Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category


Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.


Posted in Biography, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2018

by Jacob Silverman (HarperCollins 2015)

Books on technology are often out of date by the time they are published. I read Terms of Service three years after its publication, yet I suspect it is still very relevant. The book is a searing indictment of social media. Do you know the saying, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” (originally referring to TV viewers)? Silverman warns us that we (and our personal data) are the product of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, and others, including some I had never heard of (like Klout and TaskRabbit). Our personal data are being sold to the highest bidder; that is where these social media giants earn their billions of dollars. They are all, in essence, advertising companies, and we happily hand over our precious personal information in exchange for a “free” place to express ourselves on the web. This is neither new nor surprising, but Silverman makes a detailed (if sometimes shrill) case. He also seems to think there is not a lot we can do about it, not only because we become addicted to social media sites (which is exactly what they want us to do), but because more and more, we need to participate in them if we are not to isolate ourselves in this social media era.

Chapter 1, “The Ideology of Social”, briefly summarizes the rise of Facebook, Google Plus, and other social media giants. Chapter 2, “Engineered to Like”,  is about the pressure to “Like” (which means “More, please”) and to stay on the platform. (At the time of publication, Facebook had not yet added “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” to “Like”.) Facebook’s tags (identifying how you are feeling, where you were, who you were with, etc. when you post) simplify the collection and quantification of your data for the company.

Chapter 3, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen”, examines why we feel the need to post details and photos about our personal lives, and why we “constantly tend” our social media profiles. Notifications and alerts keep us tethered to the site. We are disappointed if no one “Likes” or comments on our posts (I can attest to that!). But how many “Likes” are enough? Whatever we post soon vanishes in the fire hose of posts. We rarely revisit even our own old posts, let alone someone else’s. They are quickly forgotten, yet we keep churning them out, often including images as proof that we actually lived that moment, were in that place.

Chapter 4, “The Viral Dream”, is about “virality”–why it occurs and how it can impact people’s lives, often for the worse. “Viral fame quickly fades; that’s in its nature and the nature of the systems and culture we’ve created to enjoy it. But the hangover it produces can be long.” (pg. 67) It also considers “trending” and the data trail it produces, and points out that followers can be bought (or bot) by those who pursue notoriety or fame. It is the advertisers that actually benefit from trending topics and viral posts.

Chapter 5, “Churnalism and the Problem of Social News”, concerns “cheap, disposable content repurposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date  and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish”. Silverman considers how responsible journalism is affected by the drive to be first, which can pressure media outlets to publish without first confirming accuracy. He considers the weaknesses of Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and similar sites, and the pressure on journalists to be on social media all the time. He mentions “listicles” and quizzes, which he considers poor excuses for content.

Chapter 6, “To Watch and Be Watched”, focuses on surveillance, which is a constant of the social web. When we are online (and sometimes when we aren’t but just carrying our mobile devices around), we are constantly being watched, by Google, by Facebook, by the NSA, by everyone, and as they watch us, they are collecting information about us, often with the purpose of selling us a product (or an idea). We are being watched, and we are watching. We try to “manage our visibility”, but it is really out of our hands.

Chapter 7, “The War Against Identity”, is about identity vs. anonymity (which used to be a choice one could make on the web, but no longer!). Some of the things Silverman points out: Whereas social media sites used to allow people to use pseudonyms, more recently, we are required to use our real names and encouraged to sign up through other sites (like Facebook and Google Plus), which results in additional data about us being collected by the site. The fact that we may want to show different faces in different situations, as we do in real life, does not matter. We are forced to reveal just one self to the online world, whether we like it or not. Silverman considers how the choice to be anonymous can be beneficial, and opines that we should have that choice, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Chapter 8, “The Reputation Racket”, concerns our reputation on social media, and how sites like Yelp, TaskRabbit, and Uber use ratings to judge both businesses (restaurants, drivers…) and people (consumers, riders); those who get poor ratings may be fired or may find it difficult to impossible to get a ride or a job. But the algorithms that determine our ratings are kept secret, so we can’t know what ours is or correct it if it is inaccurate.

Chapter 9, “Life and Work in the Sharing Economy”, concerns the crowdsourcing of work. Platforms such as TaskRabbit, which match individuals with low-paying work, enable companies to avoid hiring professional or full-time workers at decent wages with benefits. I was totally unaware of this trend in employment, which essentially enslaves an underclass of workers who are unable to get real jobs; they are forced to compete for lower and lower pay with others like themselves, while the companies claim that they are providing a means to earn extra cash for stay-at-home moms and those who need to supplement their income.

