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Miles Saltiel "Miles Saltiel" (London England)
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Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us
Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us
by Avi Tuschman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.55

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Weak treatment of an interesting topic, 5 Jan 2014
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Tuschman purports to explain political orientation in terms of biological if not evolutionary insights. He presents no new material, instead rehashing the work of others, some of it very long in the tooth. This wouldn't matter if he were a gifted synthesist or even a satisfactory writer. Sadly he is neither.

First, he fails to give the reader confidence that he understands his own argument. His thesis is that "our political nature" stems from (1) tribalism, itself a consequence of the optimal balance between finding mates locally or remotely (apparently second cousins are the way to go: who knew?); (2) tolerance of inequality, largely a consequence of birth-order; and (3) perceptions of human nature, arising out of the mathematics of genetic altruism (ie, one brother is worth - genetically equivalent to - four cousins). But this gets us nowhere. Let's just take the final example. Genetic maths are universal and eternal. They do nothing to explain differences in political orientation between individuals, societies or from time to time. We are left with the feeling that the author has cobbled together interesting results from anthropology, biology and elsewhere, but lacks sufficient command over his material to generate persuasive explanations. Or more likely, the state of knowledge is insufficient.

Second, his writing style is grossly repetitive - indeed it is astonishing that his publishers, Prometheus, should so stiff him on editorial support. It also betrays Tuschman's patent embarrassment that his explanations from biology join him with attitudes he presents as most associated with conservatives. He seems to find this so alarming as to become obliged to parade his credentials to the contrary, with otherwise unintelligible parenthetical protests about (eg) a cover of Time magazine, the Rosenbergs and a wonderful concluding apology lest he might have been politically incorrect.

In short, this is an unsatisfactory book which does no justice to the underlying subject matter or the possibilities of the explanations in which the author is interested. A second star only for the seriousness of the topic and no more for the weakness of the treatment.


Sennheiser CXC 700 High End Travel Ear-Canal Phones with Multi-Mode Digital Noise Guard and TalkThrough Function
Sennheiser CXC 700 High End Travel Ear-Canal Phones with Multi-Mode Digital Noise Guard and TalkThrough Function

5.0 out of 5 stars Excllent product, 7 Jan 2013
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Bought for air travel. Exceeded expectations and previous experience of two Bose over-ear and an earlier Sennheiser ear-bud product. Smallest and lightest active noise reduction system I've come across; contrary to previous experience, the buds fit comfortably and snugly into ears (and in other use weren't displaced during a couple of five-klick jogs); controls are easy to use and offer frequency- and ear-specific options (the former very effective; the latter not checked out). Recommended without reservation.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 15, 2014 8:49 AM GMT


Into Dust
Into Dust
by Jonathan Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.06

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent second crime novel, 4 Oct 2011
This review is from: Into Dust (Paperback)
In Jonathan Lewis's second novel, Ned Bale, Scotland Yard's cleverest detective, is landed with a murder which rapidly turns out to be more of an intrigue. From the outset of this fast-paced thriller, we are sent on the wrong track. Ned sees the Minister of Defence blown up outside his Welsh weekend home by an IED which leaves clues of its Afghan origin. But has it been placed by a jihadi, a disgruntled squaddie (as the secret service suggests), or is there a more complicated explanation? And what in the world is Ned to make of the fragment containing the fingerprint of his former colleague and lover, the gorgeous "Dog Tart", Kate Baker, now on tour in Afghanistan sniffing out unexploded bombs? Lewis has a wonderful eye for detail - the specification of the bomber's get-away vehicle; a tense episode in which Kate defuses a bomb while Ned observes from the ops centre; the paraphernalia of Afghan army bases, hurly-burly of its cities and beauty of its countryside; as well as a keen ear for language - the secret poetry of Afghan women and the interior ambiguities of the novel's key characters. And at the story's climax, Lewis's taut plotting brings Bale and Baker to a bad place where they must find their way through treachery of every kind - intimate, military and political.


