Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Think Like a Freak, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This week I'm continuing my exploration of the work from Levitt and Dubner and if you're interested you can ready my reviews of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, both of which have been very popular and have brought all manner of questions to Levitt and Dubner, some of which they've been able to answer, some of which they haven't. This book definitely feels a little lighter than the other books and I think part of that is because it's radically different from its predecessors. Rather than looking into the hidden sides of economic phenomenons people don't think about too often, this book talks more about how you yourself can look into the hidden side of things and try to figure out how things work. Again they utilize somewhat anecdotal evidence which comes with its own problems, but it's still entertaining.

Basically Levitt and Dubner talk about how people can ''Think like a freak'' and achieve success through a variety of methods, including doing the unexpected and understanding how people react to incentives. Without stealing too much of their thunder for the book, they include several key strategies which human beings, for a variety of reasons, just don't think or don't want to do. A good example is being willing to say "I don't know'' instead of bluffing your way through an answer. I can say in my own personal experience saying ''I don't know'' has resulted in certain people calling me Sergeant Schultz in the past (long story) so I can understand why people would be reluctant to say it. Other examples include rethinking questions when traditional approaches aren't working, not being afraid to ask obvious questions because people might be too embarrassed to ask the obvious question, anticipating failure and preparing for it, not being afraid of failure and using it as an opportunity to learn, and a process they call ''letting your garden weed itself'', basically building bigger and better traps that will only catch the people you want them to catch.

Overall the book's kind of interesting, but I did feel like it was mostly a rehashing of concepts that had already been explored in the previous two books. They go to greater lengths explaining their methodology, but I felt like it was only a much smaller expansion on material they've already talked about. Basically it's a self-help book with some pretty sound and basic advice, but I almost feel like you could have picked up the advice in the book from the earlier books as well.

Another thing that was interesting was the inclusion in the audiobook, at least the version I had, of three of the podcasts which they've done on a regular basis. They were pretty interesting because they explored some topics and utilize empirical research from a number of sources, but they also felt kind of short and didn't come with quite as much closure as I'd like. But in the end it was a fun add-on to the audiobook that I enjoyed.

I think if you want to learn some of the strategies Levitt and Dubner have used which made Freakonomics such the success that it is, it's an okay book to read or listen to. It's basically a self-help book which is okay, but to be perfectly honest not my usual fare and I probably went into this book with the wrong sort of expectations.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Baldwin Locomotive Works 1831-1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice, by John K. Brown

As I've mentioned several times before here on this blog, I'm a bit of a maniac when it comes to trains so it should be absolutely no surprise to anyone that I picked up a history book which talks about locomotive construction. And if you needed further evidence that this one's going to be a dry read, you merely need look at the title: The Baldwin Locomotive Works 1831-1915 A Study in American Industrial Practice. A title that simple and yet also long can only belong to an incredibly thorough and well-researched monograph and in that respect I was not disappointed. I will warn everyone right away this book will probably be best survived by people who have a strong interest in nineteenth century industrialization, or the most ardent of railroad fanatics.

To provide a summary for my readers who probably aren't as train-obsessed as I am: Baldwin Locomotive Works was a Philadelphia-based company and one of the first American builders of locomotives. Over the years it would become the most successful American builder, controlling over a third of the total market, and by the time it ceased locomotive production in 1956 it had produced over 70,000 locomotives. Throughout this time Baldwin grew from a fairly small plant to an absolutely enormous facility, and yet as Brown illustrates many of its structures remained largely unchanged from the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite its size, Baldwin didn't incorporate until 1909, remaining for much of its history a partnership which required reorganization as partners joined or departed the firm. However for much of its history, Brown argues effectively that these were critical strengths for Baldwin rather than weaknesses, at least until dramatic changes almost no one in the railroad industry predicted occurred in the 1920's.

As Brown points out very on, Baldwin and other locomotive builders are rather different from the famous American System businesses and corporations which have been the focus of so much historiographic effort. Much of the focus has been placed on producers of raw materials, such as steel mills, or producers of consumer goods such as sewing machines. These industries benefitted from automation, standardization, and economies of scale. And, perhaps more importantly, they were far more resilient in the frequent economic shocks that punctuated American history through the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Baldwin Locomotive Works, by contrast, was a constructor of capital goods: large, expensive, and extremely complicated devices which were major purchases for railroads. When times were good, Baldwin was flushed with orders, as railroads scrambled to obtain more motive power for the increased traffic. When times were bad, railroads forgoed capital purchases, reducing Baldwin's workload to a trickle. This resulted in Baldwin relying on a number of strategies, such as laying off significant portions of its workforce and cultivating export markets, to weather these dry spells before demand returned once again.

