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.
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.
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.
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.
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