Book review: Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the WorldWinners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first rule of MarketWorld is you do not criticise MarketWorld.

Winners Take All is a critique of the modern market-driven and capitalistic thinking that dominates the social and political landscape. Giridharadas focuses upon philanthropy in particular, as the more moralistic and benign problem of MarketWorld that is often used to whitewash the more obviously bad actions of those solely interested in the accumulation of wealth and power to the detriment of others.

This was a very interesting read and particularly insightful.* Throughout the book, Giridharadas is able to show us how MarketWorld created itself and now perpetuates and grows itself. And it doesn’t back away from being critical of people who think of themselves as doing good (and in a sense are) and of the system that allows this to happen.

Two topics in the book particularly resonated with me. The first was the idea of the immoral or amoral approach that is used to making money, which is then used for philanthropy later. This money is often made by exploiting people and the commons ruthlessly, and then is whitewashed of guilt by “giving back”, rather than, you know, not exploiting people/commons in the first place and thus negating the need for giving. I’ve previously come across this idea from a few philosophers and people like Alain de Botton who have discussed this on moral grounds.

The second topic was that of the Thought Leader. I’ve long been troubled by the happy-clappy approach to ideas and intellectual thinking we see in popular culture. Whether it be TED talks or deceptive pop-science authors like Malcolm Gladwell, there is a tendency in this field to be anti-intellectual or present a facile understanding of an issue/topic. So I especially enjoyed seeing the Thought Leader taken down a peg or two and the winning formula exposed.

Thought Leader 3-Step:
1) Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator.
In this way, you can avoid dealing with larger systemic issues and instead make smaller changes that have more direct and emotional appeal. Think, telling women to not dress too sexily so they won’t get raped** instead of addressing the issue of rape and rapists.

2) Personalise the political.
Or to put it another way, don’t be a critic pointing out systemic and collective issues, but instead make it about personal and individual dramas.

3) Be constructively actionable.
This is about having some nice and easy steps that people can do to make a difference. Remember to keep it at a personal level!***

This book wasn’t without fault. I’m not a particular fan of the narrative/literary journalism style employed. You commonly see this style in the pretentious long-form essays and “import” journalistic pieces. What it tends to do is obscure hard facts in the narrative and steer away from addressing points fully. This might make for a more “human” piece of writing that many would call more engaging and interesting, but it weakens just about any point and argument made.

I highly recommend this book.

Thanking our sponsors:

*The reason for the insightfulness is obvious if you are familiar with Giridharadas or read the Acknowledgements section. This is his playground. He is the son of a director of the McKinsey Institute consulting firm (they come in for a lot of flak in the book), worked there himself, he’s a Harvard alum, has given TED Talks (thought leader), and was a Henry Crown fellow of the Aspen Institute.

**And ironically, this is a great example of why this sort of focus just doesn’t work. It is a myth that clothing has anything to do with rape, but addressing rape and rapists would require a systemic change that makes many uncomfortable.

***This is why we see IPCC and other climate change reports making recommendations like installing solar panels, installing led lighting, and buying an electric car, rather than demanding a move away from fossil fuel usage at a society level.

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Book review: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, #1)Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, if magic and science are incompatible, does that mean gravity is magic or physics?

Kate Daniels is scraping by making a living as a mercenary. In her world magic rolls through in waves, knocking out technology and allowing all the beasties to have way to much fun. As a result, people need mercenaries with magical abilities like Kate. Then, as part of a power play, someone kills her guardian sending her after the most powerful magical beast in Atlanta.

The Kate Daniels series was recommended to me by my wife. She has been steadily reading the whole series and kept making appreciative sounds whilst reading them. Written by Ilona and Andrew Gordon, I wouldn’t have immediately picked up a book that hints at fantasy romance. The cover of Magic Bites may be more neutral, but some of the later books in the series I saw in the library had a lot of chiselled male torsos on them.

