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Hande Z (Singapore)
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by Anthony B. Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.57

4.0 out of 5 stars The Impossible Dream, 23 May 2015
This review is from: Inequality (Hardcover)
Atkinson takes on a subject that is of great concern to most of us -- the problem of inequality. He distinguishes the inequality that exists within a nation and the inequality among nations, capturing the essence of what cause each of these types of inequality. This book is partly economics, partly politics, partly sociology, and partly international affairs. It promises much because he is taking an innovative approach to the problem. His main thrust is on the problems arising from distribution. The book is technical and not an easy read for many who are not familiar with economics.

Atkinson’s proposals for action and reform are not merely fiscal or purely political. His appears to be a multi-prong approach and thus merits serious study. In theory, this might have been a nice plan but his proposals may lead one to query the practicality of his views. He has a basic socialist approach in which he advocates greater government action such as creating a national pay policy with minimum wage, a capital endowment paid to all adults, progressive tax, and social insurance, but at the same time he also believes in continued social security contributions. The only problem with his admirable plan in creating a fairer distribution of wealth is that we have first to create sufficient wealth in those countries in which equality has little significance because everyone is mired in poverty. Francois Bourguinon's book, 'The Globalization of Inequality', 2015 Princeton University Press, may be a good companion to Atkinson's book. The stark reality is that good ideas about equality require strong government, but in capitalist countries, a government is as strong as its political base. There are no easy answers.

The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict (Belfer Center Studies in International Security)
The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict (Belfer Center Studies in International Security)
by Richard N. Rosecrance
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Fear and Prejudice, 23 May 2015
This is a thought-provoking book by a number of international affairs experts. The theme is duo-fold. First it analyses the causes of the First World War and secondly, it attempts to draw a comparative risk analysis in the relationship between the US and China today. It is not the economic contest alone that poses a risk of war. Arthur Stein and Joseph Nye Jr provide interesting views as to the causes of WWI. Nye Jr in his essay addresses the two main general questions: Is war preventable and is it inevitable. WWI is an apt subject of study because it had 20 million people killed and empires were destroyed. There are multiple causes of WWI and these are examined in full by Nye Jr. The establishment of two strong blocs in Europe did not cause the war, but Nye Jr says, ‘without the two blocs, the war could not have broken out the way it did’.

As some of the other contributors assert, WWI two ‘small’ factors were highly crucial in causing the outbreak of WWI. The first was that the leaders of the key nations, Germany, Britain, Russia, and France listened to the advice of the lesser known figures in their respective countries. Secondly, it was the failure to contain small incidents and allowing them to escalate.

The two factors became crucial when two big powers allowed long-standing conflicts of interests to continue without finding a diplomatic valve to diffuse the tension. The problem is further complicated by a third factor – the presence of a third party. This is the composite figure of the various allies of the super-powers. Their involvement and disputes with one of the powers invariably draw in the other.

Small things mean a lot, and be careful of your friends as you should be with your enemies. That seems to be the overall message of this book. What makes the book a chilling read is that the reader can juxtapose the present-day bickering between the US and China and their respective allies to see how close the contributors’ analyses are to the history of Europe leading to WWI. Perhaps the leaders of the US and China ought to read this book – and be more aware of the hawks in their own ranks, spoiling for a fight. Or else, history will surely repeat itself.

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia
The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia
by James Bradley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing things as they were, 17 May 2015
This is an immensely fascinating book about the history of American interest in China from the perspectives of the key men from both countries. It begins with the American interest in getting a good trade deal and the indignation at the haughty stance of the Chinese emperor. From then, America and Britain bullied the Chinese with their superior fire power. This was the time of Warren Delano, the grandfather of President Franklin Roosevelt. Bradley gives a gripping account of how the Roosevelts made their fortune from the China trade. But by the First World War, America lost interest in China briefly until Japan started its dominance as a power in the East.

