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Read: The Three Body Problem

Good science fiction is thought-provoking. It raises questions of morality, social cohesion and cooperation, or of the impact of life-altering technologies or drugs. Liu’s The Three Body Problem is good science fiction.

Set in China, the story of The Three Body Problem presents an unfamiliar perspective. Part of it takes place shortly after the Great Leap Forward, during the Cultural Revolution – I wonder how accurate Liu’s narrative of this period is. The translator felt it necessary to add explanatory footnotes to aid the western reader in this alien context. On the other hand, the novel addresses a classic question in science fiction: First contact and the effect of having proof for extraterrestrial intelligent life and advanced technology.

Liu paints a bleak picture. A few Individuals driven by their personal fate and disillusionment may be able to wreak havoc on a global scale. Relinquishing all hope for the betterment of human society they rather opt for its annihilation, inviting an alien force that seeks to escape their own fate of doom.

Now, a still fragmented human society faces the threat of an alien invasion in the far future. And the novel ends.

Read: Nonviolence

While Kurlansky’s Nonviolence could have been just as appropriately titled “War, Warfare, and the Power and Impotence of the Elite” it confirms my earlier suspicion: Driven by a purpose and having a message he wants to impress upon his audience Karlansky’s writing improves dramatically.

Kurlansky’s message is clear. And to squash any doubt he provides a summary of his book himself: 25 theses that stress the need for nonviolence and its superiority are included as the last chapter: War, armed conflict is bad. Violence begets violence. Power corrupts, and religion and good intentions are easily tainted and defiled.

By the seventh century it was already an old pattern: the religious doctrine of peace meets the power politics of [the] state, the rules are bent for the “just war,” and once the first few doses are administered the state becomes an addict that will tell any lie to get its narcotic. War is simply the means. The real narcotic is power.

There is no such thing as a just war.

The book is a brief overview of the history of violence, war, and warfare, following the standard recipe of describing the fate and fortune – mostly the fate – of several individuals to illustrate the dominant practices at a time and the emerging nonviolent opposing forces. It is rather US-centric. Focusing on individual (non-violent) actions and settling for just reporting historic events Kurlansky fails to explore the philosophical aspects of nonviolence in a befitting extent and detail. Assessing nonviolence remains an empirical matter.

Finally, given the vast amount of space dedicated to Gandhi in Kurlansky’s Salt, Gandhi occupies a surprisingly minor role in this newer book. The details of Gandhi’s nonviolent opposition are not discussed here.

All in all, even if I am not fully happy with this book I can endorse its cause: the quest for peace and nonviolence.

The hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done.

Read: Salt - A world history

When I discovered Sweetness and Power as a potentially interesting book I also stumbled upon Salt: A World History. I liked Mintz’ book about sugar. I am disappointed by Kurlansky’s book about salt.

Kurlansky is not a scientist but a journalist. Hence, his Salt is not an in-depth anthropological study of the history, sociology, and economics of salt (as may have been expected after reading Mintz on sugar). Salt is a mere collection of anecdotes roughly ordered by regions and time. Neither order is kept strictly. So a single chapter may offer some trivia from antiquity and the recent past and different chapters may revisit geographical regions again and again and then overlap in the time that is covered.

While everything is somewhat connected to salt, the book is a terrible mess. Yes, the little anecdotes are interesting and entertaining enough to read on but a coherent narrative, a deeper purpose, and a meaning are absent. Some of the anecdotes are just one paragraph long and I don’t know why Kurlansky mentions the fate or fortune of the specific individual. He just does and moves on to the next one. He never tries to generalize or interpret for his readers.

Even the last chapter, that should offer some kind of a bottom line, is curiously opaque. Is there a hint of critique on modern capitalism, or materialism, or is there just a clumsy attempt to hint at the irony that artisanship is now in demand again, that people prefer the imperfect, impure product of the artisan over the perfect, standardized salt sold by modern industry?

Kurlansky’s fact checking is also questionable. At one point he translates the Alsatian surkrutschneider with sauerkraut tailor. Sauerkraut cutter, slicer, or shredder would have been the much more appropriate translation. Another time, he mentions that a particular person published a research paper. On what, however, is not revealed. If he is sloppy with these small things his credibility in general is hurt.

In short, Kurlansky does not want (?) to convey any message. His book, though diverting, is without purpose and as soon as it is read it is forgotten.


Read: Success and Luck - Good fortune and the myth of meritocracy

While I agree with Frank’s policy recommendation and how he arrived at his conclusion I cannot honestly say I have enjoyed his recent Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

The primary goal is not to tell a story about Success and the role of Luck it in, it is an argument for a progressive consumption tax and maybe also a reaction to earlier critique on Frank’s 2011 The Darwin Economy that argued for the progressive consumption tax, too.

While The Darwin’s Economy main rationale for the introduction of a progressive consumption tax was the reduction of wasteful conspicuous consumption that results from a consumption arms race as every consumption is assessed relative to some accessible standard, maybe the consumption of nearby (socially and geographically) reference group in society Success and Luck focuses on the chance element of being rich and successful as a justification for a tax on the (still wasteful) consumption of the rich.

The supply of status goods is limited and cannot be increased, therefore competition for these goods just drives their price up without improving the buyers’ living standard. Or, a slightly inferior good, at a lower price, would result in an even higher enjoyment if the saved (that is taxed) amount of wealth is used for public goods like infrastructure.

