Prosper, TX, United States | Member Since 2010
I'm only at chapter 5 so this review is arguably premature. But I've read a ton of this type of nonfiction book to see that this book - this author - are special. And what makes it so important is that the content is possibly the biggest, most important economic, social, and political web of ideas anyone can possibly tackle - and these ideas have never been more relevant to current events and within the power of the common person to influence since the crucial invention of the printing press.
Read this book. If you are even a reasonably thoughtful person, it will have taught you something profound - even life-changing - in just the first 4 chapters.
What's it about? It's hard to say because, as is explained, the concept of debt pervades every aspect of being human - from morality (behavior), to economics (earning a living), to sociology (relationships). The concept of debt has come to pervade almost every aspect of our lives - even our religion. Politically, we are stuck as never before as we grapple with the concepts behind socialism and capitalism. But if your friend asks you to "Pass the salt, please," at dinner, you will not quote a price to your friend to perform this "act of production." So are you a socialist? Probably not. If your friend borrows $1000 from you, you are unlikely to be happy about not being paid back, especially if the friend uses the money to do things you would have liked to do, but now can not. Does your friend have a moral requirement to pay you back? Even to the point of a "pound of flesh?" Or was your loan more like a risky bet that now will not provide a return on your investment? An act of generosity? A keystone of functioning societies? Something that earns you rewards in heaven?
Using a discussion that spans the Vedas to Nehemiah and Christ, Adam Smith to Keynes, Comte to Nietzsche to Durkheim, from tribes to modern societies, be prepared to be stunned with new insights.
If I had the money, I'd buy a copy for every US voter. Howard calls attention to what is really paralyzing our government - a bureaucratic reversion to microscopically inane rules that 1) no one fully knows, 2) no one can change, and 3) provide "cover" for both amoral politicians as well as inept workers. It is April 15th and millions of Americans are doing their taxes - and cursing those incomprehensible forms. Welcome to the world of Administrative Rule-Making.
I don't know how or why this happened - Howard says the administrative rule-making craze really got going around 1969 - the idea being that to have a "fair" government, you have to have a mechanistic ("automatic") government where office-holders (including bureaucrats) are not free to act prudently, but must act according to prescribed rules. However, no one seems to have stopped to question the logic behind this: sure, it is true that an impersonal, mechanistic government is incapable of "unfair" treatment - but unless the rules are being created (and updated) by God - a little knowledge of the history of human predictive prowess would indicate that the result of a mountain of procedural rules will produce absurd results - like a superpower that threatens itself with a shut down every other year while Congress trades chits.
As Howard says, for all the virtue of the US Constitution, The Founders failed to consider that the structure they created makes it hard to make new laws - but it makes it even harder to change or revoke old laws.
There are only two possible outcomes here. Either we adapt our government into an agile format that restores authority (and with it, accountability) to office-holders, or the US government will collapse, sooner or later. The billions of dollars wasted every year on policies and programs we know are broken - but can't be fixed - are unsustainable - and immoral.
I would also like to note that this book can also be read as a prescription of what is wrong with corporate America, too. Large corporations suffer all the same problems seen in our government.
I've read many of the latest neuroscience books and this book is an essential addition to those - at least until we have a more definitive science of how the brain leads to consciousness. Hawkins presents several key philosophical insights that I agree have been missing from modern neuroscience and seem very likely to reshape the field.
One of his insights is related to Turing's "Turing Test" - that intelligence is not truly manifest in behavior. Rather, intelligent behavior is just one aspect of intelligence - but if a rock understood language and sat there, motionless, comprehending the universe - we would consider that intelligent, too. This leads to another of his insights - that what really makes something "intelligent" is an ability to make successful, timely predictions.