Chapter 10, “Digital Serfdom; or, We All Work for Facebook”, concerns how online companies use people to create content and do other work (test their products, read text that computers cannot read . . .) without compensation. It is not only web platforms that require us to work for what we want: we transport and put together IKEA furniture, scan our own purchases in stores, check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library, pump our own gasoline, etc. (It also mentions flanerie, or cyber-flanerie, where we move from one piece of content to the next, never stopping for long, forgetting soon afterward, “processing” each experience.)

Chapter 11, “The Myth of Privacy”, is about privacy, or the myth that we have any. Silverman points out that Facebook may allow us to control what other Facebook users know about us, but we cannot control what Facebook itself knows or can use or sell. If we want a modicum of control over our online selves, we must pay the platform owner, but most people don’t; we want a free platform, but the platform is never free; if we don’t pay with money, we pay with data. Sometimes, what we wanted to keep to ourselves (or to a particular audience) is unintentionally made public to the wrong audience. Silverman examines definitions and history of the concept of privacy and describes the reams of data Facebook collects about people (thousands of pages). Facebook, Google, and similar platforms track people not only online but in the real world, as we drive around and enter stores and restaurants, and they target us for ads. (I’d like to inject here that perhaps unlike most people, I am mostly oblivious to ads. I skip or zap them as soon as I am able and rarely notice them along the margins of text. If there are enough to be intrusive (e.g., on The Daily Kos) I tend to avoid the site altogether. On the other hand, I was kind of appalled yesterday when I looked at this blog from a reader’s viewpoint and saw the large number of ads flanking the post. But when I just revisited it now, the ads have vanished. ???) There are applications available to help us protext our privacy to some extent, but they are not used by many people. Most Facebook users never check their privacy settings, for example, and those privacy settings change frequently as Facebook makes it harder and harder for its users to elude its data collection.

Chapter 12, Big Data and the Informational Appetite”, considers the field of statistics known as Big Data. Data brokers “vacuum up” information about us, and the Facebooks of the world partner with these brokers (and sometimes merge with them), enabling them to better pressure us to click and buy. Silverman writes, “Surrounded by an abundance of content but willing to pay for little of it, we invite into our lives unceasing advertisements and like and follow brands so that they may offer us more.” (pg. 321) In so doing, we are complicit in our own enslavement. The platforms want us to think they are improving the world. In Silverman’s view, they aren’t. He advises, “Consumers need to educate themselves about these industries and think about how their data might be used to their disadvantage. But the onus shouldn’t lie there. We should be savvy enough, in this age of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” (pg. 326)

The final chapter, “Social Media Rebellion”, has a few tips for protecting onself (using photos of avatars or objects instead of actual photos; lying about our profile; avoiding tagging, checking in, hashtags, location services and notifications; removing apps you don’t use or don’t trust. . . .) but is mostly about people who go much further in their attempts to get the better of social media platforms, such as Vortex, CV Dazzle, F.A.T., Weird Twitter, and others, none of which I was aware of.

This book made me uncomfortable about my use of Facebook and Google products, even though I feel that I am less vulnerable to targeted ads than many folks. In the future, I hope I will be more respectful of people who choose not to use these sites. I’ve noticed that while reading it, I’ve posted to Facebook a bit less than usual, and avoided personal posts. I wonder how long it will last!


Posted in Non-fiction, Web Technology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2018

by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press 2017)

Constitutional law scholar Cass R. Sunstein has written a book about impeachment for everyone who is feeling the need to understand this process a little better as we head into 2018 after the tumultuous first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Sunstein never mentions Trump by name, but it is very clear that he is thinking of him.

The book begins with a brief history of impeachment first in English and then in American jurisprudence. Sunstein summarizes the discussions among the framers of the Constitution concerning impeachment (which is front and center in Article 1, Section 2) and trial (Section 3) and then moves to the debate by those who ratified the Constitution in the different states, because those debates (unlike those of the framers) were public and thus representative of what citizens knew about impeachment.  He spends a lot of time examining the concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and what those might be. He presents actual cases of impeachment (of presidents and judges), in particular the most recent cases of Nixon (never actually impeached because he resigned and was then pardoned before he could be indicted) and Clinton (whose impeachment was purely political) and then, in Chapter 7, “Twenty-One Cases,” he presents hypothetical cases of impeachment: first, two sets of “easy cases”, in which impeachment is obviously called for (first set of nine), or obviously not called for (second set of five). The final set of six consists of “harder cases” where the path is not clear, and reasonable people could disagree. In each case, Sunstein explains why the case is obvious or not. I found this chapter very enlightening.

