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Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.97
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 85% fact, 15% opinions about these facts, October 13, 2014
Like it or not, facts are facts. The distribution of wealth is clearly returning to 19th century levels, the rich really are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the poor have little hope of joining the middle class.

Piketty's book is mostly an exposition of facts followed by opinions and proposals about what we should do about them.

==The Facts==

In a nutshell, the results are this: wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very few before, this changed in 1910 and by 1980 we had a strong and large middle class. However, simple economics show that these achievements are temporary and that the middle class will shrink.

Piketty looks at over two hundred years of solid data. This data is very difficult and problematic to interpret and to put in context so Piketty makes it all available online for others to examine.

The results are pretty simple and straightforward: if the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth, then capital will accumulate all by itself. Those who have capital will see it grow while those who do not possess it will never get richer.

Piketty also looks at the structure and sources of capital and how they have changed over time. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, over 90% of a nation's wealth was simply land. Return on capital was a generous, but more importantly a very steady, five per cent. With the industrial revolution, wealth and capital changed in structure. Today less than five percent of a nation's wealth is in farm land. The rest is in real estate, intellectual property, and factories.

Sources of wealth have changed as well. Obviously, if capital changes form, revenue changes its source but beyond that, the last thirty years have seen the rise of a new phenomenon: super managers whose revenue hoisted many of them out of the middle class into the top 0.1%.

But between 1910 and 1970, something interesting happened. Before that, there were the super-rich, the 1% who owned most of everything, there was a middle class of modestly wealthy home owners making up the rest of the top 10%. The poor made up the rest of the 90%. By 1950, the poor made up fifty percent, the top 1% flattened to the top 10%, and the middle class grew to forty percent. (World War I and II leveled the playing field and the wealth had to be shared as it was produced.)

Piketty also looks at where wealth arose. One of his most interesting findings is that until the 1880s and again between 1950 and 1980 (but not since then) the United States was the _most_ egalitarian place in the world. This bears repeating loudly: the USA was NUMBER ONE in fair wealth distribution. Why? Simple: in the nineteenth century, capital was farm land and farm land was cheap. But in the 1920s, the US was subject to same pressure to reform once a wealthy oligarchy appeared.

(Reality can be offensive. Piketty does point out that the southern states DID have unequal wealth distribution: a wealthy class whose capital was chattel. Slaves did form a computable capital base and provided a return that compared with the return on other types of capital. )

==The Politics==

One weakness in Piketty's book is that he almost takes it for granted that this is a bad situation. He doesn't spend much time explaining why this is undesirable. Well, he's an economist rather than a political scientist and I suppose he assumes everyone sees what he sees. Most people don't see it unfortunately, and Piketty's quips about everyone eventually paying rent to Wall Street bankers and Arab emirs aren't enough to convince opponents or even those undecided who are merely leaning towards free market capitalism.

Piketty also proposes different solutions, including many that he fully admits are unworkable: A world wealth tax for example. He points out that if all declared private assets and liabilities are added up, along with public assets and liabilities, we get a negative numbers. This implies, he jokes, that we are owned by Martians, but goes on to the real explanation: a significant portion of the world's wealth is hidden in tax havens. His second proposal is to have a wealth registry similar to a land registry.

To those who scoff at the idea, he points out that for all intents and purposes wealth has been registered in France for two hundred years and that this has benefitted the wealthy in one important way: it has cemented their property rights.

Still he realizes that his ideas are impractical, but insists they are useful. A world wealth tax might not be useful but a European wide wealth tax, or a US wide wealth tax, would bring many of the same benefits.

Finally, Piketty does NOT want government to grow. He agrees that with the current share of 30 to 40 percent of GDP, government controls a large enough share of the economy.

He wants to rich to pay more and the middle class to expand.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Works of Love
Works of Love
by Soren Kierkegaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.40
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love cannot hurt, October 10, 2014
This review is from: Works of Love (Paperback)
The command to love your neighbour is something from Christian writings that, even as an atheist, I admire and envy. Fortunately, one doesn't have to be a Christian follow this rule and I'd be much more comfortable with Christianity if it placed more emphasis on this personal and spiritual rule, and less on specific literal interpretations or injunctions.

