Category: reviews

The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson

Warmth of Other Suns - Isabel WilkersonIsabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s great migration,1 creates  whole new planes of awareness of our history.

This book startled me to a new understanding of how encompassing and pervasive the Jim Crow laws and social rules of the South really were. Without much thinking on my part, I have always equated Jim Crow with images of separate water fountains, lunch counters, and schools, along with denial of voting rights. Included were images of lynchings and mob violence. Wilkerson’s work brings to life the real depth of the American system of Apartheid. These laws and social rules were so extensive as to lead to separate break times in factories so that whites and blacks would not even use a stairway at the same time.

This is the story of the six million African Americans who left the South for the North and West of the US between 1910 and WWII. Wilkerson builds her narrative of the main courses of this migration through the stories of three people leaving three different parts of the South, venturing to the three main destinations, NYC and the northeast, Chicago, and Los Angeles over three decades (teens through 40’s). Her overall research included interviews with over 1,200 people.

The stories do not end with the escape from the South. Wilkerson follows the stories as they unfold in their new environs. Here the transition from the oppressions of the South to the new realities of the north and west. No surprise the escape from the South did not mean an instant escape from racism institutionalized or otherwise. This part of the story is more familiar to a Northern urbanite.

This book, along with Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name – the re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII2 are compelling additions to understanding the history of racism in the US. Both are must reads.

  1. New York City, Random House 2010 []
  2. NYC Doubleday, 2008 []

Book Review: Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises by Kindleberger

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises, fourth edition by Charles P. Kindleberger (New York: Wiley 2000)

Manias,Panics,and Crashes by KindlebergerA recent Wall St Journal article described this book as a “must read” classic for anyone involved in financial markets. I have been involved directly in financial markets in two ways recently. First, I spent a year chasing around chasing angel investors and venture capitalists during the DotCom boom to fund Valuedge (the software company I co-founded in 1999 and left in 2004, though I still hold a large ownership interest).  Second, I receive quarterly statements for my 401K retirement investments. Primarily driven by my experiences with Valuedge and the phenomenal boom time of the DotCom era, I read through Kindleberger’s durable book (originally published in 1978 and never out of print since).

Although I have come to refer to the year 2000 as the Tulip Phase of Valuedge after the well-known Dutch tulipmania in the 1630s. Little did I know that financial bubbles, booms, and the inevitable crashes and depressions are a very common feature of capitalism. The first couple of chapters describe or mention dozens of bubbles and booms located around an amazing array of geopolitical centers. These have been focused on anything and everything: the well-known tulips in the 1630s; railroads; copper; English country houses; agricultural land; private companies going public (Britain 1888, US 1928 and IPOs 1998-2000); and many others.

The first lesson, then, is that booms and speculative bubbles are a commonplace feature of the capitalist world.

So, why do these bubbles and speculative manias occur? The answers are complex, involving human psychology, malfeasance, regulation (or lack), banks, and government. Read Kindleberger .

An important explicit message from Kindleberger is that economists’ models of “homo economicus” and “the market” are far from a useful mirror of what actually goes on. People are not even vaguely rational in their economic behavior and markets never constructively approach the model of a market found in Econ 101 or for that matter anywhere else that I have ever heard of.

This is not just an academic concern. In recent years our politics has displayed a dominant rhetoric that calls for the application of “market solutions” to almost every area of our lives, particularly those where traditionally we expect government to provide services, regulations, etc. Instead, we now reflexively think that “market solutions” are inherently more efficient and effective than government services. Liberals, trapped in their abandonment of even the moderate criticism of capitalism that the Catholic Church, for instance, engages, have provided no useful critique of “market solutions” as a universal policy approach.

At a practical level, this public policy fixation on “market solutions” combined with a generalized attack on all government spending, is driving a generalized impoverishment of the public infrastructure of our civil society and not coincidentally an enrichment of the wealthy and particularly the super-rich.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the day-to-day political and economic life of the world.

Yottabytes and the National Security State

The current New York Review of Books has an article by James Bamford, “Who’s in Big Brother’s Database” that reviews the new book by Mathew M. Aid, The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency . I have gotten in line at my local library to read this book and will make further comments after that.

