Book review: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Reaper Man (Discworld #11)Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I AM NOT SURE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS RIGHT. OR WRONG. JUST PLACES TO STAND.”

The Auditors of Reality have had enough of Death. His fledgling personality doesn’t seem right to them. So they contact Death’s boss, Azrael, who decides to give death to Death. This seems like a wonderful chance for Death, who takes a job as the farmhand Bill Door. But The Auditors, being the obviously efficient types, have failed to have a succession plan and haven’t hired the new Death. This creates some interesting problems for the recently deceased residents of the Disc.

When I picked up Reaper Man, my exact thoughts were “I don’t think I’ve read a Pratchett book for at least a couple of months, must be time for another one.” I’m gradually working my way through all the Discworld novels with an emphasis on the ones involving Death and The Watch. The City Watch books often tend to have a more solid plot, whereas the Death novels can feel a bit more ambivalent about plots.

Reaper Man did have a solid plot, but it felt more like a series of pins being used to hang worldbuilding and character development on. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t. More an observation that could be applied to most Discworld novels. I mention it here because the character arc ends after the plot, which can mess with some people’s appreciation of stories.*

I’m looking forward to my next Discworld adventure soon.

This short animated pilot is based upon Reaper Man:

* This is pretty much what people are complaining about when they say that The Lord of the Rings movies have too many endings. The plots are tied up long before the character arcs are.

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Book review: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

The Mismeasure of ManThe Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

IQ tests are very good predictors of how well you will do on IQ tests.

This revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man tackles the field of hereditarianism and its related attempts at justifying hierarchical social structures. Or put another way, it explores the stinking swamp of race science with hopes of getting people to notice the stench.

I’ve not previously delved into the history of race science and hereditarianism. I was aware that it was a thing, that it keeps raising its ugly head every few years (Human Biodiversity – HBD – is a recent version you may have heard of), and that it pollutes an entire corner of psychology. As such, this book was enlightening and also disheartening. It reinforced just how a priori the entire field is and why it will continue to be popular.

The first time I became aware that IQ testing wasn’t actually doing what the marketing claims would have you believe was in high school. My brother was very intent on “raising his IQ” by studying for IQ tests. Well you might ask, how can you improve your test score on something that is meant to measure something innate? Over the years I’ve read several papers discussing factors that impact test scores (stress, hunger, nutrition levels, tiredness, sleep deprivation, etc) and realised that these intelligence tests aren’t measuring what some would claim. And worse, often the results are interpreted in almost exactly the opposite way to what they should be (i.e. a poor test result is probably more an indicator of some discriminatory factor, like attending an underfunded school, than of being stupid).

So it is well worth reading this book to understand how fraught this field is with literal white supremacists and eugenicists (see my comments below). It isn’t an easy read but is relatively accessible to most people who give it the time required.

Some related papers:
What IQ Tests Test
Does IQ Really Predict Job Performance?

Lay articles:
Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ: Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.
Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the allure of race science: This is not “forbidden knowledge.” It is America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.

Thoughts during reading:

Have just gotten to the bit about G and Factor Analysis. I’m passingly familiar with principal components analysis, a technique similar in some ways to Factor Analysis, and largely agree with what Gould is saying. It is very easy to not understand what the principal components are actually showing you, let alone what that correlation means. The first thing you learn in statistics is that correlation doesn’t equal causation and something about storks bringing babies.

But this rabbit hole goes deeper still.

I decided to do a quick bit of lateral reading to find some more on G and Factor Analysis. I didn’t get past the former’s Wikipedia page. Just about every reference was from a known white supremacist (Jensen* being particularly prominent as a primary source). Makes it a tad hard to take the field seriously, and hard to find decent research when a jumping-off point like Wikipedia is swamped in BS.

Of course, the rabbit hole goes deeper again.

Another of the people referenced is Richard Lynn (a white supremacist). He and his protege, Emil Kirkegaard (a eugenicist and all-round nasty POS), run a bunch of pseudojournals and a fake research group (Ulster Institute for Social Research) that is all basically a front for white supremacist money to generate pseudoscience. Fun fact: Kirkegaard’s most cited paper has pretty much only been cited by him, fifty-nine times. Thankfully the mainstream doesn’t take these guys seriously anymore, but they have tendrils, as can be seen by Lynn (and other white supremacists) being referenced on the Wikipedia pages.

* Quick note on Arthur Jensen, his Wikipedia bio is much like the G Factor page. It is deliberately misleading and rubbish. You would be forgiven for thinking that Jensen was something other than a white nationalist, avid racist, and in the employ of said same. His funding was barely mentioned in the bio, and he has a whole page on the Southern Poverty Law Centre that doesn’t even get a mention.

Arthur Jensen was arguably the father of modern academic racism. For over 40 years, Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, provided a patina of academic respectability to pseudoscientific theories of black inferiority and segregationist public policies. Jensen was responsible for resurrecting the idea that the black population is inherently and immutably less intelligent than the white population, an ideology that immediately became known as “jensenism.”

