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Books

Thoughts on books and book reviews

Loving Tim Dorsey

I've been reading my way though the Tim Dorsey mystery/thriller/funny books... of the Carl Hiaasen/Dave Barry/Elmore Leonard variety. These are among the zaniest and most fun of the genre in my humble opinion. Lots of history about Florida too. Much fun.

Just finished Torpedo Juice... which includes this awesome exchange:

The deputies backed up US 1 in their white-and-green sheriff's cruiser. Gus was driving. He kept shifting his weight. The seat had one of those wooden-bead seat covers.

"Is that thing helping your back?" asked Walter.

"Actually hurts more."

"Why do you still use it?"

"I paid for it."

Classic. And I totally do this all the time, especially with food. ... sigh ...

If you want to pick it up, go in order. I also really enjoyed Triggerfish Twist.

Browsing v. Searching

The loss of local bookstores troubles me. Whether it is Amazon or e-books, I fear for local bookstores, particularly used bookstores. A recent commentary by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic (full article is behind a pay wall) offers a spirited defense of local businesses over online alternatives. A taste:

Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness—an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents. Its adjacencies are expected and its associations are probable, because it is programmed for precedents.

Support your local stores.

The Birth of the Web

I recently finished You Say You Want a Revolution by Reed Hundt, Chairman of the FCC during Clinton's first term and the beginning of the second term. It is a fascinating and apparently candid account of how the Federal Communications Commission made decisions and dealt with the politics of DC. Beware that Hundt clearly has an ego and point of view -- one would expect nothing less from anyone in that position.

It was a fascinating time - the transition from heavily regulated cable to the birth of the Internet for the masses. It was a transition we were not destined to make merely because Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. Cable companies and the AT&T behemoth wanted to use advances in communications technology to build a network they would control... one where people and businesses would undoubtedly have to ask permission in order to innovate, creating new applications and uses for the network. Perhaps the best feature of the modern Internet is that no one needs to ask permission to create eBay, twitter, or stream Netflix movies... though if Comcast had its way to day, Netflix would certainly have to beg its permission to do that.

At any rate, I found this book quite believable in how the Commission operates and how real decisions are made in DC. Without some of the important decisions that are detailed in this book, we would not have the Internet we do today. That said, some of the decisions could have been better decided... but then Chairman Hundt was no dictator but rather a sort of team leader with some rather petulant teammates who were more interested in themselves than serving the public. Some things just don't change...

Good Short Fiction - Stephen King

The May 2011 issue of The Atlantic featured some short fiction, included pieces by Stephen King and Mary Morris (I had not yet read anything by Morris). Stephen King's piece was great fiction, but is not a happy read (shocker).

The story behind the theme of the May issue actually came from a critique by Stephen King:

Almost four years ago, in The New York Times Book Review, a celebrated writer lamented the decline in the publication of short stories, and with it, a decline in the quality of the short story itself. Too many of the stories that still threaded the needle to publication, he wrote, felt “not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless.” They seemed “show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.”

We found that writer hard to ignore, in part because he kicked us in the teeth. (“No need to check out The Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year in a special issue and criticizing everyone else’s the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them.” Thanks!)

We also found him hard to ignore because he was Stephen King, and we thought he knew something about entertaining readers rather than merely furrowing the brows of a writers’ group.

...

King’s short story, for example, originated with a bet he lost to his son Owen over the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The loser had to write a story to fit a title invented by the winner. Stephen King, being Stephen King, set out to write “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” as a funny story set in a mental hospital.

The result is Herman Wouk Is Still Alive. Well written, on a topic few would dare attempt.

Tides of War - Politics in Athens

Seeing as how I absolutely loved Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, I finally got around to reading Tides of War. Whereas Gates of Fire dealt with the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae (prior to the comic book movie making the 300 iconic among the masses), this book traces the rise and fall of Alcibiades, Athens, and the Pelopennesian War. But really it is about the politics of Athens and it is fascinating.

Tides of War is certainly heavier and a slower read than Gates, but as someone who knows very little of Ancient Athens, I found it fascinating even as I knew I could not understand all of it given my ignorance. But passages like this made me all the more interested... in it Gylippus is a Spartan sent to Syracuse to break the Athenian siege.

To raise revenue, Gylippus employed the following statagem. Fearing the direct levy might turn the aristocratic element against him, he induced the Assembly instead to require each citizen to come forward on a specific day and render a public accounting of his wealth. Now each could behold with his own eyes the extent of treasure his fellows had hoarded. At once the privileged felt shame not to have contributed more, while the humble who had served with honor were esteemed as better than the rich. Contributions flooded in. The cavalry grew flush with mounts, while the vaults overflowed with treasure.

The Death of the Facts

Jonathan Chait's review of The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future in The New Republic, demolishes the absurd premise of the book -- that Obama is spearheading an attack on markets and entrepreneurship. Of course, it is this author, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Books, and his allies like the Chamber of Commerce that have led the attack on the market in a successful attempt to maximize the power of the world's largest companies.

