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Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
by Elizabeth Royte
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.96
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4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Should be 1/10 the length, August 5, 2009
This is an unenjoyable book that wants to be a captivating pamphlet.

If you see the title and think that this book meshes with what you already believe -- namely that

* bottled water is an egregious slam against the environment, particularly the endless plastic bottles left to rot in gutters and wash out to sea
* tap water tastes almost as good as bottled water (and would taste just as good as bottled water if you stirred it a bit or let it sit in a pitcher overnight)
* consuming tap water makes you more likely to pay attention to the devastation that farming, industry, and lawn-care runoff are wreaking on the environment

- then you are probably right. You haven't paid to nod your head vigorously for four hours, though. Books like Omnivore's Dilemma, Food Politics, or What To Eat will all appeal to a certain brand of enlightened American, but they're not just rehashing what we already believe. What To Eat, in particular, is a cornucopia of practical advice on what to buy when you're in the grocery store; it's meant to be propped open in the basket at the back end of your grocery cart. Omnivore's Dilemma offers something different: a wider-perspective look at how food moves from ground to corn to cow to plate.

Bottlemania, I think, wants to combine some elements of both these approaches. It is, at points, an absolutely gripping zoomed-out view of how water travels from the clouds to lakes to groundwater to your home. For a moment I thought I had misjudged it as a rather boring, not-really-very-informative tirade against the bottled-water industry. A minute later I was back to the main thrust of the book, which is I think supposed to be something about democratic control of water supplies. We spend endless (endless, endless) hours in Fryeburg, Maine, where Poland Spring, a division of Nestlé, keeps fighting -- per its corporate mission -- to obtain more and more water from the town. At one point -- for a few pages -- we see democracy in action, as the good citizens of Fryeburg assemble for their annual town meeting and vote down a provision that would have given even more favorable terms to Poland Spring. The rest of our time in Fryeburg is spent looking at pipes in the ground, following the flow of the Saco River as it nourishes Maine, and generally understanding the contours of the water industry. All well and good, but it could have been condensed to 20 pages at most.

Contrary to her goals, Royte actually proves too much. She wants to argue that democratic control of water, rather than corporate control which remains opaque to the citizens it affects, is for the best, and she'll find no argument from me there. But what she ends up showing is that we humans are just terrible at managing our resources. It's not clear, by the end of Bottlemania, that we know how to keep our streams clean and our groundwater uncontaminated. The entire United States becomes, in the reader's head, a pulsating mass of toxic chemicals leaching into the groundwater; public water officials can only control a small subset of them. They do their very best, and I certainly ended Bottlemania with a lot of respect for what they do. But it's an uphill battle. And even after they've drawn away everything nasty that they could find, one still wonders where the extracted nastiness goes. The answer seems to be that it becomes part of the sewage, which goes back into rivers to be cleaned by municipal water departments further downstream. This is not a pleasant story. And it's not clear that municipal water officials would do all that much better than Nestlé at stopping the onslaught. As for corporate rapacity, Royte doesn't give any examples of Nestlé malfeasance to exceed New York's drowning Westchester County towns to create a reservoir, Boston's doing the same to create the Quabbin, or Chicago's reversing the flow of the Chicago River to send the gift of sewage to St. Louis.

If you suspect that this book, while stomach-turning, is ethically nourishing, you're right. It's just that it needs to be drastically slimmed down and issued as a pamphlet from the Natural Resources Defense Council, thick with horrifying statistics and minus the pointless, droning series of interviews with Fryeburg's notables.

My advice? Pick it up, skip to page 100 or so, read it until it repeats something you already read, and return it to the library.

The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street
The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street
by Justin Fox
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.83
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great tour of economics since the 1920s, July 12, 2009
For better or for worse, the starting point for all discussions about capitalism and its failings is some sort of arbitrage principle. Let's look at the free-market argument against the possibility of racial discrimination in hiring, for instance. (I'm fairly certain I've read something like this in Posner.) Suppose you have a highly qualified black candidate who doesn't get hired, because his potential boss just doesn't like the color of his skin. The free-market response would be that someone else will swoop in and hire that person away -- may, in fact, hire him for less than an equally-qualified white candidate. Companies that are systematically racist in their hiring will be beaten by those that aren't.

