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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Tally of 2010 Books

I’ve just finished updating my 2010 Books page. Despite 2010 being the year of the kindle I seem to have read about as many books as I have done for the last few years – 15 fiction, and 11 non fiction.

From my contemporaneous review, the top fiction was Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize), which I rated four and a half stars. Top non fiction was (surprisingly to me) At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson – one of my favourite authors, but not a topic I would have expected to enjoy from him.

As usual, my New Year’s resolution is to read more this year. I may have a better chance than usual, though, given I’m on holiday all year!

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Two of my favorite authors are Lois McMaster Bujold and Peter Hamilton. They both write speculative fiction, but that is where the similarity ends. I’ve recently finished each of their latest books, and it has given me occasion to reflect on how each of them has changed as an author, thinker, speculator.

I’ve sometimes seen Bujold’s books referred to as space opera, which doesn’t rerally do them justice. They are called space opera, I think because she wears here technological change fairly lightly, particularly the military technology. She isn’t really interested in the mechanics of how something might work, just its effect on the various societies she writes about.

She has a universe which is composed of a whole lot of different human societies, based on different planets. Each of them has a bit of her own extrapolation of what might happen to a society with a different technological and philosophical base.

And then she throws into that mix a new invention, and usually also her protagonist, a hyperactive force of change called Miles Vorkosigan.

Her latest book, which I’ve just finished, is set on a Japanese cultural planet, which has wholeheartedly adopted a technology called cryofreeze, which successfully allows the deferral of death by freezing, until medical technology advances enough to cure you.

Bujold is not particularly interested in how the technology works, just what happens to the society. It is a well explored thought experiment, as seen through the structure of a moderately standard detective story.

Peter Hamilton, on the other hand, could also be described as a space opera, but in a totally different way. He has a series of  incredibly complex universes (this is the third). They are loosely related, with very similar technologies, and some characters, but with different timelines and themes. His universe, has many different types of aliens, military and useful technology, all interacting in a slow moving military and diplomatic human empire that covers (in this latest series) most of the Milky Way Galaxy.  Hamilton seems most interested in exploring the ways in which people (whether human or not) try and work out the meaning of life. How do you find fulfilment, either as an individual, or as a species (when it has italics and a capital F, in the way in which the series deal with it). His latest book finishes his current series with many different characters finding their own version (and disagreeing with each other about what it is).

As authors, they have developed quite differently. Bujold, is, in many ways, writing simpler books than when she started out. She seems much more disciplined at keeping the book to the right length to explore her idea each time. Her first few books with Miles Vorkosigan as a main character can be a bit confusing as so much happens, and the motivations are so complex.

Hamilton, on the other hand has gone large scale, from his earliest beginnings with the Greg Mandel series (a set of detective stories located in the fairly near future, with increasingly complex technology). Every series seems to have a larger and larger canvas, with more and more aspects to keep track of.

My preference probably depends on my mood. Hamilton’s books need increasing concentration, these days. But he explores such interesting ways of thinking about the human condition, with complex characters that they are worth the investment. Bujold writes on a smaller canvas in some ways. But each way in which she explores a society, and how it reacts to change, either internally generated, and through technology is incredibly thought-provoking, as well as wryly hilarious in parts.

Both, though, to me, are science fiction (or speculative fiction) at its best. Their writing stands on its own, and they use technological change as a jumping off point for exploring the human condition. They aren’t interested in technology and futuristic writing for its own sake. They are interested in technology as fascinating tool to explore aspects of humanity that are not as easily revealed when you are writing about the here and now.

And they write stories that leave me wanting to know more.

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Books books books

This household is at the geeky end of the spectrum (we have one computer per person at all times). And we’re at the library end of the spectrum (last time I tried to count by shelfspace we had around 3,000 books, more than 95% of which had been read by at least one member of the household). So when the kindle was released for non US users (a long time after all the reviews I read on US blogs) last November, I bought Mr Penguin one for his birthday. And when the ipad was released in Australia (the wait wasn’t nearly as long!) three days before my birthday, Mr Penguin bought me one to celebrate (which was good because I had already read four of his books on the iphone kindle app, which really requires desperation for the printed word).

So now we’ve tried out most of the e-book readers on the market – either directly, or via the ipad app (kindle, kobo, stanza, ibooks).  And for an Australian, the most important question when thinking about e-readers has nothing to do with usability, and everything to do with availability.  Oddly this is not a question I’ve encountered often in reviews (maybe the IT reviewers who do them don’t read much) except for this one by Leigh Sales.

