Recent Reviews of 2008
It is always good to think critically about that which our minds ingest.
7 November 2008
Okay, so I haven't read a book on modern China since the late 90's. I know, I've been remiss. The last book I read ended shortly after
Tienanmen, so it's probably appropriate that the book I just completed, Joe Studwell's The China Dream, takes up the story of the
nineties. The title is a fair giveaway to Studwell's perspective on this opaque, communist country: a billion man market that, like a mirage,
is always just beyond reach. He spends the first half of the book building up the optimist's case and the second half showing why it was
only a dream and led so many multinationals to ruin with a piercing economic analysis. One comes away with the perspective that all of China's
"growth" over the decade is actually the inflation of their money supply as the communist government implements the western instruments
of fractional reserve banking to bilk its populace. The bailing out of failing Chinese industries with government money is chillingly
familiar to the events of recent days as many of the governments of the western world run to embrace socialism.
13 July 2008
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography is half American Girl, half Tom Clancy. It is a piercing, honest look at herself and the cultures she's lived in. An overriding theme in her personal development is religious development: from the myths of childhood, to the fundamentalism of her adolescence, to her disillusionment in early adulthood and eventual atheism. Having followed that intellectual journey myself (through Christianity rather than Islam), I was compelled by her story. Even in the unfamiliar setting of east Africa her story rings true in the characters who participated in her life, and gives a welcome window into the brutality still practiced by her former coreligionists. One also has the sense that, at not even forty, this is just volume one of her story and that volume two may even be more exciting than the first.
24 June 2008
In Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi has taken on a legendary status as that quintessentially American wine region grew to prominence
in the late 20th century. Siler's House of Mondavi chronicles the famous wine family during his life - from his immigrant
parents in the central valley through the hostile takeover of his winery just a few years ago. A recurrent theme of the story is
maintaining an intergenerational family business when there are multiple heirs and the large estate tax burden of California
and the US. Then of course there's the bacchanalian lifestyle of Robert and his children which seemed only to distract them
from the business and exacerbate internecine warfare. What the book lacks is a more thorough discussion of the younger Mondavi,
Peter, and his management of Charles Krug winery after Robert's ouster. Peter's style as a slow and steady businessman would
provide an interesting counterpoint to Robert's hare-like energy and dazzling success, not least because Peter managed to pass
the family wine business onto his progeny.
13 June 2008
Ron Paul's revolution would amount to the largest government renunciation of power in history, which is why I believe it can
never happen. Too many have too much invested in the current power structure to allow that to happen. There is no historical
precedent for Paul's massive changes, while they are all good ideas which would free us from many government shackles. If Paul's
followers manage to pull it off it will be a first in the history books. The constitution of our nation is beyond restoration.
11 June 2008
Thanx to Mark Steyn for reminding me why I am an atheist and why I have four kids. The violent viral meme called Islam is
growing like a weed in culturally relativist societies of Europe and their governments are enabling it in so many ways. Steyn
takes us on a light and funny ride through a doomsday scenario of Europe under submission to Islam. Fortunately, our main
sources of immigrants here in the US come uninfected by that violent meme. My main qualm with Steyn is his assertion that we
should wave such common law basics as a right to trial for those accused of terrorism. This seems all the more discordant when
he eviscerates the federalistas for their failure to protect us on 9/11 and advocates putting the security of western
civilization in the hand of private citizenry. In a country where millions pat themselves on the back for voting for someone
unlike themselves, someone black, someone raised in the Muslim world, into the White House, more people should read this book.
16 May 2008
Richard Dawkins is better known these days as the advocate of militant atheism, but believe it or not he started out as a
biologist. The Selfish Gene is the book that originally put him on the map in the popular as well as scientific world. A
clever book with copious examples, it is starting to show its age. Nevertheless, the central theme that genes, not organisms, are
the most important elements of natural selection is well illustrated if no longer revolutionary. In addition, Dawkins coinage of
the term "meme" for self propagating ideas which flow through human society has provided us with a vocabulary and framework
(mirroring genetics) to talk about idea propagation. These vignettes more than make up for the books outdatedness and omissions.
