Thursday, October 8, 2009

Books IV

I’ve been naughty in the last couple of months, not writing book reviews of what I’m reading. Here are some...

The Afrikaners: Biography of a People by Herman Giliomee is a scholarly history of the Afrikaners (and, earlier, Dutch) from the colonization of the Cape in 1652 to modern times. While I doubt the book is of general (international) interest, it’s certainly an important contribution to South African historiography and as such will appeal to those who wish to understand the country. Despite being Afrikaans myself, I certainly learnt a great deal and Giliomee’s analyses of events are consistently insightful, if not always entirely convincing.
As is to be expected, the bulk of the book covers the 20th century, with particular focus on apartheid. Several of Giliomee’s arguments here are very interesting, including that the National Party victory in the (all white) election of 1948 (surprisingly, with only 41% of the popular vote) was not a watershed, as the preceding system of ‘liberal’ segregation significantly curtailed black rights. He also argues, convincingly I think, that the root of apartheid among the elite theorists was in fact a moral reaction to the problem of ensuring white domination of the political system and thus ‘white survival’. Crude racism was absent among the framers apartheid, the rationale was that the curtailment of black rights in the ‘common area’ was justified in light of their status as ‘foreigners’ who belong in separate, independent and purportedly equal homelands. As Giliomee goes on to demonstrate in detail, though, the reality was very different. Chronic underinvestment in the homelands, lamented by the elite framers (except Verwoerd), and the fact that only 13% of the country was allocated to blacks resulted in the failure of influx control, the continuation and extension of the highly disruptive migrant labor system and a regime that was brutal and patently unjust. Much less convincing in my opinion are the last two chapters in which Giliomee argues, among other things, that economically apartheid was surprisingly successful, and that de Klerk’s failure to avoid a simple majority electoral system was a costly, avoidable, mistake. Also unconvincing is his contention that de Klerk’s failure to ensure the survival of Afrikaans as a public language is much to be lamented; the dominance of a common and international language – English – is far too beneficial (via network effects and others) for nation building and a proper national debate for this to be compelling. (As luck would have it, Giliomee has a recent op-ed about the continued existence of Afrikaans language universities).
There were a couple of other problems. Giliomee repeatedly assumes a great deal of background knowledge of the history and devotes only a couple of paragraphs to several important events. Additionally, I thought the book focused excessively on elites and intellectual history; more social history and more in-depth descriptions of daily life would have been welcome.
Criticisms aside, however, The Afrikaners is magisterial and, while certainly not the final word, will likely remain influential for a generation.

Clay Shirky is one of the most insightful analysts of the internet and how it affects society. His book, Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, is an extension of his previous arguments that the internet drastically lowers transaction costs thus greatly easing group-formation and collective action, which in turn erodes the “institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination” (p. 143). Prominent themes include the mass amateurization of publishing (and how this causes big problems for traditional publishers because the one-to-many pattern – broadcasting – is being replaced by a many-to-many pattern), the end of professional filtering (“publish, then filter”, “failure for free”), and how the web eliminates the technological barriers to participation, which means it’s no longer the case that small things get done for 'love’ (non-financial motivations) and big things for money. It’s now possible to do big things for love – like writing the largest, best and most comprehensive encyclopedia in history. Also important is that the distribution of attention, participation and contribution on the web follows a power-law distribution and not the familiar normal distribution (see Shirky’s original essay on this).
I very highly recommend the book; indeed, I’d say it should be required reading.
See also: his TEDTalk.

Think by Simon Blackburn is by far the best single-volume introduction to philosophy, or, as Blackburn puts it, ‘conceptual engineering’. Covering all the major topics in Western philosophy – free will and determinism, the existence of God, morality, rationality and reasoning, epistemology, the self, the existence of the external world and more – Blackburn gently and perspicaciously explains the important thinkers and their important thoughts. Suitable both for the uninitiated and for those with philosophical training (I’ve read it three times, and, despite four years of formal training, benefited each time), I cannot recommend it enough. Indeed, on Huxley’s principle that you should know something about everything and everything about something, I pretty much think everyone should read it. Atheists and skeptics, for one (um, two?), will come away with a significantly more sophisticated understanding of the fundamental philosophical issues.

The locus classicus of the modern skeptical movement is arguably Carl Sagan’s last book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I figured it’s about time I read it. Hopefully this isn’t too blasphemous, but I wasn’t as impressed with it as the wider skeptical community seem to be. For one thing, Sagan patches together a lot of recycled material from essays and speeches and the result is a book that occasionally doesn’t quite flow or fit together coherently. (Books of essays that pretend to be monographs are a pet peeve of mine). Don’t get me wrong: the writing is fantastic but, while the individual paragraphs are all good, they often don’t fit together.
I don’t want to overdo my criticism though; The Demon-Haunted World is certainly a fantastic book and one very much worth reading. I particularly liked Sagan’s explanations of the scientific method (and ‘baloney detection’), and he covers the European witch craze brilliantly. Also impressive is his trademark mixture of critical analysis and wonder: the universe, contends Sagan, is beautifully intricate and deserving of awe. Also significant is his explanation of how science combines radical open-mindedness with ruthless criticism of ideas. (See also this video that I linked to previously).
One final comment: contrary to a blurb on the book that Sagan is “unfailingly respectful of religion”, I was quite surprised to see how critical he is of it. He doesn’t seem to belong to the school (Novella et. al.) that strictly adheres to the principle that advocating scientific skepticism and atheism should be kept separate. I say right on.
See also: an interview of Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan on Point of Inquiry that also includes a speech of Sagan’s to a skeptical meeting. He’s extremely eloquent, so you’ll enjoy it methinks.

