Sunday, 31 July 2016

REVIEW: "From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR" by Louis Sell

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR
by Louis Sell
Duke University Press Books
ISBN: 978-0822361954
Copyright August 2016
Paperback, 416 Pages

A masterfully written book, From Washington to Moscow offers a comprehensive, magnificent, and primarily chronological narrative of the USSR—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—under the leadership of its General Secretaries—Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev—up to its stupendous collapse, and the ascent of Boris Yeltsin, the First President of the Russian Federation.

Central to, and predominantly incorporated into, the narrative are the wildly intriguing intricacies of US-Soviet relations and nuclear arms control agreements. Remarkably illuminating and superbly researched, and comprising of painstaking details and invaluable evaluations, the book is highly recommended and would prove to be particularly enjoyable for rapacious readers of foreign policy.

The climax of the book culminates in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the crumbling of the “entire Communist edifice.” Distinctly fascinating is the author's efforts in expounding the myriad of factors converging in eventually causing the collapse of the USSR.

The role of Gorbachev in accelerating the splintering of the USSR was one amazingly examined by the author. Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost were amongst the most significant in undermining the Soviet system, political and thereafter economical. Clearly noting fear as “the essential glue” that sustained the USSR system, the author furnished incisive evaluations regarding the impact Gorbachev brought to the system—as he “relaxed the threat of repression,” and “eliminated the fear-factor,” he also “inadvertently” unleashed the “moral outrage” of the Soviet people, and let loose “a torrent of political, national, and social criticism that eroded the very foundations of the system.”

Certainly, the author also covered a range of other factors that potentially contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet system, for example, the Soviet military involvement in Cold War conflicts, President Ronald Reagan's economic warfare against the USSR, the Chernobyl catastrophe, and even the role of dissidents or the Soviet human rights community, who formed for example, the Helsinki Monitoring Group.

The author delivered excellently and meticulously on the essential theme of US-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements and negotiations. Beginning with detailing the talks between the American Nixon-Kissinger team and the Russian Brezhnev-Dobrynin team, the author sequentially progressed along the timeline and covered for example, Nixon and Brezhnev's signing of the SALT I strategic arms accords—consisting of the ABM Treaty, and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms—, President Gerald Ford and Brezhnev's signing of the Vladivostok accords and the Helsinki Final Act, and President Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev's agreement to the SALT II deal.

And certainly there were the INF Agreement and also the START—Strategic Arms Reduction Talks—agreements; START I of which George H. W. Bush signed with Gorbachev in the Moscow summit, and the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty which Bush later signed with Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin's Vladimir Hall.

The author aptly explored the conflicts that impacted US-Soviet relations and which inevitably stalled the progress of the arms negotiations. The United States and the Soviets were antithetically involved in the conflicts in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Poland. The US even penalized the Soviets for urging the imposition of martial law in Poland, and rather significantly, for the invasion of Afghanistan; severe measures were implemented against Moscow, including “limits on grain sales, stricter controls on the export of US high technology, reduction of Soviet fishing in US waters, and the suspension of exchange programs.”

Somewhat poignantly, the author highlighted the prevailing Soviet military's attitude toward strategic negotiations with the United States—“at best one of intense skepticism and more commonly downright hostility.” America was viewed as engaging in “deception” dogged in its solitary pursuit of “unilateral American advantage.”

The book provides an outstanding survey of the various Russian leaders' ascension to power and notable characteristics of their regime. Yeltsin was noted as the first and perhaps the “only democratically elected leader in Russian history.” Rather memorable is the inherent contradiction spotlighted between Yeltsin's supposed vision of Russia and the reality of the system he was compelled to operate in; he had to govern on the basis of “a Communist-era constitution” suited to a one-party system despite his vision for the country as “a democratic state of laws with a multiparty system that would be fully sovereign economically.”

