Oprah Time: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

I had this book on my list of to read materials as it was a proto-cyberpunk novel, and finally got past my inertia when John Markoff recommended it.

The Shockwave Rider

Brunner was a British science fiction writer who did his best work in the 1960s and early 1970s in this book he reflects on a connected world not too far away from the one that we live in. Despite Brunner’s roots he manages to speak with a confident American voice in his writing; something that I don’t think is a bad thing, but caused friction with his contemporaries.

The main protagonist is a hacker who has used his skills to conjure new identities and ends up starting a revolution through the creation of computer viruses and worms. Brunner is credited with introducing the concept of the modern computer worm.

His work reflects a different society to our own where our identities can be broken (if you have the skill or the money) and a new one forged – a vision 180 degrees away from what governments, advertisers and social networks want. He is on to something with The Ear – a service that audiences can contact and will be listened to in privacy and without judgement. The secular confessional it represents feels like something the world needs as a counterweight to the cognitive dissonance and connectivity-as-social-value of social networks like Facebook and SnapChat.

Oprah Time: Asian Godfathers by Joe Studwell

I’d read Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works over lunar new year. Studwell dealt directly with there reasons for East Asia’s economic growth and Southeast Asia’s failing to follow them.

Asian Godfathers

Studwell attached this same subject through through a different lens. In Asian Godfathers, he tells the story through Asia’s business tycoons; from the taipans of Hong Kong to Stanley Ho – the Macau gambling tycoon.

Cosmopolitan privileged people who where in the right place at the right time. Some of them had colourful origin stories as black marketers selling fake medicines and blockade runners. But they are just a side show in a wider panorama of political greed and incompetence. Asian Godfathers is more like Hotel Babylon than an economics analysis like How Asia Works, yet it delivers its message forcefully.

Oprah Time: The World as Design: Writings of Design by Otl Aicher

Aicher was a German designer most famous of his graphic design and typography. His most famous font is Rotis  His impact was far wider. Aicher was a co-founder of the short-lived Ulm School of Design. Over its 15 years it developed a legacy that continues to echo through design education.

He worked with prominent German brands including Braun, Lufthansa and ERCO the lighting firm.

Aicher’s design language for the Munich Olympics was ground breaking. He designed the first Olympic mascot: Waldi a dachshund with multicoloured bands on his body. The posters for the Munich Olympics were hyper coloured designs that still had a system wrapped around them and now trade for hundreds of pounds.

You can blame him for single handedly kicking off the use of stickmen pictograms on public signage in buildings like airports.

Aicher and his colleagues at Ulm were about more than making things look pretty on their medium of choice, they thought about systems. Aicher’s holistic approach to systems influenced modern brand design.  Mark Holt, a co-founder of 8vo; who worked on everything from Factory Records to billing systems for mobile carrier Orange cited Aicher as a major influence.

otl aicher

Aicher’s book The World of Design collects a series of his essays across a wide spectrum of topics. Culture and political essays sit alongside examinations on the process of design and typography. Design and art do not exist in isolation but as part of the wider world. Something that you become keenly aware of as being central to his thinking – alongside his advocacy of reinvigorating modernism.

Probably most striking is Aicher’s delivery and style of writing. He writes with absolute confidence as each item has been thought about, despite feeling like a stream of consciousness in the way those mulled over thoughts are put down. He also completely dispenses with capital letters, sentences flow into each other from a visual perspective. This gives his work a sense of urgency and authenticity – but doesn’t make it any easier to read.

Theses essays felt as if they were born on the internet not written sometime before Aicher died in 1991, which says a lot about how fresh and contemporary his work still is.

 

Oprah Time: Blood and Faith – the purging of muslim Spain (1492 – 1614) by Matthew Carr

I picked up Blood and Faith on a trip to Madrid. I have a habit of picking up English language history books if I can when visiting a place. It gives you a sense of how a country wants itself to be seen. These usually vary from clumsy propaganda to insightful works.

Coming across Carr’s book surprised me as it addressed a part of Spain’s history in an unsympathetic light. It covers briefly the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish community and covers the expulsion of the Moors in greater depth.
Blood and Faith - the purging of muslim Spain (1492 - 1614) by Matthew Carr
Carr’s background as a journalist and as the son of a controversial English teacher who got involved in post-colonial politics casts a certain lens for his writing perspective. His knowledge of Spain and Islam is second to none having covered both the Islamic world and Spain extensively in books and journalism.

Carr paints a complex picture of tolerance and a cosmopolitan society interspersed with zealotry, bigotry and criminality.  The book shows how the decision to expel the Moors came about, a mix of:

  • Security concerns in terms of internal strive and alleged support of pirate raiding parties from North Africa and Turkey
  • Changes in Spanish royalty as the Hapsburg’s came to the throne. Their German background brought a ‘neoconservative’ viewpoint on Islam due the threat that the Ottoman empire posed to central Europe
  • Internal politics within the Catholic church with hawks and doves
  • External relations with the Holy See and other Catholic countries who viewed Spain as being tainted
  • Internal injustice that caused Moor dissent which in turn fuelled the paranoia of the Spanish

The book and its subject matter feels surprisingly contemporary. 17th century Spain still provides us with a good picture of the challenges and chaos that ensues trying to deport people en masse. From discovery to logistics it was a nightmare.

The issues of conservative populism and racism also feel very contemporary given political sentiment across Europe.  The expulsion of the Moors and reconquest of Spain have been cited by both Al Qaeda and Daesh to justify their actions.

If you want a book to read on Spain’s relationship with the Moors this is a well researched book, just be careful with what conclusions you chose to draw from it.

 

Oprah Time: reading over Chinese New Year

I have managed to catch up on a lot of reading over the Lunar New Year festival.

Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works is fascinating reading. It talks about how Korea, Japan and China have grown while their counterparts haven’t. Studwell highlights a number of factors that contribute to economic growth:

  • With an agrian economy, a market garden approach to agriculture rather than farming at scale delivers the best results. But only if rent seeking interests are removed through effective agricultural reform
  • Industry requires total mastery of technology – which is the reason why low grade heavy industry is the starting point
  • Exports planned into industrial development from the beginning and a continued relentless focus on exports is required
  • Governments are best at keeping businesses focused on total technology mastery, raising cheap finance and weeding out failures that might be a resource suck

Studwell critiques how different countries throughout Asia have managed to process in this manner including both the strengths and the weaknesses of their respective approaches.

It was fascinating to read how Taiwan managed to succeed in spite of nationalised industries and the challenges in China’s agricultural model.  How General Park ‘motivated’ Korean chaebols and the tragedy of development in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

China’s Crony Capitalism by Minxin Pei explained the mechanism of how corrupt officials, state enterprise employees and businesspeople managed to bilk the Chinese government and people of vast amounts of money. Much of the challenge is structural. China has a federalised government with power lying at provincial, city and county level. Pei is hawkish on the country’s prospects.

For an outside observer Pei’s research into the mechanisms, one can appreciate the challenge that the central government faces in combatting corruption and bad behaviour. President Xi’s ‘tigers and flies’ campaign to root out the worst corruption in the party and business is part of the solution; but according to Pei there is also careful structural reform required. This will only be possible through a massive aggregation of power towards the centre.

Oprah time: Democracy in Decline by Philip Kotler

When I was in college Philip Kotler was a constant part of my life. His Principles of Marketing was a core text for my degree. It is a bit weird reading another book by Professor Kotler; especially one on such a dramatically different topic.
Democracy in Decline
In Democracy in Decline Kotler addresses what are commonly cited as weaknesses in the political system of the United States. He provides an easy to understand guide to the US political system.  Kotler then gets into what he identifies as the key points of failure in the American political system.

  1. Low voter literacy, turnout and engagement
  2. Shortage of highly qualified and visionary candidates
  3. Blind belief in American exceptionalism
  4. Growing public antipathy towards government
  5. Two-party gridlock preventing needed legislation
  6. Growing role of money in politics
  7. Gerrymandering empowering incumbents to get re-elected forever
  8. Caucuses and primaries leading candidates to adopt more extreme positions
  9. Continuous conflict between the President and Congress
  10. Continuous conflict between the federal and state governments
  11. The supreme court’s readiness to revise legislative actions
  12. The difficulty of passing new amendments
  13. The difficulty of developing a sound foreign policy
  14. Making government agencies more accountable

Kotler’s viewpoint is unashamedly liberal and supportive of collegiate rivalry underpinned by compromise in politics. The White House he envisions is more like the Barlett administration in The West Wing or Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets rather than Hilary Clinton. The flaws he has identified are so big in scale that they would likely require a major re-engineering of American society. From the electoral system, the relationship between federal and state government, public policy and public service.

That kind of re-engineering would require widespread societal approval. That wouldn’t happen in the riven, polarised society of America today. The books measures would be completely against the interests of the conservative movement.

For the European reader, Kotler offers an interesting engaged analysis of the American condition, however there is little to no reflection on the commonalities of national populism in European politics. This book will only provide an understanding of the United States; and that’s ok.

Kotler has a sub-header in the tile of the book ‘Rebuilding the future’. In reality Kotler provides an effective diagnosis, but an not anything that points to an effective solution beyond hoping for the best.

