Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been on my to-read list for a long time (originally it came out in 2010). I enjoy Ridley’s work, and this fits in well. There are few surprises for those who have read Ridley or similar books. Essentially: forget the day-to-day news cycle, look at the big historical picture and the data, and human life in general has been getting better and better; and there’s every reason to think it will continue to do so. But what about….Ridley probably discusses it and has an answer. Technology, wealth, ingenuity have and will continue to help us find ways to deal with problems and (and the new problems that arise from those solutions).

What makes Rational Optimist somewhat unique is Ridley’s basic argument for why humans are able to succeed: where the technology, wealth, and ingenuity comes from. Combining, as he says Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, Ridley argues that what makes the human species unique and able to prosper so well is the sex of ideas. That is, the human propensity to exchange goods also leads to exchange of ideas. This, he argues, is the root of the existence of and expansion of cultural and collective knowledge. Ideas evolve (Darwin) through interaction (Smith). Through specialization, trade, and the evolution of ideas, humans are able to adapt and achieve ever higher standards of living.

It is a fascinating thesis, and Ridley explains it in detail, going through history and pre-history to find evidence for it. The audiobook is well-produced and keeps your attention. I tend to lose focus somewhat with numbers and statistics, so the print version would be good if that is important.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Review: Without Fail

Without Fail Without Fail by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, it’s about what you expect from Child and Reacher. It’s not the best one, but it is a good read. It is slow to start, Child spends a lot of time building up one of the characters and Reacher’s relationship to her, and that ultimately makes sense. Nevertheless, the story takes a bit to get some traction. And I’m also not that comfortable with the ending. It works within the story, but it’s a bit cold-blooded for me.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

Review: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter is always interesting, entertaining, and insightful. He reads the audible book, and I like that. He has the voice for it and, since he wrote it, knows how it should sound. The one downside for me on this, and it's minor, is that since I listen to his podcast, Lexicon Valley, this did feel like a really long podcast episode.

On to the substance. The focus of the book is a critique of a kind of strict or strong Whorfianism (Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). On the strongest version of this hypothesis, the idea is that language conditions or determines how and what we think -- even what we perceive. Here are some crude examples: Russian has several words for different shades of blue, therefore Russian speakers literally see more shades of blue. Or the Pirahã language which apparently has no numbers means the Pirahã don’t know how to count. McWhorter's argument in this book is to point out how this view is empirically and theoretically wrong.

McWhorter is careful to make sure his reader doesn't misinterpret his critique as a rejection of any influence of language on how and we think. Of course there are important influences. The critique is against the strong version -- which is the one that the media and others tend to glom on to. He also discusses why the strong version is the version that is popularized, while empirically minded linguistics don't take it seriously. Language is the tool we use for thinking and communicating, and so it's important to think about it as we inquire into how we conceptualize about the world. But it doesn't determine what and how we think.

My priors are with McWhorter, so his critique and analysis make perfect sense to me. But more than that, he is careful to discuss the opposing theories and theorists with charity and integrity. He discusses the linguist evidence and what the evidence supports. He builds his case and lays out it.

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