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?

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: 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: 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: 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: 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 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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Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

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Book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist RevolutionThe Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beastie Boys said you gotta fight for your right to… exist?

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of Kameron Hurley’s essays that tie to the themes of feminism, representation in media, and not putting up with bullshit. Some of the essays also discuss being an author and all the fun that entails.

After finishing this collection I feel remiss for not having read any of Hurley’s work previously. I picked up a copy from the library after my sister recommended it to me – it’s literally the only title they have of Kameron’s. Hurley is passionate, often angry, and always eyeing off ways to make the world suck a little less.

It is difficult to go into specifics given the range of topics covered. Some highlights were around the 20-30% figure and women’s erasure from “the narrative” of history. That statistic is the fairly consistent proportion of women involved in conflicts throughout history. They have always fought, but that is not the way history is told to us. The concept of a dominant narrative that suits and reinforces ruling social structures is not new to me, but one I don’t feel I’ve heard enough about, making it always welcome in my reading. The insights on being a speculative fiction author were also excellent.

The only aspect that I didn’t enjoy in this collection was that it was a tad repetitive. That is to be expected with a collection of previously published essays. There’s bound to be a bit of overlap.

A very interesting collection of essays, particularly for those interested in speculative fiction and pop-culture.

Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to silence you.
Remember that.

 

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Book review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-RightKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

“Your mild demands made me become a Nazi.”

In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle attempts to document and explain the rise of the Alt-Right out of the online space and into the Oval Office. She discusses many of the toxic forums and their leading mouthpieces and their war against the left/liberals in their forums/safe-spaces.

This book hit my TBR list as it was highly recommended and one of the few to document the online culture that lead to the rise of a change in political and social discourse worldwide. Having existed online and been familiar with many of the “players”, I was hoping for some deeper insights and analysis of how these forums become toxic and how that spreads out.

Let’s just say that this is not the book I was hoping for.

For much of Kill All Normies, I found myself thinking that I don’t just disagree with many of the points made, but that Nagle gets many things factually incorrect or offers up a very poor understanding of points raised.* If I was unfamiliar with much of the material, this book would have been very misleading. Just one example of this, in a later chapter Nagle refers to Germaine Greer being de-platformed over transphobic comments, to which she claims Greer hadn’t written about trans-issues in 15 years. That’s blatantly false. In fact, worse, it is a lie from transphobic sources that this book is meant to be, in part, critiquing.

This article offers a few more examples, including the Greer example. Another accuses her of plagiarism. Apparently, Nagle and Zero Books (her publisher) had both offered rebuttals to these pieces, but they are now dead links.

Another problem I had with Kill All Normies was that a lot of Nagle’s expressed opinions seemed to utilise the terms of reference used by those she was supposedly exposing. But only in one direction. For example, when Nagle criticised the online misogynists she would treat their claims as having merit, but when she was criticising the multiple genders of Tumblr** they were treated as though they didn’t have merit.

There was also a level of misrepresentation or laziness in the accurate portrayal of several events mentioned. One of the above-linked articles discusses a Jordan Peterson example. I noted an egregious one about Milo Yiannopoulos. The Berkley campus protests that shut down Milo’s talk supposedly shows an unwillingness to engage him in debate and challenge his ideas, instead resorting to shutting down free speech… Except that’s revisionist nonsense that ignores several hard facts. Milo wasn’t actually available for a debate, he was there to lecture and browbeat unprepared audience members during Q&A. Given that these examples were key to Nagle’s argument about how these bad ideas should be addressed and challenged with the liberal idea of debate and free speech and the market place of ideas and… Well, that might be a tad hard to do when you don’t get to have any free speech other than protests outside the venue.

There were also several things I felt were lacking in the coverage of the online culture wars. Very little was said about the atheist and skeptic YouTube movements that are noted for their early adoption of anti-SJW and anti-feminist stances. This is especially important given many are seen as gateways to the Alt-Right, often platform Alt-Right figures, and would fit the definition of Alt-Lite. I mean, Carl “Sargon” Benjamin even went into politics with the far-right UKIP party and was referred to as a great entry point to the Alt-Right by white nationalist*** Richard Spencer. How can you leave that out?

Nagle also didn’t cover a very important part of the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right, particularly the online media it has created. The money. While much of the book makes it sound like the internet is filled with communities living off of one another, crowdfunding being racist or bronies – depending upon your kink. This ignores the documented money coming from rich conservatives interested in promoting their agenda on one side of this culture war. And prior to this, there was also the organised astroturfing that occurred, again funded by rich conservatives, that fed into a lot of the online communities (some of this was documented in training sessions organised during the Tea Party movement). Suddenly that crowdfunded “both sides” feel to the online communities takes on a more one-sided and darker reality than portrayed in the book.

