Economic and Historical Perspectives

A few weeks ago I finished reading a book called “Russia Which Way Paradise” written by former ABC Russia Correspondent Monica Attard. The book was written around 20 years ago and documents the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s an interesting book to read given the current political situation in Russia and the relationship between Russia and the international community.

There is one story in the book that I found particularly humorous:

Natasha told me when I first arrived in Moscow that I was now living in the richest country in the world, a comment that struck me as rather odd given the sad-looking shop shelves, the run-down buildings and poorly dressed people I was seeing.
‘How can this be the richest country in the world?’ I asked her.
‘Well, as we say in Russia, people have been stealing for seventy years and there’s still something left to steal.’

Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names

I’ve just finished reading Hyeonseo Lee’s book The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. The story of Lee’s escape from North Korea and emotional battles along the way are deeply moving. It’s also harrowing to think that other North Korean defectors experience far worse treatment that Lee did.

A year or so ago I read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. What strikes me the most in both of these books on North Korea is just how repressive the Kim regime is and the apparent lack of international action to rescue the general population from horrible human rights abuses.

While I strongly believe that every country should be able to govern without outside intervention there must be limits where outside intervention becomes necessary. Especially as people are being politically imprisoned and executed without any due process. Other abuses of this magnitude in other areas of the globe have resulted in war crime trials. I don’t know what it would take to intervene in North Korea but the international community cannot continue to be so lenient on a country that treats its citizens so poorly.

Embeded below is a TED talk that Lee gave before writing the book, it’s much lighter on details than the book. Additionally there is an SBS Insight program on North Korea that Lee took part in which features some of her, and other’s stories of escape.

Finding time to read

Every workday I catch a bus to and from work. The journey takes around 20 minutes each way and until May this year I would spend this time using social networks on my phone. Since May I have replaced the phone with my Kindle and have read almost 30 books. This is more books than I have probably read in the last three years combined.

I am certainly not a massive bookworm but there is something about being able to get lost in a story and filter out the world in a way that books can only do. I primarily read non-fiction, with a particular focus on sociology, history, and theology. And the more I read, the more I want to read.

For instance, in the last week I’ve finished Cynthia Stokes Brown’s Big History, which covers the history of the world in a very detailed but also very easy to read manner and is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m now trying to read books on the histories of Australia, Iran, Boston and gangs in Chicago (my latest problem is trying to read too many books in parallel).

I am not alone in my desire to read more, in September an opinion piece was published on Slate about reading insecurity. The piece states:

It is becoming a cliché of conversations between twentysomethings (especially to the right of 25) that if you talk about books or articles or strung-together words long enough, someone will eventually wail plaintively: “I just can’t reeeeeaaad anymore.” The person will explain that the Internet has shot her attention span. She will tell you about how, when she was small, she could lose herself in a novel for hours, and now, all she can do is watch the tweets swim by like glittery fish in the river of time-she-will-never-get-back.

The author’s argument is that this desire to read more and use the internet less is a consequence of growing up in a time where reading books have been replaced by reading e-readers, tablets and computer screens. And we don’t read less we just read differently. The article as a whole is great (you should read it).

But despite this knowledge that we are reading different and not less, my desire to read more books and less social networks hasn’t changed. I am now trying to read smarter, to find time to lock myself away from digital distractions and to get lost in a book for 20 mins or an hour. Simply because it is relaxing, and fun, and the internet will keep on tweeting and facebooking without me.

Connected

One of my goals for this year is to read ten books – including at least seven I already own but have yet to read. The danger with books is that they are so easy to obtain, during January alone I bought four more at the Dymocks sale, and have had three given to me.

Fortunately, I have also managed to read three books in the last month and a half.

Most recently, I’ve just finished reading Connected – How your friends’ friends’ affect everything you feel, think and do by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. This book is a really fascinating insight into social networks from how we form friendships and relationships, through to how happiness and depression flow through friends of friends, and even how our genes influence our personalities.

Although a lot of the book covers issues in relationships that we naturally take for granted, it also shows fascinating social experiments and statistics that confirm six degrees of separation, and how we have three degrees of influence over others.

Below are a few extracts that I found particularly interesting. Continue reading “Connected”

Of Fluoride and Vaccinations

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Deadly Choices a book by Paul Offit which gives a history of the science and debate about vaccine safety in the United States.

Coincidentally, within the last week back home in New Zealand the Hamilton City Council has decided to remove fluoride from drinking water. A daft and backward step which will have long term negative consequences for public health.

