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The Underwriting
The Underwriting
by Michelle Miller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.86

3.0 out of 5 stars Quirky quartet of quarter-life crisis comedies, April 23, 2015
This review is from: The Underwriting (Hardcover)
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My main reaction to this book is disappointment. It is close to being a really, really good novel, but it sabotages itself by attempts to be a popcorn comic thriller. The underlying story is dark, which kills the light-hearted mood necessary to sustain the comedy; moreover it's neither funny enough to be a comic novel, nor suspenseful enough to be a thriller. It reminds me of what Hollywood often does to good novels, only in this case, the author has done it to herself (or perhaps was talked into it by editors enamored with the idea of a shallow roman à clef of high-status millennial sex, ambition and redemption like The Devil Wears Prada or The Player). This author is more talented than the authors of those made-for-the-movies beach reads; and her story is far deeper. This could have been a Bright Lights, Big City or The Graduate.

The main characters are all facing quarter-life crises, which hit at about half the 45-65 age range for mid-life crises. A mid-life crisis is triggered by the realization that the age of peak success has passed, and there is only decline in the future, forcing people either to come to terms with limits, to shift life values to things that can continue to improve with age or to make desperate attempts to leap forward. The quarter-age crisis occurs when the rate of accumulation of traditional success slows, forcing people to consider that they may peak below the level of their wildest dreams. The obvious responses are to redouble efforts to gain money and status, to focus on the important dreams and let the inessential ones slide or to rebel against the entire system as a massive bait-and-switch fraud.

The author sketches four versions of this dilemma with great insight and skill, which by itself would make this an interesting book. The author takes it to another level, however, in two ways. First, she embeds the crises in a coherent, simple story of a technology initial public offering so that the four characters can be thrown together in a variety of settings and ways. There are some implausible but clever plot devices to make the entire deal depend on a small group of under-30s (in a real technology IPO there would be a few hundred people, half over 30, dividing the work the characters do in this book). Aside from the changes necessary to focus the story, the account is quite accurate, with a lot of amusing insider details that even non-fiction accounts miss. Moreover it teaches the financial and institutional basics in a way that will be painless even to those with no previous exposure or interest. My only nitpick, and I'm pretty picky about this stuff, is there are some anachronisms--the Internet collapse is dated as 2002 instead of 2000 and is described like the 2007-09 financial crisis, which it did not resemble, and the I-Banking world portrayed is pre-Dodd-Frank (passed in 2010), while the technology funding world is clearly post-Facebook IPO (2012), so some details could not have co-existed.

The second way in which the author exceeds expectations is to interleave the story with enough reality to give perspective to the main characters' discontents. The book is scrupulously neutral on the question of whether to take the dissatisfaction, immaturity, selfishness and unreasonable expectations of the main characters seriously, or whether they pale to irrelevance against things like murder, familial love, honesty and justice, which are always lurking on the edge of the story and on two occasions become central. In this respect it reminds me of River's Edge, or it would the author hadn't veered away from intensity at every excuse for a cheap joke.

The 20-something characters are top graduates of top colleges, and mostly socially successful fraternity/sorority types (oddly, the book pours as much scorn on the socially inept as the Mean Girls' Plastics, haven't most people learned by their mid-20s that having worth and being cool are not synonymous?). Three in New York moved from college onto an investment banking ladder, three in California acquired older mentors to pull them up, and then there are two women have no support above. Much of the discussion in the book concerns the advantages and pitfalls of promotion system versus mentor versus independence. Interestingly, none of the characters has ever had a romantic relationship, although all are experienced to varying degrees at hooking up. Only one of the characters has ever done anything professionally of tangible, objective value (and that was to help code an app that helps people hook up, there is another minor character who has reported on violence in the Middle East but to no apparent effect on the world); the others are accustomed to having their performance valued only via the opinions of other people.

Another commonality is all characters are either whitebread Americans or sit-com stereotypes like a born-poor Mexican with a Latin temper and a murdered father, a smart incredibly hardworking socially inept Asian, fashion-loving arch gossiper male gay people and a butch personal trainer lesbian. Imagine Freaks and Geeks with the characters a decade older and preparing to inherit the world--or at least Manhattan and San Francisco. Older people are mostly irrelevant or disgusting (in what is I think an unintentionally amusing part, the characters ask each other why a 50-year-old married guy would want sex; and his homosexuality is not treated with the tolerant-but-stereotyped attitude applied to younger gay people). Parents are burdens or absent or negative object lessons; the only close familial relations are with siblings. The older people in New York who pull strings are worthless, unhappy and dangerous (but mostly stupid), the older people in California are selfish and untrustworthy (but smart). And to the extent they think about it at all, the characters are mostly angry about everything that happened in the world before the year 2000, and most of the stuff that happened since, but extraordinarily accepting of people their own age.

The tremendous potential of this story never gels because the author didn't trust her writing and the characters. Sex is an extremely important part of this book, but key scenes are spoiled by either embarrassment or distaste for adult description. In one of the most important, all the bad words are redacted. In the single most important, the author is in a hurry to get away from messy anatomical details that might frighten children or offend prudes. To make matters worse, this also spoils the book as a beach read because the many sex scenes are also not sexy. Think Carnal Knowledge, not Sex and the City.

Despite the dark elements, this is basically a comic novel, but there is no absurdity, not even mild dissonance. It's not enough to have deluded characters, you need misunderstandings, surprising juxtapositions or logical but unexpected chains of events to make people laugh. The author has to let go of control and trust the story to evolve on its own. Similarly, the author has to have faith in the characters to let them develop, rather than just marinate in their own juices (which does lead to change, but at too slow a pace for entertainment, and without the interactions with other characters and the plot needed for literary interest).