There are two possible ways of interpreting the arbitrage principle in here. Either a) all companies will behave in a rational way, which would actually make racist hiring impossible, or b) some smart company will behave rationally, thereby beating its racist competitors. Inasmuch as we agree that racist hiring exists, we can rule out a). Besides, like any evolutionary-type argument, the claim isn't that all actors or all organisms act in a certain way, just that competitive pressure will eventually force a particular outcome.

In any case, even b) depends rather sensitively on the structure of the market. If there are infinitely many companies competing for customers, then even the tiniest inefficiency -- racism, say -- will be ruthlessly purged from the market. If there are only a few car manufacturers, on the other hand, then inefficiencies may last for a very long time.

You might be asking why I've even bothered to advance the infinitely-many-competitors alternative here. You might also be asking why I'm starting with an arbitrage principle rather than the rather more obvious fact there there exist racists in this world, and they don't act rationally. I think Paul Krugman hit on the answer in Development, Geography, and Economic Theory: putting the irrational elements of the human brain into a model turns out to be hard, at least if you're going to cross all your mathematical Ts and dot all your mathematical Is in the way that economists trust. Another way to put it is that the perfect-competition model fits together in a way that few rival theories have yet been able to match. The Myth of the Rational Market quotes Richard Thaler to the effect that it's the difference between being exactly wrong or being vaguely right: the alternative models know they're on to something, even if they haven't put all the pieces together yet.

I went into Myth thinking that it wouldn't understand the virtues of modeling -- that it would just be another hand-waving gesture against "those stupid economists." I have real problems with this anti-quantitative attitude. Modeling things mathematically has real virtues: speaking clearly, stating your assumptions as concisely as possible, and opening yourself up to the possibility of being proved wrong. More-orthodox economists are on to something when they suggest that behavioral economics is a collection of nice stories but nothing to build a theory on. By now it's clear to me that they're wrong about that, but their hearts are in the right place.

What's amazing about The Myth of the Rational Market is that it hits all these notes and many, many more. It explains what orthodox economists think, and why. It describes behavioral economics of the Thaler school. It describes behavioral finance of the sort that Andrei Shleifer, Larry Summers, and Brad DeLong are famous for. It describes Keynesian economics. It goes into the efficient-markets hypothesis at a decent depth. It follows Eugene Fama -- the father, if anyone can claim that title, of the EMH -- for a few decades, eventually catching him laughing at how much of a turn his own mind has taken. (Earlier, Justin Fox had found Fama praising the stock market after the 1987 crash: surely the market had just shown its genius, having collapsed quickly after it discovered new information. No one could identify what that new information might be, however. Free marketeers do often have a point that The Market Is Smarter Than You: just because an economist can't figure out why the market does something doesn't mean the economist is smarter than the market. However, it seems clear that the 1987 crash wasn't a shining hour for Efficient Market Hypothesis.)

In fact, The Myth of the Rational Market follows essentially all of the economics profession from Irving Fisher to the present, and ends ... at a draw, which is exactly where it should be. The orthodox economists are right that we need a good theoretical model of irrational behavior if we're going to do it right and if we're going to incorporate it into the successful body of rational-actor theory. The behavioral economists are right that there's too much anti-rational behavior to count it as mere diversions from "real" economics. Behavioral finance has contributed a lot to our understanding of the stock market: the concept of a noise trader, and how he interacts with a rational trader, is an important one. The fact that there are times (like now!) when arbitrageurs can't borrow as much money as they would need to capitalize on the market's irrationality, and that those times are precisely when they need money the most, is an unfortunately important one.

Fox even follows this historical evolution into places where I wouldn't have expected him to. He takes us to the Santa Fe Institute for a few paragraphs. Among other things, SFI tries to simulate, on a computer, many semi-rational economic actors buying and selling from one another, then watch the collective behavior of these simulated actors. For instance, do simulated imperfect humans ever cause a stock market to bubble and crash? Do arbitrage opportunities persist and, in fact, widen? This falls under the general heading of "microfoundations": deriving explanations for high-level phenomena out of the (partially) realistic behavior of low-level actors. If the high-level macrobehavior that fall out of the model look like the world we're used to, then that's a start. If the macrobehavior look right and the economic actors look like real, sometimes-irrational people, then we're on to something. My limited skim of the literature suggests that we're not there yet.

