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Saturday, December 09, 2017

Review: Vespers by Ed McBain

Not one of my favorite McBain 87th Precinct stories. Too many threads, I thought. In particular the scenario with the girlfriend of Willis was unnecessary and distracting.

A priest who had recently been pushing parishioners to tithe; a former hooker who killed her pimp in Buenos Aires and is now the girlfriend of Detective Willis who is being chased by some thugs for the killing; and a local Satanist church are the initial focal points in this mishmash. Some of the scenes, especially those of the so-called Satanic church struck me as wildly improbable.

Review: Voyage to Somewhere by Sloan Wilson

Not for the non-nautical afficionado, but if you like ships and realistic sea stories, you will enjoy this book. It's based on Sloan's WW II experiences at sea.

Lt. Barton is assigned to a new small supply ship bound for the New Guinea theater in the South Pacific. They are soon hauling such innocuous cargos as pineapples to Hawaii and then candy bars to assorted islands then "burial supplies" and thousands of crosses to an island called Okinawa.

Wilson nicely conveys the tedium of the war as well as the viciousness of being in a small ship during a typhoon. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The moral of this story is that people will see what they are paid to see and that if they are incentivized not to see the truth, they won't. That was the situation described by Michael Lewis. It was the experts who failed us again. It was one guy with Asperger's Syndrome (which may have given him a huge advantage since the condition does help one to focus intensely) who realized that the banks, in making negatively amortized mortgages, were creating a situation to would inevitably fail. He decided to bet against it, was right, and made billions through the use of the banks own creations: the credit default swap, which is basically an insurance policy that pays off big if a bet goes south.

Goldman Sachs, virtual lone survivor of the meltdown thanks to its friends in government, persuaded AIG to insure billions of the subprime mortgages. That was to their downfall. They never did their homework. Nor did the rating agencies. Nor did the regulators.

"People who create disasters make a lot of money cleaning up the disasters because they are the only ones who know about the disasters." The current system is a very elegant form of theft. Basically, Wall Street could care less about investors and is only interested in getting the maximum number of fees. Alan Greenspan is labeled as the worst Fed chair ever, having kept money way too cheap for too long, and ignoring the whole sub-prime mortgage problem thinking, in good libertarian form, that it was none of his business.

The big question is, have what have we learned from this debacle? I suspect nothing. Especially when I hear big wigs predict future financial meltdowns within 5-10 years. Ultimately, Lewis believes that Wall Street has divorced itself from American society and may have done itself in. Soon, as people learn that brokers are encouraging investment in stocks which their own firms might be betting against, customers will learn of the conflict of interest and their world will come tumbling down. It's not a pretty picture. The hatred of Wall Street and its minions is palpable outside NY and Washington. It elected Trump who has learned nothing, instead subscribing to Wall Street's code of doing nothing unless it benefits itself, and falling for its sycophancy. Whether that will ultimately unhinge him remains to be seen.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (reprinted from my Goodreads review 2003)

I had not really paid much attention to Ayn Rand, darling of the conservatives (very surprisingly, actually) until I began reading her biography. When I asked around to see who had actually read any of her work, I found only a few, but lots of opinions about Rand herself. Often those comments ascribed beliefs to Rand that were at opposite poles of the spectrum, from conservative to radical, individualist to Nazi fascist. Obviously another case of what I call the “De Toqueville syndrome,” where everyone pretends to have read a famous book and to know what the author stood for, but has no firsthand reading knowledge. Her biography revealed a complex and very interesting individual, so it was time to dig into her works personally.

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect. Thrown out of Stanton School of Architecture for his refusal to adhere to the standards of the past (the dean views Roark as a rebel who opposes all the rules of architecture and his society’s view of art that is representation of what has been revered in the past) and for turning in assignments that represented a complete break from the past. The conversation with the dean, who tried to persuade Roark to come back into the fold, represents the central theme of the book, the conflict between those who are realitycentered against those who define their lives through the eyes of other people. Roark seeks employment with Cameron, an architect whose designs tried to incorporate using the advantages of new materials, e.g., a skyscraper should look tall, not just like a twenty-story brick building trying to look like a renaissance house. Cameron began to design buildings the way he wanted rather than how his clients demanded. His business dwindled to nothing, but he was sought out by Roark.