I must have read four or five reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks saying – “great book, get it on the kindle and you can take it anywhere!” before I succumbed and changed my kindle buying address to pretend I was in the US so I could read it myself (but I got pinged so I couldn’t do it again by Amazon, who noticed that we downloaded it in Australia). Booker prize winner Wolf Hall was available for months on the kindle in the US, but not in Australia, so I kept finding links that mysteriously disappeared before I could actually buy it.

Ibooks appears to have no books available for sale for Australians – the only books I have managed to find are free – and while it has been nice to reacquaint myself with PG Wodehouse and Jane Austen, I’m actually willing to pay for new reading material!

Oddly, if you want to read an Australian book, Kobo appears to be the place – I bought The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas there. Unfortunately, though, its interface and searching is appalling – you really need to know exactly what book you want. It has made me realise that those who programmed Amazon’s bookshop did a much better job than was obvious at first glance.

The most frustrating thing, though, is series. For some reason there are many series where one or two randomly selected parts of the series are available on any particular reader. For example, there was much rejoicing in the household when The Curse of the Gloamglozer, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell was available on the kindle. They have written what is Chatterboy’s favourite series of books, and his geeky soul rejoiced that he would get to read a book on the kindle. Unfortunately, when he finished the book, and we started searching for the second one, we found that that was the only one! Everything else had to be found at our local bookshop (except we did find a random book from another related series on Borders).

We have found ourselves showing off the kindle to many of our friends. People stop Mr Penguin in coffee shops and ask him about it. And they are blown away by it.

But I’ve found myself giving very serious advice to all of them. Before you even think of buying one of these fabulous devices – check what you can buy. And don’t just assume you can buy it because you found it on the website. Check you can buy it the book in Australia. Because right now, if you’re the kind of person who likes buying a lot of books, you will only be happy if the books you read are also successful in the US, and you don’t mind waiting a few months until the Australian publisher gets around to agreeing it can be sold on your e-reader. Luckily for me, the popular economics and history books that I like reading are often in that category – and half the Australian book price, given the strength of the A$ at the moment. But Australian readers have a way to go before e-readers catch up. The publisher who decides to be proactive early will probably clean up, at least in the circles I move in.

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Today’s book review is The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover.

I’ve known, fairly well, for years, that we are overfishing the seas. Reading Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was the first book that brought it home to me, as it covered the complete collapse of the Cod fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Canada. But this book was a much more concentrated taste of much that is wrong with the way in which we fish the seas. Depressingly, because it is written by a European (Charles Clover is the environment editor of the Telegraph in the UK), it doesn’t cover all of the issues that I’m aware of with the fisheries in our part of the world (most notably the dynamite fishing of South East Asia).

The book starts with a series chapters of set around the world – outlining the different ways in which fish stocks are being overfished in all parts of the world, and taking us to the world famous fishing markets in many traditional fishing areas. One of the first fish described is the bluefin tuna, once one of the most important fish in the Mediterranean, and still a key fish for sushi. In October last year was listed as an endangered species under CITES, five years after this book was written, and seventeen years after Sweden first tried to list it in 1992.

The markets he goes to are also fascinating. Lowestoft, where he starts, which was once a key fishing port for the east of England, is now just a market. Hardly any fish are landed there in boats any more. The fish traded there come from all over the world – Sri Lanka, Oman, New Zealand and Australia. But the key merchants, who built up their trade buying from the boat, have diversified into supplying their British customers from the whole world.

Many of the European fleets, which have run out of fish at home, have moved on to Africa, where the poorer countries are willing to sell fishing rights to huge factory ships in return for cash. Clover spends some time describing the negotations between the Senegalese and the EU – fishing rights gave the Senegalese £42m in 2002, which doesn’t seem much for what was a hugely productive fishery.

There was much to be indignant about, after reading this polemic, extraordinarily well researched book. The way in which fishing quotas completely ignore the “by catch” – fish which are caught and killed and don’t even make to port, even as fish oil. The subject is rarely researched, but when it has been, most fishing methods end up with at least 50% “bycatch” which often includes quite endangered species (loggerhead turtles, for example) and also kill many other animals as a byproduct (long baited lines, for example, kill manta rays and even whales, at times).  And the way in which food companies have made a credit out of selling “dolphin friendly” tuna, and ignoring all of the other ways in which fishing for tuna harms the ocean environment, most notably by killing species of tuna (such as the bluefin) which are seriously endangered.

In the end, in Clover’s view there are three dimensions to a fishery – the ecological, the economic, and the social (the life of the fishermen). He outlines three options in managing a fishery:

A. You can have a fishery that is healthy ecologically and economically, but you have to forget about supporting fishing as a cultural (i.e. subsidised activity all the way round the Scottish, Iberian or Newfoundland coast).

