Underground Airlines – Review

September 25, 2016

What if the U.S. Civil War had been averted by compromise?  That’s the world “Underground Airlines” is set in.  It’s the present day, but slavery is still legal in four southern states – the “hard four”.  The U.S. is a pariah nation, and the Federal government aggressively hunts down fugitive slaves before the abolitionists in the Underground Airlines can help them escape to Canada.  Our protagonist, Victor, is a skilled slave-hunter, and a black man who was born into slavery himself.  The book details his pursuit of Jackdaw, an escaped peeb (Person Bound to Labor).

Victor’s mysterious handler at the U.S. Marshals Service drives him and the plot forward, and the book’s interest is sustained throughour.  We gradually discover more about the world, Victor, Jackdaw, and learn (as with most thrillers) that this is no ordinary case.

The premise is interesting, but has a few flaws.  The compromise is established by a constitutional amendment that declares itself unamendable.  It seems like this should not work, though, to be fair, the protagonist remarks as such.  (“impossible, illegal – childish, even, like the child who wishes for infinite wishes.  And yet it has worked, so far.”)

The novel is written in first person, making info dumps of history a little awkward, as if part of your interior monologue were “Florida had been the key to the 2000 election, and a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling called it for Bush.  Gore accepted the result, and …”

More seriously, the U.S. outside the hard four is no picnic, but still unrealistically progressive.  For example, a black man and a white woman are able to rent a hotel room together in the South just fifty miles from a slave state with only minor difficulty  – surely a blind spot on the author’s part.  There is racial injustice, but not much more than our own world.  The author is partly making the point that our world still has the scars of slavery, but in part he does not fully come to grips with his world, which should be at least as harsh as 1950s America.

Should you buy this book?  White authors with black protagonists leave themselves open to charges of cultural appropriation.  Whether you buy that or not, in this case the protagonist is generally believable.  The problem here lies with the unrealistically soft setting.  Not all white writers would make this mistake, but no black one would.

Will you enjoy this book?  The author was influenced by “The Man in the High Castle” and “Invisible Man”, and if you like those books, then you will like this one.  The audiobook narration by William DeMeritt is excellent, skillfully capturing the voices of many characters, including Victor’s several aliases.

The author, Ben Winters, has also written “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina”, as well as “The Last Policeman” trilogy, set in a world where the Earth is about to be destroyed by an asteroid.  He is writing the pilot script for a TV adaptation of “Underground Airlines”.

Twenty Thirty-Four

June 24, 2016

It was a hot and smoggy day in June, and the clocks had just struck one.

Winston Smith logged off his computer and headed to the cafeteria.  He wanted to be there in time for the Independence Day party.

He arrived a little late.  The room was decorated with hundreds of England flags and the air was dank with cigarette smoke.  Jim from accounts had Mavis from sales backed into a corner, telling her his latest Syrian joke.  The telescreen showed Nigel Farage giving Boris Johnson a hearty backslap – the present and former Prime Ministers very pleased with themselves.  Labour Party leader Liz Kennedy stood quietly in the background, with an expression that was four parts glum and one part resigned.  The last remaining LibDem MP had been invited, but had decided not to come following a party vote.

Someone turned up the volume, and Farage’s cheerfully blokey voice rang out:

“… they said it would never happen.  They said it would be a disaster.  But here we are!  Free and independent.  No longer having to take dictates from Brussels, or deal with the dead weight of those layabouts in Edinburgh and Cardiff, or those terrorists in Belfast.  English jobs for English workers.”

Here he paused for applause, which was forthcoming.

“And I’m proud to announce that we have built our relationships outside the EU.  Our low labour costs and flexible work standards are paying off.  This morning I signed an agreement with Russian President Rogozin to expand our fracking technology with their know-how – not something we could have got from Brussels with their job-killing regulations.”

More applause.

“But we still have some problems.  Now look, I know things were hard after we left at first, but some people just don’t want to get back to work.  It seems like you can’t move without bumping into some skiving Scouser or bolshie Geordie.  You know, mates, maybe if you learned to speak proper English, people might ‘gizza’ that job you’re looking for.”

