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: Economics as Religion

  • the 15th edition, then by Samuelson and Nordhaus, was the textbook assigned to the introductory economics course I took in the nineties. Hence, it often seems that Nelson does not write about the field of economics but only but this, admittingly influential, textbook. Other protagonists, the antipole, are the various members of the Chicago School, most prominently Frank Knight.

    The observation that many early economic analyses were based in (unexamined) presuppositions that were more like articles of faith is not enough to convince this reader of economics as religion. The observation that some economist assiduously follow their agenda, may it be driven by intellectual curiosity or political conviction, is not enough to convince this reader that economists are secular priests.

    Nevertheless, the links between Catholicism and leftist Progressivism on the on side and Protestantism and more right-wing Libertarianism on the other side and their respective protagonists in economics are interesting. Religion influences, of course, culture, and therefore, it will also influence (economic) thought. Still, the increasing secularization, agnosticism, atheism, non-religiousness, and the move towards scientism does not make economics a religion.

    In spite of Nelson’s failure to convince me of economics as religion I agree with him on one major point: Economics, economic analysis is not value free. Economics is often more normative than we like to admit. Those presuppositions need to be examined. Luckily, they are.

Read: How do you know?

  • Seemingly irrational behavior or rather bounded rationality is the result of bounded cognitive abilities, bounded willpower, bounded self-interest, and - yes - bounded knowledge. Russell Hardin offers an account of the consequences of - fully rational - limited knowledge, an economics of ordinary knowledge. The question is what extent of knowledge in terms of quantity and quality can we expect from an ordinary person.

    Rational ignorance permeates all domains of our daily lives and not just public policy and politics. To illustrate his point, maybe even delineating an extreme, Hardin singles out religious belief. Believes are just one instance of knowledge by authority that lie at the core of an economics of ordinary knowledge. No one can gain expert knowledge in everything and hence has to take many bits and pieces of knowledge at face value from an authoritative source. What is an authoritative source and who is an authority from the perspective of an ordinary person then may limit the quality of knowledge, the extent of its objective truth. Hardin discusses the tension between science and religion, the individual and communal incentives to believe, sincerity, fundamentalism, and extremism. He draws a very bleak picture of society.

    Even though Hardin acknowledges the existence of limits on cognitive abilities, will-power, and self-interest his analysis only drops the assumption of perfect knowledge, he is able to explain many seemingly irrational patterns in our behavior. His ordinary person still tries to maximize their utility and decides that obtaining more and better knowledge may not be worth its cost. People remain rational ignorant. Yet, already this small deviation from the standard economic analysis of decisions, choices under uncertainty and in strategic interactions seems sufficient to explain seemingly irrational, i.e. objectively sub-optimal, behavior.

    Adding the further bounds to our abilities is not likely to improve the quality of our decisions and welfare. So yes, Hardin draws a very bleak picture indeed.

Read: The Tower

  • Now, with the third installment of Toyne’s Sancti trilogy, things take a strange, unexpected turn. What started as a religious thriller, an esoteric, cabalistic piece of pulp fiction, has turned almost into a science thriller. The religious characters are reduced to nut jobs.

    The origin of the story is perfectly obscure and the new character’s plot line is quite dominant, and indeed even more interesting than what happens to and with the old protagonists. Yet, to the original story this new plot line adds nothing, or very little. Rather, it subtracts from it. The concept of the first (oppressed) tribe is diluted, reduced to a free mason lodge. Toyne drifts away from his original idea.

    Hence, despite being an entertaining novel The Tower shows that Toyne is not capable of staying within the confines of his own fictional world and produce an internally consistent piece of fiction. Resorting to over-used tropes isn’t a good sign either.

Read: The Key

  • Toyne continues to provide good entertainment value.

