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Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone (American Philosophy)
Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone (American Philosophy)
by John Lachs
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.85
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3.0 out of 5 stars On the Virtue of Not Telling Others What to Do!, August 10, 2015
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While I didin't get quite the bad taste another reviewer did (this book is much more than diatribes against Medicaid and other public policies), I cannot give this book high marks. I have read and enjoyed almost all of Lachs other works, and as one who values human freedom, I thought this book would be quite interesting. Some of it was, but the book (a) in my view, goes too far in what it is asking of people, and (b) does not go far in entertaining possible objections.

The book is about the virtue of non-interference in others lives. To Lachs, the avoidance of meddling is framed as a virtue, and like Aristotlean virtues, this one seems not to lend itself to iron-clad rules of use. There are times we can tell others what to do (when danger is imminent and we have no ability or time to ask permission), but generally, we must be careful to allow others to do what it is they want to do. Telling (let alone forcing) others to do as we'd like gets in the way of others doing as they'd like, and given that Lachs is committed to respecting the enormous amount of human diversity in values, he believes we are best to assume that others often just hold different values than we do.

First, I think Lachs goes a bit far in what he asks of people. Even most libertarians like myself are generally committed to not forcing others to do what they do not want to, but not telling others what we think they should do is quite different. Example: I cannot force racists to not be racists (to not associate with or disparage those of another race). But it seems like there may be a legitimate reason for me to tell racist that I believe their judgment to be wrong and maybe even despicable. And when I see someone about to make what I believe to be a poor financial decision, it is one thing for me to respect their right to make that decision, but I don't see why it is wrong (as Lachs does) for me to open my mouth and let them know why I think the decision may be a poor one. (It may be that I have experience with this kind of financial decision and can offer something the other doesn't know that they don't know.) Either way, if I'm in a position to get the person to reconsider, but deliberately don't say anything by assuming they just value finances differently than I - and then the decision DOES turn out to be a bad one - it isn't clear how my not talking can be described as virtuous.

This leads me to another point. I think Lachs exaggerates a bit on the motives people have for giving advice to others. He writes as if it all comes down to want of control. But my wanting to give advice to the person about to make (what sees) a bad decision isn't about control; it is about wanting to help another by giving a perspective that might save them from a seemingly bad choice. When I tell the racist that I think her choices are bad and dangerous, it is not motivated by a desire to control her, but a desire to do what I can to make sure there is one less racist in the world. Sometimes, the desire to tell others what to do IS motivated by a desire to control, but I think Lachs makes his case too easy (and weak) by writing as if this desire is always a sort of malevolent desire for control.

Lastly, Lachs doesn't deal much with potential objections. What if (like the case of the person making a financial decision) I have expertise in an area that the other doesn't realize she is missing and needs. If I speak up, I can save her from a bad decision, and she will be free to reject my advice. If I don't say something, it seems likely that she will make a bad choice, one she will likely regret. Why is my deliberately not speaking up a virtue? Is it a great respect to her personhood to not offer up advice when it really seems like I have information that might help her? And what about such recent trends as nudge paternalism (Thaler and Sunstein, Julian LeGrande, etc)? What about government 'nudging' us toward choices that seem objectively good, while still leaving us ultimately free to choose the 'bad' course? For the record, I think nudge paternalism is problematic for several reasons, but Lachs doesn't touch it. That is troubling for a book where the subject is so obviously relevant.

So, 3 of 5. This book gives a lot to think about and offers a fresh (and well-written) perspective/argument that most others have not given. And, yes, contra another reviewer, it is more than an argument against Medicare and other government welfare and regulatory policy. But at 127 pages, I really do think there is a LOT of substance that this book missed.


How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $14.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How the Medium Is The Message!, July 24, 2015
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This was one of those books I purchased (for Kindle) as an impulse buy, but found to be a really good one. Stephen Witt does a great job telling the story of the mp3 and how it revolutionized (for better and worse, I suppose) the music industry. He does this through very well-informed alternating chapters told from the vantage point of different characters - one of the inventors of the mp3, a hacker from North Carolina, a music executive at Universal Music, and some bit players like Steve Jobs and a representative from the Recording Industry Association of America.