 

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Book review: Combustion by Steve Worland

Combustion (Judd Bell & Corey Purchase, #2)Combustion by Steve Worland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Normally it’s only supercars that explode into flames.*

Judd Bell and his partner are busy training for a mission to Mars, while Corey Purchase is touring the USA with his dog. Both are in LA for a meeting about a movie based on their last adventure when an eco-terrorist releases an aerial toxin that destroys combustion engines. In the city that loves cars as much as it does traffic jams, this results in devastation. Can Judd and Corey rise to the challenge once more and save the day? Will it make for a good sequel?

I’ve had Combustion sitting on my shelf since its release. I’d enjoyed the first novel in the series, Velocity, but had not gotten around to Worland’s other books. Seven years later and I can’t remember much of Velocity, but enough that I knew Combustion would be a fun thriller in the mould of Matthew Reilly or Andy McDermott. And I think that sums it up. Combustion could be described as Reilly-lite. Everything explodes, everyone has to do a lot of running for their lives, and someone is always in imminent danger. Good fun!

My only minor gripe with the book is the eco-terrorist villain. It is something we’ve seen a fair bit of in fiction, the villain who is trying to save the planet from humanity’s excesses. Whether it be using mobile phones to trigger a killing spree, a Titan wanting to erase half like a divorce court attorney, or the temporary king of the seas throwing all the garbage back on land, the eco-terrorist always feels like a stupid choice for a villain. Hey, let’s have the bad-guy be trying to do something good but in a really dumb way! I’d have less of a problem with the idea if it actually resulted in a change from the protagonists who fix the problem in a good way instead.

Interestingly, Worland only appears to have published three books (not including two adaptations of screenplays). So I’m guessing the next Bell and Purchase novel might not end well for the heroes. I might check it out at some point.

* Seriously, this list is made up of mostly high-end sports cars that seem to spend half their time catching fire.

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Book Review: Antisocial by Andrew Marantz

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American ConversationAntisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Techno-Utopians: Free speech for everyone!
Crazy Uncles: Let me tell you about the JQ!

Antisocial is an expansion of a series of articles Andrew Marantz wrote for the New Yorker covering the rise of social media as a news source and the right-wing extremists who used it to shift the Overton window. Marantz attempts to discuss some of the history, science, and psychology related to the way we process our news, and how that feeds into the social media experience. This, in turn, is used to show how the extremists have been able to successfully leverage social media to change the social landscape.

As I write this review, there are protests occurring across the USA in response to police violence against minorities. The police, in turn, have become violent in response to the protests, with footage of rampant assaults, documented lies, and targeting of anyone (particular the media) filming them in action. In response to this, some of the people mentioned in the book have organised their extremists to try and make the protesters look bad, with looting, provocation, and violence.

So this was a timely read. Much of the content wasn’t necessarily new to me, as I’ve read around this subject for a while now, but there were still plenty of insights to be had. This was much more in-the-trenches than other books and articles on the right-wing extremists (alt-lite, alt-right, etc), as such you see much more of the central figures. When you see videos from McInnes or Cernovich or the like, they are performing for their audience/followers, you get a much better idea of who they are when the camera is off. This makes some of the players seem reasonably relatable if still “deplorable”, like Cernovich, while others you see them as even worse than first thought, like Spencer.

There was something I noticed about everyone covered in this book. They reminded me of 14-year-olds. The guys were engaged in what amounted to oafish attention-seeking with all the intellectual sophistication of hammers. The women were doing the less macho version of attention-seeking. Yet these were predominantly people in their 30s. The behaviour they should have grown out of, particularly the trolling/bullying, had become amplified by their uniformed and racist politics.

I think the worst part of this isn’t that these people have managed to infiltrate the mainstream with their lazy politics and anti-intellectualism,* but that the social media platforms were quite happy to make money promoting them. The social media giants are presented in the book as naive and heavily pro-free speech, but I think that is too kind. To use an example, Facebook would censor any depiction of female nudity without prompting, but wouldn’t censor blatant bigotry (racism, sexism, etc) even with piles of complaints. As long as threats were veiled enough, they were fine as well. And the outrage would drive engagement and traffic, which made Facebook money, so they didn’t address the ten-tonne elephant in the room.

As I finished Antisocial, I listened to an interesting podcast called It Could Happen Here. The series is from 2019 and looks at how (primarily right-wing) extremists could set off a second civil war in the USA. Many of the points raised in the book were also mentioned in the podcast, so I recommend giving it a listen. And as I mentioned above, it’s rather timely given the protests happening at the time I’m writing this.

Worth reading if you want to know more about why you can’t have a civil conversation anymore.

