On Inequality

k10536Harry G. Frankfurt
2015

On Inequality is a curious book. For one thing, it’s based on material previously published. That’s not unusual in itself, but in this case the earlier work dates from 1987 and 1997. It’s not often that a new book in the social sciences, never mind the hard sciences, relies so comfortably on such ancient sources.

Frankfurt’s book appears to have been prompted primarily by the unexpected popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which makes an argument against income inequality with which Frankfurt strenuously — and repetitively — disagrees.

I’m not unsympathetic with Frankfurt’s quite narrow central thesis: “From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” You don’t have to distribute ten jackets equally among eight people to give everyone a jacket. Point made.

Seems obvious enough, yet Frankfurt spends all of his short book making and remaking this simple point. Weren’t the original journal articles sufficient? Why go to this trouble now, unless to attempt to remedy the lack of attention paid to the point then by cashing in on the current interest piqued by Piketty?

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Wages of Rebellion

Wages of RebellionWages of Rebellion may be Chris Hedges’ best book.

I’ve read a lot of Hedges, too often with mixed feelings. I’ve always liked his politics, but I’ve been put off by his left-evangelical tone. He can be pretty shrill, which lessens his power to convince.

In this book, in a remarkable mixing of scholarship and observation, Hedges submerges much of the personal pain so evident in books like The World As It Is.

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How to Clone a Mammoth

mammoth_cover_crop_3269793aBeth Shapiro
2015

Should we try to bring back the woolly mammoth?

News reports today trumpet the sequencing of the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. This accomplishment brings science one step closer to the potential “revival” of this extinct species.

I’m particularly interested in this topic, as I’ve recently finished reading Beth Shapiro’s newly-published How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction.

Shapiro’s book is timely not just for her insights into the science, as an active “revival” researcher, but also for the many cautions and moral issues that she identifies. Sometimes, the thrill of the scientific chase makes “can do!” threaten to overwhelm “should do?”

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Thieves of State

thieves-of-state-coverSarah Chayes
December 29, 2014

Sarah Chayes knows Afghanistan.

Her work there as an NPR journalist, an adviser to American government and military leaders striving to “liberate” and “democratize” the country, and as an NGO activist has been profoundly informed by her deep knowledge of the historical “rules” for princes written by sources as diverse as Machiavelli and the medieval Islamic scholar Nizam al-Mulk.

Her conclusion, consistent with the advice of these classic books, is that no state is secure if its people are oppressed by corrupt leaders and local officials.

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Protecting the Wild

cover48067-mediumEdited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler
Island Press
2015

If you haven’t been paying attention lately, the traditional conservation movement is being challenged by a new species of “environmentalist” with the goal of reframing conservation efforts by replacing “conserve” with “manage.”

The core of this new, doubly “neo-con” approach is the idea that the only way that we can motivate the level of political and financial support needed for conservation is to give up on trying to save the earth, the animals, the plants, or the climate because they’re intrinsically worthwhile or valuable. Instead, their argument goes, it’s only when we frame the struggle for survival in terms of entirely human goals and needs that success will be possible.

Protecting the Wild is an effort by the Foundation for Deep Ecology to contest the new approach.

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The New Prophets of Capital

cover57380-mediumNicole Aschoff
Verso Books
2015

We live in a capitalist and free market world, and many of us struggle to keep our heads above the globalization waters. So when some-one, especially someone wildly successful, comes along to tell us how to stop clinging to the wreckage and swim safely to shore, we listen. After all, they made it, and now they’re telling us how to do it.

There’s just one problem. All of the solutions uncritically assume that the current economic and political system is a given: if not inevitable, it’s not going to change anytime soon. And that assumption condemns most of us to an unequal and inequitable existence. In a free-for-all market system of course there will be winners, but they always will be vastly outnumbered by the losers and the left behind.

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Undeniable

UNdeniableUndeniable
2014

Undeniable is an anti-creationism book with a soft touch. When Bill Nye was “The Science Guy,” science had a friendly face. That basic civility is everywhere in this book. You don’t convert a true believer through anger or scorn. Undeniable makes its case for evolution without rancour. Nye isn’t interested in starting an argument; rather, he presents one.

Nye weaves back and forth through the many topics associated with evolution, dipping in here and there to highlight an easily-comprehended and unambiguous piece of evidence. In chapters with titles like “What Good Is Half a Wing?” and “Medicine and You–Evolution at the Doctor’s Office,” Nye builds his solid explanation of the details–the unavoidable reality–of evolution. Continue reading

Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences

Four RevolutionsJames Lawrence Powell
2015

This very engaging book is more than a history of its four central earth science subjects. At its core is an examination of the ways that science works. Not just the scientific method, although that’s certainly everywhere in the book, but also the scientists themselves, with their all too human brilliances and weaknesses, insights and blind spots, on display for all to see.

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The Glass Cage

The-Glass-Cage-book-coverNicholas Carr
2014

“How do you measure the expense of an erosion of effort and engagement, or a waning of agency and autonomy, or a subtle deterioration of skill? You can’t. Those are the kinds of shadowy, intangible things that we rarely appreciate until after they’re gone.”

In The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Nicholas Carr expands the warning in his previous best-seller The Shallows (reviewed here) from the virtual online world to the increasingly-real world of automation and artificial intelligence.

Well, not so much intelligence. One of Carr’s key points is that computers are smart, but they’re not intelligent. That is, they can outperform us on any number of tasks, but they do so by calculation, not cognition. And the difference, Carr believes, threatens some of the key ways in which we relate to the world.

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