Recent book reviews – March 2011


Title: A Long Way Gone – Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Author: Ishmael Beah
Source: gift (thanks Nicki!)
Interest: 4 stars

This autobiographical novel traces Beah’s transition from a normal, 13-year-old boy in Sierra Leone, to a brutal, heartless warrior. He commits cruel, unthinkable acts against civilians, brainwashed by the war and those leading it. Removed from the fighting by UNICEF at age sixteen, Beah struggles to return to normalcy, somehow emerging as a powerful writer and an honest, introspective person. More than possibly anything else I’ve read, this book shows how good people can be lured into violence by circumstance. “Evil” is learned. In a world with Beah, an individual is not essentially good or essentially bad. We are subject to pressure and influence and can go further in either direction than we might believe ourselves capable.


Title: The Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values
Author: Sam Harris
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This is a refreshing perspective on the roots and purpose of morality through a scientific and athiest lens. Harris makes the case that morality is an evolved, logical aspect of the human species, and that there are universal moral concepts that apply across cultures. I have long doubted that I am “multi-cultural” at heart. I have never been convinced by the “cultural tradition” defense of practices like female circumcision, forced wearing of the burqa, or carte-blanche rejection of vaccines. Can these practices truly lead to greater human happiness? The Moral Landscape says “no”, and provides an empowering approach to thinking about, and improving, our morality.

Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it.

Despite our attachment to notions of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity–and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. It seems to me that few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems.

Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from recent events, it wouldn’t appear so. Perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where we stand on the most important questions in human life.


Title: The Science of Good and Evil – Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule.
Author: Michael Shermer
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

The Science of Good and Evil makes a convincing case that morality is an evolved human trait, part of human nature and our species. The book covers much of the same ground as The Moral Landscape but was an enjoyable companion read on the topic.

The tendency to use the term (“evil”) at all comes from our Western Platonic tendency to think in terms of essences, or nonchanging “things” or “types” that are what they are by their very nature. … But in fact, they do change, however slowly, and their essences are only temporary. Analogously, evil is not a fixed entity or essence. It is not a thing. Evil is a descriptive term for a range of environmental events and human behaviors that we describe and interpret as bad, wrong, awful… To call something “evil” does not lead us to a deeper understanding of the cause of evil behavior.

… the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it…

Humans can be morally principled in one circumstance, hedonistic in another, fear punishment in one context, exert our loyalty to friends in a different context. … Carol Tavris concludes that “the assumption that a moral failing in one domain reveals something profoundly important about a person’s entire character, or predicts his or her behavior in other situations, is wrong.”

It cannot be overemphasized that provisional ethics is not relative or situational ethics, nor is it an attempt to eschew moral responsibility or escape moral freedom. … Moral principles, derived from the moral sense, are not absolute, where they apply to all people in all cultures under all circumstances all of the time. Neither are moral principles relative, entirely determined by circumstance, culture, and history. Moral principles are provisionally true — they apply to most people in most cultures in most circumstances most of the time.

If we cannot reliably turn to the Bible and other sacred texts to determine moral right and wrong, to whom shall we turn? … One answer can be found in the first moral principle, the Golden Rule. … The Golden Rule is a derivative of the basic principle of exchange reciprocity and reciprocal altruism, and thus evolved in our Paleolithic ancestors as one of the primary moral sentiments.

The happiness principle states that it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness.


Title: The Master Switch
Author: Tim Wu
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

Reading The Master Switch was like meeting the other outsider at the party, and ditching the event together. Wu eloquently outlines the dangers that major corporations and public indifference pose for the internet. He puts the rise of the internet in historical perspective, outlining “the Cycle”; the birth, growth, and fall of the radio, television, and movie industries. He asks, “Is the Internet really different? Every other invention of its kind has had its period of openness, only to become the basis of yet another information empire. Which is mightier: the radicalism of the Internet or the inevitability of the Cycle?” His warnings resonate with my distaste of proprietary smart phones and of the walled gardens of Facebook and Twitter. The end of the book also suggests specific legislative reform to help maintain freedom and innovation on the internet.

The Master Switch helped me understand why Apple’s design philosophy, though lauded ad nauseum as “groundbreaking” and “innovative”, does not appeal to me. Wu’s comparison of Steve Jobs to AT&T czar Theodore Vail is apt and damning: both sought perfection in total control. Apple’s products, appealing to our basest design aesthetics (glossy, monochromatic, simple-to-use), bound within Apple’s locked domain, represent an outmoded and conservative concept of design, of beauty, and of the structure of our society.

The Master Switch is a great read!

A new Google employee named Tim Bray in 2010 described Apple’s iPhone as ‘a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers… I hate it.’

