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Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
by Richard Brodie
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.91
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2.0 out of 5 stars Diminution Of A Good Idea, October 7, 2014
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I've been intrigued by the term "meme" since I first ran across it a few years ago. Like all good new words, it seemed to capture something I'd already been thinking vaguely about and to offer a shorthand pointer to a useful idea. I was then interested to learn that a whole literature had in fact grown up around the concept of the meme, and I wanted to learn more. I knew that the word had been coined by scientist Richard Dawkins in a book he wrote in the 1970's, but I didn't feel like slogging through a tome on evolutionary biology - Dawkins' field - and I cast about for something more narrowly focused and accessible. So I picked up this book by Richard Brodie and gave it a read. This was a mistake, however, because Virus Of The Mind is not a good book.

Mr. Brodie in his introduction opens with sweeping promise: "The good news is that the long-awaited scientific theory unifying biology, psychology, and cognitive science is here . . . a new science called memetics". What he delivers, however, is far less. It' mostly pop psychology, and in the most pejorative sense of that term - shallow, smug, and brimming with aimless enthusiasm. I've read a other books in this genre, usually with regret later, and this one exhibits all the tell-tale traits, down to effusive praise from other pop-writers on the opening fly-leaf and ads for their tapes and seminars at the back. Stylistically, the book is full of exclamation points, sophomoric humor - he likes sex jokes - and condescending rhetorical questions with obvious answers. One device he favors is setting off little chunks of text inside of lined boxes every page or two, apparently to emphasize bits of wisdom he wants to make sure his inattentive readers don't miss. Thus are we subjected to things like: "Access to sex is the driving force behind many aspect of culture" (page 106), or "Our beloved dogs, cats, iguanas, and so on, along with the enormous industries that have arisen to support them, are all part of a huge cultural virus known as pets" (page 168) Little editorial tricks like this designed to elevate ideas too trite or silly otherwise to attract attention constitute yet another hallmark of this irksome genre.

Much of the first part of the book is actually about evolutionary biology, and I'm assuming - not having read Dawkins - that it's essentially a recapitulation of his theories. And this part of the book is even sort of interesting in places, but it reads like a summary written by a college student eager to demonstrate how well he's absorbed the assigned reading. So we hear all about how it's genes themselves, more than organisms, that compete for survival in the biological world, and how they do so by learning to replicate themselves more rapaciously then competing genes. The meme then emerges as the psychological and social extension of this same process. For memes are ideas that replicate themselves easily and acquire the ability to spread rapidly from one human mind to another. Hence, the "virus of the mind" metaphor, which apparently originated again with Dawkins but which Mr. Brodie co-opts here and brandishes proudly around like a kid who just found his dad's gun.

A meme in its own right, as Mr. Brodie repeatedly points out, the meme idea is compelling because it indeed seems to capture a lot about our media-intense social environment. Advertisers, politicians, televangelists, cultists, propagandists and hucksters of every sort surround us and compete for our attention with neatly packaged ideas designed for rapid social transmission. The dark side of the concept can be seen in the totalitarianisms that dominated the latter half of the last century and the new ones emerging now. Stalinists, Fascists, Nazis, and Islamic extremists have all sought to complement their police states with what we might now call engineered meme infection. State-sponsored memes are planted everywhere in the form of official ideology or doctrine, and competing memes are exterminated.

Mr. Brodie is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, however, and only hints at such negatives. In fact, he positions himself on a high horse above it all, explaining that he has "disinfected" himself from the memes of his culture and "re-programmed" himself with constructive memes, although he doesn't tell us much about what these might actually be, other than that they support his "values". He says his agenda in writing books now is to "make a difference in people's lives", by which he seems to mean helping them along his own path of "self-disinfection". He even tries to associate the process he advocates with Zen Buddhism. As with most of the ideas he toys with, this one is not without interest, but he reaches way over his pay grade in his shallow attempt to address it.

I'm still interested in the concept of the meme, but I have to say a bit less so after reading Virus Of The Mind. Surely this is one defining characteristic of a bad book.

The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System
The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System
by James Rickards
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Slouching Towards A New Economic Order, September 28, 2014
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Despite its apocalyptic title, this is not really an end-of-days book. James Rickards is an astute analyst, and what he's writing about here is not really disappearance of the international monetary order so much as its transition into something radically new. What sets him apart from at least some of the other writers focusing nowadays on similar issues is that he has some fairly well-grounded ideas about what shape the new order may be trying to take. And while we're not talking quite Book of Revelation stuff here, the metamorphosis he envisions is inevitably a traumatic affair, particularly for the United States, whose currency enjoys a privileged status that cannot be expected to survive the approaching seismic shift.

So far as I can tell, Mr. Rickards is not an academically-trained economist. He is a fund manager who focuses on macro issues affecting his investments. However, he's well enough respected for his knowledge of the global monetary system that the U.S. Defense Department consults with him in war-scenario planning exercises, where hypothetical attacks against financial market targets are standard fare anymore. And he seems well-enough versed in conventional economic theory too. He just doesn't consider it much help in coming to grips with the real crisis affecting the global economy today.

For Rickards is a student of "Complexity Theory". And as such he does not offer any neatly-packaged prognostications of the type dear to the hearts of most academic economists. Complexity theorists, when applying their vision to economics, see financial markets as seas of mostly hidden variables, all of them playing off one another in ways that can never be predicted with any semblance of exactitude. Small movements morph into storms before much at all is apparent. And while the rough direction of things can sometimes be discerned, sudden events have a way of exploding out of nowhere and turning the picture upside-down. For economists and investors, according to Rickards, this is just the nature of the environment they inhabit, whether they know it or not.

Economic complexity is bad enough at a national level. It becomes orders of magnitude worse when we go global. In this book Rickards takes us on a quick guided tour of the world's economies, and he doesn't show us much to bring comfort to anyone hoping for a orderly resolution to our current problems. The United States is front-and-center to his critique, because the dollar remains the world's most important currency, and its precarious state threatens everybody. He flogs the dollar with the usual observation, i.e., that chronic trade and budget deficits and decades of increasingly easy money support a national consumption we've lost the ability to pay for. He says we get away with it only because of the reserve currency status, which forces other countries - most importantly China - in greater and lesser degrees to benchmark their currencies to the dollar, thereby exporting to them what should be domestic inflation in the U.S.

Interestingly, though, he is if anything even harder on China than he is on the U.S. He considers China ruled by what the calls a "parasitic elite" which manipulates a centralized state for its own benefit while distorting its economy with massive and wasteful infrastructure spending. He seems to regard China as a bubble economy and a huge crash site awaiting impact.

Making his way around the major economies, Rickards hammers Japan a well. He portrays it as a sort of microcosm for the rest of the developed world, calling it the "canary in a coal mine". Coping for many years with deflationary pressures, Japan is now, under Prime Minister Abe, attempting to break out with massive inflationary over-compensation that offers little hope of finding a stable equilibrium.

In what might strike some readers as incongruous, Rickards actually takes a moderately optimistic tone in his discussion of Europe. Dismissing the fears of "Euro-skeptics" , he argues that the economic power of Germany is sufficient to ensure the Euro's survival. Conceived as a kind of monetary glue for holding Europe together, the Euro is central to Germany's determination to ensure a permanent end to the continent's history of cataclysmic internecine wars. Survival, however, does not imply stability, and in the last analysis Rickards sees the Euro as one more in the global stew of fiat currencies headed towards a reckoning

He rounds out his monetary tour with brief discussions of the world's peripheral markets that Western bankers have, for marketing purposes, cobbled together under various cutesy acronyms: BRICS, BELLs, GIIPS, PIGS, and so forth. Rickards sees tiny rays of hope in certain of these places, but within the context of his Complexity Theory world view, any one of them is capable harboring the hidden spark poised to trigger a global contagion.