Further complicating this is the sheer difficulty of producing a steam locomotive. One of the main contributions America gave the nineteenth century was the development of interchangeable parts. First developed in Federal Armories to make parts from one rifle capable of repairing another rifle, the idea of standard and interchangeable parts made repairs incredibly simple and drove down the costs of numerous consumer and industrial goods. As much as interchangeable parts would be a boon to locomotives, and no matter how much locomotive builders attempted to incorporate the idea, steam locomotives would consistently defy such attempts due to their very nature, which I thought was a really interesting part of this book.

As Brown explains, although locomotive builders such as Baldwin tried to design and sell ''standard'' products, ultimately it was the railroads that decided when and what sort of locomotives would be built based upon the needs of their railroad and all too often the builders had to either meet these needs or go without business. As such the majority of locomotives were custom-built for railroads depending on their specifications and suggestions. Builders such as Baldwin would try to incorporate standard parts such as valves and fittings as much as possible, with some degree of success, but the sheer plethora of locomotive designs made this a difficult task. In addition to the varieties of locomotive to build, there was also a great amount of variety within types, ranging from narrow gauge to broad gauge and everywhere inbetween.

On top of this, locomotives were constantly evolving over time as well. Although the 4-4-0 American type locomotive would be dominant for the latter half of the nineteenth century, from 1850 to 1880 it would grow in size and strength, with larger and heavier boilers, cylinders, and driver wheels increasing its tractive force. However in a quest for bigger and better locomotives, the 4-4-0 would eventually be supplanted by the 4-4-2 Atlantic. Which of course would then in turn be replaced by the 4-6-2 Pacific. And this doesn't even begin to touch on the dozens of other wheel arrangements experimented with or developed during this time period. Steam locomotive design and development was a constant process, which ultimately reached a fevered pitch in the glory days of the early twentieth century, before economic troubles and the arrival of practical diesel power heralded the end of steam power. Baldwin and many other locomotive builders were so wrapped up in the struggle to produce bigger and better steam locomotives that they were completely unable to adapt to the rapid changes diesel power brought.

Overall I found this book a fascinating read, although that's probably because of my great interest in railroad history more than anything else. If it's about trains you've got me hooked. Even as an avid rail enthusiast I found this book very dry and technical and I think only the most interested of audiences will get something approaching enjoyment out of it. However, it's very well researched and Brown does a good job of exploring an area of history that hasn't garnered much attention and detailing how locomotive construction is inherently different from so many other industries. Even if he gets a little opinionated in some areas, which is something I'm noticing in railroad historians.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Create Modern America, by Adam Cohen

This week I'm reviewing Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen, a book which I listened to and talks about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Hundred Days, the first three months after FDR took office as president in March of 1933 where Roosevelt, with the cooperation of a staff of academics and Congress, managed to hammer out about a dozen pieces of legislation which would launch Roosevelt's New Deal. People today may look back on the flurry of activity encapsulated in the New Deal, especially the amount of bipartisan support it managed to garner, when Congress feels more deadlocked than ever.

However, you have to put the Hundred Days and the New Deal into the proper context of the Great Depression and really understand how close the country was to falling apart. Cohen does this excellently in his book and makes the reader understand the urgency of 1933 that something, anything had to be done. However, Cohen also does an excellent job of showing how the New Deal wasn't all FDR's idea, although he gets a large amount of credit for it today. In fact it was Roosevelt's Brain Trust advisors, such as Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, Raymond Moley, and Harry Hopkins who developed and promoted many of the key ideas of the New Deal. And Roosevelt was not always an ardent supporter of the New Deal. Roosevelt ran on a platform of balancing the federal budget and, along with his budget manager Lewis Douglas, was hesitant to undertake the massive deficit spending the New Deal required. In fact the Roosevelt Recession of 1937 is largely attributed to FDR's attempts to balance the budget. Cohen provides a cohesive picture which goes to great lengths exploring the people who crafted the New Deal and its policies.

The thing that is most important in this book is that Cohen goes into great detail explaining just how bad things were in the Great Depression, especially going into 1933. Things were pretty bad during the Great Recession which we're still gradually working our way out of, but that's absolutely nothing compared to the Great Depression. We're talking unemployment at 25%. (FYI Unemployment peaked at 10% in the Recession) Hoovervilles, shantytowns where the homeless would congregate, sprang up in public parks all across the country. People would go digging through garbage dumps to find food that had been thrown out that was still remotely consumable. People's life savings, often less than $400, had been loaned out to stock market speculators and had vanished when markets collapsed in October of 1929. Banks were failing, industries were closing, farms foreclosures skyrocketed, and the country was in very real danger of falling apart. Something had to be done, and people called out to the Federal Government to do something.

