Utopia for Realists

Utopia for Realists (2017) by Rutger Bregman is a book that suggests that in the near future we can all have a Utopia where people only work 15 hours a week, there are open borders and there is a basic income. Machines will provide more and more of the things we want and we’ll all be able to have much more leisure according to Bregman.

Bregman starts his book by pointing out that the leisure standard we all enjoy today is something that previous generations would only have dreamed about. We work shorter hours doing less physically damaging work, half our children don’t die before age five and we can engage in sex that doesn’t cause pregnancy often and outside marriage should we choose to do so.

From here Bregman goes on to suggest that the future and the near future will be much better. He suggests that a universal basic income can be created and can be afforded because giving homeless people money is cheaper than paying for their emergency and other care and because a group of Native Americans had their life outcomes improved when a casino opened. Using this reasoning the welfare state should also have happily paid for itself and shouldn’t be expanding and leading to ever bigger deficits in developed countries. Bregman does go into the interesting story about how basic income was introduced by Richard Nixon but failed to get up in Congress. But it is disappointing that the book doesn’t start to describe how basic income is affordable.

Bregman also thinks that most jobs will disappear due to robotics and automation. Here he’s on stronger ground. Many other people think this is also the case. Remarkably Bregman thinks that Rosie, the robot maid in The Jetsons, is pretty much here with the Roomba. Bregman thinks we can all do less work and things will work out. He says that the drastically shorter week worked during the oil crisis in the 1970s in England and the modest drop in output shows that we could all work less.

He then goes on to suggest that international borders should be open so that people can make more money. Again quite a few on the left and the right support this view.

Somewhat surprisingly toward the end of the book Bregman describes what a fan he is of Milton Friedman and Fredrich Hayek.

The book isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t justify the positions Bregman takes with anything solid. I have no doubt the future will be better, but how much better and what will improve is very hard to tell. Flying cars were predicted, instead we got mobile phones.

 

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) by Neil Postman outlines the dire consequences of the age of television in America and how electing a president who was in show business is a disaster. It’s in a long line of people and books about how new mediums are ruining society that goes back a long time. Postman also acknowledges this and describes various diatribes against novels, radio and other medium in the past. The book states that the US is heading toward a Huxleyian world like Brave New World rather than an Orwellian one. By this Postman means that people won’t have books banned, rather than books and ideas won’t matter because people are having such a good time.

Postman is against how, as he sees it, television turns everything into something that is meant to be entertainment. It’s an interesting view that sees him state that it is not The A-team, Cheers or other light entertainment that is especially pernicious but Sesame Street and CBS nightly news because they present facts as if they should be entertainment. Postman sees the idea that education should be like entertainment and that politics should be entertainment as terribly dangerous. He makes the legitimate and well backed up point that people who watch TV news retain fair less of it that people who listen on the radio or who read news. Postman also says that the computer is vastly over rated.

The book argues that in the early days of America literacy was very high and books were taken very seriously and read with fervor. It’s an interesting argument.

The book ends by saying that abolishing TV is not possible but that television will continue to hurt people more than it helps. It’s all a bit over the top, but the author makes some interesting points. It’s worth reading for anyone who is interested in past arguments against new media and wants to see what the people were upset about in the past said before the age of the Internet.

 

 

The Paper Menagerie and other stories

The Paper Menagerie and other stories (2016) by Ken Liu is a great collection of  science fiction short stories that includes the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award winning story in the title.

Liu’s stories are polished, calm and often very moving. They also reflect his identity in an interesting way. Westerners rarely, if ever, write about things like The Great Leap Forward or Japanese massacres in China the way Liu does.

There is hard science fiction in this collection as well as fantasy pieces set in the present, future and the past. For anyone who is interested in speculative fiction reading Liu is a treat.

The Fredric Brown Megapack: 33 Classic Stories

The Fredric Brown Megapack: 33 Classic Stories (2013) by Fredric Brown is a collection of what are allegedly the best short stories by Fredric Brown. Fredric Brown was a prolific science fiction author from The Golden Age of Science Fiction and a master of super short stories with a twist.