The suspense is neglected entirely. There is a fine suspense plot quietly brewing behind all the surface action, but the author simply mentions it every few pages with some random reminder, like a mention on television news or a tweet. It's just constant lukewarm water that suddenly turns into steam, rather than the simmering mood of a good suspense story.

Evaluated as a novel, this book has a five star elements and a five star talented author, but the book has been slicked up and dumbed down to a three star effort. Evaluated as light entertainment, it's only average, with a pretty good story and some fun characters, but not funny, thrilling nor sexy enough to rule the beach.

My Side of the Street: Why Wolves, Flash Boys, Quants, and Masters of the Universe Don't Represent the Real Wall Street
My Side of the Street: Why Wolves, Flash Boys, Quants, and Masters of the Universe Don't Represent the Real Wall Street
by Jason DeSena Trennert
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.25

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A defense of Wall Street so bad, it might have been written by an Occupier, April 20, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
At the beginning of this book, the author relates his frustration when an acquaintance who has seen Wolf Of Wall Street asks, "Did you guys bring hookers up to the office and party like that?" So the author set out to write this book to prove that Wall Streeters are honest, ethical, hard working, useful people who should not be hated. But within 10 pages, he is relating approvingly that his boss and mentor (whom he is trying to emulate) was "teaching his gorgeous sales assistant Stephanie to count ceiling tiles in the supply room."

What's the difference between treating sex as a trophy for a conquering man over a bored woman (whose only relevant characteristic is her appearance rating) in a closet, versus bringing prostitutes to the trading room? Not much in moral terms, but Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street, had more guts. He also did things openly, and shared, and paid cash for his fun rather than coercing subordinates. My Side of the Street is filled with unpleasant boasting about the author's crude sexual behavior, such as picking up a drunk co-worker for a one-night stand and then joking about how easy she was with his roommates, giving her the nickname of "Panty." To make things worse, if the story is true, the woman is identifiable. Yet the same author is outraged to be compared to someone with the same morals but more flamboyance and charm.

Also early in the book, the author describes his job "cold calling" for a branch office of Smith Barney. This means calling people you don't know but who probably have some money, and trying to talk them into paying commissions to Smith Barney to buy investments. This is exactly the same activity portrayed in movies like Boiler Room, Wall Street (before Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, moves on to insider trading) and Wolf of Wall Street. The difference? One is that the author is bad at it, he fails to open even a single account, much less close a trade--the people who are good at this get many trades per day. The other difference is that the movie cold callers cared nothing about the value of the stocks they were touting, which in many cases turned out to be worthless. Smith Barney, of course, deals in reputable stocks. But the author had nothing to do with that, and never mentions it. Even if the stocks are reputable, what business does he have pushing them on people he doesn't know?

The author calls a broker a "top producer" because he screams abuse at his customers to get them to buy more stock (and pay more commissions), he doesn't mention whether the stocks were good or even appropriate investments. He cares only about the sale and the commission, not whether the customers benefit.

Or take his extended rant about airline travel. He blames his unpleasant experiences on deregulation that "allowed any yahoo in shorts to travel" and in some unspecified way led "to the events of 9/11" (I guess he means the terrorists would not have been able to afford tickets at the high regulated prices of the 70s). Tellingly, he doesn't complain that "we" have been mistreated, he writes, "I have been subjected to" inconveniences by "a Central American woman" (the book is filled with ethnic stereotypes, although to be fair, the author applies them to himself as well) and a frightened child, among other "yahoos" who annoy him. He even whines about delays due to thunderstorms, as if even God should know how important the author is (I suspect God does). Worse, he does not direct his anger at economic forces or the people running things, but on low-paid line employees who are "insufferably bitter" and lack "even the slightest trace of the milk of human kindness." In a book arguing that all employees shouldn't be blamed for the sins of an industry (Wall Street), it would behoove the author not to blame all employees for the sins of an industry (airlines).

There are lots of other examples. The author describes how he liked getting paid off the books, as if the rules don't apply to him and he and his employer need the money more than the social security recipients he cheated, or the taxpayers who will have to make up the shortfall. He celebrates outrageously expensive dining and (especially) wining, without mentioning that the bill is being picked up by pension funds, charitable endowments and ordinary savers. When he passes his Series 7 exam and boasts to his coworkers how he will leave their pathetic backwater for greener pastures, his boss takes him aside and lets him know that he should either move on to those greener pastures immediately, or stop insulting everyone else who is happy in place. Instead of taking this sensible advice, the author thinks his boss is holding him back. He calls a coworker (another identifiable person if the story is true) "rummy" for returning deposit cans; as if there's no difference between a homeless alcoholic buying cheap wine with cans he collects from garbage bins, and a coworker who either believes in recycling or counts his nickels and dimes.

Don't get me wrong, I know lots of people are thoughtlessly judgmental and who chisel in petty ways; but are generous and good at other times; or who enjoy good things that fall their way without worrying too much about who is paying the cost. All of us (definitely including me) have done things of which we are less than proud and we don't kill ourselves, we just resolve to be more honorable in the future. But all of us except the author of this book are smart enough to realize you don't boast about the bad stuff if you're writing a book to prove that people should have a better opinion of you.

In short, the author manages to demonstrate exactly the qualities most people hate about Wall Street. He's entitled, overpaid, contemptuous of poorer people (but obsequious about the rich), above the rules and greedy in his pleasures (both drinking and sex). That's not the whole book, there are many parts in which the author acts like a decent human being; the key is that he doesn't seem to know the difference between that and being a jerk. Not once in the book does he even try to justify any utility his job has to anyone, except of course himself.