And Herbert Hoover, who'd been elected in 1928, stood by and did nothing. This is the the lesson I want people to take away from this more than anything else. Hoover believed that government welfare programs were morally wrong because it would make people dependent on government and remove any incentive to work. Hoover also believed, and continued stating in the face of all evidence, that the Depression was merely a minor setback and the market would naturally correct itself in time. Hoover got so wrapped up in his small-government laissez faire ideology that he would have let the country burn before lifting a finger to help. Hoover's half-hearted attempts at ''rescuing'' the nation were simply insufficient and would have been too little too late. The reason Roosevelt won with a landslide electoral victory is because the prospect of doing something was better than the continued inaction of Hoover.

The Great Depression was a time of desperation and brought about the political courage, from all sorts of people, to try something. Roosevelt may have been hesitant to undertake the massive debt necessary to save the country, but he understood that regardless of what he ended up doing, inaction would be worst of all. With an unprecedented crisis Roosevelt drew upon some of the finest minds in the United States and tried a variety of projects, such as the National Recovery Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some projects were great successes, some were great failures, but the important thing was there was a willingness to try anything, keep whatever was working, and admit what wasn't and move on.

This isn't to say that Roosevelt and his administration were perfect, as much as I admire them. In an early attempt to keep the federal budget balanced, Douglas made massive cuts into benefits for veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Great War, which launched not inconsiderable backlash from veterans groups. Roosevelt's banking legislation was widely criticized as benefitting banks as institutions over depositors, and the National Industrial Recovery Act benefitted industry more than labor. There were some mistakes and poor decisions made, and Cohen does an equally good job of showing the darker and unfortunate side of the New Deal, including the legacy of farm subsidies which hve long outlived their usefulness in the era of big agribusiness.

Nonetheless, I think everyone should read this book because people have forgotten just how bad things were in the Great Depression, a calamity not brought about by war or natural disaster, but simple economic forces. And as hard as things were during the Great Recession, they were nowhere as bad as they could have been thanks to safety nets created by the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. I highly recommend reading this book to understand why America needs its social spending to create a healthy and robust society.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, by David Barnett

This week I'm reviewing the third full-length novel in the Gideon Smith series, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper. And I'm going to begin by saying I did not like this book and at one point I became so frustrated and horrified with it that I threw it against the wall. As my readers might remember, I have done this before with another book, albeit for slightly different reasons. However in both cases I felt extremely justified and I'm sure there are other books I've talked about on this blog that have deserved the same treatment.

I'll begin by getting the least-broken bits out of the way. The plot of this novel, opposed to being the globe-trotting adventures we've followed Gideon on before, is confined to the city of London, which proves to be equally capable of giving our intrepid young hero plenty of work to do. The rampage of Jack the Ripper has been going unchecked for over two years and the people of London want something to be done. Gideon and his companions Maria and Aloysius Bent plan to provide aid to the Metropolitan Police to bring this fiend to justice. However, things go awry when Gideon's memory gets erased and disappears into London's underbelly. Meanwhile their good friend, airship pilot Rowena Fanshawe is accused of murder and is in very real danger of being executed. It's up to Bent and Maria to find Gideon and save the day before time runs out.

Overall the main points of the plot are okay. You really have two or three separate plots that sort of intersect at various points but really could be their own story given adequate space and development. Regardless, it makes a very interesting story and you get a strong sense of adventure. I will say for me personally the plot device of Gideon losing his memory feels somewhat hackneyed because it feels like an excuse to get Gideon out of the way so Bent and Maria actually have something to do instead of follow Gideon around. It does lead to some depth of Gideon's character, but I still felt like it could have done better. There's also the creation of an entirely unnecessary love triangle just to mess with Gideon and Maria's relationship, but that's neither here nor there.

The biggest problem I had with this book was its treatment of women. This is something I've kind of noticed in other books and in my review of Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon I lamented the fact Maria spent most of her time as little more than a sexy lamp, as well as really focusing on the fact Annie Crook had been a prostitute. Which felt like a shame because I could see Barnett write well-developed female characters in the same novel. Unfortunately this book takes the bad parts and makes them worse for no good reason.

At the very beginning we discover that the prostitutes of Whitechapel, frustrated by the police's inability to do anything about Jack the Ripper, declare a strike until the police manage to apprehend the killer. And in a way this makes sense. The prostitutes are seen as expendable and as long as Jack the Ripper continues to only kill undesirables, the police don't have a terribly pressing great desire to put in an effort. So really they're acting in their own best interests. However, the police are immediately concerned by this strike because they believe it's only a matter of time before Whitechapel and the entire East End of London will break into riots because the lower classes can't release their energy with sex so they'll resort to violence.

