Category: nonfiction

The Elephant in the Brain

The Elephant in the Brain (2017) is at times an uncomfortable read, but well-worth it for anyone willing to undertake its introspective incursion.  Programmer Kevin Simler (of the fascinating Melting Asphalt blog) and economist Robin Hanson explore why we are prone to self-deception about our motives, and how this deception can shed light on otherwise inexplicable individual behaviours, as well as institutional inefficiencies. The titular elephant comes from the fact that nobody wants to discuss hidden motives, because they tend not to show humans in the most flattering light. Continue reading

12 Rules for Life

You probably shouldn’t read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m not normally one to discourage reading (or intellectual endeavour), but this is a strange exception. It’s not exactly that Peterson is wrong about anything specific, although he occasionally very much is. It is rather that on many topics, he is right, but his extreme confidence in mixing many correct observations with some incorrect ones, combined with his bleak view of humanity make its potential for harming your worldview outweigh its potential for improving your life. His unwavering certitude is one reason I recommend against reading it: someone impressionable might not be able to distinguish between where his views are mainstream versus where they are highly dubious, to say nothing of how strident and repetitive his writing can be. (Most of the best things he says are said more eloquently elsewhere.) But my primary objection is with a sort of self-contradiction that exists in his ideas. Continue reading

Bullshit Jobs

First, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is an extremely pleasurable read, and you should read it, if nothing else for the accounts of the utterly useless things people have been employed to do. The book was born in the wake of the storm of Graeber’s 2013 article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs“. The premise is simple: In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted, with the pace of mechanisation and technological advances, that by the end of the century the world would enjoy a 15-hour work week. Given the endless, inescapable, invariably tedious discussions of automation and AI, why hasn’t this happened? The short version of this book is: it has. The reason that it doesn’t appear to have happened is because the remaining twenty-five hours (or in more dire new-world cases, sixty-five hours) have been filled with unnecessary admin and bureaucracy, with some of the worst jobs (from the soul’s point of view) concerned exclusively with increasing that burden. Sound fanciful? The argument is premised mostly on empirical data, self-reported by the people actually doing these jobs. (It also lines up well discussion I’ve had with people in many industries.) Polls in the UK and the Netherlands have shown 37 to 40% of people do not believe, by their own estimation, that their job contributes anything useful to their company or to society. How can this be? Isn’t this impossible under capitalism? Continue reading

How to Change Your Mind

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to see Michael Pollan talk about his new book, How to Change Your Mind. He was interviewed by author Zoe Cormier, at a co-working space called Second Home in East London. Pollan is best known for books on food, including the excellent Cooked (2013), the first book of his that I read (and reviewed here). This led me to his earlier books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and The Botany of Desire (2001). Pollan views himself not strictly as a food writer, but as having written on food out of a broader interest in the ways in which humans interact with nature; it just so happens that agriculture is one of the most consequential ways that we do so. His earlier books were provocative and mind-opening; they changed what I ate and how I cooked. His new book seeks to open vistas of the mind in a different way. Ambitiously subtitled “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” the book largely delivers on its wide remit, and I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of prior interest on the topic. Continue reading

Flourish (2011)

Psychologist Martin Seligman’s Flourish is a strange book, in that it does not deliver on any of its promises, and yet somehow remains enjoyable. You would be forgiven for assuming, given the book’s rather bold opening that “This book will help you flourish,” that the book will in fact help you flourish—which it does, sort of. The early chapters, after promising then not delivering many practical exercises, then seem to imply that the book will instead summarise developments of positive psychology beyond its original scope of “authentic happiness”—which it does, sort of. The rest is part intriguing memoir, part summary of where psychology and philosophy went wrong in the twentieth century, and part discussion of the military and education. If this sounds like a strange mixture, it is. And yet the writing remains engaging, and the book does actually give some practical advice about how to incorporate gratitude, better listening skills, and activities which are orientated towards character strengths and accomplishment, into one’s life. Because of what appears to be a lack of editorial guidance, going into it with expectations to learn anything specific is likely to lead to disappointment. But if you pick it up, as I did, with an open mind no expectations, you may find quite a few provocative facts and perspectives.

The 100-Year Life (2016)

The basic argument of The 100-Year Life, by psychologist Lynda Gratton and economist Andrew Scott, is that not enough is being done to adapt to increasing longevity. After a quite interesting chapter on how drastically longevity has changed (the 1900 US expectancy was under 50!), the book sketches out in some detail archetypes from the baby boomer, gen X, and millennial generations, imagining how their lives might play out. As is probably obvious, the younger generations face increasingly insurmountable difficulties if they try to stick to the typical education/single career/retirement (three-stage life) that worked very well for the baby boomers, who could pick any career, stick to it, invest in virtually anything, and come out with a house, savings, and an irritating sense that they had somehow been rewarded for their wisdom and moral virtue. Continue reading

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964)

Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) is a work of impressive scholarship that remains extremely (and sometimes depressingly) relevant today. It traces periods of intellectual flourishing as well as the reactions against them, from the deeply intellectual Founding Fathers to the incoherent and incandescent anti-intellectual aggression of the McCarthy era. The overarching point of the book seems to be that since its inception, America has undergone cycles of anti-intellectual sentiment. These rise when expertise oversteps its bounds, and makes mistakes, or perhaps even when it is needed too badly. At other times, expertise and intellectuals can come to be valued, though a latent suspicion often remains. Overall the book is well worth reading for an understanding of how such a large proportion of America acquired anti-intellectual sentiments, as well as for providing insight into many cultural and social aspects of American life and history. Continue reading

Debt: The First 5000 Years

David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years is a magnum opus, with a scope so vast that any attempt to summarise it exhaustively, in a review such as this one, is unlikely to do it justice. This resistance to summary is partly due in straightforward fashion to its 544 page length, but length alone is an insufficient explanation for its expansive defiance—and it defies much more than mere summary. It begins with seemingly simple questions: “Must one pay one’s debts? If so, why?” The answers seem obvious, even self-evident, until, that is, one tries to justify them. Even within standard economic theory, it is not the case that all debts must be repaid: interest rates reflect the risk that the creditor assumes that the debtor might default. So whence the pervasive sense that all debts must be repaid? Very quickly one starts to see the looming spectres of moral judgment and threats of violence, in just two basic questions. With even a tiny bit of scrutiny, the complex relationship between economic questions and morality, which is central to this book, begins to surface.  Continue reading

A Fighting Chance

I recently read Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography A Fighting Chance which came out in March. Although at times it’s intensely personal, its historical and political aspects are really what make it an engaging read. It presents a compelling history of bankruptcy law in America, an overview of how financial deregulation since the 1980s has fuelled political corruption, and her often ill-fated attempts to fight these trends. It’s not quite Steinbeck, but as an epic on inequality it’s not a million miles away either, and it is definitely worth a read.
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