Tag Archives: nonfiction

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.



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.

Men Without Work

Men Without Work:America’s Invisible Crisis (2016) by Nicholas Eberstadt looks at the dramatic decline in the US male labour force participation rate over the past 50 years. Nearly one in six men had no paid work at all and one in eight was completely out of the labour force. The US generally has lots of people who work lots of hours, but in terms of the male participation rate the US is dramatically lower than other countries.

The book goes through how the rate has steadily decline and Eberstadt looks at why those men might be out of the labour force. Interestingly, men who have children are much more likely to be in the labour force than those who don’t, but it’s hard to say which way this relationship goes. Eberstadt discusses the idea that ex-convicts, of which the US has dramatically more than any other developed country are one of the major drivers of this problem. It seems likely that they are.

The book presents a lot of statistics and also has some people who disagree with some Eberstadt’s views who also put forward their ideas about the issue.

The book is an interesting read about a surprising and alarming aspect of the US.


A Theory of Fun for Game Design

A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2013) by Raph Koster describes Koster’s view of what fun is and why we play computer games. Koster is a game designer and producer who worked on Ultima Online, various MUDS, Everquest and other games.

Koster’s thesis is that all games are edutainment with low stakes with rewards that tickle our fancy. It’s actually a bit limited and doesn’t really capture the breadth of different types of games and their appeal. In the book Koster himself says that revelations of story and other factors add more to games than just edutainment. If it was just the joy of learning and figuring out puzzles that appealed to people more people would do math for fun. It’s hard to say why so many people enjoy flitting around in an FPS with a story or with others but it’s odd to say it’s for edutainment.

Computer games offer such a variety of reasons that people play them. The enjoyment of quick reflexes and some thought for mastery, figuring out a complex strategic balance, the appreciation of building something that is large and complex. The revelation of an interesting story. The sense of achievement and ego flattering of completing something that is a bit challenging. But for all these differing objectives even classifying them as edutainment is a bit overly general. Why do we enjoy mastering certain activities and not others. Why should the stakes being high, as in life, make mastering things less enjoyable?

A Theory of Fun glosses over a lot of these issues. It’s almost a bit surprising that it’s held up as a great book for computer game design. It is interesting but it’s not great. It’s a bit like a book on the theory of jokes that says everything is essentially a revelation of the absurd. More is needed.






The Complacent Class

The Complacent Class: The self-defeating Quest for the American Dream (2017) by Tyler Cowen describes how formerly innovative intellectuals and writers now just use their blogs and media savvy to promote books that aren’t really up to it. Well, not really, it’s actually a continuation of Cowen’s book ‘The Great Stagnation’ which was a really interesting short book about how economic growth had slowed since the boom years of 1945-1975. Cowen, for those who don’t know is a super smart economist who has a great blog and has also recently been doing excellent interviews.

Cowen describes how Americans are moving less, mixing less, being less entrepreneurial and perhaps working less hard than they used to and this is why economic growth isn’t as high as it used to be. The facts that Cowen describes are often fascinating. It’s remarkable to find that California and New York have the most segregated schools in the US due mainly to income segregation. However, the overall thesis is muddled and isn’t really pushed in the end. It seems more like Cowen came up with the title, wrote something and then used his media contacts to push the book.

If the idea of a slowdown in growth is something that interests you and you haven’t read ‘The Great Stagnation’ then that book is very much worth a read. If you have read ‘The Great Stagnation’ this book adds little.