Saturday, September 30, 2017

Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $29.95

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The loss of jobs in a high-technology society—and, more than that, the downgrading of skills required and therefore of the wages paid for many of the jobs that remain—are likely to be the primary economic and social challenges facing the United States over the coming generation. The question is not whether millions of would-be workers will be chronically out of work. Unless an outsized legal minimum wage suppresses the availability of entry-level jobs, most Americans will find something to do. But far too many of the jobs they will end up taking will pay them too little to support what our society considers a middle-class standard of living.

The widely touted prospect of driverless vehicles is just one example, but it is illustrative. A half-century ago, the leading opportunity for Americans without a college education to earn a middle-class income, with health and other benefits, was working on a factory floor. But there are many fewer such jobs in the US today—only 8 percent of the country’s labor force works in manufacturing—and fewer still for employees without advanced technical training. In most areas of the country, the best opportunity for these workers is now driving a truck.

Only convinced futurists envision FedEx and UPS vans racing around the nation’s cities anytime soon with no human inside. But in the future, what will the human on board be doing? Most likely, not driving the van but running packages up to people’s doorsteps and then pushing a picture icon on a touch screen to confirm that deliveries have been completed—not so different from what the cashier at a McDonald’s now does. For just this reason, the wages those no-longer-drivers receive also won’t be much different from McDonald’s wages.

Driverless trucks are still some distance in the future, but the reduction of the skills required in the workplace as a result of new technology is already a reality for millions of workers beyond McDonald’s. Today more than 15 million Americans work in some form of retail trade. But apart from the most upscale stores, the job is not what it used to be. Since the introduction of barcode scanners (beginning in the 1970s), most retail sales clerks no longer need to know the store’s inventory, look up prices, keep track of what’s sold in order to facilitate reordering, or even make change in a cash transaction. The job now mostly consists of swiping objects past a scanner and letting a “smart” cash register do the rest.

A similar process is underway in retail-level investing and financial planning. Instead of talking with a broker, many Americans now execute stock trades themselves via E-Trade, and automated “robo-advising” is beginning to take over the more complicated job of helping investors allocate their funds among different asset classes. Even the venerable BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, has been acquiring smaller firms that rely on computer algorithms rather than investment professionals to manage their clients’ funds. Increasingly, jobs in retail investing are becoming divided between high-end professionals who provide sophisticated advice and services to investors with large portfolios and get paid accordingly, and people who do routine follow-up work for smaller accounts and earn very little. Moreover, that follow-up work can be done from Bangalore just as easily as from Boston or New York or Chicago, and it often is.

The relentless advance of robotics and other applications of artificial intelligence in the workplace is reducing the skill level required for a wide range of other jobs as well. With a GPS, drivers for ride-sharing services no longer need to know a city’s streets. In many warehouses today, computers manage the workers, displaying on a screen which items to retrieve and where to put them. The humans’ main advantage is the greater flexibility of their hands.

Like the Luddites in Britain’s cotton industry two hundred years ago, these workers’ problem will not be no job but rather a no-skill job, one that requires little of them and therefore pays them little in return. For the Luddites, the threat was a new, technologically improved loom that required less skill to operate. With their expertise suddenly redundant, the weavers saw their wages drop accordingly. Woody Allen famously quipped that 80 percent of life is showing up. Most Americans’ jobs today require a lot more than just showing up, and what they earn is well above the raw value of their presence. When work becomes mostly just showing up, the wage will reflect it.

The Luddites’ fears of permanently lower wages were proven wrong, but not because their campaign to smash up the new looms succeeded. They were wrong because, over time, advancing technology did more than just eliminate human labor and enable unskilled workers to replace skilled ones. It also devised new ways to accomplish age-old objectives. Railroads, then cars and trucks powered by the internal combustion engine, and in time airplanes replaced horse-powered ways of moving both people and goods.

New technologies also introduced new goods that many people then wanted, and therefore that workers got to produce: from radios to televisions, from computers to cell phones, from electric lighting to electric shavers and even electric toothbrushes. Making those new goods, as well as operating and servicing them, required more skill than what the Luddite weavers had. And the wages for those jobs were higher as well.

Over time some version of this process will presumably play out again. Technological change triggers two countervailing processes in the labor market: automating tasks previously performed by labor, and creating complex new tasks for which labor is especially well suited and perhaps absolutely necessary.1 Both are easily visible in today’s economy. For example, with ATMs and computerized screening of mortgage applications, retail banking requires many fewer employees than before; but those that remain are mostly performing more sophisticated tasks. What matters for the kind of work people do, as well as for the wages they earn, is the balance between the two opposing processes.

For now, automation is proceeding rapidly, but most new jobs do not involve complex labor-intensive tasks that would warrant above-average pay. As a result, wages are stagnant despite a strong increase in employment (15 million net new jobs created thus far in this decade), and the competition for jobs that require specialized skills gets fiercer each year. Legions of would-be lawyers, beauticians, and computer programmers can’t find work in the fields for which they’ve trained and struggle to pay off the loans they took out to pay for their training. The one job that everyone believes will multiply in the years ahead is nursing home attendant.

If the United States occupied some planet of its own, even the nursing home aides would eventually earn higher wages, in effect sharing in the productivity gains that occur elsewhere in the economy. The wages for nursing home jobs would have to rise, along with wages in other industries, or nobody would take them. But in the US an unending stream of new immigrants is willing to take such unskilled jobs. (Although President Trump portrays his efforts to halt that flow as a boon to America’s skilled factory workers, in fact those most likely to benefit are unskilled workers who would then face less competition for jobs in elder care, lawn and tree trimming, house painting, and a variety of similar pursuits.) At the same time, there is an effectively infinite supply of offshore labor to take up both skilled and unskilled work that needn’t be done locally—ranging from call center operators to computer programmers to corporate auditors.

As a result, the nation’s labor market continues to bifurcate, separating the workers lucky enough to get the high-skill jobs our economy has newly created (and get paid accordingly) from those stuck with jobs for which automation has taken away the need for skills and that therefore pay very little.

What to do in the face of this challenge is fast becoming the central economic policy question of our time. Simply letting the market operate means consigning ever more Americans to deskilled jobs, at low wages, whether or not they are capable of skilled work. We would be on our way back to what the English economist James Meade, half a century ago, described as “an immiserized proletariat of butlers, footmen, kitchen maids, and other hangers-on.”3 More education and training, to prepare more people for the complex tasks required by our new technology, will surely help. But it will succeed only to the extent that the specialized training matches the needs of the technology.

A different strategy, which has drawn support especially outside the United States, is not to remedy the situation but to make it less economically painful through some kind of income transfer program. The one now attracting the most attention—perhaps because of the growing realization of how much of the labor force in advanced economies will likely find their jobs increasingly threatened by new technology—is to provide income transfers not just to those in need (as defined by some societal standard) but to everyone.

Within the past year Finland introduced a “basic income” on a highly limited, experimental basis (only two thousand participants, in a population of 5.5 million), and the idea is gaining some support in other countries too. Last year Switzerland held a nonbinding national referendum on such a proposal (it lost, with 77 percent voting against), and groups in other European countries, as well as South Africa, have endorsed the idea. Some in the US have expressed interest as well. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg advocated a “universal basic income” in the commencement address he gave at Harvard this past spring. Many of the alumni present took his doing so to signal his ambition to follow another billionaire businessman into electoral politics.

Now, in Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Philippe Van Parijs, an economist and ethicist, and Yannick Vanderborght, a political scientist—both Belgians—have laid out at some length a comprehensive case for a universal basic income. Although the adjective “universal” is missing from the title of their book, that aspect of the proposal is essential to their argument. Especially in America, unemployment benefits, food stamps, free school lunches, and subsidized housing all come with some stigma attached. By contrast, Social Security and Medicare, available to all citizens who reach a certain age (currently sixty-six for Social Security and sixty-five for Medicare), do not. Nor does free public schooling, available to all children. Van Parijs and Vanderborght would, in effect, expand Social Security payments to everyone, including children, with the per-person payment independent of any prior contributions or earnings.

