Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: books (Page 2 of 27)

A Brief History of Feminism by Patu and Antje Schrupp

“behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

What is feminism anyway?

To start with, feminism is not the belief that one gender should be raised in power above another. Feminism is not against men. Feminism is against patriarchy, that is the system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

Feminism is one of the most important and certainly most enduring and progressive social movements of the past two centuries. It is common to divide the history of modern feminism into a First, Second, and Third Wave. As times are changing, we are now entering in the fourth phase with feminism moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse.

Women are coming out of the closet, they dare to discuss difficult subjects, such as violence and sexual harassment. Intersectionality, race, ethnicity gender, class, and ability, are all part of the discussion.

Now, the book. A Brief History of Feminism is a  graphic novel about the history of feminism. It is a short book, just 80 pages. It begins with antiquity and the early days of Christianity, it moves to Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and finally at the beginnings of the organised women’s movement and the third-wave feminism and intersectionality. It examines – briefly – the fights for autonomous pregnancy and against domestic violence.

Along the way, you learn about a few of the most important figures in the history of feminism. Flora Tristan, a courageous woman, who in 1825 fled her violent husband and broke the social behaviours of a nineteenth century woman. Flora described herself as “an unfortunate Pariah”, and linked the oppression of women and the oppression of the proletariat before Marx and Engels. Also, the poet Audre Lorde,  Elizabeth Cady Standon, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, Sulamith Firestone, Angela Davis, and more.

It is not a complete history of feminism. The focus is Western Feminism, mainly in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. It could be characterised as a guide on the history of Western Feminism. I really enjoyed it. It is beautiful, clever, funny and informative.

Translated by Sophie Lewis

Published by The MIT Press

The Sea and the Summer by George Turner

“Nothing can save this crumbling planet except the elimination of three quarters of it’s people.  And we know that can happen.”

A few months ago I discovered George Turner. For someone who loves science- fiction, not to know George Turner is frankly embarrassing. My only excuse is that The Sea and the Summer does not feel like a science-fiction.  It is so closely based on extrapolation of proven scientific facts that it is difficult to describe it as science fiction at all. The plot is not great but the structure of the story is interesting and complex. There is an intense human feeling throughout the book; the novel is character-driven rather than plot-driven.

Born in 1916, George Turner was already an accomplished novelist before he started writing science- fiction in the late ’70s. The Sea and the Summer first published 30 years ago, in 1987, but it still holds remarkably well. The story sets in mid-21st century Melbourne; global warming, rising temperatures and sea-levels (from the greenhouse effect) combined with automation and economic collapse has created a caste line system between those with jobs “the Sweet”, and the unemployed welfare takers “the Swill”. The Swill (90% of the total population) live in big towers, in enclosed overpopulated enclaves at the edges of the cities, with just enough to survive on. It is a vertical slum in the Greenhouse Years.

There are also the people who live in “the Fringe”, a place between the two camps where the people who lose their jobs end up before being absorbed by “the Swill”. It is there, in the Fringe where the two brothers, Teddy and Francis Conway, end up after the death of their father.  They react differently in this change; Teddy passes a special exam to join a special police force, and Francis uses his talent for numbers to join the back market working for a Sweet wealthy businesswoman.

George Turner examines several issues in this novel. Overpopulation, environmental destruction, economic collapse, and the inability of our societies to distribute resources and opportunities in a fair and equitable manner. There is also a second shorter story with the main story, that takes place in the distant future. Humanity has survived the Greenhouse Years, and is preparing to face another Ice Age

The Sea and Summer is not an entertaining story. It is a vivid, remarkable and uncomfortable account of life on the edge.

The novel won the second Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1988.

The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West by Alexandros Petersen

On January 2014, Taliban suicide bombers attacked a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul. Twenty one people were killed, among them was Alexandros Petersen a scholar of geopolitics, and energy politics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. At the time of his death Alexandros was working as an Assistant Professor in political science at the American University campus in Afghanistan.

In his book, The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, Alexandros Petersen is making a case for the West to pursue a strategy around Russia’s perimeter, with the aim of integrating the smaller nations of the former Soviet Union more deeply into Western-oriented market and democratic institutions.

Petersen ‘s  Twenty-First-Century Geopolitical Strategy for Eurasia (21CGSE) sets out and communicates what is at stake for the West in the Eurasian theatre, and provides a joint framework for trans-Atlantic cooperation. Its most important policy implication is the restoration of geopolitical purpose to Western institutions such as NATO, EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), among others, by arguing that their activities and expansion should be refocused in Eurasia.