The bulk of the book tells the story of how Chiang Kai Shek and the Soong sisters, one of whom he married, together with his brother-in-law, T V Soong, lost China and fooled America into believing that by supporting Chiang, they have a puppet they can manipulate. America was taken in by a combination of factors - that Chiang and the Soongs were graduates of Harvard, became Southern Baptists (an important factor to Christian America - it was ferent in its zeal to spread its Christian religion to the Chinese peasants), Chiang's dishonesty, his sister-in-law's cunning, the popularity of Pearl Buck's book `The Good Earth', America's ignorance of China and the Chinese, and lastly, America's own `China Lobby' consisting of top aides of President Roosevelt who believed that by Chiang will beat the Japanese and also the communists. Billions of dollars were given to Chiang's `New China'. Bradley does not say so, but questions arise as to how much of that went to the Chiang and Soong families who continued to own properties in Brazil and New York even after they lost China to Mao Tse Tung.

The same ignorance and naivety coupled with the desire to dominate Asia led to the American debacles in Korea and Vietnam. Just as the Americans had no idea what Mao was like (they only saw the flashy but hollow Chiang), they had no idea what Ho Chi Minh was like because they saw only their own puppet, President Ngo Dinh Diem, who, like Chiang, was a Christian president in a Buddhist country. These two episodes are found in the last chapters of the book. They are relevant to the question `Who lost China?' was raised. Bradley pointed out that Most Americans do not know that Mao offered his hand in friendship to America but was spurned until 1973 when President Nixon finally paid homage to the Celestial City as did foreigners since the ancient history of the Middle Kingdom.

It seems that America is still perceiving the China mirage when it constantly sees China as a threat to regional and world peace when in fact it might be America itself that creates and poses that very threat. To that end, Bradley's book can be enlightening - but only if America wishes to see clearly.

This book is lucidly written and explains the greed and political ambition, cunning (and naivety) in politics and international relations. The book is 376 pages long but can be read in a day because it is impossible to put down.

The Great Divide
The Great Divide
by Joseph Stiglitz
Edition: Board book
Price: £17.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dividing is not not necessarily sharing, 11 May 2015
This review is from: The Great Divide (Board book)
Three years ago, Stiglitz published ‘The Price of Inequality’. That was a book about the effect of globalization and the rise of the top 1 percent of society’s income earners. This year he published ‘The Great Divide’ which is a bit more of the same, but this recent book is more a collection of essays connected by the central theme that the divide between the top 1 percent (does it matter if it is 2 percent?) and the rest is growing so rapaciously that the middle class that has served an important socio-economic purpose up to the twentieth century is now disappearing.

In this book, Stiglitz hints at solutions. First, the top 1 percent must learn like the 1 percent of old, that it is no good to be at the top of the pyramid if there is no stable base. Inequality makes the position of the top 1 percent precarious. Stiglitz points to the various kinds of inequality enveloping American society (and gradually, global societies), not just the inequality of wealth but others such as inequality of education and political power, that is undermining the sustainable growth of a healthy economic society. On a more personal level, Stiglitz ruminates and examines issues such as the real reasons why Detroit is failing, and why he thinks Janet Yellen makes a better Federal Reserve than Larry Summers (the latter was anti-regulation and Stiglitz blames the financial crises of 2008 on the de-regulation of the financial institutions). He also cautions Japan against falling into the same inequality trap.

This book seems a nice reminder and a suitable addition to his previous book, but it also complements Anthony Atkinson's book – ‘Inequality: What Can Be Done?’ (2015 Harvard University Press)

The Hundred-Year Marathon
The Hundred-Year Marathon
by Michael Pillsbury
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Don't hold your breath for this, 29 April 2015
Pillsbury is a director of the Center on Chinese Strategy of the Hudson Institute, and has written this fascinating book about politics, military strategy, espionage and intrigue. The author believes that China had a long (100 years) plan of toppling the USA as the world superpower. He cites small incidents and interviews by Chinese dissidents. An example of the former is the story of the Chinese performance artist Cai Guo Qiang who gave an exhibition of his craft by blowing up a Christmas Tree, turning it black, to signify the discovery of gunpowder by the Chinese. But Pillsbury saw this act in more ominous light.

Pillsbury calls Cai a Chinese hawk and like the ruling hawks in the Chinese politburo, Cai is supportive of the ‘narrative of the decline of the United States and the rise of a strong China’. Although the book is interesting and informative especially when it recalls incidents in which the author experienced first-hand, the interpretations and analyses by the author are questionable. Pillsbury admitted that he has not read internal Chinese documents. He is piecing his story from accounts by dissidents. His criticism of China is suspiciously overcooked. For example, he complains that China is increasing greenhouse gas by more than 500 million tons a year when America and Europe together are cutting down theirs by 60 million tons a year. One wonders how much of that 60 million is America’s alone?

