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Empires of the Silk Road (Christopher Beckwith) - review
Danny Yee reviews Christopher Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Roads.
"In his account, attacks by Central Asians on peripheral states are always the result of provocation, and wars the result of expansionist policy by neighbours. Even the sack of Baghdad is explained: "The caliph refused to surrender, despite the reasonable Mongol offer and explanation of what would happen if he resisted." It reminds me of seeing books in Ulan Batar with titles like "Genghis Khan, Peacekeeper of God"."

"The more recent history is largely subordinated to political and aesthetic rants. A potted history narrates the twentieth century as one disaster after another, every one of them the fault of Modernism, or in some cases extreme Modernism, radical Modernism, religious fundamentalism, Postmodernism, or other variants. For Beckwith the horrors of Soviet collectivization or the Cultural Revolution are on a continuum with the populist excesses of Western "democracies", responsible for such evils as the imposition of mass schooling. Instead he harks back to the classical, aristocratic, and even monarchic past — the last Persian Shah is presented as a wise philosopher-king betrayed by the West. And, yes, it is possible to fit arguments about the merits (or lack thereof) of T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland, or serial music, into a history of Central Eurasia!"

"The most compelling material in Empires of the Silk Road is in its earlier chapters. This is Beckwith's core area of expertise and when he takes a contrarian or speculative stance here he backs it up with evidence. And his digressions, while often esoteric, are not quite so wildly aimed."

"Beckwith is slightly obsessed by the comitatus and sees evidence of it everywhere, even in something as generic as loyalty to an individual rather than to a government. (I'm not sure I'd want to be one of Beckwith's doctoral students: they may be expected to bury themselves with him.)"
book_review  central_asia  christopher_beckwith 
12 weeks ago by PeterErwin
DeWitt’s “The Last Samurai” Cultivates Ambition in its Readers
> Sibylla’s response reads like a defense of DeWitt’s own endeavor: “There is an obvious difference,” she tells her child, “between someone who works within the technical limitations of his time which are beyond his control and someone who accepts without thinking limitations which are entirely within his own power to set aside.”
helen_dewitt  novel  book_review  ambition 
september 2018 by porejide Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (2015465062911): Sally Satel, Scott O. Lilienfeld: Books
> On the plus side, this book is a lucid critique of how neural imaging has been abused within recent science. Neural images are representations, not descriptions of what is going on in the brain; even worse, they show areas of oxygenation, which can indicate places in the brain that are activating or suppressing neural connections. The fMRI is indeed in the hands of charlatans a neo-phrenology. On the negative side, the cold water is more often than not somewhat obvious, and it is only the hyperbolic enthusiasm surrounding fMRIs that makes such a corrective seem like such a breath of fresh air. Who really believes activity in region A means that the person prefers one candidate over another or that I love my iPhone?: oxygenation is a long ways away from the content of a thought or feeling. Ruth Leys has performed a much more powerful critique of the work of Benjamin Libet; see her "The Turn to Affect: A Critique."
neuroscience  book_review 
july 2018 by porejide
Why I Don't Love Gödel, Escher, Bach
In this passage, Hofstadter openly admits to exactly the charge I’m bringing: that his inclusion of Zen is all about clichéd aesthetics (“Eastern spice”) and not at all about any of its substance—in this case, because he apparently doesn’t seem to think it has any!

What Hofstadter doesn’t admit to, but what I would argue, is that the whole book does this with almost every non-mathematical topic it tackles. His explanations of mathematics-adjacent topics do have substance and are often reasonably well-explained, but every time he branches out, he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s regurgitating shallow, half-misunderstood cliché: his discussions of modern art and music are, as I mentioned before, deeply lacking in this regard, but he name-checks plenty of artists, musicians, and writers with a high school understanding of who they were and what they did, preferring to pepper the text with photos of wacky paintings, drawing he made of letters that are made up of other letters, and tales of half-understood kōans. They’re all spice: his “casserole” is a few insubstantial layers of food underneath inch-thick layers of spices.

This also presents a problem with the entire underlying program of the book: it’s supposed to present examples of a common important idea—self-reference—resurfacing throughout various disparate areas, including mathematics and computation and art and music, but while this idea is well-motivated in the parts about mathematics and computation, but because most of the other topics the book tackles end up being just shallow aesthetics, then the “deep connections” there can only be present in shallow aesthetic ways. This was, for me, the ultimate breakdown of the promise of the book, as the grand unifying theme—the titular “eternal golden braid” of self-referential structures across domains—was only capable of unifying a few problem domains, as the rest of those connections were pretty but ultimately insubstantial.
contrarianism  programmer_mentality  book_review 
july 2018 by anaximander
H-Diplo Commentary 1 on Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
We now see why a potted history of the Enlightenment is so central to Pinker’s argument: if the Enlightenment ideas have worked so far, it means that there is no reason they will not work in the future and it would be foolish and presumptuous to try to meddle with the majestic course of progress. What the book is in effect advocating is a form of political quietism in the face of the most important challenges of our time. For there are indeed problems that seem so intractable and pressing that they would warrant an urgent revision of our social, political, and economic choices: climate change and socioeconomic inequalities, in particular. Data on these issues can be quite disheartening—even though Pinker works his magic spin again on a number of graphs[11]—and one could easily be tempted to do something about it. This is where Pinker’s loosely connected observations about progress, about data, about cognitive biases and about the ineffable and unknowable power of the market to select technological solutions come together as an ideological argument in favor of the status quo and against political alternatives [...]

what is truly disturbing is not so much the methodological fallacies due to scale as their ethical implications: the ‘big picture’ rhetoric obfuscates massive disparities but it also denies their systemic character. Pinker does not accept that under many of the economic arrangements that define capitalism, if some are better off, it means that others are necessarily worse off (he calls that “a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition” 334), and that these others are often the same ones. A remarkable feature of Enlightenment Now is indeed its history without historical agents and without power, in which “science,” “reason,” “capitalism” or “industrialism” dispense their benefits to an ungrateful mankind. It is not the organized working classes that wrested concessions from capital but “capitalist societies” that spent on welfare; it is not the conquest of social and economic rights but “industrial capitalism” that “launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st” (364). The result is a warped vision in which those who do not partake in the benefits of progress are simply not seeing things as they should and any politics based on them would not be “evidence-based” and thus flawed [...]

he proceeds to explain that populism is only a bunch of grouchy old folks in their retirement homes.[13] Demographics will take care of populism, it is just a matter of waiting out the wave. And because “economic insecurity is not the driver” behind the resentment of these victims of progress, “the strategies of reducing income inequality and of talking to laid-off steelworkers and trying to feel their pain, however praiseworthy, will probably be ineffective.” In the meantime, it may be best not to ruffle them too much with ill-considered forms of identity politics (342). Written in the context of Trump’s America, post-Brexit, and the electoral successes of populist forces in Europe, what Pinker writes about populism and inequalities is politically irresponsible at best and cynical at worst. [<- !! wrong way]
book_review  science_is_a_method  bias  philosophy  data  ethics  inequality  politics  solutionism 
july 2018 by hwhvg
[no title]
Negative review of Hunt & Lipo's _The Statues that Walked_ by Flenley & Bahn.
easter_island  book_review 
may 2018 by PeterErwin
The Man Who Led the Harlem Renaissance—and His Hidden Hungers | The New Yorker
Review of a biography of Alain Locke, who promoted and helped publish many of the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, but whose relationship to them and the debates of the day was strained and full of tensions.
harlem_renaissance  alain_locke  writers  writing  race  history  literature  book_review  biography 
may 2018 by johnmfrench

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