Chait's review does everything one would want a review to do, but I want to add that I don't think Brooks spends much time being disingenuous. I continue to believe that he and others like him are simply deluded. They do not understand the world as it is, and are fooled the tools they have created to spread their message -- talk radio, Fox news, the Wall Street Journal, etc. At one time, these were meant to spread right wing values such as free market principles and less government. But over time, they have come to work for one goal: winning. They have no principle and defend no values, which makes debating them impossible. As we have seen from the recent right wing pile-on around Obama's Asian trip, they will lie about anything.

Daemon - Daniel Suarez

Over the last weekend, I spent a fantastic weekend with my wife and good friends up at a cabin north of Brainerd in the middle of Minnesota. Between the long drives, waking up earlier than anyone else save Michelle, and a few moments here and there, I got hooked on a fantastic summer read. Geek-readers of the blog will know what a daemon is - a program that runs in the background on a computer that does specific tasks (DAEMON is short for Data & Execution Monitor).

In the mystery-thrilled "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez, a distributed daemon created by a genius geek is unleashed on the world after he dies. The book is gripping and hard to put down, especially for those of us with a strong tech background that can appreciate just how vulnerable we are to such an exploit. I knew Suarez had written a second novel, but I didn't realize that "Freedom" continues (and finishes, I believe) the story. As soon as I got back to the Internetz, I ordered it and hope it arrives by Friday at the latest.

You don't have to be a geek to enjoy it, but it sure is nice to see such a good story filled with accurate claims and realistic tech (for the most part).

Financial Crisis and Reform

Is Timothy Geithner, head of the Treasury Department, leading a charge toward socialism, saving the banks, or setting up the next big crisis (or all three and more?)? I don't know. I feel very comfortable weighing on telecom issues, energy issues, and a variety of other policy matters that I have deeply studied. But all this financial stuff is really friggin complicated ... perhaps because the "Greed is Good" generation sent its best minds to Wall Street to make money rather than producing something of value (which can include banking services - but that wasn't what these folks were doing).

So I find it all very frustrating. I'm trying to read up on it - Michael Lewis' The Big Short is on my short list of books to read. As is Simon Johnson's 13 Bankers. What I did just read is Joshua Green's "Inside Man" and I don't quite know what to think of it. I generally find Joshua Green a pretty astute observer, so I wanted to write about it.

I agree entirely with this quote from Geithner:

“In a crisis, you have to choose,” Geithner told me. “Are you going to solve the problem, or are you going to teach people a lesson? They’re in direct conflict.”

Nothing that I have read suggests the bank bailouts could have been avoided absent a desire to create a much bigger crisis. But I am deeply disappointed in the Obama Administration's unwillingness to pass good policy into law to limit the size of banks and crack down on shady practices that serve to enrich a few bankers but do nothing to improve the overall efficiency of the economy.

[Simon] Johnson contends that Team Obama has ignored the necessary step of breaking up the power of what he calls the “oligarchies”—the big Wall Street banks—as part of the reform process, which is what happened after the emerging-market crises. “If your banks have run themselves into the ground doing crazy things,” he told me, “you need a substantial shift in the power structure. In the ’90s view, the Geithner-Summers view, it is essential that you address that problem as part of the immediate stabilization policies.” To Johnson, as ardent a believer in regulatory capture as George Stigler ever was, it’s plain that Geithner has fallen under Wall Street’s spell, and that through him and his whole apparat, Obama has too.

I do recommend this article as a decent start in understanding why Obama's Administration has done what it has done. But it seems that we really need Congress to push good policy. Obama doesn't seem up to the task.

Markets, Competition Require Good Government

I just picked up "Free the Market: When Only Government Can Keep the Marketplace Competitive" by Gary L Reback. It starts with this quote by George Will (from this column):

It will remind everyone -- some conservatives, painfully -- that a mature capitalist economy is a government project. A properly functioning free market system does not spring spontaneously from society's soil as dandelions spring from suburban lawns. Rather, it is a complex creation of laws and mores...

Bingo.

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

Just finished Up in the Air by Walter Kirn - the book that the Clooney movie was based on (though substantially different). I had heard the book was hilarious and was disappointed that it definitely wasn't. However, if I didn't have the expectation of laughing like I was reading an Evanovich mystery, I think I would have enjoyed it more... it was a good book. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed the writing.

I found the movie intensely good, but it was definitely more inspired by the book than based on it -- a lot has changed in America since 2001 when this was written.

Kirn makes some great observations - this in particular struck me on many levels:

As a younger man, I made the mistake of talking to a stripper, in depth and at length, about her finances. Her income shocked me. It was double mine. She claimed to be saving for college, but when I presser her, I learned that she didn't even have a bank account and supported not one but two delinquent boyfriends. I didn't feel sorry for her, I felt insulted. There I was, the sort of clean achiever this beautiful girl should consider marrying, but instead she was shaking me down for twenties to lavish on my Darwinian inferiors.

Another one:

His painful, frostbitten feet explained the slippers, but the bubbles he blew were the purest affectation, intended to show that he plays by his own Hoyles. He knows, as all the cleverest ones do, that no human being is so interesting that he can't make himself more interesting still by acting retarded at random intervals.

Observations like these really made the book worth reading for me, as they were far more interesting than the story. The end was kinda odd and I didn't really follow it but it doesn't bother me because I was mining the book for insights more than being wrapped up in the characters. I guess I read it like a nonfiction book and I have no regrets, but it sure doesn't seem like praise.

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