The difference between him and the movie villains is he lacks their daring, skill and forthrightness. Actually people like those things about Wall Street, they give credit to people who succeed in a highly competitive profession, who have skill, who go their own ways and who act boldly. That's why people enjoy the movies. It's true people disapprove of the lawbreaking, and disapprove even more of the ruined fortunes and lives the swashbucklers leave in their wakes, but they think even less of someone with the same arrogance and greed, who does the same damage but escapes punishment, but who lacks the panache and talent.

Oh, and Gordon Gekko, Jordan Belfort and Chris Varick never whined that people should feel sorry for them, even as they all went to prison. They lived high, fell hard and let other people think what they wanted. This author wants your pity for his life dissatisfaction and because people think ill of him for Wall Street faults he claims only apply to others.

Let me be clear that I don't think the author is a bad guy, he seems to be a good salesperson running an honest business, and he does a lot of good stuff in the book. He certainly could have written a book making the case he wants to make. But instead he chose to boast about the bad stuff and rant on other people in ways that reflect far more on him than on his mostly innocent and defenseless targets. He seems pathologically unaware of what people dislike about Wall Street. I suspect the contempt he arouses in strangers is not due to general prejudice against Wall Street, or even to his actual behavior, but a reaction to the way he presents his behavior.

There's also a lot of financial nonsense in the book. For example, he writes everyone, "would have been well-advised to buy [stocks] after corrections." This is classic CNBC nonsense. Of course, if you know it's just a "correction" and that it's over, then it makes sense to buy. But if you turn this into actionable advice, it's nonsense. For example, if you bought stocks every time the S&P500 hit a low for the trailing year, since 1950 you would have had a 9% average annual return, but a pretty terrifying 35% average annual standard deviation. If you instead bought every time the S&P500 hit a new high for the year, your return would have been 15%, with a modest 10% standard deviation. I'm not arguing never to buy when the market has gone down in the recent past, only that to evaluate an investment rule you have to make it precise and test it. Anything else is just dangerous blather. And the stock market is very volatile when it's going down, and has a fair amount of short-term momentum in its moves, so buying after declines is a pro's game (that's also true of buying after run-ups, but at least history is on your side for that game).

For another random example, he claims the Capital Asset Pricing Model explains why the richest people are likely to be big risk takers. The actual reason is much simpler. The biggest success goes to those people who take big risks and win, just as the biggest losses go to those people who take big risks and lose. The people who don't take big risks may win or lose, but seldom enough to be either the richest or the poorest.

CAPM does not argue that the riskiest stocks will do the best, it's closer to the opposite. CAPM argues that you can only expect additional return from risk that is systematic to the market. Taking risk on its own adds nothing to return. A CAPM view of the world would apply only if you were buying fractions of other people's income. It wouldn't tell you to look for the riskiest people, or the least risky, but for those people with idiosyncratic risks; people whose success depends mostly on them, not on the economy doing well or any other systematic factor. CAPM tells you that you can use shares of their income to improve your portfolio more than shares of other people who may have higher expected income, but whose income is systematic.

This is a basic Finance 101 point, and getting it totally wrong, almost reversed, is embarrassing for an investment strategist. The mangling of financial theory in throughout this book is another reason it is unlikely to improve anyone's opinion of Wall Street.

America's Destruction of Iraq
America's Destruction of Iraq
Price: $5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A wild ride with some genuine insight and sharp observation, and some total poppycock, April 18, 2015
This book is written with energy and passion, and much of it is based on the author's first-hand observations. As a West Point graduate who served in a variety of contract roles both in the US and overseas, he was high enough up to see the big picture but close enough to the reality to keep his head on straight; and he was independent of any organization that would shape his perspective or insist on his silence. He has no personal career ax to grind (although he is not shy about dishing on people who failed to hire him).

On the negative side, this is a pure "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" book. There is no moderation, no uncertainty, no equivocation in his account; and his opinions are rendered just as forcefully whether they are based on careful observation, expert knowledge, some book he read or some nonsense that he misheard somewhere. His Abrams is stuck in fourth gear, he doesn't care whether or not he's got a map, and his ammunition is unlimited. He is not even consistent. He appreciates the evil and incompetence that underlay the Vietnam War, but anyone who didn't serve is labeled a coward. There are plenty of reasons other than cowardice to avoid a war, including thinking the war is wrong, or hopeless, or not worth your life; moreover there are cowards who enlist and brave people who oppose the war. I do agree with the author that people who didn't serve have no business ordering others to fight -- both as a matter of morality and for the practical reason that war experience is required to make rational judgments about war.

For all his experience, the author is naively romantic about war. He does a good job of chronicling some of the cynical calculations that led the US to its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the leadership failures that contributed the mostly bad outcomes. But every war ever fought has been supported for selfish reasons, people who hope for political gain as well as people who hope for financial gain, not to mention people who want adventure and people with anger management issues and people who like bossing other people around and people who want promotions and people who like to watch things blow up from safe distances. Every war has atrocities and injustices and waste.

What the author fails to do is to measure the venality and incompetence of the Iraq war against the reasons for fighting it. It wasn't as if the US had the option of ordering an honorable war executed flawlessly, such a thing does not exist. Saying you like war but hate the profiteers and mistakes and horrors is silly. However, the author is not big on balancing, he's angry about the bad stuff, and that's enough for him. And once he's decided he doesn't like something, anything is fuel for his anger, Norman Schwarzkopf's waistline, Tommy Franks foul mouth, anything.