Finally, I come to my main critique which is also the underlying thesis of the book. Nagle is essentially arguing throughout that all of these really nasty, racist, sexist, bigoted forums and subsequent culture is the left’s**** fault because they have been successful in getting gay married, not having women tied to the kitchen sink, and having public discussions of other progressive ideas. The Shock! The Horror! This is the classic “the left caused people to drop liberal principles and become alt-right extremists” argument that Matt Bors skewered. It is no less stupid and unsupported here than elsewhere.

fault right
Source. Check out Matt’s other comics as well.

I’d be near the front of the line to agree that “the left” is filled with smug intolerant people, a la the Vampire Castle. But much like the criticism of Exiting the Vampire Castle, it’s a tad unwise to treat the issues being raised by those “lefties” as somehow wrong or a valid reason for someone to pushback and become a Nazi. There has always been pushback against successful progressive social changes, and while many of the reactionary behaviours we see in the culture wars exist across the political spectrum, a proper critic of these culture wars would address these arguments more carefully, with more insight, and would stop pretending that Alt-Right propaganda claims are valid points to base a thesis around.

I was highly disappointed and annoyed with this book.

* There is also a very important point to be made about Nagle’s lack of quantitative insight. One piece of data I keep thinking back to is the demographics of various online platforms. It is interesting to note that male-dominated forums (4chan, sub-Reddits, Youtube comments sections) tend to be more toxic than those with a neutral or female dominant audience (Tumblr). Almost as if there is an important point to be made here. With stats. With some analysis. Something. Side note, women are larger users of social media than men.

** The Tumblr list used in the book wasn’t actually from Tumblr and most likely a satirical version.

*** Richard Spencer loves to dance around being called a white nationalist or neo-Nazi, but that’s just because he knows those terms are toxic. It’s why he coined the rebranding term Alt-Right.

**** A lot of the points being made about left/liberal people (two very different groups that appear to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, odd given that Nagle identifies as a feminist lefty) amount to lefties can be reactionaries too (call-out culture, etc). Oddly, not much discussion of the reactionary nature of all the groups being discussed and how that feeds the culture wars.

I apologise for posting a negative review. As I said in my negative review of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I will try to keep my blog reviews 3 stars and above. I will endeavour to keep the exceptions to a minimum.

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Another review of Kill All Normies.

Book review: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Capitalist Realism is a long essay or short book that argues we – as in Americans, but pretty much everyone on the planet – are so emersed in capitalism that we have no frame of reference for anything else. Mark Fisher argues that this both impedes our ability to reform or fight back against the worst aspects of capitalism, and/or to develop other socio-political societies. This is, of course, he argues, bad.

This was an interesting book. There were some truly eye-opening and enlightening moments where Fisher managed to capture an idea or concept in a concise and accessible way. He makes high-level critical analysis easy to read and understand, and not like an obtuse – or is that acute? – philosophy textbook.

It was somewhat less interesting when it drew upon pop-culture references. These references were often very good and served as a great way to make points or analogies. But some undermined any points being made by the very subjective interpretations and associations used. E.g. Kurt Cobain being the last self-aware musician was a little too reductionist. Trying to argue that Cobain could see himself being commodified and thus sought escape ignores so much of what made Cobain the person he was.

Then there were the Zizek references… and so on and sniff so on. I’ve only a passing knowledge of Zizek, but many of the philosophers I follow on social media have the same thoughts on him as I have. That is, Zizek is a sloppy thinker who gets distracted from any point he is trying to make and ends up chasing his tail around. To quote Chomsky: “There’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t.” Which, again, tends to undermine the points a bit, as it can be seen as selective and potentially misrepresentative.

Overall, this was fascinating. I think Fisher’s main points are worth serious thought and action. And at 80 pages, this probably needs to be read a few times.

https://www.reddit.com/r/ChapoTrapHou…

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Book review: Bullshit Jobs – A Theory by David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs: A TheoryBullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bullshit is, of course, the technical term.

Bullshit Jobs builds upon David Graeber’s 2013 essay titled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. He posits that many of us are working in jobs that we know don’t need to be done, that we could stop doing them and no one would notice. And he suggests that these jobs are bad for us as individuals and society. If you’re nodding at this point, my condolences.

When David’s essay was released in 2013 it was something of a viral hit. It resonated with people.* For evidence supporting his proposed phenomenon, you need look no further than that response. Since then, some studies and a lot of discussions have taken place, which led David to more fully explain his ideas and evidence them with this book. He tries to distinguish between bullshit jobs, shit jobs, and bad jobs, and why they come about.

It is this discussion of the larger system that brings about bullshit jobs that is the most interesting aspect of the book. While the idea of bullshit jobs is still hazy – the definition is subjective when all said and done – the changes to our society, economy, and personhood are well documented and discussed. The combination of this discussion with the theory lends weight to another idea presented within: that the role of jobs in society needs to change.