Writing on the blog site Pundit, Tim Watkin states:

Hamilton councillors are just the latest folk to fall prey to fear-raising arguments against ‘mass medication’ and in favour of individual choice, while ignoring science…

The science – the proper science, that is – seems pretty clear that we have low fluoridation levels in our water and bumping it up a little helps our oral care en masse. Health agencies from WHO down say it helps dental hygiene and is a human right. There is no proof of fluoride poisoning, if that’s what you’d call it, in the New Zealand population over recent generations and every reason to think a significant number of New Zealanders will have more teeth problems as a result of less fluoride in the water. Just about everything becomes a poison at the right dose, but at a lower dose it’s fine, even beneficial…

But it’s indicative of a wider trend in these modern times, which is worrying, and that’s the rise of the instant expert and the ‘I know better than the majority of scientists’ brigade.

This is one point that Offit’s book touches on. Emotional stories about how medication is actually poisonous and how it harms people that isn’t backed up from science is often believed in lieu of strong and easily understood scientific explanations. The problem is at times science is hard to understand, and combined with scaremongering about anything government controlled explaining becomes a scientific PR nightmare.

Each of those ‘mass medication’ debates are issues, to greater and lesser degrees, of the community good coming up against individual choice. And it’s about time we started paying more attention to the community good.

Many kids living in poverty, for example, don’t have the choice – for all kinds of complex reasons – to get enough fluoride and will suffer as a result of this decision by the council in Hamilton, and those in other cities. So what about the choice of them all?

Recently in Sydney there has been news articles about the levels of immunisation in select suburbs. Strangely, some of the most affluent suburbs have the lowest rates of immunisation. This is as a direct result of people not understanding science or putting their own individual views and rights before the collective community good.

The problem with this is people who chose not to vaccinate are not only putting their own family at risk they are also putting at risk the lives of others in the community whom are unable to vaccinate due to a variety of health reasons.

The science is sound and simple:

  • Water fluoridation improves oral health.
  • Vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism, or other extreme side effects.
  • By not vaccinating you are putting your own and others lives at risk.

Over the last 200 years we have seen vaccine science develop and all but eradicate deadly diseases of the past: measles, mumps, smallpox, polio, and many others. However, in the recent past as a result of people not believing, or accepting real science, communities have seen a breakdown of herd vaccination and these deadly diseases have started to kill again. I wonder how large a disease outbreak will have to be to get a change in this behaviour.

The World Until Yesterday

A few weeks ago I finished reading Jared Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday. At almost 500 pages the book is a long and at times heavy read, but overall, a fascinating thesis on the rapid changes taking place in traditional societies and the potential loss of indigenous knowledge and culture as modern civilisation influences far reaches of the globe.

One of the overarching points in the book is how many things that we consider normal, and take for granted, are in fact quite unusual in the history of world civilisations. Diamond uses the acronym WEIRD to describe modern society: western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. This description is then used throughout the book to compare modern society to other traditional societies in matters of friendships, relationships, conflict resolution, decision making, child raising, societal care of aged peoples, languages, religion and food.

My copy of the book is now dog eared in many places from many great insights Diamond makes, of which three in particular stand out:

Speaking of the general behaviour of individuals in modern societies Diamond states:

We not only permit, we actually encourage, individuals to advance themselves, to win, and to again advantages at the expense of others. In many of our business transactions we aim to maximise our own profits, and never mind the feelings of the person on the other side of the table on whom we have succeeded in inflicting a loss. Even children’s games… are contests of winning and losing. That isn’t so in traditional… [societies], where children’s play involves cooperation rather than winning or losing.

Speaking of the purpose of religion in societal development:

For individuals and for societies, religion often involves a huge investment of time and resources… religion thus incurs “opportunity costs”: those investments of time and resources in religion that could have been devoted instead to obviously profitable activities, such as planting more crops, building dams, and feeding larger armies of conquest. If religion didn’t bring some big real benefits to offset those opportunity costs, any atheistic society that by chance arose would be likely to outcompete religious societies and take over the world.

Finally in discussing children’s upbringings and our overall desire to experiment and learn:

In Africa, if you need something, you make it for yourself, and as a result you know how it is put together and how it works. In the U.S., if you need something, you go buy it, and you don’t know how it is put together…
Many people in the U.S. have acquired a great many things, but they remain paupers so far as their knowledge and understanding of the rest of the world is concerned. They seem to be comfortably enclosed within their walls of carefully constructed, selective ignorance.

Despite its length, The World Until Yesterday is a brilliant book that makes you question and consider in our WEIRD modern society if there are things that we have forgotten from our traditional roots and maybe should relearn. Pick it up and give it a read.

Bad and Underbelly Badness

Tonight was the series final of Underbelly Badness. This year’s series focused on the investigation into the murder of Terry Falconer. Over the last week I have rapidly read the book accompanying the TV series, Bad by Michael Duffy, which provides a more factually accurate description of the events.