The Brezhnev administration for example, was highlighted for bringing about “a heightened level of officially inspired anti-Semitism,” for policies that bred bureaucratic inefficiencies, and wasted investments in agricultural reform. The “upright and ascetic” Andropov, on the other hand, with his nationwide discipline campaign, apparently induced “a whiff of return to the Stalin era,” and infused the country with “an even grimmer climate of hopelessness about the future.”

Historically-significant, the author made allusions to the all-important and ingrained Soviet Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Apart from some discussions surrounding Stalin's historical legacy, the narrative was inserted with certain references including the “time-honored tradition of Stalinist show trials,” and the “Stalinist labor-camp system.”

The author vividly and transparently painted the totalitarianism climate pervasive in the Soviet Union, and the reader is certain to appreciate it. Dissenters were vigorously suppressed, very heartrendingly with the strategy termed as the Soviet “abuse of psychiatry for political purposes”—the concept of “sluggish schizophrenia” was invented to quell political dissenters on the incredulous grounds that “only a schizophrenic would criticize Soviet power.” Soviet human right abuses were commonplace, the government waged a war against the local intelligentsia, and the religious Pentecostals represent but another group of innocent people “persecuted and driven to the margins of existence.”

The book also contains certain decidedly interesting information, intellectually-stimulating but occasionally nerve-racking. One such piece of information pertains to the Soviet “Strangelovian” system called the “Dead Hand”—a system supposedly capable of automatically launching Soviet missiles “even if no senior civilian or military official survived to actually push the button.”

The preliminary mentions of the KGB at the start of chapter 2 in the book ought to have been accompanied at the very least with a concise description that explains the initialism. Considering that KGB is an initialism for a rather long and complicated Russian name (that could potentially have come across as an indecipherable jumble of alphabetical letters to English-language readers, but nonetheless culturally-educational), the author may opt to omit the inclusion of the Russian name to which KGB stands for.

It was certainly a shortcoming however, the omission to provide a decent description for the institution, especially when a reasonable understanding of the initialism is crucial for fuller appreciation of the contents of the book, and KGB's indispensable role in the narrative. On the other hand, one might assume that knowledge of the KGB ought to be taken for granted, or that later coverage in the book would allow the reader to rightly infer the entity of the KGB; in such an exceptionally written book however, the lack of an accompanying explanation at the onset of the use of the initialism qualifies as a slip which could have been rather painlessly amended.

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

REVIEW: "Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology" by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili
Broadway Books
ISBN: 978-0307986825
Copyright July 2016
Paperback, 368 Pages

Life on the Edge is an exceedingly reader-friendly book which effectively elucidates the seemingly intimidating and abstract discipline of quantum biology. Highly accessible and easily understandable to the general public and readers without scientific backgrounds, this book is certainly ideal for non-scientists or science enthusiasts passionate about and eager to gain additional knowledge in quantum mechanics and molecular biology, and of course, quantum biology.

Notably the most exciting and memorable part of the reading experience pertains to the times the reader is brought along on adventures into the microworld in an imaginary “nanotechnology submarine.” The discussion of the notion of plants as “quantum computers” was a lead-in to a “voyage to the center of photosynthesis”—into a leafwhere quantum mechanics was illustrated to enhance photosynthetic energy transport.

It was also fun and intriguing to venture upon the same nanosubmarine to witness the transformation of a tadpole into a frog; the example was used to further explicate the idea of the collagen protein, and the function of the collagenase enzyme, where the reader gets to “witness” firsthand the enzyme's jaws and “molecular incisor” in action. Out of the nanosubmarine experience, the collagenase enzyme was also very interestingly explained in the context of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The scientific concept of magnetoreception—“the ability to detect the direction and strength of the earth's magnetic field”—was one of the predominant ideas discussed in the book. This navigational sense, otherwise known as Erithacus rubecula, particularly in the case of the European robin, was said to have become the “poster child of quantum biology.” The authors also superbly explored magnetoreception in monarch butterflies, a species whose voyage is now recognized as “one of the great animal migrations of the world.”

