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Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

science history - the immortal life of henrietta lacks - rebecca sklootAstronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed. I’m listing them here in alphabetical order by the fields’ names. Each is linked to my review. (If a link comes up short, just go to www.malwarwickonbooks.com and search for the title.)

Animal Husbandry: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Archaeology: The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston

Artificial Intelligence: Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next, by Luke Dormehl

Astronomy: Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey

Atmospheric ScienceCaesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, by Sam Kean

Big Data: Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier

Climate Change: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

Disability: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Ecology: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Economics: Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar

Epidemiology: Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Epidemiology: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

Gastroenterology: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach

General Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Hydrology: Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick

Innovation: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

Lexicography: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

Medical Research: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Medicine: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Meteorology: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson

Microbiology: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

Military Science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Nanotechnology: Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, by K. Eric Drexler

Neurology: Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain

Oncology: The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Personality Psychology: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

Physics: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

Psychiatry: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

Psychology: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis

Sexology: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

Space Travel: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

Statistics: Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Whelan

Statistics: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

My new book: a fresh look at dystopian novels

new bookAfter the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the US, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Brave New World returned to the bestseller lists. The reemergence of these classic dystopian novels prompted me to take a closer look at the genre. In the months that followed, I refreshed my memory of the three classics and other dystopian tales, re-read some, and read dozens of others for the first time. Along the way, I’ve reviewed a great many of those books. At some point about three to four months ago—I don’t remember exactly when—I decided to pull together all my thoughts about the field in a new book. Maybe 15,000 words, I thought. But, to nobody’s surprise except my own, the project grew into a 52,000-word manuscript. It’s available now on Amazon.

Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction

If you’re a science fiction fan, like to speculate about the future, enjoy reading novels that challenge your preconceptions—or if you’re simply concerned with the direction our society is taking—you’ll enjoy my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. Well, maybe not enjoy, but find it thought-provoking.

You can learn more about the new book here for the Kindle edition, or here for the paperback. CreateSpace set the paperback price at $9.73. The Kindle edition costs just $2.99. Click here for a free preview of the book.

About the new book

Dystopian fiction reflects the world as it is and imagines what the future might hold. In an age of eroding civil liberties, a widening gap between rich and poor, unending conflict abroad, the increasing impact of climate change, and the ever-present threat of pandemic and nuclear holocaust, dystopian novels are relevant as never before.

Hell on Earth analyzes 62 dystopian novels. I’ve categorized the books by the themes that are dominant in them: totalitarianism, climate change, nuclear war, overpopulation, genetic engineering, religious extremism, artificial intelligence, runaway consumerism, and pandemic. I’ve added my own thoughts about a global financial collapse and terrorism, and, just for fun, discussed five alternative histories in which Nazi Germany wins World War II. After all, life under the Nazis would certainly rate as a dystopian experience.

Each chapter includes a brief introduction to the topic, followed by a short discussion of each of two or more novels and a concluding section in which I’ve analyzed the prospects that the calamity described in those novels will actually come about. In the book’s final chapter, I’ve extended that discussion, speculating on the likelihood that one or more of these trends or technologies will lead to a future none of us would want to live in.

I’ve published Hell on Earth through CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, services of Amazon.com. Although nearly all my previous books were published by established publishing houses, I elected to self-publish in this way because I feared that the extra six to twelve months required to work with a publisher would drastically reduce the timeliness of the book.

A brief excerpt from the Introduction

Sometimes we read because we’re scared.

Novels such as 1984 and Brave New World that depict a grim future for Western civilization have been popular for decades. As the threat of nuclear annihilation became clear in the 1950s, the number of such titles multiplied, and their popularity quickly grew. The trend continued as other factors entered public consciousness: increasing awareness of the threat posed by global climate change, the emergence of deadly new communicable diseases, and the growing use of artificial intelligence to take on jobs held by humans—among other nightmarish trends. Now, if anything, the popularity of such novels is accelerating. Ever since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on November 8, 2016, millions of Americans have been fearful of what might lie ahead.

Should we fear that Mr. Trump is leading us down the road to a totalitarian future? The answer is obviously no. The difference between “alternative facts” and Newspeak is enormous.

But should we be scared? That’s a very different question. I’m firmly convinced the answer is yes. The many dystopian novels I’ve read have helped me understand that. Read on, and it may help you, too. 

You can read my review of one of the nonfiction books that figures in Hell on Earth here: Surveying the future of technology in the mid-21st century. Another is here: Will robots create a jobless future?

What Trump voters believe: a Berkeley sociologist goes to the source

Trump votersStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In her ninth book, UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild confronts her alarm “at the increasingly hostile split in our nation between two political camps.” Strangers in Their Own Land, a Finalist for the National Book Award, reflects five years of Hochschild’s field research in Louisiana. “[A]s a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right—that is, in the emotion that underlines politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their ‘deep story,’ a narrative as felt.”