Which brings us around to Rickards' Idée Fixe, which is Gold. Insisting he is not a "Gold Bug", Rickards at one point even pokes gentle fun at theorists who see a return to a gold monetary standard as the only hope for heading off economic apocalypse. However, he then goes on to demonstrate that the pejorative term hardly has any meaning if it doesn't apply to him. For Rickards subscribes to the belief that gold itself is the only "true" money, and that its value is fixed. Apparent movements in its price should instead be viewed as fluctuations in the prices of the world's various fiat currencies, all of which revolve around it like so many planets orbiting the sun. This is, of course, a semantical point that is axiomatically true if we buy into his way of thinking. Most people, including myself, find it little hard to swallow today, in light of the fact that not one of the world's central banks recognizes any official relationship between gold and the value of its currency.

Rickards, however, works very hard to cover his base. He devotes quite a bit of text to the behavior of our central banks, who have since officially demonetizing gold in the 1970's, continued not only to hold it in large quantities but to actively trade it. Some banks, notably those of China and Russia, have even taken to accumulating new gold directly from their national mining industries. Those of us tending to see monetary gold as an anachronism generally have a hard time explaining this behavior. Rickards, for his part, explains it matter-of-factly. Far from seeing central bankers as out-of-touch bureaucrats, he writes about them as though they were about the only people in the world today really understanding what's going on, even if their true goals remain hidden behind their public agendas. He implies that, as a group, they fully understand that the fiat currency systems they manage are headed for collapse, and that they are all scrambling to pre-position themselves for the new monetary order. He doesn't portray them as wicked conspirators so much as institutions jockeying for position among themselves while struggling to salvage a degree of order out of the impending chaos.

Richards views the International Monetary Fund, far from being the obsolete institution some observers consider it to be, as standing front and center in the new international system. Its Special Drawing Right instrument, created in 1969 as a Reserve Currency supplement, has since its inception remained in the shadow of the U.S. dollar. Rickards, however, sees it or something akin to it emerging in the new order as the primary international reserve asset and a kind of global money, albeit in a radically redesigned form. The world's existing powers will negotiate the new design, with the power of their negotiating positions being determined, as it was at Bretton Woods in 1944, by their gold holdings and by the relative size of their economies. The existing SDR represents a basket of currencies - dollar, euro, yen, and pound - that is plainly obsolete and will be re-examined under the blazing light of crisis and replaced with something more representative of the world's economic balance. The dollar will still have power but one far diminished on a relative basis, particularly with regard to China's RMB.

What this means for Americans, if Rickards is right, is that our reserve currency subsidy will disappear and the purchasing power of our money will be sharply diminished. Living for us will become a lot more expensive.

I'm sure that many readers regard James Rickards as a crackpot, and this book does indeed at times verge on crankishness. However, he's too knowledgeable and writes in too measured a tone for his views to be dismissed quite so readily in my opinion. At the very least, Death of Money is informative and thought-provoking, and I recommend it.

Flash Boys
Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
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2.0 out of 5 stars A Word-Storm Of Misleading Innuendo, July 30, 2014
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This review is from: Flash Boys (Hardcover)
I'm a fan of Michael Lewis, but he has in my opinion gone bad with this latest book. It's not just that the book is kind of bad, which it is, but he himself seems to have lost his grounding - intellectually, stylistically and even morally. It's as though he started out with a marketable tagline: "The markets are rigged" and then worked backwards to produce a book to justify it. I like Lewis well enough that I was prepared to give him the benefit of every doubt here, but I'm afraid this thing still comes up short.

The phenomenon that he has turned his focus on is High Frequency Trading. He applies his usual technique of examining his subject through the eyes of several quirky participants who have a special vantage on it. In this case, his main character is Brad Kaysuyama, formerly a senior trading manager at Royal Bank of Canada. In pursuing trading strategies at his bank, Kaysuyama finds that the security prices appearing on his screen have developed a maddening tendency to give way to less favorable prices by the time his orders execute. Kaysuyama digs into the problem and eventually traces it to the activities of secretive high-frequency arbitrageurs in the market. These are the guys who run computer algorithms that in milleseconds scan all the exchanges on which any given security lists, then automatically scoop up the best prices ahead of traditional traders like Brad. Then they scoop up the best prices on the opposites sides of the same trades, dumping all positions and locking in tiny risk-free gains for themselves. The result is higher trading costs for Brad and other institutional traders. This is indeed a fairly big deal for them, because they are in a high volume/low margin business, and anything that cuts into the already-low margins poses an existential threat.

The main problem with Flash Boys, however, is that while High Frequency Trading is bad for professional traders, it's not really that big a deal for the rest of us, despite what Lewis labors very hard to imply. "Basis Point" is Wall-Street speak for a hundredth of a percent, and the HFTers play the game for the sake of a basis point or two on each transaction. At the high volumes they do, this can aggregate into meaningful money for them, but it hardly matters that much to the "average investor" Lewis claims to speak for in this book. This mythical individual, who presumably is not an amateur day trader, does not transact in enough volume for a few basis points on each trade of have a material impact on his or her returns. Besides, as most "average investors" know, trading spreads have moved down, not up, in recent years, and are way down from where they were decades ago, when HFT didn't exist.

Another odd thing about a book focused on High Frequency Trading is that we, with one exception, don't actually meet any High Frequency Traders. I believe this omission is by design. By leaving us largely in the dark about who they are, Lewis suggests by implication that they are huge institutions secretly stealing from all of us. Lurking this way in the deep, the HFT villains are meant to grow ominously in our imaginations. In fact, as Lewis knows perfectly well, they are relatively obscure little firms armed with crackerjack computer programs hardwired strategically in such a way as to minimize transmission speeds and order lags. They compete directly against one another and generally run circles around the big banks, who tend to have relatively clunky systems not well-suited to HFT. Indeed, as Lewis himself explains to us, several of them have given up the game and outsourced their "order flow" to HFT firms better able to execute effectively.

The book has a happy ending of sorts, because Brad Kaysuyama finds a way around his problem. He and his colleagues at Royal Bank of Canada create their own set of algorithms that succeed in stalemating the HFT monster and allowing RBC to gain access to fair trades. Brad and his boys throughout are portrayed as a bunch of honest nice guys who are really not that interested in money and are only trying to "do the right thing" for the good of the markets. In fact, having accomplished their goal at the bank, they decide to strike off on their own, in true David-and-Goliath fashion, and create an independent exchange designed to bring the HFT monster to its knees. Their new exchange would be known as Investors' Exchange (IEX) , and its mission would be to bring pricing justice to us all. To succeed, though, IEX would need to attract enough volume to allow it to cover costs, and weirdly it is none other the Goldman Sachs - that most vilified of Big Banks - who rides to the rescue by shifting a chuck of its order flow to our little band of heroes. Lewis takes pains to explain - correctly I believe - that Goldman Sachs is actually a fairly decentralized place, and it's only a couple of forward-thinking managers there who have made the decision to support IEX. Thus does Lewis leave those of his readers so inclined to go on imagining the institution itself as rotten to the core.