Certain coverage in the book is strikingly engaging. A case in point would be when concepts of quantum biology were told through narratives of specific animal species supplemented with markedly fascinating details. One would learn for example, that an “unusual” capability of the anemonefish called “protandrous hermaphroditism”—the ability of “the dominant male to change sex on the death of the queen fish”—represents a potential form of “adaptation to life.”

The reader certainly ought to expect an abundance of relevant scientific terms in the book, and he or she may learn to relish it. The book contains discussions of for example, Schrodinger's wave function, and the kinetic isotope effect; a preliminary introduction to concepts such as the “neuromuscular junction,” what is called the “computational theory of mind,” or the notion of the “primordial replicator.” Inevitably present also include contrasting ideas of “order from order” versus the “order from disorder” principle, and “dualism” against “monism.”

The authors rather commendably presented material in a manner that made scientific terminology and concepts considerably less intimidating; concepts including for example, the “unstable” excitons, the enzyme ATPase, the chemical battery NADPH, the protein and photosynthetic complex Fenna-Matthews-Olson (FMO), and the “big bulky” enzyme and probably the “most abundant protein on earth”—RuBisCO.

The book neatly and elegantly converged to the eventual composite theme of exploring the way quantum mechanics is “intimately involved” in the origin of the universe, its “possible connection” to the origin of consciousness, and its possible help in accounting for the origin of life. In reading the book, the reader will enjoy the privilege of being armed with a basic knowledge of the expanding discipline of quantum biology, along with its various essential concepts—quantum entanglement, quantum tunneling, quantum superposition, and quantum coherence (versus decoherence)—and other notions such as a “quantum walk” as opposed to a “classical random walk,” quantum spin, or even quantum mechanics' potential involvement in human thoughts.

The book also includes the slightly rarer, but equally cherished, inclusion of captivating historical morsels. The idea of vitalism, or the vitalist principle, was a pretext scientists initially held on to, which was later undermined by 19th century scientific work and gave way to mechanism. Another eye-catching detail was that of the purported means of “pleasant smells” to ward off illness such that in medieval Europe, a plague victim's house had to be aired and perfumed by “lighting fragrant fires scented with incense, myrrh, roses, cloves and other aromatic herbs” at the insistence of physicians.

The book is filled with evidence which indicates the authors' attentive consideration allocated towards their target audience. Quantum mechanics was referred to as a “strange science,” and incredibly helpful analogies were furnished in the illustration of concepts—there was the analogy of the “molecular billiard table,” and most memorably, the guitar isakin to a quantum instrument.” It is also worth a mention the numerous diagrams aptly included in the book at specific junctures as supplementary material.

Taking it one step further and to a more personal level, the authors addressed the reader directly; during the discussion of the olfactory system, the reader is urged to read “the remainder of the chapter” with “an orange in front of you, perhaps chopped into segments so that the tangy aromas are released and travel through your nose to reach the nasal epithelium,” and “you might even slip one of the segments into your mouth to allow its volatile odorants to find their way through the retronasal route to that same tissue.” In an unmistakable effort to help the reader better assimilate information by constructing a more conducive learning environment, the authors also added, “Limonene is a volatile liquid that will gradually evaporate at room temperature, so your orange will be releasing millions of limonene molecules into the surrounding air.”

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

Thursday, 28 July 2016

REVIEW: "Economic Thought: A Brief History" by Heinz D. Kurz

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Economic Thought: A Brief History
by Heinz D. Kurz
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 978-0231172585
Copyright May 2016
Hardcover, 224 Pages

Economic Thought provides an eclectic survey of the history of economic thought, and a myriad of pertinent economists. Exceedingly lucidly written and highly accessible, the concise chronological rendition of the diverse schools of economic thought, encompassing both the better known and the more unfamiliar, qualifies the book as an excellent outline for further in-depth study and research, for both students of economics or economic history, and the general reader.

The book sequentially and satisfactorily explored the various economic doctrines, beginning with the ancient Scholasticism, and mercantilism—the German variant of which is cameralism—moving onto classical economics, and marginalism, and then progressing to the more recent Marxism and Keynesianism.