Interviews with Tea Party advocates

Bypassing what she terms the “empathy wall” that gets in the way of understanding other people, Hochschild sought out members of the Tea Party at meetings of the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana, at campaign events for Republican candidates, and in private gatherings. Over the course of five years, she “accumulated 4,690 pages of transcripts based on interviews with a core of forty Tea Party advocates and twenty others from various walks of life,” returning to the region again and again. Several of her interviewees became friends.

Red states vs. blue states

Hochschild set out to understand “The Great Paradox” that underlies the right-left split, inspired by Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? “Across the country,” she writes, “red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birthweight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states.” Yet the politicians supported by voters in red states consistently vote against policies and programs that successfully address many of these issues in blue states. And they seek to slash the “very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states—in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent—” that comes from federal funds. And, she notes, “Virtually every Tea Party advocate I interviewed for this book has personally benefited from a major government program or has close family who have.” Nonetheless, Governor Bobby Jindal offered $1.6 billion in incentives to attract more industry while firing 30,000 state employees, cutting funds by 44 percent for the state’s 28 public colleges and universities, lowering corporate as well as individual taxes, and rejecting Medicaid funds available under the Affordable Care Act. “Only after public outcry did the governor restore some funds to public education—and cut public health and environmental protection instead.”

The keyhole issue: environmental pollution

To focus her research, Hochschild shaped her interviews around the “keyhole issue” of environmental pollution that looms so large in Southwestern Louisiana, a region that is home to some 300,000 people (approximately three-quarters of them white and most of the rest African-American). There, enormous factories supply oil, natural gas, plastics, and other industrial products to consumers throughout the nation—and produce prodigious quantities of toxic byproducts, much of which has leached into the soil or poisoned the water. There have been numerous reports of cancer from contaminated water and, even more commonly, among the workforce at the region’s factories who have worked for years without adequate protection. The region’s once-prosperous fishing industry has been virtually eliminated. And, over the years, gargantuan sinkholes have appeared, most recently a 37-acre sinkhole at Bayou Corne that swallowed whole trees and forced 350 local residents to evacuate. Yet Hochschild found only one of her interviewees was willing to talk freely about the issue of pollution, an environmental activist who, unaccountably, is also a Tea Party member and (probably) a Trump voter. “Everyone I talked to wanted a clean environment. But in Louisiana, the Great Paradox was staring me in the face—great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.”

The deep story of the Right

Hochschild’s research led her to a greater appreciation for her interviewees as people and to a better understanding of their worldview. Influenced by Fox News, industry, state government, church, and the regular media, “[p]eople on the right seemed to be strongly moved by three concerns—taxes, faith, and honor.” The “deep story” she crafted provides a window onto this mindset. She calls it “Waiting in Line.” The line leads up to the crest of a hill. On the other side is the American Dream. Though they’re patient and never complain, the “white, older, Christian, and predominantly male” people in the middle of the line notice that others are cutting into the line ahead of them: blacks benefiting from affirmative action, women who take “men’s jobs,” immigrants, refugees, “overpaid” public sector workers who are mostly women and minorities, “the brown pelican”—and President Obama! “But it’s people like you who have made this country great.” There’s a lot more to this deep story, but that’s the gist of it: “you are a stranger in your own land.” And Hochschild reports that practically all her interviewees claimed it fairly represented how they felt.

How Trump voters feel

“His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life,” Hochschild writes about a Trump rally. “Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated . . . As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land . . . Trump was the identity politics candidate for white men.”

Are Trump voters ignorant?

Woven throughout the story of Hochschild’s interviews is a running account of the damage done by Right-Wing policies. She does note that media on the Right—Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and others—have helped to sway public opinion against what others have called the “liberal consensus.” Yet when Hochschild uses the word “ignorance,” it’s almost always in the context of identifying Northern and liberal stereotypes of Southern whites. There’s no recognition in evidence that much of what Tea Party supporters believe is, indeed, based on ignorance: for example, denying the reality of climate change, believing that the economy got worse under Obama, insisting that a huge percentage of those who receive federal assistance are cheating, and in many cases holding fast to the “birther” fallacy. It’s no wonder we can’t all get along!

 

 

A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel

award-winning novelFeed, by M. T. Anderson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

M. T. Anderson’s award-winning novel, Feed, is one of the scariest books I’ve read in many years (and it was written for teenagers!). Yet the terror it evokes emerges only slowly, as Anderson reveals, chapter by chapter, additional details that demonstrate the hopelessness of the future society he envisions.

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” This opening sentence sets the supercilious tone, signals the idiomatic language Anderson employs throughout, and introduces Titus, the teenage narrator. It’s a brilliant lead.

Feed tells the tale of Titus and his friends, six teenagers who hang out and party together. Like a majority of their fellow citizens—those who can afford the cost—they access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. Theirs is a world of constant distractions. Fashions may change by the hour. (“Quendy and Loga went off to the bathroom because hairstyles had changed.”) A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows them to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment—and without pausing for reflection. (One presentation is “based on the true story of a clone fighting to save her own liver from the cruel and ruthless original who’s farming her for organs.”) This is a world you and I would not want to live in, yet there’s much, much more to make life little worth living.

Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreatheable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.

The Feed of the title is the experience generated by the implants in people’s brains. As Titus notes, “the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. . . [A]ll you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.” Those wants and hopes are manifested through personalized sales pitches that constantly bombard the teenagers’ consciousness. If they have any purpose in life, it is to consume indiscriminately in a constant search for novelty and acceptance by their friends.

To compound the misery, one’s feed can be hacked by a shadowy entity called the Coalition of Pity. Titus and his friends fall victim to such an attack. While they resume their lives unchanged after brief hospitalization, Titus’ new girlfriend, Violet, learns that her life is in danger as a result. She is unable to recover completely.

The language has degraded to the colloquial dialect that is spoken by Titus and his friends, but it’s not limited to the young: their parents speak the same way. There is no public education. Now, children attend SchoolTM, the corporations’ for-profit answer to public schools, which clearly doesn’t teach much at all. “Everyone is supersmart now,” Titus reports. “You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and sh*t.” When Violet asks Titus whether he can read, he responds, “A little. I kind of protested it in  SchoolTM. On the grounds that the silent ‘E’ is stupid.”

About the author

M. T. Anderson (Matthew Tobin Anderson) is an L.A.-based author of both science fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. Feed won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In 2006, Anderson won the National Book Award in that category for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume 1: The Pox Party. He has written 14 books to date.

 

March 28, 2017

Will robots run amok?

robotsThinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next, by Luke Dormehl

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Driverless cars, for sure. But pilotless airplanes? Machines that will replace doctors and corporate managers? And robots that can out-think the most brilliant human?

The popular term “robots“—first used in a Czech science fiction play staged in 1920—refers to machines that embody what scientists call artificial intelligence (AI). In an outstanding survey of the field, British science journalist Luke Dormehl delves deeply into the past, present, and future of humankind’s attempts to create machines capable of learning and decision-making on their own. His book, Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next, serves up the background readers need to understand why such luminaries as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned us that AI poses a grave threat to our future as a species—while others including Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in the field, predict a new Golden Age.

Hawking fears that the evolution of artificial intelligence will make the human race irrelevant. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

With a somewhat different take on the subject, Musk asserts that human and machine will inevitably merge, with devices such as brain implants to increase our intelligence. However, he is fearful of Artificial General Intelligence: AI that is “smarter than the smartest human on earth, which would present a “dangerous situation.”

Kurzweil famously speaks about the “singularity,” the time (which he puts at 2045) when robots will surpass the intellectual capacity of the most brilliant human being and usher in boundless new possibilities. Hardly fearful of the threat perceived by Hawking and Musk, Kurzweil believes the problem will be solvable. “If AI becomes an existential threat,” he wrote in TIME magazine, “it won’t be the first one. Humanity was introduced to existential risk when I was a child sitting under my desk during the civil defense drills of the 1950s. Since then we have encountered comparable specters, like the possibility of a bioterrorist creating a new virus for which humankind has no defense.” Not to mention climate change and the threat of an asteroid collision or an unstoppable pandemic. “Technology,” Kurzweil adds, “has always been a double edged sword, since fire kept us warm but also burned down our villages.”

Another, much different but equally reassuring view comes from New York University psychology professor Gary Marcus, who characterizes “deep learning,” which many enthusiasts regard as the route to Artificial General Intelligence, as “the hammer that’s making all problems look like a nail.” In a 2012 New Yorker article, he argued in reference to AI that “Just because you’ve built a better ladder doesn’t mean you’ve gotten to the moon.” Recently, at TEDx CERN, he asserted that perception is “a tiny slice of the pie. It’s an important slice of the pie, but there’s lots of other things that go into human intelligence, like our ability to attend to the right things at the same time, to reason about them to build models of what’s going on in order to anticipate what might happen next and so forth. And perception is just a piece of it. And deep learning is really just helping with that piece.”

Futuristic predictions notwithstanding, virtually all observers fear the near-term impact of AI, and that’s nothing new. In fact, beginning in the late 1940s, public concern mounted about the potential of automation to displace humans from their jobs. The topic was widely discussed in the 1950s and beyond; today’s preoccupation with robots in manufacturing, driverless cars, and computer algorithms that are putting lawyers out of work is merely the latest iteration of the problem. The trend has simply accelerated in recent decades. There’s no ignoring it now.

Dormehl traces the emergence of this trend through the work of individual scientists, many of whose names will be familiar to anyone with knowledge of the history of the computer industry—John von Neumann, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, and Marvin Minsky, among others. The story as the author tells it is highly engaging, tracing the development of AI from the 19th-century work of Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter) and Charles Babbage on the latter’s proposed Analytical Engine, which was to be the world’s first general-purpose computer. (It was never built.) Along the way, Dormehl explores the unsteady evolution of AI both in theory and in practice and describes many of the field’s current applications, some of them surprising: for example, robots displacing research scientists in discovering likely prospects for life-saving drugs, and IBM’s Watson, the Jeopardy! champion, turning chef. He turns a skeptical eye toward some of the more ambitious goals of the field, such as the use of computers to mimic the structure and functions of the human brain. This is an amazing story, and an important one.