B. You can have a fishery that works economically and socially but not ecologically (but presumably not for very long because the resource will be gone in a few years once you have mined it).

C. You can have a fishery that works ecologically and socially but not economically (conceivably by making its money out of something else, such as tourism or nature conservation grants, like paid graziers on a nature reserve).

The world has been taking option B for the last 50 years, and is getting to the end of the line. But moving to either option A or option C creates enormous political pain in any society where fisherman have a serious voice, which is most societies with a long fishing tradition. Newfoundland, where the cod fishery has already collapsed, has move to a combination of option C and B – they’ve moved on down the foodchain to lobster and prawns, and paid unemployment benefits to many fisherman who can’t fish any more, so that the villages and towns still have people in case the fish ever come back.

So the political will is not there, until the collapse of Option B takes A and C off the table. Option C could conceivably still be implemented at that point, but will make fish an occasional treat for the rich, rather than a key food of many different cultures.

Clover has a plan.  His key steps (for all major fishing countries are):

  • Cut the fleet – preferably by setting up a system of individual transferable quotas for fishing off-shore, allocated to existing fishermen, vessel owners and processors. Contravening the rules would mean losing the quota forever, with the vessel seized and scrapped.
  • Set up a serious proportion of the key fisheries (he suggests 25% of the North Sea, for example) as marine reserves with no fishing vessels even allowed to pass through them
  • Provide transparent information on fishing vessels movements to the public, so that anyone can see what they are doing, and ordinary citizens can help in the policing of the rules

But he freely acknowledges the political difficulty of implementation:

The chances of all this happening, of course, are zero…. Until then, I’m afraid, Europe will go on backing towards a cliff in a fog.

He suggests way in which that might change – if public opinion changes in a serious way, or there is a cod crash in the North Sea, or if (for British fish at least) Britain leaves the EU (although given his evidence of how much cheating there is on the current rules in the Scottish fishery, I’m sceptical of this last one).

Clover gives quite a good review of the Australian and (particularly) New Zealand fisheries management. I fear that is because he hasn’t spent as much time digging for problems as he has in the UK, rather than because our fisheries are superbly well managed. But we don’t have quite the same cultural expectations of our fisheries management, at least in Australia, which helps. Fishing has  never had quite the same mystique here, as the Trawlermen in Scotland, which makes Option A an easier management option. We still have orange roughy in the fish shops, though – a slow growing fish which has collapsed to 10% of its initial biomass after 20 years of fishing.

I myself love eating fish, particularly (I’m afraid) sushi’d tuna, but tonight when we went out for fish and chips for dinner, I did make sure I had hoki, which has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an organisation that gets a fairly good review in the book) as a sustainable fish.

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Today’s book review is Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy, by Barry Ritholtz, with Aaron Task.

Barry Ritholtz is the author of The Big Picture, a blog I became addicted to when I was trying to make sense of what was going on in the world during the last quarter of 2008. I still read it, but don’t parse every single word obsessively to quite the same extent. But I bought the book, at least in part, because Ritholtz had been so insightful when I was trying to understand what on earth was going on in financial markets, and it seemed fair that he should get some money from me in return.

From this distance, it is easy to forget that at the time, the events of August – December 2007 seemed pretty dramatic for the world economy. Not to mention the collapse of Bear Stearns in March 2008. Ritholtz started the book  before September 2008, which gives him additional credibility, as much of what he says he was saying before Lehman Bros fell over.

The very broad thesis of the book is that the US economy has always been addicted to bailouts. Capitalism is all very well, except when it involves the richest people losing serious money. The history of the last century, and especially the last 10 years has been responsible for the mess that the US economy and the world financial system found itself in at the end of 2008.  In his history of bailouts, which starts in a serious way, with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in 1971, Ritholtz has a whole chapter on the stockmarket bailouts post 1987. He has a very detailed account of all the different ways in which the Federal Reserve intervened to support the markets – starting in 1987, but continuing in 1994, through 1997 (remember Long Term Capital Management?) and the tech wreck in 2000, and of course, post September 2001. During much of that period, asset managers used to talk about the “Greenspan put” – that Greenspan wouldn’t let US equity markets fall too far before intervening to support them again.

The most damning section is the part where he talks about the failure of regulation – he has a superb “intermezzo” describing the failures in two pages in the form of a memo from Wall St to the government.

We [Wall St] may be the drunks, but you were our enablers. Your legislative, executive and administrative decisions made possible all that we did. Our recklesssness wouldnot have reached its soaring heights but for your governmental incompetence.