Let's take a minute to talk about how messed up that is. First of all, it plays into this assumption that men are basically little more than giant Ids and if we can't get our jollies in one way, we'll resort to another. Because apparently we men are all psychotic apes with absolutely no self-control whatsoever and will do anything if you dangle sex in front of us. This is a rather harmful stereotype that only perpetuates this "Boys will be boys" attitude which condones a certain amount of violence, physical, emotional, and sexual from men when it shouldn't be tolerated at all. However, there's also the very unfortunate implication that the ensuing violence caused by these beast-men is the prostitutes' fault because they're on strike. Which is a classic case of victim blaming: This violence that has happened against you and your friends is your fault because you wouldn't have sex with the men who committed it, thus leading them to violence. That's a pretty messed up message and while Barnett may not have meant it that way, that's certainly how it came across to me. And this is within the first sixty pages of the book as well.

However, there's something far, far worse than blaming women for being the cause of violence because they're not serving as a sexual release valve. Poor, poor Rowena Fanshawe falls victim to a trope I detest with an absolute passion: strong women are only strong because they were the victims of sexual violence in the past. (Sorry, I don't know if there's a concise way of saying that other than Strong Independent Woman TM, but let me explain.)

There is an unfortunate trend in fiction, which became very prominent in the 1990's and has never really gone away, where you have a female character who is well developed as a character. However, usually this follows a pattern of a woman who's tough, doesn't follow society's conventions, and is determined to do things her own way. This may manifest in a variety of ways, but in more action-oriented series it tends to result in her being a competent fighter, or in other series being very, very competent at what she does. Unfortunately, the motivation behind her being the best at what she does is almost inevitably because she was the victim of some form of sexual violence in her past.

This is a problematic trope for a number of reasons. First of all it greatly cheapens the traumatic experience of sexual violence that far too many women suffer today and can cause long-lasting mental and emotional problems that can severely affect them for the rest of their lives. Sexual violence is a serious issue and needs to be talked about in a responsible manner. But having "strong female characters" be the victims of sexual violence isn't the appropriate way to handle this.

Secondly, it creates this stereotype that the only motivation a woman can have to become the best at whatever she does is because she was the victim of sexual violence in her past. And that's incredibly limiting for female characters, forcing all of them into the same box when they really don't need a tragic past of sexual violence to provide them motivation. Male characters have, for centuries, had a variety of different motivations to do the things that they do, and sometimes they don't have motivation beyond just wanting to be the very best at what they do. And in some cases, making your female character a victim of sexual violence is completely unnecessary. As I talked about in my review of On Basilisk Station, Honor already had plenty of reasons to hate Pavel Young: he was a vain, spoiled aristocrat who was getting shunted onto the fast track for promotion because of his family connections rather than any actual ability. Adding sexual violence to that mix just felt unnecessary and incredibly unfortunate.

So to return to Mask of the Ripper, in this case it is poor Rowena who falls prey to this trope which I hate with a passion. As you may remember in my previous reviews I actually liked Rowena as a character. She's a fairly standard steampunk character, the woman who doesn't abide by society's standards and is involved in something not seen as traditionally ''feminine'' in this case, being an airship pilot. In addition Rowena doesn't mind bedding a hot guy when she gets the chance because airship pilots have a very good chance of dying young so she takes her pleasures when she can. All of this was well and fine and I thought she was a very well-written character. Unfortunately in this novel we learn that Rowena's motivation for becoming the woman we all know and love is because she was the victim of sexual abuse in her past. And this is completely unnecessary because of what else we learn about her in this book.

We learn that Rowena is actually the daughter of a famous airship pilot who actually went missing in the Indian Ocean some twenty years ago. Her mother ended up marrying a rather lackluster businessman who relies on Rowena's mother's fortune to keep his enterprises solvent rather than his actual ability. Rowena does not care for this at all and eventually runs away from home to become an airship pilot. Barnett could have done all of this without the sexual abuse and that would have been a perfectly fine backstory for her, wishing to rebel against her failure of a stepfather and take up her father's profession. In fact, if Rowena was a male character, she probably would have had the same backstory, but without the sexual abuse. But because she's a woman we have this added extra, and extremely unfortunate element.

So overall, this book is really bad. There are some interesting bits but due to how it treats women I ended up throwing the book at the wall. I'm willing to give Barnett the benefit of the doubt and say maybe he didn't intend for it to come across that way, but it only illustrates how insidious these tropes have become and why we need to point them out, challenge them, and try to correct them wherever we go. I would not recommend people read this book and I think I can safely say I'll be stopping this series after this book.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert

This week I'm reviewing Dune Messiah which is the second in the incredibly expansive Dune series. At least the second in order of publication. Like many long-running series there are now prequels and sequels galore so it's kind of confusing. So in my own way I'm attacking it in the manner that I feel best. The thing that surprised me the most was this book was actually significantly shorter than Dune, coming in around the three hundred page mark, opposed to Dune's six hundred pages. The result is this story feels rather abbreviated, especially when it's taking place and expanding upon the fairly detailed world of the Dune series.