As the subtitle of their book suggests, their underlying argument is not just economic but philosophical. At the economic level, Van Parijs and Vanderborght explain the familiar problem of discouraging work that is inherent in many existing welfare programs. People who have no job and live on various kinds of government benefits lose that support once they go to work and their incomes rise. At the same time, what they earn, above some minimal level, is subject to tax. In many cases the implicit tax represented by the loss of benefits and the explicit tax on earnings from the prospective job, taken together, subject a person deciding whether to go off benefits and take a paying job to an effective tax rate well above what top-bracket earners pay. The result is a disincentive to work. Welfare eligibility requirements often create further distortions, like disincentives to marry (a single mother may get more benefits), or incentives to have more children (benefits may be based on the number of children).

Economists and others have struggled to devise ways to modify the tax code and many welfare programs to blunt these perverse effects. But even with carefully designed eligibility requirements and provisions like the US earned income tax credit, the problem is inescapable. A universal benefit, paid to everyone, whether working or not, regardless of income or age or marital status, would avoid many of these distortions.

The more novel argument the book advances is that a universal basic income would provide a new kind of economic freedom. Most obviously, anyone would be free not to work. Van Parijs and Vanderborght mostly envision people taking advantage of this option for family reasons, or to acquire further education and training, or to take low-paid (or even unpaid) internships. But they acknowledge that some people would simply choose not to work, relying on their no-questions-asked guaranteed income to support themselves. In the authors’ view, a crucial feature of the program is that the income is “unconditional in the sense of being obligation free, and not being subjected to a willingness-to-work test. The voluntarily unemployed are no less entitled to it than the employed and the involuntarily unemployed.”

The authors see this central feature of universal basic income as a form of empowerment for “those who currently have least,” maximizing their “power to consume” as well as their “power to choose the sorts of lives they want to live.” In effect, Van Parijs and Vanderborght turn the usual libertarian argument on its head. Many conceptions of society based on individual freedoms and equal treatment of all citizens have a certain appeal in principle, but in practice work to the advantage of those in society who command the greatest economic resources. (Anatole France archly noted that “in its majestic equality, the law forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”) The disincentive to work is normally a large part of the argument against both welfare programs and the taxes that pay for them. In contrast, for Van Parijs and Vanderborght the attraction of a universal basic income is not only that it eliminates distortions to people’s individual economic decisions but also that it “boosts as much as is sustainable the market power of those with the least market power, and thereby…their ability to resist subjugation to bosses, partners, or bureaucrats.”

This expanded freedom would do more than just reduce work, however. Van Parijs and Vanderborght also argue that with a no-conditions income many people would take advantage of the opportunity to pursue employment that they find fulfilling but that offers little economic reward, or even none at all. In some cases, not just these individuals but society at large would benefit. More people with energy and talent would feel free to take low-paid jobs, or simply volunteer, as schoolteachers or social workers or museum guides. More aspiring entrepreneurs would be free to start businesses, more would-be inventors could stay home in their basement workshops, and more would-be novelists and poets and playwrights could explore their creative potential. Maybe the economy would reward them, but even if not, they would all have the fulfillment of trying, and overall innovation and creativity would increase.

Although the authors do not emphasize the connection—they would favor a universal basic income under practically any economic circumstances—the potential appeal of such a program is all the greater in a world of long-term unemployment and reduction of skilled work resulting from advancing technology. If there are not enough decent jobs available, people could choose not to work without having to suffer privation. (Even the definition of employment would become fuzzy: Is a full-time writer who never succeeds in selling any of his novels “employed”?) And for those who take the many jobs in which technology has reduced the need for skills, at least they could then afford a living standard above what their wage alone would sustain. Either way, the goal “is not just to soothe misery but to liberate us all.”

Especially in America, one immediate objection to any proposal for a universal basic income comes from just this feature, which Van Parijs and Vanderborght see as its foremost attraction: the freedom it would provide either not to work at all or to apply one’s effort along lines that the economy does not reward. Attaching religious value to work as one’s “calling,” even when that activity has nothing directly to do with religion, dates back to Luther and Calvin. (It is no mere turn of phrase when the authors write of “desacralizing paid work.”) Four hundred years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was appealing to deeply rooted American values when he referred, in his first inaugural address, to the “moral stimulation of work.”

Today the moral value of work remains a bedrock of most Americans’ thinking. And while there is debate over how well the economy’s wage structure reflects society’s priorities—and even if it does, whether those priorities are well placed—most Americans draw a distinction between working and merely indulging in some hobby. Van Parijs and Vanderborght’s paean to the freedom not to work, and to some extent also the freedom to decide for oneself what constitutes worthwhile work, has less affinity with American values than with European ones.

A more practical difficulty, which the authors recognize but do not resolve, turns on how to treat children, and even spouses. If the payment is genuinely universal, “paid to each individual, and at a level independent of that individual’s household situation,” a family of four would receive four times what a single individual would get. Four times the amount that would adequately support one person living alone seems unnecessarily generous for the family, while one fourth of what the family could live on would fall well short of a lone individual’s need. The per-person payment that Van Parijs and Vanderborght tentatively target—one fourth of a country’s per capita income, or for Americans today just under $15,000 annually—seems intended to steer in the middle of this dilemma, but it satisfies neither side.

Moreover, distortions of the kind familiar from existing welfare programs would arise as well. A nonworking couple could increase their family income from $30,000 to $90,000 by having four children. Historically, many countries have actually sought to create this incentive, using “natalist” policies like per-child bonuses and subsidies to encourage a higher birth rate. Few people would advocate such a policy for the US today. Instead, interest in a “universal child allowance” mostly reflects a desire to alleviate child poverty and to remove the welfare stigma for low-income families.

A more powerful concern, for Europeans no less than Americans, is whether a universal basic income is affordable. Van Parijs and Vanderborght’s discussion of the cost of any such scheme is cogent and detailed. Finland’s experiment, with 2,000 participants receiving €560 per month, costs only $15 million per year. Van Parijs and Vanderborght’s target of $15,000 a year for every American would cost $4.8 trillion—far more than today’s budget for the entire federal government.

The authors conclude that at least for now, and probably for some substantial time to come, cost at this level is too great to make a universal income program feasible, either in the US or elsewhere. (By contrast, in the poorest countries, a universal basic income, at an affordable level, might well help eradicate extreme poverty.)4 They therefore recommend a much more modest payment, well below what would be necessary to enable a family, or even more so an individual living alone, to survive. (They note that “a basic income is not by definition sufficient to cover what could be regarded as basic needs.”) Their hope would then be to expand the program by steps, as society’s ability and willingness to pay for it increase, until it eventually reached full scale.

Here, however, the argument runs into multiple contradictions. To begin, Van Parijs and Vanderborght repeatedly make the familiar point that a universal basic income would not cost as much as it might seem because once it is in place, existing welfare programs would be unnecessary. The net cost would then be the amount of the per-person payment times the country’s total population, minus the current cost of all welfare programs, including the support those programs provide as well as the cost of the bureaucracy needed to run them.

But the authors also acknowledge that with the more modest payment they recommend for now, welfare programs would have to remain in place. The cost of the universal basic income would then be simply the total cost of sending a payment to everyone, whether needy or not. Hence the attempt to make the scheme affordable, given the existing limitations, ends up reinforcing its unaffordability by removing what the authors hold out as a major source of available funding.

Moreover, if existing welfare programs continue, with all their distortions and associated stigma (especially in America), two of the authors’ main objectives would be unfulfilled. In contrast to Calvin, who wrote that “adversity is a sign of God’s absence, prosperity of his presence,” Van Parijs and Vanderborght believe that most of today’s needy citizens are poor for reasons that are not their own fault, much less the result of divine disfavor. But if the existing welfare programs remain, so too will the stigma and the perverse incentives that come with them.

Even the most fundamental element of the authors’ argument—the association of a universal basic income with “the genuine capacity to do whatever one might wish to do”—falls away if the per-person payment is too small to provide meaningful support. No doubt a few thousand dollars a year would enable some people to take lower-paying jobs than they could otherwise. But this could be achieved with the help of any of a variety of existing proposals, such as wage supplements for new high school graduates or subsidized apprenticeships.

Evaluating the relative merits of those proposals, perhaps with a universal basic income added to the list, is surely worthwhile. But it seems unlikely that paying out money to everyone, not just new graduates and apprentices, and whether working or not, will end up being the best way to serve these ends. Presumably for just this reason even Finland’s much-touted basic income experiment is not actually “universal”; only people out of a job and already drawing unemployment benefits (which the basic income payment replaced) were eligible. The same concern applies to proposals for a universal child allowance. It is far from clear that paying out money to middle- and even high-income families is the most effective way to address America’s shamefully high rate of child poverty.