In brief, the story is this: a fledgling technology, the mp3, is basically losing out to the industry's preferred mp2 and the Compact Disc... until music hackers discover the amazing potential for ripping music from CDs and keeping them on their computer. This, obviously, affects the music industry, who never anticipated (or didn't know how to think about) the mp3's rise to prominence. So, the music industry needed a way to stop this technology or incorporate it into their fold, which eventually they did with the rise of the mp3 player (which had questionable legality in its early years, as mp3s were primarily associated with hacking). Now, the music industry deals almost exclusively in selling digital media via the mp3, but even now, the music industry is a shell of its former self in terms of sales. The mp3 basically nudged them to monetize in less profitable ways; not only do they sell songs cheaper than via compact disc (and can't rely on selling whole albums), but venues like Spotify monetize music by selling advertising along with it.

So, this is a story ab out how the mp3 had huge effects all over the music industry; not bad for a technology that was largely declared dead in the water during its development. One thing Witt does really well - besides pacing the story like an expert journalist - is that he doesn't moralize too much. Was the mp3's rise because it allowed easy theft so that people could enjoy the fruits of others' labor for free? Or was it a natural and understandable reaction to the cartelization of the music industry (which, during the mp3's rise, was found guilty of collusion to keep the price of CD's up)? Witt doesn't say. If I had to guess, he sympathizes more with the latter (and suggests in the intro that he was one of the kids who got all his music by file sharing services). But he seems to keep the story a bit neutral, allowing each to come to their own conclusions (or read their existing conclusions in).

This was just a FUN book to read. It is about entrepreneurship, economics, hacking, and technology's capability to disrupt (not to mention... MUSIC) all in one. I found it gripping. Any music fan - and especially those who think the medium is the message - will too.


The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.58
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Non-Cartesian Mind: Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, (or) Extended!, July 16, 2015
Philosopher Mark Rowlands attempts to explain and defend the rumblings of a new science of mind - one that replaces a Cartesian view that the mind can be understood as existing in the brain, to one where the mind is embodied, embedded, anacted, and/or extended. All of these views - and they are similar, but not always coherent with each other - view the mind as an interaction between brain, body, and world, where the resulting process is the mind. As an example, when someone solves a math problem by using their brain and a piece of paper/pencil (as a way to offload some of the operation and the short-term memory it requires onto the paper), the conventional Cartesian view is that the person is thinking and that the paper/pencil is a useful aid to thought. To these new non-Cartesian views, the paper/pencil either crucially changes how we think through the math problem (one can't think about how we do math without appeal to paper and pencil's role), or as a part of the thinking process itself.

One of the real strengths of this book is that Rowlands does a great job discussing these four ideas (embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended mind) as four different theories that are related but not quite consistent with each other. Embodied mind is the theory that the brain and how it works depends on the body and how it works. (The fact that I can think about depth depends on having eyes that can fuse images together to create depth). Embedded mind is the idea that our brain uses aspects of the environment to determine how it thinks (The way I do math largely depends on the technologies I have available to me as an aid). Enacted mind is the idea that cognitive functioning is highly dependent on how the environment is structured. And the extended mind - the most radical - is the idea that cognitive processes can exclude external things I do (use my cell phone to take down and read notes), not just as aids to cognition, but as part of cognition itself. So, Rowland notes, for example, that the idea of the embedded and extended mind differ over whether they view external devices as aids to cognition or as part of cognition itself.

Where the first part of the book is devoted to explaining these ideas, the second part is largely about defending them, and particularly, the view of the extended mind. He defends this view from charges that external processes are not owned by the cognitive agent; when I recall using Google Keep notes on my phone, I am not using MY mental processes, but an external device that jogs my mental processes. Rowlands distinguishes between personal and subpersonal ownership of cognition, and says that my Google Keep note is a subpersonal process, which if it occurred in my head, would be readily considered part of my cognitive process. (I am thinking about where a particular location is, but in order to do that, I need to remember where it was that I had dinner next door to that location. Remembering THAT leads me to remember the next-door location. The first is a subperosnal cognitive act, one that jobs my memory of the second location. That is what Google Keep does also.)

