Books

Who rules the world?

When first reading the title of this book – who rules the world? – my mind instantly spurred up images of conspiring men sitting in a dark, secret room, making the world’s most important decisions. While this image isn’t entirely true, Chomsky (author of the book) explains that many of the imperative decisions are made behind closed doors. What’s even more interesting, the explanations for the decisions are often off, very off. Remember the invasion of Iraq? As Chomsky rightfully points out, this wasn’t to “stabilize the country”.

The book sheds a light on the pivotal decisions made by on the most powerful and threatening rogue states in the world, the USA. Chomsky elaboratively describes the events in the Middle East, Cuba, Vietnam, Latin America, and the USA’s role in each of these crises in the past 70 years. First and foremost the author warns us of countries’ possessions of nuclear weapons. He clarifies that Iran isn’t the nation we should fear in terms of these fatal devices and provides a long list of arguments why this fear is misplaced and created. He further demonstrates that much of the decisions made by the USA, especially in regards to war crimes, aren’t necessarily backed by public opinion. Aside from nuclear weaponry, Chomsky pleads for awareness of climate change, as we have to act now to preserve our planet.

What stood out to me the most is the authors dismantling of western indoctrination. I was aware that much of our media is very biased and often takes a stance that makes the west seem as “better” in any international event. But the cover-ups are much severe than I assumed. In the west, we often accuse communist nations of twisting the truth and engaging in propaganda. However, western propaganda comes pretty close to those of the regimes we actively oppose.
Chomsky draws similarities between to events of two passenger aircrafts being shot down. In 1988 Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by USS Vincennes and in 2015 MH17 was shot down in Ukraine. Supposedly the USA never officially apologized for the war crime and wasn’t met with outrage that was noticeable through every form of western media, related to the MH17.

This book will help you understand the power relations currently present in the world and how western propaganda influences your views on these. It also emphasizes the problems of nuclear weaponry and climate change. Apparently, we are much closer to nuclear warfare than we might think.

Books

Understanding natural science as a social scientist

Even though I study social science, I’m still very much interested in natural science. For this reason, I like to read books on evolution theory by Dawkins. I often like to read about topics associated with this theory, so I don’t find his books hard to understand. However, I also wanted to know more about physics, so I decided to read A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawkings. I must say that I had trouble following Hawkings’ explanations.

Though, his book did teach me something outside of all the theories clarified by the author. As someone who studies social sciences, I often feel looked down upon by other fields of research. Psychology and sociology have really been working hard on their reputations and haven’t been around as long as natural sciences to prove themselves. Physics has this image that natural laws hold truth. We know the Earth is not flat, we know gravity is a thing, and we know molecules exist. Yet, social theories such as the Big Five are still met with reluctance.

But reading Hawkings’ book I realized that a myriad of natural science theories exist that we aren’t as confident in as the theory of gravity. What fascinated me even more is that opposing views exist in the natural science field! I was aware of the opposing views in regards to quantum physics, as it is relatively new. As researchers have used it to back up philosophical claims, such as free will and determinism.

Fortunately, I also gained a better understanding of Einstein’s relativity theory, blackholes, and some of the elementary particles. Although I had to do my best to grasp what the author was trying to explain, I did learn several new things. Even if your understanding of physics is whatever you learned in a physic’s class in high school, I do recommend this book. You do gain a better insight of how natural science works.

Books

How do we help ‘poor countries’?

There is often a lot of discussion around foreign aid and charity programs to help countries where the majority of the population lives below the poverty line. The behavior of people, who struggle to meet their basic needs, is also scrutinized. Those who do not live under such circumstances might say things such as: ‘why don’t the poor just stop spending so much money, if you didn’t buy that TV, you would be able to buy food!’. However, their situations are far more complex than we can imagine. Furthermore, we make different economic decisions under different circumstances.

Banerjee and Duflo wrote an intriguing book on this subject, Poor Economics. They rely on anecdotal stories, random controlled trial experiments, and historical events to explain what it is like living on less than $1 a day. The authors also discuss how these people can be helped to live a more prosperous life. While there are many (government) programs to aid poor people to at least attend elementary school, it doesn’t give them all the required information to successfully participate in society. For instance, the knowledge of immunizing their children, or which politician to vote for doesn’t reach these people. Second, they have to go the extra mile to achieve a healthy life. Many of us in the Western world have access to sanitary facilities, clean drinking water, and we’re familiar with and have access to preventative measures to stay healthy. We don’t have to think twice about these things. We don’t have to add chlorine to our water after visiting the water pump.

