More books (and TV shows and movies)

Like I said, I’m catching up a little here. Some notes on other stuff I’ve read recently …


Imagine someone offered you the chance to leave civilization for a year, and live entirely cut off with a small group of people. Would you do it? And would it be a more or less attractive proposition if you knew that every moment would be recorded for potential broadcast?

Now, thanks to this amazing incident, it seems a group of reality TV contestants spent a year cut off, returning to connection with society to learn that no-one was watching, and that Trump/Brexit/a few other things have happened.

In other news, octopus minds are fascinating, money continues to have an influence on politics (seriously though, this Mercer character is intriguing), and one writer argues that progressives should stop being so empathetic.

Meet the donors

Meet the donors is an HBO documentary on political donors. It’s an interesting topic, and worth exploring. There’s obviously some sampling bias – some donors refuse to be interviewed. Having said that, it’s surprising how many seem willing to stand in front of a camera without having a very well prepared set of talking points.

I didn’t get a chance to watch the whole thing, and in the segments I saw it didn’t feel as though there was something deeply insightful; there are broader questions about politics, and donations that I think this doco can’t get to. As one donor says, the data source the film maker is using relies on a particular set of figures, which may not capture some of the bigger flows. Still, interesting.

North and South

It’s been a while since I finished North and South. I remember it being a curious mixture of politics, technology, class, and romance. Some of that political / class discussion feels fluffy to me, but perhaps it felt very different at the time, when the ideas being debated were still new and fresh.

With the healthy shame of a child, she blamed herself for her keenness of sight, in perceiving that all was not as it should be there …

The question always is, has everything been done to make the sufferings of these exceptions as small as possible? Or in the triumph of the crowded procession, have the helpless been trampled on, instead of being gently lifted aside out of the roadway of the conqueror, whom they have no power to accompany on his march? …

‘… I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own …’

‘… We help to make their profits, and we ought to help spend ’em …’

… some day soon, she should cry aloud for her mother, and no answer would come out of the blank, dumb darkness …

‘… By-and-by they’ll found out, tyrants make liars.’

‘… it became impossible to utter the speech, so easy of arrangement with no one to address it to …’

He was no mockingbird of praise, to try because another extolled what he reverenced and passionately loved, to outdo him in laudation.

‘Nothing like the act of eating for equalising men. Dying is nothing to it. The philosopher dies sententiously – the pharisee ostentatiously – the simple-hearted humbly – the poor idiot blindly, as the sparrow falls to the ground; the philosopher and idiot, publican and pharisee, all eat after the same fashion – given an equally good digestion …’

She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavour was required she was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfulness of anything beyond the life which was lapping her round with luxury. There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master and mistress needed them.

‘… I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organise and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact.’

Hope beyond cure by David McDonald

I won’t say too much on this one here. There are some things I disagree with the author on. But this is worth a read – a story of how someone deals with a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness by R Thaler and C Sunstein

Thinking, Fast and Slow was a brilliant read, a well thought through exposition of a fascinating set of psychological theories. Nudge, I didn’t like as much. In particular, there was something about the authors’ tone that … irked me a little, I think. I think it was at points they seemed apologetic when they argued the evidence for intervention in a particular marketplace. Perhaps that reflects part of the context they’re writing in. I tend to think that if the factual evidence points in a particular direction, then you should follow the evidence; they seem to prefer to tip-toe in a particular direction, without clearly stating where their evidence is leading them.

That was particularly the case in relation to their chapter on marriage equality. It felt … slightly bizarrely located, in that it was discussing not a nudge, but a major restructure of society – but one they wanted to pretend should be discussed on technical grounds as a minor change, rather than on its merits as a major step forward.

This is worth a read given its place in the literature on psychology; but it’s not the best piece out there. Go to Kahneman for that.

The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better than the choices that would be made by someone else. We claim that this assumption is false – indeed, obviously false …

Our goal in this chapter has been to offer a brief glimpse at human fallability. The picture that emerges is one of busy people trying to cope in a complex world in which they cannot afford to think deeply about every choice they have to make. People adopt sensible rules of thumb that sometimes lead them astray …

… many of life’s choices are like practising putting without being able to see where the balls end up, and for one simple reason: the situation is not structured to provide good feedback. For example, we usually get feedback only on the options we select, not the ones we reject … Long term processes rarely provide good feedback …

When markets get more complicated, unsophisticated and uneducated shoppers will be especially disadvantaged by complexity. The unsophisticated shoppers are also more likely to be given bad or self-interested advice by people serving in roles that appear to be helpful and purely advisory … The poor are often fleeced by people pretending to be providing a service …

The more choices you give people, the more help with decision making you need to provide …

When Cobb and Co was king by Will Lawson

I haven’t finished reading Cobb and Co yet, but I’ve made some decent progress. It’s not much by way of narrative structure – it’s essentially a country boy conquering all hearts and challenges before him – but it’s an interesting insight into a very different era, when competition on the roads was ruthless. Worth it if you enjoy a history of Australia’s nineteenth century stage coaches.

Understanding Marxism, by Geoff Boucher

Understanding Marxism felt frustrating at points. It talked about interesting topics – how economics, politics and class structures interact. But at times it retreated into the dense thicket of academic language that seems designed more to obscure than to illuminate. And at times it focussed too much on particular semantic constructions that, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been tested with any kind of data or analysis; they were just diagrams drawn up by academics who couldn’t be bothered expressing themselves clearly.

There are interesting quotes, and rough outlines for someone who doesn’t know anything about a school of thought that was quite important in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I found myself swiping to get to the end of the book, eyes glazed over. This isn’t one I’d recommend.

As Boucher writes at one point, ‘Frankly, that explanation is as clear as mud’. So, unfortunately, are large chunks of the book.

According to Marx, alienation has four aspects:

  1. from the product of labour …
  2. from the natural world …
  3. from the other person (human beings’ mutual relations are mediated by commodities); and
  4. from themselves (the worker’s animal functions become the refuge of their humanity …

The implication is that for part of the day the labourer reproduces their labour power. For the rest of the day, they perform labour for the capitalist …

The major philosophical point is that class struggle and the exploitation of labour are therefore the same thing as the accumulation of capital and expansion of value …

Marx regards the modern nation state as an instrument of the capitalist class for the legal enforcement of the endogenous “laws of motion” of capital accumulation, and for the armed defence of the institution of private property in the means of production.

… it is possession of a state apparatus that converts an economically dominant class into a ruling class properly speaking …

The general claim is that although the state might sometimes be directly manipulated by the ruling class, fundamentally its class character is determined by the dominant property relations …

The most important way in which sets of ideas function to justify class rule is not through directly legitimating domination, but rather through rendering it invisible, by naturalizing exploitation and representing alternatives as impossible or unthinkable …

Historical materialism is therefore an explanatory system that seeks to clarify how societies respond to the adaptive behaviour of human beings … [replacing with superior means of production]




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