Goldman Sachs does re-assume its evil persona in the a sub-story running through this book of Sergey Aleynikov, the computer programmer who achieved his 15 Minutes Of Fame in 2009 when he was arrested for stealing confidential code from his employer, who happened to have been none other than Goldman. Lewis doesn't tell us much about what Aleynikov was really up to, and portrays him - not very convincingly - as being largely ignorant of the use to which his work was being put. Lewis seems to take at face value Aleynikov's defense that the trading software he took home with him was mostly open-source and of no proprietary value. Goldman's pursuit of him is thus seen as pure irrational vindictiveness. Near the end of the book we see Aleynikov sitting in his jail cell talking philosophically about his fate and accepting with Gandhi-like equanimity the ruination of his life at the hands of the vile bank. Mired as it was in paranoia in 2009, Goldman surely was being petty in pursuing the programmer with such total-war vengeance. Lewis's exaggerated melodrama, however, strains credibility.

What angers me about Flash Boys is its dishonesty. To my knowledge, there's nothing material in the book that's factually wrong - Lewis is too good a journalist for that. It is, however, a word-storm of misleading innuendo designed to throw red meat to a press hungry for the markets-are-rigged message. And while there are plenty of reasons for questioning both the integrity and the competence of large financial institutions today, the real problems have little to do with High Frequency Trading. The central argument of this book is thus a Red Herring.

Michael Lewis is already a highly successful writer, deservedly so in my opinion. Flash Boys, however, seems to have propelled him into the stratosphere, judging from the publicity he's received since its publication. There's even talk of turning it into a movie, bringing to mind the image perhaps of Brad Pitt made up in a crew cut and glasses playing our nerdy hero Kaysuyama, and some soulful Russian actor as the tragic Aleynikov. The fashionable message is selling, as Lewis knew it would, and not enough people are noticing the slight-of-hand.

The odd thing is, for a book conceived with its own marketing campaign in mind, Flash Boys is probably the least accessible of Lewis's works. The lightly humorous touch he is famous for is largely gone here. What's taken its place is an alternating current of shrill message-mongering, melodrama and geeky techno-finance commentary that will elude most readers, even though he explains it about as clearly as the dense subject matter allows.

I'm sure I'll read Lewis's next book too, but if Flash Boys is indicative of a permanent new turn for him, I'm going to have to look around for a new favorite author.

Mozart: A Cultural Biography
Mozart: A Cultural Biography
by Robert W. Gutman
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Unwieldy But Brilliant Biography, June 16, 2014
I've rarely had such sharply ambivalent reactions to a biography as I did to this one. Let me try to explain what I mean, and I'll start with the downside.

First of all, long stretches of the book are close to being unreadable if you lack familiarity with 18th century central European history and geography, and don't stand already on intimate terms with the corpus of Mozart's work. The difficulty is compounded by Mr. Gutman's writing style, which is given to serial convolutions. Any one of his long sentences can contain as many as five references to people, places, historical events and musical works that will be utterly obscure to people, like many of us, who lack a scholar's grounding. The complexity problem is further aggravated by Gutman's proclivity for covering EVERYTHING in Mozart's short life. Mozart himself, as well as his father Leopold and his sister Nannerl (a nick-name), were compulsive letter-writers and diarists, and for parts of the story it is thereby possible for a diligent biographer to construct literally a day-to-day account of Mozart's comings and goings. In places, Gutman seems determined to do exactly that. For me at least, his obsession with minutia often obscures substance.

And as if the minor details of Mozart's life don't provide enough diversion for Gutman, he writes like a frustrated historian - as opposed to simply a biographer - in the sense that he wastes no opportunity to strike off on long detours into 18th century social mores and the arcane and troubled politics of the late Holy Roman Empire. This is all interesting stuff, and none of it is irrelevant to Mozart's life, but it adds so much material that the book's focus becomes unwieldy. It's subtitle "A Cultural Biography" should be read as a tipoff that Gutman's ambitions here go beyond the confines of the composer's life story.

All this aside, however, I have to say that I've rarely read a biography - and I read a lot of them - in which I felt the author channeling his subject so deeply as this one. Gutman seems possessed by Mozart's spirit, and his drive to re-create every thread of the composer's life obviously stems from his own total immersion. And the literary quality of this book is actually quite high, despite the author's predilection for obscurity and circumlocution. There's a poetic quality to his style that I often found carrying me along pleasurably enough even in passages where I had little idea what he was talking about. With some effort, you can plow through the density and really experience the story that's being told here.

And what a story it is! 'Genius' is an over-used and ill-defined word, but if it can be fairly applied to anyone, Mozart is surely the fellow. Already famous around Europe as a musical prodigy by age six, Mozart seems to have been born into this world pre-wired to produce extraordinary music. His father Leopold was a competent, if seemingly unremarkable, composer in his own right, employed as a court musician at the Archbishopric of Salzburg, then a backwater principality within the Holy Roman Empire. Leopold's aspiration exceeded both his talent and his modest financial means, and he was forever scheming ways to advance his middling social status and achieve financial independence. He had enough of a musical eye that he knew what he had in young Wolfgang before the boy was even out of toddlerhood. Leopold might have had cause to envy a son whose talent he knew would quickly eclipse his own, but envy seems to have been farthest thing from his mind. What Leopold did was to take ferocious hold on the ticket fate had now dealt him. The royal courts and wealthy bourgeois salons of Europe were crazed for music, and seeing his opportunity, Leopold became the eighteenth century equivalent of what we might today call a 'stage mother'.

Leopold taught the boy and then marched him around Europe "like a trained bear" in Gutman's words. In addition to being a child, Wolfgang was oddly small of stature and seems to have exuded the aura of a magical doll, not only performing with precocious grace but composing and improvising like a master. Whatever his own limitations as a musician, as a promoter father Leopold came into his own special genius. He strategically exposed his son to those potential patrons most able to advance a musical career, and the plan worked. Mozart's fame fed on itself as princes and the rising bourgeoisie of Europe competed for the presence of the freakishly talented little boy in their salons and concert halls.

Leopold knew that a crisis point loomed as Wolfgang approached young adulthood and the novelty of the prodigy act began wearing thin. Europe was full of talented musicians, and Mozart seemed temporarily in danger of become simply one among many. Europe's aficionados, however, were watching the young man and became increasingly aware of something phenomenal underway as his talent matured. Audiences responded too, and Mozart became a focus of popular adulation. He worked across musical genres and placed what would become his mythic stamp on the operatic, symphonic, choral and other forms. He produced a prodigious quantity of work, as if frenzied to get everything out of himself in defiance of what would be a short lifespan. He seems to have had the amazing ability to compose complete pieces in his mind, remember them in detail and transcribe them quickly once paper and ink were at hand. As a result, when not socializing, he worked more-or-less continuously even when seemingly resting or engaged in other activities.

Mozart was no artistic introvert, however. The arrogant prankster portrayed in the 1984 movie Amadeus (adapted from an earlier play) was a caricature of his personality but not a baseless one. He had a highly active sex drive and worried about syphilis, incurable in his day, for much of his adult life. He displayed an utterly disgusting sense of humor, documented in his letters, that was given to graphic scatology and the crudest forms of sexual imagery. But he was also a lofty romantic. He had a deeply loving attachment to his wife Constanze and had once courted her older sister too in the head-over-heels, lovesick style so often affected by eighteenth century suitors.