The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson is a hilarious but rather frightening account of "what happens when a small group of men - highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services - begin believing in very strange things." The title comes from a program at Fort Bragg where, for a time, members of Special Forces tried to stare goats to death. Equally remarkable and crazy is the CIA’s experimental clairvoyance program (it turns out thinking really hard about where Soviets subs are doesn’t work), a general who tried to walk through walls and the use of the song “I love you” from Barney the Dinosaur as a torture device. Unsurprisingly, the military is not immune to human folly: there are those who believe fervently in woo and the paranormal. That these people wield tremendous coercive power just makes it all the more frightening.
The style is informal and journalistic, the content gripping and the book a pleasure to read. While there are no hard-core intellectual analyses, Ronson knows it’s all bollocks – he lets the silliness speaks for itself. Overall, a fun book on a serious topic that will keep you interested throughout.
Oh. And the book is being turned into a major film, starring George Cloney, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor. The trailer is here.

My reaction to Amir Aczel’s Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science was... meh: it’s intellectual bubblegum lacking real substance. The topic is Leon Foucault’s 19th century demonstration of the rotation of the Earth (the first time this was directly observed). While there is plenty of interest, I thought 239 pages were excessive; Aczel could have covered all the major points in ~120, and consequently there is a lot of filler material. Aczel, I think, also exaggerates the importance of Foucault’s demonstration. It’s not plausible that the lack of a direct observation of the Earth’s rotation was the crisis he makes it out to be since a rotating Earth is the only scientific fact that could possibly explain the day/night cycle in a heliocentric solar system.
It’s not all bad, of course. The book explains the pendulum experiments very well (there is also a technical appendix to supplement the more popular account in the text), and I found Aczel’s sketch of early 19th century French intellectual life particularly interesting.
Overall, though, I’d advise steering clear.

Given my numerous criticisms of Michael Shermer on this blog, you might think that I’m a sucker for punishment for reading his Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitions and other confusions of our time. But the book is another classic of modern skepticism, so read it I did. Overall I thought it was pretty good. I really enjoyed Shermer’s analysis of Holocaust denial and especially the fascinating cult around Ann Rand (he calls it “The Unlikeliest Cult” given that individuality and reason is at the heart of Objectivism). Shemer’s list and explanation of the ways thinking can go wrong is standard fare, but decent, and his chapters on the psychology of the belief in paranormal phenomena (particularly among smart people) is insightful.
That said, I couldn’t escape the impression that the book was almost there, but not quite... Just as I started to enjoy it, Shermer would make a factual or logical mistake, or advance an unconvincing argument. This I found rather frustrating: the subject matter is inherently interesting (and Shermer knows his stuff), but, frankly, I ultimately think he’s just not a top drawer scholar.
Read it, I think, but read it critically.


The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is fun post-Cyber Punk mind candy. Unusually for science fiction, it’s a bildungsroman; the central plot device being a unique computerized book that educates an indigent young girl. Interesting on the consequences of nanobots and matter compilers (c.f. this Economist piece on 3d printers that I linked to previously).

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (i.e. the His Dark Materials trilogy) by Phillip Pullman are billed as children’s books, but the themes and vocabulary seem geared to adults to me. Anyway, it’s high-class fantasy that’s well written, exciting, and highly imaginative. All the novels certainly held my attention throughout, and they’re a subtle but effective critique of religion and obscurantism. Recommended.

The best novel I’ve read in a long time is Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. (While Theroux – father of my favorite documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux – is best known for his travel writing, he’s also produced a ton of fiction). Allie Fox, a deluded technical genius, hyper-individualist and Rousseauian romantic, decides to leave the United States and take his family to the jungles of Honduras to live a simpler and ‘genuine’ life. As the story progresses, Fox becomes progressively more deluded and erratic, leading his family from one disaster to the next.
The characters are brilliantly drawn, the prose is superb and Theroux manages to paint a sympathetic picture of a peculiar, darker, side of human nature. Read it.
Also: the book was made into a movie, starring Harrison Ford.

Set in 4034 AD when humanity has ‘made it to the stars’, Ian M. Banks’ The Algebraist is top-notch science fiction mind candy. I wouldn’t say it’s literature, but it’s a fun page-turner. I especially liked that for much of the book Banks doesn’t resort to faster than light travel (there are wormholes though), and sticks to plausible physics. Also pleasing was that the aliens weren’t implausibly anthropomorphic (contra, say, Star Trek). The space battles were cool while remaining realistic.


  1. Oh nice you read Neal Stephenson. Interesting writer. Have you read any of his other books. Snow Crash, Anathem, Cryptonomicon ?

  2. I liked Stephenson enough to want to read more.. So, no, not yet :-). I hear Snow Crash is especially good...