Auto Ads by Adsense

Booking.com

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: Democracy in Chains

 It is rare that a book takes me a full 3 weeks to read when checked out from the library. Democracy In Chains took me this long not because it was difficult material, but because it's so incredibly depressing. The book traces the rise of the right-winged anti-democratic forces in recent history. The intellectual history winds through from F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and of course, Charles Koch, who funds the radical revolution. If I thought Kochland was an indictment of Koch's activies, this book makes it quite clear that Koch's anti-climate change agenda is just the tip of the iceberg. His goal was (and continues to be --- even beyond the grave) the destruction of Democracy in America, returning it to the state it was in the 1900s, after which it took 3 entire decades before a FDR was elected to fix it. And this time, by stacking the judiciary (the end-game of which played out recently), even another FDR might not be able to fix it.

Here in this book, you'll find out why the radical right (for instance Peter Thiel) frequently thought that giving non-whites and women the right to vote was bad for democracy. Well, he used the word Democracy, but he meant bad for the overlords of capitalism, of whom he is one.

A prime example was Buchanan's protege's work on Chile:

 it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan’s ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate.5 Whereas the U.S. Constitution famously enshrined “checks and balances” to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with “locks and bolts.”.. Under the new labor code Piñera promulgated in 1979, for example, industry-wide labor unions were banned. Instead, plant-level unions could compete, making one another weaker while their attention was thus diverted from the federal government (“depoliticizing” economic matters, in Buchanan terms). Individual wage earners were granted “freedom of choice” to make their own deals with employers. It would be more accurate to say that they were forced to act solely as individuals. “One simply cannot finish the job,” Piñera later explained to would-be emulators, if workers maintain the capacity to exercise real collective power ...Piñera designed another core prop of the new order: privatization of the social security system. This freed companies of the obligation to make any contributions to their employees’ retirement and also greatly limited the government’s role in safeguarding citizens’ well-being. Ending the principle of social insurance, much as Barry Goldwater had advocated in 1964, the market-based system instead steered workers toward individual accounts with private investment firms. As one scholar notes, it “was essentially self-insurance.” Fortunately for the plan, the regime had full control of television. At a time when three of every four households had televisions, Piñera made weekly appearances over six months to sell the new system, playing to fear of old-age insecurity owing to “this sinkhole of a bureaucracy,” the nation’s social security system. “Wouldn’t you rather,” he queried viewers, holding up “a handsome, simulated leather passbook,” see your individual savings recorded every month in such a book “that you can open at night and say, ‘As of today I have invested $50,000 toward my golden years?’”...In short order, two private corporations—BHC Group and Cruzat-Larrain, both with strong ties to the regime—acquired two-thirds of the invested retirement funds, the equivalent, within ten years, of one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. (José Piñera, for his part, went on to work for Cruzat and then promoted U.S. Social Security privatization for Charles Koch’s Cato Institute.)9 Other “modernizations” included the privatization of health care, the opening of agriculture to world market forces, the transformation of the judiciary, new limits on the regulatory ability of the central government, and the signature of both the Chicago and Virginia schools of thought: K–12 school vouchers. (kindle loc 3299, 3311, 3316, 3325)

 If you've been paying attention over the last 30 years, this of course, has been the Republican/Libertarian goal for the US all along --- to turn us into Chile, which despite ousting Pinochet still has a constitution that's anti-democratic in nature. This book, more than any other I've read, explains why the USA has had a uniquely weak social security net:

two of the country’s most distinguished comparative political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process. Calling these inbuilt “majority constraining” obstacles “veto players,” the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players. All four were specified in the slavery-defending founders’ Constitution: absolute veto power for the Senate, for the House, and for the president (if not outvoted by a two-thirds majority), and a Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of three-quarters of the states. Other features of the U.S. system further obstruct majority rule, including a winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two-party system; the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of “one person, one vote” to a degree not seen anywhere else. Owing to such mechanisms, Stepan and Linz note, even in the late 1960s, “the heyday of income equality in the United States, no other country in the set [of long-standing democracies] was as unequal as America, and most were substantially more equal.” As arresting, even the most equal U.S. state is less equal than any comparable country. What makes the U.S. system “exceptional,” sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority. (Kindle loc 4606)