Laughter.  Kennedy frowned a little, but remained quiet.

“So that’s why I’m saying – no more.   We can’t all keep moving into London.  So if you’re from Liverpool, Sunderland, or one of the other recovering areas, stay put.  We’ll bring the work to you.  There’s some very promising opportunities coming, courtesy of Chairman Li.  Of course, you know the problem with Chinese investment?  After an hour, you want some more.”

It was an old joke, but still drew the laughs.

“Enjoy yourself, start the weekend early and go down the pub.  And Monday morning most of you will find your London permit in your GovMail.  So just have it printed and ready to show if you need to be here in the capital.

Well that’s enough from me.  Happy Independence Day!”

The telescreen switched over to the Benny Hill retrospective.  It would be on for a while.

Can you find the word in the grid?

January 9, 2016

There is a word in the grid below.

It’s a common English word, and not an abbreviation.

It runs left-right or downwards or diagonally downwards. So starting from the center Z: ZIYG, ZJWI, or ZTRF are all possible (though these are not words).  ZSFL (running diagonally upwards) is not a possibility.

Slide1Here’s the answer in rot13:

Gur jbeq vf gur bar yrggre jbeq sbe gur svefg crefba fvathyne cebabha.

Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite – Review

September 8, 2015

North Korea has perhaps the least appealing ideology in the world – a combination of the worst parts of Communism, nationalism, and Confucianism.

In this book, Suki Kim teaches English to young men from the North Korean elite, in a university sponsored by a Christian group.  The students think she is a teacher, the other faculty think she is a missionary, but she is actually a journalist gathering material for this book.

Suki is Korean-American, and so gets a little more insight into her students and the regime than her colleagues.  Unfortunately, given the regime’s paranoia, her students are extremely guarded, so this insight does not add up to much.  A typical interaction is that students say that North Korea is the best in the world at some field, but show no reaction when Suki obliquely tells them that the outside world has far surpassed them.

Suki notes that the language of North Korea is an odd mixture.  On the one hand, there is cursing even in their written language “like finding the words fuck and shit in a presidential speech or on the front page of the New York Times”.  On the other, some of their expressions are “archaic, innocent sounding, … instead of ‘developing photos’ they said ‘images waking up'”.

Isolated from both her students and her colleagues, life at the university is not much fun for Suki, and the book falls squarely into the “things you wouldn’t want to do yourself but are curious as to how they might work out” vicarious experience genre.

Should you buy this book?  The author deceives two groups, without much reflection on this.  Given her true profession, her students were quite right to be guarded, though she was careful to change identifying details.  I suspect her misdirections are journalistically acceptable, but will defer to experts in the field.

Will you enjoy this book?  This should not be the first book on North Korea you read (Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” is a good choice for that).  But if you like that first book, then you will like this one too.

Suki Kim has also written an award-winning novel, “The Interpreter” and can be found online at sukikim.com.  The other branch of the Kim family has led the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 1948.

Finessing Trump

August 16, 2015

It’s like trying to make fun of a clown. What, are you going to make fun of his tiny car? His floppy shoes? It just doesn’t work.  (Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik)

Holkins and Krahulik weren’t talking about Donald Trump, but their observation fits.  He’s unmockable and unshameable.  Can we ignore him?  We don’t have the willpower for that.

So how do you deal with a clown?  Two ways.  The first is to make him boring.  Forget his views on women, Mexicans, or African-Americans.  Quiz him on the dullest possible details of domestic policy.  Not as a gotcha – quite the reverse.  Seriously engage him on ethanol subsidies, single transferable vote, or banking reform.  He will quip his way out of it at first, but eventually the dull will stick.

The most powerful way is by overexposure. We need not less Trump, but more and more and more – until we have heard every crazy thing he might possibly say, and he is as played out as the macarena.  The more airtime we give him, the quicker his 15 minutes will be up, and then we can get back to serious candidates like Huckabee, Cruz, and Martin O’Malley.