More important, a modest annual payment will not fulfill the authors’ grander, “emancipatory” aims. The novel argument they make for a universal basic income rests on its creating a more inclusive society and providing “the real freedom to flourish, through work and outside of work,” whether in or outside the market economy. The version of the scheme that they eventually propose will not deliver on these lofty ideals.

Van Parijs and Vanderborght have done the discussion of a universal basic income a great service. They have set forth, clearly and comprehensively, what is probably the best case to be made today for this form of economic and social policy. But to deliver the benefits its supporters hold out for it, the income paid must be substantial—under almost any likely conditions, too great for a society like ours to afford. And implementing it at a smaller level, as the authors recommend, would deliver few of the promised benefits yet still cost enough to present a serious hurdle. For now, a universal basic income remains a utopian vision. We will have to address the challenge of technological unemployment and deskilling in some other way.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie Paperback, 359 page (Orbit)

"But I will sustain myself

With nothing more than the perfume of jasmine flowers..."

If you don't know the Ancillary series by now, you probably should. Ann Leckie's sociopolitical space opera almost singlehandedly breathed new cool into the stereotype of spaceships trundling through far-off systems amid laser battles. It helped that the spaceships in question were millenia-old artificial intelligences who used hundreds of reanimated corpses as ancillary bodies — which was an amazing visual, a handy metaphor for the totalitarian regime in power, and some very particular backstory for our hero, Breq, an ex-ancillary now separated from her ship.

Breq has spent two books trying to bring down the head of the Radch, a galaxy-spanning empire. It's complicated work (for one thing, the imperial civil war is between cloned iterations of the Empress herself), so it's just as well for the series that Breq accidentally keeps falling into broken things that need fixing on a more local level: Her devoted lieutenant Seivarden, captaincy of a ship whose human crew has no idea of their leader's past, a planetary assignment with the expected imperial prejudice, and a space station awash in all the cultural minutiae the Radchaai empire can offer. And luckily for readers, that's quite a bit.

If you don't know the Ancillary series by now, you probably should.

Much has been made of the series' use of single-gender pronouns as a world-building detail. And it's a nice touch, both in un-gendering its own narrative and reminding us of the power of language to erase things in the languages it colonizes. But it barely scrapes the surface of the richly detailed world that Leckie's created — by now, we know the significance behind using the second-best porcelain, Breq's humming, the intimacy of an ungloved hand, and the directness of an apology as a gauge of how close someone is to mutiny.

It's also just as well we do, since Ancillary Mercy spends the bare minimum on reminders of the past and hits the ground meandering (momentum builds slowly in the Ancillary universe – it's less a race than the weaving of a slow and absorbing knot). This time around, the cultural complexities of the station have to make room for the increasingly complex on-board politics of Breq's new command, some unexpected visitors from a supposedly abandoned interstellar gate, and a revolution that could affect the very heart of every ship in the fleet.

But amid it all, Leckie keeps a welcome focus on Breq; the ex-ancillary who uses her unexpected power to happily foment rebellion, whose love of a long-ago lieutenant sparked an unwilling quest, and who, after two books of being unerringly on the right side of history, begins to run up against her own failings. Leckie's understated prose never lets things get so far as navel-gazing — one imagines the Radch frowns on navels, as a rule — but in a series where the social parallels can sometimes be drawn a little thick (perhaps a thematic concession to a previous generation of political science fiction), it's satisfying to see the characters embroiled in the occasional unsolvable mess. It's an empire; nobody dismantles that clean, and some of the book's best beats are those in which a moment is put abruptly into scale — the width of a universe, the myopia of love.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to begin a series with an awards powerhouse like Ancillary Justice and hope the ending conforms to all expectations. In trying to wrap a tale of revenge and revolution somewhere between twenty and a thousand years old, Ancillary Mercy does have its inevitable moments of glossing-over, its occasional too-tidy arrangements. But it earns the credit it's received: As a capstone to a series that shook genre expectations, as our closing installment of an immersively realized world, and as the poignant story of a ship that learned to sing.

New European Narrative for Europe ? The Great Regression edited by Heinrich Geiselberger Polity, 197 pp., $59.95; $16.95 (paper), The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age by James Kirchick Yale University Press, 273 pp., $27.50, After Europe by Ivan Krastev University of Pennsylvania Press, 120 pp., $19.95; Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe’s Troubled Future by Giles Merritt Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $29.95; $16.95 (paper); Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir by Anton Shekhovtsov Routledge, 282 pp., $150.00; $35.95 (paper); In Defence of Europe: Can the European Project Be Saved? by Loukas Tsoukalis Oxford University Press, 238 pp., $30.00;

Pro-EU protesters at a demonstration against Poland’s right-wing government, Warsaw, May 2016. The sign says, ‘The people defend the Constitution as well as freedom, laws, and the threefold form of government.’

Back in 2013—an age ago, the calm before the storm—José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, gave a speech launching a new project. This was before the refugee crisis, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before the British voted to leave the European Union, before the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, London, and Barcelona.

Nevertheless, Barroso—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:

I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.

With that, he launched the “New Narrative for Europe,” a cultural project that looked impressive on paper. Artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” They made contributions to a new book, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates on the New Narrative were held across Europe, in Milan, Warsaw, and Berlin as well as Brussels. Members of the European Commission (each member state has one) held “citizens’ dialogues” across the continent too. A New Narrative website was created so that young Europeans could “have their say.”

The aim was to create a strong sense of European federal identity, and while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I. Barroso’s project had some of the elements of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept.

Except, of course, that it was not popular. The artists, writers, and scientists squabbled about the declaration. The Mind and Body of Europe sank without a trace. The debates went unremarked. The website is still there but seems not to have been recently updated. None of the six books reviewed here, all by experts on European politics, mentions the New Narrative project at all. Giles Merritt, the author of Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe’s Troubled Future, does have a section entitled “Searching for a ‘Grand Strategy’…or Even a New Narrative,” but he fails to cite Barroso’s initiative.

And yet in very different ways, and for very different reasons, all six of these books ultimately argue that yes, a new narrative, or a new European political project, or an institutional revolution, is exactly what Europe needs. It’s not hard to understand why. The continent is plagued by crises that cannot be solved by any one European nation acting on its own: the arrival of millions of migrants, the rise of terrorism, the spread of international corruption, the imbalances created by the single currency, the high youth unemployment in some regions, the challenge from a revanchist Russia.

At the same time, Europe, like the American states before they adopted the Constitution in 1789, still has no political mechanisms that can create joint solutions to any of these problems. A common European foreign and defense policy is still a pipe dream; a common border is difficult to enforce; a common economic policy is still far away. Instead, decisions made unilaterally by the larger states wind up determining policy for the continent, often creating anger in smaller states. Alternatively, decisions are not made at all, in which case the anger comes from the general public.

None of this is entirely new. As Heinrich Geiselberger writes in his introduction to The Great Regression, an anthology of fifteen essays, all of the elements of Europe’s current predicament were predictable and were indeed predicted not only in 2013 but back in the 1990s, an era of great optimism about Europe and more generally about the global economy: “All the risks of globalization that were discerned at the time actually became reality.” At the time it was also hoped that European and international institutions would bring people together in ways that would make solutions possible. Membership in the EU and NATO, as well as dozens of smaller organizations dedicated to everything from the regulation of pharmaceuticals to the promotion of culture, would gradually bring the continent together. Many hoped they would also eventually help integrate Russia and North Africa into Europe as well. But it didn’t happen. Despite those hopes, no collective European identity has emerged in the past two decades, let alone a Western or “cosmopolitan” collective identity that might be capable of formulating a unified political response to any of these problems.

Reading through the current literature on Europe, it isn’t hard to understand why. If the artists, writers, and scientists assigned to the New Narrative could not agree on a way forward, neither can the six books here. And it is notable that although they come from different countries—the UK, the US, Greece, Ukraine, Germany, Bulgaria—the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate them are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological. Ultimately, they disagree about the endgame: where Europe is going, what it should become, and what it should do in order to get there.

Most of the contributors to The Great Regression at least start from the same vantage point. Geiselberger explains that his book is designed to address not just a crisis but a “neoliberal” crisis, one that he believes has been caused by the ruling economic philosophy of the past three decades, by which he means the philosophy not just of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher but of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and the International Monetary Fund. Some of the arguments here are familiar and can be heard not only on the left but on the right and in the center. Financial markets are too powerful; trade unions are too weak. Globalization has been good for the wealthy in the West, bad for the poor. Deregulation has brought some ugly surprises.