 Dune Messiah is set roughly twelve years after the end of Dune. Paul Atrides is on the throne as emperor of the galaxy and his Freman legions are conquering the galaxy under the banners of jihad. However already the top tiers of Freman society are becoming fat and complacent with the spoils of victory that conquest has brough them, and more worryingly the edges are beginning to fray around Paul's empire. Most importantly, though, there is a plot among the Spacer Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and Bene Tleilax to overthrow Paul and reestablish the old order. This book starts off promising with a lot of really good plot threads that could be interesting stories, but I felt like they were ultimately squandered within the book and not capitalized properly.

The biggest thing that I noticed, and it may just be because I was listening to it rather than listening, is this book spends a lot of time navel-gazing. Well, that's me putting it charitably. I could call it something else but we'll leave it at that for the post. There's a lot of pseudo-philosophy on religion and politics and prophecy and the interplay between those forces and how they affect everything, but the result is we don't really get to see how it's affecting the empire. We're told it's happening, but wTe don't really see it. That was kind of a problem with Dune as well, despite its verbosity, it spends a lot of time telling us about things rather than showing them to us. I'll admit it can be a challenge when you're doing world-building, but we spend a lot of time watching people sit around in meetings talking about or reminiscing about things that have happened rather than watching them actually do those things they're talking about. It just adds onto the feeling we're spending time contemplating our navels rather than determining the fate of a galaxy-spanning empire.

There also isn't a lot of dramatic tension in the book either, despite there being a plot to topple or otherwise eliminate Paul from a position of power. It's made explicit from the start of the book that Paul is capable of seeing the future, which makes acting against him directly difficult. The plotters therefore utilize other oracles, such as Guild Navigators, to provide a shield against Paul's visions. Basically Paul can't see other oracles in his own visions, or actions involving oracles. Except even with this blind spot Paul sees through their plots very easily and makes rapid moves to neutralize the threats while trying to figure out the best path to create the optimal future. There's just no real tension because we know Paul's going to get his way in the end, even if he himself dies. The use of historians analyzing the story as a framing device just really cuts down on the dramatic tension and makes it less interesting as a story.

Ultimately, the world of Dune is very rich and complex and interesting, and you could easily craft very interesting stories about the different powers within the universe and how they're interacting in their quest for dominance. To an extent Dune Messiah tries to do that, but I can't say it does it terribly well. Instead of being shown things happening, we're told things are happening instead. Instead of political intrigue and massive battles on distant worlds, we're told about these things second hand. The philosophizing doesn't really help and just adds to the fact that we're sort of sitting around passively with the characters while tons of action is occurring elsewhere. I'm hoping the series gets better, but I'll just have to see.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett

This week I'm taking a look at one of Pratchett's stand-alone novels, Nation, which is set in an alternate universe Earth in the Great Pelagic Ocean which is like the South Pacific, but different! Although the fact it's an alternate universe doesn't factor in as greatly until you get towards the end of the book, but I digress. Overall this is very much a Pratchett book because it manages to simultaneously be funny with that dry English wit Pratchett specializes in, while also being immensely philosophical as well. In some ways I think it's a good way to introduce people to Pratchett without overwhelming them with the complex cast of characters found in Discworld.

The plot centers mostly around Mau, a boy from an island referred to only as the Nation who is finishing his ritual stay on the Boys Island and is returning home to complete his coming of age ritual. However his world is swept away, very literally, when a great tsunami washes through the Mothering Sunday Islands, devastating the entire island chain. Mau is forced to find a way to survive in a world devoid of people, although that begins to change when first he discovers a mysterious white girl, the survivor of a ship that's been tossed onto the Nation. After the initial misunderstandings they start working together, although things become much more complicated when other people begin turning up on the island as well.

As a Pratchett book this is actually pretty standard for him, and I don't mean that disparagingly. It's quite a good book and he deals with topics such as religion, science, politics, the seething trouble that is humanity providing his own humanistic philosophy towards everything. But for me personally, who's read almost everything else he's written, it's hardly anything new to me. As an avid Pratchett fan I have been exposed numerous times to his philosophy and it's certainly affected my thinking quite a bit. But after reading it so many times it starts to get a little preachy. Again, this isn't to say that his philosophy is bad or anything, I actually agree with quite a lot of it, but for me it kind of feels like more of the same at this point rather than something new.

