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Posts Tagged ‘books’

William Gibson, Spook Country

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-06-10

spook_countryJust finished the latest from Gibson (or at least the latest as far as I am concerned). I started a couple of months ago and got stuck on the first chapter and put it down again. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago this time it caught, and I fairly raced through it.

It follows the standard Gibson convention of having N independent players doing their thing on separate paths, and then converging linearly to the story’s climax. In this case it’s a riff on the Repo Man suitcase-in-the-trunk-of-the-car, and no-one’s really quite sure what’s in it. There’s the inevitable omniscient puppet-master with unlimited deep pockets (and a mag lev bed). There’s no sex on the bed, but then again, I don’t read Gibson to read love stories.

Technology is still present, although in a much more muted form than his earlier works. The cyberpunk theme has been stripped out, and the result is a fairly sharp social commentary.

Two things really annoyed me. The first was the ease with which the various characters in the book managed to snag open wifi networks. These days they’re rarer than you think. I’ve even reconfigured my own router at home to lock down my network. And from what I’ve read, free municipal wifi isn’t very widespread in America. The second plot flaw was an accident where a car crashes at high speed into a lamp post outside a bar… and the two occupants more or less walk away unhindered.

That said, it’s an entertaining yarn with lots of wry observations of 21st century life done with Gibson’s razored turns of phrase. And when the mysterious secret is finally revealed, it’s not so much of an anticlimax as in All Tomorrow’s Parties or Idoru. In fact, it’s quite credible. I give him credit for taking a fairly simple plot and weaving a couple of hundred pages around it.

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Peter Carey – His Illegal Self

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-03-25

His Illegal SelfI finished Peter Carey’s latest novel last night. In some ways it was quite a difficult read. For a long time I felt as if I was underwater, clawing my way through deep green water trying to reach the surface.

Dialogues are not always easy to follow; Carey has chosen to omit quote marks at times, so from time to time I wasn’t sure if something was being spoken, or thought. I may also have missed some obvious clues at the beginning, but it wasn’t for the longest time until I realised that the story was set at the cusp of the 60s and 70s.

Another difficulty seems to be a glaring flaw in the basic premise. Young Che (his illegal self), who is being brought up by his grandmother, is accompanied by Anna “Dial” Xenos to visit his mother who is currently in hiding. But something unexpected happens (what, we won’t find out until much later in the book) and yet rather than take Che home, which would be the most obvious course of action, she instead goes into hiding herself, dyes Che’s hair black and spirits him out of the country.

Of course, not doing that would mean there would be no story, but still, it’s rather difficult to swallow. There’s also some deceit involved in the narrative, since you don’t actually find out how tenuous this initial premise is, as the truth only comes out as a flashback much later on.

All the same, I found myself turning the pages impatiently towards the end of the book when all the pieces began to come together, and I liked the way the story ends happy but broken.

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Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-03-07

The rise of disaster capitalism

The rise ofdisaster capitalism

Every once in a while a really good book comes along that connects the dots in a new way, and the result leads to a deeper understanding of human civilisation. This is one such book.

When some financial pundit argues that things would be so much better if only we paid heed to the likes of Milton Friedman, we now have the choice of being able to dismiss them as clueless, sold out or just plain dangerous.

Above all, this essay is a stunning indictment of the Chicago School of Economics, effortlessly deconstructing the toxic underpinnings of Friedman’s pet theories: state=evil, incompetent versus, private enterprise=good, efficient… and we are seeing just how wrong this is in 2009.

As the past few decades have shown, slavishly following these theories has resulted in a relentless transfer of wealth from the many to the few. And now, as the wheels fall off the global economy, the message contained in this book becomes even more important. It’s time to throw Friedman out onto the rubbish dump of history. Sorry. Nice try, but no thanks. I already gave at the office.

Among many other things I learnt from reading this, perhaps one of the most important things I take away from the book is a new point of view from which to understand Israel-Palestine relations.

In essence, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to widespread emigration, and according to the anywhere-but-here school of thought, people were happy to escape to Israel. This in turn disrupted the uneasy equilibrium between the Israeli and Palenstinian people, since the former suddenly needed the latter a whole lot less as a source of cheap labour. This gave the Israelis a strong negotiating position which in turn enabled them to lock down the territories.

I find this line of thought quite intriguing, in that I’ve never heard anyone else articulate it before now.

My only criticism of the book would be Klein’s use of the term “shock doctor” to describe the acolytes of Friedman who launch their brutal economic measures on country after country around the world. A doctor is someone who heals. These people inflict damage.

Other people have been writing about this subject for years. This just happens to be a very articulate and up-to-date essay. It’s a must read. Really. Go out and buy it, or borrow it from a library.

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Douglas Kennedy, The Woman in the Fifth

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-02-17

Finished reading The Woman in the Fifth last week. I found it a bit disconcerting with its drift into the supernatural, but well, why not?

Kennedy paints Paris very well in the story, with neither condescension nor misplaced veneration. He captures the problem of immigration and the plight of the sans papiers with precision and at the same time without pathos.

What I liked least (or rather, what was the weakest aspect of what is otherwise a very entertaining and at times moving tale) was that the main character Harry Ricks is forced to flee the United States due to circumstances far beyond his control. And which aren’t revealed for some time in the narrative, and when you finally learn what happened it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

I hope Kennedy is exaggerating a little at how a simple fait divers can bring down a person in America, but hey, drunk Japanese finance ministers commit political hari-kiri (come to think of it, so do English members of parliament caught wearing frilly panties — or not, as the case may be), so maybe small town University professors have to, as well.

I did like the Faustian bargain aspect of the story. Kind of like winning the lottery… just so long as you spend the precise amount of winnings, each day, every day.

Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

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The Gambler, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-01-18

I stumbled across this page via Energy Bulletin, a site that continues to impress me with its eclectic choice of links to articles on energy descent and peak oil.

Here, then, is a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi, whose name harks to a more mediterranean heritage, but writes with extraordinary vividness of epic cultural clash between East and West. It brought back memories of reading James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan that I read all those years ago, being as they were my first encounter with the Asian concept of face.

He relates the story of Ong, a Laotian refuge web journalist, writing stories about environmental collapse that no-one cares to read except to assuage their guilty conscience.

“You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.”

“Spinach reading,” I supply.

“What?”

“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me.

With deft strokes, Bacigalupi draws a melancholic portrait of a quiet young man, cut off from his roots and adrift and lonely in a vaguely dystopian future America.  Ong needs to boost his ratings, his readership, or lose his job. (Plus ça change…)

Readership is measured in web clicks, feed subscriptions, pings, trackbacks and buzz generated from social networks whose precursors can be found in the likes of Plaxo, Facebook, del.icio.us and so on. And when I look at the statistics that my own tiny blog generates (on the order of single-digit visits per day), I can’t help but feel a certain kinship.

I’d buy the book it’s published in (it’s the closing story in a collection of short stories from different authors), but I worry that it would be like buying a CD for one great song and discovering that the rest are crappy. Sometimes you come across a story that is so powerful that reading something else straight afterwards feels like a letdown. This is one such story.

Update 2009-03-30: in a particularly strange episode of life imitates art, Robert X. Cringely has an article on the role of automated computer trading on the collapse of AIG and the US mortgage market. He paints the same picture of a single action occurring in the infosphere that generates a buzz, a glow, and creating a chain reaction of attention that will bring the house down, to the immense satisfaction (and profitability) of the same person who carried out the initial trade.

Reading the comments to the blog indicates that his logic is a bit faulty, but I think there’s some element of logic to the underlying premise. In any case, there’s a resonance with The Gambler that is hard to shake off.

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Reflections on an Unconscious Civilization

Posted by dlandgren on 2008-11-23

As I continue my quest to find well-written articles explaining the current world situation, I came across Mike Whitney’s article This Is Not A Normal Recession: Moving on to Plan B.

It offers a pretty clear synthesis of the situation that allowed the current state of affairs to come to pass. This is complemented quite well by the Bailout and the New “Lost Generation”. Both of these articles lay the blame at the feet of the managers, the technocrats, the so-called élite.

The articles are not without their flaws. Whitney’s article trots out the tired meme, that “anyone with a pulse” could get a loan (on par with the “next shoe to drop” cliché). Also, in the first part of the article he blames the increasingly lax banking standards:

[…] the banks were merely the mortgage originators, they didn’t believe their own money was at risk, so they gradually lowered lending standards and issued millions of loans to unqualified applicants who had no job, no collateral and a bad credit history.

But now that the credit markets have seized up, he then goes on to say:

The banks are not to blame. There is a generalized contraction of credit in the non-bank financial system where structured finance has blown up and taken half of Wall Street with it.

That may be so, but you can’t have it both ways. The banks were all too happy pass off their mortgages to third parties and didn’t care to find out what became of them. They didn’t say no.

The Lost Generation story gives a good explanation of how management (of the MBA type) brought about the decline in US manufacturing, but finishes the article with a wishy-washy “Americans are worse than broke, they are discouraged.” Well, that’s all right then. For a moment I thought they might be angry. Elsewhere in the article is the following passage:

Since the advent of “Scientific Management” [from the] Harvard Business School, we have grown a generation of managers disinterested in the actual process of making products. Management and workers meet at the PERT charts and seldom anywhere else. Over time, the quality of American manufactured products began to decline. “Made in America” began to lose some of its luster as other nations began to manufacture products superior in quality.

This in particular reminded me of John Ralston Saul’s 1995 essay, The Unconscious Civilization. In 1995, just to provide a little context, Microsoft released Windows 95 (obviously), Ebay was founded, the USA abandoned the 55 mph speed limit and the Dow broke through the 4000 point mark and went on to crack the 5000 mark as well. And now 13 years later, the bets are on as to whether it will go racing past in the other direction before the end of the year.

I think that many of the problems affecting Western economies are a result of the managerial practices that came out of higher education in the United States after World War II.

I dug out my copy of The Unconscious Civilization and began to reread it last night. Saul understood the problems we faced (and continue to face), and articulated the issue as follows:

There is a general sense that our civilization is in a long-term crisis. […] It doesn’t resemble a 1929-style depression, but then depressions have always been different, one from the other. Ours has been softened and evened out thanks to the life preservers gradually put in place by society after 1929 in order to give us time to manoeuver and act should such a disaster repeat itself. It did, in 1973. Now, given our inability over the past two decades to deal with an unbreakable chain of unemployment, debt, inflation and no real growth, we have drifted farther and farther out into a cold, unfriendly, confusing sea. The new certitude of those in positions of authority — those out of the water — is that the certain answer is to cut away the life preservers.

This might be called a childlike act. Or one of unconsciousness so profound as to constitute stupidity.

He might have been talking about Wall Street bonuses when he wrote:

Many are surprised that this management elite continues to expand and prosper at a time when society as a whole is clearly blocked by a long-term economic crisis. There is no reason to be surprised. The reaction of sophisticated elites, when confronted by their own failure to lead society, is almost invariably the same. They set about building a wall between themselves and reality by creating an artificial sense of well-being on the inside.

On the decline of state investment in education:

[…] the reality is that throughout the West — not just in the United States — we are slipping away from [the] simple principle of high-quality public education. And, in doing so, we are further undermining democracy.

Why is this happening? Theoretically because of money shortages. But there is no shortage of funds for those areas of higher education which attract the corporatist elites. Indeed, as money is siphoned off from the public-school level to the favoured areas of higher education, so the quality of public education drops and more parents opt for private schools. In removing their children they also remove any real commitment to the system and accentuate the shift.

[…]

Interestingly enough, the evidence indicates that producing the best educated elite in the world doesn’t actually help a country. The two nations in the West — Britain and the United States — also have the most persistent and widespread social and economic problems.

Singling out the Chicago School of Economics, he asks:

How is it then that we have fallen into taking seriously someone like Milton Friedman who walks about equating, in a silly, indeed in an immature manner, democracy with capitalism?

and more generally

What are we to make of these managers, who have had almost absolute control of Western business for some 30 years, the last 22 of which have been marred by general crisis? Dud they play a role in bringing on the economic blockage? They certainly have failed to produce an economic recovery.

This leads to the following explanation of the great flaw in the push for privatisation at the end of the twentieth century :

The privatization theory is that the economy is being held down by too much government involvment. Sell the public companies and so invigorate the economy. However, an economy has many parts to it. There is the solid, conservative side that provides goods and services. But, by its very nature, it cannot provide much leadership towards new growth activity. Then there is the riskier, faster moving side, where new investment, new ideas, new energetic leaders combine to build the future economy.

Most of the government-owned industries belong on the conservative side, either by the very nature of what they produce — essential services like electricity or water — or because decades have already been spent fully developing the capacities of that domain. So the effect of the privatization movement is to take perfectly good private-sector risk capital and invest it in the non-risk side of the economy.

It’s somewhat depressing that in the intervening period not much has changed, and the text remains as relevant today as it did in 1995. To be honest, the narrative is a little erratic, and the lack of an index makes it difficult to find things. He has recently published a new book, which with a bit of luck will be better organised.

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