Fortunately for me, Magic Bites reminded me more of a Harry Dresden book than a steamy romance. Kate is a much more likeable character than Harry,* and the world she lives in makes a bit more sense.** There is also the implication of Kate having continuing adventures that are building toward something, not just another series that will keep churning out instalments.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Kate Daniels’ adventures.

*I originally described this book as Dresden Files except without a jerk for the main character.
**I mean, there are only so many world-ending events that Dresden can take on single-handedly before a) someone non-magic notices, and b) the Wizard Council would also get involved.

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Book Review: Reality is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum GravityReality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reality might not be what it seems, but at least it isn’t a simulation. Possibly.

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist and has a background in the history and philosophy of science. His field of research is quantum gravity. This makes him an ideal person to write a book about the history of quantum physics and the current state of affairs with scientists trying to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Rovelli is one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory, a candidate alongside string theory for an explanation of quantum gravity. As there are many books, videos, and proponents of string theory, Rovelli thought loop quantum gravity deserved a book too. So while string theory is mentioned, the focus is on the history of quantum physics leading to loop quantum gravity theory.

This was a particularly well-written book. The history, starting with my favourite thinker Democritus, and the explanations were (relatively) easy to follow. At no point did I feel lost in spin foam or uncertain about what is really complicated material.

But I also came away from the book feeling as though I’d missed a section. Maybe I need to re-read the book (doable, as it isn’t particularly long) as I felt like the discussion of loop quantum gravity was actually a brief overview* compared to the sections on the background to its development.

Reality is Not What It Seems is a very good overview of quantum physics, I just wanted a little bit more.

*Loop quantum gravity doesn’t try to string together gravity with quantum mechanics but extends quantum mechanics as a granular geometric equation into the macro realm of what we understand as special relativity.

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Book review: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau

Discourse on the Origin of InequalityDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Natural man vs Social man: there can be only one winner!

In 1754, the Academy of Dijon held a competition to answer the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” In response, Rousseau wrote his famous Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. No one remembers the first prize winner.*

As one of the early Enlightenment thinkers, and as someone who inspired the French Revolution, Rousseau was/is an important philosopher. This work on equality is certainly one filled with important thoughts on how inequality isn’t just about natural differences between people** but is about society itself creating inequality. I would interpret this as the powerful/wealthy structuring society to benefit themselves, but an argument could be made for those with the will to power.

The main issue I had with this book was that much of the argument is based upon a flawed evolution of “man”. While I don’t think this undermines his points, it does highlight how far our understanding of humanity, our evolution, and our social bonds has improved.

The version I read of this book had a biography and philosophic overview of the work by Israel Bouseman. This was an excellent addition. It did highlight the flawed knowledge of human evolution, however, it failed to note the now known social aspects of humanity that negate some of the points made.

I’d recommend reading the Bouseman edition of this book whilst trying to contextualise the ideas within our more advanced understanding of human evolution.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ro…

*I tell a lie, it was François Xavier Talbert.
**Rousseau refers to men only, specifically European men. Women are lesser beings, and non-Europeans are savages. I found it unclear whether that makes the savages natural men or something beneath that. This is made more unclear by the common false attribution of the Noble Savage trope to Rousseau.

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Book review: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2)The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luggage that doesn’t get lost? This must be a fantasy novel.

After shooting off the edge of the Discworld in The Colour of Magic, Rincewind and Twoflower are magically returned to the Disc for reasons unknown. The world turtle, Great A’Tuin, is swimming through space, excited about the red star it is approaching. The Wizards have noticed the red star and the magical change that allowed Rincewind and Twoflower to return, allowing them to uncover an ancient prophecy. Can the prophecy be fulfilled before Great A’Tuin reaches their destination?

When I finished The Colour of Magic I was a little peeved. Whilst a continuing story cliffhanger is a common fantasy trope, a book satirising fantasy tropes should surely rise above such shenanigans. That downgraded my rating to 4 stars.

Happily, The Light Fantastic finished the story started in The Colour of Magic in a highly entertaining fashion. I especially enjoyed the introduction of Cohen the Barbarian, being a fan of the Robert E Howard stories. Death and the other horsemen learning Bridge had me grinning for days. I wouldn’t rate this as one of Pratchett’s best Discworld novels, but it certainly started the ball rolling.