* A point I should make here is that I’ve noticed some of these people have some very good points. They are anti-establishment for good reason, the establishment is for the rich and powerful, not them. Of course, they take this insight in the wrong direction. One quote really stuck out from Cernovich when he criticised the warmongering that the various politicians push for and establishment media debate, both safe in the comfort of knowing them and their families won’t be the ones dying in combat. But again, they take that insight in the wrong direction, with political positions that are essentially pro-conflict and war.

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https://www.iheart.com/podcast/1119-it-could-happen-here-30717896/?embed=true

Book Review: Kingdom of Darkness

Kingdom of Darkness (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase, #10)Kingdom of Darkness by Andy McDermott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Far fetched idea of 2014: Nazis coming back to take over the world.
Me in 2020: That’s pretty plausible.

After Nina and Eddie’s previous adventure, they had decided to spend more time together and travel the world. They stop by in LA to visit some friends when a young man tries to hand Nina some documents. He is promptly shot by someone. And so begins the latest adventure to discover how a buried secret could help bring about an everlasting New-Riech.

The book I read before Kingdom of Darkness was a little bit too emotionally intense to read at the time. So I looked over my stack of To-Be-Read novels and looked for something more fun. There were a lot of crime novels, some heavy themed fantasy, a pile of horror, and then there was Andy McDermott’s book. Note to self: more diversity of novels.

This was exactly the sort of fun adventure I needed. Andy is very consistent in his books, providing plenty of thrills, plenty of implausible scenarios that somehow work, and a bit of humour. The only thing that tugged at my brain was the Nazi = Evil points, which are overly simplistic and lazy. It kinda works for a thriller where the antagonist is meant to be bad because they are bad and have facial scars. But I wish it was a little more fleshed out.

I guess I’ll be needing some more of Andy’s books to read.

Sidenote: the boats on the cover literally feature for a page in the novel. More time is spent rock climbing, car chasing in a stretch Hummer, and fighting on a moving train. Why boats!?

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Book Review: Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the SpectrumFunny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The age-old question: is it really praise if it is unintentionally patronising?

Michael McCreary may still be young but he has done a lot in his life already. This memoir seeks to offer his journey from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis as a 5-year-old, through to becoming a touring comedian in his teens and early twenties. He offers insights into what it is like navigating school and his desire to perform from the perspective of someone on the spectrum.

This was a fun and breezy read. McCreary managed to discuss the way his brain works and help us normies (or neurotypicals) understand the challenges he has, and will continue to, face. There were a lot of insights, most I was already familiar with, that help debunk a lot of the stereotypes. An example is the “idiot savant” idea of autistics, particularly around maths. This stereotype isn’t just insulting and inaccurate, it fails to treat people as people.

One of the highlights for me was the theme of support. McCreary has gotten help and support throughout his life, from his diagnosis, his parents, teachers, comedian mentors, and employers. It is clear that not everyone gets that support and we all need to understand how to meet people where they are at.

The only thing that let this book down was that for a book by a comedian, it was a bit light on for jokes. McCreary certainly kept the tone light and whimsical, but this was memoir first, comedic second. When he has another 20 years worth of material, I expect his memoir to be jokes first!

A short and insightful memoir that acts as a good introduction to autism with #OwnVoices.

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Book review: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The ClimateThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought that systemic problems require systemic changes?

This Changes Everything is an attempt to step people through how the existential crisis of our times, climate change, is a failure of our system of economics (and politics). Thus, despite all the handwaving from the well, and not so well, meaning business celebrities, we can’t rely upon this system to fix the crisis. Klein then attempts to offer up solutions and ideas that could work instead.

I should start this review by saying that, overall I think Klein’s argument and points are correct and well made. The bit about the free trade agreements being written at the same time as the international emission reductions agreements is a great example of the argument. Funny how those two deals were being made yet they didn’t bother to acknowledge that both needed to be aiming at the same goals. This Changes Everything covers a lot of ground, has a lot of detail, and joins a lot of dots that many people have probably not seen let alone joined together.

Obviously there is a “but” coming.

The issue I have with this book extends to a number of points raised throughout the text that seems to be all too common amongst the progressive authors. I think they can be summarised as well-intentioned arguments that are wrong on the details but correct in the broader scheme of things. The easiest way to explain what I mean is with an example.

Repeated references are made to agriculture and how bad modern versions are for the environment.* One example used multiple times is the idea of farmers no longer being allowed to retain seeds and having to buy new seed from (insert evil company name here) each season. This is at best a misunderstanding. Farmers aren’t really plant breeders anymore, they get professional plant breeders to do that. Most seeds are developed by companies or organisations who charge a fee or royalty for use of the seed. Some seeds can be retained, but you pay an IP license of sorts (for where I live, this is called End Point Royalties, paid when the grain is sold). Some seeds, particularly hybrid crops (like the super scary GMOs**), don’t retain traits in successive generations or have sex drift (male:female ratio not optimal for pollination), as two examples. So a farmer could breed their own seed and retain it, they could even retain commercial seed, except those which aren’t suited to doing so.