A significant portion of this book is devoted to the all-important relationship between Mozart and his father. Mozart respected his father's musical and professional judgment, and he continued to accept guidance from the older man for much of his life. However, since late childhood Mozart had in fact needed little help with his music, and by early adulthood his own talent for self-promotion began making his father's role as stage manger redundant too. If anything, Leopold had become an impediment, since his transparent social-climbing often irritated aristocratic patrons. Leopold eventually retired back to Salzburg, never rising above the level of deputy Kapellmeister in the Prince-Archbishop's orchestra. He passed on to his son a proclivity for social insecurity and paranoia, with both men often attributing professional setbacks to hidden machinations among their enemies. Leopold had worked hard to stymie Wolfgang's early relationship with his wife, considering her family's social status - actually more-or-less on par with his own - as insufficiently elevated to satisfy the ambitions he had for his son.

Biographies show a lot about the terror which disease held for people of earlier eras, and also about the futility of early medical science, which by the eighteenth century revolved around crude iatrogenic remedies like bleeding and purgatives. Mozart was sickly and had apparently been close to death from disease on several occasions but somehow survived the medical attention he received. His terminal illness struck finally in the fall of 1791 when he was in Prague, and he succumbed in December. Modern researchers have never agreed on the nature of the disease.

Gutman goes to great length to dispel the romantic mythology that has over the years imbued accounts of Mozart's final days. He was indeed working on his lugubrious Requiem Mass at the time of his death, but it was a commissioned work, and there seems to be no reason to believe it reflected a premonition. And it's anonymous patron was not a malicious Salieri, as portrayed in Amadeus, but a pretentious noble intent on passing the work off as his own. For all his success, Mozart had never achieved financial independence, and he seems happy enough for the right fee to have collaborated in the tawdry scheme. He was just short of his thirty-fifth birthday when he died, surely a shooting star if ever there was such a thing.

I recommend this book, but only to people willing to invest a great deal of effort in reading it. If all you want is Mozart's life story, there are more accessible biographies available.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 1, 2014 12:39 PM PST

The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)
The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)
by Joseph A. Tainter
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking Forward By Looking Back, January 16, 2014
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This is an interesting book. First published in the late 80's, it warrants renewed attention nowadays in light of all the end-of-the world hysterias currently emanating from concerns over economic turmoil, religious strife, nuclear terrorism, viral epidemics, and climate change. Even if most of us don't believe the worst is yet upon us, it's hard not to worry with so many books and movies out there depicting post-industrial societies where humans are left with their animal needs and violent proclivities, but none of the protections afforded by modern civilization.

Joseph Tainter, though, is no hysteric. He's a buttoned-down scholar without any apparent pre-conceived agenda and certainly no intent to sensationalize. He's actually a little boring, and casual readers expecting lurid thrills from this book are likely to put it down after the first few pages. Like other students of history over the years, he seems haunted by the fact that so many of the world's once-vibrant civilizations have vanished for no obvious reason. The tasks he's taken on to himself here are to (a) catalogue the major lost civilizations (b)summarize known facts surrounding their rise and fall (c) distill the academic literature regarding the causes of societal collapse down to a handful common theories, and (d) establish the framework for his own general theory. Since it's obvious from the start of the book that he's ultimately looking forward into dynamics that might one day lead to the demise of our own world, this book really grabs your attention once you begin to suspect he may know what he's talking about.

Tainter starts with a brief survey of eighteen vanished civilizations around the world which provide the substance for his study. His professional discipline is archeology, and several of his societies are ones, like the Minoans and the Chacoans, about which archeology tells us everything we know, since they left no written records. For others, like the ancient Romans and China's Western Chou Empire, he intrudes onto historians' turf because the written record provides a key part of the story. In fact, his most comprehensive and interesting discussion is of the Romans. I got the impression that he may have developed his animating insights for this book through his study of Rome, since he manner in which he imposes them on the sketchier cases sounds a bit vague to me in places.

Tainter is obviously not the first researcher to become fascinated by societal collapse. The phenomenon has spawned a whole genre of literature and a host of causal theories. He summarizes them all for us and groups them into eleven broad categories, including resource depletion, natural catastrophe, invasion, social dysfunction, random concatenation of events, and so forth. He points out that none of these are mutually exclusive and that all have something to offer. In the end, however, he pronounces the existing literature inadequate to the task of explaining how and why thriving civilizations eventually disappear. Hence the motivation for his study.

He does point to economic theories, one of the eleven groups, as the one probably richest in explanatory possibilities. And with that observation he lays the groundwork for his own theory, which is based in economics but is capable of subsuming elements associated with the other frameworks. In getting to his subject, Tainter generally avoids the term 'civilization'. He prefers instead the more precise phrase 'complex society', by which he means a social system entailing elaborate division of labor and supporting management hierarchies, government and a robust military. He refers to resources devoted to these functions as the society's "investment in complexity". He then explains the "rise" of a society as the period during which investment in complexity is growing and people are enjoying returns on it in the form of growing wealth, culture and security. Or at least enough people are enjoying these things that social and political stability prevail. Golden ages then can be seen as sweet spots in history during which the benefits from complexity are growing and incentivising more investment in it, triggering virtuous circles. However, such a dynamic is inherently self-limiting and eventually self-destructive.

Two phrases which Tainter borrows from economics are "marginal cost" and "marginal return". Eventually, the marginal returns from investment in complexity - meaning the returns currently available - inevitably level off and then decline, while the marginal costs stay the same or even increase. The only way central authorities can so on supporting such costs is through taxation or currency debasement, unsustainable measures in a system where benefits are perceived as declining. A system so weakened becomes vulnerable to popular revolt or invasion, or lacks the will and resources to overcome other disasters. Tainter describes, for example, how the "barbarians" who eventually overran the Roman Empire were in many cases welcomed and even assisted by the Empire's population, who increasingly saw themselves as benefitting little from Rome's "complexity", even as Rome's tax collectors became more predatory than ever.

Like the good scholar he is, Tainter is cautious in his approach to his subject and modest in the claims he makes for his conclusions. His theory is rather fatalistic and seems to regard a society's collapse as pre-determined by its rise. He is an unusually good writer and casts his points generally in short, declarative sentences that are easy to follow. His ideas, however, are not so simple, and require careful study to absorb fully. The book is short - only 216 pages - but it took me a long time to finish. I found it well worth the effort, and recommend it to others interested in this subject matter.

The Iliad
The Iliad
by Homer
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Eerie Experience, June 24, 2013
This review is from: The Iliad (Paperback)
Trying to review the The Iliad is a presumptuous and probably futile exercise. It was created for purposes that have little to do with any modern notion of literary pleasure, and there is no standard to hold it to. Having just gone through it again after a thirty year interval from my first exposure, however, I was once again hypnotized from beginning to end, and now I can't get it out of my head. I'm hence writing not to review it so much as to help myself figure out what's really going on here. Why does the piece still have such uncanny power when there are so many odd things that make it confusing and unpalatable today?

First, though, what are the oddities and the sources of vexation? For one thing, as with the books of the Bible, nobody's quite sure who wrote it, or if "Homer", its purported author, even existed. From accounts I've read, the story and text were passed down via an ancient "oral tradition", meaning that it was recited or sung to music by generations of anonymous bards, who committed it to memory after learning it from earlier practitioners. Eventually it was transcribed into the characters used to represent the ancient Greek language and from there repeatedly re-transcribed and eventually translated into virtually every modern written language on our planet. The particular version that I experienced was an English translation done in 2011 by Brooklyn-born poet Stephen Mitchell, who worked from text compiled sometime earlier by British scholar Martin West, who in turn was amalgamating whatever sources he considered appropriate, apparently deleting much that he judged to be the result of latter-day embellishment. Finally, I didn't read The Illiad this time but listened to it as an audiotape performance by British actor Alfred Molina, who brought to bear on the material yet another independent influence.

