Category Archives: Book review

End of a golden age

BOOK REVIEW

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> https://goo.gl/oQN8FL

How to play mathematics

BOOK REVIEW

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.

(glasbergen.com)By 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> https://goo.gl/ifKV2Z

Christians were strangers

BOOK REVIEW

Late Roman Spain and Its Cities, Author: Michael Kulikowski.
Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric, Author: Michael Kulikowski.
The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World From Hadrian to Constantine, Author: Michael Kulikowski.

By Michael Kulikowski – When Paul was arrested as a threat to public order, his Jewish enemies having complained to the Romans, Paul needed only two words to change the balance of power – cives sum, ‘I am a citizen’ – a Roman citizen. The fact that he was a Roman citizen meant that, unlike Jesus, he could neither be handed over to the Jewish authorities for judgment nor summarily executed by an angry Roman governor. A Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor’s justice, and that is what Paul did.

Paul was a Christian, perhaps indeed the first Christian, but he was also a Roman. That was new. Even if the occasional Jew gained Roman citizenship, Jews weren’t Romans.

As a religion, Judaism was ethnic, which gave Jews some privileged exemptions unavailable to any other Roman subjects, but it also meant they were perpetually aliens.

In contrast, Christianity was not ethnic. Although Christian leaders were intent on separating themselves physically and ideologically from the Jewish communities out of which they’d grown, they also accepted newcomers to their congregations without regard for ethnic origin or social class. In the socially stratified world of antiquity, the egalitarianism of Christianity was unusual and, to many, appealing. more> https://goo.gl/rza2Zo

The atheist paradox

BOOK REVIEW

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Author: Adam Roberts.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Author: Alain de Botton.
The Book of Atheist Spirituality, Author: André Comte-Sponville.
The Satanic Verses, Author: Salman Rushdie.
Gravity and Grace, Author: Simone Weil.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Author: Gabriel García Márquez.
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Author: John Bunyan.

By Adam Roberts – The Islam described in the Qur’an is a religion consonant with the structures of social power. Crucial to it is the idea that submission to the law (since the law comes from God) is equally required for good social order and good spiritual health.

Christianity is different. In part, that’s because of its bivalve holy book, which sets up, in the Old Testament, a set of social codes, restrictions and laws and then, in its New Testament, specifically overturns them.

Moses brought 10 commandments; Jesus replaces them with two — to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. And those two commandments aren’t articulated like legal codes. Some of the New Testament attempts to work out the social and legal consequences of its new creed, but much of it gives up on that, and instead gives eloquent voice to the irrelevance of society and law in the face of the imminent end-times.

The Old Testament is, in the largest sense, about the building of a temple. In the New Testament, the temple is redefined as Christ’s body, built precisely to be torn down, tortured to death and radically reconfigured. Instructions to give up all one’s money, to leave one’s family and job, not to marry (though St Paul concedes that it is better to marry than burn with lust), to live as spontaneously as the birds and the flowers — all these things are iterations of a powerful sense that the old ways have been overturned.

Of course, as generation followed generation and the world stubbornly did not end, Christians had to find ways of getting on with life. more> https://goo.gl/vJs3n8

Is greatness finite?

BOOK REVIEW

Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Author: Joyce E Chaplin.
Utopia, Author: Thomas More.
The Population Bomb, Author: Paul Ehrlich.

By Joyce E Chaplin – To see human nature and the rest of nature as out of sync is important – if done consciously. Today it is easy to find repudiations of neoliberalism, the doctrine, ascendant since the 1980s of Margaret Thatcher‘s UK and Ronald Reagan‘s US, that private activities produce public good and personal happiness more effectively than any public investment or oversight.

Nearly 40 years on, we finally query the wisdoms of a neoliberal society. But without knowing exactly what it got wrong, it’s impossible to do better.

The Tudor humanist Thomas More and the Regency clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus, of all people, can help us. They are experts on our moment. Together, their key works turn a spotlight on the much disparaged, pre-neoliberal 1970s, when things could have gone differently.

The 1970s represent the last serious discussion of whether and how humans can manage the rest of nature for the greater good. We need that forthright mix again, bitter Malthusian tea served, nevertheless, with a sweet lump of Utopia.

The last days of disco, the 1970s, were the glorious times before the buzz of neoliberalism. Before greed was good and environmental limits were negotiable, people worried about staying alive and danced to ‘Stayin’ Alive’. Circumstances warned against the easy acquisition of happiness, yet people sought it, indeed, preached that it should be available to all.

Now, nations, states, innovators and cultural leaders have accepted the dubious promise of neoliberalism, that to extract private wealth from everything is an excellent way of being.

The good news is that the upcoming arguments – indeed they have already begun – about what to do next can do more than repeat the nearly parodistic Adam SmithKarl Marx confrontation that has dominated for at least a generation. more> https://goo.gl/sjnI4f

The Ten Behaviors of Strong Personal Leadership

BOOK REVIEW

The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, Author: Scott Eblin.

By Scott Eblin – Great leaders practice and exhibit strong personal leadership. They endeavor to live at their best so they can lead at their best. Their lives are structured for continuous improvement.

