BOOK REVIEW: Barbara Ehrenreich is old enough to die, but still has plenty to say

In Gulliver’s Travels, the titular character visits many strange, foreign lands in the service of satirist Jonathan Swift’s desire to poke fun at the flaws of the culture of his time and to talk regularly about human excretions.

Adaptations, especially those aimed at children, tend to only reproduce the book’s evocative imagery of being a giant among the tiny Lilliputians and being doll-sized among the towering Brobdingnagians. They leave out the scenes of defecating enough to fill a miniature church or being forced to watch colossal serving girls urinate. Laputa, the floating island of scientific wonder, sometimes appears in other contexts such as Japanese animated film, but without the associations of trying to turn digested food back into something edible. The humanoid primitives, Yahoos, survived into common parlance better than the rational, equine Houyhnhnms, but without the association of feces-flinging.

One brief, excreta-free section from Gulliver’s Travels is not among those often reproduced whatsoever: Gulliver meeting the immortal struldbrug. These are a special breed of human who are able to live essentially forever but without eternal youth. Their teeth fall out, their eyesight and hearing fail, their memories dull, they aren’t allowed autonomy or property ownership, and eventually can’t communicate even with each other because their dialects grow indistinguishable. The people of the land of Luggnagg are thankful for death because they’re constantly reminded of what the real alternative is.

I’m not the first to point out the similarity of modern medicine in creating cursed immortality as a reality for us, but our appreciation for the inevitability and even relief of death continues to lag behind for most.

Barbara Ehrenreich is definitely not counted among such people, and her latest book Natural Causes is a short, solid piece of prose about what it means to suffer from age, accepting the reality of death, and the sorts of things a person ought to consider when weighing both.

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Politics is too important not to be treated like a game

The central problem with modern American politics is not that people are unengaged or politically inactive.

It is the case that most people are not effectively engaged or usefully active.

It’s much easier to Like, Retweet, or argue with someone online than to volunteer, donate to an underfunded campaign, or organize canvassers. That’s in part because social media is literally designed by professionals whose job it is to make them addictive and neurologically rewarding.

If we want to make politics better, we need to harness our worst instincts to serve our better angels. We need to turn politics into a literal game. Continue reading “Politics is too important not to be treated like a game”

BOOK REVIEW: This is your brain on ‘Collusion’

I didn’t think it would be possible to write a book that would make me feel sympathetic to central bankers around the world, but by the end of Nomi Prin’s “Collusion”—stylized, naturally, “COLLU$ION“—I admit, she’d done it.

This was not her intention. Prin’s main charge is an attractive one: that central bankers around the world, led by the United States Federal Reserve, colluded with one another in order to enrich those who were already the very wealthiest in society. To do this, they fabricated money to be pumped into the global economy through zero or near-zero interest rates, never bothering to address the fundamental, underlying problems. Because banks have been using all of their temporary, emergency measures consistently throughout the past decade, Prin says, they’ll have no other tools available when the next crisis hits, so it will be an even larger calamity.

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BOOK REVIEW: The past is a foreign country, but youth is a different species

Getting older is a bizarre experience.

When we’re young, we are, understandably, not very good at anticipating the sort of person we’ll one day become; only in hindsight do we realize that. More surprising, or at least challenging to our sense of continuity, is that once through the veil of maturity, we’re just as poor at retrospection. It’s as if we’re reincarnated with mostly vague recollections of our previous life—we retain something of before, but we’re no longer the same person.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s book Inventing Ourselves is a fascinating examination of what recent decades of technological progress and investigation have shown us about the teenage brain.

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BOOK REVIEW: Love yourself enough to not read “The Hope Circuit”

The Hope Circuit by Martin Seligman is like reading a Wikipedia article about someone accomplished enough to have their own entry but not so much they can resist editing it themself.

Also, that article continues for 400 pages.

Subtitled A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, surely it’s the amount of unpleasant reading that makes the experience most unpleasant, but to be fair, Seligman — or “Marty” as he’d prefer his coed undergrad students call him — also establishes himself as an unlikable person very quickly. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment for a memoir where he controlled the entire narrative and reached me as a blank slate with no prior knowledge about his life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Christian Davenport, for one, welcomes our new “Space Barons”

The Space Barons is the longest and best-written press release I’ve ever read.

When, in the ending acknowledgment, author Christian Davenport thanked the billionaires so gracious with their time, including his own ultimate boss at the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, it became much clearer how such a long work of this genre had come about and my disappointment resolved itself into a numb acceptance.

The title the publisher chose promised a very different sort of book, more critical and honestly probing than an employee can reasonably be expected to write of their employer while maintaining employment. In a world where journalism continues to desiccate because its lifeblood is disappearing into the distended bellies of Facebook and Google, all journalism resembles tech journalism.

“Oh Golly wow! Which public-private space company is going to be the neatest going forward?” is about as much as a person could reasonably ask for, and the competing book Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz stole the more serviceable title and likely the original pitch.

However, the title I had was The Space Barons, and I was not prepared for the sincerely fawning devotion to a cyberpunk dystopia that I discovered myself to be reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Saadia Zahidi’s “Fifty Million Rising” delivers even more than promised

Fifty Million Rising by Saadia Zahidi is that rare book that does everything it sets out to do then goes beyond it.

Zahidi’s look at the cohort of “The Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World” (239 pages / Hatchette) doesn’t contradict itself, but golly is it large and containing multitudes. It couldn’t be anything less and still true, spanning as it does 30 Muslim-majority countries from North Africa all the way to Southeast Asia.

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