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 “important” 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: 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 vs Movie: BlacKkKlansman – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix covers the amazing Spike Lee film based on the autobiography of the same name: BlacKkKlansman.

I have been reading quite a bit about fascism and racism lately. As someone who got lucky to be living in privileged skin, these are issues I feel we all need to be more aware of and actively standing against.

Instead of my normal comment on the film or book, I suggest watching the Vice coverage of the Charlottesville rally, Philosophy Tube’s videos on racism, Antifa and fascism, and reading the book on how to oppose fascism.

Book vs movie: Pet Cemetary – What’s the Difference?

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It was inevitable that someone in Hollywood would try to reanimate the corpse of yet another classic film. So with the upcoming release of the remake of Pet Cemetary, what better time for CineFix to discuss the original book and movie in What’s the Difference?

Pet Cemetary is one of the many books lingering on my shelf in the TBR pile. While I have decided that this year will involve a concerted effort to make a dent in said pile*, it is unlikely I’ll get to read this novel anytime soon. If I’m completely honest, I want to read The Stand first.

What about the movie, I hear you ask. Back when I was a young lad – walking the obligatory 10 miles (whatever a mile is in real measurements) to school through 10 feet of snow (why would there be feet in snow?) after working 10 hours at the coal mine – Stephen King novels and movies were all the rage. Whether it was Needful Things, Carrie, Misery, Lawnmower Man, IT, or Children of the Corn, there always seemed to be someone bringing a Stephen King VHS** to watch. And after my hard lesson learnt with IT, I tried to avoid the obviously scary films – hence I have seen Lawnmower Man and most of Needful Things, but not Children of the Corn.

At this point, I probably sound like a wimp. It is odd that I generally don’t find horror novels that bad, and even movies with horror elements are fine. But movies whose goal is to creep you out or gross you out (think Saw franchise or Hostel) just aren’t for me, particularly the latter. It’s a little hard to be entertained by that sort of thing.

Yes, yes, more excuses as to why I haven’t read or watched something. Don’t worry, plenty of horror in my TBR pile. Stay tuned.

*I’ve managed to read one from the pile and added two more to it this month. That counts as progress, right?

**VHS, that’s right. I am truly that old.