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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream - Barack Obama I've now finished this book, which I've been reviewing a chapter at a time. Before starting, I was concerned that it might lower my opinion of him. Many people have been rather dismissive, and perhaps that's why I didn't read it earlier. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. It's well thought out and convincing, and I respect him more. The one major criticism I have is that it's stylistically unimpressive; you can see that it would have benefited from another revision pass. He is however so insanely busy that I'm grateful he had time to write it at all. There certainly aren't many politicians at his level doing this kind of thing.

And, with that introduction, the main review...


I was given this book as a Christmas present by my 19 year old son. Kind of symbolic, I guess. I am about the same age as Obama, and over the last couple of years have become a huge supporter. I managed to be in the US around the election last November, and was delighted to find that it was legal for me to contribute to his campaign in terms of doing unpaid work. I helped organize a calling party in Sunnyvale (I was in charge of catering), and even got to make a couple of hundred phone calls to swing voters in Ohio. I have never been told to fuck off so many times in one afternoon, it was a fantastic experience. A few people were even nice to me! The most memorable one being the 87 year old great-grandmother with the broken hip, who said she was going to vote Obama together with two of her granddaughters, so that was three votes we could count on.

Obama is all about reestablishing trust in the political process - it's the very first thing he says in this book. I am writing this early in the second week of his presidency, and so far I can't fault him. He's doing everything he said he would do, as quickly as it can be done. Closing Gitmo, ending rendition and use of torture, funding third-world aid that includes contraception and abortion, sending a high-level representative to the Middle East, allowing states to set tougher emissions targets. Please, please continue with that.

--- Now a couple of chapters in. The style is not brilliant, but I think he is saying interesting and important things. So far, the central message has been that the US badly needs to make the political debate less polarized - people have to start trying to see similarities as well as differences, view their counterparts on the other side of the political divide as mistaken rather than evil, and above all listen. It comes across as very level-headed and positive, and he has good examples to support his argument, showing how both left- and right-wing people would find themselves more in agreement if they applied their principles consistently.

I was rather struck by the fact that, when he says that he doesn't think George W. Bush is a bad person, this comes across as a controversial claim. He seems to want to believe it. I can't quite make up my mind as to whether he really does, but I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I should try it too. It's definitely an interesting spiritual exercise.

--- Chapter 3, on the Constitution. I thought it was also pretty good. Obama knows this stuff in great depth - he's taught classes on constitutional law, and he has also, of course, had hands-on experience of the legislative process. He makes a strong, balanced case for the validity of the Constitution, taking plenty of time to look at the counter-arguments. In particular, he examines the ways in which the Constitution was used first to maintain slavery, and then to impede the progress of civil rights reforms. I find it impressive that he still believes in it. His basic argument is that it's a very carefully thought-out, flexible framework, which allows enough free play that it doesn't lock the US into one course, but rather allows Congress to adapt to changing circumstances, while still implementing the basic goals of the Founding Fathers.

It was interesting to compare Obama's analysis with Charlie Savage's book Takeover, which I read a few months ago. Savage's goal is to give an overall picture of the well-orchestrated attack that the Bush/Cheney administration mounted on the Constitution, which depended on narrow and highly debatable readings of a few key passages in the Federalist Papers, together with the establishment of precedents aimed at justifying a radical expansion of the Executive's powers. If you want to criticize Obama's take on the Constitution, remember that that's the current alternative. I know which one I feel more comfortable with.

--- Chapter 4, "Politics". The question this chapter addresses is, approximately: why are so many politicians cynical, lying phonies? I thought Obama did a good job of answering it. I would paraphrase his reply as follows. First, losing an election really hurts. If you win, you are an important person, and everyone treats you with great respect. If you lose, you are nobody.

Second, the difference between winning and losing depends very largely on having enough money to buy TV advertising. It's all about name recognition and getting your message across.

Third, by far the easiest way to raise money is to get tight with the special interest groups. They offer you an attractive deal: promise to do what they want, and they will quickly fix your financing. It's not easy to negotiate with them. Once you've signed, you're either in their pocket, or you cynically renege on your promises. Either way, you're compromised. Even worse, since money is all-important, and special interest groups and rich donors are way you get it, soon you're spending most of your time with them. So you rarely get to meet the people you're supposed to be representing.