But that doesn’t mean the point is wholly wrong. Why are most crops bred by private companies or organisations who charge for their use? Why aren’t these companies owned by farmer groups?*** Why have so many public breeding companies been privatised? It could be argued that Klein’s overall point about capitalism and seeds in agriculture is valid, just not in the way it is presented.

These frustrations lead me to do a lot of fact-checking on the rest of the book’s point that I was less familiar with. It makes for disjointed reading despite Klein being mostly correct.

Which leads me to another point. I was reading this book around the time of Earth Day 2020. Another progressive, Michael Moore, released a doco he produced called Planet of the Humans at this time, which was bad in many, many ways. My friend Ketan has a good debunking of it.

One of the points that Moore tries to make in his polemic (all of his docos are polemics) is around how green groups are often part of the problem. Klein also makes this point in This Changes Everything. The main difference between the two is that Moore tries for some cheap shots at the wrong targets, whereas Klein goes into some detail and gives concrete examples of groups being in bed with “the enemy”, highlights unproductive trade-offs and concessions, and rampant hypocrisy (particularly around having funds invested in fossil fuel companies). But worse still, Planet of the Humans is a lazy superficial mess. It holds up outdated denier talking points rather than digging into genuine criticisms. It just acts as a distraction and fuel**** for the denier movement. You have to wonder why they’d release the doco at all.

In conclusion, This Changes Everything is a fascinating book and well worth a read. But do remember to lateral read and lobby to stop the use of fossil fuels.

* This is true but not necessarily for the reasons stated. I’d summarise the problems of agriculture being that it is currently run as an open system and done to make money. Open systems mean that the nutrient cycle doesn’t run in a loop, essentially your poop should come back to the farm. And that farming is a business, so you are rewarded for growing as much as you can on as much land as you can, rather than conserving land that isn’t needed and ensuring what is grown makes it to who needs it.
** They aren’t super scary. Honestly, I think much of the fear comes down to scientific illiteracy, otherwise, people would want better regulation over all new crops, not just GMOs.
*** I’m simplifying, as some are.
**** Do you like puns? Because I’ve got puns.

Some comments I had as I read the book:

I do want to quibble with the bit about exporting industrial agriculture. Sure, the vastly improved technological advancements to agriculture have been shared. That’s a good thing. More food, fewer impacts, less land needed for the same production, etc. But Klein’s overall point still holds, since the improved agriculture hasn’t been used to make more with less, rather it has followed the money and decided to make more with more.

Further on and a similar point comes up. The decentralised and bottom-up approach to fixing major problems is a good idea (with her caveat of needing national/international co-ordination). But it makes a lot of assumptions about how well it would work. This flows into another bit about agriculture and agroecology that is both wrong and right. It’s frustrating because I know where the misinformed aspects come from (I’ve read some of the research from one of the cited experts and it has limited scope outside of his particular location and situation). At the same time, there are still good points being made, like needing to cut the emissions from fertiliser production. It’s just that the answer is renewables being used to make the fertiliser, not pretend we can grow food without fertiliser (unless you have some sort of global bio-waste processing and redistribution happening).

It can be frustrating to read progressive texts. The right idea and goals in mind, just not always able to weed out the nonsense. I get it, seeds and GMOs are bred by companies now… It’s big business… Doesn’t make it evil, nor something that farmers would be able to do themselves.

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Book review: Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate PoliticsFeminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.”

Feminism is for Everybody is bell hooks’ attempt to have a text that acts as a summary of feminism in an easy to read format for everyone. She had always wanted a book she could hand to people that did away with the exclusionary academic language of feminism. So she caved and wrote one.

This was an interesting book. As much as it is a book about feminism, it also gives a fairly good argument and overview of intersectionality. Its strengths certainly lay in covering the goals of feminism and why it is important, despite the supposed rights gained since the feminist movement started.

Feminism is for Everybody isn’t without flaws. Aside from her inability to use the word “the”,* hooks doesn’t achieve her stated aim of a book free of academic language. While she does keep it to a minimum, I still noted an academic tone to the writing. So while this is accessible, it does fall short of its stated aim.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to everybody.

* Seriously, it was so distracting. Obviously, this was a style choice but I’m not quite sure why it was made.

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Book review: The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

The Grief HoleThe Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought musicians have a dark side?

Theresa helps women find emergency housing. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes she has to intervene because she can see ghosts clustering around an imminent victim. After an intervention leaves her battered, she goes to reconnect with her Uncle and Aunt, where she is drawn into the mystery surrounding her lost cousin and her art. Is she strong enough to not be drawn in too far?

This is a tough review for me to write as I haven’t actually finished it, yet feel compelled to say something before DNFing.

