Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities, by John Cassidy

Today I'm looking at another history of the economic crisis of 2007-2008 tied to the subprime mortgage bubble because I am sucker for a period of history that I actually lived through and has affected me, as well as economic history. This book not only provides an explanation for the causes of the economic crisis, but Cassidy also details the history of the field of economics and the growth of free-market ideology most espoused by figures such as Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve. I thought this book was interesting and informative, if unfortunately somewhat outdated since its publication.

As I said, Cassidy spends quite a lot of time talking about the history of economics as a field and the growth of free-market ideology. Cassidy takes time to point out that figures such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mills envisioned roles for government within a free market system, such as providing protection of property, national defense, infrastructure development, and education. In fact, as Cassidy illustrates in his book, for much of its history economics saw a need for the government to intervene, especially in projects where there is a net benefit for society but not necessarily an individual benefit. More importantly, Adam Smith and other early economists did analyze banks or financial markets so what may be true for commercial markets does not hold true for financial markets. As Cassidy argues, the idea that there is no role for the government in the economy is a relatively new development, Cassidy dates it to the anti-Communist movement following World War II and it only became ascendant with the conservative resurgence in the Eighties.

Cassidy takes a fairly moderate position by arguing that there is a place for the free market because of the inherent complexity of production. Even products as simple as bread or soap are dependent on massive amounts of information that a government central planner simply doesn't have access to. How much bread do people want to buy? What sort of bread do people want to buy? What prices should we charge for the bread we produce? How much wheat should go into making bread for people to eat? This is all information that a government central planner doesn't have access to, but fortunately the workings of the free market enable all of this to be done. The important thing to remember, though, is that the free market ensures people most able and willing to pay for goods and services are the ones who have access to their goods and services. And as my old economics professor said, this works fine for bobbleheads but it raises some serious ethical questions when it comes to healthcare.

The biggest issue Cassidy points out with free market ideology, however, is the ideological constraints it assumes as categorical absolutes that are always true, including belief that prices in financial markets reflect actual value and people always act rationally. With these assumptions free market economists came to the conclusion that speculative bubbles simply could not happen because people would not fall into the euphoria surrounding bubbles and the prices would never get inflated beyond true values. However, there is ample historical evidence that bubbles do happen and basically anyone who isn't an economist can tell you people don't act rationally. Cassidy utilizes these and other arguments to illustrate why government regulation of financial markets is a vital and necessary function.

The oddest thing about this book is the fact that it has become dated so incredibly quickly. It was published in 2009 and so Cassidy argues that increased regulation of banks and financial institutions will be an important step for Obama's government, as well as changes in healthcare and a strong environmental policy to combat climate change. Cassidy even states that Republicans will have to acknowledge these facts as self-evident and work with Democrats to create new legislation. Sitting here nearly ten years later, we all know how well Republicans responded to the attempts of the Democrats to better regulate health care, rein in the banks, and cap carbon emissions. In hindsight the book feels charmingly naive and it makes me wonder what Cassidy would say to the various Republican arguments advanced in the past few years.

Overall I think this book is still valuable because it delves so deeply into the history of economic thought and explains not only how the financial crisis happened, but the ideological forces that enabled it to happen in the first place. I don't know if it's because this is the third book I've read on this subject or if Cassidy does a better job of explaining, but I feel like I'm finally beginning to truly understand the past crisis. This is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Life Debt, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm looking at the second book in the Aftermath trilogy, Life Debt. As Star Wars fans can probably guess from the title, this book focuses, at least in part, on the liberation of the wookie homeworld Kashyyyk, and includes some awesome scenes of wookies ripping stormtroopers apart.And of course I'm all for that, but the liberation of Kashyyyk makes up only a small part of the book, most of it focusing instead on the relationships of not only Han and Leia, but the relationships of the members of Norra Wexley's team as well. I think the hardest part is that I haven't really connected emotionally with the members of Norra's team so it's hard for me to get invested in their personal relationships.

The things I care the most about these books, obviously, is how much it explains the political situation in the galaxy when we get to The Force Awakens. Unfortunately this book just leaves me with as many, if not more questions, than I had previously. The biggest complaint people have had recently, especially after The Last Jedi, is we know basically nothing about Chairman Snoke. We don't know who he is, where he came from, how he ended up in charge, or why we should care about him. However we're into the second book and the only people in charge of the remnant Empire at this point are Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax. We have gotten some hints that Admiral Rax had deep connections with Emperor Palpatine and may be a Dark Side cultist of some sort, but Snoke hasn't made any appearance. Obviously this is still some thirty years until the events of Last Jedi but I feel like this would have been a good explanation for how the First Order came about from the ashes of the old Empire.

