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What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
by Michael Sandel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.60

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing, 5 May 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In this fairly short book, Sandel brings back some sanity to a world that, at times, seems to have sold its soul to 'The Market'.

It is not a rant or a polemic. It is a careful and thoughtful analysis of the encroachment of economics, market ideas and commodification into areas previous considered to be parts of an ethical and public realm.

As in his previous book, 'Justice', Sandel fills the pages with real, actual examples. From these, he draws out what he considers to be the basic principles underlying the pressure to 'commercialise' and the public harm that ensues. This he sees as being essentially either corruption or unfairness. As he says (and it is worth quoting at length):

'The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not be really voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.

The corruption objection is different. It points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold.' (P111)

From these two objections, Sandel looks at, for example, blood donation in the US and the UK. In the US, blood is bought and sold, in the UK it is voluntarily donated. You might say that being able to sell your blood is your choice, but in reality, what happens is that there is, in the US, a movement of blood from the poorest to the richest. In fact, it turns out that the market is, in this case, far from being the most 'efficient' mechanism for providing a need - the UK system is actually more efficient. But it is not just a question of efficiency:

'Economists often assume that markets do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark on social norms. Often, market incentives erode or crowd out nonmarket incentives.' (P64)

The argument for efficiency it seems, is the Holy Grail of economists. They seem to believe that 'economics is a value-free science independent of moral and political philosophy' (P88). This is beautifully but depressingly illustrated by the problems economists face when trying to explain 'gifts' - hugely inefficient, you are always better off giving cash. Economics cannot explain the immaterial aspects of gift-giving.

By putting a price on everything, by overruling objections of unfairness and corruption, the public sphere, the sense of 'we're all in this together' is increasingly eroded. Privileged queue jumping at airports, corporate suites at football grounds, 'gated' communities - all help to stratify a community, encouraging a 'them and us' attitude between the well-off and those not so fortunate.

It seems that economists, with few exceptions, see human being as, in Adam Curtis' phrase, 'lonely robots'. Once you have let market forces in, it is extremely difficult to get them out again, as Colin Crouch also noted, but from a somewhat different perspective. The effects of the resulting erosion of civic duty, public service and the common good are, I would say, plain to see.

As Cyndi Lauper once sang - 'Money Changes Everything'.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 23, 2012 12:41 PM BST

Competition Friendly Protectionism - How a Certain Kind of Protectionism Could Temper and Improve Globalisation
Competition Friendly Protectionism - How a Certain Kind of Protectionism Could Temper and Improve Globalisation
by Ronald Stuart
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.13

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tricky Path, 28 April 2012
As the title implies, what Ronald Stuart has tried valiantly to do here is plot a path between the Scylla and Charybdis of neoliberal free trade dogma and anti-globalisation state control. I'm not sure he quite succeeds but he certainly provides much food for thought.

The book is laid out in four sections:

1 Unintended Consequences

2 Business Is War

3 Where Are We Heading

4 Tempering Globalisation

In the first section, the main thrust of his argument concerns the role that 'positive externalities' play in developing an economy. These positive externalities are difficult to define and quantify and so are often overlooked or not fully taken into account in more mainstream economists' views. Positive externalities are sometimes generated as side-effects of particular economic activities, sometimes they are the cause of economic development. For example, if a country invests in infrastructure - roads, telecommunications etc. - this might encourage businesses to invest. On the other hand, if a business decides to invest in a region, this too can cause positive externalities as the company recruits and trains local labour. Both forms may then encourage other companies to invest, producing a virtuous circle of growth.

Set against this is the free market idea of 'comparative advantage'. This suggests that countries should do what they are good at. Germany is good at building cars and so should stick to that, Egypt is good at growing cotton and should thus continue to do so. This may be the case, Stuart points out, at a particular moment but a car industry is far more likely to generate long-term positive externalities than a commodity based business such as cotton growing.

So there are both qualitative and temporal dimensions to positive externalities that, in Stuart's opinion, are largely over-looked by mainstream economics.