That is just one of the defenses. Rowlands also defends against the idea of 'cognitive bloat' (if Google Keep is part of my mental process, then what isn't?), and the idea that external storage devices don't bear the "mark of the cognitive." He does pretty well on these, but for my money, I am still unclear what the extended mind theory does that the embedded theory can't also do. What explanatory purchase, in other words, do I get by describing Google Keep as part of my cognitive process rather than a crucial aid to it? I am still left wondering.

Otherwise, this is a REALLY good exploration of the 'anactivist' theories of mind (as I've seen them called). Rowlands has a clarity in his writing that reminds me of Daniel Dennett, and he does a great job explaining these theories and how they fit (or not) together. Also, see the more technical book by Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind.


Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life
Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $11.99

9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Author Doesn't Understand His Own Case!, June 14, 2015
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This book is really hard to read, and I will confess at the outset that I voluntarily stopped reading it (a rare thing for me to do) after about 20% of the book. Had I any signs that the author would start making decent (maybe even coherent) arguments, I'd have kept going. To forestall criticism, I should also say that I am generally in sympathy with what I might call "soft postmodernism" of people like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. I have appreciated other books (like The Authenticity Hoax: Why the "Real" Things We Seek Don't Make Us Happy) that discuss the impossibility of authenticity. I honestly thought I'd like this one.

The first thing I am highly disappointed in is the author's writing style, which is very scattered and what seems like a very self-conscious attempt to emulate some sort of beatnik tone. The second thing I really didn't like about this book is that the author cites authors like Baudrillard, Foucault and other postmodernist authors without even trying to defend them against the routine pummeling in academic areas that he almost seem not to know exist. I have no problem with his citation of these authors; I admire much of Foucault's work. But to write a book where there thought plays a predominant role seems to me to accept the challenge of at least noting (and maybe defending against) some of the many criticisms that have been leveled at them in fields like philosophy.

The last thing - what really made me give up on the book - is that Wilson's defense of postmodernism, the idea that we can never quite escape the ideologies that permeate our atmosphere, is partial at best. He uses it the way people like Adorno and the Frankfurt school did; instead of using this to conclude that there is no non-culturally-permeated way to judge any economic system or aesthetic movement as better (let alone 'more natural') than others, he primarily uses it as a way to criticize the stuff he doesn't like: which really seems like hipsters and anything that occurs in a capitalist social order.

So, here's a good quote from Wilson to illustrate my point: "In addition, one can imagine other systems such as Marxism, that value objects for their intrinsic values and might bring us closer to palpable reality." Now, I KNOW a guy writing a book about how nothing can be called 'natural' didn't just make an argument that Marxism more closely appraises the intrinsic value of goods and services, right? Well, yes he did. Elsewhere, he suggests (kind of snobbishly) that when observing a scene populated by a lot of hipsters, "here in cool world, where its happening, nothing is happening." This implies that the author sees a difference between happening and what is going on in cool world. But if nothing is more natural than anything else, how can there be such a dichotomy?

I think it is fair to say that the author doesn't really understand the implications of what he is trying clumsily to argue. Maybe if I kept with the book, I'd find out differently, but if he doesn't do it in the first 40 or so pages, odds are he doesn't do it after that.


Acts of Meaning: Four Lectures on Mind and Culture (The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures)
Acts of Meaning: Four Lectures on Mind and Culture (The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures)
by Jerome Bruner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.07
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Essays on the 'Interpretive Turn.', May 23, 2015
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For sure, Jerome Bruner is an interesting guy (well, if you are interested in cognitive science). He has the unique perspective of having been at the forefront of both the information processing revolution and the constructivst (some might say postmodernist) backlash it inspired. This book collects four essays together that move quite well sequentially. Basically, the theme is that cognitive science - in its information processing zeal - has overlooked the significance of how humans make meaning of cultural symbols and how this meaning-making seems to resist being explainable in IP terms.

