Category Archives: Book review

Why Overcoming Inertia Takes Two Whys

By George Bradt – As laid out in an earlier article on “Three Steps to a Compelling Message,” leadership stories to inspire change need to:

  1. Depict the platform for change (why)
  2. Create a vision of a better future (what)
  3. Lay out a call to action (how)

Scott Jackson provides a model leadership story in his book, Take Me With You, published this week. In particular, he nails the two whys it takes to overcome inertia.

  1. Why #1 – Why I Can’t Keep Doing What I’m Doing
  2. Why #2 – Why I Should Listen To You On This Subject


The body is the missing link for truly intelligent machines


Basin and Range, Author: John McPhee.
Descartes’ Error, Author: Antonio Damasio.

By Ben Medlock – Things took a wrong turn at the beginning of modern AI, back in the 1950s. Computer scientists decided to try to imitate conscious reasoning by building logical systems based on symbols. The method involves associating real-world entities with digital codes to create virtual models of the environment, which could then be projected back onto the world itself.

In later decades, as computing power grew, researchers switched to using statistics to extract patterns from massive quantities of data. These methods are often referred to as ‘machine learning’. Rather than trying to encode high-level knowledge and logical reasoning, machine learning employs a bottom-up approach in which algorithms discern relationships by repeating tasks, such as classifying the visual objects in images or transcribing recorded speech into text.

But algorithms are a long way from being able to think like us. The biggest distinction lies in our evolved biology, and how that biology processes information. Humans are made up of trillions of eukaryotic cells, which first appeared in the fossil record around 2.5 billion years ago. A human cell is a remarkable piece of networked machinery that has about the same number of components as a modern jumbo jet – all of which arose out of a longstanding, embedded encounter with the natural world.

We only have the world as it is revealed to us, which is rooted in our evolved, embodied needs as an organism. Nature ‘has built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it’,

In other words, we think with our whole body, not just with the brain. more>

There’s a Green Card-holder at the heart of Greek philosophy

By David V Johnson – A state that, without due process, simply ignores the rights and obligations it has extended to that legal resident makes a serious breach of its moral authority and the rule of law.

This is why the state’s treatment of its non-citizen legal residents – its visa-holders and permanent resident aliens – can say as much about its health as its treatment of citizens.

The idea that the non-citizen resident is crucial to diagnosing the state’s health is evident in Plato’s Republic.

In the course of the Republic‘s 10 books, Socrates offers a considered analysis of justice and the ideally just state. It can be simplified to one principle: justice is reason ruling.

When rationality rules in government, the state is just. Similarly, when rationality governs the emotions and desires of the soul, a person is just.

When reason fails to rule, whether in the state or the person, injustice obtains. more>

Web of war


The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World, Author: Sharon Weinberger.
The Manchurian Candidate, Author: Richard Condon.
The Romance of American Psychology, Author: Ellen Herman.

By Sharon Weinberger – Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider – JCR, or simply Lick to his friends – spent much of his time at the Pentagon hiding. In a building where most bureaucrats measured their importance by proximity to the secretary of defense, Licklider was relieved when the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, assigned him an office in the D‑Ring, one of the Pentagon’s windowless inner circles. There, he could work in peace.

One time, Licklider invited ARPA employees to a meeting at the Marriott hotel between the Pentagon and the Potomac River, to demonstrate how someone in the future would use a computer to access information. As the chief proselytizer for interactive computing, Licklider first wanted people to understand the concept. He was trying to demonstrate how, in the future, everyone would have a computer, people would interact directly with those computers, and the computers would all be connected together. He was demonstrating personal computing and the modern internet, years before they existed.

ARPA was established in 1958 to help the United States catch up with the Soviets in the space race, but by the early 1960s, it had branched off into new research areas, including command and control. The internet would likely not have been born without the military’s need to wage war, or at least it would not have been born at ARPA. Tracing the origins of computer networking at ARPA requires understanding what motivated the Pentagon to hire someone like Licklider in the first place.

It started with brainwashing. more>

What is global history now?

By Jeremy Adelman – To understand what global history was, it helps to understand what it was supposed to eclipse.

It used to be that, in the US, history departments had their cores in American and/or European fields; in Canada, Australia and Britain, the nuclei were also national. History meant the history of the nation, its peoples and their origins. When social and cultural history came along, it changed the subject from presidents or prime ministers to Hollywood or garment workers. But the framework remained mostly national; historians still wrote books about the making of the English working class, or the conversion of peasants into French citizens. There might be a smattering of East Asian or Latin American historians in the mix.

Often, they were cordoned into regional studies units, or lumped – as in my home department at Princeton – as ‘non-Western historians’, defined by their fundamental difference, there to embellish but not challenge the national canon.

By the 1980s, it was no longer foregone that the Rest was synonymous with decline, or the West with rise. The Rest, to some, became the new threat to define the purpose of the West.

No sooner did historians catch the glottalization wave with fancy new courses, magazines, textbooks and attention, than the wave seemed to collapse. The story changed. A powerful political movement arose against ‘globalism’. White-supremacists and Vladimir Putin fans from the Traditionalist Worker Party in the US proclaim as their slogan that ‘Globalism is the poison, nationalism is the antidote.’ Donald Trump put it only a bit more mildly. ‘Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,’ he thundered to cheering Republicans in his convention speech in July 2016. more>

In praise of cash


The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance, Author: Brett Scott.
The Curse of Cash, Author: Kenneth Rogoff.