Frank now argues that being rich is, despite all the effort and talent that were necessary, also largely determined by luck as being rich is the result of a competition with many competitors with similar abilities and willingness to exert effort. Any competition has an element of luck in. Taking a risk implies actually the reliance on luck, the submission of oneself to one’s good fortune, not skill, not effort. As the prize of the competition is largely determined by the society, a rich society offers bigger prizes as the prize is related to the individuals human and the societies material capital. Both are at least partially the result of public goods, public investments, and therefore taxes. Consequently, the lucky rich should just (shut up and) pay it forward to enable the next generation of high(er) prized tournaments.

Nothing wrong with that. I could not agree more. I also do not mind Frank’s rather personal perspective in his narrative and rhetoric.

What is wrong is this:
Success and Luck is a neat, short book. Being short is a virtue (for a book). Frank, indeed mentions that he could have written more but chose to keep it short, not adding any unnecessary tangential material. Great. However, there is little that is new. Most (all?) of the ideas and examples that illustrate Frank’s points are already in The Darwin Economy. Indeed, I was tempted to run the present text through a plagiarism detection software to see whether he just cut and pasted the old material or whether he at least attempted some rephrasing. Either way, I found this recycling and its extent highly annoying. Even the idea of the winner takes all, the role of luck and its use as a justification for a consumption tax was already discussed at length in another earlier book of Frank’s, The winner-take-all society, published in 1995.

The original (?) content can be boiled down to the two appendices. The first offers a numeric example illustrating the impact of luck on winning contests with many participants if luck even only marginally influences performance. The second is a FAQ on the introduction of a progressive consumption tax. And yes, FAQ implies he must have answered these frequent questions already elsewhere. Hence, the numerical example is probably the only original contribution of the book. The book could have been much shorter. It should have been a blog post.

At the very least, Frank should have put a warning somewhere that he is just reorganizing old material that he has already published elsewhere. Even though his two old books are referenced for some specific points, he never acknowledges the substantial extent of overlap in ideas and concrete examples between his seemingly separate works. He is selling old wine in new bottles (which, by chance, is also a chapter title in his 1995 book). Frank cheats his readers.

Read: Trekonomics

Post-scarcity is not just a recent idea, predicted in such work like The 2nd Machine Age as a result of the imminent and highly anticipated singularity, and it is not just the necessary condition for implementing the communist dream, it is the world of Star Trek (after the Original Series). Manu Saadia tries to analyze this science fiction utopia in Trekonomics from an economic perspective.

It’s all there and, still, it also seems lacking.

Saadia clearly identifies Star Trek (of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager) as a post-scarcity society. The Replicator, the technological offspring of the Transporter of the Original Series, can produce any goods you want. As a result, in the Federation, there are no unfulfilled material needs anymore. The economic problem has been solved by abundance.

The existence of the Replicator is, however, not a sufficient condition. Saadia, identifies this, too. Only the free (as in speech) and free (as in beer) access to it, effectively the provision of the Replicator as a public good, allows Federation citizens to enjoy the benefits of goods at marginal costs of zero. Instant recycling reduces the cost of any choice further (in terms of post decision regret and resources forewent), it eliminates any lasting material consequence, basically eliminating the need to consider tradeoffs. No economic problem remains.

Hence, a technology able to create abundance and a policy decision to allow free access to this technology (eliminating capitalism) are necessary for creating the utopia of Star Trek.

Saadia also explains the absence of money - a consequence of having all necessities and even luxury goods freely available (How do you define these in the absence of an income elasticity of demand?), there is no need for exchange and therefore no need for a numeraire that can serve to facilitate exchange. He also explains the absence of paid work (the marginal product of labor must be zero in material terms if the price of goods is zero) and the shift to status seeking instead. Status seeking is then also responsible for even further development and improvement of technology.

Capitalism was required to create the knowledge and the machines; once production reached its singularity society was able to transcend. All in all, Saadia identifies the key points.

He also discusses singular topics like externalities, collective action, and the curious case of the merchant race, the Ferengis. (So, there still is trade after all!)

So, why seems Trekonomics lacking?

Saadia puts the cart before the horse. The economic implications of the Replicator are only discussed after he tells about the absence of money, the change in the nature of and motivation for work. And only then he mentions the importance of policy, growth, and the limitless resource: ideas. This sequence, I argue, hinders an in-depth and logically progressing analysis of the economic history of Star Trek.

While the exposition is easily grasped by laypersons, some more technical discussions (maybe in appendixes) would have been (more) fun for the more trained (in economics) Star Trek aficionado.

Trekonomics is very much a personal account, the general Sci-Fi affinity of the author is obvious and, of course, appropriate. It is appropriate that Asimov gets plenty of credit for his influence on Sci-Fi in general and Roddenberry and Star Trek in particular.

If I write that Trekonomics is lacking it is not because it is bad. It is because it could have been (and I hoped for) more in-depth, more detailed, more an Economics of Star Trek, more an Economic History of Star Trek, more… just more.

Read: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay must be one the pun-niest Discworld novel in the series so far (that is until book 19). It’s a decent mystery novel and a great installment of the City Watch sub-series.

Discrimination, stereotyping, gender (identity), exploitation of the worker class, politics, governance, and the social contract: All this in a fantasy novel.

Most important (for my personal enjoyment of the novel), however, is that I absolutely loved the stabs at religion.