The first essay, The Proper Study of Mankind, is somewhat of an 'intellectual history' account of the development of cognitive science and its information processing roots, as well as a commentary on where Bruner believes it went wrong. Bruner believes that IP has become quite similar to behaviorism in reducing everything to a kind of input and output that leaves no real room for talk of how humans make meaning of things. If I may be so bold, for Bruner, IP has become a study of semantics without semiotics or pragmatics.

The second essay, Folk Psychology as an Instrument of Culture, is a discussion of what we are learning (at least as Bruner was writing) about how humans come to understand other minds and how they work; we erect a 'folk psychology' that owes at least partially to cultural learning. We learn how others think and act, in part, based on how we hear others talk about how others think and act. (Some of this is showing to be innate, too, and Bruner doesn't discount that. Studies in the last decade show that very early on, babies instinctively try to pick up and hand back something an experimenter drops, implying that some basic 'theory of mind' is already present shortly after birth.) But Bruner's big emphasis is the cultural influences on how we think about what others do.

Entry Into Meaning, third essay, is an expansion upon the second. Just as we learn our folk psychology partly from cultural surroundings, so do we learn how to narrate and think about what happens to us. We, as humans, not only think about what happens to us (or others) but why, and the attempts to make sense of those things (via some sort of implicit or explicit story) depends on what we learn about the world (and culture) we live in. What needs explaining? Well, says Bruner, usually, we usually devote our energies to explaining the unexpected - stuff that deviates from the norm. (He goes through some qualitative evidence that children pay most attention in speech to the unusual.) But that is entirely dependent on what the norm is, and that is generally a culturally-learned thing.

The last essay is perhaps the weakest - Autobiography and Self. I've read a lot about the narrative theory of identity, and that is what Bruner is talking about here. We are, in many ways, who we say we are. Moreover, Bruner suggests that our identity is relational; it is not just who I think I am, but who I think I am in relation to others. Again, Bruner recounts some experimental data (some of his own) suggesting that parts of our identity and our characteristics often change, at least slightly, depending on who we are with. (A confident person in one setting may become less confident in another. One is not just shy, but is shy in some settings and less shy in others.)

One small criticism is that in this book, Bruner seems to have a hammer that tends to make him see a lot of nails. In the last essay, for instance, he really overplays the degree to which what we tell others we are shapes who we are. To my mind, it seems that the opposite may be equally true: who we think of ourselves as being dictates what we tell others we are. And while a lot of our learning is 'culturally mediated,' Bruner takes this as evidence to suspect Noam Chomsky's idea of a universal grammar (which I honestly think Bruner misunderstands or exaggerates).

But those are small potatoes. I really like Bruner's work. He is our generation's John Dewey, for sure. And this work gets to the heart of some of Bruner's work in the 'interpretive turn.'


Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars "You Can Be Who You Are, As Long As You Act 'Normal.' Around Me!", May 23, 2015
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While I am interested in this book's subject, I'll admit that part of the reason I picked it up was the strength of its back-cover ecommendations: Barbara Ehrenreich, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and (Tiger Mom) Amy Chua. That is a very impressive and diverse lot. So, the book must be good. And it was.

Here, law professor Kenji Yoshino discusses the idea of covering, and how the demand (generally toward minority groups) to cover is in some way a violation of people's rights to liberty. What is covering? If 'passing' is the demand that people pass for something other than they are (blacks with light skin passing as white, gays pretending to be straight), 'covering' is the idea that, while you don't have to pass, you do have to keep your differences with others under wraps (blacks not acting "too black," or gays making sure not to "act too gay" in "polite company").

To discuss how covering makes life quite difficult, Yoshisno gets quite autobiographical, discussing and dissecting his own experience as a gay man who, at first, had to admit to himself that he was gay and, after that, had to navigate a world that might allow him to be gay but not allow him to (even inadvertently) draw attention to his homosexuality. So, while it has always been perfectly acceptable for straight couples to hold hands or walk arm-in-arm in public - without anyone accusing them of drawing attention to their own heterosexuality - gays who do the same thing will be readily accused of flaunting their homosexuality. Hence, while one might be allowed to be openly gay, whether to be openly gay in one's actions (and not just one's words) is often a pretty thorny question. Hence, the social demands to cover.

