2017年4月24日 星期一

"Ape House" by Sara Gruen (2010)

"When she slammed into the wall, she noted that her skull stopped moving before her brain did.  When the door came to a stop against her, trapping her upright, she observed that the left side of her face - the side she'd [sic] had pressed against the door - took the brunt of the impact."

Sara Gruen also wrote Water for Elephants, which I also reviewed here, but I can't find that review now.  Water for Elephants, which was later adapted into a movie, was a much better book.

And excuse me if I SPOIL it for you, but honestly I might as well.  If you're actually going to read this book, I suggest exiting now.

Isabel, a linguist studying bonobos, finds herself the victim of a "terrorist" attack launched by an animal rights group.  In the confusion, the bonobos she's studying are removed from her lab, and then cast as the stars of a reality show titled "Ape House."  Isabel, worried over the living conditions in this "Ape House," then works towards freeing her beloved bonobos from the businessman who's exploiting them.

All of which might be plausible, if not for the big, glaring plot hole at the center of this book.  I really can't believe that a show like "Ape House" would ever even enter production, I really can't believe that it would become that popular, and I really can't believe that people would care that much about bonobos in the first place.  Meerkat Manor is one thing - but meerkats are cute.  Bonobos?  I'm sure they're noble and fascinating animals, but I can't see an entire nation getting all worked up over them, either as an object of study, or as an object of exploitation.

So yeah, this book is also fairly predictable from the get-go.  Isabel saves the apes (not monkeys!  NOT monkeys!), the reporter guy gets his big scoop, and by the end of the book the bonobos somehow wind up with 30 acres of prime real estate in Hawaii.  Never mind the fact that bonobos aren't native to Hawaii.  Never mind the fact that the reporter's "discovery" near the end was completely illegal, and would probably be inadmissible in court.  Never mind....

Never mind A LOT of things.  I know I'm thinking too hard for Ape House, but upon further reflection it's kind of a wasted opportunity.  In the hands of a better, funnier author this book could have been a great ride.  It could have also made some great points about our attitudes toward animals, and what it means to be human.  As it is, it does none of those things.  Even as a by-the-numbers mystery it fails, because you can figure out most of the plot from the first few chapters.  

All told, it's no Water for Elephants.  Not that that was such a great book, either.

2017年4月21日 星期五

"Postcapitalism" by Paul Mason (2015)

"We need to be unashamed utopians.  The most effective entrepreneurs were exactly that, and so were all the pioneers of human liberation." 

Paul Mason is a journalist and filmmaker.  He has NO background in economics, and in fact began his career as a music teacher (!).

And to begin with, the title of this book is completely misleading.  It should be titled Communism, since that's what it's about.  I suppose Mr. Mason thought "Postcapitalism" was "edgy," or that there was more of a market (oh! the irony!) for a book that seemed to be advocating a new economic model.  Yet this remains a book about Communism, written by a guy whose understanding of economic concepts largely dates back to the turn of the previous century.

The author also has a way of ignoring facts he finds inconvenient.  In discussing the monopolies of the early 1900s, for example, he fails to mention the anti-trust movement.  In discussing Socialism under the Weimar Republic, he fails to mention the disastrous economic policies of that regime, and how they spawned a fascist movement that was vehemently anti-Communist in nature.  He ignores a lot of other facts, and what we end up with is a very one-sided view of history, with little regard for the real advantages of a capitalist system.

The chapters dealing with "the information revolution" find the author on much firmer footing, and he says some insightful things about capitalism in the age of the Internet.  But at the same time his enthusiasm for modern information technology seems a bit naive, as he once again glosses over many negatives in the service of the point he's trying to make.  Is social networking really making us all self-empowered members of a network?  Or is it turning us into drones?  And what about the social/cultural impact of our addiction to smartphones, Facebook, and getting all of our information beyond the medium of other human beings?  What does that spell for the future?  And it is it really an unequivocal good?

The author also makes some valid points near the end of this book.  He combines climate change, demography, and debt leveraging into a fair assessment of our current situation, and how we might adapt our institutions to changing trends.  The only thing is that the points he makes don't originate with him.  They are instead the work of other, uncredited authors, and many of these authors draw opposing conclusions from the same data.

Add to this the fact that his idea of "Postcapitalism" is nothing new.  All he's really doing is stapling an ill-defined version of Communism onto an ill-defined version of economic history.  I get his gripes with capitalism as it's practiced today.  The system has real faults that need to be addressed.  But it's not hard to see that Paul Mason's vision of the future would produce more problems than it would solve, and that his understanding of human nature - like his understanding of world affairs - is too shaky to be of service to this vision. 

I can't remember the last time I had such a strongly negative reaction to a book.  It was an act of will to finish it, and as I reached the last page I couldn't help but yell "Fuck you, motherfucker!" at an empty room.