Whether we get the models right matters, as a glance as today's newspapers will tell you. Whether we assume that humans are perfectly rational actors feeds directly into how skeptically we view mortgage brokers: if mortgage buyers are rational, why bother protecting them from balloon mortgages? Why be concerned that they might let Enron zero out their 401(k)s? Humans need a bit of help here and there; rational actors don't.

All of this is in Fox's book, which is a page-turner intended for a wide audience. It covers a broad enough swath of the discipline that it has probably singlehandedly killed a dozen other, lesser books on a few dozen sub-areas of economics. I confess that I went into it expecting that it would be another opportunistic work, riding the coattails of behavioral economics or of the recent crash. It does neither; it will still be readable and informative and fun in a few decades. Highly recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 8, 2009 9:24 PM PDT

After Dark
After Dark
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover
94 used & new from $2.12

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is short and to the point; keeps Murakami's ADHD in check, June 22, 2009
This review is from: After Dark (Hardcover)
If you've read Murakami's "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle", you know you're in the presence of a genius who just needs to get himself under control sometimes. He can juggle a million interesting objects at once -- hammers, torches, scarves, chainsaws, other jugglers -- but sometimes he just gets bored, and while the audience is staring up, jaws agape, he lets all those colorful objects drop and walks off to have a sandwich. That's "Wind-Up Bird" in a nutshell. Yet I still think most people would really enjoy it, despite its suffering from attention deficit disorder.

"After Dark" isn't like that, in no small part because it spans a single night; I like to think of this as a Murakami setting for himself what the economists call a precommitment strategy: he knows that he can run off the rails if he's not careful, so he sets up a story to keep himself in check.

And what a fun story it is. We meet a charming musician named Takahashi as he ambles into a Denny's, late one night, and intrudes on a quiet, studious girl named Mari Asai who's poring over her books. As it turns out, Takahashi knows Mari's sister Eri, who is at least some kind of astonishing looker and probably something more like a model. She's the kind of girl whom Takahashi would go out of his way to talk to, if she would only give him the time of day. When Mari veers into his orbit, and Takahashi realizes who she is, he has no choice but to ask about her gorgeous sister.

What we, the readers, know about Eri is that she is asleep in the alternate chapters. We jump back and forth between the Takahashi-and-Mari thread and the camera-focused-on-a-sleeping-Eri thread. And I say "camera" literally: we're watching her through a television, the camera end of which is inside Eri's bedroom. Only, not really her bedroom; more like Eri on a bed in an otherwise empty room. Is it a jail cell? What is this strange room with the camera?

While she sleeps, craziness ensues in Mari's world. Takahashi spends long enough with Mari to know a) that she speaks Chinese, and b) that she'll be studying in that Denny's all night. He steps out to practice with his band, and while he's out he runs into a friend of his who runs a pay-by-the-hour hotel frequented by prostitutes and their johns -- a "love hotel," as they call it. Turns out there's -- surprise surprise -- a Chinese prostitute in there, badly beaten and scared, and no one knows how to talk to her. Takahashi knows just the translator. He sends the hotel's manager into Denny's to pick up Mari, who gladly comes along to help. She was bored in the diner anyway.

In one world we have the beautiful sister, asleep in a strange room. In the other we have the bookish sister translating for a bruised prostitute. The story has one toe in a beautiful world, one toe in the filth. At times those worlds collide, or at least pass each other on the street with a curt nod. Laying on the seam between the two worlds is a cell phone that literally passes messages between them; it's a very clever trick that can only make the reader smile. (This reader, anyway.)

At just over 200 fairly-large-print pages, with rapid-fire dialogue between charming or menacing characters, you'll finish "After Dark" within a couple hours. Murakami sometimes writes candy, but it's intensely nourishing candy. (In this I liken it to early Beatles albums.) It may be tempting to avoid Murakami, but it's even more tempting to read him.

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything
Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything
by Steven Levy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.33
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Levy is a tech fanboy, and an excitable writer, June 22, 2009
There's a genre of tech writing that might legitimately be known as "fanboy fetish nonfiction." Steven Levy -- in books like Crypto and Hackers -- always skirts around the edge of the genre. In Insanely Great, he wades into the genre up to his hips.

