A brilliantly fun book, although this is one of those very rare cases where the movie was actually even better. Retitled Tune in Tomorrow and transpl...moreA brilliantly fun book, although this is one of those very rare cases where the movie was actually even better. Retitled Tune in Tomorrow and transplanted to New Orleans in the fifties, it has an incredible jazz soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis, a delightful performance by Peter Falk as the scriptwriter, and a surprisingly good turn by Keanu Reeves. Barbara Hershey is gorgeous as Aunt Julia. See it if you haven't yet; consider reading the book as well! (less)
This book illustrates how decisions can be analyzed retrospectively, including a taste of how different theories of decision making will change what o...moreThis book illustrates how decisions can be analyzed retrospectively, including a taste of how different theories of decision making will change what one concludes about what the actors involved must have believed and wanted.
When I went back to college after leaving my first career, my fascination with this book was one of the principle reasons I choose International Relations as my subject matter. In retrospect, I should have tracked down a program in Decision Theory instead, but hindsight is 20-20.(less)
OK, I’ve got to explain this four-star rating, because I don’t want anyone to think I’d actually recommend this b...more(Update at end; latest is 2013-11-12)
OK, I’ve got to explain this four-star rating, because I don’t want anyone to think I’d actually recommend this book...
It has been many years since I’ve read either of Ayn Rand’s two doorstop books, and I can’t really recall the details of either. I’m pretty sure the one with John Galt had the absurdly long speech near the end, and all the cool kids smoked special cigarettes, and was mostly about railroads. This was the one with the architect, right?
Anyway, I think folks should need permission to read this. Frankly, I think teenage experimentation with pot is trivial in terms of risk to a kid’s soul compared to experimentation with Ayn Rand. Her books can much more easily destroy a life.
Let me explain. Rand’s philosophy, as near as I can tell, is that great people shouldn’t be encumbered by the not-so-great. Taxes, regulations, all that stuff: just the shackles the large number of mediocre folks force onto their betters — pure parasitism. Her morality comes down to letting the best do whatever they want, and letting the rest starve. These books are her ideas about how that should work out, and as such are suffused with incredibly juvenile wish-fulfillment. The powerful are tormented by the weak, but through force of will rise above it all.
I might not be remembering all this quite right — after all, it has been a long time. The above description is what my initial impression has distilled down to; your mileage may vary.
So where’s the danger, and why the relatively high rating? Well, many teenagers look out at their world and feel victimized by the completely lame and restrictive world that adults impose upon them. It is clear to them that they are as smart and able as these authorities, yet those adults are so... clueless. Obviously, adult life somehow has turned them into a lesser breed of humanity, with all the vitality sucked out. Add Ayn Rand to this and you suddenly have the ingredients for a self-perpetuating sense of victimhood and entitlement.
Most people have overcome their teenage angst and fantasies by, say, twenty-eight or so. At that point, Rand will have lost her magic and her books should be freely available. But between twelve and twenty-seven, a committee of wise elders should decide whether that kid is mature enough not to get sucked into it.
Sounds unlikely? Yeah, well so does Rand’s puerile philosophy, but somehow we have self-righteous imbeciles getting elected left and right. Well, sorry, not so much “left” — mostly “right”. (The left has it's own cast of bad influences, of course.)
But then, why the good rating? Because Rand provided a window into the strange logic of the pathologically extreme libertarian. We might have seen Hitler’s deeds, and learned of Nietzsche’s diktats, but we never saw the fantasies that drove them. Most folks that would enthusiastically agree with Rand are either too dumb to put pen to paper, or too smart to let the world see what sociopaths they really are.
So: four stars for the opportunity to watch the slow-motion horror show of Rand’s political philosophy in action, warning us of where we’re heading.
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Update, late summer 2012— Romney's selection of Ryan as his running mate has got folks chatting about Ryan's on-and-off obsession with Ayn Rand. Not having made a study of Rand's life, I was pleased to learn that while her extremely anti-collectivist views are still antithetical to civilization (which is definitionally a collectivist enterprise) she was actually quite the social liberal. Not sure that makes her any more pleasant — ideologues of any stripe are quite annoying, even those that suddenly appear more complex and harder to pigeon-hole — but nice to know. A few more details? Check out the NY Times op-ed piece, Atlas Spurned.