All the materials for a midnight feast, or Zagira
All the materials for a midnight feast, or Zagira
by Gary Dexter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.75

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautfully written by an unreliable narrator, 1 Sep 2011
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Gary Dexter's debut full length novel is a first-person acount of - well we can't be absolutely sure. Ostensibly we have a straightforward frame made up of our hero's coach-trip to an anti-nuclear demonstration in Glasgow and its aftermath. During this he composes for our benefit an account of his truncated university career in Hull twenty-five years earlier. The novel is full of good things, most of all Dexter's luminous prose which he uses to explore the most precisely delineated emotions of confusion, embarrassment, retrospection and imperfect self-knowledge. There are some wonderfully comical effects, several having to do with a running joke about unsatisfactory meetings with the celebrated poet, Philip Larkin, also Hull University's Librarian. But there are also telling observations of fashions among female activists in that era and our own; as well as vignettes of student digs and parties, mini-cab drivers and fumbles between men and women. The progression of the novel serves to undermine much of what our narrator initially tells us, though - and this is where I might cavil - we are never put in the way of a definitive exposition of our hero's condition; merely that he is evidently as mad as a rat. Nor is it one hundred percent clear why we should care, though the novel's final words suggest that Dexter's theme has been love and its disappointments. But by now our own dissapointment with our hero has dissipated any identification with his claim upon love: simply by serving his purpose as Dexter's unreliable narrator, he has been revealed as too flakey to command our sympathy. Read this book for the excellence of the writing and the humour; then wait for Dexter's next as he develops his grip on the congruence between moral thrust, theme, character and plot.


Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future
Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future
by Ian Morris
Edition: Hardcover

37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thrilling read but cops out on key question, 25 Nov 2010
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Ian Morris' "Why The West Rules--For Now" is a thrilling read. Morris is an accomplished stylist and his romp through the last fifteen-thousand years of human activity is fun, informative and--with one or two qualifications, explored below--convincing. I would recommend the book to anyone looking for a tour d'horizon of world history and pre-history.

Morris, however, is after bigger game, seeking to bring up to date a debate on the roots of Western leadership. One theory is "long term lock-in", which would have it that the West was always destined to enjoy primacy and possibly always will. Different examples of this would be Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel, 1997), who made much of geography, in particular the distribution of domesticable plants and animals; or David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 1998), who dwelt on ideas, in particular those arising out of the northwest European enlightenment which encouraged enterprise by rewarding it with lawful property. Alternatively there is the "short-term accident" view, which would have it that Western primacy is something of an aberration, shortly to be corrected, following Joseph Needham's classic study of Chinese technology, or such more recent works as Martin Jacques' 2009 "When China Rules the World".

Morris is an archaeologist, so much of what is exciting in the book has to do with recent findings from his discipline. These enable us to learn much, even when records are absent: examples include the incidence of shipwrecks and lead pollution as surrogates for economic activity. Archaeology helps Morris fill in the gaps between the accounts of Diamond, who looks particularly at the period shortly after the ice retreated, and Landes, who instead focussed on just the last few hundred years.

Morris presents his conclusions via some home-grown sums and a trio of beguiling aphorisms. The sums are his own index numbers of human development, which he uses to illustrate the grand sweep of history and prehistory, showing that the West has been consistently ahead except for an interval from c600CE to c1800CE. He attributes this largely to geography, following Diamond. His aphorisms, "change is caused by lazy, greedy frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things"; "people (in large groups) are all much the same"; and "each age gets the thought it needs" combine to reinforce his determinism, in which ideas and free will count for little.

As for the future primacy of East versus West, Morris cops out. He makes no bones that he expects the East, that is China, to overtake the West, that is the US. But, he says, by then it won't matter. Failing catastrophe (nuclear war, climate change), we will all be so much better off that the problem will dissolve in a more or less unimaginable technological utopia.

