Dave's book reviews


Dave Kuhlman

dkuhlman (at) davekuhlman (dot) org
November 23, 2022

Copyright (c) 2013 Dave Kuhlman. All Rights Reserved. This software is subject to the provisions of the MIT License http://www.opensource.org/licenses/mit-license.php.


This is a collection of book reviews that I've written.

1 David Aaronovitch -- Voodoo histories

I'm interested in a book like this because I feel that it has application outside of what we normally call conspiracies. Even when there is no conspiracy, even when there is no organized group that is conspiring, we need to learn to understand why so many of us are willing, even enthusiastic to believe that there is one or to believe an alternative history or to believe an alternative to the scientific explanation.

Two things to be gained by reading this book: (1) an awareness of some of the details of some recent conspiracy theories (Oswald did not act alone in killing President Kennedy, 9/11 Truthers; the Birthers who claim that Obama was not born in the U.S.; that Roosevelt knew in advance about an eminent attack on Pearl Harbor and provoked it; etc) and (2) considerations about why we are motivated and seduced to believe conspiracy theories and who is most likely to do so. You can actually think of it as two books: (1) a detailed account of several specific conspiracy theories and (2) an essay on conspiracy theory, why they occur, and what their consequences are.

Aaronovitch tries to answer the question: why are people motivated and willing to believe such improbable stories? Perhaps there are several very simple answers: (1) because the believers are nutty; (2) because we are all capable of believing what we want, in advance, to believe, no matter how goofy (many religious beliefs prove that, not yours or mine, of course, but certainly theirs); (3) because believers might be described as the paranoid type and as having the paranoid style, who have a personality inclination to see evil behind almost any event; and (4) because we all love a good story and a conspiracy often makes a better story than reality. We have the ability to be willfully credulous. And, we have the ability to be selectively credulous, selectively skeptical. We can believe what we want to, and like the White Queen in Alice, if we practice, we can believe as many as n things before breakfast.

So, if you are interested in thinking about these things, the topic covered in this book is actually broader than it might appear.

Possibly this tendency to believe conspiracy theories is a societal issue; possibly we have an abundance of conspiracy theory believers in our society because we have so many people who want to hate someone or something (members of a minority, the minority in general, the CIA, the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, or some other governmental organization) or an excess of paranoid types or lots of people who are bored and want something more interesting or meaningful in their lives.

Humans have a need for an explanation and a story. Whether we call it a need for understanding or a fear of the mysterious, we are inclined to find a story (or narrative) first, then justify it afterward. And, when we do so, confirmation bias helps us find the "facts" that support what we already wanted to believe and to reject or ignore whatever tends to disprove our story.

Then we look for others to agree with and support us in these beliefs. We join a mob, form an interest group, attend a church, or go to the Internet and the World Wide Web where we are able find those who will support us no matter what we believe.

There are a number of areas of our lives where we believe, if not conspiracies exactly, then something that has some of the same markings: we don't have evidence, we believe it because it gives us comfort or is what we want to believe; it proves (or disproves) something we already wanted to believe anyway. Religion, political ideology or party preferences, what we believe about those we love, etc all fit this niche. We believe because it hurts to give up those beliefs or because we'd be unhappy if we lost that belief or faith. Many of us take pride in being rational, clear thinking, and even skeptical. But, giving up a st of beliefs that is central or important is hard to do.

Aaronovitch gives his readers the benefit of being encouraged to confront and struggle with that conflict between being rational and skeptical on the one hand, and holding onto beliefs that are comforting or important to us. Each of us might not want to face that conflict in every area of our lives, but we should at least be given the choice; we should at least be made aware of segments of our lives we are making that choice to believe rather than to be skeptical.

Aaronovitch teaches and encourages each of his readers to be a skeptic, even though that may be more work and, in some cases, less fun, although, for myself, being a skeptic is fun. Yes, we do need to learn to be open to less than obvious explanations, but still to demand evidence for those explanations and stories.

And, when the evidence is not there and is not solid, then perhaps we just need to learn to enjoy a good story without giving in to belief. Fictional, or not, narratives add meaning to our lives; they give our lives structure; they provide a framework through which we can understand and explain our experiences and our lives and the lives o others. But, a good fictional narrative is still fiction. It can be a framework or point of view to support our understanding, but it's still fiction. Aaronovitch gives us practical exercise in separating and keeping separate the framework (fiction, insights, story, narrative) from the reality. He does this in part by walking us through the ways in which conspiracy believers have failed to do this, often because they did not want to and did not try.

Some of the specific conspiracies and conspiracy theories that Aaronovitch describes in detail are these:

And many more.

It's a lot of content. You won't read it all in one evening. But, much of it is enjoyable, entertaining, and interesting.


2 Scott Anderson -- Lawrence in arabia

Anderson had written a very dense history of one period, World War I and the time immediately before and after it, and about one specific region, specifically Egypt, western Arabia, Palestine, and Syria.

Of course this is also a fascinating account of T.E. Lawrence and of his thoughts and writings, feeling and passions, strengths and weaknesses, and accomplishments and failures. But, there are other fascinating characters whose stories and activities cross with and influence Lawrence's own, and whom Anderson follows throughout the book.

My own interest in this book revolves around the question: How did the Middle East become what it is today? Certainly, that question cannot be answered in full by an account, even as detailed a one as that given in "Lawrence in Arabia", by an explanation of the period surrounding WW I. That would be a bit like saying that we or I could explain me completely by presenting my genome alone, without also describing my family, my education, my work experiences, and more. So, also, it would be a mistake to say that Lawrence and the people around him completely determined the trajectory of the Middle East while absolving all the actors who came after that period from credit or blame. And still, if we are to understand a little of why the Middle East is the way it is today and understand enough to think intelligently about policy decisions that effect the Middle East, then this is an important place to start.

Anderson tells this history through accounts of four principle characters, each, in his way, influential in that history and events that shaped the region: (1) T.E. Lawrence, of course, who started out with a quiet existence in England, but later was transformed by his passion for military history, archaeology, and the people and culture of the Arabian peninsula; (2) William Yale, who started life as a child in a rich family, but who found his footing, after his famil's fortune was lost, with Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY), working in and exploring the Middle East, and later as an advisor and agent in the U.S. government; (3) Curt Prüfer, a highly capable spy and agent for the German government, a government that under Kaiser Wilhelm II, had aspirations for world power. And, (4) Aaron Aaronsohn, already famous for discovering the ancient ancestor of modern day wheat, whose dream was to develop the knowledge and technology needed to make the region around Palestine into a rich agricultural area and the site of the new home for the Jewish people, and who become a spy for the British as part of his plan to do so.

And, what makes the stories about these characters and others and about the events around them so fascinating, is that often (usually?) things are not what they seem to be nor what these and other characters claim them to be. This is not a book about characters who are members of a standard, organized, business-like war effort; they are characters in between: between different fighting forces, between different nations, between different tribes, between different departments in the same army even. It's that confusion that makes "Lawrence in Arabia" and characters in it such a fascinating book.

This is also a history full of details about about military campaigns, preparations for campaigns and battles, the battles themselves, and the coordination and conflicts between the significant people (possibly) controlling those movements and battles, notably Lawrence, of course, but also his British military superiors and his Arab rebel allies. His main mission, from the point of view of (some at least) of his British military leads was to coordinate the Arab rebels' actions against the Turks and align those actions with those of the British. But Lawrence, recognizing that British promises to the Arabs were likely to be broken after the war, became increasingly an independent actor both as a liaison and military commander.

It will be a help in understanding this book to have some appreciation of the mind-set of each of the principle characters and how that developed: (1) Lawrence was formed by schools in Britain, by an extremely punishing (even brutal) mother, by a love of history and archaeology, and by an appreciation of the Arabs in Syria and Arabia. (2) William Yale developed from a desire to not fall into the usual employment and life-style of his family's class, by work that amounted to hardship tours in faraway places, and from a willingness to seek and follow adventure. (3) Aaron Aaronsohn came to be who he was from success in agricultural research and a desire to help the (Jewish) inhabitants of the Palestine region successful in farming, but even more important from his desire that the Jewish people in the region should have a home where they could be safe. He was a man who was arrogant, passionate, and combative; and he believed fervently in the cause of Zionism. (4) And, Curt Prüfer became what he was from an intense desire for success and access to luxury, enabled in part by a sharp intelligence especially with respect to learning foreign languages.

Anderson emphasises how keen each of these four were to gather information for use by their sponsors about the region and it's actors; he also describes how skilled and adept they each were at doing so.

The part played by Lawrence in all this was an especially important one. He was the one who best understood the Arab rebels, who in some cases had their trust, and who could converse with them in their own language aided by an awareness of their culture and institutions. The British attempted to use Lawrence to encourage the Arab rebels to fight against the Turks and to help in coordinating their fighting with that of the British military, which seemed to need all the help it could get during several failed campaigns in and around Palestine.

Of course there is a good deal about the incredible feats of Lawrence himself: journeys on camel and even on foot across Syria, battles that he led, Arab campaigns and maneuvers that he led. These became part of the history and the myth about Lawrence. Anderson does a pretty reasonable job of helping us to understand which of these stories we can and cannot rely on and believe.

An important story told by Anderson is that of the promises made by the British in bad faith while they also made promises, for example, to the French. This is not a simple story; it has multiple actors with different, often conflicting, agendas. Anderson does a good job of laying out the details of this betrayal.

And yet, we can understand only so much by studying the characters. There are also the events and conditions that shaped their times. Perhaps the most important of these was the new demand for oil and petroleum. In the years immediately before WW I, the number of internal combustion engines and other users of petroleum was increasing at an extremely rapid rate. That's why Yale was sent to the Middle East and a big reason why the British were there. It was why control of the Middle East and the petroleum resources in it drove the efforts of the major powers and would increasingly do so after WW I.

The latter parts of the book become increasingly grim and horrific as WW I drags on and 100s of thousands of soldiers are wounded and die on European battlefields, as the Arabs fight against the military from the Ottoman Empire, in part led by Lawrence himself, and the British forces too attach to drive the Ottoman Turks out of Syria and Palestine. Anderson, who has worked as a war correspondent, knows how to present the brutal reality of warfare; it's an ugly picture.

Following these four principle characters throughout Anderson's book makes this a fascinating read. There is an "Epilogue" chapter, that gives brief accounts of the lives of these characters after WW I, but I will not be a spoiler by summarizing that. This book is well worth the time you'd invest in it to find out about these very special and interesting and bigger-than-life people.


3 W. Brian Arthur -- The nature of technology

In many respects, this is a book of propositions about what technology is and how it develops or evolves. For example: (1) Technology uses phenomena, i.e. things in (some) real world. (2) Technologies are built up out of other (earlier?) technologies. (3) A technology is a solution to one or more problems. (4) A technology has a purpose, in other words, to is an attempt to fill a need. (5) Technologies create opportunity niches, i.e. a technology creates needs that other technologies can be created to fill.

Arthur mentions briefly, but does not dwell on one consequence of the ideas and technology creates needs and that technologies are created to satisfy the needs created by other technologies, which is the question of whose needs are being satisfied. Perhaps they are not ours. Perhaps technology, i.e. the collective technology organism, is evolving to satisfy its own needs, not ours. I have to start to wonder whether we human users are just becoming the excuse for technology's existence and development; and I wonder whether we'll become somewhat run over in the process.

One thing that Arthur does not consider is that perhaps we and our technologies are becoming too successful. Perhaps as our technologies become increasingly powerful, we will have too much control over Nature and other humans. We have ample evidence that we are able to resist using power when we have it. And, we have developed the power to use more and more of the available resources, until acquiring those resources became too costly and that society collapsed. We can look at these books for an analysis of that: (1) "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", by Jared Diamond; (2) "The Collapse of Complex Societies", by Joseph A. Tainter. The book "The World Without Us", by Alan Weisman is also a very interesting read in this respect.

Arthur's main point and agenda is to explain how we can understand the progression and development of all societies. The main points of that understanding are something like these: (1) New technologies are created out of combinations of existing technologies. (2) New technologies are responses to needs and problems. (3) New technologies create new needs and problems to be solved (what Arthur calls new "opportunity niches"), and, if fact, this may and often does result in a cascade of creation of new technologies. (4) New technologies cause the disappearance of old, existing technologies (e.g., by making them unneeded), which, as with the creation sequences, may result in cascades of redundancy and elimination of technologies. (5) These cascades of creation and elimination of technologies are contingent, i.e., although this activity may be somewhat deterministic, it is not predictable, and is chaotic in some sense.

Arthur is reasonably careful and diligent in illustrating his points with examples, usually by describing how a particular technology illustrates a point he is trying to make about technology in general. It's important that he does so, because his level of discussion is a very abstract and general one.

Arthur tries to make the connection between technologies and an economy. An economy, he claims, is a creation out of or is built upon the technologies that create the goods and services and wealth that make up the economy.

Arthur wants to claim that technologies (i.e., the cluster of technologies) in a society are self-creating ("autopoietic" is the word he uses); the technologies that make up a society's goods, services, and wealth are self-creating. It's an organism that grows outward and maybe inward and downward, too. Possibly because of this, he frequently describes technology in terms such as "structural deepening", "building out", etc. And, because of his emphasis on growth and organism, Arthur believes that the collective technologies evolve, although since that evolution is not a biological or genetic evolution, it's a bit difficult to make out what the term "evolution" adds to the discussion.

Arthur does try to make the process (of evolution of technology) clear by giving a series of steps that a cluster of technologies proceed through. (see p. 178 in the 2009 edition; chapter 8, "Revolutions and redomainings"). If you follow that recipe, which Arthur calls algorithmic, you get a reasonably clear idea of how Arthur believes this process goes. He thinks these steps are discrete, whereas I'd say that they blend together in all kinds of complex ways, although I suppose that if you analyze the process into small enough parts, you will find pieces that seem discrete and separate at some level.

The steps in that process go something like this: (1) a new technology appears; (2) it replaces some existing technologies; (3) the new technology creates needs and opportunity niches for yet newer technologies; (4) the disappearance of old technologies eliminates the need for still other technologies and they disappear and so on; (5) the new technology is used in still newer technologies; (6) the economy readjusts to these steps, causing changes in costs, prices, and incentives. (p. 178)

If you follow Arthur's discussion, then you are, I believe, drawn to a pattern of thinking about changes in technologies that is based on challenge and response, problem and solution, needs or opportunity niches and attempts to fill those needs.

Arthur stresses the point that understanding a technology requires that we think recursively and that we do a recursive analysis. We need to think about how a technology is built out of and supported by other technologies, which are in turn built out of and supported by still other technologies. This recursion works in several ways: (1) a complex technology may be composed of components that are technologies and which in turn are made up of other components. And, (2) a technology may be supported or enabled by other technologies which are in turn supported by other technologies. This branching pattern or network forms a lattice, not a tree, that is, we cannot say that any given technology has a single parent (it does not support only one technology nor is it supported by only one technology).

Arthur is associated with the Santa Fe Institute, where they do lots of thinking about chaos theory, so it is natural for him to think in terms of dynamic systems. Thus, for him, the process of evolving technologies form a system and that system is (1) dynamic; (2) poised for change; (3) autopoietic or self-creating; (4) exhibits "creative disruption" (cf. Joseph Schumpeter); (5) sets up trains or chains of (branching) technological accommodations and new problems and new solutions; (6) is always in a process self-creation.

For those of us who want to get above the level of thinking only about individual technologies (though that's interesting and valuable, too), this is a fascinating book.


4 Ryan Avent -- The wealth of humans

What we have now and will have more of in the future: (1) There will be more automation and more replacement of human labor by machines; it will spread to other jobs and kinds of labor. (2) Human worker productivity will increase; the same number of workers will produce more products and provide more services in the same or fewer number of hours. (3) Because of the increase in productivity, we will need less labor and fewer workers. There will be a loss of jobs and employment. (4) That will result in an excess of workers, i.e., in Avent's terms, an abundance of labor. (5) And, there will be even more pressure for reduced labor costs and reduced wages.

Employers often have a desire to reduce their dependence on (human) labor, even when there is little or no savings in doing so. One thing that delays their attempts to replace labor with automation is when the cost of labor is cheap enough and employees are manageable enough (read easy to manipulate, do not make demands for benefits, do not ask for increased compensation, etc). If steps are taken which raise the cost of labor, firms will attempt to replace labor with machinery, expenditures on capital and equipment, redesigning products so that they require less labor to produce, and so on.

One thing that Avent does not discuss very much is labor misallocation. If I earn my living by dealing blackjack in a casino, and I work in Las Vegas, Nevada and I make demands on my employer (e.g. for higher wages), I can be easily replaced, since there are lots of blackjack dealers in Las Vegas. However, in Tonapah, Nevada, perhaps, I'm the only blackjack dealer in town, so I may be able to demand more pay, at least temporarily. It makes sense I suppose, for Avent to ignore this, because the kind of work that he mostly considers is usually in a competitive labor market. I suppose what he has in mind is work and services that are common and generic: cleaning hotel rooms, repetitive manufacturing tasks, driving vehicles (Avent believes that driver-less vehicles will eliminate the need for drivers).

Avent also seems to be considering work/labor that requires very little training or experience. Workers in a fast-food restaurant feel that they have very little bargaining power possibly because their employer can train a replacement to cook french fries in an hour and a half (not sure about this, but certainly it's less time than it takes to train a school teacher, for example). The counter example to this easily replaced employee that Avent gives is that of taxi drivers in London. Until recently, at least, working as a taxi driver in London require extensive training and a good deal of intelligence, in part because drivers needed to learn the complex and very irregular road network in London. But, driver-less cars, with their automated GPS mapping applications, will likely put an end to that need; and even now, a mobile phone and a mapping app reduces that need and reduces the drivers' bargaining power vs. their employers considerably.

ICT (information and communications technology) is a powerful force for automation and increased productivity. I read of one Silicon Valley venture capitalist being quoted as saying: people in my profession go around looking for ways to eliminate jobs. As software becomes more powerful and as computing hardware becomes cheaper, the rational for and pressures to reduce dependence on labor and to reduce labor costs will become even stronger.

ICT also enables and accelerates globalization, global trade, and economic integration across firms, and countries. That global trade is where many corporations make their profits. They will resist efforts to control and reduce it. In order to remain competitive, they will seek to produce their products wherever it can be done most cheaply. This means that workers in one country have to be willing to work for wages as low as or nearly as low as the cheapest world-wide producer. We are seeing the serious effects of this dynamic in the U.S., now, as much of the manufacturing work formerly done here is being done in other countries or as the workers in manufacturing industries and forced to accept lower, competitive wages.

Digital technology boosts the productivity of some workers, enabling them, at least temporarily, to demand and receive higher wages and more benefits. But, the number of those jobs seems to be dwindling. And, we are unlikely to be able to train everyone to perform them.

This kind of change also works by de-skilling some kinds of labor and employment. Cheaply available technology (smart phones, laptop computers with easy-to-use applications, etc.) is enabling some workers with lower skill levels to do work that formerly required extensive training and experience. That enables employers to offer lower pay and still fill their work force.

We have solved the problems of how to increase productivity and how to increase prosperity. What we have not solved are the problems associated with how to distribute the benefits of those increases. Those are political problems, and our political systems have failed to solve them, in part because those political systems are dysfunctional and plagued by partisan extremism. Additionally, those political systems are often controlled to heavily by actors on one side of this struggle, specifically corporations. We need to solve the problems that will enable us to create a world in which the benefits of the digital revolution are shared more broadly and more equitably.

In the U.S., we used to have at least a partial solution to this redistribution problem: we had reasonably strong labor unions. They supported wages and benefits for their members, and that also had a follow-on effect for other workers. But, the strength of labor unions in the U.S. and the number of members in them has been drastically reduced.

The political classes and the rich donors that support them, favor the needs and requests of corporations. Actually, because of the lobbyists hired by corporations, our government hears the corporate interests much more loudly than private ones.

Work in exchange for the ability to acquire/purchase the goods and services that we need and want is an essential and fundamental institution in our current social and economic structure. But, unless we can learn how to make that structure and the capitalist system that it supports function more equitably, that fundamental structure may have to change. If it does not, there are likely to be serious repercussions.

This time is different in the sense that we may actually be able to squeeze enough labor out of the production and services processes so that there is not enough labor to support a broad section of citizens in anything like a reasonable standard of living. Can our government ameliorate that? And, how? Could the federal government put enough people to work at reasonable wages at the tasks of repairing and building infrastructure or creating tourist facilities and industry in specific locations in the country?

In the future, there will less work and there will be more people who want and need it. That part is inevitable. The question becomes: what do we and our governments do in response? Fund make-work programs? Provide access to free training? Build more infrastructure? Some of these are good things to do. But, their effectiveness at solving the labor and societal problems is questionable.

Why this book is especially relevant now -- In the U.S. (and Britain, too, if we can take Brexit as an indication), the working classes are rising up against the liberal, globally integrated, free-trade regime. And, since neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party has responded to the demands and needs of these working classes, we are experiencing an insurgency that is attempting to replace those two political parties with "a third way". That may not be the best attempt at a solution (actually, it may be one of the worst), but since neither of the two major political parties has addressed these concerns, this terrible attempt at a solution at least has the fact that it has not been proven ineffective in its positive column.

However, Avent seems to be saying that there really is no solution to this problem. Increasing automation is inevitable; we cannot stop it; and the only way to slow it is for workers to accept lower wages, thus reducing the motivation of employers to automate.

You can add to that what Avent calls supply-chain trade, where a firm has the components for a product produced in multiple countries and assembled possibly in yet another country. So, you have increasing automation, which is squeezing labor out of the production process and you also have this supply-chain trade (or production strategy) which is likely seeking to produce parts of a product in regions offering the lowest possible wages, and the result is a production process that does not leave much in the way of reward or compensation for labor.

I suppose that I could whine about how these kinds of problems are caused by deregulation run amuck. But, (1) regulation and restrictions on the production process would not fix the labor abundance issues that Avent is explaining and (2) the freedom that firms have because of deregulation likely contributes to overall global prosperity, even while some classes of workers are hurt and suffer in the process.

And, I'd even argue that the standard nostrum (education and retraining for another kind of work) is not a viable solution. We cannot all be retrained and prepared for the high-tech jobs of the future. Why? Those jobs are likely to be automated, too; we are not all capable of doing highly technical work; and there will not be enough of those high-tech jobs in the near future, let alone in the more distant future.

As more jobs become high productivity jobs and as increasingly fewer workers are needed in those positions by corporations, the larger share of income is shifting from away from labor and toward capital, upper level management, and ownership. This means that the economic inequality that plagues our society now, is likely to get worse in the future.

Not only will we not go back to the 1950's. We could not reset wages and working conditions to that era even if the political classes were to unite in an attempt to do so (which they will not). The transitions and history of capitalism are often ugly and unpleasant; lots of workers suffer and are poorly rewarded; often the larger share of profits goes to capital/ownership and to a few high value and highly placed individuals within each firm.

I suppose that we could hope that our national governments could at least do something to ameliorate the suffering and losses of displaced workers. But that amelioration is not likely to amount to much nor to be particularly effective. We don't want to live a life without meaningful work and of exiting on the dole, anyway.


5 Andrew J. Bacevich -- Breach of trust

I'd like to believe in Bacevich's main argument in "Breach of trust", that things would be better if we had a citizen military rather that a volunteer, professional army; that things would improve if U.S. citizens broadly understood and felt that they had to pay for any war their country entered, that their sons and daughters would bleed and die and be maimed when their country enters a military conflict; and that their lifestyles will change when they do so. But, I'm not that sanguine, and neither is Bacevich, I believe. At most we can only hope that things will be less bad.

I also worry that even if that constraint were in place to reduce the inclination and frequency to enter or start a conflict in a foreign land, political leaders in the U.S. would find other ways to meddle in and manipulate affairs in foreign countries, ways that are more covert, means that use proxies and mercenaries and outsourcing. Perhaps it's a bit similar to the way in which our laws have attempted to reduce the amount of corruption prevalent in 19th century U.S. politics where, e.g., U.S. Presidents (including and especially Abraham Lincoln) spent days and days at the beginning of their terms handing out jobs, positions, and other favors to pay for support they received during their election campaigns and in an attempt to secure support during their term, but now we see (and we don't see all of it) incredible amounts of money and corruption in U.S. politics in other less overt quid pro quo ways.

And then there is the worry that most of us in the voting public are not willing to spend the time and effort to learn about the complex situations, for example, in the Middle East that we'd need to do in order to vote intelligently on decisions related to actions, military and other.

A few chapter summaries:

A recent article in the New Yorker magazine describes how youth in a certain region and demographic of our country are train to be bull riders at rodeos and bull riding competitions. For me, it's outrageous to raise and train children, teens and pre-teens in this article, to engage in such a dangerous sport. But, in order to have the professional, volunteer army that Bacevich describes, you need a demographic to supply the personnel that will be willing to be send to combat zones for multiple tours of duty. This New Yorker magazine article backs up Bacevich's claims that we are becoming a country where only a small percentage of the population is asked to serve and sacrifice in the military. (See Burkhard Bilger; "The ride of their lives"; The New Yorker; 12/8/14, p. 48)

"Breach of trust" is careful thinking backed up by facts and analysis that fits those facts into a coherent argument. I only wish we could say that it has a happier outcome.


6 Joe Bageant -- Deer hunting with Jesus: dispatches from America's class war

Right. I agree that this is an extremely important book. Anyone who is interested in society and culture in the U.S. and where that society and culture is going needs to read Bageant. It's important because of the very harsh consequences these social and cultural changes are having on a large segment of our society, but also because this is an especially hard problem to solve. Bageant is the kind of writer who can hit this target straight on center and do it in a way that is both witty and hard-hitting.

Some of Bageant's reasons that this problem is so hard to solve: (1) Those who are being neglected and mistreated by the system are under-educated, which means that they are less likely to be able to help themselves in any rational way. (2) Politicians are very capable of deceiving and mis-guiding many of those mistreated by the system into fighting against the very forces that might help them. (3) Our political system responds to money, which, again, means that those without, those that the system is currently mistreating are less than likely to have it respond to their needs. (4) Those who are both wealthy and in power are very capable of creating the conditions and influencing our political system so that it tilts toward giving them an even bigger share of the economic pie.

A word about the "economic pie" and its division -- Yes, perhaps it is true that it's better to get a smaller relative share of a bigger economy, but that is not what is happening in our country. The last 30 years have shown no growth in the wages and wealth of those outside the upper classes, even though a huge amount of wealth has been created in that period. We are proving in the U.S. that we can have an expanding economic system in which a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some, though definitely not all, of those who've been left out do vote, and their bitterness seems to be what is contributing to a very dysfunctional federal government in the U.S.

Bageant does of very respectable job of helping a liberal like me see guns rights issues from the other side. That's definitely worth doing; I do need help with that point of view. But, it's still a "sucker's play": It's still about politicians convincing you to vote for them to protect your right to own as many guns as you want while they trash your economic interests. Bageant also helps us understand how and why guns rights vs. gun control is not a resolvable issue in the U.S. I suppose that there are several lessons for liberals here: (1) Let them keep as many guns as they want, move on to another issue where we have hope of doing some good. (2) If you want to help those we are being economically abused by our political and economic system, do not give politicians another tool (guns rights) that they can use to detract voters from the economic issues that our government should be working on.

With respect to religion, Bageant focuses on the very most extreme fundamentalist Christians, for example, the Reconstructionists, the Dominionists, the End-of-times people, and those whose goal is a theocratic state. Perhaps he is right that there is some worry of them gaining enough control to destroy our government or of having some destructive influence in our federal policies. But, really, I'm more worried about the influence that slightly more moderate right-wing, fundamentalist Christians have on our government. It's also the case that the politicians that are dragged into office on top of their support for right-wing Christian politicians are having a significant depressive influence on the economy in this country.

Bageant helps us see things from the point of view of those who earn little (minimum wage or not much more), are the first to be laid off when there is a down-turn or a recession, have no financial cushion, get no employment benefits (certainly not enough to help them survive serious medical problems, have no savings for retirement, have low prestige, and on top of all that, have poor health because of a lifetime of hard physical labor and smoking and poor eating habits. Add to that a lack of a decent education that might help them get a job with a reason wage and might help them understand how they got this way, and you end up with a very depressing picture of lower-middle-class working America.

Some of this does not make sense. But, perhaps this is Bageant's point: the emotions and feelings rhetoric and irrationality he describes is not something that will be fixed by reasoning and talking, no matter how intelligent. In fact, he makes the point that this is a culture that has an aversion to intelligence and intellect. Now, try to reason your way out of that. It can't be done.

Bageant is describing a class conflict between an anti-intellectual, defensive, suspicious culture and the "elites" they fear and distrust. And, we have the politicians that have learned how to exploit that. Bageant is especially critical of what he calls slogan-as-political-awareness, fanatical religiosity, bellicose piety, and patriotism that has led us to a high-tech military and to wars against godless heathens who are sitting on our oil. His book gives a critique of the belief in the American right to your own opinion and to vote based on the opinion even if it's gut-level and uninformed. And, it runs parallel to a belief that education does not imply better choices, because those with more education, elites, do not have "good" values.

Bageant's analysis of the state of the health care system in his region is especially caustic. But, again, he leads us to the point where there seems to be no way to make sense of the opposition to health care reform that is so strong among the very people who are being treated so poorly by our current health care system. Bageant claims that non-profit hospitals are the regions produces of the most personal bankruptcies.

You will find more of this kind of analysis of our abused underclass in "Night comes to the Cumberlands", by Harry Caudill. It's about a slightly different region (south eastern Kentucky) in a different time period (first half of the 20th century), but the people have similar problems and some of the causes are the same: lack of education, lack of jobs, distorted political views that lead them to vote against their own interests, etc.

One part of both Bageant's and Caudill's explanation that makes me a bit uneasy is their heavy emphasis on the hereditary and ethnic roots and causes of these conditions and problems. They both point to ethnic and cultural roots of the people they describe and point to origins in England, Scotland, Ireland that led to personality types that are violent and anti-government and anti-intellectual. These are what Bageant calls "Borderers", who he describes as violent, opposed to any taxes (even though they might benefit from them), easily incited to oppose health care legislation and fair labor laws and environmental regulations (even it's their neighborhood that is being trashed), etc. If Bageant and Caudill are right, and I am suspicious about this analysis, then I don't know what possible changes might produce employable, well-educated, citizens. This culture is almost designed to prevent that. It's also very sad that these same traits seem tied to the patriotism that has helped our government drag us into the wars that disproportionately punish these same people. And, I worry that the most dysfunctional aspects of this culture are self-perpetuating.

Since I'm pessimistic about our ability to solve and fix the problems that Bageant describes, I think that the advice I'd give to someone who is about to read "Deer hunting with Jesus" is that they should try to figure out what Bageant says is the cause of this situation, both in terms of heredity and through the media that condition and inform our choices of lifestyle and attitude. While reading, ask yourself what are the influences that he describes and is he correct about the weight of these influences. Reading with that motivation makes this an extremely valuable book.

Bageant gives some of that explanation in the second half of the chapter titled "Republican by default". It's partly a story about well organized and highly motivated Republican operatives. They're highly motivated because they have a large financial stake in this fight. Part of the story is about attitude and moral values. The people that Bageant knows in the region, working class and blue collar people have been worn down and brutalized by the system and have been taught by the system to be satisfied with the material world and goods it provides and that keep them satiated. An additional piece of Bageant's explanation is about fear and aversion and dislike: the people that Bageant is talking about dislike and are made uneasy by people and ideas who are different from themselves. These are people who rarely travel to foreign countries (except when our military sends them), whose range of experience is narrow, and who are made uncomfortable both by people who are not like them and by values that are different from theirs. Lack of diversity produces rigid, narrow value systems.

"Dispatches from America's class war", by the way, sounds a bit dramatic, to me, but we very much are seeing a very serious struggle between those who have and are trying to get more and those who have not and are likely to get even less. This struggle will have profound consequences for our society, and that's why Bageant's book is so valuable and important.


7 Dean Baker -- Plunder and blunder: the rise and fall of the bubble economy

This is a good analysis of recent financial bubbles and a set of recommendations for the preventing future ones. It's especially usable because it is concise. (If you want to understand more of the details and more of what went on before, underneath, and behind these bubbles, then a good read is John Cassidy's "How markets fail".)

Some of the analysis:

And, a few of Baker's recommendations:

The most disappointing aspect of this book, and it's not Baker's fault, is that his recommendations are not likely to be implemented and are not even remotely viable politically. That's not a reason for ignoring this book, and it's true of most, if not all, other books that have recommendations for fixing our financial markets, too. But, it is depressing, because it indicates that we have no real, usable solutions. It also suggests that the problems with our financial markets and institutions are fundamental to the system itself, and that they cannot be fixed without changing to an entirely different system. We'd have to switch to a different financial system, e.g. one that is not really a capitalist, market-based system at all. Or, we'd need a a different political system, in particular, one that does not pander to constituencies, and is, therefore, not a democracy at all. But, neither of those changes seem remotely acceptable.


8 Matthew Ball -- The Metaverse

"The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything", by Matthew Ball.

The meta-verse -- a definition -- "a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments."

Some (additional) characteristics: (1) Immersive; (2) massively scalable;

Also see -- "The Specter of Our Virtual Future" by Sue Halpern -- https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2022/10/20/the-specter-of-our-virtual-future-the-metaverse-matthew-ball/

9 Sven Beckert -- Empire of Cotton: a global history

If you want a special view of how capitalism, capitalist economies, and much of Western economies were created, then this is a fascinating book. In fact if you want a story that explains how the industrial revolution was created and, especially, what supplied the energy that enabled it to take off, then read this book. I'm tempted to call it a "founding myth" for our modern, industrial, capitalist civilization, except that Beckert has not written mythology; he has written a history, and it's one filled with supporting facts and data.

If that kind of story or theory or explanation interests you, then you may also want to read "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism", by Edward E. Baptist. It focuses on the production of raw cotton in the United States, whereas raw cotton is just a part of Beckert's broader story. Beckert covers a broader picture that includes the growing and production of raw cotton, as well as how it was delivered to the mills in England, how it was turned into yarn, how it was woven into textiles, and how it was shipped and sold. And, since his story is a history, Beckert describes how those processes developed and changed.

So, let's suppose that you agree with this story about how capitalist was created. Perhaps you even are coming around to believing, as Beckert suggests, that capitalism could not have happened without cotton. An even stronger claim is the one that this economic and industrial system that depended on cotton could have been created without slavery, and that there were other options. The use of slave labor for the planting, growing, and harvesting of raw cotton could have been done with wage labor. If you accept that claim, then there is no easy exoneration, even a partial one, through the claim that without a brutal slave regime, the industrial revolution could not have gotten started and the incredible improvement in the standard of living for so many people would have been delayed for so many years.

The word "global" in the subtitle of Beckert's book is significant. This was perhaps the first industry where the production of raw material, the processing of that material to turn it into goods for end users, and the marketing and sale of those goods took place at locations separated by vast distances. And so, as Beckert phrases it, the industry based on cotton "meant building the first globally integrated manufacturing industry". We take that kind of globalism for granted now. We see nothing new, strange, even noteworthy about a production and manufacturing process that is spread across the world. But, Beckert can make you see it for the amazing thing that it was and still is.

Another aspect of this story is that this system of production was created through war and violence and through the use of military force, and some of the military forces that committed that violence were private militias. Beckert summarizes this by saying that the solution to the problem of producing the needed raw material, raw cotton, was "slaves in the southern United States growing cotton on land expropriated from Native Americans. I've picked one of the more sanitized and milder descriptions by Beckert. He, and Baptist especially, give you a vivid picture of how brutal and violent that process was. It's not a pretty picture, except for those who admire brutality and conquest, I suppose.

And, by the way, the Wikipedia page on the cotton gin is very informative on the changes that occurred due to the increased production of cotton in the southern U.S. in the first half of the 19th century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_gin.

In a large part, that rapid increase in cotton production in the U.S. was enabled by two conditions: (1) the depopulation of large areas of land and the destruction and elimination of Native American cultures and (2) the strong political power of Southern planters. That political story is described in detail in Baptist's book (see above). You can also get another perspective of that political struggle in "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Growing cotton exhausts the soil it is grown in rather quickly, which encouraged planters to seek new land that had not yet been depleted. And, that led Southern cotton growers to apply political pressure on the U.S. Federal government to open more land to planters and to allow the use of slaves in those areas. So, for those of us in the U.S., this is part of our foundation story, though it's an aspect of our story that most of us are not proud of. Since Native Americans were often removed from their land by the U.S. military, this was actually an early version of a military-industrial complex, this one based on the production of cotton.

I'd say that Beckert's book can be an important part of understanding our country and its history and its creation.


10 Bill Bishop -- The big sort: why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart

This book makes good points about how and why our country (the U.S.A) is moving in the direction that it is. And, it presents good evidence to support those ideas. Don't be discouraged by the fact that Bishop fills a good number of pages proving some rather simple and perhaps even obvious idea. The latter chapters of the book provide very interesting analysis of our politics and society, and of the consequences of the changes that he describes.

Some consequences: (1) In districts where voters have become more homogeneous, representatives (state legislators, U.S. Congressional representatives) have become more extreme in the positions that they hold. (2) Because representatives have become more extreme, there are fewer moderates. (3) Because representatives have become more extreme and there are fewer moderates, our state legislatures and the U.S. Congress has become more balkanized, more partisan, and less able or willing to compromise.

Some of the mechanisms that make this sorting into homogeneous groups happen: (1) Geographical sorting -- Like-minded people are choosing and migrating so as to live in the same geographical areas as others. (2) Clustered political issues and values, e.g. private property rights, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, etc. -- State your position on one of these and your position on the others is highly predictable. (3) Enforcement -- The political parties (Democratic and Republican) and leaders in them demand conformance to the party line, and they withhold funding and support for failure. (4) Funding of think tanks that support their party's positions on various issues. (5) Funding from interest groups and commercial interests etc. -- This funding seems to align with the extremes of left and right; and since issues are clustered, financial support for one issue often effectively supports other issues in the cluster.

This sorting process and the rigidity of positions of voters is assisted by our ability to choose the kind of news and opinions that we want to believe. We could almost claim that the purpose of the Internet is to enable us to choose information, news, and opinions that we each want and already agree with.

Another facilitating feature is our desire in these insecure financial times and, to some, these frightening times to chose the comforting company of those with ideas and values like our own.

Lack of trust by citizens in their representatives in government results in voters who demand that their elected representatives strictly adhere adhere to their party's positions on all issues rather than attempt to work with other representatives to solve problems.

The chapter titled "Choosing a side" is especially interesting because it explains how, during the last four decades, political support organizations have become more homogeneous and more partisan and very un-accepting of anyone from "the other side" (Democrat or Republican). The focus is more on winning (in particular winning for a left or a right point of view), and less on solving problems.

We are making lifestyle choices and in doing so, we are becoming a nation that is divided along a number of dimensions, for example, urban vs. rural, weakly vs. strongly religious, etc.

Bishop offers some comments on how these changes are a part of modernism and a post-modern reaction to it, as well as materialism and a post-materialist reaction to that. I don't understand post-modernism, so I can comment much on this one.

Bishop provides an interesting section on what strategies for swaying and uniting voters work (and don't work) among people who have migrated to and want to live in communities with like-minded and homogeneous people. It's seems that the most effective influence are those that are known by, respected by, and most similar to those in the community.

And, we're left with a dysfunctional political systems that can't help us solve the societal, environmental, problems except in the sense that a minority can usually block solutions that they don't want.

So, let's look at a few facts that explain where we are and how we got there:

  1. There are organizations that hold politicians hostage, threatening to withhold all funding and support and threatening to support and finance an opponent in the next election cycle.

  2. Politicians of each of the major political parties (Democrats and, especially, Republicans) hold all the same positions on each of a set of important issues (for example, abortion, taxes, property rights, etc.). Their voters in that political party do too. That means that any politician who strays on any one of these important issues can likely and easily be replace by a politician who has the "correct" views on all of these issues.

  3. Minority politics is effective. Our Federal government is designed to enable a minority to block action. (This is true at the California state government, too, especially with respect to approving new taxes, which requires a super-majority approval.) The recent "bi-partisan" agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling in order to avoid a default on the federal debt is a good example: Republicans were able to block any raising of revenues, no matter what the shape or size.

We seem to be headed toward increasing conformity and uniformity within groups and greater, more extreme differences between (across) different groups.

We are becoming a nation whose national government is better at blocking action than it is at solving problems. Furthermore, it seems to do so more and more frequently. Perhaps this seems great for those who favor small government and who feel that less action by the federal government is better than more. However, for those in need of governmental help and services, it's worse. And, with respect to growing income and wealth inequality, we are likely to get no help from our government. Bishop convincingly argues that we are becoming a nation whose government is dysfunctional and incapable of solving any of a large range of problems.

Bishop worries that strong political interest and participation by citizens and voters seems to lead inevitably to extreme partisanship; and partisanship leads to a blocked government and the inability to solve problems.


11 David W. Blight -- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

I was raised in California, U.S.A. We mistakenly believe that we missed out on this kind of extensively distorted history. So, this book fills two important roles for me:

  1. It fills in that gap in my understanding of the beliefs, values, traditions of an important part of my country, i.e. the South.

  2. It reminds me to pay attention to the myths and distortions that have been taught to me in my part of the country. Some of these have to do with the gold rush and the 49-ers, immigrant labor, and even beliefs related to something as prosaic as irrigation, water, dams, and canals.

One minor criticism is that this book is long and detailed. For those of you who enjoy reading and who want details, that will be a blessing. For a slow reader like me, it's a bit of a struggle, though a worthwhile one.

One of the most central lessons of this book is just how extremely lives and a whole way of life can be skewed by a pervasive, emotional, historical perspective, especially when that perspective is promoted by sustained story-telling. It really is possible to build and maintain an alternative historical world. And, what makes this so important is that it guides and directs the lives, emotions, character, and behavior of those who chose to live in it. Actually, since many are raised in that alternative reality, they don't really have a choice: we are not likely to question values we have been taught when we are young. We can call it myth or we can call it tradition. It takes the form of story telling and teaching history and community celebrations.

But, in all its forms it has consequences for us and for our society and for our nation. It influences our behavior. Thousands of individuals have been bound, directed, and limited by those traditions and by their inability to see outside of it. In the case of those traditions and history that Blight discusses, it leads to an inclination toward violence, militarism, racism, white supremacy (and oppression of non-whites), as well as the laws and brutality needed to enforce those traditions. Our willingness to ignore reality and realism in favor of sentimentality and romanticism has serious consequences for all of us.

A few topics you will find in this book:

If you feel that this kind of conflict has been resolved, has gone away, and no longer has consequences, then look at the recent actions by the Texas school board and their new standards for history text books. See this for more:

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change -- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html

What makes these actions especially significant is the fact that the Texas school system is so large. That will encourage text book publishers to modify books and to sell those modified texts in other states as well.

And, one additional factor that makes this book important is that we have politicians and their handlers that have become skilled in the use of the values, traditions, and history discussed in this book to persuade voters and to gain control of governments at various levels so as to promote a variety of agendas, for example one that is destructive to disadvantaged groups in our society, and another that promotes militarism and extreme patriotism.

For more on the consequences of the alternative history described by Blight you might want to read "The Mind of the South", by W. J. Cash.


12 Stephen Breyer -- The Court and the World

Possibly, Breyer has two central points: (1) that the Supreme court especially, and possibly other courts in the U.S. as well, will increasingly need to deal with cases that have foreign and international connections, perhaps because the interested parties come from or have foreign connections, perhaps because the case itself is effected by international situations or has international consequences; and (2) that Justices will increasingly need to be informed about international events, international history, and international law as well as law from other countries.

Some additional points that Breyer discusses:

A question that Breyer deals with -- If we suppose that the U.S. Supreme Court has the duty to limit the power of the President of the U.S. especially powers assumed during and because of the "War on Terror", then (1) how and by what mechanisms is it to do so; and (2) how is it to become informed and what does it need to know in order to do so, given that for security reasons some information may be classified and available only to the President, possibly even due to the President's orders.

Breyer stresses that other current modern democracies and their courts have also worked on and are developing solutions to some of these problems. We and our courts can learn from their work, writings, court cases, and laws, and still not merely adopt their solutions without consideration and adaptation. This is especially relevant to limits on executive power and to actions based on the "War on Terror".

In addition, the Court must understand the threats (e.g., terrorist threats) themselves, and this requires information from outside the U.S. and possibly information that is classified as secret.

This is an extremely informative book, in part because Breyer works hard to explain relevant, related prior cases and to show why and how they relate to his current topic. What also makes "The Court and the World" so helpful and informative is Breyer's care in explaining what basis the U.S. Supreme Court used to reach specific past decisions and because he even, in some cases, reports the thinking of members of the Court while doing so, for example, based on their written notes, memoirs, etc.

I wish for and feel we have a need for an equally detailed and educational book like this one but about the case of Citizens v. United and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to campaign finance law.

Still, for the range of cases that Breyer covers, this is an extremely informative book. If you want to read more about the law, it's a great read.


13 Steven Brill -- Tailspin

Brill gives a extremely severe critique of our federal government and the social organization behind it. A polite way to phrase this is to say that we are "challenged", very challenged.

Our efforts at reform and at moving toward a meritocracy has produced specific classes of people who hold extraordinary amounts of wealth and power. We are becoming a radically unequal society. The wealthy and powerful can protect themselves; they can produce the kind of government that benefits them and produces even more inequality. Many of the governmental powers that protect those who are less than wealthy are not needed by the wealthy, and so those who are wealthy attempt to strip those protections away. Since the regulations and regulators that would provide those protections would interfere with the ability of the rich and powerful to become even more wealthy and powerful, and since politically focused money is very influential within our government, the rich and powerful are very effective at removing and weakening those regulations and protections.

There is entirely too much money in politics and there are too many lobbyists in government. We have become what Brill calls a "moat nation", in part meaning that those with the money and power to protect themselves, do so, and they protect and increase their wealth and power while doing so.

We have become a nation that is extremely polarized, and our government reflects that. In terms of media and communications, we have been given the ability to choose the news and opinion sources that we want; we can ward off opinions that we disagree with and that threaten our established and hardened views. We transmit that polarization to our government by choosing politicians with extreme views. But, it's not only that our political leaders have very divergent opinions; it's that they are uncompromising on issues that reflect those opinions. At least one of our two major political parties has more and more decided that if legislation, regulations, etc. do not agree with their positions and ideology, then they will not be considered at all. The Hassert rule is an example of this: the unofficial policy that, a majority of Republicans in a Republican controlled U.S. House of Representatives has to support a bill before the Speaker will allow it be be considered. Combine that policy and the frequent use of filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and you have a dysfunctional government.

And, it is our system of checks and balances that helps create this dysfunction by enabling opposing political parties, or anyone with opposing ideologies to block each other. A system of governing containing effective checks and balances works only as long as those who participate in that government are willing to cooperate and compromise. On the other hand, if you are one of the promoters of small government and believe that the less government does the better, then this kind of dysfunctional stalemate could be what you want.

And, speaking of stalemate, divisions and conflicts between factions within each political party also block constructive government action. This became especially true within the Republican Party during fights over the budget and government shutdown.

Wealth and income inequality in our nation have dramatically increased. The consequences are that we have one class of people that can protect and promote their interests (and who have the money to do so), and we have another class of people who are both powerless to do so and who are left unprotected. That, it turns out, is a self-perpetuating system, in fact, its a system with a positive feedback loop. The increasing amount of money and lobbyists that is being allowed in our government is one indication that this is happening and part of the mechanism for causing it.

Brill's discussion of a meritocracy, our meritocracy, is useful because it explains to a large extent how it has become a major cause of the inequality that is expanding in our society. If you choose to fill all positions within a firm based only on the ability and skils of the people to be put in those positions and you give no consideration for having a reasonably broad representation of a wide selection of people or the population, then you end up having selected very skillful people with the skills and power to increase the wealth, status, and power of themselves and those who can afford to pay them, owners, for example. Furthermore, these capable and skillful people will be in positions where they are best able to do so.

Good intentions sometimes have bad consequences. Or, if a good system can be used for bad purposes, it will be used for bad purposes. That should be one of Murphy's laws, or perhaps it already is.

Brill credits Michael Jensen and the papers he co-authored on the nature of publicly owned firms with initiating the move toward meritocratic hiring for the sole purpose of increasing shareholder/owner wealth at the expense of all other considerations. Benefits to society and labor, of course, would have to be put at a lower priority. Those managers, since they are hired and rewarded (sometimes with stock options and bonuses) on the basis of short-term stock market results, emphasize share price and dividend rewards for shareholders to the exclusion of other values. Activist shareholders and corporate raiders amplified this movement. And, that shift in emphasis, according to Brill, has results that have been very damaging to our democracy.

There are also two forms of "liberalization" (actually a weakening of laws and regulations) that also participate in this process of making our government more dysfunctional and less helpful for the majority of us, although perhaps these are two forms of the same set of changes: (1) A loosening of the rules of free speech and, in particular providing more freedom for corporate speech and (2) a loosening and weakening of the rules restricting political donations to politicians and the use of money to influence government in other ways, for example, through lobbyists. When a corporation or other entity argues that it should be allowed promote its products through speech because to restrict its attempts to do so limits the ability of others to learn about products and services, it is actually arguing for its own ability to operate within the marketplace and the economy in ways that are not available to the rest of us, that is not available to those of us who do not also have the wealth and power to do so. And, something analogous is being done when a large corporation or other powerful entity argues that it should be allowed to lobby in government for its own positions and benefit and should be allowed to make campaign contributions to politicians who support it, which again is something that the rest of us cannot do to anywhere near the same degree. Most of us would agree that some amount of these abilities should be allowed and are necessary for the operation of a democratic government. Brill's choice of the title "Tailspin" indicates, I think, that he believes these trends have become so prevalent and so massive that it cripples our government rather than enabling it.

If you are interested in learning more about how wealth and power are increasing in the U.S. and how that is used to increase that inequality, consider reading "The curse of bigness", by Tim Wu. It provides another perspective on how wealth and size that has become increasingly large helps to protect and increase that size, wealth, and power. One way this process works is: (1) increases in the size of firms leads to (2) increases in the power of those large firms, which leads to (3) the ability to eliminate competition (e.g. through mergers and buyouts, which leads to (4) stronger control over labor and workers and wages. An additional way it works is that a large corporation is able to demand and extract tax benefits in exchange for building a plant or headquarters in a particular city, effectively taking money away from civic and social uses and turning it into corporate profits. The recent (2/2019) conflict and negotiations between Amazon and New York City, although they broke down, nevertheless illustrate that increase in the power of corporations and their owners over other sectors of our society.

An even additional and also devastating indictment is given in "Crashed", by Adam Tooze. Tooze argues that our current financial and governmental system can only exist and survive if it, especially the federal government, lies to us. This became most dramatically clear when our government necessarily had to save large corporations and financial institutions during the 2008 financial crisis, and had to do so with our, tax payer, money, effectively using taxpayer money to make the rich and powerful more rich and powerful. There is no way that they (our government) can be truthful about and admit to that. Basically, Tooze is saying that our financial system is designed to be unstable, and this very instability is a mechanism for maintaining the wealth and power of the rich and powerful.

So, if you are looking for a very severe and intelligent critique of the government of the U.S., Brill certainly provides one. Although, if you are easily depressed, you might want to avoid it. "Shields up", as they say.


14 Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee -- The second Machine age

The first parts of "The second machine age" are a celebration of all the cool and spiffy things that computers and digital devices can do. There is emphasis on how that progress has accelerated in just the last several years and on how tasks that we thought, just 2 or 3 years ago, computers would never be able to do, they are now doing or are in the early and promising stages of becoming able to do.

That's followed by descriptions of how wonderful all these blessings will be, what Brynjolfsson and McAfee call the "bounty" of this technological progress. But, some of the later sections of the book become less sanguine, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee consider both (1) how the benefits (and costs) of the adoption of this digital technology is going to be distributed unevenly and (2) the likely effects and consequences of the elimination of so much work through robotics and automation.

And, then an awareness of reality appears as Brynjolfsson and McAfee describe some of the negative consequences of all that technology and automation, notably the loss of employment opportunities and the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth and income with a larger are larger share of profits going to a smaller and smaller proportion of the population.

With respect to the technology itself, it's not just that the devices (desktop computers, laptop computers, smart phones, embedded devices, etc.) are becoming more powerful and capable; it's also that those devices have more (machine readable) data to work with and that so many of those devices are connected. This suggests that much of the data that is being created is either accessible to or being created and updated by these connected devices. It also suggests that these devices are interacting with each other, for example that these devices send information and requests to each other. Eventually, our devices (and there are likely to be more and more of them) will do increasing amounts of their processing in cooperation with the devices around us (or, more appropriately, around them, since you and I will likely become less important assistants for their work) or in cooperation with computers and devices accessible across the Internet. In the future, although we may have an identifiable device in our hands or a computer on the desk in front of us, that "computer" will effectively be composed of it and the devices it is connected to (and the devices they are connected to recursively). We are not likely to be aware of many of these devices (just as we are not aware of many of the embedded computers and controllers in our automobiles), nor are we likely to be aware of the data they are collecting. We may have a dim awareness that they (the computing devices) are doing tasks that they did not formerly seem to be able to do and that they make intelligent choices that they did not formerly make (e.g., suggest restaurants that we prefer and purchases that entice us).

If innovation and technological advances lead to increased productivity and increased productivity leads to improved standard of living, then it is highly unlikely that we as a society or our political institutions are going to chose to slow it down. But, that means that we are in the midst of a perma-growth economic system. If that is so, you have to ask what we could possibly hope to do to slow down global warming and the consumption of resources. Aren't our needs to deal with resource consumption and deletion in direct conflict with the changes that Brynjolfsson and McAfee describe are so important to improving our lives. We can imagine 50 to 100 years from now any society that manages to survive will look back at us and ask: What were they thinking? Could they (we) have possibly not been aware of the consequences of their actions and policies?

It is a bit depressing that books like this one constrain the set of "good" or beneficial policy choices to the set described by perma-growth economics, to policies that promote more economic growth and more production and more consumption. Are there really no other alternatives? Possibly so, however, it does not seem to me that we are always going to have the option of attempting to solve our problems with "more": more economic growth, more production/productivity, more consumption, etc. At some time in the not to distant future, we may have to start making do with less. We may have to stop growing the total size of the pie so that everyone (or most of us) can have a slightly larger slice. We may need to learn how to divide a smaller (total) pie, but share it more equitably.

Believe it or not, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are worried about the slowing down of innovation and increased productivity, and not just about the possible negative consequences. They worry that, with respect to innovation, we have already picked most of the low hanging fruit and that the most productive innovations are behind us. Honestly? Do we need new ways to burn fossil fuels and produce more plastic? Do we really need to figure our how to do so more quickly? Shouldn't we be more concerned with understanding why the benefits of innovation have not spread more evenly across the world?

Brynjolfsson and McAfee dismiss their own worry about innovation slowing down based on these reasons: (1) many or most productive innovations come about through recombination and adaptation of existing ideas and innovations; (2) information and communication technology spreads those ideas and makes them more readily available; (3) many more people have access to the technology that enables them to learn about and learn from existing ideas, which will spread innovation possibilities more broadly across, say, more minds capable of having more ideas and inspirations, which will cause an increase in innovation activity. As someone who has been a computer programmer for many years, I can willingly agree with that. In comparison with my experiences 20 years ago, I have quicker access to more of the information I need about the computer programming technologies I use (programming languages, libraries of support code and functions, and programming tools such as text editors and debuggers), answers to questions about programming problems I run into, etc. If you need evidence about that, look up almost any programming language or technology at Wikipedia and follow the links near the bottom of the page. And, go to StackOverflow (http://stackoverflow.com/) and look at the incredible wealth of questions and answers there. None of this readily available information existed 20 years ago. When it comes to computer programming, we truly are living in information rich times.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee also attempt to explain why increases in productivity do not immediately become visible when technological innovations are adopted. They say this is due to a time lag as businesses adapt and improve the application of new technologies to their needs. And that leads to Brynjolfsson and McAfee's claims that, during the last 10 to 15 years, worker productivity has increased dramatically.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee do devote a good amount of space toward the end of this book to the problems associated with the loss of jobs and the problems that will result from an increasingly uneven distribution of wealth and income that we are seeing, especially currently in the U.S. But, that discussion gives suggestions such as the following: get more education, train for a job that requires non-routine work, and so on. These are suggestions and policies that might help some individuals, but will not fix a society or an economy. A few of the points they make: (1) They explain how we (in the U.S.) may be entering a time of "winner take all" era of economic compensation where a disproportionate amount of earnings goes to a small number of individuals and where income distribution is best described by a power law, i.e., a "fat tail" distribution curve. (2) Advancing technology and innovation is a likely cause of both a bounty in the way of improved medical care, better communications, safer air travel, and much more, as well as negative consequences such as the extremely skewed and inequitable distribution of incomes and the loss of so many employment opportunities. (3) It's actually possible to argue that we are all better off because of our access to improved technology and its benefits, and Brynjolfsson and McAfee do a reasonably balanced job of analyzing both the good and bad consequences of advancing technology. (4) The economic inequality in the U.S. is likely producing increasing political inequality, which will, in turn, enable a set of economic and political elites to protect their favorable and unfair position and to deny all others access to economic opportunities and the political process. That will, Brynjolfsson and McAfee think, lead both to even more inequality and to a slowing of the innovation needed for the increased productivity that, they think, will improve our lives.

Further reading -- (1) If you'd also like to read a book that takes a similar view that innovations and advanced technology are the prescription for improving our lives and raising our standard of living, but written from a political point of view, you might want to look at "Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty", by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, which by the way, is referred to by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. I'd also recommend that you take a look at: (2) "The rise of the robots", by Martin Ford; and (3) "The glass cage", by Nicholas Carr.


15 Jennifer Burns -- Goddess of the market

Other references:

Ayn Rand is fascinating for a number of reasons:

Ayn Rand was very motivated by politics. Her fiction, especially "The fountainhead" and "Atlas shrugged", but other works like xxx, were really thinly veiled fiction that argued for life-style choices. She spent a good deal of her life arguing for her positions and ideas. She collected people (devotees) around her and spent hours and hours and countless days and nights persuading them in her beliefs.

Ayn Rand had an incredibly inflated view of herself. Perhaps we should say, justifiably so. After all, she receive large amounts of fan mail after publishing "The fountainhead" and "Atlas shrugged" and both "The fountainhead" and "Atlas shrugged" sold and continue to sell successfully. Rand thought of herself, or at least claimed that she did, as a first rate philosopher, as someone who had original theoretical and philosophical ideas, as someone who had created a theoretical system by herself with no dependence on previous or other thinkers.

Ayn Rand used her philosophical writing and her fictional writing to back and promote her ideological ideas. "The fountainhead" and "Atlas shrugged" do that. Her "Manifesto of individualism" does also. This manifesto essay contains many of the ideas of her later thought, and it can be viewed as a basis for her support for the right-wing, reactionary, small government ideology, including the belief that government produces nothing and idividuals create everything.

Although she worked very hard on her intellectual thought and ideas, Ayn Rand still had a tendency and desire to reduce most issues to a dichotomy and reduce them to a simple dichotomy at that. Her distinctions between active man (good) vs. passive man (bad) and between individual/creator vs. second-hander were examples of this.

Ayn Rand tried to convince us that she has a solid philosophical theory with a strong foundation. But, when you look more closely, it's mostly an ideology. She is popular among some, especially on the political right and in the business classes because she provides an intellectual veneer, and a thin one at that, for what they already want to believe. They really do want to believe that businesses and corporations need no help from government, although in many ways business benefits from the financial and technological and legal support of government and that we'd all be better off without government regulation, although in many ways, things take a turn for the worse when government let's businesses have their way in every way. Needless to say, some government regulation is good and some is bad and excessive.

Ayn Rand argued for capitalism as the only path to prosperity. That would be a more acceptable and arguable position if her vision of capitalism were not so extreme. However, given that version of capitalism allows for no government regulation, no safety net, no taxation (which is considered robbery), no government investment in infrastructure or science, it begins to seem to be a very austere and hard to justify position.

Yet, although her positions were (for many of us) extreme, her arguments were (for some of us) persuasive. In part this was because she had her very dramatic and romantic fiction to back her up, and because her arguments were, according to Burns, both abstract and moral. She used history as scaffolding and support, and she argued in terms of right and wrong.

And, more over, she was a tireless promoter of both herself and her ideas. Although there is a good deal of evidence that she used drugs and chemical stimulants to produce that tireless promotion.

In some ways Ayn Rand was socially inept. But, in other ways, she craved companionship and attention. She very much appreciated the love and companionship and support of her husband, Frank O'connor. During her life time, she had several friends who she was devoted to and who where devoted to her, in particular, Isabel Paterson, an editor with whom Rand spent long hours in conversation. And, especially after the publication of her books, "The fountainhead" and "Atlas shrugged", she seemed to thrive on the attention of a selected band of followers, who spent long hours in talk sessions listening to Rand explain her thought and promote her ideas. Often these sessions, with Paterson in particular, were valuable to Rand because the gave her ideas and arguments that she could use, e.g. in her writings, and provided emotional support for Rand's seemingly insecure personality.

Rand, when she was writing, was capable of working and did work incredibly long hours, again, that was likely with the help of some chemicals, notably Benzedrine.

Ayn Rand was strongly influenced by F. A. Hayek, who argued strongly against government interference with business. Ayn Rand thought that government support systems for the weak and poor, as well as any kind of altruism for that matter were wrong and should be abolished. Adam Smith argued, in "The theory of moral sentiments", that the feeling each of us have for those around us would keep a capitalist system from becoming too harsh and destructive. With Rand, it is not simply that this can fail to happen, it's that it should not happen. For Rand, altruism of almost any kind was bad. I wonder how she could keep her friends, some of who seem to have been devoted to her and idolized her.

Much of Rand's writing can be taken as support for libertarianism. I suspect that she has a strong following among libertarians. Burns writes that "Atlas shrugged", in particular, "is a moral fable about the evils of government interference in the free market".

Ayn Rand attempted to base her ideas on a purely rational basis, and she argued that she had succeeded. That seems surprising given had emotionally committed she was to her theory.

While it seems true that no society or civilization has ever given up the use of a resource that it desired and that improved its standard of living, Rand certainly encouraged our civilization not to try. I'm thinking in particular of our use of fossil fuels. Both "The fountainhead" and "Atlas shrugged" justify and make us feel good about using oil and gas and other natural resource without interference, in spite of the waste and pollution and hazards that they produce. In a country where Ayn Rand and her books are still as popular as she and they are, it is no wonder that we have so much trouble creating and following a cohesive effort to fight pollution and climate change.

Burns's descriptions of Ayn Rand seem especially even handed and sympathetic. This book contains lots of fascinating information about Rand and her life. Given the heavy influence that Rand has had in our culture, this seems like a very worthwhile and valuable book to me.


16 Nicholas Carr -- The glass cage: Automation and us

Carr has several concerns. First, there's the possibly massive loss of jobs because of automation. But, we've been worried about that for a long time. At each period in history when job loss through mechanization and automation has threatened, there seems to have been lots of disruption and lots of suffering on the part of those affected, but eventually employment comes back, though usually in a different form. But, what is just as troubling as the suffering and lives hurt over the short term is that the jobs, when and if they do return, may be unsuited for those who need them. And, many of the jobs that do return, this time around, seem to be low paying one. We may be headed for a time when a large majority of people can only find work that does not pay a living wage. And, that may lead, seems to be leading to a society that is very skewed in the way of inequality of wealth and income.

This leads us to Carr's main concern, which is that the jobs we will mostly be left with and the tools we'll have to do them with will make us dumber and less skilled. We'll have both a narrower range of job related knowledge and a narrower set of skills.

With respect to de-skilling and the dumbing down of our society in general and workers in specific trades and professions, it's game over, or perhaps more correctly, we moved on and won't go back. Airline travel is safer now that it was 40 years ago; we're not going back. Surgery, even complex medical procedures, have better outcomes, more often than before; we're not going back. Perhaps we are losing some skills (physical skills and skills that are more basic, skills like the ability to do arithmetic in our heads and knowledge about spelling), but we're also gaining new knowledge and abilities; we're not going back.

The loss of jobs and the profile of newly created jobs is another matter. Any time there is disruption and change, there will be some who disproportionately are able to take advantage of those changes and of the new conditions that follow them. These changes are complex and even chaotic, but it makes sense that some of those who begin with certain advantages (wealth, brains, willingness to take risks, etc.) will be able to take advantage of these changes whereas many of those without these advantages will not. Some of that is good: successes bring new innovations, new tools, access to new and more resources, and so on. Some of that is bad: even in an orderly society where most of us obey laws and rules, there may be some, even many, who are left without a way to make a living. Even for those who gain the most, there are benefits, not to mention reasons of morality, for ensuring that all members of our society can live and function at a reasonably successful level. But, that may not be a stable state, or as the term is used in chaos theory, it may not be an attractor. So, it's up to our governments to do some balancing here and to apply corrective action, where none comes automatically. That's one of the reasons that we've come to believe in democratic forms of government: they attempt to help a broader population rather than a privileged few. It's far from perfect, but still better than some of the alternatives. A number of books and many articles have discussed the growing inequity in countries with developed economies. So, I suppose you could say that we are in the midst of an experiment to determine whether we can take effective steps to counter-balance the dislocations that Carr discusses.

You could, as I am tempted to do, slap aside Carr's writing for some of the reasons above, but that would mean that you lose the value of his book. This is not a how-to book, and it does not have a set of prescriptions for our society. But, it does provide materials and insights to help you think through some of these problems.

With respect to job loss, for example, you may want to consider whether education can be an answer and cure. Many jobs, many of them essential, do not require higher education, but that makes those jobs no less essential for the smooth functioning of our society. And, not everyone can benefit from higher education, but we still need to support conditions that enables them to be productive and to live successful lives. And, Carr's discussion of "flow" and the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (for example, his book "Flow") is very much on target here, both in terms of how we have made progress away from long hours of drudgery and long, 10 to 12 hour work days and in terms of how we have off-loaded some of the more boring work to computers and automation, although, Carr tends to emphasize the examples where automation has taken away some of the more rewarding work.

And, a simple-minded example of how Carr can help us avoid the downside of automation is his discussion of the negative effects of medical record keeping. He suggests that, because it encourages the use of boiler plate and doing copy and paste, it leads doctors to produce less accurate descriptions of their patients and their problems and to think less carefully about those problems. Yes, but automobiles encourage us to get less physical exercise, and, of course, the response to that is to exercise more, not to get rid of cars. And, with respect to medical record keeping and a doctor's note taking and, more generally, any of the writing and note taking that we do, we can refuse to "cheat", and rather than copy and paste, write it ourselves. So, Carr can also help us find positive responses to automation, computers, and technology. If you'd like to have a more sanguine point of view about Carr's book, you can read it as a warning and suggestions for how we can take control of the technology so as to make it work for us and to use in in ways that improve rather than degrade us.

If you want an antidote to Carr's views (a bit of an antidepressant) take a look at "The second machine age", by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They're boosters for the same trends that Carr warns us about. Brynjolfsson and McAfee attempt to tell you how to thrive in and how to benefit from the same changes and environment that Carr says will make us dumb and degrade us in other ways, too. Brynjolfsson and McAfee also discuss the negative impacts of automation and innovation, but they're a little more balanced that Carr.


17 Nicholas Carr -- The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains

Long on inspiration and ideas; questionable on "truth".

I have mixed feelings about this book. I'm a strong believer in reading. I think it changes lives. I feel that the ability to read deeply and to think critically about what you read is especially crucial both in the practical sense if you want to be able to live without making lots of stupid mistakes, and in the intellectual sense if you want a rich and rewarding inner life. But, on the other side, I've learned so much from the Internet, and the Internet is so important to the work I do, that I am unwilling to give it up. (I'm a programmer; and the technical information that I need in order to write the code I do is most readily available on the Net.)

So, in reading this book, I'm looking less for proof that I must give up the Internet and more for techniques and strategies that will help me to get the best and the most from both modes or styles of reading and thinking.

And, one technique that I use when I want to "go deep", or at least to avoid "the shallows", is to take notes as I read, then to read those notes, to write comments on those notes, and to write a book review like this one. Doing so helps someone like me with a tendency to be shallow, to go just a little deeper in my thinking. Taking notes forces me to concentrate on what I'm reading. Writing comments on those notes and writing a review forces me to actively work through some of the content from the book. And, an added benefit, it helps me retain and remember just a little bit of what I've read. That's very much, I believe, in the spirit of what Carr is trying to guide us toward.

But, perhaps some of the best guidance that you'll get from Carr's book is the encouragement to increase your awareness while you read, whether you are reading magazine articles on paper, books on paper, Web pages, downloaded PDF files, and (soon) ePubs. Try to be aware of when you do need to focus, and give yourself time to do that concentrated, more linear form of thinking. And, conversely, try to be aware of when you do need to read or even skim a variety of related topics, when you are following a number of different hypertext links. And, when you do, make sure you have a rational for doing so.

On the other hand, listening to Jake Shimabukuro play "While my guitar softly weeps" on the Ukulele at youtube.com ... well, I'll have to rationalize that as a break and as recreation. He is a master at that instrument, by the way.

Perhaps Carr's most ominous claim is that reading, skimming, browsing the Web changes your brain physically, and not, according to Carr, for the better. How much you worry about this might depend on who you are and whether you have kids. A parent might want to worry if a young (or not so young) child is spending most of her life on the Web or with a mobile phone on the side of her head and is no longer reading. That might have a lasting effect on a growing brain, and possibly not a good one. However, at my age (60+), any and all mental work and exercise is likely to the good, as long as I get some variety.

So, what do you do, if, like me, you want to avoid a degenerating attention span? Here are some suggestion you will find in Carr's book, in some cases by reading and inferring between the lines:

What is the future of reading? There are a aspects to a full answer to this question. Here are a few:

If we no longer or seldom write on paper, will it change the way and style and content of our writing? Yes, it's likely to do so. It already has done so for many of us. In the following ways:

Still, there is something enjoyable about making marks on paper ...

What we really need to ask is: why is writing, in addition to reading, valuable? I think part of the answer is that writing forces us to have something to say, and encourages us to express it in words. Plus, writing encourages us to organize our thoughts, for example to produce a coherent, logical argument and to support that argument in something like a 5-paragraph essay. And, writing, possibly in the form of taking notes, helps us to be more attentive to what we read, and to think through the ideas we encounter. This leaves aside the most obvious benefit of writing, which is that it produces a record that we or others can review and rethink later, and maybe even comment on.

But, these benefits depend very much on the kind and style of writing that we do, and also, it's likely, on the amount of effort we put into it.

Summarizing a bit: We need to be aware of and attentive to many of the ideas and problems and disputes that Carr discusses. Carr discusses lots of research from the fields of psychology and neurology to prove his points. That research is questionable, it seems to me, especially given the use to which Carr puts it. Thinking these issues through, however, and then being aware of them as we use computers and the Internet and as we read will trigger suggestions about how you and I can become better readers and better users of books, the Web, and other forms of reading material. You and I will need to define for ourselves what we mean by "better".


18 Jonathan Chait -- The Big Con

Read this book in order to inoculate yourself.

If you read "What's the matter with Kansas", you likely learned about voters in the U.S. voting against their own self interest, that is, voting to elect politicians that pass legislation that is against their constituents' interest.

So, your next step might be to learn how voters are tricked or "conned" into voting in ways that result in support for policies that they don't really want. This book by Jonathan Chait will tell you about those strategies, devices, tricks, and cons.

Here are a few:

Part of the message of this book is that there no longer is a moderate right and a moderate left in U.S. politics. There is only a radical far right and a centrist left. Thus, there is no effective counter-balance to the Republican swing to the far right. Radicalism in the Republican party is no longer the fringe, it has become the mainstream of that party.

For more on the Republican swing toward radicalism and the schemes used to produce it, you may also want to read my review of Stefan Halper "America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order".

In the U.S. we are headed for an extreme inequality of wealth. Republicans block a discussion of that move toward inequality by labeling it "class warfare". Reading this book of Chait's at least gives you a warning about how that result is being produced and, hopefully, will encourage us to discuss it.


19 Edward Chancellor -- Devil take the hindmost: a history of financial speculation

Edward Chancellor's account of a number of extreme speculative periods in history is both entertaining and educational, although I'll admit that the entertainment is enjoyable only if you can ignore the damage that these manic periods can do and can for get that we're likely due for another one soon.

Here are some comments and notes about several of my favorite chapters from the book.

The chapter titled "Kamikaze capitalism" gives a description of how Japan and the Japanese are different or believe they are different, and how that difference has led to a different style of economic system. Some of the characteristics of that different economic system are reduced individualism, increased control by government, and huge industry cartels (called keiretsu), which engage in extensive cross- shareholdings between them. Another Japanese "difference" is a sense of community and oneness, which, Chancellor claims, led to a huge wave of "trend following" investing and a herd like behavior among investors.

First, the Japanese created asset bubbles in equities (corporate stock) and real estate. And, then the mania spread, but there was a vicious circularity: paper profits and a sense of wealth gained from one type of assets led to speculation in other assets. Increased availability of credit created a real estate bubble; the real estate bubble created a stock price bubble (company ownership of land was a rationalization for high stock prices); real estate and stock asset price spikes led to bubbles in fine art paintings and even golf club memberships and several other bizarre almost imaginary assets (even an AIDS cure). Almost anything that could be bet on was bet on. Market manipulation was rampant, much of it done for the benefit of insiders and for politicians, who had cosy, quid pro quo relationships with corporate executives. Chancellor describes bubbles in a variety of assets in addition to stocks and real estate, for example fine art (especially French impressionist paintings) and golf club memberships. In the cases of both fine art and golf club memberships there were prices indexes and brokers to facilitate monitoring and trading in these assets. The banks offered margin loans to fund purchases. And, the rising prices of these assets were used to enable purchases or "investments" in other assets. Government policies and practices at the big four brokerages favored insiders: the insiders and the rich gained while the outsiders and the middle class lost during this decade (1980's). During the market descent (1990) Ministry of Finance attempted to manipulate and prop up the stock market in part by decreasing margin account requirements, prohibiting sale of new shares, and loosening accounting requirements (e.g. by removing requirements to re- evaluate positions and to report losses). And then it all came down: the price of stocks and the price of real estate and the price of paintings and the price of golf club memberships and more. They were each used to justify loans to purchase (and drive up the price of) others, and they all came down.

There are chapters on other manias, for example , but the chapter titled "Fool's Gold" which discusses Britain in the early 1800's seemed especially entertaining because the speculation and behavior it describes was so outlandish. Here are a few of the wild things that the Brits "invested" in during the early part of the nineteenth century: (1) Foreign bonds where supposedly a way to finance projects in South American countries, but really just another asset to "pump and dump", the funds often did not get to the purported creditor anyway. There were innovations such as sale of bonds with a requirement that the purchaser only pay a small initial payment, effectively giving investor/gamblers leverage by enabling them to buy bonds on margin. Before long, brokers were using current sales receipts to pay previous investors, turning it into a Ponzi scheme. (2) Gold mining company stock became the next mania. Outrageous claims were made in the prospectuses for stock offered in these companies included claims that gold was lying everywhere and that each mining company had huge amounts to be mined easily. (3) Then, since money was available and thirsting for something to invest in, innovation became extreme. Shares were offered for a company to pipe salt water to London for those who wished a saltwater swim but could not afford the trip to the sea and for a company to provide umbrella rental stations scattered in London for those who did not want to carry their umbrellas everywhere.

There are several lessons that we might take away from this chapter: (1) If you have a wealth effect (people feel rich) and there is enough easy access to capital and credit, people will try to speculate on anything, no matter how bizarre. (2) Once a mania starts, it tends to perpetuate itself and to generate its own energy as asset prices increase and people begin to feel that they must not be left behind.