In the second section, Stuart looks more specifically at the roles of state protectionism versus neoliberalism. On the one hand, state protectionism is likely to lead to conflicts as countries raise tariff barriers against imports, whereas a completely free market is 'passive' in the sense that the 'invisible hand' works behind the scenes to produce the best possible outcome for all. However, as many have pointed out before (Klein, Stiglitz, Sachs et al), although some countries such a South Korea may have been hugely successful in protecting their nascent industries, nurturing them until they were able to stand the full rigours of the free market, not all governments are so good at picking winners. One interesting aside here though - Stuart points out that both South Korean and post-war Japanese economic policies were largely planned by non-economists - they were, in fact, engineers with an understanding of the practical and material needs of their industries. This very much reminded me of Confronting Managerialism. In that book, the authors quote a previous CEO of General Motors as saying 'We are in the business of making money, not cars' - in other words, the management (like many economists, it seems) don't care what the products (or positive externalities) are as long as they generate cash. Contrast this with the attitude of the managers of BMW who are far more interested in producing the best cars they possibly can.

Stuart also reveals the hypocrisy of many of the proselytising free market economies - the US imposed huge import tariffs in the 19th century to protect its growing industries. And in Britain, so much of the empire was funded by highly restrictive trade practices, mercantilism and simple, naked agression. Of course, even these 'neoliberal' countries today still maintain a large number of protectionist policies - covering the cutting-edge high-tech arms industries through to 'big pharma'. And, of course, there is huge state investment in these areas too - not mentioned in the book, but I couldn't help thinking of the competition between Boeing and Airbus. On another level, there is also the international enforcement of patent and copyright laws.

All this adds up, according to Stuart, to a simply unsustainable course. His concern is primarily for the 'bottom billion'. How do we raise this vast number of people out of the poverty trap that they seem destined to stay in if we continue to follow our present course? His answer is to try to find a more equitable distribution of marketable goods and services, taking into account their relative propensities for generating positive externalities. To this end, he produces two diagrams - one detailing a 'Differentiation in Traded Manufactured Goods', the other a flowchart suggesting a 'Symmetry of Outcomes'. The idea is to impose selective protectionism, both to aid raising the standard of living of the bottom billion and to temper the increasing polarisation of the societies within the developed world. Some basic manufacturing industries should not be farmed out to the poorest counties, but should be kept in the developed countries, in order to 'tighten up' the developed countries labour markets, to help ease the growing spilt between rich and poor intra- as well as internationally. On the other hand, there should be a process of 'relocalisation' - poorer countries should be allowed to raise import tariffs on goods the import of which would undercut the prices of and thus destroy their local producers. I have greatly over-simplified it here but I hope this gives some indication of the direction of Stuart's thoughts.

However, many of his policies are based around the nation state. And this, I think, is a weakness. He suggests that the Forbes list of top companies over the last 50 years has not stayed static - companies have risen and fallen and as such, they do not constitute an entrenched oligarchy. I have seen this quoted - and disputed - elsewhere and I would dispute it too. There is, now, a class of Trans National Company (or TNC) that bears no loyalty to any one country as Colin Crouch has shown. So to suggest that any one country - or even block of countries - can implement selective protectionism without fearing international opprobrium and retaliation is, I think a bit optimistic. Stuart's policies are not right- or left-wing. That is precisely what he is trying to get beyond - but to suggest that the UK should implement a strict immigration policy and leave the EU is to leave himself open to political attack. But that, I realise, is the inevitable consequence of trying to steer such a tortuous path.

This is a thought-provoking and humane attempt at plotting a course forward - not just out of the current economic mess but for the whole world. It may even be achievable, but it will come up against some very well-entrenched and powerful opposition.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 13, 2012 1:44 PM BST

by Ken MacLeod
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.48

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unfree Range Humanity, 9 Mar 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Intrusion (Hardcover)
Ken Macleod has portrayed a thoroughly believable near-future dystopia. The central protagonists, Hope and her husband Hugh, along with their first-born, Nick, attempt to navigate this world maintaining an independence that is increasingly compromised 'for their own good'.

It starts with 'the fix'. Hope is pregnant with her second child and, due to a court case involving an atheist Iranian couple, comes under increasing pressure to take a pill that will not only protect her child from many of the common childhood diseases, but will also fix any genetic abnormalities. But Hope does not want to take 'the fix' for reasons that are never really clear, even to herself. It is a matter of choice, but a choice that many, even most, see as a 'no-brainer'. If swallowing a single pill could prevent misery to her child and, by the by, save society a deal of money into the bargain, who in their right minds would say no? But Hope does say no. And she is saying no, not only to a Brave New World, but to a stagnant humanity - good or bad. Are all genetic abnormalities inevitably deleterious? Would not taking such a pill mean that someone else has decided what is 'normal', what is good for society, above the rights of the individual? Of course, some people do opt out. There is an opt out for those with religious convictions - but really they are merely tolerated. And for an atheist to opt out is considered simply bizarre and anti-social.