Another thing that I didn't care for was the prison ship Ashmead's Lock, which was apparently a centuries-old prison ship that crashed on Kashyyyk and was retrofitted by the Empire to hold rebel prisoners in stasis. There are a couple of problems with this ship. First, and perhaps dumbest thing about the ship, is that it uses the prisoners as a power supply, just like in The Matrix. It was dumb when The Matrix did it, and it's dumb when it's done here because using humans and other living beings as batteries is impossible. Humans and other biological beings generate heat, true, but only by burning calories from food they consume. To get energy out of a human being you have to put just as much, if not more energy in, making any energy profit impossible.

Secondly, Ashmead's Lock is part of a program to brainwash rebel prisoners and make them sleeper agents for the Empire, to activate them to wreak havoc with the rebellion. I will admit this would be a spoiler for the book except that it's telegraphed so obviously that it's hardly a surprise when it does happen. Admiral Rax orchestrates the liberation of Ashmead's Lock so it's clear that it's part of some nefarious plan he's got cooking. Then we see the liberated prisoners acting strangely after they came back and having secret meetings, so when they try to assassinate Mon Mothma and the rest of the New Republic leadership it doesn't come as a surprise at all. It also doesn't make much sense for the Empire to be sitting on these sleeper agents for years and years and never deploying them when they could conceivably use the agents to deal the rebellion a blow after a setback such as Yavin. Why keep them until the Empire's all but lost the war for the galaxy?

Overall the book's okay. By far the largest parts of the book focus on the personal relationships of the characters, but because I haven't gotten deeply invested in people such as Jas Emari and Sinjir Velus, so those parts of the book just don't hold as much appeal for me as other sections. If people get invested in those characters those parts of the book will obviously have greater appeal, but for whatever reason they just don't work for me. Otherwise these books don't answer nearly as many questions as I'd hoped.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm finally finishing the First Law Trilogy with the last book, Last Argument of Kings and I hate to say it, but this series has been a pretty big disappointment. The series basically ends with quite a few questions that are simply unanswered and I feel like the last book could have been condensed and merged with this book and maybe bring the book to a better resolution. I was left wondering if there were more books in the series to wrap up the series, but I checked and this is definitely the last in this plotline, if not the last book Abercrombie has written in this universe.

To adequately talk about what's wrong with this book, I'm going to have to talk about some spoiler materials and while I'd feel badly about spoiling the end of this book I feel like they're just not worth the effort. The most important part of this is the character Bayaz, the first of the Magi and a powerful wizard. As I mentioned in my review of the last book I got the impression that Bayaz is behind the events that leave no heirs to the throne of the Union and with Jezal dan Luthar in a perfect position to be elected king, however I didn't see quite how it was possible for Bayaz to orchestrate the events because one of the princes dies in an entirely accidental fashion. However, it turns out I was in fact correct about Bayaz orchestrating the situation for Luthar to become king, and Bayaz is the puppet master behind numerous other plans as well.

The big reveal towards the end of the book is that Bayaz has been pulling strings and moving pieces the entire time to counter his enemy Khalul. While Khalul takes the direct approach of religious control over the Gurkish Empire to the south, Bayaz has taken indirect control through the financial and political institutions of the Union. So ultimately the wars of conquest between the Gurkish in the Union have been moves in a proxy war between Bayaz and Khalul.

Now, considering that Khalul has a religion that eats people you'd think that Bayaz would be the good option. Or at least the less bad option. However in Before They are Hanged I started getting this weird impression that Bayaz wasn't telling the whole truth, especially when the superweapon he wanted to use against Khalul had been hidden in a different place. This is the superweapon, by the way, which almost destroyed the entire world with demons the last time it was used and definitely destroyed the capital of an older and even greater empire than the Union. It makes me wonder if maybe Juvens, Bayaz's master, had lied about where he had stored the superweapon because he didn't trust Bayaz.

