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Alex Ireland

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The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Robert J. McMahon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

0 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not much better than a few internet articles., 26 May 2008
The VSI series doesn't always work for me. If I invest time to read any non-fiction book, I expect it to better than a few internet articles.

This book is a summary of facts with a few interesting angles that cover the geo-politics and strategies mainly from the Western perspective.

But the problem with some of these VSI's is because they are so short, the authour doesn't have scope to include some real meaty stuff or delve into their own opinions.

It's just summary history, but a good Wikipedia article is the same!
At 167 pages, there's at least 4 hours reading for me. So if my objective is just to get information and an education of the cold war, are my better off going for this VSI or to Wikipedia or google video, where the presentation can beat these books? Or my better off just getting a better, longer book?

Sadly both alternatives would have been better.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science
The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science
by Jonathan Haidt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Pop Psychology book, 23 May 2008
The Happiness Hypothesis

It doesn't really matter what you believe in, we all seek happiness in our lives. So it might just make some sense to understand what happiness actually is and how it can be achieved? The Happiness Hypothesis is neither a self help book nor science for the academic ( although there are several academic papers referenced throughout), it's pop psychology for the curious and inquisitive reader.

Haidt picks his way through various religious aphorisms from Buddhism to Christianity from Hinduism to Islam and selects adages from acclaimed philosophers: Aristotle to Hume, Nietszche to Plato. He presents a selection of maxims from these various thought systems where the underpinning messages have an obvious and striking correlation. What do these correlations mean? And what can clinical psychology add as an explanation? It appears very obvious that there is an innate aspect of the human condition which pertains to happiness. It transcends beliefs, cultures and history. It's important that's understood in ones quest for happiness.

Haidt also goes a bit deeper and more towards the particular as he examines factors which determine happiness in one's job, one's relationships and things that are of a more personal nature. Why are some things more important than others in determining happiness? For example, why is commute time to work more important than the amount of free space in one's home? Haidt explains and substantiates his arguments by referring to experimental evidence and clinical psychology. So it's much more than just relying on 2,000 year old maxims, even though the snippets of ancient wisdoms dovetail nicely with modern scientific evidence he uses.

Some interesting ideas concern not only the remit of happiness but also the very opposite. He discusses best mechanism for dealing with depression: Prozac, meditation or cogitative therapy. He discusses some hard wiring in the brain and behavioural patterns for example the maximizers, who procrastinate and over analyse every choice and decision they make, and the more chilled out satisficers, who reside at the other end of fastidious spectrum. A very thought provoking point discussed is the hypothesis put forward by European Sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century which correlated probability of suicide with the lack of constraint or obligations in one's life. It's one I had never heard before and with the tragedy of suicide ubiquitous it would certainly make one wonder.

Like all good writers, Haidt has the ability of explaining the esoteric. He does an excellent job of explaining Kant's categorical imperative, scientific concepts such as group selection and the fact that human brain and head size mean that babies are born at very early stage of biological development compared with our primate cousins.

In summary, this book is not an eureka. It's a gentle reminder that happiness is important. There are ways of understanding it that can both be generic or particular and that they are cues from ancient wisdom which we can examine using some modern science and clinical psychology.

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
by Bjørn Lomborg
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good, 15 May 2008
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First things first, Lomborg accepts Global warming is happening. This book is not some psuedo scientific "there is no global warming" poppycock. It is an attempt to cut through the hysteria and look at climate change objectively and rationally. What exactly is the problem? What is the best solution? These are the questions Lomborg tries to deal with in this book.

He puts various aspects of climate change under cost - benefit analysis; putting a price on this policy and that policy as he attempts to deduce what is the most effective and feasable approach to deal with the climate change.

Throughout his analysis Lomborg's covers a wide range of climate change issues. For example:
1. Currently more people are victims of cold related deaths than heat related deaths. Therefore, the direct and immediate impact on human life is actually positive with global warming.
2. Many natural disasters, for example hurricanes have little to nothing to do with global warming.
3. Kyoto for all its publicity will not really make that much difference to climate change. Even in its full implementation, it will slow down climate change by only 5 years over a 100 year period. For far less money, we could actually achieve much more.