Secret Sentry by Mathew AidMeanwhile, the Bamford article mentions the construction boom at NSA (National Security Agency) with a doubling of its headquarters and million sq. feet of data storage in the Utah desert costing some $2 billion. This to store the data from all of NSA’s spying that by 2015 will be spoken of in terms of yottabytes.

Now, before you think that Bamford is mainlining old Star Wars characters, a yotta- is the largest large number prefix officially recognized in the scientific lexicon. At our house we are approaching 1/2 Terabyte (1012) in our total digital stores, mostly photos. Really large corporate databases are measured in Petabytes (1015). A Yotta is 1024.

Are you feeling safer?

Do you really think that any email sent or telephone conversation you have had since 2002 or 2003 is not logged in the vast secret Security State Apparatus??

I guess that a National Security State (Empire) that has had over 800 military bases throughout the world (see an earlier posting on this topic) to assure our influence elsewhere can not resist the opportunity the state of so-called war we have been in since 2001 to penetrate into every American’s life.

Book Review: Diamond Street – Hudson, NY: the story of the little town with the big red light district

Diamond Street by Bruce hallDiamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District by Bruce Edward Hall (Black Dome Press, Hensonville NY 1994 and 2005)

This is a fairly readable history of Hudson as seen from the other side of the tracks and from the corrupt office holders in city government and local police. Sheds new light on how Hudson has been dependent for a very long time on “weekenders” to support a significant portion of the local economy. the difference is that the current economy is not dependent on men’s interests in gambling, drinking and sex.

Lots of wonderful stories and much local color and geography. Somewhere a wonderful, marvelous in its excess, statistic appears that Hudson once had 76 bars packed into its 2+ square miles.

Book Review: Looking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York

Looking for Work by Peter stottLooking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York, The Emergence and Growth of Local Industry as Revealed in Surviving Sites and Structures by Peter H. Stott, Syracuse University Press, 2007

This is a comprehensive review of industrial sites in 18 towns and the City of Hudson in Columbia County. There is a narrative historical description of the industry in each town and more detailed descriptions of the 134 sites. A great resource for anyone interested in the history of Columbia County and industrial archeology in general. The author has earlier written A Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Boston Proper (MIT Press, 1984)

More information and to purchase here.

North Korea – a visit to the "Axis of Evil"

Bruce Cumings -North KoreaRecently, in the context of some discussion of the Bush regime, my step-son Jonathan pointed me towards several books on Korea. He said that Bruce Cumings is simply the best author writing in English on Korea. So, a quick trip to the local library and I had this compact little book in my hands.

The book is organized around five topics: (1) the impact of the Korean War on North Korea, (2) the genesis of Korea’s nuclear programs, (3) the legend of Kim Il Sung, (4) daily life in North Korea, and (5) the current leader (dictator) Kim Jong Il. The text is not what one might expect of an academic from the University of Chicago. Cumings writes in an openly polemic style that is directed to providing maximum exposure to North Korea and our miserable knowledge of this country.

This book is relatively brief and a compelling introduction to North Korea and a portion of our foreign policy history that was substantially new to this reader

Book Note – Before the Dawn: recovering the lost history of our ancestors

Before the Dawn by Nicholas WadeEarlier this year I read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and was rewarded with another reminder of how thin my understanding of our hemisphere’s history is and how much new knowledge is being added by multiple disciplines. Here was a whole new world to be explored.

Nicholas Wade’s book is another must read for those of us educated before the impact of the decoding of DNA had begun. He attempts to summarize what we have learned based on contemporary genetics combining it with the vast base of earlier research from paleoanthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and other fields.

Wade opens the book with a great little story about how genetics has determined a probably date for when human beings first began wearing clothing. Based on the fact that body lice are descended from head lice and show a special adaptation specifically providing body lice with the means to hang on to the fibers of our clothing, genetics is able to date our adoption of clothing to be about 72,000 years ago “give or take a few thousand years”.

While discussing the evidence for the paths of human migration away from the African homeland, Wade mentions that the biggest region for the paucity of physical data is that because we were in glacial period, seal level was some 300 feet lower than today. Thus, since early humans would have followed the coast line to be close to a ready source of food, their early habitations are now well below water.

I won’t attempt to summarize the book. Rather I urge you to retrieve it from your local library.