I'm generally not one to read biographies and memoirs, but I was delighted by this little gem, which I found nestled in the stacks of Baldwin's Book B...moreI'm generally not one to read biographies and memoirs, but I was delighted by this little gem, which I found nestled in the stacks of Baldwin's Book Barn in West Chester, PA. Having been aware of Mises' economic work for some time now, I've known very little about his life. Honestly, before I picked up this book I couldn't have even said for sure whether he had been married.
Even for someone who isn't familiar with Mises' academic and professional work, the story of his meeting Margit, their long courtship, their escape from Austria and flight to America are all worth reading. And that happens in the first few chapters! The second half of the book is a bit more heady, but Margit's recollection of their many trips while Mises gave seminars and speaking tours are interesting as well, especially their trips to Latin America.
I've wanted to read this for awhile, and eventually decided to pick it up during my recent Dresden Files sprint, to cleanse the palate between Harry...moreI've wanted to read this for awhile, and eventually decided to pick it up during my recent Dresden Files sprint, to cleanse the palate between Harry Dresden's various lengthy and often amusing beat-downs. It took me awhile to finish, but honestly not as long as I thought it would, which is perhaps a testament to Mencken's ability to compellingly weave a tale about something as simultaneously ordinary and urbane as the everyday language in which we speak.
The main body of the book can be split into roughly three parts. The first five chapters covers the history of American as a language. Chapters V through VIII provide various grammatical explanations of "standard" American language, as it existed in Mencken's day. Chapters IX through XI focus on vulgar American language. After a short chapter with Mencken's predictions on the future of the language (XII), there's a long Appendix exploring more than two dozen languages that exist in various parts of the U.S., primarily in immigrant communities.
By and large, the most interesting part of the book for me was those first few chapters exploring the history of the language. Mencken very effectively shows how there mere fact of arriving in America forced explorers and settlers to begin developing their own language to describe the new plants, animals, landscapes and peoples they encountered. One of my favorite anecdotes is Mencken's description of the evolution of the word "raccoon" as people attempted to transcribe it from its original Native American pronunciation:
Thus, in Captain John Smith's "True Relation," published in 1608, one finds mention of a strange beast described variously as a rahaugcum and a raugroughcum. Four years later, in William Strachey's "Historie of Trevaile Into Virginia Britannia" it became an aracoune, "much like a badger," and by 1624 Smith had made it a rarowcun in his "Virginia." It was not until 1672 that it emerged as the raccoon we know today.
Mencken doesn't only focus how new words come into the language. He also shows how America's separation from England prevented developments in the parent tongue from replicating in American. For example, while Shakespeare was busily coining words and phrases in Elizabethan England, the American language had little opportunity, initially anyway, to benefit directly from his inventiveness. Such differences due to separation weren't limited to new vocabulary. Existing words also changed their meaning, including which words were acceptable to speakers of "standard" English. Mencken points to a number of cases in which perfectly legitimate English terminology and phraseology survived in America but became disused in England, and then later became known as Americanisms, although they could more accurately be called archaisms that had simply fallen out of vogue.
Mencken also spends a lot of time showing how American language absorbed the language of other cultures. Many more words than "raccoon" have their roots in Native American language. Likewise, contact with the various explorers, settlers and later immigrants brought new words and phrases into the language. Most interestingly, however, Mencken notes the propensity of Americans to simply create new words to accommodate ideas as they are needed. Some of these stick around, though many tend, eventually, to fall by the wayside. And it's hard to predict which will remain ahead of time.
Mencken is also quite fond of word lists. At one point, he lists a stunningly large number of supposedly offensive words that I could only laugh, both at its size and the relative mildness of its members, before wondering whether he had a private list of more uncivil terms — and how I might get my hands on it. However, as might be expected, at times such lists are a little tedious. Part of why I like the earlier chapters so much is that they tell a story, weaving words and word groups together with their historical context and how they both affected and were affected by the people who used them. In the last few chapters, Mencken tends to ditch narrative and undertake the role of cataloger. I would be lying if I didn't admit to glossing over some portions of the last several chapters. Likewise for the Appendix.