He illustrates all these points simply and clearly with things taken from his own personal experience. He doesn't give himself credit for being particularly tough; he thinks he got a lot of lucky breaks, and says what they were. He's refreshingly low on bullshit.

I am really quite surprised at what a good book this has so far turned out to be!

--- Chapter 5, "Opportunity". It's the economy, stupid.

I don't understand why some people who reviewed this book complain that Obama says nothing about how he would address the problems the US is facing. At times, I almost thought he went into too much detail. He picks out three big things that he wants to focus on, in order to keep the US competitive in the global marketplace: education, research, and energy self-sufficiency.

I'll concentrate on research, since I know about that from personal experience, but a word first on energy: thank goodness, Obama is not, like most politicians, innumerate. He notes in a couple of sentences that the US uses 25% of the world's energy, but has only 3% of the world's fossil fuel resources, so further oil and gas exploration is not going to help much. Contrast his sensible, adult discussion of the issues with Sarah Palin's "Drill, baby, drill!" - one of the most moronic political sound-bites I've seen in recent years. It was unpleasant to see how many people bought this nonsense.

But going back to research, Obama points out that the US implicitly assumes that it will maintain a global superiority in science and technology, yet has been steadily cutting investment in basic research. In the 70s, more than a quarter of all research proposals were funded; now it's dropped to 10% or less. As he says, this means that scientists need to spend a large proportion of their time chasing the money that's still there, leaving them correspondingly fewer hours to do actual work. Another, less obvious, effect is that research focuses on a few "safe" directions, with speculative high-risk/high-gain ideas becoming almost impossible to fund; unfortunately, history shows that the risky ideas are the ones that really make a difference. Lee Smolin gives an excellent analysis of the problem in The Trouble with Physics.

I am one of many researchers who has given up, and moved elsewhere. I spent a lot of this decade working in the US, and most of the previous one working for a US company. I'm now in Switzerland, continuing to develop stuff that was largely paid for by the US taxpayer - if you're curious, you can read all about it in our 2006 book, Putting Linguistics into Speech Recognition. The flow of knowledge always used to be in the opposite direction. It feels kind of weird.

Obama says in this book that he wants to double investment in research. I wonder whether he is still going to have a chance of doing that, given the economic climate, but it's nice to see that he thinks it's important.

--- Chapter 6, "Faith". Something of a tightrope act, but it goes with the territory. I thought he acquitted himself well, and was never in serious danger of falling off. As in other chapters, he concentrates on trying to help all sides find common ground in this very difficult area. He clearly has great sympathy both with Christian and with secular thinkers, and is upfront about his connections with the Muslim world.

On the one hand, he explains why separation of church and state is so important for the US, and quietly but firmly distances himself from creationism. On the other, he explains why, despite being raised as a non-believer, he is now a Christian. He goes to some lengths to explain what kind of Christian he is: he is much more inspired by the Sermon on the Mount than by Genesis or Leviticus. One could say he's a Christian in the boring, old-fashioned sense of trying to follow the teachings of Christ.

At times, I have wondered whether he is just pretending to be Christian out of political expediency. After reading this chapter, I'm inclined to think I was wrong there. If you're a black American, you do have some pretty good reasons for being Christian. Obama isn't aggressive about it, but he reminds you that the Christian churches were a major force in driving through civil rights reforms; it probably wouldn't have happened without them. He wants to push through some major reforms of his own, and I hope that his faith will help him in the same way that it helped Martin Luther King.

--- Chapter 7, "Race". Another potential tightrope act, but here I thought Obama was extremely confident, in fact completely in control. Well, he has of course been thinking about these issues all his life, and they must have been one of the major reasons for him entering politics. I would say he had two main topics.

First, he wanted black Americans to try and steer a balanced course between two ways of thinking. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous not to agree that huge progress has been made over the last few decades. He has sensible arguments here, but his mere existence is of course the best one. On the other hand, there is a huge amount of work left to do. The situation for most blacks and Latinos is still terrible.