If you're looking for better books about similar topics, I recommend "Who Owns the Future?," "Free Market Environmentalism," and "The Death of Money."  They are all far, far better than Postcapitalism.

2017年4月16日 星期日

"The Death of Money" by James Rickards (2014)

"The dollar's demise will take one of three paths.  The first is world money, the SDR; the second is a gold standard, and the third is social disorder.  Each of these outcomes can be foreseen, and each presents an asset-allocation strategy best able to preserve wealth."

James Rickards has written several books on world finance.  He's also a portfolio manager at the West Shore Group, and has served as an advisor to the CIA.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading.  The subtitle, "The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System," is more to the point.  The Death of Money isn't really talking about the end of all money, everywhere, but rather the decline of the US dollar, and what this decline will mean for the world economy.

To paraphrase, the repeal of the Gold Standard, coupled with structural faults within the US economy, will lead to an economic collapse in the near future.  This economic collapse will not be restricted to the US, but will ripple outward, affecting governments worldwide.

And while there's no real way to avert this catastrophe, countries and individuals throughout the world can make it less painful.  On the national level, currencies backed by a sufficient amount of gold will weather the crisis better than those fixed to floating exchange rates.  A transition to the IMF's SDR (Special Drawing Right) "currency" might also be an answer.  Individuals can prepare for this crisis by restructuring their portfolios to contain a certain percentage of gold, and might also look into types of land acquisition less vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Whatever you do, says the author, be ready.  The crash is coming any day now, and when it comes it won't be pretty.

This book reaches many of the same conclusions as The Demographic Cliff, another book reviewed here recently.  But where the Demographic Cliff arrives at its conclusions from trends within world populations, The Death of Money arrives at many of the same conclusions from an analysis of world financial markets.  Of the two, I'd have to say that The Death of Money is the better book, but both have important things to say, and reading them together can add a lot to either one.

2017年4月8日 星期六

"Why the West Rules - For Now" by Ian Morris (2010)

"An all-out East-West war would, of course, be catastrophic.  For China it would be suicidal: the United States outnumbers it twenty to one in nuclear warheads and perhaps a hundred to one in warheads that can be relied upon to reach enemy territory.  China tested an antimissile missile in January 2010, but lags far behind American capabilities.  The United States has eleven aircraft carrier battle groups to China's zero (although China began building its first aircraft carrier in 2009)* and an insurmountable lead in military technology.  The United States could not, and would not want to, conquer and occupy China, but almost any imaginable war would end with humiliating defeat for China, the fall of the Communist party, and perhaps the country's breakup."

Author Ian Morris is a Professor at Stanford University, specializing in (Western) History, Archaeology, and the Classics.  He was born in the UK, and has written three other books. 

The Good: As a survey of world history this book isn't terrible, but it does leave A LOT out, and tends to oversimplify historic episodes that are critical to its thesis.  The Opium War, for example.  Or the development of various methods of government in post-WWI China.  At times the author's lack of knowledge with regard to his ill-defined "Eastern core" is glaring, but he does a decent job of presenting major world events in chronological order.

The Bad: When the author writes about the West (or, in his terminology, "Western core") and the East (the Eastern core), what is he writing about, exactly?  As he would have it, the Western core developed from an agricultural heartland referred to as the Hilly Flanks, while the Eastern core developed from an agricultural base between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers.

But what about India?  And what about the incomplete nature of the archaeological record, and the fact that the West has been so much more thoroughly excavated than the East?  What about the fact that sites within the Fertile Crescent would tend to be better preserved than those in the East, an area which presently nurtures large populations and has a much shorter history of archaeological survey?

I'd have to say that India was what really stuck in my craw the whole time I was reading this book, especially given the fact that India's population is poised to overtake China's in the near future.  How do you write a book like this and manage to overlook an entire subcontinent?

And then of course there is the question of what it means "to rule."  Is it really just a question of having a higher standard of living?  Is it the number of territories you control?  The worldwide popularity of your culture, and the ideas it produces?  If we are to take the title of this book is its central thesis, from the very beginning it fails to explain what it is setting out to prove: in short, what it means to rule, and why such a quality of rulership is desirable.

The Ugly: As a guide to current and future events, this book is a disaster.  It says almost nothing about the current state of East-West relations, and the author hedges his bets so much with regard to predictions that this book just about makes itself irrelevant.  All of the praise for this book - located conveniently inside its front cover - was either written by people whom the author has praised (and sited) in the book itself, or by those who haven't bothered to read it straight through.

But you need not only take my word for it.  You can read Ricardo Duchesne's great interview of it here

*In case you somehow missed the news, that creaky, Soviet-designed Chinese aircraft carrier is now operational.

On a side note, this book reminded me why my study of History stopped at the undergraduate level.  As a work of scholarship this book is dismal.  I'm sure that Professor Morris has failed students for work that was both more rigorous and more thought-provoking than this steaming pile of crap.