Mini-Reviews 2023

This post is to provide some notes from books I read (and a couple of movies that I watched) that aren't going to feature in dedicated posts. See here and here for similar posts from prior years.

In 2023, I had set a goal to read five books of 500+ pages: Lord of the RingsGrowth by Vaclav Smil, The Monkey and the Monk (an abridged version of Journey to the West), City of God (also abridged), and Champlain's DreamLord of the Rings needs no introduction; it featured in this post from last year. For the Vaclav Smil book, I have an outline/draft in progress that is inspired by it. For Augustine's City of God, I'll probably share some excerpts and notes that stood out at some point—as with other renowned classics, an actual review likely wouldn't have anything fresh to say. Finally, Champlain's Dream is one that I intend to attempt a review, possibly to submit to another site.

These five books were not the only things I read last year, so the following post provides some notes, quotes, and mini-reviews of some of the others (along with a couple of movies, and The Monkey and the Monk, which didn't really fit anywhere else). Happy reading!

Marshall McLuhan

The communications tools we use and the media we consume or participate in are big parts of our lives, yet often remain unexamined (or at least under-examined). Not by Marshall McLuhan, though! His book Understanding Media was written in 1964, but I found it was still very relevant. There were some things that he predicted very insightfully, like the information economy and like so much media being ad-supported; but even where his predictions didn't pan out, this book is still worth reading for the exercise of thinking through the role of media in our lives today.

In some ways I found his writing style frustrating to read. Rather than a linear flow, he jumps around from example to example to application, and his theories aren't laid out and justified in any one place. I somewhat suspect the non-lineality is deliberate, as he comments in a few places that one of the side-effects of the written word is a very linear and logical way of thinking rather than seeing the big picture. McLuhan is clearly on the humanities side of the divide discussed by C.P. Snow and as someone on the opposite side (scientific-technical/"shape rotator") it's definitely a break from what I'm used to reading his perspective on various technologies. Like, I'm used to studying the mechanics of electricity whereas he's writing about its semiotics. He defines media very broadly, encompassing numerous technologies used for communication and even transportation (it gives the option to deliver a message in person, I guess).

This review could easily get much longer than mini, so I'm going to present some point-form notes on aspects of his theory as I understood it, followed by a series of excerpts that I found thought-provoking and/or a good encapsulation of some of the book's main themes.

  • McLuhan divides media into "hot vs cool". Hot media is high definition and more passive for audiences whereas cool media is low definition and more participative. He puts TV and movies on separate sides of this divide (TV cool and movies hot), which felt strange from a vantage point in the 2020s. I wondered as I was reading, whether, since he wrote, media is getting more cool? Call-in shows, audience voting, companion websites/fan FB pages are adding a participative aspect to lots more media now.
  • He also put a strong emphasis on how we interact physiologically with various media. With TV, for example, our brains are integrating a lot of pixels and he thought that had a big effect (and at the time he wrote, movies were projected from real film, which is part of why he classified them as hot and TV as cool).
  • Understanding Media is subtitled The Extensions of Man. McLuhan's theory is that various types of media extend our senses in different ways, but at the same time there's a numbing of the non-extended version and drowning out of our other senses.
  • He saw the history of media up to his day as an explosion, causing fragmentation/specialization in society (movable type is a vivid example of this, words are split into letters which can then be used in an interchangeable way) But he thought the world was at a turning point towards implosion, with electric media negating distances and making us all generalists again (the electric age reversing the mechanical is how he put it, if I recall correctly).
  • You've probably heard the phrase "The Medium is the Message". What he means by that is that the impact of the content carried by any particular form of media is negligible compared to the impact of the structure of the prevailing media on society. I don't fully agree but it's a good counter-balancing perspective to the view that only the content of media shapes society.

Here are some excerpts that stood out to me, along with light commentary:

During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. (19)
After three thousand years of specialist explosion and of increasing specialism and alienation in the technological extensions of our bodies, our world has become compressional by dramatic reversal. As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed in bringing all the social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. (20)

These two excerpts are the intersection of his ideas of media extending our senses and the globalizing nature of electric technology/media.

