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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 60)

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

William Davies

2018


How did we end up where we are, with a seemingly unstoppable rejection of reasoned argument in favour of blatantly false – if somewhat reassuring – fantasy positions served up by charlatans? Davies presents a very convincing case, and some prescriptions for the future, that should be read by anyone who considers themselves to live in the world of objective reality – and especially those tasked with explaining that reality.

The essence of Davies' position boils down to the idea that there's been a change in the nature and purpose of information: that it has gone from being used as a way of understanding a shared reality to instead operating on that reality, with the significance of this change being that the latter requires neither global agreement on a set of facts nor any real persistence in time. It's perfectly possible to discover, act upon, and profit from something that them disappears without a trace, and this changes both what it means to be a fact and how these (perhaps purported) facts are presented: it doesn't matter if something is later falsified, since the purpose was not to state a permanent position but to achieve a timely objective.

Davies backs this proposition up with a deep-dive into military history, philosophy, and the emergence of the commercial internet: this is definitely a book fore the widely-ranging mind. His prescriptions are troubling to those of us who work in science: that we need to shed our public scruples and engage politically, not giving up the search for the objective but making sure that we use it to act on the world. In that sense he's supportive of events like the "March for Science" that were opposed by many scientists as a corruption of objectivity – and I have toi say that that's not something I wanted to hear, but that I find rather compelling.

5/5. Finished 05 July 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

New Moon (Luna, #1)

New Moon (Luna, #1)

Ian McDonald

2015


What would living on the moon be like? How would the inhabitants relate to those left on earth? What would be the economics? The sociology?

There's more than a touch of Robert Heinlein's masterpiece The Moon is a Harsh Mistress here, updated for the twenty-first century. McDonald has the moon evolving an clan-based oligarchy that resembles fourteenth century Italy, but with some amazingly clever nods to the science and engineering needed to actually build a viable lunar civilisation, as well as for their social implications.

4/5. Finished 05 July 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg

2017


Definitely lives up to its billing, with massive amounts of detail and close reasoning – too much, in fact, and this weakens arguments that it's meant to strengthen. But still as powerful an argument for disarmament as you'll ever encounter.

2/5. Finished 06 June 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Educated

Educated

Tara Westover

2018


A study of the effects of education as both liberating and disconnecting.

The family that the author describes is both harrowingly dysfunctional and strangely close-knit, which goes a long way to explaining how hard she found to draw herself away from it. She followed a charmed academic trajectory that many academics would kill for – Brigham Young University, then a scholarship and PhD from Cambridge, then a fellowship at Harvard – and I think it's a fair question as to whether she'd've been able to break away had she had a less exceptional start.

The overriding themes are easy to see, revolving around a desire (indeed, a need) for male relatives to control female behaviour. There are plenty of echoes of works like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, but one thing that's distinctive about Westover's experience is that the fundamentalist position that her family adopts doesn't go far back: even her grandparents disagree with it, and it seems to be as much a product of her father's mental illness and mother's subservience as anything inherent in a strongly religious tradition. It's definitely one of the most challenging personal backgrounds I know of to have been successfully overcome.

5/5. Finished 29 May 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)