What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

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Updated 26 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

Authors: Dong Guoqiang and Andrew G. Walder

A Decade of Upheaval chronicles the surprising and dramatic political conflicts of a rural Chinese county over the course of the Cultural Revolution.
Drawing on an unprecedented range of sources — including work diaries, interviews, internal party documents, and military directives — Dong Guoqiang and Andrew Walder uncover a previously unimagined level of strife in the countryside that began with the Red Guard Movement in 1966 and continued unabated until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Showing how the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution were not limited to urban areas, but reached far into isolated rural regions, Dong and Walder reveal that the intervention of military forces in 1967 encouraged factional divisions in Feng County because different branches of China’s armed forces took various sides in local disputes.
The authors also lay bare how the fortunes of local political groups were closely tethered to unpredictable shifts in the decisions of government authorities in Beijing, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. Eventually, a backlash against suppression and victimization grew in the early 1970s and resulted in active protests, which presaged the settling of scores against radical Maoism.

What We Are Reading Today: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott

Updated 16 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott

Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole transport readers to Mount Everest during the 2019 climbing season as he searches for the remains of Sandy Irvine that may help prove the British summited Everest in the 1920s.

This was an interesting look into Synnott’s quest to find the body of Irvine who was lost on Everest in 1924.

A mountaineer and rock climber himself, Synnott skillfully describes early 20th century exploration, then dives into a story about Everest that merges mystery, adventure and history into a single tragic bundle.

Synnott writes a compelling story that combines the 2019 season on Everest, historical attempts to climb Mt. Everest, and mountaineering culture as a whole.

He “describes horror stories about frostbite and strokes (blood clots are more likely at high altitudes) and oxygen tanks that hit empty at the worst possible moment,” Edward Dolnick said in a review for The New York Times.

Synnott “knows how to keep readers turning the pages, and they will speed their way to his mystery’s resolution. But any Everest story today has an unavoidable dark side.” said Dolnick.

What We Are Reading Today: The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

Updated 15 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

Robin Hanson in the “The Age of Em” thinks that robots may one day rule the world.

Many think the first truly smart robots will be brain emulations or “ems.” 

Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer, and you have a robot brain, but recognizably human.

Train an em to do some job and copy it a million times: An army of workers is at your disposal. When they can be made cheaply, within perhaps a century, ems will displace humans in most jobs. 

Applying decades of expertise in physics, computer science, and economics, Hanson uses standard theories to paint a detailed picture of a world dominated by ems.

Ems make us question common assumptions of moral progress, because they reject many of the values we hold dear.

This book shows you just how strange your descendants may be, though ems are no stranger than we would appear.  To most ems, it seems good to be an em.

What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

Updated 14 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

Edited by Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson

In “The Elephant in the Brain,” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that human beings are primates that are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. 

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our ugly motives, the better — and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” 

Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. This book confronts our hidden motives directly and tracks down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights.

Our unconscious motives drive more than just our private behavior; they also infect our venerated social institutions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

What We Are Reading Today: The Knowledge Illusion

Updated 13 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Knowledge Illusion

Edited by Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach

In “The Knowledge Illusion,” cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that we survive and thrive despite our mental shortcomings because we live in a rich community of knowledge. The key to our intelligence lies in things around us. We’re constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads.

The human mind is both brilliant and pathetic. We have mastered fire, created democratic institutions, stood on the moon, and sequenced our genome. 

And yet each of us is error prone, sometimes irrational, and often ignorant. The fundamentally communal nature of intelligence and knowledge explains why we often assume we know more than we really do, why political opinions and false beliefs are so hard to change, and why individually oriented approaches to education and management frequently fail. But our collaborative minds also enable us to do amazing things. 

This book contends that true genius can be found in the ways we create intelligence using the world around us.

What We Are Reading Today: High Conflict by Amanda Ripley

Updated 12 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: High Conflict by Amanda Ripley

New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist Amanda Ripley investigates how good people get captured by high conflict — and how they break free.

The concept of high conflict is portrayed in a well-researched and relatable manner.  Ripley “is an eloquent writer and her organization of ideas and stories is brilliant,” a critic commented in goodreads.com.

Yascha Mounk said in a review for The New York Times: “In High Conflict, Ripley tells the harrowing tales of people who got drawn into fights that consume their lives and make them capable of committing terrible injustices, from a gang leader on the South Side of Chicago to a guerrilla fighter in the Colombian jungle.” 

Mounk added: But with a scrupulous eye for scientific evidence that is rare in a book this entertaining, Ripley also explains how it is possible for hardened combatants to leave behind the conflicts that once defined the core of their identity.”

Conflict, Ripley argues, can be productive. 

“It is often good for people who disagree to state their differences and advocate for their own interests,” said the review.