 MacLean points out that even the white supremacists who think they're "owning the libs" will turn out to have been played for suckers (which is accurate, but still might not change the election):

The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy. (Kindle loc 4760)

This is probably the most important book I've read all year. It's depressing, but if it galvanizes you into action this November, it's essential reading. Highly recommended. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: The Night Tiger

 Someone on Facebook recommended The Night Tiger as a novel over Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series. I picked it up and read it over 3 days, as it is compellingly readable despite the flaws.

Set in Ipoh, Malaysia during the 1930s, the story is oriented around a series of killings, either by the fabled were-tiger, or a serial killer. Told from the perspective of Ren (a 10 year old servant boy) or Ji Lin (a young woman denied her educational rights by the patriarch of the family, as is common to women of that time or even later --- my mom was also denied the right to go to university by her father), the story provides much context for the action, including the culture of Malaysia, the food, the delectable tropical fruits (though the Durian King of Fruits is left out!), the weather, and the living conditions of both the locals and the expatriates.

The book illustrates how important having a readable style is: despite the many flaws of the book, I was still compelled to finish. The book fails on several levels. First of all, it's an unfair mystery story: there's no way for the reader to have figured out who the killers are, as plot on top of plot is layered with a key clue deliberately held back or missing before the reveal. Secondly, it also fails as the author clearly moved certain characters based on the needs of the plot like playing pieces, having them act completely out of character to who they are. For instance, one particular character having been exposited to be truly faithful to his orders and place, somehow uses a potion that he was directed to give to someone else on another person, poisoning the wrong target. Sorry, I can't buy that. Similarly, a character who's continuously volunteering at a hospital, etc. is revealed to be a villain. Again, even if she's playing the long game, the motivation seemed empty. And finally, one of the characters despite repeatedly surviving near-death experiences, throws away an opportunity to consummate the love she feels for another. Having character after character violate their nature for the sake of plot and theme did violence to my suspension of disbelief.

I can see why someone would recommend this novel over Crazy Rich Asians. But I can also see why Crazy Rich Asians has popular appeal over something like this novel (which has also sold well, despite its flaws). Mildly recommended.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars

 The Calculating Stars won the 2018 Nebula Award for best novel.  It postulates a world in which a meteorite strikes the Atlantic Ocean in the 1950s, wiping out the entire Eastern Seaboard and creating a water vapor environment that would, after the initial cold, create a runaway greenhouse effect, forcing the planet's inhabitants to put in a crash program to colonize space.

The protagonist is Elma York, a computer with the world's equivalent of NASA (renamed NACA in the book for no apparent reason). She's brilliant, and also was a pilot during World War 2, which of course in a just world would qualify her to be a pilot. The story mostly focuses on her journey to overcoming the institutions between her and being an astronaut, while depicting the job of a computer who manages to become a TV celebrity at the same time.

The book does a good job of depicting the lives and prejudices in the 1950s, and of course, providing good characters and great antagonists (York's major antagonist stays very human, and is not a cardboard villain). The book is weakest at the science: it never explains why the water vapor wouldn't just precipitate out of the atmosphere during the cold period, which would just stop the green house effect completely.

I enjoyed the book and the obvious detail it presents, even if the scientific premise is kinda broken. The characters are reasonably rendered and not annoying to read about.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: Mother Knows Best?

 Mother Knows Best is a kindle freebie. It's a book about all the old wives tales (and occasional sailor's stories) that may or may not have some truth in fact. Each myth is labeled true or false and you get to read about why it's true or false. It's light reading and may teach you something (it taught me a few sailor's ditties I didn't know before, beyond "Red Sky at night..."). It's not nearly as good as How To, though, so keep your expectations tempered.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review: Hacking Darwin

 I checked out Hacking Darwin because the Amazon reviews were good. I'm lucky I didn't spend money on it and just checked it out from the library. The book is shallow technically, and reads like an Engadget article about the glories of genetic engineering of embryos and future ability to select for traits. There's no caveats, just an assurance that this is coming and we should have an ethical debate about what should be allowed and what's not.