In the final analysis, Dormehl writes that “speculating about where Artificial General Intelligence could potentially take us [as Hawking, Musk, and Kurzweil have done] is interesting, but ultimately the stuff of science fiction for now.” Clearly, it makes more sense to concern ourselves with how to provide meaningful employment to all the millions of people displaced by AI from their jobs in the years ahead.

American foreign policy in a “nonpolar” world

foreign policyA World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, by Richard A. Haass

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It would be difficult to identify anyone other than Henry Kissinger who represents the tradition of America’s bipartisan foreign policy more fully than Richard A. Haass. Haass is the longtime president of the Council on Foreign Relations, which comes as close as any institution to sitting at the center of gravity for the internationalist wing of the Eastern establishment. For decades before he began at the Council, he cycled in and out of senior policy planning and diplomatic posts in government and a series of positions in academia and other establishment thinktanks. If you want to get a handle on the conventional wisdom that emanates from that elite group of scholars and officials, read Haass’ latest book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

The three phases of international relations

Haass’s abbreviated survey of international relations in the modern world divides history into three phases. The first began with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century that ended Europe’s Thirty Years War and established the primacy of the sovereign state. That phase lasted through the end of World War II, which upended world affairs in profound ways. The second phase lasted from 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1989. This was a period of superpower supremacy, the absence of large-scale conflict, and unsurpassed economic growth. We now live in the third phase, a troubled “world in which centrifugal forces are gaining the upper hand.”

Haass argues that “the past twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War constitute a break with the past . . . [S]omething very different is afoot in the world.” He characterizes the current state of affairs as “disarray.” In his view, the word “captures both where we are and where we are heading.” This is not the multipolar world so many observers write about. It’s a nonpolar world. “Power is more distributed in more hands than at any time in history,” Haass notes. “The same holds for technology.” In Haass’ view, the multiple uncertainties and dangers of today’s world require that the United States be more assertive on the world stage. He “argues for the stationing of military forces in and around areas that either China or Russia might claim or move against, something that translates into maintaining increased U.S. ground and air forces in Europe and increased air and naval forces in the Asia-Pacific.” Other observers might see greater reliance of this sort on the U.S. military as a prescription for bankruptcy at home and dangerous conflict abroad.

A new approach to foreign policy

The essence of Haass’ thesis is that the concept of state sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia is no longer adequate in a nonpolar world. Today’s international landscape is no longer dominated either by the major powers or exclusively by nation states. Nonstate actors, including international and regional organizations, corporations, terrorist groups, some major cities, and numerous other entities all play roles in setting the direction of civilization today. Haass contends that “the post-World War II order—effectively World Order 1.0—provided only a degree of structure for the international system once the overlay and discipline of the Cold War order disappeared. Just as important, the world was not well positioned to deal with the diffusion of power that was to come.”

In this much more complex environment, U.S. foreign policy must be directed toward establishing a new concept in world affairs: “sovereign obligation.” Haass views this as the ideal operating principle in contemporary international affairs. Under sovereign obligation, every state would be expected not merely to tend to its domestic affairs but also to play a role in addressing the multiple global challenges that bedevil us today: nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism, restrictions on trade, threats to global health, the vulnerable state of international finance, and the abuse of cyberspace. (The author’s laundry list does not include drug trafficking.)

It’s difficult not to see this prescription as wishful thinking. Another failing in Haass’ analysis is his failure to distinguish between global threats that are existential and those that aren’t. Any dispassionate observer of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the growing potential for pandemics would surely agree that any of these three challenges could be fateful for civilization if not for the human race. The other challenges in Haass’ list, while serious, do not rise to the same level. Global trade could constrict, terrorism increase, the international financial system seize up, and cybercrime and cyberwarfare proliferate, but it’s highly unlikely that any of these events would end human civilization, much less lead the human race to extinction.

“What is to be done?”

Haass makes clear his belief that yesterday’s foreign policy is not adequate for “a world in which not all foes are always foes and not all friends are always friendly.” He advances a detailed set of recommendations, not just for U.S. foreign policy but for changes in domestic policy as well. His advice about foreign affairs is, as anyone might expect, highly nuanced. On domestic affairs, his approach is less so. It’s hard to distinguish from traditional moderate Republican policies. For example, he advocates both decisive action to reduce the nation’s debt and increasing the Pentagon’s budget. To enable all this, he favors raising the retirement age, reducing Medicare and Medicaid, and eliminating tax deductions for home mortgage payments and charitable deductions. Wishful thinking again, given any reasonable expectation for Congressional action.

A nonpartisan analysis?

