Thursday, 6 December 2012

China's Environmnetal Challenges by Judith Shapiro

This is a handy, accessible little book that is an illuminating collection of inter-connected essays that give a fascinating outline not just of the environmental challenges China faces this century [and by default the rest of the world], but the make-up culturally and politically of modern China.

The book is therefore surprisingly holistic in the way it tackles the many issues the Middle Kingdom faces in the coming decades.  Shapiro deftly shows how the country has recovered from it's humiliations of the 19th century and its violent political upheavals of the 20th, to reach the 21st century confident and- crucially- politically and cultural distinct from the West.  Considering how western influence and political structures are creaking at the moment, crippled by short-termism, identity crises and almost out of control levels of corruption, that of course may not be too bad a thing.

So this book is a very intriguing look through an opening window into a new superpower and is all the more powerful for the fact that the author has spent a long time there herself, and so we never lose sight of the very real, human side of Chinese society.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Subliminal by Daniel Mlodinow


For those exploring for the first time the intricacies of our conscious and un-conscious selves this will undoubtedly be an exciting book, as a number of other reviews testify.  Mlodinow writes clearly and with a lightness of  touch that manages to get some pretty profound concepts across in an interesting and intriguing way. 

There are of course a number of contemporary books charting the same territory at the moment- Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow comes to mind, which I actually think is a bit over-rated but that's another issue- but it has of course all been said many years before now, notably by P.D. Ouspensky early in the twentieth century in The Fourth Way, a book still in print and worth having a luxurious dive into if any one feels stimulated by the ideas sketched out in this book.  Because it is an illusion that we have have only one 'I'- there a number of competing 'I's' in our brain, and our consciousness is far from what it seems...

So Mlodinow has made a fair stab at bring these ideas to a wider audience although it is more of a primer than anything else, though non the worse for that.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Dial M for Murder by Tom Watson

Tom Watson has it seems developed his life's work into investigating, understanding and then facing down every aspect of the Murdoch empire and this book is an absorbing chronicle of that quest.

There can't be a soul in the nation that's not in nappies that isn't aware in some shape or form of the issues surrounding the Murdoch family, so completely have they been part of our national consciousness these past couple of years. A book like this can therefore appear perhaps as an unnecessary read- don't we know everything about it all already, courtesy of our rabid media?- but that woould be a mistake to make.  This is a lucid and comprehensive account of the rise and fall of the Murdoch Empire from it familial heart to it's lieutenant's hanging-on's, written by one of the world's supreme experts on the whole circus.  You get all the detail here, presented in a straightforward manner.  I noticed another reviewer mention it is written like a thriller and that's a good analogy.  This is not just the definitive work to date, but also the most entertaining one.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bioethics [All That Matters Series]- Donna Dickenson


This is shaping up to be a fine series of short but thought provoking books.

Donna Dickenson tackles the vast and complex topic of Bioethics in a passionate but not overtly partisan way. She nails her colours to mast straight away: we are going too far down the road of having blind faith in the 'medical improvements for all' motives of modern science and we are losing sight of important ethical issues, particularly as ever advancing technology is enabling us to do more and more in the area of bio-engineering and pharmaceutical development.  She does balance this though with persuasive, progressive argument, strongly pointing out the dangers of modern bio-technology research and development in an overtly commercial environment, where the possibility of eugenic policies are realisable in an increasingly un-democratic, 'profit-regardless-of-all-other-considerations' political and economic culture.

In fact the power of Big Pharma in particular is frightening and at the end of this book, one cannot help feel we are sleepwalking into a divided world of genetic engineering and medical support for the rich, and a chaotic free-for-all for the rest...and that will be regardless of whether you live in the West or a developing nation.

So in a concise little book Dickenson covers areas such as stem-cell and embryonic research, third world surrogacy, body enhancement and drug development and availability as well as considering the moral and religious issues wrapped up in the whole, most fundamental issue of who should we trust to experiment and devise ways to treat- and improve- our bodies.  The truly scary conclusion to it all, and what crops up repeatedly throughout this book, is that in the 21st century money and commercial profit alone is driving it all, and when it comes to making a profit in this world of neoliberal, free-market capitalism, ethics and more metaphysical questions regarding is what we are doing actually right and equitable in the long-term, hardly get a look-in.

This book is a great introduction to ways of thinking to put that right.  Give it a read.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Mohammad [All That Matters series] by Ziauddin Sardar

Islam is perhaps one of the most wantonly misunderstood religions and culture in the West, and few outside of the religion I am sure, would know anything about the life and times of its greatest prophet Mohammad.  I for one before I read this book, was certainly one of that ignorant mass.

So I am so much more educated now for reading this concise but nonetheless highly illuminating outline of the prophet Mohammad.  It's the nature of these short introductory books that a lot of stuff seems at times airbrushed, but having said that, Ziauddin Sardar has done an admirable job at making the subject matter both immediately interesting as well as setting out enough intriguing points to encourage further investigation.

Coming at the subject matter with few preconceptions as, to be perfectly honest, I knew next to nothing about the life of Mohammad, I must say how struck I was by the overall 'humanity' of the man.  Yes he was a warrior, yes he did take multiple wives, but he was very much a product of his time [as is any historical figure] and at the end of the day, one cannot help but be struck by the drive of the man to create a fairer, more tolerant society in a fractious Arabia full of not just Arab tribes, but active Jewish and Christian ones too, something else I hadn't appreciated about this period in Middle Eastern history.