By Morris' own account, this won't haul the freight. Even after China overtakes the US on his index numbers, Americans will still be far better off. Morris is not the first to envisage a utopian future but none has so far turned up. As to his determinism, he follows Landes to note that the Chinese state was strong enough to enforce a policy of isolation for four hundred years after it abandoned intercontinental exploration in the fifteenth century, while the absence of a single European power led to competition and defensible economic and political rights, extending innovation and enterprise. Is it too much to draw conclusions about the rights and wrongs of large versus small states, institutions prizing stability versus competition, or economic and political concessions versus rights? China is still on the wrong side of history by all these measures.

To conclude with an analogy on primacy. Twenty years ago, we were bracing ourselves for Japanese primacy, with innumerable books, articles and even films on the subject. In the event, that gig got cancelled. If I had to, I would bet that so will this one: the prospect of Chinese primacy will founder on an over-strong state which will decline to permit competition or defensible property rights. Morris should know that.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2011 8:14 PM BST


Into Darkness
Into Darkness
by Jonathan Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.40

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stylish first thriller, by Emmy award-winning film-maker, 23 Sep 2010
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This review is from: Into Darkness (Paperback)
Jonathan Lewis's first thriller is a find, as much character as plot driven. Without giving away the denouement, we kick off with the death of Britain's "national treasure", Sir Thomas Best, a cheesy concoction of Richard Attenborough and Bruce Forsyth, in the docks of an unnamed city, the only witness his seeing-eye dog, Suzy. From there we are taken into the bowels of a police procedural, leavened with trips to country churchyards, gallery-openings, dog-tracks, hill-farms and eventually back to the docks where we started.

From the outset, we meet a cast of arresting characters: our hero, DCI Edward Bale, aka "Ned the Yid", clever, intuitive and the bosses' favourite - provided he continues to deliver. The rough and tumble of the station canteen is caught by other such nicknames, which form one of the delights of the book: "Extra" Bilge, Spick and Span, Doc Bones and our troubled heroine, the Dog Tart, concealing the nuisance of her unwanted beauty in the baggy overalls of her trade. Suzy, the seeing-eye dog, has her own distinct character, indeed the novel hinges on it.

Lewis is a fluent stylist, moving effortlessly beween the voices of his characters; a few of his words do much work, no surprise given the innumerable treatments he must have written during a distinguished career as a film director and producer. This also provides powder and shot for the hinterland of the "national treasure" and his equivocal entourage.

Some might miss geographical specificity, the customary apparatus of the thriller since Conan Doyle - we never quite know where we are. But in a funny sort of way by the end of this remarkable first novel we know just where we are: Lewis serves up a nail-biting climax and a conclusion which is true to character, plot and our sense of how we would like justice to be served.


Repairing British Politics: A Blueprint for Constitutional Change
Repairing British Politics: A Blueprint for Constitutional Change
by Richard Gordon QC
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable exercise, 17 Jun 2010
Richard Gordon (RG below) contributes to an important debate: what to make of the UK's governance at a time when parliament is in disrepute, no doubt in large part because it is formally sovereign, but in reality in thrall to the executive or largely unacknowledged limitations.

His approach is eclectic, tidying up the monarchy and the attorney general, part-reforming the House of Lords (renamed "Senate"), and introducing a "citizen's branch" to make extemporaneous proposals. His experience should be taken seriously--he has drafted constitutions and has a distinguished career in the field. He modestly says that he offers his book to start a debate.

RG dispels the misapprehension that Britain has never had a written constitution: Cromwell had two; and he draws attention to the uncertain character of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, with some jurists claiming that it falls out of common law and thus becomes fully subject to judicial interpretation.

This takes us to the central problem of our constitutional dilemma--there are no de jure limits on our legislature, Parliament, but that it has been captured by the executive for generations (as far back as the forties, Harold Wilson got his first in PPE by writing an essay on the topic), also surrendering powers by treaty, in particular to the European Union but also to a piecemeal programme of judicial intervention. This hotchpotch was intended by no-one, leaves many confused and dissatisfied, so opening the door to proposals like those from RG. Do they do the trick? That's hardly the point: after all RG makes it clear that he is trying to provoke a debate. So just a couple of points.