Here are the ten behaviors of personal leadership:

  1. Self reflection. Great leaders take the time to identify and articulate how they are at their best and then organize their life so they consistently show up with those qualities
  2. Self awareness. Great leaders are aware and intentional
  3. Self care. Great leaders understand that they perform at their best when they take care of their health and well being.
  4. Continuous learning. Great leaders never stop learning.
  5. Listening. Great leaders listen. They ask open-ended questions and pay attention to the answers.
  6. Operating rhythm. Great leaders know and leverage their operating rhythm.
  7. Gear shifting. Great leaders know how to quickly shift gears
  8. Focus. Great leaders focus on who or what is in front of them
  9. Clarity of purpose. Great leaders know what they’re in it for
  10. Gratitude. They recognize, acknowledge the good things in their life
  11. more> https://goo.gl/qXCpL1

The Curse of Econ 101

BOOK REVIEW

Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, Author: James Kwak.

By James Kwak – In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty.

Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line.

Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why.

The idea that a higher minimum wage might not increase unemployment runs directly counter to the lessons of Economics 101. According to the textbook, if labor becomes more expensive, companies buy less of it. But there are several reasons why the real world does not behave so predictably.

A higher minimum wage motivates more people to enter the labor force, raising both employment and output. Finally, higher pay increases workers’ buying power. Because poor people spend a relatively large proportion of their income, a higher minimum wage can boost overall economic activity and stimulate economic growth, creating more jobs. more> https://goo.gl/tZkyjV

A General Logic of Crisis

BOOK REVIEW

How Will Capitalism End? Author: Wolfgang Streeck.
Buying Time, Author: Wolfgang Streeck.
The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-31, Author: Adam Tooze.

By Adam Tooze – The core of Streeck’s crisis theory is non-Marxian. It does not rest on the violence of original primitive accumulation, or on the alienation or exploitation inherent to the productive process, or even primarily on the declining rate of growth or accumulation.

In one disarming passage he describes capitalism as a ‘a non-violent, civilized mode of material self-enrichment through market exchange’. What makes capitalism toxic is its expansiveness, its relentless colonization of the rest of society. Drawing on Karl Polanyi, Streeck insists that capitalism destroys its own foundations.

It undermines the family units on which the reproduction of labor depends; it consumes nature; it commodifies money, which to function has to rest on a foundation of social trust. For its own good, capitalism needs political checks.

The significance of 2008 and what has happened since is that it is now clear these checks are no longer functioning. Instead, as it entered crisis, capitalism overran everything: it forced the hand of parliaments; it drove up state debts at taxpayers’ expense at the same time as aggressively rolling back what remained of the welfare state; the elected governments of Italy and Greece were sacrificed; referendums were canceled or ignored. more> https://goo.gl/T9bS8i

How the Profound Changes in Economics Make Left Versus Right Debates Irrelevant

BOOK REVIEW

The Origin of Wealth, Author: Eric Beinhocker.
The Gardens of Democracy, Authors: Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

By Eric Beinhocker – Economic thinking is changing. If that thesis is correct – and there are many reasons to believe it is – then historical experience suggests policy and politics will change as well. How significant that change will be remains to be seen.

It is still early days and the impact thus far has been limited. Few politicians or policymakers are even dimly aware of the changes underway in economics; but these changes are deep and profound, and the implications for policy and politics are potentially transformative.

For almost 200 years the politics of the west, and more recently of much of the world, have been conducted in a framework of right versus left – of markets versus states, and of individual rights versus collective responsibilities.

New economic thinking scrambles, breaks up and re-forms these old dividing lines and debates. It is not just a matter of pragmatic centrism, of compromise, or even a ‘third way’. Rather, new economic thinking provides something altogether different: a new way of seeing and understanding the economic world. When viewed through the eyeglasses of new economics, the old right–left debates don’t just look wrong, they look irrelevant. more> https://goo.gl/80n0Ke

What is logic?

BOOK REVIEW

Critique of Pure Reason, Author: Immanuel Kant.
A History of Formal Logic, Author: J M Bocheński.
Principles of Philosophy, Author: René Descartes.
Summa Theologica, Author: Thomas Aquinas.
Meditations on First Philosophy, Author: René Descartes.
Port-Royal Logic, Authors: Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole.
The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, Author: George Boole.
Begriffsschrift, Author: Gottlob Frege.
Principia Mathematica, Authors: Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.

By Catarina Dutilh Novaes – The history of logic should be of interest to anyone with aspirations to thinking that is correct, or at least reasonable.

Descartes hits the nail on the head when he claims that the logic of the Schools (scholastic logic) is not really a logic of discovery. Its chief purpose is justification and exposition, which makes sense particularly against the background of dialectical practices, where interlocutors explain and debate what they themselves already know. Indeed, for much of the history of logic, both in ancient Greece and in the Latin medieval tradition, ‘dialectic’ and ‘logic’ were taken to be synonymous.

Up to Descartes’s time, the chief application of logical theories was to teach students to perform well in debates and disputations, and to theorize on the logical properties of what follows from what, insofar as this is an essential component of such argumentative practices. It’s true that not everyone conceived of logic in this way: Thomas Aquinas, for example, held that logic is about ‘second intentions’, roughly what we call second-order concepts, or concepts of concepts. But as late as in the 16th century, the Spanish theologian Domingo de Soto could write with confidence that ‘dialectic is the art or science of disputing’. more> https://goo.gl/iFCWw4