And just in case you need something quirky while you work you wear through a plethora of hard hitting arguments, there's the idea that painting the roads white would reduce tempature in cities - not sure about the aesthics after a few tyre marks though!

A very pertinent point Lomborg makes is that if our ultimate aim is to do good for humanity we must consider all humanities' problems and not just global warming. He references the Copenhagen consensus and clearly shows that many other problems for example malaria, malnutrition and several others, all of which we could do much more about, with a lot less money, than ineffective climate change policies like Kyoto. Yes, it would be nice to fix every problem, but we never fix every problem. So how do we prioritise? Again, Lomborg argues the cost - benefit anaylsis approach becoming effectively utilitarian in his philosophy. Which approach helps the most amount of people?

I agree with the overall hypotheisis that too much hysteria can mean we miss the big picture but the devil is always in the detail and with climate change, which afterall is an immensely complicated problem, it really is no different. Even though his points are well substantiated, with a voluminous amout of references (over 1,000 in about 200 pages), it's impossible to critically review this analysis unless one is at PhD level in the field or is working at a very senior level in it. I mean, if I was to spend one hour checking each reference out, I'd possibly be unemployed! Heck I wouldn't even had time to write this review.

Now that's not to say that that invalidates anything in the book, but it reminds me how complicated climate change is and as the book constantly points out, simple answers aren't always in Al Gore movies.

Thank you Mr. Lomborg I enjoyed this book.

False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism
False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism
by John Gray
Edition: Paperback

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Global Capitalism Polemic, 6 May 2008
John Gray argues global capitalism is an unworkable, unattainable, unrealizable economic delusion. There are several reasons for this. Among them:
1. A free market is antithetical to democracy. A democracy where everyone has a say will never want a fully fledged free market because the losers will always outnumber the winners.
2. People will never be happy in a free market because the stress in their lifes will be too high as a result from the uncertainties of the free market.
3. The free market neglects human needs for social identity and social security. This means people will have no sense of loyality to state or political edifices. Lassez faire economics can only inevitably self implode.

In his polemic, he considers several economies including USA, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, China and Japan. It's not a bad book but I think the shortcoming of it is that it is too concerned with nit picking
all the problems with the free market. While there's nothing wrong with a detailed analysis, it just seems one eyed. Nothing is ever perfect, so it should come as no suprise to any rational thinking person that the free market has its faults. The question is what is the best way for us to have innovation, efficiency and a humane welfare state with distribution of wealth? Is that possible or is it always a see-saw act between capitalist and socialist ideologies? I thought this book was too concerned with articulating problems rather than searching for solutions.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 10, 2012 12:27 PM BST

Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It
Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It
by Simon Singh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Great pop Science book., 2 May 2008
Simon Singh details the Scientific journey which produced the discovery and acceptance of the Big Bang.
The book is a chronological story. Singh begins with the foundations. He gives a clear overview of the early Aristotelian view of celestial bodies, followed by Copernicus' and Gallieo's Sun centered view and then Einstein's relativity. After this Le Maitre comes along, who showed the universe was expanding. This really is a critical stage as once its understood the universe is expanding, its more intuitive it had small beginnings. One senses the imminent Eureka!

But there's more! Hubble's discovery of other galaxys, the increased atomic understanding and the manifestation of reliable nuclear fusion theories. Singh ties them all together and explains how the Gaman, Alpher
and Herman came upon their Big Bang Hypotheisis.

However, things are never simple in such a ground breaking Scientific discovery. The theory wasn't complete and competiting with it was the Steady State Model. The cosmological community was divided.

Piece by the piece, step by step the Big Bang clawed it's way ahead of the Steady State model and eventually became widely accepted.
Some key moments:

1. The age of the universe was recalibrated - Baade and Sandage
2. Hoyle explained how heavier elements were formed upon the death of stars.
3. Radio Astromoney showed far galaxies and an uneven nature to the universe.
4. Penzias and Wilson discovered the CMB radiation predicted by Gaman, Alpher and Herman.
5. In 1992, the Cobe Satellite indicated variations in CMB radiation which indicated variations in densitiy in the early universe which would have created the early galaxies in the Big Bang Model.

