Category: reviews

E-Books Flatline; Books (Paper) Return Like Zombies

As the Web was becoming ubiquitous in the early haze of the 21st century the wonders of Google search displaced Altavista and other engines in the search wars. Web wags declared that the age of books, actually all paper-based media, to be over. The Web would quickly provide universal access to all of human knowledge on your computer. This even before the iPhone and Android brought the Internet to our hand and thumbs. Amazon and Apple launched their tablet reading devices, Kindle and iPad. Others followed. The numbers are truly amazing. Over 2 billion tablet computers were sold between 2010 and today. The sale of e-books rose enormously.

On the way to the funeral books proved to be the zombies of the paper media world. Newspapers and magazines have continued to decline.

Book Review – The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Rise and Fall of American Growth-bookcoverThe Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US standard of living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon1 is a weighty book in every regard. At 762 pages it is a heavy lift – not beach reading or even bed-time either. But I found it almost a page turner. It is very well structured and written. None of the fussiness or obscurantist language one often finds in academic works. The central point of the book is that during the period from 1870 to 1970 the US economy grew at an extraordinary and we will not see a return to that rate for some pretty fundamental reasons.

  1. Princeton U. Press. 2016 []

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald – book review

Joe, My friend got back to me. Her contact left the Review five years ago. Sorry.  MarkWe are within days of the anniversary of the first revelations from Edward Snowden’s archive of NSA documents. The drum beat of new stories emerging from this trove continues even to this moment.1 So, Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State might be greeted with a yawn, what could be new? 

In fact, there is much that is new about how these stories have come to light and a very good overview of what we have learned about what Greenwald calls the US Surveillance State. This is a book in two parts. The first 89 pages read like a cross between a detective thriller and a spy story. There are hand offs of thumb drives at airport boarding gates, virgin computers, cell phones sealed off from the reach of the NSA by removing batteries or stuffed in freezers, meetings with a yet to be identified Snowden by an unsolved Rubik’s cube in hand.

  1. NSA Collecting Millions of Faces from Web Images http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/us/nsa-collecting-millions-of-faces-from-web-images.html accessed 06012014 []

Flash Boys Doesn’t Ask the Important Question

Flash Boys cover by Michael Lewis

photo by Patricia Wall/ NYTs

The new book, Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis has reignited the discussion of how our financial markets are rigged by high frequency trading.1 From my 2012 note: 

To turn back to HFTs, why do we need this kind of transaction? How do they contribute to economic growth? These activities are by definition a zero sum game. They are like every other form of gambling a zero sum game. There are winners and losers, but no incremental gain for the economy. Other than enriching the HFTs at cost to others with smaller computers and fewer PhDs on staff what do we get for allowing these activities? Potentially catastrophic destabilization of financial markets? Where is the upside for society as a whole? Isn’t  a primary purpose of any economy to increase the size of the pie, not just to redistribute existing wealth?

We should demand that our financial markets serve their fundamental purposes – connect investors with those who can deploy those resources to create new products and services and enable the flow of these goods and services. To call holding financial instruments whether stocks, bonds, or other assets for mere seconds investments is to beggar the mind. Government needs to step in to penalize economic activity that looks like gambling and certainly does not “grow the pie”. A sliding scale of transaction costs (aka a tax) could bring this to a screeching halt.2 There are sure to be complexities in how to implement such a strategy. But, if at every step we ask how a financial transaction contributes to economic growth at a systemic level, solutions will appear. Right now we have financial markets that are not only rigged but so complex and non-transparent that we are certainly setting ourselves up for future calamities like that which struck us in 2008.

  1. I have written about these issues earlier:  “High Frequency Trading and Deeper Questions about Capitalism” and “Wall St – not about investing but fixing the game” earlier []
  2. We would have to face the international crisis of how to employ all those PhDs currently engaged in the HFT wars []

Book Review – The Whisperers – private life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes

Whisperes- family life in Stalin's Russia by FigesThis book by Orlando Figes is exciting, terribly depressing, and cautionary. Based on hundreds of in-depth interviews and thousands of letters, diaries, and government documents, Whisperers1 puts real people in place of the faceless numbers that constitute our usual image of the human costs of Stalinist Russia – the 10 million lost during collectivization, the same or larger number disappeared during the various Terrors and the 20 million or more dead during the Great Patriotic War (aka WWII). For those who do not have much background in Russian and Soviet history Figes provides concise sketches of key political and economic developments covering the entire span of Soviet Russia. You will not feel at a loss during the NEP period nor the ensuing collectivization and the round ups of “kulaks”. This allows you to understand the private lives with a reasonable understanding of the context.

But the real contribution of this book is its discussion of the truly radical efforts by the Communist Party to crush the family as a basic unit of society and replace it with other institutions. The goal is to shape the new Soviet man. The coercive intrusion by the state into every aspect of daily life is comprehensive – it adds new depth to understanding the machinery of a totalitarian state.