This distrust of Bayaz continues as he starts making disparaging comments about the common people to Luthar, saying literally that it's not important to actually care about the poor people so much as seem like he cares about the poor people. This and other offhand comments start to build a suspicion that Bayaz really isn't that great of a guy and it ends with the reveal that Bayaz probably was responsible for the death of Juvens, as well as Kanedias, and probably through his lover Tolomei from the House of the Maker as well. Bayaz declares himself beyond the laws of magic, greater than Juvens, and ultimately uncaring about the amount of death and destruction caused by winning this part of his ongoing feud with Khalul.

Personally I feel like this reveal should have come in the second book rather than towards the end of the third book. I say this partly because the second book felt like it meandered and went into plot cul-de-sacs. If we had the reveal of Bayaz's true intentions in the second book, or even in the beginning of the third book, then we could have had the characters reacting to the situation and maybe brought it to a better resolution. Instead we have a war with the Gurkish not quite resolved, Luthar and Glokta are left with questionable control of the Union, and Ferro Maljinn literally just walks out of the story and is never seen again. So many threads were left dangling that I wasn't entirely certain this was the end. Again, it seems there are other books set within the universe, but whether they continue this plotline or not I cannot tell. Personally I would have felt better if the third book was used to tie up the ends a little more neatly rather than leaving things unresolved.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if this series is really worth your time. I will say that some of the characters such as Logen Ninefingers, Luthar, and Glokta can be compelling and they go through varying degrees of character development, although I feel like Logen goes through the least. But with the second book meandering pointlessly and stuff in the third act that I, personally, thought should be in the second act I feel like it's not worth the time and effort.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik

Today I've reached the halfway point in the Temeraire series with the fifth book, Victory of Eagles. I will say that my first impression of this book is that it's providing more of the same that we've seen in the previous four books. That being said, I do like what Novik's been doing with this series so I don't mind terribly much that the books feel fairly similar in structure, if not in particulars.

This book picks up some months after the ending of Empire of Ivory, with Laurence convicted a traitor and his sentence of death commuted until such time as the government can be certain Temeraire won't attack Britain. Laurence has been imprisoned in a British ship of the line while Temeraire has been relegated to the breeding grounds. Temeraire has been having a frustrating time because there is very little to do within the breeding grounds other than eat, sleep, and breed, leaving him starved for intellectual stimulation. Temeraire starts introducing the dragons to concepts such as personal property when news comes that Napoleon has landed in Britain.

Laurence the ship he's imprisoned in caught in the first battle of Napoleon's invasion of England and only through great luck and skill manages to survive the sinking of the ship and make it safely back to Dover. Due to the extremity of the situation Laurence is ordered to gather Temeraire and help drive back the French invasion. This is made more complicated when it turns out that Temeraire has just...disappeared, and with a large number of dragons with him.

I think what I liked most about this book was following Temeraire and his scratch company of dragons which achieves official military status when, due to an assumption by military command, Temeraire receives a commission as a colonel. There're also some interesting dragon characters such as Minnow and Perscitia who I came to like just as much as I liked Temeraire and Iskierka who were by far the most developed dragon characters within the series. I also like the developments of integrated human and dragon forces in the military and the innovations that Temeraire and company use to help fight Napoleon.

I don't know how I feel about the ending of this book because despite their efforts, Laurence and Temeraire are transported to Australia. Personally I dislike this because I wanted Laurence and Temeraire to stay and help fight Napoleon, and I wanted to see more land battles with dragons and infantry squares and artillery. Largely because I like the Napoleonic wars. The books have definitely spent far more time travelling outside of Britain exploring locations like China, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa. Now that Laurence and Temeraire are banished to Australia it looks like we'll be spending even more time exploring distant lands. I just feel like this series promised Napoleonic Wars with Dragons and I'd have liked to see more of that but I guess it was wrong of me to expect that.

All my issues aside, I did enjoy this book, much like I enjoyed the other four books, and I intend to keep following the series as I can get them from the library.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The World of Ice & Fire, by George R.R. Martin

Today I'm looking at The World of Ice & Fire, a supplemental book to the Song of Ice & Fire series, better known as Game of Thrones. This book delves into the history of the Targaryen reign of the seven kingdoms, as well as goes into a detailed account of each of the regions of Westeros, as well as region across Essos. While this book is an interesting supplement providing some background material, I was left with feeling that this book was inadequate on a lot of levels. Irritatingly, it also leaves questions we've had for quite some time unanswered and really leaves me wishing Martin would finish the darn series already.