"Rational," of course, has for the West long meant "uniform and continuous and sequential." In other words, we have confused reason with literacy, and rationalism with a single technology. (30)

McLuhan thinks that literacy and books have shaped Western conceptions of rationality itself.

technological media are staples, or natural resources, exactly as are coal and cotton and oil. Anybody will concede that society whose economy is dependent upon one or two major staples like cotton, or grain, or lumber, or fish, or cattle is going to have some obvious social patterns of organization as a result. (35)

I thought this concept of staple media was useful.

Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes. It is like the difference between a railway system and an electric grid system: the one requires railheads and big urban centers. Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be a center, and does not require large aggregations. (47)

I would counter here that large aggregations have other drivers: preferential attachment, ease of networking, integrated labour markets. And indeed, cities have grown a lot since he wrote (although now 6 decades later, there's at least a contingent of digital nomads / work from anywhere jobs).

In fact, improved roads and transport have reversed the ancient pattern and made cities the centers of work and the country the place of leisure and of recreation. (49)

The role reversal of cities and the countryside.

An Indian is the servo-mechanism of his canoe (55)

Does our technology work for us or do we work for it?

So why not use the actual earth as a map of itself? We have reached a similar point of data gathering when each stick of chewing gum we reach for is acutely noted by some computer that translates our least gesture into a new probability curve or some parameter of social science. Our private and corporate lives have become information processes because we have put our central nervous systems outside us in electric technology. (60)

I thought this was a notable take on the map & territory dichotomy, as well as good foresight into the ambitions of Big Data.

Under electric technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing. In terms of what we still consider an "economy" (the Greek word for a household), this means that all forms of employment become "paid learning", and all forms of wealth result from the movement of information. The problem of discovering occupations or employment may prove as difficult as wealth is easy. (65)

I wouldn't go this far: we need atoms as well as bits. But this was directionally correct about the rise of the information economy (McLuhan also includes advertisements as a form of paid learning, although the payment there is in-kind).

The urge to continuous use is quite independent of the "content" of public programs or of the private sense life, being testimony to the fact that technology is part of our bodies. Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of "what the public wants" played over its own nerves. (73)

Very relevant to smartphones, eh?

handing over the common speech to a private corporation (73)

And this applies in spades to social media and related walled gardens.

The alphabet meant power and authority and control of military structures at a distance. When combined with papyrus, the alphabet spelled the end of the stationary temple bureaucracies and the priestly monopolies of knowledge and power. (85)

You need some kind of communication technology to govern at a distance, so the alphabet was a prerequisite for moving beyond city-states, in McLuhan's view.

It can be argued, then, that the phonetic alphabet, alone, is the technology that has been the means of creating "civilized man"--the separate individuals equal before a written code of law. Separateness of the individual, continuity of space and of time, and uniformity of codes are the prime marks of literate and civilized societies. (86)

On legibility.

The breaking up of every kind of experience into uniform units in order to produce faster action and change of form (applied knowledge) has been the secret of Western power over man and nature alike. That is the reason why our Western industrial programs have quite involuntarily been so militant, and our military programs have been so industrial. Both are shaped by the alphabet in their technique of transformation and control by making all situations uniform and continuous. (88)

Here McLuhan draws a straight line from 26 letters to interchangeable parts.

For the West, literacy has long been pipes and taps and streets and assembly lines and inventories. Perhaps most potent of all as an expression of literacy is our system of uniform pricing (89)

Literacy, running water, lineal organization = all connected, in his view.

My favourite chapter was number 10: Roads and Paper Routes. He explains how sending messages on papyrus along a network of good roads was crucial to the administration of the Roman empire, governing far-flung provinces. In fact, he connects the decline of bureaucracy and army organization to the lack of papyrus once Rome no longer controlled Egypt.