If you judge a war by adding up the bad things, you are logically forced into pacifism. I think that's a reasonable philosophy, although I'm not one myself. Personally I think you should fight when you are attacked, period. I do not support wars to make the world safe for democracy, or to promote justice, or to get revenge, or to end some intolerable situation, or on speculation or for fun or profit (I also oppose metaphorical wars on poverty, drugs, terrorism or anything else; neither real nor metaphorical wars are ever good answers to problems; they're things are reduced to when you have no alternative but surrender). But I agree with the author that once you do go to war, you fight until your enemy surrenders unconditionally. The only good thing about war is that it is followed by peace, and conditional surrenders generally fail to produce lasting peace. But the key is to identify your enemy precisely, are you fighting Hitler, or Nazism, or Germany, or fascists, or something else (the author appears to agree with Patton that we were fighting totalitarians so we should have marched on to fight Russia)? The 19 people who attacked the US on 9/11 were already dead; but we could have defined the enemy as the people who planned and aided the attack, or all of al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or all violent fundamentalists, or all terrorists, or a number of other formulations (not, by the way, including Iraq).

The author seems to waver from his "destroy the enemy completely" (his version of my "insist on unconditional surrender") philosophy when he speaks approvingly of Colin Powell's emphasis on having an exit strategy (Colin Powell is one of the few people in the book to get mixed reviews). When you are attacked your exit strategy is simple, it's not to lose. An exit strategy implies that you stop fighting at some pre-determined point short of total victory. I don't believe in exit strategies, because if you need one, you shouldn't enter. Wars are far too horrible and unpredictable to be used when you're hoping to get ahead on points; and sorta-wars are excuses for horrific violence in pursuit of goals that cannot morally justify killing.

The book covers a lot more than the bad way we entered Iraq and the worse way we stayed there. The author has some first-hand experience in the Florida election recount in 2000, the organization of Homeland Security and a few other events of the last 25 years where politics, violence and leadership intersect. He's clear and honest in his assessments of these things, although few readers will follow him to the extremes he pushes his judgments.

Away from his direct experience, he is much less reliable. He thinks the antiwar movement in the US stopped suddenly when the draft ended. He is as certain that Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall knew the attack on Pearl Harbor was coming (including the exact time) as that Santa Claus is a myth. He is outraged that the civil rights of suspected terrorists are allowed to hamper investigations that might save lives (if something disappears upon suspicion, it is not a right, and if you don't believe in risking lives for rights, you don't deserve rights). I could put in a much longer list here, but you get the idea.

The book presents some fascinating observation of important events, with some expert opinions about military and political leadership, unintended consequences, honor and competence. It's mixed with some entertaining rants, and some nutty stuff, muddled logic, unenlightened thinking and silly error. It works as a whole because it is suffused with honesty. A lot of it is wrong, but it's not calculated untruth or dogma, the guy makes up his own mind. Sometimes he sees clearly, sometimes his vision's a bit blurred, and sometimes he must be high on something he picked up on his travels. But it's all him.

Price: $5.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative and some good science, but doesn't hang together, April 18, 2015
This review is from: Algorithm (Kindle Edition)
The first half of this book is a standard adventure story that will remind you of books written for older grade school children like The Hardy Boys or Lucky Starr. The plot doesn't make sense, but there is action on every page, and the story advances linearly without foreshadowing, flashbacks (with a couple of exceptions) or other embellishments. The characters are all stock and two-dimensional, but they stay consistent. The plot elements seem to have been selected at random from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Stargate including Nazis, an ancient amulet and a mysterious alien code.

On the plus side, the author takes the trouble to include some solid science, which is accurate, explained well (if simplified) and integrated into the plot. There's material on genetics, biochemistry, chemistry, geology and information theory; all of it painless. There's a little history as well. That counts for a lot with me.

On the negative side, the author is sloppy with his antecedents. For example:

"Wearing a police uniform that served its purpose at the Schill incident, Borman was decidedly unhappy. His preference to wear it again plainly gave away their arrival at the museum. That did not sit well with Borman, and things that didn't sit well with him had a way of disappearing. Paul shot a nervous glance over his shoulder. The old man huddled over his tracking device, face outlined in goblin green."

Okay, there are three people in that passage, can you tell which one is wearing a police uniform? It should be Borman from the wording, but it's not. Can you tell who is sitting behind Paul and who is the old man? I can't, and the context of the book is no help. This is the first mention of Paul, and Borman and the third guy (Steven) were introduced in the two preceding paragraphs with no useful clues.

There are also grammar and usage issues. "That" should be "which" and it wasn't a "preference" that gave the gang away, but the uniform itself. Most uncommon non-technical words are misused. "A backdoor astride those windows" (the door would have to be on both sides of the pair of windows, but it is the windows that are on both sides of the door); "a sullen, swarthy skin tone" (swarthy skin tone is redundant and while sullen is sometimes used metaphorically, it's not meaningful here). A minor gripe is the author only attempts to indicate dialect with one character, and he overdoes it with dialog like, "I ain't havin' it. We're gonna leave this place, and you ain't gonna follow us." This is irritating to read, note how the small words are rendered in slang but the speaker is careful to use full diction, not "We're gonna leave, 'n you ain't followin'".

The biggest flaw in this half of the book is the tension level is uneven. For most of it, the protagonists are being chased by some people who don't seem particularly threatening, who call out that they just want to talk. At some times the protagonists' efforts to escape are sloppy and half-hearted, at others they take crazy physical risks to avoid confrontation. The aliens have some near-magical advanced technology, like a glove that allows them to control metal objects at a distance, the ability to change shape and a tool to erase memory, but only to do those few random things, and they are only occasionally available. This is fatal to a suspense adventure story, it has to sustain a driving energy; not alternate between mindless chase scenes and relaxation; and the author has to make the rules clear and stick to them, not invent abilities on the fly that represent inconsistent levels of advancement.