(Thanks to John Mount for pointing to the Holkins / Krahulik quote).

“Mother on Fire” and “The Madwoman in the Volvo”, by Sandra Tsing Loh – A Review

June 8, 2015

If you’re a devotee of obscure films and comics, you may have heard of the Mystery Men – a group of second-string blue-collar superheroes with minor powers.  They don’t have the abilities of a Superman, or the resources of an Iron Man, but they do their best.

Sandra Tsing Loh is the Mystery Woman of NPR slice-of-life observers.  She could not fill a Williamsburg theater like Ira Glass, and lacks the comfortable lifestyle of a David Sedaris, but she works hard and does her best.  Does her lack of status have anything to do with falling into an Uncanny Valley of ethnicity – not ethnic enough to be the next Amy Tan, but just “other” enough to be distracting?  But perhaps that veers into Angry Negro territory.

In the first book, “Mother on Fire”, Sandra Tsing Loh figures out school for her kids in L.A. (public or private?  magnet or bilingual?  ordinarily expensive or crippingly expensive?) with little help from her husband.  Her D-list status opens some doors for her by association with real stars like Ira Glass, but then she lacks the resources to be able to follow through.  By the second, “The Madwoman in the Volvo”, she has had an affair, left the husband, and is navigating menopause and caring for an aging father (lovably eccentric, or abusive and criminal, depending on your point of view).  Both books have a number of instances where the author is foolish, crazy, or selfish – it’s not clear if she herself realizes them all.

Should you buy these books?  Yes.  The author seems like a nice enough person (unless you’re her ex-husband), and it sounds like she could use the money.

Will you enjoy these books?  Have you heard of Sandra Tsing Loh and do you like her?  If so, then yes.  If not, then you will be bored or annoyed (although you might find some common ground if you find Barbara Ehrenreich to be unbearably sanctimonious).

Sandra Tsing Loh has written six books and will doubtless keep plugging away to finance her retirement and kids’ college.  She is currently encouraging women to move into science and technology, rather than get sidetracked into an arts career like she did.

Off to be the Wizard – A Review

October 19, 2014

What would you do if you found out that the world and everyone in it was just part of a computer program, and you had the key to manipulating it?

Our hero, Martin Banks, adds a few zeroes to his bank account, gets caught, and escapes using time travel to Medieval England to use his powers to pass himself off as a wizard. He is from the “active idiot” school of protagonists (e.g. Philip J Fry of Futurama), which lets the writer advance the plot by his stupid choices, allows the reader to feel at least one step ahead, and generally keeps things chugging along nicely.

On the one hand, this is a pretty flimsy book with a lot of problems. I’ll accept the protagonist not being Sartre, but if you discover that you and your loved ones are nothing more than some lines of code, then I think a little existential angst is called for. The rules of “magic” (i.e. altering the master file that controls the universe) go into too much detail in some parts, but still leave you puzzling about whether some other things are possible. Even a casual feminist (or anyone who actually likes women) would find the all-male society of wizards a little creepy and unappealing. The locals and setting are often more like modern small-town America than Medieval England. Etc. Etc.

On the other hand, it does go along quickly and easily, particularly as a commute audiobook. It’s not really surprising, but it does keep you interested as to what will happen next. The humour and characterization is broad, but competent. So overall we should judge it a success.

Should you buy this book? The author, Scott Meyer, writes the strip “Basic Instructions”, which is funnier but likely less profitable. So he could probably use the money.

Will you enjoy this book? Can you write a macro? Did you ever play D&D? Are you willing to chuckle about double entendres on “holding staffs”? If so, then you may well enjoy this book. If not, then you will be confused, bored, and/or irritated.

Off to be the Wizard is the first of a Magic 2.0 series (three books so far). Though not yet a film, it could be made into one without too much effort.

Thanks to John Mount for the Philip J Fry example.

Scotland’s choice

September 17, 2014

Scotland is voting on independence, and it’s neck and neck.