This concept of infinity was not imposed on us by logic. It was the gift of Gutenberg. So, also, later one, was the industrial assembly line. The power to translate knowledge into mechanical production by the breaking up of any process into fragmented aspects to be placed in lineal sequence of movable, yet uniform, parts was the formal essence of the printing press. This amazing technique, of spatial analysis duplicating itself at once, by a kind of echo, invaded the world of number and touch. (112)

He feels the printing press was very far-reaching in how it affected Western culture.

Once time is mechanically or visually enclosed, divided, and filled, it is possible to use it more and more efficiently. (142)

Regarding clocks, you can't manage what you can't measure.

Thus, all electric appliances, far from being labour-saving devices, are new forms of work, decentralized and made available to everybody. Such is, also, the world of the telephone and the TV image that demands so much more of its users than does radio or movie. As a simple consequence of this participational and do-it-yourself aspect of the electric technology, every kind of entertainment in the TV age favours the same kind of personal involvement. (153)

Labour-saving appliances allowed individuals to do their own laundry, etc. rather than having servants or taking it to a laundromat. Rather than saving work, they made it accessible to non-specialists. He thinks this generalizes to electric technology more broadly. I think it's a good insight about appliances, but since Understanding Media was written, there's more specialization in the economy, as far as I can tell.

Of the many unforeseen consequences of typography, the emergence of nationalism is, perhaps, the most familiar. Political unification of populations by means of vernacular and language groupings was unthinkable before printing turned each vernacular into an extensive mass medium. (161)

In his telling the sequence goes: printing to homogenization to nationalism; changing media could thus lead to post-nationalism.

Butler, himself, had at least indicated that machines were given vicarious powers of reproduction by their subsequent impact upon the very bodies that had brought them into being by extension. (165)

This is one of several references to Erewhon by Samuel Butler which I plan to read soon.

In any given structure, the rate of staff accumulation is not related to the work done but to the intercommunication among the staff, itself. (In other words, the medium is the message).

This application of his theory to organizational structure has a lot in common with Conway's Law.

The fact is that, from the alphabet to the motorcar, Western man has been steadily refashioned over 2,500 years. From the time of the telegraph onward, however, Western man began to live an implosion. He began suddenly with Nietzschean insouciance to play the movie of his 2,500-year explosion backward. But he still enjoys the results of the extreme fragmentation of the original components of his tribal life. It is this fragmentation that enables him to ignore cause-and-effect in all interplay of technology and culture. (237)

The preceding quote is a summary of a major theme.

Freedom in the Western world has always taken the form of the explosive, the divisive, advancing the separation of the individual from the state. The reversal of that one-way movement outward from center-to-margin is as clearly owing to electricity as the great Western explosion had, in the first place, been due to phonetic literacy. (239)

Has the electric age changed our conception of freedom?

The phonetic alphabet and the printed word that exploded the closed tribal world into the open society of fragmented functions and specialist knowledge and action have never been studied in their roles as a magical transformer. The antithetic electric power of instant information that reverses social explosion into implosion, private enterprise into organization man, and expanding empires into common markets, has obtained as little recognition as the written word. (265)

However, in actuality, electricity has led to more specialization as far as I can tell.

Since nearly all our technologies and entertainment since Gutenberg have been not cool, but hot; and not deep, but fragmentary; not producer-oriented, but consumer-oriented, there is scarcely a single area of established relationships, from home and church to school and market, that has not been profoundly disturbed in its pattern and texture. (272)

Perhaps this has swung back with the advent of social media, which has made almost everyone a content producer in at least a small degree?

As I said above, I'd encourage people to read this book, not just/mainly for its contents, but for the exercise of thinking through the role of media in our lives. Yes, this is kind of a meta way to end this mini-review.