That said, overall Mencken does an excellent job of balancing scholarship with storytelling. For anyone who has even the slightest interest in American as a language, there are a lot of treasures to uncover, and undoubtedly you will come away with ideas and inquiries to pursue further. This was the last edition Mencken produced, and it still remains a compelling read today. Although there have been other books written about the American language (or aspects of it) since 1936, I suspect it would be difficult to find any that are more enjoyable.
I'm a fan of Bruce Schneier, I've followed his blog for years, and I enjoy his moderate and practical approach to various security issues. So when he...moreI'm a fan of Bruce Schneier, I've followed his blog for years, and I enjoy his moderate and practical approach to various security issues. So when he offered signed copies of his latest book at a discounted price in exchange for a review, I jumped at the opportunity.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. Perhaps because I'm already familiar, and agree, with many of his ideas, I didn't find too many surprising ideas here. Nonetheless, Schneier does a great job of laying out a broad, fairly consistent framework for looking at how people cooperate and, if the title is meant to indicate a theme, "defect" from various forms of pressure meant to induce that cooperation.
From a wide-angle view, the only book-wide criticism I have is with terminology. For example, Schneier uses the word "defect" (and its variants) to indicate someone who goes against a particular type of pressure meant to induce cooperation. In this taxonomy, both airplane hijackers and people who hid their Jewish neighbors from Nazi soldiers are considered "defectors." I don't think it's a major detraction from the ideas he presents, but in a few cases it requires a moment to suss out how the actor is defecting. Schneier even makes a few comments about the oddity of the terminology, such as in Chapter 14 where he writes, "The police...implement societal pressures against a broad array of competing norms. (Okay, I admit it. That's an odd way to describe arresting people who commit crimes against people and propety.)" That said, Schneier is certainly no James Carse, whose propensity to redefine terms is distracting at best.
Actually, not to contradict the paragraph above, where I think Schneier excels is in his ability to simplify concepts and demonstrate their applicability without stripping away too much of their complexity. He shows common links across a broad range of topics — from interpersonal interactions to business transactions to governmental regulation to the spread of religious ideas. He examines each of these by look at each idea from a host of angles, relying on everything from the evolution, psychology, economics, game theory and, of course, his own background as a security expert.
It's relatively quick read (I read it in three sittings), and certainly worth taking the time for anyone who spends any time thinking critically about how and why people choose whether to cooperate.(less)
Quite a good little intro. I read enough economics texts and blogs (note to self: add Tim Harford's blog to my already bulging list of RSS feeds) that...moreQuite a good little intro. I read enough economics texts and blogs (note to self: add Tim Harford's blog to my already bulging list of RSS feeds) that I didn't find anything too surprising. Nevertheless, the overall presentation is well done for a popular overview, and served as a good review. As an aside, the constant coffee-talk reminded me of Peter Navarro's stock trading treatise If It's Raining in Brazil Buy Starbucks.
The only point of cognitive dissonance I had was that, having been published in 2005, this book feels a little dated even now. Obviously, it doesn't mention anything about the 2007/2008 financial crisis, and I expect if it were written now, more attention might be paid to health care, campaign finance, etc. That doesn't take away from what's there — it just means that perhaps there's a good opportunity for a revised edition! :) (Or, perhaps Harford has addressed these in his other books.)(less)
I started reading this book based a friend's recommendation after a discussion about science and politics. Going into it, I understood it to be two th...moreI started reading this book based a friend's recommendation after a discussion about science and politics. Going into it, I understood it to be two things:
An argument against the use of science to "prove" preconceived notions, in particular about the supposedly innate cognitive abilities of different races
A larger look at how it's possible to "fight science with science" (my phrase)
Given the binary option of saying whether I think Gould is successful in achieving his stated goals, I'd have to say yes. I think that, overall, he compellingly argues that some scientists are disingenuous, or even at times outright deceptive, and use scientific knowledge and techniques to draw unwarranted conclusions that bolster their biases and prejudices. He also shows how a scientist who relies on "good" methodology to gather "objective" data can still suffer bias, but that such data can, at least, be re-examined later. ("Objectivity must be defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference." [p. 36])
My general criticism of Gould is that as much as he points at other people, he doesn't point at himself. Time after time, he lambastes various scientists for failing to see "obvious" problems with their data, techniques, hypotheses, etc. However, Gould has several planks in his own eye.