“The Eurasian landmass ought to be the focal point of the West’s strategic exertions… If the nascent process of Western decline is to be arrested and reversed, a better understanding of the geopolitical relevance of Eurasia, and the struggle therein, and a concerted effort there, is crucial, “

By Eurasia or “World Island”, Peterson means the mega-continent that divided into Europe, the Middle East, East and South Asia and Africa, which really constitutes one land surrounded by one giant interconnected ocean. The term was first introduced by Harold Mackinder, a British geographer, academic and politician, and was used to describe the area that stretches from the eastern borders of Germany to the western border of China and from the Arctic Circle to the South Asian deserts and mountain ranges. In the future, Petersen argues,  this area will be deemed to be of decisive strategic importance to the United States and its West European allies.

Mackinder formulated his geopolitical ideas shortly before and after World War I in opposition to those of A.T. Mahan, who argued that sea-power is the key to world domination. Mackinder argued that the most important part of the world, geopolitically speaking, is the Pivot Area or Heartland of Eurasia, which lay at the centre of the world island, stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic, a vast territory controlled by Russia.

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world. ”

Harold Mackinder,  Democratic Ideals and Reality, 1919.

Petersen argues that the pivotal importance of the Heartland still remains and the West needs to actively engage with the small nations in the periphery of Russia, the post-Soviet territories e.g. Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, etc, in order to prevent Russian and/or Chinese dominance.

It is a comprehensive analysis of the ideas of Mackinder and Kennan’s “Containment”, combined with  Josef Pilsudski’s “Prometheism” and “Intermarum” policies.  Josef Pilsudski, the first leader of the modern Polish state as it emerged after the end of World War I, aimed to create a fortress of common defence against Russia that would include independent states in the basins of the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, arguing that “any great Eurasian power would crumble if its many minorities were empowered from without”.

Western involvement and integration in Eurasia is not only possible but strategically imperative, not just in the Black Sea region, but also around the Caspian and Central/Inner Asia. The strategy departs from the traditional emphasis placed on the future of Ukraine and its schismatic domestic policies. Rather, it links Western efforts in Europe, Russia, Afghanistan, China and Iran into strategic whole to form an overarching purpose for Western institutions and governments. It is not hopelessly isolationist not vaingloriously imperialistic. It is aggressively realistic …..

The World Island arms the reader with insights and ideas in order to better understand the basics of geopolitics in the region. Petersen’s arguments are both thought-provoking and controversial, but often they are vaguely defined and they lack imagination. How do you contain a big country like Russia, especially when its fellow BRICS do not wish to isolate it? He also fails to answer fundamental questions, such as, what if, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 when the EU was visibly not in the ‘most robust health’,  Central Asian countries do not have strong incentives for institutional change and find that the Chinese alternative is more attractive and beneficial for their economic development albeit less oriented towards democratization.

Hurricane Ophelia heads toward Ireland

Hurricane season still has 45 days left but it’s already one of the most terrible on record. Ophelia, is being the 10th consecutive hurricane developed in the last 10 weeks in a row breaking the previous record of 9. The last time this happened was way back in 1893.

Now a category 3 hurricane, Ophelia marches towards Ireland and British Isles (image by NOAA). It is more likely to evolve into an extratropical cyclone as it passes over cooler North Atlantic water. But even as a storm, strong winds that could exceed 80mph (130km/h) and heavy rain are expected to blow into the southwest parts of Ireland and west parts of the United Kingdom on Monday, 16 October.

Stay safe!


“Forgetting is as integral to memory as death is to life.” – The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

Jacob, an immigrant gay poet of Arabic origin, lives in San Francisco.  Born Ya’qub in Yemen, his mother was a prostitute in an Egyptian brothel and his father a wealthy entrepreneur from Lebanon. He lived in Cairo and Beirut, where his Lebanese father consigned him to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. He later moved to San Francisco, where he has watched his six friends die during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. All that left to him are scars and memories, and an unbearable sense of loss. Thirty years later, he is still grieving the deaths of his friends, and talks to his dead lover, Doc.

I lie on my side, head sunk in the pillow, waiting for first light, for the lift of the curtain, waiting for you, how your right hand used to entwine with my left in the universal slow dance, how our bodies fit in bed, yet you didn’t show up.

