Tag Archives: nonfiction

The Man Who would be Queen

The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender – Bending and Transsexualism (2003) by Michael Bailey is a fascinating book that looks at sexuality and transgenderism from the scientific viewpoint. It’s a highly controversial book that has seen Bailey viciously targeted because many people don’t like the theories it puts forward for political reasons.

Bailey starts the book with the story of Danny, a boy who as a two year old liked to dress in women’s clothing and play with dolls. Bailey says that by looking at Danny’s behaviour he believes that he has a good idea of how Danny will turn out as an adult.

He then also talks about surgically altering children with ambiguous genitalia and attempting to make them into one gender or another. This frequently goes wrong and inflicts huge pain on the subjects. Bailey uses this to point out that gender and sexuality are very much driven by genetics.

Bailey goes on to look at how genetics influence homosexuality and the way twin studies and other studies have show how genetics again drives this. This part of the book also frequently says that ‘this group believes X, this other group believes not X and Y’ and overall I believe X or Y. It’s a really nice and honest way to write about unclear scientific issues and it’s great to see.

The book then shifts to transsexualism and Bailey puts forward the controversial idea that is attributed to Ray Blanchard that there are two types of transsexualism, homosexual transsexualism performed on very effeminate homosexuals who at a young age wish to become women in large part to attract men and what Bailey terms autogynephilic transsexuals who are heterosexual transsexuals who are aroused by having a female body and who love the female body.

Bailey puts forward considerable evidence for this theory including case studies and more work from Blanchard. It’s hard to dismiss and a really interesting idea.

The book is pleasantly short and is really fascinating. For anyone who wants to know what the controversy is about it’s definitely worth a read.



Bit by Bit

Bit by Bit: How Games Transformed our World (2017) by Andrew Ervin is a take on video games by a serious writer and critic. Ervin has written a number of books that have been well received as serious literature. In this book he’s writing about something he is clearly passionate about and reflects on his game playing past and the history of computer games. He is also someone who is familiar with how serious art critics have addressed art in writing. If you read the New Yorker and play games, this book could well be for you.

The book mixes Ervin’s life and a history of games. Ervin selects Adventure, Pong and a number of Nintendo games as significant and writes about how they were developed and the impact that they have had. He writes like someone who takes things seriously and writes in a manner that shows how he regards various items like old game consoles like some would regard relics.

He also visits a museum to see a game done as serious art and writes about a number of games. The book has lots of good points in it as Ervin reflects on how sport wouldn’t be seen as an art but is the subject of quite a bit of serious writing. Ervin also addresses the issues of sexism and violence in games and trots out fairly pedestrian left wing views on the subject.

Ervin certainly writes well about an appreciation for games. I feel sorry for friends and family who don’t really appreciate what a fantastic medium games are. It’s like feeling sorry for people who don’t particularly like music. But this is a hard thing to convey.

Bit by Bit is interesting but it’s not really satisfying. Games are clearly an important artifact of our age and one where essentially the whole history of the form is still within memory. Ervin writes well but something is lacking in the book that makes it a really compelling exploration of games and their impact.



The Death and Life of Australian Soccer

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer (2017) by Joe Gorman is a marvellous history of Australian men’s soccer leagues since World War Two.

Australian soccer or football is an odd beast. in a country with four national codes of football it has, for decades, been the most played but least watched code. In addition, after being played mainly by some British migrants the game changed radically with the surge in post war migration.  

For many people with a wog name, like myself, the game is tied up with identity. There are memories of going to games with parents, there are memories of watching games in places that were known through family stories. And yet, it was clear that some teams were not really for you to support. Gorman captures the issue with real skill. He also looks at the issue of ‘which team do you support’, Australia or the team of your ethnicity.

The book starts with post WWII immigration and the story of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian immigrant who wrote for Soccer World and later worked in the Whitlam government.

There is a chapter on Canberra City, a club which was a prototype for A-League type teams that are without an ethnic base that represent a whole city. As a child I went to Canberra City games. The book gives the team quite a bit of praise. Remembering the actual games it’s generous.

The pre-NSL soccer days and then the formation, rise and fall of the NSL gets a lot of attention. Gorman looks objectively at the quality of the ethnic clubs such as Marconi, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights and Sydney Croatia but also goes into detail about the crowd violence, particularly between the Croatian and Serb teams.

The rise of the A-League and it’s success is very well dealt with. Gorman writes honestly about how the quality of the football in the first years of the A-League was definitely worse than in the NSL. But he also appreciates the numbers of supporters and the depth of support for some of the new teams. The book also has the failures of a number of the new A-League teams. The A-League still has some of the financial issues that have always dogged Australian soccer.

Gorman writes quite a bit about The Socceroos, their qualification for the World Cup in 1974, 2006 and 2010. The portrait of Johnny Warren in particular is very good and really quite touching.

About the only thing the book doesn’t include is a look at the difficulty of running Australian sports teams in general. The NBL has more former clubs than current clubs, the AFL has moved many teams to avoid them folding, the NRL has merged clubs and Rugby Union is now abolishing teams. It’s worth considering this when saying how badly run a lot of soccer teams are.

The book does note that soccer is the most played game in the country. Gorman also does provide some discussion of the success of women’s soccer in Australia. About the only thing missing from the book is a bit more discussion of how many Australians did, for a long time, watch soccer, it just wasn’t Australian. From the 1980s onwards SBS had soccer on TV and before that Match of the Day was on Australian TV for years. From the  late 1980s SBS also had Italian Soccer. SBS also had finals of the Champions’ League and Europa League and their predecessors. Today there are kids growing up who love soccer but don’t actually go to many, or any games but do follow Messi, Ronaldo and co. It’s not ideal, but it does involve playing soccer and watching soccer.

Overall the book is really fascinating for anyone with an interest in Australian soccer. Gorman has done great research and written a book that highlights the issues for soccer in Australia. Hopefully Les Murray, the great SBS soccer presenter, got a look at the book before he died. He would have been really impressed.

The Habsburg Empire

The Habsburg Empire: A Very Short Introduction (2017) by Martyn Rady is a book that describes the main history of one of Europe’s most important dynasties. Rady is a professor of European Studies at University College London and got his PhD in Budapest so he has a great background for writing a book on the Habsburgs.

There are a number of much longer and larger books on the Habsburgs out there. But for anyone wanting to come up to speed and get some idea of why the Habsburgs mattered so much and how the empire they ruled over worked at various times this book is ideal.

It covers the period when Phillip the Fair ruled Spain and much of the new world and The Phillipines and indeed contemplated an invasion of China to expand the empire to when the empire broke apart and finally collapsed in 1918.

The Habsburgs are a fascinating dynasty, they seem to have mostly achieved what they did through clever marriages and alliances and not too much by war. They were tolerant for much of their rule and ruled over a diverse collection of peoples for a long time. While it could be argued they held Central Europe back to some degree they also tended to avoid the bloodshed that succeeded them.

The book is well written and very much worth reading for anyone interested in Central European history who doesn’t want to read huge tome where much of the starting material is forgotten by the end. It’s crisp, informative and very well done.

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.