As the book progresses, Yoshino gets less autobiographical and more academic, discussing reports that others have of covering demands and how they affect many types of people, as well as cases in the law where the courts generally allow employers to enforce covering demands on the job. As to the former, Yoshino reports cases where women have been asked not to talk so much about responsibilities of motherhood in the workplace, and even to refrain from displaying pictures of their kids at their desks (where men generally are not asked to do this), the lengths the disabled often go to to hide their disabilities for fear of prejudgment by others, etc. As to the latter, Yoshino's conclusion is that while courts are generally good about barring employers from overt forms of discrimination around who one is (black, female, disabled, etc), the courts are generally content to allow employers to discriminate regarding what one does (wearing one's hear in cornrows, talking in a certain dialect, etc). Yoshino, though, questions whether and to what extent who one is can be separated meaningfully from what one does.

Yoshino concludes that the burden of proof should be on employers to give reasons why covering demands on employees are justified; they should have to give "reason-forcing arguments" in Yoshino's words, as to why covering demands shall be necessary. This is one of the few spots where I disagree with Yoshino, and I do so for two reasons. First, what is and isn't a good reason is a very fuzzy, if not a subjective, thing. If an employer wants, say, to prohibit employees from wearing cornrows because, say, they simply want their employees to look relatively 'mainstream,' could the court really find some objective way to determine whether this is a good reason? Indeed, if we follow Yoshino's opinions, he would almost never see a reason cor a covering demand to be good. Second, and more simply, we live within a legal system that puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff, not the defendant. Yoshino's idea would mean that every covering demand is guilty until the employer proves it innocent.

But Yoshino is also reluctant to use law as a way to remedy these things, mostly because he (rightly, I think) surmises that it would be VERY hard to get our legal system to change course, to allow judges to dig that far into employee-employer relations, and also, because he understands that covering is a social phenomenon, not just one confined to workplaces. And we can't (or shouldn't) likely expect the law to expland its scope of authority to all social interactions.

Anyhow, this is a really well written, and a very throughout, book. Ehrenreich, Chua, and Appiah were correct. Yoshino draws attention to a very little noticed (for those in the majority) phenomenon that anyone who cares about liberty in a pluralistic world should care about.


The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future
The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $12.99

47 of 63 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cooke Wants Federalism, Not So Much Liberty: a Libertarian Review of the Conservatarian Manifesto, March 11, 2015
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I have to imagine that I am part of the primary audience for this book: I am a libertarian who at one point thought i might be a conservative, but have long since given up on the idea that I could find a home in the Republican Party. (The other audience seems to be conservatives who think they might be a bit libertarian.) While I laud Charles Cooke's efforts to articulate some sort of 'conservatarian' fusion, I left the book unconvinced. Ever since

First, the good. I applaud Cooke's chapters on gun rights and the drug war, and namely, his pointing out that the typical republican position - yes to the former AND the latter - is somewhat contradictory. When guns come up, Republicans quite often extol the virtues of individual liberty and warn against the dangers of governmental infringement of those rights. But when it comes to the drug war, way too many Republicans go the opposite direction: we know what is morally right (not doing drugs) and we will gladly allow government to bloat if it means enforcing that. Cooke argues that it is time for Republicans to see just how much the war on drugs had contributed to the big government they say they don't want.

The chapters on "social issues" is decent. Here, Cooke writes about the issues of abortion, gay (marriage) rights, and drugs. We've already covered this last one. On the first of these, Cooke argues that a pro-life approach needs to stress (as if it hasn't) that a right to life is the issue, not whether women's choice is to be taken away. Cooke's point is that too often, "the left" dictates the discussion and makes it about whether a woman should be free to choose. "The right" he says, needs to keep adamant that the real issue needs to be whether one should have the right to choose to end a life. (Full disclosure: I am relatively pro-choice, but abortion is one issue I am somewhat 'agnostic' on, because I don't think any one side captures all of the good arguments.) The last 'social issue' is gay rights, and I am wholly unimpressed. Cooke is a supporter of gay (marriage) rights, as am I. But instead of arguing - as journalists like Jonathan Rauch has - that there is strong reason for any supporter of individual liberty to support gay marriage, Cooke suggests that conservatarians should support it because, eh, there is no good reason not to and it isn't a terribly important issue. Not exactly a reason I'd expect from a supporter of individual liberty.