On top of that, it seems that there is a basic underlying agreement, an unspoken compact between civil society and state authority. This is the 'free and social market', a precarious balance that, in a passage that owes more perhaps to Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor than Orwell, seems to describe the logical end point of some form of New Labour ideology. Geena's university lecturer spells it out to her when she comes running to him after a 'routine' bout of torture courtesy of the local constabulary:

'...the most important task in politics has become preventing people from realising that they're already almost there. That train has left the station. We've already crossed the border. State-capitalism can flip over - or rather, can be flipped over, overturned - into socialism in the blink of an eye, the moment people become conscious of the possibility. The point is to prevent them becoming conscious. Both sides already have relative abundance, universal education, extensive planning, formal democracy. Imagine the horror if people got it into their heads to put all these together for the purpose of, let's say, liberty, equality, fraternity!' (P123)

The politics and the technology are completely believable. And chilling. Echoing current discussions about the world wide web, the difference between a liberating and an oppressive, controlling technology seems merely to be one of attitude or, perhaps, ideology.

As an exposition and exploration of trends already visible all around us, this is a powerful book. But as a novel it's not so great. The politics are central, with the result that the characterisation suffers. I found it really quite difficult to 'believe' in Hope and Hugh, Geena and Maya - they seemed two-dimensional and unsympathetic and I didn't really care enough about them to get particularly worked up about their fate.

So, in all, this is a great book of ideas. It is a clear-sighted vision of some of the possible (even probable) directions in which our society is developing. But that vision is too strong for the characters to be much more than cyphers. Compared to the rumbustious and thoroughly likeable Mo Cohen of The Star Fraction or even the Travis family in The Execution Channel, Hope, Hugh, Nick, Geena and all never really 'came alive' for me. For all that, this is still a chilling and prophetic novel.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2012 8:34 PM GMT

by Anders Strindberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: 15.40

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Context and History, 12 Feb 2012
This review is from: Islamism (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This book is an academic study of some of the various Islamist movements that seem to be so regularly in the news. As such, it is a very welcome addition to a debate that is so often two-dimensional at best, completely uninformed at worst. Unfortunately, it is couched very much in the language of academic sociology and also suffers from poor proof-reading which may put many readers off. However, putting those points to one side, this is an important book for anyone wanting to escape or go beyond knee-jerk 'Islamophobia'.

Islamism is not coterminous with Islam. Islam is one of the great religions of the world. Islamism is a religio-political project, process and wide-ranging body of ideas. It is, in some instances, an attempt at an Islamic praxis. It is also an ideology, a body of ideas set up in direct opposition to the hegemonic secular materialism of the modern Western Enlightenment. It really is important to try to place the origins of the various Islamist within this context. And, in the first few chapters, that is what the authors attempt to do.

Many attempts at trying to understand the well-springs of Islamism have been caught in pre-defined sets of ideas. Orientalism, for example,:

"...which developed into the received view and defining framework of Near East studies, imagined the Arab Muslim, not so much as a dynamic human being engaged in an ongoing relationship with his surroundings, as a self-contained and static black box defined by the ancient past while tossed to and fro on the cresting waves of history." (P11)

Drawing on Edward Said's famous study, the authors point out how Western attitudes have so often been shaped by colonialism and imperialism; attitudes towards 'sabaltern people'; seeing them as inferior and pre-modern, in need of guidance:

"...neo-Orientalist scholars succeeded, particularly in the United States, in defining and promoting the twenty-first-century version of the 'white man's burden': pacifying Middle Eastern terrorism; bringing secularism, democracy, and free market economics to the natives; making the region safe for that 'outpost of Western values,' Israel; and protecting the world at large from Islamic fundamentalism." (P15)

Islamism, as a response, suggest the authors, is not a retreat into some golden pre-colonial past but an attempt to come to terms with this subaltern legacy, to restore the dignity of the colonised and to engage in a full debate with the modern world and, indeed, the Western Enlightenment.

The authors go back and look, therefore, at the origins of the various strands of Islamist thinking. Starting mainly in Egypt, they consider the writing of Al-Afghani (note the title of that book - "An Islamic Response to Imperialism" ) and later Sayyid Qutb. The growth of the Muslim Brotherhood was very important as a source or seed movement for much that subsequently developed. Also in Iran, writers from a Shi'a background such as Ali Shariati produced their own critiques of post- and neo-colonialism.