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Book review: Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut (YouSpace, #1)Doughnut by Tom Holt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life is like a box of doughnuts. Mmmmmmm, doughnuts!

Theo Bernstein is on something of a losing streak. He lost his money, he lost his wife*, he lost his job, and he lost the visibility of one of his arms. Given how high profile the reason for losing his job was – who knew people would miss a mountain? – it’s a wonder he is able to find any work at all, first at an abattoir, then at a hotel. The hotel gig might be easier than hauling offal, but it’s a weird job, made weirder by the strange bottle left to him by his old professor, Pieter van Goyen. How can this bottle be the future of entertainment? And is there a doughnut shop nearby?

In the middle of last year, an author friend – Kaaron Warren** – recommended The Management Style of Supreme Beings to me. It was one of the nominees for an international award she was judging and she spoke glowingly of it. I’d previously enjoyed one of Tom’s books under his KJ Parker pseudonym, so I decided to track it down at the library. Obviously, I was unsuccessful, as instead, I ended up with Doughnut.

This explanation is a roundabout way of saying that I had high expectations for this novel. In some ways, Doughnut managed to rise to those expectations. Holt is a very sharp and inventive author. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments and ideas in this book. But somehow I felt it was all a bit pointless and inane.

In some ways, this is a product of the very British bumbling protagonist used in this novel. It tends to influence the way the story is told, usually in a way that is deliberately frustrating but with the reward of large doses of humour. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this was quite funny enough for the narrative style.

So while this was quite entertaining, I had hoped for more, particularly in the humour department.

*Lost his wife in the sense that she decided to leave him, not the lost in the ‘we were just walking through the Xmas sales and she let go of my hand for a moment and now I can’t find her in this crowd’ kind of way.

** Read her books: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show…

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Book review: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist HandbookAntifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is it okay to punch Nazis? What if I told you that is only one of the tactics for dealing with Nazis?

The Anti-Fascist Handbook aims to summarise the history of fascism and its opponents, the rise of more recent fascist groups, the lessons from history for dealing with fascism, the issue of “free speech” and fascism, and how to combat fascism today. Historian Mark Bray has detailed the tactics of the Antifa movement and the philosophy behind it through interviews and the compilation of history and research into fascism.

I’ve noticed that there are several topics that seem to be widely discussed but never with any actual knowledge. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements are prime examples. So when I saw Ollie from Philosophy Tube’s video discussing this book (and other related work) I knew that Bray’s book on Antifa would be another of my must reads.

I think one of the most important takeaways from this book is that the rise of fascism to power hasn’t historically required huge support, just a lot of apathy from the masses. Too often debates will rage around “free speech” or “is it okay to punch a Nazis” while completely missing the point that fascists are loving being legitimised with any of these debates.

The five important lessons (my summary of the headings):

  1. Fascist revolutions have never succeeded, they gained power legally.
  2. Many interwar leaders and theorists did not take fascism seriously enough until it was too late. (Sound familiar?)
  3. Political leaders/groups are often slower to react to fascism than those on the ground.
  4. Fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery, and culture (e.g. the liberal idea of “free speech”).
  5. It doesn’t take many fascists to make fascism (Overton windows shift easily).

Whilst this was a very interesting and important book, it wasn’t perfect. The coverage of fascism outside of Europe was limited; something Bray acknowledged he wasn’t going to cover in detail and would have been a nice addition – something for the next instalment perhaps. Also, the defining traits of fascism were clearly made, but the differences between groups that fall under that banner, or are adjacent (and thus facilitate normalisation), weren’t discussed. I would have found it interesting to have the discussion of how alt-right and alt-lite differ and how you combat the latter. Minor points that might be in future editions.

So before you next hear a professional opinion-haver brand Antifa as terrorists, it would be worth reading this book.

Philosophy Tube video:

Alt-lite influence: https://datasociety.net/wp-content/up…

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