At the outset of A World in Disarray, Haass claims that his analysis will favor neither Republicans nor Democrats. It doesn’t come across that way. It’s true that he is pointed in his criticism of the decision to invade Iraq and of the conduct of the war that followed. But his discussion of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is savage. Haass reserves his most hard-edged criticism for Obama’s decision to accelerate the drawdown of troops from Iraq, the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, the outspoken support for the Arab Spring, the intervention in Libya, and the decision not to attack Syria after Hafez el-Asaad crossed the “red line” by using chemical warfare on his citizens. This is not a nonpartisan analysis.

About the author

President of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003, Richard A. Haas has also served as a senior advisor to President George H. W. Bush and to his son, President George W. Bush, as well as in a number of other diplomatic and scholarly posts. A World in Disarray is his 12th book.

 

 

 

A superb dystopian novel

dystopian novelThe Parable of the Sower (Parable #1 of 2), by Octavia E. Butler

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

15-year-old Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a Baptist minister and the eldest of his five children. Both Reverend Olamina and his second wife, Lauren’s stepmother, are African-American, and both hold Ph.Ds. Lauren’s father reaches at a local college, her stepmother at the neighborhood elementary school.

American civilization in tatters

The year is 2024, and American civilization is in tatters. The drug epidemic, global warming, and the cost of endless foreign intervention have taken their toll. Government is breaking down. The police now demand “fees” for their services and frequently fail to provide them, anyway—or arrest the victim. A tiny number of immensely wealthy families live behind walls on estates patrolled by private armies. “There are at least two guns in every household.” Lauren’s family lives in a walled middle-class neighborhood in a town near Los Angeles. In California, “it only rains once every six or seven years.” Water is more expensive than gasoline, which few could afford anyway. The Olamina family is on the edge of survival, as are all their neighbors. The neighborhood is in constant danger of invasion by poor people desperate for food and water. Young men high on a new designer drug are driven to commit indiscriminate arson and murder. At 15, Lauren is fully aware of all this. Though most of her family and neighbors are in denial, she understands that things can only get worse.

A powerful heroine searching for God

Lauren keeps two big secrets. She is hyperempathetic, a condition that causes her to feel pain or joy as deeply as the people around her. And she is writing a journal called “Earthseed: The Books of the Living.” Earthseed is growing into a religion based on the belief that God is Change and that humanity’s destiny is to populate new worlds around distant stars. Her life revolves around these two secrets.

The story that unfolds in Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel, The Parable of the Sower, centers on Lauren’s quest to understand her God and to build a community around the Earthseed faith. “What is God?” she asks. “Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?” Like the Biblical Job, she experiences one disaster after another. As society disintegrates around her, Lauren grows more secure in her faith and proves to be a charismatic leader.

A successful dystopian novel

The Parable of the Sower is one of the most successful dystopian novels of the 20th century. (It’s the first of two novels in the Parable story.) Author Octavia Butler vividly paints a picture of the desperation that has taken hold of the American people. The novel was published in 1993, when 2024 must have seemed to represent the distant future. From the perspective of 2017, the conditions Butler describes seem unlikely to come about in less than a decade. Skip ahead 20 or 30 years, though, and that picture is more believable.

About the author

The late Octavia E. Butler twice won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. She was one of the best-known women authors in the field and among a handful of successful African-American science fiction writers. I’m familiar with the work of only two others: Samuel R. (Chip) Delany and Walter Mosley (although Mosley is best known for his crime fiction). She wrote 14 novels and two books of short stories. Her best-known works are the five books of the Xenogenesis series and the two Parable novels.

 

January 17, 2017

The true story of a lost city in Central America

true storyThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In 2015, an expedition led by an American filmmaker ventured deep into the Honduran rain forest in search of a fabled ancient city known variously as The White City and The Lost City of the Monkey God. The novelist and nonfiction writer Douglas Preston accompanied the expedition on assignment from the National Geographic. He adopted the lengthier name of the long-lost town as the title of his fascinating first-person account of the journey. The book reads like a thriller, but it is, as the subtitle insists, a true story.

Conventional wisdom has it that the only places unexplored by the human race are at the bottom of the oceans and in outer space. However, that’s simply not true. Deep in the jungles of Central America, the Amazon, and sub-Saharan Africa lie extensive stretches of territory that have never been entered by our contemporaries—and, in some cases, perhaps by any human being at all. Gradually in recent years, a combination of 21st-century technology, obsessive explorers, and the public’s insatiable hunger for adventure stories has uncovered “lost civilizations” in some of these places. Less than a decade ago, a nonfiction book by David Grann told the story of one such successful search in The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Now Douglas Preston relates the 20-year search of another obsessive man who explored the Central American rainforest.

Most of us think of the Maya in connection with that region. This pre-Columbian civilization is one of the most studied societies on the planet. Preston’s book introduces us to another early society in the region contemporaneous with the Maya. Hitherto only the subject of rumor and legend, the people of this society have yet to be assigned a name by archaeologists. Their cities were buried so deeply in the rainforest that no one had set foot in them for five centuries. However, the evidence uncovered by the expedition Preston chronicles in his book establish without doubt that these people existed—and that they were both numerous and accomplished. This is an exciting tale, well-researched and well written.