But one writer the authors keep coming back to time and again is a writer intimately involved in the Algerian fight for independence - Franz Fanon. And a key theoretical concept of the authors is 'The Fanonian Impulse' (Chapter 3):

"the psychological impact of insurgence and resistance on the native Self, and the translation of that impact into political currency, tactics and strategy" (P56)

In that sense, Fanon (the authors say) suggests that "violence on the part of the colonized is 'therapeutic'; that the act of taking up arms in and of itself serves to restore the native's self-respect and hence 'decolonize the mind'" (P57)

It is, through this violence, a search for dignity, an escape from the degradation and humiliation of being a 'subaltern people'.

The overthrow of post- and neo-colonialism is only one thread. On the other hand, there is a rejection of the Enlightenment, of the belief that everything can be 'explained' by a secular materialism. This Western materialist approach caters only for one half of a human being and risks returning humanity to an 'animalistic' state - it ignores humanity's 'spiritual' side, the side that is nurtured and developed by the revealed Words of God.

This, then, is an extremely brief summary of the theoretical underpinnings of the book. The following chapters are a series of 'case studies' - "From the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas", "Islamists without Borders: Al-Qu'ida and its Affiliates", "Hezbollah: Islamism as Obligation to Resistance", "Bitter Harvest: Algerian Islamism", "Western Europe: Islamism as Mirror Image". Each attempts to place the development of the movements in both a theoretical and historical context. And the book is also remarkably up-to-date, taking into account the so-called 'Arab Spring' and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

However, there are also, it seems to me, significant gaps. For example, although the authors stress that Islamism is not a wholly Arab concept, they do not consider Deobandism which formed in the late 19th century as a direct consequence of British imperialism in India and Pakistan. They only mention in passing local cultural aspects such as the repression of women; but perhaps these are outside the scope of a book concerned primarily with the growth of a diverse body of thought that continues to evolve, adapt and change.

For anyone concerned with seeing beyond headlines, with getting to grips with some of the underlying realities that inform current debates, this is an important book. Just as an aside, it is also very interesting to compare this book with Adam Curtis' Power of Nightmares, which draws parallels between the thoughts of Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss, whose work so informs the US neo-conservatives.

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
by Thomas Frank
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.60

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Bit Of A Mind Flip, 22 Jan 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
As many have pointed out the last thirty years have been dominated by neo-liberal economics. Based on the ideas of writers and academics such as von Mises, Hayek and Friedman, the state has been 'rolled back', regulation of industry and finance weakened or repealed and taxes for the rich reduced in the belief that a 'rising tide raises all boats'. The result has been that the gap between the poorest and wealthiest has widened considerably. And, of course, the whole pack of cards has finally come crashing down. Why, then, are we witnessing what Professor Colin Crouch calls 'The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism'? Why is this failed doctrine not consigned to history as it was in the 1930s? Why, instead of searching for alternatives to a socially divisive and materially destructive ideology, do so many people demand more of the same? As Thomas Frank puts it:

'Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession's victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from "red tape" and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.' (P3)

In the following chapters, Frank attempts to explain this phenomenon. In many ways, the book continues the themes Frank developed in 'What's the Matter with America?' and 'The Wrecking Crew', drawing them together in a narrative mainly based on the growth of the Tea Party movement. Here, the people from 'What's the Matter with America' meet 'The Wrecking Crew', disillusioned working and small business people listening to, and joining with, the right-wing lobbyists and Washington insiders in demanding an end to regulation, an end to government interference and meddling. It is a very strange sort of looking glass world where a resurgent Right:

'[r]ather than acknowledge that they had enjoyed thirty years behind the wheel, ...declared that they had never really got their turn in the first place. The true believers had never actually been in charge, the "Conservative Ascendancy" never really existed - and therefore, the disastrous events of recent years cast no discredit on conservative ideas themselves. The solution was not to reconsider conservative dogma; it was to double down, to work even more energetically for the laissez-faire utopia.' (P7)

This ideological legerdemain is seen also in the attitudes towards the huge bail outs of the banks and insurance companies. The new right is, in the true spirit of the free market, completely opposed to them but somehow manages not to blame the bankers but to blame those to whom the banks lent money. It is all the fault of the 'moochers', of those 'living too high on the hog'. There is, then, also a moral aspect to this - failure as a 'morally necessary and even a healthful thing' (P53) as commentator Glenn Beck suggested. Couple this with 'failure as nature's response to the hubris of big government, failure as our richly deserved punishment for our bad values' (P53) and slowly we find ourselves pitying the billionaires, those inspirational and heroic John Galt's without whom us sub-humans would have no society.