I think if I were to recommend this book to anyone, I'd recommend it to people who don't feel like they could commit to reading Discworld. I will admit that with it being such a long-running and complicated series it's a little intimidating to know where to begin. Nation however is a stand-alone novel and it's not overly long so I think it'd be less intimidating for the casual reader. Especially those poor deluded souls who look down on fantasy as being an inferior genre. While Pratchett's other books have gone into matters like law, politics, religion, and stories in greater detail, Nation talks about everything a little more generally so I think it's a nice eclectic selection of his personal philosophy. If you ever wanted to read about the ideas of what may be considered one of the greatest humanist philosophers in recent times, Nation is a very good way to do that.

Otherwise, if you've read Discworld and you're familiar with Pratchett's personal philosophy I think you'll find this is very much the same stuff. It's good stuff! But still the same.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve, by Roger Lowenstein

This week I'm talking about a book that deals with the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, an institution that wields a great deal of influence in the United States, ranging from setting interest rates to issuing the money people carry in their pockets, but a lot of Americans probably don't give it terribly much thought. At least on a day to day basis. The Federal Reserve, being today a vastly powerful organization in its own right, has been the focus of numerous conspiracy theories since before its creation in 1913 and remains a popular target of cranks, goldbugs, and various other nuts. (Lowenstein actually uses some of those terms within the text so I feel rather comfortable using them here.) For whatever reason I have a strange fascination with the machinery of high finance, albeit limited by my layman's understanding of how it all works, so this was a topic I was interested in reading.

The book follows the need in America for a centralized, national bank starting in the late nineteenth century to help modernize America's financial systems. Unlike other major economies such as Britain, France, and Germany, America's banking systems were fairly primitive by comparison and lacked a central authority to manage cash reserves, oversee the manufacture and distribution of banknotes, and set short-term interest rates. Although Salmon P. Chase's National Bank system had been an improvement over the ''wildcat banking'' following Andrew Jackson's closure of the Second National Bank in 1836, it was still a rather ad hoc structure and prone to financial panics which happened with distressing regularity in the late 1800's.

Despite the need for a centralized bank, increasingly supported by the banking establishments on Wall Street, there was still strong American opposition to the idea. The Jacksonian tradition in America had a strong distrust of centralized authority in specific and banks in general, so any combination of the two faced particular opposition. However, the near-implosion of the American economy in 1907, saved only through efforts by J.P. Morgan that can only be described as herculean and terrifying in their scope, emphasized the need for a centralized authority. If for nothing else than to help move cash reserves to where they were needed seasonally in accordance with the more agrarian segments of America's economy.

Considering the amount of opposition faced to creating anything that could even be construed as a central bank, it's amazing the Federal Reserve was created at all. Between the fear of government regulation of business, centralization of banking power, and the more oddball theories, it truly was a struggle to get the Federal Reserve created at all. The fact that the structure of the bank was created in absolute secrecy certainly did not allay the fears of the American public. However as Lowenstein puts it, there were two main benefits to the effort. First, there were a series of congressional inquiries in the wake of 1907 which emphasized how weak the existing financial system was and the need for a reserve bank to maintain liquidity in crisis. Secondly, the drafters of the eventual Federal Reserve system made sure to cultivate bipartisan support for banking reform, which proved instrumental when Democrats took over both houses of Congress and the White House in the bitter election of 1912. Despite the Democratic Party's lingering Jacksonian aversion to centralized authority, with the help of Woodrow Wilson and key party members, the Federal Reserve Act managed to get passed in 1913.

Overall I thought this book was pretty interesting. It kind of gets bogged down in the election of 1912, going over the political bargaining and fractionalism, most famously between Roosevelt and Taft. Although I think it might be because, being a Roosevelt fan myself, I've read so much about 1912 it's all very familiar to me at this point. The book kind of ends at 1913 with the signing of the act and with a very, very brief epilogue about how the Federal Reserve has grown beyond its mandate since then. I kind of wish there was more information about the Federal Reserve and how it's changed, but I guess that just simply wasn't within the purview of this book. It's fairly dry subject matter but if you're interested in finance it's a very interesting read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov

This week I'm finishing up the robot series with The Robots of Dawn, the last of the Elijah Baley stories. I am skipping the short story Mirror Image which I know for a fact I've read somewhere else but for the life of me right now I can't remember where I've read it. I'll probably have to dig through the literally hundreds of books to find it, but that's neither here nor there. I have to say that unfortunately I really did not care for this book and it's a combination of factors. I felt really blindsided by the resolution of this novel, as I did in the other ones, but it may be because I don't read detective stories all that much and so I'm not very good at picking up clues as other people. The main issues I have though, are sort of what the book spends a lot of time talking about as the characters engage in their long dialogs which honestly feel kind of stilted. As well as a really unfortunate thing which is going to get its own paragraph because oh boy, is it a doozy.