The next section of the book changes mood and tempo completely, to the point that I think there are few readers who will enjoy both parts. It is thoughtful and written in elegant style, although like the first part it suffers from apparent random plot elements (selected here from Childhood's End and The Matrix) and too many loose ends. Two of the characters begin to flesh out a little, although I wouldn't call it character development. Nevertheless, this part is a pretty good novella in its own right.

The final section is shorter than the first two, and a polar opposite to the first section. Now there is no action at all. It's an interesting, dreamy passage that does a nice job of topping off both the first and second sections in different ways.

I can't give less than three stars to a science fiction novel that's both a decent story and gets the science right. However I can't give more than three stars to a book with this many plot and writing defects; even if in other areas both the plot and writing shine. So three stars it is.

People Risk Management: A Practical Approach to Managing the Human Factors That Could Harm Your Business
People Risk Management: A Practical Approach to Managing the Human Factors That Could Harm Your Business
by Patrick McConnell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $49.95
21 used & new from $41.55

3.0 out of 5 stars A well-written survey of ways to think about Compliance, April 18, 2015
The first point is that this book has nothing to do with risk management. The authors begin by defining their topic as "the risk of loss due to the decisions and non-decisions of people," or more simply, that "people should do the right thing and follow the rules that are laid down for them, but sometimes they don't." Of course, this is what everyone else calls "Compliance."

The authors are describing a danger and discussing how to minimize it. Risks are two-sided, and risk management is the study of how to select the optimum level, like a sports team gambling with aggressive tactics when behind, and using conservative defensive tactics when ahead. Risk is not good or bad, it's something you dial up or down to accomplish a goal. The authors are concerned almost only with one-sided uncertainties that you would never dial up (there are two brief discussions of upside in the latter chapters of the book).

There is a vibrant literature on people risk management. It addresses questions like how to encourage innovation while ensuring efficient execution by the book; how to take advantage of diversity in the workplace and offer employees flexibility, while keeping enough standardization that processes work; how to build teamwork without groupthink; and so on. It is a mathematical field drawing on neuroscience, behavioral game theory, and experimentation. You will not find any of that mentioned here.

Related to the issue above, the book focuses (again with two significant exceptions) on studying disasters and asking why they occurred. This is useless for risk. If you look at people who die of lung cancer, you'll find that many of them visited doctors, had lung x-rays, had chemotherapy and were smokers. That observation is not helpful. If you want to study risk, you have to go the other way, you have to look at smokers and non-smokers and see what happens to them. Assigning blame after a disaster is not risk management.

What the book does provide is a survey of about a dozen ideas for combating white collar crime, making sure employees follow legal and regulatory rules and avoiding disasters caused by people issues like poor communication, infighting or bad incentives. Most of these are written in consultant-speak -- lots of big words, heat maps, pyramids, charts with arrows; not so much clear instructions or falsifiable predictions. But having seen a few of these in the original, this book will save you a lot of time and aggravation it has slimmed the presentations down and translated them halfway into English. There really is some useful insight in some of these chapters, and some empirical evidence as well.

An example of the worst of the book is:

"Employing the ISO vocabulary (Guide 73), People Risk Management (PRM) is here defined as 'coordinated activities to direct and control an organization with regard to risk (and in this context, People Risk)'"

Here you see a circular definition, that appears to be sourced to the International Organization for Standardization. But the referenced guide is only a dictionary, the authors just took the definition of "management" and appended "People Risk" to it. The quotes are misleading as the guide says nothing about People Risk, nevertheless it is cited nine times in the book for fake authority. And the passage also illustrates the book's overfondness for initialisms.

Then it gets worse. That quote is followed by:

"The key word here is coordinated; implying that People Risk Management is not itself a directing activity but one that assists others, especially the board and senior executive, to direct and control the organization's approach to People Risk."

So the entire definition above is upended. For some reason, the fact that the activity is coordinated means the People Risk Managers don't in fact direct or control anything as the original definition specifies, they're just advisors to the people who can pay the highest consulting rates. There's more circularity, we still have no idea what People Risk is (if you recall, that's what this passage is supposed to be telling us) but we do know the authors will not take responsibility for anything, they will merely assist in some nebulous function. Also note that the authors fail to use their own initialism even in the sentence immediately following its definition.

However, it quickly becomes apparent what's going on. The next sentence tells us that People Risk Management will be big and expensive, and require outside consultants. It turns out that its remit is not just people's behavior or decisions as their definition claimed, but Health and Safety (because people might get hurt), Human Resources (because Humans is another word for People?), Fraud (not a department in any company I know, but why not?), Financial Accounting (because some accounting judgments involve assessing risk?), Procurement (because it's managed by people?), Compliance (of course) and Legal (also concerned with controls and decisions). It turns out People Risk Management means poking your nose into anything in the company that has to do with People, Risk or Management; three well-chosen words for someone who wants to opine about everything but take responsibility for nothing.

On the good side, Chapter 4 has extensive and varied case studies, Chapter 8 has some interesting material that goes beyond enforcing the rules to discuss how to design organizations that avoid errors without sacrificing innovation and Chapter 10 is a solid account of traditional Compliance tools with some interesting extensions. The remaining chapters have nuggets of useful information, but few consistent veins, and a lot of dross.

Overall, I think this book is a decent overview of some academic and consultant research into the Compliance function. It won't teach you to be a Chief Compliance Officer, for that you need to know what the rules are and how to design policies. But it can help a Compliance professional think about how to enforce the rules and policies in positive ways.