Now, we come to the big disagreement between Cooke and I (and I have to imagine a good many libertarians). The first few chapters of the book make the case not for a return of individual liberty or small government, but for local government. Local government and small government are not the same thing at all. Local government is good because it increases the likelihood that people can exercise some control of government because government is close to them. But that doesn't in any way translate to small government or individual liberty. To give an obvious example, suppose that Cooke got his way, and now he is trying to convince me that Vermont's (imaginary) bill mandating a huge welfare state that gives the state 75% of everyone's income is not so bad because, hey, the government is local. Or that Arkansas's (imaginary) decision to pass a law demanding that gays cannot hold public office is not so bad because at least the government is close enough that concerned people could mount a local campaign. In both cases, I am much more concerned with how these plans violate liberty than I am about what kind of government mechanisms are available to try and get the law changed.

And honestly, 'local government' is really Cooke's big case, not individual liberty. I leave the book thinking that a more accurate title might have been the "Conservafederalist manifesto," because liberty is not the big concern here; federalism is. In the end, leaving a host of issues to states may well be better than creating a 'one size fits all" standardized policy throughout the nation. But in the end, there is not much great difference between No Child Left Behind at the state level and Common Core at the national level, at least if your concern is individual liberty and freedom to choose, or between a federal ban on 'assault weapons' and state bans on them.

And that is why I think I can safely speak for a good many libertarians in saying that Cooke's case will likely be unpersuasive to the libertarian audience for this book.
Comment Comments (14) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 8, 2015 3:28 PM PDT


Brother DCPL2540DW Wireless Compact Laser Printer
Brother DCPL2540DW Wireless Compact Laser Printer
Price: Click here to see our price
88 used & new from $77.19

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Just Don't!, March 1, 2015
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I bought this largely because of its ability to hook up to Google Cloud Print. I've had this for about a month now, and I have regretted my purchase almost every day. Yes, it does connect to Google Cloud Print, for which I am thankful. But this machine does just about everything else wrong.

First, to hook it up to the wi-fi system in my house - a system all other devices can connect to no problem - I have to go through a several-step process where I manually enter all of the information. And the connection of the device to my wi-fi only lasts for a period of a few days at a time, whence I have to start the process over. (Remember, none of the other devices in my house have anything like this problem.

You might think because this is Google Cloud Print compatible, you can scan to Google Drive, Gmail or something like that. You can't. I checked with Customer Service on that. What you can do, of course, is scan to your Android, Apple, or Kindle Fire device. Don't get too excited though, because the app you use to do this with.... only allows you to scan (at least with the flatbed) ONE page per file. So, when I have to scan in 15 pages - as I often do - I have to scan to 15 different files, email them to my computer, and merge them into one file. More tedious than it is worth.

Lastly, Brothers advertises really good customer service. I have had to call five times for various problems with this printer, and each time, I was on hold for at least 30 minutes before even speaking to anyone. Competitive customer service? Hardly.

So, I would strongly advise that if you buy this printer, be aware of its seemingly endless limitations. And that should be enough for most of you not to buy it.


Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country
Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country
Price: $14.49

47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Steele's Interpretation of What Divides Us!, February 25, 2015
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Steele is a favorite writer of mine, so I've been waiting for this book for some time. For those familiar with Steele, you know what to expect: a literary and theoretical reflection on the predicament of race in the United States. For better or worse - and sometimes both - Steele doesn't try to convince us as much with fact as by offering us an interpretation of the American psyche.

This book, of course, is about more than the issue of race. Here, Steele tries to offer a framework for understanding the difference between the 'liberal' and 'conservative' mind. For my part, I think this is too lofty an ambition for his argument. Bu, like Steele's other works, it is challenging and thought provoking nonetheless.