In the last chapter, titled "Epilogue", Chancellor attempts to describe a distinction between good speculation and evil speculation. Good speculation calms markets, corrects evaluations (e.g. when executives lie to boost their company's stock price), disciplines governments, and has a negative feedback effect (it corrects wild swings). Bad speculation produces bubbles, price spikes, and wild price swings; it has a positive feedback effect, making mild swings bigger. Chancellor believes that the difference between the two kinds of speculation, bad and good, is that bad speculation is trend following, whereas good speculation is based on fundamentals and evaluation of an asset. He does, however, seem to doubt that we can have any regulation that effectively distinguishes between good and bad speculation, protecting us for the bad, allowing the good. Derivatives can be used for "good speculation", but often become a tool for an extreme form of the bad sort. This is especially true of derivative products for which there seems to be no possible use other than gambling.

While reading the later sections of this book, I got the ominous sense that another boom and bust would soon be upon us, say around 2006 to 2008. Oh, wait, we already did that. We've already done this decade's boom and bust. And, you can see it all coming, yet again, when Chancellor talks about derivatives and how dangerous they are and about how those in positions to control them are saying that they do not need to be controlled and about how there is no imaginable use for some of the more innovative derivatives.

It is positively frightening when Chancellor talks about a ten year cycle of boom and busts, about how the seeds of each boom are sown in the midst of the previous crises, and about how capital becomes "blind", i.e. investors are unable to remember even the recent past and are condemned to repeat it. The easy credit and the low asset prices created by the previous crisis provide the fuel for next one.


20 Vikram Chandra -- Geek sublime: the beauty of code and the code of beauty

There are at least two aspects to Chandra's book: the parts that apply to modern computer programming and coding and the parts that apply principles of Indian philosophy and poetry to coding.

Disclaimer: I'm a programmer. I've written code for computers for many years using a variety of programming languages and running on a variety of machines and software environments. So, I'm reading and viewing some of what is in "Geek sublime" from a special point of view. Because I spend a good part of my time reading and trying to understand code and trying to make fixes to it, I care more about whether code is understandable and modifiable than I do about some notion of elegance or on aesthetic qualities based on an external standard or guide. It may also be significant that I program in high level, interpreted languages, mostly Python (https://www.python.org/), but also a bit in Ruby (https://www.ruby-lang.org/en/) and Erlang (http://www.erlang.org/). These are languages whose design places emphasis on code that is clean, readable, and easy to debug code over, for example, execution speed or memory usage. I much prefer Python, Ruby, and Erlang over low level, cryptic languages like C and C++, which make reading code and finding and fixing errors so much more difficult.

Having said that, code that has the the qualities of elegance and aesthetics that Chandra discusses, likely will trend toward readable and modifiable code. However, I say shoot for code that is readable and modifiable and the aesthetics will follow, rather than aiming for the aesthetic qualities and hoping that the readability and maintainability follow from that.

An interesting section is where Chandra discusses some differences between qualities of art and those of code. I believe he may be focusing on two points: (1) all art is not aesthetic in the sense of being beautiful; and (2) art breaks rules, for example, good writers of fiction (and good orators, too) sometimes break the rules of grammar. If we are to use art or aesthetics as a guide to producing good code, then we will likely want to slide over those differences. We will want to write code that is elegant, pleasing, even beautiful in some sense. And, because our language processor or compiler (whether C, C++, Python, Ruby, ...) will not accept code that breaks grammar rules (and other rules besides. This second aspect is not a defect in the language processors; we (computer programmers) want that processor or compiler to warn us about mistakes in our code. In fact, the language I use most often, Python, does rather loose compile time error checking, and so I often run a style/error checking program against my code (that code checker is called flake8).

The title of the book is a little misleading, for me at least. "Geek sublime" suggests that this book is aimed only, or mostly at techies and computer programmers. It does address issues of computer programming, and does attempt to employ aesthetic, poetic, and philosophical ideas to help us improve the computer programs we write. But, much of the book seems addressed to writers of fiction, which after all, is what occupies a good portion of Chandra's life. So, the range of readers to whom this book might be interesting is likely to be larger that the title suggests.

And, then there a dose of futurism toward the end of "Geek sublime". And, we fade off with a bit of mysticism at the very end, or perhaps it's romanticism. It's an interesting book, but I feel like I'd have to enter some alternative mental state in order to appreciate it. Perhaps, in the future, I'll revisit "Geek sublime"; I'll have changed; and additional parts of the book will be meaningful for me. In the meantime, it's entertaining, but only scattered sections are practical and usable by me. But, then, it's likely that practicality is not the right frame of reference through which to view this book.


21 Craig Childs -- Apocalyptic planet: field guide to the everending earth

Childs' time scales are huge. He forces our minds out of the immediate present into historical and geological time spans that are thousands, millions, and even hundreds of millions of years long.

Because of that immense vision, the period we are in now is not a singular event; it has been here before, some number of times. We are now in an inter-glacial, a period between glaciations or ice ages. Ice will return. Childs claims that deserts will return. It's likely that periods of cold and periods of heat and periods of long-term drought and periods of deserts etc will come and go any number of times in the future.

And, due to that expanded vision, we can appreciate that we are living in an ideal, felicitous moment in our planet's life, one that is especially agreeable and supportive. Our planet was not always like this. It will be at some time in the future, likely at any number of times in the future very unlike the conditions we are now in and very disagreeable to life that is anything like us or the plants and animals we are familiar with.

The system we live in is chaotic; it is best described at some levels by the concepts of chaos theory. Our earth and its geological mechanics, our weather system, our oceans and their currents, the ice sheets that cover Greenland and Antarctica now (but who knows for how long) all are nonlinear, chaotic, and unpredictable, if they are deterministic at all. That means that, depending on your level of pessimism or optimism, you can view our world as being in a short-term period of balance in a favorable condition. It's in balance now, but it may be that it is unstable, i.e. that some possible nudge may send it veering out of that favorable period. So, if you are as dystopian as I and you want something to keep you awake at night, remind yourself that we (humans, our civilization, our economic and political systems) are doing everything we can to give that balanced but unstable system as many nudges and pokes as we can. We are living in a time period that is a very pleasant anomaly. Those pleasant conditions could go away due to any number of complex, interacting forces that are outside of our control. And, we are doing everything possible that is in our control to change those current conditions.

What makes "Apocalyptic planet" fascinating is that in between all the stories about the places he visits (deserts, ice sheets in Greenland, glaciers in South America, etc) and the stories about the people he is there with, are perspectives and perceptions about all manner of possible pasts and possible futures and how and why we might get to any one of more of those possible futures. It's a book that is about as mind-expanding as you could ask for. The perspectives from "Apocalyptic planet" make the point of view of Elizabeth Kolbert's "The sixth extinction" (which I very much encourage you to read) seem small, self-centered, and local by comparison.

And, yet another even more pessimistic point of view. In spite of all our talk about doing something to stop the trend toward global warming, we are not going to do anything even remotely effective to stop it. Our present system (capitalism, liberal democracy, whatever) including its massive use of resources and burning of fossil fuels has raised the standard of living of so many people in the last hundred years, so that we will not change that. So much wealth is in the hands of and controlled by powerful interests, interests whose wealth and power is tied up in those resources and fuels and their exploitation that we (they) will not voluntarily give that wealth up. It does not even make sense to suggest that it would happen.

Imagine, Childs prompts, that in the near future we make the technological break-throughs needed to enable us to control the climate and its trends. That possibility might be more frightening yet. Remember, we are discussing a dynamic, non-linear, chaotic system. It's a system whose future we cannot predict, and so, it's even more likely that we would not be able to predict the effects of any forces we apply to it. We are as likely to over-shoot as not. Our actions are capable of having totally unexpected consequences. The idea that we might try is truly scary. But, fear not, we are likely take those kinds of actions only if someone believes that they can make a huge profit by doing so.

Childs is in some sense a travel writer and an extremely lyrical one. Listening to him describe the places he visits, whether deserts or dramatic mountains or mono-culture farming in mid-west U.S. is a delight.

"Apocalyptic planet" is not your "normal" environmental apocalyptic book, but it is apocalyptic, and very fascinating.


22 Tim Clissold -- Mr. China: A memoir (an adventurous young man collides with a vast nation on the brink of capitalism)

There are really 2 books here: The first is about the author and his learning experiences with Chinese ways and Chinese business rules (or the lack of rules). The second is about the author's work as a representative of an American investment company attempting to form joint ventures with Chinese manufacturing companies in China.

Some books are entertaining; some books are enlightening. This book is both.

This book can be viewed as giving a picture of the period that was the precursor to the current one dominated by the business model in which Chinese companies under local management produce products on demand for export to be sold by foreign companies in foreign (non-Chinese) countries. The experiences described here follow a different model, one where a U.S. (or British or European) company tries to take a part owner and joint management role in a Chinese company producing products for sale inside China, for example machine and vehicle parts for Chinese vehicles, beer for consumption in China, etc. Different customs and values, different management styles, lack of cooperation and unwillingness to give control to a foreign outside company, and, in some cases, blatant fraud are a few of the problems, challenges, and "learning experiences" the author encountered and benefited from.

However, China now seems to be in a period where they are having success with companies inside China, under local ownership, locally managed, and possibly supported by subsidies, currency manipulation to maintain a low value to the Chinese renminbi, etc. Is there an explanation of how the transition to this period succeeded? That's the next story I'd like to read.

A few additional questions:

Clissold makes clear, through numerous entertaining examples, that there are serious problems with the use of the joint ownership business model. For example:

Given the extreme nature of these problems described by Clissold, it now seems that the joint ownership model he describes could be viewed as either (1) a failed experiment or (2) as a temporary technique, a trick actually, used to get businesses in China going at the expense of the technology and funds from the foreign (non-Chinese) partners. That's my outsider's view; it'd be good to get an expert analysis on this.

You will learn lots about business in China from this book. And, you will be shaking your head in disbelief and rolling your eyes in amazement and amusement at the entertaining stories. But, you will end up with plenty of questions, too. Perhaps that's one of the real values of this book: it makes you interested enough to want to learn more.


23 Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending -- The 10,000 year explosion

What I want to know is why this explosion happened to this one specific species. What were the necessary conditions and the enabling factors that caused humans to acquire the intelligence and to produce the tools and to create the social structures that gave them so many capabilities that other species do not have? There are hints about this in "The 10,000 year explosion", and some of them are:

But, each of the above are steps in a progression. So, we can always ask: But, what were the enablers of that step? So, it's likely that we are seeking, not a single cause, but a sequence or cluster of causes along with a story that fits those causes into an explanation.

What I'd also like to know is whether there is a possible explanation for differences in creative and innovative abilities and inclinations across cultures.

Cochran and Harpending cannot give us any simple answer to these questions about species differences and cultural differences, but they have plenty to say that is of interest to those of us who think about them.

What Cochran and Harpending do try to describe and explain is how, once these changes started happening, they began happening much more quickly and frequently over the last 10,000 years than previously.

And, now we have them happening at a maddeningly fast pace. I'd love a chance to ask Cochran and Harpending whether the very recent speed up in changes (during the last 50 years or 500 years, say) has some genetic basis, too.

But, it's important to remember that Cochran and Harpending at least claim to be talking about an acceleration of evolution, which implies that they are talking about physical changes in the human species over the last 10,000 years and also about genetic changes (changes in the frequency of certain genetic characters in human populations, and not just in changes in the way we think and feel.

Cochran and Harpending are also arguing that because of evolutionary changes since the appearance of the human species, separate populations of humans are genetically different.

It's easy to be mislead (off the track, into the ditch, etc) while reading this book into thinking about the increased rate at which human societies (especially advanced societies such as the Chinese and the Western European societies since the scientific revolution) have created new inventions. That's one of the things that Cochran and Harpending have to account for, of course. But, it's actually the rate of change of the human species itself that is their focus. And, their book stands up (holds water, is a successful explanation, etc) depending on whether they can show that the rate of change in the human species and the genetic material that, when expressed, characterizes that species has been more rapid in the last 10,000 years than previously. And, "The 10,000 year explosion" must also show that the increase in that rate of change makes a difference. In particular, that this rate of change in our genetic material has important consequence for how we act, the kinds of societies we form, what kind of communication and thinking we are capable of, etc.

And so, given my own interest in innovations and inventions, and in what enables or encourages us to do more or less of them, its important to ask whether the changes that Cochran and Harpending discuss, i.e. genetic changes in the human species, can be used to explain the rapid rate of innovation that we see over recent time spans (the last 500 years, the last 50 years, the last 5 years).

Another way of expressing this would be to say: (1) Some cultures are more inclined to scientific development, technological innovation, artistic development, etc. (2) Those inclinations are due to cultural differences. (3) Those cultural differences are due to differences in the people that make up those cultures. (4) And, the differences in the people are due to genetic differences, i.e. to differences in the occurrence of genes in the people that make up those cultures.

It's an interesting claim. I'm not even sure that it is the kind of claim that could be supported by research, because of the lack of hard, direct, clear connections between frequencies of genes in a gene pool, the complex expression of those genes in individuals, and the behavior of individuals across cultures. So, in contrast, I'm much more inclined to believe that the tendencies of a society to produce innovations is much more the result of influences like education, socialization, rewards and incentives within the society, infrastructure and support systems within the society, etc.

However, in spite of my inclination in the direction of nurture over nature (cultural influences over genetic ones), the chapter of "The 10,000 year explosion" titled "Medieval evolution: how the Ashkenazi Jews got their smarts" is well worth reading because it focuses on differences in IQ (and other differences as well) across populations. And, it's easy to imagine that those differences might result not just in differences in ability, but also differences in inclination, motivation, etc across cultures. That chapter is also interested because it discusses some of the ways in which genetic changes happen, and how those changes pass along genetic information in neighboring DNA. (For more on selective sweeps and genetic hitchhiking, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_sweep. Cochran and Harpending lean heavily on sweeps in their descriptions, although I can't see that they explain that concept directly.

And, if you are interested in human history at a broader level than who won what battles, you will want to look at the chapter titled "Gene flow". It describes so of the mechanisms by which alleles (genetic alternatives) have spread across regions and populations.

If you are interested in these kinds of ideas and questions, then I'd also recommend: (1) "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker and (2) "Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live" by Marlene Zuk.


24 Christina Conklin -- The atlas of disappearing places

Christina Conklin and Marina Psaro: "The atlas of disappearing places"


"The atlas of disappearing places" has major sections on the following topics:

  • "Part I: Changing chemistry" -- How the chemical content of the oceans and concentrations of plastic are changing the oceans; how what grows in the oceans is becoming poisonous.

  • "Part II: Strengthening storms" -- Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. Hurricanes around Houston, TX, flooding rivers in Germany, New York City's attempts at mitigation, and more.

  • "Part III: Warming waters" -- Describes some of the consequences to the Arctic Ocean, ocean currents and especially the consequences to fishing off the coast of Peru, an account of coral collapse off the east coast of Africa, description of what is happening to the glaciers in Antarctica.

  • "Part IV: Rising seas" -- Shanghai, China and Hampton Roads, Virginia etc. Some of these threats are at places occupied by huge numbers of people.

Many of the chapters each contain a description of a specific place, for example a city, a coastal region, an island, a geological feature, etc.

And, each of these chapters has subsections that describe:

  • What has been happening and what is threatened and what will be destroyed.

  • A bit about what has changed, what is causing those changes, and how much that has changed.

  • A "Key term" subsection -- These subsections define and explain a word or term that, with respect to climate change, might be used in a slightly special way and needs a bit of extra explanation. For example, the term "threshold", often called "tipping point", explained in the chapter about Kure Atoll, Hawai'l, might refer to a change that cannot be reversed or one indicates a radically different state of being", in other words a phase change, maybe on as dramatic as the change from solid ice to liquid water.

  • "A view from 2050" -- A discussion of the likely consequences in the year 2050 and an imagining of the steps that will be taken in that city or region, along with their possible outcomes.

The future?

Given that many chapters of "The atlas of disappearing places" have that section titled "A view from 2050", we can get some idea of Conklin and Psaro think the future might be like. Although, I don't think we can say, exactly, that they are predicting the future, but are saying what the future might be like. You will have to read some of those subsections yourself to make a judgement on whether these futures for various places are likely or unlikely. Given the chaotic nature of politics, world affairs, societal trends, and all, it's difficult for me to have any confidence in predictions of this kind. For a simple example, the response of the U.S. government depends radically by the outcome of each presidential election. To one of our political parties, climate change and global warming and their effects is a hoax, whereas to the other, it is at the least, something to be taken seriously.

That does not mean that these "A view from 2050" subsections are not important. They are important in several ways: (1) They describe some very possible and catastrophic possibilities. (2) They provide suggestions and ideas on what can be done at societal and governmental levels.

So, overall, what can we say about our current situation and our possible future?

We, individuals and most of our collective society will keep trying, although our efforts may be somewhat weak. Given the changes that need to be made in our behavior and their coasts, it's hard to be optimistic.

And, given what has been done so far, that is likely to have some positive effects: it is likely that we will be able to slow global warming. But it's also likely that we will not do enough. There are too many people, nations, governments, organizations, etc. that all must be coordinated and that must work together. In the U.S., our government is blocked by political division and disagreements. Many third world countries want some of the gains and advances that first world countries have already obtained and have caused the global warming while doing so.

And, slowing global warming slightly means that climate change will continue to get worse, though perhaps a little more slowly.

And, nobody can imagine reversing global warming. The best that we can imagine would be a carbon neutral world, i.e. a world in which, by absorbing as much atmospheric carbon as we emit, there is no additional carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. And, even if we achieve that carbon neutrality, the amount of carbon dioxide we've already added to the atmosphere will cause more global warming for some number of years to come.

So, what about mitigation? Can we protect our cities and our coasts and the areas near them? Can we blunt the force of extreme weather events that are likely to be more frequent and destructive in the future? That is and will be extremely expensive. So, again, it will take collective will, and lots of it. It will also take time, time that we really do not have. But, dangers in the future are hard to motivate people about: it's what is called "discounting the future". Yes, we're likely to do something, but it's not likely to be enough; it will be done in some places but not others; regions that are rich are likely to try to save themselves and let others suffer the effects of extreme weather, rising oceans, and all.

And, for those of us who have apocalyptic mind-sets, an especially worrying aspect of this is that there may existing in our near future, tipping points with unpredictable consequences. Those tipping points are, or might be, chaotic, that is, they are deterministic behaviors but are not predictable.

An additional cause for worry is the possibility of potential "choke points" in our future. Perhaps global warming will cause some number of very small changes each of which will alter significant weather, atmospheric, or ocean current conditions. It's a little analogous to the small amount of additional water that causes a major dam or canal leak, ... and then a break, ... and then a flood.

So, this is not recommended reading for those who tend to worry and to lose sleep at night.

Conklin and Psaros end the book with a chapter by each urging more action, more sustained action, more planning, more mitigation, and, of course, stronger efforts to stop doing whatever we're doing that is changing the climate.


25 Richard Conniff -- The species seekers: heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on earth

This is a book that deals with many of the details about discovering species, classifying species, preserving species, displaying specimens of species, etc. But, it's also a book about a revolution in thought and knowledge, about the birth of scientific knowledge and scientific methodology. It's also about the effects and conflicts of the people of the time as they adjust to the notion of geological time scales, the position of humans within the natural order, etc.

Some remarkable things from the book: (1) The passion and excitement of both those who actively participated in collecting new species and those who came to view these new collections. (2) The hard work done to regularize this new knowledge and the methods with which it was collected. This was the beginnings of the scientific method that we know today. (3) How driven the collectors were, and how their extreme motivations led them to, sometimes, stretch the truth. But, their high level of motivation also enabled some of them to endure the hardships and dangers that they faced while collecting specimens. By the way, I was interested to learn that some of these collectors, especially those who were not independently wealthy, supported themselves by sending back and receiving payment for specimens, lots of specimens.

Conniff also gives the reader some appreciation of the just how revolutionary ideas about evolution were, how threatening and upsetting those ideas were to some, especially to those of the Christian religion, and how difficult the battle was for the acceptance of those ideas. The idea of dislodging man (humans) from his/her special relation to god and the idea of placing man as a part of nature and as just another creature among many in a natural world and process was not an easy idea for some to accept. Finding "monsters", i.e. fossils of large prehistoric beasts that no one had evidence of having seen alive, was important to this process of gaining acceptance for these revolutionary ideas.

One idea especially helps me appreciate just how radical this work was. It was during this period, that naturalists learned that fossils, in particular shells, could be used to date the geological strata in rocks. It's hard now for us to understand the thinking of the naturalists and theorists of this period (1840's say) if we do not know that the idea of geologic time and some reliable, credible way of gaging it was so new.

There are discussions in this book that helped to gain an appreciation for and to feel some of the excitement of the new ideas and understanding as these ideas were taking shape in the minds of naturalists who were discovering them. For example: (1) Classifying an individual or species based on a set of features, and not just by one significant anatomical feature. (2) Local variations: that individuals and species could exhibit unique features when they are separated geographically, sometimes by a distance of only a few miles or less. (3) natural selection: how selective pressure can cause species drift, for example when a predator selectively eliminates individuals from the population of a species because of certain features of those individuals.

One detail that was especially interesting to me is the insight by Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the idea of natural selection at about the same time as Charles Darwin, came to see that nature is not "in balance". Species, or more correctly, populations of species, exhibit wild swings in size. And, those fluctuations in population size have heavy effects on the populations of nearby species. An important implication of this is that populations in nature can be viewed as dynamic and possibly chaotic systems. Therefore, changes in the size of populations across time can be a subject of systems theory.

So many species -- The book ends by emphasizing at least two important points. (1) The number of existing species is huge. Currently, we have close to 2 million identified species, a questionable number, no doubt, but since researchers are discovering species almost everywhere, being exact does not matter much. And, we are likely nowhere near the end of finding all currently existing species. But, still more, new species are evolving (being created) all the time. The "mechanism" of evolution not only has been creative; it will be creative. (2) We have to "look" in other ways if we are to find new species. Some different species look exactly the same, that is, they are the same as far as external appearance to an observer with human eyes, about human height and size, relatively normal color vision, etc. I have moderate color "blindness", so I might be able to see and distinguish species that you can't. And, of course, two different individuals might appear different to a possible mate or competing species: lots of ants look the same to me, but to ants, differences in behavior and odor that I can't see and perhaps even differences that can be detected by a sense of perception that I don't have really do matter. If you are interested in learning about the theory of evolution through an understanding of those who developed it, then this is a great read.

For an entirely different perspective on the battle between religion and evolution, read Matthew Chapman: "40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania". It's a delight.


26 Tyler Cowen -- Average is over

I'm conflicted about this book: On the one hand, I'm put off a bit by the obviousness of much of what Cowen has to say, by his repeated insistence that we need to learn skills that are unique and valuable and in demand. But, then I also feel that there is a good deal of value to be had from thinking about how the labor market has changed and will likely to change in the future, and about what our relationships with our employers are likely to be like.

One of Cowen's central claims is that we are living in an increasingly unequal world, and the meritocratic hiring and employment conditions in that skewed world are likely to push us in the direction of more inequality. One view we can take of this kind of claim and description is that it is descriptive, and is not an attempt at giving recommendations: it's not a prescription for individuals, nor for companies, nor for our society and government institutions. But, taken another way, it is a call for each of us who hopes to find a good or a better job to think about what kind of education we should be engaging in and what kind of skills and abilities we each should be trying to acquire.

Given that, here is some advice to the reader -- Do not agree with Cowen's conclusions. Rather use his topics as starting points to analyze your own skills and experience, and to think about what changes you might make to improve your own chances of getting the job and work you want. For example, given Cowen's guidance, you might be asking (1) what skills do I have? (2) Are they reasonably unique or at least not so common as to make them in demand in the labor market. And, (3) what could I do to improve those skills in a what that fits with employment needs.

Cowen is a "critical thinking skills" and a "higher order thinking" kind of person. He is recommending that we each have as a goal to not just know things, but also to know how to do things. Going one step further, he'd recommend being able not just to do something, but to be able to solve (new) problems. Technical knowledge is good; being able to use that knowledge is better; and being able to solve (new) problems (using that knowledge) is best.

Here are some recommendations that Cowen has for every future/potential job seeker. (1) Learn how to think symbolically. Learn how to think abstractly, to think in terms of kinds of object, the attributes or qualities of those objects, etc. (2) Learn how to think in terms of quantities. Learn how to think mathematically and algebraically, that is, in terms of formulas, equations, and relationships that describe the world. (3) Learn how to think in terms of relationships and connections. Learn how to describe the world in terms of objects (or symbols that represent them), and in terms of relationships that connect those objects. (4) Problem solving -- Learn how to use your representations of the world to solve problems, to come up with new kinds of conclusions, to formulate new perspectives.

In general, these are recommendations to come up with new representations, new descriptions of any given problem domain, in order to facilitate new ways revealing the kinds of objects in that problem space, new ways of ordering those objects, and new ways of combining them in solutions.

Cowen emphasizes that merely knowing how to use a computer is not enough. I suppose that he is trying to tell us that (1) we must be able to do something valuable with a computer and (2) the ability to do that kind of task must be unique, valuable, and in demand in the labor market. Cowen's way of phrase this is to say that in order to be valuable, our skills must complement a computer's capabilities. I'm guessing that by skills that complement a computer's capabilities he means that you must be able to use the computer to do something it can't do alone and that you must be able to use the computer to do something that could not be done by someone with a mere 8 hours of training.

Cowen would likely to make suggestions like (1) we need to be able to set-up a computer so that it can perform some task and even that we need to be able to devise a problem description/representation that enables us to set-up the computer for its task. Computers are especially good at brute-force tasks requiring lots of iteration, but higher-order thinking and problem solving is required to prepare them to do those tasks.

Of course, you've got to add to this a need to stay ahead of the "skills curve". The skills that were unique and valuable yesterday will not necessarily be those that are valuable today or tomorrow. And, given Cowen's repeated insistence that computers are gaining new abilities everyday, the capabilities that complement what a computer can do today, may be readily doable by a computer tomorrow, perhaps even doable by a computer at less cost than poorly paid human laborers.

One interesting aspect of Cowen's analysis is his emphasis on the need for teamwork in the modern employment landscape. Many more tasks today are too complex and too large to be accomplished by individuals working alone. Although this makes sense to me, it is hard for me to see how it does not go in the direction of more meetings and more mid-level managers. Yes, the modern work-space does require organization, perhaps, lots of it; and, yes, we will need those who can create and manage that organization. But, I suppose because of my own background as a worker rather than I manager, I've a preference to value those who do rather than those who manage. Time spent in a meeting is time that cannot be used productively to solve a problem or produce something of value for the company that employs me.

The need for team efforts points out other qualities that Cowen believes are important, specifically things that center around "works well with others", is responsible and dependable, and even works well with minimal supervision.

Summary -- It's not a book about how to fix the skewed labor market place and its inequities. It's about how we and especially individuals looking for work can respond intelligently to that changing labor market place.


27 Susan Crawford -- Captive audience

"Captive audience" is good analysis of a very aggravating and possibly unsolvable problem. Crawford is showing us that some problems just cannot be solved in the U.S. with our form of government. When the Federal government can be bought, or at least rented, by sources of concentrated wealth, wealthy individuals and the corporations in Crawford's analysis in particular, you will get decisions and regulations that work for them, not for the rest of us, and not in the best interests of all. "Captive audience" is a detailed description of this problem.

Crawford makes it sound very grim. Not only are we getting sub-standard service, but we're paying higher prices. And, because, she claims, Comcast is effectively a monopoly in many regions, the likelihood is that Internet service will not improve and lag further behind other developed countries. worse.

Crawford's proposed remedy is regulation. But, we have a government by and for corporations. Lobbying works with our Federal government. Therefore, it is very much in the interest of large corporations to invest heavily in lobbying. The returns on that investment are too large to be ignored. Regulative capture of Federal agencies by corporations is endemic in the U.S. So, why would Crawford think that regulation, which she claims has failed to stop Comcast's abuses so far, would help in the future? Deregulation is and has been the trend. Crawford is fighting against the wind.

And, of course, we all love to hate our TV service and Internet service providers. Perhaps that's just part of what it means to be human. If it weren't for that antipathy, Crawford's book would not have near as much bite as it does. In part, that's because the real negative aspects await us in the future, when other developed nations move far beyond the U.S. with respect to broadband Internet service.

So, that's another worry to Crawford's book: If these trends and tendencies continue, that is if Internet service and access in the U.S. continues to be regulated for the benefit of the corporations that provide it, rather than for users of that service, then the quality of that service (our ability to access it from different locations and devices, its reliability, its speed, and its cost) will lag increasingly further behind that available in other developed countries. And, because of that, technological progress in the U.S. will slow down. And, since so many goods and services depend on the Internet, that will mean lower productivity and poorer service for all of us in the U.S. Further, this lag probably entails lower paying jobs and a lower standard of living.

Crawford describes an alternative strategy in the last chapter of "Captive audience". It's called fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), and it can be done at a local level by the utility system. What Crawford seems to be advocating is that Internet access and service should be viewed in the same way that we view electric service: it should be available to all; it should be regulated; it should not be run by an unregulated private company that provides it where, when, and how for it's own benefit. Crawford wants high-speed Internet service defined as a "public, and publicly overseen good", which she claims is more common in other developed countries.

It's this last chapter where Crawford argues for a "publicly supervised infrastructure that should be made available to everyone and provided on a wholesale basis to last-mile competitors. This approach, she believes, will keep speeds high and prices low. Crawford believes that "vertically integrated incumbent monopoly communications providers" will fight this. The existing incentives make doing so the smart thing to do. A good proportion of "Captive audience" is spend on the detail of this struggle, which she claims corporations are winning and the public is losing.

If you're interested in this strategy, you might want to look at one organization that is dedicated to pushing for it -- The Fiber to the Home Council Americas: http://www.ftthcouncil.org/. Perhaps it's the start of a movement. And, it would certainly be interesting to get Crawford's opinion about it.

I'm not so much complaining about the present as I am worried about the future. Currently I have adequate high-speed Internet service, but can grumble a bit about slow upload speeds and relatively high cost. But, several years from now, I'm likely to still have a 20 Mbps (download) connection, while in other parts of the world most citizens have symmetric (down as well as up) speeds of 100 Mbps. When the technology world find uses for that kind of speed, I'll be living in a backward region of the world.

Crawford is worried about that backward future, too, and the last few pages of "Captive audience", especially, show that. And what she proposes in order to avoid it is a "massive national infrastructure project". That work and investment would stimulate that economy and it would produce infrastructure of incredible value to the country (the U.S.). Yes, but, ... the political likelihood of that project and the regulation needed to enforce that broad public access that Crawford recommends is next to zero. It's in Crawford's discussion of the political requirements during that last several pages that she conveys how dismal the chances are for this kind of leadership in the U.S. Federal government. Read that section only if you are feeling emotionally strong enough to handle it.

And, if media monopolies fascinate you, look at "Master switch", by Tim Wu.


28 George C. Cunningham -- Decoding the language of God: can a scientist really be a believer?

Here are several possible ways to view this book: (1) It's an argument against the claims and arguments in Francis Collins book "The language of God" to the effect that one can be a scientist and a fundamentalist Christian and consistent all at the same time. Cunningham claims that you can't. (2) It's an argument that anyone who wants to understand the world through the view of empirical science should not be a fundamentalist Christian.

29 William Davies -- Nervous states

William Davies, in "Nervous states", is trying to describe and diagnose some of the popular uprisings and manias that we see today, as well as some of the abuses and misuses of communication technology, especially, but not only, digital and online communication. His message is that it will not help to throw more facts at those who ignore the experts and the science and the objective knowledge. We need to understand the underlying causes. In effect he is saying that this is not a problem with the science; it a problem with the social, economic, and political institutions that are used to address the problems of a large segment of our society. People who are angry, who feel neglected, who are depressed because they cannot make a living for themselves and their families do not want information and facts; they want change. And, if they have to ignore science, facts, objective reality, statistics, and the experts in order to cause some change that might address their issues, then they will do so.

Don't forget that people can be "conned"; they can be fooled and tricked. They are especially vulnerable to believing what they want to believe. One of Davies's messages it that digital communications and online social media platforms are very powerful tools for those who want to con and mislead us.

People want a story or myth or hero if it will tell them what they want to believe. They are willing to ignore quite objectionable things if a "hero" tells them something that seems to redeem them, if the hero can make them believe that he will bring changes that they want, etc. An interesting analysis of this is in "Trumpism extols its folk hero", by Charles M. Blow in "The New York Times", 4/0/2019, p. A21.

This willingness to believe what you want to believe is being enabled by the large and wide selection of information sources that are available today. The Internet is an extreme example of that. On the Internet, you can find anything you want to believe. The Internet enables us to confirm our biases and our suspicions, no matter how extreme they might be.

Currently we have a variety of movements that seem to fit this pattern: the British vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as U.S.A. president, nationalist surges across Europe, and white nationalist organizations in the U.S.A.

We need to keep in mind that crowds have mechanisms and behaviors of their own. And, those mechanisms are not rational. A good deal of the talk we here these days about "memes" and about something going "viral" on the Web is a indication of the chaotic nature of crowds and what they follow. Crowds, their influences, and there information/communication patterns have feedback loops, often positive feedback loops that produce run-away behavior. Crowd exhibit what George Soros has called reflexivity.

And, it's not just individuals or even rogue actors that are problematic. Mainstream media, experts, and political elites also share some of the blame. Economic suffering by a large section of the U.S.A. population is not being captured by statistics and broad numerical indicators. And, because of that, our political system is ignoring the conditions of huge segments of the U.S. population.

We might argue that we should take action in support of science, that we should start a pro-science political movement. Perhaps, but, if we do, we risk turning science, reason, objectivity, expertise, scientific evidence, etc. into political values just like others. Science should not be an issue that we need to vote in favor of. We should not have to argue in support of objective truth and scientific knowledge.

In our current politics, issues that should be matters of fact, that should be indisputable, have become emotional issues. We all now seem to demand the right to our own set of facts, as well as the right to our own opinions. Our increasing distrust of experts leads us to this inability to agree on positions even when they seem objective.

The increasing number of books and articles about growing economic inequality, especially in the U.S., is an indication of how uneven and patchy economic progress has been across different segments of our society. Our political system and the political class ignores that unevenness, or at best talks about it but does nothing effective. Even worse, our political system reports on statistics that do not capture or describe this unevenness. Reports of job growth, low unemployment, increasing prosperity, etc. are especially galling to those who are left out and ignored by those figures. Our economic statistics and broad economic indicators sometimes report progress and good times even while a majority of our population is being left out of that progress. Is it any wonder that those who are left out can be easily convinced to believe what seems to conflict with objective reality.

Furthermore, statistically measures often ignore the feelings of large segments of our population as well as the intensity of those feelings. It is often difficult to have a detached and objective and unemotional view of a numerical description of your conditions and life when that life is one of severe suffering, or, conversely, when you are currently extremely successful.

Statistics not only describe; they also prescribe -- They suggest to us how to make things better and how to make progress. But, again, what it means for things to be better and what counts as progress is not the same for everyone. Any particular approach to making "progress" might mean riches and luxury and power for some, while it entails job loss, factory closings, polluted living conditions, and worse for many of us. The enlightenment and its dreams of improvement were, in one sense, built on these dreams of improvement that would be based on statistics and scientific evidence and objective knowledge of changes in our living conditions. Davies's message that these statistics and other economic measures sometimes, perhaps even often, do not measure what is good for some of us, and perhaps even most of us. In effect, he is giving us advice that, especially now, especially in a time of rising and extreme unequal wealth, income, and opportunity, we should be wary of the particular statistical and economic measurements that we use. To fail to do so is likely to send us into times of political distress and turmoil.

Deteriorating health, living, and environmental conditions as well as worsening economic prospects for wide swaths of U.S. citizens are, to a measurable extent, determiners of their voting patterns for people who are experiencing them, and, importantly of their willingness to engage in reasonable political discussions. It's hard to be reasonable when you feel that a "reasonable" discussion will lead to bad health and poverty for you and your family.

Yes, statistics, economic statistics may provide a common, shared, objective view of reality, but it might be a warped view all the same.

Viewed from another perspective, Davies is giving an explanation for why populist leaders and populist political movements have found such resonance and they have gained so much support recently. We and our politicians ignore that at our peril.

Davies gives an account of the right wing and libertarian beliefs that we do not need government experts, do not need government scientists, do not need government planning and control, and that we are better off when market forces and entrepreneurs and corporate leaders are more free to make decisions and control the economy. There is a large and well-funded effort in support of this direction. Davies explains the intellectual support and background for this movement that comes from people like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

Sigh. It is not only that we do not all agree on the same reality (the same set of facts); it's also that we do not even all agree on the need for a single, objective reality. We are in a "post-truth" age: an age in which it seems to be acceptable to deny the need for agreement on objective reality. Since reality and the world around us is often complex and its behavior is chaotic, it's tempting for some of us to believe that there is no point to scientific experts and the knowledge they bring us. But, that really is likely to bring us a chaotic and disastrous future.

We are living in a digital, connected, and online world. We believe and feel that we are in control and that we are each using them, e.g. our digital devices and the online platforms, but it's the online companies, especially Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google, that are just as often controlling and using us. Often, more and more, we are fooling ourselves. Yes, we can do many useful things with our Internet connections. But, we are going to need to learn to be more careful and we are going to have to learn and acquire better tools for our own protection. That means things like ad blockers for our Web browsers. But, it also means things that we need, for example, more knowledgeable ways to protect ourselves from fake news, from rogue online opinion influencing campaigns, and from much more.

Increasingly, our connections to the outside world and to others in it are through our digital devices; more and more, our ways of obtaining information about the world and our ways of communicating with others in it are through our digital devices. That can be hugely powerful and empowering. But, we will face unpleasant and unfortunate consequences if we fail to learn both when it it appropriate to use those devices, what to use them for, and how to use them intelligently. Davies is trying to warn us about those possibilities. Acquiring information about the world through our digital devices is powerful; acquiring misinformation about the world can be even more disabling. Communicating with those around us and those far away can be incredibly useful; misleading others and being misled by them can be even more debilitating. Some of the online social media platforms, Facebook in particular, are practically designed to enable "dog whistle" messages and disinformation campaigns. We have a lot to learn if we hope to come to more good than bad in that respect.


30 J. Bradford DeLong -- Slouching towards utopia

DeLong attempts to explain how and why the world, after 1870 C.E. grew rich.

He does not think that we have an adequate explanation for why the results of that prosperity have not been distributed more equitably, nor what to do about that inequitable distribution.

Themes and issues:

And, according to DeLong, a very big creator of prosperity was the invention of invention. After 1870, research laboratories and corporations had not just invented individual innovations (devices, processes, chemicals, etc), they had developed techniques and procedures to help them keep on inventing new and valuable devices etc. As a result the speed of invention was dramatically increased, as well as the speed with which these new inventions were applied so as to produce value for the corporation. And, they had produced the infrastructure and funding to support invention and innovation.

In addition, especially more recently, we have individuals and small units within small companies, even, that are tasked with solving problems in new ways. Many of these would not be described as research laboratories, but they are producing inventions and innovations and new processes and new solutions, all the same.

Other causes of increased prosperity that are not discussed by DeLong:

The causes -- What caused and enabled the radical increase in prosperity since 1870? DeLong describes three factors:

With respect to globalization, the impressive cost savings produced by containerized ocean (and land) shipping has made so much more in the way of manufactured goods available across the world. Containerized shipping has put globalization on growth hormones. DeLong spends significant time describing this change and its effects. Also see "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger", by Marc Levinson.

The market economy, this system that has produced so much prosperity, can solve problems related to the production of goods and services but, and DeLong discusses this many times, it cannot solve problems related to the equitable distribution of goods across the people who want them. And, it's because of that failure that we have and will continue to have so many people who are upset and angry and want to destroy or at least change the system.

The market economy delivers benefits to those who own valuable property, to those who have wealth, to those who have valuable abilities and skills. But at some times and some places there will be many who do not have those. And, the market economy, that system does not care about whether goods, services, and wealth are distributed in a way that most of use would agree is equitable or just. That is not a problem which the market economy and the neo-liberal system is intended to solve nor able to solve.

The neo-liberal system and the market economy are intended to solve the problem of how to deliver maximum profitability to those who own valuable property. It's an organism or system for producing and delivering more wealth and prosperity and goods and services and new technology and inventions; it's not a mechanism that can solve the problem of how to deliver those benefits equitably, or deliver them to all those who need them.

Bur, wait. I thought that was what a democratic system of government was for: a democratic system of government is supposed to spread decision making and the ability to make decisions about who gets what across a broader range of people.

Even if that were true, there are times when the power and influence in government is captured by those who own particular kinds of wealth and capabilities. They will seek to direct government to capture even more of the benefits of the economic system for themselves. And, those abilities and that wealth will enable them to preserve and increase their control on government. That system has a positive feedback loop. When that happens, the system cannot be fixed. It's broken, permanently broken.

One consequence of globalization is that many low-skill jobs (manufacturing and other) have been shifted to other parts of the world. "Constructive disruption" was supposed to produce replacement jobs, and, in some cases, it has. But some do not pay as much. And, some of those jobs require workers to move away from friends and community and family. When that happens it produces lots of hardship and severe anger toward the system and the government.

One consequence of this shift was that in order to preserve the growth in prosperity a number of institutions within our societies had to be reconfigured to support that continued growth. For example, our educational system and our government and our computer infrastructure and our financial system and our transportation/shipping system all had to be reconfigured with the goal of continued economic growth in mind.

Before this long, prosperous century, Malthus's description of our lives and our existence had been correct: our population and its size had been limited by hunger and poverty. Our civilization had produced enough for survival and no more; there was very little surplus. But, with the rapid growth in prosperity, we had finally produced surpluses: surpluses in food, water, wealth, housing, etc. This meant that much more wealth and resources could be diverted into non-essential goods and services, i.e. to the production of things like scientific research, technological development, education of all forms, entertainment, luxury goods like attractive clothing and travel, and more.

Was the development of the research laboratory and the highly organized corporation (which both supported the rapid growth of prosperity), inevitable? No. And, in fact there are places and societies in the world where the research laboratory and the highly organized corporation developed more slowly and where they came later.

In addition to the research laboratory and the highly organized corporation, DeLong credits globalization as an important cause of this prosperous century. But, in describing globalization, he asks why it happened so unevenly. The globalized world affected us all, but the benefits and advances were very uneven across the world. DeLong describes answers given by a few other scholars for this uneven growth and also gives an answer of his own. But, he is very insistent that we really do not know the answer to that question. It seems that any answer would have something to do with path dependence and first arrival: whoever got rich and powerful first was able to keep on getting more rich and powerful.

There is also a very pessimistic aspect to DeLong's analysis: the long century of rapid growth in prosperity is over; it ended in about 2010. I'm unsure whether he means that we will continue at our current level of prosperity and standard of living or whether we will begin a period of decline during which all our lives become poorer and more miserable. But, I worry that it may be the latter, more gloomy scenario.

Among other things that went wrong, one was neo-liberalism itself (and libertarianism). DeLong explains why it has failed by spelling out three claims made by Milton and Rose Friedman, who promoted neo-liberalism in their writings, and showing why those claims are wrong:

Each of the above claims turned out to be false, according to DeLong, and yet neo-liberalism and its supporters are still here. Why? DeLong attempts to explain why that happened.

In trying to give the causes for the end of that long century of increasing prosperity. He blames it in part on the dissatisfaction many U.S. citizens have with their government. And, he blames that dissatisfaction on the way in which the Great Recession of 2008 was handled. DeLong complains that: (1) there was not enough government spending; (2) the U.S. did not loan enough on better than most collateral; (3) the U.S. did not make those loans at a penalty interest rate to prevent bankers from getting rich off the disaster they had caused; and (4) this was all done while unemployment was high and so many people were hurting financially. The result was even more inequality of wealth and income.

We can, of course, question whether DeLong is right that this long century of prosperity is over. After all, we still have so many incredible educational institutions; and amazing scientific research is still going on; and very impressive technological development is still happening. Perhaps it's too early to be so gloomy and morose.

So, if we are, as DeLong says, at the end of this period of increasing prosperity, is there anything we can do about it? Does DeLong have any suggestions? It seems, and DeLong suggests, that there are things that could be done, but we won't do them and we are unable to do them. Our political system has been captured by the rich. That has resulting in lots of disaffected voters who have given us a dysfunctional Congress. There is no way to climb out of that hole.

In an effort to be even a bit more pessimistic, maybe there is no way to make a governmental-economic system that works all the time. It is inevitably going to swing back and forth, in particular, between faster and slower economic growth of prosperity and wealth; between more and less government regulation, control, and interference; between more and less unequal distribution of the wealth and benefits produced by the economy. Chaos is inherent in any complex system with moving parts, and this is certainly a very complex one. And, if in addition, you have agents with competing, conflicting interests, then there is no way to design and maintain a stable system. But, it does seem reasonable to ask government to put some dampers on those chaotic swings, and to provide some cushions and support for those without the resources to provide their own protections. See "Social democracy" -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_democracy.

Perhaps one thing we can try to do is to be grateful. Those of us who have benefited from this period of prosperity, should be very thankful. We should also realize that not all of us have benefited equally. Those of us who are living comfortably and eating plentifully, who have plenty education opportunities and entertainments and much more should be thankful that we're the fortunate ones. And, we should consider doing something to help the rest.


31 Barbara Demick -- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

It is so sad how much death, sickness, and misery ca be caused by a government controlled by those acting with bad intentions and obsessed with wrong=headed ideas.

A comparison between (1) Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Turkey vs. (2) Kim Il-sun and North Korea is stark. Both produce dramatic, huge, and far reaching changes, but ... One, in Turkey, produced a modern functioning economy and a democratic government that responds to the needs of its people. The other, in North Korea, produced a country with almost no economy at all and a government that responds to its people with repression and propaganda, causing them to starve, to suffer, to remain uneducated, and to miss out on the benefits of modern technology, economic productivity, and the arts and entertainment.

The stories in this book are heart-warming and bring a bit of cheer with their endings, but only because they are about a few individuals who managed to escape. Imagine the misery and desperation of all those left behind. And, even for those who have escaped (defected), their stories are no lived-happily-ever-after ones. Adjusting to a advanced economy after living in a backward one is not easy.

It is always possible to claim that a planned economy could produce acceptable results, even in one run so incompetently and so selfishly as that in North Korea. OK, Cuba does not seem to have produced such great results either. There is no way to disprove such a claim, nor any other claim of the form that X would be Y if only Z. Still, capitalist systems seem to produce better results and much higher standards of living, although there are problems with the distribution of those benefits and the disparity of benefits and lack of them. Some capitalist systems do seem to leave behind large sections of there populations. And, we do seem to have a fair share of booms and busts, economic shocks, recessions, etc.

Still, perhaps one of the benefits of reading this book is the lessons it teaches in the way of thankfulness for the benefits and living conditions we enjoy in our own society and an appreciation for just how much worse things could be. We need to be reminded of this, especially now, during a severe economic recession.

This book is worth reading, not just because of what you will learn about a place that we know so little about, but also because of some of the thoughts it is likely to push you to think about, such as: (1) There but for the grace of god or chance go I. (2) How can single person or a small group of people or a misguided ideology cause so much suffering, misery, and death, and loss? (3) How are other/some advanced societies better and worse, for example: the U.S. where we've created so much wealth and yet have so many people without health care coverage, not receiving acceptable educations, living in poverty, etc. so, is that disparity an inevitable result of a capitalist economic system. And, most importantly, what can we do to help those in our own societies who need help most.


32 Christopher Dickey -- Our man in Charleston

This is a view of the U.S. Civil War and of events that led up to it from a different perspective. While we normally see a historical period through descriptions of the major political and military leaders of that time, in this book we see it through the actions and passions of less well known figures whose actions and passions and dedication had crucial impacts. In particular, this is a view through the actions an reports of Robert Bunch, the British Consul in Charleston.

"Our man in Charleston" helps us appreciate how important Britain's decision to support or not support The South was. It also helps us understand how influential the reporting, letters, and dispatches sent by Robert Bunch to his superiors were to the making of that decision. It was Bunch who knew major figures in The South and who could see how determined those Southerners were to preserve slavery and how likely they were to start up the slave trade with Africa and how brutal both of those, but especially the slave trade, were.

And, it's really a bit neat to see inside the British government at that time and to learn something about their functionaries, Robert Bunch, in particular, who is their man in Charleston, and about others in their foreign office, too.

The deciding factor seems to have been the Atlantic slave trade with Africa. The conditions in which slaves were kept on slave ships were so deplorable and punishing that we cannot and do not want to imagine them. The resulting mortality was massive. The British people in general and Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in particular felt it to be unacceptable. It really was a crucial factor in the U.S. Civil War; and the writings of Bunch was what made members of the British government aware of it.

It's an exciting tale, also, because Bunch was filing these negative reports while pretending to be a friendly diplomat in the midst of a society that was rabidly pro-slavery and was moving toward succession and war. With pro-slavery and pro-secessionist feelings running so high, Bunch really was risking his safety.

And, it was because of the deplorable and brutal treatment of slaves that Bunch witnessed in his daily life in Charleston that made him so strongly opposed to "the peculiar institution" and motivated him to report on it. This was not (merely) about civil rights or even freedom; this was about torment and brutality.

The specific issue or task that was on Bunch's plate was the law in The South that governed the treatment of black sailors in the British navy. When in a U.S. port, black sailors could be imprisoned and given over for their use as slaves. Why this was important to those in The South is interesting: Dickey claims it was because of fears that free blacks walking the streets of Charleston might encourage insurrection and revolt among other blacks. That indicates an awareness of the unstable and explosive system that was being perpetuated, a system that could only be controlled with force and violence.

Dickey mentions several times that those in Britain had received detailed accounts of the gruesome suffering and the thousands of deaths aboard slave trade ships. It was what made the slave trade with Africa unacceptable to the British government and people. Keep in mind that Britons of many kinds and classes would very much like to continue to receive raw cotton from The South so as to keep British mills working. It was the slave trade that they found so unacceptable, not slavery itself, which Dickey claims they could ignore, and it was this that created the conflict that prevented Britain from supporting The South. Moreover, it was Bunch's reporting back to his superiors that ensured their awareness that this trade would likely resume.

Another conflict for Britain derived from the fact that they had colonies that produced cotton with "free" labor and this cotton could not compete with the cheap, slave produced cotton from The U.S. South.

One fascinating aspect of "Our man in Charleston", and you will find it on numerous pages, is the glimpses that it gives us into the emotions and psychology of Southerners, especially the white elite and ruling classes. Those emotions and feelings, though perhaps unreasonable from our perspective, help to explain why the ruling classes in The South was willing and even determined to risk and enter such a destructive war. It's more complex than saying that they had no choice if they hoped to preserve they way of life and privileged position and fortunes. It was also a fear of what would happen if they no longer had the power and control to keep blacks suppressed.

Part of the driving force of this book and Bunch's behavior was his awareness of the atrocious opinions and behaviors of Southern whites with respect to slaves and slavery. More than awareness, Bunch was forced to see that behavior everyday on the streets of Charleston, for example, in the slave market. That's a likely explanation for why he was determined to file such negative reports, in spite of the risks that he was taking in doing so. The capture of several slave trade ships with the resulting reports of the horrible conditions on them and the deaths of so many slaves in their holds forced an awareness of the abhorrent nature of the slave trade for all but the most determined proponents of slavery.

Keep in mind that Bunch, as part of his job as British Console, was required to maintain friendly relations with Charleston elites, all the while understanding that their violent pro-slavery attitudes and behaviors would cause extremely negative reactions were they to become aware of his reports. The immanent danger to Bunch due to his anti-slavery reports became even more so as fears of war and insurrection increased in The South, in part because of news of the raid on Harpers Ferry.

The conflicts we are helped to understand by this book are more than just for and against slavery. The South, especially the border states of Virginia and Maryland also bred slaves. And, a huge amount of capital and investment was tied up in the ownership of slaves. So, there were those who wanted the price of slaves to go up, just as there were those who wanted it to go down, which re-starting the slave trade might cause.

Dickey reports on a number of slave trade ships that were captured or defeated in one way or another to ensure that we understand that the slave trade was not a minor effort that could be easily suppressed.

And, Dickey describes a conversation between Bunch and Robert Barnwell Rhett, in which Rhett claimed that to prohibit the slave trade would be equivalent to admitting that slavery was wrong, and therefore no Southern State or Confederacy would agree to such a thing. Differences over the slave trade and slavery itself were truly unresolvable, short of war. Succession was inevitable, and maybe even war, claims Dickey.

Slaves had become an important commodity and investment. The trade in slaves had made fortunes for some, while the fortunes of others was tied up in their ownership. And, like other markets, there was a good deal of speculation, even a bubble in the late 1850's.

It even, it seems to me, makes sense to talk of "the slavery trap": slavery created fortunes and an opulent way of life, but once you had this economic system and a society that bought into it, there were no alternatives other than giving up those fortunes and that way of life or preserving it through force and violence and, eventually, war.

It's a fascinating account of the period and events that led to the U.S. Civil War.


33 Edward Dolnick -- Forger's spell

Some themes -- What is in "The forger's spell"?

In summary, "engaging" is the word that suggests the most about what I find in "The forger's spell". In engages me, and pushes me and pulls me and motivates me to think through my own feelings and ideas and values about art.


34 Gregg Easterbrook -- It's better than it looks

The message of "It's better than it looks" is that things are getting better and that they are likely to continue to do so.

With respect to much of what Easterbrook has to say, it depends on who you are, what your situation is, your perspective, etc. Absolutely, we do not want to go back to "the good old days", because they were terrible for lots of us. But, things have not gotten evenly better for all of us, and some of us are very upset about it, rightly or wrongly, whether we're justified in being so.

And, Easterbrook is not the only one with this positive and upbeat message. There are other books with a similar optimistic message, for example, "The better angels of our nature" and "Enlightenment now", by Steven Pinker and "The rational optimist", by Matt Ridley. All of these carry the message that for most of us over time our lives are getting. That improvement is uneven in the sense that some lives have improved more than others. And, that improvement is not monotonic: there are downs as well as ups over time. But, in lots of ways (prosperity, safety, health, entertainment, conveniences, and much more) our lives have gotten better. You can look at any of these books for details. They seem to be saying: Forget this nostalgia illusion; the past was very grim, brutal, impoverished, and unpleasant in ways that you do not even want to think about.

Besides describing many of the ways our lives have improved, Easterbrook also tries to explain why many of us feel that our lives are worse. So, we get some advice and warnings that we should not read and watch so much news. And, especially, that we should be a bit discriminating about where we read the news: do not read the news on social media; do not get your news from a slanted Web site; etc. Some of these sources understand that positive news does not attract eyeballs. And, since some of these sources and sites have to attract a large number of viewers, you will find an emphasis on bad news.

We are all writers and news sources and we can all write a blog. But, there is very little fact checking; there is very little editing and critical review, no peer review, no editors to help us with quality. (We'd need too many fact checkers and editors in order to do that.) Therefore, the Internet has enabled a system that is very good at producing huge volumes of content, but very poor at checking and improving the quality of that content. One lesson that we need to learn: we need to do more critical thinking; we need to be more critical and analytic about what we read. And, it would not hurt to be a bit more careful about what we write, too.

Even if, as Easterbrook claims, we are living in prosperous times, it is still true that there are many who are not benefiting from this prosperity, and, even worse, are suffering. There are those who have been made unemployable by technology, those who even advanced medicine has not been able to help, those who have lost their savings through no fault of their own. Easterbrook emphasizes with them, be he also seems to say that there are things they can do to help themselves: they can retrain for a different kind of work; they can move to a different city where their skills are needed; etc. That's either good advice or blaming the victim; I'm not sure which. Whatever, I suspect that we need some of both. Some of those suffering likely could help themselves. But not all. With respect to moving to where the jobs are, it seems a bit unreasonable to expect everyone to be willing to give up family and friends and home whenever industry makes that individual redundant.

And, what makes this even more worrying are the projections that I keep reading to the effect that advances in technology and automation are going to become even more impressive, impressive in part because of the number of jobs they eliminate.

By the way, there is an interesting analysis in "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger", by Marc Levinson, where Levinson describes how (he claims) in the case of port workers, because of negotiations between employers and labor, some of the savings from the use of new technologies and the use of container shipping especially that might have gone to employers were shared with labor (workers). That experience, he says, is a rare one. It's especially rare (unheard of, really) in our U.S. economy where so much influence is wielded by industry and corporations.

If Easterbrook and Ridley and Pinker are right, if things are getting better, and especially, if we have been and will be moving into times of increasing prosperity, then we need to ask: What can be done to help and enable more of us to benefit from that prosperity? Here are a few suggestions, some of which Easterbrook discusses: (1) better education, more affordable education, better access to education; (2) improved ability and assistance with relocation to where work is available; (3) better access to jobs, more economic opportunities, improved abilities to start and run businesses; (4) better access to tools and materials needed to prepare for and perform in a new job. We have to begin asking ourselves questions like the following: Is our society and our government doing enough of the above? And, are the corporations in our country avoiding their responsibility to do them, after all, our society, our taxes, our government are enabling them to make the profits that they do, so shouldn't we members of society expect some pay-back?

And, in an advanced capitalist society, not everyone can win. We may have to face up to the idea that, unless we want many to suffer, some sort of assistance in the way a government provided minimal level of income might be necessary (what he calls a Universal Basic Income). Easterbrook discusses and argues for this this. He claims that it has had support among both liberals and conservatives in theU.S.A., though perhaps not among the radical kind of "conservatives" that we have now (in 2018). He cautions that we will need to improve the debt level of our national government in order to make this possible. I take that to mean that we, our government, should be spending more money on what Easterbrook thinks is important rather than what some others think should have priority (sigh; a political road block, again).

A significant portion of "It's better than it looks" is spent arguing against what Easterbrook calls "declinism". Why is that important. Hopefully, after reading this book, we feel better and more cheerful and more optimistic. But, in addition to that, there are political consequences. Donald Trump is a declinist. He won the U.S. presidential election while campaigning on a theme of how bad things are in the U.S. and how bad things are for those of us who live in the U.S.A. Perhaps if more of us felt better about our situation and our lives, if we felt more hopeful and just a little grateful, we would not have gone with that negative campaigning, and more of us would have voted for Trump. As a consequence, we might not now have a president who bases many of his messages and actions on such negative feelings.

Easterbrook may have unintentionally uncovered a contradiction in our economic system, or at least an irony. Our economic system seems to work best when there is no or at least very little central control; that is apparently how we obtained much of the prosperity that Easterbrook describes. But, when there is so little central control, when the economy is mostly left to itself, there will not be good outcomes for everyone. If we do not want to use some kind of federal, central control to nudge the economy in a direction that is more equitable and helpful for all of us, and we do not want to give handouts for everyone who needs help (which seems to be a common Republican, conservative position), then we're stuck with leaving quite a few, perhaps many, people to suffer.

There is a further conundrum: a competitive, capitalist economy like ours almost guarantees that some people will be unemployed. This kind of economy works best when there is a surplus of labor. So, an inevitable outcome is that the economy does not produce or enable good outcomes for all of us. There is no way around this, logically or politically, especially given the contradiction and conflict that I described in the previous paragraph.

We can talk, and even do whatever we want in the way of education to help people prepare for jobs or even new careers, and still there will be surplus workers. And, that does not even take into account that not all people can be trained for new jobs and that there is no way to predict which jobs will be available and, thus, which skill sets will be needed.

However, there is a qualification here -- According to Easterbrook, the economy in the U.S.A. is becoming more equitable, not less. Am I being overly negative to argue that there will still be those who need help and who suffer without that help? Easterbrook cites studies to show that more people in the U.S.A., but also in the European Union, are moving up in economic status than are moving down. In fact, he claims that the reason that the middle class is shrinking (or seems to be) is that people are moving out of it in an upward direction. (see p. 83)

It is not just that Easterbrook is positive about the present; he is also upbeat about the future. In fact, he often presents things that can be done, given a specific problem, to make things better than they are now, or at least to help ensure that they do not get worse. He does this with respect to the economy and the environment.

One of Easterbrook's approaches is to look at conditions from a more long term perspective. Your life may or may not be better than it was two or five or even ten years ago. But it is certainly better than the lives of most of those living 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. And, he gives examples and specifics to prove it. Of course, Easterbrook is talking about and has to talk about averages. Any individual or even a small portion of the population can have outcomes different and worse that the improvements that Easterbrook describes. So, we have to ask: can that be taken as a criticism of the system as a whole.

So, in summary, if you're feeling down and depressed and believe that you could benefit from a new perspective, then take a look at "It's better than it looks". Easterbrook gives us a healthy antidote to the nostalgia and gloomy attitudes that might make us feel that we're all "going to hell in a handcart".


35 David Edgerton -- The shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900

I've mixed feelings about this book. In many cases I'm a fan of and am excited by the latest new-new thing. But, other new-new things seem like a waste of money and time; they're mere amusements or worse. For example, it's 2013 and I still don't text or tweet.

But, perhaps that's Edgerton's message: that we should choose our new technologies selectively and carefully. Some are worth developing and using. Some are a waste of time, money, energy, and other resources. Some are worse than that.

Another valuable message from this book is that we should all be skeptical (and maybe cynical, too) about new-new technologies that are promoted by those with a financial (or other) interest.

One of Edgerton's worries is that technological boosterism and promotion by interested parties determines the future (or history as the case may be). In contrast, I'm sure that most of us would prefer to have technologies that work the best and that give us the most power at the least cost become the ones that are available.

Edgerton has several approaches to evaluating new technologies and what were once new technologies. One is to focus on the amount of use, rather than inventiveness, cuteness, and, especially, promotion. Another is to look at usefulness and how effective a technology is at what it is intended to do. And, still another is to look at macro effects, macro economic benefit in particular, asking whether adopting a new technology actually improves the wealth and GDP of a nation that adopts it.

Some technologies are major and primary. Some technologies are important because they support or are necessary for and enable other technologies. This implies that we should not devalue some technology just because it is not of direct benefit. And, Edgerton's historical perspective of inventions and their use actually encourages us to unintended uses, uses that were not originally intended, and benefits that are indirect.

One criticism I have is whether we should always be looking at only economic or health benefits. In some cases, these are the point. In other cases, perhaps not. When there is a new form of entertainment, radio or motion pictures, for example, it seems a bit philistine to look only at the economic gains, though they may be significant, when there are significant cultural effects, too.

However, Edgerton's chapter titled "Significance", in which he describes and analyzes a variety of ways of evaluating and comparing technologies, shows that he is a good deal ahead of me in this kind of thinking. Edgerton is well aware of details and nuances like these; and it's likely this is why he spends so much time talking about individual instances of innovation in chapters titled "War" and "Killing".

Perhaps, Edgerton's principle point is that we will not learn these lessons about what was adopted and used, about what did give significant benefits as opposed to only seeming to, and what merely seemed important but was only slick, cool, the latest fad, etc unless we look at some significant portion of history. For example, we need to be aware that some technologies take longer before adoption and use of that technology is significant.

I'd like to add one more point, possibly an obvious one, but important I think: our view of history is always telescoped or foreshortened. We see the recent past much more clearly, in more detail than we see the long ago past. Just as with respect to geography, I see things close around me here in Sacramento, California "at the street level", whereas I see North Dakota and Minnesota "at the bird's eye level" (I know about Minneapolis and Fargo and Minot, perhaps, but not the name of the streets in them, so too, we see recent history both in more detail and in finer increments of time (years, months, and even days), whereas we see far history in centuries and even millennium. With respect to technology, that seems especially important, because we usually believe that technological change has accelerated and is happening more quickly in the recent past that in the far past. [1]

What this compressed perspective means is that users of innovations in the distant past have had much more time to select those that are useful and discard those that were not. They have also had more time to improve those innovations and to eliminate problems. In contrast, with respect to more recent innovations, we are often still using the latest fad, the new-new thing that is being actively promoted by the company that sells it, and the new device or the new version that still has bugs.

Since I'm fascinated by innovation and what causes it and what effects it has, I feel that Edgerton's book is important because of the thinking it encourages us to do and the materials it gives us to help with that thinking, even though we can argue whether he is right about specific historical claims (for example, whether the use of the atomic bomb by the U.S. during W.W. II was cost effective).

If these kinds of consideration interest you, then I'd suggest reading "The innovator's dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail", by Clayton M. Christensen. That book spends a good deal of time describing how difficult it is for a company attempting to provide a "new and improved" technology to drag an existing customer away from the old technology with which they are satisfied.

Some summary pieces of advice:

These kinds of considerations should not surprise us. Anyone and any company that considers the advantages of investing in mechanization vs. the (continued) use of more and more intensive labor makes similar evaluations.

And, a "bottom line" -- Evaluate each technology separately. Sometimes the old is to be preferred over the new and sometimes not; and better or worse here will be decided on the basis of reasons that might be important to some of us at some times and in some places, and sometimes not.



36 Robert M. Edsel -- The Monuments Men: allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history

An exciting but complex story.

These are exciting tales. But, it's not a single story. This book tells of the struggles of several members of this team as each separately follow Allied forces into and across Europe during the final campaigns and the collapse of the German forces. They are trying to find treasured works of art before those works are damaged, looted, or destroyed.

The members of the Monuments team, each assigned to a separate segment of the U.S. Army and the Allied forces are each interesting and you come to care about each of them personally as well as hoping for their success in finding the repositories of works of art in the regions to which they have been assigned.

It's a small group and, often, each is acting on his own, so there's plenty of personal initiative one the part of each of them to make their work exciting.

What provides the background for this story is the looting or confiscation, call it what you want, of huge amounts of works of art, notably by Adolph Hitler and Herman Goring. There were whole train cars full of art works. There were castles and towers full. There were entire mine shafts, hundreds of feet under ground, full of art. Mines were used both to hide the works of art and to protect them from bombs and explosives.

One thing that seems amazing to me is that the Monuments Men group was so small, given the size of Europe and given the number of locations in which art works had been hidden. It seems impossible to me that they could hope to recover all of it and that they were able to recover as much as they did is amazing. I was left wondering how much art was never recovered or was looted and disappeared, especially since there were believed to have been more than a thousand repositories within Germany.

These were very special "men". I put "men" in quasi-quotes because one of the important and bravest characters in the book is Rose Valland, a woman. Some had serious backgrounds in art, working at well known art museums, or as artists themselves. Perhaps just as important as their background and the knowledge that this presupposes is their fierce caring about art, cultural items, and their value. How else can we explain the extreme efforts and time that they put into their efforts to track down and to secure confiscated art objects, not to mention the amount of initiative they showed, and the dangers they went through. These were people on a mission. These were people who sincerely believed that they were attempting to save civilization.

It's very moving to read about someone who truly values and appreciates art finding a work that he had only read about, the holding and saving that piece of art.

One especially exciting story is the struggle to save a mine containing immense store of art from destruction by German officers who believed that Hitler had ordered those art works and cultural items destroyed. The story of the men who worked to block that is a thrilling one about brave men risking their lives for what felt was so valuable.

The landscape is also so impressive. There are castles and churches and towers and mines, and all in the middle of military battles and destroyed cities and country-side the control of which is changing even as the Monuments Men are passing through it.

One subject I'd like to have been given a bit more attention is a discussion of ownership, and from two aspects. One, given that they were tracking huge numbers of works of art, thousands literally, how could they ever hope to identify the owners, especially in the case of art confiscated from Jews and others who died during the war? Two, although many pieces did indeed have rightful owners, some were pieces stolen in previous wars, then stolen by the Germans in World War II. Who were the rightful owners of those pieces? I felt somewhat conflicted reading about the race to evacuate an immense store of art before the Russian army could arrive. I'm not all that sure that the Russians did not have just as much claim to that art as the Allied forces did.

This is a book full of details, perhaps more than some readers will want. Edsel appears to have done very extensive research. Some of the stories could have been trimmed; others are fascinating.

The book includes letters written by several of the main characters to their wives back in the U.S. That helps give the reader some emotional contact with the people in this effort to save art and culture.

A few of the Monuments Men died in the theater of operations: this is non-fiction, remember. But, given the amount of destruction and fighting in Europe at that time, perhaps it's due to good fortune that as many of them survived. The stories are a bit disjointed; mostly they are stories of separate efforts. However, the narratives do come together from time to time so as to make a bit more of a cohesive story out of it. And, there is enough continuity to make you care about the people we're following. And, that's why I appreciated the concluding pages of the book, which gives a short sketch of each Monuments Men's life (and Rose Valland's, too) after the war.


37 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein -- The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

The sections of this book that interested me the most were the sections on the effect of printing on the scientific revolution. Eisenstein argues that the scientific revolution either would not have happened or would have been impeded without printing. And, she prevents plenty of examples to make this a convincing claim. In general the ability to publish and print affected the progress of science in the following ways:

Eisenstein, in effect, is arguing that the scientific revolution would not have happened when it did, if it were not for the rapid increase in the availability of printing and the ability of scientists and those who support them to publish their results and materials.

It's especially fascinating because Eisenstein does not ignore the need for explaining motivations. In particular, her account makes clear how the profit motive played a significant part in the drive to publish scientific materials. She even describes how the listing of banned materials in the Catholic church's Edict or Index of 1616 and 1633 was used to promote published books and to drive sales. Excitement drives sales and profits.

One of the astonishing aspects of this story about the effects of printing on science and the scientific revolution is how modern it seems, perhaps more modern than we, in the U.S., are today. Apparently, in spite of the religious conflicts, they in the 17th and 18th centuries, were able to resolve the issues around a sun- centered solar system and an earth-centered solar system. But, in our age, in the U.S., at least, we are still arguing about creationism. We actually have nationally know politicians who advocate teaching creationism in U.S schools, along side of the theory of evolution. For those of you in more enlightened countries, please forgive me for being obsessed over this.

What interests me about Eisenstein's account of the effect of printing on the scientific revolution in particular is how it can help us understand the effects of recent changes in communication technology the progress of science and the development of technology, today. For example:

And, this technological and communications boost to scientific research and technological development has only just begun. I suspect that we are still learning how to exploit the following particular aspects of communication technology:

We are a long way past the printing revolution, and I have not yet even mentioned cloud computing, which is likely to put collaboration (or wasting time, take your pick) into hyper-drive.

So, we need to ask ourselves whether now things are really much that different. Are we experiencing a revolution that is as dramatic as the one described by Eisenstein? Or, are we in the midst of a more incremental change. Remember that Darwin was receiving snail-mail twice daily. Yes, email is a bit faster than that, but when you are as determined as Darwin was, does that increase in speed make much difference? And, if so, what sort of difference? If you believe that electronic communication forms like email will make significant differences in how we work, the ways we think, and what we know, then you will need to answer questions about whether mobile phone texting and instant messaging will also make significant differences? But why stop there? Will we do things differently when everyone has a Web cam on their computer and we are also routinely doing n-way video conferencing?

Or, ... will we just use more time? Will we spend more time on our social networks (whatever those are) than we did before we had anything but paper? And, will we spend more time with our devices than we do with the work they were meant to save us from?


38 Brian Fagan -- The attacking ocean

It's a book about the places that have been attached and destroyed by rising sea levels and storm surges. There have been a variety of causes of these destructive events: earthquakes and tsunamis for one, cyclones and hurricanes for another. And, rising sea levels have been and will make those events even more destructive. Fagan gives accounts about how these events have affected human populations over a long historical time period.

Fagan does a good job of emphasizing how incredibly costly it will be for populated areas along sea coasts to protect themselves. Building defensive structures around cites on the coast is very costly, and Fagan is right to tell us that the maintenance on those structures will be massively expensive, too, and that is if we do shoulder the cost of building them in the first place. Some regions and nations, Fagan suggests, can afford to build these defensive works in protection against rising and surging water. According to Fagan, the Netherlands seems to be one of those; Cairo and Egypt seems not to be. Perhaps even more worrisome are places and times where there has been a will to build the defensive structures in the first place, but then, either through negligence or an inability to shoulder the costs, the maintenance work has not been kept up, leaving people who were tempted to live in protected areas at risk.

Moving people away from threatened regions on the coast is another strategy that Fagan discusses. In some situations, that might be a costly but acceptable strategy, in particular where the threatened population is small and the buildings and infrastructure is not so valuable that they cannot be given up. But, even when that might seem to some of us to be an acceptable option, to those who would have to give up their homes and other buildings, it often seems not. So, even then, this becomes an unacceptable (or at least, unaccepted) solution, especially when those living in the threatened area are wealthy and politically connected, or even when not and, for example, a minority group can claim that their homes are being unfairly sacrificed when those of the privileged are not.

Fagan, as you'd expect, does discuss climate change. And, he dumps a reasonable amount of scorn on those who deny climate change, its effects and threats, and its human causes. He makes clear that there is more to this than the rise of the sea level by just a few centimeters. It's also that increased damage that will be caused when that sea level rise is compounded with storm surges, especially at high tides and, when we have, as we do already, subsidence along the shoreline caused by ground water pumping.

And, in our age, there is another factor we should consider. In Fagan's time scales, hundreds and even thousands of years, formerly, populations were much lower and smaller that they are currently. Now, we have huge cities containing tens of millions of people situated in threatened areas on the coasts and at the mouths of rivers. Where the number of lives threatened formerly was large, now it is immense. Any loss of life is deplorable, but in our future, that loss of lives and the destruction of property that likely will come with it will be catastrophic.

There is more to this book than stories of threatened regions. Fagan also tells a story of the advance of civilization as weather and climate and sea levels, too, have changed over the last 12,000 years. You get some of that story in the early chapters of this book. You can find many more details about those millennium long changes in one of Fagan's other books: "The little ice age".

There are chapters about rivers and deltas and the storms and storm surges that attacked them. And, there is a chapter about tsunamis and the regions they destroyed.

I regret one thing about "The attaching ocean": I live near the U.S. west coast (I'm actually in central California). I've read that one of the most threatened areas is the Pacific northwest and the coast of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. There is a fault, a meeting between the tectonic plates off the coast of Oregon, that has not given way for several hundred years. It's called the Cascadia subduction zone. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascadia_subduction_zone) When that earthquake comes, and it must, the damage and loss of life will be severe. I wish that Fagan had spent a few pages on that story. He is excellent at explaining and describing the risks that face us along our coasts, and he'd have helped us understand that one, too.

In the later chapters of "The attaching ocean", Fagan explains why all this matters, what it means to people across the world. For example: (1) Rising oceans will result in loss of agricultural land. That means that the world will have less ability to produce food for a population that is already pushing the limits of our ability to provide for it. There will be hunger. (2) Rising oceans means that there will be loss of land where people now live, resulting in huge migrations of those who have lost their homes. Fagan notes that the population of cities near coast where there will be inevitable flooding is huge. In many cases, these populations and their governments are poor and will be unable to afford the cost of building the defensive works needed to offer some protection against rising sea levels and will be unable to provide the relief and alternative living space for those that will be displaced.

The ratchet effect -- Fagan makes clear that some populations and nations across the globe are more able and can better afford to both prepare for the effects of rising oceans and to deal with those effects when they do come. But, he also describes how being able to do so is a mixed blessing and because it results in larger and larger populations that live in threatened areas. In effect, eventually, what this means is that when those preparations and defenses and accommodations fail, as they inevitable and eventually will, many times more people will be harmed. Nature's time-line is not smooth. It is not monotonic, regular, or predictable. We are preparing for a range of events that will eventually be exceeded. Add to that the fact that a 100 year storm with today's sea level will mean something different from that same storm with tomorrow's higher sea level. And, our preparations have the effect of encouraging and enabling many more people to stay and live in the areas that will be destroyed by tomorrow's storms and earthquakes.

I suggest that you look for Fagan's comments about salinity and soils. Yes, we live in an industrial and even post-industrial age. But, we still depend on food grown on land, and as more of that land becomes saline (either because of rising sea level or land subsidence) our ability to feed ourselves will be threatened.

This is a frightening but fascinating book.


39 Brian Fagan -- The little ice age

This book has a number of lessons to teach us.

One is that climate change can happen rapidly. A major regime change can take place in significantly less than a century, perhaps even within a decade.

Another lesson is that abrupt climate change is unpredictable. A natural but unpredictable event such as volcanic eruption, an earthquake, or even major storms can trigger changes that cause significant changes in temperature that last multiple years. But, even ignoring those unpredictable natural events, the climate and weather system itself is chaotic. The ocean currents and global air flows form a complex system that works in ways that we do not fully understand and that cause chaotic changes that cannot be explained by simple causal chains.