The first easy case (“impeachable”), interestingly, seems very obviously to be based on Donald Trump’s behavior with Russia: A president has admiration and sympathy for a foreign nation that wishes to do harm to the United States. While in office, he reveals classified information to leaders of that nation, with the clear intention of strengthening it and of weakening his own country. The president can be impeached. He may have committed treason. . . . The only thing is that we cannot be sure of Trump’s intention when he shared highly classified information with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in May 2016. His “admiration and sympathy for” Vladimir Putin was well known; but it is not clear whether he actually understands that Russia “wishes to do harm to the United States”, so his intent is unknowable (or so it would seem to me). (This is like trying to prove corrupt intent in a case of obstruction of justice. Not easy to do.)

There is also a chapter on the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the removal of the president from office, temporarily (as when he becomes too ill to do his job, perhaps during a hospitalization and surgery) or permanently, in the case of permanent disability, either physical or mental. The president can temporarily transfer his power to his Vice President; or if the President is incapacitated, his cabinet can transfer the power. Sunstein shows how the 25th amendment differs from impeachment in terms of when it would be applied.

Chapter 9 is a quick-and-dirty guide: “What Every American Should Know”. Some of the information here repeats that which has already been said, but in a more concise form. He also includes information that he has not already presented, such as Can federal courts–or the Supreme Court–stop an unconstitutional impeachment? (No) Must representatives impeach a president who has committed an impeachable offense, and must senators convict him? (Yes?) Can a president be sued for official acts? (No) Can s/he be sued for reasons other than official acts? (Yes) And so on.

It is not impossible that we will witness the impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump during the next three years. While it is not likely that this will happen as long as the GOP retains control of the Congress, that situation could change; midterm elections are coming up in just over ten months, with the victors beginning their terms at the beginning of 2019. So it is a useful exercise to review the impeachment process, and Sunstein’s guide is a good place to start.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Every Day I Fight

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2018

by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt (Blue Rider Press 2015)

I can’t remember why I added this book to my To-Read list. I had never heard of Stuart Scott; I never watch ESPN, where he anchored the show SportsCenter. I am not interested in sports, and passages such as the following, common in this book, are unintelligible to me: In 1999, just before announcing that Vince Carter–Tar Heel!–was the runaway Rookie of the Year, I broke down a dunk by him that everyone had been calling a 360-degree throw-down. Only it wasn’t. “I gotta drop some knowledge,” I said, while footage of Vince’s slam played on the screen behind me. “Vince Carter’s late-season 360 dunk was not really a 360. let me show you.” At this, we played a clip of a recent Kobe 360. “Most guys do a true 360–they start to their right, complete the circle, slam it.” Now we played Vince’s. “Vince basically did, like, a 450–he started the other way, went all the way around before ripping the rim.”  Suffice it to say I got none of that. I have never heard of most of the names Scott drops (exceptions: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan), did not get the sports references, and was befuddled by the African-American dialect he used on screen and sometimes in the narrative.

But Every Day I Fight is fundamentally a memoir of cancer. We get the back story, of how Scott worked his way up to his anchor position at ESPN, his first marriage, the birth of his daughters, and so on. But the focus of the book is his seven-year battle against appendiceal cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, through clean scans and then new growths as the cancer kept coming back in new places, Scott continued to work when he was able and, incredibly, liked to follow bouts of chemotherapy with intense physical workouts, including mixed martial arts, a five-mile “Savage Race” and something called P90X. He insists that this made him feel better and gain weight. It’s not what most people would choose to do after chemo. Through it all, he was motivated by his love for his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. And he was able to bask in their presence as the cancer slowly destroyed his body–living in the now, not focusing on the future he would not have. I was crying as I read the final chapters.

I appreciated Scott’s insights into being a dad, a celebrity, a journalist, and in particular, a cancer patient. For example, he writes that once you have a cancer diagnosis, even if you are found to be “cancer-free”, your life is forever changed: My Buddy Brian wakes up feeling sore in the morning and thinks, “Man, this getting-old thing is a pain.” I wake up feeling sore and think, “Is that cancer? Is it back?”  Towards the end of the book, he writes, Well, when I started writing stuff down, I promised to keep it real, so I’ve gotta confess: I’m feeling that way (sick, tired, and depleted) now, with you. I’ve been filling up these pages with this cancer talk, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t stand my own voice. I feel repetitive and pathetic and self-centered. . . .