The brings him to the second main topic. The black subculture in the inner cities is out of control. The US has to do something about it, as a major priority: it's not in anyone's interests to have a de facto third world country within America's borders. There is a vicious circle of neglect, abuse, bad parenting, crime and unemployability that has to be broken into. Obama suggests that the best point to attack might be to focus on better education for black teenage girls, setting up incentives that will make it more attractive for them to finish school, and less attractive to get pregnant and start living on welfare.

He does a good job of angling the language so that it can appeal to both left and right - this is something that everyone needs to buy into. As he says, the right are upset that welfare has set up a self-perpetuating system where people don't have strong enough reasons to want to break out. That kind of status quo isn't to anyone's advantage.

--- Chapter 8, "The World Beyond our Borders". A very sensible look at the problems surrounding US foreign policy. He starts off with Indonesia, which he knows a lot about; he lived there for several years as a boy, and his mother continued to work there for a long time afterwards. As he says, the last 50 years of Indonesian history are a good way to see both the positive and the negative sides of the way the US treats the rest of the world. The US helped Indonesia gain freedom from the Dutch; after that, it supported an appalling dictatorship because it viewed it as an ally against Communism. More recently, the US has used economic power to force Indonesia to move its economic model towards free-market norms. This has angered many people, and made it easier for Islamic fundamentalists to make their voices heard.

He then backs off to give some broader historical perspective. The key problem, as he sees it, is that US foreign policy has been inconsistent, veering wildly between extremes. Sometimes, it is overly aggressive about trying to push its agenda, and upsets everyone. At other times, it withdraws into an isolationist stance, and then you get a different set of problems. World War II might well not have happened if the US had woken up earlier and recognized how dangerous Nazi Germany was.

His ideal is a compromise between these two positions. The US needs to engage actively with the rest of the world, but do so within a legal framework which it voluntarily submits to. The one effective way to spread democracy is to lead by example, and show that laws apply to everyone. Otherwise, the US opens itself up to the reasonable criticism that "democracy" is only another word for US interests. He thinks that the best example of this kind of policy was the Truman presidency after WW II, where the US was very effective in uniting the Western world against Communism.

Now that the Cold War is over, the US needs to rethink its role. He considers that Gulf War I was a success, as was the war in Afghanistan, which most of the world saw as legitimate self-defense. Iraq, on the other hand, was a ghastly mistake. He goes into some detail about exactly why he opposed it, and his judgment does indeed appear to have been spot on.

He believes that one of the major issues facing the US at the moment is the threat of rogue countries or terrorist groups getting hold of nuclear weapons. He wants to fight that in several ways. The most important are, first, winning over hearts and minds by showing that the US is really a friend of the third world rather than an enemy, and, second, building up effective international alliances based on mutual trust.

--- Chapter 9, "The Family". He finishes with the most personal chapter of the book, and tells you a fair amount about his own family. He comes across as a nice guy, and I'm convinced he has a very good marriage. Why? Because he's not afraid to admit that he and Michelle fight a good deal, and when they do he seems to try hard to see her side of the story, and do something about it. He's an excellent listener.

Another thing that comes across is that he really likes women. Not as sexual objects (though he's by no means indifferent to female charm), but as people. If Clinton was the first black president, then Obama is the first feminist president. It's not accidental; he was raised by his mother and grandmother, and he lives with his wife and his two daughters, whom he plainly adores. He's been surrounded by women all his life, and he's learned to understand what's important to them.

The chapter's not all personal: he also has stuff to say about policy issues which concern the family. Once again, what I am most impressed with is how damn sensible he is. He could easily have got bogged down on things like rape or gay marriage, which, though important, are not the most central issues. What he is fact most interested in is reducing the teen pregnancy rate, and providing better daycare for working mothers. I just can't fault him on this. I lived 10 years in Sweden, and good, affordable daycare makes such a difference to women that it's almost beyond belief.


And now, Mr Obama: as I said, I loved your book. Please follow through on the program you describe here, and literally billions of people will thank you. But you already know that.