’s writing moves me, though, I love The Old Man and the Boy’s  combination of outdoors adventure and the unique moment in time it captured (1920s-30s Carolina).  I read five Bragg books, enjoying his family trilogy the best — and its middle volume, Ava’s Man, particularly.

One fun thing I did this year was Space Camp, in which I read numerous astronaut memoirs. Of these, my favorite was Spaceman by Mike Massimino, followed by Eileen Collin’s Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars.

What’s next?

So, what’s coming in 2022? ….much the same as came in 2021, to be honest. I’ve done legwork for several themes of varying lengths (weekly, monthly, and year-long), but haven’t locked in anything at present: in consideration are a month devoted to the medieval epoch, a year-long series with a traveling spotlight on cities that dominated or epitomized a particular era (think caliph-era Baghdad, renaissance Venice, Victorian London, etc), and revisits of my past Mideast and Asian reading focuses. I’m leery of launching into a project that will require getting access to a bunch of books, though, when I live with the draining presence of my TBR pile. I want so much to be rid of it, and yet friends keep giving me books — so that despite the dozens of TBR titles I tackled in 2021, the mount is as substantial as ever. What will definitely happen is the usual:

Science Survey:
– BASE GOAL: 12 books, one for each category
– SECONDARY GOAL: 20 books in total
– SPECIFIC TARGETS: Science books in my TBR stack include DNA is Not Destiny, This is Your Brain on Music, and The Moral Animal.

The Classics Club Strikes Back, Year II
– BASE GOAL: 10 books
– SECONDARY GOAL: 15 books

Readin’ Dixie
– BASE GOAL: One book a month in southern literature or history
– SECONDARY GOAL: An average of two books a month in southern literature or history
– SPECIFIC TARGETS: Finish reading available Rick Bragg works, try Pat Conroy

Climbing Mount Doom
– BASE GOAL: Confront at least one TBR book a week with the aim of reading or discarding it.
– SPECIFIC TARGET: Level Mount Doom.

Thanks for reading, and happy New Year!

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Brothers and Friends

Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis
© 1981 Warren Lewis, ed. Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Mead
301 pages

Reading of C.S. Lewis’ life and letters, I often encounter his brother Warnie Lewis, and regard him with complete sympathy. An historian and  lifelong bachelor, he was happiest with a book, a beverage, a comfy chair, and his pipe. Though overshadowed by his younger brother Jack, Warren held no grudge;  he and his brother’s life centered around the other, and he was only happy to help Jack cope with his affairs when the younger Lewis became a celebrity. Brothers and Friends makes their close relationship plain,    evidenced by their constant activity together and Warnie’s obvious loss of heart in the years after Jack’s death in November ‘63.  

Warren’s initial diary begins at the close of the Great War, upon receipt of a journal for Christmas; he then writes faithfully with interruptions for the remaining decades of his life.  He is a vociferous a reader as his brother, and the book brims over with recollections of their frequent pub arguments and long walks together in the English countryside, discussing and debating matters of literature, politics, and theology. (These walks included short strolls with the dogs, and longer annual hikes  that went on for days.)     Although Warren didn’t share his brother’s tastes for Shakespeare and philosophy,  he was an avid consumer of English poetry, biographies, histories, and novels, and he contributed several French histories to his chosen field.  A reader who is aware of Warren’s later struggle with alcoholism will note with sadness the frequent and steady mentions of whisky-and-sodas early on, but cheer Warnie on when he begins recording his tee-totaling days, having become aware of the cycle of insomnia, depression, and drunkenness that he was slipping in to. Warren is amusingly uncomfortable around the fairer sex, and asserts that men in general find women poor company indeed unless they’re attracted to them. (Warnie seems to have been fond of at least two, though: his brother’s semi-ward, Maureen Moore, and Joy Davidman.)  

Warren is wonderful company, especially for a chronic bachelor-reader like myself who sees in him a kindred spirit. Not for Warren was the rat race, or the pursuit of honors; he wanted nothing but stimulating reads and good conversation, and his life was filled with both. As life wore on, especially after his brother’s death, he was increasingly sad for the world they were leaving behind: he saw country scenes plowed under for dismal architecture, and witnessed a growing sterility in the world around him. In his later years, he turned to the classics with fuller devotion, even reading Shakespeare which he’d once found unpalatable.  Although it’s very difficult to separate an appreciation for Warren from an appreciation for Jack — so closely do they stand together — he does appear here a distinct figure, with his own tastes entirely apart from his brother. Those who are interested in the personalities of the Inklings will find this especially attractive, given that Warren documents who was at which meeting and so on, and the subject of conversation at each meeting: poetry and literature, typically. Interestingly, he harrumphs against the idea of the Inklings as a deliberate literary society, with a characteristic influence on its members: Warren writes that they were merely friends, who, by virtue of their common literary interests, spent part of their time comparing and improving the others’ work.