(Apple’s products) are amazing machines. They make available an incredible variety of content — video, music, technology — with an intuitive interface that is a pleasure to use. But they are also machines whose soul is profoundly different from that of any other personal computer, let alone Wozniak’s Apple II. For all their glamour, these appliances are a betrayal of the inspiration behind that pathbreaking device, which was fundamentally meant to empower its users, not control them.”

To leave the economy of information, and power over this commodity, subject solely to the traditional ad hoc ways of dealing with concentrations of industrial power — in other words, to antitrust law — is dangerous. … what we need is something I would call a Separations Principle… A Separations Principle would mean the creation of a salutary distance between each of the major functions or layers in the information economy.

It is also possible that we could undergo such a consolidation blissfully unaware. Dazzled by newer toys, faster connections, sharper graphics, and more ingenious applications, we might be sufficiently distracted from the consequences of centralized control. … If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.


Title: Piracy – The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates
Author: Adrian Johns
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

Piracy is a remarkable work of scholarship, outlining in extensive detail the expansive and colorful history of the term. Despite the fact that the author spent 10 years writing it, the book is up-to-date on the ever-changing issues. The writing has a wonderful clarity and precision that confers deep authority. It’s hard for me now to read other works of historical scholarship and not miss Johns’s tone. His opinions on our current context are understated and kept secondary to the historical narrative, making tiny glimpses of his stance on the issues all the more weighted.

At 500+ pages, it is more scholarship than some might want on the subject, but I feel greatly enriched for having read Piracy.

It is notable that Atkyns’s (an earlier proponent of patents) argument was in principle a very general one. Its ambit was by no means restricted to the book trade. He himself claimed that if it failed then patents for inventions as well as patents for books would fall to the ground. Less speculatively, his complaints applied equally to many other kinds of commercial life, since crafts were generally organized into corporations similar to the Stationers’ Company. And indeed, one can readily find parallel contentions being made in different crafts at this time — a moment when old guilds were declining and the future constitutions of trades were in the balance. Atkyns himself drew a parallel with a brewers’ company. Such a company, he pointed out, might well insist on its own internal regime, and this too would be illegitimate in principle. But in practice it would be far less damaging than a Stationers’ regime. The implications of a mundane craft corporation’s autonomy extended only to revenue; but the Stationers dealt in belief. That was what made their assertions of autonomy, epitomized by the register, so dangerous. As he was writing, moreover, Parliament was agonizing precisely over petitions from brewers’ companies against royal prerogative in the form of excise duties. “If the Brewers, who at most can but steal away a Flegmatick part of the King’s Revenue, deserve the serious Consideration of the Supreme Council of England,” Atkyns reasoned, “how much more these, that do not onely bereave the King of his Good-Name, but of the very Hearts of His People”? In short, between a brewer and a Stationer “there is as much at oddes, as between a Pyrate that robs a Ship or two, and Alexander that robs the whole World.”

That line marked the culmination of Atkyns’s long argument — the crux of his bid to restructure the culture of print in genteel, Tory, absolutist terms. It also marked the beginning of the long history of intellectual piracy.

Enlightenment traveled atop a cascade of reprints. No piracy, we might say, no Enlightenment.

It was the concept of piracy that sparked the articulation of a principle of literary property, moreover, and not vice versa.

(For Kant) It followed that what was wrong with unauthorized reprinting was nothing to do with property. What made it an offense was that it mixed authorship up with mediation. In effect, it was a form of ventriloquism: the pirate hijacked another person’s voice.”

If literary property and rules of authorship were so central to enlightenment, why did the Irish model (where copying was tolerated) not collapse into chaos and ignorance? Why, on the contrary, did it seem to thrive as never before? That is a question that merits being asked in the present tense too. … Our own knowledge industries are united with economists and legal authorities in proclaiming that a formal system of intellectual ownership is a sine qua non. Many historians and critics too have argued that the inauguration of such a system in the eighteenth century represented a progressive transition into modernity. Eighteenth-century Ireland no more supports that position now than it did then. Quite simply, it puts to the test all conventional views conjoining print, property, and progress.

It is notorious that for the better part of a century the United States made a virtue of what the British — and eventually the Americans themselves — called piracy.

Polanyi believed that patents were dubious extrapolations from a false understanding of creativity itself. They presumed to “parcel up a stream of creative thought into a series of distinct claims, each of which is to constitute the basis of a separately owned monopoly.” In reality, discoveries were not atomistic in this way, but drew on “the whole network of human knowledge.” … Intellectual proprietorship was irrational and corrupt. “The nature of knowledge” demanded “the abolition of patents.”

The fallacy of large-scale laboratory science was its ambition to hoard knowledge in one place (the team, or the lab itself). The patent system was the counterpart of this in legal terms.

… a tie between authorship and credibility. That tie seemed by now to be the axiom of good order in creativity and commerce. How to reconcile it with the powers of the Internet remains a central question of our time.

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