Hawkins builds on these and many other insights, presenting a dense discussion of, based on how we experience consciousness combined with what we know so far about the brain, there are some slightly radical hypotheses we can make about how the brain really works. One he develops throughout the book is the idea that the structure of the brain is not a pure hierarchy, where peripheral signals are condensed to higher and higher neurons - a "one-way" circuit. Rather, Hawkins' relates how the neural structure consists of a larger number of feedback - or loop-back - circuits. This is an accepted fact. But the importance of the feedback circuits has gone unappreciated. Hawkins' presents a model for understanding how the feedback signals fill in the gaps to explain both how the brain can execute pattern-matching (such as face-recognition) in, based solely on timing, less than 100 neural steps, while modern computers require billions or trillions of steps to accomplish the same task.
As a software engineer I could really relate to his presentation in terms of what computer systems teach us about the brain - both what it might be doing and what it is not. There were portions where I struggled to get through his presentation of possible neural structures, but I recommend readers just push through if they experience this too - there are meaningful insights to be found from cover to cover.
Thomas Sowell seems to have a problem thinking about the consequences of his own conclusions, and he doesn't seem to question his own beliefs or even question what types of evidence are required to support his conclusions (which is the same problem with another book of his - Economic Facts and Fallacies).
If you have even a basic understanding of economics, politics, or the real dynamism of the modern world, you will be able to easily see problems with virtually every point Sowell states. And the frightening thing is that, especially since the book is only 4 hrs 45 minutes, he drops amazingly unsupported conclusions with little if any supporting evidence. At times, unless he is simply a fool (I don't think so), he appears to even be willfully deceptive.
One instance I remember clearly comes in the last chapter, where Sowell blends the history of The Great Depression with the 2008-2014 economy, stating that while many people believe the increase in government spending during the build-up to World War II is what ended The Great Depression, (he says) this is incorrect, since the federal "deficit" was greater in 1936 than in 1939. An uncareful reader - or one that is simply looking for pseudo-intellectual support for their conservative beliefs - might feel this is a valid argument. However, "deficit" is [tax revenues, etc] minus [spending]. That means the size of the "deficit" is meaningless for determining whether a government is engaging in stimulus or austerity - you have to look at how total spending has changed, how tax revenues have changed. Changes to tax policy (who pays how much) have a significant bearing on the degree of stimulus vs austerity that is in effect. These nuances are lost on Sowell, apparently. To him, the pointlessness of government stimulus is apparent by simply comparing the nominal federal deficit between the worst years of the Great Depression and the pre-World War II recovery. He goes so far with this presumption as to conclude that The Great Depression did not end as a result of New Deal programs, but rather ended because World War II ended New Deal programs!
Reversing common perceptions of cause and effect is something Sowell is fond of offering up as thoughtful analysis, though he never comes close to even attempting to look at the timeline of events to check whether this revisionism is correct. For instance, he says that since "Smart Growth" government policies existed (policies that preserve parks and green spaces from being converted to suburbs, etc) as housing prices increased, therefore these government policies explain the housing bubble, such as in California. He uses Dallas as more evidence, saying that Dallas did not have "Smart Growth" policies restricting land use, and also did not have as much of a housing bubble. He is oblivious to the inherent limits on preferable land caused by California's coast-line. He makes no attempt to reconcile the quantity of "Smart Growth" land against the actual demand for land and housing that drove up prices. He also makes no attempt to mention or reconcile the fact that the increase in housing prices just happened to occur in localities that also saw large increases in wealth - like the tech wealth of Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington, and the lobbying wealth of Fairfax, Virginia (just to name a few examples).
Further, Sowell makes no attempt to reconcile his position with the fact that most of the sub-prime mortgage bubble was due to re-finances - people who were simply accessing the appreciated value of the home they were already living in.
To hear Sowell's telling, there were really just two main causes for the 2008 crisis. Government politicians, distorting the market. And irresponsible borrowers, signing up for loans they could never sustain - which he actually refers to as "less-educated" at one point. He sprinkles in a few secondary influences here and there, such as "speculators" (ie, home-flippers, though, curiously, he also never tries to reconcile the temporary entrepreneurship of home-flippers against irresponsible, less-educated borrowers that just don't understand the mortgage they signed). But overall, this is a book where over and over again, the root of the problem is government and politicians and the financially irresponsible (and uninformed) masses they serve, and the victims are always the virtuous market and bankers who find themselves persistently compelled to act against their "years of experience" of prudent lending.