Political Bias: Gould is unequivocally leftist, and it shows. That would be fine, in and of itself, if he followed the same advice that he gives to all the dead scientists he pillories...but alas. In the Introduction to the Revised Edition, Gould says he would respect Charles Murray more if he admitted his conservative bias in The Bell Curve (p. 37-38). To his credit, Gould does discuss his own (politically) liberal history and leanings. However, throughout the book, Gould pokes at political conservatism, making various claims about their motives and intentions with regard to furthering arguments about hereditary intelligence, while completely ignoring similar criticisms of the left. The frequent jibes and potshots at conservatism give the reader a sense of a broad, historical arc in which conservatives, and only conservatives, have tried to foist their ideas on a broader public using (capital-S) Science! There are many places where Gould could equally recriminate leftist ideas, such as when referring to the evils of eugenics or discussing the desire to create a sort of workers' caste system based on "intelligence." Whether he disregards such opportunities intentionally or because he is blind to them seems irrelevant, but the fact of his disregard is, ironically, very telling.
Disclaimer: I am a libertarian, but I grew up in a (very) conservative home. Perhaps, because of my background, I am more attuned to criticism against conservatism than other political ideas. If I am misstating Gould's lack of criticism of the left, I am happy to be corrected in the comments to my review.
Factual squishiness: Gould is a good story teller, but after reading some others' critiques about his book, I'm not sure if "good story" equals "good history." That said, in a 1983 review of the first edition of Mismeasure, Bernard Davis points to some problems with Gould's analysis of various scientific studies — problems like completely ignoring things that would refute Gould's arguments. Other reviews point out problems not just with Gould's history, but with his science as well, such as John B. Carroll's contradiction of Gould's claims related to factor analysis, g and "reification." Furthermore is the recent study by Jason E. Lewis et al claiming that Gould was largely wrong in his derision of Morton's skull analysis.
Now, I admit that I don't have the scientific or historical chops to know whether Gould or his critics are right. However, I do think there is enough evidence to show that Gould's claims are, at best, overstated. (At worst, they're straw men.) Ultimately, I can't take Gould at his word any more than the other scientists.
Final thoughts:The problems outlined above notwithstanding, I do think Gould is somewhat successful in his point about the nature of scientific inquiry. That others can go back and review his claims (and correct them where necessary), despite his biases, seems quite obvious, in fact.
However, I disagree with others who have said that this "larger" point supersedes the issues prevalent throughout the book. If Gould makes his point, it is ironically, and not intentionally, so. (less)
Harry Browne did more to help me recognize my libertarian nature than anyone else, and I've striven to adopt his common-sense, positive, and dare I sa...moreHarry Browne did more to help me recognize my libertarian nature than anyone else, and I've striven to adopt his common-sense, positive, and dare I say even loving, approach to being a libertarian (as opposed to more in-your-face styles of libertarianism that piss me off even when I agree substantially, or at least sentimentally, with the arguments being made). I was fortunate enough to stumble upon his short-lived radio programs, and went on from there to read Fail-Safe Investing when I still had money to invest. (I still follow an ETF-based version of his "Permanent Portfolio" in my IRA.) Having two daughters of my own, I always try to remember to read his "A Gift for my Daughter" each Christmas, some paragraphs of which are found verbatim in this book. My only regret is that I discovered Browne (and libertarianism generally) too late to cast a vote for his presidential bids.