The writing style is clear, concise and passionate. Got an interest in pop Science books? Put this on your shelf.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard hitting religious polemic, 2 May 2008
Incredibly 120 Million Americans (who claim to be Biblical literalists) believe creation was 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. In this book, Harris argues daftness has a dark side; unquestioned religious faith causes some major problems.

A quick glance of the globe and one can easily correlate two competiting religions co-located and needless bloodshed:
Palestine: Jews v. Muslims
Balkans: Orthodox v. Catholics v. Muslims
Northern Ireland: Protestant v. Catholic
Kashmir: Muslims v. Hindus
Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Muslims v. Christians

Harris also points out that religious faith, by taking dogmatic and unquestionable moral positions can block Scientific progress. For example, stem cell research - the candle of hope for those afflicted with insufferable conditions. It really isn't fair that someone can spend their life in a wheelchair or suffer Alzheimer's when a breakthrough in stem cell research could change their life.

However, some of his analysis is a bit one-eyed. For example in his analysis of Islam, he produces a range of statistics and surveys of Islamic countries which show them following a common thread of inhumane values. The problem is that he leaves out some of the more liberal Islamic countries, such as the U.A.E. and Malaysia. That said most of his points are well made, for example the insularity of the Arabic world is evident by the very low number of books translated into Arabic. In 2002 Spain was translating about the same number of books into Spanish in a single year as the entire Arabic world had translated into Arabic since the 9th century!

His writing style is methodical, surgical and logical. He coats that with the occasional dabble of dry, sardonic humour. For example, if the Bible is the word of God, how come Shakespear's writing is of a higher literacy standard? Or why did God creates 250,000 species of bettles?

It's a good book, but the hard line atheist angle won't win over most theists. There is the odd compliment to Religion. He does point out that the Muslim conquest of Spain meant that classical Greek texts were translated into Latin which eventually helped them find their way into the Renaissance. But overall, the standard theist will just feel they are being misrepresented and misunderstood. It's a hard hitting religious polemic, but it will more than likely just be read by those who already have a religious aversion.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years
Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years
by Jared Diamond
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Educational, thought provoking., 1 May 2008
Why are some parts of the world more advance than others?
A cursory analysis would yield the following suggestions:
1. Some parts of the world have better weapons i.e. guns
2. Some parts of the world have more complicated viruses and bacteria i.e. germs
3. Some parts of the world had an industrial revolution i.e. steel.

This book goes a step deeper and explores the reasons why some parts of the world got these competitive advantages.

The central part of the hypotheisis is that Eurasia had a better ecology and a hole host of benefits spawned from this - not all of which are obvious.

Eurasia (especially the fertile crescent) simple had a good permutation of land, rivers, mountains and climates that produced favourable conditions for a wide range of crops and plants. These favourable conditions also meant a greater range of domesticated animals. For example, most animals over 100KG were first domesticated in Eurasia. This includes, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys. All this meant, the transition from hunter - gatherer to agrarian lifestle was made sooner. With a sedentary lifestyle comes, population growth, societal organisation, and trade specialisation. But all of this was a indirect result of an act of nature, there was nothing innately special about home euroasio!

With stable sedentary societies, technological progress was inevitable. As were a wide range of germs due the range of domesticated animals and man's closer proximity to them. The complex arrangement of mountains of rivers gave rise to separate cultural and ethnic groupings and eventually nation states. Competition between them, ensured rulers had to innovate or else be face being wiped out by a grouping better organised in what became an almost Darwinian struggle - rewarding societal success and punishing societal failure.

We all know that to understand the present, we sometimes need to understand the past. The question is, how far back in past do we need to go? Well, this book would make me think that when it comes to the comparative evolution of societies, we certainly need to go right back to Pleistocene, have a look at mother nature and take a cue from there.

Want something for your mind to chew on, go for it. You'll enjoy this book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2009 2:04 AM BST

Moral Literacy: Or How to Do the Right Thing
Moral Literacy: Or How to Do the Right Thing
by Colin McGinn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.84

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An examination of morals, determining right from wrong., 29 April 2008
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This book examines moral choices using reason. Although written by an established academic Philosopher, it is written in simple, perspicuous terms and can be easily understood.

It's ideally suited to someone who has just started to think that ethics is something that can be reasoned. Why is something right and something else wrong? What's the underlying reason?