Our contemporary vantage point on this convoluted process at least this gives us a useful term to describe it: The IIiad, in whatever form we get it today, is the result of "crowd sourcing" over the course of two and a half millennia or so. Countless people from radically diverse backgrounds made their individual contributions to the story that came to me through my earphones in 2013. All of them would have had talent, and some surely were brilliant, but none of them as individuals were likely to have been literary or philosophical geniuses. The thing is a stylistic mishmash, and it is impossible to know what relationship it has to whatever the original ancient source may have been.

Another problem is the irritating temporal structure, undoubtedly resulting from the way the poem evolved. The narrative assumes the listener already knows the bizarre story of the mythological 10-year Trojan War, and other than through disjointed allusions, little attempt is made to clarify the history or the plotline. I once knew a fair amount about Greek mythology but have since forgotten much of it and had to do lot of Googling to keep things straight. The entire action takes place during a few weeks at the end of the long war, but the poem terminates abruptly before the end actually occurs or Troy falls. We know of course that a sequel is coming in the form of The Odyssey, but that's not much help for modern readers/listeners who might be expecting this piece to stand on its own normally with a crescendoing plot and satisfying climax.

Then there is the problem of values. It's been decades since I read any literary discussions of the Iliad, but I can only imagine what modern-day feminists have had to say about it. Helen is supposedly the central figure here, but she only makes a few brief appearances, generally moping around the Trojan royal palace and repeatedly describing herself as a "bitch" for having caused the War. She thus assumes blame for everything, even though the account directly ascribes to her no role other than that of victim to an abduction. Meanwhile, we're led to admire the hoards of testosterone-addled lunatics who have leapt happily into a ten-year bloodbath, obviously seizing on any old excuse to have at one another.

Along a parallel thread, another passive woman stands at the center of the main dramatic tension in the poem, which is the bitterness between King Agamemnon and the warrior prince Achilles. It seems that sometime earlier after conquering an Anatolian city, Achilles had claimed its leading princess as his prize but was forced to yield when Agamemnon demanded that the hapless damsel be handed over instead as his prize. Achilles lacks the political clout to countermand the king, but he seeks his revenge by taking to his tent for a sulk and withholding his allegiance from the impending siege of Troy. Eventually fearing that he might lose the war without the service of his most ferocious fighter, Agamemnon reconsiders and as an inducement attempts to hand the princess back to him, along with some cattle, some gold, and a few other captive women. Like a pouting brat, Achilles spurns the overture now, and only after hearing that his best friend has died in combat does Achilles re-enter the fray for revenge against the killers. Achilles, of course, is meant to be the story's shining star and the guy we look up to. The narrative gives no indication whatsoever about what the captive ladies think about him or any of the other fellows who have arrived to bring such grace into their lives. It doesn't seem to matter.

We, of course, also have to wade through the violence that pervades The Iliad. I have read a fair amount of military history and consider myself a fan of military fiction, but even I have rarely read anything exhibiting quite this degree of bloody intensity. One after another, long, extravagant passages overflow with medically explicit details of horrendous wounds and painful deaths. Swords pass in between ribs and out though gashes that let livers and other organs slither onto the ground. Spears sail through the air and splatter brains after severing tongues and crunching skull bones. Teeth and eyeballs keep popping out sockets. Yuch! The poem's other disagreeable features include it's proclivity for wondering off into long diversions only marginally connected to the plotline, or descending into mind-numbing minutia. The famous "catalogue of ships", for example, goes on forever and ever with the names, ethnicities, and family histories of all the invading Greek captains. There surely were a lot of them.

However much all of this grates against modern sensibilities, though, none of it seems to matter once you give yourself over to The Iliad's mesmerizing rhythm. This thing rises up and sucks you into itself, making you take off your editorial hat and accept the unacceptable. So looping back to my original question, what is the source of this inexplicable magic? The answer I think lies with the drive we all have, conscious or otherwise, to re-experience our roots. In a way that's not possible through a modern work of historical fiction that only tries to re-imagine the past, this poem satisfies that primal desire because it actually arises from the past. It's crowd-sourced origin offers the sensation of hearing our ancestors speak to us collectively, as from a hidden chorus. You start feeling the world, however dimly and fleetingly, the way the ancient Greeks must have felt it.

Cognitive psychologists have theorized that the brains of ancient peoples were actually wired differently from ours, giving them an interior reality that would have been entirely foreign to us. The Iliad tugs at our modern neurological wiring and seems to be trying to reconnect some of the old lost circuits. It's scary. Religion is a major force here, and the Greeks experienced religion in a more immediate way than most of us can. They may quite literally in their heads have heard the voices of their gods, in much the way that schizophrenics hear voices. Part of the experience of reading The Iliad is entering into the Greeks' polytheism. It's always been a conceit of modernism that contemporary religious doctrines or intellectual fashions supersede everything that came before, rendering it childlike and foolish. A close reading of The Illiad can't help but give one a new respect for the power of ancient cosmology.

Believers in any of the modern monotheistic religions have, or perhaps should have, a hard time understanding war. Why does God allow it, and whose side is He on? Beset by continuous warfare as they were, the ancient Greeks developed an ingenious framework for coming to grips with these questions: The various gods from their pantheon were aligned on opposite sides! As an ancient Greek, you can start sorting out the violent chaos around you once you accept that remarkable premise. In The Iliad we see the gods repeatedly intervening in combat on one side or the other, albeit in disguise, and on a couple of occasions actually suffering wounds. But then later on we see them all gathered together on Olympus, arguing about the day's events in relative repose, as if over cocktails and cheese. They themselves are immortal, and it's all a game to them.

The Greek gods were often jealous, underhanded, cruel, and petty, while at other times they could be wise, compassionate, and fair. In short, they were like humans, except with superpowers and infinite life expectancies. Even the supposedly omnipotent Zeus struggles against his personal flaws and limitations. He tries to maintain an even hand in the war while his divine underlings squabble like adolescents on a play-yard. He's unable to control even his devoted and generally loyal wife Hera, who at one point gussies herself up and seduces her husband to distract him long enough for the Achaeans, whom she favors, to gain a temporary upper hand in the fighting. When Zeus comes to his senses and sees the trick, he erupts in fury and threatens to send her tumbling into Hades, although nothing of the sort in fact happens. The old king's bark is often worse than his bite.

Listening to this passage, I could not restrain myself from laughing out loud. And it's in thinking back to this moment in the narrative that I believe I can begin to discern the elusive secret to The Iliad's power. Crowd-sourced and thus representing a collective reality, the poem intermeshes the darkest of tragedy with the most sublime comedy. The two blend seamlessly into an experience that resonates so deeply because it captures something that is core to our being.

The Iliad is neither an easy nor a pleasant read, but for anyone willing to put up with all the unpleasantness discussed above, this strange classic is worth the effort.
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Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution And The Dangers Of Stress-Free Living, April 24, 2013
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A writer knows he's made it when a term he's invented becomes a popular idiom. Even people with no idea who Nassim Taleb is will use "Black Swan" in sentences today to describe an unpredicted event that shakes the world. Taleb coined that term in the title of his last book, and with "Antifragile" now he's come up with another word probably destined to get stuck in our lexicon with the same unnerving tenacity. Taleb has a knack for giving a sudden clear voice to ideas that explain a lot but which heretofore had been floating around formlessly.

