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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 46)

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception

George A. Akerlof

2015


If markets provide the good people want, then they can also provide goods that people don't or shouldn't want – and get them to buy them through psychological or other pressure points. That's an unexceptionable thesis, and perhaps it takes the skills of a Nobel-prize-winning economist to really bring it to life. Akerlof and Shiller do a great job of arguing that an economic equilibrium must almost necessarily be paralleled by a "phishing equilibrium" in which all prejudices and weaknesses find service. They're particularly strong at showing how local ideas of choice don't always integrate into globally good solutions (or even locally ones, over a longer timescale). It's an important contribution to education to be able to argue both for markets and against their pathologies, without succumbing to the fundamentalism of either side.

3/5. Finished 03 July 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Sarah Bakewell

2010


Michel de Montaigne is a discursive writer who struggles to follow the thread of an argument, so it's appropriate to find a biography that's similar: and I mean this as a compliment. Bakewell takes an impossible task -- distilling Montaigne's life and thought and relationships -- and presents them as a collection of partial answers to his core question of "how one should live". Along the way she manages to draw out many of the seductive points in Montaigne's style without getting too lost in the flurry of contradictions that he presents.

I don't actually think this book is quite as successful as her work on existentialism, At the existentialist cafe, but it's still an excellent biography that makes we want to re-visit the Essays.

4/5. Finished 29 June 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Station Eleven

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

2014


A well-crafted post-apocalyptic tale of how civilisation would collapse promptly in the face of a major epidemic. This is very much in the path of A Canticle for Leibowitz, albeit set in the immediate rather than far future. There are also shades of Robert Heinlein's novella ""If this goes on" as religion re-emerges in a particularly malign form.

The best scene, in my opinion, is the almost banal account of how a group of people behave when stranded in a rural airport, dealing with the sudden realisation that civilisation isn't coming back, help isn't coming, and they'll have to fend for themselves.

5/5. Finished 30 May 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity

Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity

Larissa MacFarquhar

2015


This is an excellent study of people who make unusual, sometimes (to some people) inexplicable, life choices. The individuals described have all made choices to serve humanity, and so so in many diverse ways: as doctors in the Indian tribal regions, as activists in volatile South American countries, as organ donors to strangers, and so on. These are choices that have been made by many over the centuries, and are only inexplicable if one assumes that people always seek to maximise their own comfort. The stories in this collection sit out on the end of a spectrum that includes teachers, nurses, care workers, and other who find meaning in jobs that satisfy them without necessarily enriching them.

What this book isn't is about, therefore, is "moral extremity", as the sub-title would suggest. There are few moral choices on show, although there are plenty of personal ethical decisions being made. The author makes a valiant effort to pull the psychological forces at play together, but in the end isn't able to identify what "makes" a do-gooder: there are too many paths and too many gradations of doing good to even make a proper definition of when generosity shades over into something more – and that is itself a moving target, as shown by the excellent discussion on the evolution of how doctors in particular have thought about living transplant donors as time has gone on.

5/5. Finished 26 May 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Oliver Sacks

1985


An enjoyable and fascinating collection of grotesqueries, somewhat marred by the self-consciousness of some of the language. There are some wonderful anecdotes and a lot of kind insight into the human condition, especially as experienced by those with unusual neurological function, whether "natural" or caused by brain damage. But some of the language used is simply annoying ("egurgitations"? "vociferating"? – really?), and Sacks falls into something a trap in not being able to decide whether to use – or not use – the medical terminology, with the result that one neither sees enough to make it familiar nor avoids enough to hear about the conditions in commonplace terms.

3/5. Finished 02 May 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)