The author rather effectively conveyed the crux of each economic thought discussed—the Scholastic economic thought, as embodied by its most important thinker Thomas Aquinas, asserts that “self-restraint and the repression of needs” represents the solution to material hardship; the mercantilist economic thinking advocates export promotion and import restrictions, and prioritizes “on running a trade surplus;classical economics, as personified by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, revolves around the concept of “free competition,” and of market-mediated coordination, price formation, and the resultant income distribution; and marginalism, which the idea of “perfect competition” embodies its “analytical workhorse,” is credited for accelerating the entry of the twin concepts of “marginal productivity” and “marginal utility” into the intellectual arena, and thus the assimilation of “the mathematical tools of differential and integral calculus” into economics.

John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx are most prominently explored in the book. The exceptionally influential economist Keynes, whose message “revolutionize[d]” economic policy, was very incredibly and substantially expounded upon, while Marx, the founder of “scientific socialism” and the believer of the “transience of the capitalist mode of production,” was very excellently examined. The notion of “commodity fetishism” contended by Marx to have plagued capitalism was beautifully written—people “develop a quasi-religious relationship to products and attribute imaginary and supernatural features to commodities, money, and capital.”

Especially interesting in the book is the examination of the classical economist Adam Smith; he who was recognized as the originator of countless influential and lasting ideas—Smith coined the term “mercantilism;” popularized the phrase “invisible hand” which illustrates free competition; anticipated the basic idea of “efficiency wages;” reinterpreted the “ethical status” of profits and interest to be “socially acceptable;” addressed in taxation, the ability-to-pay principle and the equivalence principle; and postulated a “famous water-and-diamond paradox” which was conjured later in the book to demonstrate another point.

The book introduces a myriad of other prominent figures in economic history, including Alfred Marshall, one who championed the method of “partial equilibria,” and whom the graph of “intersecting supply and demand curves” typically used in partial equilibrium analysis was named after, known as the “Marshallian cross;” Leon Walras who introduced the concept of tatonnement, a “groping” or trial-and-error movement toward equilibrium; and Ludwig von Mises, he who coined “praxeology”—a doctrine decreeing that economics ought to be “of human action and not of non-action as in the doctrine of equilibrium.”

Vilfredo Pareto was also explored, the architect of the famous “Pareto principle,” or the 80-20 rule, and who also introduced the concept of “ophelimity” in place of “utility;” Joseph A. Schumpeter was noted for his famous term “creative destruction;” Francis Ysidro Edgeworth was the first to introduce the concept of the “indifference curve;” David Ricardo developed the “principle of comparative advantage;” and Friedrich von Wieser elaborated what was later called “opportunity costs.” In a more intriguing note, the discussion of Plato's economic blueprint was reasoned to have “totalitarian features.” Other more modern prominent figures were also explored in the book, including Kenneth J. Arrow, John Hicks, and Amartya Sen.

Probably the most outstandingly fascinating facet of the book pertains to the examination of the critiques and comparisons of, and the disparities and clashes in, the various economic thought. The resulting dynamism is rather positively stimulating and thought-provoking, and could even conjure in the minds of readers rather comical images of intellectual sparring amongst the generations of prominent thinkers.

Smith opposed the mercantile system of monopolies, import restrictions, and export promotion, and the mercantilist promotion of cities and foreign trade; Ricardo accused Smith for his failure to recognize the inverse relationship between the real wage rate and the profit rate “for a given state of technology,” and criticized Smith's “especially unsuccessful” explanation of ground rent as an expression of the “fertility of nature;” Marx rejected Ricardo's explanation that diminishing returns in agriculture caused the fall of the rate of profit.

John R. Commons—“considered to be one of the founders of the law and economics field”—argued against methodological individualism; William Stanley Jevons “advocated an anticlassical program,” and attacked “the classical theory of value;” Mises “strictly opposed” the theory of neoclassical mainstream, and “fiercely opposed” the use of mathematics in economics, and for economics to be shaped in the image of physics; Schumpeter accused “all previous economists, excepting Marx,” for ignoring “the most important feature of capitalism: its dynamism;” Pareto repudiated cardinal utility and opted instead for the ordinal form; and last but not least, Piero Sraffa was noted to have criticized partial analysis.