And additional lesson is that the system (wind patterns, ocean currents, storm patterns, volcanic eruptions, even the eccentric orbit and changing tilt of our planet around the Sun, and more) is very complex; we do not thoroughly understand it; and it works in non-linear ways.

One more lesson is that not even the direction of climate change is predictable. Yes, we are in a period of global warming. But, as Fagan explains, that could cause changes in ocean currents that could send us back into another "little ice age".

Some of the complexity of that global system of weather and winds and ocean currents is explained in an early chapter of "The little ice age" where Fagan discusses the NAO (the North Atlantic Oscillation). The NAO has to do with the difference in atmospheric pressures over Iceland and the Azores Islands: persistently high over one and low over the other, and sometimes the reverse. Changes in the NAO are associated, in history, with times of extreme cold and rains over England and Europe. In 1315 C.E., at a time when little food could be saved for use during years of low or no harvests, this had disastrous results.

And, one of Fagan's warnings would seem to have no consequences for me, but is vastly important: as he says, hundreds of millions of people in the world live, today, on subsistence agriculture, subsisting from harvest to harvest. A crop failure for them is close to a death sentence. Unlike me, they cannot go to the supermarket and buy food on their credit or debit card. Our policies and actions might push us closer to a regime whose weather patterns, in some years, are outside the boundaries that produce successful harvests. For these people, that human forced global warming, even modest and incremental warming, is not a matter of slightly less comfortable summer temperatures; it is, again in some years, a matter of life and death.

The overriding lesson: It's not smart to mess with Mother Nature.

One additional comment by Fagan that should give us reason to be cautious about what we do that affects the global climate and weather system: we still do not understand, as of his writing, what caused the Little Ice Age. When you do not understand the mechanism, it is wise to be very cautious about tampering with its controls. And, keep in mind that our planet Earth is not an isolated system. In order to understand that system thoroughly, we would also need to take into account variations in the Earth's eccentric orbit around the Sun, as well as changes in the Sun's surface and its output, although we do not have any control over those conditions and that behavior.

Fagan's views on these matters seemed to have developed and are supported by his study of long-term weather patterns. For more on that, you may want to read one of his other books: "The attacking ocean".


40 Victoria Finlay -- Color: A natural history of the palette

Lots of shaggy dog stories -- entertaining, yes, but pointless. At the end of the first few such stories, I'd ask myself, so what's the point? Was I supposed to learn something here? But, after a while, I realized that there really wasn't much point or purpose to the stories and I just tried to learn to enjoy them.

Suppose a naturalist showed you a beetle, and said, "Here is a very interesting beetle." And, you said, "Yes, quite interesting." Then he said, "And, here is another interesting beetle." And, so on with beetle after beetle. After a bit, you're going to become exasperated and say, "Enough beetles, already." So, I say, "Enough color stories, already."

This book contains lots of stories, loosely held together around the subject of pigments and colors, and arranged into chapters on individual colors: ochre, black and brown, white, red, etc. Since much of the book is about where colors, pigments, and dyes came from, it reads like a book of travel stories. If you enjoy travel stories and stories about exotic times and places, then it's likely that this is a book for you.

Much of it is informative, but I'm not sure that there is much of a cohesive point to all these stories. For someone like me, who has a limited attention span and a limited capacity to absorb and retain lots of facts, this book is a struggle.

If you want to know more about colors, especially where they come from and, historically, where the came from, then this is the book for you. You will also enjoy this book if you enjoy learning about strange, and not so strange, parts of the world and some of the strange people in it.

I'm a bit color-limited (those of you who are rude call me color-blind), so I was especially thankful that there was a chapter on brown and black. Those of us who enjoy drawings and sketches will be interested to learn that even pencils and pens and ink was a struggle to develop.

Like any other book, there are multiple ways to read this one. One way is to treat it as an (informal) reference work on colors. For example, I was recently able to view one engrossment of Magna Carta at the Legion of Honor art museum in San Francisco. The description there mentioned that "iron gall ink" was used to write it. So, I looked up and re-read the section on that color in "Color".

41 Richard Florida -- The new urban crisis

This book, like a number of other recent ones, attempts to describe how cities, especially those with large concentrations of high tech and knowledge workers, are producing increasing inequality of economic wealth and to analyze the problems associated with increasing economic inequality, especially in the U.S.A.

What is this crisis? According to Florida, it's made up of the following dimensions: (1) the gap between star cities, tech hubs, knowledge cities that are prosperous and all the other cities and towns; (2) the increasing high costs of living in the superstar cities; (3) the economic, educational, and social segregation that is happening within each individual tech hub and knowledge-based city, and also the loss of the middle class; (4) the degeneration of living conditions in our suburbs; and, (5) worsening conditions in cities in the developing world.

That's the down-side. Is there a positive aspect and view of this change?

There are several questions that I'd like answered, not necessarily by this book: (1) Are cities, especially large ones that have sizable economic activity still producers of progress and increasing prosperity? Or, are they producing less wealth and concentrating it in fewer individuals and families? (2) Do those cities produce progress and wealth and better lives only for a small percentage people? (3) Does everyone except the wealthy have worse lives and living conditions than they did several years ago? (4) What could and should be done to enable modern cities to produce better lives for everyone. (4) And, possibly most of all, is there a better alternative? Can we imagine a way in which we would have technological and economic progress and avoid the problems that Florida describes in detail. Or, is it that the best we can hope for is a few minor tweaks that likely do not make things that much better, and that if we did have the power to make changes with significant effects, we should worry about making things worse, possibly much worse?

Perhaps another way of asking this (admittedly depressing) question is to ask whether there has ever been a society that was both egalitarian and produced prosperity and progress. And, I suppose that this is like asking whether we can have both an equal and even distribution of wealth and income and prosperity and progress.

Florida's analysis is, in some ways, quite detailed. For example, he describes several geographical patterns of the growth of segregation in cities. That is part of a description of how the old pattern that we thought we knew (affluence in the suburbs and poverty left behind in the inner core of the city) does not hold true in some of our cities. The gentrification of inner cities, with tech workers and knowledge workers moving back in and deteriorating suburbia left behind, is part of this newer pattern of segregation.

Perhaps we should temper or filter Florida's message a bit with some of what's been written by Matt Ridley ("The rational optimist") and Stephen Pinker ("The better angels of our nature" and "Enlightenment now"). We don't have to be Panglossian and believe that everything is for the best, but we still might want to look for ways in which we are much better off than others living in earlier societies and look for ways in which some of us are much better off that those living in other societies in other parts of the world and in some regions within our own society right now. If we focused on that, perhaps we could come up with some ways of making improvements for all of us.

How would Florida counter the argument that nearly all of us have been made better off by the progress driven by the growth of tech hub and creative center cities? After all, there are those who claim that those who are better off are a force for pulling up those who are worse off.

Certainly, one approach would be to attempt to spread some of that prosperity more broadly. We have to ask whether there might be some intelligent and productive ways to do this. For example, well-educated and trained citizens and workers make wiser decisions and are more productive on the job. That might lead us both to produce more and to be wiser about what we produce and how we produce it. Another example, we might improve living conditions, roads, and other infrastructure if neglected neighborhoods. That's not redistribution or tax and spend; that's making residents in those neighborhoods better able to participate in the economy.

There are political problems with a project like that. In a society as diverse as ours, many in some segments of our society feel very little kinship with members of other segments, and actually may feel animosity and resentment. There are political solutions to that kind of problem, but those solutions require leadership that we do not have right now. Sigh, maybe tomorrow, next year, next election cycle, ...

But, surely, a case can be made that all of us benefit when other members of our society become more productive, less desperate, healthier, etc. In particular, it would benefit us all if sections of our cities could avoid what Florida calls "a poverty trap": a set of conditions that cause a spiral downward toward even worse conditions. What's more, it would benefit us all if we could study and avoid those self-reinforcing and negative conditions. Advanced societies do that; primitive societies do not. Or, is it only advanced societies of the future that do.

Florida has a few somewhat specific suggestions on how to enable residents of slums, for example, to escape that downward spiral: (1) give them the opportunity to create businesses; (2) give them the opportunity to develop experience, skills, and expertise; and (3) give them access to jobs, to include improving transportation to possible job sites; and (4) give them access to more basic necessities so they can spend their time more productively at a job, for example, rather than having to use up so much time acquiring more basic things like food and shelter and water, even.

Florida is aware that those who have been raised in disadvantaged neighborhoods are less able to take advantage of business and job opportunities. And, he has things to say about dealing with that, too. The last chapter of "The new urban crisis", entitled "Urbanism for all", has some of Florida's policy suggestions for dealing with the problems associated with extreme inequalities of the benefits and abilities that are found in tech hub and creative center cities. We can argue about whether any specific policy recommendation would improve things (and for whom, since part of the issue is the uneven benefits that our cities give) and whether we and our political leaders have the will to put any of those policies into place. But, whether we should be trying seems obviously true. Advanced societies do that.

Perhaps Florida's most frightening or depressing ideas center around his discussion of two books: (1) "Coming apart", by Charles Murray and (2) "Our kids", by Robert Putman. That discussion, along with his analysis in the chapter entitled "The bigger sort" really is a description and analysis of a poverty trap, a hole that we are unlikely to be able to dig our way out of, and a societal shift that condemns large portions of our population to poverty and geographical areas that produce terrible living conditions. It's a very sobering discussion and it explains the reason for the word "crisis" in his title "The new urban crisis".

And, this separation into regions on the basis of education, income, and occupational class is self-reinforcing (and thus self-perpetuating). In addition, these three aspects reinforce each other: education differences produce income stratification; income inequalities produce separation of education levels.

Some of Florida's policy discussions and recommendations are very complex and contentious. For example, he discusses and recommends some amount of regulation of city land use, warning that extreme deregulation might result in very high urban density and "dead" zones in cities. But, how would we ever learn and understand how much (de-)regulation and which specific kinds was optimum. That's an especially hard problem because (1) the results of those policies take time to produce results and feedback and (2) in a country as vehemently divided as ours (the U.S.A) is about the amounts and kinds of government regulation to enact enacting these policies is nearly impossible.

One of the Florida's suggestions that seems most hopeful and reasonable to me is his idea that we turn (almost) all service jobs into middle-class work. Perhaps one way to justify that is to say that anyone who is doing work that is of value to our society should be able to earn a living wage. Also, that living wage should enable that person to raise and educate her/his children. If it does not, we will never enable our citizens to break out of their own personal and family poverty traps. But, even this suggestion, which seems so reasonable to me, causes strong push-back from free-market believers, who feel that workers should only be paid as much as the labor market says they are worth. So, here is another area where enacting Florida's suggested policies will be difficult if not impossible in a country as divided as the U.S.A.

It's not up-beat book, but it's certainly worth reading and thinking about.


42 Martin Ford -- Rise of the robots

So, which jobs and tasks can be performed by a computer or robot? Which jobs and occupations are in danger of being replaced by automation and robots? Ford spends a good deal of time trying to convince us that these categories of jobs that can and are likely to be replaced are much wider, inclusive, as well as surprising than we might have believed.

One way to look at this problem is to see that innovation, knowledge acquisition and transfer, and the creation of new processes and products are important in increasing productivity and living standards, but that those same changes can also cause suffering among those who cannot adapt or do not fit the needs of the new economy and production processes.

Machines and automation of other kinds are replacing labor. Investment in automation and labor replacement is taking the place of paying wages. That will affect the labor market. That will affect the ability and willingness of consumers to spend.

As machine become smarter and as they are driven more by computers and software, they will also adapt to and learn new work more quickly and easily. The elimination of jobs by automation is just as likely to speed up as slow down.

Automation is becoming less sector specific. Whereas formerly, workers, when laid off, might hope to train for work in another sector, now those other sectors have been or are in the process of being automated and employment there hollowed out, too. One consequence is that a prospective worker who is trying to follow the advice that she or he should train and acquire education for her or his next career, must hope to be lucky enough not to train for a sector that will be automated by the time that training is acquired.

Many automated jobs will require less skill and knowledge that the jobs that are replaced. That has consequences: Pay will be lower. Often the work will be part-time and without benefits, since the tasks require less training and skills and because the workers are, therefore, easier to replace. As over-qualified workers fill these jobs, former workers will be pushed further down to lower skill employment tiers, where they usually earn lower pay.

Currently, the kind of artificial intelligence that is being used to automate many jobs is special purpose, narrow artificial intelligence. But, as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, it will become more general and, for example, will become better at learning, and these learning algorithms will make it easier to automate a wider variety of tasks.

Some jobs are shifting toward a more "winner take all" income distribution, where higher skilled workers receive a disproportionate amount of the total compensation. When you combine that with the elimination of many jobs through automation and the push of remaining jobs to lower skill and lower pay levels, you will be looking at a very bleak employment landscape both for new workers and for out of work workers.

Automation and de-skilling of the remaining jobs is leading our economy toward more and more inequality. There will be fewer jobs that provide a living wage and there will be a small number of positions that have very high compensation. The income and wealth distribution will no longer be a bell curve (a normal distribution) with a fat middle.

Ford emphasizes that it is not just the routine, repetitive, low skill jobs that are being automated. Machines are increasingly able to replace work that we believed was cognitive and required intelligence.

The commonly proposed solution for these problems is more education and training. But, fewer jobs will be available even for those who have more education and training. Furthermore, many of us are not capable of acquiring and making use of that education and training. That is a solution that may help some individuals, but it does not solve this kind of problem for our society.

And, apparently, in all advanced societies there is a race of sorts going on between technology and education. As technology advances and automates jobs, education (and those who hope to find employment by gaining that education) must adapt by finding yet other jobs that have not been automated and for which it can offer training, skills, and learning. This race is augmented when educational institutions help train those who will develop the technology that automates and eliminates jobs.

And, Ford believes that we may be nearing the point where computers and the software that runs them will become capable enough so that it can effectively train itself to eliminate the next task or job. I suspect that's a scary thought only for the future, but I'm not too sure; perhaps it's beginning to happen already.

Perhaps there is a set of jobs that cannot be automated, but we do not yet know which jobs, and one of Ford's points is that we cannot predict which jobs those are. He is also claiming that it is likely to be an increasingly smaller set of jobs that provides meaningful work and a living wage for fewer and fewer people.

We are moving toward a more economically unequal society. That means that some (the wealthy) will have the economic power to both maintain and increase their share of the income distribution and wealth. Their increased economic power will give them more political power, which they will use to ensure and further increase their economic power. That's called a vicious circle.

Another worry is that a successful economy requires consumers who are capable of and willing to purchase the goods it produces. Either that, or you've got to be able to export. Companies must sell their products in order to succeed. And, when only a small class of wealthy individuals can afford to buy those goods and services, successfully selling them will become increasingly difficult.

Exacerbating this is the fact that the share of compensation that goes to labor, as opposed to owners of capital and executives, seems to be dwindling. And, that shift seems to be driven, or at least enabled by technology.

There will be, as always, cycles and ups and down periods of the economy. But, there are indications that the periods of recovery, especially with respect to job creation, will become shorter and less robust. Ford refers to studies that show that higher inequality is correlated with shorter periods of economic growth. That's something that should worry those who are just entering the work force as well as those with children who will do so in the future.

And, lurking in the background is the thought that we need more and more economic activity and more productivity in order to provide the increased number of jobs, or perhaps just to maintain the same number of jobs. But, if a perma-growth economy is the only solution and the only "successful" future that we can imagine, then we are headed toward a future in which we have more pollution, more CO2 emissions, more global warming, and a number of other unpleasant consequences. At some point we may have to accept the thought that we will need to make do with less, especially less production and consumption of goods, and also that we will need to share the wealth more equitably. For a sardonic view of this, see "The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

If, and that is a very significant "if", there are political policy choices that can be made to stop or slow down the advance of automation and the consequent loss of jobs, it will be up to an angry populace to demand it. And, as the "Occupy" movement seems to have shown, there are not yet enough people who are angry enough to force that movement. For a discussion of that, take a look at "The age of acquiescence", by Steve Fraser.

For a detailed analysis of our currently increasing state of inequality, you can read "Inequality: what can be done?", by Anthony B. Atkinson. Atkinson has a list of policy proposals, most of which seem quite reasonable, although my guess is that political reality makes them unlikely. The proposal that is most germane to our discussion about automation and the resulting lose of jobs is the proposal that says that policy-makers should encourage innovation in a form that increases the employability of workers. (See Atkinson, chapter 4.) How policy-makers and government decision makers would do this seems a bit fuzzy, but Atkinson seems confident that asking policy-makers to think through decisions that result in encouraging one kind of technology over another will be enough push technology development and use in the right directions (i.e., in the directions that support increased employment). The alternative, Atkinson seems to feel, is to just allow any kind of technological development, no matter how destructive to our society.

Of course, it is possible that allowing technological advancement and automation to continue, which we may not be able to retard anyway, really is the best thing to do. Perhaps more automation, more technology, and more productivity is the less bad option, even if the distribution of the rewards from those changes becomes increasingly skewed toward fewer people.

However, most of us count on work for some kind of emotional reward as well an economic compensation. We need to feel that we contribute something of value; we need to feel that we are helping to support our families; and so on. Even if we could solve the problems related to providing each or at least most of us with the financial ability to afford a reasonable lifestyle in an economy with fewer and fewer descent paying jobs, those job-less non-workers still will be left feeling empty.

If you are interested in these issues related to jobs and automation, then you may want to also look at (1) "The glass cage", by Nicholas Carr and (2) "The second machine age", by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee.


43 Allen Frances -- Twilight of American sanity

The basic points in Frances's argument are: (1) Trump is not crazy; he is a high functioning individual. (2) We U.S. citizens and voters are crazy or dysfunctional for electing him. (3) There are several things wrong or broken in the electoral system in the U.S. that brought about this result; and they will cause results in the future that will be as bad or worse.

Frances describes some underlying economic and social problems that enabled Trump's election and that he was able to exploit: (1) Many families and workers in the U.S. are suffering from job loss and economic hardship. Paraphrasing Anthony Scaramucci (on "Real time with Bill Maher"), many families are now "desperational", whereas they used to be aspirational. Formerly they had aspirations and hopes and expectations that their children would grow up to improve their economic situation, whereas now they are in despair about their children's future and their own current situation. (2) Economic inequity and stratification in the U.S. is bad and is getting worse. Too much of our wealth is owned by too few people. Access to jobs, wages, education, and other advantages is skewed heavily in favor of the rich and powerful. (3) Terror and terrorism and crime are fears that are all too easily exploitable in the U.S.

Frances describes some of the characteristics that he believes too many Trump voters have: (1) They exhibit an authoritarian personality: they demand control over others; they too readily acceed to the control of authority figures; the feel uncomfortable in ambiguous and loosely structured situations; they demand clear-cut and simple solutions to problems, even those problems that are complex. (2) The have over-confidence in authority figures and in their own abilities; they have over-confidence in their own opinions and in the opinions of those whom they trust. (3) They exhibit high degrees of misogyny: they do not feel comfortable when women are in power or when they are in the company of powerful women. (4) The claim is that they are often racist, although in the U.S. we have plenty of people with racist leanings all over the political spectrum. It is all too easy to exploit their racist attitudes and to direct those negative feelings against members of non-white individual and groups. (5) A high percentage of them exhibit social conservatism and many of them are very highly socially conservative. A politician, especially one as cynical as Trump, can exploit this by promising anything he believes will get him their votes and some popularity. (6) Libertarianism -- Republican voters have been trained to have a knee-jerk reaction against government regulation and interference, even when it improves the quality of their lives. (7) A loose attitude toward the truth. People will believe what they want to hear. This is a likely problem throughout the political spectrum. (8) Their news source is Fox News, which is notoriously right-wing.

Trump is not diagnosable in terms of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). He is not impaired; he is a high functioning and successful individual. He is a miscreant, possibly even a criminal. He does not need help and counselling. He needs to be stopped. And, he is not trainable; he cannot be taught or guided to behave better.

We can't blame Trump, or rather, it does no good to blame Trump. Doing so has not, does not, and will not change his behavior. This is our problem. It's our politics, our electoral system, and is we citizens who have this problem and who are the problem and who brought Trump and the politicians who support him to power. Those are what we need to change.

Trump is an entertainer. And, for those who want to be entertained, he is good at it. Many who are entertainers and actors, while they are entertaining or acting, do not worry much about the truth. Unfortunately, Trump is almost always attempting to entertain and to put on a show. So, he never worries over-much about the truth.

Trump does fake populism: he only promises to return control to the common man and to citizens. Since elected, he has done much to give control of our government to those who are already rich and powerful, and who we can expect to use their positions in government to acquire more wealth and power. That certainly seems to be what Trump is doing for himself, so why should be expect anything different from those whom he appoints?

Believing in conspiracy theories is not a sign of insanity. It may even indicate a wise tactical or strategic move. And, it does not matter whether Trump actually believes some of the outlandish claims that he spouts. Those "beliefs" and conspiracy theories have the same effect either way. Because he succeeds with the stories and claims he makes, whether true or false, whether they are bizarre and conspiratorial or not does not matter much if at all.

Trump is a more or less normal person, an unethical one willing to to whatever provides gains for him, who uses paranoid styles of thought and communication to attain his goals. (Cf. Richard Hofstadter: "The paranoid style in American politics")

What makes this even worse is that we now live in a system and environment that amplifies conspiracy theories and delusional beliefs, in part because they are more entertaining and so many of us seem to have a need to be entertained so much of the time.

Trump's beliefs in conspiracies and his willingness to believe what seems, to some of us, to be delusions makes sense, given that he worked in "reality" TV, where entertainment and the ability to attract and hold attention is valued over truth. Many entertainers do not worry over-much about truth and accuracy.

An un-intimidated, vocal, free press is one of our best defenses against a world that promotes delusions and conspiracies. So, it makes sense that Trump would make war against the press and that he would, as he has threatened to do, wage war against libel protections.

It may even be that Trump is having an enjoyable time saying and "tweeting" things that seem bizarre to most rational people. Trump likely enjoys being able to upset liberals and making them uncontrollably jerk and react and twitch. Who could believe, he might feel, that you could do that for so long and still have fun.

All this is happening at a time when there is extreme polarization between the two political parties in the U.S., and when those political differences seem to have such dramatic consequences. Frances claims that most "normal" Republicans today would have fit comfortably in the extremist John Birch Society of the 1960's. Given these extreme differences between party positions on important issues, many Republican voters feel that they have no choice but to support their party.

Our elections and our political system is heavily stacked against Democrats and for Republicans. According to Frances, in spite of the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one Presidential election since 1988, Republicans now have the White House, have control of both branches of Congress, and have won two-thirds of state governorships and two-thirds of state legislatures. How? (1) The Electoral College and winner-take-all state-by-state elections reduce the influence of those in states where a large majority vote Democratic. We witnessed this in the last Presidential election where the popular vote and the Electoral College decided two different outcomes. In particular, the Electoral College gives more weight to voters in low population states than to those in states with larger populations. (2) The apportionment of U.S. Senators favors those in low population states, in some cases, dramatically. Compare Wyoming and California, for example. (3) The Electoral College gives more votes to low population states, which currently skews results toward Republicans. (4) Gerrymandering of Congressional voting districts has made the U.S. House of Representatives non-representative of the population as a whole. The U.S. Senate already favors low population states; so to also tilt the U.S. House of Representatives in that direction is egregious. (5) The influence of big money and corporate money is very heavy in our elections; and since Republicans are willing, for the most part, to serve those big money interests more servilely than Democrats, the influence of big money in our elections favors Republicans. There is no way for a political party in the U.S. to support working class and low income, or even middle class voters and still win the money competition. And, any political system where politicians must compete for money and contributions is going to be a corrupt system.

Politics and psychology are currently a bad mix in our country (the U.S.). Trump knows how to use delusions, fears, class antagonisms, and conspiracy theories to attract crowds and support and votes. We need to find ways to defeat that.

Working class and middle class people are actually better served by Democratic politicians that by Republican ones. But, Republicans understand the psychology of working class voters better, and know how to use and capitalize on that knowledge and are willing to exploit it.

After all the complaining about President Trump one might think that impeachment would provide a solution. It won't. A President Mike Pence might seem more acceptable, but he would likely actually be more effective a implementing an extreme right-wing agenda and enacting and implementing it. Much more of the answer lies in us, and in our ability to fix how we select national leaders and politicians.

Much of the book is concerned with the delusions, illusions, ignorance, and bad decisions of the U.S. voting public. Frances has interesting things to say about why we are that way. Some of those reasons have to do with the kinds of errors and biases that have been described by Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow".

Frances explains many of these issues, and more, clearly in "Twilight of American sanity".


44 Ian Frazier -- The Cursing Mommy's book of days

Don't read this if you are in a down mood yourself. You will have to get through a lot of the Cursing Mommy's difficult days before you can perhaps laugh at her.

And, most of all, don't read the rest of this review if you plan on reading the book. In what follows, I reveal altogether too much that you will have more fun discovering and puzzling out for yourself when you read the book.

And, seemingly, you never get to laugh with the Cursing Mommy. Or, perhaps I'm a bit dense and am not seeing through something.

Much of the content is similar to the Cursing Mommy articles in the New Yorker. But, in this book, there is a continuing story behind those short episodes about the Cursing Mommy and her two sons and her husband (Larry) and the Cursing Mommy's Book Group and other characters who seem to have attached themselves to the Cursing Mommy's life in various troublesome ways.

A few of the book's characters: (1) The Cursing Mommy herself. (2) Kyle -- The Cursing Mommy's younger son, who gets hives every time he is sent of to elementary school as often as not he has to to janitorial work and repairs because support has been de-funded. (3) Trevor -- The Cursing Mommy's older son is in middle school and requires multiple psychotropic drugs to reduce the amount of arson he commits. (4) Larry -- The Cursing Mommy's husband, who is only moderately depressed, but who picks up once his dream of acquiring and selling capacitors becomes reality. (5) Russ -- The chronically depressed husband of Angie who ran off with the inspirational author that the Cursing Mommy invited to speak at Book Group. Russ is able to limp through life only because his two adopted children, who are in about first and second grade, keep him on heavy medications. (6) The Hendersonites -- A religious cult, possibly from Latin American, who refurbish the elementary school using materials from questionable sources. (7) The evil client/boss who pursues the Cursing Mommy in a white limo with flowers and champagne and who only tries to have Larry killed two or at most three times.

I never really figured out the thing about capacitors. But, then, part of the fun with this book is trying to figure out what is "really" going on through the hints and ravings of the Cursing Mommy.

It is a severely depressing story about severely depressed people. Most of the characters are either on heavy medication or should be: (1) The Cursing Mommy drug of choice is alcohol, without which she can often to get through to Noon. (2) Her husband merely cries quietly on the way to work. (3) The financial problems are severe and get worse through out the book. (4) The schools have been de-funded. (5) The local stores, grocery and pharmacy, provide no help or services. (6) The Cursing Mommy's father is a burden after a life of giving not attention to the Cursing Mommy or her family. (7) A fellow "Book Group" member runs off with an author that the Cursing Mommy formerly worshiped as inspirational, dumping her chronically depressed husband in the psychiatric hospital and her two adopted children on the Cursing Mommy and other Book Group members.

It gets worse and worse. I won't even try to explain the renegade prairie dog colony.

A few of the book's low points: (1) The need for drugs by most of the characters and, in particular, the need to drug one of the Cursing Mommy's children. (2) A husband who is depressed and apparently has no conversations with his wife (the Cursing Mommy). (3) Serial, serious disasters, for example, a tree collapses and crushes the garage, a fire destroys the garage (possibly started by the arsonist son), the son sets fire in a public building and is given even heavier medications, sand storms and snow and dirt storms, a vacation at a lakeside resort where the lake has dried up. (4) The elementary school burns down after having been stripped and gutted of materials by the under paid laborers. The solution to this one is quite good, actually: The school board promotes all the kids to the ninth grade and tells the high school to deal with them. (5) And on and on.

You have to understand, feel, believe, whatever that as things get so extremely wrong, they also become ridiculous and funny. For me, that did not happen until late in the book. So, most of the book was an unhappy grind, until then.

I think the turning point for me was when the Cursing Mommy, who has taken her own kids and the two adopted kids of Russ, who are in the first and second grades, who had to fill out the paperwork to get their clinically depressed father out of the hospital, to the county fair and how Russ's kids have won the Best of Show for their series of tempura paintings entitled "Medicating the chronically depressive" in a competition sponsored by medium Pharma. After that, I felt: Well, this is ridiculous enough so that even I can laugh.

Still, much of it does seem like a bizarre telling of the hard times and financial difficulties of over-stressed middle class American families. And, let's not even think about families that are trying to support themselves on minimum or near minimum wage jobs.

It does, however keep you interested. You keep wondering where this bizarre series of catastrophes is going to lead? Will any of these creeps get what they deserve? And, (when I've still got half of the book yet to read), how can things possibly get any worse? More specifically, what will happen to Larry and his capacitors? What will the Hendersonite religious cult finally to do the school? Will the evil client/boss finally be able to seduce the Cursing Mommy?

One question -- Why did not the deal with the Nigerian Archbishop turn out to be a scam? When Larry was required to wire a down payment and then a full payment before receiving his shipment of capacitors, that should have turned out to be a (not so) standard Nigerian Internet scam. But then, part of the "charm" of this book is that things often do not turn out the way the reader might expect them to.

The back story does get some resolution, though not a particularly strong one. You make up your own mind about that. A few bad guys get "just deserts". A few not quite so bad guys have their strings jerked. A good guy or two, including the Cursing Mommy, do get moderately happy endings, or at least, not-so-bad endings, not as bad as their stupidity deserves. And, the Cursing Mommy herself remains cheerful and positive through it all, ... except of course when she is cursing, ... and drinking (or maybe especially when she is drinking).


45 Paul French -- North Korea: state of paranoia

It's a fascinating book because it describes a world that is so different from the one I live it.

It's also captivating because we know so little and because so little information is allowed to get out of North Korea.

This book also contains an extensive critique of command economies in general along with many notes on the difficulties they encounter. In North Korea, certainly, the difficulties have overwhelmed and defeated the system. It worked for awhile. I was surprised to learn the North Korea actually led South Korea in economic growth through the 1960's and early 1970's. But, that turned out to be a trap that led North Korea's leaders to believe that they had a successful system. Then, due to ideological and psychological factors that French describes, they could not and would not changed course, in spite of the failure of the economic system and the collapse of industrial production. Basically, almost all other countries dropped the command economy and central planning models after finding that these systems failed, but North Korea was unable or unwilling to change.

North Korea cannot keep the lights on. It produces such low quality goods and machinery, that the need for maintenance outstrips production. It has been able to struggle on for as long as it has only because of foreign aid: monetary aid from Russia mainly for a time, but no longer, and humanitarian aid to feed a population that it cannot feed by itself and whose government cannot either.

For an indication of how unwilling the leadership of North Korea is to allow change, read French's account of their experiment with an SEZ (special economic zone). Even there, at Sinuju, they kept it so isolated from the rest of the country, for fear that it would be viewed favorably and spread I suppose, that it really had little chance of succeeding or of doing much good for the rest of North Korea.

And, why do they stay that way? The most likely answer is that the ruling elite believe that any change not under their control would threaten their privileged positions. Given a choice between improving the miserable conditions of daily life for most people in North Korea and maintaining their privileged positions, they have chosen to sacrifice the people and save themselves.

A number of factors keep North Korea from collapsing completely: (1) Humanitarian aid helps to feed the general population, but it's unknown how much of that food aid goes to feed the military, or even is sold at a profit by the military and other elites. A major motivation for this aid is to reduce suffering, but even without that motivation, we'd want this aid continued so as to forestall the day when North Koreans defect en-mass because of starvation, which would be disastrous for South Korea and possibly China, too. And, (2) an army of more than one million men plus an incredible number of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, South Korea plus something in the way of nuclear weapons makes dealing with North Korea in any forceful way something that no one wants to consider.

North Korea is also interesting because it is so dangerous. And, it is intended to be dangerous by its leadership. North Korea protects itself by making clear to other countries, in particular South Korea and the U.S., that if threatened, it could cause damage and death, especially in South Korea that is unimaginable and unacceptable. That helps explain why they have a one million man army, why they have nuclear weapons, and why they keep a huge number of (conventional) artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, South Korea. Don't forget that Seoul is a mere 30 miles from the North Korean border.

This is also part of the explanation for North Korea's "military first" policy, and why so much in the way of resources is given to the military and spent on armaments while the rest of the country suffers and often goes hungry.

French's opinion is that it is a bizarre political system, a bizarre economic system, and a country with bizarre foreign relations. It's fascinating to read about how that came about and to get a few clues at least about why it remains the way it is.

North Korea is actually moving farther away from a socialist system in the sense that it no longer distributes goods and services to its people. It is no longer able to do so. That's sad, of course, because the people suffer. From the point of view of the outside world, North Koreans suffer because a capitalist system has not replaced, and is not allowed to replace that failed socialist system. Prior to the famine in the 1990's, the unspoken contract was that the North Korean people surrendered their freedom, and in exchange, their needs would be taken care of by the state. But, that deal has fallen apart.

If you are fascinated by North Korea, then you may also want to read "Nothing to envy", by Barbara Demick. Demick's book is an account of the lives and experiences of a small number of defectors from North Korea. It's much more personal and much less academic and analytic than French's book, and it's just as eye-opening and fascinating.

Read enough of these two books and you wonder how and why North Korea has not not collapsed completely into chaos. Fear, intimidation, government surveillance, and brutal punishment are certainly part of the explanation. French also mentions a lack of a culture of dissent or rebellion, and how could we expect there to be when dissent is punished so severely and brutally. Also, there is a lack of information from the world outside Korea, although Demick does talk about some North Koreans who receive help from Japanese relatives, so some information must get in. Another part is extensive "education" about the devils outside North Korea (the U.S. especially, but also South Korea) and about the need for self-reliance and for support of the KWP (Korean Workers Party) and the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), and the country. And, that collapse is not even something we want to hope for, since it would likely mean chaos and destruction in South Korea, too.


46 Francis Fukuyama -- The origins of political order: from prehuman times to the French Revolution

This book can be viewed as an attempt to help the reader understand major changes and developments in society and political systems, for example: (1) the formation of tribal and family based social organization; (2) the transformation from society based on the status of individual toward a society in which individuals relate to each other based on contracts and agreements; (3) a movement away from a patrilineal society and toward one in which women are able, for example, to own property and in which the tribal and patriarchal structure has been destroyed and in which kinship is no longer the basis for relations and action; and (4) importantly for those of us who believe in democratic forms of government, the transition toward forms of government based on the rule of law and accountability.

From status to contract -- An important development is the shift away from society in which social status is ascribed to individuals and where that status controls what the individual does and can do and how that individual relates to others (e.g. her/his occupation, marriage partner, religion, etc.) and toward a society based on contracts, where individuals can contract with each other to form social relationships. According to Fukuyama, relations based on contracts (money, property, and other obligations) have a history that goes back (in England, at least) to the 11th or 12th centuries. These ways of forming social relations and roles and the ability of women to own property, form contracts, and to sue and be sued were important in the break up of and transition from kinship societies.

How the Catholic church changed social relations and why -- The Catholic church took a strong stand against marriages between close kin, marriages to the widows of dead relatives, the adoption of children, and divorce. These changes had the effect of making the church rich in land holdings (e.g. widows who ended up with an estate were likely to donate property to the church) and in increasing the holding of property by women (widows specifically). That, in turn, destroyed tribal organization throughout Europe, according to Fukuyama.

Fukuyama provides details about how the Catholic Church evolved to become more and more state-like, for example: (1) Beginning with the rediscovered Justinian Code and with fragments of Roman law, legal scholars produced a unified, consistent body of law. (2) Development of a bureaucracy and the concept of office, in particular, the distinction between the office and the office holder produced an early model for a state-like organization. In this bureaucracy, office holders became salaried employees who could be hired and fired based on the quality of their work.

Law, in Europe became the motive and the process by which state institutions grew and took shape. The ability to offer and enforce consistent justice and laws across an area became an important enabler of the state. The Magna Carta was not a demand by warlords to be exempted from the law nor a demand for special treatment; it was a demand for consistent, general rules and law and consistent administration of justice.

The existence of a separate religious authority (especially one governed by laws) pressured rulers (e.g. kings) to accept the idea that they were not the ultimate source of law nor that they were above the law. Chinese emperors, for example, did not learn this. The great political struggles of early modern Europe concerned monarchs who attempted to put themselves above the law, who attempted to make or claimed they could make their own laws, and who claimed that they were not bound by prior law, custom, or religion. The development of a strong legal profession with an interest in interpreting and enforcing and administering the law was also important.

The three components of political development that constitute modern politics: (1) the transition out of tribal or kinship-based social organization; (2) the emergence of the rule of law; and (3) accountable government. These led to (1) individual freedom of choice with regard to social and property relationships and (2) political rule limited by transparent and predictable law. And all of these were created by a pre-modern institution, specifically the medieval church.

Later chapters of the book examine details concerning how modern states evolved, formed more centralized governments, and made that centralized government accountable, to varying degrees in several recent instances. This story and its variations turns on a struggle between a central power (a monarchy, an elected government, the aristocracy, or the oligarchy) and the third estate (everyone else).

Ideas are causes -- The conceptual and mental models that we have (or that our society has) determine the kind of political and social order that we get. Expectations are important; they determine the nature of our political, social, legal, and economic systems. If our society acquires an understanding of the rule of law and comes to expect everyone, including rulers and leaders, to follow the rule of law, then we are likely (or at least, more likely) to obtain a system that is consistent with it.

Fukuyama's account of the formation and behavior of political organization in China is especially interesting. He has said, in this book and elsewhere that a highly centralized and autocratic form of government can be especially effective when it is working well, but that he'd rather not experience the bad consequences when it is working badly. It's known in China as "the bad emperor problem", and Fukuyama gives some examples of what goes wrong when the emperor is not accountable and when the emperor either ignores or actively suppresses the bureaucracy in his government. Fukuyama's attitude shows through here, in particular in his description of the horrors inflected by "The evil Empress Wu" and in his claim that the (central) Chinese government has never been under the rule of law in the sense that it has always considered itself above and in control of the law. Having said that, Fukuyama goes on to describe some of the limitations and restrictions that, across time, have limited the power of the central Chinese government and softened its effect on the population. Among these are (1) lack of incentive to deal with such a huge and complex system, population, and nation (land and ownership records were not up to date and, given the lack of a common money, taxes must be collected in kind, so what do you do with all that grain and radishes?); (2) in part because of push back from the population, Chinese emperors often tended to collect just enough taxes to satisfy their needs rather than attempting to maximize the amounts collected; and (3) given the enormous size of the Chinese system, power and tasks must be delegated down multiple levels and across large distances which dilutes and transfers power away from the up most levels of central power. In the case of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) these inabilities to collect taxes eventually led to a failure to pay soldiers and to maintain security and to an eventual collapse.

Fukuyama claims that Chinese governments in the past and today fail to satisfy two important conditions of advanced government, specifically the rule of law and accountability. Chinese government has always been and currently is above the law. And, as for accountability, government at all levels is accountable only to the levels above it, leaving the top most level (the emperor earlier and the top level of the Chinese Communist Party currently) accountable to no one. That leaves people with no recourse, when things go wrong or when injustices are committed by local government officials, other than appeal to the top most level or rioting.

Fukuyama's vision of history has direction and an end point. It also has an important side effect. The end point has three aspects: (1) a strong state, (2) the rule of law, and (3) accountability. The important side effect is a successful economy (and an improved standard of living). There is an important point to be derived from this: once other (less successful) nations see that a successful economy results from those first three (strong state, rule of law, accountability), they will all want the same.

One impressive aspect of Fukuyama's vision is how generic it is. It's obvious that he is a believer in the value of democratic forms of government. But, he is willing to be satisfied with any of a variety of democratic organizations (parliamentary, representative legislature, etc.) as long as the state is reasonably strong; the government is reasonably consistent in following and enforcing a set of laws and does not put itself above that law; and those in the government are accountable to citizens in some way. I suspect that for Fukuyama, it is not even that important whether citizens are able to chose their leaders and government officials, just so long as they can effectively show their displeasure and can "throw the bums out" when they are displeased.

But, there are several things wrong, or at least weak, about this picture. For one, you can get a successful political system with a strong state, rule of law, and accountability, and still not have a safe and reliable economic system. We've seen that in the crash of 2008 and are seeing it now in the debt crisis that is afflicting the European Union (in 2011). For more on this see "Culture and prosperity" by John Kay. And, second, this view does not help us deal with the problems that beset a democratic system, such as degeneration into patrimony, capture of legislative and regulatory bodies by powerful and wealthy interests, etc. A third problem is that accountable (democratic) systems seem very weak in their ability to do long range planning and decision making. Fukuyama does not seem to have much in the way of an explanation of this nor suggestions about how it might be alleviated. Perhaps that is an inevitable feature of an explanation that is as broad and general as Fukuyama's.

There is one aspect or gap in Fukuyama's explanation that I'd like to see him spend more time on. He mentions several times how precarious the development of a well functioning political system is, specifically one with a strong state, rule of law, and accountability. Theorists in the areas of contingency, chaos, path dependence, and biological evolution all have something to say about this. I'd like to see those theories applied to Fukuyama's. For example, if we had the ability to "rewind and play the tape" over on the development of a specific democratic state, would small differences in initial (earlier) conditions make the development of a functioning state unlikely? Or, is the kind of successful state that Fukuyama describes an attractor, in terms used in chaos theory, so that most states arrive there eventually, though perhaps by different and crooked paths?

So, I won't say that Fukuyama has the answers to all our questions, but I do think his way of structuring our thinking about political and societal organizations is interesting and that it certainly provides a platform for asking question about and thinking about how political and social systems form and organize themselves. If you are interested in broad systems theory, it's definitely worth reading.


47 Francis Fukuyama -- Political order and political decay

An important part of Fukuyama's agenda is to make the distinction between the reforms and structures that restrain tyrannical governments and turn them into democracies on the one hand and the reforms and designs that produce effective governments, i.e. governments that are able to deliver services to their citizens, protect their rights, enable them to participate in the political process, and enjoy an improved standard of living. Much of "Political order and political decay" is about what it takes to make an effective government, and how those conditions are produced and how they decay or atrophy. That's why Fukuyama spends much time on such concepts as bureaucracy, corruption, (independent) legal systems, government structure including checks and balances, etc. It's also why he spends some time explaining corruption and the two related concepts of (1) the creation and extraction or rents and (2) patronage or clientelism. He feels, I believe, that these concepts are necessary for the description and diagnosis of the decay and degrading of modern governments.

There are a number of chapters in "Political order and political decay" where Fukuyama attempts to explain why in some societies and nations, patronage and clientelism is so prevalent in the political system. He relates it to strong kinship bonds and to a low level of trust for those outside the family. He suggests that in some societies, performing favors for those outside the family and even obeying government regulations and paying taxes is viewed as betrayal within the family because it entails costs to family members. Thus, in countries where patronage and clientelism are strong, there is a societal explanation, rather than one in terms of previously existing government institutions. But, Fukuyama claims, the reasons and causes of that social development have complex historical causes. There is no simple explanation.

Fukuyama describes how the U.S. government was reformed and how clientelism was limited, at least, after 1880 by the Pendleton Act, although, he says, it was a slow process and and did not take place evenly everywhere. Fukuyama gives a good deal of details about the process of reform of the civil service in the U.S., and a few notes on reform of local/city governments, too. This process is important to him, I believe, because it's part on his larger picture on the formation of political order, which includes the reform of institutions within that order, and the decay of that ordered, which includes a story of advancing corruption and dysfunction. Fukuyama addresses that second part of the story, the decay, in later parts of the book, especially where he discusses how the U.S. government has become bound and restricted, for example, by checks and balances.

Fukuyama feels that reform (and possibly the formation of political order, in general) takes place only under very special circumstances. It may require some kind of (external) shock, such as an assassination of an central figure, e.g. a U.S. president, or a panic, economic depression, or war. It may even require the use of a political machine to drive the reforms. Fukuyama says that this may suggest that political machines are an essential feature of the democratic form of government. In the case of the Pendleton Act and other reforms of the late 1800's in the U.S., Fukuyama says that there were significant changes in the capitalist economic system during that period that drove businesses and business leaders to demand better services and reform from their governments.

There are several fascinating chapters on the development of law and the reform of governmental institutions in China, and also about moves toward democratization in the Middle East.

Fukuyama views the excessive influence of interest groups on government in general and Congress in particular as a particularly negative form of decay. He argues that having large numbers of interest groups does not influence Congress in ways that represent broad public interests. And he feels that when each interest group attempts to gain for its own special agenda, the deliberative mechanisms of Congress are bypassed. Fukuyama believes that strong influence by interest groups and corporate entities is bad even when there are effective restrictions on corruption and the purchase of political favors. However, in order to make this case Fukuyama feels that he needs to distinguish be good and bad interest groups, which is basically the difference between groups driven by passions and the public interest and groups motivated by their own interest and greed. The negative impact of interest groups, corporate entities, and private parties willing to spend large sums to influence Congress is exacerbated by the way in which power is weakened when spread broadly and amplified when concentrated, which is the collective action problem and is also described by Mancur Olson.

The U.S. government has become a "vetocracy", according to Fukuyama; it has an excess of mechanisms and institutions able to block decisions and action, i.e. what we would call checks and balances. The U.S. government has an excessive number of "veto players", i.e. institutions that can veto or block action, far more than other democracies. The U.S. Federal government is designed for those who want to get nothing done. Two inclinations work in this directions: (1) Americans want and their government gives them reforms that regulate and restrict action by various institutions in their government. And, (2) in some state governments the initiative process attempts to take power away from the legislature and give it directly to voters, but by doing so, enables them to make only the coarsest decisions without any opportunity for deliberation or compromise. Fukuyama, by the way, recommends a shift toward a more parliamentary government, but recognizes that it is impossible for several reasons: (1) in the U.S. the Constitution is a "quasi-religious" document, in spite of the dysfunctional government that it prescribes; and (2) reform would require many well coordinated changes made over time as the reformers learn from each change. Both of these are unrealistic expectations. The second requires cooperative government institutions capable of making intelligent decisions, and often compromises too; but that is exactly what we lack and why we need reform.

Can rules, regulations, and laws replace discretion by intelligent, well educated, and morally motivated government functionaries? Fukuyama thinks not.

Can transparency and accountability along with good alignment of incentives for government participants lead to a strong and good government? Fukuyama thinks not. Fukuyama argues in favor of bureaucratic autonomy in order to achieve a proper functioning government. And, Americans back him up when they rant about their government being so inefficient because of all the rules and regulations.

The last chapter of the book ("Political order and political decay"; the name of the chapter is the same as the name of the book) is a good summary of Fukuyama's thoughts on how political systems evolve. He thinks in terms of these stages: (1) bands (hunter gather bands, I suppose), (2) tribal societies, (3) states, (4) patrimonial states, (5) modern states, (6) modern state with independent legal system, (7) modern state with emergence of institutions of accountability. But, he is very negative about the ability of modern states to avoid decay, in particular what he calls repatrimonialism and also corruption and clientelism. Specifically, with respect to the U.S. he lists several features that make reform, once that decay progresses, extremely difficult and impossible: (1) a reverence for the U.S. constitution causing a political and popular unwillingness to change even features of that constitution that clearly cause dysfunction (e.g. the Electoral College and the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate); (2) the checks and balances in our government that work to prevent change and even intelligent decision making; (3) the clientelism and interest group politics that results in a political system whose participants (interest groups, corporations, and politicians, too) have a very strong desire to keep basic institutions the way they currently are. The checks and balances and the number and strength of what Fukuyama calls veto players in the U.S. government make it more difficult to do wrong, but also more difficult to do good, which makes reform extremely difficult to do.

However, Fukuyama does not seem to believe that there is no hope for reform in the U.S. government. He seems to believe that reform might be possible, but only with the help of an "external shock", such as the assassination of president James A. Garfield in 1881, which provided the energy for the reforms of the Pendleton Act. Perhaps something similar could happen again, although the assassination of a president is not something I'd wish for.

It's helpful that Fukuyama writes in a clear style. For the most part, each paragraph in "Political order and political decay" makes a single point, and it's usually clear what that point is; and often each paragraph ends with a footnote intended to backup that point.

There is much more to this book: it's a long book, and Fukuyama is a deep and methodical thinker and writer. It's also a fascinating and important book, if you are willing to take some time reading and thinking things through.


48 Francis Fukuyama -- Identity: the demand for dignity and the politics of resentment

[Note: A shortened adaptation of the ideas in this book is in Fukuyama: "Against identity politics", in Foreign Affairs" magazine, Sept./Oct. 2018, p. 90.]

In at least some chapters of "Identity", Fukuyama is talking about human motivation, and he is viewing it from a special point of view -- the need for recognition and our need to feel that we each have an identity and a kinship or membership with a group (a family, a tribe, a local community, an online group, a political group, a nation, etc.). He also believes that economic life and economic gains alone cannot satisfy this need. And, because it (economic success and gain) does not, we feel a need to search elsewhere. And, that causes problems. Donald Trump's entry into politics is one dramatic consequence. A fragmented identity politics, with so many groups vying for recognition, is another. Expecting a government to distribute economic benefits and taxes in a fair way is difficult enough. Also wanting our government to give everyone the recognition and dignity they all desire is an even more steep hill to climb.

However, there are many ways to satisfy the felt need for recognition. Our society and government needs to make room for (but not provide) many of them, but not all. The problem with Trump is not that he received no recognition (glory, attention, etc.); he got plenty. The problem is that he is greedy for ever more of it. And, is it too much to ask that someone could seek recognition for something more admirable and beneficial to society than immense amounts of wealth, fame, and political power?

It takes Fukuyama two pages to get into a rant about Trump. And, actually, it might be appropriate to view most of this book as an attempt to show how identity, the demand for dignity and recognition, and group resentment can be the basis for how we (in the U.S.A.) came to have such and unsuitable leader. Consider the basic virtues of good leadership such as honesty, reliability, sound judgement, and devotion to the public good -- Trump fails on all of those. His populist nationalism is likely to be harmful for his base constituency. And, he is contributing to a world-wide trend toward a recession in democracy, which is especially disappointing after a number of years in which we saw hopeful advances toward democracy in a number of countries across the world.

Is it practical, or even desirable to ask that the government of a liberal democracy support each citizen's desire for recognition. The United States Declaration of Independence declares the right of each citizen to pursue happiness; it does not promise that the government makes sure you are able to achieve it, however nice a dream that might be.

And, then there is the argument for humility: Why is it that we all need recognition, a feeling of importance, etc? Wasn't that Socrates's lesson when they came to him and asked about a wise man, and he took them to talk with someone else? Sigh. We can't all be Socrates, I'm sure, but we could try a little.

Certainly it is important that we each feel that we have some control over our own lives and that we have some influence on the decisions made be our government. Our emphasis on individual rights and fair elections is an attempt to provide that. But, an identity politics with its follow-the-crowd mentality, however small each of those crowds may be, does not seem like a useful way to provide for that need.

Everyone seems to be talking and writing about identity and tribalism these days. We need to ask: Why is this topic so "hot"? Why is it "trending", as they say online? Is it because it is truly disruptive for our politics and governance? Or, is it because, although a need for identity, belonging, and even tribalism in itself is not disruptive, we in the U.S.A. have an extreme form of it with hard-headed partisanship and an unwillingness to compromise? Isn't that what causes the dysfunction in our U.S. government and its inability to act and govern?

Immigration -- Fukuyama has good suggestions for dealing with this. Most of them revolve around compromises and trade-offs between (1) more support for helping immigrants to assimilate and become productive in our society and economy and (2) additional restrictions and control at the border. However, he admits that it is unlikely that anti-immigration proponents and those favoring liberalization of border entry restrictions will compromise on these issues. If they were, they'd have done so by now.

Fukuyama is especially concerned with the assimilation of ethnic and immigrant group, or more correctly, why nation states, in particular those in Europe, are failing to encourage assimilation. He suspects that a good deal of the problem is that societies and governments pay lip service to assimilation, but do not devote sufficient money and attention to it.

In the U.S.A., one of the drivers of our immigration problems is our conflicting motivations: we may say that we want immigration reform, but employers really want the cheap labor that comes with loose immigration restrictions and enforcement.

In a conflict and controversy between those who promote the self-esteem of minority groups and those who think those groups get too much already and that they do not deserve what the get, there is not likely to be much compromising. This conflict is an emotional one, not one that is being worked through with the guidance of reason. This is also a conflict between those who believe that people are good and estimable when they serve a larger society and those who feel that the larger society is a malignant force and the people are good when they have self-esteem and feel good about themselves. And, isn't that one of the conflicts that is at the heart of the conservative-liberal or conservative-progressive divide in the U.S.A.?

It's also possible that this is an in-group vs. out-group conflict: We don't think you people are any good, and you should not be helped to feel good about yourselves (to have higher self-esteem). Rural people think that urban people are corrupt, greedy, and do not care about community. Urban people think that rural people are uneducated and unsophisticated. Etcetera. If that is part of the problem, then we're not likely to fix it, and saying "Why can't we all just get along?" won't help. Pleading for tolerance might help, but when there are genuine political differences (disagreements about allocating money, taxation, foreign policy, enforcing moral and legal rules, etc.), an appeal for tolerance is likely to have little effect. One of the important benefits of Fukuyama's book is that he identifies and analyzes these areas of conflict.

And, even areas where tolerance seems applicable are a source of conflict. There are many, likely on the right, who view demands for political correctness as pandering and view those who are excessively politically correct as inauthentic and even dishonest. That may be part of what is behind the appreciation of Donald Trump's bases that he "says what he thinks". It's not bigotry or racism; it's honesty. Or, maybe both.

Identity politics has typically been the domain of those on the left side of the political spectrum: they've promoted it to protect perceived threats to powerless minority groups. But, now there seems to be a backlash as (formerly) dominant groups now feel neglected, dis-respected, and made fun of by government and by popular culture, especially Hollywood. Fukuyama claims that Trump has promoted and used this backlash.

And, almost everybody feels neglected and dis-respected by the global, financial, and political elites, except the elites themselves, of course.

I, personally, want to feel that my identity is something other than that of some political, religious, or social group, that I'm unique and special, that my identity is my own and is my own doing. But, that really is a symptom of the problem. Many in our society (or our different societies?) would feel that I'm lacking a sense of community and that I and others like me are engaging in a form of extreme and malignant individualism.

Although he criticises identity politics and the fragmenting influence of having so many identity groups, Fukuyama does feel that there are genuine benefits from a reasonably strong sense of national identity. Some examples: (1) A strong national identity produces a wider radius of trust. (2) Citizens who have feelings of national identity are more likely to support a stronger social safety net that cares for all citizens. We ought to ask, is that really true? Won't they support only efforts to aid "people like us"? And, (3) a sense of national identity enables the formation and maintenance of a social contract between government and its citizens. Again, we should question this. That's not to detract from Fukuyama's book, "Identity", since Fukuyama is an analyst and a theoretician; his goal is to make us think and question; he is not a ideologue with an agenda to make us all believe exactly what he believes.

An interesting comparison can be made between Fukuyama' ideas and the ideas of Yuval Harari in his book "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind". Harari is also concerned with concepts analogous to that of identity, although he describes them as the stories a society/civilization tells itself. It's these stories, Harari believes, that enable a civilization (or nation or even a community) to work together in a coordinated way to accomplish things that would be impossible by individuals acting alone. But, those stories (myths, beliefs, ethical rule sets, etc.) give a society a distinct sense of self, i.e. an identity, and, importantly in smaller units (e.g. province and local community), they enable a sense of self as distinct from others. So, one take-away from a reading of Fukuyama's "Identity" and Harari's "Sapiens" is that that which divides us also enables us: it enables us to build the cites and the roads, to create and run the schools and libraries, to develop and use technologies and medical advances, and much, much more.

Fukuyama spends a reasonable amount of time in "Identity" discussing the issues of and problems with "modernism". One problem is that living in a modern society, we have more freedom about how we live and what we do and what kind of person are. But, freedom of choice produces anxiety: we are responsible for and guilty of and admired because of our choices and actions. Those who feel this sort of anxiety more intensely and profoundly will feel more comfortable in a community of like-minded people who specify, follow, and even enforce societal rules (a moral code, a particular political order, etc.); they will feel better when those rules are well-defined and clear to everyone, even when they are rigid. Conversely, those who feel less or no anxiety with that kind of freedom and those choices and in an environment where the rules are not clear or rigid are more likely to feel comfortable in a social unit (if it's a unit at all) that is large, that provides anonymity, and that gives individuals less direction. Again, we seem to be centering around the rural-urban conflict.

Modern liberal economic and social and political systems encourage change (and innovation, of course). These changes exacerbates the problems of freedom and choice, and likewise the benefits. In addition, it further intensifies the urban vs. rural divide by sharpening the differences between urban society, where change is encouraged, and rural society where change is discouraged and conservative values are preserved.

Modernity means, for one, that identity is not rigidly tied to biology and is independent from biological type, for example, race, gender, family/genetic heredity, etc. Thus, we each have more freedom to choose our own individual identity. Again, that can be a source of anxiety for some and can produce feelings of exhilaration for others. And, perhaps even more important, new research and discoveries in genetics make our old ideas about racial and ethnic divisions doubtful. With respect to race and ethnicity, and perhaps gender, too, we are not who we think we are; the boundaries between races and ethnicities are more porous and fluid than we thought. The genetic differences that we thought were distinct and the we felt we understood are turning out to be more complicated and more murky and often less useful for marking differences between you and us, whoever groups "you" and "us" are meant to refer to. For detailed discussions of this see: (1) "Who we are and where we came from", by David Reich and (2) "The tangled tree", by David Quammen.

Although "Identity" is a small book, it is effective at stimulating thought on a variety of important issues.


49 Steven L. Goldman -- Science in the twentieth century: a social-intellectual history

[Note on the format -- this is a set of lectures on CD produced by The Teaching Company (http://www.teach12.com).]

Goldman is well organized and enthusiastic. His enthusiasm helped make this series of lectures more interesting and entertaining for me. That's a terrific advantage, because a set of lectures that covers the amount of materials and details that this one does could have been deadly boring. He also has a very clear speaking style that helped me follow his descriptions and explanations, even on very difficult and complex subjects, and science during the 20th century has gotten extremely complex. But, it is not just his clear enunciation that helps; he repeatedly explains complex subjects in terms and concepts that help make them understandable.

Goldman has at least two side goals: (1) to show commonalities between the different sciences, in terms of how approaches in one scientific field were picked up, used, and extended in another; and (2) to show the significance of specific scientific advances, both how a specific idea or development influenced and helped further, future developments in that same field and how a particular development in a scientific field enabled significant advances in technology and its influence on society.

"Science in the 20th Century" is a survey of science from 50,000 feet. In a set of 36 lectures, roughly 30 minutes each, there is no way to cover more than important ideas with a few supporting details. To have tried to do so would have been confusing and impossible to understand or remember. Having said that, these lectures give you most of the important developments in science in a way that is understandable and present them in ways that help you understand why each development was important. This is not just a collection of scientific facts and theories. "Science in the 20th Century" helps us understand how science proceeds and what advances (e.g. in the technologies of research equipment) enabled a particular science to proceed the way it did.

And yet, despite the fact that it is a broad survey, you will never get the feeling that you are being told the simple and the obvious. Goldman keeps you engaged by helping you to see that each scientific development was an exciting breakthrough in its time and giving you some appreciation for how it was important for the future of that scientific field and what it's consequences and significance for technology or society were.

You will also get some idea of how science (the doing of scientific research) has changed over the last 100 years. It is increasingly collaborative, and being done by teams of scientists or by scientists who share their work and results. And, it is increasingly being done by public or governmental funding; in the U.S., in particular, this funding is often channeled through university research departments, to the extent that some argue that the really purpose of the universities, teaching and education, is being slighted.

Give professor Goldman a chance and he is likely to make you a science enthusiast, too. Then you are just a few steps from the edge of the slippery slope toward a subscription to "Scientific American" magazine and ...


Doris Kearns Goodwin; Team of rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln ===============================================================================

Try to imagine a world without cat videos, or without any videos, actually, It must have been a very oral and verbal and print dominated world. Goodwin stresses over and over Lincoln's ability to entertain and to communicate through stories and anecdotes, stories that often had a point or moral, one that would be understandable and familiar to his audience. What also comes through clearly in "Team of rivals" is how important newspapers were during that time, and how wide readership was spread. People waited excitedly for the next edition of their local newspaper, and publishers rushed to get newspapers printed and delivered into the hands of readers.

We think now that this mid-19th century time was primitive and that their technology was old fashioned. But, really this period and the U.S. Civil war that dominates "Team of rivals" was a time of very rapid technological advance. Railroads came into wide use, enabling politicians to campaign much more widely. The telegraph dramatically sped up distribution of the news. They had not quite gotten to the place where there were telegraph stations inside government offices, but that was certainly the next step, and Goodwin's description shows how heavily Lincoln and his cabinet members leaned on and used the telegraph, at some point keeping a staff of runners to carry messages to and from the telegraph office. And, of course the military made heavy use of new advances using trains to move large numbers of troops and supplies, building and using metal clad steam ships, and many other advances. Remember, for example, that blockading the shipping from and to the South was extremely important, both along the seaboard and up and down the Mississippi River, which was one reason that the fall of Vicksburg was so significant.

Lincoln, apparently was a master at understanding what political influence was needed at a given time, who needed to be influenced and persuaded, and how to deliver that influence. Goodwin does good work at explaining how he let out news at just the right time and to whom, for example, to the right newspaper editor. For even more on that see "Lincoln and the power of the press", by Harold Holzer. And, in Lincoln's time, the use of appointments for political purposes was rampant. Lincoln spent a huge amount of time, especially at the beginning of his first presidential term listening to job seekers and doling out jobs to petitioners, especially those whose support he needed. I'm sure that, given our current regulations over political corruption, if Lincoln were to do now what he did then, he'd be in jail.

"Team of rivals" contains lots and lots of details and back story about Lincoln and the other main characters (Seward, Bates, Chase, Stanton) and others besides. This is a historian's book; if you do not want a story that is almost overwhelmingly rich in details and context and texture and the history and description of characters, then you likely should not be reading this book. But, if you details and character studies and want to know how and why the U.S. Civil War happened, then there's a good chance it's for you. Not to be too negative here, because Goodwin does a superb job of giving us fascinating reading.

"Team of rivals" builds toward the U.S. Civil War and gives an account of the main characters actions during that war and their response to the major battles. However, that war is less the center of the book than it is mover and motivator and reason for the people and the action in the book. If you want a detailed account of the war and its battles and generals, there are better books for that.

What this book is very good at is helping us understand the political conditions in the North/Union that explain why and how it happened, and also giving us an awareness of some of the personalities and characters that drove those politics: the political parties, the factions within those parties, and the influential individuals within those parties and factions.

"Team of rivals" finishes with Lincoln's death and the immediate reactions to it. There is also an "Epilogue" that summarizes the final years of each of the main "rivals": Seward, Bates, Chase, and Stanton.

I'm not very strong on getting through a large volume of facts, details, and history, but Goodwin kept me interested and even fascinated all the way through.


50 David Graeber -- Debt: the first 5,000 years

One of the most important and fascinating subjects discussed in this book, is the different forms of money, why we have them, what they indicate about a time or place, and so on. Graeber believes that coinage containing precious metals becomes prevalent during times of war and under other circumstances where you cannot count on or trust someone on the other end of a transaction, whereas "trust money" (debt, credit, fiat money, bank notes, etc) comes into use when you can count on those with whom you engage in financial transactions. But, he also claims that coinage often has a value above that of the (precious) metal it contains, which indicates the existence of some amount of trust.

Graeber also wants to distinguish between different kinds of trust, in particular between personal trust and impersonal trust. He claims that most of what we have today (in the U.S. at least) is money (credit, often) based on impersonal trust: your credit score, for example, rather than on a merchant's knowledge of your reliability, family, social circle, etc.

Graeber worries that this kind of impersonal money, together with a political system that increasingly privileges business seems to be pushing us in a direction where borrowers have less and less leverage with their lenders. For example, credit card borrowers and those who hold student loan debt have less and less power to negotiate their loans, to threaten default on their loans as a way of pressuring the lender to forgive part of the loan, etc. Graeber believes that making a loan and holding a debt has associated risks and that lenders should be willing to accept that risk. If they are not willing to do so and if the economic and political system backs them up in their refusal to do so, then the system has become too punitive to holders of debt, and we are headed back toward the use of debtors prisons.

There are some claims that Graeber makes that are counter to conventional or received wisdom, and that's part of what makes this book interesting. For example, the Middle Ages, instead of being the dark, miserable times that we've been told, actually were an improvement for most people. Mostly because of the collapse of empires, slavery was considerably reduced. And, the amount of work demanded of most people was reduced. Graeber's reasoning is that since cities went into decline, there was not the large urban populations that needed to be fed. So, the need for large amounts of forced labor and onerous taxes needed to feed and support imperial cities was, to a great extent, eliminated. The break up of empires, the disappearance of large military forces, and the general loss of control meant reduced power to extract work and resources from peasants.

Another somewhat counter-intuitive claim of Graeber's is that during the Middle Ages although the amount of coinage was reduced (it was no longer needed to pay soldiers), attention to and the use of credit money (loans, promissory notes, etc) increased. And, thus the money system may have been more rather than less sophisticated than during times of empire.

Also, in part because of endowments, more and more gold, silver, and precious metal in general ended up in churches and monasteries and temples, thus reducing the amount of precious metal available for coins. This required the use of trust money, e.g. credit, notes, etc. We can view this as a shift toward abstraction in the market place and away from concrete forms of instruments, especially coins, although even coins, especially when they trade above the value of the metal in them, have a component of trust in them.

China, according to Graeber was very advanced in this regard. Because of their highly organized bureaucracies and the geographical range of the control of Chinese government, that government could demand that almost anything (again according to Graeber) count as money, and, for example, that it be the required medium for the payment of taxes.

Graeber is also trying to encourage us to view debt without myth and emotion. For example, he wants us to enter into debt relationships (and that is what trust money and debt is: a relationship) without the mythology and emotions that make us feel things like: (1) not paying debts is evil; (2) all debts must be paid; (3) God disapproves of those who fail to pay their debts; etc. He wants us to view debt as a business relationship unchained from emotion. Yes, we will want to pay our debts most of the time. However, a lender enters into a relationship with a certain amount of risk, and that risk must be recognized. This is, I believe a very liberating point of view.

An example of Graeber's intentions and the view of debt and values (feelings of virtue, guilt, evil, etc) he is trying to guide us toward, is his believe that we should try to separate religion from materialism (and markets and debt etc). Graeber wants us to view our materialistic relationships (especially our debts and loans) through a lens that is unclouded by and not distorted by religion, religious values, the tenants of any particular local church, etc.

A historical note, and one that I found fascinating to think about: Graeber believes that debt and credit relationship came very early on in the development of civilization and organized society, likely 3,000 years ago or more. And that, since debts required accounting and records, those relationships may have encouraged and facilitated the development of mathematics and written language. I suspect that, if you understand Graeber a little better than I do, you will see that he believes that societies are build out of those credit/debt relationships and the records and financial instruments needed to make them work. It is both (1) the abstract and symbolic nature of credit and debt and (2) the interpersonal relations which debt and credit promote are the enablers of complex societies.

I'm not sure that Graeber is trying to argue for an alternative to capitalism, but he is certainly trying to push us toward thinking about alternative forms of capitalism. (1) He certainly is against the "perma-growth" form of capitalism that demands that we produce and consume larger amounts of goods and services each year. (2) And, he is very much against capitalism based on slavery (or effective slavery) and debt peonage (debts that force the debtor to work without the hope of paying off that debt). But, then I believe he claims that there are no successful forms of capitalism that are not based on some kind of slavery or harsh working conditions.

One of Graeber's criticisms of modern capitalism seems to be it's ability to remove the "personal" from the relationships of credit and debt. That creates, in his view, non-moral actors.

By the way, I found that Graeber's alternative to the view that capitalism is the only solution and that it will make all the world better and happier a refreshing change. Certainly, if we are going to fix the problems that our economy keeps creating, we have to understand some of the problems and some of the variations.

I believe that Graeber is attempting to warn us about what he calls the military-coinage-slavery complex. Or, maybe it's the military-coinage-taxation connection. Nations and rulers who have armies pay their soldiers in coin (or another type of money if possible), the soldiers buy goods and services from merchants, the rulers tax the merchants, and then the rulers pay the soldiers. So, an economic system, armies, war, etc are all brought into existence at once. In a sense, the reason that a government taxes citizens and demands payment of taxes in the official currency is so that citizens earn or acquire that currency which forces others to earn money in that currency, etc. All of which makes the markets and the labor force (and the economy in general) go. It's called economic activity, I suppose, and when we want to get out of a recession, we are asking for more of that kind of activity.

If you decide to read this book, and I certainly think it is worth reading, you should be a little aware of Graeber's background. He has worked on efforts to prevent the IMF from forcing some countries to make payment on their loans regardless of cost and regardless of who will be hurt. One of his arguments is that the poor, who are often the ones to suffer, were not the ones that initiated the borrowing in the first place and likely did not get much of the benefit from those loans anyway. So, you should not be surprised when you detect that Graeber is less than enthusiastic about severe forms of legal coercion to force loan repayment.

One very general note -- Because of the wide geographical range thousands of years of time covered by Graeber's analysis, he invites us to think about when where the "good times", and what was good and bad about those times, and for whom. We are reading a book that ranges across history that includes the destruction of cities, massive military conquests and deaths, plagues, and extremely punishing slavery, as well as times of prosperity (though perhaps prosperity for a select few) and peace. The question "When and where would we want to have lived?" if not when and where we are now, is an amusing one.

Even now, in times that many of us living in advanced and calm parts of civilization think are the good times, there are parts of the world where people are suffering from violent and cruel military operations (Syria, especially) and places where the treatment of large labor forces cannot be considered benign or free. Perhaps we need to replace the claim that capitalism brings prosperity with the claim that capitalism brings prosperity for some of us.

Underneath Graeber's history of debt and credit and money there is a critique of capitalism as it currently functions in much of the developed countries. That critique goes a bit like this -- Capitalism does not work when everyone wants their fair slice. Capitalism requires wage slaves, perhaps real slaves and debt peonage. It can't work without a supply of very cheap labor, so cheap that those laborers do not have a living wage. And, of course, there are all the ills and problems that must be patched up or, in some cases, just suffered, such as booms and busts, the need for bailouts for banks, the need for banking insurance, constant supervision for malfeasance, and on and on. If you ignore all those, and the inequality, too, then capitalism works pretty good. Or, perhaps it's not that capitalism works well; it's that we have no reasonable alternative.

Perhaps I'm being too negative. If you want a more sanguine and humorous account of capitalism that Graeber's, look at "On The Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World" by P. J. O'Rourke.

There are lots more fascinating ideas in this book (e.g. his belief that capitalism demands continuous, permanent growth), but this review is long enough already.

Some entertaining and related reading:


51 Elizabeth Green -- Building a better teacher

Green's examples of teachers in the first several chapters (Maggie and Deborah) are both exceptionally gifted. Perhaps they were not "born teachers", but they were about as close as you'd ever get. They had abilities to learn (and to take risks and use initiative) that many of us do not. If you are trying to show that given the right training, many normal and struggling teachers can be turned into successful ones, then these two examples do not prove your case. How could they (Maggie and Deborah) possibly convince us that good teachers can be built, and that they do not need to be born that way?

It also seems that what was going on at Michigan State and at Spartan Village, where some of the reported teaching takes place, was very special. Teachers had time and support that is not available in typical schools, much less inner city schools.

Those who argue for improving education by rewarding and keeping good, gifted teachers and not rewarding and not retaining those who are not do not care when or even how a teacher her/his gifts and skills, only whether s/he has them. And, they are likely to complain about having to fund efforts for teacher development.

To convincingly show that teachers can be built "using materials that you find around the house", seriously from not-so-gifted people, Green would have taken ordinary, non-exceptional, non-gifted individuals and shown how they can be trained to be better teachers. And, so the questions we need to ask are (1) Does Green do that? And, (2) does she show how it can be done?

What's more, Green must show that we can "build a better teacher" in an environment that is more typical than the one she describes in the first several chapters, that is, learning and teaching conditions where teachers do not have all the support, observations, suggestions, etc that Deborah had at Spartan Village.

Green seems to be claiming that the children/students she is reporting on are average students. But, her discussion of the video-taped session on even and odd numbers show that these children are not what you could expect to find in an average classroom. They've been "programmed" (by Deborah, I believe) to respond and think and work through a (math) problem in a particular way, a way that is very attractive to a math professor (e.g. Hyman Bass, who reviewed video tapes of Deborah's class).

Next, we can argue whether we even want all children to act like miniature math professors or researchers. We want that at the college level, for sure, and we want some of it at the high school level, but at the elementary level? Perhaps there, we really do want to teach math skills, not math theory. I'm sure that there are many who would argue for drills, which is not discussed much in "Building a better teacher", and is not in the book's index at all. Teaching math theory at that young age to all children is an intriguing idea that, I'm sure, has occupied many educational theorists. But, it's a questionable one; and I'd feel uncomfortable turning all math education in the U.S. in that direction. Sounds like another miracle cure offered by another true believer.

And, this suggests an even more serious issue: that before we can talk about producing and supporting better teachers, we need to agree on what we want to accomplish. I suspect that there are many who would argue that teaching theory and neglecting skills (which is a description of Green's methods that these critics might agree with) may be more interesting and fun for academic types doing the teaching, but is not in the best interests of the students. This is the kind of conflict over educational policy that Green does mention briefly; and when she does, seems to indicate that it would be impossible to get past in the U.S.

It's also a matter of order. Should our schools be trying to produce little math professors (capable of formulating conjectures and proving or disproving them) before children learn math skills. Or, would students be better off learning skills first, then learning a bit of theory to increase their understanding.

Green must be careful to avoid the criticism that she is presenting yet another teacher training program to follow the many such programs that it's claimed have failed and sure to be abandoned once it's discovered not to be the magical cure, just as many before it were.

So, what can we learn "Building a better teacher"? If so, what? (1) Teachers need training. (2) Their training should be based on activities and structure. (3) The activities and structure must be based on and give support to content; it must be knowledge based. (4) Teachers need support for learning how to teach: they need mentors and guidance; they need to be observed and critiqued; they need very specific suggestions on what they've done in the classroom and how to improve it.

And, most of all we need coherence. We need some kind of broad, national program that can be run in every local school and that helps teachers with method more than content. Yes, I know it's not going to happen. We all know that we are not willing to pay to have teachers spend that extra time preparing and helping each other. But, I'm pretty sure this is what Green believes needs to be done.

Green seems to intend to stay away from giving specific recommendations. (I suspect that she know that if she does not stay vague enough, she will be accused of giving us the next educational miracle cure of the day.) But, she does make some recommendations about how to set up support structure for teachers, without saying specifically what teachers should do in the classroom. I believe this is what Green calls "educational infrastructure". For a model of how this might be done, Green looks at the jugyokenkyu practice in Japan. Jugyokenkyu is a set of practices that teachers in Japan use to improve the ways in which they teach. One significant aspect about this system is that teachers help each other: they observe each other while teaching; they give suggestions and offer ideas about how to present a specific topic or handle a given issue. This is importantly different from common practice in the U.S., where each teacher is working alone without the help of peers.

In summary, in the U.S. we need to work on developing consistent, coherent programs that teach how-to teach and that help teachers learn and improve their teaching skills. Perhaps this is what Green, reporting on David Cohen, calls educational infrastructure. And, it is unsettling to notice that Green's claim that in the U.S. conflicts between Federal and local power and between different local powers made and will make the development of that coherent educational infrastructure impossible.

The last chapter is an interesting one; Green tries to distinguish that short chapter by calling it "How to be a teacher (Part Two)". It describes Green's experience teaching two one-hour classes in high school. (I can just imagine one of my retired teacher rolling her eyeballs, and saying, How could she possibly learn what teaching is like from two hours, not struggling for help from janitorial staff, not having to deal with administration, not having to do five preps each day, and more?) But, that chapter is revealing, and it does reinforce Green's belief, in her own mind at least, that becoming a better teacher is something that can be learned, especially, possibly only, if you have help.