How I Found Freedom... has been on my list for awhile. Given my familiarity with Browne's ideas, I didn't find much surprising in it. The only eyebrow-raisers were his chapters on marriage and government — both of which he half-recants in the Epilogue of this 25th Anniversary Edition. Knowing that Browne was happily married for quite a long time before he died, and given his two-time presidential candidacy with the Libertarian Party, I suffered a little cognitive dissonance reading those chapters. (I also bit my lip a little at his multiple exhortations against "organizing" against the government, considering he co-founded Downsize DC.) The anniversary edition could've benefitted from a little more editing to clarify these positions earlier. That, along with perhaps a slightly less "self-help" feel in the last few chapters would've let me give this book 5 stars.
Still, it's well worth the read, for both libertarians and those who are simply curious to know more about the practical side of freedom (vs. the political side).(less)
I've always enjoyed reading E. B. White, when he's not writing about grammar. I picked this little book up on a whim today at a used book store, and r...moreI've always enjoyed reading E. B. White, when he's not writing about grammar. I picked this little book up on a whim today at a used book store, and reading it this evening has reminded me of how charming and witty he can be. In short, it's a proto-On the Road when there were barely any roads on which one could be.
Surprisingly, although writing in the 1930s and '50s about a car produced in the '20s, these short memoirs hold up. The Model T is so iconic to early 20th century Americana that it's easy to picture the unique and ubiquitous problems and fun times elicited by that vehicle. And of course, it reminds me of my own first car, not a Ford but a poo-brown Chevy Cavalier, and all the incidents that endeared it to me. (less)
Sam Harris is definitely an important thinker of our time. His short, but effective, book on how neuroscience shows that free will is a chemically ind...moreSam Harris is definitely an important thinker of our time. His short, but effective, book on how neuroscience shows that free will is a chemically induced illusion. I don't know if his is the final word, but it's certainly a new line in the sand for philosophical libertarians and compatibilists to cross.
However, I think Harris does himself a disservice by moving beyond the scope of arguments against free will into the realm of how we can understand moral obligations in light of determinism. It may be that he simply didn't give himself enough room, and his moral arguments may make complete sense. But if that's the case, he didn't show how in this book.
Abandoning for now. I've read a lot by and about Dr. Paul, so I have a good idea of his beliefs already. May pick this back up at some point. Just too...moreAbandoning for now. I've read a lot by and about Dr. Paul, so I have a good idea of his beliefs already. May pick this back up at some point. Just too much to read for the time being.(less)
I bought this book for a college course and recall liking it immensely. I recently ran across it again while digging through some boxes in the pit of...moreI bought this book for a college course and recall liking it immensely. I recently ran across it again while digging through some boxes in the pit of despair (a/k/a, my storage unit) and I pulled it out to read again. I'll give a more in-depth update after I've read through.(less)
Overall, a good story about a topic I knew little about (the life of Bertrand Russell). I wasn't thrilled with the narrative structure, which sometime...moreOverall, a good story about a topic I knew little about (the life of Bertrand Russell). I wasn't thrilled with the narrative structure, which sometimes got lost in its own ebb and flow and felt a bit clunky at times. But still, it was a decent tale.(less)
Very interesting stuff. I've always been interested in languages and would like to learn several (at least!). Ms. Lomb presents a very intriguing and...moreVery interesting stuff. I've always been interested in languages and would like to learn several (at least!). Ms. Lomb presents a very intriguing and practical method of attacking a foreign language.
My only qualm with the book is that it seems to take her a long time to get around to actually describing her learning method. Much of the book is fraught with personal and hearsay anecdotes that, while interesting, are more fluff than substance.
That said, it's a quick read and worth scanning through if you are looking to learn a new language in an efficient manner.(less)