Lincoln's Bodyguard: In A Heroic Act Of Bravery Saves Our Beloved President!  John Wilkes Booth Killed In Act Of Treason
Lincoln's Bodyguard: In A Heroic Act Of Bravery Saves Our Beloved President! John Wilkes Booth Killed In Act Of Treason
by TJ Turner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.31
35 used & new from $14.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great alternative history weakened by too many confusing overtones, April 11, 2015
This is a well-crafted piece of alternative history, a realistic and absorbing account of what might have happened if John Wilkes Booth had been stopped from assassinating Abraham Lincoln. It draws inspiration from some of the darker elements in the Republican Party at the time, and how those might have found counterpoint in the South, letting the nation slide into authoritarian military rule battling chronic guerrilla unrest. Lincoln himself becomes a marginalized polarizing figurehead. Some of the ideas seem closer to mid-20th century politics than mid-19th century, but not enough to make the story anachronistic, and those elements make the book even more thought-provoking than a pure historical novel.

Unfortunately, the story itself is not worthy of its backdrop. The protagonist's backstory is lurid and hyperviolent. It constantly threatens to overwhelm the rational history. In toned-down form it could have given some gritty humanity to the sweep of events, but the author seems determined to make it an equal part of the story. The assignment that drives the plot has far too many elements, and it changes its nature every few pages. All the characters are all driven by many demons, no one in the book does a normal thing for a normal reason. It would take a masterful storyteller to keep this under control and while the writing is good, the author's strengths are in imagination and description, not plot control.

There is also a ridiculous and distracting mystical overlay to the story including magical prophetic animals, precognition and some kind of fate forcing re-enactments of events--such as the capture of John Wilkes Booth--that never happened because Lincoln was saved. This book has the feel of a lot of rewriting, it seems to be a sequel to some other story, and the work appears to have diverged considerably from original intention. The action moves in fits and starts, but there are some wonderful scenes of suspense and action.

An alternate history is always going to be complex, the author and reader have to keep straight what is real history and what are the effects of the fictional changes. Adding a lot of irrational actions and mysticism could make it a mess. This book manages to avoid that, but it's a close call at points.

It's still a four star book for the imaginative and precise history, and for a story that grabs interest and keeps it. The book is fun to read, educational and thought-provoking.

Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Of mainly historical interest, but interesting on its own terms, April 11, 2015
This review is from: Triangle (Kindle Edition)
Triangle was the first novel by Teri White (who also wrote under the name Stephen Lewis) and it won the 1983 Edgar Award for best paperback original. Today the author is only remembered by fans of French neo-noir movies of the 1990s (Regarde les Hommes Tomber was based on Triangle and Max et Jérémie is an adaptation of White's 1987 novel Max Trueblood and the Jersey Desperado) and literary historians tracing the rise of the gay detective in the 1980s.

Out of historical context, modern readers are apt to see this as a blend of Midnight Cowboy and Forrest Gump with a dash of cop-as-killer's-alter-ego à la John Woo. Two male protagonists broken by Vietnam, tainted religion and bad parenting struggle aimlessly through sleazy urban settings, and fall into a life of profitless crime in an unsuccessful attempt to escape poverty and dispair. By chance they kill a police detective who, with his partner, formed what the other officers call "The Odd Couple". The surviving partner also comes from a religious household and in the course of the investigation strips himself of all ties and values until he is indistinguishable from the men he is chasing.

Unlike newer gay mysteries by authors like Derek Adams and R. D. Zimmerman, homosexuality in White's work is still mired in repression. The characters long for stable emotional partnerships, but cannot find them with women. In fact, it's almost a running joke that no one can ever remember a woman's name. Sex with women is purely physical, and the men soon find their minds wandering while their bodies perform. Hair and eyes are eroticized to a high degree, nothing else seems to matter. There is no actual homosexual sex in the book, when the tension gets too high, the urges explode instead into violence. The book would be considered politically incorrect today, homosexuals as troubled losers; only able to attain temporary, fragile emotional security with other damaged misfits; and always on the verge of mental breakdown or violence. All the straight people in the book are amazingly accepting of the gay people, and seem to understand them much better than the gay people understand themselves.

Ironically, while the characters' sexual orientations and anomie would be unremarkable today, the everyday early 1980s life, seems alien. The characters spend a lot of time watching television and seeing movies of the period. Non-WASPs--jews, blacks, Asians and native Americans--and a variety of criminals, are stereotyped to an almost blaxploitation film level.

The style cool and disinterested, just the facts ma'am. Horrendous events: a M' Lai type massacre, being lost in the war torn jungle without food, intense urban violence in garbage-strewn alleys; all are described without a hint of reaction; despite the terrible events, this is not a gritty story. The characters seem to float through life, even physical injury and intense discomfort don't seem to matter. The only pain comes from fear and loneliness. The dialog is realistic, simple and inelegant, but the narration delights in obscure words and complex constructions. This is a sordid tale told by an angel, of broken people seen through a lens that makes their spirits look beautiful.

If you're looking for a good conventional mystery, this isn't it. It's certainly original, interesting and well-written, but it is dated and hard to comprehend today. It probably has a more comfortable home in general gay fiction rather than mysteries. It will illuminate some of the roots both of 1990s neo-noir, especially French and Scandinavian works, and of the rise of gay characters in popular culture.

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics)
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics)
by Martin Edwards
Edition: Paperback
15 used & new from $6.64

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some good stuff, best for London atmosphere, but thin on mystery, April 7, 2015
In once respect this book delivers on its promise, all seventeen stories are London stories, filled with details of the spirit and geography of the city. However only four of the stories are decent quality mysteries (“The Stealer of Marble” by Edgar Wallace, “The Unseen Door” by Margery Allingham, “You Can’t Hang Twice” by Anthony Gilbert, “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” by Thomas Burke). All four are middling works by great mystery authors, with lots of atmosphere. They have obviously been selected for their dated style. I think they will be of most interest to readers familiar with the better-known stories of the eras but they're not obscure enough for mystery-history buffs, and they're too eccentric by modern standards for casual mystery fans.