Once again Earthman Elijah Baley is being called upon to help solve an almost impossible mystery with the help of his friend, the robot Daneel Olivlaw. In this case Baley is being sent to Aurora, the greatest, most populous, and most powerful of the Spacer worlds, however the case is rather unusual. In this instance another humaniform robot like Daneel, Jander, has been rendered inoperative with mental freezeout, making him dead for all intents and purposes. However it's incredibly unlikely this happened at random so Jander's creator, Dr. Fastolfe, is accused of deliberately destroying one of his greatest creations. Tied to the outcome of this case is not only Dr. Fastolfe and Baley's careers, however, but the fate of Earth and the settlement of the galaxy as well.

The Robots of Dawn isn't exactly a direct sequel to its predecessors, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. It was written nearly thirty years later and in a way serves more as a means for Asimov to bridge all of his stories together into one cohesive universe. And I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that Asimov didn't exactly plan for most of his novels to end up part of one cohesive universe so it does feel a little odd to me. How Asimov does this is make references to several other of his works which, as someone who's read them I understand instantly and get the wink and nudge that he's making, even if it isn't terribly subtle. I'm left with the feeling, though, that readers who aren't familiar with his other stories may end up a little confused. And again, it does feel odd. The references to Susan Calvin, the patron saint of robotics and prominent figure in several of Asimov's robot short stories certainly makes sense, even if she's a figure of the distant past by Baley's time. The references, however, to a Galactic Empire and the field of psychohistory which may one day develop to understand the human mind are just downright weird. At least it's weird for me because I know, that's what's going to happen. I've read Foundation after all so the rise and eventual fall of the Galactic Empire, coupled with Seldon's development of psychohistory are absolute certainties. But for the characters in Robots of Dawn to speak of such things as absolute certainties, when ostensibly the fate of humanity's expansion into the stars is still uncertain, feels like they've read ahead in the timeline and they're just going through the motions of protesting.

On some level, I do like the references. They specifically mention the stories Liar! and Bicentennial Man, (the latter of which is probably my favorite Asimov story of all time) not by name of course, but in a general sort of sense and it's good to see that even if they're seen as little more than legend, people remember these stories which touch something fundamentally human in us. And of course, I rather enjoyed at least the very early Foundation novels, before things started getting weird. But as I said, it kind of removes the dramatic tension from the book because we know what happens. The result is the book feels like a device to connect other stories into a larger universe, rather than an important story in its own right.

Now that I've sort of poked around talking about the more general issues I have with the book, I'm going to come to the really big one which makes me really wish I hadn't read it. To make it really short: there are characters who act like incest is no big deal. To provide some context, on Aurora people only get married for the purpose of having children and once the children are born they're usually raised in a communal nursery so the marriage, having no other purpose, is dissolved. Otherwise, people are free to have sex with whomever they want and it's no big deal. However, we're presented with a very specific instance where Dr. Fastolfe, in what on Aurora is a somewhat eccentric act, decided to raise one of his daughters from a baby on his own, living in the same house. So a very traditional father/daughter relationship. However, once his daughter comes of age she decides to make an offer of sex to her father. Now fortunately, Dr. Fastolfe has the very good presence of mind to refuse such an offer but everyone except our "prudish Earthman" Baley thinks Dr. Falstofe acted absolutely abhorrently by doing so and is blamed for stunting his daughter for life because of his behavior.

...I don't even know how to begin to explain how utterly messed up that is.

Like, I understand that this is a small thing, a really, really small thing in a book about robots and spaceships and galactic empires and psychohistory and a robot murder mystery. And I understand that while an author might write certain things in their books they may not in any way, shape, or form support the ideas suggested or supported by what they write. I get it. I really do.

But NO!

I just could not focus on the book after that point. Everything else was getting crowded out by the fact people acted like incest was no big thing. "Without procreation, sex is only a social activity." Well yes, that's technically correct, but still no! There is just something inherently and utterly wrong in people acting like it's perfectly natural for a daughter to want to have sex with her father, a man who has literally raised her from a baby. And this is only made worse by how little a deal it is. It'd at least be something if Baley spent pages and pages arguing about how utterly messed up this is and how degenerate Spacer society has become as a result but no, it's kind of "Haha, stupid Earthman. You and your prudish, monogamous ways! We Spacers have long outgrown such silly superstitions!''

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.


If this wasn't an e-book on my kindle I probably would have thrown this book across the room and contemplated setting it on fire to purge what was wrong with it. And this is why I really can't give an objective review of this book because of that one thing that is wrong on so many levels and is just...ugh.