(Also, here's a good short talk on the social impact of the printing press and the internet)


I watched Oppenheimer in theatres when it came out last year. It definitely held my attention. The score was quite interesting and different from typical movie soundtracks. Something that stood out from this movie (and also from First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic from a few years ago) was the culture around technical endeavours back then. It's amazing what they were able to accomplish with chalkboards and slide rules. Wearing suits even when it's highly impractical—like watching explosion tests out in the desert. Much fewer safety precautions. The speed at which they could get things done: building a whole town for like 4,000 people at Los Alamos took less time than many apartment buildings do today. And the personalities involved seemed a lot lower on agreeableness than I'd expect in this kind of R&D now. Dr. Lawrence was one of my favourite characters. Did you know he has not one but two National Laboratories named after him? (It is left as an exercise to the reader why these laboratories have consistently been home to one of the world's top supercomputers).

Rose Island

This is an Italian film on Netflix that is based on a true story. It's about an engineer in the late 1960s that builds an offshore platform in the Adriatic, just outside Italy's territorial waters and tries to get it recognized as an independent country. It manages to be quite funny (at least if you share my sense of humour) while also covering a lot of salient topics about micronations. The main character is portrayed as an eccentric idealist. He wants to invent and tinker without being hampered by red tape and permits for everything. An early scene establishes this quite well when he is stopped by police for driving a home-built car that doesn't have a license plate. His idealism faces a couple of challenges: other people come to this man-made island to party in a disco/beach club with few rules and no taxes, meanwhile the Italian government gets nervous about its existence in the febrile political climate of the time. Overall, it's entertaining, and also an interesting case study of an early instance of seasteading.

Algorithms to Live By

Algorithms to Live By explains various algorithms in computing and offers ways they could be applied to other areas of life (primarily personal organization and productivity). I learned some useful things in reading it, both about algorithms and productivity tips.

To keep this review brief, I've arranged it as notes on each chapter, covering two or three algorithms or applications that stood out from each:

  1. Optimal Stopping: this chapter covers the Secretary Problem and variants with different boundary conditions. When you have a decision to make and can't revisit previous options, you have the highest chance of making the best pick if you get 37% (1/e) of the way through the available time or choices and then pick the next option that's better than any you've seen so far.
  2. Explore vs Exploit: this chapter dealt with the explore-vs-exploit trade-off: when should you try something new and when should you pick something you already know is a good choice? A general principle is that the value of exploration is highest when there will be lots of time to take advantage of good finds later on. The authors used restaurants as an example: when you first move to a new city it's wise to try lots of different places (explore) but when you're getting ready to move away you'll want to revisit your favourites (exploit). They also applied this concept to Hollywood movies: "Interestingly, since the interval makes the strategy, then by observing the strategy we can also infer the interval. Take Hollywood, for instance ... Such a sequel deluge in not only lamentable (certainly critics think so); it's also somewhat poignant. By entering an almost purely exploit-focused phase, the film industry seems to be signaling a belief that it is near the end of its interval." This was published in 2016 and I don't think the years since have done anything to weaken this thesis.
    A few recommended algorithms are Win-Stay/Lose-Shift or Gittins Index or Upper Confidence Bound (the latter algorithm gives exposure to upside risks); they also offer a description of A/B testing.
  3. Sorting: it "involves steep economies of scale". The Mergesort algorithm is discussed. Something I found interesting and useful from this chapter was the Sort-search tradeoff: "err on the side of messiness. Sorting something you will never search is a complete waste"; An application of this is that searching beats sorting for email ("as the cost of searching drops, sorting becomes less valuable") and indeed in the past five years or so I've found it's more productive not to consume time sorting my email as I can almost always find what I'm looking for with the right search terms. Another interesting thing from this chapter was comparing sorting algorithms to tournament structure (e.g. comparison counting sort :: round-robin). They make the point that sorting is easier with measures than merely ranks which reminded me of what Pascal had to say on the value of legible hierarchies.
  4. Caching: "in the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important a function as remembering" = key idea. A suggested algorithm was to drop the Least Recently Used (LRU) item from short-term memory/storage. A practical tip was the Noguchi Filing System: Keep files/stuff in a pile and always return most recently used to the top.
  5. Scheduling: This chapter discussed Gantt Charts and Moore's algorithm. An important question for optimizing schedules is what are you minimizing? maximum lateness, sum of completion times? These lead to possible prioritizations of first due, shortest processing time, respectively.
    I found the description of Thrashing relatable, so I appreciated the prescription (get out of it by just doing something and not trying to optimize order anymore; beware of mental/time overhead of task/context switching too frequently).
  6. Bayes' rule: I'm familiar with Bayes, but I appreciated the description of related but simpler heuristics like Laplace's Rule (estimated probability of (x+1/n+2) when you've observed x occurrences out of n times) and a default assumption that an institution etc will last as long into the future as it has in the past—both of these are decent priors with limited information.
  7. Overfitting: Artificial neural networks are vulnerable to this. This chapter included cool advice from entrepreneurs to use a thicker pen on a whiteboard the further ahead you're planning to avoid bogging down in unknowable details.
  8. Relaxation: This was a very strong chapter. Algorithmically, constraint relaxation = solve a simplified version of the problem first, then add constraints back in; they had some neat real-world ideas for how it could be applied too. Some algorithmic examples are: the minimum spanning tree as a starting point for travelling salesman problem, or solving continuous equations before adding the complication of discrete/integer optimization. Lagrangian optimization = allow breaking the rules with a cost/loss function to expand possibility space.
  9. Randomness: Key idea = in some circumstances, sampling might be better than exhaustively calculating all possibilities.
  10. Networking: Key idea = avoid "bufferbloat".
  11. Game Theory: This chapter was alright, but I didn't find much in it that was new to me.
  12. Computational kindness: This was sort of a summary chapter, but also had a number of recommendations: recognize when good enough is good enough; heuristics, approximations, and strategic use of randomness can help; focus on tractable problems; communicate your own preferences, because it eases the computational workload of others (e.g. to schedule a party).