The book is divided into roughly two halves. The first half talks partly about the history of the world and the history of Westeros. The book very briefly talks about the Dawn Age and the Age of Heroes, but the majority of the history is focused on the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror and the reign of the Targaryens up through Robert's Rebellion. The second half of the book talks about each region of Westeros in detail, providing more historical information especially before the arrival of the Targaryens, and then goes to the various locales beyond Westeros including the nine free cities, the Dothraki lands, and territories even further beyond. It's a lot of great supplemental information designed for the super-fans of Song of Ice & Fire, but you can safely enjoy the series without having to read this. At least for now, anyway.

I think the biggest issues I had with this book were, as I said, that Martin leaves some important questions unanswered and it doesn't deliver some materials that I would have enjoyed learning about the book's universe. The biggest two issues I had were the Tragedy at Summerhall and what exactly happened to Lyanna Stark. The narrator of the book mentions both events within the book but makes comments that they're ''so well known'' within the universe that there's no need to talk about them further within this book. The problem is, we the readers know little or almost nothing about both events which leave them a mystery and by saying they're well-known within the universe so he doesn't have to explain them. For those that aren't familiar, Summerhall was a palace built by the Targaryens and where a large number of the family gathered to celebrate the birth of Aegon V's great-grandson, Prince Rhaegar. From the information we have available, we know that the palace burned down and a significant number of the Targaryen family died. A few other clues suggest that wildfire and dragon eggs were involved, with perhaps Aegon V trying to create dragons using wildfire. Other than that we don't know a whole lot. This doesn't play a huge role in the larger series, but it's frustrating that Martin keeps it vague.

The other big issue was Rhaegar's abduction of Lyanna Stark, which sparked Robert's Rebellion. This is one of the big sources of speculation within the series, with multiple theories abounding to explain the events. In all probability this is tied to some major plot point Martin has in reserve for later within the series, but I find that the book brushes the incident off as ''too well known to merit mentioning'' honestly rather frustrating. It makes me wish that Martin would go ahead and just finish the darn series so we can have all our questions answered rather than sitting around playing what if for forever and ever. (Yes, I know, there's the tv show but I'm in the book camp.)

Otherwise I was a little disappointed with what Martin ultimately included within the book. I personally would have appreciated more stories about Bran the Builder, Garth Greenhand, the Winged Knight, and Lann the Clever, the figures from the Age of Heroes who influenced the world of Westeros. We do get versions of the story of how Lann the Clever stole Castlery Rock from the Castlerys, but it's told in a very dry and historical way, I kind of wish that Martin had told it like an anthology of folklore instead of as a historical text.

Ultimately this is a history and geography text book for the series and it's probably going to be dry for even the most dedicated readers of the series. It's okay, but I wish we'd gotten more answers than we got and maybe I just want Martin to finish the series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin

Today, I'm looking at a classic sci-fi novel The Stepford Wives which has gotten two movie adaptations and has even entered the lexicon as a phrase in and of itself. The book really is more of a novella, clocking in at about 130 pages, but I think that the brevity really works to its strength rather than a weakness.

Because the book has become in many ways part of the cultural zeitgeist you're probably familiar with the generalities of the plotline. A new family moves to the neighborhood of Stepford and the mother, Joanna, notices that something is...off...about their neighbors. The women all seem friendly enough, but they spend all their time on housework and say they're far too busy to spend any time on social activities. Joanna manages to meet a handful of other women who are also recent transplants to Stepford and agree that something is weird about Stepford. And then one by one the members of the group start turning into Stepford wives themselves, their entire old personalities erased.

The book itself is a little vague about what happens to the women after they've been ''Stepford-ized''. It's implied they're replaced by robots, but I personally like the idea of them being brainwashed and reprogrammed better. Either way it's very creepy and the pacing works incredibly well to underscore that.

The book is, of course, about feminism and was published in 1972, putting it solidly within the era of Second Wave Feminism which, among other issues, included a drive by white women to escape the role of housewife that had been created by the post-war American economy. Women fought for opportunities outside the home and equality in the workplace. And yes, I'm grossly oversimplifying a critical movement in United States history, but that's how it's relevant to this work. As this book relates to feminism it's not even subtext, Joanna is a member of the National Organization of Women and is ready to march on the Stepford Men's Association because of their exclusion of women.