Particularly given the EU’s reputation among conservatives in Britain and the US as a left-leaning institution, some will be surprised to discover that several contributors to The Great Regression believe that despite its redistributive functions and its support for the social welfare state, the EU is part of this same neoliberal problem. Robert Misik argues, for example, that with its uniform regulations and competition laws, the EU makes “practical implementation of left-wing ideas” impossible. Because this is the view held by Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, it’s an important one to reckon with: after all, if Labour had a pro-European instead of a Euroskeptic leader, Britain might well not be leaving European institutions at all.

The trouble is that it isn’t clear what an alternative, more left-wing EU would look like. Should the members of the deeply interconnected European single market be allowed to nationalize industry again? Nationalize banks? Since these are all ideas that failed in the past, why would they work in the present? With surprising pragmatism, Slavoj Žižek suggests that a “left alternative” to the current international trade regime might be a “programme of new and different international agreements—agreements which would establish control of the banks, enforce ecological standards, secure workers’ rights, healthcare services, the protection of sexual and ethnic minorities, etc.” Since this is some of what global trade agreements do already, this is not particularly revolutionary, but at least it is a concrete idea that could be implemented jointly, if there were the will to do so.

Yet even the contributors to The Great Regression are not in total agreement about the causes of the current malaise. Ivan Krastev, for example, is not much interested in the ownership of the means of production but is extremely concerned about migration, immigration, and the “majoritarian” political impulses they have provoked. Both in his Great Regression essay and in his short book After Europe, Krastev argues that the waves of refugees heading for Europe have prompted, in many European countries, not merely economic fears and increasing levels of racism but a kind of “demographic panic.” For his fellow Bulgarians, “the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history, and the popular argument that an aging Europe needs migrants only strengthens the growing sense of existential melancholy…. Is there going to be anyone left to read Bulgarian poetry in one hundred years?”
Migrants and riot police at the Harmanli refugee camp in southern Bulgaria, near the Greek and Turkish borders, November 2016

Krastev also believes that the porous borders within Europe, one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, turn out to have a psychological cost. The educated feel comfortable traveling, living, and working all across the continent. But those who can’t or won’t live abroad harbor suspicions about those who do: “They feel comfortable in their ethnic states and mistrust those whose hearts lie in Paris or London, whose money is in New York or Cyprus, and whose loyalty is to Brussels.” The rural–urban divide that is so clear in the United States thus gains an extra dimension in Europe, where people in small towns and villages have often turned against the EU, while people in cities support it. It’s worth remembering that the Brexit vote in Britain was not only a rich vs. poor vote, it was also an urban vs. rural vote. Large swathes of the well-off English country gentry voted against the European Union and its foreign ways.

The side effects of such discomfort may be dangerous indeed. In response to this challenge, Krastev argues, ethnic and political majorities in several countries have begun to act like threatened minorities themselves. Claiming that they require extraordinary measures to stay in power and “protect the nation” from outside threats and foreign influence, illiberal leaders in Poland and Hungary have tried—the latter successfully, the former thus far less so—to restrict their courts and media.

But the promotion of the interests of “True Poles” or “True Hungarians” over those of supposedly disloyal cosmopolitan elites is not a particularly “Eastern European” phenomenon. Had she won the French presidency, there is no doubt that Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front and the runner-up in the 2016 election, would have tried to do the same for the “True French”—and of course Donald Trump would like to do the same for “Real Americans.” At their worst, the British Brexiteers also sound quite a bit more like English nationalists than the free-traders they claim to be.

Like his fellow authors, Krastev is cautious about offering solutions, beyond the enigmatic observation that Europe’s crises have always done more to pull the continent together than Europe’s institutions. In The End of Europe, James Kirchick also offers dark comfort: “Although there are many arguments in favor of European integration, perhaps the strongest is that the alternative is so much worse.” Kirchick, like Krastev, believes that Europe’s deepest problems are not so much economic as psychological and cultural. But he phrases the problem differently. What Kirchick fears is a “loss of faith in the universal, humanistic values of what might be called the European idea.”

He sees, on the populist right, the same scorn for rule of law and democratic norms that Krastev has observed. In a chapter on Hungary he quotes at length Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s famous oration in praise of “illiberal democracy,” during which he disparaged the “divisive” nature of democracy and advocated, instead, the emergence of a “great governing party…a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues…without the constantly ongoing wrangling.”

But Kirchick also sees dangers coming from an ideologically rigid left that has sought to ignore the problems caused by the immigration wave, including the dangerous plague of Islamic terrorism and, in some places, a rise in crime. He excoriates the “constricted political discourse in which decent, ordinary people are told not only that plainly visible social phenomena don’t exist but also that voicing concerns about these allegedly nonexistent phenomena is racist.” Along those same lines, he worries that the entire debate about immigration will become a partisan, bifurcated battle between the genuinely racist far right and a “multicultural” left that can’t bring itself to address the public’s legitimate (or even illegitimate) desire for more security.

Kirchick notes that these divisions have been deliberately exacerbated by an outside force: Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has now defined the EU, alongside the US, as its most important enemy. Russia dislikes the EU because it gives small European countries more clout in their dealings with Moscow—the EU can, for example, prevent the creation of Russian gas monopolies in Eastern Europe. Russia also dislikes the EU because it offers a clear ideological alternative to corrupt oligarchy. Ukrainians protesting against their pro-Moscow government in 2014 waved the EU flag because they believed it stood for the rule of law, anticorruption, democracy, and free speech. In response, Putin, whose worst nightmare is the emergence of precisely that sort of crowd in Russia, began energetically backing politicians and political parties on both the far left and the far right of the European political spectrum, precisely in order to undermine the European project from within.

This subject takes us into the realm of expertise of Anton Shekhovtsov, who has been tracking and cataloguing the Russian relationship with the European far right for many years. In Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir, Shekhovtsov lays out the historical background of the relationship, going back to the Soviet era. He argues that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin and groups loyal to it “dramatically stepped up active measures and other subversive activities inside the West.” In a different era, this support might not have mattered. But thanks to the economic shifts and the migration/immigration turmoil described above, extremism of all kinds was already on the rise in Europe, just at the moment when Russia began to put serious resources into supporting it.

That support now takes a number of forms, ranging from Russia’s outright, openly acknowledged funding for Le Pen’s presidential campaign to more secretive attempts to manipulate public opinion using online hacking, trolls, and bots. These techniques, first used in European elections, were repeated in the US in 2016 to great effect. In a number of European countries, including Italy and Germany, Russia has made great inroads into mainstream politics as well, by establishing economic relationships with powerful companies and buying the services of influential politicians, among them the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But again, Shekhovtsov’s goal is not to find solutions but rather to lay out the parameters of a problem that few really understand.

For a wider range of possible solutions and policy proposals, the reader must turn back to the books by Giles Merritt and Loukas Tsoukalis, both of which are far more Brussels-centric, policy wonkish, pragmatic, and thus somewhat harder to read than the others. These focus on the EU as an institution, and they offer laundry lists of policy recommendations. Merritt calls for, among other things, an EU-wide program to modernize infrastructure, a larger community budget, a more activist central bank. Tsoukalis wants policies that encourage social cohesion, such as a European unemployment scheme. Both men want, as many others do, reform to the EU’s democratic institutions. Suggested changes to the EU’s parliament have been under discussion for years, including changing its composition to include members of national parliaments, or electing candidates from multinational constituencies. So far, all such projects have been halted by inertia.

Both men also want, again like many others, a more robust EU foreign policy, one that would give Europe a voice in the world commensurate with its size and economic strength. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Europe’s failure to have a foreign policy is the source of many of its problems. A Europe that could stand up to Russia would not be so easily manipulated by Russian disinformation. A Europe capable of ending the civil wars in Libya and Syria, instead of pretending they weren’t happening, wouldn’t have a refugee crisis on the current scale at all.

The trouble with all of these ideas is that they come back to the problem that I began with: to push through parliamentary reform, to construct, finally, a real European army, to build support for a larger budget or central bank, Europe needs a set of institutions to which people feel loyal and attached. To provide small European nations with the confidence they need to thrive in a globalized world; to inspire enough growth to keep people thriving in rural Bulgaria or Spain; to create a real border agency that makes people feel secure; to persuade southern Europeans to take the Russian threat seriously and Eastern Europeans to take the refugee crisis seriously—all of this requires a level of political energy that always seems to be missing at the European level, and even, in many European countries, at the national level too.