It’s unarguable that the United Kingdom has done many significant things, for good and ill. Scottish nationalists like to claim Scotland as a victim of imperialism, but the reality is more complicated. Scots took a leading role in the British Empire, and were as willing to enslave and exploit (and sometimes assist) as the English. To pretend victimization now should draw scorn from those who had a real claim to it.

So why seek independence now, when Scotland has been moving towards greater autonomy? It’s part of the crisis of confidence in the British state. Britons have learned that their society had been rotten to the core for a long while, with rings of sexual abuse and corruption at its highest levels. The windfall of North Sea oil was squandered, and the people’s party led the country into a worse than pointless war with Iraq. The once-proud Liberal party sold all its principles for a Deputy Prime Ministership and a failed attempt at electoral reform. Scotland was caught between uncaring Tories and a Labour party filled with Blairite careerists and time-serving numpties.

Could Scotland be any worse off? Perhaps, if it goes for independence. An independence where the SNP proposes to keep on using the pound and threatens default if it doesn’t get its way. Why do they want to keep the pound? Well, it’s stable, it’s a known quantity, and it makes sense, given the border and close trade relationships between England and Scotland. JUST LIKE THE ENTIRE IDEA OF THE U.K.!

The nationalists would retort that even if there were problems, they could be resolved eventually. And they are right – what is even thirty years of downturn compared to the lifetime of a nation? But that cuts both ways. Eventually Cameron will be as little-remembered as the 1st Viscount Sidmouth, and Britain will continue on, one way or another. Against all the wrongs of the U.K., set the defeat of fascism, the successful union of nations, the benefits of liberty without the harshness of the U.S., the invention of television, and Dr. Who. In the final analysis, the Scots are much more similar than different to the rest of the U.K. And we are all better together.

Flash Boys – A Review

June 3, 2014

Is the stock market rigged? And what does “rigged” mean, anyway?

Some people say that the market is controlled by a few shadowy individuals who manipulate news and world events so they can buy low and sell high. Some do actually rig the market by trading on inside information or illegally manipulating company financials – very occasionally getting caught. And there are a few penny stocks that are largely traded as part of pump and dump scams.

Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys” says that the market is rigged, in that high frequency traders (HFT) learn what you want to buy or sell a few milliseconds before the rest of the market. Armed with this information, they can cut in front of everyone else, change the price, and play you (or your mutual fund) for a sucker. It’s like insider trading, but completely legal and riskless.

Flash Boys tells the story of HFT, from the point of view of its victims.

The hero of the book is Brad Katsuyama, a nice guy at the nice Royal Bank of Canada who makes a nice living (a couple of million a year) trading stock for large clients. Let’s say Fidelity wants to buy 10,000 shares of AT&T. If they try to buy it all at once, then the market will react, and they’ll have to pay a premium. Brad’s job is to spread the trades out so Fidelity pays a more reasonable price. It’s not clear why this couldn’t be done by a computer program, saving a couple of million dollars a year, but that’s another book.

Brad runs into problems, though. To do his job, he needs to know what the market price is. But whenever he tries to trade a stock, the price changes before he can do it – the market price doesn’t exist. Brad investigates, and ends up going down the rabbit hole of HFT, eventually putting together a team that builds an exchange that can’t be front-run by the HFTers and will give fair prices for all. Hurrah!

That’s the main story, at least. There are a couple of other bits on someone building a straight-line data route from the Midwest to the East Coast, and a computer programmer who’s sent to jail by Goldman Sachs for taking code when he leaves. Both work well.

How important is HFT? The heroes think it’s a major threat to capitalism and a massive swindle on the ordinary American investor. The book isn’t quite clear on how big an effect it has, but people who work in finance tell me it’s more like the man who takes a penny from everyone’s bank account – he can get rich, but you as an individual don’t notice much. In fact, maybe it’s beneficial in that it provides liquidity. And besides, competition among HFTers should drive arbitrage profits down to near zero. And you can minimize loss to HFT by not trading a lot, which is probably a good idea anyway.