Pillsbury writes about people who suffer from the acts of the Chinese governments – businessmen who have been refused visas, for example. But if the Chinese are planning global economic domination as Pillsbury thinks they are, why would China be spurning business? Further, Pillsbury writes about the secret plans China has to help its cause. He has a chapter called ‘The Assassin’s Mace’ in which he talks about China’s plans to build super weapons so that they can overcome a superior enemy. Has not America been doing the same? Pillsbury quotes former Chinese President Hu Jintao, ‘Let us join hands and work together to build a harmonious world with lasting peace and prosperity.’ He then quotes from a speech by President Xi Jinping, ‘We must constantly tamp the material and cultural foundations for the realization of the Chinese dream’, and advances the astonishing conclusion that ‘Xi was laying out the goal of harmonizing the world according to Chinese values’. For decades American has been exporting its capitalistic foundations for the ‘American Dream’. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; it is Pillsbury’s hypocrisy that hopes to turn dreams into nightmares.

The lack of a balanced view detracts from the credibility of this book. The book’s main attraction is its representation of what and how an American hawk thinks about its new and fearsome competitor. Basically, as an American, Pillsbury wants America, not China to dominate the world (in every sense and in every sphere). If America has to do what he accuses the Chinese of doing (and who is to say America is not already doing so) to forge ahead, one doubts that Pillsbury would mind that at all.

The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality
The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality
by James B. Miles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Willing to be good, 28 April 2015
It does seem strange to assert that we do not have free will when we are making hundreds of decisions daily many of which are made after thoughtful considerations. Therein lies James B Miles’ lucid and illuminating work. We may make decisions but that does not mean that the choices we make are freely made. Working from the basis that science has shown that the universe (including us) are subject to the laws of determinism, that is to say, that every effect has a cause, Miles points out the conclusion that is rapidly gaining ground in the study of free will – that we are the product of biology and environment. Only those who hold the Libertarian view of free will still maintain otherwise.

Hence, when we choose eggs instead of cereals for breakfast we appear to be making a choice out of free will. No one compelled us to choose eggs over cereals. But on closer examination, we will find out why we chose eggs. For example, we had cereals the day before, and we have a practice of not eating similar breakfast two days in a row; and that practice started when we were 12; that practice started with an event in which a relative fell ill after eating similar breakfasts two days in a row; and so on. What we do today, and how we think, are affected by past events. Our attitude, character, personality goad us towards certain bias in decision-making, and these factors are formed in us, bit by bit, layer by layer. Further, neuroscience has also shown that in the bulk of our decision-making, our subconscious brain already starts to move in the direction of the final decision before we are consciously aware of that final decision.

Having set out the state of science and reason, Miles tears away at the Libertarian dependence on religion (God) for the basis of asserting free will. He argues, for example, that the Libertarian view that we have free will because we have the power to do otherwise than what we in fact do, implies that any conception that God is all-powerful, all-benevolent, and all-knowing, cannot be true. If we decide to do evil and God does not stop us, he either has no power, or is not willing, or he just cannot know the future.

In the next two chapters, Miles then attacks the flaws in the diverse arguments of the compatibilist views of free will. Compatibilists can be religious or not, but they all accept that the universe is governed by deterministic laws, yet they believe that nonetheless, we still have free will. Naturally, there are many versions and theories as to how that might be possible. Miles attacks the strongest of these, including the views of Kant, Iwagen, Dennett, and Watson.

Miles takes the view that belief in free will undermines our ability to empathise with the less fortunate. The conceit that holds us to the belief that we make good our lives also leads us to believe that poverty and misfortune is not attributable to luck but to our own design. The conceit of free will denies the existence of moral luck. Thus compatibilists spend a great deal of effort attempting to show how free will can overcome moral luck. Miles addresses all those arguments and explains why they are flawed and inadequate.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 21, 2015 1:59 PM BST

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
by John Gray
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.59