Kirchick wants a “renewal of the muscular liberal center.” Tsoukalis writes that “Europe needs a game changer, one of those big initiatives that sometimes in history succeeds in radically transforming the scene.” Merritt wants to “persuade public opinion that we must rethink our comfortable and cherished assumptions about Europe’s privileged place in the world,” and start fighting harder to be heard. In short, Europe needs a narrative.

It could be, of course, that a “game changer” is just around the corner. Most of these books were published before the latest round of European elections, and some of them seem prematurely gloomy. A general backlash against Brexit and widespread revulsion at President Trump have already reduced support for the anti-European far right in Austria and the Netherlands. The unexpected triumph of Emmanuel Macron, the very incarnation of muscular liberalism, in an election in one of Europe’s most important countries has set off a wave of speculation: Are there other Macrons waiting in the wings, perhaps in Poland or Italy, who could pull off the same trick?

The likely victory of Angela Merkel in Germany also changes the Franco-German relationship from a tired cliché into something dynamic. Different though they are in character and background—portraits of them together look like an allegorical painting, “Youth Encounters Experience”—both Merkel and Macron are committed to the European Union, to the political center, and perhaps, it has been hinted, to major reforms. The notion of a European finance minister who could begin to coordinate the continent’s economic policy in a meaningful way has been discussed; so has a European army. If Merkel and Macron do push for those major reforms, they are staking everything on a proposition that hasn’t been tested: namely, that what people really hate about Europe isn’t that it usurps national power, but that it seems powerless.

And if Merkel and Macron disappoint? One European diplomat of my acquaintance likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic prece

Raptors of Mexico and Central America by William S. Clark and N. John Schmitt Hardcover; 272 pages Princeton University Press; March 28, 2017 ISBN: 9780691116495 $39.95

Raptors are among the most challenging birds to identify in the field due to their bewildering variability of plumage, flight silhouettes, and behavior. Raptors of Mexico and Central Americais the first illustrated guide to the region’s 69 species of raptors, including vagrants. It features 32 stunning color plates and 213 color photos, and a distribution map for each regularly occurring species. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, age-related plumages, status and distribution, subspecies, molt, habitats, behaviors, potential confusion species, and more.

Raptors of Mexico and Central America is the essential field guide to this difficult bird group and the ideal travel companion for anyone visiting this region of the world.
  • Covers all 69 species of raptors found in Mexico and Central America 
  • Features 32 color plates and hundreds of color photos 
  • Provides multiple illustrations of each species 
  • Deicts and describes variations in plumage by individual, morph, age, and region 
  • Describes behavior, food preferences, hunting strategies, vocalizations, and molt 
  • Covers rare and extralimital species 
  • Includes distribution maps and flight silhouettes 

Tons of information, extensive plates, and lots of large, impressive photos. Its fairly large size means it is more suited for reference rather than field use. Visiting birders may even wish to leave it at home, where it will make an excellent reference to either study beforehand or sort out identifications afterward.

Italian cookbooks for every type of cook: Florentine by Emiko Davies (Hardie Grant, 2016);Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill (Clarkson Potter, 2016);Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy (Saltyard Books, 2016) ; Nina Capri by Nina Parker (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016); Let's Cook Italian by Anna Prandoni and Emanuela Ligabue (Quarry, 2016);Pasta by Antonio Carluccio (Quadrille, 2016); The Italian Baker by Melissa Forti (Quadrille, 2016); (IBRCookBooks)

Love Italian food? Read on for a selection of some of the best Italian cookbooks published this year, including new releases from Antonio Carluccio and Nina Parker. Whether your interest lies in pizza, pasta or discovering more about specific regional cuisines, these are the best books to get you inspired in (and out of) the kitchen.

Whether you're an aficionado or simply looking to hone your skills for some 'fakeaway' action, I have gathered together some of the year's best new Italian cookbooks for your viewing pleasure. Before any cyber pedants out there flex their fingers eagerly and point out that we're not even halfway through the year yet, I hasten to point out that this list is a work in progress (and 'so far this year' wasn't such a catchy suffix to add on the end of my title). These books have been loosely grouped according to theme: all-rounders (those covering a broad range of recipes, whether centred around a particular ingredient or style), regional cookbooks and those which blur the line between kitchen counter and coffee table.


I'm always wary of books with 'everyday' in the title, as it can so often be a sign of a chef struggling to find a concept. A good cookbook, I believe, should be able to balance a broad appeal and great selection of recipes with a strong concept at its core. Pasta by Antonio Carluccio is a prime example of such a book, and the clue to its big idea is very much in the name. Yes, this explores pasta in all its myriad forms, whether big, small, fresh or dried. There's an informative introduction covering the history of pasta, its different shapes and the basic techniques for making and folding your own fresh pasta before the book launches into its recipes proper. Pasta is an impressive all rounder in the sense that Carluccio shares everything from rustic dishes (think a hearty pan of minestrone, or a golden macaroni pie) to elegant plates of crab ravioli perfect for serving up as a starter – there's even a section of pasta desserts for any culinary adventurers out there. Demonstrating the origin of each recipe on a tiny map of Italy is a nice touch, and a great way to learn the different culinary influences at play in the country's different regions.

The Italian Baker - Melissa Forti

Let's Cook Italian - Anna Prandoni

Pastiera Napoletana by Luca Marchiori

The Italian Baker, the first book from Sarzana's effortlessly stylish Melissa Forti, is a fantastic cookbook for those whose interest in Italian food is matched only by their sweet tooth. The book is divided into three parts, covering classic regional desserts (many of which are gleaned from vintage baking texts), Italian spins on some of the recipes she has come across during her time travelling the world and some of her signature bakes. The photography and styling, much like the author herself, are striking and the slabs of dramatic, sometimes even sultry, cakes in low lighting make a refreshing change from the endless plate-of-prawns-by-the-ocean shots which so often make up Mediterranean cookbooks.

Have an army of little cooks that you're keen to deploy over holidays and weekends? Anna Prandoni's bilingual book Let's Cook Italian can take cooking with your children beyond flapjacks and fairy cakes to a number of delicious and simply explained Italian recipes. Despite being billed as a family cookbook, the dishes you'll find have not had their authenticity compromised for the sake of young palates (and if an Italian child can grow up on Milanese breaded veal chops then why can't yours!). This approach to recipes and the child-friendly tips for each comes from the author's own experience growing up in an Italian household where she was regularly put to work in the kitchen helping out, whether grating cheese, rolling dough or shelling fresh peas to serve with prosciutto. The lack of photographs might put some people off, but in my opinion the beautiful illustrations from Emanuela Ligabue are the perfect substitute. Printing the recipes in both English and Italian is a great way to pick up some handy menu-friendly language skills and, with primary colours and accomplished design, the look of this bold and creative book is beautiful, too.

Timballo del Gattopardo – macaroni pie by Antonio Carluccio

Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino by Antonio Carluccio

Regional cuisine

Whether you're reliving a special trip or your holiday budget extends to drinking Negronis in your own kitchen pretending you're in slightly more exotic climes, regional cookbooks are a fantastic way of expanding your foodie horizons. If you already have some idea of what constitutes Italian cuisine and feel like digging deep to discover how the food of Italy changes in line with its landscape, these picks will help you get to know what gives Italians living in, say, Veneto or Campania their strong sense of regional pride.

Of all of them Florentine and Five Quarters do what all good region-specific cookbooks should – they have you looking up the cost of flights to Italy (one way, no less) before you're barely through the first chapter. That's not to say the others don't bring on extreme twinges of lifestyle envy – the endless shots of dappled seas and azure skies in Nina Parker's Capri throws the grey London drizzle into sharp relief, and the joy with which Tasting Rome's Kristina Gill photographs Rome and its inhabitants had me once again bemoaning the fact that, despite being a card-carrying classicist, I have never managed to visit.