The Monkey and The Monk

One of the five long books (~500+ pages) that I had a goal to read last year was an abridged version of The Journey To The West (the version translated and editted by Anthony Yu and titled The Monkey and the Monk). It is very loosely based on a true story: there was a monk during the Tang dynasty that travelled to India to obtain copies of Buddhist scriptures that weren't available in China. However, it departs from realism from the very first chapter. The character who gets the most attention is not the monk but the Monkey King. He is a major brat: very clever at getting out of tricky situations or gaining an advantage and a very skilled fighter, but he has absolutely no humility or self-restraint. He and four other mythical companions become disciples of the monk and accompany/protect him on his journey to the West as penance for various things they've done to offend the Jade Emperor. There's a bewildering array of other Immortals of various ranks that they interact with. I'd liken the structure of this novel to a Buddhist (though it alternately belittles Taoism then is syncretistic with it) version of Pilgrim's Progress—with one chapter (11) that's very Dante-esque. There's probably a lot of allegorical moral lessons, but a lot of them went over my head. There's also a lot of wuxia action; fights between characters with superhuman strength/skills and legendary weapons are a regular occurrence, as in the quote below. There are some humourous moments, too. The best joke was when someone referred to a latrine as a "Bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration".

After a poem describing the sand/river monster's weapon (a treasure staff), Bajie/Idiot/Wuneng (characters have multiple names) fights Sha Monk/Sha Wujing/Flowing-Sand:

Wielding the treasure staff.
Striking with muckrake;
They would not speak as if they were estranged.
Since wood mother constrained the [alchemical] spatula,
The two engaged in a combat fierce.
No win or loss;
With determined minds
They churned up waves and billows to fight a war.
How could this one control his bitter rage;
That one found unbearable his pain.
Rake and staff went back and forth to show their might;
The water rolled like poison in Flowing-Sand.
They huffed and puffed!
They worked and worked!
All because Tripitaka must face the West.
The muckrake so ferocious!
The staff used with such ease!
This one made a grab to pull him up the shore;
That one sought to seize and drown him in the stream.
They roared like thunder, stirring dragon and fish.
Gods and ghosts cowered as the Heavens grew dim.

For a story with the ostensible lesson that violence isn't the answer, it sure has a lot of fight scenes described in loving detail...