The precocious, inquisitive teenager would love this book as would any parent who wishes to have reasoned rational answers or some intelligent discussions on moral questions. In fact, anybody who likes to consider ethics but really doesn't have the time to plunge their way through academic philosophy, would get something out of it.

As someone who loves a good steak, I found the chapter arguing vegetarianism extremly challenging. I had never heard such a robust argument for it and it would definetly make me respect this philosophy far more. Unfortunately, I love my meat too much. I'll admit defeat and just
try to stick to free range and donate some money to some animal charities.

To summarize, it's a short, succint and thought provoking book. I'd recommend it if you wish to dabble into ethical philosophy. If you want a more academic analysis move onto to something else.

All My Friends are Superheroes
All My Friends are Superheroes
by Andrew Kaufman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Chesil Beach on Acid, 29 April 2008
A close up view of a love struggle, the principle plot over a short time span with plenty of flash backs - sounds a bit like Chesil Beach, doesn't it? Well that's where the similarity ends. This is like Chesil Beach on LSD. This book is a goofy, zany take on the struggle of a particular relationship.

Every single character bar Tom (the male half of the relationship) is a superhero with a special power. Some of these special powers are hillarious, even if they way they are tied together is a little bit disjointed. At times the writing style is haphazard; at other times it lacks detail and substance. This is disappointing because the originality and zaniness of the book - both of which deserve kudos - are negated by these failings. It's a pity the author didn't get some good feedback from an early draft and then bring what had potential to its potential.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 7, 2010 11:23 AM BST

Status Anxiety
Status Anxiety
by Alain de Botton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, thought provoking, well written., 26 April 2008
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)
De Botton investigates anxiety about societal status in this book.

He details five causes:
1. Lovelessness: perceptions of place in the world can be a derivative of the love we receive.
2. Snobbery: poverty may cause material problems but snobbery will cause anxiety of one's status.
3. Expectation: expectations of status, directly cause anxiety.
4. Meritocracy: meritocracies remove excuses for failure and thus increase status anxiety.
5. Dependence: we have dependence on our temporal talents, luck, work and global economics. Status anxiety can be determined by things that we cannot control.

Following the causes are five solutions:
1. Philosophy: seek happy mediums and trust in logic rather than the opinions of others.
2. Art: expressions in art such as tradegy or comedy can make us think beyond our status anxiety.
3. Politics: an understanding of politics can help us understand our problems.
4. Christianity: Christianity is a challenge of materialistic ideals by placing value on things that are derivative from the human condition.
5. Bohemia: following the decline of Christianity, Bohemia has in some respects substituted it. For the bohemian, the church has become the cafe. Bohemia too argues a non material philosophy.

It's very important to stress this is not a self-help, or change your life book. It is a philosophical analysis of how objects and properties in society effect perceptions of the self and the anxiety that may cause. While the solutions have not removed the concept of hierarchy, they have provided new types of hierarchy and values whereby those who were not able or did not want to participate in conventional worldly ideals have had other outlets for achieving a happy life.

Like all of De Botton's books, this book is peppered with interesting pictures and quirky facts such as:

1. The word snob coming from the habbit of Oxford and Cambridge universities writing sine nobilitate (without nobility) or s.nob beside the names of students who were not aristocrates.
2. The story of Nixon meeting Krushchev presenting the american Taj Mahal

He also references philosophers and intellectuals, for example:
1. David Hume thought we are more jealous of those close to us.
2. Aristotle belief on social predestination. You could be born a slave and so be it.
3. Locke and Hobbes thought that individuals give up individuality to join societies in return for protection. It was symbiotic relationship between individual and society.

Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Augustine, William James, De Toqville, Rousseau, Marx, Mandeville, Herbert Spencer, Michael Young, Boltan Hall, La Bruyere, Machiavell, Guicciardini, Kant, Chamford, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Freud, Bernard Shaw are also referenced when he makes various points.

This is the beauty of De Botton's writing. He takes nuggests of wisdom from a voluminous amout of intellectuals. He then present these snippets in a context which is well argued and makes sense. He's a talented, objective writer who posseses erudite knowledge and an abilitiy to explain succintly. This book is enjoyable read for anyone looking for an interesting and thought provoking examination into an ineluctable aspect of the human condition.

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