Roughly speaking, Preston’s book consists of three parts. In the first part, he relates the legend of The Lost City of the Monkey God. Archaeologists had long discounted the tale because most of those who claimed to have been to the city were charlatans. Very few legitimate scientists had ever attempted to find the place, and they all failed.

In the book’s second part, Preston tells the story of the 2015 expedition and its follow-up. What made the new expedition possible was a top-secret technology developed by the US Department of Defense—an advanced form of lidar, a ground-penetrating method similar to radar that permitted the explorers to see evidence of human habitation even under a seemingly impenetrable rainforest. Preston’s description of the technology and its application is engrossing.

Part three explores the probable cause of the sudden disappearance of the lost civilization around 1500: epidemic disease brought by Columbus and those who followed him. An earlier book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann, explains how European diseases devastated the people of the New World. Preston refers to later evidence cited by scientists that the advent of the Europeans reduced the population of both continents by some 90 percent.

Preston also explores the broader topic of tropical diseases and their inexorable march northward as a result of climate change. He pays special attention to a potentially fatal parasitic illness called leishmaniasis, which is endemic in the Third World. Every member of the 2015 expedition was exposed to leishmaniasis, and half of them contracted the disease, including Preston himself. Now leishmaniasis has made its way into the United States and is steadily moving to the north as the planet continues to warm.

About the author

Douglas Preston has written 30 novels, four of them in partnership with Lincoln Child, as well as nine nonfiction books other than The Lost City of the Monkey God. He has been writing full-time for 30 years. Preston is perhaps best known as the coauthor of The Monster of Florence, a nonfiction portrayal of the unsolved murders committed by an Italian serial killer. He is the brother of bestselling nonfiction author Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and other books.

 

A liberal icon finds fault with liberal politics

liberal politicsA review of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Blame for the widening gap between rich and poor and America is typically laid at the feet of the Republican Party, chiefly through the actions of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Without question, these two men, and their right-wing collaborators in Congress, bear a lot of responsibility for the dire circumstances under which millions of Americans now eke out a living. But Thomas Frank, an historian and widely read liberal commentator, forcefully argues that many of the policies at the heart of today’s economic dysfunction were shaped under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “It is time to face the obvious,” he writes, “that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure both for the nation and for their own partisan health.” He lays out the case in his eye-opening new book, Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

The conservative roots of today’s liberal politics

Economic inequality in America today is all around us. The income of all except those at the very top of the pyramid has been stagnant for decades. A single family (the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame) possesses more wealth than 42% of American families combined. And 91% of all the economic gains over the past decade have gone to the “one percent.” The causes are reasonably easy to see. In contrast to the period from 1945 to 1980, when the country’s prosperity was broadly based and the middle class was the envy of the world, changes in labor, law enforcement, tax, social welfare, and trade policies have shifted the balance of power to the uppermost ranks of bankers, corporate executives, and the heirs to large fortunes.

Though he points to the growing rejection of New Deal values and policies within the Democratic Party of the 1970s, Frank traces the ideological rationale for many of these changes to the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Founded in 1985, the DLC successfully moved the Democratic Party to the right, adopting traditionally Republican policies to broadcast its claim to the center of American politics. Among these were deregulation of finance and industry, “law and order,” deficit reduction, “entitlements reform,” lower taxes on the rich, and ending welfare — in other words, a shopping list of goals advanced by conservatives since the 1970s. Bill Clinton, who served as DLC Chair in the year before he announced his candidacy for President, took steps toward all these objectives during the eight years of his Administration. He enacted laws toward these ends in partnership with Congressional Republicans: witness, for example, his expansion of the War on Drugs, NAFTA, “welfare reform,” and the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the signature banking reform of the New Deal). Less well known were his secret negotiations in 1997 with Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security. As Frank points out, “the deal [with Gingrich] evaded Bill Clinton’s grasp, but only barely” — because the Monica Lewinsky affair blew up in his face.

What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

The groundswell of support for the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders this year dramatizes the conviction among many, especially young Americans, that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. While it’s true that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have staked out many positions that in other advanced countries might be considered conservative, the sad reality is that the Democratic Party is not alone in drifting to the right since the 1970s. Today’s Republican Party advances policies that might have embarrassed Ronald Reagan — positions that can no longer be legitimately described as conservative. What the news media refer to as the Tea Party wing that dominates the Republican Party today represents a perspective that ignores reality and defies rational thought. Regrettably, then, even the most “moderate,” middle-of-the-road Democrat is a paragon of logic, common sense, and compassion by comparison. Unfortunately, Frank merely pays lip service to this all-important distinction.

An indictment of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

In Listen, Liberal, Frank spells out the many ways in which Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have betrayed the Democratic commitment to progressive principles. The case against Clinton is solid, encompassing a litany of policies that still raise the hackles of activist Democrats, as enumerated above. His indictment of Obama, while difficult to contest on economic issues, is less convincing overall.