I think that's unlikely --- in general, humans are no good at predicting the future, and even when the future is predictable (e.g., the climate crisis), humans tend to avoid making decisions and put it off for as long as possible. And seriously? Given how competitive parents are about kids, there's no question that we will push the boundaries as far and as quickly as we can.

Interestingly enough, the best discussion of the ethical issues and parental competitive isn't in non-fiction books like these, but rather in science fiction. Read Nancy Kress's Beggars In Spain instead. That book was published 11 years ago, and explores these issues in a deeper fashion than Hacking Darwin's author could.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Review: The Invention of Surgery

I picked up The Invention of Surgery expecting a tightly focused book about surgery, but instead, what I got was a comprehensive history of medicine as it relates to surgery. This makes sense, as you can't really do surgery without anesthesia and antibiotics, and the invention of both of those pre-requisites are just as important as the developments since then.

I bought the book as an audio book (it was on-sale), but it would have been way better as a Kindle book. I loved the chapter on William Halsted, who was a pioneering surgeon who was addicted to cocaine. Since he was on a stimulant effectively all the time, the modern medical residency program was effectively designed around the awake/crash cycle of a drug addict! But the man also invented surgical gloves and several procedures, many of which were first performed on family members.

I do have some nits about the book: he continually acknowledges the deficiencies of the American medical systems: its expense, its inequities and in many cases, the lack of even a national registry for implants, which meant that doctors who wanted to know the efficacy of an implant had to find a way to access foreign databases. But he keeps touting the American medical system as being the best in the world. The book was written pre-COVID19, and I think during this pandemic at least, that illusion has long worn through.

Nevertheless, the book was a great listen, and well worth your time. Highly recommended.

Review: HexClad Non-stick Cookware

 If you've ever visited Costco, you might have seen the Hexclad demo. There's a guy with the non-stick pots and pans and woks, and he shows how you can cook with these even with metal spatulas and it won't scratch the non-stick. If you've bought into all the hype about how bad Teflon is for you, you'll be tempted to pick up a set of these, despite their incredibly expensive prices.

Well, I'm too cheap to buy these, but my wife isn't, and when they arrived, I tried them. I have to say that these are the worst "non-stick" pans I've ever used. They require seasoning, but the seasoning doesn't last. Eggs stick and no matter how much oil you use, they will stick to the bottom. Forget butter. Even bacon sticks to the bottom.

Compared to the TFAL non-stick pans at 1/10th the price, I'd recommend that you buy those, and replace them once a year for 10 years, than to buy these. If I was the one buying these, they'd be back at Costco already. But I'm guessing that someone in the family has Stockholm syndrome from having invested so much money in them, so I'm stuck with them for a while (though I'm going to wait for a sale and buy more TFAL for my personal use eventually --- that's how frustrating the Hexclads are).

Recommended for those susceptible to marketing. (There's one born every minute!)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Review: Tomboyland

Tomboyland is Melissa Faliveno's collection of essays. I picked it up because of Amazon's Kindle First Reads program. These essays cover a gamut of topics, from gender identity to growing up in Wisconsin, and her various relationships. The writing is excellent and perhaps uniquely American, with the wide open spaces of identity and mobility at the author's feet, moving from farm country to Wisconsin to New York and back again, the constant questioning of who she is, justifying her decision not to have children with great defensiveness.

There are a few nits. For instance, it is apparently that many of her close friends were met when she played roller derby. I would have hoped for an essay/story describing the sport, as it's not quite a mainstream sport and if she'd made so many close friends that way it was clearly a big part of her identity. But nope, we get oblique references but nothing about the joys of the sport and how it is played.

The final essay in the book is Driftless, which won a notable selection in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. It's lyrical and beautifully written, and ended the book on a great note. If the rest of the book was at that level it would have been uplifted into another category.

In any case, as a view of alternative lifestyles and gender explorations and identity, the book's short enough and worth your time.