Along with the frequent reduction in interest rates to help the financial markets bubble so that they never fell, Ritholtz cites  repeal of Glass- Steagall (the law that had separated commercial banking from Wall St) and the failure of the Federal Reserve to use its supervisory and regulatory authority over banks, mortgage underwriters and other lenders, who abandoned  … standards” , among others.

And finally, after the introduction of all the things that were wrong with the financial system up to 2007, there is the story of the Global Financial Crisis itself, and all the various companies that failed, or (for the big ones) were rescued – Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG, Citibank, Fannie Mae, General Motors… we seem to have slowed down now, but there are still banks failing every month in the US.

The book doesn’t pull its punches in this section, creating a list of the top 22 players who were to blame for the Global Financial Crisis. Number 1 is Alan Greenspan, but the next individual person named is Senator Phil Gramm for being the leader of the radical deregulation agenda pursued by the Senate, Congress, and both Democratic and Republican Presidents. In an interesting side note, the Ratings Agencies (Moody’s, S&P and Fitch) come in at number four. The company that was originally going to publish this book was part of the same group that owns S&P (McGraw-Hill) and ended up refusing to publish it.

The book (which was published in March 2009) ends up with some despairing commentary on what was done during the bailouts. Ritholtz argues that Treasury has been throwing good money after bad – that it has been following the Japanese model of fixing a banking crisis (broadly speaking, pretend that the assets are worth more than they are, don’t take the write downs, and hope that they come good eventually) rather than the Swedish model, which is to split the banks into good and bad banks, and conduct an orderly run-off of the toxic assets in the bad banks.

Fundamentally, in my view, if you believe that free markets are the best way to allocate resources, you have to be willing to let companies fail. Because there will always be mistakes. And the creative destruction of capitalism works best if companies are allowed to fail, and the resources (capital, employees, etc) are allocated to companies who can make better use of them. But the financial system is so important to the economy that it isn’t allowed to fail. And much of the financial system has been using this argument to get far more in taxpayer funded rescue than was really necessary to save it, after getting away with little or no regulation for many years.

Believing that a market based economy is the best way to allocate resources doesn’t mean believing that people in free enterprises are smarter or better at managing than people in government enterprises. It means that those who aren’t good at managing resources, or enterprises, have those resources taken away from them by the market after they’ve stuffed it up a few times. Except if their enterprises are regarded as too important to fail. In that case, they should be regulated closely, rather than given regulatory freedom without consequences, which seems to have happened particularly in the US and UK economies.

Since the book was written, Ritholtz has written a few posts asking what the Obama team has been doing since the crisis:

When companies get to be that large, their vast wealth buys influence and power and corrupts the political system. Despite the crisis caused by the banks, just look at how successful their lobbying effort was. Their enormous pushback effectively neutered any true regulation of the finacial sector.

Sadly, much of it seems to be a continuation of how the US got into this mess in the first place – there is a huge regulatory benefit to be gained by being a large company in the US system. The Australian political system is certainly going in that direction too. It’s hard to make good policy if it is opposed by those who provide your campaign contributions. And the interests of the wider economy don’t have the same voice in campaign contributions as the interests of Wall St.

This book is a rollicking, opinionated read, by an author who really knows his stuff. Highly recommended if you would like to understand what has been going on in the world’s biggest financial market.

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Books in 2009

I’ve updated my Books in 2009 page. This year I read 18 fiction books and 13 non fiction. Plus (which I haven’t fessed up to), lots more re-reads of various books that I’ve read and re-read over the years. In what I expect is the start of a long term trend, quite a few of the fiction books were books that Chatterboy was reading – not great literature, but surprisingly good reads. I think I’d rather be reading one of those than re-reading books, a lazy habit I’ve increasingly got into over the last few years.

For me, the top rated fiction was a tie between Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer. Very different books – Anathem needed a fair bit of concentration, but rewarded it with some fascinating conceptual thinking about the universe, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was frothier, and a lighter read, but with some steel to it underneath. Top rated non fiction was Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy, by Barry Ritholtz, with Aaron Task – a very readable polemic about the financial crises, and who was and continues to be to blame for the mess the world financial system got itself into.

I’m not going to make any resolutions about my reading this year – given that my main one last year (which was not to re-read so many books) was a dismal failure.

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Today’s Book Review is The Pinstriped Prison: How overachievers get trapped in corporate jobs they hate, by Lisa Pryor.

Lisa Pryor is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald who got 100% in her HSC (school leaving exams). She started a law degree, but ended up a (less well paid) journalist, and this book is the story of what became of her peers – high scoring high school students who ended up as lawyers and investment bankers, because the law firms and Investment Bankers have set up a superb strategy for capturing graduates like her.