Frank acknowledges some of the progressive accomplishments of both men. “Clinton raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit,” he writes. “He secured a modest tax increase on the wealthy.” And under his presidency the country achieved nearly full employment. But in Frank’s view these modest accomplishments paled against Clinton’s signature achievements, such as NAFTA, welfare reform, and the repeal of Glass Steagall. In the final analysis, Frank contends, “Clinton made the problems of working people materially worse. . . To judge by what he actually accomplished, Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils, as people on the left always say about Democrats at election time; he was the greater of the two. What he did as president was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical Republican.”

Frank concedes the importance of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but in his single-minded focus on economic inequality he dwells at length on the many ways that Obama continued to champion the same Wall Street-friendly economic and trade policies as Clinton. However, he largely ignores what the Obama Administration has sought to achieve in other areas, notably immigration policy and climate change. Frank would have been on solider ground had he limited his indictment to Clinton, whom historians are certain to regard as a conservative President. It would be difficult to render the same judgment about Obama without considerable qualification.

The root of the problem, as Frank sees it

For decades following the Great Depression, the Democratic Party’s success at the polls rested on what political historians have called the New Deal coalition, which found its greatest strength in trade unions, racial minorities, and white Southerners. This assemblage of forces began to unravel quickly with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which drove many working class whites out of the Party, not just in the South but nationwide.

Beginning in the 1970s, Democratic intellectuals began to search for a new formulation that would reliably return a Democratic majority. Eventually, they found what they thought was the answer in the New Economy. Frank’s prose drips with sarcasm in describing this shaky concept: “Postindustrialism! Globalization! The information superhighway! These were gods before whom everyone bowed back then, deities who made their will known to the country’s opinion columnists and management theorists.” And the gods demanded that the Democratic Party turn its back on the unions, adopt free trade policies such as NAFTA, deregulate industry, lower taxes on the rich, and set its sights on Innovation and the so-called Creative Class.

Instead of poor people and the working class, the Democratic Party came to identify itself with “the upper 10 percent of the population — the country’s financiers, managers, and professionals.” Frank refers to this diverse group as a “professional class” defined by graduate degrees and specialized white-collar work. At the apex of this class sit the exalted products of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other elite universities — the sort of people who have dominated both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Supposedly, “[p]rofessionals are the people who know what ails us and who dispense valuable diagnoses.” In Frank’s view, they have proven to be the crux of the problem, not the solution.

About the author

Listen, Liberal is Thomas Frank‘s ninth book. He’s best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a bestseller a decade ago. Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine.

 

How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics

Koch BrothersDark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, get a lot of attention from political observers and, increasingly, from the public. No wonder. The fortune they possess together is greater than those of Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet, and other private individuals who are often characterized as the richest people in the world. But it’s not the brothers’ wealth that attracts the attention. It’s their heavy-handed attempt to dominate American politics. That’s the subject of Jane Mayer’s explosive new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

As Warren Buffet has said, “There’s class warfare all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” The brothers are at the very center of the war machine.

The Koch brothers are not alone

Though the Koch brothers provide a convenient (and worthy) target, it’s important to understand that they alone are not responsible for the wrenching changes that have taken place in American politics over the past several decades, and particularly since 2009. As Mayer reveals, the brothers — Charles, especially — preside over a network of billionaires and centimillionaires who operate in tandem in support of the most virulent, Right-Wing causes and candidates in the country’s politics. A total of some 300 individuals constitute the network. As many as two hundred have attended recent annual gatherings hosted by the brothers.

The brothers didn’t invent the tactics that have been used to upend the political order. Mayer credits the late Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh-based scion of the Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil fortune. In 1964, Scaife set out to change the terms of political debate by investing heavily in think tanks and academic centers to espouse a radical “free-market” ideology and imprint it on a new generation of scholars, lawyers, and activists. Scaife’s various family foundations were soon followed by the Bradley, Olin, and Coors Foundations in advancing the Right-Wing agenda.

In addition to Scaife and the Koch Brothers, the “vast Right-Wing conspiracy” they set in motion includes the aging casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, an obsessively pro-Israel donor who has outpaced everyone else in the country in political spending in recent elections, and the De Vos family of Michigan, owners of Amway, as well as other members of the 0.01%, a majority of whose fortunes were built on oil, gas, coal, and finance. Also prominent within this network are ultra-weathy individuals and families who have used similar tactics to bring about dramatic shifts in the politics of individual states — Wisconsin and North Carolina, for example.

What do they want?