  1. more here on Figes’ website []

The War on Drugs Is a Failure – The Gregory Brothers’ video

video-opdoc-drugwar-NYTimes-04192013Why waste endless words on this topic?

I stumbled on this video, “The Drug War Is a Failure” by the Gregory Brothers via the New York Times.

While poking about on YouTube I found more by these folks, “We Don’t Treat Alcoholics Like This

Then for fun here is their view of a well-worn Christmas tale, “Flying Reindeer

Russia in Private by Richard Yatzeck

Russia in Private by Richard Yatzeck

Russia today seems very far from the country I grew up with as an international ogre on the TV news,  the Soviet Union or USSR. After all, the Wall fell in 1989, already 23 years ago. The Soviet Union 

dissolved in 1991, 21 years ago. It is mostly in the memories of those over 40 years old that crossing behind the Iron Curtain was an exotic, even inexplicable adventure.

In the spring of 1971 I left my high school teaching job several weeks early to join the second Lawrence University Slavic Trip. This three month long camping trip through the Soviet Union, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Yugoslavia (I left to go to graduate school at Cornell before the trip concluded in Hungary and Czechoslovakia) has stood as a formative event in my life. For the first time I was outside of the US and definitively in foreign cultures.

Now we have Russia in Private (Amazon link) by Richard Yatzeck. Professor Yatzeck suffered through my presence in his Russian literature courses at Lawrence University for four years. More importantly here he also participated in 9 visits between 1961 and 1997. He calculates that cumulatively he has spent three years in the Soviet Union then Russia. 

The structure of the book is loosely chronological from his 1961-62 years of study at Moscow State University (the Harvard of Russia) through camping trips with undergraduates to a final stint at semesters abroad in 1997 in Krasnodar. The central content is really the particular world views of Russians in their public and private lives.

Since there is more continuity in human affairs than not, this book is an excellent introduction to some of the driving elements in the current Russia. It is not a psycho-sociological academic exercise. Whatever didactic goals there might be, the book moves forward with many well told anecdotes and observations of the personal and the private as well as the day-to-day.

George Smalley in Yatzeck's Russia in Private

George Smalley, back cover of Yatzeck’s Russia in Private

One of the treats of Yatzeck’s book for me is the opportunity to revisit George Smalley. George was passionate, sometimes about matters that seemed a bit mysterious to a college-age student. He worked phenomenally hard. He demanded hard work in return and it was difficult not to reciprocate. His language teaching methodology, based in Prague school linguistics (think Russian linguist Nikolay Trubetskoy and the Russian-born American linguist Roman Jakobson), was a miracle of clarity and power. Above all George was a wild and crazy guy.

Who else would invite you in for your private tutorials in Russian with cigarettes burning in both hands, wave you to your seat across from the over flowing ash trays and announce, “You have parachuted into Karaganda. You’ve been arrested and are now being interrogated by the local police.”

Dick Yatzeck’s book inspired a flood of memories and comments from me. The 6,000 word letter I tapped out is available for download here (PDF).

Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky

Cod by Mark KurlanskyThis wonderful little book (283 pages including 40 pages of recipes) by Mark Kurlansky is a great introduction to viewing history through a different kind of lens. We are all to used to history as told from the point of view of great men (almost always me) and nation states. Codis about the fish, fishing, processed food, ecology, trade, slavery, rum, fishing technologies, food around the whole of the Atlantic and beyond and more. It is a wonderful example of regional history.

How did the “sacred cod” sculpture end up hanging from the ceiling of the Massachusetts State House? Or, how did salted cod come to be such a prominent part of the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, France and other countries? How did it come that European fishermen competed for access to cod fisheries along the coast of New England and Canada well before the Pilgrims ever arrived? Where did cod fit into the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Caribbean, and North and South America?  How did cod come to be almost fished out of existence in the 20th century?

The_Sacred_Cod_of_Massachusetts

The Sacred Cod of Massachusetts - MA State House

This book answers these questions and more.

Title: Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1997
Reviewer: Mark Orton

Naomi Wolf’s The End of America – the movie

The End of America – a film by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern

Here is a summary1 of the ten steps discussed and illustrated by Ms. Wolf in the movie.

10 STEPS THAT CLOSE AN OPEN SOCIETY

1. invoke an internal and external threat
People who are afraid are willing to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

2. establish secret (unaccountable) prisons where torture takes place
In a secret system, the government does not have to provide any proof of wrongdoing by those it holds, so it can incarcerate anyone it wants.

3. develop a paramilitary force
A private military force — under the exclusive direction of the “commander in chief” with no accountability to Congress, the courts, or the public — blurs the line between a civilian police force and a militarized police state.