First, when it comes to a Bill of Rights, that is the cardinal freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, RG goes well beyond governance to policy, by guaranteeing free health, social care and education; a healthy environment and an adequate standard of living. This feels like nothing so much as a shopping list from the soft-left. This is reinforced by the notes on Article 181. The article itself is couched in more or less unexceptionable language, but the note refers to Wilkinson and Picket's Spirit Level, a rousing call for social engineering to diminish inequality. If we are to take our policy from popular political science why not Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist, which ascribes all human progress to the impulse to trade. Answer: it's a matter of taste. This must explain why the guarantee of property rights includes weasel words from the European Human Rights Act : "Nothing in these provisions shall impair the right of a state to...control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes..." Not much of a right here.

Second, the "citizen's branch" seems a needless complication. With no powers, it would be nothing but a talking shop. If the objective is to give powers to the public, why not primaries, plebiscites or recall rights?

Net, net, however, the exercise is worthwhile, offering a solution to with Britain's central constitutional dilemma, the equivocal character of parliamentary sovereignty. Oddly enough, since the book's publication, the Brits have happened upon another approach: a formal coalition agreement. Now to see how that goes.


The Alternative Manifesto: A 12-Step Programme to Remake Britain
The Alternative Manifesto: A 12-Step Programme to Remake Britain
by Eamonn Butler
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goes the extra step, 11 Mar 2010
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With his characteristic fluency and good sense, Eamonn Butler sets out the issues facing Great Britain two months ahead of the election which--whatever it does for our government--will at last bring the "rotten parliament" of 2005-2010 to an inglorious conclusion. Dr Butler writes from the perspective of the libertarian Adam Smith Institute, but he does so without knee-jerk attitudes or remedies.

Instead he goes through the big issues of what have come in the lifetime of the baby-boom generation to be the principal concerns of national policy: education, healthcare and welfare, pointing out that we would do better without the withering hand of central government upon these services. He reminds us that the State has undermined its legitimacy by taking on responsibilities which it cannot discharge and that in consequence frustrated politicians have become acutely victim to their deformation professionelle for mindless (and invariably ineffective) regulation. Thus the bully and surveillance state, which all too often fails in the State's original objective of keeping the peace. Possibly in despair, Dr Butler is silent on defence.

He reminds us that the perpetrators of the financial crisis were governments and the cheap money they pressed upon unqualified borrowers, and touches on the politicians' squalid campaign to avoid their responsibility for the mess they have created.

This takes us to the distinguishing character of the book, by comparison for example with the Policy Exchange's otherwise excellent "Renewal of Government" (in a bad night for London's policy-wonks, their launch parties coincided on the evening of 10 March!) Dr Butler wastes no paper, but finds space to take the extra step from defective policy, through the unintended consequences of political hyperactivity, to constitutional reform.

This is the elephant in the car park of British public life. Party leaders of every stripe are encouraging the electorate to sleep-walk toward the May election, as though the political class and the arrangements underpinning it were not utterly discredited. Perhaps they will pull it off. Dr Butler's book shows what they instead ought to be doing.


Heaven And Earth: Global Warming - The Missing Science
Heaven And Earth: Global Warming - The Missing Science
by Ian Plimer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.50

102 of 119 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly impaired by editorial failings, 30 July 2009
I am a lay (that is scientifically uneducated) reader, with an inclination against the thesis of anthropogenic forcing--less pretentiously "global warming". (My reasons: I don't like the spectacle of rich folks pulling up the ladder of economic progress against those a generation or so behind them). I expected to find arguments in "Heaven and Earth" to support my leanings and I did, but I was also alarmed by the book's weaknesses which have made it easy to dismiss.

We see this by examining how much the author succeeds in making his arguments against the three bases upon which we might accept the thesis of anthropogenic forcing: theory, evidence and modelling.