The short stories presented are well done and loads of fun. They are full of clever ideas and twists. Apparently Neil Gaiman, Phillip K Dick, Robert Heinlein and Stephen King were all fans of Brown, after reading some of his short stories it’s apparent why.

Moral Combat

Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong (2017) by Partrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson is book by two psychologists about the real effects of video games on people.

The book looks at the history of the demonisation of games, pointing out that it is the latest in a long line of demonising new media that has included the bible, novels, music and comic books at least. The history of demonising games that have violent themes is also looked at from Death race to Mortal Combat to Doom. There is also an interesting presentation of how the American Psychological Association put together a consensus policy on video games. Essentially august Psychologists reviewed their own work and declared the issue beyond further debate. By carefully selecting the people who wrote the policy they determined the outcome. The limits of their own work is not discussed.

Markey and Ferguson nicely put forward the best argument that violent games almost certainly have a small effect on increasing violence and quite likely a sizable one on reducing violence, namely that as game sales have exploded violent crime has plummeted. Given that video games absorb a lot of time of the group, young males, that commits the most crime it’s a reasonable supposition to suggest that games, even violent ones, have reduced violence.

The authors also look at mass shootings that often elicit highly emotional responses. They point out that in recent large mass shootings when looking at the people who have carried them out they appear to play computer games, which are quite social today, less than the general population.

For real problems that video games very probably do contribute to they point out that video game ‘addiction’ is very mild and the usual consequence is simply spending a lot of time in a hobby. For the contribution that games make to inactivity and obesity the authors point out to studies that increased activity but made a tiny contribution to weight loss and that the reason we get fat is dominated by eating too much unhealthy food.

Nicely the authors also turn to the alleged benefits of computer games such as increased dexterity, cognitive ability and various things and they are just as skeptical as they were about the problems ascribed to games. Basically games are a reasonably mentally stimulating hobby that is as good for the brain as crosswords, playing chess and various other similar activities.

Moral Combat is a well written, fun, easy to understand book that really does a very solid job of debunking the damage that games are alleged to cause. It’s well worth a read for anyone who is worried about what their children or spouse or friends are doing to themselves by playing games.

 

 

 

The Evolution of Everything

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (2016) by Matt Ridley is an impressive enunciation of how many, many things evolve in a bottom up way rather than a directed and planned manner.

Ridley starts by generalising evolution and then applies the idea to the Universe, Morality, Life, Genes, Culture, the Economy, Technology, the Mind, Personality, Education, Population, Leadership, Government, Religion, Money and the Internet. Ridley’s generalised evolution is that things improve with trial and error and rarely with planning.

The book makes great points in many areas, particularly the point that many people who accept biological evolution when confronted with the economy wonder who the great planner is and how things can be improved while ignoring that the economy has improved largely without a plan and direction. On top of this the repeated disasters of fully planned economies are often brushed aside by saying that this time things will be done by a wiser plan. Ridley has an interesting chapter on Money where he points out the strengths of distributed currency issuance against central banks. He makes his points well there.

Some of the chapters on other subjects push the metaphor too far but tend to make interesting points along the way.

For anyone who wants an overview of why people think that plans don’t work Ridley has written a great text. For anyone who has wondered how the world advances even though it’s apparent that management and politicians are often clueless it also provides a good explanation of how progress is possible. It oversells the thesis but makes an interesting case quite well.

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others (2010) by Ted Chiang is a very strong collection of science fiction short stories. Almost all the stories in the collection have won prizes which is remarkable. The film Arrival is based on one of the stories.

Chiang doesn’t write a lot, this is apparently the majority of his writing for over a decade,  but what he does write is very creative and very well done. This collection is very impressive.

This is very good work, it’s highly recommended for anyone who likes really creative fiction. It’s like Borges. The stories are really clever and the writing is excellent.