I bought Kaaron’s book almost two years ago and thought it was about damned time I read it. I was immediately drawn in. As much as I hate using the terms “powerful” and “evocative” in book reviews,* I actually think they are apt here. There are some real gut-punch moments that bring you to the world of grief. The list of awards it has won is thus unsurprising.

And of course, this is exactly the time to read such a book…

With the stress of a pandemic, the upheavals to work, the uncertainties of the near future, this was just not the sort of book I could keep reading. This is a compliment to Kaaron, as this book certainly “evokes”* but that is just not what I need right now. I will have to return to finish the last third when real-life feels less like a horror novel.

* There are quite a few buzzwords that appear in book reviews and blurbs that don’t really say anything. Powerful? Like a steroid munching Nordic strongman, or a highly effecting and engaging narrative? Evocative? As in the imagination is stirred, or the emotions, or both?

Expect my next fiction review to be of something a little more light-hearted.

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Book vs Movie: Jojo Rabbit – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix is the hilarious Jojo Rabbit based upon Caging Skies.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I haven’t decided to read a book about an abusive Nazi protagonist during the second World War. Obviously, that sort of book would be such a fun read and exactly the sort of rollicking good time I would make space for in my limited reading time.

It will probably come as a major surprise that I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit as yet. How could I not have seen a movie involving Taika Waititi?

brody-jojorabbit

The answer is children. If you ever want to see a movie in cinemas ever again, either don’t have kids or be very happy abandoning them with a teenager who is only pretending to look after them while they mix your 30-year-old single malt with Coke.

… Or take them along to the cinema with you, like the kids we saw watching Deadpool 2. I’m sure those kids will grow up just fine. Especially once their teacher finally tells them what a strap-on is.

So the take-away from this post is that I want to see the movie even more now.

Book review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camels would receive more admiration if they published in the peer-reviewed literature and spat in fewer people’s faces.

Teppic sets out from home to learn a trade. An honourable trade. An important trade. A valued trade. So he attends Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. But he has barely graduated when his father dies and he has to return to the family business: king of an ancient land. His new worldliness clashes with the millennia of tradition held in place by the priests of Djelibeybi. These traditions lead to cataclysm and Teppic has to save the land of pyramids before war breaks out. Because war has to break out. It’s tradition.

As I was reading Pyramids – the bit with You Bastard calculating the flares – the sheer scale of the Discworld novels struck me. There are so many little pieces crammed into each book that you wonder how Sir Terry managed to repeat that effort over 40 times. It probably struck me because Pyramids is a more straight-forward narrative with a focus on the character of Teppic. When compared to many of the other Discworld novels I’ve read of late, this one is an “easy read”.

Definitely a 4 mathematical genius camels out of 5 novel.

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Book review: Buddhism is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen

Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond BeliefsBuddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs by Steve Hagen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enlightenment or your money back!

How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is?
How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds?
How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality?
And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?

Steve Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What You Think is pretty straight forward. He sets out to answer the above four questions whilst addressing the title of the book. And he does this in the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much just examples to drive the main point home.

There aren’t too many books that wrap their entire argument/premise up quite this quickly. But that probably comes back to the message Hagen is trying to get across about Buddhism and truth. Essentially, we already know truth, but we are too caught up in everything else in life to see it. Thus, Zen practice and Buddhism are about helping get past the distractions.

This was a fairly solid book for advice around Zen practice. But the philosophy aspects I was after were a bit light on.

We often think we know things when in fact it’s only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we’re caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings. But if you’re here – truly present – you realize there’s nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm…Just be with this moment and see what’s going on.

 

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Book review: Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary ArmyBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s privatise the military. How could that possibly go wrong?

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army outlines the political landscape of Blackwater’s founding, the personal history of several key players – particularly Erik Prince – and the actions and intentions that made the company so infamous. It attempts to explain and document how mercenaries went through a rebranding to become the operators of choice in conflict zones around the world.

Okay, so I thought I had read enough news articles and the like to have some idea of what Blackwater was about. Mercenaries and the name Blackwater became something of a shorthand for “loose cannons”, becoming the villains in movies and TV shows. But as Scahill outlines, the reality and totality are so much worse than I’d thought. Blackwater and several other companies are discussed, along with the players who made this all possible. You’ll recognise many of the politician’s names, but maybe less so the “contractors”. This was disturbing reading.

They couldn’t get a coalition of the willing, so they turned to a coalition of the billing.

There were a few very important points that were made. The first was how senior political figures decided they wanted to privatise the military and associated intelligence work. This is such a terrible idea that you have to be pretty ideologically bent-out-of-shape to think it is good. The most troubling reason for this being terrible is the lack of accountability this gives these newly privatised people with guns, bombs, and shady contacts. As numerous leaks have shown over the years, the military is already far too unaccountable.*

Which brings me to the second point, that once they are privatised, the companies lobby hard to remain unaccountable, saying they don’t fall under military rules because they are private citizens, and that they don’t fall under civilian rules because they are acting as part of a military force. In essence, they can literally commit murder and they have been positioned by their lobbyists and key politicians to never be even investigated for the crime.