So I'm sorry, everyone, I really am. Emperor knows I wanted this book to be good like so many of the other robot stories I've read. But unfortunately in this case there's just one thing that I cannot ignore and so I cannot in good conscious tell people to read this book. Without the messed-up bit this would have just been a lackluster book, but with it? Ugh.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher

This week I'm reviewing Made to Kill, a short little novel that's part pulp noir hardboiled detective fiction, and part robot science-fiction adventure. Both of these subjects are stories that I have a fondness for, although robots are certainly far more of a favorite of mine, so it seemed like a good book for me to listen to. My impression of the book though is...more or less mixed. It's not a bad book, and there are parts that I enjoyed quite a bit, but there are parts that also left me scratching my head. I'm not sure if this book is subtly brilliant or just suffers from poor writing, which leaves me not entirely sure what to make of it.

The book follows the adventures of Raymond Electromatic, the very last robot on earth and a private detective who runs a small office with his computer assistant/boss Ada in sunny Los Angeles in the 1960's. At least, that's the official cover story. Secretly Raymond is a highly skilled hitman who can be relied upon to discreetly remove obstacles from this mortal coil for reasonable fees. Raymond is especially useful in this regard because his magnetic tape memory can only record up to twenty-four hours, which means he never has any memory of anyone who's hired him or anyone he's killed. Raymond's life is made far more complicate however, when a woman arrives in his office with a sack filled with gold bars and a request to kill a prominent movie star. There's a catch, however: Raymond has to find the movie star first.

The biggest impression I was left with this story was Raymond is an unreliable narrator and I'm not entirely sure if that was intentional or not. Raymond has some long-term memory storage which gives him his personality, his command of the English language, and knowledge of general facts necessary to navigate day to day life. But, as I said, Raymond only has space for twenty-four hours of short term memory and every day he takes out his memory tape and replaces it with a new one. The result is a lot of things Ray tells us to be true are informed to him from Ada, who's already established as not being entirely honest with Ray. So it just raises questions as to whether what Ray says can be believed or not. If this was intentional it's a brilliant bit of writing, but I'm not left with the impression it necessarily was.

A good example is Raymond's explanation of how he became the last robot on earth. To provide a condensed version here, basically in the 1950's there was a move to develop and build robots to take over a large number of menial jobs and make life for humans better. However a combination of the Uncanny Valley and human fear of change meant that the robots were quickly phased out in a matter of years. Raymond Electromatic is the only robot left on earth as a result. Personally, there's something about this story that doesn't quite add up. First of all, Ray talks about this like it was something in the distant past, saying some people are ''old enough to remember''. But this is something that happened in the past decade. It'd be like someone today saying there are still some people old enough to remember the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Technically speaking that's true, but I remember the Invasion of Iraq and I'm only 27, I just act like an old geezer. Furthermore we're told that people don't really trust robots and usually stay out of Raymond's way, but for the most part people seem to like Raymond just fine. This includes teenagers at an ice cream parlor. Teenagers, I might add, who may have remembered robots from when they were kids. After all, I can remember things from when I was six or seven.

This leads to another thing that leaves me scratching my head: why a private eye or, for that matter, a hitman? It would make sense of Ray was vaguely human-looking or even close to human looking but he simply isn't. He's described as being six feet ten, an extremely unusual height outside a basketball team and sure to attract notice. Furthermore his body's made up of bronzed steel, which I think would be rather memorable, even if it's covered by a hat and trenchcoat. Furthermore, he's the only robot in the entire world. If Ray was one of hundreds or even thousands of robots that all looked alike, he could easily blend in for undercover snooping or for assasinations. It'd be impossible to pick him out of a line up. But in this case:

Officer: Did you see anything unusual lately?
Witness: You know, I did. There was a robot poking around the other day asking a lot of questions about my neighbor.
Officer: Well, there's only one robot in the world so that narrows our list of suspects to...one.

I mean, I guess Raymond's so good at his job that he's never left any evidence to make someone even suspect a robot's involved, much less foul play, but it feels like his cover could be blown so easily by an errant witness.

One other thing that I noticed was Ray tended to include details in his narration that people wouldn't normally include, like ''I opened the door, got out of the car, and then closed the door.'' If a person was saying that, you could get away with just saying, ''I got out of the car.'' It's assumed you normally will use the door to get out of cars, although if you're jumping out the window or using an ejection seat you usually mention that. There's just little excessive details like that, but I think it may be intentional. Raymond is, after all, a robot with a precise, if somewhat limited memory. So a robot may record details a human being might consider ''insignificant''. If it was a deliberate style choice on the part of the author, it's a very clever idea, but it could also be bad writing.

Overall my feelings are kind of mixed. I don't read or listen to a lot of detective stories so I don't always figure out the plots right away and usually am catching up when everything's revealed at the end. There are elements to this book that could either be really really clever, or just bad writing, and I just don't have enough evidence one way or the other to say which it is. If you like robots and hard boiled detectives, it's a book that has both with some interesting twists. Definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar