275 Followers
48 Following
Hoss

Monkeypanic

Made my All-Time Top Five History Books list~ !

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty - James A. Robinson, Daron Acemoğlu

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I would place it in my all-time top five history books, along with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Will and Ariel Durant's Rousseau and Revolution, Carroll Quigley's Tragedy & Hope, and Norodom Sihanouk's My War with the CIA.

What it is, is a very simple thesis about what it is that nations require to materially prosper. I'm not sure why the title dwells on nations which fail, as the title could just as easily be "Why Nations Succeed." Simply stated, Robinson expounds that the winning formula for prosperity is merely this: (1) a government sufficiently powerful to enforce private contracts and adjudicate private disputes; (2) a process of political and economic decision making sufficiently inclusive that the productive class (as opposed to the ruling or landowning classes) believe it is in within their power (by means of some combination of hard work, ingenuity, and judicious investment) to improve their lives; (3) institutional respect for the ownership and accumulation of private property. In the terminology of the book, systems which fulfill the above criteria are called Inclusive, and those which do not are called Extractive. You may or may not agree, but the heart of the book isn't much more than this.

What is fantastic is how the authors view selected histories through the lens of this very basic premise. I still haven't bothered to learn the authors' backgrounds, but they are well versed in a wide range of interesting world history. It turns out that contrasting the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Sierra Leone supports the thesis perfectly. Likewise, contrasting a history of the Spanish colonies in South America with the British and French colonies in North America. The history of the Republic of South Africa (Extractive) and Botswana (Inclusive). India, North Korea vs. South Korea, etc... there are ample examples provided.

Are these examples cherry-picked? They may be, but I have not been able to come up with anything to refute the general principles. Delving beyond the simple demonstration of examples, the mid portion of the book examines situation which superficially appear to contradict the thesis, but then shows how in fact they support it. The rapid economic growth of the Soviet Union between 1926-1960, for example. The USSR stands firmly in the camp of Extractive systems, but enjoyed robust growth, and even some innovation (the Soviet space program and Sputnick, for example) during this time. It was a limited run, and an aberration, it turns out... driven by borrowed technologies (efficiencies) from external sources, cannibalization of wealth created from the preceding Extractive-but-slightly-less-Extractive-than-the-USSR political and economic institutions of the Czars, and limited growth which can sometimes be engineered by converting from one Extractive system (feudal agriculture) to another (Soviet collective farming) which enjoys slight benefits of efficiency-of-scale.

The same analysis is applied to the apparent belle epoque of Argentina from 1870-1910, when Argentine economic growth was the envy of the rest of the world, and the phrase "Rich as an Argentine" was used in American and British circles. The growth was self-limited, because it was mostly a reflection of the entrenched dominant landowning families developing previously-undeveloped land, not the sort of "creative destruction" one sees from true innovation and wealth creation in an evolving and progressing economy. This idea of creative destruction comes up again and again.

More relevant to modern day: the author argues convincingly that the impressive economic growth we now see in China is doomed to sputter out, if Chinese political and economic institutions remain Extractive.

The final third deals with case histories of those rare systems which have broken out of the Extractive natures and transcended to Inclusive: England's Glorious Revolution of 1688; the French Revolution (which led to a conversion of many other European systems from Extractive to Inclusive), and the slow evolution of the American (US) South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act.

It's a wonderful book, and I'm not doing it justice here, but please read it.

If you liked "Freakanomics", you'll prob like this

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

A very quick-reading exploration of the unexpected causes of socioeconomic success in America. The chapters break down into case studies- quirky but true observations, and plausible (but not rigorously proven) explanations.  Why do an abnormally large fraction of top professional hockey players have birthdays in January?  Why did an abnormally large fraction of Wall Street corporate acquisition lawyers in the 1960's come from Jewish immigrant families with parents or grandparents who worked in the garment industry? What common thread explains the exceptional career trajectories of Bill Joy (the computer wiz who wrote the Java programming language, and founded Sun Microsystems) and the Beatles?  (Hint: it isn't raw talent or luck)

 

If you like to think about stuff like this, this book will do for a light read. 

 

Minor complaints: Gladwell (the author) doesn't elaborate much on his methodology, or how he stumbled or otherwise arrived at some of his conclusions. He mentions how some topics came to interest him, but it all sounds like a string of impossible coincidences. There is a looseness here that makes the entire book sound less like a disciplined academic examination of a subject, and more like the off-the-wall random free-associations of a guy who is apparently very well-read and well-informed on a broad array of seemingly-unrelated subjects. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Made my All-Time Top Ten list~!

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

I didn't think anybody could do historical fiction better than James Michener, but Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is just a little more complex, with characters a little more nuanced than any of the Michener I've read. Superficially, it flips back and forth between two stories:  Susan and Oliver Ward, who move out West to work in mining towns of Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and California- spanning the period 1870-1891; and their grandson Lyman Ward, a history professor researching their lives in 1970.  

 

Stegner riddles the narrative with all sorts of juxtapositions, counterpoints, and comparisons between the ages. The elder generation is young and energetic, bold and enthusiastic, diving into the Western territory to forge an extension of the American empire in the wilderness. It is the Wild West in some ways, but a more tempered, historic Wild West, where the daily grind is not gunfights and Indians, but more mundane, bureaucratic fights, like conflicting land claims, crooked lawyers who misfile paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management, and constant pressure to convince the far-off and unseen vested Eastern interests financing their new civilization that it will be profitable. 

 

I'm not an historian, but it all feels very realistic- maybe because it is less glamorous than the Hollywood Western. Every small victory is hard-fought. For every successful venture, there are multiple failures. Even a bountiful silver mine may not be profitable, depending on the cost of labor, or the transport of equipment into the undeveloped interior, or the vicissitudes of the commodity markets. Nobody gets scalped by Indians, or burned at the stake. Bandits never rob any stagecoaches. No fights break out over card games in a saloon, as a player piano hammers out some tune. Yet, everything about the story seems to attest that this is how the West was really won.  

 

Still more satisfying, the historical backdrop is populated by authentic characters. The Wards are adventurers, but also filled with longing for the more civilized world they left behind, and the people they had to leave there, to build this new life. Temptations, frustrations, frailties, uncertainty, fear of failure, actual failure and the imperative to move on from it... all the stuff missing from Frontierland at Disney World; these are the best parts.

 

Then there's Lyman Ward... professor emeritus. Much older in 1970 than the grandparents he's reaching back across ninety years to write about. He's living in the grand beautiful New West that Susan and Oliver held out as an ideal they would likely never see for themselves, but which they dreamed about hopefully for their progeny. But of course it isn't utopia; Professor Lyman is recently retired from U.C. Berkeley; the Vietnam War is going on, and the once-quiet semi-rural town he's moved out to is filled with free-loving, dope-smoking hippies... an unwashed generation that wants to shake the Establishment to its foundations and start again from zero; heirs to the best efforts of forty thousand Susan and Oliver Wards, but with no sense of history, and no appreciation for the sacrifices that built this "land of milk and honey" which they resent so deeply.  

 

As Susan and Oliver face bankruptcy and infant mortality, Lyman Ward conspires to resist the inevitability of his children committing him involuntarily to a retirement home. Before this happens, he is determined to discover the one glaring, unanswered question about his grandparents' lives: what caused them to abandon their property in the Idaho Territories?

 

It is truly one of the ten most satisfying books (fiction) I have ever read.  

When the winners don't write history

Harp of Burma - Michio Takeyama, Howard Hibbett

A short story... based on a true story, I think... about the plight of Japanese soldiers in Burma, after their governments' official surrender. A lot of them refused to give up fighting... either due to failed communiations, or belief that the news of surrender was a ruse to trick them into laying down their arms. Remember: up until just about the very end, official Japanese "news" and internal communications painted an outrageously rosy picture of how they were faring in the war. Many soldiers were absolutely crestfallen when news of the surrender came. To them it was seemingly out of nowhere.

 

The story of the harp deals with one infantry unit in particular, fighting up in the "hill country" of Burma. I won't spoil it. There is also a very interesting account of one soldier so affected by the surrender, he faked his own death and became a (Buddhist) monk at a local temple, rather than return to Japan.

You Know Nothing John Snow

And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina - Paul Blustein

Writing across the historical chasm of 3 years, financial journalist Paul Blaustein looks back from 2005 to explore the slow-motion implosion of the Argentine bond market and peso from 2000-2002.

I won't do it all justice, but the book shines in a few areas:

1) How for one brief, beautiful moment, globalism was the undoing of the IMF

This is kind of funny when you think about it. There is some karmic justice here, because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was conceived after World War 2 by international bankers, for international bankers. The institution is ostensibly an impartial international lender, there to help stabilize underdeveloped nations during periods of crisis. If you cherry-pick your examples, you can argue that it has had some success at this, but more often than not, it has been a sort of weaponized finance aimed by developed nations at underdeveloped nations, during the period of their greatest vulnerability, and used as a vehicle to force borrowers to accept the terms of globalization. As a result, IMF loans have always come with strings attached which obliterated domestic protections for fledgling industries and labor. Lending nations receiving IMF funds have been forced to watch nacent domestic employers go under, displacing labor and making it cheap for predatory multinationals to force their way in and exploit the locals.

Proceeding this way for decades, the IMF has managed to shape the global investing environment to the point that most countries no longer have protections to keep local money from leaving the country to chase better options abroad. Hooray for the efficiencies of globalism, and screw you, citizens of developing nations who can't raise any capital to start businesses or develop infrastructure!

But wait! With money traveling over borders so easily, an entirely new source of capital has been revealed in the international bond market. Failing states like Argentina no longer need to go to the IMF, hat-in-hand when they can't service their debt; they can float bonds at ridiculous rates of interest (since they're so risky) for rubes in New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore to suck up. Normally, investors might be skeptical of such risky investment vehicles, but in 2000, the "Tiger Economies" of East Asia (e.g. South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc) were in a recession, and the US tech bubble had just burst, so Argentina's 15% municipal bonds looked pretty damn good (if you ignore the fact that there was mathematically no way they could actually be paid in full)

Suddenly, Argentina could tell the IMF to go pound salt! That is, until the "Tiger economies" started to make a comeback, and international money began flowing back out of Argentina (oh what a fickle mistress is the international municipal bond market!)

For a while, the success of globalism was the undoing of globalism's weapon-of-choice, the IMF. Not sure what the future holds, but that was entertaining!


2) Moral Hazard

If you've heard this term thrown around a lot, but wondered what it meant, Blaustein gives you as good a lesson as you're likely to hear anywhere.

When the IMF finally did come in to rescue Argentine bonds, there was a good deal of outcry about moral hazard. The bonds paid really high rates, because they were risky. High-level financiers were making 15% or more (on bonds!) because everybody implicitly understood that there was a very real risk (inevitability, actually) that Argentina might default on them. When the IMF entered to rescue these bonds, it was essentially using American (Canadian, British, Australian, etc) taxpayer's money to make these 15%-bearing vehicles into a can't-fail investment for a bunch of Wall Street (Hong Kong, etc) high rollers (as well as a lot of middle class Argentine investors). Not only is that unfair, but it completely fucks with the valuations of every other bond on the market.

and 3) There's no such thing as bankruptcy for nations (but maybe there should be)

In American law, and many other nations, a person whose debt spins out of control can essentially "hit the reset button" and walk away, leaving creditors holding the bag. There are penalties attached to this, to be sure, but on some level there is a "free pass" for mismanaging one's finances. A lot of people bulk at this, and consider it unfair... well, it is, especially if it is abused... but there is also a legitimate economic function for this process. If a person gets buried under a mountain of debt they can never possibly repay, then they can't be the good consumer/spenders that American Capitalism dreams we should all become. Worse still, if an otherwise good-businessman can't make a mistake now and then, the American entrepreneur may develop a much smaller apatite for risk... resulting in fewer business ventures, which employ fewer people, which make few innovations, and enjoy fewer spectacular successes. America's productivity and prosperity has been in large part to our risk/reward investment environment.

Unfortunately, there is not an equivalent pathway to rescue nation states from their own financial mismanagement. Paul Blaustein lays out a case for why there maybe should be, and what he thinks such a process would look like. Interesting reading, if you're into that sort of thing.

The last few chapters deal with the aftermath of the Argentine meltdown, and include a few good excerpts from Bush-era Treasury Secretary John Snow, tying himself up into pretzel-like knots of illogic, as he testifies to Congress about why he thought a country with unmanageable debt would be a good investment, why taxpayers should be happy throwing good money after bad to further prop up the failing Argentine peso, and (best of all) why "such a thing could never happen here [in America]!"

Good stuff.

 

 

You Know Nothing Jon Snow

You Know Nothing, John Snow

And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina - Paul Blustein

Looking back across the historical chasm from 2005, financial journalist Paul Blaustein dissects the 2000-2002 slow collapse of the Argentine bond market, which ended with the devaluation of the Argentine peso, and the resignation of their president.

 

There are a few good angles explored here, which I won't do justice, but I can at least list off-the-cuff:

 

1)  Why it wasn't a good idea for Argentina to peg the peso to the US dollar:

Going back to the 1930's, Argentina has had chronic problems with confidence in their currency, often resulting in hyperinflation. In the early 1990's, linking the peso to the US dollar looked like it would be a good solution. This means that no matter what happened in the Argentine economy, 1 peso would always be redeemable to 1 dollar. This made foreign investors more likely to invest in Argentine bonds, because if the bond earned (say) 6%, it would really be 6% they were getting back.. the Argentine government couldn't just inflate the currency so they could nominally pay 6%, but deliver considerably less buying power.  This worked for a while, and the economy really prospered in the mid to late 1990s (for many assorted reasons). Problems arose when (a) the U.S. economy took off relative to the Argentine economy, and Argentina had a hard time coming up with money to pay its debts in U.S. denominated notes. Also: linking the peso to the dollar essentially abrogated Argentina's ability to control its own money supply, which limited their ability to stimulate or moderate the economy.

 

2)  How globalization carries the seeds of its own undoing:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was conceived at the end of World War II. Ostensibly, it was founded to be an international lender, an underwriter to help weaker currencies weather difficult times, and in general to assist in international debt restructuring (as a preferable option to economic collapse).  In practice, it has become (and may always have been intended to be) a tool of globalist international banks, who have used it in a somewhat predatory way, by lending money contingent on hard-up nations accepting harsh "restructuring" terms which destroy domestic protections of indigenous developing industry, and often displacing labor and rendering it vulnerable to egregious exploitation by multinationals who force their way in under the IMF terms. (All in the name of efficiency, natch.)

 

For decades this worked well for the international banking cartel and a few cherry-picked success stories, and very poorly for everybody else.  But... as globalization has extended its tentacles around the world, and has advanced its agenda more and more forcefully, it has loosened up international investing and money transfers to the point that the international investor class can slush money around the world with virtually no legal or economic restrictions.  It is the realization of the globalists' dream, when they minted the IMF!   However, one consequence of this new Earth investing environment emerged around 2000:  private money became so easily available in the form of bonds sold on the international market, that countries with unstable debt didn't actually need to come hat-in-hand to the IMF for bailout money... they could find enough suckers on the international bond market!  

 

This worked to Argentina's benefit from 1999 into 2001, as Argentina was unable to service its old debt, yet was somehow able to accrue MORE debt to service the old debt. With each round of new bond issues, the interest promised would get higher and higher, reflecting the risk (i.e. the unliklihood that Argentina would ever be able to actually repay the amount borrowed)... and investors loved it!  Who wouldn't want to buy a bond paying 15% interest?? (Hint: somebody who knew they'd never actually see the money promised.)  When economists at the IMF threatened to cut Argentina off from any bailouts, Argentina (figuratively) laughed in their face!  "Who needs ya?  We just sold another round of municipal bonds."

 

Argentina could get away with this for a while, because the "Asian Financial Flu" of 1998 made international investors skittish about putting their money in the "Tiger Economies" of South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.  Argentina was still living off its "rising star" reputation of the early 1990's, so people looking for somewhere to put their money didn't ask enough questions when Argentina started putting bonds on the market.  The gravy train ended when the Asian economies started to come back from their mini-recession, and pronouncements from the IMF started to raise questions about how good a deal these Argentine bonds actually were.

 

3)  Moral Hazard:

This term gets thrown around a lot. It has to do with rewarding investors who take on more risk. If I spend my hard-earned money on a risky investment, it's because I think it might have a spectacular payoff.  Everybody loves to dream about the penny stock which grows to become the next Microsoft, etc. (In the case of this book, the investment vehicle wasn't penny stocks, it was Argentine municipal bonds, but the mechanism is the same.) This relationship between risk and reward can get short-circuited, when some outside force like the IMF comes in and promises to bail out the venture, if things go bad.  Suddenly the penny stock company becomes a venture that can't fail!  (Whereas in reality, failure is statistically the most likely fate of most penny stock companies.)  Now it's a too-good-to be-true investment! ...But why should taxpayers (of member nations of the IMF in this case) money go into making these high-payoff investments a sure-thing for a few investors?  Where's the justice in that?  And not every penny stock company gets bailed out, only some, so how does that get decided (hint: corruption), and how is that fair?  It isn't, and such interference with moral hazard can fuck with the fair valuations of every investment vehicle on the market, if you aren't careful.  Argentina and the IMF ran into some of that, when the IMF finally agreed to help Argentina service some of its debt.

 

4) There is no international equivalent to the American legal device of "declaring bankruptcy".  

 

A lot of people think it's unfair that individuals who get into deep enough financial trouble can essentially "hit the reset button" and walk away from their obligations, leaving lenders with a big loss.  Yet, there is actually a legitimate function to this legal pathway, so long as it isn't abused.  Without it, individuals might be forever trapped under unmanageable debt, unable to ever be the good consumers American-style Capitalism wants us all to be. It would also preclude somebody with otherwise good business acumen from ever overcoming a one-time mistake, to once again become a successful entrepreneur (i.e. employer, taxpayer, innovator, etc).  

 

Unfortunately, no such pathway exists for nations which mismanage their debt. Blaustein lays out a good case for why there probably should be. 

 

 

If you are interested in any of this kind of stuff, this is a decent (but not great) read. There are a lot of nice details sprinkled in, about the different players in this story, and what they are like on a personal level. If you tend to be unsympathetic towards predatory banks like JP Morgan, it is nice to see Blaustein cutting them exactly zero slack for their role in Argentina's undoing.  Likewise for the Treasury Dept under George W. Bush. The final few pages detail then-Treasury Secretary John Snow tying himself into knots of pretzel logic in front of Congress, testifying why he thinks countries with unmanageable debt are a great investment, why he thinks American taxpayers' money should go into saving unrealistically-risky bonds from failing just so a few mega-rich investors won't have to take a loss, and (best of all) why what happened to Argentina "could never happen here" (!!)

 

 

You Know Nothing, John Snow

And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina - Paul Blustein

 

Writing across the historical chasm of 3 years, financial journalist Paul Blaustein looks back from 2005 to explore the slow-motion implosion of the Argentine bond market and peso from 2000-2002.

I won't do it all justice, but the book shines in a few areas:

1) How for one brief, beautiful moment, globalism was the undoing of the IMF

This is kind of funny when you think about it. There is some karmic justice here, because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was conceived after World War 2 by international bankers, for international bankers. The institution is ostensibly an impartial international lender, there to help stabilize underdeveloped nations during periods of crisis. If you cherry-pick your examples, you can argue that it has had some success at this, but more often than not, it has been a sort of weaponized finance aimed by developed nations at underdeveloped nations, during the period of their greatest vulnerability, and used as a vehicle to force borrowers to accept the terms of globalization. As a result, IMF loans have always come with strings attached which obliterated domestic protections for fledgling industries and labor. Lending nations receiving IMF funds have been forced to watch nacent domestic employers go under, displacing labor and making it cheap for predatory multinationals to force their way in and exploit the locals.

Proceeding this way for decades, the IMF has managed to shape the global investing environment to the point that most countries no longer have protections to keep local money from leaving the country to chase better options abroad. Hooray for the efficiencies of globalism, and screw you, citizens of developing nations who can't raise any capital to start businesses or develop infrastructure!

But wait! With money traveling over borders so easily, an entirely new source of capital has been revealed in the international bond market. Failing states like Argentina no longer need to go to the IMF, hat-in-hand when they can't service their debt; they can float bonds at ridiculous rates of interest (since they're so risky) for rubes in New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore to suck up. Normally, investors might be skeptical of such risky investment vehicles, but in 2000, the "Tiger Economies" of East Asia (e.g. South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc) were in a recession, and the US tech bubble had just burst, so Argentina's 15% municipal bonds looked pretty damn good (if you ignore the fact that there was mathematically no way they could actually be paid in full)

Suddenly, Argentina could tell the IMF to go pound salt! That is, until the "Tiger economies" started to make a comeback, and international money began flowing back out of Argentina (oh what a fickle mistress is the international municipal bond market!)

For a while, the success of globalism was the undoing of globalism's weapon-of-choice, the IMF. Not sure what the future holds, but that was entertaining!


2) Moral Hazard

If you've heard this term thrown around a lot, but wondered what it meant, Blaustein gives you as good a lesson as you're likely to hear anywhere.

When the IMF finally did come in to rescue Argentine bonds, there was a good deal of outcry about moral hazard. The bonds paid really high rates, because they were risky. High-level financiers were making 15% or more (on bonds!) because everybody implicitly understood that there was a very real risk (inevitability, actually) that Argentina might default on them. When the IMF entered to rescue these bonds, it was essentially using American (Canadian, British, Australian, etc) taxpayer's money to make these 15%-bearing vehicles into a can't-fail investment for a bunch of Wall Street (Hong Kong, etc) high rollers (as well as a lot of middle class Argentine investors). Not only is that unfair, but it completely fucks with the valuations of every other bond on the market.

and 3) There's no such thing as bankruptcy for nations (but maybe there should be)

In American law, and many other nations, a person whose debt spins out of control can essentially "hit the reset button" and walk away, leaving creditors holding the bag. There are penalties attached to this, to be sure, but on some level there is a "free pass" for mismanaging one's finances. A lot of people bulk at this, and consider it unfair... well, it is, especially if it is abused... but there is also a legitimate economic function for this process. If a person gets buried under a mountain of debt they can never possibly repay, then they can't be the good consumer/spenders that American Capitalism dreams we should all become. Worse still, if an otherwise good-businessman can't make a mistake now and then, the American entrepreneur may develop a much smaller apatite for risk... resulting in fewer business ventures, which employ fewer people, which make few innovations, and enjoy fewer spectacular successes. America's productivity and prosperity has been in large part to our risk/reward investment environment.

Unfortunately, there is not an equivalent pathway to rescue nation states from their own financial mismanagement. Paul Blaustein lays out a case for why there maybe should be, and what he thinks such a process would look like. Interesting reading, if you're into that sort of thing.

The last few chapters deal with the aftermath of the Argentine meltdown, and include a few good excerpts from Bush-era Treasury Secretary John Snow, tying himself up into pretzel-like knots of illogic, as he testifies to Congress about why he thought a country with unmanageable debt would be a good investment, why taxpayers should be happy throwing good money after bad to further prop up the failing Argentine peso, and (best of all) why "such a thing could never happen here [in America]!"

Good stuff.

 

You Know Nothing Jon Snow

"Move Along, There's Nothing to See Here"

Inside Pine Gap: The Spy Who Came In From The Desert - David Rosenberg

Since June of 1970, the American National Security Agency (NSA), has jointly operated a satellite communications station in Pine Gap, Australia, together with various Australian intelligence agencies. Security surrounding the facility is very tight, so the civilian world has little idea what specifically is done there, but the site has been controversial because of suspicions that it supports unpopular wars and/or may be involved in domestic spying in Australia and/or the USA.

 

The author, Mr. Rosenberg, is a 23 year veteran of the NSA, and spent sixteen years at Pine Gap as an electronic signals analyst, so I was hoping for more insights about what goes on inside. Unfortunately, the book is mostly a generic autobiography about an American who moves to Australia, and is filled with innocuous observations about kangaroos, Australian slang, and how hot it gets in the Outback in summer. Honestly, much of this book does not especially depend on the fact that Rosenberg works at Pine Gap for the NSA, and would probably have read exactly the same if he had moved to Alice Springs to work in a grocery store.

 

But then there are a few spots which are partly redeeming. We do at least learn:

 

1) ...that Pine Gap monitors foreign and domestic missile telemetry signals... the information missiles broadcast about their speed, altitude, course, etc which nations monitor as part of their arms treaty verification process.

 

2) ...how Pine Gap supported the first and second Gulf Wars, as well as NATO operations in Kosovo, by identifying certain kinds of radar used to guide surface-to-air missiles, GPS-jamming technologies, and ship and aircraft homing beacons. 

 

3) ...that Pine Gap's rural Australian location was selected because it is one of the few places in the southern hemisphere where the "footprint" of satellites beaming signals down to Earth does not fall into international waters (where a hostile government could legally dispatch a ship to record those broadcasts for future decoding and analysis.)

 

4) and that, due to the state of electronic and telecommunications technology in 1970, satellites of that era did not encrypt the signals they broadcast back to Earth. The necessary additional equipment would have been prohibitively heavy to place in a satellite.

 

Given that we now have satellites which can read license plates from space, and that armed UAV's (Unmanned Aeronautical Vehicles) [i.e. "drones"] have become a prominent feature in our "Global War on Terror", I suspect there is quite a lot that Mr. Rosenberg isn't telling here. There is zero mention about domestic spying, although I have to believe a satellite tracking station like Pine Gap might be involved in something like that. Instead, Mr. Rosenberg sees fit to devote thirty pages to complaining about the bureaucratic obstacles the NSA placed in his way publishing this book.

 

For what it's worth, Rosenberg has a nice enough narrative voice, and comes off as a personable guy who genuinely believes in his agency's mission, and who finally found true love with a lounge singer from Sydney... but who cares? If you buy a book called Inside Pine Gap- The Spy Who Came In From the Desert, it isn't because you want to read about some dude's love life.

Source material from an eyewitness

First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War - George Weller, Anthony Weller, Walter Cronkite

I thought this might be a little bit like John Hersey's Hiroshima, but it wasn't. Well, not much. Immediately after the Japanese surrender to US forces in September 1945, General Douglas MacArthur became the local governing official. He immediately placed a ban on journalists going south to report on conditions in the bombed cities. The thinking at the time was apparently that US forces needed to guard secrets about exactly how devistating the atomic weapons had been, and this information was still a state secret- at least until the US shaped sensible and coherent state policies and military strategies around the reality of these new super-powerful weapons. Military detachments were sent to observe conditions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but journalists were forbidden.

 

George Weller was an Army reporter who managed to sneak around the bureaucratic obstructions and safeguards to become the first American into Nagasaki, post-war... nearly a week before the sanitized and highly-chaperoned cadre of state-approved American journalists were flown in.

 

The first chapter details his experiences. If you have read Hersey's Hiroshima, or Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain, you have already read far more stirring works on atomic bomb survival. Weller describes destruction, but his lack of Japanese language or interpreter prevent him from in-depth interviews. He describes a city in ruin, and a society suddenly deprived of basic infrastructure.

 

It is a morbid to compare the destructive effects of nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as if it were some sort of contest in grotesquery, but if you can detach yourself sufficiently to do so, there are some cold scientific points of interest here. In fact, I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but having never heard the two cities experiences compared before, I actually found this to be one of the most interesting things this book has to offer.  It turns out that the atomic destruction of Hiroshima was far more devastating.  For one thing, Hiroshima was a much more populous city than Nagasaki, at the time of attack. Nagasaki was a target because it was one of the few remaining industrial areas in Japan, by war's end, and it was the less-populated industrial area at the periphery of Nagasaki which was targeted. A munitions factory, a coal mine, and a functioning shipyard were all within the blast range of the Nagasaki "ground zero". In contrast, Hiroshima was a target because it was a population center, and its "ground zero" was the city center. That is probably the single largest factor between the two cities.

 

The second major factor is topography:  Hiroshima is located on a plain which offers few obstructions to the spread of shock waves, heat, or the burst of deadly gamma rays released at the moment of detonation. Nagasaki, on the other hand, is a city spread out over several hills and valleys... similar to San Francisco in this respect, which provided pockets of shelter in the path of the blast.

 

Minor factors have to do with the types of bomb dropped (Hiroshima was destroyed with a uranium bomb; Nagasaki with a plutonium), the differing altitudes at detonation, the weather conditions on the respective days of attack, and the state of alert of the local population (Hiroshima had sounded an "all clear" when it saw there was only a single enemy airplane in the sky... supposing that it couldn't do much damage;  Nagasaki- which was attacked three days later- had no such misconceptions.)

 

This is probably only stuff that nuclear tacticians in some Pentagon war room need to think about, but it does shed light on the kind of analysis and assessments that were made back when the scientific and military communities were still unsure what it was they had on their hands, and what its full potential and limitations were. 

 

All of this only represents the first 1/3 of the book or so. George Weller's experience in Nagasaki changed when he happened upon the American prisoner of war camps. The newly-liberated Americans reported to him- for the first time it became known- the full extent of abuses they suffered in Japanese POW camps. To be sure, this part is the most affecting. Cold statistics show that an American captured by the Imperial Japanese forces in WW2 was seven times more likely to die than an American captured in the European theater. Most of the prisoners died of starvation and exhaustion, as they were worked to death in the Mitsui coal mines on the island of Kyushu. (Most POW camps were on the island of Kyushu.) There are also several instances where hundreds died at a time of suffocation and/or heat stroke, when they were (extremely) overcrowded and sealed into compartments of transport ships, during mass movements of prisoners, when the Japanese were forced to abandon its positions in the Philippines.  In the winter, many (already malnourished) also died of exposure, as prisoners were not allotted sufficient blankets or clothing. Then there are many individual accounts of prisoners being beat to death by prison guards for minor infractions, or for sport. Sometimes guards would stage fights between prisoners, so they could bet on the outcome... summarily executing anybody who refused to take part.

 

The reporting here is not jingoistic, as some wartime reporting can be (e.g. "them dirty Japs"), I think because the war was already over at the time of writing, and Weller knew that his missives were not going to be filtered by his editors for their propaganda value. I would characterize the reporting here as evenhanded and appropriately solemn to the subject matter. I am aware of a certain unfairness here which might give the reader the impression that the suffering of Japanese atomic survivors is being minimized here. I don't think it is intentional. I think it is the natural consequence of Weller's inability to speak Japanese, to hear their stories.

 

If you have kids who don't understand how easy they have it, or what hardships past generations have endured, I would recommend this book as an eye-opener. On my first draft of this review, I softened that sentiment a bit, but I don't want to soften it. 

 

The final chapter is by the author's son (also a journalist), written sixty years later, and sharing some followup information of how these stories were initially officially suppressed, and were later re-discovered. 

 

 

 

 

♩♩♫♩ ...and he wants to be a paperback wri-ter ♩♬♩

Disraeli: A Biography - Stanley Weintraub

Benjamin Disraeli was most famously Prime Minister of England under Queen Victoria, serving on two separate occasions. His grand vision of England as an enduring, globe-spanning cultural and political force coincided with the zenith of the British Empire's power and prosperity. "Highlights" (depending on your view) of Disraeli's PM tenure include (but are not limited to)

 

- perhaps most important is Disraeli's participation in debates and steering the Parliament towards consensus that Great Britain should not intervene on behalf of one side or the other, in the American Civil War. A large contingent of Parliament wished to at least diplomatically recognize the Confederate States of the South... the British textile industry being vital to the economy, and domestic textiles being reliant on (American) Southern cotton. This part of the book is well worth reading, but the short summary is that Disraeli was weary of provoking the North into attacking Canada. British military assets were tied up around the world, and particularly concerned at the time with preserving peace between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in the Agean (the Eastern Mediterranean being vital to peaceful passage of British ships through the Suez Canal and on India). Canada's 2000+ mile unfortified border with the U.S. was regarded as vulnerable, and impractical, if not impossible, to defend at that time. There was also concern about what future obligations or embarrassments might ensure if Britain showed support for the Confederate States, and then the war turned against the South (which it did, in fact). 

 

- the particularly clandestine acquisition of controlling interest in the Suez Canal, using secret go-betweens, and representing one of the rare recorded instances in history when one arm of the Rothschild banking family (the British side of the family, on this occasion) opposed another arm (the French)

 

- a diplomatic coup in which a second Crimean War was avoided, when Disraeli was able to convince (German Chancellor) Otto von Bismark to stand with Britain in propping the Ottoman Empire up against the Russians.  The accomplishment is slightly diminished by (1) the fact that a good deal of blame falls on Disraeli for the FIRST Crimean War; and (2) the fortifications Disraeli commissioned at Galipoli against the Russians are the same ones which so many British soldiers would lose their lives attacking forty years later, in World War I. 

 

- a decision to wrest control of India from the British East India Company (BEIC), and place it officially under the Foreign Office of the British government. To seal it, Queen Victoria's title was ammended to include "Empress of India". The decision came after a revolt in Calcutta resulted in a failure of confidence in agents of the BEIC to manage civil unrest on the subcontinent. 

 

- a decision to press British interests in South Africa, against revolting (Dutch) Boers, who essentially did not recognize transfer of South Africa from the Dutch to British crown, as a term of surrender in a minor conflict in 1803. Conflict would persist well beyond Disraeli's tenure. 

 

Prior to his terms as Prime Minister, Disraeli spent several decades as a Member of Parliament (MP).  There is quite a lot of diplomatic wrangling, and coalition building, and vote courting, but oddly, most of the issues discussed during this portion of the narration deal with issues that seem almost trivial.  If this book is to be believed, the largest and most contentious issue which Disraeli was forced to visit and re-visit repeatedly, was whether the official Church of Ireland should be dis-established. I mean... (what???) 

This section was, frankly, not nearly as interesting as I had expected. 

 

The early portion of Disraeli's life is a whirlwind of philandering and exotic travel. Young Disraeli was an author of middling success- mainly writing throwaway adventure trash, who borrowed far beyond his means to maintain a foppish, dissolute, dandy lifestyle. He bedded a large number of married and unmarried women, greatly altering my perception of how common and socially acceptable pre/extra-marital sex was, in the Victorian Era.

 

 

I don't know if I'm just listening to the news too much lately, or if there's a legitimate comparison here, but I started to notice a lot of parallels between the young Benjamin Disraeli, and present-day Donald Trump. Okay, okay! ...now hear me out:

 

1. Both had success in other fields prior to entering politics, and were not initially considered to be serious by the career politicians of their day.

 

2. Both had their private lives roundly criticized for philandering and other less-than-honorable vices.

 

3. Both regarded as egotistical dandies in their youth.

 

4. Both accused of only entering politics in order to inflate their public recognition, in the service of profiting in their "real" careers (Trump: real estate, Disraeli: novelist) after they leave public office.

 

5. Both promoted the image of being a faithful Christian, but both came to their (supposed) beliefs late in life (if at all), and both were accused by political rivals of merely appropriating the faith as a political tool.  Disraeli was nominally Jewish, but was raised essentially non-observant, and converted in his university years. Whether he had an eye to politics is uncertain. (Jews were not allowed to hold high public office in Great Britain until 1848- more than 10 years after Disraeli held his first office.)  

 

6. Both surprised their critics with a greater degree of political success than anybody had expected. 

 

7. (And yes, I know this is the only item on my list which speaks to the substance of their politics) Both Trump and Disraeli defied the popular opinion of the times by favoring relatively protectionist stances, in periods where "free trade" was either favored or deemed inevitable/unopposeable. 

 

I don't know.... too much of a stretch?

 

This was an okay book, if read for passing interest in the subject. My major complaint is that author Stanley Weintraub seems to want to discuss Disraeli's novels as much or more than his politics... not that there's anything *wrong* with that, but it's not my interest. 

A 40 second fight with 25 years of consequences

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever - John Feinstein

I'm not a big sports fan, but this is not exactly a sports book. I picked it up because it looked like a tale about karma, but it isn't that either, exactly.

 

On December 9, 1977, a fight broke out during an LA Lakers/ Houston Rockets basketball game. Apparently fighting used to be a whole lot more common in the NBA than it is now. The fight lasted less than a minute, but it ended with a devastating punch thrown by 6'8", 245 pound, 27 year old Laker Kermit Washington on Rocket Rudy Tomjanovich. It resulted in such severe facial damage, that the center of Tomjanovich's face was dislocated and sunken into the mid portion of his skull, and he was leaking spinal fluid into the back of his mouth. (One of Tomjanovich's enduring memories was the bitter taste in his mouth, which he couldn't figure out what it was.)

 

The book goes back to each player's childhood and early career, creating a rich subtext to the altercation.  It then follows the two men 25 years (to the time of publication), showing the ripples one punch created in the lives of not only Washington and Tomjanovich, but their families, and even throughout the institution of the NBA (which immediately instituted much more severe penalties for violence, and added a third referee to its games).

 

Although Tomjanovich suffered through multiple surgeries and terrible physical and psychological pain (to include nightmares and alcoholism), in some ways, he recovered better than Washington.  Tomjanovich went on to have a successful post-injury career as a player, and then went to even greater heights as a championship-winning NBA Head Coach. Washington's career, self-image, and marriage took a decided downturn, which at first blush made this seem like a set up to say "[Washington] got what he deserved". But that really isn't true. By all accounts, Washington was a very nonviolent guy who grew up in a (then) violent part of Washington DC. The fight stirred up a lot of panic-mode memories from his childhood... which doesn't excuse it, but even taking it as pre-meditated (this is debatable), the punch seemed to me like one dumb thing that an impulsive guy did in his youth, in the heat of the moment, which unfortunately had such severe consequences, he was never able to live it down. There's quite a bit in Washington's past to empathize with, and he does a hell of a lot of atonement afterwards- including (but not limited to) starting a charity foundation supplying African hospitals with medicine they would otherwise be unable to afford. I don't think any reader will get through this book still believing that he "totally deserved" everything that followed. There's an impulse to want to make this a neatly packaged parable with "the right kind" of ending, but there isn't one. It's messy.

 

In a way, The Punch reminds me of (John Knowles) A Separate Peace... a cautionary tale about how a split-second bad decision can fuck up two (or more) peoples' lives forever. There are some things impossible to take back, even if they can be healed, and possibly even forgiven. 

An Introduction to Game Theory.... kind of.

The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future - Bruce Bueno De Mesquita

Game Theory was first developed as a model for human decisionmaking back in the 1940's. Like the label suggests, it deals with analyzing human choices from a purely self-interested viewpoint. The idea is to map out all the possible foreseeable outcomes of a decisionpoint, and to assign corresponding weights to all of the contributing factors, in order to predict the outcome. 

 

I guess an example might be something like a high school senior who has been accepted to five different colleges and is trying to decide which to go to. Each college has pros and cons (cost, reputation, proximity to home, etc) and the student has numerous different priorities (cost very important, reputation somewhat important, proximity to home not important...) which point at a given result. 

 

That's a very simple example. The theory has been expanded to very complex scenarios, which consider hundreds of variables, and complex processes which involve multiple decisions. This is where the models get to be like a game... where one self-interested, objective decision begets an outcome which sets up for the next evolution of choices. The author worked on early computer game theory models in the 1970's (at the University of Rochester in NY), and even back then was successfully able to predict things like the outcome of elections, and what bargains the Soviet Union might agree to in nuclear arms talks, etc.

 

The triumphs and innovative applications of Game Theory are interesting to hear about, and the author avoids almost any mention of the underlying math... but that gets to be annoying. He plays his cards too close to the vest- is a bit too vague about the nuts and bolts of it all.  About 100 pages in, I started to figure out that the book is basically a 250 page commercial for his consulting business. I don't say that in a bitter way; it's fine, and I learned a little bit about a complex subject that I'm not really required to know anything at all about, in my daily life. It was a pure curiosity read. 

 

It's written at about a 6th grade level, so you can whip through it in no time. Just don't expect too much.

You want my advice, young man? One word: TIN.

The Celts (Penguin History) - Nora Chadwick, Barry W. Cunliffe

Most of this book is dry as a bone. I'm sure the information in here is accurate, but it wasn't fun reading it, and in fact I abandoned it about 200 pages in.

 

Some highlights of what I did like:

 

1. The number one best part of this book for me was a discussion of why the Roman Empire expanded Northward into Celt country (as opposed to Southwards into sub-Saharan Africa, or Northeast to the sparsely populated area now known as Ukraine). The main factor is that the Celts traded goods rich in tin- an ingredient of the wonder-metal of antiquity, Bronze. Italy and the Middle East (regions of Roman power) are relatively tin-poor, but Northern Europe, and in particular Great Britain are rich in tin.

 

All of this has nothing to do with the Celts or Celtic culture; it's more of a geography/geology tidbit, but it's still interesting.

 

2. The author describes the wide variation in habits and aesthetics amongst the Celtic people, who spanned from Ireland to Bulgaria. I'm still not sure what exactly makes something Celtic, since the respective cultures of Ireland and Bulgaria look very different to me, but maybe the topic of what constitutes Celt-ness is covered in the chapters I decided to skip.  My loss, I'm sure.

 

This is probably good for an academic, or somebody with a lot of previously-accumulated knowledge about the Celts, but not so great as an introductory text.

The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (The Art of the Novella) - Mark Twain

Short novella- a bit of a morality play about a town too full of itself, and how its coveted reputation was undone by the hypocrisy of its citizens.

 

One thought: the writing isn't as folksy and affected as most of Twain's works. No extreme accents or Hee-Haw slang in this one. To my mind, that's a good thing, but those gimmicks are part of Twain's popularity, so make up your own mind.

And I don't even generally like murder mysteries...

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco

Hearing about the death of Umberto Eco this week reminded me that I had once read this, and never reviewed it. Some time has gone by, since I read it, but I'll offer a few things my memory has still retained.

 

The Name of the Rose  (TNOTR) has a well-deserved reputation for being filled with a lot of Latin phrases, and obscure minutia about the Middle Ages and the Catholic church. It's not as overwritten as Gravity's Rainbow, but that's the book which comes to mind, as far as that goes... there is a companion book available to go with TNOTR, if you don't want to miss out on any of that. I glossed over most of those things, if I couldn't figure out the Latin from my rusty Italian, or if I didn't feel like going to the internet to figure out what detail about Medieval politics Eco was referring to.

 

So about the book:  I'm not the first person to compare it to Sherlock Holmes, because it's an obvious association. A senior, very smart crimesolver uses his acute powers of observation and logic to solve convoluted crimes, as his awed younger sidekick narrates to the audience. As I recall, I didn't feel like I was really provided sufficient information to solve the crime, but then I'm not really very good at that. Maybe you can. I was just along for the ride, and I enjoyed the ride well enough.

 

Note: the early 80's movie adaptation, following Sean Connery, does not end the same as the book.

SPOILER ALERT!

They Got Away With It for Over Forty Years

The Polk Conspiracy - Kati Marton

The book is superficially about how and why an American journalist in Greece was murdered at the behest of then Greek Foreign Minister Tsalderis with absolute knowledge and complicity by the American CIA and State Department.  On a deeper level, I guess it is about how the entangling foreign intrigues that George Washington warned against in his farewell address always seems to force nations into Faustian bargains which inevitably end in embarrassment, injustice, and outrage.

 

In 1944, George Polk was a decorated World War II veteran retired back to civilian life after combat injuries. He was a bit directionless, but haphazardly ended up as a war correspondent for CBS news. His mentors were the legendary Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer. Some good leads and hard work landed him in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where he covered the demise of the British Empire in Egypt and Trans-Jordan, as well as the early stirrings of Zionist nationalism in Palestine.  The big news story he pursued in 1947 was the Greek civil war (between the Communists- who had enjoyed American support throughout World War II because of their effective opposition to German occupation forces;  and Ultra-Right Monachists- whom America supported after World War II because of their staunch opposition to Joseph Stalin's influences in bordering Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia.)  

 

So from the get-go, America's position in this region is a bit messy. The "Red Scare" back home had not yet blown up into full 'witch hunt' mode, but such was already the atmosphere in Greece. 

 

A little background here now:  Greece had long been part of the British empire, valued as a way-station and military outpost safeguarding the vital shipping link between England and India, by way of the Suez Canal.  Winston Churchill so valued Greece that he essentially bargained away any claim on the rest of Eastern Europe, so long as Stalin assured him (for what that's worth) that the Soviets would make no aggressive moves to incorporate Greece into their sphere.  As British power "downsized" after World War II, Churchill and his successors relinquished control over such widespread and distant assets as Iran, Egypt, even India, but stood fast on maintaining Greece within their sphere (partially to support Malta and Gibraltar in maintaining British primacy in the Mediterranean, in the face of a growing Soviet Black Sea fleet.)  The British so impressed President Harry Truman with reverence for Greece's strategic value, that he supported the Marshall Plan-  an investment of several billion dollars (in the 1940's!) of foreign aid, to bolster the Greek economy and aid in fighting Communists forces in their civil war.

 

George Polk comes in as a naiive reporter covering the civil war, and -for shame! - instead of supplying America and the Greek Monarchists with a steady supply of anti-Red propaganda, he reports evenhandedly... to include reports of Monarchist atrocities against rural villages suspected of aiding Communists, torture and other abuses by the police, etc. Incidentally, Polk also falls in love with and marries a Greek woman, whose personal experiences during the war reveal further falsehoods in the prevailing narration about the upright, just, and honorable nature of the Greek monarchy.

 

Gradually, Polk's reporting turns a more cynical eye to the Greek regime- now firmly allied to American through the Truman Doctrine of foreign policy, and a steady supply of Marshall Plan money.  Eventually, through persistence and daring, Polk hits journalistic paydirt:  bank statements proving that Foreign Minister Tsalderis is skimming hundreds of thousands of Marshall Plan money into a secret offshore bank account.  Days after this discovery, Polk is murdered by agents of the monarchist intelligence agency.

 

Through careful reconstruction of records finally released forty years after the events, author Kati Marton (wife of the news anchor Peter Jennings) is able to reconstruct not only the circumstances of Polk's murder (drugged at dinner, shot in the head behind his hotel, and then dumped at sea from a small boat), but the coverup. His body washed ashore about a week later- interpreted in retrospect as less likely a failure to conceal his murder, than an intentional message sent to any other meddling journalists.

 

At first, the American and Greek public are both satisfied with a cursory investigation by Greek police, which essentially concludes "It was probably Communists, but we'll never know for sure."

 

Pressure from Polk's family (descendants of the American President James Polk) as well as journalistic luminaries at CBS and the New York Times eventually results in an American investigation led by none other than the original head of the CIA, James Donovan.

 

Donovan's investigation from A to Z was a whitewash of events, meant to confound and misdirect the public, to protect the "good" name of Tsaldaris, and ultimately to identify a "fall guy" to take the blame.  This ends up being a minor Greek journalist who can credibly be called a Communist- although it looks like he was essentially an apolitical opportunist.

 

The blatant lies in the pursuant court drama are sickening to read, and culminate in the life imprisonment of a completely innocent man, so that a completely corrupt strongman/murderer can go free, because he happens to be a useful minor piece on America's grand foreign policy Cold War chessboard against the Soviets.

 

As it is, Tsaldaris only survived in office a few years, before a similar scandal caught up with him and knocked him out of office. Naturally nobody came forward to exonerate the fall guy for Polk's murder (Gregory Staktopoulous) when that happened.

 

For those of you out there loth to believe in conspiracies because "Surely somebody would come forward, and the secret would get out", here's something to think about: there were about fifteen people in on this murder and coverup, and none of them talked. The truth came out more than forty years after the fact, when most of the major players had already died, and even then it wasn't due to somebody coming forward, but rather a lot of hard work digging through declassified American documents, and the aid of a new Greek government whose shifting circumstances made them now happy to discredit Tsaldaris. 

 

Don't believe the propaganda: some conspiracies are successful in their aims, and are able to conceal their secrets long into the period where their crimes are not discussed as current events but rather curiosities of History.