Currently, we place a large amount of prestige and identity on what we do for work.** Our exchange of labour for money is how we afford to live and often how we understand our contribution to society. But is that all we have to offer? Will we be remembered by our job titles? Does that mean that unpaid work doesn’t have value, either in the identity or contribution sense? The answer to these questions is clearly no, making this discussion a highlight of the book.

This was a very interesting book and tied in well with Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists.

* Nope, I’m not going to comment one way or the other about it resonating with me. That would give away how I feel about my day job slowly killing me.
** One of the first questions you will be asked is, ‘What do you do for a living?’

Update: this review at Current Affairs is also worth a read.

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http3a2f2ffarm4.static.flickr.com2f31522f2685313387_0d616bb6f7_o

Mousetrap
Source

Book review: Curing Affluenza by Richard Denniss

Curing Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the worldCuring Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the world by Richard Denniss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”*

Richard Denniss’ Curing Affluenza seeks to define the problems our current consumerist society has and how to address it. He posits that we need to abandon consumerism and opt instead for materialism if we have any chance of changing the shape of our economy, which will, in turn, allow us to address issues like climate change and environmental degradation.

For many years now I’ve been a fan of Richard and The Australia Institute’s work. He and they manage to talk economics without making it feel like you’ve been hit with a brick made of buzzwords.** As such, this book has been on my TBR pile since its release. It has not disappointed.

Richard makes his arguments simply and clearly, in a way that make sense. Even if you disagree with him politically, you would have to agree with his points about economics and politics being about choosing a shape for the economy – the shape being what we choose to spend money on and value. You may argue that we need more spending on tanks and less on healthcare, which has a different shape than an economy where I want fewer tanks and more healthcare. This also applies to our purchases; so if I’m buying tickets to see bands play live rather than upgrading my phone every 6 months, the economy changes shape.

On the Affluenza front, Richard suggests 7 principles for tackling it:
1) First, do no harm.
Think of this as consumer boycotts and active decisions about consumer/lifestyle choices.

2) Some change is better than no change.
Baby steps. It isn’t possible to stick 100% to #1, and larger changes may take longer.

3) It’s not about sacrifice and denial; it’s about saving money and having a better life.
We’re trying to change the shape of the economy, not become monks.

4) Services are good for you.
New status symbol phone or see a live music act? Stuff doesn’t make you happy but experiences do, and they help change the economy’s shape.

5) When you are full, stop consuming.
Because there is such a thing as too many books… Wait, what?

6) Get yourself and your country into better shape.
Our saving and spending, especially when organised with others, can reshape the economy.

7) Flatter is fairer.
Equality of resources and opportunity for all. I.e. redistribution.

Whilst this was a very good book, I did have two problems with it. The first issue was that the middle chapters labour the point, so much so that it felt like needless padding. This was frustrating because as someone who has read various articles and essays from Richard before, I know he can be very concise. It also didn’t help that I was already familiar with what he was trying to argue and the examples used. Though, this may be from that familiarity, so others may appreciate these chapters more.

The second issue was that Richard was largely dismissive of options that didn’t involve capitalism. There was a big assumption that we still need/want capitalism and thus should be reforming/tinkering with it. This assumption was never examined nor justified adequately. It would have been nice to see some discussion addressing those other options, especially in a pros and cons manner.***

A very interesting read and one that ties into several other books I have read recently.
Utopia for Realists
Austerity: History of a bad idea
Winners Take All

* Quote is obviously from Fight Club and not this book. I’m almost certain that Richard is not advocating young men beat each other up and try to destroy capitalism.
** Richard appropriately calls the indecipherable economics talk Econobabble.

*** Richard responded to this point on Twitter. He felt it was outside of the scope of the book and would have muddied the message. I think that is a fair point.

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Book review: Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaManufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don’t believe everything you see in the news… but which bits?

There is a narrative we hold to be true: that the news media are trying to inform us of the facts; that they search high and low for the truth; that they are honest and hardworking; and that they hold truth to power. Manufacturing Consent presents the argument that they often don’t do that at all but instead operate under the Propaganda Model of media.

Almost a decade ago, I attended a panel session about news journalism that billed itself as to how award-winning journalists hunted down and exposed the truth. I walked out about half-way through from disgust. You see, these award-winning journalists had been patting themselves on the back for having done what I regard as the bare minimum of fact-checking on a story and had managed to discover something. These were the people we relied upon for our information.

While that wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I’d run up against the failings of the media, it was the moment that has come to summarise my view of the media. I think that is why Chomsky and Herman’s thesis in the book feels familiar.* The way media act to perpetuate the status quo and the interests of power and influence is well articulated if unsurprising.