The authors list many more findings of how the decisions might not make sense at face value, but when you take a better look, the reasons for their decisions become clear. Banarjee and Duflo talk about the functional and dysfunctional social policies that have been implemented as well. I find this book encouraging as the authors ensure that there is a lot that can be done in order to help those in need.

Books

Why nations fail?

In a previous post, I discussed the book Collapse by Jared Diamond. In this book, Diamond discusses how societies fall apart and cease to exist due to a number of different factors. Most of the factors relate to biological causes, for instance, deforestation and a rapid growth in population. However, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that there are different determinants that contribute to a society’s downfall.

In their book, Why Nations Fail, they discuss that the determinants have to do with the institutions that are present in a nation. There are two types of institutions, inclusive institutions, and extractive institutions. Inclusive means that citizens have political freedom and can partake in political decision-making in one way or another. Extractive would mean that citizens do not have such freedom and that their country is ruled by someone who has (close to) absolute power.

They further expand this theory as to say that inclusive institutions lead to prosperity, while extractive ones do not. In nations with inclusive institutions, there is an incentive and freedom to engage in being innovative. The authors show that many of the greatest inventors lived in societies with inclusive institutions. This will lead to overall prosperity in a society.

What makes their explanation of their thesis so interesting is the fact that they provide many historical examples to back up their claims. The authors also refute other previous claims made by other scientists before them. These include geography, culture, and ignorance. Acemoglu and Robinson clarify that nations aren’t historically determined to have one of the two types of institutions, but most if it relies on contingency.

Books

Is America’s justice system fair?

After seeing Chris Hayes discuss his new book, A Colony In A Nation, on The Daily Show, I had to read it. The book opens with an interesting internal dialogue by the author. He recalls the last time he called the cops. A couple was arguing outside and was ‘disrupting the order in the neighborhood’ He reflects on his reasons for calling the authorities. Was it because he wanted to protect the woman in question? Or did he want the disorder to go away?

This introduction is an interesting prelude to Hayes’ thesis later in the book. He takes on a journey through history in terms of the formation of the justice system in America. Even now, a part of the population lives in the nation and the rest lives in the remnants of the colony. The system still hinders people of color. They have the right to fear the police since they don’t function to serve and protect them. We can listen to anecdotal stories of people who have been stopped by the police for trivial reasons, we know that their skin color and the neighborhood they’re from probably heavily influence their reasons for being stopped. However, if this isn’t enough evidence for you, Hayes makes use of statistics to back up his claims.

Hayes discusses all the issues related to the present justice system, police brutality, dysfunctional policies, using fines to get funding, neighborhood segregation, and much more. It’s an interesting read, as many claim: ‘before the law, we’re all equal’. But in reality, this is not the case, as old colonial workings are still at play.

Books

North Korea: worse than you can imagine

To my surprise, there are quite a lot of books on North Korea. I wanted to find out more about the regime that is trying its best to keep its inside workings a secret. To get a better understanding of the current situation, I recommend the following books: The Real North Korea (Lankov), Without You There Is No Us (Kim), and Nothing to Envy (Demick). Each book sheds a different light on the lives of the common people living north of the 38th parallel.

The Real North Korea tells an elaborate story of how the regime came to be. Lankov explains how Korea ended up being split up in two different countries. He explains how the diplomatic relationships and tensions during the Cold War led to a ‘civil’ war in Korea. Starting from there he goes on to describe all the major political and economic reforms that took place afterward.
Reading this book, I realized that the measures this country takes to gain political power not only over its own citizens but in the worldwide sphere of influence are more absurd than we can imagine.
For instance, North Korea has abducted Japanese citizens in the seventies and eighties. The author suggests that the purpose might have been to create new spies, that speak both Korean and Japanese. Another strange example is that different North Korean diplomats have been caught smuggling drugs.
Lankov describes the inner workings of the regime, how those serving the regime can be bribed, and how capitalism has taken over some of the markets. He calls some of the actions, carried out by the elite, Orwellian. The government actively removes people from history, as if they never existed in the first place. Once someone is dubbed a traitor and is executed, their name will be taken off any existing document.
At the end of the book, the author speculates what would happen if the two Koreas were to be united right now. An important point made is that the North Korean people need to be protected in this case. They will face many challenges and dangers. For example, most people will not have the right qualifications to carry out their professions, compared to South Korean standards. A North Korean doctor cannot do the same work in South Korea. Another phenomenon to look out for is Ponzi-schemes, to which the North Koreans might fall victim to.

In Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim describes her experiences teaching English to sons of the elite. This book is intriguing because it tells the story of someone who’s experienced North Korea at firsthand. Kim gets to interact with North Koreans who are part of the elite. What stood out to me was the fact that the author catches her students lying about ‘trivial’ things, multiple times. They lie about where or how they spent their summers, they lie about having had access to the internet, or that they had contact with their families (which they most likely didn’t). Kim’s story is fascinating because she is also on a journey of ‘self-discovery’ while in North Korea. She was born in South Korea, moved to the USA in her teens, and spent some time in North Korea. In the book, she talks about not knowing where she belongs and having family in North Korea. During the Korean War, her uncle got separated from the family, he probably ended up North of the 38th parallel.

Lastly, Demick wrote a riveting book on the lives of North Korean defectors. The lives of these defectors are beautifully told in, Nothing To Envy. You will get to read how the inner workings of the regime (which Lankov elaborately explains in his book) affects the individual North Koreans. Demick discusses the major events we also read or heard about in the western world, such as the famine or the deaths of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il. You will learn about the great lengths these people went to survive during the famine and how familiar they got with death around them. How once devoted individuals eventually stop believing in the authorities and make their plans to escape. And what happens to defectors after they crossed the Tumen river in search of a better life.

Books

Why do societies disappear?

In a previous post, I discussed Jared Diamond’s book Germs, Guns, & Steel. In this book, Diamond explains his thesis on how societies developed in terms of agriculture, language, and technology. He starts off asking an intriguing question: why didn’t the natives come to Europe? However, in Collapse he forms a thesis on how societies cease to exist. In history classwe learned a great deal on societies that no longer exist in their original forms, such as the Mayans, Easter Island, or Greenland. The question is: what pushed them toward their collapse? Diamond looks at different past societies that are no longer around and explains their collapse along a list of detrimental factors that comprise his thesis.

Easter Island is especially intriguing, as we’re all familiar with the impressive statues that decorate the island. It is often asked how these colossal sculptures were chiseled, transported, and put into place. Conspiracy theories that tell the tale of aliens visiting the Earth and having something to do with these massive monuments are floating around on the internet. Diamond explains that there are many plausible theories on how the statues got transported, for instance by using logs or ‘canoe ladders’. But how is this possible when there are barely enough trees to sustain such a phenomenon? It turns out that Easter Island underwent grave deforestation due to the settlers’ high need of wood.

Thus, Diamond lists the destruction of natural habitats (e.g. deforestation of lands, damaging coral reefs) as one of the factors that could lead to the collapse of a society. Climate change can also severely affect the environment we live in. We know that the environment needs to adhere to specific conditions for humans to be able to adapt themselves. If there isn’t sufficient food, water, shelter, and protection from predators, there is no way to sustain human life.

Though in regards to current societies, an interesting point that
Diamond makes is that photosynthetic
potential that is on the decline. Plants need sunlight to synthesize certain nutrients. However, since we keep investing urbanizing areas to accommodate the population increase, we’re “losing” the photosynthetic potential. These new buildings create more shadows, which makes it difficult for plants to grow and effectively utilize sunlight.

In Collapse, Diamond thoroughly explains the detrimental factors that play a role in the disappearance of past societies. Though, it is also a cautionary tale, as the author explains the problems we’re currently dealing with. We are far from being stable, infinite societies. Who knows in how many years researchers will wander through the remnants of New York city, excavating the once lively city, to figure out what ultimately led to its collapse.

Buy Collapse on Amazon or Bol.