Florentine - Emiko Davies

Capri - Nina Parker

Pollo alla Romana by Amy Gulick

Five Quarters and Tasting Rome both focus on Italy's capital city, a place where a number of Italy's most famous dishes (think Carbonara, Cacio e pepe and Pollo alla Romana) originate. Both are beautiful books and there are plenty of crossover recipes – including those listed above – but are quite different in their approaches. Tasting Rome is very visual, with each dish photographed and plenty of landscape, reportage and street photography thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile Five Quarters is, unashamedly, as much a personal memoir as it is a recipe book, with Rachel Roddy coming from the Nigel Slater school of text-heavy cookbooks. Keep the former on your coffee table or kitchen shelf, and save the other for your bedside table to dip into every night – if you're lucky you might find yourself dreaming of gnocchi.

Florentine is one of those cookbooks which feels too beautiful to be left on a shelf, rather fitting for a text celebrating one of Italy's major hubs of art and culture. The cover is striking, while the design inside is simple but effective, with each recipe stunningly styled and shot. Baking is a particular highlight of Florentine (and, I'm sure, of Florence), with the first two chapters dedicated to bread, cakes and breakfast pastries to serve alongside a heady shot of espresso.

Finally, a little further south, there's the Campania region which Nina Parker showcases in her latest book Nina Capri. This book is a real celebration of their way of life, a peek into the everyday sort of recipes which people living in close proximity to such glorious produce (not to mention incredible weather) are lucky enough to enjoy. It's nice to have a chapter on breakfasts, a meal that doesn't immediately spring to mind when one thinks about Italian cuisine – now, of course, I can do nothing but think about fruit salads, ricotta pancakes and jams when I dream of Italy. Elsewhere there are plenty of delicious seafood recipes, from fritto misto to baked mackerel and 'nduja, along with colourful salads, fresh sauces and a great selection of cocktails.

The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin Flexibinding; 576 pages (Princeton University Press); May 16, 2017 ISBN: 9780691173016 $39.95 (IBRNatureBooks)

The Australian Bird Guide

StThe Australian avifauna is large, diverse, and spectacular, reflecting the continent’s impressive habitats and evolutionary history. Looking at more than 900 species, The Australian Bird Guide is the most comprehensive field guide on Australian birds available, and contains by far the best coverage of southern seabirds. With 249 color plates containing 4,000 stunning images, this book offers a far more in-depth treatment of subspecies, rarities, and overall plumage variation than comparative guides. The artwork meets the highest standards, and the text is rigorously accurate and current in terms of identification details, distribution, and status. The Australian Bird Guide sets a new bar for coverage of Australia’s remarkable avifauna and is indispensable to all birders and naturalists interested in this area of the world, including the southern oceans.
  • Brand-new guide with an attractive look and design 
  • 249 color plates containing 4,000 superb images by some of the most talented illustrators working in Australia today 
  • Every bird species in Australia is covered (more than 900), including subspecies and rarities 
  • Up-to-date maps reflect the latest information on distribution 
  • Accurate and detailed text 

The Collins Guide down under. In terms of format, content, quality, and overall feel, this new guide is very similar to the Collins Bird Guide (aka Birds of Europe). That is a very high compliment. This is the field guide to have with you in Australia. And by “have with you”, I mean in the car. It’s a little too large and heavy to comfortably carry. But that’s not a drawback in my book.

Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security Hardcover – January 24, 2017 by Brian W. Kernighan (Princeton University Press)

Understanding the Digital World, Brian Kernighan

Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan ( Princeton University Press, 256pp, $49.99)

It’s not a bad endorsement to have Google chairman Eric Schmidt say of your book “Everyone on Earth needs to read it.” I certainly needed to. Brian Kernighan, a professor of computer science at Princeton University in the US, has produced an elegant, authoritative and surprisingly witty guide to the modern landscape of computers and the internet, and the attendant issues of privacy, cryptography and security.

Understanding the Digital World

The joy is he assumes no prior knowledge and so delivers succinct explanations of all the basics you – okay, I – have pretended to know about but never quite understood. The book’s three sections – hardware, software and communications – are based on a course Kernighan has taught non-technical students at Princeton for almost 20 years.

The hardware section looks at what’s inside a computer, how it’s built, how it works, how it stores information. What are bits and bytes, and how are they turned into music and pictures? There are clear descriptions of CPU, RAM, logic gates, integrated circuits, transistors, and all the other magic that allows us to manufacture chips with wiring as small as 14 millionths of a millimetre thick.

The chapters on software and programming are compelling, despite Kernighan’s cheerful declaration that “you don’t need to follow all the details or the occasional formulas” as he leads the reader into some technical forests. Just as the concepts of quantum physics excite the imagination of many who couldn’t solve the simplest of that discipline’s equations, so too the mind-boggling complexity of creating algorithms, in a language that can tolerate no mistakes, intrigues someone who has trouble setting his alarm clock.

Kernighan begins with linear algorithms, covers sorting, then moves on to “hard problems”, all the while explaining them with real-world analogies and a lightness of touch – some complex areas are, he says, “so esoteric that only specialists could care about them”. He looks at operating systems and file systems and where information goes when you delete it. Answer: nowhere. It stays on your computer until the blocks of memory that host it are overwritten, and even then it might be accessible to military-grade file extraction. It’s best to physically destroy your hard disk, Kernighan says, adding ominously that even that might not be enough if your work is being backed up to a network system or to the cloud.

If that sounds faintly paranoid, the section on communications gives good reason to wonder whether there is still any such thing as privacy. From the original Marathon runner, Pheidippides, through pony express riders and France’s optical telegraph system – which could relay visual signals made by giant mechanical arms from tower to tower (Paris to Lille, 230km, in 10 minutes) – to the modern cellphone, people have always sought to transmit information quickly over long distances. And other people have always sought to know what those messages said.

As Kernighan examines the various networks that connect us, amid the challenges of bandwidth and delay, “lossless” and “lossy” compression, error detection and correction, he reveals the weak spots for security. Wireless, as he points out, is a broadcast medium, which means that anyone in range can listen in. Suffice to say no one who reads this book will do their internet banking in a big-brand coffee shop again.

The internet, of course, through its most visible face, the World Wide Web, is where most of us bump up against the digital world. The history of this “packet network” is short but fascinating. Kernighan tracks the bursts of development that have given us IP and TCP, DNS and NAT, SMTP and HTTP, and now the Internet of Things. From nothing in 1990, the Web has become an essential part of modern life.

But alongside its benefits are problems and risks, says Kernighan, “because it enables action at a distance – we are visible and vulnerable to faraway people we have never met”.

Some of those people are benign; some, including governments, less so. Kernighan traces in alarming detail the “arms race between attackers and defenders”: the fraud, the “phishing”, the identity theft, and the more sinister aggregation of personal information through various points of leakage and infiltration. He also, happily, gives a masterclass in how to protect your data from those attackers. “If you care about your personal privacy and online security,” says Kernighan, “it’s imperative to be more tech-savvy than most people are.”

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius Stephen F. Eisenman With contributions by Mark Crosby, Elizabeth Ferrell, Jacob Henry Leveton, W. J. T. Mitchell & John P. Murphy Editions Hardcover 2018 45.00 37.95 ISBN9780691175256 248 pp. 8 x 10 137 color illus.(Princeton University Press)

In the summer of 1967, more than 100,000 young people streamed into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, as well as Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago, to celebrate peace, love, and music. Many of the artists, poets and musicians associated with the “Summer of Love” embraced the work of British visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827) and used it as a compass to drive their own political and personal evolutions. Opening at the Block Museum in the fall of 2017, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius will explore the impact of British visionary poet and artist William Blake on a broad range of American artists in the post-World War II period. This exhibition will be the first to consider how Blake’s art and ideas were absorbed and filtered through American visual artists from the end of World War II through the 1960s. Blake became for many a model of non-conformity and self-expression, and was seen as an artist who engaged in social and political resistance in his time.

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius will consider parallels between Blake’s time and mid-twentieth-century America, touching on such issues as political repression, social transformation, and struggles for civil rights. Blake’s protests against the conventions of his day were inspirational for many young Americans disillusioned by perceived cultural tendencies of social uniformity, materialism and consumerism, racial and gender discrimination, and environmental degradation. This generation sought in Blake a model of independence, imagination, and resistance to authority. The exhibition will feature American artists for whom Blake was an important inspiration and will include more than 130 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, films, and posters, as well as original Blake prints and illuminated books from collections throughout the United States.

In his own lifetime, William Blake (1757–1827) was a relatively unknown nonconventional artist with a strong political bent. William Blake and the Age of Aquarius is a beautifully illustrated look at how, some two hundred years after his birth, the antiestablishment values embodied in Blake’s art and poetry became a model for artists of the American counterculture.