This is the story of the Mac's creation, and the story of Steve Jobs's sticking his nose into everyone's business. Levy seems a little unsure of Jobs: is he a jerk and an opportunist, who only attaches himself to a project when it might bring Jobs himself more power and glory? Does he force his limited design and technical powers on those beneath him? Is he trying to compensate for his non-Wozniak engineering skills?

Levy may believe all these things, but at the same time he can't deny that Jobs is a major force for good within Apple. Like the mythical Shaker furniture builders, Jobs won't let any piece of the Mac go out unless it's perfect and beautiful. The Shakers wouldn't build a dresser with a plywood face against a wall, even if no one else would ever see that side; God would see it. Likewise, says Levy, every square inch of the Mac was an aesthetic pleasure.

I may have been too young at the time to have really appreciated the Mac. I certainly appreciate the spur it provided to Windows. Only when Mac OS X came around did I see what all the fuss was about. OS X is the first bit of Mac software that I've enjoyed. OS 9 and before felt cartoonish to me. Bomb icons -- indicating that some rogue application had taken down the entire computer, which you had no choice at that moment but to reboot -- appeared with alarming frequency.

At an architectural level, cooperative multitasking may have been to blame for a lot of the Mac's instabilities. You will never read anything at that level in Levy's book. Levy is an English major imported into the world of computers, and I think he's more interested in the people than he is in the technology. There's a lot for journalists to sink their teeth into in the world of computers: the 16-hour days, the sleeping under desks, the seat-of-the-pants demos finished mere moments before the curtain comes up. Levy enjoys himself in this realm. He's less able or willing to explain the technical details of why, exactly, the Mac was repeatedly delayed. The fact of the delay, and the excitement of cigar-chomping executives breathing down frantic hackers' necks, is more his speed.

Insanely Great has some funny moments, again from the excited-visionary perspective rather than from the awesome-technology one. There's Steve Jobs, explaining to one of his hardware developers that shaving two seconds off the Mac's startup time, if millions of people reboot multiple times per day, will save *50 human lives every day*. There are moments, like these, when I understood part of the Mac cult's allure.

The rest of the book, though, was not convincing. The bomb icons were far too vivid in my memory. Plus I was a DOS 1-2-3 devotee as a child.

What I find funny is that I've only just joined the Cult of Apple, in the form of its iPhone. Unlike the Mac, the whole world realizes that the iPhone does its job better than any of its competitors. People are flocking to Apple in droves, giving the phone a market share and platform lead that other device manufacturers only dream about. The iPhone really is Insanely Great. Steve Jobs must be pleased.

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies)
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies)
by Nick Montfort
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.97
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Immensely cool subject; kind of listless delivery, June 22, 2009
A fact that I still can't entirely wrap my head around, after reading this book, is that the Atari 2600 had only a few hundred bytes of RAM. It had little enough RAM that the programmer had to very carefully time his graphics operations so that characters got drawn to the screen before the monitor's electron gun arrived. Unlike other game systems, the 2600 wasn't "frame-buffered": you couldn't draw an entire screen's worth of data, then push it to the screen all at once when the display refreshed.

This design limitation led to all manner of digital hacking, which somehow, miraculously, allowed the game industry -- and Atari in particular -- to flourish. Montfort and Bogost do a decent job explaining the technology, at a level somewhat above what most computer users can be expected to have; if you don't grok the concept of a CPU register, a good bit of Racing the Beam will be tough going for you.

Their larger project is to view the whole world of gaming -- from the code up to the artwork, to actually playing the game, to the social world around game consoles -- with an understanding of how the technology limits and frees all the layers above it. What significance is it, from the game player's perspective, that the Atari had special registers to render sprites? In what way did this free game designers? In what ways did it constrain them? The authors view videogames the way that many view art generally: as the act of overcoming the limitations of a medium. They believe that the lowest level of a game's design has largely been left out of discussions of the larger game story.

They manage to bring all the layers of gaming together reasonably well, but the book didn't wow me: I'd be unlikely to pursue any future books in the "Platform Series," of which Racing the Beam is the first.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 15, 2009 5:42 PM PDT

by Ann Patchett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.35
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A waste of time; read Patchett's "Bel Canto" instead., June 22, 2009
This review is from: Run (Hardcover)
Reaction to Patchett's early novel "Bel Canto" falls into two categories: either that the book is a universe unto itself, an absolutely magical, strangely modern fairy tale (a love story inside of a hostage drama) with an ending that slams the wind out of your lungs; or you don't get what the big deal is. Needless to say, I'm in the its-own-universe camp: the characters in "Bel Canto" forget what's happening right outside their doors and forget that their lovers happen also to be their captors. The reader forgets, too, even though Patchett reminds us time and again that the romance cannot last. She pulls off the miraculous trick of putting both her characters and her readers in the same carefree mindset, until she brutally yanks the rug out from under them. "Bel Canto" is a masterpiece of the storyteller's art.