This leads us to what for me was the most interesting chapter. Entitled 'Mimesis', chapter 7 details the sources of inspiration for the new right. Frank states:

'...we have a conservative movement that has learned, over the decades, to mimic many of the characteristics of its enemies...And so, over the years, the movement came to affect a revolutionary posture toward the state that it might have borrowed from Karl Marx or Jean-Paul Sartre.' P113)

While Naomi Klein details the way that the Right takes advantage of natural and social disasters to impose its economic agenda, the:

'rejuvenated Right fastened on a single flippant 2008 remark from then-incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel - "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste" - and convinced itself on the basis of this one clue that a cadre of left-wingers were planning all manner of offenses against democracy including, in some tellings, the overthrow of capitalism itself, with the financial crisis as a pretext.' (P119)

Frank develops this theme in later chapters. The rewriting and reinterpretation of history is remarkable. In this looking glass world, it is the policies of John Maynard Keynes that turned a recession into the Great Depression. The 'truth' of the Great Depression is as laid out by Ayn Rand in her 'foundational text' (P141) 'Atlas Shrugged'. This prompts Frank to ask:

'What kind of misapprehension permits the newest Right to brush off truths that everyone else can see so plainly? What backfiring form of cognition convinces them that critics of bailouts were in fact responsible for those bailouts? That deregulation is not the problem but the solution? That Ayn Rand is the hero rather than the villain of the present disaster? What allowed this tremendous divergence between fact and appearance?' (P154)

One part of the answer may be seen in one of the Tea Party's favourite films 'Network', another in the closed and segregated media world described well by Evgeny Morozov in his book 'The Net Delusion', where people only mix with like-minded people and any deviation results in expulsion, where right-wing blog links to right-wing blog in an endless chain of reinforcement and self-perpetuation.

But what of the 'other side'? What have the Democrats been up to all this time? They seem hooked on avoiding partisanship, with the result that they have no 'story' to tell, no alternative narrative. Instead, they seek consensus - which means that they are more or less inevitably dragged ever rightward. But, as Jeffrey Sachs has also pointed out in his book 'The Price of Civilization' while the Right may be in hoc to Big Oil (the Koch brothers as major sponsors of the Tea Party etc.), the Democrats are equally compromised by their associations with Big Finance and Wall Street.

At the end, Frank does not have any solutions, nor does Jeffrey Sachs or Colin Crouch or any other commentator that I have read. Should we, here in the UK, be concerned? Yes, we should. Besides the growing links between various UK and US rightwing think-tanks, lobby groups etc., the US is still the largest economy in the world and by far the largest military force in the world. Watching the current Republican primaries must give us all pause for thought.
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 12, 2012 8:54 AM BST

Wonders of the Universe [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Wonders of the Universe [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Brian Cox
Price: 6.25

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of single disc Blu-ray edition, 8 Jan 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I noticed that Amazon have lumped the reviews of all the editions of this documentary together, so you can't really tell the difference between the standard DVD release, the two disc Blu-ray edition or this. So, as the title states, this is specifically a review of the single disc Blu-ray release.

As the technical details at the top state, the single disc contains all four episodes , so total length is just short of four hours. The audio is English Stereo Dolby Digital and the video format is 1080i/16:9. It is not 24P or anything like that. There are subtitles in English, for the hard of hearing. That's it. So it is pretty much standard BBC Blu-ray format; say, the same as Ancient Worlds (Blu-ray) (although, with six episodes, that came on two discs).

The quality is good. It is very good. Many of the scenes are, even after multiple viewings, stunning. But really, it is no better than watching the series broadcast on one of the BBC's High Definition channels. And, again like Richard Miles' 'Ancient Worlds', there are no extras, no 'making of' mini-docs so often seen at the end of BBC natural history programmes.