Those points should disturb everyone. You may not see a problem with war profiteering, or religious fundamentalists pushing for war and creating conflict (or at least involving themselves in them), or free marketeers wanting to privatise everything, or private companies hiring “shoot-first-never-answer/ask-questions” mercenaries to guard their kitchen supplies. But I think we can all agree that you have to be accountable for your actions, and Blackwater (et al.) has not been.

After reading this book you’d think Erik Prince would suffer some consequences…. Nope. He’s still going.

The only complaint I have about Scahill’s book is that it was somewhat repetitive. Several points were raised repeatedly, not to highlight them, but because the surrounding issues or players were being discussed again.

After reading this I can only hope that the various players involved aren’t allowed to have positions of power and influence ever again.**

* Because schools, hospitals, cafes, etc are totally legit military targets and not war crimes.
** My hopes will remain unfulfilled, I’m afraid.

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Book review: The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector MythsThe Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Government: We invented this.
Private company: Can we have it?
G: Sure. Just remember to pay you taxes.
P: Lol, our what?

The Entrepreneurial State is Mariana Mazzucato’s detailed effort to debunk some of the often claimed myths about government’s role in innovation. Her argument is that it is the public sector, not the private sector, that is often the innovators, risk-takers, and entrepreneurs in the economy. And because ideology has pushed for the state/government’s role to be smaller, we run the risk of not having the next generation of innovations/technologies.

I recently read Mariana’s The Value of Everything and wanted to read this earlier work. Similar to her arguments about how we measure the economy, Mariana’s arguments about innovation are well made, have plenty of references, piles of evidence, some great examples, and leave you with the head-scratching amazement that we need this book.

I’m sure that anyone who has worked in the public or private sector would read some of the examples in this book and be immediately reminded of some from their own field. Whether it be the government contract their company was gifted, or the publicly funded research that is commercialised, or the public infrastructure support given for that new project, we can probably all think of examples where entire industries or technologies wouldn’t have happened without governments taking the first step.

So how is it that myths (listed below) about the economy and who the entrepreneurs are persist?

Myths about Drivers of Innovation and Ineffective Innovation Policy
Myth 1: Innovation is about (private) R&D
Myth 2: Small (government) is beautiful
Myth 3: Venture capital is risk-loving
Myth 4: We live in a knowledge economy—just look at all the patents!
Myth 5: Europe’s problem is all about commercialization
Myth 6: Business investment requires ‘less tax and red tape’

There is only so much ideology that can stand in the way of reality. Unfortunately, I suspect that there is plenty of ideology floating around like an iceberg during a maiden voyage.*

An excellent book that is well worth reading.

We live in an era in which the State is being cut back. Public services are being outsourced, State budgets are being slashed and fear rather than courage is determining many national strategies. Much of this change is being done in the name of rendering markets more competitive, more dynamic. This book is an open call to change the way we talk about the State, its role in the economy and the images and ideas we use to describe that role. Only then can we begin to build the kind of society we want to live in, and want our children to live in, in a manner that pushes aside false myths about the State and recognizes how it can, when mission-driven and organized in a dynamic way, solve problems as complex as putting a man on the moon and solving climate change. And we need the courage to insist—through both vision and specific policy instruments—that the growth that ensues from the underlying investments be not only ‘smart’, but also ‘inclusive’.

* You only have to read some of the 1-star reviews for this book to find evidence of this ideology in action.

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Book review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort (Discworld, #4)Mort by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not going to make a joke about learning a trade being a killer idea.

Mort is a tall skinny kid who just wants to know how the world works. Death has been flat out since the beginning of time. So when Mort’s dad decides it is time for him to learn a trade, Death offers him an apprenticeship to help cover some of the work. Hopefully, Mort doesn’t mess it up.

I quite like Death. As in the character. Death and his granddaughter Susan are two of my favourite Discworld characters. So it was definitely time to read the earlier Death instalments in the series. Worth it!

I was only a few pages into Mort when I found myself chuckling. Out loud. Normally I can keep that stuff to myself. But I couldn’t help it.

There doesn’t need to be much more said than that. Entertaining and chuckle out loud funny.

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Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Fake it ’till you make it” should probably only be allowed for artists, not scientists, engineers, and medical companies.

Bad Blood is the full expose John Carreyrou started with his Wall Street Journal articles in 2015 on Theranos. For a decade, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes had managed to attract huge amounts of investment, respected board members, and media attention. But in that decade the company had been putting the cart before the horse, promising big whilst still being in the early development phases. The CEO and president (also COO) kept this all under wraps by keeping its own staff in the dark, often resorting to bullying and intimidation.