"Antifragile" is the quality inherent in certain things that not only makes them resistant to disorder but allows them to thrive on it and grow stronger. In Taleb's narrative, most antifragile systems are natural and unconscious, with evolution itself representing the epitome of the antifragility that has allowed life on Earth to progress in the face of natural chaos.

Taleb actually devotes most of his effort in this book, however, to talking about the opposite of antifragility. He hates fragility and dislikes the people who cause it. Fragility arises when human beings stop coping pragmatically with the natural stresses in their environment and try to create unnatural carefree bubbles for themselves. Working as a Wall Street trader during the Alan Greenspan era, Taleb observed first-hand the manner in which the legendary Fed chairman responded to every hiccup in the financial markets with heavy doses of liquidity and ever-lower interest rates. Greenspan was lionized at the time for having "tamed" the business cycle and for creating what looked like an endless horizon of smooth business conditions and high investment returns. What he was in fact doing, in Taleb's way of thinking, was to vitiate restorative normal volatility and to lay groundwork for the crash of 2008 and the dismal aftermath with which we're still living today. "Fragilista" is the derisive term that Taleb applies to the human authors of fragility, and he singles out Greenspan as "the greatest Fragilista of all time." Be that as it may, the gentleman has plenty of bad company in this book.

Anyone who picks up Antifragile with the idea it's a treatise primarily about market economics, however, is going to be surprised. While his erstwhile profession still provides Taleb with his central metaphors, he has by now moved beyond it and seemingly promoted himself into the ranks of the Great Philosophers. He sprinkles his text with the names of just about every ancient Greek and Roman philosopher and scientist most of us ever heard of, along with those of medieval theologians and various Middle-Eastern authors most of us haven't. While apparently self-taught, Taleb is well-read. Being multi-lingual and having been born in Lebanon, of course, he is unassumingly cosmopolitan, and I don't find his displays of erudition in any way pretentious. It's just that he appears to be one of those writers who, having achieved sufficient renown, doesn't have to pay much attention to editors any more. He rambles self-indulgently at times and takes the reader down many odd diversions, even as he pursues consistent lines of thought.

He is interested in biology and nutrition, finding in these fields natural expressions of his central ideas. The talks about the quirky nutritional regimen he applies to his own life, for example. He subjects himself at random intervals to diets of sensitively balanced grains and veggies, hardcore fasting and, occasionally, in his words, "high quantities of fatty red meat". Eschewing theory as he does, he doesn't really try to explain any of this but seems to regard irregular nutritional inputs as key to healthy living. Once again for him, comfortable patterns in life are the enemy of long-range survival.

He regards much of modern medical and pharmaceutical science as bunk, prone to overselling marginal benefits and ignoring murderous side effects. He's well-versed in statistical methods, and he slams the research behind it all as being undermined by a combination of misread correlation and the self-interested bias of the medical community. He comes across like a country grandmother in his preference for old-fashioned remedies. Two of his favorite words in this book are (1) "iatrogenic", which refers to harm caused inadvertently by well-meaning doctors, and (2) "hormesis", which refers the body's natural healing power in response manageable levels of toxins or disease-causing agents. These words tie together several of Taleb's diverse threads, and he applies them with caustic vigor in his critiques of both modern medical doctors and Harvard economists in their respective manias for curative intervention.

Taleb is hard to place politically. His scorn for central planning and economic intervention in any form would seem to place him squarely on the hard conservative side of the spectrum. However, in his fury against bankers, military interventions, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and large corporations in general, he sounds like Michael Moore. I suppose that the people he's closest to would be the Libertarians, although I'm sure that he himself would resist even that label. He would point out that the detested Alan Greenspan calls himself a Libertarian, or at least once did. What Taleb really is, in my opinion, is an instinctive anarchist, albeit a gentle one without any violence about him whatsoever. I've seen him interviewed a couple of times, and for all his bookishness, he can come across as willfully and almost proudly inarticulate. For me, he brings to mind a bit the young Bob Dylan, who refused to engage with people he obviously did not respect and was forever parrying their questions with non sequiturs and obscure little parables. People like Dylan and Teleb don't like getting maneuvered into boxes.

For all his eccentricities, let there be no mistake about it: Nassim Taleb has one of the more powerful minds at work today in the public domain. Like all original thinkers, he's developing a very small number of core ideas that he circles around repeatedly in an effort to tease out as much meaning as possible. I judge the power of a book largely by the length of time it stays lodged in my consciousness after I put it down. I finished this one a couple of weeks ago and still have not stopped thinking about it. I generally read with a pencil in my hand and underline passages that strike me as particularly cogent expressions of important ideas. Leafing back through my copy of Antifragile, I find many pages where a third of the text is underlined.

It's my belief that Taleb has placed his finger here one of the key dynamics that is driving contemporary events in the world: Efforts to micro-manage complex phenomena undermine natural processes and cause systemic breakdowns. For people who can put up with unconventional writing and occasional goofy disconnects, I highly recommend this latest book.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
by Nate Silver
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Modest Proposals That Outperform, February 9, 2013
Nate Silver is a brilliant guy if we can judge by the quality of this excellent book. He is, at the same time, refreshingly modest about his abilities, and that modesty reflects his central thesis here: that we live in a probabilistic world where successful prediction is possible but only after acknowledging that our initial ideas about almost everything are wrong. Furthermore, he believes that even our well-developed ideas can never be better than approximations of the truth. His philosophy is the antipode to intellectual arrogance.

Only 35 years old, Mr. Silver has already made quite a name for himself as a statistical analyst and a forecaster. While he never mentions this, Time Magazine named him one of the world's "100 Most Influential People" in 2009. His early success was in the field of armchair baseball scouting, where he developed unorthodox statistical algorithms that successfully forecast the career trajectories of fledgling players. This was the kind of analysis Michael Lewis would later make famous in Moneyball. Mr. Silver also made a good deal of money for a while playing online poker, a game in which the keys to success are knowledge of probabilities and an ability to interpret the betting patterns of opposing players. More recently, he achieved renown with his uncannily accurate predictions about our American elections. In this new book he demonstrates that his methods are applicable to many different areas of modern life, albeit with highly uneven degrees of success, as he is first to acknowledge. The subjects he delves into here, in addition to sports, poker and politics, include the weather, earthquakes, economics, the stock market, bond rating analysis, epidemics, computerized chess, global warming, and terrorism.

Silver gently but convincingly lampoons the pretentions of professionals in several of these areas, who generally exhibit what for him is the cardinal sin of overconfidence. In the field of earthquake forecasting, for example, scientists have for years fielded complex statistical programs that claim an ability to pinpoint the locations and timing of major earthquakes. While getting the high-risk locations right is easy enough, dramatic predictions about timing have fared little better than amateur guesswork, and big quakes always catch the majority of seismologists by surprise.

My own area of professional focus for many years has been financial markets and economics, and it is not surprising for me to see Mr. Silver sweeping through these fields with easy dispatch. Economic forecasting is a long-standing joke, even among the professionals who make their livings producing the forecasts, and professional stock fund managers in the aggregate are perennial underperformers relative to simple market averages. Even individual fund managers who outperform for a while rarely sustain their records across market cycles. All this failure has occurred, and goes on occurring, despite the lavish compensation, costly computer support, and high-profile media braggadocio that goes along with advising the public about their money.

