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Ross "" (Northampton, England)

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A History of Germany (Illustrated)
A History of Germany (Illustrated)
Price: £0.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Dated but still a decent basic introduction to German history, 26 Dec. 2014
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This was written for children in 1913 and would have undoubtedly had a very different tone had it been written a year later. Some modern takes on Germany can tend to view the history as though it was inexorably leading to the two world wars, so a book of this era is in someways refreshing.

It is somewhat dated in it's approach as one would expect and the style is pretty grating at times but I did find it an decent broad overview of the German people, the chiefs, bishops and princes anyway, from the days of the Holy Roman Empire to German unification.

The Putin Corporation: The Story of Russia's Secret Takeover
The Putin Corporation: The Story of Russia's Secret Takeover
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The rise of Putin, 21 Dec. 2014
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This is an illuminating look at Putin- his background, how he rose to the presidency of Russia and from then how he led Russia. His corruption and criminality seem to have been in evidence from day one during his time in St Petersburg, the fact that such a man could continue to get promoted upwards says a lot about the sickness running through the Russian establishment.

At times this book can drag on a bit when the authors document the repressions of the regime in arguably too much detail, for instance the chapter on the rigging of elections goes through so many different examples from all across Russia that while the case is made very strongly I did find myself thinking that I had got the point twenty pages earlier.

However this thoroughness has an upside too, the evidence presented for the security services involvement in crimes like the apartment bombings, election rigging and murder is overwhelming.

The final chapter about the way Putin's Russia, like the Soviet Union before, has embarked on a widespread use of murder against critics at both home and abroad was especially disturbing. The use of poisoners to take out enemies or sometimes just inconvenient former friends is particularly sinister as it's only when it goes wrong as with Litvinenko's murder that we can even be sure that it's happened.

Rather poignantly the book finishes on a rare promising note, praising Putin for standing aside from the presidency in 2008 in line with the constitution- suggesting there may be some people who still believed in the rule of law. Since then he's back and worse than before.

The Turkish Mafia
The Turkish Mafia
Price: £2.32

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An informative book, but can read almost like a criminology textbook at times., 23 Aug. 2014
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This review is from: The Turkish Mafia (Kindle Edition)
The authors of this book look at the Turkish mafia's history, inner workings and influence throughout Europe. They are academics and that can be seen in how the book is written- they are very thorough and reasonable, so there is little reason to question their command of the issue but the academic style can at times become dull..

Overall though it is an eye opening look at how and why Turkey plays such a crucial role in organised crime- the extent to which the Kemalist "deep state" has been involved in the heroin trade in particular is fascinating- the links between the leading gangsters and the security forces are very murky.

Before The Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
Before The Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent exploration of our origins., 30 July 2014
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As someone who finds the origins and deep history of our species fascinating, and has read a number of books on the subject I have to say that I found this one the most enjoyable. As an experienced science journalist the author is more adept at explaining the an area of science that has become much better understood with genetic evidence over the last decade or so, to a general audience than most scientists.

Wade traces our origins from the time humans split from chimpanzees through the key milestones of modern human development such as coming down from the trees, developing language, spreading from Africa, settlements and agriculture and explains what would be the likely pressures that pushed humanity in those directions.

This is a great book and almost anyone interested in the subject will appreciate it.

The Undercover Economist
The Undercover Economist
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Demystifying Economics, 30 Mar. 2014
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This a smart and pragmatic approach to economics for beginners. Tim Harford is very good at explaining important but counter-intuitive economic principles to intelligent readers in a way that immediately relates to the real world. This can be an explanation of why coffee shops are where they are to grander looks at how applying sensible economic policies has lifted hundreds of millions of people in China out of poverty.

The ideas he relates are generally things which economists of all ideological persuasions agree with but much of the general public doesn't understand, such as comparative advantage or making decisions at the margin.

It is written in a very accessible way but without oversimplifying important points and is definitely worth reading for anyone who hasn't really studied economics in depth.