Which is why I'm quite sad to report that Patchett's novel "Run" is a paint-by-numbers exercise. Actually, labeling it "paint-by-numbers" is an insult to the majesty and variety of the integers. "Run" is some kind of morality tale? Maybe? About the possibility of interracial harmony? But not really. What it is, really, is a boring story punctuated by a few moments of intensity here and there. As one of the characters himself puts it on page 255:

'Tip had been hit by a car ... there was a child and she was lovely but oh, the mother and the child had gone away again. He didn't think the entire story could possibly take more than ten minutes start to finish, and yet to live it, to actually be a part of its playing out, was an excruciating investment of time.'

"Excruciating" indeed. Patchett was contractually obligated, one assumes, to fill up a certain amount of book; she's consequently required to fill up pages with pointless detail about her characters -- details that tell us little about the characters (the young girl likes peanut-butter toast but won't come out and say it? Joyous!) and don't advance the story. I was reminded of Umberto Eco's essay "How To Recognize A Porn Movie." Porn, says Eco, isn't just wall-to-wall intercourse; much as people might like to think that's why they want, such a film would be unendurable. So between the fleshy parts, porn directors are required to insert pointless filler. The filler, he says, is the true mark of a porno:

'Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan. To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau.'

By this measure, "Run" is pornography. Though the filler comes between small tragedies: a car accident, a slip on the ice. Small-urban-catastrophe porn, we might call it.

The urban area in question is Boston. My heart is entirely given over to Boston and Cambridge, so you'd think that I'd be pre-weakened to love Patchett's book. It's just not so. She describes Boston's bus routes, the walking path one would take from Union Park to Back Bay station (down Tremont, right on Dartmouth, keep aiming at the Hancock Tower -- you can thank me later), and the persistent misery of a Boston winter; what she doesn't get to is the city's heart. As near as I can tell, she placed "Run" in Boston so that she could make some cross-racial, cross-class tension happen, without actually engaging with the city's painful interracial history.

You'd think, at the start of "Run", that you were going to get dive deeply into the city's history. Doyle, the ex-mayor of Boston, has dragooned his college-aged kids -- Tip and Teddy -- into seeing Jesse Jackson speak at the JFK School of Government. Here we have the very center of Boston Brahminhood -- Harvard University -- face-to-face with an icon of the civil-rights movement. Neither kid is interested in politics, even Jackson's brand, despite their father's endless attempts to sway them. Yet still they keep coming, out of filial obedience. That obedience reaches its end on the night we meet Tip and Teddy. After the Jackson speech, Doyle tries to convince the kids to come along to just one more event: a reception for Jackson at a fellow pol's house. Tip has reached his limit; he won't be coming, and that's final. He's addressing his brother and father, laying down the law, walking backwards right out onto JFK Street. A woman slams him from behind, he collapses to the snowy ground, the world is a blur, and we realize that someone has just saved Tip's life. The woman who saved it, named Tennessee ("like the state"), meanwhile, has intersected the business end of an SUV.

Almost everyone you will meet in "Run" is there at that moment: Tennessee, her daughter, plus Doyle and his two kids. Among the missing is Doyle's late wife, Bernadette. Bernadette's ancestry contains a MacGuffin -- a statue of the Virgin Mary -- that opens the book, but which plays practically no role in the rest of the story. As for the book's title, it's hard to say what that's about, either. Tennessee's daughter, Kenya, runs quite well. The grace of a gazelle is second nature to her. You can expect that Patchett will make something important out of this; perhaps Kenya's speed will be The Thing Which Pulls Her Out Of The Ghetto.

Say what? Kenya is black? You have just been zapped with the Patchett Narrative Taser. Behold its force.