Also note that Diane Ravitch claims that teachers have not failed. That's just promotional literature for charter schools. Teachers are doing very well, and in many cases, considering what they've been given to work with (the condition of school facilities and buildings, the students and how little help they get at home, etc), they are doing better than we can reasonably ask. See, for example, "Reign of error: the hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America's public schools", by Ravitch.


52 Gary Greenberg -- The book of woe

Also see my reviews of the following:

The first thing to say is that, in comparison to Lieberman, Greenberg is much more negative about psychiatry and the ability of psychiatry to diagnose mental illness or disorder and about the project to revise and produce DSM-5.

Greenberg is suspicious of any attempt to diagnose and treat mental conditions that assumes or purports to be scientific or based on medical, underlying causes.

In some sections this book comes close to being a rant. But, perhaps a rant is deserved and needed. The project to "medicalize" psychiatry and to claim that psychiatric diagnoses and treatment have a scientific basis and to claim that psychiatric diagnoses identify medical, real, underlying causes is one that can have serious consequences in our lives. Those claims deserve a severe critique, whether you agree with Greenberg's conclusions or not.

53 Michael Gruber -- The forgery of Venus

This is an excellent book to stimulate and inform a discussion about value in art. While reading this book, I'd suggest that you think about the different kinds of value that art has. Chaz, the main character, himself is conflicted about what kind of value his work has, for example whether it has commercial value or resale value in the art market or value for its beauty or value for its inspiration and so on. You might want to try to determine whether Chaz's thoughts and conversations about the value of his and other thoughts either help clarify your own ideas about how and why art is value or whether they blur and muddy those thoughts.

And, speaking of blurring issues, there is a good deal of slippery moral argument in this book. There are, for example, arguments about how taking psychotropic drugs is permissible or even a good thing because great artists need that to raise them to a heightened level of artistic creation. Also, there are claims that great artists are special and should not be held to the same rules as the rest of us, else we would not have some of the great art that is so important to us. And, of course, Chaz's breaking the law because it enables him to pay for good medical care for his sick son sounds like a good rationalization to me. Although, after thinking on that one a bit, a sick son does seem like a somewhat convenient fictional device.

So, ask yourself, is Chaz giving good arguments for doing what it takes to produce great art? Or, is he just an opportunistic druggie looking for ways and rationals for taking more drugs and taking the money under any conditions? Or, is it somewhere in between? And yes, of course, it's more complicated than that, although saying "it's more complicated" is often just a way to open the door to let in the arguments for you wanted in the first place. Seems like an invitation to sleaze to me.

Even the arguments about what is and is not forgery (of art) and when that is and is not acceptable take on a complexity here that makes them interesting. It's definitely a fascinating read for those of us who are interested in arguing about values. You will learn that Chaz has been in rehab several times. We definitely do not have someone with a clean slate here.

And, what makes this subject especially interesting for me is that value in art is to a great extent not founded on objective judgment. Obviously, skill matters, and there are forms of art that cannot be created without high levels of skill and training. Yet, there are many more skilled artists than great ones. For me (I'm a computer programmer) this is especially fascinating, since it is so different from my work. I am used to judging my work (my code, the programs I write) by (1) whether it is bug free and (2) whether others use it (it's useful). The evaluations are much more clear and definite.

Also of interest to me in this book is what it has to say about the modern art gallery system for the promotion and sale (and hyping) of works of art. That system is somewhat recent in history, isn't it? It came out of the salon system in Paris and London perhaps. It's fascinating to learn something about how gallery owners and sales people attract customers and convince them to buy, how the sale of works of art is driven so much by the attempt to make a profit from rising monetary values of works of art, and even how those operating in the gallery system attempt to drive up the prices of the art they sell.

Certainly the broader distribution of wealth in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries along with the increased demand for fine art paintings as well as other form of art and crafts had something to do with this development. And, so too did the Impressionist movement and the attempt of those in it to break away from the salon system in Paris and to offer their paintings through smaller, independent galleries.

By the way, the requirement that an artist "do the gallery shows" and shmooze with potential purchasers (investors?) seems a lot like the requirement that the author of a newly published book "go on the book tour circuit" and that s/he perform on radio talk show interviews and attend book sales at book stores.

In spite of all Chaz's faults and weaknesses (perhaps even because of them) you will I believe, feel compelled to follow Chaz through to the book's ending. He does, after all, strive for something greater (producing great art) and for a higher, even a transcendent vision of what art should be and do. That's part of what makes him a very interesting character. Although I do find myself frustratingly muttering to myself: Why doesn't he just do "fine art" evenings and weekends and do commercial, hack work during the week? But, that would make a much less interesting book.


54 Michael V. Hayden -- The assault on intelligence

In some ways "The assault on intelligence" is yet another critique and criticism of the Trump administration in the U.S.A. However, this one is particularly interesting because it is written from the point of view and via the thinking of someone (Hayden) whose method is always (1) to collect information (what Hayden would call intelligence, I believe); (2) to analyse that information; (3) to write up a briefing paper or a position paper based on that information; and then (4) to make decisions and formulate a plan of action based on that information and that analysis and those papers.

Honestly? Is Donald Trump's attention span long enough to support that kind of effort? In a sense, that's unfair. That is not what Trump is. He's erratic; he's impulsive; he does not want to do detailed analysis; and he does not want to be hampered by facts, information, or analysis.

It's bizarre but seemingly accurate to say that the goals of the Russian active information operations and Donald Trump are similar: to destroy confidence in and to weaken American institutions and U.S.A. alliances with its allies. That's what's behind his (Trump's) repeated attacks on "mainstream media" and frequent claims that the U.S. presidential election in 2016 was "rigged".

Hayden, as an intelligence officer deplores the de-valuing of truth and facts, and the lack of awareness of truth by Trump. And Hayden regrets that Trump's demands for loyalty applies pressure to those around him to support and align with him in that respect.

One thing that makes Hayden's book especially important is the current volume and diversity of mis-information, especially on the Internet and social media, which is an enabler for those who want to spread a warped point of view. Hayden is warning us about how we need to learn how to protect ourselves from mis-information and from the use against us of information collected about us. As an expert on intelligence collection and on counter-intelligence operations, Hayden has especially interesting things to say in this area.

Hayden seems to believe that we need "meta-cognition", i.e. the ability to know that we know something and the ability to determine whether something that we believe is true or not etc. This has always been an important ability, but in a post-truth age, an age of "truthiness", it is all the more important.

The Internet and the Web is the new battleground and arena for political strife and for conflict between nations. Some of those actions within that conflict are being directed at each of us. We definitely need to learn how to recognize these activities and how to protect ourselves.

Quite a bit of Hayden's book is organized around phases of Trump's presidency: the campaign and election, the preparation for office and the transition, the first 100 days, and afterward. These chapters are an analysis of what has happened and a severe critique of those events. But, there is a difference to this critique: it's done from the point of view of an intelligence officer. So, it's done through intelligence gathering and analysis. And, it's done by someone with serious expertise and knowledge about the intelligence and counter-intelligence and information operations being conducted both by the U.S.A. and its adversaries.

The chapter "Trump, Russia, and truth" is a perceptive description of what active information operations in the world of online information and social media have become. Hayden can't tell us how it works (and how to do it), since that's likely classified. But, he can and does describe its goals and effects. These online information operations have and will shape our world, influence our opinions, and have significant effects on our elections. The Russians are already active here, but we should expect other organizations both inside and outside the U.S.A. to attempt to learn from and operate in similar ways. And, this chapter also stresses how these operations to weaken the institutions that support our democracy are backed and supported by many of Trump's own statements, speeches, and "tweets". Hayden also stresses the corrosive effects of Trump's demand for loyalty from his staff members and of his demands that they back him and support him after even his most egregious claims.

Hayden is organized and methodical. He believes in process. He wants those inside the Trump administration to (1) collect and analyse intelligences, (2) prepare and study briefings and briefing papers, and (3) prepare an agenda and a plan of action. None of that seems to occur within the White House. Trump is not like that; he is the extreme opposite. Trump acts on whim and instincts and inclinations, and he resists those who attempt to restrain him from doing so. Hayden worries that demands for loyalty within the Administration pressure Trump's aids to assist him in following and carrying out his whims and gut preferences, whereas those staff members actually should be helping and encouraging Trump to formulate a more rational agenda.

In part because of his regularity and rationality, Hayden finds the activities inside the Trump administration to be weird. An extreme, but likely not that atypical, case of weird activities was the Higgins memo, written by Rich Higgins (a Trump campaign loyalist in the NSC strategic planning office), which required a knowledge of alt-right jargon in order to decipher it. But, really, we should ask, is this memo, written from a white-nationalist point of view, and colored with ideas about threatened Christian institutions, anti-Marxist, anti-socialist, anti-European, anti-United Nations, anti-diversity, and anti-tolerance rhetoric all that strange or extreme for the Trump administration? And, isn't it a good reminder of where this administration stands and what its leanings and positions and attitudes are, or at least those of Trump himself?

At many points Hayden is extremely critical of Trump and his Administration. He describes it (1) as being permeated by an ethno-nationalism suspicious of multilateral institutions and agreements; (2) as having an "American first" attitude that measures success in terms of win-lose, short-term deals; (3) as being controlled by economic mercantilism and obsessed with balance of trade statistics; and (4) as having difficulty dealing with the control of someone (Trump) having an all-encompassing narcissism that is vulnerable to parades, banquets, and sword dances.

Hayden also criticizes our susceptibility to the Internet and social media. Here are some of the reasons he gives for why the promise of the Internet and the Web and, in particular, social media went wrong: (1) The old mediators, the news sources who used to filter our news have been removed or are, at least, less effective. (2) Social media helps like-minded people to find each other and to reinforce each others' extreme opinions. (3) Web search engines and other Internet tools put "confirmation bias" on steroids; we can confirm anything and everything we want to believe. (4) There is no culling or cleansing facility for the Web; information, no matter how skewed or misleading or wrong stays on the Web. And, anyone can put any ideas on the Web, no matter how crack-pot they are: anyone can comment on forums; anyone can have and post to their own blog; etc. (5) Social media helps each of us to set up filters so that we only see what we want to believe and in many cases what we already believe. Actually, setting up those filters is not even something that we have to explicitly do; some social medial sites use algorithms that figure out what we want to see and believe and that filter the content presented to us automatically.

The Web and social media are enables of all that, because allow anyone to publish without credentials or identification or filtering.

There is an interesting article in the N.Y. Times by Zeynep Tufekci (10/4/2018) about why these problems related to the Internet are going to be hard to solve. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/03/opinion/midterms-facebook-foreign-meddling.html.

We are all going to need to learn to be more sophisticated about how we use the Internet and how we use what we find there. At some time, perhaps we'll see the development of products and software that help us with this. Wait. No. We do not even seem to want to be helped.

A recent issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine has several articles about the conflicts and difficulties that the U.S.A. and other nations will be having on and through the Internet and the World Wide Web. See: "Foreign Affairs", September/October 2018 (v. 97, #5), various articles.

Even though opinion polls show that there is widespread support for stronger alliances between the U.S.A. and foreign nations, show that we want more and freer trade with other nations, and show that we believe that immigrants and immigration are good for our country, we've apparently given a good deal of control to a government that feels the opposite. Incredibly, that government, the Trump administration and the Russian efforts to influence the last presidential election converge on the same issues: Clinton emails, rigged elections, "fake media", etc.

Hayden makes an interesting distinction between cyber intelligence operations (both defensive and offensive) and cyber information operations. He seem to feel that the Russian efforts to skew the results of our latest presidential election were information operations, whereas the operations engaged in by our intelligence agencies, the NSA in particular, are intelligence operations. And, I'm wondering how long it will be before others besides the Russians are engaged in that cyber information operations and how long it will be before anyone with enough (campaign) funding can hire some organization to do that for them. The chapter titled "Russia, Trump, and truth" provides help with thinking about that sort of problems. That is, by the way, a central and organizing theme about Hayden's book: information, intelligence, information collection, intelligence operations and counter-intelligence operations, and disinformation operations.

If you are interested in learning more about the new world of intelligence gathering, intelligence operations, and the use of the Internet in those activities, then Hayden's book is a valuable resource.


55 Haden-Guest, Anthony -- True colors: the real life of the art world

What it's about -- The world of contemporary art in New York, NY, including the artists, their work, the dealers, the galleries, and a bit about who is buying it.

The (sub-)movements in the contemporary art movement are mentioned, and you will learn something about a few of them. But, for a more complete picture, visit the "Contemporary Art" page at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_art) and look for the table of sub-movements.

Some of the characters and the "works of art" that they've produced are outlandish. I put "works of art" in quotes, because you will need a very loose definition of "works of art" if you want to cover some of these objects. In fact, you might need something as broad and inclusive as "whatever is produced by someone who calls him/herself an artist and calls what they've done 'art'". Or, an alternative definition that might be broad enough to include the works discussed could be "it's art if it's sold in an art gallery and has a frame around it (or is marked off in some other way)". And, if fact, some of the "works" are not objects at all; they were, for example, performances. Others were objects, but were intentionally designed to be un-sale-able, perhaps by being impermanent.

For most of the works discussed the idea is much more significant than the handiwork and craftsmanship required to produce it.

But, then, for me, that is part of the value of this book: it encourages me to think about what qualifies as art and about what is valuable in art. With respect to the contemporary art discussed by Haden-Guest, the qualities that make this art valuable genuinely are questionable. It certainly isn't beauty. And, it's seldom that it is socially meaningful, or meaningful in any reasonable way. In fact, from this book you'd conclude that the primary value of the art in the contemporary art world is it's value in terms of money at an auction, its exchange value in a gallery, or even it's use as a holder of value among those in the art theft underworld. There is more than monetary value, but, I'm a bit mystified what it is.

Some other topics from the book:

What you will not find: anything at all in the way of an indication that there was an attempt at careful craftsmanship in the contemporary art movement. This was an art movement that seems to be about originality, newness, being different, and being outrageous enough to attract attention.

And, if you are interested in something in the way of a historical record of the contemporary art world in New York in the last part of the 20th century, this book is a good way to get it.

By the way, I had an experience with art this last weekend which was very different from what you'd have with the art discussed in this book. I visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, CA, USA, which I recommend very strongly, by the way. The contrast between the contemporary art that Haden-Guest describes and many of the forms of art in the Asian Art Museum was extreme; there are so many objects in that museum that were created and crafted with extreme attention to skill and detail and beauty. Furthermore, since so many pieces were old, there was a good deal of pottery. And, that meant that there were many utilitarian pieces that had been crafted for both usefulness and beauty. It was quite different from the "newness is everything", in your face styles described by Haden-Guest.


56 Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke -- America alone

As disastrous as it was at the time, the hijacking of U.S. foreign policy by neo-conservatives during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and its consequences are still with us.

Halper and Clarke help answer questions such as: Where did it and neo-conservatives come from? Why were they able to take control and able do what they did?

Their book gives us the background and the historical view that helps place this period in a broader perspective and context. That understanding does not guarantee that it won't happen again, but might help.

What were some of the consequences of that period when our government and its policies were hijacked by a group of ideologues?

Some of "America Alone" may sound a bit like in-fighting over who the true conservatives are, but Halper makes good cases for the the following claims:

This is what you get when those with fixed ideas take control.

And for those that believe that the consequences are over, PBS NOW with David Brancaccio just aired a segment (on 4/24/2010) showing some of the terrible results for our soldiers that have occurred while we go on with life as normal.

Hopefully, Halper's careful historical account about how it came about, if understood by enough people, will help prevent it from happening again. The U.S. has too much military power; and that power is too dangerous when those who capture it are driven by an agenda and not much else.


57 Malcolm Harris -- Kids these days

In part Harris's book is a defense of millennials. But, much more of the book is occupied with explaining the stress and pressure that is brought to bear on millennials by our capitalist economy and by the political system constructed to support that economy and by the parents attempting to raise their children so that they will be able to have good outcomes in the society produced and controlled by that economy and by the competition that millennials face when competing for the fewer well paying jobs provided by that economy and ... Well, you get the idea.

Along the way, you get a detailed and informative description and analysis of an important and interesting segment of our society.

Although Harris claims and the title of his book suggests that he is only concerned with members of the millennial generation, his discussion actually concerns a much wider set of topics and problems. Millennials are not the only ones who are paying too much for their education and not getting enough in return. Millennials are not the only ones who are being squeezed out of the job market by too much competition for too few jobs. Millennials are not the only ones onto whom corporations have offloaded the burden of preparing and training themselves for possible work and at the same time avoided the expense and risk of training their own workers. These are issues and problems that have been building and worsening for some time now, and which appear to be continuing to get worse.

But, it's more than just corporations. From "Kids these days" we get a picture of an industry plus government coalition (perhaps, collusion) that stacks things in favor of employers and corporations. In a variety of ways, employers have the leverage: access to employment, negotiation for wages, attempts to get better working conditions, extensive efforts and resources for lobbying various governments, etc. That dynamic has been building across governments controlled by both Democrats and Republicans, and has gotten especially extreme during the last four or so administrations.

One aspect of "Kids these days" that makes it especially interesting, is that it is not just a static analysis; it is not merely a snapshot of a generation. It is more. It is an analysis and description of a generation as it grows up, as it is educated (or not), as it attempts to transition from school to the work force, and as that generation attempts to deal with the stresses of the work environment and pressures from employers.

Harris also claims that there has been a fundamental and pervasive shift in the U.S. away from a social welfare state (as weak as that has been here in the U.S.) and towards a coercive, social control state. Rather than educate our citizens and provide jobs the support a reasonable standard of living, we fund more police and prisons so that we can incarcerate more citizens who are desperate and disruptive, often because they were not able to find employment that supports them. As a result, incarceration rates in the U.S., especially among people of color are as high or higher than anywhere in the world.

Harris also focuses on the entertainment industry, which has transitioned to a state where a very small number of superstars can make incredibly large earnings while everyone else earns little at all. If you want to learn even more about the entertainment world "free" platforms like YouTube have sucked the earnings out of the employment landscape, consider taking a look at "Move fast and break things", by Jonathan Taplin.

Another trend that has caused yet more stress for workers and those looking for work is that corporations have off loaded the cost and risk of gaining education and training that they (the corporations) require for employment onto workers. That results in huge education costs (both time and money) for those hoping for employment and, as a consequence also results in staggering student loans.

Harris has a section about some employment (for example, concert violinists and Olympic athletes) where very high performance levels are sought and where competition is so extreme that it requires incredible amounts of training and where that training must start at a very young age. That's interesting, but these seem like anomalous, edge cases, and I'm not sure they tell us much about millennials or the employment environment that they face.

Competition for work and jobs has become more severe. A consequence is that millennials are more anxious and trust each other less. See "The age of anxiety", by Jean Twenge for backup in support of this claim.

Because of the heavy need for education and training in order to have a chance at a job with decent pay, we (our education system) attempt to force all children into a highly attentive mode, a mode where they each must sit still and concentrate hard for long periods of time. Of course, not all young children can do that. And, since the stakes are so high and failure is so devastating, for those children who cannot or do not comply, we resort to medication and coercion, that or we encourage and even force non-compliant children to drop out. That means that the coercive, control state has to deal with them.

The pressure of high stakes education and job preparation also results in intense parenting, helicopter parents, and children who are not allowed to explore and experiment without supervision. The cost of failure to educate a child and prepare her/him for work is so high that parents feel they must do all they can to remove risk from that process. And for the active child who does not focus, e.g. on school work, the remedy, all too often, is prescription medication.

Millennials live under a heightened psychological burden caused by increased amounts of homework in the primary and secondary grades, increased competition for acceptance to colleges and universities, larger college costs, increased competition for jobs, increased financial burdens (paying off student loans, employers shifting training costs onto workers), etc. This increased psychological burden has consequences, for example, depression and drug use to stimulate performance. In addition, the competitive system turns everyone into a potential loser, which also results in increased stress.

Add to that the fact that there is increasing inequality of both compensation and wealth. With respect to compensation, there are fewer jobs, fewer good paying jobs, and a very few jobs with extremely high compensation. The result is that there are more losers than ever before. With respect to wealth, there is increasing inequality both within and across generations. Members of older cohorts are richer than those in younger ones. Within a cohort, there are increasing extremes of wealth and poverty. And, there are ever fewer parents who can afford the costs of more intensive parenting and more expensive college education.

Harris has some doubts about whether the elite classes in the U.S. which are becoming smaller in size but larger in wealth, can hold on to control of their privileged position. I suspect that Harris understands that those outside the elite classes are being bought off by more shiny toys and cheaper consumer goods. The need for those consumer goods at lower prices in order to reduce the pressure from those less privileged and who are receiving a smaller portion of the economic pie is likely one motivation for push-back from the rich on any legislation that would increase the cost of goods.

And, although I may be putting words in his mouth, I'm not putting this idea in his head, because it is surely already there: Harris does seem to want a revolution. He wants millennials to take serious action to change their world and to take it back from those who currently control it. He wants some push-back against an economic system and a government that more and more sides with corporations against workers and that more and more gives capital/owners a larger percentage of the profits.

One of Harris's interesting complaints is that kids (students) are being asked to do more work, in particular, more homework, and are not paid to do it. What's more, when, and if, they get to college, they must pay in order to be allowed to do it. Harris calls our hiding this school work "pedagogical masking". Perhaps so, but I'm not sure what should be done about it or whether even Harris himself knows what he wants done about it. The future employment that these students are doing more work to prepare for provides fewer jobs at lower pay, I'm sure Harris would like to see more jobs at better pay in exchange for all that work.

Harris is not so much skeptical about whether kids need to try to get an education, as he is about (1) the value of that education for obtaining a good paying job and (2) the excessively high cost of that education. (See "The myth of education skepticism", NY Times, 3/17/2018.) Summarizing this idea: we're not skeptical about whether we've got to do it (get an education); we know that we do; we're skeptical (and cynical) about how we're getting screwed when we do it: too much money and not enough value.


58 Sarah Hepola -- Blackout: remembering the things I drank to forget

I admit that I read this book (1) because I feel that I drink too much and maybe want help and (2) because I feel that I don't drink enough and I worry that I'll die without drinking enough to really enjoy the rest of my life.

Or, maybe I want to feel better about my drinking and I want to know about someone who I can believe is worse than I.

And, maybe I want to drink better: to learn to enjoy it more (maybe even while drinking less), to learn how to gain something of value while drinking, e.g. new ideas, new feelings, new kinds of interactions with those close to me. During the course of this book and her life Hepola changes her mind and ideas about whether writers need to drink in order to be creative or whether it even helps to drink when trying to write. Hepola's discussion of this issue and her feelings about it is another good reason for reading this book.

So, I've read this book hoping that I'll understand Hepola a bit, and that, by understanding her, I'll understand myself a bit better.

From this book's subtitle ("Remembering the things I drank to forget") you'd think that there were deep, dark, terrible, traumatic events in Hepola's past. But, that doesn't seem to be true. She's lived, actually, a very blessed and fortunate life; she's had interesting and good paying jobs and good friends. She's lived in pleasant and interesting places. Her childhood, as much as we learn of it, was not all that eventful and not the kind that leaves someone emotionally crippled. Hepola is blessed with intelligence and wittiness and charm and ability. So, what's to keep us from saying: "Get over it." "Get a grip." Drink if you want, but don't blame the world or anything in it for "driving you to drink". If you work your way through this book, I think you will find that Hepola arrives at a place where she does not blame things outside herself for her drinking (in spite of the subtitle), and that she does find some strength and solutions from within, from her own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

And, her account of a few sessions in therapy back that up. According to Hepola, at one point her therapist says to her, that there is no point in continuing with sessions if she (Hepola) does not really want to stop drinking. In other words, you do not have disturbing emotional problems that cause you to drink; your drinking is your problem.

There are things that are missing from Hepola's life, mostly things that she envies in some of her peers. But, if not having everything that you want were a sufficient cause for excessive drinking, we'd all be smashed senseless every day and every night.

That's not a good justification for being heartless in our attitudes toward Hepola: she does deserve our sympathy. She drinks excessively; she drinks destructively; she drinks way past tipsy and beyond staggering and well into oblivion. She drinks until she blacks out. And, during one very long period of her life, she could not seem to stop herself from doing that.

And, in some ways, it's the lack of reasons for her heavy drinking that make this book more interesting. There are no easy answers or justifications here. There are no clear, identifiable causes or problems (in her life) that can be fixed. Which means that we, her readers, can be moved to try that much harder to understand why she's the way she is and why she does what she does.

You'd think these blackouts would be frightening, waking up the next morning not knowing how you got where you are or even who you are in bed with. She says that she has been frightened by it. But, it doesn't seem to be enough to successfully motivate her to stop. It's enough to frighten me. Doesn't she worry, I was asking myself, about STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), since she often seems to wind up in bed with a strange man. I'd worry that I'd die on the way home from a party, because in California, U.S.A., we drive home from parties (we drive everywhere we go, but that's another of our problems), so I'd end up dead, or someone I hit with my car would be dead or injured, or, if I were lucky, I'd be arrested for DUI (driving under the influence) and would have my driver's license taken away. In fact, mid-way through the book, Hepola moves to New York city. Why? I'm thinking it's so that she will not have to drive home after a night's heavy drinking. She is effectively enabling her own excessive drinking.

Maybe Hepola does need more therapy and analysis and self-awareness. But, ignorance is not her problem. She's plenty aware and plenty smart. That leaves us wondering what would or could possibly help her get out of this. Maybe the only thing that would work would be some dramatic event from outside of her and her life, what she calls a "deus ex machina". And, maybe that's what happened and helped her. She aged; she became different; she grew to be someone who did not want that kind of drinking anymore.

That's not very helpful, because, one, it suggests that if you have Hepola's problem, it might stay with you for a long time (possibly while your life is wrecked in several ways), and, two, not all of us age and change in the same way, in fact, some of us will get worse in how much we drink.

So, perhaps Hepola's book is not all that helpful as a guide to changing out drinking. But, then she did not intend to write a self-help book, and did not write one. Her book is more interesting for what it is: an account of what a life of severe excess drinking is like, and a very personal description that show much self-awareness.

I was led to "Blackout" by a reference in "Unwanted advances", by Laura Kipnis. Kipnis's mention of Hepola's book was in the midst of a discussion that circled around Kipnis's claims (1) that this kind of sex is not fun or enjoyable much less a rewarding experience and (2) that women who drink like this (excessively, whether they blackout or not) are making themselves targets (prey, actually) for men who want quick, easy sex, without emotional strings attached. This is not liberating and it's not freedom; it's a form of bondage and to do it is to unwittingly provide sexual services.

And, if Hepola's book interests you, then you may also want to look at "American girls: social media and the secret lives of teenagers", by Nancy Jo Sales. It describes teenage girls who are slaves to their mobile phones (and perhaps sex, or an least the need to be "liked") in contrast to Hepola's book which describes someone who seems to be a slave to alcohol, as Hepola was, (and perhaps sex too).

Hepola, by the way, says that she believes that (one of?) her major problem is that she grew up worshiping celebrity and fame. That might be another reason for reading "American girls" after (or before) "Blackout". The teenagers (girls) in Sales's book also seem obsessed with fame and celebrities and also seem excessively needy about being noticed and liked. Perhaps there is a connection between these two books. Maybe that connection has something to do with a desperate need for approval and love from outside yourself and an inability to live with your own self-validation. Towards the end of Hepola's book, she seems to be working toward a life that is fulfilling because of her own thoughts and feelings and deeds rather than someone else's. That idea is a bit more complicated than I can really handle. You'll have to figure it out for yourself. And, if you want to, Hepola's book will be helpful.


59 Harold Holzer -- Lincoln and the power of the press

There is lots of history about newspaper editors and political operators, notably Horace Greeley and Thurlow Weed. Of particular importance is a story of how Weed supported Greeley and effectively steered him away from nonpartisan journalism and towards more partisan and party-oriented writing and publishing. Greeley and the newspapers he edited and published became strong supporters of the Whig party, where a strong anti-slavery political force was taking shape.

Journalism and the press cemented the relationship between Abraham and Mary Lincoln. While they were still dithering during courtship, the two of them wrote a series of heavy-handed satires" that were published in a local journal. The controversy that followed and the attending emotional stress (Lincoln was challenged to a dual and came close to participating in one.) likely bound Abraham and Mary together and pushed them over the edge and into marriage, at least as recounted by Holzer.

There really is too much information and too many details in this book for me to be able to process. But, the writing is lively and many of the stories are fascinating. So, for some of you who want both entertainment and history, and if you read a bit more quickly than I do, it will be enjoyable and worthwhile reading.

What makes a good deal of that information interesting and important is that this is an account of a time when newspapers specifically and communications in general were going through radical and important changes. So many people at that time were excited by and addicted to there favorite newspaper. Sales were booming and editors and publishers were rushing and competing to get the "news" to the most readers quicker than their competition. I put the word "news" in snicker-quotes because much of the press was extremely partisan. "Fair and balanced" was far from most editors' minds. The press was so partisan that politicians who were able granted political favors and contracts to the publication that supported them, and editors and publishers, believe it or not, according to Holzer, even served as political advisers and even in Congress, arguing for and promoting their party and its positions all the while. There were grumblings about the influence of the press on politics becoming too strong.

This influence, according to Holzer, seems to have flowed in both directions. Lincoln was an active writer of articles for newspapers. He was, during at least the time period between his one term in the U.S. Congress and his nomination for the Presidency in 1860, his own publicist, and he was very active at it. After his nomination, he took on one, and then another secretary. Both of them were active contributors to newspapers on his behalf.

What is somewhat surprising to me, living in an age of carefully scripted and vetted presidential speeches, is how direct Lincoln's communications were. Although Lincoln did ask others to review his writings and especially his important speeches, they still turned out to be almost entirely his words. That contrasts dramatically with speeches by recent presidents, which are written by a speech writer or a committee and vetted through focus groups.

Apparently, newspaper publishers and editors played a active part at the Chicago nominating convention in steering the Presidential nomination to Lincoln.

And then we go from more newspaper coverage and more information in the newspapers than citizens can possibly use to censorship during the Civil War. The chapter titled "Freedom of the press stricken down" tells of the efforts on the Federal (Union) government to silence editors, suppress newspapers, bring charges against journalists and editors, and to close down newspapers. According to Holzer, Lincoln's fingerprints were not directly on these actions, but they were clearly down with his knowledge. Obviously, printing information on troop movements, troop sizes, etc provides valuable assistance to the enemy, in this case the Confederacy, egregiously so when those papers are sent to states in the Confederacy, and outlandishly so when the Federal mail is used to do so. But, it's interesting to pick out from Holzer's account when and where that there government and military activities shaded off into suppression of news and newspapers that were "unfriendly" and not supportive. Newspapers were also closed down for being "pro-secession". The suppression and censorship was chaotic, in part because a genuine fear that the Union might not survive muted indignation by journalists, which resulted in a lack of clear directives on what was and was not sedition. Holzer is sanguine about the consequences of all this, claiming that newspapers came back more thickly than before, and that investigative journalism and its ability to as embarrassing and revealing questions thrived.

Some of that detailed account is about Lincoln's come-back into politics after his one-term period in Congress much of it due to Lincoln's opposition to and speeches against the Nebraska bill, which threatened to extend slavery into territories above the 36th parallel. And, this account prepares the background for Lincoln's campaign for the Presidency in 1860.

There is quite a bit more in Holzer's book, including (1) an account of Lincoln's preparation for the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation; (2) the events leading up to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and an evaluation of the reactions to it; and (3) a short section on the effect of the Civil War on newspapers in the Confederate states (the suffered, because of lack of supplies, because of worsening economic conditions and its difficulty with buying and paying for copies, because of disruptions from military actions in the South, because of a lack of manpower since almost all white males had been conscripted into military service, etc), and more. The Union military, by the way, closed down opposition newspapers within their command (for example, when they gained control of new territory), but in one case at least reopened a newspaper with a Union slant, specifically the Vicksburg Daily Citizen when Vicksburg was captured at the end of the siege of Vicksburg.

Lincoln, who had been an avid, even addicted newspaper reader during much of his life, read less and less as the War progressed. His secretaries even reported that he failed to read their summaries. Still, he was active in feeding stories and opinion to the press. He held no press conferences and did not grant major interviews to journalists. However, Lincoln did frequently invite journalists in for private conversations.

Given the vehement opposition of some newspapers in New York, Lincoln showed restraint in refusing to shackle those newspapers.

And, finally, there is a bit of summary of Lincoln's attempts to obtain positive coverage in the press, and the press's response to Lincoln's assassination.

The book ends with an "Epilogue" that summaries the lives of many of the characters in "Lincoln and the power of the press".


60 John Horgan -- The end of science

We can view "The end of science" as a polemic, in which case we'd ask whether Horgan is right or wrong. Or, we can view this book as analysis, in which case we'd ask "What does he mean?" and "What are the implications?". For the most part, I'll try to take the latter approach.

Horgan discusses both pure science and applied science. I'll interpret "applied science" as technology and technological development. When he talks about science coming to an end, he is usually talking about pure science, although I believe he feels that the rate of progress in applied science and the development of technology will slow down also. With respect to pure science, "the end" means that there are no more big surprises to be expected in the future -- We, or scientists at least, have a fundamental understanding of how our world, universe, and reality is structured and how it behaves; that understanding is basically correct and will not change in any significant way in the future; and most or all of what scientific research does in the future will be to fill in details and to answer questions about more precise measurements.

Examples -- In chemistry, we know how chemical reactions work, but, in the future, we'll learn a few more things about how they work under special conditions such as zero gravity, high pressure or a vacuum, etc. In botany, we know about butterflies and their typical life cycle, but we'll learn about a lot more species, especially in some far off places. In astronomy, we know the basic structure of the universe and how it changes, but we'll find and catalog a lot more stars. Actually, in astronomy, the claim of an end of science seems quite shaky because of so many recent findings about the expanding universe, about how that expansion is accelerating, about the structure of galaxies and the black hole in them, and how they function. But, perhaps our abilities to make those new discoveries will end soon, too. Horgan might argue that because astronomers have recently learned so much, there is much less left to be learned.

Applied science has made huge progress in the 20th century. The innovations and new products are many and impressive. Horgan finds ways to worry about that, too, because he feels the recent rapid progress has used up (discovered and developed) all the easy and important devices, procedures, medicines, etc (the low hanging, valuable fruit). Perhaps the future will bring mostly small tweaks and frivolous toys.

Horgan is very sure that we will not find The Answer, with italics, underlining, capital letters, and quotation marks. Although, it seems that what The Answer might be depends on what The Question is and who is asking it in what field. I'm one of those who feels that asking questions of that kind and spending lots of time is interesting if you do a little of it, and is wasteful when you do a lot.

Asking for a single theory that explains two disparate fields seems misguided to me. Even if human emotions could be described, in principle (lots of slippage there), in terms of the behavior of sub-atomic particles, it would not tell us much about our emotions. We need different kinds of explanations and descriptions in different fields, if those explanations are going to be illuminating. And, too often, that kind of reductionism comes from a "my science is better than your science" stance. And, if you are trying to unify souls and bodies or minds and bodies, you're best off with Spinoza rather than a scientist; or you choose your favorite philosopher.

And, I believe that it's justified to claim that in evaluating whether science can find "The Answer", Horgan has asked the question in such a way that it can't possibly be answered: he has set the goal posts where they can't be reached. This is not a new problem. John Locke was warning about trying discover or know what we cannot support with empirical evidence. And, Horgan suspects that scientists in Locke's age did not view science as infinite; they may have thought that at some point, science would be (almost) a project of filling in details. Perhaps Locke anticipated and warned us about what Horgan calls "ironic science", which sometimes seems like speculation without the support of evidence.

"Ironic science" -- Possibly Horgan just intends this to mean science-oriented philosophy of some kind. Certainly, he means that ironic science is not supported by empirical observation. Well, scientists like to do a little philosophy on the side too. That's OK, as long as they do not let that amateur work become confused with their professional work as scientists. Perhaps, some of the scientists that Horgan has interviewed have done so.

Progress and a belief in it is relatively recent in human history. We could argue that it started with The Enlightenment and with Bacon, Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes. Before then, humans in western Europe and medieval times viewed themselves as retrogressing from the ancient Greek and Roman civilization, rather than progressing toward something better. I believe that Horgan is depressed by the thought of our society also coming to view itself as moving toward a future that is worse, rather than better.

Why it matters -- It matters just as our view of The Enlightenment" matters. It matters because it influences who we admire, who we emulate, whether we're progressive; whether we're tolerant and accepting of new ideas and explanations; and whether we are striving for progress, betterment, and, at the least, change. In modern scientific research, funding matters; it matters a lot. Whether corporations invest in it depends on their believe that it will produce valuable results. Whether governments fund research depends on various factors, but certainly the attitudes and opinions of politicians and their constituents and whether they believe in the possibility of progress and improvement matter. In support of the importance of government funding for research and innovation, see "The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths", by Mariana Mazzucato.

Horgan is likely right to worry about decreased government funding for scientific research. World War II is over. The Cold War is over. The Space Race is (mostly) over. And, the U.S. government in particular is no longer as rich as it once was; it's in debt, after all. So public funding, in the U.S. at least where we seem to be taking a conservative turn toward "government is the problem" and lower taxes (on the rich), likely will decrease.

And "The end of science" can also be read as and thought of as an analysis of the relationships between science, technology, culture, and society. Although we often think of science as being distinct from culture or even in opposition to it, science, especially since The Enlightenment, is part of our culture. Witness the recent "teen sexting" scandal. Yes, teenagers will always find a way to make their lives more dramatic and traumatic and angst filled, but their ability to do it in that specific way depended on the available technology: smart phones that take digital images, the ability to upload those images and to send them to others, and the ability to store them and make them available on the Web. (see "Why Kids Sext", by Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic, 10/14/2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/why-kids-sext/380798/)

And, a society that views itself as existing in an earth-centered system is different from one that views itself as living in a solar-centered system or a galaxy structured one or one composed of many galaxies in many clusters etc. And certainly, a society that views itself as composed of a species that evolved through a long series of fortunate (and some not so fortunate) contingent events is radically different from one that views itself as composed of beings created in the image of some god or beings that believe they are favored over other human and non-human beings etc.

For me, Horgan's book is so valuable because it raises so many issues like the above and provides lots of material on which to hang our thoughts about those issues.


61 Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield -- The loss of sadness

Also see my reviews of the following:

There is so much to think about in this book; it's overwhelming. Some of the main issues discussed are:

Horwitz and Wakefield go into much detail explaining why and how they think the over-diagnosis of abnormal sadness has occurred. Some of the causes they suggest are: (1) During the revision process that created DSM-III, there was a heavy emphasis on identifying and listing symptoms that could be used to determine whether a person has a psychiatric disorder or ailment and which particular disorder that person has. But, that emphasis on symptoms leads, Horwitz and Wakefield contend, to ignoring underlying causes, i.e. to ignoring what Horwitz and Wakefield call etiology. And, because we ignore causes, we label the sadness that is an appropriate response as a disorder. (2) The social sciences have encouraged us to have attitudes of cultural relativism. And, because some cultures tolerate and label as normal or even admirable different levels of sadness, we are led to feel that it's up to us to decide how much and what level and what length of time is normal or abnormal for sadness. In other words, we can label as normal or as abnormal any level of sadness that we choose. (3) And, of course there is the possibility, Horwitz and Wakefield suggest, that the medical insurance providers and the pharmaceutical industry have encouraged or discouraged the diagnosis of more or less sadness as being in need of treatment and medication because it is in their (insurance and pharmaceuticals) financial interest to do so.

Horwitz and Wakefield worry about an "over expansive" definition of sadness, one that labels too many people as ill, dysfunctional, and in need of treatment.

What if, instead of talking about illness, dysfunction, and disorder, we talk about those who want help and guidance to make their lives better and (since we are discussing sadness) happier.

We have to ask ourselves who is helped and who is harmed by the use of symptom-based criteria to label individuals depressed and suffering from disorder? I'm less worried when we are talking about those who are seeking help; I'm more worried when people are diagnosed as disordered and in need of treatment whether they want it or not. However, this is not a simple issue. There are those in our society who resist taking their psychotropic medications, often for real reasons (e.g. because of their side-effects), but when they do, they become harmful and even dangerous to themselves and to those around them. It's because of situations like this that we need Horwitz and Wakefield to remind us about and make us think through the issues surrounding psychiatric diagnoses.

What about those of us who may not be abnormally sad and to whom it is not accurate to say that they have a depressive disorder, but who are consistently sad and down. Someone who suffers from long-term unhappiness with no apparent cause deserves help. Perhaps their unhappiness does not lead them to suicide or even less harmful actions, but many of us feel that they also need help. Some of these may try to improve their mood through the use of medication, some might drink alcohol, some might even turn to religion. I'm one of those who feels that any of these can be helpful, and any of them can be damaging. Perhaps, a diagnosis of sadness or depression can, in some cases, be helpful, if it leads to awareness, and can, in some cases, be harmful, if it leads to over use of medication, to abuse of alcohol or other drugs, to fanatical religion, etc.

Many of us want happiness of some form or another. In the U.S., the right to "the pursuit of happiness" is even written into our "Declaration of Independence". So, why would we not want to be able to avoid sadness and seek happiness in a variety of different ways. I suspect that Horwitz and Wakefield would not object to that, but would object to encouraging any of us to do so without awareness, without consideration of the consequences and alternatives, and without addressing possible real causes of that sadness.

One worry is over-medication. But, is that worry any greater than concerns about the excessive use of drugs, alcohol, caffeine, etc? Maybe what we need to get used to and to remember is that the use of drugs is always in need of caution, whether those drugs have the approval of a psychiatric professional or not. And, it should be obvious that prescribing psychotropic drugs to children is about as close to legally giving alcohol to minors as you can get. As always, powerful drugs means the power to do much harm.

Horwitz and Wakefield have a definite stand on whether we over-diagnose sadness as a disorder: they believe we do diagnose too many people as having a depressive disorder of some kind and they argue strong and long for that position. Those arguments are very informative and well thought out. You may agree or disagree with those arguments. But, in either case, you will find much in this book to inform and help with your own thinking about sadness and depression in particular, and psychiatry and psychology and mental disorder in general.


62 Marvine Howe -- Turkey today: a nation divided over Islam's revival

Great discussion of important issues in Turkey.

Howe spends much of the book analyzing the conflicts between secularists and Islamists , but also gives a lesser amount of space to the divisions over the Kurds and the Armenians, as well as Turkey's attempts to enter the European Union (and its rejection). You will also find a bit of information about recent art and literature in Turkey, but even there, she is most concerned with differences between secular artists and Islamic ones.

The secular vs. Islamists issues are complex and difficult to work out. Howe comments on the "headscarf wars" in detail. Some of us, for example here in the U.S., are inclined to react with "what's the problem; let them wear what they want". But, in a country like Turkey, with an overwhelming majority of Muslims and many of those politically well organized, we can see how secularists and non-Sunni Muslims (the Alevi community, for example, which has a sizable minority in Turkey) would feel threatened. As Howe reports, these are issues which draw thousands into the streets for rallies on both sides. It is hard not to believe that Turkey would be a theocracy were it not for the willingness of the military to step in to block that or to threaten to do so.

About the Kurdish problem, Howe is among those we believe that (1) there no hope for a military solution and (2) that the Kurds must be given some amount of freedom to express their cultural identity. Again, it's easy to see another view, especially a view in which the PKK is seen as a terrorist organization and is supported by some neighbors with bad intentions (Iran and Syria) and in which a separate Kurdish state is ominously in the future.

With respect to Turkey's desire to enter the European Union, now that some countries in the EU have recently had so much trouble, in part because of the restricted options imposed because their currency is tied to the Euro (think Greece and Ireland), perhaps some Turks will feel less of a desire for that. They might be feeling a bit lucky not to be tied into that regime and the austerity measures that it can impose.

One additional issue, also covered briefly by Howe, is the wide disparity of wealth and poverty and the extremes of modernity and backwardness among Turkey's population. Turkey has citizens who are extremely rich; but there are also masses who live in extreme poverty, both in Istanbul's slums and in rural areas in eastern Anatolia. And, on one hand, Turkey has many people who are wired and on-line and computer savvy and constantly using cell phones, and on the other hand many who are just barely living on the grid.

If you want to learn about Turkey, its politics, and the country's significant issues, this book is an excellent place to start. I'd like to read an account of the more recent political events, especially those related secularists and Islamists, but hopefully I can get that from another source.


63 Susan Jacoby -- The age of American unreason: Warnings to the educated and rational; likely ignored by others.

In the words of Dave Berry (and others) "I am not making this up". Reality, and those in it, is wackier that anything we can make up.

Reading Jacoby's "Age of American unreason" is about as good an inoculation against a failure to educate and a failure to reason and think as you are likely to get. However, I have doubts that those who need this most will every read it.

We are witnessing, according to Jacoby, a decline of print culture and a decline of reading. In addition to a chapter that concentrates on the loss of a culture inclined to reading thoughtful materials, one chapter of this book, in particular, is a lament over middle-brow culture that existed in the 1940's and 1950's. For Jacoby, that culture included thoughtful magazines such as "The New Yorker" and also fiction that was above the level of "pulp" and self-help and cooking and so on. By "print", she means more than just written words (as opposed to oral). She means writings that are long and thoughtful, articles that take time and concentration to digest. She means, for example, fiction that does more than follow a formula. I suspect that Jacoby has read a few mysteries, but she also wants us to read fiction that is of some consequence in our lives and that can possibly change our views of our lives and those around us.

One particularly interesting chapter is that on the religious right. It's interesting because it contains an attempt to connect a cluster of values and to show how that family of values are all held by a the same people in a single demographic. These values include support for values such as anti-abortion, anti-gay, and women's subservient position in the home. That this a single, identifiable demographic is significant because it means that those in this group can likely be targeted and exploited and manipulated for political purposes. For members of this group, these issues trump and override all others. For example, for someone who is anti-abortion, that is a determining factor in their voting. So, there is no point in attempting to argue with a committed anti-abortion voter that a given vote is not in his/her economic self-interest. For that person to vote in his/her self-interest and contrary to that value (anti-abortion, anti-gay, etc.) would be viewed as selfish and immoral, in some cases because these values are based on a belief in a god or his teachings. There is no real possibility of compromise on these issues, nor of rational discussion, unless you view arguing from the basis of religious texts, for example, as rational. But, this is the kind of voting behavior that progressives and liberals and Jacoby, too, I suspect, would view as irrational and unreasoned. By the way, Europeans are, according to Jacoby, frighten and appalled by this strain of irrationality in the U.S.

One thing that is missing from this book is an attempt to analyze and explain why this decline in print culture and dumbing-down of our thinking is taking place in the U.S. There are many reasons, but I'll give one suspect: There is a rise in populism in the U.S., and there are, at least, two things interesting about this populism: (1) It is especially virulent among those in the political far right and the religious right. (2) There are some indications that the target of the anger exhibited by those in this populist movement is directed at the educated elite rather than the wealthy elite. One piece of evidence in favor of this second point is the fact that keeping in place the tax cuts to the wealthy is especially important to the political right, and does not seem to cause any significant conceptual conflict. That seems incongruous if you believe that the populist right is angry at the rich. But, it makes sense if you believe that the populist right is angry at liberals, progressives, and the educated, that is at those considered intellectuals. If that explanation is correct, then the dumbing-down of our thinking and the reduction in thoughtful reading and the loss of the ability to think carefully and critically would not be viewed as a failure by those who exhibit it; rather it would be taken as something to be proud of.


64 Susan Jacoby -- Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age

I did not find this book as depressing as I expected to. Perhaps that is because I'm still in reasonably good health and can at least tell myself that I can look forward to a reasonable number on "good" years.

That's the emotional, and personal side. But, on the the practical side, Jacoby's book has implications to policy decisions that have serious consequences in our society. This is as much a book about public policy, specifically health care policy, as it is about old age.

The myths and illusions that Jacoby attacks, have practical consequences, for example: (1) As a counter to government deficits, we are considering cost saving actions such as reduced assistance to the elderly and the sick and increasing the age for eligibility for Social Security benefits. (2) To prevent the financial crash of 2008 from becoming a truly catastrophic crisis, our government has driven interest rates so low that those of us who were fortunate enough be be able to save for old age get almost no earnings from our savings. (That, by the way, is a huge transfer of wealth away from those with savings to those in the financial industry.)

These policies, Jacoby argues, are made to seem reasonable by the overly optimistic beliefs and illusions that most all of us will have an old age in which we can work and take care of ourselves and be financial self-reliant. These beliefs are wrong, and the consequences of policies based on them are bound to be both significant and disastrous, especially since the Baby Boom generation will be causing a expansion of the size of the elderly cohort in population in the U.S.

Jacoby's specialty is to take on and puncture irrational thinking and foolish idea. Her previous book, "The age of American unreason", was a bit of an equal opportunity lambaste that targeted foolishness on a range of topics. This book ("Never say die") is more focused and specific to our thoughts and feelings about old age. If you want to improve your abilities in the way of critical thinking, Jacoby's reasoning is an excellent example to follow.

Financial reality -- Jacoby works hard to destroy our myths and delusions about finances in old age: (1) In contrast to our beliefs, most of us in the U.S. cannot or will not save enough during our working lives to support our retirement. Jacoby asks: Would you even want parents to say to their children that there is no money for college tuition and expenses because they (the parents) are saving for retirement? (2) Many if not most Americans enter retirement with very little in the way or savings. (3) That means that many in the early years of retirement need to work in order to support themselves. (4) But, there are few jobs available for many of these in the early retirement years, and if the elderly do find work, they are actually taking jobs away from younger workers. We have a job shortage even without sending the elderly back into to workforce. (5) Social Security benefits alone are not enough to support an acceptable life, and we are talking about cutting that back even more. (6) We have a drastic reduction in the number of workers who are and will be covered by defined-benefit retirement plans, those who are are covered by defined-benefit plans are having their benefits cut, and those who have attempted to provide for themselves, e.g. through 401K investment plans and the like, have seen those savings and investments trashed severely by the recent financial crash. (7) We, in the U.S. and our representatives in Washington, D.C. do not have the political will face the reality and costs of caring for the elderly. And, even if we did, we likely would not be willing to tax ourselves to pay for that care and support. The U.S. is a hard, mean society that is not willing to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves.

Part of our problem is that we all want instant gratification and lower taxes. We do not want enforced savings (for example, Social Security taxes) and we are not able or willing to save for ourselves.

If we are to move toward medical care for everyone, it should be baby-boom generation who lead the way and do the pushing. But, health care for everyone is likely to mean less for some, in particular, the elderly may see a reduction in their Medicare benefits. Rather than lead us toward a united effort at reform of health care in the U.S., that is likely to lead us to an inter-generational conflict, according to Jacoby, as seniors refuse to give up what they already have. Instead, we are likely to see a tendency toward "I've got mine; don't try to take it away in order to pay for yours" mentality.

Moral questions -- Should we be trying so hard to extend life, if we are not willing to pay for the support and care for those whose lives are being extended. And, if those in old age deserve support and care, if that is a human right for the elderly, why not for everybody? Certainly for children. And, do the non-elderly who cannot find a job with medical benefits not deserve care?

We, in the U.S., are proving the inadequacy of solutions based on individual will, responsibility, and action. For example, we cannot count on individuals in general to save enough to provide for their retirement expenses and their medical care, especially medical care during the very last years of life, which are likely to be high. And, a belief in these myths of individual solutions and individual independence for health care leaves us unable to confront these issues and to support the policies we need as replacements.

In the last chapters of this book, Jacoby shows herself to be a liberal who is sympathetic, even envious, of European and Canadian social solutions to medical care problems. Her arguments are the kind intelligent discussion that we should have had during the recent efforts to pass health care reform.

Jacoby is hopeful that we in the U.S. will face reality when conditions for many of us become bad enough. I'm skeptical that we will do that. I worry that conditions will need to become unbearably terrible before we do. And, I believe that the wealthy in the U.S. have the political power to block reform.

This is not a cheerful book. But, it has the value of encouraging us to think about these issues in a clear and un-illusioned way. We and our elders can expect a lot of grief and unpleasantness if we fail to do so.


65 Simon Johnson and James Kwak; White House Burning: The founding fathers, our national debt, and why it matters to you

This is one of those special books where it's helpful to know where the authors are going before reading it. I started with the last chapter, "Conclusion", then read the previous chapter, "Where do we go from here?", and then read the chapter before that, "Arguing first principles". Reading in that order helped me understand what Johnson and Kwak were trying to accomplish and what policies they believed would lead to those goals.

Johnson and Kwak's conclusion is that ultimately our argument is about what kind of world we want to live in and what services and protections we want our government to give us in order to have that kind of world. In an increasingly risky world (with a shredded social contract, reduced labor union protection, the inequality generated by a winner take all economic system, etc), Johnson and Kwak argue that we will want more protections and services from our government, not less.

Why doesn't this sane, rational argument work? There are a number of reasons, in addition to the fact that humans are at times just not rational. Among those reasons are: (1) Yes we want those services and protections, but no, we're not willing to pay for them. (2) Yes we want those services and protections, but, no, not for those who are undeserving (where "undeserving" often is a stand-in for "brown", "black", "immigrant", and "other" in general). Or, (3) simply that we believe we want and can have small government and are not willing to accept that services, benefits, and protections that we use are provided by our government, are expensive, and must be paid for.

But, it's not a hopeful picture. Because of our political situation in the U.S., Johnson and Kwak, even as clear and rational and intelligent as their prescriptions are, will not have much if any effect. Our political system in the U.S. is so tightly controlled and so dysfunctional, that rational policy choices appear to be impossible. Amongst Republicans, especially, any politician tainted with "compromise" automatically becomes targeted for criticism and to be driven from office in the next election.

In their next to the last chapter, titled "Where do we go from here?", Johnson and Kwak present a variety of proposals for changes and the funding and spending of our Federal government. Many if not most of them taken individually are reasonable. And, certainly, taken as a package, these are the kind of proposals that reasonable people could sit down with and agree on some of one, more or less of another, some compromise here and there. What is frightening is how, in our political climate, almost all if not all of these proposals is politically impossible and laughable.

Examples of these impossible dreams, which likely would be practical reality in a more sane nation, are: (1) Do not extend the Bush tax cuts. But, of course, a vote not to extend them is interpreted as a vote to raise taxes, and that is career suicide for many of our Congress people. (2) Only a universal, single payer health care system can control health care costs. But, we are unable to agree on any health care system that does not allow health care providers and the drug industry to make as much profit as they possibly can, and we're about to try to repeal that system. (3) We could raise Social Security payroll taxes to keep that system solvent. But, we've recently reduced those taxes and can't seem to raise them even on high earners.

Here is a list of proposals from Johnson and Kwak:

And the third from the last chapter ("Arguing first principles") is the one that I really wish our political leaders would read. I know it helped me to better understand how to think about governmental financial policy. Their discussion of the idea that government policies, when enacted, should produce social benefits while minimizing the adverse side effects, and their analysis of some of the ways these policies go wrong, in particular because of loopholes in tax law, is very helpful.

Bottom line: We, actually our political leaders, must be willing to compromise on paying for our government with some combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Since they, and possibly we, are not willing to do so, we're stuck.

Johnson and Kwak give an excellent analysis of our current economic situation and problems and give very intelligent, reasonable, and rational proposals for what to do to make it better. But, the conclusion I come to while reading this book is that it's not so much the economic system that is broken, it's the political system. We have to fix the politics and probably most importantly, campaign finance and the corruption that it injects into that political system before we can even try to fix the economics.

Johnson and Kwak's Blog is extremely enlightening, by the way. You can find it at: http://baselinescenario.com/


66 David Cay Johnston -- Free lunch: how the wealthiest Americans enrich themselves at government expense (and stick you with the bill)

One way to view this book is as a collection of many different ways and different sectors in which those (individuals and corporations mostly, but also NGOs and non-profits, too) with money and the power to influence our government at different levels use their power and wealth to channel money to themselves and away from those with less power, especially those who are less wealthy and less able to pay for organized political influence. It is also possible to read this book looking for systemic features that infect any highly organized society-government interaction. We can think of the capture of government by the rich and powerful as an attractor or a stable state towards which all societies and government drift as they become more advanced and more highly organized. Given this view, a society that does not protect itself against such drift, against that kind of capture is foolish.

And, given this view, it might be helpful to ask whether it is possible to identify and describe the significant features of a society-government nexus that enables or facilitates this trend toward capture by the rich and powerful. If we could list those features, would they be avoidable? And, are there features that might protect us from that advance toward and spiral into capture by the rich and powerful? If not, the only alternative seems to be to wait until our condition is so bad and so extreme that some sort of unstable state and cataclysmic change becomes inevitable. That would be a harsh alternative, for that extreme condition and its aftermath are likely to be destructive and unpleasant.

Is a drift toward taking from the many in order to give to the few an inevitable tendency of any large, complex system? Perhaps not. But, that drift might be inevitable in any system with the following conditions: (1) the system manages and redirects money (thus providing a potential for profit); (2) the system can be influenced by money or by power that can be obtained through money; (3) the system is complex enough so that the transfer of wealth can be disguised, hidden, justified, etc; and (4) the system/government has enforcement power (for example, the power to collect and require/force payment of taxes). Johnston excells at reveiling these characteristics in our society and government and at describing how they function.

In addition to taking from the many to give to the rich, we as a society are also making it increasingly harder for those who start out poor to become well-off financially. As the chapter on education and its costs reminds, as the distribution of income and wealth is becoming ever more skewed in the U.S., also it is becoming more expensive to acquire the education that might enable someone to rise above the income level into which they were born. For all too many in our society who cannot afford private K-through-12 eduction, our schools do not give the preparation needed for college. And, for so many of those fortunate enough to become prepared, college is becoming increasingly unaffordable, as public financial support for our state run colleges and universities shrinks.

Perhaps a more general lesson to be learned from this book is that if you create a system that can be manipulated for profit, then it will be manipulated for profit. Where unfair profits are potentially high enough, someone will figure out how to rig or game the system so as to gain those profits.

There are several chapters on the Enron scandal and some of its negative effects. That's a timely reminder (I'm writing this in 2011), because our more recent financial catastrophe (the disaster surrounding housing, mortgage, securitization, CDS) clouds our historical memory; it leads us to forget just how frequent these "market anomalies" are. These are not rare, 100-year events. They are common. Operating on the belief that these crises are rare, that we can ignore them, that someone else is likely to suffer the consequences, but not our generation, is foolish. Wait five years or less and we, you and I, will suffer the negative consequences. Provide enough incentive, create a system in which the potential profits are high enough, and some will exploit that system and will put that system in an unstable state in doing so. Therefore, if you have complex a system that is not protected against capture by the rich and powerful, and we do, then "what you see is what you get".

You will find sections in this book on: (1) how Wal-Mart and other large retailers use government subsidies and shift their costs onto local communities; (2) public power utilities (electric and gas) and how they maneuver the government and their financial dealings; (3) the efforts of rail transportation companies to avoid regulation and inspection; (4) the health care insurance industry in the U.S. and how it uses denial of coverage, denial of care, and denial of payment to enhance its profits; (5) drugs and how the U.S. Congress passed a bill to require payment of top prices for drugs while prohibiting the negotiation for lower prices; (6) a discussion of hedge funds and the financial industry that gives a preview of the recent financial sector melt-down; (7) the increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S. and its likely negative consequences.

It's not a pleasant picture that Johnston describes. But, remaining oblivious to it is possibly the worst thing we can do.


67 Daniel Kahneman -- Thinking, fast and slow

The parts I found to be most valuable were those that warned of common decision making mistakes or fallacies. Many of these are the mistakes we make when we use what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking where we should be using System 2 think. Roughly this means that we use quick, intuitive, evaluative judgments where we should use slow, calculating, judgments that take into account lists of positives and negatives, possible problems as well as possible benefits, experiences in other similar situations and projects, and so on.

Kahneman is a bit of a pessimist, or depending on your point of view, a realist. He is not the person you want present when you are trying to convince a possible funder that the project will be finished quickly, that it will cost very little, that it will pay for itself, that it will be completed as described and without incident, etc.

He is also a proud theory buster, or at least he seems to pride himself on criticizing decisions and proposals that are made by someone who is blinded by a theory, especially a cherished and tightly held theory.

Here are some of the decision making fallicies that Kahneman warns us about:

One piece of important advice from Kahneman: Learn to use (short) checklists and simple algorithm in your daily decisions. If nothing else, doing so will encourage you to slow down, to think more methodically, to use objective criteria rather that intuitions and likes or dislikes. Try to set your cherished views aside and to avoid group think by considering ideas from other sources. Try to use a check list or set of questions that reveal a small set of objective attributes, then use a simple algorithm (often a straight forward sum is good enough), and finally factor in considerations that are specially to the current project or decision.

Over and over Kahneman emphasizes his opinion that expert opinion and expert judgment is no where near as good as we often believe it is. We all, experts and non-experts alike, think that our judgment is better than it really is.

Kahneman also has a reasonably good discussion about predictability, under what conditions the future is predictable, and under what conditions "experts" can learn enough to be able to make valid predictions. A rough summary is that (1) the future must not be random; (2) there must be cues and indications from which valid predictions can be made; and (3) the expert must be given the opportunity to learn those cues and what follows from them.


68 Alyssa Katz -- Our lot: how real estate came to own us

This is a good analysis of how mortgages and home ownership affects and even rules our lives. But, more than that, it's about how the institution of home ownership and the market for mortgages has been shaped, for profit, by powerful parties both in private industry and inside the U.S. government. It's also an account of how we and our lives have been shaped by those institutions.

The sections on the creation of the subprime loan balloon are astonishing. Katz tell us what that froth was created from: fabricated information about borrows on loan papers, appraisers who were willing to give the exaggerated estimates of property values that they were asked for, attorneys and title agents and banks who signed the papers and pretended not to notice.

And, so many of the firms involved (mortgage brokers, investment banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) made huge profits from these transactions. So, they became addicted to the volume needed to produce those profits. As long as the money (= credit) flowed, and while they could package and sell the loans, it did flow, they pursued that volume, even though doing so required making loans to people who had little likelihood of making the required payments on those loans.

The sections on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac give you an appreciation for how much damage can be done (1) when there is a huge amount of money and (2) when companies with lots of influence and the U.S. Congress work together. The details are fascinating, and Katz give lots of them. It shows what happens when, instead of enabling people to earn a decent living, the U.S. government helps them try to pretend that they are better off by giving them lots of cheap credit. Basically, the chapter on Fannie Mae is a lesson in how to create a financial disaster.

I'm from the California central valley, so that chapter about the effects of the real estate boom and bust on communities around Sacramento like Lincoln and Elk Grove hit home to me. The local paper today had an article stating that there is an 80% vacancy rate in industrial property in Elk Grove. There just must have been an incredible amount of over-building.

There are some crime stories also. Given the huge amount of money that the financial industry and the U.S. government (through quasi- governmental organizations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) were making available, it was inevitable that someone would dream up schemes to use that money in order to launder money and to siphon off fees for transactions, doing so by "flipping" houses through purchases by fake buyers at inflated prices. And, the mortgage brokers and real estate appraisers and lending institutions all when along, because all along the way, they also collected fees.

This book can also be viewed as a specification of what it takes to produce extensive real estate fraud or to create a financial disaster: (1) Inflated appraisals, demanded by mortgage brokers, justified by pointing a sale down the street built on another inflated appraisal. (2) Lenders who are remotely located and did not know the property or its value. (3) A huge amount of funds available from investors who were desperate for higher earnings due to prolonged, artificially low interest rates. Imagine dealers (e.g. mortgage brokers) thinking: we have got to figure out how to use that money (and skim off a fee while we do so). (4) Lenders and investors who are removed from borrowers by several degrees of separation, and who can unload risk, for example by securitizing and selling the loans.

Add to this the fact that the real estate lobby and the finance industry lobby are both huge. And because of that, Katz admits that it is unthinkable that the U.S. government would set reasonable limits on lending. The bailouts of financial institutions during this crisis shows that the U.S. government will step in to support lenders, to support lending, no matter how egregious; and shows that the U.S. government will subsidize economic activity at any cost. These markets and industries do not correct themselves. And, the U.S. government will not correct them either. Nor will it do anything or admit doing anything that slows down economic activity, which would mean less wealth for the rich and fewer jobs for the rest of us. But, the U.S. government will step in with lots of money from taxpayers to save the system when it goes off the rails and into the ditch.

From one point of view, given what we know about the U.S. economy, what else would you expect other than government policies that push and support both home ownership and the home construction and financing industries. We don't enable those in the middleclass to earn more, because all that wealth is going to those who are already in the top 2% wealth bracket. So instead, we'll enable them to believe they are well off by giving them huge home loans and by enabling them to take all the equity out of their homes (that was supposed to be their savings, remember) in home equity loans. As Katz suggests, we've shipped all the other reasonably well paying jobs over-seas. What we've got left is jobs cutting up chickens and cleaning up hotel rooms (both non-tradable goods) and building houses (also a non-tradable good, i.e. we can't ship that work to the far East). So, if we don't protect home construction, we'll have nothing left. We'd better subsidize the home construction and home marketing and home loan industries, even if it means creating the kinds of disaster that we just went through and are still going through. Sigh. Here we go again.

On the lighter side, if you go to http://youtube.com and search for "Bird Fortune subprime crisis financial adviser" and you'll find very humorous "analysis" of the financial crisis by John Bird and John Fortune. Yes, we should be mad as hell about what has been done to the financial system and the economy and especially mad at those who have done it, but it's good to be able to laugh about it once in a while, too.


69 Jonathan Kay -- Among the Truthers: a journey through America's growing conspiracist underground

Viewed negatively, "Among the truthers" is a screed against Truthers and other conspiracists. Viewed more positively, it is an argument for more civility and reason in our public discourse, and it is an exercise in debunking, uncovering, exposing, and clarifying conspiracy theories, urban myths and legends, etc.

Kay also attempts to explain why, 400 years into the age of reason, we have we have a market place of ideas with such an extreme balkanization of ideologies, theories, etc. It's an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to a place where true is so relative, in particular, relative to where you are on the political spectrum, the religious spectrum, etc.

In one sense, what Kay's arguments are obvious, because behind the Truther movement is the preposterous belief that U.S. government assassinated over 3,000 of its own citizens. One of Kay's goals is to show how believers can be ration and intelligent and come to also believe that they have a "truth" that others are too blind to see.

The list of Truther beliefs is rather long, but there is a smaller common set: (1) Dick Cheney planned the attack. (2) Osama bin Laden and the hijackers were patsies of the U.S. government. (3) NORAD was made to intentionally stand down 9/11. (4) Pre-planted demolitions brought down the World Trade Center buildings. Etc.

We need to ask whether abnormal, conspiracy theories can come from normal minds? Perhaps they can. Or, perhaps it's more likely that normal minds can be lead along to consider a conspiracy theory. But, Kay's book seems to suggest that the real believers, the ones who spend inordinate amounts of time researching and promoting a (conspiracy) theory, really are special.

And, in support of that, Kay gives example portraits of a few believers.

A central belief -- A small group within the U.S. government wanted to energize (or distract, or misdirect, etc.) the country, and plotted 9/11 to do so.

The paranoid mindset -- For example, a willingness to believe that your government is trying to use terrorism, staged acts, crimes, etc. to fool and control citizens and to gain their support. A good deal of "Among the truthers" is devoted to describing and giving examples of this type and their activities.

Kay analyzes hyper-rationalism and the willingness to construct and believe artificially complex narratives and explanations, especially those backed by (pseudo-) scientific explanations -- If you have people who are motivated strongly enough to find and give seemingly scientific and rational explanations for a theory about some event, it is impossible to defeat that explanation. A willingness and desire to believe will carry a believer a long way against almost any disproofs and arguments. A conspiracy theory find most purchase where and when there are people who want to believe.

Kay gives some background -- What energizes conspiracy movements? What makes these movements possible? (1) Humans are predisposed to seek an explanation for events. And, they are also predisposed to look for and to use an agent in that explanation. (2) In Europe, conspiracy theories were informed by fascism and Marxism. (3) In the U.S., Christian conservative conspiracy theories and apocalyptic millennialism shape some of our conspiracy explanations. (4) In the U.S., the belief in individualism and the power of the individual combined with an extreme concentration of wealth and power, fuels a tendency to believe in plots and conspiracies as explanations for drastic events. (5) Political populisms in the U.S. tends to foment belief in an evil force or organization behind unwanted events, e.g. a secret society, an organized religion, a racial group, a secret business society, etc. (6) There is a tendency to re-interpret events using a narrative that contradicts the official explanation.

There are conspiracy believers on both the right and the left: lefties worry about the CIA or some other secret government organization; those on the right obsess about the United Nations, the European Union, an international court, etc. But, the conspiracy theories are remarkably similar. Of course, where ever you are on the spectrum and whatever your beliefs, yours are going to be the true ones.

And, there are some events that we, most of us, some of us, cannot leave alone. We simply must have an explanation that is more than the most obvious or most direct one. There must be a better explanation than that a single, deranged gunman kill John F. Kennedy. There must have been a larger and more devious evil behind the 9/11 attacks.

There is a tendency among conspiracists to attribute multiple evils to a single, secret source. Once you start down this kind of rabbit hole, many strange theories and ideas come to seem reasonable and even attractive.

Many conspiracists feel that they do not need to explain what really happened, since they have done such a good job of explaining how the official explanation is problematic.

Specific conspiracy theories -- Here are some of the conspiracy theories you will learn about from "Among the truthers": (1) The protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion: a plot to take over and control gentiles. (2) Conspiracy theories that blame the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, or a Dick Cheney led neocon Star Chamber. (3) Right wing conservatives' belief in a diabolical plot behind the campaign to reduce global warming. (4) The larger plot behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Conspiracies and the media -- Now we have so many channels and choices in the news that we listen to that we can choose our own reality, that is, the reality that is described and reported to us. That means that the actual world that we see and experience may not be at all consistent with the "reality" we have chosen on the news media. At the very least, it can differ wildly from the "official" version of events. That makes it likely that many of us will begin to doubt what is being reported to us by the normal or conventional media, that is, what is reported as the "official" version of reality. Effectively, we can each choose a personal, trusted, or more sizzling vision or explanation of our world, and we come to be suspicious about all the other versions. In particular, the main stream media come to be seen as being in cahoots with the military industrial complex, the financial community on Wall Street, the wealthy elite, or a secret, master government agency.

Since the Internet can be seen as giving a megaphone and a printing press into almost anybody, Kay describes the Internet as "democratizing conspiracy". This was one of the chapters that fascinated me the most, because it is an attempt to describe how the Internet and email and the Web facilitate and encourage conspiracy theories and their propagation. When almost everyone can do research on their favorite conspiracy using a Web browser and a Web search engine, when almost everyone can "broadcast" their ideas, theories and arguments using email and Web forums and a personal Blog, you have a huge facilitator and a big magnifier effect.

False flag theories -- There is a long history of government plans to stage events that can be blamed on an enemy and used as a pretext for aggressive action. These lead naturally to a theory that 9/11 was staged to provide an excuse for invading Iraq. For Truthers, 9/11 was the "new Pearl Harbor", i.e. they cast it as an event that was consciously arranged as part of a plot to provide an excuse for war.

Birthers and Tea Partiers -- The Birther movement can be seen as an attempt to drive U.S. voters toward the far right. (1) Tea Partiers are populists maybe, but many or even most are educated desk workers, not manual laborers, much less farm workers. And (2) Tea Party people do not want capitalism controlled as did earlier populists; they mostly believe in deregulated, free market capitalism. The Tea Party line on Obama: He is a socialist who is trying to expand government; he hates capitalism; and he is deliberately trying to destroy America's position as a superpower. The Tea Party is filled with Birthers, anti-environmentalists, free market capitalism believers, small government and no-taxer fanatics, fervent Christian religious believers, etc. And, it does contain a conspiracy fringe, radical activists who really do believe that they are locked in a struggle against malign despotism. A Christian evangelical flavor is common. As is railing against tyranny, especially the leftist, big government kind. The Tea Party combines extreme libertarianism with social conservatism.

Where does the Tea Party extremism come from and why? (1) It's fed when our belief in the freedom of the individual comes up against the constraints, rules, and restrictions of modern, highly organized society and government. (2) It's fueled by the frustration of living in a society where there are such extremes of wealth. And, don't forget, the right wing and Tea Party's answer to those extreme differences in wealth is lower taxes.

But, a large proportion of Americans both (1) believe in smaller government and (2) favor big government programs such as Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, etc. So, the division and conflict is not just between those on the left and those on the right; it is within our own conflicted minds.

Kay also discusses deconstructionism, Paul Mann, Jacques Derrida, etc. These each can be seen to be a gateway to and enabler for undermining objective meaning and replacing more standard explanations with conspiracy theories. In some sense, they provide academic support for efforts to describe the world in the ways a conspiracist might want to view it. They justify and rationalize holding beliefs that are not supported by empirical evidence. As if that were needed, since on the Web you can find "evidence" for anything you want.

For another discussion of this subject and the 9/11 Truther conspiracy theory in particular, and one that is both insightful and entertaining, see "The great derangement", by Matt Taibbi.


70 John Kay -- Culture and prosperity: the truth about markets -- why some nations are rich but most remain poor

One thing that this book attempts to do is to answer the question: What features enable companies and economies as a whole to succeed and prosper? Kay's answers center around:

The institutions and mind-set needed for a modern, successful economic systems take a long time to produce. It's not likely that anyone can "install" them; these conditions need to evolve through a self-organizing process.

Assignment -- Allocation of scarce resources to competing ends. Kay considers examples and problems with both (1) political decisions; (2) market decisions as mechanisms for assigning and allocating goods to those who need them and to where those goods are needed (But, what about the Internet stock boom and bust? Were those companies really winners until they crashed?); (3) allocation decisions made by a single person or by a central controlling authority (that can be huge mistakes also); and (4) picking good people and trusting (yes, but which are the good people? Answer: We don't know until after they've done the right thing.). All of these strategies have problems. We just have to get lucky, I suppose.

Spontaneous order (and organization), chaos, etc. -- Many of our problems revolve around the fact that economic systems are large and complex, and, therefore, their formation and change is chaotic. Complex systems are especially subject to sensitivity to initial conditions and path dependence. When initial conditions affect (and determine) subsequent behavior indefinitely and when path dependency is sensitive to small initial conditions, forecasting (prediction) is impossible.

One interesting point that Kay makes is that we are fooled in believing that contracts, because we can write them or have them written and signed quickly, are easy. But, the language and the assumptions behind these contracts, as well as the institutions that we rely on to interpret and enforce them were not at all easy to produce. In fact, it took a long time and a huge effort to produce the contract regime that we currently have.

Property rights that are stable and understood in common are important in producing prosperity, according to Kay. But, those property rights are not simple. Like the language and assumptions behind contracts, they took years and years to develop and for us to develop a sense of agreement on them. They vary across different societies. And, now that we are contesting ownership of things other than physical property, for example music and movie libraries, the copyrights to books and software, and patents on devices and inventions, not to mention genomes and DNA sequences, those property rights and disagreements over them will become even more complex. All of this affects the legitimacy with which property and its ownership is viewed by a society.

A successful economic system must do the following: (1) Allocation: it must allocate scarce resources among competing ends; it must determine what is made (production) and who gets it (assignment). (2) Exchange: the system must enable scarce resources to get to those we need them where they need them, and to do so in an efficient and cost effective way.

Centralized control -- Kay provides a number of examples where centralized control of the allocation and exchange of goods, of the production and assignment of those goods, gets it disastrously wrong.

Specialization and division of labor are huge magnifiers with respect to prosperity. Corporations do this well. Combine these with the abilities to organize and to cooperate, and this is where prosperity comes from.

Some of the later chapters of this book attempt to explain why it is so hard for a poor country to become rich. These chapters discuss problems faced by countries that are poor but resource rich, countries that attempt to use central planning and centrally planned projects, etc.

Kay makes the point that those who do the hard and unpleasant work, are more motivated to innovate, to mechanize, and to invest in capital improvements. But, some laborers go on doing unpleasant work for years without innovating. Perhaps Kay means that those who bear the costs of that unpleasant labor are motivated to innovate and to improve labor productivity. In particular, they want to remove the costs and reduce their reliance on unreliable labor.