There has been much criticism of Islam the past couple of centuries amongst the western intelligentsia- some of it I must say warranted, as you can see some of the germs of the contradictions inherent in the religion even in this small book- but as the author quite rightly points out, Christendom is in no position to cast stones.  At the end of the day, the West seems obsessed with studiously misunderstanding what is clearly a religion based squarely in tolerance, social justice and love, and that is very much our loss.  I hope small, accessible books like this can keep up the good work needed to change those mis-conceptions.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Times They Are a'Changing...

Well it's time for a big over haul of this blog.  Gonna go magazine theme soon... I know you all can't contain your excitement but don't worry folks, it will happen before the end of the Mayan Calendar and we all dissapear in a state of nervous rapture.

The blog is going to shift to a heavier emphasis on the artwork produced by LÉpouvantail, along with the usual societal observational ramblings. Meanwhile here's a teasing link to some works on Society 6. Cruise and enjoy.

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Curious History of Love by Jean-Claude Kaufmann

Well first post of the year... a L'Epouvantail website is close to being launched, watch this space as wonders await.  in the meantime though, here's an interesting tome that's recently passed my way.

 The Curious History of Loveis a fascinating, erudite book. That's not to say it is without its flaws- which I'll mull over later- but it is an intelligent and supremely human attempt to understand the origins of this thing we call Love, the various forms it takes and, very interestingly, how it has been the most important of metaphysical forces at work in shaping our society through the ages, and how it dictates the very form it takes today.

In fact it is in this latter area- how our current societal structure has developed since the Enlightenment through the historic prism of Love- that for me was the most fascinating.  Before the Enlightenment, various forms of Love jostled with each other and were philosophically analysed and debated for centuries- the religious [primarily but not exclusively Judeo-Christian], all-encompassing Love for All [`agape']; the more individualistic, unpredictable passions; the medieval courtly love that put women centre-stage in the sexual power game and the revolutionary tendencies of Romanticism.  Kaufmann explains how society however came to be centred on a certain model of the self-absorbed individual by a very clever establishment trick applied over quite a short period of time.  As the rigidities [and certainties] of feudal times dissolved, the threat of Love in its various guises to the governing establishment - particularly in the area of the Passions- was conveniently neutered by elevating what was previously thought of as a grubby vice- namely self-interested greed- into a societal virtue.  In the great scheme of the human timeline, this was achieved with an obscenely, speedy absolution.

As such the current dominant societal and economic model- namely that of free market capitalism, which until the enlightenment period had been a marginalised, localised aspect of society- came into its own and as Kaufmann says, it didn't need to be asked twice to take centre stage.

To my mind this is a really fascinating area of socio-economic investigation.  It has led to Big Business now trying to impose its management principles into all areas of our lives and an economics based in mathematical calculations has now become the dominant social science.  It has led to a society where our economics is now based on the total assumption that humans are cold, calculating animals living within a matrix of equations and one in which, as Kaufmann points out, a stock trader driven by no other urge than personal accumulation, is worth many thousands times more than say, a dedicated youth worker.

However, human beings are not as efficient and calculating as economic models would like; people are actually sentimental creatures continually looking for meaning in life.  We cannot be reduced to an Excel cost-benefit analysis spread sheet.

As such Kaufmann goes on to show that economic models are actually themselves no more real than dreamy expressions of romantic passion. They are not based in any reality; mathematical models are, like romantic passion, ideals that flit around just out of reach.

And this is no more apparent than right now, today, as the markets plead that to get back to normal, all we need again is trust.  That the economic meltdown was simply due to a failing of trust, and if we get that back, all will be well again.

But what is trust, if it is not a human feeling, perhaps one of the highest feelings humans enjoy?  It is certainly not a cold economic equation; the whole economic system therefore runs on this dichotomy and so no wonder it is in a mess.  To my mind, the part of the book that efficiently outlines these ideas- through the filter of the previous discussions of the form of love in our society both past and present- are the most powerful.

It would be a mistake though to make out the book is overly concerned with Big Issues and the wider, corporate world as viewed from the European Left.  Kaufmann does gets intimate with his analysis of the love between couples and within families and how society at a number of junctures, has missed a trick by rejecting more `emotionally' based mechanisms into the day-to-day running of our world, and he does it deftly without straying into `relationship self-help' territory.

As I said above though, the book has its flaws.  It meanders a little too self-indulgently towards the end, although I personally forgive the author for this as it is such a huge, challenging subject that he does immense justice too for much of the book, I think he deserves to be allowed a little slack in that area.  I can't help feel though a bit of judicious editing, reducing the book by a third to an even more handy 100-125 page treatise would have been more effective.   Kaufmann also airbrushes over a few complexities in places- the most glaring one is his assertion that the contemporary neoliberal economic system is exclusively ran by passionless mathematical models- true enough on one level, but one cannot say the vagaries, guesses and gambling instincts running rampant through our stock exchanges are not based in some good old fashioned, largely testosterone driven passion. But, on the whole, he has to be given credit for tackling such a huge, amorphous and let's face it plain scary subject, with a sound intellectual but also accessible approach.

But this is a book that although accessible, demands to be read carefully and given some thought.  In fact some of its conclusions may well be uncomfortable to the 21st century, Western individualist, yearning for a return to business as usual.  Maybe that's why it has received some patchy reviews around the place.

For me personally though, Kaufmann nearly pulls off the impossible: a neat assessment of Love in all its complexities, with an élan that, it has to be said, is achieved through an unashamed application of passion.  Bravo.