The plutocrats in the Kochs’ network profess similar political beliefs which they characterize as “conservatism” to promote “freedom” and the “free market” in America. However, it’s highly misleading to refer to this ideology as conservative. Instead, it’s radical and reactionary, having nothing to do with conserving anything whatsoever of the past. On the contrary, it’s clear from Mayer’s account that the common intellectual thread that runs throughout this group of supremely privileged individuals is a determination to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century, repealing every political reform instituted under Teddy Roosevelt and all his successors. Child labor laws? Check. Anti-trust legislation? Check. The progressive income tax? Check. Social Security? Check. The minimum wage? You get the point. What these people want is clearly nothing less than the “freedom” to pollute, exploit their employees, avoid taxes, dictate the terms of political debate, and pass their vast wealth on to their children and grandchildren in dynastic fashion.

Who are these people, really?

Though they tend to style themselves as “self-made,” many of them — including the Kochs — inherited considerable fortunes. They live in multimillion-dollar homes (usually, several of them), preside over huge businesses, and donate millions of dollars to “charity” (usually, arts institutions and universities that will place their names on buildings). However, a disturbing number of them are, not to put too fine an edge on things, criminals. As Mayer puts it in her understated way, it is “striking how many members of the Koch network had serious past or ongoing legal problems.” For example, “between 1980 and 2005, under Charles Koch’s leadership, his company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance.” The Koch brothers’ and the De Vos family businesses have paid tens of millions of dollars in fines for violation of environmental laws, worker health and safety regulations, and tax laws, causing far more harm to society than even the worst violent offender. In a just society, many of these people would have gone to prison long ago.

A multipronged strategy

Mayer describes the Kochs’ and their allies’ strategy as multipronged. At the outset, their efforts went largely into intellectual enterprises, chiefly think tanks and universities. The purpose of these “investments” was to nurture a new generation of “free-market conservatives” who would (and did) change the dynamics of public discourse. A second prong of the strategy was to press state and federal legislators and the courts to shift economic policy to their (self-interested) way of thinking. At the same time, they consciously set out to foster the grassroots efforts that eventually produced the Tea Party, by creating phony populist organizations (“Astroturf”), providing funding and political expertise, and subsidizing sympathetic media. For example, they paid Glenn Beck $1 million to hype the Tea Party on his show. To round out the picture, they mounted a lavishly funded effort to seize control of the Republican Party and gerrymander Congressional district lines in states across the country to guarantee a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Have no doubt about the success of this strategy: witness the fear-mongering and Right-Wing platitudes consistently mouthed by the Republican candidates contending for the presidency in 2016.

All this is possible now after the 2010 Citizens United decision and its sequels in the courts, which freed what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” to dominate federal elections to a greater extent than was feasible even under the Robber Barons in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Reportedly, a single session at a gathering hosted last year by the Koch Brothers generated pledges for this year’s election campaigns totaling $889 million, an amount far greater than either the Republican or Democratic parties raised for the last presidential campaign. In all likelihood, this sum will prove to be only a portion of the funds they contribute collectively when the final figures are toted up. After all, they can afford it: together, the men (and a few women) in this network are “worth” considerably more than $100 billion dollars.

Where does all the money go?

You might think it’s not easy to spend so much money, and you’d be right. To bring these massive funds to bear in the political area, the members of the Koch network have created literally hundreds of organizations — think tanks, academic institutes, SuperPACs, “public welfare” organizations, “charities,” and businesses to put their money to work. Some of these entities evidence no more signs of activity than a post office box. Others, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Kochs’ most identifiable political venture, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), are well known and substantial. For example, AFP employed 550 people in the 2012 election cycle. Most of the organizations created by the members of the network exist merely to launder money from wealthy donors, funneling it through a series of obscurely named entities to avoid the few remaining campaign finance disclosure requirements.

To operate this exceedingly complex array of organizations, both bogus and genuine, requires a huge number of political operatives, lobbyists, pollsters, and others. Though none of these people are likely to approach their benefactors in personal wealth, many of them are reaping millions of dollars for their efforts.

Surprise!

The most dramatic revelation in Mayer’s book is her account of the way the Koch brothers’ father built the fortune that was the foundation of their enormous wealth. Like his sons Charles and David after him, Fred Koch was an MIT-trained engineer. He developed advanced techniques to refine crude oil. Forced by the major players in the oil industry to operate outside the country, he built a thriving business overseas building oil refineries. Among the longest-standing and most lucrative business partnerships he undertook were with Stalin and Hitler’s governments. A scholar who studied Koch’s work for Nazi Germany concluded that “the American venture became ‘a key component of the Nazi war machine.’ Historians expert in German industrial history concur.”

Some readers may also find surprises in Mayer’s accounts of the central role of the Koch Brothers and their allies in launching and funding the Tea Party and the protracted (and successful) effort to undermine the public consensus about the serious threat that climate change poses to human life in the near future. Mayer reports that “from 2005 to 2008, a single source, the Kochs, poured almost $25 million into dozens of different organizations fighting climate reform . . . Charles and David had outspent what was then the world’s largest public oil company, ExxonMobil, by a factor of three.”

About the author

Jane Mayer is an investigative journalist who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for twenty years. She is a former war correspondent. She has won many of the top awards the journalistic profession has to offer. Dark Money is her fourth book.

 

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