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Update, summer 2013— I was catching up on my favorite intelligentisa magazine, the excellent Wilson Quarterly, and ran across a brief note in the Spring 2013 issue entitled “Fountainhead of Need”. As a young woman and recent immigrant to the United States, Rand was very poor while toying with a life in Hollywood — she worked as an extra in Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings — and at one point was destitute enough that she relied on charity to keep a roof over her head. Years later, she wrote a letter of thanks to the women's boarding house that helped her at a time of dire need.
“The Studio Club,” Rand wrote, “is the only organization I know of personally that carries on, quietly and modestly, this great work which is needed so badly — help for young talent. It not only provides human, decent living accommodations which a poor beginner could not afford elsewhere, but it provides that other great necessity of life: Understanding.”
A paean to altruism? Not exactly. In the letter, Rand also declared that it was time to stop favoring “crippled children, old people, blind people and all kinds of disabled unfortunates” over “the able, the fit, the talented.” She continued, “Who is more worthy of help — the sub-normal or the above normal? Who is more valuable to humanity?” Aiding “the disabled” was fine, she said, but nurturing “potential talent” represented “a much higher type of charity.”
Yup, that's the kind of woman she was.
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Update, autumn 2013— Wow, there are still folks out there that are explicitly adherents of Objectivism. If you would like to cringe, take a gander at "Give Back? Yes, It's Time For The 99% To Give Back To The 1%" at Forbes. Yeah, Forbes is the "church periodical for those that worship at the temple of weatlh" (as a FB acquaintance put it), but it still seems somewhat staggering that there are people that believe that
It turns out that the 99% get far more benefit from the 1% than vice-versa.
See if you can spot the basic logic error in the first paragraph!
The proposal that the wealthy be exempt from income taxes is only capped by the appalling suggestion that “the year’s top earner should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.” Honestly, if this were in the Onion it would still be over the top. (less)
This slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region af...moreThis slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region affected by San Francisco’s thoroughly confusing summer weather, which can include the entire bay region, the delta, and even much of the central valley and the Sierras.
There’s no evidence that Mark Twain actually said “The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco,” but the idea is correct. Several oddities of the geology and climate combine to give San Francisco very curious summer weather: a typical day is chilly and windy, much to the surprise of tourists expecting “California weather.”
Of all of these classic social studies, the one that seemed most prescient was The Lonely Crowd, with the discussion of social identification shifting from “inner-directed” to “other-directed”. The radicals and revolutions starting in the sixties seemed to belie Riesman’s thesis, but the trend again became apparent by the early eighties.
If I recall correctly, the definition was that inner-directed people judged themselves and acted in accordance to an internalized “compass”, moral and otherwise. An other-directed person, meanwhile, based their morality and identity on their social group.
A further implication that Riesman identified was the concurrent trend from a production-oriented society (“I am what I produce”) to one oriented towards consumption (“I am what I consume”).
Importantly, both of these trends are very apparent in the ‘net generation’, and the rise of the internet seems to be accelerating both the shift to other-directedness and social identification aligned with consumption. I don’t recall much discussion in the 1969 book of the long term implications of these trends, but they could be deep tectonic shifts in the nature of civilization, as profound as the shift from the days of a pre-industrial society based mostly on agricultural production.
(It is quite possible that I have forgotten essential details of this book’s message, or even fundamentally misunderstood them — in which case I hope someone will post a comment to my review alerting me to my mistake).
I hope to find time to re-read the Revised Edition and see if the Foreword, at least, has much to say about current evidence for these trends, but a browse of the book (via Amazon Reader’s preview) doesn’t show much commentary.
The Lonely Crowd is definitely relevant to our twentieth-century world, but so much of the subject matter, style and examples are antiquated that most people will find the book’s lessons difficult and obscure.
The shift to a “other-directed” mindset could be the underlying cause of much of this. As I remember Riesman’s thesis, the basis of this is the shift from an economy of production to one of consumption. As we get farther from an economy of scarcity, more people focus their attention away from “how to make and get stuff” and towards their social status. This isn’t a crude “keeping up with the Joneses” thing; its more like what the well-fed monkeys do: they study the more popular monkeys and spend more time grooming monkeys they think are cool and interesting (that is, “friending” them).
The problem with this happening in humans is that the worry over production concentrates us on the material world and its consequent attention to science and engineering. A shift to a consumption mindset could derail the very thing that made it possible, as people’s votes, purchases and career choices change. And the many crises facing humanity in the coming decades make this an especially inopportune time for such a transformation.