On The Incarnation

I read On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius as part of an online book club of sorts last year. Reading it along with others added to the experience, but I have to say that I found it very readable for something with more than 16 centuries under its belt (although maybe the expectation should be that something so enduring is accessible, hmm). It is also not terribly long. So the benefit:effort ratio was pretty high and I can strongly recommend it. Here, I've included the highlights from my notes from reading through this enduring classic:

Chapters 1 - 3:

  • I liked this line (and the paragraph it comes from) both for the turn of phrase and the profoundness: "The renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word Who made it in the beginning".
  • "It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us." This sentence reminded me of a line in the Nicene Creed, but with punchier wording.
  • "In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and self-revealing to us" = Athanasius' effort to differentiate what was the same and what was different about the incarnation versus the Son's previous presence and activity in the world.
  • "Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Saviour of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way." Bringing Light down into Plato's cave, eh? Also, a point of contrast to Journey to the West which takes the perspective that our senses distract us from ultimate reality—contrariwise, Athanasius proclaims that God deigned to 'meet our senses half-way'.

Chapters 4 and 5:

  • I thought these chapters were the best part of the book
  • On the topic of Jesus' death, Athanasius admits that he's running into the limits of what he can express by words. "You must not be surprised if we repeat ourselves in dealing with this subject. We are speaking of the good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do, and it is better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out."
  • "Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord's body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished." Wow!
  • "He neither endured the death of John, who was beheaded, nor was He sawn asunder, like Isaiah: even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church." The Church as the body of Christ and a desire for unity in the body are neither one unique ideas, but this is the only place I've seen someone connect those concepts with "not a single bone shall be broken".
  • "How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Myself."" This part definitely had a ring of familiarity in how the imagery and argument is presented. For example, there's a prayer in the BCP that goes, "BLESSED Saviour, who at this hour didst hang upon the cross stretching out thy loving arms: Grant that all mankind may look unto thee and be saved"
  • The part about asbestos was a little jarring as a modern, but I like it. First of all, I didn't realize asbestos was known when Athanasius was writing (he also mentions it comes from India, and it's no longer a surprise to me that there was a lot more back and forth between India and the Roman empire than most people assume). The jarring part is hearing it described with a positive valence. He also proposes a simple experiment to test its fire-resistant properties.
  • The witness of the martyrs is a prominent argument in the second half of the book, e.g. "Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end".
  • The on-going influence (with current power, not fading memory) of Jesus as evidence that He lives: "Dead men cannot take effective action; their power of influence on others lasts only till the grave. Deeds and actions that energize others belong only to the living. Well, then, look at the facts in this case. The Saviour is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world, both within and beyond the Greek-speaking world, to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life?"

Chapters 6 - 8:

  • "The thing is happening before our very eyes, here in Egypt; and thereby another prophecy is fulfilled, for at no other time have the Egyptians ceased from their false worship save when the Lord of all, riding as on a cloud, came down here in the body and brought the error of idols to nothing and won over everybody to Himself and through Himself to the Father." I'm not 100% sure which prophecy he's referring to, but Isaiah 19:21 was one that came to mind as a possible fit. In any case, I can see how it would resonate on a personal level for Athanasius to be sitting in the midst of a large Christian community in a nation that was a recurring enemy in the Old Testament.
  • Paragraph 40 stood out to me, and this short excerpt summarizes its main points: "The plain fact is, as I say, that there is no longer any king or prophet nor Jerusalem nor sacrifice nor vision among them; yet the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and the Gentiles, forsaking atheism, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham through the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ." He's basically arguing that it doesn't make sense to wait any longer for the Jewish Messiah on both negative and positive grounds. First of all, no one is getting anointed anymore (either in the literal sense as a king or the metaphorical sense as a prophet). Secondly, all over the world, gentiles are acknowledging the God of Abraham—if the Messiah hasn't come yet, what greater work is left for him to do?
  • Chapter 7 I felt was mainly refuting arguments that don't get made so much anymore, at least in the West. For example, paragraph 41 is addressing those who think God revealing himself through nature is fine but His putting on flesh is a pill too hard to swallow. Though I've heard Muslim apologists draw a line right there. So perhaps it's better to say the relevance depends on your context.
  • Similarly to the previous point, I had highlighted "Similarly, no one who admits the presence of the Word of God in the universe as a whole should think it unsuitable for a single human body to be by Him actuated and enlightened."
  • "Moreover, nothing in creation had erred from the path of God's purpose for it, save only man. Sun, moon, heaven, stars, water, air, none of these had swerved from their order, but, knowing the Word as their Maker and their King, remained as they were made. Men alone having rejected what is good, have invented nothings instead of the truth, and have ascribed the honor due to God and the knowledge concerning Him to demons and men in the form of stones. Obviously the Divine goodness could not overlook so grave a matter as this. But men could not recognize Him as ordering and ruling creation as a whole. So what does He do? He takes to Himself for instrument a part of the whole, namely a human body, and enters into that. Thus he ensured that men should recognize Him in the part who could not do so in the whole, and that those who could not lift their eyes to His unseen power might recognize and behold Him in the likeness of themselves." This was my favourite part of this chapter.
  • If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less." Here he returns to the themes of some earlier chapters.
  • "The amazing thing, moreover, is this. The objects of worship formerly were varied and countless; each place had its own idol and the so-called god of one place could not pass over to another in order to persuade the people there to worship him, but was barely reverenced even by his own. Indeed no! Nobody worshipped his neighbour's god, but every man had his own idol and thought that it was lord of all. But now Christ alone is worshipped, as One and the Same among all peoples everywhere; and what the feebleness of idols could not do, namely, convince even those dwelling close at hand, He has effected." The whole system of idol worship (in a literal manner, rather than how Christians talk about idols today) is very foreign as a modern westerner, so it's interesting to read about it from someone who lived when it was still extant or within living memory in the Mediterranean world. In paragraph 47 he implies that the idols were mortal men who got deified by poets.
  • "Anyone who likes may see the proof of glory in the virgins of Christ, and in the young men who practice chastity as part of their religion, and in the assurance of immortality in so great and glad a company of martyrs." The witness of the martyrs gets mentioned quite a bit, but the witness of the sexually abstinent isn't something I can recall other writers pointing to.
  • "Again, if, as they say, Christ is man only and not God the Word, why do not the gods of the Greeks prevent His entering their domains?" This argument from Chapter 8, like I mentioned with respect to chapter 7, might not seem so applicable to the present. However, I can see how points like this (and paragraphs 48 - 49 at large) would be devastating to Greek paganism. It's not surprising when you read stuff like this that ~no one worships Zeus, Athena, et al anymore. (There are some neo-pagan efforts to revive the worship of Norse gods like Thor and Odin—which doesn't seem likely to have a good effect on the world if they succeed considering how their worshippers were feared in the past—but if there's anything similar for the Greek pantheon I've never encountered it).
  • "Again, who has ever so rid men of their natural passions that fornicators become chaste and murderers no longer wield the sword and those who formerly were craven cowards boldly play the man? In a word, what persuaded the barbarians and heathen folk in every place to drop their madness and give heed to peace, save the faith of Christ and the sign of the cross?" This excerpt (and all of paragraph 52) point to personal character and peace between nations as a sign of Christ's authority. Too bad the Church hasn't always lived up to this.
  • Actually paragraph 52 with its talk of 'swords into ploughshares' as something that was currently happening in Athanasius' day (Constantine had just become emperor, right?) made me wonder if post-millennial eschatology was the prevailing view at the time?
  • "So many are the Saviour's achievements that follow from His incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one's eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one's senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one's thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped." I love this imagery and I love the thought of Athanasius standing on a quay and staring out at the sea, pondering the waves.

This year, my reading goal has been focused on a theme of industry, technology, and supply chains. At the time of writing this post, I'm through 4.5 out of 6 books that I'd selected around this theme. Hopefully over the summer I'll find time to write about what I've learned from this.