Kierkegaard didn't find enough of the spiritual side of Christianity in the Church of Denmark. For him that church was a social club and church members simply labeled themselves Christians, without understanding what it was that a Christian had to do. So in "Works of Love", he picks apart one verse of the Bible, a verse which many Christians would say is the foundation of the religion: You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39).

In picking it apart however, Kierkegaard makes us realize just how difficult it is to follow this command. Loving our neighbour implies things that we don't always realize at first. Kierkegaard takes this apparently simple sentence; he points out each key word, and makes us realize how rich in meaning it is.

+ You shall love your neighbour as YOURSELF.
+ You shall love your neighbour AS yourself.
+ You shall love your NEIGHBOUR as yourself.
+ You SHALL love.
+ YOU shall love.
+ You shall LOVE.

Do you love yourself? Isn't there a part of you that wallows in despair, shame, or fear? If you must love your neighbour as yourself, do you not also at the same time have the duty to love yourself? If you are to love your neighbour, you must therefore love yourself.

What does "AS yourself" imply? HOW do you love yourself? How should you love yourself? As much but not less as you love anything or anyone. And yet not, says Kierkegaard, as much as you should love God.

And who is your neighbour? Isn't he simply the person next to you, whoever they happen to be, whenever you happen to notice, anywhere you happen to be? The command is not to love your friends and family: that's easy. It is to love your neighbour, in other words to love anyone and everyone.

Further, you SHALL love your neighbour. No discretion is left you in the matter. It's an order, an obligation. You are not free to not love. It is a duty and because it is a duty, it rids you of the anxiety and despair from asking whether or not you _should_ love. Stop worrying, just do it.

And this obligation is laid on YOU. Never mind what your neighbour is doing, your job is to love him, it's not to tell him what to do or how to live his life.

Finally, what exactly is this action, this duty that you must carry out? It is Love. And how difficult a thing it is to do! It may seem easy to love someone, especially when we find ourselves "in love" but that isn't what the verse means. If losing your beloved pushes you to despair, that is not the Love you are commanded to feel. Because it applies to everyone and at all times, Kierkegaard deduces that neighbourly love is Eternal. Love abides.

"Works of Love" must be compared with "Fear and Trembling". This other work of Kierkegaard points out the absurdity of faith while here, he teaches us how to live in an absurd world, in a world filled with people we might not think of loving.

Nevertheless I fear Kierkegaard might have put faith above love when he chose to test his faith by sacrificing his love for Regine Olsen. He broke her heart, she married someone else, he died alone.

But who knows? Perhaps he did not sacrifice anything after all. Perhaps _all_ he felt for Regina was a burning passion, a kind of love (he points out) that contains the germ of despair and only the illusion of happiness (what a Christian might call salvation). Perhaps blinded by romantic love, he did not know how to love her *as his neighbour* and he determined that he would do that above all.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Roman Republic
The Roman Republic
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Hardcover
25 used & new from $38.08

4.0 out of 5 stars A great start, but probaly full of mistakes, September 1, 2014
This review is from: The Roman Republic (Hardcover)
I have somewhere in my boxes one of Isaac Asimov's last books, his Chronology of the World. While it gets the gist of history right and it is fun to read, it's likely full of factual mistakes and long outdated views. (I'm extrapolating from those mistakes I found when reading on fourteenth century France.)

The same probably applies to Asimov's history of the Roman Republic. Asimov doesn't provide a bibliography or notes to justify this or that assertion, so we cannot refer to his history as a reliable authority. Still, he gets the gist right despite factual mistakes, and he writes in a gripping, fast paced style that is sure to engage the reader.

So, read it for fun and if you enjoy it, move on to other books on the topic.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World From the Big Bang to Modern Times
Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World From the Big Bang to Modern Times
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Hardcover
42 used & new from $4.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gets the gist right, but many mistakes, September 1, 2014
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Isaac Asimov was a voracious reader with an near perfect memory. He was a polymath interested in all sorts of things from science to history to technology. And while he was not a literary writer, his friendly, engaging prose is clear and impossible to misunderstand. If anyone could write a history of everything, Isaac Asimov could.