When Scott writes about “keeping it real,” I am reminded of my friend Rhona Hall, who died of cancer in May of last year. Rhona often said to me, “That’s what I like about you, Nina–you always keep it real.”  I hope I will have the integrity and the courage to keep it real with my friends, my family, and myself in the coming years.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2017

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions 2013 (Book One), 2015 (Book Two), and 20  (Book Three).

The three volumes together comprise this graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Book One opens in 2009 as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black President. A woman brings her young sons to his office, and he begins to reminisce…. He recalls his childhood on his family’s farm in Alabama, going to school, hearing about the outcome of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott, enrolling in a seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting Dr. King and others in the nascent civil rights movement, and learning about and practicing non-violent resistance in workshops which they then applied in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. They were arrested and jailed, but they were finally successful when Mayor West recommended the desegregation of the lunch counters in the city. This was in 1960.

Book Two picks up the story at the end of 1960 and takes it to the March on Washington in August, 1963, through sit-ins at Nashville cafeterias and fast food restaurants, non-violent attempts to integrate movie theaters, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis describes his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he was chosen to lead in 1963. He talks about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who did not believe in non-violent resistance, as well as the leaders of the non-violent movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Farmer; Diane Nash, and other well-known figures of that era. Of course, the racist southern politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor figure as well, and so do the Kennedys and federal agent John Siegenthaler, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

During one of the Freedom Rides, Walter Bergman, a college professor,  was beaten so badly that he was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. Once, during a sit-in at a restaurant, the staff turned off the lights, locked the protesters inside, and fumigated the restaurant, as if they were exterminating bugs. Lewis writes simply, “We did not die that day, but it was not the last time I thought I saw death.” The courage it took to confront racist hatred, knowing that one could not meet violence with violence, is astonishing. Yet they kept going back for more, and Lewis played a major role in both protesting and in training the protesters.

The last pages of Book Two recall the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls, and Book Three (which, inexplicably and by itself, is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland) opens in the chaos of the burning church (prologue) and then moves on to the other major events of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the fight for voting rights, culminating in “Bloody Sunday”, the terrible March 7 attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which the marchers  had to cross to continue on to their goal of the capital of Alabama, Montgomery; the symbolic march to the bridge on March 9; and finally the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law less than six months later; the rest of the country was appalled at video of the vicious attacks on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

2017 is a strange vantage point from which to reflect on those long-ago events. Last year, the Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court, and Republican states have already implemented new laws which result in severe restrictions on the ability to vote for citizens of color. Did the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers offer their bodies to be beaten for this?

I guess that making this a graphic novel makes it more appealing to younger people, but frankly, I would have preferred a traditional prose memoir with photographs. I don’t have the patience to try and figure out what the pictures supposedly show. I couldn’t tell the various characters apart–not Lewis, not John Kennedy, not Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody was recognizable to me, so it was hard to figure out who was speaking. The action wasn’t clear to me, either. For example, on page 121 (Book Two), did a pick-up truck actually hit a child during a protest at the swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois? (I had to google that one.) There are a lot of confusing scenes of mayhem and beating, fire hoses and billy clubs and guns, with onomatopoeia like KRAK, KLOP KLOP KLOP, CL-CLANK, VR_VRMMM, WHAP, KRUNCH, ERT, WHUMP, BLAM, VOOSH, SCREEEEEE, which I guess is appropriate for comic books (but I don’t understand why they have to mangle the spelling)I impatiently read through the text and hardly looked at the illustrations, which were mostly inscrutable to me anyway. I suppose had they been drawn differently, they might have supported the text more, but as it is, it just made me anxious to read Lewis’ more traditional memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) or Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (2017). I assume that March may appeal more to younger readers who are unaccustomed to reading an actual book (how snarky of me).

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2017

by William Easterly (Basic Books 2013)

This is a book about development economics, the branch of economics that deals with guiding poor countries out of poverty, and about how its practitioners have consistently trampled (or allowed autocratic leaders to trample) on the political and economic rights of the people in those countries, while throwing money and “expertise” at those same autocrats and dictators. Not only that, but these “technocrats” and the governments and organizations (such as the World Bank and the United Nations) that sponsor them have not led a single country out of poverty and into the elite club to which belong the world’s “developed” nations.

In Part One, “The Debate That Never Happened”, Easterly begins with a comparison of economists Friederich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal, who shared the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974. Myrdal espoused the version of development economics that still exists today and which Easterly criticizes here, while Hayek held the opposite views, setting them out in his book The Road to Serfdom (1944). Hayek was never given the opportunity to argue for his point of view; instead, he was ignored by the development economics community and then forgotten. You have probably never heard of him. I hadn’t. Not an accident!