4. surveil ordinary citizens
People who believe they are being watched are less likely to voice opposition.  To scare a population into silence, the government need only monitor the activities of a few to make everyone fear that they are being surveilled.  Every closed society keeps a “list” of so-called opponents it tracks.

5. infiltrate citizen’s groups
Spies in activist groups put psychological pressure on genuine activists by undermining their trust in one another. They may also disrupt legal activities, undermining the effectiveness of group efforts.

6. detain and release ordinary citizens
Detention intimidates or psychologically damages those arrested and also lets everyone know that anyone could be labeled an “enemy combatant” and “disappeared.”

7. target key individuals
People are less likely to speak out when those who are highly visible, like journalists, scholars, artists, or celebrities, are intimidated or have the livelihoods threatened.  Targeting those who are especially visible makes it less likely that people will speak out and robs society of leaders and others who might inspire opposition.

8. restrict the press
The public is less likely to find out about government wrongdoing if the government can threaten to prosecute anyone who publishes or broadcasts reports that are critical of the government.

9. recast criticism as espionage and dissent as treason
People who protest can be charged with terrorism or treason when laws criminalize or limit free speech rather than protect it.

10. subvert the rule of law
The disappearance of checks and balances makes it easier to declare martial law, especially if the judiciary branch continues to exercise authority over individuals but has no authority over the Executive branch.

The movie presents these steps with lots of references to fascist and communist totalitarian history, particularly Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. According to the movie we are rapidly moving away from a democratic open society to a closed fascist one. The historical context for these changes in America is strictly the post 9/11 era and Ms. Wolf seems blind to the extent to which our society ceased being very open and veered away from democracy long ago. The seeds of our present situation in which corporatist interests joined at the hip with the American Empire and its military/security apparatus substantially dominate politics and the mass media are to be found long before 9/11.

An interesting aspect of this list, and a significant blind spot for Ms. Wolf and the makers of this movie,  is the extent to which most of these “steps” have been present consistently in American life. John Adams and the Federalist’s Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 speak directly to steps 8 and 9. Cold War America used Steps 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10 throughout this period. The post WWII security state has consistently treated the Constitution and Bill of Rights as rhetorical cannon fodder for propaganda to be ignored or more forthrightly nullified when found inconvenient.   For the most part, Ms. Wolf’s Ten Steps really stand out because they have been the subject of enormous intensification and institutionalization since 9/11. The American domestic security state is now united with the war making operations of the DOD to make the reach of American government truly comprehensive globally and domestically.

The government and the mass media, in a self-serving and cynical fashion, blew the 9/11 attacks into a gigantic existential threat. To this day 9/11 is treated as though it were a 21st century Pearl Harbor. In practical terms, 9/11 was a mere pin prick to an elephant. Though this attack wounded our self-perception of invulnerability and offended our sense that we are the saviors of the democratic world, it was just a terrorist attack, an incident to be dealt with proportionally, not by passing draconian Patriot Acts and building a gigantic addition onto the US security apparatus. Not to mention using this as a pretext to launching wars in two countries that have now lasted more than ten years and cost in the $ trillions.

On top of that, the government, in a completely bi-partisan display of unity, seized the opportunity to build whole new empires of security. We have the Department of Homeland Security with a $57 billion budget for fiscal 2012 and more than 200,000 employees (third largest department). 60,000 employees are in the TSA, that wonderful institution of airport silly business.

We now have to remove our shoes to get on an airplane, but do not have control of the hundreds of thousands of shipping containers that come to our ports each year. Better to demonstrate to the American populace the cost of our security by conducting invasive pat downs than to undertake real protection measures that might slow down commerce or even increase the expenses of corporations. I have been having a recurring bad dream of a small container ship floating into one of our harbors with a dirty bomb on it that we seem to have no effective means to prevent or detect.

Viewed from the perspective that Ms. Wolf’s Ten Steps are not new, but simply an intensification of fifty years of the American Empire, I think only the brutish forces of history will undo this mess.

 

  1. from the endofamericamovie.com website – 05/27/2011 []

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II

Slavery by Another Name by BlackmonThis book brings to light the extent to which the Jim Crow laws were in fact part of a totalitarian system of government that ruled the South for more than seventy five years. How these laws came to be called Jim Crow by historians instead of  “a system of racist oppression and exploitation” is a mystery. The fact that historians and school textbook writers  adopted this term,which is derogatory in its basis, points to a shameful lack of focus on the facts of life in the South during the period between 1876 and roughly 1965.  Worse it aided the systematic cover up of the actual functions of these laws and their impact on African-Americans. If the word Apartheid had been invented earlier this would also be a useful term.

The research and the writing is compelling. Blackmon has a website devoted to the book and the production of a documentary movie on PBS that will air in 2011.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II
Author: Douglas A. Blackmon    Publisher: Doubleday, $29.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0