The sad thing is that this book, much like Handmaid's Tale, remains incredibly relevant. We are in the middle of a great political struggle in the United States and there are people who seriously suggest that women's natural place is as a wife and mother and women shouldn't work outside the home. Some people go so far as to argue that this is what's undermining ''western civilization'', completely ignoring the fact that women have had to work for most of history to support their families, and even if a woman chooses to take care of her home and children, that is valuable unpaid work that she provides. And yes, women do far more unpaid work than men. Unfortunately we're at a point where we still need feminist propaganda.

Looking at this as a book, as I said the brevity of the book I think actually works to its benefits. As Joanna gradually pieces together what's going on in Stepford, she realizes that time is running out for her and her husband may already have plans to replace her with a submissive, zombified version of herself. As you start physically running out of book, you know that Joanna is running out of time as well and you hope that she can get away and get help before she becomes Stepford's latest victim. It made for a very emotional reading experience.

Overall I'd definitely recommend reading this book. It's a short and easy read and while it's not subtle, it packs a huge emotional punch and remains frustratingly relevant.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The President is a Sick Man, by Matthew Alego

Today I'm looking at a book about Grover Cleveland, a president that most people only know because of his election to two non-consecutive terms, a feat which today remains unrepeated. This book talks about a secret operation that was performed on Grover Cleveland to remove cancerous cells from the president's mouth in the summer of 1893. Because of the impending debate over repeal of the Silver Purchase Act as well as the ongoing economic depression, secrecy of the operation was considered paramount for the good of the country. However word soon leaked about Cleveland's operation and a reporter named E.J. Edwards revealed the information in a fairly tame article, drawing ire from Cleveland and his doctors. Despite his reputation for integrity, Cleveland and his aides categorically denied that Cleveland had anything more than some bad teeth removed and E.J. Edward's article was dismissed as a hoax. It would not be until twenty-five years later that William Keen, the leading surgeon, finally admitted the operation had been performed.

I have some issues with this book, and I think it's mostly because there are points where Algeo goes onto tangents to talk about subjects that really don't contribute to the subject matter and I suspect that was to pad out the length of the book. I think Algeo also blows the secrecy surrounding Cleveland's operation out of proportion by comparing it to conspiracies like Watergate. The result is a book that's adequate from a research perspective but Alego's historical arguments don't really work.

Alego does an adequate job talking about the historical facts and providing relevant historical context, such as including the history of the antiseptic movement which dramatically increased the survival rate of surgery patients after its adoption and which probably helped save Cleveland's life because his doctors followed antiseptic protocol. Alego also talks about the silver debate and the importance attached to repealing the Silver Purchase Act as an attempt to rectify the Panic of 1893. For modern audiences, it can be difficult to understand the importance of the money question and how it caused divisions even within the Democratic and Republican parties. Cleveland's Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, was a staunch silverite and would never have approved a repeal of the Silver Purchase Act. If word that Cleveland wasn't well it would have significantly undermined his political power and given the silverites the motivation to hold out.

However, Alego spends a significant amount of time talking about other subjects which have little to no relevance to the book and feel obviously used to pad out the length of the book. There are at least a couple of passages that could definitely have been removed without losing anything substantive to the book. Among these was when Alego took time talking about the history of men's facial hair in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century until the development of the safety razor, and going so far as to categorize the facial hair of each president who had facial hair. Alego also blames Cleveland's response to the Pullman Strike (sending in federal troops to violently put down the strike) on the pain Cleveland experienced from his surgery. I would say that completely ignores the trend of the government siding with capital against labor in the nineteenth century. I mean, there are multiple times when troops were sent in to put down strikes so it's hard for me to agree that Cleveland having surgery was the sole reason he put in the Pullman strike.

Ultimately I think this book is a lot longer than it needs to be. When you look at the historical context, it's hardly surprising that Cleveland kept his heath condition a secret. Alego himself writes about how the word cancer couldn't even be published in newspapers, much less talked about. Cleveland wasn't the first president to conceal his actual health and project an image of healthy vigor to assure the nation, and he wasn't the last either. While I agree it was an act of dishonesty, this was hardly and act bringing about a constitutional crisis.

Overall I'd say this book isn't worth your time because it hasn't got a lot to say and it becomes very obvious when Alego is just padding out the book to meet a word count.

- Kalpar