Hayek and Myrdal disagreed about three basic things, around which Easterly has organized his book:

  1. The Blank Slate vs. Learning from History
  2. The Well-Being of Nations vs. the Well-Being of Individuals
  3. Conscious Design of National Economies vs. Spontaneous Solutions to Economic Problems

In Part Two, “Why the Debate Never Happened: The Real History of the Development Idea”, Easterly uses China, Africa, and Colombia to illustrate how the concept of helping nations to “develop” economically got its start during an era of empires, colonialism, exploitation, and unmitigated racism. Development was conceived as a way to continue the status quo, to benefit the imperialists. Even though the “Western” nations’ economic power had come about in an unplanned way, these nations’ “experts” prescribed “technical” solutions and scientifically planned economies for the poor nations, and they were happy to support the authoritarian rulers who promised to work with them, and to overlook the unpleasant fact that these rulers caused more suffering than they alleviated. Development economics presumes the leadership of a “benevolent autocrat” who institutes “technocratic solutions” to improve the conditions of the people, but in truth, once given absolute power, autocrats were never and are still not benevolent. In China, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek alienated the population they claimed to lead. In Africa, Great Britain wanted to justify its own exploitative empire; Kwame Nkrumah was the first home-grown autocrat to lead a former colony (Ghana) there. In Colombia, where the first survey mission of the young World Bank was begun in 1948, Laureano Gomez presided over an 8-year reign of terror known as La Violencia without losing World Bank support.

In Part Three, “The Blank Slate Versus Learning from History”, Easterly writes of the importance of understanding a country’s culture and history when trying to end poverty. He compares “collectivist values” (trust only members of your own group; it’s okay to cheat outsiders; hierarchical; the state’s role is to force the individual to behave) with “individual values” (written laws and contracts make it easier to trust people outside of your group; equal rights under the law; free cities and states). Easterly disposes of the benevolent autocrat idea, saying “Neither Europeans nor non-Europeans can be trusted with unconstrained power against the rights of individuals.”  Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi, the geographically unlucky Aja people of West Africa, how under-development was the logical outcome of slavery in Colombia, and the success of the people of one block on Greene Street in the free city of New York are the extended examples Easterly uses to bolster his claim that countries with the rule of law and economic and political freedom outperform economically countries under totalitarian or authoritarian rule.

In Part Four, “Nations Versus Individuals”, Easterly examines the role of migration in the world. He ponders the question of why we think it is okay for people in rich countries to go wherever they have the best chance to earn and live well, while at the same time accusing the citizens of poor countries of selling out their countries if they migrate to find better opportunities. He shows how migration can actually alleviate poverty (such as in the case of Haiti), and how migrants contribute to global development because of the increase in their earning power. The examples he uses are interesting: the Mourides, a group of Senegalese small-businesspeople who help each other to flourish in many different parts of the world through an astute use of micro-finance and mutual support, and the Fujianese, who form the majority of “overseas Chinese” who have been the drivers of the economic powerhouses of countries like Malaysia and Singapore. These success stories are disregarded by development economists, who have no way to look at (or advise) economic life that crosses national boundaries.

Easterly uses Chapter 10, “How Much Do Nations Matter?”, to explain that the way we measure growth through Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is extremely unreliable (which reminded me of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, which said essentially the same thing), so we shouldn’t take it so seriously: “We assume national growth performance is measured with precision–a precision that does not exist and that is sometimes based on numbers that do not exist.” He states that no one can prove that anything the experts recommend has ever caused economic growth or lifted a nation out of poverty (except perhaps temporarily), but that the one thing that is a good predictor of growth is geography: what region a nation is part of seems to matter a lot, and economies rise and fall together with others in their region (e.g., the “Asian Tigers'” boom and the “Lost Decade” of Latin America).

The last part, “Conscious Design Versus Spontaneous Solutions,” begins with a defense of Adam Smith’s ideas. Smith is thought by many today to have espoused the idea of pure laissez-faire in economics–a totally free marketplace in which companies can do whatever they wish to succeed. In fact, says Easterly, Smith deplored greedy business owners and decried monopolies; his concept of a free market was a way to protect consumers against unscrupulous merchants. When individual consumers choose freely, they naturally choose to buy from the best and most efficient producers, and/or for the best price. Easterly writes, “Freedom to choose is a powerful engine in rewarding the world’s best problem-solvers in each area, while getting rid of the inept problem-solvers.” Not knowing much about economics, I don’t know if Easterly is correct in his assessment of Adam Smith, but his argument makes sense.