So is there nothing to worry about? Not quite. The strongest point against HFT is the flash crash, when many shares traded at ridiculously high or low prices for fractions of a second. If everything is for the best in this best of all possible markets, then why did the flash crash happen?

Looked at a different way, is it a good thing that so much effort is being devoted to shaving an extra millisecond off the time for orders to reach market? It seems hard to imagine that we couldn’t put our best and brightest to use in some more socially productive fashion. But under our current system, what would that be? These days, if not finance, all the mathematicians are busy figuring out which ads to show you on the Internet, and how much companies should pay for them. On the other hand, in previous years, they were figuring out how to find enemy submarines, or calculate how many tractors Donetsk should produce, so perhaps we are better off now. And at least creating the straight-line routes needed led to some construction jobs in the depth of the recession.

How is the book as a story? Good, but not Lewis’s best. One of the problems is that the main character does not have much depth. Brad is portrayed as a Dudley Do-Right – a minority who doesn’t think of himself as a minority, who works hard and sails into a job at the RBC, and whose main concern in life is making sure that investors can trade at a fair price. His steadfastness to his principles is admirable, but the lack of character development does not make for the best story. Even Jesus got angry, tempted, and despaired. Brad works with an Irish tech guy, Ronan, who has the same single-minded devotion to the cause, but with more swearing.

Overall, the book moves along nicely, though, and does a reasonable job of making the dry subject matter interesting.

Should you buy this book? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t lie, but it does give the anti-HFT viewpoint an extremely uncritical platform. Maybe we should be encouraging Lewis to try harder, but you can buy it with a clear conscience.

Will you enjoy this book? Are you interested in how HFT works, and how a stock exchange might try to stop it? If so, then you will find this book interesting. If those details seem kind of technical, then this is not the book for you.

Flash Boys ends happily for all concerned. On the page, Katsuyama’s fair IEX exchange is a success. In the world, Lewis’s book is a best-seller and being cited approvingly in Congress. And if you’re in the market, then perhaps you’ve noticed a few pennies more in your account.

Notes on Crimea

April 4, 2014

The most important thing about Crimea is that Crimea is not that important.  What does it have?  Some beaches that are nice enough if you’ve never seen Hawaii.  A few natural resources.  The Russian Black Sea fleet, their key to projecting power in the Mediterranean, if you forget about Istanbul being in the way.

Putin’s seizing of Crimea is a crime, of course, and one that should be protested, but it’s a curious one – like a mugger who holds you at gunpoint, but is only interested in taking a lucky penny.  In fact, Ukraine is better off without Crimea – it’s poor and full of ethnic minorities suspicious of their central government.  Plus Ukraine no longer has to pay maintenance on the Ukrainian fleet which turned out to be even more useless than the Russian Black Sea fleet.  Crimea was only in Ukraine in the first place because Khrushchev put it there.  Why?  Nobody knows, but then nobody knows why Khrushchev did anything he did.

But isn’t Crimea like the Sudetenland – Russia’s first step to global domination that will end up with the reconquest of Alaska and the annexation of San Francisco’s Russian Hill?  Not really.  First, the Sudetenland was actually useful.  Second, Germany was an economic powerhouse.  And most importantly, the Russians have somehow saddled themselves with nationalism – an ideology even less appealing to the rest of the world than fascism.  The Nazis said most of the rest of the world was fit only to serve Germany, but still managed to get allies in France, Italy, Eastern Europe – even Japan.  Who are Russia’s friends?  Belarus, Serbia, and half of Syria.

This is not to say that Putin has no ambitions.  If you’re a non-NATO country bordering Russia, you should probably Finlandize now and save yourself the trouble.   But on the list of things the West should be worried about, this is pretty low.

What should the administration do?  Formal protests, some sanctions, maybe toss Ukraine some money, have a couple of exercises defending the Baltic states against unspecified aggressors – basically nothing.  Luckily, gridlock and a sputtering economy means that the United States now has doing nothing down to a fine art.