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No Domain: The John McAfee Tapes

No Domain: The John McAfee Tapes
© 2021 Mark Eglinton
271 pages

How could one life possibly have so many dimensions? How could it all be true? How the hell was this man still alive?

When the talking heads begin rattling on about notable deaths of 2021, they will mention all manner of useless, uninteresting people — politicians, athletes, pop musicians. They will not mention John McAfee, who after months on the run from multiple states and various criminal organizations, was captured by the Spanish and succumbed to ‘suicide’ in his lonely prison cell. He lived hard, fast, and brilliantly — embracing chaos in his own life and almost exulting in it, until at last it got the better of him. He entered the public domain as a self-made tech millionaire, riding the wave of his antivirus software, and decades later would be more notable as an eccentric fugitive, whose paranoia or zest for life led him to live abroad and frequently abandon everything to start again — who made his return to the United States by mocking the media’s presentation of him as a druglord with a harem. John’s is a voice which has been silenced — but not quite, for here we have a collection of interviews in the last year of his extraordinary, singular life, getting another look into this mind that occupied the line between genius and insanity.

No Domain is not a formal biography of McAfee, but a collection of interviews between himself and Englinton that were given with an eye to creating an authorized story of the man’s life. The interviews are given sporadically, as McAfee was on the run at the time, and Englinton ties them together with a narrative detailing his struggles to make progress getting a self-professed paranoiac to trust him — and to trust what the subject was telling him. McAfee grew up in a troubled household, with an abusive father who beat him and committed suicide when he was but a teenager. Something of a math prodigy, McAfee quickly realized he could game college by reading and mastering the textbooks quickly, then spending his time partying and making money on the side. This philosophy continued as he aged; in his twenties, he accepted training as a computer programmer back when executing a program meant manually flipping switches on a computer control board. His talents here led him to work at numerous high-profile companies, and at each he employed the same strategy that worked in college: knock out the work quickly, then focus on drugs and women. As computer technology matured, McAfee became fascinated by the appearance of the first computer virus, and crafted a way to detect and remove it from affected machines. This was the beginning of McAfee Associates’ VirusScan, which would catapult him into the realm of the super-rich and allow him to become the….colorful character of the 2000s.

McAfee, throughout these interviews, presents himself as someone who was devoted to Living — not merely existing. He couldn’t abide a 9-5 grind, to live every day according to a preordained pattern. He chased highs, through a wide array of illicit substances and women, and once he had money, explored his creative side by sinking money into developing properties throughout the world. Some were more art projects than functional residences. McAfee often appears to be a creature of impulse, attempting to solve social problems in Belize and Hawaii through massive expenditures, and invariably attracting the wrath of local powers and authorities who didn’t like this strange outsider throwing his weight around them. His time in Belize was particularly…dramatic, as he was compelled to hire a security force the size of a small army to prevent retaliation from hurting those he was trying to help. (That’s his story: what passes for authorities in Belize claim he killed his neighbor.) Eventually the chaos forced him out and back to the United States, where after some political activities, he is targeted by the IRS for not paying tribute to the state — for ten years. Such was the path that led him to living on a boat and eventually being arrested in Spain.

I was disappointed that there’s almost no content on McAfee’s warnings about the technocratic surveillance state, and the exposure American IT infrastructure has to cyberattacks. These were what first drew me to McAfee, and kept me interested despite realizing he was….troubled. In many ways, his was not a life I’d model mine after, and yet I valued him for his frequent warnings about the rising surveillance system, his full-throated advocacy for cryptocurrency to thwart the corruption of money by states and banks, and admired him for his continued defiance of the state. They killed him in the end, as no state-gangster can abide someone who doesn’t cower under Ozymandias’ glare, but his spirit lives on. While this is not the biography of McAfee his fans might hope for, it’s a welcome release.


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