Chapter 12, “Technology: How to Succeed Without Knowing How” considers how new technologies (both invention and imitation of new inventions) drive growth. Different from a good, which can be consumed by one consumer, an invention or idea can be exploited by many (“nonrival” in economists’ terms). It can fuel economic growth, population, and standard of living in a “bottom-up” way. We can see that wherever there are more people, we also find more technological innovation. Isolated groups of people, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, still carried or dragged their burdens when all of Eurasia had wheeled vehicles. But innovation requires the right of an individual to think for herself, or to question authority. Then, for a new idea to spread, people need to be free to move to different places, taking their technology (or their ideas) with them (technological transfer, or diffusion).  New technologies cannot be predicted; they always surprise us. Examples include cars and cell phones. To succeed without knowing how, people help to solve each other’s problems, but for this to happen, knowledge must be decentralized.

In Chapter 13, “Leaders: How We Are Seduced by Benevolent Autocrats”, Easterly examines the human tendency to attribute effects to a single person, even when there is no evidence for this attribution. He considers autocrats such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and the last several autocratic leaders of South Korea, who presided over stunning economic growth, and concludes that the growth occurred despite, not because of, these leaders. Korea is an economic powerhouse not because it was ruled by dictators; “The idea that autocracy was necessary for progress in Korea was contradicted by its own later experience,” after the advent of democracy. Sustained economic growth requires lucky circumstances in addition to skills and technologies. People look for heroes of economic development because we have a psychological bias toward individual power, but the data do not back this up. Easterly writes, “The data show little evidence that leaders matter for growth rates.” And if this is true, there is no justification for supporting autocratic leaders in the name of economic development.

In this book, William Easterly makes a powerful case for political and economic freedoms for everyone around the globe. Is anyone listening?

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Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over

Posted by nliakos on November 11, 2017

by Geraldine Brooks (Doubleday Anchor Books 1998)

I’ve loved Geraldine Brooks’ fiction (Caleb’s Crossing, Year of Wonders, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord, and March) and have been looking forward to sampling her non-fiction. Brooks, a former journalist, wrote Nine Parts of Desire (which I haven’t read yet) in 1994, Foreign Correspondence four years later. In it, she describes her Australian childhood. Growing up in a downscale suburb of Sydney, she longed to escape and see the world. Her correspondence with four pen pals–the first one a resident of a more upscale part of Sydney, and an American, a French girl, an Israeli Jew, and an Israeli Arab–was her escape route. As an adult, she manages to track down and meet all but one of her correspondents, and discovers that her childhood impressions did not reflect their reality. The happiest one, she realizes, is the one who has never left her home village to explore the greater world, as Brooks herself yearned to do when she was a child, and she succeeded.

In addition to the pen pals, Brooks writes about her parents, her sister, her neighbors and friends, her school, her obsession with Star Trek, her marriage and conversion to Judaism, her work as a foreign correspondent, and especially what her bit of Australia was like to grow up in.  It’s not a long book, just over 200 pages, and it all makes for very interesting reading.

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This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

Posted by nliakos on October 23, 2017

by Ashton Applewhite (Gale Cengage 2016)

As my birthdays pile up (seventy is now within view), I am coming to terms with my age and with my aging. Ashton Applewhite’s manifesto has given me plenty of ideas to consider, supported by research that contradicts society’s assumptions about “olders”, as she calls us (in contrast to “youngers,” aka “old people in training”). For example, dementia is not a given: serious mental decline is not inevitable (MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging), and a fifth of folks in their nineties function cognitively as well as those in middle age (Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity). In other words, though we are all going to die some day, we have a fair chance of dying with our mental faculties intact. Or “the happiness U curve”: people over eighty tend to be happier than younger folks–as happy as children, in fact. They are “more self-aware and confident, less fearful of being judged, and authentically happy.” They are also more comfortable with the idea of dying than are younger folks, who tend to assume that the closer one gets to the end of life, the scarier it must be. Wrong. Around the world, the most contented people are the youngest and the oldest, with the working stiffs in the middle being the most unhappy.

I’m a pretty happy person overall, but I think it’s true that I am happier now that I am retired. That’s how it was with a lot of the ideas in the book: when I think about them, they just make sense, or my own experience bears them out.