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yours freely, 24 April 2015
Can we imagine ourselves as having less freedom than a marionette doll or a puppet? John Gray does. His idea he tells us, is not new but one that has existed since the time of the Gnostics. Gray examines the idea - our human idea - of the freedom of the will. His book is published about the same time as two other equally enthralling books about freedom and free will, James Miles' 'The Free Will delusion', and Julian Baggini's 'Freedom Regained'. Miles' book is detailed, scholarly, and advances his own belief that the world is deterministic, that is, we do not really have free will. Baggini covers the subject in a broader sweep, and written in a style that is more accessible than Miles, and although he largely agrees with Miles that we do not really have free will as most people understand free will to be, he holds the hope that in spite of our condition and circumstances, we can work ourselves into a position from which we might have some form of determination of our own lives. Baggini presents his account by examining the idea of freedom from the perspectives of diverse people including geneticists, artists, addicts, psychopaths, and dissidents.

Gray, like Baggini, examines freedom from a vastly different root source from Miles. He questions the very idea of freedom and the value humans attach to it. He reminds us that we might, upon reflection, more truly wish for freedom from choice instead of having a freedom of choice. After all, thinkers and religious teachers through the ages have postulated that our consciousness stands in the way 'between the mechanical motions of the flesh and the freedom of the spirit'. Hence, transcending consciousness is viewed as a great meditative and religious feat.

Gray examines what modernity and technology is doing to us and warns that the idea that the planet might strike back in the manner of James Lovelock's Gaia, with no ability or know-how to respond from humans because we have no idea how this planet's system truly works. We might strive to control ourselves, and the planet, but Gray fears that we cannot, for he believes that '"humanity" is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything'.

The Dark Net
The Dark Net
by Jamie Bartlett
Edition: Paperback

1.0 out of 5 stars Nothing much. It's all dark., 22 April 2015
This review is from: The Dark Net (Paperback)
This book does not tell us much that we do not already know. The one big theme is that the internet contains all kinds of material for all kinds of purposes, many of which are illegal, and that the creators of such websites are clever people using technology that was invented years ago for military purposes but now in the hands of the public. The author's background is not known. He tells us about all the offensive sites that he has visited just to tell us that they are there. The creators of such sites are difficult to trace because they use 'onion routers', that is, they go through so many layers that no one can find the origin of the sites.

Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
by Samuel Scheffler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars For ever, 19 April 2015
Do we measure our life and value it only by what we experience and expect to experience? Do we feel the loss of life only because we miss being around, either with our friends or by ourselves? Thus Scheffler poses apt questions that make us ponder what really matters to us on the assumption that we have no afterlife to distract us. These are questions that compels us to assess the difference between a thing of value and a valuable thing. We are led to ponder what the incentives are for people to want to give up their lives for others.

Several other contributors including Harry Frankfurt and Susan Wolf comment on Scheffler's work and Scheffler, in turn, presents his rejoinder to those comments.

Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
by Julian Baggini
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free thoughts, 12 April 2015
Julian Baggini (`JG') begins by acknowledging that advances `in neuroscience has put wind into the sails of those who would deny free will' and elsewhere in the book he demolishes conventional (but outdated and flawed) arguments in favour of free will. Yet he asks, `So is the game really up for free will?' He does not think so.

In his usual clarity JG has written an excellent book that explains the arguments in favour of free will and also the traditional arguments against them, taking into account the advancement in science (neuroscience and genetics especially) - scientists has shown that our body determines our action a fraction ahead of our thought, or, as JG puts it, `when we make some choices, the conscious self is the last to know'.

But JG examines the gaps in science and by brilliantly excising the indefensible arguments of free will, he crafts a version of free will which he holds must exist. He says, for example, those who claim that we have the free will to believe in the existence of God demolish their own premise by holding the premise that God is omniscient. If He were, it means that He knows the future and what we would be doing. Nothing therefore is free because everything is determined before hand (otherwise God would not be omniscient).

By taking into account our conscious self's ability to mould character, and thus determining, with our experience and rationality, that we have the option to do otherwise `in the future', we retain a freedom that is worthy of its name. His argument relies on autonomy and responsibility while accepting the things we cannot change. It is not that he has not taken into account the indelible marks of life-changing events, but he claims that we can act freely in spite of them.

Has he re-defined free will as is generally understood or has he explained it in a way that no one else has? His theory does not, of course, prove that our beliefs are true, but that we can choose our beliefs freely. This will be an excellent companion to James Miles' recently published `The Free Will Delusion' (2015 Matador − which is an excellent companion to JG's book).

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