Kay critiques the ABM (American business model). He seems to feel that it is too simple. Importantly, he claims that the most important difference between rich and poor states is the quality of their economic institutions. Furthermore, these economic institutions and the qualities that make them better or worse are not simple; and certainly they are complex enough so that they cannot be described as merely strong property rights. It makes a great deal of difference what the exact nature of those property rights are. Also important is that markets function well (or even function at all) only when they are embedded in and can depend upon social institutions.

What is wrong with and incorrect about the ABM? (1) The ABM assumes that we have good, or even perfect information; but we do not. (2) Markets for risk do not work as described by the ABM; we handle risks in other ways, e.g. in families and communities that cover us and our risks. In fact the securities markets are more like casinos than like insurance companies. (3) Most economic activity does not happen in anonymous markets with large numbers of buyers and sellers, but rather in corporations and other organizations. (4) Order sometimes does emerge spontaneously, but often it is aided by government, by social institutions, and by agreements between firms. (5) Knowledge and information are produced, most often and more importantly by firms and individuals, not by markets of buyers and sellers.

And, most importantly, the ABM is likely to result in a distribution of income and wealth that is so skewed that it and the government and economic system that supports it loses it's legitimacy. We are getting close to that condition here in the U.S.

Kay's book is in some sense a study of a particular kind of complex system, specifically an economic system embedded within a political and societal system. It's also an attempt to show just how complex such a system is, and how no simple explanation or simple theory can explain such a system. Systems like this have a number of characteristics in common: they are large, complex, chaotic, deterministic, not predictable, decentralized, self-organizing, and adaptive. Given those characteristics, it's easy to see why Kay is skeptical about the ability of a centralized controlling body (e.g. a national government) to plan and control the development of such a system. Why? (1) Because the formation and growth of such systems is chaotic; it's subject to the effect of small changes in initial conditions; it's path dependent, so that small initial differences result in paths and conditions that make other conditions/paths unavailable; it's complex, which means that there are lots of conditions (states); it's subject to outside, unexpected influences; the effect of making a change to the system is unpredictable. (2) These are usually "one-off" systems: each one is "one of a kind". You do not have the option of producing several as practice or as tests and then to make the real one. That means that you have to get it right the first time, and some of us (I'm a computer programmer) know that's not possible.

If you are interested in the issues discussed in this book, then you are likely to also be interested in the following: (1) "The origins of political order", by Francis Fukuyama; (2) "The collapse of complex societies", by Joseph A. Tainter; and (3) "Collapse", by Jared Diamond. The problem of how societies and political organizations degrade and fall apart seems as interesting and helpful to me as how they are created and constructed. I wish that Kay (and Fukuyama) had discussed it a bit.


71 Laura Kipnes -- Unwanted advances

Kipnis has at least two goals in this book: (1) She wants to describe some of the especially outrageous activities that are a consequence of Title IX; and (2) she wants to propose and suggest some fixes and solutions.

The fixes are more on a personal level rather than changing the way institutions and universities have responded to the demands for protecting students from sexual abuse. Although I suspect that she would agree that that protection is in fact needed, her recommendations go more along the lines of educating and training young women to protect themselves and to engage in behaviors that would make it less likely that they be abused. Recommendations of this kind are tricky ones to make, because Kipnis knows that she will be accused of "blaming the victim". Kipnis tries to "square this circle" by both supporting reasonable action to stop abusers and recommending wiser and safer behavior by young women. This likely will not work to ward off criticism by those who want absolutely all blame placed on the abusers. But, Kipnis feels it's worth trying, because to not do so is both dangerous to and infantilizes young women. In the sense that it teaches college women that they are not in control of their lives, it sends a paternalist message that someone else will take care of them, and it misleads them into thinking that their lives will be made safe for them with no action on their part.

There is an additional insidious consequence of not teaching young women that they must take care of themselves and their own safety: these women will graduate and go on to live and work in a world where the university can not possibly protect them (even if it could while they were students). And, while many of them, in part because they will be graduates of elite universities, will work and live in relatively safe environments, that will not be true for all of them.

Kipnis is giving us a picture of a world faced by current college students that has seen profound changes since I was in college in the 1960's and early 1970's. In that earlier period there was more of an inclination by students them selves to view college administration and bureaucracy with distrust, as the enemy almost. I was, keep in mind, a member of the don't-trust-anyone-over-30 cohort. But, now, students, especially female students feel they should be able to expect protection from school administration. Title IX and our Federal government seems to back them up on this. In response to this demand, colleges and universities seem to have taken on tasks and formed departments and organizations and hired on people. There are economic costs to doing so, and much of that cost is likely being passed on to students. Governments, our Federal government in particular, have a tendency to solve problems by creating and enforcing requirements without providing the funds to pay for compliance.

And, much of the book is an account of Kipnis's research into some particularly dramatic (and outrageous, if you are sympathetic with the accused abusers) investigations and disciplinary actions by universities. This account can be taken, I believe, as an attempt by Kipnis to motivate us to agree that universities should not be pursuing these cases, that this should be left in the realm of our legal system, and, especially, that universities should not be allowed to use procedures that do not protect the legal rights of those involved.

In case you believe that this issue has been settled, it's not. An opinion piece on the Op-Ed page of the N.Y. Times of 8/4/2017 by Jon Krakauer and Laura L. Dunn titled "Don't weaken college rape policies" argues in favor of the use of the "preponderance of evidence" standard for settling claims against those accused of rape. Women need and have a right to expect protection, and it's argued that the use of the "preponderance of evidence" standard would give them more protection. However, that article contains this confusing statement: "Whenever a student is accused of sexual assault, university administrators need to render their judgment with tremendous care, because erroneously determining that a student is responsible for sexual misconduct can cause lasting harm." It's hard for me to imaging how using tremendous care can be consistent with using the "preponderance of evidence" standard of proof, since that standard only requires a small likelihood for guilt over innocence. Given that disciplinary action, in particular expulsion from school, is being based on that weak standard of evidence, it should come as little surprise that accused students have gone to court to seek redress. I do not have the legal mind capable of untangling this issue, so I'll have to leave it to others to do so. However, it seems clear that young women need protection and that society and universities and colleges should be taking a variety of approaches to give them that protection in addition to (or perhaps instead of) making it easier to successfully accuse an abuser (as recommended in the N.Y. Times article mentioned above), including: education on how to protect oneself, more campus police and security, better outdoor lighting, etc.

The low bar for conviction required by "preponderance of evidence" standard is not the only objection that Kipnis makes against universities. She also criticises secretive proceedings, not allowing the accused to have legal counsel during investigations, and other lack of due process abuses.

One of Kipnis's worries is that society and universities are giving young women a false sense of security. They need to be taught and warned about which situations put them at risk and what to do when they cannot avoid those situations. To do so runs counter to the arguments against "blaming the victim", and so Kipnis worries that young women will put themselves at risk, because they have been led to believe that someone or some institution is protecting them. That behavior is dangerous and it infantilizes women. Kipnis is saying, I believe that it adopts a paternalistic attitude toward women. This attitude, in effect, says "you are not capable of taking care of and protecting yourselves; we'll do it for you."

An additional downside of the policing role given to universities and colleges is that it expands their responsibilities, tasks, and power. That comes at an added cost to students, since it means increased cost to the school for personnel and salaries. In a time when student costs for higher education are already outlandishly burdensome, you would think that we'd want to avoid that.

One insightful form of analysis that Kipnis describes is the use of storyline-before-evidence. Kipnis claims, correctly I believe, that it is a powerful way of arguing if you can first create a storyline and assign roles within that story to people and afterwards search for facts that fit and support that story. Following that strategy and sequence can be very powerful in assigning responsibility for actions.

Although I suppose it makes interesting, entertaining, and outlandish reading, I thought that Kipnis spent too much time on the story and persecution of Peter Ludlow. After reading Kipnis's account, there is no way for me to know whether this is a outlier or whether their are many more cases very much like this one. If it's a one of a kind, then while I'd agree that it Ludlow received unfair treatment, there is not much that seems to need to be done. On the other hand, if this is a very common occurrence, then it could be used as part of an argument for having more demanding standards of evidence and for moving the persecution of accused rapists and molesters away from university administration and into criminal courts. This story (about Peter Ludlow and his accuser) makes good drama and Kipnis knows how to turn it into fascinating entertainment, but I wonder how much we should really allow it to influence our thinking about young women in college and the way they are being treated, both by their peers and by the institutions they attend. If you are inclined to be a bit skeptical about Kipnis's account of the Ludlow case, you might want to read this article at Slate.com by Michelle Goldberg titled "She’s Not Like Those Other Feminists ": http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/unwanted_advances_by_laura_kipnis_reviewed.html.

Kipnis's overall motivation in writing this book is to criticize and reduce the dis-empowerment and infantilization of young women. Without reducing the protections that young women have a right to expect from universities and society, Kipnis wants to encourage young women to learn to take care of themselves. That certainly is a good justification for this book and the time we spend reading it.

The later chapters of the book that criticize the risky and unwise behavior of women with respect to sex and alcohol are certainly worth reading and thinking about, especially if you have a daughter or granddaughter who is about to go off to college. However, I wonder about how prevalent this behavior is among college age women. This is not a book based on surveys, research, and statistical data, so there really is no way for me to tell how many women in college take these kinds of risk with alcohol and sex. Here are links to several articles that might give a little help with that issue:

So, there certainly is evidence that the behaviors and the negative consequences of those behaviors that Kipnis talks about are prevalent enough and damaging enough to be taken very seriously.

One annoyance that I have with the book is that it seems to be exclusively about college women. That makes sense because these are the women and students that Kipnis has experience with. But I can't help but think that there are many women in our country who are treated much worse than those Kipnis discusses and who have no Title IX bureaucracy to help protect them.

It's an entertaining book, and parts of it are very valuable and provocative. It's very much worth reading and thinking about.

And, for a discussion of "Unwanted advances" from a very different perspective, see the article "I am a knife" in the London Review of Books", by Jacqueline Rose, 2/22/2018: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n04/jacqueline-rose/i-am-a-knife


72 Ezra Klein -- Why we're polarized

We are, according to Klein, polarized and we're polarized rigidly along party lines: Democrat vs. Republican. That means that nothing, no argument, no inconvenient facts, can convince any of us in the U.S. to vote across party lines.

What has happened says Ezra Klein, is that the issues have become "stacked"; they have become layered and rigidly aligned with the two dominant political parties in the U.S. Almost all Democrats line up on and agree on almost all political issues. Ditto Republicans. There are, now, almost no uncommitted voters. There are almost no undecided voters. There are almost no independent voters.

This also means that there are no politicians running for office about whom any of us can say: Well, I like her/his position on A, B, and C, but I don't like what she/he says about D and E. So maybe I should consider the other guy. Most voters in the U.S. now align exactly with the positions of their political party and the political candidates they vote for and, for that matter, with all their friends, too.

And, that means that almost none of us can imagine that things will turn out well if the other guy wins. After all, she/he is wrong on everything.

The individual policy positions on one side or the other are not that extreme, argues Klein. But, the amount of sorting is. Each of us align either on every Democratic position or on every Republican position. Those in a given political party are like each other not in just one or two ways, but in all other ways, too.

And, this "stacking" of political positions means that when one of us disagrees with someone about one political issue, we are likely to disagree with them about everything. Which also means that, from someone's position on one or two political policies, we can predict their opinion on many others. Worse yet, once you know whether someone is Democrat or Republican, you can predict their positions on most political issues. That's a new thing in the U.S.

But the problem is not the voters. The problem is the toxic system within which they vote. That system, for example, channels us into this kind of behavior.

Our political system, in the U.S., drives out political representatives to be strictly aligned on all issues. In part because of the way their campaigns are funded, politicians know that they will be punished severely if they vote across party lines on any issue. No compromise is possible.

Part of this sorting is geographical. Part of it is gerrymandered voting districts. We now have, claims Klein, landslide voting districts; we even have super landslide voting districts.

It's a reflexive system. Voters demand that their representatives be more extreme and that they act and vote when in office in a rigid party-line way. In response politicians, e.g. through techniques such as gerrymandering and voter suppression, push their constituents to vote in more polarized ways.

Klein also tries to give a historical explanation for how we became so divided. That story begins with race and the start of a long struggle to maintain white racial dominance. His explanation builds on a description of the Dixicrats: they were Democrats who were very conservative; at the Federal level they engaged in a variety of compromises and trade-offs in order to block desegregation and civil rights legislation; and when they split from the Democratic party, those compromises and deals no longer made sense. That made possible much of the strict party-line voting that we see in our Federal U.S. government today. I'm leaving out the history of violence and terrorism used by white supremacists in the U.S. to maintain control of government, society, and the economy. And, now, that history will be extended with the events that took place during the attack on the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2021.

In "Why we're polarized", there is a somewhat lengthy attempt to analyze and describe a set of personality traits that differentiate liberals from conservatives, and therefore, I suppose, Democrats from Republicans. He describes characteristics like openness to new experiences (Democrats), a desire for order (Republicans), a desire to preserve traditional values (Republicans), etc. That seems to make sense to me, but I'd be very wary about it. For one thing, it's seems tribal and almost racist: "their kind is different from us". And, while it might be helpful to be aware of our differences when we need to talk with and negotiate with someone else, we also should be careful not to put them in a box that blocks us off from reasonable discussions. Klein, in fact, goes so far as to claim that whether you shop at Whole Foods or Cracker Barrel tells us whether you are liberal or conservative.

This polarization is especially troubling when it happens, as it has, in the U.S. political system. What we have euphemistically have called "checks and balances" turns into a divided government that is unable to compromise or govern, but is very well designed to enable one party or the other to block legislation. Klein makes the uncomfortable point that whenever the U.S. has engaged in nation building, whenever we have recommended that, e.g., a defeated nation adopt a democratic form of government, we never recommend our form of government, in spite of the amount of lip service and praise we give to our founding fathers. We are more likely to recommend some sort of parliamentary government, one where when one party or the other wins an election for the legislative body, they also are able to choose the head of state, i.e. the prime minister. Klein makes the point that a divided form of government such as ours only works when the parties are ideologically mixed enough so that they can cooperate with each other.

One consequence of this is that the U.S. Supreme Court has become, in recent years, much more politicized. Why? Because so much more seems to be at stake when the choice of a Supreme Court justice by one political party or the other means that virtually all her/his decisions will be ones you can support or all her/his decisions will be ones that you despise. Now, in contrast to earlier times, the decisions made by any particular Supreme Court justice are much more likely to be in line with positions taken by the president that appointed her/him.

Another consequence is that U.S. senators and legislators cannot compromise or bargain. They must vote in lock-step with their political party. They, with few exceptions, know that the voters who sent them to Washington, D.C. will punish them in the next election if they do not. There is no up-side or positive payoff for the politician willing to bargain or compromise. Doing so has come to be seen as "appeasing the enemy".

And so, we have a political environment where there is a set of positions on policy questions that is taken by Democrats and a set of opposing positions taken by Republicans. No one can "make a deal". None of us can say, of a particular politician, well, I like her/his positions on these issues but not on those. We're either all in or all out. S/he is either friend or foe. We have a divided and bitter bodies of voters, divided and obstructing or obstructed elected officials, and a relatively dysfunctional government.


73 Christof Koch -- Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Koch is trying to explain the possibility of consciousness (or sentience or awareness), which he also calls phenomenal experience. But, perhaps we need to ask why it needs explaining. If it's a fundamental and irreducible aspect of reality, perhaps it needs no explanation, or, at the least, would have a different kind of explanation. If it's an emergent feature out of an organized something, for example dynamic information structures in the brain as Koch suggests, then perhaps we only need to know that it is emergent and from what, and nothing more. After all, to say that X is emergent from Y is equivalent to saying that X is built up out of Y but that we have no explanation for how it is constructed from and of Y.

Koch says things like: If X is an emergent phenomenon from Y, then X can, ultimately, be reduced to Y. His point in saying something like that is that there is no hidden elixir, essence, soul, etc; there is nothing other than Y. But, it's a slippery slope from saying "X can be reduced to Y" to saying "X can be explained in terms of Y". And, one of the points of saying that it is an emergent property of phenomenon is to assert that Y is not a sufficient explanation of X.

Since Koch says that he wants to solve this problem before he dies, we can surmise that, as of the time he wrote this book, he had not solved it. So, perhaps we will want to wait for his next book.

One troubling thing about Koch's discussion is the question of what difference it makes whatever explanation we have for consciousness. How would it change our lives, the way we interact with and treat others, the way we treat animals of different kinds, etc? Would we live our lives differently? I can't imagine that we would.

And, what if we come to the conclusion, as Koch seems to, that consciousness is an emergent phenomena from the increasing complexity of information. Then would we be led to treat all things that have and hold complex information, even computers, smart phones, and the like, as if they are sentient? Or, would be distinguish between sentient beings and conscious beings?

Koch wants to suggest (1) that consciousness is associated with integrated information represented by a coalition of neurons that gives rise to conscious sensation and thought and awareness; and (2) that consciousness and awareness are associated with brain integration. Perhaps, but so what? What does that mean or imply? What does a definition or description like that do for us? Is in any better than saying that consciousness rises somewhere in the brain, or even in some specific region of the brain? Perhaps it allows us to say that humans are conscious but computers are not and cannot be (according to that definition). But, that restriction seems somewhat arbitrary.

There is an interesting mix of science in this book. Koch attempts to use the latest brain and neuron science to help answer questions about the status of consciousness. There is also some biology and biochemistry and even quantum physics. That's all good and informative. But, it seems to be a little like trying to use more and more powerful microscopes to "see" the connection between the brain and consciousness, between the physical world and the mental. Perhaps understanding this advanced science it good, but it is physical science and it won't explain something that is not physical. In particular, it won't explain the connection between a physical brain and non-physical consciousness. The brain science etc. will have valuable payoffs in other areas of our lives, but I'm afraid that it is just misleading on this issue (consciousness).

Let's take Koch's suggestions that consciousness is complex, integrated information seriously. If it's just information, we can save it. We can copy it. If it is some process that is that is actively processing that information, then we could imagine saving the current state of that process, effectively saving the information at an instant in time. Then, we could copy that. That leads us to the idea that a consciousness is a process containing complex information states. And, we can imagine running that process on a variety of processors. It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure we want to go there. And, by the way, this thinking also implies that we could "save" a consciousness and re-activate it later. That would be a form of non-biological cryonics. I'm not sure we want to go there either.

However, with respect to explaining consciousness, the point of calling something an emergent phenomenon, as Koch does, is that what emerges is not reducible to that from which it emerges, and that there is something "added" that we cannot easily describe.

In case you are inclined to believe that Koch believes and is saying that consciousness is rational, read chapter 6 on "The unconscious", and you will find out that Koch is nowhere near that naive. He is aware of what a large portion of our brain processes, or what we might even be inclined to call "mental" processes are unconscious. He gives a number of examples that support the claim that are behavior is controlled by unconscious processes and that these behaviors occur before we are aware of deciding to perform them or even without any awareness at all. And, given this picture of the relationship between unconscious processes and brain processes, wouldn't we conclude that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, that consciousness is something that happens because of brain processes (and not the reverse), and that consciousness or the self, rather than controlling the brain, is controlled by the brain. But, a self that is controlled by and determined by physical processes may not be the concept of a self that will satisfy us at all.

I find myself coming to the opinion that this book has more questions than answers. It's also a very personal book: it's has quite a bit about Koch's personal quest to find answers to this kind of question. That's OK, perhaps even good. You might want to read "Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist" as a providing examples and guidance for how to muse on and think through these questions about the status of our thoughts on minds and consciousness and awareness.

It might be that in the future AI (artificial intelligence) will give us more help with acquiring a model for mental activity, but I have my doubts. In the first place, much of AI programming to date has been in the form of writing standard, deterministic programs that seem, from the user's point of view, more intelligent, but, because of the style in which they are implemented, do not model or mimic human brains at all. And, now and in the future, programs that "learn", that do pattern matching, that possibly use some kind of neural net implementation, and, in general, that improve their performance based on trial, error, and feedback, operate in such complex ways that their internal behavior may not be explanatory or helpful to someone trying to understand how the brain does or possibly could function. This is somewhat analogous to my claim that if mental activity and consciousness is an emergent phenomenon from the activity of neurons in the brain or from dynamic information structures in the brain, then emergence makes it opaque in the sense that we cannot understand it in terms of neurons and information. Likewise, if learning and intelligence in an AI program is acquired through matching, sorting, and feedback based on massive amounts of trials, then that intelligence may also be emergent and, as such, will be opaque in the sense that we cannot understand its behavior in any single case in terms of some simple set of instructions or information.

You might, if you cared, wonder whether I am at a loss or even depressed about our lack of understanding of consciousness and it's relationship to the brain. Well, not so much. And, that's because I'm a bit of a Spinozist myself, and I would be even more so, I suspect, if I understood Spinoza better. I view the mental and the physical as simply two distinct aspects of the same underlying reality. Likewise, the brain and consciousness (or awareness) are just two different ways of viewing the same reality. Spinoza would say that they are two attributes of the same thing. For me, that solves these problems, even though it doesn't explain much about them. But, then for me, in spite of all the wordiness of this review (I'm a recovering philosophy major, after all), the goal is to get past these issues and on to something more useful. I believe that John Locke's advise is wise on this: we should not attempt to make inferences or claims about that which is beyond or outside of our experience, and since we have no experience about the connection between brain and consciousness, we should not try to make claims about it or to explain it.


74 Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel -- Blur: how to know what's true in the age of information overload

We are each going to need to learn to be our own editors, gatekeepers, and aggregators. Although, we're likely to be able to find a lot of help.

And first, we should be asking ourselves: Do we even care about reality anymore? Of course we do, right? Maybe. But, we seem to listen to and enjoy all sorts of myths and fantasies. A flagrant example is the up-coming royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in Britain. So, perhaps the first step I want to take while trying to follow the advice in this book is to decide, when faced with any given story or news account, is whether, with respect to this one, things like reality, truth, accuracy, etc matter to me.

There are actually two sides to this book, both valuable: (1) On the consumer side, this is a book about how we can become better and smarter users of the news. It's about what each of us should to in the way of fact-checking, evaluating, verifying, and understanding the news we read and hear. (2) On the producer side, it's about what reporters and newspapers (for example), should be doing so as to produce the news and the stories that we need.

As for the producers, there is a section about what new types of workers we will need in the news production pipeline. These include (1) authenticator (fact checking and evaluating sources), (2) sense maker (explain the story, raise it above a mere assortment of facts, fit it into a wider context), (3) investigator (determine what information is needed, what is significant, find that information and write it up), (4) witness bearer (being there to watch and listen reminds news-makers of their responsibilities to the public), (5) empowerer (help the news consumer to verify, understand, and use the news), (6) smart aggregator (help us news consumers to find what we want and what is important to us; also filter it a bit), (7) forum organizer (help us discuss the news with others who are also interested; monitor and moderate that discussion), (8) role model (help us become citizen journalists).

Classifications of content -- Kovach and Rosenstiel seem to place different classes of content on a continuum with importance of verification, accuracy, authentication, etc on one end of the scale and emphasis on ideological fit and on pleasing a select audience is on the other end. So, for example, traditional newspaper reporting should be at the accuracy and verification end of the scale, while partisan political messages and newsletters for special interest groups would be at the opposite end.

This book suggests that we distinguish journalism from communication (e.g. blogs, aggregators, Web forums, etc). For Kovach the difference seems to be that communication merely passes along information with no attempt to classify the kind of information, no attempt to determine the authentication or expertise or reliability or authority of the source, no attempt at fact checking or verification of truth, and no analysis or attempt to add to our deeper understanding of the message or its context. In contrast, again, for Kovach, journalism attempts to do at least some and perhaps all of these.

One caution on the advice given in this book -- No matter how good the instruction on classifying and checking and evaluating the news we get, doing so is still going to require effort and hard work. You're advised to face that up-front.

Commentary and analysis -- We also need the news explained to us. We need it to make sense and we need it to fit into a larger picture. For ourselves, we need to explain it to ourselves and to be able to explain it to others. If I can't, then it likes does not make sense to me and is likely not to make sense to someone else, either.

Critical thinking -- Sure it's a buzzword. You can look at this book as a lesson in how to do that critical thinking, especially with respect to the news and other media. Some of that advice and those instructions on how to do critical thinking are a bit abstract, but much of it is quite practical, too. There is plenty of practical information on how to evaluate and make sense of the news and information we get from the both traditional and the new Internet-base sources.

A good deal of that practical advice is a variety of suggestions on how to ask the right questions. The question we should be asking, among others are: (1) What kind of content is it? (2) Is it complete? (3) Who and what are the sources? Are they reliable and trustworthy? (4) What evidence is provided for the claims made? (5) Are there alternative explanations for these claims? (6) Am I learning what I need to know? (7) Is the author giving me any assistance to help me check the quality of this information or to learn more?

Several of the later chapters of the book give rather detailed instructions, illustrated with examples, on how to evaluate and verify a news story, how to determine what kind of content it is, how to evaluate evidence and sources, etc. It's a worthwhile class in how to read the news or other articles where truth and accuracy are important.

In summary, our world is becoming more complex and, in response we are becoming more highly educated in an attempt to deal with that complexity. But, if we are going to be able to use our intelligence and that education to deal with the information that the news and what we read and hear, then we need to listen to and follow the guidance that this book gives us.


75 John Lanchester -- I.O.U.: why everone owes everyone and no one can pay

Good, understandable analysis of a very complex situation

What you will learn:

What's wrong:

What to do about it -- Saying that we all should become better people does not seem very helpful. Voting the rascals out is likely to produce another set of rascals. And, better regulation, which we are unlikely to get, only works when you have better people to do the regulating, and vice versa. We can hope that the next crash will be bad enough to cause a change, though we'd really be foolish to wish for a next time. Perhaps "next time really will be different".


76 Bruce Levine -- The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South

This is actually several books, and when reading it, you can get multiple things out of it. Yes, there is history about the U.S. Civil War. But, there is also a good deal of information and description of the society out of which that war and the necessity of that war came. I use the word "necessity" purposefully. Given the social conditions and structure of the antebellum South in the U.S., there was really no way that the institution of slavery could have been given up voluntarily. This was especially true of the elites in the South (the Master class) that depended on slavery for the maintenance of their lifestyle. Giving up that lifestyle and the institution of slavery on which it was based, after having been raised with those benefits and attitudes would have been such a radical change as to have been unimaginable.

And, of course it is a book about slavery. There is some good explanation about how brutal and punishing slavery as practiced in the South before the Civil War actually was. This was not just hard work at low wages, or even at no wages. It was forced labor driven by physical pain and punishment to extract the most labor at the least cost. That has several implications. (1) It inflicted severe suffering on those enslaved. (2) It was in support of an economic system that depended on that cost/benefit ratio, an amount of benefit that could be delivered at that cost only if it was driven by physical punishment and using minimal food to keep it going.

And, yet another reason why this war had to be fought and could not be avoided in spite of the incredible and horrid costs and loss of life and suffering was because those in the North feared the advancement of slavery in new states as territories were made into states of the Union. That would tip control of the U.S. federal government to the slave states. And, those in the South feared the converse. There was likely no way to resolve this without fighting.

In addition, this is a book about the attitudes and mind set that enabled a society to allow itself to keep such an inhumane institution in place. You'll learn about some of the justifications and rationalizations used disguise that privileged position and the suffering that resulted from it: (1) It's good for them (the slaves) and their family structure. (2) They are loyal and thankful for it. (3) They would not be able to take care of themselves. (4) This is the only possible structure for a just society. And, so on. Those justifications are transparently lies that were told to justify something that these members of this society did not want to give up.

But, even as history, this book has something extra to add. It traces the effect of various battles and of the news of victories and losses (1) on the attitudes of Northerners and Southerners, and upon the whether elections in the North would deliver the political leaders needed to prosecute the war and (2) on attitudes in the South and the efforts of political leaders in the South to maintain support for a war that was essentially a fight to maintain the benefits of the institution of slavery for a small slice of the population.

One, of the very valuable and fascinating aspects of Levine's work is the letters that he quotes, especially letters written by women in the Master class in the South. Learning about their attitudes and about their ideas and feelings, as their way of life approached its end, is very revealing.

Perhaps even more important for us here today in the U.S. are the residual effects of the society and the mindset that enabled it. Levine gives some description description of that mindset and psychology, but it is way more complex than he has space for. In part it involves a master to slave relationship in which masters refused to allow their authority to be challenged and in which they met any perceived challenges with brutality and punishment. There was a code of honor and authority and dominance there, and I believe that we are still living with the effects of that code and the militancy that it entails.

Levine gives some help, though perhaps not enough, with demystifying something that I've wondered about. The institution of slavery was a benefit to slave owners, so it is understandable why they would be willing to go to war to save it. But, what about non-slave owners in the South. Why were they willing to fight, suffer, and die to save it? Some of the answers that show through in this book are: (1) White supremacy and a believe that the white to black relationship must be maintained. (2) The belief by those who did not own slaves that freedom for blacks would put themselves down at a level equal to blacks, something they could not face. (3) Southern patriotism and devotion to the South as a separate region. (4) Belief that free slaves would cause turmoil, a breakup of social order, and riots. (5) A core belief that the South without slavery was unimaginable. (6) A fervent desire that blacks be kept subservient and whites be supreme.

Giving up those beliefs and feelings is hard. There is little wonder that they were so difficult to give up. I wonder whether they have yet.

One side light -- Levine believes, if I interpret him correctly, that there was a growing realization in the North that, not only must the slaves be freed, but that (1) the support of freed slaves was necessary for a successful war effort (both in behind the lines support and in active battle) and that that support must be denied to the Southern war effort. And, Levine gives accounts by a number of those who fought near them about how effective freed slaves were in the fight.

More notes about the war: (1) Increasing and very high desertion rates in the Southern army toward the end of the war helped lead to the defeat of those armies even in the face of the willingness of political (and military?) leaders to fight on regardless of cost and lives lost. (2) The treatment of black soldiers fighting for the North by Southern soldiers was merciless; there were instances of "take no prisoners" style slaughter of Northern black units by Southern white units.

If you want to understand more about what the South was, about what it became after the Civil War, and what it has become today, then I'd recommend these:

You will learn about the characteristics of the Old South and about Southern culture from "Fall of the house of Dixie", but you will get even more of that from the above three books. Some of those characteristics: (1) militarism, patriotism, and a tendency to view violence as the answer; (2) religiosity, and also a belief that "God is on our side"; (3) racism, identity defined by race, white supremacy, and a belief or feeling that race and cast was needed to maintain feelings of self worth.

It's a fascinating subject, though not always a cheerful one, and it has consequences even now in the society and politics here in the U.S.


77 Michael Lewis -- The big short

This book will help you view the financial markets and the players that drive them with a more skeptical eye. Yes, you were already less than sanguine. But, this book will improve your awareness and understanding of why you were suspicious and why you should be.

In part, this book is a description and an explanation of the financial markets during 2000 through 2010. But, it is also a description of a few people in that market and their personalities, especially a few that helped bring that market down. It's also a morality tale about evil people who were stealing money from those in the lower middle class who needed a home and about a few people who helped bring that process to a halt.

Question: Why did financial players sell so many mortgages to poor and lower middle class people? Surely they knew that the likelihood of repayment on these NINJA loans (no income no job or assets) was low. (1) Doing so was necessary because of growing inequality and stagnant wages. Either you borrowed or you accepted a lower and lower standard of living. (2) The skewed income and wealth distribution created a larger and larger pool of lower middle class people to lend to. (3) Because these borrowers were a greater risk, they could be charged a higher rate of interest. (4) The financial players in the mortgage origination and securitization chain either did not understand these investments and their risks (they were stupid or they understood by chose to ignore the risks out of greed (they were evil). You take your pick. Either way, it became a way to defraud and cheat the lower middle class.

This book can be viewed as an attempt to explain what it takes to uncover what everyone else does not want to see or be aware of or admit. Perhaps it's a genetic or a personality flaw: the compulsion to view everyone and everything with suspicion. Or, maybe it's a special skill: the ability to concentrate on and investigate a company or investment instrument until you uncover what others do not know. One of Lewis's goals in this book is to give us examples and descriptions and even explanations of each of these.

78 Michael Lewis -- Flash boys: a Wall Street Revolt

This is a good book to read if your goal is to ruin what used to be your very good relationship with your stockbroker. After reading "Flash boys", you will have too many sharp, suspicious, pointed questions for you stockbroker and how he trades your account.

This is also a book that is reporting injustices in the world of banking and investment. If you somehow feel that you do not already have enough outrage about what the big investment banks have done before, during, and after the 2008 financial crisis, then "Flash boys" will certainly help. And, you'd do well to give yourself a good dose of Matt Taibbi's writing on the "banksters" at Rolling Stone magazine. (See http://www.rollingstone.com/contributor/matt-taibbi)

"Flash boys" is about HFT (high frequency trading), which many of us small investors might think that HFT is something that goes on in a separate area of the financial markets and that it does not affect us. Lewis tries to show that's false, and that it affects all stock market investors.

Here are some of the things that Lewis exposes:

If you are now gnashing your teeth and are tossing and turning at night over how HFT is taking your money, one strategy that you can use to reduce the damage is to be a very low frequency trader. Since HFT takes a small slice of the transaction each time stocks are bought or sold, you can reduce your losses by reducing the number of transactions. Buy and hold is good protection against this racket. If you try to profit from frequent buying and selling stocks, you'd better be prepared to "play with the big boys". And, remember, they have (and can hire and buy) lots of brain power and equipment and infrastructure that you cannot.

However, ..., it's still worthwhile to ask, how much does it matter? Say we agree with Lewis that something very morally wrong is being done, that someone is being cheated, that someone is lying about what is being done for and to investors. Still, let's as what is the cost. As far as I can tell, that cost is measured in fractions of a cent per share. So, when I buy 10 shares of any stock, believe me, my stock broker takes a larger share of that trade cost than whatever the HFT are cheating me out of.

That does not mean that what Lewis is trying to expose should not be exposed. It should be exposed, investigated, and regulated. If investors are being fooled about the financial markets and what the purport to do (e.g. guide excess funds to companies that can make use of them; enable investors to profit by putting their excess funds to use), then the investing public is likely to lose faith in the stock market, and that will matter to all of us, investors and non-investors, too.

But, one of Lewis's larger points is to rail against the lack of transparency in the financial markets. In part, it's the complexity in the financial markets that help create the opaque nature of the market, but that's not all. Lewis claims that the lack of transparency is hugely valuable to those who are making huge amounts of money from HFT, the high frequency traders, but also other institutions that profit from satisfying the needs of the high frequency traders, such as the stock exchanges.

For me, what that cries out for is not so much "lynch the bastards", but rather more investigation and more transparency.

Apparently, in this industry it is almost a requirement that you (1) swear frequently and (2) claim that every one else in the industry is stupid and does not know what is "really" going on.

79 Jeffrey A. Lieberman -- Shrinks: The untold story of psychiatry

Also see my reviews of the following:

Lieberman has a very sanguine view of the progress made by psychiatry in the 2nd half of the 20th Century. He has been, he feels, part of that progress, so there is a bit of self-congratulations scattered through this book. Therefore, we should be skeptical. He has been (and perhaps still is) president of the APA (American Psychiatric Association), which is the organization that created, approved, and publishes the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), so he has a vested interest and is likely to be defensive about criticism. A bit of skepticism is advisable.

That skepticism is especially justified given: (1) the abysmal treatment of psychiatric patients during the first half of the 20th Century; (2) the conflicting and changing definitions of psychiatric aliments; (3) the unreliability of psychiatric diagnoses (and the inability of psychiatrists to repeatedly diagnose patients consistently; (4) the over prescription of powerful psychotropic drugs, often without an understanding of the medical causes it is hoped that those medications will treat (and it doesn't help that it smells like there is a cosy, reciprocal relationship between psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry); (5) the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis and of Freudian psychoanalytic theory for many years and then the rejection of that movement as without scientific basis and a lack of grounding in reality.

And, the most important tool in dealing with mental illness is a book (various editions of the DSM) that describes symptoms without trying or being able to tie them to underlying causes. So, that now many or most treatment attempts to deal with effects (or symptoms) without understanding the cause of those visible effects. It's as if your medical doctor were to prescribe pills for hair loss without knowing whether the cause of that hair loss is an external infection or an internal chemical imbalance.

And, yet Lieberman struggles on, fighting what he believes is the good fight to help save and boost confidence in the latest version of that diagnostic manual: DSM-5. He emphasizes (1) the success of DSM III in guiding psychiatry toward a more evidenced base approach; (2) the horrid conditions in psychiatric institutions before 1950 and how that has been improved dramatically; (3) the phenomenal success of drug based treatment after the 1950's.

And, certainly there have been successes. There have been improvements. Certainly many have been helped and saved by psychiatric prescriptions and psychotropic medicines. Certainly, it is because of progress and improvements in psychiatry and psychiatric treatment that some can lead normal lives who otherwise could not, and that others can at least maintain instead of descending into something far worse. Lieberman gives a good account of these improvements.

Of special interest to me in this book is Lieberman's account of the very rough and contentious revision process that lead to DSM-5. After reading Lieberman's account, it's hard for me not to believe that Lieberman feels it was a success just because it's over and just because DSM-5 was approved and accepted by the APA (the American Psychiatric Association). But, Lieberman says very little about the quality of that (not so) final product or whether he believes and has evidence that DSM-5 actually improves the help that psychiatrists and therapists may be able to give to their clients. It may even be that he feels that DSM-5 is good enough if only because it maintains the evidence based approach that was begun in earnest with the revision process that produced DSM-III.

I suspect that it would be a calamity if psychiatrists did not have something like DSM-5 to justify some of their requests for reimbursements from insurance companies. Perhaps many people would be denied the care they need if that basis were not there. But, the cynical among us might claim that psychiatric practitioners are best off to use DSM-5 to justify insurance claims and, when treating and talking with clients, to use their own best judgement. Lieberman himself suggests something similar when he says things like that we need to learn more about and to use both biological psychiatry and what he calls psychodynamic principles; both neuroscience and attempts to listen to patients' accounts of their experiences, emotions, and thoughts. I take this to mean that neither neuroscience nor talk therapy techniques alone seem to work very well, so we'd best try both. And, this kind of cynicism about the DSM project is displayed blatantly in "The book of woe" by Gary Greenberg, who seems to feel that the DSM is useful for getting money from insurance companies, but should be ignored when a therapist actually deals and talks with a client.

Even Lieberman seems to feel that the DSM is the best we've got and that it is neither a botched attempt at biological psychiatry nor a throwback to psychological theorizing that is not grounded on evidence. It's the best tool we currently have and we should use it, perhaps with caution, perhaps with a bit of skepticism, until we can produce something better.

By the way, Lieberman also says things that indicate that these difficulties and limitations are a result of the inherent nature of what we are attempting to deal with: a domain which is both brain and mind, which calls for both neuroscience and talk therapy, and which can be helped by both medication and counselling. I suppose I agree, but I and many others are wishing for more progress with this kind of treatment.


80 David J Linden -- Compass of pleasure

Given the amount Given the amount of semi-scientific knowledge that we have floating around us these days, this book is not likely to be terribly surprising, nor to revolutionize your life. But, if you've lately been humming

I'm goin' to change my way of livin'
If that ain't enough
Then I'll change the way that I strut my stuff
'Cause nobody wants you when you're old and gray
There'll be some changes made today
There'll be some changes made

to yourself and can't seem to stop, then perhaps your brain is telling you to read this book.

The advantage to using this book (instead of books that tell you to use their wonder diet or special formula and instead of believing the spam email you've just received telling you about some wonder treatment) is that "Compass of pleasure" helps you figure things out for yourself. Instead of a one size fits all cure all, you can learn some things that may help you figure out and pursue changes tailored for you as an individual.

Another take-away lesson from this book is the simple recommendation of increased mindfulness. Pay attention to your own likes and dislikes, to what you have (in the past) enjoyed and been upset about. That increased awareness is likely to enable you to make better decisions in the future, decisions that are less likely to leave you feeling unhappy and confused about your life. It's even possible that this increased mindfulness and awareness will help you be more aware and conscious of the feelings, likes, and dislikes of those around you, especially those you care about.

This increased mindfulness might have other beneficial effects, also. There is a belief among some, myself included, that some addictive behaviors are encouraged by a lack of mindfulness for the pleasures that something gives. That lack of mindfulness or lack of appreciation or lack of conscious enjoyment leads us to consume more and more without (awareness of) satiety. So, slow down, and be more mindful of your enjoyment of food or booze, for example, and it's likely that you will be satisfied with less.

And, if you are interested in understanding some of your cravings for food, why you eat as much as you do, why some people do and some don't gain excess weight, etc, Linden has a chapter on that.

If you are interested in the underlying science of how your brain works, Linden is a good source of information about this. Also look at his earlier book: "The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God".


81 Michael Magoon -- From poverty to progress


These notes are primarily about Magoon's book, But, the following works are also relevant and discussed.


  • "From poverty to progress", by Michael Magoon

  • "The Origin of Wealth, Evolution, Complexity and the Radical Remaking of the Economics", by Eric D Beinhocker

  • A review/summary (by Michael Magoon) of "The origin of wealth" -- https://techratchet.com/2020/01/21/book-review-the-origins-of-wealth-by-eric-d-beinhocker/

  • "The dawn of everything", by David Graeber and David Wengrow

  • "Slouching towards utopia", by J. Bradford DeLong

  • "The better angels of our nature", by Steven Pinker

Wealth, progress, and prosperity in the modern age

Magoon is attempting to describe and explain the long process of the progress of economic development and advances in prosperity. He is especially concerned with explaining why there was so little progress in the advancement of human standard of living for so long but then it increased so rapidly after the 18th century.

His explanation seems to be that it took a long time for human societies to develop the complex social structures and the dense populations and the individual autonomy and the safety from foreign invasion, all of which are necessary for the development of an economic system that is at a higher level than a subsistence, and that produce progress at a rate that is faster than what was experience before about 1800 CE.

Magoon is among those who believe that our existence, in so many ways, is much better than in earlier historical eras. And, he argues, the largest part of that improvement, i.e. by far the biggest gains, have taken place in the last two hundred years, or what DeLong calls the last long century. In that respect, he is in agreement with writers such as Pinker, Ridley ("The rational optimist"), and DeLong, mentioned above. He puts a reasonable amount of effort into convincing us that we have indeed had an impressive increase in both the speed of progress and the amount of prosperity during the last several hundred years.

Here are some of the reasons he gives for believing that we have actually made progress:

  • Per capita GDP and economic growth have advanced.

  • The percentage of people living in absolute poverty has declined dramatically, especially in last 50 to 60 years.

  • The United Nations HDI (human development index) which measures material standards of living, has improved substantially. Some of the components of the HDI are life expectancy at birth, expected years at school, mean yours of schooling, and gross national income per capita.

  • Literacy rates have improved.

  • Sanitation and sanitation systems have improved and have become more prevalent and wide-spread. That means both more pleasant lives and a dramatic reduction of sickness and death.

  • The percentage of people with access to improved drinking water that is uncontaminated has increased, again reducing sickness and premature death.

  • The percentage of the population that has access to electricity has increased.

  • Life expectancy has increased, in part because of improved sanitation and access to clean drinking water, but because of other improvements as well, for example, better medical care, life expectancy at birth for women, etc. So many of us now are living longer, and our health during those longer lives has improved, which has to have made, I believe, those lives more enjoyable.

  • Neonatal mortality has declined.

  • With respect to food, cereal production increased and agricultural prices declined. This led to an increase in the daily supply of calories per person.

  • With respect to education, the average number of years of schooling has increased significantly, especially in nations which started the second half of the 20th century at a low level.

  • And, literacy rates have improved as well.

  • The proportion of people living under a democratic form of government has increased significantly. In earlier historical eras, democracies were rare or did not exist. There has, however, been a small amount of slipping back in the last few years. We can hope that those who are promoting and push for more autocratic government lose out.

  • Famine -- The number of deaths due to famine is a small percentage of what it has been historically. Before 1920, most famines were caused by drought; those have been dramatically reduced. In the mid-20th century, a number of famines where caused by government actions; those have been reduced. Here is a quote from Wikipedia:

    Until 2017, worldwide deaths from famine had been falling dramatically. The World Peace Foundation reported that from the 1870s to the 1970s, great famines killed an average of 928,000 people a year.[25] Since 1980, annual deaths had dropped to an average of 75,000, less than 10% of what they had been until the 1970s. -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famine#21st_century

    The actual picture is more complicated. But, there seems to be no doubt that the improvement is very impressive.

  • Slavery and forced labor were, in earlier times, very common. Now, they are rare.

  • We have had significant periods of peace and freedom from war. Two exceptions were World War I and World War II, but also the colonial wars for independence, which, as Magoon mentions, mostly came to an end by 1975, when the last of the European empires finally collapsed. And, consequently, the number of deaths in wars and armed conflicts has fallen dramatically. Let us hope that this relative freedom from armed conflict continues.

  • Happiness -- Magoon argues that happiness has increased across the world. Happiness is subjective and is hard to measure. But, surely, few of us want to live lives that are as short and miserable as they were in earlier ages.

Magoon also argues that the above improvements of our lives reported by so many metrics are very broad-based and that they cannot possibly be due to increased inequality.

If you feel the need for more evidence and support for the claim that we are much better off now than in the past, you can read "The better angels of our nature", by Steven Pinker.

Hans Rosling, in "Factfulness", also argues that we are so much better off in so many ways than our ancestors were.

And, if you want to look at some actual charts and data that show progress across time, see https://ourworldindata.org/.

The evolution of society -- It would be good if we could explain how these improvements in our lives and living conditions came about. How did we develop efficient, complex, economic organizations? How did we learn the techniques, rules, etc. needed in an advanced economy? And, then, how did we develop the stable social structures that enabled the trade and markets needed in that economy? In other words, how did we develop the complex societies that we able to solve all the problems that needed to be solved in order to produce these advancements?

Our economic system and the social system that supports it is a CAS (complex adaptive system). This is, I believe, known as "economic complexity theory". If that's true, and I'm inclined to believe that it is, then it has implications. For one, it implies that the world is so complex that we cannot make reliable predictions about the future, and importantly that we cannot predict the consequences of any significant changes that we might make in our civilization and society and our economic systems and our political systems. And so, we need to be quite cautious when we make changes or wish for them. I suspect that Magoon would argue that the world we have now is very good in many ways. Hans Rosling, who wrote the book "Factfulness: Ten reasons you're wrong about the world -- and why things are better than you think", would likely also encourage us to be grateful, and then to set out to cautiously make changes and improvements.

Part of that explanation lies in what Magoon calls the five keys. Magoon believes there are five keys that a society must fulfill in order to make progress toward prosperity:

  1. A highly efficient food production and distribution system.

  2. Trade based cities containing people with a wide variety of skills.

  3. Decentralized political, economic, religious, and ideological power.

  4. At least one high-value-added industry that exports to other parts of the world.

  5. Widespread and heavy use of fossil fuels.

After giving a brief paragraph describing each key, Magoon gives a longer description of each of the above keys and also explanations for why the above characteristics are necessary for progress. See the chapter entitled "The five keys to progress".

And, Magoon discusses a few alternatives to his own five keys, and why his are the correct or best explanations and causes of progress.

Magoon insists that heavy use of fossil fuels was essential for the progress and prosperity that has been achieved, especially the progress made in the last several hundred years. He also believes that significant use of fossil fuels will continue to be necessary in the near future, at least. That's worrisome. It almost makes him sound like a spokes-person for the gas and oil industry. And if our civilization does what he says we need to do, according to the best science we have, we will have more and more environmental disasters: more floods, more hurricanes, more wildfires, more droughts, etc.

An important question -- Why is Magoon insisting that it is so important to understand the five keys to progress and how/why they work? Because they help us understand how progress happened, how to encourage it to spread, and how to keep it going. In other words, he believes that it is only by understanding those five keys or necessary conditions of progress that we or anyone can give good policy advice on how to maintain progress and how to help it spread.

Magoon believes that there are a small set of society types and that human societies must transition through them in order to become a society that can produce progress. These society types are the following (see chapter titled "Life before progress"):

  • Hunter-gatherer

  • fishing societes

  • Horticultural societies

  • Agrarian societies

  • Herding societies

  • Commercial societies

  • Industrial societies

Magoon gives a good deal of explanation of the characteristics of these various societies, and, in particular, the necessary conditions that enable a transition to the next higher level of society type.

I have questions about Magoon's insistence that the close physical proximity of people caused by cities is necessary for the sharing of skills and ideas. Not that I think it was false in the past, but that maybe it is not quite so true, now. Modern communications technologies such as phones and the Internet and the services that run on them have enabled us to learn from and make use of other people's skills and ideas at a distance, without, e.g., being in the same room.

And I want to ask: what abut societies that are predominantly: (1) technological and (2) information based. After all, Magoon argues that one thing crucial for progress is densely populated cities; and cities are crucial because they enable and facilitate the sharing and copying of innovations and ideas and information. I think we can interpret that to mean that Magoon himself might argue that one of the important reasons that cities produce progress is that they are information facilitators and, thus, are the basis and key ingredient of and information based society.

Quiz essay question for extra credit -- How appropriate is it to describe the information sharing and idea transfer and technology development that happens in a dense, information oriented city as an evolutionary process? Do cities progress by copying and modifying existing ideas, technologies, techniques, etc. Is there a selection and survival process going on?

Let's agree at least momentarily, with Magoon that lots of people in a dense city will produce progress and prosperity. Then we will want to explain how and why all those people (some of them skilled, many of them smart, lots of them hard working) congregated in that city in the first place. One explanation that Magoon gives is based on geography: good weather, not to far north or south, not too hot or cold, soil that will grow food crops and water to enable it to grow. Another geographical explanation is location near and access to a port or other transportation. There might be terrible conditions in another, possibly nearby location, that drives people to this city or location. And, if you are going to enable that city to grow and produce that prosperity we're hoping for, you'd also need some decent and intelligent government. Pleasant and attractive living conditions certainly help. And, the opportunity to earn a good living will draw people. Another explanation is based on excitement: people often want their lives and work to be exciting or at least interesting. Basically, these (the above) are some of the features and conditions that are the criteria used in most "Ten best places to live and work" articles, and of course, you can search for that kind of article on the Web.

And, there are six breakthoughs that Magoon claims were necessary in order to produce the progress and prosperity that we are now experiencing: (1) the emergence of commercial societies; (2) the spread of commercial societies; (3) the migration of citizens in commercial societies to other parts of the world; (4) the industrial revolution; (5) The Allied victory in World War II; (6) the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you wonder whether things might have been different and whether our current prosperity might not have happened at all, those six events are a few to think on. For more about this, see Michael Magoon's Web site: https://techratchet.com/what-are-the-causes-of-progress/.

So, what happens when a city functions in the way that Magoon thinks it should/

  • Sufficient food can be grown by a small number of laborers, possibly far away, so that the majority of those living in the city can do other work.

  • Workers in the city can specialize; they can develop specific skills and fields of expertise. (These are the skills and experience that, for example, you'd describe on your resume.)

  • There is non-violent economic competition.

  • This competition leads to the development of improved markets, better and more powerful transportation systems, lots of manufacturing and production of goods.

  • And, since there are lots of people, another result will be the availability of a wide variety of services.

  • Also, when lots of companies need to get there jobs done, and want entertainment, too, there will be the people and infrastructure needed to provide that. Everybody needs to eat, too, so there will be lots of demand, motivation, and incentive to grow and produce good quality food at reasonable prices.

The above items form a positive feedback loop. When things are going well, this process leads to more progress and more prosperity.

But, we have biases that encourage us to believe that the world is a terrible place and that it is not improving. Magoon gives arguments to show that it's not true. And, if you still need convincing look at "Factfulness", by Hans Rosling (mentioned elsewhere in this review), whose book is predominantly an attempt to defeat this negative view, and to present a more accurate picture of how human lives and living has gotten better, and also to explain why we believe that things are so bad when they are not.

And, there are certainly conditions that can block or stop progress. One of those is the lack of decentralized power and a ruthless autocratic government. As a side note, that is yet another reason to worry about the rise of populism in the U.S. right now.

But, looming behind all this is the imperative that we must reduce our use of fossil fuels if we are going to escape the disasters caused by climate change. This presents a conundrum: both Magoon and Matt Ridley argue that the energy we derive from fossil fuels has been essential in bringing us the progress and prosperity we have and continuing to deliver it in the near future. So, it would seem that without fossil fuels, we can't have progress. And, without progress, especially technological progress, we will not be able to solve the problems associated with global warming. We are really going to have to work on that one.


82 Andrew Mango -- The Turks today

The last 80 years in Turkey have been turbulent, and Mango gives both a good overview and sufficient details of that history since modernization and secularization was first imposed by Atatürk.

The sections of the book of most interest to me were the those on the most recent (2000 and after): efforts at modernization, in particular attempts to import women's rights, efforts to reform a few social institutions, and attempts to give Turkey a progressive and effective political system that brings educational and economic progress.

Here is a summary of some of what I've learned from "Turks Today":

Economically, Turkey has had booms and crashes, though these economic ups and downs may not seem so extreme after what we've recently experienced in the U.S. Manufacturing, in Turkey, is growing, in part because Turks demand of their leaders: "Build us a factory", which is another way of saying that creating jobs and a viable way to earn a living are important. And, the tourist industry is another source of income. But, Turkey has high population growth, so just maintaining the current standard of living need very high economic growth.

Turkey has made huge gains in education and literacy, going from very low literacy rates in the early in the 1900's to very high literacy rates today, although there are areas (e.g. slums around Istanbul) where the low literacy rates are still alarming. The desire for religious schools by a large proportion of the population is still a conflict with the secularization project. However, higher education is still available only to the privileged.

Ankara is the center of government activity, in part because Turkey's government is highly centralized. But, because government revenues are erratic, many ambitious projects are started but fewer are completed.

Istanbul is the center of culture and cosmopolitan society. However, although Istanbul has wealth and is cosmopolitan, it also has huge slums where poverty is extreme, the standard of living is low, life is grim, and social services are poor or non-existent.

Eastern Turkey is developing, but is still a 3rd world country. Increases in population make it difficult to raise living standards. The Kurds have been a huge problem, one with which Turkey is learning to deal, although incorporating the Kurds into society is still difficult.

So, where has Mango left us with? A summary of the last 50 years: a population explosion, modernization, industrialization, a general move from rural areas to towns and cities, an incredible increase in mass communication, and lots more education. Turkey has become more like southern Europe and less like the Middle East. Turkey has its ethnic and religious conflicts (Kurds, Islamists, ...), but is trying to work through them. Turkey is a civilized country with pockets of backwardness.

For a picture of what Turkey is like and where it came from, as well as an analysis of important issues for the people of Turkey, I can't speak highly enough of Mango's book. My only (minor) disappointment is that there is no updated edition that fills in the last three or four years.


83 Charles Mann -- 1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus

It's a fascinating book and a real mind expander. But, this book will do more that radically change the way you think about the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

Consider our views about how we manage our forests (if we do that at all). You may finish this book thinking that our forests would be radically different and would be much less fire prone if they were managed as earlier people had. When you visit Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National park, enjoy the magnificent sights, for sure, but also take the time to walk around the valley floor and notice the small forests (carpets almost) of small cedar tree sprouts and the larger cedars that are crowding out the large oaks that should dominate the valley floor. Indians, when they had control, would never have allowed that. They would have used fire to suppress the cedars and make more room for oaks and the meadows that supported deer and other wildlife.

And the forests that covered the North American continent? In part those thick forests where there only because the Indians were killed in huge numbers by disease and, therefore, could not manage them and keep them from crowding out the meadows and prairies as they had formerly done for so many years.

Consider your views about the huge herds of American bison that we're told were here before Europeans arrived. Yes, but the story that Mann relates says that those large herds were there for only a few years and only because the Indians, who controlled them, were wiped out by diseases brought be Europeans and, in particular, by their pigs. An analogous story explains the huge flocks of passenger pigeons which were here (almost) before Europeans.

If you have a view of pre-European Americans as unorganized hunter-gatherers, then you really do need to read this book. They were not only highly organized, but their management of their environment and their ability to keep the land around them in a sustainable productive state was admirable.

Not all of this story is pretty. Some of those early American societies were brutal and warlike. The way in which they dealt with neighboring societies savage, but not because they were savages, rather because they were highly organized and well trained fighting forces. And, some of these early societies had increadible extremes of wealth and poverty, some even worse than our own in the United States.

This book touches on much of what we believe about our history and about ourselves. It's a very radical view. And, you won't have the same picture of our society and our history after you've read it. You also may be left with the uncomfortable feeling that the Americas were not intended for Europeans to take and that there were superior people here before the Europeans came. And, you may come to feel that "American history" should cover much more than the period after the arrival of the Pilgrims. Often, the ideas that make us uncomfortable are the ones we need the most.


84 Robert D. Manning -- Credit card nation: The consequences of America's addiction to credit

Credit cards, in particular, and debt in general are incredible inventions. They are huge turning points in the history of human society. They are fantastic enablers.

Manning gives a very good description of credit card debt in the U.S. and what the consequences of it heavy use are. Here are some notes that should give you an idea of what you will learn from his book.

However, in addition to enabling us to do many things that we want, they also enable us to hide and to delay facing a variety of problems, for example: (1) The reduced and lost income by the middle and lower-middle classes and the resulting loss of status and lifestyle that this income was needed to maintain. (2) The increased cost of education and our unwillingness to fund it publicly; the burden this places on college students and graduates (with student debt); and what those denied opportunities will mean for our society. (3) Our unwillingness to confront, deal with, and control our impulsive frivolous, non-essential spending. (4) The growing inequality of wealth and incomes in the U.S. and how consumer personal debt (credit cards, home refinancing, etc) are used to shield the shield the middle and lower middle classes and to hide this class disparity. (5) The changing economic landscape and the loss of the social contract between corporations and workers. (6) The industrial restructuring, downsizing, off shoring, and the shift from manufacturing jobs to (lower paying) service jobs.

Credit cards and other debt mechanisms enable us to budget based on times of prosperity as though those are normal times and will not end. Consider, for example, the situation in Stockton, California, U.S. and other cities in California which have had to face bankruptcy. History tells us, "there will be cycles", but we continue to believe, because we want to believe, "these times will last". Our desire for more leads us to continue to ratchet up spending, even after earnings and income become flat or start to decline.

Debt and, for individuals especially, credit cards have become a way to put off accepting the reality that society and economic system does not enable us to afford all that we want. They blunt the effects of the growing inequality of wealth and income. And the result has been credit dependence -- a lifestyle that is possible only through borrowing.

We have developed institutions in our society and economic system, banks in particular, which require in order to be profitable, both (1) low interest rates and (2) lots of consumer credit (home loans, credit card debt, etc). The first transfers money away from (small) savers; the second transfers money away from those in debt. Add to that the widening wealth gap and what it means for borrowers, in particular: (1) for convenience borrowers who can afford to payoff their credit card debt on time or earlier get low cost credit, while (2) revolving credit users pay high interest costs.

In part this is due to changes in culture and values, for example, debt is no longer stigmatized as it once was. It is also happening because we have "democratized" debt, especially credit card debt, offering it to an expanded segment of our society, in particular to those households that have lower incomes and unreliable income sources. These are not convenience debt users who "borrow" because using a credit card is more convenient that paying with cash. These are those who use debt because they cannot afford what they need or, at least, feel that they need. Credit card debt, in many cases, helps these revolving credit users to prevent or delay the loss of status and lifestyle that they fear.

Manning is especially good at describing how extensive the effort was by credit card issuers to entice borrowers to use that credit, to take on that debt. And, then (around the year 2000) our government, rather than protecting those who had become lured into taking on this debt, protected the credit card issuers by making personal bankruptcy (but not business bankruptcy) more difficult and painful. Inevitably, when you squeeze here, the balloon expands over there: when credit card debt default became more painful, Americans responded by taking on other kinds of debt: they refinanced their homes. They sold their houses to the bank or they cashed in their retirement savings (remember how Americans were supposedly saving by buying houses?), you can view that either way.

It is, I feel, productive to view and think about this book through the following perspective: (1) the consequences of the increasing economic inequality described by Joseph Stiglitz (see "The Price of Inequality"), Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and others in terms of the damage that debt causes to low income households and the poor; (2) the cost of that debt in terms of high interest rates for revolving credit users; (3) the effect of that structural inequality in terms of both (a) who profits from it, in particular the banks, and (b) who enables it, especially the U.S. Congress, The Federal Reserve Board, the U.S. President and the regulatory agencies under him, most of whom are rented by the finance industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, we financed the excessive consumption needed to keep U.S. capitalism (the retail industry, the banking and finance industry, etc) going on credit card debt. That stopped working so well in the 2000s. So, we switched to Re-Fi's, 2nd home loans, etc. Then we had the financial crisis of 2006 and after. What can we possibly use to keep U.S. capitalism going now?

We, as a society, are consuming more while producing less. And, even in sectors where we have become more productive, we are compensating workers less for their productivity. We've attempted to hide these changes through the use of debt, especially credit card debt, but also home mortgages and refinancing our homes. That has about run its course and done as much as it can. What ingenious devices will we use to keep the game going now?

Two important links or connections have been broken: (1) Because of the promotion of credit cards by banks, because of U.S. government policies (especially those pushing easy credit for home loans), because of a buy-now pay later culture and a culture that is less ashamed and less afraid of debt, and because of the squeezed or reduced earning power of many workers in the U.S., the connection between earning and consumption has been broken. We no longer feel that we have to earn first before we can spend. And, just as importantly, (2) because of hiring policies, firing policies, and other employee related policies by corporations, much of the social contract between employers and employees has been shredded and broken. Both of these broken links, especially when combined, help us to understand why so many households do not save, why they are in debt, and why are only one or two missed paychecks away from homelessness.

The analysis that Manning does pushed me to be engaged with and to think about these issues and more. So, I suspect you can understand why I really appreciated this book.


85 Felix Martin -- Money: the unauthorized biography

The central point in "Money: the unauthorized biography" is the concept of money that Martin wants us to understand and all the ramifications (especially for economic thought) and consequences of that concept. You can view the historical parts of this book as Martin's attempt to make that concept clear.

So, let's consider three alternative concepts of money:

  1. Money is transferable credit.

  2. Money is a commodity, for example gold or silver. Currency and coins are just stand-ins for that commodity. Martin claims that in this view, it's the commodity that matters. Money, independent of the commodity does not exist at all.

  3. Money is anything we can use to make payments. Under this view all of the following would be money: coins (whether or not they contain precious metal), currency (whether or not it was redeemable for precious metal such as gold or silver), credit instruments (e.g. a transferable I.O.U.), and more.

View 2 (money as a commodity) is Martin's "bete noir". It's the concept that has shaped the thinking and theories that in Martin's eyes have caused so much harm. And, it's his view of money (money as credit), that Martin thinks can do so much good, especially in the sense that money and having enough of it in circulation is what enables economic activity and creates prosperity.

And, since credit can be created (that's what banks and quasi-banks do, after all), under Martin's view of money as transferable credit, we can create the money/credit that is needed to propel the economic activity that creates the prosperity that we all want.

So, there are (at least) two broad issues that you may want to try to work your way through, if you choose to read this book:

  1. What is wrong with what Martin calls the conventional view of money, i.e. the view of money as a commodity? How does it cloud and confuse our thinking? And, specifically, what disastrous consequences does it cause and how does it prevent solutions to those problems?

  2. Credit is good, but too much credit is bad: it causes booms and busts. Martin spends a significant amount of time in "Money: the unauthorized biography" trying to find solutions, cures, and preventatives for this. Does he succeed? And, how? After all, even if we agree that the view of money as a commodity is bad, we might still conclude that the view of money as transferable credit is worse. You would not have too much work to do in order to convince me that the view of money as transferable credit is a scheme created and promoted by banksters so that they can create the money (and financial transactions) that make them rich, and then when they have created too much money and the asset bubble bursts (the real estate bubble, the art market bubble, the stock market bubble, whatever the scheme of the day is), the government and the national bank can bail them out so that they will get richer still. You can probably tell that I've been reading Matt Taibbi (for example, "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap" and many of his articles in Rolling Stone magazine).

One anecdote is worth mentioning both because it is an important part of the history of the development of money and finance and because it emphasizes abstract nature of money and the importance of trust for its use -- At one point in medieval history, there was a regular fair which was used by merchant bankers to resolve and clear credits and debits. An important instrument that required clearing were bills of exchange. A merchant could pay for a shipment in a foreign country or far off city by using a bill of exchange from a local merchant bank to make the payment through an affiliated bank in that far away place. Martin tells that story much better than I could, and he makes it entertaining and educational. It's a story about the invention of money, and if you are interested in innovation, as I am, it's a fascinating one. Effectively, these merchant banking houses were enabling private credit/debt to circulate as a form of money. I suspect that they were creating a new form of money.

One question -- Are we at the end of history with respect to money. You can study finances as the history of the invention, at different times and in different places, of new and different kinds of money, the invention of new kinds of credit and new kinds of debt instruments each of which has its own affordances, each of which enables us to engage in business and commerce and finance in yet another new way. Will that history go on? Will we invent yet more kinds of money, credit, and debt? And, of course, will we have yet more schemes for getting rich off each new, future kind of money. Perhaps we are at the end of history, i.e. the end of the history of money. However, each news article about Bitcoin, whether it ends up in the ditch or is part of our future, indicates that someone is still trying. And, Bitcoin is not the only new money: see this for information on yet more alternative histories -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_currency


86 Joe Mathews -- California crack up

This a book for those who love policy analysis. It contains sections on (1) what is wrong, (2) how it got to be wrong, and (3) lots of alternatives and recommendations on how to make it right.

One major and general way in which Mathews thinks California government has it wrong is all the different ways in which the constitution prevents lawmakers from doing their job. This is especially true with respect to the budgeting process. There are restrictions on spending, there are requirements that money must be spent on specific needs, and of course, there are restrictions on how revenues can be raised, importantly restrictions on raising taxes. Mathew's main point here seems to be that Californians deserve the state government that they complain about because they've done it to themselves.

I found that the sections on all the different ways that we might re-structure our elections, in particular the ways we might elect our legislators to be especially fascinating. Mathews is especially interested in two kinds of improvements: (1) Making sure that every vote counts, that is that the proportion of legislators reflect every vote and not that once a potential legislator obtains a majority, all votes for other candidates do not matter. And, (2) ensuring that our voting system do a bit better job of not favoring the extremes of the political spectrum and not exacerbate the amount of partisanship and extremism in our political system.

A college-level class that used this book as a basis for discussing problems and improvements in our political system, at the California state level and the U.S. Federal level, too, would be a sure win.

There are disturbing opinions circulating that democracy as a form of government is in decline and that individual democracies across the world are degrading. Along with this comes the worry that autocratic governments (in particular, some in the Far East) can move faster, can plan and execute plans that reach farther into the future, and are more competitive, in general. It's heartening to read Joe Mathews make a strong case for improving rather than replacing our democratic form of governing.


87 Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson -- Machine platform crowd

Some other books in the same topic area:

And, there is this article: "Robot-proofing your child's future", The New York Times, 12/14/2017, p. D1.

Some issues

Some of the issues that are addressed by these books:

  • Machines will do all the tasks that we are currently employed to do and we will all be out of work. And, the range of tasks and types of work that machine will do and will replace human labor is larger and wider than we expect.

  • The capabilities that we are giving our machines (or that they are acquiring, in the case of machine learning) will become dangerous; we will lose control of our machines; perhaps, even, our machines may conspire against us and be dishonest with us.

  • The algorithms and code that machines will use, especially for machine learning, are complex and non-logical. They employ, for example, pattern matching that is "trained" using large volumes of samples. We will not understand or be able to justify the decisions made by these algorithms.

  • There will be tasks that machines will perform better than we humans do, for example, with more precision, more accurately, with less (human, male, racial, etc) bias, with fewer mistakes, more safely, etc. How will we decide when machines should be allowed to perform those tasks and when not? How will we decide when humans will be allowed to perform those tasks and when not? I can imagine a time, for example, when under some conditions, humans will not be allowed to drive automobiles, because they kill too many people when allowed to do so.

Many of the issues that are addressed in "Machine platform crowd" in particular are ones that attempt to provide guidance for managers of on-line companies.

Who will perform the task and make the decision

Safety -- There are some jobs that can be performed by either machines or humans. Driving a car will soon be one of these. If we find that machine driven cars are safer, that they kill and maim fewer people and cause less damage than human driven cars, will we continue to allow humans to drive cars? Will we, perhaps, limit when and where humans can drive cars, e.g. only on city streets but not freeways or only within 100 yards of your own driveway etc? And, if we make these kinds of restrictions on human driving, how will we justify them? In what sphere (legal, moral, practical) will make those restrictions?

Very few loans are now made based on human evaluations. We know that a human loan evaluator will be biased, will show racial and sexual prejudice, will make mistakes. For a number of reasons, in person interviews have proven result in bad decisions.

The changing nature of employment and work

There is a good chance that there will be many fewer jobs. There is also a good chance that many of the jobs that we do have will not provide the ability to earn a reasonable standard of living.

And, certainly, the distribution of kinds of jobs will change. There will be more jobs that require technical training, skills, and knowledge. There will be lots of jobs such as service sector jobs, even ones that require experience and skills, that do not pay well and do not provide benefits (medical insurance, vacations, sick pay, etc.). It's also likely that many of these jobs will be in the "gig economy": they will not, for one, provide a dependable income stream.

Yes, it's a little comforting to believe that these employment problems and disruptions can be solved by more training and education. However, there are lots of people who are going deep into (student) debt to get college educations that often do not get them jobs that enable them to pay off those debts. And, although we are perhaps reassured when we read newspaper stories about younsters getting technical training with computers and electronics and the like that will help them compete and work in the high-tech workforce and economy. But, I am not confident that there will be a large enough number of those hi-tech jobs, nor that they will pay well enough, and still less that most of us will have the abilities need to perform in those jobs however much training we receive.

It's very unlikely that there are remedies for these problems and disruptions. And, it's even more unlikely, that our U.S. Federal government will be willing to react to and fix these problems. After all we have lots of members in our national legislature who believe in "cowboy capitalism": the idea that we should all be able to help ourselves, and should not depend on our government to take care of us.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson seem to be strong believers that digital platforms will produce lots of new and innovative capabilities (for our computers, our mobile smartphones, and for other devices as well). I believe that, too, but, I'm not so sure that all the results will be so positive. And, what also worries me is that we will be soothed and pacified by these shiny and attractive new toys, and because we are, we'll allow, without push-back, these drastic changes to employment to happen.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson also believe that digital platforms (and other changes to our economic landscape, too, I suppose) are going to make lots of goods less expensive. That means that we can buy more of them and we will have more money left in our pockets and bank accounts after we buy them. That's likely true, but since they are so much more cheap to produce, we (workers in particular) can earn less by making them and fewer of us can earn even that. This is especially true of goods that are easily and cheaply reproducible, electronic media in particular. As reproduction and transmission/transportation costs fall, who will be able to make a living providing those goods? And, when you factor in the fact that owners and managers, especially top level managers, are taking a larger percentage of the revenue, this trend will bite hard.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson's concerns become even more worrisome when you consider that there will be more and more support for those who are attempting to develop AI software. There is open source software available for programming languages like Python. And, I'm already seeing lists of how-to documents and tutorials on the development of AI software and machine learning systems. Some of us will be trying to learn how to develop that software. And, can you imagine what it will be like when the next generation of students graduate from computer science departments when they have been expected to AI and machine learning software for their class projects? That's a very sobering thought.

Open source software

I'm a software developer; I'm retired; but, still I'm sensitive about issues of employment of software developers. McAfee and Brynjolfsson talk about demand curves and price curves of complementary goods (in chapter 7, "Paying complements, and other smart strategies"). These goods have several characteristics of interest: (1) Because they are software, they can be copied and distributed at almost zero cost. (2) Since they are open source, they conceivably replace software that might have been developed for pay by programmers who might have earned a living by doing so. (3) They increase or facilitate the sales of some device or application which was developed for pay and which does earn money for some organization and the people who are employed by it.

One response to this uncomfortable situation is to say: Developing open source software is a choice. If you want money in return for you effort, either do something else, or figure some other way to earn money, e.g. by providing expertise and services for pay, by selling related products and extensions or a "professional" version for money, etc.

The dangers in machines/computers that are too smart

Here we are stepping into areas of science fiction and speculation. We do not really know in what ways computers will become so smart that we will fear them. We do not know what practical ways we will have so that we can control and limit their capabilities.

We can, of course, imagine a future in which there are so many computers near us, in our bodies, in our homes, and where their activities are so many and so complex that we will not know how to control them.

So, a few points, in an attempt to reassure us:

  • It may be that for some purposes and uses, we will not want to be able to control or restrict computers around us, because they will to a better job of making decision than we are with our biases and tendencies to make mistakes.

  • We may see the use of rule-guided limits and restrictions on what computers are allowed to do. This might be analogous to the rule-based software that controls the fire-walls in our wireless routers. There are lots of bad things that computers out on the wider Internet can do to the computers and devices behind my router and inside my LAN (local area network). I don't know what all those bad things are nor do I know how to prevent them. But, I (mostly) trust my router to stop the traffic that would allow those bad things to happen. I can imagine (in a vague way, details to follow) that in the future, I will be protected from the machines around me and inside me by analogous sets of rules enforced by devices whose purpose is to shield me from other devices. This scenario is a stretch, but after all, we are talking about an imagined future.

In general, I'd say that we are talking about the future. We have a lot to learn in order to be able to deal adequately with the changes in that future and devices and capabilities and threats etc. that those changes bring. We'll make mistakes at first at least. We'll learn and we will gain new capabilities, new devices, and new software that will enable us to deal with those changes. The future sounds interesting and exciting to me. Let's hope I do not rue the time when I looked forward to these changes.

88 Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera -- All the devils are here: the hidden history of the financial crisis

This book covers lots of devils. Many of them are the miscreants that we've learned about in several of the books that analyze the recent financial disaster and those who've caused it.

Another view of this book is to look at a more narrow and specialized cause of the financial crash, specifically Fannie Mae and the U.S. government's attempt to make everybody a home owner, and to make their executives rich at the same time.

If you decide that everyone should own a home and you force interest rates down and you pressure a semi-government agency (Fannie Mae) to make it possible for everyone to get a home loan, you should expect a disaster. Why? Many reasons, among them: (1) Enabling everyone to get a loan, means that you will be loaning money to many who will be unable to repay them. (2) Enabling more people to buy more houses will inflate market prices of homes, thereby causing those who could afford more modest prices to be forced or enticed to buy homes at higher prices, and to take out loans to do so. And, (3) if the money is free, then why not buy a home, whether you need one or not. Maybe you'll make some money during the frenzy.

So, what were some of the things that went wrong at Fannie Mae? (1) Support by the Federal government gave Fannie Mae and other GSE's (government sponsored enterprises) an unfair advantage against other private companies. (2) Because Fannie Mae had an unfair and unnatural advantage and because it and the securities it supported were protected from and insensitive to risk, Fannie Mae could promote, encourage, and market securities that contained mortgages that should never have be created. (3) By putting that much money in play, the Federal government and Fannie Mae attracted unprincipled, financial players who were able to game the system to their own benefit. (4) The hunger for securities encourages creative people to create evil loan types, that is loans with adjustable rates, penalties for early payment and refinancing, and no requirement for the loan originator to keep the loan (thus reducing the motivation to give careful attention to loan quality).

Here is a un-virtuous, vicious cycle: Keep interest rates low, which enables lots of people to buy houses. The low interest rates encourage investors to seek securities with higher rates of return. The demand for securities fuels the creation of more credit and more home loans. Repeat.

This book will also provide you with descriptions of some of the "creative" and dangerous instruments and the dumb tricks that Wall Street came up with in order to keep the party going. These included CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and CDOs that contain tranches of other CDO's, in other words, take the tranches of CDO's that are so bad they can't be sold, package them into new CDOs, and sell those. And, if CDSs (credit default swaps) are not risky enough for you, then create a synthetic CDO containing CDSs. A CDS is effectively just an insurance policy, right? There is no collateral behind it. So, if you create a CDO out of them, you don't actually get a collateralized debt obligation; you get an un-collateralized debt obligation, or a synthetic CDO.