I'm still happy to have it. This is a documentary series that I have watched half a dozen times already and I am quite sure I will watch it many, many more times. The photography and photographic effects such as the moody vignetting are, as I have already said, brilliant. Brian Cox's presentation is infectiously enthusiastic, the computer generated images really imaginative and quite stunning and the accompanying music very effective. I remember that there was criticism of the music at the time of broadcast, but I find some of the more 'rock-oriented' backing music highly effective, really adding to the impact of the visuals.

So - it is a wonderful documentary series. This Blu-ray edition, though, is simply a good, straight-forward copy of the broadcast series; no extras, no features, no special sound. Frankly, it doesn't need it.

Talking of the scenery; yes, some do border on visual hyperbole. The opening shots of the good professor perched perilously atop a mountain reminded me very much of an edition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra - our Brian as Superman? I have to say, he doesn't look very comfortable standing there. Using the demolition of a derelict prison in some South American city to demonstrate the creation of the heavier elements in dying suns seemed just a little OTT but, on the other hand, the shots of decaying diamond mining towns in Namibia were both beautiful and apposite.

Still - this series is called 'Wonders...' - that is the crucial word - "wonders'. Professor Cox explicitly states that he was hugely influenced by Carl Sagan and his Cosmos TV series/book. Cox even restates Sagan's famous (and, in my opinion, beautiful) quote "We are the way the universe knows itself". This is the way this programme should be approached. Brian Cox has been criticised for supposedly 'dumbing-down' the science - in one episode, he says "Now, I wouldn't normally show you a graph, but this one..." Why wouldn't you normally show us a graph Professor Cox? Because that is NOT what this series is about. This series is, to restate yet again, about the Wonder of the Universe, about that sense of awe that we all feel just looking up into the night sky.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 9, 2012 9:54 PM GMT

200 Pasta Dishes: Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook: Over 200 Delicious Recipes and Ideas
200 Pasta Dishes: Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook: Over 200 Delicious Recipes and Ideas
by Marina Filippelli
Edition: Paperback
Price: 2.49

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pastafari!, 30 Dec 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Writing as a dedicated Pastafarian who can quite happily sit down and eat a bowl of pasta with nothing but a few chopped cloves of garlic, shakes of salt and pepper and a glug of olive oil, I think that this book is wonderful.

It is split into soups and salads, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, vegetarian and homemade (as in make the pasta yourself).

There is one recipe per page with the facing page holding a photo of the finished dish.

The recipes themselves go from the utterly simple - 'quickest-ever tomato pasta sauce' (passata, olive oil and garlic, garnish with parmesan) (oh, and a carton of creamed tomatoes at a fraction of the cost works just as well as passata) through to exotica such as 'fusili with swordfish and artichoke', 'garganelli with red mullet and parma ham'. I feel myself coming over all Homer Simpson just thinking about it (hummm...garganelli, mullet, hummm...parma ham!) I admit, I had never heard of garganelli before but that's just one of the many joys of pasta.

I've already tried one or two of these, with variations, but leafing through the pages just makes me want to try so many more - 'asparagus and anchovy spaghetti' - oh, when will asparagus be back in season? Macaroni and haddock cheese - a meal to warm your cockles. But if you've got particularly cold cockles, why not start off with 'chunky chickpea and pasta soup'? And when Spring returns, look forward to 'spring garden pasta salad'. I can hardly wait!

Recipes are for four people but the pasta amounts vary from roughly 150 grams up to around 400 grams. Not afraid to use canned tuna, canned artichoke hearts and cans of beans so, along with dried pasta and cartons of creamed tomatoes, you can just about always get something together from the larder (yes, o.k. I don't actually have cans of artichoke hearts in my cupboard but I've got enough ingredients to tackle many other recipes with only minimal excursions to the shops).

All in all, I really like this book and I'm looking forward to not only spicing up some old favourites but trying out some new delicacies. Oh wow! I've just found 'chorizo carbonara'!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 27, 2012 8:23 PM BST

Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance - Economic Controversies
Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance - Economic Controversies
by Robert R. Locke
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It Ain't What You Do, It's The Way That You Do It, 26 Nov 2011
We all know that in the last 30 years or so that the rich have got richer and the poor have borrowed. We know too that manufacturing in the US and the UK has drastically declined over this same period and that we are in the midst of an economic crisis the likes of which has not been seen since the 1930s. It is clearly the case that the neoliberal economic model is a major contributor to the current woes. But what has sustained this model even in the face of growing evidence that it not only wrecks societies but does not even live up to its own pronouncements? In this book, Locke and Spender go a long way to providing answers. And those answers in turn point to alternatives.