This book provides new insights into the politics and protests of Blake’s own lifetime, and the generation of artists who revived and reimagined his work in the mid-1940s through 1970, or what might be called the “long sixties.” Contributors explore Blake’s outsider status in Georgian England and how his individualistic vision spoke to members of the Beat Generation, hippies, radical poets and writers, and other voices of the counterculture. Among the artists, musicians, and writers who looked to Blake were such diverse figures as Diane Arbus, Jay DeFeo, the Doors, Sam Francis, Allen Ginsberg, Jess, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Charles Seliger, Maurice Sendak, Robert Smithson, Clyfford Still, and many others. This book also explores visual cultures around such galvanizing moments of the 1960s as Woodstock and the Summer of Love.

Blake’s Diverse Influence

Blake's art, poetry and political ideas had unique currency in postwar America, unifying artists working across various media. The exhibition brings together artists who used Blake’s lyrics as titles, experimented with printing techniques and innovative combinations of image and text and cited Blake's worldview in letters, diaries and essays. Artists and musicians as diverse as Diane Arbus, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Stanley William Hayter, Jimi Hendrix, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Maurice Sendak, The Doors and The Fugs will be featured, united by the influence of Blake on their work. An early section of the exhibition will focus on artists working in the mid-1940s who discovered Blake's unique voice in such poems as "The Tyger" and “The Shepherd” and drew inspiration for their own work from his ideas. These will include Sam Francis, Stanley William Hayter, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, Charles Seliger, Robert Smithson and Clyfford Still among others. Another exhibition theme focuses on Beat culture and the role of radical poet Allen Ginsberg in promoting Blake to fellow poets and writers. It will examine Blake as a model for the artist as outsider and bring together works by Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Robert Frank and Jess. A final section inspired by Blake’s famous phrase “the Doors of Perception” will trace the wider circulation of Blake’s art and imagery and how it permeated popular culture as the alternative movements of the 1960s came to full fruition. Including classic concert posters and music this section will examine Blake’s influence on artists and musicians who embraced psychedelia and Timothy Leary’s call to “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Seduction of Curves: The Lines of Beauty That Connect Mathematics, Art, and the Nude Hardcover – September 19, 2017 by Allan McRobie (Author), Helena Weightman (Photographer) (Princeton University Press)

Over the years, my association with this column has given me the opportunity to review books on all sorts of topics in mathematics, from undergraduate and graduate texts on (among other things) algebra, analysis, topology, and differential equations to less standard fare on such topics as a game-theoretic look at the efficacy of torture. But I have never encountered anything quite like the book now under review, which I view as genuinely sui generis. In what other book, for example, is one likely to encounter a picture of the Boy’s Surface on one page, and a picture of a nude on another?

The idea behind this book is to explore certain kinds of curves and the varied ways in which they show up in a whole host of different contexts. The curves that are studied come from catastrophe theory; in particular, special attention is paid to curves that correspond to the so-called Seven Elementary Catastrophes articulated by René Thom, the founder of the subject. These seven include four from the cuspoid family (fold, cusp, swallowtail and butterfly) and three from the umbilic family (elliptic, hyperbolic and parabolic).

These seven curves, we are told, are “the basic building blocks, the fundamental components of curved form.” They “also represent a way by which something can suddenly change.” This is, of course, the essence of catastrophe theory, which (very roughly speaking) studies how smooth changes in a system can result in sudden and abrupt outputs. (Slowly raising the temperature on a kettle of water suddenly causes it to boil, for example.)

There is genuine mathematical content here, but it is not the intent of the book to teach catastrophe theory. Rather, the book is concerned with illustrating the ubiquity of these seven curves, both in art and elsewhere. The book does not employ a theorem/proof format and does not try to generally define terms in a rigorous way. The emphasis throughout is on visual observation, informed by “catastrophe-aware eyes”. To this end, the (excellent) prose descriptions are accompanied by lots of illustrations, both photographs and drawings, quite a few of which are in color.

The pervasiveness of these curves is striking. The book discusses, for example, how they show up in optics, relativity, rainbows, engineering (chapter 5, for example, relates the butterfly cuspoid to the stability of oil rigs), anatomy (the nude human body contains lots of these curves, and the author tells us that Thom even devoted part of a mathematics book to a discussion of “the age-old question of the shape of the genitals”) and art. Special attention is given to the work of certain artists, such as Salvador Dali and Naum Gabo; each of these artists is the subject of a chapter in the text. Naum Gabo was new to me, and while I had certainly heard of Dali, I had no idea that he was influenced by catastrophe theory, and certainly did not know that he had stated that a “more aesthetic notion than the latest theory of Catastrophes by René Thom is still to be found… [it] has bewitched all of my atoms since I first heard about it.”

In addition to the chapters on Gabo and Dali, there is a one-chapter “mathography” of Thom himself. Described by the author as “easily the most difficult chapter to write”, this focuses on catastrophe theory, criticism of some of its applications, and its relationship to other theories such as postmodernism, large portions of which the author describes as gibberish. This chapter, by itself, provides an interesting supplement to any serious mathematical study of catastrophe theory.

To summarize: clearly, this is not a book that can be used as a text for any kind of conventional mathematics course. It is, however, an unusual and eclectic book, and one that taught me a lot of things that I did not know before.

Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing Hardcover – November 3, 2016 by Jeffrey Sussman (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)

Max Baer and Barney Ross — Jewish Heroes of Boxing

From ancient times to the present, the fighting spirit of the Jews has been unquestioned.

While recounting the exploits of these two men, the pages of “Jewish Heroes of Boxing” are replete with fascinating cameo appearances.

Jewish boxers? Somehow, Jews as boxers sounds like a contradiction in terms, or a comical misprint, perhaps a racist joke. Jews, generally, are depicted as a gentle people who would choose to resolve a conflict with wit and tongue, rather than with brawn and a right-cross. But this is a flawed reading of history. The bravery and tenacity of the Jewish people, especially as heroic warriors, are renowned throughout history. A sturdy, proud people, their past is replete with courageous warriors: Moses, Joshua, Samson, Saul, David, the Maccabees and Bar Kochba to name a few.

From ancient times to the present, the fighting spirit of the Jews has been unquestioned.

The many Jewish boxing champions and contenders celebrated in Jeffrey Sussman’s Max Baer and Barney Ross — Jewish Heroes of Boxing exemplifies this great fighting tradition. The Jewish dedication, perseverance and intelligence have set fine examples for those who follow in their footsteps.

When I think of Max Baer, the Jewish heavyweight champion of the 1930s, I think of a man with raw, Tarzan-like strength. In the ring, he was a man of polished muscle, and when he hit you, you stayed hit.

Was Max Baer actually Jewish? Well, you decide…

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on February 11, 1909, to a Jewish father and a mother of Scots-Irish descent. His family moved first to Colorado and then to California, where he dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work with his father on a cattle ranch.

Max Baer proudly wore The Star of David stitched on his trunks when entering the ring. He was boxing’s most colorful World Heavyweight Champion until a brash Muhammad Ali rolled around 30 years later.

Baer, a 6’ 4” mountain of muscle and movie star handsome, would have been a movie star instead of a boxer. But “Madcap” Maxie just loved to fight. And fight he did, racking up an impressive knockout streak in California. As Sussman points out, Baer had one of the hardest punches in heavyweight history. Early in his career, Frankie Campbell died following his knockout loss to Baer. Years later, heavyweight Ernie Schaaf died following his defeat to Primo Carnera, but most people say it was Ernie’s savage beating at the hands of Max Baer only a few months before which resulted in his death.

As Sussman accurately points out, Baer loved to fight, but he loved the nightlife more. He was famous for dancing and drinking the night away with beautiful women, instead of training. However, in 1934, the eccentric Max got serious enough to deliver a brutal beating to Primo Carnera to win the World Heavyweight Title. Unfortunately, his total disdain for training caused him to lose his title to 20-1 underdog James Braddock less than a year later. Sussman quotes Jack Dempsey regarding Baer’s lackluster performance staged at The Madison Square Garden: “Max Baer’s dilly-dallying and clowning caught up with him in the ring. There was not a dissenting voice raised when the long shot was declared the winner. Braddock won clearly on aggressiveness and clean hitting.”

This battle was popularized by Ron Howard’s 2005 drama entitled, Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger.