3 April 2008
Tonight I read on the advice of Neal Boortz Milton's Areopagitica,
an excellent defense of free speech penned during the English Civil War. The sheer breadth of historical antecedents can be a bit overwhelming to
the uncultured, but serves nevertheless in establishing the case that a fettered press is the first step down a path to tyranny. As such I think of
our own press, which has been severely fettered by the FCC for nigh on a century now and wonder if we have not paid such a price.
21 March 2008
If you want to read a funny, uplifting book about stand-up, this is not it. Steve Martin sets a somber tone which manages to hold throughout this
autobiographical sketch despite being punctured many times with his dry wit. Focusing primarily on his early career from Disneyland until The
Jerk, Martin offers glimpses into the other dimensions of this early period of his life. The thesis of the book seems to be, however, that
stand-up comedy is a horrible career path that no one in their right mind should attempt. Perhaps it should be recommended reading for anyone
considering a career in entertainment, as Martin seems to be having fun only in the brief period between making enough to live on and becoming
20 March 2008
Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Therends the average person's knowledge of the man who face graces the ten dollar bill. I must admit
to knowing little more about him than that he served under Washington during the Revolution and was later a prominant Federalist who was felled in
his prime Burr. Ron Chernow's excellent biography changed all that. As a student of biographies I have read some bad ones, but many more which were
good for the first part but ended or petered out before reaching the culmination of an individual's life. Chernow's story of Hamilton is lucid and
well researched from his boyhood on Nevis in the West Indies until his death in Manhattan after being rowed back from that fatal dueling ground in
Weehawken, NJ. I fully intend to read Chernow's other works because of this masterfull portrait he's painted of Hamilton.
14 March 2008 - Leave Us Alone
Grover Norquist has led the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) since its inception in the early 1980s. I
first encountered this group in the late 90s but became a bit disillusioned when they supported Bush for things unrelated to tax reform just
because he was a Republican. Realizing that Norquist is a Republican first and reformer 2nd doesn't mean I don't support the better part of his
aims for freeing us from the shackles of taxation though. His most recent foray, Leave Us Alone, describes the coalition he's build in Washington
of various interest groups who share the commonality of desiring to keep government hands of some part of their lives. My only critique of this
coalition is that Norquist excludes those fighting against government intervention in vices like drugs, gambling, etc. Nevertheless, his
impassioned and logical arguments to lesson gun controls, lower taxes and give parents more control over their childrens' education are the best
to be found in the political sphere. Naturally his discussion of these issues is highly polemic, but the pragmatic approach of gradually working
toward his goals in small steps has proved very successful in Washington.
Norquist lauds all the Republican successes passing bills to lower taxes and makes a point of mentioning bills that were passed in the 1990s
multiple times by Congress only to fall to Clinton's veto. While crowing about the successes lowering taxes every year of the current Bush
administration he does not mince words about the Dark Side of Bush with his out of control spending. While he doesn't mentioned the concomitant
inflation, he admirably demonstrates how the ATR pledges not to raise taxes have painted Republicans into a corner. Raising taxes is now a
death sentence for any Republican's career, so the only way to pay for the expansion of government has been printing more money. Of course that
makes everyone else's money worth less, but it is a slow and hidden process so the Republicans can still get away with it. One wonders if
this fact has eluded Norquist.
Surprising for an election year book from one of the leaders of the conservative movement, Norquist takes a number of shots at John McCain. One
gets the feeling that Norquist believes McCain would be another Bush 41, pledging not to raise taxes but doing it anyway. More probably though,
Norquist believes that the current Bush in the White House has more control over whether or not McCain gets elected. "If the Iraq war is in our
rear view when the elections take place, Republicans will win, but if Iraq is still in our Windshield then there will be a Democrat in the White
House." I can't say I disagree with that analysis.