Here are a few alternative views of what happened to Fannie Mae and why: (1) Fannie Mae was increasingly left out of the home loan market because it could not purchase the low quality loans (sub- prime loans) that were increasingly what the market demanded. (2) Fannie Mae was pressured to enter the subprime loan market by the U.S. Congress and by the desire of its executives to increase market share. It destroyed itself while doing this. (3) Fannie Mae was monitored by regulators who could have been more cautious and more conservative but failed to do so. That failure meant that Fannie Mae had no protection from market pressure to compete in the subprime and Alt-A loan market.

And, if you want to learn more about what went wrong at Fannie Mae, take a look at "Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon", by Gretchen Morgenson. I have not read it, but have listened to an interview with Mortgenson on the radio. It sounded perceptive to me. A few of my notes from the interview with Morgenson: (1) This book tells how companies and government can work together to produce high profits for well- positioned individuals. (2) Money attracts people who are smart and aggressive and willing to take risks. If you make a system where high risks can produce high profits (and the down-side of losing is not especially punitive, i.e. the system is relatively risk insensitive), you will get outrageous, reckless, and (eventually) disastrous behavior. (3) When you create a system that can be manipulated for high profit, then someone will manipulate it for profit. The GSEs (Fannie Mae in particular) and the Federal government are such a system. This kind of system has the following characteristics: (a) it has a private entity (Fannie Mae) that can be supported (e.g. guaranteed, insured, subsidized) by government action; (b) it has a mandate or product that is provided by that entity that is viewed as popular with constituents of the government representatives, and (c) the government has the ability to provide support for the entity without short-term cost to the government (for example, the Federal government can guaranttee its loans because housing prices always go up and no one will default and ...).

There is more criticism of the bankers' (or "banksters" as we're learning to call them) role in producing the financial disaster in the following book review: "Cassandra among the banksters", by Benjamin M. Friedman (The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, p. 24. It's a review of "Banker to the world: leadership lessons from the front lines of global finance", by William R. Rhodes, and it (the review) is quite brutal. One lesson to take away from this review (and from the book itself, I suspect) is that those who were creating, packaging, and selling these mortgages were warned clearly and in advance about the coming correction, but that they chose to ignore those warnings in order to keep getting the outrageous compensation that they were being paid.

Yet another book to read about how our policies and those involved in the home mortgage industry created the recent disaster is "Our lot: how real estate came to own us", by Alyssa Katz. If we're obsessed with owning our own homes, then we're likely to get a deep hope to fall in.

Facing and accepting the likelihood of these negative consequences of governmental support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is hard for me to accept, because I really do believe in their mission, i.e. helping a broader section of the American public to buy homes and encouraging behavior and outcomes that are positive for a broad section of the public. But, if we are going to push our government to do that, then we have to push even harder to get our government to regulate and monitor that effort.

Perhaps these two books (McLean's and Mortgenson's) should be taken as evidence for and lessons in the claim that there is no free lunch. There are always costs. And, if we forget this, we'll soon have another disaster.

One of the messages that I take away from this book and the others mentioned above is that, as much as I'd like to pin the blame on one individual, as the words "all the devils" in the title suggests, there are lots of evil doers here. Creating a disaster of this size, complexity, and destructiveness took the combined efforts of a large number of greedy people.


89 Jonathan M. Metzl -- Dying of whiteness

Metzl, in "Dying of whiteness", attempts to understand and to help us understand why some people are voting and acting the way they are when the consequences seem so hurtful to themseelves._ In that respect, it's a little along the lines of "What's the matter with Kansas", by Thomas Frank. But, and this is an important "but", Metzl tries very hard to understand the positions and actions of the people he interviews from their point of view. He tries to learn and to explain what motivates them, why their actions make sense, and how they actually do derive some benefit from their actions and attitudes, in spite of some hurtful consequences.

So, is there some way that we can summarize these findings of Metzl's:

In some cases, voters believe that they've been tricked. For example, in Kansas, some felt that they had been promised that their schools would not be de-funded because of tax cuts, but then the money ran out.

In some cases, voters believed that someone else's schools would be de-funded but not theirs. They felt that their tax money should not be spent on the children of immigrants or minority races. And, Metzl points out that this reduced school funding is racist, because it hurts low income and minority students hardest. Many affluent parents can afford private schools. One earner families can run bake sales etc. to support their students' schools.

In the long term, these policies perpetuated an existing social hierarchy: poor students received bad educations and could not move up the economic or social ladder. The existing social and economic structures were codified and made more rigid.

If you are looking for answers to the question: Why would parents and voters want worse public schools, then Metzl has an answer -- De-funding public schools appeals to those who fear integration and the government interference possibly needed to enact it.

A different answer is one given by some parents who voted for lower taxes in Kansas: We were tricked and lied to. Maybe you were fooled, once, but a democracy requires that you grow up and learn.

Metzl discusses three major topics:

If this view, that we were tricked in to voting for lower taxes, for blocking gun control legislation, for blocking government health care support is true. How does it happen? How are these voters fooled and tricked? (1) Good marketing, (2) a rejection of expertise and science, (3) corrupted populism, and (4) the lie that cutting taxes will increase tax revenues and other arguments that have been proven false, again and again.

Metzl makes clear that for white males, in the South especially, there is always a racial undercurrent. There are, for example, feelings that we (white males) are better than them, that we deserve the government support we get, and that they do not. In the South, they never forget. The U.S. government invaded the South; the U.S. government sent troops to enforce Reconstruction; the U.S. government forced us to integrate our schools; etc. Metzl believes that white males in the South are still fighting to protect a Southern, white privileged, racist way of life. And, the consequence is poor health care, bad health, shorter lives, sickness, and suffering.

"Dying of whiteness", especially the chapters on health care in Tennessee and on school funding in Kansas, helps us understand why people vote Republican in spite of the fact that doing so hurts them and reduces services that they and their children need.

The use of "fake news" -- Republicans use the "fake news" label to dismiss any claims they disagree with. This and other ploys are causing us, in the U.S., to live in two separate realities, a right-wing one and a left-wing one.

In order to further understand these problems, we need to factor in: (1) large political funding by both right-wing and left-wing donors; (2) the success of minority rule by the Republican Party, for example, through the use of voter suppression and gerrymandering, plus the effect of the U.S. Electoral College.

One of Metzl's goals seems to be to argue for a just and equitable society. But that's a difficult goal. Why? Some reasons: (1) We do not all agree on what is equitable, on how evenly wealth needs to be distributed, on who should get support and how much. (2) Divisions and polarization in our society make agreement and, therefore, make constructive action impossible. (3) There are forces in our society who do not want an equal/even distribution of wealth and income; they want to be rich; and they have the power and money and influence to push our government, at various levels, to block those goals.

As a possible cure for some of these problems, we could consider pushing for a political system that offers voters some things they want in exchange for giving up others, e.g. increased taxes in exchange for better schools. But, wait, they already know that. The problem is that they have reasons for and emotions that prevent them from accepting that seemingly sensible deal: (1) Some feel it's a "devil's bargain"; accept slightly higher taxes and soon they will be much higher; accept a little government intrusion into local schools and soon there will be much more. (2) And, the cynic in me says that this is a case of some people wanting government benefits and support for themselves and their children and their family but not for yours.

For more analysis on the subject, see "Why we're polarized", by Ezra Klein. And, remember, you cannot argue for raising taxes and increased funding for public schools with someone wearing a MAGA (Make America great again) hat. Likewise, it's impossible to argue anti-abortion with someone wearing a "Vote Joe Biden" T-shirt.


90 Dana Milbank -- Tears of a clown

Entertaining, outlandish, and dangerous.

What good are facts if you can't make them do what you want?

Beck is entertaining, and he tells his audience what they want to hear. When you do that, you do not have to be very careful with truth and accuracy. When you can tell them what they want to believe, you do not feel much need for fact checkers.

Beck is very good at the use of "facts" and at suggesting a layer of research so as to give his claims a veneer of respectable truth.

Beck comes close to irresponsibly inciting violence, but does it with "plausible deniability". "Now I'm not saying that you should ...". That same linguistic construction or a variation on it ("I'm not saying that ...".) is used to present some outlandish claims to those who want to be entertained and with the anticipation that some in his audience will actually believe those claims.

One key to Beck's effectiveness is his ability to mobilize and harness a large collection of volunteers who uncover, track down, and provide him with the facts he needs and wants. Beck uses these facts to support his claims, but what they really prove is that on the Internet you can find support for almost anything you want to claim.

Beck's audience fits a particular pattern or finger print. That demographic, according to Milbank, is almost entirely white, mostly elderly, often in debt and financial trouble, full of suspicion and hate, susceptible to belief in conspiracies, and apocalyptic (believes the economy will disintegrate, buys gold because the economy will crash, believes that U.S. government will impose martial law, etc).

Beck has searched the Mormon religion for the most extreme and outlandish theories, conspiracies, and fables, then promoted them. But, that only proves that if you search widely enough and long enough, then you can find the fantastic claims and stories to meet your needs.

Beck promotes a number of end-of-times, dooms-day scenarios. And, he has the sponsors that provide the gear to go with those stories. Gold and survival gear are favorites.

There are a few people that Beck loathes; Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson are among them. That makes Beck the one to ride the Tea Party wave. The connection is, I suppose, the claim that both Wilson and Obama are taking away our freedom.

Beck is a terrific show-man. He can make his claims entertaining and even plausible. And he has the ability to cry whenever needed, with a bit of help from Vicks-Vaporub, apparently.

Beck can be viewed, according to Milbank, as trying to create a religious movement: he is providing a belief system, a set of claims that can or almost have to be taken on faith, and a leader for his followers.

Beck attracts those who fit the paranoid style. These are people who are angry and are easily convinced that someone is out to get them. If you want to know more about "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" and Richard J. Hofstadter's article about it, look to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paranoid_Style_in_American_Politics.

91 Adam Minter -- Secondhand

Adam Minter's "Secondhand" is valuable not just for what it informs you about, which is a lot, but also because of what it make you think about and evaluate about yourself. It encourages you to ask questions such as: (1) If and when I'm forced to move from where I live now, what stuff do I want to have to move and not have to move? (2) What stuff do I have that is of value to me? What stuff do I have that is not? (3) What different kinds of stuff are valuable to me, and what kinds of things do I try to collect and hang on to?

But, "Secondhand" is valuable not just because it makes us think about our own lives and not just because of it's concern for the environment, but also because it has fascinating things to tell us about where our stuff goes after we're through with it and what is done to that stuff (e.g. to repair, re-purpose, and resell that stuff), and who does that processing and resale etc.

But, Minter is not so much concerned with whether we each live uncluttered lives or whether we use less stuff. What he is concerned with is learning how we can reduce our environmental impact by using less and, especially, by reusing more. I really bothers Minter to think about how so many of the things we buy and use are one-use only, or can even be used no more than twice. You will find him at several sections in this book going on a rant about corporations that make their products reuse proof or reuse averse, or that make products that cannot be repaired, or that discourage customers from repairing their products ("opening this cover will void your warranty").

Fast fashion and disposable clothes -- With respect to clothing, Minter admits that he is in a difficult position. Clothing companies have been learning how to give people what they want, and that means clothes that are cheap, clothes that keep up with the latest fashions (and are cheap enough so that we can afford new clothes when the fashions change), and clothes do not require us to pay extra for durability (because we do not wear them out at our desk jobs, and wear them only a few times before buying the new latest fashions). These changes have down-stream consequences: it becomes more difficult to sell clothing secondhand, since the quality is so poor; it becomes more difficult to re-purpose clothes, for example, to turn them into rags because of the poor quality of the materials and fabric. Perhaps this news is not all bad; we do not buy as many secondhand clothes because we are more affluent and can afford to buy new clothes more frequently. We buy more new clothes because we can afford to do so, and in some sense that's good. But, the consequences of flooding the landfills and the world and the environment with all those cast-off clothes is not good.

And, speaking of rags, Minter's discussion of rag production businesses and their re-purposing of used clothing provides and informative and new, for me, perspective on where some of our old clothing goes and what happens to it.

Minter's discussions of where our stuff goes after we're finished with it (the first time) covers a lot of different kinds of stuff. Here are a few of the different kinds of things that he discusses:

And, let's not get started on packaging material. The more we buy online, the more we fill the world with Styrofoam, bubble-wrap, plastic shell containers, and much more.

There is also a thoughtful and somewhat sad aspect to some of Minter's book: affluence enables us to buy so many of the things we need, but what do we do with them when a relative dies or needs to move to a smaller home, or when we need to relocate to a different city, or ...?

Minter worries about the disappearance of reuse and of the companies that enable it. One of the causes of this disappearance is that the first products, i.e., the ones that need to be resold, reused, and re-purposed, are being made more cheaply and made our of cheaper and less durable materials. That makes them less suitable for resale and reuse and for re-purposing into other types of products.

One fascinating aspect of Minter's reports on resale and reuse is how global these activities and this business are. Used goods, in effect, become the "raw materials" for products that are made in distant places.

And, by the way, Minter spends a bit of time discussing the "de-clutter" movement. But, he's skeptical. And, that's because his concern is more with the effects of the huge volume of our stuff on our world and environment. For Minter, de-cluttering simply pushes our stuff out somewhere where it must be disposed of. De-cluttering, getting rid of stuff we no longer need or use, in Minter's mind I believe, may even be counter productive: by pushing stuff out of our own lives, we effectively make room so that we can purchase more stuff. And, "more stuff" is the problem.

It's perhaps slightly off-topic, but Minter's description of the good that Goodwill Industries does, especially in the way of providing employment for those who are challenged in various ways, is heart-warming.

Personal values -- I thought, when I first started reading "Secondhand", that I'd be thinking most about my own life, my own values, and my own stuff. While Minter's book did motivate me to think about my attachments to the physical things I own, much of this book has a focus on things that are larger and have a much broader impact than on me and the things immediately around me. An important message from this book is that the choices we make about the things we own and use have a much wider and longer term impact than merely on me and my nearby sphere. It's an important message. We, all of us, are going to have to deal with the impact of the stuff we use and own, and we need to begin now.


92 Chris Mooney -- The Republican brain: the science of why they deny science -- and reality

You will likely be made uncomfortable by this book if believe that there are intellectual justifications for your political positions and you want to belief that those intellectual arguments are not a sham and are the determining factors in the choice of your political positions. Mooney argues that there are other, less pretty factors at work in all of us.

Mooney shows that Right wing untruths about history, economics, science, etc are not merely individual mistakes, but rather are coherent systems of misrepresentations that are designed to serve individual psychological needs as well as specific political and religious purposes. Actually, Mooney is claiming that we all do that, though he tries to show that Republicans are more egregious at it than liberals.

This book describes some character traits that are associated with the willingness to maintain this misrepresentation of reality: (1) the need for cognitive closure; (2) dogmatism; (3) intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty; (4) fear of death, excessive apprehension; (5) reduced openness to new experiences, new ideas, and a variety of music and art; (6) less "integrative complexity" in thinking; (7) a need for order, structure, and closure; (8) a lack of intellectual flexibility and curiosity; (9) conscientiousness and a high value placed on orderliness, neatness, structure, etc, as well as punctuality and the need to follow a predictable schedule.

Mooney admits that many of these are good traits, but warns that they still must be followed with caution. The strategy of starting out with what you want to believe, then finding justifications for those beliefs without a good deal of questioning and a good deal of doubt is a risky thing to do. Republicans tend not to heed this warning, while liberals, being children of the Enlightenment, are at least somewhat better at it.

One important question about the Republican party is whether there is any sizable group of Republicans who do not fit Mooney's definition of rigid, authoritarian, and dogmatic. And, whether that group is large enough to influence the direction of the Republican party, its voters, and its politicians. If not, and since forming a third party in the U.S., which has institutionalized the two-party system, seems impossible, we may be stuck with a dysfunctional two- party system for a long time.

David Brooks, in a recent column for the N.Y. Times (January 28, 2013), suggested something similar, though it's hard to tell whether the idea is to carve off moderates from the existing Republican party or to find moderate conservatives outside the existing Republican party (possible those disaffected by extremists) or some combination of the above. Either way, (1) it's unlikely that you would get a sizable enough number to make it a viable political party in the U.S. and (2) since the extremists have more influence in primary and preliminary elections, it's unlikely that moderate Republicans would be given moderate politicians to vote for, and (3) because of existing institutions and institutionalized rules, there is little hope of breathing life and viability into such a new or splinter party.

Why are Mooney's claims that there are physiological and physical differences between conservative brains and liberal brains so important? Because, if those differences are physical, then those differences can be inherited. And, if inherited, it's likely that they are not learned or acquired. And, if that's true, then the likelihood that they can be altered is very low, which should guide liberals' attempt to influence conservatives. Quoting David Brooks in the above mentioned article: "It's probably futile to try to change current Republicans." These are, after all, bedrock principles with "deep historic and psychological roots", even if you do not accept Mooney's argument that they are embedded in physiological brain structures.

One important new condition is that conservatives and liberals and almost all of us have media outlets that we can, and usually do turn to that reinforce and support what we already want to believe. That is likely to increase in the future, and it makes this problem all the more difficult to solve.

This is not a balanced change -- Those who get their news from Fox news are more misinformed. This is shown by a number of studies. Look it up.

Perhaps a simpler way of viewing all of this is to say that beliefs are "sticky". They're hard to change for a variety of reasons: we're defensive about being shown to be wrong; after time, our lives are each organized around those beliefs in various ways, so that changing them would be disruptive; and as Mooney argues, there are likely physiological structures behind those beliefs, structures that would be hard if not impossible to change.

What to do: (1) Be more conservative in the sense of being more firm at showing and discussing reality, scientific truth, etc. (2) Create an alternative narrative and stay with it. (3) Stop believing or accepting that the two sides are equal (equally extreme, equally wrong, equally unscientific), and act accordingly.

One aspect that Mooney does not consider at length, and perhaps that he should not, is the possibility that positions held by individuals on some issues (e.g. abortion, birth control, the subjugation of women in marriage, unlimited access to weapons, evolution/creationism, and global warming science) are not intended to be rational in the sense that those holding these positions expect to provide reasoned arguments in support of them, whether are motivated reasoning or otherwise. In effect, some positions held by some individuals are beyond reason and argument. It's not just, as Mooney argues, that reasoned arguments are not effective because they are countered (answered) with motivated reasoning; it's that the response shows a lack of interest in giving an answer or reasons at all.

Mooney (in his concluding chapter, where he gives prescriptions for liberals) recommends that liberals "find some key facts, the best facts, and integrate them into stories that move people". Honestly, what kind of stories does he think might move someone who believes that abortion is murder or someone who believes that creationism is true because it is needed to maintain her/his essential religious beliefs or someone who feels that gun ownership should not be restricted because of his fears of a tyrannical government? Possibly, those stories, good enough and if told often enough by enough people, might have some kind of gradual, moderating influence. But, Mooney has already explained that the targets of these stories, those who liberals need to influence, become more defensive and more resistance to change when they meet more and stronger opposition. So, I doubt that we can expect the effect of these stories to be significant.

I was left by this book with the uneasy feeling that I had been given two conflicting claims: (1) Since conservative authoritarian Republicans are rigid, defensive about their beliefs, feel threatened about their ideas, are unwilling to accept new ideas, etc, it does no good to try to argue and reason with them or to try arguing them into changing their positions. But, (2) we ought to do lots more of this; we liberals should present liberal positions much more loudly and more often, even though doing so will only make those on the Right even more resistant and defensive.

Reality matters. And yet, our country is suffering because a large group of citizens are ignoring it and are willing to continue doing so.


93 Enrico Moretti -- The new geography of jobs

Moretti's book attempts to answer the questions: (1) Where are the "good" jobs? (2) Why are they where they are? (3) And is there anything that can be done (by city government, by state governments, by the federal government, or even by other organizations) to redistribute good jobs?

First, a clarification -- What is a good job to you might not be considered good by someone else. And, what Moretti really seems to be focusing on is the possibility of redistributing a variety of kinds and grades of jobs so that changes in our economy and businesses that have left sections of our country devastated, for example by the loss of manufacturing jobs. However, we should recognize that there are regions of the U.S.A. that have lots of jobs, but are devastated none the less because those regions contain lots of people who do not, in a variety of ways, qualify for those jobs. One thing that makes "The new geography of jobs" valuable is that Moretti is well aware of this and attempts to address these different problems (or varieties of the same problem) in very intelligent ways.

One aspect of this problem is the one that seemingly could be answered by improving support that we give as a society to prepare people for work. Part of that is education; part of it is training; and part of it is to enable more people to live in environments where they are encouraged and able to live better lifestyles. Of course, education for and training for jobs that do not exist in a given region makes little sense.

Central to Moretti's thinking is the notion of an innovation hub or tech cluster. These are regions of the U.S.A., and the world, actually where innovative products are born, and they are the regions that are attractors for both companies that do innovative work and for workers that either do or will in the future work for them. It is essential in trying to understand Moretti's thinking that we realize that the attraction works in both directions: the presence of innovative companies in a region attracts workers and the presence of workers in a region attracts companies.

In fact there is a genre of thought and writing about this idea: it's centered around the growth of cities and the work they do. We should be aware that, while it is innovation and technology that fascinates some of us and perhaps drives development now, analogous mechanisms of development were once driven by manufacturing. For information and thought about that, you might read "Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World", Joshua B. Freeman. Another fascinating analysis of different cities and the different forces that drove on energized their development is "Cities in civilization", by Peter Hall.

If you are not willing to let market forces sort this out for you (i.e. decide where the jobs will be and where the potential workers will be), then you have two choices: (1) attempt to move the jobs (and the companies that offer them) to where you want them or (2) attempt to move the potential workers to where the companies and jobs are.

But the distribution of jobs (across geography, across skill and education levels, etc.) is only part of the problem. Because of our increasing ability to automate more and more tasks, there will be fewer jobs for almost everyone, wherever you go, whatever your level of skills and education. Yes, there will be innovation hubs and tech clusters, as Moretti says, but there will be a lot fewer jobs of almost any kind almost anywhere. Clustering in cities, even moving to the right cities will not solve this problem, except a small bit at the margins.

This is in part because the firms that do innovation work, Apple and Google and all the smaller firms doing similar work, do not employ a lot of people doing that well paid innovative work in comparison with manufacturing firms and the numbers they would have employed. This is in part because most innovative work produces products that can be replicated, sold, and shipped (if they are shipped at all, and most software these days is downloaded, not shipped) very easily, cheaply, and with very little labor.

Moretti mentions jobs that can not be exported, traded sector jobs, he calls them. But, lots of those jobs cannot be exported or performed overseas because they are service jobs, and that often means that they pay poorly, have few benefits, provide irregular hours, and in general are not the jobs that we can build healthy lifestyles and communities on.

Moretti claims that firms that outsource jobs or that produce innovative products or both create jobs locally. That's likely true, and some of those jobs will pay decent wages, but many of them will be cleaning the bathrooms and hotel rooms and serving food and coffee. Many of those service jobs pay a low wage. And, many of these service jobs are the ones for which firms are working hard to drive down wages even further.

And, we cannot ignore the fact that we have lots of potential workers who have limited skills and education. The idea that we can train everyone or even a high percentage of possible workers to do those new innovation jobs in the new innovative economy in the tech sector is not realistic.

Innovation and trade and commerce do certainly contribute to the overall prosperity of a society. However, since our society and economy has learned how to distribute those benefits so unevenly and in such a skewed distribution curve, and since our government, the U.S.A. Federal government, has decided not to attempt to moderate that extremely distorted distribution of benefits, we end up with a society containing regions that are not prosperous.

Competition among firms has and will continue to drive down wages. Automation of repetitive and physical tasks (e.g. parts assembly) has and will continue to drive down the cost of labor. But, that's only the start. Automation and intelligent machines and AI will begin to drive down the cost of work even if it is not repetitive and even work that is not physical. And, "gig" labor strategies show that we have still more to learn about innovative was of reducing labor costs. Amazon's Mechanical Turk, Uber and Lyft show that we, perhaps more correctly, firms can restructure even the availability and scheduling mechanisms for labor. It's impressive that these "on demand" labor scheduling strategies can provide labor without the "burden" of permanent employment. I'll let someone else argue about whether it's an blessing (for employers, and perhaps for those who want a more flexible work schedule) or a disaster (for a few of those who need a more dependable livelihood). I've even seen a Web site for "Maids on demand": a home cleaning service in the "gig" economy. And, once this service has become automated, and can be backed up by "big" data on prices and availability, that labor cost can be tuned and gamed to the lowest possible, "competitive" cost.

Rationalizing costs and prices -- With respect to the labor market, we usually hear about this process being used to drive labor cost down. Is it possible that those seeking work could use it to push labor costs (compensation) up? That's a question that is worth exploring.

Innovation does indeed produce economic value. But, who benefits from that increased value. We are seeing, in the U.S.A., that this created value and profit can be spread very unevenly and can be spread in ways that are much less than optimal for our society.

Moretti spends a good deal of time talking about and analyzing "spillover effects". Some of these have to do with living conditions and lifestyle choices. For example, if you live near or associate with others who have healthy lifestyles and habits, then you are likely to enjoy a healthier life also. If you live near others who receive high wages, then your own wages are likely to be higher, also, although at least some of that benefit may be eaten up by the fact that you are likely paying high housing costs in order to live there. Conversely, if you associate with others who smoke tobacco and who do not exercise and who watch too much TV and who use online social media obsessively, then you are likely to engage in at least some of those practices and suffer some of similar effects.

In discussing the innovation hubs and tech clusters and the resulting concentration and uneven distribution of prosperity, Moretti also considers what can be done to influence that dispersion or distribution, e.g. what can be do to attract employers to a region that lacks them. But, while reading this, I have to ask myself: are we really willing to pay what it would cost to do that? Are we serious enough to spend the amount of money that would have anything more than tepid results? And, even those questions ignore considerations about whether we could institute and control policies that produce the results we intended. After all, markets and economies are notoriously chaotic and unpredictable. The idea that they are controllable in any practical way seems like a stretch. (See below for articles that discuss these difficulties.)

The converse strategy from trying to get innovation hubs and tech clusters to form where we need them is to encourage individuals to move to where the technological and other sorts of work are. Unfortunately, we already do a good deal of that. The result is the kind of sorting that is discussed in "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart", by Bill Bishop.

Moretti even considers the possible use of "relocation vouchers", or basically paying people to move somewhere else, hopefully where the jobs are. But, if you pays someone to move, and then they are unable to find work, then they likely end up with no livelihood and without the support of family and friends. That's a risky strategy.

Moretti describes "thick labor markets", along with their implications, consequences, and benefits. Again, this seems to be a story that leads to even more concentration in restricted geographical regions, and a desert of opportunities in many wide and distressed areas.

Another writer and thinker who is working in the same problem area is Richard Florida; see, for example, "The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It".

And, for a detailed account of how and why a company relocated its manufacturing and the jobs that went with it, see: "Somerdale to Skarbimierz James Meek follows Cadbury to Poland" in "London Review of Books", Vol. 39 No. 8 -- 20 April 2017 pages 3-15. This article will give you some idea of why it is so complex and difficult to influence the behavior of firms with respect to where to locate and relocate their plants.

Some idea of the trade-offs and difficulties of trying to lure firms and about how the problem of trying to rejuvenate depressed industrial areas has no easy or even hopeful solutions, can be found in the following articles: "When All Else Fails, Tax Incentives Probably Will, Too", by Eduardo Porter (New York Times, 5/8/2018) and "Lessons From Rust-Belt Cities That Kept Their Sheen", by Eduardo Porter (New York Times, 5/1/2018).

Given the difficulties described in the above articles, it would be appropriate to talk about incentives and about how those incentives might be tweaked, not to fix, but to encourage job creation and retention in some stressed regions. Might be, but you can not have all the job growth you want in all regions. You can possibly do just a little better at producing a few more jobs. But, the message seems to be that there are going to depleted areas, and, since you cannot expect all those in need of work to migrate, you will end up with distressed people.


94 Evgeny Morozov -- The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

Morozov's focus is on movements and protests against dictatorial rulers. But, much of what he says is likely applicable to demonstrations and political movements within a legal framework.

While I feel that Morozov is correct to caution us about believing that the Internet and the World Wide Web will magically change the world for us. However, I've got to believe that the Internet and some of our newer communication capabilities have to make a difference.

Still, Morozov is surely correct that more is needed than merely lots of mobile phones, lots of tweets, etc. The form of organization, the determination of the protesters, the expertise of the protesters all matter.

Morozov is absolutely on target to the communication technology is a competitive evolution: as protesters attempt to find and use the latest technology, the ruling powers attempt to find technologies to defeat them. And, the protesters attempt to find methods to counter those measures.

So, what is important for a protest movement against a repressive government? (1) The ability to share open information. (2) The ability to evade government censorship. (3) The ability to remain hidden from government so as to avoid repression and punishment.

Perhaps the lesson is that the techniques needed to run a clandestine, hidden protest and to escape persecution are different from those needed to run an open, popular one.

It is now so easy and cheap to create and distribute content, resulting in huge amounts of content available at so many locations. This makes it harder than ever to attract the attention and readership needed move minds and bodies.

Some possible conclusions after reading "Net delusion": (1) The Internet, the Web, and other new communications technologies can help, but are not going to solve all problems. (2) There are down- sides to unwise use of these technologies, in particular, a brutal government can use those technologies in its attempts at repression. (3) Protesters and those who seek to dislodge a autocratic government need to chose their tools carefully and to invest time and effort into learning how to use them.

The problems discussed in this book are rightfully known as "wicked" problems. There are no easy fixes; there are not even any reasonably accessible technological fixes. We might as well get used to that. We live in a society and civilization that has solved most of the easy ones. And, in doing so, we've made use of most of the easily accessible resources. Some of the problems that face us now will be very, very difficult ones. Examples are (1) dislodging entrenched, oppressive regimes (Morozov's concern), (2) climate change and warming, (3) the depletion and over-use of water, (4) the depletion and over-use of fossil fuels, (5) population increase, (6) poverty and hunger.

Morozov intends to criticize those who believe that, with respect to opposition to oppressive governments, the Internet and new communication technologies "changes everything". He is telling us that they do not work as well nor as smoothly as we've been told. But, it's very easy to re-interpret his critique and as encouragement and guidance on using these technologies more innovatively and to greater effect. Since I'm a believer in Open Source software development, I'm predicting that much of the software that we will see in the near future that will be used by protest movements, and used against them too, will be created by Open Source developers.

There are many moves to yet to be made in this game. I wonder what the use of heavy amounts of video will have on attempts by a repressive regime to censor and filter content. Video is harder and slower to scan and filter than text, which can be searched for "dangerous" words and content by software. China, in particular, is likely to have difficulty controlling these attempts with anything other than a heavy-handed blockage or all content. Still, Morozov is spot on to emphasize that repressive governments are becoming very skilled at using and blocking the use of communications.

This kind of development is not likely to stop or even slow down because of Morozov's warnings. I'm hoping it does not. Complex and powerful forms of communication and information distribution are what advanced societies are built of. I'm hoping that there are many more new developments in the near future.


95 Ian Morris -- Why the West rules, for now: the patterns of history, and what they reveal about the future

This book attempts to answer questions such as: (1) What advantages did the West have that enable it to dominate other regions at certain times in history. (2) When did the West dominate? And, (3) having attempted to learn something about social development and the advancement of society, what can we say about our future, both in the West and in the East.

I'm hoping we'll get answers to the questions such as: (1) What were those (historical) strengths? (2) Are those same strengths and characteristics still advantageous, given our current problems? (3) Who has and is gaining those strengths? Who is losing them? And, of course, (4) what can be done? Is there anything effective that can be done, both to advance our society and to protect us from some of the environmental, climate, and resource problems that lie in our future?

For me, since I'm a techie and a computer programmer, chapter 10, "The western age" is an especially interesting one, because it picks apart the story of how power (mostly steam power, I suppose), innovation, technology, and mechanization helped break through what Morris calls a "hard ceiling". That's interesting because this story might give us hints about how to break through the next hard ceiling or, if we are in the process of some sort of break through, how that process might proceed. I believe that each of these major moves in technology is started by some significant new enabling technology, e.g. the printing press (although Morris denies that the printing press really changed communication, not level of social development), the steam engine, accurate watches for navigation, telegraph, ..., and the Internet. If Morris is correct in the last few chapters of this book that we are approaching some sort of cataclysmic change, it is extremely important that we understand the nature of the change we are currently going through and also how this transformation might be influenced.

Migration and immigration -- Morris has interesting things to say about migration, in particular migration over the long term. He claims that one of the enablers of a modern Europe was what he calls the closing of the Steppe Highway. The effect of that blockage was to protect Europe from disruptive invasions from the east, enabling it (Europe) to advance to levels of social development that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Labor costs are a worthwhile point of view for thinking through the changes that Morris describes in Europe's industrial revolution. A central theme or basis for explanation is that people are naturally lazy, greedy, and frightened (or chose euphemisms if you prefer), and that this motivates them to invent and work towards what is easier, more rewarding, and safe. Apply that to labor availability and use; then you will soon arrive at explanations for mechanization, labor efficiency studies, etc. What kinds of incentives does this apply to, e.g. the drive to mechanize? What other incentives push mechanization? Reliability of labor and the labor force? Other, non-wage costs, e.g. the demand for education, medical care, etc? Worries about dependable labor availability. (I know that my relatives in California worry about whether there will be a sufficient labor force available right when fruit is on the trees and must be harvested immediately.

Perhaps we ask questions about the quality of the metrics that Morris uses to measure social development. By that I mean, is one kind of energy use just as good as another? Isn't a more efficient use of energy, even when the total energy consumed is lower, a sign of a more highly developed society? And, is all manufacturing the same? Perhaps building houses is not as good in some sense as manufacturing farm implements or some other machinery that helps to produce food. Perhaps burning lots of coal, especially if done in an uncontrolled and "dirty" way, produces a poorer quality of life than a lower use of energy might.

A higher-level question should also be asked about Morris's comparisons of East and West: Is this a zero-sum game? If one nation, region, or alliance wins, must others lose? Isn't it possible that in the future, all, or at least most, of us could become richer? Even while the East, in particular China and some of the nations once called the "Asian tigers" close the lead, isn't it possible that the West will still remain ahead, and that it will have even more wealth at its disposal, while societies in the East advance, too? If, after reading this book, you need help sleeping at night, then you might try to convince yourself that what Morris calls climate weirding will force the industrial nations to organize and cooperate in response.

Although much of this book discusses the relative position between societies, it also spends a good deal of effort on the problem of whether all or any of the advanced societies in the world today can proceed. Can we continue on our present trajectory without hitting some unbreakable ceiling, or even without descending into some apocalyptic state of dis-organization or resource depletion or destruction? So, we have to ask whether it is reasonable to expect that the four measures of social development used by Morris can continue on an upward trend. In the long-term, don't these measures have to go down as well as up? Isn't there something self-limiting about the use of accelerating amount of energy, for example? Yes, learning how to use energy enables us to use more of it, but won't there be exogenous limiting pressures? To give him credit, Morris is well aware of this worry; in fact, he discusses it and tries to factor it into his theory and calculations.

I'm going to introduce an alternative thing to worry about. This book encourages us to think about when and why the East will catch up with the West, even as they both advance. I'm worried that both the East and the West will devolve or even implode, possibly while the East does so more slowly relative to the West, as nations in both the East and West consume more of the easily accessible natural resources that have been enabling recent progress. Morris assumes that more social development, more use of resources, more energy use, and, even, more ability to wage war are all signs of progress. Morris worries about this, too, although his suspicions about what will go wrong are different from mine and are quite a bit more cataclysmic. My worries are that as the world population soars in response to our improved abilities to feed and care for people, we may see limits that can't be finessed by improved technology. There is the possibility that we, both in the West and in the East, will need to learn to do more with less and to even to make do with less. It'd be nice to be able to believe that those hockey stick, elbow- shaped graphs that Morris shows can go up forever. But, I doubt that. Even if we do not have the cataclysms that Morris worries about, I believe that the green revolution can not go on producing increasingly larger supplies of food, nor can fish farming in the ocean can produce increasing supplies of fresh fish, etc. There are going to be some limits and some costs. All societies face that sooner or later. It might even be that the higher levels of social organization, information processing, and ability to use energy will bring us up against those limits all the faster.

Perhaps we need a higher order, wider scale of social organization. But, given that the most powerful country and the one most needed to drive an effort to create that organization has in the last ten years outlawed serving French Fries because they had a foreign name, I don't have much in the way of hope about that.

I have these criticisms for the assumption that continuing growth is the only conceivable goal: (1) It can't continue; those elbow-shaped graphs in Morris's book that go steeply upward cannot continue for long. There are some limits (some hard and some merely uncomfortable) that will be imposed on increasing city size, increased use of natural resources, accelerating use of energy, etc. (2) It does not produce the results we want. Too many are left out, while a few acquire extreme amounts of wealth. So that some can benefit from these advances, so many must live in poverty. Yes, overall standards of living have improved, but we simply must do a better job of enabling more of the world-wide population improve their lives in a sustainable way.

One of the most interesting aspects of Morris's book is his awareness of this paradox. And he attempts to analyze the future, several possible futures in fact, in the light of that paradox and his theory of social development.

If I were to stretch for one complaint about this book, it would be that several concepts that I tried to look up in the index were not there, even though they seemed central to Morris's thinking. I notice that Amazon has a Kindle version (I read paper), so I suspect that if you read that, you'd just be able to search for what you want.

For those of you who want a somewhat more approachable, or at least shorter, book on why societies fall behind and collapse, take a look at "The Collapse of Complex Societies", by Joseph A. Tainter. Tainter's view seems to be that a society is a resource consuming organism; that as a society depletes resources, it becomes more complex in an attempt to acquire those resources; and that eventually that attempt fails. Comparing that line of thinking with Morris's ideas on our society's future leads to interesting, but gloomy, conclusions.


96 Her, the movie

97 Tom Nichols -- The death of expertise

"The death of expertise" really is a useful analysis of expertise and of our trust in and use of experts. But, also about the political implications and consequences of the way view and use expertise.

Nichols's argument is that we have become different, that the way we consume and use information has changed. For example, because we have so much information and media available to us, we skim and we do not read deeply. How could we, after all, when there is so much to absorb. And, we choose our sources now whereas earlier many more of us had sources of information (and opinion, too) in common.

One result of this is that we now all think that we are experts or that we can become expert after a 15 minute read at Wikipedia or after doing a few Web searches and then reading for 15 minutes on what we've found.

And, on the Internet, I can find evidence to confirm almost anything, including whatever I want to believe. So, not only am I an expert, but I'm also always right. This becomes truly dangerous when the Internet enables me to share and promote my "right" ideas with an unlimited number of those who can do likewise.

Just as important is that the Internet gives me the ability to promote to others what I want to believe, effectively helping others confirm what they want to believe. I can add comments to articles; I can review books and other products; I can even have my own blog, for free if I wish. It's an incredible power we can use to generate good and real and (hopefully, possibly) true information, but it also enables us to generate an immense amount of bad and fake and false information and opinions. Why would I do that? Religious and political emotions are strong motivators.

One thing that will likely push us even further in this direction is that we in the U.S.A. have a president (Trump) whose inclinations lie much more in the direction of entertainment. Truth and accuracy are a very lower priority for him. Imagine that a good proportion of U.S.A. citizens start emulating him. That could be another powerful multiplier for the production of bad and fake information on the Internet.

One thing that makes us even more susceptible to bad and questionable information, especially on the Internet is the fusing of entertainment, opinion, and news. With respect to much of what we read on the Web, there are no obvious markers to tell us which we are reading and whether we are reading something intended to be (mostly) entertaining or persuasive or informative. Actually, it's often likely that whoever produced that content is not very clear on which of these three s/he is producing.

Increasingly, we do not trust anyone anymore, unless they agree with us. I don't trust you or your experts. You don't trust me or my experts. Maybe it is not so much a matter of trust; perhaps it's more a matter of what I want to believe. We are coming more and more to feel that we each have a right to believe whatever we want to believe. And, if some experts disagree with my beliefs, then I'll just go find experts that will support my beliefs. Unfortunately, there is not much hope of a rational argument or discussion if we can all chose whatever beliefs (and facts, too, I suppose) we want.

One modern exacerbation of this is that now everyone, each of us, can be a "jounalist". I can create a blog on the Web. I can have my own Web site. We can post comments in innumerable places on the Internet. Every one of us has a printing press; and what's more, what we publish on the Web can be seen by everyone with Internet access. But, of course, if I'm a journalist, if I'm a publisher and if I publish, then I must be an expert. Given this kind of supporting under story, we should expect that we have plenty of arguments where no one can convince any other person of anything except for what they already believe.

Plus, journalism and communications are becoming more popular in college these days. Everybody has an opinion; no one wants to listen. The Internet enables us to collect and spread all the information" that should not be collected or spread.

Given the above, you'd think that we'd become more skeptical. You'd think that no one would trust the news they get on the Web. But, apparently, an increasingly large percentage of us get our news from our Facebook feed/scroll. No wonder so many of us believe so many fantastical things. But, not me. I don't get my news from Facebook. Oops. Wait. Where do I get my news. I'd best check.

Nichols seems to argue that we're getting dumber. Stephen Pinker (in "The better angels of our nature" and "Enlightenment now") is saying that things are getting better and, in particular, that humans have become smarter. We can't have both, can we? Perhaps we can interpret Pinker as saying that humans are getting smarter in terms of some kind of raw brain processing power or in terms of the quantity of things we know. Whereas, Nichols is saying that, while we may have more mental processing power and we might have more information, we make less sense and we claim stupid ideas. Nichols even suggests that our increased raw brain power to argue for and support ideas that are nonsense and wrong. We need to be more concerned about GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. And, given enough data and carefully chosen statistics, you can prove almost anything you want, however foolish it may be, and that is what we do.

We use advanced intellectual processes to find and prove the wrong answers. Previous "less advanced" societies did not have that processing power. They did not have the increasingly large body of "facts" that we have and that we can use to prove anything we want. Conspiracy theorists are our proof that lots of brain power does not necessarily lead you to the right answers. Maybe universal education was just a mistake. Of course not, but it does have a few unwanted consequences. Perhaps when each of us acquires an education, it should come with a warning label: "Use at your own risk. Do not try this at home." and:


One interesting aspect of this is that, in some strange sense, we want to be dumb. We have a need to "fit in with" and to get along with our tribe, our social group, our family. And, sometimes that requires each of us to agree to some strange things. It's so much easier and pleasanter to agree to those things if we believe them or at least believe that they could be true or believe that, if interpreted differently, they would be true. No one wants to be convicted of heresy, after all.

We have to consider the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood and inevitability, that when humans make decisions and act on those decisions, they are not acting rationally. That's a very sobering thought, given how consequential some things that we do are. Consider voting in political elections, which in the aggregate can have very large consequences: that's frightening. Isn't it so much more pleasant to believe that we are all rational?

It gets worse -- Nichols discusses the Dunning-Kruger effect: the dumber you are, the more strongly you believe that you are right. It has all the marks of a positive feed-back system designed to produce foolish results. We could go on to discuss sunk costs (in a system of beliefs) and vested interest (and our inability to give up an idea once we have "owned it"), but we'd be descending into hopelessness. And, we can add confirmation bias to that mix: we seem to have a built in yearning and ability to look for and find confirmation for our beliefs.

Nichols spends some pages criticizing colleges: (1) We are sending too many students to college, which means that many of them are not well prepared to learn (or even capable of learning at that level) and, since many of these students' primary goal is a degree and a job, they are often not even motivated to learn. (2) We are graduating too many people from college, so we have lots of people with college degrees and these degrees mean less and have less value. (3) Student ratings of their professors is out of control: if students can approve and disapprove of professors who grade leniently or strictly, what would you expect if not grade inflation. (4) Students are demanding safe spaces, trigger warnings about possibly offensive content (and almost any content can be offensive to somebody), and extremely rigorous political correctness.

Running an educational institution that educates students in some high quality way while obeying those restrictions and requirements does not seem to be a reasonably attainable goal.


98 Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway -- The collapse of Western civilization

This book is a bit of a spoof, actually, but a very serious and grim one.

Oreskes and Conway decided to write science fiction that shows you a future will be like if you, if all of us, do not change our ways.

You can compare this with "Collapse", by Jared Diamond, where Diamond looks back at past societies that have collapsed, describes them, and asks something like: "What were they thinking when they used up the last tree or exhausted their important resources in some other way.

Oreskes and Conway are, analogously, trying to prod us into asking ourselves what we could possibly be thinking as we trash our own environment and the essential resources that we need.

But, this is, as we say, a fool's errand, because there are so few, if any, historical examples of societies that voluntarily voted to not use the resources that are available to them. A democratic government is intended and explicitly designed to give the people what they want, and we all want more.

This may be why Oreskes and Conway suggest that China is doing a better job than the Western democracies. Well, maybe marginally better, but the Chinese government also knows that they have to give lots of their citizens what they want in order to stay in power. And, that may partially explain what we hear about the massive pollution of the atmosphere and rivers and the dramatic depletion of underground water resources in China.

If you read "The collapse of complex societies", by Joseph Tainter, you will take away the idea that a society is a resource consuming organism. That's part of it's inherent nature. A society is an organism that consumes resources, then grows as it does so, then consumes more resources, then ... repeat.

Look at what is our best hope of slowing the birth rate and the growth of population of lesser developed societies -- Educate the women and raise the standard of living, which will, we believe, lead to each woman bearing fewer children. Perhaps by doing so we would move toward a lower birth rate and a slowed increase in population, but since we would attain that by raising the standard of living in that society, we would also likely use even more resources than we formerly did.

Unfortunately, the alternative scenarios that reduce our destruction of our environment and resources are so horrific that we refuse to think them through. A pandemic might do it, but that is frightening to think about. Perhaps that's why Oreskes and Conway's description of that future is short, vague, and sanitized. Oreskes and Conway's dystopian future, is a future where it is too late for prevention, and the only option is a slow rebuilding after that destruction. And, note that Oreskes and Conway suggest that the future government that guides these societies are not democratic and do not, give their citizens what they want. Although, I feel that it's mistaken to believe that any government, whether democratic or autocratic, can refuse to give it's citizens what they want and stay in power for long.

It's a sobering book containing some very dark humor.


99 P.J. O'Rourke -- On the wealth of nations

Oh grow up. Read Hedrick Smith: "Who stole the American dream?". Read George Packer: "The unwinding". Yes, Adam Smith was right. So what? Adam Smith wrote about a different time and place. Applying what he said to our time, to our economy without some understanding of how and why it might be applicable and of see where it might not be. Those ideas, which were incredible insights when Adam Smith wrote them, are being used to justify policies and the lack of policies in Washington, D.C. that keep the status quo, that reinforce a government that privileges business and the rich over workers and the middle class, and that is driving us toward a society of very, very rich on the one hand and the economically struggling on the other.

P.J. O'Rourke is at his best when he does two things concurrently: (1) use his wit and sense of humor and facility with the English language (which is incredible) and (2) describe and argue for something outside the conventional wisdom, something that we did not already think we know. This book does the first but not the second.

OK. So, I'm trying to calm down a bit and trying to look at this book at least a little dispassionately. Other reviewers are right and their advice should be taken: read this book by P.J. O'Rourke because it can be a very valuable help in understanding Adam Smith and his ideas. You may still end up believing in Keynesianism and siding with writers like Paul Krugman and Robert Kuttner, but doing so without understanding the basics of Adam Smith's ideas and of how we arrived at modern economics would be childish. And, of course, if you are already a right-wing ideologue who believes in cowboy capitalism and you feel no need to learn anything that might threaten those beliefs, then you can just come along for the ride and enjoy P.J. O'Rourke's wit and style.

Mixed economy -- Apparently the U.S. government has still not learned that lesson. The governments of other developed nations have. They understand, or at least act as if they do, that the nation as a whole can grow and prosper only if wealth is distributed broadly and evenly enough to enable a broad section of the populace to purchase and consume the products that the nation and its businesses produce. As P.J. O'Rourke himself might say: It's that simple. But, applying Adam Smith's ideas and Keynesian ideas to our current economy in our current situation is not simple. And until and unless the U.S. government starts taking the advice of intelligent economists instead of listening the richest members of the Tea Party and the lobbyists of the rich and business connected, we are not going to be able to consume what we produce. We will increasingly become a nation in which businesses can only maintain profit margins by reducing costs (and production) and by refusing to allow workers to share in those profits.

P.J. O'Rourke acknowledges this up front (2nd paragraph, Chapter 1), when he quotes Adam Smith: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production." But, P.J. O'Rourke's prescription (at the end of his "Acknowledgments" that government has no role to play in economics and that our economy will do best if left alone is driving us toward a society in which we will not be able to afford to consume what we produce.

Recent stories in the news about workers at fast food outlets in the U.S. striking for living wages are a reflection of this. Those jobs, which formerly were occupied by the young, by students, and by the unmarried, and which were once an entry way to a "real" job, to a job that could support a family, are now increasingly being held by workers with families for whom minimum wage is not a living wage. And, we ask why an increasing percentage of working age Americans live at home and can only afford to live there.

Productivity, prosperity, and distribution of wealth -- Productivity brings a nation prosperity, usually. But, that does not mean that it is or will be a prosperity that is enjoyed by any broad section of that nation's citizens. The clamber about "tax the rich", "wealth redistribution", etc is all about how to encourage more productivity and prosperity, and how to distribute that prosperity (and the wealth it produces) broadly enough to be equitable. P.J. O'Rourke (and perhaps Adam Smith, too) does not worry about that problem. I do. I worry that a very skewed distribution of wealth enables the rich to capture the political system. I worry that such an uneven distribution of wealth does not leave enough buying power in the hands of a large enough set of consumers so that our economy can do well. It's fine with me if the rich have plenty of money. But, I do worry that they will use some of that money to buy our politicians, and I worry that a broad base of our citizens will not have enough money to enable them to enjoy life, to educate their kids, and consume (purchase) the results of our production.

There is, in this book and Adam Smith's a bit of a willingness to believe that things will work out for the best, or maybe a willingness to believe that the system is self-correcting. P.J. O'Rourke, himself says that Adam Smith was an idealist without being an ideologue.

It does seem to me that Adam Smith is too often quoted to preserve a system that disproportionately benefits the rich. Adam Smith himself would not have wanted that.

One problem is that so much of Adam Smith's body of ideas has now been accepted as obvious, that it has become conventional wisdom and it does not reveal anything of interest that helps us deal with the problems of our particular, current economic conditions. One of P.J. O'Rourke's outstanding and unintended consequences is that he is witty enough to aggravate his readers enough to think critically about ideas that have become seemingly obvious, that are now part of conventional wisdom, and that are having disastrous effects on our economy and society when they are applied without questioning and analysis and modification. Another of O'Rourke's valuable contributions is to state and explain these ideas (Smith's ideas) clearly enough so that we all are capable of thinking them through before assuming they can be applied without adjustments.

I think that if the recent financial debacle (which happened after P.J. O'Rourke wrote this book, by the way) should have taught us anything, it is that our financial system is not self regulating and that it does need control and regulation. If you'd like to think and read about that, two books to start with are (1) "Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself" by Sheila Bair and (2) "Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon" by Gretchen Morgenson. P.J. O'Rourke explains Adam Smith's thoughts about moral sentiment and about how our imagination should help us empathize with and do good for our fellows. But, it would be foolish to rely completely on that sentiment in everyone. There are people, after all, who are not as generous and virtuous as the Adam Smith that P.J. O'Rourke describes.

Self-interest, the invisible hand, small government, moral sentiment -- Implicit in all these is the belief (hope, wish, or dream actually) that most things will take care of themselves. Capitalism as envisioned (dreamed about, actually) by Adam Smith is a self-correcting system; reality is not. Possibly Adam Smith's ideas (as described by P.J. O'Rourke) are a good way to start, but there is nothing about them to suggest that they form a perfect or self-correcting or self-regulating system, nor one that does not need correction and re-alignment or one that does not need to be wound up (or sped up or slowed down) from time to time, nor even that it does not need to be protected from pernicious forces.

It is all too easy to criticize P.J. O'Rourke and Adam Smith as justifying an existing system that benefits those who are already rich and those with entrenched interests. That, however, would be misguided: there is plenty to be gained from reading and thinking though this book.

So, my suggestion is that you should certainly read this book by P.J. O'Rourke, but be critical when you do. O'Rourke gives you clearly explained ideas to work with. And, his prose and wit is really a joy.


100 Anthony Pagden -- Worlds at war

It's a book for those of us who both are interested in history and want some edge to their reading. I would have trouble staying interested in a book this long containing this many details. But Pagden kept me interested by framing the historical in terms of the conflict between western civilization and the civilizations of the Middle East.

It's especially important now to have some perspective and some appreciation for how long that struggle has been going on.

It's also important to understand that it is not a single struggle, although Pagden does try to describe some common threads that continue across time. That's to be expected in a story and in Pagden's book that begins around 500 B.C.E. and continues to within a few years of the present.

And, this history does cover an immense period of time: the ancient Greeks and Persians, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the Christian Crusades, the Reformation in Europe and the resulting division within Christianity, the rise of science and its separation from religion and the Enlightenment, and more. These are all covered.

And, it's more that just a chronicle of events, places, and people. Pagden gives heavy doses of commentary and analysis on the significance of the culture and civilization and on the ideas and reasons behind them.

For me, the main event in this book is the coming of Islam, because the conflicts that we are wrestling with and trying to understand today are a result of that development. It's the rise of the modern and somewhat secularized but also Christian West and the Islamic East that form the basis for much of the conflict that we are still living with today.

Related to that, I found Pagden's discussions of law in the West (Roman law, but other developments, also) and law in regions where Islam holds sway to be fascinating. There are serious and fundamental differences between laws written by men and for men and influenced by culture of the time in which they are formulated, as seems to be the case in the West, in contrast to laws created by God/Allah, as is arguably the case in Islamic regions of the world. Understanding these differences is important for understanding why they can't become like us, viewed from either side of the divide.

Another valuable aspect of "Worlds at war" is that it teaches us a bit of humility in the sense that some of the things we take for granted are not obvious at all to those in other cultures and, in fact, are not stable nor even that likely to last in our own culture. In particular, liberal, western democracy and the humanistic, individual-centered society that those of us in Western culture value highly may seem strange and far from desirable to someone raised in a different culture. A couple of points that he makes: (1) In a culture where family ties are very strong, it goes against ones culture to not favor ones own close relatives, especially if and when you have the power to do so. And, (2) the ability and willingness of any individual to give up political power when the democratic process says to do so is a learned behavior, is not an easily acquired one, and is one that seems bizarre in other cultures. And, Pagden makes the point that these features that we take for granted in the West are actually relatively recent developments and were gained only after bitter and vicious struggles.

In part because of the huge success and potential of the "scientific revolution" and the power of science and technology, a delusion has developed in the West that all people, given education and given an awareness of the benefits that an enlightened and Western culture could bring, would not fail to embrace that culture, i.e. they would become "Westernized" and would come to believe in modern science and technology. Pagden makes this especially clear in his discussion of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in the 1790's. And, so many of us seem to hold onto this mistaken belief even now: If they would only learn the benefits of modernism, Western science, liberal democracy, humanism, individualism, the free market economy, then all these problems would go away. Sigh. Some mistaken belief seem to never die.

So, don't expect any solutions. I get the feeling that Pagden would be inclined to say that, since this conflict, these many conflicts have been going on for so long, they are more than likely to continue for a long time. Perhaps the only way to resolve those conflicts is for one world to conquer the other, for the East to conquer the West or the West to conquer the East, for it all to become one world, analogous to the way that the Roman Empire covered the entire (known) world. And, Pagden adequately describes how much brutality (and slavery, too) was perpetrated to create and maintain that one world empire, the Roman Empire.

By the way, although "Worlds at war" is a book of history and facts, Pagden is well aware of how powerful myths, fantasies, and falsehoods are in driving that history. And, he describes many of those delusions, too.

It's a fascinating book, both in terms of history and in terms of analysis of culture and politics and religion and more.


101 Gretchen Peters -- Seeds of terror: how heroin is bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda

A failed state and a successful drug trade.

Read this book and weep -- You may find other books about Afghanistan that paint a picture that is as terrible. But, Peters's book will do more than most to help you understand how things could get that way and why they might get worse. Her explanation is that it's the money and funding that makes the Taliban possible, and that the money comes, in large part, from the drug trade and from smuggling.

Peters explains Afghanistan by explaining the only successful institution and structure that it has: the drug trade, specifically poppy farming, opium production, drug smuggling, and the protection, money transit and laundering, etc that go with the drug trade.

Some of the topics:

It's all too easy to jump to the what-to-do section. But, it's important to understand why Afghanistan is such a hard problem and why there is no easy solution. Peters is good at explaining what makes it so difficult to "fix" Afghanistan -- Some reasons:

The prescription that Peters emphasizes most is: Go after the funding. That funding is what saved the Taliban and what enables them to survive and succeed. Her second order prescription is that an alternative way of making a living must be provided for Afghan farmers currently growing poppies. And, underlying that and necessary to make any program possible is that there must be good governance and security, which requires: (1) a successful central government that has control within its borders and can provide security; (2) a reasonably honest police force; and (3) a judiciary that has enough respect from the people so that it promotes law-abiding behavior. With that as a base, the following steps would attack the drug production, smuggling, and money at make the Taliban possible.

And, here are Peters's prescriptions, what she calls the nine pillars of a complete strategy:

  1. Bring peace to the region -- No people can succeed in the midst of constant war.

  2. Conduct an effective counterinsurgency strategy -- The Taliban has been able to succeed even in inhospitable conditions; without pressure it will thrive.

  3. Blend intelligence and law enforcement.

  4. Conduct military strike against drug lords, heroin labs, and opium convoys.

  5. Create a farm support network -- Farmer who are currently growing poppies will need support to resist pressure from the drug network and the Taliban in particular who are earning a living by taxing the poppy production of those farmers.

  6. Run an effective public relations campaign against the Taliban.

  7. Disrupt the flow of drug and terror funds.

  8. Provide alternative ways to earn a living to those currently farming poppies.

  9. Do poppy crop eradication only when all else fails.

Discussing or planning a strategy in Afghanistan without learning the lessons in this book would be a serious mistake.


102 Thomas Piketty: Capital in the twenty-first century

Take-away points:

So, we can consider two rival and alternative views: (1) Increasing inequality of wealth is an inherent feature and result of the capitalist system; vs. (2) increasing inequality of wealth is the result of decisions and policies that we and our governments choose.

A pragmatic resolution between these two views would be that the progression of an advanced economy shows the effect of both of these, and that what we see in our economy is the result of a dynamic interaction between them. A possible analog would be to say that an automobile is or can be a dangerous machine, and that whether its effects are harmful or beneficial depend on the decisions we make. (Whew. You can really tell that I'm a believer in a mixed economy, i.e. one where both the private sector and the government influence and direct the economy. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixed_economy)

Piketty gives policy prescriptions that might attempt to change these long-term trends, but he admits that those policies are very difficult to enact and he doubts that they will be enacted and effective.

One response to the conclusions reached by this book is the Libertarian one: government should not interfere; it is not the job of government to correct inequality. However, that approach (or lack of one) inevitably leads to oligarchy.

How the rich preserve their wealth:

Why this will not change:

Societies do seem to oscillate between periods of greater economic equality and greater inequality. In the U.S., it has been a long time since we've had one of those swings toward greater economic equality and broader sharing of wealth, even though workers in the U.S. seem more productive than ever. It is ominous that the one significant reset toward equality coincided in time with a severe depression and World War II. We have to hope that such catastrophic events are not a necessary condition for such a correction. Perhaps Piketty believes that they are, since he seems to be saying that capitalist economies have an inherent tendency, in the absence of significant exogenous shocks, to change in the direction of increased concentration of wealth.


Hopefully, because of the success of Piketty's book, we will see more of a particular style of economics books: _more_ awareness of facts, reality, numbers, and graphs; _less_ theory and ideology and opinion, though certainly we need explanation along with the numbers.

103 Steven Pinker -- The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature

Pinker set out to defeat three theories:

And, why is Pinker interested in arguing against the above three theories? Mostly because of the fallacies he thinks they lead us into. For example:

Pinker and "The blank slate" is all about busting myths. He wants to expose the comfortable (or in some cases, the agenda driven) stories we tell about ourselves. He believes that these myths do harm; that they inform and contort governmental and public policy for the worse; that they distort the ways in which we raise and educate our children; that they cause us to have unreasonable expectations and to interact with others in misguided ways.

The promise of this book (and perhaps other books on biological evolution, too) is that it will give us an alternative view of human development, both (1) in terms of how humans of different races and ethnic groups, different cultures, different genders, etc came to be; and (2) in the sense of how we each, as individuals develop and come to be. Understanding the first helps us progress toward a more enlightened view of how to relate to those outside of our small circle of family and friend; understanding the second helps us toward more thoughtful ways of relating to our family and friends.

And, even after you accept that what we are and what we become has both a biological and genetic component as well as an environment and learning component, there are still questions to be answered. For example: (1) Does learning influence the physical structure of the brain? (2) Do biological/genetic differences across individuals influence the ways in which they are influenced and changed by experience and learning?

Pinker is thoroughly convinced that recent research has debunked the myth of the noble and peaceful savage. Once you begin to look closely at the behavior of "pre-state societies" (primitive tribes?), you find rates of violence and killing far higher that modern developed societies such as Europe and the U.S, even including two world wars.

Pinker wants to show that humans are biologically/genetically equipped with a basic set of capabilities and needs that make the development of culture and the ability of individual in that culture to learn it and navigate within it. Culture is not something painted by experience and learning onto a blank canvas. Human beings have inborn abilities to acquire and use knowledge, to cooperate with other members of their society as well as to seek their own betterment and their own improvement. Understanding those principles provides a platform on which to explain how culture can develop and be learned by the individuals in it. Education does not just "paint" information on an undifferentiated brain; it must, in some cases correct capabilities that are already there.

Behind much of Pinker's analysis is the assumption that these phenomena must be explained by descriptions at several levels. For example, that we must describe both the cultural and the biological levels and show the relationships between them. Neither of those levels of explanation can be reduced to or eliminated in favor of the other.

In a chapter critiquing various more recent arguments for a blank slate view of human nature, Pinker also gives his alternative to the blank slate view: (1) The brain has innate mechanisms for learning. (2) The brain has evolved, for example, our desires for fatty foods likely evolved during ancient times when our bodies evolved to protect us against starvation. (3) Some distinct modes of interpreting external reality develop early in life, probably under the influence of genes. (4) Some basic psychological traits develop early in life and are not subject to change or learning.

Pinker's criticisms of the political, social, and moral arguments against research that rejects the blank state are valuable in the details and also interesting in its general thrust. The details describe the political, social, and morally "correct" reactions as emotional and unsupported by research. And, his main approach here is to argue that my political rights and my right to moral treatment really have nothing to do with detailed differences between genders, ethnic groups, etc. Regardless of those differences, we all have the right to expect equal treatment in a court of law, the right to an education, the opportunity to engage in our political processes, etc.


104 Daniel Pipes -- Militant Islam reaches America

My interest in this book is a bit narrow and skewed: I'm interested in Turkey in particular and what lies in its future and how it will influence the Middle East. Pipes has comments about Turkey in this book and at his Web site (www.danielpipes.org).

Important to Pipes's account is drawing a distinction between traditional, moderate Islam and militant Islam. Only the latter is something to worry about. So, what are the differences? (1) Militant Islam demands an extreme enforcement of Shari'a law. (2) Militant Islam pushes for rejection of all aspects of Western life and culture, but militant Islamists do use modern technology. It's an "ism", a totalitarian world view, and a utopian belief system about ordering power and wealth.

Pipes warns that: (1) The danger from militant Islam is huge. (2) Militant Islam is political, not religious. The expertise of Islamists in in the areas of politics and technology, not religion. (3) Islamists are modernist and cosmopolitan. They know multiple languages and operate in Western societies. And, they use new technology, for example, cell phones, the Internet, and other modern forms of communication.

Muslims migrate to Western countries, especially in Europe in large numbers. They attempt to turn their host country into an Islamic society. They attempt to acquire political power and to promote an Islamic influence in politics and society. Muslim birth rates among immigrants are much higher than non-immigrants in the host country. Elsewhere, Pipes has said some very inflammatory things about Muslim immigrants to Europe, but later claimed he was misinterpreted.

Pipes worries about which form of Islam will grow and become more influential, traditional or militant Islam? A significant part of the answer to this question may come from Turkey.

Pipes believes that the important battle will not be between Islam and the West but rather between moderate Islam and radical, militant Islam. And, if we want to see the fist battles in that war, we can look at Turkey and Iran. Turkey is threatening to Iran (at least to the leadership in Iran) and to militant Islam in general (1) because it is an economic success, (2) because it proves that a predominantly Islamic nation can successfully operate with a mostly secular and democratic government, (3) because Turkey's population is strongly against terrorism and terrorists. It will take time before we learn whether Turkey will trend toward a more religious and less secular form of government. The Turkish military, which was a supporter of secularism, is losing it's power; and the current government seems more supportive of Islamic traditions. If that trend continues, it will be significant whether they can do so and yet not support militant Islamist factions.

One question that we need to ask is whether Pipes is serious about castigating militant Islam as evil but not moderate or traditional Islam. Although he claims that he is, he still criticizes the U.S. government for supporting moderate Islam, and his reasoning is that moderate Islam is connected with and supportive of radical, militant Islamists, or at least is not active enough against militant Islamists to satisfy Pipes. This makes me uncomfortable because it does not seem necessary to demonize even militant Islam. Pipes himself claims that militant Islamists are not particularly religious. So, why target any "Muslims"? Why not focus on those that are threatening violence regardless their religion?

Pipes warns about the negative consequences of becoming an Islamist state: (1) economic decline; (2) a tendency toward becoming a rogue state with growing militarism; (3) repression of moderate Muslims. I'd like to see some independent evidence that these really happen. Again, Turkey seems to provide some evidence that the association of Islamification with these negative consequences is not a necessary one, though perhaps they become more likely. One of Pipes's warnings is against avoiding this conversation because of our need for political correctness. Perhaps we need someone like Pipes to prod us to have this debate and to do this analysis. Certainly, we need to be careful to distinguish moderate Islam from militant Islam. Whether Pipes or we should be encouraging moderate Muslims or traditional Muslims to act against militant Muslims, seems to me, to be an open question. Would we attempt to require moderate Christians take action against some extremist Christian sect? And, I question whether Pipes's recommendations in this regard will do much good, because they may anger non-militant Muslims more than encourage them.

Pipes has plenty of criticisms of Islam: (1) Positions that Pipes claims that Islam takes on loans and interest, government ownership of property, private property rights, etc., he claims, lead to poverty and totalitarianism, are not new (it's mostly Marxism), and ignore recent history of the failure of socialism and success of capitalism. (2) Moderate Islam will not restrain militant Islam, and so, the spread of even moderate Islam is likely to strengthen militant Islam. (3) The requirement for the perfection of the Prophet Muhammad conflicts with the traditions in the West for free speech and individualism.

Much of what Pipes says and proposes seems reasonable, but some of the proposals, in particular in the chapters titled "Fighting militant Islam, without bias" and "Catching some sleepers" will make those of us who believe in protection of individual rights very uncomfortable, for example, his recommendations that we remove regulations that restrict the FBI and the CIA and that we allow the use of "secret", classified evidence. And, the recommendations for recognizing and catching "sleepers" sounds a lot like instructions on how to turn in your neighbor.

In general, while this book is on a very important topic and has much of interest to say, I'd recommend that you apply a thick layer of skepticism to what you read in this book.

For more recent comments by Daniel Pipes on Turkey, see Is Turkey Going Rogue? - http://www.danielpipes.org/10169/turkey-rogue and other articles at www.danielpipes.org.


105 Nicole Pope and Nicola Pope -- Turkey unveiled

This book takes up Turkish history in the early part of the 20th century, just as modern Turkey was being formed and defined. So, while it does not cover an immense historical period, so much has happened in Turkey during that time that this makes a fascinating reading. If you are not interested in Turkey when you start reading this book, you are very likely to become so. If you already were, you will become more so.

A few of the topics that you will learn about:

Turkey and its political groups are, at times, wild and violent. It is almost that Turkey needs the military to take back control and to restore order, from time to time, even though these interventions have a heavy price.

The account given in this book of recent activity by political parties in Turkey shows (1) that they are moving toward a liberalization of the restrictions on religion in culture and politics and (2) that women are taking and taking a more active part in Turkish politics (thought more in the role of foot soldiers than as powerful members of the government). Turkey watchers can expect to see interesting times ahead with respect to both of these movements.

The last chapters of the book tell two important stories: (1) the formation of Turkey's contemporary political parties and (2) the dialog and dispute over secularism and the integration of Islam into politics. As I write this (Sept. 12, 2010), the AKP, Turkey's current ruling party, has gained approval in drafting a new constitution. That vote is likely to be taken as approval for a role of moderate Islam in the Turkish political process and a vote against hard-line secularism.

If you still need a reason for reading this book, think about the importance of Turkey as a rational actor in the Middle East and think about the possible significance of this vote in re-introducing religion back into the politics of Turkey.


106 Naomi Prins -- It takes a pillage: Behind the bailouts, bonuses, and backroom deals from Washington to Wall Street

A bit of a rant, but we ignore it at our peril.

Yes, Prins does some shouting. But, most of her complaints are right on target.

Follow some of the details and you will learn a bit about how those in the U.S. who already have wealth and power use it to get more wealth and power. That mechanism makes use of a mutual dependency between Wall Street and Washington, D.C. whereby (1) financial firms gain wealth by taking highly leveraged risks and depend on the U.S. government to save them when those risks go wrong and (2) Washington (the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury Department, and the current administration) knows that it must save those firms or face disaster. Prins gives us lots of details about how the two sides of that dependency works.

And one of the frightening things about all this, is that Washington has not fixed this dangerous system. The same system is still in place, in part because financial interests wield enough power within the U.S. Federal government so that their power to take highly leveraged risks has not been limited. Those same large institutions are very likely to need a bailout again next time.

One of the clearest examples of the use of the mechanism to create a crisis and then profit from it is the bailout of AIG. In AIG, Wall Street was able to create a financial firm that was so big and whose transactions were so heavily interconnected with other financial institutions, that Washington could not dare to allow it to fail. Yet, as Prins shows, the money for that bailout was "passed through" AIG to the firms which had contracted financial instruments with AIG. Furthermore, those counter-parties, in spite of having made losing bets with AIG, were not force to take a write-down on those transactions.

What's more, the bad loans on the books of many large financial institutions have not be wound down or written off. This is unsurprising, given the fact that the Federal government wants the banks to extend even more credit in order to get the U.S. economy going again. So, why would they force the banks to write off loans and reduce their exposure? Large banks are still effectively insolvent, or, if you'd rather, over extended and highly leveraged.

Prins spends the needed explaining why this is still the case, but the take-away point is that, while the U.S. Congress has the power to over-see the Fed and the financial regulatory agencies, it is failing to do so.

Well, perhaps they were just not bright enough to see this crisis coming and to perform the regulatory over-sight and steps needed to prevent it. Prins makes very clear that this is false. That excuse just doesn't fly.

Prins finishes up with an explanation of some of the things that we could have done to fix the system that caused the crisis, but did not. It's depressing reading, but needed. Some of her points: (1) We did not increase transparency, but made it worse during TARP. (2) We did not require the large banks to recapitalize or to be broken up and re-structured or to write down their bad loans. (3) We did not pass sweeping reform legislation; instead we kept the same system in place. (4) We did not separate investment banking from depository banking, in fact we actually merged Bank of America and Merrill Lynch so as to combine them.

It's a grim story. But, it needs to be told unless we want to repeat it. Come to think about, since many on Wall Street made huge profits from this crisis, perhaps they really do want another one.


107 David Quammen -- Spillover: animal infections and the next human pandemic

Quammen's meta subject is the human species and its relationship to the ecosystem we live in and to specific species of plants and animals in that ecosystem. His subject also revolves around how humans (and other forces, too, I suppose) have modified that ecosystem and what effects those modifications have on us.

Actions have consequences, often unintended ones. And, when our behavior as a species modifies our environment and our surroundings as significantly as we do, we can expect that some of those consequences will be "interesting" and some might be negative. Add to this that we have modified our own behavior and have changed where we live, in some cases building our homes out into nature and in some cases moving out into natures because of population pressure. See "Nature wars", by Jim Sterba for more on that. In other cases as we expand our agricultural efforts the plants we grow and the animals we raise come into closer contact with nature and some of the species "out there".

Quammen says that bats are a serious disease vector. I'm a fan of bats. I believe that insect eating bats, which is mostly what we have in the U.S., are beneficial. So, I'd try to argue that whether bats are harmful or beneficial (to humans, of course; we're always going to be human-centric, aren't we), depends on what species of bat you are thinking about. But, certainly, Quammen is right to claim that bat colonies, where thousands and sometimes millions of bats live close together, are very effective environments for breeding and transmitting some diseases. You (a human) do not want to spend very much time there, and you likely want to avoid contact with those who do, that is, with the bats themselves. Quammen makes clear that the specific cases of pathogens transmitted by bats that he is talking about are transmitted by fruit eating bats. The reason for that, in one case at least, is that the fruit eating bats that he is discussing roost in trees. Domestic animals (horses, in one case) stood under those same trees during the day and acquired the pathogens there, possibly from bat feces.

Quammen treats each disease and its outbreak like a detective story; he traces the occurrences from a reservoir host, through vectors (e.g. the species that transmit it), possibly to other amplifying hosts, and then to humans. It's puzzle solving and it's similar to the scientific method: hypothesis, evidence (or counter evidence), reject or modify the hypothesis based on evidence and arguments, then repeat. I found some of these "detective stories" to be fascinating.

But, it's not all just good fun, because Quammen is also very good at making each outbreak seem fearful and threatening, and at helping us to worry about how many more? ... and when will be the next one? ... and how bad will that one be?

Here is one such scary thought: An outbreak is defined as an explosive increase in the population of a species in a relatively short period of time. Outbreaks are almost always followed by a crash in the population size. We, humans are an outbreak: our population has grown explosively in the last century. So, should we not expect a crash in our population?

Quammen gives us good reasons to suspect that this is true and to expect that the cause will be influenza. There are the animal reservoirs (chickens, pigs, bats); we're in close contact with those species; and we (humans) travel fast and widely, so we're an especially effective vector. What's even worse is that influenza viruses are constantly trying new genetic combinations. Someday, that virus will hit on the combination that is both lethal and can be transmitted from human to human.

Quammen gives us some comfort and reassurance by telling us about how effective researchers are at tracking down an outbreak, what caused it, and how it is transmitted. Scientists now understand viruses and their genes mutate, about how errors are introduced in genetic copying, and about how chunks/sequences of genetic code break apart and are recombined, how chunks of DNA are swept along with neighboring genes, and so on. This advanced scientific understanding gives us some reason to be hopeful, doesn't it? ...

Some of these stories are very complicated problems. Transmission is ecology and ecology is complicated. For example, Lyme disease -- The tick that transmits it (the bacteria) has several life stages. The tick lives off and is supported by several host mammals. Whitetail deer, yes, but mice and shrews are much better at infecting and supporting the ticks. It's significant that the tick is not born with the bacteria and must acquire it from a host. Some hosts are better at infecting the tick than others. So, Quammen's claim is that a forest with greater biodiversity and a reduced mouse and shrew population (which seem to be especially good at infecting the ticks they carry) has less likelihood of passing Lyme disease along.

Quammen's meta-subject is the human species and its relationship to the ecosystem we live in and how we have modified that ecosystem and those relationships. He describes the world we have created that enables zoonosis, which is the ability of a pathogen to jump from non-human animals to humans. There have been serious human die-offs in the past, for example the Black Death in the Middle Ages. It could happen again. And, we've created the conditions that would enable it. Some of those enablers: (1) Reservoir hosts in the wild that can carry and maintain a supply of the pathogen and that cannot be eliminated. (2) Hosts that we raise, for example pigs, chickens and other fowl, and that we live close to. (3) Humans that live in dense populations and that move frequently from one population center to another. And, humans are living in closer contact with nature and animals as we build out into the forests and (in the southwest U.S.) into the desert and into the hills (around Los Angeles, California). Again, for more about that, see "Nature wars", by Jim Sterba.