There were a few issues I had with Manufacturing Consent. The first was that the introductory chapters, including the preface written in the early 2000s, and the final chapter were excellent, but the middle case study chapters erred on the side of exhaustively labouring the point. I mean, the history of various conflicts was fascinating, but not exactly what I signed up for when I started reading.

The second issue I had was that this book feels somewhat out-of-date. The examples were from a previous generation of media. While it appears that much of the propaganda model still holds, you have to question if it isn’t far more nuanced now. Media ownership has become even more consolidated, the diversified online media landscape has made attention seeking and funded agenda pushing the norm, partisanship is leveraged for audience retention, media owners and management are more overtly pushing agendas, and lobbyists and other bad faith actors exist in all aspects of public discourse driving narratives. Power is Feeding the Chooks** now more than ever. It feels like the propaganda model and the 5 filters are still highly relevant but in need of an update to capture the new realities.

Another issue was one that was briefly touched upon in the final chapter. The propaganda model tends to assume a level of competence and diligence to journalism and the media. I often use Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. A lot of the reporting being attributed to a propaganda model may actually fall under the lazy, incompetent, and uninterested model instead. Although, that could be seen as part of the 5 filters of media selection – or to paraphrase Chomsky: if they were actually good at journalism they wouldn’t be working there.

My final issue was around solutions: what are they? There aren’t any solutions posed, both from the point of view of a media consumer trying to be well informed and from the point of view of a society wanting a reliable media. Some ideas are alluded to, such as the reports from independent groups covering an issue (e.g. Amnesty and America Watch were mentioned), which also requires an active audience who seek out information (i.e. lateral reading and fact-checking). But I feel as though this was an important set of recommendations to explicitly state.

A very interesting and insightful book that is well worth a read. Be warned that the case studies are more of a history lesson than you’d probably be expecting.

The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

* Although, it may feel familiar because this text has been in the “mainstream” for decades, so much of it will have found its way to me without having read it directly.

** For the non-Aussies, Feeding the Chooks was a term for Press Conferences from one of Australia’s most corrupt politicians. Sir Joh would wait until journalists were desperate for information and then feed them timed propaganda that they wouldn’t question due to deadlines – hence, feeding the chooks. He was an authoritarian who rigged elections (sorry, gerrymandered…), essentially ran a police state, held the press in disdain, was generally racist and homophobic (although, kinda standard for an Aussie conservative from Queensland), and marginalised workers and unions.

Update: I’ve learned that Matt Taibbi wrote a book called Hate Inc. that was originally intended to be a modernising of Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky’s approval. It changed a bit, but addresses some of the issues I raised above.

Framing a viewpoint
Media descriptions summarised by Tom Gauld.

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Book review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get ThereUtopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists starts with a simple premise: since we are already living in the utopia imagined by previous generations, what’s the utopia we’re aiming for now? We need big ideas to strive toward in order to keep progressing forward.

I have been meaning to read Utopia for Realists for several years now. Prior to the book’s publication, I read the sections Bregman had made available from two of his chapters on Medium. Those were my first introduction to the concept of a Universal Basic Income and how there was some fairly compelling, if limited, evidence for just giving people money to fix just about every problem. Poverty, it seems, isn’t a moral failing or a lack of work ethic, it’s a lack of cash. Since then I have watched several of his interviews and discussions (yes, including the Davos inequality panel) and still managed to gain more insights from his book.

It seems odd to note that we’ve stopped thinking about our future utopia. Outside of Star Trek*, most of our future visions are of dystopias which warn us of our mistakes, but also underline what happens when we stop thinking of a utopia to strive for. We can only see the negative futures, not the potentially great futures.

Bregman spends a lot of Utopia for Realists outlining several of our current societal problems and then introduces some of the evidence for his utopian vision of a Universal Basic Income, lower inequality, and a shorter working week as solutions. These are not new ideas – Mill, Russell, and Keynes have all written on these topics – but they are the utopia that Bregman thinks we need to be aiming for. In outlining the evidence in favour of this vision, he also shows how close we have come on several occasions to implementing some of these reforms and how easy it is for naysayers to win the day.

Utopia for Realists is very well written**, is easy to read, and not particularly long. The only reason I didn’t finish this quickly was that I kept tracking down the extensive references and surrounding literature for further reading. My own fault for being a giant nerd. One of my favourite references was this one on the value created by various professions, which suggests that we are rewarding some who are actively bad for the economy, whilst under-paying those who are good for the economy.

This book is highly recommended reading.

See also: https://tysonadams.com/2019/04/05/book-review-austerity-the-history-of-a-dangerous-idea-by-mark-blyth/
https://tysonadams.com/2019/03/19/book-review-winners-take-all-by-anand-giridharadas/

* Although, how much of a utopia is Star Trek, what with the wars, the planet of hats, and Borg collectives? Discussed further here.
** Not sure whether to credit this to Bregman or his translator – Elizabeth Manton.

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