Being very interested in certain periods of early fourteenth century France, I went to read the pages on that period and found it was full of small errors, factual mistakes as well as long discredited opinions. But still, Asimov did correctly convey the gist of what the period was like in France, so I feel I can trust he did the same for the rest of the world's history between the Big Bang and the end of World War II.

So this project is not a failure. By all means, get it, read it, enjoy it. But do not refer to it as an authority. If something interests you, then move on to Wikipedia articles on the topic, and then to properly researched books.

In the end, I can forgive him his mistakes: in 1992 when he finished his Chronology, Asimov was dying (of complications from AIDS gotten through a blood transfusion) and he was not at the top of his form.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Racketeer: A Novel
The Racketeer: A Novel
by John Grisham
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.02
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3.0 out of 5 stars Good, entertaining legal thriller, September 1, 2014
All of John Grisham's novel are "damn good novels" so fans will be glad to see this one is not an exception. He writes legal thrillers, usually set in the American south, that have readers turning the pages until they are done.

And Grisham often adds something else to his novel: a genuine moral dilemna. Think of "A Time To Kill" where one juror asks her colleagues (and by implication the reader) to close their eyes and imagine that the black victim of a brutal rape was a _white_ little girl: wouldn't they (we) automatically find the defendant guilty? Or think of "The Chamber" where we are left wondering if it was right to execute a repented murderer. Or "The Summons" where Grisham wonders when it's OK to trust people and when it's OK to keep secrets from them.

On this level "The Racketeer" disappoints. There is a tenuous moral dilemna about what a wrongfully convicted innocent man can do to get out of jail, but because Grisham takes his answer for granted (anything he can get away with) there is no moral tension or suspense surrounding the question. The answer is given without even the question made explicit and we cheer the hero, Malcolm Bannister, every step of the way.

Malcolm, by the way, is as bland as any of Grisham's characters but in a glorious moment of affirmative action, he has made him African American. This is not a bad thing, but if Grisham was going to feature a black attorney as a main character, I would have preferred him creating a successful one who defends mostly African Americans but has been stuck with a white client pro bono by a judge. (For instance.)

In any case, Malcolm is as one dimensional as any Grisham hero, but since the author doesn't bore us with neverending introspections or justifications, the reader will never really notice as he is zipping through a fun story with a clever plot.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Inequality for All
Inequality for All
DVD ~ Robert Reich
Price: $12.98
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5.0 out of 5 stars Robert Reich's "communist" diatribe, August 17, 2014
This review is from: Inequality for All (DVD)
The point of taxing the rich isn't to pay for government services, it's to remove the incentive for obscene salaries or returns and give CEOs and boards a reason to raise wages.

Median wages have gone down. For about 30 years, from 1950 to 1980, it was possible for a middle class family to buy a nice house, go on vacation, and put children through college on ONE median income. Today, two median incomes are necessary and even then, that family won't be as comfortable as it was in the 1960s.

The rich getting richer doesn't help the economy because they can only consume so much. It's the middle class that does all the spending that translates into a healthy economy. Make the middle class prosperous and expand it and you improve the economy and society.

Give tax breaks to the rich (and by rich, I mean the top 0.1%) and you help them get richer at the expense of the middle class, and without creating more demand for goods and services. Demand comes from the middle class and Ronald Reagan got it wrong: it does not trickle down.

Robert Reich's film makes these and other points forcefully and with wit. Recommended.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories: Volumes I and II: 1
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories: Volumes I and II: 1
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Complete, August 15, 2014
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I've read some stories many times and the whole thing (both volumes) twice.

It's all of Sherlock Holmes in an easy to carry paperback edition. It's got Professor Moriarty, the Red-Headed League, the true portrayal of Dr. John Watson as a swashbuckling, womanizing retired military doctor, Mycroft Holmes, ferocious hounds on English moors, and The Woman. And if a paperback is too heavy for you, get the exact same edition on Kindle.