The book is divided into eight chapters:

  1. “The Problem with Ageism” – What ageism is and how it affects us. Aging isn’t the problem; ageism is.
  2. “Our Ages, Ourselves–Identity” – Why we are reluctant to own up to our true age after some arbitrary number, like 30 or 40 (thinking that after that number, it’s just a long slide into oblivion), and how we internalize the negative stereotypes of aging
  3. “Forget Memory — The Older Brain” – the stigmatization of cognitive decline, the assumption that it will happen to everyone, and how in some ways our brains get better as we age (e.g., we deal with negative emotions better, are more emotionally mature and adaptable to change, and are less anxious in social situations); there is a “neurological basis” to wisdom.
  4. “Health, Not Youth — The Older Body” – Longevity is a good thing. Yes, there is some physical decline as we age, but a large majority of folks over 65 “report no limitation in major activities.” We won’t live forever, but we can live long and well, as long as we take care of ourselves and have adequate medical care (which we might not have if ageism is allowed to influence decisions about who should have which treatment). By itself, getting older is not an illness!
  5. No Expiration Date–Sex and Intimacy – Why are so many people repelled by the idea of olders having sex? The many variations on sexual intimacy.
  6. “Not Done Yet–The Workplace” – how older people continue to be productive in old age, whether in a paying job (if they can get one despite ageist hiring policies) or a non-paying one, such as caregiving (for spouses, grandchildren, and others). Negative stereotypes hurt older workers, who have much to contribute to the workplace and to society.
  7. “Long Life Is a Team Sport–The Independence Trap” – how isolation is harmful, and some ideas for ageing in community; we all rely on each other (at any age, but certainly in old age); the importance of interaction with people of all ages, all the time
  8. “The Bull Looks Different–The End of Life” – how the older we get, the more reconciled, and less fearful, we are of death. Death (the bull) looks different when we get closer to it (when the matador enters the bullring). Knowing that we are not immortal helps us to appreciate each passing day more.
  9. “Occupy Age! Beyond Ageism” – We need to change our thinking about aging. We are all ageist to some extent, but we can overcome it in ourselves and help others to overcome it as well. An example would be how we self-deprecatingly claim “a senior moment” if we make a mistake or forget something. I’m one who has said that on numerous occasions, but I have vowed to stop. If I make a mistake, I will no longer justify it by claiming advancing age! This chapter has lots of ideas for making our society “all-age-friendly”, such as including older people in medical studies and trials, adequately funding the Elder Justice Act of 2010, and helping older people to stay in the workforce longer by providing more flexibility.

Each chapter includes a section called “Push Back!”, which suggests ways we can fight ageism.

Applewhite’s book is a must-read for everyone, not only those of us who are over sixty. Few people choose to die young, so most people will confront the fact of aging at some point. (We all aspire to be old.) We would all be happier if our aging were not complicated by ageist prejudice (our own or that of others) and discrimination.

Applewhite blogs at and

Watch her passionate TED talk (around 10 minutes long) at

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America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2017

by Steven Brill (Random House 2015)

Did you think I had given up books because I had not posted in a while? Actually, I was slogging through this 455-page look at the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare–how it came into being, the fight to pass the bill, the disastrous launch, and all the pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy read by any means, but I came away with a better understanding of some basic truths.

First, America got off on the wrong foot with healthcare  in the 1940s, when the National War Labor Board’s ruling that benefits (including health insurance) were not subject to wage controls encouraged employers to offer workers health insurance, letting the government off the hook for either insuring or providing healthcare to its citizens. The fact that health benefits were not taxed exacerbated the effect of this ruling, which “would forever change the course of healthcare in the United States.”

Second, the ACA became law only because people made a lot of compromises that included giving up some of the most crucial aspects of the original plan, like including a public option. Some of these sacrificed items constituted broken promises to people, companies and industries that gave their support to reform.

Third, random events like Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s vacation, which ostensibly cost her the election (for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat), jeopardized the passage of the bill and necessitated still more compromises to appease reluctant Members of Congress and induce them to vote for it. Much of what transpired was due to pure chance.

Fourth, the ACA was designed to expand coverage to the uninsured, not to improve coverage for the majority who already had it. The framers of the ACA made a conscious decision not to tackle the obscene cost of healthcare in the United States compared with other developed countries. Their bill purported only to solve the problem of the millions of Americans who had no health insurance; it did not address the related problem of soaring costs. In this (increasing coverage) it has been fairly successful, but because costs continue to skyrocket, premiums are bound to reflect that. Provisions within the ACA ensured that billions of dollars in new business would accrue to the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical devices industry. Meanwhile, doctors and insurance companies (yes! because they, like the patients, have to pay the bills) were squeezed.