    Yet, the narrative loses some of its appeal. The new twist of the (remote-controlled) bankrupt church and the questionable business practices is maybe not that original as it seems a bit too close to reality. Still, it adds a nice touch. The dead, not dead and long lost, now dead father is, however, a cheap plot device. Knowing that the good guys, the good gal, will win is also killing some of the suspense. Finally, while the first book of the trilogy (as I now know it is at least a trilogy) could have ended where it ended The Key features a classic cliff hanger to lure the reader to the third novel. What is another cheap plot device in my opinion.

    I finally noticed yet another cheap move, this time by the publisher. The page count is heavily inflated (and maybe justifying a slightly higher price?) as this book, again, has more than a hundred chapters. Each new chapter starts on a fresh page resulting in more than a hundred half-filled-last-pages-of the-chapter. The two books could have been about 50 pages shorter, or could have used a slightly larger font. Something that would have been highly appreciated by this reader for at least the passages that were representing handwritten material. That script font was barely readable, too thin, too small.

    All in all, The key was still good enough to consider the next volume that, as a peek at goodreads reveals, is supposed to be at least on par.

Read: Sanctus

  • Toyne’s Sanctus is a rather fast paced religious themed mystery thriller, though much of the pace seems to stem from the rather short chapters, each just a few pages long and ever changing the perspective.

    The novel is perfectly enjoyable – until about the last 50 pages when the author solves the big mystery and drifts a bit too much into the supernatural. Still, I like the way he re-interprets the scriptures of the abrahamic religions.

    Eventually, there are some further flaws. While most of the action takes places in a fictional small town in Turkey, everyone, even the turkish cop on duty, is pretty much US American – at least in their demeanor. While this avoids stereotypical characters (or, does it?) it also generates some rather generic protagonists. Furthermore, while coming up with a fictional place close to where you would suspect such a place if there were one avoids some controversy it just too clearly puts the fiction stamp on everything. The novel becomes less powerful than it could have been.

    There is a sequel. And I really wonder what Toyne will do to the big abrahamic religion that he so enjoyingly unmasked as phony in this novel.

Read: The Final Sacrament

  • It has been a while since I have read a history novel. So I don’t know whether it is rather the genre or the specific book: I almost put Forrester’s The Final Sacrament away before I forced myself through the novel.

    It did not really manage to hold my attention. The many very brief chapters invited to put the book down even after the briefest reading bouts. The main protagonist – even though an interesting character – was hard to relate to, and the story was mostly slow paced. Only during the last third does the novel gain some momentum. Yet, even the then gory and raunchy plot variations did not really succeed in making the novel more compelling.

    The ending – not a happy one which is fine with me – was also disappointing. Just because the protagonist is caught in between two political factions that define themselves by their affiliation to different flavors of the christian religion, just because he himself is a pious man there was no need for the following the voice and walking into the light cliche. Given the earlier gore and desperation a simple death, comfortless and dreary, would have been much more fitting.

Read: The God Delusion

  • “The plural of anecdote is not data.” This is a quote from Dawkin’s The God Delusion making the case for a more scientific approach to Life, the Universe and Everything. Unfortunately most of his points are supported by just these anecdotes. There is also a lot of name dropping as if a point (generalizing to all members of a group) becomes more valid if a more prominent representative of a group can be shown as an example.

    At one point he concedes that he, from that point on, has to use rhetoric rather than logic to make his case. That came as a bit of a surprise: In my opinion he relies mostly on rhetoric in his book and very little on explicitly applied logic. Many things seem so obviously evident to him that he does not spell them out. I missed that. I would have needed it. The God Delusion lacks the brilliance of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins jumps from point to point without discussing them in sufficient depth, ultimately failing to convince, sometimes rambling on minor issues, getting side-tracked, and losing the reader: me.

    I agree with Dawkins on most issues. We do not need religion as a moral guide. There is undeserved respect towards religion. Religion and science do not mix (well). Most importantly, the mental abuse, the indoctrination of easily impressed children that is part of religious upbringing is bad, bad, bad. I agreed with him on these points before I read the God Delusion not because of it.