Oprah Time: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is the second book in Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy. I reviewed the first book here. In the second book the tone changes from being a hard bitten conspiracy story to a fully-blown space opera.

The Dark Forest of the title is a metaphor for a philosophical thought experiment. The universe is thought to be teaming with life. Each civilisation is like a hunter in a dark forest. Revealing oneself, leaves one open to being killed by another hunter. Since you don’t know a hunter’s intention it seems better to be quiet. Conversely if you become aware of another civilisation there is a strong incentive to get them before they get you.

Unlike the first book, The Dark Forest takes place over centuries as the protagonist is put into cryogenic hibernation and then woken centuries later. Living in the future provides a warning for readers against the perils of having all parts of our life automated and connected – it delves into similar themes as Michael Crichton’s Runaway.

Liu deals with complex arguments and grand societal change in a masterful way. I am waiting to read the last book in the trilogy Death’s End.

Oprah time: The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton

Hayton sets an ambitious goal for himself to try and unpick the claims and counter claims on territory in the South China sea. It is a massive convoluted story that encompasses colonial powers, oil companies and a plethora of Asian countries.

In the end no one comes out of it with glowing colours. China is easy to paint as a villain and it has played to type. But other countries and major powers have made constant mis-steps and it has become an intractable problem. The more hawkish may see the inevitability of war with China.

On the Chinese side, it makes sense for them to escalate a fight with one of their neighbours; as a Chinese idiom puts it ‘kill a chicken to scare the monkey’ and distract from the pain of change at home.  The history is wrapped up with rising nationalism and aspirations of China and its neighbours.

From the American perspective, it makes sense to have the war with China further away from the Homeland, so the South China sea rather than the Pacific ocean.

Hayton doesn’t take a standpoint one way or the other leaving the reader to decide.

From a reading perspective, the tangled nature of the claims makes the book more difficult to read in small bursts. I tried reading it as a commuting book and it took a while to get it done.

More details on The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick and Tony Parker

Like many people I was drawn to Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep by Bladerunner. I originally read the paperback book and it is one of the few cases where cinema did a better job than the source material. I read the book after I knew about more about Dick’s amphetamine fuelled life and the paranoia associated with speed underpins the story in plot turns affecting our main character.

Tony Parker has done a really good job of interpreting the original and breathing life into it as a graphic novel. He brings it to life to Dick’s work, in particular the phenomenon of ‘kipple’ and philosophy of Mercerism which underpins much of the novel. It is a credit to Parker that he managed to keep the visuals distinct from the iconic style of Bladerunner.

My one criticism of the Parker adaption is that it is an unwieldy book and the  binding comes apart under the weight of the pages. As for the content, I think Parker’s adaption is a better way of taking in Dick’s novel – which has been listed as one of the 100 books you need to read (at least according to the Times Educational Supplement).

Oprah Time: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem like all the best science fiction is multi-layered. It has a complex story which gradually weaves together a large set of characters across time as the story is told in a non-linear manner. It is also multi-layered in terms of genres:

  • It is a space opera as rich as Asimov’s Foundation books, except it is the aliens who will be doing the interstellar travel
  • It has a conspiracy at the heart of it that reminded me of James Bond novels and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • It is the tail of of hard-bitten detective work as if Raymond Chandler had been in Beijing; complete with film noir levels of smoking and drinking

But most interesting of all is the mirror it offers on the modern China from the cultural revolution onwards. Liu is unflinching in his depiction of Cultural Revolution excesses.

Like all good authors there are hints of Liu’s early life in a rural part of Henan province during the cultural revolution. He has managed to spin the complex web of a story. The Three Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy – I am looking forward to reading The Dark Forest – the second book.

Currently reading….

I have a couple of books on the go at the moment:

  • Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian by David Wood. Wood was a senior executive at Psion and Symbian. A combination of an extensive email archive and electronic diary allowed him to produce a blow-by-blow account. Much of it is in the weeds, interesting, but tough to tease definitive answers out. I keep reading it in spurts and then going away. A more details review will come once I work my way through this.
  • The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin’s book has been applauded as a science fiction classic in both Chinese and Western circles. Liu has won a Hugo award for this book and is the recipient of the Galaxy award (China’s Hugo award, but with a better name) on nine occasions. I have just started on the book but it seems to have contrasting narratives, the first of which is a shocking portrayal of how intellectuals suffered during the cultural revolution. This is my go to book for commuting, expect a full review soon(ish).

Oprah time: Velvet by Brubaker & Breitweiser

In a world of Marvel-dominated culture, it is hard to imagine more realistic material. Ed Brubaker got the freedom to publish Velvet after several years at DC, Vertigo and Marvel.