I first heard about Theranos via a couple of friends who work in medical research. Obviously, I surround myself with other science nerds, so they were dubious of the claims the company and the media were making about their tech. To be honest, I didn’t really pay much attention, nor remember my friends’ pronouncements until I picked up this book from the library.

In many ways, this tale is worse than the “Biggest Corporate Fraud Since Enron” would have you believe. And that tale isn’t necessarily on the page. The author and many of this book’s readers will be shaking their heads at how terrible Theranos was with all its lying, fraud, and bullying of staff. Amazing. Hard to believe. But the thing is that a lot of what was described was just close enough to normal, within standard business practices*, that the fraud managed to run for so long. Using the example of the frequent firings of staff who raised concerns, that would seem just normal enough to not raise a red flag. It doesn’t appear like a CEO and COO trying to cover anything up.

Just close enough to a normal business.

The other thing I noted was the lack of accountability. Sure, the closing chapters cover the lawsuits being brought against Elizabeth Holmes and “Sunny” Balwani, and since Bad Blood was written 9 counts of wire fraud and 2 counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud have been brought against them. But that is just two of the culpable players in this tale. David Boies and his team of lawyers** spring to mind as having some responsibility here. No charges. Of course.

And wire fraud??? What about the danger patients were put in? What about all the underhanded tactics used against staff and former staff? Why isn’t this behaviour being held accountable in this instance so as to set some sort of precedent across the corporate world?***

There needs to be way more accountability for all involved. Not just for those who lost people money.

If it isn’t clear by now, this is an interesting read and one that will fascinate and annoy you. Carreyrou does a great job expanding on his reporting with an engaging book.

* As other reviewers have pointed out, this story isn’t really that different from a lot of Silicon Valley business tales. Wrapping staff up in non-disclosure agreements, working them for long hours, spying on them, firing them at the drop of a hat (in a country that ties health insurance to employment, and doesn’t believe in a social safety net), that’s all standard practice. Had Theranos been operating in tech rather than medicine, they’d have probably gotten away with it, as medicine has some regulations, unlike a lot of other fields.

** Same lawyers who covered up and intimidated Harvey Weinstein’s victims. They are well known for their nastiness, as mentioned in the book.

*** Not much was made of it in the book, but Holmes was mentored by Silicon Valley’s “best,” including Larry Ellison, who is a textbook example of the amoral, at-all-cost “entrepreneur” the area is so famous for. Which is why I don’t see this as exceptional.

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Book review: The Hunted by Elmore Leonard

The HuntedThe Hunted by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When hiding, try not to get your photo in the newspaper.

Al Rosen is living the dream. He has retired early, he has money, he’s charming and ladies love him, and he’s hiding in Israel from the Detroit mob. An evening with a woman he has just met ends in a hotel fire and his picture in the paper. By the end of the week, a hit team are in the country. But he can’t leave yet, not without his lawyer handing over his money, and his lady friend returning his passport. To survive he’ll need all the help he can get, like the marine Davis.

I don’t think there is any argument that Elmore Leonard was an amazing writer. Pick up anything he wrote and you’ll see it. The writing just flows. The dialogue, to quote one of those stupid pull quotes they stick on the covers of books, just snaps. The Hunted is no exception. I breezed through the book… when I was reading it.

And this is what has left me confused. I’m not exactly sure why I could read this story so easily and yet not find myself compelled to pick it back up. I’ve held off on writing this review because I’ve been expecting an opinion to form at some point.

That leaves me with speculation. I suspect that Leonard’s writing in The Hunted hid a largely uninteresting story. Kinda like a master artist giving your walls a coat of paint. Or maybe my interrupted reading time has pulled me out of the book too often and I’m just not appreciating the story.

To be clear, I’m not saying this is bad or unenjoyable, far from it. I was just expecting more from Leonard, especially considering his skills were on display here.

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Book review: The Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin

The Conquest of BreadThe Conquest of Bread by Pyotr Kropotkin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“All things are for all.” Not sure if that is an Amazon store tagline or an anarchist catchphrase.

Pyotr Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread is an outline of the failings of capitalistic systems, a critique of the failings of communist systems, and a proposal for a system free from hierarchies and poverty. Regarded as a classic text of political anarchism, particularly as the criticisms of communism were seen to come true in the twentieth century, Kropotkin is probably more relevant today than when he was writing.

The Conquest of Bread was an interesting read that I couldn’t help but feel was politically current, whilst being socially historical. The overall political message and much of the details Kropotkin goes into are insightful and you can see why the Occupy Movement and Breadtube were inspired by this book. With the rise of higher levels of mechanisation, and with the coming automation of huge parts of the economy, there is much to be said for a rethink of how our society is run based on these ideas.