Steele's idea is that in the 1960's, many of the hypocrisies of the United States become laid bare: a society partly build on racism and sexism but professing to believe in equality of opportunity, that professed liberty for all but inserted itself in the affairs of other nations. In acknowledging these hypocrisies - and Steele thinks the acknowledgement was appropriate - belief in the United States and its values lost the moral authority it once had. To fill the void, that moral authority was claimed by those who challenged the values of the United States. Instead of making capitalism more just, overthrow it. Instead of civil rights movement's goal of integration into American (white) society, the Black Power movement would challenge whether that society was even worth joining.

Steele does not suggest that America's loss of moral authority was wrong. But he does argue that it came with some very negative consequences, including the eschewing of freedom in favor of petitioning governments to create fairness and equity for us. Where Steele believes the proper reaction to racism and sexism was to allow oppressed groups freedom to work their way up, the new liberalism in some way chose to switch oppressors: instead of allowing blacks, women, gays, and other groups to be oppressed by discrimination, they would now be oppressed by governments who would insist that these groups couldn't do much without government help. And the tragic benefit of this new liberalism was that the former oppressors (whites, males, straights) could now atone for their sins by favoring policies like 'diversity' quotas and the like that wouldn't so much help these newly free groups, but would make everyone feel better about themselves.

Two brief criticisms: first, I think Steele's thesis - that this can explain the core differences between liberals and conservatives - is probably too grand. It explains some differences, but not others. (Does it explain, for instance, why conservatives tend to be pro-life and liberals pro-choice, or the different stances on firearm regulation?) Second - and this is somewhat typical of Steele - he doesn't tend to seriously entertain counterarguments. Steele's belief in a laissez-faire conservatism - government will leave you alone, and that is enough - will be interpreted by some (generally on the left) as ignoring the reality of "structural racism." How, they will ask, do blacks and whites have equal opportunity when blacks get paid much less on average than whites, even for similar jobs, or when blacks are more likely to be arrested, injured, and even killed than whites by a difference of 8 to 1? I don't doubt that Steele could answer these questions, but he doesn't seem to seriously consider that they need addressing.

All in all, though, Steele is a joy to read, and for my part, many of his interpretations of the American psyche make sense and ring true. If you haven't read him, you need to.


Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal
Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Concise, Thorough, and Neutral Exploration of a Troubling Idea!, January 28, 2015
Randall Kennedy's Sellout is a short, but very thorough and unbiased, examination of an idea: that to be appropriately black, one needs to accede to certain cultural norms, and that if one ventures outside those norms, one is a 'sellout.' Most of us balk at this idea and consider it limiting and stifling. Kennedy, who has been on the receiving end of this charge at times, takes the idea very seriously. In this book, he examines the history and 'logic' of the idea of the 'sellout,' not because he endorses it but because it arose for seemingly sensible reasons.

The two most meaty chapters explore the idea of the sellout in American history and in contemporary American culture. Kennedy documents the idea of the sellout having its deepest origins in the times of slavery, when slaves who were planning uprisings were snitched on by other slaves who might, afterward, be rewarded for their loyalty to the slave owner. Later, he discusses events like the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955, which involved a degree of community policing to ensure that social pressure ensured that blacks did not 'defect' from the group and ride the buses. Kennedy also goes over how fiction authors have explored the idea of the sellout (and 'passing' as a form of selling out) and how there is a kind of ambivalence to the idea of passing in the black community (on one hand, successful passing mocks the color line, but passing is still seen as a type of defection from the group).

Through all of this, what impresses me most aside from Kennedy's thorough knowledge of the subject is his unbiased handling of it. Kennedy is not advocating for a position, but exploring a topic and its history and presence in contemporary life. In several chapters, Kennedy gives very balanced treatment to some (mainly black conservative) critiques of the idea that black conservatives are selling out; instead of opining, Kennedy neutrally weighs the pros and cons of their argument. In another chapter, Kennedy examines the case of Clarence Thomas as a potential 'sellout' and, while he ultimately exonerates Thomas of this charge, he gives fair voice to those who make the charge.

All in all, this is a wonderful book. It is clearly and engagingly written, and offers a thorough and seemingly unbiased account of a troubling topic.


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