This book came out of a newspaper column, and it does show. The arguments are strongest around the core – which is an essay about corporate malaise within the very well paid jobs in Sydney’s corporations and law firms – particularly amongst the twenty somethings, Lisa Pryor’s contemporaries.

Pryor describes the culture and narrow choices that occur in reality from school, to university, to the first years of university for Sydney’s upper middle class bright children. Along the way, she talks about the snobbishness of public (particularly selective) vs private schools, including this paragraph about the tutoring at Sydney’s selective public schools, which says something I’ve been thinking for a while:

To families with children at elite private schools, all this tutoring is considered somewhat distasteful. ‘Asians’, they whisper and point discreetly. Filling up the selective schools with their hardworking ways, cheating with tutoring! Don’t these Asians have any respect for the fact that the only student who is supposed to have an advantage in the race for gifted and talented classes and selective schools is the white child whose parents speak fluent English, work in professional jobs and live in houses crammed with books? Private schools like to teach their children to be workaholics in other ways. Well-rounded ways. By rising at six in the mornign for swimming squad, spending the lunch hour rehearsing with the madrigal group, taking speech and drama classes after school.

She talks about the strong pressure that teenagers feel not to “waste” their marks when choosing university courses by just choosing something they would like to do at university, rather than something they can get into, citing someone who is often berated by friends and family for choosing to be a teacher when she could have studied law.

The backbone of the book is the analysis of the recruiting methods of the  big law firms, consulting firms and investment bankers (and to a lesser extent, the accounting firms). To persuade the top university students to join their firms, their recruitment strategy sounds similar to the strategy used to win Olympic bids. Interviews take place at luxury hotels. Job offers are accompanied by ipods or Champagne. Introductory courses to the firm take place in glamorous locations (and for global firms, that can be pretty glamorous). Firms promise “cutting edge work”, which is “dynamic and fast paced”. Law firms sponsor the annual revues at universities, to give them an in with the most outgoing students.  Rhodes scholars get special attention from the management consulting firms while at Oxford.

The final part of the book deals with what it is like being at one of these big firms:

The life that big firms promise is not the life they deliver.  Some time during their twenties, when study is finished and work begins in earnest, a person can realise life is not quite what they planned or were promised in the brochures.

The hours worked by new recruits may be high flying but the work is not. Even the areas which are optimistically described as ‘sexy’rarely are.

Life at these big firms seems quite stifling after a while – Pryor describes the money trap that it takes a fair bit of money to maintain yourself so that you are taken seriously in a big firm. Good clothes, living in an acceptable area of the city, getting takeaway all the time because you’re too tired to cook, hiring a cleaner (ditto) and keeping up with your peers –  things like weekends away, dinners out, and drinking after work. So taking a pay cut and doing something slightly worthier (like the activism you did at university to embellish your cv) seems impossible, because your spending habits are so extravagant (although that peer group would be a lot easier to keep up with).

Pryor is most concerned here that our most talented students are being lured into careers that they didn’t really want in the first place – and that aren’t actually the best place for them to use their talents. Although the market is supposed to be the best allocator of resources, the human reactions of people facing the big decisions about their careers are swayed by the short term incentives that are on offer by the firms with the most money to splash around.  Of course, that isn’t just the fault of the law firms and the merchant bankers. The students are reacting as they always have – to external markers of success. They’ve moved from marks, to the prestigiousness of their employer, to the “glamour” of the area of the firm that they end up in.

Pryor’s solutions to all of this seem a combination of unrealistic and inadequate to me. They include removing the single mark used for university admissions, targeting scholarships better to students who actually need them, and not facilitating the recruitment by the firms with money on university campuses. And she wants university graduates to be braver about following less traditional paths.

I haven’t lived in quite the same circles as described in this book – it is mostly about law firms and investment banks, rather than traditional corporations or accounting firms. But much of the culture was familiar to me, having worked in a big accounting firm, and with many lawyers and investment bankers. The depressing thing about the book is that is largely a tale of woe. There are no great answers, just stories of people realising that a 12 hour day in a corporate environment isn’t the fun it’s made out to be by those recruiting. That does seem to be a case of some degree of market failure, to me – the kind of market failure that results from people valuing current consumption over investment – but I’m not sure it makes for a wonderful book. It’s definitely worth reading for university students, as they think about what they want to do with their lives, but it’s hard to imagine that a university student would be willing to read it. The various blog whinges referred to in the book are probably more useful as cautionary tales.

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