Mr. Silver devotes a lot of focus to the so-called "Efficient Market Hypothesis", which essentially says it's hard to beat financial markets, because everything we might hope to learn about them is already reflected in the prices we pay for our investments. It is in his discussion of this notion that we begin get a glimpse of what Nate Silver is really driving at. We have to remember that he is after all a statistician himself with a rather successful record to his credit. He should therefore by no means be viewed as a debunker of statistical methods in general. Nor is he a pessimist who believes that our environment is totally unpredictable. His belief system would seem to be more in line with the ideas of "chaos" or "complexity" theorists, who focus on the dynamics of massive systems that are inherently unstable and thus subject to continuous change. Analysts are therefore unable to devise static models for them, and what is left to them is to nibble around the edges in the hope of gaining at least a marginal handle on how such systems move. With respect to any system, like the stock market, in which human intelligence is part of the dynamic, there is worse problem: i.e., the closer people come to understanding the system, the faster it changes and invalidates the new understanding. The "Efficient Market Hypothesis" is a reflection of one such Sisyphean pattern.

The conclusion that Mr. Silver wants us to draw from his work, however, is not that prediction is hopeless. Rather, he suggests that we should undertake it with modest expectations and be prepared to make continuous small adjustments to the theories upon which we base it. Following this heuristic method, we should be able to stay close enough to the truth that we can still recognize it once it has morphed into another form. As a poker player, Mr. Silver found that he could do well enough by winning a few pots bigger than the ones he lost. It is by routinely exploiting such marginal advantages in any field that we can hope to stay ahead of whatever competition we may have and to achieve higher levels of understanding.

I highly recommend this book.

Teller of Tales : The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle
Teller of Tales : The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle
by Daniel Stashower
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Pure Reason And Its Underside, October 5, 2012
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I've always had a passing interest in Sherlock Holmes, based mainly on a couple of the stories read many years ago and their film versions forever cropping up late at night on old movie channels. Recently on a whim I picked up a boxed set of the original literature and, while working out in my home gym, slogged through CD audio readings of every one of the stories and novels in which Sherlock Holmes had appeared. With this experience, my passing interest morphed into active fascination, and I finally understood the worldwide and century-long preoccupation with in this remarkable character. What Holmes represents for us is nothing less than the personification of pure reason. In every one of his mysteries, he starts out with a bareboned pattern of seemingly trivial facts and from these derives the most complex and heretofore hidden realities. Logical deduction is his only method. Expounding once on his own craft, Holmes boasts that had he never heard of the Atlantic Ocean, he could in time deduce its existence by examining a single drop of rainwater on the window of his modest flat in Victorian London. Often he solves his cases without even leaving the confines this flat. He sits, smokes his pipe, plays his violin, and thinks. Then he arrives at his conclusions, which at least in the published stories, are invariably accurate to the last detail. What a mind!

Brimming with renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes, I wanted to learn something about the British writer who had created him. Like many readers over the years, I was assuming that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had produced something of a self-portrait in his famous fictional character. After a bit of hasty Googling, however, I learned that Conan Doyle had in fact created more of an anti-self in Sherlock Homes. In contrast to Holmes the consummate rationalist, Conan Doyle was not only a spiritualist, but one who gravitated to the dodgier strata of the supernatural realm. He believed, for example, that fairies were real and had been photographed by two little English girls in 1917. Learning about this side of Conan Doyle disappointed me at first, but then I realized there was a weird psychological conundrum here that might be of some additional interest in its own right. I cast around for a biography and came up with this one by American writer Daniel Stashower. It was a pretty good choice.

Conan Doyle had a troubled family background. He came from a family of successful artists, and his father too, Charles Doyle, was an illustrator of some talent, but he suffered from debilitating alcoholism and depression. He was committed to a nursing home when Arthur was still a teenager, and eventually died in a lunatic asylum. Luckily for Arthur, his mother was a strong woman who took charge of him. Their wealthy Catholic relatives provided limited support, but they were largely on their own because the extended family was embarrassed by Charles' condition and soon angered by young Arthur himself when he renounced formal religion at an early age. He was resourceful, however, and mustering what family help he still could, he got himself into Edinburgh Medical School. Upon finishing his training there and already exhibiting a taste for adventure, he signed on as ship's surgeon with a whaling vessel. It doesn't appear he did much doctoring on board, but he participated actively and with some gusto in the dangerous and bloody business of hunting whales.

Upon returning home, he set himself up in medical practice in a town on the southern coast of England. The practice was at best marginally successful and left him plenty of free time to develop the writing skill he had already discovered in himself. It wasn't long before he was able to start supplementing his meager doctor's income with fees received from magazines for his short stories. Sherlock Holmes first appeared in a novella published in 1886, along with the faithful and plodding Dr. Watson, who was probably closer to being a true alter ego for Conan Doyle than was Holmes. From there, Conan Doyle was on a fast roll for the rest of his life because Sherlock Holmes immediately struck a powerful and enduring chord with the British and eventually American publics. Conan Doyle was to become rich and immensely famous on the strength mainly of this one fictional creation.

Biographer Stashower paints a fond portrait of Conan Doyle. We see him as generous, kind, loyal, energetic and brave. People were forever bringing legal cases to him in the belief that he actually was Sherlock Holmes, and he took up several public crusades in support of individuals whom he considered victims of injustice in the courts. He was married twice and had five children. He fell in love with the second wife, Jean, while still married to the first, who was slowly dying of tuberculosis. Yet he continued to dote on Louisa, the first wife, and protected her by keeping the other relationship distant and platonic until Louisa finally after many years succumbed to her disease. He was a loving and devoted father. He was physically robust, adept at cricket and boxing, and was a pioneer of the then-obscure sport of "ski-running", which soon became popularized as "skiing" in part because of the worldwide publicity surrounding his enthusiasm for it.

He considered himself a dedicated subject of the British Crown. When the second Boer War broke out in 1899, he dutifully tried to enlist as a foot soldier in the belief that he would be setting a good example for the young men of his country. When he was turned down because of his age and weight, too high on both scores, he took another tack and managed to sign on with a hospital unit bound for the war zone. Functioning as a battlefield doctor, he performed heroically under appalling conditions as typhus and other diseases ravaged British troops along with combat injuries from what turned into a surprisingly ugly, bloody and protracted conflict. Upon returning home, he applied his pen to writing a history of the war, explicating for a skeptical public the cause he believed their nation had justly defended. Even though members of the royal family were rumored to be fans of Sherlock Holmes, it was not this but his service as a propagandist that earned him the knighthood he was awarded in 1902.

For all of Conan Doyle's admirable qualities, there is a sad and disturbing underside to his life story. For one thing, his own literary renown was galling to him, because it was based mainly Sherlock Holmes rather than what he regarded as his real artistic contributions. He was a prolific writer, capable of pumping out 10 to fifteen thousand words a day when in his groove. He was most proud of his voluminous historical romances, and also produced factual histories, plays, poetry, and science fiction. Some of this achieved moderate success in his lifetime, but literary critics were always lukewarm. Little of it is taken seriously today, and much of it is forgotten. So frustrated did he become with his own professional dependence on Holmes, that he took the drastic step of killing him off in one of the stories, only to have to revive him sometime later when he realized the firestorm he had set off among devoted followers. Conan Doyle also had a family and an upper class lifestyle to support, and the famous detective was his only reliable meal-ticket.

If Conan Doyle revealed a streak of pathological naiveté in assessing his own talents, we can observe this streak growing into a dark river in his obsession with the occult. Not only was he open about his beliefs, he became a crusading champion for spiritualism and went so far as to found an organization he called the Church of Spiritualism in London. He promoted numerous psychics and mediums, and he exhibited an increasingly brittle and condescending attitude towards skeptics. Even though he came to call spiritualism his religion, he insisted his belief was not based on faith, because he "knew" the truth about psychic activity.