Fifth, the disastrous launch of the ACA, following years of delay writing the regulations needed to implement the law, could have been averted if the administration had managed the website build better, by making one person responsible for its success, by hiring more competent professionals to build it, and by thoroughly testing it prior to the actual launch (duh)–as the state of Kentucky did with its kynect exchange, which worked as expected because the extensive testing had uncovered the glitches before the launch, leaving time to fix them. As it was, when a group of Silicon Valley stars was brought in to rescue the federal exchange, they had to correct almost every detail of the website. It was embarrassing to read about how incompetent everyone else was.

In the final chapter, Brill proposes a way to fix the mess we are in by encouraging giant hospital chains to become insurers (or giant insurers to buy hospital chains). He points out that what at first glance seems like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse would actually work better because doctors and hospitals would be motivated to keep patients healthy, and not to over-treat them or order needless expensive tests. In fact, this was exactly why I loved Kaiser Permanente so much when I was a member. I trusted them to do the right thing because it was in their interest to do the right thing. This was especially true when I was pregnant, at a time when C-sections were becoming almost routine. I didn’t want a C-section, and I felt confident that my Kaiser doctor wouldn’t advise me to have one unless there was really no good alternative. Kaiser didn’t have its own hospital in the Washington, D.C. region (as it does in northern California, and as  does the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC], which insures its own patients–this was the example Brill provides of how his suggestion might play out), but as everyone probably knows, Kaiser doctors and nurse practitioners provide the vast majority of care that its members receive outside of a true hospital setting, in Kaiser centers around the region.

I think Brill’s view of the ACA is pretty balanced. He describes the good, the bad, and the ugly (and there is a lot of bad and ugly) objectively and fairly. The reader who makes it through to the end will come away with a much better understanding of how we got into this mess in the first place and why the ACA has met with such resistance. It’s a pretty depressing read, but it’s an important topic that we should all understand better.

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Posted by nliakos on August 11, 2017

by Margot Lee Shetterly (HarperCollins 2016, in various editions)

Like many others, I suppose, I was inspired to read this story of the women of color who worked for NASA , formerly NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), as human computers, beginning during World War II and continuing though the era of space flight until NASA’s mission and budget were curtailed by shifting priorities  and goals in the 1970s.  The film of the same name, which also dates from 2016, focused on the stories of three of these women: Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book also follows these women (although their close camaraderie may have been an invention of the film’s director), but it provides details about many others as well: Dorothy Hoover, Christine Darden, and others too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, no photographs were included, leading me to try to imagine the women as the actors who portrayed them in the film. Photographs surely exist (If I remember correctly, some were shown at the end of the film.) and would have been helpful in keeping the many characters straight in my mind.

But the book is so much more than the stories of the women of West Computing, the segregated pool where most of them began their careers as human calculators. It is also a history of NACA/NASA, a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent a history of the women’s rights movement. Shetterly also weaves in events from general American history to help us situate the events in the book in time.

The book helped me to learn about the extensive black middle class–the doctors, teachers, and other professionals who earned college and graduate degrees but who were shut out of professional careers around the country because of their race. They took the jobs that were available to them, staffing the nation’s segregated black colleges with some of the finest minds of the 20th century. Reading about this in an era when historically black colleges are struggling to survive, I am reminded of the double-edged sword of inclusion that has dealt a death blow to our women’s colleges, too. Plenty of leadership opportunities and other paths to academic and professional excellence were available to students of color in historically black colleges and to women in historically female ones. When they found themselves in integrated or co-ed settings, however, forced to compete with white males for those same opportunities, women sometimes found themselves taking a back seat to the men,  while black students sometimes found themselves criticized as trying to act white if they prioritized studying over sports or social life (which can happen to white students too, but that is another story.).  Once the rock stars of black academia (such as William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, the brilliant math professor who mentored Katherine Johnson when she was in college)  began to be wooed by traditionally white institutions, the black colleges could not compete, and they suffered a brain drain that impacted the quality of the instruction they could offer, making them less attractive to students of any color. Integration: a good thing, but with some negative consequences too. (Think also: the now-defunct Negro baseball league.)

I liked the book (though it was not as satisfying as the film, being about real life and historical facts and not designed to keep a reader on the edge of her seat), but I found some of the writing kind of overdone and pretentious.

Agonizingly typed and retyped on my Samsung tablet.  This keyboard drives me bonkers! I think I might be able to fix some of its problems in settings, but am not sure how. I type a word (say, ‘not’) and it auto-corrects to some non-existent word (e.g., ”nother”). Or it inserts spaces or letters willy-nilly, sentences into gobbledy-gook. Example in the previous sentence: I wrote “turning sentences…”. Why did it make up some crazy email address???

One thing I really miss about home is my laptop. Can’t wait to return to normal typing!

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