Velvet is a welcome antidote to the superhero genre of graphic novels. Instead, you get a cold war era spy drama with modern storytelling. Velvet tells the story of a middle-aged Anne Bancroft-like secretary and one-time agent. The story gets going when she is set up for murder by persons unknown.

In this respect, it outlines the kind of spy plot that would be familiar to readers of Len Deighton or Alistair Maclean. Brubaker’s choice of the early 1970s goes back to a pre-cellphone and computer age. This provides him with a broader canvas to work with.

The story feels modern in its non-linear narrative that moves back and forth between 1956 and 1973. The story zips through Europe across both sides of the Iron Curtain as Velvet tries to find who set her up. The comic features highly kinetic action reminiscent of Matt Damon-era Jason Bourne.

The first two volumes of Velvet are available here and here. Volume three is due out in September.

Oprah Time: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It’s been nine years since Taleb wrote The Black Swan. Like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man before it, The Black Swan is widely cited and paid lip service to.

The timing of publication for Taleb was particularly pertinent as the book became popular as the financial system broke down in 2008. Some eight years later, the economy has limped along as financial issues were punted into the future, rather like a child kicking a can down an alley. Like the can, the financial issues are still here to be ran into. I thought it was time to re-read Taleb’s book.

Taleb’s work is philosophical rather than scientific in its method. Although he avoids the talk show friendly cliches of Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin. Much of our world is based around the normal distribution, it is used by insurance companies and pension funds to access risk and longevity. Taleb points out that the really big changes that rock the boat often don’t fit neatly within these models.

Taleb’s solution boils down to two things

  1. A defensive skepticism that would encourage the average person to question common wisdom and ask ‘what if’
  2. For those that can afford it, an offensive posture that asks ‘what if’ and has a mix of savings or investments most of which is put in very safe vehicles and 15 per cent or so on high risk speculative investments to take advantage of change

Taleb’s work doesn’t seem to have had the impact that one would have expected just five years ago when it was quoted as a touchstone to modern life.

Much of the excess and risk that had happened previously is happening again, despite a plethora of disruptive forces laid out in the media.

Audiences are paying too much attention to listicles that go something along the line of ‘5 habits you need have to be like Bill Gates’. Where is the critical filter?

More information
McMansions Are Back And Are Bigger Than Ever – There was a small ray of hope just after the Lehman collapse that one of the most lamentable characteristics of US society – the relentless urge to build massive McMansions (funding questions aside) would have subsided
The market’s most crowded trades could be causing dangerous bubbles – Business Insider
Many Middle-Class Americans Are Living Paycheck to Paycheck – The Atlantic
Economic Conditions Snapshot, March 2016: McKinsey Global Survey results | McKinsey & Company
Andy Grove’s Warning to Silicon Valley – The New York Times – Mr. Grove contrasted the start-up phase of a business, when uses for new technologies are identified, with the scale-up phase, when technology goes from prototype to mass production. Both are important. But only scale-up is an engine for job growth — and scale-up, in general, no longer occurs in the United States. “Without scaling,” he wrote, “we don’t just lose jobs — we lose our hold on new technologies” and “ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.
Crap IT means stats crew don’t really know how UK economy’s doing • The Register – and people make accusations about Chinese economic data…
Return of ‘100% mortgages’ ease burden on Bank of Mum and Dad | FT

Oprah time: Heaven’s Bankers – inside the hidden world of Islamic finance by Harris Irfan

I was given Heaven’s Bankers to read as a friend. I can’t say I had thought that much about Islamic finance before. I knew that it had a couple of patches of ‘heat’ behind it in the banking sector. One was in the late 1990s. It then took a back seat post-911 and took off again as Dubai boomed.

It helps that Harris was not only an insider, but passionate about banking in its widest sense. He’s also sickening polymath who is a top flight racing driver.

History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends. – Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

Irfan delves into the intricacies of how modern Islamic finance grew and contracted. The industry he provides us an inside view of is now worth a trilliion dollars.  The start of history like most things were pretty straight forward. As the industry grew more arcane and complex financial instruments became the norm. This reminded me of a lot of Mark Lewis’ Liar’s Poker. Lewis dealt with bonds and modern derivatives became so complex customers didn’t understand them. The Savings and Loans debacle of 1985-1996 foreshadowed subprime mortgages.

Where Irfan really excels for the non-banker as reader is in his ability to break down the basics. He takes the concepts many of us learned in business or economics classes back into pre-medieval history. He provides a historical perspective on modern capitalism as we know it. So the book becomes invaluable regardless of how you feel about the current economic system. The background gives you a more informed perspective.