Socially, however, many of the points are a little dated and/or naive. After reading chapter 9 (The Need for Luxury) I commented that this was definitely written a hundred years ago. While I don’t think he is incorrect, removing status and consumerist ideals does change our wants, it was a statement that did exist in a time when cars didn’t exist. This changed landscape necessitates a slightly different idea of what people want, need, and what will be “normal”.*

There were a couple of points that I disagreed with. Kropotkin was a little simplistic in dismissing “middlemen” as doing nothing. While Bullshit Jobs apply, there is still the need for things like distribution and organisation by middlemen. This is probably because Kropotkin is imagining a system that is much more localised than our current global system. Which leads to my next point on specialisation. While there is something to be said for his ideas around everyone pitching in and learning something of what others do and contribute, Kropotkin doesn’t really appreciate the idea of specialisation and having high levels of skill vs the average person who can do it but sucks at it. His example, which is a critique of Adam Smith’s pin maker, is true to an extent. But our modern technology operates at a much higher level now. There is no way an office worker could go out to the farm and be a farmer for a few days. They could do menial labour on the farm, sure, but farming is highly complex now, and not something you can just do for a few days a year, as he suggests.

I could go further into the problems with his understanding of agriculture, which is… antiquated. But those quibbles don’t detract from the idea of being able to provide food for all. In fact, removing the profit motive from agriculture might alleviate a lot of problems.

A very interesting read that I’d highly recommend.

* It was notable that while “men” were the focus, there were some particularly progressive ideas about women in society. If he had been writing after the advent of the pill, I’d bet the comments would have been downright modern.

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Book review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are LegionThe Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gender reveal parties would be more interesting if you heard, “I’m pregnant with a cogwheel.”

The two most powerful civilisations in the Legion, the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas, are fighting for possession of the Mokshi world-ship. In the Legion, only the Mokshi is capable of escaping the decay infecting the world-ships. Zan is revived once more in the hopes of leading a force to capture the Mokshi. With little memory of any previous attempts, Jayd and Sabita hint at a larger plan they have in play. A plan that would see Zan and Jayd take on the Lords of the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas.

Last year I picked up Hurley’s collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution. Since I enjoyed that book, I decided to read one of her novels. After leaving this review for several days, I’m still not exactly sure what to say about The Stars Are Legion.

The obvious place to start with is the world-building, what with how much of the novel is dedicated to it. Hurley manages to use Zan’s journey to world-build very effectively. It would be easy to point at the amnesia and epic journey tropes and shake your head admonishingly, but I felt that it worked well. The characters are similarly complex and develop in interesting ways, even if they are all damaged and murderous.* And there is never a dull moment where the characters aren’t in mortal danger.

I think the reason I’m not sure how I feel about The Stars Are Legion is that several factors scratched away at me as I was reading. Damaged characters can be hard to connect with. The fact that I’m calling the hero’s journey the world-building shows that I wasn’t quite invested in the journey/action. And I also found I knew several “reveals” before they happened.** These issues made me more along for the ride rather than strapped in and engaged.

That said, this was a refreshingly different kind of sci-fi novel for me. There is a lot to enjoy for those who like darker stories and characters.

* And they are all female. Every character. Which was a pretty cool idea that was a neatly integrated part of the world-building. Gotta be honest, this was satisfyingly unique.
** In fairness, this could just be that these “reveals” were established well rather than cynically concealed within a barrel of red herrings or subverted in a way that throws the plot out the window.

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Book review: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global EconomyThe Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if I told you that we don’t measure most of the things we value in our economy?

Mariana Mazzucato sets out to show that when we talk about the economy we are only talking about certain parts of it (and of our society). She shows how the parts that are included is determined primarily by the history of economic thinking, ideology, and what’s currently making people rich. Mariana then argues that this is flawed and fails to account for several very important aspects of the economy to our current and future detriment.

I’ve read several economics books over the past year that have addressed the failures of the neo-liberal economic ideology. The solid argumentation, countless references, piles of evidence, and rather obviousness of the problems leave me scratching my head as to why these books need to exist. Why isn’t this obvious to the various “experts” who are running our economy?

The Value of Everything is a very solid argument for rethinking the way we diminish the role of government in our economy. The current “get out of the way while we’re making money, but bail us out when we mess up”* approach is clearly wrong. I’ve heard the very charismatic arguments from the likes of Friedman on why free markets are the way to go, and I thought Mariana’s rebuttals to those arguments were good if a bit too charitable.** But it is clear that governments have a long history of being the innovators, investing early, creating the value that business then exploits, and without that, we’re going to see things fall in a heap.

Well worth a read so we can all start to take off our neo-liberal ideological goggles.

* Privatise profits, socialise losses.
** Worth reading this piece on the Virginian School, a more extreme version of Friedman’s Chicago School for some context as to how the “Free Market” is a con to turn the masses into slaves.

See also:
Curing Affluenza – this has a similar upbeat “fixing” approach to our current system.
Utopia for Realists – takes a different approach and suggests a different system may be needed.
Austerity: History of a dangerous idea – similarly documents some of the failures of neo-liberalism and how it is ideologically driven.

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