'Managerialism', suggest the authors, really got going after World War 2. 'Operational Research' was developed during the war as a way of:

'solv[ing] unprecedented strategic planning, logistics, and operational problems that could not be dealt with by the methods governments and military bureaucrats had hitherto employed. Operational Research (OR) projects drew on statistical and mathematically informed techniques...that were particularly suitable to maximising efficiency in large-scale military operations.' (P11)

Such statistical analysis and mathematical modelling clearly has a role to play in manufacturing, particularly in, for example, the car industry. It developed as a management tool. But during its development it 'morphed' into 'managerialism':

'Managerialism as opposed to management means "a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions, and thought" associated with but nonetheless transcending the need for the efficient running of commercial and industrial organisations.' (P18)

This move from 'management' to 'managerialism' led to the formation of a self-interested 'management caste' that became increasingly detached from the actual businesses of the enterprises that they supposedly managed. At the same time, the use of mathematical modelling, statistical analysis and other 'scientific' tools made management into an academic discipline which in turn enhanced the status of the management caste. The management caste thus became increasingly detached from the actual businesses of the companies they ran.

Meanwhile, Milton Friedman was further developing neoliberal economic theory. Hayek's original idea that competition would safeguard individual liberty and consumer choice was replaced by, as Colin Crouch put it in his recent book,:

'the dominance of giant corporations and the replacement of the demotic idea of consumer choice by a paternalistic concern for 'consumer welfare'' (P16-17 'The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism.')

This effectively legitimises the 'Greed is Good' credo of the 1980s. The managerial caste is freed of any social responsibility as the pure pursuit of profit will, like the incoming tide, 'raise all boats'. Of course, it does no such thing.

It turns out that the managerial caste is not even particularly entrepreneurial. They had, for example, no hand in the development of Silicon Valley, which was largely based on technologies developed during and because of the Cold War.

And then there is the example of the US car industry. A classic top-down management structure that simply could not cope with the Japanese incursion. The Japanese management philosophy is fundamentally different. While General Motors' philosophy might be summarised as 'We don't make cars, we make money' (Alfred P Sloan, Jr., President of GM 1923-37, quoted on P112), the Japanese were intent on making the best cars for the money that they could. 'Total Quality Management' (TQM), the 'Toyota Production System' (TPS) demanded that the companies be run by people who actually knew about making cars. Instead of an insulated, 'scientific' and academic management divorced from the actual business product, here the business IS the product. Reminiscent, perhaps in more ways than one, of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'.

The Germans were also threatened by the burgeoning Japanese car industry. But their response emphasises yet again the failure of managerialism. Whereas the US/UK management model is, as has already been indicated, 'top-down' or pyramidal (with more or less inevitable conflict between management and workers), the Germans put in place 'Codetermination' laws:

'Codetermination laws legally entwined employee representatives and management in German firms, and after a two-decade educational effort homogenised behaviour and knowledge. In the US, management not only excludes labour from a firm's governance but the two groups constitute distinct cultures in American life.' (P129)

Still, managerialism was not dead yet. It really got going when it moved into the financial sector. Here, reliance on mathematical modelling and the amoral disregard for the material realities of this 'meta-business' (i.e. the business of business) were, indeed are, at their clearest. Rampant short-termism, the determination to keep the share price as high as possible, even at the cost of future R&D and company pension funds, has nothing to do with developing sustainable businesses that benefit all stakeholders. Quantitative analysts, or 'quants', developed the exotic, and fundamentally flawed, financial instruments that finally led to the current malaise. It seems now, looking back, to be an inevitable outcome of the rise of the management caste. And it's not over yet.

Finally, the authors put forward some suggestions for the future. As they rightly point out, we have been threatened and blackmailed for too long by T.I.N.A. - neoliberal capitalism has been compared to a failed socialism and we have been repeatedly told that There Is No Alternative. We've been here before. From Dani Rodrik's suggestion that governments finally exert some control, to Colin Crouch's support for extra-governmental pressure groups and Jeffrey Sach's faith in the Millennium Generation, we've seen a range of proposals. But Locke's and Spender's are different again.