Throughout the book, you will get little realizations like this. A mystery novel it is not, however; the realizations amount to a bit of punctuation in a very long, very boring sentence. You'll amble from the scene of the accident, to Doyle's house, to the hospital where Tennessee lays sedated, to the track in Allston where Kenya, to no one's surprise, Shows The World What A Poor Black Girl Has Kept Hidden.

I'll stop. You'll periodically meet a book that is not good enough to hold your interest, but not terrible enough to hurl across the room (or hurl onto eBay). This is one such book.

I should note, on the bright side, that "Bel Canto" is such a joy that I still, even after reading "Run", intend to pick up Patchett's earlier Sorcerer's Apprentice (pre-"Bel Canto") and her nonfiction ode to her friend Lucy Grealy, entitled Truth & Beauty. This is in keeping with a reading habit that I've remarked upon before: if the first book I read by a given author is good enough, I can power through four or five poor ones before losing steam. Let's hope the rest of Patchett's writings are more like "Bel Canto" and less like "Run".

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: A Novel
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: A Novel
by Geoff Dyer
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Partying and drinking in Venice; watching cremation in Varanasi, June 22, 2009
This is a fun, breezy little jaunt through the two cities named in the title, with periodic excursions into Hinduism and oral sex. In Venice we're hanging out with Jeff, a burned-out journalist author of little puff pieces about celebrities or works of art; in Varanasi it's an unnamed narrator who stays so long in his hotel that he may as well be part of the furniture. Jeff is on assignment in Venice to cover the Biennale, which -- in his telling -- sounds like an excuse to drink bellinis, jump from one party to another, gossip about one another, discourse on self-indulgent art as though it were a serious object of veneration, and generally have a ball on your employer's dime. Thousands of journalists eye each other to make sure no one else is being invited to a classier gala. There is cocaine aplenty.

Varanasi is rather different. The main industry appears to be cremation. The Ganges' job is to purify bodies before they're sent on to the next world; our narrator's job is to watch death pass before him. He starts like the rest of us Westerners, rather horrified that people are swimming and bathing in the same filthy water that carries the ashes of other humans. In time his beard grows bushy and profound, he wastes away to virtually nothing, he comes to understand the oneness of all things, and he abandons all his worldly possessions -- including his friendships.

Yet I hope I don't give you the impression that it's morose or moralizing or anything like that. Our narrator's gradual disappearance is depicted with the utmost levity, and what's happening in his head is just very fun. He invents his own Hindu god. He may well be stoned during a lot of this time. It's a real joy.

Meanwhile, back in Venice ... well, actually, it's hard to name the connection between these two stories. During the Biennale, Jeff and a beautiful American girl have fallen for one another; they spend a lot of time having mutually and simultaneously gratifying sex, which Geoff Dyer depicts in pleasing detail. (This is the first time I have ever read a book describe a particular sexual position -- named after two numerals, the one an upside-down version of the other -- so graphically. Probably the first time I've read that position described at all, as a matter of fact.) Eventually their time together in Venice must end. Like high-school students signing each other's yearbooks, they promise they'll stay in touch; unlike high-schoolers, neither Jeff nor his lover really believes it.

As it happens, Jeff's lover is heading next to Varanasi. Since we spend our time in Venice first, Dyer naturally leads us to think that Jeff will follow her there. Maybe he has; we never learn the narrator's name in Varanasi. It seems doubtful, though, that Jeff and the narrator are the same person. The lover says she'll be in Varanasi, and someone in Varanasi notes that Venice may be its mirror image, but otherwise the connection seems tenuous.

If anything, Dyer has probably set the cities alongside one another for contrast: Venice, the hedonistic, bellini-filled town of tourists; and Varanasi, joyously basking in death and poverty. Connected or otherwise, Dyer's storytelling works splendidly: the journalists and the death-worshippers take to their jobs lightly and with good spirits, as does Dyer, as does the reader.

Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It (The Bedford Series in History and Culture)
Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It (The Bedford Series in History and Culture)
by Louis Dembitz Brandeis
Edition: Paperback
47 used & new from $4.89

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read: 80 years later, most everything Brandeis said about banks is still true., June 22, 2009
This is a book that we all ought to be reading right now. Today, investment banks' primary mode of self-defense is to argue that capitalism needs them. Brandeis argues vigorously to the contrary, and it's not at all hard to carry his arguments from the nineteen-teens directly to now.