It's a wonder Sowell resisted throwing in a few Ayn Rand "at the point of a gun" references.
In sum, whether you are a novice or expert in economics, you are best off reading something else. This book isn't even useful for knowledgeable people to learn what the Libertarian-Conservative counter-position is, because the arguments are so superficial and undeveloped that it just amounts to a painful-to-listen-to list of Ron Paul-like sound bites.
I only give 2 stars on the Performance because the reader, as in Sowell's other book(s), is like listening to the voice of recorded instructions played at an airport - a smooth, deep voice giving you directions, and your job is to just listen and heed the voice.
I'm writing this review because I'm stunned anyone (other than a devout theist) has rated this book poorly. Everyone should read this book! Let me explain why by addressing others' critiques.
1. "There's nothing new here." Reviewers that say this are like someone who goes to a Mozart symphony, then walk out declaring, "It's all the same instruments all over again. Bach, Schmock, Mozart, Shmozart!.... There's just no more originality! I've already heard all those notes before!" It really is that absurd. Yes, there isn't much that is "new" here, as Sam is assembling a profound recipe from the ingredients of dozens of the world's greatest thinkers. Like all "not so new" ideas, the "new" idea is (merely?) incremental. This does not mean there is nothing profound about the idea! Is Sam Harris the first human to ever think this idea? Surely not - but is he the first to write such a well-developed, widely-accessible explanation of an answer to one of the most polarizing questions in the history of human thought? In my opinion, YES!
2. "Thesis is not thought-out/explained." Several reviewers complained that Harris did not address his thesis. His thesis is possibly best explained by relating one of the author's motivating experiences: at a an academic conference, a woman serving as a US presidential adviser on bio-ethics responded that science has nothing to contribute toward improving the well-being of a (hypothetical) tribe that plucks out the eyes of every third child because they believe doing so appeases the volcano gods. That is, the presidential adviser says that whether or not science has anything useful to relay to the tribes-people would, "depend on what they believe."
This science adviser subscribes to Kant's is/ought distinction, as Harris explains throughout the book at numerous levels, that "science" (the practice of establishing what is objectively true) can only tell us what "IS," not what we "OUGHT" to do. Harris' thesis is that Kant was clearly - obviously (in the hindsight of two centuries of scientific advance) - wrong - and so is the presidential adviser. As Harris explains here and for many other cases, there is no actual difference between what a person believes "is" and what a person believes they "ought" to do - because all of our perceptions about what we "ought" to do our ultimately based on what we believe "is" the case.
In the case of the hypothetical tribe, any sane, modern (educated) person would find themselves inextricably drawn to try to explain to the tribes-people that, actually, the volcano spews lava for reasons that have nothing to do with gouging out their children's eyes! Harris makes the comically simple - yet "academically" (in some circles) novel argument that those who persist in advocating this ethical divide - or as Stephen Jay Gould put it, "Non-overlapping Magesteria" - between science (what is objectively true about our reality) and moral compulsions (what we subjectively feel we ought to do - or ought to judge what others have done) is now an ethically bankrupt position, given what we now know from modern neuroscience.
In this reader's opinion, the only people who will not like this book, find it (at least!) very stimulating, or will come away unclear what the author was trying to say are the people who:
A) do not actually read it
B) do not want to understand it (such as devout believers in religion - the kind of people who will perpetually choose to believe that there just, must be some divine arbiter of what is right and wrong, despite all the discussion points that undermine this position).
That is why I think *everyone* should read this book - or at least come to learn the thesis via the increasingly large number of other voices joining the chorus.
Finally, my review has not shed any light on why the book uses "landscape" in the title. One of the more novel ideas Harris explains is that we will surely find that a (new) science of human morality or ethics will not be so simple as to identify one or more "best" ways of being or not being.