The book like the TV series is compelling. In my opinion the book is even more dramatic than the TV series. In particular, the final third of the book focuses on the drama of the police court case which is fascinating in its design, its presentation of witness and evidence, the collapse of the first trial, and the success of the second. Unfortunately, none of this sort of drama makes for good TV and as a result the final of the TV series merely presented the court case in a much more straightforward manner.

Furthermore, the book provides good detail where the TV series shows artistic license. Some of the artistic license in the series makes sense, such as certain characters having different jobs from real life. Meanwhile other deviations from fact don’t seem to add much at all for example a family member being ill in the TV series whereas in reality it was a key character that was ill during one subplot.

All in all, this year’s season of Underbelly has been the best so far. The series focus on the crime and the cops has been much better than the sleazy drama of past seasons. However, as with all the past seasons, the tie-in books offer a much fuller story that a TV show simply cannot fully explore. With five seasons of Underbelly down, three telemovies, and the spin off Bikie Wars, it will be interesting to see what story is told next.

We’re Still Waiting for The Ultrasonic Shower

A few weeks ago I finished reading Bill Bryson’s 1994 book following the history of the United States and the development of American English – Made in America. At almost 600 pages it has taken me around six months to get through the entire book, but it is a fantastic read.

One of the last chapters of the book focuses on language from the time of the Space Race. In particular, the following excerpt about words from the 1970s is just as true today:

In  1959, in one of those delving into the future that magazines found so satisfying at the time, Newsweek presented this confident scenario for the lucky housewife of 1979: ‘Waking to cool 1970-style music from a tiny phonograph built into her pillow, the housewife yawned, flicked a bedside switch to turn on the electronic recipe-maker, then rose and stepped into her ultrasonic shower.’

Among the many things Newsweek’s soothsayer failed to foresee was that by 1979 the housewife would be an endangered species. What the world got instead were words like workaholic, drive-by shootings, crack cocaine, AIDS, repetitive stress injury, gridlock and serial killer. We’re still waiting for the ultrasonic shower.

Personally, I am still waiting for my jetpack.

Not Believing Bullshit

Last night I finished reading Believing Bullshit – How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole by Oxford academic Stephen Law. The book discusses various ways through which people are persuaded to believe things that may be factually wrong or philosophically extremist.

Overall the book is an easy read and does well to outline the various techniques used in convincing people of arguments such as only counting up successes as evidence and ignoring failures, people claiming to have hidden knowledge and ways in which smoke screens are created to convince people of mysteries.

My biggest criticism of the book is Law’s treatment of religious belief. In the introduction he states:

True, I illustrate how even core mainstream religious beliefs are sometimes promoted and defended by means of strategies covered in this book. But that’s not meant to show that beliefs in question are false, or that they couldn’t be given a proper, robust defence. Just because some religious people chose to defend what they believe by dubious means doesn’t entail that no one can reasonably hold those same beliefs.

However, he then goes on throughout the book to continually misrepresent, attack, and deconstruct religious beliefs – especially Christianity. In many of the techniques discussed Law shows how people who hold particular religious views use the techniques. However, in many of these examples he has highlighted an extreme minority view and presented it as mainstream – for example confusing Christian Science with mainstream Christianity. Or in order to validate his own point sourced random blog, forum, and chatroom postings online.

For a book coming for someone within the academic community I expected more solid references and arguments. This is disappointing as the issues discussed in the book are valid but are let down through poor examples.

In summary, Believing Bullshit is a worthwhile read and one can get a better understanding of how not to get fooled by creative arguments, but don’t get sucked into its own misrepresentation of extremist Christian viewpoints as mainstream Christian beliefs.

Brian “Head” Welch’s Stronger

I have just finished reading Brian “Head” Welch’s Stronger – Forty Days of Metal and Spirituality. The book is a forty day devotional consisting of a few scriptures and then a few pages of either commentary or stories from Welch about how these scriptures have impacted his life.

This is the second Welch book I have read (see here my comments on his first) and like his previous work this book comes across in an easy to read style that engages the reader in a way that they can relate to. This is what makes Welch’s work particularly good, this is a book about God written not by a high and mighty spiritual perfectionist but instead by a guy who has been on top of the secular world and seen his world crumble all around him and somehow in all the mess, the drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll he found God who has given him a whole new perspective on life.

Overall, Stronger gives an excellent insight into the struggles of everyday life but also how you can live your life with God in control without coming across as some weird ultra-religious zealot. I would recommend anyone who struggles with how they can keep their faith real and relevant in modern society to pick up this book and give it a read, it is short but will challenge the depth of your soul.