By Brett Scott – So here I am, the tired individual rationally seeking sugar. The market is before me, fizzy drinks stacked on a shelf, presided over by a vending machine acting on behalf of the cola seller. It’s an obedient mechanical apparatus that is supposed to abide by a simple market contract: If you give money to my owner, I will give you a Coke. So why won’t this goddamn machine enter into this contract with me?

This is market failure.

To understand this failure, we must first understand that we live with two modes of money. ‘Cash’ is the name given to our system of physical tokens that are manually passed on to complete transactions. This first mode of money is public. We might call it ‘state money’. Indeed, we experience cash like a public utility that is ‘just there’.

This second mode of money is essentially private, running off an infrastructure collectively controlled by profit-seeking commercial banks and a host of private payment intermediaries – like Visa and Mastercard – that work with them. The data inscriptions in your bank account are not state money.

Rather, your bank account records private promises issued to you by your bank, promising you access to state money should you wish. Having ‘£500’ in your Barclays account actually means ‘Barclays PLC promises you access to £500’. The ATM network is the main way by which you convert these private bank promises – ‘deposits’ – into the state cash that has been promised to you. The digital payments system, on the other hand, is a way to transfer – or reassign – those bank promises between ourselves.

The cashless society – which more accurately should be called the bank-payments society – is often presented as an inevitability, an outcome of ‘natural progress’. This claim is either naïve or disingenuous. Any future cashless bank-payments society will be the outcome of a deliberate war on cash waged by an alliance of three elite groups with deep interests in seeing it emerge. more>

Trump is right to criticize NAFTA—but he’s totally wrong about why it’s bad for America


The Mexican Shock, Author: Jorge Castañeda.

By Jeff Faux – Will he deliver on this pledge? No.

But the reason is not, as the conventional economic wisdom has it, because outsourcing work to low-wage countries is the inevitable result of immutable global forces that no president can reverse.

The problem for American workers is not international trade, per se. America has been a trading nation since its beginning. The problem is, rather, the radical new rules for trade imposed by NAFTA—and copied in the myriad trade deals signed by the US ever since—that shifted the benefits of expanding trade to investors and the costs to workers.

Trump is right that the 1994 agreement with Mexico and Canada displaced US jobs—some 850,000, most of which were in manufacturing. But he is wrong in his claim that American workers lost out to Mexican workers because US negotiators were outsmarted. The interests of workers were never a priority for either American or Mexican negotiators.

NAFTA was the first important trade agreement that reflected the dramatic realignment of economic class interests across national borders. The globalization of corporate finance, production, and marketing has disconnected the interests of investors and workers throughout the world. more>

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds


The Enigma of Reason, Authors: Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Authors: Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.
Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, Authors: Jack Gorman and Sara Gorman.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Author: Elizabeth Kolbert.

By Elizabeth Kolbert – Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.

If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias.

Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. more>

End of a golden age


An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Rise of the Ordinary Economy, Author: Marc Levinson.

By Marc Levinson – Between 1948 and 1973, Australia, Japan, Sweden and Italy had not a single year of recession. West Germany and Canada did almost as well. The good times rolled on so long that people took them for granted.

Governments and the economists who advised them happily claimed the credit. Careful economic management, they said, had put an end to cyclical ups and downs. Governments possessed more information about citizens and business than ever before, and computers could crunch the data to help policymakers determine the best course of action. In a lecture at Harvard University in 1966, Walter Heller, formerly chief economic adviser to presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, trumpeted the success of what he called the ‘new economics’. ‘Conceptual advances and quantitative research in economics,’ he declared, ‘are replacing emotion with reason.’

The Golden Age was wonderful while it lasted, but it cannot be repeated. If there were a surefire method for coaxing extraordinary performance from mature economies, it likely would have been discovered a long time ago. more>

How to play mathematics


The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Author: Margaret Wertheim.
Physics on the Fringe, Author: Margaret Wertheim.
African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, Author: Ron Eglash.

( Margaret Wertheim – The world is full of mundane, meek, unconscious things materially embodying fiendishly complex pieces of mathematics. How can we make sense of this? I’d like to propose that sea slugs and electrons, and many other modest natural systems, are engaged in what we might call the performance of mathematics.

Rather than thinking about maths, they are doing it.

In the fibers of their beings and the ongoing continuity of their growth and existence they enact mathematical relationships and become mathematicians-by-practice. By looking at nature this way, we are led into a consideration of mathematics itself not through the lens of its representational power but instead as a kind of transaction.

Rather than being a remote abstraction, mathematics can be conceived of as something more like music or dancing; an activity that takes place not so much in the writing down as in the playing out.

Since at least the time of Pythagoras and Plato, there’s been a great deal of discussion in Western philosophy about how we can understand the fact that many physical systems have mathematical representations: the segmented arrangements in sunflowers, pine cones and pineapples (Fibonacci numbers); the curve of nautilus shells, elephant tusks and rams horns (logarithmic spiral); music (harmonic ratios and Fourier transforms); atoms, stars and galaxies, which all now have powerful mathematical descriptors; even the cosmos as a whole, now represented by the equations of general relativity.

The physicist Eugene Wigner has termed this startling fact ‘the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’.

Why does the real world actualize maths at all? And so much of it?

Even arcane parts of mathematics, such as abstract algebras and obscure bits of topology often turn out to be manifest somewhere in nature. more>