Baer’s next fight was three months later — a controversial knockout loss to future heavyweight great Joe Louis. Louis gave Baer a horrible beating, and Baer was counted out on one knee. While many experts felt that Baer simply quit, Sussman sheds additional light on the fight. “At the time, no one knew that Baer had put up a noble fight with a broken hand.”

As is the case with most prizefighters, Baer launched a comeback and shocked the experts with an upset knockout victory over top contender Tony Galento. But Sussman writes, “Baer no longer loved the sport that had elevated him to the status of national celebrity. He was tired of hitting opponents and tired of being hit.”

Baer, at the age of 50, checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Upon his arrival, he experienced chest pains. He called the front desk and asked for a doctor. The desk clerk said “a house doctor would be right up.” “A house doctor?” he replied jokingly, “No, dummy, I need a people doctor.” Shortly thereafter, he slumped on his left side, turned blue and died within a matter of minutes. His last words reportedly were, “Oh God, here I go.”

Sussman recounts the exploits of Barney Ross — another Jewish champion.

The word “champion” can be spelled with a small “c” denoting what a man does in a sports arena. Or it can be spelled with a large “C” to cover the things he has done in life. Barney Ross is a Champion who is entitled to the largest capital letter any printer can print.

“Beryl Rosofsky was a tough little kid,” writes Sussman. “A street fighter. Pugnacious, stubborn, afraid of no one.”

“Beryl, as he was known before becoming the World Lightweight Champion, ran with an informal gang of other teenage delinquents” in “the Jewish ghetto on Maxwell Street in 1920s Chicago…The atmosphere of the Maxwell Street ghetto molded tough young men, for they felt they had to be tough to survive.”

Beryl was a boy weaned on poverty. Furthermore, a “flame of anger” was ignited within him after his father, Isadore, a religious and modest store owner, was murdered — gunned down in a robbery. “While Beryl’s anger boiled inside of him like lava waiting to erupt …he could not satisfy his need for revenge.”

“Religion was no longer for him. He gave up attending Hebrew school and never went to synagogue. When his orthodox rabbi asked why, Beryl asked what God had done for Isadore, a holy man, a good man gunned down by a pair of lowlife punks who escaped their punishment. Yet, every day Beryl said the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the dead.”

The street became his “universe and his university”, a place where — with resolve and heart-felt passion — he learned to fight with his fists. Sussman’s chapter “Fists of Fury” explains how ‘Beryl Rosofsky” became “Barney Ross,” the great lightweight and welterweight champion who staged scintillating and thrilling performances with other boxing greats: Jimmy McLarnin, Tony Canzoneri, and “Hammerin’” Henry Armstrong.

Decades later, Nelson Algren, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm, was so smitten with reading about Ross’s illustrious career, that he went out and had a pair of boxing gloves tattooed on his arm.

Ross’s boxing afterlife found him enlisting in the U.S. Marines where he won the Silver Star for having saved Marine buddies and killing 22 of the enemy on Guadalcanal, despite suffering serious injuries. His addiction to the morphine administered to him during his convalescence, his humiliating slide into addiction, and subsequent rehabilitation was dramatized in the well-received 1957 film, Monkey on My Back, starring Cameron Mitchell.

While recounting the exploits of these two men, the pages of Jewish Heroes of Boxing are replete with fascinating cameo appearances by Al Capone, Jack Ruby, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Benny Leonard, Abe Attell, Adolf Hitler, Damon Runyon, and Budd Schulberg.

The sport of boxing could surely use another Barney Ross and Max Baer today.

Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide by Frédéric Jiguet and Aurélien Audevard Paperback; 448 pages Princeton University Press; March 21, 2017 ISBN: 9780691172439 $29.95

Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East is the first comprehensive pocket-sized photographic field guide to every bird species in Europe–this includes winter visitors and common migrants but also all rarities to the region, even if they have been recorded only once. The guide also covers hypothetical species–those that have a good chance of being recorded due to such factors as range expansion and changing weather patterns.

The book’s 2,200 stunning color photographs mean that everyone of the 860 species are pictures, making field identification quick and easy. Succinct text covers key identification features, voice, habitat, and distribution, and distribution maps are provided for regular breeding species. Particular attention and details are given to help differentiate similar-looking species.

Lavishly illustrated, up-to-date, and wide-ranging, Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East is an essential field guide for every naturalist and birder.
First comprehensive field guide to all species recorded in Europe: resident, winter visitor, common migrant, and rarity 

Includes every species from North Africa and the Middle East to have occurred in Europe 

This compact field guide looks like it would make a good companion to the Collins Bird Guide, or even serve as a primary guide if necessary.

Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald Kroodsma ( Princeton University Press)

Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific

comparison front view of Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
comparison side view of Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Imagine biking the United States coast-to-coast in spring. You could see and hear birds along the way that would otherwise be shielded by glass. By camping you could beat the sun up to experience the dawn chorus in just about every habitat this country has to offer. Doesn’t that sound amazing? I would love to do something like that. But then I remember – I’m not a morning person. Oh, and I don’t bike. It’s obvious that such a trip is beyond my expertise and comfort level. But thankfully it was not beyond Donald Kroodsma, who undertook and chronicled just such a journey in Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Kroodsma, along with his son, David, set out from Virginia in May with the goal of making it to the Pacific coast of Oregon two or three months later. They would peddle over four thousand miles through ten states. As you can imagine, they had their share of adventures and mishaps along the way – flat tires, injuries, dogs, malicious motorists. They met an interesting cross section of people and saw some great sights. Their father-son relationship was tested and, ultimately, strengthened. And there was also a self-discovery component for the author, as this trip gave him insight into what he really wanted to do. But, make no mistake, the focus was on birds and, specifically, their sounds.
Kroodsma has previously written several books on bird sounds. His first, The Singing Life of Birds, is a modern classic, and the follow-up Birdsong by the Seasons is great as well. Each of these is a virtual instruction manual on how to listen to birds. So it’s no surprise that the author is able to identify most of the birds he hears along his trek. It is amazing, however, the insights he is able to gather through his careful, intentional listening. He’s able to do this because of his approach:
I hear each bird not as a species to be identified and listed, which is a rather limited endgame, but as an individual with something to say, much as I listen to any human individual with something to say, not just someone to be identified. And when a bird sings or calls, it tells what is on its mind, which varies from moment to moment, so that every listen is new and different and interesting.
The song waking him in the pre-dawn darkness of his tent isn’t just another robin. He gives it the same attention as a new, unfamiliar voice. He listens to make sure that, yes, this robin sings using the same pattern as the rest of his kind, or no, there is something abnormal about it. Repeatedly while on this journey, the author asks “What’s on his mind?” of the birds he listens to. That would seem a rhetorical question, but I think he earnestly means it. In many cases he’s able to formulate an informed theory in answer to that question. And when not, it only serves to underline how much we have yet to learn about the birds we see and hear every day.
Sample from Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Readers can follow the Kroodsmas’ journey not only on the printed page, but audibly as well. Kroodsma recorded many of the birds he encountered and has made those recordings available on a companion web site. Notes on the page indicate when a recording is available, and you can access it by scanning a QR code or by searching the site by species or track number. Being able to hear exactly what the author heard is invaluable to the experience. Even better, the website provides additional notes on each track detailing what, exactly, to listen for in the recording.
All of Kroodsma’s books have included an audio component, and it’s interesting to track the evolution of the presentation. His first books, The Singing Life of Birds and Birdsong by the Seasons, each included a CD with the sounds referenced in the book. His The Backyard Birdsong Guide: Eastern and Western audio field guides include a battery-powered playback mechanism built into the book itself. And now we have the sounds stored on a web server, accessible through a direct URL or via scannable code in the book. This latest arrangement has the advantages of being convenient for the reader and, I imagine, cheaper for the publisher. But I wonder about those that discover this book years from now: Will the site still be available for them to access?
The only bad thing I can say about this book is that I wish it included a map of the journey. As for the companion website, a “Next” link on each track’s page would have been helpful so that you don’t have to go back to the index if you’re playing them in order while reading the book.


Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific recounts an amazing cross-country bicycle trip spent listening to birds. This is a different kind of reading experience. Listening to the accompanying audio not only immerses you in the Kroodsmas’ trip, it also forces you to slow down a bit and savor it. That’s a good approach to listening to birds, as I’m sure the author would tell you, and it also works well for this book. So well, in fact, that this was my favorite book of 2016.