Other debates within the discipline had official designations, such as the Methodenstreit debate, and the “socialist calculation debate.The former refers to the “battle over methods”—the question of the appropriate method for economics which underlies many discussions surrounding marginalism—and the latter, relatively self-explanatory, refers to the debate about socialism.

The occasional cultural and linguistic references lend the book a unique flavor. Chrematistics,” a word of Greek origin was introduced, and described as an “unnatural acquisitive art” that serves “the end of enrichment,” and “of acquisition for acquisition's sake.” In another instance, the French concept of “laissez faire” was said to have originated from economic liberalism.

Though subtle, the book is aptly structured to serve and guide its readers. A numbered list of the eight “Characteristics of Classical Thinking” at the start of chapter 2 is an example that helps the reader digest information. Bolded headings used throughout the book as clear signposts represent another useful tool. In chapter 2, for instance, bolded headings were used to segment “Adam Smith on the Division of Labor,” “Adam Smith on Wages, Profits, and Rent,” and “Adam Smith on the Role of the State and Taxes.” In chapter 10—“Reactions to Keynes”—the bolded headings were similarly used to organize information; there were “Post-Keynesian Theory,” “Neoclassical-Keynesian Synthesis,” “New Keynesian Macroeconomics,” and more.

In certain occasions, the author ought to have furnished more elaboration. The section on “Say's Law” for example, when introduced amidst discussions of David Ricardo's perspectives, was rather cursory and lacked further exploration or explanation that could potentially deepen the reader's understanding regarding the subject matter. Additional coverage of “Say's Law” appears even more warranted especially when the law was alluded to later in the book, for example in chapter 9, during the examination of Keynes's ideas.

Admittedly, as the author meticulously, and rather successfully, attempted to provide as extensive a survey of pertinent economic figures as possible, certain efforts, unavoidably or not, fell into the category of mere name-dropping. At specific occasions the effect could be positive—students could be stimulated to conduct further independent research—for example during the discussion of Mises, the author wrote, “Mises had several followers, especially in the United States, both in academia and in politics. It suffices to mention the economists Ludwig Lachmann (1906-1990), Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), and Israel M. Kirzner (b. 1930). Misesian ideas resonate, for example, in the writings of the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and in proposals of members of the Tea Party.”

In other instances however, the mere name-dropping is inadequate. The final sentence of the final paragraph of chapter 1 went, “Major cameralist thinkers included Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682), Philipp Wilhelm von Hornigk (1640-1714), Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (1717-1771), and Joseph von Sonnenfels (1732-1817).” In this case, it potentially gives the reader the impression of having ended prematurely, and rather abruptly. More details and specifics could have been provided, perhaps to distinguish certain thinkers apart from the others.

At other times, compounded by the complexity of the subject matter, the compactness in which many new figures are introduced might come across as unpleasantly overwhelming for the reader. In chapter 6, within a single paragraph and in consecutive sentences one after another, an example goes, “Emil Lederer (1882-1939), a member of the German Socialization Commission along with Hilferding, Schumpeter, and others, advocated socializing “key industries”...and bring about a less unequal distribution of income. Otto Neurath (1882-1945) argued that central planning did not need prices but the war economy. Carl Landauer (1891-1983) pleaded for the gradual transformation of the economy into...and expected a rapid increase in economic rationality and efficiency to result. The religious Eduard Heimann (1889-1967) placed the community above the individual and had confidence in the power of social welfare policy to transform the system.”

In contrast to the first few chapters, the second half of the book comparatively appeared to be more comprehensive, and to be laden with much more details and elaboration. Greater research ought to have been conducted pertaining to, for example, the ancient economic thoughts at the start of the book, such that the coverage is more proportional to that in the second half of, and more consistent throughout, the book. 

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review.