You will want to learn (from "Spillover") about zoonosis -- the ability of a pathogen to jump from one species to another. Surprisingly to me, we care about pathogens that can be transmitted from one non-human species to another non-human species. The ability of a pathogen to do so means that there is the possibility of a "reservoir" host that can maintain the existence of the pathogen even if we were able to eliminate the host (vector) that passes it to humans. Again, the complex life cycle of some pathogens, their ability to pass between multiple hosts is what makes some of the detective work in Quammen's book fascinating. See Wikipedia for more on zoonosis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoonosis.


108 Sam Quinones -- Dreamland

Several themes in this book:

In between his main story lines, there is also an account about how attitudes about the treatment of pain have changed over the last half century. That's not something that I was aware of and it helps a good deal in trying to understand Quinones's explanation of the progression of the flood of opioid users. It seems that it is not just that doctors have started proscribing pain medication more liberally; it's that doctors and others have encouraged those with pain or even merely discomfort to take heavy duty drugs in order to deal with it. And, often, there is no attempt to help someone to deal with their pain in any other way, e.g. with exercise, massage, or meditation. Often, doctors do not have the time, and insurance does not cover those alternative forms of treatment. Those with pain may not have the time. They need to get back to work; athletes want to get back out on the field; and their bosses and coaches want them to, also. This is part of a culture where we have learned to expect a chemical fix or a technical fix for each and every one of our problems.

A good deal of Quinones's reporting is about Portsmouth, Ohio and the region around it. That region is interesting and significant for reasons beyond drug abuse. The flow of people from distressed areas (Portsmouth and areas south and east of it) seeking work in factories in northern Ohio went through Portsmouth. Listen to "Readin', Rightin', Rt. 23", by Dwight Yoakam on YouTube.com. Portsmouth is on Route 23. And, books like "Hillbilly elegy", by J. D. Vance talk about a similar migration.

The region around Portsmouth to the south and Chillicothe, Ohio to the north is also interesting because it was the center of the ancient Hopewell culture which built huge mounds and wall, apparently for ceremonial purpuses, although there is some doubt about their purpose. That culture flourished from 200 BC until 500 AD.

Modernity is a recent development, at least our form of modernity is. And, in some ways, we in the U.S.A. have been backward until very recently. So, perhaps we are still learning how to deal with this variety of modernity, specifically a culture that provides a kind of pill or medical treatment for so many ills and discomforts, that makes those medical treatments so readily available. The availability of those medical treatments is a recent thing, and we have not yet learned, apparently, the danger and the damage from uncontrolled and unwise use of those medicines and chemicals and other technical advances as well.

Why is it that some people seem so much more susceptible to addictive substances. I wish that Quinones had spent more time and space on trying to understand that in "Dreamland". Perhaps he does give it more attention in his blog. I think about this for rather selfish reasons: I worry that I am or may become susceptible to addition of some kind. Quinones does give some clues and hints on this: (1) depression, (2) job loss, (3) poverty, (4) injuries that caused chronic pain for which a doctor prescribed pain medication and then repeatedly increase the dose, (5) a culture in a local area where drug use was common and accepted and facilitated, (6) drug companies that promoted dangerous medications relentlessly and irresponsibly, and (7) an efficient supply system that produced significant profits and that attracted numerous actors who were willing to sacrifice users and help them destroy themselves. But, at the end of all that attempt at explanation for this epidemic, it seems that some of us are only left with thinking: "there but for the grace of god go I". And, another question, why did it happen to such an extreme extend in some geographical locations rather than others.

Quinones describes how and why it is so difficult to try to formulate effective policies and actions that would help to deal with these issues, in particular those related to the supply chain. For example, when there is so much profit to be made destroying the lives of addictive people, blocking unscrupulous people willing to do harm is extremely difficult.

Couple that with the fact that end users were so willing to cooperate. And, then, it seems, we have to ask why they were willing users. With so many lives being destroyed in this region of the country (southern Ohio, northeastern Kentucky, western West Virginia), surely they must have known the danger and damage that these drugs would cause. One explanation that Quinones gives is that shame caused those who used and those related to users from talking about it openly. Perhaps many of those lured into use of these damaging drugs really did not know how dangerous they were.

And then we get to the seemingly impossibly difficult task of trying to formulate and enact measures that might fix some of this problem for some people, at least. Start with the fact that those in the Federal government with the information to recognize the opiate crisis and the power to act on it refused for a number of years to act on it. See "American overdose", by Chris McGreal for more on this. Apparently, pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and their lobbying efforts were strong enough to encourage a, likely, willful blindness and a refusal to act until the number of opiate overdose deaths had become so large that it could not be ignored. Next, there are conflicts about what to do to reduce the flow and supply of opioids even in the most severely effected regions, for example West Virginia and southeastern Ohio. For one, efforts to reduce the supply of opioids were interpreted by some as an attempt to deny pain medication from those who were genuinely suffering. For another, no effective system was in place to monitor the amount of drugs and opiates being prescribed or even to detect when those receiving the prescriptions were shopping around for doctors who would, knowingly or unknowingly, give them multiple prescriptions. But, perhaps even worse, just reducing the prescriptions to reasonably legitimate ones likely would still allow enough opiates to become available so as to facilitate plenty of abuse. And, finally, or maybe not finally, since there are plenty of other barriers to solutions, reducing the supply of opioid such as OxyContin would encourage users to search for another chemical, and heroin, both black tar heroin, which is what Quinones discusses, and white heroin seem to be cheaper than OxyContin and perhaps easier to obtain.

And, that is why Quinones's explanation about how users initially get addicted to OxyContin, then transition to heroin is an important part of this story. He explains how heroin was made cheap and easy to obtain and reliably obtainable by suppliers from Nayarit, Mexico.

To a significant extent, this is a story about product delivery and sales. It's about how efficient the suppliers from Nayarit, Mexico were at delivering black tar heroin, about how well they supplied their clients and kept them coming back, and about how they delivered that product to their customers and a low cost. It's also about the delivery system for OxyContin, and about how well Purdue Pharma ran the system that encouraged doctors to introduce future customers to OxyContin, and about the pill mills that enabled users to obtain large amounts so easily. In the case of OxyContin, the supply chain did not stop there, but extended to resale and to users who shared rides to the pill mills, shared the driving costs, paying in OxyContin pills, and distributing some of their supply. In fact, Quinones describes how the supply of OxyContin became so prevalent that OxyContin pills, with their markings as to the number of milligrams in each pill, became a denominated currency in some geographic areas.

With a system that is so rational, that has been so rationalized, that has had the inefficiencies so well worked out and eliminated, it is hard to imagine how delivery could be stopped. Trying to stop it means that you are going against the desires and brains of both suppliers and consumers.

Quinones describes how those who had SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), and apparently there was some significant number of these in a region where many had worked at hard and abusive labor in the coal mines, could use that to obtain OxyContin pills and resell them for a large profit, possibly feeling that they were just trying to support a decent standard of living for themselves and their family. As coal mining transitioned from deep mines to strip mining and surface mines, there were likely fewer injuries, but also fewer jobs and more unemployment. That increased the pressure to obtain income in other ways and also drove the OxyContin pill resale model. Shoplifting at Walmart and Lowe's became a way of converting (OxyContin) pills into usable, needed goods. Quinones even reports on how some people stole merchandise from a store, then returned the stolen goods for a gift card, and then traded the gift card for OxyContin pills. It was a system, as horrid as it's consequences were, that worked efficiently.

Add to this story the significant amount of job loss in the region and the pressure that the resulting loss of employment put on many to find an alternative means of obtaining income for themselves and their families. Soon, a drug based economy becomes part of the local culture. It becomes a small-time business model, in which word of mouth becomes a way of connecting sellers to buyers. Once it becomes that pervasive, once so many people support it, stopping that system or even slowing it down becomes very difficult. Quinones describes just how well that system worked and how difficult slowing it down was.

Plus, many hid the damage that was being done, even when those harmed were close loved ones. Often they did so because of the shame and stigma that they feared would come from admitting that a member of their family had died of a drug overdose.

Another thing that made reducing the damage so difficult was the delivery of black tar heroin was done by a decentralized system. There are no single choke points that can be attacked and disabled. And, according to Quinones, if you arrest individuals who drive cars and deliver to the end user, or even capture a cell leader, they are soon replaced.

Quinones does spend a good deal of time describing law enforcement efforts to stop the supply of illegal drugs, but that task is a huge and difficult one. That task is made so difficult when there is a huge demand, when there were drug companies that were eager to flood the region with pain pills, when there are unscrupulous doctors willing to prescribe OxyContin for pay, and when there is such an efficient supply of heroin when OxyContin becomes too expensive. It is also made more difficult by a culture in which we have been raised to believe that there should be a pill for every medical problem, even unhappiness, where it seems acceptable to give high school athletes pain medication so that they can continue to compete, and where parents have enough pain medication in unlocked medicine cabinets to get their children started on drugs.

Quinones makes a good case that it is immaturity and pampering of teenage kids that helped drive this epidemic.

By the way, there are multiple classes and types of people who are trapped and harmed or destroyed by this delivery system, for example, those in poverty and out of work, (2) pampered teenagers in affluent families, (3) those who have genuine, often chronic pain, and even (4) in one chapter, children of Russian immigrants whose strict parents provided the motivation to rebel. These stories all are interesting and also very sad.

Those who began abusing the system started searching for pill mills farther from home that provided better access. This was especially true in states farther from Kentucky and West Virginia where at first there was no monitoring system to prevent someone from going to multiple doctors and obtaining multiple prescriptions for OxyContin. And, another step towards increasing and facilitating the supply of OxyContin was ride sharing: someone willing to provide the vehicle would give others a ride in exchange for a share of their prescription.

Dealing with the addicted was also problematic, in part because insurance companies are selective and somewhat rigid about what kinds of treatments they will reimburse. So, for example, they apparently will pay for medicinal treatment, but not counselling or help with lifestyle changes and support for those attempting to re-enter the workforce, etc. Often, support with dealing with social dysfunction is the help that is needed most.

One small positive, one slightly positive thing to come out of this epidemic is that it has encouraged more of us to think of addictive drugs as a problem for which treatment is needed rather than prison and incarceration. But, it is sad and shameful that white addicts had to start suffering and dying rather than black ones before this shift in attitudes happened. We do live in a racist country after all.

But, any hope of solving this problem merely by putting more money into treatment programs is likely just a dream. Treatment and rehabilitation for someone who has been on heroin for any significant length of time can take years and multiple attempts. These drugs cause physical changes to your body that cannot be reversed for years.

One question that I'd like to be able to ask Quinones is how the supply chain for black tar heroin works, in particular, how heroin is transported from Mexico into and through the U.S.A. With all our talk and conflict currently about building a wall on the U.S.A. and Mexico border in part to keep bad things out, I'd like to know whether President Trump's proposed wall would have any affect on the supply of black tar heroin.

Be sure to read the last page of this book. Quinones does try to give the story and us readers a lift and a glimpse of a happy ending.

These are other books in the same topic area:


109 Raghuram G. Rajan -- Fault lines: How hidden fractures still threaten the world economy

Like most books on the financial crisis, this one provides both an analysis of what caused the problem and a few suggestions about how to prevent it from happening again. What's a little special about Rajan's analysis is that he attempts to show how the political system is structured so as to almost inevitably produce the results we have seen recently: an asset boom and bust.

Rajan repeatedly emphasizes the interplay between consumer driven economies that borrow (the U.S. especially) and export driven economies, some of which lend to the consumers. But, he has little in the way of suggestions on how to make them change. Telling them to grow up, to act responsibly, and to engage in some shared sacrifice will not cause any changes.

Rajan spends a bit of time talking about the rising inequality of wealth in the U.S. and a few of its consequences, e.g. unequal access to education. But, in a political system that has become increasingly partisan, we are not likely to see much balancing of income and wealth. At both the state and the federal level, no one seems willing to compromise, let alone sacrifice. Increases in taxes, for example, are blocked. And, the idea of a more progressive tax system seems out of the question.

Rajan is especially good at explaining how the political system in the U.S., which is unable to make sustainable improvement to the stagnant incomes of middle class Americans, has settled for unsustainable fixes, e.g. the extension of ever more easy credit. Increasing debt in lieu of increasing incomes, whether in the way of home mortgages (and refinancing, and equity mortgages) or credit cards debt, can only be a short-term solution, as we've recently found out. But, in a society where no one is willing to give up anything for the good of the whole, there are possibly no alternatives.

Rajan is also good at showing how our political system is effective at giving us what we want, or what someone wants, even when that's not what we need in the long term. The extension of massive amounts of credit and debt in the years prior to the financial crisis is an example. That was done during both Republican and Democratic administrations of the U.S. federal government. We'd like to blame the Federal Reserve Board and Alan Greenspan for allowing that loose lending to happen, and we should blame him, but he was pressured by members of Congress to do so, and that is not likely to change, no matter who is head of the Fed.

It's significant, I believe that Rajan's main attempt at prescribing solutions is a chapter on improving our education systems and on increasing and broadening access to education. We need both, but that's stating the obvious. And, it's not likely that our political system is going improve much with respect to education. However, I suspect that he proposes fixes to our education systems because he believes that a capitalist-democratic system cannot be fixed. Such a system responds to the wishes and pressures of constituents, voters, campaign contributors, pressure groups, lobbyists, etc. After all, that is what a democratic system is designed to do. But, by doing so, it will inevitably drift toward instability: increased leverage, higher risk, faster transactions, closer tolerance, tighter couplings, and tighter connections. And, now, apparently, it will also drift toward looser regulation and less over-sight. We should expect to see more of the fault lines and the booms, busts, and crises that Rajan describes.

And, as far as improvements to our education systems as a fix, I'm very much in favor of improving schools and broadening access to higher education. But, I don't think we should be fooled into thinking that this is a fix for everything. In particular, some of us are more capable of making use of higher education than others, just as some of us are more capable of being reliable workers, or physically strong workers, or skilled craftsmen, or excellent artists. But, if we shift toward an economy in which only the highly educated are capable of earning a decent standard of living (doing so by sending all non-skilled jobs overseas), then lots of us will not be able to earn a living. We are likely to see an even more unequal distribution of income and wealth. That's terrible for those who can't compete for those jobs that require high levels of education and knowledge, and it is terrible for our economy, because not enough of us will be able to afford to buy the goods and services that will make the economy go.

Rajan does explain why some of the cures that we'd think are obvious ones do not work. For example, the Fed's attempts to get the economy moving by keeping interest rates low is made ineffective by the fact that the Fed, whose mandate is only to help the U.S. economy, actually effects the global economy. In addition, and this is what frightens me, those low interest rates and easy credit are being used by banks and corporations that have learned to increase production and profits through capital investment and technology, but without additional hiring. I fear that this kind of "recovery", specifically improving production and profits with minimal job creation, is what our recovery from future "busts" is going to be like. Our problem, with respect to the Fed and its policies, is that lower interest rates creates output growth without job growth.

One of the anomalies in the recent boom and bust, and I think Rajan is correct to call attention to this, is that the boom was an inflation of a particular kind of asset: houses. But houses are not a normal investment asset in at least two ways: (1) We live in our houses, so that "investment" is sticky in the sense that we often will not want to sell when the market tells us that it's wise to do so. (2) With other investment asset there is a mechanism, vehicle, or instrument which can be used to "short" the asset, and that has the effect of limiting inflation and asset bubbles. But, selling short on housing stock is not easy to do.

Rajan does describe what needs to be done (to the global financial system, not to education), but he is not optimistic that such reforms will happen. These changes all require sacrifice in the short term, and perhaps even in the long term. Since we, especially in the U.S., have a political system that responds best to immediate wishes of political players (voters, lobbyists, special interest groups, etc), it's not likely that we'll make these changes. But, even if that were possible, we in the U.S. or our political system is not likely to make sacrifices for the benefit of others in the global system. It's a bit of a law of the commons and prisoner's dilemma problem. We're going to take as much as we can get until the last blade of grass in the common pasture is gone, because we can't count on others to match our own sacrifices, even if we were far-sighted enough to make those sacrifices.

We may just have to accept the fact that our financial and political systems, taken together, are designed to produce high risk, instability, and boom-bust cycles. That's not a happy conclusion. But, perhaps it's just the way our system works. Rajan at least does us the service of showing this rather clearly.

Rajan's final hope is that multi-lateral, financial organizations such the IMF and the World Bank should take an active role in influencing countries and the domestic financial systems to make the needed sacrifices, to be more far-sighted, and to act more responsibly. That seems, to me, to be a bit of a "hail mary" pass and a low probability option.

I believe that we can expect more of the shocks produced by the fault lines that Rajan describes.


110 Nick Reding -- Methland: the death and life of an American small town

It's a book about the hardship and problems that are becoming more prevalent in rural and small town America.

And, it contains very personal stories about a small number of individuals whose lives are connected with and influenced by those hardships and the struggle against illegal drugs in a small town.

Those hardships circle around (1) illegal drugs, their production, and their use; and (2) around employment, poor wages, loss of jobs, and harsh working conditions.

We are going to be faced with a choice between two conflicting approaches to the changes overtaking the economies in small towns in the U.S. and changes in employment and work in general: (1) We can encourage corporations and thereby stimulate the economy producing more jobs but jobs that pay low wages and have punitive working conditions. Or, (2) we can push for better pay and better working conditions, at the possible expense of economic growth and at the risk of encouraging corporations to reduce their number of employees through off-shoring or automation. Neither of these two options seems appealing. What makes this especially galling is that corporations can use this issue as a ploy to get tax breaks and other benefits in exchange for not making things worse for workers. Even workers know that; even they know or at least believe that we have to allow corporations to use cheap immigrant labor or their jobs will disappear.

Until recently, we seemed to be mostly allowing corporations to have their way with respect to wages and regulation. Now, with the election of Donald Trump for President of the U.S., we've apparently decided that this wasn't enough and that we should give corporations even more of an advantage over workers.

"Methland" can be read as an explanation of why rural small town America voted for Donald Trump. There are two ways of looking at this: (1) They were fed up with the status quo and voted for effective change. Or, (2) they voted for someone who will dramatically increase the power of corporations and they will be much worse off as a result. After all, corporations, left to themselves and unimpeded will do everything they can to reduce labor costs, to off-shore production, to reduce benefits for workers, and more. I'm wondering whether rural, small town America is going to regret their reckless behavior in this election.

With respect to illegal drugs, Reding gives us lots of information in several areas: (1) He describes some of the causes of the drug use and the problems that drug use and drug production causes in a small, mid-western town. In part it's because of how difficult it is to make a living, and how some of the local working conditions, particularly at the local chicken processing plant, are close to abusive. (2) Reding describes some of the local Meth labs, the horrid conditions they create, and some of the attempts to dismantle them. And, (3) there is what Reding calls the DTOs (the drug trafficking organizations), and his account of how production has shifted from areas in South America to Mexico, and how the availability of some of the materials needed to produce drugs has changed so as to enable production and smuggling on a large scale, and how the DTOs control entry of drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border, and more.

This book gives stories that describe the one-man meth labs and the struggle to combat them and the problems they cause. But, there is also a good deal of description of the illegal drug industry, especially that controlled from Mexico.

From "Methland", you get a small glimpse of what has happened to work in the U.S. for many. It's a picture where corporations have an unbalanced amount of power and workers, now that labor unions are no longer there to protect them, are at the mercy of their employers. (And, those corporations have very little mercy.) We hear so much about off-shoring and about sending jobs outside the U.S., but even more important is how automation has eliminated so many jobs. And, even more depressing is the understanding that workers have that if something is done to improve wages and benefits and working conditions, even to reduce the number of immigrants willing to work for low wages, it will drive plants and employment away.

Is it any wonder that there is sufficient hopelessness to drive many to drug use and addiction.

Reding gives a bit of understanding of the large farm corporations and the power they have over the supply chain and the influence they have in the U.S. Federal government. It's a picture of how to efficiently produce lots and lots of goods, but it gives us no clue about how to improve working conditions and wages. You come away from reading "Methland" suspecting that big Ag, huge agricultural corporations are the problem in small, rural towns.

One solution for individuals is to move away from small depressed towns to larger cities. But, that means that small towns are left with fewer people, likely loosing the more capable people, and will have less and less resources to help those who remain. And, besides, big cities have their own problems, especially when they are flooded with on in-migration from rural areas.

"Methland" is not a happy book, but it is fascinating and informative.

If you are interested in "Methland", then you might also be interested in the following: (1) "Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right", by Arlie Russell Hochschild; (2) "Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War", by Joe Bageant; (3) "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis", by J. D. Vance; and (4) "The New Mind of the South", by Tracy Thompson.


111 Robert B. Reich -- Aftershock: the next economy and America's future

Reforms or crisis; take your pick.

Reich's explanation of where we are, how we got here, and the effects and consequences of our current economic situation is good. His list of economic reforms are good ones. But, his advice on how to get there is weak, though admittedly the required fixes may not be possible in our country through any means.

Reich's central thesis is that prosperity in a capitalist system is built on a basic bargain: (1) if you work hard the nation will provide what you and your family need; (2) the nation will see to it that economic wealth is shared broadly enough (though not necessarily evenly) so that a wide section of the population will be able to afford the goods and services they need. He claims that, if we do not ensure this broad distribution of wealth, our population will not be able to consume the goods and services produced by an expanding economy and will not be able to create the demand necessary to keep that economy going. The system will be broken.

Reich uses Marriner Eccles, who worked in the Treasury department and then as the governor of the Federal Reserve Board during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, as as an example of someone who understood the necessity of satisfying this basic bargain and who guided our government into following it to spread income and more wealth more broadly in order to bring the nation out of the Great Depression. Reich claims that this policy direction is similar to that promoted by John Maynard Keynesm and that our recovery from the Great Depression proves the utility of these policies.

One force that exacerbates the problem is that there are firms and operators in the financial industry who make huge profits when some in our society have large excess savings and must find a place to invest it. Especially when interest rates are low or are perceived to be below the inflation rate, those with savings feel pressured to find higher rates of return for their investments. That pressure encourages risky investing behavior (AKA speculation), from which the investment banks, and increasingly deposit banks too, can make large profits. So, there is a large incentive in the financial industry both (1) to continue the unequal distribution of wealth toward the already wealthy and (2) to continue the weak regulation and oversight that enables those in investment and banking companies to profit from it.

An important insight provided by Reich is that not all countries and economies can run an export led economy all the time. Why? Because someone has to buy those exported goods. Now, one of the major consuming countries, the U.S., has shifted more and more wealth to the upper tier, which reduces the ability of the great middle class to consume. Production and export only work when someone can consume those goods. We've broken that system and that virtuous cycle.

There is an explanation within this book for how we arrived at the crisis or near crisis condition we are in, through both good means and bad:

Reich describes some fixes, but he is also aware of some of the reasons why making those fixes will be difficult. He should be: he has struggled for years to convince people of the importance of those fixes, both through his work within the Clinton administration and through his articles and books. Two reasons he gives for the difficulty of making the changes we need are: (1) the prevalence of Wall St. personnel within our Federal government and (2) the amount of money used to finance the election campaigns of federal officers and to influence those officials. Both of these push the U.S. federal government toward more favorable policies for the financial industry.

So, moving toward possible fixes, here is what, Reich believes, the U.S. government has not done, but should do in order to reinstate the basic bargain: (1) expand access to public (higher) education; (2) institute Medicare for all; (3) move toward more progressive taxation; and (4) require a minimum wage for our foreign trading partners. And here are the policies that Reich is promoting: (1) a reverse income tax (and a negative tax for the middle and lower classes); (2) a carbon tax; (3) higher marginal tax rates for those in upper income brackets (effectively a more progressive tax rate); (4) a re-employment system (one that provides not just financial support for the unemployed but also services such are re-training); (5) school vouchers based on family income (we must rebuild the financial mobility within our society); (6) Medicare for all; (7) a greater emphasis on and support for public goods; (8) serious attempts to squeeze the money out of politics and political campaigns. By the way, that re-employment system will not work unless we also implement policies that encourage the creation of jobs and discourage the movement of jobs to countries of the lowest wages.

Reich argues that we will inevitably arrive at these fixes and that the only question is whether we will but how we will get there: through orderly reforms or through demagoguery and crisis. Well, which do you prefer? Reich worries about the possibility of a time when, rather than helping those in need within our country, instead we try to bring down those who have more.

We had an economic crisis (in 2008) and a reasonably liberal President, yet all we did was to patch up the existing system, the one that Reich criticizes for favoring the rich, and to keep that system in place where it still prejudices the rich. If the economic crash of 2008 could produce the changes we need, then I'm guessing that we have to wait for an even worse and more destructive crisis than the one we've just been through.


112 Matt Ridley -- The evolution of everything

There are a number of themes in Ridley's book, and I believe we can classify under several broad categories: (1) There is the descriptive aspect under which he wants use to view many of the processes in the world around us (and inside us, too) as processes that evolve, processes that are self-organizing, that are not controlled in any top-down or centralized way, and that are driven in a bottom-up and decentralized way by the actions of many agents. And, (2) there is the normative aspect where he wants to tell us that this decentralized, bottom-up, self-organizing way is how things should be, and that lots of things go wrong whenever an wherever top-down, centralized control takes over.

I think we can see where we're headed with that. We're off to a political agenda that promotes small government and low taxes.

You can likely also easily figure out that I'm on the opposite side of the political spectrum on this. I'd be on the liberal side of the aisle in the U.S. Congress, if I were a member of Congress. Whereas, Ridley, who actually is a member of the British House of Lords would be on the libertarian side, which, because the terminology may be different over there, might be called the liberal faction.

No matter, lots of Ridley's ideas and thoughts are worth reading and thinking about.

Actually, Ridley has me leaning in his direction early on in the book, because he introduces and praises the ideas from Lucretius and his "De rerum natura", in particular the way it is discussed by Stephen Greenblatt in "The swerve: how the world became modern".

In terms of explanation and understanding, Ridley is very much opposed to what he calls skyhooks. I take that to mean an explanation based on an idea that cannot be observed, verified, or refuted. Elsewhere in "The evolution of everything", Ridley refers to Karl Popper's ideas about refutability and about how a theory or claim that cannot be refuted actually has no explanatory power or meaning.

Early on in "The evolution of everything", Ridley criticizes Enlightenment thinkers for maintaining their religious beliefs in their explanations of nature. And, I think it would be useful to view much of Ridley's book as an attempt to purge our thought of all thinking that is backed up by some sort of irrational belief that cannot be refuted, and, therefore, really has little or no explanatory power. In a sense, Ridley's project in this book is to see just how far he can go in eliminating skyhook thinking, the use of an unsupported base for our ideas, and especially in eliminating any top-down, authority basis for our ways of understanding ourselves, our history, our values, our politics, our technology and science, and much more.

A word or two about Ridley's use of the term "evolution" -- Ridley does not mean to infer some sort of biological or genetic sense of evolution. He really is trying to emphasise incremental, often (but not always) gradual change, and change that is not designed in advance or controlled in some central way. Another way to to describe Ridley's approach is to say that he wants to show that nature, society, science, technology, morals, and all the rest changes in a pragmatic way, that these processes change and advance (although we need to be careful about assuming some sort of universal and god given values about that is and is not advancement) by muddling along and by trial and rejection, etc.

Part of Ridley's goal is to show that the institutions, conceptual frameworks, etc that are important to us are currently evolving and will evolve in the future. But, an important part of his agenda is also to show that they have evolved in the past and that their development in the past was incremental and bottom-up, and, importantly, that they had no central planner or design. Ridley believes that institutions, just like biological organisms, are subject to selective pressures while they evolve, resulting in incremental changes that cause them to become better suited for the environment they evolve in and to become more (better) adapted for that environment.

In fact, Ridley believes that, for example, (the collection of all our technologies?) is or has become an autonomous, self-perpetuating organism. I suppose that suggests that our technology is going to go on evolving and developing, regardless of anything we do to limit, control, or stop it.

Ridley is opposed to most and current patent and copyright law. He feels that, rather than encourage innovation and technological advance, these laws and "protections" protect monopolies. It would be of value to hear Ridley's thoughts about copyright protection applied to Open Source software and writings. One purpose of applying an Open Source copyright is to prevent the capture of a project or body of work by someone who might try to put a restrictive copyright to that work. That seems to me to be an effective way to encourage innovation.

To get an idea of just how broadly Ridley wants to apply his ideas about evolutionary, incremental, self-organizing development, think a bit more closely about the book's title: "The evolution of everything" and then take a look at its table of contents. Sixteen chapter titles begin with "The evolution of xxxx". One of Ridley's central themes is that nothing appears out of nothing; everything develops (incrementally) out of many predecessors. New technologies develop out of previous ones, which develop, in turn out of previous technologies. New laws develop from previous ones and from much else, in addition. New morals, customs, fads, etc develop from earlier ones. Etcetera.

Some of Ridley's optimism about the ability or likelihood that incremental processes will turn out for the best and that they will do so without control or regulation from a centralized governing body makes me queasy. Ridley is not a blind or oblivious optimist. He has been a writer for "The economist" and "The Times" of London for a number of years. He was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock when there was a run on the bank and the bank was bailed out by the British government. So, he must surely understand how things "left to themselves" can go awry and go haywire. One would think that he'd have come to believe that a bit of centralized regulation would be helpful in some contexts. But, that does not seem to be the case. He really does seem to be a full-throttle, in it all the way, free market, deregulation purist.

There is a downside to all this talk about how our institutions, science, technology, society, and so much more evolve, develop incrementally, and are emergent. To say that an organism or structure is emergent, is to say that it evolved out of many things in a path dependent way, and that this development was not predictable. That implies that we cannot say much in the way of explanation about why it developed into the particular structure that it did. The background for this emergence and the predecessors from which something emerges (the items in the path dependent development or emergence, so to speak) can be extremely complex. What's more, those preceding events and conditions can include both things in the physical, natural world and things and events in the society, educational system, accumulated media and literature, etc from which the emergent conditions and system develops. Ridley is well aware of this complexity. He is, from what I can tell, a believer in and proponent of chaos and complexity theory.

For Ridley, to say that something came about through evolution is to say that it is made up of cumulative changes. That implies several things. For one, it means that the road to its current state was (is) path dependent. And for another, it means that changes are (mostly) preserved as new changes are added. So, I suppose, we can look at any complex, evolved system as a series of states, each one of which proceeded from a previous state.

One important aspect of seeing evolution in so many different systems at so many different levels is that those systems can interact with and influence each other. That's a bit hard for me to my get my head around. One example that Ridley gives is that our genetic system influences and is influenced by our social system (society). So, we as a species are changed by the society and culture that our species has created.

Ridley has unbounded confidence that incremental, bottom-up, evolutionary, organic changes produce better results that any top-down centralized control could have. I'm sure there are cases and contexts where that is true, but I'm also sure that there are cases where uncontrolled growth has produced unpleasant results. Ridley seems to be claiming that the incredible, unprecedented economic growth and increase in the average standard of living that has occurred since the start of the industrial age is one of those success stories. I'll agree. But, that growth has also had serious negative consequences. To me, it seems that a bit of planning and control would have helped at times. But, I get the feeling that Ridley believes that not only would control of that process be bad, but that it would also be impossible. These are strange claims from someone who criticizes belief systems because they are not refutable and because no amount of evidence is accepted as destructive to belief in the system.

Another criticism that Ridley has of top-down, centralized systems is that the goods and services they provide are more expensive that similar goods and services that might have been provided by an uncontrolled, decentralized system. Again, you can see where he is headed with this: towards smaller government, reduced regulation, and lower taxes. But, I wonder how Ridley would explain how we get bridges and roads and major parts of our communication systems if everything must be funded by the private sector?

"The evolution of everything" seems to be an argument for no centralized government control or funding for anything: science, technology, infrastructure development, and education, too; they are all worse off from centralized, government control. So, does that mean that our roads and bridges will be better if produced by the private sector? That seems like a very extreme position. And, Ridley's arguments for these positions usually amount to citing from a single book that he has found that supports his claim. That's very weak, don't your think? In my public library or at Amazon.com I'm confident that I can find some book to support almost any position.

Ridley's heroes are rational skeptics: Lucretius (whom he quotes that the beginning of each chapter), Spinoza, Voltaire, and Richard Dawkins. I'd say that we should follow that kind of recommendation and that we should be rational and skeptical about Ridley's ideas, too, and that we should look for worthwhile, informative ideas in "The evolution of everything", as well as ideas to be skeptical about.

In spite of my criticisms and skepticism (I'm trying to take Ridley's advice to be a rational skeptic), "The evolution of everything" is very much worth reading. It's packed with lots of interesting ideas and arguments that will stimulate you to think in new ways about very significant problems.

Ridley, himself, is a fascinating character. For more about him, you might start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley. I'd love to hear his thoughts on the current (Feb. 2016) controversy between the U.S. government and Apple computer over whether Apple should provide the government with the ability to access data on any of Apple's smartphones. I'm guessing he'd have a few rants about that.


113 Matt Ridley -- The rational optimist

This is an uplifting and even cheerful book to read. If you are like me and you worry about climate change and the environment, then you may be put off a bit by Ridley's somewhat sweeping aside of concerns about climate and environment that he finds are misguided. But, it's good to see things from the other side. And, Ridley is a extremely witty writer. "The rational optimist" is both enjoyable and well work reading.

Rather than try to evaluate Ridley's claims, I'll give some chapter summaries and will let you evaluate and analyse for yourself.

Ridley's message: arise, collaborate, and innovate.

This book contains lots of questionable claims. But it is an inspiring and thought provoking read, all the same.



114 Amanda Ripley: The smartest kids in the world

Ripley promotes "high order thinking". Great, but what is it? It certainly sounds better than "low order thinking". Can you teach it? Can you even give assignments that encourage it and help students learn how to do it?

One hopeful clue that Ripley gives is the suggestion that schools and teachers "teach for a purpose" and that students should "learn for a purpose". The thinking is, I suppose, that students learn better (in some sense of "better") when (1) they have a goal and (2) they understand why they are learning something. That certainly has an intuitive good feel to it, but I'd like to see some evidence for that claim. And, I'm guessing that we have plenty of evidence that there is lots of successful learning in plenty of successful schools where the only goal students have is to learn what they need to pass a test. Is that the kind of "learning for a purpose" that Ripley is talking about?

And, what about students in first and second grades? Are we going to explain to them why they need to learn? And, do we need to give them a goal to guide and drive their learning? That claim seems quite a bit less intuitive to me.

It might be helpful and interesting to compare Ripley's book with the writings of Diane Ravitch, especially Ravitch's latest book "Reign of error". (1) Ripley's goal seems to be to help students and their parents be able to identify "good" schools and get to them even it that means moving to a foreign country. Ravitch's goal is to fix and save schools in this country, if they are in need of fixing. (2) Ripley assumes that the problems are endogenous to the schools, that is those problems originate and are caused by conditions and problems in the schools themselves, for example because of poor teachers. Ravitch makes no such assumption, and in fact stresses that much of what we need to do in order to improve students' performance must change conditions outside the schools. Ravitch claims that students who live in poverty do not perform well, that hungry students do not perform well, that students in families with turmoil and disruption do not perform well.

Ripley's recommendations how to evaluate schools are: (1) Find out whether the parents are interested and involved. Yes, but, more importantly she suggests, find out what the parents are interested in. An interest in sports improves school spirit. An interest in grades puts pressure on teachers to grade more leniently. An interest in what their children are learning might actually result in better educational outcomes. (2) Find out whether the students are interested and pay attention during class. And, Ripley also recommends asking whether students know what topic they are trying to learn and why they are studying a that topic.

Some simple lessons that I took away from Ripley's book: (1) Students learn better when they are interested and motivated. (2) Students are more motivated when the feel that it matters what they learn and when they understand why they need to learn it. (Presumably, this applies more realistically to students above grades 1 or 2.) And, (3) students are better motivated when they have a goal and they believe in the value of that goal.


115 Barry Ritholtz -- Bailout nation: how greed and easy money corrupted wall street and shook the world economy

A good critique of the changes in regulations, laws, and oversight that resulted in the financial crash of 2008.

We also need more help with what to do going forward. But, since we (in the U.S.) seem to lack the political will and coherence needed to take the needed steps, perhaps that does not matter anyway.

In a perverse way, its a fun read. If we can't put the perpetrators of this disaster in jail, at the least we can assign blame. Ritholtz does that in a chapter titled "Casting blame". Alan Greenspan tops the list. (How does that man sleep at night.) But, The Federal Reserve (for failing in its supervision duties); ex-senator Phil Gramm (for pushing through the Gramm-Leach-Bliley deregulation act); Moody's Standard & Poor's, and Fitch rating agencies (for blessing such atrocious loans and investment instruments with high ratings); and The Securities and Exchange Commission (also for failing in its duty to supervise)

There's plenty to learn from this book also. Some of that is fundamental theory of banking and money. A few examples:

Ritholtz is a proponent of the "Swedish solution" for failing banks, specifically: (1) temporarily nationalize the bank; (2) fire the management (it happened on their watch; they were driving when the wreck happened); (3) wipe out stockholders (brutal, but after all they made a bad investment); (4) give bondholders a haircut and force them to take part ownership in exchange (the pain must be shared somewhere); (5) separate good and bad/toxic assets and ... (OK, I admit that I really don't understand how this last piece works).

I side with those who say that we have not done what is necessary to prevent the next financial disaster. Still, if we do not continue trying to understand what happened during the current fiasco, we have no hope of preventing or, at least, delaying or, at the very least, mitigating the next one.


116 Mary Roach -- Fuzz: when nature breaks the law

Also see, for comparison, Jim Sterba: "Nature wars", which is also reviewed in this collection of reviews. For the most part, Sterba's book discusses animials that are an annoyance and nuissance, whereas Roach also discusses animal behavior that is dangerous or a menace at least.

And, for a somewhat humorous perspective on our arguably misguided effort to deal (or not deal) with human to other animal interactions, you might take a look at "A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)", by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It's a counter-point to Roach in the sense that Roach gives accounts of professional responding to the actions of wild animals whereas Hongoltz-Hetling describes what happens as a consequence of a somewhat unwitting plan (for the local government) to do nothing.

You might also be helped to gain some perspective by reading a bit of "How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human", by Melanie Challenger. That book gives arguments and rationals for very strong consideration for the rights and well being of animals, whether human or non-human, as well as taking on a point of view that includes more feelings of kinship between humans and other animals. A somewhat obvious implication of this is that human animals should not attempt to eradicate specific species for their (human's) convenience and economic benefit, although it's hard to feel protective about insects that damage crops or transmit human diseases. However, note that Roach, in "Fuzz", gives plenty of consideration to the welfare of wild and not so wild animals.

The problems -- What has happened -- These sections describe the interactions between wild (and some not so wild) animals, and give us some appreciation for why actions are needed. In some cases, as with the black bears in North America, it's "merely" break-ins and entering someone else's home or business, in other cases it's theft, especially food, and a bit of vandalism, e.g. breaking a door or window to get in a car or house, and in a rare case somewhat threatening behavior. But, there are interactions that are more serious and deadly interactions as with the deaths caused when humans come in contact with elephants or leopards in Asia. And, in some cases Roach describes species whose populations are out of control and uncontrollable.

What's been tried -- Roach is a good source of information on possible animal control strategies:

What does and does not work, and why -- There are some surprises in this regard. Why can't we just get people to lock up their food and to close and latch the dumpsters so as to keep the bears out. While in some cases we can (requiring the use of bear boxes to lock up food in national parks seems to work, given the threat of large enough fines), but in other cases not so well (the use of latched shared dumpsters in cities with large numbers of restaurants has enforcement problems. It's also surprising that in some cultures people do not want certain animals harmed even when those animals harm humans, sometimes even when they harm close family members.

Relocation often just moves the problem elsewhere and, in the case of black bears in the U.S. they often find their way back and, if not, often other individuals of the same species will move in to occupy the vacated space. For individuals of some species, the impact of relocation on their ability to survive that outright killing is not any more considerate.

There is far too much interesting material in "Fuzz" for me to summarize. However, a partial list of some of Roach's topics and chapters:

Roach gives us so much information about what is going on in the area of wild animal control and explains so many fascinating, important considerations about those situations and concerns that it seems impossible not to find lots that will stimulate your thinking.


117 Paul Roberts -- The impulse society

"The impulse society" is a bit of a rant against impulsive consumerism and the economic system that encourages and exploits it. But, it's a very informative and thoughtful account. Needless to say, since it's about our economic system and our society, this book leads to associations with other aspects of our lives, for example, our political system and its support of our economic system, our use of the internet and how that is exploited by the companies that do sales through the Internet and the companies that collect massive amounts of data about all of us and are learning how to use that data and analytics to influence our buying and our politics and more.

A good deal of Roberts's criticism could be directed at us, rather than at the firms and agencies that are trying to exploit us. He is criticising us for buying on impulse, for buying things we do not need, for seeking to satisfy our wants rather than our needs, for buying when we do not have the money to pay for it or when we really should be saving that money for more important purchases. And, it's not only our purchasing and buying behavior. We are attracted, distracted, enticed to click and to follow what catches our eye, what seems interesting or scandalous, what is entertaining, as opposed to content that is enriching and informative. This is what Tim Wu (and others) call click-bait. See "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads", by Tim Wu.

Part of Roberts's criticism is about the individualistic and self-centered society that we live in, a society that enables and encourages us to seek gratification, to attempt to satisfy as many of our wants as we can.

Some of our largest and most successful companies are based on a business model that exploits our self-centered needs. These are firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Snapchat, etc. For more on how they do this, see (1) "American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers", by Nancy Jo Sales and (2) "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood-and What That What That Means for the Rest of Us", by Jean M. Twenge.

And, we should be asking whether (1) we use social media so heavily because we are impulsive or (2) we become more impulsive because of our heavy use of social media. Of course, the most likely answer is: quite a bit of both. Viewed through Roberts's lens of impulsiveness, we and our social media are well suited for each other. Social media, after all, is another part of our market-driven economic system. And, a market oriented system is designed to encourage us to buy more. Since buying on impulse is likely to generate more sales and economic activity than carefully evaluating each purchase and only buying what we "really need", it's only reasonable to expect that we'd evolve toward a system that encourages more and more impulsively. Actually, look at some of the characteristics of consumer capitalism: (1) impulse buying, (2) profit driven delivery of goods, (3) advertising to push additional unnecessary sales, (4) want-driven rather than need-driven purchase decisions, (5) control that emphasizes emotions over reason. Given those characteristics, we'd have to expect that social media encourages our impulsiveness, which has as a result that social media and consumer capitalism become mutually supportive.

One aspect of this critique that is too complex for me to understand and evaluate is the suggestion that something about the impulse society and consumer capitalism contorts and perverts the incentives that work within the system. Perhaps one aspect of that is that our impulsiveness encourages our economic system to seek profit by offering us the wrong goods and encouraging our impulsive buying behavior in order to sell them. That forms a positive feedback loop and a vicious cycle. Another form of that critique is Roberts's claims that we measure the performance of our economy through changes in our GDP, and that GDP measures many of the wrong things. For example, we see improvement in the GDP when we use more remedial health care costs, rather than expenditures on preventative medicine and healthier lifestyles and when we spend more buying and repairing automobiles, rather than on infrastructure and repairing the roads that would keep our automobiles from wearing out quicker. There are lots of examples of this, and our economy and political systems do not seem to have any self-corrective mechanisms for them. In general, the GDP numbers do not coincide with the well-being of society or with our own well-being.

We have increasing productivity (produce more stuff with fewer hours of labor), but what we produce is not what we need so much as what we want; it targets our whims and impulses rather than what's good for us. This is part of what it means to say that withing our economic system, the consumer capitalist system, the incentives are wrong. And, the incentives that drive production are skewed, because we are impulsive. And, the economic system encourages us to be impulsive because it needs to push the goods that those incentives and we tell it to. And, so you have a positive feedback system and a non-virtuous cycle.

We (our society, our economic system) are succeeding at unifying customer psychology and marketplace mechanisms. And, those marketplace mechanisms are becoming more pervasive, more intrusive and invasive, more automated, and more intelligent and effective. This will become even more so as firms and institutions learn more about how to use data science, big data, and AI to exploit those of us who are less able to resist the enticements that are dangled before our eyes.

If you decide to read this book, you should look for Roberts's attempts to explain how our society functions, how the combined social and economic and political system functions. One aspect of that explanation that is especially fascinating is Roberts's attempts to explain how each of these systems influences the others.

He is also explaining what the trade-offs are, what we are sacrificing and risking by moving towards a society that enables us to satisfy so many of our whims.

A related aspect of this picture is the increasing size of the financial sector in comparison with the sectors that actually provide the goods: manufacturing, shipping, marketing, etc. That out-sized financial sector influences and changes the incentives that operate within the system. It influences who produces and sells what; if influences who is able to buy and what they buy. For example, the increasingly easy access to credit (credit card debt, student loans, car loans, home loans, and more) are part of the mechanism for keeping that want-driven, consumer-based economy going.

One point made by Roberts but hard to verify because it is rather vague is that in our political system, we are not allowed to discuss alternatives to our capitalistic, market-driven system. Even suggesting modifications to that system is met with resistance. Mention the word "socialism" and you can shut down any discussion. So, the likelihood that there will be political adjustments to our impulse-driven economic system is very low. And, the fact that in the U.S.A, both of our dominant political parties have become the parties in support of business and especial big business, does not help a bit.

Big data, analytics, and targeted marketing -- We are going to be facing this more and more. Roberts believes that it is destabilizing to our political system, in part because by giving us each messages that are different and that conflict with the messages given to other citizens, our beliefs become even more divergent and divisive. The messages that politicians send us become ever more extreme because the use of micro-targeting and data science convinces them that this is what specific groups of voters want to hear. And, as a result, we lose whatever ability we might have had to see things from the perspective of other voters. And, since the use of big data and analytics requires lots of money and because very rich people have lots of money, we have to worry that those who are funding the extensive use of data science in political campaigns hold extreme positions and opinions that are outside the mainstream, often more economically conservative.

Given the increasing use of big data and analytics and targeted marketing and messages, there are some specific things that we can do in defense: Use a Web browser that blocks ads. In your Web browser, periodically clear browsing data (browsing history, cookies, etc.). Do only focused purchase, that is, do not purchase impulsively or without consideration.

One worry I have about this kind of critique is that perhaps the free market ideologues are at least part right. Perhaps our free market, consumer capitalist system is as good as it gets, or, at least is less bad than the others. It certainly delivers lots of goods, and we seem to want those goods. Still, even if there are no better kinds of economic systems, it does not mean that we can't make improvements to ours. Certainly, if firms and large corporations can make modifications to that system (e.g. through lobbying), then we, the consumers at the end of that production system, should also be able to.

And, speaking of delivery, another important part of this system, you can read a fascinating account of containerized shipping in "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger", by Marc Levinson.

So, what can we take away from "The impulse society" in the way of personal guidance? We are all controlled by our impulses and desires and cravings. Saying that we should not be so is almost pointless. But, we could all use a little more control. We need to learn to fight back against and resist the efforts of corporations to "train" our impulses for their advantage. Most of us would be helped by being a bit more reflective, especially when we make decisions about how to spend our time and what to purchase. We'd have fuller, more rewarding lives if we focused more on learning and understanding and analysis, and spent less time on immediate, short-term enjoyment. If we spent a little time considering what options and decisions would have good outcomes for our lives, we'd likely have richer lives. That is often called "wisdom", and it's the ability or habit that we might acquire from thinkers like Lucrecious and Epictetus the Stoic and Montaigne.

There are likely some specific habits and traits that we might attempt to practice: And, never "like" anyone online.


118 Hans Rosling -- Factfulness

Central themes – Rosling has two central points:

Here are a few of the measures of human conditions that Rosling uses:

After an introduction, each of the remaining chapters of the book focuses on a specific instinct or cognitive bias that leads us astray on our thoughts about measures of human conditions. Some samples:

My major criticism of the book – For each of the chapters focusing on one specific mistaken bias or instinct, you have to read some number of pages before Rosling explains what the bias/instinct is. But, what I'd like is a one or two page list that describes each of them. Is that overview buried in this book somewhere. If so, I have not found it.

Here is a list of those biases and instincts that lead us to wrong beliefs about the quality of human lives:

Rosling ends with a chapter on "Factfulness rules of thumb"


119 Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm -- Crisis economics: a crash course in the future of finance

This is a fairly typical explanation of the recent financial crisis, where it came from, how it proceeded, what the causal mechanisms were, and what threats and risks are still there.

But, it's a well done, clear explanation. Roubini and Mihm are a great pair.

There is a bit in the way of prediction near the end of the book, but the real strength is the understanding it gives you so that you can picture for yourself what the future possibilities are.

This book has significant sections on reforms and cures. But, do not expect a simple prescription. Roubini and Mihm describe various remedies, and they explain in detail the ways that that each will work and will not. By doing so, they will help you to a deeper understanding of possible fixes and their consequences. But, you will need some perseverance to get through it all.

A very fundamental issue is their discussion of "white swan events", that it, events that are rare, but that should be expected. When you have a system that is unstable, you should expect large events. For example, a financial system that contains high levels of debt and in which participants use lots of leverage, we should expect significant crashes. It's foolish to be surprised. Those crashes are inevitable; they will happen; and they will be dealt with at taxpayer expense.

Sovereign governments and central banks have taken on the responsibility to back-up and bail out the consequences of risky, high leverage behavior in the financial system. In effect, sovereign governments like the U.S. and those in Europe have become part of the larger financial system, stepping in to react to crises and crashes. We are past the point where we can believe that this will not happen again. And, so we citizens and our governments should at the least demand influence over and regulation of that risky behavior, because we will be the ones who will bear the cost.

A few specific things you will learn from this book:

And, finally Roubini and Mihm provide a few considerations about where the global financial system is headed. In particular, as the U.S. financial hegemony erodes and as the U.S. dollar loses its strength as the world reserve currency, what is likely to replace that hegemony and reserve currency.

And, I have (at least) one question: I've always believed that the financial markets in the U.S. are reasonably transparent and fair. Roubini and Mihm's book, as well as others that I've read about the recent financial crisis, say or suggest that much of what goes on in these markets, especially the activity that happens directly between counter-parties and not on regulated exchanges is not transparent. It would, it seems to me, be of much value to have a study of the extent and the consequences of this lack of transparency.


120 Malise Ruthven -- Fundamentalism: the search for meaning

Why this book is important -- We, in the U.S., recently had a president who was a fundamentalist Christian; it was disastrous. And, looking to the future, as Matt Taibi recently wrote about Michele Bachmann in RollingStone magazine:

"... consider this possibility: She wins Iowa, then swallows the Tea Party and Christian vote whole for the next 30 or 40 primaries while Romney and Pawlenty battle fiercely over who is the more "viable" boring-white-guy candidate. Then Wall Street blows up again — and it's Barack Obama and a soaring unemployment rate versus a white, God-fearing mother of 28 from the heartland." (from "Michele Bachmann's Holy War", by Matt Taibbi, RollingStone magazine, 6/22/11)

Definitely something to be concerned about.

The following paragraphs are considerations on some of the ideas that Ruthven will lead you to think about.

Ruthven claims that there is currently a strong, and successful, reaction against modernism, pluralism, and secularism. This is, he seems to say, especially true in the U.S.

A basic point is Ruthven's conception of the shift from traditionalism to fundamentalism: traditionalism has none of the defensiveness or re-activeness of fundamentalism. The traditionalist is not aware of an alternative view, and is not defensive of his own views against those who criticize them. The fundamentalist is.

Fundamentalist Christians are literalists, although what they seem to be most often supporting is inerrancy, i.e. the idea that the Christian Bible cannot contain errors. However, some interpretation of terms seems to be allowed, famously, the length of a day as the term is used in "Genesis". But, no textual criticism is allowed. Fundamentalist are strongly opposed to the view that the language of the Bible is a human construct that reflects the knowledge and prejudices of the period in which it was written. There is also the fundamentalist position that a believer should be able to understand the Bible merely by paying attention to the "plain meaning" of the text.

One defensive strategy is "inerrancy": the claim that the Bible cannot be wrong because it is God's words. Therefore, if seems wrong, that's because we do not understand it correctly, and not because there are errors in the text itself. Both papal infallibility and scriptural inerrancy became prominent when liberal theology and biblical, textual criticism became significant. Challenges to literal truthfulness prompted defensive responses.

Although inerrancy can wiggle around miracles and complexities, inconsistencies and conflicts within the text must be dealt with.

Fundamentalists also totally reject the subjectivization of the understanding of the Bible. It is not poetry to be understood metaphorically or as a fable that can be subjectively interpreted to teach some lesson that is determined personally. It's not myth; it's history. It is not to be understood personally and subjectively; it is the literal, objective truth.

Another strategy is to explain miracles as possible natural phenomena. For example, water in a river backing up is explained as the result of an earthquake that creates a dam. Of course, if you believe in miracles and belief that God performs them, then why would you need or even want to search for a naturalistic explanation.

The Bible, and a literal interpretation of it, is sometimes used to justify radical action, even violent action. And, where it is not used to promote action, it may lead believers to an acceptance of actions and political policy that have serious consequences. I'm thinking especially of the acceptance of our inaction to prevent global warming.

Fundamentalism and the control of women -- Fundamentalism supports of a patriarchal society. Fundamentalists reject the equality of men and women.

Given the treatment of women in Fundamental religions, why do women join? Ruthven offers several explanations: (1) Because of the appeal that charismatic, male preachers have for female followers. (2) Because of economic reality; because women cannot earn a living, or because they earn less than men and have difficulty supporting themselves if they do not accept fundamentalist religious values and join a family, i.e. find a husband to help with economic support. (3) In modernism, when gender roles are changing and confused, the sexual bipolarity encouraged by fundamentalism may be reassuring.

The cost of this gender bipolarity is a destructive anti-gay crusade. It also leads to limitations on the rights of women.

The possibility that fundamentalism and religiosity in general would dissipate and become less and less of an active force in social and political life has turned out to be an illusion. This has increasingly been true not just in the rural sphere, but in the urban world as well. And, it has been true of Christianity as well as in Islam. Secularization is not inevitably linked to increasing modernism. And, universal education does not inevitably lead to modernism and an enlightened perspective either. It now seems that Western Europe and Australia may be an anomaly in their movement toward increasing secularism.

For those who believe, the world is being re-enchanted and resacralized. It is filled with miracles, spirits, angels, devils, and demons. Among the "saved" the miraculous and the suspension of (belief in ) natural laws and processes is often routine and commonplace. For example, believers watch televangelists and Christian TV channel wanting and ready to believe in miracles. To those who believe, these TV miracles, seem like an expected confirmation of their beliefs and of "God's power". For those with this mind-set, there really is not need to believe in the inevitability of the laws of nature, nor to have confidence in the predictions of science. Ah, the burden of having to believe those pesky scientists has been lifted. After all, God must surely be powerful enough to force science and the laws of nature to obey his wishes.

With a voting public like this, like that which we have in the U.S., you can pass some very damaging and foolish legislation.

The revolution in communication, enabling audio-visual communication with a mass audience, in particular, through television, has empowered those who communication through spoken word and gesture, and these are especially empowering for those making a strong personal and charismatic appeal.

Fundamentalism, whether Islamist or Christian, works best in opposition. As a political appeal, it gains power by being able to claim to be oppressed and embattled, for example by claiming that it's values are being defiled. We can hope that once in power, it will lose much of its appeal. However, that may happen only after having very destructive and damaging influences, e.g. to the environment, to education (through promotion of the teaching of creationism), to the rights and lives of women, etc.

A possible saving feature of our modern age is that technology and communication technology, especially, make diversity and pluralism visible across the world. There is no guarantee that we or the next generation will choose it, but there can be no doubt that the option is being offered. However, fundamentalists, whether Islamic or Christian ones, know how to use technology, especially communications technology, especially well. And, humans seem to have a need to believe in something other than what the real world gives us.


121 Nancy Jo Sales -- American girls: social media and the secret lives of teenagers

This is a especially fascinating book about social media addicts.

There are several main topics covered in this book: (1) Online social media and how it's used, what the online social sites are, what the apps are, and how they're used. (2) The lives and social styles of American girls, and especially, how those lives are affected by smartphones and social media.

This is not a survey or research book. It does not do that much in the way of facts and figures, percentages of users and average times of smartphone use etc. Sales has done extensive interviews with teenage girls and small groups of teen girls who are friends, then reports on these conversations.

Some of it reports the loves and friendships and relationship problems and so on of teenage girls. There's a awful lot of this kind of person stories in "American girls", more than I found I wanted. So, you may want to filter out some of it, although it does make for entertaining stories.

While reading this book, I find myself thinking how outrageous and bizarre and strange these stories are. And, then I began asking myself why this seems so strange, even shocking to me. I suspect there are a number of reasons:

Still, the stories Sales tells and the teenagers that these stories are about do seem extreme. I cannot remember that I or any of my friends obsessed about Elvis Presley or the Beach Boys as much as some of Sales's subjects obsess about the Kardashians. Maybe the Beatles? Yes, but surely those teens that screamed and swooned when seeing the Beatles in person were paid to fake that, weren't they. They were not from my high school.

And, even talking with my friends, as a teenager, was something I wanted to do during lunch-time at school or during breaks between classes. I wasn't something I wanted to do for hours after class and in the evenings. I had a life of my own; there were things I wanted to do. Or, maybe I was the loner and the freak, even as a teenager.

Sales claims that she had a similar reaction of shock at some of the behavior of teens on social media, in particular teen girls (and boys, too) posting nude pictures of themselves, and also because of the calm acceptance of the attitudes and interactions that seem shocking to Sales. The shaming and bullying and mean treatment on social media are especially hard to understand and accept. But, some of Sales's interviewees do accept these behaviors as the new normal.

If you are interested in this topic, you may also want to read:

Twenge reports on studies and surveys of the frequency and amount and styles of smartphone use by teenagers. She also reports on the effects that this smartphone use, which has been increasing dramatically in recent years, is having on the lifestyles of teenagers and how the relate to friends and family and how they spend their time etc. Emotionally, it's not a cheery picture. Teens who use their smartphones a lot, and increasingly many of them do, are becoming lonely, depressed, and unhappy.

This is the first generation in which so many have had a smartphone since such a young age. The next cohort will have had a smartphone all their lives; they will not know life without one. They actively explore new uses for smartphones, especially those uses related to social media. They're the pioneers and early adopters of those new uses. We will, I think, in the future, see new and innovative uses for smartphones because of the demands they make on the smartphone and software and social media industry. But, as with other kinds of pioneers, they may be making sacrifices during this process.

I keep wishing that these teens would stop, put down their smartphones, and ask themselves whether they are getting something that they want from life.

Twenge, by the way, discusses in her article how difficult it might be for those, parents for example, to limit and reduce the amount of time teenagers spend staring at a smartphone screen, especially given that those teens will have had a smartphone from such an early age. I'm wondering whether a better and more hopeful strategy might be to attempt to alter the kinds of uses teens make of their smartphones, attempting to encourage them to engage in activities other than obsessive texting, seeking more likes and popularity, attempting to post pictures to make their friends and followers jealous, etc. And, why do they want their friends to be constantly judging them, anyway.

I should explain my own interest in this book. I initially was attracted to and started reading "American girls" because I wanted to find out what new and innovative uses teenagers were finding and developing for smartphones. I found two things: (1) "American girls" is much more interesting on several other issues, especially those related to sociology, for example, the life-styles of teenage girls in the U.S. and what social and psychological problems teens are bothered by. (2) The uses that teens put smartphones to are not particularly innovative in the sense that they (teens) are not doing the innovating themselves: they can be more accurately described as being attracted to, sucked in by, and becoming addicted to smartphone apps that are provided by large providers of social media Web apps such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. Obsessively seeking the approval of your peers does not seem like something that will lead to new and useful ways to use a smartphone.

I'm saying that they are being sucked into or lured into such use because it is not the case that they have a need or a use and go looking for a tool or Web site that satisfies that need and provides that use. They don't have a need. These Web sites are creating the need, and it's an artificial need that teenagers would be better off without. Teens are attracted to these Web sites usually because their friends and other are using them, and not because they have a problem that the Web site or app solves. And, I'm saying that it's an addiction, after reading Sales's book and Twenge's article, because of their heavy and obsessive use and because it does not make them happy. They are drawn to use these social media sites, and they seemingly cannot stop using them, even though they (the teens) become more unhappy, more stressed, and even depressed from using them.

After reading "American girls", I find that I want someone to tell these teenage girls to sit down, put your fingers to your chin, and think about whether you are really getting anything you want from this activity.

In Sales's last chapter "Conclusion", she wonders about what is different about being a teenage girl now from her own experiences as a teen. Part of it, she seems to think is just the same difficulties of being a teen that she had, but perhaps more extreme, and amplified by the stress of interacting on social media. But, the one thing that she is sure is different is the amount of porn, in particular porn videos that teenage boys watch. That, she says, changes the way boys view and treat girls, and it's definitely a change for the worse. To a significant extent, these changes involve what is now considered normal behavior. When sexting by teens and boys asking girls to send nude pictures of themselves comes to being viewed as normal, even if only by teens, we know that we're viewing a big and a negative change.

Sales recognizes and one of her interviewees reports on how important it is to teenage girls to be "cool", "with it", to have and use the latest and newest of everything, including Web apps. Tech and Web companies are very aware of this attraction, and they use it to attract girls to their Web sites and apps. Sales believes that tech companies are preying upon and exploiting teenage girls by attracting them in this way. Moreover, Sales feels that because of this, those tech companies have an obligation to treat their users, especially teenage girls, with respect. In particular, they have an obligation to police and prevent cyberbullying, to reduce the degradation of teenage girls, to monitor and stop the harassment of teenage girls and children, and to prevent girls (and boys, too) from posting nude pictures of themselves. Given the amount of money these companies are making off teens, it is not too much to ask that they do the right thing.


122 David E. Sanger -- The perfect weapon

There is one cheery note in Sanger's book. He mentions that another way to view the use of cyber weapons is as an alternative to the use of armed military conflict. We'd rather, after all, that belligerent nations use computers and the Internet rather than guns and bombs, wouldn't we? Well, yes, but that's only true if those opposing sides are not destroying critical infrastructure, not causing dams to fail, not bringing down the electrical grid, and not interfering in ways that threaten life and safety. Everything else is mostly downhill and more worrisome.

It can be argued that the Stuxnet worm was one of those operations that was preferable to armed conflict. Perhaps it set back Iran's efforts to build atomic weapons, and thus delayed military action between the U.S.A. and Iran.

I'd like to know a little more than Sanger tells us about hacking a server and breaking into a network and siphoning off data once you've broken in. I'm a computer programmer, and I'd like to understand a little more about what is going on. I don't need to know how to do it, but I want to understand how it is possible, if for no other reason than to protect myself and my network and my computers from those cyber operations. Of course, that kind of information is highly classified. The closest that Sanger gets to telling us is that there was an incident where someone scattered some USB drives around a parking lot and waited for workers at that installation to pick one up and insert it into a computer connected to the network. But, even there I don't know how that USB drive was able to get malware into a computer and onto a network. Or, maybe it's best that I don't know what can hurt me.

But, there is plenty that we do learn from "The perfect weapon". For example: (1) It's likely that the NSA (National Security Agency) is into our VPNs (virtual private networks). (2) The NSA is sucking in (collecting is the polite term, I suppose) lots of data from commercial sources, so they're getting our data I'm sure. (5) the NSA has court approved, if limited, access to Google and Yahoo accounts of millions of Americans. And, don't forget that this access is likely increasing and acquiring new capabilities even as we think about it. (4) We are in, for better or worse, a golden age of computer surveillance. It's both that we, corporations and governments, actually, have the tools to do the collecting, but also that they have the tools to make use of that data. Online data collection and data analysis are increasingly being taught in computer science schools and departments. So, you can be sure that those tools and techniques are becoming more and more available, and the people who know how to use them are becoming more prevalent. If you want to learn it on your own, search the Web for "python data science". Python is a high level programming language that is being used more and more for data analysis and AI. For some tools, these are good places to start: https://www.scipy.org/index.html, https://www.scipy.org/about.html.

Also, keep in mind that part of the value of having access to our data and to the data of corporations and governments depends on that access being secret. So, without doubt there is plenty of surveillance that we do not know about. Sanger claims that this is what was so revelatory about the information exposed by Edward Snowden: that the NSA has units that are breaking into secured networks around the world.

And, because the use of cyber weapons by, e.g., the U.S. government is so secret, we have never had public discussion about what should be allowed and what should not. Aggressive military actions against a foreign nation in a time of peace are illegal, according to some sort of international law. But, what about aggressive cyber operations? Is that OK? Is it perhaps just as aggressive? Many cyber operations are done by the military, after all. Sanger reports on those by the U.S. government against Iran and North Korea. Maybe we should be more honest with ourselves and face the idea that the U.S.A. is in a state of cyber war with Iran and North Korea, and possibly even low level war with Russia and China.

We'll also have to face the idea that cyber warfare trends inherently toward escalation. The cyber tools that are effective today, will no longer be as effective tomorrow when counter measures and tools have been developed. So, governments, are in a continual state of competition to develop newer and more sophisticated tools, tools that are unknown to and not understood by their enemies. And, it's not just the cyber tools that the government is using today; it's also that each government has to be prepared to go into a state of more active war with the use of cyber offensive tools that they have not yet actively employed. So, we have no idea and no knowledge about the capabilities of the U.S. government to destroy another nation's power grid, communications systems, transportation systems, air defense systems, or any other capabilities that might be thought to be needed during a conflict. One thought that is only slightly reassuring is that planning and preparing for these kinds of destructive capabilities requires a huge amount of resources and can only be done at an immense cost. So, hopefully, not very many actors on the global stage (nation states and global corporations) are doing it. Again, information about what our government is doing in this regard is classified, so there is no way to know what kind of offensive capabilities, or even defensive capabilities, are being created.

So, given that we are justified in worrying about clandestine cyber operations on their networks (where "their" refers to almost anybody), how confident should you be that the mobile phone, manufactured in China or South Korea, is not hacking into your local wireless network and sending data through a back door to some remote cyber operations unit?

And, since the U.S.A. government does not release information on what it has discovered about China's hacking and aggressive cyber operations, whether intelligence gathering or offensive operations, we really have no idea what is happening to us. Remember that the U.S.A. government does not want China to know what our intelligence agencies know about what China does (in the way of cyber activities) for fear that they would learn and use more sophisticated methods that we cannot track or crack. So, even if the U.S.A. government knows we are being hacked, they might not do anything to protect us.

Of course, it could be worse. You could be living in China. Not only does China conduct serious cyber intelligence operations against its own citizens, but it has also pressured Western global corporations and news organizations into complying with its (China's) censorship rules.

What's more, and here is an irony for you, China is likely sending some of its citizens to computer science programs in schools in the U.S.A. to learn cyber techniques to use against us. We can only imagine whether North Korea, in turn, sends people to schools in China to learn learn cyber technologies that were learned in the U.S.A., and then likely improved upon.

And, if you start worrying about China's cyber operations, Sanger has equally serious worries to give about Russia's. If China's cyber operations are (mostly) self-seeking, Russia's are downright malicious. Sanger provides a lengthy chapter on that. We might be worried, for example, that Russian hackers might have skewed the results of our last presidential election away from Clinton and in favor of Trump. But even if they had failed to help Trump win, they had succeeded in discrediting Clinton so seriously that she would have governed as a significantly weakened president. And, Trump's claims that the election was going to be rigged certainly helped that effort, whether Trump did so in collusion with Russian operatives or because of threats of blackmail from any of them really does not matter that much, since it was so much in line with their interests.

And, then, there are all the worries that we might have as private citizens, both in terms of how much and which information is being collected about each of us and also how and in what ways we are each being manipulated during our online activities. Unfortunately, it is exactly the kind of information that many of us feel we should be able to keep private that is also the information needed to track down threatening activities by possible terrorists. And, analogously but perhaps less worrisome to some of us, the information collected by corporations for marketing purposes is also information that can be used to help us use the Internet and the Web in more convenient ways, so that we are seduced into complacency in that area, too. Then there is pornography -- how much and which of our data do we want to have reviewed and policed? Our public Web pages but not our posts to social media? Our posts to social media but not our emails? Perhaps I should be allowed to have pictures of a very young, unclothed child if I'm that child's parent, but not otherwise. The more content we have and the more ways we have to produce that content, the more issues we will face.

Sanger gives us plenty to worry about. One problem that I found especially troubling was the consequences of having corporations do much of the work to develop cyber tools on contract with the U.S.A. government. Those who work in those corporations on those tools are likely cleared for work by the corporations themselves. So, we have to wonder how hard it would be for evil doers to gain access to the data and code and tools that are used for cyber operations.

Obviously, it is not just our government that we can and should worry about, there are corporations, too, both those which are working on contract for the U.S. government and also corporations that are collecting data and conducting cyber operations for their own financial gain. We can expect to see more and more work done to, for example, mislead us into purchasing and using corporate products.

Some things that might give us some small amount of protection from corporations, at least when the are helping the U.S. government with cyber operations is that (1) the employees of many corporations are pushing back against cooperation with the government and (2) these corporations, because many of the are multinational, perhaps do not feel much loyalty to, for example, the U.S. government, and might push back against demands by the U.S.A. government to conduct cyber operations against U.S. citizens.

As China's cyber capabilities improve, the Chinese government has become better at using those capabilities both for domestic surveillance and for coercion. We can hope that the same efforts are not being used in free countries, although the tension between privacy and freedom from interference, on the one hand, and the need to protect citizens and infrastructure, on the other hand, is there. Two dramatic TV series, whose local is Australia and the Australian government, deal with this. Look for "Pine Gap" and "Secret City" on Netflix.

Sanger is not only talking about cyber operations. He also discusses psychological operations, often those that employ cyber technology. For more on that, you may also want to read "Messing with the enemy", by Clint Watts. Also see my review: Clint Watts -- Messing with the enemy.

And, since everybody is doing this kind of cyber intelligence gathering and data collecting etc., or soon will be, you may also want to read "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism", by Shoshana Zuboff.


123 Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen -- The new digital age

Is it enlightenment about the future of computing, information, and electronics? Or, is it a long infomercial for Google? Of course, it's a lot of both.

Certainly, if you want information about leading-edge technology from those on the inside, this is a good place for those of us who are outsiders to find it.

A pervasive assumption made by Schmidt and Cohen in "The new digital age" is that whatever the problem, if there is a need for a solution, some technology based company will be created to solve that problem, for a fee, of course. Security? Lots of companies will be solving it for us. Permanent storage of huge amounts of data? If enough of us want it, then there will be companies there to provide it. Need to find something useful in all that data? Of course, that kind of search is one of Google's reason for being.

"The new digital age" contains an interesting commentary about the effects of computing and information technology in democratic states, autocratic states, and even in failed states (states where there is no legitimate, effective political and police power).

And, by the way, if you are interested in "futurism", read the comments in "Rolling Stone" magazine (issue 1202, 2/13/2014, p. 17) about the movie "Her" by Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, and Douglas Rushkoff. Their opinions go from optimistic (we'll have lots of artificially intelligent computers soon) to suspicious (maybe we'll have that AI, but it will be unsafe and a horrible security breach to use it) to cynical (of course we'll want it, since we're sick; but we won't have it, because we're too picky about those we associate with). And, Schmidt and Cohen also dream of a world in which we virtual friends and helpers to keep us company and to do many of our routine (and not so routine?) tasks for us.

Schmidt and Cohen acknowledge that there will be plenty of serious problems as more and more new technology is introduced. What they seem to be predicting for the future, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, is not a static condition or state with our problems solved, but rather a continuing, fluid situation in which every problem will produce solutions and every solution will produce problems. Actually, that is the "new normal" that Schmidt and Cohen seem to be predicting: as new companies arise to solve our problems (the problems created by our new technologies), more new companies will arise to solve the problems created by the problem solutions. And, in the end (the middle actually, since there is no end), we'll be able to say: "See, the system works as we said it would." That's certainly the kind of fun that the techies inside companies like Google will enjoy (and profit from, by the way), but some of the rest of us may be less than pleased. And, they also admit that those problems will create a huge and increasing need for lawyers who will both sue and defend against suits over the problems created by new technologies.

Actually, it's a bit more complex than that -- There will be plenty of bad guys (and less that good guys) out there who will adapt to each of the fixes and changes that companies like Schmidt and Cohen's will be producing, so we need new fixes to counter that, also.

Schmidt and Cohen have some interesting things to say about the future responses of state governments to our use of the Internet. The filtering is something that we've heard of before. Schmidt and Cohen call China's filtering "blatant" and Turkey's "sheepish" and more subtle. But, I believe that Schmidt and Cohen are most afraid of the possibility of the creation of alternative DNS systems that isolate Internet users within a country completely from users and Web sites that are outside that country. And Schmidt and Cohen really go into sleep-losing mode over cyber warfare, which, from what I can tell, they believe will become more and more frightening as that technology advances and as various governments invest more resources into it. Their phrasing is something like: "a new arms race has already begun", and they seem to believe that some countries are building virtual armies and stockpiles of cyber weapons even as we speak. I don't mean to make fun of this. Nations have committed despicable and destructive military actions in the past, so they are likely to do so in the future. Since there is not a lot that we, as citizens, can do to block or prevent such things, my believe is that the real value of this chapter is that it's a start on helping us become better informed in this area so that, at the least, we can respond intelligently.

So, an important question is: Can the companies whose software runs the Internet and the Web fix and optimize out problems created by previous versions of their software and problems that are encountered as pirates and Internet crackers adapt to those fixes? Even Schmidt and Cohen are not overly optimistic about this. Or, perhaps they just want to make us worried enough so that we will ask their companies to help us with their latest fixes.

For companies like Google and other companies that run and implement the Internet, these will be times filled with opportunities. We are going to want the new (and newest) features, and we are going to need the fixes to the software that became broken in the previous version.

For techies, it will be an exciting and stimulating world. For the rest of you (or I should say the rest of us, since I'm just barely tech savy myself), and for those of you who just want to get your jobs done, best advice is to wait for version 2.0, or maybe even 2.1 of whatever it is you use, and hope that that version fixes some of the problems that the previous version introduced.


124 Robert J. Shiller -- Finance and the good society

Lot's of intelligent discussion of capitalist, market based financial systems and their effect on society. It's enlightening and educational. But, don't reach for this book hoping for a single, easily graspable thread or a central argument. It does not seem to be here. Shiller himself, in introducing the book, suggests that this is more of a backup text for a college level economics class that it is a polemic. In other words, when you've finished reading this book, you will be ready to participate in the discussion, but will not likely know the one and only answer.

Much of the first half of the book is a discussion of the different roles and actors in an economic system. Along with that is quite a bit of help in understanding how those actors should behave if the society is to be a "good" one. We might ask that everyone in our political system had that understanding. It's a valuable discussion. But, one thing that we might ask for is some guidance on what we want from a "good society". For example, I'd say that extreme concentration of wealth is bad. But, on the other hand I do want enough concentration of wealth to enable me to enjoy the standard of living that I do. I suspect that there are plenty of people who are much more rich than I who feel the same way. So, the problem becomes, how do we decide what is too much concentration of wealth. And, from my point of view, it is a serious problem that those with much more wealth than I, also have the political power to help them protect and increase that wealth.

Shiller's belief is that in order to improve a financial system you must fix the institutions in that system rather than looking for bad actors within the system to punish. If you get the institutions right, then individuals will, mostly, do good. If the system and the institutions in it send the right signals, then the system will be, for the most part, self-correcting. So, we can view this book as the background text for a college level class on how to design that economic system and how to get those institutions right. It's a book for policy designers, not law and order types.

Since we have just been through a period in which there was excessive debt and much too much leveraged debt and extreme risk taking, we should expect that Shiller would give considerable attention to the problem of adjusting the system so that it sends the right signals and sends effective signal when that excess debt and risk begin to occur.

