Category Archives: Non fiction

** The Technology Trap by Carl Benedikt Frey

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation retraces the introduction of various technological changes from the Industrial Revolution to today, looking that the effect on workers, corporations, and governments. We know that technology has an overall beneficial effect on our lives, but it also brings spectacular changes in the kinds of work people do, along with economic ruin to those individuals whose jobs simply vanish.

It’s interesting to see how earlier technological revolutions were resisted, sometimes forbidden, by law (temporarily), and eventually legislated to impose some controls and safeguard, but always after the fact. It is also striking to see how benefits accrue sometimes to workers, and sometimes to capital. The author tries to apply the lessons of the past to the current AI revolution, and as we know predicting the future is a really tough job. One area he highlights that I had not thought about is housing and zoning. For all the talk about workers learning new skills, they do need to live in areas where the new jobs are, and today zoning laws make housing in “hot” areas very expensive indeed. Sometimes for the political class to think about.

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* The First Cell by Azra Raza

The author of The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last is an oncologist who believes that we do too much to try to stop cancer cells once they are already multiplying rapidly, and should instead focus on early intervention. What a great idea. What’s not so great is this book, which suffers from several weaknesses. The first one is that it frequently repeats the same themes. Yes, we do understand that vast sums of money are spent developing exorbitantly expensive drugs that prolong lives for a few weeks. Second, the parade of patients that are presented all seem to be highly intelligent, educated, rich, sensible folks, who trust the good doctor completely. Don’t regular or obstreperous folks get cancer too? And perhaps the most unsettling aspect is the touting of the author’s personal tissue repository. Since the problems are so complex, shouldn’t we be sharing resources and research ideas?

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*** Gods of the Upper Aid by Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century describes how Franz Boas and his students, among them Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston, created the new field of anthropology and, in so doing, contributed to changing popular ideas of racist superiority to a more diverse and accepting attitude. Along the way, we get ample servings of the various characters’ complicated personal lives, starting with Margaret Mead and her collection of husbands and lovers, and also a taste of the appalling way female professors were treated and paid (I guess other cultures should be respected, but wome, not so much!) Never a dull moment.

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* Transaction Man by Nicholas Lemann

Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream is an awkwardly constructed story of the  economic history of the US from the New Deal to the Great Recession. Awkward because the author tries to tie it to a particular neighborhood in Chicago but it never quite fits and I, for one, thought it would illustrate only the strange relationship between car manufacturers and their dealers, when in fact the author had much grander ambitions. Still , there is merit int he description of how power moved from government institutions to large manufacturers and now (the author says) financial institutions.

Also, Foothill College is not in Sunnyvale, CA. Proofreaders, please proofread.

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*** A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Eldrick

Martha Ballard, of A Midwife’s Tale likely hand idea that her diary would one day be the object of learned discovery. She wrote it as a cross between a weather almanac, a recitation of the house chores she accomplished every day, the babies she delivered and patients she helped, complete with an accounting of payments, and a list of house guests. And a mass murder or two (really!) But patiently analyzed, the diary also revealed wedding customs (lots of very early babies!), her difficult relationship with her husband, her wayward son, the peril of the frozen river that separated her from half of her patients, the complicated relationships between midwives and doctors, and how overwhelming women’s chores could be, with lots of children and no appliances or read-bought anything. Highly recommended for a glimpse at the lives of everyday women in the late 18th century.

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* Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas

Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes makes the great point that fashion, and especially the low-cost kind pioneered by Zara and H&M, creates lots of waste, exploits garment-industry workers, and has severe environmental impact. There has to be a better way, and the author has many inspiring stories in the second half of the book that showcase ideas such as using natural dies, recycling polyester, or using robots.

But most of the examples she gives are pretty much unattainable, at least now, for regular people. $400 T-shirts? $500 jeans? Come on! And the very high-fashion that she so admires, which, it’s true, is sometimes leading the remarkable developments she chronicles, is the very industry that is busy making the masses believe that we need an entirely new wardrobe every season, if not every month. It all seems quite hypocritical.

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** The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You weaves together a personal memoir of escaping Iran with accounts of other refugees, mostly from Iran, languishing or having languished in various camps, waiting for an acceptance from a host country.

The author’s escape and subsequent resettlement in Oklahoma City, with her Christian-convert mother and her younger brother (her Muslim father stayed in Iran, and eventually remarried) is told eloquently, even if the circumstances are quite different from those of other refugees, especially since her mother was an educated physician with more resources than most. She speaks movingly of the stress of the unknown, of the waiting, of the requirements to adapt to new rules and a new culture.

When it comes to other refugees, it’s more complicated. She makes a great point, similar to what Aayan Hirsi Ali makes, that creating a credible refugee “case” is virtually impossible for people fleeing persecution–and on the other hand the task of those who check the truth of persecution story is arduous. Since opening borders is not politically sustainable, we can’t just admit all who self-declare as refugees, and for that she has no practical suggestions.

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