Rather, Harris proposes that modern neuroscience will increasingly be able to simply say that this or that way of being (or thinking) is better or worse - and there may well be multiple "peaks" of well-being. This isn't new to religious accomodationists who, for instance, may say that it isn't important whether you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim - it's all the same, one God and three different paths in your life - that none of these lifestyles is empirically better or worse than any other, in the God's-eye view of things.
Harris, of course, does not advocate any of these religions. However, he does propose that something like this kind of religious equivocalness will surely exist for some time, since we do not (ie "science does not") know everything. He uses the useful analogy of health. Through science, we know lots of different ways to be "unhealthy," and science has similarly informed us a great deal of ingredients for being *more* healthy. Yet does it even make sense to speak of "perfect health"? What would that be, exactly? The concept is very unclear to us - at least for now - but as Harris points out, this ambiguity about "pure health" has *zero* bearing on our ability to objectively discover that drinking Arsenic is bad for your health!
...and that Arsenic example, my friends, is "SCIENCE" establishing new boundaries wherein an "is" (arsenic = bad drinking water) has become transformed into a crystal clear "ought" (don't drink it unless you choose to die), and the basis for moral judgements (if you knowingly give a person arsenic water in place of pure water, you have done a thing that is not conducive to the well being of your two personages, all other things being equal.)
Some people may find his thesis inanely obvious. As Harris explains, so does he. But Harris does a thorough job of explaining why all of us should be a lot more concerned about the fact that many people still unknowingly - or knowingly - cling to the Kantian position and even regard those who disagree as simpletons. This is why everyone should read this book. This disagreement is old and has crept in to many of our most divisive debates, crimes, and wars.
Schlosser tells the story of how the US narrowly avoided a Chernobyl-level catastrophe by sheer luck, but also conveys the history of US nuclear weapons, both the public-side - as well as the messy details officials have struggled to keep quiet. In the midst of these two narratives, this book wrestles with the philosophical viability of command and control heirarchies - where they succeed and where they fail. An engaging and entertaining read that is broadly relevant.
Hamilton has become my favorite sci-fi writer so this short story was worth it, even though the narrator was trying so hard he was occasionally unintelligible, the acoustical quality of the recording was poor, and someone decided to put 10 seconds of suspensful-ish scifi muzak into every section break of the story! Still, educational, entertaining, and inspirational.
I actually couldn't help but laugh out loud - at the office - and Perry's entertaining yet functional way of dissecting the spirit of procrastination - and the major trend in the modern corporate and political environments.
I immediately recommended this book to my teammembers and leaders. It probably wont cure you of your procrastination (not possible) - but at least you'll have a much clearer view through yours and others' self-deception.
A harvard business professor and researcher provides the reader with the whole picture - narrative, statistics, and theory, for fully grasping what we've all been sensing but often not quite being able to explain or convince those who really need to hear the message:
- managers and executives cannot lead successfully by merely reacting to P&L spreadsheets
- successful organizations do not choose between tech solutions or well-defined processes and employee empowerment - they integrate them all, OR ELSE....!
- the old Toyota efficiency story isn't just a recipe for setting up operations - but also setting up processes (and expectations) to continually improve processes and operations
- cutting staff or hours or benefits to rescue declining profits is just as likely the path to operational incompetence and strategic failure of the enterprise. A wise leader understands the need to consider - and maybe even experiment - to determine whether a lack of operational discipline is cause by overpaid employees, or if rising costs (and the pressure to cut employee benefits) are caused by incomplete and/or unrealistic policies - and employees that are constrained from fixing them....
A highly recommended read!
Peter F. Hamilton has become my favorite modern author as I've read this series and his Commonwealth series. The only bad part is that there aren't more books in each series to fill out the rich and highly plausible future realities. It is a disservice to call his writing a "space opera" or even "sci-fi" (or fantasy). Hamilton's works are social, political, and psychological epics that employ straight-forward technological possibilities as plot devices to pose to the reader many of the most profound questions of great literature - in an engaging, modern package.
And the reader, Toby Longfellow, is excellent - just as talented as John Lee, reader of The Commonwealth series. Both should qualify among the best readers out there - and on books where you have a choice of several editions with different readers, don't bother wasting time with any substitutes.
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