The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory
The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory
Price: £4.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's paranoid, 25 Mar. 2014
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A refreshing take on the history of paranoid cultures- conspiracy theories and moral panics- in the United States. The various forms of paranoia are grouped into enemies above, below, outside and within society as well as beliefs in benevolent conspiracies. What is interesting is how flexible the belief systems are- a belief in an enemy below, for example slave conspiracies can easily morph to fit a foreign enemy who are controlling them. The panics re-emerge repeatedly in slightly different forms over the centuries with a few superficial modifications to keep them updated.

What makes this book different to typical works about paranoid subcultures is that it acknowledges two under-appreciated points:

- Not all paranoid beliefs are unfounded. The US government for example has genuinely conspired to sabotage peaceful protesters and civil rights campaigners.

- Paranoia isn't confined to the margins, sometimes the powerful and mainstream have indulged in paranoid nonsense- one example Walker cites is the belief of the federal government that the militia movement of the 1990s was formenting rebellion, which led to the Waco siege when the false beliefs that a minor religious cult was stockpiling weapons, running a meth lab and holding people hostage leaving dozens of people dead.

The second half of the book is devoted to paranoia in modern culture- looking at films, television and ironic conspiracism.

It's well worth reading for a different take on a well explored genre.

Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia
Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia
Price: £3.48

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential for understanding why Putin's Russia is what it is., 10 Mar. 2014
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As I'm writing this, Russian backed forces are present in large parts of Ukraine and currently occupy Crimea with a referendum on independence being held later this week. Remarkably enough this book, written 18 months earlier, predicts this course of events precisely.

This is a chilling expose of a nation whose ruling elite have destroyed all boundaries between government, organised crime and business.

Harding describes both his own personal harassment at the hands of Russia's security agencies- with his flat being broken into and veiled threats being issued against his family- along with a wider exploration of Russia's descent into corruption.

In Harding's view the direction that Russia has taken comes down to Vladimir Putin putting the FSB- formally the KGB- at the heart of his regime. Most of Russia's senior officials have known links to the organisation and from that flows the regime's other problems. A secret police needs an external enemy to justify it's existence so relations with neighbours must inherently be confrontational and paranoid. Internal opponents are enemies to be jailed, killed or exiled. The FSB's crude thuggery is barely even hidden- as the very public murder of Alexander Litvinenko shows.

Not that Putin's Russia is exactly like the USSR. Whereas the Soviets were motivated by a utopian ideology, the new Russia is driven primarily by the need to remain in power so as not to disturb the looting of Russia's wealth by those linked to the Kremlin and FSB. Putin's own self enrichment seems to be a particularly sensitive subject for the regime which suggests that it is true.

It is impossible to understand precisely how such a secretive regime works but Harding's observations seem to be grounded in evidence and logic- various factions have de facto independence to operate free from the rule of law as long as they don't upset the Kremlin. This extends to committing murder- various opponents of Chechen governor Ramzan Kadyrov have been murdered both within Russia and abroad for example. Most of the Putin era oligarchs are linked to the FSB. Above them, the government uses its control of Europe's gas supplies to ensure that no serious repercussions are suffered by the regime.

Other chapters explore elements such as the rise of a vicious neo-Nazi movement that has carried out a series of racist murders in the country, the economic stagnation of the rural poor and the incredibly sinister youth organisation, NASHI, that harasses Putin's enemies and conducts bizarre mass weddings among it's members.

Harding doesn't see much hope for things improving any time soon and unfortunately it is hard to disagree.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 1, 2015 3:01 PM BST

Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez's Venezuela
Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez's Venezuela
Price: £7.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chavez and his revolution, 5 Mar. 2014
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This portrait of Venezuela & it's late leader shows both the disastrous nature of Chavez's misrule but also illuminates to an extent why Chavez was popular with the country's poor.

The opposition at least until around 2007, comes across as hypocritical, self satisfied and generally uninterested in the slum dwellers and peasants. The account given of the 2002 coup d'etat is damning. Chavez did genuinely connect with the forgotten masses of Venezuela despite his venality and could make them proud of themselves.

