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By TheophileEscargot (Wed May 02, 2012 at 01:05:41 PM EST) Reading, Me, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "The Better Angels of Our Nature", "Embedded". Me: Holiday, any Berlin tips? Links.

What I'm Reading
Finished The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. Non-fiction book which got a lot of attention a while back. Pinker assembles a lot of data showing that the world is becoming a more peaceful, less violent place, and theorizes why.

Pinker makes a pretty convincing case for the most part. He avoids the common problem when an academic ventures into a different field of coming up with a new, over-simplified yet all-encompassing theory of his own. Instead he reviews a lot of existing historical and sociological material and examines what it says.

The first couple of hundred pages is fascinating as he examines the evidence. He provides a refreshingly optimistic account of how vast and genuine improvements have been made, particularly in reducing crime levels, and reducing the cruelties of previous justice systems.

Pinker also avoids being too reductionistic. He embraces the idea that there are multiple causes for the reduction in violence and looks at them quite fairly. Improving institutions seems to have been a big factor: better government has reduced criminal and interpersonal violence, trade has reduced inter-state violence.

Pinker also thinks that better education, more sophisticated media and even cognitive changes have had an impact. He thinks that through fiction and TV modern people are better at empathizing with others. He thinks that better education has led to an increased ability at abstract thinking, which leads people to have more rational and peaceful approaches to war and violence.

I did find a few things slightly annoying. Pinker does a bit of anti-religious axe-grinding, though less than I expected. There's also a fair amount of sociobiological just-so stories, most of which isn't relevant even it it's true. He also likes to mix horrific anecdotes from fiction and myth to emphasize the horribleness of the past. All this bloats the book out to rather longer than it needs to be. If you excised all the stuff that there's no proof for out of the book, you'd have a good 300-page book that makes almost exactly the same points, instead of a somewhat fatiguing 600-pager.

Overall though, pretty interesting. Worth a read if you have the time, worth skimming if you haven't.

Review, review, review, review, review, WP

What I'm Reading 2
Embedded by Dan Abnett SF/adventure novel where a future journalist is embedded within the mind of a soldier in a military unit fighting a guerrilla war.

Not exactly deep, it's very much in the action/adventure mould, but it's gritty, fast-paced and very well done. I enjoyed it a lot, if you like John Scalzi for instance you might like this.

Realised afterwards it was by the author of "Triumff" which I didn't like much, this one does a lot better by skipping the clumsy humour.

Me: Holiday
Going on a quick break to Berlin with Girl B at the end of May. Any Berlin tips? In particular, and decent restaurants with vegetarian food?

Socioeconomics. Hatred transformed: How Germans changed their minds about Jews, 1890-2006: "The young can be manipulated by massive indoctrination, but only to the extent that the new, radical beliefs are not completely at variance with pre-existing norms" Joseph Stiglitz interview. The courtesan economy, via.

News. 'Sheds with beds' are London's modern day slums. (via @Doilum). Muslim students object to being made scapegoats for closing bars.

Video. Go right.

Politics. This US Republican party article has got a lot of attention. Not convinced that they're really like a Parliamentary party, which have strong internal discipline which usually overrides ideology. I think there are similar factors at play in the British Conservative Party and US Republican Party: it's interesting that most of the media attacks on Cameron are from the right, who regard him as a crypto-socialist sellout. There are plenty of British tea-party wannabes, but they haven't had the success in influencing policy and the party leaderships. I think one reason might be that in Britain the tea-party wannabes have been bled off into minor parties like UKIP; whereas in the US they're still within the "mainstream" conservative party and have a disproportionate influence within it through greater activism and donations than the moderates.

Random. Clock, about. cat gif, via.

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I am a doughnut | 9 comments (9 topical, 0 hidden)
Correction by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #1 Wed May 02, 2012 at 03:20:14 PM EST
It's John Scalzi, not Joe Scalzi.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
Hmm, so it is by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #2 Wed May 02, 2012 at 03:27:48 PM EST
Strange, he seems more like a Joe.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
Sheds with Beds... by Metatone (4.00 / 2) #3 Wed May 02, 2012 at 04:56:16 PM EST
Breaker the slum king? 

For me... by Metatone (4.00 / 1) #4 Wed May 02, 2012 at 05:10:09 PM EST
The WaPo article touches on a theory of mine (and maybe the book explores it) that while the Republicans currently have more party discipline than the Democrats (possibly due to a stronger influence of a smaller core of donors) the real issue is that the Constitution was written in an era when Senators/Reps were much more a product of local (state) influence than party influence. However, with the rise of mass media, the amount of money involved in Senate campaigns in particular, alongside the rise of a more national media means that the parties are becoming more like parliamentary parties.

They still are nowhere near as strong as UK parliamentary parties, but if you seriously step out of the Republican line, then you will face a "true right winger" financed by the central party in your Senate primary. As such, the checks and balances designed around people with strong local incentives are falling apart.

Tea party wannabes in the UK aren't getting very far because there isn't (yet) much popular support for a lot of the Tea Party style policies. British people still like parts of the welfare state (e.g. NHS) so smaller government than the mainstream Tory party is already committed to isn't that much of flier. And the culture war stuff is blunted because religious groups in the UK are just not that big or that rich overall. So, Tory party policy is still in the hands of the traditional donors - businessmen etc. Some of them have weird social agendas (e.g. Stagecoach boss is deeply homophobic) but the majority aren't bothered - and because there's no "religious belt" of constituencies, there's no political incentive so far for any party to really push it.

Hey by Breaker (4.00 / 2) #5 Wed May 02, 2012 at 05:55:40 PM EST
Don't be dissing my shed with a bed!

US Parliament by jimgon (4.00 / 1) #6 Wed May 02, 2012 at 08:47:42 PM EST
Read an interesting theory.  Maybe not a theory, but more of a concept.  The idea is that Mitt Romney is the perfect Republican Presidential candidate because he's too weak on his own to threaten the Republican legislative leadership.  He becomes the weak head of state while the Congress calls the shots.  It's a very interesting concept. 

Technician - "We can't even get decent physical health care. Mental health is like witchcraft here."
Pinker... by Metatone (4.00 / 1) #7 Thu May 03, 2012 at 03:57:08 AM EST
I still haven't read this book - and at this rate I probably never will - esp. now you've suggested that Pinker is Neal Stephenson's mad non-fiction twin...

Thoughts though:

- Life definitely feels less randomly violent in the UK than when I was growing up. There are still rough areas, but even they seem to have less daytime fist-fights. Of course, there are places where the drug trade makes a lie of that, but I can see how those areas take in too few people to affect the stats.

- The book "Inventing Human Rights" makes a powerful case for certain kinds of social empathy basically being invented alongside wider spreading literacy. So I can believe that as a whole society has become less violent due to an increased level of empathy.

NYT review of Pinker by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #8 Thu May 03, 2012 at 08:59:13 AM EST
Is by Peter Singer, which is interesting in itself, though he doesn't impose himself on the review.

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Also by Scrymarch (2.00 / 0) #9 Thu May 03, 2012 at 09:34:27 AM EST
The title quote is due to Lincoln (and I doubt it not), but a search shows it's from the conclusion of his first inaugral

What a depressing, compromised document, certainly for it's first two thirds ... Which seems to support Pinker's thesis, in a way.

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I am a doughnut | 9 comments (9 topical, 0 hidden)