Mr. Stashower treats all this with delicacy. He likes and respects his subject, and obviously did not want his biography to degenerate into a debunking exercise. Still, Conan Doyle believed not only in ghosts, but in fairies, and no biographer of the man can avoid coming to grips with this issue. Maintaining admirable objectivity, Mr. Stashower at no point openly opines on it, but in true Holmsean fashion, he lets the dry facts unfold for themselves. Virtually every one of the psychics Conan Doyle chose to stake his reputation on was at some point conclusively exposed as a fraud or else voluntarily came clean by explaining the magician's stagecraft by which he or she had deceived audiences or séance circles. The famous young fairy photographers, for example, both lived into old age, and finally in the 1980's admitted to reporters that they had faked the fairy tableaus with magazine cutouts and cardboard. The both said they had been amazed at the time that anyone, especially a person of Sir Arthur's renown, could have taken them seriously. They were ten and sixteen years old at the time and obviously less innocent than Conan Doyle was at fifty-eight.

The cultural influence of Sherlock Holmes has only accelerated over the years. Today there is a TV show teleporting Holmes and Watson into modern day London, and still another casting Watson as woman. These shows air side-by-side with garish dramas about vampires, witches and zombies, revealing a simultaneous public thirst for rationalism and it's opposite. Conan Doyle's life is of interest today because it prefigures this modern tension. It would be asking too much of Mr. Stashower to explain the weird psychological roots of all this, but he does a good job of laying out the facts of the case for us to make of what we will.

The New Depression: The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy
The New Depression: The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy
by Richard Duncan
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4.0 out of 5 stars Picture of a Runaway Train, June 29, 2012
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Richard Duncan is a brilliant and haunted man. There is no shortage of financial Jeremiahs writing in the current environment, but Mr. Duncan is unusual in both the cogency of his analytic style and the factual rigor of his material. This book is replete with tables and charts which are alarming but all derived from indisputable public sources. He is not one of our standard-issue Ivy League economists, and so far as I can tell, does not even have a PhD. He is academically trained, however, and is entirely comfortable with the theoretical frameworks that academic economists of the various factions employ. More importantly, unlike many of them, he functions in the real world and understands live markets. He has worked as an investment strategist at ABN AMBRO, an economist for the World Bank, a consultant for the IMF, and is currently employed by an asset management company in Singapore. He was educated in the U.S., but seems to have spent most of his professional career in London and Asia. The book is dense enough to deter casual reading but is entirely accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject matter. Spanning only 170 pages, it casts a crisp ray of light into the chaos of our current economic crisis.

Duncan's central ideas are simple. First, he considers both the prosperity and the financial instability of recent decades to be functions of the massive expansion of credit that has occurred. What he calls "Total Credit Market Debt", i.e. the sum of all borrowings by households, governments, corporations and financial institutions, grew from $355 billion to more than $50 trillion between 1945 and 2007, going from 150% to 350% of U.S. GDP over the same span. Most economic theories, of course, would have predicted that such a credit explosion would lead to hyperinflation. The fact that nothing of the sort has happened Duncan explains with his next central idea, which is that globalization has resulted in what he describes as a "95% decline in the marginal cost of labor". While it's not exactly clear how he arrives at this quantification, his essential point is that the deflationary impact of collapsing labor costs, thanks mainly to the Chinese, have largely offset the inflationary impact of credit expansion. This odd synergy resulted in prolonged and apparently sustainable economic growth for many years.

The system Duncan describes, however, is in fact inherently unstable. While he does not use this metaphor, the picture he paints might be described as a runaway train accelerating downhill. It has managed to stay on track only because of increasingly desperate and extreme applications of fiscal and monetary stimulus that have been applied. He discerns, and documents, steadily diminishing returns from these measures, and explains our current crisis as a deadly inflection point at which massively more stimulus is required but where the flood of money needed to pay for it is driving us towards systemic collapse. This is a classic and hopeless double-bind for economic policy-makers.

I find that this far into his argument, Duncan provides a disturbingly plausible framework for understanding the bizarre patterns into which our current economic events are falling. His book, however, loses its grip towards the end in my opinion. While he may not be an academic, respect for structural neatness seems to compel him to offer forecasts and solutions. The problem is that the extreme nature of his underlying thesis dooms any attempt to bind it up in so conventional a fashion. He outlines various possible scenarios that are radically different from one another - hyperinflations, depressions, etc., depending mainly government policies - but that are all disastrous, like the many diverse caverns of Hell. He even drifts into geopolitics and discusses the wars, revolutions and so forth that typically result from systemic collapse. There is no trace of hysteria in any of this, and he presents it in his dry analytic style like so many items on a menu. Spinning out disaster scenarios is, of course, a favorite parlor sport nowadays, and it's all fairly cheap stuff. If the global economic system is indeed imploding, then quite literally anything can happen next, and I'm not sure we really need Mr. Duncan to run through the hypotheticals for us.

He strays even farther afield in my opinion when he arrives at his recommendation for economic policymakers. His economic heroes seem to be Ludwig Von Mises and other writers of the conservative "Austrian School", who believed in hard money and free markets. Like others among their modern-day followers, Duncan traces the onset of our present runaway system to the elimination of gold-backing for our money and the resulting avalanche of fiat money everywhere in the world. In contrast to these economists, however, Mr. Duncan disparages the very notion of a return to the gold standard in any form, because he considers it to be disastrously impractical at this stage of history. He likewise dismisses sudden fiscal austerity as a solution, because it would lead to mass unemployment and a deep-freeze depression of long duration. To the contrary, in a surprise twist for a supposed fan of the Austrians, what he suggests is accepting the inevitable logic of our current system, however deranged it may be, and doubling down with a massive increase in spending funded by new fiat money.

Neo-Keynesians and other left-leading economists are, unsurprisingly for them, proposing similar options in the current environment. What distinguishes Mr. Duncan's position is that, rather than throwing money at every intractable social program in sight, he recommends massive investment spending on projects that would pay for themselves through hard economic returns. In particular, he suggests force-marching our solar energy technology with government money and setting the goal of entirely eliminating our dependence of fossil fuels within ten years. It's hard to tell if he's really serious about this proposal. He certainly gives no indication of knowing much about the technical issues involved. However, taking his cue from President Kennedy's improbable 1961 boast that the U.S. would place a man on the moon by the end of that decade - which we of course did - Duncan seems to believe that no technical nut is too hard to be cracked by a big enough pile of government money. "Should $1 trillion over 10 years not succeed in achieving this goal, then $2 trillion over 15 years certainly would," avers Mr. Duncan on page 145. My oh my, what dangerous logic this is!

On the other hand, it can't be dismissed completely out of hand. And given his premises, it's easy to see what drives him to such a reckless proposition. The sudden ability to harness a virtually infinite supply of very cheap energy would sharply drive down costs in our economy and offset the inflationary impact of continued expansion of the money supply, in much the way that cheap imports from China have done in the recent past. And this dynamic might well facilitate another generation of prosperity and economic growth. Since the alternative in Duncan's grim world view seems to be probably a century of economic misery, he's looking at the problem like a bankrupt gambler with one last big card to play. $2 trillion becomes an easy bet to justify.

All economists have to be taken with many grains of salt, in my opinion, because the puzzles with which they wrestle always dwarf their theories. A provocative thinker, Richard Duncan deserves to be listened to with the rest, so long as we keep some long perspective on his conclusions.

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