As to theory, the author restates Freeman Dyson's telling point that carbon dioxide, so far from being a poison is a plant food: that's why we introduce it into greenhouses at 2½ times atmospheric concentrations. (Though mind you, greenhouses are hotter than most of us would wish to tolerate.) He also draws our attention to the complexities bearing upon terrestrial temperature, among them variation in solar orbits and radiation, the chemistry of ice, ocean currents, the variety of greenhouse gasses entering the atmosphere in the natural course of things and much else. Unfortunately, his argument is so discursive and repetitive as to give the "and another thing" impression of someone uncertain of the quality of his own material. It may simply be that he needed a tougher editor, but it leaves the thoughtful reader with an uneasy feeling, particularly as most--like me--will not be competent to test the science or have the time or inclination to check the 2311 references.

This takes us to evidence, where the author reminds us of the uncertainty arising out of the recent record, in particular the medieval, Roman and Minoan warming periods, which occurred without any contribution from anthropogenic carbon dioxide; and of the inconvenient truth that temperatures have been falling for the last decade. This is good stuff and Professor Plimer could have gone further by reminding us that many climate evangelists have abandoned "global warming" for the infinitely slippery "climate change". The author also dwells on geological warmings and coolings, principally to remind us that life survived such episodes, and leading us to some more or less irrelevant material about extinctions. These miss the point as presumably we would prefer to avoid disruption well before we get to extinction. Finally, Professor Plimer introduces some decidedly eccentric comments which seem to argue that the helium/hydrogen model of solar composition is mistaken. (Yes, I did say I'm not a scientist, but I think that even I would have caught it if such a central astrophysical theory had been seriously challenged.) I can't see how this bears upon the book's core argument and I could really have done without remarks so much smacking of bats in the belfry.

As to modelling, the author has some knock-about fun with Michael Mann's ludicrous "hockey stick" graph. As it happens, modelling is something I know a bit about (I was trained as an economist and worked for many years as a securities analyst), so I am correspondingly sceptical about arguments based on them, particularly given the simplifications made by the modellers concerned and their well-documented reluctance to make their calculations and assumptions known to third parties. Indeed, in private conversation with climate modellers, they have shared their unhappiness with the extravagant claims of some of their number. But on the other hand, Professor Plimer himself uses a graph that has been discredited, as omitting data from the last 20 years. This is either dirty pool or just lazy.

There is quite a lot of ad hominem material, some of it very interesting, for example the analysis of the tiny number of actual IPCC authors, but ultimately these are irrelevant to the rights and wrongs of the argument. I agree unreservedly with the author's characterisation of global warming as a latter-day religion for those disenchanted with the modern world. But his tone is often at least as intemperate as those he criticises. To conclude, I get the feeling that inside "Heaven and Earth", there is another better book, possibly more than one, in which Professor Plimer gets himself a decent editor so that his arguments can be made more effectively; and the one or two egregious failings are corrected. I would like to read that book and the debate very much needs it.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 6, 2012 8:03 AM GMT


The Rotten State of Britain: Who Is Causing the Crisis and How to Solve It
The Rotten State of Britain: Who Is Causing the Crisis and How to Solve It
by Eamonn Butler
Edition: Paperback

49 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emphatic and authoritative demolition of the Blair-Brown years, 3 Mar 2009
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Dr Butler has written an book whose passion does nothing to take away from its cool-headed analysis. His demolition of the Blair/Brown years embraces not merely New Labour's well-known failings: spin over substance, the nanny and surveillance state, stealth taxes and wasted money, but illustrates the emptiness of its proudest boasts: "no return to boom and bust", "education, education, education", "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

He makes no bones that Blair and Brown built on weaknesses already present, in particular Britain's chronic over-centralisation, but also points to New Labour's doleful record of undermining checks on executive power in the civil service, parliament and elsewhere.

He concludes with a well-judged call for central government to retreat from responsibilities which it cannot discharge. His book is far better qualified to set a pre-election agenda (and far more moral) than Will Hutton's 1996 diatribe, from which it takes its name.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 15, 2010 1:43 PM BST


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