What more could you want? A classic.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français
Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français
by Henri Mitterand
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars Uninspiring, August 15, 2014
I wasn't expecting anything as massive as the Oxford English Dictionary, but for each word included I was expecting better definitions and more quotes giving example of very early usage.

This dictionary does the job it gave itself but it doesn't really seduce me into spending hours pouring over it.

It's interesting that for all the pride the French have in their language, the government isn't funding or subsidizing a French equivalent of the Oxford, something sponsored by the Académie Française. And the money isn't lacking: the sheer magnificence of the military parade each July on Bastille day is a testament to that.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4)
The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4)

5.0 out of 5 stars Science wins, July 13, 2014
The Omnian sect refuses to accept that the world is a disc resting on the back of four elephants who in turn rest on the back of a space turtle. In spite of all evidence, they stick to their outdated belief that the world is round. While experimenting with high energy magic, the wizards of Unseen University have accidently created such a world in a magicless bubble, which they call Roundworld. The Omnians want Roundworld and they want the Wizards to cease all their sacrilegious activities.

Science, as the Science of Discworld series presents it, is a means for understanding the world around us. We live in a causal world where everything happens for a reason (Science of Discworld 1) but those causes are behind us. Science is predictive it the sense that causes have effects, it is not predictive in the sense that it will predict the future.

From Science's point of view, the world has no purpose. Paradoxically, we human beings love stories, in fact we absolutely need stories (Science of Discworld 2) or else we will never understand the raw data the universe bombards towards us. We call these stories "models" and we build models of the universe that are simple enough for us to understand but complex enough to predict how the universe works. Simpler models might be useful even when they are wrong. We say the sun rises and sets, even though we know the earth is spinning on its axis. We need myths and legends and we need Shakespeare to give some sort of spiritual meaning to our lives. From the power of narrative, we get the energy to study the world.

But Science does not confuse these myths and legends with reality. When we impose a purpose or a direction to what the universe is doing, we aren't doing science anymore, we are doing theology (The Science of Discworld 3). When we set on the universe a purpose outside itself, while accepting that we can only study the universe as it presents itself, we are giving up on the quest for understanding. Whenever a puzzle seems too difficult, we just have to tell ourselves "Ah well, there's a reason for that but we'll never understand it".

It's one thing for the Omnian to believe in things, but it's quite another for them to insist they can impose their view on Science. They believe, without evidence, in a higher purpose and therefore any study of the world must comply with that higher purpose. And while science needs stories to jump start itself, it absolutely requires that these stories match reality and not the other way around.

Because the study of the world bothers them, Omnians want us to stop studying the world. Musn't we fight this? This is a battle Science never wanted to fight but for humanity to move forward, it is one Science must win. The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day brings the epic battle between Science and Superstition to its conclusion.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
by Simon Singh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.45
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4.0 out of 5 stars Homer's other Pi, and other ninja stealth teaching tools, July 12, 2014
This book is for people who know the Simpsons and don't know math. (Or it's for people who know math but don't know the Simpsons but I suspect the former group is larger than the latter.) As such it's a fun way to learn something about how beautiful and fun mathematics is.

Most people hate mathematics. Children tremble at the thought of fractions and then grow up into adults who think percentages can add up to a number greater than 100. Anything that gets people interested in math deserves our applause.

Singh gives us an inside look at how the Simpsons TV show is written. Many on the writing team are serious math geeks with Ph. Ds. They know their stuff and they insert in the TV show many odd references that are easy to miss. For instance a series of diagrams Homer draws on a blackboard imply that donuts and spheres are identical. Anyone with a bit of college math knows this is wrong, but Homer is drawing the donuts and he understands that to make it true, he must take a bite out of the donut to turn it into a sphere. Singh's book explains why this is interesting.

But do people want to bother learning why this is interesting? Those who do can read the book, and those who don't won't even notice since Homer's blackboard is visible only for a few moments. Enough for those in the know to think "Hey, what was that?" but not enough to bother the rest of the audience. And yet, the little in-joke is there if they ever change their mind.

Stealth math trumps rammed-downed-your-throat math...

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

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