The highest quality stories in the book are five horror stories (“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Little House” by H.C.Bailey, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, “They Don’t Wear Labels” by E. M. Delafield, “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White) with little pretense of mystery or even crime in the conventional sense. Again, all are by wonderful authors and evidence fine literary craftsmanship.They are not the best stories from these writers, but they are excellent short stories in their own rights.

Regretfully delving a bit deeper in the barrel are four charmless attempts at whodunits (“The Holloway Flat Tragedy” by Ernest Bramah, “The Tea Leaf” by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson, “Wind in the East” by Henry Wade, “The Avenging Chance” by Anthony Berkeley). The stories are hackneyed and sloppy, riddled with holes and unrealistic. They are intended to be puzzles in inference and deduction, but the only puzzle is why anyone thought they were worth printing, much less reprinting. To be fair, I don't like this style even when it is done well, perhaps some Agatha Christie fans will consider these stories unremarkable but readable.

At the bottom of our barrel are four stories whose only interest is unintentional humor because they are so bad (“A Mystery of the Underground” by John Oxenham, “The Finchley Puzzle” by Richard Marsh, “The Magic Casket” by R. Austin Freeman, “The Magician of Cannon Street” by J. S. Fletcher).

I will give a spoiler alert here, although the story is so illogical that I think it's impossible to spoil. The heroine of the best of these four is a schoolteacher for the deaf with a supernatural ability to read lips at great distances. She uses her power to see two men discussing a murder on a boat. She does nothing. She later sees two men outside her house discussing that they have left a package to kill her. She goes to her house, finds a package, opens in, finds chocolates, tries to eat one but drops it by mistake. It explodes but does her no harm. Still she does nothing. She goes to the theater and sees two other men discussing that they have left another package to kill her. She goes home and finds a package with flowers. She holds them up to her nose and a tiny snake jumps out but misses her face, falls on her dog, bites it and kills it.

Finally she does something, she kills the snake and takes it to a snake expert. While the identity of the snake does not seem to be the most pressing concern in her case, at least it's something in the same ballpark as rational action. "Oh," says the expert, "that snake was stolen from me," and describes the thief who happens to be the man on the boat (remember him).

Now does she go to the police? No, she remembers that a seemingly healthy man died suddenly in London with no obvious cause, so she wonders if maybe he was killed by the snake. So she goes to the house where he died, but of course can't get in. Fortunately, a girl comes to the gate of the house and speaks a long soliloquy to explain part of the plot. A neighbor appears and supplies more details, then another woman arrives to give more information. All this our super lip reader observes from a block away, reflected in a shop window.

Now that she knows everything, she goes home. Then she goes back to the house. There she meets a housemaid of the murderer, who has been recently hired and sent to this address to pack things up. Our plucky lip reader sends the maid away and takes the things to the murderer's house, counting on him having hired the housemaid and given her keys to the murdered man's house without ever having met her--and also not remembering what she looked like even though he has already tried to murder her twice.

Of course it works, and she happens to oversee him explaining the final details of his plot to an unidentified other man. So she confronts him with what she knows. He naturally enough tries to kill her, snatching up a handy asp and thrusting it in her face, but it squirms around and kills him instead. The End.

Okay, we're not talking about plot holes here, or coincidences, or implausible elements. This is a story written by someone who doesn't know what a mystery is. He probably heard about "The Speckled Band" and understood that deadly snakes frightening women and killing murderers, and stuff about heiresses, and a detective with supernatural powers could be sold to gullible magazine editors. He didn't know how to write, or that actions were supposed to make sense, or that the story was supposed to follow some logical progression.

I have a few minor gripes. The introductions to the stories parallel Wikipedia closely, I expect more knowledge and insight from an anthology editor. The years of publication are not indicated, this matters a lot in interpreting evidence (would there have been a human telephone operator, would a "cab" mean a horse or an automobile, what forensic tests were available). Notes would be useful for most readers, my guess is few people younger than me have any idea what a "pig bucket" is or how a public pump is constructed. Four stories hinge on travel times, but if you don't know what modes of transport were available and don't recognize some old-fashioned place names, you won't be able to follow the reasoning.

Overall the book will be interesting to historical mystery fans who have not read deeply in this era, and it will be at least mildly entertaining for other readers.

Icebound Empire: Industry and Politics on the Last Frontier, 1898-1938
Icebound Empire: Industry and Politics on the Last Frontier, 1898-1938
by Elizabeth A. Tower
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.95
29 used & new from $8.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting mix of history and personalities, March 31, 2015
Alaska may be the most physically impressive State in the union, and its rugged beauty and idiosyncratic people have inspired some of the greatest American narrative nonfiction and fictionalized books. From Jack London, John Muir and Robert Service in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to John McPhee, Jon Krakauer and Jonathan Raban at the end of the 20th century, writers go north to Alaska to chronicle tough, flawed people crashing against primeval nature.

More recently, first person mythic accounts by Johns, Jacks and Bobs seem to be losing fashion to more historical accounts by authors with names like Howard (The Floor of Heaven), Charlotte (Gold Diggers) and Danielle (Polar Winds). These works make extensive use of primary sources, including journals, letters and contemporary court records, photographs and newspaper accounts, which gives them authenticity to make up for the grand sweep macho drama and literary quality of the older works. I'd also mention here the recent publication of George Hazelet's journal.

Icebound Empire is an interesting mix of the two styles. Like the latter works, it focuses on individual personalities, drawing from primary sources. However the author's concern is not with the fate of individuals, but with how they interacted with political forces to shape Alaska during the late District and early Territorial periods.