Following Cameron’s retirement, Roark seeks employment as a draftsman in a large architectural firm, where he gets a break by sketching a house that breaks with tradition completely but is just what the client wants. Roark is a brilliant but struggling iconoclast, while his rival and former classmate Peter Keating rises to the top of his profession by using obsequiousness, manipulation, and deception. His primary concern is how he is perceived by others. He designs by copying from the past, never thinking independently. Both men are in love with Dominique Falcon, a brilliant, passionate woman, who falls in love with Roark, admires his genius, but who is convinced his genius has no chance in a corrupt world. The villain of the book is Ellsworth Toohey, an architectural critic of note, who denounces Roark for his failure to adhere to the accepted standards of the day. Toohey believes that the individual must sacrifice his independence to the will of others, i.e. society or the group. Toohey is employed by Gail Wynand, a publisher whose paper caters to the lowest common denominator to gain power. He comes to admire Roark and must then decide whether he will continue to pander to popular taste or live according to his higher standards. Rand and her novels have been vilified by the left-wing as reactionary and praised by conservatives as brilliant and influential.

Frankly, I cannot understand how conservatives can be so enamored of this work that celebrates independence and the rejection of tradition and “normal” morality. She celebrated atheism, a kind of free love, very strong women, and a rejection of parental values and social norms. She abhorred the subordination of reason to faith, of surrendering one’s own thinking to the beliefs of others. She despised the religious believer who without questioning adopts the religious beliefs of his parents, conforming without thinking. Morality becomes something practical and relative. For example, Roark dynamites a government building project that has been altered, so he can gain access to the courts since the government cannot be sued. Roark really doesn’t care what other people think. He has such strong personal will that he will just do what he thinks is right. He also pals around with one of the construction workers who admires him because he is the only architect that understands construction, and, indeed, Roark makes the point that he loves engineering and building.

That sounds more like sixties liberalism than what I hear conservatives espouse. Rand is clearly a romantic who believed that man can live up to an ideal, and reason can help them achieve the independence and the happiness that depends on that independence. What infuriates liberals, as far as I can gather, was her unfailing adherence to capitalism. I suppose conservatives latched on to her vigorous rejection of collectivism, no doubt related to her childhood experiences under Communism. This is not to say Rand celebrates nonconformity for its own sake. That is simply another form of conformity because it’s living one’s life in reaction to the standards of others. The conformist must learn the beliefs of others to adhere to them; the nonconformist must learn the standards so as to avoid adhering to them. Both groups are psychological dependents. Rand celebrates the independent thinker, the individualist who lives on his own terms. The individualist creates his own standards and adheres to them regardless of what others do or think. He has a commitment to reason and facts. Roark represents the great innovator struggling against a profoundly conservative society against the traditionalist who says, “It was never done this way, so it can’t be good.” The climax of the book is Roark’s speech to the court when he is on trial. “I wish to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. . . The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” He represents a complete rejection of altruism, “the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.”

It’s truly a shame when books and authors get labeled as “conservative” or “liberal,” “communist” or “democrat” and then judged on the basis of the label. Read the book; make up your own mind!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Ice Brothers by Sloan Wilson

A very interesting novel about a little known part of WW II, that of the Greenland Ice Patrol. Comprised mostly of trawlers, they were commanded by either old-time ice fishermen or wet-nosed and inexperienced peacetime yachtsmen. The novel is based on Wilson's experience around Greenland. The fictional Wilson (Paul) was appointed as executive officer to a very experienced Mowrey, an old-timer with a terrible drinking problem, but one who could read ice conditions like no one else. The radio officer had no sea-experience at all but he had a loathing for Germans after his Jewish wife and child had disappeared somewhere in Germany. He happened to be an electronics genius, however, a skill that was to be more than valuable later on.

A sister trawler has disappeared off the east-coast of Greenland with only a lifeboat filled with machine-gunned sailors remaining. His commanding officer having been taken off the boat for alcoholism problems, Paul and Nathan, his now executive officer, are sent east to fight the Germans and dismantle whatever weather station equipment they had established. Knowing weather conditions over Greenland was crucial for air operations in Europe so both sides wanted the advantage. Greenland, part of Denmark, which had quickly surrendered to the Germans, declared a sort of independence from Denmark and was claimed by both the Axis and Allies. It was an icy wasteland inhabited (barely) by Eskimos. Wilson spends a lot of time describing the Eskimo culture and their total lack of understanding for the animosity between the two sides. His descriptions of the ice and their culture I found quite interesting, especially their attitude toward sex, totally uninhibited and devoid of any monogamous impulses, the children considered children of everyone and cared for by everyone, their emphasis being on survival and laughter -- not a bad way to get through life except for the frigging cold.

Lots of ruminations on war, hatred, why people fight and love. I enjoyed the book very much.