However it's pretty clear that Chavez's rule has been characterised by a destruction of democratic norms- with opponents being routinely jailed, opposition media shut down and massive state surveillance. Although perhaps surprisingly he never went the whole way and abolished democracy entirely- despite his links to Cuba free elections weren't abolished and dissidents were not murdered.

\this has been combined with a level of incompetence that has reduced Venezuela to beggary despite a prolonged oil boom.

Chavez's style of rule- as shown in Comandante- consisted of making grandiose announcements in public, swiftly losing interest in how things developed, allowing cronies to enrich themselves and then making a new announcement a few months later that undid whatever progress had been made towards meeting his previous one.

The highly centralised nature of his rule also ensured that his ministers were focused entirely on getting access to him rather than on their actual jobs and any subject which didn't interest him- like crime- spiralled out of control. Short term political goals ahead of long term development has pretty much destroyed industrial development in the country.

The Chavez portrayed in this book wasn't a monster, but his faults have caused great damage to a the fabric of the nation he professed to love.

The Diversity Illusion: What We Got Wrong About Immigration & How to Set It Right
The Diversity Illusion: What We Got Wrong About Immigration & How to Set It Right
Price: £5.79

41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Examination Of How We Have Handled Immigration, 2 Mar. 2014
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This is one of those books that probably most needs to be read by the sort of people least likely to touch it.

However even for those already sceptical about the virtues of multiculturalism, diversity and mass immigration there is plenty in here to think about. Ed West examines the dogmas and platitudes associated with diversity and repeatedly finds that the virtues are often merely assumed rather than tested. The costs of immigration have generally been ignored or attributed to the bigotry of those who bear them.

The author is adept at drawing on different areas of research from social psychology to economics to support the claims he makes. A reader wouldn't have to agree with everything he says to become better informed about the issue.

One of the most illuminating chapters was about the rise in authoritarianism that has accompanied multiculturalism- we have for example effectively reintroduced blasphemy law by the back door in order to maintain the harmony between different religious groups. This should not have surprised anyone who is familiar with how ethnic tensions are kept under wraps in India, Singapore or any other ethnically divided country but none of the advocates of mass immigration seem to have seen it coming.

The tone of the book is important too, immigration sceptics are frequently characterised as ignorant and angry racists who dislike people who are different to them. The calm yet good humoured writing along with the solid grounding in facts makes it difficult to portray the Diversity Illusion in this way.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity
The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity
by Steven Pinker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.74

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking but not quite outstanding., 23 Nov. 2013
Steven Pinker is probably the best writer on scientific topics for a general audience on the planet. Some of his previous books like the Blank Slate are among the most important works of the last couple of decades.

That combination of brilliant writing and serious thinking can be seen in this book as he puts forward the idea that the world is becoming an ever less violent place because of a society wide change in how humans appreciate the suffering of others.

The glib assumption made by professional pundits that the world is getting more dangerous is rebutted fairly conclusively. The evidence is hard to refute- for example the violent death rates in hunter gatherer societies are known to be higher than modern societies in the 20th century despite two World Wars.

When he discusses the long term decline in the number of interstate wars over the last few centuries, it is a powerful reminder of how endemic war once was and how remarkable our current period of peace is. The same is true of the decline in torture and mass execution- the descriptions of which are grisly yet evocative of the attitudes of earlier eras.

Pinker covers a phenomenal amount of history and no one can be an expert in every time and place of human existence. I am sceptical of how reliable some of the studies he uses to buttress his case are. For example estimating the death tolls of atrocities from centuries ago is surely inherently unreliable given how poor most pre-modern societies are at estimating population sizes to begin with.

The look at medieval murder rates in Oxford and London are suggestive but how accurate they are depends very much on how accurate the population estimates for those cities is- and they didn't do census's in those days. A study he cites on Presidential IQ is extremely dodgy.

However those concerns don't undermine "the Better Angels of Our Nature" which is a valuable insight into how society has improved over the centuries.

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