One example is extended coverage of the Keystone Canyon confrontation, probably the last of the famous Old West shootouts. The facts are tame compared to legend, only one person fired, and the only fatality was caused by a ricochet and bad doctoring. One side was deluded and the other was confused, neither one's interests were served by the fight. The contested ground shortly became worthless and lawyers made tens of thousands of dollars arguing about it for years afterwards.

The book will be most appealing to readers who know some US history from the Civil War to the New Deal. In a nutshell, Republican Congresses during the Civil War, without having to bother with Democrats, passed radical legislation that set the terms for the settlement of the Western frontier. This resulted in a flood of pioneers who endured tremendous hardship to build vibrant and prosperous societies out of the wilderness; and it also resulted great risks and great profits for Eastern banks and business interests; and it also resulted in brazen cronyism and theft by politically connected cheats, not to mention massacres of natives and other crimes. By the 1890s a strong backlash developed that would fuel diverse movements including populism, conservationism and progressivism.

Due to its distance and extreme physical challenges, Alaska was about 30 years behind in its development, which means when it could have used Washington federal services and New York development capital, those things were stalled by gridlock focused on issues of more relevance to Montana, Nevada, Utah and Oregon than virtually unpopulated and undeveloped Alaska. The result was not some productive compromise like a kinder, gentler exploitation but policies that were good for neither pioneers nor bankers, but that set those groups at each others' throats. By the 1930s, when Alaska had finally developed to the point that the progressive issues might have been relevant, Washington had lost interest in favor of the New Deal. It was not until WWII that the Eastern establishment awoke to the importance of Alaska, and that (plus Statehood) did a little to ease national politics playing out in dysfunctional ways 3,500 miles Northwest. But only a little. The issues described in this book will resonate with Alaskans today.

One minor gripe is the book needs more and better maps. To make sense of the story you need some feeling for the possible routes linking the valuable minerals in the interior with the rivers and possible harbors on the coast (as well as the potential overland connections through Canada, although those are almost ignored in this book, and the sea connections to Siberia, East Asia the west coasts of North and South America). Flat outlines of the State with cities and rivers marked are not adequate because they don't show the physical barriers, nor distinguish navigable from non-navigable portions of rivers. A dozen large scale maps of key areas with a few smaller scale linking maps would save readers from having to run to the Internet (or an Atlas) every few pages. Moreover chronology as well as geography matters. An overland trip from Valdez to the Matanuska River, for example, was a very different proposition in 1897 versus 1917.

Another minor gripe is the author's obvious sympathy for sourdoughs leads her to downplay or ignore some of the ugliness. Antisemitism played a large role in the fight against the (imaginary) "Morganheim colossus" (imaginary in the sense that neither Morgan nor Guggenheim had any grand designs to monopolize Alaskan resources, which is not to say there weren't a lot of people in New York who wanted to make a lot of money in ways that would disadvantage people living in Alaska, but those people were not predominantly Jewish). Unpleasant treatment of Alaskan natives is not mentioned, nor shabby protection of Canadian rights (Canadians should have an honored place in the late 19th century and early 20th century histories of Alaska, but they tend to be taken for granted when they lend their considerable help, and demonized when they assert their rights, and they were hamstrung by lack of support from England). These things were not out of proportion to the casual racism, jingoism and prejudice of the times, but they stand out in the egalitarian meritocracy of the frontier. You expect them from a Washington politician or a New York newspaper editor, it's disappointing to find them in honest trailblazers and miners.

This book's blend of history and personality, focusing on characters with deep Alaskan roots who rose high enough to be bit players in national politics, offers insight into the period, and also into Alaska's chronic problems in dealing with the lower 48. It's entertaining as well, and well written. I recommend this book both to people interested in Alaska history and people interested in Alaska people.

Van Gogh and Money: The Myth of the Poor Artist (Secrets of Van Gogh Book 5)
Van Gogh and Money: The Myth of the Poor Artist (Secrets of Van Gogh Book 5)
Price: $3.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant essay, but not as dramatic or surprising as the description implies, March 30, 2015
This book begins with the bold statement that "Vincent Van Gogh is the ultimate embodiment of the impoverished artist whose genius was not recognized by society," and proceeds to attack that myth. Unfortunately, I think it's generally well known that Van Gogh came from an upper middle class family which--primarily but not exclusively through his younger brother Theo--supported him with more than adequate funds for prudent comfort and painting supplies. Moreover while Van Gogh made almost no money selling his art during his lifetime, he was widely respected by the great French Impressionists and post-Impressionists of the time. Van Gogh did lead an often tortured existence, but this was due to mental and physical illness and (possibly as a result) foolish and impulsive behavior, not true poverty or lack of recognition.

The book proposes to demolish its mythical myths by taking advantage of "the publication of his [Van Gogh's] correspondence in 2009." But practically everything we know about Van Gogh's life comes from his letters, which were available nearly a century before 2009. So it's unlikely that the author can find stunning new revelations here.

And, in fact, there are no big surprises. This is a short, pleasantly written account of about three years of Van Gogh's life in two segments, one in the Hague in the early 1880's, and the other in Arles in the late 1880's, after he had gone to Paris and left. These are the best-documented years of Van Gogh's life, because while in Paris he had no need to write his brother.

The account in this book focuses on money (as you would expect from the title) and quotes extensively from Van Gogh's letters (almost all the quotes are from the letters Van Gogh wrote rather than the replies, these letters are longer and more interesting, and there are many more of them). It gives some interesting details that non-specialists will likely not know, but nothing that will revolutionize ideas. There is almost nothing about Van Gogh's art, except some nicely rendered reproductions of it.

Taken as a slightly offbeat episodic meditation on aspects of Van Gogh's life and personality, this is a fine book, perhaps worthy of four stars. But since I think most readers will expect something quite different from the title and description, I'm giving it three stars.

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