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Posts about bonanza (old posts, page 6)

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

2015


A book that it's perhaps hard for a white, middle-aged, Englishman to review, but still a powerful indictment of how America still relates to its black (and other) populations – made all the more poignant by the current spate of police shootings and the contentious presidential campaign that's unmistakeably racist. Coates chooses to frame his argument in terms of physical threat, using it as both a metaphor and as an entrance to the more general sense of fear and danger still felt by many. He doesn't avoid the changing face of oppression over the years, but still holds that there's a danger to being black in America that it's hard for whites (and non-Americans) to fully understand: perhaps the closest we can come to it in the UK would be the feelings of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, which was a story of privilege and discrimination that I remember being hard to accept at the time.

4/5. Finished 16 June 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

Ernst F. Schumacher

1973


One of the founding texts of the environmental movement, and one that asks profound questions about the relationships between humanity and our environment. There are some great ideas about the nature and place of economics in deciding priorities for human investment and lifestyle. But taken as whole this isn't a book that's aged well.

Why not? I think there are three essential reasons. Firstly, there's a rather declamatory style to the presentation that presents as certainties things that are actually rather questionable. For example, Schumacher dismisses statistics: "and of course, nothing can be proven with statistics". I beg to disagree: in any physical or life science, one can only prove things with statistics, since there will always be noise and error in any set of observations that can only be properly analysed and quantified statistically.

Secondly, to continue from above, Schumacher is surprisingly dismissive of science as a useful cultural basis. He identifies six "large ideas" that – he claims – stem from the humanities and offer a broader and firmer foundation for living than any scientific ideas. And what do these "large ideas" consist of? Well at least two of them (evolution and natural selection) belong firmly within science after all; two more (class struggle and positivism) have been largely discredited, while another (Freudian sub-consciousness) has been changed beyond recognition; and the last (relativism), to the extent that it allows multiple opinions as to the Truth (with a capital T), is maybe the only one left standing – and can hardly be argued not to rest at least in part on scientific ideas of uncertainty and progressive refinement.

But the third problem is the most interesting. It seems to me that many of Schumacher's arguments are logical and well-supported by evidence – but have been proven wrong by events. A good example is his (again rather declamatory) assertion that economic growth must always be underpinned by increased energy consumption, which must necessarily come up against resource limitations. A plausible argument: but recent history shows growth decoupling from energy, with energy per unit GDP plummeting, driven in large measure by the rise of the service and digital economies. Schumacher could have dealt with the former, even if we accept he could have known nothing of the latter. But this lack of knowledge about future developments is not something that will ever disappear, and it renders his style of sweeping large-scale pronouncements permanently suspect.

It is always dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra once observed). That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to try to do so, but nor is it an excuse to dress up opinion as fact, or to claim that certain conclusions are inescapable and irrefutable. We won't get to the truth by literary means, and we need to accept that we continually over-estimate how quickly things will change when extrapolating from the present – and continually under-estimate how different from our predictions the long-term future will be. That's a level uncertainty that frustrates those looking for a single-issue "hook" on which to hang concrete action, but is nevertheless the world we actually live in.

2/5. Finished 04 April 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Travels With Epicurus

Travels With Epicurus

Daniel Klein

2012


A meditation is exactly what this book is: a wandering, thoughtful, and ultimately open-ended examination of aging and what it means to age well. The author is a knowledgeable philosopher, well able to explain the thoughts of a dazzling range of thinkers. In the end – and to the extent that the book has a conclusion – he seems to arrive at a measure of Zen mindfulness: a valuable old age is best achieved by being the old man, by exploring what the state has to offer, and not wanting it to be other than it is.

4/5. Finished 11 February 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country

Helen Russell

2015


Fluffy and without pretensions, this is a fun and mildly entertaining read, half unserious cultural analysis and half displaced biography. But there's a lot to be learned from Danish culture for those of us from other (or, as the Danes would possibly say if they weren't too polite, less developed) cultures, not least the importance of getting away from the stresses of industrial life. It doesn't convince me to move, I have to say (not least because I already know that I don't like pickled herring and excessive numbers of rules), but the power of tradition and ubiquity of festivals and entertainment do make it sound inviting.

3/5. Finished 30 January 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Val McDermid

2014


An easy-to-read and broad-ranging exploration of forensics. The fact that McDermid is a crime fiction author clearly makes a difference, as she writes with the ease of someone used to making these ideas accessible. The book ranges over all aspects of forensic science, perhaps being strongest on the physical aspects like fingerprinting and DNA profiling. What comes out most strongly is the need for an holistic approach to investigation, the ways in which all the different aspects of a case – physical, psychological, and circumstantial – need to be fitted together to form a consistent scientific and criminal narrative.

4/5. Finished 02 December 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)