The Angel of History is framed around the single night Jacob spends in the waiting room of a mental health facility somewhere in San Francisco. Mostly, it takes place in his head. Depressed and paralysed by grief, Jacob mixes his memories with his deepest desires and feelings. He feels that he has lost the capacity to be in control or function in the everyday world. He feels that his life in no longer worth living.

It is then that the Angel of History makes his appearance. It is Satan, Iblis in Arabic. He wants to bring Jacob back in life by urging him to remember. He battles with Death who wants Jacob to forget. The angel of remembering an the master of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

“Death can ruin everything with a single touch. Oblivion is his trade,” says Saint Catherine of Alexandria

It is during that night of waiting that the painful past rose vividly before Jacob. Remembrance would be his salvation. But at what cost?

The Angel of History is a story of one life. A journey through love and sex, religion and war, death and loss and the need to remember.  As in Walter Benjamin’s essay with the same title, The Angel of History, is about how one looks back in order to live again.

His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Illuminations, 257-58)

Fourteen saints of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin come to help Jacob. Yet their message is unclear and their power is limited. They are caught between hope and catastrophe. Present but transient, hilarious at time.

Rabih Alameddine has written a novel unlike any other. This is not a book about identity politics, although it can be seen as political. It is a book about a single person that fights his own demons and saints. It is not an easy read. It is beautiful and moving. At the same time, it is also dirty and horrified. Highly recommended.

*Featured image: A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus”.

Superforecasting: Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

Forecasting might appear to be a game but in fact it is real. We are making forecasts every day, when we are buying a product at the supermarket, or when we decide to date someone or live with him. We are making forecasts when we make financial investments.

Forecasting is important. On a personal level because the ability to forecast may be the difference between success and failure. And despite the unwillingness of some decision-makers to examine and accept scientific evidence – think the case of parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children, or the lack of action to lower the level of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet – as societies, we have started embracing evidence-based policies in order to deal better with contemporary challenges.

Superforecasting – The Art and Science of Prediction is a fascinated book, about lots of things I didn’t know about.  Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner tell us why forecasting is so important and crucial in our daily lives, look into what make people good forecasters, and what elevates forecasting to superforecasting.

Because of people like Tom Friedman and the rise of big data, people have started to have an interest in forecasting. But despite the interest, forecasters’ accuracy is not measured and forecasting itself is not very well analysed at all.

There is an inverse correlation between fame and accuracy, says Philip Tetlock, a psychologist who teaches at Berkeley. The more famous an expert is, the less accurate he is. Tetlock’s conclusions are based on a long-term study, the Good Judgment Project which won a massive four‑year US government‑sponsored forecasting tournament.

There is a story in the book, the fox vs hedgehog metaphor that is very interesting. The story is based on a fragment of a poem written by the Greek poet Archilochus, 2,500 years ago.  It actually says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” ‘Πολλ’  οίδ’  αλώπηξ, εχίνος δε εν, μέγα’, for those who know ancient Greek.

The meaning of this epigramma, is  that the “hedgehogs” devote their whole life to one big issue, insist on their views, and  they are reluctant to change them even when they fall out. They are so committed to their ideology that they expect solutions to everyday problems to come through some great theory, their favourite theory, preferably.

On the contrary, the “foxes” tend to be more eclectic. They use accumulated interdisciplinary knowledge and adapt their approaches according to real circumstances, while doing their own self-criticism whenever necessary. Above all, they recognize the complexity of the world in which we live in, and rely more on observation and less on theory.

Of course, if you are a producer for a television show, you tend to go with the hedgehog. You don’t really care if she is a good or bad forecaster. What you really need is a media pundit, someone who is bold and decisive, one that can tell an interesting story …. the eurozone is going to melt down in the next two years, for example.

‘Foresight isn’t ‘a mysterious gift bestowed at birth,’ says Philip Tetlock. It is the product of particular ways of thinking, of gathering information, and of updating beliefs. Broadly speaking superforecasting demands focus, thinking that is open-minded, careful, curious, less ideological, and above all, self-critical. The most systematically and thoughtfully we go about forecast the better we do.

I really liked this book and I enjoyed learning about these things. I had a look on the website and I even made my first attempt on forecasting. I am now looking forward to see the results. Am I a fox or a hedgehog?

Page 2 of 27

@ Maquina Lectora, 2017 & All rights reserved