If you are going to argue that the way to fix a economic system and its signals and mechanisms, then you must also believe that we have a political system that functions both intelligently and effectively. But, we in the U.S. have a political system that is both paralyzed by partisan grid lock and, far from acting intelligently, seems almost unable to act unless it is forced to do so, resulting in decisions that, while we are attempting to recover from a recession, back us into policies of austerity. That's something that reasonable economists tell us not to do.

But, there is another issue here: The financial system isn't even for the most part under the control of the political system. The financial system is to a great extent "self regulating" and not necessarily in a good way; it's reflexive. So, even if our Federal government had good intentions and was capable of acting intelligently and effectively, it's questionable how much good it could do.

Perhaps, designing a good, much less a best system is more than we attempt to do. Perhaps, adjustments to the system that would provide a dampening effect on some of the more negative effects of the system is the most we should hope for. Worse yet, it may be that even those minimal dampening effects are adjustments that we can design only in hindsight. And, since the financial system adjusts to any exogenous influences, those adjustments must be re-designed over and over.


125 Nate Silver -- The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't

Silver promises to tell us how we know what we know in the way of quantitative and statistical knowledge.

"The Signal and the Noise" is about a slightly different kind of "knowledge than we are used to. It's about claims of prediction in situations that are inherently unpredictable. If you've read "Antifragile" by Nicholas Taleb, then you've been warned about that.

"The Signal and the Noise" is about probability, about frequency of an event, and about prediction. It's not about what I know to be true. It's about what is likely and about how likely it is. It's importantly about helping us to determine when we know enough to be able to say that something is probable, and about how to know when we do not know enough.


126 Theda Skocpol, Vanessa Williamson -- The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

This book gives a careful analysis of the confluence of a number of features of current political and economic life in the U.S.: (1) The creation of a small class of extremely rich individuals, individuals who are so rich that spending tens of millions of dollars is small change and even spending 100s of millions is not that significant a portion of their wealth. (2) A reasonably large set of people who, while they may have somewhat diverse interests, have enough in common to form a cohesive whole and are very highly motivated and politically active. (3) Organizations and organizers etc who specialize in channeling funds from the first group (the super-wealthy) to the second (Tea Party activists) in order to promote and influence their activism. (4) Enabling factors, for example Supreme Court decisions that allow the use of campaign funding, Web sites, Twitter, email (esp. email/address lists that effectively enable anyone to become a publicist at low cost), etc. (5) A media and news media that is willing to actively cooperate in encouraging and amplifying some of these forces. When these factors come together, as they have now in the U.S., their influence and effect can be huge.

One significant effect of these forces is the "purification" of the Republican party. For a Republican politician currently in the U.S., it is not good enough to be conservative; only radical conservatism or extreme conservatism will do. Funders and funding organizations as well as the Tea Party demand that their politicians be hard-liners on issues such as small government, low taxes, reduced regulations, free-market . If you are a Republican politician and you are not hard-core on these issues, you can expect some very heavy funders to be willing to spend lots to block your election or to get you un-elected if you are an incumbent.

Those who consider themselves to be Tea Partiers are very emotional, but can also be very well informed on some issues and very mis-informed on others. Often, the authors report, Tea Partiers have done extensive "home work" on issues.

Tea Partiers believe what they want to believe and they can find and listen at extreme length to those who tell them what they want to believe. The news media echo chamber really works. Our wide choices of sources for news and opinion enable us, Tea Partiers and the rest of us too, to choose sources that we already agree with. Having those sources means never having to listen to someone who tells you that you're wrong.

In the U.S., we are going through a period of ideological sorting of our political participants. What are and will be left standing are those who will not or cannot, if they want to keep their jobs, compromise. Compromise has become the dirty word of Republican, conservative politics. This has happened to some extent on the left, but it is extreme on the right.

Funders and funding organizations on the right have decided that it is better to support a "pure" conservative who has a low chance of winning election than it is to support a moderate conservative who has better odds. It's as if they are thinking, "Why support someone who will not give me (all of) what I want?" This has led to support for some disastrous candidates, but it has also produce a dramatic shift to the political right for many of those in our legislative bodies, both at the Federal and the state levels.


127 Jordan Fisher Smith -- Nature noir

It's not a long book, but still, it's several books packed into one: (1) It's a set of apparently true short stories about a few ne'er-do-well lawbreakers and about Smith's attempts to deal with them as a ranger. There are also some investigations and mysteries. (2) It's a story of a significant portions if Smith's life, specifically the time he spent working as a ranger in Auburn State Recreation Area, just east of Sacramento, California. (3) It includes a partial history of the proposed Auburn dam, along with stories about those who promoted it and those who opposed it. (4) And, finally, it contains rather lyrical essays about the ASRA and canyon and river and wilderness and not-so wilderness in and around it, along with thought provoking discussions about people and the (more) natural world and about the changing relationship between them.

As the title "Nature noir" suggests, it's often not a happy book. A ranger is not called in to deal with people who are well-adjusted, steadily employed, loving family members. The people who Smith is sent to deal with are, for example, camping in the canyon by the river long-term and gold mining, likely because they do not "fit" in the society with which many of us feel comfortable. And, because of Smith's stories about people who are on the far edge of society, this book can also help give us a little empathy with people who are "out there someplace just barely hanging on".

There is also the story about the woman who was killed by a mountain lion while she was jogging in ASRA. That leads Smith to write about the boundary between humans and nature, and about how places like ASRA enable us to step closer to that semi-wild region, about how that opportunity is and should be important to us, but also about how increasingly more densely populated regions like those surrounding ASRA cause more problems. It's likely that his thoughts on and around that subject led Smith to research and write his more recent book "Engineering Eden" about the aftermath of the killing of a human by a grizzly bear. And, here is another enlightening and entertaining book about that intersection between humans and nature: "Nature wars", by Jim Sterba.

Smith's story about the decades long attempt to build the Auburn dam that would have flooded much of the canyon that he patrolled and came to know so well is also fascinating. Here in California, our history is about water: about what we do when we have it and what we when we don't; about when we have too much of it and, more often, when we don't have enough, about the extreme measures and projects we undertake to move water from where some of us do not use it to where more of us, or some of us with more money, will use it. I live in Sacramento, California; the Auburn dam, if it had been built, would have dammed the American River, and that river flows through Sacramento. I live more than an hour's drive from the ocean (the San Francisco Bay), but I also, believe it or not, live at an elevation of about 50 feet above sea level. The American River that Smith talks about and the Sacramento River that it joins just a few miles from my home must get to the ocean, and while traveling that twisted hundred miles or so, must do so with a drop of a mere 50 feet. The rivers and the dams that control them and the dams that keep those rivers from flooding and the water they store so that I can have water during a long hot summer when there is almost never any rain, all those things matter to me, a lot. So, when Smith talks about the proposal to build a thin wall curved dam that would have to be anchored securely to the canyon walls, and then discusses the prevalence of seismic faults in that area (none as threatening as the San Andreas and Hayward faults that we have in the San Francisco Bay area, but still threatening to a dam) and discusses the composition of the soil and rock in the canyon walls and how that rock crumbles and is of various consistencies, then he's helping me think a bit about how maybe we can't do everything we want with water. As an anecdote, I took a walk in the ASRA this last weekend. After reading "Nature noir", I began to notice the dirt and rock along the sides of the trail, and I started asking "How could they anchor a large dam to that?" I've visited Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park. Olmsted Point is made of huge slabs of solid granite, which is in part why it so scenic and majestic. The canyon walls in ASRA are not like that at all; they are soft and crumbly. After reading Smith and "Nature noir", I'm more than willing to believe that it would be loony to build a large, thin, concrete dam, to try to anchor it to that jumble of dirt and rocks, and then to put the huge weight of a high wall of water on one side of that dam, which of course is a heavy structure itself.

So, all in all, I think that "Nature noir" is a very thoughtful and thought provoking book.


128 Hedrick Smith -- Who stole the American dream

Two important points: (1) the social contract has been discarded, and (2) those who have the predominance of political and economic power are almost all on what would have been one side of that former "contract". Abrogating that contract has been done willfully and with great financial advantage to the rich and powerful in the U.S.

Unimpeded, free market capitalism has concentrated wealth and shifted wealth toward the upper economic tiers in the U.S. And, because our political system give unrestricted access to the political process through money and contributions, the result is a concentration of political power, too.

That system now seems to be in a positive feedback mode: more economic power and wealth leads to more political influence and power, which in turn results in more wealth and economic power, etc.

According to Smith, more and more, over the last 10 to 20 years, capitalist and corporate interests have gotten what they want: (1) Corporate profits and support for share prices are given priority at the expense of employee wages and benefits. (2) Corporations have shifted responsibility for retirement from the corporation and employer to the individual employee, for example, eliminating defined benefit plans and replacing them with 401-K plans. (3) Corporations and employers have eliminated and reduced health care benefits and coverage with little counter balancing attempt by the U.S. Federal government to replace that reduced coverage.

Why? What are the enablers for this shift? (1) Members of America's corporate power elite have decided to take a much bigger share of business earnings for themselves at the expense of employees. (2) There has been an increasingly pro-rich, pro-business policy tilt in Washington, D.C., and this is happening at the state level, too. (3) The Republican party have been blatant supporters of tax cuts for the rich, while support for the rich and for corporate interests by the Democratic party is not so blatant but does assist in the process.

One significant enabler of this process is the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has resulted in the formation of super-PACs, and, in turn, in unlimited political spending by corporations and the rich. What's more, the influence of business and the wealthy now vastly out-weighs that of organized labor in Washington, D.C. and at the level of state governments.

Smith claims that political scientists have found that the U.S. Congress responds to the affluent and to donors, and that it ignores voters who do not contribute financially (in particular, to their campaign funding). This means that influence of policy outcomes goes almost exclusively to the rich.

What we might hope for is a tipping point or a pendulum swing that might send us back toward a more balanced condition. But, nothing like that seems likely now, and if and when a Republican replaces Barack Obama in the White House, this imbalance is likely to get much worse.

Smith describes the Wal-mart model, which puts huge pressure on suppliers and manufactures to reduce prices. Yes, that results in cheaper goods for consumers, but it also means reduced wages, often abroad in China) and makes it almost impossible for domestic produces to compete successfully.

Once again, free market, fundamentalist, purist capitalism results in (1) large U.S. trade deficits and (2) the loss of millions of domestic jobs.

Smith lets us know that knowledge workers and knowledge oriented industries have not been spared from this process. Work that is IT oriented can often be sent overseas where it can be performed by skilled but lower wage workers. There are companies that specialize in supplying low wage but skilled and knowledgeable workers from overseas, especially India, to work in the U.S. Plus, more and more research is being done in China.

The skills gap is a myth, according to Smith. But, it is no myth that U.S. corporations are replacing skilled and knowledgeable workers with cheaper ones abroad.

In the last major sections of the book, Smith explains both (1) why we can't get a fix and (2) what the fixes should be. It's not an encouraging picture.

But, Smith does give a good summary of what is wrong and needs to be fixed: (1) strident partisanship; (2) unyielding ideology; (3) a corrosive and corrupting system of campaign financing; (4) gerrymandering of House congressional districts; (5) endless filibusters in the U.S. Senate; (6) holds on executive appointees in the Senate; (7) dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and the reduced cooperation that comes with it; (9) a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus. It seems like an awfully big, deep whole to dig out of. And, what makes it worse is that partisan and party gains are the predominant driving factor in the U.S. Congress.

Much of what contributes to the impossibility of a fix is due to the extreme bifurcation of our political parties and especially the rightward shift of the Republican party. The lack of willingness to compromise prevents solutions which benefit the rich, who might have had to pay a bit more for those solutions. One symptom of this process are Republican primary elections, which have become effectively heresy trials that punish those who are seen as not ideologically pure.

The middle (moderates) has disappeared. That blocks action and ensures gridlock. Even when a compromise is enacted, Congress does not move on to other work; it comes back and tries to undo what an opposing party has enacted. We are seeing this now in the Republican Right's attempt to roll back the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare).

The New Right has replaced the Old Right: no consensus politics; no moderate positions; no compromises; no tolerance for moderation and cooperation by party members; purging of moderates (Rinos); and driven by the Tea Party push for lower taxes and smaller government.

One of the key enablers of this changed state of our politics was the civil rights legislation of the 1960's. That was what caused to formerly Democratic South to become Republican. Now the U.S. political system is controlled inordinately by the South and by thinly populated states in the West and Southwest.

Increased polarization leads to inaction and a lack of productivity in Congress, which causes more economic inequality. So, for some, for a few, the system works. It delivers the desired results, specifically the results desired by the rich. And, that's a take away point: if you want to produce another Gilded Age in which the rich win, then you engage in ideological partisanship. Extreme partisan, non-cooperative politics is not the unfortunate bi-product; it's the driving force for the desired results, the results desired by the rich who pay the campaign financing bills.


129 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont -- Fashionable nonsense: postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science

There are several smaller, but very interesting books packed inside this one. (1) There is a proposal for how to criticize postmodern, structuralist, and poststructuralist philosophy, psychology, and use of science and math. (2) There are applications of this critical program to several postmodern, poststructuralist thinkers and their writings. In this regard there are chapters on Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, and others. And, (3) there are two essays (Sokal and Bricmont call them intermezzos), one on the philosophy of science and the other on chaos theory. I'm guessing that Sokal and Bricmont feel these are needed to counter the use of these as a wedge or entry way to support the post structuralists' claims for the relativity of science, in general, and social science, in particular.

In the intermezzo on supposed relativism in the philosophy of science, Sokal and Bricmont argue against the use of two broad claims by the post structuralists: (1) those based on Karl Popper's use of falsifiability as the foundation for science and (2) those based on the alternative paradigms thesis in Thomas Kuhn's "The structure of scientific revolutions". In general, the postmodernists' conclusion that all scientific claims and theories are relative to a particular culture is way too broad and extreme.

There is another break from Sokal and Bricmont's criticism of specific post structuralist writers: an "intermezzo" on chaos theory. Again, Sokal and Bricmont criticize the metaphorical use of concepts and claims in chaos theory to make claims about philosophy and about sociology. They are particularly upset by the claims of the post structuralists that all statements in sociology are relative. For Sokal and Bricmont this position amounts to saying that we can make no true statements at all.

The "intermezzo" on chaos gives a critique of the post structuralists' use of the terms linear and nonlinear and their promotion of a new kind of thinking, nonlinear thinking. Sokal and Bricmont argue that the steps from the mathematical terms to the notion of nonlinear thinking are not correct because of the lack of understanding of those mathematical terms (there are actually two notions of nonlinear used in mathematics) and because there really is no connection between, for example, a nonlinear function (the mathematical idea) and nonlinear thinking. Nonlinear thinking, according to Sokal and Bricmont, seems to be thinking that goes beyond reason and, in order to do so, uses intuition and subjectivity. But, intuition and subjectivity have nothing to do with the mathematical concept of nonlinear. Sokal and Bricmont also attack the argument that chaos theory, because it is postmodern perhaps, justifies and supports this new nonlinear thought. Sokal and Bricmont argue that it is important to distinguish between the use of the word "chaos" in chaos theory, where it is based on situations that exhibit a high sensitivity to initial conditions, and the use of "chaos" in fields like politics, history, sociology, and theology, where it is used as a synonym for disorder.

This volume also contains a reprint of the article by Sokal that was responsible for the "Sokal hoax": "Transgressing the boundaries: toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity". (I've likely misspelled a word or two in that title, at least my spell checker tells me so. But it's a hoax, after all; those words are made-up ones, right?)

It's a good read, but I'll have to admit that I'm a bit miffed at the willingness of Sokal and Bricmont to take the post- structuralists seriously enough to give them the time for criticism. Once, you've read a few lines of complete gibberish, shouldn't you just throw it in the trash and go on to something that makes sense and is worth discussing. Call me old-fashioned, but philosophy and science should both make sense. Sokal and Bricmont are right when they claim at times that it is difficult to decide whether these people are being serious or are engaged in an extended joke pulling our leg with such nonsensical verbiage (just as Sokal himself did, by the way).

You also may become a bit tired of reading the same criticisms and arguments over and over. These are good arguments, but they become a bit repetitious.

Trying to summarize a bit, Sokal and Bricmont's most common arguments are these: (1) The postmodernists do not understand the science that they base their arguments on, which results in the gibberish that they write. (2) The postmodernists claim some relation between specific scientific claims and sociology or philosophy of science, but do not explain or justify that relationship. (3) They are vague about whether this relationship is a metaphorical one or not, so we do not really know how to evaluate it. And, (4) what they write usually does not make much sense, anyway.

A deeper objection is posed at the end of the chapter on Bruno Latour. Sokal and Bricmont object to the use of analogies between sociology and scientific theory (in the case of Latour, his use of relativity theory) for the purpose of explaining sociology to Latour's readers. What is wrong with that effort, they claim, is that harder to understand than the sociology theory that Latour is trying to use it to explain.

Actually, since so much of the sociology in this book makes so little sense, perhaps Einstein's theories are easier to understand, after all something that makes no sense is infinitely difficult to understand. Or, is it infinitely easy?

For those of you who are just here for the laughs, you might want to jump directly to the chapter on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (chapter 9 in my edition). The passages quoted by Sokal and Bricmont there are especially silly.

Wait. Perhaps the chapter that immediately follows, is droller yet. In it, Sokal and Bricmont include a quote which in the original French is a single 193 word sentence. I'll agree with their description of it as "diarrhea of the pen".

In summary, if you believe that it is worthwhile to understand how foolish arguments can lead to silly positions and conclusions, and I do, then reading and thinking through this book is a valuable exercise.


130 Jim Sterba -- Nature wars

"A good book to stimulate your musings"

Humans have transformed the landscape. They have made much of the land around them more suitable to some selected (few?) "wild" creatures. Now, as those animals (such as turkeys, deer, beavers, geese, and more) move into these modified surroundings, humans will need to learn how to live with the animals that have learned how to live near them.

The story of how the landscape has changed is a story of phases and of who has modified nature for what purposes. Some of these phases we can only speculate about: (1) before native Americans; (2) the dominance of Native Americans; (3) the arrival of Europeans; (4) the spread of modern humans and the build up of farms and farming; (5) the reduction of farming and the spread of more and more housing with its semi-wild margins around it.

This is also a story of modifying the landscape for whom and for what purposes. The modifications that Sterba talks about most were predominantly done by humans for the purposes of building housing, in particular single family dwellings that spread out from suburbia and into forest, reclaimed farm land, etc. During that process, habitat is converted into a form that is suitable for a variety of species. The ones Sterba talks about are white tailed deer, beavers, Canadian geese, and turkeys. But, we should realize that while these changes created habitat suitable for some animals, it also destroyed habitat that is needed by others. So, it's important to remember that while, as Sterba says, a few species have increased, many more have declined as human habitation and land use encroaches open and destroys the habitat that was formerly used by those species.

But, there is more in this book than just humorous stories about humans attempting to deal with a few species of nuisance animals. Several chapters in this book will encourage you to think about you relationship to nature, to the landscape, and to the plants and animals in it. Even the chapter about bird seed and about the increased feeding of wild birds in the last 50 years is a provocation to think about how we've changed, what our (new) place is in relation to nature, and so on.

I'd even like to read more about the subjects that Sterba discusses, in particular the discussion and thoughts about our pets, our feelings towards them, and the way we treat them. These attitudes have changed over time, especially in the last 50 years or so, and, of course they vary across cultures. Just this last week, I talked with someone from far away who told me that in his culture pets are usually not allowed indoors because, after they've touched you, you are no longer considered clean for prayer. That's a simple statement about what I'm sure is a much more complex relationship that this person has with animals, but it's enough to give some hint about what variety there is across cultures.

One particular cross cultural topic is Sterba's claim that there are different attitudes towards and about how we should manage natural recreation areas in Europe and the U.S. Sterba suggests that in Europe they manage a wider range of landscape types and manage them more intensely, where as in the U.S. we tend to manage only areas that are "wild and scenic", leaving the rest for development and commercial use. I just spend several days in Yosemite National Park in California where arguments over the next management plan involve years of contention, many court cases, and huge amounts of paper. So, Sterba's discussion here was especially poignant. And, our management style for the wilderness in the U.S. is more of a "leave it alone" and a "leave it natural" style compared to the more care taking and even gardening style in some European countries. Here in the U.S. where capitalism seems to be a religion, we need "endangered species" acts and "wild and scenic rivers" acts before we can have the leverage to protect something. Yet surely we know how valuable these areas are to our well-being.

And, there is more to this book than merely interesting or entertaining reading. These topics matter for our future. For example, more and more, we encourage our children to "get an education" so they can "get a good job", which usually means work in a city or urban area and working in an office sealed against the outside, often with windows that do not open and with central heating and air conditioning. These same people feel the need to "recreate" in nature on an infrequent weekend or perhaps a two week camping trip in the summer. In fact, the same children that we encourage to get the education that will enable them to find that style of employment, we also take camping, trying to teach them to appreciate nature, in part because they are likely to see so little of it during their lives.

After reading this book you can expect to have acquired a more nuanced understanding about what is and is not wild, about different grades and shades of the wildness and the natural, and about what we mean when we talk about the wild and the domestic aspects of our world. And, after reading this book, you are likely to have an inclination, perhaps even a compulsion to put the words "nature" and "wild" and phrases such as "the natural world" and "wild animals" inside quasi-quotes. I know that I do.

Anecdotal news item -- "Deer tie up Golden Gate Bridge" -- Authorities say a pair of deer on the Golden Gate Bridge snarled traffic in and out of San Francisco during Friday's evening commute. (See The Sacramento Bee; 9/7/2014, p. A4)


131 Katherine Stewart -- The good news club

Stewart explains several ways which are used to maneuver past the requirements for separation of church and state in public schools. One is to claim that are educational or some form of historical study and bible study, and is not proselytizing or an attempt to convert school children to a different faith. Another is to use "peer-to-peer evangelism", having students apply pressure on their friends and classmates rather than involve parents and adults, directly. And, yet another is to claim that children who are not allowed to profess or promote their faith are having their right to free speech taken away. This last approach seems to be the one accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2001 case of "Good news Club v. Milford Central School", which apparently accepted the idea that teaching and promoting religious ideas and beliefs are a protected free speech right and opened the door fairly broadly broadly to religious activities in public schools using public school facilities. You can learn more about the Milford decision here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_News_Club_v._Milford_Central_School

And, because Texas often manages to be more entertaining than most, don't pass up a chance to read the chapter on the Texas Board of Education and there battles to ensure a Christian slant in school text books. Oh, where is Molly Ivins when we need her. Actually, as you might expect, Ivins did have something to say about this: http://www.creators.com/opinion/molly-ivins/molly-ivins-july-14.html

The sections on the attempts to inject religious beliefs, prayers, etc. into sports seem especially troubling. I'm guessing that young athletes, especially those involved in team sports are quite susceptible to pressure from their peers; that's just team spirit looked at from a different angle. I also suspect that student athletes who are influenced by Christianity (and we are talking specifically about the Christian religion here in the U.S.) often, most often, grow up to be better because of religious up-bringing. One of the valuable aspects of this book is that Stewart encourages us to confront and think about the question of whether we want that social pressure applied to children and teenagers.

So, is this invasion of our public schools something that we should be worried about? Stewart certainly is trying to convince us that it is. I'm someone who feels that teaching or raising children to be a believer in any religion can be thought of as a form of child abuse, so I should be very worried. However, in the U.S. we have so many religious believers (the number of believers in fundamentalist, literal interpretations of the Christian bible, especially) that attempting to infiltrate the public schools to produce more of them hardly seems necessary. And, I suppose that I believe that if you are not capable of seeing through and rejecting a religion after having been brought up in it, then there is not too much hope that you will break out of the confines imposed by those around you. Some grow up to escape that social pressure and those religious beliefs; some grow up without them but fall into it. I do not know how to prevent or cure alcoholism and I don't have a cure for religion either. You can even argue that it's a good growth experience to be subjected to social pressures of the kind that Stewart discusses while you are young so that you can learn to resist them. Again, one of the valuable aspects of this book is that if encourages us to think through this and related issues.

"This problem could be easily solved if everyone accepted my religion." And, that's the point.

And, a few personal rants ...

I still believe that it's criminal to give parents, or anyone else, the power to warp and twist the minds of the young.

I empathize with Stewart: promotion of rigid, fundamentalist, anti-science (or at the least, non-science) beliefs is bad for us all.

Faith and beliefs for which we do not have evidence is foolish. Worse yet, it encourages those who do it to believe other silly things, even when not tied to their religion.

But, perhaps it's futile to attempt to protect the foolish from their own foolishness.

It's an attempt to impose one's religious beliefs on others. I'm annoyed when they show up at my front door and try to do it to me. When they do it to the young and impressionable, I'm horrified.

By the way, what happened to the "never trust authority" strain in our society. I don't believe that today's youth are so weak minded that they believe any foolishness sent their way. Can that really be true in our "ironic" age? You would think that the massive amount of advertising and scams sent our way and huge amount of foolishness we read on the World Wide Web would inoculate us with a strong sense of skepticism.

The Good News Clubs are promoting a literal interpretation of the Holy Christian Bible, a book that has weird and unreliable origins and that has been changed over and over to fit the needs of the times. How believable can a literal interpretation possibly be. It must be believable I suppose, given the number of people in the U.S. who own up to doing so.


132 Matt Taibbi -- The great derangement

This book covers three separate topics: (1) inside reporting on Taibbi's infiltration and time spent as a member of a Christian mega-church; (2) reporting on the dysfunction of the U.S. elected Federal government; and (3) a description and critique of the 9/11 Truther movement and some of the people in it.

If you do not like the disconnect between those three topics, view it as a collection of essays or articles on these topics. But, whether viewed as three separate books within one or as a collection of articles on three topics, it was extremely worth reading. I'm one of those who is likely to complain: "I don't know how so-and-so (left-wing or right-wing politician) could possibly have gotten elected; none of my friends voted for him/her." Exactly, and Taibbi helps get me out of that narrow limited view by introducing and describing the world outside of mine and the other very different (from me) people in it.

Writing on religion, Taibbi describes his experiences with a Christian mega-church and a number of people he came to know within it. He attended services (impressive theatrical productions), cell meetings at various homes, and even a 3-day retreat. His reporting is very revealing, and you come to understand the needs of a few of these people, the world they live in, the ways in which they are led to and supported by the beliefs they have. Taibbi is sympathetic. These are people who genuinely do need support. Taibbi gives you a clear view of their loneliness, desperation, financial problems, depression, etc. Taibbi is not sympathetic with what the mega-church, its leaders, and even other members do or offer in the way of that support. These are people in need, and what they get is immersion in a world filled with superstition and demons, a world where politicians on the wrong side of the divide are sinners and evil. It's a world filled with fear and blame.

Taibbi is amazed that in an advanced civilization, we can still have so many people who are so superstitious, people who believe that their souls can be captured by devils if they think or say the wrong things, people who can be told and who believe theatrical stories about the End Times. Convincing the same people to vote a particular way on a political issue must seem easy by comparison. Actually, from Taibbi's descriptions, peer pressure and group-think takes care of much of that without any extra effort. In some of the smaller meetings that he attends, there are some positions (e.g. on gay marriage, on whether President Obama is a socialist) that are rigidly enforced.

Writing on politics, Taibbi describes the inner workings of the U.S. Federal government that would fully justify our view of them as sinners and as evil. It's a world in which what seems to be most important are: (1) Keeping your job, if you are an elected representative. (2) Following the rules of the inner workings of government, rather than solving problems and improving the country. And, (3) Serving the individuals, corporations, and institutions that funded your campaign as well as the lobbyists that are paid to keep elected officials on the track they were paid to follow, etc.

Writing on the 9/11 Truther movement, Taibbi asks for reality checks. He asks that that we check what we say against reality, against facts, and that if what we claim does not hold up, that we stop saying it. He's a reporter after all, a witty one, one who takes a stand on one side or the other of an issue. But, he believes that he and others must back up what they say with fact, and that the facts have to be true. Is that too much to ask, he seems to say. This disconnect is especially the case for the Birthers, who continue to claim that President Obama was born outside the U.S. no matter how much evidence is presented to the contrary.

He is also a bit shocked and exasperated by the implausibility of the claims of the Truthers. The theories and the Truthers about who brought down the World Trade Center are so improbable and outside of any likely explanation. These theories and the stories woven from them are the kind where every decision must be made correctly, every event performed at exactly the right time, and every every event from the outside must happen in exactly the right way, at precisely the right time and place. And, according to Taibbi, Truthers do not even feel that they have to prove that one of these stories is true; they at most, feel the need to show that things could have occurred that way and that there can be some doubt about the official explanation, which is actually the explanation accepted by everyone except the Truthers. It's all just too much for Taibbi, who is used to his stories being fact checked before publication, to handle.

The imagined, fantasy conversation between Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and others to plot the destruction of the Twin Towers (which is near the end of "The great derangement"), has to be one of the very best comedy routines I've read. Taibbi believes that this is the kind of fantasy story you are led to when you start accepting Truther claims.

Here is a link to another review: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/05/04/508572/-Book-Review-Matt-Taibbi-s-The-Great-Derangement


133 Matt Taibbi -- Griftopia: bubble machines, vampire squids, and the long con that is breaking America

Yes, it is a rant. A Taibbi fan like me would be disappointed if we got anything less from Taibbi. But, it's also a very illuminating rant that points a finger at each of the problem actors that caused this crisis. You can't fix a problem and you can't prevent it from occurring again if you do not know who and what caused the problem.

This recent crisis caused so much pain and took so much away from so many. We desperately need fixes. But, in spite of all the incompetence and thievery, almost no one has gone to jail over the financial crisis. The fall-out and pain from this debacle are still coming down on the middle-class and the those below them. Taibbi's book and his articles in RollingStone magazine are important and valuable because they drive home the importance for action.

Where were the watchers? The financial melt-down was a failure at many levels. Loan originators showed a failure of morals and exhibited excess greed in allowing loans that should never have been granted. Loan and security packagers showed incompetence and a failure of risk evaluation by creating too many risky and complex financial instruments; and there is also credible evidence that they hid the high risk and poor quality of the loans inside the securitized packages that they sold. Those in the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan in particular, failed to protect the system from the excesses of operators within the financial system, even while it was his job to do so. Taibbi is especially brutal at describing Greenspan and both his failure to do his job as regulator as well as his highly politicized support for deregulation and the bubble.

The report by The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is here: http://fcic.gov/ . While it may not be nearly as much fun to read as this book by Taibbi, it is just as devastating and as critical of those who were in the positions and had the power to prevent this crisis.

Unfortunately, both will be read and then we'll pass on. Members of the financial community will learn a lesson from this: They will learn that you can get rich and not be punished, therefore, you should try to do that again.

Some of what you will learn from this book:

Who has been hurt by this financial crisis?

And, yet almost nothing has been done to set things right.


There is clear information that the crisis was avoidable and identifying those who caused and allowed it. So why is the strongest movement in the country the Tea Party's demand that we cut the deficit? Why is that energy not being channeled into punishing those who caused the previous crisis and into preventing the next one? How has that political energy been sent astray?

Corporations rule America. What you have here is corporate democracy. Our U.S. federal government may not come to the rescue of private citizens, but it will save the largest corporations, no matter the cost to taxpayers.

Once any class of people becomes powerful and rich enough to have significant influence in politics, a democratic form of government can no longer function. We're currently seeing plenty of examples of this. The recent Supreme Court decision makes this all the worse. The governor of Wisconsin, elected in part by large donations from the Koch brothers is answering their needs by attaching the power of labor unions.

The bubble economy creates a cycle of boom and bust that creates the crises that provide the excuse for using taxpayer money for bailouts. This effectively provides a pump that transfers wealth from the middle-class to the financial and corporate elites.

The U.S. federal government has saved the largest financial banks, in some cases through the support of mergers. The result is a financial system with an even smaller number of yet larger financial institutions. When the next bubble and crisis occurs, it will likely be even more destructive and the pressure to "save the system" will be even greater.

It is simply not reasonable to expect this will not happen again. This morning I heard an interview with Phil Angelides in which he said positive things about the recent financial reform bill passed by the U.S. Congress (H.R.4173 - Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act). But, he admitted that there will be strong push-back from industry, and that lots of character and moral fiber will be needed to resist that pressure. I'm cynical: people with character and moral strength were not there last time; it's unlikely that they will be there this time. (The Angelides interview is available at KQED, Forum, 2/22/2011, http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201102221000)

And, if you do not have time to read this book, at the very least read one or more of Taibbi's articles in RollingStone magazine, for example: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/why-isnt-wall-street-in-jail-20110216


134 Nicholas Taleb -- Antifragile: things that gain from disorder

It's a very enjoyable book. Actually, I worry about it being too enjoyable. It's a bit to tempting to make consequential decisions based on Taleb's entertaining stories.

There are lots of individual pieces of advice in this book. I'll leave it to you to decide whether reading through the stories and explanations that surround these pieces of wisdom is enjoyable or tedious. Taleb is a serious raconteur; perhaps it's his heritage. If you decide that you do not need all of the stories and details and explanations, then you may want to start with reading just the glossary and with looking up a few of those term in the index.

Much of the book is spent giving elaborate justifications for conventional wisdom, things like: "Don't put all you eggs in one basket." and "Do no harm".

And, some of the book is merely advice that a well-intentioned grandfather or great uncle would give. It's of the "save for a rainy day" and "learn to enjoy life while you can". One recommendation that I found interesting was to earn money in large chunks and in bursts so that you can spend the rest of your time (weeks, months, or years, I suppose) doing what you really want to do. That's useful advice for some of us in some professions I suppose. It likely fits a successful researcher and writer like Taleb reasonably well. But maybe it does not work so well for the rest of us.

Come to think of it, most of Taleb's advice does seem quite situation specific: it's applicable in some situations, but might be disastrous if applied in others.

Taleb has a great love for the natural, for things that have evolved, and for what has "stood the test of time". But, evolution and natural selection is a very complex thing. It does not develop perfect solutions or even ideal solutions; it develops what survives. And, even those species survive in a particular set of conditions. So, as with any other technology, you need to evaluate each technology, innovation, consumer product, medical procedure, or whatever individually and on its own merits and characteristics.

Still, we can argue that technologies, products, and processes that have been in use for longer periods of time are more likely to have had bugs removed and improvements made. But, on the other hand, a newer innovation may offer features and conveniences that are not available on older ones.

So, I'd suggest that when you read "Antifragile", you also read "The shock of the old", by David Edgerton. It also shows a preference for older, tried and true technologies. But, his way of arguing for those technologies is to show how well they've worked, rather than to argue that some newer technology might blow up in your face, as Taleb sometimes does.

Another interesting comparison is with "How nature works", by Per Bak. Per Bak is concerned with "self organizing criticality", by which he means (I believe) a system that is due for breakdown and for sequences of destructive events. Taleb spends quite a bit of time on systems that have been supported and kept in place until they become "critical" or in Taleb's words, "fragile". When Taleb is talking about long tails and fat tails etc., he is often talking about a system that has built up a critical state, that is, one which has entered a regime during which breakdown and series of events become chaotic and unpredictable. Both Per Bak and Taleb are helping us understand systems in which there is stress and in which sequences of events are random.

Taleb's advice is to stay with systems that are stable (although he does not say how to identify them) and to only take risks with unstable systems when the possible downside is small and the possible upside is large.

Certainly it is worthwhile to spend time thinking about identifying which systems are stable (and which not) and about determining which systems degrade or change gracefully (and which do not).

A lot has been said about nostalgia for the past and for what is natural (as opposed to modern or post modern?). And, you have to select your

Taleb is a raconteur, and that means that he is susceptible to what he calls the narrative fallacy. What grabs him is that which has an entertaining story that can be used to explain it.

There is lots of theory in this book. See especially Appendix II.

I had fun thinking about how some of Taleb's advice could be applied to my life and about how my life might be different if I took some of what Taleb said seriously. Would I put most of my savings in something safe like an insured interest bearing bank account, but go long gold futures with a small amount? Would I try to insure everything I own? These are interesting thoughts. They make for the starting points of some fascinating dreams. But, I'm not confident enough in Taleb's advice to make any serious changes to the way I live.


135 Jonathan Taplin -- Move fast and break things

This book is a rant, perhaps even a screed, but it's a well focused one that we need to hear. It's also very clear and informative.

Taplin's major themes: (1) Much of the Internet is controlled by monopolies, in particular by Amazon, Facebook, and Google, but also monopolies and restricted competition among Internet service providers. (2) The Silicon Valley tech oligarchy is rapacious: they take what they want and need without asking (our) permission and without worrying particularly about breaking social norms; they (especially Amazon) bully content producers. Amazon, in particular, uses its leverage to drive down the compensation that it pays to content producers. (3) The tech oligarchy is aided by a libertarian agenda of rich political campaign donors and by a libertarian leaning political class. (4) Content producers (musicians, book authors, video producers, etc.) are left with no no way to make a reasonable profit on their work.

Libertarian philosophy is no longer fringe and extreme. It is mainstream to Silicon Valley tech executives and the Republican party. When enough powerful people think and act that way (in accordance with libertarianism), it inevitably leads the economy to a loss of jobs, to low wages, and to a "Gig" employment landscape (i.e. work for small payments without benefits, without job security, and workers without leverage when they deal with their employers).

Monopolies lead to oligarchies. Oligarchies lead to an imbalance of power, in particular with the wealthy having much more influence on our governments at various levels. And, that power imbalance leads to economic inequality. We are seeing lots of that in the U.S., now. One specific way in which oligarchs use their power is to fight back against government regulation and monitoring. And, that means that they and the corporations that they run become even more powerful, forming a positive feedback loop.

Another effect of this power imbalance is that large corporations and the people who run them can very effectively push-back against the enactment of regulations intended to slow or prevent climate change. If we want to have any hope at all of taking action to slow down the influence of humans on climate change, we will need to control the power of large corporations and monopolies to impede that.

Taplin gives some account of several Silicon Valley leaders (Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Peter Thiel of Facebook, etc.) and how their respective corporations gained the monopolistic powers and position that they currently have.

The problems that Taplin identifies are: (1) Internet monopolies, in particular, Google, Amazon, and Facebook; (2) the libertarian, cowboy capitalist, anti-regulation, and anti-tax agenda that has taken root in the U.S. Federal government; (3) the extreme wealth of a small group of people in the U.S.; and (4) the feedback loop between that wealth and government (the wealth influences and controls government; government enables the creation of even more extreme wealth).

There are several basic principles about the function and structure of the Internet that enable the creation of huge, concentrated wealth. Some of those principles are: (1) the ability to use and offer proprietary technology that gives its owners an advantage over their competitors; (2) the use of network effects; (3) the ability to use economies of scale (when everything is bits and bytes, you can multiply content, connections, etc. very fast); (4) branding and first to market which give a huge advantage and benefit (in particular, they enable the creation of virtual, if not real, monopolies).

Taplin seems to be arguing that we are being abused by these large and powerful corporations. However, part of the problem is that many of us feel that we are benefiting from the services of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Could it be that if their power were limited and restricted, we would receive even better service? Or, is it that Taplin is arguing that there are collateral costs from those monopoly powers? He certainly does spend a good deal of time describing the rough treatment of music content producers.

One question: Is this a problem that can be solved by individuals? Or, is it something that can only be solved by larger institutions, in particular by the U.S. Federal government? If that is the case, it's hard to imagine that there will be much done about these monopolies, given the pro-business mindset in Washington, D.C. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Federal government has done little to stop the growth of large monopolistic corporations. And, that's true of both Republican and Democratic administrations.

See the following article by Barry Lynn from "The Atlantic" for a good bit of backup and support on Taplin's claims that anti-trust and anti-monopoly actions by the U.S. Federal government have been weak and that the consequences have been harmful: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/antimonopoly-big-business/514358/. Another good reference is "Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction", also by Barry Lynn.

We should not expect this to get better. Rather it is likely to get worse, and to worsen much faster, for several reasons: (1) As, Taplin mentions, some companies, in particular those that leverage the Internet and digital technologies, are able to grow and scale in some extreme ways. (2) Companies like Google and Amazon and Facebook, too, I suspect, are investing heavily in data science and machine learning technologies. Soon, if not already, those technologies will be multiplicative, that is, the already huge companies that are able to invest in them will be able to grow and out-run their competition even faster because of those technologies, and to do so while employing even fewer people than they do now. Even ignoring loose talk about "the singularity", some of the companies with machine learning tools and weapons in their arsenal are likely to have unimaginable advantages.

One thing to keep in mind is that some of us are hurt much more than others by the out-sized power of some of these monopolistic corporation. For example, those of us who are retired are hurt less by the destruction of jobs and the downward pressure on wages.

In addition to lower wages and fewer jobs, the concentrated power and the power imbalance brought by monopolies and an oligarchy are likely to push us more and more in the direction of a "Gig" economy and an employment landscape where more and more of the available work is short-term, piece-work, contracting work, most of which will be without medical benefits and without any stability or security.

By the way, this "Gig" economy and "Uber-ization" and micro-payments for small tasks seems drastic enough when we think in terms of replacing taxi drivers and other tasks that must be done locally. But there are many sectors and types of work that can be done remotely. So, what happens when people all over the work (many of whom live at much lower standards of living that those of us in the developed world) start competing for the same work? I'm a computer programmer. It's disturbing for me to try to imagine what it might be like if people from anywhere in the world could compete for the kind of work I do.

We're being talked into this free-market capitalism with the reasoning that it brings more economic growth. But, there are several things wrong with that argument: (1) The benefits are not broadly distributed, and so those who need help the most receive the least benefit. (2) Workers end up with even less power, and so the power imbalance continues to get larger.

Even as I'm writing this (February, 2018), the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether workers can be required to pay dues to a union in their workplace. A negative decision on that is likely to result in even fewer unionized workers and an further shift in power away from workers and toward employers. I suspect that the political pressure in that direction with increase.

"Move fast and break things" is a sobering book, and is worth reading.


136 Tracy Thompson -- The new mind of the South

The first chapter "It's complicated" warns you straight off that you should not expect to get to the end of this book with your previously held beliefs and conceptions either affirmed or destroyed. More likely, you are going to have a more complex and nuanced ideas and opinions about the South, and while getting there, Thompson will get you to do some heavy thinking even to get to that state.

This a book about social and religious change, about rural and urban change, and about how the South is changing. It's about how the South is becoming less and less like a mythical time and place, a time and place that Thompson suggests never existed, but that some Southerners still believe that the South and they are falling away from. The mythical past was one where there was no racial tension, where everyone helped each other, where whites treated blacks decently and blacks loved whites in return. And, the new reality is in part, one of urbanization, suburban sprawl, strip malls, and real estate developments. There's that, and there is also rural depopulation, which Thompson describes as the result of industrial agriculture and as having as one of its consequences an increasingly severe rural poverty. The rural South that is left behind is increasingly poor, has more people living in poverty, has fewer people who are highly educated, and has more people who are living unhealthy lives, in particular, who are becoming obese. That rural South has also become a land marred by large hog farms, mono-culture farming, tree farms (rather than forests), and intensively mechanized cornfields. The result is unemployment, poverty, and depopulation.

I'm not sure that Thompson would want to return to a time and place where hogs were raised with more labor, where corn was tended and picked by hand, etc. Certainly, she does not want to do that kind of work. Still, the consequences of that mechanization and the loss of work, especially for those who need that employment are severe.

What you can expect from "The new mind of the South": (1) Some deep thought about society, culture, and individual relationships within that culture. (2) Reportage and description on current and past conditions in the South, both rural (and how it is emptying out and becoming even more impoverished) and urban (ultra-urban, perhaps, especially Atlanta and its sprawl).

Thompson is a native. She was raised near Atlanta, Georgia. So, she is able to give a view from the inside, a view from the perspective of someone from inside that culture. Although, as she makes clear, it's many cultures and not just a single one, so she is mostly giving us a view from the inside of one of those cultures.

But, she is one of those valuable analysts who is able to see and describe things from both the inside and outside. She can tell you how some Southerners feel about their own culture and about (the way they perceive) others' feelings about them, and she can also tell you a good deal about conditions in the South, descriptions that hold true whether you are a native Southerner or not.

Some of the real value of this book comes through in "glimpses" of South, the kinds of constructions that grammatically are called dependent clauses. For example, "... Democratic Party in the South, which in his day occupied the same point on the political spectrum that some parts of the Republican Party hold today, in that it was enthusiastically and unequivocally pro-business." (p. 183)

Thompson often talks about agrarian values and about agrarianism. She leans on that categorization, so it's important to understand what she means. If I had a request for Thompson when and if she prepares for a second edition, it would be that she explain a bit more about what she means by agrarianism in the South and by rural values. (But, note that Thompson has a lot to say about the urban South, too. See the chapter titled "Atlanta".)

But, it's also important to understand that Thompson means to explain in what ways some parts of the South have come a long way away from agrarianism.

Other important concepts and categories -- (1) Property rights: I suspect that Thompson would claim that you cannot understand the South without understanding something about the strong and perhaps even unconscious feelings about property rights held by many Southerners. (2) Individualism: An individual's rights to conduct her/his life in the way s/he sees fit (as long as it's within the bounds of the values of her/his peers and culture) must be inviolable, which may help explain the distrust of government and the dislike for government regulation that seems so prevalent in some regions of the South.

The chapter on religion in the South (titled "Jesusland") was enlightening for me. Thompson stresses the idea that religion is one area where the South is changing the most (and perhaps becoming less like the old South). Whereas, formerly, religion was "big tent" and broadly accepting, more recently in the South it has become more restrictive and fundamentalist. And, this makes a significant difference on a narrow set of social and political issues, which Thompson lists as "the morally corrupting influence of mass media, creationism vs. evolution, homosexuality, and abortion". This restrictiveness is, according to Thompson, a new tribalism in the South, a new attempt at exclusion and at setting those in it apart as "the right-thinking, the correct-minded, the doctrinally and ethically pure". Thompson claims that politics and religion are more interconnected than in other parts of the country. That has consequences, in particular with a narrow but large segment of voters, and especially with respect to that set of issues listed above and the use of those issues to influence voters and to maintain the cohesiveness of that voting block. And, just as religion and politics are interconnected in the South, so too, religion and business have multiple and strong connections. Some points: (1) "prosperity gospel" theology in which the right kind of religion will bring you financial success; (2) mega-churches as a business; (3) the claims by Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy that leading a religious life is a way to success; (4) the incredible success of Walmart and (Thompson claims) its use of Christian trained and oriented employees.

If "The new mind of the South" interested you, then you might also want to look at "Night comes to the Cumberland", by Harry Caudill. It's more narrow in scope, since it was written in the early 1960's and is specifically about the south-eastern region of Kentucky. But it is very perceptive about topics that are also covered in "The new mind of the South", for example, the effect of large corporations and their increasing mechanization on employment and society, the "brain drain" and out-migration of talented and more educated people from rural areas, etc.


137 Jean Twenge -- iGen: why today's super connected kids are ...

[Ref. Jean M. Twenge: "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us"]

About Twenge's name for the book and the generation -- "iGen" is, of course, a play on the name of a successful line of products from the Apple corporation. It's a good identifier, and it captures something important about this generation: that they (almost?) always have a smartphone in their hands. But, it's valuable to keep several things in mind. (1) The iPhone is only one of several brands of smartphone. All of them do roughly the same thing. So, we are naming a collection after an exemplary member. (2) The Apple iPhone is a prestige item. People pay extra so that they will be seen with it and seen as owners of it. That point is especially meaningful with regard to Twenge's subjects, because much of the behavior that Twenge reports seems intended to draw attention and to promote the self (the actor). Being seen with an Apple iPhone is possibly important in itself. Still, we might question whether there would tend to be differences between teenage users of Apple iPhones and other brands of smartphone. Could it be that iPhone users are more concerned with self-image and are more upset or depressed when their self-image fails to live up to their hopes. See below for more on this issues of feelings of inadequacy and the depression that it leads to.

The most significant claims that Twenge makes center around how much teens and "iGen'ers" use smartphones and the consequences of that heavy use.

One quibble with Twenge's emphasis on the down-side of heavy smartphone and computer use (what she calls "screen time"): perhaps it is not so much the amount of use that affects teens attitudes, depression, anxiety, etc. Perhaps it is the kind of use. Heavy use that is made up of looking up information on the Internet while writing an essay or use doing data science analysis and computer programming might have a very different effect from heavy smartphone use that is made up up texting friends, posting pictures of yourself (selfies), posting likes and obsessively paying attention to likes, etc.

Still, Twenge presents evidence and describes studies that report an association between heavy screen time and rates of depression. She also reports an association between high levels of smartphone or social media use and rates of suicide. Teens who visit social media sites are more likely to feel lonely, for example.

It would be valuable to understand why heavy smartphone use leads to a higher incidence of depression, loneliness, and even suicide. That might help us learn how to alleviate those negative consequences. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, although actually about heavy television use and it's effects, would likely be helpful with respect to heavy smartphone use, too.

And, it's also possible that the teens that Twenge is reporting on are overly narcissistic, but then that's the risk of being a teenager. Most of us were that way when we were teens, and the only know cure is maturity.

Twenge does report on several more specific factors that she believes lead to and cause the depression and unhappiness that she reports, including: (1) cyber bullying and (2) rejection. I suppose that the rejection is easy to do something about: do not go where you are likely to be rejected; do not use social media, after all, that's the main function and purpose of social media, namely approval and rejection. But, telling teenagers, and many others too, these days not to use social media is, I suppose, much like telling them not to have friends. Here Twenge's point is that teens would be better off if they made friends and socialized with them in person and face-to-face. And, as for cyber-bullying, I really do not have much in the way of suggestions for that, other than the obvious: stay away, don't engage with those who do it, and report it, all of which are often not practical or effective.

FOMO (fear of missing out) is a big driver of heavy smartphone and social media, as is an obsession with collecting "likes". Teens who are seduced by these need help; they need to talk to someone; they need to think about what they are doing and why they do it.

Well, of course, you are going to have feelings of inadequacy from using social media: you look at lots of pictures and videos of "perfect people" and then you ask others to rate and grade you. What do you expect; of course you will be depressed. And, you do it while you are a teenager and are in the process of forming your own self-image? Don't do that. Twenge suggests that teenage girls may be especially vulnerable to these feelings of inadequacy and lowered self-image and depression. Twenge also claims that there is increased use of antidepressant medicines among teens.

Advice: (1) Do your homework and schoolwork. (2) Talk to your friends in person and face-to-face. (3) Stay off social media sites unless you have a task to perform.

One point that Twenge makes repeatedly is that iGen'ers are doing some things later in life than previous cohorts: the are passing milestones at a later age, for example learning to drive and getting a driving license, moving out of home with their parents, dating and forming long-term relationships with a person of the opposite sex, getting a job or a part-time job, etc. Twenge makes several important points about this: (1) because they are putting off some experiences until later in life, they are not learning to deal with some types of difficulty, adversity, and challenges; (2) this safer life and the shocks that eventually show up cause iGen'ers to demand extremes of safety and freedom from danger, insult, aggression, etc. that previous cohorts (Boomers, and even xGen and Millennials) did not feel entitled to. (3) The iGen generation are demanding increased levels of safety and protection, even emotional protection that previous generations did not expect, which may explain the increased insistence of "safe zone" and demands for protection from "micro-aggressions".

One interesting claim that Twenge makes is that the heavy use of smartphones that she reports is happening across multiple economic classes. That conflicts with the worries that some of us have had that children and teens from poorer economic classes will not have access to important technology, will grow up computer illiterates, and will be left behind by others in their age group, who, we believed, were online more.

In one sense, it does not make sense to ask how much time iGen'ers spend with their smartphones: they are always with their smartphones. They even have their smartphones nearby when they fall asleep at night, since their smartphone is their alarm clock. Telling them to spend less time with their smartphones makes no sense to them: there are too many ways, many of them legitimate and important, in which they use their smartphones.

However, from "iGen" we get the impression that teens these days spend less time using their smartphones, their tablet computers, and their desktop and laptop computers as tools to accomplish some task (for example, homework or a project of some kind) and a lot more time texting and communicating with friends. They also make heavy use of their devices for video games, boys more so than girls, it appears. The other heavy use of smartphones is social media and social media web sites.

Twenge even claims that iGen'ers are so busy using their smartphones and social media that they have less time and are less interested in going to parties. She makes a similar claim about other kinds and styles of in-person association with their peers: they do it less. That is in line with Twenge's point that iGen'ers do not get the in-person social contact and experience that they need because of their smartphone use.

Twenge believes that iGen'ers use their smartphones as a tool to help them avoid awkward or difficult social situations, for example, having to meet the parents of a friend. And, by doing so, they are missing out on gaining experience with handling those situations.

Repeatedly, Twenge emphasizes that iGen'ers do not read printed material, at least not when it's printed on paper. We might suspect that this produces a short attention span and a lack of ability to focus and concentrate deeply. Perhaps, but these teenagers seem to be able to focus and concentrate when the task involves the use of social media. I think we will have to wait until they mature a bit before we'll know whether they really lack the abilities to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time. Members of the iGen generation spend much less time reading books and magazines and also less time going out to movies. That's unsurprising given that they spend so much time on their smartphones and, therefore, have relatively little time for other activities.

The iGen'ers that Twenge reports on seem to believe that smoking tobacco is bad for your health but that smoking marijuana is not. They need to do a few Web searches. What they'll learn are that the benefits and negative effects are mixed, and that they should really think this through.

Looking for an up-side to Twenge's reporting on iGen teens, we might consider the possibility that iGen'ers, because of their heavy use of the latest and newest social media apps, software, and social media sites, are a powerful force in driving innovation and development in those areas. Of course, we'd also need to ask whether they are driving that innovation in the direction of anything useful or beneficial. And, it's worth wondering whether teens are driving that innovation or are being driven and exploited by the products (devices and Web sites, for example) that is the result of that innovation.

There is an article in "The Atlantic" adapted from this book: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?.

If this topic interested you, be sure to look at "American girls: social media and the secret lives of teenagers", by Nancy Jo Sales.


138 Kenneth Vogel -- Big money

It's ironic that one of the biggest changes in U.S. political system came during the tenure of the President Obama, who had sworn to defeat and push back against the use and influence of big money in our political campaigns. For me, that shows the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to radically change our political system, and to make it responsive to the rich.

The Citizens United decision and the rise of super PACs has increased the need for more and bigger checks from donors. And, the need for that huge stream of money goes on through a long election cycle: through primaries, and through the general election, too.

In some sense, we already knew this. We knew that there were huge amounts of money in our political system, both in campaign finance and in the lobbying that goes on during Congress's work to create and vote on legislation. Vogel's value is to give us a readable and entertaining account of the inside of this process and also, depressingly, to show us just how huge those sums are and how much influence they enable a small slice of the U.S. public to have and how corrupt the U.S. political system has become.

It's not a pleasant picture.

This new system and all the money in it has eroded the power of the official political parties. And, this is one part of "Big money" that I do not understand very well. Vogel claims that because of the organization of the super PACs, (1) the function of our political parties has been privatized and (2) that now we have "shadow parties" composed of organizations of super PACs and the political operatives and consultants that create and manage them. This privatization of political parties and organizations is especially true of the Tea Party, which several groups, the Koch brothers in particular, tried to fund and to capture for their own purposes. This is a topic that I'd love to hear discussed in a college level political science class or seminar.

One consequence of the erosion of the power of the major political parties in the U.S. (both the Republican and the Democratic parties) is that leaders in Congress, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, have lost much of their power to control their members. And, that results in a dysfunctional Congress that refuses or that cannot act to pass legislation and solve problems.

Vogel reports in detail on the new industry and the teams of consultants and operative that has grown to create and promote and manage this flood of cash. But, even he cannot see inside many of these organizations, because of the lack of reporting requirements. Perhaps 'that' is why he calls them "shadow political parties", because they operate in the dark, because they are opaque to us, and because they are the dark matter of our political system.

The details that Vogel reports give a picture of the segments of this industry: (1) the fund raising and organizing that pumps super rich donors for money; (2) the operational side, e.g. the spending of these huge amounts of money, especially during and on political campaigns; and (3) the gate-keepers for the rich, i.e. those who screen the candidates in an attempt to ensure that the money given to or spent on a particular candidate will produce the results that the donor wants to achieve.

The candidates are very aware that they are being screened. They know that they are being auditioned for their future performance. And, they are intensely conscious that if they do not act accordingly while campaigning and when in office, that they will fore go important sources of funds.

The outrageous thing is that, since the dominant and most successful strategy is to go after only the super rich, our political system is becoming skewed so as to represent only a very narrow segment of our population.

The success rate that big money and super PACs have in getting their candidates elected is not 100 per cent, which is not surprising, since we now have a system in which the rich compete against the rich. But, some well-funded candidate is going to win, and that winning candidate knows who paid to get him into office. That elected official knows that s/he "must dance with the one who brought them". And, remember that much of this huge pool of money is spent after the campaign: it is used to lobby officials after they get into office. Either way, the influence in politics is predominantly that of the super rich, because that's where the money is.

We have to remember that there are those who believe that we should have a right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence politics. Perhaps they are aware of the consequences; perhaps they are not. And, some of them justify, or at least rationalize it by claiming that it'd be alright if we had full disclosure. I question whether disclosure would have much effect, since many of the donors are proud of their support. But, you'd have to get that disclosure requirement written into law and enforced, which seems like an up-hill battle.

One thing that Vogel's book exposes for us is one of the significant consequences that the concentration of wealth in the U.S. is having. In effect, it shows the flaw in the argument that it's good for the rich to get richer, as long as everyone's lot is improved at the same time. If the rich get much richer than everyone else, then, as Vogel shows, they get much more political power. And, it cannot be good for our country to have a class of super rich who have much more political influence than everyone else. That's not democracy; that's plutocracy.

A cautionary note -- The organization of the institutions that collect the donor's money, that pass along the money, and that spend that money (e.g on campaigning ads), is extremely complex. That means that there are very smart people behind it. One implication of that, among others, is that counter-acting this movement, dealing with it, limiting it, whatever will be extremely difficult. For a Congress that cannot agree to anything except voting for President Obama or voting against him, that seems like an unlikely thing to ask for.

There is, in "Big money", a sizable amount of reporting on the libertarian, lower-taxes, smaller government people and their attempt to produce the kind of government (or lack of government?) that they want. But, Vogel is balanced. He spends plenty of time on the left wing, as well, both on the liberal, more progressive big donors and those who are in the more business friendly segment of the left. And, by the way, there is also on the right, a segment that pushes more for a government that is favorable to business more than for less government.

However, Vogel at one point admits (or claims) that if an individual or a company or an industry, for that matter, wants more from the U.S. government, then the fiscally prudent thing to do is to spend their money on lobbying after the election rather than on the election campaign. Vogel as much as admits that writing huge checks in support of a candidate's election campaign is as much about ego as it is about getting some kind of desired election results. It's also about perks and wanting to be stroked.

Vogel's book is a very good attempt to provide detailed and well-organized view of one of the most important problems in U.S. politics, specifically the influence of money in our political system and the degree to which the money is provided by a narrow class of super rich. Vogel spends less time on analyzing the results of that influence. But, he does do an important service in providing the description and details from which that analysis could start.

A down-side to Vogel's writing is that he makes more of us aware of the extent to which politics in the U.S. is an activity done by and for the super rich. It's no wonder that voter participation and citizen satisfaction with our government is so low. I worry that the kind of awareness that Vogel leads us to will make that even worse. And, it will not help that delegates to the political convention will see the perks and attention from the candidates and their organizations going so much toward the super rich.

Some of the consequences that Vogel mentions: (1) A shift toward privatization, in this case the privatization of the funding of campaigns and the influence exerted on government officials. (2) An increasing balkanization and tribalism of voters and the officials they elect. That fragmentation into smaller and more rigid factions makes it more difficult for our government, especially the Federal government, to do any meaningful work on the problems we need solved. (3) "A completely legal hijacking of American democracy by the ultra-rich" (p. 247): those who can afford to buy our government will more and more be able do so.

One look toward the future: Vogel suggests that the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, have a huge ability to raise large sums of money. So, if you are aghast and sickened by that amount of money chasing politics now, you are not going to want to watch the 2016 campaign. And, one of my worries is that, if so much of that big donor money on the Democratic/liberal side is vacuumed up into the race for the presidency, what will happen to all the other races. We are already seeing so many state legislatures and governorships being captured through big funding on the right. Are we likely to see that become even more skewed?


139 Fred Vogelstein -- Dogfight: how Apple and Google went to war and started a revolution

Vogelstein's book is a fun read. What you get from it and take away from it is up to you. Here are some of the things and ways in which it matters to me.

I'm slow. I'm still using a laptop and (even more retro) a desktop computer. What's more I'm happy with that style of computing. And, I still don't own and use a smartphone. So, I really need this book. I need it to help me figure out two things: (1) Why do I need or want a smartphone? Why do want to use a computer that has a tiny screen and a keyboard that I can hardly get a finger on? And, (2) what is the new/next computing platform be like? Will I be using a single dock-able computer (next year's smartphone) that gives me the same style of computing wherever I plug it in? Or will I be using different computers depending on where I'm sitting (or walking) but my file system will be the same, out in the cloud, no matter where I happen to be sitting and no matter which computer I connect to it through.

Apple and Google have plans for us and for how we will do our computing in the future, and it's a good idea for us to figure out how to plan for that possible future. This book encourages you to think about the platforms that you use. As we say, it's difficult for a fish to think about water because it's always swimming in it. Likewise, it is difficult for someone like me to think about my computing platform, it's characteristics, and it's capabilities, because I'm immersed in it so much of the time. "Dogfight" is of value because force an awareness of that platform to the surface and encourages me to think about it.

There is a lot in this book about personalities, and some of them, such as Steve Jobs, are heavy footprint personalities. But, Vogelstein is especially good at reporting on the step by step crooked path that led from the development of the first prototypes to very recent smartphones and the positions that they put Apple and Google in related to each other.

One important point that Vogelstein makes, but does not emphasize enough I believe, is that the platform does matter, but it matters because whoever controls the platform (iPhone/iPad, Android smartphone/tablet) controls access to media. Selling a computer to someone like me, someone who spends most of his day writing code (computer programming) or writing (book reviews, notes on the Python programming language, etc) does not get you very much. But, selling a computer to someone who is a heavy media consumer (music, video, eBooks, eMagazines, etc) matters a lot when you own the sources of that content. And, to a significant degree, we are going into an age when the owners of the platform will also own the (source of) the media that we consume.

One question that we might ask is whether there are other ways in which the success of the smartphone platform will make a difference other than those related to the consumption of media. When you are not consuming media (listening to music, watching videos and movies, reading news and blogs, etc), does the smartphone platform make a difference. Or, will one smartphone platform be as good as another, with only cosmetic preferences mattering?

One important answer to that question is "the cloud". That's the new exciting thing in Silicon Valley and tech centers else, I suppose. And, it's possible that both Apple and Google are using and will attempt to use the smartphone platform as a means to gaining control of our access to and use of the cloud. And, if we all end up doing our computing and keeping our data in the cloud some how, then that could matter to all of us.

One way that these changes could become important to me is if and when a smartphone becomes dock-able so that I can use it with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse and so that I could use the same operating system and software that I use on my desktop and laptop computers. Then the smartphone could become interesting to me, too. But, then we're really just talking about putting my desktop computer into a different box.

So, from my perspective, this book has at least two major things to offer. First, it provides lots of information and details about a specific historical development that is of importance to us: the parallel development of the smartphone by Apple and Google. And, second, it's of value because of the questions it raises and the material it supplies to help us think through those questions.

On the history and details side, and especially if you are an Apple device person, this is a fascinating story of several of the people who were instrumental in bringing you those devices.

On the questions and thought problems side, it's helping you to wonder about and think about and perhaps even figure out what your next computing platform will be like. And, especially, whether that platform or device will seem like a computer. I personally believe that this is an aid to figuring out how we will consume media in the future. But, it also might help us figure out how we'd want to keep our notes, keep our schedules, track our children, and communicate with those close to us and those who we work with.

Yes, we will live in a media rich and a communication rich world. And, yes the story presented in "Dogfight" is about the struggle between Apple and Google to control our consumption of media and our communication, but I only have so much time. I really do not think I can read and watch any more media than I already to. So, perhaps I can worry a little less about this battle than Vogelstein would suggest.

And, it's good to keep in mind that Apple and Google are not trying to provide us with mobile computing platforms out of altruism. They are in this struggle for their own benefit. We are likely to each give back something because of it. David Streitfeld in the N.Y. Times gives clues about on aspect of that give-back in reporting how eBook publishers might track our reading. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/25/technology/as-new-services-track-habits-the-e-books-are-reading-you.html.

It's significant that the latest news (as of 2/3/2014) is that Google is selling off its Motorola division to Lenovo. That's a change from when Vogelstein wrote "Dogfight". It might be an indication and admission that Google was wrong about Motorola's value when Google purchased it, although the news that I read indicated that Google was retaining many of Motorola's patents, so the value of this sale is difficult to measure. But, it also could be an indication that Google thinks it can be more successful at promoting its smartphone platform (Android) and that the platform will be more successful if Motorola is free to compete against other smartphone makers rather than attached to Google, where, as Vogelstein indicates, Google has been ambivalent about supporting Motorola because of worries about hindering the (sales) efforts of other Android smartphone makers. Plus, Motorola is being sold to Lenovo, which has a large presence in China. That's a market that Google/Motorola cannot exploit as well as Lenovo can. Lenovo's success at selling Motorola Android based smartphones in China could result in a huge jump in the sale Android based smartphones. Another view of this change is that it would free Google itself to more aggressively support a wide variety of Android handset makers. That, too, could result in a wider distribution of Android smartphones. So, this sale likely adds more fuel to the fire under the struggle between Apple and Google that Vogelstein is reporting.


140 Susan Vreeland -- Clara and Mr. Tiffany

A delightful read with lots of meaty issues.

It reads like fiction, but it's based on letters and other factual sources. So, you will learn plenty, but you will also need to take any particular "fact" in this book as speculation of how things might have been. If you are a skeptic like me, then you will even be suspicious about it's portrayal of conditions in New York city and the description of the process of producing stained glass lampshades and windows, as interesting as those may be.

For me, however, the real value in this book are the issues it raises and the thoughts that they stimulate. Some of those themes are:

And, some additional issues:

The book is a bit long for a slow reader like me. But, I believe that you will find plenty to appreciate in it. I certainly did.


141 Clint Watts -- Messing with the enemy

There are several important topics packed into "Messing with the enemy". (1) There is the account, and a bit of bragging, of Watts's attempts to understand the intelligence operations of those who are attempting to combat the U.S.A., to embarrass it, to turn opinion against it. (2) There is an evaluation of recent actors in the U.S.A. government, especially Watts's opinion that those at the highest levels of the U.S.A. government are incompetent, not very bright, and bad actors.

Watts begins by trying to prove his "creds": he tells a few tales that show that his field is intelligence and counter-intelligence, information and counter-information. The counter-information aspect is important, because, later in "Messing with the enemy" he is going to be advising us about what can and cannot be trusted on the Internet and on social media and what we can do to avoid being fooled and tricked.

In addition to learning something from Watts about how not to use the Internet, there is also a good deal to be learned about how to use the internet. Some terrorist groups have become expert at that, and it's helpful to learn from them.

Watts is aware of the ideas in "The wisdom of crowds", by James Surowiecki, but Watts seems to believe that they have valid application in a restricted set of cases. He also believes that those ideas can be used to determine things about the behavior of terrorists (and others, also, I suppose) and that the Internet can be very helpful in that kind of detective work.

In fact, "the Internet changes everything", might be a good sub-title for Watts's book. For example, according to Watts, more and more of what used to be considered classified information is available on the Web.

When you combine the above two (using crowds and using sensitive information available on the Internet), you get a kind of open source effort at intelligence counter-intelligence, counter-information, etc. There are portions of "Messing with the enemy" that describe Watts's efforts to trick Internet hackers and to trick some of the people who spread mis-information and who influence opinions through the use of fake accounts on social media Web sites.

Some are already (or belatedly) wising up to the need for all of us to learn to be more knowledgeable and intelligent in recognizing what is and isn't bogus on the Web and in social media. In fact, a New York Times article described efforts of the French government to school all or most French children in how to be more intelligent and skeptical users of the Internet and the Web. I'm betting that Watts would be in favor of those kinds of efforts. (see N.Y. Times, 12/14/2018, p. B1)

Behind a good deal of Watts's thinking is an understanding of biases, what common kinds of biases we're susceptible to, how to try to counteract them, etc. Anyone who wants help with this, and we all should, needs to read "Thinking, fast and slow", by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman has done a good deal of thinking about biases and how we can try to protect ourselves from them, although he is not very hopeful that we can.

Watts has plenty of dire warnings about the efforts of Russian operatives and hackers to influence opinion in the U.S.A. and to influence elections and to create division, doubt, and distrust of U.S.A.'s political institutions. But, he believes that just as worrisome will be the uses of these mis-information tactics by political campaigns within the U.S.A. Our own politicians are sure to attempt learns lessons from Russian hackers, as are political operatives who will offer their services to those politicians.

Watts believes that we (the U.S.A.) are not putting enough money into counterintelligence and counter-information operations; (2) that the money are resources that we do put into it are being wasted because we're disorganized and too bureaucratic; (3) that we will not be able to improve this until we learn what we want to say and that we will only do that when we learn what we believe; (4) that those working on these projects are smart but are mostly busy trying to follow the rules of official projects, in particular are not free to say and promote what they believe.

Did Trump collude with the Russians? Watts seems to be saying that it was not collusion, exactly: Trump's attitudes and opinions align with the Kremlin on views and policies; Trump is a political (and other) opportunist and his behavior is consistent with the deal making that he follows and espouses; and he and those whom he has surrounded himself with are incompetent and gullible. But, although it may not have been blatant "let's make a deal" style of collusion, the maneuvering in step with the Russians accomplished the same thing without breaking the law in an overtly visible way. Trump's team may not have signed an agreement with the Russians, but they understood what they needed to do go get the Russians' help to win the election. Perhaps the Russians do have incriminating evidence that they could use to pressure Trump to follow policies that are favorable to them, but there is really no reason to risk doing so. A little persuasion and a few hints, gets them what they want from Trump without exposing themselves. From the Russian point of view, Trump is a "useful idiot".

Trump is greedy and dumb. He is exactly the kind of person that the Russians want to deal with. Even better yet from the Russian point of view is that he surrounds himself with greedy and dumb people.

A good deal of "Messing with the enemy" is a critique and warnings about what the Internet and social media is doing to us and what it enables us to do, but that we should not want to be able to do. The Internet gives us choices and it divides us. The Internet supports confirmation bias, and enables us to believe that we know more than we really do. Filter bubbles and communities on the Web and social media encourage us to block out information that might change our minds or that would lead us to believe something that disagrees with our (online) crowd. These filter bubbles, online communities, biases, etc. are fragmenting the world and the people in it. They make it much more difficult for people who are not in close agreement to cooperate and compromise. And, instead of making us smarter, they are making us dumber. For more explanation of this, see "The filter bubble", by Eli Pariser.

Democracy dies in filter bubbles. Moreover, online media and social media and mobile phones enable those filter bubbles.

Our politicians in the U.S.A. are exacerbating the effects of filter bubbles. Whereas in earlier (better?) times, after winning an election, our leaders in Congress would seek reconciliation and would move toward the center. Now, more often than not, while in office they each continue to use inflammatory language to pull in support from their "base" and they act and vote in more extreme positions in attempts to fend of competition and criticism from the extremes. This is especially true of Republicans.

And, we citizens are likely the cause of this movement to the extremes and the fringe. Increasingly, we all live in filter bubbles; we talk and associate only with those who are like us and who share our values. We "self-sort". See "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart", by Bill Bishop.

Perhaps another way to think of it is that online social media is a machine that creates confirmation bias: it encourages us to group together with only those who agree with us; it enables us to avoid information, arguments and ideas that we disagree with and that might give us doubts about what we already have decided we want to believe; it enables us to easily find others who confirm our beliefs. It does this by pulling us into digital tribes. Digital tribes make decisions based on group-think; tribes block out alternative view-points, new information, and foreign ideas.

Trump is very capable at playing into and catering to his audience's preferences. This works especially well with people who spend their online lives in a filter bubble. Trump creates the filter bubble they want: he promotes what his base wants to hear, regardless of whether it makes sense from the point of view of governance. Trump promotes and encourages doubt and loss of confidence in the U.S.A. legal system and political system and election system. The Russians behind their hacking efforts must be very happy with that. So, if you are going to try to avoid being mislead by social media and fake news, then you have both Trump and the Russian working against you. You can expect other politicians in the U.S.A. to follow this same strategy and path soon. And, like most things where money is involved and is available, there will soon be, if there is not already, an industry engaged in doing this; there will be plenty of people with experience and skills in conducting mis-information and online influence campaigns and they will be available or hire. Moreover, there will be a (hidden) elite willing to pay them for their services.

Watts has several suggestions for what to do about this problem, for example: (1) The U.S. Congress should pass regulations that impose the same requirements on social media and online political messages as are imposed on political messages on other media (e.g. TV, radio, newspapers, etc.). And, (2) the U.S. Congress should stop the rollback of net neutrality.

Watts also has suggestions for how we can try to protect ourselves online: (1) Spend less time online, or better yet, do not buy a computer. (2) Get outside your own filter bubble; look for alternative points of view; read content that you disagree with. (3) Use what Watts calls CMPP: pay attention to the Competency of the author; pay attention to the Motivation of the author; be aware of the Product and the type of media; and attempt to understand the Process and how the content you read was acquired and produced.

Watts worries that counter-information and hacking techniques are becoming easier to do. In fact, some hacking tools have been open-sourced and made freely available. Even more alarming: there are schools for doing this kind of thing. You can get a college degree and a job at this. Currently, in order to get that kind of education, it helps to move to the Ukraine. But, I wonder how long it will be before we have mis-information-hacking boot camps in the U.S.A. This is not going to go away; it's not going to get better. The hope that we can all remain dumb while the social media platforms implement smart AI tools that save us from our own stupidity "is a fool's dream". Hoping that this protection will happen for us is irresponsible. As more information and more books like "Messing with the enemy" become available, and they will, we can expect to see more of it and to see the capabilities improve, to become more effective and to become more difficult to defend against. Social media "bots" will become more human like, more realistic, and more difficult to distinguish from real humans.

Watts has given us warnings; it's up to each of us to begin acting so as to protect ourselves.

For more from Watts, see:


142 Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett -- The spirit level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Whether you agree with Wilkinson and Pickett or not, you really should read this book. This topic is topic is the one of the important ones for our age. We are headed into; actually, we are already in a "gilded age". You may not agree with Wilkinson and Pickett's arguments about the cause or about the cure, but you, and we, need to be thinking about this and related issues.

So I read this book and I think: yes this seems very important. Then I go to my public library and I sit down with the Sunday N.Y. Times (dated 9/20/2015) and I read (1) "A vote to give shareholders due respect", by Gretchen Morgenson which describes how the board of directors of Bank of America overrode a bylaw approved by shareholders that required that the board of directors be overseen by an independent chairman and (2) I read "A toxic work world", by Anne Marie Slaughter which tells how workers are squeezed out of employment by increasingly harsh demands on their time. And, I think: "Oh ..., I think I see." This really is significant.

It really is important that we see how extreme the disparity and inequality of pay and wages has become. And, just as important is that we come to understand the significant effects of that disparity and how negative its impact is.

It is definitely worth having these subjects on our plate and in our minds. But, it's also important to stay aware that what Wilkinson and Pickett describe is a correlation, not a cause. There are (at least) two implications of such a claim. One, we do not know for sure that one (inequality) causes the other (reduced economic performance and wealth); and we need more study about this even as we proceed to try to change it. And, two, we do not know how the first causes the second; and until we do, we really are driving blindfolded while trying to fix things.

So, why is this an important book, given these qualifications? We know that there are serious, destructive problems. We're pretty sure that if we leave things to themselves, they are likely to get worse. And, that should motivate us to promote more study of this issue and to try some tentative fixes so as to learn what works and what does not and to read this book along with others on this subject and to think and talk about it.

Chapter 13, "Dysfunctional so