When we tip our hat to bankers, we typically honor their role as intermediaries: they direct money from depositors to valuable investment opportunities. Most depositors cannot be expected to evaluate the claims of businessmen, so bankers function as a vehicle for judging risk and establishing reputations. Hence the now-famous dialogue between J.P. Morgan and Samuel Untermyer:

'Untermyer: "Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?"

Morgan: "No sir. The first thing is character."

Untermyer: "Before money or property?"

Morgan: "Before money or property or anything else. Money cannot buy it...because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom."'

You will presumably find few people today who view bankers as this sort of lantern-jaw-held-steady, coldly-responsible übermenschen.

On the other side of the risk-judging coin, bankers are supposed to finance the little guy. The entrepreneur just starting out who needs a few dollars at the right moment -- this man is capitalism's hero, and he's the one to whom bankers are supposed to direct money. As the entrepreneurs' hero, the banker is supposed to be our hero as well.

Think again, says Brandeis; bankers only give money to enterprises which have proven that they hold no risk whatsoever. In an absolutely devastating chapter entitled "Big Men And Little Business" (search ahead in that link for "Chapter VII"), Brandeis gives example upon example of how America's rise to industrial might owed nothing to the bankers. In fact, J.P. Morgan's main job was to combine pre-existing businesses -- on which inventors had toiled thanklessly for years -- into monopolies (the famous "trusts"). It was news to me that the House of Morgan was responsible for the behemoth known as General Electric. And I was floored by Brandeis's description of Morgan's role in forming AT&T, the short version of which is that entrepreneurs nearly bankrupted themselves to fund Alexander Graham Bell, Western Union tried very hard to kill the new technology, and Morgan only came along decades later after the phone's fate was secure.

So we don't need "the great banks" to keep capitalism churning. It gets worse, says Brandeis: the "great banks," in their mania to form monopolies, destroy businesses along the way. A lot of Brandeis's anger in Other People's Money comes from his fight against the Morgan acquisition of the New Haven railroad, which larded the New Haven up with debt that it couldn't support, and eventually led to its collapse -- reminiscent, today's reader will note, of the 1980s' leveraged-buyout craze. "Was there ever a more be-bankered railroad than the New Haven?" asks Brandeis, along the way probably using "be-bankered" for the only time in the history of the English language.

The banks' failure might not be quite so offensive, were they not doing all their work with "other people's money." The banks' main chore is to take $1 from depositors and turn it, through loans, into whatever the government allows them to turn it into -- $10, say. The people have granted banks that right under the expectation that they'll guard those deposits carefully. The banks have manifestly failed to do so. Brandeis's disgust is palpable on every page.

The solution, he says, is to sidestep the banks altogether. Form depositor-owned co-ops. If the railroads want to raise money, they don't need banks; they have (or had, at least) thousands of stations from which they can solicit capital from their riders. We've been deceived into thinking that we need banks, when what we need is capital to fuel innovation.

Other People's Money is a devastating book, written with eloquence, force, and passion. This befits Brandeis, the future Supreme Court justice and one of history's greatest Americans. As it turns out, he wrote a book that applies just as well in the early 21st century as it did in the early 20th.

Perhaps the best part, for my busy readers, is that Other People's Money is only 100 pages long. You can polish it off in one sitting. I suspect you'll be as floored as I was by how effortlessly Brandeis's arguments carry over to today.

Sag Harbor: A Novel
Sag Harbor: A Novel
by Colson Whitehead
Edition: Hardcover
148 used & new from $0.01

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Colson Whitehead is hilarious, June 22, 2009
This review is from: Sag Harbor: A Novel (Hardcover)
It's worth declaring up front that nothing much happens in Sag Harbor. Nothing much really could happen: it's a story about teenagers left alone for a summer at their families' beach houses on Long Island. Teenagers at a beach house aren't going to stop a cabal of evildoers intent on destroying the world; they're not going to uncover secret biblical signs hidden in Renaissance paintings. At best they're going to work at an ice-cream shop and discover the hidden mysteries of the waffle-cone maker. And so they do.

Which isn't to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that Sag Harbor is boring. Quite to the contrary. Every paragraph carries one of Colson Whitehead's flights of stylistic fancy, or another charming and spot-on exploration of the teenage mind. Sag Harbor is written from the perspective of an older man -- late 30s, early 40s -- looking back on his teens, trying to get into his younger brain and understand its motivations and its misconceptions.