'Management...has been and is far too important to be left to business schools or a management caste, especially since in America they both have renounced any sense of responsibility towards the life of the community or towards promoting the sustainability of the firm on whose existence the community depends.' (P184)

The authors recognise that the management caste is not going to give up its privileges easily and that '[n]ot much reform can be expected either from the political side of the American ledger' (P188), which tallies exactly with Jeffrey Sach's analysis. The choice is not simply between neoliberalism and socialism - that is a false and misleading dichotomy. Instead the challenge, the authors suggest, is to develop 'an internationally regulated form of dynamic capitalism in which firms are more efficient because of participative management, and the markets function better because of a more equitable distribution of wealth in society.' (P192)

A very interesting and rewarding read.

Breville VFP033 Intelligent Food Processor
Breville VFP033 Intelligent Food Processor

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chop! Chop!, 5 Nov 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've been using this for a couple of weeks now and am finding it increasingly useful.

Initially, I didn't really understand the 'intelligent' bit, so clearly I'm not the intelligent one here. But anyway, you've got buttons down the left for the blender and buttons down the right for the processor. As I discovered, if you press a button that doesn't correspond to the bowl on top of the machine, it won't work. And some of the programmes, such as the 'chop', result in the motor going faster then slower, then faster again. I thought there was something wrong with it, but then realised that that is what it is supposed to do. 'Intelligent'...hummm.

Anyway, after getting the hang of it, I'm finding it more and more useful. The chop works very well, as does the grate. The variable speed allows the food to fold back in to the centre and so everything gets fairly well evenly chopped, although somehow it occasionally manages to miss a bit. Not quite sure how, but it's still better than other food processors I have used. Also, I really like the adjustable slicing attachment - set wide for mushrooms, narrow for onions or however you want them. The blender holds up to 1.5 litres and works really, really well - very impressed with this, nice smooth soups and sauces. The lid pushes on and seals well. A bit difficult to get the lid off sometimes, but I'd rather that than leaks.

The instructions suggest washing all the bits 'in situ' - i.e. just put warm water and a squirt of detergent in and switch on. Personally, I prefer to take it apart and wash in the sink. Whichever way, it's easy enough to clean. It feels solid and well-made (and quite heavy), sits firmly on my worktop and looks smart - I like the black and white colour scheme. It is, as others have mentioned, quite noisy, but you're not going to have it switched on for that long, so I find it quite bearable.

All in all, I'm happy with it and I can see myself using it regularly - well, I already am, for soups, curry sauces and stuff. But I think I will be using it more and in more varied ways in the future.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 2, 2011 6:39 PM GMT

Old Harry's Game: A Christmas Episode (BBC Audio)
Old Harry's Game: A Christmas Episode (BBC Audio)
by Andy Hamilton
Edition: Audio CD
Price: 9.25

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sitcom from Hell, 30 Oct 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've only managed to catch a couple of episodes of Andy Hamilton's Hell-based sitcom on Radio 4 so I was happy to have the opportunity to get hold of a couple more episodes on CD. Overall, they're o.k. and fun. Perhaps not the greatest radio comedy show ever produced but good for a giggle.

The first episode sees our (anti)-hero trying quite hard to disrupt Christmas on this mortal plane. While having a good pop at Sky News and the Daily Mail on the way, appearing as the Pope on the Oprah Winfrey Show to deny that Jesus ever existed would, you'd think, seriously dent the celebrations. But it appears that, even in Hell, Christmas is just too good a time to miss.

In the second episode, Satan finds eternity hanging heavily on his hands and goes, at Annette Crosby's suggestion, for a mini-break in the Lake District, cleverly disguised as John McCririck. Leaving Scumspawn in charge back in The Pit with unfortunate results, he relaxes in the countryside. For about 30 seconds. Reflecting that 'nature is just one big outside toilet' he is soon up to various diabolical diversions. Meanwhile, back in Hell, Scumspawn recruits Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth 1st and Brian Clough to help develop his management skills.

Yes, the shows are fun, they're witty, they will survive repeated listenings - I've listened to both episodes three times and will no doubt listen to them again - but they're not the greatest comedy shows on Radio 4. I like Andy Hamilton and enjoy his appearances on 'The News Quiz', but this sitcom is not really up to the standards of, say, 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue', or 'Bleak Expectations' (with the wonderful Celia Imrie), or, going back in time, 'Round the Horne' with Kenneth Horne (and Kenneth Williams), none of which are sitcoms, I know, but I think they are better radio. Still, I enjoyed these two shows and will be listening out for more episodes on Radio 4. :-)

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