This is a crucial summer in the life of teenage boys: at its start, they channel their teenage desire to be top dog into acts of violence: getting into inconsequential fistfights with one another or destroying things with BB guns. By the end, it's all about girls. If someone questions something you say in front of a girl you fancy, not only your knowledge but your very manhood is on trial. Hence this hilariously accurate sketch of what happens when one of the narrator's friends thinks he's quoting "sacadiliac" (he means "sacroiliac") from a rap song:

'We all laughed except for NP, who said, "Saca-what?"

"My nut sack," he said, gesturing at me for backup.

I said, "I read a book about Sagaponac by Honoré de Ballsack," but that only confused things more so Bobby explained about the big brown nuts and the rest. "Look it up."

"In what?" NP asked. He was right -- no one had a dictionary out there. Maybe an old Scrabble dictionary, missing half its pages and frothing with silverfish, but that was it. "I'll bet you a hundred dollars you're wrong," he said. From time to time, this competition emerged between NP and Bobby over who was the alpha dog in this double date, complicated by the fact that Bobby had the car keys. ...

Bobby couldn't back down. His girl was watching. His girl's cousin was watching. ... The money was in the bag -- if you can't trust a nerd with a big word, who can you trust?'

Even adult drama loses some amplitude on Sag Harbor:

'The bridge to North Haven was a long white frown before us. From time to time, suicidal painters and playwrights (few artists from other disciplines partook for some reason) flung themself from its concrete heights, but the water wasn't very deep, and they usually ended up being dragged by a gaffer's hook onto a passing motorboat, or wading out dejectedly, pissed that they'd lost their wallet.'

Whitehead's style here cracks me up. No one can take Sag Harbor very seriously -- least of all the reader, who's too busy laughing at that wallet.

The narrator, known to his chagrin as "Benji," is looking back with a smirk on how foolish a little kid he was. At the same time, he realizes just how foolish he still is, and even his younger self can't resist a look back -- as when a girl reminds teenage Benji that he was her first kiss, many years before:

'It seemed impossible not to remember something like that. The first time a girl put her lips on yours. What kind of chump forgot being a five-year-old mack?'

You're going to laugh from start to finish while reading Sag Harbor, because Colson Whitehead is a brilliant prose stylist. Take it to the beach with you; smile warmly at the teenage boys roaming the boardwalk, as they try to impress their girlfriends and take this consequence-free summer so seriously.

Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy
Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy
by Dean Baker
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.04
134 used & new from $0.01

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sets the standard for books on the 2008 financial collapse, June 22, 2009
There already are many books about the financial collapse of 2008, and there will be many more. Plunder and Blunder, for breadth, brevity, and readability alone, should be one of the few on your shelf if you care to understand how it all happened.

Baker chases down the causes of the boom to a number of places and a number of people: the Clinton White House's decision to maintain a cheap dollar in the '90s, Joe Lieberman's fight to have stock options not count as expenses under FASB rules, and the conflicts of interest -- bond-rating agencies getting paid by the companies whose instruments they rated, property-value assessors getting paid by homeowners, auditors paid by the companies they audit, corporate boards existing at the whim of their CEOs -- with which we've become so familiar in the past few years. His solution to these conflicts of interest is what you'd expect: enforce independence. A bond-rating agency would be chosen at random for a given bond issue, a home-price appraisal would be randomly assigned to a homeowner, and so forth.

Other solutions are maybe more controversial. Baker revisits the idea of a tax on stock-market transactions, proposed in 1989 (at the latest) by no less a personage than Larry Summers as a way to reduce speculation. Sometimes this seems like a good idea, sometimes not.

Plunder and Blunder is worth reading if only for two sections: a two-page sketch of how to identify stock-market bubbles in the future (using price-to-earnings ratios), and another on how to spot home-price bubbles. Home prices, says Baker, had not risen in real terms in one hundred years; the main allures of homeownership come through forced saving and some tax benefits. So any increase in home prices that exceeds inlation is immediately suspect.

Here would have been the place, by the way, for Baker to push for an end to the mortgage-interest deduction, which artificially increases demand for homes, artifically increases demand for larger homes, and benefits the wealthy substantially more than it benefits the poor. Baker didn't take the bait, and it's not clear to me why he didn't.

It's a quick, meaty read, and is a must-own.

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